Monday, February 19, 2024

Our Ongoing National Nightmare



Today is "Presidents Day" - as good an occasion as any perhaps to reflect upon our ongoing national nightmare. Way back when (in the mid-1970s) - during our last "long national nightmare" (i.e., Watergate) - one of my Princeton professors wrote, "How did we get from the Federalist Papers to the Edited Transcripts?" On this Presidents Day, we may likewise wonder: How did we get from Washington to Trump? How did we get from Adams vs. Jefferson to Biden vs. Trump? How did we get from Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists to Democrats vs. MAGA?

Despite its popular name, "Presidents Day" is not a celebration of the presidency. In fact, "Presidents Day" doesn't really exist - except in the fevered swamp of American capitalism, where it is February's analogue to November's Black Friday. Legally, "Presidents Day" is really still Washington's Birthday. Since February 22 (Washington's actual birthday in the Gregorian calendar in 1732) became a federal holiday in 1879, George Washington has been the only president honored with such a holiday. However, in one more obvious sign of the misplaced priorities which characterize our contemporary our society, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 considered the creation three-day weekends more important that the historical and cultural meaning of holidays like Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day.

Meanwhile, as if pretending it were still a serious organization, the Senate, every year since 1896, has deputed one of its members to read out loud Washington’s 7,640-word farewell address. Last year, Senator James Lankford, an arch-conservative Republican Senator from Oklahoma, since then now apparently a persona non grata in MAGA circles for actually being willing to try to govern, read the address. Of course, Congress, as if it were oblivious to the multiple crises confronting our country and our world, any number of which are being exacerbated by congressional malfeasance, has gone on vacation. So the ritual reading of Washington's Address will have to wait a while!

All of which, while obviously trivial in itself, seems somehow symbolic of the sad state of our politics and society. The relationship is reciprocal. Our deranged politics unhinges our society. And our increasingly unhinged society stimulates the derangement of our politics.
 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Kingdom Is At Hand



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

Her Emails - Again?


Eight years ago, the U.S. electorate was asked to choose between a predictable, neo-liberal, internationalist Democrat and a pseudo-populist, neo-isolationist demagogue. And so, to help voters in their discernment, mainstream media endlessly obsessed about the Democratic candidate's emails. There were, in fact, many issues worth debating in 2016. If, however, the proverbial visitor from Mars had been dropped to earth for the election, he or she might well have concluded that the single most important issue - and without doubt the most serious challenge facing the United States that year - was Hillary Clinton's emails.

And now media coverage is doing it again. This time it is not Hillary's emails but President Joe Biden's age, which is the media's fixation. Forget that Biden's opponent in the election is just a few years younger and if elected will also be in his 80s by the end of his term. Forget too the Biden, whatever his physical frailties, has governed like a normal president (and actually governed quite competently and successfully), while his opponent sounds increasingly unhinged and is facing four trials for 91 criminal indictments. 

Media malfeasance undoubtedly helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, and may well do it again in 2024. That said, that is the political universe which we inhabit at present. Somehow or other, Biden and the Democrats must defuse the age issue in some way and get on with the campaign.

Perhaps, in an ideal world Biden would have been satisfied with one term, as some supporters may have hoped he would back in 2020. The problem with that, of course, is that, in American politics, a one-term president is inevitably remembered as a failure. History may treat George H.W. Bush better than his contemporaries did, but that is no compensation for being remembered first and foremost for having lost re-election. It is hard enough, if you are the sort of person who has spent much of your life imagining Hail To the Chief was composed just for you, to choose not to run again. It is even harder to do so knowing that any such decision would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, a harbinger of historical failure.

Perhaps, Biden could have gotten away with it if he had declined to run in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterm election, in which the Democrats did very well. (Had the Democrats done badly, as had been expected, there might have been more pressure on Biden to withdraw, and any such withdrawal would almost certainly have been seen as an acknowledgement of failure.)

And, perhaps, Biden will follow Ross Douthat's recommendation and announce his withdrawal at or just before the Convention and throw the Convention open to choose the party's candidate. While it might be nice to see the Convention reclaim its historical role, that would be a scenario at least as risky in terms of defeating Donald Trump as Joe Biden's running against him. And, however attractive Douthat's scenario of an open convention, it remains extremely unlikely that Biden will actually do it - or that many in the party would really want to sail out into such uncharted waters. After all, it is not the case that there is any obvious alternative for the party to rally around, whose electoral prospects appear any better than Biden's. (That, of course, highlights a larger problem in American politics of a lack of obvious heirs to replace the current ruling gerontocracy.)

So, in the real word in which we live, Joe Biden will be the candidate of his party, and the fact that he is old must simply be factored in - like Hillary's emails in 2016 - as an unfair burden to be borne by the campaign. (Hopefully, however, with a less spectacularly catastrophic outcome!)

It has been suggested by some that maybe some of the (artificially inflated) anxiety about President Biden's age is symbolic of other concerns, in particular the sense that Biden represents - and is overly wedded to - a 20th-century style of politics, which may have made sense when Biden entered the Senate 50 years ago but which no longer describes the way Washington and political parties work now. There is some truth to that, of course.  I certainly think Hakeem Jeffries may have a better appreciation of the full meaning of Republican MAGA intransigence than Biden does. On the other hand, Biden has accomplished a great deal - perhaps more than any president since LBJ. If only that message were as interesting as his emails (I mean, his age)!

Underlying all this is the perennial problem that, whereas Democrats really want to fall in love, Republicans are more ready to fall in line. There are still some less than fully MAGA Republicans around, most of whom, however, will faithfully endorse Donald Trump by Election Day, if they have not done so already. On the other hand, disgruntled Democrats are a common occurrence and appear perennially prepared to imperil their candidate's and their party's prospects by attacking their own leadership instead of attacking the opposition. And the Democratic coalition is basically looser and harder to hold together against the bizarre attractiveness of third-party candidates or the seemingly greater satisfaction of staying home rather than voting at all. Republicans are just better at supporting their candidates and their party than Democrats are. And, if the Republicans win again this year, that may well be the main reason why.


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Getting "On With It"


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

Remember ...

 

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.