By Charlie Johnston
It has been a vigorously busy time in the Southeastern United States these last few weeks after my son’s wedding. Things are getting darker around the world, but there are more than a few wild roses and orchids to be found on the borderlands of the looming chaos. I thought I would share a few stories of them with you today.
Fraternus is a fully Catholic response to the need to inculcate the manly virtues into young men and boys. With the collapse of the Boy Scouts into the fetid swamps of homosexual and transgender activism, it is desperately needed – and growing by leaps and bounds. Fraternus uses many of the classic techniques the Boy Scouts once used to develop virtues such as chastity, chivalry, honor, duty and initiative in young men.
In Birmingham, Alabama, My primary contact and great friend is Deacon Terry Rumore. Bigger than life, always active, and ever voluble, he is a mainstay of the Birmingham Catholic community. When money needs to be raised, when projects need a little help along the way, he is the go-to guy for everyone, from EWTN to the furthest Parish in the Diocese. He is affectionately called “the Archdeacon” by many in the Diocese including (I have been told) his Bishop.
Early last year his sons, Terry Jr. and Charlie Rumore, decided to inaugurate a Fraternus Chapter in Birmingham. A couple of chips off the old block, once they get going they make things happen in a big way.
I attended a Mass celebrating the first anniversary of an active Fraternus Chapter at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, followed by an awards ceremony and dinner, served by the boys. Over 200 people attended. One of the Priests who concelebrated the Mass is familiar to many around the country – Fr. John Paul from EWTN.
I did not speak at the event, merely attended to see what my friends had put together. After dinner and the awards presentation, while chatting with various friends in attendance, I was not surprised that many of the adults recognized me. I was very surprised when a number of the boys came up to see me and tell me what an inspiration my website has been to them.
These young men are serious about living virtue. I have to be frank: when I was their age, I doubt I would have been a regular reader of a website such as mine. (I may be wrong: the late Tom Roeser was one of my favorite newspaper columnists when I was a teenager – decades before he became one of my dearest friends).
While chatting with one group of people about how desperately our world needs a revival of the manly virtues – and what a joy it is to see someone doing something serious about it, a pretty young woman in the group smiled slyly and said, “We girls like manly men best, too.” We all chuckled.
I spent three days visiting with Deacon Terry, who shepherded me around to various private meetings. Visiting with him was Fr. Brennan, a retired Priest from Ireland who was once assigned to the Diocese of Birmingham. Fr. Brennan now lives back in Ireland, just south of Dublin, but visits for a month once each year. He said Mass for us each morning. Fr. Brennan and Deacon Terry love to poke each other and bicker. At one point, Fr. Brennan told me my job was to keep Deacon Terry in line. I laughed and said that would be too hard a penance after a confession, so I would have to confess right then I could not accomplish this Sisyphean task.
While in town, we visited a Cenacalo, a house for recovering addicts that Deacon Terry said was started at the behest of Birmingham’s Bishop Robert Baker. It is an amazing place, where recovering men live in community in a very structured setting, to bring new structure to their lives. We had lunch there, which is prepared communally by the men in residence. Deacon Terry told me that Bishop Baker is passionately devoted to pastoral care for those who suffer and to instill a sense of worth, hope and structure to all – and that he had been actively supportive of getting the Fraternus project off the ground. Perhaps most impressively, Deacon Terry said that not only did the men there know the Bishop, but that when the Bishop visits, he knows almost all of them by name, as well.
I lived in Birmingham/Irondale until I was three and a half, when my parents moved to the Chicago area. Having left when I was barely more than a toddler, it feels kind of cool to become, in my old age, a member in good standing of the Birmingham Catholic family.
I spent Pentecost in the mountains of Northern Georgia, at the second home of my main Atlanta contact and friend, Tom Kuipers, who also administers the Next Right Steppers Private Forum. This was the property on which he discovered the “Squirrel Crossing” sign I posted last week.
It was a year ago, on May 13, when the family moved into the property. There is an old Baptist Church adjacent to the property. Seldom used any more, the community allowed them to use the Church now as a Catholic Chapel. We mounted a Eucharistic Procession from the main house to the chapel for the Mass of Pentecost. An older couple I know offered to give me a ride up to the Church – but I laughingly told them I can sit or I can walk: it is standing still in place that causes my pain to flare. The chapel is a sturdy, but rustic, old Church that is cooled primarily by breezes wafting in through the screens. Those of us near a window were struck by how often and how appropriately timed gusts of wind rose up during the Mass. Most impressive of all, at one point, sunlight came through in rays to suffuse the elevated host.
Once again, a big supper was enjoyed afterwards by all who came out for the celebration. Tom’s wife, Jessica, makes a great cheesecake. Remembering how much I enjoyed it last year, she had another on hand for me this year – which I was able to eat for breakfast, too.
Because of the preparations for the Pentecost celebration, Tom was not directly involved in my Atlanta talk this year, though he came down near the end to bring me back up to the mountains. At a luncheon for the volunteers, the Deacon who did handle the arrangements brought us to the finest Cajun Restaurant I have ever been to – and it was near Alpharetta, Georgia.
People in Atlanta were deeply disturbed by the fining, bankrupting and attempts to jail Christians who merely refuse to use their creative talents to actively participate in “gay weddings.” You are probably not aware of how swiftly that the prosecution of such Christians has advanced in the last year. As of now, over 1,200 Christians have been fined or otherwise punished by the state for refusing to cater to “gay weddings.” That does not count all who have lost their jobs rather than betray their Christian faith. People were even more disturbed at the president’s order that all schools must allow boys to use girls’ shower rooms and lockers without question – and vice versa – or lose their federal funding. I told the crowd that I am a great advocate of free speech, and don’t begrudge anyone holding a different opinion than I do. On the other hand, those who have abused official power to punish and oppress those who disagree with them cannot just be dismissed, they need to go to jail – the place they would send any who dare disagree with them. I said the offenders need to hope I was never in charge. This started a riff…I would ask if the crowd knew where those judges and ‘human rights’ commissioners who had punished or fined Christians for practicing their faith would be going. Several shouted, “To jail.” I asked about those who would try to force schools to let boys shower in girls locker rooms. Same answer. I asked about the 16 state attorney generals who want to prosecute any who disagree with them on ‘climate change’. “To jail,” the crowd shouted. Perhaps the biggest, most jubilant shout came when I asked about IRS officials who targeted – and are still targeting – Christians.
Government officials think they are enhancing their power by bullying, coercive tactics. They don’t know they are actually emasculating it. Unless they stand down, all they will accomplish will be to, as General Tojo said after Pearl Harbor, “awaken a sleeping giant and fill it with a terrible resolve.”
After navigating a torrential downpour, terrifying lightning, tornadoes, and getting through several traffic jams on the Florida turnpike, I finally made it to West Palm Beach. One of the delights there was to spend a day with Fr. Stephen Leake, a Priest assigned to St. Philip Benizi Parish in the impoverished community of Belle Glade, on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.
He also took me to St. Mary’s, a Church and Mission in Pahokee. There he told me the amazing story of the icon of Our Lady of Bethlehem displayed there. It deeply touched me for reasons that will become clear.
It is a bejeweled icon created by a Russian monk in the 16th Century, probably held for a time by the Romanov family – Russia’s rulers for centuries. Some years back, a Jewish Family, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Kahn, were liquidating the inventory from a store they owned in order to move operations to Florida. Everything sold except this icon, which Mr. Kahn decided to keep and dispose of later, knowing neither its provenance or its value. In Florida, he became social friends with the Priest, Fr. John, at St. Mary’s in Pahokee, After some thought, he decided he did not want to sell the icon, that it would have deep meaning for Fr. John and his Parish – so he donated it to him. Fr. John was delighted. He took it to have it appraised and its history searched. To his astonishment, he was told of its provenance in Russia – and that its value was somewhere between two and three million dollars.
Since neither man had suspected its rarity or value, Fr. John contacted Kahn and offered to return it. Though startled, Kahn declined the offer, sensing that this was intended for a Church. And so, insured by Lloyd’s of London, it is permanently on display at St. Mary’s Parish in Pahokee, Florida.
As you know, I have said that I was told that, in these times, we are to treat all faithful Christians – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – and all faithful Jews as full and equal partners in the work before us – that God, Himself, will see to the unity as a fruit of the Storm. I have also noted that I often think of the Storm as a new Advent, a penitential time pointing back to the manger, just as the first Advent pointed forward to the manger. So to have a Russian Orthodox icon, donated by a Jewish family to a Catholic Church in an obscure little town in Florida, rather than a great Cathedral – and to have it entitled Our Lady of Bethlehem, seems like a providential icon of these times. All that is needed to make it complete is a strong Protestant connection – but Lloyd;s of London is a prestigious firm in an officially Protestant country, so that will have to do.
My coordinator in West Palm Beach, Peggy, is a lawyer specializing in family law, touching on my emphasis on Faith, Family and Freedom. So West Palm Beach was startlingly providential, from the Storm I had to navigate to get there to the startling icon of unity in faith I ended with.
Finally, in the beautiful little town of Sebring, Florida (near Tampa), I got the greatest cake ever. My host, Joan, at the volunteer dinner, had dessert hidden under a cover. When she unveiled it, I was absolutely charmed. It was a cake she had worked on for days, in the shape of a cabin. She got the idea from the image at the top of the website – and my frequent, fond references to the time I spend in retreat at the cabin in the mountains.
They put me up at a charming old hotel, the Inn on the Lakes. Though reasonably large, every room has a view of a lake. To the east is a large lake, directly to the west a smaller one. Most delicious, though elegant and modernly appointed, they use real keys. Something about that delighted me.
I spoke at a downtown theatre where they hold all manner of community events. It had a snack shop attached, so at the break between my presentation and questions, folks were able to go get refreshments. It was a lively, energetic crowd. I particularly like it when there are young people at a presentation. This one had several, including one teenage girl who had a load of questions. I always take a little extra time to answer young folks questions – for though they may be well-formed at home, they get little cultural back-up to the faith now.
I often say that our culture now is like living in a toxic area of an inner city – and that after the Rescue it will be like living in Mayberry. I loved Sebring, for I picked up a little of the scent of Mayberry whenever the soft breeze rose.