Monday, December 9, 2019

"Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast"

On November 10, 1947, cloistered away in rural Kentucky, the famous American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, referring to Blessed Pope Pius IX’s dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, wrote in his journal: “It seems to me that that definition was a turning point in the modern history of the Church.  The world has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.”

Anticipating Merton’s hope a full century earlier, on May 13, 1846, meeting in Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Assumption, the 23 bishops of the United States designated the Blessed Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, as Patroness of the United States. Their choice was approved by Blessed Pope Pius IX less than a year later, on February 7, 1847.

That same Pope would then go on in 1854 to define the dogma of the 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, that (as Pope Francis said in his Angelus Address yesterday) "the sanctifying love of God was already there, preserving her from the contamination of evil, which is the common heredity of the human family." She is, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth [1770-1850] had already famously addressed her: “Woman! above all nature glorified, Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

That was one of my 8th grade teacher’s favorite quotes. She often used that title for Mary - Our tainted nature's solitary boast - and never more so than when referring to the Immaculate Conception.

So today, already an especially grace-filled day the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country and for our own local parish community, under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception for the past 164 years. The secular press in 1850s Knoxville generally just referred to it as “the Catholic church,” but the beautiful little stone church Knoxville’s small Catholic community built on Summit Hill in 1855, on land purchased a mere two months after Pius IX’s dogmatic definition, was from its beginning dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

A century later, when I was in elementary school, not many years after Merton wrote that journal entry, the invocation and response, O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee, were a regular part of our school prayers. Given the intensity of religious instruction that we had in those days, my guess is that most of us had at least some sense of what May’s Immaculate conception was supposed to mean.

On the other hand, back in 1858, when the Blessed Virgin Mary herself appeared to a poor, somewhat sickly young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, in a riverside grotto in the cold, wet, little town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains and identified herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” poor Bernadette did not recognize the reference or understand the meaning of those words at all. Nor would she have known that intellectuals had been arguing about their meaning for centuries – so much so that in 1497 the University of Paris had decreed that no one should be admitted to the University without first swearing to assert and defend Mary’s Immaculate Conception! (Imagine how different modern Western society might be today if that were still the rule at the Sorbonne!)

The scripture readings we have just heard suggest a comparison, first popularized by the Fathers of the Church, between Eve, the mother of all the living, and Mary, as the New Eve,” mother of Jesus and mother of the Church.

In particular, the story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the serious damage done to the entire world by human sin - our alienation simultaneously from God, one another, and the world. Mary’s sinlessness, however, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power, empowering Mary to say Yes” to God where 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. In the fullness of time, Eve’s greatest descendant, Mary’s Son, will strike at the serpent’s head and crush him.

The Devil can fight, but he cannot win.  For God is more powerful than anything we can throw at him – or the Devil can throw at us. God is more powerful than sin. And that is what we celebrate in a very special way today on this our great patronal festival of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

God’s great plan for our salvation, the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the purpose of his will, 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 it will one day be in the perfect holiness of God’s kingdom. Thus, the Church looks to Mary as a model of the Church’s essential mission. As Pope Francis has written: “We implore her maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened to the birth of a new world. … With Mary we advance confidently toward the fulfillment of this promise, and to her we pray" [EG 288].

Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 9, 2019.

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

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Whose Kingdom?

Every Advent, through the drama of the liturgy, John the Baptist emerges again from the Judean desert and assumes center stage, shouting up and down the Jordan Valley, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! [Mathew 3:1-12]

For us today, John the Baptist is at best a somewhat strange, maybe mysterious, and probably not very appealing figure. He appears, ever so briefly, at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, and then, before we have barely gotten to know him, gets himself arrested and killed. Having heard his rather shrill shouting every 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are ready, right away, to put him back in storage, while we focus instead on the holiday season’s more popular aspects.

But, attractive or not, John’s message most certainly seems to have been compelling to his hearers. At that time, Matthew’s gospel [Matthew 3:1-12] tells us, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. And even as they acknowledged their sins, John challenged his hearers to produce good fruit as evidence of repentance. More than any other Advent image, I think John the Baptist represents what Thomas Merton once called “the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent,” in contrast to what he called “the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture.”

But John’s challenge to repent has always been at the heart of Advent’s message, and the fact that the Church faithfully invites John back every Advent to tell us that may help us appreciate what Pope Francis was getting at when he said that “all of us are asked to obey [the Lord’s] call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel’ [EG, 20].

Those words were meant as a challenge to the entire Church to look outside ourselves, recalibrating our priorities and activities to make the Church’s mission – that is, the mission of all of us - possible and effective.

Like John the Baptist confronting his contemporaries, we too must face the particular challenges of our own time.

It is a challenge, the Pope acknowledges, to be “a Church which ‘goes forth’ ... a Church whose doors are open. It is a challenge to be a Church going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity” [EG 46]. To me it seems especially significant how the Pope connects responding to the challenge of economic inequality with this imperative to “go forth.” “Today and always,” he reminds us, “‘the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel,’ and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish” [EG 48W].  Indeed, we will hear Jesus cite the poor having the good news proclaimed to them as one of the signs that validate his mission in next Sunday’s Gospel.

John the Baptist exhorts us to what Jesus will later call being attentive to “the signs of the times.”  It is under that gospel guideline of scrutinizing “the signs of the times” that, just as John the Baptist confronted the brood of vipers, as he labeled the Judean leadership, Advent confronts our contemporary politics and economics of exclusion with the alternative of the Church's challenging universal mission of inclusion. Welcome one another, Saint Paul tells us, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God [Romans 15:7].

 John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by challenging people to recognize the reality of their lives and relearn what that life is supposed to be about.  In reminding us of the priority of society in human existence and the imperative of solidarity in human relationships, Advent challenges us all to reconsider our present-day priorities, whatever they may be, in order to become the Church that we are eternally called to be, a community called, as Saint Paul says, to glorify God for his mercy [Romans 15:8].

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2019.

Friday, December 6, 2019

"When Unions Gave Capitalism Its Ballast"

In my review of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman I referenced Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith's rebuttal of the film's storyline (based on Frank Sheeran's historically questionable late-life claims about his role in the murder of Jimmy Hoffa). In addition to debunking Sheeran's account, Goldsmith also argues that the film fails to address the more significant long-term consequences of, for example, how Robert Kennedy's vendetta against Hoffa helped undermine the position of organized labor more effectively than big business ever could, with consequences we are suffering from today. Certainly, one of the many differences between then (the 3rd quarter of the 20th century) and now is the powerful role played by organized labor in American society then as compared with its politically pitiful position now. 

And now James Pinkerton at - of all places - The American Conservative, has joined the chorus with at least two-and-a-half cheers for the role of mid-20th-century labor unions, in a December 4 post entitled, 'The Irishman' Remembers when Unions gave Capitalism Its Ballast.

There has a always been a traditionalist strain of conservatism which has been alert to and troubled by the damage capitalism does to society and social cohesion. But Pinkerton is a veteran of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush campaigns and Administrations and so might not have been expected to be nostalgic for the days of strong labor unions. In any case, he has called The Irishman "time travel to a lost world—mid-20th century America," a world "where, if you can believe it, labor was equal to capital."
In my own review, I referenced the elderly Sheeran's realization that the younger generation does not remember Hoffa mainly for what is says about getting old. Pinkerton properly also notes the social significance - the difference between now and a very different time when "strong unions shaped society."
Of course, there was also corruption. The complicity of organized labor with organized crime is obviously the setting for The Irishman, and there is no denying that ugly part of the history of that time. That said, Pinkerton reminds his readers, "it must also be recalled that the decades of union power coincided with America at its most powerful and in a way at its most cohesive. Pluralism among countervailing power blocsBig Labor versus Big Business—may seem messy, but it’s also societally healthy, keeping the nation’s humors in balance."
And so he quotes presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower, who - just months before his first landslide victory - told the AFL in 1952: “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
How the Republican party, especially since the disastrous election of 1980, has taken the country in a different direction is a familiar story. Pinkerton, however, highlights the Democrats' comparably significant role. Like Goldsmith, he goes back to Kennedy. "The newer Democratic Party would be more in the.  mode of RFK: white collar, maybe even rich, as well as high-minded and reformist—even preachy. Onetime JFK and RFK aide Fred Dutton helped accelerate this new trend in 1971, when his book, The Changing Sources of American Power, advised Democrats to look past old-fashioned, old-thinking unions and look instead to more socially avant-garde groups, such as students, minorities, and professionals."
Of course, it hasn't all been ideology. I would say that the social solidarity of the post-war era certainly depended on the attenuation of pre-war economic inequality thanks in part to the power of organized labor. But it also reflected the sense of common purpose the war - and after it the Cold War - had helped to foster in society. And it also reflected America's uniquely unchallenged global economic and political power in the wake of the war. By the 1970s, that sense of common purpose had been irreversibly weakened, while competing sources of economic power had emerged in the wider world, which impacted organized labor's influence.
Still, as Pinkerton concludes, "The Irishman is a time machine, taking us back to a period when labor was equal to capital, when the working class was growing into the middle class. Yet over the last half-century, reformers have helped capital to triumph over labor, and, as a result, much of the middle class has been busted back down to the working class."

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Jams, Jellies, and Christmas Puddings

When I was still but a boy in the Bronx, my mother would occasionally buy a jar of "old English marmalade." I don't remember the brand, but it proudly displayed the distinction of a British Royal Warrant, which labeled it the purveyor of the Queen's "jams, jellies, and Christmas puddings." I liked the marmalade, but "Christmas pudding" was a completely alien concept. My only image of an English "Christmas pudding" was the plum pudding that predictably appeared in TV versions of A Christmas Carol. In our home, however, December was dominated by Christmas baking of a different sort, the most exotic and anticipated product of which were the Sicilian Christmas cakes my grandmother and mother spent many, many hours preparing, and which we never tired of eating! Inside the delicious dough was a stuffing of dates, currants, and any number of other holiday fruits pre-cooked in caffè nero ("black coffee"). Not unlike the Lebkuchen lovingly described by Maria Trapp in Around the Year with the Trapp Family, my family's Sicilian Christmas cakes likewise seemed to get better with age and added a wonderful ""Christmas smell" to the holiday experience. Everyone we knew was given some, and we even sent some package by mail to those we didn't get to see.

We all have our different kind of Christmas memories, but I would bet that most members of my generation (and generations before, of course) still treasure memories of the sights, smells, and taste of pre-Christmas baking, that added so distinctively to the sense of pre-holiday anticipation - and then holiday fulfillment. Sadly I suspect such sensory experiences have been among those most likely lost for many as we approach our modern Christmas, increasingly detached from Christmas past and its important lessons, as well as increasingly isolated from one another. 

No matter when the baking began, it somehow said both that Christmas is coming and that getting ready is an essential part of experiencing what Christmas is about.  Instead we now just jump into Christmas on or after (or before) Thanksgiving (or Halloween or whenever) and rush around in a spirit of insane "celebration" until the big day comes and we are well worn out and ready for it to end - just when the real feast is supposed to begin!

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Irishman (The Movie)

In The Irishman, Director Martin Scorsese has given us another mob-movie masterpiece, a reflective tale about a high-ranking Teamster union official/hit man (Frank Sheeran, "the Irishman," who late in life claimed to have murdered Jimmy Hoffa), played on screen by a magnificent cast - Rober DeBiro as Frank, Al Pacino as Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino. Produced by Netflix, the film follows Charles Brandt's 2004 account of Frank Sheeran's life, I Heard You Paint Houses, which includes his disputed claim of having killed Hoffa - and others such as the famous 1972 assassination of Joey Gallo in Umberto's Clam House in New York's Little Italy and the later murder of Salvatore Briguglio, himself once a suspect in the Hoffa case.

A World War II war veteran (who conveniently learned Italian in the war), Frank by chance encounters Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino and gradually becomes his trusted henchman, which leads him to Jimmy Hoffa whose close confidant he too eventually becomes. A road trip to a wedding - Frank, Russell, and their wives - provides a narrative vehicle for the back-and-forth depiction of Frank's career and family life. The three and a half hour film takes its time (too much time?) to take us through not just Frank's life, but post-war America's mob hits and Kennedy-era politics. 

As I said, the film is long. We are some 45 minutes into the movie by the time Frank finally meets Hoffa! It takes another two hours or so to get to Hoffa's famous "disappearance." And the movie still has another 45 minutes more to go after that. That's one advantage, of course, of watching it on Netflix instead of on the big screen. One can take breaks! 

Mafia movies tend to highlight the mob's routines of violence and experiences of betrayal, balanced by family life - a domestic existence that is never quite normal, but which revolves around the normal events that punctuate family life. As he moves up in the ranks, Frank divorces his first wife for a second, neither of whom has that much dramatic impact. One of his daughters, however, Peggy, seems to see her father for the thug he basically is. Standoffish even as a child, as an adult she cuts her father completely out of her life after Hoffa's disappearance. Hoffa, of course, as a labor leader did accomplish some good for his workers, which Peggy seems to understand and appreciate, and she seems genuinely fond of him. But she has no use for the kind of life her father has chosen and represents, and she refuses her forgiveness even at the end when he is pathetically old and weak.

Forgiveness, of course, can be elusive in other ways as well. As this genre generally requires, the film offers the viewer a predictable range of Roman Catholic religious rituals - a couple of baptisms (performed by a real-life Jesuit, Fr. Jim Martin), Catholic school for the kids, a wedding, and an apparent confession at the end. We don't actually hear Frank confess, but we do distinctly hear the formula of absolution and are left to imagine the confession, the contents of which we have in fact been hearing already through the entire film. Signs of repentance have been few, however. Whatever the real Sheeran may have been like in life, the film's Frank is generally quite low-key about his behavior. He keeps referring back to the war, to how he learned in the war to kill as ordered and apparently became comfortable with illegal killing. Throughout his criminal career, Frank seems to adopt that same approach to the business of murder.  He may have his regrets (probably about Hoffa and also about how his life has hurt his family), but apparently no authentic remorse.

Until, of course, old age and its infirmities take over. What impression are we intended to take away from a bunch of old thugs now barely able to get around or even eat their food, when none of what once mattered so much matters much at all anymore? (The younger generation doesn't even know who Jimmy Hoffa was!) At the end, a life lived so differently from what we judge to be normal seems suddenly to be finishing the way most other people's lives increasingly end nowadays - sick, lonely, left behind by a world that has moved on. 

Frank never seems tormented by guilt or fearful of divine judgment, but he does at the end seem open to wondering what it was all for and whether it was all worth it, even as he still tries to manipulate his situation, arranging his final interment to seem somehow "less final." The smallness of his real life and its lack of any authentic accomplishment (even that most common accomplishment of family) seems highlighted by  the inevitable - and universal - diminishments that accompany aging.

Regardless of how historically true this movie's account of how what happened to Hoffa actually occurred, it is a great film. How historically true this movie's version of history actually is, however is of some considerable controversy. Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, in particular, has strongly argued against accepting Sheeran's version of the Hoffa story. In particular he challenges the role ascribed by Sheeran and the film to Goldsmith's stepfather Chuckie O'Brien, who has consistently denied being the one who drove Hoffa on his last car ride. In addition to defending his stepfather's reputation, Goldsmith also argues that the film fails to address the more significant long-term consequences of, for example, how Robert Kennedy's vendetta against Hoffa helped undermine the position of organized labor more effectively than big business ever could, with consequences we are suffering from today.

All that having been said, historically accurate or not it remains a great film - well worth the investment of three and a half hours of one's life.

Sunday, December 1, 2019


It is said that one of the surest signs of getting older is that the holidays seem to come quicker every year. But, since November and December have always been my favorite months of the year, that’s one part of aging I won't complain about!

With our uniquely American holiday, Thanksgiving Day, just barely behind us, it is Advent again. And, of course, in the way we live today, when Advent arrives we are already immersed in our annual, year-end Christmas extravaganza! Advent, with its penitential purple vestments, seems much too restrained amid all this holiday exuberance. Our modern holiday season is an exciting, extravagant, consumerist celebration of ourselves. 

In comparison, Advent just doesn’t seem to fit.

So I think the first thing we have to say about Advent is that it is not in fact in competition with Christmas. Actually, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.

In the Church’s calendar, these final weeks of the year, beginning with All Saints Day on November 1 and continuing into Advent, invite us to focus on the coming of God’s kingdom. If November’s emphasis is on a sober consideration of our natural human limits and the eventual end of all things, Advent continues that theme with increasing emphasis on the hope-filled joyful expectation of the renewal of all things in Christ. 

The proximity of Christmas meanwhile invites us to remember Christ’s 1st coming, which we will soon commemorate and which we are already anticipating in all our extravagant pre-Christmas celebrations. That 1st coming of Christ challenges us to recognize and respond to Christ’s presence and action among us here and now, which in turn prepares us for Christ’s promised return – Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent is thus really a sort of symbol for the entire Christian life, lived (as it inevitably must be) in the present - between the 1st coming of Christ and his hoped-for final advent. As Christians, we live our lives literally in this interval between Christmas and the end. And that is what Advent is all about.

So Advent is not in competition with Christmas. As I said earlier, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.

Jesus’ warning words to his disciples in today’s Gospel and Paul’s parallel challenge to the Christians in Rome both reflect this fundamental fact about the Christian life here and now. The point is not when Jesus will come but recognizing his coming – not as something to be put off to some far off future, but as our present preoccupation. The future will indeed come – in its own time and on its own terms – but our task is the present, which is what, in fact, will determine who we will be in the future.

As Pope Francis said at the beginning of Advent last year, Advent invites “us to lift our gaze and open our hearts to welcome Jesus … preparing ourselves, with consistent and courageous choices, for the final encounter with him. We remember Christmas, we await the glorious return of Christ, and also our personal encounter: the day in which the Lord will call. During these four weeks we are called to leave behind a resigned and routine way of life and to go forth, nourishing hope, nourishing dreams for a new future.” [Angelus, December 2, 2018]

Surely that would be a challenge at any time in history. Surely it must seem so today in this truly turbulent time in our national life, in a country bitterly and angrily divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, at a time when anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world.

Now Advent, as we celebrate it in the Church today, relies a lot on the seasonal imagery of darkness and light that defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Folkloric customs like Advent wreaths and evergreen trees all attempt to tap into that. Symbolic beings that we are, we readily respond to such imagery.  And so we have our Advent Wreath and next week will light our parish Christmas Tree. (Hopefully, no local equivalents of the anti-"pagan" conspirators who threw the indigenous images into the Tiber during October's Synod in Rome will show up to protest!)

Even so, we must be careful. Advent uses seasonal symbolism to make a point, but Advent is more than some sort of seasonal pageant.

The Christian life, on the other hand, is not a season, nor is it a play. The world really was in darkness before Christ – the darkness of alienation from God. But unlike natural darkness the world’s alienation from God is not some abstract natural force.

In fact, we are the ones who have contributed – and continue to contribute - to this world’s darkness. For this reason, Advent was long considered a penitential season. For this reason, Pope Innocent III prescribed black as the liturgical color for Advent, although purple eventually beat black to become the season’s official color. 

The penance appropriate to Advent is, of course, to follow Saint Paul’s call to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That means I need to ask myself, exactly what is it that keeps me in darkness? Why isn’t the light of Christ shining forth from me and through me to light up the world around me? Paul’s words challenge us to be attentive to what is happening right now. Living as we do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to mean what we say - really to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, attentive to what is happening right now.

At Christ’s final coming, of course, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in this interim time – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist, and are in constant conflict.

But, as our annual rush to start celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier each year suggests, most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so that we can rush into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that it is precisely the present that matters. Jesus’ warning about the days of Noah, reminds us how common, how universal, the experience of the present really is. We are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – just as it was up to the day that Noah entered the ark. The fact that the present time is limited just makes it all the more precious, makes it matter that much more. So, stay awake, Jesus warns, be prepared – now - because what I do now, the way I live now, the kind of person I am becoming here and now, that is the kind of person I will be when the Lord comes, and so the person I am going to remain for all eternity.

As Pope Francis has written in his great programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” [Evangelii Gaudium, 8]

Whatever surprises any of us may be hoping to find under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. (If he hadn’t, none of us would be here at Mass today!) The question is whether his presence in our world today matters enough to make a difference in the way we live and what we care about – whether and how we are making the most of our limited but precious present time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 1, 2019.