“My Lord and my God” – A review of Untimely Christianity

By James Tomek, Ph.D
“Untimely Christianity: Hearing the Bible in a Secular Age” by Michael Edwards. Fortress Press (Minneapolis, 2022) 174 pp. $28.00.

“My Lord and my God.”

I was taught to say these words at my First Holy Communion Mass at the Consecration. When the priest raised the Host consecrating it as the Body of Christ, we were to respond silently “My Lord and My God”– the words of our doubting Thomas when Jesus revealed to him the truth of his Resurrection. Biblical scholar and poet Sir Michael Edwards, in Untimely Christianity, translated by John Dunaway, professor of Comparative Literature, praises Thomas’s response as the greatest expression of Faith in Jesus Christ as God in Scripture. (11)

James Tomek, Ph.D

Let’s explore this Faith, hopefully giving some insight in how to read the Bible with Jesus as our guide. Father Kent Bowlds, in Cleveland, is starting a Wednesday scripture study (call (662) 588-2956). I hope these thoughts will inspire us to join.

Knowing Faith for Us Doubting Thomases: An Ars Poetica for Bible Reading
It is “faith above all with all the rest being vague reassurance.” (40)

Translator John Dunaway, himself, a specialist in French literature, tells us that this is an ironic play on words from a Paul Verlaine poem Art poétique.
An ars poetica (Latin) is usually a “direction” on how to compose a work of art – a poem. Here, Verlaine prefers a music feel, letting the reader focus on an adventure of a major human experience. “All the rest is literature” – the curtain line – means all the rest, other than poetry, is just superficiality. Untimely Christianity is an ars poetica on reading and hearing the “Word of God,” redefining our Christianity by treating the Bible as the sacrament of Jesus. Rather than looking for dogma, we follow Jesus as a major poet or artist of God’s “Word” and how his lived incarnate life can be ours. For “knowing” Jesus, the verb connaître may fit better. Savoir is about knowing facts (I know that …). Connaître is more an “acquainted with” or “feel” type of knowledge. Edwards puts “faith” into a connaître type of knowing – more with a feel than a proof – more associated with Verlaine’s music rather than a theologian’s prose essay. A synonym of this “faith” is the grace that God gives us. (31) Doubt is helpful. It is the oxygen needed to get to the way of truth. (40) Jesus helps us doubting Thomases.

Poetry vs Prose – Knowing the Right Time

This is the book cover of “Untimely Christianity: Hearing the Bible in a Secular Age” by Michael Edwards. The book is reviewed by Jim Tomek. (Photo courtesy of Fortress Press)

Art, or poetry, is a tactic where we can bring Hope into our Faith by creating new spaces. (92-3) The new words that we bring into poetic representation can point us in the right social justice directions. With these “transfigural” visions, we must go back down the mountain to help. Dunaway translates Edwards’ title, Pour un christianisme intempestif: savoir entendre la Bible, to Untimely Christianity: Hearing the Bible in a Secular Age. “Untimely” here means that true Christianity is out of step with profit driven societies of Western Culture. Can “eternal,” meaning outside of time, be a substitute for “untimely”? We live in a prosaic linear time, getting things done Monday-Friday, but there is a more important poetic time where we stay on a vertical line pondering our existence. The Beatitudes sound vertical over the linear legalistic defined Commandments.

A major chapter on joy has Shakespeare’s Tempest as a background. A tempest is a major windstorm that gives the characters time to think. (41-5) Tempest has “temps” in it – meaning time and weather. All these words play on the title intempestif. A tempestuous, timely, untimely time to temper our thoughts while listening to the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit – the windstorm Trinity advocate.

Transfiguring Jesus as Poet and Teacher of His Prayer

With the Transfiguration, “eternity” changes Jesus into himself. (9-10) Dunaway notes that this is a citation of a Mallarmé poem “The Tomb of Edgar Poe,” where we hear that Poe’s works have stood up against blasphemies (accusations that his inspiration was from drugs). Time, “untimely” during his life, has helped us see his poetic transfiguration. Jesus, also, will be transfigured as my God. Jesus is a poet teaching us how to pray. Poetry requires a more sustained attention between poet and reader. (69) Between the poet and reader, we don’t really have one poet. There is another speaking that Edwards describes as the voice of the Holy Spirit. (69) A ghost writer? The “Our Father” transforms everything from the Fall of Humankind to the end of evil. (70) Word will become flesh. There is no “I” in Jesus’s teaching here. We need to be impersonal – to leave our egos, avoid temptation and help others. (73)

Jesus: Translator of God’s Transcendence

Since translation is such a major component of Scripture, we have to add it to the art of reading the Bible. The effective translator is also a writer, who, guided by love, helps us interpret meanings. Roland Barthes distinguishes between a readerly text, where one reads for information, and a writerly text (Bible included here) where the reader is active. (107) When reading or watching a thought-provoking-film, I always take notes and add my thoughts, which keeps me in the right disposition to interpret honestly.

Inspiration: Joy and the Transfiguration of Suffering
Edwards remarks that inspiration, theoretically and timewise, can only come from the early Hebrew and Greek texts. How then can we discern if a passage is from the Holy Spirit? “Delectation” is a word suggested by our “two translators.” In experiencing the Paschal Mystery of Death and Resurrection, Joy has to be mingled with sadness. We need to hear with our hearts. (157) Why do I prefer Good Friday to Easter? I should not, but it is while listening to Isaiah’s suffering servant and the Passion of Christ, followed by pondering the Cross that I enter in Communion with all my loved ones who have loved me when it was inconvenient to do so.

Faith above the law (without good works) is an idea of the Devil – not St. Paul. (25) We need to feel our way to God. (157) Doing the law does not necessarily mean knowing just the words. “You would not be seeking me if you had not found me.” (156) We are advised to hear with our hearts and to act as one cannot! (165) – acting as a responsible human for others and not self-seeking animals. God, through Pascal, puts these words in a convert’s mouth. “You would not be seeking me if you had not found me.” (156)

Joyful Rehearsal of our Mission at Mass
The word “joy” jumps across the Bible. It can mean charis that can mean both grace and thankfulness. There is a reflexive relation of Jesus and all us faithful as Jesus gives us grace to be good while we thank Jesus for this gift. (52) The Eucharist, or Mass, is the more definitive place where we carry on this thanking and then transfer our prayers to the real world. Michael Edwards and John Dunaway’s concept of God may be a little too “immanent” (near?) for me to relate to. However, the exposition of Jesus as the Sacrament of God allows me to be very comfortable and repentant at Mass. When asking for mercy and what to do, I pray these words, “My Lord and my God.”

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

The Eucharist: a workshop for building ecclesial unity in a polarized world

By James Tomek, Ph.D

Synodality in Mississippi? A meeting concept to seek basic truths. In line with the synodality listening sessions designed to give all us Catholics a voice, Father Nick Adam organized a workshop, led by Father Jim Wehner, a seminarian rector in New Orleans, for priests, deacons and lay ministers, to help them/us review ministry tactics in order to become better disciples, helping all parishioners talk about what the church needs to do to become better in the major vocation areas of priest, prophet and king. With the goal of voicing all our concerns to Pope Francis, parishioners in the diocese are meeting to discuss how the church can respond to biblical situations, renewing our Good Samaritan status.

Two major questions: what essential action should the church take? What is most important to you about what the church offers? Father Jim presented sessions where he took on subjects: the essence of the church; the New Evangelization of unchurched former Catholics; the meaning of discipleship, with examples from the Bible; and, finally, how the Eucharist is our defining “Sacrament” for exploring and creating missionary and ministry tactics. A good preparation for the Synodality sessions.

Father Jim starts, citing Jesus asking “Who do you say that I am?” to Peter. The “I” is really Jesus as the church. Peter says that Jesus and the church have words of everlasting life. The “enemy,” in various forms, causes confusion and separates us from Christ and the church. How do we respond to the enemy’s tough questions? Peter advises us to give answers in reverence and gentleness (1Peter 3:15).

James Tomek, Ph.D

Father Wehner takes us to the 17th and 18th centuries, where philosophers Hobbes and Locke promoted individual rights over the common good. While respecting individual rights, our discussion leader insists that the overall concern of the church and Jesus is the common good. We are all friends of Jesus, and no longer servants, in this struggle together. The “enemy” would prefer rugged individualism and no communion. Apathea is a virtue of detachment and a positive impersonal value where we leave our egos to support our neighbor, above any personal concerns. Our ego is the enemy. What specific vocational gift do I have to help and combat the enemy of self interest?

In the next session, Father Jim explains the new evangelization movement, where the church tries to get back former Catholics who have left the church, as well as the unchurched in general. The “enemy” here is further defined as “metaphysical disorientation.” We have privatized the important concerns of discernment. Our individual views take precedent over the community’s will. All our sacraments need to be community minded. Our mission is to act in unity as we, all lay people included, are invited to priesthood. By studying our institutions, like marriage, hospitals, education and so on, we need to rearticulate them with our current world.

Next session – discipleship. When did I become a disciple? Can we lose discipleship? What grace or gifts do we need to this discipleship? We find the gifts, or offices, of priest, prophet, and king in Luke when Jesus reads from Isaiah (Lk 4: 17-28).

Father Jim glosses these offices: the priest offers himself as victim sacrificing for others; the prophet teaches and proclaims truths; while the “king” takes care of others. Some hold these offices formally, but we all practice these ministries by our baptism.

An example of becoming a disciple is seen in the Magi when they come to witness Jesus’s birth. They became ministers, especially when they go back a different way, showing that they have changed their lives after witnessing Jesus. This session ends with a healing sentiment. Jesus cures Bartimaeus by opening up his ears – and our ears, as we train to listen better to each other.

In the final session, Father Jim shows how the Eucharist/Mass is the ideal place and order for things to happen. What is polarization? Two sides of an issue. Right or wrong? Win an argument. The wrong way. This is “Metaphysical disorientation.” Let’s be attentive to the whole story of issues.

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity where we can partake in the discussion. We take the bread – taking on Jesus as our friend and model. We bless the bread – saying that it is good and worthy of our community. Then, by breaking the bread, we become wounded healers sharing our penance with the community.

The Mass means “sent” – mission – sent to do the work of the intercessions that we prayed earlier. These intercessions, like feeding the poor and being pure in our intentions, are beatitudes – those conditions that bring us closer to the Kingdom of God. Us? The Communion of Saints, including family and friends, living, and gone, whom I pray for often, offering a spot of the eternal. Why do I go to church?

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

“Jezebel” in Deuteronomic history – a Lenten reconciliation

By James Tomek, Ph.D

Is “Jezebel,” a 1938 movie set in the 1850s South with Bette Davis, worth seeing from a theological view? Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly. The protagonist, Julie Marston, appears to have little in common with Jezebel, Elijah’s enemy, in the 800s BCE, seen in the Book of Kings. However, by comparing the two characters, we can arrive at a positive interpretation of the Deuteronomic moral code of the Bible. A review of the evil manipulative workings of Jezebel, and its connection with the Deuteronomic Covenant, will reveal her as an evil conscience influence on the mind of Julie, scheming to keep her man in an 1852 New Orleans business world, with the backdrop threat of Yellow Fever. Is there a deeper reading of the Deuteronomic code than just reward and punishment for being faithful, or not, to the Moses’ covenant? Does Julie have a perfect contrition?

Columnist, Jim Tomek explores the 1938 movie “Jezebel” set in the 1850s South, starring Bette Davis, drawing from the books of Deuteronomic history. (Photo courtesy of BigStock)

Jezebel comes to Israel via King Omri, who succeeded Solomon and reestablished the Northern Kingdom’s power with Samaria as a base. He married his son Ahab to Jezebel, a Phoenician, who came with her pagan god Baal, along with the Phoenician ambition in commerce. Baal is a Canaanite god of rain that promises wealth and good crops, without imposing any ethical responsibilities. She and Ahab are central figures in the struggles with the major prophets of the era – Elijah and then Elisha. Elijah wins a fire battle against her prophets, ending a drought that he inflicted on the land. Jezebel’s overall power continually frightens Elijah. She and Ahab, in a murderous plot, take the land of Naboth for their vineyard. Jezebel writes secretive letters that eventually doom Naboth. She dies unrepentant and punished – her dead body eaten by dogs.

Julie Marston is a plantation owner in love with Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda), a banker who persuades his New Orleans colleagues to invest in railroads and factories instead of the river economy and slave labor. Pres’s business dealings preoccupy his mind, causing him to neglect his love interest. To get his attention, Julie resorts, shockingly, to wearing a red dress, reserved for married women, at the annual Olympus Ball, instead of white, the mandatory color for unmarried women. She also tries to incite Pres’s jealousy by asking her former beau, Buck Cantrell (George Brent), to take her to the ball. Pres has a mean streak as he refuses to take Julie from the ball, punishing her, by keeping her shamefully on the dance floor, for refusing his request to wear white. He ends his relationship with Julie, going North on business, returning with a wife, Amy.

Julie, in a mixed-up state on how to win Pres back, does succeed in causing anger between her former beaus, who are opposites. Cantrell is a Southern gentleman, comfortable with the slave way of life and happy with an economic system that relies on slavery and the river trade. He accuses Pres Dillard, with his interests in railroads, factories, and non-slave labor, of being an abolitionist and traitor to the Southern way of life. Their disagreements carry over to the treatment of the Yellow Fever epidemic. The “Old South” conservatives prefer to think of the “plague” as passing, while the “New South” liberals, like Pres and Dr. Livingston, want to learn from the previous 1832 outbreak and clean the swamps and city streets.

Julie’s manipulations in having the men fight over her fail, as Buck, having insulted his rival’s “Yankee” wife, is killed in a duel by Pres’s brother Ted. Pres, himself, is bitten by a mosquito carrying the fever virus, while Julie’s Aunt Belle labels her a Jezebel – a person who has done evil in the sight of God. While not as maliciously evil as her Biblical counterpart, Julie is possessed by her scheming spirit.

The Jezebel of the Bible brings with her Baal and the false prophets or idols who allow her to justify her greed. What are the idols in Julie’s and our age? The “prophets” who praise profit would be one. Quick fixes instead of long run thinking. While the treatment of blacks in this film are a little outdated, the message of white condescension is still clear. Julie undergoes a conversion, as she will accompany and care for Pres at “Lazarus” Island, the doomed colony for fever victims. She convinces Pres’s wife of her husband’s love for her. The story ends with Julie in the cart of victims going to their sure death. However, she feels clean again.

In Deuteronomic history, from Moses down through Joshua, Judges, the Books of Samuel to the Book of Kings to the Babylonian exile of 585 BCE, one sees that faithfulness to Moses’ covenant is rewarded, while disobedience brings punishment. While this outcome is not always true, as we see in Job, there is a sense of peace brought on when one does the right thing covenant-wise. The prophet Micah aptly sums up the covenant – do right, love goodness and walk humbly with God.

Some film critics thought that Julie’s conversion was too sudden. Theologically, especially in the lament psalms, God’s grace arrives quickly and undeservedly. Take Psalm 22, for example, the one we read on Palm Sunday. The sufferer cries out “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” Look at the sudden reversal of fortune from verses 21 to 22.

v19 But you O Lord do not be far away! O my help come quickly to my aid!
v20 Deliver my soul … from the power of the dog!
v21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
v22 From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

Julie’s character is complex as she does not seem to know what she wants. She is a strong-willed woman in a patriarchal society. In an early scene, she is being fitted with a white dress that is wide and fluffy, giving her an impressive stature. When the dress makers lift the dress off, we see her very slim small body inside a cage that served to keep the dress wide. It takes a lot of work to go from appearance to reality. Julie does get real in her repentance and does stay true to the Deuteronomic code by doing good in the sight of the Lord. The reward is in the sacrament of penance itself.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Teología en el cine: la nueva Jezabel en la historia Deuteronómica: una reconciliación cuaresmal

¿Vale la pena ver Jezabel protagonizada por Bette Davis, una película de 1938 ambientada en la década de 1850 del sur de Estados Unidos, desde un punto de vista teológico?

La compañía Turner Classic Movies (TCM) lo muestra regularmente. La protagonista, Julie Marston, parece tener poco en común con Jezabel, la enemiga de Elías, en el año 800 a. C. tal y como se ve en el Libro de los Reyes. Sin embargo, al comparar los dos personajes, podemos llegar a una interpretación positiva del código Deuteronómico moral de la Biblia.

Una revisión de las malvadas maniobras de manipulación de Jezabel y su conexión con el Pacto Deuteronómico, la revelará como una influencia de conciencia malvada en la mente de Julie, conspirando para mantener a su hombre en un mundo de negocios de Nueva Orleans de 1852, con la amenaza de la Fiebre amarilla como telón de fondo.

 ¿Existe una lectura más profunda del código Deuteronómico que la simple recompensa y castigo por ser fiel o no al Pacto de Moisés? ¿Tiene Julie una contrición perfecta?

Jezabel llega a Israel a través del Rey Omri, quien sucedió a Salomón y restableció el poder del Reino del Norte con Samaria como base. El Rey casó a su hijo Acab con Jezabel, una fenicia, que vino con su dios pagano Baal, junto con la ambición fenicia en el comercio. Baal es un dios cananeo de la lluvia que promete riqueza y buenas cosechas, sin imponer responsabilidades éticas.

Jezabel y Acab son figuras centrales en las luchas con los principales profetas de la era: Elías y luego Eliseo. Elias gana una batalla de fuego contra sus profetas, poniendo fin a una sequía que infligió a la tierra. El poder general de Jezabel asusta continuamente a Elías. Ella y Acab, en un complot asesino, toman la tierra de Nabot para su viña. Jezabel escribe cartas secretas que finalmente condenan a Nabot. Ella es castigada y muere sin arrepentirse y su cadáver fue devorado por los perros.

James Tomek

Julie Marston es propietaria de una plantación, enamorada de Preston “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda) un banquero que persuade a sus colegas de Nueva Orleans para que inviertan en ferrocarriles y fábricas en lugar de la economía fluvial y el trabajo esclavo. Los tratos comerciales de Pres preocupan más su mente, lo que hace que descuide su interés amoroso. Para llamar su atención, Julie recurre sorprendentemente a usar un vestido rojo, reservado solo para las mujeres casadas, en lugar del blanco, el color obligatorio para las mujeres solteras en el Baile anual del Olimpo. También intenta incitar los celos de Pres pidiéndole a su antiguo novio, Buck Cantrell (George Brent), que la lleve al baile. Pres se molesta por ella negarse a su pedido de vestirse de blanco y se niega a sacar a Julie del baile, castigándola y manteniéndola vergonzosamente en la pista de baile. Pres termina su relación con Julie, se va al norte por negocios y regresa con una esposa, Amy.

Julie, en un estado confuso sobre cómo recuperar a Pres, logra provocar la ira entre sus antiguos novios, que son opuestos. Cantrell es un caballero sureño, cómodo con la forma de vida de los esclavos y feliz con un sistema económico que se basa en la esclavitud y el comercio fluvial.  Éste acusa a Pres Dillard, con sus intereses en los ferrocarriles, las fábricas y el trabajo no esclavo, de ser un abolicionista y traidor a la forma de vida sureña. Sus desacuerdos se trasladan al tratamiento de la epidemia de fiebre amarilla. Los conservadores del “Viejo Sur” prefieren pensar que la “plaga” pasa, mientras que los liberales del “Nuevo Sur”, como Pres y el Dr. Livingston, quieren aprender del brote anterior de 1832 y limpiar los pantanos y las calles de la ciudad.

Las manipulaciones de Julie, en lograr que los hombres peleen por ella, fracasan ya que Buck, después de haber insultado a la esposa “yanqui” de su rival, es muerto en un duelo con Ted, el hermano de Pres. Pres mismo es picado por un mosquito portador del virus de la fiebre, mientras que Belle, tía de Julie la etiqueta como una Jezabel, una persona que ha hecho el mal ante los ojos de Dios.

Aunque no es tan maliciosamente malvada como su contraparte bíblica, Julie está poseída por su espíritu intrigante. La Jezabel de la Biblia trae consigo a Baal y a los falsos profetas o ídolos que le permiten justificar su codicia.

 ¿Cuáles son los ídolos en la época de Julie y en la nuestra?

 Los “profetas” que alaban las ganancias serían uno. Soluciones rápidas en lugar de pensar a largo plazo.

Si bien el tratamiento de los negros en esta película está un poco desactualizado, el mensaje de condescendencia de los blancos sigue siendo claro. Julie sufre una conversión, ya que acompañará y cuidará a Pres en la isla “Lazarus”, la colonia condenada para las víctimas de la fiebre. Ella convence a la esposa de Pres del amor de su esposo por ella. La historia termina con Julie en el carro de las víctimas que van hacia su muerte segura. Sin embargo, se siente limpia de nuevo.

 En la historia del Deuteronomio, desde Moisés hasta Josué, Jueces, los Libros de Samuel y el Libro de los Reyes hasta el exilio babilónico de 585 a. C., uno ve que la fidelidad al pacto de Moisés es recompensada, mientras que la desobediencia trae castigo. Si bien este resultado no siempre es cierto, como vemos en Job, se produce una sensación de paz cuando uno hace lo correcto en cuanto al pacto.

El profeta Miqueas resume acertadamente el pacto: hacer el bien, amar la bondad y caminar humildemente con Dios.

Algunos críticos de cine pensaron que la conversión de Julie fue demasiado repentina. Teológicamente, especialmente en los salmos de lamento, la gracia de Dios llega rápida e inmerecidamente. Tome el Salmo 22, por ejemplo, el que leemos el Domingo de Ramos. El que sufre clama: “Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿por qué me has desamparado?” Mire el repentino cambio de fortuna de los versículos 21 al 22.

V 19 Pero tú, Señor, que eres mi fuerza, ¡no te alejes!, ¡ven pronto en mi ayuda!
V 20 Líbrame de morir a filo de espada, no dejes que me maten esos perros,
V 21 Sálvame de la boca de esos leones, ¡defiéndeme de los cuernos de esos toros!

V 22 Yo hablaré de ti a mis hermanos, te alabaré en sus reuniones.

El personaje de Julie es complejo ya que no parece saber lo que quiere. Es una mujer de voluntad fuerte en una sociedad patriarcal. En una de las primeras escenas, se le pone un vestido blanco que es ancho y esponjoso, lo que le da una estatura impresionante. Cuando las modistas le quitan el vestido, vemos su cuerpecito muy delgado dentro de una jaula que servía para mantener el vestido ancho.

Se necesita mucho trabajo para pasar de la apariencia a la realidad. Julie se vuelve real en su arrepentimiento y se mantiene fiel al código de Deuteronomio al hacer el bien a los ojos del Señor.

La recompensa está en el mismo sacramento de la penitencia.

Re–presenting Bishop Robert Barron’s Eucharist

By James Tomek, Ph.D

The Eucharist, being the theme of this liturgical year, inspired Bishop Joseph Kopacz to send priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers Bishop Robert Barron’s Eucharist, a study of the Mass, an elaboration on the aspects of meal, sacrifice and real presence of Christ.

Reading Bishop Barron’s book will help us be better Mass attenders. While Father Dennis Gill’s Ars Celebrandi details the structure of Mass; Bishop Barron concentrates more on three basic themes: the sacred meal, where “communion” takes place; sacrifice, that makes the communion possible; and the real presence of the host, that makes the meal possible.

After Bishop Barron’s comparison of Babette’s Feast and the Mass, this review will expound the themes of meal, sacrifice and real presence, hopefully to sit us better at the table with Christ – like the disciples at Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel.

Bishop Barron opens his thesis with a comparison of the Mass and Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, a short story and a 1987 film about how a servant, saved by two sisters, rewards them and their puritanical diminishing congregation with a lavish meal.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron is shown in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Word on Fire)

The two sisters took in a starving Babette. Their father was the pastor of a small Lutheran community. When Babette, who was a chef at the “three star” Café Anglais in Paris, wins a lottery, she decides to use all the money to cook a fabulous haute cuisine dinner, with multiple courses, for the remaining community. The dinner, which slowly pleases their bodily senses, also increases their soul senses as they become better acquainted with each other.

Babette’s sacrificial meal inspires Robert Barron to compare her to Christ, as her real sacrificial chef presence transfigures the dinner into a sacred meal where all the guests’ lives are raised physically and spiritually.

Bishop Barron compares the meal to God’s creation (20) as God showed Adam and Eve how and where to eat (Genesis 2:15-17), with the meal being God’s plan for unity. (24) Citing many biblical references, like the Passover, Bishop Barron shows that the meal is also the place for teaching. Divine teaching takes place with Jesus. (27) The feeding of the five thousand stands for nourishing a hungry human race, famished for the right kind of food. (30)

Bishop Barron goes through the entire story of creation, the fall, the formation of Israel, the passover to freedom, Isaiah’s holy mountain to Jesus’s table fellowship and the Last Supper, pointing to the sacred meal’s goal of universal fellowship (eschatological banquet – the word we use for how we want things to end), which is made present to us at Mass.

The table for the meal is also the altar for the sacrifice. Covenants in the Old Testament were sealed with some forms of sacrifice. Jeremiah wanted the covenant to be written on our hearts, where we would know instinctively the right things to do (sacrifice means “holy doing”). Bishop Barron reminds us that at the Last Supper, Jesus invites his disciples to “ingest” his sacrifice – to imitate Jesus’s actions. (66-8)

In my studies of controversial issues of the Mass, the concept of “sacrifice” was more controversial than that of “real presence.” Does Jesus have to die again?

Bishop Barron reminds us that we really “re-present” Jesus’s sacrifice, with our intention to imitate it.

“I am suggesting that pain, consciously aligned to the sacrifice of Jesus can be spiritually transfiguring. Thus, the sufferer becomes not simply the person in pain, but Abraham giving away what he loves the most, Moses enduring the long discipline of the desert … or the crucified Messiah wondering why he has been forsaken by the Father.” (71)

The Liturgy is the re presentation of the sacrifice of the Lord. At Mass, we, if paying attention, not only witness the event of the Cross, we participate in it. (71-2) With the sacred and sacrificial meal, we are at a place where sins can be forgiven and friendship restored. (72)
In the chapter on real presence, Bishop Barron cites the great “Catholic” writer Flannery O’Connor’s response to the Eucharist as a symbol saying, that if it is a symbol, to hell with it. (73) O’Connor and Barron, in this chapter, are defining “symbol” in its arbitrary sense (for example, the bulldogs of Mississippi State point to their tenacity). There are other uses of symbols as expressions of meaningful experiences that Bishop Barron uses throughout the book, but, here, he is stressing the real presence of Jesus and wants to avoid the term “symbol.”
Bishop Barron explores chapter six of John’s gospel where Jesus says that he is the bread of life and tells his disciples that they must follow him by eating his flesh. (78-9) He contends that the Incarnation of God into the world requires the real presence of Christ. (81)

Is it the actual flesh and blood of Jesus that we consume at Mass? I was taught that it is the glorified real presence of Jesus.

To help us, Barron explains Aquinas’s interpretation of sacrament and real presence. All sacraments are designed to place the spiritual life within human beings. Just as we digest material food for our bodies, the Eucharist is ingested for our life of grace. Aquinas calls Jesus’s flesh “proper species,” which become the “sacramental species” that we consume at Mass. (91-3)

The Mass is the prolongation of the Incarnation. Jesus’s real presence is in all parts of the Mass. Bishop Barron includes the scripture readings at Mass too as he cites Origen’s thesis that the real presence of Jesus is also in the “Word” of God, which can stand both for Jesus and the Bible itself. (82)

Sacred meals end with a mission. Bishop Barron concludes his thesis referring to Jesus appearing to the disciples at Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel.
The two disciples meet the “glorified” Jesus, who explains to them the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. They invite Jesus to dinner and finally recognize him when he breaks the bread. Jesus then disappears.
Bishop Barron sums up the Mass by placing us back in time at Emmaus. (111) We come to Mass like the two disciples and beg for Jesus’s mercy. Jesus forgives us by opening up the scriptures for us. We need the meal to fully be conscious of who Jesus is, and we see him in the breaking of the bread. Jesus then disappears and we are sent to continue his mission. Thank you for the lesson, Bishop Barron.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Ars Celebrandi: Getting more out of Mass

By James Tomek, Ph.D
Celebrating the Mass as an art was the subject of a recent workshop, led by Father Dennis Gill for Priests, Deacons and Lay Ecclesial Ministers of our diocese. Ars Celebrandi, the title of Father Dennis’s book, is also a church activity promoting the study of Liturgy (our official public worship used here interchangeably with the Mass) as an art. A general lack of respect at Mass, along with a general “not getting” of what happens at Mass has inspired Father Dennis to become an expert in Sacred Liturgy.

Active participation at Mass, a major aim, happens when we all feel united with Jesus, offering himself and us to God. Viewing Mass as an art can help us see that participating at Mass requires skills. As a literature person, when I see Ars Poetica, it is usually a poem or essay about what a certain art should be – its essence. Art can be defined as a “doing” of things that makes them beautiful and memorable. We will now talk about Father Dennis’s view of major essences at Mass, followed by how they fit into the Order of the Mass.

Father Gill encourages us to study the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM). What is happening “inside” us? Mystagogia describes this “inside” – a leading into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. How do we render this “prayer” concrete in real life? (orandi vivendi)

The Sacrament of Holy Orders confers on priests the official authority to speak in the person of Jesus Christ at Mass. Theological realities? Where is Jesus in all this? Liturgy puts us in the presence of Jesus, who is raised from the dead by the Father and Holy Spirit. We are all “priests” by our Baptism. When the ordained priest says, “the Lord be with you” we lay people, as a part of this priesthood, answer “and with your Spirit.”

Our primary aim at Mass is to prepare to be worthy to receive “Holy Communion,” which I take as not just the Sacred Host, but a sum of receiving the Body of Christ in Communion with all the faithful. The Eucharist, meaning thanksgiving, is a beautiful word to summarize Mass and this Holy Communion.

“Worship” comes from “worth-ship” where we give God the respect for his worth to us. Gestures and postures help. For example, we stand when we say prayers. This attention is authentic participation. Liturgy is life and life is Liturgy. If we have participated well, we can put what we rehearsed at Mass into real life – the meaning of Ite, Missa Est at the end. We are sent. Mass is not a pep rally, but a worship – a rehearsal of our Christian eternal life.

Music highlights the spiritual value. Here, Father Dennis focuses more on the musicality of the dialogs. He prefers the singing of the dialogs, like the “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and the “Holy, holy, holy.” There should be a music feel or a rhythm where even silences are important so that we have time to let the mystery soak into our hearts. Furniture also provides meaning. The Altar is the centerpiece where the Sacrifice takes place. It is Christ. The Ambo, or lectern, is where the Word of God is read and spoken. The Chair is the permanent sign of where Jesus speaks.

Every part of the Order of the Mass – the Entrance, Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and Concluding Rites – is about the offering of Jesus Christ and us to God. What will we do with our Holy Communion? How will we be worthy of it depends on how we will put it in practice in our Christian lives.

With the Entrance rites, we should focus on establishing communion with others, so to be worthy of the Sacrament. With the procession, the priest, as Jesus, leads us to the altar. The kiss at the altar symbolizes the communion of Jesus and his sacrifice (sometimes intensified by an incensing). The Collect prayer points to the scriptures and the offerings of the people that are about to happen.

In the Liturgy of the Word, lectors recite the story of Christ’s redemption and salvation. The Homily becomes a liturgical rite where the scriptures are broken open. With the Universal Prayer, or intercessions, we pray for the general needs of the church. These petitions should be associated with the scripture readings and can form a base of offerings that we will put in practice in everyday life. This prayer slides into the Offertory and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The third part of Mass is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The “Eucharist” in this part of Mass refers to the “meal” celebration. The gifts are prepared as the altar is dressed with the corporal, missal and vessels. The bread and wine are raised slightly and then set to the side for the sacrifice coming.

The Eucharistic Prayer that follows is Jesus starting our conversation with God. It is a prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification. The introduction to the preface calls us to lift our hearts and minds to God. The Preface leads to the “Holy, holy, holy,” and emphasizes our thankfulness. The main body of the Eucharistic Prayer follows (Father Dennis recommends using Prayer I or III for Sundays). From this prayer, Father stresses the Epiclesis, where the Holy Spirit is called on to bless the proceedings, the Institution Narrative, where the bread and wine are consecrated, and the Anamnesis, where we remember what Christ has done for us.

The last part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the Communion Rite. The Lord’s Prayer is where we dare say with Jesus “Our Father” asking God to forgive us and give us the grace to forgive others. The sign of peace goes back to when Jesus tells us that, before receiving communion, we need to reconcile any differences with our neighbor. The Breaking of the Bread (fraction) is the huge Sacramental sign where Sacred Bread is broken and shared with the community. The Lamb of God prayer is recited simultaneously. With the Concluding Rites, the priest, preferably from the chair, dismisses us and sends us on our way to live what we have just rehearsed. We need to reflect on the liturgy regularly.

Father Dennis concludes, saying that with every celebration of the Liturgy, there is a hint of the Ascension with Jesus Christ where we are all raised to the Father.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Lifeboat ethics in a crowded stormy world

By James Tomek, Ph.D

Two recent “lifeboat” movies on the TCM channel (Turner Classic Movie) brought me back to my SpringHill College ethics classes under Father Fred Gunti, the moral theologian of the department. Which film would he choose to analyze? The more famous one – the 1944 Lifeboat, an Alfred Hitchcock film, dramatized the experiences of nine people as they faced the new possibilities of living with very limited supply of basic needs, and with a moral question of what to do upon the chance arrival of the Nazi Captain of the submarine that torpedoed their Merchant Marine ship. The other survival film, and Father Gunti’s choice, is Richard Sale’s 1956 Abandon Ship about what to do with an overcrowded lifeboat.

Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is an excellent study of how people reveal themselves when put in an extraordinary “lifeboat” position. While they do resort to mob violence against the Nazi captain, their actions can be justified. The other film is morally complex. After an ocean liner hits a mine, there are 27 survivors converging on a lifeboat equipped for 9 to 13 people. Half the survivors have to stay in the water. Do we sacrifice some people for the benefit of others? I will focus on this film and expand the notion of “lifeboat ethics,” an issue studied in Father Fred Gunti’s class on social ethics.

Abandon Ship takes on the heavier moral issue of what to do in an overcrowded world. The executive officer of the sunken ship, Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power), is in charge of the boat and, at first, alternates those in the water with those in the boat, trying to save everyone. As conditions worsen, the ocean liner’s wounded engineer, Frank McKinley (Lloyd Nolan), advises Holmes that he needs to “evict” at least half the passengers, if the rest hope to make it to safety. Holmes resists for a while and then finally decides to save as many people as he can by “jettisoning” the weakest, since the strong are needed to row. The other ship’s officer on board Bill McKinley (Stephen Boyd), refuses to obey Holmes’ orders. As he goes overboard with a sick woman, he tells Holmes, “You have the wrong boy.”

Holmes becomes more and more ruthless as he chooses which expendable members are to be put over the side. He is ready to sacrifice himself when he becomes wounded, but a rescue ship arrives with the film’s epilogue, telling us that Holmes was convicted of murder, but was sentenced to only six months, due to the extenuating circumstances. The film was based on a true story of 1841 where seventeen members of a crowded lifeboat were sacrificed when their ship hit an iceberg.

Migrants on an Italian Coast Guard vessel react after being rescued during a joint rescue operation with the German NGO migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 in the western Mediterranean Sea Aug. 2, 2021. James Tomek explores “lifeboat ethics” in his latest Theology at the Movies column. (CNS photo/Darrin Zammit Lupi, Reuters)

Father Gunti might ask: What are the rights of those in the boat? Those in the water?

What is the moral thing to do? Can we enunciate some principles? Some relevant questions?

Do the ones in the boat have first rights? Do we save the weak first? Do we want optimum chances for the most people?

Or he may open the lifeboat to the world metaphor. The ocean liner is the world. The lifeboats are the rich nations. The people in the water are from the poor nations – boats that have sunk. What moralists call the Tragedy of the Commons – the air and water are like a “well” from which the whole world can share. If left uncontrolled, it will run out. Technology speeds up use. Immigration creates the commons – a cheap labor supply that will eventually cause supplies to dry up.

Carrying capacity is an issue. The land on the Earth is like a pasture. Each pasture has an ideal carrying capacity. Disaster occurs when carrying capacity is ignored. Further complications arise from the changes in climate and the vast unevenness of rainfall and the increase in powerful storms that destroy areas, especially where the poorer of our populations live.

Father Gunti would probably use the concept of proportionality to help guide our responses. We analyze the situation, delineating and then weighing the possible goods and evils of an action. The decision – do we use the greater proportion of what is the best good? or the least evil? If it is just a lifeboat, I think we have to keep as many people alive for as long as possible. The “religious” individual response, I hope, would be to volunteer to die. The “ethic” response would be to weigh the pluses and minuses of whom should be accepted and turned away. Wow! As a metaphor of the overcrowded world, we need bio-ethical studies to help us use the Earth in a conservative manner. This would take a central world authority on the line of the United Nations or a World Bank.

Father Tom Lalor, a SpringHill graduate of their theology Master of Arts program, suggested to me to follow in his path, which I gratefully did. His favorite teacher was Father Fred Gunti whom he called an excellent moral theologian who could break down issues and rebuild them with positive answers.

James Tomek

We are in an overcrowded world of immigration issues with real people suffering. The climate problems that we are having have also affected the rise in immigration. If the solution is that we jettison all the poor, I hope that I can say, like the Stephen Boyd character in Abandon Ship, “you have the wrong boy.” We need to find better solutions. This is where we need Father Gunti.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

A vocation test in “Diary of a Country Priest”

By James Tomek, Ph.D

Shortly after attending “An Hour of Prayer for Vocations” led by Father Nick Adam, I saw Robert Bresson’s acclaimed 1951 film, “Diary of a Country Priest,” (on the TMC Channel and based on a novel by George Bernanos) where a humble priest at a small parish keeps a journal of his experiences, which include hostility and a lack of compassion from members of the parish, a questioning of his vocation and prayer life, all while counseling a woman who years ago lost her infant son. He is also battling a serious stomach condition, reduced to digesting only small quantities of old bread and cheap wine with an occasional potato. After trying to get a colleague to return to the priesthood, he dies of a stomach cancer with a rosary on his chest and the words “What does that matter? All is grace.”

I joked with my wife that Father Nick should use this film in recruiting people to the religious life! But, on second thought, maybe this film should be a major part of the curriculum to confirm one’s sense of vocation. I will go through the film, discussing his particular challenges with the parishioners, then his thoughts on vocation from his mentor and doctor with a conclusion on the “success” of his life. It is a story about vocation in general. Did I choose the right one? Can I continue to have faith in a vocation where there is seemingly little compassion?

By James Tomek, Ph.D

The priest (in French they say Monsieur le curé or mon père where we would say “Father” only) is not referred to by name. He has trouble dealing with his lower bourgeois parishioners as they complain about him and are stingy in donations and goodwill. His catechism lessons to the young girls are met with derision, even from the one he thinks is the best student. His only attendee at daily Mass is Louise, the governess of the only nobility in the region. We learn that Louise is also the mistress of the Count whose home the priest visits to ask for financial assistance and to offer psychological help to his wife, the Countess, who still suffers from the loss of her child.

He has a mentor, a priest in another parish, Torcy, who is cynical and advises him to keep order and not let the people boss him around. The Torcy priest is resigned to accept his vocation as simply clerical. Doctor Delbende, another advisor, suffers from the same depression. He receives no compassion from his patients and will eventually take his own life.

Our priest is quite effective dealing with wounded souls. In a long central scene, he succeeds in helping the Countess to finally accept the death of her son. It is a complex confession reconciliation scene. The priest influences her to say the Lord’s Prayer in a manner that she resigns herself to her son’s death to the point that, even though still tormented by it, she arrives at a moment of peace. It is the priest’s honesty in this Sacrament of Reconciliation where she sees that he is truly afraid for the death of her soul.

The priest goes to Lille, a city, for a medical consultation. He receives a death sentence – stomach cancer, caused by his meager diet of cheap wine and stale bread. The very foods that he thinks he can only digest are bad for him. That these foods are also consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus at Mass may be a not so wise influencing factor.

At Lille, he does manage to see an old seminary friend who has left the priesthood, and has married, but who is sickly and poor. Before dying, he asks his friend to rethink his vocation and, also, to give him absolution. In this way, our priest helps the former priest to recover some of his first vocation. Is our priest a failure? There is a reoccurring image of him at a gate in front of his Rectory and the noble’s estate. Is it a sign of prison? He says that he cannot pray, but the diary that he keeps is an articulate and prayerful examination of conscience.

The film makes us aware that he is constantly writing down his thoughts. He is a very capable confessor with the two to three people that allow him to enter in extended conversation. We see that he really tries to help those who are broken. He suffers deceptions at first, but then seems to see through them. He refuses to take the advice of the elder priest as he will not resign himself from helping the Count’s daughter, who is filled with hate over her father’s actions. His resignation is not one of quitting, but that of letting go his ego and engaging.

When thinking about our vocation in life, we should see this film. Do we have this priest’s “faith” to continue in spite of all the physical and mental obstacles? When he says “What does it matter? All is grace,” what does he mean?

Grace is that gift that allows us to be charitable when all else tells us to think for ourselves. To me, this movie is really a positive statement about someone who accepts his vocation in the most trying circumstances. I hope that God will treat me the way this priest treats his flock. We need compassionate people to guide us, even when they are weary. Gate images? A prison? I say no. He is opening the gates of our prisons, like the narrator in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” a song about desperate people who need help. At the end of the song the consoler is weary, but sings out to us – “ Right now I can’t read too good/Don’t send me no letters, no/Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row.”

(James Tomek is a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Movie reviews


By Sister Hosea Rupprecht (CNS)
Award-winning documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky (“Cries From Syria”) issues a call for action with his film “Francesco” (Discovery+).
The unspoken summons comes through allowing viewers to witness the influence one man, Pope Francis, has succeeded in having over the many social and other issues of our time.
Rather than present a linear biography, the movie takes its form from the Holy Father’s own agenda. As depicted here, the pontiff’s primary goal is to bring the message of human dignity to the world by shining a light into some of the darkest corners of the globe, where political, social, economic and religious injustices have taken – and, in some cases, are still taking – place.
Afineevsky, for instance, brings his audience to the Philippines, ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, as Francis talks about climate change and the call to protect our common home.
The plight of refugees is highlighted through the pope’s visit to Lampedusa, a modern-day Ellis Island in the Mediterranean Sea through which thousands of Tunisian and Libyan migrants have passed, fleeing political upheaval in their home countries. The passage from the North African coast to Lampedusa is considered one of the world’s deadliest migration routes.
The pontiff also visits the island of Lesbos in Greece to which many Syrian migrants fled in the wake of their nation’s civil war. One interviewee calls the Syrian refugee situation “the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.” Pope Francis not only gave words of comfort to refugees – he followed them up with action, sponsoring the immigration to Italy of three Muslim families.
“Francesco” also address other hot-button topics such as clergy sexual abuse, homosexuality and the building of walls between peoples.
Where does the pontiff get the inspiration to do all he does? Afineevsky takes us back to the life of young Jorge Bergoglio, especially stressing the influence that his grandmother, Nonna Rosa, had on his growing faith and spirituality.
From his decision to become a priest, to joining the Jesuits, to becoming the archbishop of Buenos Aires and a cardinal, Pope Francis has been consistent in his action on behalf of others. In other words, the film shows that what Francis has done since his 2013 election to the papacy is just a continuation of what he had done up to that time.  
With a running time just under two hours, “Francesco” is quite long for a documentary. The film contains mature themes and some scenes of war violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association.

(Sister Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.)

This is the movie poster for the documentary film “Francesco.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association. (CNS photo/Francesco Docet Film)

“Fatima” – condemned to death and the Scrutiny of Life

Theology at the movies
By James Tomek, Ph.D
Seventeenth Century philosopher Blaise Pascal describes the tragedy of the human condition. Imagine that we are in a prisoner room of people and each day a guard comes in and picks one of us to be executed. That is our fate – we know that one day our turn will come. Our tragedy is not that we will die, but that the thought of death will cause us to seek divertissement so as not to think about what life is.
Marco Pontecorvu’s 2020 film “Fatima,” about the apparitions of the Blessed Mother to three peasant children, starts with a weekly roll call of dead soldiers in the 1917 war torn town of Fatima, Portugal. “Fatima” is a Pascalian answer to Jessica Hausner’s 2012 film “Lourdes.” Mary, appearing to Lucia and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco, is asking them and us to pray for peace. In this review, I will establish a comparison of the two films, highlight Fatima’s emphasis on prayer, and conclude with an answer to the Lenten scrutiny of life and what it might mean to be religious.
“Lourdes” concentrates more on the miracle healing aspect of religious prayer while Pontecorvu’s film focuses on the need for prayer, in general, to promote peace. “Fatima” takes place in 1917 Portugal, at war with Germany and guided by a recently secular government. This is Pascal country. The film is framed by a 1980s’ interview of Lucia by a professor who wonders why God would choose to speak to a common farm girl. This frame establishes Lucia as a sane, intelligent, and witty person who can be believed. However, is she a “seer” who has “prophet” status? Some peasants visit Lucia’s home to be a witness of the “seer.” A “seer” is a prophet who can see the truth in certain situations. Our biblical prophets sometimes predict futures, but their real message is the truth of the times that they are witnessing, especially the social injustices. “Lourdes” focuses on the reality of the miracle and how to pray when afflicted with a malady. Fatima goes elsewhere.
While the crowds of peasants in Fatima are looking for some miracle in their lives, the film concentrates more on Mary’s insisting that they pray for peace. The historical sections of the film show how the children have to stand up to the protests from their parents, church, and government, always with the background of the repeated roll calls of the dead and missing.
Lucia’s mother, Maria Rosa, is the strongest character. She is the most educated in the family and the most skeptical, insisting that Lucia recant her story so as not to have her be seen as crazy. The country has recently become a republic with a wish to have a secular government. Thus, the children are confronted by the priest, then the mayor, then the bishop and finally a government psychologist who pressure them to recant their positions so that the country will remain more at ease in a secular environment.
While the mother is pictured as an antagonist, we see that she really does love and support her daughter. The film sticks to reality. The original theme of “1917 Fatima,” of praying for the conversion of Russia, has been replaced/updated to a general prayer for peace and social justice. This air is seen in the beginning when Lucia has a vision of a woman in a cave who calls herself the Angel of Portugal. This premonition will be transformed into a vision of the Virgin Mary later. She is still simply dressed. These visions could be general “feelings,” but are they not still miraculously showered on the young Lucia in the form of heavenly Mariological signs?
My mother and I would have deep religious conversations. I remember her mentioning an apparition of the Blessed Mother in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. I responded that I did not believe in that “junk” (I used a heavier word). To which she got angry. But, a few weeks later, she called me asking for my advice on some matter because she said that I was more religious than she. I realized that believing in so called apparitions really had nothing to do with being religious to her (no way I was more religious than she was for sure). I was like the skeptical mother of Lucia talking to my mother about the Blessed Mother.
We are all in that roll call of the dead and will be reported dead sooner or later. Can this thought bring us to think about what is important? That is the third scrutiny of Life that catechumens go through during Lent (5th Sunday and the Lazarus reading) – and also the theme of the recent Divine Mercy Sunday. The film opens with a vision of the Angel of Portugal, the Angel of Peace to Lucia in a cave. We hear the bombings of a plane. The angel says that they just don’t seem to want to stop. I pray the rosary frequently. Why? We have the persecution of African Americans and now Asian Americans, not to mention all the violence done by haters to those of different faith traditions. They just don’t seem to want to stop.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)

Lourdes: Sacraments of healing and my memory of shrines

Theology at the movies
By James Tomek, Ph.D
Jessica Housner’s 2009 Lourdes, recently on the Turner Classic Movie channel, is a beautiful, yet complex study of the Lourdes phenomenon that gives insight on the powers of the healing sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. The story concerns a group of pilgrims in different stages of suffering who visit Lourdes to experience the healing waters of Saint Bernadette’s village. Christine, the major character, suffers from multiple sclerosis and is paralyzed from the neck down. Her roommate, an older woman, Frau Hartl, has some kind of facial paralysis. The leader of the group is Cecile, a rather tough talking nun who leads the pilgrims in their tour that includes the grotto, baths and confessions. Many of the scenes are of actual pilgrims. The film also shows the tourist aspects of the town, but is very ambiguous about condemning it, as it also puts us solemnly right in the middle of all the devotions with the beautiful music and chanting of the prayers. Silvie Testud, the popular French actress who plays Christine, accepted the part only on condition that the film not bash Lourdes. Two ladies, who serve like the Greek chorus, comment on miracles and why a God would help some and refuse others. After taking you on a “pilgrimage” through the film Lourdes, I will share some memories of sacred trips to our closer Canadian Shrines.

Empty pews are seen at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in early April during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Thibaud Moritz, JMP/ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters)

We see Christine first wheeled into the large cafeteria by Maria, a nurse’s aid dressed like a nun. Soon she is put to bed by the leader, Cecile, and Maria who kneel afterwards in night prayer. Cecile leads the group through their itinerary of visiting the grotto, receiving the general solemn “monstrance” blessing, along with the baths, confession, the Stations of the Cross and final picnic. Christine is not a devout pilgrim. She explains that it is only the wish to leave her assisted living place to have varied cultural experiences. In her confession, she admits not having sympathy for her fellow sufferers. She is jealous when her nurse Maria flirts with Kuno, a military helper, at the shrine from the order of Malta. When she is later cured, the two “chorus” ladies doubt her merit. Christine’s roommate, an older lady with facial paralysis, is in direct opposition to Christine devotion-wise. She takes care of Christine when Maria neglects her duties. She is sincere as we witness her praying in front of the primary statue of Mary.
Is the film somewhat critical of the tourist attitude? I am not sure. When the older lady prays in front of the statue, we see a souvenir sign to the left. However, if we look closer, the souvenir shop is in a mirror reflection and well behind the holy area. The head of the group Cecile seems cold at first. She scolds Christine for excessive pride when her roommate wheels her closer to the priest giving the solemn blessing. However, Cecile also devoutly prays for her after she has put Christine to bed. In the end, she faints, and we see that she is suffering from a cancer as her head reflects the ravishes of chemotherapy. I am reminded of the 1943 film, The Song of Bernadette, when an older nun, who had been criticizing Bernadette, changes her view when she sees the condition of her legs. I change my mind and see Cecile as a saint who leads hurting people to places of prayer and possible healings.
How do we look at this movie with respect to miracles? There is one young girl who regains a little consciousness, but then falls back into a state of non-being. Christine is cured and dances at the farewell dinner, but falls and needs a wheelchair as the film ends. Is the cure only temporary? Is the place a tourist trap? Why does God help some and not others?
The two chorus ladies pose questions of Divine Justice worthy of Job. The consulting priests assuage the sufferers in that they are all “cured” on some level, if they can accept their condition. I pray that this is true. On one level, I would advise believers to read someone like John Haught, who takes on why a powerful God would allow such misfortune, in his God After Darwin. There are beautiful adult explanations on why we should have faith in a “weak” God.
On another level, this film takes me back to pilgrimage trips that I took with my parents to the Canadian shrines of Saint Anne in Quebec, the Blessed Mother in the Cap de la Madeleine in Three Rivers, and Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I remember processions and services and also souvenir shops. However, most people were there to pray. Real pilgrims. Some left their crutches, but all were there in devout prayer. I went five times with my parents, who in the last time, bribed me by letting me drive. Two later trips were done on my will power. I took my mother to the shrines the Summer after my father died — a beautiful trip where we reminisced about dad and our religion. The second — a trip through the shrines with my spouse Yvonne. We had a controlled naivete as we visited the shrines, observing the major ceremonies at each place. There were tourists, yes, but the majority of the experiencers were people who prayed and were looking for meaning in life. Sometimes the pilgrimage effect can help you pray when a local church service might become too repetitious. The two trips helped me remember my family and religion.
The film Lourdes is so beautifully presented, with real pilgrims, that it creates the atmosphere of prayer and music, even if one questions at times the commercial aspect. It is a prayer.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)