Monday, December 17, 2018

Fred I. Greenstein (1930-2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

What Should We Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Dutch Church Service That Doesn't End

Good religion news is not abundant in contemporary secularized western Europe. Yesterday's NY Times, however, contained some good, indeed edifying, news in a story "To Protect Migrants From Police, a Dutch Church Service Never Ends." 

(To access it online, go to:

The story is about a marathon church service that started some six weeks ago in The Hague's Bethel Church as a way of shielding one immigrant family of Armenian refugees from deportation. So far, more than 550 clergy from some 20 denominations have taken turns keeping the service going, taking advantage of a Dutch law (leftover, no doubt, from that kingdom's once vibrant Protestant religious culture) that prohibits police from arresting someone during a religious service.

According to the Times article, the story began in a seaside town southwest of Amsterdam, where the Tamrazyan family ended up after the father was forced to flee Armenia for political reasons in 2010. Over the years, Dutch officials twice tried to deny the family asylum, and were twice defeated in court, but finally won on its third attempt. To avoid deportation to danger back in Armenia, the family took refuge in a local church. When that church ran out of resources to help them, the leadership of The Hague’s Bethel Church welcomed the family, and has been providing education for the children who can no longer safely attend school outside. The Protestant Church in the Netherlands has endorsed this effort and publicized it.

So far, the Dutch government has refused to back down. So it is hard to see how this will end. Meanwhile, however, the Church keeps doing its job as best it can - visible even in super-secularized western Europe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Lame Duck" Mischief

The scandalous assaults by some Republican state legislatures on democratic constitutional norms are serious business. It is worth noting, however, that they are possible in large part because of a particular peculiarity in our system - "lame duck" legislative sessions. Some states strictly limit the length of a legislative session - a relic of the older idea of part-time legislators who have full-time jobs in their communities. In such cases, "lame duck" sessions are rare, requiring the executive to summon a special session. The same would be the case with Congress if it completed its business on time and adjourned earlier in the year. Nowadays, of course, Congress has become so polarized and in such a state of permanent electoral campaign that it has become legislatively dysfunctional to the point that things that absolutely have to be done (e.g., spending bills) get kicked down the calendar to virtually the latest possible date, increasingly requiring a "lame duck" congressional session, such as is taking place now (accompanied by predictable Republican mischief such as pointlessly summoning former FBI Director Comey to testify yet again about Hilary Clinton's emails).

It was to minimize Congressional "lame duck" mischief that the 20th Amendment to the federal constitution was adopted in 1935. The original constitution had prescribed an annual meeting of Congress on the first Monday in December. The constitution itself, however, had gone into effect on March 4, 1789. So the terms of office for Senators and Representatives (as well as President and Vice President) were calculated to begin and end on March 4 in the odd-numbered year following elections the previous November. As a result, the newly elected Congress did not take office until March; but, unless for some reason a President called a special session, the new Congress did not actually meet until the following December, 13 months after election. Meanwhile, the old Congress met, as prescribed, for its second annual session in December after the election - an election in which some at least (and sometimes many) congressmen had been defeated for reelection. This "lame duck" session met until the morning of the following March 4. 

The 20th Amendment ended this bizarre system. It specified that The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin. Its second section then provided The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

So, since the 1930s we are no longer required have to have "lame duck" congressional sessions . We have them now, not by necessity, but by congressional choice. Meanwhile mishchief on a minor or major scale is increasingly threatened by such sessions - major mischief as we are witnessing in the state legislatures on Wisconsin and Michigan and as we famously saw in Congress when President Clinton was maliciously impeached in a "lame duck" session in December 1998.

Congress could, of course, get its house in order and complete its business in a more reasonable time-frame (i.e., ending before the November elections), thus making "lame duck" sessions rare. It could actually legislate such a time-table for itself (although we know from experience how unlikely Congress would be to remain faithful to its own "regular order"). 

In fact, forcing Congress to conduct its business in a timely manner (before the November elections) would be a great benefit. It would minimize the kind of post-election mischief we have become accustomed to and facilitate a far more logical - and more representative - system. In practice, however, the only way to force this on Congress would be to amend the constitution - either to require Congress to adjourn by, at the latest, November 1 or to advance the start of the new congressional terms to, let's say, December 1. Of course, amending the constitution is a challenge under the best of conditions, and these are not the best of conditions right now. So a solution through constitutional amendment remains highly unlikely, although depending on their different processes some states might be more successful in amending their own constitutions and preventing their own state legislatures from indulging in "lame duck" sessions..

The only realistic recourse at the federal level is public anger and public pressure (also not particularly likely) to demand an end to such "lame duck" sessions. Until and unless something like that happens, we shall continue to see this aberrant and bizarre system continue with all its potential for minor and major  mischief.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Thomas Merton - 50 Years Gone

Today is the 50th anniversary of the untimely death of Fr. Mary Louis, OCSO,  better known by his secular name, Thomas Merton, undoubtedly the most famous and influential 20th-century American monk. (The mere notion of a famous and influential 20th-century American monk itself speaks volumes!) Born in 1915, young Merton lived an interesting life on both sides of the Atlantic, after which Merton was received into the Church 80 years ago, on November 16, 1938. A few years later, after a few more twists and turns, he entered the Cistercian monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, on December 10, 1941.  (With typical triumphalist hyperbole, he had called Gethsemane "the center of America" when he first visited there in April of that year.) Admitted to the novitiate the following year, he professed solemn vows in 1947 and was ordained a priest in 1949. 

Had he been just an ordinary monk, the wider world might never have heard from him again. But being no ordinary monk, Merton meanwhile authored some 70 books and numerous articles - at times a widely welcomed part of the era's triumphalist Catholicism that he had enthusiastically embraced, and at other times challenging that same triumphalist (and complacent) Catholicism and pushing both the Church and religious life in new directions, addressing the world beyond the cloister on such sensitive subjects as race and war, as well as on more conventionally spiritual and Catholic concerns.

In my high school years in the early 1960s, I spent a lot of time in the public library. The plus side of that was that I really read a lot – history and biography, in particular. It was at this time that I discovered Thomas Merton – not just his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), but also his monastic journal The Sign of Jonas, which I read and reread and which so many decades later still remains my favorite Merton book! At the time, I was thoroughly taken with Merton’s life story, his spiritual journey (although I am sure I would not have used such a term then) from agnostic secularism to the certitudes of mid-20th-century Catholicism, and also by Merton's somewhat romanticized depiction of his monastic vocation (part of that time's triumphalist Catholic culture which he had embraced and which I then simply assumed as a given). 

Although the NY Times excluded it from the weekly best-seller list on the grounds that it was "a religious book," the original cloth edition of The Seven Storey Mountain sold over 600,000 copies in the first year alone. Since then it has sold multiple millions of copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. It is, therefore, a "classic" (defined by Merton's friend Mark Van Doren as "a book that remains in print"). Graham Greene called it "an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for all of us." It was certainly that for me, however limited my understanding of it when I first read it as a teenager. But that is the thing about Merton: the more mature one's understanding of his writing the more attractive and aspirational it becomes.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton recalled purchasing a “set of four books, bound in black leather, marked in gold.” That purchase of the 4-volume Breviarum Romanum during the period between his conversion and his actual entry into the monastery, represented his decision “that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in the monastery.” Of course, in the end Merton did become a monk. In imitating Merton by buying myself a Roman Breviary in 1968, consciously choosing to do the same thing that he had done (or at least something similar), did I too hope that something similar might someday happen to me?   

Merton himself had not been not much older than I was when he made that decision, but he certainly had had much more experience of life. He was also much more widely and better educated and culturally engaged, all of which was the intellectual foundation that made possible both the quantity and quality of his enormous literary output as a monk, which - refined in the unique experience of his monastic vocation - spoke (and amazingly still speaks) to the world with a relevance few "spiritual" authors attain to.

As for me, in 1968, I had only the most minimal intellectual and cultural foundation. Obviously I could not hope ever to imitate Merton's literary output and cultural influence. I could barely imitate him in his spiritual aspirations. Also my Latin was minimal, hardly up to the challenge of reciting – let alone, properly praying – the Divine Office, as Merton regularly did while commuting to his pre-war teaching job. Fortunately for me, however, by this time priests in the United States were permitted to pray the Office in English; and the pre-conciliar simplification and codification of the rubrics had shortened the Office somewhat and so had made it feasible to print the entire Office in one Roman Breviary volume.  So it was that single English-language volume of the Church’s official prayer that I purchased for myself, in my modest effort to imitate Merton and maybe in some confused manner to follow him on his journey.  

“The inspiration to do it,” Merton wrote, “was a very great grace.” He said he could remember few things that gave him more joy.  It drew him “into that atmosphere, into that deep vast universal movement of vitalizing prayer, which is Christ praying in men to His Father.” That "movement of vitalizing prayer" is at the heart of any authentic religious vocation. whether monastic or (as the fictional 12th-century monk-detective Brother Cadfael might say) "in the world."

It was Merton's great gift to flourish in that monastic "atmosphere" in a way which intersected so powerfully with the Church "in the world." And so it was especially fitting that Pope Francis invoked Merton's wisdom (along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day) when he addressed the U.S. Congress in September 2015.

Last year, while in Louisville for a meeting, I visited the historical marker (photo) commemorating a major moment in Merton's life. On March 18, 1958, at what was then the downtown Louisville corner of 4th and Walnut, Merton suddenly realized that no one could be totally alien to him. It was, he said “as if waking from a dream.” Suddenly, he realized that he could have no “more glorious destiny” than as “a member of the human race … since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!”

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Voice from the Desert

This past Thursday, the Church celebrated one of its most popular saints, Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in what is today Turkey). Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 and became known and celebrated for his generosity. In some parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas still comes to bring gifts on the eve of his feast day – as, 37 years ago, he did for us novices at the Paulist Novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. Nowadays, in much of the United States, Santa Claus has already arrived in a multitude of Thanksgiving and Christmas parades, but we must still wait patiently another few weeks for his presents.

Of course, Santa Claus isn’t the only figure whose annual appearance heralds the coming of Christmas. As she always does on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the Church introduces us to the mysterious figure of John the Baptist, who comes out of the desert each Advent proclaiming: “Prepare the way of the Lord” [Luke 3:4; Isaiah 40:3].

John the Baptist is a very mysterious figure, appearing briefly at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, then quickly getting himself arrested and executed. All four Gospels mention John in connection with the beginning of Jesus’ public life, but Luke’s Gospel goes further and links John and Jesus not only as adults but at the beginning of their lives as infants. As the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, wrote in his Diary eight months after he had become a Catholic [April 2, 1845]: “We have much to learn before we know all that union with God means … Alas how few live solely for God – Mary – John the Baptist – these from their birth were consecrated to his work alone.” Hecker echoed the emphasis in Luke’s story of John’s consecration as priest and prophet from Day 1 - how John was by birth a Jewish priest, summing up and fulfilling all that the Old Testament was about, and a prophet, going before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare a people fit for the Lord [Luke 1:17; Malachi 3:23-24].

But how to prepare a people fit for the Lord? How do we prepare for the Lord?

John’s message may be timeless, but Luke the Gospel writer went to great length to pinpoint precisely when in historical time John made his first public appearance. What one notices immediately is the special solemnity of the story's language - the style of an official imperial proclamation, complete with the names of the reigning emperor and his representatives. That's Luke the historian, telling us who, what, when, and where - situating John's message in the larger sweep of human history.

All of this suggests that, however out-of-the-way the Jordan Valley may seem to us (despite its regular prominence in the news of the world), the real stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not some far-off desert oasis but at the very center of society - symbolized in the Gospel by that list of names of the emperor and his representatives. While the message itself may indeed be timeless, God’s grace and mercy come to us in real time, in the specific circumstances in which we happen to find ourselves. That was what the Prophet Baruch was explaining to the people in the sad and troubled time that followed the Temple’s destruction and Israel’s exile to Babylon. Baruch invited the people to put aside their mourning and contemplate the exiles’ return at the time of the fall festival when the autumn rains bring new life to the parched land. He portrayed the return of the exiles as if they were on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage brought about by God alone, who is revealed in his mercy and justice.

Some 25 centuries later, we read and hear this prophecy in a world which once again is witness to a seemingly endless procession of exiles – refugees from Central America who are presently stranded on our own southern border and others around the world where war and chaos currently destroy lives and families and the very fabric of society itself. Wherever they come from and wherever they go, our obligation, as the United States’ Bishops have reminded us is “to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking” [Faithful Citizenship, 81] .

The similarities between then and now remind us that the stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not just some far-off 1st-century desert oasis but every time and place, including notably our own.

The geographical desert was just John's starting-point - as it had been Israel's starting-point way back when. Rather than remain in the wilderness, the word of God takes John out of the desert and into the world. God's word wants to be heard - by everyone, where people actually are. In the words of the prophet Isaiah that Luke quotes: all flesh shall see the salvation of God [Isaiah 40:5].

For most of us, preoccupied as we inevitably are with our busy day-to-day lives and our here-and-now concerns, John the Baptist reminds us what Advent and Christmas are all about - God's word's active movement into our world. Isaiah said all flesh shall see the salvation of God, but in John that future is already happening in the present. And, as in Isaiah's day and as in John's, there are certainly plenty of valleys to be filled and mountains and hills to be leveled by God’s grace and mercy in our world.

Advent, as we are always being told, is all about waiting and eager expectation. But waiting for what, exactly? Surely not just for Santa Claus! For Christ? Yes, for Christ - but surely not for Christ to be born! That happened a long time ago in Bethlehem. Otherwise, we wouldn't be praying here in this church today! If I may quote Isaac Hecker again: Christ has come. Christ is here, now upon earth. Christ ever abides with [us] according to His word. What the age promises [us] is the rending asunder the clouds of error which hinder [us] from seeing that Christ is here. [The Church and the Age, 1887]

Like the first coming of Christ, which John proclaimed way back then, the day-in, day-out, here-and-now, coming of Christ, which the Church lives all year long, invites a convinced and committed response on our part. That kind of response can only be sustained when we become convinced, as Saint Paul so clearly was, that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus [Philippians 4:7]

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 9, 2018

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Conceived without Sin

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

When I was in elementary school, that invocation and response were an integral part of our regular school prayers. Although I dutifully responded pray for us who have recourse to thee, I suspect that, for some of those years at least, I probably had no clue what the word recourse really meant. Given the high quality of the religious instruction we received, my guess is that I had a better understanding of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception before I ever actually got to understand the meaning of the word recourse!

When, in 1858,  the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the out-of-the-way town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains, she identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette did not recognize the reference nor understand its meaning. Nor did she know that scholars had been arguing about its meaning for centuries. In 1497, the University of Paris had even decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without first swearing to assert and defend Mary’s Immaculate Conception! (Presumably that requirement is no longer in force).

In 1846, the U.S. bishops unanimously chose Mary, under the title of her Immaculate Conception, as Patroness of our country. Eight year later, in 1854 Blessed Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the essence of the Church’s belief about Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the Church’s faith that, thanks to the salvation Jesus accomplished on our behalf, Mary was preserved from sin, from the very beginning of her existence, and so was from the very start completely holy. She is, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth [1770-1850] famously called her “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Meanwhile, soon after Pius IX’s dogmatic definition, the small and struggling Catholic community in Knoxville, TN, purchased a lot here on Summit Hill outside what were then the town’s northern limits, intending to build their first parish church here. At its dedication later that year, the new church was named for the Immaculate Conception. “We should all be especially devoted to the Immaculate Conception,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1940, “whose feast was given us especially for our time.”

The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the serious damage done by Adam and Eve to themselves and to the rest of the world - and the damage all of us have continued to do to ourselves and to our world, through our alienation from God. Mary, however, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power - God’s far-greater power that empowered her to say Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said “No” – God’s powerful plan to save us from ourselves.

The story calls Eve the mother of all the living. In spite of sin, human life continued – the very first sign that God was not going to give up on us. Of course, the serpent still lives and continues his mischief, but his doom is already certain. Eve’s greatest descendant and Mary’s Son will strike at the serpent’s head and crush him.

God’s great plan for our salvation, the mystery decided upon from all eternity and hidden for so many centuries, has been realized in Mary’s Son, Jesus, and is now revealed in the life and mission of the Church. Mary’s holiness at the very beginning of her earthly life is also the Church’s holiness at its beginning and invites us to look forward to the Church as she will one day be in the perfect holiness of God’s kingdom.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you!

Homily for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2018.

Photo: Sanctuary Window of the Immaculate Conception, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Bush Funeral Afterthoughts

"What does it tell you that the feel-good events in Washington these days are funerals?" asks Susan Glasser at the beginning of her article in The New Yorker, reflecting on Wednesday's state funeral for former President George H, W. Bush ("George H. W. Bush's Funeral Was the Corny, Feel-Good Moment That Washington Craves," December 5, 2018)

Few American rituals manage to be as majestic as a presidential state funeral. Its repeated renditions of Hail the the Chief remind us that, for better or for worse, in our system our politician President is also our Head of State, the embodiment of the nation, the closest we come to a king, with all the symbolic resonance kingship conveys. 

Of course, that all seems even that much more salient in our present circumstance, dramatized (if more drama were needed) by the contrast between the uncomfortable-looking incumbent President and the chummy, chatty former presidents he had to share a cathedral pew with. As Glasser noted, while the Bushes went out of their way to be gracious to Trump, "all that well-bred graciousness" came across as "a brilliant act of Waspy revenge," as Trump had to sit through hours of hearing his predecessor "extolled in terms that wold never be applied to him" and "knowing that every statement praising Bush's decency and modesty and courage would be taken as an implicit rebuke of him."

But what does it say about the tragic transformation of our public life that everything now seems to be refracted through a Trumpian lens? Bush got the funeral that his high office - and his inevitably flawed but many decent personal qualities - deserved. "You don't have to accept the Bush family legacy," Glasser noted, "to say that he "seemed like a genuinely nice guy, if a bit miscast in a profession in which Trump may have the better of the argument that nice guys finish last." 

In our merciless era when one sin seems sufficient to damn one forever, some still remain too obsessed with Willie Horton to concede anything at all to either Bush's personal virtues or his political accomplishments. But isn't that precisely what a funeral challenges us to do? And not just as an act of belatedly balancing the historical record!

No, a well-done funeral is first of all a reminder of what we all share in common - we, who will one day die, with the dead, who once lived. Funerals remind us that our short and fragile human life is framed by who we have become - by what we have done and by whom we have loved. The funeral of someone who did a lot in life and who loved and was loved by many in return reminds us how truly central our activities and relationships are in defining who we ourselves become (however modest those activities and relationships may seem compared with those who strode visibly on the world stage).

Jon Meacham may have been right - or (much more likely) he may have excessively exaggerated  - in lauding Bush as "America's last great soldier statesman" and a "twentieth-century founding father." Historians will happily debate and contest those claims, and as citizens we are welcome to debate and contest them as well. It is right and proper to eulogize a president for his historical accomplishments, but it is even more important to remember him for his friendships, for the things that ultimately matter most in any human life and which will most make us into who we hope to become forever.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Saint Nicholas Day

For several years, I got to dress up as "Saint Nicholas" at the annual Winter's Eve celebration coinciding with the Lincoln Center Tree Lighting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (That's a picture of me in my "Saint Nicholas" costume - a kind of generic Bishop outfit, plus a big white beard. As pioneer in the role, I got to design the costume.) I doubt that any who knew me failed tor recognize me, but I don't think that was the point, which was to allow me to retell the story of the real Saint Nicholas (270-343), whose feast the Church celebrates today and whose upcoming Christmas visit - under his now better known identity as "Santa Claus" - countless kids are eagerly awaiting.

The historical Saint Nicholas was a Greek-speaking Christian from Asia Minor (today Turkey), who became bishop of Myra in 317, and attended the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, at which he was one of the signatories of the original Nicene Creed. Legend has it that at that council he punched the heretic Arius in the face! Not quite yet Clement C. Moore's broad face, and a little round belly That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly.

In 1087, Italian sailors stole his relics and brought them to Bari, where they remain, while some of his relics made it to Venice. Hence he is sometimes also venerated as "Saint Nicholas of Bari" as well as his historically correct title, "Saint Nicholas of Myra." Hence he is also the patron saint of sailors. (He is also the patron of Greece and Russia, of bankers, pawnbrokers, perfumers, brides, unmarried women, travelers, fishermen, dockworkers, and brewers.) But most importantly in terms of his long-term influence and secular significance he is also patron saint of children.

Jacobus de Vorqagine's 13th-century Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) recounts several famous stories of Saint Nicholas' generous acts of charity, the most famous probably being his anonymously throwing three sums of gold into the house of a man with three daughters, who as a result was now able to provide dowries and arrange good marriages for them. 

Thanks to such stories, Saint Nicholas acquired a reputation for generous gift-giving that continued after his death - often ritualized in coins or gifts put by him in the shoes children had left out for him overnight. From shoes it was not much of a leap to filling stockings hanging on a mantlepiece (or under the Christmas Tree for those of us who grew up in apartments without fireplaces). His modern American name "Santa Claus" clearly comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," whose popularity survived the Reformation and came with the Dutch settlers to old New York.

Like almost everything about our commercialized contemporary Christmas, Santa Claus can be dismissed as simply a smiling face camouflaging the rapaciousness of predatory capitalism. That said, and duly acknowledging the damage capitalism and business have done to not just to Christmas but to the climate, the environment, and the prospects for human flourishing on this planet, there remains something immensely inviting about the generous figure of Santa Claus - all that much more so when we recall his saintly origin and the religious roots of his generosity.

So may Santa Claus continue to bring joy to children all over the world, and may the real Saint Nicholas lead them to the true gift-giver, whose birth and generosity in coming to save us ultimately define Christmas! 

We humbly implore your mercy, Lord: protect us in all dangers through the prayers of the Bishop Saint Nicholas, that the way of salvation may lie open before us. (Roman Collect for the feast of Saint Nicholas, Bishop).

Monday, December 3, 2018

President George H.W. Bush

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” President George H.W. Bush told the crowd at his Inauguration on January 20, 1989. “We as a people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” Can anyone imagine the present President or a member of his political party saying something similar today?

I never voted for either President Bush, and have on occasion observed that, if our first father-son pair of presidents, the Adamses, might cautiously be invoked (in retrospect) as an argument in favor of hereditary monarchy, the same can hardly be said for the second pair. 

But, if the monarchical argument fails, what of the aristocratic one? At the the time of the 1988 election, a former graduate school colleague told me that he had voted for George H.W. Bush because of his background, his (by American standards) aristocratic breeding, and the sense of serious civic responsibility presumed to accompany such a background. Given the malicious "Willie Horton" and "Pledge of Allegiance" campaign against Governor Michael Dukakis, I was personally unpersuaded at the time. 

But no one can doubt that the flip side of American egalitarianism has been a certain appreciation for the virtues of social and civic responsibility that used to be bred into our patrician elites and which have served this country well on multiple occasions - from the two Adamses to the two Roosevelts. Hence, the famous story of Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft's wife's response when asked if her husband was a "common man." "Oh no," she replied. "He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at Harvard Law School. I think it would be wrong to present a common man as a representative of the people of Oho." 

Like all social arrangements, aristocracy has its genuine and admirable pluses (if also some serious minuses), and undoubtedly President George H.W. Bush exemplified many of those pluses - all the more so in retrospect, when compared with the present President and his political party. Bush embodied that classical combination of traditional, understated patrician modesty with actual accomplishment. He served with distinction in war and in a series of serious political positions, among them Ambassador to the UN, Director of the CIA, and Envoy to China.  An excellent resume only gets one so far in politics, however. Hence, he failed to win his party's presidential nomination in 1980. But his resume undoubtedly helped push him into the vice presidency, from which he went on to accomplish the relatively rare feat of getting elected president directly from the vice presidency in 1988. Since the passage of the 12th Amendment, only Martin VanBuren and George Bush have succeeded at this!

We rate past presidents through the prism of the present - one reason that historians' evaluations of individual presidents keep changing. Undoubtedly, the reputation of our last one-term president is justifiably higher today than at the time of his defeat in 1992.

As president, Bush governed better than many might have expected, and left a legacy more valued in retrospect. Notably, he deftly managed the end of the Cold War and put together an impressive international coalition to undo Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait. In both cases, he showed admirable restraint where others might have swaggered and blustered. Domestically he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and his 1990 budget deal helped fix the economic mess he had inherited from Reagan. It was, however, his deviation from the religion of Reaganism, breaking his infamous "no new taxes" campaign promise, that earned him the ire of Republican Reaganite ideologues - a foreshadowing of the incompatibility between traditional responsible governance (on which the patrician elite so prided itself) and the contemporary permanent partisan campaign. It was his misfortune that this coincided with a recession. It was the country's misfortune that his party interpreted his loss because of the recession as instead a repudiation of him for his having broken his earlier "no new taxes" promise.  

As Geoffrey Kabaservice has noted: "Bush lost primarily because he seemed unresponsive to public anger over the economic slowdown and because his campaign veered too far to the right for the liking of an overall moderate electorate. The lesson that most Republicans drew from the election, however, was that Bush had committed political suicide by raising taxes in 1990 and alienating the conservatives who arguably comprised the party's base." [Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford U. Pr. 2012), pp. 374-375].

The historical consequences for the Republican party have been a straight line to where it is today.  As a society, we have witnessed - and been accomplices in -  what Peter Baker in last Sunday’s NY Times fittingly called. “the fading of an approach to public life overtaken by the politics of anger, grievance and polarization.”

Like John Adams, Bush left office unpopular, but lived long enough to be appreciated for the larger story of his life. His post-presidency saw him team up with the man who had defeated him. When he and Bill Clinton partnered to do good together, he famously explained, "Politics does not have to be mean and ugly" - a stereotypically gentlemanly, aristocratic sentiment if ever there was one!

Since Plato, aristocratically oriented political thinkers have warned against the dangers of democracy, in particular democracy's power to produce - and reward - rulers like Trump. More than nostalgia is needed to reverse course, however, if indeed the course can be reversed at this point. Patrician civic mindedness presupposes all sorts of social structures and institutions (among them strong family structures and elite educational institutions), the weakening of which has exacted a heavy toll from our society. More has been lost than just good manners, and more will be required than merely relearning some good manners (although that obviously would be a good place to start). The fact is that good manners do not and by themselves cannot create a healthy civic culture.  Rather good manners are themselves a product of such a culture. 

Neither, however, should it be forgotten that the first President Bush was not just an elite, Yale-educated, Senator's son. He was also a veteran of combat in World War II - something he shared with so many of his generation, an experience which created a national community of shared values across class and other obvious divisions. Bush was the last "Greatest Generation" President. With him passes one of our last links to the sense of unified national purpose that not only led to victory in war but also set a distinctive tone to the post-war period - a period of some 20 years of steadfast progress on almost all fronts. It is not just Bush's patrician manners and sense of noblesse oblige that we may miss. It is also that shared sense of national unity and common purpose, forged in war and central to the post-war world, that we now so desperately miss even more.

Bush famously called for "a kinder, gentler America" - "kinder" and "gentler" presumably than the direction the country had been headed since 1980, "kinder" and "gentler" by far than the direction his political party has taken our country since then. Ultimately, however, kindness and gentleness are not primarily political virtues but human ones. Politics cannot make us "kinder" or "gentler." Rather, it is kindness and gentleness in people that can transform our politics. In his personal and family life, Bush exemplified some of those qualities, those pre-political virtues, that our obsessive politics needs but so tragically seems to lack today. The virtues of his personal and family life were perhaps best exemplified in his 73-year marriage. I can think of few more admirable lessons his life leaves us with than that of his marriage - such an antidote to the tragically diminished position of marriage in the experience and expectations of subsequent generations. 

And he wrote letters - real letters, by hand! In the wake of his death, attention is being paid to his wonderful final letter as president, left in the Oval office for the man who had defeated him, Bill Clinton. It is a fine letter, well worth quoting. So is another letter sent to one of his granddaughters some two decades ago: “I believe I was right when I said, as president, there can be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others,” Bush wrote. “So I do that now, and I gain happiness."

And that sums up the seriousness of that generation and the ensuing happiness that now so painfully eludes contemporary America!

Photo: Former President George H.W. Bush with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama, and Hilary Clinton, Laura bush, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump, at the funeral for former First-Lady Barbara Bush earlier this year.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


One of the constants in human – and especially American - history has been the periodic appearance of movements and people preparing for some sort of impending calamity, real or imagined, including even the end of the world. Usually they are fringe groups at the margin of mainstream society, although sometimes such anxieties are more reality-based and more widely shared. I think back, for example, to the fallout shelter movement in the early 1960s, which was actively promoted in New York where I lived by no less mainstream a person than Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and which was also taken seriously and discussed within the Kennedy Administration, as well as in the pages of the weekly Jesuit magazine America.

A few years ago, I was watching a TV interview with someone who was stocking up on supplies in anticipation of the cosmic calamities predicted to occur at the end of 2012. What struck me most at the time was how both the one being interviewed and the one doing the interview kept referring to the imminent disaster as “the end of the world.” Well, obviously, if you are stocking up on supplies, then you must expect – or at least hope - to survive the disaster, in which case, whatever else it may be, it is not quite “the end of the world.”

One could, of course, talk that way and mean not total destruction or even the end of all human life on earth. One could mean just the end of civilization as we know it, which is often what disaster scenarios are actually about. Apparently an actual end of the world may be more than even disaster-fans really care to contemplate. Add to that scary scenario the prospect of divine judgment, and then we’re getting into some really seriously scary stuff! So it is no surprise that the early Christians prayed, in Tertullian’s famous phrase: “for Emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end.”

To us today, living in a world that is at least as dangerous and disorderly as that of the early Christians, if not more so, and where we hear right away about every terrible thing that happens almost anywhere in the world, to us that sounds like a familiar enough list – except for the final petition, which we seldom give much thought to, even while we pray every day at Mass for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Yet that “end” is precisely what the Church calls on us to contemplate today, as indeed we do every Advent.

Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: teste David cum Sibylla. O day of wrath, O dreadful day, when heaven and earth shall pass away, as David and the Sibyl say. So begins one of the most famous medieval liturgical hymns, composed by one of the early Franciscans in the 13th century.  When I was young, before our feel-good therapeutic culture took over and ruined funerals with eulogies and feel-good songs, those somber words of that medieval hymn were sung at every Catholic funeral. Actually, however, the Dies Irae began its life as an Advent hymn. Advent acknowledges the fear that people have always felt about what lies ahead. As Jesus himself said in today’s Gospel, People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. [Luke 21:26].

Advent originated, after all, as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and the Dies Irae’s somber sentiments served to concentrate people’s attention on Christ's final coming at the end of time as judge of all the world.

Recent events have highlighted how dangerous our world is. We hardly need Advent to warn us of what is coming upon the world. Advent, however, is also about hope, a hope that comes from our memory, the lesson learned from Christ’s first coming into our world, two millennia ago. And the same Jesus who assumed our human nature and became part of our world, himself has invited us to look forward to his final coming with hope, telling us when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Actually, Advent is about both fear and hope – both the end of this world and the coming of God’s kingdom, both the passing of another year and our hopes for a new and better one, both the darkness of our world and the living light of Christ coming again to make everything bright and new,

That, of course, is why we don’t celebrate Christmas in June, when the sun is high and the days are bright. We celebrate it now, when the days are dark and the nights are long, when we must search in the darkness to recognize the bright light of God’s kingdom coming into our world. In the dark winter night, full of fear, danger, doubt, and anxiety – in the long night of the present – between Christ’s first coming and his hoped for final advent, Jesus bids us: Be vigilant.

There is plenty of darkness to go around, and there is certainly plenty to worry about this year – as in every year.  . We all have our painful memories of personal failures, lost opportunities, unfulfilled longings, and ruptured relationships - all of which seem to haunt us even more intensely at this time of year. And then there is the worldwide darkness of our anxious, conflicted, war-ravaged time. Jesus was born in an anxious and conflict-filled world. He himself was born homeless and spent part of his childhood as a political refugee. Then as now, people were on the lookout for something or someone - in their case, so they hoped, the Emperor Augustus - that could make things right, or at least make a difference. Then as now, such pagan solutions proved temporary stopgaps at best, illusions at worst. Not for nothing did the psalmist pray: put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no salvation [Psalm 146:3]. In the midst of so much darkness, Advent challenges us to recognize God's solution - the coming of Christ bringing light into anxious lives and a worried world.

In the words of the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the bicentennial of whose birth we will be commemorating throughout the coming year: There is little or no hope at all of our entering into the kingdom of heaven hereafter, if we are not citizens of it here. If Christ is to be to us a savior, we must find him here, now, and where we are; other wise he is no Christ, no Saviour, no Immanuel, no “God with us” [Questions of the Soul, 1855].

Advent is our annual, winter wake-up call to face up to our responsibility to live our lives like people whose God really has come. And, if God’s coming into our world means anything at all, it has to mean a change so thorough that nothing should ever be the same again.

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 2, 2018.