Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting Ashes

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. That Lent itself would survive the 1960s liturgical demolition of the Roman Rite was probably never seriously in doubt, but Ash Wednesday's fate was evidently much more so. For some, the fact that the archaic Roman Lent once-upon-a-time began on Quadragesima Sunday (as it still does in MIlan, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite still holds sway) counted strongly against Ash Wednesday's retention. Popularity - and an obvious point of connection with the intersection of popular piety and contemporary secularity - had obviously not been enough to save Saint Valentine's Day, but they did thankfully suffice to salvage Ash Wednesday, which remains certainly one of the most popular - and best attended - days in the Church's entire calendar. 

The day's popularity is obviously an enormous pastoral advantage, although an advantage that is not without its challenges. Thus, for example, in a recent pastoral letter New York's vicar general called Ash Wednesday "a valuable opportunity to set a tone for the entire season, as well as to reach out to people, some of whom are usually not often found in our churches," while at the same time recognizing the enormous challenges this creates "to catechize the faithful on the penitential character of Lent and the value of their Lenten practices.”

In my 10 years as a priest in midtown Manhattan, Ash Wednesday was assuredly one of our best days. Ashes were distributed, more or less non-stop, from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Perhaps 2000+ people passed through the church that day to get their ashes. I remember once when the parish office got a call asking whether we would start giving ashes at midnight, which made me wonder whether the caller was confusing Ash Wednesday with Christmas! From a marketing point of view, I suppose, offering ashes at midnight might be a great attraction. Who knows how many might respond to the chance to be the first on one's block to get ashes?

For many of those who come to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is a devoutly religiously spiritual experience. For others it may be a badge of a still somewhat important (but possibly fraying) Catholic identity or maybe just an exercise in annual nostalgia. For still others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings the reception of ashes may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much desired ashes?

Ash Wednesday is but the beginning of Lent. The common contrast between the multitudes coming to church on Ash Wednesday and the typically much more modest attendance at Mass on the Thursday following speaks volumes both about the popularity of Ash Wednesday and about its limitations. According to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. The act of putting on penance symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being meant as a badge of Catholic identity, the reception of ashes is intended to serve as a powerful external sign of the Lenten season’s serious challenge to each of us to re-examine our own familiar patterns of life in light of Christ’s call to repentance and a new life of holiness.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lent Beckons

Today we enter upon the keeping of Lent, coming round again as it does every year; and every year too I owe you a solemn exhortation. That was how Saint Augustine began his homily for the First Sunday of Lent (Sermon 205) in his African diocese of Hippo, 16 centuries ago. 

I once knew a priest who professed to be surprised that we still observed Lent, that it had somehow survived the post-conciliar period. (Actually, the Council explicitly endorsed Lent. Of course, it also endorsed all sorts of things - like Latin and Gregorian Chant - the the post-conciliar period breezily jettisoned anyway.) Lent's survival in the inhospitable terrain of ahistorical post-modernity's triumphant secularity says something about its staying power, rooted in its inherent appeal to something deep in human experience. 

The result, as Augustine so matter-of-factly noted, is that Lent keeps coming round again as it does every year. So once again here we are on the cusp of Lent. In many parishes this is perhaps the busiest and most satisfying season. More "extra" things are done, with greater hope of popular interest and response. More effort may even be devoted just to doing non-extra things better. And, just as parishes plan Lenten programs and devotions, all sorts of people pause and consider what to do for Lent - what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of "("giving up") for Lent.

It seems safe to suggest that Lent in Augustine's time was a somewhat serious season with demanding expectations, more so than it has since become in my lifetime. And, even in my own lifetime, my parents' and grandparents' Lent, was still a whole lot more serious and demanding. But, by the time I turned 21 - the age at which the Lenten fast (even in its more relaxed modern form) would have become mandatory - the Lenten fast itself had just recently been entirely abandoned, except for a vestigial token fast of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Growing up familiar with the texts of what Pope Saint Pius X had once called those most ancient Masses of the Lenten season (now also largely gone), I was well aware - from, for example, the ferial Preface and so many of the ancient ferial collects - of the historical centrality of fasting for Lent's self-definition, its very identity. The diminished prominence of fasting in Lent has accordingly saddled the season with an identity crisis of sorts, which takes the form of that now common question - what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of -  for Lent. 

And here again, as so often happens, Augustine actually offers an answer that challenges us as powerfully today as it did Augustine's audience 16 centuries ago.

For Augustine, Lent mystically signified the essence of our earthly life. So what has to be done throughout the whole of life, how much more during these days of Lent? And what, above all, has to be done throughout the whole of life? Before everything else, brothers and sisters, fast from quarrels and discord. ... These are the two wings of prayer, on which it flies to God: if you pardon the offender what has been committed, and give to the person in need.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Putting God's Kingdom First

These past few Sundays prior to Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which is all about the “kingdom of God” and what it takes to be a committed citizen of that kingdom. Citizenship has always been a somewhat exclusive concept. And, when it comes to citizenship in the kingdom of God, Jesus is quite exclusive indeed: “No one can serve two masters.” Nor should we be surprised when Jesus singles out material wealth as the alternative attraction that can undermine our commitment to God’s kingdom. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus asserted, without much qualification or nuance [Matthew 6:24-34].

Now obviously Jesus understood that we all need material things – just to live, let alone to live well. In Jesus’ society, as in most societies for most of history, most people were poor and most of their energy was devoted to just making a living. And Jesus and his disciples themselves depended on the generosity of others.

At the same time, we all know how corrupting wealth – particularly the preoccupation with wealth - can be. In our own country, in our own time, we can observe firsthand how the increasing redistribution of wealth in an upward direction and the growing divide between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other, seems to be tearing apart the fragile fabric of our civil society. 

Of course, this problem has been with us for a long time. Ancient philosophers warned against material excess that went beyond their understanding of the nature of the human person, and they gave moral priority to directing resources to the common good rather than to individual enrichment. The Jewish Law revealed in the Old Testament attempted to prevent the accumulation of wealth and associated such accumulation with disobedience of God’s command to identify with the poor. In a 4th-century homily, appropriately entitled On Avarice, Saint Basil the Great confronted his hearers with these words: The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you belong to the bare-foot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need.

Basil’s challenging words – and Jesus’ own original words of warning – were not abstract or theoretical. They were – and are – addressed to all of us who aspire to be disciples, addressed directly and personally to all who would be citizens of the kingdom of God.

At the dawn of the modern economic era, Adam Smith famously warned that the widespread disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition … is … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

We have heard similar language from Pope Francis, who early in his pontificate warned against a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. …The culture of prosperity deadens us. [EG 54].

Lent, which begins this Wednesday, has traditionally been a time to refocus on what matters most by re-calibrating our attitude toward so many of the things that deaden us, things that, if we are not careful, can quickly come to dominate and define us. Just to recall the three familiar Lenten practices, traditionally proposed and emphasized by the Church – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – already says so much about what Lent is all about.

Lent challenges us to focus on what is important – in contrast to our common preoccupation with wealth and other such short-term sideshows. With Jesus, Lent challenges us to refocus on what is in fact most important – to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 26, 2017.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ranking Presidents

In time for Presidents' Day, CSPAN recently released its 2017 Presidential Historians' Survey, ranking the 43 individuals (from Washington to Obama) who have served as US Presidents from best score (Abraham Lincoln) to the worst score (James Buchanan). Ranking Presidents - like ranking movies or anything else - can be fun and is forever popular. But it is a dubious enterprise. We can clearly cluster a group of the best and perhaps another group that we consider the worst (while continuing to quibble about the exact ranking within each cluster). But, really, what exactly does it mean to rank as, say, the 22nd best President (Ulysses S. Grant) just above the 23rd (Grover Cleveland)?

The top 10 according to the 2017 survey are Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Jefferson, Kennedy, Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson. I am OK with the first six. Lincoln saved the Union and in the process gave that Union a moral meaning rooted in the Declaration of Independence's assertion of human equality. Washington defined the Presidency and safely got the federal government started. He also set a vitally important precedent in voluntarily leaving office. FDR transformed the nation in a more communitarian and egalitarian direction and also led the US to victory in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt pioneered modern activist government. Eisenhower and Truman both successfully steered the country through the opportunities of post-war prosperity and the perils of the Cold War. As somewhat of a Hamiltonian, I find Jefferson politically - as well as personally - obnoxious, but I'll acknowledge his place in the top cluster, if only for violating his professed principles and doubling the country's size with the Louisiana Purchase. JFK did a great job steering us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but hardly deserves to rank above his successor, LBJ, who actually accomplished so much more. Like TR and FDR, Kennedy and Johnson both believed in activist government; but, unlike Kennedy, Johnson was actually effective at activist government. As for Ronald Reagan, I'll give him high marks in foreign policy, but I think his infamous line in his first Inaugural Address - "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government Is the problem" - had to be one of the most harmful and destructive comments ever made by any President in our entire history!

As for the bottom 10 - Martin Van Buren, Chester Arthur, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, William, Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan - my only serious argument might be about Chester Arthur, who vastly exceeded expectations and made an important contribution with Civil Service reform. (not perhaps a trending topic among contemporary historians). And is it really fair (and does it serve an purpose) to rank Harrison at all, given that he had only one month in the White House?

Interestingly of the other Presidents who have held the office in my lifetime, George W. Bush is ranked at 33, just above the bottom 10 cluster. Richard Nixon stands at 28. As the only president ever forced to resign in disgrace, perhaps he should have a special category (or an asterisk). On the other hand, were it not for Watergate, Nixon would almost surely be ranked higher, given his administration's many real accomplishments. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are ranked at 25 and 26 respectively. It seems only poetic justice to see Ford, having been narrowly defeated by Carter, climb one narrow notch above him in ranking! George H.W. Bush is ranked at 20. What stands out about his position is that he is right between the two one-term Adams presidents.  Like Bush, both John (19) and John Quincy Adams (21) failed to win re-election, which usually counts as a mark against a president's reputation. (Except obviously for Kennedy, all of the top 13 won a second term.) But both of the Adams presidents were morally upstanding and extremely competent persons, whose gifts were insufficiently appreciated by increasingly "populist" electorates. And, like Washington before him, John Adams did the nation an incalculable service in his leaving of the office - leaving it peacefully in history's first presidential transition between opposing parties. Surprisingly Bill Clinton was ranked 21 when he left office, but is up to 15 now. In fact, Clinton left office extremely popular. And, while he remains popular, the left-ward direction of his party (and of the nation's rising demographic groups) might more likely be expected to diminish his stature over time. Finally Barack Obama is ranked at 12, just below Woodrow Wilson. Personally I would happily demote Wilson further down the list. But frankly I think it is just too early to rate Obama at all. I suspect his high rating reflects his present popularity, the high regard in which he is held for his personal qualities, his historic significance, and perhaps a not so subtle comparison with his successor. 

As I said earlier, ranking presidents can be fun. It can also cause us to reflect upon what we value and look for in leadership. Certainly such reflection is especially timely at this critical juncture in American presidential history!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidents' Day

For many members of my generation, February was once a wonderful month with not one, but two public holidays – Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. In those days, those were real holidays, when schools and most businesses would be closed, unlike today when “holidays” are largely excuses for sales and for a frenzy of shopping and other activities utterly unrelated to what the holiday is ostensibly celebrating.

When George Washington was born in the then British colony of Virginia, it was February 11, 1731, since the British Empire at that time still followed the Julian calendar. In the 18th century, the Julian calendar was already 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar. (According to the Gregorian calendar, already adopted in 1582 in Catholic Europe, the day George Washington was born was actually February 22, 1732). Finally, in 1752, Protestant Britain belatedly switched to the Gregorian calendar. In the process, it adjusted its New Year from March 25 to January 1. So Julian February 11, 1731, became Gregorian February 22, 1732. 

In the 19th century, Washington’s Birthday became a legal holiday in the United States and has remained so ever since. In 1971, however, the Uniform Holiday Act moved the holiday to the 3rd Monday in February - part of a general contemporary tendency to deplete our civic holidays of their actual meaning and to turn them into excuses for long weekends. Although the federal holiday is still officially “Washington’s Birthday,” since the 1980s it has unofficially become widely known as "Presidents’ Day," since in most jurisdictions it replaced the Lincoln’s Birthday holiday as well as Washington’s.

Although deprived of a proper holiday and the opportunity which that holiday used to provide for Americans to learn about and appreciate Washington, his legacy remains as relevant for us today as it was when he wrote his famous “Farewell Address” in 1796. 

In that address, Washington warned especially against the dangers of extreme partisanship: 

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

In that same address, Washington also offered some especially apt wisdom about the role of religion is civic life: 

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.