Saturday, January 31, 2015

Thomas Merton at 100

Had he lived, Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), who hid himself behind the cloister walls only to become America's most famous Trappist monk and something close to a household Catholic name, would have been 100 today. For members of my generation who were discerning a religious vocation or who were otherwise seriously interested in Church issues, Merton was a major resource. His literary output was enormous, beginning with his unexpected 1948 best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain, which recounted the story of his early life and spiritual search that led him to Roman Catholicism and priesthood in the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. That and his 1953 monastic journal, The Sign of Jonas, enormously influenced me personally at a time of particular turbulence in my own adolescence and early adulthood. 

Merton went on to write about all sorts of subjects - from monastic spirituality, to liturgy, to changes in the Church, to civil rights, and other political issues. I can hardly here try to do justice to his lengthy bibliography or to his wide-ranging interests and influence. I have, however, personally always been especially attracted to his journals, his more personal reflections on his life, his vocation and the Church and world in which all that was taking place. Last year, I re-read the 7-volume set of his now published journals. So today, in honor of his centennial, I will just recall a few quotations from those journals that I believe speak specifically to the priestly and religious vocation in the Church and that still seem to me to be particularly appropriate to highlight at this juncture in the Church's story.

“The life of Christ in the soul of the priest depends in large measure on the priest’s attitude toward the ‘needy and poor’ – the materially poor, if he deals with them, or, at heart, the spiritually underprivileged in the community where all are supposed to be materially poor together.” (August 12, 1952)

“Not to judge success in priestly life by narcissistic standards – success is not what makes me admired. Success of a priest is fruit in the lives of others. Real fruit, not a river of compliments.” (July 19, 1956)

“Maybe what is wrong with American Catholicism is that it is in large measure Protestant rather than Catholic. Whether this be true or not, one would look in vain for any of the trace of the spirit of Medieval Catholicism in America or in this monastery – its broadness, its universality, its all-embracing compassion, its joy, its understanding of man and his nature, its cosmic outlook, its genuine eschatology; its asceticism; its mysticism; its poetry.” (December 7, 1958)

“God is asking of me, the unworthy, to forget my unworthiness and that of my brothers and to dare to advance in the love which has redeemed and renewed us in the divine likeness.”
(April 29, 1961)          

“To announce peace is something quite other than to preach it – it is not to exhort men to be peaceable, but to announce that the Lord has broken through the wickedness and confusion of the world to establish His kingdom of peace.” (December 20, 1961)

“I am a Christian, and a member of a Christian community. I and my brothers are to put aside everything else and recognize that we belong not to ourselves but to God in Christ. That we have vowed obedience that is intended to unite us to Christ ‘obedient unto death – even the death of the cross.’ That without our listening and attention and submission, in total renunciation and love for the Father’s will, in union with Christ, our life is false and without meaning. But in so far as we desire, with Christ that the Father’s will may be done in us as it is in heaven and in Christ, that even the smallest and most ordinary things are made holy and great. And then in all things the love of God opens and flowers, and our lives are transformed. This transformation is a manifestation and advent of God in the world.”
(April 9, 1965)  

“The crux of the matter seems to be to what extent a Christian thinker can preserve his independence from obsessive modes of thought about secular progress. (Behind which is always the anxiety for us and for the Church to be ‘acceptable’ in a society that is leaving us behind in a cloud of dust.) In other words, where is our hope? If in fact our hope is in a temporal and secular humanism of technological and political progress, we will find ourselves, in the name of Christ, joining in the stupidity and barbarism of those who are despoiling His creation in order to make money or get power for themselves. But our hope must be in God. And he who hopes in God will find himself sooner or later making apparently hopeless and useless protests against this barbarism of power.” (April 15, 1965)

"I admit that when one believes, then the liturgy is a place of holiness and sharing in God’s presence and in His peace. But for me this was even more true in the old Liturgy – though also true of concelebration, true of my own Mass – I can’t seem to find the differences that are declared to be so important.” (July 13, 1967)


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Free Expression and its Discontents

Now that the initial panic and political posturing that accompanied the Sony film The Interview and then the terrorist murder of the French Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have abated, it is time to look more carefully and dispassionately at some of the issues those events have highlighted.

My concern was first aroused during the initial contretemps surrounding the movie, North Korea's hacking damage to Sony, the presumed threat of further damage, and Sony's initial decision not to release the movie as scheduled. At the time, I had no interest in seeing the film and no intention to do so. Still, I agreed with the President and others who considered Sony's action somewhat cowardly. That said, I was appalled to hear serious voices advocating the movie because of some supposed obligation (on the part of citizens) to the First Amendment. 

Our famous First Amendment, however, imposes no obligations upon anyone - except government. In its original iteration, it imposed an obligation only on the Federal Government. Congress shall make no law ... Its problematic extension to state governments is a separate issue, which we can ignore for now. Even assuming its applicability to all levels of US government - federal and state - what the First Amendment does is prohibit the government from restricting citizens' free exercise of religion, speech, etc. It does so in recognition of the fact, already evident in the 18th century, of pluralism of opinions (religious, political, and otherwise) in our society and a philosophical commitment to maintaining the necessary pre-conditions for a free society.  Constitutional jurisprudence has minimally circumscribed these fundamental freedoms, rightly prioritizing these rights as essential for the functioning and survival of a free society and the freedom of expression (religious, political, and otherwise) which that requires. 

All religions and philosophical or political persuasions have a common interest in maintaining these freedoms from state encroachment. That is why I have consistently been uncomfortable with laws regulating "hate speech" and with the punishment of so-called "hate crimes," which penalize not just criminal acts (already illegal) but the opinions of those who perpetrate them. 

What the First Amendment does not do, however, is require me or anyone else (or any private non-governmental institutions) to agree with or endorse in any way someone else's spoken or written opinions. What we must do is acknowledge and respect the legal right of anyone to express beliefs or views we may strongly disagree with or even find fundamentally abhorrent. Therefore, no one should normally expect the state to intervene to protect us from having to hear or read words which offend us. Nor, needless to say, is anyone free to use violence to avoid being offended or to punish the offender. In civilized societies, under normal conditions the state - and only the state - has a legitimate monopoly on violence. So the violence inflicted on Sony and, a fortiori, the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was criminal and should be punished accordingly.

That said, however, everyone (apart from government) remains free (as free as the offenders) to express one's disagreement and to take offense - free therefore to boycott an offending entity, for example, and to encourage others to do so. That too is part of the interplay of ideas that characterizes a free society. That means that one can completely condemn, for example, the criminal killing of cartoonists, without feeling any sympathy for their cartoons. 

Indeed, if one aspires to be not just a free society but a decent, humane, and - dare one suggest - even a just and moral society, then one can and should express appropriate disdain for those free expressions that violate reasonable standards of decency and taste, not to mention one's deeply held religious or other beliefs. That too is a consequence of pluralism. 

A free society may have to tolerate all sorts of undesirable expression; but for pluralism to work effectively it is also important that citizens be imbued with a certain sense of mutual acceptance, which will then socially stigmatize (without legally prohibiting) offensive expression. To the extent that American pluralism has worked as well as it has over the years, that is in part because legal freedom of expression has been balanced by a social consensus that significantly stigmatizes being gratuitously offensive.

That too, of course, can go too far - not only fostering pluralism by stigmatizing offensiveness, but also inhibiting expressions of legitimate differences of opinion. Just as legal freedom needs to be balanced by the social stigmatization of gratuitous offense, so too one's readiness to take offense must be balanced by an acceptance of the legitimacy of differing opinions, beliefs, and values. Where that is lacking, we encounter the excesses of so-called "political correctness," which end up inhibiting the free speech and expression that are so essential for society. Nowhere is this perhaps more of a challenge than at universities which must somehow simultaneously promote mutual respect and tolerance while encouraging the free exploration of different and challenging ideas.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Today is Mozart's birthday. Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born in Salzburg on this date in 1756 and was baptized the following day. (He died in Vienna on December 5, 1791.) The name Chrysostomus reflects the fact that, until the confusing calendar changes of 1969, January 27 was celebrated as the feast of Saint John Chrysostom.

Mozart, as everyone knows, was something of a child prodigy, who began composing at the age of five. He was the son of one of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg's musicians, and he too served as one of the Prince-Archbishop's court musicians until dismissed by him, which freed him for greater things in the imperial capital Vienna. The child prodigy grew up to be one of the greatest - if not the greatest - composer of the classical period.

Mozart composed many Masses, and his truly glorious liturgical music has always been for me one of his great attractions. He personifies a time when the traditional precept to "hear" Mass could be quite literally fulfilled in a most esthetically pleasing and satisfying way. Sadly, Mozart's Masses are now completely confined to the concert hall and recordings and seldom ever enrich Catholic worship as they were originally intended to do.

In 1970, I spent July and August studying German in Salzburg, Austria. Not surprisingly, Salzburg has made the most of being Mozart's hometown. That summer I saw my first two Mozart operas, Die Zauberfloette and Don Giovanni. And on the feast of the Assumption (a legal holiday there), I heard Mozart's Kronungsmesse sung in several of the city's churches. That "Coronation" Mass has always been one of my favorites - along with Mozart's last Mass, his Requiem, that he was still working on up until his tragic and untimely death. I can clearly remember the first time I ever heard Mozart's Requiem. It was January 19, 1964, a televised "Month's Mind" Pontifical Mass for President John F. Kennedy, celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing at Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral. I remember how mesmerized I was, awestruck by something more beautiful than almost anything I had ever heard before.

Imagine if the Church's worship could still attract such quality music today!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Downton Secrets

The most refreshing moment in the 4th episode of Downton Abbey's 5th season came when Lord Grantham finally said to the incorrigibly obnoxious Sarah Bunting (whom the rest of the family for some inexplicable reason keep inviting to dinner despite her obvious inability to be even minimally polite), “Only one thing I would like, and that I would like passionately! It is to see you leave this house and never come back!” Unfortunately, it was Lord Grantham who then left the room, leaving the unpleasant Miss Bunting still seated at the table! In so many respects, son-in-law Tom Branson has made a productive and sensible life for himself at Downton, but he seems somehow unable to resist Bunting's putative charms. In the real world, of course, Tom would presumably be able to charm any number of pretty village girls, without constantly having to reenact the French (or Russian) Revolution! 

Other than Tom's mesalliance with Sarah, almost everyone at Downton seems presently imprisoned in some secret or other that threatens to destabilize things even further. Lady cora's secret is not that she indulges the ridiculous art historian who is flirting with her, which her husband can clearly see, but her underlying unhappiness, of which Lord Grantham appears completely clueless!

But the secret that dominates our attention is, of course, Mary's secret week with Tony. The society Mary and Tony inhabited in 1924 was not quite today's casual hook-up culture. Tony rightly expects Mary to act according to the seriousness of what she has done - as does the Dowager Countess, the only other person who knows their secret. So mesmerized has the series made us to Mary's holding out for whatever she feels totally entitled to that it is almost a refreshing surprise to see Tony talk back when she finally tries to dump him. Of course, I've always wanted Charles to win this competition, and perhaps now he still has a chance!

Then there is the perpetually tragic Edith and her sad secret. It was obvious from the first, when she entrusted he daughter to Mr. Drew, that this subterfuge was not likely to last. Clearly, her aunt, Lady Rosamund, is on the verge of figuring out what is going on, which means the Dowager cannot be far behind. Of course, the ideal solution would be for Michael somehow to return from Germany safe and sound and for his wife meanwhile to have died, so that he and Edith can marry and somehow "adopt" Marigold. For that, too many incredibly good things would have to happen in a narrative that has clearly been going in the other direction and that seems determined on a life-long punishment for Edith for not being the favored daughter.

Downstairs has its secrets too. Thomas Barrow's new secret is not his sexual orientation, which everyone obviously knows about, but whatever self-administered therapy he is trying, which so far only the repentant, recently forgiven, and now forgiving in turn Baxter has so far even a hint of. 

And, of course, there is Anna's secret - the strange sword of Damocles that has hung over her and her husband and that continues to threaten whatever shred of happiness they might otherwise have been able to snatch from life. 

All these secrets cannot possibly stay secret. So we can expect even more turbulence to come - given the show' underlying ideology that the world downton represents is doomed by its own internal contradictions which cannot face the light of the modern day. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saint Paul, our Patron

On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker together with 3 others – Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker – founded the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” For more than 150 years, the Paulist Fathers’ life as a religious community in the Church and their wider missionary outreach have been blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we celebrate today - during this special Year of Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis has called upon all priests, brothers, and sisters in religious communities to observe.

Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. If the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, and the two are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, there is this additional celebration of St. Paul – focused on the event in his life that we commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared, highlighting what it means to be converted to Christ, to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples.  No wonder Hecker and his friends chose Paul as their patron! No wonder the Paulists celebrate this day every year as our patronal feast day!

Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the group most zealous about religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from what we call the Diaspora. (There was nothing unusual about that. More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.

All of this was very important, because one of the great issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.

What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendents and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.

And because the converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people and why he appealed to Hecker as a model – Hecker who was so convinced that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time (and Hecker’s time), but the Church’s mission - and our mission  - remain the same.

Paul had what Hecker so much wanted his Paulist Fathers to have, what Hecker called “zeal for souls.” Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do.

As Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”

Along with preaching and teaching and organizing local churches and recruiting leaders for them, another important part of Paul’s apostolic activity was raising money. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and his mission partner, Barnabas, brought financial aid for the struggling community in Jerusalem from the Church in Antioch when they went to Jerusalem around the year 46 [Acts 11:29-30]. Paul recounted this visit in his letter to the Galatians where he recalled how the Apostles hoped he and his Gentile converts would keep this up, something Paul expressed his eagerness to do [Galatians 2:10]. Over the next decade, a very busy and productive period for Paul, he continued to raise money from his Gentile converts in order to assist the struggling Church in Jerusalem and wrote about this in some detail in his two letters to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8–9] and in his letter to the Romans [Romans 15:25-33].

Paul’s "Financial Appeal" was a charitable response to the real needs and struggles of the Jerusalem community and the special responsibilities the Jerusalem Church had in relation to other Christian communities. It was also an expression of - and a lesson in - the unity and interdependence of individuals and local communities in the wider Church. Paul took this responsibility very seriously, as an essential expression of what it means to be a Church community, what it means to be diverse and different people all united in one Church, one Body of Christ. That is the same spirit in which we need to approach our annual Bishop’s Appeal, which is our annual opportunity, as individuals and as parishes, to unite our efforts as one local Church here in East Tennessee to meet the multiple needs of the diocese for mission, education, charity, and service to so many people with so many needs.

The Paulist Fathers have served the Church in Tennessee for over a century, starting with 50+ years of mission outreach in Middle Tennessee.  For another 50+ years, the Paulist Fathers maintained a major mission parish in Memphis. And, since 1973, we have been busy here in Knoxville, sharing the good news of Christ and the life of his Church in this city’s downtown and at its university.

As Paulists, we are committed not just to our own religious community’s life and mission, which so many of you have so generously supported over the years (and as recently as last week) through our annual Paulist Appeal, but also - and just as essentially - to the life and mission of the Church here in East Tennessee in the Diocese of Knoxville. So I invite you to be attentive and generous in your response when our Bishop, carrying on the same tradition started by Saint Paul, makes his annual appeal to you next week.

Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Patronal Solemnity of the Paulist Fathers, and the Announcement of the Annual Bishop's Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 25, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Burying Richard III

I have written about this before, but an article in yesterdays' British publication Catholic Herald has reminded me that efforts are still being made to keep alive the issue of a Catholic funeral for Richard III - even as the date for the last Yorkist King of England's March 26 funeral and re-burial approaches. According to yesterday's Catholic Herald  article, some 3000 people have signed a petition (addressed to the Cardinal archbishop of Westminster) asking that Richard III receive a Roman Catholic funeral - on the obvious grounds that as a medieval man, ruling pre-Reformation England, Richard was, whatever else history may say about him, certainly a Catholic, and should be buried according to the rites of his Church and not that of the Church invented to resolve the marital problems of one of his more infamous successors. 

Of course, Cardinal Nichols is not the one empowered to make that decision, nor is there any evidence that he has any significant objections to plan presently in place for the king's final obsequies. The article notes that there will be ecumenical services surrounding the event, that the Cardinal will preach at Compline on the day the royal remains are received at Leicester Cathedral (Sunday, March 22), and that he will also celebrate a Requiem Mass the next day at a nearby Catholic church.

Personally, I see little to object to in these arrangements. For better or for worse, the Church of England is the Established Church in historic continuity with the pre-Reformation English Church. Any "State Funeral" must reflect that historic fact. On the other hand, Richard's pre-Reformation Catholicism is an historic fact that should also be respected. Certainly, the Cardinal's participation in the official rites and the offering of a Catholic Requiem the same day represent reasonable efforts to show such respect. (Parenthetically, one wonders what rite the Cardinal will use at the Requiem. If historical accuracy is the issue, then the Mass should be celebrated according to the pre-Reformation rite in use in 15th-century England - certainly the 1969 Missal of Paul VI, but also equally not the 1570 Roman Missal of Pius V, which only came to England with the Elizabethan Jesuit missionaries.)

It is easy to blow such matters out of all proportion, and certainly this controversy among historians should not be overdone. It does, however, serve as a salutary reminder of one devastating consequence of the Wars of the Roses and the eventual rise of the Tudor dynasty. As such it invites one to imagine an alternative history, what easily might have been. As one of the historians who worked to identify Richard's remains was quoted as saying: "If Richard III had not have died, maybe the Anglican church would never have existed."

(The January 23 Catholic Herald article about the latest petition can be accessed at

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vigil for Life

Last night, as I try to do each year, I watched the first part of the Mass at the National Shrine opening the annual Vigil for Life, as we once again observe the sad anniversary of the calamitous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. This year again the principal celebrant of the Mass was Boston's Sean Cardinal O'Malley, who once again spoke eloquently about our mission as people of faith to witness to human dignity. He rebutted the dominant mythology that the majority of women and young people are pro-abortion - a mythology undercut visibly by the predominantly young crowd filling the Basilica. 

The annual Vigil for Life Mass is one of those mega-events that are inherently uplifting by virtue of the turnout and participation. The Basilica was full, of course, and the entrance procession took more than half an hour, as seminarians from all over solemnly walked through the nave to the sanctuary, followed by numerous deacons, concelebrating priests, bishops, and cardinals. If nothing else, the parade of seminarians certainly should give some hope that we may somehow make our way out of the current vocations crisis, while the capacity congregation - perhaps one of the largest gatherings of young people in the year - should do something at least to raise our hopes about the Church in America's future that is otherwise so often forecasted as so bleak.

The Gospel for the Mass was the familiar story of the Rich Young Man, whom Jesus invited to embrace a life of complete commitment, over and above the minimum requirements of the commandments, and who went away sad because he had so many possessions. Commenting on that, Cardinal O'Malley said: How dangerous money can be when it becomes our master.

Jesus in that same Gospel story also famously said: "How hard it is to enter the Kingdom. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." In regard to that,  O'Malley recalled how  Chesterton once said that ever since Jesus made this statement, scientists have been trying to breed smaller camels and engineers are trying to make bigger needles! 

The Pro-Life movement in the Church, O'Malley insisted, must be about overcoming indifference. In particular, he reminded us, the Gospel of Life has to be about loving and helping the poor. Indeed, reducing poverty will also reduce the number of abortions. Poor and low income women account for more than half of the abortions performed each year in our country. The Cardinal also cited Pope Francis on our need to say No to an economy of exclusion and inequality, the kind of economy that is at the root of so much of what Pope Francis calls our "throwaway culture."

As Pope Francis reminds us: “When St. Paul approached the apostles in Jerusalem to discern whether he was running or had run in vain”, the key criterion of authenticity which they presented was that he should not forget the poor. This important principle, namely that the Pauline communities should not succumb to the self-centered life style of the pagans, remains timely today when a new self-centered paganism is growing. We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards.”

And then this timely reminder: An attitude of judgmental self righteousness is not going to change peoples' attitudes and save babies. We need to be the field hospital not Judge Judy.
One can only wonder how much more effective the pro-life movement might have been over the years had such counsels always been kept in focus!

We must work tirelessly to change the unjust laws, the Cardinal reminded us near the end of his homily, but we must work even harder to change hearts, to build a civilization of love. Solidarity and community are the antidotes to the individualism and alienation that lead people on the path of abortion and euthanasia.

Solidarity and community! How often does it come back to these basic, foundational themes! Decades ago, when I studied and taught political philosophy, I used to ruminate how capitalism crushes our capacity to care. The recovery of the foundational human need for community and the foundational moral value of solidarity are at the heart of the healing of our society that has gone so wrong in so many ways. The fight against the legalized murder of unborn millions is one necessary step in any recovery of those foundational commitments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of (Dis)union

The annual ritual of the President's State of the Union Address took place last night. There are few settings more solemn in our casual culture. And it is certainly one of the best opportunities a President gets to address the nation about his priorities and vision. 

The President did that last night. He did it better than some Sate of the Union speeches I can recall. Perhaps more to the point, he did it better than he has done in recent months. It is indeed one of the more perplexing characteristics of this particular president that, despite evident oratorical talent, he has seemed so ineffective at articulating a positive vision for his administration and, long-term, for America.

The State of the Union is ostensibly an address to the Congress - a report "on the state of the union" and recommendations for legislation. In format, it is the American version of the Throne speeches that punctuate the political calendar in parliamentary systems. Of course, from Jefferson through Taft, presidents eschewed the monarchical trappings of such an event and sent their message to the Congress in writing. Then Wilson restored the in-person, monarchical aspect of the event. Then Lyndon Johnson moved it from its traditional noon hour to evening, thus transforming it from an address to Congress to an address over the heads of Congress to the nation at large. Given the sad state of contemporary congressional governance, that may be a development any contemporary president must surely appreciate. That gerrymandered institution may make a good ceremonial backdrop for the State of the Union, but it has little to offer the nation but continued and growing disunion.

"The shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong." Such was the theme of the first part of the President's address. he rightly rejoiced - and invited us to rejoice - in the growing economy that is creating jobs at the fastest pace since the end of the last century. And there can be no doubt that the economy has definitely been getting stronger and stronger - especially in comparison with the much more static European economies. Of course, in today's polarized political climate, with an incorrigible opposition to whom facts do not matter much, such good news must seem to many as bad news - as reflected in the stony silence of the opposition party, led by their Speaker who seemed demonstrably miserable most of the evening.

I'm not sure how I feel about the new language of "middle class economics," but it was refreshing to hear the President take ownership of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for so many formerly uninsured Americans, to hear him emphasize the need to make working families feel more secure, and to acknowledge that no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 

The persistent problem, however, is that, despite evident improvement in economic growth, the benefits of this improving economic situation have hardly been broadly shared in our society. When the President asked, "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well," we all understand that it is the opposition party that is being tagged. The fact remains, however, that it has consistently been the case since the Reagan years that income inequality has grown and that the gap between the 1% and the have-not 99% has become an established fact of our tarnished social structure. That fact alone accounts, I fear, for a large part of the sadness and cynicism that continues to grown and to corrode what little is left of our once vibrant American civic culture.

It is against that background that I heard the latter part of the President's speech, which tried to recover the idealistic imagery of his initial appearance on the national scene. The President may sincerely believe in the possibility of overcoming the many divisions that continue to bedevil our society. But it is hard to see how that can happen, both because of the ideological polarization that the Congress so perfectly, if pointlessly,  represents and because of the evident failure (economically and otherwise) of the American dream since the politically and morally calamitous 1980s. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation!

In this season of new beginnings, the Church this particular Sunday also recalls the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission. Indeed, today’s Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19) and Gospel (John 1:35-42) must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text - fitting enough for this Year of Consecrated Life!

In churchy language, we usually use the word “vocation” in one of two senses – first, for the general calling of everyone to be converted and become a disciple of Jesus, and, secondly, for the particular calling of some disciples to undertake lives of full-time ministry in the Church. In this Sunday's Gospel, the 2 vocations came together for Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. In Peter’s case, one could say he went from fisherman to disciple, to apostle, to Pope – all in one encounter!

Samuel’s case in Sunday's Old Testament reading may have been a bit more typical. He was just a boy, but he was already being brought up to be devoted to the Lord, which is surely how most religious vocations begin, are nurtured, and flourish.  Then, gradually, Samuel heard the Lord’s voice calling him to a special mission.

Listening to Samuel’s story, I am reminded of our Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s account of his own boyhood, as he described it in statements made towards the end of his life:

Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.

For all the drama we may occasionally be inclined to associate with God’s call, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call comes typically in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. Two things clearly stand out in all these accounts. The first is that the target of God’s call needs to be receptive, needs to let the Lord take the initiative, in short, to listen. In this “information age,” we have all become accustomed to receiving all sorts information which we have no real need for. So it may be becoming increasingly hard for us even to imagine hearing something that really matters – and hence having a reason to listen. But God doesn’t impart information. He calls us personally into relationship with him, and in response we need, first of all, to listen. 

The second thing that stands out in these stories is the important part played by the believing community as a whole. As with Jesus’ invitation to his 1st disciples in the Gospel, God’s call is first and foremost a challenge to Come, and see. Closely connected with the part played by the believing community as a whole is the guiding role played by particular people in that community – people like Eli in the case of Samuel, John the Baptist in the case of Andrew, and Andrew in the case of Simon Peter. (To which illustrious list, one could also add someone like that other great 19th-century American Catholic convert, Orestes Brownson, in the case of Isaac Hecker).  All of them – Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson – all functioned as intermediaries facilitating the special vocations of others.
There have been occasions in history when the community assumed what, by today’s standards, might seem an excessively forceful role in fostering vocations in the Church. In spring of the year 391, St. Augustine, then already 36 years old (but baptized only 4 years), visited the North African town of Hippo. The Bishop of Hippo, Valerius, knew of Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator and took advantage of Augustine’ presence at Sunday Mass to announce that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until, weeping, he agreed to be ordained!

That might be a bit over the top by today’s more bureaucratic standards. All these cases do remind us, however, that one’s sense of one’s vocation is hardly likely to arise in isolation and can even less likely be fostered and flourish in isolation. In our common life together as Christ’s Church – just as we do in our common civic life as citizens - we all need people like Eli, John the Baptist, Andrew, and Orestes Brownson to help us understand what we are being called upon to do. And we in turn need to be ready and willing to play that role for one another.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Oscar Season

It's that wonderful time of year again when Hollywood celebrates itself and the rest of us try to see as many of the top movies as possible (and are sometimes left wondering whether it was really worth the effort and expense). 

As I noted when I wrote about this back at the end of December (, I only managed to see 12 movies in 2014 (at least one of which was actually a 2013 movie). Of the eight nominees for Best Picture this year, I have seen only three - Boyhood, The Imitation Game, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also saw one (only one) of the 5 nominees for best Foreign Language film - the Polish film Ida, a movie that thoroughly engaged me and that I would certainly consider to be very Oscar-worthy. Obviously, I can't compare the movies I have seen with those I haven't seen. Normally, I try to see all the nominated films, but I doubt I will do so this year. I have heard and read enough about Selma's distortion of Lyndon Johnson's historic role to make me not particularly keen on seeing that particular film, for example. 

Of the ones I have seen, I'd probably give my vote to The Imitation Game, although I wouldn't mind at all if Boyhood won. On the other hand, I can't say the same for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I enjoyed seeing but would not consider serious Oscar material. In fact, I ranked it at the bottom of my admittedly unrepresentative list of 12. (I recognize that this is obviously a minority view - at least within the Academy - which probably says something about how out of sync I am with Hollywood values!)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Facing "the hardened heart of humanity"

Yesterday (January 12), His Holiness Pope Francis delivered his annual New Year's Address to the Diplomatic Corps, i.e., to the ambassadors accredited to the Pope by the states which maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The exchange of New Year's greetings is a diplomatic tradition in many countries. Usually the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps makes an address on behalf of the entire group of ambassadors. Then the Head of State to whom they are accredited gives his or her response. In the case of the Holy see, this is usually one more opportunity for the Pope to survey the state of the world from the perspective of the policy of the Holy See and the worldwide mission of the Church.

As usual, the text of the papal address can be found on the Vatican website, and it can be read in English in its entirety at:

"The Christmas stories themselves," Pope Francis stressed, "show us the hardened heart of a humanity which finds it difficult to accept the Child." That "hardened heart" he sees exemplified, for example, in last month's murders in Pakistan, last week's killings in Paris, and "the never-ending spread of conflicts," which are like a "world war fought piecemeal." Among the conflicts he mentioned were Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East, notably "the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in Syria and Iraq."

The Pope linked such conflicts to his already very familiar theme of what he calls "the throwaway culture," in which "people’s lives are deliberately crushed by those in power." He addressed the sufferings of the sick, notably this year the victims of Ebola, and he recalled his recent challenge to the European Parliament regarding he plight of refugees and displaced people. In words which could very easily be applied to out own US debate about immigration, the Pope spoke of the rejection migrants often face and the need for a general change of attitude, "moving from indifference and fear to genuine acceptance of others." Quoting his recent address in Stassbourg,  he called for “enacting adequate legislation to protect the rights of… citizens and to ensure the acceptance of immigrants.”

Continuing with his "throwaway culture" motif, the Pope mentioned the elderly, who are considered a "burdensome presence" (presumably a reference to the increasing popularity of euthanasia in Europe and the United States) and the young, who "are denied concrete prospects of employment to build their future." 

Another contemporary problematic the Pope highlighted in his Address was globalization, "which levels out differences and even discards cultures, cutting them off from those factors which shape each people’s identity and constitute a legacy essential to their sound social development. In a drab, anonymous world, it is easy to understand the difficulties and the discouragement felt by many people who have literally lost the sense of being alive." Referring to what he has been able to observe in his own Roman diocese and around Italy, he warned how the continuing economic crisis "fosters pessimism and social conflict." 

It wasn't all gloom and doom, to be sure. The Pope mentioned areas of progress, notably the recent agreement between the United States and Cuba to restore relations - a development, incidentally, in which papal diplomacy played a part.

What we might call the Pope's annual survey of the "state of the world" serves an important function in highlighting areas and issues of importance which might otherwise not be front and center on anyone else's radar screen. Africa, for example, usually tends to be peripheral at best to the developed world's consciousness. It is also a good reminder to those in the United States and Europe who inevitably tend to try to universalize their particular issues - as if the peculiar preoccupations of the rich should always rank as the world's major concerns.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Downton Difficulties

I spent the last weekend of the Christmas season on retreat with the Paulist students and novices at a wonderful place in West Virginia. On Sunday afternoon, we drove back to Washington through Marlyand, passing right by the site of the Antietam battlefield, and were back in plenty of time to catch the 2nd episode of Downton Abbey's 5th season. Like so many others, I have been looking forward to season 5 ever since season 4 finished with Rose finally presented at Court and "Mary's men" fully engaged in competition for her hand. 

Unfortunately by the time season 5 began last week, it looked as if Lord Gillingham would likely be the winner. Tony's a charming guy and all that, of course, but I realized that I have been really rooting for Charles Blake. In a way, Charles resembles Matthew in challenging Mary to be more than just an icon of unmerited privilege. Tony talks about "the system we are trapped in" and wants to live "more simply."  In short, he challenges Mary in a self-referential, faddish, modern way. On the contrary, Charles challenges Mary to live a more meaningful, purposeful life. Anyway, in episode 2, Mary has, shockingly, gone off in secret with Tony - to try him out for a week. We'll see where that leads. And what effect all this has on poor Anna, who had to go to the store and brave her own embarrassment and the storekeeper's disapproval to buy Mary her contraceptive, so that Mary's trial marriage with Tony will be totally risk free. But in a society where proper behavior is the price of privilege can any adventure like that prove totally risk free? Let's hope the consequences don't just fall on poor Anna!

Mary's sister, Lady Edith, certainly learned the lesson that proper behavior is the requisite price of privilege - and has little Marigold to prove it. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I like Edith. The fact that she is the least favored daughter and has consistently been disappointed by life has given her a special claim on my sentiments. Part of me wants to see her get what she wants. On the other hand, we both know that, however, deprived she may feel and indeed be in comparison with her more favored sister, she is still an earl's daughter and lives a monumentally privileged existence - for which, once again, proper behavior is the price society rightly expects her to pay. It is hard to know how Edith could have better channeled her maternal feelings for her illegitimate daughter. What is obvious is that she is being very unrealistic in her approach. The story seems to be setting her up for yet another disappointing disaster. Poor Edith!

Life is unfair. Some people never get a break. But really why are the storywriters so sadistically determined to ruin Bates and Anna, who (all things considered) really seem to be among the nicest people in the household? In episode 2, Anna even reached out in kindness to Thomas Barrow, whom virtually everyone else despises - a sentiment he has to a considerable extent brought upon himself. Still, I feel for Barrow the way I feel for Edith. Knowing the source of Thomas's perpetual unhappiness, it's easy to feel sympathy for his deep-seated and deeply frustrated desire to be included and loved. Thomas's travails deserve being treated in greater depth. Maybe a few less scenes devoted to soap-opera-like matchmaking silliness (e.g., will Isobel become lady Merton or Mrs. Doctor, and how will Violet cope?) could leave some time to develop the Thomas story more.

Another young man who needs to be included and loved is, of course, the other Thomas - Tom Branson. Unfortunately, the story seems determined to hitch him to the obnoxious, arrogant, impolite Sarah Bunting, of whom the less said the better! 

Too many simultaneous romances may make any serious drama seem like a soap opera. That said, Carson's acknowledgment of his emotional dependence on Mrs. Hughes was actually one of this episode's more attractive moments.  As with Mr. Hudson and Mrs. Bridges in Downton's 1970s predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs, this is a coupling everyone should be rooting for.

Finally, the tiresome theme of modernity (good) vs. tradition (bad) was given a distinctive twist with the arrival of the wireless. The entire household (except for Mary, of course, who was happily in Liverpool finding out if Tony is as good as he looks) assembles in front of the wireless - the way people used to assemble in worship before an alter, the way contemporaries worship the TV - to hear the King address the nation on the occasion of the British Empire Exhibition. Propriety is observed, and everyone reverently rises in the presence (if only vocal) of the King. The discussion that follows - pitting the modernizers for whom the wireless makes the King more "human" and the traditionalists who appreciate the damage done when sacral symbols are manipulated perfectly encapsulates so much of the tragic story of the downgrading of everything noble and sacred and the exaltation of the common and vulgar that has characterized so much of the last century. In effect, it addresses the underlying issue being acted out in the show's ongoing conflicts over changing mores.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of the Lord

The frenzied extravaganza that is our contemporary American secular Christmas (which generally begins right around Halloween) has long since fizzled out, discarded like so much torn gift wrap, abandoned along with the dried-out Christmas trees that litter so many cities' sidewalks. And, now that we have all by now gotten used to writing 2015 instead of 2014, even the new year seems a bit old by now. So today’s final Christmas feast of the Baptism of the Lord may seem more like some sort of quaint, vestigial, post-Christmas afterthought.  Actually, however, today’s celebration of the second of the three "epiphanies" or "theophanies" of Christ - the first being his revelation to the pagan world as represented by the magi and the third his revelation of his glory to his disciples at the wedding feast at Cana - is intended to highlight, through the baptism of the adult Jesus – his formal identification by his Father as the eternally divine Son of God and the inauguration of his public ministry as Messiah. It is, in effect, the event, which the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.

Since we are on a Paullist retreat, I suggest we begin by transporting ourselves (in spirit at least) to our Paulist Mother Church in New York and there walk to the traditional site of the baptismal font. Longstanding tradition located the baptismal font of a church at its liturgical north-west corner, which (since Saint Paul's was built facing west) is actually geographically the church's southeast corner. That's where the confessionals are now, but where the baptismal font was originally located until it was displaced from there in 1993, which one can immediately infer from Alvin Alfred Lee’s copy of Giovanni Bellini’s turn-of-the-16th-century painting, The Baptism of Christ. Like the Gospel description which we have just heard, that impressive painting portrays the participation of the entire Trinity in Jesus’ baptism – the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, identifying him as God’s anointed one (which is what the word “messiah” means, what the word “Christ” means), and the Father from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  Echoing Isaiah’s prophecy, the Son himself is his Father’s Word, whose mission as messiah is to do his Father’s will, achieving the end for which he has been sent. 

The painting’s location at the traditional site of the baptismal font suggests a certain link, a certain correspondence, between Jesus’ baptism and our own, when we, identifying ourselves with Christ, were likewise graced with the Holy Spirit and identified by the Father as adopted sons and daughters   “The whole human nature,” said St. Cyril of Alexandria, “is found in Christ,” in whom the Holy Spirit likewise is given to us." That same Holy Spirit, present and active at our baptism as well as at Christ’s, continues his active presence among us, uniting us with Christ in the sacramental community of the Church, as our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, so pointedly emphasized.

Liturgically, today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord marks the Church’s transition from the festive Christmas season to what we (somewhat unimaginatively) call Ordinary Time, sort of replicating in the yearly cycle our weekly transition from Sunday to Monday. In a sense, Ordinary Time represents the day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year regular routine of life. How fitting then your transition today from this special retreat time we have had together back to the ordinary academic routine of the second semester of school that starts tomorrow, on Monday morning. Ordinary Time is, however and in spite of its unimaginative name, also the time of the Church, about which ultimately nothing is ordinary, for it is the day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year life of the Body of Christ, the Church, the mission of which,as we have been emphasizing this weekend, is to refashion and reform the world’s otherwise regular routine.

In such a world, we will inevitably find ourselves preoccupied with worries and anxieties about an apparently problematic and uncertain future that will continue to present a multitude of challenges to each of us individually as we continue to discern our vocation and strive to live it out - and to us collectively as  a community as we continue to respond to new and complicated challenges, such as those discussed, for example, at our community "town hall" this past Thursday, as well as the larger challenges of American society in transition from its more evidently religious past to its less certain (but certainly unpredictable) future.  In such a world, we cannot settle for apparent abstractions, but are being challenged must make a real difference - to become that "oil on troubled water" that Hecker so confidently hoped the Church would be.

Such is the challenge of Ordinary Time, this time of the Church – to remake ourselves and our world in what would otherwise really be only more of the same, ordinary time, and so achieve the end for which God’s Word has been sent into the world - and thus fulfill the purpose of Christmas.

Homily for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Paulist Formation Community Retreat, Priest Field Pastoral Center, Kearneysville, WV, January 10, 2013.