Sunday, August 2, 2020

What To Do?

10 years ago today, I waved good-bye to my predecessor. Then I got into the parish car, drove to the church, walked into my new office, sat down at my desk, looked around, and wondered out loud, “Now what do I do?” Soon enough, of course, the challenges began to pile up. That very week, I was told there were termites in the church’s wall and the church’s ceiling was in danger of falling down. 10 years later, there are still termites, but we did get a new ceiling. Meanwhile, I began this year replacing a broken boiler, with a global pandemic thrown in for good measure. So much for wondering what to do next!

The pandemic, as the Pontifical Academy for Life has recently reminded us, “has brought desolation to the world.” It “has given us the spectacle of empty streets and ghostly cities, of human proximity wounded, of physical distancing. It has deprived us of the exuberance of embraces, the kindness of hand shakings, the affection of kisses, and turned relations into fearful interactions of strangers, the neutral exchange of faceless individualities shrouded in the anonymity of protective gears.”

And yet, what will separate us, Saint Paul dramatically asks, from God’s love for us as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord? His answer is that nothing will! Not termites, sinking ceilings, broken boilers, and annual operating deficits – not even, presumably, a global pandemic, or any of the other serious problems Paul confronted, anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword.

Paul’s point was obviously not that those things are no longer real or that they don’t still threaten us, but that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world – and so can overcome all the worries we struggle with in ordinary life, worries which, if we let them, will become obstacles that threaten to separate us from God and the salvation his love intends for us.

Nor does Paul confine his concern to impersonal forces. Like most people for most of human history, he experienced his world as affected by the presence of powerful beings, demonic beings, who make this world a very dangerous place.

In Paul’s time – as again in our own increasingly re-paganized society – desperate people turned to falsehoods like astrology in order to cope with the threats from present things and future things. Of course, who needs demons to worry about, when we are surrounded by unseen viruses! But then we have historically invented and reinvented many such demons to fulfil our fantasies – the demons of illusiory independence, national exceptionalism, and individual self-sufficiency – the falseness of which this pandemic has once again demonstrated.

Paul’s conviction, which he hopes has become ours as well, is that God’s power is greater than that of any force that might seem to separate us from God’s love.

The point is that, if we really believe in God’s omnipotence and in his love for us as revealed in Jesus, then we will react differently to the stresses and challenges we might otherwise be beaten down by. But we have to believe in both God’s omnipotence and his love. A God who was not all-powerful would be of at best limited value for us in this threatening and dangerous world. An all-powerful God who didn’t also love us, however, would only add to our sense of danger. That was precisely the problem with the pagan religions the Gospel was liberating so many of Paul’s contemporaries from. No wonder scared, terrified pagans – both ancient and modern – have consulted astrologers! Can you blame them?

If God had not revealed himself – and his love for us – as he has done in his Son Jesus, we too would be equally desperate, clutching at any illusion – any demon or demagogue - that promised to fix things in our favor.

God, however, has revealed his love for us – not as an abstraction, but as a person, Christ Jesus our Lord, whose heart is moved with pity for us and satisfies us with food we could never buy on our own.

There will always be an insurmountable gap between our meager human resources – our 5 little loaves and 2 fish – and what God can accomplish on our behalf. Once we are willing to put ourselves at his disposal, however, God’s great love for us, present and active among us in Christ Jesus our Lord, will transform us by his blessing and enable us to accomplish, on his behalf, what we could never ever have imagined doing on our own.

And so the same Christ who feeds us whenever we assemble in his presence also commands us – in the solidarity which unites us as his disciples and as his Church – to join him wholeheartedly in feeding the world with the bread we receive and share when we recognize and perpetuate his presence in our world.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, August 2, 2020.



Friday, July 31, 2020

A Fifth American Republic

President Obama gave the eulogy at Congressman John Lewis's funeral in Atlanta yesterday, and (as the saying goes) hit it out of the park. (I don't like sports analogies and seldom use them, but they have the advantage that they are so widely understood.) Of course, Obama rose to prominence in 2004 on the power of his oratory, and it was his oratory that helped him attain political power. So we expect good words for him, and we got them.

Early in his speech, he reminded us that "this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to forma  more perfect union." 

It is a commonplace to note that this country was founded with an imperfect 18th-century constitution and then refounded, so to speak, through civil war and the three reconstruction amendments. That refounding gave us a second chance to attempt that more perfect union. Our second republic got off to a good start, but then regressed when northern lack of interest allied with southern racism to undo most of what had been accomplished. The formal constitutional structures of the second American republic - the reconstruction amendments - remained in place but were not enforced, and so the second republic, so promisingly born, became the regime of Jim Crow and the capitalist Guilded Age. The Progeressive Movement did little about Jim Crow but did set in motion a movement to address that other cause of systemic inequality. When finally the capitalist system came crashing down in the Great Depression, another refounding moment occurred - the New Deal - defined not in constitutional amendments but in activist legislation and a  "constitutional revolution" in jurisprudence that radically reframed the role of the federal government in the interest of democracy and the majority of Americans. That third American republic won the Second World War and went on to provide the greatest period of widespread prosperity and relative equality in American history. In time, that led to the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to correct the great remaining failure of American society. Through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a fourth American republic was founded, which further perfected the union. Like the second republic, however, it faltered and foundered, especially in the wake of the disastrous election of 1980. The attempt to nail the fourth republic's coffin shut came with the disastrous 2013 Shelby County v, Holder decision of the US Supreme Court, which enabled the political agenda of voter suppression. 

The obvious answer to America's present predicament is another refounding of democracy - a fifth American republic. and President Obama in his masterful eulogy laid out the essential elements of its agenda:

1. Adopting a renewed Voting Rights Act to restore what has been taken away;
2. Making sure every American is automatically registered to vote;
3. Adding polling places, expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday;
4. Statehood for DC and Puerto Rico; 

and - essential to achieving all of the above - "eliminating the filibuster," which Obama reminded us is just "another Jim Crow relic."

What an agenda that would be for the first 100 days of an American fifth republic!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Buried Treasure

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sell all he has and buys the field.

It may be one of the most fought over pieces of real estate in the world; but, as anyone who has ever been there can attest, much of Israel is arid desert – basically a bunch of rocks. Working such land is hard and exhausting work. So it’s easy to imagine the surprise, excitement, and joy of someone who, having turned over hundreds of rocks, suddenly sees something completely unexpected, something with the potential of transforming his life for the better!

Perhaps, we are supposed to see ourselves in these parables. Like the field hand and the pearl merchant, we too have hopefully found in God’s grace something we neither earned nor could have expected. Like them, we have the opportunity to take advantage of the gift – buying the field or the pearl – in other words, responding fully to the opportunity, recognizing that it is an all-or-nothing decision on our part. In life one either takes advantage of an opportunity, or one misses the opportunity.

That is how we might unpack these particular parables in normal times. But, to use Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “this is no ordinary time.” Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has taken over our world, has transformed the landscape of our ordinary lives in all sorts of ways, has highlighted the fragility of life on this planet, has undermined our personal sense of security, and so left us without a lot of the things we used to treasure and wondering what we may have left for us to treasure. Like the fishermen in the parable, whose net has pulled in all sorts of stuff, we too may find ourselves forced to unload a lot, maybe most of what we might otherwise have valued, lest we ourselves get caught in the net and strangled by false securities.

How right Solomon was to ask God for the gifts of wisdom and understanding. Would that more world leaders were like Solomon in knowing what they lack and what they need – and what their people need from them!

In such a terrible time as this that we are now living through, perhaps we might reimagine these parables from God’s point of view, so to speak, and see ourselves as the treasure God has found for himself in the midst of the ordinary life of the world, and for which he has invested his most precious possession, his Son, Jesus, in order that we might be treasured by him forever.

Of course, a treasure found in a field or carefully extracted from a net probably requires careful care and cleaning. But a God who is willing to get involved in our world from the inside – by becoming one of us and living our life in our world – is not going to shrink from the added work of nurturing and perfecting his treasure in his people.

God has always been busily involved in our messy, mixed-up, dangerously unpredictable world. The work God has begun in us, that same work continues in our daily life as his people, his Church, where the messy, mixed-up, and dangerously unpredictable in us is attended to, so that – as Saint Paul said - we in turn may be called, justified, and glorified.

On the one hand, this pandemic moment makes us shed the illusory security of false treasures. On the other, it challenges us to treasure ourselves and one another as God does, deploying God’s gifts of wisdom and scientific knowledge to understand our situation and so bond with all our brothers and sisters to heal our broken world.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 26, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Re-Imagining Parish

The Congregation for the Clergy this week issued a new Instruction, "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church," which was actually approved by the Pope and promulgated last June. It deals with the theme of the pastoral care of parish communities, which it traces back to the “House Churches” of the New Testament, but which are experiencing a particularly new challenge as “people are less associated today with a definite and immutable geographical context,” requiring “a new discernment around community” and “new forms of accompaniment and closeness.”

As one would expect in almost any contemporary Instruction of this sort, the document stresses the Church's evangelizing mission. Emphasis is placed on the parish as an inclusive community, "the context in which people express their lives in terms of relationships, reciprocal service and ancient traditions," where, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist, "the Christian community welcomes the living presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord, receiving the announcement of the entire mystery of salvation."

Unsurprisingly, the Instruction follows Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium is opposing "the dynamic of evangelization" to "the criterion of self-preservation," which particularly animates the document's discussion of various possible parish structures. A particularly relevant cautionary note is sounded in the reminder "that the faith of the People of God is interwoven with familial and communal memories. Often, a sacred place can evoke important milestones in the life of past generations, where faces and occasions have influences personal and familiar journeys."

The document stresses the absolutely essential role of the priest who has been duly appointed to be the pastor of the parish. But it also highlights the multitude of individuals and communities that participate actively in the parish’s mission and the formal structures and institutions (e.g., finance councils and pastoral councils) that assist in making that mission a reality. The Instruction has its highly hortatory moments as, for example, when it advocates aspects resembling religious community life. "When the presbyterate experiences community life, priestly identity is strengthened, material concerns diminish, and the temptation of individualism gives way to profoundly personal relationships." On the other hand, it also addresses such very practical matters as the terms of pastors and the "moral duty" to offer one's resignation when one turns 75. (It gets somewhat hortatory again in imagining that such post-pastors should not thereby feel "demoted" or "punished.")

As they certainly deserve, deacons get considerable attention in this Instruction. Intriguingly, it also takes up the neuralgic issue of Mass Offerings, which in turn offers an opportunity to remind priest to "offer virtuous examples in the use of money, whether it be that of a sober lifestyle, without excess on a personal level, or that of a transparent management of Parish goods."

Finally, it emphasizes how "pastoral activity needs to go beyond merely the territorial limits of the Parish, to make ecclesial communion more transparent by means of the synergy between ministers and diverse charisms, structuring itself as a'pastoral care for all,' at the service of the diocese and of its mission."

I often wonder just who is the anticipated audience for documents such as this. An Instruction is not a legislative document or a dogmatic pronouncement. It restates existing law and applies established magisterial teaching to the situation at hand. In this case, the situation is the actual life and mission of the parish, a practical exploration of possibilities  for the context within which most Catholics experience being Church.  Even were we not in the midst of the shattering crisis created by the pandemic, this would be an important issue. The Instruction speaks predictably does not say everything that could be said on the subject, but it lucidly sets some helpful parameters and points to possibilities, which make sit a good foundation for further efforts at re-imagining parish for a post-pandemic Church.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Church in a Post-Pandemic World

Church doors have been open again for some time, and certainly some of us are very happy to be back, even if it means we have to wear masks, sit in designated sections, sanitize our hands, and do any number of other necessary but burdensome things. Sunday attendance hovers around 1/3 what it was a year ago. The question so many are asking, of course, is what about the other 2/3? When will they come back? Will they come back? And, underlying that, there is the other question we also ought to be be asking: What kind of Church will we be to come back to? 

There will obviously be superficial changes that many may welcome while others deplore. Such 20th-century revivals of long-abandoned ancient practices, such as Communion from the chalice and congregational participation in the exchange of peace, may well be gone for good - as may such liturgically dubious Protestant imports as hand-holding at the Lord's Prayer. For all the fuss they engendered (and admittedly intense advocacy in some quarters), how little such practices actually added is evident from how easily we have adapted to their absence.

We are what we do. Rituals and symbolic actions are important. But such superficial 20th-century accretions have never been at the heart of the Church's life. 

More problematic, of course, has been the loss of congregational singing.  Hopefully, we'll eventually find a reasonably safe way to "pray twice" again!

On the other hand, assembling on Sunday - whether Communion is received under two species or only one or not at all - assembling on Sunday has been at the heart of the Church's life since apostolic times. For the liturgy, as Vatican II taught, "is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2).

“Every Sunday is a great Feast and a time of joy," Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal on October 1, 1939, at a moment in world history hardly festive or joyful, even compared to today's tragic atmosphere.

Admittedly the pathologies of modernity - from Sunday store openings to Sunday sports - had already decisively undermined the Lord's Day, long before the pandemic. 

It may be that those who miss Mass most intensely will eventually come back to something like regular Sunday attendance, but the very fact that there is such widespread anxiety that many others may not is truly telling. It may be a mistake to hang too much on the hook of Sunday Mass; but it really is the only ordinary opportunity for religion to compete with secular priorities, if only for one feeble hour. And we may be losing that one hour now even faster than we expected. If religious sensibility is formed and then nourished primarily by and through the liturgy, what will be the effect of liturgy's absence on the strength of religious sensibility, indeed on its existence? Has religion's increasing absence from society during this period of pandemic actually confirmed a long-term trend in that direction - and maybe even have accelerated it?

Crises can, of course, contribute to religious revival. In his memorable Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, for example, Tony Judt recognized how religion (particularly Catholicism) "basked in a brief Indian summer of restored authority" after the Second World War. Judt ascribed Catholic success in Europe in the immediate post-war period to the Christian Democratic parties connected with it and, even more, to the sense it then offered "of continuity, of security and reassurance in a world that had altered violently in the past decade and was about to be transformed even more dramatically in the years to come." 

Continuity, security, and reassurance may be just as much needed now as then, but religious institutions seem somehow less effectively equipped to offer them. At one ideological extreme, a quasi-integralist reactionary religious politics may seem attractive to some, but even that seems increasingly to be more about politics and less about religion, while in the cultural mainstream religion's apparent absence during the pandemic may have amplified its already evident absence and silence in the public square. And therein may lie the unique challenge of out time.

And yet this pandemic challenges us - as perhaps few other world events recently have - to focus on the care we owe to ourselves and to one another in our common home. "See how they love one another" was how some described the early Christians. We all know that whether as individuals or as a Church community we have not always lived up to that as well as we should. But we are being especially challenged to do so today. As citizens, we understand that living in society, being in community with others, imposes burdens. As Christians, we believe that the love we should have for one another will make those burdens more bearable.

As Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego recently said
 in his homily at the ordination of a new Auxiliary Bishop: "The pandmeic has worn us down and made us fearful of the way forward. ... Patterns of parish life that have sustained community and the proclamation of the Gospel for decades have been ruptured by the isolation of these months and the atomization of all social life that we have witnessed. there is a great danger that that pandemic is creating a culture of increased disengagement within the life of the Church that will persist long after a vaccination is found. ... There is  no more important work for the Church in the coming months than consoling those who have been broken and bringing to our world the understanding that God provides the only enduring foundation for the journey of life on this earth."