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Friday, September 28, 2012

Catholics, the Ryan Plan and Our Brother's Keeper...

Ever since Paul Ryan was chosen by Mitt Romney to be his vice presidential running mate, there's been an onslaught of scrutiny, and outright criticism, by some Catholics, especially from a group of nuns that have gone on a bus tour campaigning against him, as to whether Ryan, a self described practicing Catholic, is being true to his faith in his controversial budget plan. (although to be fair, Nancy Pelosi refers to herself as a practicing Catholic too, while openly rejecting the teachings of the Church on abortion, artificial contraception, and the definition of marriage, just to name a few)

Ryan takes the heat because, unlike the current vice president, Joe Biden, who is also Catholic but prefers to keep his faith personal and not bring it into the public square, as if a person of faith can separate one from the other, he is open about his beliefs and is willing to walk the uncomfortable line between faith and politics. 

Therefore, for months, as Romney's choice (and even before), Ryan has been hammered by Liberal Catholics, who, in an effort to discredit him among unengaged Catholic voters (and sadly, considering only 25% of Catholics go to Mass on Sundays, there are many of us!), say his plan betrays the Church's teachings on providing for the poor and needy.

I recently came across this very well produced and simple explanation of "Ryanism" and its relation to Catholic social teachings, which Ryan himself says formed the basis for his budget plan.

The point is that we are all morally responsible for one another, as President Obama so often points out (in reference to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible), we are our "brothers keepers."  But, the false assumption is that it's the government's responsibility.

There is a difference between a "preferential option for the poor," which the Church teaches protects the dignity of a person by helping lift him or herself out of poverty, and the "preferential option for the State," which could create dependency and may deprive a person of their dignity by becoming a ward of the state.

Besides, what virtue is there for a government or someone else to do what I should do myself?

The problem, as Catholic blogger Matthew Warner points out, is that unfortunately we, because of human nature, are often looking for an easy way out.
It doesn't take much to convince us that hard problems are somebody else's responsibility. So when we are faced with really tough problems in our communities, it's easy to convince us that a higher order of the social structure should probably handle this. And that may be true in some cases. But I fear too often this really means a particular problem is "inconvenient for us and we'd rather not do this ourselves." Let's let the government fix this for us so we don't have to be so inconvenienced and get our hands dirty.
And, so we vote, pay taxes and empower an ill-equipped government to do *our* job for us so we can slap ourselves on the back and sleep well at night knowing that we are "standing up for the least among us." Meanwhile, the problems don't get fixed and the poor are not treated with the dignity they deserve. That is not Solidarity or Subsidiarity. It's laziness and irresponsibility.
That's not to say that the federal government (or higher levels of government or social structure in general) shouldn't be involved in helping to solve some of these problems. But the key part that we miss is that such involvement from government does not replace our own personal involvement in helping to solve such problems. Government involvement depends upon our personal involvement. It's there to assist our involvement (when we truly need it), not to replace it.
But in the final analysis, as the video suggests, for me, as a Catholic voter, I will have to decide whether to cast my vote for candidates who openly support policies that I know the Church considers "intrinsic evils," like abortion, or candidates, who I may agree or disagree with on certain "prudential judgement" matters, like budget cuts and entitlements, but agree with on the Church's "non-negotiable" issues.

At least for me, the choice is clear...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Words of Wisdom from St. Ignatius of Loyola...

"Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you."

-- St. Ignatius of Loyala, 16th Century soldier turned priest, scholar and theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus (aka Jesuits); an order referred to as "God's Marines," for accepting to live in extreme conditions anywhere in the world for the sake of the Kingdom of God...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Marriage, a Spartan Race and The Lord of the Rings...

Stretching after a rigorous workout...
Sunday morning, as I wiped the sweat beads off my forehead with the broadside of my thumb, like a wiper across a windshield, I took a quick look at my watch and noticed we were only halfway through the hour-long boot camp training session we had started. 

It was a typical humid and sticky 90-degrees-weather day in South Florida and I was drenched. Sweat was pouring out of me like, I  imagine, it poured out from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just before He got arrested.  And I thought with dread, we still had another half an hour left!

It had been a grueling first half hour of burpees (which until recently, I thought was just the gas build up my children got after drinking Similac as babies or what I get while having beer!), sprints, jumps, squats, leg lunges and one of those agility ladders that gets placed on the ground and you have to take two steps in each square as you work your way forward and sideways on the way back.

We had finished one time through the six-station circuit and were catching our breaths before running a couple of laps and starting a second time around and I was already hurting. One of the guys in our group had already dropped out and I was trying mightily to keep from joining him.

I should have known we were going to be in for a treacherous workout, when the trainer, who trained soldiers for ultimate cage fighting at Ft. Hood, showed up looking like Captain America, but built more like Thor, sans the golden shoulder length locks on his head, in The Avengers movie.

In fact, as I stood there huffing and puffing in mid-workout, I remembered the distress in my seven-year-old daughter’s face, when my wife showed her a You Tube video of the Super Spartan Race we had signed up to run in February. She started crying in horror, “Daddy is going to die!,” a haunting thought that, as I started thinking about the second half of the workout, I was hoping would not be prophetic.

My wife kept asking me, “How are you doing?” and then added, “Stop if you don’t feel well.” Sure, show concern after getting me into this pickle, I thought.

“Fine,” I answered unconvincingly.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, my wife is in amazing shape. For years, she has been trying to get me to join her in marathons, half-marathons and triathlons that she has participated in.  "Maintain God's Temple," she often tells me; only to have me sneer and and blow off the suggestion as too ridiculous to even consider.    

So, when she talked to me about the Super Spartan Race, which she had been talking to a friend of mine about doing as a team and is basically an 8-mile obstacle course of running, climbing over walls, going through water, crawling under nets and through tunnels, and burpees, lots and lots of burpees, in February (4 days before my 49th birthday), I almost laughed.

However, wouldn't you know it.  When she approached me, I was in the middle of writing a blog (and ignoring my family!) and, after giving her my typical response, I noticed the dejection on her face as she walked away.

I was overcome with Catholic guilt, one, because I was already treading water for ignoring my kids that night, and two, because I have never given her the satisfaction of having me join her (with the exception of a 5k charity run, which is more up my alley) in a competition that she assured me would be “fun.”

So, as I sat there thinking about what she had asked, and keep in mind that to my daughter (and sometimes my wife) I’m known as “Mr. No,” which tends to be my immediate response to anything, I thought, what’s the worst thing that can happen, I make a fool of myself? I’m already an expert in that.

Frodo couldn't shake him...
Then I thought, did she say February? I have plenty of time! In fact, it may give me a goal to shoot for and finally lose those stubborn last 50 lbs that I have been meaning to lose. First? Last? Who’s counting? Those suckers cling onto me like Gollum, aka Smeagol, clung onto Frodo Baggins to get the Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings. It seems every time, I shed a few pounds, they come right back!
So, with a sense of mission and misguided generosity, I marched into the bedroom, where my wife and kids were watching TV, and announced, “I will do it. Sign me up!”

On Sunday, as we ended our workout, besides feeling like Sam Gamgee after carrying Frodo up the volcano to destroy the ring, I was having more second thoughts than Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has with Heath Bell on the mound closing games and perfectly understood my daughter’s tears and comment when she saw the You Tube video.

But probably even worse was the pain I felt trying to get out of bed over the next few days.  It was so bad that the bottom of my feet hurt. (The trainer told me to make sure my shoes had a good arch and were not older than 6 months old. I told him they were just a tad older; I bought them when my 11-year-old daughter was 4!)  Not good.

And, to think, this was just our first workout.  I still have five more months to look forward to.  The things we do to keep a happy marriage.

Lord help me!…

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

God is Dead? Answering the New Atheists...

For several years, there has been a systematic effort by a group calling itself, "The Four Horsemen of New Atheism," after the characters in the Apocalypse, to eliminate God from all aspects of American life.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and, until his death earlier this year, Christopher Hitchens set out on an aggressive in-your-face campaign of writing books, launching billboard and bus advertisement campaigns, especially during Christmas, and making the rounds on radio and TV shows to get their word out (excuse the pun) that there is no God and that belief and faith, especially Christianity (with a special disdain for the Catholic Church and those who excelled in living their faith, like Mother Theresa), were blinding themselves and intellectually lacking.

You may have of heard of some of their books, like The God Delusion by Dawkins and God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything by Hitchens, which became New York Times best sellers and gave legitimacy to this "New Atheism" movement, which sought to extend outside of the philosophical and theological realms that previous Atheists concentrated on and focused on an overtly mainstream assault, including targeting wider audiences, like the children's fantasy book series turned Hollywood movie, The Golden Compass, written by well-known British Atheist, Philip Pulman, who once admitted in an interview, "My books are about killing God."

Despite having minimal impact on believers per se, in fact, according to the most recent Pew Study on Religion, more people consider themselves believers and, particularly, Christians, in the United States than at any time in history, it has had an affect on the younger generation, which has shown an increase in Atheism and agnosticism, and even in the way God-fearing people think about what truth is.

Moreover, combined with the growing influence of secularism on societal and cultural values, the New Atheists have contributed to this "watering down" of faith and religion, to the point where some Christians reject organized religion wholeheartedly, and have accepted the secular viewpoint that religion is a "personal thing," which should be kept in churches, temples and private homes.

In addition, in recent times, there have been widely accepted arguments against religion, even among some friends on Facebook, such as religion is the greatest cause of war and strife in the world (especially considering the radical movements in some parts of the world today), or that religion is irrational or opposed to science.

Several months ago, Fr. Claude "Dusty" Burns, who goes by the "stage name" of Fr. Pontifex on YouTube helped produce this well made video that basically answers all those who believe, or are influenced by, as 19th Century Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously proclaimed, "God is dead."

But, as Fr. Pontifex makes clear, "It takes a lot more faith to be an atheist than a Christian."...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Despite the Whining, a Lovely Day with my Kids...

Watching the interaction between my children is a never-ending learning experience.

Last weekend, my wife was away at a retreat and I was playing Mr. Mom. In all honesty, I look forward the times I get to spend the weekend with the kids by myself (usually once or twice a year).

In fact, when my oldest daughter told me her friend had invited her to a sleepover on Friday night, I balked. “Why don’t you do it next weekend?” I asked a bit flustered.  She reluctantly told her friend that dad said “no.” (a word that she probably associates as synonymous with me!)

However, unlike past weekends, when I usually set the tone for what we will do and, only ask them to affirm my plans (although, unlike my wife, I usually improvise), this time, as our kids are growing in assertiveness, individuality and independence, I was struck by how difficult it is to get them to agree on anything.

Come to think of it, I would venture to say, it is probably easier to get Mitt Romney, Barak Obama, John Boehner and Harry Reid to get on the same page about fixing the economy, than it is for my three kids to agree as to what they want to do on a given day.  (although that may be a little overstated!)

Saturday I was caught in the midst of this new found discord between them.

After all agreeing to go to breakfast at Einstein’s Bagels, instead of our usual breakfast spot, which is usually my choice because it’s cheap and it’s good (enough), it went downhill from there.

It was like trying to negotiate a plan with the Keystone Cops. When my two younger kids wanted to go to Barnes and Noble, my eleven-year-old daughter didn’t want to go. When my older daughter and son wanted to go to the park, my seven-year-old daughter didn’t want to go. When I suggested going to the swimming pool (which usually gets a rousing consensus), my son wanted to go home and play with his soldiers instead. (So much for my improvisation!)

But since, as the Rolling Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want,” we ended up doing it all.

If she's going to play, might as well think big...
We went to the book store for a little while, until I got tired of my older daughter’s whining. We went to play basketball for a while at the park, where I beat my older daughter 15 to nothing in a game of one-on-one (Abuse, you say? Nonsense, I was teaching her a lesson about having to work hard if she wants to play basketball on a team!).

Anyway, after getting tired of the two little ones complaining about wanting to leave because of the heat and my son saying he was
“bored” (there’s always whining involved), we went home, got into our bathing suits and went to the pool at the athletic club we are members of.  Of course, my oldest daughter refused to get in the water (it wouldn’t have made sense that everyone was enjoying the same activity!) and shortly after getting lunch, and a thunderstorm forcing everyone out of the pool area, we had to go home (soldier play time for my son and UM football and Mets baseball for me!).

However, since God has a great sense of humor, after watching the debacle of both of my teams, we took quick showers and went to dinner at a restaurant, where the highlight was my son’s Batman coloring book falling in a crack between the booth and the wall, which caused a big ruckus (and more whining) at our table and everyone took turns trying to get the book out until I noticed that the booth moved and saved my son’s night.   

That night, after putting them to bed and praying with them, as we do every night, I went to lie down with a sense of fatherly pride and a feeling of “mission accomplished,” considering my wife was getting home the next day, and thought, to paraphrase one of my favorite Bill Withers songs, despite all the whining and conflict between them, it was a lovely day...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Baseball and a Reality Check from My Son...

R.A. Dickey pitched a gem...
Last Friday, my wife and I took the kids to our first baseball game at the new Marlins Park, as a family.

The Marlins were playing my favorite team, the New York Mets, and since I already have my son rooting for the team I grew up cheering for, and I’m trying to cultivate his love for the game, my wife got tickets for us to go.

It was a wonderful time. We spent quality time laughing, eating and enjoying each others’ company.

We explored the new state-of-the-art stadium, looking for that perfect meal (so many choices!). My younger daughter and I shared a bag of peanuts (8 servings; I ate about 7 and a half!). I had to shell out $45 bucks for the obligatory Marlins baseball caps for the kids (that were on sale!). And, on a lesser note, we even watched the Mets win. So, it was a great overall night.

In the late innings, when they asked the crowd to make some noise to try to rally the home team (from a three run deficit), my 5-year-old son turned into one of those fans that you see at stadiums on TV.  You know the ones; shirtless with their faces and bodies painted and screaming at the top of their lungs.  It was as if someone put a coin in his slot. 

And, whatever he was screaming wasn't even discernible.  He was just making noise, as they asked for (He can be very obedient at times!).  It kind of reminded me of the sound the fat kid in The Goonies made when he saw the bald guy with one eye!  Some of the people around us had to turn around to see who the screaming kid was. My wife, daughters and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As a matter of fact, I honestly thought that he was going to hurt his vocal chords.  After telling him that he was going to lose his voice, he scoffed at me, “No I’m not!” and, just like that, he turned around and kept on  yelling, “Aaaaaaaaaa!!!.”

It was hilarious.

Seriously making some noise!...
As I watched his unbridled enthusiasm that night, I couldn't help but think that, maybe, although still early, he was starting to love the game that I love.

I think most men who have ever played organized baseball at one time or another (even if it was in little leagues) dream of their son playing baseball as well.

For me, it's not so much about trying to relive my youth (and frustrated playing career!) through him, as it is practicality. I would love it if he could earn a scholarship to play college baseball (Hopefully to a faithful Catholic school!).

But, first, I need to get him interested in the game.

I remember when I was four or five-years-old, just before leaving Cuba, sitting in front of my house and watching the kids on my block play baseball outside through our window.  They were all older kids and, I guess, they thought I was too young, so they never invited me to play (scarred me for life!).

I really didn't play until I got older and moved to the United States.

I have fond memories of those first years living in Port Chester, NY.  In between working long hours, like most new immigrants, to put my mom through college, send me to Catholic school and move us to a better neighborhood, my dad would often take my younger brother and me to the park, where he would hit us grounders and fly balls and pitch batting practice to us.

And, when my dad couldn't take us, I remember spending hours with my glove and a rubber ball bouncing the ball off the ground, it ricocheting off the garage door and bouncing back to me. I would pretend to be a big leaguer, play games in my head and developed my hand/eye coordination.

I actually got my first chance to play on a team at Corpus Christi Catholic School, when I was about nine-years-old and in third grade.  The coaches made me a pitcher.  

The Hammer with his cap in his pocket...
I played on the Corpus Christi Reds, whose no-frills uniform included a red school provided t-shirt, a red cap, which we used to fold in half and stuff in our back pockets while hitting and running the bases, like Yankee great Bobby Mercer (and Mets’ John "Hammer" Milner) used to do, blue jeans and sneakers.  But, to me, wearing it on game days was probably as exciting as playing.

Yet, as I look back at that time, what I think really drew me to the game, aside from playing (and my stylish uniform), was just watching and rooting for the Mets every night on TV with my mom, dad and brother, especially during the improbable 1973 pennant drive, where, led by Tug McGraw's (Tim's dad) battle cry, "You Gotta Believe," they went from fifth place to first in the last month of the season.

We even went to a couple of games at Shea Stadium (against the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres) and one time, my dad got tickets from his boss and took me to a Yankee game at the old Yankee Stadium (against the Cleveland Indians).  It's amazing the things we remember!

So, by the time we moved to Miami, in the summer of 1974 (when I was 10), and started playing year-round, I was in love with the game and, until I got married and had children, it became the center of my existence!  (Although, my wife may argue it still is)

In any case, I would love it if my son develops the same passion for the game.  However, after spending about five years umpiring Little League games, during my teens, and watching the interactions between some fathers and their sons, I am very weary about forcing the game on him. 

Instead, I'm taking a more laid back approach and letting him decide when he wants to play.

Last summer was his first experience on a baseball diamond.  He attended a summer camp at school and, after camp, they offered baseball practice to the kids that wanted to stay.

He was by far the youngest boy on the field but the coaches, who are friends of mine and run a baseball school, said he was also the most enthusiastic.  He absolutely loved it. 

In fact, on the first day, when my wife went to pick him up, he started crying because he didn't want to leave and she had to go back to pick him up an hour later.

So, I can see the makings of a love for the game.

On Tuesday night, as the kids and I hung out in our living room, while my wife finished dinner, I tried to coax him and asked what he loves more than anything in the world; I was hoping he would answer baseball.

Instead, he turned away from me and, as he did a cartwheel on our leather ottoman, nonchalantly said, “God.”

Huh?  (Talk about keeping it real!)

Alright, so obviously there are some things that I'm teaching him that are more important than baseball...