Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Sad Anniversary

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door (photo) of the University Church in Wittenberg, unleashing the great ecclesiastical calamity of the 2nd millennium - the Protestant Reformation. (In school as kids, we were taught never to call it that, always to refer to it as the Protestant Revolt, reserving the term "Reformation" for the Catholic Reformation, aka the Counter-Reformation." Words matter, but whatever one calls what Martin Luther unleashed, it was - and remains - a catastrophic calamity for the Church and by extension, therefore, for the world.) 

The separation from the Catholic Church of what became the Protestant Churches (and the Protestant countries) of northern Europe was an inestimable loss to both sides, a loss which the general trajectory of both Catholic and Protestant communities has more recently begun to try to remedy. And certainly much misunderstanding has been corrected and many opportunities for collaboration and even shared worship have been among the beneficial fruits of modern ecumenism. Over a century ago, Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker hopefully anticipated this: "Who knows? Perhaps the time has come when men will consider impartially the causes which have brought about the deplorable religious dissensions and divisions existing among Christians, and that a movement is about to set it on all sides towards unity, and the prayer of Christ that “all who believe in Him might be made perfect in unity” will find its fulfillment. This is our hope. To contribute to this result we labor" (The Church and the Age, 1887, p. 235).

I first seriously studied Luther (and Calvin) not in seminary but earlier as a grad student in political theory. I easily found in Luther, the person, someone I could appreciate - not for his rebellion or for his dismantling of the sacramental economy or for his subordination of the Church to secular princes, but for his personal struggle with his own scrupulosity, his struggle - as it is usually phrased - to "find a gracious God." Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott is not just a stirring hymn (though it certainly is that), but more importantly it is a celebration of what a merciful God has done - and continues to do - on our behalf and an invitation to a new and more abundant life as a result. It may have historically been the anthem of the Reformation, but it is a hymn we can all join in singing

Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision introduced me seriously to John Calvin as a substantive theorist of ecclesial and social order, a re-situation of the individual in community contrary to the Reformation's more extreme individualizing and anti-institutional tendencies. Meanwhile, a graduate seminar with Paul Ramsey and Horton Davies took me directly into Calvin's most monumental work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. There I was personally particularly touched, for example, by Calvin's treatment of Divine Providence in his in Part 2 of The Institutes, chapter 17, notably section 10, Without certainty about God's providence life would be unbearable.

The New England Transcendentalists, who so influenced Hecker were part of a reaction against classical Calvinist theology. Hecker himself assimilated the Transcendentalist critique of Calvinism, but my impression is that he had little or no direct familiarity with the spirituality of classical Calvinism, let alone with with the writings of Calvin himself. Indeed, Hecker’s understanding of Protestantism was largely derived from his early experience with the Transcendentalists. His diagnosis of 19th-century American Protestantism as being in decline may have been prescient. It may, in some respects, have anticipated the 20th-century decline of the so-called "Mainline" Protestant denominationalism with which we are all now so familiar, but it was a limited perspective nonetheless. As Paulist Father James McVann acknowledged (in his 2-volume unpublished history of the Paulists), Hecker’s “facts and figures mostly took account of a decline in Eastern Massachusetts, without considering the strong roots of Protestantism in other parts of America, which his travels South and West should have shown him.” It is fair to say  that Hecker’s limited experience of American Protestantism failed to appreciate evangelical Protestantism’s continued relevance and dynamic energy in modern and post-modern society. The mutual sharing of Catholic and Evangelical ideas and spiritual insights that is occurring today offers much promise for contemporary American religious experience - and, by extension therefore, for the re-evangelization of American society.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Utterly Novel and Unlikely Ever to be Repeated

What we commonly call "the TV Age" arrived in Knoxville just 60 years ago, according to an interesting article in the October 24 issue of our local Knoxville weekly MetroPulse -
What really struck me, reading that article, was how different my experience had been, growing up in a major metropolitan center. We got our TV in 1952, when I was four years old. I have a very vestigial memory of playing on the living room floor when the huge contraption was delivered. At least until UHF became more common sometime in the 1960s, I don't ever remember much change in the number of channels, which suggests that we had our full complement of VHF stations, if not from the very beginning, then at least from very soon after.  Unlike Knoxville's early experience with only 2 stations, in New York we had the three major networks - CBS (channel 2), NBC (channel 4), and ABC (channel 7) - plus several purely local stations - WNEW (channel 5), WWOR (channel 9), and WPIX (channel 11). There was also WNET "the educational channel" (channel 13), broadcasting from the Empire State building, which we seldom watched and which was only a very dim forerunner of today's PBS. Channel 11 carried all the NY Yankees Games. Chanel 9 endeared itself to us with Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same old movie every evening (and practically all day on the weekend) for a week, a great godsend in that pre-VCR era.

Compared to the more limited offerings in Knoxville and so many other cities in those very early days of TV, we in New York had access to quite a variety of TV. Still, the offering were (by today's standards) quit limited. And, for all the old Westerns and cartoons, there was also - as the MetroPulse article notes - a certain high-mindedness to early TV. There was quality coverage of serious matters. There was also serious drama, etc. And that was all before the contemporary division of the TV audience into ever narrower niche markets.
It is that division which makes the contemporary TV experience so radically different from what it was like 60 - or even 40 - years ago. There were competing programs. One watched either Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen, for example. But the choices were very limited. The result was that we all inhabited a common culture - more common perhaps than ever before in this large, geographically and culturally diverse country and society and certainly more common than what we live in now. In retrospect, it was a real "golden age," utterly novel and unlikely ever to be repeated.

"Adolescence" had recently been invented and a "teen culture" was developing. But it was still in its infancy. Children still ate dinner with the parents, at which adults directed the conversation, and then watched the same programs on the same TV that their elders did. There were, of course, daytime kids' shows like Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club and Saturday morning cartoons, but prime time was a united - and uniting - experience. This included the news, which almost everyone watched together on one of the three networks (especially after the networks adopted their current half-hour nightly format in the early 60s). There were also high-minded interview shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation), which I presume had smaller audiences, but whose format and seriousness made them quite different from the more argumentative, conflict-oriented news and commentary shows of today.

Then 50 years ago, TV really came into its own as the great national unifier in its all- weekend coverage of the Kennedy Assassination.

Even in the 1950s there was criticism of TV programming - what Newton Minow would famously call a "vast wasteland." The quality of programming today is certainly better on some levels and certainly worse on others. What has been irretrievably lost, however, is TV as a nationally unifying force and the common culture it helped to create.

Monday, October 28, 2013


In (it must have been) 1966, I read an article entitled "Peace Comes of Age," written to mark the 21st anniversary of the end of World War II. Since then, of course, the official age of maturity has been reduced to 18. So, as I mark my 18th anniversary of ordination  today, can I speak of finally having "come of age" as a priest? I'd like to think so!

I had fun at the school Mass this morning making the connection between my ordination and the famous "Patron of Hopeless Cases and Things Despaired of," Saint Jude, whose feast day today is.  It was a convenient coincidence, of course, that the timing of my long-delayed call to orders led to my being ordained on this day. But I appreciated the significance of the date right away and was happy to suggest it - and happier still when a Bishop was designated to make it finally happen. 

Being ordained alone and out of season and way from the more commonly chosen Paulist ordination site, virtually all the planning fell into my lap. It was dignified and celebratory, but not overdone. My family drove up from New York. So did some friends whose surprise visit amazed and thrilled me. And a respectable number of Paulists turned out too. It tied the loose ends of the past together and made imaginable the promise of new hope.

Looking forward from that marvelous day, the priesthood remains constantly new, constantly challenging. Deep down I have always understood that priesthood is most rewardingly lived in pastoring, and it has been my joy to have been allowed to do so these 18 years.

Meanwhile, to help me reflect on this particular milestone, I have been reading a book I bought in the Methodist bookstore at Lake Junaluska last week while on retreat - William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2002).

Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop, who (not surprisingly) approaches the theology of orders and pastoral ministry through a Reformation lens, which leads him here and there to depart from a Catholic or Orthodox understanding. But those particular points of difference are easily recognizable and are the obvious ones we would expect. Thus identified, they do not further detract from his book's abundant theological and pastoral wisdom. Browsing the bookstore while on a retreat that was focused on the priesthood, I was fortunate to find it - and since then to find in it much to meditate upon as I approached yet another anniversary of my priestly ordination.

Among the book's many stand-out sentences are paragraphs like this: "Christians are those who, through Scripture, are taught to name the world, not merely as 'nature,' but rather as 'Creation.' We learn to name our lives not as under the grip of fate, or luck, but as guided and cared for by providence. We do not make 'mistakes.' We sin. We do not want to be improved. We hope for salvation" (p. 125)

Or this (in his chapter on pastoral counseling): "Christians are those who discover that their lives are also a story told by God. We are not the authors of our lives. God speaks in such a way that, eventually, by God's grace, our lives become a word to be spoken to the world. It is our faith that nothing will silence or hinder the creation of that world" (p. 186).

Sentences such as the above are not singularly about being clergy but about being Christian - the defining context for priestly pastoral ministry. So in writing about what it means to be a pastor, the author cannot avoid writing about what it means to be Church, Hence, his choice to reflect upon pastoral ministry in tandem with a reading of the Acts of the Apostles - Luke's inspiring account of the dynamic inner life and evangelistic growth of the apostolic Church - a book he interprets "as an early Christian narrative of the challenges of church leadership" (p. 12). 

Thus, this is very definitely a book about pastoring. Early on, he insists: "damage is done to the unique quality of the pastoral vocation when it is conflated with the vocation of all Christians to follow Jesus." Hence his stated preference for referring to "pastors" or "priests" rather than "ministers" (pp. 16-17).

Particularly helpful to me as a priest is the author's liturgical orientation. Prayer, he recalls, is the Church's way of life in Acts - "primary to all other activity, the source of the church's power to witness in word and deed to what has happened int he world because of Jesus Christ" (p. 75). Relying on Saint Justin Martyr's late 1st-century description of Sunday Mass, he identifies eight acts of the Church's ministry, which must inform the priestly ministry of pastors - gathering, remembering, listening, praying, offering, giving thanks, distributing God's gifts to the people, and scattering into the world to herald the kingdom of God (pp. 77-79). The connection couldn't be clearer between this time-honored ritual shape of Catholic liturgy and the mission of a parish and its pastor.

Willimon has much more to say about so many aspects of priestly pastoring, some of which I hope to return to later in the week. I was, however, struck by the consistently counter-cultural challenge that permeates his analysis. One point in particular really resonated with me as i have experienced our contemporary catechetical crisis is his prediction that more pastoral energy will need to be devoted to Christian education and formation to enable our people "to know how to analyze the corrosive acids within the surrounding and essentially indifferent - at times openly hostile - dominant culture." He calls on pastors to "stress doctrine, the classical texts of our faith, our master narratives, the great themes," recognizing that the culture we now live in "is no longer a prop for the church" (p.  71).

The challenges to the Church from the direction of contemporary culture are just that - challenges. They should, I've often said, send us back, over and over, to the experience of the Church in Acts and its lessons.  What a great era this can be in which to be a priest!

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. So begins one of Jesus’ most famous parables [Luke 18:9-14].

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were devout laymen, preoccupied with being holy and fulfilling God’s Law. They were among the most religiously observant and morally upstanding people in 1st-century Israel. After the destruction of the Temple, later in the century, it was the Pharisees who rebuilt Jewish life and reconstituted it in its post-biblical form. So they were perceived as opponents by the early Christians – one reason why the New Testament tends to highlight stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.

Even then, the New Testament also preserves the memory of the good relations Jesus had with various Pharisees and the important beliefs they shared in common. In any case, we can only fully appreciate the parable if we understand that the Pharisee is the presumptive good guy in the story – and is, in fact, a good, religiously and morally upstanding person. Only then will we appreciate the surprise at the end.

Now the Pharisee, we are told, prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Presumably, he was telling the truth. The parable would make very little sense if he were some hypocrite, who didn’t live the way he said he did. No, the whole point is precisely that he is a religiously and morally upstanding person, who obeys God’s law. Indeed, he does even more than the minimum the Law requires. So, if anyone were going to go home justified, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee?

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was also telling the truth. Without knowing anything else about him, we know that, as a tax collector, he collaborated with the Romans – and so was widely seen as a sinner. After all, God had given the land of Israel as part of his permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans was self-evidently sinful. Everyone would have understood it that way. Hence, the tax collector’s honest prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

But God had long been in the habit of being merciful – all the way back to when he first made clothes for Adam and Eve after they sinned. So, if the tax collector were truly sorry for his sins, God might be merciful even to him, and he too might go home justified. That would have made a nice, happy ending to the parable.

Jesus, however, had a surprise in store, which must have totally shocked his audience. “I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.”

The shock was not that God’s mercy might extend even to the tax collector and that he also could go home justified, but that the Pharisee – in spite of all the good he was doing, in spite of his faithful obedience to God’s law – did not!

What went wrong? In acknowledging his sin, the tax collector  acknowledged that only God could get him out of the hole he had hopelessly dug for himself. The Pharisee, for all his moral correctness, spoke his prayer to himself. Even as he prayed, he remained focused on himself – as if he, on his own, could ever be the source of true goodness, as if being justified in relation to God could ever be his own accomplishment. That was – and is – a universal human temptation – as common in the 21st-century as in the 1st. We all want praise. Yet didn’t Jesus, just 3 weeks ago, warn us? When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

If only the Pharisee had heard that and taken those words to heart! Then he might have understood – as the tax collector, whatever his other faults, clearly did – that God didn’t owe him anything. The kingdom of God is not about what I have accomplished. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about God and about experiencing the mercy of God in my life, and so allowing myself to be changed by that experience of God’s mercy here and now, so as to continue to experience God’s mercy in his kingdom for all eternity.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Holy Ghost Church, Knoxville, TN, October 27, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Retreat - Day 4

Yesterday afternoon, after walking around a bit, I visited the Lake Junaluska Methodist Bookstore and Chapel. The Bookstore reminded me of how much I miss the big bookstores that used to enrich our mid-town Manhattan neighborhood, but which are all gone victims of the post-modernity they themselves had earlier seemed to herald.  The Chapel is a veritable gem of traditional Protestant church architecture (complete with stained glass windows featuring the Wesley brothers). I spent some quiet time there, leafing through the Methodist Hymnal, imagining singing some of its theological and spiritual treasures.

Then, last night's conference focused on The Priest as Physician of Mercy, the priest's participation in the healing and comforting ministry of Jesus. We began with the existential fact that we live in a time when the Church is emphasizing mercy, that is, God's love for us in the face of our sins, weaknesses, and needs. From Blessed Pope John Paul II, whose first encyclical was Dives in Misericordia ("Rich in Mercy") and who promoted the modern devotion to the Divine Mercy to Pope Francis, this is a time when the Church has chosen to emphasize mercy. 

In ordinary human situations, priests are challenged to be physicians of mercy by being men of prayer in whom people have the right to expect to encounterJesus' healing presence. So the question posed to us was: Are we "encounterable"? Is our human personality a bridge to Jesus Christ?

For those of us not naturally gifted with attractive and pleasing personalities, that can be no small challenge!

In contrast to the 1970s "wounded healer" mindset, it was stressed too that a priest must be a "healed wounded healer." A priest must himself receive and experience what he purports to minister to others. Hence the recommendation for such traditional means as "daily examen, open and honest spiritual direction, and regular confession." And we need to pray, as in the Votive Mass for the Sacred heart of Jesus, Clothe us, Lord God, with the virtues of the heart of your Son, and set us aflame with his love ...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Retreat - Day 3

On this day, October 23, in 1849, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, Paulist Founder, was ordained a Redemptorist priest at St. Mary's Church, Clapton (London), by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman.  Years later, in his notes on Personal Sanctification of the Paulist and His Standard of Perfection,” Hecker wrote: "By virtue of ordination the priest becomes a conductor of God’s grace to the people, ex opere operato, through the means of the sacraments, and aids them by such other rites and ceremonies as the Church ordains. But besides this, as an individual the priest, the same as any other person in the state of grace, is personally, through baptism and his other graces, in communion with God, and thereby, according to his perfection, ex opere operantis, becomes a channel of grace to others." 

Becoming a channel of grace to others is part of that distinctly priestly charism of pastoral charity, which we have been hearing about daily during this year's Knoxville priests' retreat. The theme this morning was The Priest as Good Shepherd. We were reminded today that the chief act of our pastoral charity as shepherds is the Eucharist and that we must never think of the time and energy spent in preparing for Mass and celebrating it devoutly as time and energy taken from our ministry. Personally, I have experienced how hard it is, especially when Mass is said not in the morning but at noon or later in the day, when I am already immersed in the busy-ness of the day, how hard it then is to take time and devote energy to prepare properly. Mass may easily, if I don't consciously take contrary precautions, seem like one more mid-day activity!

Today's conference stressed two aspects of our shepherding - the shepherd as head and the shepherd's voice. As a pastor of a parish, I am acutely conscious of the shepherd's standing at the head of the flock. It is, as we were reminded this morning, a call to administration, authority, and leadership. As someone who came to his pastorate little administrative experience, I have been very sensitive to the challenge of that essential, but somewhat unattractive aspect of ministry. It is often lamented that we learn so little about administration in seminary. Certainly, that defect could be remedied somewhat. Still, a lot must be learned on site. That, I suspect, was part of the wisdom of the old days when a priest remained a curate for years - even decades - learning by observing older, experienced pastors.  Now so many diocesan priests are pastors in a year or two, and it must be hard for them to learn it all on their own. In that sense, I suppose I was lucky. My prolonged diaconate was followed by a prolonged apprenticeship - a full 13 years between the date when i should have been ordained and the day I became a pastor. I had lots of time to observe and internalize lessons about what to do - and not to do. Still, I remember my first day on the job, arriving at my office, sitting down at my desk, and saying to myself: now what do I do?

Perhaps, one benefit for me in having watched what so many others have done and having being made well aware over the years of my many deficiencies is that I came to the task well disposed to depend on others, to listen to co-workers and parishioners, and to benefit from that. I may still have made mistakes, but at least not for want of collaboration.

The retreat's theme of the shepherd's voice (based on John 10) reminded me of the time I was waiting for a bus on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road and was watching a shepherd gathering his sheep - and calling them, as if by name. I remember my sudden insight: "so that's what Jesus was talking about!"

Finally, the retreat master stressed the great dignity of ordinary priestly ministry involved in the concerns of everyday people, bringing the mercy of God into the ordinary experiences of people's lives. He quoted from the Pope's now so often cited Chrism Mass homily: "A priest who seldom foes out of himself ... misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. ... It is not a bad thing that reality forces us ... out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is 'unction' - not function."

When it comes to what kind of priest I am, am able to be, and should want to be, there is so much matter for self-examination in the Pope's words!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Retreat - Day 2

At the heart of the Church's life - and hence at the heart of every priest's life and ministry - is the Mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, in which Christ is the one who offers the sacrifice and the sacrifice that is offered. Or, as one of the Easter season's Prefaces says somewhere, he is priest, altar, and lamb of sacrifice. In our conference today, our retreat director focused on our identification of ourselves with Christ both as priest and as victim. He stressed that we must interiorly appropriate the truth that to offer Christ to the Father we must also die with him, and that the way to be incorporated into Christ's resurrection and glorification is incorporation into his death.
So the particular virtue stressed today was mortification - not the seasonal mortification we associate, for example, with Lent - but the ongoing daily death to the old self. He suggested asking oneself in the daily examen, "How much of today has been about me? And tomorrow, how can I be more about Jesus and his spouse, the Church, especially the flock entrusted to me? How can I enter into the joys and sorrows of my flock and so let them shape me more and more?"
"How much of today has been about me?" We've all used the familiar phrase, when discussing our reactions to this or that in ministry or community life, that it's not about me (or about you, or whoever). But taking seriously the real and full implications of that challenge to such self-regarding preoccupation is something else again. The temptation is always present - and very strong - to interpret everything through the prism of me - my needs, my wants, my hopes, my pains. When one adds to that a troubled history and a sense of grievance, the result can be spiritually toxic - as I have often experienced.
This retreat is inviting me to identify more meaningfully with Christ as sacrificial victim, so as to be shaped into a more perfect priest for his Church.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On Retreat

I began early this morning with an 8:00 a.m Funeral, followed by burial in the still early-morning fog at the local Veterans' Cemetery, complete with Honor Guard, 3 Volleys, and Taps. That solemn duty done, it was time to travel to Lake Junaluska, NC, for the annual autumn retreat of the priests of the diocese. Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center is a 250-acre United Methodist Christian Hospitality Center, which has housed our diocesan retreat every fall since 2011. It's a beautiful place, just under 100 miles from Knoxville, well worth the journey. For religious, serving for the time being in Knoxville, it is a great privilege for us all to be included in the diocesan priests' retreat, to join with the presbyterate of which we are for the present a part in the this annual spiritual exercise which the Church's wisdom of experience has taught her to require of her clergy.
The retreat master's chosen theme for the week is Priest in the One Priest: Faces of that One Priesthood. His first conference tonight focused on The Priest as beloved and chosen son. Priests, he pointed out, are good at giving, experts at caring and providing for those in our care. (At least, we certainly hope we are!) What we need, however, is the virtue of receptivity and openness - the receptivity and openness of a "beloved and chosen son," the receptivity and openness to which the father challenged his older son in the parable of the two sons, when he reminded him My son, you are with me always, and everything I have is yours (Luke 15:31), if only the older son would accept and appreciate that about their relationship. 
In challenging us to pray thus in the heart of Jesus, the Son, he invited us to make our own the words of Saint John Eudes (1601-1680): "All that is his is yours: breath, heart body, soul and all his faculties. All of these you must use as if they belonged to you, so that in serving him you may give him praise, love, and glory" (Treatise on the Admirable Heart of Jesus).
We got a good start tonight. Tomorrow, we continue.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mission Sunday

On this World Mission Sunday, it is good to recall that the Church has long had its distinctive  mission statement – given by the Risen Lord himself – “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19=20). Our challenge is to live that mission – faithfully and effectively, in whatever place we are, and at this particular time in human history.
The world in which we find ourselves today poses particular challenges – and opportunities. Our Catholic immigrant ancestors, who built the Church in the United States, constructed not just buildings but a network of solid institutions – strong local parishes, the largest and most successful non-public school system in the world, and an amazing network of hospitals and other charitable institutions that have served millions of people, Catholic and non-Catholic. Growing up in the post-war era, my “baby boomer” generation inherited and benefited from all that – a Church that was visibly and structurally present in its surrounding society, effectively involved in people’s lives, at every stage of their lives.
But the world has changed and with it the ability of our church institutions to meet the needs of today’s individuals and families, of the millennial generation, and of those coming after. In a recent interview, Pope Francis suggested that among “the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them anymore. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crashed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family?”
Of course, the problems the Pope points out are not novel, but they are happening in a novel context, in which a lot of what individuals and families and the Church used to be able to take for granted no longer applies. When it comes to evangelization, when it comes to creating and living Christian community in our world, we are in new territory. That so many more people today, especially younger people, profess no religious affiliation is a symptom of this new way of living, that poses powerfully new and challenging questions for the mission of the Church.
In the 19th century, Paulist founder Isaac Hecker found God in the Catholic Church and devoted the rest of his life to helping others do the same. How do we witness, as Hecker did, in a society now as divided and polarized as his was, but in which religion seems increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago and is less and less seriously seen as a foundation on which to build a life, a family, or a nation? How do we evangelize a society in which more and more people struggle just to get by, bereft of precisely those beliefs and institutions that have historically given life meaning and purpose?  How do we minister most effectively to people who increasingly find themselves alone on their own, less likely to be in church, more materially needy, and less well served socially and spiritually?
To make a difference in this new world, we will certainly need to maintain our facilities and have our financial house in order, but that’s just the first step to being  actively and visibly engaged in the Church’s mission so that individuals and communities experience real impact from our ministry. To discern how best to do so in today's world, with our limited personnel and diminished resources, is our present and future challenge.

Friday, October 18, 2013

TV Kings and Queens

The American airing of The White Queen - the story of Queen Elizabeth Woodeville, wife of England's Yorkist King Edward IV (mother of "the Princes in the Tower" and ancestor of every British monarch since England's Henry VIII and Scotland's James V) - concludes tonight on Starz.  Since the final outcome of the main plotline is historically certain - Henry Tudor ascends the throne and marries Queen Elizabeth's daughter Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the two warring houses - one wonders what dramatic subplot surprises the finale may produce. The series favors some historically debatable interpretations (among them a modestly more benign reading of Richard III) and more dubiously decides to take seriously the allegation that Elizabeth was a witch. The latter certainly adds to the series' entertainment value, but for those less convinced by allegations of witchcraft it offers less historical explanation than might be desired. For all its dramatic license however, it faithfully follows the broad outlines of the story and gives a good portrayal of the English family quarrel history calls the Wars of the Roses. Meanwhile, PBS  recent drama series The Hollow Crown offered four of Shakespeare's familiar history plays - Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V - which follow the story of late medieval England's dynastic conflicts (culminating in the glorious reign of Shakespeare's model king, Henry V) to shortly before the historical moment at which The White Queen begins. Shakespeare's take on England's late medieval monarchs is well known, and The Hollow Crown wonderfully does exactly what one expects from first-rate British Shakespeare productions. Between the two, television has done a rather good job of dramatizing that era of constant conflict leading up to the critical turning point represented by the Tudor ascendancy.

Humanity's fascination with the romance of royalty is virtually universal. No surprise there!But this focus on such a distant - and seemingly different - period in European history merits reflection. It's hard not to wonder whether all that domestic mayhem was necessary, whether a different cast of characters among the English elite might have figured out a quicker and better solution. Yet, even without projecting back onto 15th-century noble families that sense of nation and  ethos of public-spiritedness that their descendants would someday herald as their great contribution to public life, it seems hard to imagine any other way out.

And isn't that so often the way in politics? Counter-factual history can be fun, but it cannot change the fundamentals of human ambition and behavior. All it can do is posit this or that alternative  accident. If the weather had been different and this or that battle had turned out otherwise! If so-and-so had died sooner - or lived longer! If this king or that queen had listened to a different duke or earl or baron! So, yes, of course, the story could have played out differently and maybe had a different ending, perhaps in some sense even a better one. But, while circumstances change and people's resulting responses vary accordingly, the fundamentals of how people behave just don't seem to change very much.

Perhaps that is why the chaotic and dysfunctional politics of the Wars of the Roses resonate so well with us. We may not be as overtly attached to aristocratic notions of honor and may not acknowledge the influence of supernatural forces the way they did, but deep down we aren't really all that different.

Red Mass

At 7:00 this morning, my parish hosted the Diocesan "Red Mass," celebrated by the Bishop of Knoxville. A “Red Mass” is a special Mass, often celebrated annually for judges, lawyers, law school faculty and students, and governmental officials. The first recorded “Red Mass” was celebrated in Paris in 1245. From there, it spread throughout Europe. The first “Red Mass” in the United States was celebrated in Detroit, Michigan, in 1877. That Detroit tradition was resumed in 1912 and has continued uninterrupted for 101 years. And now each year, on the Sunday before the first Monday in October (the opening of the Supreme Court's annual session), a “Red Mass” is also celebrated at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., often attended by some Supreme Court Justices as well as other lawyers, judges, and governmental officials 
Our local Downtown Knoxville "Red Mass" was also attended by a diverse group of attorneys, judges, and public officials, among the Mayor of the City of Knoxville. At the Mass, the Bishop told the story of Blessed Pope John Paul II's visit to Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1999. At that time, the state had coincidentally scheduled an execution to coincide with the papal visit. At one of the public events, the Pope spoke with the Governor and left him with the simple message, "Mercy." The Governor commuted the condemned man's sentence and later explained how he had prayed about his decision.

In his homily at this morning's Red Mass, the Bishop recounted that story as an invitation to pray before acting, to make prayer a constitutive part of our activity - whether as lawyers or judges or whatever our profession. It was a salutary reminder to all of us - busy, active people, engaged in all manner of important business - of where our spiritual center must be and how to nurture it.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Winners and Losers

Well, one more manufactured crisis has concluded. The Government has reopened, and default has been averted. That's all to the good. The news media, which habitually reduces all substance to process and all policy to politics is busy pronouncing who won and who lost. Obviously, the Republican architects of our troubles are the big losers in immediate political terms - even literally so, since so many of them voted on the losing side when the Speaker finally permitted the House to vote last night. The key thing about that vote is, of course, that it went the way it would have gone weeks ago had the Speaker permitted it then. In other words, all the damage done these past several weeks easily could have been avoided and accomplished absolutely nothing for those who forced the country into this debacle.
So certainly the Republicans are the big losers (although since so many of them are from safe districts where they are spared any real encounter with the majority of America, this defeat will not likely have any negative consequences for most of them). By extension, then, the Democrats - especially the President and the Senate - seem to be winners. They held firm and lost nothing that they had when this began. Presumably, a lesson has been learned and the President has finally been healed of his former negotiating inclinations and understands how to deal with his opponents better than he did in 2011.
And, of course, the millions of Americans who will depend on the Affordable Care Act for health insurance they would otherwise not have been able to acquire or afford are winners.
On the other hand, those who depend upon government services and those whose businesses suffered during the shutdown all suffered some loss. They are the most direct victims of political posturing in Washington and nation-wide citizen indifference.
But, in a much larger sense, we are all losers. There is something profoundly humiliating to this country to see the Prime Minister of Italy (of all places!) commenting on TV about American political dysfunction! Americans' confidence in our institutions is low. And that has ripple effects throughout society. Government is who we are together. It is Americans at our best. When government does not work - or does not work as well as it should - we are all diminished. 
The only ones who benefit from this deterioration of our society are those who don't believe in society - those, for example, who believe it is wrong for younger, healthier people to have to buy health insurance so that society as a whole benefits. It is the purveyors of that malignant mentality that are the only real winners when government doesn't function and the social bonds that bind us together across time and space are frayed and wither.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In the Presence of Evil

Today is the 70th anniversary of the wartime deportation of Jews in German-occupied Rome. Following the public announcement of the armistice between the Allies and Italy on September 8, the King and his Government had fled south from Rome and the capital was immediately occupied by German troops. Then on the morning of October 16, 1,015 (out of a Roman Jewish population 6,730) were rounded up by the Germans, of whom only 16 would survive the war. (Within two months, another 7,345 Jews would be found and deported from occupied Northern Italy.) Meanwhile, 477 Jews would be given sanctuary in the Vatican, and 4,000 would find sanctuary in other church buildings.
Ironically, this anniversary coincides with the October 11 death in Rome of a 100-year old, former German SS officer, sentenced in 1996 to life imprisonment under house arrest by an Italian court for having organized the infamous Fosse Ardeatine massacre, on March 24, 1944, in which 335 Italian civilians were executed in the Ardeatine caves as a reprisal for an attack on German troops by resistance elements.

The deportation and death of several thousand Roman Jews was one, comparatively small episode in the genocidal operation now known as the Holocaust. The Fosse Ardeatine massacre was likewise one singular incident among many wartime atrocities against civilians. But both are intensely remembered in Rome and remain real reminders to the world of the 20th century's murderous history.

The post-war world witnessed additional millions of such monumental crimes - among them, the 1950s Chinese famine caused by Mao's revolutionary policies, Serbian atrocities in Bosnia in the 1990s, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Particularly memorable for my generation (because of its link with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and our departure from Southeast Asia) was what happened in Cambodia, under the brutal Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge government led by Pol Pot in the 1970s, which was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians out of a population of less than 10 million. A top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival was awarded to a documentary by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and whose entire family died during the ensuing genocide, but who somehow survived to tell the tale. (For an online assessment of this film, see Richard Bernstein's recent review,  "Cambodia's Unseen Horrors, in The New York Review of Books,"

Surely, it was one of the more curious conceits of modern secular rationalism that the human race, under its humanistic tutelage, was moving linearly in a direction toward progress. That bubble was burst 99 years ago by the monumental absurdity of the First World War. The rest of the century that has elapsed since then has served to provide repeated confirmation of what a fallacy that secular faith in progress really was. The Cambodian case seems especially apt as it was a concentrated, ideologically-motivated effort by a small revolutionary elite movement to remake an entire society in short order by the most determined means. This was not some ancient ethnic rivalry suddenly escalating in a fit of mass hysteria, but a deliberate governmental program to enact its ideologically driven convictions concerning a better world.

In assessing what went so radically wrong in the last century of human history, it is clear that technological "progress" has been one contributing factor. It is now possible - and practical - to perpetuate evil on a massive scale previously unimaginable. But, while that is certainly true, it is also true that the Cambodian episode was relatively low-tech. Certainly technological advances have made it easier for massive criminality to occur, but it does not completely explain it. There seems to be something more basically wrong - and terribly so - that modern secular rationalism's celebratory prognostication of progress failed to reckon with.

Of course, as the Lord himself has told us, the desires of man's heart are evil from the start (Genesis 8:21). In the Flood story, this is given as God's reason for foregoing another apocalypse. But why have we been reprieved?  Surely not so we can just keep on  "progressing" the way we have so far? 

The forthcoming World War I centennial will undoubtedly produce many learned explanations of what went wrong a century ago and how we remain scarred by it. Knowledge is good. So, by all means, let the explanations and analyses bloom in abundance. But in the presence of so much deliberate evil, something more, something less detached, is surely required of us.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Furies

"The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree." So writes Frank Rich today in "The Furies Never End," in New York Magazine (
Rich rightly recognizes the deep anti-federal, anti-democratic roots of our present problem. It reminds me of a grad school classmate in the early 1970s who wondered about political theory in a society that hates politics. It reminds me too of the comment someone made at the time of the second Iraq war, wondering how Iraq could be effectively reconstructed when the occupying power itself was run by folks who themselves had little love for government.
It would be nice to believe that the anti-federal, anti-democratic dynamic in American society had surrendered once and for all at Appomattox, but almost a century and a half after its defeat on the battlefield it still never quite goes away. And, although America has suffered the most from libertarian and social-contractarian ideology, the debate is at the core of what has rendered so much of modern political and social life so problematic.
Aristotle famously called the one who first founded a polis "the greatest of benefactors," for while human beings, "when perfected," are "the best of animals." if "isolated from law and justice" they are "the worst of all" (Politics, I, ii). In the Catholic tradition, Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 72, art. 4) adopted Aristotle's reasoning and considered human beings naturally political: "homo est naturaliter animal politicum et sociale, ut probatur in I Polit. (cap.2)."
But, at the outset of the modern era, others posited a primordial pre-political state of nature,  a notion which has ever since served implicitly to undermine the legitimacy of serious social and political commitments. Rousseau, for example, answered Aristotle with an alternative, totally pejorative account of the origin of civilization (Discourse on the Origin  and Basis of Inequality Among Men, 1755). Some years later, he published his own alternative utopian society (On the Social Contract, 1762), with lots of classical resonances, but with the unmistakably modern premise, as stated in the opening chapter, that human beings were born free but are everywhere in chains. Rousseau was willing to recognize the family as natural - "the most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one" - but only during the time children remain dependent on their parents, after which "all return equally to independence." The social order Rousseau ended up espousing has seemed to many in fact to foreshadow modern totalitarianism. To those who might share Rousseau's initial libertarian premises, that just confirms their negative assumptions about government's inevitable trajectory. To those with a more traditional (e.g., Aristotelian) appreciation of government, such a government's totalitarian trajectory more likely confirms the moral fallacy of modernity's initial premises.
In a sense, such academic discourse seems far away from the less evidently intellectual posturing of contemporary anti-government activism. Yet it remains important to recognize that this apparently uniquely American conflict about the legitimacy of our national, democratic, constitutional government has deep roots in the modern world's weakening of all natural social and political bonds among people.
Thus, for example, on TV recently, I watched someone argue against the Affordable Care Act's "individual mandate" on the grounds that healthy, younger people were being compelled to purchase insurance not to support health care for themselves when they will eventually need it but health care for others in the present. Imagine that! One could not ask for a more explicit expression of the anti-communitarian premises which are at the root of the anti-government tendency in American politics - and which are so sadly on display in the current political impasse in Washington.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Living Thankfully

I was just a boy back at the time of the last big polio epidemic in the U.S. in the 1950s.  People were frightened by a dangerous disease, against which they felt defenseless. When asked what he remembered about those days, Doctor Albert Sabin (the scientist who developed the second polio vaccine, the oral one) remarked: “the fear! You never lost sight of the human side of what you were doing. You were driven by the knowledge that there was human misery. … Thousands of people were crippled and dying.”
When we recall the fear felt by people in the past in the presence of polio and in the present whenever some new plague presents itself as a possible threat, we should easily understand how frightened and threatened ancient peoples felt faced with the mysterious illness they called leprosy. Those afflicted with it were often segregated, according to the Law, outside cities and towns (as was done more recently in 19th-century Hawaii). Indeed, the sick are often seen as a threat – or at least a source of discomfort – to be avoided by those seen as healthy and normal.
In fact, what the ancients called “leprosy” was often a curable skin condition – hence the Law’s provision of a procedure for examination by the priests, But until one had been examined and certified as cured, the leper was considered impure and unclean. Cut off from normal social life, the lot of the leper was a hard one. Suddenly, into all this misery, moved Jesus [Luke 17:11-19] – for whom the fact that the sick were despised did not detract from their significance in his sight. All the lepers said was, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” The sick don’t need to say much. They can communicate quite effectively just by who they are.
What were they expecting from Jesus? Did they actually hope for a cure? Why not? Desperation often makes for hope. Often the only thing a desperate person has left is hope. So, even when, instead of an immediate cure, they got the command to go and show themselves to the priests, they went immediately. And, suddenly, they were cleaned.
We are told that one of them, realizing what had happened, returned to thank Jesus. Presumably, the other nine continued on to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests as Jesus had told them to. But this 10th leper was a Samaritan. Disease had brought together 10 people who would not normally have associated with each other. Once they had been healed, however, once the barrier that united them by separating them from the society of the healthy had been breached, then all the normal social barriers reappeared.
Perhaps the Samaritan could have found himself a Samaritan priest in Samaria. Maybe he did that anyway when he finally returned home. Once healed, however, something special had happened to him, something so special it changed his whole outlook on life. He returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Seeing he had been healed, his vision broadened and - like that other famous foreign leper Naaman [2 Kings 5:14-17] - he was drawn into the deeper insight we call faith. He recognized not only what had happened but why. And the why was Jesus. Leper no longer, he was still a Samaritan; but he was no longer an outsider in relation to God. And so he responded with faith and thanksgiving.
Gratitude is the first fruit of faith. It’s our response to the God who  - as Paul said to Timothy [2 Timothy 2:8-13] - always remains faithful. Giving thanks is what it actually means to live as a Christian. It’s an awareness – made individual and personal in each one’s own experience of God’s particular kindness to one – an awareness that God’s power to save is greater than all the obstacles we put in his way.
And that is why the Eucharist (a word which literally means thanksgiving) has to be at the very center of our Christian life. Exactly one a month ago our diocese came together for an amazing celebration of thanksgiving, our own Diocesan Eucharistic Congress. But what happened that Friday and Saturday in Sevierville is not meant to stay in Sevierville! Our thanksgiving finds its center in the Eucharist, because that is where we find Jesus, our one and only healer and savior. Through him, with him, and in him, we give thanks to God the Father for all that he has been for us and done for us. But true gratitude cannot be confined to one hour each week or one event in a year – any more than the Samaritan’s gratitude could authentically end in one single emotional scene. My whole life must become one extended Eucharist, one prolonged prayer of thanksgiving, giving thanks for what God is doing right now for me and with me and within me.
After he had been healed, Naaman, that earlier foreigner, also found faith, and he too returned to give thanks. Not only had he been healed, his whole life had been changed. So he took some of Israel home with him, so that, wherever he went in the world, he would be able to worship the Lord on the Lord’s own land. What have we taken home from Sevierville? We are here today, as every Sunday, to celebrate the thanksgiving that stands as the very center of our lives as the Lord’s grateful people. So what will we take home from here to continue our thanks – today, tomorrow, and every day?

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 13, 2013.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Just Doing It (Liturgically)

Yesterday, in observance of Blessed John XXIII's feast day, I posted on Facebook a link to the 25 YouTube videos of John's papal coronation on November 4, 1958. (The link to the first is
Most of the ceremony is included, which makes it a true treasure, both liturgical and historical. It is all in black-and-white, of course, and the commentary, such as it is, is all in Italian. If one understands it, so much the better; but my guess is that even someone with no Italian but with some familiarity with traditional Catholic ritual should probably be able to figure out what is going on, at least most of the time. Of course, most people probably will be unfamiliar with Pontifical Terce and the rest of the ritual surrounding a Bishop's entrance and vesting. But it's obvious enough that the central action is a Mass - with an awful lot of prep beforehand and a coronation added on at the end.
The videos are a great window into all of that now lost ritual, never likely to be experienced again - and more than that to a certain style of celebration that is completely alien to our much more self-conscious, performance-oriented age. This was immediately recognized in one of the comments posted in response to my link: I really love how the pre-TV era liturgies and ceremonies are so un-self-conscious. They "just do it" without a performance sense; it is quite moving and challenging for all of us who are called to pray liturgy.

That comment is so right. The rubrics are punctiliously observed, but a pre-TV-era mentality and resulting behavior are there for all to see. So the Master of Ceremonies leans on the altar to point out to the pope where to incense next. And he is regularly seen signaling to others and otherwise moving the action along. The Pontifical Canon's pages are turned and it is moved from one side of the altar to the other with no apparent concern for the noise the microphone will pick up. Such indifference to appearance seems jarring today. It is unimaginable to us today that at a papal Mass, such a clutter of people would ever get to be seen sharing the visual stage with the pope and that so much of the logistical activity would ever be seen on camera! But in that now lost, un-media-obsessed world it was all perfectly normal. 

Yet the ritual is "un-self-conscious" in an even more basic sense - not just in its lack of attentiveness to media concerns but in the way that everyone just does whatever tradition and custom call for. Everybody wears what he is supposed to wear and does what he is supposed to do. These were not personal choices at all - and certainly not choices that somehow were thought to say something about one's beliefs or personality or priorities. For example, the falda (the traditional skirt the pope wore at papal Mass, which severely restricted his freedom of movement and required no end of being picked up and spread out by others) may have been one of the most absurd liturgical trappings ever to have evolved. But that was what one wore when one was going to be crowned pope, and therefore that was all there was to it! Everyone dressed and acted one's part, without indulging in personal preferences. Ritual ruled. Individual personality was secondary to one's public role and office. That was, after all, the genius of the old Roman liturgy - whether at Low Mass or at the most solemn pontifical papal Mass.

And the serenity of Pope John himself through it all is exemplary of precisely that powerful ritual sense. He wears what he is expected to wear and does what he is expected to do, so calmly and serenely that he could have been saying Mass by himself in his private chapel!

Certainly, it was right to change the ritual - to make the papal Mass more comprehensible to the world as the act of a Bishop, shepherding the Church at prayer, rather than the ritualized comings and goings of a renaissance prince and his court. In the process, however, have we inadvertently done something more? Have we so personalized our worship - whether the simple Mass in a plain mission chapel or the pontifical rite in a splendid basilica - in ways which paradoxically take attention away from what we are actually there to do?