Friday, October 30, 2020

Thank You, Lord!

This is the homily I preached at Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, on October 29, 2020, celebrating the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a priest on October 28, 1995. The entire Mass may be watched at:

The Gospel we just heard is, by design, the same one which was read at my ordination 25 years ago. Despite the Lord’s explicit command, I must confess that I have not, to my knowledge, healed any sick these 25 years. But I do hope at least to have been better about fulfilling the rest of the Lord’s command: whenever you enter a city say “The kingdom of God has come near.” Often enough, I have felt more like Thomas Merton when he prayed; “I have no idea where I am going [and] do not see the road ahead of me.” But, now so many years down that road, I feel closer to Saint Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi: straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

25 years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but it has been long enough to make a lot of difference in our world. Back then, as many of you may remember, we still wrote letters and made phone calls. We read the paper in the morning and watched the news together at the appointed hour in the evening. But that common and shared experience of all living in the same world was sadly not to last. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical, “we no longer have common horizons that unite us.”

Of course, as the Good Witch said to Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” By October 28, 1995, I had already lived almost two-thirds of the life allotted me so far. I had already lived almost half a century, a pilgrim’s progress of fits and starts that had led me to that day, and has continued to lead me to this day.

Unlike Servant of God Isaac Hecker, I did not know already at an early age that God had “a work for me to do in the world.” I doubt I knew much of anything then. When I did start knowing things, forming ideas, having hopes, dreaming dreams, they were limited by time and space, as are all our ideas, hopes, and dreams – apart from the Good News of God’s kingdom.

But dominating that space, in those foundational early years, there was the great gothic-towered church across the street, that took me out of time and beyond the narrow confines of my limited space and taught me that to go to the altar of God would give joy to one’s youth. That was something I never forgot – both in brief intervals of ephemeral, fleeting success and in times of devastating, frightening failure.

I admit I am easily bored by the parable of the sower. But I have learned to see my time in that story’s space. For, at one time or other, I have been like the thorns or the rocky ground, letting God’s grace be choked or wither. But then at other times, I have flourished in that rich soil seeded by the Church, in which God’s grace and mercy have taken root and produced fruit.

Like the seed, I may have been all over the place. But God never gives up, because that is who God is and how God is. God never gives up on the commitment he has made to each of us. And, despite all obstacles real and imagined, that was something that somehow I always sensed.

I sensed it long before I’d ever studied and been taught by Saint Augustine that God has made us for himself and that our hearts remain restless until they rest in him.

In the 15th century, Nicholas of Cusa, whom I once dressed up as at a Princeton grad students’ Halloween party, sometime in the mid-1970s, prayed this prayer:

Thank you, Jesus, for bringing me this far.

In your light I see the light of my life.

Your persuade us to trust in our heavenly Father.

You command us to love one another.

What is easier?

Well, sometimes certainly it doesn’t seem so easy, does it? So often, in this vale of tears, the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand can come across as no news at all, or, even worse, as bad news, or maybe as good news sort of learned once upon a time but long since forgotten. That is why the world so desperately needs the Church – to show the world what Good News the Kingdom of God really is, Good News that is actually at hand for anyone and everyone.

In promoting Servant of God Isaac Hecker for sainthood, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan called him “a man of the Church.” That indeed he was. That indeed is what any and every priest is challenged to be. Not his own man, purveying the fake news of worldly wealth and creative power, but a man of the Church, tasked to try to show a way for all to see God’s light, to trust God’s love, and to live that love together among God’s people, with whom we share our common home on this poor fragile planet – dangerously overheated in so many frightening ways but desperate for the warmth of God’s grace and mercy.

25 years ago, I made my own this 8th-century prayer of Saint John Damascene:

Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of my sins through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always and keep me in your sight.

I did not know then whether I might make it to this day or what path might take me here, an amazingly grace-filled path, punctuated by thousands of Masses - daily Masses, Sunday Masses, school Masses, Spanish Masses, Italian Masses, Wedding Masses, Funeral Masses - an amazingly grace-filled path from Toronto, Canada, to New York, NY, to Knoxville, Tennessee: singing Christmas carols on Bloor Street and blessing Saint Anthony’s Bread, living through the soul-searing sadness of 9/11 and the welcome comfort of weekly breakfasts with parishioners at the Flame, the spiritual uplift of pilgrimages to famous shrines and a summer spent studying at Windsor Castle, the challenge of walking for miles in the pre-dawn dark at World Youth Day and the adventure of saint-school in Rome, and, then, finally, back to this beautiful and historic Knoxville church, and the amazing adventure of chairing meetings, paying bills, replacing a boiler, restoring the church ceiling and climbing the scaffolding to touch a century-old ceiling painting, blogging and e-mailing and eventually even live-streaming, teaching and learning, preaching, praying for the sick, baptizing babies, burying the dead, caring for the cemetery, then ending up in a global pandemic that has challenged and stretched all of us in ways we had hardly ever expected.

As Pope Francis recently wrote, “having failed to show solidarity in wealth and in the sharing of resources, we have learned to experience solidarity in suffering.”

Until recently, I had never expected to celebrate this anniversary here in this community of Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, whose priest and 24th pastor I have been privileged to be these last 10 years. Paradoxically, I guess I can thank this terrible pandemic for that! In this terrible time, when almost everything we took for granted seemed to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all the empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and personal self-sufficiency, I still cannot heal the sick.

But I am at least still able to witness how God has revealed himself to us in Jesus our Lord who brings us together in his Church, through which we may have hope that the Kingdom of God really is at hand to heal our broken world - that God’s power is greater than the forces that dominate our world, and so can overcome all the obstacles and worries which, if we let them, will threaten to separate us from God and from the salvation he intends for us.

So, yes, thank you, Lord, for bringing me this far.

And, thank you, all of you, for making this journey with me. It has been my great honor and my joy to have been your priest, and I will miss it very much.

And now may all of us together continue to help one another on our ongoing journey into the Kingdom of God, where the news is always good and true for all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

25 Years

By the end of the day today, I will have been ordained a priest for 25 years!

Were it not for the pandemic, my 25th anniversary would have been celebrated very simply with a private Mass in the Motherhouse chapel with perhaps a handful of local New York friends in attendance. But, because of the pandemic, my term as pastor was unexpectedly extended. So I have an unanticipated opportunity to mark my anniversary with the parish community I have served these past 10 years. On the other hand, in a year when even the Al Smith Dinner went “virtual" and when there has been so much disruption and suffering, a simple celebration seems appropriate. 

That said, as I mark this occasion, I do want to use it  to thank God and the Church for these 25 fulfilling years. And, in a particular way, I want to thank the people of the three parishes where I have served for accompanying me on this wonderful 25-year journey. My anniversary Mas tomorrow will be offered in particular for all the people - living and deceased - of Saint Peter's parish, Toronto, Saint Paul the Apostle parish, NY, and Immaculate Conception parish, Knoxville. I thank all who helped and supported me along the circuitous route that took me to that day 25 years ago, and all those who have sustained and encouraged me since that day. It has been my greatest privilege and my greatest joy to have been a parish priest, and I will surely miss it.

Meanwhile, I have indulged my curiosity about what other memorable events have coincidentally occurred on this date.

Probably the most memorable and most important historical event that occurred on this date was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, which made Constantine Roman Emperor. Shortly after, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Also on this date in 1886 the Statue of Liberty was dedicated.

On this date in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act.

On this date in 1922, Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Benito Mussolini his Prime Minister.

In 1929, this was Wall Street's "Black Monday."

On this date in 1958, Pope Saint John XXIII was elected to succeed Pope Pius XII.

And, on this date in 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated its Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis.. 

And I am old enough to remember at least those last two events very well!

Finally, in the liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the feast of the holy Apostles Saints Simon and Jude, the latter universally invoked as the patron of desperate causes and hopeless cases, a particularly providential coincidence!

Tomorrow, I will solemnly celebrate my 25th anniversary at a Mass live streamed on Facebook for the benefit both of friends and family around the country and of parishioners and friends here who, because of the pandemic, prefer not to attend in person. I will post my anniversary homily and the link to the video of the occasion later this week.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Francesco (The Movie)

Francesco, the new documentary about Pope Francis, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky,  made its U.S. debut yesterday at the Savannah Film Festival. For a lot less that what it would have cost me to travel to Savannah, I bought a ticket and watched it in the comfort of my own home!

The film follows Francis' pontificate (largely through archival footage), highlighting his personal style and way of addressing issues of global import. It begins with the sad scene of the Pope walking alone in a wet Saint Peter's Square during last march's pandemic Urbi et Orbi. Sad scenes of other empty cities highlights the Pope's message of how the pandemic has challenged us to rethink our priorities: "a time to choose about what matters and what passes away." In a sense that is the theme of the entire film.

The documentary illustrates the main themes of this pontificate. It starts with the Pope's expressions for the environment and about climate change and especially its damaging effect on the poor. There is also footage from his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress. Then on to the issue of immigration in its worldwide dimension. The film overwhelms its audience (as his journeys have undoubtedly overwhelmed Francis) with the immensity of this global humanitarian disaster.

The immigrant experience is a natural lead into the story of the Pope's own family, Italian immigrants in Argentina. We hear his account of his calling to the priesthood. The documentary does not hide from the criticisms levelled against him in his home country, and attempts a convincing response to those criticisms. It also delves into his complicated history with his own Jesuit Order and how, by his own admission, he learned form his early mistakes.

From his pre-papal experiences, we are introduced to his efforts at inter-religious dialogue, which bring us back to immigration and his evident repudiation of the wall ostensibly being built by the U.S. at its southern border. Were it not for another issue raised later in the film, this would probably have attracted the most media attention. The juxtaposition of the Pope's words with President Trump's speaks loudly, if briefly, as do other very brief scenes form the summer's American reckoning with racism.

It is just one more unfortunate consequence of the contemporary "culture war" that so much of that has been largely ignored by those preoccupied with a much narrower range of issues.

Unsurprisingly, the part that has gotten the most attention in the U.S. - and has riled up the Pope's predictable opponents - has been the Pope's words on civil unions for same-sex couples. The Pope is portrayed as saying: "What we have to have is a civil union law [ley de convivencia civil]. That way they are legally covered. I supported that."

The Pope's reference to his past support for such legislation presumably refers back to when Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 when then Cardinal Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, unsuccessfully urged his fellow Argentinian bishops to support civil unions as an alternative. In a 2014 interview with Corriere della Sera, Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, reaffirmed the Church's teaching on marriage, but distinguished from that the civil society's efforts to regulate relationships in terms of their economic and social effects, for example, health care. Presumably, the Pope regards such civil arrangements and protections as falling within the legitimate autonomy of the state. Unless one is willing to abandon completely the post-conciliar project of peaceful coexistence with modern secular pluralistic societies, some acceptance of the state's claim to legitimate autonomy in the sphere of social and economic arrangements seems unavoidable. It is plausible that a less confrontational position on civil unions, such as that Bergoglio was proposing in Argentina, might have opened up some space for political compromise. It is plausible that by excluding the possibility of any compromise, the most extreme outcome became that much more likely

In the U.S., at least since Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) forestalled further public discussion and possible compromises through the political process, legal marriage equality has largely left civil unions behind. But the Catholic theology of marriage cannot incorporate that outcome. So, in a sense, all civil marriages not recognized by the Church (same-sex marriages obviously, but also, for example, all "traditional" marriages where one or both spouses are civilly divorced from a still living partner) are, in effect, "civil unions" as seen from the Church's perspective. In speaking about them in this way, the Pope has provided a more positive framework for relating to those in such unions, one which respects both the Church's own irreformable teaching on marriage and the legitimate autonomy properly exercised by civil society in its own specific sphere.

Admittedly, in its 2003 Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appeared to take a more restrictive view regarding acknowledging civil society's autonomy to regulate non-marital relationships (non-marital from the Church's perspective, regardless of how the state labels them). Presumably the Pope is here again proposing a more expansive (but hardly radical) interpretation of the legitimate autonomy of civil society. 

The confusion arises because fidelity to the doctrine about the nature and purpose of marriage often gets contrasted with the actualities of legislation in a non-confessional secular state with a pluralistic population. The 2003 Considerations actually acknowledged that it did "not contain new doctrinal elements" [1]. The doctrine remains what it has always been, that marriage "was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose" [2]. Neither this nor any other pope is able to change that. The 2003 Considerations was a doctrinally informed guide to political activity in certain circumstances, circumstances which constantly change, and which certainly have changed significantly since 2003.

The CDF Considerations acknowledged that civil law's scope "is certainly more limited than that of the moral law" [6]. Obviously in a non-confessional secular state with a pluralistic population (for example, the United States), it is hopeless to expect that civil law will ever completely conform to the moral law. Thus, the United States has long legally permitted divorce and civil marriage after divorce. One could substitute civil divorce and remarriage in the warning words of the CDF document in Considerations, 6.. Making that substitution, we would get: "Legal recognition of [civil divorce and remarriage] would obscure certain basic moral values  and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage." That would certainly be true - even more so than in the case of same-sex unions, in that divorce is far more pervasive in society and involves many more people (husbands and wives, parents and children) than the much smaller number of same-sex couples. (Indeed, if there is any question about how faithfully the Church's teaching about marriage has been received in contemporary society, that problem predates the relatively recent legal debate about same-sex unions - as the divorce rate illustrates.)

While the Church in the past did mobilize (unsuccessfully) against liberalized divorce laws, that failure highlights the social reality that the Church must coexist with citizens with very different beliefs. This raises many practical and pastoral problems for the Church, which must minister to those in all sorts of irregular situations. That, of course, brings us back to the Pope's comments, which have nothing to do with diminishing the doctrine about the nature and purpose of marriage (which is irreformable), but have everything to do with creating space for a a more fruitful framework for relating pastorally in practice to the many who are in such unions.

The documentary depicts the Pope's personal charisma and highlights his ability to connect directly with people of all backgrounds and experiences. It seems intended to inspire imitation - pastoral efforts to overcome the many diverse barriers that otherwise may seem to exclude authentic encounter and dialogue of any kind.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Being Neighbor

What a scene! Jesus might as well be a modern political candidate being challenged on all sides – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law, each posing some complex question, clearly trying to trap him in his answer!

Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ response, taken directly from the book of Deuteronomy. For centuries, both before Jesus and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily.

The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another familiar one, from the book of Leviticus. Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is not new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as are most of us here today.

So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s wrath will make itself felt!

Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But it does describe a relationship, a way of being with one another, on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.

In Luke’s Gospel, the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, who is my neighbor?  In the account we just heard, there is no follow-up question. Probably, people took for granted that my neighbor is a fellow-member of our community, someone I feel connected to.

We can, of course, expand that, as Exodus did, to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding wider and wider to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan story plays a central role in framing Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. The Pope’s purpose, he writes, is “that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words,” [FT 6] “a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.” [FT 57] 

In this politically polarized time, Pope Francis invites us to see one another as neighbors – something our present tribal, culture-war politics tries to prevent. So he reminds us of the ancient Christian conception of “the common destination of created goods,” the realization that “the world exists for everyone,” which is why “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property,” which “cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment.” [FT 118-120, 122]

Making this a friendlier, more fraternal, more neighborly world also requires us to dialogue with one another. “Authentic social dialogue,” the Pope reminds us, “involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns.” [FT 203]. He calls for a “cultural covenant,” which “respects and acknowledges the different worldviews, cultures, and lifestyles that coexist in society.” This is something sadly very obviously lacking nowadays – not just in our politics, but everywhere, even within the Church, where, for many, partisan politics predominates, where some seem to despise those they disagree with, whom they label "bad" Catholics or "false" Catholics or “cafeteria" Catholics, and who even employ the internet to mock the Pope and his efforts to guide the Church through this difficult and dangerous time.

Whereas “consumerist individualism has led to great injustice,” Pope Francis calls for “kindness,” which “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy.” [FT 222, 224]

And, as we here in the United States come to the end of another angry, hateful political campaign, the Pope reminds us that politics, properly understood, “involves a constant attention to the common good and a concern for integral human development” [FT 276]

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets, Jesus says, depend on these two commandments.

Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 25, 2020.

Photo: Pope Francis signs Fratelli Tutti in Assisi, October 3, 2020.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"Packing" the Court

"Court Packing" (a label leftover from FDR's attempt to enlarge the Court in the 1930s) is one of those hostile, polemical terms that has since become standard usage even among those who support what it refers to. In this, it resembles "Obamacare," originally a derisive term used by the opponents of universal health care, but soon happily embraced by all. "Court Packing," however, does still sound vaguely problematic in some way, somewhat scary even, which is one reason why I generally prefer to avoid the term if possible, and speak instead of reforming the Court by enlarging it.

That said, although the size of the Supreme Court - like the institution that is the Court itself - has acquired a quasi-sacral significance in our crazy politics, it is helpful to remember that the number of justices changed several times from 1789 to 1869. At various times, the Supreme Court had as few as six and as many as ten justices. Until 1869, the number of justices corresponded to the number of Circuits, because Justices were originally expected to "ride circuit." Since there are now 13 Circuits, it could be argued that 13 Justices would make historical sense - as well as being just the right number to overcome the imbalance brought about by the Republican version of court packing which we have been living with for years(In 2016, for example, the Republicans arbitrarily reduced the Court to eight Justices for one year, and threatened to reduce it further if Clinton were elected president by never confirming any of her appointments.)

Like the constitution itself, which we used to amend fairly frequently, the Court has changed with the country. One big problem we have today - part of our contemporary allergy to actual politics - has been our reticence to change either Court or constitution as the country has changed.

This would matter much less, of course, if the Court had a more modest role in our national life as an "originalist" reading of the constitution might suggest it should - in other words, had the court not evolved into what David Kaplan correctly calls "the most dangerous branch." One of the ironies of the present situation is that it is obvious that Supreme Court appointments are now political appointments (whatever may have once been the case) and that how Supreme Court Justices act can increasingly be confidently predicted by knowing their political party (not necessarily in all cases, but increasingly so). Yet in spite of  this, a strange quasi-religious reverence for the Court causes many to flinch from reasserting the proper power of Congress in regard to the Court's membership and jurisdiction. We act as if Congress were some dangerously powerful body that needs to be checked by an all-wise, life-tenured, aristocratic court of Platonic Guardians, whereas the opposite is in fact the case. Congress has grown weaker (has weakened itself) over time, while the Court has grown in power and abandoned all pretense of self-restraint (except during confirmation hearings).

Exactly what, one might ask, is the proper place of such a thoroughly politicized Judiciary in a modern democratic society?

"Packing" the Court - that is, increasing the number of justices - may be a short-term necessity to overcome the questionable legacy of two recent presidents who were both originally elected against the will of the majority of voters and whose appointments were then confirmed by a Senate which by its very structure negates the will of the majority of Americans. It may be a short-term necessity in order to make health care accessible to all, to protect voting rights, to reduce the power of money in elections, and to enact reasonable restrictions on gun violence.

But it may also be a long-term necessity - to reassert the role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government and to increase the sadly diminishing democratic legitimacy of our national institutions.

But what may really be needed in the long-term solution is a more complete reform of the Court, which retains its legitimate independence while making it more reflective of American society. There are all sorts of ideas floating around. My preference is for a constitutional amendment which would reshape the court with justices appointed for fixed terms (12, 15, or 18 years), their appointments staggered every two years (thus giving to every president at least two appointments but to no one president power over multiple future generations). To get to that, however, the nation needs to rediscover its power over the constitution, which was meant to be amended and which was amended numerous times in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rediscovering and reasserting that power is what would make Americans citizens again - instead of the subjects we have allowed ourselves to become. .