Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Centennial That Should Not Be ignored

It wasn't quite the crime of the century, but Lenin's murder of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family 100 years ago today was certainly one early and highly symbolic instance of the murderous criminality that would characterize so much of the 20th century. If the murder of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette symbolically sums up the moral depravity unleashed by the French Revolution, likewise the murder of the Romanovs symbolically sums up the moral depravity of the Soviet regime, which directly or indirectly led to so much death and destruction in eastern Europe and elsewhere throughout the 20th century. 

Initial reports of the Emperor's murder were followed by confirmation of the killing of the whole family. "I hear from Russia that there is every probability that Alicky and the four daughters and the little boy were murdered at the same time as Nicky," wrote their cousin, Britain's King George V. "It is too horrible and shows what fiends those Bolshevists are." Indeed it did, but more than that it showed how fiendish the century would be! The Romanovs' murders were just one more - if spectacularly noticeable - instance of of the horrendous violence of "the Great War"  (as World War I was then called). That terribly pointless conflict, which Pope Benedict XV famously called the "suicide of civilization," brought to a tragic end the progressive trajectory on which Western civilization had been so widely thought until then to have been headed. (It was no accident that Karl Barth came out with his first edition of The Epistle to the Romans in 1918.)

As for the crime itself, historians continue to argue about whether or not it could have been prevented, whether or not this or that European monarch could have somehow saved his relatives.  Certainly several such efforts were made. Personally, I have long wondered why Kaiser Wilhelm II did not demand custody of the Romanovs in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In sheer power terms vis-a-vis the Soviet regime, he would seem to have been the best positioned at that particular moment to intervene on behalf of his relatives. (Intensely patriotic, the Romanovs probably would not have wanted to be rescued by their country's wartime enemy, and such a rescue might have further fueled the unjustified charge that the Empress was some sort of German agent.)

Considering the whole question afresh, Helen Rappaport's new book, The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family (St. Martin's Press, 2018), suggests that "the bitter truth is that there was one - and only one - real window of opportunity for escape and that was before Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917." She argues that, if "Alexandra had acted quickly and decisively and had got her children out to safety immediately after the revolution had broken in Petrograd," then there might have been a chance - at least for them. One theme of her book seems to be that whatever inquiries were made and whatever offers of asylum were implied, it was probably already always too late. In the end, she cites Boris Yeltsin 1998 statement calling the murders "one of the most shameful episodes" in Russia's history and declaring: "We are all guilty."

There is now a church on the site of the murders, and the murdered Emperor and his family are now venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as martyrs. The 20th century turned out to be a century of martyrs - more martyrs than in any previous century of Christian history. That in itself is quite a commentary on our time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Flos Carmeli

One of my happy summer memories from growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and early 1960s was the annual festa which we habitually attended every July 16 at the Italian parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel about a mile east of our home along Fordham Road. Our home parish was a somewhat staid, Irish-dominated enclave. So it was always a treat for my grandmother (and for my mother whose name day it was) to worship at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (photo) on the morning of the feast day, shop at the Italian Market on Arthur Avenue, and then return to enjoy "Italian Ices" at the street fair and outdoor procession (complete with dollar bills attached to Our Lady's statue) in the evening.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish had been established in 1906 - the same year as my home parish one mile west of it - and its upper Church was built in 1917. Its ministry was primarily, if not entirely, to the large Italian immigrant community in the East Bronx, and at its height in the 1940s and 1950s more than 40,000 Italians made Our Lady of Mount Carmel on East 187 Street their parish.

In the morning on the feast day, we would take the bus to Mount Carmel church for the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Pernicone, pastor from 1944 to 1966. Today's "traditionalists" typically experience very solemn celebrations of the ancient liturgy. But, back in the day, what most American Catholics typically experienced were hastily celebrated Low Masses most of the time, Sung and Solemn High Masses only occasionally, Solemn High Pontifical Masses almost never. So for me to attend an annual Missa Pontificalis (even if only in faldistorio) was quite something. (My childhood impression at the time was that it seemed mainly all about repeatedly taking the Bishop's miter off and putting it on!)

Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the title given to Our Lady as patroness of the Carmelite Order, a community which dates back to the era of the Crusades. The first Carmelites were Christian hermits living on Mount Carmel (present-day Haifa), site of Elijah’s famous challenge to the 400 Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). The Stella Maris Monastery on Mount Carmel, highlights the Order’s traditional connection to the site. (In modern times, Mount Carmel is also sacred to Bahá'ís, and is the location of the Bahá'í World Centre and the Shrine of the Báb.)

Carmelite friars started establishing foundations in Western Europe in the 13th century. Saint Simon Stock, an early English Carmelite prior general, was thought to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which she gave him the Brown Scapular, which has formed part of the Carmelite habit ever since. My grandmother had a great devotion to the Carmelite Brown Scapular.

Today’s feast was assigned to July 16, because of a Carmelite tradition that the scapular was given on that date by the Blessed Virgin to Saint Simon Stock, who also composed the sequence Flos Carmeli (“Flower of Carmel”) traditionally used in the Carmelite Rite.

Probably the two most famous Carmelite saints were the Spanish Carmelite mystical authors and reformers of the order, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). Paulist Fathers' founder Isaac Hecker was very devoted to both of them, and they are both among the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers.

Of course, I knew about none of that as a kid in the Bronx enjoying the local Italian street fair and discovering a love for the Church's liturgy at Pontifical Mass in that vibrant Italian National parish.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

King's Sanctuary and Royal Temple

Today's 1st Reading at Mass (Amos 7:12-15), which pits Amaziah, representing the king's sanctuary and royal temple, against Amos the Lord's prophet to Israel, always reminds me of an article by the great Reinhold Niebuhr that I remember reading in graduate school in the mid-1970s. In 1969, reacting to the eagerness of religious figures to function as court chaplains to President Richard Nixon, Niebuhr had authored "The King's Chapel and the King's Court" in Christianity and Crisis. Given the contemporary religious right's reprise of that role as chaplains to the Republican Party, I think Niebuhr's article is, if anything, more relevant than ever.

"If we consult Amos as our classical type of radical nonconformist religion," wrote Niebuhr in 1969, "we find that he, like his contemporary Isaiah, was critical of all religion that was not creative in seeking a just social policy." In his essay, Niebuhr quoted one contemporary religious figure, who "forgetting Amos," issued this effusive praise of the then President: "future historians, looking back on our generation may say that in a period of great trial and tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and opening the way for our country to realize the good that the century offered mankind."

To that implicit identification of Nixon with Cyrus, the Lord's Anointed (Isaiah 45:1), Niebuhr famously responded: "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers. The warnings of Amos are forgotten, and the chief current foreign policy problem of our day is bypassed."

What might Niebuhr - or any other authentic religious voice - respond to today's religious right's even more fulsome identification of the Republican Party with Cyrus?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Special Relationship

Presenting his diplomatic credentials to King George III at Saint James's Palace on June 1, 1785, American Minister John Adams famously said: "I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence and affection—or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

Well, we still have "the same language" (sort of), and the so-called "special relationship" between us and our "mother country" (always more aspirational than actual) has survived more or less, again more as an aspiration than anything else. 

In its modern form, the "special relationship" dates back to when it really mattered most - in World War II. The term itself is credited to most Americans' favorite Brit, Winston Churchill, who certainly went out of his way to cultivate a "special relationship" with FDR as part of a long-term strategy to save Britain (and in the process Western civilization). Churchill's understanding of the  "special relationship" was clearly expressed at the end of his most famous parliamentary address, delivered on June 4, 1940, in the aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk:

"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The wartime "special relationship" was obviously a mater of survival for Britain and always meant more to Churchill than to FDR, to Britain than to the US. The post-war "special relationship" (although real enough in military and intelligence terms) has also probably always meant more to Britain than to the US, although its importance for the US - especially in relationship to the culturally much more foreign rest of Europe - should not be undervalued either.

It remains to be seen, however, what may be left of this "special relationship" today, given our President's neo-isolationism. President Trump is said to be a Churchill fan - one reason, perhaps, for setting last night's dinner at Churchill's birthplace at Blenheim Palace (not to mention it being conveniently in Oxfordshire rather than near London). The welcome at Blenheim and today's even grander welcome at Windsor will no doubt impress the President. At his press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump (whose mother, of course, was British) spoke positively about our "special relationship." And certainly there remain rooted in the American outlook residues of the emotional bonds that John Adams called "the old good nature and the old good humor" (although diminishingly so, as fewer and fewer Americans learn or know anything about our history).

But, unlike Churchill and FDR, Trump seems impervious to the deeper meaning of any relationship - except in competitive, transactional, zero-sum terms. With such a destructive outlook upon the world, what can be salvaged?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Western Alliance

By yet another convenient coincidence, today's NATO summit falls on the feast of Saint Benedict (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Both events remind us of the historical centrality of Europe in the formation of our Western culture and of our unique American relationship with Europe as its civilizational heir and beneficiary and as the guarantor of that civilization's survival. Yesterday, the US Senate voted 97-2 to reaffirm the significance of the NATO alliance.

NATO is almost as old as I am. In the aftermath of the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, and other events, it became increasingly evident that a full-scale Western military alliance was needed to counterbalance Soviet power and possible expansion, The result was the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949 (photo). Its goal, in the words of its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Its historical success until now has been how it has indeed contained Russian expansionism, overcome American isolationism, and re-integrated post-war Germany into the heart of European civilization and collective defense. (West Germany became a member in 1955.)

The members agreed that an armed attack against any one of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against them all and that each of them would assist the country being attacked. The only time this provision has actually been explicitly invoked was in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S.

Prior to President Trump, probably the greatest threat to NATO's unity and effectiveness had come from the more independent policies of French President Charles de Gaulle (who resented American dominance of the alliance and the "special relationship" between the US and the UK. Even so, France remained in the alliance.

President Trump came to power on the strength of a kind of grievance politics - a popular belief that the US is constantly being taken advantage of by others. I have heard this all my life - usually in connection with "foreign aid," which is in fact a very small part of the US budget. Of course, there is some merit to the President's complaint that other NATO countries are not contributing their fair share of the cost of our mutual defense. Previous presidents have made the same point. Whereas when NATO began Europe was devastated, now - in large part thanks to the American security umbrella - Europe is now prosperous and probably ought to contribute a larger share.

Previous presidents have made the same point, but previous presidents understood the value of alliances and understood that what binds us together with Europe is much greater than disagreements over money. President Trump obviously has no sense of history and no appreciation of mutuality. To him, everything seems to be a zero-sum transaction. Hence his inability to appreciate how everyone can benefit in an alliance.

Yesterday's Senate vote is  reminder that, despite the appeal in this country of Trump's grievance politics, many Americans still treasure our inheritance from Europe and our contemporary relationship with Europe - and recognize the threat our long-time enemy Russia still poses.

Saint Benedict, pray for us!