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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Politics and Political Issues as Religion

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 24, 2013

By Thom Nickels

A developing trend in American culture today is how people are replacing the gap in their lives once filled by religion. Religion and church attendance used to be central in the lives of most Americans, but according to almost every poll, this is no longer the case. Many people have lost trust in institutions, both secular and religious, and tend to adopt a view of skeptical detachment. If you want proof of this, just walk into all the half-empty churches on Sunday. Synagogue attendance is also down, according to most poll numbers.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center found a major decline in mainline Protestantism, with Catholics barely holding their own in terms of numbers (no mention was made of Orthodox Christians, which is standard fare in the world of pollsters). Pew also found that in 2013, close to 20% of Americans did not identify with any religion. The vast majority of these non-identifiers, or "nones" as they are called, are not atheists or agnostics but people who are indifferent to religion despite the fact that Pew found that 74% of them were raised in religious traditions. The large numbers of people who "identify with a faith tradition culturally but not theologically" would include people who observe Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving without any classic religious associations.

Losing your religion is considered by many to be part of the growing up process. Chucking the so-called "brainwashed" data we received from parents during childhood is seen by some as the beginning of adult independence. While chucking the beliefs of our parents and starting from scratch in some cases can be a good thing, all too often this sort of obliteration stems from selfish personal reasons rather than theological ones. Just because the parental "God info" was given to us as children, doesn’t necessarily mean that the "info" is false. Another part of the growing up process is a willingness to admit this fact.

The huge religious spectrum—from mainstream denominations to cults, sects and organizations (like Scientology) that seem to ape religion—can be confusing to the uninitiated. In Christianity, for instance, there are conservative and progressive churches that are often at war with one another when it comes to social issues. Among Christians there are also those who act as cheerleaders for their brand of church, applauding those who leave one brand for another.

No wonder some people opt to walk away from religion rather than subject themselves to this overwhelming Tower of Babel of clashing and overlapping voices that must seem like a George Crumb concert gone awry. Still, it’s my belief that people who grow up with religion, but then walk away from it, are left with a vacancy to fill. Do they sometimes, without even knowing it, spend the rest of their lives trying to fill that spiritual vacancy with any number of ordinary things from life? Like politics?

We’ve all met people who are so ardently political that their happiness as human beings seems to be dependent on whether their favored political ideology is "winning" the war in Washington or in the world of popular opinion. During the last presidential election, for instance, I encountered people who viewed either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as their authentic "personal savior". I noticed that these people would seem to fall into a deep depression, or even prolonged fits of anger, if it appeared that the opposing candidate was "winning." The same is true in the post-election world, where ideologues of both the right and left see the world and everybody around them through a narrow political lens—the "saved" and the "unsaved."

I may be as wet as a catfish in the Schuylkill, but it’s my theory that when there is no God, no faith, no belief in a divine purpose, then things like politics can take on an imbalanced transcendental importance. It’s not that people of faith cannot hold strong political opinions, or that people without faith cannot be balanced or moderate in their views. They certainly can be and are balanced in many cases. The general trend, however, is in the opposite direction, for it seems to me that the "faith replacement" people approach their brand of politics more as holy dogma and often have little tolerance for people who disagree with them. Some of these people will even end friendships over political disagreements.

While I consider myself a political progressive, I have noticed that progressives can be far less tolerant of differences in this area than so-called reactionary conservatives. Once I attracted the wrath of the transgender community because I used the wrong terminology when describing my first meeting with a trans person back in the late 1970s. Although I try to have thick skin as a journalist, the attacks I experienced then topped the scales in the mean and vicious department. But I’ll spare you the details.

"Faith replacement" people can use many social causes to fill in empty spiritual gaps. They can go to radical extremes with vegetarianism, animal rights, feminism, LGBT rights, music, UFOs, Rand Paul, yoga (which is its own religion, actually), dogs, or Sunday brunch. While these alliances and activities may be terrific causes and pastimes, to elevate them into a kind of dogmatic lifestyle is something else entirely.

Exotic eastern practices like meditation and yoga have replaced religion for many people despite the fact that they are only relaxation techniques to help soothe the mind or help the body "stretch." I call these things mental aerobics, but as answers to the deeper questions of life they offer little if anything. Because they are dogma-free products, their merits are extolled in a culture that has come to disapprove of narrow interpretations of spirituality. Ultimately, however, it has been my experience that yoga and meditation leave most of their adherents feeling empty and unfulfilled.

On a lighter note, there are other things that "faith replacement" people tend to do to fill in those huge spiritual gaps. For instance, there is the Sunday brunch, something that many use as a replacement for church on Sunday. In an article entitled How Locals Spend a Sunday: The Church of Axe in Venice Beach, writer Andrea Arria-Devoe says, "For those of us who do not attend church or any other religious institution, Axe feels like a fitting Sunday substitute. There’s a monastic quality to the restaurant: its neutral hues, austere tables and benches, the earthy scent of incense."

But as that Schuylkill catfish might say if it could talk: Okay, whatever.
Former Catholic convent at Girard near Broad Street, North Philadelphia.
The days when being a Catholic nun was serious business. Pre-stretch pant suit days.
Same order of nuns in the new Novus Ordo chapel.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dressing UP and DOWN in Philadelphia

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 10, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Philadelphia is basically a "dress-down" kind of town, where it’s not unusual to see theater and concert-going patrons in casual clothes bordering on rustic. By "rustic" I mean torn or split jeans, corduroys with holes or stains, or shirts that resemble lumber yard work frocks.

I sometimes think the "dress-down" style here has something to do with the city’s Quaker heritage. The original Quakers liked plainness over ornate or showy materials. New Yorkers have often observed Philadelphia’s penchant for dress-down attire, especially when it comes to theater audiences. A long time ago I remember reading a New Yorker article about Philadelphia men wearing bib overalls to the theater. Bib overalls, of course, are what farmers in the country wear. You don’t expect to see men in bib overalls when attending opening night in one of the city’s major theaters.

When it comes to dress, Philadelphia is also a city of extremes. Consider the class of men who like to wear bow ties. These fellows can be any age; they can be prep school grads, conservative Republicans, men from old money, rich suburban families or even men who aspire to attain something of what wearing a bow tie seems to suggest: sophistication beyond the pale. In some cases, a bow tie can looked affected, although wearing the right bow tie with a nice seersucker suit is a sure way to suggest money and class.

Suspenders are another specialty dress item. They can look like the Farmer in the Dell or just downright cool, depending on what they are holding up. I wore suspenders as a boy with white shirts and a small checkered bow tie. To get my attention sometimes or to make a point, my mother would snap my suspenders. Perhaps that’s why I opted to stop wearing them, although it may also have been because suspenders were sometimes known to come undone in violent recoil that had me holding up my trousers for dear life. To this day whenever I see somebody in suspenders I experience a slight urge to go over and give them a snap. As for bowties, we wore them in parochial school as an alternative to the sometimes boring necktie.

I grew up when boys and men wore ties to school, church and work, when shirts were tucked into trousers in the classic Brooks Brother’s mode rather than left to hang over trousers like untailored drapery. Today it is fashionable among many twenty-something men to wear shirts - dress, casual or grunge - hanging over their trousers, a fashion trend started years ago by overweight designers who wanted to hide the huge expanse of their waistlines. A tucked-in shirt, after all, accentuates body image.

Many, though not all, younger men go to extreme lengths to avoid wearing sports jackets and suits. I have seen these guys underdress at social and press events where almost everyone present is wearing a jacket and tie. What amazes me is how these guys don’t seem to care that they stand out like boiler room janitors or party crashers. Don’t get me wrong: I love old, sloppy clothes. Weather-beaten clothes are fun to wear around the house and to do work in. I tend to wear one work shirt, for instance—something I bought at the local thrift store—that is starting to sport holes, but because I like the shirt I have come to regard it as my work uniform. But would I go to a museum exhibition opening in it? I don’t think so.

When I was in my twenties I began to think of wearing suits and ties as the province of old men. You know the look: oversized sheen jackets, fat clown ties, neatly pressed baggy trousers and shiny black shoes that not reflect way, way up into Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden universe. My beloved old great aunt, who once corresponded with Clare Booth Luce and knew Connie Mack, expected me to dress in a tie whenever I visited her in Cathedral Village, a retirement/nursing home in Roxborough. Sometimes I complied, although I would only put the tie on when I entered the Village, and never wore it on the bus going there or returning home. There were other times when, out of stubbornness, I would decide, "NO tie for great aunt!" so I’d visit her with an open collar.

At no time, however, did I visit her with my shirt hanging out of my pants like those hipster exhibition janitors. My great aunt, who was born in 1895, had no time for an open collar, while an open collar to me was a beautiful thing (like reading the poetry of Walt Whitman), especially in the summer. The prospect of having lunch with me and my open collar in the Cathedral Village dining room once drove her to tears. In her panic to make me look presentable, she suggested that I wear one of her broaches in place of a tie.

Of course, it not being Halloween, I did a double take. "I’m sorry I didn’t bring the tie," I said. "I will next time, if it means that much to you, but I’m going nowhere near that broach." We decided on a compromise: I would button the top button and leave it at that. Later, however, I saw that I was being unfair to her and so I made the decision that if a tie made her happy, why not wear one, especially if she’s paying for lunch?

Through the years I’ve come to realize that when it comes to dressing for events, it’s always better to be overdressed than under. In some cases it’s actually possible to do both, as hybrid dress configurations like the sports jacket/sweater/ jean combination manage to bypass any suggestion of janitorial influences. Suits and jackets today have lost the Square Bob look of yesteryear, thanks to certain European influences like shorter, tighter jackets, slimmer trousers and slim ties.

Of course, there are things I’d never wear, even if I found myself (during a terrible war with North Korea, say) crawling on all fours in the streets in a search for water and food rations. These items include: (1) sweat pants and sweat suits, which should never be worn outside a gym or the backyard. (2) Flip-flops: No self-respecting man should wear flip-flops in the city (the beach is okay). There’s no sadder sight in contemporary life than watching a grown man in flip-flops trying to descend the steps at Girard and Front after getting off the El.

Please don’t think of me as a fashion expert. I flunked a big test recently when I went to cover a Royal Oak Foundation Lecture, The Day Parliament Burned Down, in the Grant Room of the Union League. As I entered the building, I was stopped by a UL overseer who asked, "Do you have jeans on?" I might have been carrying a ziplock of weed from Colorado, judging from her full frontal lunge in the direction of my shoes. "No, ma’m," I said, respectfully. "In fact, my natural tendency is to overdress. I am wearing dress Levi’s from the Port Richmond Plaza thrift store to match this very hard-to-find Calvin Klein corduroy jacket."

"You are wearing jeans," she said, patently ignoring the Lauren sweater, Italian shoes and dress belt from Helsinki. A fashion debate then ensued at which point the overseer mused, "So far this evening we’ve had to turn away 16 people."

"Sixteen?!" I exclaimed, happening to glance over at a man on a lobby bench in the act of removing his jacket, when like a flash of lightning the overseer pointed at the culprit and said for all to hear, "Please do not remove your jacket, sir!" Two men behind me, also wanting to know how and why Parliament burned down, wore skinny peg ties (Pee Wee Herman), tight jackets and a hybrid version of hipster petite casual slacks. They were also waiting for the overseer’s green light. To my astonishment they were allowed to pass through without the overseer ever checking their trousers.

Life is unfair sometimes.

It was not a good day, and I did not like being number seventeen, but out on the sidewalk, in the sunlight of truth, I could plainly see that the Levi’s on my body were in fact denim (or black jeans) and not cotton.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 03, 2013

By Thom Nickels

On March 22, the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives voted to end the legacy of Prohibition in the Keystone State. The House voted to privatize wine and liquor sales, a positive move that promises to shift the state into the 21st Century.

Lightning did not strike the state capitol when this happened, although it might as well have because now we are seeing state liquor store clerks defending the state store system despite the fact that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians want privatization. On a human level, one can understand why the state store clerks are rising up in protest: they want to save their jobs, an understandable albeit selfish sentiment that pretty much ignores the wishes of the majority: to get the state out of the business of selling alcohol. Unfortunately, the longer the state is involved in the sale of alcohol, the harder it will be to uproot that alliance. We are seeing the first effects of that rupture now.

The fact that every Democrat in the House voted against privatization is a curious thing indeed. Think about it: Democrats voting with the status quo, to retain an antiquated system with roots going back to the days of bathtub gin? Aren’t Democrats supposed to side with the will of the people?

Privatization, generally, is not a good thing. Privatization ruined the airline industry, it threatens to destroy the US Post Office (and replace it with expensive Fed Ex-style deliveries), and it is always ready to pounce on Social Security. Yet privatization in this case is a good thing, and the Pennsylvania Democrats who voted against the measure stooped to a new low when they stated that it (privatization) was "as bad morally as it was fiscally," and that "increased access to drinking would lead to increased drinking and the social ills that come with it."


As a registered Democrat, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a Democrat say that something could be "bad morally." The "bad morally" phrase is usually reserved for right-of-center Republicans on any number of social issues. Democrats, at least in the abstract, are supposed to be moral relativists, so this "moral" thing is peculiar indeed.

Murdering your neighbor or trashing his car might be "bad morally", but how is a greater access to a bottle of wine for a dinner party "bad morally"? This is what those Democrats are saying: If wine and spirits are sold everywhere, the average person will fall prey to temptation and desire to overindulge. This is a Prohibition mindset that the state has been fostering since the state store system began. But civilization will not fall if a bottle of Merlot is sold next to the Tastykakes in the local grocery store.

I’m sorry—no, I’m not—but responsible citizens should not be held hostage because there are undisciplined folks who do fall prey to sloppy overindulgence. I would have had more respect for the Democrats who voted against privatization if they had said that they were concerned about the loss of union jobs or the loss of PLCB annual profits totaling some $170 million which go into state coffers. Instead they blabbered on about "social ills."

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term "social ills" I think of mass murders in movie theaters, shootings in Old City, or even a random baby stroller murder on a sunny afternoon. What does Fish Eye wine for sale in Thriftway have to do with social illness?

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has done a lot to adapt to the modern age, such as initializing Sunday sales and regular wine tasting events in random stores. A few years ago there was a master plan in the works to put wine vending machines (kiosks) in up to 100 supermarkets. Obviously, this project failed. The kiosks were supposed to hold a number of popular wines chosen by the LCB while the machines would have filtered out purchases by minors and the intoxicated. While the "how-to science" of these filters was never made clear, the proposed prototype was supposed to get a test run in Harrisburg. Years ago, Governor Rendell (swayed by unions) postponed and then nixed the pilot program.

For anyone who has traveled to New York, California and to the South—where wine can be purchased in local supermarkets—Pennsylvania’s LCB system seems like an H.G. Wells trip into medieval times. Walk the streets of Manhattan, and you’ll find it hard to count the number of shops that sell wine. Or travel to Canada where you will see wine for sale beside candy bars and pound cake in neighborhood drug stores.

Decades ago when you walked into a Philadelphia state store you had to ask a guy behind the counter for what you wanted. They had state store catalogs with numbers; the customer would give the guy a number, he’d disappear into the back and come back with the bottle. The operation was run like a pawn shop. Not only that, but by law the guy behind the counter couldn’t give you any recommendations.

In 2003, I interviewed then Director of Communications for the LCB Bill Epstein about the possibility of change for Pennsylvania. At that time, Epstein told me: "If you look at the political horizon as I understand it, it is hard to paint a picture for any major change in the LCB anytime soon." This despite the fact that in 2003, a Hershey Philbin Associates Online Poll revealed that 75% of Pennsylvanians said they favored abolishing the LCB.

The poll numbers since then have favored privatization even more, although politicians—in this case, Democrats—never seem to listen to their constituents.

So don’t expect any miracles when the privatization bill comes up before the PA Senate. While Pennsylvanians want privatization, politicians have SHS (Selective Hearing Syndrome). As Epstein told me then, "I have people marching in front of my building and our stores who say that we should not be open on Sunday, that we should not allow credit card sales, or go into supermarkets. These self-appointed guardians of moral standards are really Prohibitionists."

"There is a coalition of conservatives who don’t believe that availability to alcohol ought to be expanded. There’s also a group of legislators who want to protect jobs at state stores, and these two forces combine to be a potent political road block to modernizing the system," Chuck Ardo, Press Secretary for Governor Rendell, told me back in 2009.

Face it, folks: Pennsylvania may never change.

Proposed Mormon Temple for Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Pennsylvania and Utah are the only two states in the nation that still have Prohibition-style state controled alochol sales. Will Pennsylvania ever change?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Visiting the Orthodox cathedral in Helsinki, Finland. Orthodoxy never changes. No Novus Ordo table. No dancing nuns. No holding hands during the Our Father. Steel-bolted tradition.

From The Local Lens/Huffinton Post, Religion

Published• Wed, Mar 27, 2013

By Thom Nickels

A lot of people are asking, "What do you think of the new pope?" It’s a question that’s making the rounds like an ice cream truck on a hot July day. Most people, I find, are giving positive answers to that question. Who, after all, wouldn’t like a man who insists on paying his own hotel bill? Who wouldn’t like a man who isn’t afraid to break protocol, such as walking past the Swiss Guards to give babies a kiss and crippled elderly people a hug? Gestures like these are guaranteed to win public approval, much like President Carter’s famous bypassing of protocol when he and First Lady Roslyn walked rather than rode the presidential limo on Inauguration Day. These are true "man of the people" moments that fire up applause meters and warm the hearts of the sentimental.

When Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected the 266th pontiff of the Catholic Church, the first thing I did was reach for the William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White 1918 English grammar classic, The Elements of Style. ‘Style’ is mostly defined as a superficial outward form, like an innovative Calvin Klein suit or a new ladies’ hat. A demagogue can have a fantastic personal style; he or she can even be charismatic and warm with a winning smile, or they can have a sour disposition. In both cases, the substance—what they believe and stand for—has not changed, hence one can say with complete certainty that personal style is not an indicator of substance or "brains." "All style and no substance" is a popular phrase that comes to mind.

With Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is getting quite a change in style. In many ways that style is "low church," meaning plainer and quieter Masses and services, plainer-looking vestments, smaller miters. With Pope Benedict XVI we saw the rich liturgical tapestry of Catholicism despite the fact that Benedict may have gone overboard with those red shoes. Eccentric extremes, I suppose, can be controversial, even if sometimes understandable. What is less understandable is the arbitrary changing of ceremonial rubrics.

At his installation Mass, for instance, Francis wore an obviously ugly white miter and a rather drab uninspiring white linen vestment that seemed to downplay the importance of the event. He also made two abrupt ceremonial simplifications when, after his election, he went to the balcony of Saint Peter’s to deliver his first Urbi et Orbi address. He refused the red mozzetta and the papal stole, something that even liturgically liberal Pope John Paul I and John Paul II never did. Why did he do this? Why would a new leader ignore historical precedents? Imagine a future King or Queen of England refusing the trappings of office during a much-anticipated coronation. Is this ego at work, a kind of narcissistic streak of independence—"Look at me, notice me, I’m different!"—or is something else going on?

Some say that Francis’ liturgical minimalism is the result of his personal humility and concern for the poor. While these are laudable, even noble sentiments, as one commentator on the traditionalist Rorate-Caeli website put it, "The pope may be indeed humble in other matters, not when it comes to liturgy. When it comes to liturgy, to the rites and ceremonial of the Church, the humble attitude is to follow the traditional code, the prescribed rubrics or custom, even if that's not what you would like best. To impose one's will, one's personal preference, even if one is the Pope, over the established ceremonial of the Church is not humble attitude by any means. And the ceremonial of the Church prescribes that, when a solemn blessing is involved, Popes wear the mozzetta with the stole, and the pectoral cross hanging by a cord."

If I were to read the papal tea leaves, I’d say that as the first Jesuit pope, Francis will make other ceremonial changes that will shock traditional Catholics [see below]. Traditional Latin Mass congregations are especially worried that Francis will attempt to undo some if not all of the liturgical changes (the reform of the reform) brought about by Benedict. Modern day Jesuits, after all, are usually regarded as avant garde liturgists and edgy theologians. For proof of this just pick up any copy of America magazine, a Jesuit-run publication that’s been singing the praises, at least editorially, of liturgical minimalism since the days of Vatican II. Founded as a religious order by Ignatius of Loyola in 1539 to defend the papacy, many Jesuits today have evolved into theological naysayers at odds with the tenets of their own religion. While the freedom to philosophize and go out on a limb can be a fine thing, it seems weird to me when I hear of Jesuits and other Catholic priests telling priest friends of mine that they "don’t really believe in those things anymore," those things meaning not birth control or the Church’s teachings on sexuality, but in the Real Presence at Mass, that Jesus was the son of God, or anything having to do with the Virgin Mary. This sort of thinking has become common after Vatican II.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, famous for liturgical innovation and currently on the firing line for his role in covering up scores of clergy sex abuse cases, was reported to have been estatic at the election of Pope Francis. As reported by Rorate-Caeli, one of the Cardinal’s tweets went this way: "Mass with Pope Francis: moving from High Church to Low Church & humble Church! What a blessing that we are encountering Jesus w/o trappings!" As one critic of Mahony observed, what was this tweet if not a "reprehensible criticism of Pope Benedict?"

If you want to know a bit about Mahony’s liturgical style, check out his LA Masses on Youtube. There you will see hand-clapping, evangelical-style shakin’ and rollin’ along with dancing nuns twirling big incense bowls. Hopefully Pope Francis will not turn St. Peter’s into gymnasium central, although when he announced that he was replacing Monsignor Guido Marini, papal master of ceremonies since 2007, with a rotating team of Francisican liturgists, more alarm bells went off. Teams of liturgists, both lay and clergy, have contributed mightily to liturgical abuse problems since the 1970s.

Perhaps all this talk of style and liturgy doesn’t mean much to the average Catholic. My Catholic neighbors tell me, for instance, that they much prefer the current Mass to "the old one." In fact, they seem so content with the Conciliar Church—lay ministers, et al—that they probably didn’t even notice the radical change in ceremonial style happening in Rome. As one who grew up in the Catholic faith, I know that there are many in the Church who believe that any change in worship or practice, however radical, is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that it is the duty of Catholics-in-the-pews to go along with it. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, would disagree. He wrote: "There being an imminent danger for the Faith, Prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects."

Perhaps Pope Francis will prove to be a good pope, and in the coming months will quell the tendency to chuck tradition to the four winds. Many people in my Orthodox parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Northern Liberties seem to like Pope Francis. They see him as capable of furthering, or even accomplishing, reunion with the Orthodox Church. That makes sense in a way. Francis first considers himself Bishop of Rome, not an imperial wizard, so one can easily imagine him moving the papacy back to where it was in the early days of the Church, as the first among equals, no more, no less, but with far less control over the family of geographical churches than is exercised today.

Since most of my Orthodox friends at St. Michael’s have never been Catholic, they did not witness firsthand the dismantling of so much Catholic tradition in the years since Vatican II. I’d place any bet, however, that most of them would not be happy if Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople began minimizing the importance of icons or introducing changes into ancient ceremonial practices, not to mention turning a blind eye to [Orthodox] nuns doing a "nice" Mahony-style dance around the iconostasis.

"The buck stops here," as has been said in many corner salons.

Note:  As reported in Rorate-Caeli shortly after Western Good Friday:

"The Preacher of the Pontifical Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, preached in the Vatican Basilica on Good Friday what was formally a homily but truly a panegyric to the new pontiff with an embedded program of great ambition." Main excerpt follows:  
As happens with certain old buildings. Over the centuries, to adapt to the needs of the moment, they become filled with partitions, staircases, rooms and closets. The time comes when we realize that all these adjustments no longer meet the current needs, but rather are an obstacle, so we must have the courage to knock them down and return the building to the simplicity and linearity of its origins. This was the mission that was received one day by a man who prayed before the Crucifix of San Damiano: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church".
I though that was what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to do.

A destroyed Catholic church interior on the outskirts of Vienna. The Spirit of Vatican II at work. My Catholic tour guide was close to tears as she told me the story of the cathedral's destruction--in the name of "humility" and minimalism.  
Saint Paul's Catholic church in South Philadelphia, where there is a weekly Traditional Latin Mass. Father Mark Shinn of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox church in Northern Liberties once told me that St. Paul's is one of the most beautiful Catholic churches he's ever seen.  
A non-Conciliar order of Catholic monks in Colorado. My nephew is among them. They have no time for "the Spirit of Vatican II" either.
Pope Francis meets Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. You'd be hard pressed to find an Orthodox liturgical modernist. Had Pope Francis said to the Metropolitan, "You really don't need that huge icon around your neck! And as for that hat, please take it off as a symbol of humility and simplicity!" The Metropolitan's reaction? Most likely, "I am not amused, kind sir!"   
True humility is calling such a place a cathedral. Perhaps the poverty and humility of the new pope will result in all cathedrals looking like this. Perhaps.

Tradition Dismantling Updates: This just in from the Traditio Fathers:

"More and more people are wondering whether Francis-Bergoglio is really a pope. He doesn't want to wear the papal vesture. He doesn't want to be called "pope," but has directed that the Newcardinals and his staff call him "Jorge." Now we find out that he doesn't like the Mess. "Mr. Humility" wants the worship of God slashed further. Anyone who has observed him at the televised services of Holy Week, the most sacred and holy week of the year, bringing true Catholics as close to Christ as they can come, Bergoglio has been caught on camera totally bored and looking at his watch as if he needed to hurry to catch the next train to perdition!

Bergoglio ordered the Easter Vigil Mess trimmed back by almost half. The Traditional Latin Holy Week Rites had already slashed in 1956 by... Bugnini, Chief Architect of the Novus Ordo. Bergoglio didn't have time to worship God during Holy Week, but he had plenty of time to create a "press opportunity" by washing the feet of woman and infidels at a concocted "maundy" meant to spurn Tradition.

The twelve traditional prophecies chanted on Holy Saturday were slashed in 1956 to just four, and now Bergoglio has slashed them further. He was also too impatient to deal with the candle lighting. Bergoglio's Newvatican propagandists claimed that slashing these most sacred rites of the entire Church year were justified by his desire "not to have his Masses [sic] go on too long."
In Walking on Water, Dennis meets Thomas Merton in a very unusual Novus Ordo Trappist island abbey.

From The American Conservative:

 Bergoglio’s obvious disdain for Tradition, and his continual elevation of his personal whims and preferences above Tradition in matters residential, sartorial, liturgical, and canonical, has already reached disturbing levels and bodes ill for those who don’t think the Church began with Vatican II. It isn’t “substance over style,” but rather, a failure to appreciate and understand the true depth and substance behind those Traditions now denigrated as mere “styles” of the past.

His whole “I’m-so-humble-and-simple-shtick,” is wearing thin already, and actually, rather than elevating substance over style, it simply calls more attention to himself, subordinating the Traditions of the Church and the Papacy to his own style at the expense of substance.

LA Cathedral Liturgical Dancing Nun, 2020.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Vienna (and getting lost in the hills of The Sound of Music)

(From The Last Word and The Weekly Press, 2011)

When the opportunity arose to visit the city of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Haydn, Kafka, and Sigmund Freud, I set to work to orchestrate the best trip possible with the help of the Austrian Tourist Board in New York.

I arrived at JFK Airport on the rainy afternoon of Thursday, October 15 happy to have survived the reckless driving of a shuttle bus driver who had exceeded the speed limit in weather that can only be described as treacherous. The shuttle bus clanked and shook as the driver sped past Mac diesel trucks as large as small houses. I expected to arrive at JKF DOA as wind and rain pelted the shaky van from all angles.

On board Austrian airlines, air traffic control problems caused a one hour takeoff delay, however the seven hour flight went reasonably fast. It didn’t hurt that Austrian airlines has a policy of distributing free wine, positively the best remedy for soiled “traveler’s” nerves

At the Vienna airport, I hailed a cab driven by a helpful Middle Eastern man who reminded me that Western Europe in 2009 has become a melting pot possibly on the verge of boiling over. We drove to the Hotel Aldstat in Vienna’s 7th district, my temporary home for three days. (The City of Vienna is divided into 23 Districts).

The Aldstat is Old World grandeur. My suite consisted of two large rooms and a private rooftop garden. The staircase to the rooftop was nothing short of a precarious climb, three dozen or so small steps that zigzagged up to a small door that, once unlocked, led you to a fascinating postcard view of the city. In the United States, hotel steps like this would be prohibited because of potential law suits (the proverbial ‘what if’ accident), but here in Vienna occupants of the Otto Suite are expected to behave responsibly (and not tumble down the steps after too much Austrian wine). The suite also contained the largest roll top desk I’ve ever seen.

The weather, rainy and overcast, was just as it had been in New York, although the lack of sunlight created an overall feeling of poetic melancholy (think Goethe and ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’). My guide Diane, a former au pair from London, suggested I put on an overcoat for our first venture out.

After an introductory walk around the 7th District and ride on the subway, Diane pointed out a mammoth bunker built during the WWII Nazi occupation. The multi- story edifice, or Esterhazy Park Tower now home to the Vienna State Aquarium, was built by the Nazis in the west end of the city to impede the flow of American and British bombers. The fascist monolith is an imposing structure, with odd-shaped semi circles jetting out on each of the building’s top four corners. Arterillery was once positioned on top of this huge block structure. “The Americans flew by day but the British had to fly by night because they couldn’t fly very high,” Diane told me, adding that smaller backup bunkers held generators, hospital beds, and doctors, or everything that was needed to back up the main tower.

During WW II, Allied bombers destroyed nearly 30% of the city during the 56 or so major air raids of the war.

We headed over to St. Stephen’s cathedral. The massive church with the multicolored roof was built on two earlier churches (the first was established in 1147). St. Stephen’s is known as the church of Mozart. It was here that Mozart worshiped and was married. “He never lived far from the cathedral,” Diane told me, “he was very religious, almost superstitiously so.” The cathedral was nearly turned to ashes and debris by retreating German armies in WW II but a local Captain ignored demands for its demolition. Unfortunately, restoration scaffolding currently covers the front of the cathedral but still in evidence are numerous bullet holes embedded into the stone. During the war, 90% of the cathedral’s 14th century Gothic glass stained windows were destroyed except for three long panels behind the high altar. Resistance fighters held regular meetings in the cathedral’s catacombs.

Viennese Catholic churches are epicenters of light. Clusters of candle operas, hanging chandeliers and votive candles give many of the churches here a Russian Orthodox look. The post Vatican Council stone altar tables positioned in front of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic high altars in many of the churches I visited seemed comical and even out of place. Who needs these ‘Julia Child tables’ in front of such historical beauty? The cathedral is home to a reputed miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus. When the so called Maria Pocs Byzantine-style icon, painted in 1676, first shed tears in 1696, Emperor Leopold I had it moved to the high altar, where it remained until 1945. After 1945 the icon was moved towards the front of the church where it once again began to shed tears. A large number of people prayed before the icon as tourists made their way to one of the cathedral’s 18 side altars or formal side chapels.

“During the war, the whole roof collapsed, it was just burning for ages,” Diane told me, pointing skyward. She indicated where the new roof had been joined to the old one. The fire that nearly destroyed the church was a result of nearby burning buildings set by plunderers trying to make hay before Russian troops marched into the city.

Nearby, in the church of Saint Peter-- an Opus Dei parish as rich in ornamentation as the cathedral-- a wedding was in progress. Electric votive candles and hanging chandeliers framed a priest in old vestments reciting prayers in both Latin and German. The bride and groom, in a freeze frame that was its own kind of icon, knelt before the altar as incense wafted towards the door. Through it all a guard at a desk observed the heavy coming and going.

Inside a former Jesuit church dating from 1365 (but now given the generic name, The University church), we viewed what appeared to be the interior of the church’s huge dome. The so called dome, however, is really a work by Andrea Pozzo, painted in 1703. One does not perceive the dome as a work of art until one walks from the high altar to the vestibule. It’s then that one sees that the heretofore sky high ceiling is nothing but a flat surface

When Adolph Hitler roamed the streets of Vienna as a young man (1906 to 1913), he lived in several rooming houses but mostly he was homeless, sleeping on park benches or staying in homeless shelters. With hair down to his shoulders and a scruffy beard, the future German Chancellor was a vagabond nobody, spending all his time drawing watercolor postcards and attempting to hawk them to the affluent habitués of coffeehouses like Café Central, where Lenin and Trotsky once planned the Russian Revolution.

At Café Central (where we sat three tables away from Lenin’s perch), we had a Melange, or coffee with milk served on a small tray, a glass of water, a small spoon, balls of white and brown sugar and a small piece of chocolate, and imagined a scruffy Hitler going from table to table with his postcards. Coffee is a loadstar enterprise in Vienna. There are not only upscale coffee houses like Café Central and Cafe Imperial, but cheaper, bohemian cafes where full meals and desserts can be ordered.

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard called Vienna’s addiction to coffeehouses the “Viennese coffeehouse disease.” The Viennese take coffeehouses so seriously that patrons are free to sit all day reading or writing (or staring into space). There’s no push to order a second cup, and free second, third and fourth glasses of water can be ordered at no extra charge. Try this in your average United States café and chances are you’ll be asked to order something, or head for the exit.

Coffee was the only positive legacy left to the Viennese by the Ottoman Turks, who attempted to conquer the city in 1529 and again in the 1600s. Had Vienna not resisted the Turks Saint Stephen’s would have followed the fate of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The threat of a second Turkish invasion in the 1600s (the first attempt failed because the Turkish cannons got stuck in the mud, the result of too much rain) forced the city to build impenetratable walls. The city fathers poured so much money into the walls they had to stop their pet project: rebuilding Vienna in order to make it the greatest Gothic city in the world.

“During the second invasion, the French were nasty because they were giving the Ottoman Turks all the support they could because they saw their chances. They thought, if Vienna falls, the Turks are going to need our help, so we’ll just help them take over the rest,” Diane told me, before we headed over to the Museum Quarter.

The Museum Quarter was built where the Hapsburg rulers of the Austria-Hungarian Empire had their imperial stables. Here one can hop from one museum to the next. Whether its architecture, the visual arts, dance or theater, the Quarter holds it all, including an abundance of cafes and restaurants. Later that evening, in fact, I headed out from my suite in Aldstat to the Café Restaurant Halle, the site of the former emperor’s Winter Riding Hall, and sampled a favorite imperial dish, Tafelspitz, or stewed beef and root vegetables, the favorite meal of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. .

From the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, just outside the Museum Quarter, I soaked in a panoramic view of the stately government and cultural palaces (called the Holfburg) that had so enthralled Hitler. These were the buildings that Churchill wanted to bomb because he knew they were Hitler’s favorite. With so much history surrounding me, I imagined the eerie echoes of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese who, on March 14, 1938, greeted the Chancellor when he made his triumphal entry into the city. Hitler stood in Heldenplatz (or Heroes Square), an area surrounded by various wings of the Holfburg.

In Vienna, eye contact is easy, people are friendly, and a majority of people speak English, even the few who happen to be homeless. One day while making my way to the Museum of Fine Arts, I was approached by a youth (who looked as unkempt as Hitler must have looked in 1905) who said he needed money for food. In broken English he told me that he had just been released from prison. I gave him a handful of Austrian coins I knew I’d never use, but he scowled at them contemptuously, demanded two Euros, and called me “Stupid.”

The Austrian way, however, is one of friendliness, as I’d discover a couple days later when I rented a car and attempted to drive into the Wachau wine country for the second league of my journey. Driving out of Vienna can be a nightmare for anxiety-prone drivers, as exits are labeled in small discreet letters and numbers. There can be multiple exits beginning with the letter A for instance, causing the mind to play tricks with the eyes, and vice versa.

I was due to meet my second guide and take a small boat trip down the Danube, but I never made it because I got lost in the mountains. Driving through Black Forest like configurations and ‘Sound of Music’ rolling hills and mountains, it began to rain and sleet and finally there were glimmers of snow. Austrians drive fast, the speed limit is between 80 and 90, so most people were passing me except for the big trucks that would move up silently behind me and flash their lights.

As a lost soul, of course I was traveling at a snail’s pace.

Would I survive my Austrian adventure? Nervously, I thought of the icon in Saint Stephen’s and made the appropriate supplications. Shortly after this, miracle of miracles, I noticed a small restaurant supply house and café, the only building I’d seen for miles. I knocked on the door, explained my situation—a lost journalist with a dead cell phone—and was promptly invited inside for coffee or beer, my choice. Friends of the woman who invited me in (and allowed me the use of her phone) joined us for conversation until I was safely redirected out of the mountains, and arrived safely at the Loisium hotel some hours later.

My getting lost meant that I had missed a tour of the W.H. Auden house in Kirchsstetten, but once in the bosom of the wine country, my trip once again came alive. My wine country guide, Hans Christian, drove me to the famous Leo Hillinger winery, where we sampled some of the best stock, and where we met the winery master himself, Leo, who’s a celebrity throughout Europe.

We also traveled into Hungary, and spotted an abandoned Communist station house where thirty years before guards with guns took aim at Hungarians escaping into freedom. (Hans Christian told me that the Communists in Hungary were much nicer than the ones in East Germany, who’d shoot first and ask questions later.) At the Hungarian border we couldn’t resist the impulse to step out of the car and walk into the surrounding forest, where the ground beneath our feet holds countless dark, untold secrets.

Thom Nickels can be reached at