Tonight I will deliver the first of three presentations on the Integrated Classical Catholic School we will reopen at Star of the Sea in August: Stella Maris Academy. My talk tonight at 7pm, entitled, "Raising Saints," describes the Catholic component. Greg Moeck will speak on Saturday at 10am on the Classical component in "Fulfilling the Promise of STEM," and Gavin Colvert will speak next Monday at 7pm on the integrated component in "Forming Character." All of these will be given in our model classroom, live streamed at the times indicated, and available at any time on both our parish (starparish.com) and school (stellamarissf.org) homepages. As soon as we can have in-person meetings again, we will hold live sessions with parents and others interested in this great project of opening a Classical Catholic Academy here in San Francisco. I hope you are inspired to be a part of this crucial endeavor!
The education system in America has devolved into a bit of a mess. Students graduate from high school without the ability to think clearly: they can’t read, write, or speak very well at all, and so are gullible to even the most fatuous propaganda. It’s very hard to have a rational discussion with college students anymore.
But help is on the way. The Classical Curriculum movement sweeping through private schools and even through some public school districts teaches children to read, write, and speak clearly. The so-called “trivium” sequence of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was developed by the Greeks in the fifth century before Christ, and served western civilization well until it began to be replaced by a more “technocratic” approach about a hundred years ago. It is, simply, a better curriculum than what most public and private schools offer today.
Don’t believe me? If you are concerned about the limited attention spans, inadequate social skills, and emotional fragility of young people today, I want to show you something. If you are surprised at how little high school students know about history and literature, or alarmed at how dependent they are on screens and social media, or disturbed at how easily they fall into depression or violence, I want to offer you a better way to educate.
It's called the Classical Curriculum, and we are opening a school in San Francisco this August. We call it, actually, an Integrated Classical Catholic school (ICC), and our school will take the name Stella Maris Academy. You’ve heard me speak of it before, but now it’s crunch time. We need a few teachers who want to teach this way, and ten or twelve families that want to build this school. We’ve got the money, but we need the students. Most Catholic families in the Bay Area have no idea how to better educate their children, and it’s not easy to reach them.
Can you join me in building this school? I need two things from you: First, your prayers, because this is entirely in God’s hands. We are all entirely in His hands. So many of us must ask Him for this blessing, daily, in our prayers. Second, I need you to educate yourself in the Classical Curriculum, and to tell others what you have discovered. Three of us in San Francisco will be presenting on the three aspects of ICC, as follows. “I” stands for Integrated, and Greg Moeck, our director of marketing, will speak on how an Integrated Classical Catholic school fulfils the goals of STEM (“science, technology, engineering, and math”) better than a merely technology-focused education. “C” stands for Classical, and Gavin Colvert, our Head of School, will speak on how ICC forms character by forming the moral imagination. “C” stands for Catholic, and I will speak on how integrating faith and reason raises saints rather than simply students.
I will present on January 25 at 7pm; Greg will present on January 30 at 10am, and Gavin will present on February 3 at 7pm. Tomorrow on this blog I will give you the link to these live streamed presentations.
One year it snowed early in the Sierras, and a bunch of us went skiing before Thanksgiving. I climbed on a ski lift with an older man who was all smiles. “80% of the lifts are open,” he beamed, “and it’s still October. Every ski day before Thanksgiving is gravy!” He considered it pure bonus, unearned and unexpected, to ski for a month before “it should start snowing.”
Every day in my beautiful parish, worshipping freely with a devout and joyful community, is gravy. I didn’t expect to be a free man this long, and I can’t expect it to last indefinitely. The day after the electoral votes were confirmed, an agent from the City of San Francisco called the parish office. “Are aware of the city regulations on worship services?” the agent asked our parish secretary. She said she was. “Are you aware that only one person at a time is permitted in churches?” The parish secretary thought about our 1000-seat church, and she thought about the retail store she had been in earlier that day with hundreds of people. “Yes, we are aware of that and have signage accordingly,” she replied.
Perhaps our churches will be permitted to remain open, but why should we count on freedom to worship in America when our Christian brethren in Hong Kong have already lost theirs? Christianity, and other religions, have been persecuted by populist movements and reigning governments for millennia. And do we think we will die peacefully in our beds? Perhaps we will, and we must pray for a peaceful social order. But we cannot demand it, and every day we are permitted to worship freely is gravy. The freedom to praise God in joyful community does not last indefinitely in any human society, but it will be perfectly restored in the life of the world to come. We must treasure every day that God gives us life and breath to praise him, looking forward to a place untainted by even the shadow of change.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day I went for my daily ride up and down the hills, along the Bay and by the ocean, to a favorite bench in the park overlooking the mighty Pacific. “2021” has a nice ring to it, I thought to myself, as light began to fill the vast stretches of water between us and China. A man and woman approached on the trail, chatting amiably, as the sun rose behind us. I am resolved to greet at least one stranger a day with a smile, but this time they beat me to it: “Happy New Year!” they said, cheering my heart. A few minutes later another person came along the trail, but she kept her head down. She had pulled a beanie hat low over her ears, into which she had stuffed white earbuds. Dark glasses concealed her eyes, and a tight mask covered her nose and mouth. I waved a “Happy New Year” to her, but she only moved farther away from me, seeing but not hearing. I was reminded of Psalm 135: “they have ears but they cannot hear; they have eyes but they cannot see.” Here’s a New Year’s resolution: go for a walk outside every day, and remove your earbuds. Look and listen freely to the sounds of God’s natural beauty, which includes other people. The outside world is not our enemy!
We can wish each other a happy New Year, because God has given us this time of praise and thanksgiving for his manifold blessings. We are tempted to ingratitude, as even the Pope expressed in his New Year’s remarks. “It might seem forced, even jarring,” he said, “to thank God at the end of a year like this….” After Mass last night, a woman hesitated on her way out, then turned to point a finger at me. “I want to talk to you,” she said, and I thought I had was in trouble for something. But her quarrel was with God. “How can I believe in God when He allows the darkness and chaos we saw this past week? Our motherland is collapsing.” No one seems able to prevent the rapid decline of a rightly-ordered society built on truth and mutual respect.
This morning I began the Book of Job, a man who loses his entire life’s work in one day. Marauding Sabeans slaughter his field hands and take his cattle, fire from heaven consumes his sheep and goats, murderous Chaldeans make off with his camels and butcher his servants, and a violent wind destroys his sons and daughters in their own homes. So what does Job do? He praises God. “Job rose. He tore his gown and shaved his head. Then, falling to the ground he worshipped and said: Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.” Job’s wife concludes that her husband has lost his mind. “Curse God and die,” she tells him.
The distressed woman last night could not be consoled at the loss of her country, and of all her friends, and of all her family members. She could only express fear, outrage, and helplessness. She wanted my help, so I recommended a book; I affirmed that God will not abandon those who hope in Him; I pointed out that we are not meant to live here forever anyway. She would not be consoled. Finally I just said “this church is open day and night for you. Throw yourself down before God, and He will heal you.” She smiled a little, and thanked me, and left.
Naked we entered this world, and naked we leave. What do we expect from this world? Earthly paradise? Those who believe in utopias inevitably destroy whatever fragile order we manage to build on earth. And yet, paradise glows on the faces of those who praise God in all circumstances. It is possible to radiate peace and joy, even as Leviathan is unleashed. The answer to every distress is always “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” At times faith must be blind: blind, but not unseeing.
Today’s feast of “Epiphany” is a Greek word, two words, actually: “epi” and “phaineo,” meaning a “shining upon.” The star shone upon Israel, leading the three kings over mountain ranges and through river valleys to Bethlehem. It shone upon a simple dwelling, and upon a child. Have you noticed that we’ve fixed the “nativity light” high above the altar? It points directly at the tiny baby Jesus in the manger scene painting, the third of the five joyful mystery frescos in our apse. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it, but only those who study the heavens will notice it. The three kings studied the heavens, seeking to discover the true essence of things, searching for a light beyond human wisdom. And so a great light was revealed to their minds, which is what “epiphany” means: the veil between heaven and earth was lifted, and the fundamental order of the universe became clear to them. It was the love of a child for his mother, of God for his creatures. Heaven guides earth, and heaven is a little child, who is Christ the Lord.
Herod wants to be a star
King Herod also saw that star, but what did it mean to him? Nothing. He didn’t grasp its meaning because poor Herod was trapped in himself. He considered himself a rising star in the Roman Empire, becoming governor of Galilee at age 25. To consolidate his position he banished his first wife and their son, sent hundreds of priests to their deaths, and finally murdered his second wife and their children. And of course he killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem in a fanatical attempt to maintain control. He spent his life seeking to be a star rather than to follow a star, leaving a trail of blood, destruction, and anguish in the wake of his pitiful life.
Wise Men look up not down
Herod looked down, at himself, but the Wise Men looked up, into the heavens. They recognized the traces of God in all of creation, while Herod recognized nothing of God in himself or in this world, a stranger to himself and a monster to others.
There’s only two ways to go in this life: up or down. I can be a Herod, or I can be a Wise Man. I can choose to complain, to rant, and to despair, or I can choose to thank God, to edify, and to rejoice in the life God has given me. This joy is not just the power of positive thinking; it is “a cry of recognition and of love,” as St. Therese wrote: “to me, prayer is a surge of the heart, a cry of recognition and love.” All of us, in this new year, are concerned about our nation, about our Church, and about our personal lives. Try not to worry. Try to look up, not down. Everything in the Scriptures today urges us to look up: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come … Raise your eyes and look about, and you shall be radiant at what you see.” A young professional, who recently moved to San Francisco, the shining city on the bay, asked me before the last Mass: “what will happen to us this year?” I was inspired to reply that I knew what will happen this year: God’s grace will prevail over every darkness and disorder. Has 2020 left you downcast? Then look up, after the shining example of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, our three Kings.
A People of Praise
No one wants to be a Herod, not even Herod. No one wants to kill babies, or their own wife and sons, and live in fear. But unless we study the heavens like the Magi, we will sink with him into chaos. Take the trouble to pray, to look up instead of down, to seek and expect joy. Take the time to stop in the church for a quiet prayer, or gaze through an open window at the horizon, or look into the eyes of someone who lives with you. Training our eyes on the things of God will grant us keen intelligence, unshakeable peace, and enduring joy. A blessed and happy New Year to you all!
We are in that time of “Christmas Reds,” when priests’ chasubles strikingly match the red poinsettias, holly berries, and scarlet ribbons in our sanctuaries. Why is red the color of Christmas? Because “this child will be a sign of contradiction, and you yourself a sword shall pierce” as Simeon told the child’s mother when he was brought to the temple (Sunday’s gospel reading). The first feast after Christmas, on December 26, is that of the first martyr, St. Stephen. Yesterday we remembered the hundreds of children slaughtered by Herod in the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and today, St. Thomas Becket, cut down in his cathedral by King Henry II on this day in 1170. Yesterday President Trump declared this a national day of religious liberty, commemorating the sacrifice of Thomas Becket 850 years ago. Someone forwarded the Proclamation to me, and google, apparently, pasted this censorious warning on top of the email, all decked in red:
This message indeed "seems dangerous:” to tyrants. The message is that, though God permits his witnesses to lose battles, He will win the war through their sacrifices. Herod could not exterminate God by killing all children under age two in Bethlehem; Henry II could not eliminate the people's faith by murdering their archbishop; the Soviet government built roads with stones from the churches they destroyed, and the people knelt by those roads to pray in the snow. In our own day, no government can definitively eliminate worship, because God and the people will find a way. This message is certainly dangerous to tyrants, but in the end, it is good news for tyrants, and for all of us: the love of God will prevail.
Sometimes, on a Sunday morning, I do my morning prayers at a spot overlooking the Pacific, watching the water and sky lighten as the sun rises behind me. A few weeks ago, on such a Sunday morning, a great seafaring vessel approached the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Loaded with thousands of shipping containers, containing millions of products, it had a single word painted on its side in massive white letters: "ONE." Of all the transcendentals (the True, the Good, the Beautiful, the One), the human mind, and the human heart, yearns most for Unity. In philosophic pondering and scientific research, we search for the one unifying principle of all reality, the “unified field theory” of the all that is.
I’m rereading St. Augustine’s Confessions. In Book IV, he writes “I loved the peace that accompanied virtue, and hated the discord inseparable from a vicious way of life. I observed that, in the former, unity was to be found, but in the latter, fragmentation. Hence it appeared to me that unity … was the supreme good.” Think of the excitement, almost ecstasy, of students as they discover the unifying laws of physics and biology. Discovering patterns in nature helps to heal our fragmentation and isolation.
Isn't it odd, then, that such a scientifically-advanced culture as ours is so fragmented? One would think that a deeper understanding of the physical order would bring greater order to our relations with each other. But we are at each other’s throats in politics, in economics, in religion, and in the most basic social behaviors. It seems that the more technological we become, the more rage we feel.
Augustine spent 20 years trying to find the “One” on his own: through science, philosophy, rhetoric, sex, and politics. He never found it in those things. In 386 AD, however, at age 32, he had become so emotionally shattered that he threw himself down in a garden. It was then that he heard two children singing a ditty in Latin, tolle, lege (“open, read”). He opened a bible, and the bible opened his mind to the One. He realized that there is a Prime Mover, a Principle above and beyond all other principles. That Absolute Principle is a Person, and that Person loves us. Love is the unifying reality, and that love is personal, intimate, and manifest in a thousand ways by the people and things throughout our lives. Augustine finally discovered the One.
The frenetic search for this "One," the vast sums of time and money spent on seeking love and happiness in our technocratic society, is mostly a chasing after the wind. I flew on an airplane last week that had “One World” painted on its fuselage. And indeed, the entire planet is moving rapidly toward a One World Government. But that government will fail, as did the Nazi government that attempted to unify Europe; as did the Soviet government that attempted to unify half the planet; as did the Roman government that attempted to unify the entire planet. Any attempt to unify that does not submit itself to God will fail, usually after inflicting enormous suffering on massive amounts of people. And yet American cities have long surrendered to One Newspaper. There are a thousand mainstream media channels, but they all speak with One Voice. Voices that differ are increasingly removed from social media. California, the state that I love, is a One Party state. Different opinions on how to manage Covid, how to educate our own children, or how to address racial injustice simply will not be tolerated or even considered.
The poor Vietnamese and Nicaraguan ladies in my parish have actually discovered the One, and they radiate the peace and joy of those who know they are loved. Some eminent thinkers, such as Augustine, and some powerful leaders, such as Louis IX, had also discovered the One, although it is harder for the wealthy and powerful to submit to this One. We should know that any attempt to unify the planet apart from the One who is above the planet will only cause more fragmentation. This is the Good News, and these are the Glad Tidings, that Christmas brings to the world.
A blessed and happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today, in 1531, a tender and beautiful woman arranged winter roses in the cloak of a poor Indian man. She described herself as “the mother of the true God, through whom all things live,” and she addressed the poor man as “my smallest son, Juanito, Juan Dieguito!” She wore a black maternity belt with the four-petal sunflower, sacred to the Aztec peoples, over her womb. In other words, “x” marked the spot, the life-giving center of heaven and earth, within her womb. In 1999, John Paul II named her “patroness of the unborn.”
Every January the largest “religious” gathering in San Francisco makes its way down Market Street. It is the Walk for Life West Coast, which is not officially a religious gathering, but the enemies of organized religion certainly oppose it as such. Abortion is civil rights issue only because there is a God, and every human being has inviolable rights because we are all children of the one God “through whom all things live.” The enemies of God reserve their most violent intolerance for the prolife movement, as we experience on Market Street every January. I’m convinced the frenzied shouting and pornographic vulgarities unleashed against this peaceful event are the primal screams of a generation that has been robbed of its childhood, of children who had no loving father on earth and so hate their Father in heaven. It makes one’s heart bleed to hear that kind of hopeless desperation.
And yet it’s hard not to react against anger. How can we maintain steady peace and courage when it seems our next President, and our next Health and Human Services Director, will be implacable enemies of unborn children, prolife Americans, and the Christian religion? We can trust in God, besides whom there is no other hope. We can trust in the Mother of God, whom He sent to the Americas at a very difficult time. "Listen,” she said to Juan Diego: “Keep in your heart, the smallest of my sons, that there is nothing for you to fear, nothing to afflict you. Let not your face nor your heart be worried. Do not fear this nor any other illness, nor anything worrying or afflicting…. Am I not here, who am your mother? Are you not in my shadow, under my protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms?”
A blessed and happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!
A few years ago, a Republican senator complained about the entertainment industry’s leftism. “We will watch your movies and listen to your music, but no, we will not accept your worldview.” Well, my dear senator, that doesn’t work. You can’t eat brownies infected with a virus and not become sick, no matter how good they taste. We have to sacrifice the pleasure of eating those brownies, which is admittedly difficult.
Is it time to admit that most popular “music,” most TV shows, and most movies are laced with toxicity? Twenty years ago I was a news junkie, but I had to give it up because the “news” had become shamelessly bad entertainment: hysterical, irrational, fabricated propaganda. A few months ago I gave into temptation; I followed a link on a friend's text, a five-minute newscast about “spiking coronavirus infections.” It provided me the thrill of a good horror movie, but within five minutes it had destabilized my mind. Fun, but toxic. Emotionally thrilling, but unhinged. Certainly not based on empirical science. I asked a nurse friend who works in the Covid unit a SF General for more factual report. "We have two covid patients in ICU and a whole lot of empty beds," she said.
I can only think that we slurp up thrilling newscasts because we like to be afraid. It’s what sells horror movies, but “fact” in the news media today is indistinguishable from fiction. Post-modernism holds that there is no such thing as objective truth. “What we call ‘truth’ is merely a construct of the powerful,” claim the post-modern university professors. The products of these universities now control virtually all our information. “We are the powerful,” they tell us. “We will tell you what is ‘true,’ and you will watch our product because you like to be afraid.”
During a recent conversation about the pandemic I noticed the telltale fear cross a friend’s face. “Aha,” I exclaimed, “you’ve been watching the news again!” Her face relaxed into a sheepish grin and she admitted “I just watch ten minutes a day....” Ten minutes is enough, because they are very good at what they do.
Another friend told me that she realized that she doesn't want to live in fear, so she doesn't. She stopped watching CNN. She stopped reading the New York Times. She reads rational news sources now. Big Media shamelessly censors information, so why would I give them any of my brain? Why would I watch what I know is calculated to control me through fear? Because I think I can handle it? Because I can’t think that reputable American companies have become so malevolent? There are reliable news sources, but they are not “sexy.” They are hard to find. The cool kids don’t watch them, and they are no use at cool kids’ cocktail parties.
If I’ve forsworn sexy media and cool kids’ cocktail parties, where do I go for community? I think Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has it exactly right. I we don’t build small supportive communities in post-Christian America, we will lose our freedom and dignity. I thank God for my parish, a city block in San Francisco in which goodness, truth, and beauty flourish. The church, the chapel, the school, the rectory, and the gardens afford beautiful places to pray, to study, to work, to rejoice with those we love, and to help each other carry the burdens of the day. The pandemic’s forced isolation has, oddly, strengthened this community. It has become a sacred refuge, a safe place to be with God and with each other, a true gift of God.
Thanksgiving inaugurates the “Holiday Season,” which stretches from the last Thursday in November to December 25. “Thanksgiving” is not only for the bounty of the earth but fundamentally for God’s unceasing presence among us, manifest in the birth of His Son in Bethlehem. Jewish people express “thanksgiving” also in the Feast of Hanukkah, which begins either in late November or early December and continues for 8 days (this year from December 10-18). Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in 165 BC.
In my journey through the Bible I’ve reached the First Book of Maccabees. This morning I read Chapter 4, which describes how Judas Maccabeus liberated Jerusalem from the occupying Macedonian forces. The invading government’s first move was to desecrate the temple and ban worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. The first thing the children of Israel did upon retaking their city was to rededicate that temple. First Things First for the invaders was to destroy the temple, and First Things First for the Jews was to rededicate it. Without “cult” or right worship of God, without the cultivation of a higher purpose, the people had no “culture,” no communal identity or means of social cohesion.
The first task of an invading foreign power, or a revolutionary domestic power, is to cancel communal worship. The French Revolution replaced Christianity with the “Cult of Reason.” The Soviet Revolution dynamited churches and killed almost all Orthodox priests. The Nazis sent clergy to concentration camps. The Chinese Communist Party has rewritten Christian bibles and torn down crosses in any churches left standing. To replace the existing social order in America, a political movement must shut down worship services. It will allow some communal gatherings, which it will closely monitor, but it will say that, for our own safety, we cannot gather for worship. Religious leaders may object that religious services are safer than many other permitted gatherings, and that will work for a time. But if a totalitarian state is to reach its objective, it must sooner or later ban worship services. From the Assyrian invasion of Israel in 722 BC to the Chinese government today, that is the way it works.
Let us gather for Thanksgiving while the government still permits it, and let us celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas while it is still legal. Let us also pray and work to preserve freedom of worship in America. Take a cue from the Jewish people, who have been through so much over 3000 years. Light a candle in thanksgiving to God, and in supplication for His holy protection.
Fr. Joseph Illo
Star of the Sea Parish,