Sunday, August 18, 2019


One of the interesting side-stories of the great wars of the 20th century was their particularly devastating impact upon the interconnected royal and noble families of Europe, which suddenly found themselves divided by military conflicts created by politicians. For example, Prince Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse, head of the distinguished dynasty that had helped make the Protestant Reformation possible, was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s in 1866. During World War I, Philip’s cousin, Britain’s King George V, was his country’s principal enemy. In World War II, Philip’s father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an ally who famously switched sides midway through the war, with consequences catastrophic for Philip and fatal for his wife, the Princess Mafalda, who died in a German concentration camp 75 years ago this month.

Royalty, of course, were not the only ones divided by wars. The American Revolution famously found Benjamin Franklin and his son on opposite sides, while in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy – family divisions that were widely replicated in the experience of so many families at all levels of society.

Nor are wars the only causes of family conflict. In the Gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus used the case of a family conflict over inheritance to illustrate why wealth and possessions are problems for any serious disciple.

In today’s Gospel [Luke 12:49-53], Jesus used the potential for family conflict to illustrate his larger point about the complete commitment demanded of every disciple. One of the fundamental facts of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment often entails saying “No” to other options. So it is with the decision to follow Jesus, a commitment that is meant to matter enough to change everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or while on vacation somewhere. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced [cf. Hebrews 12:1-4]. So it was – and is - with martyrs.

Of course, no one should want to be at odds with others - with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should seek conflict for conflict’s sake. Yet conflict happens – not always, but often enough, and especially in those great either/or choices that produce martyrs (and almost martyrs, like poor Jeremiah in today’s 1st reading [Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10]). One of modern history’s more sobering facts is that the past century has produced more Christian martyrs than any other century. And then there are all the ordinary situations, which lack the high drama of martyrdom, but which can on occasion also call on us to do something different from what we would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition - like Scott Daniel Warren, for example, who was put on trial by our government earlier this year after providing food, water, beds, and clean clothes to immigrants in Arizona.

Of course, we would all prefer a calm, untroubled life, in a calm, conflict-free world. We voice that sentiment every day when we pray that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress. It’s not conflict per se to which Jesus calls us. It is commitment which he challenges us to live – to be clear about what matters most, clear about our purpose in life, clear about what needs to be done (or not done). It is the challenge of being willing to be transformed by God’s grace into the person God wants me to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.

And, because we live in an otherwise untransformed world, that transforming experience can at times really resemble a sword separating us from whoever or whatever we would otherwise have so readily clung to.

Jesus does indeed promise peace to his disciples – the peace of his kingdom, a very different peace from a momentary absence of conflict. There are Christians, unfortunately, who seem to live with a permanent chip on the shoulder, claiming persecution all the time and spoiling for a fight. But the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, joy, and peace – not hatred, hostility, and anger. The challenge, rather, is to build bridges, not knock them down – to pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while struggling to do so in an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN, August 18, 2019.

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Years ago - 49 years to be exact - I was a college student studying in Austria, and on the feast of the Assumption, which was, of course, a legal holiday, the churches all sang Mozart's Coronation Mass. and I remember watching how people went from church to church comparing choirs - the Kyrie here, the Gloria across the street, the Credo down the block, etc.  Whereas in traditionally Catholic European countries the Assumption is still a legal holiday, for the rest of us, however, the Church's great annual summer "feel-good" festival - the oldest and most important of all of her feasts - may perhaps pass almost or entirely unnoticed, sandwiched into the middle of the post-modern work week, filled as it already is with frenzy, fury, and folly.

While this neglect in no way diminishes Mary's heavenly glory, it does diminish - and deprive us of - the joy we ought to derive from it.

At the end of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council, as part of its lengthy meditation on Mary, recalled that the immaculate Virgin preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things (LG 59), and that the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and the beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise, she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (LG 68).

So, while we celebrate today something wonderful which happened to Mary at the end of her life one earth, we also celebrate our continued connection with her and with her Risen Son in the Church.

In Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary [Yale U. Pr., 2009] Miri Rubin writes of the medieval celebration of the Assumption: "Everything about the feast was designed to remind participants that Mary was seated alongside her son in heaven.  The Assumption set Mary apart from other saints and reassured those who sought her intercession and help as she sat alongside her son there. ... All the senses were touched by the Assumption. ... European devotion had never  spoken of Mary as elaborately before. Written for an occasion when heaven and earth met, it was fitting that sermons for the Assumption used ornate language, full of pomp. ...The Assumption celebrated the enduring hope of heavenly intercession, the hope that linked heaven and earth" [pp. 139-140].

Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church as we are now with the Church as we hope to be.

Our world is full of natural disasters, inexplicable personal tragedies, and deliberate destruction. Violence and sickness seem to surround us. So powerful does the dragon of death appear, that it dared to attack even Jesus. Only after death had done its worst did God decisively step in, conquering death by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there. For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2019.

(Photo: The Assumption altarpiece oil painting by the early 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist Titian on the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sacred Time

"I miss all the Vigils. Why on earth were they suddenly suppressed?” lamented Thomas Merton in his monastic diary on December 7, 1959. Given the date, Merton was obviously lamenting the loss of the liturgical Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Today's much more ancient Vigil of the Assumption survived the 1950s, only to be swept away in 1969. By then, Merton had died and so missed the complete extermination of all the ancient vigils in the 1969 calendar. Originally, of course, a vigil was a nocturnal preparation for a festival, but as the liturgy evolved over the centuries, the vigil Mass came to be celebrated on the previous morning of what came to be considered a penitential day.

As Pius Parsch put it, "vigils are days of penance, days of interior purification. They provide for the penitential implications of the feast. If in spirit we are to ascend heavenwards with the Blessed Virgin tomorrow, we should today loosen ourselves from the earthly bonds that chain us to this world."     

Of course, apart from those traditionally Catholic countries where the Assumption is still a legal holiday, this great ancient festival itself likely gets lost in the ordinariness of a secular work day. So why worry about its lost vigil, which at best might be barely noticed at all, and largely only by a tiny part of the population? Fair enough, but, of course, the entire calendar is largely irrelevant to the patterns and preoccupations of ordinary daily life. Liturgical and secular timetable have long since parted ways, and there is little doubt which actually matters more in real life.

So any lament for our lost vigils really reflects a lament for our loss of sacred time, such as it once was, such as it conceivably could be, but most certainly isn't now.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Fixing the Filibuster

Writing in The NY Times today, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) made a compelling case for eliminating the filibuster once and for all. Reid himself, as he acknowledges in his article, abolished the filibuster for confirmations of most presidential appointees in 2013 Of course, what he should have done was eliminate the whole thing then and there, while he had the chance. The question at present, however, assuming the Democrats can actually regain control of the Senate, a crucial prerequisite to their accomplishing anything at all, is whether Reid's recommendation will ever be followed.

The qualifier that none of this matters unless the Democrats first regain Senate control is no mere technicality, given the Democrats' historic neglect of non-presidential politics. However one evaluates Barack Qbama as president, he was certainly unsuccessful as party leader - losing over the course of his two terms not only 11 Senate seats and 62 House seats, but also 12 Democratic governors and 958 state legislative seats. And, as the US divides more deeply into two separate competing cultures with nothing but their mutual hatred for each other in common, the prospects for recovering the senate seem more, not less difficult.

Assuming somehow that the country elects a Democratic Senate next year, what would happen? Would the majority act to restore some semblance of procedural sanity to the system by abolishing the filibuster once and for all? If Harry Reid is now a belated convert to Senatorial democracy, what about the candidates for president? What about front-runner potential President Joe Biden?. As some of the former Senator's recent unfortunate comments have shown, he suffers from a severe case of senatorial nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body." The fact, of course, is that the Senate has long ceased to be a serious deliberative body and, in any case, the purpose of such deliberation is supposed to be legislating, something which an immobilized Senate has virtually ceased to do.

Admittedly institutional reforms, however necessary or desirable, seldom inspire or excite. And no conceivable constitutional or other change can rid us of the Senate, however desirable such a change might be. But there is nothing constitutionally mandated about holding on to the century-old procedural nightmare that is the filibuster. If a future Democratic Administration has any actual agenda, then the only conceivable way to enact it at all would be by, first, winning a working majority in the Senate and then governing by majority (as the constitution clearly contemplated the Senate doing).

Misplaced nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body" is a symptom of the peculiar idea that our present predicament is largely due to one president's idiosyncrasies, rather than reflections of deeply felt ideological and cultural conflicts that have poisoned our politics, a politics already rendered quasi-dysfunctional by its systemic weaknesses such as the Senate itself and its foolish filibuster rule.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Succession (Season 2)

HBO's Succession is back for a second season. One would have thought the world had already seen enough of the repulsive Roy family; but, of course, we can never get enough of the rich. And really what more timely topic is there for our entertainment? The  evil Roys are all fictional, but the salience of their story lies precisely in the fact that they so effectively express the oligarchic values we seem increasingly surrounded by,

Succession and its collection of utterly evil and reprehensible rich people - all foul-mouthed and variously over-sexed and/or drug-dependent - is an unsubtle study in the unambiguous evil of wealth and the moral depravity that accompanies its possession. It is also, as its title suggests, a study in the specific corruptions connected with inherited wealth, it being one of the peculiar consequences of modern democracy to have replaced the classical nobility of aristocratic dominance with rule by a narcissistic oligarchy.

Except perhaps (occasionally) for cousin Greg, there is hardly a character that could remotely be considered likable. Moral monsters all, they have all been totally twisted by their wealth, the unearned power it has given them, and the thoughtless cruelty it has equipped them to practice on the rest of the world - and, most notoriously, on each other. Whereas drama usually succeeds by inviting us to identify with or sympathize with one or more major characters, Succession succeeds precisely in proportion to the repulsiveness of the characters - a reflection, perhaps, of the show's obvious off-screen relevance.

Last night's season opener picked up where season one had left off - with Kendall (once upon a time the presumed successor) still hopelessly drug-dependent, now recovering (if that is what it is) from his very own Chappaquiddick experience (what his father at the end of last season called "the defining moment" of Kendall's life) by accepting his new fate of total subservience to his father. Totally defeated personally and professionally, he is treated with contempt on all sides. Now that Kendall has been completely disempowered and Logan has obviously recovered from whatever impairment he suffered in his season one stroke, Logan has to decide whether and how to fight to keep control of his company, which in the show's twisted capitalist irony requires him finally to choose his successor. And the winner is ... Shiv (always obviously the best brain of the bunch of siblings, even if she has seemingly spent her adult life so far pursuing an alternative career outside the family business).

The setting for most of the action in the season opener is a gathering of the Roys at the family's "summer palace" at the shore. The attractive seaside setting is spoiled by a bad smell which permeates the house (due, we discover, to dead raccoons in the chimney).  The bad smell serves as a sort of symbolic metaphor for everything that happens there. Supposedly on account of the smell, Logan throws out all the expensive fancy food and orders pizza, a parable, I suppose, for the sheer waste that is at the heart of the capitalist hell that is being perperated in real life at that "summer palace."

As Adam Smith (1723-1790) so famously warned in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
This 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, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.