By Paul

When I was a boy, each August the 15th was a bit of a milestone for me and for all of my friends.  In the Catholic tradition, which we had grown up in and which we were so steeped in that it was a part of the very fabric of our lives, this date was what used to be called a Holy Day of Obligation.  It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (for those unfamiliar with Catholic lore, this refers to the story of the taking of the living body of Mary into heaven by angels at the end of her life).  On that day, all practicing Catholics were obliged to attend mass, under pain of mortal sin, which meant that – if you died with it “on your soul” and without having confessed and received absolution – you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

But for those of us in what was still referred to in those years as Grammar School, being condemned to hell could seem almost like something of a reprieve in comparison with the reality of returning to class once again.  August the 15th meant summer was, alas, almost over, and we had only two weeks left; so better make the best possible use of these last few, final days of freedom.

All this took place in upstate New York, not far from Albany.  Even in those northern climes, it was still far too early to even think about fall color.  That wouldn’t happen until the beginning of October.  And yet, all you had to do was to look around and you could see that summer was drawing down, nearing its end.  The trees themselves had a kind of tired, shopworn look to them, as if they’d been working full bore since April or May and they were beginning to feel the effects of all that effort.  The leaves seemed drier, dustier, less verdant, a little tattered along the edges.  The oaks, sugar maples, and sycamores were drooping a little, and their leaves were beginning to make strange, rattling, almost brittle noises in the late afternoon breeze.  The light, too, was changing.  Now, almost two months past the Summer Solstice, the sun was setting earlier and earlier.  We could tell that, as we rode our bikes after dinner.  Dusk was settling in by 7:00 or 7:30, and it was getting harder to see.  Mothers were calling their children earlier to come in for the night, and somehow, as much as we might complain, we knew we were ready, too.  As we took those last bike rides of the evening, we ourselves had begun to talk about which nun we were going to have “next year,” as we still called the start of the fall term, already looming so close.  Would it be strict but unstable Sister Mary Clotilde, or bumbling but sweet Sister Mary Barbara?  It was all up to Mother Amabilis, the Principal of St. Patrick’s School, the decider of our fate.  But one way or another, we were beginning to accept the stark fact that summer was almost over, and the day of reckoning would soon be upon us.

Now, in retirement all these years later, there are no more fall classes to dread, no more wondering which of the sometimes not-so-merciful Sisters of Mercy might be standing in front of the classroom that first Tuesday after Labor Day.  And yet, August 15th somehow still stands out to me as a marked day.  It still signals the fact that, even in sunny Southern California where I live, summer cannot last forever.  It denotes, it highlights, it memorializes the fact that seasons pass, that time shows once again its frightening, fleeting evanescence, and that yet another year has flown by and is now two-thirds on its way toward completion.  Jokingly, I tell my partner that Christmas is almost here.  He tells me he doesn’t want to hear it and, when I am being most honest with myself, neither do I.

I am 68 years old, soon to turn 69.  The big seven-oh, as they say, looms on the near horizon.  I have been retired for over six and a half years.  And as lucky as I freely acknowledge myself to be, I also think, what have I done?  How have I used this precious time?  Work is over, at least in terms of the day-to-day drudgery of going into the office and dealing with one problem after another, only to come home at night, exhausted and drained.  But have I fully made use of the time I have?  I have written an unpublished novel, and it will no doubt remain unpublished, unless I choose to put it out there myself.  I write regularly on this blog, I go to the gym every day and exercise, even pretty vigorously sometimes, and I feel as though I am in good health.  I make masks and other odd creatures that stand about the house, silent watchers of my quotidian life.  And most happily, I enjoy more and more life with my partner of 33-plus years.

But, at the winding down of summer – and this may be the case with the passing of every season – I do think a lot about the question of making maximum use of whatever time is left.  I suppose it could always be said that, for most of us, there remains some not fully defined yearning, some only half-conscious desire, a hankering, a craving, a deep-seated hunger to do something bigger, to accomplish something beyond explanation, something past even the crispness and the resolute acuteness of rational thought.  To achieve something that answers an urge that transcends all else.  What is it that so calls out to us?  What is it that pulls at the heart in ways we cannot finally define?  Is this what makes us human, after all?  This profound longing for what we feel we have not yet achieved?

Maybe, all those years ago, we weren’t so wrong to mark the Feast of the Assumption as an annual milestone in our lives.  Maybe, if we think of it more symbolically, we can see that what it’s really about is an innate desire in all of us to rise above the plane of our daily lives, to reach for the stars, and to be carried on high by the angels of what is best and most perfect.  Maybe the end of summer marks the beginning of something else.  It is a time for reflection, a time for contemplation, and a time to wonder why in the first place we wonder at all – why, always and forever, we yearn for what is beyond reckoning, beyond our daily, workaday lives, out there, which is also within, to where we are borne by what is highest and brightest in all of us.


By Paul

What are we to make of Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he is abdicating the papacy and retiring?

It has been said that he is the first pope in almost 600 years to do so, ever since Gregory XII in 1415. But that may not be a fully appropriate comparison, inasmuch as Gregory’s stepping down was done under a good deal of duress. It was the time of the so-called Great Western Schism, and there were simultaneously as many as three popes, all claiming legitimacy: one in Rome (Gregory XII), one in Avignon (John XXIII), and another in Pisa (Benedict XIII). Things got very messy for a while, but finally the first two resigned (again, under a good deal of pressure). Benedict XIII refused to do so, however, and got himself excommunicated instead. Finally, Martin V took over, and things began to stabilize a bit.

What may be something of a more even match is the freely, indeed eagerly, tendered resignation of Celestine V in 1294. Known for his great asceticism, Celestine (who had founded a stricter order of monks, subsequently referred to as the Celestines, under the general rubric of the Benedictine rule) was virtually almost forced into accepting the papal role. He even tried to hide in the forest when they came to get him, but the pursuing cardinals eventually caught up with him. He reigned for just over 5 months, ineptly so according to all accounts, probably because he had no interest in it and did not want the job in the first place. When he finally resigned, he said that he did so because of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, the deficiencies of his own strength, the perverseness of the people, and his longing for the tranquility of his former life.”

I’m not sure that people are any less perverse today than they were in the 13th century, but that is not among the reasons Benedict XVI has given for his retirement. It seems as though it’s because he feels himself to be too old, too infirm, and just no longer capable of attending to his duties as Supreme Pontiff. Fair enough, I guess. He is, after all, an 85 year old man with Parkinson’s disease.

Still, this decision leaves a lot of questions in its wake. Let’s just say that the papacy is not immune, nor has it ever been throughout most of its history, from politics. How could it be? The position, and therefore the man (never a woman, it goes without saying) who holds it, wields far too much power in the world. This remains true even in today’s admittedly more secular society. A friend of mine, who will remain anonymous because I don’t have his permission to name names, believes that Benedict might have resigned specifically so that he could have a hand, albeit covertly, in the selection of a new pope. The thinking, apparently, goes that Benedict, realizing his growing physical and mental weakness, decided to throw in the towel while he still had control of his faculties. And that he did this so as to have the opportunity to manipulate things behind the scenes in the upcoming conclave (the assemblage of voting cardinals that choses the new pope), with the express purpose of ensuring that a fully vetted conservative would take over as his successor.

I have no way of knowing if this was actually part of Benedict’s thinking, but again he would clearly not be the first pope in history to make a decision based on the desire to advance a certain political agenda. Indeed, Benedict’s record is a distinctly mixed one, to say the very least. On the one hand, he comes across as a somewhat benign white haired old man, a shy hermit, and a scholar. He may in fact, as an individual, possess these traits, but as pope it cannot also be denied that he has done some very damaging things.

The first, and possibly most injurious, among these is the great pedophile scandal of the Catholic Church. I am not suggesting that the pope himself physically harmed any children. However, in his role as cardinal – and later as pope – there can be little doubt that he knew of many hundreds of priests, possibly more, who did do personal and psychological harm to children under the guise of their priestly duties. And he did nothing to bring this to light. Instead, time and time again, just as we saw with Cardinal Law of Boston and Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, to name only a few co-conspirators, he made decisions which held the reputation and the finances of the organization of the Church as paramount, to the detriment of the wellbeing of children who had been grievously harmed by priests and other religious.

Other dubious acts, decisions, and hurtful comments come to mind, as well. He showed himself inordinately insensitive to Muslims early on in his career, he did little to shed light on the scandalous and illegal practices of the Vatican bank, and he inflicted great harm on gay people the world over. His extraordinary comments regarding the latter will, in fact, go down as among the most ignominious in history.

Benedict XVI has said that homosexual acts are evil and “intrinsically disordered.” Regarding same sex marriage, he is on record as accusing gay people of manipulating their God-given identities in order to suit their sexual choices, and in so doing actually destroying the human creature in the process. In regard to the adoption of children into loving gay homes, he has said that this represents an attack on the family, and has even gone so far as to claim that it is a threat to world peace. He appears to insist that being gay is a choice, not a fact of nature, and has said that, in “choosing to be gay,” man is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God. Are these, we have to ask, the words of a shy and benign hermit/scholar?

And yet, in spite of all, I do not wish the pope ill. Indeed, what I wish him is enlightenment. And I can only hope – and yes, even pray – that he will some day come to see the error of his ways, and recognize that the inertia and inaction he has demonstrated when it comes to protecting children, the intransigence and obfuscation he manifested regarding the Church’s finances, and the harsh and hateful words he has spoken about gay people and others all have consequences in the real world.

I wish him enlightenment, but I frankly do not expect it. What I expect instead is that some day in the not too distant future, Benedict XVI (or however he chooses to call himself once he resigns), will be walking along the well-tended garden path behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and he will run into the new pope. I expect the conversation will be brief, but pointed, and that he will urge his successor to follow all the misguided promulgations and policies that he, himself was responsible for. In other words, I expect retirement from him, and a degree of retrenchment as an individual. I expect he will spend his time in prayer and reflection and study, and I can only hope that in the process he achieves a modicum of wisdom. But, sadly, what I do not expect is a clear statement, or any retreat whatsoever, from the hurtful and damaging declamations and policies the retiring pope has unnecessarily inflicted upon an already distressed and suffering world.