Monday, March 30, 2020

Reset

This pandemic, Pope Francis said on Friday, has exposed “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”




No one can predict where this crisis is leading us and what our world will be like when and if it is finally over. That said, something like an ideological reset - maybe multiple ideological resets - may be in process. The almost universal disdain directed at a certain Kentucky Congressman may reflect his colleagues' obvious and understandable anxiety about how his ideological stunt forced some of them to take unnecessary risks with their health. But I suspect it also may reflect an increasing appreciation on the part of many of the moral absurdity and human harm caused by the "libertarian" anti-government ideology the Congressman professes, an ideology which his political party pretends to profess (depending on who benefits), and one which so many Americans de facto profess because of the widespread prevalence of political cynicism that for many inadvertently allies them with that anti-social stance.

Government is who we are when we acknowledge and act on our connection with and mutual dependence on one another. The pretense that government is not the solution to society's problems, a lie increasingly invoked since the morally disastrous election of 1980, is also one of those many false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our contemporary way of life. Yet, whenever we have found ourselves in crisis (prior to this, most recently after the 2008 economic collapse), we have instinctively and automatically expected the national government to save society. But, because of the pernicious power of that ideology and its long-term hollowing-out of our political institutions and the social solidarity those institutions embody and facilitate, our collective response has been less, rather than more adequate - as has been so dramatically on display this past month.

The closest analogy, I suppose, would be the Great Depression, which, for most of those who survived it, created a consensus in favor of necessary reforms and an unwillingness to retreat backwards. Recall, for example, President Eisenhower's famous observation in 1954:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Unfortunately, however, as the memory of the Depression and FDR faded and a new generation arose that knew not Joseph (cf. Exodus 1:8), commitment to those reforms - and the social solidarity they embody -  diminished and a serious regression set in, undermining our fragile social "safety net," for which we have since been paying a terrible social price especially since the 2008 economic collapse and in the current pandemic.

At present, no one can say how long this current crisis will last or in what long-term forms it will persist, but it is highly unlikely that those who will have survived this collective calamity will forget the lessons learned from this experience and eagerly embrace regressive politics any time soon.

This week's rapid (by congressional standards) congressional response to the pandemic's impact on all aspects of society suggests a more hopeful emerging reality - atavistic ideological posturing to the contrary notwithstanding - in which Americans will find it harder and harder to accept the limitations on social solidarity which have hitherto continued to set the tone of our national life.

Of course, there will be resistance. (Just observe the current right-wing campaign to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci.) Regrettably, some of that resistance may be religious, given the current alliance of elements of "conservative" Christianity. with one particular political party and its Great Leader. On the other side, however, we may yet see surprising and encouraging resilience in American religion, as it too finds itself called back to basics and forced to shed more and more of "those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Lazarus, Come Out!"

A lot of people all over the world are finding themselves more or less stuck at home these days, due to the necessary restrictions imposed on us by the present pandemic. That's obviously not so bad as being dead and in a tomb for four days as Lazarus was, but many might still wish someone would say to them what Jesus said to Lazarus: "Lazarus come out!"


Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But Jesus’ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead also led to the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death.

Since ancient times, this Gospel has been especially associated with the Lenten experiences of catechumens and penitents preparing to be baptized or reconciled at Easter, a renewal we are all invited to identify ourselves with. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey - and to trust the risen Lord to raise us to beyond whatever confines us at present to a fuller life in his kingdom.

In the Gospel story, the friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first notified him that Lazarus was sick. Strangely, however, he seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for this great miracle, and also for the famous conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (nor, for that matter, anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. We, however, start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Unlike Jesus, Lazarus came out of the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually).  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. No one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat. Meanwhile, however, in this in-between time which we still live in, bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to come out, and he emerged still confined, bound hand and foot, needing others to untie him.

We are all, in some sense, confined like Lazarus. But we are also called to do like the bystanders and help one another to find our way from the darkness to God’s kingdom, helping one another along the way, untying whatever blocks us.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020.

Photo: The Traditional Site of Lazarus' Tomb.

Friday, March 27, 2020

A New Kind of Eucharistic Fast

Way back when I received my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955, we were required to fast completely from all food and drink, except water, from midnight the night before. The exception for water was itself a mitigation only recently introduced in 1953. Soon the eucharistic fast would be more radically mitigated in 1957; and at present it exists only in an even more mitigated, virtually vestigial form. 

But now the circumstances of social distance have imposed upon most of the Church a new kind of eucharistic fast - a fast not for the Eucharist but from the Eucharist. It is jarring to our contemporary sacramental sensibilities routinely to celebrate Mass and communicate alone as I must now do. I am reminded of something Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal, on February 11, 1950“I feel as if my Communion were somehow less perfect when I cannot turn and give the Body of Christ to one of my brothers also.” 

In referring to it as "somehow less perfect," Merton was obviously not speaking theologically but experientially, as if in 1950 he were already able to anticipate our contemporary sacramental sensibility., which involves no theological change but reflects an extraordinary experiential change from most of the Church's history when few if any received Communion to today's widespread expectation of almost universal routine reception of Communion.

Whether that particular 20th-century transformation was for the best has been and undoubtedly will continue to be debated. What cannot be debated is the fact that our experience and expectations have changed. Hence the widespread dismay that suddenly so many are not able to receive Communion.

At this stage, we simply have no way of guessing what the long-term consequences of this novel situation will be. Will the absence of Communion make people more appreciative of what they have been missing, as so many fondly hope? Or, as maybe with Mass attendance itself, may many conclude that they didn't miss it that much and so maybe don't really need it after all, as many frankly fear? No one knows. No one can predict.

And might this enforced absence from the Eucharist reset Church life in other ways? Will we revert to a less eucharistic-centered, more pre-20th-century style of Church, something that, for different reasons, is becoming an increasing reality in certain other parts of the world already?

Something so traumatic as what we are experiencing right now is bound to upend all sorts of expectations and make ancient history out of any number of our formerly stable expectations. Indeed, we have recent history as an illustration. Think back to how stable Catholic life was in the United States - parish life especially - in 1960. And then recall how unexpectedly quickly it came apart.  If anything, change happens even faster now than it did then. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation

Today, nine months before Christmas, the Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Lord, recalling the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary (recorded in Luke 1:26-38). As on Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate the great mystery of the Incarnation, commemorating history's most amazing moment when the Word of God became one of us. The Church ritualizes this at Mass by a genuflection during the Creed. (Of course, those of us above a certain age can recall when we always genuflected during the Creed.) Like other ritual bodily gestures, genuflecting during the Creed enfleshes our faith, challenging us to own what we profess with our entire selves not just as an intellectual abstraction. 

An enfleshed faith is, of course, very much what we need at this terrible time. For this year the Annunciation occurs in a crisis when all of ordinary life's rhythms - sacred as well as secular - have been completely disrupted by a global pandemic that more and more feels like an impending apocalypse.

All the more reason, therefore, to invoke the intercession of the woman at the center of the Annunciation scene, Mary, Mother of God, to help us find our way. For centuries in times of trouble, Popes and the people of the local Church of Rome have called upon Mary, Mother of God, for safety. Hence the special place in Roman piety occupied by the ancient image (photo) of Mary, entitled Saluls Populi Romani, presently venerated in the Capella Paolina in the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major. The image got its title from the fact that around the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great had it carried in procession around Rome during a time of plague

This is the image Isaac Hecker stopped to pray in front of, after his expulsion from the Redemptorists in 1857. This is the image Pope Francis visited after his election in 2013 to entrust his pontificate to Mary - and has regularly revisited before and after papal journeys. More recently, in response the the COVID-19 pandemic, he went on pilgrimage through the empty streets of Rome to venerated the Salus Populi Romani image at Saint Mary Major., a simple but so very powerful symbolic gesture that highlighted the perennial relevance of the incarnation.- God is with us!

Our Lady, Health fo the Sick, pray for us !









Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Leadership in a Time of Apocalypse

This is not THE Apocalypse, of course, in which case human leadership wouldn't matter any more anyway.  But it is certainly AN apocalypse, and so human leadership really does matter very much right now. On Sunday, I watched New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo's briefing on the current crisis. It really frightened me to hear how bad the situation is and how much worse it will likely get. But I was also edified and inspired to see my home-state governor showing such much needed leadership at this time. He is not alone of course, the governors of California and Washington have certainly been showing exemplary leadership, as I am sure have others who have received less attention. 

Some, however, have not met the challenge of leadership so well. The president seems to want to compare this crisis to a war, but then he fails to act as a wartime leader. (The most obvious recent example is his refusal to utilize the powers provided to the president by the 1950 Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to meet our national needs.) Someone who purports to be such an admirer of Britain's World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill would do well to follow the example of Churchill and of his American ally President Franklin Roosevelt in how they mobilized their entire societies to meet a deadly threat.

After Lincoln, FDR (photo) was perhaps the greatest American president, having demonstrated genuinely effective leadership in confronting the two great crises of the first half of the 20th-century - the Depression and World War II. Perhaps most importantly as a leader, he was able to persuade the American people to collective action, something that he could do because he was able to persuade people to trust him and have confidence in his leadership. Think back to his first "Fireside Chat" and how he got people who had been withdrawing money from the banks to be willing to deposit money in those same banks once again!

Leadership like that displayed by FDR has two critical components, which remain perennially relevant. The first is competent action that actually responds to real and immediate needs. Of course, no one - not FDR or any other leader - can do it all on his or her own. Indeed, thinking that one is omnicompetent (or trying to pretend to be) is actually counter-productive and a failure of leadership. What a competent leader does is recognize the competence and expertise of others and utilize them to implement public policy. Hence the importance of "deep state" governmental institutions, e.g,,  institutions like the National Security Council's Global Health Security Office, that was dismantled by the Trump White House.

But there is a second component to leadership that may matter more than competence, and that is empathy.  People have to believe that their leaders understand their situation and their needs and that they care. Hence the famous anecdote from FDR's funeral procession in 1945 when a reporter, encountering a particularly distraught man watching the funeral procession, asked him if he knew the President personally. "No, I did not know President Roosevelt, but he knew me," replied the man. That, of course, was what was critical to FDR's leadership. He could connect with citizens because he somehow understood and appreciated where people were at and conveyed that he cared. 

And therein lies our present problem when an administration displays a shocking lack of competence and the person at the top seems so notoriously lacking in empathy.