Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lincoln Reconsidered

Lincoln Reconsidered was, I think, the title of one of the books about Lincoln which we were required to read for high school American history class. I haven't actually counted, of course, but my guess would be that Lincoln, who died 150 years ago today, may be one of the most written about of all our presidents - no doubt deservedly so. Certainly, he remains still today at the top of most standard "best presidents" lists, among the most admired and referred to of all our national leaders, worthy of being considered and reconsidered by every generation. 

Not every catastrophic crisis is guaranteed to produce a president or leader of such heroic proportions, but those we acknowledge as history's great leaders are usually those who have successfully led their nations through a major war or comparable crisis. Our great 18th-century president was, of course, George Washington, who, having already attained almost mythically heroic status as national war leader during the Revolution, then served as our first president, leading the country's way through the critical period of the founding and setting the necessary precedents for successful future governance by successors of lesser stature. Our greatest 20th-century president, Franklin Roosevelt, responded aggressively the greatest economic crisis in American history and then led the same nation to victory through the defining military conflict of the century, by the end of which the United States was the undeniably dominant power in the entire world. Likewise Lincoln led the nation through its 19th-century crisis of coming apart and being put back together on a new foundation.

That new foundation was, of course, a transformed constitution rooted in the prior principles of the Declaration of Independence - not its asserted theory of the constitution of the British Empire but its much more audacious assertion of the natural, God-given equality of human beings and their shared community in natural, God-given rights. This, the original constitution had failed to affirm, rooting the new nation's institutions in a fatal compromise with the sin of slavery, a compromise that was only to be undone on the bloody battlefields of a terrible Civil War.

Lincoln the man and the politician remains one of our nation's more interesting historical figures for anyone wishing to consider the way a person's personality and character can respond to the challenge of historical developments and can impact that development in a more moral direction. Like his famous image in Washington, DC, Lincoln really was larger than life. In an era of anything but larger-than-life leaders and leadership, Lincoln demonstrates the absolute need for genuine human greatness to break through the stranglehold that impersonal forces, bad ideas, and narrow individual and group interests will inevitably set as society's agenda, unless countered by great leaders who have developed their characters with authentic moral vision and practical political skill.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Woman in Gold

Monday, I did something I seldom really do - take the day off. The morning was spent at the Verizon store upgrading to a new iPhone. After that, I was ready to do something more meaningful and hopefully much more satisfying. So I went to the movies to see the new Helen Mirren-Ryan Reynolds film, Woman in Gold, based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Austria-Jewish refugee from the Holocaust and her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, and their ultimately successful fight with the Austrian authorities to reclaim Gustav Klimt's famed portrait of Maria's aunt, Adele Bloch-Buaer,  the famous "Woman in Gold," confiscated by the Nazis from Maria's childhood Viennese apartment and for decades displayed in Vienna's Belvedere Palace.

The film follows the improbable story of Maria's quest, her enlisting of the young Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) to success in the U.S. Supreme Court and final success at arbitration in Vienna. Interweaved with that 21st-century story are flashbacks to Maria's pre-war life in a well-to-do highly cultured Viennese Jewish family and tragic changes visited upon them by the Anschluss. The pre-war family scenes are particularly poignant, as they illustrate the assimilated lifestyle of so many German and Austrian Jewish families and their commitment to a certain kind of culture, what in German would be called Bildung, a way of life of which both Maria's father's cello-playing and the painting itself serve as symbols.

Mirren and Reynolds play their parts well and kept me engaged in the evolution of their characters. The scenes of modern Vienna made me nostalgic for my two visits to that city - the first as a college sophomore studying German in the very different, still post-war world of 1970.

But more important than any of that, in a very human way which gets beyond narrow polemics, the film recalls the trauma of the war and the Holocaust and addresses the controverted question of Austria's post-war self-identity as primarily victim rather than actual accomplice. These are all important issues, which, with the passing of the World War II generation, no longer engage the contemporary world, but, which for all sorts of reasons, should not be allowed to be simply forgotten.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Year of Mercy

On the Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, from a Throne erected in the atrium of Saint Peter's Basilica directly facing the Holy Door, Pope Francis formally issued the Bull of Indiction (Misericordiae Vultus) of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that will begin on December 8 and will likely set the tone for the rest of this pontificate

When I walked through Rome's four Holy Doors during the last Holy Year, the Great Jubilee of 2000, I wondered whether I would still be around at all to participate in the next Jubilee Year. I certainly never expected to see another one so soon! But then life is full of surprises, and there certainly have been lots of surprises both inside and outside the Church in the last 15 years!

Every Holy Year is about forgiveness, of course. So, in that sense, focusing a Jubilee entirely on divine mercy might seem a surprise. But, as I mentioned in my homily yesterday, referring to an author's talk at a fundraising luncheon I attended last month, there may be no more obvious confirmation of the fact that "the world is in need of mercy" than the frequency with which that sentiment is being expressed in so many and such diverse - even secular - settings.

In his Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis begins by calling Jesus himself "the face of the Father's mercy." He is proclaiming this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Pope says, because we need "to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives." This Jubilee will therefore serve "as a special time for the Church; a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective" [MV, 1, 3]. 

The Pope says he has chosen to inaugurate the Holy Year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, both because that feast evokes God's merciful action from the very beginning of human history and also because it marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. He cites Pope Saint John XXIII's famous statement in his opening address to the Council about the Church's choice today to use "the medicine of mercy" and Blessed Paul VI's final summation of the Council's orientation at its public closing. Significantly, Pope Francis offers his own interpretation of the 20th-century's defining ecclesial event as the Church entering "a new phase of her history," in which the Council Fathers perceived "a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way... a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning ... a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction" {MV 4]. 

If Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Council from the perspective of the Council Fathers' actual generation, the last popes to have participated in the Council, Pope Francis speaks today from the perspective of the next generation, the generation that remembers the Council not as participants but as adolescent and young adult observers. (I too count myself in that generation, although I am 12 years younger than Pope Francis.) It may well be that Francis  will be the last pope who will actually have a personal memory of the Council and of its time and circumstances.

As is normal with such documents, MV provides a quick survey of scripture and salvation history from the perspective of mercy, before returning to the contemporary ecclesial context - prepared, Pope Francis notes, by Pope Saint John Paul II's magisterial teaching on mercy, beginning with his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (1980).

The heart of the Pope's argument is what he has to say about the foundational character of mercy in the life of the Church. Mercy, Pope Francis asserts, "is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love." If, on the one hand, "the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture" and "the word seems to have dropped out of use," then "The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope" [MV 10]

The Pope explicitly challenges the Church to "pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception." He situates mercy at the heart of the new evangelization and identifies it as crucial for the credibility of the Church's message, such that "wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident" [MV 12].

A Holy Year is always about pilgrimage. So Pope Francis (referencing Luke 6:37-38) presents the year as a pilgrimage journey in which we are all invited to become Merciful like the Father, which will serve as the Holy Year's "motto." [MV 14]. In practical terms, he issues a strong call for renewed attentiveness to both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in our lives and actions and to the special opportunities next year's Lenten season will provide. I was particularly struck by his request that this year's “24 Hours for the Lord” (on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent) should be implemented all over the world next year [MV 17].

Undoubtedly, the Holy Year will inspire increased fervor in the Church - especially among those who pay attention to these sorts of things and those who avail themselves of the year's pilgrimage opportunities. The Pope clearly hopes many more will avail themselves of the sacrament of Penance. Hence, his decision to commission special confessors.

It is always a challenge, of course, to incorporate such initiatives in the ordinary, daily life of the Church, which has a way at times of becoming routinized and insulated from the wider world. Much remains to be determined and developed in terms of the specific observances that will highlight the Holy Year not just in Rome and especially at the diocesan and parish levels. Still a definite focus has been articulated for the year and indeed for this pontificate. Soon, I will be initiating a process of re-examining how all my parish's programs and activities for the coming year can more explicitly reflect the spirit of this Holy Year and the challenges articulated in this Bull. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday of Mercy

In the early Church, those newly baptized at Easter received white baptismal robes which they wore at Mass each day of Easter Week. The Sunday after Easter was, therefore, called Dominica in Albis Depositis ("Sunday in Setting Aside the White Garments"). On that day, the newly baptized attended Mass for the first time as ordinary members of the congregation. If nothing else, this should remind us that the Easter season was originally a special season for the newly baptized, a time for them to internalize and interpret their Easter experience. And, if it made sense for us to follow their before-Easter journey and identify with them during their period of preparation for baptism, it makes similar sense for us to identify now with the newly baptised in their Easter and post-Easter experience.

One of the ways we do that, as a Church at Easter Time, is through the daily reading of the Acts of the Apostles. the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel according to Luke. It continues the story after the Risen Lord’s ascension. It is Luke’s account of the experience of the apostolic Church and of its growth and expansion – an experience I think was well summed up in the title of a children’s book version of Acts that came out some 25 or so years ago, called Good News Travels Fast.

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 4:32-35] describes the life of that first Christian community in Jerusalem. Of all the things that might have been mentioned, two aspects of how those 1st Christians lived are emphasized: the powerful witness of the apostles to the reality of the resurrection and the dramatic change in people’s behavior that resulted from that and then in turn became itself such a powerful form of witness.

In a world torn, then as now, by conflict and division, the community of believers strove to be of one heart and mind. In a world of social and class divisions, divided, then as now, between rich and poor, between “haves” and “have-nots,” The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was no needy person among them.

In the world in which we now live, it is division and inequality – not unity and community – that still characterize our human condition. Social, economic, ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, and generational divisions form the structural fabric of human relations. All the more necessary, then, is the living witness of the Church to a totally new order of relationships linking people and communities of every race and nation, of every language and way of life – challenging us all, individually and collectively, to live as changed people because of the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, as witnessed by his continued action in the world through his Body, the Church.

Fittingly, therefore, this 2nd Sunday of Easter is also celebrated in the Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. Recently, I attended the annual fundraising lunch for an organization which does much good in downtown Knoxville. The featured speaker at the lunch highlighted the message, “the world is in need of mercy.” There may be no more obvious confirmation of the reality of that widespread and felt need than the frequency with which that sentiment is expressed – and in such diverse and even secular settings!

Saint John Paul II once called Divine Mercy “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity” [Homily, April 22, 2001]. To make the Church’s mission of being a witness to mercy even clearer to the world, Pope Francis has proclaimed an extraordinary Jubilee, with the mercy of God as its focus. Yesterday afternoon, in the atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica in front of the Holy Door (which is only open during Jubilee Years), the Pope formally issued what is called the Bull of Indiction, officially establishing this Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin with the Opening of the Holy Door on December 8.

That ritual dates back to when Pope Alexander VI opened what was then still a wooden door to inaugurate the Holy Year of 1500. Symbolically, the opening of the Holy Door evokes God’s offer of forgiveness, which is central to every Holy Year. The bronze Holy Door that stands there now, known as the "Door of the Great Pardon" (photo), dates from the Holy Year of 1950. Fifteen bronze panels portray episodes from both the Old and New Testaments, illustrating human sinfulness and our redemption through God’s mercy, leading up to the 16th panel which portrays Pius XII opening the door in Christmas Eve 1949.

The 13th panel portrays a scene from today’s gospel [John 20:19-31].

That Gospel is a very familiar one. We hear it ever year on this Sunday of Mercy. Understandably fearful for their safety, the disciples, as we heard, had hidden behind locked doors. Perhaps this was the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. In any case, On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that peace was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings peace – not some social or political peace, but the peace of Divine Mercy that brings forgiveness and so can conquer fear. It is clear enough from the locked doors just how fearful the disciples must have been.

There are also the many locked doors one doesn’t see, but one feels nonetheless. We may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were, although for Christians in parts of the Middle East and Africa, this scene is all too contemporary. But we too have our own less visible fears, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.

Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the continuity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart his forgiveness and mercy in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

That message and the experience of mercy and forgiveness flowing from it are at the heart of our new life together as Christ’s Church in the world.

For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus a long time ago - and then leaves us and everything else in the world completely unchanged. Rather that world, as we just heard [1 john 1:5-6], has been conquered.

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 12, 2015.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Images from Easter Past

Someone who spends more time on the internet than I think I should pointed me to this short (under two minutes) video, currently making the rounds, showing Pope Saint John XXIII in 1959 officiating at the traditional blessing of wax discs, impressed with the image of a lamb, known as Agnus Dei. This is an ancient Roman tradition of which I had hitherto been completely unaware. According to the old (early 20th-century) Catholic Encyclopedia, this blessing was performed in the first year of each new Pope's pontificate and every seventh year afterwards. 

The video from 1959 is black-and-white and (for whatever reason) has no sound, which may make it that much more effective, since there is no noise or commentary to distract us from the Pope's actions. To watch it, go to:

It begins with the discs being prepared and shows still scenes of the papal miters, chrism, and balsam waiting at the credence table. Pope John arrives in mozetta. The video then jumps to the Pope, now vested in miter and cope (and falda), who mixes chrism and balsam in a vessel of water, then dips the discs into the mixture, apparently accompanying these actions with various prayers. The ceremony ends with the Pope blessing the congregation from his throne and then departing.

According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, this blessing took place on the Wednesday of Easter Week. Then, on the Saturday of Easter Week the solemn ceremony of distribution took place, at which the Pope put a packet of newly blessed Agnus Dei discs into the inverted miter of each cardinal and bishop who came up to receive them. Now that would be a really fun video to watch!

It is well known that Pope Saint John XXIII liked the baroque papal liturgy of the pre-conciliar Church, just as he expressed his affection for many of  the more devotional aspects of the old liturgy - like the Last Gospel, for example. He probably enjoyed himself as he performed that ancient ritual that Easter Wednesday in 1959, and from heaven he may still be enjoying our enjoying of him doing it!