Sunday, February 17, 2019

Woe!


A former pastor of mine used to like to say about preaching or teaching, un texto sin contexto es un pretexto, which translates into English pretty much the way it sounds, a text without context is a pretext.

So what was the context for Jesus’ Blessings and Woes in today’s Gospel – and, much more to the point, what is our context within which we hear Jesus’ message today?

Just before this, Jesus had been busy organizing his new community. After a night spent in prayer, he named 12 men to be his apostles, an obvious echo back to the 12 tribes of Israel, and the blessing originally promised the world through Abraham now being fulfilled in Jesus through his chosen Church.

The kingdom of God, however, comes in the context of a world in which it is opposed. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, and the insulted, whom Jesus was addressing, well understood the opposition to the kingdom of God on the part of the rich, the well off, the powerful, and the popular.

Notice, however, that throughout his sermon Jesus spoke in the second person. He was not talking abstractly about economic, social, political, and cultural inequality the way a secular social scientist might. In a world in which the top 1% percent now owns some 50% of the world's wealth, a disparity which has been growing not shrinking for decades now, such analysis is important. But Jesus in today’s Gospel was taking that analysis way farther – farther and deeper into the hearts of his hearers. For he was talking directly to his disciples, which is to say, to us. Blessed are you, blessed are we, who are poor. Woe to you, woe to us, who are rich. He wasn’t praising his disciples and denouncing the pagans, comparing and contrasting them as if they were two opposing political parties. He was challenging his disciples, us, to examine our own consciences about what wealth and power and popularity mean to us, what role they play in our lives, their corrupting effect upon our relationships with the rest of the world, with the rest of God’s people, and the obstacles they build between us and the kingdom of God.

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 17, 2019.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The "Socialism" Scare

Pete Buttigieg, the charismatic young Mayor of South Bend, who is sounding more and more serious as a presidential candidate, recently said in an interview for The New Yorker, "It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this [universal health care] tend to be better than the countries that don't. the system we have isn't working very well, we ought to try this other system. Politically, it's never been possible, because it's been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way" (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, "Pete Buttigieg's Quiet Rebellion").

Well, I did live through the Cold War, and the targeting of one's opponents ideas as "socialism" long ago ceased to be "a kill switch" for me, if ever it was. The unhinged antipathy to "socialism" presently permeating right wing media may perhaps represent an honest historical ignorance of the multitude of differences between European social democracies and the Soviet Union under Stalin, or it may more likely merely reflect an incurable ideological obsession. Either way, there is no reason in 2019 for the rest of society to be cowed by it.

First proposed by President Harry Truman, then again by President Kennedy, Medicare was finally signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 (photo). Its passage was possible thanks to the great 1964 Democratic landslide, which provided enough support in Congress to override the "kill switch" in the form of the nonsense then being peddled by the likes of Ronald Reagan (soon to run for governor of California), who said it would "invade every area of freedom in this country until one day ... we will awake to find that we have socialism."

How strange this pervasive (and persistent) animus against providing people with adequate health care, even after any practical arguments had been refuted by the nearly universal experience of other advanced economies!

LBJ couldn't get universal health care, but at least he got something for seniors (Medicare) and for the poor (Medicaid). It has been suggested that he had hoped gradually to lower the age for Medicare and might have gone in that direction had it not been for Vietnam. We know that President Nixon also contemplated lowering the age and universalizing medicare in 1973, but that that too got derailed. So "Medicare for All" is not a novel notion at all. 

But "Medicare for All" is just the method, just a way to get to universal health care. The latter is the goal, the end. The former is merely the means - albeit the most obvious means given our history and present circumstances.

Given that history and our present circumstances, President Obama accomplished a great deal with the Affordable Care Act, and our country is a better place as a result. Even so, the goal of universal care still eludes us, even as the cost of health care continues to rise, and private insurers still continue to profit, all of which could be fixed by something like Medicare for All, which would cover everyone, for less than we are all paying now, and without enriching private insurers, What's not to like?

The inevitable red herring in any debate about universal health care is, of course, taxes, a perennial problem in a society which is chronically resistant to the concept of community and the shared burdens community calls for. Even so, what needs to be stressed in any serious political advocacy is that the increased taxes which would be necessary to pay for universal health care would replace the more expensive present system of insurance premiums, deductibles, and co-pays.

Yet one obvious obstacle to universal health care remains the fact that some significant segment of the population already believes it has satisfactory health care in the form of private insurance, which, for all its cost and other inefficiencies and its unfairly distributed burdens, works well enough for some to make them afraid of trying something different. Such people are then obvious and easy targets for the scare tactics of the insurance industry and others apposed to universal health care. (This is so despite the obvious fact that Medicare itself works quite well, and most people know that, as reflected in Medicare's widespread popularity.) 

So, as a practical matter, I think that pragmatic proponents of universal health care ought first of all to keep the conversation focused on universal health care, not on this or that means to that end. Pragmatically, they should be advocating a  progressive reduction in the Medicare age over a finite period of years for those who wish to avail themselves of it, without immediately altering anyone's existing private insurance - in other words keeping the Medicare system we already now have for some but extending its benefits over time to many more, meanwhile allowing private insurance to continue but hopefully to diminish in importance as it is needed by fewer and fewer citizens,






Monday, February 11, 2019

90 Years

Today is the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy. That agreement ended the so-called "Roman Question" by restoring the Pope's temporal sovereignty over a miniscule portion of his former domain, the territory henceforth designated as "Vatican City" (as well as some additional extra-territorial sites in and around Rome). Several months later, on June 7, 1929, Cardinal Gasparri (representing the Pope) and Benito Mussolini (representing the King) exchanged the formal ratifications of the treaty, immediately after which the great Bronze Door of the Apostolic Palace was reopened for the first time since 1870 and the Swiss Guards emerged to take up their positions at the newly established international border between Italy and the Vatican.

To mark this occasion, the Vatican Post office has issued a beautiful commemorative postage stamp (photo). The stamp is reportedly made of polyester with yarn and metal threads embroidered in it, measures 1.75 by 2.6 inches, and has a face value of 8.40 euros (US $9.50).

Although the secular media often confuse them, it is the Holy See that is sovereign in international law. It is the Holy See (not the state of Vatican City) that is represented in international organizations and exchanges ambassadors with most of the nations of the world. Indeed, the Holy See continued to have formal diplomatic relations with some states even during the anomalous period between 1870 and 1929 when the Pope was no longer recognized as governing any territory. Since that time, however, the number of states which exchange embassies with the Holy See has grown enormously - the most significant addition being, of course, the United States in 1984. (During the period when the Pope still exercised actual sovereignty over the papal States, the U.S. had maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1867 and diplomatic - but not ambassadorial - relations from 1848 to 1867. In that year Congress prohibited any future funding for U.S. diplomatic missions to the Holy See.)

The reconciliation between Church and State in Italy was one of Mussolini's most lasting accomplishments - accomplishing what none of the bourgeois liberal parties which had preceded him in power would or could accomplish - and then in turn outlasting Mussolini's ridiculous regime already now by more than 70 years. 

Unlike his more infamous contemporaries Hitler and Stalin, Mussolini never really had truly totalitarian power. He had to share institutional legitimacy with the King (who throughout the Fascist era retained the primary loyalty of the military and who ultimately, if belatedly, removed Mussolini from power in 1943), and he had to share historic and charismatic legitimacy with the Church (and recognized as much by negotiating the hitherto unreachable compromise on the Roman Question and by regularizing the Church's status in society). The deal paid off in World War II when the occupiers of Rome respected the Vatican's independence and continues to pay off in the activity of countless papal nuncios in embassies around the world.

In retrospect, the 19th-century loss of the papal states turned out to be a benefit both for the Church and for Italy. The more than merely symbolic restoration of some semblance of temporal sovereignty in 1929 was not necessary for the Church's survival (as its flourishing after 1870 had proved), but it has been a welcome vehicle for the Church to maintain an effective institutional presence on the international stage.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Out into the Deep


One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed the lake in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” modern pilgrims can dine on “St. Peter’s Fish.” That name obviously recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish [Luke 5:1-11]. Of course, the point of the story is not really fish but the great growth in people, which lies in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water of the world and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.

For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter never seems to catch any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear about him actually catching are the ones miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Like Peter’s fishing, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks – some due to external opposition, some self-induced by our own faults and fundamental failures. Yet, despite Peter’s obvious frustration with his failures as a fisherman and the depressing tiredness that so commonly accompanies such frustration, frustration he and his successors in the Church’s ministry would undoubtedly experience frequently in the future, Peter found the faith, the confidence in Jesus, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”

No sooner had he done so, of course, than they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” To our religiously impoverished, post-modern sensibility, that must certainly, under the circumstances, seem like an odd-sounding response indeed. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-driven, personality obsessed media would surely highlight what would be seen as a gaffe on Peter’s part, Peter once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – or perhaps speculating about what long-ago failing in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!

When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not just Peter being polite. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious imagination and sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, awestruck, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8], who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as seeing God directly.

Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause one to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing out into the deep with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. That’s the way we are. People are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time, making mistakes and missing one opportunity after another. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.

As members of his Church and beneficiaries of its mission, all of us too been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, who remains with us, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the ceremonial ring that the Pope wears has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on that ring is that of Saint Peter in a boat, fishing. It is precisely our communion with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us, in both good times and bad, with whatever energies and resources for renewal and evangelization we may have.

Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, but he is hardly its only fisherman. At the ordination of a priest, the ordaining bishop prays: in our weakness give us also the helpers that we need to exercise the priesthood that comes from the Apostles.

Obviously, the bishop here is speaking for himself as successor of the apostles. In so doing, however, he speaks for all of us, on behalf of the whole Church, acknowledging the Church’s need for fishermen in sufficient numbers.

We have all become increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church in this country – everywhere everyone having to make do with less.

In 1965, there were 58,000+ priests in the United States, almost all of them in active ministry; 50 years of population growth later, there were only 38,000+ priests in the US, with only 68% in active ministry. Fifty years ago, the average age of a priest in the US was 35. This year, half of all active priests will be at least 70 – including yours truly, who will be 71 next month.

Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle, and Isaiah the Prophet before him, listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth, we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves whether we or someone we know and who needs our encouragement – perhaps someone right here in this church this morning – may be someone the Lord is inviting, someone the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 10, 2019.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Candlemas


The familiar carol stops at day 12, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas and the definitive end of the Christmas season. This is a very ancient feast, which incorporates several interrelated themes, reflected in the different names given to this day. All these different names illustrate how full of meaning this festival is, and how much it has to teach us.

In the Western Church, it is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, but for several centuries it was the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Jesus was 40 days old, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Jerusalem in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first - the ordinary obligation to be purified after childbirth - reflected ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s 1st-born at the time of the Exodus).

Whether officially titled the Presentation of the Lord of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early pre-dawn procession – with which today’s Mass begins.

The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to the One whom that light symbolizes. The Church’s official ceremonial says that “on this day Christ’s faithful people, with candles in their hands, go out to meet the Lord and to acclaim him with Simeon, who recognized Christ as ‘a light to reveal God to the nations.’ They should therefore be taught to walk as children of the light in their entire way of life, because they have a duty to show the light of Christ to all by acting in the works that they do as lighted lamps.”

A secular version of Candlemas is “Groundhog Day.” Not so long ago, everyone in the western world knew about Candlemas Day. Today, many seem to have forgotten. Yet even people who have never heard of Candlemas recognize the folklore connected with this day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one ancient way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. This last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these light festivals symbolize.

Today we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple. At the same time, we hear, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. So, even as we take a last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter. Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.

In the Eastern Churches, this day is appropriately called the Encounter, the Feast of Meeting. Today, Christ comes to meet us, and we in turn get to meet him. Every Christmas we encounter Christ in a special way in the image the infant Jesus in the manger. When we encounter the infant Jesus in the nativity scene in church and at home, we appreciate anew the great mystery of the incarnation of God’s Son. When Simeon and Anna experienced in the infant Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim and share their good news. That remains our task today – to take the light of these candles out into our spiritually still so very dark world, and so to share with all the light reflected in our own lives from the brightness of the human face of God.

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 2, 2019.