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Millennium Moment
Musical Pilgrimage

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Who We Are, What We Are About
by Eugene Kennedy

How ironic that in this device-laden age we may purchase a kind of Personal Locator that tells us exactly where we are in the physical world. This bauble of invention has it just backwards: We know where we are. We want to be somewhere else.

I recently asked a friend who had been ill, "Are you feeling like yourself yet?" He answered, "I’m not doing well feeling like myself. I’d like to feel like somebody else."

He spoke humorously of the serious yearning of many Americans. Our real challenge is to get the true coordinates of our spiritual whereabouts. We long to move on. That we cannot finish the phrase is instructive. It lacks an object and an objective. We want to move on but we have no clear destination in mind. We just want to be out of here, away from the stress and distress.

Who we are is just as vexing for many people who try on the fashions of the times only to find that they don’t fit very well. Style arises, blooms and disappears faster than a summer garden—a perfect illustration of our chronic problem with identity. The question in America is not Microsoft’s "Where do you want to go today?" but the culture’s mocking inquiry, "Whom do you want to be today?"

These are queries not of the hard-hearted but of the broken-hearted, those who feel hungry in boom times and, most discouraging, feel that their sense of aimlessness is an epidemic. Is there a Moses who can end our wandering for us?

Life in the ‘intermission’

We are, in fact, living in a great intermission in history. This is abetted by the millennial feeling that has slipped like a fog into our lives. We feel that something in history is dying and that something different is about to be born. We hear death throes as well as labor pains. How tantalizing to live in such an in-between era in which, as at all intermissions, we don’t quite know what to do.

We have lived through at least part of the thundering first act of the passing century that set the scene and stated the problem but did not resolve it. We are restlessly waiting for the second act to discover our common destiny. In the meantime, there is no protocol for the interlude at this opera of our lives; nobody really knows what to do or say. As in all the interludes, the prompter has left his box. As in the theater, we wander—unsure of ourselves among strangers unsure of themselves.

So the real question is about who we are and where we are going. But the times do not provide an adequate answer. The interlude between acts of a play is generally held in a large, well-decorated hall or space designed for in-between wandering—not unlike the yard in a minimum-security prison.

So, too, is life for many at the present time. It is a holding area but it is not a place you can call home. We dwell in a period after the collapse of the authoritarian model of government, a design that, until this century, was used by all the great institutions that hold civilization together. Religion, learning, medicine, law—you name it—expressed themselves through hierarchical, autocratic structures. That is why even banks dwelt, like colleges, in Greek temple buildings.

Healthy authority existed within this structure, just as love survives totalitarianism. Most people, however, confuse authoritarianism with authority. Authority has yet to find its true voice. Far from suggesting the control of authoritarianism, authority comes from the Latin augere, which means to create, to make able to grow; it is the same root for author. Our struggle in the interim is to recover our authority, our capacity to author our own lives.

The authoritarian model disintegrated early in the century with the fall of the great monarchies in World War I. The Space/Information Age, like a demolition team, has razed the temples and healed the estrangement between earth and the heavens. The obsolescence of hierarchical housing has not invalidated the purposes of great institutions. Truth remains, as does faith, art and law. But these stabilizing and identifying entities have not yet found new housing for themselves in this vastly transformed period.

That is why everything seems to lack direction. Standards and morals have not disappeared, but their authoritarian modes have peeled away. This creates the "intermission" feeling in both Church and state. Their task is not to weep for the illusion of certainty in Victorian times but to find their true voices again in the Space/Information Age.

Doing something about it

The first step in securing our identity is to understand that we are living in a wilderness in which the old signs do not work anymore. We are reenacting the biblical myth that is also a mystery, that of being exiled from Eden. For it is eating of the tree of all knowledge that has jumbled the cycles of history and left our great institutions a lap behind in learning the "entirely new languages" that, at Pentecost, the apostles were commissioned to learn and to speak.

Our first step in understanding ourselves is the realization that we are living in an interim and that we naturally feel a failure of direction in history. That authoritarian structures no longer express it well does not mean that morality no longer exists. Concerns that we are a moral minority or that we are the crazy ones are, in fact, the responses of healthy people to this intermission period. But our task as believers is sharpened as we are called to name freshly our experience, as Adam did the animals, in the emerging language of this new time. That is far from being accomplished, but it puts the world and our challenge into perspective.

We should recognize the phenomena, especially in the realm of faith, that arise in such an indeterminate period. The New Age, for example, is the "shadow self," as psychiatrist Carl Jung called it, of true religion. The "shadow self" is that other, lesser self that trails from us. We glimpse it, as we do our own shadow, an insubstantial companion that does not, like a phantom, disappear but gains a sharper outline in the sunlight of careful observation.

Being countercultural

New Age is the perfect non-religion for this intermission. It has no structure, no morals, no dogma; it makes no demands on those who would flock to it. It tells us of our hunger for sacraments but it does not fulfill it with its crystals, its channeling, its energy spots and its high-colonic enemas. The New Age fits the interim because it is essentially vague and narcissistic, and delivers a mood as background music does in a cocktail lounge or a department store. It may be mysterious but it has nothing to do with real mystery.

When a terrible disaster occurs New Age has nothing to say. It lacks the depth to comprehend or to symbolize the tragic religious mystery of human life and loss. New Age is just a fleeting shadow of the real religion. It cannot respond from its depths because it doesn’t possess any. It is, alas, the house Jesus described in a parable as being built on sand.

But we gain little if we only criticize an ephemeral movement such as the New Age. It is only a symptom of spiritual hard times. Nor need we shuck off civilization to find an environment that, possessing the Spirit, is unaffected by the buffeting but empty winds of popular culture. This calling to provide spiritual shelter is as old as the Christianity that arose as a counterculture. Catholicism never curses or abandons the world but wants to give it light and life. We derive enormous support from the Church as a believing community with a moral tradition that understands us as sinners even as it encourages us to be saints.

The Catholic Church responds to our needs and our woes with the sacraments that are the spiritual mirror images for life’s telling experiences from birth through death. It also responds at the pastoral level with the human understanding worn smooth and subtle by centuries of keeping vigil with men and women in their joy and suffering.

There are people who quarrel with the official Church over some issues. But we should not mistake that chronic buzz for the Mystery of the Church, that mystery of human relationships, that "People of God," as it was defined by Vatican II. With all the faults that come with being staffed by humans and living in time, the Church remains a vessel of mystery, especially in the sacraments that break the grip of time and give us a taste of the eternal.

Who we are spiritually

If the Church provides a home for us, we must provide one for each other. Although the shelves sag with books that promise you can have everything you want (and plenty of things you don’t need), Catholicism makes no such pledge. It points to eternal life but it understands and ministers to us as people living in time. "Where there is time," Joseph Campbell has written, "there is sorrow." So the Church addresses itself to the imperfect, the wounded, the people who need encouragement more than condemnation. No wonder people speak of it spontaneously as a "family" or a "home." Those are the places where we can count on being accepted as ourselves.

The remarkable and reassuring part of finding our spiritual hearth in Catholicism is that it does not speak of God as a distant being who has made so many of us that he long ago took us off his mailing list and out of his will.

We find rich revelation of God in his creatures. When St. John writes of how God loves us, one expects him to conclude that we ought to love God in return. Instead, he writes that since God loves us so greatly we must love each other in return.

"God," St. John writes, "is love." We believe in him because we have been loved by people who thereby reveal God’s nature to us. How else could we understand a God who loves and wants to share his life with us if we never loved someone so much that we wanted to share our lives with them? We would be staggered by the idea of eternity except for those moments, so dear in life, when time’s bonds are broken and we sense the eternal. Life is seeded with such moments, and religion exists to underscore them as our participation in the great mystery of life.

We find out who we are, for example, when others reveal themselves to us by lowering their defenses and trusting in us or believing in us before we believe in ourselves. It is God’s forgiveness we experience when someone else forgives us from the heart. There is more of us alive after we believe—have faith in or keep faith with—another more than before. Fidelity is not an outmoded notion because it is the proclamation of God’s love in us and our love for each other.

Who we really are arises out of our everyday lives with each other. For that, rather than a distant mountain, remains the place where we find ourselves by losing ourselves in loving others. That is the timeless teaching that the community of the Church proclaims and supports about finding God and being ourselves. Behold, God says simply that his kingdom is in the midst of us. So, too, is he. That sustains us through this intermission, and, at the same time, gives us a preview of the second act.*

Dr. Eugene Kennedy is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. Among his many books is My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.




Eunice Kennedy Shriver


Eunice Kennedy Shriver has been given a multitude of opportunities and gifts in her life. A member of one of the most established and successful political families in America, she has been surrounded by power and privilege. But the gift she most treasures is her Catholic faith. It is a faith that was instilled and nurtured by her loving parents, Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. The truths, lessons and prayers she learned as a child are central to who she is now.

For Mrs. Shriver it is only natural to want to share the faith that is so precious to her. As a mother she has done her best to bequeath that gift to her five children, now grown. And, as executive director of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Shriver is now putting her energy behind a comprehensive effort to share the richness of her faith. The Foundation is funding the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Mental Retardation. The curriculum project is operated out of the Department for Persons with Disabilities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

It was through her own late sister, Rosemary, a person with mental retardation, that Mrs. Shriver learned firsthand about "these special children of God." Founder and chairwoman of the Special Olympics International, she has received many awards for her service to the disabled community, including Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal and the Presidential Medal of Honor.

The new religious education curriculum focuses on bringing persons with mental retardation fully into the spiritual life of the parish. And that, Mrs. Shriver believes, is where they belong with their "great gifts of love, innocence, simplicity, fidelity and respect. By their very being," she says, "they imitate the gospel values" presented in the program. Her hope is that God’s special children will be inspired to look for "heroes and heroines of the Catholic faith" who will serve as "models for service."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver is a woman known for her humility, a Kennedy who does not have the name recognition of the more famous members of the clan. But her life speaks for itself, as does her commitment to her faith.*

— by Judy Ball




Musical Pilgrimage


From the world’s most-traveled pope comes an invitation to join him on a new kind of pilgrimage. Through his new compact disc, Abbà Pater, John Paul II offers a musical and spiritual experience aimed at helping the listener meditate on the real meaning of the forthcoming Jubilee Year. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Vatican’s Jubilee Committee, notes that the pope’s voice is that of a pastor who seeks "to render visible to men, women and youth the inner pilgrimage" that the Jubilee invites.

The 11-track CD, featuring the voice of the pope against a musical background, offers prayers, chants and homilies in Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, English. Recorded by Vatican Radio throughout the Holy Father’s pontificate over the past 20 years, the selections include a Gregorian chant version of the Our Father, meditations on Scripture, a homily on forgiveness delivered to youth. The title track, Abbà Pater (combining the Aramaic and Latin words for "father"), was originally spoken and sung by the Holy Father at a 1995 celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Abbà Pater is being released by Sony Classical. Royalties go to Vatican Radio and an Italian order of priests which produced the CD.*


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