Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 at the Movies

This week I decided to make a list of my 10 best movies of 2014. As it happens, however, I can only recall 12 that I have actually seen this year. And two of them I just saw this week, thanks to the annual post-Christmas, pre-Oscar movie blitz (and the generous present of a movie gift-card). So, for whatever it may be worth, here is my personal list of the 12 movies I took the trouble to see in 2014 - ranked somewhat loosely in order of preference. (The top 5 are al roughy equal. I'd award any one of them an Oscar!)

1. Calvary
2. Boyhood
3. Ida
4. The Imitation Game
5. Philomena
6. The Hundred Foot Journey
7. Belle
8. My Old Lady
9. Chef
10. A Most Wanted Man
11. Foxcatcher
12. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Recalling Christmases Past and Present

After the Masses during the Night, some sleep, and the morning Mass, my religious brothers and I went out for a convivial Christmas dinner yesterday. Then came quiet time - time to catch one's breath, watch some Christmas programs on TV, make the all-important Christmas phone call to the West Coast, etc - basically some time to sit with myself in the lingering peace and beauty of that most peaceful and beautiful day. Spent alone like that, Christmas afternoon and evening inevitably invite reminiscences - rich recollections of Christmases past. We all have such memories. They flood our consciousness at this time of year, and help define how the holiday speaks to us.

I remember boyhood Christmases in the Bronx in the 1950s - getting up very early to see what gifts Santa had brought, sitting under the tree amid a pile of presents and a mess of torn wrapping paper, then getting dressed and going to Christmas morning Mass. After that, in the earlier years, came the New York Central Railroad trip to my uncle's house in Westchester, where my mother's side of the family gathered for Christmas dinner (to be followed by further visits with my father's side of the family later during Christmas week and on New year's Eve). As the years passed, one sister and then another joined the Christmas morning scene under the tree. In time too my father bought a car, and so we would then drive to my uncle's instead of taking the train.

I remember also as an altar boy serving one of the regularly scheduled Christmas morning Masses in church, and then inevitably getting pulled aside after Mass to serve one or more other side altar Masses, as all the priests in the community celebrated not the usual one but three Masses that special day.

I remember being nine years old and attending a funeral on Christmas Eve for a schoolmate's brother.

And I remember the anticipation Christmas always created - like the incredible activity that went into baking the traditional Sicilian Christmas cakes every December, some of which got packaged and shipped to far-off relatives and family friends. Then came the excitement of getting out the decorations and Christmas lights and buying a tree. And how the various creche scenes at home, at school, and at church always captivated my imagination, each different nativity scene speaking its distinctive idiom and message.

I remember too the anxiety gift-buying invariably induced in me, which it still sort of does (solved today, however, by giving mainly money and gift cards). I never seemed quite sure what to get people and whether they would like whatever I got them. And I can even remember sometimes getting gifts myself that I didn't particularly care for or couldn't really use for one reason or other, but always carefully pretending to be pleased so as not to hurt the gift-giver's feelings or appear ungrateful myself.

I remember getting older and the disruptions of those transitions in those turbulent times. Eventually all the locations of the particular parts of the familiar Christmas rituals changed. Little actually remained the same - except Christmas itself, its enduring significance speaking louder than the disruptive forces of ephemeral change. 

I remember a very special Christmas - Christmas 1981 in the novitiate - an absolutely unique experience with seven other novices and three priests, a day that encapsulated many of the tense struggles and terrific joys of the novitiate experience in our precious "1100 acres of rocks and trees" in northern New Jersey. 

I remember Christmas 1986 in Grand Rapids - perhaps my saddest Christmas ever. Even so what I remember most is happy - Christmas Day afternoon and evening spent in the Grand Rapids common room in friendly conversation with a certain older priest (now sadly in a nursing home).

I remember five Christmas mornings in Toronto celebrating the Missa in Aurora for the Italian community, doing my best with the language of my ancestors. I remember too the last of those Toronto Christmas Days, when I could not find any food at all in the house refrigerator, and so went for a long walk around the neighborhood, eventually stopping in a Second Cup that I was surprised to find open and there making my substitute Christmas dinner out of a cappuccino and a scone. I remember too asking the waiter whether he minded having to work on Christmas, only to be told how much he loved getting the extra holiday pay!

I remember my first Christmas Eve back in New York, celebrating the Children's Mass, and then later that night the excitement of concelebrating Midnight Mass in Hecker's great church and the awe I found myself feeling after kissing the altar and looking down the nave at the amazing crowd that offered the closest impression to the crowds that church was meant to hold and at one time regularly did hold!

I remember feeling that excitement again and again over a succession of 10 such Midnight Masses. I remember too the happy Christmas Eve dinners I enjoyed in subsequent years in NY with the present pastor and his predecessor and the Christmas Day dinner outings orchestrated by the late Fr. Dennis (of blessed memory). 

Christmas dinners come and go, presents increase and diminish, friends and loved ones may be near or far away. Yet Christmas continues to come and work its singular grace in all who, wherever and however they find themselves, listen to the angels' song and seek (however, feebly) to sing it themselves.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What Christmas Can Do to Us

Among the many monuments and military cemeteries in Belgium’s Forrests is a large timber cross set in a concrete base, erected there a mere 15 years ago. It commemorates the so-called “Christmas Truce” of 1914. Since June of this year, there have been remembrances of various sorts all around Europe to mark the centennial of the start of World War I, “the Great War” as it came to be called, the war that the newly elected Pope Benedict XV labelled “the suicide of European civilization,” the war that pretty much ruined everything for the rest of the 20th century.
But, on Christmas Eve 100 years ago, the war was just a few months old. Each side still expected a fairly quick victory, and the two sides did not yet quite hate each other with the ferocity that four years of pointless, non-stop killing would inspire. Already, however, Western Europe had been divided from north to south, from Belgium’s Channel coast to the Swiss Border, by a network of trenches, no more than 60 yards apart in some places, separated by a muddy “No Man’s Land,” littered with rotting corpses. The newly elected Pope Benedict XV’s appeal for a Christmas cease-fire had been roundly rebuffed by the belligerents. Yet, as Christmas approached and the Imperial German government began transporting thousands of Christmas trees to the soldiers at the front, more and more unofficial – and certainly unapproved – incidents of fraternization started to occur across the trenches. Then, on Christmas Eve, as the German soldiers lit the candles on their little Christmas trees and sang Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht in their trenches, men from both sides started serenading each other. (Then as now, Silent Night was as familiar in French and English as in its original German.) Soon the soldiers were meeting each other in “No Man’s Land,” singing, exchanging food, even playing soccer together, and taking time to bury their dead – together. At dawn on Christmas morning, recalled one British soldier, “No Man’s Land was full of clusters … of khaki and gray … pleasantly chatting together.”
The 1914 Christmas Truce was the only one of its kind in the 20th century. Never formally proclaimed and never given any official approval, it just happened spontaneously from among the ranks of ordinary soldiers, who were emboldened by the very idea of Christmas to do what more prominent and powerful people never dreamed of doing.
That’s what Christmas can do to people. Think of that great Christmas icon, Kris Kringle, from my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. He persuaded all sorts of prominent and powerful people (including even Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel) to believe in him and be reconciled with one another. And he did that, not in some super-human way, but simply by doing the sorts of things those other people would never have thought of doing on their own, had it not been for him.
Eighteen years after the “Christmas Truce,” midway through another world war, which the first one had made almost inevitable, another Pope, Pius XII, addressed a Christmas Eve radio message to a war-torn world: “As the Holy Christmas Season comes round each year, the message of Jesus, Who is light in the midst of darkness, echoes once more from the crib of Bethlehem … It … lights up with heavenly truth a world that is plunged in darkness by fatal errors. … It promises mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”
Of course, we all want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really OK. But in fact Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those (like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem) who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by refugees and immigrants far from home (like Mary and Joseph in Egypt), and - as has so often been the case these past 100 years (including. for citizens of our own country, now these past 14 years) - by soldiers and nations at war.
We’re all familiar with some version of the saying – “90% of life is showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up “in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.” He showed up in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions so often experienced - then as now - by poor immigrants and refugees and with hardly anyone else taking any notice at all.
But God didn't just show up; he stayed with us for the long haul - here in his Church! He “shrouded” himself – as Paulist founder Isaac Hecker said, preaching on Christmas in 1870 – “in our common humanity,” becoming “our brother whom we can approach with feelings of confidence and affection.” And that's what makes it possible for us, as his Church, to show up ourselves, “in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days,” despite whatever obstacles we've put in God's way, to continue what he started on Christmas - this Christmas, this year, and every year – uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, past, present, and future in one communion of saints, one universal network of salvation in Christ.
The God who became incarnate in Jesus is inviting us this Christmas to take seriously his coming into our world – to use a phrase from Pope Francis, to be “convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.” Taking seriously Christ’s coming into our world means making ours as well the commitment that he himself made to us and to our world on Christmas. He invites us to overcome whatever barriers remain between us, between young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, native and immigrant, friend and foe.
We celebrate tonight what we profess every Sunday all the year round: that the Only begotten Son of God came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. Tonight, we kneel when we say those words, to solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and inviting us into a new relationship with him and with one another.
As Saint Paul just told us in his letter to Titus: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.
So - in the words of one almost forgotten World War I poet [Frederick Niven (1878-1944)] -
God speed the time when every day

Shall be as Christmas Day.

Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2014.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

To whoever may read this blog, a very Merry Christmas! May the joy, peace, happiness, and blessings of the Savior whose birth we celebrate be yours now and throughout the new year!

O sweet infant Saviour, give to us that peace which you came to bring on the earth.  Peace to the young and the old, to the poor and the sick, to the sorrowful and to all of good will.  Peace on earth to all nations, especially to Your Holy Church and to Your Vicar the Pope who like You suffers from the hands of others.  Peace to the world at war that your kingdom may begin!   Peace to all of good will, that their minds may be enlightened by Your truth, uniting them in Your love ...  [From a Christmas Sermon by Servant of God Isaac Hecker, St. Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 25, 1870]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Summing Up Advent

The most famous 20th-century American monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), entered his Kentucky monastery on December 10, 1941. (Interestingly, he died exactly 27 years later, on December 10, 1968). In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), he spoke of the symbolic significance of becoming a monk in Advent.

"Liturgically speaking, you could hardly find a better time to become a monk than Advent. You begin a  new life, you enter into a new world at the beginning of a new liturgical year. And everything that the church gives you to sing, every prayer that you say in and with Christ in His Mystical Body is an ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer."

The monastic vocation is distinctive, of course, as in its own proper way is every vocation in the Church. But every form of life in the Church participates in that same "ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer." As I have often observed, Advent is the liturgical season that most explicitly expresses the Church's - that is, our - present condition, in this interim between Christmas and the end.

As a monk, Merton experienced Advent in a heightened way - in a liturgical way. He took his place as a postulant in the monastic choir for the first time on Saturday evening, December 13, 1941. "It was the second vespers of St. Lucy and we chanted the psalms of the Commune virginum, but after that the capitulum was of the second Sunday of Advent, and presently the cantor intoned the lovely Advent hymn, Conditor Alme Siderum. ... That evening I saw how the measured tone took the old words of St. Ambrose and infused into them even more strength and suppleness and conviction and meaning than they already had and made them flower before God in beauty and in fire, flower along the stones and vanish in the darkness of the vaulted ceiling. and their echo died and left our souls full of peace and grace."

Almost 21 tumultuous years to the day later, Merton was still able to write in his journal: “The Advent hymns sound as they first did, as if they were the nearest things to me that ever were, as if they had been decisive in shaping my heart and life, as if I had received this form, as if there could never be any other melodies so deeply connatural to me. They are myself, words and melody and everything. So also the Rorate Coeli [Drop Down Dew] that brought me here to pray for peace. I have not prayed for it well enough, or been pure enough in heart, or wise enough. And today before the Bl. Sacrament I was ashamed of the impertinences and the deep infidelities of my life, rooted in weakness and confusion.” (December 9, 1962)

Only a few are able to experience the Advent liturgy in its fullness as Merton did. Most of us are challenged to appropriate Advent any way we can in the midst of the stresses and struggles of our ordinary lives in the world, with all the obstacles and opportunities that secular society throws at us. In other words, we live Advent more or less as what the liturgy celebrates Advent as - that is, an incomplete interim time which is (to use an overused but useful expression) already but not yet. The great Christmas feast with which we end our liturgical Advent celebrates the already part, while the challenge of another new year invites to enter hopefully into that not yet.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"To Embrace the Future with Hope.”

On this day in 1888, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, died at the Paulist Mother Church, where he is now buried in a monumental 1950s sarcophagus at the north-east corner of the church. Isaac Hecker was a creative and complicated person who accomplished much in his life and aspired to even more. His most lasting legacy, however, remains the religious community he founded in New York in 1858 and which is still very much alive and active in the Church in North America today.

These days, I have been commenting occasionally on the three aims Pope Francis has proposed to religious communities for this specially dedicated Year of Consecrated Life. So far, I have written about the first and second aims - “to look to the past with gratitude” and “to live the present with passion.” Today, I would like to say something about the third aim the Pope is proposing to religious communities for this year - “to embrace the future with hope.”

In his message, the Pope candidly acknowledges many of the difficulties religious communities are currently experiencing – including, of course, the perennial problem of decreasing vocations and aging members. But many of the particular problems religious communities currently experience are also actually being experienced more broadly by the Church throughout the world. “But it is precisely amid these uncertainties, which we share with so many of our contemporaries,” the Pope assures us, “that we are called to practice the virtue of hope, the fruit of our faith in the Lord of history, who continues to tell us: ‘Be not afraid … for I am with you’ (Jeremiah 1:8).” Our hope, Pope Francis reminds us, “is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Timothy 1:2), the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Luke 1:37).” Accordingly he encourages religious communities – and, by extension, all of us in the Church – not “to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength” but instead to “constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.”

Admittedly, these past several decades have been somewhat trying times for religious communities (and not just for religious communities, of course). Life has a way of throwing unexpected challenges at all of us. But it is how we interpret those challenges and how we respond to them that matters in the end. In 1851, Isaac Hecker wrote to his friend and one-time mentor Orestes Brownson in a letter: If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone 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.”

When all is said and done, that remains the basic challenge for all religious communities and indeed for everyone in the Church - and not just in this special Year of Consecrated Life but in every year.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Arise, Hasten, Open"

Few New Testament stories are more familiar than the one we just heard [Luke 1:26-38]. Certainly, the Annunciation is one of the most portrayed scenes in the history of western art, and that tells you something right there! And, of course, every time we pray the Angelus or just recite the Hail Mary, we remember the Annunciation.

There is a famous, if somewhat fanciful, homily on the Annunciation by the great 12th-century Cistercian Abbot and Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his homily, Bernard imagines Mary pondering how to respond to the angel, and addresses her directly on behalf of the whole human race: Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. … This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet … for on your word depends comfort for the wretches, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the children of Adam, the whole of your race. Bernard goes on as if he were giving Mary much needed advice: Believe, give praise, and receive. … Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. … Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

Bernard’s style is fanciful, of course, coming as it does from an era which was much more imaginative than our modern rationalistic and technocratic time. Still it captures something very important about the story. As Pope Benedict XVI summed it up in his 2012 book on the subject: God knocks at Mary’s door, He needs human freedom. … His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being. [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy narratives, 2012, p. 37].

In other words, God stands ready to come to us. He is ready and willing to save us from ourselves. But we have something to do too. We have to get on board with God’s plan. We have to be willing to be saved. Hence the close connection between Mary’s response and that of each one of us over the course of one’s entire life.

Of course, the part played by Mary in the great drama we call the Incarnation was historically unique, something we remember every time we recite the Creed, when we say: For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

But what Mary did, she did on behalf of all of us. Traditionally, we have understood this in terms of the special connection that exists between Mary and the Church. As one of Saint Bernard’s contemporaries, Blessed Isaac of Stella, expressed it: In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful… Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul.”

I often like to say that Advent is not a play. We’re not pretending Jesus hasn’t been born yet and waiting to be surprised on Christmas morning, as if Jesus were Santa Claus. Well, Christmas isn’t a play either. Of course, Christmas commemorates something very important that happened a long time ago, which we remember each year with great joy and gratitude to God. But, if we just confine Christmas to a long time ago, then we will have missed the point entirely. Christmas challenges each one of us here and now to respond, as Mary did, to bring the world back to life again by bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ. As Pope Francis has written:  Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith toward a destiny of service and fruitfulness. Today we look to her and ask her to help us to proclaim the message of salvation to all and to enable new disciples to become evangelizers in turn [EG 287].

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 21, 2014.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Vanishing Christmas Midnight Mass

On Christmas Eve, I will joyfully celebrate the traditional Mass at Midnight. But, untraditionally, this will not be the first Christmas Mass in the parish - nor will it likely be the best attended. 

This week, The Tablet has an interesting article on the gradual but evident disappearance of Christmas Midnight Mass from contemporary English Catholic life - The phenomenon which the article addresses also occurs here in the United States. There are, of course, any number of contributing factors, but one obvious factor (which the article itself acknowledges) is the modern option of celebrating Christmas Mass at an earlier hour in the evening - actually just a special instance of an option now available every week since the late 1960s.

Way back when I was a novice in 1981-1982, one of the many priests who came to talk to us during the year lamented how the introduction of evening Masses had disrupted the traditional rhythm of the liturgical day. Instinctively, I resonated with what he was saying. The daily cycle of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) may matter mainly to clergy and religious, but the loss of the traditional rhythm of Sundays and holy days as festive days devoted to worship, rest, and family has wider social implications that should matter to everyone.

The early mid-20th-century concession of Sunday and holy day evening Masses was motivated by the best of intentions - to make Mass attendance easier for those whose circumstances unfortunately forced them to work on Sunday mornings. Originally, it was clearly intended to be just that. It was certainly not envisioned that Sunday evening Mass would ever replace or rival the morning Mass as the principal celebration. Hence the official reluctance in those early days to permit the celebration of sung Mass in the evenings. Thus, in the minutes of Pius XII's Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy for March 9, 1954, it was noted: "Care should be taken to ensure among the faithful the idea that Sunday is the Lord's Day is not forgotten. by passing the morning at work or at entertainment, and postponing until the evening the sacred rites that sanctify the feast" (cf. Nicola Giampietro, The Development of the Liturgical Reform As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, p. 266).

Of course, concessions intended for specific circumstances have a way of becoming universally normative. Then, in the post-conciliar years, the option of Saturday "vigil" Masses was added to the option of Sunday evening Masses - again mainly as a concession to contemporary circumstances which made Sunday Mass attendance difficult or impossible for many people. Soon enough, however, such "vigil" Masses were being celebrated nearly universally as a Mass of convenience, with evident consequences for the celebration of Sunday itself - a day that has increasingly become like any other day in our secular society..

Meanwhile, something similar has been happening with Christmas. Liturgically, it was the Third Christmas Mass - the Missa in die, celebrated post Tertiam - that was theoretically considered the principal Mass. But Midnight Mass was widely experienced as the principal Mass by many - presumably because of its uniqueness as the only occasion in the entire year when ordinary people could attend Mass during the night hours. When I was growing up, the crowds would gather outside the church waiting for the doors to open to be admitted for this very special occasion - so special that the ushers actually wore tuxedos for it! As an altar boy, being picked to serve at Midnight Mass (a privilege exclusively reserved for 8th graders) was considered quite something. It's all quite different now, of course. Almost 20 years ago, when I was trying to recruit altar servers for Christmas Midnight Mass, one server immediately turned it down as an inconvenient time!

There are places - midtown Manhattan, for example - where Midnight Mass can still draw a big crowd. But obviously for many people in many places it is no longer extraordinary or exotic to attend Mass at midnight - especially when it is just as dark at 10:00 or 8:00 or even 6:00 and far more convenient to attend Mass then. Of course, the difference between Mass at midnight and Mass at, say, 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. really is a rather modest one experientially. The more serious problem arises when the first Christmas Mass (which is often also the best attended Mass) is significantly earlier.

However special Midnight Mass may have been in the past, many - maybe most - worshippers still attended Mass at the usual times on Christmas morning. (As children, our typical Christmas routine was up very early to see what Santa brought, open all our presents, then off the the regular 9:00 School Mass, then home for breakfast, while the adults attended a later Mass.) But now there seems to be a notable shift away from Mass on Christmas morning to Mass on Christmas Eve - and often quite early on Christmas Eve.

One of the English priests interviewed in the Tablet article worried out loud about this trend.  “We have turned our practice of the faith into a matter of convenience rather than a matter of commitment,” he said.

That judgment may be somewhat harsh. After all, there may be many good reasons which impel people to attend Mass early on Christmas Eve. For example, many travel on Christmas Day to visit family members who in an earlier era would have likely lived closer. On the other hand, there is certainly the danger that we may - inadvertently and with the best of intentions - be turning December 25 into a virtually a-liturgical day. And what will this mean for Christmas as a  holy day in the long term? 

Friday, December 19, 2014


Not being of Cuban descent and not being from Florida, I have given very little thought to Cuba in recent years. Of course, I can well remember the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Castro's visits to New York in 1959 and 1960, President Eisenhower's termination of diplomatic relations in January 1961, the Bay of Pigs later that April, and the October 1962 Missile Crisis during which Kennedy and Khrushchev took the world to the very brink - because of Cuba. After that, Cuba more or less receded from mine - and, I suspect, most non-Cubans' - consciousness. Every now and then, we get some reminder that Cuba is still something of a problem - but hardly the threat it once was to the national interest when, as a client state of the Soviet Union, Cuba was in the business of fomenting revolution and otherwise making trouble not just in the Western Hemisphere but also in Africa. 

On the other hand, Cuba has remained a perennial problem for our political class, as evidenced by the latest round of speculation whether President Obama's action might cost Hillary Clinton (or whoever) Florida's electoral votes. Personally I think it is just too soon to know and so should also be too soon to speculate. There is some credible evidence of ideological movement on this issue on the part of younger Cuban-Americans, who could comprise a decisive segment of Florida's voters. I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

Besides the United States and Cuba, the third big winner in the restoration of full diplomatic relations would seem to be the diplomacy of the Holy See. Two previous popes - Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI - have visited Cuba, and we now know that the Holy See has been directly involved for a year or so in the negotiations that have led to this latest development. The fact that President Obama made a point of praising Pope Francis' role in this process speaks not only to the significant contribution of  the Holy See's diplomacy but also to the continued potential for cooperation on common concerns between the Holy See and the Obama Administration. And that is surely all to the good, as is the Holy See's enhanced diplomatic profile.

Needless to say, this rapprochement between the United States and Cuba does not signify a fundamental change in the character of the Castro regime - or any re-evaluation of that regime on our part. If diplomatic recognition meant moral approbation, we would have far fewer embassies indeed! The basic facts about the Castro regime remain the same and are likely to remain so for some time. And change, if and when it comes, will not necessarily reflect American and democratic values. China, for example, has changed enormously since President Nixon's much more radical opening to China and the restoration of diplomatic relations. Compared with Mao's regime, China today is a much better society to be sure, but no one would seriously suggest it has moved or is likely to move any time soon in a more democratic direction. 

In the larger picture, I am not sure how much it matters that full diplomatic relations are to be restored between the U.S. and Cuba. But it may matter very much that both countries can communicate better and that this particular relic of the Cold War may finally be put to rest and we all get to move forward instead of staying stuck in the 1960s. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

To Live the Present with Passion

Today is the 195th anniversary of Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s birth in New York City in 1819. A quarter century later later, on his first birthday as a Catholic, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers wrote in his Diary: “It is my 25th birthday; here let me offer myself to Thee for thy service oh Lord. Is it not what I should? Am I not Thine? Thou didst create me and ever hast sustained me. Thine I am. Accept me oh my God as thine, a child who needs most thy love and protection.”

Recently, I commented briefly on the first of the three aims identified by Pope Francis for this Year of Consecrated Life, “to look to the past with gratitude” - something that should come easily to us Paulists at this time of year when we recall our founder’s birth (and also his death, which occurred on December 22, 1888). The second and third aims which the Pope has proclaimed for this Year of Consecrated Life are “to live the present with passion” and “to embrace the future with hope.” In regard to the second aim, the Pope is asking those in religious communities, having remembered our past, to then “listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life.”

One of the things that was so strikingly distinctive about Hecker’s approach to religious life was his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to promote among all an increased appreciation of and openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In terms of what the Holy Spirit may be saying to the Church today, Hecker saw his new community as an expression of a special grace given to meet the special needs of our epoch and thus “renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold.” How to do that in the quite different circumstances of the 21st century is the great challenge facing us and all religious communities - as indeed the entire Church.

The second and third aims the Holy Father has proposed for this Year are only conceptually separate. In practice they go together. Passion presupposes hope for the future and hope inspires passion in the present. Throughout his life, Hecker lived in hope – as he once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Living and working in the dawning light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church. A future whose sun will rise first on this continent and spread its light over the world.”

Such hope is the great gift God has given to the world in giving us his Son, Jesus, who was born into our world at Christmas and continues to live among us and renew us, Christmas after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


In the liturgy of Paul VI, today begins the final part of Advent: "The weekdays from December 17 up to and including December 24 are ordered in a more direct way to preparing for the Nativity of the Lord" (Universal Norms on the Liturgical year and the Calendar, 42). For liturgical aficionados, this means things like the O-Antiphons. For ordinary daily Mass attenders, it means finally hearing gospel readings that are actually attuned to Advent (as opposed to the less obviously seasonal Gospel selections the 1970 lectionary assigns to most of Advent up until December 16). For today it means the wonderful - if all too seldom proclaimed - Gospel reading of the genealogy of Jesus. (For whatever reason, the 1970 Lectionary fails to include the genealogy among any of the Sunday Gospels.)

Older generations may also remember the Rorate Masses, Advent Votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary that used to be celebrated in certain places daily before dawn during this final week before Christmas. When I was stationed in Toronto, I remember an Altar Servers' appreciation event at which a bishop spoke to the kids nostalgically about serving as an altar boy at Rorate Masses in the dark and cold early mornings in mid-20th-century Hungary!

Rorate Masses were relatively rare in most modern people's experience. But older generations will certainly remember the Advent Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the 3rd Week of Advent). In the pre-Paul VI calendar, today would have been Ember Wednesday, and its Mass was once known as the Missa aurea ("Golden Mass") for its focus on the account of the Annunciation and the awesome mystery of the Incarnation. The ancient Mass of Ember Wednesday (for which the Roman stational church was always the Basilica of Saint Mary Major) began with the familiar Advent antiphon: Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum; aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem (“Drop down dew, you heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just one; Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior").

The December Ember Days were very ancient and were actually older than the rest of the Advent season. Being seasonal in nature, the quarterly Ember Days were always associated with the rhythms of the natural year and of the agricultural cycle, but they were also associated with ordinations. In fact, the December Ember Saturday was in ancient Christian Rome the principal occasion for priestly ordinations. The Paul VI liturgy's suppression of the Ember Days that had served the Church so well for a millennium and a half was perhaps one of the reform's more pointless impoverishments of the liturgy and calendar. In view of the contemporary Church's dire need for priestly vocations, perhaps some sort of retrieval of at least the spirit of those old Ember Days might yet prove beneficial in highlighting the need for vocations to continue the Church's mission in the third millennium.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chanukah 5775

Back in the late 1960s, one of my more politically radical friends told me how his East European immigrant parents were Socialists and religiously non-observant, with the one exception of Chanukah, which they considered to be a people's holiday. For all its popularity, Chanukah, which begins this evening, is, of course, technically a minor Jewish holiday, based not on the Torah but on later events in Jewish history. Those events are recounted in the two Books of Maccabees, which, while not even included in the Jewish canon, thankfully remain in the Catholic one, thus giving us access to the inspiring story of Jewish resistance to imperial Seleucid efforts to forcibly Hellenize the people of Israel. The books of Maccabees recount the sad story of the suffering inflicted upon the people of Israel by their secularizing persecutors and the heroic history of resistance by a minority of Jews led by Judas Maccabeus and his priestly Hasmonean dynasty. It is easy to see how 19th and 20th-century Socialists might interpret it as primarily a "people's holiday" rather than a religious one, just as post-independence contemporaries might interpret it as primarily a patriotic holiday. (The photo shows U.S. President Harry Truman being presented with a chanukah menorah by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.)

Chanukah itself commemorates not so much the actual military conflict and eventual victory nor the subsequent Hasmonean empire - the last sustained experience of Jewish independence until 1948 - but rather the rededication of the Temple (after its sacrilegious profanation by the Gentiles) and the miracle of how the surviving one-day supply of Temple oil lasted for eight full days. The holiday is notably celebrated by the daily lighting of the Chanukah menorah, by eating food fried in oil (particularly potato pancakes - latkes), and playing dreidel. Some 60 years ago, when I was in kindergarten in public school, we had a chalk menorah on the blackboard and would "light" an additional "candle" each morning in class. (Obviously, that was before the tyranny of secularism tightened its grip on public education, thanks to various malicious Supreme Court decisions and other damage). 

It is not clear how Chanukah was celebrated in Jesus' time, but Jesus and his contemporaries certainly celebrated it. The Gospel of John - the New Testament book most attuned to the Jewish liturgical calendar - specifically says that Jesus was in Jerusalem, in winter, for the festival of the Dedication (John 10:22-23). Unlike Easter and Pentecost which are explicitly connected with their Old Testament antecedents, Christmas and Chanukah have no evident historical connection, even if both can be seen (indepently of each other) as instances of winter light festivals. On the other hand, the modern association of Christmas and Chanukah as gift-giving holidays probably owes more to commercial considerations than to any historic or religious parallelism. That said, were it not for the contemporary commercial association of Chanukah with Christmas, it is likely that most of us Gentiles would never even hear about Chanukah.

However that may be, it is a good thing that we do get to hear about this beautiful "people's holiday," rooted in Israel's struggle against a secularizing political establishment, which celebrates God's miraculously abiding presence among his people.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Newsroom Finale

Finally, the finale of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom! For its many critics, I suppose the finale couldn't have come too soon! However one felt about the series overall, it is hard to say to much about its final episode, so much so that the less said the better. Even so, since that is after all what one does on a blog, I will endeavor to say something.

Frankly, I found the whole flashback motif to sometime before Season One somewhat trying. Perhaps the flashbacks might have made more sense somewhere in Season One itself, where how Charlie hired Mac and the evolution of his plan to transform Newsnight with Will would have seemed more pressing and relevant. As it was, it seemed like really old news - more like a device to keep Charlie (now sadly dead) still a player in the final episode or, even worse, just something to fill in the time. But there were several loose ends from Season Three that could have better filled in the time. 

After all, Will has just spent 52 days or so in jail for refusing to reveal his (actually Neal's) source. One would think his return to the network would have warranted more attention - along with some serious discussion of the ideological stubbornness that caused his imprisonment (the moral righteousness of which seems simply presumed). Nor was Will the only one returning to ACN. Neal - one of the show's most compellingly attractive characters - has also returned from his exile in a country without an extradition treaty to the U.S. Whatever one thinks of the underlying ideology that caused him to exile himself, surely his personal courage, etc., might have merited something more - more attention, actually any attention at all - in the final episode. Surely, someone could have met him at the airport and given him some sort of welcome. Or, alternately, he could have made it in time for the funeral. Instead, all we got was a silly scene in which he - first technologically with his phone and then verbally in person - humiliates his pathetic replacement from his morally superior high ground.  The problem, of course, is that his replacement never aspired to the morally superior position staked out by Neal, et al., in the first place. He is just an utterly uninteresting hack, just doing the job he'd been given by his post-modern boss.

The Episcopalian funeral service was a nice touch. As was the naval hymn, which always reminds me of John Kennedy's funeral from an earlier and better time in American history. (Whether evoking Kennedy was also Sorkin's intent I have no clue.) Religion's occasional appearances in The Newsroom are always awkward and seem to require "balance." Thus the positive impression of religion conveyed by Will and Mac's sort-of Catholic wedding in the previous episode gets balanced in the finale's flashback by Charlie's gratuitous attack given the number of other news issues he could have cited to make his point) on the Church and Pope Benedict.

The really nice touch, I suppose, was Mac's pregnancy. In a series seemingly so committed to post-modern sexual norms, it was nice to see the principal characters reverting to more traditional human familial values. Becoming a father sets off all sorts of reactions in Will, which leads him to a sort of practice run at playing Dad with Charlie's mourning grandsons (all of which we had also - probably unnecessarily - been prepared for by the flashbacks.) The musical jam session in the garage (in which Jim also participates) was sentimental schmaltz, but in its own way a nice touch - showing Will and Jim as human beings who are more than their apparently all-consuming careers.

In the end, it was the intersection of personal and political in the lives of the show's major characters (especially the younger ones) that made the series attractive, regardless of - perhaps even in spite of - the show's tiresome ideological smugness and preachiness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The well-known, traditional title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin command to rejoice.  Until 1969 , today’s Mass always began with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. [Supplementary NoteIn theory at least, the Mass still actually begins with those words even now, since the singing of an "opening hymn" is a concession - the last of several options - which still, in the spirit of what Vatican II actually said, favor the singing of the traditional Introit.Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone.  Today’s 2nd reading [1 Thessalonians 5:16-24] also commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.

Christmas is, for most people, the cheeriest time of the year. So why, you might ask, do we need to be told to rejoice? Of course, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the first three centuries of Christian history. So, whatever St. Paul was doing, he wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a Christmas card. On the contrary, Paul’s 1st letter to the Christian community he had started in Thessalonika – thought to be the earliest New Testament letter - was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice, therefore, was not some sentimental slogan or holiday greeting, but was for Paul the consequence of faith in Christ. In all circumstances [St. Paul says] give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Now, if Paul is right about rejoicing and thanksgiving being the consequences of our faith in Christ, then what other response on our part could possibly proclaim Christ and his Church – even, perhaps especially, in our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, a world which, without Christ, demonstrably presents precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving?  A world into which Christ has not come – or in which his coming is not acknowledged – is a ready recipe for a seriously conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, the kind of world we sadly see so much of. So absent has Christ seemingly become from so much of modern and post-modern life that even the annual celebration of his birth has become, for some, a season of stress and sadness! 

Joy, of course, the consequential kind of joy that Paul was talking about, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. How many here went to Catholic school? Do you all remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It was Saint Paul who first enumerated them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [Galatians 5:22-23]. So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not some transient feeling that may come and go according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the reality and vitality of how we have experienced God’s presence and action in our lives regardless of transient circumstances – in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, in prosperity and in recession.

Hence, St. Paul’s command to test everything, for he understood perfectly well that not every happy feeling comes from the Holy Spirit, but only what actually leads us to recognize Christ and to act upon that recognition.

It was for a similar reason – to test whether or not John the Baptist was the real thing – that priests and Levites and Pharisees were sent to John from Jerusalem [John 1:6-8, 19-28]. John responded, as we might say today, by defining his mission – situating it not in reference to himself, but in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – and through them us – to recognize Christ coming into our world in the here and now, and so to reorient our lives in relation to him.

At all times – especially in difficult times, but at all times – the rejoicing and thanksgiving of which Paul spoke, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter that sadness that corrodes our desire for God, do not just happen automatically. They happen when I recognize what a difference it makes to me that Christ has come into the world, and then act on that recognition through my participation in the community of his Church.

As I’ve often said, it takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas. Rather it requires us to become Christmas Trees ourselves, to testify to the light with rejoicing and thanksgiving – so that the whole world will recognize the light of Christ present and active in his Church, and so see his face, and hear his word, and be embraced by his love.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 14, 2014.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mother of America

At Morning Prayer, the Church's Office of Lauds, on this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the reading from Zechariah 2:14-17 contains this verse: Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they shall be his people, and he shall dwell among you, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For Zechariah, one sign that the Lord is with us and that the Lord has sent his messenger to us  is the providential union of many nations into the People of God.

That, of course, is one dimension of today's great celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patronal feast of North and South America, commemorating the apparitions of the Mother of God to Saint Juan Diego, an Aztec Catholic convert, in December 1531.

That was, of course, a mere 12 years after the conquista of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortes - the destruction of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), then perhaps the largest city in the entire world and with it the destruction of the pagan religion that animated Aztec culture. It was a depressed and depressing time - not just for the conquered and oppressed indigenous population but also for their Spanish conquerors who now ruled over a much larger and potentially rebellious population. It was also a discouraging time for the missionaries who accompanied the conquistadores and whose efforts to evangelize the indigenous population had met with only modest success. 

Into this appalling mess, God sent Mary as his messenger of compassion and hope (Am I not your Mother?), appearing to the socially insignificant Juan Diego (el mas pequeño de mis hijos) and speaking his native language. In the image which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego's tilma, the Mother of God appeared as a pregnant indigenous woman, whose image spoke in the symbolic language of native culture, but in which the Spaniards could likewise recognize the Christian symbolic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Likewise, the title by which she identified herself in the native language (Who crushes the serpent) resembled the Spanish word Guadalupe, in which the Spaniards recognized a familiar Marian title of Spanish devotion.

And so began the great union of the two nations and cultures into a new nation and new culture. Mary had asked that a church be built at the hill where she had appeared. As a consequence, a new Church uniting European and American peoples was built on this continent.

Today's feast is an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the providential union of many nations and cultures which has been our American history and heritage. This  country continues today to be a nation of immigrants, on whom it depends for its future - including especially its spiritual and ecclesial future. Our dysfunctional political system's failure thus far to achieve a just and comprehensive restructuring of our immigration system remains an ongoing moral and social disgrace that cries out to be addressed responsibly and rapidly.