MARCH 8 , 2004





Burying statues: When does prayer become superstitious?

By Julie McCarty

In the springtime, tulips and lilacs aren’t the only things that bloom in my neighborhood. “For sale” signs also sprout on greening lawns.

Selling a home can be a stressful ordeal, particularly in a slow market. Anyone who has sold a home will tell you how trying it is to keep the interior looking like a “model home.” Some home sellers are also dealing with other tensions, such as death in the family, job loss, or an impending divorce.

Perhaps it is this pressure that leads to the unusual “Catholic custom” involving burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard. Rumor has it that burying it upside down, a certain depth, or a specific number of feet from the house will somehow persuade St. Joseph to procure a rapid and fortuitous home sale. (The symbolism escapes me. Why would St. Joseph be moved to help someone who buries his statue upside down?)

Let me be perfectly clear that I believe in the communion of saints. I also believe that the saints can and do pray for us. However, I was aghast when I spotted “home sale kits,” complete with prayers and a tiny plastic statue of St. Joseph in a Catholic bookstore.

To be fair, these “home sale kits” carry admonitions against turning prayer into magical “hocus pocus.” The instructions attempt to steer people to devotion rather than superstition. However, their disclaimers remind me of warning labels on cigarettes: while the dangers are listed, everything about the packaging cries out, “Buy me! Try me! You’ll get good results!”

The appropriate use of sacramentals, such as candles, statues, or holy water, can support a healthy prayer life. Yet, we must not allow our prayer practice to drift into the realm of superstition.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” reminds us that when we indulge in superstitious practices, we are placing our trust in mere external things rather than giving our full trust and adoration to God (no. 2111).

Sixteenth century mystic St. John of the Cross observed people who thought their prayers would be more effective (read that: get what you want) if they used a more sophisticated rosary. They preferred rosaries made with a finer metal or more elaborate design. St. John wrote “One rosary is no more influential with God than is another. His answer to the rosary prayer is not dependent on the kind of rosary used. The prayer he hears is that of a simple and pure heart that is concerned only about pleasing God…”

In our prayer lives, our intentions are of utmost importance. The best way to approach God with requests is the way Jesus prayed on the night before he was crucified: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39).

If one’s primary aim in selling a home is a strong desire to “make a killing,” it might be better to pray that God transforms your greed into generosity. If, however, you are selling your home in order to simplify your life, find a home with room for an aging parent, or some other good reason, merely ask God for help. If you like, share your concerns with St. Joseph, the father who moved his family to Egypt and back.

And, as my husband suggests, a fresh coat of paint wouldn’t hurt.

(Julie McCarty, M.A.T., is a freelance writer from Eagan, Minn. Contact her at


‘The Passion’ – one man’s vision of Jesus’ suffering

By Father Paul Schmidt
Special to The Voice

St. Luke begins his Gospel by saying that “many others have undertaken to write a coherent account.” In the light of all the ink spilled about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in recent weeks, the following may be superfluous. However, it is offered in hopes of providing some additional assistance to those deciding whether to see the film and those who are sorting out what they have already seen.

Literature and art
Artists in every age have tried to picture the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The first artistic portrayal is literary, found in the Passion narratives of the four Gospels. Each Evangelist put together the details of the story, to convey his particular message.

Cutting and pasting the stories together for the sake of a consistent narrative necessarily does violence to the original text. Books like “The Day Christ Died,” by Jim Bishop and “A Doctor at Calvary” by Pierre Barbet, however, show that a strictly historical approach can shed light on what is recognized as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Saints and mystics have also written of their meditations and visions about the Passion.

Early Christians depicted the Cross covered with precious jewels. Byzantine crucifixes showed a serene Jesus triumphant over death. With the coming of the Middle Ages, emphasis shifted to more graphic, sometimes gory, presentations of the sufferings of Jesus, a trend that continued through the Renaissance down to modern times.

Some post-Renaissance crucifixes went back to illustrating Christ’s triumph over death by depicting him as a rather muscular gentleman who had sauntered over from the gym to strike a pose on a cross. The 20th century saw the return of a more stylized, Byzantine approach or even abstract, non-representational forms.

Music and drama
Musicians also lent their hand to the presentation of the Passion. The ancient Gregorian chant version gave different voices and melodies to Jesus, the narrator, and the other characters. Later musicians added choruses and interpolated hymns and personal reflections into the Biblical text. The St. Matthew and St. John Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach are the greatest examples of how this tradition developed in the Lutheran Church.

Passion Plays, complete with scenery and costumes, developed in Europe as acts of devotion with scripts that embroidered on and sometimes exaggerated or distorted the Biblical narrative. Most people know about the Oberammergau version, presented every 10 years. Perhaps not so many know of the one given every summer in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It is not surprising that film artists would also attempt to portray the whole compelling story of Jesus in cinematic art. Cecil B. DeMille made a silent film, “The King of Kings.” Pier Pasolini, an atheist, filmed the Gospel of Matthew in black and white as a tribute to Pope John XXIII. Franco Zeffirelli made a color film of Jesus’ life and death, which reflected the filmmaker’s exuberant Italian baroque piety. Now Mel Gibson has produced a version of the suffering and death of Jesus.

Each of these films contains inspiring moments. DeMille has the viewer see the Savior for the first time through the eyes of a boy healed by Jesus of blindness. Pasolini shows the effect of Jesus’ invitation to come and follow him on the faces of the Apostles. Zeffirelli illustrates the scandal Jesus caused in town by dining with sinners.

Gibson’s film has similar moments – appearances of the devil as a flesh-and-blood character, flash-backs of Mary and Jesus in happier times, a Jesus who looks the way we expect Jesus to look, at least before he is mangled beyond recognition, a Mary who looks as though she stepped out of a Flemish painting, a Simon of Cyrene with more than a cameo role, carrying Jesus as well as the cross to Calvary.

In most films about Jesus, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There is always something missing. Or the imaginative touches of the director take too many liberties. Mary Magdalene, as she appeared before repentance and the Hays Film Code in DeMille’s film, shocked audiences in the 1920’s. (One of her big cats seems to have wandered into Herod’s palace in Gibson’s film; Herod himself seems to have dropped in from a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”)

It is somewhat jarring to hear Jesus conversing in “Church Latin” with Pilate, but not totally improbable. It is difficult to portray the enemies of Jesus in a sensitive yet accurate manner; Gibson’s turn out to be stock characters from a Passion Play. Judas gets a more sympathetic treatment.

One cannot criticize Mel Gibson for not making someone else’s movie. His is an act of piety. It reflects his meditation on the suffering of Jesus. He uses the language of the violent action movie, with which he is familiar, as a means of conveying the enormity of the suffering Jesus underwent, as well as the extremes of cruelty human beings can demonstrate toward one another.

By doing so, he makes the film unsuitable for children. He may also have dulled its cumulative effect by overkill, even though he includes moments of respite, especially through imaginative and touching flashbacks.

Violence and realism
Violence on film has a deadening effect. An excess of violence dulls the viewer’s ability to respond. Even factual newsreels of violence and disaster tend to wash over us without effect, so inured are we to seeing such things.

The Greeks knew long ago that it can be more horrifying to have a murder committed offstage than to try to show it realistically to the audience. Suggestion can be more powerful and more convincing than representation. Questions may also be asked about an audience’s willingness to view a depiction of torture, or about people’s willingness to inflict and observe torture in real life. Psychiatrists may have something to say about this.

Despite the intention to portray the Passion Narrative realistically, the film is unrealistic in many ways.

Mary shows up in places where a woman would probably not have been allowed. Jesus himself becomes a kind of “Braveheart” action hero, able to take a terrible beating and still carry a historically inaccurate cross farther than anyone in that condition really could. Snapshots out of art history emerge here and there. Jewish leaders seem never to change into something more comfortable. The crowd scenes are somewhat inconsistent.

Some critics have pointed out that the film in itself does not adequately show why Jesus was so hated and cruelly treated. The Gospels were written after decades of reflection, in the light of the Resurrection and early Church experience. That kind of theologizing was not possible as the events were unfolding. The question “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?” is always problematic.

By starting with the Agony in the Garden, the film has to rely on flashbacks to explain what went before. Less time spent on three varieties of scourging and more on the earlier story might have explained things more clearly. A person who did not know the whole story could be bewildered or misled by what is happening onscreen. Gibson may presume (unrealistically) that everybody knows the story, but that kind of presumption makes for a less perfect work of dramatic art.

What theological points does this film make? It certainly shows Jesus as a human being, subject to mental and physical suffering, but as someone more than simply human. It presents the mystery and the complexity of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. It illustrates the import of Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. It dramatizes emphatically Jesus’ willingness to forgive. It connects the Last Supper with the sacrifice of the Cross.

It highlights the role of Mary in the life of Jesus. It acknowledges the presence of Satan in the world. It confronts the issue of an individual’s relationship with Christ. All of these important teachings it presents convincingly by the skillful use of cinematic art, visual and dramatic.

Is this a film people should see? And will it have great spiritual effects? Those who go into the theater as believers may have their faith and devotion enhanced. Those who go in not believing may at least come out asking some questions. Those who go in looking for something objectionable will find it.

The film can also lead to serious discussions about human cruelty, the problem of evil, the role of suffering in salvation, the use of images in religious life, anti-Semitism, the acceptable limits of film violence, personal choice and belief.

At one point in the film, Pilate asks his famous question: “What is truth?” Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” may help some to answer that question. Others it may leave still asking it. A recent stirring performance of Bach’s “St. John’s Passion” by the American Bach Soloists left fewer questions and more answers.

(Father Paul Schmidt is diocesan director of priest personnel and parochial administrator of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Oakland.)

Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski— A life risked for freedom

By George Weigel

In early December 1980, Warsaw Pact infantry and armored divisions, most of them Soviet, moved into position along Poland’s borders. Three months earlier, the Solidarity movement had sprung to life in Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyards. After a tumultuous infancy, Solidarity seemed doomed to be strangled in its cradle, as Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” had been in 1968.

The stakes were enormously high. A Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland would almost certainly have met with violent resistance from the aroused Poles. Had massacres ensued, would the West have remained idle? As the calendar pages turned in the first week of December 1980, it seemed entirely possible that Poland, the flashpoint that ignited World War II in Europe, would be the flashpoint that ignited World War III – a war that could have been fought with nuclear weapons.

Then, remarkably, there was no invasion. Warsaw Pact troops stopped advancing toward Poland and then retreated. What had happened?

While I was preparing Pope John Paul II’s biography, I talked about that hair-raising period with one of the wisest men I’ve ever known, Jan Nowak, former director of Radio Free Europe’s Polish service (and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor).

Jan told me that two men had saved Poland from invasion. One was a familiar name: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in December 1980 was serving his last weeks as President Carter’s national security adviser. As Jan unfolded the tale, though, Brzezinski could do what he did because of an unheralded figure who died in relative obscurity last month, after living in exile under an assumed name for 23 years. His real name was Ryszard Kuklinski.

By 1980, Colonel Kuklinski had spent his entire adult life in the Polish Army. A tour with the International Control Commission in Vietnam in 1967-68, where he met many Americans, convinced him that communist propagandists were painting a false portrait of the United States.

Then, in August 1968, the reform communism of the “Prague Spring” was crushed beneath the treads of Soviet tanks; Kuklinski was appalled. His concerns increased exponentially when he became a senior Polish Army war-planner with access to the highest-level information.

In his new position, Kuklinski learned that Soviet military doctrine anticipated a western nuclear response to a Soviet invasion of western Europe – a response that would fall, not on the USSR (which would risk global catastrophe) but on Poland, as the second wave of Soviet troops, tanks, and materiel passed through Kuklinski’s homeland en route to the west. The USSR, Kuklinksi concluded, was no “fraternal ally;” it was a predator, prepared to sacrifice Poland for its own aggressive purposes.

What was a Polish patriot to do? Kuklinksi offered his services to the United States and for nine years, from 1972 to 1981, was the single most important western intelligence asset behind the iron curtain. At daily risk of his life, Colonel Kuklinski provided the U.S. government with some 50,000 pages of highly-classified documents that were of immeasurable assistance to Western defense planners and arms control negotiators.

Ryszard Kuklinski’s greatest service came in the Solidarity crisis of late 1980, when he gave the U.S. the entire operational plan for the proposed Warsaw Pact invasion of his homeland. With that in hand, Zbigniew Brzezinski and private-sector leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland were able to organize an international trade embargo of the USSR, should an invasion take place; such an embargo, a de facto blockade, would have been a devastating blow to the already tottering Soviet economy, and the Soviets backed off.

Martial law, imposed in Poland a year later, was bad enough. A Warsaw Pact invasion, given its possible international consequences, risked Armageddon. By providing the crucial intelligence that helped forestall the invasion, Colonel Kuklinski may well have prevented a nuclear holocaust.

Kuklinski’s remarkable story is now told in gripping detail in Benjamin Weiser’s “A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country” (Public Affairs). I wish the book a broad readership. Despite the fact that Ryszard Kuklinski was abruptly taken from us by death last month, it’s never too late to get to know a man of principle, a true hero of freedom.

(George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in
Washington, DC)


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Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.