Monday, February 19, 2024
Sunday, February 18, 2024
How many here showed up for ashes this past Wednesday? I’ll bet almost all of us - and a lot of others besides, people we may seldom even see on other days! It has to be one of the great examples of the Church’s liturgical genius that it can take something so unattractive (but so true) as our inevitable return to dust, and ritualize it so effectively every Lent.
Now back when Lent really was exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the 3 following days got added on), Lent began on this Sunday, and the 40 days are in fact still counted beginning with today.
So, every year on this day, we are invited to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life and mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert. The Judean desert is a harsh and somewhat forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent and where he invites us (symbolically at least) to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desertleads us to spend these 40 days with him among the wild beasts that threaten and challenge us to choose what to make of our lives.
According to the biblical account of human origins, Adam had originally lived peacefully among those same wild beasts – his food provided, according to Jewish legend, by angels. Jesus’ sojourn among the wild beasts with angels ministering to him, tells us that God’s original plan is still in place – despite whatever obstacles we put in his way.
That’s the point of the story of Noah. Despite all the obstacles people put in God’s way, in his mercy God patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his just anger, to guarantee the continuance of life on earth.
In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sinfulness, descending into the prison of death to free its victims. Jesus’ descent among the dead anticipates the final fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
That’s what Lent is all about because that’s what life is ultimately all about. One Ash Wednesday some years ago, I overheard someone explaining Lent as “a time to get connected with ourselves.” Well, Lent is a time to renew ourselves. But we do that by focusing not on ourselves, but on the big picture, and where we want to be in that picture. Lent is our special time to connect with Christ – Christ tempted in the desert and victorious on the cross, Christ descended among the dead and risen at the right hand of his Father – and to allow that experience, his experience to make a real difference in our lives, because the kingdom of God really is at hand.
Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 18, 2024.
Friday, February 16, 2024
Thursday, February 15, 2024
Seventy-seven years ago, on February 15, 1947, my parents, Felix Franco and Camille Bonaccorso (photo), were married at a Saturday morning nuptial Mass at Saint Nicholas of Tolentione Church in what was then justifiably called "the Beautiful Bronx." There is a wonderful scene in the final season of The Crown, the acclaimed Netflix series about my parents' contemporary (albeit a few years younger than either of them) Queen Elizabeth II, in which the Queen responds to her grandson Prince William's anxieties about dating, "We met someone, then married them, and got on with it" (season 6, episode 7).
Like so many of the Queen's wise words in The Crown, that sentence effectively expresses my parents' generation's expectations and experience. The "Greatest Generation," as they were so rightly labelled by Tom Brokaw, experienced unique historical challenges in war and peace. Having won the war and brought home what President John F. Kennedy would later call "a hard and bitter peace," they were ready to do what generation after generation had done for all of human history - meet someone, marry, and get "on with it." And that they did, producing the famous "Baby Boom" generation, of which I am proudly a member.
It is no secret that, since then, something has gone amiss when it comes to the basic business of family formation - getting "on with it." Some other countries are even worse off than the U.S., but the entire developed world seems to have been afflicted. It is not yet quite the biological catastrophe that British author P.D. James described so poignantly in The Children of Men, her 1992 dystopian novel set in England in 2021, which frankly portrays the tragic results of mass infertility, a world without a future, a world without hope.
We're not there yet, of course, but James' depressing depiction of what happens when, for whatever reason, the continuation of the human race has seemingly ceased, is a profound warning to all of us of where we seem to be heading. Unsurprisingly it seems to be commentators of a more conservative orientation who seem most alert to this crisis in humanity's future. Among conservative pundits, Ross Douthat of The New York Times has been particularly eloquent in highlighting this issue and the catastrophic prospects it portends for our world.
On the other hand, as The Atlantic's Brad Wilcox, "The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage" has recently written, “Social media, meanwhile, tends to send bad signals to kids and young adults. The dopamine-driven ethos that infuses much of TikTok and Instagram enriches the executives at Sequoia Capital and Meta but provides little support for anything but living for the moment, and undercuts the values and behaviors needed to sustain long-term love, not to mention marriage." Meanwhile, more traditional media, Wilcox notes, "oscillate between occasionally acknowledging the benefits of marriage and frequently praising the alternatives to it."
At their wedding, 77 years ago today, my parents would have listened as the celebrating priest read the Rituale Romanum's "Exhortation before Marriage," one of the treasures of the pre-conciliar liturgy and one of the most beautiful English-language liturgical texts ever composed - now sadly lost from the marriage rite at a time when perhaps its message may be more necessary than ever. That "Exhortation" famously began:
My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care. Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self.
Then, after a brief excursus on the specifically sacramental character of Christian marriage, the "Exhortation" continued:
This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.
I wasn't there, of course, when my parents listened to those words. Yet, I myself heard them many times as a child, when I served at weddings as an altar boy. I still particularly remember remember certain sentences which especially impressed me: Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.
I knew, of course that my parents weren't perfect. I assumed that only television families like those on Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were perfect. In fact, like any child, I was acutely aware of what I perceived to be the imperfections in our family life. Yet I also learned to appreciate the struggle to approximate that perfection of love ,which is the key to all human striving and the ultimate aspiration of all moral living.
That extremely sensible and wise "Exhortation" ended:
No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy did not know about television families, which (at least in my childhood days) really were happy families all happy alike. Off television, in this vale of tears, it seems every family is unhappy in its own way. But hands and hearts joined in true love and unselfish spirit transform the ordinary challenges of family life into opportunities of grace. I think of one former classmate of mine who, after his first child was born, told me his respect for the human race had greatly grown now that he more fully understood the challenges men and women undertake to keep the human race going, what The Crown's Queen Elizabeth would have called getting "on with it."
I recall with special personal gratitude the commitment my parents made 77 years ago today to get on with the business of keeping the human race going, I honor them and all the other striving parents I have known, and I pray that their example will rekindle in today's world that necessary commitment to marriage and family formation.
Wednesday, February 14, 2024
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 much more rigorous than it is today. Basil didn’t mention Ash Wednesday - because Ash Wednesday didn’t exist yet. 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.
For many who come to get ashes today, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings this curious custom 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 – and on Valentine’s Day, no less?
Every year, I ask myself that question, and I always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with words and images we can barely 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, unambiguously TRUE.
We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about ourselves. Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday - with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repent - somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lies that envelope us.
Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem somewhat 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, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 14, 2021.