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Monday, November 28, 2016

Sympathy for the Devil and to Next Year in Cuba...

Was evil the nature of his game?...
On Christmas Eve 1978, as my great grandfather was in his final stage of life, we were gathered at my cousin's house in Chicago. Most of the family was there, at least those of us living in exile.  I remember because that was the winter the great blizzard hit the Windy City shortly after we left.

As we were about to sit for our traditional, Noche Buena dinner, my great grandfather, who was ill and frail, came down from his room to the basement, where a ping pong table, other tables and chairs had been set up, to join us for what turned out to be our last Christmas Eve together.

As the patriarch of the family, he said a prayer, some words of wisdom and then made a toast.  While, I won't pretend to remember what he said, I do recall the many end-of-year family toasts which culminated with, "May our toast next year be in Cuba."  I think it was a universal toast in most Cuban exile households.

Well, next year in Cuba never came.  My great grandfather died and it never happened.  My great grandmother died and it never happened.  Both of my grandparents, most of my great uncles and great aunts died and it never happened (they were ten siblings and only a few remain!).  Even several cousins died and it never happened.

Like my family, hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who came on Freedom Flights, many who left thinking it was a temporary sojourn, leaving family, friends, their livelihoods, their culture, their language and everything they knew and loved behind, and almost fifty-eight long years later, are still waiting for that next year to come.  

For most, one man was responsible for their displacement; Fidel Castro.

And, there was plenty of reasons for the resentment.  When Castro took power in January 1959, he promised hope for the future.  He promised a Democratic government that would hold free elections and put the power in the hands of the people.  He promised to stop the corruption and brutality of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

Before the firing squad...
Instead, he quickly turned even more corrupt, repressive and tyrannical.  He started executing all his opponents. He turned to Communism and confiscated property, including my great grandfather's business that he spent a lifetime building since arriving in Cuba from Spain. Castro also persecuted gays, banned the free press and ousted thousand of Catholic priests, nuns and clergymen of other faiths, in an attempt to eradicate religion.  All forms of free expression against the government were outlawed.

Soon the hope and optimism Cubans felt early on gave way to a living version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, where the few in leadership got the spoils and everyone else was left to starve.

Many Cubans, including some in my family, who supported the Revolution at first, felt betrayed, prompting a massive exodus of the middle class.  Fourteen thousand kids were sent on their own to the United States, ahead of their parents, as part of the Catholic Church's Operation Peter Pan, and, when Castro stopped the floodgates of those allowed to leave legally, countless others died and are still dying trying to flee.

Families were separated for decades at a time, tens of thousands who opposed the regime were tortured and physically and psychologically abused in concentration camps and jails, tens of thousands more were murdered, many in public executions, including some who had fought alongside Castro in the Revolution, while others disappeared and were never heard of again.

For the people who fled, said to be over two million over the years, and many who were forced to stay unwillingly, Castro became evil personified and he loved to stoke the flames; calling those who left traitors and worms.  Hate would not be too strong a word to use for how they felt.

Needless to say, Castro's death, was as long awaited as that elusive toast in Cuba.

It was like the souls of the slain in the Book of Revelation, crying out, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

And then, it happened.

On Friday night, after years of deteriorating health and countless of premature reports of his demise, Fidel Castro finally died at the age of 90.

A poignant message...
As could be expected, the reactions were immediate.

Despite the news breaking shortly after midnight, people started hitting the streets of Miami with pots, pans, musical instruments and Cuban flags in hand.  They blocked traffic, cheered and danced, as motorists blew their car horns and celebrated the end of an era into the wee hours of the morning.  It was a historic moment that had long been coming but never seemed to come.

"At long last.  The son of a b*#@ is dead," my brother texted me from Oregon at about 1:30 (Miami time) in the morning.

"I have never been so happy to be called back to work after going home for the day," a co-worker admitted as she gave me a hug with a huge grin on her face later that day.

"My only regret is that Mom and Dad are not here to see this," my mother said to me on the phone, as her voice began to crack.

A friend posted a photo on Facebook of a scotch bottle with a typed note pasted on the front that stated, "My days and those of Fidel Castro are counted," dated December 24, 1963.  It was written by my friend's uncle who said he would drink the bottle when Fidel Castro died.  Sadly, he never lived to drink it but his son opened the bottle on Saturday.  

Such is the dichotomy of the Cuban people.

My wife captured the moment well.  She posted, "Today was a bittersweet day.  Ever since I can remember, we've been waiting for this day. The day when Castro would die. My mother was a Peter Pan child. My dad, who had to flee Cuba with his mother as a young teen, trained in Central Park to go to the Bay of Pigs (fortunately, they were left behind.  He was 16 years old)... I grew up listening to stories of what they had been forced to leave behind. My father never forgot. He never put it behind him. And it was his dream to see a free Cuba. Yes, I know Cuba is not free yet, but I'd like to think we are one step closer...I just wish my dad was here to share it with me."

Still, as evil as Fidel Castro was and the wrath of pain, suffering, death and destruction he left behind, there's something about celebrating another man's death that doesn't quite sit well with me.  Although, I can understand those that do, especially the families victimized by his brutality, and those that are not necessarily celebrating his death but what it represents.

We will never know what is in another man's heart and Castro had plenty of time to repent over the last several years, especially as he grew more ill and frail, as my great grandfather did in 1978.  The man who would become the longest ruling dictator in history did attend Catholic school in his youth and he met privately with Pope Benedict, as his health deteriorated.  Only God knows.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.  When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

As the Rollings Stones' lyrics in Sympathy for the Devil say, "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints."

I think the fact that he died now and not thirty or forty years ago, has given time for people to rebuild and heal.

In any case, may God judge him accordingly.  And, moreover, may his death, mean Cubans are one day closer to that toast in Cuba next year...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ronan the Accuser and the End of Thanksgiving?...

In 1863, as the nation endured the darkest and most painful period in its history, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving.  It was to be a day to be set aside for thanking God for all our blessings, gathering with family and reaching out to those in need. 

Norman Rockwell's Saying Grace...
In his proclamation, the President wrote, "I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged..."

It was a custom that had been around since the time of the pilgrims but was formalized into a national holiday at that time.  For generations since, Thanksgiving became traditionally known for family reunions, feasting like King Henry VIII (and those people at Disney World) on a turkey leg and gathering around the dinner table to give thanks to God. 

Everything shut down. Everyone was off from work to be with their families.  It was sacred; dare I say, holy.   

I recall many Thanksgiving days growing up at my grandparents' house, where we lived for many years, with my mom and grandmother cooking, my dad and grandfather setting up the tables and chairs, including our old ping pong table, and running last-minute errands, while some of the other of the adults sat around talking, telling jokes, drinking scotch ("palitos"), eating ham, cheese, saltine crackers and olives ("salaitos") and playing Benny More on the record player, as the us kids ran around playing or watching football.  

It was a day everyone looked forward to.  In fact, I remember everyone in our neighborhood having their own family reunions and celebration, as well.   

This would be a good place for Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye to interject, "Traditiooon! Tradition!"

That appears to be changing.

Let the games begin...
In the last few years, Black Friday, which was the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, has crept into Thanksgiving.  

First, it started with stores opening at midnight, where every year some poor bloke would get trampled by overzealous shoppers wanting to be the first to get a great deal. Then, stores began to open after dinner to get a jump on the midnight shoppers and now, it has overlapped Thanksgiving altogether.

This year, several big box stores, including Walmart and Target, and large department stores are opening in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day and some malls are opening from early in the morning until midnight; just another day of shopping!

The day of family and prayer that Lincoln proclaimed has been replaced by a day of commercialization and consumerism.  The sacred has given way to the mundane.  

I don't know about you but, to me, it seems that, as a culture, we've taken our eyes off the ball, as Ronan the Accuser did when Star-Lord started challenging him to a dance-off at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy.

And, it's sad (not that Ronan got distracted, that was a good thing, but that we as a nation are distracted from what is really important!).  

It's sad to see the slow deterioration of our holidays, especially those with deep-seated religious roots, like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It's sad that some kids will never grow up with the same anticipation and reverence for Thanksgiving that we did as kids.  And, while my children will hopefully continue the traditions that my wife and I have established and pass it on to their own families, it's sad that some of their friends, especially those growing up without faith, will be less inclined to uphold the customs set forth by Lincoln.   

Unfortunately, it may be a consequence of the decay of the American family, where nearly half of all first marriages end in divorce (second and third fare even worse) and children grow up without a traditional mom and dad and extended family at the dinner table.  

Furthermore, it's sad that every year, the commercialization of Christmas starts earlier and earlier, to the point where Halloween (All Saints and All Souls Days) and Thanksgiving have blended into a muddled soup of end-of-the-year lead-in to the Big Event, relegating them to inconsequential status on their own.
It's all about making money and, for retailers, Christmas is the golden egg, regardless of the impact on Thanksgiving and family unity.

Nevertheless, although, there is no Civil War today as in the time of Lincoln, considering that we have just had the most divisive and toxic election season on record, which has left half the country upset and many protesting in the streets, it would seem proper that we, as a nation, would be more disposed to spending a little more time praying with family and friends, "thanking and praising our beneficent Father," and less time on 
materialism, consumption and dissipation.  One can only hope...  


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Chesterton on Swimming Against the Tide...

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

-- Gilbert Keith Chesterton (better known as GK) is considered one of the most prolific and influential writers of the twentieth century.  Called "The Apostle of Common Sense," the bigger than life English author (standing 6'4" and weighing over 300 lbs.), poet, philosopher, historian, political satirist and journalist, is well known for his popular Father Brown series and was highly regarded by fellow authors Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orson Welles and T.S. Eliot, among others, for his humor and provocative style.  A brilliant Christian apologist, he has influenced and still influences faithful and seekers alike, including his once atheist countryman, C.S. Lewis...

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Between a Rock and a Hard Place...

Whatever it takes...
"Yeah, 220, 221.  Whatever it takes."

It seems the 2016 Presidential Campaign is a lot like the statement by Jack Butler, aka Michael Keaton, when asked by his wife's boss, Mr. Richardson, about the electrical wiring he was planning in the home addition he was working on, after getting laid off from work, in Mr. Mom.

Both candidates will pretty much do and say whatever it takes to get elected.

As the Rolling Stones would say, we're "Stuck between a rock and a hard place," and, to be honest, I'm done.

I can't wait for this thing to be over.  I'm done with all the political propaganda by friends on Facebook and social media.  I'm done with the insults and degrading attack ads on both sides.  I'm done with the subjective media reporting and pundits' analysis. I'm done with the polls (which appear to be tightening up just in time for the election night ratings frenzy!).  I'm done with the scandals and corruption, investigations, emails and hot-mic videos. I'm done with the Saturday Night Live skits. And, I'm done with the frustrating and fruitless political bickering with friends and co-workers.

Look, I know what's at stake.  This is a monumental election year; the economy, unemployment, immigration, the war on terror, the Supreme Court and direction of our society for the next thirty years or so (which is among my top two or three issues), Obamacare, education, nuclear threat from rogue nations, poverty, the division within our country, a deterioration in support for law enforcement, gun violence, the environment, and much more.

However, as a practicing Catholic, which is my identity; I am an American Catholic, not a Catholic American, there's only one choice.

Unfortunately, three of the four candidates running for President are pro-abortion, so I can't and won't ever consider them, no matter how much good anyone says they can do.

I agree with St. Teresa of Calcutta (aka Mother Teresa), who once said, "I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.  By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems....  Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.  This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion."

Although, we can't be single-issue voters, in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop state, "If a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsic evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate."

Yet, the one candidate standing was not my first choice. He wasn't even my second or third choice either.  In fact, he may not have cracked my top ten.  He was probably at the University of Miami in the AP Poll rankings level!  (Then again, another Stones song he acutely plays at the end of his rallies says it all, "You can't always get what you want.")

As I told my oldest daughter, "He may be an idiot, degrading, foul-mouth and a blowhard at times but, she is not a good person!  Unfortunately, as Catholics, we don't have a choice!" (And I mean those of us trying to live our faith with honesty and integrity)

Only one candidate is claiming to be pro-life.  Only one candidate is saying he will protect religious liberty, unlike the current administration that forced Catholic and Christian organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who help the elderly, and business owners to provide artificial birth control to employees, as part of the Health and Human Services mandate of Obamacare, including abortifacients (morning after pill), despite violating their freedom of conscience and tenets of their faith.  And, only one candidate has already offered a list of possible Supreme Court justice nominees.

Not to mention, the other major candidate believes in late-term abortion, including, as she said in the last debate, up until the day the baby is born (which, is the most heinous and violent assault on the life of a child imaginable) and wants tax payers to pay for it!  She supports Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion (and baby body parts) provider in the U.S., and she has publicly said, in a speech at the Sixth Annual Women in the World Summit last year that, "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed."

Dirty diaper...
And, let's not even bring up the Wikileaks emails by her campaign operatives which call Catholicism an "amazing bastardization of the faith" and their plans to set up groups to undermine Catholic Church teachings from within, calling for a "Catholic Spring," like the "Arab Spring" that brought revolution in the Middle East; "There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church."

A Facebook friend recently argued that if I believed everything that my last-resort-candidate said he was going to do was what he would do, that he had some property in the Everglades to sell me.

True.  Maybe, he will go against what he promised and "evolve" his opinion, as President Obama did on same-sex marriage, but one thing is guessing what a candidate may do and another is knowing what a candidate will do.

In any case, our parish pastor said it well during a recent homily, "I don't vote for a candidate because of their personality, since we are all flawed human beings and personalities will surely let us down.  I don't vote for any politician or political party that tries to thwart or undermine what we stand for as people of faith; like religious freedom and respecting and protecting human life from conception to natural death.  My job is difficult enough as it is!  And, I don't vote or put my faith on any one politician.  I put my faith in Christ... America can't get us to heaven but Christ can."

He also challenged us, "Are we listening to the media or are we listening to the Pope? Are we listening to the culture or are we listening to the teachings of the Catholic Church?"

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that we are in this world but not of it and that may never be more evident than this election season.

This is a historically nasty and divisive campaign and win or lose, half of the nation will be dissatisfied.  It's going to take a herculean effort to bring our country together again.  And, as we all know, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

All we can do is do our part as citizens and try to change the world in our own circle of influence.  As Archbishop Charles Chaput writes in his book, Render Unto Caesar, Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, "We are citizens of heaven first.  But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so the glory and the irony of the Christian life is this: The more truly we love God, the more truly we serve the world."

Hopefully, on the Wednesday after Election Day, Americans will not get left holding the soiled diapers, like Mr. Mom...