Thursday, June 30, 2011

The "Marriage Gap"

With marriage and family issues apparently permanently in the news, it is reasonable to ask what - not necessarily as a matter of theory or moral principle but as a practical social matter - constitutes the greatest pressing danger to the institution of marriage and family life in the United Sates today? Not that long ago, one would almost certainly have answered divorce. I grew up in the era before most states had adopted “no fault” divorce, when the harm done by divorce was widely acknowledged and was emphasized much more than any supposed benefits of divorce, - a time when divorces were (compared to later) relatively rare (and even rarer among Catholics). All that changed as the divorce rate rose in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked around 1981 at 5.3 divorces per 1000 persons, then leveled off, and ever since has been trending somewhat downward to now 3.6 per 1000, the lowest rate since 1970.

Unfortunately, however, so have the number of weddings! In 1950, nearly half the households in the US consisted of a married couple with children. According to the 2010 census, that is now down to 20%. Of course, some of that simply reflects that fact many now get married at a later age and many are also living longer as widows or widowers. But it also reflects the greater percentage of unmarried couples, single-parent families, and single-person households.

The social reality is even more problematic than those general statistics suggest, however. Fifty years ago, marriage was an almost universal experience, widely shared across cultural and class lines. That is what seems significantly no longer to be the case today. What is being called a “marriage gap” now exists between a more affluent and more educated segment of the population, more likely both to marry and to stay married, and a less affluent and less educated population, which is less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. It’s not that marriage has no attraction for the less well-off in our society. Studies suggest that those with only a high school education (or less) would also like to be married but that they increasingly feel they can’t afford it. When one recalls that, half a century ago, a young man with a high school diploma could still get a good job with which to support a family, and then we look at the comparable situation today, should we be surprised at this result? One consequence of this is that almost half the children being born today to those with only a high school education are being born outside of marriage. Such families are increasingly likely to be poorer, while more affluent, more educated, married families are increasingly better off.

So apparently the principal present obstacle to successful marriage in the United States is not being well off and well educated. Thus, it seems greatest threat to the institution of marriage (and thus to the family) in the United Sates today may be a state of affairs in which economic inequality and lack of opportunity have not only been on the increase but have become more extreme than at any time in the memory of most Americans living today.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

60 Years

Dominus conservet eum, vivificet eum, beatum faciat eum in terra et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius. ("May the Lord Preserve him, give him life, make him blessed upon earth, and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.") For centuries that Latin verse was the automatic response to the liturgical invocation, Oremus pro beatissimo Papa nostro. And it resounds again this week in the Church's prayer for Pope Benedict XVI, as he gives thanks for 60 years of priestly life and ministry.

Just the other day, i was rereading the early chapters of Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. From the vantage point of today, even in the grip of global recession, it is difficult to re-imagine what it was like to live in Europe in its devastated post-war state - devastated not only physically, socially, economically, and politically, but culturally and spiritually. For all that, it was still what it is sadly now no longer. It was still Christian. Indeed, west of the recently created "Iron Curtain," religious faith seemed to be experiencing something of a revival, penetrating even the apparently intractable political world, where the newly constituted Christian Democratic Parties were thriving as the most viable alternative to both the horrors of the recent past and the horrific prospect of an alternative Communist future.

That was the world - specifically, the Europe - in which Joseph Ratzinger (together with his brother Georg and some 40 others) was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951, by the aristocratic Archbishop of Munich Michael Cardinal Faulhaber (who, amazingly, had occupied that ancient See since 1917!). The future, as the old Marriage Exhortation used to say, was then hidden from him. All he could know for sure was that he was now a priest. But, as any priest learns quickly enough, that is the most important thing to know about oneself.

Benedict's own account of his experience of acquiring that knowledge (reprinted today on the newly created The Vatican Today website) says it all:

“We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point of my life, responded “Adsum”, Here I am. We should not be superstitious; but, at that moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird—perhaps a lark—flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words “This is good, you are on the right way.” There then followed four summer weeks that were like an unending feast. On the day of our first Holy Mass, our parish church of Saint Oswald gleamed in all its splendor, and the joy that almost palpably filled the whole place drew everyone there into the most living mode of “active participation” in the sacred event, but this did not require any external busyness. We were invited to bring the first blessing into people’s homes, and everywhere we were received even by total strangers with a warmth and affection I had not thought possible until that day. In this way I learned firsthand how earnestly people wait for a priest, how much they long for the blessing that flows from the power of the sacrament. The point was not my own or my brother’s person. What could we two young men represent all by ourselves to the many people we were now meeting? In us they saw persons who had been touched by Christ’s mission and had been empowered to bring his nearness to men. Precisely because we ourselves were not the point, a friendly human relationship could develop very quickly.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Corpus Domini

I may have told this story before, but on Corpus Christi I think it is worth repeating. Almost three decades ago, as a seminarian on sumer assignment, I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in a local hospital. (It was a really horrible old hospital, that has since been thankfully torn down) One day, as I was doing my weekly hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was there.
Now, generally speaking, the quality of most human interaction depends - in large part - upon how well we listen and communicate with one another. If you can’t understand another person and he or she can’t understand you, communication may certainly still occur in all sorts of non-verbal ways, but it will likely be rather limited - in which case, the quality of whatever relationship you can have will likely also be correspondingly limited.
Speaking for myself, certainly some of my most frustrating experiences have been when I have been unable to understand or communicate with someone because of a language difference. Even when one knows the basics of a language, true communication may elude one. For example, for my first 5 years as a priest, almost every funeral I did was in Italian or, occasionally, Spanish, in neither of which am I fully fluent. All the stuff I was force-fed in seminary about attentively listening to people and responding to them was largely useless in the face of such linguistic obstacles.
Such experiences, of course, contribute to feeling inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated was exactly how I felt that summer day in the hospital. Frustrated and impatient with the whole impossible situation, all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. But I was also – or at least wanted to be - conscientious about my duties, one of which was to bring Holy Communion to the sick. So, I took out a Host and held it up in front of her to see if that might spark a response. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter - because 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 depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist, whose minister it is now my privilege, as a priest, to be. 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 to 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 such 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 and our devotion to the Eucharist (the importance of which it highlights) invite us to a fuller, more conscious, and more intense 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 Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 26, 2011.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Another School Closes

Yesterday’s New York Times featured the sad story of this week’s closing of St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx (one of who knows how many such closings around the couontry this year). Its 104 students will now disperse, and St. Martin’s 86 years of effective Catholic education for poor families – creating community amidst urban mayhem – will end. If this were an isolated story, it would certainly be sad. As yet another chapter in the ongoing story of the diminishing of Catholic education in the United States, it invites one to ponder the decline of what has been one of the greatest and most successful ministries of the Church in this country.

Exactly 50 years ago today, I graduated from 8th grade from a Catholic elementary school in another Bronx neighborhood. We had some 1400 students in our school at that time. We were often more than 50 students in a classroom, in a solidly built if (by today’s standards) somewhat limited pre-war building. In the winter, for example, the heat sometimes broke down (as it also sometimes did in the apartments where most of us lived), and we sat in class and did our work (fountain pens in hand) with our coats on. None of us really thought this was a problem. That’s how life was. The discipline was, I suppose, demanding by today’s standards. (Indeed, by today’s standards some - moved more by ideology than wisdom - might see it as too demanding). But again, that’s how life was. In other words, the experience in school was culturally coherent with the limited local world we knew outside, even while it tried to transcend that local world by preparing us to become part of the larger American society. We were basically a typical (for that time) blue-collar, working class, heavily “ethnic” neighborhood, aspiring to full “middle class” status, the ticket to the “American Dream” - a goal achieved perhaps even more successfully than anyone would then ever have anticipated and in no small measure due to Catholic education.

Of course, Catholic education was always (as it ought to be) first and foremost about forming us in the faith. The traumas of the last 50 years suggest that it may have been somewhat less successful with my generation in forming us in the faith for the long term than most might have expected in 1961. No one then could quite have foreseen the challenges the faith would soon face – not just externally but in the internal life of the Church as well. Even so, I personally suspect that faith and religious practice are probably still stronger among graduates of Catholic schools than among those who did not have that benefit. All of which only exacerbates the tragedy of the decline of Catholic education in the United States. On the one hand, the Church’s mission of service to the poor is diminished as this type of quality education becomes less and less available to the families that would benefit from it most. At the same time, the Church’s fundamental mission of evangelization likewise suffers as fewer families have access to the kind of community of faith-formation a school can create and sustain.

Friday, June 24, 2011

To War or Not To War

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries, there were many (among whom I include myself) who felt that Hilary Clinton would have made a better President than her rival, Barack Obama, precisely because her greater experience in government and familiarity with Washington stood in such conspicuous contrast to Obama's lack thereof. Of course, and not for the first time in recent history, first the Party and then the nation opted for the "outsider" over the "insider" - with some predictable consequences.

President Obama's present problem with Congress, however, is another story entirely. The debate about the intervention in Libya and the resulting votes today in the House are just the latest instance of a dilemma which has hovered over the foreign policy efforts of recent presidents and is rooted ultimately in the separating and mixing of powers which is so characteristic of the US Constitution. That magisterial document gave the President the primary power to conduct foreign policy and made him Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (functions clearly beyond the capacity of any Congress), but simultaneously left to the Congress the power to declare war and to approve military expenditures. In most democratic countries, a Government which has the confidence of its Parliament can govern - and that includes waging war. If the war goes badly, of course, then there is always a chance that the Government will lose the confidence of Parliament - as most famously happened in Britain in May 1940, when Winston Churchill replaced neville Chamberlain. Or there can be an election, as happened in Spain several years ago, when the party in power was replaced by a party with a different foreign policy. Obviously, those are much neater solutions which avoid the institutional awkwardness that increasingly characterizes contemporary American war-making.

On 5 occasions in American history (the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II), the Constitution worked just fine - because it was followed. The president requested, and Congress passed, a Declaration of War. Beginning the Korean Conflict in 1950, modern Presidents have resisted the obvious option of asking Congress for a Declaration of War - even when it most likely would have been granted. There is, of course, no more supine institution than the American Congress. Almost always reluctant to exercise real leadership, it has usually been content to allow modern Presidents to act militarily as appeared to be warranted, but then later (if and when popular opinion has turned against the adventure) Congress has attempted to reclaim its rightful role. But only in part, of course. The famous War Powers Act of 1973 - Congressional "Buyer's Remorse" over Vietnam, made possible because of the extremely weakened condition of the post-Watergate Presidency - still accepted that Presidents would wage war on their own initiative (a contemporary necessity for which, however, there is no basis in the Constitution), but then attempted put in place a post-factum process to legitimize or de-legitimize military action.

Whatever one's views of the War Powers Act, it was an attempt to reassert an important principle - if not the increasingly impractical principle that only Congress can declare war, then at least the more fundamental principle that in a democratic polity the President's power to wage war must retain the confidence of the legislative branch. Likewise, whatever one thinks of the intervention in Libya, it's hard to believe waging war in Libya without congressional authorization would be better than waging war with such authorization (even after-the-fact).

I can easily understand the institutional imperative that makes any president want to defend the maximum interpretation of the power of the office. What properly keeps that imperative in check is not so much the assertion of congressional prerogative as the political imperative to retain the confidence of the country in the President's policy. That is why most modern presidents have often found it to their advantage to seek not necessarily authorization but support from Congress. President Obama's reluctance to do so seems staggeringly foolish - as well as arrogant. The arrogance may be understandable. This President probably considers himself the smartest man in the room - and probably is most of the time, certainly if he's being compared with Congress. But arrogance is always dangerous. And it can easily lead an Administration in a direction that undermines its own goals and policies. After all, who is the ultimate beneficiary of the President's failure to get Congress more on board on Libya? The one with the most to gain from this intramural dispute is, of course, Qaddafi.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I guess I always knew something like this would happen someday. (I've heard so many horror stories over the years about people getting stranded overnight at airports and have been grateful that - till now - nothing like this had ever happened to me before.)

Flying home from CA, I was supposed to change planes at Dulles for the short flight to Knoxville. When we landed at Dulles, my phone's email gave me my gate number, which also appeared on the monitor. In the few minutes it took to get to the gate, the flight was cancelled, due to weather!

So I stood on line for what seemed like forever and finally got put on a noontime flight tomorrow. So here I am - stuck overnight, by myself, in the unfriendly environment of this huge airport.

Maybe "unfriendly" is too strong a word. A nice airport employee just offered me a pillow and a blanket. Not quite a bed and bathroom, but at least something!

At least there's internet, and I have a book to read if I'm in the mood!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Yesterday, at the beautiful new cathedral in Oakland, the bishop celebrated confirmation for some 50 young people, among them my niece, which is what brought me here all the way from East Tennessee this weekend. The sacrament of Confirmation is a reaffirmation and completion of the gift of the Holy Spirit we first received at our baptism. Just as God the Father gave his gift of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples at Pentecost to empower them to continue the Risen Christ’s life and mission in the world, so too the same Father has given the same Holy Spirit to each one of us to continue his Son’s life and work in our world.

Today, the Church invites us to focus on the fundamental mystery that makes this all possible – who God is in his very self, the inner life of God, who has revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For most of us, I suspect, the Trinity is a bit of an abstraction – a doctrine to be believed in, of course, but not something we often give a lot of thought to.

I say this, despite the obvious fact that we were all baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, we – or our parents and godparents - all made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our sins have been forgiven many times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thos who have been married have exchanged rings, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have all been blessed – and have blessed ourselves - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The principal prayers of the liturgy are all explicitly addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In short, my entire life – and the lives of all of us, both individually and as a Church community – have been defined, formed, shaped by the awesome mystery of who God is, that defines the Triune God’s relationship with us and ours with God.

On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveal the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts; and so how God acts reveals who God is.

Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as he did to Moses in today’s 1st reading, as one who reveals himself in how he acts toward us: a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It was to such a God that Moses prayed – as we all pray – do come along in our company … and receive us as your own.

It is, of course, the Son, one in being with the Father, who, as the visible image of the invisible God, came down from heaven, so that the world might be saved through him. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Thus, in the Eucharistic Prayer, at the very heart of the Mass, the priest petitions the Father to send the Holy Spirit, so that bread and wine may become the body and blood of Christ and that those who receive Christ’s body and blood may then be transformed into the image of Christ as participants in the mission of the Church.

Hence, the Church faithfully follows St. Paul in praying: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Homily for Trinity Sunday, St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, June 19, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011


It took me a little over 12 hours door-to-door yesterday, travelling from Knoxville to the Bay Area to visit my family for my niece's confirmation at the Oakland Cathedral tomorrow. (Only about half that time was actually in the air, of course.) So I had a lot of time to read - and spent much of it reading the new YOUCAT (Youth Catechism fo the Catholic Church). I'm more than half-way through it, which means I should certainly be able to finish it completely on the way home!
I am a great fan of the USCCB's Catechism for Adults (sometimes referred to as the "Red Book"), which is a wonderful, reader-friendly adaptation of the much larger Catechism of the Catholic Church for use in adult catechesis in the U.S. At St. Paul the Apostle in NY, when I used to teach Adult Confirmation Preparation, I used to use it with great satisfaction. So I have been looking forward to reading this new Youth-friendly version. As I said, I am only half-way done with it, but I am easily ready to give it an A (maybe even an A+).

YOUCAT follows the standard order that catechisms have followed at least since St. Augustine - Creed, Sacraments, Morality, Prayer - and that both the full Catholic Catechism and the USCCB's Adult Catechism have faithfully followed. Its purpose is clearly stated by Pope Benedict XVI in his Foreword: "You need to know what you believe. You need to know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer. You need to understand it like a good musician knows the piece he is playing. Yes, you need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination."

Amen to that!

YOUCAT is well written and attractively presented. The layout may seem a bit too "busy" to someone of my generation (but not so much so that one can't quickly get the hang of it if one is willing to make the very modest effort). There are lots pf pictures and cartoon-like illustrations. Each question has a bold-print answer, followed by a more extensive explanation. The margins are also filled with text - short quotes from the Bible, Church Fathers, modern saints and others, plus definitions of technical terms. (Some of the quotations are treasure, jus in and of themselves!) I guess it is supposed to look like a page on a computer. And to those used to reading pages on the internet it probably all seems perfectly normal!

The text also contains some really beautiful expressions - e.g., "The Bible is like a long letter written by God to each one of us."

The content is an honest, unapologetic presentation of the orthodox Catholic faith, which does not hesitate to present those aspects of Catholic teaching that are out of fashion in contemporary liberal society - especially contemporary elite culture (e.g., the media and academia). That alone makes it perhaps the best thing out there for catechizing young people today. Indeed, it is so well written and attractively presented that I think it would be a good catechetical text for people of almost any age!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Someone To Pay Attention To

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists. I look forward to his columns in the New York Times and am rarely disappointed. I guess I find myself agreeing with him more often than not - maybe as much as 75 % of the time, which is a lot actually! He is an attentive observed of society and an acute analyst of the causes of so many of our woes. His writing tries to address the social, cultural, and moral chaos which increasingly characterizes our society and is pushing it into dangerous decline. He is someone to pay attention to!

Here we are, once again, on the eve of yet another presidential election, an election he says is about anxiety over national decline and how to avert it, an election whose "core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed - unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality." I could hardly have said it better. (Of course not! That's one reason he's writing for the Times and I'm not!)

In the face of this anxiety, what do our political parties have to offer? (It is an election, after all!)

Brooks takes on both political parties whose rigidities have resulted in their abject failure to do precisely what we need them to do. (Again, it is an election, after all!)

The Republican agenda - what happens, Brooks suggests, when "a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980" (cutting taxes) degenerates into a test of rigid loyalty and ideological purity. The "tax cuts and nothing else" agenda he describes as "stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible" - a prescription that "would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis."

The Democrats, on the other hand, remain mentally trapped "in the era of affluence," dreaming "new Deal dreams" and meanwhile proposing nothing more than "light rail" and "solar panels." He compares this coming election to "a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change."

Is it any surprise, I would add, then, that we are so easily distracted by extreme examples of narcissistic behavior on the part of some of our elected representatives?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Are We Always So Surprised?

Amid all the silly tittering about a certain New York Congressman's twittering, the interesting question isn't even why so many powerful men's sense of entitlement frees them to engage in such silly and risky behavior - but even more to the point why does such behavior seem continually to take us by surprise? That men may be inordinately preoccupied with sex is hardly news. Likewise the fact that socially, economically, or politically powerful men may be particularly attractive to women shoudl coem as no surprise. Indeed it is a phenomenon easily explained by evolution. The same might be said for male risk-taking, which (when successful) is likely to be admired and rewarded in our society and many other societies. Likewise, with the sense of entitlement that tends to go with power and prominence and extends to many areas of life. So, apart from the particulars of the technology employed, which is still somewhat new, what is the novelty here that so surprises us?

Could it be that, in a culture increasingly committed to an amoral acceptance of almost everything people do, surprise is a somewhat socially acceptable way of expressng a moral judgment?


On the other hand, we keep letting ourselves get surprised by so many things in so many areas of our public life, even when we certainly ought to know better by now.

Consider the hoopla this past spring about the "revolution" in Egypt. In our rush to get "on the right side of history" (hardly the most edifying of motivations under any circumstances) certain reasonable inferences precisely from history were obiously being ignored. Based on historical experience, which tell us that revolutions have a tendency (with occasional exceptions) to produce worse rather than better situations, one could have reasonably warned that:

(1) Overthrowing the relatively secular Egyptian regime would empower Islamists to the detriment of Egyptian Christians;

(2) Overthrowing a regime which has been a cornerstone of the present peaceful co-existence between Israel and two neighboring Arab states might undermine that status quo and certainly increase Israel's insecurity; and

(3) The combination of 1 & 2 above and the general uncertainty and instability accompanying them would likely adversely affect Western tourism to Egypt and so further destabilize an already problematic domestic Egyptian economy, with in turn further destabilizing effects on the society and possibly the region.

Why are we always so surprised?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Come, Holy Ghost

Seven weeks have passed since we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection. From the accounts that have come down to us – in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles - one gets a sense of the original Easter season as a time of transition, as the focus perceptibly shifts from what Jesus has been doing to what the disciples are going to do. As we all know, it takes time – sometimes a lot of time – to get people properly prepared for a major undertaking. So the Risen Lord prepared his disciples for the task ahead, laying out his program, and getting them “on board” to implement it, empowering them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, it’s Pentecost, and the implementation part begins in earnest.

That’s assuming, of course, that we notice! Pentecost was once one of the greatest festivals of the year, in both church and civil calendars. It was on a par with Easter. 60 years ago, it still had a week-long octave like Easter, and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete a blessing of baptismal water). At one time, Kings and Queens were expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of all that now, in post-Christian Europe, is the 3-day Whitsun weekend. And here in the U.S., we don’t even have that.

Pentecost is a Greek word meaning the 50th day. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks” and refers to the seven weeks that began with Passover. Shavuot was the second of the three pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish agricultural calendar. In time, it became a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, which occurred (according to Exodus) about seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus had been but the beginning; and Pentecost’s gift of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the wider world.

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since, as a result of having received the gift of the Holy Spirit during the Shavuot following Jesus’ Ascension, the apostles began the Church’s mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world. Pentecost and the Church are what fulfill and complete the promise of Easter and carry Easter into the world of day-to-day life and work.

According to Acts, there were some 120 persons present in what tradition calls the Upper Room. Artistic renditions often focus particularly the 12 apostles along with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In a famous mosaic in the dome of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, however, the 16 nationalities (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.), who are mentioned in the story as having heard the Gospel preached in their native languages (thus undoing the damage done to the human community as a consequence of the Tower of Babel) are all represented in the scene, each by a male and female pair (an image of the universality of the Church).

For the Holy Spirit has not been given to us just so that we can feel good about ourselves, so that we can continue Christ’s presence among us in some purely private way (as if the Church were just a social club or some sort of inward-looking therapeutic community). On the contrary, the community which continues Christ’s life and work in the world must be as broad and wide as the world itself, which is why it must speak as many languages as there are to be heard in the world.

Today’s gospel reminds us that since apostolic times Sunday has been the privileged day when the Church experiences in its liturgy the continued presence of the Risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But Pentecost is also an annual reminder of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. In the calendar, Pentecost marks the annual transition from Easter time to ordinary Time, our time, the time of the Church, when what began with the resurrection takes effect in our daily lives. From our weekly Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent out to the world, as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

In that sense, Easter doesn’t end at Pentecost, and Sunday doesn’t end on Monday, anymore than Mass ends with the Dismissal. We do indeed depart, but we do so changed and energized – sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.

Homily for Pentecost Snday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 12, 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

While I Was Away

Admittedly, the once-upon-a-time classically-oriented political theorist in me really rather likes it that way. But, like it or not, it seems that modern life abounds in meetings; and that's at least as true in church life as in comparable secular professions and activities. At the end of May, I attended a Paulist Fathers’ retreat in an oceanside setting in New Jersey. It was, as I wrote on these pages at the time, a powerful experience of Paulist community – three full days of hearing and responding to each others' stories of adversity and resilience – followed by an uplifting ordination ceremony and First Mass at the “Mother Church” in New York. Of course, whenever you are away for that many days, you may feel there is a price to be paid in the pileup of things that await you on your return! And then after a busy week of catching up, I was away again – this time for the annual Nashville-Knoxville priests’ convocation at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Again, another good meeting in a nice place, with great presentations and good fellowship! No cellphone service, however! And only limited access to email in the lobby! Hardly the end of the world, but an adjustment to what have become normal expectations!

Having no cell phone service and limited email may help in its own way to focus one's attention on the business at hand. However, there was still TV in one's room, and CNN was always there to keep one up-to-the minute, for example, on such matters of critical world-historical import as the ongoing saga of a certain New York Congressman and what he did - or didn't - do and (once he'd admitted what he had actually done) whether he should - or shouldn't - stay in Congress. So I was hardly cut off from the critical concerns of contemporary civilization, even while away!

Other than its apparent appeal as sheer spectacle, however, it is less than clear why any of this sad and somewhat sordid story deserves the enormous amount of attention it has received. (It's not like the world doesn't present any number of significant matters much more worthy of at least some of our attention). Of course, watching prominent people be brought down by their personal flaws has, I suppose, always been popular entertainment and for many of us may seem almost irresistible. The combination of apparently thoughtless lack of self-control with wealth, social status, and/or cultural or political prominence - and the apparent sense of entitlement prominence may breed - can almost turn such tabloid-like stories into morality plays. Almost, that is, because, when all is said and done they remain basically tabloid-like stories. When prominent people offend, their behavior is likely much more common than we care to admit and our public fascination with the personal failures of prominent people seems hardly justified by whatever moral lessons may be learned. As for whether politicians who get caught engaging in such behavior deserve to be hounded out of office, I personally remain quite content to leave that up to the offender's contituents to determine - on election day. That's how it ought to be, I believe, in a functioning democracy. Let the voters - not the media - decide. (For the same reason, I dislike term limits - even for President).

Meanwhile the world continues to turn.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Looking Up

St. Bernard of Clairvaux is supposed to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” While theoretically still certainly one of the five biggest festivals of the church calendar, Ascension nowadays may seem somewhat shrunken. Back where I come from, however, it is still celebrated on its proper day, Thursday of last week; and there everyone knows what day it is because the local news announces that in the entire city what we call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended for the day. It’s even better in Europe – where, in some countries, it is still a legal holiday and even Stock Markets are closed in observance of the Ascension.

Belief in the ascension is, of course, one of the key components of the Creed, which we recite regularly - if maybe at times a bit absent-mindedly - all year long. After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

As the words of the Creed suggest, the ascension actually involves several things. Historically, it has to do with the fact that the Risen Christ was no longer living among his disciples as he had been before. The Risen Lord lives already the new life of the future of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament authors assure us that the Risen One presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church. Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of the period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.

That being the case, the question then becomes: well, where exactly is he? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically, what the Ascension celebrates is that the Word-made-flesh, the incarnate Christ is now with God his Father, the fact that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) that is with God.

In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven – a bit fanciful, perhaps, “as if” (as one author has written) Jesus “sprang into the heavens with such vigour that the very rock underneath his feet was compressed in the act” [Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, 2011, p 16]. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended – that is, is now with God.

As St. Augustine famously said in one of his sermons: “Although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend, not by reason of our own virtue but on account of our oneness with him” (Sermon 263).

Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.

In the meantime now - in this interim between Easter and the end - though he is absent, he has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20].

Hence, his instruction to his disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The same Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is still present among us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and its sacraments. Furthermore, not only does the Risen Christ continue present in the Church through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, but through the Eucharist in particular we participate already even now in the heavenly liturgy, where Christ, as our High Priest intercedes forever on our behalf with his Father (cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).

Homily for Ascension Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 5, 2011.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Restoring the Baptismal Font

Tomorow, Immaculate Conception Church will inaugurate its restored baptismal font and baptistery. The baptistery, the site of the baptismal font, has always been considered one of the most important parts of a parish church, “the place where, from the womb of the Church, so to speak, Christians are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit” (Book of Blessings, 1084). The oldest known western fonts, found in the Roman catacombs, were apparently cisterns hewn in the floor of baptismal chapels. With the major church-building activity of the fourth and subsequent centuries, however, the baptismal font was typically enshrined in the magnificent baptisteries of that period - often separate structures from the church building itself, as can still be seen in the case of the Baptistery of the Lateran Basilica (the Pope’s Cathedral as Bishop of Rome) and other famous Italian churches. Presumably, the growing prevalence of infant baptism and the greater frequency of administering the sacrament led to a change in the structure of the font to facilitate holding a child over it, resulting eventually in the smaller baptismal fonts with which we have traditionally been familiar. This would have been located within the church building but typically in its own distinctive place and separated from the body of the church by a gate or railing. In churches where the main altar was located at the eastern end of the church, the baptistery would preferentially be located at the church’s northwestern corner.

When the present Immaculate Conception Church was built in 1886, the baptistery was accordingly located in the narthex or vestibule near the Church's main entrance, at what was symbolically (although not geographically) the liturgical northwestern corner of the building. Sometime in the 1930s, apparently because of the cold temperatures in the narthex, the font itself was moved further inside the church, and the original baptistery was converted to other uses. In recent decades, it has been completely closed off by a wooden wall and door and has served as a storage room. Meanwhile, at some point the original font found its way to our parish cemetery, from which it has only recently been salvaged.

In anticipation of our church’s 125th anniversary this fall, this seemed like a good time to reopen the site of the original baptistery, exposing the original windows (with their baptismal theme)and, at the very least, brightening up the vestibule area. After considering various options, it seemed best to try to restore the place to its original character and purpose. The original font was found, cleaned, and restored to its original location (of which we can be safely certain because of the drain located in the floor). Among the other objects we found when clearing out the storeroom were the metal gates from the old altar rail. These are presently being adapted to serve as the entrance to the restored baptistery. Two unused pews have been added for use during baptisms. A crucifix has been hung on the wall, and a statue of St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations and Patron of the Paulist Fathers, has also been incorporated into the baptistery area. With the end of the Easter season after Pentecost, the Easter Candle will also, according to contemporary liturgical custom, stand near the font.

This entire project was possible because of the generous, volunteer labor of parishioners. Immaculate Conception Parish is blessed to have such a beautiful and historic church building. We are even more blessed to be a faith-filled community of people committed to our life together as Church and to the service of one another, all of which is so suitably centered in our 125-year old "Church on Summit Hill."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ascension Thursday

By accident of the calendar, Memorial Day was celebrated this year on its traditional day, May 30 – not because the traditional date has been restored (although there are those who advocate that) but because May 30 this year fell on a Monday. In 1968, the Uniform Holidays Bill moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some resistance, all 50 states adopted the measure within a few years. I am not a fan of the Uniform Holidays Bill – or of the mindset that motivated it. On the contrary, I count myself among those contend that changing the date to create a 3-day weekend has undermined the meaning of the day and made it merely the symbolic beginning of the summer vacation season. (Beginning in 1987, Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, repeatedly – and unsuccessfully - introduced measures to return Memorial Day to its traditional date.)

I feel somewhat similarly about religious holidays – those once great festivals like Epiphany and Ascension and Corpus Christi that have (in certain jurisdictions) been moved to a nearby Sunday. Epiphany and Corpus Christi, because they are no longer holydays of obligation in the United States, are permanently transferred to Sundays everywhere in the U.S. Ascension remains a holyday in the United States, and so some ecclesiastical provinces still retain it on its traditional day (although many American jurisdictions seem to have availed themselves of the option to move it). When I was stationed in Canada, we celebrated Ascension on a Sunday, and I remember hearing someone once refer to it as “Ascension Thursday Sunday.” More recently, when I was back in New York, we were asked for input on whether to transfer Ascension to a Sunday. One priest, who had previously served abroad in a couontry where Ascension is still a holiday, made an impassioned case for keeping the traditional date and won the argument – at least in our vicariate. In any case, in New York Ascension is still celebrated on its traditional day – today - and so one gets to hear the local news announce that in the entire city what New Yorkers call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended for that day!

No doubt, there are certainly some valid arguments in favor of transferring the feast to the following Sunday. The question is how compelling such considerations really are. The bishops of England and Wales will discuss at their November meeting whether to reverse a 2006 decision and transfer the celebrations of Epiphany and Ascension from Sunday back to their authentic dates. Given their recent courageous decision to restore Friday abstinence, there is reason to hope that they will do the bold thing in this case as well.

One of the downsides of moving the Ascension is its effect on the traditional notion of the pre-Pentecost “novena.” There was a time, not so long ago, when novenas – nine days of prayer usually in preparation for a major feast or Saint’s day - were widely observed in the Church in this country. Some years ago, I looked at the Parish Novena Booklet that was once in use at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in New York, and I could count eleven such novenas that were then a regular part of the devotional life of that parish. The pre-Pentecost novena is based on the account in Acts 1:12-14, which describes the community disciples in Jerusalem between the Jesus’ Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. That episode has often been seen as the first “novena” in the Church’s history.

It took place, Acts tells us, in the upper room, a familiar place where the apostles may have regularly gathered. Altogether some 120 disciples were present, all gathered around the apostles, as ever since the Church has been gathered around their successors, the bishops. Also there with them was Mary, the mother of Jesus and now the mother of the Church. The atmosphere in Acts appears almost retreat-like. The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are given to us, within the Church, for the sake of the world – and so are intended to be visible. But, beforehand, comes the silent, spiritual process of inner personal preparation - one reason why a renewed awareness of these 9-days prior to Pentecost might be a good idea.

Yesterday was Confirmation Day in my parish. As sacraments go, confirmation can sometimes seem quite elusive, almost an after-thought – or, even worse, a kind of graduation (from Church? from religion?). Yet, unlike graduation, confirmation is not a celebration of separation but of connection. In its original context, confirmation connected baptism, the once-for-all sacrament of entry into the Church, and Eucharist, the regularly repeated sacrament that makes the Church what it is. As celebrated today, confirmation deepens one’s connection with the Church. It expresses the communion of those being confirmed with the bishop – and, through the bishop, their connection with the apostolic origins of the Church. (As in last Sunday’s reading from Acts, in which, when the apostles heard that Philip had baptized some Samaritans, they sent Peter and John to lay hands on them “and they received the Holy Spirit,” thus more completely connecting the newly baptized Samaritans with the apostolic Church).

The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit are not, of course, confined to Confirmation Day. Confirmation highlights for all of us the significance of these final days of Easter, when we are invited to identify with the 120 disciples in the Upper Room, praying like them for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s life and mission in our own lives and in our world today.