By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Being mindful of how we are seen
Placeholder Image
Thursday, when Mexico beat France with two less-than-usual goals, five of us California priests were seated at dinner on the coast of Italy with a fellow cleric from Montpellier. With his heavy French accent, he’d clearly vented his dissatisfaction for his native country’s team.  Apparently, they live like princes but behave in a very different way.  Hearing him disown his own players, I promised the Lord to take his criticisms to heart, in hopes that I’d never have to hear the same from Jesus at the end of time.

Yet there we were, six priests seated directly below the flat screen high-definition live feed of the game between France and Mexico.  Since we five (and the two other companions that had returned home that morning) work with many Mexicans, we felt it our solemn obligation to root for that team.  Our French brother’s declaration gave us all the more confidence.

However, there were a great many other people in the restaurant, and it appears that all of them sided with France.  Discretion was definitely in order.  I remembered how, the previous Saturday, a huge screen had been stationed in the central park of Padua.  There for the annual feast of Saint Anthony, following the evening mass and dinner, we eight had walked into the park just at the moment that the United States scored.  Cheering loudly, we suddenly shut up as the gaze of a hundred British sympathizers turned our way.  “Are there hooligans here in Italy?” I asked our Frenchman.

Not hearing the answer, I remained behind for the interminable second half while my brothers returned to the hotel.  It soon surfaced other Americans were imbedded in the crowd.  Still, with the light fast fading and the numbers of young Europeans steadily increasing – some with what looked like alcohol in paper bags – we Yankees just kept our silence.  I was able to watch from right up front, among those potentially explosive young people, resolved to keep my mouth shut, even if my team were to score.

But no, on Thursday, when the star Mexican booted the ball high into the path of his fellow teammate, even as he fell backwards inside the goalie box, we couldn’t contain our joy.  Then, was it not the same athlete who, having barely escaped an off-sides call, singlehandedly (or single-footedly) outsmarted the French defender and left the ball dead-center in the goal?

We spontaneously stood up and yelled, “Meh-hee-co!”  Silence followed.

Our words seemed to splat against the walls and collapse, like a soccer ball gone completely flat.  Turning toward a French-looking couple dressed in black behind me, I said, “Ex-cooz-eh-moah!”  They didn’t look impressed.

Perhaps all this is why the United States, despite two valiant goals, only managed to tie the game again on Friday afternoon (Italian time, that is).

This doing-well-but-not-quite-well-enough might be saving a lot of U.S. citizens abroad or among other national groups a lot of physical hardships.

Watching Mexico beat France, I felt sad that, in so many situations of life in this world, the success of one person, or of one group, often requires the sacrifice of another.  This competitive character of getting ahead can be a great benefit, if one group dominates another unjustly. Look, for example, at the inspiring image of Nelson Mandela walking among the members of his own country’s team.  He who had spent 27 years in prison, once freed, became the first president of the new South Africa.  Even if his team would suffer humiliating defeat, they could still take pride in hosting the games.

The other extreme is war.  On Memorial Day in Lathrop, we’d heard the story of a minister who’d served in Vietnam as a chaplain’s assistant.  He suffered post-traumatic syndrome for over thirty years afterwards, nearly ruining his marriage.  That same day, I heard via radio the heart-wrenching story of the horrendous battles to regain the South Pacific in 1945.  Now, in Europe, in one war-ravaged area after another, we would stop from time to time to pay our respects at cemeteries, memorials, and commemorative churches.  In fact, the morning we left the majestic Italian Alps, where we had travelled by train and by van to hike in the famous Dolomites, I packed slowly in order to watch a documentary on the victory in Italy of the Allies.

The Allied victory in Germany and Italy was portrayed as a positive event, but part of the film’s purpose was to show the cost among civilians of war.

I would stop from time to time to watch footage of the British bombing campaign, which at times blanketed entire cities with 500-pound bombs.

The testimonies given by former American soldiers regarding their role in World War II was also deeply troubling. “It was kill or be killed,” one vet admitted.  “They would keep fighting until their last breath.  More than one kind-hearted Yank was taken out by a grenade detonated by a Japanese he was trying to rescue.  We had to become just as savage as they were.  Once the war was over, it took years to get back to normal, and some never did.”

Between the extremes of little-league sports (which themselves nowadays can become pretty traumatic) and global wars, societies live on and interact for better or worse in a continual interplay of losers and winners.  Our goal ought to be always to create a world in which the win-win model prevails, more and more, over the competitive world view.  Until that day comes, we who have often been on the dominant side need to be aware of others.

At the age of eleven or twelve, I picked up a small paperback book at my friend’s home.  Its title intrigued me: The Ugly American.  Not having the confidence to ask his parents what the title meant, I assumed, at first, that it was a story of a fellow citizen who simple looked bad.  But later I figured that it must have been a commentary on the international reputation of my people.  Having been bothered by images of the Vietnam War and of many other things that were going wrong in the United States, I began gradually to realize that we were not necessarily the world’s heroes.  The children’s books of middle-class white kids in suburban Centerville now yielded, bit by bit, to a more realistic, though certainly more painful, self-examination.

So, ironically, as we hear American contemporary music played everywhere we go, and hear the praises still of President Obama, we have learned to be more discreet.  As Fr. Matthew keeps pleading, “Don’t yell so loud.  We’re standing out like any other noisy Americans.”  And even though we reply, “Look: we’re in Italy.  Noise is the rule here!”  we know that he is right.
Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton, From Riomaggiore, Italy.