Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Small TalkSmall Talk

Small Talk

An eclectic roundup of incidents, events and oddities that catch our Editor's eye.

Raymond J. de Souza
8 minute read

Should Hillary Clinton prevail in the 2016 presidential election, Americans will have caught up to Sri Lanka, Israel, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Canada, Bangladesh, Namibia and Transnistria in having their first female head of government. In particular the United States will be following the precedent set by Sri Lanka and Argentina, where Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Isabel Perón, respectively, were first ladies that went on to hold the jobs their husbands had once held. The Bandaranaike case likely holds the greatest appeal for the Clinton family. She served as prime minister of Sri Lanka for 18 years over a 40-year span, from 1960 to 2000. Then her daughter became president of Sri Lanka. Just like America – anyone can grow up to be president.

First ladies, like their husbands, can be a colourful bunch. Few, however, were more remarkable than Lucy Kibaki, wife of President Mwai Kibaki and First Lady of Kenya from 2002 to 2013. Mama Lucy, as she was known, was much beloved by the Kenyan people and much feared by officials at State House, the presidential seat in Nairobi. "[Women] were told to wear their hair frumpy and their dresses below the knee. Terrified that her husband Mwai's eye would wander, Lucy could not tolerate even the most august of female dignitaries if she thought them pretty. The president had to meet Condoleezza Rice, then America's secretary of state, at an office in the city centre for fear his wife would make a scene." In the White House of a President Hillary Clinton, the First Lad would be Bill, cruising around with a roving eye and plenty of free time. One wonders what instructions Hillary will give regarding female employees. Frumpy hair? Long dresses? Or could it be that the first female president will have a "no women allowed" White House staff ?

The Clintons intend for Hillary's White House to set the ethical bar higher than the first time around, and not just on sexual harassment in the Oval Office. The Clintons have promised that should Hillary be elected president, they will stop taking donations to the Clinton Foundation. However, they are still open for business now. It's not clear if those seeking to purchase influence will have until election day for their cheques to clear or until the inauguration in January.

I spent a good part of the summer in Kraków, host city of World Youth Day (WYD) 2016, the international Catholic youth festival (see "Sea to Sea," June-July 2016). Getting around the city jammed with youth meant spending more than the usual amount of time on transit. The pictograms of prohibitions on the Cracovian trams are comprehensive. Rollerblades have a red line crossed through them, as do ice cream (a cone), food and drink (burger and shake), and smoking (both regular and e-cigarettes). Then a puzzle: a pictogram of a trumpet crossed out. Does it prohibit music or just trumpets? Surely that can't be right in Kraków, city of the most famous trumpeter in the world? Every hour, day and night, a trumpeter plays to each of the four directions from the tower of St. Mary's Basilica adjacent to the Main Market Square. The melody is cut short to commemorate the time when the trumpeter was struck by an arrow – I believe by the Tatars in the 13th century – as he trumpeted out a warning to the city. Who will warn Cracovians on the trams now?

The estimable Inés San Martín of Crux is one of my favourite Vatican reporters. So it was an unusual slip when she wrote of the Holy Father's visits to Auschwitz and a children's hospital that "millions of young people are currently roaming the streets singing, praying and making new friends, and throughout the city, a spirit – and noise – of celebration is palpable. Friday, however, was a reality check kind of day from the pope." That's a common mistake, thinking that WYD – or any time of retreat or pilgrimage, or even the liturgy itself – is a departure from the "real world" of sin and suffering. It's exactly the opposite. God is most real – more real than fallen creation to be sure – and so that which most participates in God is most real. WYD is a vision of reality against the less real world of sin, suffering and death..

C.S. Lewis taught us that lesson vividly in The Great Divorce, when he noted that the blades of grass in Heaven are too sharp for the feet of sinners to trod, so real are the things of God. WYD is an encounter with reality more as God created it to be, desires it to be and, in the fullness of time, will manifest it to be. The 1.5 million people killed at Auschwitz were real lives destroyed, the suffering and pain very real. Yet the 1.5 million gathered for WYD Kraków are real too, even more so, for life is more real than death, holiness more than sin, hope more than despair.

WYD brings out a lot of papal love. But among grown-ups, few are more ardent in their love for Pope Francis than his biographer – hagiographer? – Austen Ivereigh. He tweeted that it was "striking how, handed a pen to sign a survivor's book, Francis takes trouble to pop cap on before handing it back." The pope pops the cap back on – amazing!

Joining an Australian group for Mass, I encountered something about which I had heard but never experienced. The bishop celebrant used his iPad for the missal on the altar; and another bishop who preached used his at the pulpit. It certainly is less cumbersome than carrying liturgical books, even travel ones. It was all very reverent, but it did not sit well with me. I think Marshall McLuhan said more than even he knew 50 years ago when he characterized electronic communications – by which he meant telephones and television – as anti-sacramental. Sacraments make intangible realities tangible, grace conveyed through bread and wine and water and oil. Electronic communications make tangible realities – printed words and people – less tangible. In the communications age, we cannot avoid the means that are literally wired – except when they are wireless – into everything we do. But perhaps the sacraments themselves should be a limit. Not to mention that the bitten apple is a powerful Biblical symbol that does not belong on the altar.

Kraków has a sense of the human possibility that extends rather beyond the categories of fame that dominate North America – politics, entertainment, business. One clever advertising campaign in Kraków asked – in English – "Are you ready?" An image of Nicolaus Copernicus appeared over the question "Are you ready to start a scientific revolution?" An image of John Paul II over the question "Are you ready to be a saint?" An image of Rafał Sonik, the quad rally driver, over the question "Are you ready to win Dakar?" Poland knows that human achievement limited to politics is a very cramped view of human life indeed. That's why it is refreshing to fly into Poland, where they don't name their airports after politicians. Warsaw's airport is named after Frédéric Chopin, Kraków's is named in honour of John Paul II, and Wrocław's for Copernicus.

At John Paul II airport, the Pope's departure ceremony was cancelled due to heavy rains, which was for the best, lest closer attention have been paid to the Polish military band providing the music. Before Pope Francis arrived, they played a few marches but then did "When the Saints Go Marching In" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Bewildered at why they were playing American songs in Kraków for an Argentinian pope, a Polish colleague in the media centre gamely suggested that they were simply choosing pieces that had religious content – glory, glory, hallelujah! When the Pope arrived, though, the band broke into a rousing rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," the most anti-Christian popular song this side of John Lennon's "Imagine." Clearly the band had skipped the WYD catechetical sessions. For the grand finale, as Pope Francis ascended the stairway, the band broke into "We Are the Champions" by Queen. Freddie Mercury is not usually thought of in connection with religious occasions. It was a small mercy that it was only instrumental, otherwise the Pope would have waved goodbye to Kraków as "No time for losers!" was being belted out.

There's an old joke that it is very expensive to keep people in voluntary poverty. It's been said of monks and nuns, and one of Mahatma Gandhi's benefactors famously remarked the same. There is a touch of that in the decision of Pope Francis to eschew the use of limousines on his travels. Those are readily available, already bought and paid for, but he prefers to use a more modest car. Practically, that means local church organizers have to buy new cars; no security service would risk driving the Pope in a used automobile whose provenance was unknown. But it turns out that poverty can also be lucrative. The Fiat 500 that Francis used in New York in September 2015 was later auctioned off for US$300,000, with the money going to various charities. Philadelphia did the same with the car it bought for the papal visit. The Poles learned a lesson or three from that, putting Francis in several different cars during his visit to Kraków. Three of them are being auctioned online as a fundraiser for a mobile clinic for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and a shelter for the elderly and disabled in Poland. The Volkswagen Golf is worth about C$25,000 but will likely fetch much more in the auction. The allure of poverty can fetch a pretty penny today.

Planned Parenthood – the world's largest referral service and provider of abortions – is updating itself for a new generation. Lyndsey Butcher, executive director of the Kitchener branch, made the announcement last spring: "A lot of our younger clients were very confused with our name – having the word 'parenthood' as part of Planned Parenthood made it seem like it was something we were promoting. Even if clients weren't interested in that choice, it sounded like we might pressure someone to continue on with a pregnancy." The organization's new name – SHORE: Sexual Health, Options, Resources, Education – better articulates all of the services it offers, she said. It's been a long time since anyone thought that Planned Parenthood promoted parenthood, but thanks to its efforts over many years, the very word is now toxic to prospective clients.

The Tragically Hip held the final concert of their 2016 summer tour in their hometown of Kingston, Ont. Pride in the local boys done good spread across the land, and the concert – presumed to be the band's last given the terminal cancer diagnosis of lead singer Gord Downie – was broadcast live from coast to coast. Downie didn't speak too much about the end of the affair but did speak rather extensively about Justin Trudeau, who of course was present. Downie praised him extravagantly for how he would be "good for 12 years," and that "we are in good hands" solving the problems of Canada's North. Then, perhaps realizing the inversion of cultural figures putting their trust in political figures, he cut short his campaign ad by simply adding, "Thanks for listening to that – thanks for listening at all." Yes, for performers of all kinds – authors and playwrights and singers – it is fitting to be grateful that anyone listens at all. It is an act of generosity that readers and listeners give performers their time, for which they are too infrequently thanked.

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