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He was not on the syllabus when I was a young Franciscan student of Philosophy sixty years ago.  I knew the adjective derived from his name but not the man nor his writings, and decided, as an emaciated ascetic (compared, at least, with my present excess baggage) to find out what his famous Pleasure Principle was all about.  Of his 300 works, only three letters have survived, not exactly a weighty oeuvre.  Then again, doctoral theses have been written on assorted pre-Socratics, whose oeuvre sometimes consists of one-liners like “Girls on the right, boys on the left” and “In some cave water drips”.

Epicurus’ brief  “Letter to Menoeceus”,  written about 300 B.C., sums up his philosophy : “Pleasure and Peace come from Freedom from Pain and Fear”.  That’s it !  He has some interesting things to say about the gods’ indifference to us, the absurdity of myth and the nothingness from which we came and to which we shall return.  But essentially he is saying that to be happy we need to avoid pain in our bodies and banish fear from our minds.  Next ancient Philosopher please !

The poor guy did his best to explain thunder and lightning, comparing at one point the former with rumblings in the gut, and seeing the cause of the latter in clouds rubbing against each other (not bad, really, for someone who had never heard of electricity : it is, in fact, bits of ice in the top of clouds bumping into each other which produce the electrical charge).

Why do we attribute importance to “philosophers” like Epicurus, why do we waste our time with “thinkers” who came up with outrageous, fanciful, pre-scientific, banal attempts to make sense of life and the world we live in ?  There is nothing particularly earth-shattering in Epicurus’ Pleasure Principle, but he was the first to spell out what most of us consider obvious.  He took the existence of gods for granted, but as they kept pretty much to themselves, he did not waste his time with theological speculation.  Others, unfortunately, did.  The trouble is that while we consider many of the ancient philosophers’ insights as self-evident, many of us swallow the fantasies of the founders of religions as ultimate, revealed truth.  I can live with banality.  I find it harder to stomach superstition.




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I’ve got good news and bad.  You want the bad first ?  Lourdes is sick.  Just ten years ago, the miraculous spring revealed by the Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 attracted each year 800,000 pilgrims.  Today it’s 570,000.  The good news is that the competition is thriving.  Since 2012, Fatima and Compostella have seen the number of their visitors increase by 50% while Lourdes has lost 30%.  Fatima, celebrating this year the centenary of Mary’s apparitions to three Portuguese kids in 1917, today attracts 250,000 visitors,  increasing every year, as numbers dwindle in Lourdes.  The French sanctuary, which is completely independent of the commerce of kitsch for which its streets have always been (in)famous, has suffered from myopic mismanagement.  Meantime, in just a few weeks, rival Fatima will get a windfall of extra cash from record-breaking crowds of pilgrims, when Pope Francis attends the centenary celebration in May.  Updated marketing, including “Lourdes for Lovers” (officially a St Valentine “Weekend pour les Couples”), along with certain austerity measures in personnel management, will, the local Bishop hopes, stop the rot in Lourdes.

“Schadenfreude” for Lourdes’ plight would be misplaced, as would be rejoicing in Fatima’s mounting success.  But it looks as though the younger Portuguese competition for Marial business is better equipped to exploit its credulous clientele.  The site of the Sun stopping still (!) is just 100 kms from Lisbonne, its church is the fourth largest Catholic church in the world, and its candle business is much more efficient and profitable than Lourdes.  On the other hand, the French Railways no longer provide special trains to cater for bed-ridden invalids seeking miraculous cures in Lourdes.  The French site is suffering for another, more serious, reason.  When I lived in the Franciscan parish friary in Paris during my doctoral studies, the Friars ran a lucrative business organizing pilgrimages to the Holy Land (a Franciscan stronghold), but also to Lourdes.  There were, at the time (the sixties), 50,000 priests in France and many parish-priests organized similar pilgrimages for their parishioners.  Today there are only 15,000 members of the French clergy, many of them too old to accompany and guide such groups, but also too busy trying to minister not to one but to several parishes, with no time left for Lourdes.

But the Pilgrimage Business has a bright future ahead of it.  It provides the Catholic equivalent of trips to Disneyland, without the rides.  The 1000-year old monastery of Mont Saint Michel is still popular not only for tourism but as a place of pilgrimage.  It has Saint Michael the Archangel as its patron.  Disney has Mickey.

                                              RIDENDA      RELIGIO



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Here in France many people, especially the 10% out of work, are, as usual, hoping  they can make it financially till the end of the month.  Among the 50% of us who pay taxes, not a few are wondering how they are going to pay their next tax bills.  A fortunate minority, including me, and not only the filthy rich, are financially comfortable enough not to have such worries.  They are more concerned about keeping their jobs (or their pensions), avoiding burn-out (or dementia), and being at a safe distance when the next terrorist commits the next mass-murder.

Some are concerned about all those immigrants flooding into France and other wealthy countries in Europe.  They are not worried FOR the immigrants but BY them, about the burden if not the threat they represent (some of them at least, Trump would claim, must be terrorists !).  “Re-establish borders, refuse entry the way Hungary does, send them back to the war-zone.  Charity begins at home.  We’ve got enough problems as it is.  As a respected French Prime Minister once said : ‘France cannot take in the misery of the whole world.’  Hey, I’d like another beer.”

I recently saw a movie entitled “Indian Summers”.  The title referred not to unusually warm days in Autumn but to the laid-back life of Brits who had decided to confiscate the sub-continent.  It portrayed how the British in the 19th and 20th centuries lived in luxury in this pearl of the Empire, while the vast majority of its Indian population lived in squalor, unless they were employed as servants (“boys”) of the foreign ruling class.

The Haves and the Have-Nots.  It was ever thus.  The former often owe their good fortune to their exploitation of the less fortunate, and, naturally, are dedicated to the status quo.  (Some even claim their “divine right” to their privileges.)  But there have always been others who fight for equality : equality of opportunity and of human rights, beginning with the right to have enough to eat, a place to live, a job to provide for one’s family, an education for their children as well as their and their own health care.  In India Gandhi gave his life to the cause of justice and the emancipation of his people.

Every day we see unbearable evidence that the world, including India, is still far from Gandhi’s dream, as the U.S. is still far from Martin Luther King’s.  Many of us feel we should do something to help eradicate poverty, to feed the hungry, to stop the wars and to care for their refugees.  The Pope, and many Catholic parishes, have offered accommodation and assistance to a tiny, token fraction of the immigrants fleeing war-zones and poverty.  We feel guilty and ashamed of our own indifference – or refusal – to give of ourselves and of our substance to our fellow human beings, whether abroad, at our borders or begging in our own mean streets.  We may admire “Doctors without Borders” and the activists of other NGOs, but content ourselves, at best, with an occasional, tax-deductible, miniscule check.

Atheists or non-atheists, we all face a problem of conscience – if we have not already anaesthetized it.  Whatever the source of our motivation, our very humanity obliges us to allow poverty and injustice to challenge our innate selfishness.  The degree of our unselfishness will depend on whether or not we believe in liberty, equality and fraternity – universal values which we either allow to remain just a slogan or ideals which give meaning to our human condition.  God does not help those who help themselves.  But God help us if we do not help others.  A selfish world is not only short-sighted but ultimately suicidal.

Am I my brother’s keeper ?  My three brothers are all dead, as is one of my three sisters.  But Christ told us that our neighbors are our brothers and sisters.  I live in a semi-detached house.  My immediate neighbor, on the other side of the wall we share, lives alone like me.  She is five years older than me, which makes her 85.  She has already had a couple of falls, so her daughter has given me the keys to intervene should her mother need help.  It’s not much, but it’s the least I can do – until I myself need a neighbor to be his brother’s keeper, or at least watch-dog.  No man or woman should be, unless they prefer it that way, an island.




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Facebook fluff reserved for cute kittens, playful puppies and beautiful babies !  Women – never men – use the epithet to talk among themselves about clothes, or even about a member of the opposite persuasion, oozing with sex-appeal.  We say that all these things and persons are worthy of adoration but of course they aren’t.  Strictly speaking, the word means “to worship as divine”, “to idolize”.  Religious people practice adoration but never seem to realize just how irrational it is.  Nothing, no one, is worthy of worship.

We express respect in all sorts of ways : silence, bowed heads, smart, stiff military salutes, the clicking of Teutonic heels, making the upper part of Japanese bodies horizontal, the doffing of headwear.  Rare today, the curtsy or the full body-bow or even one-kneed kneeling were marks of respect reserved for greeting royalty.  No one kisses the Pope’s slipper any more, though His Holiness has never complained, like Roger Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect !”.

So why do believers kneel in churches or prostrate themselves entirely in mosques ?  Why do Orthodox Jews rock back and forth as they recite their prayers at the Wailing Wall ?  Why do they all keep telling God they adore Him ?  “O Come All Ye Faithful . . . Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord !”  The baby Jesus is not only cuddly and adorable like every newborn, but He is the Lord, the Son of God, literally adorable because divine.  His Father’s Ten Commandments begin with two insisting that we adore no other gods besides Him, nor even make a graven image of them, let alone “bow down and serve them” : “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”  His “Chosen People” believed what the man Moses had made up on the mountain, took his commandments as the words of God, and have been frightened into adoring Him ever since.

It is extraordinary – though we are so accustomed to it that we never think of it – that rational human beings could not only be cowed into believing that such a God exists, but that they should reserve for Him unique marks of respect and reverence.  We bow, kneel and prostrate ourselves : we make ourselves SMALL to  proclaim that God is GREAT !  Or, maybe, as when bullets start flying around us, we duck for cover, to reduce the surface area of the targets we have become; God, divinely fast on the draw, could zap us on the spot.  In both cases we act out of fear, not love.  No one is afraid of the Queen of England.  Her subjects (apart from some descendants of colonial Irish rebels . . .) love her, acclaim her in the streets, bow or curtsy if they have the privilege of meeting her.  They do not adore her.

Believers adore the object of their primitive myths, a non-existent No Body dreamt up by hallucinating prophets, soothsayers and witch-doctors.  Extraterrestrials, if ever they land on our planet, will quickly conclude that we are stark raving mad.





I can’t expect people to believe these things happened.  I myself find the stories pretty hard to swallow.  But not only would most doubt their reality; they are probably devoid of interest to anyone but myself.  So why tell you about them ?  To get you to realize that your life too has had its special moments – of joy, of sorrow, of terror, of bewilderment, of the unexpected, of the almost unbelievable – moments we treasure because they happened to US.  You may have experienced similar events in your life.  But the lives of each of us are as unique as our fingerprints.  No one besides me has ever had all these things happen to him or to her.  For what they are worth, here are some of them :

I was coming home from work in Paris in a suburban train.  Just out of the Gare du Nord, the tracks pass between high-rise apartment buildings where almost every window was lit up.  It was well after the rush-hour and most people were already home finishing dinner.  There were only a handful of people in my carriage.  Suddenly an explosion !  The man sitting next to the window and facing me had his face splattered with blood.  Someone in a high-rise had taken a random rifle shot at our train.  The bullet hit no one, but it did smash the window, sending multiple slivers or glass into the face of my unfortunate fellow-passenger.

I was pedaling as fast as I could to get from school to the park for our weekly sports afternoon.  My brake handle slipped off the handle-bar and fell into my front wheel.  The abrupt stop sent me hurtling over the handle-bars on to the road, right in front of the local hospital !  A passer-by picked me up and carried me inside where doctors patched me up and sent me home.  The next day at school, with bruises all over my face and arms and with a still aching shoulder, I was caned for not turning up for the rugby match.

I could tell you about my all-expenses-paid week in Rio, my preaching in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, my 1966 encounter with a U.S. Air Force general at Ramstein air-base in Germany, telling him why I disagreed about the war raging in Vietnam, the shooting of my short World War 1 movie in the Somme, my “dialogue” with President Chirac, my arrival in 1968 in the U.S., where we were to live for ten years and raise our children, with forty borrowed dollars in my pocket.  But as a former priest, I guess the most extraordinary and happiest events in my life were my marriage with Marie-Claire, the birth of our three children and the day I declared myself an atheist.  A cocktail like that is without precedent, and after my death will never be experienced by anyone ever again.  Not a world-shaking series of events, but it was MY life and I’m glad to have lived it.  And, as the man said, it ain’t over till it’s finished.  Yesterday I made my second movie, this time with Amy.  Three months from now I will be discovering the Great Ocean Road in my Terra Incognita on the other side of the world.  By then I will have published my 600th post in this Blog.  And that’s just the beginning of my life as an octogenarian.






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Ian Caldwell took ten years to write one of the most intriguing, erudite and surprising novels I have ever read.  “The Fifth Gospel” is the story of two priests, both sons of a Greek Catholic priest who worked in the Vatican.  Simon switched to Roman Catholicism, was ordained a priest, and became a Vatican diplomat.  His younger brother, Alex, remained in the Eastern Rite, got married, was also ordained, and after his wife left him raised their son alone.  He too worked in the Vatican as a professor of Scripture in a “pre-seminary” for young boys destined for the priesthood.

Their story centers on the research conducted by an Italian scholar, whose study of Tatian’s  “Diatessaron”, an ancient document which presented not only the so-called Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but all four Gospels, including therefore John, allowing readers to see at a glance the similarities and differences in the accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, seemed to confirm the authenticity of the famous Shroud of Turin.  Revelation of the errors in the radio carbon dating conducted some years ago, accompanied by the discovery of ancient texts describing an image of Jesus kept in the Turkish city of Edessa for centuries before the Shroud appeared in France in the thirteenth century (see our earlier posts :  search “The Shroud of Turin”), added weight if not proof to the validity of the veneration of Jesus’ burial-cloth.

At times I wondered whether some of the novel’s readers would persevere in following the detailed analysis of the Gospel texts, and especially of the argumentation concerning the unique characteristics of the fourth Gospel, which thorough exegesis reveals to have been far more “theological” than historical.  In fact, the author shows how the Gospel attributed to John does not hesitate to invent alleged “events” in the life of Christ to drive home a theological statement of faith rather than to record historical events.  It is this realization that leads the researcher to question and finally deny the authenticity of the Shroud : “John” invented certain details in the Passion narrative which contradict the Synoptic accounts, using cryptic references to the Old Testament to affirm the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus.  The unidentified “Beloved Disciple” in John’s account is a literary creation, as is the account of the piercing of Jesus’ side.  This last detail suggests that the blood-stain of such a wound on the Shroud indicates that it is not the cloth in which the corpse of Christ was supposedly wrapped.

The novel provides also a fascinating insight into the relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic versions of Christianity, and Pope John Paul 2’s determination to reunite them.  One has to admire the skill of the author in exploiting such themes in this gripping, credible, fictional novel.  Even more fascinating, perhaps, is what seems to be an insider’s view of life in Vatican City, the intricacies of Canon Law and even the procedure for an ecclesiastical murder trial of one of the novel’s protagonists.  Readers of this Blog, in particular, will be surprised to find in a novel such erudite food for thought concerning the authenticity of the Shroud, and indirect confirmation of the plausibility of my own hypothesis about the creation of this supposed “relic” of the Crucifixion, if not the Resurrection of Christ (see my post, “Wowed by the Shroud”, October 26, 2015).




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In many places and for many people, it already is.  As I write this, Monday afternoon April 3, 2017, CNN has just interrupted its programs with the Breaking News about the attack in the metro of St Petersburg.  As with every such attack, terrorism like this is already unbearable for the victims and their families, for the traumatized survivors and for the communities involved – and, in varying degrees, for the rest of us, stunned once again by the arbitrary choice of target, knowing that the next attack could very well be, literally, in our own backyard.

But it’s been a whole month (!), (a whole week ?), since the last bombing.  Our present level of “tolerance” is destined to decrease.  It is not yet a daily occurrence, except in war zones like Irak and Syria.  We are not yet terrorized to the point that we fear to leave our homes, and when we do, would do so in fear and trembling.  It could well be even that attacks do not need to become more frequent or even closer to home for us to reach such a level of rage and frustration at our impotence to prevent these random assaults, that we give in to the temptation of the witch-hunt, rounding up the usual suspects, presumed guilty until proven innocent.

I can’t help thinking of the incarceration of Japanese in California during World War 2.  I can’t help thinking either of when I was a kid in Sydney in the first years of the war.  I don’t know if there were Japanese in Australia at that time.  But there were Germans.  Our next-door neighbors, the Müller family, I was told, were “taken away” by the authorities.  I never found out the full story.  But both of these “precautionary” measures, in the States and in my own country, in World War 2, make me wonder how long it will be before we start locking up other families who live in our neighborhoods today, people whom we see every day, whom we know and who may even be our friends, people we identify as Muslims.  They are no more terrorist, extremist, Salafist, fundamentalist mass-murderers than we are.  But you never know.  So just to be on the safe side . . .

An over-the-top analogy occurs to me.  Imagine some right-wing extremist Catholics whose anti-semitism leads them to dynamite synagogues and Jewish schools (there is, of course, little danger of this ever happening).  The temptation would be to condemn and confine not only all Catholics but all Christians, including Protestants – whether they are anti-semitic or not.

Moderate Muslims not only condemn – not loudly enough, it is true – radical Islamism, but are often its first victims.  Some of us know – and we all should – that Daech (ISIS)’s objective is to foment Islamophobia among non-Muslims to the point that moderate Muslims are provoked, for their self-protection, to join the extremists.  They are, however, as innocent as the non-anti-semitic Christians, Catholics and Protestants, of my analogy.

The most astute of the analysts of terrorism, and of the way to eliminate it, agree that military might alone is not the solution.  We are facing a tyrannical, fanatical, suicidal, murderous, pathological ideology which can be fought and annihilated only by people who share the Muslim faith with extremists.  Only they can hope to convince their co-religionists that the Koran’s “sword-verses”, calling for the assassination of “infidels”, must be seen as anachronistic, out-dated and inapplicable in the modern world.  Non-Muslims have zero credibility; our arguments are rejected out of hand by advocates of the Caliphate and Charia law.  We should encourage and support and offer whatever assistance we can – in financing a media-blitz, for example – to moderate, non-extremist Muslims who alone can prevent the Armageddon that awaits all of us – before terrorism becomes, in fact, unbearable.


P.S.  Friday April 7 :  We began the work-week with the St Petersburg metro, we end it today with Stockholm and its weaponized beer-truck.  An unprecedented frequency in terrorist attacks, getting us closer to the unbearable ?  In the interval we had in Syria Assad’s chemical attack and Trump’s 59-missile reaction against the plant and airport that launched the attack.  Russian feathers have been ruffled.  Is anyone in charge ?  God obviously is not.  That leaves Trump and Putin but also the rest of us, whose challenge I spelled out in the above post’s final sentence.

Palm Sunday, April 9  :  Now the Copts have copped it – again – in Egypt !  What a way to begin Holy Week, with no Easter in sight . . .



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Many people are afraid of death.  Some are afraid of the dead.  This latter fear can take many forms.  The mysterious, top-secret burial somewhere at sea of the remains of Osama bin Laden, allegedly to prevent visits to the martyr’s grave, the prohibition until recently of the publication of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, motivated by the fear of the attraction it could still hold for antisemites and neo-Nazis, haunted houses, vampires, ghosts, the “living dead”, zombies and other superstitions, are still seriously believed by some who never grew out of their childhood fears of the boogeyman.

Studies by archeologists of human bones dating from the Middle Ages in Yorkshire, and research published by Historic England and the University of Southampton, are believed to reveal not only fear of the dead but mutilation of corpses to prevent them from walking and harming the living.  Cannibalism has been ruled out : “the cut marks were in the wrong place for butchery”, says the article in today’s “The Guardian”.

I could not help thinking, as I read the report, of my discovery in a Basque Catholic cemetery of the chains covering one of its tombs.  You can see them in my photo on this page.  I have suggested that this is evidence of a more recent conviction that the dead can be dangerous, and for reasons other than threats to public health from decomposing corpses.

Spooky movies can be fun.  Side-shows at country fairs and rides through dark tunnels where deathly wailing is accompanied by the sudden appearance of talking skeletons and rotting cadavers lunging at us as we get our money’s worth of thrills, frighten the kids and amuse the adults.  But it seems that religious credulity about the afterlife, devils, demons and ghosts, has led some people to fear that the dead really can harm us.  When we say “May they rest in peace”, are we praying that they stay where they are and not return to scare the bejeebies out of us and punish us for our misdeeds towards them ?  Guilty consciences can produce strange fantasies in the minds of the gullible.




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Years ago the Beatles scandalized the world by claiming to be better known than Jesus Christ.  Even today Paul McCartney, made even more famous by my rewriting of his “When I’m Sixty-Four”, is still what we used to call a universal household name.  I’m prepared to bet that most Eskimos and even some tribes living in the depths of the Amazon jungle (what’s left of it) would know who he is.  But they – and 99.9999999etc% of the rest of the planet – have never heard of ME !  So what ?, you say.  Well, I’m jealous, that’s what !

My shrink, of whom no one has ever heard, has tried hard to get me to realize that it don’t matter a damn, man, whether I’m famous or not.  That’s all right for him, deservedly unknown except to his equally unfamous if not infamous patients, whereas (capitalized and in bold) . . .

What makes us crave for those fifteen minutes of fame ?  And how do you define “Fame” anyway ?  Name recognized by 10,000 or 1,000,000 people ?  What does it matter, after all ?  Some people try to assassinate Presidents just to get their name in the paper.  Terrorists don’t mind dying so long as they are revered as martyrs.  The need for recognition is indeed a curious trait.  As with money, some already famous people, like Oliver Twist, keep asking for more.

Take Trump, surely one of the most famous, if not THE most famous contemporary celebrity in the world.  “The” Donald is the third celebrity in world history to be given the definite article, like “The Chè” and “The Don” – coincidentally another Donald.  What did you say ?  Come on, you must remember Australia’s greatest cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman !  No ?  “Sic transit gloria mundi” !

I have finally discovered how to console myself for the fact that I have lived eight decades totally unknown, and will shortly disappear without even a State funeral.  You can find the answer in your daily news programs or newspaper or weekly magazine, if you still read the Press as well as this Blog – or more likely in the social media.  You see, the news is filled with not only “famous” people but even more with politicians, actors, sports men and women, criminals and authors of whom you have never heard up till now.  THEY have never heard of us.  So we’re quits, right ?

It’s as easy as that.  Nobel Prize winners, Olympic champions, brilliant scientists, profound philosophers and genius bloggers have names we discover and very quickly forget, as others step in to replace them in the limelight of the evening news.  We call them stars but in fact they are fleeting comets.  So what does it matter, at the end of the day moving forward, if we – like, for so long, the Terra Incognita I come from – remain unknown ?

That’s all well and good for you, perhaps.  After all, you really are a nobody, whereas I, Frank O’Whatshisname, alias Uriah Heep . . .  I still hope my name will one day appear in the Parish Bulletin, posthumously no doubt, as the other Voice Crying in the Wilderness.

P.S.   It’s April Fool’s Day.  I couldn’t resist.

P.S. 2  :  I left out “La”Callas and “The” Bard.  Three, as in the Trinity, is a nice number.







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(Fifth post in four days – this being the second on the same day !  I’m impressed.)

When Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a South Boston Irish-Catholic drug-lord and rackets-czar, multi-murderer, IRA weapons provider and America’s most notorious gangster since Capone, was finally captured in 2011 after sixteen years on the lam, he was condemned, at age 81, to two consecutive sentences of life-imprisonment.  The remarkable 2015 movie, “Strictly Criminal”, in which Johnny Depp brilliantly incarnates the fascinating master-criminal, does nothing to confirm the cliché “Crime does not pay”.  Au contraire.

Bulger got away literally with murder and lived his long retirement from crime very comfortably, under changing identities, with money stashed away in safe-deposit boxes in England and Ireland and across the U.S.  Finally arrested in his Santa Monica apartment, he had $843,000 hidden in the wall.  But his curious, long-overdue prison sentence raises a question : did his judge believe in Jimmy’s resurrection or reincarnation ?  I’ve heard of Double Jeopardy but never of double life-sentences.  I guess the judge, frustrated by Jimmy’s age, was saying that he deserved more punishment than the law could inflict.  Indeed, it is difficult to make “the punishment fit the crime”.  Like years in Purgatory for being late for Mass and eternity in Hell for missing it.  You better believe it.

                                                   RIDENDA      RELIGIO