Monday, January 15, 2018

The Post (the Movie)

Steven Spielberg's The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, recalls The Washington Post's involvement in the epochal conflict between journalists and the US Government surrounding the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. 

The Pentagon Papers (for anyone who may not remember) was actually a study prepared by the Defense Department of the US-Vietnam relationship over the period from 1945 to 1967, leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, who had been involved in the study Although it was the Nixon Administration that fought to stop their publication, the documents themselves focused on the two decades prior to the Nixon Administration - the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Their significance was in revealing the full scope of US involvement in the region with little expectation of ultimate success - suggesting in effect a decades-long failure of policy and a pattern of persistent government deception. The publication of the Pentagon Papers further helped to undermine whatever credibility US policy in Vietnam may still have had by the 1970s. So, even though it was previous Administrations whose failures were detailed int he papers, the Nixon Administration tried to halt the papers' publication, which embroiled it in a legal case against The New York Times and The Washington Post, a case which quickly went to the Supreme Court where the government lost and the newspapers won by a vote of 6-3.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent court cases constituted a watershed event in the unravelling of the American policy in Vietnam and the unravelling also of the credibility of the government. It marled a major moment in the creation of the adversarial culture between government and media (soon to be reinforced and institutionalized by Watergate) which has largely existed since then. Whether that has been entirely beneficial is a question that needs to be asked, although there can be no doubt that the unmasking of the duplicity underlying American foreign policy in regard to Vietnam was a great  and much needed service. That, followed soon after by Watergate, definitively altered the balance between trust and distrust in our culture - a mixed blessing at best, as tan adversarial culture of mutual mistrust has spread to virtually all institutions and relationships in society.

Given the importance of the events recounted and the stellar cast, the film succeeds in its purpose. It is also a window (for those who don't remember) into the early 1970s and into the cozy (corruptly cozy?) relationships that existed among governmental and media elites. Paraphrasing Lord Acton, elites are corrupt, and elites being cozy with each other corrupts absolutely! That should be kept in mind whenever the press engages in its favorite pastime of self-righteously lecturing the rest of us on how essential the press is. There is a bit more of that in the film than anyone needs to hear - especially coming from, of all people, Ben Bradlee.

The characterization of Katharine Graham is especially superb. (What else would one expect form Meryl Streep?) We watch her grow in her self-confidence as leader of her company, a role she had not originally expected to play and which the mores of the time had not prepared her for - in the process helping to transform The Post from a local newspaper to a national media treasure.








Saturday, January 13, 2018

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Amid all the authentic outrage (and also predictable virtue signalling) over yet another bizzarely crude comment by President Trump, Tomorrow, Sunday, January 14, is appropriately observed as the World Day of Migrants and Refugees

In his Message in preparation for this day, Pope Francis reaffirmed that “our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.

Considering the current situation, welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.  …  The second verb – protecting – may be understood as a series of steps intended to defend the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, independent of their legal status.  …  Promoting essentially means a determined effort to ensure that all migrants and refugees – as well as the communities which welcome them – are empowered to achieve their potential as human beings, in all the dimensions which constitute the humanity intended by the Creator.  Among these, we must recognize the true value of the religious dimension, ensuring to all foreigners in any country the freedom of religious belief and practice.”  [Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the  World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018]

For the complete text of the Pope's Message, go to: 

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20170815_world-migrants-day-2018.html

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Perennial Problem of Salvaging Sunday in an Anti-Sunday Society

I seldom agree with Fr. Hunwicke's opinions, but I do enjoy reading his blog because of his erudition - a quality so frequently missing in so much contemporary commentary - secular as well as religious. Earlier this week, however, he wrote a reflection on the problem of Sunday Mass - http://liturgicalnotes.blogspot.com/2018/01/sunday-mass.htmlthat is not only well worth reading but also sufficiently nuanced by the realities of pastoral experience that it really should be possible for people coming from different places on the current spectrum of opinions to appreciate what he is getting at, whether or not they agree with all his assumptions and priorities. (That itself is something, since - in our totally politicized and polarized contemporary discourse - it is increasingly normal for those who favor something to refuse to recognize any possible unintended negative consequences to what they favor and for those who oppose something likewise to refuse to recognize that there could possibly be any good consequences to what they oppose or that those who favor it do so with honorable motives.)

In his column, Fr. Hunwicke acknowledges the obvious advantages of the contemporary British Catholic experience of large parishes: "One priest with one Church and a decently sized carpark and faculties to trinate can serve a large area, and do so economically. Rural Anglicanism, on the other hand, often functions with one priest serving six or more congregations the size of which may vary."  Recognizing the "resilience" of the Catholic model, he nonetheless recognizes its potential weaknesses: "It means that you might well not know the worshipers with whom you so cheerfully 'exchange the peace'."

"The old culture of the community church, the Church of a community which worshipped regularly together," Hunwicke contends, "had a beauty as well as a theological strength to it. And one of the things which has weakened it is the Vigil Mass."

I have written previously about the ambivalent legacy of the now 50-year-old practice of Saturday Vigil Masses - its well-intentioned intended benefits and its undoubtedly unintended unfortunate consequences in terms of society's loss of Sunday's specialness. From across the ocean, Fr. Hunwicke here does the same, both acknowedging the benefits (and maybe even the continued necessity at this point) of the practice, while lamenting what has been perhaps irretrievably lost in the process:

"Only God knows the tally; how many people the Vigil Mass culture has retained in the practice of the Faith; how many it has lost because of the weakening of communal links. No sane person would want to step back from it, however much we may sense a certain dreariness in the sight of all those people 'getting it out of the way' so that they can be 'free' on Sunday. And, however much we explain to ourselves and to others that the Liturgical Day begins with the Eve, we all sense that Saturday Evening is not ... really ... instinctively ... Sunday. ... The experience of a whole community, wearing 'Sunday Best', strolling down in families to their Parish Church as the bells ring on a Sunday morning in which secular pursuits have been set aside has, I am convinced, much more value to it than mere romanticism, or (as you are probably intending to explain to me) nostalgia for an irrecoverable social order."

Of course, if it were merely a matter of "nostalgia for an irrecoverable social order," then there would be little point to it. There can be little doubt that that past social order is indeed "irrecoverable" in our current secular, consumerist, capitalist culture, which will always value private profit and convenience over other seemingly more esoteric concerns, such as those represented by religion. 

The dilemma Churches have been left with is not to try to recover some transient past social order (which in its own way may have been as morally flawed as any other social order) but how to salvage the religious and spiritual significance of Sunday - the admittedly temporary setting aside of secular pursuits - from the ravages specifically inflicted upon it by of our contemporary love affair with commercial, consumerist capitalism and its manifold material benefits

In his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, Pope Saint John Paul II recalled the famous response of the early 4th-century African martyrs of Abitina on the necessity of celebrating Sunday Eucharist. In his homily at the 2005 Italian National Eucharistic Congress, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, similarly recalled that story recounting in greater detail the famous response of the martyr Emeritus to the proconsul: "Sine dominico non possumus, Without the Sunday Eucharist we have no power.  We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb."

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Fire and Fury

In Sunday's NY Times, Columnist Nicholas Kristoff reminded us of much of the real good that happened around the world in 2017 - a wholesome corrective to our excessively politics-obsessed and America-centric tendencies. That said, 2017 was in so many ways a terrible year for the United States (and for the world to the extent that the world depends on continued American participation in international life).  It was with that sad awareness that I read Michael Wolff's perversely entertaining, new best-seller, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, this past weekend.

Of course, anyone who came of age in New York in the same years as Donald Trump has known - almost since forever - that he was singularly unqualified for the Presidency (or any other public office). So what is purportedly the book's principal "revelation" really is no revelation at all - although its implications and consequences in terms of how those around the President try to cope with and compensate.for the President's unpreparedness does make for somewhat interesting reading.

Michael Wolff is considered an unconventional journalist, and some journalistic purists may disparage his product. Be that as it may, the book works and has had the effect it has had largely because enough of it rings true and reflects what has already been widely whispered (or shouted) in the past year. And, of course, it helps any author when the President of the United States tries to ban your book! What surer guarantee could there be that a book will be a best-seller when the President tells people not to read it?

On the other hand, the real story of 2017 - and the greater calamity - has been how successful this Administration has in fact been in certain respects, in particular how it has empowered the Republican Congress to do as much damage as it has done, most notably through its recent tax bill. Indeed, one of the ironies is how the publication of this book seems to have hardened the split between President Trump and his one-time adviser Steve Bannon, paradoxically bringing Trump and the Republican Establishment closer together, thus strengthening the latter at Bannon's expense. Sidelining Bannon undoubtedly has its benefits, but empowering the Republican establishment does the country no favors either.. Whatever his multitude of faults, Bannon did recognize the Republican establishment for what it is, charmingly noting (according to Wolff) how "[Paul] Ryan was created in a petri dish at the heritage Foundation."

Prescinding from the President's personality (which admittedly is what makes the story), the book in part resembles a traditional journalistic account of West Wing competition and factional infighting, which is actually quite interesting. The three principal factions which Wolff identifies competing around Trump are the Wall Street Democrats (Jared and Ivanka), the establishment Republicans (Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Congress), and Steve Bannon.- "Bannon taking an absolutist base position, Priebus aligned with Ryan in support of the Republican leadership, and Kushner maintaining, and seeing no contradiction in, a moderate Democratic view."

It is, of course, the curious interaction between this ideological factional in-fighting and the President's personality which has produced the curious outcome that was 2017. "The paradox of the Trump presidency," Wolff notes, "was that it was the most ideologically driven, and the least. It represented a deeply structural assault on liberal values - Bannon's deconstruction of the administrative state meant to take with it media, academic, and not-for-profit institutions. But from the start it also was apparent that the Trump administration could just as easily turn into a country club Republican or a Wall Street Democrat regime. Or just a constant effort to keep Donald Trump happy."

Overall, however, the main takeaway from the book is what is perhaps the most extreme example yet of one of the more dangerous tendencies in modern American politics - the electorate's empowerment of political outsiders. As Wolff notes at one point, "There was a lack of coherent message because there was nobody to write a coherent message - just one more instance of disregarding political craft."

The other impression one takes from Wolff's book is just how appallingly so many of the people involved in our contemporary politics seem to behave, which itself seems not unrelated to the increasing power of money in our politics. "In an age when all successful political candidates are surrounded by, if not at the beck and call of, difficult, even sociopathic, rich people, pushing the bounds of their own power - and the richer they were, the more difficult, sociopathic, and power-made they might be," observed Wolff, referring especially to Bannon's backers, the Mercers, but expressing a sentiment it is easy to apply quite generally after reading this account.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Being Overjoyed with the Wise Men

In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne with a group of young people from the Paulist “Mother Church” in New York. One of the World Youth Day activities (see photo below) was a pilgrimage walk to Cologne’s great Gothic Cathedral, which was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who, as we just heard [Matthew 2:1-12] came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Entering our church today, you will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene as the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual account, of course, the shepherds came and went on the same day and so were presumably long gone by the time the magi arrived.) 

In the United States, sadly, Epiphany now seems almost an add-on or some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas Day itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until tomorrow, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

The terms “magi” suggests that they were wise, learned men, maybe Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia, perhaps astrologers. Beyond that, however, we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

Matthew’s Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi. First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. In other words, the magi had only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as Saint Paul said in his famous speech to a pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. Pope Benedict XVI called the magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.”

But the story also tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, our paths ought finally to converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel. Thus, it was Jerusalem, Israel’s holy city, to which the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. Perhaps the prejudices of their class caused the Magi to go directly to the king’s palace. Or perhaps they just stopped on every street and asked anyone who would listen. Either way, when Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were troubled, instead of being overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and their priorities. They may have sensed it better than many of us, who like Herod have become quite complacent in our way of life and quite comfortable with our possessions.

And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. It was as if they had an abundant academic knowledge of the subject, but lacked any real knowledge. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed - not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi – instead of letting it become just another interesting story with no real impact on our lives.

As for the mag themselvesi, we never hear about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put, any more than the shepherds did. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.

Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.

Long before there were calendar raffles or funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual occasion in the Roman Liturgy to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year. Having rejoiced at the revelation of Christ’s birth, the Church invites us to look ahead to the joy of his resurrection and to recognize how all of time and all of human history have been transformed by these events.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year, the year of our Lord 2018, will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with them to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new and other way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 7, 2018.