Sunday, May 27, 2018

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit

With the end of the Easter season, the Paschal Candle has been banished to the Baptistery, and the Resurrection icon’s place has been taken by a 15th-century portrayal of the Holy Trinity [photo]. Its theme is the familiar story in Genesis of the patriarch Abraham’s three angelic visitors, a visit subsequently interpreted in Christian tradition as an image of the three persons of the Trinity. In it, the second Person - the Son, the Word, who reveals God to the world - is portrayed prominently in the center, pointing outward into the world. The Father seated to one side, looks lovingly at the Son, who in turn looks lovingly at the Father, while the bright-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. The three Persons gaze at each other in mutual loving communication, into which we in turn are also meant to be drawn by the Son.

Well, you might say, that’s all very nice, but what of it? For so many (maybe most) of us, the Trinity sometimes seems somewhat abstract – a doctrine duly believed in, of course, but not something otherwise given too much thought to.

But this is in spite of the obvious fact that we were all baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, we – or our parents and godparents - all made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one which we repeat regularly when we sing the Creed at Mass. Meanwhile, our sins have been forgiven in the sacrament of Penance, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who are married have exchanged wedding rings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The principal prayers of the Mass are mostly addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And we have all, over and over again, been blessed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire religious lives, both individually and collectively as a Church community, have been defined, formed, shaped by this awesome Trinitarian mystery of who God is, that defines God’s ongoing relationship with us and ours with God.

Admittedly, the words we use to talk about the Trinity, words like one “nature” and three “persons,” used not as we use them in ordinary language, but as technical terms of philosophical language, may seem somewhat abstract.

The so-called Athanasian Creed, which used to be recited the Church’s daily prayer today and on many other Sundays as well, uses rather repetitive, dense-sounding, liturgical language to speak of the Trinity, for example:

The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.

And that is just one small excerpt! Even so, however abstractly or densely we have learned to talk about the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity remains our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is.  Created in God’s image and likeness, we all have a built-in, natural, longing for God. But who God is - who God is in himself - is something we could never have come to know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us by God himself. And God has done so, revealing who he is in himself – one God in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We do not worship three gods, but one God – a unity of Persons in one divine nature or substance. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God, each distinctly God, but existing eternally in relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, the Holy Spirit to both.

At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself, how he acts toward us. Who God is in himself is how God acts; and thus how God acts in human history reveals who God ultimately is. Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as Moses testified in today’s 1st reading [Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40] as one who repeatedly reveals himself in how he acts toward us.

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who for our salvation came down from heaven, and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, making her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Led by the Holy Spirit – as Saint Paul told the Christians in Rome [Romans 8:14-17] and through them tells us - we have become true sons and daughters of God the Father and joint heirs with Christ.

The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church. Filled with the same Holy Spirit, we who receive Christ’s body and blood are transformed into one body in Christ, participants in the mission of his Church.

That mission is nothing less than to make disciples of all nations - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:16-20].

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 27, 2018.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Praying the Creeds

I was happilyy impressed several weeks back when the congregation at Barbara Bush's funeral was invited to recite the Creed together as part of the funeral service. One of the many wonderful things about Anglican worship is the prominent inclusion, as a consistent practice in Anglican services, of one or other of the traditional creeds.

The imminence of Trinity Sunday reminds me that this feast was traditionally not only the end of Easter Time but also the day most associated with the so-called "Athanasian Creed," which used to be recited at the Office of Prime on that day (and until 1955 also on many other Sundays of the year). Properly entitled the Symbolum "Quicumque Vult," the "Athanasian Creed" was ascribed at times to Saint Athanasius (c.296-373), but was actually composed in Latin, probably in Gaul, perhaps a century after Athanasius. Ascribed to him because of its strong affirmation of Trinitarian belief, it was Western in both origin and usage. Authorship aside, it remains a remarkably resonant creedal proclamation, fittingly associated with Sundays. (Verses 1-28 are focused on the Trinity; verses 29-44 are primarily christological.) 

The "Athanasian Creed" is just one of the three creeds traditionally used in the Western, Latin liturgical tradition. The creed commonly called the Apostles Creed (Symbolum Apostolicum) used to be recited daily at Prime and Compline. That medieval usage continues in the Anglican daily offices of Matins and Evensong. (I remember how, when I was at Windsor Castle on sabbatical in 2005, we would always turn to face the altar when reciting the Apostles Creed during those daily offices in Saint George's Chapel.) The inexplicable hostility to the liturgical use of creeds on the part of 20th-century liturgical reformers resulted in the Apostles Creed's complete disappearance from the Divine Office in 1955. 

The third creed, sadly now the only one still used in the liturgy, is, of course, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (photo), composed originally in Greek and thus the only creed used in both the Western and Eastern Churches. In the Eastern rites, the Creed remains a regular part of every Divine Liturgy. In the Roman Rite, however, its usage has been much diminished. Formerly used on all Sundays and very many feasts, it is now confined solely to Sundays and "Solemnities." Traditionally one of "the parts of a Sung Mass," the Creed is nowadays more widely recited rather than sung, even in otherwise "sung" celebrations, a dramatic rejection of centuries of liturgical practice, inexplicable except as one more consequence of 20th-century reformers' dubious legacy of hostility to the traditional prominence of creeds' in the liturgy. (Not long ago, it was even worse! For example, in the 1980s I can recall attending Sunday Masses at which the Creed was routinely omitted!)

Lex orandi, lex credendi. Liturgy has always been at the heart of what we do as a Church. Increasingly it may well become the only thing we do - the only experience of Church and religion most people will have in their lives, as an ambient Catholic and Christian culture and the cultural institutions that in the past shared responsibility for forming individuals, families, and society as Catholic Christians continue to weaken and disappear. . The proclamation and profession of an articulated faith in the liturgy, something previous centuries could perhaps take for granted, will therefore be that much more important a part of whatever liturgical experiences people have..

Thursday, May 24, 2018

About That Wedding Sermon

Some 27 or 28 years ago, I attended an Easter Mass at which the preacher began by walking down the church's main aisle pushing a shopping cart with the figures (from the Christmas crib set) of the three wise men. At the pulpit he took them out and began his homily which was structured around telling them the rest of the story, what had happened after they had returned home from Bethlehem. The preacher was a very talented and creative priest, and his performance was superb. To this day, I (and others who were present) can remember it. At the time, I thought it was a very good homily. It probably was. But I honestly don't really remember any of the content. It was the entertaining gimmick that made it memorable, and it is that (not the substance of his message) that we all remember. The obvious lessons I took from that (and other similar experiences) were that a cleverly creative and entertaining homily by a talented preacher will likely be very well received, but that what will be remembered will likely be how clever and entertaining he was - in other words, the preacher not the message

It is less than a week now since the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, delivered his now famous address at Britain's royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He and his talk have been widely praised and perhaps as widely criticized  On the merits, I probably come down somewhere in the middle, there being in my opinion both much to praise in his talk and some things not to praise.

I am no expert on wedding homilies. Other than the (utterly unmemorable) ones I myself have delivered, I have had occasion to listen to very few. From what I have heard, however, from what I have been told by other preachers, my sense is that many wedding homilies try to be highly personal, displaying the preacher's personal knowledge of the couple, perhaps with stories gleaned from conversations at the rehearsal dinner the night before. Compared to that approach, Bishop Curry's sermon was certainly a more traditonal sermon with a real religious message, in fact a good and serious message (even if a bit belabored in its length). Whether it qualified as an effective message about the meaning of Christian marriage or just some generic form of comfortable Christianity can continue to be debated; but it was, as I heard it, a Christian message, however obscured that might now be by the preacher's style and all the responses, which have focused almost entirely on him and his impact on his audience. 

Certainly that suggests the one critique that is easiest to make - that this controversy itself suggests that the sermon has been received primarily as a performance and is being evaluated accordingly. It is primarily the performance (and the preacher himself) that is being either praised or criticized. How many times in the last week have I heard or read that the Bishop's preaching style was so different from what would be more typical at such a formal occasion? That has been said in praise, as well as a critique.  How many times in the last week have I heard or read impressions of its impact both on the congregation in Saint George's and on its world-wide audience. The question of whether the style was appropriate to the occasion is not an illegitimate one, although one has to assume that the royal family's decision to invite him was not made in ignorance of his preaching style. And, if his hearers were reacting (whether positively or negatively) primarily to the preacher himself and less (if at all) to his religious message, that may well be his fault for having preached the way he did. But it may also as much reflect a widespread ignorance of and discomfort with specifically Christian and even more generically religious language and ideas on the part of not a few of those listening - both within the Chapel and beyond its walls.

This highlights an important point about such sermons - that they could actually become evangelizing moments, but are not very likely to do so. That can happen only if the the Christian story (whether the Christian story about marriage specifically or the more general Christian story) is presented attractively, but also clearly - in other words, if the message overwhelms the experience rather than being overwhelmed itself by the aesthetics of the preaching experience. That, it seems to me, was what the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, tried to do at the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His talk was much, much shorter, much less a display of the preacher's virtuosity and more about something the hearers probably needed to hear - an authentic proclamation of a Christian message about marriage in the modern world. He spoke of bride and groom "making a new life together so that life can flow through them to the future."  (There was no Teilhard de Chardin in his homily, but he did begin with words from Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day it happened to be - "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.") 

William being destined in due time to become king, his wedding was, of course, a much more formal, official state occasion, a factor which should also to be considered before admitting any gratuitous criticism of his younger brother's obviously much less formal event!

Most of us will never preach at a royal wedding or any other occasion with a worldwide audience. But many of us do preach on occasions which bring in many somewhat uninterested or incomprehending listeners. Weddings and funerals, for sure, but also Christmas and Easter. That is why I have always disliked Christmas Eve "Children"s" or "Family" Christmas pageant-Masses, which increasingly seem to me to be such a lost opportunity. Such celebrations are filled with visitors who may be there only for that one occasion. But, instead of hearing an attractive, if challenging, adult message about the meaning of the Christmas story, they are as likely to see and hear confirmed what they already suspect - namely that religion is kid-stuff, possibly very good for children but of little relevance to actual adult life.

But, back to the wedding! In my opinion the only seriously problematic thing about Bishop Curry's talk was its length. If his homily had been, say, half the length it turned out to be, my guess is that reactions would have been different. Like most preachers, he could probably have said most of what he needed to say in half the time anyway! And he would more likely have held his hearers attention, thereby avoiding the appearance of discomfort in the congregation. While practically everyone in the world now knows that he preached about "love," maybe more people might remember his serious and challenging message about love if the homily had been short enough to hold their attention. (I suppose he understood he was going on too long. Hence his presumably humorous aside to the wedding couple that he knew he had to end so that they could get married. That could have been a nice touch - but only if he had actually stopped at that point!)

All in all, I think some of the praise has been excessive - and some of it apparently a somewhat mean-spirited way of mocking the royal family. The criticism, I think, has also been somewhat excessive (except on the issue of length). Some of it too has been somewhat mean-spirited, as if any deviation from some supposedly set pattern of formality were ipso facto offensive. 

A couple of years form now, will anyone remember Bishop Curry's message about love? Or, as happened with that Easter Magi homily, will the preacher himself and the responses he generated be what will be remembered instead?

The message I take away from all this is that it is always problematic when anyone (especially a preacher) draws too much attention to himself - especially when the event is really so obviously meant to be not about you at all!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Impeachment Obsession

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. (The Constitution of the United States, article II, Section 4).

Like so many provisions of our 18th-century Constitution, this one remains subject to multiple competing interpretations. Impeachment's actual role in American history has been modest, a consequence of the few occasions it has been applied, all of which may or may not reflect what the Framers may have actually intended or expected.

Like so much of our American constitutional and legal tradition, impeachment originated in inherited British practice, according to which the House of Commons could accuse someone of a crime leading to a trial in the House of Lords. Since this process did not require royal assent, it could be used by Parliament against officers of the Crown even if they enjoyed the  monarch's support. The monarch him(her)self, however, was above the law and so could not be impeached. Hence the Constitution specified explicitly that the President too would be subject to this process, along with all other "civil officers."

One danger that some might have feared from this would have been that impeachment of legitimately elected Presidents might become a congressional habit and thus evolve into a de facto parliamentary form of government. That has not happened, however. In fact, very few impeachment trials have actually taken place - 19 in all, 15 of federal judges, of whom eight were convicted and removed from office. (One was subsequently elected a member of the House of Representatives, which may say something about how his impeachment was popularly perceived.)

Only two presidents have actually been impeached - Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Andrew Jackson was arguably one of our very worst presidents. Even so, he was acquitted by one vote, after which his case became a kind of parable against politically motivated impeachments. That was certainly how it was presented to us in school 60 years ago, a view reinforced by JFK's account in Profiles in Courage. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was very obviously politically motivated by a hyper-partisan, out-of-control Republican Congress. Democrats rightly rallied around the President. So there was no serious chance of his ever being convicted by the Senate, and indeed Clinton left office as one of the most popular modern presidents. As the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has observed, the Clinton impeachment fiasco "showed that a determined majority in the House could impeach a President without legitimate reason." But the electoral price the Republicans paid for their behavior in the 1998 election, Nadler notes, showed that "people disapproved" of what the Republicans did. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agrees that the Clinton impeachment "blew up in our [Republicans'] faces and helped President Clinton." Impeachment, Graham argues, "has to be bipartisan, or it's going to be a failure."

Yet, in today's even more hyper-partisan atmosphere, impeachment talk has become the rage again in some quarters. One donor, Tom Steyer, has made it a major plank of his platform and apparently has a mailing list of more than 5 million people. Hopefully, most Democrats will resist this temptation! It seems reasonable to guess that the best cause the Republicans could attach themselves to in this election year could be persuading their voters to come out and re-elect Republicans, if only to avoid another hyper-partisan impeachment that would attempt to negate the previously expressed will of the electorate! 

And it is not as if there weren't a lot of important policy issues that the Democrats could run on! Why, one wonders, would any party imperil its case with the voters by tying itself to a possible impeachment which would likely fail in the Senate anyway or, at best, would merely saddle the country with Mike Pence?

In the wake of the Andrew Johnson fiasco, few ever expected impeachment to be employed against a president again, except in the most extreme case of criminality or malfeasance. Watergate precedents notwithstanding, that is the way it probably should stay. Judges have lifetime appointments. So impeachment is obviously the only available avenue when a judge proves unworthy. Presidents, however, are elected; and so, absent an extremely compelling case of criminality or malfeasance, broadly recognized as such in society, the will of the electorate (even if originally distorted by the Electoral College) deserves to be upheld for the allotted term (after which an unsatisfactory president may either retire voluntarily or be involuntarily voted out). The alternative of undoing an election would, on the contrary, be even more divisive, even more de-legitimizing of our political process, and even more subversive of our essential civic institutions.

The present Administration's contemptible campaign to subvert and de-legitimize institutions like the FBI has already succeeded in creating a constituency prepared to believe that an effort at impeachment would be nothing more than an illegitimate partisan attempt to undo an election (a repeat of the 1998 Republican-led Clinton impeachment effort). Indeed, in today's NY Times, Frank Bruni cited a CBS News poll that several weeks ago showed that fewer Americans believed Mueller’s investigation to be legitimate (44 percent) than to be politically driven (53 percent)! 

Given the likely partisan make-up of the Senate for the foreseeable future, such an effort would probably fail anyway, at even greater cost to our national unity, to civility, and to the perceived legitimacy of our political processes and our essential civic institutions.

It is our institutions - all of them - that need strengthening. Healthy, properly functioning civic, social, and political institutions are the best remedy against executive malfeasance, which is why their weakness at the present juncture is so lamentable and dangerous. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"The Birthday of the Church"

This year, the Jewish and Christian calendars coincide, much as they did then, when (according to the Gospel of John) Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover (14 Nisan). Just as Good Friday fell again this year on Passover eve, Shavuot and Pentecost likewise coincide this year, both occurring today, Sunday, May 20, which makes this a good occasion to recall and highlight the connection between them.

Pentecost is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day (the 6th day of Sivan, the 3rd month) after Passover and in Christian usage the 50th day of Easter. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the seven weeks that began with Passover. Shavuot was the second of the three great pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish calendar and originated as a joyful thanksgiving for the early summer harvest, when two loaves, made from new flour, would be offered to God as the first fruits of the grain harvest. To commemorate this, Jews now eat two meals on the day of Shavuot — an earlier dairy meal, and then later a festive meat meal.
Over time, Shavuot became primarily a commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which (according to Exodus 19) happened early in the 3rd month, seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Recalling this, on the first night of Shavuot (this year, Pentecost eve), Jews throughout the world keep an all-night vigil dedicated to receiving the Commandments anew. The Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, of course, was King David's grandmother. She was also originally a Gentile.

The modern Roman Missal provides for a Pentecost Vigil, an option which is, I suspect, seldom used. In the early Church, however, Pentecost paralleled Easter as a baptismal feast. Out of that evolved a Vigil liturgy on Saturday morning, which (until its abolition in 1955) replicated much of the traditional Holy Saturday morning rite. Celebrated in violet vestments, it began with repeating 6 of the 12 Holy Saturday prophecies and the blessing of the baptismal font, followed by the Litany of the Saints, all just like on Holy Saturday. The vigil concluded with a festive Mass (in red) which anticipated Pentecost, just as the Easter Vigil seven weeks earlier had concluded with a festive Mass anticipating Easter. All that is gone now, of course, along with the Pentecost Octave that previously paralleled the Easter Octave.

Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus event itself had been but the beginning and of which David's kingdom would be the flowering. So too, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from frightened friends of an absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the whole world, Gentiles and Jews alike.

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since it was as a direct result of their having received the gift of the Holy Spirit during the festival of Shavuot that followed Jesus’ Ascension that the apostles began their mission – the Church’s mission – of preaching the Gospel to the whole world - thus fulfilling and completing the promise of Easter and carrying it out into the world of day-to-day life and work.

Liturgically, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter Time to Ordinary Time – the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of the resurrection takes effect in daily life. Just as the new life promised by spring continues into summer, the new life promised by the Risen Christ continues in our world in his Church. In that sense, Pentecost is the annual liturgical observance of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, to renew the face of the earth as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Wedding at Saint George's

Among my many happy memories from my 2005 sabbatical summer at Britain's Windsor Castle was praying Prayer Book Matins and Evensong every day with my classmates and the Canons of Saint George's in the Garter Knights' choir stalls in Windsor Castle's beautiful and historic Saint George's Chapel, site of tomorrow's royal wedding.  (As I recall, that summer I usually sat in the King of Norway's Morning Prayer and Evensong.)

Saint George's Chapel was erected in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and is part of England's glorious pre-Reformation religious and civic legacy. As a "Royal Peculiar," the chapel and it Chapter of Canons survived the worst excesses of the Reformation. It remains central to the Order of the Garter, whose members - the Monarch, the Prince of Wales, 24 Knights Companions, and other Royal and Stranger Knights - all have their banners displayed in the stalls. Several English and later British monarchs are buried within its precincts - Edward III, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII, King Charles I, George III, George IV, William IV, Edward VII, George V, and George VI. So, as an alternative to clippety-clopping around London, Windsor's Saint George's Chapel is an obviously appropriate place for a royal wedding.

Along with the beautiful place come the stately cadences and the beautiful language of The Book of Common Prayer. Particularly worthy of esteem is the traditional Instruction with which the BCP Marriage Rite begins, simultaneously so familiar and so solemn: Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God and in the face of this Congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God, etc. It minces no words about the seriousness of marriage and the duty to approach it reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God, and considering the three purposes of Matrimony - the procreation of children ... a remedy against sin ... [and] the mutual society, help, and comfort, that one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.  

Weddings are primordially social events, their significance deeply embedded in our human consciousness, for a wedding signifies the continuation of the human story and of a family's story from this generation to the next. A royal wedding further signifies that for a nation's story.

Royal weddings also focus our attention on the enduring value of the under-appreciated institution that is modern monarchy. It contrasts with the demonstrable deterioration of electoral politics and the widespread weakening and evident decline in effective democratic governance which we are currently experiencing not only in the Untied States but all over the Western world, all of which ought to highlight the symbolic, social, and civic importance of non-electoral, value-bearing institutions, that help hold societies together and offer an alternative to the destructive values of contemporary popular culture.

As a recent article in The Spectator (Jenny McCartney "Why Britain is lucky to have Meghan Markle") pointedly observed: "The widespread profound affection that the British public has for Queen Elizabeth is partly based on the fact that although she’s always been there, we’ve never had too much of her at any given moment: she’s a combination of cosiness and mystery, and she doesn’t get on our nerves. The Queen doesn’t over-emote or tell us every thought that passes momentarily through her head: she’s a one-woman antidote to the excesses of social media."

Monarchy may not be the only "antidote to the excesses of social media,"  but it is surely a most obvious one - at least for those societies lucky enough still to possess one. it is one of the very few traditional social and civic institutions still standing that has somehow managed to survive the blight of modernity's anti-communitarian individualism and post-modernity's moral and cultural vacuum.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Another Book about Pius IX

The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe, by David I. Kertzer (Random House, 2018).

Pope Saint John XXIII was famously devoted to the memory of his now-beatified, 19th-century predecessor Pope Pius IX, writing in 1959: "I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." (He did not live to do as he had hoped. Instead it was Pope Saint John Paul II who finally beatified Pius IX - together with John XXIII - on September 3, 2000.) 

The triumphs and sufferings of Pius IX form the centerpiece of the Church's troubled voyage through the 19th century. That century began with the papacy at one of its lowest levels of power and prestige with election of Pope Pius VII in Venice, where the papacy was in effect in exile from Rome then occupied by Napoleon. It ended with Pope Leo XIII, bereft of political power and a self-styled "prisoner of the Vatican," but with the papacy experiencing renewed and heightened spiritual and moral prestige. In between, came the long and conflict-ridden pontificate of Pius IX.

David Kertzer is already the author of several acclaimed books on the papacy and Italian religion and politics (most notably his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe). In this latest work, he tackles the complex story of Pope Pius IX's early, failed flirtation with liberalism and Italian nationalism that culminated in the Roman revolution of 1848 and the Pope's exile - and eventual return thanks to foreign military assistance. It represents a small slice of Pius IX's extremely long pontificate, but it was an important moment in papal and European history - the brief experiment in which the Pope allied himself (or seemed at any rate to ally himself) with liberalism and Italian nationalism and how the failure of that experiment forced the Pope on a more reactionary path, which set the stage for all subsequent Church history.

Kertzer's account is quite detailed, The reader will learn more about the day-to-day political, military, and diplomatic developments during that period than he or she probably ever expected to know. The book is also a good historical lesson in the importance of personalities in international relations. That said, he seems to want to make the episode even more decisive than it necessarily was, thanks to the author's historical preoccupation with and contemporary concern about the survival of theocratic anti-modern, anti-liberalism.

To be sure, the events described in the book were most decisive for Pius IX and his subsequent policies - both his internal Church policy and his external political policy. Those events were likewise most decisive in finally forging the path Italian nationalism would have to take. With the Pope as an inevitable obstacle, the only viable vehicle for Italian nationalism and eventual unification was was the Piedmontese Savoyard monarchy with its constitutional and liberal institutions. But, while extremely decisive for Italy's future, its seems an exaggeration to suggest, as Kertzer seems to be suggesting, that these events were decisive for the future of absolutism in Europe. On the contrary, one could contend that absolutism was already doomed in Europe everywhere west of Russia. Its vestigial survival in Rome was entirely a consequence of the papacy's uniquely religious character. The dual conviction that the temporal power was essential for the maintenance of the Pope's religious mission and that for religious reasons the temporary power had to be absolutist and clerical created a completely unique context in Rome, which was of no avail to other would-be absolute monarchs. 

Two aspects of the story that really seem to scream for attention are its account of the popular hostility to priestly government and the papal preoccupation with the absolute necessity of the temporal power. Probably more than anything else, the former was decisive in this story. (There remains a perennial lesson in that, which we can recognize in the repeated pattern in places where the clergy have - or have appeared to have - exercised disproportionate political power, e.g., modern Spain and modern Ireland). Historically, had Pius and his advisers been able and willing (neither of which they were) to create an efficient lay-administered civil government under papal sovereignty, it is arguable that the popular hostility to the temporal power would have been considerably less intense, with correspondingly different results. That would not necessarily have been sufficient to counter the long-term appeal of Italian nationalism and unification, which ultimately only the House of Savoy could accomplish, which in turn highlights the salience of the second problem of the persistent commitment to holding on to the temporal power.

While no one can seriously underestimate how the eventual loss of the temporal power in 1870 ultimately worked in the long term to the Church's advantage, history makes it easy to understand why the temporal power was perceived as essential. After all, even now in its vestigial and largely symbolic form, the Pope's politically independent status as a sovereign in international law, while perhaps not an absolutely unmixed blessing, has repeatedly proved itself to be much more of an asset than a burden. 

A final lesson which Kertzer's account highlights is the ephemeral nature of political popularity and the danger of any political leader's over-eagerly seeking to cultivate such popularity. The inherent incompatibility between Pius IX's attempt to win popular acclaim and his transcendent institutional mission was but a special historical illustration of the universal challenge that the desire for popular approval poses for any leader who has an institutional mission that goes beyond the transience of short-term popular approbation.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is supposed to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Back where I came from, Ascension is still celebrated on its own day, last Thursday. So, there, one is still greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that in the entire city what is called “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holyday. It’s even better in parts of Europe where Ascension is a legal holiday and where even the Stock Market is closed in observance of Ascension. 

Growing up, of course, what we so especially liked about the Ascension was that we got off from school! But, of course, we had to go to Mass in the morning, and at least some of us really looked forward to the wonderful ritual of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. The point of that, of course, was not just Christ’s departure, but also the new way he is now present to us. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

If you look up, just like the apostles in the story, you can see in the center of the ceiling a painting of the Ascension [photo], one of three ceiling paintings that are all that is left of a number of such paintings that were attached to the ceiling and walls of this church by a group of itinerant artists a century ago. When we replaced the ceiling in 2013, there was a lot of anxiety about preserving those paintings, and we brought in an expert from Pellissippi State College to examine and clean them. I even climbed the scaffolding myself one day just to say that I had touched one of the paintings. (I could still do that then, although I doubt my knees would let me do that now!)

Historically speaking, Ascension commemorates the last of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walked earth the way he did before he died and rose, but he did, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 days [Acts 1:1-11], speaking about the kingdom of God.

So, now, if Jesus doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34].

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint and the idea that the pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself.

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile, in this interval between Ascension and the end - a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of crises and conflicts in the world and even in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries - in this interval between Ascension and the end, the Risen Lord remains with us though his gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from being absent, Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, is still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has recently reminded us: “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness” [GE 15]

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 13, 2018.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Strangers and Aliens No More

Every day during the Easter season, the 1st reading at each Mass is taken from the Acts of the Apostles – the sequel, so to speak, to the Gospel according to Luke – the story of what happened next, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  It’s the wonderful story of how a mere 120 disciples were transformed by the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome and in the process was transformed from a small Jewish sect into a world-wide Church with a universal mission.

To us, who already know the story, that all seems to have been so obvious and inevitable. For the first Christians, however, it must have seemed like one new learning experience after another. Today’s 1st reading [Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48] recounts one pivotal point in that process. The story actually began earlier with Peter, the leader of the Christian community, making what we today might call a “pastoral visit” to the disciples in a town called Joppa (near today’s Tel Aviv). While there, Peter had a dream, in which he saw various animals, not all of them kosher, and heard a heavenly voice tell him to kill and eat them. When Peter responded that he had never done such a thing, he was told, What God has made clean, you are not to call profane. That’s a good example of something the meaning of which, to us in retrospect, seems so obvious, but which at the time, in its actual context, must have seemed so perplexing.

When such situations occur - whether on world historically significant occasions such as Peter found himself a part of or in the more ordinary challenges of daily life – what is required is what our spiritual tradition calls discernment. As Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, it is how we can “know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil.” We need discernment, the Pope writes: “at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow” [GE, 166, 169].

Meanwhile, when Peter was beginning his discernment process, pondering his perplexing dream, emissaries from a Roman centurion, named Cornelius, came calling and asked Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea, which Peter promptly did. And that is where today’s reading picks up the story.

Cornelius was a Roman, a foreigner, a pagan.  He was in fact a rather pious pagan, and was somewhat sympathetic to Judaism; but he was still a pagan, an uncircumcised Gentile! No observant Jew would normally have entered his house, but these were not normal circumstances. Already “prepped” by his perplexing dream, Peter crossed that boundary. Once inside, he spoke with Cornelius, and - no doubt as much to his own amazement as everyone else’s - he said: “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”  He then did what no one had yet thought of doing. He proclaimed the Good News of Jesus to a house full of Gentiles. Suddenly what had happened to the original 120 disciples on Pentecost now happened to Cornelius and his household – a “Pentecost for pagans,” as it has been called.  And so, Peter asked, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”

Thus began the momentous change that enabled Christianity to spread and take root throughout the world, becoming eventually the largest religion in the world and the largest growing religion in the world today. I say “began,” because, of course, the full implications of something so unexpected took time to sink in. There were other Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism at the time.  Some even went all the way and converted. Had Cornelius converted, become a Jew, and then acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, he would not have been all that different from the other early Christians, who were, of course, also Jews who acknowledged Jesus as the promised Messiah. Cornelius, however, had “jumped the line,” so to speak, directly into Christianity. Soon the Church would have to debate whether Gentiles needed to become Jews first in order to become Christians, and Peter would cite this transformational event as the key to understanding God’s will for this Church – that it be the vehicle for conversion and repentance for all, without exception and without restriction.

Given the apostles’ own Jewish background, the long history of separation between Jews and Gentiles, and the seriousness with which all that had been taken up until then, this was quite a radical step. And it was not taken lightly, as the debates elsewhere in Acts illustrate. But eventually it was accepted as a recognition of how God’s original covenant with Israel was now being universally fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, this didn’t all just happen. It was God who took the initiative – inspiring Cornelius to invite Peter, prepping Peter with his dream, and then dramatically demonstrating God’s plan to include the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit. As leader of the Church, Peter, through the gift and practice of discernment, recognized God’s action and accepted its implications, baptizing the first Gentile Christians and incorporating them into the community.

This story speaks volumes about the very nature of the Church – not just the 1st century apostolic Church, but the Church of the 21st century, which is, if anything, even more global and more universal than ever before. The Church is not a club, a fraternal association, a social networking group, or even a prayer group, though it may have elements of all those things. As Pope Pius XI put it, almost a century ago: “The Church has no other reason for its existence than to extend over the earth the kingdom of Christ and so to render people sharers of his saving redemption.”

As a practical matter, of course, we experience the Church largely as part of a locally defined parish community. The parish nourishes and supports us in our faith. It brings us together to hear the Good News that makes our lives so different from what they would otherwise have been. It brings us together to respond to that Good News with worship and prayer, support for one another, and service to others in the day-in, day-out dying and rising that defines a disciple’s life. But it doesn’t stop there. The parish is never just about itself. In union with Peter’s successor, the Pope, and the apostles’ successors, the Bishops of the entire world, the Church unites us across time back to the faith and witness of the apostles their first converts - pagans like Cornelius - and across space to take in the entire world, today’s world.

Precisely as Christ’s Church, we too are constantly being challenged at every level to expand our horizon. Just as the apostolic Church had its horizon expanded, we too are constantly being challenged to understand our own local experience of Church as one with that of the young, emerging Church in Africa, the aging Church in Europe, and the even more ancient Churches in India and the Middle East, ancient Churches currently endangered once again by war, terrorism, and persecution.

Likewise, we too are constantly being challenged to understand how our own middle-aged American Church is being rejuvenated and revitalized by many new members from all over the world. Here in America, we have long been a Church of immigrants in a land and nation of immigrants. In the 19th century, Isaac Hecker’s process of discernment led him to see the two as “working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people” [CA, 99]. Then as now, not everyone was ready to recognize that. Hence the particular relevance for us, in this time and place, of Christ’s command to welcome the stranger. As Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation has also reminded us: we absolutely may not act as if “the situation of migrants” were some sort of “lesser issue,” compared with other moral and political priorities [GE, 101].

As we work together to welcome one another – and others – into our nation and our American Church, we are being challenged to recognize our own local experience in the wider terms of God’s great plan for the salvation of the world – God who sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him [1 John 4:9].

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 6, 2018.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Karl Marx at 200

Karl Marx (1818-1883) would have been 200 tomorrow (May 5). And, if his side hadn't so spectacularly lost the Cold War, his bicentennial might be getting much more notice around the world right now. After all, for some 70+ years of the 20th century much of the population of what, until 1917, had been the Russian Empire was held in bondage by a totalitarian government that at least formally swore allegiance to Marx's ideas. After World War II, more nations and peoples were added to those ruled by supposed disciples of Marx and believers in his theories, while Marxist parties played a profoundly powerful part in the politics of major Western countries like France and Italy.. But, whatever remaining influence he still has in rarefied intellectual circles, Marx now no longer holds serious sway over governments and politics.

But Marx (or at least certain versions of Marxism) remained very much in vogue when I was in college and then graduate school in the 1960s and 1970s. In college, I studied Marxist Critical Theory with an old German socialist, whose “New Trends in Marxism” seminar first exposed me to the Frankfurt School and other contemporary “New Left” and psychoanalytic appropriations of Marxism. I studied Ancient and Modern Political Theory with the author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: and Adventures in Marxism. Along with so many in my generation I was wrestling, both personally and politically, with the question of what could, would, and should a meaningful and fulfilling life look like, now that modernity had at last made it possible to imagine a world in which we could all aspire to a “good” rather than a “mere” life. For the pre-modern Aristotle, that had been impossible except for a small population of citizens. So it seemed obvious to me that a major part of Marx’s modern appeal was precisely in how he could envision that possibility of a thoroughly revolutionized, post-“pre-history,” human history.

For historical reasons, we read The Communist Manifesto and at least parts of Das Kapital. But what really engaged us was the "early" Marx, notably his so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. We talked endlessly about Entfremdung ("alienation"), and we actually argued about whether Ludwig Feuerbach's "explanation" of religion in Das Wesen des Crhistentums ("The Essence of Christianity") really solved the "problem" of religion once and for all. And the Marxist idea that "the relations of production" should be determinative for the cultural "superstructure" of which religion was notably a part, was still surprisingly alive and well. I remember one classmate contending that she could understand why there would be religion in the Society Union (because of continued "alienation"), but she couldn't understand the survival of Russian Orthodoxy since "the relations of production" had changed since the Revolution. In other words, Russians under Communism were alienated enough to have religion but since they were under Communism it should be a different form of religion from what had gone before!

In point of fact, as less ideological academics acknowledged, Marx was quite wrong  in his historical analyses and even more obviously totally wrong in his predictions, but his analysis of the politics of his own time (e.g. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) could often be quite insightful. That left one with the sense that there wasn't too much in Marxist theory that was all that valid in the last third of the 20th century - except some vague invocations of "alienation" and "mystification" and the not so vague tool of class analysis. 

To me the one abiding value in having studied so much Marx is in that sensitivity to the importance of economic class for political analysis. Class never has and never will explain everything, but neither can it be ignored - as it often has been, especially in American political analysis. Religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts have been a recurring component of American history. Class analysis does not deny the distinctly religious, racial, or ethnic component of conflict, but it amplifies that analysis and calls attention to important but neglected dimensions of such social and political conflicts.

If nothing else, Marx has also left us with some famously quotable quotes, which may in fact be true - even if often in ways somewhat different from what Marx himself may have meant or intended at the time. For example:

The emancipation of the state from religion is not the emancipation of the real man from religion (On the Jewish Question, 1843).

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it  (Economic and Philosphical Manuscripts, 1844).

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has piteously torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation  (The Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add:the first time as tragedy, the second as farce  (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852).