Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vita Venturi Saeculi

As you can see from the previous post, I'm making an effort at getting back to blogging, in response to thousands...well, hundreds...well, dozens...okay, two very earnest appeals that I do so. And then, just when I'm all set to make a new start, wouldn't you know it -- I find out that the end of the world is at hand.

I don't know whether to start writing as fast as my rudimentary typing skills and low-end laptop keyboard will permit -- something along the lines of "Lord, Lord," I guess -- or just wait until Sunday (si veniat) to find out whether there's any point in going on at all.

Harmon Killebrew (1936-2011)

There is an evolution in the enthusiasms of a baseball fan as he grows up and then grows old. I now enjoy baseball as a more cerebral game than I did 40 years ago. I appreciate the good decisions (and excoriate the bad decisions) of managers in a way I never took the trouble to do in my youth, before I appreciated how central those judgments are to the outcome of a game. I never paid much attention to pitchers when I was young either, because just throwing the ball never seemed as interesting to me as hitting the ball. I've changed my mind about that too, now that I understand more about how the way the ball gets thrown affects the way the ball gets hit.

Above all, baseball gives us a chance to revel in the particular physical endowments we most lack ourselves. I now admire the speed and mobility of shortstops more than I ever did when I was young (and not quite so conscious of how fleeting speed and mobility are). And as a scrawny little 12- and 13- and 14- (etc., etc.,) year old, it was big brawny sluggers that I idolized more than anybody else in the game -- Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and above all during those years of the early 1960s, Harmon Killebrew. I checked the stats today, and he did not in fact hit a home run every time he came to the plate, but it sure seemed that way to me at the time. On August 3, 1962, he hit a home run over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium. Years later, recalling the feat in an interview, he said matter-of-factly, "I'd never seen anybody do that before."  That's because nobody had ever done that before.

And that one statement of his shows just how thoroughly he combined the complementary virtues that nothing can foster better than sports: the opportunity to be supremely good at something and humble about it all at the same time. Harmon Killebrew was the consummate sportsman, even in an era when sportsmanship had not yet become the rare commodity it is today. It is not recorded that he ever feuded publicly with a manager, or spoke ill of a teammate, or yelled an obscenity at an umpire. He simply went out every day and played baseball; and he played it very, very well. This passage from The Ballplayers, an indispensable reference now incredibly lacking an update and out of print, shows how much of Harmon Killebrew's vision of the game is missing in this age of temperamental baseball divas.

Throughout his career, Killebrew changed positions frequently. He came up as a second baseman, was soon moved to third, then to left field for a few seasons, over to first base for a while, then back to third, back to first, and finally off the field altogether to DH. He would often shift between two positions in the same game. But he never groused, and his lack of a permanent defensive spot never seemed to affect his power.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blessed John Paul II

Every Christian has certain inclinations, certain predispositions that can become an obstacle to the fullest possible realization of the Christian life. I'm not talking here about sin, which obviously is an obstacle for every Christian; but just about innocent differences in personality. There are Christians who regard religious faith as primarily something to be felt. They are very good at experiencing the grief of Good Friday, and the despair of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday. The mirror image of this first group of people, along the spectrum of Christian psychology, are those who take comfort in having all the proper intellectual convictions demanded by the Faith. They've read the whole Catechism. Maybe they've even read the Summa, or Ratzinger, or Rahner, or every 20th-century papal encyclical. They subscribe to First Things or America (or maybe, if they're real eggheads, both). And they may be slightly embarrassed by the effusive, emotional Catholicism of the first group, just as that first group is perplexed by the "cold, sterile" intellectualism of the second group.

There is a third group of Christians, the group to which all of us should belong, regardless of whichever of the first two groups may also claim us. It is the group of believers who regard Christianity primarily as something to be done, rather than as something just to be felt or understood. It is the group of people who have realized that our zeal for the Faith, rooted in our knowledge of Christ's teaching, compels us to live in an entirely new way as a response to what we feel and what we know.

The papacy of John Paul II was important in many ways, but it was especially important, I think, as a way of uniting these three groups of Christians. No one I can think of in the last 100 years was a more intellectually powerful scholar of Christianity than John Paul II (although his successor is giving him an impressive run for his money on that score). Nor was any Christian in my lifetime more obviously consumed with an elemental love of Christ and an almost childlike joy in Christ than John Paul II. So it's only natural that, combining as he did in his own person the full mind and the full heart of the Christian, he would be so eloquent in calling us all to join that third group -- those who turn their emotional commitment, or their intellectual commitment, or both, into a life of action in the service of Christ and His Kingdom.

Nowhere did John Paul II express this Christian synthesis more clearly than in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor -- maybe the greatest Catholic document of the 20th century.

It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one's whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters. [VS 88.4]

I'm old enough to have a clear recollection of the day John Paul II was elected Pope. I watched the live TV coverage, and saw a very unfamiliar figure, suddenly and inexplicably dressed in papal vestments, step out onto the balcony of St. Peter's, while all the commentators kept asking, "Who? Who did they say?"  I knew just enough Italian to understand his first words as Pope, declaimed in a trained actor's voice, and I have remembered them a thousand times since:

"Sia lodato Gesu Cristo!"

Praised be Jesus Christ!

If we had only known it at the time, we might have understood that the new Pope was giving us, in those four words, a complete Catholic catechesis, one that he would expand on and enrich in the course of the next 26 years -- a vision of Christianity as something to feel, something to know, and something to do.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Now and forever.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.