Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 - Year 2 of the Trump Drama

Recently, we have all been reminded that it was at Christmas 50 years ago, at  the end of that traumatic and dispiriting year 1968, that the world received an unanticipated uplift, when the Apollo 8 Astronauts, the first humans to orbit the moon, read to the listening world the Creation account from Genesis on Christmas Eve and then sent us that amazing photo of the earth rising above the barren moonscape. After a year of military and political disasters, assassinations, and riots, it was a true tonic for the nation.

Alas, this Christmas season has offered no comparably edifying image to close out the second year of the Trump Show. On the contrary, if the "earthrise" photo further inspired an appreciation for our common humanity and a commitment to care for our fragile earth, both those commendable post-1968 developments have suffered significant setbacks in this more recent era. And, while a "partial government shutdown" isn't quite what it used to be and this current one has had seemingly modest impact on most citizens who are not government employees, still the symbolism (if not the reality) of total political dysfunction, fueled by one man's whim, makes for a sadly pathetic year's end. 

And, of course, a "government shutdown" is just the icing on the cake - the poisoned cake we have been consuming so gluttonously all through 2018.

Writing about the departure of Defense Secretary Mattis and President Trump's decision to abandon our (admittedly less than completely coherent) Syrian policy, Susan Glasser wrote on December 20 in "The Year in Trump Freakouts" in  The New Yorker: "all the chaos at year's end is a powerful reminder that the manner in which the president operates is so outside of any normal parameters for governing, so disdainful of process, and so heedless of consequences that his decisions don't resolve crises so much as create them. ... This debacle has all the elements we have come to associate with Trump's Presidency: the imperious twitter decree; the reckless and untrue claims; the snubbing of advice from experts, allies, and his own staff; the transparent effort to distract form one set of scandals by creating another."

All true enough and valid causes for legitimate concern, but all emblematic of a dangerously personalized politics that seems to be becoming increasingly apocalyptic.

For all the inevitable media focus on one individual, however, it is important to recall that the current crisis is about more than one individual, even if he is the President of the United States. Our collective anger, hatred, and ill will (deliverance from which we routinely used to pray for in the Litany of the Saints: Ab ira et odio et omni mala voluntate, libera nos, Domine) did not start suddenly with Trump's presidency or with his election or even with his campaign. Rather, he appreciates (as many others apparently hitherto have not) and has successfully exploited the genuine social, economic, cultural, racial, and ethnic fissures in an American society increasingly divided into winners and losers. Meanwhile, the political foundation for our present malaise has been methodically laid by the anti-communitarian divisiveness which has long been central to his political party's program, simultaneously exploiting and widening those fissures now for decades.

Each year at this sacred season, I like so many Americans enjoy watching Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life. It is, in fact, a particularly appropriate film for our time, for it presents a thoroughly dispiriting and despairing portrayal of an American society of winners and losers - a fate from which the town in the movie is only saved by angelic intervention. As American society in the reign of Trump and his party increasingly comes to resemble that film's "Pottersville," an intervention is indeed called for - in this case, however, less angelic than political.

Which brings us to the Democrats, who had an excellent year in 2018, and face promising prospects - but also potential perils - in 2019 and 2020.

In a year when virtually every week - if not day - seemed to feature some real or simulated crisis accompanied by real or simulated outrage, perhaps the biggest news of the year was the voters' remarkable reaction against the source and cause of all this crisis and outrage. Despite Republican gerrymandering and voter-suppression efforts, the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives by a substantial margin and won several other key statewide races. To translate this swing of the pendulum into a more successful policy agenda and a more favorable political culture, however, will require the Democrats to focus forcefully and strategically on certain goals. Despite the distraction of the partial government shutdown, there is every reason to hope that the House leadership will wisely start out on a strong note and attempt to pass some serious legislation. The first challenge will be to keep at that, regardless of  anticipated obstacles from the Senate and the White House. While they were supposedly in charge of Congress these past two years, the Republicans at times seemed paralyzed, afraid to pass anything unless absolutely certain that their unpredictable President would sign it. Hopefully, the Democratic leadership understands the importance of laying out a serious agenda for the nation, regardless of Republican obstruction.

The second likely challenge, however, will be more difficult, for it will come from within the party itself. This is, after all, the same party, some of whose members wanted to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by seeking to unseat their House Leader - one of the most, if not the most, effective Speakers in history - in favor of no one in particular! This is, after all, the same party that rode a tidal wave of victory with all sorts of quality candidates in moderate districts but some segments of which persist in pining away for a charismatic celebrity candidate. This is, after all, the same party that 20 years ago watched the Republicans' irresponsible, partisan overreach in the Clinton impeachment fiasco, but which now has some segments actively agitating to repeat that mistake themselves! 

The Democratic party's interest and the national interest could coalesce in a strategy that would focus first of all on legislating a positive agenda on issues we know the voters care about (e.g., salvaging the ACA), thus offering the voters a clear alternative to the other party's "Pottersville" program. Trump got to where he is in large part because he appreciated how we have degenerated into a nation of increasingly wealthy winners and increasingly hopeless losers. If the Democrats are convinced that the answers Trump and his party have offered are bad ones, then the challenge for the Democrats must be to offer good - or at least better - answers.

Simultaneously, the Democratic House needs to resurrect real oversight - not with the goal of impeachment - but rather to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the damage this Administration is doing to traditional democratic and constitutional norms of governance. Rather than going down the precarious path of impeachment, which would either fail in the Senate or, if successful, would leave half the voters convinced their 2016 victory had been illegitimately taken from them by a partisan clique, the Democrats would be better advised to focus on winning the 2020 election by a decisive and indisputable margin, which would give the next president the democratic legitimacy that no partisan impeachment effort could ever produce.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

More Inclusive Than Any Family


One of the English-speaking world’s more popular modern Christmas traditions is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols created exactly 100 years ago in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge. Famously, it begins with a single choirboy singing the 1st verse of the 19th century English hymn Once in David’s Royal.  The choir and eventually the whole congregation soon join in the singing. One of the verses seems to have been tailor-made for today’s feast of the Holy Family:

And through all His wondrous childhood / He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly Maiden, / In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as He.

Of course, today’s feast is about more than reminding children to obey their parents. Nor is it about what may be the more contemporary version of the 4th commandment: parents obeying their children.

Like those Old Testament parents Hannah and Elkanah, about whom we heard in today’s 1st reading, Luke’s Gospel portrays a devout Jewish family, faithful to their religious obligations and obedient to God’s Law, including the annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Our modern “adolescence” not having been invented yet, Jesus in today’s Gospel is now at an age when he must assume his adult responsibilities and obligations as a member of God’s Chosen People, and so Jesus also accompanies his parents and their extended social network on the pilgrimage.

So this is really a “growing up” story as much as a “family” story – Jesus’ first public acknowledgment of who he is and what his lifetime mission will be. Already anticipating his later behavior as an adult, Jesus here puts his priority on his relationship with his heavenly Father rather than with any earthly family. Hence, his mission is to be in his Father’s house, rather than in the caravan among relatives and acquaintances. Likewise, the wonder experienced by the teachers in the Temple anticipates the wonder so many will soon experience at Jesus’ teaching during his public life - and the wonder we continue to experience as we experience his continued life among us in his Church.

Like Hannah and Elkanah, Mary and Joseph had a son dedicated to the Lord, a son whose mission in life would take him – and his followers – far beyond the limits of natural human relationships. We can hear this in the contrasting uses of the word “Father,” first in Mary’s question and then in Jesus’ surprising response. Through the Church, our new relationship with God in Jesus incorporates us into a new network of relationships both wider and more inclusive than any natural human relationships – wider and more inclusive than any natural human family, wider and more inclusive than any caravan of relatives and acquaintances. As the Synod on the Family said three years ago, “Jesus made family relations relative in the context of the Kingdom of God.” Jesus introduced what the Synod called a “revolution in affection,” which represents “a radical call to universal brotherhood” [Synod 2015 Final Report, 41].

American Christianity, which is increasingly more about sentimentality than salvation,  notoriously tends to focus a lot on family, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in marriage and family life. At the same time, just like the 12-year old Jesus, we Christians continue to be involved in and dependent upon the social networks of human relationships, of which the family is one.  The family, Pope Francis has reminded us, is “where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children” [Evangelii Gaudium, 66].

In our modern world, however, the social functions and so the very forms of family are in flux, as are all communities and forms of social connection. There are still old-fashioned extended families and modern two-parent, nuclear families, but there are also single-parent families, and “blended” families, and other complicated configurations, and there are more and more people with hardly any recognizable family at all. Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago. 

Then too, thanks to increasing economic inequality in our society, marriage is increasingly associated with those generally more economically and socially advantaged. All the more then is the Church challenged not only to advocate for sound public policies that benefit parents and children, but also to accompany individuals and families of all types, that are stressed in these various ways.

Just like the 12-year old Jesus in the Gospel, young people have their growing up stories to live and their life’s mission to figure out. The challenges they face are personal and professional, private and public, environmental and economic, social and structural. But, however distinctive today's context, such challenges are not entirely unprecedented. The Good News of God’s Kingdom offers the support of much needed communal solidarity with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness. Parishes in particular are challenged to instill in individuals and families a stronger sense of belonging to the larger human community that is the Church on earth.

The Jerusalem Temple to which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph went on pilgrimage, was the principal and privileged place where one would experience God’s presence among his People. Likewise, what happens in the Church, in our uniquely privileged encounter with the Risen Lord in the Eucharist and in the community the Eucharist creates is intended to intrude into and transform everything else and all those day-to-day natural human relationships, including our families. 

Homily for the feast of the Holy Family, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 30, 2018.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Mary, Queen of Scots (The Movie)


In my younger years, I spent a lot of time in the public library, which meant that I really read a lot – history and biography, in particular. I became especially interested in the history of the Tudor and Stuart periods and in the personality of Mary, Queen of Scots, the common ancestor of all subsequent British monarchs down to the present. I read whatever biographies and historical novels about her were accessible to me at the time, and became quite the expert on her life (1542-1587), for all but the first week of which she was a queen, and on her short but adventurous actual reign in Scotland (1561-1567). In addition to being a romantic figure in her own right, I also appreciated her as a kind of Catholic martyr, whose execution by her Protestant cousin Elizabeth of England precluded her succession to the English crown and the alternate history that unfulfilled possibility proposed.

So it was with great interest that I have awaited this month's release of the latest Mary, Queen of Scots movie, fully prepared to accept the inevitable historical inaccuracies such films frequently exhibit, one of which was already obvious in the trailer. A staple of Mary, Queen of Scots movies, including this one, has the two queens who uncomfortably coexisted on the island of Great Britain, meeting at some point. In fact, however, although Mary lived as a refugee/prisoner in Elizabeth's England for some 19 years after being deposed by Scotland's Protestant nobles, the two never met. Historical accuracy could perhaps be salvaged by staging their meeting through their letters to one another over the years; but, since their lives were historically so intertwined, the dramatic license of the more personal meeting scene is an inevitable casualty of the movie as medium.

One of the great challenges of a film based in historical fact is to explain enough to make the story both true to history and comprehensible to its audience, which somehow needs to know the answers to such questions as: What was Mary doing in France in the first place? Why did she return to Scotland at 18? How did Scotland turn Protestant in her absence? What religious policy did she adopt? Given the religious difference and her claim to the English throne, were there any alternatives to the way her relationship with Elizabeth played out? If the viewer doesn't already have answers to these questions, then the film must fill in the gaps sufficiently for the viewer to appreciate what is going on, lest the viewer interpret the characters solely as if they were modern contemporaries with contemporary concerns and priorities rather than 16th-century ones. On balance, this movie does a good job of clarifying enough of the historical background for its audience, while still allowing the audience to interpret the characters in a contemporary way. 

Appealing presumably to a modern sensibility, the movie interestingly does highlight the impact of the two queens' gender. In Shakespeare in Love (1998), Queen Elizabeth famously says "I know something of a woman in a man's profession." Certainly Scotland's Protestant leader, John Knox, author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment [Rule] of Women (1558) opposed Mary's rule on gender grounds as well as on religious grounds. (Knox had in fact directed his book against two Catholic queens – Mary I of England, Elizabeth’s older sister, and Mary of Guise, the French widow of Scotland’s James V, who was Mary, Queen of Scots’ mother and ruled as regent on her behalf until her own death in 1560.)

Historically, the two queens' gender and the very opposite ways each of them dealt with being "a woman in a man's profession," proved decisive. Whatever her personal sexual feelings and desires, Elizabeth successfully sublimated her sexuality sufficiently to be married exclusively to England and thus successfully avoided being dominated by any man. (Of course, this meant she had no direct heir, which exacerbated the problem of the Catholic Mary as her heir. Elizabeth's core concern, which the movie admirably makes evident, was less Mary's eventually succeeding her than Mary's possibly displacing her in her lifetime. After all, not only did Roman Catholic Europe see Mary as England's rightful Queen, so most likely did many of Elizabeth's own, still Catholic subjects.

Unlike Elizabeth, however, Mary famously did allow her personal feelings and desires to dominate, resulting in her disastrous marriages to Henry Lord Darnley, son of the Earl of Lennox, and, after his murder, to Lord James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Darnley was a logical choice in one sense, since he had the next best claim (after Mary) to the English throne. But, to the Protestant elites in both countries, their marriage threatened to produce a permanent Catholic dynasty. In fact, however, Darnley, for all his good looks and charm, proved to be an ambitious but weak jerk, who quickly alienated the Queen, especially after his part in the murder of her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, the turning point in her short reign.. And then, after Darnley's bizarre murder in February 1567, the primary suspect was a man, Bothwell, who, to Mary, was everything Darnley was not. Curiously, the film does not highlight Mary's infatuation with Bothwell, perhaps  to minimize her complicity in her own downfall and emphasize instead the perfidy of the men who formed the political elite. In any case, marry him Mary did - letting her heart rule her head, something Elizabeth would never do. A mere month later, Mary was overthrown and forced to abdicate in favor of her year-old son (who would be raised Protestant as Scotland's James VI and would eventually succeed Elizabeth as England's James I). A year later (the interval curiously conflated in the movie) she managed to escape, but, instead of fleeing to France as logically she should have, she fled to Elizabeth's England.

I doubt that the historical Darnley won Mary over quite the way he does in the movie, and it is debatable whether he and Rizzio (whose bloodstains can today still be seen at Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace) were ever in fact lovers; but the far more important point is that the ways Mary navigated (or failed to navigate) her complex (political and romantic) relationships with those three men were an important part of her undoing.

Dramatically it is a good film, if perhaps a bit too long. It is also visually engaging, and in the process highlights the differences between the two countries, which might also help explain the eagerness of Mary and of her son after her to inherit the English throne! 

The perennial danger in focusing overly on aspects of the story which appeal more to a contemporary sensibility is not that those aspects were unimportant but that the most important component of the conflict - religion - may be less fully appreciated as a result. Mary's unsuccessful reign and her failure to secure the succession to the English crown, which in the end cost her her life as well as her throne, were exacerbated by her personal and romantic  mistakes, but were due ultimately to her being a Catholic Queen of a country that had turned Protestant in her absence, and to her aspiring to succeed to the throne of a neighboring country that had also recently turned Protestant, whose ruling elite were determined to keep it that way no matter what. While the film focuses a lot on Mary's personality and femininity and the character differences between her and Elizabeth (whose own ambivalence is also acknowledged), it also leaves no doubt that the ultimate issue that divided the two Queens and cost Mary her crown and her life was Mary's Roman Catholicism 

That is the story that changed Britain forever and has accordingly left its religious and political legacy upon the entire English-speaking world.






Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Breaking the Silence with the Word made Flesh


Last week we began the bicentennial celebration of the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Father Isaac Hecker [1819-1888]. Today we mark another bicentennial, for it was on Christmas 1818, exactly 200 years ago, that the familiar Christmas carol Silent Night was sung for the first time in the Austrian church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The parish priest at the time, Father Joseph Mohr, was busy doing all the things he had to do to get ready for Christmas in his little parish church, when (so the story goes) he suddenly found himself without a working organ for Christmas – a stressful situation anywhere, but especially so in that very musical culture, where the villagers most likely regularly expected to hear Mozart performed – and performed well – at Mass. Father Mohr had no choice but to downsize his Christmas expectations. He took out a little poem he had recently written and brought it to his friend Franz Gruber, a local schoolteacher and the church organist, who set it to music that anyone could sing. And so, with Father Mohr singing and Gruber playing the guitar, the two introduced “Silent Night” to the congregation at Christmas Midnight Mass. The carol became an immediate sensation. In World War I, the carol was sung by soldiers on both sides during the famous 1914 “Christmas Truce.” During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt in singing it with the crowd gathered for the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve 1941. Fans of Downton Abbey, will undoubtedly recall the “Christmas 1924” episode when Lady Mary Crawley sang the translation then common in Britain. And all of us, I am sure, can sing it in the more familiar American translation.

Silent night, holy night!                                                                                                                                         All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Father Mohr and Franz Gruber were great improvisers, and they gave us perhaps the world’s most popular Christmas carol. Even so, how silent and calm actually was that night for Mary and Joseph, forced by imperial decree to trudge to Bethlehem, with no hotel reservation? And it only got worse when, having been turned away from the village inn, they had to settle for a stable and a manger for the baby’s birth - like so many migrants and refugees today, turned away from one border or other and forced to fend for themselves. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph soon became political refugees themselves when, like millions of displaced persons today, they were forced to flee through a hostile environment to find shelter in a foreign country. Fortunately for them, Egypt’s border was open, unlike some borders today. We have no newsreels or YouTube videos from the first century to document that first Christmas for us, but we have more than enough images in today’s world to suggest just what it must have been like, to help us picture that first Christmas. But we also have something more. We have the gospel story, the story that tells us not only what happened but why, when God entered this world to become one of us – as we say all the time in the Creed, kneeling today to give it added emphasis, for us and for our salvation.

Even so, our contemporary American Christmas is increasingly more about sentimentality than salvation. We too tend to want our own Christmases to be sentimentally calm and bright, like the neatly arranged manger scene – or like that perfect Christmas-card family picture, which is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really just fine. In fact, of course, now as then, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by an Armenian refugee family in the Netherlands who have found sanctuary this year from the danger of deportation in a Protestant church in The Hague, by other less fortunate immigrants in refugee camps, by those who are homeless and have only strangers for company (like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds), by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by soldiers away at war (like my father, 74 years ago, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
Two Christmases before that battle, Pope Pius XII addressed a war-weary world with these words: “As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the crib of Bethlehem … It is a message which lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. It infuses exuberant and trustful joy into mankind, torn by the anxiety of deep, bitter sorrow. … It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”
Instead of “All is calm, all is bright,” we have “the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.” But, sentimentality aside, that’s actually the way it is with Christmas. The Christmas Angel breaks the silence to announce the good news of Christ’s coming to live with us – and does so in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and recession, in war and in peace, just as in in the Gospel – and in the carol - the Angel broke the silence of that first Christmas night to bring much needed good news to group of frightened and surprised shepherds.
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Even so, not everyone welcomed God’s coming into our world. Not everyone welcomes – or even notices – the Savior of the world now either. And now, as then, some may even actively oppose him. Even so, the silence has now been broken, first for the shepherds and, through them, for all of us; and John’s Christmas Day Gospel assures us that, to those who do welcome him, he gives power to become children of God, the God whose Eternal Word, speaks into the silent night of our world to fill our lives with his overflowing grace and mercy, his love and peace, no matter how tempestuous or stormy the day may be.

Meanwhile, we live in a world of noise - social, cultural, and political noise, much of it nonsensical and destructive. Its sheer volume makes us almost scream for silence, a very human reaction to the sensory overload we increasingly have to live with. But Christmas challenges us to take it to the next level - to hear what George Eliot once called “that roar which lies on the other side of silence" – and so to break the silence of sin and complicity in sin, as the Word of God did by shattering the barrier between God and us, by becoming one of us, his Word empowering us with his voice to break our silence with today's good news of great joy for all people. Thus the Angels' song of praise may continue in every time and place - including our own here and now.

This little church has been breaking that silence at the top of this hill now for 163 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular immigrants who made up the Catholic community in Knoxville would walk up this hill for Christmas morning Mass, penetrating the gloom of night and early morning with the light of their lanterns. That is what Christ’s coming does for our otherwise silent and dark world, what Christmas calls each of us to do here and now, sharing today’s good news of great joy with all people. Having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, we, like the shepherds, must make sure it really becomes our story as well, as we go back down the hill to our homes and neighborhoods, reconciled with God by the power of the Christmas story and so set to reconcile one another and our city and our country and our world – transforming anger into peace, fear into trust, frustration into fulfillment, sadness into joy, despair into hope, hatred into love, loneliness into community, rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 24, 2018.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Our Lost Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve. People my age will likely remember when Christmas Eve was really Christmas Eve. Growing up we were off from school on Christmas Eve, but it was still a regular workday for most people I knew. (Some companies, like the one my father worked for, may have closed early and had a late afternoon Christmas party for their employees.) For many, December 24 was a day for last-minute Christmas shopping. Certainly, "housewives" had a lot to do, shopping and cooking for the forthcoming holiday meals. and, of course, there was decorating to be done. Even if the Tree had been bought some days earlier, decorating was likely to be done - or at least completed - during the day of Christmas Eve. 

Churches, of course, kept even more scrupulously to the liturgical calendar. Some work, like setting up the stable, might have been done a day or two beforehand, but the stable itself either was still empty or the nativity scene was hidden from view by some sort of temporary screen. I remember attending a funeral with my 5th-grade class on Christmas Eve in 1957. The church was still quite bare, with no sign of either the forest of evergreen trees or the multitude of red poinsettias that would fill the sanctuary a few hours later. Whoever did all that decorating, most of the priests were totally tied up on Christmas Eve for some six hours or more hearing confessions, as long-lines of parishioners approached the sacrament of penance as the religious part of their preparation for the holiday. And, of course, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence, which in Italian families like mine meant a delicious codfish stew (baccal√†) for Christmas Eve dinner.


Nowadays, the celebration of Christmas has been going on for weeks. Homes, offices and even churches have long been decorated for Christmas with little or no deference to  the traditional calendar. Companies have had their Christmas parties by now, and many more people than used to now travel for the holiday and are already on the road to somewhere else for Christmas. The toll this has all taken on the Church's Christmas calendar has been especially heavy. The same consumerist convenience mindset that gave us Saturday afternoon and evening anticipated Sunday Masses has altered Christmas Eve (and by extension Christmas Day), transforming the liturgy of the feast almost beyond recognition.

While the third Mass of Christmas, the Mass in die was always in theory the principal Mass of the feast, Midnight Mass was widely celebrated and enjoyed great popularity in my younger years (when, of course, it was the only time in the entire year when Mass was celebrated at night). I can remember how the crowd would gather in the cold outside church as early as 11:00, waiting for the doors to open and reveal the beautifully decorated church, with tuxedo-wearing ushers helping people find seats, the parish choir of men and boys singing Christmas carols to keep the congregation awake until it was time for the celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon in fancy gold vestments to begin the Solemn High Mass. 

I still love Midnight Mass, and Midnight Mass certainly still retains a real appeal to a "niche" constituency, but increasingly it is the even earlier Masses on Christmas Eve - even in the afternoon - that capture the biggest crowds. Some have compared the displacement of Christmas Day by Christmas Eve to the historic anticipation of the Easter Vigil to Holy Saturday morning, a situation supposedly corrected in the 1950s (only to see the "Easter Vigil" now again moving earlier and earlier into Saturday evening). There may be something to that comparison. But an important difference is that hardly anyone at all attended the old Saturday morning "Easter Vigil" and not many more attend the contemporary evening version. Where Easter still brings out crowds to church, it is on Easter Sunday morning, In contrast, Christmas has become an increasingly day-before celebration for more and more churchgoers, with radically diminished attendance on Christmas morning. I guess we have forgotten the words of the traditional Christmas Eve Introit and Invitatory (based on Exodus 16:6-7): Hodie scietis quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam ejius.(Today you  will know that the Lord is coming, and in the morning you will see his glory).

Even more worrisome to me, however, is the increasing popularity of the Christmas Eve "Children's Mass" or "Family Mass" or otherwise named "Christmas Pageant" Mass. I have nothing against Christmas Pageants per se. What I find worrisome is not play-acting the nativity, which is, after all, every bit as legitimate as, for example, holding a procession on Palm Sunday (although to my mind the more "traditional" form of such Christmas play-acting, the procession to place the image of the Infant in the manger either at the beginning or at the end of the Midnight Mass may be both more modest and more meaningful). My worry is what message is conveyed when the entire liturgy - and especially the homily - seem so child-centered. Christmas is still one of those (increasingly few) occasions when all sorts of people show up at church, including many who are seldom there otherwise. So it is one of the very few opportunities the Church still has to communicate with the wider society through the symbolic power of her liturgy and to speak literally through the homily.  It is, therefore, all that much more important to take those annual, or only occasional, visitors seriously as adults - adults who need and deserve to hear and experience the Church's message about Christ's coming into the world and into their lives. My worry is that, instead of doing that, it may actually confirm what some of those attending may already believe or suspect - that religion may be a nice, sentimental thing for children but has little or nothing of of relevance to say to adults.

A more traditional and authentic approach to Christmas Eve (before it took the place of Christmas Day) was expressed by the famous 20th-century monk and liturgical scholar Pius Parsch in his classic The Church's Year of Grace: "When our first parents were driven out of paradise, its door was closed, guarded by a cherub and the flaming sword. It would remain for the Messiah to open that door and enter, Today we stand before this door expectantly."





Sunday, December 23, 2018

Silent Night at 200


It was on Christmas Eve 1818, exactly 200 years ago, that the familiar Christmas carol Stille Nacht, heilge Nacht (“Silent Night”) was sung for the first time in the Austrian church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf bei Salzburg (photo). The parish priest, Rev. Joseph Mohr, had composed the words, which his good friend, Franz Gruber, a schoolteacher and church organist then set to music. According to the familiar account, the main church organ was not working; and so, with Father Mohr singing and Gruber playing the guitar, the two introduced “Silent Night” to the congregation at Christmas Midnight Mass. 
The carol became an immediate sensation. Since then, it has been translated into some 300 languages. In World War I, the carol was sung by soldiers on both sides during the famous 1914 “Christmas Truce.” During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt in singing it with the crowd gathered for the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve 1941. Fans of Downton Abbey, will also recall the “Christmas 1924” episode when Lady Mary Crawley sang it in the translation then common in Britain.

Silent Night, holy night!                                                                                                            Sleeps the world; hid from sight,                                                                                            Mary and Joseph in stable bare.                                                                                            Watched o'er the Child beloved and fair                                                                                    Sleep in heavenly rest                                                                                                                Sleep in heavenly rest.


The rest of us, of course, sing it each in the more familiar translation, we all know and have come to love.

Oberndorf’s old Saint Nicholas Church was severely damaged by flooding of the Salzach River in 1899, which led it its replacement in 1906 by a newer church in the new town center and its demolition In 1913. After the First World War, however, there was an increasing desire to commemorate the carol’s origins. The present Silent Night Memorial Chapel (photo) was built on the original site and dedicated in 1937. Each year, a special Christmas Mass is celebrated at which Silent Night is sung in many languages.



In this 1953 newsreel, children gather at the grave of Franz Gruber in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. They then sing his immortal Christmas song, 'Silent Night, Holy Night' inside the Silent Night Chapel.  Go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WZXol692Jo 







Saturday, December 22, 2018

130 Years Ago

Today marks the anniversary of the deaths of two monumental figures in the history of American Catholicism. In Chicago on this date in 1917, died Italian-born, but naturalized American citizen, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants. (In the pre-conciliar calendar, today was celebrated in the United States as her feast day, which has since been inexplicably moved to November 13.)

Also, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers (and the bicentennial of whose birth we are commemorating this coming year), died 130 years ago today, December 22, 1888. 

Hecker's last years were marked by illness. Nonetheless, he continued writing for the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, and summarized his mature thought in his final book, The Church and the Age, published in 1887. His brother George died in February 1888, and as the year drew to a close Isaac too drew nearer to his end. At his funeral on December 26, a eulogy was given by the Provincial of the Jesuits' New York-Maryland Province, Thomas Campbell, SJ, who had grown up in the parish and who then recounted the now famous story of Hecker's deathbed.

As the community gathered at his bedside, Hecker's close colleague and soon-to-be successor asked, "Shall I bless them for you, Father?" According to Campbell's account, Hecker "aroused himself from the depth of pain and exhaustion, and his ashen lips which death was sealing pronounced the singular words: 'No, I will give it in the shadow of death.' His feeble hands were raised, and like a soldier dying on the field of battle, he reconsecrated his followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the struggle in which they had chosen him as Leader."



(Photo: Bicentennial Hecker Quilt, created by the Immaculate Conception Women's Quilting Group, the "ICBees," to hang in Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"The Challenge of Good Politics"

The annual "World Day of Peace," invented by Pope Paul VI and observed every January 1 since 1968, is one of several such little known and hardly noted 20th-century accretions to the Catholic calendar. Some - for example, the "World Day of Consecrated Life." the "World Day of the sick," and the "World Day of Prayer for Vocations" - have significant constituencies and are thus more likely to get noticed and maybe mentioned in a parish bulletin or even a homily. I suspect the "World Day of Peace" has fans too, although it has the added misfortune of being observed in tandem with one of the calendar's high points - on January 1, which is already the Octave Day of Christmas, the ancient (and now restored) festival of Mary's Maternity, and New Year's Day!  Its cause might well have been better served had it been assigned to a less noteworthy and busy time of year. There are, after all, some 30+ "Ordinary" Sundays, whose very title - and boring green color - cry out for distraction.

That said, Pope Francis' brief Message for Tuesday's 52nd "World Day of Peace" is well worth the few minutes it takes to read. Basing himself on Luke 10:5-6 - in which Jesus , in sending his disciples out on a kind of training mission for their later lifetime vocation, instructs them Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace be to this house!" - the Pope proposes that "Bringing peace is central to the mission of Christ's disciples."

Pope Francis then addresses what he terms the "challenge of good politics." Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions, but when political life is not seen as a form of service to society as a whole, it can become a means of oppression, marginalization and even destruction. ...Political office and political responsibility thus constantly challenge those called to the service of their country to make every effort to protect those who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future. ... Every election and re-election, and every stage of public life, is an opportunity to return to the original points of reference that inspire justice and law.

It seems noteworthy to me how conventional this description is. Aristotle could have said the same or similar words. The Pope notes that politics is essential for human community and institutions, which community and institutions are presumably likewise essential for human well being and flourishing. Christ's peace-bringing disciple remains Aristotle's zoon politikon with all that entails.

In the modern world, of course, this fundamental, human, political vocation is fulfilled not in a polis but in a national state, which, given the way the Pope characterizes "good politics," presumes a constitutional state, the sort of state which seems increasingly threatened from both ends of the contemporary political spectrum.

In contrast to "good politics," the Pope highlights corresponding "political vices." 

Sadly, together with its virtues, politics also has its share of vices, whether due to personal incompetence or to flaws in the system and its institutions. Clearly, these vices detract from the credibility of political life overall, as well as the authority, decisions and actions of those engaged in it. These vices, which undermine the ideal of an authentic democracy, bring disgrace to public life and threaten social harmony. We think of corruption in its varied forms: the misappropriation of public resources, the exploitation of individuals, the denial of rights, the flouting of community rules, dishonest gain, the justification of power by force or the arbitrary appeal to raison d’√©tat and the refusal to relinquish power. To which we can add xenophobia, racism, lack of concern for the natural environment, the plundering of natural resources for the sake of quick profit and contempt for those forced into exile.

Now whom might we know in American politics that this sounds like? What political party in American politics does this sound like?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Isaac Hecker's Bicentennial begins


Today the Paulist Fathers commence a year-long commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (December 18, 1819 - December 22, 1888). Twelve years ago, “conscious of the need for contemporary models of holiness,” the Paulist Fathers declared Hecker’s life and teaching “a valuable resource that needs to be widely recognized and communicated,” suggested that Hecker “can inspire others beyond ourselves towards holiness of life, heroic virtue and personal faithfulness to Christ,” and resolved that “the time has come” for Father Hecker’s story “to be disseminated throughout the larger church.” 

"The pressing problem confronting Luther Zwingli, and Calvin," Sheldon Wolin famously observed, "was to bring Protestant man back to a consciousness of community after having first encouraged his individualism." [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Little, Brown, 1960), p. 240] . Born into an immigrant family in New York on this date in 1819, Isaac Hecker saw firsthand the divided and fragmented character of American Protestantism and its impact on American society. He responded with his enthusiastic embrace of and conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, fully appreciating the importance of the Church as the divinely sanctioned providential alternative to the principle of individual interpretation.  

Like the 19th-century’s most famous observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections between individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their newly found freedom. In 19th-century Europe, the Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order. It sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The way to do this was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon its political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state. In contrast to that time-honored political approach, Hecker’s American alternative saw a social solution in which citizens, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations and thus opened to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop their intelligence and liberty along Catholic lines. Thus, at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that  “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers, dated Rome, December 22, 1857,” The Paulist Vocation, p. 46.] In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker, quoting an anonymous acquaintance, said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.” [“The Mission of Leo XIII,” Catholic World, 48, 1888, p. 9.] Such comments convey how important the transformation of society through the the transformation of tis citizens was for Hecker, and how he confidently expected this religious transformation to accomplish what others looked for in politics.

Politics is important, of course. As a young man in the Jacksonian era, Hecker himself had been interested in politics, and his older brother John  remained active in New York Democratic politics all his life. But, in this peculiar period in our own American history, when politics has increasingly replaced religion (and everything else) both as cultural identity marker and personal belief system, we would all do well to recall Hecker's prioritization of religious transformation as the primary prerequisite for social and political peace.



(Photo: Bicentennial Hecker Quilt, created by the Immaculate Conception Women's Quilting Group, the "ICBees," to hang in Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Fred I. Greenstein (1930-2018)

Although the Washington Post had run an obituary earlier in the week, it was only when I read yesterday's NY Times' obituary that I learned of the death of Fred Greenstein, one of my professors at Princeton in the 1970s and a great friend and mentor, even though my own field was primarily political philosophy and his was primarily American Politics.

Born in the Bronx in 1930, Fred graduated from Ohio's Antioch College, served two years in the Army, and got his doctorate in political science at Yale in 1960. Married in 1957, he had three children. Fred taught at Yale and Wesleyan before coming to Princeton in 1973, when I first got to know him. After my time, he was chairman of Princeton’s politics department from 1986 to 1990. He retired in 2001. 


“Growing up in the World War II period and the beginning of the Cold War, I was struck by the elements of emotion in politics, particularly irrationality,” he told the New York Times in 2000. “All this sort of led me to be interested in the psychological aspect of politics.” For his Yale doctoral dissertation, published in 1965 as Children and Politics, he surveyed several hundred 4th-8th grade students in New Haven, to decipher their political understanding. His book was a major contribution to the field of "political socialization," that is, the study of how political beliefs are formed and passed on in society. Fred repeated his children’s surveys in the 1970s, with interesting post-Watergate variations. His "Queen/U.S. President/French President Driving a Car" stories were a wonderful resource regarding children's comparative political awareness and ideas, which I can remember using when I taught introductory American politics.



By the time I got to know him, Fred had moved mainly to a focus on the presidency. Along with several other students, I served as an assistant on his mid-1970s presidential bibliography project. In 1982, he published The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader, which corrected the previously prevalent, somewhat negative, academic view of Eisenhower. “We tended to think of Eisenhower as a dumb president who was syntactically challenged,” my Princeton contemporary and now presidential scholar at the University of Vermont John Burke, told the Times, “Maybe that was true, but he was willing to play the fool to achieve his political ends.”


In his book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton (2000), Fred eventually identified six qualities essential for a president: public communication ability, organizational capacity, political skill, vision of public policy, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. Of the six, he considered emotional intelligence the most important. What would he have said about the present president?

Those still in academic political science can better describe and evaluate his large body of work than I. While I have been influenced in my own thinking by his studies of political socialization, the Eisenhower Presidency, and the importance of "emotional intelligence" in the presidency, my most important memories are of Fred as teacher, mentor, and friend, in all of which areas he excelled. 


Sadly, it occurs to me as I write this that the Princeton politics professors who mentored and befriended me and helped me in so many ways - Sheldon Wolin, Paul Sigmund, Walter Murphy, Gerry Garvey, and now Fred Greenstein - are all now gone. And with them are also increasingly gone my remaining links to academia and to some amazingly life-enriching experiences and relationships, that I will always treasure.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

What Should We Do?


“What should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist. As well they might! After all, what question could possibly be more basic? Or relevant? Or universal? Isn’t that why we have advice columns, website medicine, talk show chatter, expensive psychotherapy, spiritual directors, psychic hotlines, and personal “life coaches” – that all try or pretend to answer that question for us?

No surprise, then, that the crowd asked that very same question of the Apostles on the first Pentecost Sunday [Acts 2:37]. On that occasion, Peter told the people to repent, and be baptized. John’s answer was similar, but he went into greater detail. Particular groups – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – each got specific answers targeted to them, tailored to the specific moral challenges connected with their professions. In our society, certainly, we largely define ourselves by our work. Everybody understands what is being referred to when someone is asked “What do you do?” John was neither the first nor the last to observe that one’s work matters, what one does at work matters, how one works matters. And not just what one does at work. When all is said and done, we define ourselves by whatever we actually do – or fail to do – in all the arenas of life – at work, at home, at play, with those we love, and with those we don’t. What I do – or don’t do – demonstrates who I am, the kind of person I am choosing to be, and, in the end, determines who I will be for all eternity. As one of the 4th-century Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa [335-395], once said: “we are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.”

Of course, we now all live in a world, which has in some ways turned all that upside down and encourages us to shift responsibility to everyone and everything except ourselves. That’s what makes this Gospel story so especially appropriate at this Advent midpoint. The crowd’s questions and John’s very down-to-earth practical answers, as seen in the context of the Gospel’s entire message and as heard in this Advent setting, all seem to highlight just what is supposed to happen when we take the Christmas story seriously today.

Now the people, Luke tells us, were filled with expectation. For what? Santa Claus? Not likely! Their year-end Christmas bonus? Probably not that either! For that matter (and more to the point), what are we expecting this Advent? Surely, we’re not in expectation for Christ to be born. That already happened – a long time ago at that! We’re not play-acting here, as if living a Christian life were like some sort of perpetual Christmas pageant! The people, so we are told, all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John assured them that he wasn’t; and, with the benefit of hindsight, we know even better than his hearers. In his exhortations to the tax collectors and the soldiers and everyone else, however, John did tell them where to look. Repeating those long-ago exhortations to us today, John is telling us too where to look – in what’s going on in the here and now and the day-to-day. Because what was ultimately so especially extraordinary about Jesus Christ’s becoming part of our world is precisely how his coming has transformed the seemingly ordinary in human life from being, at best, merely more of the same, into an opportunity for something altogether new.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the mid-advent Sunday when the Church decks herself out in cheery-looking rose vestments (in place of penitential purple), when we once again hear Saint Paul’s powerful message, the message that gives Gaudete Sunday its name, a message simultaneously so comforting and so challenging: Rejoice in the Lord always. Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all [Philippians 4:4-6].

It’s nice to be told to rejoice. The lights and sounds of the season, the greetings we get in the mail, not to mention the shopping-inducing messages our commercialized, consumerist culture keeps sending us from every direction, are all telling us to rejoice. But what about the rest of Paul’s message? How about Your kindness should be known to all, and Have no anxiety? Just how are we supposed to do all that?

How can anyone do that, with all the daily worries that weigh us down, the bills that never stop coming and seem to get bigger all the time, the sense so many people increasingly have (especially in the last 30 years or so) that the economic deck is stacked against them, not to mention the big picture problems of the larger world that are anything but faraway - climate change, faraway wars and not so faraway violence in our schools and even our churches, not to mention whatever private and personal problems we may be experiencing? The fact that St. Paul made his point with such emphasis, even repeating himself, suggests that anxiety must have been as real and present a problem for his 1st-century audience as it is for us, and that they too may have found rejoicing a bit of a challenge.

Saint Paul could talk the way he did because the rejoicing he recommends is not some passing sentiment, not some egg-nog induced holiday cheer, but rather is rooted in the new identity we now have from our experience of God’s mercy, revealed to us in Jesus. For it is not the ups and downs of our lives in the world that define us. It is who we are becoming by our experience of God’s mercy that enables us to rejoice and that counteracts the anxieties that would otherwise overwhelm us.

Advent expresses the fundamental character of our Christian experience, lived (as it must be) between Christ’s 1st coming in history and his final advent as our judge - and defined (as it also must be) by the Risen Lord’s continued and active presence among us, here and now. And so, our fundamental attitude (and not just at Christmas) must be to rejoice, in spite of whatever anxieties threaten to dominate our days. Our choice to rejoice results, Saint Paul suggests, in peace – not some superficial social or political peace, but the peace of God which surpasses all understanding [Philippians 4:4-7], the peace which makes possible the kind of  authentic and morally compelling life which John recommended to those who asked his advice), the peace which penetrates through our personal and social anxieties as surely as the rising sun on Christmas morning will penetrate and defeat the deep dark of the long winter night.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 16, 2018.