Eucharist & Culture (March/April 2021)

Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books

Film Review

Kirsten Johnson USA, 2020

By John Christman, SSS

Death comes to us all. Just how it will come is a mystery. Will I die in a car accident? Will I die from cancer or some other illness? Will I slowly diminish and die in my old age? Most of us likely avoid these questions, preferring not to delve too deeply into the specifics. We are people of faith and we trust in God’s promised gift of resurrection, but the stark reality of our own death may be something we wish to avoid pondering.

No so for Richard Johnson and his daughter Kirsten Johnson. Their film, “Dick Johnson is Dead” is a documentary of sorts that explores the death and dying process. However, it does not do so in an abstract or distant manner. Instead, it follows the real life of clinical psychiatrist Richard Johnson as he experiences the increasing effects of dementia. Kirsten, a successful and critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, proposed this film project to her father, and he accepted. What ensues is an intimate and creative engagement personalizing the death and dying process that is completely their own.

Many adults embrace caring for an elderly parent. This can be entered into in a number of ways: as a responsibility, a task, an opportunity for deepening a relationship. Kirsten Johnson embraces this not just as an opportunity for deeper relationship but as a creative project for her and her father to explore some of life’s great mysteries together. The specificity of death and its related fears are part of this. So, Kirsten and Dick record multiple death scenes in which they imagine ways he might die. Some are almost cartoon like, with an air-conditioner falling from the sky and landing on his head. Others are more anxiety filled, like slipping and falling down a staircase alone in one’s home. These sequences bring death more into the present, where it can’t be swept under the rug. And yet, they take some of the fear away, and offer little moments of humor as father, daughter, and film crew meticulously and self-reflectively enact these scenes.

Also helpful in lifting the weight of Dick Johnson’s dementia and decline are images of hope and encouragement. Dick is a Christian and faithful member of his religious tradition. This allows Kirsten and Dick to creatively imagine some of the heavenly joys to come after his death, such as being reunited with his beloved wife. Kirsten likewise gives her father the gift of attending his own funeral through the magic of cinema, which is cathartic not only for father and daughter, but for the entire community of family, friends, and church members.

Yet, even with all of her directorial creativity, Kirsten can’t avoid some of the most challenging moments in the relationship between adults and their elderly parents. One poignant scene captures the conversation where Kirsten tells her father that he can’t drive anymore. Dick, often jovial and good-natured, breaks into tears at the news. He knows the bigger meaning of the conversation and it’s heartbreaking to watch. It’s moments such as these, more than the fictional enactments, that reveal the challenging truth of the journey father and daughter are on.

With descriptions such as these, one might be hesitant to watch this film as one is likely hesitant to ponder such realities. But that would be a loss, because art can be a truly life-giving and transformative gift. Dick Johnson is Dead offers this gift not only to the viewer but to father and daughter. It not only sheds light on the death and dying process but illuminates the love and joy still to be had while sharing the journey of life together.

Book reviews

By Jeremy Driscoll, OSB
Liturgical Press
Collegeville, MN
US $19.95
144 pages

The repetition of celebrating the Paschal Triduum and Easter season can become so familiar it’s too familiar. These many months of the COVID pandemic made us realize the importance and value of communal celebrations of the Sacred Triduum. A fresh perspective upon the readings of these sacred liturgies can be found in Benedictine Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mount Angel Abbey (Saint Benedict, Oregon). Abbot Driscoll does justice to this topic in a concise and masterful 144 page book that explores these sacred liturgies (see page 34).

Six chapters organize this liturgical exegesis, from Holy Thursday through Pentecost. Driscoll’s reflections aid our reading of the words of paschal mystery celebration and Easter (see page 4). They are a welcome overview to awaken us to the meaning of these events. Driscoll focuses on important aspects, such as “baptism means plunged,” and how we should truly take the rituals quite seriously as we celebrate them, allowing their symbolism to give meaning to our lives.

A second edition would give the opportunity for further explanation of key terms and concepts in English, (Passover/pasch and death/new life). Missing from Holy Thursday celebrations are the presentation of the holy oils and mention of the Elect of God and their dismissal. This absence might be attributed to the fact that these rituals are not done at monasteries, but are part of regular parish life. Editing titles to match the Roman Missal would help with clarity as well. Also missing from the Good Friday liturgy is the “prayer after communion” and “simple blessing/prayer over the people.” The book omits the Easter Day Mass Sequence which is a wonderful poetic piece that would have given Abbot Driscoll some time to reflect, since he’s done a poetic job with other pieces of the liturgy. He also does not comment on the Pentecost Sequence.

These foibles do not detract from Driscoll’s reflections on each of the gospel narratives, which are priceless. See page 110 for the “dance” with scripture that he writes. It is also the first book that I’ve encountered from the modern era that gives reflections on the Easter octave. This adds to the unfolding of the mystery of the Easter season.

On page 139 Driscoll says, “Throughout this book I have claimed that the proclamation of sacred scripture in any given liturgy is a revelation of the event of that liturgy in the concrete community that is celebrating it. It is a revelation of the feast.” Driscoll’s wisdom and liturgical knowledge are worth experiencing. Sadly, his work ends abruptly, with just a brief comment about the communion antiphon for Pentecost. This text could be strengthened by having a liturgical prayer, an appendix, and bibliography to give further illustrations to the meaning of why we celebrate with renewed vigor these holy days.

John Thomas Lane, SSS, Pastor and Liturgical Consultant
Saint Paschal Baylon Parish
Highland Heights, OH

Brian Y. Lee and Thomas L. Knoebel (eds.)
Liturgical Press
Collegeville, MN.

At a time where the evangelical logos is most needed, God set as leader of the Catholic Church an ordinary man deeply concerned with the value of humanity in all its realities and ongoing challenges. This edited version of Brian Lee and Thomas Knoebel’s Discovering Pope Francis designates the figure of a pope unlike any other before, in bringing forth not an age of change but rather a change of age, in and through an ongoing encounter with Christ.

This work contains the contributions of many intellectuals and theologians, all called together in a spirit of dialogue to share about Pope Francis. The book is structured in a way so as to give gradual knowledge and insight into the personality of Pope Francis, from his Latin American roots to his encounter with the Western reality and culture. It also stands as a vital contribution in the understanding of the theological roots of his Pontificate.

In fact, this symposium does not consist merely of biographical data, but rather of a vast study of his roots, thinking patterns and views on matters theological and ecclesial. It also illuminates his dynamic pastoral care and missionary spirit. We cannot get the flow of Pope Francis’ thought if we do not perceive him as a pastoral-minded servant of the Lord working in the challenges of the here and now. It is noted that the “sensus fidei” and the “sensus fidelium” come to the scene in Francis’ pastoral theology to respond to the needs of the entire faith community.

The nine chapters of this book draw close attention to Pope Francis’ desire for a dynamic living and witnessing Church that gets out of it’s safe zone and sets out to minister to the most vulnerable in every society, race, culture, and nation. For being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Therefore Discovering Pope Franciswhom we really do not know in the way that we think we do, gives us new insights into his theological, pastoral and spiritual perspectives.

From a critical point of view, the book will certainly provide prudence in interpreting the media’s presentation of Francis, often without much knowledge of his roots, both Latin American and Ignatian. Instead one finds in his perspective a considerable positive and effective influence of great theologians such as Hans Urs Von Balthasar or Luigi Guissani.

This displays the rich vision of Pope Francis’ journey and the profound heritage of catholicity in rediscovering Christ through Pope Francis’ humility and love for the Church and the entire faith community around the globe.

Rev. Louis Demba, SSS
Sri Lanka

Gregoire Catta SJ
Paulist Press
Mahwah, NJ

The title of the book is very interesting and thought-provoking. In what sense is Catholic social teaching theological? Guided by a research question of this sort, this book, rich in its content, tries to investigate the path from social ethics to theology and shows how the relationship between the two can be envisioned. The study clearly demonstrates how the former contributes to the latter, and not merely how the latter is a source for the former.

In this scholarly work, Gregoire Catta focuses on a few post-Vatican II papal social encyclicals, namely Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis, Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate, and Francis Laudato Si. Obviously, particular historical challenges and specific world views adopted by the popes shaped their ethical reasoning and political priorities for action. This book does not merely address social, political, and economical issues, but points to the mystery of the saving God, demonstrating how we can encounter and understand God through social issues. The author states that “Catholic Social Teaching is not merely a matter of reversing a logical deductive movement but rather of making a case in favor of a solid hermeneutical spiral. When considering theological expressions of faith, ethical discernment and practices, there are constant interactions among the three.” Therefore, the book gives an ethical guideline to express our beliefs and becomes a source for Christian ethics.

Catta addresses various social, political, and economical issues and tries to offer Christian ethics a theological flavor from the point of view of “the mystery of God for us.” He then gathers theological insights collected from these encyclicals and uses them to reflect on broad theological questions such as: How do we understand the role and the centrality of historicity for theology? How do we articulate within a theological anthropology the individual and social dimensions of the human person or the call for personal conversion and for structural changes? How do we balance different approaches to the mystery of Jesus Christ from above and from below? These questions are addressed through the three theological themes: methodology and style as theologically significant, theological anthropology, and Christology.

In my eyes, this book tries to build a bridge between social ethics and theology rather than emphasizing one aspect at the detriment of the other and in this way Catta opens multiple ways to encounter the “mystery of God for us.” It would be a wonderful reading and learning experience especially for students of theology in their study on social doctrines, offering newer perspectives.

Thilina Lakshan, SSS
Sri Lanka


The Adoration Chapel

The Chapel is locked–
after midnight you must press
the code Star 333 to enter.

God’s home tonight on the altar:
blue candles for his mercy;
red for his suffering.

He is here to listen
to your hurts, your doubts,
to soften  stinging  memories,
to bind up your wounds.

He is also here to  speak
words so special, so understanding
that only your heart
and your soul can hear them.

He is preparing you for a journey,
but don’t worry about clocks or
mileage; your destination is before you.

He has brought a flight of angels
to keep you company in his chapel.
They are your prayer partners tonight.

Philip Kolin

adoration time during covid-19 time
advice to a spiritual directee

the church is closed

and i miss the face to Face, he said

then he added,

it is my most intimate time with Him . . .

i told him, this Absence is a gift

so why not offer this gift

for someone who has no faith

to see the Face you long to see

Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

lent: the prophet

we will try again this year to hear you
clothed as you are
in purple, ashes and the penance of letting go
for forty days you roar
at the dry rivers of our lives
so we will try to truly hear the stories:
a prodigal son, a woman at a well, a blind man who sees
the ones that long for us to hear
one simple thing
come back to such extravagant tenderness called home

Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

About Various Authors