Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rome's Apostles

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. But the two argued about which hill to build on; and, when Romulus began building his city wall, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over the wall. Romulus responded by killing him - thus determining which one Rome would be named after! In time, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.

To that same city, some 8 centuries later, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire. Among those martyred in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.

One story recounts how Peter started to flee but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded. 

If the Christians of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles, who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself  - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way.

At the west end of the south aisle of the Paulist Fathers' "Mother Church" in New York, over a simple but impressive altar dedicated to Saint Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative, early 20th-century painting depicting Saint Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below the picture are the famous words we just heard from Saint. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith!” [2 Timothy 4:7]

Which brings us back to where we started. The old Rome of Romulus – proud, powerful, pagan Rome, based on the murder of one brother by another – was, for all its accomplishments and authentic grandeur, a human state like any other, a warring conqueror, conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul conquered that old Rome, but in a new way. Proud, powerful, pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was in turn conquered by the faith that empowered Peter and Paul as brothers-in-Christ to evangelize an empire and die together as witnesses to a new way of life.

As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of Rome's great Apostles Peter and Paul, let us likewise – as Saint Augustine once recommended on this feast – “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” [Sermon 295, 8].

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 29, 2016.

(Photo: Papal Altar, Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, with its 14th-century baldachino and reliquaries of the heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Why All the Surprise?

One of the most perplexing aspects of elite reactions to the UK's Brexit vote has been the widespread surprise that has repeatedly been expressed Over and over again, commentators have referred to the result as "surprising" or "stunning." Whom have these folks been talking with and listening to all this time? People who hang out in Davos?

The same could be said, for example, of the "populist" revolts against some of the fallout from globalization that have overtaken both US political parties this election cycle - to the surprise (and chagrin) of elite opinion in both parties. It's OK to talk with and listen to people who hang out in Davis, but even more important to listen to others besides - especially to those being left behind by all this wonderful progress. One of the most distressing features of our contemporary culture is how the different social classes have so successfully segregated themselves, so that cultural elites largely listen only to others with similarly elite-sanctioned opinions. How else to explain the sudden "surprise" when the occasional exercise in real democracy allows other voices to be heard?

That the economic, social, and cultural changes of recent decades have produced real and tangible benefits cannot be denied. but neither can it be denied that the principal beneficiaries of this whirlwind of change have largely been the well-off and the well-positioned - and that those less well-off and less well-positioned have found themselves largely left behind with diminished economic, social and cultural prospects. For all the elite emphasis on inclusiveness, it is precisely the non-inclusive character of so much of modern progress that has brought us to this current crisis. How different our society would be if many of those who lecture everyone else so tediously about inclusiveness would actually practice more of it themselves!

Historian Steve Fraser, author of The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (Basic Books, 2016) has captured the consequences of this process of political fracture. "Class," Fraser notes, "which had largely been banished from acceptable public discourse with the onset of the Cold War, returned with a vengeance but was camouflaged." What Fraser calls our "civil war of values" he portrays in all its class-based starkness. Resisting "secular elitists" and their allies, Fraser sees "an everyman army, people of faith, not only the pious, but all those workaday white folks who remained faithful to the way things once were or were imagined to be or were ordained to be."

The point is not that things can - or ought to - be made to revert to "the way things once were." That is neither possible nor in many cases even all that desirable. The point rather is that the modern ripping apart of society has come at an enormous cost, which has burdened the many left behind, while enriching and empowering the few - and that now the bill is coming due. The rise of "populist" demagoguery - whether Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s or Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders today - is one unsurprising result.  Yet we continue to be surprised and so fail to respond in a way which respects the casualties of the social breakdown produced by the predatory global capitalism that has so transformed our world.

Either we have to relearn the art of community and how to be one society again, or we continue down this increasingly fractious road.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday of Our Lady

Decades ago, as a boy growing up enveloped in the exuberant embrace of Bronx Catholicism, I remember being perplexed by the expression Saturday Office of the BVM, which appeared with some frequency on our home wall calendar provided by our parish church (courtesy, of course, of some local funeral home).  It is, I suppose, a universal human trait to try to make things make sense. So for a while I imagined that the Blessed Virgin Mary had an office in heaven to which she faithfully went on Saturdays and where she regularly responded to people's prayers. Bizarre as it may sound to today's adult ears, that "explanation" seemed satisfactory - at least until I learned at school about the Divine Office and hence the real meaning of the term Saturday Office of the BVM. 

One of the liturgical joys of "Ordinary Time" is the opportunity it offers on many Saturdays to recite the Saturday Office of the BVM - or, as it is now named in the new liturgy, the "Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday" - and, along with that, to celebrate one of the 40+ Votive Masses in Our Lady's honor which the current liturgy makes available for Saturday use.

This practice of celebrating a Votive Mass of the BVM on Saturday is said to go back to Alcuin (735-804), Charlemagne's principal court Benedictine and primary architect of the Carolingian liturgical reforms. Alcuin composed Votive Masses for each day of the week, and honored Mary with two for Saturday. Subsequently, popular piety seems to have come to associate Saturday with the idea that on that first Holy Saturday Mary persevered in faith in her Son and in his promise to rise again. So Saturday's devotion to Mary is seen as “a remembrance of the maternal example and discipleship of the 'Blessed Virgin Mary who, strengthened by faith and hope, on that great Saturday on which Our Lord lay in the tomb, was the only one of the disciples to hold vigil in expectation of the Lord’s resurrection'." It is also seen as "a prelude and introduction to the celebration of Sunday, the weekly memorial of the Resurrection of Christ; it is a sign that the Virgin Mary is continuously present and operative in the life of the Church.” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 188; cf. Blessed Paul VI, Marialis cultus, 41).

This being the Holy Year of Mercy, at Mass this morning I said the Votive Mass of Mary, Queen and Mother of Mercy. The Marian title Mother of Mercy has been ascribed to Saint Odo of Cluny (c.878 - 942). The votive Preface calls Mary "the gracious queen who has herself uniquely known your loving kindness" - an echo, I presume, of her Magnificat, a theme also picked up by Pope Saint John Paul II who referred to Mary as having "obtained mercy in a particular and exceptional way" (Dives in misericordia, 9).

A suitable subject for a quiet summer Saturday!

(The above image of Our Lady of Mercy is a photo of the Ravensburger Schutzmantelmadonna, attributed to Michel Erhart, c. 1480, in Berlin's Bode Museum.)

Friday, June 24, 2016

The UK Chooses Democracy and Citizenship

Somewhat to the surprise of their political elites (a surprise that itself speaks volumes about those elites' detachment from their citizens), the citizens of the United Kingdom voted yesterday - in the tradition of parliamentary democracy and its principle of responsible accountable government - in a courageous act of citizenship that has reaffirmed their national sovereignty and rejected the EU's Napoleonic aspirations. In the process, it may help trigger the long-term recovery of the values of democratic citizenship and accountable government among the European  nations themselves. Such values are not  anachronistic luxuries but rather are among the very few resources citizens have to resist the overwhelming power of global capitalism and its bureaucratic managerial elite.

The EU had its remote beginnings in an admirable effort, in the wake of the disaster of the Second World War, to reestablish a framework for European political life and economic cooperation largely in harmony with the philosophies of the post-war Christian Democratic parties. The 1951 Treaty of Paris formed the European Coal and Steel Community among France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. This developed, through the 1957 Treaty of Rome, into the European Economic Community. Over the last 30 years or so, however, the European Community has evolved into something somewhat different and has long since left its Christian Democratic philosophical origins behind. In the process it has produced a growing gulf between its bureaucratic elite and the ordinary citizens of its constituent states. It is those increasingly disgruntled citizens whose voice is now being heard.

The future will not be easy - either for the United Kingdom or for the other European states. Parliamentary democracy and responsible accountable government are not problem-free. They require commitment on the part of citizens and hard work on the part of those the citizens elect to govern in their name. The dominant dynamic of post-modernity has been citizen passivity, characterized by diminished commitment and participation and the denigration of cultural diversity and experience reflected in tradition. To reverse that course will be a challenge. There are no guarantees in political life. But perhaps this single step will be partial beginning in that multi-mile journey.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"We don't really talk, do we?'

"We don't really talk, do we? We just contradict each other," Brain Dead's Laurel (D) says to Gareth (R) in the show’s second episode in which the two congressional staffers attend Washington’s “Tax Prom” together - and do seem to enjoy dancing together at least. (Of course, it is two actors we are watching. Whether actual political staffers would either dance as well or appear to enjoy it - and each other- as much is obviously another question.)

Whatever one thinks of the show itself and its artful attempt to combine contemporary political commentary/satire with science fiction/horror, I think that Laurel's two sentences speak volumes - not only about the on-screen interaction between Laurel and Gareth (and most of the other characters) but also (as presumably it is meant to do) says something about our contemporary national political culture. And, of course, the tragedy is that we do not have alien ants from outer space to blame for this sad state of affairs. Rather we have ourselves - and mainly ourselves, as citizens and voters - to blame. And nothing has highlighted this state of human - not just congressional - dysfunction more than the current presidential election campaign (which is also actually the ostensible background in Brain Dead).

What commonly passes for "populism" in modern American politics - whether on the right (Trump) or on the left (Sanders) - is often a sudden awakening of a passive population that has largely justified its passivity by promoting a cynical view of politics that blames politicians for society's problems but never blames the voters who put them in power. (Voters here also includes the non-voters, whose cynical passivity must in the end be counted as a de facto vote for the establishment they purport to abhor.) This is an important undercurrent in American politics that inevitably has exaggerated the power of intensely motivated ideologues within the established political parties.

There are, of course, also institutional factors, proper to the peculiar constitutional construction and institutional dynamics of the American political system that sometimes - often, in fact - set it up for failure. These familiar factors are real enough and should not be underrated. On the other hand, history shows how it has been possible - a challenge at times, but not impossible - to overcome our peculiar constitutional construction and institutional dynamics to get things done when sufficient social consensus existed. It has been the complete collapse of the post-war social consensus, starting already in the 1960s and rapidly escalating in more recent decades, that has made it virtually impossible to practice any semblance of normal politics anymore.

Inherent in the collapse of the post-war social consensus has been the capture of both political parties (but one much more than the other) by extremist ideologies. Both parties have purged themselves of their centrist, more moderate wings and increasingly moved to their respective ideological corners. As a result, both parties are simply less well equipped to - and less inclined to try to - talk rather than just contradict each other. That said, one party remains bigger and more diverse and more focused on practical policy outcomes. The other keeps shrinking (and aging) and has become increasingly more focused on opposition almost for the sake of opposition. Whatever the show's artistic and dramatic merits, Brain Dead does at least portray the cynical opportunism and ideological extremism that has captured both parties, while highlighting how much worse it is on one side of the aisle. To the extent that that illustrates - in the form of entertainment (the preferred post-modern medium for experience) - what we should all already know from honest observation, the show is performing a service of sorts against the dispiriting background of our dysfunctional politics and our discouraging election campaigns..