Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Surprisingly Successful Innovation

We will celebrate the Chrism Mass with our Bishop tonight at Knoxville's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It will be my 5th Chrism Mass here in Knoxville. (The attached photo is from two years ago - in 2013) As a priest for almost 20 years now, I've participated in Chrism Masses previously at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. It has become an event I always look forward to participating in each year. 

As liturgical innovations go, I think the Chrism Mass is one of the more successful ones - perhaps one of the few instances where a radical transformation of longstanding liturgical tradition has actually worked out for the better.

When Pius XII's Holy Week Reform recreated the Chrism Mass in 1955 - removing the annual blessing of the holy oils by the diocesan bishop from the Mass of the Lord's Supper (now relocated to Holy Thursday evening) to a "restored" Mass of the Chrism on Holy Thursday morning - it seemed like a classic case of liturgical antiquarianism.  While undoubtedly of great interest to professional liturgists and lay liturgical enthusiasts, I doubt many seriously expected that the Chrism Mass would ever become the major and popular event that it has since turned into. Except for the extra clergy who had to be impressed into service for the occasion - 12 priests, 7 deacons, and 7 subdeacons (all in addition to the usual assortment of clergy and other assistants required for a Pontifical Mass at the Throne) - my guess is that hardly anyone else took much notice of the celebration. (Of course, someone from each parish would have had to go "downtown" to pick up the supply of new oils, but presumably that could be - and was - done apart from Mass later in the day or on Friday.) 

When I attended my first Chrism Mass at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral as a 20-year old, history-obsessed liturgical enthusiast in that tragically tumultuous month of April 1968, I was almost entirely motivated by my curiosity about an antiquarian ritual which had been so recently restored and which was itself about to undergo further transformation as part of the liturgical revolution already then underway. (By 1968, while it was still essentially the older rite, and the oils were still blessed at their traditional times during the Mass, the event had already begun to be affected by the ongoing liturgical revolution. Thus, much of the Mass was in English, and the Archbishop concelebrated the Mass with the 12 designated priests - concelebration having been introduced in the Latin Church three years earlier on Holy Thursday 1965).

What changed everything was Pope Paul VI's decision to turn the Chrism Mass into something completely new - a celebration of the priesthood. Of course, the oils are still blessed (although no longer at their traditional times during the Mass or with the full centuries-old ceremonies), but the focus of the occasion is evidently elsewhere.

Holy Thursday (the proper and traditional day for the Chrism Mass) has for centuries been seen as a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. As Archbishop of Milan in the 1950s, the future Pope Paul VI had especially stressed the priestly aspect of Holy Thursday with his Ambrosian Rite clergy. The post-conciliar Pauline Missal incorporated this emphasis into the revised rite of the Chrism Mass, inserting a renewal of priestly commitment into the Mass and a proper Preface focused on the priesthood. Despite the reservations of some more traditionally minded liturgists,* the change has not only been widely accepted but has become quite popular. As a result, nearly universal priestly participation at the Chrism Mass is now the general norm.

Personally (speaking as a sometime "history-obsessed liturgical enthusiast"), I would have probably preferred it if the new rite had left the blessings of the various oils at their traditional times during the Mass instead of pointlessly putting them all together at a totally untraditional moment in the Mass at the end of the Liturgy of the Word. That said, I think the radical innovation involved in inserting a renewal of priestly profession was a stroke of liturgical genius, giving the occasion a modern relevance of great spiritual and catechetical value. In this, it parallels the equally radical renewal of baptismal promises at Easter, introduced in the 1950s reform of the Easter Vigil. The solemn, public renewal of priestly commitment involves the entire local Church in a corporate celebration of the meaning of priesthood at a juncture in the Church's history when that may be more needed than at any recent time. The apparent popularity of this Mass with so many laypeople - attested to by the experience of cathedrals often packed to capacity - highlights the value of this innovation in the contemporary Church. 

Certainly one could debate the wisdom of transforming the traditional blessing of the oils into a contemporary celebration of the priesthood. Perhaps another occasion could have served the purpose. But the connection with Holy Thursday is so strongly symbolic, and the renewed Chrism Mass has been such an astounding success pastorally, that it would be hard to argue that any other occasion would have worked better.

Of course, the phenomenon of high attendance by the faithful has been facilitated by the widespread practice of anticipating the Mass earlier in Holy Week. While that does do some damage to the Holy Thursday symbolism, that loss (which could in any case be compensated for by effective catechesis about the occasion) seems to me more than balanced by the gain in the quality of celebration. 

Finally, the Chrism Mass helps to highlight the transcendent importance of the cathedral as the vital center of every local Church. This too is something that may be an increasingly necessary reminder as our once very urban-centered American Catholic life has become so much more suburbanized in style in the past half-century.

* "Not all liturgists were convinced of this innovation, especially those anchored in the older liturgical rite which situated the Missa Chrismatis in the context of the consecration of the holy oils. This consecration was the basis for  every type of consecration in the Church and was seen as an immediate preparation for the baptism of catechumens which took place during the Easter Vigil." (Nicola Giampietro, The Development of the Liturgical Reform As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, 2009, p.68.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Entering Holy Week

With yesterday’s celebration of Palm Sunday, the Church has entered into the unique and rich experience of Holy Week. The Gospel reading appointed for today, the Monday of Holy week – six days before Easter - situates us in a chronological framework. Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany (John 12:1).  Jesus and his disciples en route to Jerusalem for the annual Passover pilgrimage, stopped along the way at Bethany. But the events which took place during that particular Passover holiday not only coincided chronologically with the Passover celebration but brought the ancient Passover story to its fulfillment, establishing once and for all a ”new and eternal covenant.”

The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the story of the Passover. While the symbolism of the Passover permeates every Easter celebration, the chronological overlap vividly adds an additional dimension to our celebration this year, when the Jewish Passover coincides with Good Friday night - just as it does in John’s Gospel. That account, which will be solemnly proclaimed in the Good Friday Liturgy emphasizes how Jesus was crucified on the Preparation Day, at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin. (His accusers, we are told, would not enter Pilate’s headquarters in order not to be defiled, so that they could celebrate the Passover supper that night.)  And, if that year the Passover was celebrated on Good Friday night, then the offering of the first fruits of the grain harvest (prescribed in Leviticus 23) would have taken place that Sunday, symbolically fitting for the day of resurrection – the resurrection of Christ, of whom Saint Paul wrote: But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Some 40 years after those events, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. As a result, the sacrifices prescribed by the Old Testament Law ceased – including the Passover sacrifice. Since then, with no Temple in which to sacrifice, the Jewish People have celebrated the Passover with a ritual meal in the home, at which the Passover story is retold, but without a paschal lamb. Meanwhile, for us Christians, the Passover sacrifice has found its final fulfillment in Christ, who sacrificed himself for us, once and for all, on the altar of the cross.

Today's Gospel for this Monday of Holy Week does more than establish a chronology. It also sets a certain mood for the liturgy of this week. Famously, it describes how Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha) anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. When her extravagance was criticized by Judas, Jesus defended her action by referring it to his upcoming burial. Like Mary, the Church this week pulls out all the liturgical stops, so to speak, holding nothing back. Instead she employs all the rich symbols of the liturgy to invite and enable us to enter as fully as humanly possible into the drama of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, so that we may more fully participate in its benefits. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

22 years ago I spent my summer studying in Israel (at the Tantur Theological Institute in Jerusalem, just this side of the border from Bethlehem). On what was only my second day there, my former novice director (who was then the Institute’s director) took me to a village in Samaria for the 1st Mass of a newly ordained local priest. We all gathered at the village boundary around an arch of palm branches and balloons and waited there for the new priest’s entry into his hometown. As he arrived and the procession began, all the villagers started shouting and waving palms in the air, and my host smiled and said: now you see what Palm Sunday looked like!

The Gospel [Mark 11:1-10] which was read before the Procession a short while ago tells us about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday and his triumphal entry – full of messianic and royal symbolism – into the Holy City.  We have commemorated that event today with our own triumphal palm procession (thankfully minus the balloons), singing that wonderful 9th-century hymn that Theodulph, the Bishop of Orleans, composed for this very occasion around the year 810.

The rest of the story, which we have also now just heard [Mark 14:1-15:47], reveals the next phase of that journey – to the cross and to the tomb.

The cross is now the central symbol of Christianity because the cross is precisely where we meet God in our world, just as the tomb – the eventually empty tomb – shows where he is taking us.  Just as we follow him in procession to Jerusalem, we must also follow him to the Cross and to the tomb, there to watch and wait with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.

In his Passion, Jesus confronted once and for all the power of evil in the world. Having done so, he invites us this week to accompany him to the cross and to the tomb – because, thanks to the cross of Christ, death no longer has the final word in our world. 

Homily for Palm Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 29, 2015.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Those Popular Palms

I breathed a serious sigh of relief last Monday morning when our annual parish order of palms arrived at the parish office door. They always do arrive, of course. I've never anywhere experienced the horror of Palm Sunday Mass without palms, but that fear that they won't arrive in time continues to nag every year. An unreasonable fear, I suppose - unless, of course, some tragic day it actually happens!

Everyone wants his or her palms on Palm Sunday, which does make it one of the better attended Sundays of the year. Even so some may manage to get palms without having to attend Mass. Palms are given out at the beginning. If one leaves before or during the Mass, one still has his or her palm. And, in one parish where I once served, we had a beautiful decorative display of palms in the entranceway, which some people apparently helped themselves to between Masses! Moral of the story: palms sure are popular!

Of course, just grabbing oneself a palm and not staying for the Mass that follows suggests a serious case of really missing the point of it all. The Palm Sunday liturgy (the palms plus the Mass) is not just a great introduction to Holy Week but is actually in a sense a kind of compendium of it, since it includes the proclamation of the Lord's Passion, which tells virtually the whole Holy Week story. So someone who pays attention on Palm Sunday hears the Holy Thursday and Good Friday stories too.

It is, however, undoubtedly the palms that will always remain the day's biggest attraction. I remember how my mother used to carefully weave crosses of palm to be reverently attached to the crucifix and other sacred images in our Bronx apartment. I can also remember in the first year of  Pius XII's reform of Holy Week - Palm Sunday 1956 - how a neighbor got all upset because he went to an early Mass and got no palms because none would be blessed until the Solemn Mass. That would soon be "corrected" to allow an anticipatory palm blessing for early Mass goers. But it did capture one of the aims of that reform, which was to de-Gallicanize the Palm Sunday liturgy and return it to an older Roman emphasis on the Passion. This was reflected even in the new title the reformed Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae assigned to Palm Sunday - Dominica II Passionis seu in Palmis ("The Second Sunday of the Passion, or also Palm Sunday").

An American liturgist was once quoted as saying that, in the Roman liturgy, “all the fun things came from Gaul” - a reference to the influence of the medieval “Gallican” rites on the ancient Roman rite. (In fact, the traditional Roman Rite, prior to the 1960s, was in many respects really a hybrid of the ancient Roman and the medieval “Gallican” rites.)
One of those “fun things,” that we can thank the “Gallican” rites for, is the Palm Sunday procession - originally, a feature of the 4th-century Jerusalem liturgy which had migrated from there to medieval Europe. The standard Palm Sunday processional hymn, Gloria, laus, et honor (“All Glory, Laud, and Honor”) composed by Theodulph of Orleans early in the 9th century is one vestige of that elaborate medieval ceremony. Its length (originally 39 verses) attests to how elaborate the medieval Palm Sunday once was! It took time, however, for this emphasis on the palms to catch on in Rome. There, the last Sunday of Lent had been focused primarily on Christ’s passion, its distinctive feature not the palms but the chanting of the Passion according to Matthew. Eventually, a missa sicca (i.e., a duplicate liturgy of the word with Matthew’s Palm Gospel), followed by an elaborate blessing of palms and procession, came to precede the Mass at which the Passion was solemnly sung. .Pope Pius XII’s reform of Holy Week radically simplified this, putting the official (if not the popular) emphasis back on the Passion, a development further affirmed in the post-conciliar Roman Missal now in use. 
Like so much of such bureaucratic liturgical antiquarianism, however, the attempted change has never really caught on outside the formal rubrics. Hardly anyone (except liturgists) refers to the day by its current official title, "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord." The rest of us are quite content to stick with its historical and traditional name, "Palm Sunday." And what seems to excite people - to the extent that anything liturgical excites people anymore - is still the palms. As for the long Passion reading, I sometimes wonder whether many perhaps perceive it as yet one more final lenten penance! Seldom anymore do many people get to hear the Passion proclaimed as it should be in its unique and dramatic traditional chant, sung by three deacons at three different speeds and pitch levels. Nowadays, many must settle for  a monotonic minimalist reading, relieved only by the brief pause when everyone gets to kneel at the equivalent of the traditional Emisit spiritum. That pause also qualifies as one of those great Gallican liturgical “fun things,” a monastic practice whose diffusion is attributed to Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (778-840).

One of the prayers for the Blessing of the palms in the old (pre-1955) liturgy asked that all who received the palm may obtain protection of soul and body (ut, quicumque ex ea receperint, accipiant sibi protectionem animae et corporis). Another prayed that those who dwell where the palms are brought may obtain blessing and protection from all adversity (in quemcumque locum introducti fuerint, tuam benedictionem habitatores loci illius consequantur et omni adversitate effugata, dextera tua protegat). Sadly, there are no such expressions in the minimalist, post-1969 Palm Sunday prayers. Even so, the sentiment safely seems to have survived in the popular devotion that surrounds receiving the palms, taking them home, and keeping them there throughout the year. Perhaps, in the spirit of the "new evangelization," we would do well to re-emphasize such popular practices as those surrounding the palms, beginning with how we name and refer to the day!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mater Dolorosa

Alone among the Lenten weekdays, today's Mass for this last Friday of Lent provides a choice of two alternate collects. This is a vestige - the only visible vestige - of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors which used to be kept on this Friday, before being reduced to a Commemoration in last pre-conciliar liturgical reform in 1960. A duplicate feast, that of the Seven Sorrows on September 15, survived the reforms, although downgraded in rank and now renamed Our Lady of Sorrows, thus eliminating any reference to the number seven. Still, whenever I think of Our lady of Sorrows, I unfailingly recall the many popular portrayals of Mary pierced with seven swords! I remember too a beautiful church I once visited in a crowded urban neighborhood which had a statue of Mary pierced with seven swords atop its golden dome.

The illustrious 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch, reflecting the antiquarian attitudes so prevalent in the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, contrasted "the older and more austere Lenten Mass" and the "newer, more spirited one devoted to Our lady's Seven Sorrows." Actually, his comparative analysis of the two liturgical tendencies reflected in the older liturgical tradition for this Friday is, as he himself wrote, "instructive for anyone who desires to penetrate more deeply into the spirit of the Church's liturgy." He argued that, whereas the traditional ferial Mass presents Christ's passion prophetically, figuratively, and historically, in the festive Marian Mass "sentiment and emotion is strong." 

Such distinctions and discussions all seem so obsolete now in the light of the liturgical reform's abrupt about-face in the post-conciliar period, when so much of the historic heritage and spirituality of the Roman Rite was abandoned for a contemporary sentimentality that would make the supposed sentimentality that pre-conciliar liturgists discerned in the old feast of the Seven Dolors appear austere in retrospect!

That the reformed Missal retains a Marian collect today is, therefore, especially admirable. In actual fact, however, the tradition of identifying with Mary in contemplating her Son's Passion, to which that collect refers, really occurs for most people, if at all, in such devotional contexts as the praying of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, where traditional texts for the Stations (e.g., the familiar meditations and prayers composed by Saint Alphonsus Liguori) highlight the contemplation of the Passion through the experience of Mary at the 4th and 13th stations. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - a devotion which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible.

Literarily, the highlight of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors (and the still observed other feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in September) is, of course, the (now optional) Sequence of the Mass, the great Stabat Mater, which Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that Sequence has long served as the most common and popular processional music for the Stations of the Cross. And so it has survived in popular awareness and devotion, despite the adverse musical tendencies of the past five decades.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Richard Re-Buried

“Today, we recognize a king who lived through turbulent times and whose Christian faith sustained him in life and death.” With those precisely chosen words, Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged both the significance and the ambivalence about the re-burial of one of her more notorious predecessors, King Richard III (1452-1485), who, having usurped the throne from the rightful King Edward V (whose sister Elizabeth eventually became the current Queen's ancestor), has historically been blamed for the subsequent disappearance (and presumed murder) of Edward and his brother Richard, the famous "princes in the tower."

We will probably never know the full story of the "princes in the tower," whose presumed murder was considered inordinately wicked even by the standards of that troubled time, famously known as "the Wars of the Roses." It was Richard's defeat and death that brought those wars to an end and made possible the restoration of domestic peace in England under Henry VII and his tudor dynasty. (Of course, that also set in motion the tragic events that led to the English Reformation under Henry VIII.)

On the other hand, Richard has long had his defenders. His short reign was considered a relatively just one. Had circumstances been different and his accession more legitimate, he might well have been one of England's better medieval kings. As it was, he was the last English king to die in battle. (The last British king to die in battle would be Scotland's James IV, who died at the battle of Flodden in 1513, defeated by the army of English his brother-in-law, Henry VIII).

In laying Richard to rest today, giving him the honorable burial political circumstances denied him in 1485, his medieval subjects' modern descendants have been able to revisit and reflect upon that critical juncture in the political (and religious) history of the English speaking world and the abiding significance of that history for us all. In the process, the fundamental Christian duty to pray for the dead was also fulfIlled. 

It was in one sense perfectly reasonable that the current incarnation of the English Church (represented by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) should perform the final interment. But it was even more appropriate that the representative of the historic and universal Church of which Richard himself and all his subjects were then members also participated, offering a Requiem Mass for the king earlier in the week. Wearing vestments from King Richard III's era, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, celebrated Mass at a local Dominican Priory. There he spoke pointedly and eloquently of the true purpose of this or any Christian funeral:

The prayer we offer for him this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar. This is the summit of all prayer, for it is made in and through the one Person, the eternal Word, through whom all created beings have life. It is a prayer that arises from the very core of creation, the cry of the Word returning to the Father and carrying within it the totality of that creation, marred and broken in its history, yet still longing for the completion for which it has been created. It is, therefore, such an important Catholic tradition to seek the celebration of Mass for the repose of the souls of those who have died, especially for each of our loved ones whose passing we mourn. Let us not forget or neglect this great gift.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Today is my 67th birthday. In itself, I suppose, that doesn't stand out as a very significant age marker. On the other hand, it is two-thirds of a century. So, if nothing else, being 67 means that I'm already almost certainly well past the two-thirds mark in my earthly life-span. 

Needless to say, at this particular point, there is no way to anticipate how much actual time on earth I may have left. Recognizing that sobering fact has inevitably made each year, even each day, seem so much more precious.

Paulist Fr. Jim Young, who was the Director of Formation when I was in seminary (and who sadly died way before his time) began a prayer he composed with these words: O my God, I am grateful that you have given me another day. Perhaps I may not have many left, and I treasure each one. (The Paulist Prayer Book, p. 395). I recite that prayer often, and its opening words are a sentiment that readily resonates in the inevitable twilight of life's long day.

At this age, a birthday is certainly a sobering occasion, a reminder of time passing by, another notification of one's mortality. But perhaps that makes it all the more imperative to celebrate. Life has its ups and downs, to be sure, and not every year is as wonderful as one might wish. But every year, every day, brings its own blessings to be treasured gratefully.

On this day, especially, I am grateful for - and to - my parents, grandmother, sisters, family, friends, and colleagues - all the people who over these 67 years have made a difference in my life, who have loved me or cared for me in some way, or who have taught me something that made me a better person, or that better equipped me to navigate my way through life's twists and turns. At the age I am now, many of those have already long-since been called from this life - among them, my father, my grandmother, my younger sister, all my aunts and uncles, many of my teachers, as well as various friends, acquaintances, and fellow Paulists. I will gratefully remember them all together in my birthday Mass at the Memento of the Dead. Others, still happily among the living, who have in whatever way enriched my life in the past or who continue in some way to enrich my life now, I will remember as well, at the Memento of the Living.

After the people, I guess I remain most grateful for my vocation, the great grace of the priesthood. Fittingly, I spent the last two evenings and will spend this evening hearing lenten confessions, good priestly activity. Of course, there are many worthwhile paths through life, but for me there is no other path I would rather have taken than the one which brought me to the priesthood. Despite delays and obstacles, the course has been so obviously the right one for me.

Nor has that road reached its end yet. Experience teaches us to presume little and to be acutely conscious of our limits. We go to war, Donald Rumsfeld is famously supposed to have said, with the army we have. In an analogous way, I guess, we go through life with the personality we have, with whatever defects and deficits biology and history have saddled us with. But the point is that we still do go through life, whoever we are and with whatever we have. We do things with what little or much we have to work with. What happens, in spite of everything, is grace making the most of what nature has to offer. And, while nature may inevitably be limited, grace keeps increasing. Appreciating that is surely one unmistakable plus about getting old!

That, after all, has to be the goal of a life well lived - to borrow a phrase from a worthy 17th-century Jesuit spiritual guide, Louis Lallemant - 
that grace may enliven what art and nature have formed!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Rich in Mercy

Just 10 days ago, the religious world was electrified by the Pope’s proclamation of an Extraordinary Jubilee Year, a Holy Year of Mercy, to start on December 8. Once more, Rome’s 4 Holy Doors will be opened, with all the symbolic power that that dramatic gesture has historically carried with it.
Some 30 years ago, at a particularly unhappy juncture in my life, I made a long-distance phone call (which in those days was still a somewhat serious thing to do) to a friend, who challenged me to remember what we had all learned in school -  that God is a God of mercy - or, as we just head Saint Paul say [Ephesians 2:4-10] in his famous sentence that Saint John Paul II used as the title for his second encyclical, God is rich in mercy. Not just mercy, but rich in mercy!
Rich is often relative. We judge what is rich by comparison with what is not - often by comparison with how we see ourselves. That’s part of the power of the familiar gospel story [John 8:1-11] which we just heard, where at the end Jesus was left alone with the woman before him. After all the hubbub and noise that the story starts with, all of a sudden it’s just Jesus alone with the woman before him. Just the two of them – as Saint Augustine famously put it, miseria and misericordia, misery and mercy.
In the sacrament of penance, we come to Jesus like the woman in the story, and we may measure the richness of God’s mercy, as she did, by the extreme extent of our need. The sacrament of penance is a perpetually open Holy Door, through which we are constantly invited to pass, so that - as Saint Paul put it – we should live. Like the woman in the story, quite literally saved from death, we come poor and needy to the riches of mercy made to flow through this sacramental door, so that we should live – the fullness of life, now and forever.
Human compassion is inevitably selective - favoring some, but judging others more harshly. Our public life is like that as well. We readily excuse or tolerate certain behaviors, but treat others are matters of major magnitude – according to whatever notions are in vogue at the moment. But God is not like us! God's mercy is richly infinite. It is open to all of us. All we have to do is come through the open door.
Homily at the Lenten Penance Service, Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, TN, March 23, 2015.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lazarus Untied

The altar crucifixes, the statues, and other sacred images are all covered in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel [John 11:1-45] we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. The raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest of these “signs.” But the raising of Lazarus from the dead also led the authorities to seek Jesus’ death. So life and death are mixed together, as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.

In Rome, the Lenten stational liturgy is celebrated today with special solemnity at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Many of the Basilica’s relics are exposed for veneration on the main altar above Peter’s tomb, and at Vespers there is a procession and special veneration of an image of Christ believed by some to be Veronica’s veil.

On top of all that, today the Church celebrates the 3rd (and final) Scrutiny of the elect, of those, that is, who are preparing for baptism just two weeks from now at Easter. According to the rubrics, the Scrutinies “should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all.” How’s that for a modest goal? It would, of course, be absurdly ambitious if we were relying entirely on ourselves. But we’re not. It is Christ who is at work in us, Christ who (as we just heard) is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him [Hebrews 5:9].

All of which brings us back to the amazing story of Jesus and Lazarus. What starts out as a genuinely touching and tender story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus (and Lazarus’ sisters) becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ, as the unexpected extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan signals Jesus’ offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.

The friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness. Strangely, however, he initially seemed to ignore their message, letting Lazarus die and be buried, thus setting the stage for his greatest miracle, but before that for an important conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been the prescribed gospel reading at Catholic funerals.

Listening to them talk today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else may happen to people when they die and whatever different beliefs people had about what happened to people when they died, most people in the ancient world knew for a fact that dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was at least one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the distinctly contrarian view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would eventually  follow – sometime in the future, on the last day.

As he did in his earlier conversations with the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, Jesus focuses the conversation on himself, using it to reveal something important about himself. Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.

We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually).  Unlike Lazarus, however, Jesus would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.

Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”

The raising of Lazarus looks ahead to the resurrection of Jesus, which will finally fulfill God’s promise to Ezekiel, [Exekiel 37:12-14] which we heard earlier: I will open your graves and have you rise from them. I will put my spirit in you that you may live. I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.

Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which sometimes seems so lacking in hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, to which the experience of Lazarus looks forward, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Homily for the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 22, 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Soumission is the title of a new French novel by Michel Houellebecq, published just this past January, which Mark Lilla (in the April 2 issue of The New York Review of Books) has called "the best selling novel in Europe today." I don't read many novels. And, needless to say, my high-school quality French is nowhere near adequate to the task of reading this one. So, if I do in the end decide to read it, which Lilla's review has made somewhat more likely, I will certainly have to wait for Lorin Stein's English translation, which is due to be published this coming October. 

Until then, therefore, everything that I know about Houellebecq ("France's most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt") and everything I am saying here about his work is based entirely on having read Lilla's review, "Slouching Toward Mecca," which can be accessed on-line at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/apr/02/slouching-toward-mecca/.

The novel, set in 2022 at the time of some future French presidential election, is what Lilla calls a "dystopian conversion tale ... about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca." the country, of course, is France. the man is the novel's main character, Francois, "a mid-level literature professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in the work of the Symbolist novelist J. K. Huysmans." Francois "lives alone in a modern apartment tower, teaches his courses, but has no friends in the university, and returns home to frozen dinners, television, and porn."

Meanwhile in the election, Marine Le Pen's National Front wins the first round. So the socialists and the conservatives back the new, moderate Muslim party, which wins the second round and so takes the presidency - and the education ministry. The new Muslim president "understands that a nation's destiny depends on how well it teaches young people fundamental values and enriches their inner lives."

The story follows Francois, "prematurely retired with a full pension," as he observes a series of small but significant social changes that follow in the wake of the election of france's first Muslim president. Recognizing the religious dimension of what is happening in the larger society, Francois makes an unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with Catholicism, to which Huysmans had himself earlier converted "after exhausting all the modern world had to offer." That having failed for Francois, he comes under the influence of the new University President, once a radical right-wing Catholic, who at some point realized "how much the Islamists' message overlapped with his own," and that "post-Christian Europe was dying and Islam was flourishing." Apparently, more for personal reasons that the world-historical vision of the University President, Francois also converts. "His life is exhausted, and so is Europe's. It's time for a new one - any one."

Islam, as portrayed in this story," "is peaceful, but it has no interest in compromise or in extending the realm of human liberty. It wants to shape better human beings, not freer ones." Lilla considers the critics who consider Houellebecq's story to be anti-Muslim as fundamentally mistaken. They "see the novel as anti-Muslim because they assume that individual freedom is the highest human value." On the contrary, Lilla argues, the novel expresses "a very persistent European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom - freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one's own ends - must inevitably lead to disaster."

Ultimately, according to Lilla, Houellebecq genuinely believes "that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. These are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost."

So, to me, this all sounds like the traditional (and largely correct) critique of the legacy of the Enlightenment - updated to a new social situation in which European Christianity no longer seems to have the vitality to serve as the Enlightenment's alternative in the West, and instead Islam seems strategically positioned to fill in the void. Certainly it seems less about an imminent Islamist threat to Western European life and institutions and more about what is already at the heart of Western malaise and whether and how that malaise may be healed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Parties and Elections

The expectation (inaccurate as it turned out) of a fractiously inconclusive election in Israel (where no one party has ever in the country's history attained a majority in the Knesset) and the cumbersome process of coalition forming afterwards reminds me of how I used to look at American political parties. Back when I was a political scientist, I looked favorably on multi-party parliamentary systems, where well defined ideological parties competed in elections and then afterwards made the necessary compromises to create a coalition to govern. (A serious weakness is such multi-party parliamentary systems was always the possibility of rather small parties acquiring disproportionate power as key elements in coalition-making - as has notoriously been the case historically in Israel.) In the American political system, in contrast, a series of institutional and other factors (first-past-the-post single-member districts, the electoral college, etc.) had produced two relatively broad-based parties which were themselves essentially pre-election coalitions. The result, I used to argue back in the 1970s, were elections and a politics that were less ideological, with issues being less clearly articulated. 

Of course, since then, American politics has changed almost beyond recognition as the two parties have sorted themselves out ideologically, with each party in the process becoming more internally coherent and consistent - and much more exclusive and extreme. But, since it remains an incorrigibly two-party system, in which (among other factors) single member districts severely distort the vote, the result has been the present impasse, which is every bit as dysfunctional as a deadlocked parliamentary system, in which the process of forming a viable government may seem to take forever . (See my 2011 post Are We Becoming Belgians? http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2011/07/are-we-becoming-belgians.html).

Of course, having two closely matched ideological parties such as we now have in the contemporary U.S. testifies to the deeply polarized character of our society, to the serious absence of basic consensus - the sort of consensus we used to take for granted in the post-war years in the U.S. and which we associated with our messy (but at that time seemingly functional) two-party system. While other factors are also at play - notoriously the excessive power of money in American politics - the ultimate dealbreaker has been the catastrophic breakdown of the social consensus that ruled - or at least appeared to rule - in American society for the twenty or so years after World War II. The breakdown of that consensus was ratified electorally with the Reagan victory in 1980, and nothing, as the saying goes, has ever quite been the same again.

Political parties in the U.S. no longer really aim to convince voters. The few who vote are already generally sorted out ideologically, and elections are largely about turning out one's "base." This is exacerbated by the increasing self-segregation of the American public into separate societies with distinctive media outlets and less and less effective interaction and hence fewer opportunities to hear other points of view. No wonder that less intensel ideological voters seem less and less inclined to vote!

On top of all that and making everything worse is the destructive role of money in our politics, which has largely usurped the once fundamental functions of the political parties. If widespread individual gun-ownership is one of the overwhelming obstacles standing in the way of a seriously civilized society, by analogy the widespread influence of money in our politics is one of the overwhelming obstacles standing in the way a democratic, citizen-based politics.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Laetare Sunday

Today is Laetare Sunday. Our Lenten pilgrimage is already half-over – or, to express it more positively, we are already half-way to Easter. On this Sunday, the Church lightens the liturgical atmosphere, replacing somber violet vestments with bright rose, putting flowers on the altar, and allowing greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the inner joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion.

Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem; et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis; ut exsultetis, et saltiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.  (“Rejoice, Jerusalem; and come together all you who love her; rejoice with joy, all you who have been in sorrow; that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.”). 

In keeping with the Jerusalem theme, today’s Roman stational church is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem," a basilica built about 325 around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday.” It is the original Mother's Day!

For those preparing for baptism, the Church celebrates today the second scrutiny of the elect. “The entire Lenten Lectionary is a lesson book that prepares the elect among the catechumens to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, just as it prepares all the faithful to renew themselves in the new life into which they have been reborn(Congregation for Divine Worship, Homiletic Directory, 67). The theme of today’s second scrutiny associates baptism with light. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light (Ephesians 5:14). One more scrutiny next Sunday, and the elect will be ready for Holy week and Easter. As must we also be.

For the rest of us, on this mid-Lent Sunday, the liturgy is primarily a joyful celebration of God’s mercy. God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (Ephesians 2:4). God’s mercy was already experienced in the Old Testament, for example, in the story we hear today of the Persian King Cyrus, who ended Israel’s exile in Babylon: Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him (2 Chronicles 36:23). 

Cyrus reigned over the Persian Empire for some 30 years in the 6th century BC. (His tomb,which the late Shah of Iran used as a backdrop to celebrate 2500 years of Persian monarchy in 1971, is recognized by the UN as a World heritage Site.) A Gentile, Cyrus was nonetheless the instrument through whom God showed his mercy to Israel in its exile, enabling God's people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Hence the Old Testament does not shy away from calling Cyrus God's anointed one (Isaiah 45:1). 

God's agenda of mercy is fulfilled in Jesus’ familiar words in today's Gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16).

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Statio ad Sanctam Susannam

At Rome, the stational church for today's Mass of the Saturday of the 3rd Week of Lent is the Church of Santa Susanna on the Via Venti Settembre - just down the street from the Quirinale palace and not far from the famous Spanish Steps. Since 1922 (with a brief interruption during World War II) Santa Susanna has been the American national church in Rome, the parish home of American Catholics living or working in Rome, and has also been the Roman parish of my religious community, the Paulist Fathers, who have been responsible for the pastoral care of the American community there these 90+ years. Today is an appropriate occasion to mention and celebrate the great ministry of the Paulist Fathers at Santa Susanna. The fact that Santa Susanna is a stational church, however, indicates that it has a history much longer than that of the American and Paulist presence in Rome.

In fact, Santa Susanna was a working Roman parish as early as the 4th century.  By the 12th century, however, the local population had declined so much that the parish seems to have died out. In the 16th century, the church was extensively restored and renovated. And, in 1587, Pope Sixtus V gave the property to the Cistercian nuns, who remain there today. As a result of the kingdom of Italy's conquest of Rome in 1870, which unified the kingdom of Italy and put an end to papal rule in Rome, much of the nuns’ property was confiscated by the state, which also confiscated the Pope's nearby Quirinale Palace, turning it into the principal royal residence.

Under the floor of the present church are the ruins of a Roman house lived in by Christian relatives of the Emperor Diocletian, which served as a Christian “House Church” from 280 to 293. Emperor Diocletian, however, was hostile to Christianity; and his Christian relative Susanna (the niece of Pope Caius) and her father Gabinus were martyred. By 330, a church had been built over the site. At some point, the bodies of Susanna and Gabinus were brought back from the catacombs and buried in the church; and in 590 Pope St. Gregory the Great, in recognition of devotion that had developed around Susanna’s tomb, renamed the church in her honor. (Her feast day is August 11.) That same year, a certain Rusticus was named Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna – the first of Santa Susanna’s 77 Cardinal Priests. 

Fast forward to the 20th century. By then, the Paulist Fathers were looking for a residence in Rome to house the community’s representative to the Holy See and for a church to minister to the growing American population in Rome. Near the American Embassy, not far from the railroad station and the Grand Hotel, they found Santa Susanna. Paulist Father John J. Burke, then General Secretary of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, mentioned the matter to President Harding, who mentioned it to the Apostolic Delegate, specifically suggesting Santa Susanna. So Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulists to use Santa Susanna as a national church for American Catholics in Rome, and the first Sunday Mass at Santa Susanna for the American community was celebrated on February 26, 1922. The church remained open throughout that day for the first time in many years, and many Italians, including many of the nobility, came to visit the church and to see its frescoes. On one wall, the frescoes illustrate the story of Santa Susanna. On the other side, they depict the Book of Daniel's story of her famous Old Testament namesake.

Taking its cue from the day's stational church, for centuries today's Mass used to feature the reading of Susanna's story (Daniel, 13:1-62), paralleled then by John's Gospel's account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In the Old Testament reading, an innocent person is condemned but justice is preserved when she is saved by God's intervention in the person of the wise prophet Daniel. Meanwhile in the Gospel, something even more amazing happens. An admittedly guilty person is saved by Jesus, who administers not justice but mercy. As Pope Francis has so frequently reminded us - most recently this week in his letter celebrating the centennial of the Catholic University of Argentina's Faculty of Theology - Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus. And the further to highlight what is obviously a central theme of his pontificate, the Pope just yesterday (on the second anniversary of his election) proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy to go from December 8, 2015, through November 20, 2016.

(For some utterly unaccountable reason, the 1970 Lectionary cavalierly rearranged the ancient sequence of lenten readings. Ignoring the historical associations of the day and its stational church, 
the 1970 Lectionary relocated the parallel accounts of Susanna and the adulteress to the Monday of the 5th Week of Lent! In the process, today's Mass got the reading formerly read first on good Friday! To what purpose or advantage was all this gratuitous reshuffling of texts with such complete indifference to their history and geography?)