Faith and Life · Uncategorized

Magic in the Mundane

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.

-Leonardo Da Vinci

There is something deeply compelling about the fantastical: the ideas, the possibilities, the inhabitants, of a world that is so like ours yet alien in ways both exciting and unnerving. It fires up our sense of wonder, and a kind of nostalgia for the childlike ability to see magic in the mundane.

The idea of the Garden of Eden, a place of perfect peace and harmony between God, man, and nature, is fantastical. What does “perfect peace” mean? What does that look like? How does that even work? Eden imagery, for people of predominantly European descent, usually evokes a single moment: the one right before man breaks union with God. The world of Eden is frozen for our reflection. It is fantastic, we think, that lions and lambs and turkeys coexist without fear. It is fantastic, we wistfully say, that the world here is sunny and unbloodied. Wouldn’t it be fantastic, we think, if the world was more like this again?

29994-adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden.800w.tnWell, what if the world did retain some vestiges of Edenic harmony? What if the magic is still in the mundane? What would that look like?

The people of the Arctic and Hawai’i have a pretty good idea.

Scientists are increasing interested in studying the Arctic peoples who have a rich cultural history of communicating with whales and other animals. Their anecdotes, like that of Harry Bower, Sr. are fascinating.

Harry Brower Sr. was lying in a hospital bed in Anchorage, Alaska, close to death, when he was visited by a baby whale.

Although Brower’s body remained in Anchorage, the young bowhead took him more than 1,000 kilometers north to Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), where Brower’s family lived. They traveled together through the town and past the indistinct edge where the tundra gives way to the Arctic Ocean. There, in the ice-blue underwater world, Brower saw Iñupiat hunters in a sealskin boat closing in on the calf’s mother.

Brower felt the shuddering harpoon enter the whale’s body. He looked at the faces of the men in the umiak, including those of his own sons. When he awoke in his hospital bed as if from a trance, he knew precisely which man had made the kill, how the whale had died, and whose ice cellar the meat was stored in. He turned out to be right on all three counts…In his final years, he discussed what he had witnessed with Christian ministers and Utqiaġvik’s whaling captains. The conversations ultimately led him to hand down new rules to govern hunting female whales with offspring, meant to communicate respect to whales and signal that people were aware of their feelings and needs.

What can we take away from the experiences of the Arctic people? One, they support theories that animals have an acute awareness of self and their relationship to “other.” Two, man and animal have the ability,  on some deep level, to know each other and communicate that knowledge. Three, that man and nature have a hierarchical relationship, but one that is rooted in deep humility and respect for what each can, and should, offer the other.

Farther south, in tropical waters, the Hawaiian people have their own rich tradition of understanding and cooperating with the natural world. Nowhere better is this tradition expressed than in their creation mele (song), the Kumulipo.

The Kumulipo, composed before the arrival of European explorers, is breathtaking in it’s comprehensive and scientific understanding of how nature works harmoniously. The song speaks of the creation of all things-male and female-and how for every life in the sea there is a counterpart on land that guards its purpose:

Seaweed and grasses
Man by Waiololi, woman by Waiolola,
The Koeleele was born and lived in the sea;
Guarded by the Ko punapuna Koeleele that grew in the forest.
A night of flight by noises
Through a channel; water is life to trees;
So the gods may enter, but not man.

Like the traditions of the Arctic peoples, the Kumulipo expresses the Hawaiian understanding of reciprocity and its centrality to life. There is an awareness of self, of the “other;” we give generously and take with a profound humility for the gift that is given.

Both of these cultures beautifully express how man and the natural world can reclaim a bit of the fantastical. More importantly, they are living invitations to do more than just reflect on a frozen moment of time. They invite us to generously give now, to humbly accept now, to live now, as we were first created to do.

 

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Why Can’t the Church Support Gay Marriage?

The topic of homosexuals, gay marriage, and Catholicism weighs heavily on people’s minds. I understand how confusing and hurtful Church teaching seems on this issue, and a good friend has been gently nudging me to address this for a while now. His most recent comment to me is as follows:

One thing, as you might imagine, that I wonder about with the Catholic position on procreation is where, exactly, it leaves same-sex couples. Obviously the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is no secret, so I get in terms of systematic theology. But in life, in practice, and with a Pope who has opposed same-sex marriage and adoption but has also said some pretty impressive (and I think holy, Jesus kinds of things) about embracing people regardless of sexuality…how does this all fit?

It’s been a journey, but my understanding of my faith has led me to support same-sex marriage, and a I think these kinds of conversations have to keep happening. Even in the progressive UCC, lots of churches are slow to embrace official “Open and Affirming” status for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-considered and pastoral…even while being, in practice, exactly that.

My friend deserves a good answer. Everyone who is confused or hurt by the Church does. This week, I’m going to do my best to give you one. This week I’m not going to talk about Pope Francis. Instead, I am going to try my best to talk like him. Here we go…

First, it’s not possible to separate the theology from the praxis. If you don’t practice what you preach, it’s hypocrisy. If you don’t have a rudder, you can’t steer your ship. I think everyone agrees that a consistent ethic is ideal, and that that ethic should be one of goodness. For Catholics, the most fundamental ethic is the source of our existence. God created all people in His image and likeness; this marks us as having a priceless value that commands an almost divine dignity.

I’ve often heard that the Church’s position on gay marriage denies the value and dignity of homosexuals. In all fairness, it certainly seems that way. Homosexuals are losing out on civil benefits that their straight counterparts take for granted, and on top of that they are made to feel like their love is not as good as a straight couple. From this perspective, both the moral and economic dignity of homosexuals is impugned.

That’s a heavy charge, linking personal dignity with the ability to get married. And that’s what moves us to what this debate is really about: defining the purpose of marriage. We’re asking what marriage was created for, the reason for its existence. We’re looking at settling an issue of theology, of abstract ideology, to suit our desired practices.

Marriage, civilly speaking, has serious economic considerations. From the government’s perspective, the more people get married, the better. When people argue that a ban on gay marriage hurts the economic dignity of homosexual couples, they make a valid point because marriage has been made an economic tool. This is the purpose of marriage in the civil sense. The Church doesn’t take economic dignity into consideration, however. A person’s right to civil benefits isn’t necessitated by their state in life; their very existence necessitates the right to civil benefits. When talking about marriage, economics is a secondary function for the Church.

The Church and society don’t agree that economics offers a legitimate reason why marriage exists. Both agree that marriage entails a moral component, though. It is on moral grounds, then, that the Church’s position should be understood.

Let’s go back to being made in God’s image. This simply means that we were created, as individuals, to manifest certain qualities as we moved through life on Earth. These qualities remain constant because God is constant. Circumstances may change, but the qualities can’t. I do mean can’t; insinuating that God can be something other than Himself amounts to negating His existence. The point to this is that circumstances do not substantially affect our personal dignity. Slavery doesn’t lessen a person’s created value. Being a mass murderer doesn’t lessen it, either. These only change a person’s outer appearance.

I think we can all agree that a person’s outer appearance, as described above, has some effect on our created value. If we are created to be the likeness of God, but use our life to look like everything but God, then that’s a problem. That would be like Picasso putting his personal touches on the Mona Lisa. The created value of Mona Lisa is still there, but it’s overshadowed by whatever you want to call Picasso’s work.

Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a praxis that guides two people’s outer appearance to reveal God’s likeness. Marriage is not an end to itself. It’s only a means to an end. All things should lead to God, and all people should reveal Him. Homosexual marriage leads neither to God nor helps homosexuals reveal their created likeness of Him. Not in theory, and not in practice.

Heterosexual marriage accomplishes this in theory. This is the argument that most people hear given by theologians, bishops, cardinals, and conservative religious pundits. But the reality is that in practice, heterosexual marriages are not guaranteed to do what they were made to do. It is a disparity between theory and practice that is rightly called out. In fact, I think it should be called out more. Broken heterosexual marriages have grossly obscured marriage’s fundamental dignity and set the stage for this entire debate. But the theory-pushers are correct on one thing: inconsistent praxis does not invalidate theory.

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A New Doctor of the Church

Pope Francis declared Saint Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church this morning. From Vatican Radio:

St. Gregory of Narek is widely revered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Armenian religious thought and literature. Born in the city of Narek in about 950 A.D., St. Gregory came from a line of scholars and churchmen.
St. Gregory received his education under the guidance of his father, Bishop Khosrov, author of the earliest commentary on the Divine Liturgy, and from Anania Vartabed, abbess of Narek Monastery. He and his two brothers entered monastic life at an early age, and St. Gregory soon began to excel in music, astronomy, geometry, mathematics, literature, and theology.
He became a priest at the age of 25 and dedicated himself to God. He lived most of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school. St. Gregory began his writings with a commentary on the “Song of Songs,” which was commissioned by an Armenian prince. Despite his reservations that he was too young for the task, the commentary became famous for its clarity of thought and language and its excellence of theological presentation.
He also wrote a number of famous letters, sharagans, treasures, odes, melodies, and discourses. Many of his prayers are included in the Divine Liturgy celebrated each Sunday in Armenian Churches around the world.
St. Gregory’s masterpiece is considered to be his Book of Lamentations. Also known as Narek, it is comprised of 95 prayers, each of which is titled “Conversation with God from the depth of the heart.” A central theme is man’s separation from God, and his quest to reunite with Him. St. Gregory described the work this way: “Its letters like my body, its message like my soul.” He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world.

I’m always excited to get to know a new (to me) saint; I’m geeking out over the fact that this particular saint started his writing career with the Song of Songs (the topic of my Master’s thesis and hopefully my academic future)!

St. Gregory of Narek, pray for us!

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The Banal Evil of the Broken Love Story

Imagine my great surprise when, a few years ago, I was told that my marriage was an anomaly. I don’t remember much of the exact wording, but I think the phrases “not normal” and “freakishly harmonious” sum it up well. I was frankly dumbfounded that the love my husband and I have for each other was being summarily dismissed as an aberrant example of a untenable ideal.

I hadn’t thought of my marriage that way before. I was blessed to grow up in a family filled with strong, happy marriages. I never thought that marriage was effortless. Neither did I have the illusion that a happy marriage required perfect people. The examples that I grew up with taught me that marriage is supposed to be an easy union between two people who are perfect together. I just thought that’s how it was supposed to be.

Hence my marriage never felt like something strange. Even as I came to know people who had difficult relationships and failed marriages, I didn’t consider my experience of marriage anything other than normal. I was moved for the broken-hearted because they were getting less than my normal, and I knew they deserved, at the very least, what I had. I still believe this. I’m very vocal in this belief, too. One of the few things I will run my mouth off about, actually.

I’ve come to find that I am a part of a very small minority who holds this belief. Most people believe that there is no such thing as the “perfect-for-me” soulmate. There is no “happily-ever-after.” A relationship that doesn’t involve at least a weekly fight isn’t a healthy one. The best people expect is “good-enough” and “happy-ish.” Forever is replaced with “for now.” Is this really what normal is supposed to look like? Is this all happiness amounts to?

Frowny-face-Agnes-reverse-small

I don’t think so. An “ideal” marriage, like the one I describe above, should not be dismissed because not everybody has one. In fact, why do we call this an “ideal” and not a “norm?” I argue that difficult “norms” have been relabeled as “ideals” to ease the sting of our failures. Kind of a I couldn’t do it, so it’s an unreasonable standard type of mentality. You could apply this argument to many other topics. The Christian faith is a classic victim of this line of thinking.

I don’t mean to impugn any of the suffering that is experienced by a bad situation. Whether its in love, politics, religion, or what-have-you, the infliction of pain and suffering is disgusting and wrong. But is it fair to say that a singularity of failure, or even many singularities, proves the failure of an entire “norm” or “ideal?”

I think it’s exactly the opposite. A norm or ideal wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t proof that it can and does exist. In the case of marriage, a freakishly harmonious marriage can also be called a complete one. There is nothing that is missing in the marriage. There is nothing you could add to make it better. Anything less means that there is something missing. Depending on how dysfunctional, maybe many things are missing. The point is, less-than-whole is a ridiculous standard to start with.

Think about it in terms of faith. Adam and Eve started out whole. They were in complete harmony with each other, God, and nature. Then they broke. Pieces fell away, and the rest of human existence has been about picking up our missing pieces. Humans didn’t start broken. We aren’t meant to stay broken. That is why we have Christian norms and ideals, like the 10 Commandments and the reality of the Incarnation. These norms and ideals were created to fix our brokenness. Do these lose their fundamental purpose and power because people failed to get it right the first time and twisted these creations into their own personal Frankenstein?

Let me ask another question. Is your worth as a person lessened by those who treat you badly? The answer, to both questions, is NO.

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On Rabbits and Responsibility

Note: This post originated on radinfinitum. I’m sharing it here because future posts will revisit parts of this one, and I want y’all to have the background. 

Rabbits. Out of an entire lengthy interview that covers some incredibly heavy subjects, all people could talk about this week were rabbits. I think Mr. Cuddles aptly expresses my feelings on the Papal news blitz this week:

crazy rabbit

Mr. Cuddles and I want to direct your attention to the more relevant “R” word used in this notorious portion of the Holy Father’s interview: “responsible.” Pope Francis spoke of the irresponsibility of a woman who was having her eighth child after having seven cesarean sections. The Holy Father was not calling the number of children irresponsible, but how she seemingly disregarded prudence under the guise of “trusting in God.” In cases like these, “trusting God” is really just Pilot-esque hand-washing; life is going to happen, especially when we just sit there and let it.

The flip side of this responsibility–of this prudence–is responsible justice. Having large families and “being open to life” may seem an odd thing to be labeled as responsible justice, but think of it in terms of the second of the Great Commandments: love your neighbor as yourself. This essential teaching of Jesus tells us four compelling things about how we’re meant to live. One, everyone deserves love. Two, each of us is responsible for giving love to others. Three, we are responsible for accepting the love that others give us. Four, the two cannot be separated. When we give love and accept love it is an act of justice. The “responsible” part just means that we are making a conscious effort to act justly towards everyone. So “being open to life” is much more than just having lots of kids. It means being open to giving all people the love they deserve,

When you put these two together–responsible prudence and responsible justice–you can see Pope Francis’ mindfulness of human dignity in whole. Love your neighbor as yourself can’t become love your neighbor more than yourself or love your neighbor less than yourself without somebody getting the shaft.

And that, in my opinion, is the Holy Father’s point, a message that was dwarfed this week by rabbits. In case you aren’t able to read the whole interview, let me catch you up to speed. Pope Francis said:

One of the things that is lost when there is too much wealth or when values are misunderstood or we have become accustomed to injustice, to this culture of waste, is the capacity to cry…We Christians must ask for the grace to cry. Especially wealthy Christians. To cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.

When I say it is important that women be held in higher consideration in the Church, it’s not just to give them a function as the secretary of a dicastery — though this would be fine. No, it’s so that they may tell us tell us how they experience, and view reality. Because women view things from a different richness, a larger one.

But don’t forget that we too need to be beggars – from them. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

Today, paper and what’s left over isn’t all that’s thrown away. We throw away people.

I don’t know what to say after that last one. It’s a brutal, brutal truth.

On a final note, Pope Francis threw out a book recommendation that will help frame his thinking behind “ideological colonization.” Written in 1903 by Robert Hugh Benson, it’s called “Lord of the World”. From his preface I think Mr. Benson will be quite entertaining:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

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What I Wish Everyone Knew About Catholicism

Do you love everything about the Catholic Church? No? Then this is for you. Yes? This is still for you.

I’m not writing this to convert non-Catholics or make all Catholics theologians. All I want, all I really want, is for everyone to know a few basic things about Catholicism. If you hate the Church, I hope this will help you hate it less. If the Church scares you, I hope this helps alleviate your fears. If you love your faith, but have a hard time telling others why, I hope this helps you start that conversation.

1. The Church does not invent Her teachings.

A common misunderstanding about Catholicism is that ecumenical councils make Church doctrine. Encyclicals and Bulls as well. The Nicaean Councils are often portrayed as the beginning of the Church’s teachings on Jesus’ divinity and Trinitarian theology. Vatican I instituted papal infallibility. Humanae Vitae started the ban on artificial contraception. In fact, councils are the terminus for doctrinal development. Encyclicals and bulls are maybe halfway markers at best. Councils and papal writings only come after a deviation from the universal custom is introduced, spreads, and causes confusion among the faithful.

This misunderstanding comes, understandably, from the fact that not all Church doctrine is explicitly stated in Scripture. Catholicism is not a faith of literalism, however. There are many historical facts in Scripture, but Catholicism doesn’t presume that Jesus covered every single point of doctrine explicitly; just because it’s not named doesn’t mean its not waiting in the wings. Take infallibility for example. Catholicism offers specific Scriptural allusions to papal infallibility (Mt. 16:18; 28:18-20; Jn. 14, 15, 16; 1 Tim 3:14-15; Acts 15:28), but it’s not mentioned specifically. However, the early Church acted in a manner that shows papal infallibility existed in principle. Peter, and the bishops of Rome after him, acted as the deciding vote in all serious ecclesial matters. This was not forced on the other major sees like Alexandria and Constantinople–they willingly sought out Rome to end disputes authoritatively. It took almost three hundred years after Christ’s resurrection for the principle of papal primacy to be questioned. Not long before the divinity of Christ was brought into question, incidentally.

All of the “non-explicit” doctrines of the Church are considered theological conclusions: those that logically follow direct revelation. It is much like a flowering bulb. A bulb is a plain, simple thing, but contains much more than it seems. The flower that results at the end was always the intent of the bulb, despite the bulb not being beautiful, colorful, or waft a nice perfume. This is how the Church understands and approaches Her teachings: as a reality already in existence, if not fully sprouted at a particular time.

2. The Catholic Faith is a fundamentally positive one.

If you aren’t feeling guilty about something, you aren’t doing Catholicism right, right? At least that’s the stereotype that I remember from my Protestant childhood. The problem for me, however, was that when I looked into Catholicism I couldn’t find any real basis for the relentless association of the faith with guilt and negative reinforcement. For instance, did you know that of all the creation myths that exist only the one held by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is completely violence-free? And the fact of Jesus’ non-aggression against his detractors and executioners is a deliberate sign of consistency with this myth?

I think that a combination of the Old Testament being rule-heavy and how one is taught about the Incarnation has a great deal to do with Catholicism being perceived as largely guilt-inducing, negative, and condemning. There’s not much that can be done about the Old Testament being rule-heavy (and violent, to boot) other than put it into context. Not the context of its fulfillment in the New Testament, but in this fact: man is always the instigator of violence and negation in the Old Testament. God neither punishes nor judges a single soul without being severely provoked.

The Incarnation is a bit trickier. It’s possible to look at Jesus and dismiss His perfect human nature because, well, He’s God. Of course you would have a perfect human nature if you were united with God. But, ha ha, because Jesus took on human nature it automatically became united with God for all of us! That’s the point of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is proof that our fallen human natures can, in fact, be perfect too. This is why the Incarnation is central to Catholicism and the source we direct our hope to.

3. The Church is fundamentally pro-choice.

Don’t believe half of Catholic doctrine? That’s fine. Don’t think that its humanly possible (or even natural) to refrain from sex until marriage? Ok, then. That’s your choice, and its one that Catholicism insists you have the right to. Man’s free-will is an integral part of Catholicism, but its often overlooked because people are looking for the cultural version of free-will. Cultural pro-choice means being free to determine your own truth. I will believe what I feel is right, and respect your right to believe what you feel is true. This perspective is also why so many struggle with point number one above: truth has become subjective.

Catholicism doesn’t make truth. Catholicism doesn’t change truth. Catholicism only professes Truth, and stands at attention, waiting for your choice. Which brings me to my next point…

4. God does not condemn anyone to Hell.

God created man in his own image and likeness. Does it make sense that He would condemn a part of Himself? Jesus took on human nature so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to throw you out in the cold, does it? The entire point of salvation history is salvation. Hell, or eternal damnation, is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy…[Hell] is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to [God’s] love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever.”* Theologically speaking, this doctrine is a derivative from points 2 and 3.

The notion of God “condemning” anyone to Hell is a legacy of the early Protestant communities. The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith states, “but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” Calvin professed the doctrine of predestination, where God determines a person’s eternal state independently of the person’s actions. Southern Baptists speak often of God’s judgment on sinners.

Hell is a popular appropriation of hate groups and bigots. Homosexuals are going to Hell, Black/Asian/Latino people are going to Hell, Muslims are going to Hell, even Christians are relegated to Gehenna simply for being. The reality of Hell is quite terrifying, and is also easy to use as a disciplinary tool. But these are bastardizations of what Hell means, of what it is. We all know this instinctively, which is why Westboro Baptist Church has yet to catch on in civilized society.

* * * * * * * *

I could go on and on about various theological points that are important, if not critical, to Catholicism, but I think these four points set the right tone for anyone who approaches the Catholic faith for any reason. What do you think?

*Quoted from Pope St. John Paul II’s General Audience on July 28, 1999.

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Weekly Series: Friday Francis Roundup

Note: I am a new contributing member of the weblog radinfinitum. One of the things I’ll be doing over there is a weekly series called “Friday Francis Roundup” to give a fun recap of how the Holy Father is rockin’ the world. Even better, this site offers a buffet of culture commentary that will give you plenty to think about and enjoy. Please check it out! Now for my roundup…

Pop your personal bubble before you suffocate in it. That’s pretty much what the Holy Father is telling us in the New Year. In stark contrast to the Magi, who traveled far outside of their comfort zone, Pope Francis called out those who have hard hearts and fall into a narcissistic cycle of fear, pride, and vanity. This cycle, says the Holy Father, gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, but really locks a person inside himself. The Magi, by opening themselves to something far beyond their knowing, find God and themselves.

Like the Magi, Pope Francis holds up mothers as wonderful examples of traveling outside of themselves and being better for it. The Holy Father does not mince words about how he views a mother’s value:

“To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers, in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children, are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war,” the pontiff told pilgrims during his Jan. 7 general audience address.

Before anyone brings the snark about the Church valuing women only as far as they are actively breeding small nations, read what Pope Francis follows up with:

 “In this sense motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society,” he said.

And in case his words don’t quite sink in, the Holy Father’s decision to elect cardinals from the fringes of the world puts practice to his preaching. Cardinal-making stalwarts, like the United States, did not see any gains in the new election. Many of the new cardinals come from countries that never had a cardinal before, bursting the College bubble for the first time in a long while.

On a lighter note, the Holy Father raffled off personal possessions to raise money for the poor and rubbed elbows with Lara Croft.