Tuesday, May 30, 2006

mario, Mario, MARIO...

By Judith

Let me cut right to the chase: the Minnesota Orchestra's concert version of Tosca (May 26, 2006) was far superior to the Minnesota Opera's fully-staged version (November 10, 2005).

Let's look at the scorecard -

Sets and costumes: advantage Minnesota Opera. Since this was a fully staged presentation borrowed from the Baltimore Opera, it would be hard not to be better than a stage that had to simultaneously support the orchestra, a chorus of adults and a boychoir, the principal singers and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary ( in Act 1) and a writing desk (in Acts 2 & 3). But even here the Orchestra's costuming was clever and subtle, leading us to image who the characters were and what role they assumed. The three principal men all wore a form of tuxedo. The escaped prisoner Angelotti wore his white shirt partially unbuttoned and disheveledly pulled out from his trousers. Cavaradossi, the painter, wore his black dinner-length coat buttoned, but had no tie, his shirt open at the collar. The nobleman wannabe, police chief Scarpia was in in full regalia, complete with tails. His henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone wore their shirts buttoned with long ties. And what an impressive, chilling sight the three of them were when they made their first act entrance from the back of the stage, the spotlight shining in a blood-red tint. Lighting also helped to set the place and mood in Act 1 as shadows of stained-glass windows were projected on the walls and a rosetta window was displayed over the block baffles at the back of the stage.The Opera's version of the Te Deum at the end of Act 1 also had the advantage of full costuming as the clergy and boychoir, in complete Catholic vestments processed onto the stage. The Orchestra had to settle for the choir in black and white, while the boys wore uniforms that looked like little sailor suits worn in a Victorian nursery.

Singing and acting: advantage Minnesota Orchestra. While the Opera's Tosca, Galina Gorchakova was described by Artistic Director Dale Johnson as "a sensation on the world stage," I found her to be only an adequate singer. Her vocal production was not always pleasing to the ear and the performance lacked emotion and connection with either the part or the audience. Acting ability: none. William Joyner as Cavaradossi was not bad, but often could not be heard over the orchestra. As is often the case in this opera, Scarpia made the best impression. Kim Josephson's voice was rich and dark and he displayed the menace and danger essential to the character.

Ah, but we're talking amateur hour here compared with the singers at the Orchestra. Deborah Voight, Carl Tanner and Greer Grimsley were head and shoulders above the Opera's cast. Miss Voight's beautiful soprano was warm and her delivery heartfelt as in her 2nd act aria "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore." At her wit's end, Tosca ponders her past and future and shows a rare vulnerability for the self-assured, proud diva. Whether she was giving us a glimpse of a softer side, toying with Cavaradossi ("make her eyes just a little darker"), or shivering in disgust at the touch of the snake Scarpia, Miss Voight delivered the goods in a totally believable way.

For all the hype surrounding the appearance of Mr. Tanner (will he show up in work boots and be carrying a gun - he was a trucker and a bounty hunter in previous careers), it turns out that he is after all a real opera singer. Cavaradossi's 3rd act aria "E lucevan le stelle" is probably one of the most famous in all of opera. Mr. Tanner easily traversed this and "Recondita armonia" in Act 1. His full-bodied tenor was able to soar above the orchestra throughout and his ability to display both defiant heroism and tenderness for his beloved made this characterization an equal to those of Tosca and Scarpia, not always an easy thing for this character.

Scarpia often can steal the show out from under the title character and if anyone could do it, Greer Grimsley could. His Scarpia was unctuous, nasty, menacing and just short of the very devil himself. Even his own long hair was pulled back into a tight braid that suggested a rat's tail and what a rat he was. But a rat with a voice. Cutting through the on-stage orchestra and choruses in the Te Deum, his strong baritone was forceful and did battle without pushing or showing strain. Mr. Grimsley was the Minnesota Opera's Scarpia in their 1998 production, and if he sang and performed then as he did this night, he probably did steal the show.

Musicians: advantage push. While the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has the advantage of experience at performing opera, the Minnesota Orchestra is one the premier orchestras in the country. There was no let down in quality in the transfer from the pit at the Ordway to the stage at Orchestra Hall. In fact, having the orchestra on stage with the singers in front, so that they and the conductor could not see each other was a distinct disadvantage (rather like Ginger Rogers doing all the same steps as Fred Astaire, but backwards and in heels). However, the only time that it was even an issue was during Cavaradossi's 3rd act aria when singer and orchestra were slightly out of sync. But opera rookie Osmo Vanska can be proud of the job that he did with these performances. He claims that he has no aspirations to conduct at the Met, but if Esa-Pekka Salonen will be there next season, can Mr. Vanska be far behind?

Totaling up the points, singing and acting must be weighed more heavily than sets and costumes. Add in the orchestra and it's a definite win for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

- John McCrae

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing


By Mitchell

For those of us of a certain age, Memorial Day meant (among other things) the Indianapolis 500, the one auto race that even non-sports fans were aware of. Before Memorial Day itself became one of those Monday holidays, the race was run on May 31, regardless of what day of the week it was (except if it was Sunday, in which case the race was held on Saturday), a surprise that often popped out at us from the middle of the week. Now, ironically, the race is run only on Sunday (unless there's rain), making of it something more like a regular sporting event and less like somthing special.

For that reason and for others (having to do mostly with racing politics too complex to get into here), the race has lost more than a little of its lustre. But there's still something magic about the Brickyard, and for those of you who still look forward to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, or for those looking to harken back to the days when it still was, check out this wonderful Indy 500 website that I keep in my Favorites list. Make sure you've got ample time to really dig into this treasure chest of information, and enjoy!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

The state of mind of the Minnesota Opera, and for that matter the states of mind of so many opera companies today, can be summarized in this neat little quote from The Mumpsimus (HT: Terry Teachout):

Theatre audiences and critics have been conditioned to expect plays to deliver messages, and many good playwrights have mangled their art by bowing down to this condition. One of the problems with the messages delivered by most contemporary plays is that they're predictable and shallow—war is bad, love is good, people should be nice to other people who aren't exactly the same as they are, etc. One of the results of ticket prices being so phenomenally expensive is that audiences expect what they see to give them either a lot of spectacle or some sort of education, though if you've just paid $85 for a seat, what you probably most want is a reinforcing of your current ideas under the guise of education, so that way even if you aren't entertained, at least you feel smart and righteous. (Yes, I'm generalizing horribly.)

The Mumpsimus is talking about theatre, but he could well be referring to the state of modern opera today. (And, after all, what is opera if not theatre on a flamboyantly grand scale?) I don't want to accuse the Minnesota Opera of being one of the most notorious "message" opera companies around, primarily because I'm not that familiar with other opera companies. But it's clear that, from the beginning of the MO, the message was the medium through which the music passed. And, one might suggest, it's that message today that's keeping the MO from being the opera company that its directors fancy it already to be. For when any art organization becomes so obsessed with the new and the provocative, they risk overlooking what's already out there - some of which might surprise them, if they bothered to look.

True, the MO is a modest opera company - four or five productions a year, certainly nothing to compare with the Met, or even the nearest large company, the Lyric in Chicago. And maybe it's unrealisitc to expect the big stars to sign up with the MO, even for just four or five performances. Why should they come out here to a small opera company in the sticks?

Well, Renee Fleming and Dawn Upshaw have been in St. Paul, as a matter of fact - right in the same building where the MO performs, if you can believe it. But they weren't singing for the MO - they're some of the stars who've performed over the years at the famed Schubert Club, one of the best classical music organizations anywhere. Across the river, just a few blocks from where we live, the Minnesota Orchestra routinely features such stars as Deborah Voight, Jane Eaglen, James Morris and Sumi Jo.

So you can't make the argument that stars don't know where Minnesota is - they know quite well where we are. This is hardly hayseed territory when it comes to classical music. And yet they don't seem to be performing at the Minnesota Opera, do they? Gee, maybe the MO can't afford to attract bigger names because they're so busy spending their money commissioning new works. Ya think?

In the last few years early opera composers like Handel, Hayden and Monteverdi have made something of a comeback. If you heard the Met's broadcast of Rodelinda a few weeks ago, you couldn't help but get caught up in it. Even over the radio one could sense the excitement in the hall, the long and loud ovations that came after each aria. Of course, having Renee Fleming as the star helped.

Now, as it happens, the MO did do Handel once - back in 1994. Perhaps it's time for them to try early opera again. There can be no question that the MO has scored big-time with its bel canto productions. They've succeeded in attracting talented performers and solid productions, and they've carved out a niche for themselves in the opera community. Might not the same thing happen if they added early opera to their repertoire?

The problem here is that the MO always seems to be interested in something new, different, and especially controversial. Notice the operas they debut - political screeds like The Handmaid's Tale, or stories with social underpinnings like The Grapes of Wrath. They take a moving story like that of The Elephant Man and turn it into a dialogue on the disabled. Even when they do a straightforward opera, one such as Orazi e Curiazi, they can't resist the temptation to take the story, set in ancient Rome, and transplant it to the time of the American Civil War. In that case, all that was missing was a chorus in blackface singing, "Zip-a-dee-do-dah."

One might look at all this and ask why? Why bother.

Remember my clue from last week? Gian Carlo Menotti. At one time back in the 1950s, Menotti was one of the best-known opera composers around. He was the first to realize the potential of the new medium of television, and was the first to compose an opera expressly for TV (the beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors). It's true that Menotti has fallen out of favor over the years, but there are two operas of his that stand as prime candidates for production, if your opera company has a scintilla of creativity about it.

The Saint of Bleecker Street would fit in perfectly with the kind of production the MO likes to do. A gritty, urban drama, it deals with the tensions within a family. The daughter, Annina, may have the stigmata, has visions of the Crucixison, and wants to lead a religious life. Her brother, Michele (whom we would call "a troubled young man") fights to keep Annina out of the cloister. He disrupts a wedding, murders his girlfriend (who has just accused him of loving his sister more than he loves her), and vows to fight God to keep Annina. In the climatic ending, Annina, who has had visions of her impending death, dies just as Michele crashes the ceremony at which she is to receive the veil. If that's not opera, I don't know what is.

The Saint of Bleecker Street won the Pulitzer Prize for music, but remains an underperformed opera today. During the intermission discussions on the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, The Saint of Bleecker Street is often identified as an opera worthy of revival.

Or take Menotti's The Consul, the story of a woman trying to get a passport to escape a totalitarian country. This would seem right up the alley for a company that likes "message" operas. (And, in fact, the MO did do The Consul - back in 1979.) You might ask yourself why the MO doesn't revive it? Maybe they can't figure out a way to suggest to the audience that George W. Bush is the leader of Menotti's totalitarian state, I don't know. My point here is that to bring Menotti back (and several opera commentators have mentioned that the time is ripe for a revival of Menotti) would show something that the MO doesn't often exhibit - creativity. They like to think they do, what with their new, provocative productions - but new doesn't equal creative.

It doesn't have to be Menotti. It could be Dominick Argento, whose productions were a staple of the early years of the MO, dating back to when they were still the Center Opera (in fact, a couple of his operas had their premieres here). And Argento has strong Minnesota roots, having taught at the University of Minnesota for almost 40 years, and currently holding the title of Composer Laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra. According to this bio, "Since the early 1970s the composer's operas, which have always found success in the U.S., have been heard with increasing frequency abroad." Of course, he hasn't been heard at the MO since the 1990-91 season.

In fact, there's a whole lot of American opera out there - if you don't believe me, just check this website. Is all of it good? Probably not. But it requires some thought to put together seasons that include pieces like these. My contention is that thought is not the strong suit of companies like the MO. After all, why be original when you can be provocative instead.

One of the underwriters of classical music on our local public radio station reminds listeners that "all music was once new." That's undeniably true, but you notice they don't say that all music is good. The two words aren't interchangable - new does not equal good. And in their obsession to bring us new, provocative, commissioned works, companies like the MO seem content to ignore the vast collection of opera that's already been written but sits there gathering dust.

Sure, they might argue, the audiences don't recognize the old works. Well, I'll tell you, if they recognize The Grapes of Wrath, it's probably because they were forced to read it in high school, and they probably don't have very generous feelings about it, either.

As I mentioned in my piece a couple of weeks ago, opera has always been political. And if you can produce a political work that remains artistically satisfying, then good for you. Verdi did pretty well by it, as I recall. But current opera offers politics as polemics rather than poetry, anger instead of art, lecturing instead of lyrical. It's a fine way to validate the ideological opinions of your audience, to reinforce their own beliefs and make them feel good about themselves. But entertainment? Give me a break.

For that matter, I'd contend that the most stimulating opera selections in this area come from the Des Moines Opera. Over the last fewyears they've been able to mount several productions of rarely performed contemporary opera - The Saint of Bleecker Street and The Consul, Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky, The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore - that aren't seen around here. Perhaps, one might argue, the overall quality isn't on par with that of the MO, but I'd suggest that these selections show more thought, more creativity, than the bulk of what the MO has done.

I realize that I risk contradicting myself here, suggesting that new opera is too "political" while urging the production of older operas, many of which might also be considered "political." Or castigating new and provocative productions while favorably citing examples from the Center Opera era when new and provocative was the rule. But that's partly the point - why continue to commission new works that aren't necessary? I suppose it's just easier to do that than to actually think about what might be out there. Then, of course, there's the glamor and approval from your peers from your "new, controversial, challenging" piece - something like The Handmaid's Tale - or your ability to "engage contemporary issues" as they attempt to do with this year's Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. And if audiences don't respond they way you'd like to see these pieces - well, they just aren't educated enough to know what's good for them. After all, we Midwesterners do have a bland pallet.

It's also true that there's more to programming a season than running down a menu of choices and choosing the ones that look good. Price, availability of singers, ability of the house to stage the production - those are all major considerations, and ones that I'm sure the MO considers when they start planning a season (often, years in advance).

My point in all of this is that you don't have to spend a ton of money on important commissions or go looking for politically relevant, provocative new operas. There's plenty of underperformed opera already out there. Just have an open mind and the willingness to expand your mission.

The architect Cesar Pelli, when asked whether or not there was a place for beauty in architecture, replied that it depeneded - if one was designing for critics and fellow architects, then it didn't matter. But if one designed for the public, then beauty was an absolute necessity.

The Minnesota Opera faces much the same question: what is their mission? If they're trying to win critical acclaim and approval, then by all means keep on producing works like The Handmaid's Tale. After all, indulging oneself can be fun sometimes. But if they're interested in entertaining the public, perhaps it's time to rethink their strategy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Funeral of St. Joan of Arc

By Mitchell

Wait a minute, that's the funeral at St. Joan of Arc. It only seems like we're burying the parish.

Read Ray's first-hand account of the funeral of the parish's former pastor. Featuring an appearance by Archbishop Flynn!

Warning: the link provided includes disturbing images of heterodoxy, heresy, and stomach-turning spinelessness. For adult audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

Commencing What?

By Mitchell

Well, I had no plans to write about the commencement controversy at St. Thomas, but since it's been all over the blogosphere (here and here, for starters, and bravo to Fr. Fox for taking the case right to the head of St. Thomas - read the combox for his letter) I figured I had an obligation to at least mention it. (I spoke with a St. Thomas grad yesterday, who summed up the whole thing: "I mean, what the hell did these people expect? It's supposed to be a Catholic university, after all.")

It's not just the rabble in the audience at St. Thomas, of course, and that's not really what this is all about. This is one of those ho-hum things that comes up every year. A bunch of snot-nosed brats who think, now that they've been through four (or five or six) years of higher education, that they know everything there is to know, and they're going to let everyone know about it. And why not? They're college graduates! (You'd think they were bloggers!) As Rich Lowry points out in his NRO piece, all it really does is serve to give these ripened adolescents the one thing they crave more than anything else (except, perhaps, for money, sex and drugs): attention. It also serves to make decent people like you and me angry, and we hardly have the time or energy to waste on clowns like them.

So I've got an idea. Why not get rid of the commencement speaker altogether? They've become nothing but a lightning rod for controversy, from either the left or the right (the commencement speaker at my graduation was practically an out-and-out Communist. I didn't walk out or shout during the speech, but I didn't applaud at the end, either.) And anyway, it's obvious that these self-absorbed punks don't want to hear anyone yakking away up there - it's just keeping them from getting their diplomas and getting out of there.

But, hey, why stop there? Let's just eliminate the commencement ceremony completely! Mail the diplomas out. Or better yet, send them to the students as a .pdf file. Then they can print out a new copy whenever they need one.

After all, from today's colleges they're just about worth the paper they're printed on anyway.

Monday, May 22, 2006

What's Wrong With the World?

By Judith

The answer to that question filled a volume when G. K. Chesterton pondered it. I will only give one example.

A review of this past weekend’s concert by the Minnesota Orchestra appeared in today’s Star Tribune, which included commentary on the performance of Aho's Flute concerto. In part it reads:

Where the Symphony No. 7 takes a generally cheerful tone, the concerto speaks in a voice mostly sad and wistful -- even angry at a few points. At the time of the work's composition, Aho tells us in his notes, he was burdened by the recent death of his father and what seemed to him to be the imminent death of his beloved dog, Emma.

The piece seems to meditate on these matters and doesn't, at the end, come to any kind of grand, uplifting kind of consolation. Aho, one would guess, is too sophisticated for that.


And there we have it. The problem faced by the elite artist, or the elite of any profession, who try to go it alone, to make sense of it all by themselves. Sophistication.

I’m not talking about the suave Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, the movies of the 30s where men wore tuxes and women wore evening gowns and danced the night away. I mean the sophisticated, arrogant attitude that we’re above it all, that science is superior to religion, that if we throw enough money at a problem we can fix it, that if we try hard enough we can transform the world into a heaven on earth.

I have not heard Mr. Aho’s flute concerto, so I can’t make any judgments about the music. I can only guess that if the piece is like other compositions of music, literature or art that lack “any kind of grand, uplifting kind of consolation,” then it will touch the heart about as much as any nihilistic artistic effort, which is to say, not at all. We might die of hypothermia when coming into contact with art that doesn’t tread beyond our own boundries, that doesn’t reach out to the spirit within us, to the Spirit that longs to engulf us.

We can “meditate on [the] matters” that matter most from now until forever and never come to any consolation, grand or not, until we cast off the sophistication that keeps us from humbly approaching the One who can offer us the hope of consolation. He said it thus: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

Where the Heart Is

By Mitchell

In the current edition of Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, David Reiling has a piece on “socially responsible investing” that hits the nail on the head when it comes to how each of us is called to social responsibility in our lives.

Reiling talks of The Vice Fund, a $46 million investment fund that, he says, is for those who “believe in making money at all costs” by investing in industries such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling and weapons.

The pragmatism of the Vice Fund contrasts sharply with the values of Socially Responsible Finance. "There's a big difference between irresponsible living and irresponsible investing," Vice Fund portfolio manager Charles Norton told The Wall Street Journal. "Being socially responsible in life is a good thing, but it shouldn't interfere with making a good investment."

Well actually, yes, it should; why would you divorce your moral life from your financial life? Foundation boards know their fiduciary responsibility isn't limited to maximizing rates of return, but includes balancing that return with investments that complement their mission. A company with a high rate of return that pollutes our groundwater would not be a good investment because the return doesn't justify violating the clean water.

Now, I don’t know what issues are important to Reiling himself, although he says “I don't care to invest in tobacco, but I'm neutral about alcohol; I hunt pheasant, so I'm not anti-gun; and to me, gambling is just entertainment, although I recognize for others, it's an addiction. “ But he understands something that is often all-too-lost amidst the materialism of Corporate America:

Ultimately, investors must decide what kind of a world they want their children to inherit. Perhaps one of the greatest legacies we can leave our sons and daughters is the idea that the value of a dollar can be measured in ways that extend beyond numbers on a balance sheet, so that our children learn to invest with their conscience as well as with their wallets.

Reiling identifies the situation in a way that few do, or care to: your moral life should be the guiding spirit in every part of your life. He’s not talking about the government legislating morality, but something that for many is far more frightening: letting your conscience be your guide.

I often rag on those, from politicians to entertainment figures to corporate executives, who somehow think their personal and professional lives are two separate entities. In fact, as Christ tells us, a house divided against itself cannot stand. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) As St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote, “One is worth what one’s heart is worth.”

For too many in society today, their treasures indeed tell us much about their hearts, and their values. Why indeed should you divorce your moral life from your financial life, or any other aspect of your life for that matter? Kudos to Reiling for stating it so plainly.

The Uncivil Society

By Mitchell

Katherine Kersten, the Strib's conservative colunmist, talking with former Minnesota Lt. Governor Sandy Keith on the lack of civility in today's politics:

The rural-to-urban population shift -- accelerating from the 1950s through the 1980s -- was another factor in the growth of hard-edged partisanship, Keith says. "Small-town and rural people don't like divisive party labels, because they have to get along. They see each other at the barbershop and the grocery store."

Today, more people live in urban areas where they are, ironically, more isolated from those who think differently. "Politicians don't have work so hard at civility in urban areas," says Keith, "because they probably won't have to face their opponent at the local gathering places the next day."

I think Keith makes a very interesting point here, one that resounds not only in politics, but all over the blogosphere. We've become such an impersonal lot nowadays, arguing endlessly with nameless, faceless beings out there, that the rules of civility doen't seem to apply. It's pretty tough to have an interpersonal relationship with someone you've never met, never seen, whose name you don't even know. We all argue under different handles, like so many callers to talk-radio programs, until we've become characters of human beings. At that point, it's no wonder that the inherent dignity of the human begins to fade; if we don't treat ourselves that way, why should others?

There's another point imbedded in Keith's comments - the dangers of living our lives in isolation. It's the kind of thing that urbanologists from Jane Jacobs to Sarah Susanka have written about - the McMansions, the exurbs, the style of living that takes us farther and farther away from others. We build our homes bigger so we aren't running into each other. We build them farther apart so we have more privacy. We surround them with land so we aren't bothered by traffic. We become less interactive with our neighbors, even as our fascination with technology and the Internet allows us to be less interactive with those in our own households.

The sad part about it is that some who disagree with that preceding paragraph (and many will, especially other conservatives who may fear I'm starting to turn from blue to red) will use the tactics described in the paragraph above it to argue about it. There are lots of blogs out there that might have good content, good opinions and points of view; but I won't even waste my time reading them because of the lack of civility they show. They try to be clever rather than insightful, and they substitute snarkiness for a clear recitation of the facts within the context of their argument.

One-party dominance means that voters don't get to hear the other side of the story, while officeholders don't have to defend their views. Keith says a two-way street is vital. "When I was running for governor in 1966, I made a speech in Hibbing, and called for 'taxing the rich.' A constituent from Rochester took me aside, and showed me what he and people like him were actually paying. I changed my mind."

A key, for Keith, was getting to know the people on the other side of the political divide. He didn't find as many "devils" and "saints" as we tend to today.

"When you have the chance to get to know your political opponents," Keith says, "you realize that most of them are pretty good people."

This is one of the major reasons I got out of politics when I did. Politics has always been the bare-knuckled, rough-and-tumble, but at the end of the day you could brush yourselves off, give each other a pat on the back, and go out for a drink. Today, you come under intense suspicion by your constituency for even having friends on the other side of the aisle.

(As an aside: unfortunately, those who complain about friendships that cross party lines often have some good reason to fret. My experience has been that people can be co-oopted in their opinions through such relationships. Why? In part because we've become so inept at truly expressing firmly-held opinions in a civil yet forceful manner, it's often easier to compromise for fear of giving offense than it is to stick to your guns and risk escalation of the disagreement. And let's not forget having a sense of humor; it always helps.)

Anyway, it's probably no surprise that politics mirrors society; it always has. As Bishop Sheen used to say, a corrupt society produces corrupt leaders; corruption, like the bubbles in a glass of beer, always rises from the bottom.

But as a rule we've always tried to remain civil on this blog, both in terms of our writing and our management of the comboxes. I often think it's a good thing we don't have as many comments as some blogs; show me a post with a lot of comments and I'll show you one that often degenerates into name-calling and mudslinging.

There's nothing wrong with strongly-held opinions, nor is there anything wrong with a frank expression of them. But let's try to at least do it with a little style. Let's quit trying to always win points for presentation and instead try to win points with those with whom we might disagree. Don't worry; I'm not going to pull one of those, "Can't we all just get along?" deals. I'd settle for us all just getting to know each other first.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Footnote on Recent Priestly Appointments

By Mitchell

Just a footnote to Ray's post on the latest pastoral appointments in St. Paul-Minneapolis, in particular Fr. Joseph Johnson's appointment as the new rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Fr. Johnson was ordained from the parish of St. Agnes. I knew him slightly from his first assignment, at St. Olaf in downtown Minneapolis, after which he went to Rome for two years of studies. He struck me then as being very much in the mold of a St. Agnes seminarian; he was one of the only priests I've ever seen who did the Roman Canon during a weekday Mass. When I knew him he was very orthodox both liturgically and theologically.

For the last two years he's been pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul (which I believe has a heavy Hmong congregation) and he'll continue in that post as well.

A friend of mine who has connections to the Cathedral said that their philosophy has always been to be a "middle of the road" venue; not too liberal, not too conservative, a place where most people would feel comfortable. Now, we'll set aside whether or not that's a good thing; I merely point this out to give you the background on the Cathedral. Fr. Skluzacek, the outgoing pastor, had been seen by some as moving the Cathedral a little more to the right. We'll see what happens - if anyone has any further insight or information they can share, I'd be glad for it - but on the face it appears to be (another?) very good appointment by the archbishop, who continues to puzzle and confound...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Thank You - Not!

By Mitchell

The first thing you notice about Thank You For Smoking, writer-director Jason Reitman’s take on the Christopher Buckley best-seller of the same name, is that exactly nobody in the movie actually smokes. Not onscreen, anyway. Now, we’ve been conditioned in these hip, post-modern times to think that the title might just be some kind of ironic commentary, and that therefore we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of tobacco use on screen. Perhaps, we think, the story isn’t even about smoking.

Ah, but it is; in fact, there’s so much smoking action in the book that you could practically contract lung cancer just by resting its covers on your chest. We could get into an extended discussion on whether or not the lack of smoking in the movie is a result of some P.C.-think, or if it’s just a big joke on the filmmaker’s part, waiting to see if anyone actually notices the irony. (Speaking of irony, it’s surely ironic that one of the major sub-plots of the story is the hero’s efforts to sell Hollywood on the idea of including smoking as a sort of product-acceptance-placement within movies. Apparently Jason Reitman wasn’t one of the moguls he talked with.)

As I said, we could get into this discussion, but I don’t think we will. It does, however, bring to the forefront the fact that there are a lot of differences between the film and print versions of Thank You For Smoking. I know, that’s hardly a revelation, is it? After all, Gone With the Wind stands as a superior movid adaptation of a book because the movie only cut out one of Scarlett's children. To base a review of a movie, particularly a negative review, simply on the difference between the movie and the book on which it was based is to display something between ignorance and naivety about how the movie business works.

And so I realize I’m going to have to come up with more than that to justify ripping this movie. TYFS can certainly be criticized on its own merits, as well as for the areas in which it falls short of its source material. However, it would be foolish to simply disregard those movie-vs.-book comparisons as unimportant, especially when it comes to changing the key elements of the book plot in such a way as makes it difficult for the movie plot to stay cohesive (and true to the author’s intentions).

So, adopting the breathlessly hip tone of the movie (a tone which, incidentally, was absent from the drier, more subtle book), let’s take a look at the three common forms of book-into-movie adaptation:

The “Slavish Devotion” Method. This approach was much more common in the heyday of the television miniseries. (Think Masterpiece Theatre, or perhaps Roots or The Thorn Birds. You know, one of those sprawling epics that keep networks like Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel in business.) Roughly speaking, one page of the book equals one minute of screen time, so a two-hundred page novel translates into a four-hour (with commercials) miniseries. By the time you get to one of those dictionary-sized books, you’re talking about enough programming to take care of a whole sweeps period. And while you still might not get the entire story of the book in one of these miniseries, you’re going to be so overwhelmed by the end that it won’t really matter.

The “Let’s Just Borrow the Title” Method. Think James Bond here. I mean, do you think Ian Fleming really pictured the Space Shuttle when he wrote Moonraker back in 1955? Of course not. Frankly, the title and the lead character are about all the average Bond movie has in common with its namesake. And there’s nothing wrong with that; the filmmakers realized they were creating a new art form with the Bond movies, one that could coexist in relative harmony with the books. I’m sure Fleming didn’t complain; after all, the movies made a ton of money, and probably boosted the sales of his books. And fans didn’t complain: even if they read the book, they could go to the movie knowing the suspense hadn’t been ruined for them, since they’d be seeing a completely different story.

The “Square Peg – Round Hole” Method. This is probably the most common type of adaptation. It involves editing the book’s story until it fits into the movie’s running time. The basic elements of the plot are retained, even though the need to shoehorn the book into this strictly-defined time period means characters are condensed, action is compressed, and subtlety is all but eliminated. It gives you a basic understanding of what the book was about, although scores of book-report-writing schoolchildren throughout the years can testify that seeing the movie is no substitute for reading the book. This seems to be the method Jason Reitman used in adapting and directing TYFS. How successful was he?

Well, he gets the basics right, and in sometimes delightful ways. The movie opens with our hero, the tobacco-industry lobbyist Nick Naylor (a smarmy yet endearing Aaron Eckhart), appearing on an Oprah-like talk show in which he’s confronted with “Cancer Boy,” a balding, gaunt teenager in the grip of lung cancer caused by his tobacco use. As in the book, Naylor calls on all his spin-doctor skills to turn the entire issue sideways: why, after all, would the tobacco industry promote a product that kills its consumers? In the end it only means losing a customer, and why would any good business knowingly do that? In fact, it’s the anti-tobacco advocates who stand to profit the most from Cancer Boy’s death; remove the poster-child for the evils of tobacco, and all you have left are a bunch of white-coated scientists putting everyone to sleep with their medical jargon. By the time Naylor’s done, even Cancer Boy seems to look at him as a friend.

Then there’s Nick's regular luncheon companions Polly and Bobby Jay, lobbyists from the alcohol and firearms industries respectively, who together form a group they call MOD, (Merchants of Death). Although they don’t play the prominent role in the movie that they do in the book (especially Polly, the booze lobbyist), they capture the tone of the characters exactly right.

But here the movie begins to lose the devious complexity of the book. In simplifying the plot, Reitman sacrifices much of the intricate detail that made the climax particularly satisfying. [WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD] And in doing so the movie suffers not only in comparison to the book, but on its own merits as well.

The first sign that things were amiss occurred after Naylor, appearing as a guest on the Dennis Miller show, receives a threat on his life. Now, Nick is used to such things – they come with the terrain – but there’s something about this threat that stands out. In short order Nick is kidnapped, his body covered by nicorette patches, and dumped nearly naked at the Lincoln Memorial. He comes to in the hospital, surrounded by concerned family, friends, and co-workers. He’s told by his doctor that he must quit smoking (the smoking that we never see him do on screen), since his body has absorbed so much nicotine from the patches that any more could kill him. And, … well, as far as the movie is concerned, that’s about it.

In the book however, this scene plays a pivotal role. The FBI, failing to produce any leads as to Nick's abductors, begin to suspect him of staging the whole thing for publicity. His friends and co-workers start to doubt as well, and this is where the book begins to shift from a political satire to a suspense thriller, as Nick searches for the answers to these and other questions that begin to haunt him.

So who was responsible for the abduction? The movie, omitting the “he-staged-it-himself” theme, never bothers to answer the question, which essentially means the entire scene could have been left on the cutting-room floor without any impact whatsoever on the rest of the story. One watching the movie with no prior knowledge of the book might find it an odd scene to include, and might ask himself the same question: what was that all about? Without the whodunit aspects, the scene can’t even be justified as a red herring. There’s simply nothing to it, and a wasted scene like this is a serious flaw in a brief (92 minutes) movie – especially since book-to-film translations emphasize editing for “time constraints.”

Hard on the heels of this scene (in the book) is Nick's realization that one (or more) of his co-workers is out to sabotage him. The movie only hints at this, in an initial scene where it’s implied that Nicks' boss BR (J.K. Simmons) takes credit for an idea of Nick's. It’s handled well but, as with the kidnapping scene, nothing more comes of it. And then there’s another devious co-worker, the sexy-but-dangerous Jeannette, a major player in the plot who’s cut out of the movie all together. The book's Nick finally puts all the pieces together and in self-defense replies with a ruthless course of action (complete with Deep Throat-style characters), that leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion, one quite different from that which Reitman furnishes.

I could give away more of the book’s story, but why bother? Just buy the paperback edition and enjoy it. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t pick on one of the movie’s major flaws, one that has nothing to do with the book, for it was this flaw that ultimately convinced me to give this movie the thumbs-down. It occurs in the movie's final act. Nick has been totally embarrassed in a newspaper article by his journalist-lover Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes, who as the weak link in yet another movie proves once again that any acting beyond her love for Tom Cruise goes way beyond her range). The tobacco institute dumps him, his lobbyist friends (whom he betrayed with his comments in the article) abandon him, his son Joey (Cameron Bright, and it should be added that Joey plays a much more important role in the movie than he does the book) becomes depressed by his father's failure. With nothing to lose Nick appears before a Senate commitee and, using all the skill he has, embarrasses the publicity-seeking Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (brilliantly played with true greasiness by William H. Macy), thereby winning back the respect of his friends, the love of his son, and the renewed respect of the tobacco institute.

And here's the movie's biggest failure: Nick, flushed with triumph and vindication, appears on the steps of the Senate with the newly-loyal BR, facing a battery of cameras and microphones, whereupon Nick announces that he's spurining the renewed affection of his old employers to go into his own consulting business. Or rather, I should say, Nick voices over this announcement, while the scene plays out in a montage of still images in the background.

Now, one of the cardinal rules of movie-making is this: never tell when you can show. And, having battled with fiction writing for many years myself, I can tell you that there are two reasons why an author describes a scene rather than letting his characters tell the story themselves: either he can't come up with the right words for his characters because the scene is so hard for him to describe that he keeps avoiding it until the end, or he admits that the words he has come up with are a total failure and decides to cover it up the best he can.

I don't know which one of these best describes Reitman's tank job in this pivotal scene. Having led the audience to expect some kind of climatic showdown between Nick and BR - having, in fact, encouraged us to think that Nick was finally going to let him have it - the scene falls flat on its face. Oh sure, we see BR's shocked expression as he realizes what Nick is doing, but we don't really savor it. The whole thing feels rushed, as if Reitman came to the end of his alloted time, realized he wasn't done yet, and tacked on the scene in order to explain everything. The voiceover narriation and snappy style that's served him reasonably well throughout the movie fails him miserably here.

And Reitman fails the audience miserably as well. In the 92 minutes of screen time he has, he introduces potential plotlines and then abandons them, throws in scenes that go nowhere, and then rushes us through a climax that never really comes off. One wonders if the meter was ticking on this project, if he couldn't have added an extra ten minutes or so and written a more satisfactory ending. Or maybe he just got tired of the whole thing, as I did sitting in the theater.

It's really too bad, because there was much to like about TYFS: the smart, intelligent wit, the snappy dialogue, the sharp acting (we didn't even cover the delightful cameos by Rob Lowe, Sam Elliot and Robert Duvall), the clever graphics, the cool style. Ultimately it was the story that let us down, and in that perhaps we were expecting too much. It just proves that packaging isn't everything, even in the movies.

Christopher Buckley, when asked what the movie's agenda was, replied that it was to make him money. And why not? Having already writtin the story he wanted to write, he could afford to sit back and count his money while Jason Reitman wrote a completely different tale. I'm sure Buckley was laughing all the way to the bank.

Which was probably more laughter than Thank You For Smoking: the Movie deserved.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Statement by Fr. Welzbacher of St. Agnes

By Mitchell

Fr. Welzbacher's announcement of a new pastor at St. Agnes. You can read it here.

Offered because, quite frankly, we just can't get enough of this story.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

What It Is

By Mitchell

What it was, in a sense, was much ado about nothing. What it is, is something more.

By now most of you know the comings and goings at St. Agnes this week. Going are Fr. George Welzbacher, the pastor, and Fr. Robert Altier, the associate pastor. Coming are Fr. John Ubel, the new pastor, and Fr. Randal Kasel, the new associate pastor. (For those of you interested, here's the story as it finally appeared in the Pioneer Press this weekend.)

Considering the events of the last few months, there was more than one person who lept to conclusions, who foresaw, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf heard one person term it, a "St. Agnes Massacre." Most of those people feel into one of two categories. Many of them were people from outside the parish, or even outside the state. They knew of St. Agnes' reputation, they had some knowledge of the friction evident in the debate about the Virtus sex-ed program, and they assumed that a purge of the parish had begun. They foresaw all kinds of calamities, from the end of the Latin Mass to the introduction of altar girls. To be generous, most of those people had no real knowledge of the inner workings of the archdiocese or the personality of the parish, and therefore might not be expected to understand why such a wholesale change would be quite unlikely.

The second category is a little harder to define, and for that reason a little more interesting. Most of the people in that second category were people who had been associated in one way or another with Fr. Altier, whether within the parish itself or in one of the groups for whom he provided spiritual guidance. These are the people who found themselves most at odds with Archbishop Flynn over the Virtus program, who had been the most vocal in expressing their distrust of the archdiocese, and who were most wounded when the archbishop "silenced" Fr. Altier earlier this year. Those people saw their friend and counselor being exhiled to a meaningless post - a nursing home, of all things - and the pastor who had defended him being punished with transfer to a smaller parish (some said it was even outside the diocese), saw it as yet another attack on their othorodox beliefs, saw the archbishop and his minions in the shadowy background pulling strings, ready to lower the boom, fiddling with St. Agnes while the Church burned (the heretical St. Joan of Arc parish, priests speaking out against an amendment banning same-sex marriage, and so forth).

By most authoritative accounts, they were wrong. Fr. Welzbacher, citing increased age and the desire for a less-stressful position, apparently requested the change in assignment. Fr. Altier, the gentleman and loyal priest that he is, appears to have accepted the assignment in obedience. The new pastor, Fr. Ubel, and the new associate, Fr. Kasel, are both men of exemplary skill; good, holy men who are expected to interject new blood into the parish while keeping the unique character that has produced a world-famous liturgy and over 25 vocations to the priesthood in as many years.

So, pray tell, what was all the stink about?

*****

I was talking with a friend the other day, a man who has some knowledge of the workings of the archdiocese although he doesn't currently work within the administration. It was his opinion that Fr. Altier had just pushed the Virtus issue too far, to the point where it was practically a personal attack on the archbishop, who had to do something about it to maintain his authority."

"So it wasn't a case of what he said as much as how he said it?" I asked. He nodded.

"Well, yeah," he replied. "It's all about putting yourself in opposition to the archbishop. Old Harry was pretty patient about the whole thing. His attitude is that you can do what you want, as long as you don't attract attention." The pastoral change at St. Joan of Arc, for example, came because they had become so public about their "unique" ways that it was attracting too much attention. Had they kept it to themselves without rocking the boat, nothing might have happened.

"On the other hand," he continued, "Jack Roach [Archbishop John Roach, Archbishop Flynn's predecessor] wouldn't have stood for what Altier said. He would have come down on him right then and there. Of course, he wouldn't have stood for what was going on at St. Joan, either. Roach had the reputation for being a liberal, but ultimately it was his way or the highway."

"The archbishop doesn't much like conflict, does he?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Basically he'd just like to get to retirement without anything else happening."

Of course, by his own actions Archbishop Flynn has made that pretty much impossible. And there, I think, we come to the heart of the matter.

*****

One of the great challenges in the Church in America, now and over the coming years, revolves around the actions and authority of the bishops, and their attempts to retain (and, in some cases, win back) the trust of their flocks. Now, there's always been conflict between bishops and the people, probably back to the time of the apostles. (In looking at the frequent squabbles and arguments among traditional Catholics, someone once said they were worse that Protestants, to which I replied, "Of course we are. We actually believe in something.) And there have always been differences in the ways in which bishops governed their dioceses. None of this is new.

What is new, and what the Church will have to deal with, is the great flow of information that has made it possible like never before to find out what's happening nationwide in the Church. The Internet, the blogosphere, cable and satellite TV, have all made the world much more immediate, and the exchange of information much more comprehensive. One of the results is that almost anyone with an Internet connection can, with a few keystrokes, call up diocesean newspapers and websites from all around the country, listen to speeches, read pastoral papers, and see how bishops other than their own govern their dioceses. We can turn on EWTN and watch the USCCB meetings, we can see the bishops interviewed, we can compare notes.

And so we learn that there is a great deal of disagreement among the bishops, and a great deal of difference in how they run things. We wonder why some dioceses seem to interpret the teachings of the Church in one way, while others interpret it differently. We look at Archbishop Chaput (Denver) or Archbishop Dolan (Milwaukee) or Bishop Bruskewitz (Lincoln) or Bishop Olmsted (Phoenix) or Bishop Finn (Kansas City) for example, and what they say and how they do things, and we wonder why Archbishop Flynn says and does the things he does.

This is a cause of scandal in more ways than one. Not only does it confuse the faithful, it also makes it extremely difficult for those outside the Church to tell what the Church really teaches. (I've related in the past the story of my friend, who hasn't crossed the river yet because he can't tell what Catholic Church he'd be joining - he figures, based on what he's heard, that there must be five or six of them out there.) Is the Church for homosexual marriage or against it? Is it permissible for a Catholic to be pro-abortion or not? Is the GIRM a book of rules for the liturgy, or merely a list of suggestions? So many times, it all depends on who you listen to.

I've said often in the last week that I did not believe there was a conspiracy against St. Agnes, that in fact I thought Archbishop Flynn knew exactly what he was doing and that on this one, he was right. He has the reputation for some excellent appointments during his time as archbishop, and I have a great deal more confidence in his pastoral abilities than I do his administrative ones. But one can, in the long run, hardly blame those who lept to conclusions, who thought the archbishop had it in for Fr. Altier and, by extention, them.

The perception is that Archbishop Flynn is reluctant to discipline those of the "liberal" bent while quite willing to come down on "conservatives." (I put those in quotes because I, like many, feel the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are more political than theological.) There's the heresy at St. Joan of Arc, members of Rainbow Sash receiving communion, priests publically opposing the archbishop's call for a state amendment against homosexual marriage, his own diocesean newspaper supporting Notre Dame's staging of The Vagina Monologues, possible sex scandals being covered up. (See here, here, here, here and here for more.) Add to that the arrogance with which he often appears to deal with those who disagree with him (as in this example), and you get a real sense of distrust between the archdiocese and some of its people.

Ultimately, I think it is Archbishop Flynn himself who is to blame for so much of the distrust. As another friend mentioned to me last week, "he sure has bad PR." Even in these appointments to St. Agnes, which I believe to be excellent ones, they came out tainted and distrusted.

We're told to trust our bishops, to have faith in them and obey them. But what happens when people not only lose faith in their bishop, they feel that to obey him puts them in direct opposition to their beliefs? This is how many orthodox Catholics in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis feel. And this is what the Church will have to deal with in the years to come: well-educated, orthodox Catholics who feel that their bishops are violating their faith, leading them astray, acting against the teachings of the Catholic Church to the extent that they directly contradict what these people believe. Throw in that bit that liberals love to quote from Vatican II about the primacy of conscience, and you have a prescription for disaster.

We can't have the laity vote out bishops, of course; we're not Episcopalians, after all. Perhaps we need less autonomy by the bishops and more direct oversight by the Vatican. Perhaps the collegial union of bishops has proven to be a failure. I don't know, and I don't pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that the way it is, right now, isn't working. Our Lord said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church; He said nothing specifically about the Church in America.

*****

Those going to St. Agnes today to find out what actually was going on (from the horse's mouth, as it were) were disappointed. Or maybe not.

In his homily today, Fr. Welzbacher said nothing of the appointments, of the rumors that had been flying around. Instead he spoke of Jesus' message in the Gospel, as related in John 15:1: "Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit." He looked at this saying in the context of the life of Paul, as it appeared in the first reading from Acts (9:30).

Paul had become an outspoken, fervent advocate of Christianity. He spoke boldly, often at risk of his life. His reward for this faithfulness, apparently, was exile. He was sent to Tarsus where for three years he did - nothing. He lived there ignored, left alone, apparently with nothing to do. It must have seemed to him as if he'd been completely forgotten by the Church, that all his works had been for naught. Perhaps some of the most fertile, productive years of his life - lost, wasted, amounting to nothing. What possible good would he be able to do, just sitting there?

Of course, we know better. Paul grew during those three years; grew in wisdom and understanding, so that when he did emerge it was with a fervor and knowledge that soon ecipsed that of the other disciples. He would go on to write most of the New Testament, travel throughout most of the known world evangelizing, teaching and converting, before suffering a martyr's death. His life was anything but a waste.

It was all part of the pruning process. Jesus promised that those who bore fruit would be pruned, that they might go on to produce more for Him. Paul's apparent "exile" was part of that process, a process that all of us who might fashion ourselves disciples of Christ will undergo at some point in time. It may be a painful, even harsh, process; and when it happens, when it feels as if we're alone and ignored, that our lives are wasting away, that we may even be being punished for our beliefs, we can look back to the life of Paul, and the words of Jesus, and know that it is not a punishment, not a waste of time. It is part of our reward, part of the favor with which Christ looks on His disciples. We listen to His words, we remember the example of Paul, and we take faith in the knowledge that through God all things work for His good.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Finally, It Can Be Told

By Mitchell

Over at WDTPRS, Fr. Zuhlsdorf reveals the name of the new pastor at St. Agnes - as had been rumored, it is Fr. John Ubel. Fr. Z has nothing but praise for Fr. Ubel, and that is high praise indeed. People reading Fr. Z, who is a straight shooter if ever there was one, should feel much relieved about the whole thing. He also sheds some additional light on the events that have transpired. I'll allow myself a pat on the back to suggest that it's pretty much as I had said the last few days, but in reality I think anyone in touch with the whole situation would have come to the same conclusion.

Hat tip to fellow Minnesotan The Roamin' Roman, who also has excellent words about the whole situation. (via Ray from our partner site, Stella Borealis)

More to come, I imagine.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

Sorry about that, folks. Due to the, er, unexpected storyline for the week, Opera Thursday has been postponed until next week. But if you want to do some homework, I'll give you the secret word for next week's post.

Gian-Carlo Menotti.

For those of you with the Hadleyblogger decoder ring, make of it what you will.

St. Agnes, Again

By Mitchell

Where to begin, where to begin...

By now most have heard that Fr. Altier's new assignment is as assistant chaplin at Regina Medical Center in Hastings, just outside the Twin Cities (although the way urban sprawl goes, it should be a suburb in no time). So was Fr. Altier being punished, as so many assumed? I really don't know. What I do have to offer is this piece from Spirit Daily. In it, Fr. Altier says he is looking forward to the new assignment:

The new assignment, which will last for three years, will allow him tremendous free time, he said, during which he plans to read, write, and exercise. "I've been too busy the past few years to exercise and I've put on some pounds that I may be able to take off now," he said. "There's a 'Y' below the nursing center."

Is it possible that he's merely putting on a good face to avoid creating more controversy for the Archbishop? Sure it is. It's also possible that he's being completely honest in his comments. (I can vouch to the fact that he's put on a few pounds over the years, as have we all!) I think we might be advised to take this holy man's word at face value, until and unless we hear something conclusively to the contrary.

In addition, although I can't put a finger on a link, I've heard that Fr. Altier will continue as the spiritual advisor to Catholic Parents Online, the group so outspoken for their opposition to the Virtus sex ed program.

Fr. Welzbacher is apparently returning to the parish in New Market where he was pastor prior to his assignment at St. Agnes. It is said that he requested the transfer, and I'll repeat what I've said in the comboxes of several sites today: Fr. Welzbacher is nearly 80, he reportedly has had some health issues recently, and this has been an extremely stressful assignment. Besides what happened with Fr. Altier, he had a much bigger headache shortly after he arrived, dealing with a small group of teachers in the school who didn't seem to appreciate that they worked for a Catholic institition. Those of us at St. Agnes know what kind of stress Fr. W went through during this time, and I can only imagine what kind of a toll that took on him.

I know there are sites out there that regard Fr. W's reassignment with suspicion. They speak in tones that suggest quote marks around the the words "at his request," as if this is merely the "official" story. I don't know if it is or not. I simply point out that there is no reason to think that this is not true, and there is no reason to believe this is related to the Fr. Altier situation.

As to the new pastor, I have yet to hear an official announcement. I don't like to engage in rumor, and yet the rumors I've heard have been fairly consistent. In this case I'll confine myself to linking to the report on this local blog - a report, I've been told, that can be considered reasonably reliable. Is that hedging enough? What I'm trying to say is that I think Terry's post is correct, but I haven't seen an official confirmation yet. When it is confirmed, we'll print his name.

The new associate pastor will be Fr. Randal Kasel, a son of St. Agnes parish - a good and holy man and former teacher who, I think, will do an outstanding job and will be very well received. (His brother is in the final years of seminary as well.)

My line since this started is that people must be careful to not overreact. This is not the end of the world, people. I think the reports of some kind of conspiracy have been greatly exaggerated. Is an injustice being done to Fr. Altier. Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. I do know that great good will come out of it - good for those in the nursing home who will benefit from his counsel, good for the parish in that two good priests are on the way.

Part of the problem with the whole thing is Archbishop Flynn. As a fellow blogger commented to me, he has terrible PR. It could well be that he's made all the right moves here - two good priests to St. Agnes, a less stressful post for Fr. W., and a pastoral assignment for Fr. Altier. I'm actually willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here, and as most of you regular readers know, I'm no fan of his. And that's my point - the archbishop's actions during his tenure have so polarized people (four words: St. Joan of Arc) that people are, with good reason, inclined to jump to conclusions. The archbishop has a reputation for "good hire, bad fire," meaning that his appointments are by and large quite good, but he shies away from conflict and discipline (except, as many acidly point out, when it comes to heterodox priests). Frankly, considering the simply awful content in the archdiocesan newspaper, and the lack of respect many of the "officials" in the archdiocese show to conservative groups, the archbishop has no one to blame but himself for this poisoned atmosphere. But in this case, considering the two appointments we're expecting, I think - I could be wrong about this - I can't help but think this time the arch knew exactly what he was doing, and he got it right.

You know, not all was perfect at St. Agnes. We're human, you know. This post by Terry at Abbey-Roads makes some very perseptive comments, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with the substance of what he says. The truth is that for some time now - at least in our experience - it's been difficult to reach priests at St. Agnes, it's been difficult to have phone calls returned, and it's been easy to feel left out. Judie and I tried, for over six months to have someone come over and bless our new condo after we moved in, to no avail (we finally called one of the priests at St. Olaf, who was delighted to come over and do it). Almost a year after we moved, St. Agnes still doesn't have our correct address. One of our contribution checks was never cashed, after more than a year. There are those who say that there was an air of detachment over there, and I can't really quarrel with that. There's virtually no adult ed (other than Fr. Altier's Fundamentals of Catholicism), no social programs, not much for adults who aren't involved in the school. (One friend gently suggested to me that the archbishop's action earlier this year might have had the consequence of Fr. Altier actually spending more time in the parish, and had the archbishop not handled the whole thing so badly, it might have been easier to acknowledge that possibility. But, of course, he handled it the same way as he does so many things, dismally.)

Please understand - this isn't intended as a laundry list of complaints, nor is it supposed to be finger-pointing at anyone. It's a big parish. And we are members in good standing. But my point is the same: that it is not perfect, that there is room for improvement, that we should not stop hoping that the parish can be made stronger, more welcoming, a better place to which one can belong. In other words, things can be better - as they can in most walks of life.

So I'm optimistic about the future, and why not? "Be not afraid." As our friend Bearing Blog says in her comment on our previous post, "I agree that there is potentially great hope in this change." We don't ignore the threat of the bad (after all, we subscribe to The Wanderer), but we don't ignore the possibility of the good, either.

As we get more information we'll continue to update on it, and we'll provide all the commentary we can. Stay tuned, again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Grist for the Rumor Mill

By Mitchell
Updates at end of post

OK, here we go again. And just when life seemed to be calming down!

Yesterday we received an email from a good friend of this blog reporting a rumor of an upcoming change in priests at St. Agnes. The change would include the reassignments of Fr. George Welzbacher, the pastor, and Fr. Robert Altier, the associate pastor (supposedly to posts outside the diocese). This was apparently announced at the Tuesday morning Mass. Whether this was a formal announcement from the pulpit or a comment made from a parishoner is unclear. Nonetheless, the rumor was there.

Now, this is a matter of some interest to us since, in addition to the reporting we did earlier this year on the situation involving Fr. Altier and Archbishop Harry Flynn, we're also parishoners at St. Agnes. I don't particularly like dealing in rumors, so I did some emailing and fact-checking with friends last night and this morning. Turns out that the rumor is flying around via email, from several different sources, all saying basically the same thing. Although none of these sources are what could be called authoritative, it does seem apparent that something is up.

The rumor was reported today at Jimmy Akin's blog, and also at this local blog. As far as I'm concerned, that makes it fair game. But fair game for what? A lot of people are expressing instant opinions - shock, concern, sadness. Many fear for the future of St. Agnes, which is truly a jewel in the crown of Catholicism. Some wonder - perhaps I should say assume - that some kind of retribution is going on.

I'm going to withhold any extensive comment on this until we find out exactly what is going on - I have no doubt something's in the works, but I don't want to appear presumptuous about it all. And it really is mere speculation - even if we find out what happened, it's unlikely (although not impossible) that we find out why. (If, indeed, there is any why to find out.)

Having said that, I would like to offer the following thoughts:

I would caution everyone to stay calm and not jump to conclusions about this. This does not necessarily mean that we aren't in for a tough time, but we need more information to see what happens. There are many excellent priests in this Archdiocese, and depending on who the new pastor is (if this is, in fact, true), I don't see any reason to automatically assume that things will go downhill. (I could float the names of two or three priests right off the top of my head that I think would please many of us.) Remember, Fr. Welzbacher is in his late 70s, and were someone to tell me that he was getting ready to retire or to go to another, smaller, parish, I wouldn't have been surprised. And Fr. Altier, a pastoral man, may well be ready for a change. (UPDATE: St. Agnes says he's been assigned to a nursing home in Hastings, and this seems to be confirmed by several correspondents.)

The point is, again, that we don't know. And until we do know, this is all just a lot of typing and hand-wringing for no reason.

As I mentioned, this is not to discount the possibility of less favorable ramifications, especially concerning the school. I think the possibility of wholesale change for the worse is extremely unlikely, though not impossible. But based on some of the speculation being floated around, I think this is presumptuous. Let's just wait and see what happens, and keep calm in the meantime.

I apologize if some of you think this post has been kind of vague, but it's meant, more than anything else, to let you know that, yes, we've heard the rumors too, and we're checking them out. We're not oblivious to what's going on. And for those of you who might have read the blog during the previous story about Fr. Altier (and I know you're out there, judging by how our readership numbers shot up), rest assured that we'll continue to let you know what's going on as soon as we know more, and if there's more to say, we'll say it.

UPDATE: Thursday morning. Although most of the confirmations, so to speak, have centered around Fr. Altier, it appears that the rumor of Fr. Welzbacher leaving is true also. This comes from a source I feel is credible, and seems to me to make perfect sense when viewed in context. I don't feel at liberty to divulge the information yet, but (IMHO) it seems likely to me that his reassignment has nothing directly to do with the Fr. Altier situation.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Better Late Than Never - Catching Up on Duke Lacrosse

By Mitchell

While we wait for the next chapter in the Duke lacrosse scandal to unfold (and since the prosecutor won his primary election, we can expect that this will continue), here are two quick takes on the story that I've been meaning to get to for the last week.

First, Herb Ely puts up an excellent post on how the NCAA always seems to be blindsided by things like this. Could it be because they're so preoccupied by such weighty matters as the use of "Native American" mascots? As he says, "the NCAA strains out gnats and swallows camels." I particularly loved a quote from one of Herb's friends that “when they got to the bottom of Watergate they’ll find a college basketball coach.” As a fan of both sports and politics I can identify with that 100%

Hadleyblogger Bobby also wonders if there's something amiss here - if there's a relationship between the investigation of this scandal and the crusade for gender equality in college sports:

The status of the political correctness in our society with the rights of males to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities is irrevalent; men are banned from many activities because of Title IX requirements. We have had a school system favouring females for over 30 years, and Jessica Gavora's Tilting the Playing Field should be required reading in this situation.

With this woman's track record with crime, it's no wonder she can get away with even a false charge to force Duke to can men from sports. If this goes to its logical conclusion with the woman's request to ban men from sports, would Duke eventually can its football program and leave the ACC, and even demolish Wallace Wade Stadium, which was the site of the 1942 Rose Bowl?

Bobby agrees that time will tell as to whether or not the charges are true. But, he adds, "She had the [season] cancelled, and if the politically correct attitudes of the school hold true, they won't bring the team back because it violates Title IX mandates that women have more teams than men."

Remember when the winning and losing in sports was confined to the playing field?

Sacred Music and the Natural Law

By Mitchell

AdoroTeDevote has been hosting a discussion over the past couple of weeks on that most controversial of Vatican II documents, Sacrocanctum Concilium. Specifically, she' s looking been what at the actually document says about ? liturgy and sacred music and, not surprisingly, finds that the document is, for the most part, quite different from what many of us hear at Sunday Mass.

Adoro's comments were quite prescient in light of the stir caused over the weekend by the use of Mozart's Coronation Mass as the liturgical music for the Saturday Mass commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guard. Amy has links to fine stories providing photos and details of the Mass (be sure to read the various comboxes as well). I'll let you rely on the links rather than single out any particular one, except to say that they're all good.

I will admit to some satisfaction at seeing the panic some of the liberal liturgists must be in - in particular, there was one horrified commentator asking if the Pope considered himself above the GIRM. (In brief the answer was, yes, he is.) For we all know that Benedict has taken an active interest in papal liturgies, and so we assume that his stamp of approval was on this one as well.

It's also amusing to see people considering this Mass as if it were some kind of relic, considering that we hear the Coronation Mass several times a year at St. Agnes, along with orchestral Masses by Beethoven, Haydn, Bruckner, Dvorak and others.

So all is chaos. It's good to know, however, that there's at least one commentator out there who's optimistic about the future of liturgical reform:

One more aspect of this movement, which must not be forgotten, is its democratic character. For the carrying-out of the full ideal demands the co-operation of the entire people, who will no longer assist at, but take part in, the liturgy. This may not be accomplished in a day, but the Church works for the future, and already she is sowing the seeds. The little Catholic school child is learning to pray, not only in words, but also in song; not only in the Church’s language, Latin, but in her musical language, Chant; and when these children grow up, our choirs will be the whole Catholic world. While the variable and the more elaborate parts of the liturgy will demand the great genius, the great artist, the simpler parts will be taken up spontaneously by the entire congregation; producing the superb contrast of, on the one hand, the perfection of art, and on the other, the majesty of numbers. This is, indeed, nothing new: it is thus that the liturgy is intended to be rendered; it is thus that it has been rendered in the past, and is still rendered in a few centers of Catholic life. It is simply a return to the true ideal, a “renewing of all things in Christ,” a revitalizing, through art, of the spirit of Catholic democracy and universality.

Now, I should add one thing about this comment, which comes from Justine Bayard Ward. It was written in 1906. That's right - 100 years ago there was talk about active participation, "the simpler parts...taken up spontaneously by the entire congregation." In other words, Ward clearly expected that the congregation should be able to master certain parts of the Latin in a dialogue form with the priest. We know that Pius XII, for example, encouraged the dialogue in his private Masses, but for the most part there's been this assumption that the Tridentine encouraged - nay, commanded - that the congregation sit quietly during the Mass, saying their devotions while the servers handled the responses.

Ward also makes some extremely interesting comments about sacred music and the natural law (which is what I used in my Google search to come up with this article), which I think helps to explain why so many of us are turned off by the Haugen-Haas style of composition - well, that and the inane lyrics, that is. In explaining that liturgical prayer is not "an expression of individual reaching up to God" but is, in fact, "the Church praying as a Church," and that therefore a certain mesure of dignity is required in the musical setting of these prayers, Ward goes on to offer this comment:

Modern music has two scales, or Modes. Chant has eight. It is evident that eight modes gives greater variety of expression than two - an advantage for which even our modern indiscriminate use of the chromatic does not fully compensate. A mode is a manner. As in speech the speaker's manner shades the meaning of his words, sometimes even alters it, so in music the mode, or manner, determines the character of the composition. The meaning of a triad, for instance, depends entirely upon whether its manner be major or minor: lower the third, and its manner is sad; raise the third, and its manner is gay [or happy, for those of you unaccustomed to the previous meaning of the word gay]. Our present musical system is limited, then, to two manners, the major and the minor; and so Chant has the advantage of greater scope and clarity.

This reminds me of something I heard the composer Peter Schickle say once, in talking about the use of majors and minors, flats and sharps. He said that certian chords correspond to the natural rhythms of the human body, producing a sympathetic response (by which he didn't mean a sympathetic emotion, but one in which the body acted in harmony with the chord). Although Ward limits her discussion to Chant as the preferred alternative to music (in fact, she doesn't seem all that enamored with polyphony either), one can see the logic nonetheless. And it is this, I would submit, that goes a ways toward explaining why we have a visceral reaction to so much of modern liturgical music. Ward continues:

[t]he character of these two modern scales compels us to choose between a gayety almost frivolous on the one hand, and, on the other, a sorrow savoring of despair; neither of which emotions has any place in the Christian soul at prayer. The eight modes of the ancients, on the contrary, were devised to meet the requirements of prayer in an age when art was exclusively the servant of religion. They enabled the composer of the period to seize the subtle prayer-spirit, that elusive characteristic of Christianity, the rainbow tints of joy in suffering. Chant is joyful, but with the joy of the Cross, as distinguished from the joy of the revel. Chant is fervent, but with the passion of asceticism, as distintuished from the passion of the world. Prayer-sorrow is never despair, nor is prayer-joy ever frivolous. Chant is the artistic embodiment of this spirit, the minor idea nd the major idea are so interwoven, their relation is so intimate, that to disentangle them is impossible. We are never left in sorrow, yet our joy is never without a cloud. Even in those bursts of ecstatic joy of the Easter Alleluias lurks the memory that we are still a part of earth, still in the valley of tears.

Imagine that - the idea that our liturgical prayer, as expressed through Chant, actually has something to do with our understanding of our faith.

Now, there's much more that can be said about this, more that I'll include in a future post. For example, although I'm a great believer that orchestral Masses can and should be used within an actual liturgical setting, I think there's also room to discuss the outer limits of the use of such Masses, in terms of length and repetition. (There's certainly no question that operatic settings that turn parts of the ordinary into virtual arias can be considered "vulgar" in the sense of their relationship to popular culture rather than that of the sacred.)

We'll leave that for a future discussion, however; for now let's ponder the relationship of music and the natural law. Is much of our modern "liturgical music" contrary to that law? Is that why we have an instinctive revulsion to so much of it? Can you actually compose good sacred music in this day and age? And can listening constitute "active participation"? (Hint: this pope thinks so.) Stay tuned, and in the meantime discuss.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Happy Birthday, Bishop Sheen

By Mitchell

One of America's greatest Catholic apologists, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, born this day in 1895 in El Paso, Illinois. Happy Birthday, Bishop Sheen!

(And, coincidentally, it's also mine.)

Friday, May 5, 2006

Nothing New Under the Sun

By Judith

You may have heard the argument that wages for jobs in America have been lowered to create a demand for immigrant labor because "Americans won't take those jobs."

The names and places may have changed, but the idea hasn't. Here's a quote from Old Thunder, the biography of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce.

"For Belloc, the issue of cheap imported Chinese labour was a further example of the manipulative power of big business. He insisted, during a further debate on the issue in April, that the shortage of labour used by the mine owners to justify the imporation of Chinese labourers had been deliberately created by the forced lowering of wages. It was nothing less than a cynical attempt to undercut the wages of native labourers. He was also concerned with the way that the Chinese labourers were being treated, asking in Parliament whether rumours that they were being routinely flogged were true. His concerns were shared by other MPs, most notably by Lloyd George, who declared that the importation of Chinese labour had 'brought back slavery to the British Empire'."

We may not be importing workers (they are coming of their own accord), but the result is the same for them in the low wages they receive and for American workers who can no longer afford to support families without two incomes, and sometimes extra jobs. It's a shameful business no matter in what century it occurs.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Book Report or What I Read During Lent

By Judith

With an entire wall and then some of the office filled with books, many of which I have yet to read, what did I decide to read during Lent? Yes, books I’ve already read. Granted, it was 30 years ago and my memory doesn’t span beyond this morning’s breakfast (was that toast or cereal?), so it was like reading something new.

I wanted something on the lighter side and I wanted it to have a Christian theme or underpinnings. Since I had already read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in preparation of seeing the movie of the same name, I decided to continue with the entire Chronicles of Narnia. And then I moved on to Lewis’ so-called “Space Trilogy.” And then for good measure, I read the entire Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton. To be fair, that took me beyond Lent, but I was on a roll.

Now I’m not going to presume that I can write a profound, insightful commentary on these books; it’s been done far more often by far more intellectual writers than I. What I will do is jot down a few of the things that jumped out at me as I read.

Lewis has been criticized in some circles for making the Christian imagery too strong, too obvious. I believe that Tolkien mentioned this once or twice in comparison to his own Lord of the Rings. Narnia, however, was aimed at children; adults were along for the ride. Children tend to like things in primary colors and many of them might not be schooled in the more subtle points of biblical studies. I had no problem with the imagery. It was comfortable and reassuring.

There has also been some controversy lately about the order of the books. The order that my set was labeled was 1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; 2. Prince Caspian; 3. The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”; 4. The Silver Chair; 5. The Horse and His Boy; 6. The Magician’s Nephew; 7. The Last Battle. I think that this is considered the order that Lewis wanted. My set was printed in 1976, the year in which I read it. Afterward I decided to pencil in on the inside cover the order I thought they ought to be in. It is: 1. The Magician’s Nephew; 2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; 3. The Horse and His Boy; 4. Prince Caspian; 5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; 6. The Silver Chair; 7. The Last Battle. Compare this to your favorite order-switch. I did read them in the traditional order and was content to do so.

The one event that stands out for me in the Chronicles was what didn’t happen at the end. A favorite Protestant view of salvation is once saved, always saved. Lewis himself never did make it to the Roman Catholic Church, but I must confess that I haven’t read enough Lewis to know what his take on salvation is (or perhaps I read it long ago and forgot. Sieve.) Getting to the point, however, guess who is conspicuous by her absence as the world comes to an end and the characters find themselves in Heaven or Hell? In Heaven “There was Glimfeather the Owl and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, and King Rilian the Disenchanged, and …Caspian himself. And close beside him were the Lord Drinian and the Lord Berne and Trumpkin the Dwarf and Trufflehunter, the Good Badger…Bree the Horse and Hwin the Mare…the two good Beavers and Tumnus the Faun…King Frank and Queen Helen.” Even Reepicheep the Mouse and Puzzle the Donkey were there. Eustace and Jill, Queen Lucy, King Peter, King Edmund and even Emeth the Calormene (a Moslem-like character). So who gets “left behind”? Susan. One of the great queens who wept over the slain Aslan, who fought in the wars against evil, who ruled over Narnia. Queen Susan does not go to Heaven for she had found another god in material possessions and in herself, reveling in the pride of her appearance. Susan, who had it all, who seemingly had it made, did not make it. Be ever watchful. Work out your salvation daily with fear and trembling.

The space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength is geared more toward adults. The themes are more subtle, the writing more intricate, the ideas more thought-provoking. I first heard That Hideous Strength presented on the radio as part of the series Reading Aloud with host/reader Bill Cavness. This was probably around 1970-71. There would be a different theme song for the program for every book presented. This theme was Mars from The Planets by Gustov Holst. Compare the two and you’ll see what a brilliant piece of match-making it is.

The book that stood out for me on this go-round was Perelandra. It made me the most uncomfortable, as well it should. In short, the plot is a re-creation of the choice to be made in the Garden of Eden, with the main character of the book, Ransom (no coincidence there), put in the garden to help the Lady resist the temptation of the Devil character Weston (a scientist) and be reunited with her King. Lewis’s ability to make Weston sound reasonable and correct while saying the most outrageous things far surpassed the arguments in The Screwtape Letters. I found myself wanting to shout out, “Don’t believe him; he’s lying. Follow Ransom, listen to him.” It was such a wonderful portrait of how Satan can oil the way down that slippery slope to sin and damnation. It was scary.

Chesterton’s Father Brown is one of the most remarkable detectives in fiction. Of course, heroes are always supposed to win in the end, but Father Brown has something more going for him than just a protective author. His great humility and unassuming manor enable him to look at a situation, put himself in the middle of it, clear away the red herrings and come up with the criminal each time. He has nothing to gain personally and thus can focus more readily. At almost 1,000 pages, the entire collection is interesting to read all at once. It’s easier to remember the people and events from earlier stories that are referenced in later ones, for one thing. It’s also fascinating to watch the style and prose change from being almost over the top at the beginning to becoming deeper and darker as the stories went on. I admire writers of mystery stories; the plotting and characterization are like puzzles and, as anyone who solves word or number puzzles knows, it is far easier to solve the puzzle than to create it. As it is, I was only able to guess the correct criminal in the last two or three stories.

And now I have moved from fiction to biography. Currently I’m reading Old Thunder, a biography of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce. And what a fascinating person Belloc is! I’ll keep you posted.

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