Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wedding

Royalty and religion are a lot alike. Both present themselves to the world most prominently in magnificent and beautiful ceremonies. (Likewise, when not involved in beautiful and magnificent ceremonies, royals and clergy alike spend much of their time performing bureaucratic-type tasks and in conversation and small-talk with all sorts of people). Both royalty and religion operate most profoundly in the world of symbols and both depend heavily on emotion and sentiment for people’s affection and loyalty. Finally, I suspect that to the rationalist elites – whether of the modern or the post-modern variety – royalty and religion are both likewise thought to be rather nonsensical and anachronistic.

In contemporary Europe, there are seven hereditary kingdoms. Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Spain each have a reigning king. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom each have a reigning queen. In addition, Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy (presided over by a Grand Duke) and Liechtenstein is a sovereign principality (presided over by a prince), each of whom ranks as a “Royal Highness.” Finally, there is the Principality of Monaco, presided over by a Prince, who ranks as a “Serene Highness.”

In recent decades, royalty has regretably become conflated with celebrity. Monarchs and princes have come to be considered as celebrities, covered as such by the more sensationalist media, and increasingly related to as such by ordinary people. Perhaps never was this more evident than in the bizarre cult of the late Princess of Wales, mother of today’s groom, both during her tragic life and most especially in the aftermath of her tragic death. Just as in politics, where the complex details of, say, the federal budget, cannot compare as an attention-getter with the who’s up?/who’s down? Media coverage of inside-the-beltway politics, so too the constitutional duties and functions of royalty cannot compare as attention-getters with the celebrity-like personal problems and foibles of princes.

To the rationalist, it may seem that popular interest in today’s British royal wedding is precisely another – extreme – example of precisely such celebrity fascination. And, in fact, for may it may be no more than that. But there is something deeper at work.

The hereditary principle does not always produce the best possible sovereigns. In the British case, it has succeeded amazingly well in producing the eminently worthy Elizabeth II, having however earlier failed so seriously in producing the eminently unworthy Edward VIII. What the hereditary principle does do, however, is provide a people with royal family. In the life-cycles of princes – their births, their marriages, their deaths – a society experiences an icon of the highs and lows of family life that are the primary preoccupation of most people most of the time.

Fairytales aside, royal marriages have not typically been about love. But, like most marriages of most people in most societies for most of history, they have been very much about family. Any wedding – a fortiori a royal wedding – is about the family as the primary human institution, the institution charged with the formation and socialization of the next generation. As someone once said, a wedding is about the continuation of the human story. A wedding testifies to our collective commitment to continue the human story (for at least one more generation).

A royal family also symbolizes that the nation is, in some meaningful sense, also a family. Perhaps, if we Americans had such a sense of ourselves, then we would find the idea of paying taxes, for example, less some sort of imposition on our liberties and more an example of what we owe to one another as a family who are all in this together. A royal wedding, then (for those nations lucky enough to have them) serves as a kind of expression of collective hope that the nation’s story too will continue.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Long Night

Last evening, the Knoxville Paulists gathered at Blessed John XXIII University Catholic Center to celebrate Mass with our Paulist novice, who (after spending the lenten season in Knoxville and working at John XXIII) is scheduled to be returning to the novitiate in Washington DC later today. Since we were still without power in our house, and since I needed electricity to power my CPAP machine for safe and healthy sleeping, I decided to spend the night at John XXIII in what used to be the Paulists' residence there (back in the good old days before our current home). I had spent Tuesday night at the hotel next to Immaculate Conception, but unless absolutely necessary I was not too eager to spend that kind of money a second night in a row!

The Catholic Students' Association was having its weekly meeting. So there was plenty of activity at the Center, which was a welcome alternative to spending the evening either alone in my office at the parish or in the dark at the house. Meanwhile, a band of dangerous storms was making its way up from the south - an intense mix of thunder, lightning, heavy rain, wind, and hail. Some of the students and at one point all of us had to take refuge briefly in the basement during the tornado warnings. Fortunately no tornado actually materialized - unlike what happened so tragically in Alabama, for example.

Meanwhile at about 9:05 p.m., the lights went out. So much for my plan to be able to use my machine during the night! The storms came and went - more thunder, more torrential rain, more hail. Hail is perhaps not intrinsically more frightening (if one is indoors), but it certainly adds to the scary atmosphere!

Eventually, most of the students were able to leave safely. Once the doors were locked, Fr. Charlie and I went downstairs to the office area (the former residence), and I settled down in a reclining arm chair for another machine-less night. I recited what I could of Compline from memory, then began the Rosary. I must have dozed off briefly by the end of the first mystery, when suddenly I was awakened at about 11:30 by bright office lights. The power was back! By then, the worse seemed definitely over. I hooked up my machine and managed to get some sleep. But what a strange and scary night it had been!

When I drove home early this morning, I was relieved to see that the Power Company seemed to be starting to work on our street. There was still no power when I drove to the office, but I have since been told that power has indeed been restored!

So tonight I can sleep safely in my own bed, grateful to be back in a totally technological environment - and then get up bright and early tomorrow morning to watch the Royal Wedding!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Class of 2011

On Easter Monday, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released some statistics on those being ordained to the priesthood in the United States this year. Continuing the downward trend of recent years, the average age of ordinands continues to get younger. More than half those ordained this year are between 25 and 34. One-third were born outside the United States. Ten percent are of Asian or Pacific Island ancestry - more than the comparable percentage of adult Asian/Pacific Catholics in the US. But only 14% are Hispanic - obviously less than the comparable percentage of adult Latino Catholics in the US.

What I found most interesting about the report, however, was what it suggests about the importance of lifelong involvement in the Church. Overwhelmingly (90%) those being ordained this year have been Catholics since childhood; 80% come from families where both parents were Catholic; 71% were altar servers; and one-third are related to a priest or religious. Among those who attended college or university before seminary, 67% attended a Catholic institution - compared with only 7% of the overall adult Catholic population. This seems to highlight the common-sense view that the longer and more deeply rooted one is in Catholic faith and life, the more likely a vocation is to develop. I've heard it said that good Catholic marriages resulting in strong Catholic families are ultimately the most effective vocation directors. These numbers certainly seem to confirm that!

There will always be priests who converted to Catholicism as adults - e.g., Blessed John Henry Newman and Servant of God Isaac Hecker - and those of Catholic background whose eventual vocation evolved more circuitously, at the completion of a lengthy spiritual search - e.g. St. Augustine. The Church has obviously been blessed by such vocations. But the majority of vocations will likely always come from those long and deeply rooted in the faith and actively engaged in the Church's life.

It has often been remarked that encouragement from a priest is also often a common factor. In fact, 66% of this year's priests-to-be report such encouragement from their parish priest. That says something, of course, about those priests' perception of their role in fostering vocations. But it also highlights the fact that those potential vocations must have been present (and visible) in parishes!

So the numbers - such as they are - seem to confirm what we more or less always knew - or should have known. Vocations develop in vibrant Catholic families and communities. Vibrant Catholic families and communities encourage and foster vocations. And forming and sustaining vibrant Catholic families and communities must be an essential focus for the Church's institutional energies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Storm

After such a gloriously festive Easter celebration, I treated myself to an unaccustomed day off on Easter Monday. After an afternoon at the movies (Of Gods and Men), I was enjoying a relaxing and convivial dinner at home with my associate pastor and our Paulist novice (now winding down his Lenten assignment at Blessed John XXIII University parish), when a powerful (albeit predicted) thunderstorm started. For a few minutes, it was the typical total downpour, an awesome display of weather which normally ends after a short time. Before it ended, however, all of a sudden the lights went out. Our novice came back into the dining room to tell us that a large tree had fallen completely - blocking the street and that it had taken down with it all the power lines. We all knew immediately that we were now looking not at some brief interruption in electricity but a night - and likely longer - of darkness.

My last previous blackout experience was the Assumption Eve New York Blackout of 2003. The thing about blackouts is that there is almost nothing normal that one can do. At this season, at the western end of the Eastern Time Zone, the sun doesn't set until about 8:30. So, once the storm was over, we were able to sit out on the porch. One could talk to the neighbors, and watch the strangers who came to our block to gawk at the tree trunk, and one could read. (Ironically, I had been originally expected to do some serious reading in my room that evening. In the end, I did briefly read - my Office - on the porch). Before long, however, it was too dark to read even outdoors and it was already too dark to do much of anything indoors. (I kept thinking of William Manchester's book about the Middle Ages, A World Lit Only By Fire).

Our lives really have become so almost completely dependent upon electricity - electric light, most especially, but not just light. There's the ubiquitous TV, which dominates most of the time we spend together - and often our time alone as well. Without TV, what is there to do?

In the 2003 NY Blackout, I was living in a much larger community and we all gathered on the 3rd floor for a steak diner, most of us sitting in the hallway. That was kind of fun, while it lasted. But then it was over, and there was nothing really that one could do but go to bed. After the initial excitement, blackouts are basically bad experiences. Food spoils and is wasted, for example. In the end, there is really little to do during a blackout but go to bed. That's not such a bad idea. We could all do with more sleep. Unfortunately, if you are supposed to sleep with a CPAP machine, then sleeping without electric power is problematic - and potentially dangerous. (That is why on this second night without power at home, I have taken a room in the hotel right next to the church).

Blackouts are a good reminder that, however we may at times romanticize the simple life, the fact is that most of us have long lost the capacity to cope with living as our ancestors did.

"Of Gods and Men"

It was a glorious Easter Sunday. After a wonderful Holy Week, we celebrated the resurrection on Sunday morning in a packed church with all the solemnity suitable to the occasion. The church was beautifully decorated - highlighted by the return of the original baptismal font to our semi-restored Baptistery. Nothing makes a church look more festive, however, than a capacity crowd. It's an amazing feeling one gets when one celebrates Mass in a full church - the way the church was intended to be and the way it likely was for so much of its past history. As for the Baptistery, once the restored gates are ready, then we will be ready to dedicate it and restore it to its original and proper purpose.

Home alone on Easter Sunday afternoon, watching the Pope's Urbi et Orbi on TV and reading the Sunday New York Times, I was feeling very grateful for such a fine first Easter in my new parish!

For Easter Monday, I decided to take an unaccustomed day off . Monday afternoon I went as planned to see the film Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois' intense film, based on the story of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were abducted from their monastery and murdered in 1996. I don't know how exactly the film follows the actual events leading up to the monks' martyrdom, but I presume its accuracy in its essential details. The fact that it is a true story, of course, adds enormously to its power. As the oft-used saying goes, You just can't make this stuff up.

The film focuses on the daily life of the 8 Trappist monks, whose monastery is in a village near the Atlas mountains. (Presumably, the village had grown up around the monastery - thus replicating in Muslim North africa a not-uncommon pattern in medieval Europe). In the first part of the film, before things begin to become scary, the monks are portrayed doing what monks do - praying night and day, reading and studying. In addition, they operate a medical clinic for the local population, and interact with the locals at the market and in other less scripted ways. Obviously, the movie wants to highlight the very good relations between the French monks and the local Algerian Muslim population - as a contrast, no doubt, to Islamist terrorism soon to be visited upon the country and its people (and the monks).

The good rapport between the monks and their Muslim neighbors is edifying, of course, especially for its naturalness. The monks and the villagers seem to coexist comfortably - naturally - in a somewhat symbiotic relationship, each group benefiting from their day-to-day interaction. It is refreshing to see ordinary Muslims portrayed with ordinary concerns (medicine for their children, celebrating a daughter's birthday, communicating with emigre relatives, etc.), enjoying genuine community with the Catholic monks in their midst. Likewise, it is refreshing to see the monks portrayed as so normal in so many ways - deeply religious men who nonetheless value normal human relationships and thrive accordingly.

The heart and soul of the monks' life, however, and what ultimately enriches all their external relationships and interactions is their prayer. The monks are portrayed at Night Office, at mass, etc. The images are touchingly affecting, the chants stirring, but above all again it is all so apparently un-self-conscious. The monks are not putting on a show - for themselves or anyone else. This is not liturgy as performance. Or liturgy as a stage for some other ministry. It is simply liturgy - the monastic life of prayer, permeating all aspects of day and night, including all the mundane "maintenance" activities that are the less glamorous side of religious life.

The portrayal of the monks' life prior to the onset of the crisis is essential. Once the crisis comes, it disrupts the ordinary pattern and challenges each monk to recommit himself to his vocation under more challenging circumstances. In the end, however, what the crisis calls each monk to do is to live out - albeit to a more heroic degree - the community life each of them has been living already, under more "normal" conditions.

The crisis comes when some Croatian workers are killed by a rebel group, and the assumption seems to be that sooner or alter they will target the foreign monks as well. If the movie has one weakness it is how incompletely it presents the context of the conflict. Exactly who the rebels are, why they are rebelling, etc., are not completely clear. It is implied that they are going after locals who seem less observant - or is it that they are somehow seen as corrupted by and/or collaborating with the foreigners? Also background to the monks' deteriorating relationship with the government is less than fully explained.

These are side issues, however. The central action during this crisis period is not the monks' difficult relations with government and military officials or even their even more frightening, first-hand experience of terrorist violence when the rebels attack the monastery for the first time (on Christmas Eve). These scenes produce some significant drama, but they are basically background for the soul-searching of each individual monk, played out in the process of the community's collective discernment of whether to flee or to remain. The Superior makes the initial decision not to accept government protection. In the end, the entire community will follow him in deciding to stay. At first, however, he seems somewhat high-handed and ideological and is rightly challenged by some of the other monks who express their fears and anxieties quite openly. It only adds to the edifying end that the monks are not seeking martyrdom, that they all recognize that there may be more then one option, and that some of them are so frightened that it seems they have to re-examine everything. And re-examine everything they do. The way the crisis forces them to articulate what their lives are all about - putting into words what they have already been living in their prayer and service - might make this movie a good vocational discernment film.

The first incursion of the terrorists came on Christmas and was followed by the celebration of Midnight Mass. The final attack comes on an unspecified date later on, but is preceded by a kind of "Last Supper." An air of anxiety and feeling of foreboding surrounds the supper - not unlike the original Last Supper - but there is also a sense of peace. The monks know who they are and what their lives have been about, and they are prepared to continue - even if that means being killed. Being killed isn't the point. Two monks manage to hide and escape capture and so survive. The point is not to get killed, but to stay - to be faithful to their vocation, come what may.

What a great way to observe Easter Monday!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The Easter Feast's First Solemn Hour"

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.

What deep humming [Faust exclaims] what a clarion tone,
Draws from my lips the glass with mighty power!
You deep-toned bells. Make you already known
The Easter feast’s first solemn hour?

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, for wonted to this strain from infancy, Faust says, Back now to life again it calls me.

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 and 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 and 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!

And it was good chocolate! We had our standard-issue milk-chocolate Easter Bunnies, of course, but that was for later. For Saturday noon’s 1st Easter chocolate, however, there was only the best, solid, dark, Italian chocolate!

But enough about chocolate; back to the bells! Tonight, 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 Mary, who came to see the tomb as the first day of the week was dawning [Matthew 28:1].

It was way beyond the capacity of any of the Gospel writers to describe the actual, immediate event of the resurrection. What the New Testament describes and what we – with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and 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 and our story. Likewise, our Easter faith involves two interconnected claims: about Jesus, that the same Jesus who lived and 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.

Matthew’s Gospel account of Jesus’ Passion, which he heard on Palm Sunday, ended with Jesus’ burial, and the tomb being secured with a stone and a seal [Matthew 27:66]. He was buried – in something of a hurry because of the impending Sabbath. For, as we heard again tonight, on the 7th day of creation, God had rested from all the work he had undertaken in creating the world Genesis 2:2]. 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, the 8th day, is the start of something new.

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 women at the tomb 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 death no longer has 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.

Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of the fearful yet overjoyed women at the tomb – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something wonderfully and completely new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and 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 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 St. Paul proclaim) just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life [Romans 6:4].

So today – and every day – as we recall the death Christ has freed us from, let us eagerly embrace the new life he has freed us for.

Let’s keep those Easter bells always ringing in our hearts, in our lives, in our world!

So now let’s ring those bells again one more time, like we really mean it!

Homily for The Easter Vigil, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 23, 2011,

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gethsemane (at Market Square)

At Gethsemane, in a Garden, Jesus’ passion begins – and so does our journey here today. It’s a decisive moment in human history – reminding us of that earlier decisive moment in another Garden, when the human race first said NO to God’s will, and which Jesus’ prayer in this Garden is intended to undo. For here Jesus accepts his Father’s will and so resets the course of human history, so tragically misdirected for so long.
The military metaphor of vigilance and keeping watch – which was Jesus’ command to his sleepy disciples, “remain here, and watch” – is no accident. The disciples’ sleepiness signifies letting one’s guard down – dangerously so. It means allowing easier access to the power of evil and sin, always so busily at work in the world – and especially on that historic night. Jesus is left alone – abandoned by his sleepy disciples, whose napping foreshadows their full-scale running away and abandonment of Jesus in the next scene.
The disciples’ sleep also means they miss out on God’s power at work in Jesus’ prayer, Jesus resisting and defeating the power of evil at the very moment when it seems to be winning. Jesus’ prayer resists the tempter and decisively defeats the devil - by being wholly in harmony with his Father’s will, with God’s great plan for the salvation of the world. Jesus’ admonition to the sleepy disciples, “remain here, and watch,” is addressed to us too – challenging us to stay awake, to stay awake with him, and so to get on board, once and for all, with God’s great plan for us, for a new and transformed life, in the kingdom of his Father’s forgiveness.

Meditation on "The Agony in the Garden," Ecumenical Stations of the Cross, Market Square, Knoxville, TN, Good Friday, April 22, 2011.

Triduum Sacrum

Other than the morning Mass on Easter itself, my favorite liturgy of the Easter Triduum has always been the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. I had the privilege of celebrating the Holy Thursday liturgy several times during my 10 years at St. Paul the Apostle in New York - an amazing liturgical experience that has only increased my love for that Mass. So it was with real joy that I approached the celebration of my first Holy Thursday as pastor here at Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville.

Triduum liturgies are special in ever so many ways. One of those ways that they are special is that those who like to attend them often have very specific memories of past celebrations. So they bring particular expectations to the liturgy - expectations the celebrant (especially a new pastor) may not even be aware of. Of course, the celebrant himself has his own set of expectations - collected over the decades from Holy Weeks past. So I was admittedly just a little nervous. Not about the rite itself. I know how to do that, and in any case (other then the logistical nightmare of the Mandatum and the choreography of the procession) Holy Thursday is really a rather straightforwardly simple liturgy. That's as it should be for the Mass celebrating the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. It is, after all, essentially a Mass (with some additional features added on).

Traditionally, Holy Thursday has been in a very special way the pastor's liturgy. (Of course, in the one-priest parishes that are increasingly the norm, virtually every liturgy is the pastor's liturgy). In my home parish where I grew up, the pastor always celebrated the Solemn Mass on Palm Sunday and the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, delegating the other solemn ceremonies to others. In those days too the Ordinary typically blessed the palms, then presided in choir dress at the Mass that followed. The Ordinary had to celebrate the Chrism Mass, of course, and typically also celebrated the Mass of the Lord's Supper, but then was content to preside in choir dress on Friday and Saturday, before pontificating again on Easter Sunday morning. And, of course, the Washing of the Feet - to the extent that particular 1950s innovation actually makes much sense - makes the most sense symbolically when it is the pastor who is doing it.

So, although I have celebrated Holy Thursday before, last night was special because it was the first time I did so as a pastor, and it made me even more than usually conscious of the special bond between a pastor and his parishioners.

I was encouraged too by the good attendance - 205, (some 50 more than last year). When it comes to Triduum attendance, it is always important to recall that the best attended Triduum liturgy (and the only one most people will actually attend) is Easter Sunday morning. Probably the second most attended (at leat in my experience to-date) is Good Friday. Holy Thursday has a devoted following, but is typically probably not among the bigger draws. So I was very encouraged by the attendance (especially given the fact that we were competing for parking space with a big outdoor concert downtown!).

After last night's beautiful and uplifting celebration, I was at the church early this morning for the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer (a.k.a. Tenebrae). There were 10 of us altogether (including me and the cantor), but for an unfamiliar morning service on what is, after all, a workday for most people, I was pleased. We'll be doing it again tomorrow, when hopefully more people will be free to attend!

Numbers aside, the main thing I like to tell myself (and all those involved in preparing Holy Week ceremonies) is that, while punctilious fidelity to the rubrics is even more essential than usual for these special celebrations, these are, first and foremost, sacramentals of extraordinary power and efficacy. The reason for celebrating them so elaborately is precisely to facilitate the sacramenatl efficacy of these rites in the hearts and mids of those who participate.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Lord's Supper

With this festive celebration this evening, the Church begins the first of three dramatic days – the first devoted to Christ crucified, the second to Christ buried, and the third to Christ risen. We will end this first day, some 24 hours from now, with Mary at the foot of the cross, but we begin by remembering the most memorable meal in all of human history.

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. It could have been just another ordinary evening meal, one day before the annual feast of the Passover. Probably none of the disciples would have imagined, even then, that by the time the Passover holiday began on Friday night, Jesus would be buried in a stranger’s tomb. Yet this would be a meal like none other, and would become the most remembered and repeated meal in all of history – for the hour had come for Jesus to pass from this world to the Father, the hour to which Jesus’ whole life and ministry had been directed from the start.

A certain air of anxiety, a certain feeling of foreboding, fills the scene. The devil, we are told, had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand Jesus over. This would be Jesus’ formal farewell meal with his disciples. Jesus, as we know from so many stories in the gospels, ate many meals in his public life, often very publicly and with all sorts of people present. This meal, however, was reserved for those most closely associated with him, those who would be sent out to continue his mission from then on. For them, this Last Supper of Jesus would be the first Lord’s Supper of the Church.

And so our interest naturally turns to the cast of characters present at the Last Supper. Besides Jesus himself, three others are mentioned individually in the Gospel we just heard – the devil, Judas, and Peter.

We last encountered the devil exactly 40 days ago in the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert – at the end of which, we were told, the devil left him. But now he was back - having induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand Jesus over. Once again, however, Jesus took the initiative. Before letting himself be handed over, he handed himself over to his Church in the sacrament of his Body and Blood and arranged for the Church to continue this sacrament through the ministry of its priests.

Having been induced to do the devil’s work for him, Judas quickly earned for himself the opprobrium of the greatest traitor in human history, his name a virtual synonym for treachery. Books and movies have speculated about his motivation. Perhaps, like the unfortunate source of the worst security breach in US history (about whom a movie was made a few years ago), Judas may have felt his cleverness insufficiently appreciated. Whatever! In the decisive decisions of our life, it is our actions that ultimately reveal who we really are and what we really care about.

Thus, at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel, Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left at once, into the night – leaving behind the community that could have been his, the company of Jesus and his disciples, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause. So too, at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter more than how we arrive. What kind of community have we become a part of at the Lord’s Supper? Whose cause are we committed to?

Such was the import of Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, from which we just also heard – and explains why that earliest written account of what happened at the Last Supper was set in the context of a complaint by Paul, Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians’ behavior, telling them that they were missing the point of the Lord’s Supper, to their peril.

The third major character in tonight’s gospel account is Peter. As portrayed in the Gospel, Jesus’ final conversation with Judas seemed subdued, almost private. His dialogue with Peter, however, was quite different. So, in responding to Peter’s resistance to being washed by Jesus, in challenging Peter to allow his imagination to be stretched somewhat and not to withdraw from the community (the way Judas did), Jesus appealed through Peter to us.

Witnessing Peter’s initial resistance, we will, of course, remember Lent’s 2nd Sunday and recall Peter’s behavior at the Transfiguration, typically blurting out the first thought that came into his head – until a voice from the cloud commanded “This is my beloved Son … listen to him.” The important thing about Peter’s behavior at the Last Supper is that – unlike Judas – Peter did listen, his assertive protestations giving way to a complete conversion.

In the short term, Peter’s conversion was not quite so complete as it immediately may have seemed – quickly collapsing in the sad scandal of his sinful denial. But the lesson Peter had learned by listening to Jesus at the Last Supper soon brought him back through real repentance and recommitment, leading him in time to a heroic ministry and martyrdom in Rome. In other words, Peter not only came back, but, once back, once he had returned, he stayed, showing us the uniquely transforming effect of forgiveness – in his life and in the life of the Church Jesus had appointed Peter (and his successors) to lead. Judas, in contrast, didn’t come back. Whereas Peter’s remorse returned him to Jesus and resulted in forgiveness, Judas instead rejected Jesus. Having lost all faith in forgiveness, Judas instead died in his shame.

Before receiving Holy Communion, the priest at Mass prays silently: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit your death brought life to the world. By your holy body and blood free me from all my sins, and from every evil. Keep me faithful to your teaching, and never let me be parted from you.

Sadly for him, Judas apparently chose to be parted from Jesus. If only he had listened and learned at that Last Supper. Peter, in contrast, both listened and learned – fortunately for him, and for us, the Church Christ commissioned Peter to lead, the Church in which (as Peter’s successor Pope Benedict has recently reminded us) “Jesus’ action becomes ours, because he is acting in us” [Jesus of Nazareth Part Two, p. 63].

Sometimes Jesus did things that had obvious meaning to people - like riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling a well-known prophecy about the Messiah’s arrival. Sometimes, however, as at the Last Supper, he did things that were somewhat strange and certainly unexpected. We still remember and commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but only once a year. The Eucharist, on the other hand, we celebrate every day. Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, initially so confusing and disconcerting to Peter (but then welcomed and embraced by him) were meant to illustrate in advance what Jesus’ Passion was all about – and what this Lord’s Supper is meant to signify for us, who, like Peter, keep coming back for forgiveness, and (constantly transformed by forgiveness) are to continue Christ’s reconciling life and work in the world as his Church.

In 1st-century Corinth, however, among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The few verses read tonight are part of a longer text (which used to be read in its entirety at this Mass), which provides the context for Paul’s account, highlighting the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in short, their unfortunate failure to be transformed by the Eucharist, to be taken to someplace new, as Peter was at the Last Supper. St. Paul certainly understood that social and class distinctions were an integral part of Roman society – as in all societies. He wasn’t asking his hearers to pretend that the laws of economics had suddenly been repealed and that such distinctions had disappeared or no longer mattered in the world, but he did want them to understand that those distinctions have no significance within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death has transformed not only our individual relationship with him but our relationship with one another.

In the very act of celebrating this sacrament, as we stand, sit, and kneel together as one body, we profess our union with Benedict, our Pope, Richard, our bishop, and all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.

In the Eucharist, Christ is truly, really, and substantially present. The Christ we receive in Holy Communion and adore in the tabernacle does not flee from our failures, any more than Jesus fled from Judas at the Last Supper. Christ continues to be present in the Eucharist - even in spite of our conflicts, dissensions, factions, and other failures. But, as St. Paul so pointedly warned the Corinthians (and, through them, is still warning us), our conflicts, dissensions, factions, and other failures do get in the way of where the Eucharist is supposed to be taking us.

This beautiful 125-year old building and all that happens within it – and the somewhat less beautiful building next door and all that happens there, and indeed everything that goes on in Christ’s name in our parish community – all that is centered on, and derived from, and empowered by what happens at this altar (and all the other altars around the Catholic world). This is where it all comes together, and where we all can come together in a way we would never otherwise have done – and, again like Peter at the Last Supper, be taken where we would never otherwise have gone.

As Pope Benedict has recently written: “with the Eucharist, the Church herself was established. Through Christ’s body, the Church became one, she became herself, and at the same time, through his death, she was opened up to the breadth of the world and its history” [Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, p. 138].

Proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes, the Eucharist is the very heart of the Church’s life. It is, as we say, the sacrament that makes the Church.

Homily for Holy Thursday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 21, 2011.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mass of the Chrism

I concelebrated at my first Knoxville Chrism Mass last night. Sacred Heart Cathedral is a lot smaller than St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where I participated in a decade's worth of Chrism Masses, smaller also I suppose than St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto, where I concelebrated my first series of Chrism Masses as a priest. But the cathedral here was as packed with people as those other two always are for this majestic occasion.

I've often wondered what the 1955 Holy Week reform actually intended in removing the blessing of the oils from the Mass of the Lord's Supper and restoring the separate Chrism Mass. My guess it was equal part liturgical archaism (restoring an ancient rite that had been allowed to lapse over the centuries) and part pastoral adaptation (uncluttering the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which that same reform had restored to the evening hour). Whatever the intention, something new was created, which was then artfully and effectively reshaped by the post-conciliar liturgical reform into the solemnly beautiful celebration of Church and priesthood that we now have.

Something is lost, I suppose, when (as is increasingly common in this country) the Chrism Mass is dislodged from its proper Holy Thursday setting and anticipated earlier in the week. Other than its being a nice way to mark the last day of Lent (which Holy Thursday now is), there really is nothing about the blessing of the oils itself that particularly connects it with Holy Thursday. (My guess is that the need for oil of catechumens and chrism for Holy Saturday resulted in Thursday as the day for the blessing of the former and the concecration of the latter). On the other hand, the post-conciliar addition of the Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service must certainly have been suggested by the Mass being celebrated on Holy Thursday. Even when anticipated, the bishop still begins the Renewal of Prieslty Commitment with the words, "today we celebrate the memory of the first Eucharist, at which our Lord Jesus Christ shared with his apostles and with us his call to the priestly service of His Church."

But, that said, much more is gained by making the Chrism Mass so conveniently accessible to so many more people. The Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service and its actual or symbolic connection with Holy Thursday rightly make the Chrism Mass a special occasion for priests and a proper celebration of the priestly vocation in the Church. But the priesthood is a vocation in the Church, and the presence of a representative community of people from the parishes of the entire diocese simultaneously makes the Mass a true celebration of the local church, centered around its bishop.

Last year, on the occasion of my last New York Chrism Mass (although I did not then know as yet that it would be my last), ir reflected on the New York custom of applauding the priests as they leave the cathedral at the end of the the Mass, a custom I found personally awkward but which I came to understand, as I wrote then, as reflecting:

"an insight so fundamentally Catholic that we may take it for granted. In their respect and love for their priests, people are not really focused so much on the talents and personalities of particular priests (important though those may be) but rather on the presence of the Risen Christ active among his people, a presence uniquely experienced in the sacramental life of the Church. Like the oil that is blessed on this occasion for use in the sacraments, we priests are ordinary stuff set apart to do an extraordinary job. And, as with the oil so with us priests, it is really the Risen Christ who is the principal actor."

And so the right response is to pray that I - and all priests - will become better supporting actors.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great Week

Shopping at the supermarket this morning, I remembered that today is Passover eve. It's been several years now since I last attended a seder. It's such a great ritual. And filled with all sorts of things for people - of all ages - to do! I suppose that was deliberately done to hold people's attention - especially kids' attention - during the long ritual. Of course, the point of holding people's attention at the seder is to tell the story. And that is what the Church tries to accomplish with the things we do in Holy Week.
Celebrating Mass at the school this morning - preaching on Mary of Bethany's lavish gesture of anointing Jesus' feet with expensive aromatic nard six days before Passover (John 12:1-11) - I tried to suggest a link between Mary's extravagant gesture and the Church's elaborate ceremonial in Holy Week. As I wrote here at the beginning of last year's Holy Week, that Gospel story serves as a great introduction to what we do as Church during Holy Week - with our intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, deliberately over-the-top ceremonies, extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church pulls out all the stops this week - and for a good reason. Not for nothing was this week formerly called The Great Week.
We have a great story to tell - better by far than any TV mini-series - and an important one, which needs to be told with all the ritual riches in the Church's treasury.
This is my first Holy Week as a pastor. So it is my special responsibility - more than it has ever been before - to make every effort to make these powerful rituals (which are not mere symbolic ceremonies but genuinely efficacious sacramental signs) be what they are intended to be for the benefit of all who experience them. The temptation is to become overly fixated on the mechanics of ceremony - who does what, when where, and how. All that's important, of course, and it is certainly my responsibility not to neglect any of that, but its importance is as a means to an end. The means may indeed be correct, well carried out liturgy - attente, reverente, ac devote (to use a tired and true formula). The end is that the transformative mystery which the ritual signifies should actually be effective in the hearts of those who experience it.
We got off to a good start, I think, on Palm Sunday. It was cold and blustery on Saturday, which forced us to start in the vestibule of the church rather than outside. Sunday, however, was sunny and just perfect for an outdoor procession. Gathering in an unaccustomed site - in our case, the parking lot across the street - and celebrating a solemn liturgical blessing there can be a challenge. But the experience of walking in procession and entering the church as an assembled community (as opposed to privately and individually, as we necessarily normally do) can be quite powerful. Leading that procession yesterday, I felt its efficacy.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


The Gospel proclaimed to begin the Palm Sunday procession recounts Jesus’ Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, accompanied by exuberant pilgrims – today, I guess, we’d call them “fans” - acclaiming Jesus as Israel’s messiah and king, to the apparent consternation of the city crowd that didn’t quite know what to make of this. The rest of the story, what we call the “Passion,” proclaimed during the Mass which follows the procession, reveals the ultimate destination of Jesus’ journey – to the cross & the tomb. We, of course, are the intended beneficiaries of this. It all happened, as we say every Sunday in the Creed, for us men & for our salvation. So it is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of Christianity, because the cross of Jesus is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows us where he is taking us. In a world where suffering & death always seem to have the last word, the death of Jesus was God’s great act of solidarity with us in our ordinary day-to-day suffering & our ultimate mortality. In itself, of course, there is not much to be said in favor of suffering. Nor can it be claimed (at least not without further qualification) that we are automatically improved or “ennobled” somehow by suffering. On the contrary, one can – and people do - live one’s entire life imprisoned alone in anger & resentment - and then die that way. Jesus, however, gives us a counter-example, as every word he utters in his passion, as well as his every action, show him wholly in harmony with his Father’s will, his Father’s plan for the salvation of the world. Holy Week invites to accompany Jesus - to the cross and to the tomb … to be challenged as Peter and the disciples were to identify with Jesus in faithfulness, … to be invited as was Simon the Cyrenian to identify with Jesus in service, … to be converted like the centurion, … and, finally, to remain with him like Mary Magdalene, … because, thanks to Jesus’ cross, death no longer has the last word in our world.

Homily for Palm Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 17, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Remembrance of Holy Weeks Past

Pardon the Proust-ism; but, for someone born and raised in the post-World War II Catholic "sub-culture," Holy Week inevitably triggers a host of memories. Undoubtedly Christmas made more of an overall impact on my childhood world, but Christmas permeated practically all aspects of life - secular as much as religious. Holy Week's larger-than-life impact was comparably powerful, but, with a few exceptions, was almost entirely religious, almost exclusively "churchy." The exceptions included the stress-inducing last-minute shopping for Easter clothes - an altogether obnoxious social ritual which added a certain note of personal anxiety to my Easter - and the distracting domestic atmosphere of house-cleaing and food-shopping for Easter, although the latter largely concerned my parents and affected me only minimally. (I can remember when my father started getting off early on Good Friday, how my mother would be waiting for him to, so that they could go shopping at the Italian market on Arthur Avenue).

But. for a nerdy kid quite confused about himself ,who found some solace in reading and in religion, Holy Week was wonderful. The Parochial School setting cooperated, of course, by focusing our attention on what went on in church - and then by shutting down completely at mid-day on Wednesday.

I have only the most minimal memories of Holy Week as it was celebrated prior to Pius XII's reform. I can remember attending the Holy Thursday procession one year when it was still in the morning - probably when I was in 1st grade, which would have made it 1955, the last Holy Week before the reform. I remember visiting a neighbor in an upstairs apartment with my mother on Good Friday one year (perhaps the same year), when my grandmother came home and admonished us to go to church and kiss the cross exposed for veneration at the steps of the altar rail. Best of all, I can remember our domestic Holy Saturday ritual. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning. So hardly anyone (besides my grandmother) was in church to hear the indoor bell-ringing at the Gloria. (I do remember one year being brought to church later that morning to be shown that the statues had been uncovered). But then, promptly at noon on Saturday, when Lent ended and Easter at that time officially began, my grandmother would sit us all down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Italian time) all peeling gloriously, while we cracked open our Easter eggs (which we had colored together as a family the night before).

I remember my mother weaving palm crosses on Palm Sunday and our placing them in all the rooms of the apartment (and later taking some to the cemetery). After 1955, however, my memories are more focused on the official ceremonies of the Reformed Holy Week Liturgy in our big, beautiful parish church (some of which I also eventually particpated in as an altar server). While perhaps not perfect in all respects, the popular 1955 reform of Holy Week still stands out in my mind as a good example of a well done liturgical reform.

On Holy Thursday, we were required to attend a school Mass in the morning. At some point, however, I eventually started attending the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper - a liturgy I came to love. I still do, and am grateful that Thursday's is the Holy Week ritual that was least mangled by the post-conciliar reform. Visiting the Repository on Good Friday was very popular in those days too. I too liked visiting it - not that I prayed all that much, but I loved the beauty of it and was quite taken with watching all the work that went into keeping the candles lit, etc.

Post-1955, people were really taken with the novelty of receving Communion on Good Friday, something they had not been permitted to do before. (Part of me wonders whether it might have been better to end the Good Friday liturgy with the Veneration of the Cross, but that would elminate the rationale for the Holy Thursday procession, one of my favorite moments of the entire week). Anyway, the introduciton of Communion for the people on Good Friday made the Good Friday afternoon service very popular, despite its seeming strangeness. Children were discouraged by the parish and school authorities from taking up precious space in the church at the 3:00 service on Good Friday afternoon. (That was back when a 1200-seat church was still routinely filled for services!) Even so, children did go to the Good Friday service. I enjoyed it because it was so special and unique - especially the constant up-ing and down-ing during the 9 Intercessions. The priest would sing Oremus, and before the Deacon had even begun his Flectamus genua we'd all get down on our knees, ready to jump up at Levate. Not much prayer went on, I suspect, in that far too brief interval, but it was fun.

I didn't start attending the Easter Vigil until High School. It too was sufficiently unique to fascinate, but by then I also already knew enough about liturgy that I could actually appreciate the vivid symbolism of the evening. The historic heart of the Vigil - the Old Testament readings (thankfully reduced from 12 to 4 by Pius XII's reform) and the accompanying prayers (complete with more up-ing and downing to the familiar tune of Oremus, Flectamus genua, and Levate) were pretty boring, but the procesison with the Paschal Candle in the darkened church, the lighting of the congregation's candles, and the chanting of the Exsultet by the deacon (who had switched form purple to white vestments for it) were all grand. Interesting too was the sung blessing of the baptismal water, with its arcane rituals of blowing on the water and mixing oils into it. Then came the change from purple to white vestments for what waas to my mind the highpoint of the service - the singing of the Gloria and the ringing of the bells. To this day, I often remark that the two parts of the Easter Vigil that I still like are the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells. If Holy Thursday was the least altered in the reforms of the 60s, the Easter Vigil was changed the most - being transformed in its structure from an actual Vigil (closing with the first Mass of Easter) to what structurally seems more like a very long Mass.

Easter morning Mass, which, as a celebrant, I now look forward to as the height of the Triduum, was somewhat overshadowed then by that tiresome business about the new clothes and everyone comparing outfits. Serving Mass as an altar boy, there was the added anxiety that I might be the one told (at the last minute, while moving the book before the Gospel) to light the Paschal Candle - a frightening ordeal that sometime took the entire length of the Gospel to accomplish! In later years, I preferred to attend the solemn Mass, where for sheer liturgical exuberance nothing could beat the melody my parish choir used for the Vidi Aquam. Once home, Easter Sunday switched form a primarily churchy experience to a domestic, familial one - dominated by chocolate and a great Italian family feast.

Things were far from perfect then in all sorts of ways, but my memories of Holy Week (especially in the decade 1955-1965) are almost all happy ones.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Despite (or perhaps because of) its silly sound, I have always rather liked the word sesquicentennial. It’s a sufficiently odd word that I decided to look it up before writing this, just to make sure that I was spelling it properly! In doing so, I learned that the first recorded use of the word was in 1880 - although for what particular anniversary I have no idea! Be that as it may, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is now in full swing, commemorating the 150th anniversary of that terrible conflict, which began today with the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter. (As battles go, it was a bloodless victory by the 500 Confederates – commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard – over the Union garrison of 80 – commanded by Robert Anderson. In its lack of casualties, it would prove completely unlike the war it unleashed, as the initial Confederate victory would be unlike the ultimate Union triumph). Since the Civil war was, for the most part, fought in the South, it is hardly surprising that the Sesquicentennial seems to be getting more attention in the South (where battles will be re-enacted, etc.) than in the North. But this may also reflect the unresolved character of the Civil War – at least from the perspective of the traditional Southern culture that was once the base for the Democratic Party and perhaps also that of the New South which has become the base for a Republican Party radically different from the “Party of Lincoln.” For us Northerners (at least for those who haven’t fallen for contemporary re-incarnations of the ideology of “states’ rights”), the Civil War is just ancient history. More importantly, the national character of the United States seems a settled question. But it may not seem that way to everyone everywhere, which is why, paradoxically, the Civil War’s sesquicentennial really should be more of a big deal for all Americans. Starting with South Carolina on December 20, 1860, several southern states had already seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America before the actual inauguration of hostilities at Fort Sumter. That event – and President Lincoln’s subsequent call to arms to put down the rebellion – soon led to intense debate in some “border” states, resulting in several more secessions. The last to secede was Tennessee on June 8, 1861. The length process leading up to that secession illustrates how divisive the issue was, even in individual communities. East Tennessee remained strongly unionist, even though the state as a whole seceded. Last Sunday’s Knoxville paper included an illustration of Knoxville’s main street in 1861 with the American and Confederate flags both flying from different locations on the same street – symptomatic of the deep differences and divisions right here in this community. Indeed Knox County voted overwhelmingly (77%) to remain in the Union. Outside the city of Knoxville, unionist sentiment was even stronger. The overwhelming majority of votes for secession came from what was then called the 1st Civil District, which comprised downtown Knoxville. Even so, anti-secessionist sentiment – personified perhaps in the famous Parson Brownlow - remained strong even in the city. (It would be interesting to try to find out if there were any members of Immaculate Conception Parish among the city’s unionist minority). The story of secession in Tennessee – the last state out and the first back in – and the strong resistance to secession here in East Tennessee is itself fascinating. So is the city of Knoxville’s Civil War story - both before and after its capture by the Union army in 1863. What is especially interesting is how it highlights the inextricable connection between secession and slavery. Since slavery was not a significant element of East Tennessee’s economy, a majority of East Tennesseans apparently saw little common interest between themselves and the pseudo-aristocratic slave-owning culture of the deep South, the perpetuation of which was what secession was all about. Understanding the dynamics of that division 150 years ago remains enlightening - and perhaps even essential - for fully appreciating the conflicts that continue to divide our nation even today.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Our Civil Wars

Even as our politicians escalate our tragic decline as a nation by their increasingly irresponsible, even childish, behavior of playing at shutting down the government, we are reminded this week how divided our country has been for so much of its history. For Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of when our country came completely apart as one section of the country took up arms against the rest. I refer, of course, to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, the opening shot in what would be four tragic years of unprecedented carnage, the U.S. Civil War. A little over a month earlier in his Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln had succinctly stated the cause of the war with straightforward, uncontroversial clarity: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” The somewhat more muddled ways in which that war, what led up to it, and its aftermath have been interpreted in the last 150 years highlight the still unsettled legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. Like so many worthwhile things in this anything-but-perfect world, the brilliant accomplishment of the Founding Fathers in forming “a more perfect union” in Philadelphia in 1787 required a problematic compromise on slavery, a compromise that set the stage for so much of what followed, even down to today, almost a century and a half after its abolition. Admittedly, no one seriously proposes restoring slavery today (although some extremists do propose undoing the 14th Amendment, the primary purpose of which was to guarantee citizenship to former slaves). “Racism” persists, to be sure, but I suspect there has seldom been less real racism in American society than today. There is certainly a lot less now that there was at the time of the centennial of the Civil War, which coincided, after all, with the height of the Civil Rights movement. The United States recently elected a non-white President, something no other Western nation has done or is at all likely to do any time soon. The visceral hatred President Obama inspires in certain quarters is perhaps partly racial, but I suspect it is for the most part much more cultural. For Obama represents the legacy of one side in our second Civil War – the 1960s. (Thus, for example, the embarassingly unchristian hatred for President Obama on the part of some very religious people certainly has much more to do with his stance on abortion – his location on the left-end of the continuum of cultural change - than with his race). Slavery created a conflict within the constitution itself. It forced the new republic into increasingly unsustainable contortions in the first half of the 19th century, in what (in hindsight) we can recognize as a prolonged run-up to the Civil War. Slavery made that Civil War inevitable. The Civil War in turn defined the political map of America for the century that followed. (When I started studying political science in the 1960s, it was still taken as almost axiomatic that, with certain exceptions, people voted as they fought – or would have fought - in the Civil War). What I like to call our second Civil War – the 1960s – has since significantly redrawn the electoral map. That second Civil War – the 1960s – divided the country over the War in Vietnam and my generation’s “sexual revolution,” but it was no accident that both sets of movements had roots in and imitated in various ways the Black Civil Rights Movement. The legacy of slavery and of our halting efforts to get beyond it has permeated our politics from the get-go and continues to do so in all sorts of seemingly disparate ways. In particular, the present configuration of our political parties continues to reflect the Civil War division – albeit in reverse. The Democratic Party, which for so long had had the Old Confederacy for its most reliable base, became the party of Civil Rights (and by extension the party of all “minorities” and by further extension the party of “identity politics”). In turn, the Republican Party, the “Party of Lincoln,” which had in so many ways been the more “liberal” party on what we now call “social” issues, is now solidly based in the South, and is socially conservative in ways that the Republican Presidents of the first half of my life – Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford – would scarcely have recognized. It was the Civil Rights Movement (the effort finally to undo the legacy of slavery) which set in motion a civil war within the Democratic Party after 1964 and especially after 1968. That process produced a Democratic Party culturally identified with the extreme left end of the spectrum of virtually the entire contentious moral and cultural legacy of the 1960s (and created in response a Republican Party which for the most part opposes much of that legacy). One of the lessons of American history is that, even under the best of circumstances and with the best of leaders, not tearing ourselves apart has been a challenge. So here we are today, 150 years after Fort Sumter, still tearing ourselves apart about some of the very basics of what kind of a country we want to be – and which groups should be the primary beneficiaries.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Passion Time

Until 1969, these final 2 weeks of Lent beginning tomorrow were officially known as "Passion Time" or “Passiontide.” It was – and still is (even without a proper name) - a time when the varied themes of the Lenten season coalesce in the contemplation of the conflict between Jesus and the powers of this world, expounded at length in this coming week’s Johannine pericopes, and culminating in Holy week in his death on the cross. For centuries, it has been the Church’s custom on this day (in anticipation of what was until recently called “Passion Sunday”) to cover the crosses and other statues at the various altars in purple cloth. Traditionally, the crosses remain covered until after the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, the other images remaining covered until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. The origin of this practice is itself somewhat shrouded. One theory derives it from a medieval German custom of the “Hunger Cloth,” which hid the altar during Lent. Another theory – the one I myself learned as a teen – recalls how early crucifixes tended to depict the Risen Christ, triumphantly vested as a priest and crowned as a king. Such images would appropriately be veiled during the latter part of Lent - only to be dramatically unveiled on Good Friday. According to this theory, by the time liturgical art caught up with medieval popular piety’s devotion to the suffering humanity of Christ, resulting in the depiction of the dead Christ on the cross, the custom of covering the crucifixes had become an established sign of this season (and acquired the force of liturgical law). The choice of this particular Sunday to cover the crosses and other images may also have beeen connected to the Gospel reading formerly read on this day (John 8:46-59), which ended with the words: Jesus autem abscondit se, et exivit de templo (“Jesus however hid himself and went out of the Temple”). Like so many other valued traditions, the Lenten covering of crosses and statues disappeared in some places in the 1970s – reflecting that era’s obsessive rebelliousness regarding the past, as well as the influence upon the liturgy of modern rationalism with it tragically limited appreciation of the depth and staying power of non-verbal symbols. Psychologically, the traditional practice of visually getting our attention by covering crosses and statues in these final weeks of Lent is certainly very powerful, as is the dramatic ritual gesture of uncovering the cross on Good Friday.

Where still practiced (or has been restored) this profoundly affecting custom sets these last weeks of Lent apart from the entire year, thus highlighting the perennial conflict between Jesus and the powers of this world – a tension we forget or ignore only at great peril both to ourselves and to the world.

Monday, April 4, 2011


What to do about Libya? Or perhaps at this point the question should be what is Libya going to do to us? I grew up in the heyday of post-war internationalism. The very fact that a sitting U.S. senator was elected President in 1960 – for only the second time in U.S. history – has sometimes been cited as evidence of the importance of foreign affairs in the public’s mind in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, the U.S. was the pre-eminent world power, and as such had more or less taken over the role previously played by the British Empire in world affairs. (The U.S. is still off-the-charts superior to anyone else militarily, of course, but back then it was the Great Power in all respects). A lot has changed since then – both in our country and in the world – but the U.S. is still the predominant global power, and I still expect to see it provide leadership in the world. So that means I am not one of those who reflexively shies away from foreign military involvements. That said, there are always many questions to be asked and answered before, during, and after any international military commitment. Part of what is so problematic about our present engagement in Libya is precisely how many questions have not been satisfactorily answered – and possibly not have not even been asked. With the U.S. still fighting two wars in the region, a certain hesitancy about any added involvement is, to say the least, prudent. Admittedly, the U.S. has important, compelling interests in the Middle East and in the larger Arab world. Oil is one, obviously, as is the security of Israel. If anything, the latter is, morally at least, more important than the former. Neither of those interests, however, is likely to be significantly impacted by the Civil War in Libya. The recent overthrow of a long-term ally in Egypt poses (potentially at least) a greater threat to stability in the region and in particular to peace between Israel and its neighbors. But, of course, such considerations all went by the wayside in our eagerness to be “on the right side of history.” (I take it as axiomatic that, if being "on the right side of history" is the best argument offered for any course of action, then it is probably not a course of action that merits recommendation! Egypt may well turn out just fine in the end anyway. It has reasonably, stable functioning social and political institutions and a well-respected army. Libya, after four decades of rule by a far worse dictator that Egypt ever had, will likely be in bad shape regardless of how its current Civil War ends. From the point of view of the long-suffering Libyan people, perhaps anything – including a protracted Civil War –may appear to be an improvement over Qaddafi. (I’m too used to the old spelling to change!) The Administration has pronounced Qaddafi’s regime illegitimate, while professing to eschew regime change. This inconsistent position could conceivably result precisely in a protracted Civil War with Qaddafi still in power for quite some time. It could result in a de facto partition of the country – Quaddafi still in power in Tripoli, the rebels in the east. In fact, all sorts of scenarios are possible, none particularly promising. Besides being a dictator (of whom there are a lot in the world, some better, some worse than others), Qaddafi has, for much of his reign, been an international bad boy – Lockerbie, the IRA, etc. So his overthrow would probably be a benefit to the world. But that was true too of Saddam Hussein, whose removal by President Bush our current President did not endorse at the time. (One of the ironies of the opposition to the 2003 Iraq War is that its opponents, despite often calling it an “illegal” or “unjust” war, never endorsed the obvious corollary of that proposition, i.e., that, if it was wrong to remove Saddam, then his regime should have been restored). In part, I suspect, because our ambivalent feelings as a nation about our experience in Iraq, our Libya policy is something of a muddle. War is unpredictable, and the best planned war can become a muddle. But when the thinking behind it, when the policy itself is a muddle, then “victory” (or whatever substitute is seen as success) seems that much more elusive. When all is said and done, we don’t know what outcome is likely in Libya, and we don’t even seem all that certain what kind of outcome we would like. That’s not an argument against intervention, but it is an argument for a clearer policy and for the democratic deliberation and debate which might get us there. Part of that debate, however, includes the question of how important Libya is in the larger scheme of things. Is Libya as important to us as Egypt or Saudi Arabia – or those middle-eastern bad guys Syria and Iran? And what about the world beyond the Middle East? And what about our own problems at home, which we persist in neglecting at our peril? Again, I am not one to say we should turn inward and, because we have problems and unmet needs at home, should therefore ignore our global responsibilities as the pre-eminent world power. But I have to admit that a cartoon in yesterday’s New York Times did make me take notice. It showed a big, cigarette-smoking, gun-carrying “Libyan Rebel” and a small, sad-looking, American boy, labeled simply “Student” The caption was Quiz: Which Underperformer Is Getting Additional U.S. Aid?

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Laetare Sunday signifies the mid-point of Lent. So the Church lightens its Lenten demeanor today. Most noticeably, the Lenten purple is relieved by the use of rose-colored vestments.

Yet, even as we pause to rejoice at being half-way through Lent, we move right into Lent’s 2nd half - its distinctive tone set, in part, by the Gospel of John, which portrays Jesus performing a special series of miracles, which John tellingly calls “signs.” The specific “sign” in today’s Gospel [John 9:1-41] is a truly monumental miracle, for (as the formerly blind man himself testifies to the authorities) it was unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.

Just as the man blind from birth receives physical sight, so he is also given increasing insight into who Jesus is, culminating in his profession of faith, “I do believe, Lord.” Meanwhile, he receives his sight through a series of steps in which he participates (as instructed). Jesus spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay which he smears on the man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man goes, washes, and returns - able to see.

Meanwhile we watch this unnamed (hence universal) “Everyman” develop his insight into who Jesus is – a growth in faith that exactly parallels the increasing unbelief of Jesus’ adversaries. Certainly they can see (with their physical eyes), but spiritually they are blind – obstinately so. Physically, the Pharisees could certainly see, but spiritually they would not see, because they already knew with absolute certitude that Jesus was not from God. Unlike the disability of the man blind from birth, theirs was a willful choice not to see.

God, however, has his own way of acting – as the story of his surprising selection of an apparently insignificant shepherd named David as Israel’s new king illustrates [1 Samuel 16]. Not as we see does God see. What God does can come as a complete surprise. Likewise, what God wants of us may also be a surprise.

The blind man’s meeting with Jesus caused him literally to see everything in an altogether new light – all because he had first been seen by Jesus himself and had gone where Jesus had sent him, allowing something new and different to happen when Jesus entered his life.

So it’s easy to appreciate why the Church chose this Gospel story to express what happens when one turns one’s life around and obeys Jesus’ command to go and wash in the waters of baptism. What happens is a wonderfully new and bright outlook on life. At the same time, it is also an enormous challenge. Embracing belief in Christ opens one to a new life of faith and a new community of worship and fellowship, but it also potentially puts one at odds with the darkness that may still seem at times to dominate the world. Saying “Yes” to Jesus inevitably means saying “No” to other options.

Lent is intended to be an especially transformative time for those preparing for Baptism at Easter. Just as the blind man’s encounter with Jesus proved totally transforming for him, so the new birth of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and communion with the Christ in the Church are fundamentally transformative experiences, intended to empower the baptized to live as children of light, producing every kind of goodness [Ephesians 5:8-9].

Lent, however, is for all of us, however long ago we were baptized, however long-term our membership in the Church. All of us are being challenged to continuing conversion our entire lives. Lent is our opportunity to be challenged, as were the Pharisees, to reject our own blind spots and to respond anew to Jesus’ invitation to live in the light.

Baptism is but the first sacrament of conversion, the first sacramental remedy for sin. The challenge to live as children of light in fact and to keep on producing every kind of goodness remains an ongoing one. The conversion to which we are all called is a continuing challenge to say “Yes” to Christ and “No” to other options. That challenge continues throughout the entire course of life. It obviously does not cease with baptism, but rather begins anew. For us, who are already baptized, therefore, there is a second sacrament of forgiveness – what the early Church charmingly called “the second plank after shipwreck” – the sacrament of Penance, in which, through the ministry of the Church, we receive forgiveness from God for the sins committed after baptism and so may be repeatedly reconciled with God and with one another.

If we manage to do nothing else during this Lent, let us at least make it a point to do that.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,

April 3, 2011