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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Prayer an impressive part of storytelling on ‘Midwife’; ‘Barefoot to Avalon’ neither easy nor entertaining, yet deeply moving
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the August 18, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)
When I was visiting my sister, Patty, in Hastings, Minn., about five years ago, she wanted me to watch some of the first season of the TV series Call the Midwife on a computer screen.
I could see how much she enjoyed the story of midwives and Anglican nuns with the ministry to the pregnant women of the poor East London neighborhood of Poplar.
I haven’t seen all of the shows from the five seasons of this fine British series. Vanessa Redgrave narrates the stories as the character Jenny, now in old age, looking back on the 1950s and
early ’60s. (Jenny is gone from the series in recent years, and yet she continues to narrate the stories.)
In the shows I have seen I have always been impressed by how prayer is taken seriously at Nonnatus House, where the older nuns live with the young midwives. The Sisters are all too human,
but give the wisdom of age and experience to the young midwives.
The reality of birth is shown in all its pain and eventual joy. The show goes into ethical issues as it entertains with lots of emotional scenes. The most recent year of the program showed
doctors and midwives facing the devastation of the use of the drug thalidomide in 1961.
One of the most poignant scenes takes place in a local hospital. One of the babies is born with no arms or legs, and no genitals. The medical personnel do not yet know the connection with the
drug. The head nun of the story, Sister Julienne, is temporarily working in the hospital. After the birth, Sister is looking to see where the child has been taken. She pushes open a door and finds the
child exposed by an open window, letting in cold air. Sister Julienne cries out in horror and takes the child in her arms, praying for the infant as the child dies.
The story is also filled with personal stories of older sick persons in their homes, the young midwives and, of course, the Sisters. In the midst of tragedy and sorrow there is much hope, joy,
and a sense of community.
I understand now why my sister, now dead a year and a half, wanted me to see a television production that meant so much to her.
Susan Sarandon as a mother named Marnie Minerviri from New Jersey has a grown daughter in her 30s who lives in Los Angeles. The daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), has recently broken up with her
boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and the mother, traveling to L.A. is intruding like a “helicopter parent.” This all takes place in the new movie The Meddler, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.
Now, Susan Sarandon is a fine actress and she plays the overbearing parent to the hilt. The back-story is that her husband has recently died. Possibly this event has aggravated her attempt to control her daughter’s life.
Eventually, after telling her mother to pull back, the daughter flies to New York City, where she is the writer in the production of a new television pilot. Lori does everything to keep her mother from following her to New York.
As a result, Marnie begins to reach out to others whom she meets along the way. It seems a little forced, but Marnie has lots of energy. For example, she pushes an Apple “genius” to go to college. She even volunteers to give him a ride to school each day.
She meets a retired policeman by the name of Zipper (J.K. Simmons) who is rather whimsical in his own way
But the key event in the movie to my mind is the brainstorm Marnie has in visiting a nonresponsive patient at a local hospital. Visiting the sick is not something she is excited about at first. But after a number of visits over a period of months she somehow comes up with the idea of bringing an old-fashioned dial telephone, which she hooks up, and something wonderful does happen.
Good acting by everyone makes what may sound like an exaggerated story work.
The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for mild drug use. Catholic News Service has not yet rated the film.
In terms of the modern memoir, I have always wondered how the author can remember in often beautifully written prose events that
took place a lifetime ago. One thing that stands out for me in David Payne’s new memoir Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story is that in several key parts of the powerful story he can’t remember
The book is published by Atlantic Monthly Press in hardcover for a list price of $26. It took David Payne eight years to write his brother’s story. In all fairness, the majority of the book is
about David Payne’s remembrance of his own life, and how he was influenced and changed by his brother, George A.
The book moves back-and-forth in time throughout the life of two North Carolina siblings. The beginning and end even more so revolve around a car accident that ends the life of George A.,
who is a very appealing person. Although George A. spends much of his life suffering from bipolar illness, the darker character in the totality of the story is the older brother, David.
Barefoot to Avalon is neither an easy nor an entertaining read. It is a thought-provoking story of one family that includes such heavy-duty subjects as excessive anger, divorce, addiction, envy, mental illness, and lots of misunderstanding. So in a sense, this story of an American family can cause the reader to reflect on the journey of one’s own life. And I suspect that is what a memoir is supposed to do.
Anyone who has a brother or sister, living or dead, will understand what is happening in reading this moving story. I would guess because it is two brothers it might hit men harder emotionally than women, but I really don’t know, because the sibling issues may trump gender.
In the end, all I can say is that David Payne has written to the depths of his life as he tells his brother’s story. Yes, he sure took risks that speak to the heart.
In 2002 Pope St. John Paul II authorized the opening of the archives of the papacy of Pius XI. It was then that an historian from
Brown University, David I. Kertzer, decided to write a history of the Pope. New archival material soon became available in Germany and Italy. The result is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book titled
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.
The book is published in softcover by Random House Trade Paperbacks for a list price of $20. This is a history book that is both fascinating and very interesting to read. I warn readers: It is
a disturbing book to read because it tells a history of a dark time when there was a strong connection between the institutional church and the support of fascism, and very slow response to the
adoption of anti-Jewish laws in Italy and what was happening in Nazi Germany.
In order to end the conflict between the Church and Italy after the Vatican became isolated as Italy became a nation in the 1800s, Pope Pius XI sought a treaty that became known as the Lateran
Treaty of 1929. In so doing the Church received the small territory in Rome known as Vatican City and certain guarantees, such as crucifixes in every school room in the country and protection for
Catholic Youth and Catholic Action endeavors. Mussolini, who came to power as a strongman in Italian politics, basically received the pope and the official Church’s support that enabled him to
consolidate and protect his immense power in Italy.
Kertzer goes into the personal life of Benito Mussolini throughout the book and describes in details the give-and-take with the Church as he invades Ethiopia and, later, Albania.
The pope is a no-nonsense direct leader and only begins to break away from Mussolini late in his life as he sees the dictator more and more in union with Hitler.
We learn of strong anti-semitism in the Curia and the official Church’s view of the danger of Communism over the Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany.
A sad part of the story is that Pius XI, as sickness weakens him, does try to speak out more strongly against what is happening to Jews, but close associates, including his Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, and the head of the Jesuits, Father Ledochowski, prevent his statements from being published. The pope had commissioned American Jesuit John La Farge with two others to write a document against among other things the persecution of the Jews. It did not see the light of day, as the pope died and his successor was Pacelli, who took the name Pius XII.
At one time Mussolini was angry at the editor of the American Jesuit magazine America because in 1936 he was strongly anti-Fascist. He complained to the Jesuit superior, Ledochowski, and the editor was removed and a new editor, supportive of the Fascist cause, was put in place.
The book includes events after the death of Pius XI because Mussolini was still alive. It notes that Pope Pius XII sent birthday best wishes to Hitler in April of 1939 and Church bells rang throughout Germany.
A number of Jews were saved after the Italian anti-Jewish laws went into effect. They were hidden in monasteries and some Church institutions. But according to Kertzer’s research: “From the time the first racial laws were proclaimed in 1938 to the end of the war seven years later, 6,000 Jews in Italy converted to Christianity in the hope of gaining Church protection and avoiding the fate of their brethren. In all, Nazi forces and their Italian cronies sent 7,500 of Italy’s Jews to Auschwitz. Few would leave alive.”
The Pope and Mussolini is a challenging book that is unforgettable.
(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)
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