Thursday, June 22, 2017

The End of an Era

Monsignor Xavier Mankel (1935-2017)  - for most of my years in Knoxville, the pastor of the next-door parish to mine - died yesterday and will be buried next Tuesday, symbolically concluding a monumental era in the history of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, a history which one can safely say he knew probably better than anyone else.

Monsignor had been ill and increasingly inactive these past couple of years. But, before that, he was a prominent presence at virtually every event. When I first moved to Knoxville, he was frequently the family's first choice to celebrate - or at least preach at - most of the funerals I was involved in. I can recall many a time sitting with him in the church sacristy, listening to his account of the deceased's life or the deceased's family's story or some other related episode in the local community's history.  It seemed as if he knew everybody - and everybody knew him!

We who are members of religious communities move around often. In my almost 22 years of priesthood, I have had three assignments in three very different locations. Others have experienced even more moves in an equivalent amount of time. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of so much moving around, one clear consequence is that one is unlikely ever to become so thoroughly rooted in a  local community as those who were born and bred in a particular place. Monsignor Mankel epitomized that sense of community rootedness and a life-long love for and commitment to a local community that is so socially valuable and that has served both secular society and the Church so well.

Ordained for the diocese of Nashville in 1961, Monsignor Mankel became one of the "founding fathers" of  the new Knoxville diocese when it was created by Pope Saint john Paul II in 1988. As a pastor and diocesan vicar general, he was involved in almost every aspect of local Church life, including Catholic education his commitment to which was especially noteworthy. 

He was a great friend to the Paulist Fathers, who first came to Knoxville in 1973 and have since then staffed what was originally his home parish, the church where he was baptized - in the very same baptismal  font we still use to this day (after we recovered and restored it several years ago). From the time I arrived to assume the pastoral care of his home parish in 2010, he was consistently supportive and welcoming - a true priestly colleague and a good friend. (The above photo was taken of him at my installation as Immaculate Conception's 24th pastor in October 2010.)

Later that year, there was a breakfast event in support of a local organization, at which various community leaders were present. Monsignor and I were both seated at the head table (he because everyone knew him and he was saying the prayer, I merely because the event was within my parish boundaries). When someone offered to get him breakfast, He asked for some eggs and toast. Soon enough, a waitress walked through the crowded ballroom with a plate full of toast. Seeing her, another priest, sitting at one of the tables with some of his parishioners, asked the waitress if he could have some of the toast. "This is for the priest," she answered. "What am I?" he asked. "You're not THE PRIEST," was the reply.

Indeed,however one recounts his accomplishments and his influence, he was always, above all, THE PRIEST.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Hate Debate

In the wake of last week's tragic shooting at a congressional baseball practice, we have been regularly reminded how divided we have become as a society, as social, cultural, and class divisions increasingly seem to replicate our toxic political conflicts and/or are replicated in them. Angst about a "climate of hate" is not exactly new. For example, I can well remember in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination much commentary and sermonizing about the climate of hate in certain parts of the country - notably the climate of right-wing hatred in Dallas, which was quite real. (That said, the actual assassin, while apparently politically motivated, came from the other end of the political spectrum.)

Between then and now, the country went through the intense ideological divisions of the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the days of racial riots in many major cities, the Chicago Convention riots, the shootings at Kent State, and the short-lived but scary history of home-grown terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and the SLA. Compared to those days, one could plausibly argue that we are living in a more peaceful society today. On the other hand, as has often been noted, mainstream politicians in the 1960s and 1970s were still predominantly centrist, still got along with each other for the most part, still governed between campaigns, and did not advocate or endorse extremist attitudes. By the 1990s, professional politicians seemed to have become much more ideologically polarized, as political parties became increasingly ideologically coherent. As the political class divided more sharply, however, it still seemed to many as if society as a whole remained less divided and polarized.

That, however, no longer seems to be the case. The much commented upon reduction in inter-personal and non-political interaction among members of Congress since the Gingrich era seems increasingly to have been replicated in American society as a whole, as neighborhoods and even religious congregations have become more politically homogeneous, And just as Americans are less likely to interact socially with - or even to know - people of a different political party, they have also self-segregated in terms of their sources of news and their basic beliefs about what represents reality. (We can thank Talk Radio, Cable news, and finally Social Media for that!) Many commentators have become fond of comparing survey results from 1960, when barely 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats claimed they would object if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party with the more recent radical increases in those percentages!

Related to that - and most ominously of all - partisans seem increasingly motivated by dislike for the other party than by enthusiasm for their own party. Even among so-called "Independents," most of whom in practice tend to lean one way or the other, it is estimated that some two-thirds tend to lean in the direction they do more motivated by negative dislike of one party rather than by positive enthusiasm for the other.

In a recent article in National Review ("We're Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce), David French argued that our now well established national political polarization "is more akin to the beginning stages of a national divorce than it is to a civil war." He suggests that our national division is becoming "so profound that Americans may not have the desire to fight to stay together." French highlights the now familiar data about how Democrats and Republicans have come to dislike each other more and more, while increasingly living "separate lives - living in separate locations, enjoying separate media, and holding separate religious beliefs."

"A civil war," French contends, "results when the desire for unification and domination overrides the desire for separation and self-determination." In our contemporary society, however, he believes "there are simply too many differences and too many profound disagreements for one side of the other to exercise true political dominance." 

For French, this becomes an excuse to argue for a re-invigorated commitment to federalism. (He is a senior writer at National Review, after all!) But, setting aside his ideologically preferred but problematic solution, I think his diagnosis describes our dilemma quite well. As a nation, we are drifting farther and farther apart, not just politically but much more fundamentally morally and culturally (which very much includes economic class as a factor). And it is very hard even to envision how in this age of cable TV and social media we can ever come together again as a coherent community - or whether eventually we will really even want to.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Christmas at Grantchester

Grantchester returned to American TV last night for its third season. It did so with a Christmas episode, the British original of which seems to have fallen between the second and third seasons - a Christmas episode (in American summer) complete with snow and a messy parish Christmas play, but also the requisite murder, various families in pain, and, finally, a newborn baby, born, of course, on Christmas Eve!

A British detective drama, nostalgically set in the post-war 1950s village of Grantchester near Cambridge, it features Anglican Vicar, jazz enthusiast, and former WWII Scots Guards officer Sidney Chambers (James Norton), who regularly teams up in a somewhat unlikely-seeming duo with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) to solve more murders than might be expected in the neighborhood. 

(The show is based on The Grantchester Mysteries, a series of short stories by James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, so someone who may know a thing or two about C of E Vicars.)

You can't do a murder mystery without murders, of course. But, while the murders make possible the Sidney-Gordie bromance, the underlying relationship that has ultimately defined Sydney's character from the very first episode of the very first season has been his impossible love for his lifelong friend Amanda. The Christmas episode closes with Sydney and Amanda (holding her newborn) kissing under the mistletoe, making the impossible seem possible if only for Christmas. But, of course, the baby is not his, but Guy's - her more socially suitable but otherwise unsatisfactory husband, whom Amanda had married instead of Sydney but whom she has now left - for a very uncertain and frightening future. For Sydney is a C of E Vicar, after all, and this is 1954, and nobody actually believes it can work for a Vicar to marry or be involved with a (presumptively soon to be) divorced woman!

Setting the story at the superlatively feel-good season of Christmas may make it easier to imagine that the third season will somehow be able to navigate the "situation" (as the characters conveniently call it) and find some way for Sydney to reconcile his vocation as a Vicar and his love for Amanda - and, yes, keep solving murders too!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

For the Life of the World.

As I said at the beginning: to those to whom it applies, Happy Father’s Day

The American Father’s Day is, of course, a 20th-century invention. The Church, however, has her own, much older calendar, according to which today is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, commonly called Corpus Christi since first celebrated in the 13th century.

I may have told this story here before, but on Corpus Christi I think it is worth repeating. As a seminarian in the summer of 1984, I was at Saint Peter’s Parish in Toronto, where I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in the local hospital.  One day, as I was doing my regular hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list to bring Communion to, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was visiting her.

Now, generally speaking, the quality of most of our human interaction depends – at least in part - upon how well we listen and communicate with one another. If you can’t understand another person - or he or she can’t understand you - some communication may still occur in non-verbal ways, but it will likely be rather limited.  Speaking for myself, certainly some of my most frustrating experiences have been when communication has been limited because of a language difference.

Such experiences, of course, can cause one to feel inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated – very frustrated - was exactly how I felt that summer day in the hospital. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible.  But my job was to bring her Holy Communion. So, I dutifully took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter.  I no longer mattered. The sight of the Host resulted in instant recognition. She made the Sign of the Cross - and began to pray.

In all these intervening years, I have never forgotten my meeting with that devout old woman in that otherwise deeply depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist.  Experiencing her response to the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – the real, body-and-blood presence of our living and loving Lord, present and active in his Church - impressed on me the meaning of those familiar and seemingly simple words of St. Paul, which we just heard: The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

In the Eucharist, as the Church teaches, Christ is “truly, really, and substantially” present under the appearance of bread and wine – his flesh given us as Jesus himself said, for the life of the world.  In both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, Christ is present in the Eucharist, and we in turn experience his presence and share in the new life he offers the world through his Church.

Clearly, the uniquely precious moment of Communion is intended to continue, permeating every moment and aspect of life - just as Christ’s real presence in the Mass continues in his Real Presence in the Tabernacle, prolonging our act of adoration as his Church in the world. As St. Augustine famously put it (in his commentary on Psalm 98): “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it.”

Corpus Christi originated as a popular expression of the Church’s devotion centered on Christ’s presence in this sacrament. Each of the Church’s liturgical festivals, seasons, and devotions highlights in a particular and specific fashion some significant aspect of our Catholic belief and life. Today’s celebration invites us to focus in a particular and specific fashion upon our devotion to Christ’s Real Presence, celebrated sacrificially in the Mass and prolonged in continued adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the Tabernacle or exposed on the altar for an experience of more intense adoration. This annual festival of our devotion to the Eucharist invites us to a fuller, more conscious, and more active participation in the body of Christ, the Church, by believing firmly, celebrating devoutly, and living intensely Christ’s Eucharistic Presence given to us for the life of the world. 

Homily for Corpus Christ, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 18, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017


The Yiddish term for Norman Oppenheimer (perfectly played by Richard Gere in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer) is a macher (someone who gets things done, a "fixer," but also, less flatteringly, a pushy, overbearing sort of guy.) Norman is a macher - in both the flattering and less flattering senses of the term. He is a con artist, constantly building and trading on his supposed connections and ability to do favors for people and connect them with important people in New York Jewish society. This doesn't make him rich, nor does that seem to be his goal. He just wants to be connected, however marginally, with important people who matter and can accomplish important things. I guess the idea is that knowing such people and having a reputation for knowing them, by extension, somehow makes him matter too. And don't we all at some level want to matter?

And it does seem to work for Norman - for a while anyway (as the film's subtitle reveals). My first reaction watching him was how silly and pathetic he seemed. But gradually one warms to him (thanks in part to how effectively Richard Gere portrays his character). His most important "friend," an Israeli politician who becomes his country's Prime Minister, calls him "a warm Jew," which I take to be intended as a compliment. As the film progresses - and Norman digs himself deeper and deeper in difficulty - it gets harder and  harder not to like him and root for him to succeed somehow, even if it is never quite clear what ultimately he should succeed at!. 

It is not a subtle movie. One can practically pinpoint the moment (fittingly on Amtrak) when he overdoes his schtick and reveals too much to the wrong person. But, while the ultimate outcome is personally tragic, he does not depart a failure but happily leaves behind a real legacy of accomplishment. His bizarre desire to be loved results paradoxically in all sorts of other people being better off - as, analogously, the Prime Minister's ambitious desire for affirmation also (apparently) ends up accomplishing some real good.

This surprisingly feel-good movie is a truly wonderful "made in New York" story!