Sunday, November 29, 2015

Apocalypse Sunday

One of the constants in American history has been the periodic appearance of movements and people preparing for some sort of impending calamity, real or imagined, including even the end of the world. Usually they are fringe groups at the margin of mainstream society, although sometimes the anxieties are more reality-based and more widely shared. I think back, for example, to the fallout shelter movement in the early 1960s, which was actively promoted in New York, where I lived, by no less mainstream a person than Governor Nelson Rockefeller and was also taken seriously and discussed within the Kennedy Administration, as well as in the pages of the weekly Jesuit magazine America.

Anticipating an actual and total end to the world may be more than most contemporary disaster-worriers really care to contemplate. But it does have a long history. Add to that the prospect of divine judgment, and we can get into some really scary stuff! No surprise then that the early Christians – who took both the end of the world and divine judgment very seriously - prayed, in the third century: “for Emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end” [Apologetics, 39].

To us today, living in a world that is at least as dangerous and disorderly if not more so, and where we hear right away about every terrible thing that happens almost anywhere in the world, to us that sounds like a familiar enough list – except for the final petition, which we seldom give much thought to, even while we pray every day at Mass for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Yet that “end” is precisely what the Church calls on us to contemplate today, as indeed we do every Advent.

Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: teste David cum Sibylla. O day of wrath, O dreadful day, when heaven and earth shall pass away, as David and the Sibyl say. So begins one of the most famous Latin liturgical hymns, a hymn especially suited to the spirit of Advent.  (When I was growing up, before our feel-good therapeutic culture took over, those words were sung at every Catholic funeral). Advent acknowledges the fear people have always felt about what lies ahead. As Jesus himself said in today’s Gospel [Luke 21:25-28, 34-36], People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.

Recent events have highlighted how dangerous our world is. We hardly need Advent to warn us of what is coming upon the world. Advent, however, is also about hope. The Jesus who said all those scary things also said, when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. And so it seems somehow especially fitting that at this time of national and international tension and worldwide worry, that the Church is about to announce the good news of God’s grace and mercy even louder than usual with an Extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, and is inviting us to put our fears behind us, to stand up and raise our heads, as Jesus said, and go on pilgrimage together, literally and spiritually – literally, to the Holy Doors in Rome or at least to the local Door of Mercy right near us at our cathedral church.

“God,” Pope Francis has reminded us, “always shows us the greatness of his mercy” and “is always with us in order to help us go forward. He is a God who … is with us, to help us, to strengthen us, help us go forward. … Always forward!” [Angelus, December 15, 2013].

We will certainly have plenty to worry about this year – as in every year.  We all have our individual anxieties, our unfulfilled longings, and our painful memories of lost opportunities and ruptured relationships, all of which seem to haunt us even more intensely at this festive time of year and in this conflicted, war-ravaged world. But in the midst of all this, Advent challenges us to recognize the coming of Christ bringing light into anxious lives and a worried world.

In the words of Paulist founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, There is little or no hope at all of our entering into the kingdom of heaven hereafter, if we are not citizens of it here. If Christ is to be to us a savior, we must find him here, now, and where we are; otherwise he is no Christ, no Saviour, no Immanuel, no “God with us.”

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 29, 2015.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

As Another Advent Beckons

This past Wednesday, on November 25, the Church commemorated Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th-century Egyptian philosopher and martyr, who is a patron of philosophers and preachers, and under whose patronage Saint Catherine's monastery at Mount Sinai is named and dedicated. She is also one of the famous "14 Holy Helpers," and her intercession is invoked against sudden death. Like so many others, she was dispossessed of her feast day in Paul VI's calendar, but has thankfully been restored in the later edition of the Roman calendar to her traditional position on the cusp of Advent.

In Around the Year with the Trapp Family (1955), Baroness Maria von Trapp (on whose life-story The Sound of Music was loosely based), quoted an old expression allegedly common in Catholic countries (at least in the traditional Austria with which she identified): "Saint Catherine closes the door of the dance hall until the three Holy Kings throw it wide open again." This saying referred to the imminent season of Advent which, for all of its history until very recently, was considered a "closed time," a penitential season which precluded big festive wedding celebrations.

Sadly, apart from the violet vestments and the omission of the Gloria at Mass, most traces of the penitential character of Advent have disappeared, as Advent has simply become the staging ground for the Christmas shopping season (much as Thanksgiving has progressively degenerated into a mere prelude to "Black Friday").

The Paul VI liturgy left Advent more or less intact, except for the trashing of the ancient Ember Days and of the Vigil of Christmas. Its classically beautiful, apocalyptic antiphons and other texts largely survived. But while the letter of the liturgy may have survived, the season's spirit seems to have been lost in a complete capitulation to something called "devout and joyful expectation." Traditionally, Advent was a continuation of the eschatological emphasis of the weeks that immediately preceded it. The anticipation (with proper fear and dread) of Christ's Second Coming and the joyful commemoration of Christ's First Coming at the end of the Advent season worked together to highlight Christ's immediate presence in the present - especially emphasized in the 2nd and 3rd Masses of Christmas. But who pays attention anymore to the 2nd and 3rd Masses of Christmas, when Christmas itself has more and more become all about Christmas Eve and Children's pageants? It's almost as if we were setting out to confirm what so many of the once-a-year Christmas attendees may already think, that Christmas is cute and that religion is nice for children but is of little relevance to actual adult life!

So what to do about Advent? One thing not to do is become a liturgical kill-joy and act as if Advent and Christmas were in some kind of competition (a competition Christmas will surely win and Advent surely lose!) It's all one story, after all. Treating the liturgical cycle of seasons as if it were some sort of play-acting and we were all patiently waiting to see if Jesus will be born on Christmas really doesn't work - nor should it. The problem is not some supposed competition between Advent and Christmas but the unseriousness of both Advent and Christmas in today's "Holiday" season. The problem is not whether one's Tree is already up at home but whether one's heart is at the mall. The Advent Wreath is not an alternative to the Christmas Tree. It is, in any case, itself just another cute folkloric custom, which in its contemporary incarnation can become yet another frivolous substitute for Advent's challenging message about the impending Day of Judgment.

The problem is bigger than any one person or parish can resolve. But, for a start, how about taking seriously the simultaneously warning and reassuring words of the Advent gospels, hearing them as spoken to us today, to our own conflicted and frightening time? And, while we light our Advent wreath's colored candles, how about taking seriously the cosmic seasonal symbolism of Christmas, which comes not in June when the sun is high and the sky is bright but when the world is cold and dark and desperately in need of new light?

Or have we so capitulated to the saeculum as not to notice how desperately the world needs new light?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

To Deliver Us in Our Days

Thanksgiving is – or at least it used to be – the ultimate American holiday. Maybe less so now that it has more and more become just a prelude to "Black Friday," which itself increasingly seems to begin sometime on Thanksgiving Day itself. Of course, if we think of America as the world capital of out-of-control predatory capitalism, then I suppose "Black Friday" should be thought of as the ultimate American holiday. But some of us certainly are old enough to remember when holidays were really holidays, and we can remember Thanksgiving as it was, when it really was the ultimate American holiday, and its story was one with the story of our national origin.

At least since the Civil War, the New England narrative, the story of the pilgrims, has served as the symbolic centerpiece of our national imagination. So it was no surprise when the PBS series The American Experience ran a 2-hour show on the Pilgrims earlier this week. It was an excellent program, and I learned a good deal from it, not particularly about the Pilgrims' religious and political beliefs - that story is already very well and widely known - but about the Pilgrims' relationship with the world around them before they came to America and with the Native world and peoples they encountered after they arrived in America.

Everyone knows how some of the Natives eventually befriended the Pilgrims. (Actually what they did was make a mutually beneficial alliance with them against other Indian tribes.) This was possible in part because they already spoke some English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans. But I at least did not know how extensive had been the devastation brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out some of the tribes that had previously lived in the area where the Pilgrims would soon settle. All this had happened in the few years just before the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, so that what they found was not some pristine wilderness, some re-imagined Garden of Eden, but a place of death and desolation. So what we now look back upon as the first "Thanksgiving," was really, primarily, a celebration of sheer survival and of relief from the shared, mutual losses experienced by both peoples - Native and English.

The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618, - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse here in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be and that the Puritan settlers some 10 years later would explicitly challenge it to be, the Pilgrims at least aspired - and they attempted the next best thing with a social contract (the famous “Mayflower Compact" we all learned about in grade school) creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil and war, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there is a lesson for us in the present from the faith, which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and in a place of devastation, and from the hope, that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.

The Pilgrims probably would never have read the Book of Sirach at their  Thanksgiving feast, but I think the reading [Sirach 50:22-24] we heard earlier would have spoken to their experience, as I hope it still speaks to ours:

And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth;
Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb
and fashions them according to his will!
May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you;

May his goodness toward us endure in Israel to deliver us in our days.

Homily for Thanksgiving Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 26, 2015. (Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Eve

In anticipation of our national holiday of Thanksgiving this week, tonight I watched The American Experience: The Pilgrims on PBS. It was very well done, and I actually learned a good deal from it - not so much about the Pilgrims' religious and political beliefs, which story is well known, but about the Pilgrims' relationship with their environment and in particular with the Indians they encountered. 

Everyone knows that some of the Natives who befriended the Pilgrims (actually made a mutually beneficial alliance with them against other Indian tribes) already spoke English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans. But I did not know how extensive had been the devastation brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out some of the tribes that had previously lived in the area that was to become Plymouth. All this had happened in the years just before the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, so that what they found was not some pristine wilderness but a place of death and desolation. Thus, what we now look back upon as the first "Thanksgiving," was, as the documentary makes so painfully clear, really a celebration of survival and relief from the shared, mutual losses of the two peoples - both Native and English.

The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be, it at least aspired, attempting the next best thing with a social contract ("the Mayflower Compact") creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.

We will celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil and war, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there is a lesson from the faith which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and place of devastation and the hope that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.

(Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Strong and Wrong

These days, former President Bill Clinton's famous observation - "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right” - is getting quoted a lot and deservedly so. Certainly, it seems to fit our current contentious climate, when fear seems to be so widespread in the country and demagogues seem to be doing their best to heighten it further. 

Of course, we have all seen this movie before - notably in the forced internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II, a panicked, xenophobic response to a real, but extremely exaggerated fear following Japan's successful surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. 

When people become frightened, their fears need to be named and acknowledged so that they can be addressed rationally. Unfortunately the opposite has been happening. The Administration does not bear sole responsibility for underestimating ISIS, but it has certainly not projected on an emotional level the sense of urgency in its response that the nation needs. Perhaps that is because it has been burned before. When, for example, Syria famously crossed the President's "Red Line" a few years ago, the Administration's response proved less robust than what, in retrospect, was evidently needed. But significant responsibility must also be borne by those elements that opposed or undercut even that modest level of response. 

But, back to the present, fear - both the legitimate fear of terrorist attack and the illegitimate fear of foreigners and strangers that has been a dark undercurrent to so much of American history - must be addressed rationally. Too few have been doing that, and their voices have been loudly drowned out by the facts-be-damned, shrill and demagogic voices that are dominating the airwaves and so setting the tone for what sadly substitutes in this society for intelligent and mature political debate.

Nor can it be ignored that nativism has long been and remains a particularly vile force in American culture. A nation that has grown great by its openness to generations of immigrants has nonetheless always struggled with a perverse fear of foreigners that has constantly threatened to undermine America's greatness. One thinks, for example, of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the prejudice experienced by Italians and other southern Europeans, the reluctance to admit more Jewish refugees in the 1930s, the Japanese internment during World War II, and of course the current crazy fear of the undocumented immigrants living among us (and doing so much of our work). As I said, we have seen this movie before. But, better than apologizing for such shameful behavior at some later day, it would be far better to recognize the persistence of our nation's nativist dark side - so as to acknowledge it for what it is and rebut it rationally.

Because, in the end, wrong really is no so strong after all!

King of the Universe

In case we had forgotten and needed to be reminded, the world has recently gotten yet another reminder in Paris and elsewhere of what a dangerous and unpredictable place this world is - and how strong the power of evil is in the world. But the presence of evil in our world and the evil misuse of human power – political power, military power, economic power, all kinds of human power – are not new and should not surprise us.  

Exactly 88 years ago tomorrow, a 36-year old Mexican Jesuit, Miguel Agustin Pro, was executed by the Mexican government. Educated abroad because of the Mexican revolutionary government’s persecution of the Church, Father Pro had returned after his ordination in 1926 to serve in the underground Church. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Pro extended his arms in the form of a cross, proclaiming, “Viva el Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”).

With those powerful words, Pro (who was beatified as a martyr in 1988) reminded the world that there is a king greater than any human power, a king who testifies to the truth. Two years prior to Pro’s martyrdom, Pope Pius XI had proposed the same point to the world with his encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which first established this feast of Christ the King, which we are celebrating today.

To the proverbial alien observer from Mars, this week’s Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed parades perhaps might seem like royal processions heralding the arrival of Santa Claus as king. But today’s celebration has something more like the real thing in mind.

The fundamental function of a king is to unite a community by a powerful personal bond – a bond so powerful precisely because it is personal, a bond so personal that through all of human history no civic symbol has served so successfully at building and bonding and unifying communities. And so today, at this pivotal turning-point in the Church’s annual cycle, we celebrate the powerful personal bond we share with Jesus Christ, our king – and not just our king but “king of the universe.”

Christ the King reigns in human hearts, Pius XI wrote, “because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all.” But truth can be an incredibly inconvenient and even threatening concept in a world which sees no need for it, a world which has no desire for it, a world which wants to construct its own reality. It was clearly so for Pilate in today’s gospel [John 18:33b-37], who responded to Jesus’ claim about his kingship by dismissively asking, “What is truth?” Pilate clearly could not imagine that such a question could actually have a real answer. Nor should we pretend that the world has made much progress on this score since Pilate’s time. Hence Pope Francis’s reminder last September, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, demanding “that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself.”

Christ the King scandalized Pilate’s sophisticated Roman sensibilities – as he similarly scandalizes our own sophisticated sensibilities – precisely by proposing the truth, not as something socially constructed by us, but as something given by God, not as something we choose as one option among many, but as something we learn, something that in effect chooses us and challenges us in ways we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves.

When today’s reading [Revelation 1:5-8] from the Book of Revelation refers to us – to the whole Church - as a kingdom of priests, that’s a reference back to the people of Israel, to whom God had said at Mount Sinai: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. What that meant was that, as God’s Chosen People, the People of Israel would be the special link between God and the world, through whom (as promised to Abraham long ago) the whole world would find blessing. So, when the New Testament refers to the whole Church as a kingdom of priests, it’s telling us that all of us, together as his Church, have been put into a new relationship with God, which makes us the special vehicle through which the whole world will experience that blessing. As subjects of Christ the King, as citizens of his kingdom, we have become Christ’s word and voice in a world full of false and lying words, full of shrill and demagogic voices. In such a world, we may perhaps (as has been said so often) be the only word and voice of Christ that many will ever hear.

As subjects of Christ the King, as citizens of his kingdom, therefore, we too must testify to the truth in all aspects of life - witnessing to the truth in our relationships with one another and the wider world. To celebrate Christ’s kingship and to pray (as we do every day at Mass) for the coming of his kingdom, is to commit ourselves to the fullest extension of that kingdom to this world – so that this yearly celebration of Christ the King becomes not just an annual ritual marking the passing of the seasons, but the deepest expression of what we believe and who we hope to be and what we hope for our world.

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, 
November 22, 2015.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

At the Gates

In case we had forgotten and needed another reminder, the world has just gotten another reminder this week in Paris of what a dangerous and unpredictable place this world is - and how strong the power of evil is in the world. When we see these things, naturally we worry. 

But Jesus says something else. “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” [Mark 13:24-32]

In every period of human history, but especially in times of rapid change and confusion, people have looked for prophecies and predictions and dubious private revelations to explain what was happening to their formerly familiar world. As if that were what Jesus was talking about! For the same Jesus who told his hearers to be on the lookout and to recognize the signs of his coming, also assured them that “of that day or hour, no one knows.”

Even so, Jesus challenges his followers to be on the lookout for signs of his kingdom.

So we need to ask ourselves what things do we see happening in the world right now?

We certainly do seem to be in one of those times of rapid change and confusion. As Pope Francis said in Florence last Wednesday, we live not so much “in an age of change,” as “in a change of age.” We live in situations that “pose new challenges, which, for us at times are difficult to understand.”

In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus made his ominous predictions just prior to Passover, in the springtime, when the fig tree sprouts leaves, a sure sign that summer is near. It is, however, in the autumn of the year that the church annually repeats this message. Autumn is the long-awaited and hoped-for season of harvest, when the year’s work finds fulfillment our season of thanksgiving.

Harvest, however, also marks an end. In nature, November vividly anticipates both the eventual end of the natural world and the eventual end of each individual. The Church recaptures for us that natural cyclical mood, as it recalls Christ’s warning words about the end, when the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

And so we wait – not just for the end of the world, but for our own individual end. And it is precisely how we wait that identifies what following Jesus in the world is all about.

For following Jesus is not about pinpointing that day or hour. Even less is it about trying to identify in advance which of our neighbors shall live forever and which shall be in everlasting horror and disgrace. On the contrary, following Jesus is all about the how in the now – how we live and what we love in the here and now, what we make of this interval, whether it be long or short, until the end – in other words, the durability and quality of our commitment and our faithfulness to him and to one another for the duration. That’s what matters most over the long haul and will determine who we will be for all eternity. That is the wisdom which shall shine like the splendor of the firmament and lead many to justice [Daniel 12:1-3].

Meanwhile, we are fortified for that long haul by the durability and quality of Jesus Christ’s commitment and faithfulness to his Father, the same Christ who, in the words we just heard from the letter to the Hebrews, took his seat forever at the right hand of God. [Hebrews 10:11-14,18]

In Florence last Wednesday, Pope Francis invited us to recognize and respond to the problems of our times “as challenges and not as obstacles.” That same day, we celebrated the memory of Saint. Martin of Tours, a 4th-century soldier, monk, bishop, and, finally, saint, of whom it was said: Death could not defeat him nor toil dismay him. He neither feared to die nor refused to live.”

And that is about as good a summary of following Jesus in this confusing world as one is likely to get!

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Anne Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 15, 2015.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Working Class Religious Crisis

Everyone is talking about the crisis among working class whites. Well, no, not everyone, although a significant segment of the chattering class has belatedly discovered this issue. In fact, most of the people who ought to be talking about it still aren't, which is precisely the problem!

Last week, two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, published a study that, in this era of rising life expectancy for almost everyone else, found a shocking increase in the death rates for 45-54 year old whites who never attended college. Even more significant is the fact that these deaths are increasingly related to alcohol and/or drug abuse and a rise in suicides. (African Americans in that age group still have a higher death rate, but their death rate continues to fall, whereas the working-class white rate is rising, which is what is so significant.)

When the issue is addressed at all by political and cultural elites, those on the left emphasize economic policies that, in the post-1980 world, have resulted in increasing inequality and the social dysfunctions that has produced. They are correct, of course, but only partially so. Meanwhile, those on the right point to the breakdown of what one might call the communal safety net, notably working class families (once so strong, now no longer) and religious affiliation (once widespread, now no longer). They too are partially correct. In fact, people can cope (or cope better at least with poverty, poor education, inadequate health care, and lack of economic opportunity when they have strong families and are connected with supportive social networks where they can rely on others who help them feel both valued and not alone in the world. Without that life is lonelier and more lacking in meaning but economic benefits and social service can at least make it easier and help one keep going in spite of loneliness and lack of meaning.

An earlier study that seems especially relevant to this discussion is "No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class," by W. Bradford Wilcox, Andrew J. Cherlin, Jeremy E. Uecker, and Matthew Messel, and which can be accessed online at

Despite the tedious academic jargon, that study's conclusions are worth quoting in full:  

"This paper finds evidence that religious life among the moderately educated – which may be the closest analogy to the “working class” today – is becoming increasingly deinstitutionalized, much as working class economic and family life have become increasingly deinstitutionalized. Using repeated cross-sectional surveys from two national data collections programs, the GSS and the NSFG, we find that religious attendance among whites has declined most precipitously among whites without college degrees, including moderately educated whites—that is, whites with a high school degree or some college but no bachelor’s degree. By contrast, we do not find a decline among moderately educated blacks; and we do not find a monotonic educational gradient at all among Hispanics.

"Our results suggest that the bourgeois and familistic moral logics that have long been linked to religious institutions are now less powerful in the lives of working class whites than they used to be. Specifically, in the last forty years, white working class income, employment, marital stability, and cultural conservatism have all declined—and markedly more so than they have for college-educated whites (Cherlin, 2009; Wilcox, 2010). Indeed, our results suggest that these bourgeois and familistic factors may account for a substantial share of the relatively large decline of working class church attendance. Within the limits of observational data, we think that our results suggest that the erosion of the labor market and cultural structures associated with the bourgeois and familistic moral logics in American life may have played an important role in accounting for recent declines in religious attendance among working class whites.

"While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group in the middle of the American stratification system that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society. This development is especially troubling because it only reinforces the social marginalization of working class whites who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work (Cherlin, 2011)."

Sunday, November 8, 2015


In our society, one of the surest predictors of poverty is being a divorced wife or a child of divorced parents. In most societies (including our own before Social Security and Medicare), widowhood was the great danger. It exposed a widowed wife and her children to the danger of poverty. Of course, there have always also been some rich widows. Typically, however, a widow would have been dependent on her family. If her family had little or no wealth – if her husband had been an ordinary wage laborer, for example – then the widow would have had to depend on other relatives or on the wider community. That was why the Early Church maintained an Order of Widows – to provide for their needs and to enable them in turn to contribute to the life of the larger community. For all these reasons, therefore, widows have often served as a suitable shorthand symbol for poverty and dependence. Hence, the two widows we just heard about today. 

The 1st widow [1 Kings 17:10-16], the pagan widow of Zarephath who provided hospitality to the prophet Elijah during a time of terrible drought, was obviously poor – so much so that she told Elijah that she and her son were about to eat their last meal and then die. Poor people are often among the most generous, however; and so, despite her desperate situation, the widow provided hospitality to this prophet of a foreign God - for which, as we just heard, she was well rewarded in return.

The widow in the Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] got no immediate reward in the Gospel story. Her role there seems mainly to highlight the contrast with the more affluent pilgrims who were donating much larger sums to the Temple. Jesus’ point was not that those pilgrims’ donations were not of value or were not appreciated or that the donors were somehow insincere in their donations. His point, rather, was that, being prosperous, they could more easily afford to be generous, at no great cost to their standard of living. The widow, however, contributed to the Temple out of her limited, meager means – revealing the generosity of her spirit and the seriousness of her commitment to what the Temple represented to her community.

We live in an era of self-centeredness, of glorified selfishness. In this era of tax revolts, “tea parties,” gated communities, health, food, and fitness fixations, and jealous, generational, and individual protectiveness, perhaps few biblical stories may seem more culturally challenging than these accounts of long ago and far away widows – the challenge to focus on something other than oneself and on one’s individual needs, not to let oneself and one’s own all-important private world get in the way of our obligations to others and our connection with the larger human community. Ours is a society in which reality is increasingly subjective, in which the Individual has become the focus of meaning and value, reducing family, community, and society to at-best secondary realities. Even churches sometimes seem more like clubs where like-minded or similarly situated individuals can feel good about themselves together.

It is often alleged that prosperity and religion do not coexist well together. The sad state of religion in much of the developed world today is sometimes cited to confirm that claim. Whatever our exact circumstances, we have all been culturally conditioned by affluence. We are forever being tempted to privilege what is individual and private over what is common and shared. Jesus’ words are a challenge to us all to rediscover what generosity actually means, and in the process to rediscover the experience of being connected with one another in a larger community, to rediscover what commitment to one another and such a community actually requires of us - but also what it enables us in turn to become, not just now but forever.

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 8, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

This Time Next Year

Being in our nation's capital (for our annual Paulist Fathers' pastors and Superiors Meeting), makes the mind more aware of politics or perhaps makes politics seem more salient. Or so it seems. And, of course, the November 8, 2016 election is now just a little over one year away. It seems like it has been going on forever, of course, since even government has increasingly become all about campaigning constantly more than about governing. 

The chaotic condition and diminishing appeal among non-white, female. and younger voters of the Republican party is well known and obvious even to the most disinterested - or uninterested - observer. But the Democratic party is not without problems either. Thus, last week, Church and State blogger Stephen Schneck (Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America)  posted "Under the Radar: the Democratic party is in Dire Straits," in which he highlighted the disconcerting fact that "nationwide the number of elective offices held by Democrats is at its lowest since Herbert Hoover was president. That bears repeating: The strength of the party as measured by seats held across the country is at its lowest point since the 1920s. The tremendous Democratic coalition fashioned under Franklin Roosevelt—a coalition nurtured through the 1980s—is now in its final stages of collapse." (

Now, I am old enough to have remembered the old FDR Democratic coalition in its sunset, to have watched it traumatize itself in the necessary but costly battle over civil rights, and then unexpectedly unravel completely in the national and cultural divisions over the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and subsequent identity politics. I have watched the whole process, of which our contemporary political crisis is the unhappy heir. The result, as Schneck notes so well, is that what he calls the Democrats' current issue profile "has shifted in our time from one about the working class and economically disadvantaged to one that emphasizes the professional classes and the special interests of identity politics. ... It’s said so often as to seem trite, but it really is true that with this shift the party has allowed itself to be choked by a fundraising process dominated by a handful of special interests—at the expense of the party’s future and, frankly, at the expense of America’s public interest. Wherever one stands on a host of issues at the center of America’s identity politics, from abortion to same-sex marriage, surely the interest groups associated with such issues should not have effective control over candidate development and the fundraising mechanisms of the party. To effectively contest elections, the party needs to field candidates who reflect the issue profiles of their local constituencies. More importantly, if it is to again become the governing party, the Democratic Party must embrace a big tent coalition of constituencies with a public interest—and not special interest—vision."

As Schneck says, this has been said before - many times before and so seems trite. But it is at the heart of much of our national political dysfunction. In fact, both political parties have become captives of the special interests that dominate the intra-party conversation and have little incentive to reach out beyond there. That's a process problem, but even worse it is also a substantive problem, in that each party has become captive to what one might call its extremist libertarian wing. In the case of the Republicans, the party has become captive to an anti-tax, anti-government, anti-society mentality that, by inhibiting governmental action to repair our fractured society, serves instead the interests of the already very rich and powerful. On the Democratic side, a cultural libertarianism that enshrines the most morally and socially destructive consequences of the sexual revolution has inhibited the party from addressing (or even acknowledging) the moral and cultural causes contributing to contemporary social breakdown, which especially hurts those at the bottom of the social pyramid (the people the FDR coalition once identified with and sought to serve), serving instead the interests of a different elite of rich and powerful.

A major challenge going forward will be whether either party (or some as yet non-existent alternative) can break out of this current trap and recover the social solidarity (and the accompanying economic prosperity for many) that the older Democratic party once stood for and imperfectly but still very successfully promoted and advanced.

Monday, November 2, 2015

All Souls Day

According to the great Pius Parsch, the lit candles traditionally recommended to be held by the people during the Requiem Mass signified "the suffering souls whose places we are taking and for whom we are begging 'eternal light'." What a wonderful image! What a vivid impression of the communion of saints, of how we are all interconnected, all somehow still in this together! In this era of increasingly diminished social solidarity, what an important lesson that custom afforded, as does the entire idea of today's Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

It was just 100 years ago, during the 1st World War, which Pope Benedict XV called "the suicide of civilized Europe," that that same Pope, on August 10, 1915, issued the Apostolic Constitution Incruentum Altaris, in which he extended to priests everywhere in the world the privilege previously granted by Benedict XIV in 1748 to the Kings of Span and Portugal, permitting Spanish and Portuguese priests to celebrate three Mass on All Souls Day. Benedict XV's motives for universalizing this practice were the loss of so many previously established pious provisions for prayer for the dead during the modern era but also in particular his paternal concern for the many young soldiers who were even then dying in that terrible war. (This nowadays under-appreciated privilege, which has never been revoked, permits every priest to offer three Masses for the dead today: 1) for a specific intention, 2) for all the faithful departed, and 3) for the intentions of the Pope.)

Another custom connected with All Souls Day which likewise highlights our interconnectedness and challenges us to intensified solidarity is that of visiting the cemetery. That custom too is under-appreciated today - as indeed are cemeteries in this era of cremation and abridged funerary rituals (what Hamlet might call "such maimed rites"). Thankfully, it still survives here in Knoxville where yesterday afternoon some 85 people gathered at our local Catholic cemetery for the annual recitation of the Rosary for those buried there and for all the faithful departed. The Church earnestly tries to encourage such customs by granting a plenary indulgence (applicable only to the souls in purgatory) daily from November 1 through 8 to those who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray there (even if only mentally) for the dead.

As I said yesterday on All Saints Day, remembering is a uniquely and fundamentally human activity. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity we share with them. To remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the different ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them - and to affirm the hope that we share with them. So today we pray that all who have died in God’s grace and are now being purified from the consequences of their sins may be admitted to the fullness of his kingdom – there to join the saints already in glory. Our prayers express our ongoing participation in that great eternal community in which hope is fulfilled in love and sin succumbs forever to forgiveness.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day

Two weeks ago I flew home to New York for my 50th High School Reunion. Now 50 years is a long time! Thank God for nametags, or I would hardly have been able to recognize anyone at all! It really had been a very long time since my classmates and I last left our high school behind - leaving behind not just our particular Baby Boomer generation's distinctive experience of adolescence, but also (and more than we could ever have anticipated at that time) leaving behind a whole way of life.  The High School itself has been closed since 1991. Built as an expression of post-war prosperity and confidence, as well as the zeal and enthusiasm of the mid-century Church in America, its closure was a casualty of the loss of so much of that zeal and enthusiasm, rooted in a collapse of our cultural confidence.

Our reunion, however, was not another occasion for such somber thoughts. Rather it was a celebration of one another and of the memories we share from a world long gone. Because ours was very much a neighborhood school, many of us enjoyed a connectedness with one another and with one another's families that preceded high school and in some cases perdured.  Meanwhile, we have all gone our various separate ways, along the paths life has taken us. We have become judges and lawyers, policemen and priests, teachers and truck-drivers.  And in that sense certainly, the school did a good job!

As for those classmates who could not be with us, whose earthly labors have already ended, may they rest in peace, and may we all come together again at the greatest reunion of all in the kingdom of heaven!

It is that great reunion which today’s 1st Reading [Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14] portrays and today’s solemnity of All Saints’ Day celebrates.

In November 1887, the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, wrote in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented.”      

The doctrine of the communion of saints had had a decisive effect upon young Isaac Hecker’s spiritual search, and apparently the passage of 44 years had done little to dull its impact. Appropriately so! What would we be without the communion of saints?

For one thing, church would certainly be a duller place! Just look around! Over there is the martyr Saint George in his knightly armor ready to slay a dragon for Jesus. Across the aisle is another ancient martyr, the Egyptian philosopher Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  At this end stands Saint Bridget, a 14th-century Swedish princess, a mystic who became co-patroness of Europe, a wife and mother of 8 children who became a nun and founded an order of nuns (who nowadays even have an Anglican branch). Farther down stands Saint Patrick the great missionary Bishop and Apostle of Ireland, who obeyed Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, even if that meant going outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. And across the aisle is another bishop, whose name we don’t even know. My guess is that the glass with his name must have been broken at some point, rendering him forever anonymous – a fitting surrogate for all those saints we especially remember today whose names are known to God alone.

The communion of saints transcends time, uniting past and present. It permeates the Church’s worship and punctuates the Church’s calendar with its many feasts and memorials of saints, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the Saints – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have already attained the goal for which we here on earth still strive. Living now forever with God and praising him for ever in heaven, the saints help us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours, imitating Jesus himself, our Risen Lord who lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:24-25].

The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just today but in every Mass, signifies our communion, as the struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror (however imperfectly) that heavenly community of angels and saints, and so transform the world - with love and forgiveness - according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

As one of the seasonal turning points in the ancient northern European calendar, November 1 was the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead were thought to roam about and try to haunt their old homes.  Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against assaults from the other world. The celebration of all the Saints on November 1 represented the Christianization of that old seasonal holiday - a celebration of Christianity’s triumph over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces, which had hitherto held people in fear.

Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued communion with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith. 

Remembering is a uniquely and fundamentally human activity. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity we share with them. To remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the different ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them - and to affirm the hope that we share with them.

For this reason, as a sequel to All Saints’ Day, the next day the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. We pray that all who have died in God’s grace and are now being purified from the consequences of their sins may be admitted to the fullness of his kingdom – there to join the saints already in glory. Our prayers to the saints to intercede on our behalf, together our own intercessory prayers for one another and on behalf of the faithful departed, express our ongoing participation in that great eternal community in which hope is fulfilled in love and sin succumbs forever to forgiveness.

Homily for All Saints Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 1, 2015