Dear Mr. Reali,
When I first saw the headline to your March 4th article—“I’ve worn ash on my head on ESPN for 16 years. This year was different.”—I was both curious and mildly optimistic. I’ve watched “Around the Horn” quite often over the years, and I have enjoyed the sparring over sports even as I’ve winced at the politically-correct group emoting revealed in any and every comment about social, moral, or religious topics. Thankfully, the latter is usually kept at a minimum, although there seems to have been an uptick in recent years of pro-gay, pro-LGBTQIAXYZ comments. That said, you’ve always seemed to be a level-headed, thoughtful guy. And you always had the ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, which was interesting.
And the first half of your Washington Post piece was also interesting. The wind-up was promising: “I guess I’m giving up silence for Lent this year.” Ah, so will he come with a curve ball? Or a slider? Maybe a change-up?
You expressed gratitude to ESPN and admitted that it’s “shocking to me that I’m one of the few faces you see on TV wearing an ash.” I’m not sure why it’s shocking, as you don’t explain. Is it because ESPN is harboring a sizeable congregation of closeted Catholics who, for whatever reason, make a quick stop in the washroom between the morning Ash Wednesday service and the afternoon braodcast?
“I struggle,” you write, “with the publicness of the ash.” I sympathize with your concern about appearing overly pious or even self-serving going on air ash-laden. Not that I’ve had that specific struggle, but I do recall that during my first Lent as a new Catholic twenty years ago that I dropped hints in the office about my attentive concern for fasting, especially on Friday—and mostly to get a reaction. It’s hard to fast from getting attention!
You remark on those “who are threatened because of their faith every day. Or more to the point, think of those whose beliefs and life are prejudged and silenced every day because their ash is a hijab or turban or yarmulke or a passport that has a foreign birth country.” While your piece is about ashes and Lent, you make no mention of what Lent is about; there is no reference to Jesus Christ or the pursuit of holiness, to sacrifice for the sake of godliness and the hope of heaven. Can it be assumed that viewers and readers know what the ashes represent? The references and connections you make are all to temporal matters, ranging from religious freedom to bigotry to racial tension to controversial political policies. All are worthy topics, of course, but I sense some hesitancy on the mound, to continue sports metaphor. Are you looking to throw a strike? Tease the hitter into a double-play ball?
What, exactly, is the goal? What, for instance, does this mean?
If the Christian Brothers and Jesuits taught me anything, it’s that you can’t have apprehension without challenging your beliefs. Educate, question, challenge, re-educate, re-question, re-challenge. If that’s true for one’s personal faith, isn’t it also true of capital F, Faith? Isn’t that what Pope Francis is doing right now? He’s opened a window and let fresh air into a room.
Challenging what beliefs, exactly? In what way? Questioning what? Is this a perpetual cycle of challenging and re-educating? And to what end?
I ask, in part, because I recently gave two talks to a group of men on retreat at the start of Lent. We discussed a wide range of topics: prayer, fasting, the example of our Lord and Savior, the call to holiness, the witness of the saints, the goal of eternal beatitude, the joy of salvation, the struggle with sin, the need for Confession, the requirement of humility, the call to love our neighbor as ourselves, the Eucharist as the eschatological sacrament, and the exhortation to let ourselves be completely transformed by the Triune God so that we could offer ourselves as spiritual sacrifices. There was no discussion of politics or policies—not because they aren’t important, but because political advocacy without personal conversion is the path to spiritual ruin. I am reminded of the warning issued by the fathers at the Second Vatican Council to those “who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. … Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other” (Gaudium et Spes, 43).
Yes, we Catholics surely have temporal duties, we are called to aid the poor, and we have obligations to our neighbors and communities. But, again, for what reason and to what end? As I’ve pointed out on this site, the final goal of Catholic social doctrine is the salvation of souls: “With her social doctrine, the Church aims ‘at helping man on the path of salvation.’ This is her primary and sole purpose.” (Compendium of Social Doctrine, 69). So, when you say, “Realizing faith and spirituality can have that type of current voice is a powerful thing when you consider where we are in the world today,” I have to ask, “where are we?” and “where should we be?” And when you add, “The Catholic Church is no different from any other world religion in the constant need for fresh air,” I have to wonder what sort of “fresh air” you are referring to—and if you really believe the Catholic Church is, in fact, the Mystical Body of the risen Lord? I really have to ask that question in light of this remark:
I’d consider it a necessary challenge for all religions and value systems: How do you re-evaluate and remain open-minded as the world thankfully progresses? What happens if it feels like the world isn’t progressing the way it should?
“Progresses” in what way? And what is the measure of that progress? The world? All religions? Some religions? Progress seems to be of great concern to you. But the language of “progress” is, unfortunately, very often the language of the world, and it is usually opposed to the real Goal—that is, Christ and the divine life. Two quotes by G.K. Chesterton come to mind: “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision” and “Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”
You conclude by referring to “change” and “the way to move forward” and staying “engaged”. It sounds like boilerplate, and not even good biolerplate. The thing is, ESPN has been one of the most aggressive advocates of the Reign of Gay and other evils in the media today, making certain its employees toe the company line and awarding Bruce Jenner the illustrious Arthur Ashe award because of his sad obsession with being a seen as a woman. The world would end if anyone at ESPN ever had the guts to say anything about the ongoing genocide of unborn black children. A December 2016 article by ESPN public editor Jim Brady acknowledged that employees of the network holding to more “conservative” views are afraid to share their opinions, noting that there is a lack of “diversity of thought”. Go figure.
Back to the sports metaphor: your opinion piece has a lot of wind-up, a great deal of hype, and yet ended up delivering a 3-2 change-up into the dirt and past the catcher. Speaking of dirt, I know you are very familiar with these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” The power of Ash Wednesday is located in admitting our mortality while expressing hope in something–Someone!–who has conquered death. I’m glad you’ve given up silence, but I also think that your singular focus on the immediate, temporal realm has robbed your voice of a lasting, substantive message—a message about the deeper meaning of it all. Frankly, there’s nothing in the second half of your essay that a secular Buddhist, a nominal Muslim, or a trendy atheist wouldn’t say over a latte at the nearest coffee shop.
It seems to me that if you are going to break your silence about the cross rubbed upon your forehead, you might as well say something about the Incarnate Word who died on The Cross so that real forgiveness, salvation, justice, peace, joy, and love might be known and realized—not just in this life, but in the life to come.