Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

It's Labor Day again - a day I have looked forward to most years as heralding the beginning of the end of summer and also (way back when I was a student) the return to the familiar world of school. Of course, besides being a seasonal marker, Labor Day is also a civic holiday with an underlying (if largely forgotten) civic significance. 

In his pre-Labor Day column last week in The Washington Post, "In corporations, it's owner- -take-all," Harold Meyerson highlighted the ambivalence of Labor Day, which he called "the mocking reminder that this nation once honored workers ... posing the nagging question of why the economy ceased to reward work." (One can read Meyerson's entire column at

Like our other civic holidays, Labor Day gradually lost its significance as we evolved (rather rapidly and recently actually) from a civil society to a nation of suburbanite shoppers. Even so, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops managed to remember what Labor Day is supposed to be about. (One can read the USCCB's Labor Day Statement at:

Labor Day, the statement reminds us, "gives us the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition." The result of such an inquiry can only be discouraging. "The poverty rate remains high, as 46 million Americans struggle to make ends meet. The economy continues to fail in producing enough decent jobs for everyone who is able to work, despite the increasing numbers of retiring baby boomers. There are twice as many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more, especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected."

The statement expresses special concern about how "our young adults have borne the brunt of this crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent). For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities." Here, the statement invokes Pope Francis, who "has reserved some of his strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it 'evil,' an 'atrocity,' and emblematic of the 'throwaway culture'." Following Pope Francis, the statement rejects "an economy of exclusion" to embrace "an authentic culture of encounter."

The statement also calls attention to the by-now familiar and increasingly worrisome relationship between our crisis of work and our crisis of marriage and family life. "Marriage rates have declined by close to 20 percent in the last 40 years, and the birth rate is the lowest on record. Among young adults, the decline in marriage has been steeper, at 40 percent. Although not the only reason, many young adults, because they are unable to find decent work, are delaying marriage and starting a family."

Finally, but no less importantly in our present political climate, the statement addresses the unresolved problem of our currently unsatisfactory system for welcoming immigrants. "As a nation of immigrants, we recognize that a vibrant and just economy requires the contributions of everyone. Those who come seeking decent work to support their families by and large complement, rather than displace, American workers. But we need to fix our broken immigration system to stop the exploitation and marginalization of millions of people as well as address the development needs of other countries. In doing so we would also level the playing field among workers, provide more opportunity for all who can work, and bring about a needed "change of attitude toward migrants and refugees" (Pope Francis, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees)."

I doubt this statement will be read much at the nation's beaches this weekend - or read much anywhere anytime soon. Still, it never hurts to be reminded what Labor Day is actually about, what America is supposed to be about, what any approximation at a just society has to be about!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Spiritual Worship

For much of the summer, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest and historically most influential of his letters. Having begun by denouncing the sins and vices of pagan society, Paul now [Romans 12:1-2] invites us to behave differently.  Well, I suppose that’s where we would naturally expect him to go. But we may be surprised by how he introduces the topic: I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

So far, Paul has been stressing mainly what God has done for us. Thanks to God’s mercy, we can now be different people from who we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived. And so our bodies – in other words, who we actually are in the lived reality of our day-to-day lives – should serve as our sacrifice to God. Often, when we hear religious words like sacrifice and worship, we imagine some special place and time apart from the ordinary activities of life – an hour spent in church on Sunday morning, for example. But Paul’s invitation to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship suggests that my entire life needs to be understood in those terms - as a life lived entirely as an act of worship.

That may be an especially apt reminder this weekend when we celebrate the significance of human labor. Our work is, after all, where most of our daily life is lived, where we make moral choices and develop human social relationships that directly define the persons we become and wider world in which we live and move as parts of an inter-related and inter-dependent society.

Of course, religion was everywhere in the pagan world, which Paul knew and which the Christians Paul was writing to had themselves been a part of. Paul spoke so harshly about that society and its religious assumptions because he wanted his hearers to understand just how different was the way of life Paul was proposing to them. Just watch some episodes of the HBO-TV series Rome that first aired a decade ago to get some sense of the culture clash the coming of Christianity must have created in Rome!

In contrast to all the negative models he saw all around, Paul pointed out as the alternative something completely new and different – Jesus Christ himself, whose death on the cross revealed a life lived as the most perfect worship of God his Father.

That this alternative was really new and really different is evident in today’s Gospel [Matthew 16:21-27], in Peter’s negative reaction to Jesus’ initial prediction of his passion and death. Peter's reaction really ought not to surprise us. If the path to be followed conformed to common expectations, Paul would not have presented it as such a contrast to what he saw around him, nor would Peter have objected, nor would Jesus have rebuked Peter so sternly. In Peter’s resistance, Jesus could hear the echo of Satan’s temptation in the desert – the perennial challenge (not just to Jesus but to all of us) not to be let ourselves be changed and certainly not to change the world.

Our own society has developed in a very different direction from ancient Rome. Among other things, our modern world is less social, more self-centered, more focused on feelings.  And also  (after 2000 years) the Christian alternative Paul proposes no longer seems so new. Paul challenges us today – as he challenged his contemporaries - not to conform ourselves to this age. But, unlike his Roman converts who were discovering a new and different way of life, our challenge becomes to rediscover how to let our lives be changed by faith - not being defined and directed by the world’s agenda but instead changing that world by our faith.

So, despite Peter’s discomfort, it is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. Jesus’ death was not, after all, just some back luck that happened to him one day. It was the direct – and predictable – consequence of a life lived in total obedience to his Father. Such is the life that Jesus commands us in turn to take up and follow him.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 31, 2014.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Martyrs Old and New

Today the Church commemorates the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Today's liturgy treats John the Baptist as a martyr - even though he obviously was killed before Saint Stephen, who has the honor of being titled the first Martyr, even though he died before Jesus himself did, and he died not because of either his explicit faith in Christ or Herod's hatred of Christ. According to the Collect, "he died a Martyr for truth and justice." How did that make him a martyr in the precise sense the Church usually intends when it uses that title? As the Venerable Bede (672-735) eventually explained it: "His persecutors demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. ... Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ." 

In the modern Church's official canonization process, the governing standard for martyrdom has been a voluntarily accepted death for the sake on account of the faith or another virtue related to God (propter fidem vel alium virtutis actum in Deum relatum). The 20th century witnessed many martyrs - more, perhaps, than in all previous centuries. Three fairly famous 20th-century martyrs - Maria Goretti, Maximilian Kolbe, and Edith Stein - crowned their lives of saintly witness of Christ with a martyr's death under somewhat unique circumstances that also seemed to stretch the traditional understanding of martyrdom. Of Maria Goretti, whom Pope Pius XII called a "martyr of chastity," Kenneth Woodward wrote that "she is also an important figure in the history of making saints. Technically she did not die for her faith. Rather she died in defense of Christian virtue - a significant though by now routine expansion of the grounds on which a candidate can be declared a martyr." (Making Saints: How the Catholic church Determines Who becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why, 1990, p.123.) Woodward also acknowledges, however, that this "door has been there for a very long time, waiting to be opened" (p. 150), and he cites Saint Thomas Aquinas (apparently Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q. 124, article 5, reply to objection 3), "Human good can become divine good if it is referred to God; therefore, any human good can be a cause if martyrdom, in so far as it is referred to God.

After the "martyr of chastity" came the "martyr of charity," Saint Maximilian Kolbe. His story is familiar enough to need no repetition here. What is intriguing about his case is that, after beatifying Kolbe in 1971, Pope Paul Vi did refer to him in an address to a visiting Polish delegation as a "martyr of charity," but he did not actually beatify him as a martyr. That change occurred 11 years later at Kolbe's canonization by Pope Saint John Paul II. On that occasion the Pope declared," in virtue of my apostolic authority I have decreed that Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who after his beatification was venerated as a confessor, shall henceforth be venerated also as a martyr." By doing so, Woodward suggests, John Paul II further opened "the possibility of bestowing the title of martyr on a wider range of candidates" (p. 147).

The Edith Stein case was perhaps the most complicated, since it concerned the Holocaust and the reasonable suggestion that, regardless of her Catholic faith, she died essentially because of her Jewishness. Despite some significant Jewish opposition, she was indeed beatified as a martyr by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1987.

The election of a Pope from latin America has revived hopes in certain quarters for the canonization of Oscar Romero, regarded by many as a martyr since his assassination in 1980. Personally, I have always found convincing the argument that his was a political assassination, motivated less by hatred of Christ, the Church, or the Catholic faith than by hatred of a political ideology correctly or incorrectly associated with Romero in the minds of his assassins. But history also shows how hard it can be to separate out religion and politics in any decisive way. (Think of Saint Thomas Becket!) So perhaps Romero's case may advance and with it further ground broken in the applicability of the concept of martyrdom.

All of which brings us to James Foley, the Catholic journalist who was murdered last week by Muslim terrorists on behalf of the so-called "Islamic State" (known variously as ISIS or ISIL or just IS). Some (including it is claimed even the Pope in a private conversation) have informally referred to his as a martyr. Based on what we already know about his life and his spirituality, certainly a plausible argument could be made in his case for heroic sanctity. Martyrdom is another story. But it will be interesting to see how this discussion develops and where it leads.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On the Feast of Saint Augustine

Adest dies célebris, quo solútus nexu carnis sanctus praesul Augustínus, assumptus est cum Angelis, ubi gaudet cum Prophétis, laetátur cum Apóstolis; quorum plenus spíritu, quae prædixérunt mýstica, fecit nobis pervia; post quos secunda dispensandi verbi Dei primus refulsit gratia.(“The celebrated day has come, on which the holy bishop Augustine, released from the bond of the flesh, was taken up with the Angels; where he rejoices with the Prophets, is made glad with the Apostles; full of their spirit, he made clear to us what they mystically foretold; after them he shone forth as first in the grace that came after, to dispense the word of God.” Magnificat Antiphon at First Vespers, from the Augustinian Order’s proper Office for the feast of St Augustine.)

I have long been especially fond of the modern Roman Missal's Preface I of the Saints - in particular because of the sentence in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts, words taken directly from the writing (De gratia et libero arbitrio, VI, 15) of the most influential of the Western Church Fathers, Saint Augustine (354-430), whose festival the Church joyfully celebrates today. Rightly recognized as Doctor gratia, "the Doctor of Grace," for his anti-Pelagian theology concerning the absolute gratuity of divine grace, Augustine nonetheless energetically insisted on the reality of that grace, of the transformation grace effects in its recipients. And that, it seems to me, opens up all sorts of possibilities for human action to facilitate something authentically new in the world.

There is, of course, so much to admire and assimilate in the teaching of Saint Augustine. Consider, for example, his expansive treatment of friendship - an important theme in ancient thought, which seems to have become somewhat less prominent in contemporary reflections about human relationships. 

Necessities in this world amount to these two things: well-being and a friend. these are the things which we should value highly and not despise. well-being and a friend are goods of nature. God made man to be and to live; that's well-being; but so that he shouldn't be alone, a system of friendship was worked out. So friendship begins with married partner and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But if we consider that we all have one father and one mother, who will be a stranger? Ever human being is neighbor to every other human being. Ask nature; is he unknown? He's human. Is she an enemy? She's human? Is he a foe? He's human. Is she a friend? Let her stay a friend. Is he an enemy? Let him become a friend. (Sermon 299D, 1, tr. Edmund Hill, Saint Augustine, Essential Sermons, ed. Boniface Ramsey, 2007).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Calvary: The Movie

The excellent Irish film Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson (who played "Mad Eye" Alastor Moody in the Harry Potter movies) as Father James, a conscientious priest in a rural, Irish, seaside village. The film begins in the confessional where Father James is with death. The threat comes from someone he's fairly sure he knows, a parishioner who wants to strike out against the Church by  killing someone he considers a good priest. "I'm going to kill you because you've done nothing wrong,." his assailant tells him. The film then follows Father James in his black cassock as he struggles to carry out his parochial ministry day-by-day through his final week - from the confessional to his "calvary." 

 In the course of that week, we learn that he had been married and widowed before becoming a priest and has an unhappy adult daughter living in London, who comes to visit him. We also infer that he had once had a drinking problem. On top of all those personal tensions and his apparent loneliness (alleviated somewhat by his dog), he now has to struggle with the extreme tension frought on by the threat and the proximity of death.

Meanwhile, neither his curate nor his bishop appear particularly helpful. That might not matter so much if his ministry were not so frustrating. But, apart from the foreign widow of an accident victim he anoints in the hospital, virtually everyone he interacts with in the village displays some degree of indifference or contempt toward the Church. For the most part, they are not very nice people, and even his daughter at one point sympathizes with what he has to put up with from them. (Of course, she is ignorant of his internal suffering as his weekend rendezvous with his killer comes ever closer.) The bleakness of his situation is effectively evident in the beautiful but hauntingly bleak landscape of that particular corner of Ireland, but even more so in the daily frustration of his indifferent and hostile flock. The various vignettes of his interactions capture quite well the dilemma of being a public person of the Church in a world from which the Church (and the faith it professes) seem to be in rapid retreat. 

Things come to a head one evening when his church burns down (the fire having presumably been set by his killer). The indifference of his flock to the destruction of their church seems a not very subtle expression of their indifference to the Church and the faith they are in the process of abandoning. Then someone slits his dog's throat. He starts to lose it, gets drunk, shoots up the local pub, and then starts to leave town. But an encounter at the airport with the foreign widow and the sight of her husband's coffin call him back home to face his killer. In a final phone conversation with his daughter, he focuses on forgiveness..

In the final scene, his daughter visits his killer in prison. We don't hear what is said, but presumably this is meant to suggest forgiveness. It is the one glimmer of hope in an otherwise beleaguered, post Chrstian landscape.