Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mother of Immigrants

Today the Church in the United States commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian-born religious foundress, who crossed the Atlantic ocean multiple times to serve Italian immigrants in both North and South America. She became a U.S. citizen, was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 (the first American citizen to be so recognized), and then declared the patron saint of immigrants by the same Pope in 1950. (Why we commemorate her today, I don’t know. In the old liturgical calendar, she used to be celebrated more logically on December 22, the date of her death in Chicago in 1917.)

Although Mother Cabrini (as she was known in life and is still referred to even now that she is a saint) died in Chicago, her body is famously exposed for veneration under the altar in her shrine in the New York City Washington Heights neighborhood, in the convent of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order she founded in 1880. When I was growing up a short distance away across the Harlem River in the Bronx, it was a shrine, which had special significance for my Sicilian grandmother, who made sure we went to visit it yearly. It was always a treat to visit the shrine, not least because of its magnificent location in Washington Heights, the highest part of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, a mile or so north of the George Washington Bridge. But, while we took in the sights and enjoyed being in the beautiful park (home also to the world-famous medieval art museum, The Cloisters), my grandmother always made certain that we visited the chapel and there venerated the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.

Trained in Italy as a teacher, Frances Cabrini originally applied to join the order she had been taught by, but was rejected. So she gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed her own religious community, founding a school and homes for orphans. But, when she applied to Pope Leo XIII for his approval for a missionary outreach to China, the Pope instead directed her to the United States and the growing Italian immigrant communities there. "Not to the East, but to the West," was his advice. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish-American Catholic establishment. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions (schools, hospitals, orphanages) in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities.

Those days are gone now and with them and many of those once impressive institutions, but structured outreach within immigrant communities as an explicit expression of the Church’s commitment to social solidarity remains central to the Church’s life and work in the United States – now as it always has been, and (given our contemporary crisis of social solidarity) now maybe more than ever. Not unlike our attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth, our response to the immigrants among us is a profoundly spiritual and moral matter - a fundamental affirmation or not of the Gospel's demands.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day - 100 Years Later

100 years ago today the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, and the civilizational calamity that was World War I (“The Great War,” as it was then known) came to an end. On display in the church today (and all year long downstairs in the parish hall) is the famous photo of our own church as it looked on that memorable day, all decorated in celebration of the Armistice [Photo Above]. Of course, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, that Armistice and the welcome relief it brought were but a temporary truce in what would prove to be almost a century of European and world war, sometimes hot, sometimes cold.

My first assignment as a priest was at a parish in Toronto. In Canada, as in other Commonwealth countries, November 11 is Remembrance Day and is universally observed with virtually everyone from the Queen on down wearing red poppies in the weeks leading up to it and with a strict 2-minute silence at 11:00 a.m. on the day itself, customs we unfortunately don’t have here in this country.  Even so, remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. And it is above all as fellow human beings and also as fellow citizens that we remember today those who have gone before us, our cherished past to whom we owe our precious present and our hopes for the future. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. To remember the still-living veterans of the wars of the past century is to acknowledge what we owe to their commitment to our national community and the common citizenship we share and the hopes we have.

Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. To remember those who have gone before us in faith, as we do especially during this remembrance month of November but also every day at every Mass, is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope we still share with them in death.

Like the soldiers who served on the Western Front 100 years ago, the widow in today’s Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] got no immediately obvious reward. The widow, however, contributed to the Temple out of her limited, meager means – revealing the generosity of her spirit and the seriousness of her commitment to what the Temple represented in her community.

In this era of low marginal tax rates, gated communities, health and fitness fixations, political and ideological tribalism, politicians' playing on people’s fears, and increasing incitements to angry behavior, perhaps few messages may seem more counter-culturally challenging than this gospel story of that nameless widow and our own national stories of service in far-away wars – which are all about being focused on something other than oneself and on one’s own individual needs, about not letting oneself and one’s all-important private world get in the way of one’s obligations to others and one’s connection with the larger human community.

Ours is a society in which reality is increasingly subjective, in which the Individual has become the center of meaning and value, reducing family, community, and society to at-best secondary realities. Even churches increasingly sometimes seem more like social or political clubs where like-minded or similarly situated individuals can feel good about themselves together. We are forever being tempted to privilege what is individual and private and personal over what is common and shared and bigger than ourselves. Today’s anniversary reminds us what it means to be connected with one another in a larger community, and what commitment to one another and such a community actually requires of us. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel likewise challenge us all to rediscover what generosity and commitment actually mean.

Jesus’ words are a challenge that calls us beyond even the obligations of a common civic life together, but also a lifelong invitation to what we can hope to become - not just for now but forever.

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Veterans Day (the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 11, 2018.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Cheer for the State

Asked to write about an issue "likely to be of significance in years to come," the late Tony Judt first published "The Social Question Redivivus" in Foreign Affairs in 1997. Including it a decade later as the final chapter in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), Judt noted that "nothing that has happened in the intervening decade" had led him to moderate his "gloomy prognostications - quite the contrary." Yet another decade later, his "prognostications" still seem to me to be every bit as relevant.

Judt's focus was on "the failure of the political left to reassess its response" to the "dilemmas of globalization." What he produced, in effect, was an essay on the abiding salience of the modern State. Then as now, Europeans were anxious about a "neo-Fascist right, whose program constitutes one long scream of resentment - at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at "Europe', and in general at 'them' who have brought it all about." (Since then, of course, the "scream" has only gotten louder and has likewise consequentially crossed the Atlantic.) In postindustrial Europe, Judt warned, "the economy has moved on while the state, so far, has stayed behind to pick up the tab; but the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence, and intergenerational continuity" (emphases mine).

Writing when neoliberalism had seemingly triumphed - in the US in the Clinton years and in the UK with Tony Blair - and before the global collapse of capitalism of 2008, Judt recognized the "cultural and historical rather than economic" reasons for US neoliberal economics - "possible, in part, because even some of those who stand to lose thereby are culturally predisposed to listen with approval to politicians denouncing the sins of big government" - a model he concluded was "not exportable." Europeans, he argued, expect the state "to take the initiative or at least pick up the pieces." Moreover, in a world where "much of what happens in people's lives today has passed from their control," he argued "there is a greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions what make possible normal civilized life in communities and societies." And, in today's world, it is the state that is the largest such intermediate institution that can respond to citizens' "interests and desires." Finally, he considered "the need for representative democracy" to be "also the best argument for the traditional state." It is especially "the losers in today's economy" who "have the most interest in and need for the state, not least because they cannot readily imagine taking themselves and their labor anywhere else."

All of this remains relevant - and even more so - since the 2008 collapse of capitalism and the loud scream of political "populism" which that collapse produced in the "Tea party," the "Occupy" movement, and, above all, in the Trump presidency, and some of the responses to it.

Judt's conclusion says it all:

The postwar social reforms in Europe [with which we Americans may associate at least partially our New Deal and Great Society reforms] were instituted in large measure as a barrier to the return of the sort of desperation and disaffection from which such extreme choices were thought to have arisen. The partial unraveling of those social reforms, for whatever reason, is not risk-free. As the great reformers of the nineteenth century well knew, the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just wither away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Todayis Schicksalstag, commonly translated "Day of Fate." At least four dramatic events in 20th-century German history happened on November 9, all of which also impacted the rest of the world for the rest of that century (and after). 

On this date in 1918, exactly 100 years ago, faced with the collapse both of German war effort and of domestic politics, German Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, setting in motion not only the end of the reign of the Prussian Hohenzollerns but of all the other German royal and princely  houses, and their replacement by the ill-fated, doomed-from-the-start Weimar Republic. Just 5 years later, in 1923, November 9 saw the failure of Adolph Hitler's infamous Munich Beer Hall Putsch. This turned out, however, to be but a temporary reprieve for the Weimar Republic, which would sadly succumb in time to the Nazis less than a decade later. Then, much more ominously, 80 years ago today, on November 9, 1938, came Kristallnacht, the large-scale destruction of synagogues and other Jewish properties in Germany, followed by the mass arrests of some 30,000 German Jews, a major turning point in the Third Reich's tragic trajectory toward the so-called Final Solution.  Finally, this date in 1989 saw a happy event - the opening of the Berlin Wall. This was a sudden, not immediately expected acceleration of the revolutionary process which quickly led to the complete collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany one year later, and eventually the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Rightly celebrated at the time, this last set of events bequeathed a multitude of further consequences, some of which we are still struggling to see our way through.

It is, of course, coincidence that events of such world-historical significance all occurred on this calendar date. Especially as the world this week recalls the centennial of the first of those events (with all that led to and followed from it), it does, however, make this date an appropriate occasion for some sober reflection upon the political, social, and human tragedies that defined the 20th century and so continue to define aspects of our world even today.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Morning after the MidTerm

The bill came partially due Tuesday. Two years of what the election-eve issue of The Economist termed a "dishonest executive, conniving with a fawning legislature and empowered by a partisan judiciary" motivated a record turnout of voters (as many as 113 million). As NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed prior to the election: “Movements like Trump’s thrive on social decay and atomization. Millions of Americans who oppose Trump have responded to him with an enormous civic revival.” That said, the basic urban-suburban vs. rural divide, of which the Senate is the institutional expression, continues to poison American politics. "Democrats have the people, Republicans have the real estate," as Mara Liason observed on NPR this morning.

The big story. of course, is that the Democrats have regained control of the House after 8 years. Along with that, three states voted for non-partisan redistricting. That combined with Democratic victories in several statehouses (including the three that fatally handed Trump his Electoral College margin of victory) will make it much harder for Republicans to continue rigging the district maps in their favor after the 2020 census. And there were other victories for democracy and humanity. Democracy won when Florida voted to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Humanity won when three "red" states (Ohio, Nebraska, Utah) voted for Medicaid expansion.

But the big story remains the House of Representatives. That means we have the beginning of a potential return to a two-party system in this country. It also means we will have some serious statesmen as committee chairmen, replacing Trumpers like Devin Nunes, all of which affords the prospect of Congress reasserting its constitutional parity with the presidency through real oversight of executive agencies, much needed after a lapse of two years. 

Even so, if Nancy Pelosi were to ask me for advice, I would tell her to start with a focus on real legislation, which ordinary Americans care about - for example, protecting health care for all, protecting voting rights, protecting immigrants and refugees, infrastructure, and balancing the last Congress's tax cut for the rich with benefits for the rest of the country. By itself, of course, the House cannot pass any legislation. The Republican Senate may still stymie the House's efforts, although with this unpredictable president nothing is certain. Still legislating is a lot better place to be in than exclusively emphasizing oversight and investigations, however important they are as well. 

The bottom line is that the Democrats need two things heading into 2020. They need a charismatic candidate, of course, and surfacing one who can win in the Electoral College will be no easy matter. But they also need to stand for something that Americans can care enough about to vote for change. The country knows what the Republicans stand for. It is waiting to hear what the Democrats have to offer as an alternative.

In this regard, I think that Ross Douthat's observation in today's NY Times may be a relevant warning: "Democrats obviously want to win purple and red Senate seats, but they want to win them the way they just lost in Texas, with charisma and mobilization rather than with ideological compromise. So they’re left waiting, as before, for demography or a recession to deliver them that opportunity."

Nor should anyone underestimate how empowering it could be for Trump to have a Democratic House to campaign against every day for the next two years. And insulting, ridiculing, demeaning, and maligning a woman Speaker is just the sort of thing to energize both him and his supporters!