Sunday, October 31, 2010


Last week, we heard Jesus tell a parable about a tax collector. In today’s gospel [Luke 19:1-10], he – and we – get to meet the real thing – in the person of Zacchaeus, who was not just any old tax collector, but a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man. Those extra details, being a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, presumably were mentioned to make him seem even less likable, just as his being short in stature, and his undignified behavior in running ahead and climbing a tree presumably were mentioned to highlight his ridiculousness.

However that may be, even without any extra details, knowing nothing else about him besides his being a tax collector, we would still know for certain that he was a sinner. Without knowing anything else, we would know that he collaborated with the Romans - and so was automatically a sinner, because God had given the land of Israel as a permanent covenant with his people forever and so to collaborate with the Romans seemed self-evidently sinful. Everyone understood that.

Sinner or not, Zacchaeus was seeking to see who Jesus was. Just what Jesus meant to him at that stage we have no way of guessing. People have probably always wanted to see celebrities. And Jesus, with his reputation already well established as a successful healer and exorcist, was certainly a celebrity – probably the biggest attraction to hit Jericho in a long time!

Zacchaeus, seeking to see who Jesus was, may have had no more than just a natural curiosity – just as any of us at any particular time may have nay number of natural human motives for coming to church. But, whatever our motives, at least we are here. And so it was with Zachaeus. Whatever his motives for seeking to see who Jesus was, at least they got him there.
And then Jesus himself took over: "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Jesus didn’t mull over Zaccaheus’ motives, and he didn’t wait for a proper invitation. He took advantage of the situation and boldy invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house – as he continues now boldly to invite himself into our lives in this house of his Church today.

Traditionally, this gospel was read at the Mass for the dedication of a church – a usage suggested, I suspect, by Jesus’ words: "Today salvation has come to this house." For that indeed is the purpose of a church – why churches are such special places, why we build them, why we dedicate them, and above all why we attend them.

Indeed salvation did come to Zacchaeus’ house that day, when in response to Jesus’ initiative, Zacchaeus received him with joy, boldly turning his own life around (apparently to everyone’s surprise) and demonstrating in the process both the genuineness of his own conversion and also how serious a matter it really is for someone to become a follower of Jesus: "behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over."

Today – and everyday – salvation comes to this house also, this church, to which we come in order to see Jesus, and within which (however imperfect or mixed our motives may sometimes be) Jesus boldly invites himself to stay with us. Here, we too can experience the real change Zacchaeus experienced – doing what we would never otherwise have done, becoming what we would never otherwise have become, a community of forgiven sinners changed by our faith in the One who invites himself to stay with us here in this house today.
Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 31, 2010.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Growing up, I loved Halloween. To be honest, I really disliked having to decide who I was going to be for Halloween and what kind of costume I would wear, but once those hurdles were past I loved the holiday itself – the party at school, followed by trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. In those days (The Bronx in the 1950s), kids weren’t afraid to be out, and adults weren’t afraid to open their doors. Most adults gave us candy (which no one was afraid to eat in those days), but some gave money – as much as 25 cents or, in the case of one generous neighbor, the unimaginably large sum of 50 cents! Back then, Halloween was basically a children’s holiday, which adults also enjoyed.

All that has changed, of course. In many places, children’s trick-or-treating has lost its traditional spontaneity and become a choreographed event, supervised by adults and hedged in by fear. Adults, on the other hand, have turned Halloween into a holiday for themselves. (It’s been suggested that my generation of “baby boomers” enjoyed our childhood holiday so much we just don’t want to let go of it). Halloween is now the second most decorated-for holiday in the United States (second only to Christmas). Like Christmas, it is now a full season that begins in stores months beforehand.

Less emphasized, in either the children’s Halloween of the post-war years or the adult extravaganza of today, have been its original significance and its subsequently added layer of Christian religious meaning. November 1 was once the most important of the four seasonal turning points of the ancient Celtic year, the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was imagined as a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead might roam about and possibly even try to haunt their old homes. Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against an assault from the other world.

By about the 9th-century A.D., the Roman festival of All Saints was moved from May to November 1 - a kind of Christianization of the old Celtic holiday, and a celebration of the triumph of Christianity over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces which had hitherto held people in fear. (Hence the name “Halloween,” which means “the eve of All Hallows” - i.e., All Saints).

All Saints Day celebrates the Church Triumphant – all the saints, both known and unknown – who now praise God for ever in heaven. Around the end of the first millennium, as a sort of sequel to All Saints Day, the Church added All Souls Day on November 2, a day devoted to urgent prayer on behalf of all who, having died, are now still being purified of the consequences of their sins.

In the Church’s calendar, both the month of November and the season of Advent, which immediately follows it, have traditionally focused on our end, as an inevitability which we humanly fear, but for which we wait with the hope made possible for us by Christ. How we think and speak about Christian hope regarding the end and the eternal fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation is fundamental for a coherent Christian faith.

At least in the northern hemisphere, thoughts about the end come quite naturally at this time of the year, as the sun rises a little later every morning and sets a little earlier every afternoon. Amidst withered leaves and barren branches, there is a melancholy sense of time passing by as yet another year draws to a close. Science confirms that the universe, as we know it, did not always exist and will not always exist. However distant the day, it is doomed to end. Less distant, there is the individual - but no less definite - death of each one of us. The human condition of alienation from God through sin makes mortality seem the ultimate frustration. Perhaps, that may help to explain modern secular society’s increasing inclination to downplay death, even to the point of failing to provide complete religious funerals for the deceased. In contrast, Christian hope causes one both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect the duty of prayer for those who have gone before us.

The great autumn triduum of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls challenges us to face our fears and contemplate the mystery of death – but to do so in faith and hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

15 Years

The Apostle Jude, whom the Western Church honors today (along with Simon the Zealot), is traditionally invoked as the patron of desperate situations, lost causes, and hopeless cases. So it was altogether appropriate that, when I was finally ordained a priest, it happened, 15 years ago today, on the feast of St. Jude.

My 15th year as a priest has been an especially exciting one for me - a time for new and different experiences. Now in Knoxville as pastor of the oldest parish in East Tennessee, I spent the days leading up to my anniversary on my first retreat with the priests of the diocese.

The site for the retreat was a retreat center attached to an Augustinian parish in Maggie Valley, NC, in the Smoky Mountains. It was about a 100-mile drive from downtown Knoxville to Maggie Valley – much of it illuminated by the incredible beauty of the bright autumn colors. The Retreat Center itself is on the side of a hill. Further up the hill is the parish church, where we concelebrated Mass each morning and had Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Confessions on Wednesday night. A true gem of a building on a beautiful site, its clear glass windows open to the grandeur of nature, the church was built by a Detroit businessman, a wealthy widower who was then ordained (at age 80) to minister there. Now it is in the care of the Augustinians, who live in a lovely friary next to the church and serve the parish and the retreat center - the same Augustinian province that staffed my home parish in the Bronx and taught me in High School. Small world! I’d recognize that habit anywhere!

Like diocesan priests, Paulists (defined by the Church as a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life) do most of our ministry in local churches in close collaboration with the local diocesan presbyterate. The retreat director’s repeated emphasis on our need as priests to acquire the skills of spiritual leadership readily resonated with me as a new pastor, particularly aware of the challenges involved in serving as my parish’s new spiritual leader.

A priest has a preeminently public, i.e., ecclesial, identity - rooted not only in the priest’s personal relationship with God but in the priest’s relationship with the people he has been appointed to lead. People need to hear and experience the Good News through the priest’s ministry. Hence the importance of his ability – and limitations – in meeting that need.

A very wise, older Paulist once advised me at a particularly low point in my Paulist life that I would find spiritual fulfillment – and, presumably, holiness - in my experience of ministry. How many times have I repeated that to myself over the years? How many times have I heard it repeated here these past few days?

So now I’ve finished 15 fulfilling years in priesthood. As I begin my 16th year, I can do no better than to make my own the words of the prayers of the Mass for the anniversary of ordination: May I be an ardent but gentle servant of your gospel and your sacraments … May I always live in truth the mysteries I handle at your altar.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Man of the Church

On this day in 1849, a 29-year old German-American, New York born, convert to Roman Catholicism, Isaac T. Hecker, was ordained a Redemptorist priest at St. Mary’s Church, Clapham, the Redemptorists’ new foundation in London. Sent there to complete his seminary studies, Hecker was part of the first Redemptorist community in London, which at that time included an Austrian, a Russian, and a Belgian.

Hecker’s road to the priesthood had been arduous. Not unlike Christian history’s most famous seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker’s journey to conversion eloquently exemplifies the spiritual search at its best. Like Augustine, he examined many of the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, before finally finding his permanent religious home in the Roman Catholic Church. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, certainly speak to the spiritual longings of our own spiritually hungry century, with its legions of souls commonly described as “spiritual but not religious.” Hecker too was “spiritual but not religious” for most of the first 25 years of his life. What was – and remains – significant about Hecker, however, was precisely that he did not remain that way. Fundamental to this first period of his life was his recognition of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God acting to call him out of himself and into the Church. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking is finding. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never desired to look farther. Rather, he devoted himself to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Church.

In 1845, less than a year after his reception into the Church, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to travel to Europe to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. Hecker decided to join them. He took an overnight train to Baltimore, showed up at the Redemptorist house at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded the Provincial that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted . Taking the morning train back to New York, he said a quick goodbye to his family, and set sail for his new life in Europe.

A week earlier, in a letter to another recent convert, Orestes Brownson, Hecker had expressed “the need of being under stronger Catholic influences than are so far as my experience goes, in this country.” The Redemptorists provided him the immersion experience he felt he needed in European Catholicism, and Hecker adapted enthusiastically to Redemptorist religious routine and ascetical practices. He experienced serious difficulties with his studies, however, what he himself described as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors. Convinced that he had a vocation to labor for the conversion of his non-Catholic fellow countrymen, however, he successfully persuaded his superiors that, if left to study at his own pace, he could yet “acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest.”

So, from Belgium and the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in Clapham, where, on October 23, 1849, he was ordained a priest. In 1851 he was sent back to the United States as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included Clarence Walworth and two other American Episcopalian converts to Catholicism, Augustine Hewit and Francis Baker.

Their first mission was at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village, New York City – the first ever English-language mission in the United States. Walworth, widely regarded as the nation’s foremost Catholic preacher, and Hewit generally gave the principal mission sermons. Hecker heard confessions and gave the catechetical instructions after morning Mass and also the evening instruction on the rosary, which he delivered with such passion that his colleagues called him “Fr. Mary.”

Parish missions were intended to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed. By challenging Catholics to a higher standard of moral behavior – for example, by reducing alcohol abuse – missions contributed to what Hecker, in a letter to Brownson, called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country.” one consequence of which, he hoped, would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. Apparently, Hecker already understood that any successful mission to non-Catholic America presupposed an effective mission and ministry within the American Catholic community.

While working on the missions Hecker produced two apologetic books, Questions of the Soul (1855) and Aspirations of Nature (1857), “to explain the Catholic religion in such a manner as to reach and attract the minds of the non-Catholics of the American people.” He hoped that “many of the great body of the American people,” if shown the way Divine Providence had led him to the Church, “might in this way be led also to see the truth.” Selling some 3000 copies in 1855, Questions of the Soul established Hecker as one of the leading spokesmen for Roman Catholicism in the United States.

Hecker’s life as a priest was characterized by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which the first, searching period of his life had so earnestly led him and to which he now so wholeheartedly devoted himself. This commitment to the Church as the institutional expression of the presence and providential action of the Holy Spirit sustained him in his priestly ministry, despite difficulties. His expulsion from the Redemptorists in 1857 (which eventually led to his founding the Paulist Fathers in 1858) was “the source of the deepest affliction” to him, but he believed “that these things were permitted by Divine Providence” to position him “to further the work of God.” He was truly, as New York’s Edward Cardinal Egan wrote (Catholic New York, November 9, 2006), “a man of the Church.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blessed Kaiser Karl and a Century That Needn't Have Been

Yesterday, October 21, is the date assigned (in certain places) in the Church’s calendar to remember Blessed Kaiser Karl (1887-1922), Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary (1916-1918). The date chosen for his feast is the anniversary of his marriage in 1911 to the Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, to whom he said on the day after their wedding: "Now, we must help each other to get to Heaven." (October 21 also happens to be the anniversary of the beginning of his second failed attempt to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921).

His manifest sanctity aside, the commemoration of the last reigning Hapsburg Emperor is also a sad reminder of Europe’s tragic history throughout the 20th century - dominated by what some have called Europe’s long civil war, which began in 1914 and lingers where and how it began, in the still unresolved conflicts between Serbs and others in the Balkans. (Today’s New York Times contains a timely reminder of Serbia’s continued, conflicted history in an article about how Europe’s most wanted war-crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic, remains at large.

One of my undergraduate college professors, himself a refugee from one of the successor states of the Hapsburg Empire, liked to point out what a natural economic unit the Empire on the Danube had been – and what an unmitigated disaster the history of the region had been since the dissolution of that Empire. What was supposedly said about Poland at the end of World War II – that the Poles had had the bad fortune to lose the war twice (first to the Germans in 1939, then to the Soviets in 1945) – was in effect true of most of the Empire’s successor states, whichever side they were on in World War II, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the formerly Hapsburg lands that were subsequently absorbed into Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovena, Bosnia).

When I was in Prague several years ago, our tour group attended some outdoor event one evening. Looking around, I asked our guide if the outdoor theater had been built in the Communist time. “Of course,” she responded. “No self-respecting Hapsburg would have allowed anything so ugly to be built!” That sort of summarizes both the tragic destruction of the Hapsburg Empire (for which the US and especially Woodrow Wilson must bear some share of the blame) and the soul-destroying alternatives Central Europe was saddled with in its place. After much of a century spent in unprecedented blood-letting and “cold war” division, Europe is now physically at peace (sort of) but sadly seems increasingly bereft of anything resembling its soul.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The French Martyrs of North America

When I was stationed in Toronto, second only to Niagra Fall as a local tourist attraction to take seminarians and other visitors to was the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine up north in Midland. Ontario, Just below that shrine is the even more interesting, reconstructed historic site of the Jesuits' famous mission settlement, the village of Ste Marie Among the Hurons. It always made for a pleasant summer outing.

But for those "Blackrobes" who lived, worked, and (in some cases) died there - 37 days by canoe from Quebec - spending long cold winters in smoke-filled, native American "long houses," and summers in their village settlement following their rigorous religious routine, it was a rough, tough life of hardship and obscurity - and, finally, failure, when war forced them to abandon that settlement after 10 years of intense effort.

It is easy to forget it in the splendor of the Martyrs' Shrine, but that ambitious, impressive, powerful project appeared in its own time to have failed - not unlike the life and mission of Jesus himself, in whose name those heroic missionaries so dramatically and seemingly tragically struggled.

So much, indeed, of what matters most in human life seems like a dialogue between failure and hope. The absence of failure is an illusion, but the absence of hope is deadly.

Whatever else may be said or sayable about the eight martyrs the US Church celebrates today - 6 Jesuit priests and their 2 associates, martyred in what are now New York and Ontario between 1642 and 1649 - they were certainly filled with hope. Their hope was not that so much that somehow they might escape from their Iroquois torturers, but that, through their misisonary struggles, the Risen Lord's Great Commission to his Church, proclaimed in today's Gospel - Go, make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you [Matthew 28:19-20] - might come closer to fulfillment.

Those French Jesuit missionaries, unstinting in their efforts to accomplish as much as they could for the greater glory of God, found final fulfillment in their complete identification with Christ, on whom they had learned to model their ministry and from whom they acquired the courage to trust and to hope in the triumph of the Cross, which in the end is what every chapter of the Christian story is ultimately all about.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Somber Thoughts

November is supposed to be the month when we especially remember the dead and think intentionally about our own mortality. It’s a late autumn thing to do. But I got a bit ahead of schedule today!

The day began with a funeral. It was my third funeral at Immaculate Conception, but my first ever burial at Calvary Catholic Cemetery – the old cemetery just a few miles away, which is owned by immaculate Conception parish. I haven’t seen too many parish cemeteries. I’ve done burials at St. Raymond’s in the Bronx, of course, and I’ve been to the parish cemetery in New Jersey, where the Paulist Fathers formerly at Mount Paul are now buried (and which will presumably someday be the site of my last Paulist assignment). The cemetery here is much older and smaller, but quite attractive precisely as an old, historic , traditional cemetery.

The burial service was brief, but concluded with the playing of taps and the presentation of the flag to the deceased brothers. It got me thinking about the passing of the World War II generation, rightly remembered (in Tom Brokaw’s memorable expression) as “the Greatest Generation.” My father has been dead 11 years already, and my uncles even longer. Soon, there will be no one left from that “Greatest Generation” – just when our society could really use people like them and what they did and accomplished. Compared to them, my “baby Boomer” generation seems to have made quite the mess of things – exceeded only, perhaps, by the post-Boomer generation now in political power!

Such solemn reflections, admittedly more suited to a gray November day than a bright colorful October afternoon, were still with me when I left the parish office in late afternoon to go home and prepare for my evening meeting. As I turned left from Broadway onto Central Street, I suddenly found myself faced with a speeding, on-coming car coming at me in my lane, apparently being chased by a police car. Luckily for me, no one was simultaneously turning right onto Central from the southbound side of Broadway. So I was able to maneuver quickly into the right lane and thus escape being hit head-on by the speeding car. From the comparative safety of that right lane, I watched in amazement as that car kept going, pursued by one, then a second, police car. As I drove north on Central the remaining distance, I could hardly help recalling the prayer recited just a few hours earlier at the end of the funeral:

Lord God, whose days are without end and whose mercies beyond counting, keep us mindful that life is short and the hour of death unknown. Let your Spirit guide our days on earth in the ways of holiness and justice, that we may serve you in union with the whole Church, sure in faith, strong in hope, perfected in love. And when our earthly journey is ended, lead us rejoicing into your kingdom, where you live for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Helping Hands

When I was a child, there was a big “Family bible” in my parents’ bedroom, which I used to like to look at on occasion – not to read, but to look at the pictures. One of my favorites was a picture depicting the scene in today’s 1st reading [Exodus 17:8-13]. We usually think of Moses in super-size terms – thanks in part, I suppose, to the movies. Indeed, the Moses in that picture was a big, strong, heroic-looking figure, which made it seem that much more incongruous that he was being helped, physically helped, by Aaron and Hur, who were also rather impressive to look at and who supported Moses’ hands, one on one side and one on the other.

That, although I certainly had no clue at the time, was the larger point of the story – Israel’s weakness and need for God to fight on Israel’s behalf against the Amalekites. No doubt, individual Israelite warriors, like Joshua, were every bit as strong and courageous as their enemies. As a nation, however, Israel was relatively small and weak. Its survival depended on God, and that was the primary point of the story.

A corollary of that was that Israel could confidently count on God. The reality, however, was that Israel’s history had many defeats. Twice, the Temple would be destroyed. Twice the people would be forced into exile. That second exile would last almost 2000 years, until the providential restoration of Israeli statehood in my own lifetime.

And, of course, when we consider life from the perspective of the individual – like, for example, the widow in today’s Gospel [Luke 18:1-8] – we may well wonder just how warranted confidence in God really is.

There are two typical responses to this dilemma. The more modern one is simply to eliminate God from the calculation – either by denying his existence altogether, or (what ultimately amounts to pretty much the same thing) by denying his omnipotence).

The other, older approach, which has a long history indeed, is to try to make a deal with God. “Do ut des,” the ancient Romans used to say. “I give in order that you may give.” From time immemorial, folks have tried to please – or at least placate – God (or the gods), doing this or that, offering this or that, in the hope of striking a deal, which would entitle one to something from God in return. This is a classic “justice” argument.

Now, generally speaking, justice is very beneficial inhuman affairs. Societies certainly function better when citizens treat each other – and can expect to be treated – predictably and fairly on the basis of their supposed merits. Even in human affairs, however, the desirability of perfect justice is limited, and absolute justice is often softened in practice. That is why monarchs often carry a scepter in one hand – symbolizing justice – but balanced in the other by the Rod of Equity and Mercy. And, of course, in some settings – the family, for example, justice hardly enters into the picture at all, the language of justice being largely inappropriate to the reality of that relationship.

And so Jesus, in the parable we just heard, likens God to an unjust judge. We may, on occasion, perhaps think that we’ve really done our best and that therefore in fairness God should owe us something. Most of the time, we know better. Indeed, in the long run who would ever want to be judged solely by God’s justice? As Shakespeare so memorably expressed it, in Portia’s legal argument in The Merchant of Venice, “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

In the parable, the plaintiff is a widow, which suggests she is somewhat alone in the world, probably poor, at least not wealthy enough to retain a high-priced lawyer to argue the justice of her case – assuming she actually has a case. All she can do is call out to God day and night.

In the parable, the widow gets the judgment she needs – not because of the merits of her case – but because of her persistence.

When all is said and done, aren’t we all a lot like that widow?

The challenge – the challenge of faith – is to give up the self-absorbed preoccupation with convincing God that we deserve what we want. The challenge of faith is to stop talking to ourselves and start talking to God, confidently calling out day and night, acknowledging our need and confident that God will in the end judge us by the depth of that need.

And, just as Moses and Joshua depended on the help of Aaron and Hur, we too depend on one another. In the face of the harshness of life, who among us, standing alone can confidently call on God with as full a faith as the widow in the parable? That is why we pray every day at Mass: look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.

Homily At Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 17, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Early Voting

I voted this afternoon. Yes, it's only October 14 - a full 19 days before "Election Day." It was a pleasant experience - walking through the pretty courtyard to and from the County Building, learning how to navigate the ballot computer screen, bonding with my new state, without any of the long lines and delays sometimes associated with the process. Of all the reasons for voting, bonding with my new state was undoubtedly my main motive for voting. But then voting for me has always been primarily a privileged civic ritual, which signifies a connection with and participation in the larger society, both national and local.
I think I develped that symbolic sensitivity about voting quite early on - probably from accompanying my parents to the polls on crisp autum days 50+ years ago. That was long before I had learned any political theory to wrap my feelings about voting in and certainly way before being exposed rational choice models that would more likely impress upon one how ultimately "irrational" it is to vote. That's just as well, since I have never expected my one ballot to be the decisive vote. In fact, most of the elections I have ever voted in were foregone conclusions. Few districts are "swing" districts anymore. My home state, especially in more recent years, has leaned reliably toward one party, making the final outcome of the ballot seldom in doubt. Even in hotly contested Presidential elections, I could safely predict in advance which candidate would win my state's electoral votes. So voting has always been more about participating in the process, bonding with my fellow-citizens, and adding legitimacy to whichever party gets the mandate to govern.
But what about Early Voting? Can the symbolic resonance of partipating in the electoral process survive being reduced to what seems like yet another convenience-store transaction? Of course, there can be good reasons for Early Voting. It wasn't narcissistic self-absortion that motivated me to seek the most convenient date and time to vote. The fact is that I will be away on November 2. So, to vote at all, I must either file for an absentee ballot (a more cumbersome process) or vote early. Still, as with anything else that has - or once had - a communitarian context and singificance, when we align the civic ritual of voting with individual timetables rather than a common calendar, do we perhaps run the risk of losing even more of what little we have left of a once vibrant civic culture?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

God in America

Religion remains very much in the news, but so is American ignorance about religion. And now we have PBS’s 3-night, 6-hour special God in America, which presumably hopes to address religion’s importance in American society and history – and correct some of that ignorance.

The only significant criticism that I heard from commentators in anticipation of the show was that that it doesn’t cover everything and that, while admittedly one cannot literally cover everything in a mere six hours, there are still some egregious omissions – the most obvious one being any serious treatment of Mormonism. Given Mormonism’s uniquely American origin, that does seem like a serious omission. (Perhaps it went by so fast that I missed it, but, watching the first two hours on Monday, I noticed no reference to the great Jonathan Edwards, something which – especially as a Princeton alum – I also consider a serious omission. But then again one really cannot include everything).

A more serious issue with that first episode, I thought, was what seemed, to me at least, to be an over preoccupation with religious tolerance as a kind of organizing structural idea for the episode. The series seems eager to show not just how religion has decisively influenced American society and history, but also how so many people with so many different religious beliefs have managed to coexist in this society. That too is a very important part of the story and certainly deserves to be told. But it does seem to get narrowly filtered at times through a contemporary pluralist prism. Thus the opening segment on the Spanish evangelization of the Native Americans focuses on one particular episode of conflict between the Church and the Pueblo Indians, allegedly brought about because the Church would not accommodate traditional Indian beliefs and practices, in contrast to the more open-minded Indians who, of course, were quite prepared to incorporate Christianity into their system. Obviously, the filter through which that particular incident is presented slants it in one interpretive direction. Even worse, it results in a kind of neglect of the larger story of Spanish (and French) Catholic efforts to evangelize Native Americans.

The issue here is not anti-Catholicism. Thus the drama of Anne Hutchinson vs. John Winthrop (interesting and important in its own right, to be sure) also gets a disproportionate amount of attention – undoubtedly because it can be seen as a story of intolerant male hierarchy vs. tolerant female openness.

That same tolerance paradigm, on the other hand, results in a lengthy and, on balance, positive portrayal of New York’s first Archbishop, John Hughes, who in the mid-19th century, successfully led his Catholic immigrant flock in a fight against the established (Protestant) Public School system. The program presents Hughes’ efforts to use the established (Protestant) American self-understanding of religious freedom to advocate for equality and inclusion for the new immigrants and their Catholic religion, successfully turning the tables on the Protestant establishment. In the process, Hughes helped make American Catholics into patriotic defenders of American religious liberty. Hughes’ ultimate success, however, as the program does also acknowledge, came less from his adoption of American ideological language than from his utilization of the opportunities offered by American political democracy, transforming his immigrant flock into a powerful voting block.

The qualitative highpoint of the series, so far at least, was the first segment on the second night, which dealt first with the Churches’ internal conflicts over slavery and then with the Civil War itself. The program traces Abraham Lincoln’s personal religious evolution through the firestorm of war and the family tragedy of his son’s death in the White House, leading him to faith in a personal and loving God and to his Second Inaugural’s interpretation of the Civil War as God’s judgment on the United States for the sin of slavery.

The second evening concluded with two good segments on the dilemmas of adaptation to modernity, highlighting the story of Reform Judaism in the United States and the debate over evolution (culminating in a famous trial in Dayton, TN).

So far so good. Now let’s see what the third episode has in store, as it presumably will take the story of the American religious experience into the changed challenges of the present.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day

If I were still living in New York, it’s quite likely that I would be beginning this day by concelebrating at the Archbishop’s annual bi-lingual (Italian-English) Columbus Day Mass at the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

Columbus Day has long been an occasion for Italian-Americans to focus on their ethnic heritage and show pride in their role in the history and life of our country. Of course, Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean as Cristobal Colón, sailing in the service of Their Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand of Aragón and Queen Isabela of Castille. So this holiday is also rightly observed by Spanish-speakers around the world as el Día de la Hispanidad. (Thus, in New York, there are now two parades – the Italian parade on the legal holiday, and the Hispanic parade on the previous Sunday.)

The first recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States was in New York in 1792 to mark the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ first landing in the New World. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, perhaps this may been one way to connect with the broader (not just British) story of the exploration and settlement of the American continent. In any event, Catholic (and especially Italian) immigrant communities quickly adopted it as an occasion for celebrations. (In the 19th century, opposition to Catholicism caused some anti-immigrant groups to oppose Columbus Day). Eventually, after effective lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, President Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday in 1937. It remains a federal holiday today (although, like so many of our other American holidays, now no longer on its proper day).

Columbus Day, however, for all the Italian-American pride appropriately connected with it, is much more than just another ethnic holiday and an occasion for yet another ethnic parade. What happened on October 12, 1492, in the definitive meeting of the eastern and western hemispheres, was surely one of the most significantly transformative events in human history, the beginning of the globalized one world which we now know today.

At the same time, that first planting of the Cross on the beach at San Salvador (appropriately on the Spanish feast of Nuestra Señora del Pilar) also marked the effective beginning of the evangelization of this American continent. Heroic missionaries from many different nations eventually came to this new land to share the Good News with the native populations and to minister to the continually increasing numbers of immigrants from the Old World. As a result, almost half of the world’s Catholics now live in North and South America.

This annual remembrance of the Catholic faith’s arrival on these shores should stimulate us to concentrate our efforts on behalf of the continued evangelization both of our own country and of this entire continent – the “new evangelization” to which Pope John Paul II repeatedly challenged us throughout his 26-year pontificate. In his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America in 1999, the late Pope wrote: “The greatness of the incarnation and gratitude for the gift of the first proclamation of the Gospel in America are an invitation to respond readily to Christ with a more decisive personal conversion and a stimulus to ever more generous fidelity to the Gospel. … Conversion leads to fraternal communion, because it enables us to understand that Christ is the head of the church, his mystical body; it urges solidarity, because it makes us aware that whatever we do for others, especially for the poorest, we do for Christ himself. Conversion, therefore, fosters a new life, in which there is no separation between faith and works in our daily response to the universal call for holiness.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Installation Eve

Tomorrow, Sunday, the Most Reverend Bishop of Knoxville will come to Immaculate Conception and officially install me as the 24th pastor of this historic downtown Knoxville parish. (I will be the eighth Paulist pastor at Immaculate Conception since the Paulists came to Knoxville in 1973). The Rite of Installation begins after the homily with the Bishop formally informing the people that I am to serve as their pastor and reminding both pastor and people of our mutual commitment to one another in this new relationship. The Bishop will then ask me three questions, highlighting the proclamation of the Word of God, the celebration of the Sacraments, and the building up of the Church and service to those in need, followed by three parallel questions to the people. Then, all will recite the Nicene Creed together, after which, with my hand on the Gospels, I will recite the Oath of Fidelity and then sign it on the altar. Finally, the bishop will present me with seven "Symbols of Pastoral Responsibility" - a Parish Register (containing the names of those now entrusted to my care), a Parish History recounting how this parish has lived the Gospel in the past and striven to be Christ in the midst of this community), a Vessel of Holy Water (a reminder of Baptism, whihc incorporates us into the Church), the Rite of Penance (the sacrament which reconciles us to God and one another), the 3 Holy Oils (the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick, and the Holy Chrism), the Book of the Gospels, and the Sacred Vessels for the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Altar.

It promises to be a beautiful and joyful celebration, a fitting intro to the 125th anniversary of the present parish church, which will be celebrated in 2011. Even before the building of the present church, from the days of its first pastor, Fr. Henry V. Brown, Immaculate Conception Church has stood on Summit Hill as an important presence in this city’s skyline and a vital resource of faith and community for downtown Knoxville - a vibrant sign of the Church’s outreach to all who live or work or visit in the shadow of its spire. It will be both my privilege and my joy to serve as its pastor, as this community faithfully continues the ministry of this historic parish.

In the words of Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Paulist Fathers: Let us be united in doing His will, and in letting it be done in us (from a letter written August 2, 1864).

Monday, October 4, 2010

"The Social Network"

One of my High School English teachers once asserted that one cannot compose an “epic” about the Beatles. He was, of course, quite wrong – on both counts. He was wrong, first of all, because (contrary to what he was trying to claim) the Beatles were a major musical and creative cultural phenomenon, eminently suitable for an “epic.” Secondly, he was wrong because even events and people of less than world-historical significance can be the subject of an epic-quality story. The new film about the founding of Facebook and the unraveling of the relationships among that story’s protagonists does indeed tap into universal human themes. Other than the obscenely enormous amount of money involved, however, the players in the drama are hardly epic-level heroes. The movie that has been made about them, however, is certainly up there - quite apart from the degree to which it may have (as has been widely alleged) distorted the actual story .

Full disclosure: I am personally a fan of Facebook. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a legitimate question, but a subject for another discussion. Not only do I enjoy checking Facebook and have over time gradually gotten over my initial reticence about posting on it, I even administer a Facebook “Business Page, the latest weekly report for which appeared on my Blackberry as I was walking back from the movie theater!

The movie is very well made and the acting is great. The film finally succeeds, however, I believe, because of how (like any “epic”) it taps into important and universal human themes. Greed, obviously, is one such theme. But money wasn’t what Facebook was about at the outset and was never (at least as he is portrayed in the movie) what Zuckerberg was fundamentally interested in. What he was looking for, rather, was “coolness” – something everyone else in the story also seems to want (including those who already are - or think they are - very "cool" indeed). The pursuit of “coolness” is essentially a contemporary variation on the perennial pursuit of popularity, status, friendship, and, of course, sex. If The Social Network is to be believed, people never get – or never think they get – enough of those primordial social goods.

The story is told through the prism of two legal actions against Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg – one on the part of the Winklevoss twins and the other on the part of Zuckerberg’s putative best friend and founding partner, Eduardo Saverin. The Winklevoss twins are everything Zuckerberg (as portrayed in the movie) isn’t but would like to be. They are rich, well-connected, good-looking jocks, who belong to one of the best clubs on campus. (When Zuckerberg goes to their club to meet with them, he cannot cross the threshold of privilege and is only allowed into the “bike room”). The Winklevosses are attractive and hence have already more than their fair share of the good things this world has to offer. Of course, they want more, which is why they seek Zuckerberg’s assistance in the first place. Perhaps one of Zuckerberg’s best lines in the movie is when he observes that the twins are angry at him because for the first time something hasn’t gone their way, hasn’t gone the way everything in their social reality has conditioned them to expect. That line alone ought to redeem the nerdy, socially awkward Zuckerberg from some of the opprobrium his character (as portrayed in the film) otherwise deserves. Having met and known any number of Winklevoss-types in my lifetime, I couldn’t help but root for Zuckerberg against them.

Eduardo Saverin is a different story. Although, unlike Zuckerberg, Savarin has real access to money (although presumably less than the Winklevosses), he comes across as a largely sympathetic figure. He really is Zuckerberg’s friend and remains loyal a lot longer than he probably should. That’s what being a friend means, of course; and it is obvious that when the friendship does break up, it is experienced as a serious loss by both men. An attractive, ambitious undegraduate, Savarin wants what everyone else in the story wants -popularity and status (including membership in one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs), friendship (with Zuckerberg), and, of course, sex. Still, as a serious business student, Savarin offers an alternative reality – and an alternative path to success which he vainly tries to get Zuckerberg to follow. Zuckerberg, however, is seduced by a “cooler” model of success – personified by Napster founder, Sean Parker (the tempter in the Garden, perfectly played in all his attractiveness and dangerousness by Justin Timberlake).

The Trojan War was undoubtedly an important event in its own right and deserves the interest of historians. The reason The Iliad remains so interesting and important to us today, however, has to do with its insightful portrayal of fundamental human emotions, for which the Trojan War simply serves as a stage. The Social Network is not The Iliad. That stipulated, The Social Network has an element of “epic” quality about it, for which this fictionalized story of Facebook’s founding serves as a splendid stage. It is the perennial story of “coolness” and its discontents.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Just Doing What We are Obliged To Do

How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen! [Habakuk 1:1]

Who hasn’t felt like Habakuk at times? Who hasn’t felt helpless and abandoned? Even saints – some of them at least – have been know to suffer through the so-called “dark night of the soul.” Some people just never seem to get a break, No matter how hard they try, things just don’t go right for them. Jobs are lost. Careers fail. Husbands and wives betray each other. Children disappoint their parents. Sickness strikes indiscriminately. Time and time again, the sheer frustration of it all takes its terrible toll.

For some, the struggle and pain of it all is a strong argument against God and an unassailable complaint about God. Habakuk too wants an answer to all the suffering he sees. For Habakuk, however, his lament is not a complain about God, but to God – an acknowledgment of God’s perplexingly mysterious power in the face of human limitations. Complaining to God, rather than about God, Habakuk becomes a spokesman for hope: For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint… the rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live. [Habakuk 2:3-4]

Nice words, to be sure, encouraging words even; but what exactly does it mean that the just one, because of his faith, shall live?

Faith, famously defined in the New Testament as the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1], is easier said than done. Hence, even the apostles asked, Increase our faith!

Like Habakuk, Jesus spoke words of encouragement to his apostles [Luke 17:5-10], assuming that one is encouraged by the image of a mulberry tree, despite its deep and extensive root system, being uprooted and transplanted into the sea! Where, one wonders, would one ever find sufficient faith even to try to transplant a mulberry tree into the sea?

Personally, I can think of no particular reason to want to transplant a mulberry tree into the sea. Like the apostles, however, I do want to increase my at times just barely sufficient faith. At minimum, I want to have enough faith, as Habakuk says, to live.

Indeed, it’s in the living, day-in, day-out, that Jesus seems to suggest that faith is to be found, as unprofitable servants doing what we are obliged to do. Even supposing I did somehow someday miraculously transplant a mulberry tree into the sea, whom would that benefit, what difference would that make over the long haul? On the other hand, if I could at least qualify as an unprofitable servant, successfully doing what I am obliged to do, now that might make a difference!

Faith is about living daily the way we are supposed to live, becoming over time, through the kind of life one lives in response to God’s grace, the kind of person God intends one to be –striving to live by faith, surrendering to God with confident hope and love.

Perhaps living as we do now, in a culture which for decades has overdosed on image and special effects, doing what one is supposed to do may lack the spectacular drama of transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea. It is, however, in fact the real challenge of a humanly and morally worthwhile life, the real challenge that faces each of us every day.
Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 3, 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tea Parties - Old and New

I got my Voter Registration Card in the mail this week. Now I just have to motivate myself to vote!

Exactly who is - or isn’t - motivated is being touted as a major factor in this year’s mid-term elections. Of course, that should hardly be news. What political scientists used to (and presumably still do) call the intensity factor has always played a significant part in elections and politics in general. Still, the intensity factor – or, as it is being termed these days, the enthusiasm factor (as in the Democrats’ much remarked “enthusiasm gap”) – seems poised to play a decisive role in determining this year’s electoral outcomes.

That the Democrats are suffering an “enthusiasm gap” is an obvious fact. Just why, however, is less than completely clear. It seems to have been lost on many commentators – and, more importantly, on the electorate at large – that the incumbent President and Democratic Congress have accomplished quite a lot (their most memorable accomplishment in my book being the Health Care legislation). In an earlier era, Democratic congressional candidates would be trumpeting this monumental accomplishment. In contrast, it seems almost as if they are embarrassed about having passed this long sought-after reform. They have, in short, been frightened by their opponents – in particular, the so-called “Tea Party.” Having let their opponents define the agenda, they are now running away from their own record. No wonder, they inspire so little enthusiasm!

Their opponents – again, the “Tea Party” people, in particular – seem exceptionally enthusiastic. With the Democrats embarrassed by their greatest accomplishment, it’s hardly surprising that their opponents feel the wind at their back and are poised for a significant victory – a repeat of 1994, perhaps, or even more promising, another 1966!

Meanwhile, much of what passes for political debate this season seems more of the same old silliness that has so often substituted for rational discourse in contemporary politics. When right-wingers refer to the health care reforms as “ObamaCare,” substituting childish name-calling for reasoned argument, they continue a tradition of silliness exemplified by Republicans who can’t bring themselves to call the Democratic Party by its proper name and call it the “Democrat Party” instead – and on the other side by Lefties who just can’t stomach calling Washington’s Airport by its proper name, “Reagan National Airport.”

There is, I suppose, a certain amount of silliness in the rhetoric of the so-called “Tea Party” Movement too. The silly-sounding name, however, is not in itself so silly at all. Its not so subtle attempt to identify a 21st century movement with an 18th century revolt in what were then Britain’s American colonies highlights the fundamental problematic at the origin of the American polity.

Traditionally estimated at around one-third of the colonial population, the 18th century American revolutionaries were never a majority, but (like the “Tea Party” today) they made up for that in intensity and enthusiasm. More to the point, like today’s “Tea Party,” they were motivated, at least initially, by an unwillingness to be taxed for government services. In the 18th century, it was the British Parliament’s expectation that the colonists should pay their proper share of the bill for Britain’s military expenditures, which had defended the colonies’ from the French and the Indians. The French having been decisively defeated in 1763, however, the colonists suddenly felt secure enough to go it alone – and hence avoid paying the bill both for that earlier victory and for the long-term benefits of an ongoing imperial connection.

Like their 18th century antecedents, the “Tea Party” (and other Americans as well) apparently just don’t want to pay taxes. Have they forgotten why we have taxes in the first place? Why we have government in the first place?

A classmate of mine in graduate school once described the United States as a polity that hates politics. In fact, however, for much of the 20th century, it was widely accepted that government had important and beneficial functions to perform for its citizens – functions that were worth paying for. In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, in part because of some conspicuous failures on government’s part, that never-completely-abandoned American suspicion of politics and government re-emerged with a vengeance. As the late Tony Judt observed in 2008 (Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century), it has become increasingly common to see the state “as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens’ affairs whenever possible” with the result that “this discounting of the state has become the default condition of public discourse in much of the developed world.”

In reality, of course, classical liberalism’s emphasis on individual freedom and corresponding suspicion of the state serves a very valuable purpose. Power does corrupt, as Lord Acton famously reminded us and history repeatedly illustrates (not least the history of the 20th century). Classical liberalism’s emphasis on individual freedom and the actual, lived experience of generations of immigrants who came to America precisely to be free (or at least more free) to live as they pleased have historically helped make this the most dynamic and most free society in the world. I say “helped make” rather than “made,” because in fact it was the felicitous combination of classical liberalism’s suspicion of state power and 19th-20th century reformist liberalism’s commitment to the use of state power on society’s behalf that produced the free and prosperous post-war society in which I grew up. The fact is there is a case to be made both for classical liberalism’s suspicion of the state and for reformist liberalism’s use of state power. The serious debate between the two and the fruitful negotiation between the two are what we need and what we seem to be losing. To quote Tony Judt again: “what is striking is how far we have lost the capacity to conceive of public policy beyond a narrowly construed economism. We have forgotten how to think politically.”

The Tea Party movement, for all its rhetorical silliness, does connect back to that original 18th century American tax revolt, but in a way which further diminishes rather than enriches the real debate we need to be having about what kind of society we want to be. As Karl Marx famously observed in 1852 (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), history does repeat itself –“the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”