Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Creed Has a Notable Omission

At Mass each Sunday, the entire congregation stands and recites the Creed. The word creed comes from the Latin credo, which means, “I believe.”

The Creed is a summary of doctrines and fundamental Christian beliefs. Most of the time we recite the Nicene Creed, which is short for its full name: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. If we were required to refer to that creed by its full name, I suspect we would always recite the Apostles Creed instead, just to avoid that tongue-twisting phrase.
(The Apostles Creed, by the way, was developed earlier, and is acceptable to recite during Mass once in a while, especially during Lent and Easter time.)

Anyway, after reciting the Nicene Creed thousands of times during my life  while actually paying attention to the words about 5% of the time  I recently noticed something interesting about the Creed. As we are listing all the truths about who God is and what He’s done, we say this about Jesus, God’s one and only Son: “...he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became Man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate…”

Without skipping a beat, we go from Jesus being a newborn baby to Him being crucified by the Romans. The Creed completely skips 33 years of Jesus’ life, including His three-year public ministry. Doesn’t that seem kind of odd?

(The Apostles’ Creed makes a similar jump, using a mere comma instead of a new sentence: “...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”)
I get it that the Nicene Creed was written to summarize the key aspects of our faith, which was very important in the early centuries of Christian history. (Come to think of it, it might be even more important nowadays.) The Creed declares: God is the Creator of all; Jesus is His only Son, who became Man; Jesus was crucified to pay the price for our sins; He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures; He ascended into Heaven; He will come again to judge the living and the dead; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and is also adored and glorified; there is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic Church; there will be a resurrection of the dead; and there will be life in the world to come.

All those statements of faith are very important. They define what it means to be a believing Christian. But don’t you think they could’ve squeezed in a line or two about Jesus’ ministry years, rather than going directly from “baby in a manger” to “man dying on a cross”?

After all, if you read the gospels in the Bible (and you should), there are 12 chapters that focus on Jesus’ birth and crucifixion. That means there are 57 other chapters devoted to His earthly mission, which is almost 83-percent of the gospel writings. Now, I’m not saying that 83% of the Creed should be devoted to Jesus’ ministry years, but it would’ve been nice if they included a couple of brief items, such as, “For three years He taught people about God’s kingdom and did many miracles to prove He was divine.” 
Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not claiming I know better than the early Church Fathers who wrote the Creed. I’m just saying it probably would not have hurt for the Creed to acknowledge some of the amazing things Jesus did.

We should look at it this way: we are very lucky to have the Creed to remind us of the core doctrines of the faith. Plus, we have the Bible, where we can read about all the remarkable things Jesus did during His public ministry. 

Here are two important goals: first, let’s really pay attention to the words when we recite the Creed at Mass; and second, let’s read the gospels in our Bibles on a regular basis. After all, that’s how we’ll really get to know the Lord who loves us and saves us. 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Is Some Technology Really ‘Outdated’?

Recently, I read an article that described “outdated technology that people still use.” Some of the items were definitely outdated, such as typewriters, cameras that use actual film, floppy computer disks, rotary dial phones, and unpowered hand tools. 

For those devices, I definitely understood why they were labeled “outdated,” and why the author of the article expressed shock that anyone would use them nowadays. Some of those items require a lot more time and effort to use. And for a couple of those things, like the computer floppy disks and rotary phones, I’m not sure it’s even possible to use them anymore. I mean, who still has a computer with a floppy disk drive? And will the modern telecommunication system even recognize a rotary phone’s unique sound: “Shhhhick, tickatickatickatick. Shhhhick, tickatickatickatick”?
However, the article went on to list other items, while also expressing shock that they are still in use today. These devices included: CD and DVD disks, corded computer mice (or is it mouses? meeses?), paper road maps, wired earphones, analog wristwatches (especially ones that need to be manually wound each day), actual car keys (as opposed to key fobs with buttons and radio signal transmitters), and notepads & pencils.

Now wait one minute. Every one of those items I own, and occasionally use. Yes, I subscribe to online streaming services (far too many, actually). But I still break out the old CDs and DVDs once in a while. I have cordless computer accessories, but one of our computers at home has a corded mouse, and it works fine. Once in a while I use my wired earphones (usually when I’ve forgotten to charge my Airpods). A wristwatch I own is analog and needs to be manually wound each day. And one of our vehicles uses an old-style car key. What’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m using a first-generation computer running DOS, or have a sundial attached to my wrist (like Fred Flintstone), or drive to work in a 1932 Packard.
The item that really surprised me was the notepad & pencil. Since when has THAT become a technological fossil? 

I decided to conduct a test. I went to a Panera Bread restaurant one afternoon. Everyone in the place was busy using a laptop computer, a touchscreen tablet, or a smartphone. A few were using all three devices at the same time. I bought a coffee, then sat down at a table in the middle of the room. I opened my shoulder bag and pulled out a spiral notebook and a wooden pencil. Then I took a sip of my coffee and started to write. 

Periodically, I glanced up just in time to catch someone quickly diverting their gaze. It was clear many people were observing me, similar to National Geographic scientists observing wildlife in its natural habitat. I suspect many had never witnessed a person using a wooden pencil and notebook before.

One young man, who I’m guessing was in his early 20s, got up to retrieve his sandwich after his name was called. But instead of walking straight to the counter, he purposely took the long way around, just so he could walk past me and get a closer look. I saw him coming, so I sat back in my chair to give him a clear view. He walked by slowly, then nonchalantly looked down at my notebook.
I heard the young man audibly gasp. He then walked briskly to the counter for his sandwich. When he returned to his chair he seemed visibly upset. I think I know why. When that naive Generation Z young man looked at my notebook, this is what he saw: cursive writing! 

After that trauma, I bet he needed some counseling. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

This A.I. Guy Is Hurting for Intelligence

The other day I received an email from LinkedIn with this subject line: “Top Job Picks for You! A.I. Integrated Marketing Director.”

If you’re not familiar with LinkedIn, just imagine Facebook for business people. Instead of photos of someone’s breakfast (plus political screeds), LinkedIn has photos of someone’s products being marketed (plus political screeds). One of the most common comments on LinkedIn is, “Hey, this is not Facebook. Post your nasty rants somewhere else!”
I assume LinkedIn generates a lot of its revenue through job recruiting, because when they’re not asking me if my company is hiring, they’re showing me job openings that would be “a perfect fit” for me. Most of the time I ignore this stuff, and move on to the photos of various products being marketed, especially the ones from our competition.

However, when I received the note informing me about the Artificial Intelligence Marketing Director position, I just had to laugh. The job opening is with Microsoft, the parent company of LinkedIn. If they actually think I might be qualified for that position, then they really need some Artificial Intelligence to run their employment recruitment office.

Since LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, they know everything about everyone. They know I’ve been in the HVAC industry for almost four decades, and that my knowledge of computer software can be summarized by the following common workplace scenario: I push away from my desk in frustration, and shout out, “Why won’t my computer work?!” Which prompts coworkers to reply, “Maybe it’s not plugged in. Again.”

Therefore, the odds that I am even remotely qualified to be an A.I. Integrated Marketing Director are the same odds that I will be selected as the next pope.
In addition, Microsoft also knows that I was born when Eisenhower was president and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. This means Microsoft knows my exact age and that I am actively planning to stop working soon, rather than begin a new career in A.I. marketing.

The position with Microsoft, according to the email, pays between $125,000 and $264,000 per year, and the person they hire can work remotely. I’m tempted to apply for the job. If they hire me, I’ll collect a nice paycheck for a while until they figure out I have no idea what I’m doing — you know, similar to what the most recent general manager of the Boston Red Sox did. 

I know what you’re thinking: how are you ever going to convince them to hire you, Bill?

That’s easy. For decades I’ve been paid to make stuff up (my full time job is sales, after all, plus this part time humor column gig), so at this point I’ve gotten pretty good at spinning interesting stories. I’ll tell them a wild story about my vision for marketing A.I. across the globe. 

Also, I already know the three most important things about Artificial Intelligence: 1) it’s artificial, 2) it’s intelligent, and 3) it will someday try to destroy all mankind. I know this third item because it was the plot of a famous Shakespeare play. No wait, it was a Schwartzenegger movie. I always get those two literary geniuses mixed up.
Since Microsoft is owned by Bill Gates, who has desired to be the Emperor of Earth for many years, I’ll play right into the company’s ultimate goal of world domination. If they hire me, great, I’ll collect a fat paycheck for a while. If they don’t hire me, I’ll just keep scrolling through LinkedIn posts to see what my HVAC competition is up to.

Either way, it doesn’t matter in the long run, since A.I. is going to zap us all very soon.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Ash Wednesday Is a Busy Day This Year

Ash Wednesday occurs this week. It marks the beginning of the Liturgical season of Lent. Once again this year, Ash Wednesday falls on a Wednesday, which works out well because otherwise they’d have to change its name. Call me a traditionalist, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable with, for example, Ash Saturday.

This year Ash Wednesday has to share the spotlight with two other important holidays. February 14th also is St. Valentine’s Day, a day that may or may not have religious origins, depending on which website you read. The website I stumbled across, called The Conversation, explains that a priest named Valentinus was executed in the 3rd century by Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus, during a time when persecutions against Christians were common. The priest was decapitated on or about February 14th. Many legends developed over the years about this murdered priest, and a church in Cosmedin, Italy, even displays a human skull relic, which is claimed to be the decapitated head of the original saint.

Then, over 1,000 years later, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer made the connection between birds that mate in February and the feast day of St. Valentine, and that’s all it took for February 14th to become a day devoted to lovers. Soon after, greeting card companies, chocolate manufacturers, and florists got involved, and the rest is history.

Because the origin of the St. Valentine legend is so sketchy, in 1969 the Church dropped St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feast days, explaining that those special days are reserved for saints with more clear historical records. But by that point in time, the holiday was ingrained into the secular culture, and it continues unabated to this day.

The other important holiday that occurs on February 14th each year is the start of baseball Spring Training in Florida and Arizona. This holiday is not celebrated by very many people nowadays, but for those of us who are baseball nuts, it is a time to rejoice. Winter is on the wane, nice weather is coming soon, and the “Boys of Summer” are getting ready for another memorable season on the diamond. The start of Spring Training always puts a smile on my face, as it brings back nostalgic memories of childhood, when I ran around sundrenched fields of green with my classmates, playing the National Pastime. 

Now, just imagine how excited I’d be about Spring Training if the Red Sox actually had a good team this year.
So, we have three important occasions this week that all fall on February 14th. The most important of these, of course, is the start of baseball Spring Training. No wait, I’m sorry. That’s wrong. My brain just blurted that out, overcome by the desire for winter to be over. 

The most important aspect of February 14th this year is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential Liturgical season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is one of only two days on the entire Church calendar that requires fasting and abstinence. If you’re confused about those two terms, as I was, here is a definition from DynamicCatholic.com: “‘Fasting’ is the word used when the amount of food eaten is limited. ‘Abstinence’ is when you completely give something up, like meat, for a set period of time. Both ‘fasting’ and ‘abstinence’ play a role during Lent.”

The Church says all Catholics should fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – with many age and health exceptions allowed. On those two days, our food intake should be the equivalent of one-and-a-half full meals spread out over the day, with no snacking in between. (Wow, my stomach started grumbling just from typing that sentence.)

For abstinence during Lent, the Church instructs us to avoid meat on Fridays. In addition, many people will give up something for Lent, such as alcohol, candy, or donuts.

This year’s convergence of multiple important days on February 14th presents a quandary for those folks who love to celebrate St. Valentine's Day with chocolate, but who usually give up chocolate for Lent. In my opinion, I think if you sprinkle ashes into your candy-filled, heart-shaped box, you should be OK. (The chocolate candies might not taste so great anymore, though.)
The important thing about Lent is to take it seriously (unlike this essay), and to understand that it’s preparing us for the pinnacle of the Liturgical year: the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Our Lord.

As St. Valentine so eloquently put it each year when Ash Wednesday arrived: “Play ball!”

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Pay Attention to the Homilies

The homilies I hear at Sunday Mass are generally very good. You can tell the priests and deacons put a lot of time and effort into preparing their sermons. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to come up with something each and every week. 

Oh, wait. Maybe I can imagine that, since I write these Merry Catholic essays every week. What I meant to say is: I can’t imagine how hard it must be to come up with something INTERESTING each and every week.
Personally, I really like it when the homilist at Mass has his sermon written down. There are some priests and deacons who memorize their presentation, and while I admire and envy that skill, it often causes one of two problems. First, sometimes he forgets a key point, and so the homily isn’t nearly as effective as it could’ve been. The second problem is that he forgets that most people can’t pay attention for more than seven minutes, and when he drones on and on, sharing every random thought that pops into his head, half the congregation keeps glancing at their watches and muttering, “I can’t believe he’s been talking for 20 minutes! What are we, Baptists?!”

Maybe the main reason why I like it when the homilist at Mass has his sermon written down, is the fact that if I were up there talking, I would be so nervous I would forget all my key points, and then I’d fill the time by sharing every random thought and every personal story that popped into my head. No doubt my awkward, rambling, far-too-long performance would guarantee that half the congregation goes home after Mass and investigates other church denominations to join. (“Let’s try this church next week, Louise. I know they’re Baptist, but at least their ministers PREPARE their sermons in advance.”)

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I have been hearing some very good homilies at Mass lately. And I appreciate how much hard work goes into composing an essay that explains one or more important theological points — and in a manner that people of varying ages and educational levels can understand — all-the-while being based on that day’s Scripture readings. That is not an easy thing to do. Especially considering there is an acute priest shortage nowadays, and the priests we do have rarely have adequate time during the week to fine-tune and rehearse their compositions. 
I’ve noticed something in recent years. Depending on the parish, the ordained permanent deacon may only have an opportunity to preach once per month. When the weekend rolls around when it’s his turn to give the homily at each Mass, the deacon is usually very, very prepared. I’ve known many deacons over the years, and one told me he often begins to work on his homilies three weeks in advance. I’m sure very few parish priests have this luxury, since their schedules are way too busy. Plus it’s tough to think about a sermon topic three weeks from now when you haven’t prepared anything for three HOURS from now.

We all should be listening attentively to the homily at Mass. After all, the homily is supposed to explain and build upon the divine message contained in that day’s Scripture readings. And of course, the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. So, the homilist has been given the solemn responsibility of preaching and teaching the Good News of the Gospel; that is, the awesome story of God offering salvation to a sinful world. It really is, as the old movie title declared, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Please pay attention during the homily, especially when it’s the deacon’s turn to preach. Don’t lose sight of how difficult it is to write something inspiring and then present it in front of a crowd. And when you hear words that help you grow in your faith, don’t hesitate to tell the priest or deacon that you appreciate his efforts. You have no idea how much that will mean to him. 

Friday, February 2, 2024

Quit TV? That’s a Novel Idea

Recently, I was cleaning up some files on the hard drive of my computer and I found a folder titled “Manuscript ideas.” I created this folder about 15 years ago, back when I genuinely thought I had enough spare time to write some books. However, the last decade and a half turned out to be devoid of spare time, so my hope now is that maybe I’ll find time to write a book or two after I retire.
Anyway, in that long lost computer folder, I found a document labeled “Television,” which contained an outline for a book idea. Frankly, I don’t remember creating that document, nor do I have any recollection of thinking it would be a good idea to write a book about television.

I started reading through the outline, curious to discover what I had in mind back then. The first few chapters would describe my life-long love affair with TV, beginning when I was just a baby. I’m the first-born in my family, and my younger brother came along when I was 10 months old. We were born in different calendar years, but I'm pretty sure we meet the classic definition of “Irish twins.” My mom was kind of preoccupied, so according to family lore, the television was my babysitter.

Mom would push my playpen right up against the TV. This was back when televisions were heavy pieces of furniture, sitting right on the floor. I would stand up in the playpen, holding on to the bars like a baby jailbird, and put my face about six inches away from the flickering black-and-white screen. I’m told that I would just stare at that screen for hours on end, giving my mom time to take care of my brother. Throughout my entire childhood and beyond, I’ve pretty much watched TV whenever possible for as long as possible.
In the document I found on my computer, one of the book chapters would discuss how I’ve learned more about life from TV characters such as Hawkeye Pierce, the Fonz, and Bugs Bunny than I ever learned from my parents, teachers, or catechism instructors.

As I read through the old outline, I thought, “This is kind of weird, but it might make a good book, if I ever get some spare time.”

About halfway through the document, it discussed what the second half of the book would cover. Here is the entry I read: “These final chapters will describe what it was like to go one full year without watching television – the health benefits, better sleep, financial savings, more free time, etc.”

I paused when I read that, completely stunned. I said to the 2008 me: “Wait a minute, Bill. Are you really serious? Did you actually think you could go without TV for a full year and then write a book about it? Wow, I don’t even know you anymore.”

It goes without saying that over the past 15 years, the timespan since I wrote that outline, I did not go an entire year without watching TV. I’m pretty sure I did not make it through an entire DAY without gazing at my beloved television.
I should write a book about how deluded I was back then to think I could go a full year without television. But the only way I’ll have enough spare time to write the manuscript would be to make a major change in my usual routine, such as, um, giving up television for a year. Yeah, fat chance.

Well, don’t look for any publications from me in a bookstore anytime soon. After all, a UConn basketball game is about to begin, and watching without playpen bars in front of my face is a beautiful sight. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Focus on the Lord, Not the Lunkheads

During the last few decades, I’ve met countless people who have stopped going to Mass or have outright left the Church. There are many reasons for their decision: the clergy sex abuse scandal, the hypocritical behavior of Church leaders, the inefficient and inept bureaucracy of the Church, the Church’s seemingly harsh and heartless stance on certain social issues, etc.

Here’s a question you can ask any Catholic — current or former — and you’ll be guaranteed to get a “yes” answer: Has a priest ever said or done something to offend you?

The point I’m trying to make is that even though I take my Catholic faith seriously, I totally get why someone would leave the Church. It’s an undeniable fact that the Catholic Church and the people in the Church have done some pretty terrible things over the years.

I suspect when Jesus founded His Church with these words, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” in the back of His mind the Lord was thinking: “Well, the Church is necessary to spread the Gospel all over the world for countless generations, but it’s gonna be a bumpy ride because I’m entrusting this divine message to a bunch of lunkheads.”
The Church was never meant to be perfect. If it were, then folks would be tempted to worship the Church rather than God. So, in His infinite wisdom, God delivered His perfect message of forgiveness and salvation to a group of sinful people. He knew this would be the best method for preaching the Good News far and wide and over centuries of time, but He surely understood it was a risky proposition. Just as giving human beings free will was risky, God knew that giving His divine message to a bunch of, well, lunkheads, was risky, too. But it was a risk He was willing to take.

For people who are angry with the Church in general, or offended by a Church leader in particular, I think the problem might be that they are focusing only on the Church’s bureaucracy or on certain members of that bureaucracy. They may have lost sight of Who founded the Church in the first place: Christ the Lord.

For me personally, the more I focus on Christ rather than bureaucratic Church wranglings, the more peace I have. And when I ask myself, “What would be a better method of spreading the Good News throughout the centuries instead of a large, centralized organization?” I come up blank. If at the very beginning the Gospel message was spread and shared by zillions of small groups — with no central authority — the basic doctrines of the faith would’ve been so corrupted and diluted, they would have been unrecognizable by the third century, let alone in our day and age. 
So yes, the Church can be rigid and bureaucratic, and leaders of the Church are sinners, just like you and me. They are tempted by the allure of pride and power, along with being susceptible at times to discouragement and cynicism. But the Church is still the most effective way of spreading the life-changing news of Jesus Christ to a hurting world over the span of multiple millennia.

I’ve spent quite a few paragraphs so far bad-mouthing the Church and its leadership. But the fact is, no worldwide organization has done more to help people in need than the Catholic Church. In the U.S., no organization, except for the government, spends more money helping the poor than the Catholic Church. And the Church does it all with freely donated funds, not tax dollars coerced from people with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they don’t comply.

And let’s not forget one of the most fascinating aspects of the Church: her saints, both those who are widely recognized and the countless ones who fly under the radar. There is something about Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself” that inspires millions of people to sacrifice for others. It’s a beautiful thing.

In conclusion, if you are currently struggling with the Church, I completely understand. It’s almost as if the Vatican has an official Department of Honking People Off. (I was going to use a different word, but this is a family-friendly forum, so I’ll go with honking.)
Try instead to focus on the founder of the Church: Jesus, the all-merciful Lord. As that ad campaign says, “He gets us.” Jesus knows our struggles, and His message is what counts the most. The Church is merely the vehicle to spread that message.

If you keep your eyes on the Lord, everything else pales by comparison, even all the lunkheads.