Tuesday, August 25, 2015

American Citizenship

But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.  (Acts 22:25-29)

On at least two occasions - the incident in Jerusalem cited above and an earlier incident in Philippi (Acts 16:37-39), Saint Paul publicly invoked the fact of his Roman citizenship - a status which the local authorities felt constrained to take seriously. And when the Roman Tribune who questioned Paul in Jerusalem acknowledged that he had paid a considerable sum to acquire Roman citizenship for himself, Paul proudly retorted, "But I was born a citizen."  

One of the things that has made America so exceptional has been the primacy of an American civic identity which coexists with Americans' other inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. Generally speaking, most modern national states have an identity which is inherently bound up with an inherited national, ethnic, racial, or linguistic identity, which somehow helps to define both the state and its citizens in terms of their Frenchness, Germanness, Italianness, etc. In contrast, the United States has from the beginning cultivated a distinctive civic identity, shared by all citizens regardless of their inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. One key component of this shared American civic identity, of this experience of Americanness, is the fact that American citizenship is automatically acquired by those who are born here, whether their parents were themselves born here or came here as immigrants (as almost every American citizen's ancestors did at some point).

This has been a guiding principle for much of this country's history. When the infamous Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans in 1857, Jone Justice argued in dissent: At the Declaration of Independence, and ever since, the received general doctrine has been, in conformity with the common law, that free persons born within either of the colonies, were the subjects of the King; that by the Declaration of independence, and the consequent acquisition of sovereignty by the several States, all such persons ceased to be subjects, and became citizens of the several States.

It was to undo that justly derided Dred Scott decision that the 1866 Civil Rights Act aimed to declare citizens all those born in the United States (with certain specific exceptions, such as Indians who were then still considered primarily as members of other sovereign nations). This position was ultimately incorporated into the Constitution in 1868 in the 14th Amendment, which famously states: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction therefor, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

That is the brighter side of the story. A sadder, darker side of the American story is the periodic appearance and persistence of anti-immigrant nativist movements, as the descendants of yesterday's immigrants seek to close Lady Liberty's Golden Door shut against today's immigrants and their children. Nativism is one of those curious constants in this nation of immigrants' otherwise inspiring story. Just recently, for example, I have been reading Paul Moses, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015), which recalls the 19th and early 30th-century hostility of early generations of New York Irish against the more recently arrived Italians. Particularly interesting is his account of the hostile reception Italians received from their clergy and co-religionists in the Irish-run Church. (The rest of society also treated the Italians badly in that era when progressive opinion endorsed then fashionable theories about superior and inferior races and nations.) How much more defenseless would Italian and Jewish and other immigrant groups have been had they not benefitted - as all immigrant groups have benefited - from the American legal tradition of Birthright Citizenship.

Birthright Citizenship has had a particular relevance for my family story. What little family lore I learned growing up all came form my immigrant non-citizen grandmother. My grandparents and their children came to the US in 1920 at the tail end of the great wave of Italian immigration. At some point in the mid-920s, my grandparents and their younger children returned to Sicily for several years, while the two oldest children had remained in New York. But, before they went back, my mother was born in New York in 1922 - a native-born American citizen. Eventually, in 1930, my grandparents and the younger children (including my mother) returned to America in order to reunite the family. By then, of course, entrance into the United States had become much more restricted. But, because my mother was an American citizen, they were able to get back in.

If America is the land of e pluribus unum - one identity out of many nationalities, races, religions, and languages - that one identity has in large part been possible because of the common American citizenship that has been the first benefit of being born in this free country.





Monday, August 24, 2015

An Atypical and Unique Year

As I mentioned in another context a week ago, today is the 34th anniversary of my reception into my community's Novitiate - then still located at beautiful Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ. We were a class of 8, which was then still considered small! (Of the 8 of us, 3 of us are still serving as priests, but I am the only one still in the community.)

This month, God willing, we will welcome two new novices. Their novitiate experience will undoubtedly differ from mine in important respects - not least because their novitiate year will not be in semi-rural northern New Jersey but instead will be passed in Washington, DC, and under the same roof as the students in Temporary Profession who have already completed their novitiate and are now studying theology at the Catholic University of America. 

But, unlike the academic study of theology and the various programs of pastoral formation which are essentially similar in most seminaries, the novitiate experience - regardless of its physical location - is a unique component of formation for membership in a religious community. Its purpose is to provide a process for the novice’s transition from secular life to religious life,  - no small feat in a society which is increasingly post-religious and thus less and less capable of comprehending, let alone supporting, any kind of spiritual vocation.

It would be false to say that as novices back in 1981-1982 we were isolated from the world around us, but it was (and was deliberately intended to be) an atypical and unique year - substantially different from the lives we had individually been living before that in order to enable us together to embrace a qualitatively different experience of life. A more simply focused style of life, revolving around the routines of shared community and a more intensely lived liturgical experience, it was intended to concentrate our attention by offering (as our wise novice director used to like to say) no escape from oneself, from the others in the community, or from God.

These many years later, I still treasure that experience, that time shared with myself, my fellow novices, and God in the natural beauty and uplifting environment of my novitiate. May all future generations of novices be similarly blessed as they respond to the invitation and challenge of religious life!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

To Go or to Stay?

I, for one, am old enough to remember when candidates for president didn’t even announce their candidacies until after January 1 of a presidential election year. But no more! Although the next election is more than 14 months away, the campaign (and the media coverage of it) is already in full swing.  And that usually means excessive attention to short-term fluctuations in public opinion: who’s up and who’s down in the latest poll and the profound significance of that – at least until the next poll says something completely different! And our addiction to polls doesn’t stop after the election. Elected officials, presidents in particular, constantly ride this ridiculous roller-coaster of short-term ups and downs in popularity, which we (guided by the media) invest with inflated significance.

Towards the end of the 2006 film The Queen, there is a wonderful scene when the British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) comes to the palace for his regular audience with the Queen. In the course of their conversation, the Prime Minister tries to reassure Her Majesty that her temporary slip in popularity at the time of her daughter-in-law’s death was - just that – temporary. To this, the older, wiser, and much more politically experienced Queen replies: “you saw those headlines, and you said, ‘one day that will happen to me.’ And it will, Mr. Blair, suddenly and without warning.” And, of course, by the time the movie was made that was exactly what had happened, which was probably why that scene was in the film and why that scene got the audience reaction it did when I first saw it!

Similarly, the 2008 PBS mini-series John Adams had a scene when the normally not particularly popular President Adams goes to the theater and unexpectedly receives a rapturous ovation thanks to a particular position he had recently taken. Unimpressed, Adams, who realizes how temporary and short-lived such a sudden burst of popularity probably may be, says to one of his associates: "A mob is still a mob, even if it's on your side"

And, of course, what Adams understood and what the Queen was warning her Prime Minister about is all so very true. Popularity is ephemeral. Obviously, an important lesson for anyone who wants or depends on having a popular following!

Jesus also attracted a noticeable popular following in his time. Backtracking through 5 weeks of Sunday Gospel accounts to the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, we will recall how the delighted crowd responded by attempting to acclaim Jesus as their king – a dubious honor perhaps, given the perilous political situation in Israel at that time, but certainly a good barometer of Jesus’ popularity, thanks to his demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker.

Since then, however, just like a modern news audience tracking a candidate’s declining poll numbers, we have watched the steady drop in Jesus’ popularity, as he proceeded to tell his audience things they really didn’t want to hear. That, of course, is the danger any serious public figure faces! That's the age-old difference between a leader, who tells people what they need to hear, and a demagogue, who just tells them what they want to hear! In Jesus’ case, the cheering stopped as it became apparent to people that the miraculous feeding of the 5000 was not just an entertaining interruption in life’s regular routine, or a ticket to a lifetime of free lunches, but rather a challenge to reorient their lives in relation to a more permanent reality.

At the point at which we pick up the story today [John 6:60-69], the popular disillusionment with Jesus has become aggressively vocal: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  The “hard saying,” of course, was Jesus’ shocking claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Strong language to be sure – a bit too strong for his hearers’ tastes! The Gospel account allows us to listen in on this drama of division and discord which Jesus’ tough talk has caused – as a result of which many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
At this critical juncture, Jesus turned to that most select group of his disciples - the 12 - and asked: “Do you also want to leave?”

At this critical juncture, the 12 are called upon to step up and commit themselves. They do so through their designated leader, Peter, who performs this fundamental function in all 4 Gospels. “Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Centuries earlier, something similar had transpired when the Israelites had gathered with Joshua at Shechem [Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b].  Challenged by Joshua, the people answered, reflecting on what they had learned about God through their own experience as a people - how he had brought them up out of slavery, how he had performed great miracles, and how he had protected them along their entire journey.

What was anticipated in Israel’s experience was finally fulfilled in Jesus, who is God’s personal experience of human existence from the inside, from our side. So, if we want to encounter God and find life for our world, then we must recognize the human ways in which God has chosen to encounter us – as Joshua challenged the people to recognize in the experience of Israel, as Paul challenged the Ephesians to recognize in the sacrament of Christian marriage [Ephesians 5:21-32], as Jesus challenged the 12 to recognize in himself - and challenges us to make our own Peter’s question and answer: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Is Jesus just one option among many? Or have we too come to believe and be convinced that he is the one and only one to go to.

Just as Peter had to answer the question whether to stay or to leave and why, so too must we – today and every day. What does it really mean here and now for us to stay?

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 23, 2015.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Sacrament of the Moment

Earlier this week, 90-year old former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he has begun treatment for cancer in his liver and his brain. His announcement elicited the predictable, sympathetic comments from well-wishers. A potentially fatal illness naturally invites sympathy and compassion. A good reminder of our common mortality, it is one of the few things that still seems able to transcend the narrow niches into which we have tragically segregated ourselves, with all the now all so evident resultant cultural divisions and political polarization.

But in a special way the style and grace exhibited by President Carters in his announcement also seem to have touched many of his hearers, as reflected in the repeated airing of his announcement and the many admiring comments it has received. On Friday's PBS Newshour, for example, Judy Woodruff referred to how "gracefully" Carter spoke of his condition. Against the contrasting background of our increasingly secular society, Mark Shields highlighted this as yet another illustration of the "social as well as individual value of religious faith," showing what Shields called "grace, courage, and humor, and faith in the face of this daunting and dooming news." Meanwhile Michael Gerson saw in Carter's behavior and example of how to approach the danger of death - with "calmness," "grace," and "gratitude."

Carter indeed highlighted how he has much to be grateful for - a long and until now healthy life, rich in family and friends and experiences, including one term as President of the United States and an impressive (and, he seemed to suggest, much more satisfying) productive post-presidential career full of good works. While we all may have much to be grateful for, some certainly have enjoyed exceptional opportunities to excel in the kids of accomplishments a good person might want to be remembered for. Carter has certainly had that opportunity, and (it seems fair to say) has made the most of it, doing much good for the world.

Carter's political legacy may be debated. I have never thought of his presidency as particularly successful. One could argue that his spectacularly unsuccessful presidency resulted the electoral revolution of 1980 which produced such a profoundly tragic transformation of American society and politics. That said, few former presidents have demonstrated a commitment to the public good as obviously effective as his post-presidential Carter Center years have demonstrated. And it cannot fail to be noted how rooted his life and work have been in his Christian faith and zeal. 

None of us is perfect. Even canonized saints, whose virtue has been deemed heroic, have exhibited flaws in life. In the end, it all comes down to grace - God's grace - and how one responds to it and lives it. How fitting, I think, that the words "grace" and "gracious" have been so plentiful in comments about Carter's announcement. And I am old enough to remember candidate Carter, when asked to name his favorite hymn, naming Amazing Grace. Obviously, there may be a certain historical and cultural context connected with that particular choice, and a person of faith coming from a different milieu might well have named some other hymn instead. But the hymn he chose certainly speaks to how the invitation and the challenge of the Gospel have been experienced by him and many others with abundant and fruitful benefit for the world.

We pray that his treatments may be successful, but also that his faith-filled resilience may inspire all of us as we struggle through the ups and downs of life and leading to its inexorable end. May we all learn to approach both life at every stage and life at its end with grace and gratitude. 

Thinking about what it means to live and age well, I have often reflected on a sentence of Thomas Merton (written on January 18, 1950, as he approached the age of 35).  “There is nothing left for me but to live fully and completely in the present, praying when I pray, and writing and praying when I write, and worrying about nothing but the wish and the glory of God, finding these as best I can in the sacrament of the moment.” [Entering the Silence, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 400.]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For the Sake of the Kingdom (continued)

In his now famous conclusion of the Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (6/26/2015), Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Justice Kennedy's conclusion that the Constitution therefore somehow mandates same-sex marriage may in fact be an unjustified legal and logical leap. But the sentiments which Justice Kennedy expressed so evocatively in his opinion's concluding paragraph certainly suggest how many - maybe most - people have experienced marriage and family and how seriously they feel about it even now. It is something people typically want - indeed strongly desire. What they want is not necessarily the stylized nuclear family of 1950s sitcoms, but people do definitely desire connectedness, family feeling, mutual emotional and economic support, and love. And this desire perdures despite the varied social and institutional forms family structures have assumed over time. Family life is certainly not stress-free and often involves disappointment and heartbreak. But by and large people for the most part still want it. And family life remains still the bedrock foundation for society. (Hence the intensity of the controversies concerning problematic new definitions of marriage and family.)

Long before Justice Kennedy discovered the universal hope "not to be condemned to live in loneliness," biblical revelation recognized this desire for connection and communion, this desire to love and be loved, the widespread human feeling that it is not good that the man should live alone (Genesis 2:18). On the other hand, the New Testament explicitly recognizes that, for some, circumstances may preclude this natural fulfillment, while still others may freely embrace an alternative to the natural family for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12).

The alternative vocation of celibate religious life simultaneously affirms and transcends the natural human desire for family. It recognizes that the latter remains the ordinary way to live in this world. It is a way of life which not only contributes to human beings' natural fulfillment and the common good of society but also expands people's moral horizons - as the young Saint Augustine famously learned from the experience of having a son (cf. Confessions, IV, 2, 11).  And, inasmuch as nature is inherently oriented beyond itself to the order of grace, the faithful living out of any ordinary state of life in the world is itself a life of devotion and a way of perfection. For God "has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character,his status, and his calling" (Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, chapter 3).

That is why I think that certain statements in the First Things article I mentioned yesterday (calling for an increased emphasis in the Church on the celibate vocation) may unfortunately be somewhat overstated and misleading and thus counter-productive. Moreover, in this present era, when the wider world no longer serves as a social and cultural support for faith as it once (actually until relatively recently) did, it seems to me that mediating institutions like the family are inevitably challenged to step up and do that much more to provide that supplementary social support. All the more reason, therefore, to highlight the family's vocation to holiness and to encourage couples and families in its conscious pursuit! All the more reason to highlight examples of heroic familial sanctity and to canonize more married people and more married couples!

All that having been said, however, God's revelation of himself in Jesus ultimately points to a final human fulfillment far more complete than the limited temporal horizons of family and society and a destiny more permanent than the generation-after-generation continuance of the human story which marriage and family life make possible. Hence, the highest, most special vocation of all - martyrdom. And, hence also the special vocations of consecrated and apostolic life in the Church, which today also need to be more consciously valued and energetically promoted.


The chastity "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse (Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, 12)