Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Work of Living - in the Meantime

In the 1750s, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch, later calling it the most liberating moment of his life.  Most of us, of course, don’t have that luxury. I would feel lost if I were unable to check the time. Like it or not, deadlines dominate my life, and clocks control my activities.

And then, of course, there is that distinctly modern invention, the time zone! Years ago, when I was in Canada, a country with 4½ time zones, I used to enjoy hearing the radio announcer proclaim: It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes, and 10:30 in Newfoundland.  That last time zone was the inspiration for a famous cartoon of a man holding a sign in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”

Well, sooner or later, Christ will indeed come, that awesome judgment day, that dies irae, when, as we say in the Creed, Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But exactly when that day will come remains uncertain , despite that cartoon and many others, and despite what many Christians throughout history have believed or wanted to believe – going all the way back to the very first generation of Christians.

Some of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about Christ’s coming that they expected him to arrive any day – or even thought that he had already arrived. And so, they figured, routine stuff - like working – didn’t matter anymore. It fell to Saint Paul to tell them they were wrong – and should go back to work.

Now to us that all may seem obvious. But there have always been those to whom the opposite has seemed obvious, people preoccupied with prophecies and private revelations about the end of the world or some other imminent catastrophic event – as if our world doesn’t have enough problems of our own making, without looking for phony prophecies and special private revelations to explain them!

Jesus’ earthly life coincided with a period of peace in the Mediterranean world, which had been completely conquered by the power and might of imperial Rome. That pax romana - “the whole world being at peace” (as we say in the Christmas proclamation from the Roman Martyrology) – didn’t last, of course. Just a few decades later, 1st-century Israel was the scene of a catastrophic rebellion, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans. Followers of Jesus – eager for his final return – naturally saw that calamity as a portent of even greater woes to come.

Something similar happened when the Latin Roman Empire itself collapsed in the 5th century. So, for example, in 410 when the city of Rome fell to a foreign enemy for the first time in almost 800 years, a traumatized Saint Jerome lamented, “The brightest light of the whole world is extinguished.” He may not have been consciously channeling Saint Jerome, but in 1914 it was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey who famously warned as World War I began, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He was right, of course, about the civilizational suicide that was World War I, as was Jerome about the fall of Rome. But in neither case was it the end of the world. Then as now, we, as his Church, we must continue to wait, with hope, for Christ’s final return.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus sought to assure his disciples that Jerusalem’s impending destruction would not signal the end of the world. But his words were addressed to all centuries. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. As with the pax romana, untroubled, peaceful times have been the exception rather than the rule in human history. Hardly any period has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. The pre-World War I generation believed in peaceful progress. But the last 105 years – among the bloodiest and most destructive in all of human history – have surely falsified that belief. Meanwhile, wildfires, rising seas, melting ice, and hotter-than-ever temperatures increasingly occupy our attention, warning of coming calamities – calamities of our own making, not prophecies but real and present problems.

So, since we cannot know when the end will come, instead of speculating about it, we actually have plenty of work to do in the meantime – starting with the ordinary working for a living of which Saint Paul spoke.

We do the kingdom of God’s work, when we live as Jesus’ disciples, despite difficulties and even opposition. And, rather than obsessing about the end of the world, the kingdom of God’s work here and now commits us to care about the world and one another in the world.
Hotter-than-ever summers, melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, flooded cities, bigger-than-ever hurricanes, widespread deforestation, and of course California's wildfires are all signs - not necessarily of the Second Coming but of a more humanly induced kind of apocalypse. Climate Change is widely and rightly recognized as one of the defining moral issues of our era - the subject of Pope Francis' famous 2015 encyclical Laudato Si', as well as inevitably a major concern of the recent Special Assembly on the Amazon of the Synod of Bishops, which met in Rome last month.

Over the centuries, the Church has incorporated in her approach to the challenge of daily living in the world an understanding of how human beings are social and political by nature, how human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others and in association with others as fellow citizens. This results in many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy, and also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community. It challenges us to respond to one another and the world we live in seriously in a way that transcends simplistic self-interested slogans and appeals. Far from being obstacles to our experience of God or a stumbling block on our way to God’s kingdom, the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives and the crises and calamities that impact our society and the world at large may be where God is challenging us to act in the present, getting ready for the future by who we are becoming now, by how we live now, what we do now, and how we do it.

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 17, 2019.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Wounded Shepherd (the Book)

Modern popes play such an outsized role both in contemporary Catholicism and on the wider world stage, that they are inevitably subjects of all sorts of analyses. In the John Paul II era, a very informative and interesting (but also extremely hagiographical) papal biographer was George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999) and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010).  Now, in the Francis era, we have something analogous in British writer Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014) and his newest book about Pope Francis, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church.

By his own admission, Ivereigh acknowledges that his earlier book about Francis contributed to a "great man" myth "in which an anointed otherwordly figure rises up to defeat overwhelming challenges with superhuman prowess." Six years later, he is more sensitive to "the limits of reform: paths blocked, resistance mobilized, mistakes made." Hence the title Wounded Shepherd.

One area where Ivereigh has been especially strong - in both books - has been the Pope's Argentinian background, and in particular his Peronist political orientation. Everyone knows that Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope, and we may suspect that being Latin American inevitably has had a significant effect on his worldview. Yet most of us know little about Argentinian history and the impact of Juan Peron and his movement on members of the Pope's generation. Ivereigh sheds helpful light, again in this book as in his previous one, on the Pope's political preoccupations and the influences of his immigrant family, of Argentinian Peronism, and of Latin American Catholicism's apparently unavoidable engagement with Marxism. More personally, again as in his previous book, he illuminates the Pope's personal spiritual development and "how the experience of mercy leads into mission."

In this conflict-prone pontificate, there are, of course, many conflicts one can cover. Ivereigh devotes most of an entire chapter to the 2017 imbroglio involving the Knights of Malta, an event of some symbolic significance and somewhat revelatory in terms of the Pope's priorities and governing style, but otherwise of little interest to those not immediately involved. The next chapter, however, deals with his response to the Vatican's ongoing financial dilemmas. The author is undoubtedly correct in claiming that "no pope chosen in March 2013 would have been in doubt about what was expected of him. The need to clean up and radically reorganize Vatican finances was a major topic of discussion in the pre-conclave cardinals' discussion, uniting senior churchmen who on many other matters of doctrine and theology would struggle to agree." Undoubtedly, the Pope's struggle to deal with the Vatican's finances remains one of the major stories of this pontificate - as also, however, is the unraveling of that initial ore-conclave unity.

Ivereigh walks the reader through the manifold complexities of the Vatican's fiances and the efforts - those successful and those less so - to get a handle on the situation, so that the Vatican has ceased to be "Italy's pocket wild west." But he also highlights how the Pope's priorities go deeper than better financial structures and management. What mattered most to Francis "was to get at the spiritual sickness that lay at the root of the problem: the nest-feathering mentality that was the very opposite of the mid-set of service presented in the Gospel." Hence his emphasis on corruption and for "a major external shock" to turn it around.

Inevitably this gets into a discussion of one of the strongest sources of the Pope's popularity (and an important contributor to his credibility) - the Pope's personal austerity and frugality, illustrated, for example, by his preference for a "car an ordinary Italian family might use," and by his unusual living arrangements. Ivereigh acknowledges that the Casa Santa Marta is hardly "humble," and that the Pope's principal objection to living in the Apostolic palace was actually that he was lonely there. "For me it's a question of personality. I need to live among people and if I lived alone, perhaps rather isolated, it wouldn't be good for me." (All of which, of course, ignores the reality that the Pope can create as much companionship - and/or isolation - for himself as he chooses, regardless of his residence, and that the Pope could have avoided isolation in a way which was less norm-shattering.) In any case, the Pope's own personal explanation for his peculiar, living arrangement would seem to contradict Ivereigh's later, less nuanced, more ideological interpretation that the Pope chose Casa Santa Marta "because he didn't think of himself as Rome's emperor, but the Church's pastor-in-chief." That kind of extreme, ideological language that seems to canonize one option and mock other alternatives actually does a disservice to a balanced understanding of the real importance and real merits of this pontificate.

That said, I think Ivereigh gets it right when he emphasizes that the papal reform program "is a religious reform, one centered on conversion, not simply a structural makeover." Thus, in his curial reform project, Francis has been more like "a spiritual director leading a group on a retreat, creating time and space for change while setting boundaries and clearing blockages." Hence, "the reform that has seemed  so sweeping and dramatic has been, in reality, gradual and gentle." Of course, it is not so evident that the Curia (and others) have always received Francis's constant criticisms the way Ivereigh presents them! 

One group the Pope has widely been perceived as being in conflict with is certain elements in the US Church. Thus, for example, when the Pope updated the Catechism's teaching on the death penalty, there were, ivereigh notes, "Howls of protest from right-wing Catholics in the United States, who served up a toxic mix of theological justifications against any changes in doctrine" - revealing "again, how isolated from mainstream Catholic values were large parts of the American Church."

Ivereigh is at his best connecting the Pope's present with his Argentinian and Jesuit past. Appropriately, he sees the Aparecida synod (the 5th General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council) as key to understanding Francis' evangelizing mission, and also key to understanding some of the differences between the Pope's Latin American approach to the problems posed by "a secular liquid world" and the approach of the wealthier north whose "default setting has been a strategy of accommodation to the age." He notes how, prior to his first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium it was the Aparecida document he invoked to explain his priorities - "the insight that the greatest threat to the Church lay not outside but within, from the temptation of fearful self-enclosure when faced with the tribulation of change."

Ivereigh's analysis also highlights Francis's focus on and repeated repetition of Benedict XVI's famous 2005 observation in Deus Caritas Est that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." Hence Francis' move "to emancipate the Church from the ethicists." 

This move also throws further light on the problematic situation in the US, where the Church "seemed to have been captured by a family-values moralism that was defined best by what it was against." Ivereigh interprets the Pope's American appointments as signalling his "support for a more credible ethical witness - in which immigration, gun-control, the death penalty, poverty, and the environment are also Gospel concerns." 

Ivereigh comments on virtually every episode in Francis' pontificate - the synods, the papal documents, the less formal pronouncements, etc. The book's strength remains what has always been the author's strong suit - his detailed familiarity with the Pope's personal national, and Jesuit background and his ability to make the connections between those elements in his background and his present policies. That very strength may also weaken the work since it overwhelms the reader with so much tedious detail that may easily diminish a reader's attention and patience.  Perhaps it is an unfortunate feature of hagiography that it just can't seem to stop accumulating more and more illustrations of the same fundamental point! 

Whatever the future may hold, in the present this pontificate is clearly epochal. This book's subtitle, Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, is obviously ideological and polemical and confrontational - probably more of each of those than it needs to be. But there can be no denying that this Latin American and Jesuit Pope has brought something vibrantly new to the Church's center-stage - and with it a valuable challenge to certain styles of being Church that, even if originally well intended, have exacerbated the Church's separation from the modern world and from ordinary contemporary people, Ivereigh phrases this as liberating "Catholicism from its attachment to power and self-sufficiency" and turning "it outward, ad gentes, so that the Church lives no longer for itself but to serve humanity."  

That, of course, is always the challenge facing the church, in every time and place, while the obstacles of attachment to power and self-sufficiency have also always been ever-present obstacles along the way.. Perhaps a little less attachment on our part to a fashionable hermeneutic of revolution would better situate this fascinating Pope and his ambitious agenda in that larger context of what the Church is always called to be about.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Different Life

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. North of the border, in Canada where I served for six happy years (and likewise in other Commonwealth countries), it is observed as Remembrance Day. One always knows Remembrance Day is coming when practically everyone is wearing an artificial poppy. In Commonwealth countries, the poppies, the parades, the solemn laying of wreaths, the ritual two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m., all these rituals are ways to remember those who have died.

Back when I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated. Since then, people have come constantly to that wall of names to find the name of someone they knew and loved. They’re just names, of course, but there is something very special about them, because someone has written them – and someone remembers them. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, I saw something similar in New York – in makeshift shrines in front of firehouses and other places – names and pictures of people being remembered.

Surely our ability to remember is one of the things that makes us most human. When we remember those who have died, we recognize the humanity we share. We remember that, like us, they once lived, and that, like them, we too will die.

The famous story in today’s 1st reading [2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14] of the seven brothers and their mother, who were willing to die rather than to disobey God’s law, was written to remember those heroes from the war which Israel had fought for its freedom in the 2nd century before Christ. In remembering those martyred heroes, the story also celebrates their faith that God would raise them up to live again forever.

Two centuries after the Maccabean martyrs, there were still those (notably the cultured priestly elite known in the Gospels as the Sadducees), who lived without any hope of future resurrection – just as there are many people today, who live their entire lives believing that this is all there is and all that there will ever be (for, indeed, as St. Paul pointedly acknowledges in today’s reading from his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, not all have faith.)

If, in fact, this life is all there is, then, of course, one’s only immortality will be one’s children. In such a world, the worst thing that could happen would be to die leaving no one behind to continue one’s name. Hence, the special provision in the Old Testament Law, that required the brother of a man who had died childless to raise up descendants for his brother. The Sadducees invoked what they saw as implications of this law to ridicule the very idea of a future resurrection  [Luke 20:27-38] .

The Sadducees’ problem, however, was precisely their inability to imagine any life at all different from this present life - a life limited, indeed defined, by death. As Jesus quickly pointed out, however, in the resurrected life the original reason behind that marriage law will, of course, no longer apply, because there will be no more death. We will still be ourselves. We’re not going to change into somebody – or something – else, as reincarnation alleges. We will, however, be living a new and completely different kind of life, no longer limited and defined by death.

The story of the Sadducees shows what happens when we try to imagine in too much detail what life after death will be like, because, of course, the only life we, here and now, can really imagine is the one we already know and live, here and now.
Jesus, however, himself has already been raised from the dead and is now living that new life. In the Risen Christ – and in our own experience of the Risen Christ, who comes to us in his Church – we get a forward glimpse into the new life God has in store for us, not as some continuation of the way things are now, but as something totally new.

Like the Maccabean martyrs of the 2nd century BC, the great community of Christian martyrs from the 1st to the 21st centuries offers us a glimpse, as witnesses (which is what the word “martyr” means, “witness”) to the transformative power of the future already beginning even now in the present.

In our experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we recognize that he is alive and that, because of him, we too can hope to live his new life with him forever.
In our Catholic tradition, this time of year is focused in a particular way on the end, and this month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died. 

Our faith challenges us to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Hence, the importance of a proper funeral - an especially privileged moment when the entire Church visibly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased. Sadly, fewer and fewer American Catholics bother to have full Catholic funerals. All the more reason then for us to remember that praying for both the living and the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven great corporal works of mercy. 

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 10, 2019.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Remembering the Cold War

30 years ago tomorrow, on the night the Berlin Wall came down, I was in a convent in Orange County - where the Schools Office staff (of which I had then been a member for just two months) was "on retreat." The opening of the Wall came completely unexpected - as much of a surprise for the international community as for those of us glued to the TV that night in that convent. All of us - our politics, our views of the world, our expectations for the future - had all been formed and conditioned by the Cold War.

My generation had been caught up in the fear of communism and of nuclear war, a danger brought home to us by the semi-annual civil defense drills, when – at the sound of the air-raid siren - we would all crawl under our desks if at school, or run and hide in a nearby building if we were playing in the park. I remember one occasion, when the drill occurred in summer, my mother wouldn’t let me go out to play until after the drill was done with. So I watched from our apartment window as everyone scurried to seek shelter and then followed with great interest the situation of some elderly people who had been sitting on the park bench and who didn’t move until the police came and forced them to do so. I remember speculating whether they just figured they had no reason to run and hide, since, being old, they would probably die soon enough anyway! 

The Cold War had its moral complexities as well. In September 1961, for example, a certain Father McHugh had ignited quite a controversy with an article in America Magazine, “Ethics in the Shelter Doorway,” in which he characterized neighbors seeking admittance to one’s private fallout shelter as “unjust aggressors” to be “repelled by whatever means will effectively deter their assault.” Sometime soon after that article's publication, it was discussed at one of our frequent extended family gatherings in our Bronx apartment. Now it is safe to suggest that no one in that room that evening had ever read America. I doubt any of us even knew of that publication’s existence! But this priest’s views had quickly become widely known. (Historian Arthur Schlesinger later alleged that, in a Kennedy Administration discussion on fallout shelters, Attorney General Robert Kennedy supposedly said “we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every shelter.”) So it was that the debate about Father McHugh’s views had even made it into our family gathering. (Not that any of us had a private family shelter of our own to give the debate relevance!) As for Father McHugh’s belligerent attitude towards neighbors who might seek admission to one’s shelter, my father would have none of it. He categorically said he would not refuse admittance to someone seeking entrance to a shelter and – with no theological education – completely dismissed Father McHugh’s case and argued instead the case for compassion and human solidarity (without, of course, ever resorting to such language). A silent spectator in the adults’ debate, I thought my father showed good commonsense – and a great moral sense.

Yet it truly was a really scary time. How well I remember Monday, October 22, 1962! My mother had already left for work when I got home from school that day. But she called home from Macy’s to tell me to be sure to watch President Kennedy’s talk on TV that evening to find out if we were going to war. That speech was, of course, Kennedy’s famous opening salvo in what we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis. That crisis ended well for the U.S. – surprisingly well, actually. But it was, as I said, a very scary time. Lots of people went to confession that Saturday!

Fear foolishly would inhibit me from flying to West Berlin in 1970, when, as a college student, I spent the summer in Europe studying German in Austria. The idea of actually flying over Communist East Germany to get to Berlin just scared me. So another 35 years would pass before I would get to Berlin. By then, of course, the Wall would be gone and Berlin would be the reunited capital of a post-Cold War reunified Germany.

The year 1970 also saw the publication of Andrei Amalrik's prophetic Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? which we duly read in class. It was inaccurate in some of its predictions (for example, a military conflict between the USSR and China) and of course the Soviet Union did not collapse until several years later, but Amalrik's basic scenario came surprisingly close to the eventual outcome. I remember arguing about the book with some other students who were convinced the rest of the world would never allow a reunited Germany, which was also conventional wisdom - until, of course, the Wall came down and with it conventional wisdom, as Germany was indeed rapidly reunited.

So entrenched was the Cold War in our experience and our expectations that it was almost as if a completely new world had come into being by the time the Soviet Union completely dissolved on Christmas Day 1991. Hence such strangely utopian-sounding expressions as "the new world order" and "the end of history." History did not "end," of course, and "the new world order" increasingly came to resemble aspects of older world orders. 

In his monumental Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt wrote:

"But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. ... In retrospect the years 1945-89 wold now come to be seen now not as the threshold of a new epoch but rather as an interim age: a post-war parenthesis, the unfinished business of a conflict that ended in 1945 but whose epilogue had lasted for another half century. Whatever shape Europe was to take in the years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone before had changed forever."

And so it has turned out - not just for Europe but for the US and for all of us whose experience had been defined by the Cold War division of Europe.

And, while no one would want to go back to that divided world - especially those whose unfortunate fate it had been to be born behind the Wall on the eastern side of that divide - the new post-Cold-War world has been a troubled and confusing one, as conflicts both old and new have replaced the post-war simplicities with results hardly less frightening.

Indeed, for all the problems associated with the 20th-century's herculean politics motivated by grand historical narratives, not only has their loss not heralded an entirely unmitigated improvement but something authentically memorable has been lost as well. As Francis Fukuyama himself acknowledged in his infamous 1989 article on the so-called end of history, "the worldwide ideological struggle" had "called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism" - all of which seem now in such amazingly short supply.

(Photo: A photograph I took of a preserved remnant of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 2005 - the Wall's 44th anniversary.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Religion and Election-Year Politics

160 years after his death, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) still stands out as a pre-eminent analyst of American society and politics. As another election year approaches and the "religious right" is marshaling its forces to try to ensure the re-election of one of the least evidently religious presidents in US history. de Tocqueville's observations about the role of religion in American society seem especially relevant.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed American society in the 1830s, the era of Jacksonian populist democracy (the same era in which Isaac Hecker was growing up and forming his first social and political impressions). He came at the US from a  distinctly French perspective, wondering how American democracy might be different from and more successful than revolutionary movements in Europe and intrigued by how religion (notably his own Roman Catholicism) had developed an altogether different and more positive relationship with an increasingly democratic society from the historically conflicted relationship between them in France (and elsewhere in 19th-century Europe).

Obviously a lot has changed since the 1830s. One would be hard-pressed to argue today that religion plays as prominent a social role as de Tocqueville perceived it to play in Jacksonian America. Such Tocquevillian assertions as "almost all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same" and "there is no country in the whole world. in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America," and " no one, in the United States, has dared to advance the maxim, that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society; and impious adage, which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages" (Democracy in America, volume !, chapter XVIII), such assertions all obviously need some contemporary nuance, although even today they still resonate recognizably. Indeed the third assertion could conceivably be construed as an explanation of aspects of our present moral and political predicament.

That said, there is little that is dated about Tocqueville's observation, based on his 19th-century European experience, that when religion allies itself too closely with governmental power, "it commits the same error, as a man who would sacrifice his future to his present welfare; and in obtaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks that authority which is rightfully its own." If Tocqueville always had France ("the first use which the French made of independence was to attack religion") in his sights, we can consider the more contemporary examples of Ireland and Spain - societies where the Church acquired disproportionate political power only to lose what it had temporarily gained and more. Such examples illustrate in a contemporary context Tocqueville's larger point that "in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few, and forfeits the hope of reigning over all. ... The Church cannot share the temporary power of the State, without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites."