Christ in Bucha, crowds on Palm Sunday, and the rules of baseball
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
We’ve nearly reached the end of Lent.
There’s always the risk, I think, of coming to the end of these 40 days and trying to tally a scorecard of penances as goals achieved or missed, and to wish we had a little more time.
For myself I have always been taught to think of Lent as less of a to-do list, and more of a time of travel through the spiritual wilderness — the point of the trip is to keep moving, hopefully to build momentum, and, of course, to reach the destination.
Above all, I think, the real goal of Lent is to search myself for signs of spiritual life in the desert. It’s not been the most fruitful hunt for me this year, but I’m grateful for things God has given to me, and drawn out of me these last weeks.
The best thing about conversion, so I’m told, is its literal meaning. Convertere means, literally, to turn around, and you don’t need a long run up to spin on your heel. So, good news: if Lent has passed you by, there is still all the time you need to get ready for Holy Week.
And now for the rest of the news:
As Russian forces retreat from the region around Kyiv, Ukrainians are finding in their wake evidence of unspeakable crimes. In the face of brutal cruelty to the innocent, the natural question has always been: where is God in this?
In his dispatch this week, our Ukrainian correspondent Anatolii Babynski spoke to a number of clergy from the country’s different Churches about how Christian life and thought in Ukraine is being reshaped by atrocities like those in the town of Bucha, where more than 320 men, women, and children were killed by the Russian military. Some were killed after they were tortured or raped, and buried in shallow mass graves.
The scandal of the cross is real, and at times confounding, but we gain nothing in understanding by looking away. As one Dominican priest there put it bluntly:
“When we talk about Bucha, we must say that Christ was raped, Christ was killed, Christ was deprived of his home, his hands were tied, and he was shot. All this was done to those with whom Christ identifies himself.
It must be said that God is being crucified again, tortured again. Christ does not say that this applies only to those who believe in Him. He is talking about defenseless people.”
Other told us that they simply didn’t know how to talk to people, pray with people, who have gone through the worst, most violent kinds of emotional and physical torture, and a culture of shocked depression is setting in.
Staying with Ukraine, two realities seem increasingly clear: Russia’s withdrawal from the region around Kyiv does not mean they are looking to leave the eastern parts of the country they still occupy; the risk of escalation, and the nuclear threat of Russia means international intervention is not going to go much past where it already is.
We are seeing, as Pope Francis observed on Wednesday, the “impotence” of the United Nations, and the international order which prides itself on its supposed commitment to rule of law.
Francis has said recently that it just isn’t possible to speak of any war being “just.” But that statement, and his move to take the Church beyond its historical teaching on just war theory, was predicated upon an international order now shown to be, as Francis has said, impotent.
As I wrote in an analysis this morning, absent the kind of international policing action Francis and others may have expected someone like the UN to provide, recognizing that what Ukrainians are fighting is a war, a legitimate and just war, in their own defense seems like it is now a matter of justice itself.
And, as we discover new horrors, and should the Russians offer some sort of “keep what we have” terms for a cease fire, the bounds of that justness seem likely to need serious thought.
Thanks to our culture of death, for many people “dying with dignity” has come to mean a chilling way to refer to euthanasia. But there is another, much more literal meaning for the phrase.
Noreen Madden is a wife, mother and grandmother. She’s also an accomplished liturgist. But it’s her story as a daughter that she talked about with Charlie Camosy this week, and her book “Keep at it, Riley!”
At 82, her father couldn’t walk, and needed regular medical care. As Noreen tells it, him moving in with her was a “mistake,” anyone else would have been better qualified to give him better care. His choices about end of life treatments were not the choices she would have made, and there was a lot of doubt and fear. But what she received was a time of immense grace, and she and her father learned together why the Church speaks of passing from “death to life.”
Vatican court was back in session this week, with judges questioning René Brülhart, the former head of the Financial Information Authority ,about the Secretariat of State’s now-famous London property deal.
In addition to his day job, Brülhart, as we reported last summer, had a lucrative side contract with the Secretariat of State advising it on its investments, which struck prosecutors as a possible conflict of interest, given everything that went on.
Of course, his agency was in charge of supervising the IOR, the Vatican bank the secretariat was leaning on to finance the deal. So, there’s that.
One thing Brülhart made very clear on Tuesday was that it was Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, sostituto at the Secretariat of State since 2018, who was determined to force through the final stage of the deal “under any circumstances.”
It was Peña Parra, everyone seems now to agree, who insisted that it was better to pay off Gianluigi Torzi when he (allegedly) attempted to extort the Vatican for control of the building they paid 350 million euros for, instead of reporting him to authorities.
I’ve been following the unraveling of the Secretariat of State’s financial scandal since 2017 — before the London deal was even done — and I have never been sold on the criticism prosecutors have taken for supposedly charging too many people in their indictment handed down last July. There are, it has always seemed to me, plenty of allegations to go around.
In a slightly off beat story for you this week, we covered yesterday a rumbling fight over the authorship of a controversial book, published and then pulled from shelves last month.
“Ask Your Husband” made something of a minor splash in some corners of Catholic media last month for its… provocative argument that wives should defer to their husbands on a rather sweeping range of personal and domestic issues. And probably not work outside the house either.
You might think people and publishers might be looking to distance themselves from these… unpopular ideas, but in fact, it seems the book was pulled after a fight to claim ownership of its arguments. Even more unexpectedly, the fight is between two brothers and one of their wives, Ask Your Husband’s published author.
Both brothers are public figures in the realm of far-right Catholic culture in America, on websites and YouTube channels which I may not frequent but some Catholics clearly do - where they sell a lot of books, published by some big name firms in Catholic publishing. The clash, which they called to tell us about, believe it or not, is an interesting glimpse into a world that has influence on a significant number of young Catholic men online..
As a family drama, it’s touchingly sad. But, as one of them told us, it is also about “the Catholic Twittersphere, YouTube, the one-man apostolate that is so popular now, all of those temptations towards monetization… There's a race to create catchy headlines. There's a race to put out product and sell merchandise to cult-like fans.”
Not of this world
Sunday is, of course, Palm Sunday, and we will, I am sure, all be reminded at Mass that the crowd which welcomed Christ in triumph into Jerusalem would soon reject him and call for his crucifixion. It is a powerful reminder for me each year about my own disordered desires of God.
All too often, my expectations of the Lord are for earthy justice, human comfort, and the shallowest of victories which I want to freight onto the donkey next to Christ.
In this, I am, of course, destined for disappointment — which is a good thing. But the test of the Christian life, especially in this season, is which direction do I turn this disappointment.
The kingship of Christ offers salvation, the promise of heaven and of eternal life, and the glory of the resurrection. Holy Week is, at its best, a time of elevation for me, of my aspirations and expectations, and my understanding of what the mystery of salvation means for my life.
Of course, it is equally possible for my frustrated desires for more worldly victories to turn me away from Christ, and to my own personal Barabases. Naming them for myself is a preferred Holy Week meditation.
This same Palm Sunday message is perennially valid for the whole Church. And it is hard to miss the different crowds within her hailing their own personal triumphal processions towards their preferred earthly goals.
This is, I would argue, true of both the neo-gnostics, who long for a Church remade to embrace moral license, sexual libertinism, and prenatal infanticide, and for those hyponotized by the promise of imperial power and the temptations of a coercively “Christian” state.
Both projects lead the opposite way than to heaven, and both are destined for disappointment: Christ came to announce a freedom and a kingdom of different orders entirely. And, like the crowd outside the city walls on Sunday and later outside the Praetorium on Friday, they begin first by hailing Christ and his Church, but eventually end in denunciation.
The unenviable task of the bishops today is to model Christ’s constancy, setting their faces as he did, on the truth, the cross, and the resurrection, and not on the approval of crowds. It’s an unenviable task, and I will be praying for them this week for sure.
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Owning the game
Yesterday was opening day for baseball, normally an annual highlight of the calendar for me. This year my enthusiasm for the professional game, though not the game itself, is more than a little muted.
Following the protracted lockout, a series of seemingly never ending (and explicitly made for TV) rule changes, and the league’s increasingly obvious state of concubinage with the online gambling industry, it’s hard to argue that professional baseball isn’t in a bad way.
This week, I read dueling pieces on how to save baseball, arguing that the game should be taken into government ownership, or more effectively privatized, respectively. They are both worth a read, and I wholeheartedly endorse the premise of both: that baseball as currently constituted is the plaything of a rapacious cartel protected by a farcical antitrust exemption.
Where I part company with both arguments is the idea that a change of ownership is needed — the idea of ownership of the game itself is the problem.
Few things set my teeth on edge faster, or better sum up the moral bankruptcy facing baseball, than when people speak of a team as “a franchise” rather than a club.
It is, of course, true. Legally and spiritually, major league teams are owned and run like so many billion dollar McDonalds concessions, relentlessly stepping on the the quality of their product to drive up profitability under the direction of that demented Ray Kroc impersonator, Rob Manfred.
I have no real strong opinions about players’ pay, season length, all-star games, even playoff structuring. These seem like reasonable areas for team owners and players’ unions to agree and disagree upon.
What sends me swivel-eyed is the use of the rules — of the nature of the game itself — as a fungible commodity in all of this.
The universal designated hitter rule, minimum batter counts for pitchers, robot umpires, starting runners on second in extra innings: all these are trading away pieces not of a season, or a contract, or league structure for profit, but slivers of the game itself.
You can own a team, or a league, or stadium and do what you want with them. Sign sponsors, hike ticket prices, lock people out, run media blackout zones, whatever; I will cope — professional sports is a business, I know.
But when the rules of the game are treated as assets to be stripped, it’s the death of the game as a game, because you’re breaking trust with, and asserting ownership over, the people, the fans, the weekend players, who actually sustain baseball and offer any hope of a future for it.
Every rule change MLB makes is a message to little leagues and beer leagues across the country: We own this game, not you. It’s staggering hubris, and given the drop in little league participation, it’s a message that’s landing — we’ve understood that baseball is no longer “America’s pastime,” it’s Rob’s business.
I sometimes get asked what I would do to “fix” baseball if I were the commissioner. I have a long shopping list of things I’d do, including everything from ending interleague play to banning minor league affiliation.
But if I could change one thing about baseball, I’d turn the rules over to Cooperstown, under the care of former players and coaches and writers who have no financial stake in the league, or their TV deals, just a love of the game.
See you next week,