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Counting bishops, Titanic passengers and other earthlings as 1998 ends


That time of year thou mayst in me behold when I rejoice to share some flavorful items I have encountered during the past 12 months:

  • When George Bernard Shaw discovered one of his autographed books on sale cheap, he purchased the book and mailed it to the original recipient. Beneath the original inscription he added: “With renewed esteem.”
  • The eminent Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes, author of Jesus the Jew, writes that no objective and enlightened student of the gospels can help but be struck by the “incomparable superiority” of Jesus. He endorses the view of Jesus held by an earlier Jewish scholar, Joseph Klausner: “In his ethical code there is a sublimity, distinctiveness and originality in form unparalleled by any other Hebrew ethical code.”
  • Having always thought of Albert Schweitzer as a supranational jungle saint, I was jolted to read this in the first paragraph of his classic book, The Search for the Historical Jesus: “Nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex ... of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight and religious feeling -- without which no deep theology is possible.” Hitler was a teenager when these word were published.
  • The gripping new book, King Leopold’s Ghost, tells of the rape of the Congo by Belgium’s Leopold I. Ten million natives may have died in the ivory and rubber trade there. The Catholic king persuaded the Vatican that the Congo horror stories were invented by U. S. Protestant missionaries. So the Vatican deputed Baltimore’s Cardinal Gibbons to defend the wicked sovereign in the United States.
  • At 35 Gibbons was the youngest bishop at Vatican I (1869-70). One of the bishops at Vatican II (1962-65) had been an altar boy at Vatican I. This Alfonso Carinci died at 101 in November 1963, during the second session. The youngest bishop, Peruvian Alcides Castro, was 34 and used to pick up the oldest on his way to St. Peter’s.
  • In the old days, bishops didn’t normally retire. Today there are more retired bishops than there were bishops at Vatican I (774).
  • Fr. Raymond Brown, the late great scripture scholar, was no fan of the Jesus Seminar. The seminar’s founder, Robert Funk, wrote of Brown and certain similar scholars: “In their hands, orthodoxy is safe, but critical scholarship is at risk. Faith seems to make them immune to facts.” Brown, in fact, had written that many statements in the documents of Vatican II were “biblically naive,” especially with respect to bishops as successors of the Twelve.
  • According to a new, super-conservative Catholic magazine, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, the stigmatist Padre Pio revealed the third secret of Fatima: “Beware of all bishops.” If this is the true “secret,” one could see why the bishop of Rome would not want to disclose it, though it might shed some light on his seeming wariness of collegiality.
  • Idealistic Catholics want their bishops to live humbly. But in his Barbarian Conversion, Richard Fletcher reports this response from some Germanic pagans to a shoeless missionary bishop. “How can we believe you are a messenger of the most high God, who is glorious and filled with riches, whereas you are contemptible and so poor that you cannot afford shoes?”
  • “The Latin church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.” Thus said H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, in 1923. He further warned that at their services, U.S. Catholics were starting to imitate Protestants. “If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American.”
  • Three of the Titanic victims were Catholic priests, though three dogs survived. An Irish seminarian who got aboard in France might well have perished too had not his Jesuit superior forbade him to accept a free trip to New York and ordered him to disembark in Ireland, as planned.
  • Three days after the sinking, the New York American reported the indignation of the Duchess De Litta Visconti Arese, originally of Charleston, S. C.: “The lives of several of those men on board were worth more than a hundred women. I am referring to some of the emigrant women ... we all know the way they arrive in America -- unable to speak the language, illiterate ... a burden to the state.”
  • What is the difference between religion and spirituality? “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.”
  • Quick Chancery Work? A bridegroom showed up drunk and abusive for his wedding near New Delhi. His intended had him arrested. A neighbor then proposed to her, and the two were married later that same day.
  • This wonderful advice has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel, by words if necessary.”
  • From an antiques catalog: “Statue of God the Father. Life-size.”
  • In a certain religious bookstore, some impish soul placed two new books side by side: Women Have No Souls and Rome Has Spoken.
  • Hate often begets hate, but not in the woman who wrote to Time magazine recently: “I hope that when the Kansas minister who has the godhatesfags.com Web site dies, he has to face a big lesbian God radiating divine love.”
  • The Humane Vitae Award (30th Anniversary) goes to 74-year-old Santos Baca, who was expecting his 36th child last May. He had 18 children by his first wife, and eight by his second. The other nine he attributed to a few episodes of going astray. He has always lived in the same town in Honduras -- Concepcion (honest!).
  • A personal note: This June 19 will be my 70th birthday. By being born I helped the number of earthlings to reach 2 billion around 1929. According to official predictions, world population will reach 6 billion June 17.
  • When Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, told his hard-of-hearing British aunt that he had gotten a degree in geology, she thought he said theology and expressed her approval by leaving him 500 pounds.
  • The supremely tuneful poet William Butler Yeats could recognize but one tune: “God Save the Queen,” and then only because people stood up for it.
  • Having been fitted for hearing aids this year, I am even more grateful for music. Two comments, then, from the melodiously-challenged: “I know only two melodies: One is ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ and the other isn’t.” “I am sure of only two songs: ‘Pop Goes the Queen,’ and ‘God Save the Weasel.’ ”
  • As the 1900s prepare to go pop, may God save us all until we can use the date 9/9/99 -- the very last such numerical lineup of the entire second Christian millennium.

Fr. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999