Greg Maddux, Jesus Christ and the Sword of the Spirit

In the Church’s eternal wisdom, the feasts of Easter and Pentecost fall around the start of baseball season. Some might be tempted to pass this off as “coincidence,” but I tend to favor providence in this matter. My favorite baseball memory occurred on June 10, 2005. The Cubs were playing the Red Sox and Greg Maddux took the mound against Bronson Arroyo. Now, you should understand that Greg Maddux is my favorite ball player of all time. I witnessed him dominate on the North Side in his early years, shared in the bitter-sweet glory of his championships in Atlanta and welcomed him home in a triumphant return to the Windy City.

On this day, Greg Maddux not only won (obviously), but he hit a home run, which used to be very rare for pitchers. It was the bottom of the sixth inning and I remember seeing the ball hit his bat and I immediately rose to my feet with both hands raised as the rest of Wrigley sat and chatted. No one expected it because frankly, Greg Maddux was an awful hitter; he could lay down a bunt with the best of them but anything more than a single was a once in a season type moment. Eventually, and it seemed like forever, the ball barely fell in the basket and the stadium erupted.

The reason why Greg Maddux is my favorite player has nothing to do with his bat, but his masterful pitching. You may think that meant that he threw a lot of strikeouts, but while he fanned his fair share, Greg Maddux pitched to contact. He had a mean sinker that made players want to swing only to ground out and into double plays. He wasn’t afraid of the batter swinging; in fact, he welcomed it — it was his whole dang plan.

When I read the Gospels, I see Jesus on the mound dealing just like Greg Maddux. He doesn’t avoid contact or conflict. Instead, he seeks it out. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple as a baby, the prophet Simeon proclaimed, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Lk 2:34). Conflict is Jesus’ vocation. As an adult, he confirms this when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). That’s the Jesus I’m throwing out there on Opening Day and you can bet the house that we’re coming home victorious.

That is truly our Jesus, our Head, our Savior and our King. Have we made him into something else — someone, perhaps, a little quieter? Gentle? Not as offensive? I know I’m guilty of doing so in the past, but whatever I made him into isn’t who he is and always will be. As we are built up by the Mass readings from Acts this Easter, and as we approach Pentecost, I’m calling on every man and woman of good will to reconsider who Jesus really is.

We are people who were born to achieve peace by way of war. If not, why did Jesus bring a sword? Was it to mount on our wall and only reference when we speak of Church history? St. Paul speaks of Christians receiving the Sword of the Spirit in Ephesians. I believe that the Lord is offering us a new sword this Pentecost. But like every gift, you have the choice to receive it and use it, or not to. We need to take a good, hard look at ourselves as a Church. Scripture says that, “David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (1 Sam 17:48). I know there is no shortage of Philistines, but are you running toward them to conquer?

I love listening to the bridge of “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher during Easter. The lyrics, quoting St. Paul are, “Oh, Death, where is your sting? Oh, Hell, where is your victory?” I look out on the world and see the sting of death and the advancement of Hell all around me. I also see the grace of God abounding in miraculous and overwhelming ways. So, my question to us is: Church, where is your sting? Christ has proved victorious; are we willing to call down the reign of Heaven in the face of Hell? If you are, join me in this prayer:

Lord Jesus, you are my King. Give me boldness and courage to proclaim your Gospel in the public square. I give my life to you again today. Release your Spirit and your Kingdom in me Lord, that I might exist for the praise of your Glory. Amen.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”