Monday, September 29, 2014

Michael my Archangel

Recently, I have noticed how some "traditionalist" blogs and websites seem to be full of references to a Sung Mass here, a Solemn Mass there, even Pontifical Mass - all presumably impeccably carried out with wonderfully inspiring music. Of course, those of us who remember the old Missal also remember how relatively rare such beautiful liturgies were and how ubiquitous instead was the very different experience of silent Low Mass - often rushed and obviously lacking in the grand solemnity of the old Missa in cantu. But one interesting thing that Low Mass did have that the more solemn, sung versions did not have was the Leonine Prayers, recited after Mass kneeling at the foot of the altar in the vernacular. 

A noticeable minority regularly rushed out at the end of the Last Gospel, skipping the Leonine Prayers completely, which suggests that they may not have really caught on all that much in terms of popularity with people. But there was one of those "Prayers after Low Mass," that I for one really liked. That was the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, added by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin and destruction of souls. 

As I have remarked elsewhere, I truly loved that prayer. It formed my image of that great warrior Archangel, and it motivated me to choose Michael as my confirmation name. As a nerdy 9-year old, ever in danger of being bullied, no doubt I wanted somehow to identify with its strong, masculine imagery. That Michael, for all his hyper-masculine image, was ultimately a bodiless - and so sexless - spirit did not seem at that time to enter into my calculation! In any case, that was the name I proudly picked to be confirmed with. And so, on the afternoon of September 22, 1957, I trudged up to the altar with my name card in hand. The pastor took the card and read out the name (in the nominative case). The Bishop, sitting on his faldstool, then addressed me by that name (in the vocative case, as I would later learn): Michaele, signo te signo crucis et confirmo te chrismate salutis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. And that was that! I was confirmed. That and a slap on the face made me a soldier of Christ!

In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, Michael appears in Daniel's apocalyptic visions as a great "prince," and the heavenly protector of Israel - initially against Persia (Daniel 10:13-21) and then at the time of the Resurrection and General Judgment (Daniel 12:1). I'm sure I knew nothing about that back in 5th grade, but I would have known about his New Testament role, where Michael appears again by name in the Book of Revelation in yet another apocalyptic vision of cosmic conflict "in heaven" between two armies of angels - one led by Michael, the other by the Devil (Revelation 12:7-9). That battle, which presumably is the basis for the image of Michael as the one who thrusts into hell Satan and all the evil spirits was apparently alluded to by Jesus himself, when he told the disciples he had watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18).

In the liturgy (with was, of course, my main access to images of Michael) Michael was also mentioned in other, less martial contexts. He was one of the saints we confessed to in the Confiteor. He was mentioned by the celebrant at Solemn Mass when blessing incense at the Offertory. And he was invoked in the Offertory antiphon at all Requiem Masses as the holy standard-bearer leading the faithful departed into the holy light once promised to Abraham and his descendants.

in his talks, Pope Francis has often referred to our perennial adversary the Devil and has warned of his temptations. Certainly, Michael's special role as protector of God's People and leader in our ongoing war with Satan still strongly resonates with me, as does the somewhat more comforting image (at my advancing age) of Michael leading the departed safely into the promised realm of light.

The Leonine Prayers are gone now (as, for that matter, is Low Mass) and probably not much missed - although the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel that I used to like so much seems to be experiencing some surprising resurgence in popularity. Michael is still honored today (the traditional "Michaelmas Day" in England), although the two other archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, have for some strange reason been deprived of their own days (formerly March 24 and October 24) and have been somewhat artificially tacked on to Michael's day today. But for me this always remains Michael's day, as indeed Michael remains my own particularly chosen patron - my very own archangel.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Changing Course

One of the age-old questions people ask is whether and how much people can really change. Is it actually possible to start over again, or are we fated to follow the same patterns, for better or for worse, all our lives? How we answer that will likely determine our attitude on any number of issues. And we’re not necessarily consistent in how we answer either. Starting over, wiping the slate clean, doing something new, starting all over again – all that is part of the language of America, isn’t it? Isn’t that part of what it meant to be an immigrant and come here in the first place – and keep moving? Americans remain the most mobile people in the world, the least rooted, the ones most ready to pick and go and try something else. On the other hand, in our own lives, we often feel stuck – in a place, in a job, in a relationship, in addictive or otherwise destructive behavior, whatever. We’re all increasingly aware of how limited our choices can sometimes seem, and we can make all the corresponding excuses.
It is true, of course, that we can never completely undo the past. Who we have been and what we have done – our actions, our choices, our mistakes, our failures – are part of who we are now. We are in some sense always products of our past. And being honest and realistic about who we have been and what we have done or failed to do, to recognize our limits and learn to live with them, has a certain value.  But that can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and also perhaps particularly poisonous excuse, never to try anything new, to become a sort of silent spectator in the story of one’s life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way things are,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”

And yet change is just what Jesus was inviting the people to do with his story of the man with the two sons [Matthew 21:28-32]. As parables go, this seems like a simple one, a simple example of changing one’s behavior for the better. But, as Jesus’ concluding words of rebuke suggest, changing it for the better just doesn’t always happen. There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.

As he often did, Jesus told a simple story to make a serious point. Paul applied it to all of history, in which Jesus himself is the change. Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Saint Paul advised the early Christian community at Philippi [Philippians 2:1-11].

In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior (going back all the way to Adam), Jesus changed course. Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. In contrast to the typical, ordinary, normal, human self-centeredness, which dominates and directs most of human history (again going back all the way to Adam), Jesus’ obedience to his Father has changed our human history and has made it possible for each of us to undo our own destructive patterns of the past and alter the course of our own personal history.

It is still true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are in some sense always products of our past – both our own personal past and the collective past of our shared human history. But the good news of the Gospel is that something new really has happened in the world in Jesus. And because of that there is now no sin that we cannot break away from. We cannot undo the past, but acknowledging the past can set the stage for changing course in the present. That’s what repentance is – something we can now do, not on our own, of course, not all by ourselves, but by being remodeled in the image of God’s Son, who empowers us to share in his new life.

That’s why I’ve always liked the traditional Confession of Sin found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It starts out with a blunt admission of past failures: We have erred and strayed from they ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.

But then the next word is But! That But is God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of his Son, as a result of which the prayer concludes grant, O most merciful Father for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of his holy Name.

In Jesus, the direction of human history has been changed, and the entire human race has been offered a change of heart, given the chance to change course, once and for all. In telling us this parable, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow, but rather, having (as Saint Paul says) the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, to let ourselves be changed. Let’s get going, Jesus is inviting us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading!

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 28, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Our Lady of Ransom

In the pre-1970 calendar, September 24 was the feast of Our Lady of Ransom (also known as Our Lady of Mercy). It commemorated the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 1, 1218, to St. Peter Nolasco, to his confessor Saint Raymond of Pennafort, and to King James I of Aragon. In response to this, Saint Peter Nolasco founded the Order of Our Lady of Mercy (Mercedarians), devoted to the redemption of Christians who had become Muslim captives. As Diarmaid Mac Culloch has noted in his monumental The Reformation: A History (2005), European Christians were still being captured and enslaved by Ottoman pirates in significant numbers well into the 16th century - a problem ultimately resolved only by the Turks' decisive naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571 and the ensuing decline of Ottoman power.

That decline ended the threat and therefore the significance (so it was alleged) of Our Lady of Ransom in the liturgical calendar. According to Cardinal Antonelli's account, on November 27, 1953, Pius XII's Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy discussed the fate of this feast. Both Monsignor Enrico Dante and Father Augustine Bea, among others, favored its abolition - on the obvious grounds that the original object of the feast and of the Order no longer had the importance they once had had. Our Lady of Ransom survived the rubrical reform of 1960, but was reduced to a commemoration - before being dropped altogether in the more radical1969 calendar revision.

History may not literally repeat itself, but, with today's latest beheading of a French national by Islamic militants in Algeria, it seems evident that there has arisen again an acute danger to Westerners of capture by modern-day Islamists. So perhaps the liturgical reformers - in this (as in so many other matters relating to the calendar) - tragically misread the direction of history! In any case, the commemoration of Our Lady of Ransom shares with some other abandoned practices (like, for example, the Leonine prayer "for the freedom and exaltation of Holy Mother the Church") a renewed relevance in today's world of war, terrorism, and religious persecution.

Here (in the translation provided by my childhood Saint Joseph Daily MIssal) is the old Collect for the feast of Our Lady of Ransom: O God, by means of the most glorious Mother of Your Son, You were pleased to give new offspring to Your Church fro the ransoming of Christians from the power of the pagans; grant, we beseech You, that we too, who love and honor her as the foundress of so great a work, may by her merits and prayers be ourselves delivered from all our sins and from the bondage of the devil.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumn Sonnet

At 10:29 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time last night, summer ended and fall began. As always, no seasonal change was more eagerly awaited or fervently welcomed in my mind than this annual autumnal equinox.

As if on cue, the weather has begun to get noticeably cooler in the last couple of days.In fact, it got down into the 40s in Knoxville overnight! Of course, it is warming up now. And, for sure, we can expect plenty of sunny and hot days ahead. But the climactic arc is at last bending in the right direction.  

For me, autumn has always been the season of new beginning, especially given the importance of the school calendar in so much of my life (including parish life). I've also always been attracted to the Jewish idea of beginning the year in the fall, when the refreshing rains return to Israel, filling the cisterns and bringing the land back to life after the scorching dry season of summer. 

As I get older, of course, other images predominate, and the life-cycle symbolism of the seasons takes on added significance. So I began this first day of fall, with Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thous perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Political Journalism's Downward Spiral

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, "How Gary Hart's Downfall Forever Changed American Politics." Now, I probably haven't given a thought to Gary Hart in years - decades actually. But, as Bai reminds us, he was probably the first serious Baby-Boomer presidential contender. If his aspirations foreshadowed the political rise of his generation, his 1987 downfall through personal scandal initiated our contemporary destructive relationship between politics and the media.

Bai contrasts the post-World War II news business, in which "the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world," with the situation in the 1980s, when "Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition." For younger, post-Watergate journalists, Bai observes, "there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking."

The key here, I think, is the "no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be" part. Indeed, I think, the most distinctive characteristic of contemporary political coverage is the almost complete lack of interest in substantive issues and policies and repeated emphasis on often inconsequential personal characteristics and "gaffes" and the faux outrage they produce that substitutes for intelligent debate.

Bai is right in describing the Gary Hart scandal as "the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever." By the 1990s, Bai argues, "the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods." This, Bai argues, has driven "a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway."

No expectation! What a commentary on the political culture modern journalism has helped to create! I well remember the excitement of the Watergate years. But subsequent history has highlighted its terrible, destructive consequences - among them, the legitimation of impeachment as a political tactic and the de-legitimation of the political process, the latter encouraged and exacerbated by our adversarial media.

If politics were merely entertainment (which is essentially what journalists have turned it into and how we now largely tend to treat it), perhaps it might matter less. It would still be emblematic of and contribute to the constant coarsening of our culture. And that would be no small matter. But politics is also and primarily the arena in which we collectively as a national community can address the pressing problems we face. And how well we face up to them - or fail to do so - will determine the quality of our future. And that - in the decades since Watergate and since the taking down of Gary Hart - is what we are increasingly incapable of accomplishing as a society. And that seems to me to be no small matter at all!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

FDR's D-Day Prayer

One never knows which episodes in history will be included in any particular documentary. I figured it was a fairly safe bet that FDR's famous "Fala" speech from the 1944 campaign would make it into the final episode of Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, but I wondered whether another important moment from 1944, FDR's famous D-Day Prayer - something so out of step with today's political and social sensibilities - might make the cut. Authentic history, I was relieved to see, won over post-modern revisionism. The prayer was included.

FDR's D-Day Prayer effectively expressed the emotions that many a listener must surely have felt on that occasion. It certainly captured something of the man who composed it. It is hard to imagine any political or cultural leader today being comfortable composing such a prayer, just as it is almost impossible to imagine an audience as united as the one that listened to FDR recite it. And that, it seems to me, says so much about all that we have lost as a society in the past 60 years.

In its profound simplicity, it remains a prayer well worth including in the pantheon of great presidential addresses.

So here it is:

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home - fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas - whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them - help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too - strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Watching The Roosevelts

What a real treat it has been this week to watch Ken Burns' typically well done new PBS series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History! The series focuses on three famous and powerful members of the patrician Roosevelt clan, perhaps the closest America has come to genuine aristocracy. Two of them - Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) of the Oyster Bay branch of the family and his younger, 5th cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the Hyde Park branch - served respectively as the 26th (1901-1909) and 32nd (1933-1945) Presidents of the United States. Each of them was in his era the undoubted leader of the progressive wing of his political party (the Republicans in Theodore's case, The Democrats in Franklin's). The third principal figure, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was Theodore's favorite niece, Franklin's wife and First Lady, and a transformative political figure in her own right. The concluding episode, to be aired tonight, will presumably highlight the post-war years when Eleanor occupied the Roosevelt political stage alone.

No other group of individuals - and certainly no other family - occupied a comparable place in the history of the 20th century. History remains, as Saint John XXIII famously said, the greatest of teachers. If nothing else, this series serves as a great history lesson about a major and transformational period in American (and world) history. Of course, the generations that know the least of that history and would benefit the most from learning about it are, I suppose, the ones least likely to be watching. But, if any are, their time has not been wasted! Learning the history of that tumultuous time - what Eleanor, speaking to the 1940 Democratic Convention famously called "no ordinary time" - is imperative for understanding how we got to where we are, appreciating all that the Roosevelts and their political allies accomplished (and also, sadly, what we have since lost). 

But watching The Roosevelts is more than a valuable history lesson. The three Roosevelts it features were intimately involved in the major issues and movements that marked the 20th century and in many ways still mark the 21st. And they were leaders in the perennial American struggle to reclaim American community, to build and strengthen binding ties between and among Americans of different classes, generations, and races and projecting American power to establish a renewed world order to replace the one that destroyed itself in two terrible 20th century wars. It is a commonplace truism - but sadly still very true - that hardly anyone who succeeded them on the political stage, and certainly hardly anyone around now has exemplified political and moral leadership as profoundly and effectively as they did. 

The series is called The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The inner, personal struggles of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor are as much a part of this history as their public and political campaigns and accomplishments. It has long been recognized, for example, the Franklin's protracted personal struggle with polio transformed him in fundamental ways. He was always an attractive extrovert, whose position in society well situated him to be a major and successful political figure. But his paralysis taught him empathy. And who can doubt the part that suffering and struggle played in transforming a charming, old-money aristocrat, who happened to want to be president, into someone who could connect so well with ordinary people and their needs? And who cannot connect the dots that link Eleanor's poor, "ugly-duckling" sense of herself with her lifelong identification with the poor and the put-upon? (Just compare her with her more attractive and in so many other ways more favored cousin Alice!)

The Roosevelts accomplished a lot for America and for Americans. Sadly, so much of what they struggled for continues to have to be fought for now more than 50 years after Eleanor's death.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

The (Still) United Kingdom

There is at least one piece of good news in this otherwise all too troubled world. The Adults won in the Scottish Referendum! By a solid margin, the Scots voted for history and stability over iconoclastic adventurism. The 307-year old union between the kingdoms of England and Scotland will be preserved. 

Scotland and England have shared the same monarch since Scotland's James VI inherited England's Crown and became James I in 1603. It was James who added the word "Great" to the old Roman name for the island of Britain and who designed an early version of the Union Flag, combining the red cross of Saint George and the white cross of Saint Andrew. The union became complete in 1707, with the creation of a unitary parliament and state. (After Ireland joined the Union in 1801, a third cross was added for Saint Patrick; hence the present flag.) 

The Adults won. One of the most successful national unions in human history was recognized for the great accomplishment it has been - an accomplishment not to be casually cast aside for "light and transient causes." (Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote.)

Appreciating the past enables people to approach both present and future with wisdom and prudence, what Aristotle considered the pre-eminent political virtue. It also recognizes that we are products of a certain history. which has formed us in a certain way, and so structures our present lives and points us in particular ways toward the future.

That future may be uncertain, but would have been infinitely more so - not just for Scotland, but for the UK and Europe - had an adolescent secessionism succeeded in ripping apart one of the most successful states in European history and undoubtedly encouraged similar such secessionist movements elsewhere in Europe. 

Yesterday's vote against political disintegration was also - thanks to a record-high turnout of voters - a resounding affirmation of democracy. 

Of course, that Scottish independence ever reached this level of possibility is itself a tragic commentary on contemporary governance and the fragility of contemporary leadership in democratic societies. The late 20th-century Thatcherite revolution in the UK (paralleled by the equally harmful Reaganite revolution in the US) succeeded in seriously undermining the shared sense of common identity that binds a nation together The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, which Lincoln so famously (if unsuccessfully) invoked in 1861 in his First Inaugural Address.

Lincoln was able to put the United States back together - but only by victory in a long and bloody civil war. Some of its divisions, however, have yet to be overcome. They persist particularly in contemporary form in the Reaganite revolution's undermining of community and the society-wide crisis of inequality which is one of its legacies.

The United Kingdom has been saved as a national state. But for it to thrive as a national community - for the now renewed bonds of union to survive - it should take advantage of this opportunity now to make a renewed effort to overcome its recent Thatcherite divide and really become a United Kingdom in fact as well as in name. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quatuor Tempora Septembris

Prior to the late 20th-century's transformation of the traditional Roman calendar, this would have been Ember Week, with Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday designated as the September Ember Days (days of fast and of abstinence from meat - full on Friday, partial on Wednesday and Saturday). For over 1000 years, Ember Days occurred four times each year, corresponding more or less to the four seasons. My grandmother's funeral, which took place on September 22, 1967, was on an Ember Friday. I remember that because, while the Funeral Mass was being celebrated at the main altar in black vestments, I remember constantly being distracted by the side altars where various priests were saying their private Masses in purple (the color of the Ember Day Mass).

All that is long gone now, of course, but it didn't have to happen that way. As serious students of the 20th-century liturgical reform know, that reform did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus on the day after the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, it was the fruit of a lengthy process, and many of the changes that came about in the late 1960s had been under consideration for some time and were anticipated in the discussions of the Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy established by Pope Pius XII in 1948. Unlike many of the rubrical and calendrical changes that were to come later, however, the abolition of the Ember Days does not seem to have been envisioned in the pre-conciliar reform agenda. On the contrary, at a meeting of that Commission on February 5, 1952, there appears to have been unanimity that the Ember Days "should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed." And, at the Commission's next meeting, on March 11, 1952, there was talk of combining the "Great Litanies" (then celebrated on April 25) with one of the Ember Saturdays. (Cf. The Development of the Liturgical Reform: As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, by Nicola Giampietro, pp.236 and 238. This volume is a veritable treasure for anyone interested in the ups and downs of 20th-century liturgical history!)

Of course, in the chaotic deconstruction of the liturgical calendar that followed after the Council, both the Ember Days and the Litanies would disappear. Presumably, those few communities that use the older Missal on a daily basis and those rare priests that use the pre-conciliar Breviary still celebrate those days, but for the overwhelming majority of us - clergy, religious, and ordinary lay people - the Ember Days have been completely lost.

Does it matter? It is not just a matter of having lost a particular piece of our cultural inheritance, however important that may or may not ultimately be. It also contributes to our contemporary disconnect from the annual rhythm of the natural seasons (at a time in human history when we would do well to strive to re-establish that connection). In the case of the September Ember Days, it also further distances the Church's worship life from any remembrance of the great Jewish festivals, which the Old Testament prescribes to be observed at this seasonal turning point.

In particular, both the Pentecost and September Ember Days explicitly connected the Church's liturgy with the corresponding Jewish seasonal festivals. Our Christian Pentecost corresponds, after all, to the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot. So it made sense that two of the four "prophecies" at Mass on the Ember Saturday after Pentecost referred to that festival. Likewise, the second reading for the Ember Wednesday of September was Ezra's account of the reading of the law on Rosh Hashanah (which begins a week from tonight at sunset on September 24), while the first two "prophecies" on September's Ember Saturday were from the prescriptions in Leviticus - regarding, first, Yom Kippur, and, second, Sukkot, the holiday the New Testament typically calls the "Feast of the Tabernacles" or the "Feast of Booths." In discarding the Ember Days, Paul VI eliminated a liturgical acknowledgement of the changing seasons and a reminder of our unique spiritual relationship with Judaism - both things we could probably use more of in contemporary religion.

Finally, the dropping of the Ember Days was one more nail in the coffin of fasting and abstinence and the Church's penitential traditions in general. The Saint Joseph Daily Missal which I used until the mid-1960s described Ember Days as days of "repentance for sins, spiritual renewal, and a special preparation for solemn ordinations." Imagine if we still celebrated ordinations - as was once expected - on Ember Saturdays in purple vestments! How much more fitting than the overblown triumphalism that sometimes characterizes such celebrations nowadays. (Of course, ordinations are joyful occasions for the life of the Church and in the life of the individuals involved. In proper proportion, festivity is certainly in order - for example, on the occasion of the newly ordained's First Solemn Mass. In any case, the penitential character of the Ember Saturday liturgy lent a certain distinctive dimension to the celebration of ordination which was both unique and useful.)

One can argue at length about this or that post-1969 liturgical innovation. Such arguments have only limited utility especially when captured by extremists on either side. Already, back in 1969, Cardinal Antonelli lamented "the irascible insistence of the progressives on the one hand, and the blind conservatives on the other. Both of these are the deadly enemies of the authentic liturgical reform" (cf. op. cit., p. 193). 

How sadly true! How different, how much stronger stronger and more effective, the Church might appear today if we had been spared the divisive factionalism of the "liturgy wars"!

We might also have thus been spared such frivolous changes as the loss of Ember Days!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Inquiry Begins

Yesterday, the President of the Paulist Fathers and the Postulators for the Canonization Cause of our Paulist Founder, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker, met with the Bishop of the diocese of Knoxville to request that he open a formal inquiry to investigate a possible healing and whether that healing might qualify as a miracle attributable to Fr. Hecker's intercession. The Bishop of Knoxville has responded with a Decree initiating a diocesan inquiry regarding the possible miracle.

Since Hecker died in New York (where he is buried in a monumental tomb in the Paulist “Mother Church” of Saint Paul the Apostle at 60th Street and Columbus Avenue), a diocesan inquiry into his reputation for holiness and heroic virtue has already been initiated there. If that case is judged sufficiently convincing, it will eventually go to the Holy See's Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome for further investigation. Meanwhile, a parallel process of investigation must take place in the diocese in which an alleged miracle may have occurred. If, after a thorough examination of the evidence in both documentary and oral testimony, the case for the miracle is determined to be sufficiently convincing, the judgment of the diocesan inquiry will also go to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome for a final adjudication. What must be demonstrated in these processes is that the healing in question cannot be adequately explained in any other natural way and that Hecker's intercession was specifically prayed for prior to the healing.

The authentication of a miracle would represent a judgment that invoking Isaac Hecker’s intercession appears pleasing to God, who is the ultimate source of healing. It would thus add further weight to the proposition that Hecker lived a life of heroic sanctity and ought in time to be beatified by the Church. 

At a General Audience on January 13, 1988, Pope Saint John Paul II, spoke eloquently about the significance of miracles in the life of the Church:
The lives of the saints, the history of the Church and, in particular, the processes for the canonization of the Servants of God, constitute a documentation which, when submitted to the most searching examination of historical criticism and of medical science, confirms the existence of the ‘power from on high” which operates in the natural order and surpasses it. It is a question of miraculous “signs” carried out from apostolic times until the present day, and their essential purpose is to indicate that the human person is destined and called to the Kingdom of God. These “signs” therefore confirm in different ages and in the most varied circumstances the truth of the gospel, and demonstrate the saving power of Christ who does not cease to call people (through the Church) on the path of faith. This saving power of the God-man is manifested also when the “miracles-signs” are performed through the intercession of individuals, of saints, devout people – just as the first “sign” at Cana of Galilee was worked through the intercession of the Mother of Christ.”

Monday, September 15, 2014

How Sorrow Seems to Multiply in the Middle East

Recently, the world's attention has rightly been focused on the seemingly unending, yet ever and exponentially increasing story of sorrow that is the modern Middle East. The other day, we had word of yet another beheading by the "Islamic State" - this time of a British captive. Meanwhile, at home (appropriately on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast so resonant with associations with the Holy Land), we took up a special collection at Mass for humanitarian assistance to the persecuted Christians in the region. 

The sufferings of those ancient Christian communities have received some attention in the media and were mentioned by the President in last week's speech, but the attention  and the West's response so far have hardly seemed proportional to the crisis they are experiencing. In Sunday's NY Times, Ross Douthat noted some of the factors which may account for this. 

(To read Douthat's account, go to "The Middle East's Friendless Christians" -

It is, of course, the case that there are some Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere who seem to have allied themselves - in spirit if not in action - with Israel's enemies. Christian anti-semitism needs to be named and condemned just like anyone else's anti-semitism, especially when, as now, anti-semitism is on the rise. Israel's right to defend itself against its enemies in the region and among the chattering elites of the world deserves to be acknowledged by all people of good will and, a fortiori, by Christians, who have such a special debt of relationship to the Jewish people. As the Second Vatican Council, following Saint Paul (cf. Romans 11:29), dogmatically taught, th Jewish people remain God's beloved people, for God's gifts and call are irrevocable (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 16), 

That said, the human community should be able to extend its concern to more than one constituency at a time and to care about all persecuted communities being exposed to contemporary ethnic cleansing. 

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Traditionally, May's sorrows have been numbered at seven - Simeon's prophecy, the flight into Egypt, the 12-year old Jesus being lost in Jerusalem, Mary meeting jesus on the way of the cross, the crucifixion, Jesus' being taken down from the cross, and Jesus' burial. As Queen of heaven, Mary can obviously no longer experience sorrow in the strict sense. But she remains involved in and concerned for the sufferings and setbacks of the Body of Christ, the Church, as it continues to journey through this vale of tears. In that symbolic sense, surely, we can speak of the sufferings of contemporary Christian communities in the modern Middle East as having a special place among her sorrows

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In hoc signo

Thirteen years ago today, the Paulist Church in New York (where I was then an associate pastor) was filled to overflowing following the terrorist attack we had experienced just three days before. On that unforgettable September Friday, we were a community in mourning and a city still in shock. But, when we assembled that day for Mass, we did what the Church always does on September 14. We celebrated the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the symbol of our salvation. As Servant of God Isaac Hecker expressed it, The only bridge to heaven is over the cross.  The gates of paradise are only opened with the key of the cross. 

Historically, this feast commemorates the dedication, on September 13, 335, of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – built by the Roman Emperor Constantine over the traditionally recognized sites of Christ’s crucifixion and of his burial and resurrection. (It has been the Emperor Constantine, of course, who 23 years earlier had supposedly had a vision or dream of the cross in the sky, along with the motto, in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine adopted the emblem and the motto, and the rest, as they say is history.) Anyway, 23 years later, on the day after the dedication of the Jerusalem Basilica, the relic of the True Cross (which had been discovered by Constantine’s mother, the Empress Saint Helena in 320) was publicly venerated in the new basilica. Eventually, September 14 became the feast celebrated today throughout the Universal Church.

On one level, this feast is yet another celebration of Christianity’s triumph over Roman paganism. (The date for the dedication of the Jerusalem Basilica may have been chosen to counteract the anniversary of the dedication of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome - ironically now the site of united Italy’s 1911 monument to King Victor Emmanuel II, a monument to the triumph of modern secularism). Ultimately, however, what we celebrate today is Christ’s triumph over our sad human history of evil and sin – now transformed once and for all through the triumph of Christ’s cross.

Evil and sin do not happen simply by accident – and neither did the cross. It didn’t just happen to Jesus one day, like some inexplicable misfortune – like various sufferings and setbacks, which, when they happen in our own lives, we sometimes all too glibly refer to as “crosses.” Christ’s cross was a direct consequence of his confrontation with evil and sin in the world and became the means by which he overcame evil and sin.

In Jesus, the cross has become our doorway to salvation. A dreaded instrument of disgraceful death, the cross is now, thanks to Jesus, our gateway to freedom and new life, a triumphant sign of glory. And that is why we celebrate the Cross. As Saint Augustine said in a sermon somewhere around the year 400, You’re a Christian, you carry on your forehead the cross of Christ [Sermon 302, 3].

In the familiar story we just heard from the Book of Numbers [21:4b-9], God punished his perpetually complaining people with serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. But, when Moses interceded on the people’s behalf, he was instructed to make an image of a serpent, mounted on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at it, he lived.

Like the people in the desert, we experience all sorts of sufferings and setbacks and are prone to discouragement and self-pity. But the mystery of the cross invites us to see our situation differently. It invites us to turn away once and for all from our obsessive, dead-end focus on ourselves, and to turn instead to Christ – to delight, as Saint Augustine said in that same sermon, not in the sign of the wood, but in the sign of the one hanging on it. The mystery of the cross invites us to turn away once and for all from our obsessive, dead-end focus on ourselves - and the seemingly endless sufferings and setbacks that continue to break our hearts - and to turn instead to Christ, so that we may journey through the desert of this treacherous life without fear, under the sign of the cross, which alone can conquer in our war-torn terrorized world.

Homily for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 14, 2014.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Cross

Tomorrow, the Church will joyfully celebrate the great feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Not surprisingly, today’s celebration originated in Jerusalem itself. After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, it became desirable to excavate and build churches on the actual Jerusalem sites traditionally associated with the events of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Eventually, Constantine constructed a great Basilica encompassing the entire area associated traditionally with both the hill of the crucifixion and the nearby tomb where Jesus had been buried and which was therefore seen as the site of his resurrection. The original basilica was consecrated on September 13, 335. On the following day, September 14, the relic of the True Cross, which had been discovered by Constantine’s mother, the Empress Saint Helena, was solemnly venerated. (The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in 614, destroyed again in 1009, and rebuilt by the Crusaders. The present Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which includes both the original holy sites of the Crucifixion and of the Tomb of Christ, was dedicated in 1149.) With the passage of time, two different feasts in honor of the Holy Cross came to be celebrated in the Church’s calendar – on May 3 the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross by Saint Helena, and on September 14 the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which commemorated not only the anniversary of the dedication of the original basilica but also the recovery of the True Cross from the Persians by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Heraclius II in 629. Our modern Roman calendar commemorates all these events in the one feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which we continue to celebrate on September 14.
The Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which is one of the “Seven Pilgrimage Churches” of Rome, was built to house the relics that were brought back to Rome by Saint Helena. It was built originally around a room in the Saint Helena's Sessorian Palace, which she had adapted as a chapel. The basilica’s floor was covered with soil from Jerusalem, hence the title “in Jerusalem.” In the traditional Roman calendar, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is the Pope’s “Stational Church” for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when the Mass begins with the words Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”), and on Good Friday. Until recent times, it was where the Pope would go on Good Friday for the solemn Veneration of the Cross.

On this side of the ocean, one of the more impressive shrines dedicated to the Cross is the famous "Hewit Crucifix" (photo) in the Paulist Fathers' "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York. According to the familiar account of the Church and its art by the late Father Joseph I. Malloy, CSP, this crucifix, a memorial to Fr. Augustine Hewit (Hecker's close colleague and successor as Superior of the Paulists and Pastor of the New York parish), was presented to the church on December 6, 1897, some five months after Fr. Hewit's death. Of Belgian black granite, the cross stands 13 1/2 feet high, and its bronze corpus measures 6 feet, 2 inches.

Of course, tomorrow’s feast celebrates more than a series of historical events surrounding the relic and images of the Cross and shrines associated with it. Fundamentally, the feast celebrates the Cross of Christ as the means and instrument of our salvation. Thus, the Church prays in the Preface of tomorrow’s Mass: For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, through Christ our Lord.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What Happens When People Have Guns

The outcome of the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa has a significance beyond the typical tabloid-type interest in the troubled lives of celebrities. As is evident from the verdict, this is what happens when people have guns. This is what happens when people keep guns in their homes. Once again, the lesson is familiar. The private possession of firearms by private persons for private use ought long ago to have been recognized as something completely antithetical to life in society. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The President's Address

It's exactly one year since the last presidential address to the nation about the crisis in the Middle East. (Why do these things keep coming up on the eve on September 11? Is there some lesson in that coincidence?) Last year at this time, the President was retreating from his self-imposed "red line" against Asad's use of chemical weapons in Syria. To intervene effectively, not only would he have had his own neo-isolationism to overcome (the neo-isolationism that he had run for office on and which had so significantly propelled him to the presidency), but he also would have had to overcome the neo-isolationism of the American public at large and much of the rest of the world that was more or less mobilizing for appeasement. A year later, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is even worse, thanks to the military ascendancy of the "Islamic State." How much of the blame belongs to failures in American international leadership and how much not remains still open to debate.

The President may technically have all the legal authority he needs to take the actions he plans, but I think it would be a mistake not to make Congress (and by extension the American people) completely co-responsible. Our elected representatives - both Democrats and Republicans - should be required to go explicitly on record, if only to limit future posturing.

In his speech last night, the President tried to make a case for the distinctiveness of the "Islamic State" - a distinctiveness that presumably puts them so far beyond any pale that it warrants a distinct response. Certainly, the "Islamic State" is exceptionally barbarous - even by Middle Eastern standards. But is it all that different in terms of basic ideology from the other terrorist groups - and terrorist states that have been driving the politics of that region for so long now? 

In any case, the President proposes to put together "a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat." Let's hope his strategy works. He plans to rely heavily on air strikes - including in Syria. He promises no American combat troops, but increased assistance to those fighting on the ground (which may remind some of the "advisers" President Kennedy put in South Vietnam over 50 years ago). And he plans an ongoing effort to enlist greater allied support. All that is certainly to the good. The question, which no one can answer yet, is, will it be enough? What if all these efforts fail to destroy the "Islamic State"? What then?

In his somewhat ritualistic conclusion, the President asserted, "As Americans we welcome our responsibility to lead." But, of course, that is precisely what the world - both friend and foe - is so uncertain about. Do we, today's Americans, any more really "welcome our responsibility to lead" in international affairs? Or indeed to lead anywhere at all?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

O Say Can You See?

As wars go, the War of 1812 was among the most inconsequential, both in terms of its goals and of its accomplishments. It left the two sides pretty much where they were before. But, it did have one very important effect. For both the United States and for Canada, it heightened the respective national identities of the two neighbors and permanently defined their separateness - - settling forever the division of English-speaking North America into two similar but yet so very different nations, societies with similar and yet so very different political systems and political cultures. So it was probably only fitting that that otherwise worthless war would produce our national anthem.
Tomorrow, Saturday, September 13, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. As every American schoolchild knows - at, at least used to know when history was still seriously taught in schools - when Francis Scott Key saw the 15-star, 15-stripe American flag still flying proudly over the fort in the dawn's early light  of September 14, 1814, he was moved to compose the poem now known as The Star Spangled Banner.
One can still see that famous flag in the Smithsonian in Washington, where it has been for over 100 years now. And, of course, one can always hear (and hopefully also sing) Francis Scott Key's famous poem, which since 1931 has been the official National Anthem of the United States.
The Star Spangled Banner has four verses. In elementary school, we were required to memorize the fourth verse in addition to the first, because the fourth is the one which explicitly mentions God (And this be our motto, In God in our trust.) Most people probably only know the first verse by heart. (and even that may be less so now that so often at public events we just listen to someone else singing our anthem to us instead of everyone singing it together, which is, of course, one of the purposes of a National Anthem!)
My immigrant relatives loved The Star Spangled Banner. My mother used to say its words were so beautiful because they came from the heart. Truth to tell, I remained for a long time unconvinced. Like many others, I found the melody awkward to sing. And the words seemed focused not on our country but just on our flag, admittedly the symbol of our country, but still just a symbol. In my pseudo-sophisticated college years, I felt the anthem represented the "reification" and consequent "mystification" of the flag. 
Neo-Marxist jargon aside, such is, of course, in the very nature of national symbols. One reason monarchy makes so much sense is precisely because the national symbol is a real person. Deprived of monarchy by the problematic accidents of history, we have had to make due with the flag. 
Back then, I thought America the Beautiful would have made a better anthem. In the aftermath of September 11, God Bless America was especially popular - perhaps because of the collective memory of its popularity in World War II. But, in my old age, I have come to appreciate the anthem we have. Donald Rumsfeld supposedly said that you go to war with the army you have. Likewise, you go to war with the anthem you have!
It is another sad sign of our civic disengagement that the anthem is often sung to us, instead of all of us singing it together. As another September 11 anniversary rolls around, we could it wouldn't hurt to rediscover the anthem's merits, recall its original appeal, and, most important of all, relearn how to sing it.