Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saint Paul, our Patron

On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker together with 3 others – Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker – founded the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” For more than 150 years, the Paulist Fathers’ life as a religious community in the Church and their wider missionary outreach have been blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we celebrate today - during this special Year of Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis has called upon all priests, brothers, and sisters in religious communities to observe.

Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. If the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, and the two are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, there is this additional celebration of St. Paul – focused on the event in his life that we commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared, highlighting what it means to be converted to Christ, to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples.  No wonder Hecker and his friends chose Paul as their patron! No wonder the Paulists celebrate this day every year as our patronal feast day!

Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the group most zealous about religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from what we call the Diaspora. (There was nothing unusual about that. More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.

All of this was very important, because one of the great issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.

What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendents and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.

And because the converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people and why he appealed to Hecker as a model – Hecker who was so convinced that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time (and Hecker’s time), but the Church’s mission - and our mission  - remain the same.

Paul had what Hecker so much wanted his Paulist Fathers to have, what Hecker called “zeal for souls.” Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do.

As Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”

Along with preaching and teaching and organizing local churches and recruiting leaders for them, another important part of Paul’s apostolic activity was raising money. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and his mission partner, Barnabas, brought financial aid for the struggling community in Jerusalem from the Church in Antioch when they went to Jerusalem around the year 46 [Acts 11:29-30]. Paul recounted this visit in his letter to the Galatians where he recalled how the Apostles hoped he and his Gentile converts would keep this up, something Paul expressed his eagerness to do [Galatians 2:10]. Over the next decade, a very busy and productive period for Paul, he continued to raise money from his Gentile converts in order to assist the struggling Church in Jerusalem and wrote about this in some detail in his two letters to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8–9] and in his letter to the Romans [Romans 15:25-33].

Paul’s "Financial Appeal" was a charitable response to the real needs and struggles of the Jerusalem community and the special responsibilities the Jerusalem Church had in relation to other Christian communities. It was also an expression of - and a lesson in - the unity and interdependence of individuals and local communities in the wider Church. Paul took this responsibility very seriously, as an essential expression of what it means to be a Church community, what it means to be diverse and different people all united in one Church, one Body of Christ. That is the same spirit in which we need to approach our annual Bishop’s Appeal, which is our annual opportunity, as individuals and as parishes, to unite our efforts as one local Church here in East Tennessee to meet the multiple needs of the diocese for mission, education, charity, and service to so many people with so many needs.

The Paulist Fathers have served the Church in Tennessee for over a century, starting with 50+ years of mission outreach in Middle Tennessee.  For another 50+ years, the Paulist Fathers maintained a major mission parish in Memphis. And, since 1973, we have been busy here in Knoxville, sharing the good news of Christ and the life of his Church in this city’s downtown and at its university.

As Paulists, we are committed not just to our own religious community’s life and mission, which so many of you have so generously supported over the years (and as recently as last week) through our annual Paulist Appeal, but also - and just as essentially - to the life and mission of the Church here in East Tennessee in the Diocese of Knoxville. So I invite you to be attentive and generous in your response when our Bishop, carrying on the same tradition started by Saint Paul, makes his annual appeal to you next week.

Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Patronal Solemnity of the Paulist Fathers, and the Announcement of the Annual Bishop's Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 25, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Burying Richard III

I have written about this before, but an article in yesterdays' British publication Catholic Herald has reminded me that efforts are still being made to keep alive the issue of a Catholic funeral for Richard III - even as the date for the last Yorkist King of England's March 26 funeral and re-burial approaches. According to yesterday's Catholic Herald  article, some 3000 people have signed a petition (addressed to the Cardinal archbishop of Westminster) asking that Richard III receive a Roman Catholic funeral - on the obvious grounds that as a medieval man, ruling pre-Reformation England, Richard was, whatever else history may say about him, certainly a Catholic, and should be buried according to the rites of his Church and not that of the Church invented to resolve the marital problems of one of his more infamous successors. 

Of course, Cardinal Nichols is not the one empowered to make that decision, nor is there any evidence that he has any significant objections to plan presently in place for the king's final obsequies. The article notes that there will be ecumenical services surrounding the event, that the Cardinal will preach at Compline on the day the royal remains are received at Leicester Cathedral (Sunday, March 22), and that he will also celebrate a Requiem Mass the next day at a nearby Catholic church.

Personally, I see little to object to in these arrangements. For better or for worse, the Church of England is the Established Church in historic continuity with the pre-Reformation English Church. Any "State Funeral" must reflect that historic fact. On the other hand, Richard's pre-Reformation Catholicism is an historic fact that should also be respected. Certainly, the Cardinal's participation in the official rites and the offering of a Catholic Requiem the same day represent reasonable efforts to show such respect. (Parenthetically, one wonders what rite the Cardinal will use at the Requiem. If historical accuracy is the issue, then the Mass should be celebrated according to the pre-Reformation rite in use in 15th-century England - certainly the 1969 Missal of Paul VI, but also equally not the 1570 Roman Missal of Pius V, which only came to England with the Elizabethan Jesuit missionaries.)

It is easy to blow such matters out of all proportion, and certainly this controversy among historians should not be overdone. It does, however, serve as a salutary reminder of one devastating consequence of the Wars of the Roses and the eventual rise of the Tudor dynasty. As such it invites one to imagine an alternative history, what easily might have been. As one of the historians who worked to identify Richard's remains was quoted as saying: "If Richard III had not have died, maybe the Anglican church would never have existed."

(The January 23 Catholic Herald article about the latest petition can be accessed at

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vigil for Life

Last night, as I try to do each year, I watched the first part of the Mass at the National Shrine opening the annual Vigil for Life, as we once again observe the sad anniversary of the calamitous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. This year again the principal celebrant of the Mass was Boston's Sean Cardinal O'Malley, who once again spoke eloquently about our mission as people of faith to witness to human dignity. He rebutted the dominant mythology that the majority of women and young people are pro-abortion - a mythology undercut visibly by the predominantly young crowd filling the Basilica. 

The annual Vigil for Life Mass is one of those mega-events that are inherently uplifting by virtue of the turnout and participation. The Basilica was full, of course, and the entrance procession took more than half an hour, as seminarians from all over solemnly walked through the nave to the sanctuary, followed by numerous deacons, concelebrating priests, bishops, and cardinals. If nothing else, the parade of seminarians certainly should give some hope that we may somehow make our way out of the current vocations crisis, while the capacity congregation - perhaps one of the largest gatherings of young people in the year - should do something at least to raise our hopes about the Church in America's future that is otherwise so often forecasted as so bleak.

The Gospel for the Mass was the familiar story of the Rich Young Man, whom Jesus invited to embrace a life of complete commitment, over and above the minimum requirements of the commandments, and who went away sad because he had so many possessions. Commenting on that, Cardinal O'Malley said: How dangerous money can be when it becomes our master.

Jesus in that same Gospel story also famously said: "How hard it is to enter the Kingdom. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." In regard to that,  O'Malley recalled how  Chesterton once said that ever since Jesus made this statement, scientists have been trying to breed smaller camels and engineers are trying to make bigger needles! 

The Pro-Life movement in the Church, O'Malley insisted, must be about overcoming indifference. In particular, he reminded us, the Gospel of Life has to be about loving and helping the poor. Indeed, reducing poverty will also reduce the number of abortions. Poor and low income women account for more than half of the abortions performed each year in our country. The Cardinal also cited Pope Francis on our need to say No to an economy of exclusion and inequality, the kind of economy that is at the root of so much of what Pope Francis calls our "throwaway culture."

As Pope Francis reminds us: “When St. Paul approached the apostles in Jerusalem to discern whether he was running or had run in vain”, the key criterion of authenticity which they presented was that he should not forget the poor. This important principle, namely that the Pauline communities should not succumb to the self-centered life style of the pagans, remains timely today when a new self-centered paganism is growing. We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards.”

And then this timely reminder: An attitude of judgmental self righteousness is not going to change peoples' attitudes and save babies. We need to be the field hospital not Judge Judy.
One can only wonder how much more effective the pro-life movement might have been over the years had such counsels always been kept in focus!

We must work tirelessly to change the unjust laws, the Cardinal reminded us near the end of his homily, but we must work even harder to change hearts, to build a civilization of love. Solidarity and community are the antidotes to the individualism and alienation that lead people on the path of abortion and euthanasia.

Solidarity and community! How often does it come back to these basic, foundational themes! Decades ago, when I studied and taught political philosophy, I used to ruminate how capitalism crushes our capacity to care. The recovery of the foundational human need for community and the foundational moral value of solidarity are at the heart of the healing of our society that has gone so wrong in so many ways. The fight against the legalized murder of unborn millions is one necessary step in any recovery of those foundational commitments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of (Dis)union

The annual ritual of the President's State of the Union Address took place last night. There are few settings more solemn in our casual culture. And it is certainly one of the best opportunities a President gets to address the nation about his priorities and vision. 

The President did that last night. He did it better than some Sate of the Union speeches I can recall. Perhaps more to the point, he did it better than he has done in recent months. It is indeed one of the more perplexing characteristics of this particular president that, despite evident oratorical talent, he has seemed so ineffective at articulating a positive vision for his administration and, long-term, for America.

The State of the Union is ostensibly an address to the Congress - a report "on the state of the union" and recommendations for legislation. In format, it is the American version of the Throne speeches that punctuate the political calendar in parliamentary systems. Of course, from Jefferson through Taft, presidents eschewed the monarchical trappings of such an event and sent their message to the Congress in writing. Then Wilson restored the in-person, monarchical aspect of the event. Then Lyndon Johnson moved it from its traditional noon hour to evening, thus transforming it from an address to Congress to an address over the heads of Congress to the nation at large. Given the sad state of contemporary congressional governance, that may be a development any contemporary president must surely appreciate. That gerrymandered institution may make a good ceremonial backdrop for the State of the Union, but it has little to offer the nation but continued and growing disunion.

"The shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong." Such was the theme of the first part of the President's address. he rightly rejoiced - and invited us to rejoice - in the growing economy that is creating jobs at the fastest pace since the end of the last century. And there can be no doubt that the economy has definitely been getting stronger and stronger - especially in comparison with the much more static European economies. Of course, in today's polarized political climate, with an incorrigible opposition to whom facts do not matter much, such good news must seem to many as bad news - as reflected in the stony silence of the opposition party, led by their Speaker who seemed demonstrably miserable most of the evening.

I'm not sure how I feel about the new language of "middle class economics," but it was refreshing to hear the President take ownership of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for so many formerly uninsured Americans, to hear him emphasize the need to make working families feel more secure, and to acknowledge that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 

The persistent problem, however, is that, despite evident improvement in economic growth, the benefits of this improving economic situation have hardly been broadly shared in our society. When the President asked, "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well," we all understand that it is the opposition party that is being tagged. The fact remains, however, that it has consistently been the case since the Reagan years that income inequality has grown and that the gap between the 1% and the have-not 99% has become an established fact of our tarnished social structure. That fact alone accounts, I fear, for a large part of the sadness and cynicism that continues to grown and to corrode what little is left of our once vibrant American civic culture.

It is against that background that I heard the latter part of the President's speech, which tried to recover the idealistic imagery of his initial appearance on the national scene. The President may sincerely believe in the possibility of overcoming the many divisions that continue to bedevil our society. But it is hard to see how that can happen, both because of the ideological polarization that the Congress so perfectly, if pointlessly,  represents and because of the evident failure (economically and otherwise) of the American dream since the politically and morally calamitous 1980s. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation!

In this season of new beginnings, the Church this particular Sunday also recalls the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission. Indeed, today’s Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19) and Gospel (John 1:35-42) must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text - fitting enough for this Year of Consecrated Life!

In churchy language, we usually use the word “vocation” in one of two senses – first, for the general calling of everyone to be converted and become a disciple of Jesus, and, secondly, for the particular calling of some disciples to undertake lives of full-time ministry in the Church. In this Sunday's Gospel, the 2 vocations came together for Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. In Peter’s case, one could say he went from fisherman to disciple, to apostle, to Pope – all in one encounter!

Samuel’s case in Sunday's Old Testament reading may have been a bit more typical. He was just a boy, but he was already being brought up to be devoted to the Lord, which is surely how most religious vocations begin, are nurtured, and flourish.  Then, gradually, Samuel heard the Lord’s voice calling him to a special mission.

Listening to Samuel’s story, I am reminded of our Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s account of his own boyhood, as he described it in statements made towards the end of his life:

Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.

For all the drama we may occasionally be inclined to associate with God’s call, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call comes typically in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. Two things clearly stand out in all these accounts. The first is that the target of God’s call needs to be receptive, needs to let the Lord take the initiative, in short, to listen. In this “information age,” we have all become accustomed to receiving all sorts information which we have no real need for. So it may be becoming increasingly hard for us even to imagine hearing something that really matters – and hence having a reason to listen. But God doesn’t impart information. He calls us personally into relationship with him, and in response we need, first of all, to listen. 

The second thing that stands out in these stories is the important part played by the believing community as a whole. As with Jesus’ invitation to his 1st disciples in the Gospel, God’s call is first and foremost a challenge to Come, and see. Closely connected with the part played by the believing community as a whole is the guiding role played by particular people in that community – people like Eli in the case of Samuel, John the Baptist in the case of Andrew, and Andrew in the case of Simon Peter. (To which illustrious list, one could also add someone like that other great 19th-century American Catholic convert, Orestes Brownson, in the case of Isaac Hecker).  All of them – Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson – all functioned as intermediaries facilitating the special vocations of others.
There have been occasions in history when the community assumed what, by today’s standards, might seem an excessively forceful role in fostering vocations in the Church. In spring of the year 391, St. Augustine, then already 36 years old (but baptized only 4 years), visited the North African town of Hippo. The Bishop of Hippo, Valerius, knew of Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator and took advantage of Augustine’ presence at Sunday Mass to announce that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until, weeping, he agreed to be ordained!

That might be a bit over the top by today’s more bureaucratic standards. All these cases do remind us, however, that one’s sense of one’s vocation is hardly likely to arise in isolation and can even less likely be fostered and flourish in isolation. In our common life together as Christ’s Church – just as we do in our common civic life as citizens - we all need people like Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson to help us understand what we are being called upon to do. And we in turn need to be ready and willing to play that role for one another.