Interview with Fr Mitch Pacwa – Full edited version
By David Schütz
Friday 16th July, 2010
On Friday 16th of July, 2010, I caught up with Fr Mitch Pacwa S.J. via phone hookup in Sydney. Fr Mitch is a host on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in the USA and author of a number of books. He was in Australia as part of the Catholic Forum’s “The Fullness of the Truth” program.
Fr Mitch, tell us what are you doing here in Australia?
What I’ve been doing is giving a series of lectures on a variety of topics. For instance I spoke to the university students at the ACSA Conference in Albury about the problem of atheism, and why atheism is illogical. So that was one thing. And I’ve also been speaking at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Melbourne, about dealing with secularism, a talk I also gave to some of the priests here in Sydney. Then I’ve been speaking in some of the Eastern Rite Churches, the Melkite, Maronite and Chaldean Churches, about some reflections on Islam, on some difficulties we might have between Muslims and ourselves.
Have you discovered anything about the place of Islam in our society in Australia that might be different to you in the States?
There’s a big difference from when I was here in ’94, [when] I did not see anything of a Muslim presence here. Now I see a very, very active and upfront Muslim presence, especially here in Sydney and there’s stores everywhere where the signs are in Arabic, there are certainly plenty of [Arabic] Christians here, but there are also a large number of Muslims. Just last night, I stopped to get something to eat, and there were a husband and wife, and the wife was wearing the full burqa, so this is something that is a new experience for me. We in America as well as in Australia, are certainly engaged in a conflict with Muslims, I mean, you have experienced terrorism among your citizens, the Bali attack being one, but also the fighting that you are doing in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
And that is certainly going to be a situation of tension with your Muslim community as it is with ours. You know, they, Muslims, tend to see themselves as part of the Umma, which is the whole Muslim community, rather than say, Pakistani, or we are Indian, or we are Arab or Saudi, or Egyptian, making themselves part of the larger Umma. That identity with the whole Muslim world has a very high value. And so the fact that there are Australians fighting against Muslims is certainly going to be an issue of tension with your Muslim community as it is with ours.
At the same time there is a defensiveness, because a lot of Muslims say “Well we’re not at war with Australia or with America”, but there are Muslims who are. And so this is a double kind of difficulty, that, you know, how to integrate if you are a Muslim, how do you integrate where you are a part of the Umma, your part of the Muslim community, yet you are also a part of your civil society. That tension is just amazing, a difficult one to maintain because it is hard to critique a fellow Muslim who is engaged in Jihad, that’s very difficult when someone is trying to be in a Jihad, you don’t have the authority to criticise. Some will go ahead and do it anyway, I know Muslim who do, but other Muslims will hesitate to critique. I mean, this is a tension for them.
I don’t know how the rest of Australian society will deal with it. All I can say is this, I certainly experienced a tremendously strong interest in what I had to say about Islam. People said “Tell us more about it.” That was yesterday when I gave a talk, they wanted to know even more about Islam. So that indicates that there is a desire to understand the Muslim mentality and the Muslim religion.
You’re best known here in Australia because of EWTN. How did you come to be working for EWTN? Tell us a little bit of your personal history.
I was doing my doctorate in Old Testament at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and while I was there, I heard an anti-Catholic sermon on the radio, so I complained to the station manager, who said, “Well, I can’t change what they put on there, but I can have you on a live calling show and you can respond to the criticisms.” So that’s what I did, and they enjoyed it so much that they kept asking me to come back and eventually I got my own radio show on a Protestant radio station! They called it “A Catholic View of Scripture”. Then, the president of EWTN, who was also from Nashville, Tennessee, where I was living, heard me and saw me and so he invited me to come down to be on Mother Angelica’s program. That was back in February 29th, I remember it very well, because it was Sadie Hawkins day, in 1984. She and I hit it off immediately, and she kept inviting me back to do television series as well as live appearances on her program. And I have been making programs there ever since, the last 26 years. In 2001, as a matter of fact, it was on the morning of 9/11, Mother Angelica had a major stroke. She wanted someone to sort of help carry the shows with her. So I got permission from my superiors on December 22nd. Two days later she had a cerebral haemorrhage, and so she couldn’t do the shows any more, so since I was free, I was able to come and do the programs.
That really fits with the whole Jesuit apostolate, doesn’t it, in the [area of] education?
Exactly. You know I’d been an educator for a number of years. I taught high school for four years, and university for 16, and so I had that background as a teacher, but this is another kind of classroom, where the students, if I bore the students, they can just turn the channel!
How do you gauge the impact of EWTN on the status quo of Catholic life in America?
One of the things that EWTN does not do is, you know, consult the ratings. We don’t worry about it. But I travel a lot around the United States, giving lectures in different parts of the country. People come up all the time and talk about the impact of the network. The approach we take is neither to go for a conservative Catholicism nor for a liberal Catholicism, but what I like to call painting-by-numbers, stay-inside-the-lines and enjoy-the-picture kind of Catholicism. We want to teach what the Church teaches, without veering off to the right or to the left. Now that’s been the key of our success. Since1968 catechesis began to decline in quality, so many adults who are in their thirties and forties are watching the Network because they want to fill in the gaps, and they are learning not only about the catechesis, but they’re learning history, scripture, Church documents – it becomes a very wide ranging catechesis.
You’ve also started your own production team, Ignatius Productions. What is the aim of that?
EWTN focuses on programs in the studios, whereas Ignatius Productions tries try to do documentaries in the field. We raise money, we video tape in the Holy Land and other places, and make that available to the audiences at EWTN. We’ve done a lot of videos for not-for-profit organisations. For instance, some doctors recently hired us to do a video on the medical, scientific and moral problems with in-vitro fertilisation. They’re doing it as neo-natal caregivers who see the children from in-vitro fertilisation having serious medical problems. So we did a video with them, talking about the science and as well the morals of the situation.
I know that you have a special series on the Reformation coming up. Why was this seen to be an important subject?
The [500th] anniversary [of the Reformation] is in 2017. I am very concerned about what a deception will be perpetrated by the secular media. They will use the anniversary of the Reformation as a way to attack the Church, and this is typical of the way that, for instance, I just saw a notice that there’s a movie coming about called “Die Päpstin” [“Pope Joan”], its about a female pope, and this is a myth! It’s all myth! And they’re presenting it as history. The Da Vinci Code was a classic example of the kind of absolute falsification of history that they pass off as real history. This is nonsense. So I wanted to have something that is solidly, historically, and to present the real story of the Reformation to the best of our ability.
We’re trying to consult scholars, and not apologists. Like, one of my old professors who has been on the Lutheran Catholic dialogue for forty years, his great line is “You Lutherans can tell us what Luther means, but I can tell you what the text says.” And that’s his goal, you know, what the text actually said, not what the people might like to interpret it as. So that’s the kind of scientific objectivity that I’m looking for.
Your book on the “New Age” movement is one of the widest and best known here. Some Catholics attend yoga classes but decide to meditate on Jesus as a way of not entering into any other faith belief. Is this possible or safe?
I was practicing Yoga, ‘cause I got into the New Age movement myself, and when I would practice Yoga, I would take the different exercises, the different positions, and Christianise them. For instance, there’s one that’s called “The Tree”, and I would reinterpret that as Christ is the Vine and we are the branches. I would do that with a variety of different things, but the danger that I saw was that I still was trying to attain a state of consciousness within myself rather than relate to the person of Christ. And that’s the difficulty. Yoga is orientated toward emptying your mind, so that you become nothingness. The goal of Yogic religion is that you dissolve as a personality into nothingness, and that’s not a Christian goal. The goal of Christianity is union with the person of Christ. So that’s going to be a standard problem. I could not practice Yoga and try to seek union with Christ. I had to give that up and seek that union rather than the state of consciousness that I was doing with Yoga.
Is it possible that trying to attain a “state of consciousness” in yourself isn’t a bad thing, it just isn’t the Christian goal?
I would say that it is a bad thing, because emptying yourself has a series of psychological problems with it. There has been a series of studies, 85 studies, of transcendental meditation where the goal is to empty your mind and get into the nothingness. And in those 85 studies they’ve shown that it leads to depression, disassociation from your personality, and depersonalisation, the three standard results of using transcendental mediation as a way of trying to empty yourself. So that sends up a lot of red flags for me.
You are fairly familiar with the Middle East. You’re Polish in background, and yet you are “bi-ritual” with the Maronite Church? How did that come about?
When I was teaching Hebrew, I began to study Arabic, because of the cognates between the two. Already I had begun to study Aramaic at graduate school. A friend of mine invited me to the Maronite Parish in Dallas, Texas, because the pastor was newly from Lebanon. He didn’t speak English very well, so we worked out a great partnership. He would preach in Arabic and I would preach in English. I understood the liturgy because I knew Aramaic and Arabic. There was one sermon that he gave in Arabic and I preached after him, and I said to the congregation, “Now, what Abuna was saying was this this and this, and his second point was this this and this, and his third point was this this and this.” And Abuna is looking at me at me with eyes like saucers at Abuna Mitch and he said to me “Now you know too much Arabic, and you’re getting dangerous!”
What can you tell us of the experience of Christians in the Middle East at the moment?
It has been a very difficult situation. It depends on the country. In Jordan it is very peaceful, and the Christians are at peace, they’re not harassed at all. In the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there’s a problem. On the one hand, the Christians are trying to stay out of the conflict, but the Israelis can pressure them, so Christians started leaving Bethlehem. Bethlehem was, used to be, you know, the vast majority were Christian. Now they’re a small minority, because they don’t want to endanger their families. Most of the Christians study Arabic, Hebrew, English and French, at school, so it’s easy for them to leave ‘cause they’re multilingual. In Lebanon, there’s a bit of problem because of the, first of all, the civil war that they had, and they were affected by Hezbollah, and the war with the, especially with the Shi’a Muslim community, and the Syrian community. And so that was one problem. And then the pressure of Hezbollah being financed by Iran, it’s been another problem. So the pressure on Christians in Lebanon is to leave. I’ve also had contact with a lot of Iraqis, I’ve not actually been there yet, but I have a lot of contacts with Iraqi Christians, and it’s horrendous what’s going on with Al-Quaeda, and there’s various Iraqi branches, I don’t think the Shi’a so much, but the Nationalists have also gotten into this, a bunch of criminals, they are persecuting the Christians horrendously. The Christians are not armed, they’re not trying to be a fighting force, or against anybody, and therefore they become easy victims. Christian children, girls if they don’t wear the headdress and all, they’ll have acid thrown in their faces. The Archbishop of Mosul was martyred, along with his deacons, and a variety of other killings have gone on against the Christians. There’s no excuse for any of that. Absolutely unacceptable behaviour. And it’s done both by radical Muslims and by the radical Nationalists. They’re not promoters of Islam, but just secular.
One of the other places is Egypt. In Egypt there are a number of people who are converting to Christianity, however, the persecution is horrendous and Christians are being killed with impunity. There’s a virtual impunity. Well, in Morocco and in Algeria, there is for the first time a large scale movement of conversion from Islam to Christianity, and in sub-Saharan Africa, there is between six and eight million people a year becoming Christian from Islam. So it varies from one place to another.
What would you see as some of the big issues that are impacting on the Church at the moment, which nevertheless Joe and Mary Catholic, average pew-sitters, can do something about and actually be involved in?
The chief things that have the most impact on average Catholics in our society are, one: Secularity of the Culture. The culture has strong forces, especially in the media, who are trying to drive religion out of the public discourse. They often times do so by deceiving people with the idea that religion is the biggest cause of war. So let’s remove religion. Whereas when you look at the 20th Century, the biggest cause of war has been secularism. World War One was started by nationalists. World War Two by secular, by racist nationalists. And the fascist and Nazi parties and then the empire of Japan. The Communists killed 63 million of their own people. More people were killed by Mao Tse Tung – they think anywhere between 70 million and 200 million – were killed by Mao Tse Tung in China. So what you have is governments like Pol Pot killing half of his own population. Secular governments are turning on their own population and killing huge numbers of people. So secularism is in fact what is the real danger, not religion.
One of the things that all Catholics can do is an increased boldness about incorporating their religious life into every aspect of faith. Don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by secular minded people. Tell them to back off. We’re going to be Christian, and I’m going to pray when I go to a restaurant, I’m going to take my family to church, I’m going to teach my children their religion, and I’m not going to back down in the face of pressure from secularism to accept their values of material and consumeristic society.
That would be one thing. The second thing is in terms of family life. There is an incredible breakdown of family life. I was watching on one of the morning news shows here in Australia how people are not getting married at home with their family and friends, they’re going off to destinations and getting married by themselves and then maybe having a party when they come back. Well this is nonsense. It is an indicator though of the breakdown, the unimportance of family. It’s all about us. We’re the centre of attention. We’ll do what we want for our own sake, and for our pleasure, that’s what our marriage is about; instead of building up a family. And average Catholics have to do a number of things. First of all: really work hard to build their families up, and that’s going to be by working together, living together, and playing together, recreating together, and praying together. All of these have to be part of our family life. Secondly, they have to pass on to their children how high a value family is, and that it’s not about you, just you, it’s about you in the context of a wider community called the family. And the building up the family is something that every single individual can work hard to do and not allow society to promote the radical individualism that breaks down the commitment to one another, but rather to see that everyone is in this together, and that we are going to do our best to build up our families.