We will pass through the threshold of 2020 into 2021 very soon. Every New Year brings with it hope and promise. We can imagine that 2020 will pass away and 2021 will bring a new season. But, 2020 contains the seeds for 2021. And, January of 2021 will only turn the page on a calendar year. We will remain. Our country will remain. And, so, with a sober mind we approach the door of 2021 by reflecting on 2020. What can be gained by this meditation? Like any meditation on the past, we will gain wisdom if we turn our hearts to the Holy Spirit and seek out the truth, however convenient or inconvenient. This is my one hope for 2021, that we will soberly reflect on 2020 and gain wisdom and strength of heart to turn the page into the New Year. That hope begins, however, in the valley of 2020. We do not need to fear the valleys, because our Good Shepherd walks beside us even in the land shadowed by mountains (Psalm 23). What can we learn from 2020? This reflection of mine might seem extreme, but I hope that you will bear with me through this reflection. Our society does not appreciate prophets of gloom, but however gloomy these meditations might seem, underneath is the shining truth that illumines the darkness. When we can see the shadows clearly, it is only because the light shines.
At the conclusion of each year, Webster chooses a “Word of the Year.” Although this word of mine is not in the running for Merriam-Webster, I would choose this word as my “Word of the Year:” propaganda. In common usage, Google defines “propaganda” primarily in this way: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” In these times of trouble, I have noticed a lack of sincere dialogue about important issues in our discussions about politics, protocols, and church teachings. Surrounding the protocols concerning COVID-19, we heard different and opposing messages from the CDC, WHO, and virologists. Social media platforms suppressed what they considered “unpopular views” and labelled them with cautionary notes. Initially, we were told that masks don’t “work,” because the average person will not be using medical masks and, if they do, they will not practice proper medical standards of use. Then, we were told that masks do work. When doctors speak about a rise in lung issues – i.e. infections – that happen from the prolonged usage of masks (our body exhales noxious breathe to get it out of the body, but masks cause us to breathe in our body’s exhaust), that is suppressed; and, perhaps even someone reading this will become upset that I even brought this up, at all. We were told, at the outset, that the lockdowns would be temporary, and yet the social pressures to remain-in-place only deepens with widespread reports of infection numbers rising. For the first time in history, people around the world, quarantined the healthy and often treated the healthy as if they were possible dangers to society. We began to look upon one another as possible health risks. And, the rampant claims of asymptomatic cases only furthered the fears. It created a fear of the “other” even in our families. Then, we heard from some that only symptomatic cases spread the virus and, from other sources, that anyone might spread the virus. In response, we allowed one person in government, the governor, to make sweeping – but often ambiguous – rules that impact our everyday lives. In a sense, we were told that personal responsibility could not remain a factor due to health risks; someone else needed to make all our decisions for us, and they did and do. When loved ones are in the hospital dying, family members are restricted from visiting. Businesses that employ millions were impacted and titled “non-essential,” even though their finances are essential for the rearing of their children and well-being. The debates about what to do raged in our families and in organizations, with each side claiming facts to back their opinions. Each used sources that are trustworthy, but each trustworthy sources draws opposite conclusions about best practices. The personal cost for many has been a rise in psychological problems, we are not meant to be alone, isolated, and treated like potential threats in public. But, in many circles, even mentioning these side-effects of the protocols surrounding COVID-19 brings derision or outrage. Such mountains of confusion and constant appeals to emotion during arguments only happen when dialogue is not possible. And, in a time of propaganda, dialogue is not possible, because each side lays claim to the “righteous cause” that to refute makes the “other” a “heretic.” And, by nature, “heretics” become “outcasts.” This does not bode well for the future. Propaganda politicizes everything. And, we now live in a world wherein everything is reduced to the political and ideological. Personal health choices are now politicized. Personal finances are now politicized. Raising of ones own children is now politicized. Hospital systems’ protocols are politicized. Running a business is politicized. The news is politicized. Our entertainment industries politicize their content. And, COVID-19 only brought this politicization to the forefront. I remember joking with a friend in May of 2020 that “everyone is now a conspiracy theorist,” because everyone, on any side of every issue, now assumes foul play on the part of the “other side.” When propaganda replaces news and creates narratives that suppress opposing voices, we move out of the realm of dialogue, debate, and personal responsibility into the arena of power and influence. Propaganda means that the loudest voice “wins” and the greatest appeal to emotion “wins,” and creates outcasts instead of interlocutors.
Pondering this Age of Propaganda, I reflect upon the words of Jeremiah who stated this: “They [false leaders] have treated lightly the injury to my people: ‘Peace, peace!’ they say, though there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Some might say that my statements, so far, amount to “doom and gloom,” and are irresponsible as a priest of the Church. They desire that I preach “peace, peace!” even though there is no peace. But, I see the task of my priesthood in this way: My job is to preach the truth that I see in light of the Gospel. And, at times, that truth will be difficult for some to hear. And, what I see happening in our country is a full-court press by those in positions of authority (politicians, news sites, entertainment, etc.) to politicize every issue, to squelch honest debate, and to use appeals to emotion to silence those who disagree with the mainstream, e.g. every new health protocol in place. Personal responsibility and liberty, in this context, becomes suspect. Think about this: due to recent developments with the governor’s edicts about restaurants, employees making minimum wage and living off of the tips of patrons, become de facto administrators of the state’s protocols. Business owners will tell employees to monitor every action of their patrons, because now business owners must fear financial or legal action from the state if a patron does not comply with the state’s decrees. Is this fair? Is this really just? Does this really promote social harmony? Or, does it politicize eating at a restaurant? Doesn’t this turn us against one another and cause us to police one another? I realize that this view of the issues at play is not in the mainstream. But, that only further highlights the Era of Propaganda in which we live: A “mainstream” exists, and if someone walks in the opposite direction the current forces them to their knees while wading upstream in an overflowing river. If propaganda characterizes the year of 2020, then what can we responsibly do with the turning of the year into 2021?
In 1974, a survivor of the USSR’s gulags, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote an essay titled “Live Not by Lies.” He spoke of the social and political pressures in the USSR to never stand against the mainstream. The threat always existed that if someone rose above the tide, that they would be silenced, their family would lose stability, jobs would be lost, or they would disappear in the night and sent away to “re-education” camps. This fear bred a listlessness and sense of powerlessness. How can any one individual fight against the “mainstream?” Solzhenitsyn, having lived through the gulags, made a bold declaration in the midst of his country awash with propaganda: Live not by lies, no matter what. He faced the seeming powerlessness of individual choices and said that to take part in the lies made one a party to them. Our responsibility, then, is to never neglect this true liberty: “personal non-participation in lies.” He wrote: “It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.” When I peer into the many possibilities of 2021, I see such a resistance as necessary. Living in the truth and seeing things for what they are and calling them so, will make one stand out. Refusing the herd mentality that so controls our means of communication, will require great courage. We will need to learn when to speak and when to remain silent. We will need to learn when to walk away from a situation and when to stand tall. We will need to educate ourselves and be willing to think critically in ways that make us uncomfortable and those around us uncomfortable. But, truth alone will set us free (John 8:32).
What is the battle plan, then, for 2021? Here are a few possibilities that I will be pondering over the next month and half leading up to 2021:
• Prayer, real prayer in the midst of solitude, will be my number one priority. This might mean I “do” less, but, in a confused world, the silence and solitude that rests in the love of the Trinity allows truth to rise to the surface.
• I will not believe every news story I read, but seek out primary sources when possible. I will, more and more, allow my critical thinking to ask: Is this news or opinion? Is this news trying to get me to take one side over another? What is the opposing viewpoint on this? What is true?
• I will start reading books that foster deeper reflection and move away from the frivolous. I want to read classic texts of philosophy, theology, history and fiction. I want to step away from the pop-culture and into the wisdom of the giants who have come before us. In short, I want to be educate-able and docile before our greatest Master, Truth.
• I already do not have a television in my private rooms, this was a personal decision before I was ordained. I know how easy it is to turn on the television in the evening, and turn off my mind, and dull my heart with the flashing lights of endless news and sitcoms. But, I desire to reduce my intake of YouTube videos, to be selective about the movies I watch, and, while watching, to not turn off my critical thinking. I will be wise about the possibility that the writers of films and shows are creating a narrative to promote ideologies. I do not have to imbibe lies, even ones made visually beautiful and captivating by writing and cinematography.
• I hope to listen to more Classical music. This might seem strange in light of all that’s been said, but classical music has a way of drawing us into beauty through music. In a world that heralds the grotesque and vicious, perhaps good music will ennoble the soul.
• I intend to keep reading my Bible and the teachings of the Church, teachings that predate the recent political ideologies that so often paste themselves within episcopal or papal pronouncements and interviews. I want to know the truth, encounter the Trinity, and learn to love Jesus and my neighbor with an ever purer heart. Divine Revelation (Scripture and Tradition) remains the bedrock for this encounter with the living God through the Sacraments, prayer and reflection.
• I will keep praying for courage to stand in the truth, either in speech or deed, whether silent or by action, and allow trustworthy friends to help me stay on the right path.
These bullet points for 2021 are an anti-propaganda campaign for my personal life. If we take time to reflect on the truth, and strive after the truth in all we do, we will become “dangerous” people in this sense: The nobility of our spirit will enable us to stand strong against lies and half-truths, and help us to love people for who they are and not for the political banner under which they march. Truth alone ensures the humility of all parties. We do not make the truth, we bow to the truth, we accept the truth. Truth changes us. And, the Trinity, who is Truth itself, alone draws us ever more surely into the truth that sets us free. We cannot claim powerlessness before the onslaught of propaganda. We must, like Solzhenitsyn, make that uncomfortable move into the sobriety of truth and not participate in lies. If we do this, we will push against the tide of propaganda and, bit by bit, make 2021 into an Age of Truth.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Thank You for Your Mercy that forgives us of our sins and draws us into eternal life. Thank You for the gift of Your Holy Spirit, Who is our Consoler, our Advocate, and Your Love poured out through Jesus. Immerse us, dear Father, in Your Love. Immerse us in Your Truth. Forgive us for the times when we have taken part in lies, when we have made enemies of our neighbor, and for the times when we drank in the world’s ideals and allowed them to replace Your Truth in our hearts. Grant us Your Wisdom, Father. Helps us to see the Truth and grant us prudence in living the Truth. Grant us a right courage, not a bombastic spirit. Grant us true boldness, and not self-righteousness. Grant, we pray, true hope, hope that relies on Your Providence. Help us to bow to Your Truth and to live it always. Clear our minds of the noise of this world. Let us know and experience the deep and abiding freedom that comes from Your Presence. Let us taste that bliss of Heaven. May it fill us with a peace beyond our understanding. So that, even when the world shakes, we stand strong, we stand firm, and we look forward with assurance that You steady our steps. Come, Holy Spirit and cleanse our hearts from impurity, sin, pride, greed, hatred, anger, fear, and lies. Fill us with Your fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). In You, Holy Spirit, is our true liberty. In You, Holy Spirit, is our surest renewal. Come, Holy Spirit, through the most powerful intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Your well-beloved spouse.