Thursday, October 6, 2011

I choose my path for the journey to the afterlife

In my last post, I discussed what most Americans believe about the afterlife.

Like eighty-two percent of adult Americans, I believe in God. And like seventy percent or more of U.S. citizens over age eighteen, I believe in miracles, heaven, that Jesus is God or the Son of God, angels, the survival of the soul after death, and in the resurrection of Jesus.

The beliefs just enumerated are for the most part Christian beliefs, so I, like the vast majority of Americans, choose to follow the Christian path to the afterlife.

The specific Christian path I choose to the afterlife from among the more than 630 Christian denominations in the U.S. is Catholicism.

Why? Not because of consensual truth, although 1.2 billion citizens of the world have chosen Catholicism as their religion. It’s more because of being raised Catholic, because of a lifetime of study of the history of the religion, and because of various experiences I’ve had.

Am I absolutely sure Catholicism is the right path? Of course not. Any of the 22 paths I’ve already discussed - the major religions of the world, plus agnosticism and atheism - might be the right path. Perhaps a combination of two or more paths would be the right way to go. But I’m comfortable with the path I’ve chosen, and that’s the one I will follow.

As the pater familia of my familythe father of my familyI want to leave behind some of my thoughts about Catholicism for family members to think about. I’ll do that in small bursts, and hopefully record the most important thoughts before my time is up.

I’m thoroughly familiar with all the mistakes the Catholic Church has made over the centuries. I know about the bad popes, the selling of indulgences, the silencing of Galileo, the Inquisition, the resistance of the church to translation of the Bible into English and other local languages, and right down to the present day, the church cover-up of pedophilia and other sexual abuses by a small minority of priests. Remember that the church is populated by humans who have failings and make mistakes. The humans who constitute the church ecclesia have had more than 20 centuries to make mistakes, and they’ve made plenty.

But let me turn from the negative to the positive experiences that influenced my belief system over the years. Among the more significant:

            (1) I was baptized a Catholic shortly after my birth. As Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptizer, so baptism is what initiates a Catholic into the religion. For most Catholics, it occurs a few weeks after birth, although it sometimes occurs later in life, especially for converts.

            (2) I attended a Catholic grade school, Holy Name, in Kimberly, Wisconsin. That’s where I memorized the catechisms (questions and answers about the key beliefs and tenets of the faith).

            (3) In grade school, I became an altar server or acolyte in the days before Vatican II, when the liturgy was said in Latin and the priest faced the altar rather than the congregation. I most often served the 6:30 a.m. daily mass, meaning I got up around 5:30 a.m., dressed, stopped at the local Lamers Dairy for a bottle of milk, stopped at the Van Thull’s bakery for a roll, and then walked the rest of the way to the church. In those days, we fasted before taking communion (the eucharist) at mass, and the bottle of milk and roll were for breakfast after mass. What I most remember about this period of serving mass are the walks in the frigid Wisconsin mornings, snow crunching under my galoshes (rubber boots), and the ghostly quiet landscape lit by the moon and the stars. I also served at a number of functions other than the mass - benedictions, stations of the cross, funerals (requiem masses in Latin in those days), and group rosary recitations. I still have a fondness for religious services said in Latin, and for Latin hymns like the Requiem Aeternam.

            (4) As  a Boy Scout, I earned the highest award a Catholic scout can achieve, the Ad Altare Dei, which got me interested in liturgical symbolism.

            (5) In grade school, riding to Appleton in a car driven by the father of one of my friends, in the days before seat belts and air bags, we were involved in an accidentthe car rolled over, knocked over a gasoline pump at a gas station, and ended upside down on its roof. I have an intuition that my guardian angel (Catholics think everyone has one) kept me from emerging from the accident without a scratch. I suspect the same angel was there when I had some other close calls in my life.

            (6) In my first year at the University of Wisconsin, I lived in an Opus Dei house where I could attend daily mass. After that, I moved into a single room in a boarding house just around the corner from St. Paul’s, the Catholic church on the University of Wisconsin campus. For the next three years, I ate my lunch and dinner meals at the student co-op in the basement of the church, where we all participated in preparing group meals as well as in enjoying the companionship.

            (7) One of my major influences at the University of Wisconsin when I was working on my first degree (I eventually got three degrees from UW, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi) was an English professor named Helen White. The main library at the University of Wisconsin is now named after her. She was one of America’s top Shakespearian scholars, but also wrote an award-winning biography of Francis of Assisi entitled Firebird of Assisi. I’d written my first UW term paper on the Giotto frescoes of Francis of Assisi, and Dr. White’s classes got me interested in stigmatics, religious ecstatics, and ecstatic poets like John Donne.

            (8) I suspect my guardian angel kept me out of harm’s way when I was serving on active duty overseas as a U.S. Army officer. One of my bunkmates in those days was a Jesuit chaplain named Fr. Aloysius McGonigal. I’m working as I write this blog post on a magazine article about him. He was killed in action in Hue, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive, while giving comfort and last rites to the wounded and dying. He’s been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

            (9) Over the years since, I’ve read and studied a great deal about religious history, and one of my hobbies has been photographing and studying religious stained glass. I’m especially fond of Tiffany and LaFarge glass, although I also admire much of the work of German masters. My favorite glass is at the French cathedrals of Mont St. Michel and Chartres. I read a lot about the historiography of Christianity - the history of how Christianity developed from Jewish and other religious traditions down to the present day.

            (10) I’ve already mentioned Helen White, the University of Wisconsin Shakespearian scholar. Ever since I took a course she taught in the ecstatic poets, and got interested in her biography of Francis of Assisi, believed to be the first religious stigmatic (a stigmatic displays the same wounds as Jesus Christ at the crucifixion), I’d wanted to do a book on someone similar. When Mel Gibson brought out his “Passion of the Christ” movie, I knew immediately that he had relied heavily in scripting the film on the visions of a 19th century nun, ecstatic, stigmatic and inediac, Anne Catherine Emmerich (Anna Katharina Emmerich). So I immediately set to work on a 100-page introduction to The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an 1833 account of her visions of the passion and crucifixion set down by German folklore scholar Clemons Brentano. My version, which identifies 43 scenes in the Gibson movie based on Emmerich’s visions, was published it in 2005. The book was reviewed well by Publishers Weekly and other outlets, and has sold well since, especially to filmscript and devotional literature courses taught at Catholic colleges and universities.

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