Center City skyline

I was in Washington today for a conference, and arrived back in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station just after 7pm. As I left the main doors of the station a wave of warm summer air hit me, and the still-lit city sparkled with life.

Spur of the moment, I decided to text a friend and we met up shortly after for a run past the Philadelphia Art Museum at Fairmount, and then along Kelly Drive behind Boathouse Row. Since neither of us had our wallets on us, we were grateful for Apple Pay that let us eat dinner at Whole Foods afterwards.

That’s it; just sharing some highlights of a day’s experiences. It was just one of those “perfect summer evenings” that sticks in your mind when you think of summertime in the city.

Freedom without relationships

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput recently wrote in advance of next month’s Napa Institute. He quotes two great thinkers, and I’m sharing those quotes and a bit of Chaput’s thoughts:

[Charles] Péguy once said that “Freedom is a system based on courage.” We’re never truly free until we have the courage to accept the idea that truth might actually exist outside and above ourselves; and then have the courage to seek it and live it.

Freedom isn’t license. A large menu of equally bad or meaningless choices is not freedom. Freedom is the ability to see what is right and the character to choose it. That’s why freedom requires courage. Freedom and truth always have a cost. They always place obligations on our behavior. And those obligations always remind us of our relationship with others – with other people, and also with God. The freest person is the person who can see the world and himself honestly in the light of truth, without fear or excuses or alibis. Honesty is hard. But honesty is the beginning of humility, and humility is the beginning of sanity.

“Freedom isn’t license. Freedom requires courage, because it always has a cost in terms of our obligations to others,” to paraphrase. This passage reminded me of an old understanding of the knights and chivalry of the Middle Ages, which was that if you looked over the entire society, it was the knights who were most free despite their service and obligations. They were the most free specifically because they were the ones who chose to live a life of service, whereas a peasant or a local lord was stuck in the sense of being born into something and serving only those inherited and basic and unending duties. The important thing to notice was that even though the knights lived a much freer life, they weren’t abstractly emancipated from their countries or neighbors in the modern way that we have become free and independent individuals of the sort that Yuval Noah Harari describes. What good is freedom without relationships?

[Henri] Bergson once wrote that “The motive power of democracy is love.” For democracy to work, it needs to be powered by something more than the sum of everybody’s opinions and appetites. The kind of “love” that Bergson meant is sacrificial. It’s much more than a warm feeling or a habit of kind thoughts. It demands that we judge our own and other people’s behavior by a hard standard of justice.

Democracy requires the kind of love that places the common good above personal comfort or individual appetite. And the “common good” is never just a matter of people’s material needs. The common good is always about what best serves the well-being of the whole person and the whole of society. In other words, it always has a spiritual foundation in the truth about human dignity. Without that spiritual foundation, society – to borrow a thought from St. Augustine – is just an organized gang of thieves.

We tend to think of “human dignity” as the state where our will is satisfied that our personal good is fulfilled. This is self-referential thinking that leads nowhere. Peter Lawler’s writing on the notion of human dignity having emerged from the older idea of human beings possessing a “noble” character is a place worth starting if you’re interested in reading and thinking more on this.

An evangelizing voice

Only 15-17 percent of self-identified American Catholics attend Mass.

In other words, more than 80 percent of Catholics have functionally no communal faith experience. And that lack of practical experience of Christianity means that the vast majority of American Catholics possess very little understanding of Christian teaching, let alone frequently encounter Christ in scripture.

What makes most Catholics identify as Catholics? Probably our cultural sense of Christianity and a nostalgic feeling for the faith of our childhood.

There are two other “80%” numbers that relate to the situation of American Catholicism: 80% of Catholic youth leave the faith by age 23, and 80% of U.S. Catholics like Pope Francis.

What do these numbers suggest? I think it suggests an indifference to Christianity. It suggests that a huge number of Christians have never experienced authentic Christian community, or encountered Christ in a tangible way in their lives.

Where might we go from here? I think the most important takeaway is that too much of Catholic thinking on “social media” (aka the internet) is focused on preaching to the choir. While we certainly need to feed the hungry who are with us, we should be thinking and speaking with an evangelizing voice in general—with particular sensitivity to the overwhelming majority who aren’t familiar with the faith in a deep way.

This means speaking clearly, speaking sacramentally, speaking with a warm heart, and speaking with receptivity to those who don’t understand the language of Christ.

Speaking with an evangelizing voice might require that we abandon old ways of doing things.


Mount Nittany Conservancy refresh

Shortly before the release of Conserving Mount Nittany a few years ago, I volunteered to refresh the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s website.

It was a somewhat cumbersome refresh, because I was moving lots of content (100+ posts and dozens of pages) from a manually created HTML/FTP context to a more flexible and self-hosted WordPress context. The site we launched is the fourth below—each of the first four screenshots below is courtesy of from the years 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2014:

What we launched in 2013 was good for its time and introduced a lot of new things including a responsive design for mobile devices, but showed its age more quickly than I hoped when we launched it. So I spent some time earlier this spring moving everything from a self-hosted WordPress context to for greater stability, more security, and an overall more robust platform that requires only basic consumer technical experience.

What’s now live is the fifth major refresh of the Mount Nittany Conservancy site, and the second I’ve done in the past five years.

I hope it introduces Mount Nittany to residents of Happy Valley and visitors in a welcoming and exciting way.

BugPAC’s victories

I was happy to see that my friends at BugPAC in State College were able to celebrate last night after the Pennsylvania primaries. Three of BugPAC’s four candidates survived primary season and will appear on the November general election ballot, though Michael Black will be appearing as a Republican after falling to Don Hahn in the Democratic primary last night. Evan Myers and Dan Murphy will appear on the Democratic ticket for borough council spots. BugPAC can also celebrate an incredible increase in voter participation among Penn Staters, which is worth celebrating in and of itself:

With a surge of absentee ballots cast in the primary election Tuesday, BugPAC may be on its way to fulfilling its slogan of reclaiming State College. The political action committee, with strong ties to Penn State, has campaigned to secure the Democratic nominations of candidates who aim to “make State College more inclusive” of diverse residents.

In 2015, only 30 absentee ballots were cast in the Borough of State College for the municipal primary, according to Centre County election coordinator Jodi Neidig. That number is up to 193 this time around. With most students away on summer vacation, BugPAC has worked over the past few months to register and equip voters with absentee ballots. “For a primary, that’s exceptionally high,” Neidig said.

Every vibrant college town should have a BugPAC of its own.

‘History of Penn State’ course

A few years ago a number of students and alumni came together with a vision for a new course at Penn State—specifically a course on Penn State itself. After years of friendly pushing and relationship-building the course is almost here, and Penn State News has spotlighted the course:

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A course examining the history of Penn State from its founding as the Farmers’ High School in 1855 to its evolution as one of the nation’s leading research universities will be offered for the first time this fall.

History 197, “The History of Penn State,” will chronicle and evaluate changes that have taken place at Penn State over the past 160 years and explore them in the context of larger historical and socio-economic developments in American higher education during that time. In particular, the course will study the conduct, leadership, and educational vision of notable Penn State presidents, faculty, alumni and coaches; dimensions of student life (including student protest); race and gender relations; athletics; and the challenges of University life, research and admissions in the post-World War II era.

“The History of Penn State” grew out of discussions with several Penn State alumni who serve on the board of the Nittany Valley Society (NVS), which works to “cultivate appreciation for the history, customs, and spirit of the Nittany Valley.”  NVS Board member Steve Garguilo, 2009 alumnus in information sciences and technology, provided financial support for the course through the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment.

“This course has been a long time coming,” notes Michael Milligan, Penn State senior lecturer in history, who created and will be teaching the course. “Using Penn State as the backdrop, I want students to be able to analyze and interpret significant developments not only in American higher education, but in American history as well.”

I hope to sit in on this course this fall. I hope it becomes one of the great courses at Penn State. I hope it stays a part of the available curricula for generations.

The first class offering has 49 seats, and as of today roughly half those seats have been registered. Here’s how it appears in Penn State’s registration system:

The course description reads:

This course examines in a selective fashion the history of Penn State. The time period extends from mid-19th century origins as the Farmers’ High School to the multi-faceted, modern research university of the early 21st century. The course will study the conduct, leadership and educational visions of notable Presidents and faculty; dimensions of student life (including student protest); race and gender relations; athletics; and the challenges of university life, research, and admissions in the post-World War II era. The Penn State experience will be examined in the context of larger historical developments in American higher education, student life and attitudes.

The course will take a distinctly historical angle: with emphasis placed on chronicling and evaluating change over time and thoughtful consideration of a diversity of voices and perspectives. A wide variety of primary and secondary readings will be assigned, and students will write several papers (including a short research paper). Undergraduates of all majors are welcome.

Philadelphia architecture

I snapped this earlier this week walking to the train from my office. It’s just off the Ben Franklin Parkway, and you see the Comcast tower on the left. I’m not sure of the name of the building in the middle. The building with the balconies is called The Windsor, I think.

This scene stood out to me because it captures three eras of Philadelphia architecture in one scene. You see the early 21st century on the left, the late 20th century on the right (maybe the 1970s, specifically), and probably the early 20th century in the middle. It reminded me of Broad Street Station. I grew up hearing stories about it from my grandmother; it was built in the 1881 by Frank Furness, and it was a Center City masterpiece. Peter Clericuzio shared this watercolor of Broad Street Station from the Athanaeum’s exhibit, information on the exhibit below:


The introduction of railroads in the 1830s initiated a revolution in the development of American industry, land use, and social patterns. The new technology challenged the nascent American professions of architecture and engineering to create entirely new building and structural types to meet railroad needs— passenger waiting stations, bridges, train sheds, repair shops, grand downtown depots, and even bedroom suburbs. For more than 100 years, Philadelphia’s most important designers met this challenge, including William Strickland, Thomas U. Walter, John Notman, Theophilus P. Chandler, the Wilson Brothers, Frank Furness, Horace Trumbauer and Paul P. Cret. This exhibit features drawings, prints, photographs, and manuscripts that document how these Philadelphia architects and engineers transformed not only their own city, but much of the American landscape.

Broad Street Station was demolished in 1953, just three years after my grandmother graduated from Penn. It was a part of her life for her first ~20 years, and then it was gone. Replaced with far worse architecture, in the same bargain that destroyed New York’s Penn Station and replaced it with what’s there at present: a corrosive force on public life and anyone’s experience of entering the city. That’s what Suburban Station’s underground chambers do today in Philadelphia. We still have 30th Street. Jefferson Station isn’t terrible.

Something I learned recently was that the Spirit of Transportation in 30th Street was just one of four grand reliefs that were a part of Broad Street Station. I suppose the other three were probably destroyed, but I wonder…