Sunday, November 30, 2014


This past week (like lots of other Americans), I flew across the country to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Of course, one could – and should - give thanks at any and all times of the year. And we do, in fact, do that every time we celebrate Mass. (The word itself, Eucharist, literally means giving thanks!) But autumn, the season of the harvest, naturally lends itself to such sentiments, at least wherever the natural seasons still exercise some influence on our technologized contemporary lives. Certainly since ancient times, throughout the northern hemisphere, thanksgiving festivals have been celebrated at this season. And our own uniquely American Thanksgiving holiday dates back to at least 1623.

Autumn – late autumn, autumn turning into winter – also gives this happy holiday season a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, a mood that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which in the Latin Rite begins today (unless you happen to live in Milan, Italy, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite is followed, and where Advent already began 2 weeks ago).

Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continues the end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!”  Like the servants in today’s Gospel [Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with a mission, each with his or her own work, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.

Meanwhile, of course, there are many distractions that get in the way of our being attentive – or, as Jesus says, being on the watch. What are some of those distractions? “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism,” Pope Francis has written, “is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life gets caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” [Evangelii Gaudium 2]

So, Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be on guard against whatever distractions dull our senses and lull us into sleeping!

In the darkness of the winter night, when sleeping seems so natural, Advent yanks us out of our ordinary, secular time into what we might call liturgical time. Like Thanksgiving in secular time, Advent introduces us to Christmas in liturgical time, remembering Christ’s 1st coming in the past. “The joy of evangelizing,” Pope Francis reminds us, “always arises from grateful remembrance” [Evangelii Gaudium 13]. And so Advent introduces us to Christmas in liturgical time, looking back to Christ’s 1st coming in the past so as to recognize Christ’s continuing presence in the present – in the here and now, between Christmas and the end - until Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware you become that time is running out, and thus the more you appreciate the importance of the present, the time you actually have.  Time – this time, our time – is precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and here is the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually expresses in ritual form for us what we actually presently experience, where we actually find ourselves right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting, as we say at every Mass, in joyful hope.

So Advent is not some antiquated interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, trying to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season in which we already find ourselves. As I say every year at this time, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending that Jesus hasn’t already been born, but will instead somehow surprise us on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.

So the point of Advent is not – as some would have it – to delay our celebration of Christmas, but rather to refine our experience of Christmas.

The point of Advent is to make the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his presence and action in our world in the present. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. The challenge of Advent is to re-imagine Christmas as more than just shopping and presents and parties (however wonderful those things may be in themselves). The challenge of Advent is to recognize in the reality of the Christmas story something even more wonderful than shopping and presents and parties, to recognize something really new and wonderful, pointing us hopefully into the future, by the bright light of Christmas past. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Homily, for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
November 30, 2014.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Year of Consecrated Life

The First Sunday of Advent tomorrow will also mark the start of what Pope Francis has designated as a special “Year of Consecrated Life,” which will extend until February 2, 2016. This “Year of Consecrated Life” is intended to highlight the distinctive ministry of religious priests, brothers, and sisters in the larger life of the Church. Hopefully, it will also be a time to invite younger Catholic men and women to consider a vocation to religious life. 

The theme for this “Year of Consecrated Life” will be Wake up the World

The year 2015 will also mark the 50th anniversary of Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree “On the Renewal of Religious Life”, and Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” Both have had a tremendous impact on the character of religious community life here in the United States and around the world.

It is worth noting that there are presently some 12,389 religious community priests, 52,557 vowed religious sisters, and 4,459 religious brothers in the United States. Those numbers are down from the historic highs of half a century ago, of course. Those numbers also include many who are now retired from full-time ministry, but the numbers still suggest a significant participation by religious communities in the life of the Church in the United States. At no period in its history has the Church in the United States not been significantly impacted by the presence and activity of religious communities, and that still remains the case even today. Of course, one could also certainly say the same for the longer-term story of the Church in the Latin West - since at least the time of Saint Benedict!)

To read Pope Francis message for the year of Consecrated Life, go to

Monday, November 24, 2014

Capitalism's High Holy Day

All this week, when not that long ago one would have expected the focus to be on the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we are instead being treated to a commercial crescendo all building up to consumerism's high holy day. Now commonly called "Black Friday" (which increasingly extends back into Thanksgiving Day itself), the day after Thanksgiving features buying and selling elevated to a quasi-civic ritual. It is commercialism and consumerism run riot. It is capitalism's high holy day.

This is not, of course, the capitalism that Karl Marx famously analyzed and critiqued in the19th century. His predictions proved spectacularly wrong by virtually any standard or measure. In part that was because of his erroneous materialistic presuppositions. But also among Marx's many errors was his not having anticipated how 20th-century capitalism would transform (and save) itself by turning workers into consumers. Capitalist greed drives "Black Friday," disastrously continuing capitalism's historic role of destroying the fragile fabric of human community - tearing away from the family, as Marx famously remarked, "its sentimental veil."

But capitalist greed in its post-modern, consumerist form, characterizes buyers as much as sellers. I read recently or heard somewhere how one retail chain that last year opened for business at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day will this year open two hours earlier - because customers complained about having had to wait until so late to go shopping! If this story is true, it just illustrates how throughly the human necessity of shopping in order to live has been perverted into the consumerist disorder of living in order to shop!

The corruption of Thanksgiving Day is only the most recent such development, but remains an especially poignant and tragic one. Thanksgiving, after all, is one of the most beautiful (and distinctly American) holidays. And, until very recently, it had escaped much of the consumerist take-over that has corrupted every other American civic holiday (and, of course, Christmas). 

Better by far than the anachronistic critique of materialistic Marxism is that of Pope Francis, who has tellingly written: "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ" [Evangelii Gaudium, 2].

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Judgment Day

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel [Matthew 25:31-46] portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in what resembles a rather dreary, 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle. There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have kept them trapped outside.

The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. One of them poignantly pleads with one of the visitors: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard, the visitors obstinately seem to remain forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by the visitors’ behavior): “There is always something they insist on keeping … There is always something they prefer to joy.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”

Lewis was just writing a novel, of course, a work of fiction. But, like the Gospel’s judgment story, it illustrates the connection between what we believe and how we live. And it dramatically captures how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. Both the novel and the gospel illustrate how the person that I am going to be forever is the person I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

Homily, Solemnity of Christ the King, Saint Anne, Walnut Creek, CA, November 23, 2014.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Heading West for the Holiday

Autumn and winter have always been my favorite seasons, and the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s holidays are always my most looked-forward-to and favorite time of the year. It is also that time of the year when so many of us especially try to make time for family and friends, visiting one another where possible and reconnecting with others by mail and other ways. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving week typically sees more travel than almost any other week of the year. I too am joining the traveling throngs this holiday week, flying cross-country this Saturday to celebrate Thanksgiving in California with my 92-year old mother, and with my nearby sister and her family
Thanksgiving remains the quintessentially American holiday. It has been so since at least the fall of 1623, when Massachusetts Governor William Bradford famously issued this proclamation: that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
On Sunday, I will be celebrating Mass at my mother’s parish church in Walnut Creek, CA. That day, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. This modern feast was first introduced into the Church’s calendar by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas Primas during the Jubilee year 1925. In that encyclical, Pope Pius XI quoted Saint Cyril of Alexandria to say that Christ "possesses dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence, nor usurped from anyone, but his by essence and by nature."

Originally, this feast was assigned to the last Sunday before All Saints Day. Blessed Pope Paul VI expanded the title to “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe” and moved it to the last Sunday before Advent, a day traditionally associated with Christ’s final judgment of the world, which is the subject of today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46). That theme of judgment is likewise central to the Advent season which begins next Sunday, as the annual cycle continues. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lumen Gentium at 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of what - from a doctrinal perspective at least - was undoubtedly the most important document of the Second Vatican Council - The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The same day also saw the promulgation of the council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitas Redintegratio), which, so to speak, goes hand in hand with Lumen Gentium in articulation the Council's ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology, of course, was what the Council was all about. Being just a high school kid at the time, my knowledge (and, a fortiori, my understanding) of the Council was quite limited. But however limited my knowledge and understanding, I did know that the Council would in some sense complete Vatican I's teaching on the Church. I knew, of course, that Vatican I had been interrupted by the unification of the kingdom of Italy (or, as it was then still sometimes called, "the sacrilegious invasion of Rome"). And I understood, albeit in some very vague way, that the result was a prevailing picture of the Church - one focused heavily on the papacy, whose primacy and infallibility had been definitively treated by the Council - that was certainly not wrong but which was only part of the entire Church picture. Vatican II was widely expected (at least by those who thought about such things) to reaffirm Vatican I's teaching but also to balance it by filling in the rest of the picture that Vatican I had had no opportunity to address. (In one of history's many ironies, the post-conciliar Church is perhaps even more papacy-centered than ever before - a consequence of modern media and the larger-than-life media presence of two post-conciliar popes - Saint John Paul II and now Pope Francis.)

Lumen Gentium most certainly did that. It utilized lots of biblical imagery and highlighted images of the Church (e.g., the Church as "the People of God") that seemed somehow new, while resonating with our roots. It spoke in expansively gracious language about non-Catholics, Jews, and other non-Christians, in ways that affirmed the uniqueness of the Catholic Church while at the same time recognizing the multiple levels of connectedness with the Church among the larger human family. (In the process, it may have paved the way for what contemporary commentators have called a "lifestyle ecumenism," that analogously attempts something similar to address the complexities of the many multiple levels of connectedness experienced subjectively by many within the Church and at its margins.) And, of course, Lumen Gentium also situated the Blessed Virgin Mary in her prominent place within the Church, helping to address not an internal Catholic problem particularly but a perception problem for many non-catholic Christians, with whom it has since become much easier to engage in productive common dialogue about Mary. Excerpts from Lumen Gentium's chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary reappear regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours in the Saturday Office of the BVM. And, when they do,I never tire of re-encountering them.

A lot has gone unexpectedly badly in the Church and the world in the 50 years since the Council - at least in the West, where renewal sometimes seemed like simple surrender to a secular Zeitgeist. But that came later, and should not be blamed primarily on the Council. Had the post-conciliar decline been anticipated, undoubtedly the Council Fathers would have been much more cautious in their outlook and probably would have produced fewer and less interesting documents. As it is, they gave the world a rich vision of the Church's self-understanding, which under different historical circumstances could well have renewed the Church along the lines initially envisioned by Pope Saint John XXIII and which, with God's grace and seen through the longer lens of God's providence, may yet come to full fruition in the new historical circumstances of this third millennium.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on the Marriage License Debate

Besides being criticized by me in this space, the proposal that Christian clergy should no longer serve as the State's official witness singing marriage licenses has also elicited other responses from much more prominent figures, whose opinions have much more social standing than mine - among them Andrew Sullivan, on one end of the spectrum, and conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters, on another. As I said earlier, whatever one's political opinion about same-sex marriage, I fail to understand how witnessing legally to the fact that a marriage which the Church recognizes has duly taken place poses a problem of conscience for anyone. And if it does, then the obvious question - as Peters himself has also noted - would be why doesn't it pose a problem for the couple themselves? If a minister thinks it unconscionable for him to sign a state marriage license, why isn't it equally unconscionable for the married couple to do so? 

What is actually at issue is the mistaken (so it seems to me) view that if a priest signs a New York City marriage license form, "then he’s signaling that what New York calls marriage is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." Actually, all he is doing is legally witnessing the indisputable fact that the couple has been properly married in accordance with both ecclesiastical and civil laws. If, in fact, what Reno alleges were actually the case, then every time a priest signs a marriage license then he is ipso facto "signaling" that New York's (and, as far as I know, every other state's) legal arrangement according to which marriages are dissolvable by civil divorce "is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." 

I understand that same-sex marriage is something radically new in human history. Even so - as an instance of civilly sanctioned forms of marriage that contradict "what the Catholic Church calls marriage" - it joins an already populated club that includes re-marriage after divorce, priests and religious vowed to celibacy getting civilly married, polygamy, etc. While the first is widely practiced legally in the U.S., and the second certainly happens on occasion, polygamy is no longer legal here, but it is elsewhere in the world. And, if, let us suppose, the US Supreme Court had not ruled as it did in Reynolds v. US in 1878 and if, say, Utah law allowed polygamy, would it therefore be wrong for a Catholic priest to sign a Utah marriage license witnessing that a monogamous couple had contracted a Catholic marriage in Utah?

One doesn't have to believe in or support or advocate for same-sex marriage to ask the obvious question, namely what is it about gay people attempting marriage that makes it so much more apocalyptic to some people than those other situations do and that seems to warrant such an extreme response?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Risen Christ is in the Boat with Us

Yesterday, as the Church Universal celebrated the feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Archdiocese of Chicago got to celebrate the installation of its new bishop (Chicago's 13th bishop and 9th archbishop), the Most Reverend Blase Cupich, originally of Omaha and most recently Bishop of Spokane. 

Cupich, whose immigrant grandparents had helped to found his home parish of SS. Peter and Paul in Omaha) had himself apparently chosen the date. Referring to the two readings appointed for the day [Acts 28:11-16, 30-31 and Matthew 14:22-33], the Archbishop said: "Read alongside the story of Paul’s missionary journey, this Gospel text becomes a point of reference to understand the meaning of the resurrection, how the Risen Lord is working in our midst today, and how disciples in all ages, how the Church in our time, should view its mission. Simply put, we are to join Christ in seeking out, inviting, and accompanying, by abiding with those to whom he sends us."

Those three themes - seeking out, inviting, and accompanying - appear to be the new archbishop's mission statement. they are obviously very much in tune with the spirit of the present papacy and last year's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. On seeking out, Cupich referenced the gospel of the day: "Jesus’ walk across the waters is intentional. He has come to seek out and to save the troubled, those who are lost. ... We face in our day the formidable task of passing on the faith to the next generation, of evangelizing a modern and sometimes skeptical culture, not to mention inspiring young people to serve the Church as priests and religious. It all seems so daunting, as daunting as walking on water. We are at sea, unsteady in our approach faced with these concerns."

From seeking out to inviting: "Jesus seeks out, but then he invites. 'Come,' he says to Peter, 'walk on the stormy waters with me.' Peter’s response is a brave act for an experienced fisherman. But, it is the kind of daring and boldness required today, the courage to leave our comfort zone and take an entirely new step in our faith journey, both personally and as a community. ... Jesus invites us, not only to take the risk of leaving our comfort zone, but also to deal with the tension involved in change, not dismissively but in a creative way, and to challenge each other to do so. Maybe, we hear that challenge today as a call to leave behind our comforting convictions that episodic Sunday Mass attendance is good enough, that we don’t really have to change our habitual bad behavior, our unhealthy dependencies, our inordinate attachments, because we can get by as we are, because they have not gotten us into any serious trouble yet, or just because we are afraid of the unknown."

From inviting to accompanying: "Finally, Jesus gets into the boat. ... it is in the incomplete, the in-between and in the brokenness of our lives where Jesus comes to share his life in the Father with us. His coming to be with us, his communion with us is not for the perfect, but is for the salvation of souls, for the lost, the forlorn, and those who are adrift. His communion is not just a quick visit, but he wants to be with us to the point of making our lives the dwelling place, the home where he and the Father abide. After going to the mountain to pray, to be with his Father, he comes into our messy lives with his Father in hand, to share our lives where we are."

Summing up: "Peter could then witness how the resurrection is not just a past event, but an ongoing reality. He could remind us that what Jesus did in crossing the sea, he did again, by crossing from death to life, from eternity to our time, as he continues to make that crossing with us in our day. He could tell us that Jesus came back from the dead for us, to be with us. That is the reason we are not afraid – because we are not alone ...because the Risen Christ is in the boat with us."

And so begins a new chapter in the life of one of our country's traditionally strong local Churches. So far at least, it looks like a hopeful chapter. Anyone can read Cupich's two installation homilies and draw some obvious conclusions - both from what was said and from what was left unsaid. 

There is a lot of gloom and doom in discussions about the Church today - much of it quite understandable. But there are also good things happening in the Church - for example, in Chicago.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Questionable Idea

Over at First Things, R.R. Reno has posted a somewhat problematic proposal that clergy should cease serving as the civil (as well as religious) officiants and registrars of marriage -

Others, also of a conservative political persuasion, have argued this before, in reaction to the new phenomenon of civilly approved same-sex marriage - as if modern marriage had been thriving just fine before this came along and is not endangered at least as much, if not more, by such contemporary practices as, for example, no-fault divorce! 

Of course, a separation between civil and religious marriage ceremonies is certainly possible. True, it came about in the West initially as a result of the French Revolution's hostility to the Church and its desire to reduce the Church's power and position in society. Still, the Church has learned to live quite adequately with such a system in many European and other states. However, we have our own history here, and for the present at least I would not expect to see the State initiating such a change. 

So what is being advocated is for the Church to initiate that change - or, in Reno's proposal, for clergy (apparently on their own authority) to join in a pledge "to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates." In today's feverishly polarized ideological climate, I could easily imagine a scenario in which some individuals might actually take it upon themselves to do just that - with conceivably catastrophic consequences for couples. 

Only a month ago,  conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters addressed this possibility on his blog and warned clergy who might be so tempted "that their unilateral failure or refusal to complete the civil registration of any weddings they witness can have very serious negative consequences for couples (re: tax liabilities, insurance coverage, property ownership and inheritance, assertions of spousal rights and privileges, and so on)". For this , see,

Apart from the potential harm to couples, there is so much that is troubling about this approach to what is admittedly a problematic development in society's understanding of marriage. Note that the minister is not being required by the State to do anything morally objectionable in simply signing a marriage license. He is just doing what the Church has always done, witnessing that a marriage (which the Church recognizes) has taken place. It is the State that is sanctioning marriages which the Church does not recognize. But that too it has long been in the habit of doing - e.g., the civil re-marriages of divorced persons. It is one thing, for example, to say that a priest may not officiate at an attempted re-marriage of a divorced person whose spouse is still living. It is quite another thing to say that, because the State does this (and uses the same marriage license form for it), that a priest should never sign a marriage license!

In defense of his extreme position, Reno says, "I can't see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for Spouse A and Spouse B." But why can't he? Again, conservative canonist Edward Peters has already rebutted that argument. As he wrote in above post last month, "a marriage registration form that designates only Spouse A and Spouse B is clumsy, I grant, but it is hardly evil, certainly no more evil that is, say, signing a 1040 joint return that only indicates 'Spouse', instead of allowing one to specify 'Husband' or "Wife'."

Post-modern language may indeed be "clumsy," but it seems to be to be just fishing for outrage to propose blowing up the historic Anglo-American relationship between the religious ceremony and the civil registration of marriage on that account!

I am old enough to remember when a divorce was much more difficult to obtain - at least in most jurisdictions in the U.S. and I remember when the divorce laws were liberalized. At the time, the Church opposed that development. It lost that battle. But it didn't throw in the towel and treat Christian marriage as a purely sectarian affair. Elsewhere it has always been the State that has sought to marginalize the Church's role in marriage. The Church should not go out of its way implement that secularizing agenda on its own.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Newsroom, Season 3

Amazing as it seems, we are already 1/3 of the way through the 3rd season of HBO's at times troubling but always interesting and well acted, Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom. (The season began on November 9 and is slated to air only six episodes, which means it will end on December 14.)

For anyone who has not been following the show, it centers around a fictional cable news network (ACN) and the on and off-air, professional and personal struggles of its principal anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his executive producer and former girl friend (with whom he fully reconciled and proposed to in the final episode of season 2) MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the head of the News Division Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and the corporate side of ACN's parent company (with whom the news division has a kind of love-hate relationship), CEO Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and the Company President (her son) Reese Lansing (Chris Messina). Interweaved with their stories are the on and off-air, professional and personal struggles (and loves) of the younger newsroom staff, senior producer Jim Harper  (John Gallagher, Jr.), associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), economics commentator Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), her new love interest, late-night producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), and social media and all-things-internet expert, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel). 

In the first two seasons (set in 2011 and 2012 respectively), while the eliitist self-righteousness of the show's principal characters sometimes got just too tedious, the adventures of the younger newsroom staff were always interesting and (in my opinion) often did as much to make the show work as much as the principals did.

Season 3 (set in 2013) has ACN struggling to regain its position after having (in season 2) falsely reported (and then retracted) a doctored story alleging that the Marines had illegally all using the chemical weapon sarin gas during the Afghanistan war. The principal character to blame for that, Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) comes across as an extremely ideologically driven figure - different from the other younger staff in being therefore somewhat less likable personally and different from everyone else in his corresponding lack of professional restraint.  

The new season began with ACN's coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. (One of the show's more intriguing features is how it reprises old news stories from a year or more ago, and also which stories it picks to focus on.) The episode offers an opportunity to suggest the journalistic (and moral?) superiority of "old media" vis-a-vis unfiltered, unedited "new media" ("citizen journalism" as it is sometimes scoffingly referred to).This sets us up for a fictionalized analogue to the Edward Snowden affair, when Neal receives (via computer) some 27,000 stolen government documents - and de facto commits one or more felonies in the process.

Meanwhile, even as we are being prepped for this most classic case of journalistic self-righteousness, ACN's rating continue to plummet. And, as Sloane and Don become more of a couple, Sloane uncovers an attempt by Reese's half-brother and half-sister to engineer a hostile takeover of the company, by Reese's twin half-brother and half-sister.

Episode 2 starts with Will desperately trying to save Neal. It seems only Will and Rebecca (Marcia Gay Harden), the company lawyer, fully grasp how much trouble Neal has gotten himself into and want to kill the story to save him. It seems that Mac, Charlie, and Neal himself have totally bought the ideology of investigative journalism as the savior of democracy. Hence their determination to make the necessary call to confirm the story, which will inevitably trigger legal action on the government's part. That action, of course, comes quickly in the form of a virtual FBI occupation of the news division's office - a rude counter to the elitist, ideological self-understanding of journalism as democracy's ersatz priesthood!

Of course, Neal and the other younger staff have absorbed this value system largely from following Will's leadership - something that comes across very clearly in the touchingly emotional scene between Will and Neal in the studio. All in all, Will comes across as a super decent guy in this episode, and we are reminded again how his charismatic leadership has formed a whole generation of younger staffers. 

One of those younger staffers is, of course, Maggie, now with her hair grown back and blonde again. After her on-air success in Boston, she overhears a careless EPA official talking off the record - on his phone in an Amtrak car! How she ends up dealing with the crisis she has created by sneakily listening in on the official's conversation creates one of the episode's more morally uplifting moments. The hapless official too deserves credit for calling her on the exploitative dimension of her profession, however often dressed up as defense of democracy. Maggie has really grown up by this point, and seems to be about to be rewarded with an interesting new boyfriend - a law professor and ethicist (and marathon runner), no less! (I assume we'll see a lot more of him in the remaining 4 episodes.)

At the opposite end of the ethical spectrum are Reese's millennial half-brother and half-sister who are out to destroy what Leona and Reese have built. It has been interesting to watch how Leona and Resse have gradually migrated from corporate ogres to the news division's guardian angels! 

The Newsroom - like Sorkin's famed West Wing - is derivative, drawing on real news to reprise it as is should have happened. It's the ultimate progressive elitist fantasy. But even then things still go wrong, and the characters have to find more dependable resources to rely on beyond the limits of their ideological stances. Right now, the one for whom things have gone most wrong for is, of course, poor Neal, now literally on the run from the Feds, but who, despite his ideologically driven fanaticism, remains one of the most personally attractive characters in the story. 

Sorkin, et al., have given themselves a lot to sort through in a mere four more episodes. Past experience suggests it will be riveting to the end. But let's at least hope  that it ends with a wedding!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"To everyone who has ..."

Today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:14-30] reports one of the very last parables of Jesus’ public life. Obviously, we are meant to apply this (and similar parables) to ourselves, as we anticipate Christ’s final coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of history.

This particular parable portrays two good and faithful servants, and a wicked, lazy servant, a somewhat timid type, someone who seems to value caution above all else.

Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, an appropriate amount of caution is usually a good idea. These parables, however, are not about our ordinary day-to-day world, but about the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the wicked, lazy servant gets condemned – at least as much, I suspect, for his fear of failure as for his actual failure to accomplish anything. He is condemned, it seems to me, for the inexcusable inactivity and passivity his excessive caution produced.

The two good and faithful servants, in contrast, are praised and rewarded. They too were prudent - in their own way (which turned out in the end to be the right way). Presumably, they also knew that their master was demanding, but, (like the fear of the Lord, which, as the psalm says, makes people blessed), their master’s expectation that they accomplish something with what he had given them, his determination to hold them to account and to judge them accordingly, far from immobilizing them, instead inspired them actually to do something bold with the resources entrusted to them.

Now, since this is a parable about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants seem obviously intended to suggest God’s expectations of us – expectations which, when the time comes to settle accounts, end up being most threatening precisely to the servant who seems so determined to keep his life unthreatening.

But to the other two, their master must seem incredibly generous. Surely, he is the most imaginative and adventurous person in the parable, the one who risks treating his servants as partners and rewards them with greater responsibility and greater closeness. So cautious, however, is that wicked, lazy servant that he fails to see what the other two see so well. He cannot see what he is being encouraged to make of his life, what he is being personally empowered to become. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is defeatism, which stifles boldness and zeal [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

With which of the servants do we identify? What do we see when we think about God and when we consider his expectations of us? Do we feel threatened by God, who (we fear) is really just out to get us? Do we - like the wicked, lazy servant - imagine that the challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life are just traps God sets for us to catch us in failure to fulfill his will? Or do we recognize, in his will for us, an unprecedented opportunity - to live a new and abundant life of moral responsibility, and an invitation to a life of ever increasing closeness with God? 

With which of the three do we identify? Notice that we have three possibilities here, and I for one have always been struck by the fact that the servant with the 2 talents, in terms of the resources he has to work with, actually starts out a lot closer to the wicked, lazy servant than he does to the superstar servant with the 5 talents. Like the servant with only 1 talent, the one with the 2 seems to lack any obvious star quality or signs of greatness. In terms of what he is willing to do with what he has been given, in terms of his outlook on life, however, the one with the 2 talents seems so much closer to the one with the 5 – and light years away from the wicked, lazy servant with only 1 talent, whose self-absorbed focus on his powerlessness, his sense of himself as a poor victim, have turned him into someone like the person one of my professors once called a silent spectator in the story of his own life!

Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, extolled for her endeavors in today’s 1st reading [Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31] – each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by being boldly invested in getting out of ourselves and joining with others - in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church, whose mission it is to share our master’s joy with all the world.

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 16, 2014.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


I began my Paulist life 33 summers ago at what was then our Paulist Novitiate in northern New Jersey. The property was extensive – 1100 acres of rocks and trees and a lake – most of which we never explored. One place we saw a lot of, however, was the cemetery. Soon it was autumn, and we spent many hours raking leaves there. Then in spring, we did more fixing up – including putting up a new crucifix in the center. The cemetery was dear to our novice master’s heart, and he wanted it to be dear to ours as well. Rightly so, for cemeteries are special places for us both as human beings and as Catholics. After all, remembering is a profoundly human activity. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them. To remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the different ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them - and the hope we share with them.

So today we remember in a special way the many Paulist Fathers who have preceded us – from Francis Baker, the first of the founders to die 150 years ago this coming April, to those we have known personally and perhaps even lived and worked with. We remember particularly today the Paulists who have died in this past year - Philip Hart, Richard Boudreau, Robert Pinkston, William Kenney, James O’Gara, and Dennis Hickey – all of whom were part of the larger Paulist story and some of whom were part of our own personal stories. (It was Dennis Hickey, for example, who drove me to the airport the day I moved to Knoxville 4 years ago.)

Every day, at every Mass, we pray in general for all who were pleasing to God at their passing from this life, that they may be purified from their sins and admitted into the company of the saints. And especially today we remember and pray for all whose lives were spent in priestly service as Paulists, especially those who have served here in Knoxville since 1973.

In the Church’s daily prayer, The Liturgy of the Hours, we have been reading this week from the Book of Daniel. Today’s reading ends with the words: Go, take your rest, you shall rise for your reward at the end of days. We pray today that these brother Paulists whom we faithfully remember may hear those words addressed to them, and that we in turn may be made worthy someday to hear them addressed to us as well.

Homily, Annual Mass for Deceased Paulists, Immaculate Conception Church, November 15, 2014.

(Photo: Remembrance of Paulists who died this past year, Saint Paul's college, Washington, DC)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Pope's Cathedral Is Ours as Well

As I wrote in last week’s Parish Bulletin, I spent the past week in Washington, D.C., at our annual Paulist Pastors and Superiors meeting. As in past years, we met at Saint Paul’s College, the Paulist seminary where generations of Paulist students have lived for now just over 100 years. Half a century ago, Saint Paul’s College housed over 90 students! By my time, we hit a high of 30. Now, of course, we count ourselves fortunate to have 10. It is, inevitably, for all of us who have lived and studied there, a place rich in memories and powerful emotional associations.

Today’s feast fondly makes me recall one particular memory. One day some 30 or so years ago, when we were both students, my best friend in seminary was teasing me in the library about my already disappearing hair. I responded by chasing him down the hall and up the stairs into the chapel, where he finally grabbed hold of the altar, and confidently declared, “You can’t hit me here. This is a church!” (And, no, I did not hit him. Actually, I had no intention of doing so. And, yes, we remain good friends to this day).

But the incident and the words my friend said that day haves tuck with me and  remind me what special places churches are. As a priest, I have been very fortunate to have served in two especially beautiful and historic churches – Saint Paul the Apostle in New York, the “Mother-Church” of the Paulist Fathers, and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, the Victorian Gothic “Mother Church” of this city. There are, of course, many beautiful churches and many styles of churches, each with its own richness. There are ancient Roman basilicas, rugged Romanesque churches, great gothic cathedrals, and beautiful baroque churches. Unfortunately, there are also any number of ugly churches to be seen - sterile modern structures, whose standard-issue ugliness expresses the spiritual impoverishment of our age, and testifies in its own way to a culture that seems at times to be losing its way.

But, whatever they look like, churches are special places. From time immemorial, people have had special sites – hilltops, sacred springs, stone temples – to which to go to worship. God, of course, is personal, not local, and so is not confined to any one place. Still, as human beings, we can only operate in space and time, which is why God himself became human – in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. So it’s no surprise that, through the ages, God has continued to inspire his people to set aside special places in which to assemble to worship him. So Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple to be a holy house of prayer and sacrifice. So too the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great built the Lateran Basilica in Rome to be the Pope’s special church, his cathedral, and hence “the mother and head of all the churches of the City and the world” – the anniversary of whose dedication on November 9, 324 A.D. the Church solemnly celebrates today. [The photo above is of the Lateran Basilica's papal altar.]

When we celebrate the dedication of a church, we celebrate three things. We celebrate a place, a very special and sacred place set apart unlike any other. We celebrate a people, the people the place represents. And we celebrate a relationship, the relationship that binds the people together.

So, first, a few words about the place. The Lateran Basilica gets its name from the family, whose palace originally occupied the site. In the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine built a church – not in the center of what was still then a very pagan city, but at the city’s edge - a church that was to be the cathedral of Rome. Originally the church was dedicated to Christ our Savior; but in the 10th century Pope Sergius III added St. John the Baptist to the basilica's title. Hence its popular name, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

The neighboring Lateran Palace became the papal residence, and the whole complex functioned for centuries as the center of Christian life in the city - until the Popes moved to Avignon, France, in the 14th century. When the popes finally moved back to Rome in 1377, the Vatican Palace replaced the Lateran as the Pope’s principal residence.

Even then, up until the unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870 put an end to papal rule in Rome, it remained customary for the Pope to come to the Lateran to impart the Papal Blessing, Urbi et Orbi (To the City and to the World) on certain special days during the year. 

So that’s the place. But, when we celebrate the dedication of a church, we also celebrate the people the place represents. That is why the anniversary of a church’s dedication is celebrated liturgically as a feast for all those whose church it is. As the Pope's principal church, the cathedral church of Rome. Saint John Lateran is, in a sense, everyone’s church; and so its anniversary is celebrated universally.

It is no accident that one and the same name, “Church,” is used for both the people who continue Christ’s presence in the world and the place where they assemble to experience his presence most directly, by proclaiming his word and celebrating his sacraments.

But, when we celebrate the dedication of a church, and especially when we celebrate the dedication of a cathedral church, we also celebrate the relationship that binds its people together. As the site of the bishop’s cathedra, the chair from which the bishop exercises his teaching office and pastoral power within the local church, a cathedral is a sign of the unity of believers in the one faith, which the bishop proclaims and represents, which is why having a proper cathedral is so important in the life of a local church.
It is this unique unity to which we refer in the Eucharistic Prayer when we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis, our Pope and Richard, our Bishop.

Homily for the feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Immaculate Conception Church,  Knoxville, TN, November 9, 2014.