Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Giving Thanks for a Problematic Year

The year 2016 was not one which many will look back on with great gladness. Some may even shudder at the mere memory of it! Yet it is a venerable tradition to recite the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, to give thanks on this last day of the civil year - and then to invoke the gift of the Holy Spirit by reciting the hymn Veni Creator on the first day of the new year imploring divine assistance for the whole of the coming year. 

Especially after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it would be hard not to be gloomy about the present or anxious about the future. And, as if that weren't sufficient, in Naples on December 16 San Gennaro's blood failed to liquefy! The miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood is believed to occur three times each year - on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, on September 19 (the saint's feast day), and on December 10 (the anniversary of a 1631 eruption of Mount Vesuvius). It did liquefy on the appointed days earlier in the year, but not on the third. In traditional lore, its failure to do so portends possible disasters in Naples. (20th-century failures of the blood to liquefy were associated with World War II, a cholera epidemic, and an earthquake.) 

In response to the miracle's non-occurrence, Monsignor Vincenzo De Gregorio, the abbot of the Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro, said: "We must not think about disasters and calamities. We are men of faith, and we must continue to pray."

In a similar vein, decades ago, the esteemed Pius Parsch, reflecting on the close of the year, wrote: "the world of today advocates a living just for the moment. Such living is altogether too individualistic, too selfish, too much a petty clinging to bubbles, too hectic a higgling and haggling for money and praise - things that are of time and pass away. Let time march on as you lose yourself in the timelessness of the Church, as you close yourself more perfectly with ageless liturgy."

And so we must, as this terribly tragic year ends and another of unforeseen prospects awaits us!

(Photo: Pope Francis gives the Eucharistic blessing at Benediction after the New Year's Eve Te Deum in Saint Peter's Basilica, one year ago.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Century Ago: A Coronation in Budapest

Exactly 100 years ago today, Blessed Kaiser Karl (Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary) was solemnly crowned King of Hungary in Budapest. It turned out to be the last time the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen would be placed on a Hungarian monarch's head. (At least the Holy Crown itself survived the disastrous 20th century, even if its kingdom didn't. It is now on display for all to see in Budapest, where I visited it in October 2001.)

In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote about the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy: "For centuries this surviving embodiment of the Holy Roman Empire had afforded a common life, with advantages in trade and security, to a large number of peoples none of whom in our own times had the strength or vitality to stand by themselves in the face of pressure from a revivified Germany or Russia. There is not one of these peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Hapsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned."

Poor Kaiser Karl found himself - less than two years after his coronation - cheated out of both his crowns. After two unsuccessful restoration attempts in 1921, he died in impoverished exile in Madeira the following year. But the tragic history of the 20th century has been more than sufficient to rehabilitate both his personal reputation as a statesman and peacemaker and the reputation of his House and its onetime empire. 

In the aftermath of an even more terrible Second World War (which, as Churchill suggested, might never had happened had the First World War been ended better and European institutions like the Hapsburg monarchy not been deliberately destabilized by that war's winners). the Archdiocese of Vienna introduced Kaiser Karl's Canonization Cause in 1949. He was beatified by his namesake Pope Saint John Paul II (whose name was also Charles, Karol) on October 3, 2004. That Pope lauded him as a Christian statesman who daily confronted the challenge of "seeking, recognizing, and following God's will in all things." Since then, a second miracle attributed to his intercession has been officially recognized. So we may hope to see his eventual canonization.

Meanwhile, may this melancholy anniversary serve as a salutary warning to the 21st century not to continue the disastrously rationalist, secularizing direction of the 20th century!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Becket and Religious Liberty

One especially attractive feature of the Christmas octave is the saints whom we celebrate this week - among them, today Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr. Until 1960, the Breviary's second nocturn included the famous story of Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury's cathedral. It told how, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door, Thomas opened it himself, saying, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God." Twenty-four years ago, I was at Canterbury for this feast, where, after Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury led us in procession to the site of Becket's death (photo), where an original account of the saint's martyrdom was read. 

Of course, the celebrant of that feast was Becket's successor but in an office and Church polity completely transformed less than four centuries after Becket's death by Henry VIII's Reformation. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket's feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine! Becket represented a pre-Reformation Catholic approach that envisaged a certain sort of partnership between Church and State. The Reformation successfully replaced that with the State in a clear position of dominance over the Church "by law established."

Nowadays, Becket is seen as a great defender of religious freedom. (There is even something called "The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty," which litigates controversial religious freedom cases.) But 12th-century Europe and 21st-century America are very different in how they understand the relationships between religion and society and between Church and State. In any case, our contemporary American context requires us to understand how religious freedom is one constitutional guarantee among others and one occasionally in competition with other constitutional rights and social values

Back when I was in graduate school, when we studied the U.S. Constitution, it was common to distinguish between 'successful" constitutional amendments and "unsuccessful" amendments. "Successful" amendments, it was usually argued, reflected an authentic consensus in American society. "Unsuccessful" amendments, although adopted and ratified, really lacked a complete consensus and thus failed. (One of them was eventually even repealed!)

Applying that framework to the 1st Amendment, it matters very much what kind of popular social consensus actually exists in regard to its provision that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. How broadly free exercise is interpreted and how highly it is valued  - especially in conflicts with other rights and other social values - will likely determine what that 1st Amendment will actually mean at any particular point in time. For example, in the famous conflict over polygamy, which led in effect to a persecution of the Mormon Church in the United States (until the Mormon Church gave in and changed its doctrine), society's valuation of monogamy clearly took precedence over the words and spirit of the 1st Amendment. 

All this is relevant because we are seeing a certain shift in our society as religious liberty is increasingly seen, at least in certain circles, as in conflict with other rights which society is increasingly disposed to defend.Those who purport to be defenders of religious liberty need to be aware of this and sensitive to it - and to examine their consciences carefully as to their actual motives when making religious liberty claims. When religious liberty is invoked in contexts where it seems to many to be more like a license to discriminate, it will have a much higher bar to meet to maintain popular support. If the contrary claims of other rights increasingly appear more plausible to more and more people, the long-term fundamental consensus on religious freedom, which is so essential, will be increasingly endangered.

Today's society seeks ever increasing emancipation from moral and religious restraints, and states will continue to seek to maximize their autonomy. Becket's challenge to today's Church is not primarily to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, a strategy for his era but perhaps less suitably so for ours. Today's challenge rather is to convince our culture of religious liberty's centrality for authentic human dignity and how it can be harmonized with strong and effective government.

And, whatever else we do, let Becket's own words never be forgotten, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress."

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Joy in a Sad and Suffering World

Of the five saints' days traditionally celebrated during this octave, only today's feast of the Holy Innocents has any direct connection with Christmas. Despite their obvious inability to give conscious witness to Christ, the infants massacred in Bethlehem (according to Matthew's Gospel) at King Herod's orders are treated as martyrs by the Church. Their feast is now celebrated as a feast of martyrs in red vestments. Up until the rubrical reform of 1960, however, it was celebrated in penitential purple and both the Gloria and the Alleluia were omitted. This suggests a more nuanced understanding of their martyrdom and a provides a perspective that is distinctive.

The Christmas story proclaims tidings of great joy for all people. But the story of the Holy Innocents situates that joy in the pain and suffering of our sinful world, where still today - in places like Syria, just a short distance from Bethlehem - innocent people, both children and adults, continue to be murdered in the interests of those who wield earthly power.

The frivolous pranks and jokes and similar customs traditionally associated with this day (sometimes called "Childermas" in English) are counterbalanced by the mournful beauty of the 16th-century Coventry Carol, which could just as well have been composed in a contemporary refugee camp.

Today's feast of the Holy Innocents re-situates the joyful Christmas story in our sad and suffering world and reminds us that the Incarnation is about the Word-made-flesh dwelling among us in the miserable mess which we have made of our world. It invites us to become in practice people to whom God has come and with whom he remains.

(Photo: Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 At the Movies

A year ago at this time, I was planning to post a list of my ten favorite film of 2015 - only to realize that I had seen only 10 movies in total that year! I have done better this year. In fact, I have seen exactly twice as many movies as I saw last year. But I am not going to attempt to rank all 20. For one thing, they are really too different from one another to be so facilely compared. I would recommend most of them unreservedly. So I will simply list them in three broad groups, with no internal ranking within each group: Outstanding (worth seeing even more than once), Good (definitely worth seeing at least once), OK (but could just as well be missed with no real loss), and, finally, Not Worth Seeing.


Manchester By the Sea
The Innocents
Sunset Song
The People vs. Fritz Bauer
Florence Foster Jenkins

The Lady in the Van
Hell or High Water
Café Society
Deepwater Horizon
Love and Friendship
Maggie’s Plan

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


All in all, 2016 has been a good year at the movies. May 2017 be likewise!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Chanukah 5777 and Christmas 2016

Thanks to a beautiful coincidence of calendars this year, the Jewish festival of Chanukah 5777 and the Christian feast of Christmas 2016 both began on the same night. And, since each is celebrated as an octave, both will continue through New Year's Day 2017. Of course, unlike Easter and Pentecost which are connected with the Jewish festivals of Passover and Shavuot both historically and theologically, no such links connect Christmas and Chanukah. Jesus may well have been born in December, but he could just as well have been born at any other time of the year, and the Christmas story has no symbolic associations with the Chanukah story.

The Gospel of John likes to call attention to Jewish festivals, and Chanukah does get a passing reference in John 10:22. But, unlike the greater Jewish festivals, Chanukah imagery plays no role in the New Testament's presentation and interpretation of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. 

Of course, both Chanukah and Christmas are winter holidays, and many of our Christmas customs are really winter-related, festival-of-light customs. So a sort of connection can be made at that level. But I think we can take the connection even a little further. Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple after its desecration by the Seleucid King Antiochus IV (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:52-59). Historically, it recalls a great Maccabean military victory, which, while a great and heroic national accomplishment, was itself certainly seen as somewhat miraculous. But the actual festival, as actually celebrated in Jewish religious practice, focuses on another miracle, one which is even more obviously an exclusively miraculous, entirely divine accomplishment.

God's intervention in history to save his people and God's abiding presence with his people (signified by the Temple and, more immediately, by the miracle of the oil) are Chanukah themes which resonate with the Christmas story. For the Incarnation is, after all, the fulfillment of God's ancient promise to save his people, which he does by becoming present among us in the ultimate Temple that is his Son's humanity. And like the miracle of the oil, the Incarnation has a modest, ordinary appearance. 

Just as the Chanukah story contrasts the monstrous pomposity of the Hellenistic king and his cosmopolitan collaborators with the more powerful simplicity of God's miracle of the oil, so too the Christmas story contrasts the the false power of pagan emperors, kings, and governors (Augustus, Herod, Quirinius) with the true power of the Word-made-flesh. 

And just as, despite human and earthly obstacles, the divine presence continued in Israel as symbolized by the long-burning oil, so too God's great visitation of his people continues in the incarnate Word now present forever in his Church.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

Like many others, I first learned the Christmas story not mainly out of books or in classes – and certainly not from sermons – but from Christmas carols. And what a treasury of carols we have – everything from medieval Latin hymns to Spanish villancicos navideños, popular folk ballads, classical choral compositions, lullabies, and even contemporary country music creations like the ones we heard at our Paulist Fathers’ pre-Christmas outing to Dollywood last week. From boyhood, I have heard countless carols over and over. I have sung them year after year and know many of them by heart.

One of my favorite carols, which can be sung to several different tunes, takes its inspiration from the majestic finale of tonight’s Gospel.

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn king"
Peace on earth, and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled

Hearing and singing that carol 60-something years ago as a kid in the Bronx, I encountered a new word I didn’t know or understand. And so I asked my dad: what does it mean to be reconciled? So from him that day I learned the meaning of a word, which is how so much ordinary learning really takes place.  But learning the meaning of that one word - not as an abstract concept by itself but hearing and singing it in the context of a Christmas carol – I was learning the very heart and soul not only of the Christmas story but also of the entire Christian story – the story of God and sinners reconciled.  And I learned it not out of a book or in a class or from a sermon, but by hearing and singing a Christmas carol.

Later on, of course, came the books and the classes and even the sermons, and now  I can speak learnedly on the subject and quote Saint Paul that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us [2 Corinthians 5:19].

A visual analogue to hearing and singing Christmas carols is, of course, the nativity scene. Painted representations of the nativity scene appeared as wall decorations in ancient churches as early as the 4th century. But, in its present form, the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus and the various persons and animals associated with the Christmas story owes its popularity to Saint Francis of Assisi, who created the first Christmas crib scene in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223. Inspired by Saint Francis, the Church has continued to promote this devotion. Of course, Nativity scenes take certain liberties with the actual gospel story. The figures remain frozen in time. For example, the shepherds, who in the gospel story returned home glorifying and praising God, in the typical nativity scene instead stay around to welcome the magi. But, in a way that is both popular and profound, the nativity scene illustrates and teaches the central mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, who came in poverty, simplicity, and ordinariness.

For Christmas, as Pope Francis has said, is “the feast of the loving humility of God, of the God who upsets our logical expectations.”

That, of course, is what brings us here tonight. We celebrate tonight what we profess all year round – how for us and for our salvation God’s Only begotten Son came down from heaven, and became man. This is the Christmas story – sung in countless carols and visualized in millions of mangers all over the world. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round.

Of course, different people come to Christmas with a variety of emotions. Some still come with the same excitement they had as children awaiting Santa’s arrival, Others come stuck in the cynicism of Ebenezer Scrooge. Some are worn out from shopping. Others just can’t wait for the post-Christmas sales. Some are sad; others elated. Some are preoccupied and distracted; others tranquil and clam. Christmas makes some feel all “joyful and triumphant.” Others get nostalgic and weepy – as I always still do whenever I hear Judy Garland sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

But to all of us, however we feel and however mixed our motives, Christmas commands us not to be afraid, for a savior has been born for us.

As Saint John of the Cross famously said: “By giving us, as he did, his Son, his only Word, God has said in that one Word everything.”

In telling us this story, the Gospel writers want us to understand that this all really happened, that Jesus was really born in our world that God’s Son became Mary’s Son, one of us. If Christmas had not happened, then the history of these past 20 centuries would have been very different indeed. And we ourselves would be very different. As Saint Augustine so poignantly expressed it: “If [God’s] Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.”

And surely the fearful temptation to despair, to give up, to abandon all hope, or to stop caring can be real enough whenever we look at the state of our world. Age-old religious conflicts and renewed rivalries among nations and states competing for relative advantage, apparently intractable economic, social, and political problems, the ticking time-bomb of climate change, and the deepening divide among our own fellow-citizens, angrily polarized as we increasingly are along ethnic, racial, educational, generational, and geographic lines – all add inevitably to our anxiety and to the world’s gloom.

But, because of Christmas, we have an alternative to all of that! Our problems are real, and our distress and our anxiety are real as well, but so must be our hope in what we just heard Saint Paul call the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.

“Christmas comes but once a year,” Charles Dickens famously said. But it’s easy to emphasize the wrong part of that sentence. It is not that Christmas comes only once a year, but that it unfailingly comes. Like the Savior himself and the reconciliation he brings, Christmas comes in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in recession, in war and in peace - God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Hence the command we hear over and over again in the Christmas stories, Do not be afraid.

A Catholic church has graced the top of this hill now for over 160 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular immigrants who made up the Catholic community at the time would walk up this hill for Christmas Mass, penetrating the gloom of night and early morning with the light of their lanterns. That is what Christ’s coming does for our otherwise gloomy world, what Christmas calls each of us to do here and now. Having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, we must make sure it really is our story and so keep singing those carols as we go back down the hill to our homes and neighborhoods, reconciled with God by the power of the Christmas story and so set to reconcile one another and our city and our country and our world – transforming fear into trust, frustration into fulfillment, sadness into joy, despair into hope, hatred into love, loneliness into community, rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, December 25, 2016.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Back Again to that "One Brief Shining Moment"

Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.

Jackie Kennedy's 4-hour 1963 interview with Theodore H. White, one week to the day after the assassination (and the Life magazine article which came from that interview) created the Kennedy Camelot myth. Jackie's studied creation of that myth in that interview is the dramatic device through which the movie Jackie brilliantly and beautifully retells the familiar story in an unfamiliar but powerfully moving way. (In the movie, the journalist, played by Billy Crudup, is not identified as White - presumably to facilitate the interview's use as a dramatic backdrop for flashbacks and other material not in the actual interview.)

The film takes some liberties with known historical facts and creates conversations and events which no one alive today ever witnessed. But it is a drama not a documentary. And it does a superb job of recreating the event and the principal personalities - notably Jackie herself (perfectly played by Natalie Portman). And there are enough flashbacks to the pre-assassination Jackie - especially to her famous 1961 televised tour of the White House - that help the historically unverifiable aspects of her portrayal ring more true. And, despite the  high tension generated by the circumstances and by Jackie's own ambivalences, all the characters come across as significantly sympathetic - except perhaps for Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) whose politically petty and mean feud with the new President is repeatedly on display to no one's benefit.

The "artiness" of the film, the constant flashbacks, and the historically inaccurate conflation of certain events may make the movie harder to follow for younger viewers who have no memory of the actual events. But the film's appeal will likely be mainly to an older audience that does remember. Obviously, JFK's assassination was my generation's traumatic, paradigm-shifting event  In addition, I think my generation cannot get enough of Kennedy (and the Kennedy era as Camelot) not because he accomplished all that much as president or even because that was really such a wonderful time in history, but because what came after has been so dreadful in comparison.

The film focuses in on the historical Jackie's personal struggle to cope with the sudden loss of her husband (and the White House), having to mourn and somehow put her life back together (and that of her children) at the same time, and her determination to preserve her husband's historical legacy. The latter is her motivation not just for her Camelot myth-making but for crafting just the right ritual for the state funeral. In the process, she became mythical herself, the one whose queenly grace steered the country through that terrible weekend, as the interviewer acknowledges near the end

It is somewhat hard to decipher what to make of the role of the priest (John Hurt) in the film. Her conversations with him seem mainly a vehicle for her to work through the trauma and her mourning (not only for the President but for her marriage and her two already dead children). But the movie practically gives him the last word, a word that not only speaks to her continuing to live but to everyone who, to use the priest's image, in spite of everything gets up every morning and makes coffee.

Friday, December 23, 2016

God With Us

This photo features my Peruvian nativity scene. I purchased the first set of statues at The Inca Store, a shop featuring Peruvian products in our parish neighborhood in Toronto, Canada, when I was assigned there in the mid-to-late 1990s. Each year, I added another figure. So the set now on display grew gradually until it assumed its final form when I left Toronto in 2000. Every year since, I have reassembled this nativity scene in celebration of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, calling all nations and cultures to come together to experience his mercy, salvation, and peace.

As early as the 4th century, painted representations of the nativity scene appeared as wall decorations in ancient churches. In its present form, the custom of displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus and the various persons and animals associated with the Christmas story owes its popularity to Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). He created the first Christmas crib scene in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223. According to Saint Bonaventure’s account. Francis prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

Francis’ example, Bonaventure suggested, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ. Inspired by Saint Francis and sharing Saint Bonaventure’s confidence, the Church has continued to promote this devotion of the nativity scene. In a way that is both popular and profound, it illustrates and teaches the central mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s becoming one of us in Jesus, who came in poverty, simplicity, and ordinariness.

God of every nation and people, from the very beginning of creation you have made manifest your love. When our need for a Savior was great, you sent your Son to be born of the Virgin Mary. To our lives he brings joy and peace, justice, mercy, and love. Lord, bless all who look upon this manger; may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, and raise up our thoughts to him, who is God-with-us and Savior of all, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. [Prayer for the Blessing of a Nativity Scene]

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Patron of Immigrants - Now More than Ever

In the old liturgical calendar, today used to be celebrated in the U.S. as the feast of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian-born nun, who crossed the ocean to serve Italian immigrants in both North and South America, became a U.S. citizen, and is now the patron saint of immigrants. She died on this date in Chicago in 1917. (For some reason, in the new calendar her feast is anticipated on November 13.) Although she died in Chicago, her body is on display in her shrine in New York City Washington Heights convent of the Missionary sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order she founded in 1880. When I was growing up across the Harlem River in the Bronx it was a shrine which my Italian grandmother made sure we visited periodically.

Trained in Italy as a teacher, Frances Cabrini originally applied to join the order she had been taught by, but was rejected. So she gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed her own religious community, founding a school and homes for orphans. But, when she applied to Pope Leo XIII for his approval for a missionary outreach to China, the Pope instead directed her to the United States and the growing Italian immigrant communities there. "Not to the East, but to the West," was his advice. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities.

Those days are gone and many of those once successful institutions with them, but the need for structured outreach within immigrant communities as an explicit expression of the Church’s commitment to social solidarity remains central to the Church’s life and work in the United States – now as it always has been, and now maybe more than ever. Not unlike our attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth, our response to the immigrants among us is a profoundly spiritual and moral matter - a fundamental affirmation or not of the demands of solidarity.

Recently, I have been reading Tyler Anbinder’s recently published City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. The book tells the tremendous story of New York as a city of immigrants - focusing on the largest immigrant groups in each historical period - from the city's founding by its first Dutch settlers, highlighting the subsequent stories of the English and the Scottish settlers prior to the Revolution, the Irish and the Germans in the 19th century, the Italians and the Jews in the early 20th century, through the most recent arrivals from so many places around the world. Today, 3.2 million of New York's 8.5 million people are immigrants - 37% of the population, the same percentage as when the present city was consolidated in 1900, but well below the 19th-century high of 51% in 1885. Anbinder's account highlights how similar have been the stories of so many so seemingly disparate groups - despite the fact that every generation of Americans has tended to view the newest arrivals as wholly different from those who came before them. Each new population has brought the Old World with it, continuing to speak their own language, eat their own food, and associate primarily with one another - invariably triggering suspicion and anxiety among previous arrivals, until in turn becoming part of mainstream American society. And they continue to come. 

And it continues to be the Church's mission to welcome and accompany them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


There is no need to be afraid; in five days our Lord will come to us. Somehow the special Divine Office antiphons that for centuries have marked these final days before Christmas - among them, this unique antiphon at Lauds on December 21 - managed to survive the wrath of Paul VI's liturgical reform. So, as she has for centuries, the Church today highlights her pre-Christmas countdown, for the feast is now only five days away. And once again, the emphasis is on how the coming of Christ casts away our reasons for fear.

(Oddly, Pius Parsch paid almost no attention to this unique antiphon. "The Church is counting the days till Christmas," he wrote, and then added. "The liturgy is not without features of childlike simplicity.")

The antiphon's command not to be afraid is inseparable from the gospel accounts of the Christmas story. Last Sunday, we heard how an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to marry Mary, in spite of her mysterious pregnancy. On Monday, an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense - now identified as Gabriel - told Zechariah not to be afraid and brought him the disconcerting news that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son at last, a son named John destined to fulfill a mission associated with Elijah the prophet. Yesterday, in the familiar account of the annunciation, Gabriel followed his Hail Mary with the command not to be afraid she will conceive and bear a son, and name him Jesus. Over and over again, we hear this same command, Do not be afraidWe will hear it again on Christmas night in the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds. And we will hear it again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist.

And it is a command! A suggestion would be insufficient, given all we have to be afraid of and how powerfully our fears dominate our decisions! 

Decades ago, a priest recalled his visit to a remote Pacific island. When the people there learned that he was a Catholic priest, they welcomed him enthusiastically and asked him to talk to them about Jesus. They told him how, before they had been evangelized, they had been afraid of all sorts of things - physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Now however they understood that God is both bigger and more powerful than all those things that used to frighten them, and at the same time small enough to be one of us.

So much of life is governed by fear. And, on a purely natural level, fear can sometimes be the right motivator to respond to a situation with evasive or, better yet, corrective action. But fear can also immobilize us and keep us from becoming the persons we are intended by oru Creator to be, the persons our Savior empowers us to become. Hence the Christmas story, the Incarnation of God's love for us, who comes to cast away all our fear.

It is especially through this message of casting away our fear that the Christmas story - which summarizes the entire Christian story - may effectively function as a channel through which that Christian story may speak to today's fear-filled world in a way it can comprehend.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Electors Vote

On this Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the members of the electoral college (or, more accurately, 51 individual electoral colleges) are meeting, as prescribed by the Constitution, “in their respective states” to “vote by ballot for President and Vice-President.” On January 6, their votes will be counted at a joint session of both houses of Congress, at which the present Vice President (in his role as President of the Senate) will definitively announce the results.

Whatever the Framers’ original intentions, the electors have long since ceased to be independent actors (although they remain so constitutionally). Instead, they are nominated by their political party, and, if they are elected (i.e., if their party carries their state), then everyone’s expectation is that they will vote for their party’s candidates. Hence we can usually quite safely predict the final electoral tally long before the electors actually vote. Knowing the likely result, one or more “faithless” electors occasionally cast a symbolic vote for someone else, confident that their faithlessness will not affect the ultimate outcome.

“Faithless” electors aside, the main objections many raise against the electoral college come from the way it distorts the vote (and the campaign by causing some states to matter so much more than others) and the fact that occasionally in American history the candidate who won the electoral vote actually lost in the popular vote. John Quincy Adams lost both the popular and the electoral vote in 1824, but was elected by the House of Representatives. Then in 1876 Rutherford B, Hayes lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 but won the presidency by a margin of one (disputed) electoral vote. Twelve years later, In 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes but won the presidency by 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168. More recently, in 2000 George W. Bush lost the popular vote by 540,000 votes but narrowly beat Al Gore in the electoral vote 271-266. Finally, in this year’s election, Hillary Clinton won 65,746,544 votes (the highest popular vote of any candidate in history except Obama) to Donald Trump's 62,904,682 - an unprecedentedly large difference. But Trump is expected to defeat Clinton in the electoral vote 306 to 232.

One may indeed lament Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. One may regret that Vladimir Putin's apparently preferred candidate will become president instead of the candidate who got the most votes from American voters. But does it therefore follow (as some suggest) that the electoral college has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced by direct, popular election of the president? Despite the manifestly unfortunate 2000 and 2016 outcomes, on this question my opinion remains unchanged, and I answer: No.

So why do I favor keeping the Electoral College?

To start with, it is our national history and political tradition, the reality and consequences of which cannot be ignored. Like Edmund Burke, I treasure the intricate pattern of inherited customary institutions, which reflect and respect the lessons of historical experience and restrain the system from poorly thought-through innovations and their unintended consequences.

Of course, I recognize that if we were starting our country today we almost certainly would not create the electoral college – just as, for example, if Canada were being created out of the blue today it probably would not be created as a monarchy. But neither is the case. Like 17th and 18th-century philosophers' "state of nature," such scenarios are abstractions from real human history. Instead of abstractions, both our countries have actual histories and institutions (the electoral College in the United States, the monarchy in Canada) which reflect and respect the way history has formed us.

But the historical character of the electoral college is not just a matter of sentiment. The independent body of electors whom the Framers envisaged never developed as intended. Instead the electoral college evolved as an arm of the American system of political parties, and has been a major contributor to our two-party system. Third party candidates continue to make mischief in our elections – notably in both 2000 and 2016 – but, generally speaking, they remain marginal, because it is so difficult for a third party to win enough electoral votes either to win or to throw the election to the House of Representatives. In a direct, popular election, that would change overnight, and it would not be long before third parties proliferated, further undermining our already much weakened political parties.

(A multi-party system may work quite well, but usually in a parliamentary system in which parties which individually lack an electoral majority may combine in a coalition. Our presidential system effectively precludes that.)

All electoral reforms have unintended consequences, and most of those consequences in the last 100 years of electoral tinkering have resulted in the gradual weakening of our political parties (and with that the increased influence of money and social media). The weakening of our political parties has not only resulted in the nomination of unsuitable candidates. It has also resulted in the decline and virtual destruction of party cohesion and discipline in Congress, which has directly and adversely impacted the ability of any President or congressional majority to govern in a normal way. 

Also, unless a second “runoff” election were built into any such reform, an additional impact of direct popular elections and the growth of third parties would be the election of presidents with only a plurality of the votes – and, depending upon how many candidates there are, perhaps even a very modest plurality. Even in our current system, several modern presidents, who have won the popular vote, have nonetheless been elected with less than 50% of that vote. But the Electoral College creates a clear majority, and thus is an important contribution to electoral legitimacy.

Just as bad institutions (e.g., judicial review, something infinitely more undemocratic and antidemocratic than the electoral college) sometimes produce good outcomes (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education), so too sometimes good institutions will produce bad outcomes. All political processes carry some risk of occasional bad outcomes, and making a political process more "democratic" certainly does not in the end guarantee a good outcome all of the time. Well schooled as they were in history and classical political theory, the Framers of our constitution distrusted populist democracy for its receptiveness to demagoguery and propensity to tyranny. Our continued acceptance of our constitution's many non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Senate) reflects a recognition that multiple values are at stake in politics.

The electoral college is also sometimes defended as an aspect of federalism, in that it requires a winning candidate to carry multiple states and makes it impossible to win with just a big pile of votes in a few large states like California and New York. Personally I am no great fan of federalism, which in some ways may be the constitution's second original sin after the even greater sin of slavery, both of which the Framers were forced by their historical situation to compromise with. But I do recognize geographical and cultural diversity, and so I do see great value - both for electoral legitimacy and for efficacy in governing - in having to appeal to (and win) multiple states with diverse constituencies. It really is not such a good thing, for example, that the Democratic party, which in terms of actual votes cast may really be the nation's majority party, is at the same time largely a provincial coastal party. If the electoral college causes the Democrats to try to broaden the party's geographical reach by broadening its economic and cultural appeal, that would be a good thing - both for the Democratic party and for the country as a whole.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

19th-Century Missionary for the 21st-Century Church

On this date in 1819 Isaac Hecker (who eventually went on to found the Paulist Fathers in 1858) was born to immigrant parents in New York City. From an early age, he already expressed a belief in God’s special providence – that God had a providential plan for his life. Even as a boy working in the family bakery, Hecker was already asking himself: “What does God desire from me? How shall I attain unto Him? What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were,” he said, “the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.” 

Hecker’s family was active in New York Democratic party politics, and Isaac would remain committed to key tenets of Jacksonian democracy. Gradually, however, his interests evolved from political to social and eventually to primarily religious concerns. Then as now, religion in the United States was a diverse marketplace in which individuals could choose whatever religions suited them. After considerable searching, Hecker found his spiritual home in the Catholic Church in 1844. “It never can be too often uttered that Catholicism means the Universal Good and True and Beautiful,” Hecker confided to his Diary on his 25th birthday. “That is not worthy to be named Catholicism which does not embrace all truth, all Goodness, all Beauty. Our allegiance is alone due to God and to Catholicism because it is the universal revelation of God. The measure of Catholicism is the measure of God’s love to man. I am a Catholic because I would not reject any of Gods Truth.” 

The rest of his life reflected his enthusiastic embrace of the Church and he became an active, enthusiastic missionary – first as a member of the Redemptorist order and then as the founder of the Paulist Fathers. His life and ministry reflected the reciprocal relationship between the mission within and to the Catholic community and mission outward to the larger American society. “We cannot even preserve the faith among Catholics in any better way than by advancing it among our non-Catholic brethren,” he wrote. “Indeed, simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it. It is a state of chronic disease for me to live together and not endeavor to communicate their respective good fortune. A Catholic without a mission to his non-Catholic fellow-citizens in these times, and when only a small portion of the human race has the true religion, is only half a Catholic.” 

In his preaching and writing, Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted images and models of holiness which he believed resonated well within the new context created by what he saw happening in the modern world. He was convinced that the same Holy Spirit who spoke in his own heart and in human hearts in general also spoke through the Church, and that the evangelization of American society through missionary action aimed at the conversion of individuals would benefit both Church and civil society. 

Hecker died at the Paulist Mother House at the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York City on December 22, 1888. During his lifetime, the dynamic growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S., Its population constantly swollen by immigrants and converts, provided the dramatic backdrop for the story of his life and for the mission he bequeathed to his Paulist community.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Appreciating Jesus' Earthly Ancestors

Back when I was studying scripture in seminary, a common approach to the "infancy narratives" (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2) was to see each as in some sense a summary of or introduction to its particular Gospel's themes. In a famous commentary (The Birth of the Messiah, 1979), Raymond Brown sought simultaneously "to point out their common tendencies and emphases" and "to show how each fits into the theology if its respective Gospel," indeed how "each is the essential Gospel story in miniature." Brown was well aware "that people who know little of Jesus, beyond his death on the cross and his resurrection, are often acquainted with the Christmas story, which accordingly offers a channel through which the Gospel can be made intelligible to them." 

Today, one might go even further and suggest that the Christmas story is likely more widely known than either Jesus'  cross or resurrection (especially the latter) and may offer not just a channel but almost the only channel through which the Gospel may be made intelligible to many!

For several years I tried to make it an annual Advent practice to review Brown's commentary in the days and weeks prior to Christmas. Then in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI came out with his own wonderful volume of meditations on the infancy narratives, a "dialogue with the texts," that asks the essential questions: "is what I read here true? dies it concern me? If so, how?" So, since then I have made it an annual Advent activity to re-read - with great profit - the Pope Emeritus' Jesus of Nazareth:The Infancy Narratives. 

The first text Benedict treats is Matthew's account of Jesus genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17), which he treats together with Luke's alternative account (Luke 3:23-38) and with John's familiar Prologue (John 1:1-18). The latter is, of course, the Roman rite's Gospel for the principal Mass on Christmas, a text (that is, its first 14 verses) which also used to be regularly read at the end of every Mass - until the tragic abolition of that edifying practice by Pope Paul VI.

Not quite so tragic - but unfortunate nonetheless - is the omission of Matthew's genealogy of Jesus from the Sunday lectionary. As best I can tell, the only occasion when its reading is obligatory at Mass is today, December 17, this year the Saturday before the 4th Sunday of Advent. 

(The intriguing question of what is omitted in our ostensibly expanded Lectionary is one which has begun to get more attention. See, for example, Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table  of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, compiled by Matthew P. Hazell, 2016.)

Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, with its long list of unfamiliar foreign names, is obviously a challenge to read and probably appears boring to today's depleted attention spans. All the more reason, then, to engage the text seriously and carefully - for understanding who Jesus is, where he comes from, remains fundamental to any commitment to Christian discipleship. And Jesus' Jewish descent from Abraham and David is an essential component of who he is and where he comes from. God's choice of Abraham, who himself entered the biblical account at the end of a long genealogy (Genesis 11:26), represented a decisive turning point in salvation  history, as God covenanted with one particular family and the nation that descended from it in order to save the whole human race. At the same time, Matthew's account also - through the jarring inclusion of the names of four Old Testament women - heralds the Church's eventual mission to the Gentile world, the final fulfillment of the promise that through Abraham all the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3).  In Pope Benedict's words, "through them the world of the Gentiles enters the genealogy of Jesus - his mission to Jews and Gentiles is made manifest." Finally, the account concludes uniquely with the mention of Mary, whose virginal conception of Jesus identifies her as "a new beginning" and jesus as "a new creation."

In this, as in so many matters, we would do well to learn from the Eastern Churches, with their tradition of celebrating the "Forefathers" of Jesus on the Sunday before Christmas. 

We celebrate today the memory of the ancestors of Christ. sing with fervor a hymn of praise to Christ the Savior who magnified them among all  nations. He is the Lord who does wondrous deeds because he is powerful and mighty, and who shows us his strength through these Ancestors. The greatest of them all is Mary, the immaculate maiden of God, the undefiled one. From her Christ came forth to give life to all: eternal salvation and paradise without end. (Byzantine Vespers of the Forefathers of Jesus)

(Photo: two panels of a 12th-13th century "Jesse Tree" window, Canterbury Cathedral)