Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday


There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe anything resembling the traditional fast, Lent has lately acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our strange preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of (as in "giving something up") for Lent.

Ash Wednesday didn’t even exist yet in Saint Basil’s time.  The custom of everybody flocking to church to get ashes was a relative latecomer to Lent. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday. In my 10 years as a priest in midtown Manhattan, we distributed Ashes, more or less non-stop, from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Perhaps 2000+ people passed through the church that day to get their ashes. I remember once when the parish office got a call asking whether we would start giving ashes at midnight, which made me wonder whether the caller was confusing Ash Wednesday with Christmas. From a marketing point of view, I suppose, offering ashes at midnight might be a great attraction. Who knows how many might respond to the chance to be the first on one's block to get ashes?

For many of those who come to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For many others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings the reception of ashes may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much desired ashes?

The use of ashes, the Church reminds us, “symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.” Remember, The Church tells us today, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What is it about having dirt smudged on one’s face and being reminded that we are going to die that is so amazingly attractive?

Every year, I ask that question, and always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with images and words we cannot even begin to process, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, for once we are being told something that is simply TRUE.

We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about oneself.  Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repentance somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our self-affirmation.

Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem so reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.

Homily for Ash Wednesday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, February 26, 2020.


Monday, February 24, 2020

The Lent We Have Lost: Fasting

For many, Lent (about to begin this week with Ash Wednesday) remains the high point of the Church year, the season of most intense religious practice and involvement. For some that Lenten experience practically crests on Ash Wednesday, but for many Lent is still experienced as a genuinely sustained religious renewal throughout the season. In this they are assisted by a plethora of Lenten practices the Church has over the centuries mandated, encouraged, or just tolerated. Sadly so many of these have disappeared - quite quickly in recent decades. Before they are forgotten forever, however, their memory may yet be invoked to sustain and renew our contemporary Lenten experience.

The first and most obvious of those lost practices is, of course, the Lenten fast - the very thing that gave Lent its most distinctive character, that extended its observance into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.


There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.


So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe the traditional fast, Lent has acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our obsessive preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of ("giving up") for Lent. 

It is true, of course, that fasting laws and customs have varied according to time and place. Already a century ago, the fasting laws in the Latin Church had been massively mitigated compared with earlier Western practices in and with the even now, still significantly more challenging practices in the Eastern Churches. Yet what happened 50+ years ago was less a mitigation than effectively an abolition. (Maintaining a vestigial, already much mitigated "fast" on two days of the year has only further highlighted the de facto disappearance of fasting, self-denial, and the very notion of Lent as a season of asceticism.)

This "reform" came not as a result of protest and non-compliance from the bottom up but as a mandate from the top down - a gratuitously self-inflicted wound.

Now, while I can well remember the Lenten fast, I myself never actually had to observe it. It didn't bind until age 21, and I was only 17, when Pope Saint Paul VI effectively abolished it. That said, some (perhaps even more mitigated) form of lenten fast would be an asset to each of us individually and to the wider Church as a community.

In the first place, while the external forms may vary, some dimension of self-denial seems inherent in the life of a disciple. That has always been the case and may be especially essential for us today, inextricably immersed as we all are now in this sinfully rich, consumerist, capitalist culture. 

Second, for both each individual and the community from which each individual is inseparable, it is good to do important things together. A commonly and communally observed Lenten fast could be beneficial for our life together as Church, much more so than individuals fasting on their own.

Third, discipleship requires religious practices which extend into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.The traditional Lenten fast did that, and a renewed form of it could do so again.

Of course, there is virtually no chance of anything like that happening again in my lifetime . So it is literally a case of "The Lent We have Lost."



Sunday, February 23, 2020

'I Say to You'


These last Sundays before Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which is all about the “kingdom of God” and what it takes to become a committed citizen of that kingdom.  The passage [Matthew 3:38-48] we just heard today has enjoyed more than the usual amount of attention this year because it was referenced by the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month – and because the President of the United States, departing from the event’s traditional tone, took a notably different approach in his response. Not long ago, dramatically disagreeing Jesus was not considered good politics, but times have obviously changed!

The keynote speaker was responding to what he called “the biggest crisis” we face today, what he called “the crisis of contempt … that is tearing our society apart.” His response was to invoke Jesus’ words which we just heard: I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

He then went on to tell a story about how he was invited to speak to a particular partisan group and tried to offer his hearers an alternative approach about how to relate to those they disagree with. As he put it, “if you want to persuade them – which should be your goal – remember that no one has ever been insulted into agreement. You can only persuade with love.” It was, he noted, “not an applause line.”

It may not have been an applause line for Jesus either!

And, of course, if we are to be totally honest, we all have trouble at times with Jesus’ demands – not just loving our enemies but so many other or Jesus’ “hard sayings, as commentators commonly call them. That is one reason we preachers are sometimes accused of preferring to preach platitudes, rather than those “hard sayings.”

Jesus’ message on that mountaintop in Galilee was meant to challenge (and continues to challenge) not just you and me and anyone else who claims to be Jesus’ disciple, but a whole way of life - that of his 1st-century contemporaries then, and our own way of life today, our entire way of life today. You may have heard something different, Jesus says, but I say to you! At the same time, Jesus also assures us that his message is not an idiosyncratic invention, but based on who God is and how he acts toward us – a God who blesses both good and bad, just and unjust, with his refreshing rain.

Ours is a society increasingly organized around, that is, divided by, mutual contempt. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our common human tendency to focus on ourselves and our feelings – particularly strong feelings, like resentment and anger. But, in that new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, anger and hatred, resentment and contempt have no proper place. Jesus challenges us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within ourselves and our seemingly infinite capacity to focus on ourselves and thus close ourselves off from others, whoever they might be – from our neighbor next door, to refugees and immigrants from far away.

Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we want to be, but what God himself is inviting and enabling us to become.

Lent, which will begin in just a few days, is the Church’s invitation to reexamine where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.

Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 23, 2020.

Friday, February 21, 2020

That Debate

My former Mayor, Mile Bloomberg, made his much anticipated first appearance on the debate stage Wednesday night, and the result by all accounts was disastrous for him. Perhaps that should not have been such a surprise. He hasn't had to do this since the last time he ran for mayor in 2009. Maybe more to the point, in private life as a rich person he probably has seldom had to deal with anyone directly disagreeing with or challenging him. Voters should be grateful that the rules were changed to make him eligible to debate. Otherwise all most voters would have to go on would be his very attractive ads, which undoubtedly deserve much of the credit for his surprisingly high standing in the polls. 

Like most mayors, Bloomberg's record was mixed. He should have been better prepared to answer the inevitable questions about the negative aspects of that record - e.g., Stop and Frisk. That he was so ill-prepared to do so and to deflect the discussion to the more positive aspects of his record, as well as to his commendable contributions to the campaign against guns and climate change, speaks at minimum to his unpreparedness to compete against other candidates who have been already campaigning seemingly forever. 

The terrible irony of the debate was that, if Bloomberg was supposed to be the party's savior from Sanders, his presence on the debate stage and the fact that most of the others' attacks were directed against him, instead of against Sanders, seems only to have strengthened Sanders' position as the putative front-runner - an outcome desired by no one else, except Sanders' fanatical followers. 

Pete Buttigieg was almost alone in seriously challenging Sanders, not that it did Sanders much harm or Buttigieg much good. He did effectively summarize the party's dilemma with both former-Republican Bloomberg and Independent Sanders, when he suggested that the party ought to nominate a Democrat. Of course, in the good old days when conventions functioned as they were intended to, and candidates were selected there by real party leaders, this would not have been a problem.

So, far from saving the party from Sanders, Bloomberg has just become one more divisive figure among the would-be 'moderates' all competing against each other instead of uniting against Sanders - in effect, replicating the error Republicans made during their nominating process in 2016, when they competed against each other instead of against Trump.

Of course, candidates' records need to be challenged. But our seemingly perpetual obsession with finding faults in candidates' pasts and minor mistakes in the present gets in the way of offering voters the attractive alternative needed to inspire them to vote. There really are more important tests of a candidate than knowing the name of every foreign leader.  

Above all, the greatest failure of the debate was its inward-looking focus. A proverbial space alien watching the debate would hardly have become aware of the threats posed by the incumbent Republican President to everything from election security to the rule of law to accessible health care, all of which the candidates should be talking more about and offering an attractive alternative to.

Monday, February 17, 2020

George Washington

“How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” That famous question, by a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, reflected the bizarre sense of political decline that accompanied the tragic presidency of Richard Nixon. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously wrote that "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce," Nixon was a truly tragic figure. Since then, however, we have moved on to the farce. Well we might ask today, on the Father of our Country's official birthday, "“How in the world did we get from George Washington to the 45th President of the United States?” 

In observance of Washington's Birthday ("Presidents Day"), the History channel is offering a 3-part miniseries, dramatizing the story of our first president.  I watched the first part last night, which dealt with what we might call Washington's pre-history, his development as a colonial soldier and as a Virginia farmer and businessman, including some early lessons about the flaws of the mighty British Empire's officials. 

George Washington (1732-1799) was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century mores to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism in our prominent persons, including our political leaders.


Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences.


The US Senate still observes the Washington's Birthday tradition of having one Senator read Washington's famous "Farewell Address" to the full Senate. If only they/we focused on the content as well as the ritual form of that famous "Address."


Among other things, Washington warned:


In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

Apparently, Washington could foresee the harm done to our national life by the kind of geographical-cultural cleavages (e.g., urban vs. rural, coast vs. "flyover") which now so divide our society.

Washington was not alone in the founding generation in an unfortunate under-appreciation of the almost necessary role of political parties in facilitating democratic governance. (In 1950, the American Political Science  Association famously called political parties "indispensable instruments of government" that "provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives  of action.')  Even so, Washington's familiar critique of party politics retains a certain relevance, as we contemplate the dangerous extremes contemporary hyper-partisanship can take us to - and the very real, resulting temptation to populist despotism, which we can observe increasingly taking hold right now:  


I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Washington's warning could clearly foresee the danger of such despotically oriented partisanship colluding with foreign influences, another harmful development we see so strikingly at work in the present crisis of our institutions.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
Finally, we should not forget Washington's challenge to the problematic attempt to try to build a successful society on a purely secular foundation:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. ... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Campaign Continues

After New Hampshire, the campaign continues. But, quite contrary to what was once expected, neither Biden nor Warren will continue the campaign with even a single delegate from New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders seems to have won just about one-quarter of the votes in New Hampshire (more or less his same performance as in Iowa), the lowest ever for a Democratic "winner" in New Hampshire and noticeably less than the 60% he won there against Hillary Clinton four years ago. As in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg was right there behind Bernie in New Hampshire and is virtually tied with him in overall delegates so far. (Pete apparently has 22 total, Bernie 21) 

The only other significantly noteworthy development (besides Biden and Warren's almost complete collapse) was Amy Klobuchar's strong performance. So the campaign continues with Bernie Sanders as the media-anointed "front-runner," commanding the strong support of about a quarter of the democratic electorate and simultaneously strongly opposed by a more moderate majority divided at present between two attractive mid-westerners and desperately needing to become united behind either one of them or maybe by someone waiting in the wings (i.e., Mike Bloomberg).


From New Hampshire, the campaign continues on to Nevada on February 22, and then South Carolina one week later. The inclusion of the latter two as single events is obviously intended to balance Iowa and New Hampshire and create what we might call an inclusive quadrilateral. From there, however, the campaign continues to Super Tuesday, March 3, when all pretense of “retail politics” disappears as 14 states — Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia — vote all at once (a situation in which advertising money may matter more than anything else).

Can Sanders broaden his support beyond his fanatically committed quarter of the Democratic electorate? If not, will his disappointed supporters enable Trump's re-election either by voting for him directly (as some Sanders supporters did last time) or just staying home in those few but decisive places where every vote matters?

On the other hand, can Sanders' opponents unite behind someone - anyone - who can lead the party successfully into November? The most obvious choice in terms of his success so far would be Buttigieg. The most obvious choice in terms of his resources and his proven ability to annoy Trump might be Bloomberg. Will these upcoming primaries force a decision out of a hitherto undecided electorate?

The story of the campaign - so far at least - has been about the failure of mainstream Democrats to unite around one single candidate (replicating the situation the Republicans had in 2016). Several factors may have combined to cause this, but one obvious culprit has been the disastrous Biden candidacy which, with its gratuitously presumed claim to "front runner" status, got in the way of other possible candidates who might have had more to offer both as candidates and as potential presidents. .

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Querida Amazonia

"Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests" is the unsurprising headline of today's NY Times article on Pope Francis' just released Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, the much anticipated follow-up document to last fall's Synod on the Amazon. The Times article's disappointment was palpable, evident in the odd observation that it somehow contrasted with "the openness he had displayed on the subject and his frequently expressed desire for a more collegial and less top-down church," and raising "the question of whether Francis’ promotion of discussing once-taboo issues is resulting in a pontificate that is largely talk" 

Of course, another way of looking at all this is that. almost seven years into his pontificate, the Pope has finally mastered how not to step on his message and how to focus the Church's attention on the issues he really wants to talk about - in this case, the "four great dreams" (social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial) "that the Amazon region inspires" in him,  rather than the issues that preoccupy so much of rich first-world religious news and secular punditry.

Those latter issues (the possibility of ordaining married viri probati as priests and women as deacons) were indeed included among the Synod's considerations. But, despite the western media's obsessive preoccupation with them, they were hardly what the Synod was all about or the main focus of either its deliberations or its recommendations. Pope Francis has wisely focused on the Synod's main concerns both in regard to the Amazon region itself and in regard to the wider Church - "because the Church’s concern for the problems of this area obliges us to discuss, however briefly, a number of other important issues that can assist other areas of our world in confronting their own challenges" [Querida Amazonia, 5].

The result is an Apostolic Exhortation focused primarily on the social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial concerns surfaced by the Amazon Synod, illuminated by a multitude of references back to the Pope's previous and groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si'. While much of what the Pope has written is addressed directly to explicitly Amazonian concerns, their universal relevance in our globalized world and to our Universal Church is evident.

Of particular interest, given the many anticipated expectations and criticisms is the fourth chapter's explication of Francis' "ecclesial dream." The Pope stresses that "as Christians, we cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel. In our desire to struggle side by side with everyone, we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ. Those who have encountered him, those who live as his friends and identify with his message, must inevitably speak of him and bring to others his offer of new life: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!' (1 Cor 9:16)" [Querida Amazonia, 62].

Unsurprisingly, much of this chapter focuses on the complex question of inculturation. And, in what may be a reference to that other unfortunate distraction during the Synod, the so-called "Pachamama" controversy, the Pope reminds us that it may be  "possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error. Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation. A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality" which "will certainly be centered on the one God and Lord, while at the same time in contact with the daily needs of people who strive for a dignified life, who want to enjoy life’s blessings, to find peace and harmony, to resolve family problems, to care for their illnesses, and to see their children grow up happy" [Querida Amazonia, 79-80].

Nor does the Pope skirt the challenging question of the inculturation of ecclesial ministry, in the difficult circumstances of the contemporary Church, which in part provided motivation for raising the controversial suggestions about married priests and women deacons during the Synod. In this context, the Pope has also provided a clear statement of how the Church understands the priesthood:

"The answer lies in the sacrament of Holy Orders, which configures him to Christ the priest. The first conclusion, then, is that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist. That is his particular, principal and non-delegable function. ... When the priest is said to be a sign of 'Christ the head', this refers principally to the fact that Christ is the source of all grace: he is the head of the Church because 'he has the power of pouring out grace upon all the members of the Church'.... The priest is a sign of that head and wellspring of grace above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire Christian life. That is his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders." [Querida Amazonia, 87-88]..

Approaching priesthood and ecclesial ministry matters in this way has freed the Pope to concentrate on the Amazon's unique needs and the synod's primary preoccupations. In the process, the Pope has successfully refocused news about his papacy on the concerns of the poor and marginalized, whose interests he has always tried to foster, but from which we have repeatedly been distracted by rich first-world worries and secular punditry..In so doing he is surely seeking to promote unity in the Church, which has for so long now been so sorely divided by these pointless and destructive divisions and conflicts.

Monday, February 10, 2020

An Old Book About an Almost Forgotten Time

Recently, someone asked me if I had a copy of James Gillis: Paullist, the biography of the famous priest, written by Father James F. Finley in 1958. I had to admit that I didn't have one (and, in fact, had never read it). Asked if I would like his copy, I said, "Of course," and I told him how the author had lived with us when I was a novice and had begun one of his talks to our group with the same vivid image of the throngs converging on the Paulists' New York parish church to hear Gillis lecture on "False Prophets" on Sunday evening, October 21, 1923, with which the book begins.

Father James Martin Gillis (1876-1957) was an interestingly complex figure. He advocated for African-Americans' rights and spoke out against anti-Semitism. Sadly, however, his memory has been forever tarnished by his isolationist opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt and his embrace of the "America First" movement. Politics aside, however, through his preaching, lecturing, magazine publishing, and radio ministry, he was undoubtedly one of the major public voices of the Catholic Church as it moved into the mainstream of American society in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when preaching, lecturing, magazine publishing, etc., mattered much more than they do now because people paid so much more attention to such things, whether because religion mattered more then or simply because there were fewer other distractions.. At Cardinal Cushing's insistence, what was then called the Catholic Information Center in Boston was named after Gillis in 1957.

To be honest, I read the book more because of its author than its subject. I was curious how he dealt with the religious community dimensions of Gillis' life  and how he addressed the less attractive aspects of Gillis' personality. I knew the book would be a well written entry into late 19th-century and early 20th-century Catholic life in the US from the perspective of mid-20th-century America, a time when the Catholic life in this country seemed most fully developed and when the standing and influence of the Catholic Church in this country seemed to be at its zenith. And that task the book does fulfill.

Boston-born Gillis was a smart student who graduated from Boston Latin School and eventually went on to seminary, where influenced by a talk given by a visitor, the famous priest Walter Elliott, Gillis found his inspiration. "I prayed to be a missionary with half the zeal of Walter Elliott," he recalled later in life. Ordained a Paulist priest in the first year of the 20th century, Gilllis went on to further studies and teaching, to parish work in Chicago, and from there on the then highly favored work of preaching Missions (including in his case Missions to non-Catholics), before setting into the main mission of his life in the form of the more famous works with which he is mostly (and uniquely) associated.

Finley highlights Gillis's accomplishments but also the dynamics that held him back, brilliance beset by personality flaws and a (perhaps not unrelated) propensity to illness. Also on display is unique challenge of individual stardom within the theoretical egalitarianism of religious community.

Notwithstanding the universal scope and relevance of such considerations, Finley's account - even while written within the world and Gillis had inhabited - already has an air of elegy. Of course, brilliant people will always strive, succeed, and suffer setbacks because of the limitations of their personalities and other circumstances beyond their control. Versions of that will happen in every time and place and will result in interestingly complex life stories worthy of the biographer's art. That said, Finley's account is less interesting for what it recalls about one now almost forgotten figure from the previous century than what it remembers and how it portrays the aspirations of that singular era.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

City on a Hill

A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden [Matthew 5:14] is an image sometimes applied to the story which we Americans often like to tell about ourselves. Ronald Reagan quoted it in the 1980s. John F. Kennedy quoted it to the Massachusetts General Court in 1961 [photo], explicitly referencing its first application to America – John Winthrop’s famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, delivered in 1630 to the Massachusetts colonists still on board their ship.

Whatever that expression has since come to mean in modern American politics, for Winthrop its meaning was quite clear – and challenging. He said:

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, patience, gentleness, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

Thanks to Winthrop and his New England Puritans, Jesus’ famous challenge to his disciples to be the light of the world and a city that cannot be hidden became a familiar and powerful American image of the sort of society to aspire to be, one which over time has attracted immigrants from all over the world.

Originally, of course, the image referred to the Church, called to continue Christ’s life and mission by being light for a dangerously dark world. But, in the dark of night a city might easily be hidden by the surrounding darkness, unless illuminated by the lights lit by its citizens’ shared efforts. It takes conscious commitment and cooperation, without which there is only darkness. Autonomy and competition cannot build a city, much less illuminate it. Making a fire, lighting a lamp, illuminating a city, none of that happens automatically. The illumination Jesus challenges us to bring about requires our commitment to the kingdom of God, the coming of which we pray for every day in the Lord’s Prayer – a world transformed by the saving power of Christ its King, where the forces of evil are in retreat, divisions are undone, and (as Winthrop said) we delight in each other, supporting one another in the ways he mentioned, without fear of the dark.

Jesus challenges us to side with the light and reject the dark. But that is not so easy as it sounds. For darkness still very much dominates the world.

Yet, in spite of all that is so terribly wrong in our world, Jesus invites us to follow him into his kingdom, with confidence in his light’s power. So, while people still die, the resurrection of Christ assures us that death no longer has the final word. And, although people in both private and public life still hate, exploit, insult, and abuse their power, yet God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, and peace has already begun to take root in our world – through our life together.

In the dark, it seems only natural to hate, exploit, insult, and oppose those who appear different from us in some way, and to be attracted to those who succeed in the world by doing such things, those the world admires and those the powerful praise as “winners.” It takes the fire of love to light the lamp of reconciliation and to illuminate a city with God’s justice and peace. On our own, we would long ago have been left in the dark; but Jesus himself has provided us with the fire to light up his city, freeing us to share that light with one another.

Of course, even a city set on a mountain has to draw its water from the ground below. The Church is not on some private planet all by itself, but very much a part of this time, this place, this society. Hence, Governor Winthrop’s detailed instructions to his fellow settlers on what being an authentic human community must entail – instructions every bit as timely today as they were then.

There is a darker approach to life in the world, one which seems increasingly to set society’s tone today, a transactional approach which sees everything in life in terms of competition – in which everything becomes a kind of zero-sum game of winners and losers. But, just as the light of any one individual candle will continue to burn with its full brightness, no matter how many more may be lit from it from it, we need not worry that the light will be lost if we share with others. Jesus does not want us to huddle, frightened and fretful, around a weakly lit fire, but to be a bright, well-lit city that not only can but wants to be seen for miles around – a new kind of community that already in the here and now has begun to live the new life of God’s kingdom, a city that not only cannot be hidden but that can, quite literally, light up the world.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, February 9, 2020.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Faith and Prayer

“The allegations made in the articles of impeachment are very serious. As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise 'impartial justice.' I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. … my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience. … I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?"

Hearing Mitt Romney, the only Republican Senator to cut through Republican hypocrisy  and cross party lines in Wednesday's impeachment vote, take his oath to God seriously was, said Stephen Colbert. “like finding water in the desert.”

And what a desert American religion is in right now! That desert was fully on display the very next morning at the so-called National Prayer Breakfast. That event dates back to the middle of the last century, and every US President since Eisenhower has participated in this once honorable event. Speakng just before the President, this year’s keynote speaker, Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies, addressed the audience of more than 3,000 on that foundationally Christian theme. Then the recently impeached President spoke and expressed his essential disagreement with the keynote!

On such occasions, I am again reminded of my favorite quite from Southern Baptist Russell Moore back in October 2016, regarding ostensibly religious figures who ally themselves with this President:  "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."

Mitt Romney's father, George, who also aspired unsuccessfully for the presidency back in the 1960s, was born in Mexico where his devout Mormon grandparents had had to flee to avoid persecution by the US. government. A practicing member of the LDS Church, Mitt Romney, knows something about real religious persecution and real religious freedom - in contrast to the fevered "Flight 93" apocalypticism so often invoked by some ostensibly religious people to justify their alliance with this impeached President. This week Romney reminded anyone who was listening that faith is about God and God's Kingdom and not about political power and idolatrous prayer.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Impeachment Postmortem

It's over at last! To no one's surprise, the Republican Senate has acquitted President Trump, the third president in US history to have been impeached by the House. How history will remember this strange episode remains to be seen. In the present, whatever good one may have hoped might have come from this experience, its short-term effects seem largely negative. That too should hardly come as any great surprise, which is why Speaker Pelosi wisely resisted pursuing impeachment for such a long time, until circumstances left her with little option. 

Last June I wrote on this site "that the one person who stands to benefit the most from an impeachment proceeding is President Trump himself, which may explain his increasingly provocative and obstructive behavior towards Congress, as if he were practically provoking the House to move toward impeachment." Like most observers, I anticipated the President's acquittal, "with the vote breaking down, more or less, along party lines." All of which suggested to me at the time that "Democrats would do better (1) to investigate but not impeach, (2) to legislate more than investigate, and (3) to nominate a successful candidate and evict Trump from the White House the old fashioned way by winning a mandate from the American electorate." That was my view then and remains my view now.

That is not to deny that the President acted in a corrupt manner (already obvious the day the original phone transcript was released) which certainly merited investigation and impeachment - and probably conviction by the Senate. Nor do I deny that the House made a credible and compelling legal and moral case for the president's removal. But, to repeat what ought to be obvious, impeachment is a political process to be embraced or avoided according to the virtue of political prudence.  Hence, however clear the facts, reasonable observers  could plausibly disagree on whether or not to impeach and on whether or not to convict.

The initial impulse for impeaching the president reflected a particular wing of the Democratic party's preference for expressive rather than effective politics. As expressive political behavior, impeachment was theatrical and symbolic in the extreme. As effective political action, it was inevitably an extreme failure. 

Speaker Pelosi, who famously once said that impeachment needed to be bipartisan, understood this, as did many others; but the combination of the President's wildly inappropriate behavior together with increasing pressure from the more extreme elements of the Democratic House Caucus pushed the House Democrats in this problematic direction.

What could the Democrats have done differently? One thing the House could conceivably have done would have been to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the President's Ukraine phone call and related actions - analogous to the 1973 Senate Watergate Select Committee. In 1973, that committee's televised hearings helped move public opinion, which eventually (with help from various other factors including the President's own behavior), led to Nixon's increasing loss in popular support, which was what finally led to his resignation. Given contemporary Republican tribalism, a 1970s Nixon-like outcome was always an unlikely scenario. So then the obvious course would have been for the committee to aim to reveal and clarify as much as possible and then to take it all to the voters - into whose hands Trump's fate has at last been returned.

Thanks to this imbroglio, Trump's approval has reached an all-time high of 49%. That's not as high as Clinton's approval after his impeachment trial, but it is the highest he has ever gotten, which is hardly an encouraging assessment of the impeachment effort. It is certainly a timely reminder that this President and his supine supporters in Congress will not be easy for anyone to defeat at the polls.

But now that the primary campaign has officially begun, the Democrats need to get back to where they should have been focused all along, before they got distracted by impeachment Their task is to nominate a successful candidate who can evict Trump from the White House the old fashioned way by winning a mandate from the American electorate, something their bickering, divided party is not presently  demonstrating its readiness to do.



Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On to New Hampshire

As the dust settles from the media disappointment at the lack of immediately reportable results from the Iowa Caucus, it is time to consider the Iowa votes themselves and what they may say about the emerging shape of the Democratic race as it moves on to New Hampshire and beyond. Long before the Iowa Caucuses acquired the importance they have had since Jimmy Carter's time, the New Hampshire primary was the "first in the nation" event. (It was in New Hampshire in 1968 that Eugene McCarthy famously did well enough - without winning - to motivate Robert Kennedy to run and Lyndon Johnson to quit.)

So far, with some 71% of precincts reporting, Pete Buttigieg leads with 419 State Delegate Equivalents (26.8%) to Bernie Sanders' 394 (25.2%) and leads in 60 counties to Sanders' 18. In terms of individual votes, Sanders did beat Buttigieg in the first round, 31,428 (24.4%) to 27,515 (21.4%), but that lead narrowed significantly in the second round, 32,772 (26.2%) to 31,458 (25.2%). There may be more movement as the remaining returns are reported, but the pattern appears clear.

Sanders was expected to do well, and (as expected) younger voters tended to go for Sanders. If Sanders becomes the frontrunner after New Hampshire, the Democrats risk repeating what the Republicans experienced in 2016 when a supposedly implausible and unelectable candidate and his zealous base took over a divided party. The question then would be whether the desire to win would motivate mainstream Democrats to unite behind such an extreme candidate (as the Republicans successfully did in 2016).

On the other hand, Pete Buttigieg seems to have done better than expected among younger voters and, most importantly, did very well in the second round. As Michael Sean Winters wrote in The National Catholic Reporter, one "cannot think of a better test of a candidate's ability to unite the Democratic Party than to outpace other leaders in the ability to attract voters who originally supported someone else." If Mayor Pete can do that, then he could well be the candidate best positioned to unite the party - and thus well positioned to win in November. 

Of course, that assumes that Biden's poor showing in Iowa finally slows down his momentum as the presumed frontrunner, and that Buttigieg can follow up his impressive performance in Iowa with successful appeals to more diverse electorates - notably the upcoming primaries in Nevada and South Carolina.

The Senator from Maine and the Senator from Massachusetts may enjoy "favorite son" (and daughter) advantages in New Hampshire, which may complicate matters somewhat. Still, if Buttigieg performs well and Biden less so, that will be telling us something.

One thing this all seems to be suggesting is that, while not all Democrats are yet on board with Sanders' somewhat more extreme sounding agenda, many of them do want a change from the Old Guard's politics as usual. Whatever Iowa was, it was not a vote for Biden's fantasy of a post-Trump return to normalcy.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

After Iowa

Most states - more and more of them now - have some form of presidential primary to choose national party convention delegates. Primaries differ from general elections but resemble them in the way they revolve around the experience of voting - voting by secret ballot. The Iowa Caucuses are excitingly different. Anyone who watched any of the coverage on TV last night could not fail to be impressed by the turnout, the sheer number and age diversity of caucus participants, and especially by the serious commitment of caucus participants not only to stand in their candidate's corner but also to persuade one another as they section off. Surely this was democracy on display!

And then, chaos! After all the effort and energy everyone put into this process, not to mention the months of campaigning by candidates criss-crossing the state, something went wrong. No results.

At this early hour it remains unclear what exactly went wrong, but suspicion falls on the technology employed. Once upon a time, everything was counted manually and reported accordingly. Now we feel the need to use technology and mobile phone apps, with increasingly unfortunate consequences. (Hopefully, there are human records of what happened that can give us something like a trustworthy result, however belatedly.)

Meanwhile, the candidates are moving on to New Hampshire. Whatever boost the winning candidate might have gotten going into New Hampshire has been - if not lost - at least diminished. On the other hand, no one is being pressed to drop out this early because of an ostensibly poor performance in Iowa. Our process - or at least the obsessive way we cover the process - is preoccupied with "momentum." So far at least, Iowa has neither given nor taken away "momentum" to or from anyone.

Ultimately the big loser may be the Iowa Caucus process itself and its "first in the nation' status. Even without this mess, there have been calls to make the opening act of the election more representative. Those arguments will now be strengthened by this self-inflicted disappointment.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Candlemas

Today is the 40th Day of Christmas, kept in the Church as the feast of The Presentation of the LordThis ancient feast (which in some form dates back as far as the 4th century) marks the definitive end of the Christmas season. In Catholic countries, the Christmas nativity scene remains on display in churches until today. Back in 2012, during the first month of my "saints" course in Rome, I observed the popular custom of visiting as many nativity scenes in as many different Roman churches as possible prior to this feast. 

And so today I sadly say goodbye to my Peruvian Nativity set (photo). I first bought it on Bloor Street in Toronto some 25 years ago, adding an additional figure every year until I moved back to the US in 2000. It was displayed each Christmas season outside my office in the parish center during my 10 years in New York and has been displayed each Christmas season in our staff meeting room during these past 10 years here in Knoxville. After this year, Expecting to have no comparably suitable place to display it. in future, I have donated it to our local regional Catholic school, which means I am saying goodbye to it today - not just for another year but forever.

This feast is commonly called Candlemas Day, because on this day the Church blesses candles and invites the faithful to carry blessed candles in procession saying: “So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit, proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ. There we shall find him and recognize him in the breaking of the bread, until he comes again, revealed in glory.” In this, the Church takes its inspiration from Luke’s Gospel account in which a holy man named Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and proclaimed him “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” 


In the Gospel (Luke 2:22-40), the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” Known as the Nunc Dimittis, this canticle is an important part of the Church’s official Night Prayer (Compline). Concerning this, the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch wrote: “As we sing it we see Simeon holding the Child Jesus in his arms and then, with grateful heart, retiring from his earthly service to God. We too are in the Lord’s service. At the close of day we hold the Savior in our arms, mystically speaking; we hold Him in faith, in grace, in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. Fervently we thank God for His blessings; and we are prepared, if it be His will, to take our leave from the world.”

Until 1960, the Procession prior to today's Mass had a quasi-penitential character. It took place in violet vestments, and "folded chasubles" (planetae plicatae) were worn by deacon and subdeacon rather dalmatic and tunicle. This may perhaps have reflected the procession's putatively pagan, pre-Christian origins, although any connection with pre-Christian pagan festivals is uncertain and disputed. In any case, since 1960 the procession and the festive Mass have been more closely integrated. The only vaguely "penitential" hint, if one can call it that, is in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary in the Gospel, 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. This suggests that, even as we today take a last look back at Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to Lent (and so 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 The Risen Christ in the here and now. 

Coming close to midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a secular version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day. (The fact that both mark this seasonal signpost is obviously not coincidental.) Not so long ago, of course, most people in the western world knew about Candlemas Day. Today, many people – even many Catholics - seem to have forgotten. Yet even those who may never have heard of Candlemas have heard of Groundhog 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 older way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

Since 1997, the feast of the Presentation has also been set aside as the World Day of Consecrated Life. Just as on Candlemas Day candles are blessed symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, so too religious priests, brothers, and sisters in the various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are called to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to all peoples. It is obviously an especially appropriate day to pray that God will continue to bless his Church with abundant vocations to these communities so critical to the life of the Church. A (sadly silent) You Tube video shows clerics, who may possibly have represented Religious, presenting candles to Pope Saint John XXIII on Candlemas Day 1959 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEA6BwiSn6A