Sunday, August 28, 2011

Being Good, Pleasing, and Perfect

All summer long, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest and historically most influential of his letters. Having begun by denouncing the sins and vices of pagan society, Paul now exhorts us to behave differently. In one sense, I suppose, that’s where we would naturally expect him to go. We’re hardly surprised when Paul’s well argued doctrinal exposition ends in moral exhortation – in the practical expression of how to live now. Moral exhortation we expect, but we may be surprised by how he introduces the topic: I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
So far, Paul has been stressing what God has done for us. Thanks to what God’s mercy has accomplished on our behalf, we can now be different people from whoever we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived. Our bodies – in other words, the actual lived reality of our day-to-day lives – can serve as our sacrifice to God. The moral life of a Christian can be best understood, Paul seems to say, as a life lived as an act of worship.
The pagan Gentile culture of the Hellenistic world, which Paul could see everywhere around him and which he spoke so harshly about, operated out of a very different model from what Paul was proposing. Just watch some episodes of the HBO-TV series Rome from a few years ago! Our society, likewise, operates out of its own unique, post-modern model of human values and behavior, encouraging us to live lives based on feelings. Paul challenges us – as he challenged his contemporaries - not to conform to this age, but instead to transform our lives into an ongoing experience of worship, not conforming our faith to the world’s agenda but transforming that world by our faith.
In contrast to all the negative models we see all around us, Paul points us to the alternative model – Christ himself, whose death on the cross revealed a life lived as the most perfect worship of God his Father.
Peter’s negative reaction to Jesus’ initial prediction of his passion and death ought not to surprise us. If the path to be followed conformed to common expectations, Paul would not have presented it as such a contrast to what he saw around him, nor would Peter have objected, nor would Jesus have rebuked Peter so sternly. In Peter’s resistance, Jesus could hear the echo of Satan’s temptation in the desert – the perennial challenge (not just to Jesus but to all of us) not to be transformed ourselves and certainly not to transform the world.
This sort of came up during the Paulist Vocation Workshop I attended a week ago in New York. It seems evident that many young people who might be interested in some form of religious life are looking for a way to live a "counter-cultural" witness. Perhaps some religious communities may have over-adapted to contemporary culture in the 1960s (and after) and may now find themselves being especially challenged by this. Even so, as our presenter pointed out more than once, any authentic form of religious life is inherently counter-cultural. In a society which sees wealth, sex, and power as primary values, what could possibly be more counter-cultural than poverty, chastity, and obedience? That’s actually just one more reason why the promotion of religious vocations is so important for the Church’s witness to the world.
In some ways, we have of course, quite comfortably domesticated the cross that ultimate symbol of Christ’s world-transforming sacrifice. We have, in fact, often turned it into just an ornament, an item of jewelry. It can serve as a civic ornament also. All Christian kingdoms have a cross on their crowns – something I became very conscious of when stationed in Canada, where the highway signs all have crowns on them. The seal of Los Angeles County, until recently, also had a cross – a historical reminder of the place’s Spanish origin. In a fit of post-modern, secularist triumphalism, Los Angeles county’s cross has been removed, although the seal of the city of Los Angeles still includes the arms of the Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Leon. (I can’t help but suspect that our very Britsh and very Protestant Founding Fathers would likely have found the symbols of the Spanish crown more objectionable than the cross! But that’s another discussion!)
It is indeed no accident that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. Jesus’ death was not some accident, after all, just some back luck that happened to him one day by the shore. It was the direct – and predictable – consequence of a life lived in total obedience to his Father. Such is the life that Jesus commands us to take up and follow him.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
August 28, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

1100 Acres

Thirty years ago today, I entered the Paulist Novitiate at Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ. The property has occasionally been affectionately described as “1100 acres of rocks and trees.” True enough, but that leaves out the lake – in which those so inclined could swim and on which they could ice-skate, depending on the season. There were also several hiking trails, for those so inclined. And, of course, in the center of it all and the reason for it all (at least as far as we were concerned) was the Novitiate building itself – a typically tasteless, architecturally non-descript edifice erected c. 1960. It had functional bedrooms (equipped with sinks – a luxury we would lack the following four years in Washington), long linoleum corridors, a good institutional kitchen, a serviceable dining room, a decent downstairs common room, and, as its ostensible centerpiece, a modestly attractive chapel.
That was where 8 of us – ranging in age from 21 to 33 – had elected to spend a year in vocational discernment. Whatever God’s long-term providential plan for each of us vocationally, his short-term providence provided us with a wonderful (albeit challenging at times) experience of God, Church, and one another.
At present, I am the only one of my class still serving as an active Paulist priest. I have only occasional contact with some of my novitiate classmates and none at all with the rest. So my reminiscences remain entirely my own, neither augmented nor balanced nor corrected by those of others in my class. In one sense that is especially sad, because, whatever else it was, the novitiate year was pre-eminently and experience of community – in particular, our community with one another. It was, of course, intended to be a year of individual spiritual growth and discernment and an introduction to the Paulist community. And it was all those things. I did a lot of reading and “journaling,” tried to pray a lot, and met many, many Paulists whose past stories and present lives introduced me (more than any theoretical presentations did or could) to the Paulist Fathers as a living corporate reality – the minuses as well as the pluses.
Most of all, however, it was an intense experience of small community life, learning to live with others whom I had not chosen to live with (or even to know). Our wise novice master often characterized the novitiate experience as an atypical year designed to preclude our escaping from God, ourselves, and one another. Whatever happened with God and oneself, it most certainly was difficult to escape from one another. In that, it functioned as the beginning of a multi-year process of what is now officially called “human formation.” I don’t recall our novice master ever using that term, but he often spoke of its substance, and it clearly was his priority.
There were hot summer days at Mount Paul, to be sure, but what most of my novitiate generation remember is the cold. It was a damp cold. I remember some days getting into bed around 4:00 p.m. and running the electric blanket for about 10 minutes or so, to warm myself up sufficiently for the rest of the day. I remember attending Mass in the freezing cold chapel, wearing my winter coat. But, since I like winter and generally prefer the cold to the heat, my memories of all that are much fonder than those of some.
All in all, in was a good year – in a good place. I still mourn the fact that the novitiate is no longer located there and that today’s novices have nothing like the unique experience we had. And I likewise mourn the necessary but nonetheless tragic decision to sell the property to the state of New Jersey over a year ago.
But then we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Evangelical Catholicism"

Some people just don’t seem to “get it” about World Youth Day. Some, for example, (some more ideologically motivated perhaps than others) like to point out that pilgrims to World Youth Day are not necessarily representative - in the intensity of their religious identification and commitment - of the majority their generation. Is that supposed to be a surprise? If so, why and to whom? When have intense religious identification and commitment marked the majority of that – or any other – generation? For most of history most people have practiced some form of religion – as indeed most people still do today in most of the world. In some instances, it may be primarily part of a tribal identity – what one observer has called “belonging but not believing.” For most people, I suspect, religion is much more than just an ethnic or cultural identity. It is an important part of life, but it is still but one part of life. And, as we all know, people vary in their differing priorities reflecting their different evaluations of relative rewards and benefits.
But among them are also those – in all religions and in all societies – for whom religious identification and commitment to a spiritual life (however defined in any given religion) are higher-than-average priorities. Those are the kinds of people who are attracted to religious activities above and beyond the minimum. They are the ones more involved in our parish activities. They are the ones most likely to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life. They are also the ones who, as parents, are more likely to make the religious formation of their children a priority. They are not the whole Church Militant, by any means, but they are its standing army!
John Allen in his August 19 column “All Things Catholic,” made precisely that point regarding the participants in World Youth Day: “We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person -- youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife. Needless to say, the groups I’ve just described constitute the church’s future leadership.”
In an American context, “evangelical” is a highly synthetic term, laden with all sorts of distinctly American cultural baggage. What Allen (and others who employ the language of “Evangelical Catholicism") mean by it is both more universal in application and more precise in meaning. True to the root word evangelium, it means faithfulness to the Gospel message as it has been proclaimed in the Church, with a concurrent attachment to how that message has been incarnated both in the Church’s doctrine and in the Church’s worship life – as per the ancient dictum, lex orandi lex credendi (the law of worship is the law of belief). From this follows also a serious commitment to witnessing to the faith of the Church even in a less than accomodating world.
In his above-mentioned column, John Allen addresses what he calls “the contest for the Catholic future,” which will most certainly not be between today’s young Evangelical Catholics and an older generation of liberal reformers (however adamantly some of them try to hold on to their made-in-1968 alternative image of Church). Rather, the contest will be among Evangelical Catholics themselves, between what Allen calls “an open and optimistic wing” that emphasizes “what the church affirms rather than what it condemns,” and, on the other hand, “a more defensive cohort committed to waging cultural war.”
In a society increasingly polarized along political-ideological lines, Catholics – not least those engaged in ecclesial ministry or in religious life – experience that tension all the time. Like anything else, some people “get it” more than others. For example, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York hit the nail on the head during his August 17 World Youth Day catechetical session, when one Australian participant asked how to interact with those who may disagree with and live contrary to the Church’s teachings. The Archbishop’s response clearly portrayed the two competing approaches and which one we may infer is the more promising: "We can scream, we can yell, we can castigate, we can alienate, we can nag, and most of the time if we do that we lose," answered the Archbishop. "Or we can be gracious, patient, loving, understanding, persistent, welcoming. And most of the time when we do that, we're also going to lose. But less than the first one."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Upon this Rock"

Watching World Youth Day in Madrid on TV this week recalls wonderful memories of the World Youth Day I attended in Germany 6 years ago - and of other Papal events I’ve attended in Rome and during Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to New York. Among the many wonderful things which one can watch on YouTube, there are some 25 Italian videos of the coronation of Pope John XXIII, on November 4, 1958. Several times during that lengthy ceremony, the Sistine Choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”). In addition to that, today’s entire Gospel account is chanted, not once but twice – first by a Latin deacon, and then by a Greek deacon. I think that’s what called making a point!
Today’s Gospel takes us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to the 1st Pope, Peter himself. Caesarea Philippi was situated about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory ruled by King Herod’s son Philip. The place is now known as "Banias," a deformation of its pre-Roman name, "Paneas," referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location at Israel’s northern border at the foot of Mount Hermon. That border was obviously a lot easier to cross in Jesus’ time, than it is now; but it was still a border, laden with symbolic spiritual significance.
It was in that faraway, pagan place that Jesus challenged his disciples to answer what is, in some sense, still the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As befits the prominent role he is being groomed for, Peter answers on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ [the Messiah, the Anointed One], the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to Pan, the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one true) God.
Then, as now, Peter speaks for the Church – not just for his fellow apostles, but for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not some mere human opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself, at that stage, still probably at best only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission.
Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, to where the current occupant of Peter’s office continues to speak - on behalf of the Church for the sake of the whole world. As the Successor of Peter, the Pope serves as the visible source of the unity of the Church across space and time. Across space, “people of every nation, culture, and tongue” (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer) are “gathered as one,” so that “in a world torn by strife and discord,” we “may stand forth,” as a Universal Church, “as a sign of oneness and peace.” Such a unity across space is, in turn, uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church. Our unity across time in professing the ancient apostolic faith of Peter, makes possible our present unity across space as Christ’s Church in the world, which in turn fosters – for both the Church and the world - our future hope for both space and time in the kingdom of heaven.

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 21, 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Last week in my post about the Berlin Wall, I remarked how the world of the Cold War era had more in common with the world of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries than with the present (despite the short lapse of time). I also opined that, while the “lessons” of that recent history should never be automatically or uncritically applied to the present, our current amnesia about history may be even more problematic. That all reminded me of some wise observations by the late Tony Judt in his 2008 essay “The World We Have Lost” (the Introduction to his final published collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century).
The key word in that title is "Forgotten." Reflecting on our contemporary alienation from history, Judt wrote [pp. 4-5]: “Whatever the shortcomings of the older national narratives once taught in school … they had at least the advantage of providing a nation with past references for present experience. Traditional history, as taught to generations of schoolchildren and college students, gave the present a meaning by reference to the past. … In our time, however, this process has gone into reverse. The past now has no agreed narrative shape of its own. It acquires meaning only by reference to our many and often contrasting present concerns. … What is significant about the present age of transformation is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not just the practices of the past … but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.”
It’s not just the Cold War, of course, that’s been virtually forgotten. There are people alive today who have never actually heard a dial tone. Our alienation from the recent past seems almost as complete as our alienation from the pre-industrial world Peter Laslett recalled in his 1965 classic (also provocatively titled The World We have Lost). It’s not technological change per se that is the issue, however, but rather the changed way we have come to experience the world. In the process, we seem to have forgotten fundamentals about why Western 20th-century societies organized themselves the way they did.
Of particular importance, because it seems so relevant to our present political malaise, is what (for lack of any more elegant term) I’ll call the 20th century nation-state’s democratic reconstruction of society. In that same 2008 essay, Judt observed [p. 21]: “We may discover, as [our 20th-century predecessors] did, that the collective provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fostering Vocations in the Church

I’m back home in Knoxville after a wonderful 3-day Vocations Workshop at Lake George, NY.
The workshop began with a presentation on the 2009 Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life, conducted by CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) for NRVC (The National Religious Vocation Conference). That Study confirms what most of us already know or intuit about religious life’s present state and future prospects in the U.S. It has been evident for some time now that most religious Institutes (including also Societies of Apostolic Life) in the U.S. have been experiencing diminishing numbers (and the aging of those that remain). Even so, there are still significant numbers of men and women who are responding to the call to religious life. (78% of men’s communities and 66% of women’s communities have at least one person currently in formation). And some communities are experiencing significant growth.
Of course, the overall numbers remain below replacement value. We will not again (at least not in my lifetime) see anything like the numbers of Religious that were so instrumental in forming the immigrant Church in this country - and certainly nothing like the numbers that characterized the great post World War II boom in religious life that came at the end of that period of the immigrant Church. One participant in the conference observed that one might look at the present phenomenon in terms of the transition from the old European immigrant, urban-based Church (that people like me grew up in) to the very differently composed Church we now have in the U.S. And indeed the Study shows that those entering religious life today are much more representative of today’s American Church than those of us that entered decades ago. (21% of those in formation now are Hispanic and 14% Asian/Pacific Islander. Whereas 94% of finally professed Religious are Caucasian/white, only 58% of those in formation are).
That all said, the point is that it is still the case that there are at least some people who will respond positively to the call to religious life, and it is our task – indeed an essential component of the Church’s mission – to foster and nurture such responses. All sorts of things can get in the way of our doing that – from inertia, doing things the way we have always done them, to failure to use new media and other relevant resources, to contrasting and competing ecclesiologies, often reflecting the generational differences between the older members and the pool of younger people that they might hope to attract.
It seems evident that most young people who might be interested in some form of religious life are looking for a way to live a counter-cultural witness. Some of the communities that over-adapted to contemporary culture in the 1960s (and after) may find themselves especially challenged by this. Even so, as our presenter pointed out more than once, any authentic form of religious life is inherently counter-cultural. In a society which sees wealth, sex, and power as primary values, what could possibly be more counter-cultural than poverty, chastity, and obedience? Faithfully living the evangelical counsels, combined with an authentic and honest community are not only counter-cultural but can be quite attractive. Within those fundamental paramenters there may be lots of room for a legitimate pluralism in terms of how different communities relate to the surrounding culture.

Fostering vocations to religious life is, first and foremost, a challenge to religious communities themselves (which, after all, are committed to their distinctive mission and presumably believe that mission ought to continue in the Church). But it is also a challenge to the entire Church – Bishops, clergy, married, single, old young. When speaking about the need for vocations to the priesthood, I often remind people that a local Church without priests is a local Church that will, sooner or later, likely shut down. Religious life may not be as inherently essential to the Church’s life as Holy Orders, but it is hard to imagine the Church without religious life. Isaac Hecker was fond of pointing out that the distinctive needs of each age have generated specific expressions of religious life to meet those needs. It is hard to imagine the Church meeting the needs of this or any future age without appropriate expressions of religious life.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


On August 15, 1844, just two weeks after his reception into the Catholic Church, Isaac Hecker wrote in his Diary: “To day is the holy day of the Assumption of the dear Blessed Mary mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus. Oh may I be found worthy of her regard and love.”
Because August 15 falls on a Monday in 2011, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary will not be a holyday of obligation in the United States this year. Even so, the Assumption remains one of Our Lady’s oldest feasts and is also one of the greatest in the Church calendar (along with the solemnities of Mary’s Motherhood on January 1 and her Immaculate Conception on December 8).
The bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an ancient belief of the Church, although its formal dogmatic definition finally occurred only during the Holy Year of 1950. Already, at the 1st Vatican Council (1869-1870), some 200 prelates participating in the Council had requested such a definition. In 1946, Pope Pius XII, responding to even more such petitions, asked the Bishops of the world whether in their opinion it was time that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined and proclaimed as a dogma of faith. Finally, on November 1, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII declared: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" The dogmatic definition of the Assumption emphasizes that this special privilege granted to the Blessed Virgin Mary is relevant for the hope of all of us, as it highlights “to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined.” Thus the Pope expressed his “hope that belief in Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective."
In other words, where she is now, there we hope to be. And as she is now (in her whole humanity) is how we also hope to be.
Monday or not, it most assuredly deserves to be a holyday!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Wall at 50

It was exactly 50 years ago today that the “Berlin Wall” went up. (The actual, physical “wall” itself took time to construct; but the armed barrier preventing Berliners from traveling from East to West Berlin was put in place on this day). 

It was, as I recall, a Sunday morning that summer between grade school and high school, when the radio news announced what had happened overnight, in that far away place that had become the symbolic battleground of the Cold War. 

At that time, the Cold War was in fact being fought as an actual war of sorts in places like Laos and Vietnam, but Berlin was always the symbolic centerpiece – a legacy of the Cold War’s origin in the division of Europe between the West and the Soviet-occupied East. (It seemed somehow fitting that the former capital of the Third Reich had become the principal point of confrontation between the once allied but now mutually antagonistic victors from that previous conflict). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, there was a strong fear in Washington that the whole thing might be a prelude to a Soviet move on Berlin. In the Cold War’s concluding decade, it was to Berlin that President Reagan traveled to utter the most memorable challenge to the other side: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And, of course, it was the opening of that very same wall on November 9, 1989, that most dramatically signified the tremendous change that was happening in Europe and that would soon result in the reunification of Germany and the eventual end of the Soviet Union itself. 

Before the Wall, a divided Berlin had nonetheless remained united in ways that the rest of divided Europe could barely imagine. East and West Berlin remained connected by subway lines and telephones, etc., and citizens commuted daily from one side to work in the other. What the East German pseudo-state could not accept, however, was the consequent ease with which its citizens (not just Berliners but anyone from anywhere else in East Germany who managed to travel to East Berlin) could simply cross into the American, British, or French zone in West Berlin and from there freely travel to West Germany and claim citizenship there. It has been estimated that some 16% of East Germany's population had fled in that fashion between 1949 (the end of Stalin's Berlin Blockade) and 1961. 

That Blockade and the American Airlift that had saved West Berlin in 1948-1949 were already legendary in my childhood. Often, when my father and my uncles discussed politics, the conversation recalled that pivotal event. My father, for one, occasionally opined that Truman might have done better to insist on the American right (as one of the four occupying powers) to overland access to Berlin, rather than circumventing the blockade by flying over it. In fact, the famous Airlift, while heroically saving West Berlin, really did represent Western long-term acceptance of the de facto division of Europe. Thus, from 1958 (when Krushchev reignited Berlin as the pre-eminent crisis point of the Cold War) until 1961 when the Wall was built, de facto the conflict really concerned only the independence of West Berlin. Hence, however horrible the Wall turned out to be for Berliners, it solved East Germany's embarasing emigration problem without posing any real or long-term threat to the West. As a free city deep behind the Iron Curtain, West Berlin retained its symbolic resonance. But it was no longer a real political problem. (Meanwhile, in the late 60s and after, West Berlin became a center of the student counter-culture - only possible, of course because of the continued presence of the American military protecting the city's youthful population of leftist dissidents from the real thing, that was literally right across the street). 

So the infamous Wall not only solved East Germany’s refugee problem but also in so doing relieved Krushchev from having to put any further pressure on West Berlin. While we in the West may have ceremonially raised our voices about Berlin (e.g., JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech) the US was in fact quite content to live with this sealing of the one remaining hole in the Iron Curtain, in return for maintaining the status quo in divided Europe. And so the Wall went up, and life elsewhere went on. 

The Cold War increasingly seems like ancient history. The world of the Cold War had much more in common with the world of the 19th and 20th centuries than today’s world has with that of the Cold War. Perhaps that may be a good thing. Writing about the formative influence of the 1938 Munich Conference and World War II on the Vietnam War generation of politicians, a famous historian coined the term “bewitchment by history.” The generation that led us through the Cold War was, for better or for worse, “bewitched,” it can be argued, by Munich and World War II (as indeed their predecessors had somewhat similarly been “bewitched” by World War I and Versailles). For today’s policymakers to interpret the world’s challenges through the prism of the Cold War would, to be sure, be problematic. To the extent, however, that today’s policymakers are not being “bewitched” by history primarily because they are ignorant of history may not be such a good thing. 

I never got to see the Wall in its day. My only time in Europe while the Wall was still in place was in 1970, when as a college student I spent the summer in Austria studying German. I went to Bavaria, but never up as far as Berlin. (I considered it, but was actually a bit frightened about the prospect of flying over Communist territory to get there). I did finally make it Berlin many years later on my way to World Youth Day in 2005 – long after the Wall had come down. A Dutch friend whom I had gotten to know back in Berkeley in the mid-80s now lives and works in Berlin, and I took the occasion to visit him there and see the fabled city – now, of course, completely reunited again. 

My 2005 visit to Berlin occurred, as it happened, on August 13!

Friday, August 12, 2011


Another “World Youth Day” is almost upon us. This year’s WYD in Madrid, Spain, will go from August 16 to 21 and is expected to draw the largest number of participants ever. (So far, more than 130,000 from some 137 countries have already arrived in Spain for WYD). Pope Benedict himsef will arrive in Madrid on Thursday, August 18. After being welcomed by Spain’s King and Queen, he will participate in four days of events, culminating in a Saturday night Vigil and the final Papal Mass on Sunday morning - and including during this WYD a papal consecration of the youth of the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
World Youth Day is a celebration of faith and an expression of the Catholic Church’s universality. One of the week’s major elements is the catechetical sessions conducted daily in various languages. In Madrid this year, eight American bishops will each conduct three catechetical sessions: “Firm in the Faith” (Wednesday), “Established in Jesus Christ” (Thursday), and “Witnesses to Christ in the World” (Friday). On Saturday morning, U.S. pilgrims will attend a morning Mass, at the end of which the U.S. bishops will send the youth forth and ask them to return home as missionaries.
In 2005, I had the privilege of attending the 20th WYD in Cologne, Germany, with a pilgrimage group from New York. We attended two catechetical sessions – one led by American Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, in a large stadium, another led by Nigerian Cardinal Arrinze in a local parish church (see attached photo). For all participants, the 3rd catechesis took the form of a pilgrimage walk along the bank of the Rhine River to the great Gothic Cathedral of Cologne with its famous shrine of the Magi, a vivid reminder of their journey to Bethlehem and a symbol of the personal search for Christ. (The Magi’s words, “We have come to worship him,” formed the official theme of that year’s event, and, throughout the week, the story of the Magi was progressively unfolded. At the end of the week-long celebration, Pope Benedict challenged us all: “Seek communion in faith, like fellow travelers who continue together to follow the path of the great pilgrimage that the Magi from the East first pointed out to us.”)
For me, attending WYD 2005 was an amazing experience, which anyone who has such an opportunity should take full advantage of. There is nothing like experiencing the Church in all is glorious universality. If nothing else, that can be a great antidote to the increasingly prevalent sense in Western countries of the Church as an embattled minority in a hostile secular society. This year, for the first time, young people unable to travel will have the opportunity to make a virtual pilgrimage and participate from homes. The US Bishops Conference's communications department has created a Facebook application and Fan Page, as well as a Web site. So the WYD experience should be even more universal this time.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Faith

For many people (especially back where I came from) summer means time to head for the water – to swim, to sail, to ski, whatever. Back when I was in Israel 18 summers ago, a group of us went to great length to find a beach on the Sea of Galilee just so we could all come home and say we’d actually been in the water of the Sea of Galilee. Of course, I'm sure Jesus and his disciples all took that great lake we call the Sea of Galilee much more seriously. It was, after all, where the disciples had, until very recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, so the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as a base of operations for Jesus and his disciples. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they likely also knew how limited was the security that their seafaring skills could guarantee.
Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain [Matthew 14:22-33], has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration comes up later this week) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed in almost 2000 years! It still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own in as perennially hostile world.
In the Gospel, the solution to the disciples’ dilemma is, of course, Jesus himself, who, during the fourth watch of the night, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands among us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
One of those in the boat – appropriately enough Peter, the one appointed by Jesus to be the leader his Church - was willing initially to take Jesus at his word. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” In highlighting Peter’s special status and unique relationship with Jesus, this story also shows Peter at his most endearing. Peter always blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, without first prudently evaluating all the costs and benefits, because his heart already belongs to Jesus. It’s only when he loses his focus, forgetting for the moment who has just called him to come, and instead starts the considering the costs, starts thinking like the world, that then the world starts to win, and he becomes frightened and so starts to sink. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by the world.
Like Peter, we are all susceptible to the competing concerns of the world. We remain tempted to count the costs of our commitment – and wonder about its benefits. We remain caught somewhere between walking in faith and forever sinking in fear. With our "little faith," we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain in the boat with his Church forever.
If the boat, tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it, is an image of the Church sent into the stormy world to witness to Christ despite the dangers which dominates the world, this story also challenges us to trust – to trust in Jesus, who seems to be absent, but is actually always interceding with the Father on the Church’s behalf, and who is forever stretching out his hand in order that, through the Church, the despairing darkness of doubt may give way, for all people, to the hopeful light of faith.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 7, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Our Lady of the Snows

Our elected leaders may stubbornly persist in their refusal to recognize the reality of climate change, but the “facts on the ground” seem to mock such ideological intransigence. In the midst of yet another horrendous heat wave, which is oppressing so much of the U.S. right now, the charming medieval legend of the miraculous snowfall that supposedly fell on Rome’s Esquiline Hill on this date in the mid-4th-century seems especially appealing.
Climate change or not, of course, August in Rome has always been hot. Hence, the manifestly miraculous character of that legendary August 5 snowfall. The story itself, commemorated annually with a shower of white rose petals from the basilica’s dome, was first reported several centuries after the supposed event and so may well have no serious historical basis. The event which does have real history, of course, is the actual dedication on that site and on this date of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). From 1568 to 1969, the legend of the miraculous snowfall was incorporated into the official title of today’s feast as Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives. In 1741, it was proposed to delete the “snows” reference, something which finally happened in the 1969 calendar. (These things take time).
Built by Sixtus to commemorate the Council of Ephesus (431) which affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” the Basilica of St. Mary Major (a manageable walk from the Paulist residence in Rome) is one of the four principal papal basilicas (along with St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) and one of my personal favorites. In November 2000, it was where we posed for a group picture during our Jubilee year parish pilgrimage from St. Paul’s in New York. (I still have that picture somewhere, but one of the many woeful consequences of moving is having a hard time finding things you know you have somewhere but no longer know exactly where – the same problem I recently had trying to locate my CUA diploma!)
The smallest of the four principal papal basilicas, St. Mary Major is, of course, quite large in comparison with most ordinary churches in Rome or elsewhere. Its design is classical basilica style with a wide nave, two side aisles, and a semicircular apse at one end of the nave (the basic model Isaac Hecker was attracted to in planning his design for the Paulist Mother Church in New York). Its 14th-century bell tower is Rome’s highest. Its 16th-century ceiling is gilded with gold, supposedly brought back from Spain’s newly conquered American empire. Under the papal altar is a crystal reliquary which supposedly contains wood from the original crib of Jesus in Bethlehem. Back in the glory days of the Roman “stational churches,” this was the site of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Midnight Stational Mass. (By my count, St. Mary Major served as the "Stational Church" on 12 occasions during the year in the old Missal - including the 1st and 3rd Masses of Christmas and the main Mass on Easter Sunday). The Bethlehem connection is augmented by the tomb there of St. Jerome. St. Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass in that crypt on Christmas Day in 1538. And then there is the basilica’s beautiful Borghese Chapel, which houses the famous old icon of Mary “Safety of the Roman People.” All in all, it’s a wonderful old church - a Roman treasure for the whole Church!
The 1st reading for today’s Mass is taken from Revelation 21 - John’s vision of a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Then, John heard a loud voice saying: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.” God’s "dwelling with the human race" is first and foremost his Son, the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and then the Church, the Body of Christ extended in space and time, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. We build church buildings as places for the Body of Christ to assemble. As such, a church building becomes an icon of the Church community itself. Hence, churches – big beautiful basilicas in Rome and the lovely little “church on the hill” in Knoxville and all the other churches big and small all over the world – are true treasures. They are treasures not just of beauty and art – although the best of them certainly are that – but privileged places treasured above all as effective signs of God’s presence in people’s lives and of his continuing action in our world here and now.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Carry on the Missions"

Yesterday, the Church calendar commemorated St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), who founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) in 1721. St. Alphonsus is the patron of confessors and moral theologians, a Doctor of the Church, and one of the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers. The founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), was himself received into the Church on August 1, 1844. Just one year later, in August 1845, he sailed to Europe to join St. Alphonsus’ order, the Redemptorists. Earlier that year, Hecker had met two other new Catholics, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. He decided to join them. The story is that 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 on the spot. Taking the morning train back to New York, he said a quick goodbye to his family, then boarded the Prince Albert, and set sail for his new life in Europe – and his new life as a Redemptorist.

After ordination in 1849 and a brief period ministering as a priest in London, Hecker returned to the United States in March 1851 as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included three other American Redemptorists, who like Hecker himself were all converts to Catholicism. They conducted 14 parish missions their first season. The first was at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village – the first ever English mission in the United States – at which (so was reported) some 6000 people went to confession and communion, while sobbing filled the church during the renewal of baptismal vows. When, in 1858, Hecker and three other ex-Redemptorists started the Paulists, a major element of their stated mission was to "carry on the missions in the spirit of Saint Alphonsus," and for a long time that remained one of the community’s major ministries.

Parish Missions, as those who are old enough to remember them will readily recall, were a big deal in pre-Vatican II Catholicism. They were intended as a type of parish renewal experience, which sought to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed or become alienated. 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 (September 5, 1851), called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country,” one consequence of which (Hecker hoped) would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker understood early on that any successful mission to non-Catholic America presupposed an effective mission and ministry within the American Catholic community. “The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker wrote to Brownson, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, when I first experienced them, parish missions were, I now realize, really already in decline (due in part, at least, to television’s appearance on the scene as an alternative form of evening entertainment). But they were still a regular component of the very vibrant parish devotional life of the time – a parish devotional life now long since irretrievably lost. The parish missions I was required to attend as a child in the 50s and then as a teen in the early 60s were nice enough; and they were, of course, completely coherent with the socio-religious world I then inhabited. But by then they had a somewhat “canned” character. In my large, blue-collar parish, we had a different religious order preaching the parish mission each year, but the talks always seemed the same. Even the preachers’ stories and jokes seemed the same. No doubt, some lapsed - or more likely merely marginal – Catholics did go to Confession and returned to regular sacramental practice as a result, but I suspect it was mainly the more devout (or, in the case of the Men’s Missions, the husbands of the more devout) who faithfully “made the mission.”

Integrally woven into the rich texture of the vibrant devotional life of the pre-Vatican II American parish, missions were on the whole probably a good experience for the devout, reinforcing commitment among the committed (never an insignificant task and one which any organization neglects only at its peril). Then, however,, came the utterly unforeseen decline of Catholic communal experience in the post 1965 period. Missions, even for the devout remnant, mattered much less – paradoxically at a time when the need for a strong, confident vehicle for reconciling the lapsed and alienated was again becoming so pressingly evident. But, by then, missions and the whole rich texture of devotions of which they had been a part were no longer coherent with the socio-religious context – now transformed almost beyond recognition, de-stabilized, and increasingly uncertain in direction.

Having to some extent become just another evening devotion in the glorious sunset of 1950s and 60s, missions had perhaps made themselves really less necessary. In the process, they risked beocming an empty shell of their former selves and hence ill prepared to adapt to a new context, in which paradoxically the end for which missions were oriignally a means was once again – and remains – even more urgently pressing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Memories of My Father

My father died 12 years ago today, just a few months shy of what would have been his 80th birthday. He was a member of what Tom Brokaw fittingly called "The Greatest Generation," the generation that fought World War II. So, in addition to offering Mass for his intention today, I also took a good look at the wonderfully drawn map my father made of his military service fighting in Europe from June 1944 to May 1945, beginning two days after D-Day and including that memorable struggle known as "the Battle of the Bulge."

In his book,The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw said, "They were proud of what they accomplished but they rarely discussed their experiences, even with each other." If that was true in general, it certainly described my father. There were, of course, occasional exceptions when we would draw out soem wartime memories - like what it really felt like crossing the Channel in June 1944, how the French reacted to their libereation, etc.Even then, however, he tended to play down what to the next generation (not yet exposed direclty to war) seemed to be the excitement of it all. His view of the world and of the political imperatives appropriate for Cold War America were, of course, formed and conditioned (no less than JFK's, LBJ, and Nixon"s would be) by that experience of war. Wioth us, however, emhasis seemed rather on how scary and ugly it all was. I suspect thaat reflected and reinforced his natural inclination to try to be a calm, peaceful, and patient person.

A hardworking breadwinner, when things were a lot tougher than they later became, he knew what his priorties were - and that there were more important things in life than excitement. But what a life he lived! It was a life of geneoristy focused on family - his wife of 52 years (whom he'd loved form the day they met at a soap sale in Macy's), his 3 children, and in the last years his 2 granschildren, plus his brother and 4 sisters and their husbands, children, and granschildren, a whole extended clan, to which he remained ever devoted to the end. He always understood how family means people - people to be loved and cherished, whoever and however they are.

And people responded! the affection of co-workers was real and a genuine joy to him. And, even towards the end, sick and confined to home, when there seemd to be so little to be joyful about, he continued uncomplaining, still occaisonally showing some of that old charm and continuing to evoke that wonderful response in those who helped care for him.

In life, we all live in the contradiction between what we are now and what God created us to become. Untied to God in death, we will finally see things from God's point of view and experience more fully the result of God's own patient transformation of us. But that transformation begins here and now, and we are challenged to cooperate with it. For who we become in our lives here and now is who we will be forever.