Sunday, May 22, 2022

Milestone: 500th Merry Catholic Essay

My producer at radio station WJMJ informed me that this is the 500th “Merry Catholic” essay that I’ve done since beginning this little endeavor almost a decade ago. I’m really amazed that I have come up with 500 different topics to write about, especially since in my entire life I’ve only had about seven original thoughts.

But that’s actually OK. Our Catholic Christian faith is built on the clear and firm revelations from God, in the person of Jesus Christ, which were all spelled out for us during His earthly ministry 2,000 years ago. Everything since that time has merely been a re-telling of those fundamental truths proclaimed by Jesus. Over the years, deeper understandings about many core doctrines have developed, of course, but no new revelations have occurred.

So, I don’t need original thoughts for these weekly essays. I just need to retell or comment on the original thoughts, words, and deeds of Our Lord. And then once in a while, just to keep things interesting, I’ll blend some biblical ideas with modern situations, such as wondering What Would Jesus Do … about the Red Sox’ bullpen? Or how would St. Peter react … if he were a FedEx driver stuck in traffic?

I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since I approached Fr. John Gatzak, who runs the Office of Radio and Television for the Archdiocese of Hartford, and asked him if I might be able to record occasional essays for broadcast on the radio. I vividly remember two things from that initial phone call. First, he asked me, “Are you looking to get paid?” I replied, “No.” And he said, “Oh good. We’re a non-profit operation here.”

Next he asked me, “Do you think you can get someone to sponsor you?” I said, “Um, probably not.” Ten years later it’s obvious I was right. No person or organization has ever expressed even a mild interest in sponsoring my goofy little effort here. 

A week later I visited the studios to record a few essays. Fr. John was pleased with the results, but I noticed he never once suggested that I ought to be on television. He’s a smart guy.
Occasionally, people ask me why I do this. And the answer is simple: because I’m human. We human beings are all the same. As soon as we have an idea that we consider interesting, we have a compulsion to share it with others. I mean, have you seen Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram lately? Have you seen how many podcasts are now available online these days? (The number of regular podcasts seems like at least 30 billion, even though there are less than 8 billion people on earth.)

When I have an idea that I consider interesting, I want to share it. And what could possibly be more interesting than the mysterious and wonderful relationship we humans have with the supernatural Being who created us? It’s an amazing saga that began in the Garden of Eden and will continue for eternity.

With literature and movies, the most compelling stories are the ones about life and death. This means THE most compelling story of all time is the one about life and death and Resurrection. The world will never tire of the amazing stories about Jesus’ life and ministry.
Early on, when I first started writing these Merry Catholic essays, I was worried that I would quickly run out of things to say. But when I realized there are approximately 1200 chapters in the Bible, I knew I’d never be short of material. Now, I just worry that I never have enough spare time to write something coherent. And if it occasionally sounds like I scribbled some notes on the back of a Walmart receipt moments before stepping into the studio, well, sorry, I’ve had some hectic weeks lately.

So, here’s hoping that I can keep doing this for another 10 years. And maybe I can get the New York Yankees to sponsor me … if I promise to stop writing snarky things about them.

Walk Faster, Live Longer

Recently, I saw a report about a new medical study. The headline said, “Walking fast is the key to a long life. Study links pace to aging.” It seems that researchers at the University of Leicester discovered a connection between a person’s walking pace and how quickly they age.


What jumped out at me was the very first sentence of the report, which read: “A brisk walk could help add 16 years to your life, a new study finds.”
I know the definition of the word “a.” It means singular, as in “I saw a bear knock over the garbage can.” That obviously means I saw one bear. If there were more than one bear, I would use different words, such as, “I saw a flock of bears knock over the garbage can.” (I said I’d use different words, not necessarily the right words.)

Actually, I looked it up, and the correct term for a group of bears is a “sleuth” of bears. (Seriously, I’m not even kidding right now. Look it up if you don’t believe me.) A sleuth of bears sounds even dumber than a flock of bears. So, the next time I see multiple bears wandering through my condo complex (which happens about twice a week these days), I’ll just say, “I saw a frickin’ boatload of bears!” (Except I might use a different “load” word than boatload.)
Anyway, why are we talking about bears? Oh right, the definition of the word “a.” The first sentence of the medical report clearly says, “A brisk walk could help add 16 years to your life.” 

I am confident that I’m capable of “a” brisk walk, maybe even upwards of 15 minutes worth. I would gladly spend 15 minutes of my life enduring the pain of walking briskly to guarantee that I will live 16 years longer.

However, as happens so often nowadays, the medical report I read contained a gaggle of misinformation and a herd of fake news. Maybe we could come up with a new term, such as a Pelosi of misinformation, or if you play in the other side of the sandbox, a Trump of fake news. (I suppose the view of most Americans is still the best description: a frickin’ boatload of B.S. from both sides!)

As I continued to read the report, I discovered that when they said, “A brisk walk…” they actually meant a brisk walk — every day! Whoa, talk about false advertising.

Imagine if medical professionals told us, “You need to get a COVID vaccine — every day!” Or, “You need to get a colonoscopy — every day!” Or, “You need to eat a brood of doughnuts — every day!” (Well, that last one is fine.)

Once again, an announcement from medical experts got my hopes up (a single brisk walk will add 16 years to my life. Yay!), only to be dashed moments later (but do it every day. Boo!).
One positive aspect of this is that it prompted me to look up official names of groups of animals. We’re all familiar with a swarm of bees, a pack of dogs, and a school of fish. But here are some other actual descriptions (and again, if you don’t believe me, look it up yourself): a quiver of cobras, a bask of crocodiles, a murder of crows, a convocation of eagles, an army of frogs, a cackle of hyenas, a bloat of hippopotami, a smack of jellyfish, a conspiracy of lemurs, a parliament of owls, a pandemonium of parrots, and a zeal of zebras.

These names are so weird, no one would even notice if we added a couple of new ones to the list, such as a Trump of baloney and a Pelosi of malarkey.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A Delightful Experience

Recently, I rediscovered a wonderful sensation: having a small child fall asleep in your arms. It’s been more than three decades, back when my kids were little, since I experienced how lovely that is.

My wife and I were babysitting our grandson, and he was over-tired and not pleased by the fact my daughter, his mom, was out running an errand. So he did what I always feel like doing whenever I am over-tired and not pleased: he had a meltdown. (By the way, I don’t actually have meltdowns when I’m over-tired and not pleased. I certainly have the strong urge to scream and cry and throw myself on the floor flailing. But I don’t actually do it — mostly because at my age I may not be able to get up off the floor.)
Picking him up off the floor was a challenge, partly because of the flailing, and partly because he’s getting heavier, at almost two years old, while my back is getting weaker, at almost two times 33 years old. I held him in my arms and started singing gentle lullabies to him. 

After a while, my wife mentioned that Springsteen’s “Rosalita” may not be the best song to calm him down. So I switched to a children’s song I remembered from the early ‘90s, Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” The best thing about singing to a two-year-old is that it’s fine even if you don’t know the words. I sang, “Ba-by Be-lu-ga. Ba-by Be-lu-ga. La la la, la-la. Doo doo doo, doo-doo. Cha-cha, cha, cha, cha,” and it calmed him right down.

I went into his bedroom and sat on a rocking chair, cradling the child against my chest. My wife dimmed the lights and put a blanket over the both of us. I sat there rocking gently and humming quietly. Within a few minutes, I was sould asleep. 

No, wait. My grandson was sound asleep. But to be honest, I was kind of dozing off, too.
It was so delightful having that little guy sleeping in my arms. After a while, when we knew he definitely was asleep, my wife asked, “Do you want to try to put him in the crib?” I replied, “Nope. I don’t want to move. I don’t want this feeling to end.”

For the next three days, I had a big smile on my face, remembering how wonderful it was to have him fall asleep on me.

However, having someone fall asleep on you isn’t always wonderful. I’m reminded of the time I flew home from Chicago a few years ago. It was evening, and I was tired. But I’ve never, ever been able to fall asleep on a plane. At best, I’ll get close to a brief doze, but not quite. 

Well, I was sitting there on the aisle seat with my eyes closed, trying to will my brain into a state of slumber, when I felt a weird sensation on my right shoulder. I opened one eye and looked over. The guy in the middle seat, who obviously had no problem sleeping on a plane, had his head against my shoulder, and it was slowly sliding down onto my chest. Over the roar of the engines, I could hear his slow and deep breathing, on the verge of snoring.

Luckily, before we reached the point where we were officially going steady, he mumbled briefly, shifted in his seat, and leaned in the opposite direction to start a poignant bonding experience with the fellow in the window seat.

Anyway, having someone fall asleep in your arms is delightful. In my experience, small children work the best. But in a pinch, I suppose a businessman flying home from Chicago will do. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

What Is Heaven Like?

 Have you ever wondered what Heaven will be like? Of course you have. Everybody has wondered at one time or another whether there is life after death, and if there is, what it will be like. There are a lot of cultural images of what Heaven is like, such as people floating on clouds all day and playing the harp. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it sounds kind of boring, especially if everyone is playing the same instrument. Every band needs a good rhythm section, with a bass player and drummer. A whole orchestra of just harps sounds like the worst kind of elevator music.

For those of us who believe in God and believe in His promise of life after death, the Scriptures and Church tradition offer frustratingly few details about Heaven. However, even though specific details are scarce, the Bible does tell us some important information about Heaven.

First, Scripture clearly says that Heaven is a real place and that Jesus Himself is preparing a special spot for us there. John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places….I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2-3).

There are no details of what these dwelling places are like — condo? mansion? studio apartment? Winnebago? freshman dorm room? — but it seems clear that the folks who make it to Heaven will have their own special place to call home, something a little better than “Cloud # 862-B.”

Next, the Bible explains that Heaven is so spectacularly awesome, words can’t even begin to describe it. St. Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth: “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Heaven is so amazing, there is nothing in our earthly experience that compares. Since we know what clouds and harps are, this means those aspects of the popular and boring image are not present. Good!

This next one is my favorite bit of biblical information about Heaven. In the book of Revelation, at just about the very end of the Bible, it says, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If you haven’t noticed, our world is up to its eyeballs these days in death, mourning, wailing, and pain. (Sounds like the name of a morbid law firm. “Call Death Mourning Wailing and Pain for your free consultation!”) And no matter how bad things are today — and they’re really bad — it’s actually been worse during previous generations. The fact is, mankind’s long journey here on earth has been a struggle, and throughout history there have been at least as many tears as there have been smiles.

The idea that all pain and heartache will cease forever once we are in Heaven is extremely attractive. And it’s not mere wishful thinking. It is a promise of Scripture, God’s holy Word.

The final thing the Bible tells us about Heaven is a bit sobering. The Scriptures affirm that life after death is indeed real, and we all will experience it (regardless of whether we believe it’s true or not). Once we pass from this world to the next, the Bible clearly teaches that Heaven is not guaranteed. Those people who refuse to trust in God and who have no interest in having a relationship with Him will get their wish. They will spend eternity separated from the love of God. 

The Bible calls this experience Hell, and again, there are many popular cultural images, some involving pitchforks and silly red tights. But the bottom line is this: it will not be fun — at all. The pains and heartaches and loneliness of this world will be like a box of cupcakes compared to Hell. 
So, please make sure you enter into the joyful love of God’s Heaven once your time on earth is over. How can a person do this? Easy. Here’s one more Bible verse that shows us how, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Thankfully, St. Paul did not say a single thing about harps.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Marketing Jesus: ‘He Gets Us’

You may have seen some television ads with the theme, “He gets us.” These 30- and 60-second spots focus on Jesus, and describe how the Lord is able to relate to the struggles people face in the modern world, especially young people in an urban environment. The production quality of these videos is top notch, and an organized campaign is flooding television, billboards, and social media right now with the ads. 

I first saw one of these spots between innings of a baseball game. I immediately said, “Whoa, someone just put an ad for Jesus on TV, instead of the usual Budweiser or Ford pick-up truck commercial. Interesting.”

The one I saw showed a series of black and white images of anxious people in run-down housing projects. Somber music played in the background. Then words flashed on the screen: “Jesus struggled to make ends meet, too. He gets us. All of us.” The ad ended with the website address: HeGetsUs.com.
I visited the website, where you can watch and listen to many of the videos that have been produced. The text on the homepage gives a good idea of the audience being targeted: 

"Have you ever experienced frustration? Sorrow? Temptation? So has Jesus. Jesus understood what life was like for people in his day — especially for the marginalized. He was drawn to those on the fringes because he was one too: An immigrant. Homeless. Arrested. Bullied. Through it all, Jesus welcomed outcasts, stood up for women, hung out with troublemakers, even befriended enemies."

This “He Gets Us” effort is being funded by a small group of wealthy anonymous families. Some reports claim upwards of $100 million is being spent to produce the videos and buy the advertising time. Not surprisingly, the response has been mixed. Some people claim it’s a waste of money. Others are leery and suspicious because the donors are anonymous and the website emphasizes that they’re not affiliated with any church. And many people are turned off by the gritty emphasis on poor, young, urban people. 
On the other hand, quite a few folks understand that young people have been leaving organized religion in droves in recent decades. So, trying to communicate with them in a way they can relate to is simply wise evangelism. 

In our current secular culture, millions of people are unchurched. The only thing they’ve ever heard about Jesus is that His followers are judgmental and obnoxious. So, it’s a breath of fresh air that someone is trying to introduce the Son of God in a way that people can understand. 

Yes, there is no mention of Scripture or the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, after digging through the website and watching the videos, I saw no mention of the Resurrection either. But that’s OK. Those items are steps 9, 22, and 35 in the evangelism handbook. Right now, people need step 1, an introduction to the person of Jesus Christ.

There was a time during Jesus’ earthly ministry when his disciples came to Him, quite upset, saying they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They said, “We tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him….whoever is not against us is for us.”
The mysterious people behind this expensive advertising campaign may not be doing things in the traditional, church-centered style. Those of us who attend church on a weekly basis might find it somewhat uncomfortable, kind of like going to a folk music festival and discovering that it’s actually a heavy metal concert.

However, since the main focus is on Jesus, how can it be a bad thing? I suspect even Jesus would say, “Hey, they’re not against us, so they must be for us.” 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

‘Lose 20 pounds in 10 days!’

Recently, I received an unsolicited email from a writing workshop organization. By the way, it’s a good thing emails don’t actually take up any physical space, because the number of unsolicited emails I get each day would fill an Amazon warehouse. And those are just the ones that end up in my inbox. If you add in the emails that get caught by my computer’s spam filter, they would fill up a dozen Grand Canyons.

Anyway, the writing workshop email I received said: “Bill, ever wonder why people are completely ignoring your content?”

Well, I haven’t thought about that in a while, but I assume it’s because my content is boring, right?
The email continued: “It’s not the content. Blame the headline! People only click if the headline does the trick!” (Obviously they’re referring to articles published on the Internet. It’s kind of hard to “click” on a story printed in an actual newspaper.)

Then the email went on to offer some “savvy tips” to create eye-catching headlines, which are guaranteed to entice more people to read my essays. One tip said the ideal headline is no more than six words. Another tip said a good headline promises to give the reader something desirable. I stopped reading the email before finding out whether or not the remainder of the savvy tips would require me to give them my credit card number. 

Nowadays, eye-catching headlines are known as “clickbait,” that is, they persuade readers to click on the Internet article, which increases “eyeballs” — another Internet term that simply means viewers or readers — which in turn increases advertising income.
 
Because clicks and eyeballs are directly related to revenue, website editors are very creative with their enticing headlines. (I am using, of course, the definition of “creative” that means: “completely untrue.”)

However, clickbait-type headlines have been around long before the Internet existed. Who hasn’t made an impulse purchase in the supermarket checkout line after seeing stunning tabloid newspaper headlines? Here are some of the more memorable ones: “Dolphin grows human arms!” “Satan’s skull found in New Mexico!” “Abraham Lincoln was a woman!” “Tom Cruise is a space alien!” (OK, that one might be true), and, “Dick Cheney is a robot!” (That one is definitely true.)

So, the idea of using a sensational headline to convince people to read something is not a new Internet-era phenomenon. That technique has been around for quite a while. This is why Abraham Lincoln, who apparently was female, began his second inaugural address in 1865 by declaring, “Robert E. Lee is a space alien!” If nothing else, that certainly prompted folks to listen a little closer to the rest of Honest Amy’s speech.

And now I should comment on the headline of this essay. In keeping with the theme of using eye-catching headlines to entice people to read the story, and employing those savvy tips, I came up with a headline that is six words and promises to give the reader something desirable. 

Now really, after two years of COVID quarantine snacking, who among us would love to lose 20 pounds in 10 days? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “All of us!”) So, the headline of this essay is scientifically proven to increase the number of people who will pause and read.
The best part is that my headline, unlike many of those supermarket tabloid headlines, is not an exaggeration. My diet plan really works. Here is all you need to do to lose 20 pounds in 10 days: eat the way you usually do, and then on the tenth day, have a doctor surgically remove one of your limbs. See? Easy-peasy. 

In conclusion, I’d like to thank you for not ignoring my content today. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Weekend Retreat Can’t Be Beat

This week, my humor column, “A Matter of Laugh or Death,” discusses my adventures on a recent weekend retreat at Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford. Because that essay gets published in a secular newspaper, I did not delve into the religious aspects of the retreat. But since these “Merry Catholic” essays are routinely used as teaching tools by Vatican theologians (yeah, sure!), I'd like to share an interesting spiritual incident that occurred during the retreat.

Over the years, I’ve attended many weekend retreats, usually with a group of guys from my parish. This year I did not go when my parish was scheduled because my calendar was too jammed up. But later on, in early April, I decided I really needed to go on retreat, so I signed up at the last minute. 
The week before the retreat, a local church hosted a Lenten mission, and at one of those gatherings I went to Confession. So, on retreat the following week, I had no plans of going to Confession again, since I had just gone. Being a “once or twice per year” kind of guy regarding Confession (except during Covid, when I got quite comfortable being a “none per year” kind of guy), I figured the priest would look at me funny if I said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 9 days since my last Confession.” He’d either think I was wasting his time, or that I was some kind of Jekyll and Hyde weirdo: penitent Catholic during the day and serial criminal at night. 

Well, during one of the workshops, the speaker quoted Martin Luther. (Yes, THAT Martin Luther! Pretty amazing for a Catholic event, huh?) Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to is really your god.”

I said to myself, “Well, my heart clings to my wife and children and grandson, but I don’t think that’s what Marty meant.” (In my mind I call the founder of the Protestant Reformation “Marty.” It might be a bit flippant, but it’s a lot nicer than what the nuns teaching my catechism classes in the 1960s called him.)

I thought some more, and started to realize that my heart clings to a lot of other things, especially my precious stuff. I’m attached to my home and car and 401k and bank accounts. But I really love my electronic gizmos, my iPhone and laptop computer and iPad and Airpods Pro (which are, if you’re not sure, amazing Bluetooth earbuds). 
First, I asked myself, “Do I love those things more than I love God?” Instead of the correct answer: “No, of course not,” I had this thought: “Well… can’t I love God and still love all my stuff, too?”

It was at that moment that I said to myself, “Self, you need to go to Confession ‘cause I think you’re dabbling with idolatry here.”

So, that’s just what I did. And when I said to the priest, “...it’s been 9 days since my last Confession,” he did look at me kind of funny, but when I explained how the earlier workshop had awakened my conscience, he smiled knowingly and was very helpful. Then he said to me, “You lack one thing. Go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Then come follow Jesus.”

No, I’m kidding! The priest did not compare me to the Rich Young Ruler in the gospel. Besides, I’m not rich, I’m not young, and I don’t rule anything except maybe the TV remote. If there was a gospel story about me, I’d be called the Middle-class, Middle-aged, Middle manager.
Anyway, the priest gave me absolution, and encouraged me to be careful that I don’t become “possessed by my possessions.” I suspect I’m not the only person these days that is a little too attached to stuff, especially electronic gizmos.

I’m very glad I made the decision to go on a weekend retreat. And going forward, I’ll be much more careful about what my heart clings to. So, thank you very much, Fr. D., and thank you, Marty!