Friday, April 30, 2010

May Day

The 4 seasonal turning point of Europe’s old pagan calendar have successfully survived the vicissitudes of centuries and have been seemingly preserved in various Christian and secular guises. So we have Lammas Day (“Loaf-Mass” Day) on August 1, Halloween and All Saints on October 31 and November 1, Candlemas Day and Groundhog Day on February 2, and finally May Day on May 1).

Thoroughly rooted in pre-Christian paganism, May Day seems have been the occasion least amenable to effective Christianization. The Puritans tried mightily to suppress it, of course. Under Puritan influence, the English Parliament outlawed maypoles in 1644. Then in the 19th century, by one of those accidents of historical coincidence, May Day acquired a whole new identity as various labor movements (and later by the communist party) adopted it as a day of socialist solidarity. In an attempt to counteract this celebration of socialism Pope Pius XII in 1955 proclaimed May 1 as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, belatedly giving the old pagan – now secular and socialist – May Day a Christian character. With collapse of communism, the modern May Day of workers’ solidarity is undoubtedly much diminished. As for St. Joseph the Worker, even the liturgical calendar has downgraded the one-time 1st class feast to a merely optional memorial!

For me, May means summer is almost here. While I am certianly not insensitive to summer’s charms, I confess I have often welcomed summer’s arrival with only modest enthusiasm. Having come of age in a world with little or no air-conditioning, I have never really relished the summer heat. At some deeper emotional level, however, I think I have always associated summer with disruption. Perhaps because I was in school – either as a student or as a teacher – for most of the first half of my life (and always liked school much more than I ever disliked it), the end of the school year has always seemed somewhat sad to me. More than any other time of year, the months of May and June are the season of separation, par excellence. And for me that has always made them somewhat melancholy months.

So I also appreciate the irony that in the 20th century the word "Mayday" also became a recognized signal of distress!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Immigration Issue (Again)

Not for the first time in recent American history, immigration is once again becoming a hot topic in American politics. It’s the issue that never seems to go away for very long – maybe because it touches so closely on who we are as a nation. (We are, after all, as has so often been said, “a nation of immigrants.”) On the other hand, it will be quite something if, on top of finally passing Health Care Reform and (hopefully) Financial Regulation Reform, Congress can seriously address yet another, important issue in this congressional session - in an election year, no less. (Are there any non-election years anymore?) One can always hope, however. Meanwhile, the failure to address the issue seriously at the federal level just seems to invite bad legislation at the state level, like the law just enacted in Arizona.

Immigration is an issue of special salience for the Church. For one thing, so many immigrants are members of the Church. Apart from that, they are often among the more vulnerable members of society and so are entitled to special moral concern on our part. Certainly, there are circumstances when public policy debates involve more than practical prudential judgments and concern matters of fundamental moral principle. Such circumstances arise when public policy either promotes what is always and everywhere intrinsically wrong (e.g., abortion) or attempts to prohibit what is morally obligatory. At the same time, the Gospel gives us no special skills when it comes to forming practical judgments about most public policy. It does not automatically tell us which particular policies will produce a more prosperous economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. As citizens, we all have to make the best judgments we can using our human knowledge informed by our moral sense, always aware that morally sincere people can apply the same sets of principles and come to different conclusions concerning practical political, economic, and social issues.

As an individual citizen, of course, I must personally form my own (hopefully intelligently formed and morally rooted) opinions on public policy issues - immigration reform, among them. As a descendent of immigrants and an heir to their hopes and aspirations, my own personal political judgment is that not only has immigration historically been extremely beneficial for this country – in fact has made it the great nation and dynamic economy that it has been – but that immigration continues to be essential for our nation’s prosperity. I also believe, based both on historical and current experience, that - unlike some European countries, for example - the United States has been and continues to be exceptionally successful in assimilating immigrants. Being an American has always been more about a specifically civic identity than an ethnic one and is ultimately quite compatible with all sorts of ethnic and religious diversity.

The obligations of citizenship challenge us to form judgments about practical issues of public policy that take into account all relevant information and respect the legitimate contribution of those who come to different conclusions. The obligations of discipleship, however, challenge us to recognize that not all options are morally legitimate. Assisting people in need is morally obligatory and remains always an integral component of the mission of the Church.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Vocation Sunday

This Sunday is the 47th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The designated theme for this year’s observance is Witness Awakens Vocations.

My picture of a chalice standing on the altar waiting to be picked up by someone is one way, I feel, of picturing the situation of the Church’s need for vocations today.

In his Message for the 47th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Benedict XVI has written: “The fruitfulness of our efforts to promote vocations depends primarily on God’s free action, yet, as pastoral experience confirms, it is also helped by the quality and depth of the personal and communal witness of those who have already answered the Lord’s call to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life, for their witness is then able to awaken in others a desire to respond generously to Christ’s call. This theme is thus closely linked to the life and mission of priests and of consecrated persons.”

God calls us all to be part of his Church, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. Within the Church, God calls different people to different roles - not just for themselves (although obviously they will benefit from following God’s call) but for the service of the whole Church. To discern one’s vocation is to figure out what role in the Church one seems best fitted for. In human terms I think this means a particular vocation appears attractive in some way and seems a good fit for one’s personality, talents, etc. As Isaac Hecker said, “grace does not set aside, but answers, purifies, elevates & invigorates nature,” I believe God gives each of us the grace to follow through on what our natural sensibilities suggest we should do with our lives. Of course, one’s individual judgment can be mistaken. The Church must confirm one’s vocation to a ministry in the Church. There is no true vocation without an affirming call from the Church.

In the history of the Church, there have been some – St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo, for example – who accepted a vocation to priestly ministry only in response to the insistence of the faithful. Such stories remind us of two very important points. The first is that a valid vocation requires a call from the Church, which tests and evaluates an individual’s aspiration to ministry. The second is that the entire People of God has an important role - and responsibility – in fostering and evaluating vocations. Dioceses and religious communities have “vocation directors” who do this full-time, but all of us in a sense are – and need to be – “vocation directors” for the whole Church. Whenever we recognize in someone signs of suitability for the life and ministry of a priest, we need, for the good of the whole Church, to challenge him to hear that, and then encourage and support him in his discernment and commitment.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Walter F. Murphy (1929-2010)

Yesterday, I learned of the death of one of my former academic mentors in graduate school, Professor Walter F. Murphy. I only had one course with him, but that was the beginning of a fruitful relationship in which I was the beneficiary of both his brilliance and his unfailing kindness, a great source of support in my quixotic pursuit of an academic career and in my subsequent transition to my present vocation.

By the time our paths crossed in the early 1970s, Professor Murphy had already lived an interesting and accomplished life. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1950, he became an officer in the Marine Corps and saw combat in Korea, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation, and three battle stars. After Korea, he taught Government at the United States Naval Academy, then studied at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in 1957. He joined the Politics faculty at Princeton in 1958 and became Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in 1968, a title he held until his retirement in 1995. During those years, he served as a member of the Committee on Judicial Conduct for the Supreme Court of New Jersey, a State Commissioner of Civil Rights, and on an advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. His first book, Congress and the Court (1962), won the Merriman-Cobbs-Hughes Award from the American Academy of Public Affairs.

Although my primary field of study was political theory, rather than American politics or constitutional law, I was privileged to be employed as his research assistant for part of my time as a graduate student. At that time, voice-mail was far in the future. Professor Murphy, however, was a pioneer in the then quite uncommon practice of using an answering machine to filter his phone calls. When you called him, you heard: “This is Walter Murphy. I have disconnected my phone so that I may work …” Most of the time, he really was working in his study, but he could hear your message. So, if he judged it worthy of an immediate response, he would pick up the phone and interrupt you. As his research assistant, I could count on him almost always picking up the phone when I called – a not inconsequential privilege for a lowly graduate student in the highly hierarchical world of academia!

As his assistant, I helped him research papal ecclesiology in preparation for his 1979 novel The Vicar of Christ, which won a prize from the Chicago Foundation for Literature. The novel’s hero is a certain Declan Walsh, a Marine Medal-of-Honor winner in the Korean War, who goes on to become Chief Justice of the United States. After his wife’s death, Declan Walsh resigns from the Supreme Court and becomes a Trappist monk, but then is surprisingly elected Pope by a deadlocked conclave.

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

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Today’s 1st reading (Acts 6:1-7) recounts a conflict between two groups of 1st generation Jerusalem Christians and the solution – the selection of 7 pastoral ministers chosen from among the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian community and their commissioning by the 12, who prayed and laid hands on them.

The Church has traditionally seen in this story the beginning of the order of deacons, one of the three orders within the sacrament of Holy Orders. Thus, when ordaining a deacon, the bishop prays: In the first days of your Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the apostles of your Son appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry.

I heard those words prayed over me 24 years ago, on April 19, 1986. Of course, I did not know then that I would remain a deacon for over 9 years!

The men who serve as “permanent” deacons do so largely for free, their time generously given to the Church in addition to their commitments to married life, their families, and their careers. Their contribution to day-to-day parish life in the United States has been enormous. “Transitional” deacons receive the same sacred order but function more like apprentices preparing for ordination and lifelong ministry as priests.

In my own prolonged diaconate, I somewhat straddled that divide, beginning and then ending again as a transitional deacon, but for most of the years in between inhabiting a kind of no-man’s land – neither in training to be a priest nor living the life of family and career of a permanent deacon. It was not an experience I would ever have asked for, but the ministries I engaged in during those years taught me a lot that I might not have learned otherwise and formed me to be the priest I am now.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Today’s 1st reading (Acts 5:34-42) recounts the intervention of the Pharisee Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin’s debate about the apostles. Gamaliel was the most respected Jewish scholar in Jerusalem in the 2nd quarter of the 1st century AD. (In Acts 22:3, Saint Paul states that he himself was educated strictly in our ancestral law by Gamaliel).

Gamaliel’s intervention was to caution prudence in judging the apostles’ teaching, which (unlike some other apocalyptic movements) had thus far survived the death of its leader. "For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).

In a sense, Gamaliel was saying there is no quarreling with success! The persistence of the apostles, despite Jesus’ death, the success of their efforts as evidenced in the growth of their movement, are themselves signs of God’s favor and a validation of their efforts.

Gamaliel gave good advice. He encourages us to practice prudent restraint in responding to new ideas, not to dismiss them out of hand, but to wait and see where they lead and what kind of results they produce – in religious language, to know them by their fruits.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coming of Age Once Upon a Time

A nostalgia novel naturally refers back to someone’s past, and thus easily elides into the coming-of-age genre. It is the perennial, universal human story of growing up - set against the specifics of a particular time and place. Such is certainly the case with the book I have just finished reading for this month’s “Great Catholic Fiction” discussion. That book is The Last Catholic in America - John R. Powers’ story of the joys and sorrows, the mysteries and challenges of childhood and adolescence, as experienced in the historically specific setting of the post-World War II American urban Catholic “ghetto.”

Not everyone growing up in that era was an Eddie Ryan, but most of us who grew up in that world would certainly recognize Eddie Ryan and the other kids in the story. Likewise each of us would also likely recognize at least parts of his or her own personal story in theirs. That’s what gives such stories their special charm, their nostalgic appeal. (The final chapter on the roller-skating rink is a masterpiece). If there is some exaggeration in the portrayal of Eddie, et al. - even some caricaturing in the way Eddie and his contemporaries are characterized – that’s all part of telling a good story. Certainly, those of us who really lived through similar experiences can sort that out.

But what about someone who didn’t live in that world, who also went through the universal human experiences of childhood and adolescence - but at a later date, in a very different society, and in a changed Church? Would someone with no first-hand experience of American Catholic life between 1945 and 1965 really understand that world and the people who inhabited it after reading this book?

One could, of course, ask the same question of someone whose only acquaintance with post-war American Catholic life was Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. There was an authentic experience captured in those movies, which Catholics from that era can readily recognize. To someone without that experience, however, the sugary sentimentality of such portrayals provides at best a partial picture.

And that is what this novel ultimately may do - although in this case (unlike those movies) the caricature thus created may more negatively portray the real people whose experience it purports to recall.

To its credit, the novel presents one sister – Sister Edna – appreciatively and sympathetically. The overall image of sisters, however, as so often happens with this genre, finally fails to do justice the legions of religious women who taught in Catholic schools (and staffed Catholic hospitals and other charitable institutions). For the record, it is simply false to say, for example, that “the vow of obedience simply meant that the nuns had to worship the ground the priests walked on.” Not only is that a caricature that seriously misrepresents religious obedience, it flies in the face of the real role sisters played in American Catholic life.

In an era when secular society significantly limited women’s opportunities for autonomy and leadership, Catholic women religious lived their own lives according to the rules of their particular communities, energetically carried out the missions for which their communities were founded, and ran their institutions effectively and successfully. In US history, the career accomplishments of, for example, Elizabeth Seton, Frances Cabrini, Katherine Drexel, and Rose Hawthorne certainly stand up to comparison with any comparably influential secular women.

Of my 8 elementary school teachers, 4 were sisters and 4 were laywomen. My best teacher was probably a sister, but all were adequate, and the sisters were on average neither better nor worse than the lay teachers. It was a very different world then, in which parents, teachers, students, indeed everyone had very different expectations and standards. The sisters who taught in Catholic schools lived and worked according to those standards and deserve not to be judged by the standards of a very different society. If some sisters were undoubtedly not up to the task, overwhelmingly most of them more than lived up to the expectations of their contemporaries. If nothing else, the subsequent socio-economic success of the generation that attended Catholic schools between 1945 and 1965 eloquently attests to the effectiveness of those schools and the dedicated teachers who staffed them.

The Last Catholic in America is a well written, sympathetic portrayal of the wonders and woes of a Catholic childhood and adolescence. Those who know little or nothing about the era, however, will need to look elsewhere for a fuller and fairer picture of a time and the real people who lived in it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Questions of the Soul

Last night, our local Paulist Associates had their monthly meeting. (Paulist Associates are lay people who formally associate with the Paulist Fathers in order to explore the spirituality of Servant of God Isaac Hecker and to identify with the mission and spirituality of the Paulists in their own lives and in their vocation in the world.) For the past year or so, in our local group w have been studying Isaac Hecker’s last book, The Church and the Age. Having finished with that, the group has now decided to study Hecker’s first book, Questions of the Soul, which we began discussing last night.

Hecker wrote Questions of the Soul in 1855 while a Redemptorist missionary. Hecker’s account (written in Rome in January 1858) of how he came to write both this 1st book and his 2nd book, Aspirations of Nature, is instructive:

The blessings of God upon our missions were most evident, and my share in them most consoling; usually the most abandoned sinners fell to my lot. But holy and important as the exercises of the missions among Catholics are, still this work did not correspond to my interior attrait, and although exhausted and frequently made ill from excessive fatigue in these duties, yet my ardent and constant desire to do something for the conversion of my non-Catholic countrymen led me to take up my pen. That took place as follows: One day alone in my cell the thought suddenly struck me how great were my privileges and my joy since my becoming a Catholic, and how great were my troubles and agony of soul before this event. Alas! how many of my former friends and acquaintances, how many of the great body of the American people were in the same painful position. Cannot something be done to lead them to the knowledge of the truth? Perhaps if the way that Divine Providence had led me to the Church was shown to them, many of them might in this way be led also to see the truth. This thought, and with it the hope of inducing young men to enter into religious orders, produced in a few months from my pen a book entitled Questions of the Soul. The main features of this book are the showing that the sacraments of the Catholic Church satisfy fully all the wants of the heart….

Monday, April 12, 2010

April Nostalgia

Today is the 45th anniversary of the Salk Vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was one of the great medical breakthroughs of the 1950s. Some people, who know little or nothing about the 1950s, imagine that we were hiding under our desks all the time terrified of imminent nuclear war. The threat of war was real (though much less immediate than such armchair commentators imagine). Much more immediately threatening, however, were the day-to-day dangers of life – among them the crippling disease of polio. Dr. Salk will always be remembered by my generation as a true human hero.

The 1950s are in my mind right now, because this month’s book to be discussed in our “Great Catholic Fiction” series at Saint Paul the Apostle Parish is John R. Powers’ Catholic nostalgia novel, The Last Catholic in America.

Nostalgia novels naturally exaggerate, and sometimes they can caricature experiences which were perceived as positive (or just thought of as normal) by people at the time. I’ll reserve judgment on The Last Catholic in America, until I have actually read it all (which I will certainly have to do soon before our discussion group meets 2 weeks from today).

Speaking for myself, however, while I am sure I can compile my own personal list of problematic memories, my overall recollection of the now long gone world of New York Bronx Catholicism at the height of the post World War II "Baby Boom is," on balance, positive. In any case, it was a powerful past that had a lot to do with making me the person I am. Undoubtedly one can fall in love with the Church and its liturgy and acquire a love for learning from many sources. In my case, however, those aspects of who I am are all rooted in that fondly remembered world (and the many fondly remembered people who populated it).

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Sunday of Easter

Earlier this week, a friend began a conversation, “Now that Easter’s over …” I didn’t remind him that Easter wasn’t really over, that we were still in the Octave of Easter. Today, however, I want to speak in liturgical time and say that Easter is still very much with us - and thankfully so!

Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of the disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something wonderfully and completely new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and so old. But, if all we had were the story of an empty tomb, we would be as confused as were the disciples, who did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead (John 20:9). So we have to listen to the experience of the very first Christians as recorded in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles - to be filled in on what happens next,. Hearing their story, the story of those who first experienced the presence and action of the Risen Lord in their own lives, only then can we begin to consider the difference the Risen Christ is making right here and now in us.
Hearing their story, we hear how confused, perplexed, and frightened those disciples of Jesus were that first Easter Sunday. We hear how they hid behind locked doors. It is sometimes suggested that they were hiding in the same “upper room” where they had recently celebrated the Last Supper with Jesus and where they would gather again soon after his Ascension. If so, how appropriate! Since the time of the apostles, Sunday, the first day of the week, has been the special day, the privileged day, when Christians everywhere assemble in church to experience the power of the Risen Lord, present through his gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.

On the evening of that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19) – as, ever since, their successors, the Bishops of the Church, have greeted their assembled congregations with those same words, “Peace be with you.”

Surely that was no mere wish on Jesus’ part. Christ, the Risen Lord, who once was dead but now is alive forever and ever, brings peace – not a worldly, secular peace, nor some social or political peace, but the peace that conquers fear.

Many of us do in fact still spend much of our time behind locked doors – a sensible practice, perhaps, but one obviously rooted in fear. There are also the many locked doors one doesn’t see, but feels nonetheless. We here may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were – and as many present-day disciples around the world still have reason to be – but our fears too are real, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.

Yet when Jesus appeared to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side. And the disciples rejoiced (John 20:20). As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the identity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart this forgiveness in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (John 20:23).

Forgiveness is what gets us out from behind our locked doors – forgiveness given and (what makes that possible) forgiveness first received. In daily life, forgiveness functions, I think, like oil, lubricating our lives, literally eliminating the friction that at best makes relationships difficult and at worst burns them beyond repair. The Risen Lord has made his Church an instrument of his forgiveness. Through the many signs and wonders done through the apostles (Acts 5:12) and experienced ever since in the unique sacramental community of the Church, the Risen Lord has revealed his heavenly Father as a God of mercy and forgiveness. It is that powerful experience of Divine Mercy which empowers us in turn to become people of forgiveness, doing what doesn’t come naturally - any more than dead people naturally rise from the dead.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


This afternoon, the sacrament of Confirmation will be conferred upon several of the young people of our parish and on 13 adults who have been preparing for this sacrament through the sacramental preparation course I have been teaching on Monday evenings.

I remember well my own confirmation on Sunday, September 22, 1957. I remember it mainly, however, as one of those nice things that one did as part of growing up a Catholic in that era. The Catechism we used in those days included 13 questions-and-answers in the section on Confirmation. Presumably, I memorized all of them, although the one that I remembered best that day and was ready to recite if called upon was Question 334: “What is holy chrism?” (Answer: “Holy Chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balm, blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday.”) The anointing with chrism is in fact the essential rite of confirmation. In practice, however, I think that for most of us the highpoints of the ceremony were hearing one’s new confirmation name pronounced by the bishop (in Latin, in what I would later learn was the vocative case) and getting that famous ”slight blow on the cheek,” a reminder to “be ready to suffer everything even death for the sake of Christ.”

Today, there will be no Latin vocative and no “slight blow on the check.” Even so, I trust that those being confirmed will find the experience a memorable moment in their spiritual journey. In a particular way, I hope that those adults who have gone through their sacramental preparation with me these past few months may experience in this moment of grace that enriched sense of communion with Christ and being bonded with the Church which the sacrament celebrates.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


On this day (April 6) in 1789, the US Senate met for the first time with a quorum and elected its first officers. The House had met for the first time with a quorum and elected its officers on April 1. The Constitution officially took effect on March 4, 1789, but it took until April for the 1st Congress to get its act together. Despite its slow start, however, the 1st Congress (which met in 3 congressional sessions between April 1789 and March 3, 1791) accomplished quite a lot of important national business.

The first session established the Cabinet Departments of State, War, and Treasury, and passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the Supreme Court of the United States, the Federal District Courts, the Circuit Courts, and established the US Attorney General and District Attorneys. Finally, on September 25, it passed and sent to the states the first set of amendments to the US Constitution. Of the 12 amendments proposed, 10 were ratified and are collectively celebrated as our “Bill of Rights.” (One of the other two proposed amendments was belatedly ratified by the states in 1992 becoming the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. It prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of the Congress from taking effect, until the start of the next set of terms of office for Representatives.)

The 1790 session provided for the first census, passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Patent Act of 1790, the Copyright Act of 1790, the Residence Act, establishing the yet-to-be-built Washington, DC, as the future seat of the Federal Government), and the Indian Intercourse Act of 1790, regulating commerce with Native American Tribes.

The 3rd session (1791) chartered the First Bank of the United States, and admitted Vermont to the Union as the 14th state.

Not a bad record at all! Given that they were doing everything for the first time and that not everyone expected them to succeed, the members of the 1st US Congress left behind an admirable legacy.
Would that every modern Congress could be so productive!

Monday, April 5, 2010


For my birthday last month, I was given some movie gift certificates, some of which I used this afternoon to see the new Marco Bellochio film Vincere. This dark film (its superb acting augmented by some well-chosen newsreel footage) traces Mussolini’s evolution - a young Socialist radical in Milan, who pompously mocks God’s existence and wouldn’t mind strangling the King with the intestines of the Pope, who then, when World War I comes, breaks with the Socialsts and embraces an ardent Italian nationalism and then after the War becomes the King’s Prime Minister and reconciles Italy with the Catholic Church. That already well known story is experienced through the virtually unknown, tragic story of Ida Dalser, a woman from Sopramonte near Trent (born when that area was still part of the Austrian Empire), who falls madly in love with Mussolini and for the rest of her life claimed to have married him in 1914. In 1915, however, the same year Ida bore Mussolini a son, Benito Albino, the future Duce married Rachele Guidi, recognized ever since as his legal wife. The story of Mussolini’s post-war rise to power is told through the story of his estrangement from Ida, whose embarrassing claims eventually cause her to be put under house arrest and finally committed to a mental institution. While both she and her son seem perfectly lucid in all other respects, both insanely persist in asserting their dangerous claims, consuming and destroying their lives in the process.

Ida can be seen as symbolic of a society, a nation, which fell irrationally in love with its power-driven Duce, whose amoral ambition in turn consumed and destroyed both Ida and Italy. The verb vincere means "to win" (in the sense of “to conquer”) and one of the last newsreel clips of Mussolini in the film ends with him saying (on the eve of war) vinceremo, “we will win.” (Since the story is experienced through Ida, once she has been abandoned by Mussolini, she – and we - only see him through newsreels).

Mussolini didn’t win, of course. Conceivably had his ambition not led him into a disastrous alliance with Germany and an even more unpopular and disastrous Second World War, Mussolini might have died peacefully in his bed, the King would still be on his throne, and Italy would have been spared what was in a sense defeat at the hands of both sides. For that to have happened, however, he would have had to restrain his own ambition for the good of Italy (becoming in effect a different person), or someone else would have had to step up and somehow stop him. In the film, Ida has some sympathetic allies, but they are all powerless, paralleling the apparent sense of powerlessness that seems to have overcome those that might have done more to check Mussolini’s ambitions. Unlike Hitler, who really did have something much more like complete control of German society, Mussolini never had comparably complete control and always had to share legitimacy with the transcendent and socially entrenched charismatic legitimacy of the Church and the admittedly much less charismatic, constitutionally legitimate King. The King did, of course, finally fire Mussolini in 1943, but that was then all too little and too late – both for the House of Savoy and for Italy. And, sadly, it was also too late for Ida and her son.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

From my Easter Sunday morning Homily at St. Paul the Apostle Church, NYC.
One of my all-time favorite scenes in literature takes place on Easter Eve as a despairing Faust prepares to drink the poison with which he plans to end his pointless life. Suddenly he hears the sound of church bells. Though Faust’s faith is weak and his hope all but gone, even so just the sound of the Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death.
Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they work their wonders in our hearts. Back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in my home. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning. So hardly anyone was in church to hear the indoor bell-ringing at the Gloria. But then, promptly at noon on Saturday, when Lent ended & Easter officially began, churches all over the world let loose a cacophony of bells. Meanwhile, my grandmother had sat us all down at the kitchen table & tuned the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all – the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Italian time) – all peeling gloriously, as we, obedient to my grandmother’s command, cracked open our Easter eggs, which we quickly consumed in eager anticipation of our next course – our Easter chocolate!
But enough about chocolate; back to the bells! Today, those Easter bells still proclaim Christ is risen, in words addressed directly to us. As we celebrate this central mystery of our faith today, we are invited to relive the amazing experience of Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, who came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark.
It was way beyond the capacity of any of the Gospel writers to describe the actual event of Jesus' rising from the dead. What the New Testament does describe & what we – with Mary, & Simon Peter & the other disciple & so many others ever since (even Faust) - experience today are its effects - its wonderful effects in our lives and in our world. It matters very much what Jesus said and did in his earthly life; but, thanks to Easter, it matters even more what he is doing now.
For the Easter story, that the Easter bells proclaim so powerfully year after year, is really two interconnected stories – Jesus’ story & our story. Likewise, our Easter faith involves two interconnected claims: about Jesus, that the same Jesus who lived & died now lives again in glory; and, about us, that we, though we too must likewise die, we too will also live again with him, whose resurrection has thus become ours as well.
John’s Gospel tells us that, on the 1st day of the week, the day after the Sabbath, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already removed from the tomb. It was on the 6th day of creation, that God had made human beings. And it was on the 6th day of the week that Jesus, identified by Pontius Pilate with the simple words, Behold the man, did what (sadly) all of us human beings must do. He died. Indeed, he died, as John’s gospel makes such a point of emphasizing, at the very hour that the Passover lamb was being sacrificed in the Temple. Having replaced that sacrifice with the sacrifice of himself, he was buried – in a hurry because of the holiday. On the 7th day of creation, God had rested from all the work he had done in creating the world. And, on the 7th day of the week, the Sabbath, Jesus rested in the tomb.
But, on the next day, instead of staying dead (as corpses were supposed to do), Jesus did something very different. Instead of staying dead, he lives again – and lives so full of the living breath of God’s Holy Spirit that he lives a totally transformed and gloriously new kind of life. That 1st creation was over in 7 days. But the next day was the start of something new.
Even so (as we just heard), the first few to become aware of it left the empty tomb more confused than elated: For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. Nor would we, if that were all we had of the story. Just as the disciples, having seen for themselves that the tomb was empty, having seen the burial cloths and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head not disturbed (as they might have been by a tomb raider or grave robber), but neatly in place (as if what had been confined in them had somehow suddenly disappeared), just as the disciples, having seen all that for themselves, still needed something more before they could begin to appreciate the wonderful new thing God was doing, so do we!
In a world which seems permanently stuck in that dark, pre-dawn position, where suffering and death always seem to have the last word, the disciples needed to experience the kind of change that could only come about by the Risen Christ’s living presence among them. And so do we, which is why we are here, where the Risen Lord brings us together as no one else can, bringing us together in his Church, where we become what we could never otherwise have been, doing what we could never otherwise have done, empowered and energized by the Risen One himself alive in his Church.
So, instead of the 1st day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, in which suffering and death no longer have the final say. All of us are here today because God did not stop on the 7th day, because there is now another day on which God has, so to speak, recreated the world. That new day is today – and every day from now on – until (as Saint Paul said to the Colossians) we too will appear with him in glory.
Now in his Church, some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Some, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is where we finally arrive. So, whether we are runners or walkers, let us accompany the disciples to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever perpetually dark and closed, but from which the stone has been removed – in order that we too may believe.
Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of the disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something wonderfully and completely new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and so old. That is why we have to come back, Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next. That is why every day for the next 7 weeks, the Church listens to the experience of the very 1st Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Hearing their story, the story of those who first experienced the presence and action of the Risen Lord in their own lives, we can begin to consider the difference the Risen Christ is making right here and now in us.
The story of the disciples and those first communities of Christians shows us how to begin to live in the present that new and different future to which the Risen Lord is leading us, in which (as we just heard Peter proclaim) everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.
So today – and every day – as we recall the death that Christ has freed us from, let us eagerly embrace the new life the he has freed us for.
Let’s keep those Easter bells always ringing in our hearts, in our lives, in our world!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday

It’s Good Friday, and all over the world - from the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica to the smallest mission church - solemn ceremonies will bring to a close this 1st of 3 days when, united with Christians of every time and place, we contemplate Christ crucified, buried, and risen - the Passover of the Lord.
The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately connected with the story of the Passover. Jesus died, John tells us, on the afternoon before Passover, as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin.
Passover celebrates the most important event in Israel’s history – not just as something interesting that happened once upon a time, a long time ago in the past, but as something powerfully real and meaningful in the present and a sign of hope for the future. In the words of the Passover ritual: In every generation let all look on themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One redeemed, but us as well did he redeem along with them. In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.
Being saved! That’s what this is all about! At the exodus, the blood of the lamb marked the doors of the houses of God’s People. Later in history, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the altar of the Temple. Now, in Jesus, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, the blood of the lamb has been shed, once and for all, on the altar of the cross – our doorway to salvation. Marked by the blood that saves us all, the cross has thus become the Church’s door. A dreaded instrument of disgraceful death, the cross is now, thanks to this day, our gateway to freedom and new life, a triumphant sign of glory.
Of course, in the citadels of secular society and popular culture (so like Pontius Pilate in the caustic skepticism that simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so definite and restricting as truth), the cross can be only an ugly, nonsensical failure. The paradox of the cross is that Christ’s true triumph lay precisely in his not dramatically descending from the cross (like some celebrity), but in ascending the cross as a condemned criminal – a paradox succinctly summarized by the prophet Isaiah: he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people … But … the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him … and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses (Isaiah 53:8, 10, 12).
It was this strangely paradoxical text that a 1st-century Ethiopian court official was reading, when he met the evangelist Philip and asked him: I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? Philip, we are told, opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:34-35). With Philip, the unanimous witness of Christian tradition has recognized in Jesus - crucified, buried, and risen - the one who perfectly fulfills the prophet’s paradoxical words.
As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should have been the end of the story. And yet we do not mourn today, because he isn’t dead anymore. And that is why, according to the ancient language of the church’s worship, we celebrate the cross of Christ. In every generation, each one must personally look upon the cross of Christ and embrace it for oneself. That is what we acknowledge when we come forward to venerate the cross.
We venerate the cross, approaching it individually, for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties life puts in the way, despite the obstacles each individual personally puts in the way. We venerate the cross, approaching it together as the community of Christ’s holy Church - born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission - because it is together as Christ’s Church that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world.
Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus and reborn as his Church in his blood and water, we will ourselves become Passover doorways, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our entire world.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Thursday

Lent ends this afternoon, and the Easter Triduum of Christ crucified, buried, and risen begins this evening. The first day of the Triduum (Christ crucified) begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and ends with the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Friday afternoon. Fittingly, we begin the Triduum (as we will likewise conclude, on Sunday) with a celebration of the Eucharist. Together tonight, for what St. Paul called the Lord's Supper (what elsewhere the New Testament calls the breaking of the bread), we recall Christ’s death and so encounter the Risen Christ and experience new life - as St. Paul famously found new life when he encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus and was introduced to a new kind of community in Christ.
St. Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament writings. So his was the first written account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples on the day before the Passover - an otherwise ordinary meal dramatically transformed by Jesus’ words and actions into the Church’s first Lord’s Supper, at which, offering his body and blood to his Father, Jesus gave them to his apostles to eat and drink, and enjoined them and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in turn.
In telling this story, St. Paul was telling the Corinthians something they already knew. I received from the Lord, he writes, what I also handed on to you (1 Corinthians 11:23]) Why remind them about something apparently already commonly known? Until 1969, this reading at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was longer and incorporated the complete context, which we need to recall. When you meet in one place, Paul wrote, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Paul concluded with an ominous warning: whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27).
First-century Christians had no churches yet. They met in homes - presumably those of their more prosperous members, who had large enough homes to accommodate a group. So, like the Last Supper itself, the 1st-century Eucharist seems to have been celebrated as a domestic meal. Some people, however, started eating early. It has been suggested that perhaps the rich didn’t want to wait for the poorer people who couldn’t come until after work, and left little or nothing for the poorer latecomers! Obviously, the social arrangements of secular society had not disappeared, just because they had become Christians! Then too – then as now - the widespread tendency (even among supposedly religious people) to admire the rich & cater to their whims with servile adulation was already probably well in evidence. (In the 18th century, Adam Smith called this nearly universal tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."
St. Paul certainly understood that social and class distinctions were an integral part of Roman society – as they are in all societies. He was not asking his hearers to pretend that the laws of economics had suddenly been repealed and such distinctions had ceased to exist or were somehow of no importance in the world; but he was insisting that those distinctions have no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s Body. We may well live in a world where such distinctions matter, but we simultaneously inhabit another order of relationships. It wasn’t our natural, social, political, or economic relationships that preoccupied Paul, but our religious relationship - as adopted children of God the Father, brothers and sisters in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit - which makes everything else different.
The New Testament accounts of what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper connect it directly to Jesus’ sacrificial death: as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes ([1 Corinthians 11:26). Just as Jesus’ death decisively transforms our relationship with him, all our other relationships within the Body of Christ, his Church, must also likewise be transformed.

Hence the emphasis - throughout Church history - on the Eucharist, not only as a sign of unity in the Body of Christ but as an agent of that unity. Whether at the macro-level of the Universal Church or at the micro-level of a single parish community, this has obvious applications for our life together as Christ’s Body, the Church - for which (as St. Paul reminds us) we will have to answer. To the extent that our factions and conflicts contradict who and what we claim to be, in whatever way our behavior towards one another conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent (precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed) and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ sacrificed himself in order to save. St. Paul’s warning to the Galatians to stop biting and devouring one another (Galatians 5:15) applies to us in the 21st century as evidently as it applied to the Church in the 1st century.
Yet even without any identifiable ill will, it is division – not unity – that remains fundamental to the human condition. Social, economic, ethnic, linguistic, national, and generational divisions form the structural fabric of human relations. Again the point is not to pretend that such divisions do not exist, but to recognize the challenge – to us - to live as changed people because we share in the one Body of Christ.