February 12, 2013
I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, visitors were invited to write in a large book their opinions of President Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan in 1945. My opinion is that it’s easy to make Harry Truman’s decisions if you’re not Harry Truman. The same thing can be said for all such figures, including Pope Pius XII.
A great deal has been written about what the pope did or did not do with respect to the Jewish people who were being systematically exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. The latest contribution, if it can be called that, is Gordon Thomas’s book, The Pope’s Jews, which is designed to show that Pope Pius was clear in his condemnation of the Nazi regime and that he was directly involved in a variety of schemes to either help Jewish people escape from Italy or hide them in church properties, including the Vatican itself, during the German invasion.
The best that can be said for this book is that it is superfluous and that it is so badly executed as to be an embarrassment to the publisher and an insult to the reader.
Most if not all of what the author reports here has been published before. It has been well recorded that Pius, a former papal nuncio to Bavaria, was confronted with the murderous Nazis, on the one hand, who had a track record for wreaking indiscriminate vengeance whenever they met opposition or resistance, and the godless Soviets, on the other hand, who were eager to extend their dominance over as much of Europe as possible. The pope was also the head of a neutral state, and the safety of untold human beings depended on the guarantees that accompanied that neutrality.
There also has been a great deal written about the various bishops, priests, and nuns who either helped Jewish people get out of harm’s way or hid them in church properties, including the Vatican itself. Among those complicit in this was Sister Pascalina Lenhert, who was both housekeeper and confidant to Pius XII. Many sources have reported that the pope himself was not only aware of these activities but was directly involved in some of them.
Thomas writes about all this, and he also writes in some detail about the Jewish people living in the Jewish ghetto in Rome (most of whom died in a Nazi concentration camp), the Jewish resistance movement in Rome, and those working — and, in many cases, hiding — in a Jewish hospital on an island in the Tiber.
Thomas includes a lot of information about the work of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had charge of a network of church operatives who hid Jewish people in multiple safe houses.
Most of this, as I say, comes from secondary sources, and that’s what the bibliography in this book consists of. In the several instances in which the writer does refer to primary sources, he provides no footnotes and no reference to those documents in the bibliography.
Moreover, this book is so carelessly written and edited that the quality of such scholarship as there was must be questioned. The author has a maddening fascination with the past perfect tense of the verb and uses it liberally, especially when it’s not appropriate. That plus awkward or downright improper sentence structure makes reading the text a chore.
And then there are the factual errors. St. Paul was crucified (we don’t know how he died, but the tradition is that he was beheaded); St. Paul had a vision of the risen Jesus in Rome (that happened on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus); Pius XII canonized St. Catherine of Siena (that was Pius II in 1461); Pius XII silenced the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin (the Vatican didn’t approve of Coughlin, but didn’t take any action against him; he was forced off the air via regulation by the National Association of Broadcasters after he opposed U.S. involvement in what became World War II).
In his apparent zeal to cast the Catholic Church as a friend of the Jewish people, Thomas writes that Pope Pius IV in the 16th century relaxed a variety of restrictions on Jewish life that had been imposed by his predecessor, Paul IV, but the author does not point out that the restrictions were restored by Pius V.
Immediately after a reference to Pius IV, who assumed the papacy in 1562, Thomas writes this: “The Nicene Creed, the core of the church for centuries, would teach that Pontius Pilate was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death sentence, and that it was the gentiles (sic) who had mocked, scourged, and crucified Jesus.” The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century, not the 16th, and it doesn’t say anything at all about Gentiles as such: it mentions only Pilate. The Apostle’s Creed, which dates from much earlier than the one adopted by the Council of Nicaea, says exactly the same thing about Pilate. Considering the crimes committed against the Jews over the past 20 centuries, those creeds can hardly be used to make the Church look benign. It was the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that specifically repudiated the idea that the Jewish people had some corporate responsibility for the death of Jesus; that council also forbid the Church to teach that the Jewish people had somehow been rejected by God (see the council’s document Nostra aetate).
In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a serious effort to improve its relationship with the Jewish people and to condemn any form of anti-Semitism. The present pope, who is about to abdicate, has been very active in that area. Although it does seem that Pius XII gets a bad rap from people who didn’t have to deal with the complex situation he faced, there’s no denying the trouble history between the Church and the Jews. It’s good to think that it might all be behind us.
December 25, 2012
This was my homily for Christmas Day:
Flags at half staff.
Moments of silence.
Tolling church bells.
These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.
And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.
Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all
And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.
Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.
Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.
It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.
It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?
What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?
There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”
“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”
But Christmas says otherwise.
What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.
We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.
We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.
But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.
On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.
In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.
God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.
Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.
He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.
Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.
But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”
And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.
Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.
But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.
The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.
Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
July 4, 2012
The story of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn is widely known in its broad essentials. But such a thing as the divorce and remarriage of a king of England is not simply done — particularly when the nuptial rearrangement is frowned upon by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Henry’s decision to put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn came at the dawn of the Renaissance when the political life of Europe could not have been more complicated. It was that complexity rather than any such goal on Henry’s part that protracted and inflamed the matter to the point that it resulted in a permanent breach between the English crown and the papacy and, of course, the founding of what we know as the Church of England.
In her history, “The Divorce of Henry VIII,” Catherine Fletcher puts Henry’s case in the context of Europe in the mid 16th century in terms of both the shifting relationships among kingdoms and other political entities and in terms of the swarm of diplomatic agents who scurried around the continent eavesdropping, spying, stealing, bribing, kidnapping, crossing and double crossing, and often living the high life that went along with representing a monarch.
In fact, the author tells the story largely in terms of these last, these “diplomats,” with particular attention to Gregorio Casali, a native of Rome who represented Henry at the papal court when the divorce issue began to brew. Fletcher, who seems to have done a lot of detective work to trace the activities of this relatively obscure character, explains that it was not unusual in Europe in that era for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors for countries other than their native land. In fact, she writes, it wasn’t unusual for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors to more than one crowned head at a time. This kind of activity was an industry in itself — a family business for the Casali clan that included Gregorio and several siblings who pursued the same career.
Because of the slow pace of communications, envoys working at a distance from their patrons were often given wide latitude in the conduct of their offices; particularly while Cardinal Wolsey was Henry’s chancellor, Gregorio often acted on his own when the circumstances seemed to demand it. On the other hand, in the days before electronic cash transfers, people in Gregorio’s line of work frequently had to shell out their own cash to keep up appearances or even to keep eating and hope that the payments due would be forthcoming. And these diplomats, as it were, had their work cut out for them, what with the constant warfare in Europe and the resulting ebb and flow of military and political power. Gregorio’s course in representing Henry before the pope wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Catherine of Aragon was the emperor’s niece. When the issue of a divorce first arose, the pope and the emperor were seriously at odds, which theoretically weighed in Henry’s favor in the Vatican, but while the matter dragged on, Clement and the emperor made peace. And that complication was superimposed on many other considerations involving the major powers in Europe and the many states, including the papal ones, that made up what is now Italy.
The question Henry raised was tricky. He had married Catherine in the first place with a papal dispensation because she was the widow of his brother. But in his frustration over Catherine’s failure to provide a male heir, and in his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, Henry now decided that the marriage to Catherine was null because it conflicted with a principle stated in the Book of Leviticus, and he wanted the pope to say so. Clement had to deal with both the philosophical and moral issues raised by that request and balance his decision against what effect it would have on his position in the grand scheme of European politics. For most of the six years that Henry’s campaign went on, Clement stalled.
As Henry became more and more impatient and less and less concerned about the authority of the pope, Gregorio’s position became increasingly tenuous. But that seemed to be an almost inevitable experience for those who wanted to play in the high stakes games Fletcher describes in this book.
July 29, 2011
In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.
The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.
This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.
His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.
He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.
Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.
As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.
Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.
He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.
Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.
During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.
October 8, 2009
The following is a story I submitted to the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano concerning one of the heroes of the 19th century.
A Belgian man who spent his adult life in the South Pacific and is memorialized in the U.S. Capitol will be declared a saint on Oct. 11.
He is Damien de Veuster, a sometimes controversial 19th century figure, who sacrificed his life to minister to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
In addition to Father Damien, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Archbishop Zygmunt Szcesny Felinski, founder of Russian Catholicism; Father Francisco Coll y Guitart, founder of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Rafael Arnáiz Barón, a contemplative Trappist monk from Spain; and Jean Jugan, a French woman who founded the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Father Damien was born Jozef de Veuster in the Flemish village of Tremelo on Jan. 3, 1840, one of seven children of a corn merchant.
Still a teenager, Josef , following the example of his brother Auguste, joined the novitiate of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Leuven. In 1860, he became a brother, taking the name Damien.
He aspired to be a missionary, and his opportunity came unexpectedly. Auguste – who had taken the religious name Pamphile – was prevented by illness from traveling to Hawaii, and Damien went in his place.
He was ordained a priest in Honolulu in 1864 and was assigned to the Catholic parish in North Kohala.
Hawaii was then beset by infections, including influenza and syphilis, introduced by travelers and seamen. The most problematic ailment, first reported in 1840, was Hansen’s Disease – leprosy – both because it was highly contagious until a treatment was developed in the 1930s, and because most people contracting it in the 19th century were assured a progressive, disfiguring degeneration of their skin, eyes, and limbs.
To prevent the disease from spreading, Hawaiian authorities in 1866 consigned lepers to an inaccessible colony at Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. The place was bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and was isolated from the rest of the island by 1600-foot cliffs.
Whatever resources the government provided for the lepers were insufficient. Once they were out of sight and no longer a hazard or an offense to the general population, the residents of the colony declined into a dysfunctional community marked by poverty, alcohol abuse, violence, and sexual license.
There the matter restedwhen, in 1873, Father Damien, after overhearing a conversation about the lepers, asked Louis Maigret, the first apostolic vicar in what was then the Sandwich Islands, for permission to go to Molokai.
Bishop Maigret not only granted permission, but he accompanied Father Damien to Kalauapa where – knowing what was at stake – he introduced the priest to the community of 816 souls as “one who will be a father to you and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you.’’
Nor did Father Damien have any illusions about what his decision meant. Not long after arriving in Kalaupapa, he wrote to his brother and colleague: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
His ministry, however, was not confined to liturgy, sacraments, and religious instruction.
He restored civility – forcefully when necessary – built and repaired housing for the lepers – lending his own carpentry skills to the labor of colonists still able to work, improved agriculture, organized schools, treated the sick with his own hands, built coffins and dug graves.
At first he found conditions almost overwhelming.
“Many a time,” he wrote, “in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers’ homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell, I got myself accustomed to the use of tobacco.’’
In time, however, he put delicacy and caution aside and ministered directly to people bearing the most grotesque badges of the cruel disease.
He was criticized at times for being demanding and headstrong, particularly when he was soliciting assistance for his lepers.
Joseph Dutton, a American Civil War veteran from Stowe, Vermont, verified this characterization – with an explanation.
Dutton – who joined Damien in 1886 and remained at the colony for more than 40 years, described the priest as “vehement and excitable in regard to matters that did not seem to him right, and he sometimes said and did things that he afterwards regretted … but he had a true desire to do right, to bring about what he thought best. ….”
After a decade of this work, in December 1884, Father Damien realized that he had contracted leprosy.
“Its marks,’’ he wrote to his bishop, “are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows begin to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but. I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done.”
Still, he labored on, often with help that in his later years included Father Louis Conrardy, a Belgian priest, who attended to the colony’s pastoral needs; Mother Marianne Cope, superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, who organized a hospital, and James Sinnett, a nurse from Chicago who would eventually have Father Damien as one of his patients.
Father Damien, 49, died on April 15, 1889, and was buried beneath the pandanus tree that had provided his only shelter when he arrived in the colony.
Mother Marianne carried on Father Damien’s work, remaining in Kalaupapa, without ever contracting leprosy, until her death in 1918 at the age of 80. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
In 1935, Father Damien’s remains were transferred to Belgium on a U.S. Navy ship. King Leopold III joined about 100,000 people in receiving the body at Antwerp.
Father Damien, widely known during his lifetime, has been memorialized in many places, including a bronze statue, donated by the State of Hawaii, in the national statuary collection in the U.S. Capitol building; a statue at the Hawaiian state capitol in Honolulu, and several clinics devoted to the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients.
And yet, a month after Damien died, Charles M. Hyde, a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu, wrote a private letter, published without his permission, challenging the positive image of Damien, who had received substantial financial support from Protestant groups. Hyde – who once had publicly praised Damien – now dismissed him as “a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted,” and accused him of violating his vow of chastity.
Hyde’s letter provoked a furious response from an unexpected source – Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and himself a Presbyterian.
Stevenson was living in Samoa for health reasons when he read Hyde’s letter. Stevenson had been friendly with Hyde, but had never met Damien.
But although he was susceptible to infections, he had traveled to the leper community after Damien’s death and remained there for eight days, asking questions about the priest’s ministry.
Based on what he had learned, Stevenson published a very long letter reprimanding Hyde. Stevenson conceded that Damien may have been “dirty,’’ “unwise,” and “tricky,” but added that the priest was also “ superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour. … A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that.”
“Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade,’’ he wrote to the minister. “But the clean Dr. Hyde was at his food in a fine house. … (Y)ou, who were so refined, why were you not there, to cheer them up with the lights of culture?”
Stevenson – who later regretted the harshness but not the content of his response – predicted that in a hundred years Father Damien would be proclaimed a saint.
He was correct about Father Damien if not about the time frame. In April 2008, the Holy See formally acknowledged two miracles attributed to Father Damien’s intercession. In June of that year the Congregation on the Causes of Saints recommended that the church acknowledge the sanctity of the priest who, by choosing to minister to lepers, Stevenson wrote, “shut to with his own hand the door to his own sepulcher.”
May 6, 2009
As I was driving to Passaic last night, I was listening to songs by Kate Smith that had been recorded from her radio broadcasts. It occurred to me that she might have been surprised if she had been told that people – well, one person at least – would be listening to those songs 60 years later while cruising along an interstate highway.
I also thought yesterday morning, when the women on The View were talking about evolution, that Charles Darwin might have been surprised – and maybe a little dismayed – to know that 150 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species” people would still be arguing about his ideas.
But we are still arguing. The latest flurry of discourse – the one that got the tongues wagging on The View – was a study from the University of Minnesota that showed the degree to which high school biology teachers influence whether students accept the idea of evolution or question it based on its perceived conflict with the idea of creationism.
A story on the web site sciencenews.com included this passage: “For example, 72 to 78 percent of students exposed to evolution only agreed that it is scientifically valid while 57 to 59 percent of students who were exposed to creationism agreed that it can be validated.”
In other words, the survey suggests that high school teachers who introduce the religious idea of creationism into a science class may influence a considerable number of students to deny what is constantly being reinforced by studies of the effects environmental factors have on life forms from one generation to the next and over longer spaces of time.
I believe that high school students should be exposed to the full range of ideas that have been held and still are held by large parts of the population – including the idea that existence itself and particular things that have existence are brought into being by a deity, however that may be expressed in various religious and philosophical disciplines. I don’t believe the biology class is the place to teach that. It belongs in the humanities curriculum. To exclude from a student’s education at least the main themes on the subject of creation that are held by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others is to send him off to college or into the working world with an incomplete understanding of how most of the people on the planet think.
The discussion on The View didn’t have any intellectual depth, and it seemed to imply that a person must choose between belief in evolution and belief in the idea of a First Cause. That’s partly because the women were using the term “creationism” as though it stood for every shade of thought about a divine or supernatural origin of existence. Students who aren’t taught otherwise but who are exposed to such a simplistic public discourse on the subject might draw that erroneous conclusion.
Pope Pius XII, hardly a progressive, wrote in his 1950 encyclical letter “Humani Generis”:
“The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”
More recently, in 1996, Pope John Paul II – taking note of what Pius had written – added this:
“Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”
Many Catholics, I’m afraid, are unaware of this point of view and I know that many of them are creationists as such, rejecting evolution out of hand. They and parents like them, more than the biology teachers, may ultimately be responsible for this outdated argument to go on for at least another generation.
April 12, 2009
The following appeared during the past week in the Vatican newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano.”
By Tania Mann
From cotton fields to city streets, blues music tells the story of a people struggling to survive. Its syncopated rhythms convey a meaning as deep as the raspy voices crooning its melodies. The blues has evolved along with the history of black people in the United States – a journey marked by persecution but also by progress.
Theirs is a story that today opens to a new chapter, being written by a man who calls the city that transformed the face of the blues: “Sweet Home Chicago”. Thus a closer look at the origins of blues music provides insight not only into black history but also into the context from which President Barack Obama, who lived in the Windy City before his move to the White House, entered the international scene.
It was in Chicago that blues music was modernized, where it adapted into a form that could then be easily diffused into popular culture. It would permeate many other musical genres and create the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and the British pop made famous by the Beatles. Today, the blues rhythm beats on as the heart of American mainstream music, which in turn plays an influential role in the music world across the globe.
The twelve-bar structure found in the blues today is the same as that which the slaves invented as they worked in the fields, using music to communicate. This system of “field hollering” allowed the slaves to exchange secret information and indicate potential escape routes.
Chicago blues grew from these roots in the Mississippi Delta, where thousands of blacks lived before moving north during the Great Migration, which occurred in two waves between 1913 and 1970. Its heavy backbeats recall the oppression of slavery, while the charged guitar riffs and gravelly voices in the foreground express an insatiable longing for freedom.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression propelled the blues forward by providing not only greater reason for people to lament but also more opportunity to come together to perform and listen to music. From that decade on in the ghettos of Chicago, residents organized “rent parties” to raise money for families with financial difficulties. Thus listening to the blues also became a concrete experience of solidarity.
By this time, blues musicians in Chicago had already begun to create a more urban sound, distinguishing their own style from more rural or classic forms. This new sound reflected, with its quicker tempos, the frenetic pace of working life in an industrial metropolis.
“It was in these neighbourhoods that I received the best education I ever had”, President Obama said in a speech announcing his presidential bid. With this statement he recalled his work in Chicago from 1985-1988, organizing job training and other programs for the working-class residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project amid shuttered steel mills.
The blues is a lyrical expression of both “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit”, writes Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (Random House, 1952). This work, set in the newly industrialized Chicago of the 1930s, analyzes the problem of the black man’s identity in U.S. culture.
The people of Chicago are generally known as being “tough”, if only for having to endure the severe weather that results from its position on the edge of Lake Michigan. For this reason the blues, in the tenacity of its sound, personifies the Windy City (even if it was originally named as such in reference to its long-winded politicians, not its notorious weather).
The spirit of a city ever aware of life’s challenges – of a city where people are accustomed to adapting to change – is manifest in the blues. The city and the music have each shaped the other into what they are today.
But the influence of Chicago blues has extended much further than its own streets. This is seen clearly in the career and the heritage left by the man who is said to have defined its sound: Muddy Waters.
His grandmother gave the musician this nickname, after the puddles of the Mississippi River in which he played as a child. Waters transferred to Chicago in 1943, where he received an electric guitar as a gift from his uncle. With this instrument – the volume of which he intensified by using a pick – Muddy Waters revolutionized the city’s musical scene.
In addition to the guitar, the harmonica and bass were also amplified in order to compete with the loud atmosphere of the locales where blues bands played. The first to win this battle against the noise with his harmonica was Little Walter. He did so simply by cupping his hands around the instrument.
From then on these methods of amplification and electrification characterized the Chicago blues sound. This new sound was part in thanks to the new possibilities that came with the end of the Great Depression and World War ii. Muddy Waters and the other blues artists in Chicago became a vehicle for the optimism emerging at this time. It was here that the now widespread image of a small stage in a smoky bar, crowded with musicians improvising on the electric guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, was born.
Today, it is not difficult to find evidence of the impact these musicians have had on the music world. It was, for example, Water’s song “Rolling Stone” that both the magazine and the rock group took their names. The same song was very probably an inspiration to Bob Dylan when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”. And it was reported in Rolling Stone magazine that among the playlists on President Obama’s iPod are songs by the group of the same name, by Dylan, and also by Howlin’ Wolf, who was known as Waters’ rival.
The list of artists and musical genres influenced by Chicago blues is endless. Among the numerous names of note are Chuck Berry, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and also Eric Clapton, who has carried the inheritance of the blues from the seventies through to the present.
In the hands of the same “Slowhand”, as Clapton is known, the Chicago blues sound has evolved with the changing music scene while still remaining faithful to its deepest roots. A powerful witness to this is one of his recent albums, “From the Cradle”, composed entirely of songs by traditional blues musicians. Among them is Willie Dixon, one of the greatest musicians to have played with Muddy Waters.
But the electrified blues that was founded in the post-war era is not only a thing of the past. The music continues because the stories it recounts are still being written. Worth noting is that this year’s list of Grammy nominees for blues music included several protagonists of Chicago’s musical revolution. Among those carrying this tradition into the modern day is Buddy Guy – known as Muddy Waters’ successor – who opened his own club in 1989 in the heart of downtown Chicago.
The culture which developed around the blues clubs that have sprouted up around the city over the years is indeed thriving, creating a music scene that draws tourists and natives alike. Today, many of the most popular blues clubs are found in neighbourhoods inhabited predominantly by young white people.
In fact, the evolution of blues music in the city also entailed a diffusion into white culture. For proof of this on a wider scale, one can look to artists such as Clapton, Dylan, and even younger musicians like John Mayer. The latter, an artist who had already gained wide acclaim on the pop scene, surprised everyone with a blues album in 2005, featuring Clapton, Guy and B.B. King as collaborators.
Surely one cannot fail to acknowledge the extent to which the famous Blues Brothers, with their “mission from God”, have served to propagate blues music and culture into the mainstream. Working on the Chicago-based film inspired the “brothers” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, never before musicians, to form their own group modelled after that featured in the movie.
While Chicago blues has survived in its purest form through the revolution’s biggest names and their successors, the deep influence it has had on the many genres of today’s chart-topping music is not to be ignored. Just one example is the widespread diffusion and popularity of rhythm and blues (R&B), a term that was originally used for Chicago blues but has extended to encompass much of black music heard today.
It becomes evident from the longevity of Chicago blues – in its original form as in its many variations – that at its heart this music expresses a depth of human emotion which stems from the very essence of human experience.
For Ellison, the blues does not offer a solution to the human condition. It offers instead a strong resolution to overcome suffering: a “yes” to a life marked by grace and irony, and a defiant decision to preserve the human spirit. Its sound is marked by sadness but also by fierce determination, thus reflecting the history of blacks in the States. In a time of global crisis, the President who pens this story’s newest chapters meets a challenge that will undoubtedly demand the same tenacity.
(©L’Osservatore Romano – 8 April 2009)
March 30, 2009
I came across a web site today in which George W. Bush was referred to as a modern-day Pontius Pilate. It was not intended as a compliment. The site was an elaborate comparison of Pilate’s administration in first-century Judaea and Bush’s administration in 20th century Texas, with the emphasis on the 152 persons who were executed while Bush was governor. The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty – as it was opposed to the war in Iraq – but George Bush was invited nonetheless to address the students at Notre Dame University.
Although I voted for Barack Obama, I disagree with his policies on abortion. I have to wonder, however, if those who don’t think Obama should speak at the university also expect Notre Dame to exclude from the discussions going on in its classes and seminars – exclude from the content of any essay, term paper, dissertation – references to the work of any person – scientist, author, dramatist, theologian, philosopher, political figure – whose views differed with those of the church.
Does anyone seriously believe that because Notre Dame invited Obama to speak, the university doesn’t subscribe to the church’s teaching on abortion, or that a single one of those graduates will change his moral views because he hears a speech by the president of the United States?
As for the honorary degree to be conferred on Obama, if the whole man is to be recognized anywhere in our society, one would hope it would be recognized at an institution of higher learning. It’s true, as some have said, that Notre Dame must remain constantly aware of what it is to be a Catholic university, but it also must remain aware of what it is to be a university.
March 16, 2009
A difference of opinion within the Catholic Church over a case of rape in Brazil calls attention to the destructive role that legalism and rhetoric can play in situations that are difficult enough on their own. This dialogue involves a nine-year-old girl who was raped – her stepfather is accused – and who underwent the abortion of twin fetuses after doctors determined that giving birth to the child would seriously endanger the girl’s life. I adhere to the Catholic position on abortion, but I don’t claim to have a pat answer for a girl who finds herself in such a situation, nor for her mother, who had to decide what to do. And the destructive rhetoric that I referred to stems from folks on both sides who think of abortion as a black-and-white issue. I don’t advocate relativism, but things like rape occur in the real world to real people, and that is the context for our discussion of abortion, whether we like it or not. At the same time, the question of the beginning of human life is far from settled, and that, too, must color the discussion.
In this case, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop of Recife, Brazil, publicly announced that the Catholic doctors who had participated in the abortion, and the girl’s mother, had incurred excommunication. Archbishop Sobrinho also said that the accused stepfather had not been excommunicated and offered the absurd, misogynistic rationale that abortion is a more serious sin than rape.
The church’s approach to this case provoked a strong negative reaction, but despite an initial endorsement from the Vatican, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said last week that the excommunications were improper, because they did not “take the circumstances into consideration” – a reference to the stress under which the girl’s mother acted and the fact that the doctors involved do not regularly perform abortions.
But Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, went further than that. Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, he upheld Catholic teaching on abortion but criticized the church in Brazil for acting in the first instance as though it were Thomas Becket tossing King Henry out of the fold – without regard to the “arduous” decision that was involved in this case, saying that such situations require “mercy.” Instead, Fisichella said, the girl “above all should have been defended, embraced, treated with sweetness, to make her think that we were all on her side – all of us, without distinction.” As though he were speaking to the girl, Fisichella wrote: “There are others who merit excommunication and our pardon, not those who have allowed you to live and to regain hope and trust.”
I don’t know anyone who has formed an opinion on abortion, one way or the other, out of meanness or callousness, but the emotional outbursts that accompany the public debate can be hurtful and are never helpful. Abortion is a difficult, heart-wrenching matter, complicated by seemingly unsolvable psychological, social, and economic problems. The intransigence and name-calling that often accompany the debate over this issue – to say nothing of the violence that has at times erupted – does not help. Archbishop Fisichella wrote that the inner conflict experienced by the doctors in this case should have been taken into account before they were held up to public oprobrium. I think that’s good advice to apply to any discussion of abortion.