Monday, August 21, 2017

Heavenly Queen

The "Great American Solar Eclipse," which will be the focus of almost everyone's attention today, Fittingly the eclipse comes on the eve of the Church's annual commemoration of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth. (Photo: "The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" at the Paulist "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York.)

On November 27, 1953, Pope Pius XII's Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy commenced discussion on a proposed new feast of the Queenship of Mary, something which over the course of the previous 20 years had been supported by more than 950 bishops. Apparently the proposal provoked considerable discussion. It was noted that, since the 5th century, Christian art and piety have portrayed Mary as a Queen, and that a liturgical feast would confirm popular sentiment. It would also complement the feast of Christ the King and would present Mary in the context of the fullness of her glory. (The contrary view considered the King-Queen parallelism as problematic, since Mary is not her Son's equal, and also considered Mary's Queenship as already contained in the Assumption and therefore an unnecessary duplication.) 

The Commission considered various titles - Regina mundi, Regina coeli et terrae, Regina ecclesiae, Regina universi - finally settling on Festum B.M.V. Reginae. Various dates were considered for the new feast. In the end, the Commission proposed May 1 (although that would necessitate moving Saints Philip and James from their traditional date). On September 8, 1953, in the encyclical Fulgens Corona, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the first-ever "Marian Year" to commemorate the centenary of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception. Then, during that same "Marian year," on October 11, 1954, another encyclical, Ad Caeli Reginam, proclaimed the Queenship of Mary and assigned the new feast to May 31. Paul VI's post-conciliar reorganization of the Roman Calendar reduced the feast to a "memorial" and transferred it to August 22, the (suppressed) Octave Day of the Assumption.

August 22 had also been considered back in the 1950s. (Pope Pius XII had earlier assigned the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to that date. Paul VI's calendar would likewise lower its rank and reassign it - to the Saturday after the Sacred Heart.) Yet the logic of linking Mary's Queenship to the Assumption seems immensely obvious. It seems to confirm the notion that feast of Mary's Queenship would highlight her ongoing intercessory role in the fullness of her heavenly glory, which, while implicit in the celebration of the Assumption, risks getting under-emphasized in the Assumption's primary emphasis on Mary's bodily glorification. The latter emphasis is important eschatologically. In the daily life of the Church, however, Mary's ongoing intercessory role in the fullness of her heavenly glory is certainly as immediately significant. 

Taken up to heaven Mary does not lay aside her salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. (Lumen Gentium 62)

(For a very brief look at Pope Pius XII proclaiming the Queenship of Mary, go to:

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Coming Together

Are we all ready for the “Great American Total Solar Eclipse”? Solar eclipses have fascinated people for all of human history. So it is no surprise that this eclipse is attracting scientists and eclipse tourists to our neighborhood from all over the world, and the US Postal service has even issued a special commemorative stamp!

Historians have long been fond of eclipses, since historical references to ancient eclipses sometimes enable other ancient events to be dated more precisely than would otherwise be possible. One of the earliest known solar eclipses was in 1375 B.C. and was recorded in the ancient city of Ugarit, in what is now Syria. (Syria always seems to be in the news!) In earlier times, eclipses were often interpreted as signs or omens of some contemporary calamity. They have also been known to alter behavior. Thus the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that an eclipse that occurred during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in 585 B.C. caused the two armies to stop fighting and make peace. Wouldn’t it be something if tomorrow’s eclipse had that kind of effect on any of the conflicts currently tearing our world apart! 

What will be the impact of this eclipse on us? How will we experience it? What will we take away from what for most of us will be a once in a lifetime experience?

The Gospels don’t record any eclipses. It was no natural phenomenon, but another person - a foreigner - that challenged Jesus and his disciples in a fundamentally important way in the gospel story we just heard.

Actually, since the story is set in Gentile territory, it was really Jesus and his disciples who were the foreigners there. In this, the event anticipated the reality of the Church, a house of prayer for all peoples, in which we are all in some sense foreigners in the world but no longer foreigners to one another. The perseverance of the Canaanite woman, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies, overcame the historical legacy of cultural and religious segregation. Her prayerful persistence shattered Jesus’ silence, and he in turn responded to her great faith.

Hearing this story, the founding generation of Jewish Christians could recognize and celebrate – as we all must - the unique and special mission of God’s Chosen People, Israel, for, as we just heard Saint Paul instruct the Romans, the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. At the same time, generations of Gentile Christians, beginning with those Romans Paul was writing to and continuing generation after generation down to us, must recognize ourselves in the Canaanite woman and her daughter, united by faith in a new People among whom we are all immigrants but may no longer be strangers, segregated from one another.

That was a powerful lesson, a defining and transforming experience for the first generations of the Church, Jews and Gentiles alike. It continues to challenge us as foreigners who join themselves to the Lord to become that house of prayer for all peoples, not as some vague aspirational slogan but as the very heart of the lived reality of what it means to be the Church in a divided and conflicted world.

It is an important reminder that all the identities that divide the human family – such as racial and national identities – are part of our fallen human condition, not part of the natural order as created by God, and that they have been decisively overcome and replaced for Jesus’ disciples by a completely new concept of community, to which we owe our primary allegiance.

Like the many who come from far and wide to experience the awesome wonder of the eclipse, we are all pilgrims seeking the light revealed amid the dark shadows of our day-to-day divisions and conflicts. That light is revealed not in natural phenomena but in the experience we share with the Canaanite woman and her daughter, strangers no longer either to one another or to the Lord who heals and saves us.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 20, 2017.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Time to Go

It is time for the Confederate statues and monuments to go. Actually, it is long past time. They should have been removed long ago. Better yet, they should never have been erected in the first place. Whatever else may be said about Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederates, whatever else may be said about their motivations and the motivations of those who persist in honoring them, the first and most obvious thing about them is that they were traitors against the United States, who literally waged war against the United States in order to destroy it. That they waged this destructive war in order to preserve an oppressive, slave-based society only adds to their opprobrium. As historical artifacts, as objects of historical significance and interest, some statues might appropriately be preserved in historical museums where all sorts of things, good and bad, are preserved to illustrate our past, but not as objects of public honor. Likewise, historical markers, which commemorate the fact that somebody did something or something happened in particular place, can be a valued contribution to historical knowledge, something we need more of not less! The monuments at issue, however, are at issue precisely because their purpose is not primarily to inform but to honor

All sorts of specious arguments have been advanced suggesting that there is no terminus to this, that getting rid of Robert E. Lee leads inexorably to getting rid of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example. Apparently, one White House lawyer has allegedly been quoted as saying: “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington,” and “there literally is no difference between the two men.” 

Actually there was plenty of difference between them, and there is even more difference  in the reasons for honoring them. Granted. both men were slave owners. There were actually lots of slave owners in colonial America and until the Civil War - among them four of our first five presidents. But we don't honor Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe because they owned slaves. We honor them for the other things they did. No political actor, statesman, or military leader is so unambiguously virtuous as to be beyond any possible criticism. But, while we do honor those who have made major contributions to our history, in spite of their limits and personal faults, we ought not to honor those who went to battle deliberately to destroy this country (motivated moreover by an ideology of racial oppression and enslavement).The cases are clearly different, and it is tendentious at best to equate them

Of course, from the late 18th-century British point of view, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and the rest of our "Founding Fathers" were traitors too. It would certainly have been odd for anyone in Britain to have erected statues in their honor! On the other hand, Britain accepted and recognized American independence in 1783, and the two nations made peace and established ordinary diplomatic relations, and even eventually (much later) became close allies. I don't know of any British statues of George Washington, and we all know that King George III's famous statue in New York City was never restored. But such monuments, if eventually erected or restored, would presumably have been seen as acts of mutual reconciliation between former enemies now allies - again not necessarily as endorsements of everything those individuals did in life.

Magnanimity in victory is a virtue. But real reconciliation between former enemies is always a two-sided process. In the 20th century, Germany and Japan recognized the reality of their defeat and accepted the fact that they had surrendered - and they altered their behavior accordingly. The erection of Confederate statues and monuments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, was the exact opposite. It was a defiant demonstration of non-acceptance of defeat and surrender. That statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were eventually erected even in the U.S. Capitol (despite strenuous protests at the time) demonstrates the complicity of the Federal Government in permitting the perpetuation of Confederate ideology - more importantly and tragically through its failure to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Had those Amendments been enforced, history would have been very different, and we would not as a nation be in the situation we are today. Even now, the enforcement of those Amendments is not what it was intended to be - witness the Supreme Court's evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).

The refusal of many to respect the result of the Civil War and the passive complicity of many others (not to mention the cynical "Southern Strategy" employed by President Nixon and continued by his party) have resulted in a polarized society so divided by mutual hatred and incomprehension that progress on almost any front - let alone real national reconciliation - seems beyond our ability as a nation. One small step, however, would be the elimination of those statues and monuments whose very purpose has been to legitimize that polarization by honoring and celebrating slavery and treason. Effectively accomplished, that one small step might become the giant leap  our nation needs so desperately to begin the work of national reconciliation and reconstruction.

Friday, August 18, 2017

An Ancient/Modern Lesson from Evelyn Waugh

Among the Saints and Blesseds traditionally listed in the Roman Martyrology on August 18 is Saint Helena (244-330). Her entry in the Martyrology for today reads: At Rome, on the Lavican road, St. Helena, mother of the pious emperor Constantine the Great, who was the first to set the example to other princes of protecting and extending the Church. The Martyrology says more about Constantine than about Helena (an occupational hazard, perhaps, when your son in an emperor). At least the Latin Church accords her a day of her own. The Eastern Church celebrates her jointly with her son on May 21, the "Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, Equal to the Apostles." Obviously, Helena was able to accomplish all that she did identifying historical sites and relics in Israel because of who her son was. So perhaps it is only fair that she share her honor with him!

That said, she is certainly a historical personage in her own right. To the rescue, so to speak, came Catholic convert and 20th-century British author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), who published Helena, his only explicitly historical novel in 1950. Waugh himself considered Helena his best work - an opinion not widely shared among literary critics and students of Waugh.I was introduced to Helena a decade or so ago when we read it as part of our monthly "Great Catholic Fiction" book club at Saint Paul the Apostle parish in New York. I thought it was an OK book, but at best one of Waugh's minor works. Brideshead Revisited it most certainly is not!. 

Waugh's Helena draws on the medieval tradition that she was an ancient British princess, a daughter of King Coel ("Old King Cole"). The novel displays some of the humorous satire for which Waugh was so well known, but does so less memorably than some of his more famous works. 

One aspect of the book which I think especially worthy of mention, however, is how it captures the characteristic vanity and ambition of the imperial court and the persistence of murderous palace intrigue, notwithstanding conversion to Christianity.

There are tendencies in some quarters to over-interpret social and political events in pseudo-religious terms.  Nowhere has this been more ridiculously evident in recent years than in the bizarre notion that President Trump is a kind of Constantine figure, appearing on the political scene as the providential protector of Christianity. (See, for example, Blaise Joseph, "Is Trump the New Constantine,"

The analogy can be faulted on various counts - not least the fact that secular "political correctness," while problematic in so many serious ways, does not really represent a threat to Christianity comparable to that posed by Constantine's Christianity-persecuting predecessors! Indeed, as the events of this past week have highlighted, an obsessive opposition to "political correctness" may miss more pressing political and moral evils that also need to be forcefully opposed.

But, be that as it may, Waugh's depiction does demonstrate the inevitable limits not just of Constantine the actual historical emperor but of the whole enterprise of making religion an adjunct of political power - which has probably been the most consistent contemporary failing of the American "religious right."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sun and Moon, Bless the Lord!

I was saddened to hear yesterday on NPR that the moon is slowly moving away from the earth. Every year, it seems, it shifts outward about an inch-and-half. That means that, in only about another 600 million years, the moon will look small enough that it no longer completely covers the sun, and whoever is left on Earth then won't see any more total solar eclipses!

So aren't we lucky to be living on earth now!

(For the full story, go to

Monday’s eclipse is being called the “Great American Total Solar Eclipse,” since the 70-mile-wide shadow cast by the moon will darken skies from Oregon to South Carolina, The total eclipse be first visible in the continental United States on the Oregon coast and will progress south-eastward across the country, covering parts of Tennessee in its shadow.

This eclipse is attracting scientists and eclipse tourists from all over the world. I even know at least one person from Canada who will be in Tennessee for the occasion! Schools will be closed, so that more people can travel to see it. The US Postal service has even issued a special commemorative stamp! (I am still using up my supply of last year's Christmas stamps. But I will interupt that for a while and use Eclipse Stamps.) 

Meanwhile, more people may be congregating in some small towns in the path of totality on Monday than in all of history hitherto! 

Sun and moon, bless the Lord! (Daniel 3:62)

The Path Of The August 21 Eclipse

Source: NASA
Credit: Katie Park and Leanne Abraham/NPR