Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Supreme Court Tackles Marriage

"The word that keeps coming back to me in this case is millennia, plus time. ... This definition (of marriage) has been with us for millennia. And it’s very difficult for the court to say ‘Oh well, we know better’.” Coming from justice Anthony Kennedy, the presumptive "swing vote" on the Supreme Court, this statement has gotten much more attention than it might otherwise have gotten, had it been uttered, for example, by one of the predictably Republican-voting Justices.

We will know in about two months time, I suppose, how the Supreme Court finally adjudicates the complex and contentious issue of same-sex marriage. The Court's capacity to surprise always injects an element of uncertainty into predictions of its decisions (and even more so of the rationale for a decision). Still, few will be surprised if the Court goes ahead and rules as is widely expected in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Likewise few will be surprised if Justice Kennedy again provides the decisive vote - although Chief Justice Roberts' comments on gender discrimination might suggest the possibility that he could end up writing the opinion with essentially a similar outcome but on narrower grounds. Time will tell. 

Substantively, there are extremely serious legal and moral matters at issue in this case and in the larger societal debate about marriage. Here, however, I wish to consider not the legal or moral substance of the debate but only the process American society is using to resolve it.

Thus today (quite apart from the merits of either side of the case) I can't help coming back to Justice Kennedy's claim about the monumental significance of this issue and the astounding fact that we have evolved a legal system in which matters of such political, social, and moral magnitude are decided in such a strange fashion - by nine unrepresentative individuals whose institution arrogated this power to itself some two centuries ago - and that the legitimacy of that judicial power-grab is so universally accepted as the basis for legitimizing  changes in social policy.

Back in the day, when I was an aspiring academic studying such matters, the Supreme Court's decisions were often controversial but its legitimacy was widely accepted because there seemed to be no other way in our system to provide a final resolution to such fundamental disputes. On the one hand, as one of my professors used to like to say, "The Supreme Court isn't what it used to be, and what's more it never was." On the other hand, the Supreme Court could counteract that perception by enveloping itself in an above-politics mystique that was both of the Court's own creation and that was widely acquiesced in by society as a whole. Judicial Supremacy has survived not so much because it makes any principled sense, but because it works (often in the process freeing the "political" branches from having to take ultimate responsibility for difficult decisions).

It helped, of course, when the Court behaved in ways which reinforced its mystique. In one of the 20th century's most decisive cases, Brown v. Board, which overturned state-mandated racial segregation in public schools, the Court came down with a unanimous decision. That certainly helped the cause - and also added to the Court's aura as an above-the-partisan-fray arbiter of ultimate principles. On the other hand, when decisions have been split, especially when split (as they often are nowadays) along predictably political party lines, the aura of the Court diminishes accordingly.

Still, in our dysfunctional political system, leaving the Court to play this particular role seems to be almost everybody's preference. I think back to the disputed presidential election of 2000 into which the Court unwisely inserted itself - unwisely in terms of its own institutional legitimacy, but wisely in terms of the political party preferences of the Court's majority. By my reading of the Constitution, it would more properly have been for Congress to resolve questions about disputed electors. But Congress was quite content to pass the buck to the Court. When Congress did meet in January 2001 to certify the election, the feeble attempt to assert Congress's role in the process was roundly rejected.

So we have this amazing situation that the final decision about adopting a new definition of marriage, which, whatever its purported merits, must inevitably entail (as Justice Kennedy and others have noted) a radical rejection of hitherto universally accepted human experience of marriage as a gendered institution, is to be decided not by democratic deliberation and debate but by the nine otherwise unaccountable, appointed justices. Whatever the outcome and whatever the merits of the outcome, it seems like such an astounding way to make such a historically monumental decision.

Human beings being fallible, there is, of course, no reason to assume that either mode of decision-making - either the democratic way or the judicial way, or for that matter any other way we are familiar with - will automatically produce a better result. Good process will hopefully produce good results more often than not. But good process should always invite acceptance of the results as in some fundamental sense a legitimate outcome that society as a whole can embrace or at least learn to live with. It remains to be seen how well this process will fare on that score.

Compared with upending the hitherto universal experience of marriage as a gendered institution, Brown v. Board undid what was a relatively recent, localized political policy regime, which lots of people already considered bizarre at best and morally wrong at worst. And, even with the legitimacy of a unanimous Court decision, it still proved contentious and hard to end segregation, although over time the logic of that unanimous decision has prevailed in principle and in law. In contrast, Roe v. Wade, represented a judicial intrusion into an ongoing political debate that, in trying to stifle that debate, ended up fomenting decades of "culture war" with no evident end in sight. It remains to be seen how the long-term implications of this forthcoming court decision will play out.

One obvious difference from Roe v. Wade is that, whereas public opinion on abortion remains divided and that division is still experienced intensely by many on both sides, public opinion on same-sex marriage has moved radically one way in support of it, much more widely and quickly than anyone would have predicted even a decade ago. So the Supreme Court's contribution to this debate's resolution may well be experienced very differently in this case. Still it remains to be seen whether this judicial resolution of the debate will be experienced politically and socially as a legitimizing, unifying process or as a disruptive, divisive one.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wolf Hall (Continued)

In England, a week from today will be the feast of The English Martyrs - celebrating the 40 martyrs canonized by blessed Pope Paul VI in 1973, along with the 85 beatified martyrs of the Reformation and other martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. The imminent proximity of that day inspires further reflection on the current PBS series Wolf Hall, the fourth episode of which aired last night, the episode in which the greatest English martyr of the period, Saint Thomas More, was tried and executed, perhaps the most prominent victim of Henry VII's reign of terror.

A BBC adaptation of a novel of that name, Wolf Hall is a revisionist history that attempts to portray in a more favorable light one of English history's more malignant figures, Thomas Cromwell.  In reality, of course, if Henry VIII was 16th-century England's anticipation of Stalin, then Cromwell was King Henry's Beria! 

It was Cromwell who brutally and violently implemented the 1534 Act of Supremacy, destroying in the process the vibrant religious life and popular piety of pre-Tudor Catholic England - that rich and complex religious system by which, as Eamon Duffy famously observed "men and women structured their experience of the world, and their hopes and aspirations within and beyond it" (The Stripping of the Altars, 1992). As one of the primary agents in this disaster, Cromwell willfully destroyed much of England's religious and cultural heritage, as well as the traditional network of practical provisions for popular devotion and charity. 

"What Henry had done was to delegate his new royal supremacy over English religion to Cromwell. ... Cromwell seemed unstoppable. When he quarrelled with Queen Anne and helped engineer her downfall and execution in 1536 on absurd charges of incest and adultery, he was able to preserve the quiet progress of infiltrating evangelical church reforms into the king's dominions. ... Cromwell administered the dissolution of all monasteries over which the Tudor monarchy had control with remarkable speed and efficiency between  1532 and 1540, thus destroying monastic life throughout England and Wales and in about half of Ireland. ... The king no doubt regarded the dissolutions chiefly as a welcome source of cash, but they had the incidental effect of eliminating much tradition religion. ... [Cromwell} also mounted a determined attack on shrines, and with Cranmer's enthusiastic support he began moving against church furniture and imagery that had sustained the old devotion" (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, Viking, 2004, p. 195).

So what if Wolf Hall presents a somewhat falsified picture of the past? Don't all historical dramas make some things up? Perhaps so, but there is fiction - and then there is fiction. It is one thing to fill in the gaps in what we actually know historically with romantic or other inventions that add to the story in ways that are largely consistent with the actual characters and the overall history. It is quite another thing to alter a story so fundamentally as to whitewash one of history's greatest villains. Henry VIII's marital saga is like JFK's assassination. Almost everyone knows something about it. But someone whose knowledge of the JFK assassination is based only on Oliver Stone's movie will obviously not know what he or she should know about the real - as opposed to a fictionalized - event. Likewise with this well done but tendentious fiction! In an age when what passes for historical knowledge is increasingly derived from entertainment, how historical characters and events are presented on TV is decisive.

But there is also another, even more distressing dimension to Wolf Hall's flattering portrayal of Cromwell (and its notably negative portrayal of Saint Thomas More) at this particular juncture in our history. In an increasingly secular, post-modern West, religion and religion's claims count for less and less and can expect to receive less and less deference in society and from the State. As an individual, Cromwell may have been simply all about the subordination of everything else to his personal ambition. But, as an important player in the historical events of the English Reformation, his historical role was to effect the subordination of religion, religious belief, and religious practice to the absolute claims of an all-powerful State. That is an increasingly potent ideology today in this era of radical social change and the consequent political controversies concerning religious freedom. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Vocation Sunday

Today is the 52nd Annual “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” Blessed Paul VI first instituted this “World Day of Prayer for Vocations” in 1963, appropriately assigning it to the Sunday in the Easter season when the Gospel account of Jesus the Good Shepherd is read (at that time, the 2nd Sunday after Easter, but in the current calendar the following Sunday, now known as the 4th Sunday of Easter). 

Hearing and following the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd, writes Pope Francis in his official message for this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, means letting ourselves be attracted and guided by him, in consecration to him; it means allowing the Holy Spirit to draw us into this missionary dynamism, awakening within us the desire, the joy and the courage to offer our own lives in the service of the Kingdom of God.

So today the entire Church associates itself with the Lord’s command to pray for vocations. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2). Conscious of the Church’s pressing need both to shepherd the faithful and to reach out as missionaries to evangelize the secular world, the Church concentrates our attention today especially on vocations to the ordained ministries (the priesthood and the diaconate), and also to Institutes of Consecrated Life in all its forms (male and female religious communities, both contemplative and active), to Societies of Apostolic Life (like the Paulist Fathers), and to Secular Institutes.

The end of June will bring to its termination just over a century of my religious community's ministry at Saint Peter’s parish in Toronto, Ontario. Already in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the Paulist Fathers conducted parish missions in several Canadian provinces. In addition, from 1965 through 1972, they also had a presence in Vancouver, British Columbia, and from 1973 through 1990 in Montreal, Quebec. The imminent departure from Toronto signals the end of Paulist ministry in Canada, which makes this withdrawal particularly poignant. (It is additionally so for me personally, since I was ordained a priest at St. Peter’s Church in Toronto and happily served my first priestly assignment there at that parish.) I mention all of this because withdrawals from parishes and other ministries to which a religious community has long been committed are one more obvious consequence of insufficient vocations. Yet it was not that long ago that things looked different. For example, the year I entered the novitiate in 1981 saw the last significant expansion of my community's ministry to a new city – to a parish in Seattle, WA, where we served for just 8 years, before departing from there in the first of a series of withdrawals from several community commitments. In other words, I can personally remember when we were still in a position to expand in response to new evangelizing opportunities and pastoral challenges, and that I have personally witnessed what the decline in vocations has done to the present and future prospects of the Church in the United States for which Servant of God Isaac Hecker held out so much hope.

The Church, Pope Francis reminds us in his World Day of Prayer for Vocations message, is faithful to her Master to the extent that she is a Church which "goes forth" ... She is meant to be a Church which evangelizes, goes out to encounter humanity, proclaims the liberating word of the Gospel, helas people's spiritual and physical wounds with the grace of God, and offers relief to the poor and the suffering.

The catastrophic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious community life in recent decades is undoubtedly due to many factors. And obviously not all problems can be solved, and certainly not easily or quickly. Yet, for religious communities to continue their mission in the modern world – indeed, for the Church to continue its mission in the United States – there is no getting around the need to encourage, foster, and support in every possible way a significant increase in the number of men and women committing themselves to full-time ministry in the Church as priests and religious. Today’s observance is intended to remind us all of this basic need and to challenge each of us to respond in prayer and action. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Lion

The feast of Saint Mark is one of those occasions when the scripture readings prescribed for the Mass in the 1970 Lectionary are quite clearly superior to those prescribed in the older one. In place of the complicated reading from Ezekiel about the four figures, which will only makes sense to a congregation that already knows the traditional symbols for the four evangelists, the current lectionary offers 1 Peter 5:5-14 with Peter's concluding reference to Mark, my son. And, in place of Luke's sending of the 72, we more appropriately hear the conclusion of Mark's Gospel (Mark 16:15-20), Mark's account of the final words of the Risen Christ and its mission-oriented final verse: But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

The one mistake the lectionary bureaucrats made was to include in today's reading Peter's famous warning about the devil as a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Did they forget that Mark's symbol is a lion (albeit one with wings)? In any case, they inadvertently offered the preacher a convenient contrast between the two types of lions, with which to begin his homily (an opening i myself took advantage of this morning)!

In the 2nd century, Papias of Hierapolis identified Mark as Peter's "interpreter," who faithfully passed on Peter's account of the story of Jesus. That identification stuck, and the Gospel of Mark - thought to have been written in Rome around the time of Peter's martyrdom - has long been seen as in some sense Peter's story too. Of course, there is also another traditional identification of Mark with Barnabas' cousin John Mark, who appears in Acts. And, of course, Mark has also been identified with the young man who in the Garden who ran away naked after Jesus' arrest!

Interesting as all that may be, the important thing is that at some point (probably in Rome, sometime in the 60s) someone we know as Mark wrote the earliest written account we have of the story of Jesus - and that in the very opening verse he titled it Evangelion ("Good News," Gospel). A very interesting title indeed, given that he was writing at a time when the small Christian community in Rome was experiencing persecution by the State!

Evangelists' feast days are especially nice because they afford an opportunity to consider each Gospel on its own terms. There are, of course, many distinctively interesting things about Mark's Gospel. Certainly one of them is the distinct sense of danger that accompanies the good news Jesus brings, the idea that becoming a disciple, while a welcome liberation from the demonic powers that oppress humanity, is also very much a challenge. Jesus himself exemplifies that in the novel notion that he will be a Messiah who must suffer and die. Likewise, for the disciple the choice to say "Yes" to Jesus must inherently entail a "No" to other options. Mark's gospel was written at the epicenter of 1st-century Rome's attempt to derail the Church's preaching of the coming of God's kingdom. But the challenge of discipleship was not confined to Mark's time and place. the many martyrs' feasts that fill the calendar attest to the ubiquity of persecution throughout the Church's history. Yesterday's commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian genocide and the many martyrs of the 20th century, as well as recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere, all remind us that Christians continue to be tempting targets.  The challenge that becoming a disciple entails, which Mark's Gospel expresses so effectively, remains a vivid reality to this day. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Another Sad Centennial

Armenian for "Great Crime," Medz Yeghern is apparently an Armenian term for the Ottoman empire's systematic effort to exterminate its Armenian Christian minority during World War I. It was 100 years ago today, on April 24, 1915, that some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople - the beginning of the mass killings and deportations that are collectively considered the first genocide of the 20th century. (The photo is of the official Armenian Genocide Centennial Logo.)

An excellent, 5-part, AHCH TV series World War I Apocalypse, episode 2 "Fear," explores how, after the Turkish winter offensive against Russia failed abysmally and no Muslims in the Russian Empire rose up in a Holy War against Orthodox Russia, the Ottomans sought a scapegoat and attacked the Armenian Christian minority and initiated this infamous ethnic and religious genocide. Today, the commemoration of the centennial of this tragic event comes as other Christians are again being persecuted in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is an occasion to recommit ourselves to resisting the religious and ethnic persecution that are so widely on the increase on our deteriorating world.

In our increasingly post-literate world, we have paradoxically become extremely sensitive to the symbolism of words. Similarly, whether or not one refers to the massacre of over 1 million Armenians as "genocide" has become the principal focus of much of the coverage of this sad centennial. Of course, it doesn't help that President Obama, having campaigned on a promise to label the Armenian genocide as such, has steadfastly broken his promise - behavior in noteworthy contrast to Pope Francis' forthright reference (quoting his predecessor Saint John Paul II) to the Armenian genocide earlier this month.

Whatever we call it and whether or not modern Turkey ever completely acknowledges its tragic history, the Armenian genocide stands out both as one of the many moral and social calamities connected with the Great War (as World War I was known before it generated its successor) and a harbinger of more evils to come in the murderous 20th-century. This commemoration - and those of the other tragedies associated with the 20th century - should remind the world of the absurd optimism with which the 20th century began, a faith that century (bookended by brutal Balkan wars) should have forever falsified. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Dragon-Slayer

The last time I was in the UK (several years ago now), I spent a couple of days in a village near London at the home of a Church-of- England Vicar I had become friends with during my sabbatical at St. George's House, Windsor, in my memorable European summer of 2005. He and his family were very hospitable, and it was wonderful to have that opportunity to spend some time with them in their parish. 

When we and a handful of his parishioners gathered for Morning Prayer on April 23, my friend reminded everyone that it was the feast of Saint George, the patron of England, and so had its own proper Office. 

(St George is indeed England's patron saint, and the flag of England remains the red cross of St George on a white field. To most of us, it is more familiar as one component of the UK's "Union Flag" - the combined crosses of Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick. In that form, St George's cross continues to appear on a number of the world's flags. The red-on-white cross of St George also appears above the shield in Ontario's Provincial flag.)

After Prayer that morning, I noted that in my own (Roman) Breviary, the proper reading in the Office was from a sermon by Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072), who praised Saint George as a man who abandoned one army for another, who gave up the rank of tribune to enlist as a soldier for Christ, and who plunged into the thick of the battle, an ardent soldier for Christ.

All we know for certain about Saint George is that he was martyred in Palestine at the beginning of the 4th century and was venerated in both East and West long before tradition turned this onetime Roman soldier into a medieval knight. In Rome, the second Lenten station, on the day after Ash Wednesday, is at the Church of San Giorgio in Velabro, one of those wonderful ancient Roman churches that I would likely never have gotten to see the inside of, were it not for the wonderful tradition of the Lenten stations. As I wrote on this blog back on February 28, 2012, "there is something special about going to these venerable Roman churches in the pre-dawn darkness, walking literally in the steps of centuries of Christians who have visited those same churches on those same days, celebrating Mass surrounded by the relics and memories of martyrs, then emerging in the early morning light to continue one’s daily work. It is a true experience of the communion of saints!"

As for Saint George, he was - Peter Damian recalls - consumed with the fire of the Holy spirit. Armed with the invincible standard of the cross, he did battle with an evil king and acquitted himself so well that, in vanquishing the king, he overcame the prince of all wicked spirits, and encouraged other soldiers of Christ to perform brave deeds in his cause.

No wonder medieval tradition portrayed Saint George as a gallant knight slaying the monstrous dragon - the Book of Revelation's classic image of the Evil One, the Devil, against whom, as Pope Francis (whose onomastico day is today) has so frequently reminded us, the Christian life is a continuous battle.  

George is just one of the many martyrs venerated during this Easter season - among them the early martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, Justin (165), Marcellinus and Peter (304), Pancras (304), John I (526), and Martin I (656), medieval heroes of the faith Boniface (754), and Stanislaus (1097), and modern missionary martyrs Fidelis of Sigmaringen (1622), Peter Chanel (1841), and Charles Lwanga (1886). 

Such a diverse group, but all, like George, combatants in our continuing contest with the Dragon!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Pius XI and Mussolini

Adolf Hitler's 126th birthday seems an appropriate occasion to write about yet another book about the World War II era. David Kertzer's The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House, 2014) is primarily about the papacy, particularly Pope Pius XI, and the Church's relationship with Fascist Italy, particularly its Duce Benito Mussolini - the critical period before World War II but also the period before and after the historic 1929 reconciliation between the Church and the kingdom of Italy and its accompanying concordat.

Both Pius XI and Mussolini and the peculiarities of their personalities have been much studied already. The author highlights the particular impact of the personalities of the two leaders who faced each other across the Tiber. Whatever else it was, the World War II era was one of big personalities; and anyone studying that era must be ready to recognize the historical largeness of the leading figures of the period - Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, and DeGaulle, and the 2 Popes, Pius XI and Pius XII. There were, of course, institutional, non-personality elements also at play in the history of that time. After all, the Church itself, however much it may bear the personal imprint of whoever occupies the papal throne at the moment, is ultimately a complex institution, spanning centuries of time and encompassing all the world's continents. And all the secular political leaders of the era were also conditioned and to some extent limited (some more than others) by their national cultures and institutions. Mussolini, much more than Hitler, for example, was always limited by his comparable lack of absolute power - thanks to the limited character of post-unification Italian political culture and also to the continued competing presence of surviving non-fascist institutions in Italy, notably the King and the Church. 

The author certainly seems to grasp all that, and his treatment of the larger-than-life personalities of Pius XI and Mussolini benefits from his appreciation of those institutional contexts. He also avoids the kind of retrospective revisionist history that judges the pre-war period and the decisions leaders made then with post-war 20-20 hindsight. Especially when considering someone like Mussolini, it is important to remember how relatively positively he was perceived early on by so many elements that would later have reasons to revise their opinions.  It wasn't just my grandmother who admired Mussolini for the changes he had brought to Italy's failed political order. Churchill and Roosevelt thought well of him too - at least until Mussolini began to become a challenge to international peace and stability. Not surprisingly, Pius XI had reason to think well of anyone who put an end to the state of war between the Vatican and the Quirinal, not only resolving the Roman Question - very much to the Church's advantage - but also regularizing the relationship between Church and State in Italy in a way which conformed quite well with the then reigning theological understanding of what was optimal in Church-state relations.

Personally, I have long been of the opinion that had Mussolini been less foolhardy in his ultimately disastrous embrace of the German alliance, had he - like Spain's Franco, for example, - remained neutral in the war, he would (like Franco) probably have died peacefully in his bed (as also would, of course, lots of Italians for whom the war was to be such a total disaster). Kertzer dismisses the long-popular theory that Mussolini suffered from syphilis. Still, he was clearly in decline by the time of the war and presumably would not have lasted that much longer anyway. Eventually, under Umberto II, I suspect an Italy that had remained neutral in the war would likely have evolved in the post-war world in a more moderate post-fascist direction, much as post-Franco Spain would subsequently develop in the 1970s. All of which would put pre-war judgments in a very different historical context.

On the other hand, everything I have read on the subject suggests to me that both the King and the Church were better positioned (than perhaps either appreciated) to act against Mussolini. In the end, the king did act to remove him. He probably could have acted earlier, and would have better served both Italy and the world (and more likely saved his dynasty too).

Well, that's not how it happened, of course. What actually did happen is the story the author tells in a way which both recognizes the actual time when the judgments in question were being made as well as alternative possibilities that actually had a real chance of happening but which for various reasons did not. That is especially relevant in the case of Pius XI, because he clearly had some significant second thoughts about his dealings with Mussolini and was moving in a decidedly different direction at the end of his life - a movement cut short by his sudden death in 1939. The author describes the evolution of Pius XI's reassessment of Mussolini, which largely paralleled Mussolini's evolution into a vassal of Hitler. In particular he revisits the now familiar story of the planned encyclical against racism, which Pius XI was secretly having drafted when he died, as well the speech Pius had planned to give, which then remained secret for 20 years after his death prevented his giving it.

Throughout, the author seems sensitive to the complexities of Pius XI and presents him accordingly - a not so much sympathetic as balanced presentation. Given his subject, he has somewhat less to say about Pius XI's successor, whom he generally portrays in a much less favorable manner. But that is really a whole other discussion, which many more authors have already weighed in on - on both sides.

Any system of government entails a complicated interaction of personal and institutional factors. This is true of both "absolute" monarchies like the papacy and representative constitutional systems. The Pope and Mussolini illustrates the particular challenges and distinctive dynamics that papal government faces in the modern world, especially with a strong personality like Pius XI on the papal throne (a not uncommon state of affairs in the 20th century). Respecting what was unique to the special situation of the 1920s and 1930s, one can nonetheless extrapolate from this account much that is relevant to examining later engagements between the Church and the world.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Easter Prayers: Trying to Keep Up the Rejoicing

The erudite Fr. Hunwicke - cf Fr. Hunwicke's Mutual Enrichment Blog - - has recently noted the intriguing fact that not one of the 1570-1969 collects for the Sundays after Easter survived on the corresponding Sunday in the 1969 Missal. On the one hand, this may seem to fly in the face of Vatican II's dictum that there must be no innovations in the liturgy "unless the good of the Church genuinely genuinely and certainly requires them" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 23). On the other hand, however, it very vividly highlights the fact that - at least after Low Sunday - none of the post-East Sunday prayers in the old Missal were all that particularly Easter-like.

In fact, the old Low Sunday prayer almost seemed to sound a sort of finale for Easter, rather laconically praying that having finished the Easter festivities we may retain its effects in our life and manners (ut, qui paschalia festa peregimus, haec, te largiente, moribus et vita teneamus.)

Actually, apart from the multiple alleluias all over the place (and saying the Regina Coeli daily in place of the Angelus) there was really relatively little very distinctive about the weeks of the Easter season between Low Sunday and Ascension. In my parish, when I was growing up. even the Paschal Candle was hardly ever lit at Mass during those weeks. In a way, I think, some of this may reflect the psychological difficulty that I have written about before - the practical problem of somehow sustaining Easter festivity for the (especially to our limited post-modern attention spans) seemingly eternally long period of seven weeks. As I have said elsewhere, something about the style and pace of contemporary life makes it a challenge to sustain solemnity. Overall, we are much better at building up to festivity than at prolonging it. That makes the Easter Season something of a challenge, one reason one of my seminary classmates actually argued that the Easter season should be reduced just to Easter Week. (Of course, a cursory look at the nearly empty churches during most of Easter Week - especially as compared with the preceding weeks of Lent - might challenge even that idea. The week that marks the highpoint of the Church's year, the glorious octave of the resurrection, seems increasingly more like a dead time in ordinary parish life.)

The much more intensely observed Easter Week which the early Church knew reflected the widespread experience of numerous adult baptisms and the resulting strong sense of Christianity as an alternative way of life to paganism and the Church as an alternative to the Empire. With the establishment of Christendom, that antithesis was weakened, but it was replaced by a new symbiosis in which religion and culture complemented and reinforced one another. With the triumph of secular modernity, however, that once defining role of the religious calendar in secular life has disappeared. In its place, there is little to remind people to keep up the rejoicing that is Easter's distinctive motif.

The new collects for these Sundays before the Ascension all include some reference to joy or rejoicing. Repetition is obviously one way of trying to make a point. It is a point well worth making. But it seems like an increasingly hard sell!

Of course, as I said on Easter itself, what bigger or better news has there ever been than Jesus' resurrection from the dead? So how do we make that news resonate in post-Christendom's secular calendar as the superlatively good news that it is - news to keep people rejoicing not just for seven weeks but for eternity?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lincoln Reconsidered

Lincoln Reconsidered was, I think, the title of one of the books about Lincoln which we were required to read for high school American history class. I haven't actually counted, of course, but my guess would be that Lincoln, who died 150 years ago today, may be one of the most written about of all our presidents - no doubt deservedly so. Certainly, he remains still today at the top of most standard "best presidents" lists, among the most admired and referred to of all our national leaders, worthy of being considered and reconsidered by every generation. 

Not every catastrophic crisis is guaranteed to produce a president or leader of such heroic proportions, but those we acknowledge as history's great leaders are usually those who have successfully led their nations through a major war or comparable crisis. Our great 18th-century president was, of course, George Washington, who, having already attained almost mythically heroic status as national war leader during the Revolution, then served as our first president, leading the country's way through the critical period of the founding and setting the necessary precedents for successful future governance by successors of lesser stature. Our greatest 20th-century president, Franklin Roosevelt, responded aggressively the greatest economic crisis in American history and then led the same nation to victory through the defining military conflict of the century, by the end of which the United States was the undeniably dominant power in the entire world. Likewise Lincoln led the nation through its 19th-century crisis of coming apart and being put back together on a new foundation.

That new foundation was, of course, a transformed constitution rooted in the prior principles of the Declaration of Independence - not its asserted theory of the constitution of the British Empire but its much more audacious assertion of the natural, God-given equality of human beings and their shared community in natural, God-given rights. This, the original constitution had failed to affirm, rooting the new nation's institutions in a fatal compromise with the sin of slavery, a compromise that was only to be undone on the bloody battlefields of a terrible Civil War.

Lincoln the man and the politician remains one of our nation's more interesting historical figures for anyone wishing to consider the way a person's personality and character can respond to the challenge of historical developments and can impact that development in a more moral direction. Like his famous image in Washington, DC, Lincoln really was larger than life. In an era of anything but larger-than-life leaders and leadership, Lincoln demonstrates the absolute need for genuine human greatness to break through the stranglehold that impersonal forces, bad ideas, and narrow individual and group interests will inevitably set as society's agenda, unless countered by great leaders who have developed their characters with authentic moral vision and practical political skill.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Woman in Gold

Monday, I did something I seldom really do - take the day off. The morning was spent at the Verizon store upgrading to a new iPhone. After that, I was ready to do something more meaningful and hopefully much more satisfying. So I went to the movies to see the new Helen Mirren-Ryan Reynolds film, Woman in Gold, based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Austria-Jewish refugee from the Holocaust and her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, and their ultimately successful fight with the Austrian authorities to reclaim Gustav Klimt's famed portrait of Maria's aunt, Adele Bloch-Buaer,  the famous "Woman in Gold," confiscated by the Nazis from Maria's childhood Viennese apartment and for decades displayed in Vienna's Belvedere Palace.

The film follows the improbable story of Maria's quest, her enlisting of the young Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) to success in the U.S. Supreme Court and final success at arbitration in Vienna. Interweaved with that 21st-century story are flashbacks to Maria's pre-war life in a well-to-do highly cultured Viennese Jewish family and tragic changes visited upon them by the Anschluss. The pre-war family scenes are particularly poignant, as they illustrate the assimilated lifestyle of so many German and Austrian Jewish families and their commitment to a certain kind of culture, what in German would be called Bildung, a way of life of which both Maria's father's cello-playing and the painting itself serve as symbols.

Mirren and Reynolds play their parts well and kept me engaged in the evolution of their characters. The scenes of modern Vienna made me nostalgic for my two visits to that city - the first as a college sophomore studying German in the very different, still post-war world of 1970.

But more important than any of that, in a very human way which gets beyond narrow polemics, the film recalls the trauma of the war and the Holocaust and addresses the controverted question of Austria's post-war self-identity as primarily victim rather than actual accomplice. These are all important issues, which, with the passing of the World War II generation, no longer engage the contemporary world, but, which for all sorts of reasons, should not be allowed to be simply forgotten.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Year of Mercy

On the Eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, from a Throne erected in the atrium of Saint Peter's Basilica directly facing the Holy Door, Pope Francis formally issued the Bull of Indiction (Misericordiae Vultus) of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy that will begin on December 8 and will likely set the tone for the rest of this pontificate

When I walked through Rome's four Holy Doors during the last Holy Year, the Great Jubilee of 2000, I wondered whether I would still be around at all to participate in the next Jubilee Year. I certainly never expected to see another one so soon! But then life is full of surprises, and there certainly have been lots of surprises both inside and outside the Church in the last 15 years!

Every Holy Year is about forgiveness, of course. So, in that sense, focusing a Jubilee entirely on divine mercy might seem a surprise. But, as I mentioned in my homily yesterday, referring to an author's talk at a fundraising luncheon I attended last month, there may be no more obvious confirmation of the fact that "the world is in need of mercy" than the frequency with which that sentiment is being expressed in so many and such diverse - even secular - settings.

In his Bull of Indiction, Pope Francis begins by calling Jesus himself "the face of the Father's mercy." He is proclaiming this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Pope says, because we need "to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives." This Jubilee will therefore serve "as a special time for the Church; a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective" [MV, 1, 3]. 

The Pope says he has chosen to inaugurate the Holy Year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, both because that feast evokes God's merciful action from the very beginning of human history and also because it marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. He cites Pope Saint John XXIII's famous statement in his opening address to the Council about the Church's choice today to use "the medicine of mercy" and Blessed Paul VI's final summation of the Council's orientation at its public closing. Significantly, Pope Francis offers his own interpretation of the 20th-century's defining ecclesial event as the Church entering "a new phase of her history," in which the Council Fathers perceived "a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way... a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning ... a fresh undertaking for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction" {MV 4]. 

If Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Council from the perspective of the Council Fathers' actual generation, the last popes to have participated in the Council, Pope Francis speaks today from the perspective of the next generation, the generation that remembers the Council not as participants but as adolescent and young adult observers. (I too count myself in that generation, although I am 12 years younger than Pope Francis.) It may well be that Francis  will be the last pope who will actually have a personal memory of the Council and of its time and circumstances.

As is normal with such documents, MV provides a quick survey of scripture and salvation history from the perspective of mercy, before returning to the contemporary ecclesial context - prepared, Pope Francis notes, by Pope Saint John Paul II's magisterial teaching on mercy, beginning with his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (1980).

The heart of the Pope's argument is what he has to say about the foundational character of mercy in the life of the Church. Mercy, Pope Francis asserts, "is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love." If, on the one hand, "the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture" and "the word seems to have dropped out of use," then "The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope" [MV 10]

The Pope explicitly challenges the Church to "pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception." He situates mercy at the heart of the new evangelization and identifies it as crucial for the credibility of the Church's message, such that "wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident" [MV 12].

A Holy Year is always about pilgrimage. So Pope Francis (referencing Luke 6:37-38) presents the year as a pilgrimage journey in which we are all invited to become Merciful like the Father, which will serve as the Holy Year's "motto." [MV 14]. In practical terms, he issues a strong call for renewed attentiveness to both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in our lives and actions and to the special opportunities next year's Lenten season will provide. I was particularly struck by his request that this year's “24 Hours for the Lord” (on the Friday and Saturday preceding the Fourth Week of Lent) should be implemented all over the world next year [MV 17].

Undoubtedly, the Holy Year will inspire increased fervor in the Church - especially among those who pay attention to these sorts of things and those who avail themselves of the year's pilgrimage opportunities. The Pope clearly hopes many more will avail themselves of the sacrament of Penance. Hence, his decision to commission special confessors.

It is always a challenge, of course, to incorporate such initiatives in the ordinary, daily life of the Church, which has a way at times of becoming routinized and insulated from the wider world. Much remains to be determined and developed in terms of the specific observances that will highlight the Holy Year not just in Rome and especially at the diocesan and parish levels. Still a definite focus has been articulated for the year and indeed for this pontificate. Soon, I will be initiating a process of re-examining how all my parish's programs and activities for the coming year can more explicitly reflect the spirit of this Holy Year and the challenges articulated in this Bull. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday of Mercy

In the early Church, those newly baptized at Easter received white baptismal robes which they wore at Mass each day of Easter Week. The Sunday after Easter was, therefore, called Dominica in Albis Depositis ("Sunday in Setting Aside the White Garments"). On that day, the newly baptized attended Mass for the first time as ordinary members of the congregation. If nothing else, this should remind us that the Easter season was originally a special season for the newly baptized, a time for them to internalize and interpret their Easter experience. And, if it made sense for us to follow their before-Easter journey and identify with them during their period of preparation for baptism, it makes similar sense for us to identify now with the newly baptised in their Easter and post-Easter experience.

One of the ways we do that, as a Church at Easter Time, is through the daily reading of the Acts of the Apostles. the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel according to Luke. It continues the story after the Risen Lord’s ascension. It is Luke’s account of the experience of the apostolic Church and of its growth and expansion – an experience I think was well summed up in the title of a children’s book version of Acts that came out some 25 or so years ago, called Good News Travels Fast.

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 4:32-35] describes the life of that first Christian community in Jerusalem. Of all the things that might have been mentioned, two aspects of how those 1st Christians lived are emphasized: the powerful witness of the apostles to the reality of the resurrection and the dramatic change in people’s behavior that resulted from that and then in turn became itself such a powerful form of witness.

In a world torn, then as now, by conflict and division, the community of believers strove to be of one heart and mind. In a world of social and class divisions, divided, then as now, between rich and poor, between “haves” and “have-nots,” The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was no needy person among them.

In the world in which we now live, it is division and inequality – not unity and community – that still characterize our human condition. Social, economic, ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, and generational divisions form the structural fabric of human relations. All the more necessary, then, is the living witness of the Church to a totally new order of relationships linking people and communities of every race and nation, of every language and way of life – challenging us all, individually and collectively, to live as changed people because of the presence of the Risen Christ in our midst, as witnessed by his continued action in the world through his Body, the Church.

Fittingly, therefore, this 2nd Sunday of Easter is also celebrated in the Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. Recently, I attended the annual fundraising lunch for an organization which does much good in downtown Knoxville. The featured speaker at the lunch highlighted the message, “the world is in need of mercy.” There may be no more obvious confirmation of the reality of that widespread and felt need than the frequency with which that sentiment is expressed – and in such diverse and even secular settings!

Saint John Paul II once called Divine Mercy “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity” [Homily, April 22, 2001]. To make the Church’s mission of being a witness to mercy even clearer to the world, Pope Francis has proclaimed an extraordinary Jubilee, with the mercy of God as its focus. Yesterday afternoon, in the atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica in front of the Holy Door (which is only open during Jubilee Years), the Pope formally issued what is called the Bull of Indiction, officially establishing this Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin with the Opening of the Holy Door on December 8.

That ritual dates back to when Pope Alexander VI opened what was then still a wooden door to inaugurate the Holy Year of 1500. Symbolically, the opening of the Holy Door evokes God’s offer of forgiveness, which is central to every Holy Year. The bronze Holy Door that stands there now, known as the "Door of the Great Pardon" (photo), dates from the Holy Year of 1950. Fifteen bronze panels portray episodes from both the Old and New Testaments, illustrating human sinfulness and our redemption through God’s mercy, leading up to the 16th panel which portrays Pius XII opening the door in Christmas Eve 1949.

The 13th panel portrays a scene from today’s gospel [John 20:19-31].

That Gospel is a very familiar one. We hear it ever year on this Sunday of Mercy. Understandably fearful for their safety, the disciples, as we heard, had hidden behind locked doors. Perhaps this was the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. In any case, On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that peace was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings peace – not some social or political peace, but the peace of Divine Mercy that brings forgiveness and so can conquer fear. It is clear enough from the locked doors just how fearful the disciples must have been.

There are also the many locked doors one doesn’t see, but one feels nonetheless. We may not be so afraid of the authorities as the disciples were, although for Christians in parts of the Middle East and Africa, this scene is all too contemporary. But we too have our own less visible fears, wounding us in all sorts of ways, wounds we carry within us, concealing them as best we can.

Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal the continuity between the Jesus who really and truly died on the cross and the now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds and impart his forgiveness and mercy in the sacraments of his Church: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

That message and the experience of mercy and forgiveness flowing from it are at the heart of our new life together as Christ’s Church in the world.

For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus a long time ago - and then leaves us and everything else in the world completely unchanged. Rather that world, as we just heard [1 john 1:5-6], has been conquered.

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 12, 2015.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Images from Easter Past

Someone who spends more time on the internet than I think I should pointed me to this short (under two minutes) video, currently making the rounds, showing Pope Saint John XXIII in 1959 officiating at the traditional blessing of wax discs, impressed with the image of a lamb, known as Agnus Dei. This is an ancient Roman tradition of which I had hitherto been completely unaware. According to the old (early 20th-century) Catholic Encyclopedia, this blessing was performed in the first year of each new Pope's pontificate and every seventh year afterwards. 

The video from 1959 is black-and-white and (for whatever reason) has no sound, which may make it that much more effective, since there is no noise or commentary to distract us from the Pope's actions. To watch it, go to:

It begins with the discs being prepared and shows still scenes of the papal miters, chrism, and balsam waiting at the credence table. Pope John arrives in mozetta. The video then jumps to the Pope, now vested in miter and cope (and falda), who mixes chrism and balsam in a vessel of water, then dips the discs into the mixture, apparently accompanying these actions with various prayers. The ceremony ends with the Pope blessing the congregation from his throne and then departing.

According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, this blessing took place on the Wednesday of Easter Week. Then, on the Saturday of Easter Week the solemn ceremony of distribution took place, at which the Pope put a packet of newly blessed Agnus Dei discs into the inverted miter of each cardinal and bishop who came up to receive them. Now that would be a really fun video to watch!

It is well known that Pope Saint John XXIII liked the baroque papal liturgy of the pre-conciliar Church, just as he expressed his affection for many of  the more devotional aspects of the old liturgy - like the Last Gospel, for example. He probably enjoyed himself as he performed that ancient ritual that Easter Wednesday in 1959, and from heaven he may still be enjoying our enjoying of him doing it!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Watching Wolf Hall

Tudor-mania continues - further encouraged now by the new PBS Masterpiece presentation of Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel of the same name. And with the earlier airing on TV of the BBC series The White Queen, not to mention the recent reburial of King Richard II, even the events of the immediately pre-Tudor period seem to be getting unprecedented American attention.

All that is well and good. The more history that people absorb, the better informed we are about how and why we got to be the way we are. And no one can deny that - for better or for worse (mostly the latter) - the Tudor era was one of the most pivotal turning points in the history of the English-speaking world, and indeed the Western world as a whole. Certainly its impact on Western Christianity was as significant as it was disastrous.

Wolf Hall focuses on one of the nastier figures of the Tudor era, the political climber Thomas Cromwell, who rose (and finally fell) in the service of early modern England's proto-Stalin, King Henry VIII. Notably, he and Saint Thomas More were personal and political rivals at Henry's Court. Both rose to unprecedented prominence (given their non-noble birth and status) and both eventually lost their heads. No doubt there is a lesson in that about seeking or exercising power in the service of any tyrant - be that tyrant a king or a system or an ideology. But at least More managed to maintain his integrity and die for something worthwhile - the authentic constitution of the Church, its freedom vis-a-vis the State, and the indissolubility of marriage. Challenged by King Henry VIII (and his servile apparatchik Cromwell), those values remain very much out of fashion to this day. So it should come as no surprise to see Cromwell exalted over More on the contemporary screen.

Wolf Hall favors Cromwell, the anti-More, and tells the tale more or less from his vantage-point. So far, I have seen only the first episode. So at this stage I have no personal opinion to offer of its quality as a drama, its acting, etc., all of which have generally received critical acclaim.

One thing that was striking about the first episode was the relatively benign image it presented of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor who actually accomplished much for Henry and England but who fell from power when he failed to secure the annulment of the King desired of his marriage (and incurred the intense personal enmity of the malicious Anne Boleyn). In the history of the English Reformation, it has always seemed that both sides had little retrospective appreciation for Wolsey. Whatever Wolsey's many faults, it is nice to see him portrayed as a person rather than simply as a villain.

When it comes to the Tudors and the English Reformation, there is not likely to be any new news. We already know the story and the tragic way it all ends. But it is always interesting to see the story retold through the contrasting lenses of the different personalities who got themselves caught up in it.