Tuesday, July 25, 2017


In her middle-age, one of my aunts married a Britisher she had met while working abroad. Like most men of his generation, he was a veteran. In particular, he was one of the 335,000 Allied soldiers trapped and then rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk – what Winston Churchill called “a miracle of deliverance.”

While likely not a miracle in the technical sense, the successful evacuation must certainly have seemed to be an answer to a nation’s prayers. With Germany apparently on the verge of victory and Britain and her hapless allies on the verge of defeat, King George VI proclaimed May 26, 1940 a National Day of Prayer. Millions of people throughout the United Kingdom went to church that Sunday to pray for deliverance. (The photo above - from www.anglican.ink - shows the enormous crowd lined up outside Westminster Abbey.) In the days that followed, a violent storm grounded the Luftwaffe while a calm Channel enabled a flotilla of small boats to sail to France for the seemingly miraculous rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers. The Sunday after the evacuation was then fittingly observed as a Day of National Thanksgiving.

Of course, as Churchill famously told the House of Commons, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Even so, it was an evacuation worth celebrating – not just for the soldiers saved from death or captivity, but for the encouragement it gave a beleaguered people about to be left on their own to resist the German onslaught and the hope it promised for an eventually victorious return to the European mainland. That sense of deliverance, of snatching at least the hope of victory from the jaws of defeat was evident in the enthusiastic welcome Dunkirk's survivors received back home.

When I was growing up, the story of the war won by our parents' generation (now fittingly known as "the Greatest Generation") was well known to us all. With the subsequent evisceration of the content of so much of American education in recent decades, who knows how much students today actually know about World War II, about who fought it and what it was about? Perhaps some of that ignorance may be may be alleviated by Christopher Nolan's wonderful new war film Dunkirk.

Or maybe not, since the film focuses brilliantly on the life and death experiences of the trapped soldiers themselves and their heroic rescuers, but presumes rather than portrays the macro-components of British and German strategies and policies in a world at war. Indeed, it is unremitting in its portrayal of the life-and-death struggle of the actual participants - unrelieved by the dramatic device of occasionally cutting away, for example, to the deliberations of the Government in London, as another movie might do. So, while not a remedy for widespread ignorance of 20th-century history, this fantastic film does dramatically portray 20th-century people. It effectively portrays the actual micro-experiences of the participants, soldiers and civilians caught up in the consequences of a world war, which left nothing and no one unchanged. In the process, it provides us with one more memorable panegyric to “the Greatest Generation.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017


This summer, we have been making our way, week-by-week, through Saint Paul’s famous letter to the Romans, which Saint Paul wrote around the year 58 or so of the 1st century. It’s the longest and most studied of all of Saint Paul’s letters. Apparently, even the comic cartoon character Charlie Brown was familiar with it. I remember one time, back in the early 1970s, when Charlie Brown, moaning and groaning as was his style, was told, “Stop sighing,” to which he responded, “It’s scriptural.” He then proceeded to cite Saint Paul’s words from the short passage we just heard today – in the more elegant, more traditional translation, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, with sighs too deep for words.

Well, of course, there really may be plenty to sigh about. Just tune into CNN and listen to the world and national news for a while. Indeed, the background for the 2 verses we just heard could be described as what I sometimes like to call “the problem of the present” - in other words, the tension between, on the one hand, the obvious reality of the present time, the sense of overwhelming futility (as Saint Paul puts it) that seems to characterize the world we inhabit, and, on the other, our hope as children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We have, Saint Paul insists, been offered an alternative, already in the present - the revelation of the children of God, empowering us to receive the word of the kingdom and so bear fruit (what Saint Paul calls the first fruits of the Spirit) by responding to its stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.

Even so, we remain burdened by what we have made of ourselves and our world. Left on our own, we would stay stuck there. Prayer, Paul suggests, takes us into a different future – a future better and brighter than the present but already accessible to us now, thanks only to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us, filling us, surrounding us, transforming us.

Similarly, the parables Jesus proposes in today’s Gospel all illustrate the slow – but inexorable – establishment of God’s kingdom, transforming our pathetic present into God’s glorious future. God sows his good seed in the field of the world and patiently waits until the harvest before separating the wheat from the weeds. The weeds are very real and must be dealt with eventually. But God’s judgment is patient with the world – for our sake. Because, of course, God is not at all like us! As we just heard in the book of Wisdom, God’s mastery over all things makes him lenient to all. He governs us with much lenience, thus giving us good ground for hope that he would permit our repentance.

Which is one reason why we need to resist the persistent temptation to over-react to the present by imposing some supposedly spiritual meaning or religious interpretation on contemporary events. That has one of the perennial problems through so much of our Christian history. It sometimes takes the form of wanting to blame every bad thing that happens on the coming of the Antichrist or demonizing some present-day opponent as a modern-day Diocletian (the 4th-century pagan persecutor of the Church). Alternatively, when things seem temporarily to go better, it sometimes takes the form of thinking we’ve already made it to the 2nd Coming or at least imagining some temporary ally as another Constantine (the 4th-century pagan liberator of the Church).

In our frustratingly futile present, we lack patience – with God, with ourselves, with our world. But God is not like us! Like the yeast which, when mixed with flour, leavens the whole batch, God is patiently filling, surrounding, and transforming our world with the presence and power of his Holy Spirit.

As the first fruits of the Spirit, we – the Church, Christ’s witnesses in the world – reflect the Holy Spirit’s leavening presence and power at work.  We are not quite there yet, of course, as the parable of the field so dramatically demonstrates. Wheat and weeds coexist in the Church – as they do in each one of us individually.

With the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us and within us, we are being aided to trust God’s process and make good use of the opportunity his patience provides us.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2017.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Concelebration Controversies

Rumor has it that the Congregation for the Clergy may soon require (or at least strongly endorse) the practice of priests concelebrating Mass together in the Roman Colleges - presumably instead of celebrating daily Mass individually. This rumored document in the making, On Concelebration in the Colleges and Seminaries of Rome,” has stirred up some controversy - especially among those of a more "traditional" liturgical orientation, in particular those attached to individual private celebration of Mass in the "Extraordinary Form." Obviously, if one views 1570 as the apogee of the Roman liturgy and all subsequent changes as in effect deformations, then one will likely not care for concelebration. which did not exist at all in the 1570 Missal - except in the idiosyncratic case of newly ordained priests and newly consecrated bishops at the Mass of their ordination or consecration.

Like almost everything else in life, eucharistic concelebration is not without its problems. But, generally speaking, I am a fan of concelebration and whenever appropriate prefer it to any of the three obvious alternatives - individual private celebration without a congregation, assisting at Mass in choro habitu induto, or assisting at Mass more laico. But, before I get into my own personal preferences, it may help to recall come recent history.

While never actually required, the daily celebration of Mass has been an integral part of priestly spirituality for several centuries. Accordingly, the Code of Canon Law encourages priests "to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function" (canon 904). It is this important idea that in the celebration of Mass a priest fulfills his "principal function" that is, I believe, at the heart of the issue.

Growing up in a parish staffed by a large number of priests (all members of a religious order), I was used to seeing priests celebrating individually at side altars during the week, often while the scheduled main Mass was going on at the main altar. As an altar boy, I was often expected to serve one of those side altar Masses. If a priest lacked a server, it was not uncommon for a grown man to come up and offer his services, making the responses and assisting at the altar. Robert F. Kennedy, commonly considered the most pious of the Kennedy brothers, was noted for doing this. Anyway, this was the taken-for-granted state of affairs up until the mid-late 60s. Even in monasteries and religious houses, where all the priests were expected to assist in choro at the daily Conventual Mass, the normal practice was for each priest to celebrate individually prior to the Conventual Mass. (I presume this is still the case in any communities exclusively or primarily organized around the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.)

Although most of us were, of course, completely unaware of it, the theology and pastoral possibilities of concelebration attracted interest and debate in the 20th century in the run-up to the conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical reforms. For most of us, however, concelebration appeared almost out of nowhere when Vatican II addressed it in Sacrosanctum Concilium, 57:

57. 1. Concelebration, whereby the unity of the priesthood is appropriately manifested, has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the east and in the west. For this reason it has seemed good to the Council to extend permission for concelebration to the following cases:

a) on the Thursday of the Lord's Supper, not only at the Mass of the Chrism, but also at the evening Mass.
b) at Masses during councils, bishops' conferences, and synods;
c) at the Mass for the blessing of an abbot.

2. Also, with permission of the ordinary, to whom it belongs to decide whether concelebration is opportune:
a) at conventual Mass, and at the principal Mass in churches when the needs of the faithful do not require that all priests available should celebrate individually;
b) at Masses celebrated at any kind of priests' meetings, whether the priests be secular clergy or religious.

1. The regulation, however, of the discipline of con-celebration in the diocese pertains to the bishop.

2. Nevertheless, each priest shall always retain his right to celebrate Mass individually, though not at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass, nor on Thursday of the Lord's Supper.

58. A new rite for concelebration is to be drawn up and inserted into the Pontifical and into the Roman Missal.

Like so many other conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical changes, concelebration was probably originally envisioned as intended primarily for certain circumstances and occasions. And, again like so many conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical changes, the scope of those circumstances and occasions eventually expanded. 

In practice, concelebration is now routine at big events such as when many priests concelebrate at the cathedral with their bishop (e.g., major diocesan celebrations, ordinations, funerals, etc,), also when the bishop comes to the parish (e.g., for confirmation or a visitation), .-  and also even without the bishop when several priests are present in a church for some special occasion (e.g., an anniversary or a funeral). For most working priests, this kind of ceremonial concelebration is often in addition to celebrating Mass individually with one's own congregation in one's parish, and has been made possible by another radical change - the extension of permission to celebrate Mass more than once on a single day.

Secondly, concelebration is now also routine "at Masses celebrated at any kind of priests' meetings, whether the priests be secular clergy or religious" - e.g., priests' retreats and convocations, occasions when typically priests are away from their parishes and which therefore do not usually involve more than one Mass on a single day. Personally, I probably find these my favorite occasions for concelebration, precisely because they represent a really spiritual experience of praying as a priest with my fellow priests.

A third common occasion is that referred to in 2 (a) above, conventual and community Masses, which would presumably include seminaries and houses of studies - the very sort of situation the rumored new directive would cover.

Other than the objection that there was no concelebration in 1570, common objections to the practice often focus on the appearance of chaos and disorder that - especially large-scale - concelebrations may sometimes present. It is true that sometimes priests may be poorly vested and appear sloppy and that the whole occasion can take on a somewhat disorderly appearance. However, that can also occur when there are just a few concelebrants and, indeed, can occur when there is only one celebrant. The solution to sloppiness and disorder - whether in attire or in behavior - is dressing and acting appropriately, which should be expected on all occasions anyway, concelebrated or not. (One way to address the sloppy attire problem is what many dioceses have done in having distinctive diocesan chasubles, which are required to be worn at all events at the cathedral and on other comparable occasions. See the photo above of a recent concelebration with three bishops and a multitude of priests at a funeral at the Knoxville Cathedral.)

But the most stringent objection seems to be on the part of those who are genuinely and sincerely attached to the individual celebration of Mass. Some of the arguments sometimes advanced for this seem somewhat strained. There is, for example, the view that the Church is somehow spiritually poorer when fewer separate Masses are celebrated, which seems to represent an excessively quantitative approach to something which is intrinsically of unquantifiably infinite value. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, the celebration of the Eucharist is of "objectively infinite value" (Sacramentum Caritatis, 80).

It is certainly the case that some priests truly treasure the spiritual experience of celebrating Mass by oneself. That sentiment is certainly a valid and legitimate one and is deserving of respect, as part of our Latin rite liturgical tradition and heritage. Both Vatican II and canon law preserve and respect the right of each individual priest to celebrate individually on all but a few occasions. That said, however, as long as that legal right is acknowledged and respected, I see nothing that forbids any Church institution or community from expressing preferential priority for concelebration, something which both Sacrosanctum Concilium and canon law implicitly allow by virtue of the fact that individual celebration is prohibited at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass. That priority - and the preference it implies - is certainly in keeping with the primarily public and communal character of the liturgy, something contemporary clergy and laity alike may be more sensitized to and attracted to today than in some previous periods.

Back when (aside from ordinations) concelebration was still largely unknown in the Latin rite (except perhaps as a dream of some liturgical enthusiasts), Thomas Merton, who after all was well acquainted with individual private celebration of Mass on a regular basis, wrote in his Journal (February 11, 1950)“I feel as if my Communion were somehow less perfect when I cannot turn and give the Body of Christ to one of my brothers also.” 

Besides the Mass, the Church has also always had another concelebrated liturgy, which is nonetheless more often celebrated alone and in private - the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Many priests recite their Office alone and in private because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and they may indeed come to prefer that experience and derive spiritual benefit from it. But that does not alter the Church's long-standing preference for a fuller choral celebration and the very great benefits that derive from that tradition. As part of the 20th-century's intensified emphasis on the communal character of our liturgical worship, many priests have rediscovered the beauty and benefits of common prayer both through more frequent communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and more frequent concelebration of Mass. Both these developments have enriched the Church as a whole, as well as the spiritual lives of many priests individually.

And so it certainly seems reasonable that there should be some clearly stated preference for these experiences in seminaries and houses of studies.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen

Today is the bicentennial of the death (at 41) of Jane Austen, Regency England's most famous novelist. In her memory, this year I resolved to reread Pride and Prejudice. Actually, much as it shames me to admit it, this was in fact really my first reading of it. Of course, I know the story and have seen more than one film version of it. But, back when I was actually required to read the book in junior year of high school, I did not do so - for ridiculous reasons embarrassing enough not to go into any further. I have always looked upon this as one of the more regrettable lacunae in my education, and this finally seemed the right time to rectify it.

This is not the first time in my life I have read a book after seeing a movie or TV version of it. (Usually, in fact, it is the latter that kindles interest in the former.) When one does that, of course, inevitably one's reading is amplified by visual images from the film or TV version. Having seen more than one version and each more than once, that was certainly especially true with my reading of Pride and Prejudice. I could anticipate scenes and vividly picture them in my mind as I made my way through Austen's masterpiece. It was an experience that says a lot about the dominance of visual media in the way we experience real literature today.

As for the novel itself, which Winston Churchill is supposed to have re-read during World War II, I have little to add to the virtually universal chorus of praise that has enveloped it these past two centuries. (Even Japan has a Jane Austen Society!) That its popularity has survived such dramatic social change, which has made the novel's world almost unrecognizably alien, in a way that it was not yet quite so alien when I first ought to have read it as recently as 50+ years ago, is another tribute to Austen's art. 

A Vicar's's daughter (something she shares with Britain's present Prime Minister, Theresa May), Jane Austen was, I believe, at first published anonymously. But then her work was applauded by no less a person that the Prince Regent himself. Her work has continued to be applauded ever since - and if anything even more so - in recent decades. 

The basic building block in a novel like Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the archetypal human story: boy meets girl, boy and girl get together in spite of any number of real and imagined obstacles, all set in the context of a social marriage market, accepted as critical for the fortunes of the individuals involved and taken for granted as foundational for society's successful functioning and continuance. In Pride and Prejudice, after turning down the unappealing but obviously sensible choice for a woman in her position, Mr. Collins, the heroine gets to marry (and for love) the much more desirable Mr. Darcy, and becomes therefore the mistress of Pemberley, with all that accompanies Pemberley in terms of wealth and social position.

In retelling the archetypal human story, Austen creates characters completely recognizable in their human dilemmas, even as she flawlessly evokes a faraway world whose intricacies of class and social status she seems to have been perfectly skilled at portraying. Sir Walter Scott said she presented her readers "a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around" them. That too is part of her appeal – especially so today, when we look back with wonder and amazement at such a seemingly well-ordered world (so unlike ours in its orderliness and sense of place), while at the same time we recognize the underlying emotional stress that could chaotically co-exist with all that apparent orderliness and which she identified so well - and so perhaps helps us better to identify in our own less well-ordered world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing Seed

A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we all heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing those familiar opening words to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived almost all of my life in cities, parables about farmers sowing seed sound strangely exotic to me. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ original audience would have understood the farmer’s behavior. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farming-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been difficult at best. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean that some seed will be wasted, but it probably also guarantees that at least some will fall on good soil and take root and produce good fruit.

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and so is how he expects his Church to act in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.

We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it - if in fact all we do is talk. We rightly honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who journeyed to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute some 20-something percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

Hence Pope Francis’ evangelization prayer intention for July: that those who have strayed from the faith, may, through our prayer and witness, rediscover the merciful closeness of the Lord and the beauty of the Christian life.

Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them.  The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church. Knoxville, TN, July 16, 2017.