Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Turkey Day

Ancient religious holidays like Christmas have an abundance of popular customs, which typically include an amazing variety of national and ethnic foods popularly associated with the holiday. Thanksgiving, being a uniquely American holiday, has, for all intents and purposes, only one such tradition - the Turkey Dinner, immortalized in Norman Rockwell's famous Freedom From Want illustration (photo), part of his Four Freedoms series, based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous Four Freedoms Address to Congress in 1941. 

Some years ago, I was shocked to hear form an acquaintance how he had eaten not turkey but  prime rib on Thanksgiving in the company of some very wealthy hosts. At the time, I dismissed it as an oddity, a wealthy host's eccentricity.  I had 9and still have) no idea how widespread such a practice might be among our plutocratic elite. Perhaps it is more widespread than I then imagined. If so, it might be just one further example of how our globalized elite has become more and more alienated from the country they live in and the fellow citizens they ostensibly share it with.

It is, I suppose, one more sign of the social catastrophe covid-19 has visited upon us that this most American holiday has been impoverished at its core, thanks to our inability to gather together at family tables this year. I suspect fewer turkeys than usual will be cooked this year. I have heard from others how they are just buying turkey breasts and cooking them (or even buying them already cooked) in lieu of the traditional large bird. In this time of pandemic when so many are sick and so many have died, that seems at most a modest loss. But, as a symbol of all the many other losses so many of us have endured this terrible year, it somehow speaks volumes.

Besides taking all the necessary and proper precautions that reflect our legitimate fears, the next thing to do this Thanksgiving Day is to recommit ourselves as individuals, as families of all sorts, and as a nation to the values our annual turkey feast is supposed to signify - values articulated so well by one of our country's greatest presidents in that famous Four Freedoms speech almost 80 years ago.

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.                                                                                     

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King

This past week, along with lots of other fans, I watched, one after another, all the episodes of Season 4 of The Crown, the Netflix series that dramatizes the life and reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. That has become a kind of November ritual for me. (In the past, I would do it twice – once by myself, and then, visiting my family in California for Thanksgiving, with my mother.)

Season 4, which is getting rave reviews as the best season so far, highlights (among other things) the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman Prime Minister. Like all relationships, it was a complicated one; but at its core was a conflict between competing concepts of what a country is and what different elements in society owe to one another. Thatcher, you may remember, was once famously quoted as saying there is no such thing as society. 

Here in the United States we too have just finished presidential election campaign which has likewise pitted two competing concepts of what a country is, what a society is, and what we owe to one another as members of society.

In our Church too we have witnessed deep divisions between competing factions favoring competing conceptions of Catholic life in this world.

Of course, there is nothing new or surprising about people having differences of opinion and the conflicts they cause. But, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, Christ the King himself has already revealed his priorities. In the gospel account we just heard, Christ the King has already revealed what the Kingdom of God’s priorities about our life in the world are, and what we are supposed to care most about in this world. And they may come as something of a surprise for religious people whose idea of religion reflects very different priorities.

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time.

Yet, that final, general judgment will really ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

The Gospel’s judgment story illustrates the connection between what we profess to believe and how we live, who we really are, who we have become by how we have chosen to live and what we have cared about. It dramatically demonstrates how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. It illustrates how the person that I am going to be forever is the person that I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now.

What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities.

And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 22, 2020. 

The entire Mass may be watched at:

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Crown (continued): Family and its Discontents

"Every unhappy family," according to Leo Tolstoy "is unhappy in its own way." If so, then royal families are unhappy in particularly royal ways. From season 1, The Crown has had to wrestle with a uniquely familial dynamic. Constitutionally, of course, the "Crown" is an institution at the center of which is one person, around whom everything else theoretically revolves. But inevitably in a hereditary institution, it is in fact a family through which everything is filtered. Earlier seasons have highlighted familial stresses and tensions - between the Queen and her husband, between the Queen and her sister, between the Queen and her children - all somewhere within the range of normal stresses but magnified by being royal, that is, by their wider implications and social significance, but all seemingly somewhat satisfactorily resolved in relation to royal duty. In Season 4, the tragic marriage of Charles and Diana moves to center stage, and with it the royal family's royal way of being unhappy, as royal duty seems more and more to fall by the wayside.

Modern family life is lived against the background of cataclysmic cultural and social change - changes which have prioritized the individual self over the social group and have inevitably re-sorted family relationships - royal family relationships no less than others. In The Crown's telling, this conflict goes back, like so much else, at least to the 1936 abdication crisis - a calamity that has ever since hung over Elizabeth and her family and still very much does in season 4. The ambiguous way the infamous Duke of Windsor was treated in the earlier seasons - alternately seen as a terrible culprit, disloyal to both family and country, alternately seen as a sympathetic figure, drastically penalized for daring to prioritize his personal happiness - highlights this tension. Repeated in part in the story of Princess Margaret, this tension now comes to a head in the Diana drama.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of an earl, country-bred, neighbor of one  of the royal family's homes, easily passed the Balmoral "Test." On the one hand, there was Charles, under extreme pressure to settle down at last and to do his royal duty,. On the other, there was Diana, probably too young for the role and certainly too young for Charles (whom Anne infelicitously characterizes as older than his age). Obviously entranced by the romance of the fairly tale Prince Charming. Diana was on paper a perfect choice for the role of Princess of Wales and future Queen. In fact however she was at best unprepared and at worst temperamentally unsuited for the role she was about to assume. In The Crown, it is Margaret and later Anne (two survivors of failed marriages) who are willing to speak the truth that the great 20th-century fairytale was a catastrophic mismatch.

It is also Margaret who uncovers another scandal lurking in the shadows of the family (in this case her mother's family, not the Windsors). This terrible and unnecessary instance of familial cruelty helps tip the scale in souring the audience on how family makes impositions upon people's lives. On the other hand, as the Queen reminds her children - and especially Charles - they are actually far too privileged to complain so much about the expectations imposed on them. Ultimately it all comes down to whether or not seeking to have a happy marriage is to be thought of as some sort of universal right (as Edward VIII had implied in 1936).

Temperamentally unsuited to her role (too young for her age as Anne suggests), Diana also epitomizes the contemporary mistake of equating celebrity with significance. Charles, in the other hand, in addition to his primary fault in never having given up Camilla, seems completely incapable of appreciating what Diana does contribute. Whether Diana deserves primary credit, for example, for keeping Australia a monarchy, as the show suggests, may be debatable; but there can be no question that her celebrity and star power did enhance the institution and might, if better appreciated, have been an asset rather than the liability they became.

Of course, the audience cannot be unaware of the rest of the story. The historical fact is that the Prince of Wales is now at last happily married to Camilla. What once seemed unsuitable has proved very suitable indeed, whereas what once seemed the ideal solution proved to be a nightmare for all involved. So what does that say about duty and about the renunciations imposed on individuals for the sake of the family? That primordial question, so starkly raised by the abdication crisis, continues to haunt, with no prospect of resolution.

One is reminded of Harold Wilson in season 3 telling the Queen that people don't really know what they want the Queen and her family to be, because they want multiple contradictory things simultaneously. The series dramatizes the universal fact that the same may be true of contemporary family, that the benefits of adhering to traditional family expectations are still very much desired, but so are the comparably attractive benefits of leaving those expectations behind.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Crown (Season 4)

It's November - time for another much anticipated season of The Crown, the glorious Netflix series that chronicles the life and times of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. The first three seasons took us from Princess Elizabeth's 1947 wedding (with occasional flashbacks to scenes from her earlier childhood) to the 1977 Silver Jubilee. Despite the "jolly" that was the Jubilee, for Britain that was a problematic period of political and social decline, a motif that permeates the series through its focus on the singular institution that theoretically is best placed to transcend the transitory character of politics; but which cannot escape the difficulties and distress of being a family. 

Season 4 fortunately finished production just prior to the pandemic. Hence its release has not ben delayed - one small mercy amidst the misery covid has inflicted on our world.

As was historically inevitable, Season 4, which picks up after the Jubilee and takes Queen and country through the tumults of the 1980s, features the Queen's complicated relationships with the two most powerful and threatening women of that period - Margaret Thatcher and Diana Spencer.  The memory of those two figures still really resonates. While most of the series has reflected the living memory of my aging Baby Boomer generation, now we are on the cusp of our contemporary world - and the forces that have fed this long winter of our discontents.

Ably played in The Crown by Gillian Anderson, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). was born just six months before the Queen herself, and became head of the Conservative Party in 1975 and the UK's first female Prime Minister in 1979, remaining in office until 1990. Her rise roughly corresponds chronologically to the rise of Ronald Reagan and his malignant ideology in the United States. However rocky her relationship with her sovereign may or may not have been, Thatcher's relationship with Reagan may have mattered much more historically.

Like all relationships, that between Queen and Prime Minister - two women of the same generation in what was largely a male world, one of whom personified ascribed status and inherited privilege, while the other exemplified bourgeois individualism and privilege-undermining mobility and personal achievement - was a complicated one. It is generally believed, as the series suggests, that  between them there was a conflict between competing concepts of what a country is and what different elements in society owe to one another. (Thatcher, as we all remember, was once famously quoted as saying there is no such thing as society.)  
The Crown, season 4, begins with two perennial problems that seemed intractable in the late 1970s - Ireland, which famously led to Lord Mountbatten's murder and the apparent inability or unwillingness to Mountbatten's protégé, the Prince of Wales, to find a proper wife. It is against this double background of political and familial dysfunction that we and the Queen first meet Margaret Thatcher.

The two get off to a seemingly good start.  But then the infamous "test" at Balmoral (what Dennis Thatcher calls "half Scottish half Germanic cuckooland"). Nothing could symbolize the radical difference between the Royal Family, with their love for aristocratic country life and outdoor country sports, and the urban, incorrigibly middle-class, work-obsessed Thatcher, who disdains "upper-class habits" (like husband and wife sleeping in separate rooms) and who is already at war with the traditional, aristocratic values and ways of her own conservative party.

Thatcher did, however, have one great moment of genuine glory, the Falklands War. Against the background of that impending conflict, the series successfully seeks to humanize both women in a surprising way by paralleling - in the same episode - each one's complicated emotional struggles with her children. Those private dramas inevitably get overshadowed by the deeper difficulty posed by a Prime Minister determined to transform Britain into a different kind of country - a transformation the Queen was clearly quite uncomfortable with. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the social pyramid, that transformation was proving disastrous - for people like the famous palace intruder Michale Fagan. I have no idea what the real Michael Fagin said to the Queen on that occasion, but in this dramatized depiction he proves quite eloquent - as well as quite prescient about the long-term social harm Thatcherism initiated.

Their ultimate quarrel, of course, came over the Commonwealth, especially dear to the Queen and not at all to Thatcher. While we may applaud the Queen's commitment to the Commonwealth and the relationships she cultivated with Commonwealth leaders, we wonder whether in the long run the Commonwealth will matter less and less, leaving Thatcher the long-term winner in that struggle over British identity.

In the end, Thatcher is overthrown by her own party colleagues. And, when that happens, the Queen shows her unexpected understanding and appreciation of Thatcher's own struggle.

Next Time: The Diana Drama and the Perennial Problem of Family

(Photo: Netflix promotional poster for The Crown, season 4)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Mother and Patron of Immigrants

Today the Church commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). Born in Italy, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880, of which she remained Superior General until her death. When she asked Pope Leo XIII's approval to establish a mission in China, he advised her to go "not to the east, but to the west" - to the United States to serve the immense needs of the hordes of poor Italian immigrants who were then flooding the cities of the United States. So she and six other sisters came to New York. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions 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. She died in Chicago in 1917. Having become a naturalized American citizen in 1909, she became the first American citizen to be canonized in 1946. 

In 2018, a She Built NYC commission conducted a survey to identify female figures to honor with statues for their contributions to New York City’s history. Of the 320 women who were nominated in the 2018 survey, Mother Cabrini received the most support of all. Last year, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo announced "we are going to build a statue to Mother Cabrini,” whom he called "a great New Yorker, a great Italian-American immigrant,” who “came to this city and she helped scores of immigrants who came to New York.” 

So last month, on Columbus Day, Governor Cuomo unveiled a new Mother Cabrini Memorial located in lower Manhattan with a direct view of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a fitting location to pay tribute to the patroness of immigrants. The Memorial includes interpretive panels highlighting Mother Cabrini's service to Italian-American immigrants and the poor in New York. The plaza is surrounded by seating and a mosaic created from stones from Mother Cabrini's birthplace of Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, Italy. 

"This Columbus Day, the celebration of Mother Cabrini is even more appropriate than when we announced it last year because of the difficulties that we are facing. We all know that these are challenging times, but we also know that in the book of life, it is not what one does when the sun is shining that tests our metal - it's what one does in the fury of the storm, and that's where we are today," Governor Cuomo said of the new memorial. "In this complex world, may this statue serve to remind us of the principles that made us great as a country and as a people and the principles that keep us special on this globe - the values of Mother Cabrini: compassion, acceptance, community, freedom, faith, hope and love."

Mother Cabrini's statue is a fitting civic honor to a great immigrant to this country and a reminder to the rest of us - immigrants and descendants of immigrants - of what that must mean for a nation seeing to rediscover and revive whatever is left of its heart and its soul.

 (Photo:©Kevin P. Coughlin/State of New York)t York