Friday, April 12, 2019

Lessons from 1984

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

1984 by George Orwell is included on practically every list of famous dystopian novels.  Published in June 1949, Orwell's work focuses on a totalitarian government that rules through oppression, constant surveillance, unending warfare, and the manipulation of facts.  

Society is divided into an Inner Party, Outer Party, and--the lowest class--the proles.  Thought Police monitor the behavior of all party members through the use of telescreens: a kind of television through which the Thought Police can broadcast commands and information as well as constantly (and at times secretly) watch people.  

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.  How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.  It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.  But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.  You have to live--did live, from habit that become instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

The Party is ruled by "Big Brother," whose large, imposing face is plastered everywhere, though no one has actually seen him in person.  There are three slogans that define the Party: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.  

Protagonist Winston Smith, an Inner Party member, works for the Ministry of Truth.  Ironically, what he actually does is the exact opposite.  Winston's task is to rewrite history, substituting truth for fiction in order to ensure that the Party is always right.  Some people who oppose the Party become "unpersons."  They are deleted from all historical records.  For all intents and purposes, it is as though they never existed.  Winston's country of Oceania is perpetually at war, but whether it is with Eastasia or Eurasia depends on what better suits the Party's purposes.  The Party, you see, can never be wrong.

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia.  He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago.  But where did that knowledge exist?  Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated.  And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed--if all records told the same tale--then the lie passed into history and became truth.

In this world, history is no more.  It is always being altered, modified, and falsified.  There exists no proof of facts being falsified--all earlier versions of history are promptly burned within the Ministry of Truth building.  Should anyone object to the Party's version of history, he or she could promptly expect to become an unperson.  

As a history major in college, I took a course about the study of history itself.  How is history presented?  How is the past preserved?  How does the storyteller get to shape the story?  We read a chilling book about Holocaust deniers and how they misrepresent and manipulate the facts to prove that the Holocaust never happened--at least, not to the extent and degree that it did.  

"Those who control the present control the past."  This statement came to my mind a few months ago when reading about the Columbus murals at the University of Notre Dame.

First, a little background.  Fr. Sorin, founder of Notre Dame, ordered the painting of a series of murals of Christopher Columbus inside Notre Dame's Main Building.  Their purpose was the honor the Catholic faith being brought to America.  Italian painter Luigi Gregori painted the murals from 1882 to 1884.

In a letter to campus dated January 20, 2019 current Notre Dame president Fr. Jenkins announced his decision to cover the Columbus murals.  He explained that they "reflect the attitudes of the time," namely the attitudes of the large Catholic immigrant student population.  In the 1800s, Fr. Jenkins explains, Catholics faced much prejudice in public life.  Yet, Columbus was lauded an American hero.  Thus, the Catholic immigrants turned to him as a figure they could cheer, as he was a Catholic and immigrant, too.  

Yet, Fr. Jenkins continues, many today take object with these murals because they do not accurately depict all of the negative consequences that Columbus' voyage had on the Native Americans.  "For the native peoples of this 'new' land, however, Columbus's arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe."  

To defend his decision to cover the murals, Fr. Jenkins refers to a conversation St. John Paul II had with Native Americans in 1987.  He quote: "The encounter [between native and European cultures] was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your way of life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged.”

But this is not just a matter of covering murals.  It is covering up history.  Fr. Jenkins is not telling the whole story.

Let's first take a look at the conversation St. John Paul II had with Native Americans.  It took place in Phoenix, during the pope's apostolic journey to the US in 1987.  Fr. Jenkins quoted from that speech, as I have included just above. However, it is enlightening to notice what St. John Paul II said immediately after that.  He next proceeds to say, "At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people's encounter with the culture that came from Europe."

The pope explains these "deeply positive aspects."  He points to the brave missionaries who defended the rights of Native Americans and set-up missionaries, particularly in the southwest, to educate and improve living conditions for the natives.  Most of all, however, these missionaries brought the Gospel of Our Lord.

"This Gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people." [my emphasis]

While Columbus's arrival here undeniably had negative consequences for the Native Americans, the preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ brought them eternal salvation.  Considering that, how could his coming to America be considered a "catastrophe?"  

History furthermore corroborates this.  What were Columbus's motivations?  What was he hoping to accomplish by taking such a courageous, unheard of voyage?

In a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella dated December 1492, Columbus encouraged them to "spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem."  Thus, his driving motive was to find riches in order to finance a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims.  

Another letter reveals his deep faith and the way his whole expedition was grounded in God.  In 1493 Columbus wrote a letter to Luis de Santangel, an official in the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella.  In describing his interactions with the Native Americans, Columbus writes, "I gave gratuitously a thousand useful things that I carried, in order that they may conceive affection, and furthermore may become Christians ..."  

He remarks upon the Native Americans' ability to communicate with each other and notes how promising that is in the effort of evangelization.  Columbus praises God for finding this land, not lauding his own seafaring skills but acknowledging the Higher Power that guided him.  Finally, he urges that Christendom should "give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity for the great exaltation they shall have by the conversion of so many people to our holy faith ... "

What if the only record that passed into history was Fr. Jenkins' letter to campus?  Columbus would be remembered as a villain and persecutor who brought nothing but evil upon the Native Americans.  The murals would be hidden and so would the truth.  

Thanks be to God, the primary sources are still here.  We can look back and read Columbus's actual words.  We can find the truth in the historical records.  

May there never be a "Big Brother" who takes that away from us.  Let us search for the truth, cling to it, and proclaim it so others may know it, too.  Otherwise, we may find ourselves living in 1984.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Make the Castle of Your Heart Stronger

As parents, we like to give good things to our kids.  We make sacrifices for them and try to give them the best—from buying organic food to driving hours so your child can attend a sports competition.

When I was a child, I loved receiving gifts.  What little boy or girl doesn't?  But now, as an adult, the thing that brings me greater happiness is seeing my children receive a gift.

Our oldest daughter, Mary, received a tremendous gift a few weeks ago: she made her First Reconciliation.

I have been to the sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession) so many times in my life.  I always appreciate that feeling of relief, gratitude, and spiritual healing when I leave the confessional.  I suppose, however, that familiarity softened the power of the sacrament for me ... I had sadly become accustomed to it.  I began to take it for granted that this gift of mercy had been purchased by the price of Christ's blood on the cross.

As Mary bounded up the stairs into the confessional room (she was very excited to be making this sacrament), I knelt and stared at the tabernacle.  All I could think was: Lord, you died for her.  You suffered excruciating pains, You endured such agonies—for my daughter, my precious child I love so much.  Even if she were the only person in the world, You would have done all of that for her.  You have given her the greatest gift of all: the opportunity to be home with You forever in heaven.  And, Lord, You did it because You love her even more than I.

Immense gratitude flooded my heart.  My husband and I might try our best to give our kids a good education, to instill strong morals and virtues, to provide them with a happy and holy home.  But we could never give them this: we could never forgive their sins.  

That being said, we can foster in their hearts a love of this beautiful sacrament, this opportunity to meet Christ and to receive His forgiveness.  We can help them love the gift ... and its Giver.

So here are some of the ways we try to do that in our family.  Maybe some of them will be helpful for you, too.

  • Practice saying, "I'm sorry" and, "I forgive you" among each other.  If our two-year-old pushes her brother, we ask her to say, "I'm sorry."  Also important is her brother's, "I forgive you."  If I commit a wrong toward one of our children, I try to remember to ask his or her forgiveness—we parents aren't perfect and it's good for our children to see we have the humility to admit we our sometimes wrong, too.
  • Lead by example: go to Confession regularly yourself.  If you tell your children that Confession is important, but don't avail yourself of the sacrament, they won't believe you.  Let your actions show its importance.  
  • Read about Confession and discuss it together.  Mary and I have read A Little Book about Confession for Children by Kendra Tierney together to help prepare her for the sacrament.  We both learned so much from that book—I can't recommend it highly enough.  It's very gentle in its approach and addresses some concerns  and fears children (and parents) might have about Confession.  The questions and answers are thorough and engaging.  Read it as a family!
  • Prepare for Confession every day by making a daily Examination of Conscience.  Mary and I do this together at bedtime each night.  We keep it very simple.  First, we each silently think of one good thing we did that day.  Then we think of a sin we committed.  Third, we make a resolution about what we could do better the next day.  Finally, we pray the Act of Contrition.  Doing this each night helps with the daily battle against temptation.  It can keep our sins in check and helps us hold ourselves responsible.  Also, when we prepare for Confession, we can think back to these nightly Examinations of Conscience and remember the sins we committed.

Ultimately, my husband and I emphasized to Mary that Confession is about meeting her best friend, Jesus, and apologizing to Him for the times she hurt Him through her sins.  

St. Teresa of Avila described the soul as a castle where the King, our Lord, dwells.  Through Confession, Mary is getting her soul ready, cleaning it and making it beautiful to receive Jesus in her First Holy Communion.  As we left the church and headed home, Mary remarked to me, "Confession is where you can take your castle heart and make it stronger so the devil can't get in."  All of our castles could use some fortifying.

It's springtime.  Does your soul need some spring cleaning, too?  Let your children ... and yourself ... receive the incredible gift of Confession.