Wednesday, May 27, 2020

With a Little Help From His Friend

My friend Chris Zarzycki is concerned that I have to come up with new ideas each week for this column. I’m surprised Chris hasn’t noticed that most of my essays are 100% idea free. I prefer the writing style known as mindless typing, where I just string together a bunch of rambling words and hope some of them ultimately make sense. (Kind of the same way a certain orange person gives answers during press conferences.)

Anyway, Chris offered to give me some assistance, and he emailed some clever observations about the COVID-19 pandemic. He said I can use them however I see fit. Well, since I barely have enough time each week to type out my regular stream-of-unconsciousness observations, I’m more than happy to let Chris compose half of this week’s column. (By the way, if anyone else wants to send along 600 random words, to which I can affix my name and print in the newspaper, be my guest. That will free up at least nine minutes of my busy weekly schedule.)
Chris sent along enough content to fill maybe half a column. (Keep that in mind next time, pal. How can I be a slacker if you won’t do all the work?)

What I’ve done below is blend Chris’ observations with mine. If you’re curious about who wrote what, just go with this formula: if it’s funny, then it probably was me. No, I’m kidding, Chris’ sense of humor is very similar to mine — which means his family deserves our sympathy.

Here are comments today’s kids will be able to say to their own kids many years from now (assuming the coronavirus pandemic subsides and we return to normal sometime before the year 2025):

“You think being grounded for a week is tough. When I was your age, I was grounded for [fill in the blank: four months, four years, I can’t count that high, etc.].”

“When I was a kid, I had to go to school with my mother looking over my shoulder for an entire semester. On the plus side, the refrigerator was only five steps away. Hmm, that probably explains my Type 2 diabetes.”

“Hey, stop using so much toilet paper. When I was your age, we were given one square per day!”

“You are definitely getting a haircut today, young man. What do you think this is, the year 2020?”
Now, here are some comments today’s kids will be able to say to their own kids in the future if no vaccine is discovered and social distancing and facemasks become a permanent way of life:

“Jimmy! If I catch you shaking hands again, you’re going straight to your room!”

“Today is called Halloween, son, and it’s very scary because it’s the only day during the year when you DON’T wear a mask!”

“Here kid, have a cigarette. It will keep your hands busy so you’re not tempted to do something dangerous, like shake hands.”

“No, I’m not making it up. There once were buildings called ‘schools,’ where 25 children would go into the SAME room!”

“Yup, when I was young, they used to cram 180 people inside an aluminum tube, and then the thing would fly to Florida in less than three hours. We used to call them ‘airplanes,’ but now we know they were actually flying viral petri dishes.”

“I know it’s prom night, but I insist that you say good-night to your virtual date and close your computer by midnight!”
“Where should we go on vacation this year, kids? To the YouTube video of Lake George, or the YouTube video of Disney World?”

Let’s hope and pray that NONE of what Chris and I wrote will come true.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

One Body, Many Parts

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the official birthday of the Church. Fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, giving them the power and the courage to preach the Good News to all the world.

Before they received the Holy Spirit, the disciples were timid and fearful, hiding behind locked doors. (Kind of like we’ve been doing the past two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

But at Pentecost the Spirit transformed them into fearless and powerful witnesses of the Gospel. They changed from Sheldon Coopers into Jason Bournes overnight. In the blink of an eye they went from wimps to warriors, from chickens to champions.
A lot of folks think that only a few specially-chosen people can be filled with the Holy Spirit and do great deeds for the Kingdom of God. However, the fact is, EVERYONE has a special gift and is called to use it to promote the Gospel. The job of promoting the Kingdom of God is not only for people like the two most amazing religious figures during my lifetime, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. This important job is for everybody.

There is one Holy Spirit who empowers believers to do God’s will. But this one Spirit gives different gifts to different people. Some, like Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, were blessed with the tenderness and tenacity to draw millions of people into a closer relationship with Jesus. Others, like Larry Luggnut and Shirley Schlepp, are only able to offer smiles to anxious strangers who decided to attend church for the first time in years.

Some were international celebrities, while others are complete unknowns. In God’s eyes they are all equal since they each used the particular gift given to them by the Spirit.
This highlights one of the interesting (and liberating) aspects of God: He doesn’t judge by human standards. We humans love to do side-by-side, quantitative comparisons, to determine who is “more successful.” But God doesn’t do it that way. He is more concerned about whether we are fully utilizing whatever spiritual gifts we have been given.

In God’s eyes, if Larry Luggnuts or Shirley Schlepps are only capable of making strangers feel welcome with a sincere smile, and consistently do it each Sunday, then they are more successful than other folks who possess great talents but only use them occasionally.

St. Paul compared God’s church with a human body. “As a body is one though it has many parts,” he wrote, “and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
The body of Christ is made up of all its members, not just famous clergy and nuns and best-selling authors. Every member is vitally important and is meant to serve an important function.

With our bodies, some parts are more celebrated and noticeable—the face, the brain, the hands. Other parts toil in anonymity—the ankles, the liver, the large intestine. But if the ankles, liver, or large intestine suddenly stopped working, the whole body would be in a heap of trouble.
Within the body of Christ, some members are more celebrated and noticeable. Most other members of the body of Christ, however, must toil in virtual secrecy. All the unknown Larry Luggnuts and Shirley Schlepps will never have future generations demand they be canonized as saints. But we are all key parts of the body of Christ. If we don’t do our job, the whole body is in trouble.

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently go forth and do what we are called to do, and in the process, we’ll be filled with love and joy and peace.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

This Guy Is a Sharp Cookie

I’m pretty sure everyone on Planet Earth is sick of the protracted lockdown, quarantine, hide-under-your-bed lifestyle we’ve endured since early March, except maybe for the creator of the Zoom video conferencing software, who is now a gazillionaire. And yes, there are a few “Karens” in their glory right now, getting a thrill out of snitching on their neighbors who forgot to wear masks when checking the mailbox — and I include some state governors here. But other than that, I’m pretty sure most people are fed up with this situation.

Being unable to hug loved ones, travel, or eat inside a restaurant is extremely frustrating. And don’t even get me started on sports. I realize not everyone is a sports fan, but just think of how unprecedented it is that the following events were cancelled this spring: March Madness, baseball’s Opening Day, the Boston Marathon, the Masters golf tournament, the NBA & NHL playoffs, and the Kentucky Derby. And as everyone heard on various news reports, the world’s most prestigious international sports competition will not take place this summer. I am referring, of course, to the Eddie Bruciati Backyard Barbecue & Bocce Tournament in Madison, CT. (I won the coveted golden hotdog trophy two years ago.)
However, the news is not all bad. Something occurred recently that never would’ve happened without the COVID-19 pandemic: I actually baked cookies. That’s right, for the first time in my six-plus decades of being alive, I baked cookies. This is not to be confused with me eating cookies. From the time my mother added a crumbled Snickerdoodle into my formula when I was one month old, I’ve been a cookie connoisseur. During my lifetime, the number of cookies I’ve eaten has at least matched the number of lies uttered by members of Congress. (But not quite the number of times Sen. Blumenthal has knocked people down racing to get in front of a TV camera.)

Typically, we travel on the weekends visiting relatives and friends. Before the pandemic hit, the last time we stayed home for an entire weekend was during a blizzard a couple of years ago. But now that we’ve been home every weekend since early March, we have lots more free time. A couple of weeks ago, on yet another listless Saturday afternoon, my wife suggested we bake some cookies. I said, “By ‘we,’ do you mean our usual system: you bake ‘em, I eat ‘em? Or do you mean we both bake them?”

She smiled and said, “I’ll teach you.”
I understand in the culinary world there is a feisty debate about the terms “homemade” and “from scratch.” Some folks insist that many separate ingredients, including flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, butter, and a contraption called a sifter, are required for cookies to be truly homemade from scratch. However, in my view, if the cookies were not sitting on a store shelf with the word “Oreos” on the package, and if the oven in your kitchen was used, then the cookies definitely should be considered “homemade” and “from scratch.”

We used a Betty Crocker mix in a pouch. Since I had to crack an egg and measure some oil, and then do a fair amount of stirring with a wooden spoon, there’s no doubt in my mind the procedure was homemade, no matter what the purists say. By the way, the cookies came out perfect.
You may think that bragging about baking cookies for the first time in my life is quite ridiculous. Well, you’re right. But just remember, before we know it, the Christmas season will arrive. You won’t be saying it’s ridiculous when the newly crowned Kookie King delivers a few dozen Snickerdoodles to your house.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Will Absence Make Our Hearts Grow Fonder?

Have you ever noticed the minute something is forbidden, our desire for that certain something skyrockets? For example, a few years ago I decided to give up donuts for Lent. The moment I woke up on Ash Wednesday morning, I didn’t simply think a donut would be a nice addition to my breakfast of Cheerios and a banana. Instead I had a craving for an entire box of 12 donuts, with very specific choices required. (Buttercrunch, chocolate-frosted chocolate, and blueberry glaze were at the top of the list.)

I suppose there is a psychological explanation of why our desire for something increases when it is not available anymore. Maybe that old expression explains it: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Hopefully, Catholics are feeling exactly this way during the COVID-19 pandemic. (No, I don’t mean a craving for donuts. That’s not a very healthy desire, regardless of a person’s religion.)

What I’m referring to is the fact it’s been quite a while now that we have been unable to gather as parish communities in our churches for Mass and receive the Eucharist. I hope there are some Catholics who may have been going through the motions for many years, taking Sunday Mass and the Eucharist for granted, and now that this crucial act of worship is forbidden, they have developed a strong urge to gather with fellow believers and receive the true Body and Blood of Christ.

Wouldn’t it be great if a byproduct of this health crisis is a revival in Eucharistic devotion? Wouldn’t it be great if an absence of Communion truly makes our hearts grow fonder to partake of the sacraments?

I sincerely hope that is the case. However, I am a little concerned about one aspect of our response to the coronavirus emergency. When all public gatherings were prohibited by government officials, and social distancing measures were employed, our bishops wisely suspended public Masses. After all, this nasty respiratory illness is very contagious, and the virus can be transmitted by people doing normal breathing within four or five feet of each other. A church building packed with Easter Sunday worshippers would be the ideal scenario for the disease to spread like wildfire.
The bishops clearly explained that in times of emergency, when the sacraments are not available, if people sincerely desire to receive the graces conferred by the Eucharist, Confession, and the Anointing of the Sick, they in fact will receive those graces. After all, God is much more concerned about mercy and compassion than He is about exact liturgical procedures.

But here’s my concern: when some parishioners asked if it was possible to receive the Eucharist and go to Confession, as long as careful hygienic and social distancing practices were followed, the bishops flat-out said no. Maybe they were concerned that if they made exceptions, some people would not follow careful health practices and end up getting infected.

The thing is, places such as Walmart and liquor stores are open for business, and as long as customers wear masks and keep their distance from each other, they can purchase, for example, tube socks and vodka. But churches are not open for business, and faithful Catholics cannot partake of the Sacraments, no matter how careful they are. Some people conclude this means tube socks and vodka are more important than the Body of Christ.
I fear that some Catholics, rather than have the absence of the Eucharist make their hearts grow fonder for Christ, will interpret this situation to mean Mass attendance and the Eucharist are not a big deal after all. I hope this is not the case.

When churches finally re-open, and we can worship with our parish family and received the Eucharist again, let’s pray that absence has indeed made our hearts grow fonder. And let’s demonstrate by our actions that the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, is much more important than tube socks, vodka, or even a box of 12 luscious donuts.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is He a Hoarder or a Prepper?

Recently I was involved in a discussion about hoarders vs. preppers. Certain people have accused me of having hoarder tendencies because I like to have at least a month’s worth of food stored in the basement.

By the way, I didn’t start thinking this way because of the current COVID-19 crisis, with all those bare shelves in supermarkets and frequent news reports about disruptions to the food supply chains. I’ve felt this way for many years. It’s not “hoarding.” It’s the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”
During an emergency — caused by weather or war or pandemic — I’d much rather live off of the cans of baked beans and Spaghetti-Os in my basement than be in the middle of a food riot behind a National Guard truck, where soldiers are trying to distribute Army surplus rations to a mob of desperate citizens.

That scenario might be a tad paranoid, but it’s not a hoarder’s mentality. I looked up the definition of “hoarding,” and it is a psychological disorder that compels a person to collect items that are not very valuable or useful, such as every edition of the New York Times since 1977, or every pair of shoes the person has ever owned since the 4th grade.

To the hoarder, the items are valuable, even though to the rest of the world it’s a pile of junk. Hoarding is usually quite disorganized and creates a dirty and unhealthy environment. The hoarder has no intent of ever sharing his “treasure” with anyone else.

Preppers, on the other hand, stockpile items that are useful during an emergency. Of course, eating baked beans and Spaghetti-Os every day during, say, an ice storm that paralyzes the state for weeks, is not much fun. But it’s a whole lot better than starving. And to certain people who can’t stand canned food, let me remind you of an undeniable fact of life: when a person is famished, EVERYTHING tastes great.
Unlike a hoarder, a prepper’s supply is usually very organized and clean. And most importantly, preppers often make plans to share their goods with other people if an emergency situation happens. In my case, if a food crisis ever occurs, my neighbors are more than welcome to help me enjoy a cold can of Hormel chili and some warm root beer.

Now, it’s important to make a few observations. First, there certainly are preppers who go way overboard. Stockpiling ten year’s worth of food and fuel, plus enough firearms and ammunition to storm the beaches at Normandy, might be overdoing it a bit. (Some folks will note this behavior is obviously paranoid, right up until the moment a major crisis occurs. Then the behavior is brilliant.)

Also, I don’t deny having mild hoarding tendencies when it comes to ballpoint pens and baseball hats. I like to think of them as “my special collections,” and if that’s a somewhat delusional view, at least they don’t take up as much space as a four-decade pile of New York Times.
Finally, making preparations for an emergency has to be done before the emergency occurs. A lot of people decided to become preppers back in March and April, AFTER the supermarket supplies were low. Keep this in mind when things return to normal (whatever the new “normal” turns out to be).

In the hoarders vs. preppers discussion, there is one item that is useful and has no expiration date, but if people stockpile a lot of it, they are definitely hoarders. That item is toilet paper. Even though I never thought to stock up on toilet paper until the store shelves were bare, I’m not worried. I can always use my large pile of New York Times.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Missing My Fellow Parishioners

Well, it’s been about two months since we’ve been unable to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments. For the first couple of weeks, it was an interesting adventure, as my wife and I set up the living room on Sunday morning to participate in the Mass on TV. We arranged a couple of chairs and got some foam padding to kneel on. I had the Scripture readings on my iPad so we could read along, and receiving the graces of a spiritual communion was a fairly positive experience.

Then Holy Week and Easter Sunday arrived, and participating in the services and liturgies via the television stopped being an interesting adventure. It turned into what this entire coronavirus crisis has become: a completely frustrating and infuriating ordeal with no end in sight.
When Holy Week arrived, and the truth of this situation really set in, I shook my head and muttered, “Be careful what you wish for, pal.” You see, my wife and I are members of our parish choir, and Holy Week is the most grueling part of the entire year. We have extra and more intense rehearsals leading up to Holy Week, and then we sing in church on Holy Thursday night, Good Friday afternoon, Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, and finally Easter Sunday morning Mass. By the time we stagger out of church on Sunday morning after the 9:30 Mass, all I want to do is go home and sleep for four days, since my brain and my throat are completely fried.

So, back in the winter, when we started working on Easter music about 20 minutes after the Christmas season ended, I thought to myself, “This is such a grind. Maybe I should take a leave of absence from the choir and skip Easter this year.”

Guess what? I got my wish. I haven’t had to sing a single note for three months now. This calls to mind my copywritten observation: “Silence is never off key,” which is kind of the way I approach those notes that are not in my three-quarters of an octave range. I figure lip-synching is much more preferred to screeching or growling the wrong note.
On Easter Sunday morning, while watching Mass on TV in my living room, my eyes welled up with tears. At that moment I would’ve given anything to be crammed into the choir loft, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other sweaty songsters, and joyously belting out “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” in four-part harmony. (Or if I forget which note I’m supposed to sing, five-part cacophony.)

I’m not a particularly touchy-feely, huggy-huggy kind of guy. But this social distancing thing is getting to me. I am really craving the opportunity to hug my daughters and sons-in-law, along with all my other relatives. And I really long to see my fellow choir members and parishioners, and yes, even give them a hug, too.

As soon as “Mass on TV only” became the new normal, I felt a deep desire for the Eucharist. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized I also miss being in the presence of other people in the parish.

This situation reminds me of the words of one of my favorite Old Testament prophets, Joni Mitchell, who said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
I like to think that I haven’t taken the Mass for granted for many years. After all, I wrote a small book called “Is the Real Presence Really Real?” and I’ve given parish talks on the subject. However, if I’m honest with myself, I definitely have taken Mass for granted. And now after many weeks of no Mass (with who knows how many more weeks or months to go), Joni Mitchell’s words ring true: I never understood how much the Eucharistic celebration and my fellow parishioners meant to me until it was all taken away.

Surely the day will come when we can return to normal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch Mass on TV and miss my friends. But don’t worry, once we can go to Mass again, I won’t sing any Joni Mitchell songs. Her voice is way too high and out of my range.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Will Hand-Shaking Be the New Smoking?

Well, what should we talk about this week? I know! How about a topic we haven’t addressed in quite a while (except for every single week since mid-March): the COVID-19 crisis? Better known as the “I-want-my-old-life-back” crisis.

As this surreal situation drags on and on, to the point where we’re now saying, “Only 5 million people filed for unemployment last week? Hey, we’re flattening the curve!” it’s hard not to talk about the coronavirus health emergency, since it has impacted every facet of our lives.

I was thinking about the effect of this situation the other day while watching some old movies. The first movie was “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart, playing the role of a New Yorker who opens a saloon in Morocco during World War II, after numerous adventures, especially in Paris. The other movie was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” starring Audrey Hepburn, playing the role of a Texas farm girl who becomes a New York City socialite in the early 1960s, after numerous adventures, presumably at finishing school in London. (Or maybe that’s how people from Texas actually speak?)
Anyway, while watching these movies, I noticed that everyone — including the parrot and the cat — smoked cigarettes incessantly. I mean, they were lighting up all the time. Our culture has changed drastically regarding smoking since then. Of course, many people these days still smoke, but it’s not as widespread as it was when those films were made. When we see that kind of behavior in old movies, we’re shocked — shocked! — that smoking was so ubiquitous. (Almost as shocked as seeing an Engineering Sales guy use the word “ubiquitous” correctly in a sentence.)

After enjoying those films, I watched a replay of an old Red Sox game. It was opening day, 2005, and since they won the World Series the previous fall, before the game started, all the players came out of the dugout, one by one, to receive their championship rings. After getting the ring, each player proceeded to shake hands with and hug every single other guy who was on the field. The ubiquitosity of the hand-shaking and hugging was unbelievable. (Yeah, that’s more like it, Mr. Engineering Sales fella.)

While watching this, I said to myself, “I’m shocked — shocked! — that our society once condoned so much personal touching.”
Back in the 1960s, the tide against smoking turned when the Surgeon General required warning labels on every pack of cigarettes. I expect the Surgeon General soon will required the back of everyone’s right hand to be tattooed with a black rectangular box. Inside will be written this message: “WARNING: Hand Shaking May Cause Death.”

A few weeks ago, I asked this question in one of my columns: “Who will you hug first when the ‘all clear’ is sounded?” For some reason, I envisioned this COVID-19 crisis as having a specific end date, where one day we’ll be hunkering behind closed doors, and then the next morning a horn will blare and we’ll stream into the streets and start partying, like those iconic photos of Times Square when World War II ended. (And everyone was smoking.)
It’s not going to happen that way. There will be a long, gradual and tentative resumption of normal activities. During this time, most people still will wear face masks, and there will be very little hand-shaking and hugging. Partying in Times Square is definitely out of the question.

I think for a very long time, probably years into the future, when we see people shake hands and hug, we’re going to cringe, the way we would if we saw someone light up a cigarette on an airplane. To be honest, this makes me sad. I need a hug.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Scandal of Exclusivity

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus makes this stunning statement: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This declaration causes many people to become angry, especially folks who embrace the modern philosophy of relativism. (Or as Pope Benedict rightfully called it, the “Dictatorship of relativism.”)

The heart of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the true source of salvation. This claim of exclusivity makes people livid in our modern society. “How dare you say your religion is the absolute truth?!” people demand of Christians. “That’s so arrogant. That’s so, so… INTOLERANT!”

In the modern, relativistic view, there is no such thing as absolute truth. Truth is subjective, nothing more than personal opinion. Relativists insist it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. (Which should be the first hint that relativism has some logical holes you could drive a truck through.)
The fact is, truth is NOT relative. There is only one correct answer to the question, “How much is two plus two?” And there is only one correct answer to the question, “Did Jesus physically rise from the dead?” Just because the second question is more difficult to determine does not mean there is no correct answer.

There are two important points to keep in mind. First, Christians did not decide that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus Himself said it. If the idea really bothers people, they need to take it up with Him, not us.

Second, Jesus’ teachings may not be quite as offensive and intolerant as some people think. Jesus said that He is the only Way. But He did not say a particular religious system is the only Way.

At this point, I’ll let an expert take over. Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. In his book Every Thing You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven, he asks the question, “What subjective relationship must one have with Jesus in order to be on the right Way? Are there ‘anonymous Christians’? Are Hindus, Buddhists…and atheists saved too?”
Kreeft goes on the explain that although we cannot know for sure, the answer seems to be yes, indicated by New Testament passages such as “Saint Paul’s sermon to the Athenians about the Unknown God they were already worshiping, and his affirmation in Romans of a universal natural knowledge of God from nature and conscience.”

Before you conclude that Kreeft is a mushy “whatever feels right is right” kind of theologian, he also says, “Jesus as the ‘One Way’ is not sectarian human invention, but clear divine revelation. If ‘One Way’ is bigotry, then it is Jesus Who is the bigot. He smacks us full in the face with the stark either-or of acceptance or rejection. No side roads….But we do not know whether this One Way is or is not present anonymously where He is not named and known clearly.”

Dr. Kreeft is not trying to evade the issue, nor is he trying to define Truth so broadly it loses all meaning. He is simply “thinking outside the box” (something Jesus did constantly in the Gospels).
Maybe someone who seeks the Truth is really seeking Jesus, although He is temporarily anonymous. Kreeft finds nothing wrong in saying, “Saint Socrates pray for us,” since the ancient Greek philosopher (who lived before the time of Christ) doggedly sought the Truth.

This surely won’t please the relativists among us (hardly anything does), but it may give us a better understanding of how Jesus can be so exclusive, and at the same time so inclusive that He offers salvation to the whole world.