Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Second Century of War Begins

When Pope Saint Pius X died, one hundred years ago today, Europe was already at war. The "Great War," as it came to be called (World War I, as it is known to us now), had just begun a few weeks earlier. It pitted the two ambitious rising powers, Germany and Russia against each other. Russia had as allies France (always looking for revenge against Germany), Belgium (whose neutrality Germany had violated in order to invade France), and Britain, the pre-eminent world power which had traditionally tried to maintain some sort of balance among the European powers. The kingdom of Italy was at that point still neutral, which was fortunate facilitating the attendance of cardinals from both sides of belligerents at the conclave that would quickly elect Pope Benedict XV. Of course, the politics of war were very much in evidence at that conclave. When German Felix Cardinal con Hartmann, Archbishop of Cologne, greeted Belgian Desire Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, he is supposed to have said, "I hope that we shall not speak of war." To that, Mercier is supposed to have replied, "And I hope that we shall not speak of peace."

Pope Saint Pius X's centenary comes one day after the 2000th anniversary of the death of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Augustus was the one who, having defeated all his rivals and consolidated Rome's power over the entire Mediterranean world, made possible the famous pax romana, which is celebrated in the Roman Martyrology's famous entry for Christmas, which dates the birth of Christ in the 42nd year of the empire of Octavian Augustus, when the whole earth was at peace.

Rarely, of course, has the whole earth ever really been at peace! Thomas Hobbes's famous image of "the state of nature" as a state of "war of all against all" may never have existed historically. What it is in fact is a symbol of what  is usually the case is in the absence of an effective power to maintain peace.  In civil societies, the State's sovereign power supplements the communal bonds that make society. In international relations, however, such bonds are lacking or at most very fragile, and there is usually little effective community and no sovereign power to supplement it. International peace presupposes either that everyone has been conquered by a single empire powerful enough to maintain peace within its confines (Augustus' Caesar's Rome) or else that a precarious balance of power can be maintained among competing international actors, which in turn usually requires some sort of Great Power policeman. Such was Britain's role in Europe in the century prior to World War I. Such was the role of the United States after World War II and again in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

Such arrangements, however, do not last forever. Rome's power declined and with it the unity, stability, and peace of the ancient Mediterranean world. Britain could not permanently check the rising power of Germany and Russia that turned a conflict between Austria and Serbia into a world war. And the United States today seems increasingly lill inclined to exercise the leadership role it not that long ago assumed as its inevitable role in the world.

International organizations obviously cannot effectively substitute for Great Power leadership. In the absence of Great Power leadership, whatever temporary stability and peace there is eventually tends to unravel. Thus, the worldwide century of war which began in the summer of 1914 seems likely to continue into another, second century.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Legacy of Frequent Communion

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the pastoral pope who initiated the reform of the Roman liturgy beginning in 1903 with his attempt to restore Gregorian chant and culminating in 1911 with his thorough reform of the ancient Roman Breviary. But by far the most influential of his liturgical reforms in the lives of ordinary people was his promotion of frequent Communion and the admission of children as young as 7 to their First Communion.

By the mid-20th century when I came along, First Communion for children was already the norm. (I made my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955 - at age 7 - preceded by my 1st confession the previous day.) All reforms have unintended consequences. Thus Pius X's reform of First Communion left Confirmation all by itself, if anything even more out of sequence, a problem which continues to bedevil contemporary Catholic life. (I was confirmed two years after my First Communion, on September 22, 1957, at age 9. Nowadays, the situation is often much worse, with Confirmation not taking place until sometime in High School - or, increasingly, never.)

As children in Catholic school, we were socialized in the new culture of frequent Communion. New Year's was an exception, of course, because we stayed up late the night before and so ate after midnight; and in the 1950s still no one went to Communion at funerals. But. apart form such exceptions, I and my generational cohort typically went to Communion every Sunday. This was not yet the case with most adults, however. Apart from the ultra-devout who went daily, there were the men of the Holy Name Society who went to Communion (and presumably confession the day before) on the second Sunday of the month and the analogous women's sodalities that had their specific "Communion Sunday." And there were also those who were committed to the 9 First Fridays and the 5 First Saturdays, devotions which had as a major goal getting people to Communion at least monthly. Most other adults, however, went only occasionally - e.g., Christmas, Easter, the annual Parish Mission. With the mitigation of the Eucharistic Fast in the late 1950s, however, this whole state of affairs gradually began to change. In time, Communion came to be distributed even at funerals! (The Kennedy family famously went to Communion on national TV at JFK's funeral Mass in 1963.)

In the end, Saint Pius X's hope became reality, so much so that today hardly anyone doesn't go to Communion at Mass. (Of course, a much smaller percentage of Catholics are attending Mass today than did so then!) On balance, I believe the practice of frequent Communion has been a great benefit to the Church and has nourished the spiritual lives of countless individuals growing in personal holiness. Nor should it ever be forgotten that Communion at Mass also corresponds to the plain sense of the liturgy. The prayers of the Mass always assumed Communion, even if for centuries hardly anyone actually communicated except the one who actually recited the prayers - the priest celebrant himself. In the 20th century, when laypeople started reading the Mass in translation in their missals, it became hard not to notice the obvious sense expressed in the liturgical prayers.

But again there have been all sorts of unintended consequences - not least a certain routinization of Communion. It has become one more thing that (almost) everybody does at Mass, so much so that in many places children and non-Catholics join the Communion line also and ask for a "Blessing." This curious custom clearly suggests that participation in the Communion procession is now quite highly valued, something people don't want to be "excluded" from. And it seems to me to be no accident, therefore, that the larger debate about divorce and remarriage (a complicated issue beyond the scope of this discussion here) is often reduced to the question of access to Communion.

So there is some legitimate anxiety about whether we have routinized Communion too much. In some ways this is a very new problem. There has probably never been any period in the Church's history when almost everyone went to Communion - except perhaps at the very beginning, but those would have been very small and very spiritually intense groups that assembled in a home or wherever for Mass. 

A good case could be made, I think, for restoring the 3-hour fast before Communion - not too much for it to be too burdensome, but enough to highlight the seriousness of what one is doing. Of course, moving from laxity to greater strictness - unlike the reverse "reform" - is always difficult. How well such a change might be explained - let alone how well it might be received - might argue against it as a practical matter. Sill, it would seem worth considering.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Joseph McSorley and his Friends

Wednesday will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Pope Saint Pius X, the pastoral pope who reformed the Roman Breviary and initiated a general reform of the liturgy and a restoration of gregorian chant, who encouraged frequent communion and allowed children to receive their First Holy communion at an earlier age, and who also pronounced the famous condemnation of Modernism (Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907).

I just recently finished reading William L. Portier's Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States (CUA Press, 2013), a look at the Modernist crisis and its aftermath through the lens of two pairs of fairly prominent American priests - the Josephite John Slattery (1851-1926) and Bishop Dennis O'Connell (1849-1927), and Paulists William Sullivan (1872-1935) and Joseph McSorley (1874-1963). After already noteworthy public careers as Catholic priests, both Slattery and Sullivan abandoned both the priesthood and the Catholic faith during the tumultuous first decade of the 20th century, while O'Connell and McSorley remained faithful to both the priesthood and the Church - McSorley remaining active into the early 1960s. Since two of them were Paulists and all had been influenced, indirectly at least, by Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (photo), I naturally found their stories particularly compelling. 

"Modernism" is an elusive concept. As Portier emphasizes, it is "an outsider term," not a self-identification. Nonetheless, it refers to a real phenomenon in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Catholicism in both Europe and the United States. Portier approvingly quotes Edward Schillebeeckx, who in 1964 called Modernism a failed effort to overcome neo-scholasticism's emphasis on unmediated objectivity or "conceptualism." He agrees with Schillebeeckx that what "Modernism was unable to solve - that is, the problem of the relationship between experience and concept - has continued to be a theological issue until today." 

Portier's book also challenges the so-called "phantom heresy" school of American Catholic historiography. He wants his readers to re-enter a very different era and recover the distinctly American and creative theological atmosphere of the "Americanist" period prior to Pascendi. It is Portier's contention that one consequence of a failure to do this has been that "after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theology in the United States became an overly dependent colony of Europe." 

Those are all interesting and important issues. But what engaged me personally about this book was its treatment of the four priests and what their stories have to say to us today. The hero of Portier's account is Paulist Father Joseph McSorley, who not only outlived the others but remained active long after the period associated with the modernist crisis. McSorley remained an active and faithful priest, devoted to his ministry, whether it was ministering to a generation of Italian immigrants at Saint Paul the Apostle parish in New York, serving as spiritual director for Dorothy Day, writing on Church history, serving the Paulists as Superior General from 1924 to 1929, or - most especially - continuing and promoting the spiritual legacy of Isaac Hecker. As Portier summarizes McSorley:

"Though shaken by successive trials, McSorley's religious center in the Hecker tradition was never moved. ... McSorley chose to stand in history, especially the history of the traditions of prayer he inherited from Hecker. ... He was an historian who prayed. Many, like the young Dorothy Day, who read his books, attended his retreats, or sought his direction learned to pray from McSorley. ... McSorley had recourse to the church's mysterious power to make saints. ... To read Mcsorley's works on prayer is to recognize in the Hecker tradition, with its reliance on [Jean Pierre de] Caussade and Louis Lallement, an American variant on the turn to the mystical and the recovery of [Francois] Fenelon's contemplative ideal during the modernist crisis. ... Driving McSorley's work as an historian was his desire to bring the entire Hecker tradition, including its spiritual dimension, into the twentieth century in purified and usable form."

I first encountered McSorley's wisdom when I was applying for admission to the Paulists in 1982. It was then the custom to give applicants a copy of McSorley's wonderful little book Isaac Hecker and His Friends (original version 1952), which is still perhaps the best introduction to Hecker's spirituality and religious significance. It tells not only Hecker's story but that of the early Paulist community. It is not a complete biography by any means. For a fuller biographical treatment of the many details of Hecker's long and interesting life, one does well to consult other sources that offer a more complete chronology. For example, David O'Brien's Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (1982), the only complete 20th-century biography, recounts the story of Hecker's life in far greater detail. But, however useful for their biographical information, those other publications also have their limitations. In my opinion, among published sources, McSorley's little book continues to do the best job of introducing Hecker's holiness to an American audience. Accordingly, I like to return to it periodically. Perceptively, Portier praises the book as "primarily a book for the Paulists and secondarily for the American church. ... It reconnects the founding of the Paulists with Hecker's hopes for America's conversion."

Prior to his formal opening of Hecker's canonization cause, New York's Edward Cardinal Egan wrote about Hecker in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York. Summing up Hecker's greatness and relevance, Egan called Hecker "a man of the Church." He most certainly was that in the sense that he devoted his adult life entirely to building up the Catholic community in the United States and striving to share with his fellow-countrymen the inestimable gift of faith, which he himself had received at the end of his spiritual search.

In yet another important sense too is Hecker "a man of the Church." Writing about Paulist Father Walter Elliott, who was perhaps Hecker's closest disciple, Father McSorley (in Isaac Hecker and His Friends) quoted from the Paulist Superior General's words at Elliott's funeral - a sentiment expressed in reference to Elliott which just as surely applies to Hecker himself: "We [the Paulists] understand that the spiritual ideals he embodied are not the private possession of our community; they are part of the common Catholic heritage. ... For his spirit belongs to the Catholic Church ..."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A "Feel Good" Feast

For the feast of the Assumption on August 15, the old Rituale Romanum contained a rite for the Blessing of Herbs. This was an originally Germanic custom which the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship's 2002 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy called "a clear example of the genuine evangelization of pre-Christian rites and beliefs" - turning to the true God, who created the earth and its vegetation "in order to obtain what was formerly obtained by magic rites; to stem the damages deriving from poisonous herbs, and benefit from the efficacy of curative herbs" (181). The association of herbs with Mary, the Directory suggests reflects the biblical images (e.g., vine, lavender, cypress, lily) applied to her and the reference in Isaiah 11:1 to the "shoot springing from the side of Jesse."

Such associations remind us of the agricultural context in which the calendar came to be. The pre-1969 liturgical calendar constantly recalled our rootedness in the natural world even as it strove to elevate us beyond the natural to the supernatural. The post-1969 liturgical calendar, in keeping with its more rationalistic mentality and the bureaucratic way it was created casually cast aside all those evocations of our rootedness in the natural world, ritually reflecting in a curious kind of way the environmental degradation of the modern era.

I never actually experienced an Assumption-day Blessing of Herbs. But my fondest memory of an Assumption feast was nonetheless also a Germanic one. I spent the summer of 1970 studying German in Austria, in a schloss just outside Salzburg. August 15 in Austria in 1970 was not just some culturally disconnected holy day but still a popular and civic holiday. Stores were closed, and church bells pealed their invitation with gusto. Moreover, the auditory delight of the day involved more than beautiful bell-ringing. It seemed as if every church in the city was singing Mozart's Coronation Mass that morning. To an American, it was amusing to watch crowds of people walking from church to church - catching the Kyrie in one, the Gloria in another, the Credo in another, etc. If, as someone once remarked, with Mozart one could literally fulfill the precept to hear Mass, the bells added an additional degree of auditory delight I have seldom if ever experienced elsewhere since!

Like Easter, Assumption is a pre-eminently "feel-good" feast. To cite the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy again, the Assumption "signifies and synthesizes many of the truths of the faith. Our Lady assumed into Heaven
- is 'the highest fruit of the redemption,' and a supreme testimony to the breadth and efficacy of Christ's salvific work ...
- is a pledge of the future participation of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the paschal glory of the Risen Christ ...
- is for all mankind 'the consoling assurance of the coming of our final hope' ...
- is the eschatological icon in which the Church joyfully contemplates 'that whihc she herself desires and hopes wholly to be' ...
- is the guarantee of the Lord's fidelity to his promise ..." (180).

As is so often said on this feast: where she is now, there we someday hope to be! 

Until then, blessed be her glorious Assumption!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Take a Vacation!

School starts today! I am always happy to see summer end. And, when it comes to schools, I have long been a believer in year-round schooling - for reasons both educational and social. I'll leave it to the experts to describe how much learning is lost while schools are closed during the summer. Suffice it to say I think the traditional school vacation is too long, too much of an interruption in the educational process and generally too disruptive. A more balanced calendar would, I believe, benefit both students and society as a whole.

That said, however, I do nonetheless really believe in the importance of taking vacations. There are, of course, all kinds of vacations - including so-called "working vacations," some of which hardly deserve to be called a vacation. Certainly sabbaticals and the like, which are intended to be learning experiences with some specifically productive purpose can also be restorative physically and emotionally. In my own life, my two summers abroad for language study in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, my summer program in Israel 20+ years ago, and my several months studying the canonization process in Rome, while certainly not vacations, were enormously enjoyable and incredibly restorative, as well as important study opportunities. 

Even so, I want to put in a good word for the plan old-fashioned restful vacation - something our workaholic culture increasingly denigrates. (Witness the silly media whining whenever a President takes a vacation - a "working vacation" if ever there was one!) In this past Sunday's NY Times "Sunday Review" section, Daniel J. Levitin - Director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload - advises against the guilt and worry increasingly associated with taking time off. He warns, "beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. the summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. along with family time, mealtimes and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains."

I knew things were getting bad, but not until i read this article did I realize that "on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of 174 newspapers' worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986." In one sense, certainly that is amazing. But it is also a little frightening!  No wonder we most of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time - even when we aren't actually physically straining ourselves!

Based on the way our brains appear to work, Levitin recommends taking breaks as being "biologically restorative." He recommends naps. "in several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue." and, of course, he recommends real vacations. "If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations - true vacations without work - and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world's big problems. and to be happier and well rested while we're doing it."

A hearty Amen to that!