Friday, July 23, 2021

"Dear Elderly Friends"


This Sunday (the eve of the annual liturgical commemoration of Saints Joachim and Anne, Christ's grandparents) has been designated by Pope Francis as the First World Day for Grandparents and the ElderlyObviously I am not a grandparent, but at 73 I am certainly elderly - like the Pope himself who addressed his Message for this Sunday: Dear Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Dear Elderly Friends. 

That was a particularly nice touch on the Pope's part - to address his Message not just Dear Elderly, but Dear Elderly Friends. As we have increasingly come to appreciate, in our contemporary context of widespread loneliness and isolation, friends are fewer and fewer. For various reasons, fewer people are married, and fewer find much connection to others, thanks to the modern breakdown of traditional mediating social experiences based in churches, neighborhoods, and work. Many report having no close friends at all, a devastatingly burdensome state of affairs for all, but especially for us old folks.

In Giotto's famous fresco, The Dream of Joachim, Pope Francis finds an image "of those many sleepless nights, filled with memories, worries and longings to which many of us [elderly] have become accustomed." In Giotto's fresco, based on an episode in the 2nd-century Protoevangelium of James, the Lord sent an angel to console Joachim and his wife Anne in their elderly loneliness and isolation - feeling, Pope Francis reminds us "that became more acute during the pandemic."

Always interested in inclusion, Pope Francis includes the elderly in the Resurrected Lord's Great Commission to his Church. Jesus' words help us "understand that our vocation is to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones." As I noted, in my comments on the continuing controversies connected with the different forms of the Roman Rite, one of the preeminent challenges the Church faces right now is the increasingly inadequate response to the all-important task of sharing the faith from one generation to the next. What a challenge for us, the old, who long ago received the faith as a free gift from our families and the surrounding society, to pass it on as freely and as fully!

Quoting the prophet Joel, Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will have visions, Francis reminds us how the world's future "depends on this covenant between the old and the young." For Francis, "Keeping memory alive is a true mission for every elderly person: keeping memory alive and sharing it with others." In this atomized, ahistorical world which, I fear, we have lamentably left as our legacy for future generations, memory may no longer be prized. "Without memory, however," Pope Francis warns, "we will never be able to build; without a foundation, we can never build a house. Never. And the foundation of life is memory."

Finally, Francis focuses on prayer. He cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict "a saintly person who continues to pray and work for the Church," who said "the prayer of the elderly can protect the world, helping it perhaps more effectively than the frenetic activity of many others." I recall a now deceased friend, who in his old age, retired from the active priestly ministry he had loved and devoted his entire adult life to, told me he saw his role as spending his newly free time in prayer.

Invoking the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Francis reminds us "how it is possible, even in the solitude of one's own desert, to intercede for the poor of the whole world and to become, in truth, a universal brother or sister."

What a timely treasure is this reminder to all of what the elderly may yet have to offer! And what a challenge to all who are already elderly to respond to our mission in this world for the sake of the world as well as ourselves!

(Image: Giotto, Fresco, The Dream of Joachim, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Vaccine Politics

I am not a bishop. So I do not experience either the ordinary day-to-day difficulties of governing a 21st-century diocese, nor the cross-cutting and conflicting pressures that burden bishops in this era of post-Christendom ecclesial free-fall. That said, I have occasionally wondered what, were I in a position to address the People of God authoritatively, would I say? How might I responsibly respond to the multiple crises which increasingly envelope us (and which, with our characteristic complacency and inertia, we may all be inclined to ignore.) 

Obviously, the preeminent political and moral challenge that faces the world today is climate change, the catastrophic consequences of which we are all beginning to experience - no longer as predictions but in the present. In the immediate term, however, there is the very present-tense catastrophic calamity of covid-19. Worldwide this terrible disease has already claimed the lives of over four million, and in the United States over 600 thousand of our fellow-citizens. 

In the United States, however, covid-19 has become, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine and the science of vaccination, a totally preventable disease. What science accomplished with the effective eradication of smallpox and (in my own lifetime) the virtual elimination of polio, science has come to society's rescue again with the highly effective covid vaccines. When I was a child everyone int his country was automatically vaccinated against smallpox, and the first time I travelled abroad in 1970 I was required to carry along with my passport a document certifying that fact. I was already in school when first the Salk polio vaccines were introduced, followed later by the Sabin vaccines. Since then in most school systems today vaccinations against polio and numerous other ailments are routinely required  of all students. The same, obviously, ought to become the case with the covid vaccination. And I believe it would be an act of extreme moral irresponsibility to take any other course.

Yet, especially in certain sections of this country, typically those with the poorest political leadership, many remain unnecessarily unvaccinated, with the inevitable resulting increase in infections, hospitalizations and utterly unnecessary, preventable deaths - what has aptly been called a self-inflicted "pandemic of the unvaccinated." Allowing for invincible ignorance in those whose only source of information may be the falsehoods found on social media and on a certain supposed "news" network, the obvious response must be to counter that - both with actual facts and with responsible moral guidance in regard to those facts. After all, in the familiar words of the great 20th-century Thomist scholar Josef Pieper: "not only the end of human action but also the means for its realization shall be in keeping with the truth of real things" (The Four Cardinal Virtues, U. of Notre Dame Pr., 1966, p. 20).

For far too much of human history, the human race's ability to prevent or treat deadly diseases and epidemics was minimal at best. That is obviously no longer true. So our moral obligations to ourselves and to one another must reflect "the truth of real things" that is this change in our human circumstances.

So, if I were in a position authorizing me to do so, I would be addressing the People of God in a pastoral letter, recalling both the great blessings bestowed upon the human race by the responsible use of modern medicine and science, which now make practically possible what was once only utopian aspiration, and the perennial moral responsibility incumbent upon all to promote the common good.

According to the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (24):

"God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who "from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.

"For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: "If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.... Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance."

There is no morally responsible escape from our obligations to one another in human society in our common home - including this current contemporary obligation: Everyone who is able to do so has a duty to be vaccinated as promptly as possible.

(Photo1955 newspaper headlines on the development of an effective polio vaccine.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Sacrament of Unity

In the aftermath of today's Motu Proprio Traditiones Custodes, by which Pope Francis has further regulated liturgical celebrations according to the Roman Rite as it existed prior to the reforms of Pope Saint Paul VI, we will likely see lots of liturgists and canonists contending with one another about the exact extent and meaning of these new restrictions. On one side, we will likely see an increasingly angry, resentful, and rebellious attitude toward the Church's official liturgy and the established post-conciliar regime of which the novus ordo is one part. On the other side, we will likely see a continued unwillingness to face up to the multitude of social, political, and cultural factors which are reflected in both the apparent appeal of the ancient liturgy among some (especially the young) and the larger contemporary context of ecclesial exhaustion and decline.

There has always been a problematic aspect to the persistent popularity of the ancient rite, just as there has always been a problematic aspect to what Pope Francis calls "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite. Pope Francis is to be lauded for his desire to restore unity "throughout the Church of the Roman Rite." It is clear that the pastoral concessions allowed by his predecessors to those who wish "to celebrate with devotion according to the earlier forms of the liturgy" - originally "motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the [Lefebvre] schism" with the "intention of restoring the unity of the Church" - have been "exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division."

It is an interesting, but ultimately unresolvable, historical speculation whether a more modest liturgical reform (along the lines of what Vatican II actually prescribed rather than what Paul VI actually did), a reform more charitably implemented and with better catechesis, could have avoided these decades of self-inflicted gaps, divergences, and disagreements that have in fact injured the Church, blocked her path, and exposed her to division. That is a question that can never be answered and so, for that reason, is increasingly irrelevant to our present predicament. Whatever the intrinsic merits of the competing liturgical forms, the social, political, and cultural context has completely changed since the 1960s. This means that the celebration of the historical and traditional liturgical rites, however aesthetically pleasing to those participating, cannot retrieve the lost social, political, and cultural context that many so-called "traditionalists" aspire to restore. Whatever the future may hold for the Church in the traditionally Christian countries where it is now so conspicuously in decline, the only viable course heading forward is within the framework of the Church's post-conciliar regime, which inevitably includes the Church's post-conciliar liturgy. 

Of course, that does not preclude a continued critique of "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite and increased efforts to promote its celebration, "with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books," as Pope Francis has once again asked. That too would go a  long way toward pacifying not all but many of those who feel their spiritual and aesthetic aspirations are unmet and to restoring the unity of the Roman Rite within what Pope Francis calls "the dynamic of Tradition."

As is well known, many alternative communities which celebrate the traditional liturgy are increasingly composed of younger people, who obviously have no memory of the social, political, and cultural context that supported the traditional liturgy. While some polemicists for the traditional rite may advance some sort of neo-integralist agenda, for many ordinary worshippers such congregations constitute supportive communities for young families eager to pass on their faith to their children - an environment less easily replicated in mainstream parishes with their increasingly aging congregations, many of whose children and grandchildren no longer attend Mass. If, as the Pope seems to have determined, allowing alternative communities organized around the celebration of the traditional Roman Rite is not a satisfactory solution to answer this need, then it behooves the Church - particularly parishes and diocesan structures - to recognize this situation and start responding to it in some other way. Without that, the present reform could conceivably only increase alienation and division.

It was certainly not the intention behind previous indults to encourage political polarization in the Church. That, however, has happened - and by no means exclusively in connection with the traditional liturgy. But, to the extent that alternative liturgical communities have fallen prey to politically divisive elements, that has distorted the context for which the previous indults were primarily intended. This, more than any other factor, would seem to explain this present reform.

Finally, let this be a reminder to all - on all sides of this debate - that the liturgy is not a matter of personal preference but "celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity." A lot of conflict could have been avoided these past 50+ years if those on all sides of this debate had maintained this principle as the priority.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Let's Make Friends

One of the more striking things about Mare of Easttown, the HBO series which I wrote about here on Saturday) is the interconnectedness of so many of the characters, so many of whom are related by blood, marriage, or friendship. As a relative outsider to the community, Detective Colin Zabel picks up on this quickly. At their first arrest, he asks Mare, if she is friends with these people, and is told that she is.  When Mare introduces him to the local pastor as her cousin, he says, "Of course." It is, of course, the closeness among the characters that makes their community seem so close and attractive in certain respects, but that also makes the secrets they hold and the things they do to one another even more tragic. The community comes across as so broken precisely because of the breaks within and among those powerfully precious circles of friendship (including but not limited to extended family networks).

Were he able to watch the show, Aristotle would undoubtedly quote himself: "No one would choose to live without friends, even if one had all other goods" (Nichomahean Ethics, VIII, 1). He would also note (in the very same chapter) how "Friendship also holds states together." Yet, he would likely also caution, "The wish to be friends can come about quickly, but friendship cannot" (VIII, 3).

That sad state of affairs is increasingly reflected in recent studies, for example, the most up-to-date data from the Survey Center on American Life, showing that 15% of men claim no close friends - up from only 3% in 1990 - and that only 15% report 10 or more friends. (Among women 10% say they have no close friends and only 11% have 10 or more.)

In "Lost Friendships Break Hearts and Nations," The Dispatch's David French ( cites such sad statistics and references on the decline of the extended family and of opportunities men to work and recreate together and how "the very nature of modern work ... often leaves us isolated and alone." French refers a lot to "The Politics of Loneliness is Totalitarian," by Damon Linker ( Linker in turn refers back to Hannah Arendt who famously connected the 20th-century rise of totalitarianism loneliness having become "an everyday of experience" for many. For Linker, "we're developing a in direction that will make more of us lonelier and more isolated. That is bound to lead to deep and increasingly widespread discontent with our way of life." He warns "that if loneliness and isolation become worse, so could our political pathologies." Unsurprisingly, Linker highlights "the wasting away of these intermediary institutions in civil society. Families are smaller than they used to be, and fewer people marry in the first place. Communities are fraying under economic pressures and as a result of social shifts. Fewer people go to church." The familiar list goes on.

Addressing this issue with a more explicitly spiritual focus (and within a Thomistic perspective) in "On the Necessity of Friendship and the Loss of It in Our Times," Monsignor Charles Pope ( highlights how we are increasingly mobile and often have little opportunity or need to interact with those in our neighborhood. Such factors, together with the rapid pace of or contemporary lives, get in the way of developing deep lasting friendships, without which "we remain incomplete." 

David French puts it best when he writes, "we were not created for power or prosperity. We were created for community and fellowship."

(Photo: Michelangelo's fresco, The Creation of Adam, part of the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted between 1508 and1512), illustrating the Genesis creation account of God giving life to the first human being.)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Take Nothing

Jesus instructed them to take nothing for the journey [Mark 6:7-13].


I am one of those people who finds travel – whether for a long or even a short distance – stressful. And I always stress over whether I have everything I need. Before I moved back to NY last January after 10 years as a pastor in Knoxville, TN, I gave away or threw away books, clothes, and lots of other things that I had accumulated in my 70+ years, but I still ended up bringing a lot with me – a lot more than I need, a lot more certainly than Jesus appears to have intended his followers to take along wherever they went. In general, whenever I go anywhere, I usually worry whether I have enough, which, of course, causes me to accumulate even more. And, as we all know, the amount of baggage one brings actually tends to increase along the way. So not only do I usually start with too much, I frequently finish with even more - this is the kind of problem that can only arise in a society such as ours, where most of us already have too many possessions to begin with.


Of course, even Jesus allowed his followers to have some things. He allowed a walking stick and sandals, which I suppose even he considered essential when going on a journey. But nothing else. I suppose the command to take nothing else was intended to stress the special nature of the journey – its urgency and importance - allowing no time for distractions and requiring complete commitment, as well as a whole lot of trust in the One who was sending them. Jesus seemed to be leading the Twelve into a kind of guided insecurity, sending them out as missionaries, without most of the props they would have been familiar with and normally might have depended on – separated from the routine of ordinary things in order to embrace fully the new reality of God’s kingdom.


Obviously, this was no ordinary move, let alone some sort of vacation trip, that the apostles were being sent on. What it was, in fact, was a kind of practice run for their future work as full-time missionaries. That mission, which they were being prepped for, is never finished (at least not in this life). Hence the command to travel light, lest constant accumulation weigh us down and get in the Kingdom of God’s way as it moves out into our world.


Of course, we are not all – or even most of us – called to be missionaries in the same way that they were.  But we are all part of that new kingdom of God that the apostles were appointed to proclaim, all expected to adopt the kingdom of God as our standard for how to live. So, what does that say about our relationship with things?


Obviously, no one – not even an apostle - ever wants to start out on a trip with insufficient supplies. Jesus himself makes precisely that point elsewhere in the Gospel. So, Jesus’ point here is, I suspect, not so much about the things themselves, which (whether many or few) are, after all, just things. No created thing is evil in itself, but all things can become obstacles if we let them. If we get focused exclusively on how many things we need to shed, then those things are still driving the discussion as surely as if we were carrying them all around with us.


But, if we are not to rely on things, then what can we rely on?  Obviously, the 12 were in some sense relying on Jesus, who gave them authority over unclean spirits. But that is the big picture. And, while the big picture may matter most, we don’t live just in the big picture, but also in the day-by-day, here-and-now, small stuff. And that is as true in our mission to advance the Kingdom of God as in any other human endeavor, in which we must depend on one another. So Jesus sent them out two by two, forcing them to learn to support one another and rely – not on individual talents and accomplishments – but on one another.


It is together, not as competitors but as a community, that we accomplish what we value most in human life – in our families, in our work, in society as a whole. And it is together, not as competitors but as a community, that the Kingdom of God grows and makes a difference in our world.

"We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other.,” wrote Pope Francis in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’. “Unless we do this,” he warns, “other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings.” [208] 

Homily for the 15th Sunday on Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NYC, July 11, 2021.