Monday, March 30, 2020

Reset

This pandemic, Pope Francis said on Friday, has exposed “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”




No one can predict where this crisis is leading us and what our world will be like when and if it is finally over. That said, something like an ideological reset - maybe multiple ideological resets - may be in process. The almost universal disdain directed at a certain Kentucky Congressman may reflect his colleagues' obvious and understandable anxiety about how his ideological stunt forced some of them to take unnecessary risks with their health. But I suspect it also may reflect an increasing appreciation on the part of many of the moral absurdity and human harm caused by the "libertarian" anti-government ideology the Congressman professes, an ideology which his political party pretends to profess (depending on who benefits), and one which so many Americans de facto profess because of the widespread prevalence of political cynicism that for many inadvertently allies them with that anti-social stance.

Government is who we are when we acknowledge and act on our connection with and mutual dependence on one another. The pretense that government is not the solution to society's problems, a lie increasingly invoked since the morally disastrous election of 1980, is also one of those many false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our contemporary way of life. Yet, whenever we have found ourselves in crisis (prior to this, most recently after the 2008 economic collapse), we have instinctively and automatically expected the national government to save society. But, because of the pernicious power of that ideology and its long-term hollowing-out of our political institutions and the social solidarity those institutions embody and facilitate, our collective response has been less, rather than more adequate - as has been so dramatically on display this past month.

The closest analogy, I suppose, would be the Great Depression, which, for most of those who survived it, created a consensus in favor of necessary reforms and an unwillingness to retreat backwards. Recall, for example, President Eisenhower's famous observation in 1954:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Unfortunately, however, as the memory of the Depression and FDR faded and a new generation arose that knew not Joseph (cf. Exodus 1:8), commitment to those reforms - and the social solidarity they embody -  diminished and a serious regression set in, undermining our fragile social "safety net," for which we have since been paying a terrible social price especially since the 2008 economic collapse and in the current pandemic.

At present, no one can say how long this current crisis will last or in what long-term forms it will persist, but it is highly unlikely that those who will have survived this collective calamity will forget the lessons learned from this experience and eagerly embrace regressive politics any time soon.

This week's rapid (by congressional standards) congressional response to the pandemic's impact on all aspects of society suggests a more hopeful emerging reality - atavistic ideological posturing to the contrary notwithstanding - in which Americans will find it harder and harder to accept the limitations on social solidarity which have hitherto continued to set the tone of our national life.

Of course, there will be resistance. (Just observe the current right-wing campaign to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci.) Regrettably, some of that resistance may be religious, given the current alliance of elements of "conservative" Christianity. with one particular political party and its Great Leader. On the other side, however, we may yet see surprising and encouraging resilience in American religion, as it too finds itself called back to basics and forced to shed more and more of "those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Lazarus, Come Out!"

A lot of people all over the world are finding themselves more or less stuck at home these days, due to the necessary restrictions imposed on us by the present pandemic. That's obviously not so bad as being dead and in a tomb for four days as Lazarus was, but many might still wish someone would say to them what Jesus said to Lazarus: "Lazarus come out!"


Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But Jesus’ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead also led to the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death.

Since ancient times, this Gospel has been especially associated with the Lenten experiences of catechumens and penitents preparing to be baptized or reconciled at Easter, a renewal we are all invited to identify ourselves with. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey - and to trust the risen Lord to raise us to beyond whatever confines us at present to a fuller life in his kingdom.

In the Gospel story, the friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first notified him that Lazarus was sick. Strangely, however, he seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for this great miracle, and also for the famous conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (nor, for that matter, anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. We, however, start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Unlike Jesus, Lazarus came out of the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually).  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. No one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat. Meanwhile, however, in this in-between time which we still live in, bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to come out, and he emerged still confined, bound hand and foot, needing others to untie him.

We are all, in some sense, confined like Lazarus. But we are also called to do like the bystanders and help one another to find our way from the darkness to God’s kingdom, helping one another along the way, untying whatever blocks us.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020.

Photo: The Traditional Site of Lazarus' Tomb.

Friday, March 27, 2020

A New Kind of Eucharistic Fast

Way back when I received my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955, we were required to fast completely from all food and drink, except water, from midnight the night before. The exception for water was itself a mitigation only recently introduced in 1953. Soon the eucharistic fast would be more radically mitigated in 1957; and at present it exists only in an even more mitigated, virtually vestigial form. 

But now the circumstances of social distance have imposed upon most of the Church a new kind of eucharistic fast - a fast not for the Eucharist but from the Eucharist. It is jarring to our contemporary sacramental sensibilities routinely to celebrate Mass and communicate alone as I must now do. I am reminded of something Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal, on February 11, 1950“I feel as if my Communion were somehow less perfect when I cannot turn and give the Body of Christ to one of my brothers also.” 

In referring to it as "somehow less perfect," Merton was obviously not speaking theologically but experientially, as if in 1950 he were already able to anticipate our contemporary sacramental sensibility., which involves no theological change but reflects an extraordinary experiential change from most of the Church's history when few if any received Communion to today's widespread expectation of almost universal routine reception of Communion.

Whether that particular 20th-century transformation was for the best has been and undoubtedly will continue to be debated. What cannot be debated is the fact that our experience and expectations have changed. Hence the widespread dismay that suddenly so many are not able to receive Communion.

At this stage, we simply have no way of guessing what the long-term consequences of this novel situation will be. Will the absence of Communion make people more appreciative of what they have been missing, as so many fondly hope? Or, as maybe with Mass attendance itself, may many conclude that they didn't miss it that much and so maybe don't really need it after all, as many frankly fear? No one knows. No one can predict.

And might this enforced absence from the Eucharist reset Church life in other ways? Will we revert to a less eucharistic-centered, more pre-20th-century style of Church, something that, for different reasons, is becoming an increasing reality in certain other parts of the world already?

Something so traumatic as what we are experiencing right now is bound to upend all sorts of expectations and make ancient history out of any number of our formerly stable expectations. Indeed, we have recent history as an illustration. Think back to how stable Catholic life was in the United States - parish life especially - in 1960. And then recall how unexpectedly quickly it came apart.  If anything, change happens even faster now than it did then. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation

Today, nine months before Christmas, the Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Lord, recalling the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary (recorded in Luke 1:26-38). As on Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate the great mystery of the Incarnation, commemorating history's most amazing moment when the Word of God became one of us. The Church ritualizes this at Mass by a genuflection during the Creed. (Of course, those of us above a certain age can recall when we always genuflected during the Creed.) Like other ritual bodily gestures, genuflecting during the Creed enfleshes our faith, challenging us to own what we profess with our entire selves not just as an intellectual abstraction. 

An enfleshed faith is, of course, very much what we need at this terrible time. For this year the Annunciation occurs in a crisis when all of ordinary life's rhythms - sacred as well as secular - have been completely disrupted by a global pandemic that more and more feels like an impending apocalypse.

All the more reason, therefore, to invoke the intercession of the woman at the center of the Annunciation scene, Mary, Mother of God, to help us find our way. For centuries in times of trouble, Popes and the people of the local Church of Rome have called upon Mary, Mother of God, for safety. Hence the special place in Roman piety occupied by the ancient image (photo) of Mary, entitled Saluls Populi Romani, presently venerated in the Capella Paolina in the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major. The image got its title from the fact that around the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great had it carried in procession around Rome during a time of plague

This is the image Isaac Hecker stopped to pray in front of, after his expulsion from the Redemptorists in 1857. This is the image Pope Francis visited after his election in 2013 to entrust his pontificate to Mary - and has regularly revisited before and after papal journeys. More recently, in response the the COVID-19 pandemic, he went on pilgrimage through the empty streets of Rome to venerated the Salus Populi Romani image at Saint Mary Major., a simple but so very powerful symbolic gesture that highlighted the perennial relevance of the incarnation.- God is with us!

Our Lady, Health fo the Sick, pray for us !









Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Leadership in a Time of Apocalypse

This is not THE Apocalypse, of course, in which case human leadership wouldn't matter any more anyway.  But it is certainly AN apocalypse, and so human leadership really does matter very much right now. On Sunday, I watched New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo's briefing on the current crisis. It really frightened me to hear how bad the situation is and how much worse it will likely get. But I was also edified and inspired to see my home-state governor showing such much needed leadership at this time. He is not alone of course, the governors of California and Washington have certainly been showing exemplary leadership, as I am sure have others who have received less attention. 

Some, however, have not met the challenge of leadership so well. The president seems to want to compare this crisis to a war, but then he fails to act as a wartime leader. (The most obvious recent example is his refusal to utilize the powers provided to the president by the 1950 Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to meet our national needs.) Someone who purports to be such an admirer of Britain's World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill would do well to follow the example of Churchill and of his American ally President Franklin Roosevelt in how they mobilized their entire societies to meet a deadly threat.

After Lincoln, FDR (photo) was perhaps the greatest American president, having demonstrated genuinely effective leadership in confronting the two great crises of the first half of the 20th-century - the Depression and World War II. Perhaps most importantly as a leader, he was able to persuade the American people to collective action, something that he could do because he was able to persuade people to trust him and have confidence in his leadership. Think back to his first "Fireside Chat" and how he got people who had been withdrawing money from the banks to be willing to deposit money in those same banks once again!

Leadership like that displayed by FDR has two critical components, which remain perennially relevant. The first is competent action that actually responds to real and immediate needs. Of course, no one - not FDR or any other leader - can do it all on his or her own. Indeed, thinking that one is omnicompetent (or trying to pretend to be) is actually counter-productive and a failure of leadership. What a competent leader does is recognize the competence and expertise of others and utilize them to implement public policy. Hence the importance of "deep state" governmental institutions, e.g,,  institutions like the National Security Council's Global Health Security Office, that was dismantled by the Trump White House.

But there is a second component to leadership that may matter more than competence, and that is empathy.  People have to believe that their leaders understand their situation and their needs and that they care. Hence the famous anecdote from FDR's funeral procession in 1945 when a reporter, encountering a particularly distraught man watching the funeral procession, asked him if he knew the President personally. "No, I did not know President Roosevelt, but he knew me," replied the man. That, of course, was what was critical to FDR's leadership. He could connect with citizens because he somehow understood and appreciated where people were at and conveyed that he cared. 

And therein lies our present problem when an administration displays a shocking lack of competence and the person at the top seems so notoriously lacking in empathy.





Monday, March 23, 2020

Shutdown Questions

The other day, I was pointed to an article on the conservative website First Things, entitled "Questioning the Shutdown -https://www.firstthings.com/webexclusives/2020/03/questioning-the-shutdown

There is certainly some validity to the author's concerns, but I also find them problematic in more ways than one.
The author's concern seems to be that the present precautionary procedures against the COVID-19 pandemic - this "extraordinary shutdown" - will, especially if they are prolonged, likely have harmful consequences and do lasting damage to our institutions, and in a special way our religious institutions.

There is obviously some truth to that observation. In fact, many people from various perspectives have expressed concern about what long-term damage society will suffer from this experience. The immediate point at issue, however, is how we prudently evaluate the necessity of measures that might well in the long-term contribute to those consequences - and then what longer-term institutional reforms may help to undo some of that damage. I have no doubt that this crisis will take a terrible toll on all of our institutions. The challenge will be how we respond and what resources - cultural, social, political, and religious - we will still have with which to respond.

The author is especially harsh in his evaluation of the response of the Churches. "Cancelling services and closing churches," he claims, "underlines the irrelevance of institutional Christianity in our technocratic age." To me, that seems like a very strange statement. Institutional Christianity may indeed be increasingly "irrelevant" to many Americans, but why should the Churches' concern for public health make Christianity any more "irrelevant" to them than it already is? Other institutions have closed, institutions which many secular Americans may already consider much more relevant than religion - for example, schools, businesses, and (this society's most particularly pernicious substitute for religion) sports. Their closing hardly underlines their "irrelevance." Moreover, I can hardly think of anything more likely to contribute to religion's "irrelevance" right now than for Churches to oppose - or not to cooperate with - necessary public health measures, prioritizing a politicized theory of religious liberty over the common good, including the health and safety of their own congregations. 

Of course, the Church's mission transcends public health and safety. With several simple but remarkably powerful gestures (for example, his pilgrimage walk in an empty Rome to San Marcello al Corso last week and his repeated invitations to moments of prayer) Pope Francis has highlighted that the Church's mission is, above all, a spiritual one - and also one which can still be exercised while supporting (and certainly not undermining) the common good of human society. The Church is a unique society with a supernatural end, which transcends the legitimate natural ends of civil society, but she is not an automatic obstacle to civil society's legitimate natural ends.

But perhaps the issue is not so much the Church's mission versus the common good of human society, but competing notions of what is in fact the good of society - or of the individual (for those "conservatives" who, echoing Margaret Thatcher, argue that there is no such a thing as society). The author, for example, seems to have no hesitation accepting guidance from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, which is worried about "a drastic decline in GDP." 

One would think that concerns about public health and safety are at least as legitimate for Churches and religious people to care a lot about in this transitory life as is "a drastic decline in GDP." Indeed, down through the centuries in this vale of tears, the Church has canonized for their heroic sanctity men and women who have devoted themselves to caring for others' physical health and well being, often founding religious communities with that as their mission. I can't recall anyone who has been canonized for caring about the GDP.

And surely one of the main reasons for religion's increasing "irrelevance" today has been precisely the alliance of elements of American religion with capitalism and its dire social consequences - so many of which are increasingly on display in the precarious situation in which so many now find themselves as a consequence of this pandemic. 

Some temporary "social distancing" may be a prudent response to the threat of contagion.  The long-term social isolation of so many on the margins of our society has been a moral calamity.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Distanced But Not Divided



Today is Laetare Sunday, which gets its name from the opening words of today’s Introit,  “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” In most years, we mark this mid-lent moment with bright rose vestments, flowers on the altar, and the playing of the organ – external signs that our Lenten pilgrimage is half-over and that we are already half-way to Easter. 

But this has been a Lent unlike any that any of us have ever experienced. All public Masses have been cancelled in much of the world - radical but necessary precautions as the world responds to the global threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. This is a sacrifice which we are being called upon to make to reduce the spread of infection, because that is what it means to be a society and to care about the common good. In time, we will have a better sense of what can prudently be done, but for now I encourage everyone to pay attention to and follow faithfully the current public health guidelines and minimize being in public places and in groups of any significant size. This is especially important for those of us who are older or who may have an already existing medical condition.

With that in mind, I welcome all who are joining one another in spirit for Mass this Sunday. We may be separated by circumstances, but we are not divided. 


HOMILY

The Gospel according to John portrays Jesus performing a series of miracles, which John calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel [John 9:1-41] is a truly monumental miracle, for, as the formerly blind man himself testifies, it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. And, just as the blind man receives physical sight, he is also gradually given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” He receives his physical sight through a series of steps in which Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns able to see.  Meanwhile, he gains increasing insight into who Jesus is - a growth in faith which exactly parallels the unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries, who can certainly see but are spiritually blind - obstinately so. Physically the Pharisees could see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.

It’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel account to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life.  At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and worship, but also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that still seems to dominate the world, challenging us to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.

Meanwhile, easily overlooked in this wonderful story is a sidebar at the beginning when the disciples speculated about the cause of the man’s blindness. In that pre-scientific age, the disciples wondered whether someone’s sin was to blame – an opinion Jesus explicitly rejected.

We, of course, with the insights of modern science, know the natural causes of disease; but, as our present predicament demonstrates, we may feel just as confused and helpless as our ancestors as we are confronted by a new and dangerous disease. Indeed, because we have expectations that they did not have about our ability to control the natural world and to organize our lives as we wish, we may be even more unsettled than they were, when sickness strikes so unexpectedly as this pandemic has done, suddenly forcing us to stop whatever else we thought we would be doing.

Questions like “why?” are important, of course; but much more important are questions like “what do we do now?” Just as the no-longer-blind man asked Jesus for direction, we too need to ask what we can do in response to this unexpected challenge. Now obviously doctors and healthcare workers and policymakers have particular responsibilities and things they need to do. But, for all of us, there are two things, I think, that we are especially challenged to do.

The first, of course, is to pray. Because we are in danger does not mean God has completely abandoned us, and because we cannot at Mass does not mean we  should abandon the new life God has called us to. I don’t know if you saw the pictures of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage last Sunday through the empty streets of Rome, visiting shrines connected with experiences of God’s presence and healing action in past plagues. I found those photos profoundly moving.

The second thing that we are all being challenged to do flows from the first. Just as God does not abandon us, and we must not abandon our relationship with God, so too we must not abandon our relationships with one another. The more we are required to distance ourselves physically from one another, the more we must NOT distance ourselves spiritually. If ever there was a time to reach out to one another by telephone or Facebook or whatever, it is now – especially when so many of our brothers and sisters are alone and may need our help to meet ordinary needs and to allay extraordinary fears. So that even in this terribly frightening time, the works of God may continue to be made visible in our world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020.

Photo: Saint Michael's Chapel, Paulist Fathers' Residence, Knoxville TN.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

After Truth

After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News is an HBO documentary that aired this past Thursday evening, executive produced by CNN's Brian Stelter (Relliable Sources). As its title says, it is an account of the (mostly right wing) disinformation and fake news that has been one of the most destructive features of this present era in American political life. In the process it introduces us to various  characters and horrifying events  like the famous "Pizzagate" absurdity that convinced a gunman to drive from North Carolina to a Washington, D.C., restaurant to thwart what was being falsely presented in right wing media as a front for a Democratic-run pedophilia ring. (The resilience of the staff and customers at Comet Ping Pong may be one of the very few bright spots in this very sad story.)

One of the most revealing conversations in the documentary is with a political operative whose attitude toward the consequences is "so what" and who cites "philosophers on all sides" to the effect that there is no truth. 

But one of the prerequisites for any functioning society is social solidarity, rooted in a reasonable level of trust and a commitment to truth. The assault on science and expertise by one political party in recent decades and our loss of a common culture rooted in shared information and a common understanding of reality have helped bring our country to its presently deeply divided state and has weakened our ability to respond in a unified way in time of national crisis - as is so obviously evident in our present predicament.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Spiritual Communion

Our Bishop has asked that our churches be kept open, with the Blessed Sacrament exposed, for at least some time during the day to allow for private prayer by individuals who wish to visit the church, even while maintaining "social distance." 

Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (nowadays increasingly called "Adoration") used to be rare and is probably more frequent now than at any other time in the Church's long history. Perhaps it runs the risk of becoming too frequent, too routine. That said, the practice does have a historical association with times of crisis. Thus the famous "Forty Hours' Devotion" originated as a penitential prayer for peace. So it seems especially appropriate right now.

Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) famously said, "no wall can shut us out from the good God." And so it appears that the widespread suspension of public Masses around the world seems to be breathing new life into a once common Catholic practice that I thought had practically disappeared and assumed had been forgotten, that of "Spiritual Communion." 

Back in the 1950s when I was in grade school, apart from priests (who, of course, celebrated Mass daily) and religious sisters and brothers and a few especially devout "daily communicants," most Catholics typically received Holy Communion only a few times a year - or, if members of a parish Society, on their Society's monthly Communion Sunday.  By then, Pope Saint Pius X's early 20th-century encouragement of "frequent Communion" had become sufficiently popularized that Catholic school kids of my era were socialized to go to Communion on most, if not all, Sundays - something that had definitely not, however, caught on yet among most "adults." There were also certain occasions - funerals, for example - when absolutely no one at all, other than the celebrating priest, went to Communion.

Meanwhile the faithful who did not receive Communion at Mass were widely encouraged to make what was commonly called a "Spiritual Communion," by reciting a prayer - such as the following one by Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) which was printed in my Saint Joseph Daily Missal

"My Jesus, I believe that You are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I long for You in my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though You have already come, I embrace You and unite myself entirely to You; never permit me to be separated from You."

Just as, when Pope Francis walked alone through the empty streets of Rome last Sunday, the whole Church was in some sense present with him, so too, when we, while separated physically, seek "spiritual communion," the whole Church is in a real sense present with us, as we are with the Church.

P.S. Today is the 10th anniversary of my first post on this blog. So much has happened in the world and in my life these past 10 years, and I have certainly enjoyed using this vehicle to comment on much of it. For a while, I was wondering whether this anniversary might be the right moment for me to end it. But, as I said, I really enjoy writing this, and the fact is that I would miss it if I quit. (I also appreciate the occasional feedback I get from this or that reader) And now, of course, the COVID-19 coronavirus calamity has, if anything, made all these online interactions seem even that much more worthwhile. So, for the foreseeable future at least, it seems City Father will continue!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Go to Joseph!


In the Catholic liturgical calendar, today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, the Spouse of the BlessedVirgin Mary and Patron of the Universal Church,  an echo of Christmas in the monochrome purple of our modern Lent.


In the New Testament, Saint Joseph appears only briefly (and silently) in connection with the early life of Jesus. His burial place is unknown, and there seems to have been little noteworthy devotion to him in the 1st millennium. But, amid the many European calamities of 14th and 15th centuries – famine, wars, religious conflicts, and, above all, the Bubonic Plague – popular preachers, like Saint Bernardine of Siena, saw Saint Joseph as a model protector. By the 16th century, devotion to Saint Joseph was flourishing in Spain. Saint Teresa of Avila believed that his intercession had healed her of paralysis, and she placed her project of reforming the Carmelites — and the dangerous journeys it involved — under his protection. Twelve of the monasteries she founded were dedicated to St. Joseph. Her love of Saint Joseph influenced that great 16th-17th century champion of holiness in everyday life, Saint Francis de Sales. As part of the Counter-Reformation’s strategy for re-evangelizing Christendom, families were encouraged to imitate the Holy Family headed by Saint Joseph. He was named patron of Mexico in 1555, Canada in 1624, Bohemia in 1655, Austria in 1675, the Chinese missions in 1678, and the Spanish Empire in 1689, and his name was inserted in the Litany of Saints in 1729. More recently, the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded by Blessed Jeanne Jugan (18792-1879), made him patron of all their homes for the aged. Montreal’s Oratory of St. Joseph, begun in 1904 by Saint AndrĂ© Bessette (1845-1937), draws scores of pilgrims and promotes devotion to Saint Joseph worldwide.

After the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome from the Pope in 1870, Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph Patron of the Universal Church. In 1955, Pope Pius XII established the new feast of Saint Joseph the Worker (May 1), to counteract the Communist May Day holiday. In 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII made Saint Joseph patron of Vatican Council II, and the following year he inserted Joseph's name in the Roman canon. In 2013, Pope Francis inserted his name in the other Eucharistic Prayers.

A popular custom practiced in many places is the Blessing of Saint Joseph’s Table. In honor of Saint Joseph, who provided for the Holy Family, bread, pastries, and other food are blessed and a large portion of it given to the poor

In a sermon preached at St. Paul the Apostle Church in 1863 (during the American Civil War), Paulist Fathers' Founder Isaac Hecker said of Saint Joseph: “He was in the world and found God where he was. He sanctified his work by carrying God with him into the workshop. … while occupied with the common, daily duties of life, his mind was fixed on the contemplation of divine truths, thus breathing into all his actions a heavenly influence. He attained in society and human relationships a degree of perfection not surpassed, if equaled, by the martyr’s death, the contemplative of the solitude, the cloistered monk, or the missionary hero.”

Hecker called Joseph "the Saint of Our Day." Almost a century and a half later, "our day" is again a threatening and dangerous moment in the history of our nation world, and Church. While the tragic and traumatizing circumstances under which we are living prevent us from celebrating Saint Jospeh's feast day with the full solemnity it deserves, those same circumstances ought to move us to an even greater readiness to invoke his help and protection in our dire need. 


I plan to pray the Litany of Saint Joseph privately in our House Chapel at noon today, and I invite all who are not otherwise occupied at that time, to join me in doing the same in the privacy of their own homes or wherever they may be.


Saint Joseph, Hope of the sick, Patron of the dying, Terror of demons, and Protector of Holy Church, pray for us!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Lent We Have Lost: The Seven Penitential Psalms

In this terrifying time of viral pestilence, I have particularly recommended to people Pope Francis' beautiful prayer to Our Lady, Health of the Sick and Salvation of the Roman People. In addition, however, there are also older practices that had long been a part of the Church's tradition, especially in this Lenten season, that may have more recently been forgotten  but which we might profitably retrieve at this time. One such tradition is the praying of the Seven Penitential Psalms and the Litany of the Saints.

The preeminent penitential psalm is, of course, the Miserere (Psalm 51), which for many centuries used to be a regular component of the Church's Morning Prayer (Lauds) on weekdays - and still is at least on Fridays in the contemporary Roman rite. Early in the Church's history, Cassiodorus (c.485-585) composed a famous work on the Psalms, which listed seven "penitential" psalms:  6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (in our common contemporary numbering):. So the category was familiar and already traditional by at least then. Like the Litany of the Saints, the "Seven Penitential Psalms" eventually became a common component of many liturgical rites, among them the Dedication of a Church, and were commonly added after Matins and Lauds on penitential days (e.g., in Lent). The burden of these many additions is usually thought to be one of the reasons why festive offices proliferated, even in Lent, since the extra psalms and litany would not have to be prayed on feast days. Presumably it was for this reason - to make the weekday Office more attractive and to ease the burden on those with pastoral responsibilities - that Pope Saint Pius X's reform in 1911 abolished most such extra obligations. 

Contemporary "social distancing" obviously precludes old-fashioned penitential processions, like the famous 1622 procession with the "Plague Crucifix" that I referred to yesterday. But with modern media the texts are easy for anyone to access on one's own, and they remain an especially appropriate vehicle for personal prayer especially in this cataclysmic Lenten season.

One particularly useful resource is the USCCB's website where one can listen to each of the "Seven Penitential Psalms" as well as read a Reflection for each.  (For this, go to:
http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/seven-penitential-psalms-songs-of-suffering-servant.cfm


(Photo: The "Plague Crucifix" at Rome's Church of San Marcello al Corso)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In Time of Pestilence


In the old days, there was a Votive Mass Pro Vitanda Mortalitate. So far as I can tell, it no longer appears in our contemporary Missal, but we could surely use it today!


I have been encouraging everyone to pray Pope Francis' Prayer to Our Lady Health of the Sick and Salvation of the Roman People. The famous image of Mary, Salvation of the Roman People in the papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major was particularly dear to Isaac Hecker and is particularly dear to Pope Francis, who visits it often and visited it again on Sunday afternoon (Photo at bottom).

From there, his pilgrimage continued to the church of San Marcello al Corso. The above photo shows him walking the last segment of that pilgrimage on foot on what is normally one of Rome's busiest streets. It is quite a sight! And it is a poignant reminder that one of the consequences of this crisis is social separation. That is why I think it is especially important that we all try to keep in touch with as many people as we can - especially those who may be lonely or particularly frightened. Loneliness and fear are also deadly. 


The original church of San Marcello al Corso burned down in 1519, but its large wooden crucifix somehow survived undamaged. During a plague in Rome in August 1522, a two-week procession took place during which the great crucifix was carried from San Marcello to Saint Peter's through all the districts of the city. (This is a photo of the San Marcello Plague Crucifix, which I took in 2012.)




And here is Pope Francis' Prayer to Mary, Health of the Sick and Salvation of the Roman People:

O Mary, you shine continuously on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick.
At the foot of the Cross you participated in Jesus’ pain,
with steadfast faith.
You, Salvation of the Roman People, know what we need.
We are certain that you will provide, so that,
as you did at Cana of Galilee,
joy and feasting might return after this moment of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform ourselves to the Father’s will
and to do what Jesus tells us:
He who took our sufferings upon Himself, and bore our sorrows to bring us,
through the Cross, to the joy of the Resurrection. Amen.
We seek refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God.
Do not despise our pleas – we who are put to the test – and deliver us from every danger,
O glorious and blessed Virgin.



Monday, March 16, 2020

A Life Lived Well

In recent years, since my move to Tennessee, I have tried most summers to reconnect with some of my cousins in NY and always especially enjoyed those opportunities to reminisce and catch up with some of the people who were such an important part of my earlier years. It is one of the blessings of having had parents who came from large families to have had many aunts, uncles, and cousins, who played such a prominent part in my life. So today I join my extended family in mourning my dear cousin Isabel, my oldest cousin on the Franco side of the family, who at 80 was still an active, vibrant, and positive presence in her community, where she was the President of the Yorktown, NY, Rotary Club.
Born in 1939 to my Aunt Filomena, the de facto matriarch of the Franco clan for the rest of the 20th century, she was nine years older than I was and so always seemed wiser and more experienced, an aura she never quite lost. She was the first of my cousins to marry - marring Eugene, an Irish boy from Inwood - in 1959, and was the first cousin to make the move out of the city to suburban Westchester.  
She and Eugene were loving godparents to my sister Christine, who sadly died in her 40s. Isabel had three children herself before being suddenly widowed in 1980. She then served as Registrar at Iona College in New Rochelle until her retirement in 2006. But it was her loving and encouraging presence to her wider family - her sisters, nieces and nephews, and cousins - that I will always cherish and remember most. And I will miss her comments on Facebook (including her occasional comments on these posts of mine).
Ironically, her wake will take place on the day when my mother's funeral Mass in California (postponed because of the coronavirus crisis) had originally been scheduled. She will be buried by her husband in the same cemetery where my mother will also eventually be interred.
May the angels lead her into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome her and take her to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.

(Photo: One of the last pictures of me with my cousins Libby, Isabel, Albina, and Carol.)


Friday, March 13, 2020

No Ordinary Time

You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.
We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.”
So spoke Eleanor Roosevelt in her famous July 1940 speech to the Democratic National Convention. With much of the world already at war and the United States only a year-and-a-half away from war, Eleanor Roosevelt rallied the party to collective action in service of the common good. Faced with a dangerous external threat, she could and did call upon the strong moral resources of the nation to meet it.

This too, now, is no ordinary time. The external threat is here - in the form of contagious disease and all the terror that inspires. But who is left to rally the nation? Who is left to call upon our reservoir of strong moral resources? And are those resources still available to us? Or have they all given way to what Ross Douthat would call our decadence

Decadence indeed! We are, on paper, the world's richest and most powerful country. But we are governed by a political party which for four full decades (since the morally disastrous election of 1980) has disparaged and undermined the functions of government, has successfully increased inequality thus separating citizens from one another rather than uniting them, and has gone to war against science and expertise. So now we cannot even test citizens to find out who and how many are infected - something other countries with a reservoir of social solidarity have been able to do.  A well-governed society would have public health officials to seek out the elderly and others most at risk. A well-governed society could close schools if necessary, without fearing that students would lose needed meals or be left unsupervised all day because their families, already living on the margin, dare not take off from work - even if they are sick themselves.

The dysfunction of the American medical industry is a familiar story. It is what happens when an important public good is allowed to be instead part of a private, for-profit economy.  When this is over, surely the moral bankruptcy of our dependence on for-profit private medical insurance will be even more obvious than it was already.

But for now it is far from over. This is no ordinary time.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

Requiem Aeternam

O God, who commanded us to honor father and mother, have mercy in your compassion on my mother, forgive her her sins, and bring me to see her one day in the gladness of eternal glory (Roman Missal).

My mother died a week ago today at age 97. She was hospitalized on Ash Wednesday, and as late as the following Monday we were actively arranging for hospice care at home. but then she underwent severe kidney failure and died on Thursday, March 5. We made plans for her funeral Mass to be celebrated on March 18, but then the coronavirus epidemic intervened.

So, out of an abundance of caution, to reduce the likelihood of spreading infection in particular among those most vulnerable to this serious illness because of age, we have decided to postpone her funeral to a later date, as yet to be determined, when all will be able to participate without anxiety.


I want to express my personal gratitude for the many expressions of prayer for my mother's eternal rest and salvation and of sympathy for  my family in this time of mourning. My mother was blessed with a long and productive life, in which she saw so much of modern history, had so many experiences, and received so many blessings. We give thanks for that life and for all the blessings she experienced in her many years, even as we now commend her to God's great mercy.

When we are able to do so, her funeral Mass will be celebrated in her parish church in California, in the community where she moved after my father died so as to be near her daughter and her grandchildren, and where she experienced a whole new chapter of her life there, filled with new friends and new experiences. Eventually, she will be interred in New York next to my father and my other sister and near her own parents, bringing the story of her long and faithful life to its close. She was the last of her generation, my family’s last link with our Italian immigrant heritage.

May the angels lead her into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome her and take her to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.