Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sun and Moon, Bless the Lord!

I was saddened to hear yesterday on NPR that the moon is slowly moving away from the earth. Every year, it seems, it shifts outward about an inch-and-half. That means that, in only about another 600 million years, the moon will look small enough that it no longer completely covers the sun, and whoever is left on Earth then won't see any more total solar eclipses!

So aren't we lucky to be living on earth now!

(For the full story, go to

Monday’s eclipse is being called the “Great American Total Solar Eclipse,” since the 70-mile-wide shadow cast by the moon will darken skies from Oregon to South Carolina, The total eclipse be first visible in the continental United States on the Oregon coast and will progress south-eastward across the country, covering parts of Tennessee in its shadow.

This eclipse is attracting scientists and eclipse tourists from all over the world. I even know at least one person from Canada who will be in Tennessee for the occasion! Schools will be closed, so that more people can travel to see it. The US Postal service has even issued a special commemorative stamp! (I am still using up my supply of last year's Christmas stamps. But I will interupt that for a while and use Eclipse Stamps.) 

Meanwhile, more people may be congregating in some small towns in the path of totality on Monday than in all of history hitherto! 

Sun and moon, bless the Lord! (Daniel 3:62)

The Path Of The August 21 Eclipse

Source: NASA
Credit: Katie Park and Leanne Abraham/NPR

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Resetting History's Arc

President Obama was famously fond of quoting: "The Arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." The logic of this slogan is further reflected in secular liberalism's somewhat bizarre preoccupation with always being on something it curiously calls "the right side of history." Sadly, however, history has no "right" side. History just happens. Like human nature itself, our morally imputable, human, historical actions have teleology, but history itself does not. History is just what we do - both good and bad, both right and wrong.

As Jesus said, Watch out that you are not deceived. All sorts of things may happen in history. But the end will not come right away (Cf. Luke 21:8-9).

Secular fantasies about being on "the right side of history" may be one more casualty of the political and moral crisis that has gripped our country. The recent resurgence of publicly celebrated, racist Confederate and neo-Nazi displays, such as was seen in Charlottesvlle last weekend, illustrates the amorality of history's direction. It can go any way - right or wrong. It's really up to us which way it goes. Again, history is what we do. It is we - not some impersonal abstraction called history - that can do right or wrong. 

It is neither accidental nor inconsequential that the public celebration of Confederate and neo-Nazi values in Charlottesville last weekend was connected to a present-day controversy about removing a statue of Robert. E. Lee (photo). A disinterested observer would ask the obvious question. What kind of society tolerates statues and other monuments in honor of traitors? 

The fact that Robert E. Lee and others were not tried, convicted, and executed for treason (as defined in Article Three of the US Constitution) is past history, with consequences in the present  Contemporary cults that continue to honor them, however, are among those consequences. This is present history and so is as yet unsettled and is for those alive now to settle. 

Statues are in themselves simply symbols. But a contemporary generation which witnessed the removal of Communist-era statues after the fall of the Soviet Union understands the potent significance of such symbols - symbols that may portray the past but speak in and to the present. Only when all vestiges of the worst of American history - i.e., of the Confederate fight against the United States in order to preserve and perpetuate slavery - have finally been consigned to the past by people in the present, only then will this nation begin to build not some imaginary utopia on "the right side of history," but the more modest but also more attainable goal of at least a better, more humane, and more just society. 

History's only actual arc is the one we set for it by what we do in present history. So let us do the challenging and demanding work of resetting that arc so as to pass on to the future a country that may be - in the words of the so-called "Ephebic Oath" - "not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Where She Is, There We Hope To Be

To an ancient Christian audience, already well acquainted with the Old Testament, the identity of the woman in today's (to us somewhat strange-sounding) 1st reading [Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10] would be obvious. She is Israel, God's Chosen People, bringing to birth the Messiah, thanks to whom Israel has been expanded now to include all nations and peoples in a new and enlarged People of God, the Church, which continues the task of bringing Christ into the world. Now that the Risen Christ has ascended to his throne in heaven, the Church remains behind, still suffering from all sorts of evils, but full of hope and confidence in the future.

It is easy to recognize the story of the Church in the image of this woman - and equally easy to see her as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Mary's prayer in the Gospel we just heard [Luke 1:46-55], Mary united herself with God's actions on our behalf and so invites us to identify ourselves too with God's plan for the world.

Part of that plan is our sharing in Christ's risen life. Christ, Saint Paul reminds us in today's 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 15:20-27], has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. In ancient times, the springtime offering of the first fruits signified the dedication of the entire harvest to God. So the resurrection of Christ (which took place on the day of the offering of the first fruits) points ahead to the final resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. In Mary's assumption, we have fast-forwarded to what God, having already accomplished in Christ, plans yet to accomplish in us. Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church, as we are now, with the Church, as we hope to be then.

But, meanwhile, we are still surrounded on all sides by so much bad news. Our world is full of natural and human-made disasters - domestic terrorism, foreign war, economic exploitation, once stable societies unravelling, and once-trusted institutions breaking down, as well as inexplicable personal tragedies. But God has already acted on our behalf by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there.  For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2017.

(Photo: Oil Painting, Assumption of the Virgin (1515-1518), by Italian Renaissance artist Titian, located at the high altar in the Venetian Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Assumption Eve

The “Old” Catholic Encyclopedia (the first volume of which appeared over 100 years ago in 1907) identified the Assumption as Mary’s principal liturgical feast and assigned it “a double object: (1) the happy departure of Mary from this life; (2) the assumption of her body into heaven.” Thus, well before Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950, the Catholic Encyclopedia attested to the antiquity of the traditions which underlie the Church’s belief.

A 10-minute Vatican video of the 1950 dogmatic definition (with the commentary entirely in Italian) can be accessed at A 30-minute French version can be watched at and a very brief English-language version at

The centerpiece of that grand event was, of course, the solemn papal proclamation of the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

Ecclesiologically, it is interesting how the Pope framed the process of preparing the definition – in particular the 1946 inquiry sent to the world’s bishops: “Do you, venerable brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it?” (MD 11).

The almost unanimous response of the world's bishops affirmatively confirmed the traditional popular belief.

Munificentissimus Deus is also especially interesting for the its appreciation of the role of the Church's liturgy in expressing the Church's faith. On this Assumption Eve, we may also wistfully recall the Pope's reference to how his predecessor Saint Leo IV (Pope 847-855), who built the defensive wall that still encloses much of the Vatican, "saw to it that the feast, which was already being celebrated under the title of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God, should be celebrated in an even more solemn way when he ordered a a vigil to be held on the day before it" (MD 19). Today's Vigil of the Assumption survived the “first cut” when various other vigils like that of the Immaculate Conception were axed in 1955. Among the most ancient vigils it manged to survive until the unfortunate final elimination of all vigils by Paul VI in 1969.

(Photo: Oil Painting, Assumption of the Virgin (1515-1518), by Italian Renaissance artist Titian, located at the high altar in the Venetian Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

At Sea

For many people summer means time to head for the water – to swim, to sail, to ski, whatever. Twenty-four summers ago, when I was in Israel, a group of us went to great length to find a beach on the Sea of Galilee just so that we could all say that we had actually physically been in the water of the Sea of Galilee. Yet, while frolicking in the water has always had a broad appeal, there has also always been a certain dimension of danger associated with water. Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly understood that and treated their local waterway more seriously than we did. It was, after all, where the disciples had, until just recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, so the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as a base of operations for Jesus and his disciples. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they likely also knew how limited was the security that their fishing and seafaring skills could guarantee.

Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain, has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration in the Church’s calendar actually occurs today) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed in almost 2000 years! It still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own amid the many stresses and dangers a perennially hostile world keeps throwing up at it. Anyone who keeps up with the news knows about the dangers and difficulties faced by Christian communities in the many parts of the word – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Compared to that, whatever difficulties we may experience seem like modest storms. But even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges.

In the Gospel story, the solution to the disciples’ dilemma is, of course, Jesus himself, who, during the fourth watch of the night, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands among us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

One of those in the boat – appropriately enough Peter, the one appointed by Jesus to be the leader his Church - was willing initially to take Jesus at his word. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” As I said last week, Peter being Peter, typically says the right thing but then shows how completely clueless he is about what it means. And so Jesus generally both praises him for initially responding the right way and then reproves him for missing the point. As he typically does, Peter here blurts out the first thing that comes into his head - because his heart already belongs to Jesus. But then he loses his focus, forgetting, so it seems, exactly who has just called him to come, and instead starts seeing the danger, starts considering the costs, starts thinking the way the world thinks. And when we start thinking the way the world thinks, then the world starts to win. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by the world, by other ways of thinking and being. And so he starts to sink.

(Those of a certain age who shared my generation's experience of Saturday morning cartoons will remember characters who would run off a cliff and then just keep going until they suddenly realize where they are and only then start to fall!)

Like Peter, we are all susceptible to the competing concerns of other ways of thinking and being. We are tempted continually to count the costs of our commitment – and to try to measure its benefits. We seem forever caught somewhere between walking in faith and sinking in fear. So we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain with us in this boat, which is his Church, forever.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 13, 2017.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Immigration Quagmire

We are, as we have been taught to say over and over, a "nation of immigrants." So you would think, given our national experience as a "nation of immigrants," that we would be well positioned to get immigration policy right. There is, alas, plenty of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, it seems to be one of the harder issues for us to resolve - rendered, if anything, even more so by our present political dysfunction. Even so, our actual national experience should serve to illuminate for us a better path to follow. I say better path, rather than best, because our experience also teaches us that there is no one obviously best solution, that any policy has its pluses and its minuses, and that any policy inevitably benefits some people more than others.

Immigration has been part of the human story from its beginning. In elementary school, when we studied the fall of the Roman Empire, it was largely portrayed as the result of ... immigration! There was some oversimplification in that account, but it reminds us that the Europe we are now so familiar with is itself the result of long-ago population movements. But in Europe that process has resulted in states which are now largely national in composition, in which common ancestry, common language, and common religion have largely formed those societies' common bonds. Such states can and do assimilate outsiders, but often awkwardly, sometimes with great difficulty, and most easily in smaller numbers - as the contemporary divisions in Europe over immigration have reminded us.

Somewhat differently, our American history has produced a more multi-ethnic society which has relied on a common civic (rather than ethnic or religious) culture as the glue to hold itself together, while our unofficial but de facto common language has over time helped to serve as one of the instruments of assimilation. Yet immigration in the United States has never been without its difficulties. Newcomers - especially newcomers in large numbers and newcomers from newer places - have often been seen as a challenge to American society's capacity (and willingness) to assimilate them. Still, over the long-term, immigration has been a success. The public school system deserves a special word of praise for its role in forming a common civic identity, which over time different ethnic and linguistic groups have found it possible to identify with and assimilate to.

Like so many baby boomers, I am among the grateful 3rd-generation beneficiaries of the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. There can be little doubt that our country is significantly better off for having received so many new immigrants from so many new places during that period. There can also be no doubt that at the time it put some strain on American social cohesion and national self-understanding, and so was not universally well received. One result was the restrictive immigration system put in place in the 1920s and that remained in effect until 1965. That national origins quota system obviously kept many out who would have benefited from coming to America and from whose contributions America would in turn have greatly benefited. Certainly, in trying to freeze the ethnic map of the country it was manifestly unjust to southern and eastern Europeans (among others). On the other hand, that 40-year immigration pause perhaps eased the process of assimilation for the many immigrants who had already arrived and for their 2nd generation. In the process, it may have helped stabilize society in a way that served the country well during the cataclysmic crises of  the Depression and World War II. So, again, the lesson is that every actual arrangement has its individual winners and its individual losers and its overall benefits and overall challenges for society as a whole. By the 1960s, it had become increasingly evident that the disadvantages of the national origins quota system now obviously outweighed any of its benefits, and American society was again ready for a change.

Not unlike the situation a century ago, recent decades have brought many more newcomers to our shores. This has, on balance been an overwhelming benefit, but it has also been a challenge. The Immigration issue is not unlike free trade, which brings great benefits for many, but suffering for some. Elites who have benefited from globalization largely favor free trade. Those left behind by it have reacted differently. Hence, the current "populist" resurgence both in the United States and in Europe.

Like free trade, immigration has its winners and its losers. Besides the immigrants themselves and their families, large-scale immigration of lower-skilled workers may be better for global elites but perhaps more challenging for some of those less well off. A "Canadian" style system that favors skills over family unification might modestly reverse that calculus of advantage and disadvantage. Neither is an argument either for or against immigration, but rather a case for honest analysis and for working together across our polarized cultural divide to produce a marginally better system. (At some point, American workers will also need to recognize that robots will likely be a bigger threat to their jobs than immigrants, but that is yet another issue which we as a society seem as yet unable adequately to confront!)

David Goodhart, the British author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. distinguishes between "Anywheres" and "Somewheres." The "Anywheres" (who he estimates are roughly a quarter of the UK's population) are more highly educated, more mobile, predominantly urban, socially liberal, globalists. The "Somewheres" .(who he estimates are roughly half of the UK's population) are generally less well educated, rooted in their families and local communities. more socially conservative, and more committed to and invested in family, locality, and nation.

That is, I think, likewise a good description of much of the class and cultural divide in the United States, which already preceded the last election but which that "Make America White Again" election so dramatically highlighted. On the immigration issue, both American "Anywheres" and American "Somewheres" may have valuable insights into the relative advantages and disadvantages of alternative approaches to future immigration. Somehow, they have to find a way to listen to each other and incorporate each other's insights - and specific group interests - in a comprehensive solution that goes beyond unrealistic, ultra-left-wing sloganeering about totally open borders and narrowly chauvinistic, right-wing sloganeering about building walls.

Our current incapacity even to attempt this is, of course, yet one more illustration of how completely dysfunctional our polarized politics has become.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Apart perhaps from the Ascension, there is probably no more majestic scene portrayed in the all the gospels than the Transfiguration story. Like Daniel’s prophetic vision of one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, the scene is meant to impress. The story is intended to silence us as we stare in awe. That should be particularly challenging for us given our contemporary bias against being impressed, our casual informality which prefers to treat important things as if they were unimportant, our allergy to silence which we try to avoid even in church by making endless noise. But, when Peter tried to participate in the experience by making more noise of his own, God himself shut him up, with the command: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

“Shut up and listen!” How many times did our parents and teachers tell us that when we were kids! Peter, James, and John are kind of like children in this story – excited by what they are experiencing, but for the moment quite clueless about its meaning. Later in life, Peter will in turn instruct us to be attentive to the message in this story, but, before he could do that, he had to learn that lesson himself – as we all must.

According to Saint Matthew, Jesus was transfigured just six days after he had famously put his disciples on the spot by asking them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter had spoken up on that occasion too. And, Peter being Peter, he gave the right answer but then showed how completely clueless he was about what it meant. And so Jesus both praised him for giving the right answer and then reproved him – called him Satan in fact – for missing the point. Presumably Jesus intended his transfiguration to reinforce the lesson he was trying to teach.

So when God’s voice told Peter to listen to Jesus, he wasn’t telling him to listen in the inattentive way we listen to all our accumulated background noise - or to listen in the inattentive way we so often listen to one another, while we impolitely check our phones or are otherwise distracted. No, “listen” here means to pay actual attention. Passing on this lesson later in life, Peter switches from audio to visual imagery, telling us “to be attentive, as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”

In our electrified world, we have little experience of true darkness. But, if and when we do, we suddenly appreciate the effect of a light shining in the dark. Think of that scene in the movie Titanic, for example, when the traumatized survivors, sitting in their little lifeboats in the dark ocean, suddenly see the light of a rescue ship on the horizon!

Like Peter, we can all easily hear Jesus through the filter of our preconceptions and preconditions. The challenge is to cut through all that, to let go of all that, to experience God’s presence and action in our lives in Jesus as unfiltered as that rescue ship’s light appeared in the dark North Atlantic. Listening like that then becomes the life-transforming experience it eventually became for Peter and is intended to be for all of us.

And who knows? Our lives having been truly transformed by Christ, we may even start seriously listening to one another as well. And wouldn’t that transform the world!

Homily for the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 6, 2017.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Snow in August

In the midst of yet another horrendously hot summer, the charming medieval legend of the miraculous snowfall that supposedly fell on Rome’s Esquiline Hill on this date in the mid-4th-century seems especially appealing.

Even before global warming, August in Rome has always been hot. Hence, the manifestly miraculous character of that legendary August 5 snowfall. The story itself, commemorated annually with a shower of white rose petals from the dome of the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major, was first reported several centuries after the supposed event and so may well have no serious historical basis. The event which does have real history, of course, is the actual dedication on that site and on this date of the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). From 1568 to 1969, the legend of the miraculous snowfall was incorporated into the official title of today’s feast as Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives.

Built to commemorate the Council of Ephesus (431) which affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (a manageable walk from the Rome’s Termini railroad station) is one of the four principal papal basilicas (along with Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls) and one of my personal favorites.

The smallest of the four principal papal basilicas, Saint Mary Major is, of course, quite large in comparison with most ordinary churches in Rome or elsewhere. Its design is classical basilica style with a wide nave, two side aisles, and a semicircular apse at one end of the nave (the basic model Isaac Hecker was attracted to in planning his design for the Paulist Mother Church in New York). Its 14th-century bell tower is Rome’s highest. Its 16th-century ceiling is gilded with gold, supposedly brought back from Spain’s newly conquered American empire. Under the papal altar is a crystal reliquary which supposedly contains wood from the original crib of Jesus in Bethlehem (photo). Back in the glory days of the Roman “stational churches,” this was the site of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Midnight Stational Mass. (In fact, Saint Mary Major served as the "Stational Church" on 12 occasions during the year - including the 1st and 3rd Masses of Christmas, the 4 Ember Wednesdays, and the main Mass on Easter Sunday). The Bethlehem connection is augmented by the tomb there of Saint Jerome. Saint Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass in that crypt on Christmas Day in 1538. (It is said that Saint Ignatius had wanted to celebrate his first Mass in the Holy Land. So the Altar of the Crib at Saint Mary Major, with its relic from Bethlehem, seemed the next best place!) 

And then there is the basilica’s beautiful Borghese Chapel, which houses the famous image of Mary Salus Populi Romani (“Safety of the Roman People”) which may be the oldest Marian image in Rome. Servant of God Isaac Hecker prayed before that image after his expulsion from the Redemptorists, which is why a copy of that image is displayed in my present parish church, and people are encouraged to pray there for Hecker's canonization cause.. In 1953, the image was carried through Rome to begin the first Marian year in the Church's history. The next year, Pope Pius XII (who had celebrated his First Mass in the Borghese Chapel) crowned it when he established the new feast of the Queenship of Mary. Pope Francis has regularly visited Saint Mary Major to pray before the Salus Populi Romani image in connection with his apostolic journeys

All in all, it’s a wonderful old church - a Roman treasure for the whole Church!

The 1st reading for today’s Mass is taken from Revelation 21 - John’s vision of a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Then, John heard a loud voice saying: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.” God’s "dwelling with the human race" is first and foremost his Son, the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and then the Church, the Body of Christ extended in space and time, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. We build church buildings as places for the Body of Christ to assemble. As such, a church building becomes an icon of the Church community itself. Hence, churches are true treasures. They are treasures not just of beauty and art – although the best of them certainly are that – but privileged places treasured above all as effective signs of God’s presence in people’s lives and of his continuing action in our world here and now. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Cure of Ars

From June 2009 through June 2010, the Church observed a special "Year for Pirests," intended to deepen priests' commitment for the sake of a more forceful and effective witness to the Gospel in today's world. The year began in Rome with the Pope venerating the relic of the heart of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of priests and parish clergy, who died 158 years ago today.

That very year, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, his famous novel about the French Revoluton, which begins with the now familiar sentence, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Into that turbulent "worst of times," John Vianney was born just three years before the Revolution - a movement inspired by a hatred for the Church, the likes of which Europe had not seen since the worst of the Roman Emperors. Churches were desecrated and destroyed; and bishops, priests, and religious were massacred. Young John Vianney received his First Holy Communion in secret, since public celebration of Mass by priests loyal to the Church was illegal.

After the Emperor Napoleon had restored some semblance of peace between Church and State, 20-year old John Vianney went to school to study for the priesthood. He failed the seminary admission test, but somehow managed on his second try. Even then, he was such a poor student that his continuance was in question. The Vicar General of the diocese finally asked the seminary rector, "Is Monsieur Vianney good?" The rector replied, "He is a model of goodness." To that, the Vicar General then replied: "Let him be ordained. The grace of God will do the rest." Commenting later on John Vianney's difficulties as a student, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the founder of the Paulist Fathers believed he recognized "the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit at work" in John Vianney's difficulties. Indeed, Hecker likened himself to John Vianney in how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards.

The damage done by the revolutionary "worst of times" was eminently evident in the little village of Ars (population 230), to which John. Vianney was sent as pastor in 1817. His bishop warned him, "There is little love of God in that parish." What a discouraging assignment that bishop made Ars out to be! And what an indictment!

But an indictment of whom exactly? Obviously of the French Revolution and the terrible damage it had inflicted upon 19th-century religious life - intensely amplifying the routine coolness and indifference of so many ordinary people toward religion even in supposedly more religious times.

But surely it was also an indictment (perhaps unconsciously so on the bishop's part) of the Church's failures - especially in the decisive period before the Revolution. Of course, there had been good and holy priests before the Revolution too - even in the rationalistic 18th century! But certainly Saint John Vianney stood out as an alternative to a good deal of what had passed for pastoral care prior to the Revolution. By the end of his life, he had acquired quite a reputation, as penitents flocked to Ars from all over France to confess to him.

And so in Ars, "the worst of times" eventually became "the best of times" - thanks to John Vianney's complete identification with his priestly vocation. Always aware of his own inadequacies, but obedient to the Church that had called him to be a pastor and devoted to the people committed to his care, he sought to harmonize his own life with the holiness he was called to embody as a priest, instructing his parishioners by the personal witness of his life. "There are no two ways of serving God," he explained. "There is only one: serve him as he desires to be served."

Those who watched him celebrate Mass said "it was not possible to find a finer example of worship." John Vianney was said to have "gazed upon the Host with immense love." He believed the fervor of a priest depended on the Mass. "My God," he famously said, "how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine." By his example, he helped his parishioners to pray. "One need not say much to pray well," he told them. "We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. that is the best prayer."

John Vianney is perhaps most famous for his ministry in the confessional. One legacy of "the worst of times" upheaval produced by the Rvolution was widespread indifference to the sacrament of forgiveness. Eventually, however, penitents would be coming to him from all over France, finally making it one of "the best of times" also for the great sacrament of God's mercy. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Grantchester - Season Finale

I was traveling this past Sunday and so only got to catch up with season 3's finale of Grantchester later. The whole trajectory of the season seemed to be leading toward pushing Sidney to choose either the Church or Amanda. Sidney's erratic behavior the episode before and the kinds of things he said to his Archdeacon left me more than half expecting him to choose love and marriage to a divorced woman over his vocation as a vicar. (And, obviously, if season 3 were to be the final season, then what more fashionable way for him to depart and end the series!) I fully expected either a kind of Edward VIII style speech about being unable to go on without "the woman I love" or, perhaps even worse, a full-fledged protest against the Church for daring to have rules, for daring in this case to take seriously the words of Jesus himself on divorce and remarriage. And so it seemed, when Sidney confronted the Archdeacon early in the final episode, that that would indeed be the direction the series would take.

But then the tone changed. At the end, it was Amanda who left the village, not Sidney. If this were real life, then one would have wished that Sidney had married Amanda in the first place - and thus avoid all this unnecessary drama. But, of course, this is fiction, not real life, and the drama is part of the story. Whether Amanda is really gone for good or will reappear in another season remains to be seen, of course. For now, I was relieved by Sidney's decision to stay. This was still the 1950s, after all, and the call of duty still had some resonance in a world in which everything had not yet been abandoned. Obviously, the show had to be some concession to a more contemporary world view. So it was suggested several times that, while Sidney should choose to remain faithful to his calling, his motivation and proper loyalty should be less to the Church than to the people who, as both Mrs McGuire and Leonard insisted, needed him.

A somewhat ambiguous way to end, but in an ambiguous world perhaps a nonetheless satisfactory ending! With Mrs. McGuire getting remarried and Geordie being reconciled with his wife, and both Sidney and Leonard committed to staying in place, season 3 ended more promisingly than I might have expected. One can only hope that there will soon be a season 4.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

7 Years

Seven years ago today, I began my ministry as pastor. How well I remember that Monday morning! After saying good-bye to my predecessor as he drove off to his new assignment, I got in the car and drove to the church. Once there, I walked into my new office, closed the door, sat down at the desk. took a deep breath, and then asked myself, "Now what do I do?" I didn't have to wait too long for an answer. Actually, answers to that question quickly appeared in the form of things to be done and needs to be met, as they continually keep coming up in the regular routine of parish life.

Virtually my entire priesthood has been spent in parish work in three cities across two countries - for all of which I am genuinely grateful. As Louis Bouyer observed in his Memoirs, theological reflection requires contact with what gives it its meaning and so is best pursued within a Church ministry context, for "revealed truth is revealed to us only to lead us to salvation and lead others to it as well" [The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer (English translation 2015), pp. 102, 184].

Of course, a lot of parish life - certainly a lot of a pastor's life - seems at times only tangentially related to salvation. For example, shortly after I started my pastorate, I was informed (by people who certainly knew what they were talking about) that, while the church's ceiling was unlikely to fall down anytime soon, it would - unless replaced - do so eventually. So some months later, I called that group back together and observed that eventually was only going to get closer. And, soon enough, we had a two-part plan - first to replace the storm-damaged slate roof, and then to replace the inside ceiling. The latter job meant emptying the church and filling it with scaffolding for an entire summer and temporarily celebrating Mass downstairs in the parish hall. One day during the project, I climbed the inside scaffolding - something I doubt I would be as motivated to do today - just to say that I had seen close-up and touched one of the church's famous century-old ceiling paintings. (The three century-old ceiling paintings were also cleaned and better framed as part of the restoration, making them more accessible for hopefully at least another century of worshipers.)  Of course, the work took longer than expected, as such projects often do, and made quite a mess as long-forgotten decades of coal dust had to be dealt with. But soon enough the church had a new ceiling (and the walls a new coat of paint) even more attractive than what had been there before. 

But the heart and soul of parish life will always be what takes place underneath that ceiling in the nave and, above all, in the sanctuary and at the altar, the consistent center of our parish's liturgy and hence of its spiritual and communal life - which for these seven wonderful years I have been privileged to be a part of. 

A much younger parishioner asked me recently how it feels to get old. I can't quite recall exactly how seriously or flippantly I answered. Probably, I answered with some mixture of both - a combination which that sensitive topic encourages. At some point certainly I quoted the famous words of the psalmist: the sum of our years is seventy, or, if we are strong, eighty; and most of them are toil and trouble, for they quickly pass, and we vanish. Needless to say, I have prayed those familiar words so many times over so many years. But, now that I am merely a few months shy of 70, those words take on even more resonance.

In 1950, when he was at the age that I am now, the future Pope Saint John XXIII wrote in his Journal: "When one is nearly seventy, one cannot be sure of the future. ... So it is no use nursing any illusions: I must make myself familiar with the though of the end, not with dismay which saps the will, but with confidence which preserves our enthusiasm for living, working and serving." 

Of course, he lasted another 13 years and accomplished quite a lot in that time! I can only hope that, like him, I too may embrace whatever time may remain with what I can only hope counts as a comparable spirit of "enthusiasm for living, working and serving."

What more could one ask for?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Where I came from, September was always the start of school and hence the beginning of the annual cycle that tends to follow the sequence of the academic year.  When I was growing up, we went to school until the end of June. So July and August were the "summer vacation” months. In much of Europe, of course, August remains the primary "vacation" month. Here in Tennessee, however, where school ends in May and resumes in early August, June and July are the “vacation” months, and August 1 signals getting back to normal (or whatever passes for normal nowadays).

Unintentionally, of course, this recalls an older northern European tradition, which treated August 1 as the start of the autumn season.

The old English “Lammas Day” (Gaelic “Lughnasa”) on August 1 was a harvest festival (to mark the annual autumn wheat harvest. In its Christianized version, it became the occasion to bless a loaf made from the newly harvested wheat. 

(For more about Lammas Day, see "A Clerk of Oxford,"

In the Christian calendar, “Lammas Day” traditionally coincided with the feast of Saint Peter’s Chains, commemorating the apostle’s miraculous deliverance from prison, recounted in Acts 12. It provides the occasion for one of Elis Peters’ wonderful Brother Cadfael mysteries, Saint Peter’s Fair. (The feast of Saint Peter’s Chains was regrettably dropped from the calendar in 1961 to no obvious advantage or benefit.)

It remains the titular feast of one of my favorite Roman churches, S. Pietro in Vincoli, a 5th century basilica, with a 15th-century façade, also known as Basilica Eudoxiana, because founded by Empress Eudoxia to house the two chains with which Peter was imprisoned. In addition to Saint Peter’s chains (visible for veneration under the main altar), the Basilica is perhaps most famous for Michelangelo’s Moses. It also houses the tomb of the famous 15th-century theologian, canonist, and Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), author of De Docta Ignorantia (“Of Learned Ignorance”), whom I first encountered some 45 years ago in medieval political theory in graduate school!

That beautiful basilica also contains the purported relics of the Holy Maccabees, seven brothers and their mother martyred in 2 Maccabees 7. The veneration of their relics probably accounted for their commemoration in the Mass of of Saint Peter's Chains. (That commemoration was finally swept away in 1969, likewise to no obvious advantage or benefit.) The Maccabean martyrs were caught up in an epic conflict between fidelity to Jewish Law and Hellenist assimilationism, which extended even to the desecration of the Temple. The Maccabean reconsecration of the Temple is celebrated in winter at Chanukah. But today's recollection of the Maccabees coincides (completely coincidentally) with the Jewish fast of the 9th of Av - commemorating and mourning the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. In union with our Jewish brothers and sisters, today is a good day to reflect upon the importance of sacred places for living out a religious identity.

Meanwhile back to Rome where places are very literally layered with history, to reach S. Pietro in Vincoli from Via Cavour, one climbs a stone stairway, Via S. Francesco di Paola, less edifyingly known as Salita dei Borgia, because it passes under an archway which was part of the house of Vannozza Cattanei, mistress of  Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI, and mother of his famous children, Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre Borgia. Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia (known by his Spanish name, Juan, in the 2011-2012 Showtime TV series, The Borgias), was murdered there in 1497, quite possibly by one of his brothers.

To add even more charm to the place, that stairway is also the site of the ancient Vicus Sceleratus, so named because it was where the wicked Tullia (c. 535 B.C.) drove her chariot over the corpse of her father Servius Tullius (the 6th of Rome’s 7 kings) whom her husband, Tarquinius Superbus, had just overthrown!

(Photo: Auugst from the justly famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)