Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Mother of Immigrants


Today the Church in the United States commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian-born religious foundress, who crossed the Atlantic ocean multiple times to serve Italian immigrants in both North and South America. She became a U.S. citizen, was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 (the first American citizen to be so recognized), and then declared the patron saint of immigrants by the same Pope in 1950. (Why we commemorate her today, I don’t know. In the old liturgical calendar, she used to be celebrated more logically on December 22, the date of her death in Chicago in 1917.)

Although Mother Cabrini (as she was known in life and is still referred to even now that she is a saint) died in Chicago, her body is famously exposed for veneration under the altar in her shrine in the New York City Washington Heights neighborhood, in the convent of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order she founded in 1880. When I was growing up a short distance away across the Harlem River in the Bronx, it was a shrine, which had special significance for my Sicilian grandmother, who made sure we went to visit it yearly. It was always a treat to visit the shrine, not least because of its magnificent location in Washington Heights, the highest part of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, a mile or so north of the George Washington Bridge. But, while we took in the sights and enjoyed being in the beautiful park (home also to the world-famous medieval art museum, The Cloisters), my grandmother always made certain that we visited the chapel and there venerated the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.

Trained in Italy as a teacher, Frances Cabrini originally applied to join the order she had been taught by, but was rejected. So she gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed her own religious community, founding a school and homes for orphans. But, when she applied to Pope Leo XIII for his approval for a missionary outreach to China, the Pope instead directed her to the United States and the growing Italian immigrant communities there. "Not to the East, but to the West," was his advice. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish-American Catholic establishment. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions (schools, hospitals, orphanages) in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities.


Those days are gone now and with them and many of those once impressive institutions, but structured outreach within immigrant communities as an explicit expression of the Church’s commitment to social solidarity remains central to the Church’s life and work in the United States – now as it always has been, and (given our contemporary crisis of social solidarity) now maybe more than ever. Not unlike our attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth, our response to the immigrants among us is a profoundly spiritual and moral matter - a fundamental affirmation or not of the Gospel's demands.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day - 100 Years Later


100 years ago today the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, and the civilizational calamity that was World War I (“The Great War,” as it was then known) came to an end. On display in the church today (and all year long downstairs in the parish hall) is the famous photo of our own church as it looked on that memorable day, all decorated in celebration of the Armistice [Photo Above]. Of course, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, that Armistice and the welcome relief it brought were but a temporary truce in what would prove to be almost a century of European and world war, sometimes hot, sometimes cold.

My first assignment as a priest was at a parish in Toronto. In Canada, as in other Commonwealth countries, November 11 is Remembrance Day and is universally observed with virtually everyone from the Queen on down wearing red poppies in the weeks leading up to it and with a strict 2-minute silence at 11:00 a.m. on the day itself, customs we unfortunately don’t have here in this country.  Even so, remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. And it is above all as fellow human beings and also as fellow citizens that we remember today those who have gone before us, our cherished past to whom we owe our precious present and our hopes for the future. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. To remember the still-living veterans of the wars of the past century is to acknowledge what we owe to their commitment to our national community and the common citizenship we share and the hopes we have.

Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. To remember those who have gone before us in faith, as we do especially during this remembrance month of November but also every day at every Mass, is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope we still share with them in death.


Like the soldiers who served on the Western Front 100 years ago, the widow in today’s Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] got no immediately obvious reward. The widow, however, contributed to the Temple out of her limited, meager means – revealing the generosity of her spirit and the seriousness of her commitment to what the Temple represented in her community.

In this era of low marginal tax rates, gated communities, health and fitness fixations, political and ideological tribalism, politicians' playing on people’s fears, and increasing incitements to angry behavior, perhaps few messages may seem more counter-culturally challenging than this gospel story of that nameless widow and our own national stories of service in far-away wars – which are all about being focused on something other than oneself and on one’s own individual needs, about not letting oneself and one’s all-important private world get in the way of one’s obligations to others and one’s connection with the larger human community.

Ours is a society in which reality is increasingly subjective, in which the Individual has become the center of meaning and value, reducing family, community, and society to at-best secondary realities. Even churches increasingly sometimes seem more like social or political clubs where like-minded or similarly situated individuals can feel good about themselves together. We are forever being tempted to privilege what is individual and private and personal over what is common and shared and bigger than ourselves. Today’s anniversary reminds us what it means to be connected with one another in a larger community, and what commitment to one another and such a community actually requires of us. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel likewise challenge us all to rediscover what generosity and commitment actually mean.

Jesus’ words are a challenge that calls us beyond even the obligations of a common civic life together, but also a lifelong invitation to what we can hope to become - not just for now but forever.

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Veterans Day (the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 11, 2018.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Cheer for the State

Asked to write about an issue "likely to be of significance in years to come," the late Tony Judt first published "The Social Question Redivivus" in Foreign Affairs in 1997. Including it a decade later as the final chapter in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), Judt noted that "nothing that has happened in the intervening decade" had led him to moderate his "gloomy prognostications - quite the contrary." Yet another decade later, his "prognostications" still seem to me to be every bit as relevant.

Judt's focus was on "the failure of the political left to reassess its response" to the "dilemmas of globalization." What he produced, in effect, was an essay on the abiding salience of the modern State. Then as now, Europeans were anxious about a "neo-Fascist right, whose program constitutes one long scream of resentment - at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at "Europe', and in general at 'them' who have brought it all about." (Since then, of course, the "scream" has only gotten louder and has likewise consequentially crossed the Atlantic.) In postindustrial Europe, Judt warned, "the economy has moved on while the state, so far, has stayed behind to pick up the tab; but the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence, and intergenerational continuity" (emphases mine).

Writing when neoliberalism had seemingly triumphed - in the US in the Clinton years and in the UK with Tony Blair - and before the global collapse of capitalism of 2008, Judt recognized the "cultural and historical rather than economic" reasons for US neoliberal economics - "possible, in part, because even some of those who stand to lose thereby are culturally predisposed to listen with approval to politicians denouncing the sins of big government" - a model he concluded was "not exportable." Europeans, he argued, expect the state "to take the initiative or at least pick up the pieces." Moreover, in a world where "much of what happens in people's lives today has passed from their control," he argued "there is a greater need than ever to hold on to the sorts of intermediate institutions what make possible normal civilized life in communities and societies." And, in today's world, it is the state that is the largest such intermediate institution that can respond to citizens' "interests and desires." Finally, he considered "the need for representative democracy" to be "also the best argument for the traditional state." It is especially "the losers in today's economy" who "have the most interest in and need for the state, not least because they cannot readily imagine taking themselves and their labor anywhere else."

All of this remains relevant - and even more so - since the 2008 collapse of capitalism and the loud scream of political "populism" which that collapse produced in the "Tea party," the "Occupy" movement, and, above all, in the Trump presidency, and some of the responses to it.

Judt's conclusion says it all:

The postwar social reforms in Europe [with which we Americans may associate at least partially our New Deal and Great Society reforms] were instituted in large measure as a barrier to the return of the sort of desperation and disaffection from which such extreme choices were thought to have arisen. The partial unraveling of those social reforms, for whatever reason, is not risk-free. As the great reformers of the nineteenth century well knew, the Social Question, if left unaddressed, does not just wither away. It goes instead in search of more radical answers.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Schicksalstag

Todayis Schicksalstag, commonly translated "Day of Fate." At least four dramatic events in 20th-century German history happened on November 9, all of which also impacted the rest of the world for the rest of that century (and after). 

On this date in 1918, exactly 100 years ago, faced with the collapse both of German war effort and of domestic politics, German Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, setting in motion not only the end of the reign of the Prussian Hohenzollerns but of all the other German royal and princely  houses, and their replacement by the ill-fated, doomed-from-the-start Weimar Republic. Just 5 years later, in 1923, November 9 saw the failure of Adolph Hitler's infamous Munich Beer Hall Putsch. This turned out, however, to be but a temporary reprieve for the Weimar Republic, which would sadly succumb in time to the Nazis less than a decade later. Then, much more ominously, 80 years ago today, on November 9, 1938, came Kristallnacht, the large-scale destruction of synagogues and other Jewish properties in Germany, followed by the mass arrests of some 30,000 German Jews, a major turning point in the Third Reich's tragic trajectory toward the so-called Final Solution.  Finally, this date in 1989 saw a happy event - the opening of the Berlin Wall. This was a sudden, not immediately expected acceleration of the revolutionary process which quickly led to the complete collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany one year later, and eventually the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Rightly celebrated at the time, this last set of events bequeathed a multitude of further consequences, some of which we are still struggling to see our way through.

It is, of course, coincidence that events of such world-historical significance all occurred on this calendar date. Especially as the world this week recalls the centennial of the first of those events (with all that led to and followed from it), it does, however, make this date an appropriate occasion for some sober reflection upon the political, social, and human tragedies that defined the 20th century and so continue to define aspects of our world even today.





Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Morning after the MidTerm

The bill came partially due Tuesday. Two years of what the election-eve issue of The Economist termed a "dishonest executive, conniving with a fawning legislature and empowered by a partisan judiciary" motivated a record turnout of voters (as many as 113 million). As NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed prior to the election: “Movements like Trump’s thrive on social decay and atomization. Millions of Americans who oppose Trump have responded to him with an enormous civic revival.” That said, the basic urban-suburban vs. rural divide, of which the Senate is the institutional expression, continues to poison American politics. "Democrats have the people, Republicans have the real estate," as Mara Liason observed on NPR this morning.

The big story. of course, is that the Democrats have regained control of the House after 8 years. Along with that, three states voted for non-partisan redistricting. That combined with Democratic victories in several statehouses (including the three that fatally handed Trump his Electoral College margin of victory) will make it much harder for Republicans to continue rigging the district maps in their favor after the 2020 census. And there were other victories for democracy and humanity. Democracy won when Florida voted to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Humanity won when three "red" states (Ohio, Nebraska, Utah) voted for Medicaid expansion.

But the big story remains the House of Representatives. That means we have the beginning of a potential return to a two-party system in this country. It also means we will have some serious statesmen as committee chairmen, replacing Trumpers like Devin Nunes, all of which affords the prospect of Congress reasserting its constitutional parity with the presidency through real oversight of executive agencies, much needed after a lapse of two years. 

Even so, if Nancy Pelosi were to ask me for advice, I would tell her to start with a focus on real legislation, which ordinary Americans care about - for example, protecting health care for all, protecting voting rights, protecting immigrants and refugees, infrastructure, and balancing the last Congress's tax cut for the rich with benefits for the rest of the country. By itself, of course, the House cannot pass any legislation. The Republican Senate may still stymie the House's efforts, although with this unpredictable president nothing is certain. Still legislating is a lot better place to be in than exclusively emphasizing oversight and investigations, however important they are as well. 

The bottom line is that the Democrats need two things heading into 2020. They need a charismatic candidate, of course, and surfacing one who can win in the Electoral College will be no easy matter. But they also need to stand for something that Americans can care enough about to vote for change. The country knows what the Republicans stand for. It is waiting to hear what the Democrats have to offer as an alternative.

In this regard, I think that Ross Douthat's observation in today's NY Times may be a relevant warning: "Democrats obviously want to win purple and red Senate seats, but they want to win them the way they just lost in Texas, with charisma and mobilization rather than with ideological compromise. So they’re left waiting, as before, for demography or a recession to deliver them that opportunity."

Nor should anyone underestimate how empowering it could be for Trump to have a Democratic House to campaign against every day for the next two years. And insulting, ridiculing, demeaning, and maligning a woman Speaker is just the sort of thing to energize both him and his supporters!  








Tuesday, November 6, 2018

First Man (the Movie)

The story of the 1969 moon landing is a familiar one - if not for today's historically challenged students, then certainly at least for the generations that lived through it and experienced its excitement. I was 21 then and spent that Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. We were back on the "A" train and home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown ("The Eagle has landed") by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later we watched as Neil Armstrong took his famous "one step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It is perhaps hard to explain the excitement space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was important at the time).

First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, stars Ryan Gosling as a smart, moody Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy (The Crown’s Queen Elizabeth II) as his patient, loving wife, Janet. The film follows Armstrong’s story from 1961 through the years leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission, including the mishaps and tragedies along the way. Of course there have been other good astronaut movies before this - The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, for example - that have tapped into human drama and the feelings of the astronauts and their families, but this film excels, precisely in its slow and understated way. Armstrong appears no less a heroic figure for his personal losses and professional struggles in the decade that led up to his landing on the moon.

In an era notably lacking in any experience or even sense of common purpose, First Man takes us back to when we could still produce leaders who cared enough about being a country to inspire us to common purpose and when that purpose could still transform ordinary citizens into icons of national achievement.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Voting

One of my more vivid memories of growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s was Election Day. It was a school holiday, of course! (In a society which truly valued voting, it would, of course, be a holiday for everyone.) My parents were faithful voters, never missing an election and even making the extra effort to register in advance as was regularly required in those days. When I was very young, I would accompany them to the polling place and watch with a mixture of curiosity and awe as they took turns going behind the curtain of the clunky old voting machines, which would still be in use years later when I started voting. (I remember in 1960 watching the presidential candidates vote on TV and marveling at how backward California seemed with its paper ballots! I could not have imagined how today we would be yearning for the greater security paper ballots provide compared with contemporary computerized ballots!)

That was at the height of the Cold War when we were acutely conscious of the threat from a monstrous foreign enemy and of a potential conflict capable of eradicating human life from the planet. Yet it was, in retrospect, a much calmer and perhaps even saner time, a time of far more pervasive national and cultural unity and a perceived sense of common purpose, all of which are so manifestly lacking now. If voting was then the expression of that long-lost civic culture, now it may be our only avenue to repair our tattered union and recover some minimal sense of common purpose.

For all the blatantly targeted efforts at voter suppression, voter turnout looks hopefully high this year. It may well set a record for a "midterm" election. (While still reflecting an unhealthy over-obsession with presidential elections, the term "midterm" still sounds better than the even worse term "off-year" which we frequently used in analyzing such elections in the past.) 

Still, we largely lack that "Greatest Generation" civic socialization that motivated my parents to vote in every election. Voting - hence the extreme importance of boosting turnout - is the only mechanism to make meaningful change in our political process. The process is already skewed to favor underpopulated, rural areas - institutionally gerrymandered, so to speak - by the constitution, by the absurdity of state equality in the Senate, etc. It is skewed more malevolently by partisan gerrymandering by which contemporary politicians get to pick their voters, instead of the original idea which was for voters to pick their politicians.

As with bad speech, for which the only effective remedy is more speech - good, healthy, sane speech - the only remedy for non-voting, voter-suppression, and gerrymandering is as much voting as possible.

So voting is what it is all about - this election and every election!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Communion of Saints


In November 1887, the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, wrote: “When, in 1843, I first read in the Catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home.” The Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints had had a decisive effect upon young Isaac Hecker’s spiritual search, and apparently the passage of 44 years had done little to dull its impact. Appropriately so! What would we be without the communion of saints?

For one thing, church would certainly be a duller place! Just look around! Over there is the martyr Saint George in his knightly armor ready to slay a dragon for Jesus. Across the aisle is another ancient martyr, the Egyptian philosopher Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  At this end stands Saint Bridget, a 14th-century Swedish princess, a mystic who became co-patroness of Europe, a wife and mother of 8 children who became a nun and founded an order of nuns (who nowadays even have an Anglican branch). Farther down stands Saint Patrick the great missionary Bishop and Apostle of Ireland, who obeyed Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, even if that meant going outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. And across the aisle is another bishop, whose name we don’t even know. My guess is that the glass with his name must have been broken at some point, rendering him forever anonymous – a fitting surrogate for all those saints we especially remember today whose names are known to God alone.

The communion of saints transcends time, uniting past and present. It permeates the Church’s worship and punctuates the Church’s calendar with its many feasts and memorials of saints, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the Saints – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have already attained the goal for which we here on earth still strive. Living now forever with God and praising him forever in heaven, the saints help us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours, imitating Jesus himself, our Risen Lord who lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:24-25].

The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just today but in every Mass, signifies our communion, as the struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror (however imperfectly) that heavenly community of angels and saints, and so transform the world according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

As one of the seasonal turning points in the pagan calendar, November 1 was the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead were thought to roam about and try to haunt their old homes.  Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against assaults from the other world. The celebration of all the Saints on November 1 represented the Christianization of that old pagan holiday - a celebration of Christianity’s triumph over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces, which had hitherto held people in fear.

Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued communion with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith. 

For this reason, as a sequel to All Saints’ Day, tomorrow the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. We pray that all who have died in God’s grace and are now being purified from the consequences of their sins may be admitted to the fullness of his kingdom – there to join the saints already in glory. Our prayers to the saints to intercede on our behalf, together our own intercessory prayers for one another and on behalf of the faithful departed, express our ongoing participation in that great eternal community in which hope is fulfilled in love and sin succumbs forever to forgiveness.

Homily for All Saints Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 1, 2018.

Photo: The Communion of Saints - Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church, Bronx, NY, Main Window, Depicting the Saint's Intercession at Mass for the Souls in Purgatory.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween

According to one recent study that I saw somewhere, while there are about 1.4 million practicing Presbyterians at present in the United States, there may be as many as 1.5 million who claim to practice some form of paganism. Then, of course, there was the recent, highly insightful, almost 100-page Pew study, The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion, the most striking finding of which (to me) was how widespread "New Age" beliefs are even among the "highly religious." These include belief in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology and the belief that spiritual energy can be located in spiritual objects, such as mountains, trees, and crystals. Thus 29% of those the study terms "Sunday Stalwarts" hold that latter belief, along with  95% of the "Diversely Devout," 99% of the "Spiritually Awake" and 98% of the "Religion Resisters."

All this suggests abundant food for thought as we face another Halloween. For many, Halloween is just an excuse for children - and increasingly all too many adults - to dress in costume and demand candy from their neighbors and even from perfect strangers. That adults do it too seems at first thought to be bizarre at best, although in a society in which adults have now for decades imitated kinds in how they dress on a daily basis, perhaps it is not so bizarre that they should imitate kids on Halloween as well. (Elsewhere, reflecting on the increasingly popularity of Halloween among adults, I suggested that my generation, having enjoyed Halloween as a happily harmless children's holiday when we were young, just don't want to give it up even after we should have long ago outgrown it!)

Halloween, however, has another dimension. An ancient pagan holiday, it was incorporated into the Christian calendar late in the first millennium when All Saints Day was moved to November 1. In effect, this ritualized the triumph of Christianity over older European paganism by celebrating the triumph of God's grace (exemplified in the saints) over sin and Satan. Now, however, more than 1000 years later, the new Halloween seems instead increasingly like a celebration of a resurgent paganism.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

"All Persons Born ... in the United States"

In 1920, my maternal grandparents and their 5 children immigrated to the United States from Catania in Sicily. Many of their countrymen had made that same journey in the half-century since Italian unification. Why exactly my grandparents chose to cross the Atlantic then I do not know, and there is now no one left to amplify that part of the story. In any case, after settling in New York, they had one more child, my mother, born in 1922. Sometime thereafter, my grandparents and the younger children returned to Italy, leaving the two oldest to make their own way in America. By 1930, however, they decided to return to New York. Immigration was more difficult then than it had been a decade earlier. But they were able to return and reunite the family thanks to my mother's American citizenship. For all the vile nativism in vogue at that time, my mother's U,S, citizenship was not in doubt. If instead President Trump or someone with similar views to his had been able to alter American history, my mother might have had to remain in Italy. Whatever would have happened to her, had she survived the Second World War, she would almost certainly not have met and married my father, and I would never have ever existed! Thanks be to God - and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - they did meet, and I do exist.

The constitutional text is clear. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States (amendment 14, Section 1). The Civil War had undone the Supreme Court's evil Dred Scott Decision on the battlefield, and the 14th Amendment then codified the consequences of that victory in the Constitution, settling the status of freed slaves and their descendants as citizens once and for all. Since then, generations of immigrants have benefited from this constitutional provision, and this country has grown great thanks to them and their descendants.

Now president Trump claims the constitutional guarantee of citizenship can be undone - not by a constitutional amendment but by a mere Executive Order - about as brazenly unconstitutional a claim as such claims get. Perhaps he is just trying to ensure that his supporters get out and vote, making his pre-election "closing argument." Perhaps, he actually believes it. Perhaps he and his advisers actually believe they could get away with it - now that the Republicans control the Supreme Court.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Beggar by the Road

Most people (at least most of the time) try to ignore beggars as much as possible. That’s easier to do perhaps when one goes everywhere by car, where we just pass people by, without paying them much attention one way or the other. It’s more of an issue if you are walking, which is how nature meant people to travel. And, obviously, Jesus and his contemporaries lived in a walking world, where one walked almost everywhere – to go almost anywhere – where just passing by without either noticing or ignoring was really not an option.

Even so my guess is that most people in Jericho generally ignored Bartimaeus as much as possible. Being ignored remains the typical experience of the powerless in most societies, except when it serves the interests of the powerful to exploit their poverty and powerlessness as we have seen recently in political fear-mongering about the so-called "caravan" of Honduran refugees. But more usually the powerless are ignored. The fact that we now know his name (one of the very few people Jesus healed whose name we know) might mean he later become a familiar figure in the early Church. But that was way off in the future that fateful day that Jesus passed through Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd [Mark 10:46-52] – an exciting glamorous occasion for the locals, not unlike the circus coming to town or a presidential candidate’s campaign event.

Probably knowing that otherwise he wouldn’t be noticed, Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” He had to make a nuisance of himself – just to get noticed at all. The crowd, of course, tried to shut him up – until Jesus did just the sort of thing he was becoming famous for doing. No doubt to the chagrin of his disciples, who were probably enjoying the parade and their part in it, Jesus stopped to pay attention some nobody – reaching out (as Jesus so often did) across the boundaries that are supposed to keep people in their proper places. Had Jesus actually been a modern political candidate, presumably he’d have had an advance man – or team of advance men – precisely to prevent such things from happening! Notice, however, how quickly the crowd got with the program. Unscripted events have a certain popular appeal all their own. As soon as the people realized that Jesus was actually interested in Bartimaeus, suddenly their scolding turned to encouragement.

Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” was the same question he had asked James and John in the Gospel we heard last week. But what a difference in response! The answer they gave was what one would expect form two young, talented, upwardly mobile disciples, just beginning their careers. Poor Bartimaeus simply said, “I want to see.” Unlike James and John, Bartimaeus wasn’t on some fast track to anywhere. He was, in fact, on a very slow track to nowhere, and he understood that perfectly well.

Beggars, it is said, can’t be choosers. So they ask for what really matters. James and John’s request reflected their greed. Bartimaeus’ request reflected his need. In his closest companions and dearest disciples, Jesus found demanding ambition. In Bartimaeus, he found faith.

The story could have ended there. But, in spite of Jesus’ instruction, “Go on your way,” Bartimaeus did not do so. Instead, we are told, he followed on Jesus’ way. Having himself found healing and salvation, he wanted to share what he had found with others. Bartimaeus seems to have immediately understood what so eluded James and John – what so many Christians have failed to understand – namely, that God’s gifts are given not just for ourselves, but are meant to be shared with the whole world, this world which God loves so much that he has chosen to become a part of it.

Like Bartimaeus, all of us have been changed – and challenged – by the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives. Like him, we too now have to live that change, in our ordinary everyday lives as believers, in the wide and complicated variety of situations in which we find ourselves – as family members, students, workers, and citizens.

For, in the end, as is often said, we – individually and as a Church community – may be the only experience of Christ many people will ever have in life, the only face of Christ they will see, the only word of God they will hear. So if we fail the Bartimaeus test, if we fail to become credible and inviting witnesses, then we run the risk of concealing rather than revealing the face of Christ; and the word of God may seem strangely silent, precisely when and where it most needs to be heard. The love of God may appear absent, if it isn’t being shared. I’m reminded of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s remark, back in the 14th century: “Preach the truth as if we had a million voices, for it is silence that kills the world.”

Of course, it’s easy to settle for less. It’s always tempting to be satisfied with who’s in and who’s out. The crowd in Jericho was content to keep Bartimaeus quietly on the side of the road, quite literally in the dark. But, by not playing his prescribed part, Bartimaeus enabled them to experience truth and grace way beyond the limits of their expectations – truth and grace to be shared with all – the only alternative to a future spent in darkness.

In the dark, Bartimaeus symbolizes where we are on our own. Following Jesus, Bartimaeus exemplifies the community we can become through the healing, forgiving, and transforming power of Christ present and active in our world. The crowd in the Gospel got the message. Once they realized what Jesus wanted, they stopped hindering Bartimaeus and instead helped him to follow Jesus. The truly happy ending of this story will be when all of us also do the same!

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 28, 2018.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Statesmanship Recalled


It seems as if it were only yesterday that the world was commemorating the centennial of Sarajevo and the guns of August! Yet now a full four years have passed, and we are about to recall the centennial this November of the Armistice, which ended the absurdity of World War I - the war which Pope Benedict XV at the time correctly called the "suicide of civilization."

Today the Church calendar commemorates one of the few authentically admirable statesmen during that terrible and pointless war, one who was also at the end one of that war's conspicuous victims, Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), Austrian Emperor and (as Charles IV) King of Hungary (1916-1918). Deprived by the vicissitudes of history and by the narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness of the war's victors of the opportunity to lead central Europe into a better future than the painful one the 20th century gave it instead, this last Hapsburg Kaiser recalls an older ideal of political leadership that entailed life-time service and sacrifice for one's subjects, statesmanship as a moral as well as political vocation, one which few, if any, of our contemporary political figures remotely resemble.

In his homily at Kaiser Karl's Beatification in 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II said:


The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV.


From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An October Saturday 45 Years Ago

45 years ago, on Saturday, October 20, 1973. I and my three grad school suitemates hosted a party in our quarters in Princeton University's Graduate College. It was not something we did often. Then as now, graduate students tended on the whole to a much more serious and sober lifestyle than undergraduates. But living in the Graduate College was intended to foster a kind of academic community life, and such social gatherings were positively encouraged.

As we gathered, the came the shocking news of the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Nixon's firing of the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (It was so named because both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his Deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, which caused them both to resign. Cox was finally fired by the infamous Robert Bork, who was then Solicitor General, and later almost made it to the Supreme Court!) When one of our guests arrived, she angrily declared, "He [Nixon] is going to get away with it!" And we - all political scientists, historians, and economists - all nodded our heads in learned agreement. So much for our predictive skills! As everyone knows, in the end Nixon did not get away with it, thanks to the surprising resilience of our constitutional institutions and of a still surprisingly strong civic culture. 

A lot has changed since 1973, including our capacity to be shocked by almost any type of political misbehavior. Our civic culture has changed too, but not for the better And, of course, one very big and important difference between 1973 and now is the character and culture of our political parties and in particular the Republican party.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Impeachment: An American History

Impeachment: An American History (Modern Library Random House, 2018), a collaborative effort by four authors, Jeffrey Engel, John Meacham, Timothy Naftali, and Peter Baker, is the latest big-name contribution to this growing genre of books about one of the most seldom used but so much more talked about constitutional provisions, the impeachment of a president. (The book focuses exclusively on this and on the three relevant historical cases, and does not, for example, examine the somewhat more common impeachments of federal judges.)

The fact that impeachment is being so widely discussed again - 20 years after the Republicans so famously misused it in a partisan attack against a popular Democratic President - reflects the inflamed partisan passions of the present. As Alexander Hamilton observed, impeachments "will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly to the accused." (Today perhaps the order is reversed. It is the agitated passions of a partisanly divided country that may cause, rather than be caused by, impeachments.)

The first chapter, "The Constitution," by Jeffrey Engel retells the familiar  story of the founders' efforts to forge a constitutional structure strong enough to  hold the 13 fractious states together in an effective union, while sufficiently containing federal power to preserve liberty. He emphasizes how George Washington was the model for the framers. (Washington was the founders' Cincinnatus-like alternative to the more threatening historical precedents of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell.) For "none had ever seen him put his own needs above the nation's. Consequently any future chief executive who demonstrated the opposite ... would be so unlike the president they envisioned as to warrant removal and dishonor."

Impeachment was familiar from British law as a vehicle for removing problematic officeholders (but not, of course, the king). What the founders did was extend its scope to the chief executive as well. Again, the framers were preoccupied with balance - with holding a president accountable  for malpractice but not compromising the authority of the office by making him an easy target for political foes to remove at whim. In addition to treason and bribery, one could be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors," a phrase from English law that Blackstone in 1792 argued  referred to "public wrongs" that "area breach and violation of the public rights and duties, due to the whole community." At the time, Hamilton stressed that they were, by nature, "political" offenses.

The first presidential impeachment was that of Andrew Johnson, who has inherited the White House after Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Fellow Tennessean Jon Meacham recounts that infamous story. When I was in school, we were taught to take Johnson's side against the radical Republican Congress - a view reinforced byJohn F. Kennedy's account in Profiles in Courage. The view that the Senate had spared us (by one courageous vote) the tragedy of a presidential eviction from the White House, became, i believe, one of the major psychological obstacles to subsequent impeachments - a hurdle that was overcome in the 1970s. Meacham corrects that false image of Johnson as an agent of Lincoln's goal of national reconciliation by recalling the reality of Johnson, the racist Democrat out to thwart Congressional Reconstruction of the South. "For his obstructionism Johnson was eventually impeached (but not convicted) by a Republican majority in Congress ths thad come to see him as an impediment to the work of the nation." Johnson's story shows "how impeachment is a weapon of politics - and that any era can find itself amid a crisis over the removal of a president if the passions of the hour are ferocious enough." When Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas cast the deciding vote to acquit, a precedent was set, Meacham suggests, that the House could "act emotionally," but "the Senate would be expected to act rationally, giving future generations a precedent hat was more daunting than inviting."

The Johnson acquittal preserved the independence of the executive and prevented Congress from creating a de facto parliamentary system. Fast forward a century to the infinitely more powerful presidential office occupied by Richard Nixon, impeachment was still "s discredited constitutional remedy," according to Timothy Naftali's retelling of the familiar Watergate story, the crisis that threatened to upend that "prevailing view." Naftali highlights the critical part played by Peter Rodino (the House Judiciary Committee Chair) in ensuring that the process was as bipartisan as possible - deliberately "exorcising the ghost of Andrew Johnson's partisan impeachment." This strategy "made swaying the undecideds possible." This the subpoena resolution passed 33-3, and the first and second articles of impeachment passed the committee 27-11 and 28-10.

Peter Baker recounts the third case - the hyper-partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton 25 years later. "It exposed and deepened the corrosive, media-saturated partisanship of a new era." It "was not so much a search for facts or even a debate about what this generation of Americans believed constituted high crimes and misdemeanors than it was another political contest to be won or lost." Meanwhile, Clinton's popularity only increased during the scandal. "The public delivered its own verdict." The "almost pornographic precision" of the independent counsel's report "was a public humiliation but a political boon" for Clinton, helping him to "portray it as an illegitimate and offensive exercise." Whereas an incumbent president's party typically loses seats in a president's sixth year, in 1998 the Democrats won seats in the House (the first time since 1822).

In the final chapter, Jeffrey Engel brings the story into the present, in which impeachment talk seems to have become routine, as "more Americans than ever have become sore losers, willing to kick over the playing board rather than play out a poor hand." Comparing the three cases, Engel argues that a president impeached for purely personal transgressions is least likely to be convicted in a Senate in which no party has a supermajority. But, if as with Nixon, the transgressions are more tied to misuse of presidential power, then - assuming the evidence is widely accepted - he faces a real risk. Engel adds that such a consensus is less likely today. Finally, there is the Johnson-like situation in which the circumstances prompt Senators to break with their party - a situation unlikely to occur today. "It would require a genuine constitutional crisis of the sort Johnson's opponents generated, couples with a clear train of irrefutable evidence agreed upon by all sides such as sunk Nixon, and then frosted by a president's wild unpopularity, the very opposite of Clinton, for his judges in any impeachment trial to make their vote anything more than a referendum on the prior election's results."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sad and Worried


Sometime in the 2nd half of the 3rd century, a young Egyptian named Anthony arrived at Church, just as the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 10:17-30] was being read.  The future Saint Anthony of Alexandria, the so-called “father of monks,” was 19 or 20 at the time (what we now call a “young adult,” the age group the church is especially focused on right now in the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment meeting in Rome). Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. And so, not long after, he gave away his possessions in order to lead a more seriously spiritual life in the Egyptian desert. Ever since, many have followed Anthony as priest, brothers, and sisters, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace a Gospel style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious life in the Church.

All that, obviously, was still far in the future when Jesus looked lovingly at the rich man and said, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, then come, follow me.” These words, we are told, caused the rich man to go away sad.

So what, exactly, was the source of his sadness? Here was this man, someone who seemed to have it all, who seemed to have everything going for him, everything to live for, and who, on top of all that, had observed all the commandments. Yet, when he was personally invited to have a closer relationship with Jesus by changing his relationship with the world, his face fell, and he went away sad. Why? Because, we are told, he had many possessions.

That, the Gospel seems to be saying, is what possessions will do to you!

I like to think that one reason the rich man was so said was because he was lonely – in the way that wealth isolates people from one another (as Jesus himself illustrated in his famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with others, one which privileges people over possessions. Last Sunday, we heard a story about how lonely Adam was when he was still, literally, all alone in the world. A lot of people today are lonely in a world that is full of people because so many things separate us – wealth, obviously, which is so unevenly shared and so builds barriers between people, but other things too, technology, for example, which, far from connecting us as promised, seems instead to isolate us at a deeper level.

Is it any wonder that so much of our religious talk tends to focus on other issues, other subjects, other sorts of sins – rather than on this problem of possessions, on the spiritual danger in riches, the thing that Jesus diagnosed as the greatest threat, the greatest obstacle to becoming who God created us to be, the greatest obstacle to our ending up where God wants us to be?

It wasn’t just the rich man, after all, who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. After all, in the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist American society seems to have taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder Jesus’ disciples were exceedingly astonished and worried “who can be saved?” No wonder if we, who live in the richest society in the history of the world, if we too ask that same question and ought to be worried as well!

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, October 14, 2018.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Every Day Is Extra - John Kerry's Memoir

John Kerry, Every Day is Extra (Simon and Schuster, 2018), is an engaging (but very long) memoir. Kerry is a diplomat's son, with recent European family connections, a scion of privilege educated in private-schools both here and abroad, a Yale graduate, who became a naval combat officer in Vietnam War, than an activist veteran against the war and a Massachusetts politician, a U.S. Senator from 1985 to 2913, and President Obama's second Secretary of State, as well as the third Roman Catholic to run for President as the nominee of one of our two major parties.

In our "Upstairs-Downstairs" world, Kerry's account of his privileged, if lonely, childhood is inevitably intriguing. Many of us may also have been lonely as children and many may even have experienced the after-effects of family dislocation and tragedy as he did, but most of us non-preppies can only envy Kerry's as-if-it-were-the-most-ordinary-thing account of his privileged education and of going sailing with President Kennedy, and shake our heads in wonder at his elitist fondness for risky and dangerous play (which even included running with the bulls in Pamplona). It is perhaps in the nature of pseudo-aristocratic privilege that it is taken for granted. Were that less so, he might perhaps have fared better in 2004 when populist resentment - along with smears against his war record, which he clearly continues to resent - contributed in some measure to derailing his presidential ambitions. (Historians should have a field day analyzing how rich Republican heirs to privilege have so much more successfully presented themselves to ordinary voters that equally elitist Democrats have been able to do.)

The obvious deviation from pure privilege was, of course, his service in Vietnam, although that was still a time when well-off heirs of "the greatest generation" were often then still committed to service in a way which has since diminished. Kerry's account of his wartime experiences and especially of the loss of friends in war, along with his flamboyant opposition to the war afterwards, is a good counterbalance to the earlier narrative of entitlement. The two together equipped him well for a career in politics.

In the Senate, Kerry famously teamed up with John McCain and, having somehow reconciled their own different ways of responding the the trauma of the war, worked together to reconcile the country, conclusively addressing the neuralgic POW/MIA issue and helping to normalize US post-war relations with Vietnam. Kerry's account of bipartisan cooperation (and friendship) in the Senate serves additionally as yet another nostalgic reproof of what Washington has become in recent, increasingly dysfunctional, decades. That he considered making McCain his running mate in 2004 (like McCain's later consideration of Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mare in 2008) raises interesting questions about how differently history might have been had such imaginative and courageous directions been taken.

Instead of McCain, Kerry chose John Edwards, at that time a very attractive figure in Democratic politics. Running mates are more often a drag than an asset to presidential candidates, but Kerry lost the race himself. Edwards didn't lose it for him. He would do better to imitate McCain in minimizing his after-the-fact criticism of an unfortunate running mate.  

The last and densest part of the book deals with Kerry's career as Secretary of State. His authentically admirable achievements in that role - the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Parish Climate Agreement - highlight the ambiguity of the Obama legacy. Those were great accomplishments, but the Obama Administration somehow failed to persuade the domestic American audience of their value, thus leaving open the door to Trump's destruction of what should have been two monumental achievements and a long-term legacy.

Kerry's immigrant grandparents were originally Viennese Jews, and Kerry's Catholic father's faith was somewhat  lapsed, but his Protestant mother made sure he and his siblings were raised Catholic. It was an authentically Catholic upbringing, which he remembers positively, but also as somewhat conventional. "It was," he writes, "that period when practicing families shared the experience and the habit of attending but without  much meaning." He wore his Saint Christopher medal in Vietnam, but returned with more questions than answers about his faith. He came home "with gratitude that every day was extra," but uncertain about "God's will working in strange ways."

He found reinforcement for his faith in, of all places, the U.S..Senate, where he attended the weekly Wednesday-morning Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast reflects the predominantly Protestant religious style endemic to so much of American history and civic religion, with senators offering testimonies about their relationship with God and its role in facing life's challenges. It might seem like an unusual place to strengthen one's Catholic faith, but it seems to have done so (much as my own exposure to some of the best of elite Protestantism at Princeton enriched my own Catholic faith life).

In what I found one of the most truly interesting segments of his book, Kerry recounts how the likes of Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, and Ted Stevens (a tragically widowed Senator from Alaska) shared their experiences and spirituality with their colleagues. The effect of this on him was politically as well as religiously significant. "No matter which side of a debate we'd be on - and frequently it was the opposite side - because of the common ground we'd found together that morning, Ted [Stevens] was no longer just one of the Republican senators. he was a friend." A common ground in shared suffering fostered a mutual respect that made possible a bipartisan comity that sadly seems increasingly elusive.

Kerry's spiritual struggle to reconcile his inherited faith with the experience of seemingly pointless human suffering which he had encountered in the Vietnam War gives this otherwise interesting but conventional account of a privileged person's political career path a genuine depth it might otherwise lack. Perhaps the presidential campaign of the third Catholic to run for that office might have benefited from his having shared some of this with the American people even earlier.