Tim Drake

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Reaching Out from Behind Bars: Evangelist and Apologist Russell Ford
By Tim Drake

Russell Ford may be behind bars, but in many ways he is more active in Catholic evangelizing than most Catholics living in the outside world. From his cell in Alabama’s Draper Prison, Ford evangelizes not only with words, but also with wood.

Ford is a much different person today than the one who came to prison 16 years ago. “I came to prison a hate-filled and embittered agnostic, living as a practical atheist,” said Ford, who was sentenced to 25 years in 1987.

Ford’s agnostic-to-Catholic conversion story is told on the audio-tape No Escape, available through St. Joseph’s Communications.

As Ford tells it, toward the end of his first year in prison an older Catholic convict, whom had been inspired by Pope John Paul II to be an evangelist to prisoners, tricked Ford into studying the catechism. After not having much success at first, the older convict appealed to Ford’s ego by challenging him to read The Baltimore Catechism #2. He told him he doubted that Russ would be able to answer the questions after reading the book. The tactic worked, sparking an interest in Ford.

Later, Ford became convinced by the intellectual realization that the Catholic Church was the Church founded by Christ. After learning of Christ’s real presence in the Holy Eucharist, Ford emotionally embraced the faith. He was received into the Catholic Church on February 11, 1989 — the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

While on his own journey of faith, Ford also became a catechist for others. “My chaplain handed me a catechism and urged me to teach other convicts,” explained Ford. Using the Sharing the Faith video series by Father Robert Fox, Ford continues to teach his fellow inmates about the faith.

His success is impressive. Ford now counts 61 godson converts, and has played a direct role in the conversion of nearly 200 other inmates. Perhaps more impressive, the recidivism rate among his Catholic converts is only 1.6%, compared to a general recidivism rate between 70 and 80 percent for the state.

Prisoners, Ford has written, are drawn by a sense of the sacred. He compares his work as an evangelist to that of being a “tag-team salesman.” “The salesman presents the product with its features and benefits to prospective buyers,” said Ford, “once the presentation has been made, the Holy Spirit comes in for the close.”

It is work for which Ford has paid a price. As a white Catholic evangelist in a predominantly black Evangelical Protestant prison system, Ford has been beaten by a guard, unjustly locked in solitary confinement, had his Bible and books confiscated, and has been denied parole five times. His parole was once denied reportedly because Ford’s priest would not reveal what Ford had divulged under the seal of the confessional to a female member of the parole board.

Ford’s catechetical work has also led him to found an apostolate for prisoners and to engage in apologetics writing.

Reaching Out to those in Chains
Ford sees his apostolate work as a mission of outreach. According to Ford, there are more than 2 million men and women in the nation’s prisons. “We are losing the battle for souls in prison by default,” said Ford.

“The largest mission field in America has almost no Catholic presence in evangelization. The groups competing for convicts’ souls are not just Fundamentalists and Islamic sects, but also growing numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Native American spirituality, Wicca, Druidism, and even Satanism,” explained Ford.

In response, with the help of his first godson, Phil Hanna, Ford founded First Century Christian Ministries (FCCM) dedicated to evangelizing prisoners in cooperation with prison chaplains. FCCM’s newsletter, “The Perfect Prisoner” reaches more than 1,100 subscribers, 75 percent of whom are prisoners. The lay apostolate sends materials such as Catholic books and magazines, catechisms, rosaries, and scapulars to more than 70 prison chaplains across the nation.

Other FCCM initiatives include a strictly screened pen-pal program for Catholic inmates and a “Bibles for Inmates” program.

The program has received praise from various prison ministry offices. “I can’t speak highly enough of FCCM,” said Heidi Sumner, secretary to the prison ministry office for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. “They have donated a wealth of materials from their members to our ministry.” Lay volunteers with the office have distributed the materials to 16 correctional facilities in the five-county diocese.

“If we’re not in there with the Gospel, something else will grab them,” said Joseph Strada, chairman of First Century Christian Ministries. “While they have their debt to society, we have an obligation to save their souls.”

Reaching out with the Pen
Another way that Ford evangelizes is through his writing. At the urging of Father Killian Mooney, S. T., Ford began engaging in Catholic writing. Influenced by the work of Catholic Answers’ Karl Keating and Peter Kreeft, Ford’s work has appeared in such Catholic publications as This Rock, Communio Magazine, Immaculata Magazine, The Wanderer and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

In addition, Ford is the only Alabama convict to have published a book from prison. His straightforward and streetwise The Missionary’s Catechism (Magnificat Institute Press) poses some 600 questions and answers based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Catholics such as apologist Karl Keating, the late theologian Father John Hardon, and Fathers of Mercy Superior General Father Bill Casey have endorsed Ford’s work.

Ford’s writing is extraordinary for several reasons.

First, the writing is done amidst the constant noise of the prison, an environment which Ford admits is anything but conducive to spiritual writing. Second, Ford has access to neither a computer nor a typewriter. His articles and books are entirely written by hand. Third, Ford suffers from arthritis, making writing with a pen difficult. “Every word is wrought from pain,” said friend and Jewish convert to Catholicism Marty Barrack.

Reaching Out through Wood
Ford’s words aren’t the only thing wrought from pain. Ford also carries out a woodworking trade from the prison’s hobby craft shop. Proceeds from the trade help to fund the work of his prison apostolate. It’s a vocation that Ford came to by accident.

“I was making rosaries and they were not selling, so I started watching the guys who were doing woodworking,” said Ford, “and I started making things.” It is a vocation to which Ford is able to devote approximately two-and-a-half-hours per day.

Using largely self-taught skills, Ford fashions stunning heirloom gaming tables, ladies jewelry boxes, cigar humidors, rifle racks, quilt racks, and wall and mantle clocks from solid hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, red oak, maple and mahogany. The one-of-a-kind pieces, such as the rifle cabinet or wall clocks, start at approximately $400-500 and retail for more.

Ford uses hand-rubbed finishes that strongly accent the grains in the wood. Each piece is inconspicuously signed and dated. Delivery typically takes six to eight weeks.

In addition, Ford also produces a line of decorative Catholic wall carvings. Each carving is meticulously hand-carved by Ford. The carvings feature one of more than 30 different prayers, such as the Ten Commandments, Hail Mary, the Prayer of St. Francis and many others. Each plaque is decorated with molded edges and traditional Catholic symbols, such as a Celtic cross, the fleur-de-lis, or a chalice and host. The symbols are accentuated with a partial or complete stone inlay. Ford’s hand-carved wall coverings range in price from $35-50 and retail between $50 and $75.

Last year one customer ordered ten small plaques for her friends and family as Christmas gifts. “I have received many thanks from the recipients,” she said.

Federal appellate attorney Fred Isaacs of Lake Oswego, Ore. first learned of Ford through his Catholic writing. Fred and his wife Nancy, co-direct the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program at their local parish and frequently distribute copies of Ford’s Missionary Catechism to their RCIA students.

Only later did Isaacs learn of Ford’s skill with wood. Isaacs commissioned Ford to build a Regulator-style clock. To say that Isaacs was pleased with the result is an understatement.

“He made us perhaps the most beautiful clock we have ever seen,” said Isaacs. “It has a German movement and a beautiful wood case with a piano finish. It took Ford several months to complete, but it is a work of art and it graces our living room fireplace mantle.”

Isaacs was also pleased with the price. “We paid about one-fourth, or less, of what a custom-made clock would cost elsewhere,” said Isaacs.

In addition to individual sales, Ford also makes his woodwork available to retail stores.

Marty Barrack has devoted 11 pages to guest apologist Russell Ford on his own apologetics web site Second Exodus (www.SecondExodus.com). There, customers can read about Ford and his work, see photos of his woodworking projects, and place orders for his books and wood products.

“Russ does superb work,” said Barrack, who owns some of Ford’s woodworking as well. “He makes woodwork items as if for Christ himself. I know the love for Christ that Russ pours into every piece, and I know the pain in Russ’ arthritic hands that he offers up to Christ as he works.”

© 2003, This article originally appeared in the Catholic Marketing Network Trade Journal. Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register, and the editor of Saints of the Jubilee (1stBooks, 2002). He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

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Signs of Contradiction in the 21st Century
By Tim Drake

By most external appearances one might suggest, as Nietzche did, that faith is dead. Only 35 percent of Catholics, we are told, believe in the Real Presence. Forty-five percent believe that abortion is acceptable. Fifty percent do not attend Church regularly. Eighty percent believe contraception is permissible. The secular media tells us that Catholicism is passé. Our pope is derided as “rigid”. Although the Church defies such labeling, our teachings are described as “traditional,” “old-fashioned,” and in some circles, “conservative.”

Faithful Catholics find themselves surrounded by dissenting views on all sides – from television and radio, the newspaper and magazines, in motion pictures, among non-Catholic friends and family, and even, at times, among fellow Catholics.

If, however, we know where to look, we can find light shining in the apparent darkness. For if we look beyond the headlines, into our own communities, we will discover pockets of great faith. If we will look within our Churches we will find vibrant Catholics and Catholic families – signs of contradiction leading us toward history’s greatest Sign of Contradiction.

It is through such examples that we can best learn how to defend our Catholic faith in an age that seems to have abandoned most of the Church’s values.

What is worth defending?

If we are like most people, we defend those things that we love – our freedom, our families. A gardener, worried that invading rabbits might raid his precious carrots and cabbage, constructs a fence to defend his produce. If we are good parents we defend our families against the many dangers which threaten our children.

Yet, we take our faith for granted. How much more should we love Christ and His Church than we love our garden, our pet, or our spouse? How much more should we love Christ than television, golf, or shopping? What does it mean to love Christ as he loved his Bride, the Church? Are we willing to lay down our very lives for her?

By virtue of our baptism and the graces received at confirmation we, too, are called to defend Chist’s bride, the Church. The question, however, might be “how do we defend the faith”?

Perhaps it would first be advantageous to examine those ways in which we fail to defend our faith. For in exploring what we should not do, we will discover that which we should.

In what ways do we fail to defend our faith?

Foremost, we cannot defend our faith if we do not know it. When Joe or Jane Watercooler make an off-hand, offensive remark at the office about the Blessed Virgin Mary or the pope, are we willing, ready, or even able to come to the Church’s defense? When a non-Catholic questions why we believe in purgatory, are we prepared to provide an intelligent response or do we simply shrug our shoulders? Too few have received the proper catechesis to explain, let alone, defend the Church’s positions.

The key then is through education. It has been said that knowledge of Scripture is knowledge of Christ; ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. Because the Church’s teachings are founded upon Scripture, we can also say that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of the Church. So then, in order to defend the faith we must study it and come to know it. Whether this is through spiritual reading, apologetics tapes, fundamentals classes, adult education, or Bible study we must educate ourselves in the truth. Only then will we be adequately equipped to defend it.

Furthermore, we cannot defend our faith if we are not living it. The Evangelical convert Thomas Howard has said that “Catholic is not enough.” We cannot be content to be mere “Catholics” – Catholics who attend Church irregularly, who ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception, or who do not partake of her Sacraments.

We are not free to pick and choose the doctrines that we will follow any more so than we can choose whether to believe in the Trinity. To do so is to make a mockery of our faith. Anything less than orthodoxy is heresy.

Finally, we cannot defend the faith if we say one thing and do another. We lead by example. Therefore, if we are living a sinful lifestyle, we are not defending the faith. Rather, through scandal, we are leading others away from it.

How then do we defend the Church?

Certainly, one way of defending the Church is by constructing a fence. Yet, we are called to be in the world. Therefore, rather than fencing ourselves in we need to defend our faith by becoming living examples.

We can defend our faith actively. This could mean engaging in a friendly apologetics debate with a friend or colleague, writing a letter to the editor, or standing up publicly for the Church’s teaching on a given issue. While we are not all called to defend the faith in this way, we can rest assured that if we are being called to do so, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

We can also defend the Church simply by living our faith fully. We defend the Church every time we avail ourselves of her sacraments. We defend her every time we are absolved of our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation, every time we pray in public, and every time we receive of Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Such acts of faith speak perhaps more loudly than any letter we could ever write. Husbands defend their faith when they go straight home to their wife and children after work, sacrificing that trip to the bar. Women defend their faith when they turn off the soap operas that feed them the world’s lies. Parents defend the faith when they teach their children what the Church really teaches and believes. And we defend our faith every time we reach out to help another in need.

We silently defend our faith in myriad ways each day that we love God and one another and keep his commandments. This is our Catholic Christian call.

It is good to recall that we are not alone in our struggles to defend the faith. Not only do we have the example of fellow Catholic Christian neighbors, but a “cloud of witnesses” has gone before us and intercedes on our behalf.

The Church has officially recognized more than 12,000 martyrs for the faith in the last century alone. Pope John Paul II, has beatified and canonized more than 1,400 individuals since the beginning of his pontificate. The Holy Father recognizes that that in an age marked by such unbelief, we will need their modern examples as we move forward in the new millennium.

And what shining examples they are - examples such as Blessed Gianna Beretta Molla – the Italian doctor and mother who gave up her life for her unborn daughter, and Blessed Miguel Pro – who in the face of death itself, in Mexico, could cry out “Vivo Christo Rey!” before his execution. Or, from this year alone, we have the examples of a mystic, a visionary, and the founder of a lay movement in the newly canonized Padre Pio, Juan Diego, and Josemaria Escriva.

Yet, the Holy Father has said that to be a Christian in the new millennium may require a different kind of martyrdom. We may be forced to endure the slow, gradual martyrdom of facing daily the opposition to the Church that is so visible around us. We face it every time we receive a hostile comment about a Church teaching, every time we hear a harsh remark about our family size, and every time we are insulted for our belief that every human person has the right to life.

It is not difficult to see what it is that we are being called to defend the Church against. We are called to defend her against the secular humanism and the moral relativism so abundant in the culture at large. We are called to defend her against both apathy and heresy. We are also called to defend her against false ecumenism, or a watering down of the faith, which says that all roads lead to Truth. In short, we are called to defend her against anything less than the fullness of the faith.

We would do well to recall the words of a young, Polish cardinal who was asked to preach the annual Lenten retreat in March 1976. “If now… Jesus Christ is once again revealing himself to men as the light of the world, has he not also become at one and the same time that sign, which more than ever, men are resolved to oppose?” said then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

Better yet, we would do well to remember Christ’s words from John 15 - “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.”

Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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Mel Gibson’s Passion
by Tim Drake

Mel Gibson has either directed or played a continuing series of heroic men: William Wallace in Braveheart, Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, Lt. Col. Hal Moore in We Were Soldiers, and Reverend Graham Hess in Signs. So, it should come as no surprise that he is directing a production on the greatest hero of human history, Jesus Christ. Gibson’s most recent project is the self-financed $25-million epic The Passion. Currently being filmed on the sound stage in Rome’s Cinecitta stuido, the film will explore the final 12 hours of Christ’s life.

“There is no greater hero story than this one,” said Gibson, “about the greatest love one can have, which is to lay down one’s life for someone. God becoming man and men killing God – if that’s not action, nothing is.”

Jesus has been the subject of more than 100 films, but never one quite like this. The Passion promises to be neither Jesus of Nazareth nor King of Kings.

For starters, the film will be told in three foreign languages — Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic — without subtitles. Jesuit language expert Father William Fulco translated the script into Aramaic. Many critics have questioned the intelligence of filming a movie in two dead languages.

For Gibson, however, he feels that the languages will lend an air of authenticity to the film. The visuals, he insists, will tell the story.

“Caravaggio’s paintings don’t have subtitles,” said Gibson in a Zenit interview. “The Nutcracker Ballet doesn’t have subtitles, but people get the message. I think that the image will overcome the language barrier.”

The film also promises to be both bloody and violent. Early photographs have depicted a beaten and bloodied Christ carrying His Cross on the road to Calvary.

“No mere man could have survived this torture,” said Gibson.

EWTN news director Raymond Arroyo saw an early rough-cut of a portion of the film. The violence he described as “intense, but never gratuitous.” He found it “as disturbing as it is comforting.”

The project first took root in Gibson when he began taking his own faith more seriously more than a decade ago. The script is based upon the diary of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) as collected in the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a book Gibson found in his library, but didn’t know he had until it literally fell into his hands when he was reaching for another book. The script also draws from “The Mystical City of God” by venerable Mary of Agreda, and the Gospels.

“We’ve done the research. I’m telling the story as the Bible tells it,” said Gibson.

For Gibson, the film is clearly a work of faith. Gibson has a makeshift chapel installed on the set and attends daily Mass, in Latin. A priest on the set has been available for both Mass and confessions.

As interesting as the film itself is Gibson’s choice of actor to portray Christ. Last June, Gibson hand-picked the then 33-year-old Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Thin Red Line) to play the role. Caviezel himself is a devout Catholic with a devotion to Mary and the Rosary.

Of the role, Caviezel said, “Truthfully, it was never up to me. I’m interested in letting God work through me to play this role. I believe the Holy Spirit has been leading me in the right direction.”

On the set Caviezel is a daily communicant and has taken to wearing relics in his costume during the shooting.

“I can’t be successful in this business if I do not pray,” Caviezel told Al Kresta in an interview.

When Gibson first saw him onscreen he said, “He looks like the Shroud of Turin.”

The sight of Caviezel walking the streets has moved the townsfolk of Matera, where much of the film has been shot. Caviezel said that he gets one of two reactions. The people either shriek with laughter or they fall on their knees at his feet, lay their hands on him, and chant “Jesu! Jesu!”

The film is a monumental risk. It’s a Catholic film, by a Catholic director, starring a Catholic actor, about a Catholic subject.

It isn’t surprising then that Gibson claims that he has come under fire. Gibson told Fox news’ Bill O’Reilly that reporters had been digging for dirt on Gibson and his family. The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently ran an article attempting to tarnish Gibson by associating him with some of his father Hutton’s more outlandish ideas. To date, Gibson has not been able to secure a distributor for the film.

It’s expected that the film will open in theaters in April 2004, just in time for Lent.

Ultimately, the film seeks to do what Christ did — namely, change lives. In fact, the film has already had an impact. After the filming of the scourging scene many of the film crew had tears in their eyes. Reportedly, one of the Italian actors in the film has come back to the sacraments after a long hiatus, and another member of the film crew, an atheist, is exploring the Catholic faith.

“By the time audiences get to the crucifixion scene, I believe there will be many who can’t take it and will have to walk out — I guarantee it,” said Caviezel. “And I believe there will be many who will stay and be drawn to the truth.”

© 2003, This article originally appeared in Southern Renaissance. Tim Drake serves as executive editor of Catholic.net and features correspondent with the National Catholic Register. He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

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Catholic Universities Push Abortions To Students

Note: This article won the Bernardin-O'Connor Award for Pro-Life Journalism presented by Priests for Life at the Catholic Press Association in Atlanta on May 30, 2003.

SAN FRANCISCO — The McWalters of San Francisco were shocked by the news that the Catholic university they are paying to educate their son is promoting abortions.

If a University of San Francisco student involved in a pregnancy went to the school’s Web site for help during the last two semesters, it would have given only three options: two abortion businesses and a non-Catholic abortion counseling center.

In other words, none of the city’s eight pro-life pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes is mentioned on the Web site — not even the Gabriel Project at St. Ignatius Catholic Church located on the University of San Francisco’s campus.

The University of San Francisco is one of at least a dozen Catholic universities in the United States directing students to Planned Parenthood and other abortion businesses for information, services and even employment.

The situation comes to light after Dec. 5 words by Pope John Paul II casting doubt on the Catholic character of abortion-promoting universities.

“Clearly,” the Holy Father said, “university centers that do not respect the laws of the Church and the teachings of the magisterium, particularly in the areas of bioethics, cannot be endorsed with the character of a Catholic university.”

The University of San Francisco is a Jesuit college. In the past, Jesuit Superior General Peter Hans Kolvenbach has said, “For some [Jesuit] universities, it is probably too late to restore their Catholic character.”

The Dirty Dozen
The Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that works to restore Catholic identity to Catholic campuses, revealed a list of 12 colleges with offending links. In addition to the University of San Francisco, the list included Boston College; St. Xavier University, Loyola University and DePaul University in Chicago; the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn.; Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; John Carroll University in Cleveland; Seattle University; King’s College and Alvernia College in Pennsylvania; and Santa Clara University in California.

The University of San Francisco’s Student Health Education Program’s “pregnancy” page not only linked to Planned Parenthood but also provided a telephone number to Planned Parenthood Golden Gate and a description of its services. Another link promoted the local pro-abortion Women’s Community Clinic. The links have been up at least since last March.

While most of the “dirty dozen” Web pages feature direct links or telephone numbers to Planned Parenthood, others go a bit further. Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., lists Planned Parenthood as a potential site for volunteer work. DePaul University’s department of sociology offers internships at Planned Parenthood, and its women’s studies program lists Planned Parenthood among several career opportunities for its students.

Negative reaction to the revelations was swift.

“The fact that Catholic colleges have links to Planned Parenthood on their health service Web pages is another piece of evidence that the word ‘abortion’ has lost its meaning, even within many sectors of the Church,” said Father Frank Pavone, president of Priests for Life. He urged all Catholic institutions to eliminate even the appearance of cooperation with Planned Parenthood and offered his organization’s assistance to any institution to make such changes.

For others, the Web sites are merely the latest signs of many Catholic universities’ reluctance to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education.

“In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, one of the requirements of a Catholic university is that all official actions and commitments must be in accord with the university’s Catholic identity,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “Anything that is announced or promoted by a university’s Web site is an official action.”

Many bishops and Catholic leaders have spoken publicly with regard to Planned Parenthood. In 1998, Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, Texas, said, “I ask all Catholics not to use Planned Parenthood’s services, not to belong to any of their boards, not to serve as a volunteer and not to be employed there.”

Feeling the heat of recent publicity and public outrage, at least three of the universities — the University of San Francisco, Georgetown University and Boston College — quickly removed or hid their offensive Web pages.

The University of San Francisco’s “pregnancy” page now reads, “This portion of the Web site is currently being reviewed.”
The university wouldn’t comment for this story but issued a press release to respond to the criticism.

“The university is taking the concerns that have been expressed to us under advisement as we review the Student Health Education Program Web site content,” said the release, signed by Monica Leifer, assistant director of media relations for the university.
“In the meantime,” it added, “while we make a decision regarding the information provided on the pregnancy section of the Web site, we have eliminated all Web site links and are asking our students to contact us directly with inquiries.”

Problem Remains
Although the link from the “pregnancy” page has been removed as of this writing, the individual Web pages promoting Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Community Clinic are still available through the university’s Web site.

Those pages tout Planned Parenthood as a source for pregnancy testing and counseling, birth control and emergency contraception (which causes early abortion) but fail to mention Planned Parenthood’s role as the nation’s leading abortion business. The Women’s Community Clinic provides pregnancy testing and counseling and referrals to abortion clinics.

Likewise, Georgetown University apparently removed a “sex health and safety” page from its Web site. Canada’s LifeSite News reported that the page linked to a Planned Parenthood Web site, promoted the morning-after pill (an abortion-causing drug) and encouraged the use of sexual aids, including dental dams and latex gloves for “safer sex.” While the page has been removed, it is still identified by the Web site’s search engine.

Reaction on Campus
University of San Francisco senior Brendan McWalters had one explanation for the links on the school’s Web site.
“The Student Health Education Program has a certain degree of autonomy,” he said, speculating that “the decision was probably made by the current coordinator.”

Neither Melissa Kenzig, coordinator of the student health services program, nor Margaret Higgins, vice president for university life, returned phone calls seeking further information about how the material made it onto the Web site.

University of San Francisco senior Peter Halpin said he was not surprised by the revelation and was angered by it.

“I’m used to these kind of things at the university, but this was even more blatant,” Halpin said. “The fact that the university is no longer trying to hide it is both indefensible and arrogant.”

In response, Halpin wrote an e-mail to the university’s president, Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, and Higgins, listing the alternatives available in San Francisco and San Jose.

“Neither offered an explanation,” Halpin said. “President Privett said that the university was in full agreement with the Church and the Church’s teaching on abortion. They both said that the Web page was under review. My contentment will depend upon whether or not the university gets rid of the link.”

The university wouldn’t respond to requests for an interview about campus opinion.

Thomas Harmon, president the Cardinal Newman Society’s Association of Students at Catholic Colleges and a senior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., saw the whole question about Web sites in the context of the larger one about Catholic identity.
“Catholic college students are leading the renewal of Catholic higher education,” Harmon said, adding that his group’s emphasis “is on positive campus programs to teach and promote the Catholic faith, but when an outcry is needed, college administrators will hear us loud and clear.”

© 2002, Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota. A version of this article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register, December 22-28, 2002.

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Kneeling before the Sacred
By Tim Drake

Just minutes before the consecration, our 6-month-old daughter filled her pants.

It was Thursday and we were at daily Mass. It would have been hard not to notice us. We were the only parishioners at Mass who were younger than 40, and our family of six made up exactly 25 percent of the total parishioners.

So, when our daughter began loudly filling her diaper it was only slightly embarrassing. After all, these people see and HEAR us every day. They’re used to it. It was just another instance of walking out of Mass to attend to a dirty, crying, or misbehaving child.

Knowing my daughter’s propensity for soiling through all of her garments I quickly escorted her, diaper bag in hand, to the floor in the children’s play area to change her diaper. Nothing could have prepared me for the task I was to face at 5 minutes to 9 on this particular morning.

The outside of the diaper was soiled. The onesie was dirty. It was on the changing pad. It was on her legs. It was impossible to change her without getting it elsewhere.

The cleaning and disinfectant process was a long ordeal and I missed the majority of the consecration, but I also learned some things in the process.

So often, as I parent, I find myself asking, “Why me, why this, why now?” frustrated by my children’s timing. Yet, even in the midst of a dirty diaper I mustered a smile and laughed as much as I could about the predicament that I found myself in. This was my place. This was my duty. At this particular point and place in time I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was doing God’s will. And sometimes God’s will is messy. Sometimes your hands get dirty. Sometimes it even stinks.

As I cleaned my daughter I could not help but think of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Thoughts of them cleaning people’s wounds, washing people’s feet, and changing soiled linens came to mind. Such work requires great humility and even greater love. As Mother Teresa has said, “It is not what is done that is important, but that it is done with great love.”

And as I listened to the priest’s final words of consecration over the loudspeaker and buttoned up my daughter’s clothing I also realized something else. While I had missed the consecration, I still held something in common with those in the Church. I, too, was kneeling.

And for all my griping about my daughter’s timing, it turned out to be just perfect. Wearing a new diaper, minus her onesie, I carried my daughter back into Church just in time to receive Christ in the Eucharist.

My own communion with the Lord had not been hampered by performing my fatherly duties. If anything, I was now more in union with Christ than I was before.

© 2003, Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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Fear of Evil: The “Catholic” Imagination of M. Night Shyamalan
by Tim Drake

M. Night Shyamalan’s (pronounced Sha-ma-lawn) career has skyrocketed. With six films to his name, the 31-year-old writer/producer/director has already established himself as Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter. His salary has quadrupled since the release of his blockbuster The Sixth Sense in 1999.

His vision and style is traceable through his small, but successful, body of work. Although a Hindu, Shyamalan’s artistic imagination is decidedly Catholic. Like most of his movie’s endings, it’s rather unexpected.

Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan during one of his parents’ trips back to Pondicherry, India in 1970, Shyamalan was raised in the affluent Penn Valley of Philadelphia and attended private schools there. The Waldron Mercy Academy for boys, the Catholic gradeschool Shyamalan attended, serves as the backdrop for his second film Wide Awake.

The child of physician parents Jayalakshmi and Nelliate, Shyamalan grew up on films such as Star Wars, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the age of eight he had been given a Super-8 camera, launching his early passion for filmmaking. By age 17 he had completed 45 homemade movies.

A 1988 graduate of Episcopal Academy, Shyamalan went onto graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1992. It was there that he created his middle name, “Night” — a name he chose not only for its entertainment value, but also because one can see the universe only at night.

Following film school, Shyamalan arranged financing for his first script, Wide Awake. When the financing collapsed, he wrote Praying with Anger, took part of the Wide Awake financing, found new investors, and flew to India to shoot the feature-length film. Not only did Shyamalan raise all of the funds necessary, but he also wrote, starred in, produced and directed the film at a cost of $750,000. Loosely based upon his own trip back to India, the film is a story about an Indian-American sent to a university in India for a year to straighten him out. The film made $7,000.

In 1994, Shyamalan wrote the script “Labor of Love,” about a man who walks from Philadelphia to California to prove his love for his recently deceased wife. He sold the script to Twentieth Century Fox for $750,000 with the understanding that he would be able to direct the film. Later, it became evident that he would not be allowed to direct. “It was a story about what I felt about first being married,” Shyamalan told Newsweek. “It was pure.” Fox has still not turned the script into a movie.

Meanwhile, Praying with Anger got him noticed. After making it, Miramax funded Shyamalan’s Wide Awake, a film about a fifth-grader’s search for God.

“I’m wide awake now.” – Joshua Beal from Wide Awake

Spiritual Bookends
Shyamalan’s first studio film, Wide Awake (Miramax, 1998), along with his most recent film, Signs (Touchstone, 2002) serve as spiritual bookends to his other films. Both focus on the relationship between man and his creator.

The most Catholic of his films, Wide Awake takes place at Waldron Academy. Shyamalan admits that in some respects the film is autobiographical.

In the film, ten-year-old Joshua A. Beal (Joseph Cross) has lost his grandfather (Robert Loggia), leaving him desperate to know where he has gone and whether he is all right.

The film is separated into three parts, each patterned after the school year. It opens in September with a section called “The Questions.” The middle section takes place in December and is termed “The Signs.” The final third is set in May and is called “The Answers.” The three parts mirror Joshua’s journey of faith.

When Joshua asks his best friend, Dave, whether he ever thinks about God, Dave responds, “I go to a Catholic school. God is like our homework. No I don’t think about God.” When Joshua presses, asking Dave whether he thinks that God is real, David responds, “Nope. Too many bad things happen to people for no reason.”

This sets Joshua forth on a mission to find God. In his quest, Joshua watches television, searches the Internet, sneaks into the girl’s school to speak with a cardinal, talks to the school priest, and suggests a family vacation to Rome. “Why Rome?” his parents inquire. “It’s a nice city,” he responds. They point out that Rome is where the Vatican and the pope is. “The pope is not God,” they tell him. “I know that, but he’s his best friend,” responds Joshua. Joshua has little success.

Dave advises Joshua, “Look, Joshua. Either there is no God, or he doesn’t really care that you are looking for him.” This line signals a turn of events that opens the eyes of both the cynical Dave and the seeking Joshua.

The film’s humor is not a “Do Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up?” style of humor, poking fun at things Catholic. Rather, the Catholicism in the film is respectful. Rosie O’Donnell plays a baseball-loving nun. Father Peters plays a respectable priest. And in a particularly moving scene, Joshua’s grandfather is shown receiving the Eucharist at a healing mass. It is the first time that Joshua realizes his grandfather is ill.

One night Joshua begins to doubt his mission. Out of desperation, he utters a prayer. “Please, I need one bad,” he says, asking God for a sign. “My grandpa believed in two things,” he says, “Always keep your hands on the ball, and hold onto your faith. Faith will get you through. I don’t think I believe in anything at all.”

Next, Joshua has a flashback: Joshua’s grandfather points to the snow as proof of God’s existence. His grandfather asks Joshua, “How do you think the snow appears?” Joshua offers a scientific explanation. “You’re right, but there’s more. Much more. Maybe you’re going to have to find your own proof,” the grandfather concludes.

That night, Joshua gets his sign. It snows.

The sign signals Joshua’s epiphany as he begins seeing things that he’s never seen before. At the film’s conclusion, Joshua says, “Before… Bullies were bullies for no reason. Weirdos were just weird, and daredevils weren’t afraid of anything. Before this year, people I loved live forever. I was asleep. I spent this year looking for something and ended up seeing everything around me. You know what? I’m wide awake now.”

The final piece to the puzzle is Joshua’s encounter with an angel that’s been with him all along. The angel, referring to Joshua’s grandfather, tells him, “You don’t have to worry, he’s happy now,” and then disappears. In the end, Joshua makes his own statement of belief. “I believe that not all angels have wings,” he says.

Joshua Beal’s name and character remind us of Job. It is Job’s story presented for our time. Joshua is struggling with Job’s question, “Why do people you love die?”

Ultimately, Wide Awake is a film about faith. Although through the filter of a non-Catholic, the film is filled with Catholic symbols and rituals — religious statues, confession, a May crowning, guardian angels, heaven, and the Eucharist. In fact, the film was so Catholic that some critics, such as the New York Time’s Stephen Holden were offended. Holden felt the film was too Catholic. Perhaps in response to such criticisms, the Catholicism in Shyamalan’s later films has been more subtle.

“I see dead people.” – Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense

Visions of Purgatory
After Wide Awake, Shyamalan focused on two projects. During the day he worked on the screenplay for the children’s film Stuart Little — about an adopted mouse’s challenge of fitting in with his adoptive family. At night, he worked on The Sixth Sense (Spyglass, 1999) — a film about a young boy that sees dead people. While more subtle in its Catholic vision, the film is essentially an allegory for purgatory.

Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a beloved child psychologist. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), is a brilliant but terrified eight-year-old boy.

After a gunshot wound from Vincent Grey, a former patient and one of Malcolm’s few failures, Crowe feels he has been given an opportunity for redemption by helping young Cole, whose psychological problems are virtually identical to Grey's.

Cole is thought a "freak" not just by other kids, but by his teachers as well. Only his mother (Toni Collette) is there for him, but he dares not share his dark secret with her.

Crowe and Sear’s first conversation takes place in a Catholic Church. The Church’s white interior stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s darkness. Cole is playing with his toy soldiers and speaking Latin —"De profundis clamo ad te Domine!" (Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord.)

“In the old days, people used to hide out in churches?,” Crowe tells Sear. “What were they hiding from?,” Sear asks. “Bad people mostly,” says Crowe. On the way out of the Church, Cole grabs a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he will use in the red-tent sanctuary he has built in his bedroom to protect himself from the terrifying presences that surround him. Cole tells Crowe, “I don’t want to be scared anymore.”

Meanwhile, Crowe has serious problems of his own. He spends too much time working, his marriage is deteriorating, and his wife begins seeing another man.

Eventually, Cole reveals his secret to Crowe. “I see dead people,” he says, “They see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” Crowe, naturally, struggles with disbelief.

It is when Crowe admits that he cannot help Cole that salvation becomes possible. Cole realizes that the problem is that Crowe doesn’t believe him. What he needs most is someone to listen and believe. Crowe is required to make a leap of faith beyond the limits of his own worldview to accept the unbelievable. It turns out that the dead are in need of the same.

It is not all the dead that are walking the earth, but only those with regrets or unfinished business. They need the help of the living. In this way the film plays with the idea of the communion of saints. Cole serves to finish what the dead could not, helping to release them from their state of unhappiness.

Resolution, therefore, comes in embracing the truth. That truth, revealed in the film’s surprise ending, shows that Malcolm has been dead all along. In the end he tells his wife as she lays sleeping, “I think I can go now. I just needed to do a couple of things. I needed to help someone. I think I did. And I needed to tell you something. You were never second, ever. I love you. Everything will be different in the morning.”

“Water. It’s like your kryptonite.” – Elijah Price from Unbreakable

Good vs. Evil
In Unbreakable (Touchstone, 2000), Shyamalan, an avid comic book fan, creates a film about the mythology of super heroes. It’s a film about good and evil and ultimately a film about sin.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a soft-spoken security guard. While on a train ride home from a New York job interview, Dunn survives a derailment that kills everyone else on board. This prompts Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a mysterious comic book collector with a degenerative bone disease to contact David. Price offers Dunn an outrageous explanation as to how he managed to survive unscathed. He proposes that they are on the opposite end of the "breakable" continuum, a fact he wishes to explore to support his theory that there are real-life super heroes in the world.

Dunn, of course, has reservations about his strange fate. However, reflecting on his youth, Dunn realizes that he has never been hurt or sick, and that has instincts for identifying bad people.

The more Price talks to Dunn about his gift the more Dunn and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) experiment with his unnatural powers. This sets up the film’s most amusing and terrifying scenes. In the humorous scene Dunn and Joseph are in the basement bench-pressing. Instead of removing weight, his son adds weight, demonstrating that Dunn does, in fact, have extraordinary strength.

In the film’s most terrifying scene, Joseph confronts his father in the kitchen with a pistol, threatening to shoot him. Joseph believes that his father is a superhero and that his father will not die. Adding a moment of levity to a tense situation, Dunn tells Joseph, “Friends don’t shoot each other.” Resolution comes only when Dunn threatens to leave. Joseph fears his father leaving more than he fears his father’s death.

Dunn’s discovery of this gift rekindles his interest in life and renews his love for his wife (Robin Wright Penn). Once he embraces his gift, he dons a monk-like smock and hood and fulfills his role of protecting and defending people. Price, in the end, is revealed to be the archetypal intellectual villain.

While Unbreakable is neither explicitly Christian nor Catholic, themes of virtue run through the film. It is a classic tale of good vs. evil. Dunn is a faithful father working to preserve his marriage and family. Aside from an early scene on the train, Dunn acts honorably always trying to do what is right.

The film also calls to mind the parable of the talents with the message that we each have God-given talents, and that when we do not use the gifts God has blessed us with, we are an offense to God and to humanity. Dunn’s choice to spurn his natural gift leads to the near-death of his marriage, his career, and his heart. Dunn, in some ways, is like Moses — a reluctant hero-leader, fearful to use his gift. Price recognizes this as well, albeit in a twisted way.

There is, in the film, dignity in the human person. At the film’s end, Price asks, “Do you know the scariest thing, David? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling. I almost gave up hope, but I found you…. Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake.”

“There’s a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?” – Bo Hess from Signs

Signs of Contradiction
Shyamalan’s most recent film, Signs serves as the bookend opposite to Wide Awake. Again, it is a multi-layered film that explores similar spiritual themes, but in a much different way. Whereas Wide Awake was a young boy’s conversation with God, Signs is essentially God’s conversation with a man.

In Signs, farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian minister, renounces God following the tragic death of his wife. The film opens with the shadow on the wall where a cross once hung, a testament to Hess’ loss of faith. Much to Hess’ chagrin, residents still call him “Father.”

Set in Bucks County, Pa., Hess lives with his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-up baseball player.

Graham wakes up one morning to find five geometric shapes carved into his cornfield. Graham’s lack of belief leads him to suspect that teenagers created the crop circles.

Yet, the crop circles are only a small part of a much larger tale. Shyamalan uses the crop circles to get the audience thinking about divine providence. Does coincidence guide our lives or is there a pattern to it all?

Upon learning from the television news that similar circles have been discovered elsewhere around the world, Hess is also forced to come to terms with issues of faith. Not only is the family wrestling with an invasion of potential aliens, but its protagonist is also wrestling with his demons of unbelief. Some may question whether the first are merely a manifestation of the latter.

As the family sits watching the global crisis unfold on TV, Hess explains his philosophy. He declares that there are two kinds of people: those who believe in miracles and those who believe things happen for no particular reason. At this point Hess belongs to the second group, convincing himself that humans are alone in the world.

In a pivotal scene, Graham acknowledges God. The scene bears similarity to the one in Wide Awake where Joshua, in desperation, speaks to God and asks for a sign.

In Signs, the first time we see Graham talk to God is as he holds his struggling asthmatic son in his arms. He tells God he hates him. “Don’t do this to me again. I hate you. I hate you,” Hess says.

The similarity, of course, is that it is only when the protagonists acknowledge God, even if in desperation or anger, that God begins to move again in their lives. In Wide Awake, Joshua is given a sign and begins to really see things for the first time. In Signs, God honors Hess’ prayer.

As it turns out, not only do the details matter, but God is in the details. Suddenly, Hess’ wife’s dying words, his brother’s moving in with them, his daughter’s idiosyncrasy with water, and even his son’s asthma make sense. In the end, the invaders are defeated and Morgan is saved.

“Did someone save me?” Morgan asks his father. “Yes, I think someone did,” his father replies, weeping.

The film purposefully touches on each of the Church’s sacraments – sacred signs meant to convey God’s grace. Baptism is revealed through the presence of water in the film. Holy Orders are touched upon through Graham’s vocation. Confession is dealt with through a humorous interaction between “Father” Graham and a teenager in the drugstore. Confirmation is alluded to in the scene in the basement where the father and the son breathe as one. The Eucharist is hinted at through the “last supper” scene. And Matrimony and Last Rites are evident, through Graham’s relationship with his wife, and later in his encounter with his dying wife.

Shymalan ends the film as it began. As the camera pulls away it reveals Hess dressing in his clerics. While the image of a faded cross is no longer visible on the wall, one is very evident in the architecture of the bathroom door, symbolizing that Hess has again made his faith a part of his life.

In Signs, as in Shyamalan’s previous films, tangible proof has entered people’s lives demonstrating that reality has dimensions beyond that of everyday. To believe in God, one must agree that there is more to the universe than what we can see. Ultimately, this is what Joshua Beal, Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, and Graham Hess all come to realize.

“They called me Mr. Glass” – Elijah Price from Unbreakable

Windows on our Souls
One technique that Shyamalan frequently uses in his films is the appearance of windows and reflections.

Oftentimes our first glimpses of evil are caught as reflections, perhaps suggesting that the evil in his films is merely a reflection of the potential evil in all of us.

In Unbreakable, the film opens shortly after the birth of Elijah Price. The scene is played out in the mirror of a department store. Later, when we are first introduced to Price as a young boy, the scene between he and his mother (Charlayne Woodard) is played out in the reflection of an old television set. Later still, he is seen in the reflection of a piece of glass framing a piece of his comic book art. Price is later revealed to be the evil, Mr. Glass — David Dunn’s archenemy.

Likewise, in Signs, Hess first attempts to catch a glimpse of the alien intruders in the reflection from a butcher knife. When he first sees one face to face, it is in the reflection from his television screen. Later, we see an image of the creature through a glass of water.

Shyamalan also makes frequent use of windows. Windows can be channels of grace, or metaphors.

In Wide Awake, a window in school, with light pouring through, serves as the starting point for Joshua’s thinking about God. Joshua says, “It’s funny when you first get an idea. Sometimes it comes when you look at something you’ve looked at 100 million times.” It is also through a window that Joshua receives his sign. It is the light through the window, which reappears at the film’s end, that is Joshua’s proof of God’s existence.

In Signs, a window serves as a metaphor for Graham Hess’ faith. In the beginning, awakened by a noise, Hess looks at the cornfield from his bedroom window. As we see him, from the outside, he is distorted by the window’s aged and wavy glass. It represents Hess’ faith. He can’t see clearly. Later in the film, Hess boards up the windows in an effort to keep out the alien intruders. His bedroom window is one of the last to be boarded. At this point, Hess has shut out his faith completely. In the film’s end, however, Hess’ faith has been restored. The window has been shattered and the view through the empty pane is clear.

“Believe it’s going to pass. Don’t be afraid.” – Graham Hess in Signs

Shyamalan’s Formula for Success
Shyamalan’s films demonstrate an imagination influenced not only by Lucas, Spielberg and Hitchcock, but also by his own Catholic education. They make use of both Catholic imagery and Catholic themes. Rooted by his own experiences, Catholicism shapes his moral vision as he cinematically renders themes such as redemption, purgatory, human dignity, and miracles.

Catholicism and its liturgy are mind-expanding. Shyamalan, a non-Catholic, demonstrates that his mere exposure to things Catholic has allowed him to produce films with a Catholic sensibility. It, no doubt, stems from his exposure during his formative years to Catholic teachings, rituals, and practices – imagery that has made its way into his films.

Alfred Hitchcock once acknowledged that “one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.” He admitted that his own Catholic education developed in him “a strong sense of… moral fear — the fear of being involved in anything evil.”

One wonders whether the same influence hasn’t shaped Shyamlan.

It is not the only similarity Shyamalan shares with the Catholic from across the Atlantic. Not only were both educated in Catholic schools, but they both started their film work at a young age and both became the highest paid individuals in their profession.

Likewise Hitchcock, Shyamalan recognizes that it is the things that we cannot see that scare us the most. Shyamalan’s cinematography, and even the opening music in Signs owes to Hitchcock. Also like his mentor, Shyamalan makes cameo appearances in each of his films. In the Sixth Sense he plays a doctor. In Unbreakable, he is a stadium drug dealer. In Signs, he plays the town veterinarian. Finally, Shyamalan’s fondness for surprise endings also recalls the late British-born director.

There are additional recurring techniques in Shyamalan’s films that contribute to his success. His films are all set in Philadelphia. He frequently makes use of windows and reflections. His films often feature children. He softens the terror with humor. Such techniques breed familiarity. They let viewers know what to expect, even when they do not know what lurks around the corner. They also help viewers to identify with Shyamalan’s films, even when they are very different from one another.

Clearly, Shyamalan’s Catholic experiences encompass all of the themes found in his work — fear, family, faith, and redemption. Yet, even when his films deal with the paranormal or supernatural, they are ultimately about relationships — relationships between a parent and child and the relationship between God and man.

Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A version of this article previously appeared in Catholic World Report.

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