Friday, June 11, 2010

Year For Priests

The Year for Priests draws to a close today. Coincidentally, I came across an address that New York City’s own Archbishop Dolan gave in Ireland about two weeks ago in which he discussed the priesthood and mentioned a famous priest and saint, Father Maximilian Kolbe.

When the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz snickered, “Who is the Polish swine,” at the prisoner who had raised his hand asking to take the place of the married man and father who had been chosen at random to be executed, the “Polish swine” did not reply, “I am Maximilian Kolbe,” nor “I am prisoner number 1408,” nor “I am a friend and would like to take his place in execution.” No. He simply replied, “I am a Catholic priest.”
I read about Fr. Kolbe late one night about ten years ago. The more I read, the colder and darker the night became and the more incredulous I grew at what I was reading. I thought, rather arrogantly, that, certainly, if this story were true I would have heard of it before! Fr. Kolbe's story is, of course, completely true.

As Dolan says in the short passage above , Fr. Kolbe, a Roman Catholic, Polish priest and a prisoner at Auschwitz, was among those rounded up to be starved to death as punishment for a prisoner having attempted to escape from the camp. As lots were drawn, a man was chosen who had still enough hope and humanity left in him to exclaim that he had a wife and family to care for, that he couldn’t die, that he had responsibilities. Fr. Kolbe stepped forward to take the man’s place. One may go on to read the account of how Fr. Kolbe ministered to all those in the starvation cell, how they sang and prayed and how Kolbe was finally put to death with an injection. Another powerful punch to the account of Fr. Kolbe's sacrifice is that the man whose place he took, Franciszek Gajowniczek, did survive Auschwitz, was reunited with his wife and lived to be 94 years old.

My disbelief of ten years ago about Fr. Kolbe, resurfaced recently when, just after reading Archbishop Dolan's address, another Polish priest was in the news. Do Polish Catholic priests have a lock on sacrifice and suffering?Father Jerzy Popieluszko whose affiliation with the Solidarity movement in Poland earned him the hatred of the communists, was apparently inspired by Kolbe’s lesson of “spiritual freedom amidst physical enslavement.” I read these words about Fr. Popieluszko here from Fr. Rosica.
Father Popieluszko was neither a social nor a political activist, but a Catholic priest faithful to the Gospel. He wasn't a forceful speaker, but someone of deep conviction and integrity. His sanctity lay in fundamental righteousness that gave people hope even in horrendous situations. On Oct. 19, 1984, the young priest was kidnapped by security agents on his way back to Warsaw after a visit to a parish in the neighboring town of Bydgoszcz. He was savagely beaten until he lost consciousness, and his body was tied up in such a way that he would strangle himself by moving. His weighted body was then thrown into a deep reservoir. His killers carried out their task with unprecedented brutality, which shows their hatred of the faith that the priest embodied. Jerzy's driver, who managed to escape, told what had happened to the press. On Oct. 30, Popieluszko's bound and gagged body was found in the freezing waters of a reservoir near Wloclawek. Fr. Jerzy's brutal murder was widely believed to have hastened the collapse of communist rule in Poland.
How to comprehend such deep suffering and sacrifice. Speaking for all priests in this Year For Priests, Archbishop Dolan said:

In answer to a literal life-or-death question, Maximilian Kolbe identified himself as a priest. Priesthood is not, first and foremost, something we do,but someone we are.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Obama At The 2010 West Point Graduation

As a friend pointed out to me years ago, New York City is such a deeply blue place (and liberals are so parochial) that almost invariably, even the most casual acquaintances assume that you are as far left as they are! Thus, when friends or others heard that Barack Obama spoke at our son's graduation, they assumed that we, like they, felt whelmed with this good fortune.

Obama had plenty of support among the thousands at West Point's Michie Stadium on May 22nd, and the cadets would certainly render only respect to their Commander in Chief, but many among us discussed how we would stand for Obama out of respect for the office of the President, but we would be hard pressed to applaud, and, indeed, there was little call for applause.

For starters, Obama's speech went on too long, especially as we assume it was his late arrival that set the whole ceremony back by almost 20 minutes. While one can probably find the speech somewhere on the internet, it's hardly worth the time. After briefly recognizing the graduating class and pandering to the feminists by crowing about the fact that the two top-ranked cadets in the class were females, Obama launched into what was essentially a campaign speech and worse. In front of 1,000 soon-to-be newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenants, Obama proceeded to talk about the importance of everything but soldiering. He waxed on about diplomacy, internationalism and the contribution that all Americans need to make to the world's future. If I'm not mistaken, he even covered the environment.

Obama, so out of touch and disdainful of all things military and manly, couldn't have provided a lower point to the day, but then again, the day offered so much more to celebrate than Obama's presence that his contribution or lack thereof faded quickly.

The speech that did leave an impression was given the night before graduation by Chief of Staff of the Army, General Casey. I know that Casey came under fire for his politically correct comment about diversity back during the Fort Hood shootings, but Casey's speech to the cadets at the graduation dinner seemed heartfelt and to the point. He spoke directly to them and he did know that they had been at West Point not to become Peace Corps volunteers or to further women's rights, but to practice the profession of arms. He did mention the words "warrior ethos." He did circulate among the cadets beforehand and his speech lasted all of about 15 minutes.

There were many such memorable moments to this wonderful graduation week.