Monday, May 25, 2020

Memento




Sunday's NY Times devoted its front page ("U.S. Deaths Near 100,00, an Incalculable Loss") to listing the names of many pandemic-connected fatalities.

Memorial Day disposes us (or at least used to dispose us before we turned it into just another long weekend summer holiday) to think about those who have gone before us - an occasion to recall those who have die and continue to die in our ongoing apparently interminable wars, and an appropriate occasion (so it might seem) to remember the almost 100,000 Americans (and the thousands of others around the world) whose lives have been cruelly cut short by this pandemic, an opportunity to mourn them collectively as a society, something individuals have been unable to do in anything like a normal way because of the necessary restrictions under which we have been living.

Collective rituals of national mourning are rightly restricted to losses to our common life - the deaths of statesmen, tragic accidents (like the deaths of the challenger astronauts), and casualties of war and terrorism . Our mounting national death toll from COVID-19 comes closest to resembling a long-term terrorist attack - not just the sum of so many individual tragic losses but a wound penetrating deeply into the nation's heart.

In normal times of course, our national leaders would lead us in national mourning. Such mourning, however, as Jessica Goldstein has written in The New Republic, "requires one to pause and remember; this administration is hell-bent on hurtling forward as if what is currently happening never really happened at all." Indeed, the pandemic has only illustrated how our national leaders are themselves a major part of our national illness. "The president's boundless cruelty and ignorance," Goldstein reminds us, have been "enabled by his administration's incompetence ... and avarice ... aided and abetted by staggering civic indifference from elected officials who ran for office on 'pro-life' platforms only to turn around and demand the rest of us be willing to sacrifice our parents and grandparents on the altar of the Dow." 

All the more reason then "to pause and remember," which is what this day is supposed to be for.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Ascension


Saint Bernard of Clairvaux described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Our belief in the Ascension is, of course, one of the key components of the Creed, which we recite regularly . After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

As the words of the Creed suggest, the ascension actually involves several things. Historically speaking, it has to do with the fact that the Risen Christ was no longer living among his disciples as he had been before. The Risen Lord lives already the new life of the future of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament authors assure us that the Risen One presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church.  Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of the period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.

That being the case, the question then becomes: well, where exactly is he? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically speaking, what the Ascension celebrates is that the Word-made-flesh, the incarnate Christ is now with God his Father, the fact that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) that is with God.

In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended and so is now with God.

As St. Augustine famously said in one of his sermons: “Although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend, not by reason of our own virtue but on account of our oneness with him” (Sermon 263).

Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.

In the meantime now - in this interim between Easter and the end - though he is absent, he has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Hence, his instruction to his disciples: to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. This Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is still present among us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and its sacraments. Hence the intense focus of this final part of the Easter season on his parting gift of the Holy Spirit to us in his church. Meanwhile, not only does the Risen Christ continue present in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit; but, through the sacraments and in particular the Eucharist, we participate already even now in the heavenly liturgy, where Christ, as our High Priest intercedes forever on our behalf with his Father.

Our confidence in his heavenly intercession a simultaneously continuing presence among us in his Church should encourage us as we make our way through our daily difficulties and the seemingly overwhelming crises and calamities the world keeps throwing at us.

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 24, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website icknoxville.org.

Photo: Watercolor Ceiling Painting of the Ascension, 1913, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Memorial Day



Many of us may be old enough to remember the original name for Memorial Day - Decoration Day. It began as a day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became a day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring their graves. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and visiting the cemetery on or near Memorial Day was part of that war legacy. Even today, volunteers still visit cemeteries to place flags on graves – a reminder of the importance of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.

So we celebrate this annual Mass today for all the dead buried in our own parish cemetery, established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to faithful departed. That we do so here in an almost empty church rather than at the cemetery as we usually do speaks to our present predicament in this time of pandemic, which has made it difficult if not impossible for many of us to gather at all and has been especially hard on those who are mourning their beloved dead without the usual rituals of wake services, funeral Masses, and burial rites. All the more reason, then, to reflect upon the importance of those rituals and the realities that underlie them.

In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in ordinary English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because they is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. So, even when we cannot gather as we would wish, to remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope which we still share with them after death.

Homily for the Annual Memorial Day Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 23, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website icknoxville.org




Friday, May 22, 2020

Come, Holy Spirit

These nine days that occur between the traditional date of the Ascension and Pentecost are the origin of the Catholic custom of the novena - nine days of prayer (usually in preparation for a feast day), which has its foundation in the uniquely formative experience of the early Church in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. As the Church’s original novena, this period is particularly focused on highlighting the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, who animates and empowers Christ’s mystical body, the Church, for its mission in the world. 

Invoking the aid of the Holy Spirit is always appropriate, of course, but it seems especially so this year as we prepare for a new experience of Church and parish life this Pentecost, when we will resume the regular celebration of public parish Masses under the restrictive regulations which we must follow to minimize risk to ourselves and everyone else from this dangerous disease.

If the expression "New Pentecost" takes on an unexpected connotation this year, all the more reason to highlight our perennial dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit to animate our life and activity in this world.

(Photo: Paulist Press Pamphlet, Novena to the Holy Spirit by Rt. Rev, John J. Burke, CSP, 1925)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"The Life in the Years"

My mother, Camille Franco, would have been 98 years old today. She died after a brief illness on March 5. A Funeral Mass in her parish in Walnut Creek, California, was planned - to be followed later by interment in the family plot in New York. But all that then had to be indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic. Grieving apart without the traditional ritual comforts of wake services, funerals, and burials is one of the many sad side-effects of this pandemic. Since my mother has not yet had a proper funeral Mass, her birthday seems an appropriate day to remember her liturgically at least until such time  as a proper Funeral Mass is possible.

So here is my Homily from the Memorial Mass for my mother at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 21, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website icknoxville.org.


Abraham Lincoln famously said: “in the end, it is not the years in a life, but the life in the years.”

My mother was blessed with both. She outlived her siblings and in-laws, surpassing the psalmist’s famous saying: “The sum of our years is 70, and if we are strong 80, and most of them are toil and trouble, for they quickly pass, and we vanish.” We are so used to people getting old now that we forget that until recently people did not automatically expect to reach such an old age. My mother’s generation generally did not begin life expecting to live as long as so many of them did. Certainly my mother didn’t, having been assured as a somewhat sickly child that she might not make it to 16. Well, one thing we all know is we don't know the future!

A person’s tombstone may be fancy or plain, but it always features a name and two dates – the deceased’s date of birth and date of death, separated sometimes by a little dash. More important than the years, however, as Lincoln reminded us so tellingly is the life lived over the course of those years. It is that life - lived in the dash between the dates - that imparts purpose to all that “toil and trouble” and continues to have meaning even after “we vanish.” Above all, it is in the life one lives that one becomes the person one will forever be in eternity.

As the only American-born child in a family of Italian immigrants, she inherited the heritage of the old world, reinforced by a brief but memorable sojourn as a child in the kingdom of Italy in the 1920s, while being firmly rooted in the promise of opportunity which had enticed her parents, her husband-to-be’s parents, and so many people’s parents to uproot themselves, like Abraham of old, and to put down new roots in a land of promise.

From her 20s through her 50s home was New York’s borough of the Bronx – often with typical New York hyperbole referred to then as the “Beautiful Bronx.” And beautiful it was – from the natural beauty of Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach, where as a young family we spent so much of our time in the summer, westward along the great commercial artery that was Fordham Road, where she did so much household shopping, to our typically pre-war apartment building, where we lived, and the great gothic parish church across the street, that set so much of the tone for that life.

But, before the Bronx, there was Macy’s! My parents were both employed by Macy’s in 1946 when they met there at the first big soap sale after the war. For my father, it was love at first sight. Soon he was taking my mother on their first date – to the Radio City Christmas Show. While they waited in line, my father serenaded my mother, singing the then popular song “All the Things You Are.” They were engaged before Christmas, and married two months later. And, as Macy’s employees, my parents sat under the lights for what seemed to them like forever as part of the background crowd for the cafeteria scene in the famous 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street. Who knows how many miracles of love Macy’s made!

From a distance, we look back on that life we shared with her and all the people that were a part of it, so many of whom are themselves gone now. It was not always easy. It was a struggle, she used to say, just to make ends meet. My father held two jobs, and my mother continued to work part-time in Macy’s. Both he and my mother were “Saturday only” Macy’s employees, which did indeed mean that they worked all day on Saturdays but inexplicably also meant that they worked Monday and Thursday evenings! Those were long, hard days not getting home until almost 10:00 p.m. Since my mother had the same Macy’s hours, they could at least commute home together on the subway those late nights and back and forth on Saturdays.

I often think back to how much my parents had to work. And so I think it a special blessing that she got to enjoy as many years as she did – first, together with my father in the home they finally owned in Westchester and then after my father’s illness and death a whole new life for my mother here in California. It was a difficult and challenging decision at her age – 82 – to move across country. But how happy she was there, being near Linda and Nick and Claire and Laura. And all the friends she made there, so many friends, whom she treasured.

At my parents’ wedding, the priest would have instructed them about the life they were committing themselves to, in these once familiar words “That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes.” No longer hidden but fully lived, all those hopes, disappointments, successes, failures, pleasures, pains, joys, and sorrows accompany her now to the throne of the living God and his all-purifying grace and mercy.

We all struggle in life with the contradiction between who we are now and who God created us to become – until united with him in his kingdom we can finally see all things from God’s point of view and so experience the full effect of God’s patient, life-long transformation of us by his grace.

For my mother, that process began in a parish church in New York’s Little Italy where she was baptized and first brought into relationship with the One who is the resurrection and the life, a relationship that he has continued to develop with her for almost a century now, flourishing in her final years in Walnut Creek's Rossmoor community and Saint Anne’s, Parish, which my mother cherished so much.

In their earthly lives, Martha and Mary and Lazarus had all responded to Jesus’ invitation by committing to him as to their own family. That invitation was extended to my mother at her baptism, as it has been to each of us, an invitation that makes everything different from what it might otherwise have been, and that, having blessed my mother’s life, now imparts new meaning to her death as, with confident hope and trust in God’s promises, we commend her to share forever in the new life of the Risen Christ.