Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Quote of the Day

"Lent is a time of renewal for the whole Church, for each community and every believer. Above all it is a "time of grace" (2Cor 6:2). God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. "We love because he first has loved us" (1Jn 4:19). He is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him."

--Pope Francis 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Tribute to an American Catholic Hero

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the most famous photograph in U.S. military history and one of the greatest photographs of all time. As is generally known, it was taken by Joseph Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, on February 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, a key turning point in World War II. The photo, which immediately drew widespread admiration and acclaim and won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, depicts six Marine soldiers erecting a large American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in the western Pacific. I have been familiar with this stirring image since childhood, but only recently have I come to grasp its full significance thanks to James Bradley's epic masterpiece Flags of Our Fathers.

Based on extensive interviews with dozens of war veterans and surviving relatives of the flag-raisers, this accurate and brilliantly written chronicle published by Bantam in 2000 (which was also made into a movie of the same name) places the famous photo in its proper context by telling the true stories of the young men who raised the flag and providing the essential background details that led up to that dramatic moment. And James Bradley is an amazingly gifted storyteller. Reading this engrossing book--which almost didn't get written, because the author's heroic father himself narrowly escaped death in battle and refused to discuss his wartime experiences with his family--has given me a whole new understanding of, and appreciation for, this unique photograph, which almost didn't get taken because someone else had already photographed the first flag-raising on the Suribachi summit two hours earlier and the press photographers, including Rosenthal, didn't know there was going to be a second flag-raising and had to scramble to document it.

I might never have read Flags of Our Fathers had I not stumbled across it on a bookshelf during a casual browse at my local Goodwill thrift store last summer. When I discovered it and saw what it was—a classic hardcover in good shape, with the instantly recognizable photo of the Stars and Stripes being raised gracing the elegant white, blue and gold dust jacket—I felt lucky. I had found a lost jewel, a discarded treasure. Fourteen years ago when it first came out, Flags of Our Fathers was a New York Times bestseller, and now here it was on a Goodwill bookshelf, unwanted and rejected, available for just two dollars. I wondered why someone had decided to get rid of it. Perhaps, for some reason or other, the previous owner no longer recognized its value. Maybe he (or she) no longer appreciated the heroic sacrifices of our men in uniform several generations ago on a distant island in the Western Pacific. Maybe the previous owner had lost interest in U.S. military history. Or perhaps he or she had died and left the book behind for someone else to treasure and enjoy. In any case, once I opened Flags of Our Fathers and began reading, it was hard to put down and stop thinking about. As a result of this serendipitous discovery and what I have learned from reading this remarkable book, I find myself in total agreement with G. K. Chesterton that "Everything has been saved from a wreck." (PLEASE NOTE: As can be expected with any frank discussion of U.S. military history, Flags of Our Fathers does contain graphic descriptions of war violence along with some language and anecdotes that are less than edifying. However, the latter amount to minor detractions from an otherwise magnificent work that I heartily recommend to adult readers.)

With its candidly detailed biographies of the six flag-raisers, its nostalgically vivid portrait of early to mid-twentieth-century America, and its gripping minute-by-minute account of the nearly impossible invasion and conquest of the most heavily fortified island in military history, Flags of Our Fathers is certainly a fitting tribute to the self-sacrificing heroism of our nation's Marines in World War II and to the religious and moral values that made America great. But in addition to that, it offers a compelling and beautiful witness to the power of our Catholic faith and its essential role in American life. The book reveals that the author's beloved father, John Henry Bradley (1923-1994)--the one flag-raiser whose profile is clearly visible in the center of the photograph and the only one who lived to see his grandchildren--was a lifelong, devout practicing Catholic whose entire military and civilian life was dedicated to the humble service of others. I was particularly edified to read of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which included praying the Rosary daily and calling on her assistance in times of need. 

As a husband, father of eight children, and funeral home director in his postwar years, John Bradley enjoyed an excellent reputation as a quiet and respectable family man both in and beyond his small Catholic hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin. He had never intended to join the Marines or end up in combat on a distant overseas island. As a young man during World War II, he initially trained and served as a Navy medic here in the States but was then unexpectedly transferred into Easy Company, the ironically named Marine contingent that sailed across the Pacific to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima under heavy Japanese fire in February 1945. American forces suffered more casualties in the one-month invasion and conquest of that tiny island than in any other battle of the entire War. During that fierce and grueling struggle, Navy corpsman John Bradley risked his life over and over again to tend wounded Marines. He was awarded a Navy Cross for his valor. In his humility--and also because of the tragic horrors he witnessed during the battle--he kept that prestigious award hidden in a box in his closet for the remainder of his life, turned down all interview requests from journalists, and never discussed his famous role in the flag-raising on Iwo Jima with his family members or anyone else in town. He adamantly refused to allow his subsequent civilian life to be defined by what he sincerely considered his undeserved status as a military celebrity.

Regardless of the accolades showered upon him by the U.S. government, media, and public throughout the forty-nine years of his life as a war veteran, John Bradley never thought of himself as a hero for helping five Marines to raise a large American flag on a makeshift pole on an island mountaintop in the Western Pacific. He had simply done it because it was his duty to pitch in and give his buddies a hand, unaware that this simple action would be immortalized in a chance photograph and that he would be at the center of that photograph. He felt that he did not deserve such fame because so many of his Marine buddies, who had served just as valiantly and faithfully as he on Iwo Jima, had made the ultimate sacrifice without ever receiving comparable recognition since their deaths on the island went largely unreported by the media in the weeks following the flag-raising. When his family pressed him to discuss the matter of the flag-raising, the most he ever said about it was that the real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn’t come back.

Yet it is precisely his profound humility and his constant deflection of attention away from himself that clearly identifies John Henry Bradley as a genuine American hero. Even if we agree with him in admitting that his celebrity status as a flag-raiser may have been somewhat exaggerated during his lifetime, his true heroism lay in his quiet, untiring, selfless, everyday dedication to the service of his country and his fellow men and women. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that, as a faithful Catholic throughout his life, John Bradley was--and is--a true hero of the Catholic Church and a role model for lay Catholics around the world. But despite his impeccable credentials as a candidate for sainthood, his life of heroic virtue has yet to receive any official acknowledgement from the Church. It is my sincere hope that this beautiful example of everyday holiness will not remain hidden under a bushel basket, or simply be ignored and forgotten like that magnificent book on a Goodwill shelf. With a number of John Bradley’s relatives and friends still alive today, I strongly believe that his cause for canonization should be introduced without further delay. And I hope and pray that his talented son James Bradley, who has been away from the Church for many years, will one day rediscover the priceless gift of the Catholic faith given to him by his saintly father.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Quote of the Day

"To return to the Lord 'with all your heart' (Joel 2:12) means to undertake the journey of a conversion that is not superficial and transitory, but a spiritual itinerary that concerns the most intimate place of our person. The heart, in fact, is the seat of our sentiments, the center in which our choices and our attitudes mature....

"This effort of conversion is not only a human work. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his Only-begotten Son. In fact, Christ, who was just and without sin, was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21) when on the cross he was burdened with our sins, and in this way rescued and justified us before God. 'In him' we can become just, in Him we can change, if we receive God’s grace and do not let the 'favorable moment' pass in vain (6:2).

"With this awareness, we begin our Lenten itinerary confident and joyful. May Mary Immaculate support our spiritual battle against sin, accompany us in this favorable moment, so that we can come to sing together the exultance of the victory in the Easter of Resurrection."

--Pope Francis

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Son of God" Missed the Mark

by Justin Soutar

One year ago, Hollywood film director Christopher Spencer and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey saddled us with Son of God, a disappointingly banal and inaccurate feature presentation on the life of Jesus Christ. Based quite loosely on the biblical accounts of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, this 138-minute film offers a barely tolerable portrayal of most of the significant events while making mincemeat of the details. Although many Jesus films of the past century--out of reverence for Christ’s divinity--made him seem too distant, introverted and otherworldly, with Son of God the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme of presenting Christ as too ordinary, casual, and extroverted. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado’s fresh and engaging portrayal of Christ as a warmly human, joyful and self-confident figure admittedly has some appeal, but this performance sacrifices historical accuracy and reverence for Christ’s divine dignity to on-screen likeability. Fidelity to the Gospel texts was obviously not a major concern of the filmmakers here; apparently, they were more afraid of making Christ appear trite or cliché. The result is a pathetically mediocre film that doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Jesus of Nazareth (1977) or The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Focusing mainly on His public ministry and Passion, Son of God attempts to portray the life of Christ retrospectively through the eyes of an older Apostle John, living out his final years in exile on Patmos as he writes his famous Gospel and the Apocalypse (Revelation). As the film opens, we hear the stirring Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18), and as it concludes, we listen to the final words of the Apocalypse (22:6-21). The film’s title is a recurring theme throughout John’s Gospel, appearing six times in all (John 1:34, 3:18, 5:25, 11:27, 19:7, and 20:31); it’s also found in several places in the Synoptic Gospels. In the film, when Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is, Peter replies, “You are the Son of God” (cf. Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). Taken together, these texts and the theme that resonates through them form a solid theological foundation on which a truly great film could have been built.

As a major studio production distributed by 20th Century FOX, Son of God didn’t live up to the grand religious, historical, and artistic expectations its makers deliberately generated within its mass-market audience. The film is plagued by a variety of issues, chief of which is Morgado’s superficial performance that doesn’t accurately reflect the Jesus of the Gospels. Throughout most of the movie, Christ comes off as too breezy and carefree, too “hip” and trendy, his casual, laid-back attitude failing to reflect the seriousness of his divine mission to save fallen humanity. In the name of making the Person of Jesus more accessible to a contemporary audience, Morgado’s portrayal generally lacks true depth and spirit. Contrast this with Robert Powell’s magnificent performance in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), for example, which--despite some minor flaws and notable artistic liberties--is on the whole much more faithful to the biblical texts.

The tantalizing whirlwind of scenes at the beginning of the film allows the viewer only brief glimpses of Jesus’ nativity and His Baptism in the Jordan as Saint John flashes back to those two pivotal events; then we see the adult Jesus already beginning His public ministry. There is nothing whatsoever of the Annunciation to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, Christ’s Circumcision, His Presentation in the Temple, or His parents’ discovery of Him in the Temple at the age of twelve. I would have liked to see a bit more of Jesus’ Birth and Baptism, as well as something of His conception and early life, if only for the sake of character and story development.

Christ’s three-year public ministry in Son of God also flashes by the viewer more quickly than expected. About a dozen fairly short scenes of the best-known events in Our Lord’s life—some from John’s Gospel and some from the other Gospels—are stitched together to achieve this undesirable effect; then all of a sudden, Jesus is triumphantly entering Jerusalem as the Messiah. With so much having been skipped altogether, the somewhat befuddled viewer is left with the impression that Our Lord’s public life has been significantly over-edited. For instance, there is nothing of the wedding at Cana, Christ’s discussion with the Samaritan woman, or His healing of the man born blind, all of which are recorded in John’s Gospel and certainly worthy of this type of film. (Scenes of Christ’s temptations were reportedly cut from the film because the actor for Satan looked too much like Barack Obama.)

 By contrast, the events of Holy Week, which collectively occupy as much or more on-screen time as the core of Jesus’ ministry, are drawn out and slow to unfold, albeit with insufficient emphasis on some of the key parts of the story. Judas and the high priests seem to take forever to get around to actually betraying and arresting Christ; Pilate’s wife’s prophetic dream occurs several days before Jesus’ arrest; Pilate threatens the Jews with stern measures should a revolt take place on the eve of Passover. But then, once they finally come, scenes of two important climactic events long anticipated by the viewer—the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden—turn out to be disappointingly brief.

The novel presentation of Jesus’ life and ministry in Son of God is accomplished through excessive use of artistic license. In a few scenes, such as Jesus climbing into Peter’s boat and the calling of Matthew, this device arguably enhances the film. But as a rule, the wacky liberties taken clearly detract from the presentation: the paralytic comes crashing through the roof almost by himself; Christ ventures inside the tomb to bring Lazarus out; he foretells the destruction of the Temple with casual glee; he abruptly exits the Upper Room after the Last Supper, leaving His frightened disciples behind (we get barely a sentence or two of the beautiful Farewell Discourse that takes up several chapters of John’s Gospel). And in the name of freshness and relevance, the words coming out of Jesus’ mouth are typically a loose postmodern rendering of what the Gospels record. The obvious banality of this style is inconsistent with the true figure of Christ as handed down to us by biblical tradition.

Another drawback to this film is a somewhat inadequate movie set. The ubiquitous stark white background scenery leaves something to be desired, both from an artistic and a historical point of view. Most of the scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the five thousand men plus women and children—both of which actually took place on the grassy shores of the Sea of Galilee—were filmed in a barren desert of rocky slopes and cliffs where hardly a smidgeon of greenery is to be found to relieve the sameness. A few palm trees are visible in one or two of the scenes, but the film cries out for a bit more of that color. Also, the special effects employed are not quite up to par, with the dark shots of Jerusalem in particular looking fake, which further detracts from the overall viewing experience.

Where Son of God actually comes close to excelling is in its portrayal of the Passion and death of Christ from His arrest to His crucifixion. This owes not so much to the genius of the filmmakers as to the overwhelming influence of Mel Gibson’s timeless masterpiece The Passion of the Christ, which set a new standard of historical accuracy for all subsequent film depictions of this world-changing event. However, the producers, director and cast of Son of God do deserve some credit for achieving a decent blend of realism, artistic license, and special effects in this portion of the film. Whereas the brutally graphic depiction of Our Lord’s sufferings in Gibson’s film demanded an R rating, Christ’s Passion in Son of God is a bit less intense to make the PG-13 grade. Nonetheless, the latter presentation is quite gripping and moving, closely following the biblical account in almost every detail, with the quality of Morgado’s performance resulting in a fairly memorable viewing experience—a notable exception to the rest of the film.

Obviously, the makers and marketers of Son of God already knew what Mel Gibson discovered ten years earlier: a large twenty-first century movie audience exists that is hungry for good religious fare. But whereas Gibson sacrificed and risked everything to make an all-time great film regardless of criticism, controversy, and potential failure—a film that actually became a record-breaking hit--Spencer and his crew appear to have aimed straight for popularity and box-office returns, paying lip service to religious and historical truth while eschewing the fine craftsmanship necessary to produce a work of enduring value. Their film didn’t qualify as good religious fare, so it didn’t satisfy the hunger of the movie audience. Its glaring lack of historical and biblical accuracy offends the sensibilities of Christian believers while offering a rather misleading depiction of Christ to potential believers. If the aim was to make a great, powerfully moving, and unforgettable Jesus film that tens of millions of people will enjoy for decades to come, Son of God definitely missed the mark. If you still haven’t seen this movie, don’t waste your time or money on it. You’re better off reading your Bible and sticking to older classic films on the life of Christ until the next truly great Jesus movie comes along.

Copyright © 2015 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Quote of the Day

"There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation....

"The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the "outskirts" of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: "Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners" (Lk 5:31-32)."

--Pope Francis

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Abraham Lincoln: Defender of Truth and Justice

Today we Americans celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, one of the most respected and admired presidents in the history of our nation. Lincoln's greatness lay in his deep religious faith, his solid moral principles, and his honesty and integrity of character. Relying on these qualities, and with the aid of Divine Providence, he successfully guided our country through the stormy period of the Civil War, preserving the Union from disintegration and laying the foundation for a more just American society in which the civil rights of all human persons would be protected by law.

Lincoln knew that slavery was widely practiced and financially profitable, but he also knew that it was gravely unjust, and--for that reason alone--it had to be abolished. Deep within his heart and mind, he knew the truth about the evil of slavery, so he courageously spoke the truth about it and took concrete action as president to rid America of this social scourge. He was not a very good public speaker, but he spoke the truth and stuck to his principles. He did not compromise those principles for the sake of political advantage or out of fear of offending wealthy Southern slave owners. He did not surrender to discouragement over the difficulties he faced in attempting to eradicate an entrenched custom of southern American life. On the contrary, Lincoln stood firm in proclaiming the truth about the grave injustice of slavery and in his determination to make it illegal. At a time of national crisis, he put forth a vision for America of a re-united land in which every person born and raised would be a free citizen regardless of his or her race, skin color, or nationality. And that truth and that vision resonated with the American people, who sent Abraham Lincoln to the White House in 1860 and again in 1864. The results were the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves free; the Union's victory in the Civil War, which restored American unity; and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which permanently outlawed slavery in the U.S. Although he paid the price of assassination for his courageous leadership and one hundred more years would elapse before his vision would be fully realized, Lincoln's legacy as a great civil rights pioneer and as a national hero is beyond dispute.

With his firm stand on basic principles of justice and natural law, Lincoln offers an encouraging role model for us twenty-first century Americans who are active in the pro-life, pro-marriage, and religious liberty movements of our own day. We who are fighting to protect the basic human rights to life and liberty and to preserve the traditional definition of marriage know that abortion is a lucrative business for those involved in it, that deviant sexual behavior has a certain appeal for those involved in it, and that the HHS mandate and ObamaCare are little more than government subsidies for large abortion, pharmaceutical, and insurance companies. But we also know that abortion and the HHS mandate are gravely unjust, while abortion and same-sex "marriage" violate the Creator's natural law, and--for those reasons--these three abominations must be abolished. We know the truth about these evils, so we must courageously speak the truth about them and take decisive action to rid our country of them. We must not compromise these principles for the sake of temporary political advantages or out of fear of offending radical secularists. And we must not surrender to discouragement by settling for restrictions on abortion or temporary court injunctions against the HHS mandate. On the contrary, we must stand firm in proclaiming the truth about the grave injustice and evil of abortion, homosexual "marriage," and the HHS mandate, and stand firm in our determination to abolish them. And we must put forth a vision for America of a land where every unborn child is protected by law; where marriage is always the union of a man and a woman; and where religious liberty flourishes. That truth and that vision will resonate with the American people, and notwithstanding predictable attempts to do them in, the three great civil rights movements of our time will ultimately achieve their long-sought victories.

Today, thanks to the godless and corrupt leadership of President Barack Obama, our nation is once again in grave crisis, more divided than at any time since the Civil War. We could use another president like Lincoln, a true leader--someone of deep Christian faith, solid moral principles, and honesty and integrity of character--someone who could unite and heal our country, someone who knows how to speak to people's hearts and articulate a clear vision for America. In a few months, I will offer my own endorsement for just such a candidate for president of the United States.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Quote of the Day

"The Gospel is the word of life: it does not oppress people, on the contrary, it frees those who are enslaved by so many evil spirits in this world: vanity, the attachment to money, pride, sensuality…The Gospel changes the heart, the Gospel changes the heart! It changes life; it transforms the inclination to evil to resolutions of good. The Gospel is capable of changing the hearts of the people. Therefore it is the duty of Christians to spread everywhere the redeeming power, becoming missionaries and heralds of the Word of God."

--Pope Francis