Friday, May 31, 2013

Reaching for Joy

According to by Stanford Anthropology Professor T.M. Luhrmann, in yesterday's New York Times, "the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don't seem good now. That's what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place. (Luhrmann is the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.)
I was much taken by her column. While not ignoring what she calls "the puzzle of belief" (the "abstract and intellectual" questions which often seem so central in secular observers' impressions of religion), she focuses more on "the practical issue of how to experience the world," which she sees as more fundamental for ordinary people's attachment to religion. "You don't go to church because you believe in God;" she argues (floowing Durkheim), "rather, you believe in God because you go to church."

As anyone who has ever been an integral part of a faith community knows well, the "abstract and intellectual" aspects of belief do matter - more to some than to others, perhaps, and more at some times than at others - but are part of a larger picture of faith and a life lived in hope and in relationship with fellow believers. Christianity, after all, is an historical religion, premised on the facts of Christ's incarnaiton, death, and resurrection. But biblical faith has always been about much more than assenting to philosophical propositions or historical data.

Indeed, Luhrmann cites the late comparative religionist William Cantwell Smith (whose The Meaning and End of Religion I remember reading in grad school) to the effect that "I believe in God" used tomean something like "Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusitng His mercy." That is certainly a far fuller exposition of faith in the classical Christian sense than an "absrtact and intellectual" position on the controverted question of God's existence.

In fact, the propositional affirmations found, for example, in the Creed, while "abstract and intellectual" formulations of officially agreed upon language," the subjects which they affirm are experienced by believers relationally. Doctrinal statements about Jesus speak directly to the quesiton of whether and how we are saved. Doctrinal statements about Mary matter for how we are related to Jesus (and how Mary continues to help us along in that relationship). Doctrinal statements about the Church (e.g., papal primacy and infallibility) are about who we are as a community, how we are connected and hold together, etc.

Those profound, doctrinal realities come alive, so to speak, in the multitude of grace-filled experiences people have in life. Church-going, sacraments, community all in various ways mediate God's grace and provide the experiential context in which doctrinal affirmations are affirmed and lived. 


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bring Back the Lever Voting Machines!

It is surely a sign of our time that New York City's election officials are considering bringing out of storage the old lever voting machines for use in the city's September mayoral primary. The reason is that the new electronic scanner machines apparently take so long to count and to prepare for a runoff if one should be needed. The lever voting machines were first developed in the 1890s. The city's current stock of them dates from the 1960s. So that make sthme "old" - and hence suspect to today's post-modern tastes. so some are predictably upset about this. Today's New York Times describes the conflict in all its  absurdity:
I have fond memories of watching my parents vote in the 1950s on those wonderful old machines and then using them myself when I started voting after I turned 21 in 1969. Whenever I have voted elsewhere with other technology, I have always wistfully remembered and missed the solemn solidity of those old lever machines. Sadly, in this as in so many other matters, progress cannot be stopped. In this case, progress has also cost the city some $95 million. (To his credit, the mayor has been a frequent citric of the new voting machiens).

I can sympathize with the argument that. having spent so much money on new voting technology, the voters deserve for it to work at least as well as the older machines, and certainly should not have to bring back the old machines because of defects int he new system. but what should one make of a complaint like that of the executive director of Citizens Union, quoted in today's Times as saying: "It's absurd that in a 21st-century New York, we would go back and vote on machines first used in the 19th century..."?

Imagine that!

Imagine using something old (and better), when something new (and slower and more expensive) is available! 

Sunday, May 26, 2013


This past Friday, Saint Joseph School, our regional Catholic school, celebrated the graduation of its 8th-grade students. Then last evening, here at Immaculate Conception, 15 of our parishioners received the sacrament of Confirmation from Bishop Stika.

When I graduated from 8th grade – on June 25, 1961 – our pastor suggested it was perhaps the first major accomplishment for most of us in our young lives. In his sermon, he made a point of contrasting it with our confirmation several years earlier, which, he noted, was something that more or less just happened when we reached a certain age.

Times have changed; and today, for far too many maybe, confirmation has come to resemble graduation – both in being treated as some sort of graduation from religious education and in being interpreted as something people have accomplished.

In fact, however, confirmation is nothing like graduation at all – something that would be much more obvious if we still celebrated it when and how it was originally celebrated before First Communion. Graduation really is the end of something, as well as also being something one really has in some sense accomplished for oneself. Confirmation, however, is part of a larger process – part of a sacramental sequence that began with baptism and looks ahead to full Christian life, lived in a new relationship with God and the world in the community of the Church and centered on the celebration of the Eucharist. Confirmation is also not an accomplishment at all but a celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom 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 relationship that makes this all possible – who God is in his very self, the inner life of God, who has revealed himself to us in his relationships as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

From the day we were each baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the lives of all of us, both individually and as a Church community – have been defined, formed, and shaped by the awesome mystery of who God is, God’s inner relationships as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that define the Triune God’s outward relationship with us and so in turn ours with God.

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.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, through whom we have a new relationship with God.  As we just heard Saint Paul proclaim, through him we have peace with God and have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand [Romans 5:1-2]. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the same Son has sent us the Holy Spirit, who units us with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit whom we just heard Jesus describe as the Spirit of truth, who will guide us to all truth [John 16:13].

This Holy Spirit, who has been sent upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of 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’s presence in us enables us to experience the presence and action of God in our lives not as an abstraction but as a real relationship.

The Holy Spirit unites us with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church, a relationship that truly has the potential to transform the world.

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 26, 2013.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


We had graduation last night at our local regional Catholic school. Twenty-three 8th-graders ended their elementary school careers. Unlike the situation a century ago, all presumably will now continue their education, going on to high school (and many even farther).
The prolongation of the educational process - and therefore of childhood - was already well underway when I graduated from 8th grade on Sunday afternoon, June 25, 1961. It was, I suppose, your standard hot and humid June day in that non-airconditioned world. I assuem it was hot and humid because I don't really remember anything about the weather - except that it rained briefly at the end of the Baccalaureate Mass that mornng. I remember that detail because, as we were starting to file out of the church, the pastor sent us briefly back inside until the shower stopped (presumably to keep our rented caps and gowns dry for the commencement ceremony that afternoon).
I remember other things too about that Mass - at 9:00 a.m in the lower church. I remember our pastor preaching to us about how this was our first real, personal accomplishment - unlike First Communion and Confirmation, which he suggested were more important but which were things that just sort of routinely happened at a certain age. During the Mass, the organ suddenly started to play, and we sang two of the three hymns we had been practicing for what seemed like forever. (In those days,. graduations were serious, somewhat formal and decorous affairs and were well rehearsed in advance). I remember how we belted out one of those hymns in a somewhat staccato manner:  Mother - O spotless Mother - On earth no other - Compares with Thee - Through Thee - Christ is my brother - For his own Mother - He gave to me.
The actual graduation was in the afternoon - at 3:00 p.m. in the upper church. It must have been hot in that soaring gothic building, but again I don't really remember. We sang our third hymn, and if I recall correctly there was no sermon this time. The diplomas were handed out, and we spent much of the rest of the ceremony passing them around the pews until you got the one that actually had your name on it. I also got one of the academic awards. My prize was a leather bound, Daily Missal, in confromity with the new 1960 Code of Rubrics. (I still own it). The ceremony ended with Solemn Benediction (with Deacon and Subdeacon) of the Most Blessed Sacrament. My 8th grade teacher lamented the lack of any Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart, while my father noted the absence of the National Anthem. One of my aunts praised it for being "short and sweet" - a viewpoint most of my other relatives also seemed to share.
Four years later, to the day, I would graduate again - this time in the High School Gymnasium around the block from the church. (Exactly 40 years later,  tot he day,I would attend my one and so far only high school class reunion).
On Tuesday, May 30, 1972, I graduated from college in a much more impersonal ceremony. It was noteworthy mainly for being the last City College Commencement outdoors in the soon-to-be-torn-down Lewisohn Stadium. What I especially remember about that event was hearing the City College alma mater, Lavender, My Lavender, for the my first and only time, and for the imitation classical "Ephebic Oath" we recited, the best part of which was the promise to "transmit this City and College not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than they were transmitted to me." 
I went through one further graduation - on another Tuesday,  June 7, 1977 - when I ritually received my Princeton Ph.D. The ceremony was again outdoors, but in a much nicer setting - in front of  colonial Nassau Hall near the famous "Stamp Act Sycamores," planted there in 1766. That too was somewhat impersonal, but I probably enjoyed it by far the most of the four! Among other things, it featured a hymn and a Latin oration, for which participants were provided a text with notes indicating when to applaud ("hic plaudite," "hic vehementer plaudite"), etc.
During the four years of my brief academic career, I faithfully attended Marquette University's commencement each May - partly out of a sense of duty to the acturally rather ephemeral idea of being part of an academic community, and partly to get some use out of my black and orange Princeton academic gown. 
Now, decades later, I find myself attending graduations again! I do so now with much more detachment, I suppose. But I certainly hope these milestone celebrations still mean something to those who participate in them enough that their incidental details will still be remembered half a century later.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Wedding in Berlin and a Century of War

One hundred years ago today, on May 24, 1913, there was an imperial wedding in Berlin - a wedding to end all weddings both in the grandeur of its celebration and in being truly the last of its kind.
None of the imperial and royal participants in the event knew, of course, that it was the end of that long-lost era of European peace, prosperity, and progress. On the contrary, the wedding was itself a celebration of restored dynastic harmony and peace. For on that May day in that elegant pre-war world, Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia, only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, was married to Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover, the small German kingdom annexed by Prussia in 1866. (As a member of the German dynasty that had reigned in Britain since 1714, the Prince of Hanover was also heir to the British title of Duke of Cumberland). The healing of this sad sore in Europe's interrelated royal body politic brought together most of the principal contemporary custodians of Western civilization's symbol systems, among them the three cousins who reigned over Europe's 3 greatest Empires - Britain, Germany, and Russia - and a host of other royals. Europe's 4th Emperor, the Hapsburg Kaiser Franz Joseph (too old to attend in person and perhaps too Catholic for such a Protestant celebration) was represented by his nephew, the doomed reformer Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination by a Serbian terrorist 13 months later would precipitate Europe's almost century-long Civil War. (Prophetically, back in 1888 Otto von Bismark had warned how "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" could end up triggering a general European war).

The approaching centennial of the beginning of that tragic - and utterly unnecessary - conflict will undoubtedly invite many serious scholarly and other reflections on that war and its disastrous legacy. While traveling this past week, I read (on my new Kindle Fire) Christopher Clark's monumental 697-page analysis of Europe's haphazard run-up to war, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper, 2012), which puts particular emphasis on the (still festering) local Balkan national rivalries that actually precipitated that larger conflict.

It has become one of our contemporary commonplaces (an accurate one, for once) to label World War I the start of a European "Civil War." That "Civil War" continued through World War II and the Cold War, ostensibly coming to an end with the fall of Communism, but actually continuing into the 1990s with further brutal warfare where it all started in the Balkans - with once more at the center of it all Serbia, whose aggressive national ambitions had initially lit the fuse that triggered World War I. 

(Although he is not particularly out to assign blame or "guilt" for the war, one of the merits of Clark's detailed historical analysis is to demolish the Anglo-French-Russian myth that Austria's strong reaction to Serbia after the assassination was excessive. Indeed, he characterizes the 1914 Austrian ultimatum to Serbia as being "a great deal milder" than NATO's 1999 ultimatum to Serbia.)

History, it has been said, "promises only change, not progress" (William Pfaff, "The History Beyond History," New York Review of Books, December 6, 2012). Perhaps no century has seen more change than that which has elapsed since that wedding in Berlin. Through it all, the ease with which the elegant, self-confident world which celebrated those Berlin nuptials a century ago threw itself headlong into self-destruction remains a powerful lesson - and warning - about the character and quality of so much of that change.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


While visiting my mother in California (to celebrate her 91st birthday today), I joined her and some of her friends last night at a movie sponsored by the local Italian-American Club. The 2½ hour movie (in Italian, with English subtitles) was named Baaria, Sicilian dialect for Bagheria, the Sicilian town, which is the setting for the film. It depicts a half-century plus of local life as experienced through a particular family (especially the middle generation represented by Peppino and his wife Mannina).

Three generations of the family are portrayed,but the (grand)father and (grand)son are sort of bookends for the life and times of the middle generation, represented by Peppino. There are evocative scenes from Peppino's father's youth in the 1910s, a reminder that Peppino (and everyone else) lives and moves within a framework created and deeply constrained by the past. Peppino's personal (individual and family) life is inextricably entwined with that larger story. That said, Peppino's personal story begins - highly symbolically - in a classroom in 1930s Italy, where official portraits of King and Duce with a crucifix between them stare down from the schoolroom wall. 

The film walks Peppino through his poor and skinny childhood, through the  traumas of war, liberation by the Allies, and the 1946 Referendum, through his own ideological identification with the Communists and his modest career as a Communist Party functionary - all set agains the background of social and political change, dramatized by the changing face of the city itself. (In addition to English subtitles, the film featured super-titles, with the Director's scene-by-scene commentary, including commentary on the changes in the cityscape and how they are portrayed in the film).

Young communist though he may have been, Peppino pursued and won a woman, Mannina, of slightly better social standing, whose family had had higher hopes for her. Peppino's and Mannina's love last - and triumph - through such adversities (and Peppino's lack of significant success politically and economically). Peppino's communist ideals never find fulfillment (and there are hints of ideological disillusionment). Instead, Peppino find personal meaning and fulfillment in his family and learns to celebrate his ability to relate to others in ways which relativize political categories.

The film faithfully captures the tragic story of Sicily and the resilient dynamism of its people. It successfully sets the particular political pathologies of the 20th century - in all their transience - amid the unchanging human story of life, labor, love, and death, continuing from generation to generation through the abiding realities of family and friendship.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Sunday

Until modern times, Pentecost was observed very grandly as one of the greatest festivals of the Church’s calendar, on a par with Easter. It had an octave equal to Easter’s and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete with a blessing of baptismal water like at Easter). At one time, Kings and Queens were expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of that now in Europe is a 3-day holiday weekend. And here in the US we don’t even have that!

“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the week of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. Whereas at Passover, seven weeks earlier, only unleavened bread had been used, at Pentecost ordinary bread was offered in the form of fully leavened loaves. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar story we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles.

By then (by New Testament times), Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt.  Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning. Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses out to transform the whole world.

In our calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of Christ’s resurrection should be reflected in our ordinary lives. As his Church, we worship the Risen Lord, now ascended to heaven and seated at his Father’s right hand. Meanwhile, as his Church here on earth, we continue Christ’s work in the world.

Years ago, when we were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. We call them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit (which we also memorized).

That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost is our annual observance of what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, to renew the face of the earth as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, St. Anne’s Church, Walnut Creek, CA, May 19, 2013.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

DC Scandal Time - Again

"Washington just loves scandals; they’re ever so much more exciting than the daily grind of legislation—if there is any—and the tit-for-tat between the president and the congressional Republicans over the budget was becoming tedious. Faux outrage is a specialty here." So writes political commentator Elizabeth Drew - at

The key words in her analysis are, I think, "legislation - if there is any." In our contemporary political comedy theater, legislation has largely become impossible - except on those rare occasions when a particularly powerful lobby of the rich and privileged can count on a comparably sympathetic hearing from virtually all sides (e.g., the recent fracas over the sequestration's effect on air travel). In the absence of legislation - indeed, of any serious desire to legislate - scandal(what Drew righty labels "faux outrage") takes over. This is, of course,made to order for our dysfunctional media, which is notoriously incapable of (and perhaps not very interested in) helping citizens to thread their way through important public policy issues, but is very good at harping on the sorts of trivia that excite members of the  inside-the-Beltway club.

So gun regulation fails, immigration reform stalls, inequality is on the increase, etc., while we wallow in trivia stoked by grandstanding politicians and media elites. And on and on it goes!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Preparing for Pentecost

The days between Ascension and Pentecost, during which the disciples waited in prayer and expectation for the coming of the Holy Spirit, are often referred to as the Church’s first “novena.”  This custom of heightened prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit during the days preceding Pentecost has continued in the Church up until modern times. In the 18th century, the founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), so famous for his Stations of the Cross, composed a novena to the Holy Spirit. In the 20th century, Paulist Monsignor John J. Burke (1875-1936), who was General Secretary of the national Catholic Welfare Conference (predecessor of the current United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), likewise composed a popular novena to the Holy Spirit in 1925.  

There are, of course, several possible ways of approaching Pentecost. The Roman Liturgy of Paul VI (now known as the "Ordinary Form" of the Roman Rite) reduced Pentecost somewhat from being a feast on a par with Easter (with an Octave equal to Easter's) to a one-day affair marking the close of a 50-day Easter season. That approach is not without merit. As the parallelism between the Jewish and Christian spring seasonal festivals suggests, the promise of the resurrection at Easter in fulfilled for the Church in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, just as for Israel the exodus from Egypt found its fulfillment in the covenant at Mount Sinai. Nor was reducing the Easter season from 56 days to 50 any great loss. (However, the abolition of the Ember Days was truly a loss, but that is another issue).

On the other hand, the more traditional emphasis on Pentecost primarily as "the Birthday of the Church" had a lot going for it. The liturgy may anticipate the eternal heavenly liturgy, but it is in the present present an earthly experience of the pilgrim Church journeying in the world. One of the challenges of the liturgy is to empower people to continue Christ's life like and work in the world as his Church - animated and empowered by the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Surely that theme deserves more attention than it sometimes gets. And what better occasion than Pentecost not just to close the Easter season but to highlight the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in  the "ordinary" life of the Church.

In his "Notes on the Holy Spirit" from the 1870s-1880s, Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker wrote:
“The work of the Holy Ghost began on the day of Pentecost, when He descended visibly to the Apostles and disciples. It is in this dispensation we live, and when He reigns on earth, the work of the Holy Spirit will be finished. When is realized the petition of the Saviour, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 
Through the Holy Spirit the world was called out of chaos.
Through Him the patriarchs and prophets were inspired.
Through Him the way to the Incarnation was prepared.
Through Him the Church was established.
Through Him every Christian soul is regenerated.
Through Him all things receive their perfection and are glorified.
Through the Holy Spirit the martyrs received the strength to sustain triumphantly their sufferings.
Through Him the apostles of nations were filled with zeal and power to convert nations.
Through Him the innumerable litany of the Saints were sanctified.

Through the Holy Spirit we receive all that is Holy, Good, True and Beautiful.

Sanctity is the result of the primary or immediate action of the Holy Spirit in the individual soul and its faithful correspondence with this inspiration.”                                 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Knowing Things

Last Sunday's New York Times had a pointed column by Frank Bruni, "America the Clueless," about how widespread in our society is ignorance about the most basic political facts. Bruni worries about the practical ramifications of this seeming triumph of ignorance over knowledge for the viability of democratic citizenship. "A clueless electorate is a corruptible one," he concludes, an electorate "that seems ill poised to make the smartest, best call" about complicated issues like health care reform, for example.

Ignorance, of course, can have many causes. One cause, surely, has to do with how much or how little people are actually taught. It used to be, for example that elementary school students studied such subjects as geography, history, and civics - socially valuable information for citizens in a democracy, a common core of knowledge about the world, some of which was remembered in adulthood and informed people's mature worldview

Bruni's remarks reminded me of Tony Judt's critique of what he called "progressive" history teaching. In Judt's post-war British his childhood as in my American one - we were both born in the same year 1948 - "history was a bunch of information. You learned it in an organized serial way - usually along a chronological timeline. The purpose of this exercise was to provide children with a mental map - stretching back across time - of the world they inhabited. Those who insisted that this approach was uncritical were not wrong. But it has proven a grave error to replace data-laden history with the intuition that the pat was a set of lies and prejudices in need of correction ..." Fashionable alternative approaches to teaching history, Judt argued, "sow confusion rather than insight, and confusion is the enemy of knowledge. Before anyone - whether child or graduate student - can engage the past, they have to know what happened, in what order and with what outcome. Instead we have raised two generations of citizens completely bereft of common references. As a result they can contribute little to the governance of their society." (Thinking the Twentieth Century, 2012, pp. 265-266).

And just look at the result!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Salvaging Sunday

Yesterday, the rest of the United States finally celebrated the Ascension of the Lord - catching up, so to speak, with the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha, which still celebrate it on its traditional day. (And even those six jurisdictions annually join the rest of the country in anticipating or postpoing the Epiphany to the nearest Sunday and postponing Corpus Christi to the following Sunday).

However one feels about all of that, there can be no doubt that those changes were all initially made with the best of intentions. Back in the 19th century, the Paulist parish in New York routinely dealt with the problem of people having to work on holydays by having Mass at 5:00 a.m. Well, those days are gone! In the waning decades of the 20th century, shifting holydays to Sundays seemed like a more promising solution, given the increasing marginalization of religious observances in our secualrized society. Changing the rhythm of the liturgical calendar seemed at the time like a small price to pay to facilitate fuller participation in the observance of holydays - just as in the 1950s and 1960s blowing up the traditional order of daily prayer seemed like a small price to pay for the presumed pastoral benefits of afternoon and evening Masses.

But what happens when Sunday itself loses its character? To an extent barely foreseeable even 50 years ago, Sunday is now largely just another day - an ordinary workday for many, and for many more a busy day of sports, shopping, and other activities. Even where Mass attendance remains steady, it is frequently just one of many activities crammed into yet another busy day. The days of Mass in the morning, followed by festive, family dinner at home, followed by visits with relatives and friends, or a relaxed afternoon excursion - the standard Sunday pattern in my childhood - those days are again virtually gone.

Moreover, in a society which runs on secularized rhythms rather than religious ones, the liturgical feasts and seasons of the Church's yearly cycle simply count for less and less as part of people's ordinary lived experience - just as the liturgical hours of the Church's daily cycle (and the bells that announced them) have largely faded from ordinary daily life. Except for Christmas, which has guaranteed its social relevance by becoming the year's secular celebration par excellence,  how many liturgical feasts and seasons still successfully make much of an impression on popular consciousness? When we say, "Today the Church celebrates the Ascension ... or Pentecost ... or the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time," how much impact does that actually make - even with the visual aid of a change in liturgical color? So, in the end, how much of a difference does it really make in today's world that we celebrated the Lord's Ascension on the 43rd dayof Easter instead of the 40th?

To be honest, whether we recall the Ascension on the 40th or the 43rd day really doesn't matter all that much. What does matter is that we do recall it - and the larger story of which it is such a crowning part. Fighting the good fight to preserve traditonal holydays may be an effort worth making. But much - much - more critical is some serious effort to restore and salvage Sunday itself, while Sunday still matters enough and to enough people and still has some shreds of its status in society.

From 321 A.D. through the late 20th century, Sunday's specialness was widely acknowledged in civil law.  But a living, vibrant Christian community can and will keep Sunday - and seriously struggle to salvage its specialness - even without civil support. After all, it was when Sunday was still no holiday at all that Christians started celebrating it in the first place. During the brutal persecution of Emperor Diocletian, Christians risked their lives rather than miss Sunday Mass - rather than allow Sunday to be just another secular day. The famous response of the North African martyrs of Abitina remains a challenge to us today:"Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord's Supper, because it cannot be missed."

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Recently, riding in the car, I heard an old, late 19th-century Canadian folksong:
From this valley they say you are going.
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.

So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the cowboy that has loved you so true

As I was listening, it occurred to me that the disciples might have had similar feelings as they watched Jesus go away. If moving is one of the most stressful of all human activities, then this was the move to end all moves – not for the one leaving, of course, but certainly for those left behind!
Some of us, I suspect, are surely old enough to remember when, right after the Gospel on Ascension Day, the Easter Candle – our very visible symbol of the presence of the Risen Christ – was ceremonially extinguished. Even more dramatically, in former days, in certain places, the Easter Candle (or sometimes an image of the Risen Lord himself) might be hoisted up into the Church’s roof until it disappeared. The people would stand and stretch out their arms, while a shower of roses would recall Christ’s parting promise to send the Holy Spirit to his Church.
Such quaint customs recall those familiar pictures of the Ascension that show the disciples staring up at an empty space – sometimes with 2 feet sticking out from a cloud (with holes in them, just to make sure we get it who is missing). The point, of course, is that Jesus is now gone, and that, like the cowboy in the Canadian folksong we are left behind. But are we also alone?

Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the short period when the Risen Christ appeared periodically to his disciples after the resurrection. Then, those appearances ended. And the disciples were left behind to continue his mission in the world. But not quite alone, since Christ continues in his Church through his promised gift of the Holy Spirit. “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” the departing Jesus said to his disciples, “so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high [Luke 24:49]. So Jesus may be gone, but he is still with us in a very real way.

Meanwhile, the point of the Ascension is where Jesus has gone now.  He is, as we say Sunday after Sunday in the Creed, seated at the right had of the Father. And, just as he is still really with us here, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments we celebrate, so we too are also in some sense with him there. As we say in today’s Eucharistic Prayer, we celebrate the most sacred day on which your Only begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. In having his Son’s human nature enthroned at his side in heaven, God now has at his side in some sense the whole human world which his Son embraced in himself and experienced to the full – the human world of our lives, our loves, our work, our play, our successes, our failures. And so now, having experienced our world with us (and in the process having invested it with more meaning that it would ever otherwise have had), God in turn now shares his world with us. For where Christ has gone, there we hope to follow. Where he is now, there we hope to be.

So the Ascension is also about us, as well as about Jesus – and not just about our being left behind, but about what’s now in store for us thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, and about what goes on in the meantime. The Ascension sets the stage for that hoped-for future, which we get a glimpse of already in Jesus, who, although ascended, still invites us to approach him even now – as the epistle says with a sincere heart and in absolute trust [Hebrews 10:22].

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 12, 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

World Communications Day

This coming Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost is observed annually as  World Communications Day. Tomorrow will thus be the 47th annual such World Communications Day
In his World Communications Day message, issued last January, Pope Benedict XVI offered “some reflections on an increasingly important reality regarding the way in which people today communicate among themselves... the development of digital social networks which are helping to create a new ‘agora’, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.”

“Believers,” Pope Benedict observed,“ are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young. Social networks are the result of human interaction, but for their part they also reshape the dynamics of communication which builds relationships: a considered understanding of this environment is therefore the prerequisite for a significant presence there… In social networks, believers show their authenticity by sharing the profound source of their hope and joy: faith in the merciful and loving God revealed in Christ Jesus. This sharing consists not only in the explicit expression of their faith, but also in their witness, in the way in which they communicate ‘choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically’ (Message for the 2011 World Communications Day). A particularly significant way of offering such witness will be through a willingness to give oneself to others by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence. The growing dialogue in social networks about faith and belief confirms the importance and relevance of religion in public debate and in the life of society.”

Everyone recognizes the enormous impact of our ever evolving contemporary communications technology on virtually everything about the way we live. The simple, self-evident fact about all technology - starting with how to make a fire - is that it is a tool, something we use to make our lives and the world around us better or worse (or some combination of both). While obsessively wanting to have every newest model phone or tablet may be as adolescent an impulse as wanting the latest and fastest model car, it's all a matter of where it fits in to the larger picture of one's life, how it enahnces (or not) one's capactity for quality relationships - and how it contributes to a more human world and to the permanent planting of God's kingdom in it.
Speaking of the mission of the Paulist community, Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, famously said: “Our power will be in presenting the same old truths in new forms, fresh new tone and air and spirit” (“Personal Sanctification of the Paulist and His Standard of Perfection”).

Friday, May 10, 2013

St. Damien

Today the Church in the United States commemorates "the Apostle of the Lepers," Belgian-born Saint Damien de Veuster (1840–1889). Ordained a priest of the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1864, he served his entire priesthood in Hawaii. A year after Damien's initial assignment to Hawaii, the Kingdom of Hawaii established a leper colony on the island of Molokai where Hawaiians who contracted “Hansen’s Disease” (then thought to be highly contagious) were to be quarantined. In 1873, Father Damien went to Molokai as the leper colony’s pastor. In a letter to his brother back in Belgium, Damien wrote (paraphrasing St. Paul) “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Indeed, 20 years later, Damien himself contracted leprosy. He died in 1889 - nursed by, among others, German-born, Franciscan Sister Marianne Cope (herself just recently canonized by Pope Benedict XVI). Beatified in Brussels by Pope John Paul II in 1995, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Damien achieved fame for his ministry in his own lifetime. The King of Hawaii honored him, and the attendant publicity produced international interest in and support for his mission. After his death, devotion to him spread among Catholics and admiration of him extended beyond religious boundary lines. He is one of four Catholic priests to be honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said of Fr. Damien: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who after the example of Fr. Damien have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”  More recently, at the time of St. Damien's canonization, President Obama said, "In our own time, as millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Father Damien’s resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick."

Humanitarian heroism may spring from diverse motivations, and much good is undoubtedly done in the world by people whose inspiration is not explicitly religious.  But, as St. Damien’s words to his brother remind us, there can be no doubt what motivated him (and later religious missionaries in Molokai like Saint Marianne Cope) as well as countless other heroic practitioners of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, known and unknown, past and present.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Tomorrow is the 40th day of Easter, the traditional date of the Ascension. It is a legal holiday in several traditionally Christian countries - among them Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Not so, sadly, in the United States, although New York City at least celebrates the Ascension in its own suitably urban style by suspending its "Alternate Side of the Street Parking" rules for the day. In much of the United States, in fact, the feast is transferred to next Sunday, when to get much notice at all this year it will have to struggle mightily to compete for attention with that great secular holiday, Mothers Day!

Historically, the actual Ascension event marked the end of the short post-Easter period when the Risen Lord appeared several times to his disciples. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the other disciples on Pentecost, a new period of history has begun, the age of the Church, our time, in which the presence and action of the Risen Christ continue in the world through the life and mission of the Church. It thus points back to the Church's beginning, while at the same time highlighting the ongoing present life and misison of the Church in this world, and points forward to humanity's final destiny.

Before the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Ascension was one of those special days when the Papal Blessing Urbi et Orbi was given. Traditonally, on the Ascension, it was given at the Basilica of St. John Lateran (although the stational church for the Ascension is St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican). Traditionally too the Easter Candle was solemnly extinguished after the Gospel reading on the Ascension (as it presumably still is in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy). Somewhat diminished in our modern May of Mothers Day and graduations and other secular occasions, the Ascension still speaks an important message and deserves to be celebrated with all the splendor the Church can muster.

In the Ambrosian Liturgy's Preface for today (Ascension Eve), the Milanese Church prays: "We praise you above all on this day when Jesus Christ your Son our Lord brought to completion the mystery of our salvation and fulfilled the plan you formed long ago; that in his human body he should conquer and humble the devil, the enmy of your divine work, and lead our mortal nature to share the life of heaven."
That speaks to past and future. As for the present, as Pope Francis remarked at his April 17 General Audience: "The Ascension does not indicate the absence of Jesus, but tells us that He is alive among us in a new way; He is no longer in a definite place in the world as He was before the Ascension; He is now in the lordship of God, present in all space and time, next to each of us. We are never alone in our lives. We have this Advocate who waits for us. We are never alone, the Crucified and Risen Lord guides us, and with us there are many brothers and sisters who in silence and obscurity, in their life and work, in their problems and difficulties, their joys and hopes, live their faith every day and, together with us, bring to the world the lordship of God's love."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Bury the Dead

When I was a boy in Catholic school, lists to be memorized were standard fare in education and a big part of catechesis. We had the 10 Commandments, of course, but also the 6 Precepts of the church, the 4 marks of the Church, the 4 Cardinal Virtues, the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit, and the 7 corporal and 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy. Among the Corporal Works of Mercy, the seventh in the list was always "burying the dead."
Obviously there is nothing uniquely Catholic or Christian about the duty to bury the dead. Properly burying the bodies of the dead (or the equivalent in cultures which reverently practice cremation or the exposure of dead bodies) reflects a universal human impulse, a universal sense of the shared fragility of human life and the common experience of mortality. 
So the sorry spectacle being played out in Boston right now regarding the final disposition of the body of the Boston Marathon bomber is nothing for anyone to be particularly proud of.
I remember well the killing (on national TV) of Lee Harvey Oswald, just two days after he'd murdered President Kennedy. The next day (the same day the President was buried with a grandiose state funeral), Oswald was likewise buried - much more modestly, of course, but properly and with no mass protests or other indignities.
The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Death comes to both the good and the bad. It diminishes neither a criminal's wickedness nor society's uprightness to dispose of his body in the customary way. True, some particularly notorious cases have warranted special precautions to prevent a malefactor's grave from becoming a symbol of political oposition or a shrine for malcontents to rally at. Nothing like that happened with Lee Harvey Oswald, and frankly I rather doubt anything like that would likely happen with Boston Marathon bomber's eventual burial site.
In an earllier, less intrusive world, it might have been possible to bury him quietly and privately and keep the site secret - as was done for the first few years with Mussolini, for example. Sadly that is hardly possible in today's "everything is public, everything is political" environment.
For as long as his crime is remembered, however, his name will be permanently disdained and his memory excoriated. But meanwhile let his body be put in the ground where it belongs - and where all of us, good and bad alike, are all eventually fated to go sooner or later.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ambivalent Freedom

The May 23 issue of The New York Review of Books has an article by British writer Andrew O'Hagan It focuses on the lasting harmful social and communal effects of Margaret Thatcher's ideology and policies, resulting in what the author portrays as the virtual destruction of working class community life in Britain (especially in northern England and Scotland). 
The historical record of Thatcher and her policies is, of course, familiar and need not be belabored. What should most interest us today is what NYRB tellingly calls Thatcher's "moral legacy." For the the values promoted by Thatcherite ideology certainly seem to have become widely shared in elite circles and are sometimes seen as a model to be replicated. Indeed, the political and cultural priority presently being accorded to deficit reduction in this country (and even more problematically to "austerity" in Europe) - as opposed to such antiquated social goals - as full employment illustrates how deeply entrenched that model has become. 
Personalities are important in history, but personalities complicate analysis. Margaret Thatcher has her historical legacy, of course, but the moral legacy is not hers alone but belongs rather to the particular strain of social and economic philosphy which inspired not only her policies but many of the policies put in place in the U.S. in the intervening years. And ultimately it relates to the ambiguous moral dynamic of freedom itself, which modern economic freedom and post-modern moral freedom have further thrown out of balance.
A onetime grad school classmate of mine used to like to say that capitalism was an economic success but a moral disaster. Exactly how successful economically has always been a matter of some debate - as suggested by the plight of the once productive working classes in Britain and elsewhere and the current decline of our own American middle class. Its moral disasters, however, were well recongized by almost everyone until relatively recently. Historically no one ever summarized the economic accomplishments of capitalism better than Karl Marx, who famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 (tr. Friedrich Engels, 1881): "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals." But, unlike capitalism's contemporary acolytes, Marx simultaneously highlighted its overwhelming and seemingly non-stop social and cultural destructiveness: "it has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations ... and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' It has drowned the heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimenatlism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. ... All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned ..."
Classical conservatives and post-modern liberals largely recognize the price society - real people - have had to pay for the acknowledged benefits of a free and productive economy. There used to be almost a consensus about the need to regulate economic activity for the benefit of society. Within that consensus, the political debate was largely about how to achieve the optimal balance between economic freedom and social cohesion. The Thatcherite revolution smashed that consensus. Since then, the advocates of greater economic freedom - at whatever cost to social cohesion - have been winning. There are still voices advocating for more balanced policies that aim to rectify the social situation somewhat, but those voices have become relatively weak. A lot of that weakness has been self-inflicted.
In particular that weakness has been exacerbated by another long recognized consquence of capitalist excess - a libertarian revolution in personal and family morality, which has undermined the very social supports most beneficial to those who are being most hurt economically.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

"It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us"

In the ancient world, the basic building blocks of society were the family and the household, which revolved around several pairs of relationships – male and female, parent and child, master and slave. These same distinctions were basic categories within the People of Israel as well, but there they were somewhat secondary to the fundamental division of the world into Jews and Gentiles.

So imagine the surprise when Gentiles started responding to the good news about Jesus and asking for baptism! Now it was possible for a Gentile to cross over to Judaism – to abandon pagan practices and convert to the worship of the one true God – but only by becoming what (in our terminology) we might call a “naturalized” Israelite, circumcised according to Mosaic practice, and separating from the Gentile world. The first Christians were Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to fulfill the promises made to Israel. Yet the Apostle Peter himself on at least one occasion and now Paul and Barnabas on a more regular basis had proclaimed the gospel to Gentiles and had baptized them - without requiring them to become Jews first. How was this possible?

No one should underestimate how unexpected and difficult this development was and how disruptive it was in the life of the early Church. It was every bit as challenging as it would have been to rethink the relationship of male and female or master and slave. No wonder there was disagreement and outright conflict!

And yet, faced with a crisis they certainly had not been expecting and for which nothing in their previous background had remotely prepared them, but on which the entire future of Christianity was going to depend, that first generation of Christians nonetheless faced the challenge to resolve the problem in a radically new way, reassessing everything they had assumed up until then in light of the fundamental experience they shared with the Gentile converts – faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Now we all know how they solved the problem. We just heard the decision read to us [Acts 15:1-2, 22-29]. Just as Jews could follow Jesus and become Jewish Christians, so too Greeks, while still remaining Greek, could follow Jesus and become Greek – not Jewish – Christians. Likewise, Romans could become Roman Christians, etc. This radical decision simultaneously affirmed both the universal application of Christ to all peoples without exception, while also allowing for diversity within what, in today’s terminology, we would call a multi-cultural Church. Historically, it was this decision that made it possible for Christianity to expand throughout the ancient world and to continue to expand into a truly global community.

Thanks to that fundamental experience, that both Jewish and Gentile converts shared, of the new thing that had happened in the world with Jesus, they felt empowered to resolve the problem. Note their choice of words: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.”

In the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states, the greatest thing one could be was a citizen, entitled to participate in community discussion and debate. But citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to just passive possession of rights and privileges) had seriously deteriorated as small city-states had been absorbed into one enormous empire. Discussion and debate had diminished, and people had lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. Yet, faced with the unexpected, the Christians felt able to resolve it by confidently open discussion and debate. Their confidence, of course, was in the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ’s gift to his Church. When they said “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us,” they were not equating themselves with the Holy Spirit but rather were recognizing that the Holy Spirit had really been at work in what was happening – Gentiles joining the Church – and was with them then in their collective effort to make sense of it.

So often we feel overwhelmed by problems - rather than challenged by them – and so react passively, as if we were silent spectators in the story of our lives. It was not easy for the early Christians to give up their inherited assumptions about the necessity of circumcision and Jewish observance. But they were empowered to do so by the power of the Risen Christ continually present and active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, teaching them to interpret their new experience.

The history of the Church was irrevocably shaped by this event. This “Council of Jerusalem,” as it came to be called, became a model for how to come to grips with new and pressing problems – neither never moving forward nor casually jettisoning the past, but rather carefully considering everything in light of the fundamental experience of what the Risen Christ has revealed.

As a result, the new Jerusalem is an all-inclusive, yet widely diverse society, in which the Risen Lord has brought us all together as one new people and has empowered us with his peace [John 14:27] – not quite peace as the world gives peace, but precisely the kind of peace the world needs so much.

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 5, 2013.