Sunday, January 31, 2016

Year of Mercy and Confession

Yesterday's Knoxville News Sentinel had a review of sorts of Pope Francis's recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy: A conversation with Andrea Tornielli, tr. Oonagh Stransky (Random House, 2016). After an opening paragraph which seems to see the interpretive key to this pontificate in the papal choice of shoes, the article then goes on to comment on the book as a series "anecdotes of mercy." The reviewer is right in that this book, composed as a conversation, contains numerous appealing anecdotes of various personal and ministerial experiences during the Pope's long life, recounted as the article notes "in a way the man and the woman in the street can understand." These include accounts of priests and others who particularly influenced the Pope in the course of his life and even some more background about his episcopal motto (derived from the Venerable Bede) Miserando atque eligendo. And, being an interview, a conversation, the book is exceptionally engaging for the reader.

On the particular subject of confession, the article quotes the Pope's famous comment, repeated in his book, that the sacrament is not intended to be a "torture chamber," which was originally from the Pope's October 25, 2013, Santa Marta homily. But there is actually a lot more about confession in this book - not surprising perhaps in a book written in connection with a Holy Year, an occasion when confession is traditionally emphasized. For example, elaborating on his now so very famous "Who am I to judge?" comment, the Pope spoke od confession as part of the ministry of pastoral accompaniment. "I prefer," the Pope says, "that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it" (p. 62).

Clearly, the Pope proposes to promote confession, but he is also acutely aware of the perennial problem of routine confession. "If you are talking about the penitent who automatically repeats a formula, I would have to say that he was not well prepared, he was not well catechized, he does not know how to self-examine, and he does not realize how many sins he actually commits. ... when there is the kind of repetitiveness that becomes a habit, you cannot grow in the awareness of yourself or of the Lord" (p. 59).

I think that the Pope is touching on a very important predicament in which the sacrament of penance finds itself today. The sacrament was, of course, intended for reconciliation with God and the Church after serious sin, and certainly still serves that purpose well - however different the externals are from the experience of the early Church. It also, I believe, meets needs of those aspiring to a more intense spiritual experience, for whom the sacrament may serve as a sort of (or accompaniment to) spiritual direction. But what about everyone else? What about that vast multitude whose religious experience lies largely somewhere in between those two extremes? For them, confession can easily become routine - even when done only occasionally. Indeed that may help explain why so many nowadays confess only occasionally or very rarely or not at all.

One solution sometimes suggested is to cultivate a habit of going to confession. That was the idea, I suppose, behind the monthly confessions that were part of my parochial school experience. On the Thursday before the first Friday of every month, all 1000+ of us would be trooped over to the church for confession. But, if the goal was to inculcate a habit, it seems not to have succeeded, since mine was also the first generation many of whom easily abandoned confession not long after!

One of the practices always associated with a Jubilee year is confession, and parishes all over the world will be offering additional opportunities to receive the sacrament and in various ways encouraging people to do so more often. But for any of that to work, we will also have to accompany people to the sacrament in ways which help everyone to experience it in a way which actually seems effective for them in their specific situation. That may be one of the greatest challenges - and possible opportunities - of this Holy Year of Mercy!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Doctor Angelicus

The Dominican Sisters who taught me in school called Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose feast the Church celebrates today, the "Angelic Doctor" (Doctor Angelicus). He is also, for fairly obvious reasons, referred to as the "Common Doctor," i.e., "universal teacher" (Doctor Communis). In his youth, however, he was supposedly called by some "the Dumb Ox," which famously became the title of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little 1933 book about Saint Thomas's life and thought. I read that book as a boy, but I was even more taken with Louis de Wohl's 1950 novel, The Quiet Light, which told Thomas's story in the exciting and contentious context of 13th-century medieval European nobility (notably Thomas's own family), and the conflict between the Pope and the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (Stupor mundi). De Wohl's novel fed my great hunger for tales about a medieval world which was simultaneously so very far away but also (because of the Catholic connection) so apparently accessible. (De Wohl followed The Quiet Light with his great historical novel about Saint Augustine, The Restless Flame, and a few years after that with a novel about Cassius Longinius, The Spear - all three of which I read in high school.)

The Church rightly celebrates Saint Thomas's great contribution to the intellectual life of the Church, his contribution to the great medieval "synthesis of faith and reason." which involved the belated appropriation of Aristotle's philosophy in the Latin world. Where would Catholic social and political thought be without Aristotle's vocabulary about citizenship and friendship? But one advantage of coming at Aquinas through a novel like The Quiet Light was that I never fell into thinking him as another "ivory tower intellectual," disconnected from the social conflicts and struggles of his time. Ultimately even more important, of course, is Saint Thomas the priest, the Dominican friar, sharing his life of contemplative prayer with the world. I am reminded of that every time we have Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, when we sing those wonderful Latin hymns which Saint Thomas composed as part of the Office for Corpus Christi.

For centuries, we celebrated Thomas's feast on March 7, the anniversary of his death in 1274. De Wohl's novel created a fictional scene in which he imagines Thomas  celebrating Mass one March 7 and lamenting that it wasn't a saint's day. Actually, of course, in Thomas's time it would have been the feast of the 3rd-century North African martyrs Saints Felicity and Perpetua. When Saint Thomas was added to the calendar, Perpetua and Felicity were reduced to a commemoration, but in 1908 they got their own feast day again, anticipated March 6. As graduate students in 1974, a group of us decided to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Saint Thomas's death by inviting Professor Paul Sigmund (who had recently spoken at a conference commemorating the anniversary) to dinner at the Graduate College. It was, I well recall, a lovely evening!

In the Roman Rite, the 1960 calendar reform gave precedence to the lenten ferial day over all 3rd-class feasts, which effectively reduced Saint Thomas to a mere commemoration in the lenten Mass and Office. But then the 1969 Pauline calendar solved this awkwardness by moving several of the more important saints' days that fell in Lent to other days outside the lenten season, so they could be more properly celebrated. That was how Saint Thomas got moved to today, the anniversary of the transfer of his relics to Toulouse in 1369. My guess is that that is how Catholic Schools Week likewise migrated to the end of January, because, of course, Saint Thomas is also the patron saint of Catholic schools.

Besides eucharistic hymns, Saint Thomas also composed prayers, for example this one of which I am especially fond: 

Grant, O Lord my God, that I may never fall away in success or in failure; that I may not be prideful in prosperity nor dejected in adversity. Let me rejoice only in what unites us and sorrow only in what separates us. May I strive to please no one or fear to displease anyone except Yourself. May I see always the things that are eternal and never those that are only temporal. May I shun any joy that is without You and never seek any that is beside You. O Lord, may I delight in any work I do for You and tire of any rest that is apart from You. My God, let me direct my heart towards You, and in my failings, always repent with a purpose of amendment.

(Photo: Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, "Doctor Communis," between Plato and AristotleBenozzo Gozzoli,1471, Louvre, Paris)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Don't worry. It will be reflected in my bill.

That's what Lady Mary Crawley's presumably pricey, Harley-Street specialist said when she thanked him for making an early morning house call to save Anna's pregnancy in last Sunday's episode of Downton Abbey. Quality medical care like that was expensive in 1925 London. Anna likely could never have afforded it on her own. That remained the case in the UK for another 2 decades until the post-war Labor Government introduced the National Health Service. 

Unfortunately, it has remained the case in the US for even longer. In 1965, seniors at least got Medicare. Then, in 2010, the US finally passed the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). Still, for various reasons, even with the ACA there remain very many uninsured people in thus country. And the ACA itself, while perhaps the best that could have been achieved, is itself certainly flawed.

Hence the appeal of candidate Bernie Sanders' push for a "single-payer," "Medicare for All" alternative. Nothing about that idea is new, of course. Once senior citizens got Medicare, it was only logical to envision extending it to more and more people o all ages. President Nixon reportedly was prepared to propose this in 1973. But Watergate got in the way, much as Vietnam had earlier undermined any prospects for Medicare's expansion in LBJ's Great Society. Eventually Vietnam and Watergate, together with the other political pathologies of the 60s and 70s, set the stage for the disastrous election of 1980, that turned LBJ's optimistic Great Society into Ronald Reagan's depressingly diminished society.

So, when "Obamacare" finally came, it was not the "single payer" approach of, for example, the neighboring kingdom to the north of us. It was, rather, a market-based approach based on ideas earlier generated by right-wing think tanks and full of compromises. Obviously the idea was that only such an approach could achieve sufficient support to pass. And that was probably right - although by 2010 no Republicans were supporting it anyway. 

For all its faults, "Obamacare" has been a blessing to many Americans who couldn't get adequate health insurance before but have it now. But Bernie Sanders is certainly correct that this greater access is far from perfect and that a "single payer" plan like "Medicare for All" would be far better. 

The fundamental problem with what we have now is that it still retains private insurance at the heart of the system. It is still as much about some people making money off health care as about health care for all. But as long as American society continues to treat such profit-making as morally and politically acceptable, such incremental improvements in access may be the best we can actually hope for.

So that is why in the end Bernie Sanders is wrong. Of course, a "single payer," "Medicare for All" would be better, but achieving it is way beyond the limited capacities of our morally impoverished politics.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Stomach Pains and Upward Mobility

The big news from last night's Episode 4 of Downtown Abbey's 6th Season is that the scriptwriter's sadistic persecution of Mr. and Mrs. Bates has ended (or at least so it seems so far). When Anna started having stomach cramps and seemed to be facing yet another miscarriage, Mary (who has an acknowledged soft spot for her faithful Anna) rushes her to London for a quick procedure that saves Anna's pregnancy - bringing long awaited joy to both Anna and her long-suffering husband (when he eventually gets let in on at least some of the secret). There are still five more episodes in which to ruin Bates and Anna's lives, but let's hope it really is over with! 

Bates and Anna may be safe, but unfortunately the police can't seem to let go of Downton. Last week it was Sprat. This week it is Baxter. Will they ever leave Downton in peace?

But the week's big surprise was when former housemaid Gwen, who had left Downton before the war to become a secretary and has kept moving up in the world, returns to Downton as Mrs. Harding to have luncheon with the family in the dining room and discuss women's education. Anna and Tom joyfully - and Barrrow jealously - recognize her, but the rest of the upstairs family doesn't - until Barrow manages to mention it in the dining room in a transparent attempt to embarrass her. As with most of Barrow's schemes, this backfires, and instead the family is touched by  her story - especially when it is revealed that the late Lady Sybil played such a prominent role in encouraging and helping Gwen to move on. And the mention of Sybil makes Mary more conscious of how different she is from her dear, dead sister and starts her reflecting on her life, and she becomes (at least briefly) a little nicer - even to Edith. Meanwhile, apart from Barrow, everyone - upstairs and down - seems happy for Gwen, who is lauded as an exemplar of upward mobility. And the incident inspires Edith to reflect on how it is that someone can work for the family for years and never be spoken to. The old system really does seem to be breaking down!

But there is upward mobility and there is upward mobility. Despite her modest status, Daisy is actually well positioned to become a successful cook somewhere some day, but her increasing descent into class warfare keeps clouding her judgment. About to create yet another scene on behalf of her father-in-law, she escapes disaster when Lord Grantham tells her that Mr.Mason will get the Drews' farm after all. But it was less Daisy's going to the barricades that got the farm for him, than old-fashioned noblesse oblige

The silly quarrel about the hospital continues. Frustrated, Violet makes an argument about the aristocracy as the defenders of liberty against an all-powerful State that could have come straight our of De Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution. But her argument is wasted on the others. Tonight the constant quarrel mainly serves to bring to Downton handsome Henry Talbot (whom Lady Mary had been somewhat taken with at the end of the last season.) He's a car-racing enthusiast, something Mary has no interest in. (After her last experience, I should think she might want to steer clear of any man who likes cars!) But will this finally be the romance Mary needs to end the series with another wonderful wedding? 

Personally, I'd like to see multiple marriages to end the series - in good old-fashioned fairy-tale style! Besides Mary and Henry, how about Edith and Bertie? And Baxter and Mosely? And maybe even Daisy and Andy? And perhaps Branson will finally find someone better than Miss Bunting?

But Downton is about decline and fall, and it can;t have a completely happy ending. Maybe Edith will succeed in business but remain personally unfulfilled? Without his old socialist fire, will Branson just fade into dullness?

And what about Lord Grantham's recurring stomach pains? Anna's pains had a happy outcome, but was Lady Rosamund being a prophet when she suggested that their mother, the Dowager Countess, might be attending Robert's funeral someday, rather than the other way around?

Finally, you just couldn't help but feel sorry for Barrow! His chance to be interim Butler during the Carsons' honeymoon could have been a time to shine and build greater credit toward a stellar reference from the family. Instead, he remains - as Baxter reminds him - his own worst enemy. But he poignantly admits how he's unhappy in that role and would rather be liked. Who wouldn't? But, of course, when you have never really been loved, it's hard to act the way those who do get loved learn to act!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

30 Years - and Still Counting!

Tomorrow, the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, will be the 30th anniversary of my Final Profession as a member of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle. The community is, of course, better known by its unofficial title as The Paulist Fathers, but I didn't actually become a Paulist Father for another 9 years. On January 25, 1986, however, that "time in the wilderness" was thankfully hidden from view! On that gray and very slightly snowy winter afternoon in Washington, DC, I and my 3 remaining classmates (out of an original novitiate class of 8) made our final promise together in the Saint Paul's College Chapel. We were the last class to do so before the chapel's transformation into a library. (The photo at left shows the old chapel's current life as a library.)

On that occasion, Fr. James Young, CSP, in his last year as Director of Formation (and unknown then to us all also in the last year of his life), spoke beautifully about the significance of our promise and of how - in terms of our life together as a religious community - it was an event as important as our eventual ordination (a somewhat consoling consideration in the context of my subsequent personal history.)

One of the many unfortunate developments of contemporary life in recent decades has been the weakening of community bonds of all kinds and at all levels. Even religious communities have experienced such unwanted stress. As we approach the end (in another nine days) of a year especially devoted to Religious Life in the Church, perhaps a corner has been turned in this regard as well. Last summer, we Paulists had a wonderful community retreat together, which was a particularly positive response to the challenge of the Year of Consecrated Life, precisely (I thought) because it focused our attention on our life together as religious rather than on our work in the Church. In a similar way, I hope that the current Holy Year may also be an opportunity for spiritual renewal and course correction in individual, community, and parochial life. (The challenge will be to take adequate advantage of the opportunity the Holy Year offers and not to lose the spiritual momentum it creates - as sadly happened with the last Jubilee, which was almost immediately followed by a time of global crises and internal Church problems).

Thirty years ago, that was all in an unknown future.Whether short or long-term, we never really know what the future holds. The task of all human communities, including officially constituted religious communities, is to maximize our life in the present, to be what we are supposed to be, and trust God's great mercy to steer us into a hopeful future.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Septuagesima Reconsidered

As with so many liturgical celebrations that derive from antiquity, the traditional Masses for the three, now-suppressed, pre-lenten Sundays reflect the Stational churches appointed for those days. Not surprisingly, given the ancient lenten focus on preparation for baptism, the stational church for Septuagesima Sunday was that of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. In fact all three of the pre-lenten stational churches are outside the ancient city - Saint Paul's Outside the Walls on Sexagesima Sunday (hence the rare reference to Saint Paul in the Collect) and Saint Peter's in the Vatican on Quinquagesima Sunday. It is as if the Roman Church's journey toward Lent was given a geographical analogue in its journey into the city - a fitting motif for those preparing to enter the Church!

In the popular Daily Missal I used as a child, the introduction for Septuagesima Sunday said nothing about the catechumens. (It had after all been a millennium or more since the de facto disappearance of the catechumenate in the Latin Church.) Instead the introduction spoke of how the Sunday Mass contained "a solemn note of sorrow" in view of the fall of Adam. The sorrow was certainly evident from the purple vestments, the omission of the Gloria, and above all the end of the Alleluia. Penitential purple suggested repentance for sin, and sin recalled Adam;s fall, of course. Beyond that, the connection with the story of Adam would have been less clear to me at that time, since I would hardly have known that Septuagesima Sunday was then the day to begin reading from Genesis in the first Nocturn at Matins in the Divine Office. But, again, since purple equalled penance and penance was because of sin, the connection was not completely obscure even to an otherwise liturgically ignorant elementary school kid like me.

But the Introit certainly did set a certain tone. From Psalm 17 (as it then was, psalm 18 now): The terrors of death surged round about me, the cords of the neither world enmeshed me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; from his holy temple he heard my voice. Septuagesima this year would fall a mere one month after Christmas Eve, but words like that were a clear signal that Christmas was left behind and Lent just around the corner. (Historically, of course, that tone recalled Septuagesima's Gregorian-era origins, reflecting what Pius Parsch called "the period of the migration of nations, an age of war, tumult, and suffering."

Having been ordained decades after the suppression of Septuagesima, I have never had the opportunity to celebrate its Mass or preach on it. The Gospel was the powerful parable (Matthew 20:1-16) of the laborers in the vineyard. (In the present Pauline liturgy, that Gospel occurs every third year on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A, and annually on the Wednesday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time.) The Gospel's the last shall be first message must have resonated with the pagan newcomers to the Church. As the Church's center of gravity shifts southward now, that same message must likewise resonate with the growing Church in Africa, for example, in contrast to the moribund Church in Europe - and with the growing Latino presence in the otherwise shrinking American Catholic Church. And it is certainly a very fitting message in this Holy Year of Mercy. In language we would do well to relearn in this Jubilee year, the ancient Septuagesima collect petitioned that we, now justly punished for our sins, might be mercifully delivered for the glory of God's name (ut, quit juste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer libremur).

We will never get Septuagesima back, but we can still certainly recover its spirit, especially in this Year of Mercy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Finally, Footwashing for All

One of the most unnecessary but contentiously divisive contemporary liturgical battles has suddenly become ancient history, thanks to a Decree issued today by the Congregation for Divine Worship, altering the rubrical requirement that only men may have their feet washed at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. Referring to those designated to have their feet washed, it simply changes the words "the men who have been chosen" to "those who are chosen from among the People of God." In his accompanying letter to Cardinal Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship), the Holy Father states as his intention improving the way the footwashing rite is performed "to express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity."

The battle was always an unnecessary one, since the footwashing - only introduced into the Mass of the Lord's Supper in 1955 - was always optional and so never needed to be performed at that Mass. Furthermore, it was also unnecessary since the restriction was the result of two non-invidious factors. The first was the widespread popular tendency to treat the rite as a sort of play, re-enacting the footwashing at the Last Supper, which obviously encouraged the use of 12 men to represent visually the 12 apostles. The second was the unquestioned historical fact that, prior to its insertion into the Mass in 1955, the footwashing had long been performed in a variety of settings, in which both men and women were included, but never together. For centuries, Bishops and Abbots in their cathedrals and chapter rooms and kings and noblemen in their palaces often washed the feet of (usually 12, sometimes more) men. Likewise, Abbesses in their chapter rooms and queens and noblewomen in their palaces often washed the feet of women. The separation reflected the routine separation of the sexes. Traditionally, men and women sat or stood on separate sides of the church, a custom canon 1262 of the 1917 code of Canon Law still recommended as in harmony with ancient practice. This largely reflected the common practice of men generally associating with other men and women with other women outside the home. (When I was growing up in the 1950s, at family gatherings the men usually all gathered in one room to talk about sports and politics, while the women gathered in another room to talk about the things women tended to talk about. That was just the way it was, the way everyone expected it to be.)

Social customs have changed. Men and women now mix much more freely than in the past. But for most of history - and still, I suspect, in  many parts of the world - it would generally be seen as inappropriate, perhaps even scandalous, for someone to wash the feet of someone of a different sex, who was not a close family relation. Again that's just the way it was/is. Whether our changing social mores have made the world better or worse may be debated. But the fact is that society (at least in the developed world) has changed, and with that change have come altered expectations of how men and women may and should interact.

If one were putting on a Passion Play, then one would logically choose men to play the roles of the apostles. But the liturgy is not a play. It is a symbolic ritual action. And the symbolism of the footwashing rite is - as Pope Francis has noted - "to express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity." In a changed social setting in which traditional expectations  about the social separation of the sexes no longer apply, then it makes perfect sense to include both men and women in the ritual.

In the liturgical chaos of recent decades, the footwashing has often become a cause for contention and division - the very opposite of what it is supposed to signify. It has been used by people - on both sides - to push their particular partisan agendas. In the process it has taken on an importance that its modest place and very recent inclusion in the Mass of the Lord's Supper would suggest it should not have.  

In addition to dividing communities on the gender issue, this inflated-in-importance footwashing rite has also sometimes been transformed into footwashing for everyone - or, even more strangely - alternative rituals like handwashing (as if handwashing didn't have its own completely different - and in this case irrelevant - symbolism).

For decades now, pastors have been torn between fidelity to the norms of the Church's communal worship and the expectations of parishioners, for whom this ritual remembrance of Christ's "limitless charity" had become a partisan political statement, Thank you, Pope Francis, for putting an end to this unnecessary cause for contention and allowing the footwashing rite to return to its true meaning.

(The photo above is Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

Remembering Septuagesima

In the old calendar, this coming Sunday would be Septuagesima Sunday. The Latin name means 70 - as in 70 days before Easter - although, in fact, Septuagesima is the 9th Sunday before Easter, which mathematically makes it more like 63 days. Arithmetic never seems to have figured too seriously in the naming of those pre-lenten Sundays. For starters, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, despite meaning 70, 60, and 50 respectively are obviously only seven - not ten - days apart. It is said that the Emperor Charlemagne sought an explanation, and not even he could get one. If not even he could get one, who am I to ask?

Arithmetic aside, the pre-lenten season of Septuagesima was one of the genuine treasures of the traditional liturgy of Christianity's 1st and 2nd millennia - now virtually lost in the bureaucratic reform of the late 1960s. To those who paid attention to such things, Septuagesima's arrival was instantly noticeable. The visible cue was, of course, the resumption of the penitential purple vestments last worn in Advent. Verbal cues, which obviously required paying much more attention, were the omission of the Gloria and the suppression of the acclamation Alleluia. (and the replacement of the Alleluia and its psalm verse by a longer Tract, a series of verses from a psalm, which when sung were some of the longest chants in the Liber Usualis.) The suppression of the Alleluia was even considered significant enough to merit mention in the Roman Martyrology's entry for Septuagesima Sunday! All this reflected the profound change of mood as the Church shifted from the Christmas cycle to its Lenten-Easter cycle. Pius Parsch called Septuagesima "a period of mental conditioning before Ash Wednesday."

In earlier eras, when the liturgical year was in fact people's real year, the discontinuance of the  Alleluia was most certainly noticed. Pius Parsch quoted a medieval author, who wrote of the annual Septuagesima suppression of the  Alleluia as parting "from a dear friend, one whom we embrace and kiss on the lips, brow and hand many times before he leaves on an extended journey." Imagine an era - a long-ago and long-lost era - when's the Church's liturgy mattered enough and anyone cared enough to talk like that!

There is little purpose in repeating the arguments, pro and con, concerning the suppression of Septuagesima after its millennium and a half of faithful service to the Church. It is, however, worth noting how timely - and especially fitting for our tortured time - our now abandoned Septuagesima season would be, if we still had it today. To quote Pius Parsch again: "The liturgy of Pre-Lent with its magnificently constructed Mass formularies dates from the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great; perhaps the saint  himself was responsible for their composition. In content they reflect the period of the migration of nations, an age of war, tumult, and suffering."

Before Sunday, I hope to look a little more deeply into the liturgy of Septuagesima Sunday itself, and its timeliness - if not for the happy-clappy Church of  the late 1960s, then certainly for the struggling and serious Church of the 21st century.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Snow Day

Unlike some people I know, I have never much disliked snow! Undoubtedly that derives from having grown up in a city where we walked everywhere or took public transit, and so were not frightened or endangered so much by snow. So I appreciate the ease with which things close here and the city sort of comes to a quiet halt when it snows. There were lots of closings and cancellations, which, when you think about it, is probably as it is meant to be. In earlier eras, people automatically slowed down during winter. Even wars would stop for winter, as so many meetings and events had to today. People used to understand that nature intended winter to be a slow time and behaved accordingly. And since they were behaving in harmony with nature, their behavior in this respect was more humane than our arrogant attempt at business-as-usual. So the problem is really not so much winter as our peculiar and arrogant modern insistence on being hyper-active even in a season when we are meant to slow down. But however modern we may be, however hyper-active we want to be, nature will always have the upper hand and will always be able to foil our determination to dominate the world and our insatiable (and inhumane) lust for activity at all costs.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Wedding Bells at Downton

To universal rejoicing, Tom Branson and Sybbie came home at the end of last night's episode 3 of Downton Abbey's 6th season. It was a return already anticipated earlier in the episode when Lady Mary reported Tom's letter about his having dreamt about Downton and then awakened with tears in is eyes. His return was a veritable Wizard of Oz ending, with Tom explaining how he had had to leave Downton to realize how much he belonged there, that it was his home. 

If only he hadn't stepped on the biggest story of the night! Not than anyone or anything could really have overshadowed the long-awaited wedding of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (aka Charles and Elsie), the latter having gotten her way and gotten more or less the kind of wedding she wanted.

This had to rank as one of the happiest episodes yet. Except for poor Barrow (who gratuitously put himself through yet another unsatisfactory job interview), virtually everyone seemed to be coming out ahead in this episode, although I shudder to think what tragedies still await some of the characters. (Will Mr. Mason really get a new farm as Daisy so confidently hopes? Will Anna's latest pregnancy succeed, as he and Mary hope while again keeping poor Bates in the dark? And what about Lord Grantham's latest "indigestion"?) And, of course, there remains as a kind of permanent distraction the ridiculous but still unresolved quarrel about whether Downton Cottage Hospital should be merged with the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital, which really seems just a device concocted to keep Violet and Isobel constantly on opposite quarreling sides - and perhaps embroiling other family members in this silliness. And it is even more boring than the ongoing war, downstairs at the Dower House, between Spratt and Denker

Meanwhile, for what it may be worth for her future prospects, Lady Edith fired her fat editor and worked all through the night to get the job done herself, with the unexpected but most welcome assistance of Bertie Pelham, the Brancaster estate agent she met at the end of the last season and who may yet (or may not) fulfill some of the void left in her life by Marigold's father's untimely death. Will Lady Edith find her way as a career woman and/or will she finally find love that lasts? Earl's daughter or not, until now Edith has simply not been one of those on whom fortune smiles. Dare we hope that might change? Or is the division of the human race into the happy and the unhappy, the fortunate and the unfortunate, as fixed as that between upstairs and downstairs?

But, back to the wedding! It wasn't quite the glorious Downton spectacle that Lady Mary had originally hoped for (although she did engineer an improvement in the bride's outfit). But it was a beautiful wedding with just about everybody there - properly seated, of course, with upstairs and downstairs on separate sides of the church aisle.  Charles and Elsie exchanged vows according to the Book of Common Prayer, then were bagpiped out of the church to a real wedding breakfast at the local school, where the groom gave thanks. “That a woman of such grace and charm should entrust her life’s happiness to my unworthy charge passeth all understanding.”

Amen to that - and let's hope for at least two more weddings this last season!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Great Synagogue

Today Pope Francis becomes only the third Pope in history to visit the Great Synagogue in Rome - following in the footsteps of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1986 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Mutual reconciliation and unprecedented progress in Catholic-Jewish relations have been among the most particularly positive developments in inter-religious relations over the past 50 years. So let us join the Holy Father in his special prayer intention for this month: that sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce fruits of peace and justice.

According to Rabbi Di Segni, Rome's Chief Rabbi: "It is an important meeting, even if it is the third. Precisely the fact that he is the third Pope to visit the Synagogue means that there is a continuation of the tradition and the community awaits him with gratitude for this gesture of kindness to us. This shows, in a wider scene than the local, the desire of two religious worlds to establish and consolidate peaceful relations in regard to the negative and mortal examples that come from other religious horizons."

The site of the visit is itself not without significance. While the presence of a Jewish community in Rome dates all the way back to the 2nd century BC, the present Great Synagogue, which I had the privilege of visiting in 2012, was only completed a little over a century ago in 1904. After Italy had been united under the Royal House of Savoy, which conquered Rome from the Pope in 1870, the old Ghetto was demolished, and its Jews were granted full citizenship in the new kingdom. Also demolished was the old Ghetto Synagogue (which had actually housed 5 synagogues within one structure), and in its place was built the large and impressive edifice that stands there today. King Victor Emmanuel III attended the Dedication, presumably as an anti-papal gesture. Unfortunately, some three decades later, in 1938, the same King Victor Emmanuel III (probably against his better judgment) signed Italy’s notorious leggi raziali (racial laws) which restricted the civil rights of Italian Jews and excluded them from Italian public life. The leggi raziali were part of Mussolini’s policy (post-Abyssinian War) of aligning Italy more closely with Nazi Germany. And, like the German alliance itself, those laws were never particularly popular in Italy. After the same King fired Mussolini in 1943, the leggi raziali were suppressed. But, of course, for those Jews unfortunately caught in the parts of Italy that fell under German occupation (including Rome itself), their situation soon became much more perilous. The same Synagogue which commemorates the Italian King’s presence at its Dedication also has commemorative markers honoring local Jews who were victims of the Nazi occupation of Rome and of a PLO terrorist attack in 1982.

All that is part of the complex and at times troubled relationship between Christians and Jews over the centuries. But, as today's papal visit suggests, there have also been other, more promising developments, which need to be recognized and celebrated.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Wedding in Galilee

Because of the Paulist Visitation and the Paulist Appeal, I will not get to preach this Sunday - sadly, since the gospel is the story of the Wedding at Cana, which represents the third Epiphany mystery, after the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus by John. In the old liturgy, that gospel was read every year on this second Sunday after the Epiphany, but now we hear it still on the same Sunday but only every third year - all the more reason to highlight it, if not in the pulpit then at least here! (The image at left is of an early 14th-century fresco of the Wedding at Cana by Giotto in the Scrovengi Chapel in Padua.)

It won’t quite compare with Lady Mary Crawley’s splendid aristocratic wedding to Matthew Crawley, heir presumptive to the Earldom of Grantham. The wedding of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, if and when it finally happens (and regardless of where), will just be a wonderful binding together of a man and a woman who have lived and worked side-by-side for so many years.

Weddings are, almost by definition, designed to be big, happy occasions. Almost miraculously, a wedding unites two separate individuals (and all the familial and personal baggage they bring with them) and creates a new social unit. Above all, a wedding is the principal ritual by which a society celebrates its solidarity through the commitment of the current generation to the next generation and our collective hope in the human race’s future.
Weddings, of course, can sometimes also be sources of stress – as Matthew and Mary’s wedding was almost right up until the last moment, as Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ complex pre-nuptial negotiations have been. In Jesus’ world, the world of this Sunday’s Gospel [John 2:1-11], where family was what mattered most for most people most of the time - as has been the case in almost all human societies that have ever existed - hardly anything could rival a wedding as an occasion of genuine joy and festivity. That is why the wedding celebration has served so long as such a useful symbol for the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament the uniqueness of the marriage bond made it a favored image for the relationship between God and Israel, while in the New Testament, explicitly Christian marriage became a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and his Church.

That said, the familiar Gospel account about a certain 1st-century wedding at Cana in Galilee, at which the number of guests seems to have overwhelmed the resources of the hosts, is only incidentally about marriage. Of course, there are no coincidences in the Gospels. So the fact that Jesus’ 1st miracle occurred at a wedding can hardly seem insignificant. Even so, the primary point of the story certainly is what John the evangelist himself said it is, in his own editorial commentary at the end: Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs … and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.

At Cana, Jesus revealed his glory – an echo of John’s Gospel that was proclaimed on Christmas Day: and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. The only son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.

Of course, that was Christmas – an eternity of 3 weeks ago, when the vestments were gold (an appropriate color for glory). As today’s boring, drab green vestments suggest, the glory of Christmas has been stored away and we are back in Ordinary Time.

But, then, isn’t ordinary time most of the time - the time when most things actually happen? Isn’t ordinary life where most of us actually live our lives, day-by-day, year-after year? For that matter, aren’t most of us really rather ordinary people? The sky may have space for an almost infinite number of stars, but the earth has room for only a few at any one time. Most of us are really rather ordinary people, living for the most part ordinary lives.

Yet wasn’t the point of Christmas precisely that ordinary life in this ordinary world isn’t just ordinary anymore? Into this ordinary world, the invisible God has entered, in God’s visible Son, so that, in the language of the liturgy, he might love in us, what he loves in Christ, making eternal our human mortality [Ordinary Time Preface VII and Christmas Preface III].

That was what was being revealed at Cana, the invisible God made visible and turning the water of ordinary life into the good wine of God’s kingdom. So, insofar as the Cana story is about marriage, it is about how something so natural and ordinary, something men and women have been doing in some form or other since Adam and Eve, can now become a sacrament of Christ’s presence and action in his Church, forming the Church in miniature in the family unit itself.

The extent to which that actually happens, at our end, depends upon our following the instructions given in the Gospel – first, Mary’s direction to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you,” and then Jesus’ command, “Fill the jars with water.”

With loving care for the bridegroom and his bride, Mary turned to her Son for help and told the servants to follow his command [Cf. Preface of OL of Cana]. Mary leads us to Christ, the one and only savior of the world, the one who makes our life complete.

Jesus, in turn, tells us to “Fill the jars with water.” “Fill the jars,” Jesus says. Jesus invites us to make the most of the water of this ordinary life - the gift of life itself, and life’s opportunities for love and relationship and the multiple networks of human connectedness without which we cannot hope to thrive. Jesus challenges us to hear and help each other in family, community, and society, faithfully living out our relationships with one another and with our world.

Not only in marriage, but in all the sacraments and through the sacramental life we live together as Christ’s Church, we are meant to experience God animating our ordinary world through Jesus his Son, who reveals God’s glory to us, transforming the ordinary water of our day-to-day lives into the good wine we all hope to drink together in the kingdom of God, beginning right now.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Primates at Odds

The news earlier this week that one of the Anglican Primates, Ugandan Archbishop Stanley Ntagales, had quit the Primates' meeting in Canterbury after only the second day, did little to quash quasi-apocalyptic predictions of the imminent demise of the Anglican Communion (although the Archbishop himself had made it clear he was walking out of that meeting only and not - or at least not yet - out of the Communion). In any case, it seems evident, from the official statement issued by the remaining participants in advance of the end of their meeting today, that the convictions of the majority have prevailed over the go-it-alone policies of the United States Episcopal Church. 

Apparently, the document had been leaked in advance of the Primates' planned communiqué today and so was released early in order to avoid additional speculation. (It is heartening to hear that the Holy See is not alone in having to deal with leaks!)

According to the official statement, the document "demonstrates the commitment of all the Primates to continue the life of the Communion with neither victor nor vanquished." That said, the statement explicitly declared that "developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces" and that "the majority of those gathered reaffirm" the traditional teaching of the Church regarding marriage. It was recognized that the Episcopal Church's actions "further impair" their communion "and create a deeper mistrust" among them.

Notwithstanding their "unanimous desire to walk together," therefore, the Primates have required "that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity."

That is a lot less draconian than expulsion, but clearly reflects a desire that the Anglican Church pull back from precipitously falling over any further cliffs, while hopefully avoiding completely cutting the bonds of communion with the dissident American church. (In the process, it effectively acknowledged that it is the official American Episcopal Church that is the dissident one, not those who have separated from it.)

Concluding his admirable Address to the Primates earlier in the week, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sought to put the emphasis on effectively equipping the Church for its true mission in the world and for the sake of the world. "So with all our grave difficulties we face a world in darkness, lostness and suffering, knowing that we serve Jesus who sends us and that those whom he sends he equips. Our responsibility this week is therefore to be making the church more ready for action, as a body around the world." 

Archbishop Welby concluded with four recommendations, of which the first was to deal "truthfully and lovingly with each other."

There is an dangerous tendency in today's world to see truth and love as in opposition to one another, elevating love over truth in cases of presumed conflict. It is not always easy (and obviously has not been easy in Canterbury this week),  but this meeting seems to have reaffirmed that truth and love are not in opposition and has endeavored to exemplify both. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Nominees

That's the Oscar nominees, of course, not the presidential candidates, of whom we have all heard more than most of them will ever deserve! Today is the day when the nominations for this year's Academy Awards were announced. Sadly - sad for what it says about my relationship with popular movie culture - I have so far seen only one of the Best Picture nominees (Spotlight). I did, however, plan to see The Martian, but somehow just never made it. And I would certainly like to see The Big Short and Brooklyn when and if I get the chance. Their inclusion in the list of nominees should at least motivate me to do so sometime between now and February 28! And then (hopefully) I may have more to say about them all!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

State of the Union

Yesterday, I commented on the Archbishop of Canterbury's well-pointed address to the meeting of Anglican Primates. Last night I listed to president Barak Obama deliver a political equivalent - a rousing call to citizens to counter the withering and erosion of our civic life and resist the fear-filled voices that have been making so much political noise already for far too long. It was surely one of his best speeches as President.

The speech had lots of great lines. Among the best and most telling: "Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did .Immigrants aren't the principal reason wages haven't gone up. Those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts." 

Without naming anyone, the President clearly challenged the fear-mongering and scapegoating politics of Donald Trump, in particular Trump's leitmotif of American decline. He challenged Ted Cruz's neo-isolationist military bluster and Marco Rubiio's unrepentant neo-conservative substitutes for foreign policy. He invoked the successful 1960s space program as a better model for responding to a crisis than denial (e.g., as in climate change denial): "Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.  We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget.  We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon."

The evident theme of the speech, in addition obviously to celebrating the successes of the last seven years, is that significant and disruptive change is not new in American experience but must be made to work for us rather than against us, something that can only be done by the collective commitment of citizens engaged in a healthy political process.  Ultimately, that comes down to how we pursue our politics, whether we work together or whether we fearfully turn inward and work against each other. The latter of course, in various versions, is what the opposition candidates seem to have been proposing.

As far as I could tell, only two candidates were present. Bernie Sanders seemed to be engaged. Marco Rubio had a look that suggested there was no way he could absorb anything that was being said. And the poor Speaker of the House just seemed happy when it was finally all over.  Perhaps being so overly athletic, the struggle to sit still for so long on camera was an ordeal in itself for him!

The evening's ritual reminded me of Max Weber's famous statement: "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective."