Remembering William Birmingham

September 25, 2015 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As baby-boomers like me get older, we increasingly suffer the loss of dear friends and beloved mentors. Of course, it’s not only in the later decades of life that these things happen; one of the Grail women who influenced me most, Eleanor Walker, died in 1979. But it certainly gets more frequent.

Two members of the generation ahead of mine whom I loved dearly were Bill and Mary Louise Birmingham. Life-long New Yorkers and Catholic intellectuals, they encouraged me to pursue the post-working-class life of reading and writing that I yearned for. Mary Louise died four years ago, just short of her ninetieth birthday. Bill followed recently.

The following is a memorial for Bill that I wrote for Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

I first met Bill Birmingham and his wife Mary Louise at Grailville in the late 1960s. They were there leading a program; I don’t remember the theme, but I definitely remember them. I still have a copy of a contrapuntal reading that Bill put together for that program or one soon after, about the Holocaust. One side of group read aloud “And praised be the Lord,” and the other side responded “Auschwitz.” And then the first side said again “And praised be the Lord,” and the second side responded, “Buchenwald.” And so on. I can still hear it.

When I moved back to New York from Ohio in 1983 I began going to visit Bill and Mary Louise at their apartment in Stuyvesant Town, on the East Side of Manhattan. They had moved back to the city from New Jersey after their five kids were grown. We became good friends. They were both enormously kind to me. And interesting. And funny.

What I would like to remember about Bill, in particular, today, however, is that he was a significant Catholic intellectual, something that had a major impact on me. Nobody in the working class world I grew up in was editing a major Catholic journal as Bill and his good friends Joe and Sally Cunneen were doing when I knew him. Next to me on my desk here is a volume of articles that had been published in that journal, Cross Currents, between 1950 and 1990. Edited by Bill, the collection includes articles by Karl Rahner, Martin Buber, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Thomas Berry and others. Under the editorship of Bill and Joe and their predecessors, Cross Currents introduced American Catholics to a wide range of distinguished intellectuals and theologians. I remember how thrilled I was the first time one of my articles appeared in Cross Currents; Bill said that it had “narrative drive.“ I have rarely felt more honored.

In the four years after Mary Louise’s death I also felt deeply honored to be included in the monthly dinner gatherings held by the Birmingham sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews at Bill’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Even as he aged, Bill was still unfailingly warm, thoughtful, and welcoming. It saddened me when he finally had to move out of the apartment where I had visited with him and Mary Louise for so many years. But I also rejoiced that he was able to spend his final months in the home of his oldest daughter Moira and not far from one of his other daughters, Meg.

How blessed we all were to have had Bill Birmingham in our lives.

The Religious Freedom Battles

September 10, 2015 at 10:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Here’s my National Catholic Reporter review of a new book about John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who spearheaded the Vatican II document on religious freedom, and connections between that ground-breaking document and the US Catholic bishops’ recent use of “religious freedom” to undercut the freedom of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

STRUGGLE, CONDEMNATION, VINDICATION: JOHN COURTNEY MURRAY’S JOURNEY TOWARD VATICAN II
By Barry Hudock
Published by Liturgical Press, $19.95

After four Fortnights for Freedom and multiple Catholic lawsuits over the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, an observer might well conclude that religious freedom is a fundamental tenet of the Catholic faith. In Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication, Barry Hudock sets readers straight about how recently the Catholic church came to accept religious freedom at all and the fierce battles that preceded such acceptance.

(Continue reading here.)

My Letter in the Catholic Tablet

September 4, 2015 at 10:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Two posts ago, before the crabapple tree and the carrot soup, I shared with you my letter to the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, The Tablet, about Bishop Di Marzio’s column on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I said that since the letter hadn’t been published, I would share it with you.

Well, I was wrong. The Tablet actually published the letter on September 2, under the heading “Ecology’s Connectivity.” A friend from Pax Christi had emailed me after she read my post to say that she once sent a letter to The Tablet and concluded after a length of time that they weren’t going to publish it. But some time later, they did. The Tablet is slow to publish letters, at least by today’s high-speed standards. I should have listened to her.

But the publication of my letter suggests something else about The Tablet‘s editors: they don’t have a clue about the significance of Pope Francis’s claim that the environment and consumerism are as morally grave as abortion and contraceptives. Bishop DiMarzio does, though, at least at the unconscious level; that’s why in his column he makes abortion the greatest environmental threat. And I’ll bet the bishop put a lot more energy into the Fortnight for Freedom in June than into the Pope’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation last Tuesday, too.

Crabapple Tree Photo

September 3, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Photo by Hanh Pham, SJ

Photo by Hanh Pham, SJ

You may or may not remember that a while back I posted a blog about the crabapple tree in my family’s backyard when I was a teenager. I said I was going to post a photograph, not of that tree, but of another crabapple tree, taken by my former student at the Graduate Theological Union, Hahn Pham.

Well thanks to Susan Klein, my IT instructor in San Antonio, I am finally able to post the photograph. Thank you, Susan!

If it’s as hot and muggy where you are as it is here in Brooklyn, maybe the snow will give you some hope.

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