Thursday, February 11, 2016

Recalling the Lenten Stations

One of the mistakes made in the Pauline reform of the Roman Liturgy was the unwarranted textual tinkering and rearrangement of the daily Masses on the weekdays of Lent, some of which were very ancient texts in fact. The mandate for a multi-year lectionary may indeed have justified certain changes in the Sunday Masses, but no comparably compelling reason warranted the weekday changes. One consequence, of course, is the loss of the connection between the ancient Roman stational churches and the texts which were often originally selected with the stational church in mind. (In fact, the stations are no longer even mentioned in Paul VI's Missal.) 

So, for example, the American church in Rome, Santa Susanna, was the stational church for the Saturday of the 3rd Week of Lent. For that reason, the famous story of Santa Susanna's Old Testament namesake in Daniel 13 was read at Mass on that day and, to parallel that, the Gospel reading was that of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In the Paul VI liturgy, for no apparent reason, those texts are now read instead on the Monday of the 5th Week of Lent, severing the ancient link between the stational church and the liturgy celebrated there. 

Nonetheless, there has been a genuine revival of interest in the Roman stations.  In addition to the principal (Italian) celebration each afternoon, other language groups also celebrate stational Masses, at least on the weekdays. For me, one of the special joys of living in Rome for much of Lent 2012 was being able to concelebrate at the English-language stational Masses, celebrated daily at 7:00, organized by the students at the North American College. Not only priests and seminarians, but ambassadors and many other English-speakers living or working in Rome participated and formed a uniquely vibrant congregation.

Until 1969, the name of the stational church was listed as part of the heading for each day's Mass. That made it easy for anyone, anywhere int he world, to identify with the ancient origin of that day's liturgy. It may be harder now, but not impossible. And anyone who ever gets an opportunity to do the lenten stations at least once in his or her life should certainly try to do so.

As I wrote back then:

There is something special about going to these venerable Roman churches in the early pre-dawn darkness, walking literally in the steps of centuries of Christians who have visited those same churches on those same days, celebrating Mass surrounded by the relics and memories of martyrs, then emerging in the early morning light to continue one’s daily work. It is a true experience of the communion of saints! As the Italian Humanist Petrarch (1304-1374), describing his experience as a pilgrim in Rome in the Holy Year 1350, wrote: “How inspiring for a Christian to journey to that city which is like a heaven on earth, sanctified by the remains of martyrs beyond number, drenched in the precious blood of those early witnesses to the Truth.”

(Photo above is of relics exposed on the papal altar at Saint Peter's Basilica for the stational Mass on the Saturday of the 1st Week of Lent.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Generation Gap

Yesterday's New Hampshire primary results remind me of a conversation I had with a someone in the fall of 2008. We were trying to figure out why younger voters were so excited about Barack Obama and were so eager to vote for him in the Democratic primary, rather than for a candidate with more experience, more of a track-record of public service, and presumptively more likely tactually to accomplish more as president if eelcted. That same conversation could, I suppose, be repeated this year. Of course, Bernie Sanders is not a freshman Senator as Obama was in 2008. He has actually been around a long time and has held political office for decades. Still, the situation is analogous in so many ways.

It appears that in New HampshireSenator Sanders won a majority of all voters under 65 - and over 80% of the under-30 vote. (Only in my over-65 age group did he win less 50% - some 44% to be precise.) For now at least, it is evident that expressive politics is driving the primaries in both parties this year, and expressive politics has often been especially appealing to younger voters. In my generation, the McCarthy candidacy in 1968 and the McGovern candidacy in 1972 were both instances of largely expressive politics, with little practical chance of electoral success. McGovern did, of course, actually win the nomination, but then went down to disastrous defeat in the 1972 Nixon landslide. More to the point it essentially took 20 years - and the candidacy of Bill Clinton - to undo the effect of that defeat. (By comparison, the Republican foray into ultra-expressive politics - the Goldwater debacle of 1964 - did not do the same damage to Republicans' longer-term prospects.)

Unlike those other races, the latest generation gap in this year's Democratic primaries is really less about issues than about the seductive appeal (especially to the young, although to others as well) of the emotional satisfactions of expressive politics (as opposed to such mundane matters as selecting an electable candidate).

As the campaign now turns a corner and the campaigning moves into more demographically and culturally representative communities, a big question will be whether this generation gap persists - how widespread it will turn out to be and how long it will last. On that may depend not just the choice of nominee but the outcome fo the general election as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Waiting for New Hampshire

This week, we celebrate another one of the more peculiar rituals of American politics - the New Hampshire primary, a tradition older even than the Iowa Caucuses and only minimally more logical. At this point in American history, it is hardly worth it to wonder why we ever allowed the nomination of presidential candidates to be held hostage by so absurd a system. It is what it is. So today, citizens of that very small and highly unrepresentative state will exercise their quadrennial privilege of monopolizing our attention and upending candidacies. At least two Presidents (Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968) have been deterred from running again because of poor showing in New Hampshire. Those of us above a certain age can well remember the excitement when henry Cabot Lodge, whi never even campaigned in New Hampshire (so much for all that direct, personal politics we always hear so much about) won a write-in victory. That was enough to make his resign his ambassadorship and come home, but not enough to derail Barry Goldwater's eventual triumph at the Cow Palace (the prelude to his and his party's disastrous defeat in November).

The Goldwater debacle is the classic example on the Right of our American fascination for promoting extremist candidates in the primary process only to dump them in the general election. The Left did the same with George McGovern in 1972. And a certain segment of New Hampshire Democrats seem poised to try to do that this year with Bernie Sanders, the senator from the neighboring state of Vermont who is favored to win the Democratic primary there. His nomination remains unlikely. But, if by some mischance it happened, it would, of course, be the one thing that could guarantee a Republican victory in November. Such is the nature of left-wing expressive politics - that some would rather nominate a charismatic figure who says all the right things (except in foreign affairs, a not insignificant failure in today's world), but is absolutely guaranteed to lose a general election because of his ideological and cultural extremism.

(Of course, not all Sanders' ideas are extreme - or even European. Free college, for example, is something we once had in this country. I am the beneficiary of tuition-free education at New York's City College, which was universally acknowledged then to be an excellent institution. That it is no longer free - and no longer excellent - is one of the many tragedies of our country's late 20th-century abandonment of its better self. Still, Sanders makes free college sound like a European idea - in a country where a majority of voters are descended from people who came to America to get away from Europe.)

Right-wing expressive politics did went for charisma and ideology with Goldwater in 1964. Since then, the Republicans has been better at subordinating their ideological passions enough to nominate plausible candidates whom one could actually imagine in the White House, and several of whom actually made it there (some thanks to the voters, one thanks to the Supreme Court's interference). But those days may be over.

In the current issue of New York magazine, Jonathan Chait outlines why a Donald Trump nomination might be better for the country than the nomination of any of his more ideologically Republican rivals: "Running for office as an exercise in ego gratification may not be as good a thing as running as a serious candidate with good ideas," Chait writes, "but it’s much better than running as a serious candidate with bad ideas."

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now let's see what New Hampshire voters decide to make of all this!

Monday, February 8, 2016

“You like what you’re used to,”

“You like what you’re used to.” That's what bed-ridden Lord Grantham said to a mischievous, truth-telling, little boy who uninvited wandered into his bedroom for a jolly conversation. This unexpected intrusion was possible because the house had been opened up to paying visitors for the day to raise money for the local hospital. (We seem fated to hear about that hospital and the ridiculous quarrel about its governance every episode , no matter how uninteresting it is!) Of course, we are now so used to great houses (even Buckingham Palace) being opened to visitors that we may find it hard to appreciate what a challenge it was for the family, which was clearly divided on the issue. Of course, Carson and Molesley grasped the potentially revolutionary threat this lifting the veil on the magic might mean for the old order. The rest of the family just had trouble grasping what people would want to see. This was meant to be funny - aristocrats so incurably out of touch that they don't understand how strange (and therefore interesting) their way of life is. Hence the stereotypical "out of the mouth of babes" conversation in His Lordship's bedroom. 

That the aristocrats think they are just leading ordinary lives in an ordinary home may reflect how out of touch they are. That they don't know much about the building or its art (painfully demonstrated when they try to act as tour guides)  show how "at home" they are in their surroundings, which for them seem to lack the historical, artistic, and other significance the public inevitably invests in them. But the fact is that ordinary people, while they may envy the privileges of the old aristocracy, don't necessarily envy the life itself. Hence the intruder's honest question: surely you have enough money to live more comfortably, so why don't you live in a more comfortable house? 

In that question - and Lord Grantham's slightly muddled answer - is revealed the great chasm between the new thinking (or, rather, feeling) of the 20th century and traditional thinking. In the brave new world we are being dragged into with each successive episode, it's all going to be about how we feel and what we want. And in that world there will be less and less room for the old-fashioned pieties the old order at least purported to represent.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fishers of Men

One of Israel’s particularly popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed the lake in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” modern pilgrims can then dine on “St. Peter’s Fish,” a name intended to recall the story we just heard. For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter is never portrayed catching any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear of him catching are all miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Of course, the point of the story is not the fish but the great growth in people, that lies in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water of the world and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.

Like Peter’s fishing, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks. Yet, despite his obvious frustration with his failures and the depressing tiredness that commonly accompanies frustration (“Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing”), Peter the fisherman found the faith, the confidence in Jesus, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”

When they had done this," we are told, "they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-seeking, personality-driven media would surely report this as a mistake on Peter’s part, Peter once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or perhaps we would be speculating about what sort of scandal in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!

But, when Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not just Peter being polite. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading, who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as encountering God directly.

Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause someone to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing out into the deep with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. That’s the way we are. People are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.

As members of that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the Pope’s ceremonial ring has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on it is that of Saint Peter in a boat - fishing. It is precisely our union with Peter – through Peter’s successor, the Pope - which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today with renewed resources and energy for renewal and evangelization.

But, while Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, he is hardly its only fisherman.

today, we are all becoming increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church  –  everywhere everyone having to make do with less.

Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle and Isaiah the Prophet before him, listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth, we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves what we too can do, what God may be asking of us - and if there is someone we know (perhaps right here in this church this morning) whom the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 7, 2016.