Friday, March 30, 2012

Entering Holy Week

With Palm Sunday, the Church begins Holy Week. Officially entitled “Holy” since 1955, this week is called holy, “because of the excellence of the mysteries celebrated,” and because it is “enriched by very splendid and sacred rites.” With these words of the Decree Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, the Holy See in 1955 introduced its famous reform of the liturgy of Hoy Week, which among other things restored Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and the Easter Vigil to something close to their ancient hours of celebration.

Prior to that reform, as those of us above a certain age can recall, all those services were celebrated (and had been celebrated for centuries) in the early morning hours of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday respectively – a situation Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria saw as ”certainly with detriment to the liturgy’s meaning and with confusion between the Gospel accounts and the liturgical representations referring to them.” Even more seriously, “schools, businesses, and public affairs of all kinds were and are conducted everywhere,” with the result that the “common and almost universal experience” was of liturgical services “performed by the clergy with the body of the church nearly deserted.” In the immediate aftermath of those 1950s reforms, churches were frequently filled to capacity for the Holy Week services, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That may be less so today, when everything is open all the time and multiple distractions abound which Pius XII’s Holy Week reformers could not have imagined - with the result that, once again the solemn ceremonies of Holy Week are increasingly playing to diminishing audiences.

Even so, however, there can be no doubt that this is the week when the Church, so to speak, “pulls out all the stops” to celebrate our collective memory of the great events of our salvation and to enable each one us to re-live those events, in order that we may experience their wondrous effects in our own lives, here and now.

In the ancient Roman Liturgy, the importance of these days was highlighted by the choice of the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s “Cathedral,” as the “stational church” for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil, while the neighboring Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (built to enshrine the relics brought back by St. Helena from Jerusalem) is the “stational church” for Good Friday. While the Pope still celebrates Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Lateran, those other papal liturgies are all now celebrated in the much more spacious setting of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Somewhere in the Passover Seder, it is said that in every generation each person must experience him or herself a having personally been brought out of Egypt. Whether celebrated in the splendor of a papal basilica or the simplicity of a mission outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with fellow parishioners, friends, and neighbors in one’s own parish church, Holy Week is that unique annual opportunity offered to every one of us to experience personally what God has accomplished for us in the passion, death, and resurrection of his Son and continues to accomplish in us through his Church.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Judicial Dictatorship

Whatever the outcome of this week's Affordable Care Act marathon before the Supreme Court, one thing seems uminstakably clear. As a society we have all collaborted in replacing democratic decision-making by popularly elected officials with a system of judicial dictatorship. It is, I suppose, fittingly ironic that conservative populists, who ostensibly aspire to maximize individual freedom, have empowered the most anti-democratic branch of the federal government to overturn an act of Congress, the branch of government which, by constitutional design, was intended to be the most democratically based branch. Meanwhile, on the other side, liberals, who tend toward a more elitist style of governance (e.g., HHS Mandates), and have over the years done more than their fair share to legitimize judicial power over the elcted branches, may well see their signature accomplishment overturned by the monster they have fed. As usual, it is the American people who will lose. They may lose substantively in possibly losing the much needed benefit of health insurance reform. They will certainly lose procedurally in further diminishing the "political" (i.e. democratic) branches of government.
Of course, the Supreme Court could uphold the Affordable Care Act. In that case, the promise of health insurance reform will be saved. But our politics will continue to be impoverished by the systemic flaw of judicial review, which not only puts too much power in 9 "Philosopher Kings" (would that they really were at least philosopher kings, rather than merely lawyer kings!), but also, by diminishing the the ultimate responsibility and accountability of the elected branches, thus reinforces those branches' contemporary patterns of irresponsiblity and unaccountabilty.

Monday, March 26, 2012

SCOTUS and the Affordable Care Act

Finally, after endless partisan polemics, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 will be argued this week before the US Supreme Court. As most of my friends know, I am philosophically no fan of judicial review. I consider it to be a true blight on our system this peculiar modern American proclivity to permit the most unrepresentative, elitist, and intrinsically anti-democratic element in our government such wide-ranging freedom to overturn laws that have been democratically passed by popularly elected legislators. That said, that’s the way we do things and the system we have to work within!

While I may not be as cynical about our Judiciary as the columnist who recently wrote in The Washington Post that that the outcome of such fundamental decisions depends essentially on which side of the bed Justice Kennedy got up on that day, it is in fact almost impossible to predict (at least prior to hearing how the Justices behaved during oral arguments) how this case will actually go. In part, that is because of the ambiguity of the legal issues themselves.

The first is whether the 1867 Federal Anti-Injunction Act applies. That law stipulates that “no suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person.” That’s a very sensible law - and not just because it restricts the judiciary’s jurisdiction. Invoking it (as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit did last year), would allow the Court to kick the can down the road, so to speak, and avoid this election year hot potato. But, of course, this Court has a history of intruding itself into the political process. And, in any case, both sides really would prefer a substantive decision. Hence, neither side is advocating this outcome. Even so, the Court could rule that, since the provisions in question have not yet come into force, no one has been penalized and hence there is as yet no basis for an action. In terms of the current political circus we call an election, I think that might not be such a bad short-term outcome.

Assuming that the Court does not go that route, however, then the remaining oral arguments on Tuesday on the constitution’s commerce clause and the “individual mandate” and on Wednesday on the “individual mandate” and “severability” and on Congress’s authority to expand Medicaid will really matter. At minimum, the legal arguments involved will raise important issues about whether or not we have a legal system which is capable of addressing contemporary problems.

The Justices, of course, cannot be unaware that the “individual mandate” was conceived and promoted as a conservative idea to preserve private insurance as the preferred method for paying for health care in the US. If the “individual mandate” is declared unconstitutional, then (regardless of what is decided on the technical question of “severability”), the Affordable Care Act (particularly its requirement that insurance companies cover people with “pre-existing conditions”) will become in effect unaffordable. As insurance rates rise, sooner or later there will be a popular outcry to fix the problem. (After all, almost everything in the Act except the “individual mandate” is popular with voters, but all those things will become hopelessly expensive without the “individual mandate”). The only option left then will be a totally public system – something like Medicare for everyone, which President Nixon was willing to support way back in the 1970s). Perhaps Nixon had the right idea.

As the saying goes: “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Seeing Jesus

In the early 1990s, I served as deacon at a famous New York Church known as “the Actors’ Chapel,” so-called because of its ministry to the theater-district. I remember how, after Saturday afternoon matinee, a crowd would gather outside the theater across the street to get a glimpse of some actor or actress in the cast. That’s more or less how I imagine the scene in today’s Gospel [John 12:20-33], when some Greeks came to Philip and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” They approached Philip, because being from Bethsaida in Galilee, he presumably could converse comfortably with them in Greek. Mindful of his place in the hierarchy, however, Philip went and told Andrew, Peter’s brother. Then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Now, you might think after all this, that we might hear more about those Greeks and their meeting with Jesus. John never mentions them again, however. We never hear whether or not they actually got to meet Jesus. We may presume that, along with Andrew and Philip and probably the rest of the crowd, they at least got to hear him – hear him speak about how the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and hear him pray “Father, glorify your name,” the prayer of a faithful Son, full of confidence in his Father’s response. In fact, assuming they hung around long enough, they would also have heard the Father’s answer.

Of course, the crowd there disagreed – as people still do (and do a lot) - about Jesus. Some said “An Angel has spoken to him,” but others just thought it was thunder. Who and what Jesus is – the living Son of God, or a long-dead historical curiosity, a passing fad that came and went with all the permanence of the last thunderstorm – is also at the heart of who and what we are.

Conditioned as we all are by photo and film records of recent historical figures and events, we too perhaps would like to have seen Jesus. Obviously, such access to the past is not possible. The only Jesus we have actual access to in the present is the Risen Christ, the living Son of God. Like the Greeks, who, for access to Jesus, went to Philip and Andrew (in other words, those appointed as Apostles), our access to Jesus, our encounter with Christ, is through the Church, which continues his his life and mission in the world.

We, who are here today, we encounter Christ through our experience of being his Church – not just what happens here on Sunday, but in a very special way what happens here on Sunday, which forms us as Church for the rest of the week and the rest of life. The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus once remarked how consistently touched he was by the phrase before the Sign of Peace, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” The Church is that whole host of the faithful both living and dead who sustain us in faith, in hope, and in love, a Communion of Saints that unites us here and now with the faithful all over the world and back through time with those who have shown Christ to the world in the past.

These past few weeks of Lent in Rome, I have been doing the daily Lenten station churches. There is something special about going to these venerable Roman churches in the pre-dawn darkness, walking literally in the steps of centuries of Christians who have visited those same churches on those same days, celebrating Mass surrounded by the relics and memories of martyrs, then emerging in the early morning light to continue one’s daily work. It is a true experience of the communion of saints! As the Italian Humanist Petrarch (1304-1374) once wrote, describing his experience as a pilgrim in Rome in the Holy Year 1350: “How inspiring for a Christian to journey to that city which is like a heaven on earth, sanctified by the remains of martyrs beyond number, drenched in the precious blood of those early witnesses to the Truth.”

What this also means is that (again like the Greeks in the Gospel) the rest of the world also encounters Christ through its experience of his Church, which is to say, of us. Indeed, as has so often been said, the Church is essentially the only experience of Christ most people will ever have in life – the face of Christ they see, the word of God they hear. So, if in any way, our behavior conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent - precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed - and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ sacrificed himself in order to save.

We hear many stories about sons in the Bible – from Cain and Abel on. In Jesus, we see the ultimate Son, God’s Son, whose perfect obedience is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

In that he is everything there is to be, while revealed in and through his church, he is everything anyone ever needs to see.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 25, 2012.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

One Year More to Medicare!

Sometime tomorrow, I will complete the 64th year of my earthly life. That’s a slightly pretentious way of saying I’m having a birthday tomorrow, my 64th – or, as I like to say, one year more to Medicare!

A birthday is as special or as ordinary as one makes it. At minimum, a birthday is a good occasion to give thanks for being still alive and (at least in our culture) an opportunity for friends to show their friendship – even if it’s only “Facebook Friends” sending a perfunctory “Happy Birthday” message. Even that is special, after all, in that I would not be getting messages from most of those people at all if it weren’t for my birthday.

Perhaps more importantly, a birthday is a marker in the timeline of one’s life. When you’re young, there are lots of such markers to look forward to – becoming a “teenager”, then becoming old enough to drive, then old enough to vote, old enough to drink, etc. All those ages are more or less arbitrary, of course. (When I was the relevant age, those last two, for example, were in reverse order!)

Then there are the arithmetic markers that our obsession with youth and our anxieties about aging have invested with perhaps disproportionate significance – 30, then 40, then 50. When I was 20, the axiom of my generation was not to trust anyone over 30. So turning 30 was somewhat problematic – until we all turned 30! I do remember my 30th. (It was an icy Wisconsin Easter weekend 1978). But I don’t think I really attached too much serious significance to turning 30. When I reached 40, however, I threw myself a party, partly to counter-act the even sillier negativity that often surrounds that particular milestone - but also because, at that spectacularly unsuccessful period in my life, I realized that by then the journey was probably already half-over or (at best) close to half-over, and so it was a good time to celebrate what already was rather than look ahead to what might maybe never yet be.

When I was 12, reaching 50 seemed quite far away. I had an aunt who turned 50 that year. All summer long at our family outings at the Bronx’s Orchard Beach, my cousins and I jokingly kept referring to her as “Miss Half-Century of 1960.” Years later, however, when it became time to mark my own half century, I very happily celebrated the day with some parishioner friends at an Oscar Night Party at Planet Hollywood in Toronto. Compared to that infamous half-century mark, 60 seemed to pass much more modestly – perhaps because by then it had become the custom in my local community to acknowledge every single birthday with at least a special meal.

The advent of Social Security, I suppose, was what eventually turned 65 into one of the life’s major milestones. Of course, I now know people who are already retired in their 50s or early 60s – and others who don’t retire till later. (Among priests, retirement is an even more ambiguous status, which comes later, if at all). So for my generation at least, I think the event of qualifying for Medicare may have replaced “retirement” as the more universal, commonly shared experience.

So as I prepare to embark upon my 65th year at midnight tonight (or midnight tomorrow, depending on whatever legal system one is using to calculate it), while I readily recognize that the story is now closer to its end than to its beginning, I can still focus forward on the next true turning-point, the next major milestone in my timeline – Medicare, something to look forward to and now just one year away!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Restoring St. Patrick's Cathedral

No trip to my hometown would be complete without a visit to America’s premier cathedral - complete with a glorious galero now on display there (photo). So Thursday afternoon, after spending some time with my sister and attending my niece’s High School Band Concert at the Madison Avenue Atrium, I cut through Trump Tower and quickly walked the few blocks down 5th Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, since 1879 the spiritual heart of the city, where I said a quick prayer at the Altar of Exposition and then lit a candle to St. Joseph. Less than a week ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan announced that the great 19th-century neo-gothic cathedral (a National historic Landmark since 1976) will undergo a $175 million restoration over the next three to five years. That same day, at the traditional pre-parade St. Patrick’s Day Mass, the other new American cardinal, NY-born and bred Edwin Cardinal O’Brien (ordained in that same cathedral by Francis Cardinal Spellman) preached a moving feast-day homily highlighting the forthcoming restoration - see “Patrick, Make Us Worthy of This Cathedral”

I have so many memories of St. Patrick’s – from childhood visits with my family, to more personal ones later in times of loneliness and stress, the countless Chrism Masses and other diocesan celebrations I attended there as a deacon or a priest, the sad months of mourning there after 9/11, and the jubilant visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. In a nation where many cathedrals hardly look the part, St. Patrick’s elevates its environment and invites all who enter it into the mysterious communion that transcends time as well as space. May it long stand as a glorious symbol of Christ’s continued presence in his Church - and, through the Church, in every human city!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Election Year in America

Mitt Romney’s quest for the nomination of his party got another boost in Illinois this week, but it appears to be an increasingly quixotic quest at best. Aside from the likelihood that the debilitating primary combat may have significantly diminished the value of the Republican nomination, the debased state of American politics (thanks in no small measure to the antics of the candidates and their compatriots in Congress) may well render even the ultimate prize of the Presidency pretty worthless. Granted, even the diminished President of an escapist society in increasingly dangerous denial about the nature and scope of its problems still gets his ruffles and flourishes and lots of other honors and perks (many of them for life). But is it really worth the price? By which I don’t just mean money. Indeed, money appears to be no issue at all for Romney, who seems to have a lot more money than seems even remotely just and who, presumably, has only gotten where he is in the contest because of his utterly unseemly financial advantage – an advantage, however, which he will not have to anything like that extent in the General Election. Perhaps the only long-lasting lesson from Romney’s financial advantage is its confirmation of the old adage, “Money can’t buy love.”

While in Rome these past few months, I often lamented the European news media’s greater attention (in comparison with US media) to Sports – reflecting, of course, European culture’s clear obsession with soccer and other such strange diversions. Coming home, I marvel at the American media’s apparent obsession with presidential election politics. I don’t think the average American is anywhere nearly as obsessed with politics as the average European seems to be with soccer. (Even less likely is a widespread interest in the nuances of public policy). But I do think that both the appallingly vacuous character of the campaign and the comparably appalling character of the media coverage do in some way reflect the increasingly bizarre way in which we as a society have come to filter reality. So there is little reason to suppose that the summer-autumn competition between Obama and Romney (a competition between almost archetypical representatives of their two respective out-of-touch elites) will be any more illuminating, any more substantive any more relevant to resolving our most pressing problems than the present primary circus has been.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Breakfast at The Flame

For as long as I have been a Paullist, The Flame Diner at the corner of 58th Street and 9th Avenue has been a stalwart hangout for parishioners of the Paulists’ mid-Manhattan Mother Church. Moreover, for much of my 10-year stint as associate pastor at St. Paul the Apostle, generally Wednesday morning meant Breakfast at The Flame. The origins of the practice pre-dated my arrival, and many of the original regulars have long since ceased to be a part of it, but a faithful remnant still breakfasts together more or less consistently around 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings. No longer a regular myself, of course, having moved to Tennessee in 2010, I still consider myself a “Wednesday Breakfast Alumnus” and so make it my business to try be there at The Flame whenever I happen to be back in New York on a Wednesday morning. That is why I was there today – still a little jet-lagged from yesterday’s 13-hour door-to-door trip from Rome, but ready (after two months abroad) for a good New York omelet!

“We all have to eat,” Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly said to Edward R. Murrow’s wife, when the latter called the White House on December 7, 1941 - on the reasonable assumption that the Murrows’ invitation to dinner with the Roosevelts that evening would be cancelled. The Roosevelts notoriously cared little about their food. Others of us care a lot more. Some look down on diner food. But New Yorkers know that you still can’t beat a good NYC diner for really good food at something like a reasonable price.

Diner food is typically good food. It’s also (typically) plentiful, and diner menus are widely known for the abundance and the variety of the choices they offer. Often, they highlight the city’s ethnic character. Greek Diners and Kosher Diners seem particularly popular.

Diners also offer two things that in this age of gentrified, class-based eating we run the risk of losing – a welcoming place an individual can unselfconsciously sit and eat alone as well as a casual environment where friends, co-workers, etc., can grab a quick (or not so quick) inexpensive meal combined with quality time together. (Not that long ago, American cities typically had lots of such places).

The Flame is all those things – and a precious part of richly diverse and vibrant neighborhood, to whose social cohesiveness it contributes.

And the omelets are good too!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Arrivederci, Roma!

Looking ahead, 2 ½ months seems like such a long time. Looking back, however, the time just seems to have flown by. Was it really that long ago that I arrived in Rome on Epiphany morning? And now, here it is St. Joseph’s Day! March 19 is, of course, the day to eat chickpeas (and some certainly tastier things too, which sadly I can't eat anymore), but my focus today will be on packing my bags for my return trip! Maybe that’s how time tends to work in general. When we are young and looking forward, the time ahead seems lengthy and the wait seems to stretch on forever. When we are old, we look back on the past and feel it just flew by!

Given how anxious and fretful I was beforehand, how I seemed to be anticipating the whole experience with an almost apocalyptic fear and dread, I have to say in retrospect that it really has been the most wonderful couple of months. I won’t know till mid-May at the earliest whether I actually passed the course or not. So I will withhold judgment on that part of the experience – except to say that, pass or fail, I did certainly learn a lot and generally enjoyed class, in spite of its being in Italian. (That may have been the best part of it actually – forcing me to learn my ancestral tongue well enough to understood the lectures and the textbook!)

The academic part of the experience was good, but even better were the incidental side-benefits of being here. Rome is, of course, the heart of the Church. So it has always attracted and fascinated me. I have often said that I think every seminarian ought to spend at least a semester in Rome – if nothing else just for the experience it offers of the Church’s universality. That’s a view I have long espoused and is not some sudden by-product of my present experience. What this prolonged time here would add to that, however, would be a strong encouragement to anyone – priest, seminarian, layperson who has the opportunity to do so - to take advantage of the Lenten stations, not just as a valuable art and history lesson but as a genuine connection with the Age of the Martyrs and the Faith that has flourished so thoroughly thanks to them. This morning's station at SS. Quatro Coronati (photo) certainly combined all of that!

SS. Quatro Coronati is dedicated to SS. Claudius, Nicostratus, Symphorian, and Castorius, sculptors martyred by Diocletian for refusing to make a statue of the god Aesculapius. From the bus, one climbs the steep, cobblestoned Via SS Quatro Coronati, through a 5th-century atrium to a frescoed courtyard, then a second courtyard (originally part of the nave), to the right of which is the 13th-century Chapel of St, Sylvester, decorated with frescoes of the life of Constantine. The Church, which also features a distinctive 15th-century Tabernacle, is in the care of a community of Augustinian nuns and also has an interesting medieval cloister. What a treasure this City is!

And so, as I prepare to say arrivederci, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and and filled with appreciation to the Paulist community here in Rome, whose hospitality has been so graciously welcoming, and to my fellow Paulists back in the US, whose readiness to take on some extra burdens during this time made it actually possible for me to do all this. And, of course, thank you to this historic and holy City itself whose ancient streets and stones and whose many churches and the relics they enshrine have reminded me so strongly of what matters most both here and now and for eternity.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


This past Thursday marked the arithmetic mid-point of Lent. There is, in fact, a theory among some scholars that the original Roman Lent was only half as long as it later became, and that it actually began on what is now the 4th Sunday of Lent (or possibly on the previous Friday). In any case it is certainly noteworthy that, in the traditional Lenten liturgy until 1969, one could sort of distinguish two parts to the season with definitely distinctive emphases. In the first half of Lent, the focus was primarily on fasting and penance. Beginning, however, on the Friday of the 3rd week (when the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman used to be read), the focus became more baptismal, while the Gospel readings were taken predominantly from John and generally highlighted the growing conflict between Jesus and the world around him.

Whatever one makes of that all that, this Sunday is now considered the liturgical mid-point of Lent and has long been observed accordingly. Hence, the lightening of the somber Lenten purple with rose-colored vestments, and (in the traditional liturgy) the permitting of flowers on the altar and a greater use of music. Here in Rome, the traditional station church for today (photo) is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemne (The Holy Cross in Jerusalem), built to enshrine the relics returned to Rome by St. Helena. The choice of station reflects (or perhaps caused) the traditional opening words for today’s Mass, Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”).

Outside of the Roman stations, the link with Jerusalem is now largely forgotten – although it sort of survives (perhaps inadvertently) in this year’s “B” cycle, thanks to the Old Testament reading (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23) reprising the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem’s First temple, the Exile, and then Cyrus the Persian’s permission for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Chances are that connection is generally little noted and seldom remarked upon, however. If anything, it is likely the Laetare part that tends to get recalled – especially in churches where rose vestments are retained. Concelebrating at Santa Susanna in Rome, I myself had to settle for a regular purple chasuble, but the principal celebrant was fittingly all vested in rose (a much more beautiful rose chasuble, I must admit, than the one we have in my parish back home).

There are many popular customs connected with Mid-Lent among them the original English Mother's Day ("Mothering Sunday"). One particularly nice Roman Laetare custom (which perhaps deserves more attention than it normally gets) is the blessing by the Pope of the Golden Rose which will subsequently be bestowed as a papal honor. The Rose used to be given to the Holy Roman emperors at their coronation and over the centuries has been given to kings, queens, princes, princesses, governments, cities, churches, and shrines. Henry VIII of England received it three times – perhaps not the best example! Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing to the mid-20th century, it was given exclusively to women, primarily Catholic queens - among them (see in 1937 Queen Elena of Italy (who, since 2001, is now a Servant of God).

The last individual to receive it was the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg in 1956. In more recent years, it has been given exclusively to religious shrines. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed it on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Undoubtedly, Mid-Lent meant a lot more when Lent was widely observed as a season of serious fasting. In a world where Lent is barely noticed, its midpoint loses much of its historic significance. Perhaps, the fact that for centuries the middle of Lent was perceived as such a noteworthy occasion ought to serve as a challenge to all of us to make more of the opportunities presented by this special season.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Station at Santa Susanna

For over 1000 years, before the 1969 Reform jumbled the Lenten liturgy, the texts of the Masses for the Lenten weekdays - what Pope St. Pius X famously called those "most ancient Masses of the season" - were often chosen with primary reference to that day's stational church. This was certainly the case in the old liturgy for the Saturday of the 3rd week of Lent, when the station was at Santa Susanna, a Roman "titular" church, and one of the original 25 parishes of Rome.
Thus, the Old Testament lesson was taken from Daniel 13 - the story of the virtuous matron Susanna falsely accused of adultery but saved from execution by the last-minute intervention of the prophet Daniel. Daniel's Susanna was part of the Jewish exile community in Babylon - obviously not the early Christian virgin martyred by Diocletian in a grisly foreshadowing of the Great Persecution he would shortly unleash. The use of the Old Testament story about Susanna's namesake was, however, a classic example of liturgical "accommodation" - a practice reflected artistically in the beautiful Renaissance frescoes which adorn the walls of the church and which link the story of the Old Testament Susanna with that of the martyr Susanna.
In the old liturgy, the daily Old Testament lesson and the Gospel reading were typically matched. Thus, the gospel for this day used to be the account in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. In other words, the liturgy started with the story of a just God's intervention to save an innocent person from a corrupt process and then compared that with God's even greater intervention on our behalf in Jesus, whose great mercy can save even the guilty.
Likewise the frescoes in the church walls tell the story of the two Susannas - the first saved from human injustice, the second triumphing over human injustice through the great grace of martyrdom. Indeed, in the life of the Church, nothing can quite compare with the sublime grace of martyrdom - something of which one is daily reminded her ein Rome (especially at the station churches).
Justice is a good thing. It makes human societies work well - or at least a lot better than they would work without it. If we can at least treat one another justly, we have accomplished something of value in human terms. But, as Portia reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, "in the course of justice none of us should see salvation." As the former pairing (for 1000+ years) of Susanna and the woman caught in adultery was meant to remind us, for what matters most we need and depend on the great mercy of God, which totally transcends the constraints of justice. As the parable of the debtors reminds us so well, just as we depend totally on the God's mercy for ourselves so we need to be true exemplars of mercy in regard to others. Our own experience of forgiveness should fill us, so to speak, and so overflow in an abundance of forgiveness of others.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Perhaps even more undignified than the pointless indignity of having to study for an exam at my advanced age is actually having to take one. Well, that's what I did this afternoon - certainly my first exam in over 25 years! I spent almost the entire day in a state of obsessive anxiety as I anticipated the ordeal and waited impatiently for it to be time to go for one last time to the now familiar setting of the Urbaniana. After the seemingly endless ritual of taking attendance, the envelope with the questions was selected, and the 5 questions were read out. That took more time, of course, since they had to be repeated several times for everyone to write them down! Then I scribbled for just over an hour. Scribbled is unfortunately the right word. even as a child, when penmanship was still valued and taught and graded, my handwriting was atrocious. I had an "immature handwriting" I was told then. I fear that 50+ years later I haven't matured all that much! (If anything, the fact that I actually write very little, other than my signature, in script anymore has probably made my penmanship even worse). Of course, I can read my writing. Studying for my exam, I found my class notes quite legible - if a bit humorous as I read some sentences scribbled in Italian, others translated impromptu into English, others half-and-half or in English but in Italian word order!
We were advised to expect the results around the middle of May. That should certainly give the readers sufficient time to decipher my writing!
Anyway, what matters now is that I am finished! After handing in my exam, I left the Pontifical University of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples for the last time, walked down that pesky hill for the last time, and crossed the Prince Amedeo d'Aosta Bridge for the last time. Before boarding the bus on Via Acciaioli, I stopped in the beautiful church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (photo) for a short prayer of thanksgiving. On the bus, I talked to some Scottish Rugby fans in town for the big match tomorrow. they got off at Piazza Barberini. I got off one stop later. It could have been any ordinary commute home. But it was the last one!

Monday, March 12, 2012

At the Abbey of Tre Fontane

This morning, I visited Tre Fontane, the traditional site of St. Paul’s martyrdom. Because of its distance from the center of Rome and the time it takes to get there and back, I had never gotten to Tre Fontane on any previous visit to Rome, and so I was determined to do so during this lengthy stay (now coming quickly to its close). After taking the Metro, Linea B, all the way to the last stop, Via Laurentina, I wandered around for a while trying to find the right bus stop, which I found eventually - in the place where I should have looked first! Then I waited some 20 minutes or so for the 761 Bus. It’s a short distance, and I probably could have walked it (I did in fact walk back to the station after my visit), but it’s mostly uphill from the station to the Abbey, and I didn’t know how much walking I would have to do at the Abbey itself (not too much, as it turned out). So I waited. Once on the bus, I positioned myself where I could read the bus stop signs; but, by the time I had realized I was at the Tre Fontane stop, it was too late to get off, and I had to ride a considerable distance to the next stop, after which I waited another 15 minutes or so for a bus back to where I needed to get off!

Murphy’s Law seemed to be fully operational this morning!

But, once inside the Abbey grounds, the hassle and frustration of getting there were all worth it! One enters through a wooded path, welcomed by a huge statue of St. Benedict. I assume that the wall to my left separated the public path from the monastic enclosure. I saw no actual signs of the monks’ presence. So the enclosure seems effective! (Tre Fontane has been a monastic sight for much of its history; but, after having been abandoned for some time, it was given by Blessed Pope Pius IX to the care of the Trappists, who successfully de-malarialized the area and planted numerous eucalyptus trees. After 1870, they were able to stay on the site by first renting and eventually buying the property from the Italian government. It is here also that the lambs are raised, from whose wool each new metropolitan archbishop’s pallium is made).

There are three churches on the site. To the left at the end of the first path is the actual monastic church dedicated to SS. Vincent and Anastasius. The sanctuary area is fenced off, but it has a nave and two aisles and offers an inviting atmosphere for quiet personal prayer. To the right is a second church, Santa Maria Scala Coeli, so named from the legend that, while celebrating Mass there, St. Bernard saw the soul he was offering the Mass for ascend by a ladder from purgatory to heaven. Below is a crypt, called the “Prison of St. Paul,” which contains the relics of St. Zeno and his fellow Roman legionaries martyred by Diocletian in 299.

Between the two churches is another charming path, with some exposed ancient pavement, leading to the Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, which commemorates the presumed site of St. Paul’s martyrdom. According to legend, when St. Paul was beheaded, his head bounced three times, causing three fountains (hence the name Tre Fontane) to spring up. Whatever their origin, the three fountains are very much there, very much the focus of attention, in the sanctuary. (Even bending down, I could not actually see the water, but the sound of the flowing spring was certainly vivid enough to impress!)

After taking my obligatory photo of the fountains, I spent some time kneeling in prayer in that special place. My mind recalled the beautiful, early 20th-century painting of St. Paul about to be beheaded above St. Paul’s altar in the Paulist “Mother Church” in New York, with its quotes from Paul’s famous words to Timothy, I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith. I prayed that, when my final day comes (hopefully not by beheading), I too may make those words my own.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Today’s Gospel’s account of Jesus at war with the Temple’s money-changers (John 2:13-25) is a familiar one. It appears in all 4 Gospels, and its imagery has had influence far beyond its original context. Some 79 years ago, on March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in the depths of the last Great Depression. Everybody knows his famous line about the only thing we have to fear. In an era much more religiously literate than our own, however, almost everyone would have recognized the reference to today’s Gospel is something else he said in that speech.

“Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

(Imagine a President - or Presidential candidate - with the fortitude to talk like that today!)

The “cleansing of the Temple,” as it is often called, was obviously a provocative act on Jesus’ part. It has been suggested that, together with Jesus’ Messiah-style entry into Jerusalem, it may have been the provocation precipitating his arrest and execution.

For devout Jews in Jesus’ time, the Temple was certainly something worth fighting – and dying – for. Contemporary Palestinian progaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, the Jewish Temple was the heart and soul of historic Jerusalem. The original Temple (built by King Solomon and completed around 960 BC) had been destroyed by the Babylonians on the 9th of Av in 586 BC. A reconstructed 2nd Temple (completed in 515 BC) lasted until its destruction by the Romans – again on the 9th of Av – in A.D. 70. Before that, however, around 20 BC, King Herod the Great had begun a grandiose renovation of the entire Temple complex, making it one of the most impressive shrines in the ancient world.

In the process, perhaps, some of the classical, pagan model of a temple as a cultural, commercial, and social center seems to have crept in from the surrounding secular culture. Jesus’ strong reaction to the activities in the Temple precincts probably reflected his fidelity and devotion to a more traditionally Jewish notion of the Temple and so soon got him into trouble with the Temple’s priests (Sadducees, known at that time for their more accommodating approach to secular culture).

What Jesus was fighting for was Israel’s core national value – faithfulness to God, who had made Israel a nation and given it his Law, transforming a semi-anarchic mob of ex-slaves into an actual nation and a moral people.

Like the exodus generation, we too are wanderers in life’s desert, desperately in need of a map. (Here in Rome, one need not go far to get lost amid little zig-sagging streets with constantly changing names. A city street map is absolutely essential!) Likewise in life, we may wander far and wide with only a vague outline of where we are heading. Along the way, however, God has given us the map we require – the familiar map he gave the Israelites in the desert – what Jewish tradition refers to as God’s “10 Words” and which we commonly call the “10 Commandments.”

The 10 Commandments spell out in daily life the consequences of becoming one of God’s people. Living a morally serious life is our response to God’s covenant with us, our cooperation with the plan God has been pursuing through all of human history – from creation to Christ (and continues to pursue to the end). In living morally serious lives we reflect our gratitude to God and our commitment to remain faithful over the long haul.

According to one legend, at Mount Sinai God made the wombs of all of Israel’s women as clear as glass – so that all future generations would see for themselves what was happening and personally commit to the covenant. I suppose that’s poor biology, but it makes for a great image! It certainly makes the all-important point that the commandments are addressed to each of one us individually (which is why they are phrased in the singular – “thou salt ... thou shalt not”). We are all each individually responsible to respond with what we do how we live.

As our map through the desert of daily life, the 10 Commandments call us over and over to commitment and fidelity:

- commitment and fidelity to God, who has revealed himself to us, in his world and in his word and above all in Jesus his Son;

- commitment and fidelity to God’s world, which has been entrusted to us and which we have individually and collectively managed to make such a mess of;

- commitment and fidelity to one another, our fellow-wanderers in God’s world, whom we have been commanded to care about and care for, whether we like it or not and whether we like each other or not, both when war or recession may make us more conscious of shared danger and common need, and in times of peace and prosperity, when wealth and safety may tempt us to go it alone and leave others behind;

- commitment and fidelity finally to God’s Church, by being part of which we are being empowered to live as God’s people in this world.

Commitment is never automatic and fidelity doesn’t come cheaply – not for the folks at Mount Sinai (as so many subsequent episodes in Exodus illustrate) and not for anyone else either. But the commandments teach us that the fast food of individual fulfillment and personal autonomy just can’t compare with dining in God’s kingdom. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus saw that – despite the blinding glare of the grandeur of Herod’s Temple.

And that, this Lent, is what he challenges us also to see with him.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Allora Concludiamo Qui!

With those three, thrilling, wonderful words, the last lecturer ended the final presentation of Studium XXVIII della Congegazione delle Cause dei Santi. Last evening, we marked the occasion as a class with a final gathering on the Urbaniana roof as dusk fell over the Eternal City. (The picture, taken from there is of the Piazza della Rovere and the Ponte Principe Amadeo d"Aosta at the foot of the hill - the same bridge I have hurried across each evening at the end of class to catch my bus home to Santa Susanna).

It was exactly two months ago today that the course conducted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints began. January 9 – March 9 is really a very short time in a person’s lifespan, and it has gone by predictably quickly. A lot of important information – theological, historical, and juridical – has been packed into these 2 months. My final exam – one week away – will test whether and how well I have assimilated the material. No point tempting Providence by making predictions!

Back on New Year’s Day, I admitted to experiencing more than a little anxiety – as I tried to prepare myself for a multitude of physical, emotional, intellectual, and linguistic challenges, none of which I felt fully ready for. Admittedly, all transitions are stressful – and few more so than being bounced around from one place to another at an age when most people are preparing to retire!

That said, it’s been a wonderful two months. Living here at the heart of the Church, in Peter’s City, surrounded by the relics of the apostles and martyrs and inspired by their memory, has been a real blessing and a great gift, one for which I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday - So What?

One of the curious contradictions of our era is that, while we constantly hear how “the media” want to keep the political campaign going because it makes an “interesting” story, the fact is that it was in large part the way the media covers primary campaigns that brought about the present situation in which the nomination is normally decided well in advance of the convention in the first place.

Those of us above a certain age can well recall when conventions still really nominated candidates, and when it was by no means certain going into a convention who would emerge as the nominee. The spread of primaries and the decline of party establishments (“bosses”) has transformed the nominating process, but so has the media coverage which (1) focuses almost entirely on the competition itself (the “horserace”) and prematurely anoints frontrunners, thus causing opponents to drop out too early in the race, and (2) increases the cost of campaigning, which in turn makes it hard for non-frontrunners without media-recognized “momentum” to remain long in the race.

When contested conventions were the norm, they were not seen as such a liability. Now that they are the exception, they have come to be seen as a serious liability for a political party trying to get itself in competitive shape for the general election. Certainly, the last seriously contested conventions – the Democrats in 1968 and 1972, the Republicans in 1976 – contributed to the party’s defeat. By extension, continuing the fight all the way to the convention (even if the outcome is by then assured) is seen as destructive to the party. The Kennedy challenge to Carter in 1980 is the obvious example. Of course, any incumbent who is seriously challenged within his own party is inevitably weakened – as was the case with Carter in 1980, Ford in 1976, and (analogously) Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

The 2008 race between Obama and Clinton is often seen as the exception. Going in, Obama was presumptively the weaker candidate (even if he was the media’s darling), and there is little doubt that the competition with a presumptively superior candidate made him a better competitor for the General Election. The Republican 2012 experience, however, has illustrated what an exception the 2008 Democratic race was.

But all of this largely misses the point. The reason the long primary campaign ended up helping the Democrats in 2008 was that the Democrats were ready to go – ready to offer a serious alternative to Republican incompetence and thus resume their 20th-century status as the national governing party. (That Obama himself was evidently not personally ready to govern may have since become all too evident. But that is a different issue).

Compare the Republicans today with the Democrats in 2008. None of the candidates is really ready to govern. And it shows! Nor is the problem purely the personalities of the candidates (however lamentable some of them may have been). The reality is that it has been quite some time now since the Republican Party has really had something positive to offer the American electorate. If indeed, as polls have consistently suggested, Americans are distressed about the country’s direction – angry about its present and fearful for its future – what better time to offer a viable alternative? The alternative to Obama’s somewhat weak foreign policy should be a strong one in which the national interests of the United States are clearly comprehended and pursued. The noisy saber-rattling of Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich is not the same as a strong foreign policy, much less a substitute for it. (As for the fourth Republican candidate, the less said about his libertarian isolationism the better!) Likewise, empty slogans about job-creation by candidates who have become hostage to an ideology which will accomplish no such thing are no help either.

Not necessarily in order of importance and not to exclude other important issues, I can quickly list a number of critical issues threatening or undermining our national path to prosperity and security. They include:

1. Iran and North Korea (and specifically the prospect of either or both of them acquiring nuclear weapons)

2. Our excessive dependence on imported energy (and our excessive dependence on energy, period)

3. Our out-of-control expenditures on entitlement programs and the out-of-control cost of health care

4. Our deteriorating educational system that is forming a population ill-equipped to compete with other societies which truly value education

5. Our dysfunctional transportation system

6. The catastrophic breakdown of consensus on cultural and moral issues and the personal and social consequences thereof

7. Our loss of confidence as a society in the political process as a means to move forward on these and other problems.

I’ll stop at seven.

Does anyone hear serious solutions to these problems being proposed – or even just the problems being discussed in an intelligent, rational, and honest way?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bells for Nuper Nonnulli

There are so many wonderful things about Rome that I will miss when I leave. For sure, one of them is a good public transit system - the sine qua non of a vibrant, healthy urban life. But one thing I will especially miss is the sound of church bells - not just clock bells tolling the hour, but loud, clanging, constantly pealing bells - calling people to Mass in the morning. This morning, just as we were beginning our stational Mass at the church of Santa Balbina (photo), we were treated to the wonderful clamor et clangor of the local church bells. It was every bit as loud and overwhelming as that other common background noise that tends to drown out everything else in European cities - the sirens of emergency vehicles - but so much more uplifting!

The bells rang because it was morning and time for Mass. For the Paulist Fathers in Rome, however, this was a special morning, for it was on this day in 1858 that the Congregation for Bishops and Regulars issued its Decree Nuper Nonnulli, which brought Isaac Hecker's first stay in Rome to its successful conclusion. That decree dispensed Hecker and 4 others - Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, Francis Baker, and Clarence Walworth - from their vows as Redemptorists and authorized them to return to the U.S. to continue, under the authority of the local bishops, their work for the evangelization of the country. This set the stage for Hecker (together with three of the four) to found the Paulist Fathers, four months later, on July 7, 1858, in New York City.

"We are left in entire liberty to act in the future as God and our intelligence shall point the way. Let us be thankful to God, humble towards each other and everyone else, and more than ever in earnest to do the work God demands at our hands." (Isaac Hecker, Letter to the American Fathers, Rome, March 11, 1858).

Fittingly for Nuper Nonnulli Day, I finally took the bus to the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls), which is one of the Seven "Pilgrimage Churches" of Rome. S. Lorenzo is actually 2 churches - an ancient one and a medieval one placed end-to-end. It enshrines the Tomb of Rome's esteemed 3rd-century martyr, the Deacon St. Lawrence (+August 10, 258). In addition to Lawrence's tomb, it also houses a marble slab, said to have been where the martyr's body was first laid after his death. It also has a beautiful medieval chiostro (cloister), housing scores of antiquities, which alone would be worth a visit.

The connection with Nuper Nonnulli is that, since 1881, it has also housed the Tomb of Hecker's papal patron, Blessed Pope Pius IX, with whom Hecker had 2 audiences during his momentous months in Rome - one before and another after the Decree Nuper Nonnulli. Pius IX was Pope from 1846 to 1878. His burial at S. Lorenzo was delayed until 1881 in the hope of avoiding a hostile demonstration in recently united Italy. As it turned out, a "patriotic" Italian gang did attempt (unsuccessfully) to throw the Pontiff's body in the Tiber. Pius IX's feast day is February 7.

Another modern Pope associated with S. Lorenzo is Venerable Servant of God Pius XII, who rushed there during the allied bombing of the basilica and neighborhood on July 19, 1843, to pray with the victims and distribute cash to those in need. An outside statue of Pius XII "Defensor Civitatis" commemorates this event. It has been suggested that the King was convinced that the Pope's presence would spare Rome the experience of other bombed cities. When that proved illusory, he switched to Plan B. Just 6 days later, he fired Mussolini. In fact, the Pope's presence probably did make a major difference in Rome's fate. Romans certainly remember him fondly for having stayed with them through the bombardment and the German occupation that soon followed - unlike the King and the Government, all of whom fled.