Friday, June 30, 2017

Remembering Rome's Anonymous Protomartyrs

At Rome, in the time of Nero, the commemoration of many holy martyrs, who were accused of having set fire to the city, and cruelly put to death in various manners by the emperor's order. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and lacerated by dogs; others were fastened to crosses, others again were delivered to the flames to serve as torches in the night. All these were disciples of the Apostles, and the first fruits of the martyrs, which the Roman Church, a field so fertile in martyrs, offered to God before the death of the Apostles.

So reads the entry for the Protomartyrs of the Holy Roman Church on June 24 in the traditional text of the Roman Martyrology. The anonymous protomartyrs were the first Roman martyrs murdered by order of the Emperor Nero in the aftermath of the Great Fire which took place July 18-19 in the year 64. In response to the accusations that he was somehow responsible for the fire, Emperor Nero blamed the calamity on the city's small Christian community, initiating the first imperial persecution of the Christians. Eventually swept up in that persecution were the great Apostles Peter and Paul, whose martyrdom 1950 years ago in the year 67 the Church commemorates every year on June 29. As a sort of sequel to that celebration, the contemporary Roman calendar commemorates all the other early Roman martyrs today.

As the familiar story of Saint Stephen (Acts 6-7) illustrates, the model Christian martyrdom recognizably imitates Christ's own passion and death. On the other hand, the more politically ambiguous motives of some modern persecutors and the consequent apparent politicization of the concept of martyrdom (e.g., the beatification of Oscar Romero who, while widely venerated as a martyr, was murdered, it could be argued, mainly for political motives, because of his opposition to the ruling regime) is not really so uniquely modern as we may suppose. After all, Saint Thomas Becket was widely seen as a martyr immediately after his manifestly politically motivated assassination in 1170 - and was quickly canonized as a martyr in 1873.  And Saint Thomas Aquinas himself considered the question of whether dying for a human good could qualify as martyrdom, suggesting that it could in so far as the human good was referred to God.

The fact that we continue to argue and debate these issues and that the requisites for recognition as a martyr may have evolved somewhat to reflect the Church's changing challenges really highlights the central significance of the martyrs in the life of the Church. It is often pointed out how the past century has seen more martyrs than ever before. But all martyrs - ancient or modern, anonymous or famous - are part of an ongoing experience of the triumph of God's heavenly power and grace over God's earthly human and political opponents and so will always be worthy of special celebration in the Church's liturgy.

(Photo: The Papal Altar at the Lateran Basilica, whose baldacchino enshrine the reliquaries of the heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Second Founders of Rome

For Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster (1880-1954), the Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar, who served as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan during World War II, the celebration of today's festival of Saints Peter and Paul was almost like a second Easter. As Pius Parsch put it: "it was the birthday of Christian Rome and marked the triumph of Christ's victory over paganism. Rome's provincial bishops came to the Eternal City to celebrate the feast together with the Pope. As at Christmas three services were held, at the graves of the two apostles and at their temporary depository in times of persecution. The two apostles weer never separated; they were the two eyes of the Church's virgin-face."

All that is left of that ancient splendor is the traditional blessing of the pallia and the modern tradition of a representative of the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople's attendance at the papal Mass. (Since there was a Consistory for the Creation of new Cardinal yesterday, there was also a good turnout of Cardinals at the papal mass today.)

On this feast, as I do every year, I preached about Peter and Paul as the second founders of Rome - brothers in faith rather than by blood, who founded the new Christian Rome, that replaced the pagan power of ancient imperial Rome. Here is this year's somewhat shortened version of my standard Saints Peter and Paul homily:

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. But the two argued about which hill to build on; and, when Romulus began building on his preferred hill, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over its wall, thus belittling his brother’s accomplishment. Romulus responded by killing him - thus determining which one the city would be named after! In time, Rome became the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had known.

To that same city, some 8 centuries later, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire. Among those martyred in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.

One story recounts how Peter started to flee but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded. 

If the Christians of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles, who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself!  - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way. For centuries ever since, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to the two great basilicas that rise above the apostles’ tombs - St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

Which brings us back to where we started. The old Rome of Romulus – proud, powerful, pagan Rome, based on the murder of one brother by another – was, for all its accomplishments and authentic grandeur, a human state like any other, a warring conqueror conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul conquered that old Rome, but in a new way. Proud, powerful, pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was itself in turn conquered by the faith that empowered Peter and Paul as brothers-in-Christ to evangelize an empire and die together as witnesses to a new way of life.

At the west end of the south aisle of the Paulist “Mother Church” in New York, over the simple but impressive altar dedicated to St. Paul, is an evocative painting depicting St. Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below the picture are the famous words from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith!” [2 Timothy 4:7]

As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, here in this Paulist parish here in East Tennessee, let us also – as Saint Augustine once recommended on this feast – “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” [Sermon 295, 8].

(Photo: Saint Peter's Basilica, as phtographed by me at sundown from the roof of the Pontificia Universit√† Urbaniana, 2012)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Another Lost Vigil

“A pity – I miss all the Vigils. Why on earth were they suddenly suppressed?” So wrote Thomas Merton on December 7, 1959. As is evident from the date, it was the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, whose suppression by the mid-1950s liturgical wrecking ball he was lamenting. A decade later, under Paul VI the wrecking ball had completed its work, and Merton's lament could be applied to all the hitherto surviving vigils - including those of Christmas and Pentecost and today's ancient vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, which for so many centuries prepared the Church for tomorrow's celebration of the Church's two great founding apostles. 

(Photo: El Greco's 16th-century painting of Saints Peter and Paul, now in the hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.)

Pius Parsch claimed that the Mass for today's now discarded vigil (which survives, sort of, as an option for this evening) was actually older than that of the feast day itself. In some ways it may be even more fitting for the feast, since the Gospel (John 21:15-19), which recounts Peter's commissioning by the Risen Lord as Chief Shepherd of his Church, includes (as if it were inseparable) Jesus's prediction of Peter's martyrdom. It is, after all, Peter's martyrdom under Nero (along the the contemporaneous martyrdom of Paul) that is the ostensible occasion for today's feast - a martyrdom which sealed and validated the founding apostles' witness, a witness which continues today in a world superficially so very different from that of Nero but still seemingly resistant to the Risen Lord's invitation.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go."
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What's a Political Party to Do?

Being a conservative (albeit of a more traditional type than the crowd currently calling themselves conservatives who have acquired political power in this country), Ross Douthat tries to identify some "good ideas" somewhere in the Senate's health care bill. But ultimately he recognizes it for what it is "the act of a political party dedicated primarily to rescuing the rich from their tax rates, rather than stewarding the common good" (The NY Times, "From Worse to Bad on Health Care").

Admittedly, it is a party that for some seven years now has loudly committed itself to the goal of destroying President Obama's greatest accomplishment - the provision of health insurance for millions of previously uninsured Americans. Hence the CBO's prediction that the House's version of the  bill would result in some 23 million more uninsured. But however significant an accomplishment that would be in this morally bizarre universe, it is evidently still secondary to the party's all-important primary goal of cutting taxes for the super-rich. 

None of this comes as any surprise since redistributing wealth from the poor and the middle class to the very wealthy has consistently been the party's purpose - at least since the election of 1980, which first set the country on this amazingly self-destructive path. Nor does it surprise - since the super-rich are relatively few - that all this has happened thanks to the successful exploitation of a calamitous cultural clash that has divided our country into two totally antagonistic tribes, which no longer share common experiences and no longer have much desire to do so, so intensely have they been taught by their respective tribal leaders to despise each other.

Which is - or, rather, ought to be - one of the primary lessons from the Democratic debacle in Georgia. Of course, the Georgia 6th District (and the three other congressional districts where the Democrats lost special elections this year) are all reliably Republican districts, constituencies which have repeatedly (as recently as last November) easily elected Republican congressmen and in which normal Republican presidential candidates have traditionally done well. So it was always a long-shot effort for the Democrats, which may have been a distortion of energy and resources that could have been better focused elsewhere. That the Democrats did so much better in those special elections than in the past probably says something about the intensity of Democratic enthusiasm. But the fact that they lost anyway illuminates how ephemeral such enthusiasm really is and should instead focus a glaring spotlight on the Democrats' real disabilities. As Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) argued in the aftermath of the Georgia election, "I don't think people in the beltway are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so many parts of the country."

(Personally, I find toxicity an alarmingly undesirable analogy and think the word "toxic" much too overused. Nor have I ever been fond of or comfortable with using such clearly commercial concepts as "brand" and branding. That said, those are the words in current use, and there are more important issues at stake than quibbling about terminology.)

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat concluded the above cited article observing that "the Republican Party remains what it is, not what the country needs it to become."  But one reason for this state of affairs (as the Georgia special election illustrated) is that the Democratic Party likewise remains what it is, and not what the country needs it to become, if it is ever to be an effective counter to the Republicans.

Obviously one place to begin would be to downplay the centrality of cultural and identity politics and refocus the Democratic Party's "brand" back closer to where it used to be - when it still had something positive to say to the millions (many of them now Trump voters) who will likely lose health care coverage in order to rescue the rich from having to pay their fair share of taxes. If the Democrats cannot start relearning that language - a language they once spoke easily and naturally - then government of, by, and (above all) for the rich will remain our nation's future.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The End of an Era

Monsignor Xavier Mankel (1935-2017)  - for most of my years in Knoxville, the pastor of the next-door parish to mine - died yesterday and will be buried next Tuesday, symbolically concluding a monumental era in the history of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, a history which one can safely say he knew probably better than anyone else.

Monsignor had been ill and increasingly inactive these past couple of years. But, before that, he was a prominent presence at virtually every event. When I first moved to Knoxville, he was frequently the family's first choice to celebrate - or at least preach at - most of the funerals I was involved in. I can recall many a time sitting with him in the church sacristy, listening to his account of the deceased's life or the deceased's family's story or some other related episode in the local community's history.  It seemed as if he knew everybody - and everybody knew him!

We who are members of religious communities move around often. In my almost 22 years of priesthood, I have had three assignments in three very different locations. Others have experienced even more moves in an equivalent amount of time. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of so much moving around, one clear consequence is that one is unlikely ever to become so thoroughly rooted in a  local community as those who were born and bred in a particular place. Monsignor Mankel epitomized that sense of community rootedness and a life-long love for and commitment to a local community that is so socially valuable and that has served both secular society and the Church so well.

Ordained for the diocese of Nashville in 1961, Monsignor Mankel became one of the "founding fathers" of  the new Knoxville diocese when it was created by Pope Saint john Paul II in 1988. As a pastor and diocesan vicar general, he was involved in almost every aspect of local Church life, including Catholic education his commitment to which was especially noteworthy. 

He was a great friend to the Paulist Fathers, who first came to Knoxville in 1973 and have since then staffed what was originally his home parish, the church where he was baptized - in the very same baptismal  font we still use to this day (after we recovered and restored it several years ago). From the time I arrived to assume the pastoral care of his home parish in 2010, he was consistently supportive and welcoming - a true priestly colleague and a good friend. (The above photo was taken of him at my installation as Immaculate Conception's 24th pastor in October 2010.)

Later that year, there was a breakfast event in support of a local organization, at which various community leaders were present. Monsignor and I were both seated at the head table (he because everyone knew him and he was saying the prayer, I merely because the event was within my parish boundaries). When someone offered to get him breakfast, He asked for some eggs and toast. Soon enough, a waitress walked through the crowded ballroom with a plate full of toast. Seeing her, another priest, sitting at one of the tables with some of his parishioners, asked the waitress if he could have some of the toast. "This is for the priest," she answered. "What am I?" he asked. "You're not THE PRIEST," was the reply.

Indeed,however one recounts his accomplishments and his influence, he was always, above all, THE PRIEST.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Hate Debate

In the wake of last week's tragic shooting at a congressional baseball practice, we have been regularly reminded how divided we have become as a society, as social, cultural, and class divisions increasingly seem to replicate our toxic political conflicts and/or are replicated in them. Angst about a "climate of hate" is not exactly new. For example, I can well remember in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination much commentary and sermonizing about the climate of hate in certain parts of the country - notably the climate of right-wing hatred in Dallas, which was quite real. (That said, the actual assassin, while apparently politically motivated, came from the other end of the political spectrum.)

Between then and now, the country went through the intense ideological divisions of the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the days of racial riots in many major cities, the Chicago Convention riots, the shootings at Kent State, and the short-lived but scary history of home-grown terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and the SLA. Compared to those days, one could plausibly argue that we are living in a more peaceful society today. On the other hand, as has often been noted, mainstream politicians in the 1960s and 1970s were still predominantly centrist, still got along with each other for the most part, still governed between campaigns, and did not advocate or endorse extremist attitudes. By the 1990s, professional politicians seemed to have become much more ideologically polarized, as political parties became increasingly ideologically coherent. As the political class divided more sharply, however, it still seemed to many as if society as a whole remained less divided and polarized.

That, however, no longer seems to be the case. The much commented upon reduction in inter-personal and non-political interaction among members of Congress since the Gingrich era seems increasingly to have been replicated in American society as a whole, as neighborhoods and even religious congregations have become more politically homogeneous, And just as Americans are less likely to interact socially with - or even to know - people of a different political party, they have also self-segregated in terms of their sources of news and their basic beliefs about what represents reality. (We can thank Talk Radio, Cable news, and finally Social Media for that!) Many commentators have become fond of comparing survey results from 1960, when barely 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats claimed they would object if their son or daughter married a member of the opposite party with the more recent radical increases in those percentages!

Related to that - and most ominously of all - partisans seem increasingly motivated by dislike for the other party than by enthusiasm for their own party. Even among so-called "Independents," most of whom in practice tend to lean one way or the other, it is estimated that some two-thirds tend to lean in the direction they do more motivated by negative dislike of one party rather than by positive enthusiasm for the other.

In a recent article in National Review ("We're Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce), David French argued that our now well established national political polarization "is more akin to the beginning stages of a national divorce than it is to a civil war." He suggests that our national division is becoming "so profound that Americans may not have the desire to fight to stay together." French highlights the now familiar data about how Democrats and Republicans have come to dislike each other more and more, while increasingly living "separate lives - living in separate locations, enjoying separate media, and holding separate religious beliefs."

"A civil war," French contends, "results when the desire for unification and domination overrides the desire for separation and self-determination." In our contemporary society, however, he believes "there are simply too many differences and too many profound disagreements for one side of the other to exercise true political dominance." 

For French, this becomes an excuse to argue for a re-invigorated commitment to federalism. (He is a senior writer at National Review, after all!) But, setting aside his ideologically preferred but problematic solution, I think his diagnosis describes our dilemma quite well. As a nation, we are drifting farther and farther apart, not just politically but much more fundamentally morally and culturally (which very much includes economic class as a factor). And it is very hard even to envision how in this age of cable TV and social media we can ever come together again as a coherent community - or whether eventually we will really even want to.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Christmas at Grantchester

Grantchester returned to American TV last night for its third season. It did so with a Christmas episode, the British original of which seems to have fallen between the second and third seasons - a Christmas episode (in American summer) complete with snow and a messy parish Christmas play, but also the requisite murder, various families in pain, and, finally, a newborn baby, born, of course, on Christmas Eve!

A British detective drama, nostalgically set in the post-war 1950s village of Grantchester near Cambridge, it features Anglican Vicar, jazz enthusiast, and former WWII Scots Guards officer Sidney Chambers (James Norton), who regularly teams up in a somewhat unlikely-seeming duo with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) to solve more murders than might be expected in the neighborhood. 

(The show is based on The Grantchester Mysteries, a series of short stories by James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, so someone who may know a thing or two about C of E Vicars.)

You can't do a murder mystery without murders, of course. But, while the murders make possible the Sidney-Gordie bromance, the underlying relationship that has ultimately defined Sydney's character from the very first episode of the very first season has been his impossible love for his lifelong friend Amanda. The Christmas episode closes with Sydney and Amanda (holding her newborn) kissing under the mistletoe, making the impossible seem possible if only for Christmas. But, of course, the baby is not his, but Guy's - her more socially suitable but otherwise unsatisfactory husband, whom Amanda had married instead of Sydney but whom she has now left - for a very uncertain and frightening future. For Sydney is a C of E Vicar, after all, and this is 1954, and nobody actually believes it can work for a Vicar to marry or be involved with a (presumptively soon to be) divorced woman!

Setting the story at the superlatively feel-good season of Christmas may make it easier to imagine that the third season will somehow be able to navigate the "situation" (as the characters conveniently call it) and find some way for Sydney to reconcile his vocation as a Vicar and his love for Amanda - and, yes, keep solving murders too!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

For the Life of the World.

As I said at the beginning: to those to whom it applies, Happy Father’s Day

The American Father’s Day is, of course, a 20th-century invention. The Church, however, has her own, much older calendar, according to which today is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, commonly called Corpus Christi since first celebrated in the 13th century.

I may have told this story here before, but on Corpus Christi I think it is worth repeating. As a seminarian in the summer of 1984, I was at Saint Peter’s Parish in Toronto, where I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in the local hospital.  One day, as I was doing my regular hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list to bring Communion to, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was visiting her.

Now, generally speaking, the quality of most of our human interaction depends – at least in part - upon how well we listen and communicate with one another. If you can’t understand another person - or he or she can’t understand you - some communication may still occur in non-verbal ways, but it will likely be rather limited.  Speaking for myself, certainly some of my most frustrating experiences have been when communication has been limited because of a language difference.

Such experiences, of course, can cause one to feel inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated – very frustrated - was exactly how I felt that summer day in the hospital. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible.  But my job was to bring her Holy Communion. So, I dutifully took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter.  I no longer mattered. The sight of the Host resulted in instant recognition. She made the Sign of the Cross - and began to pray.

In all these intervening years, I have never forgotten my meeting with that devout old woman in that otherwise deeply depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist.  Experiencing her response to the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – the real, body-and-blood presence of our living and loving Lord, present and active in his Church - impressed on me the meaning of those familiar and seemingly simple words of St. Paul, which we just heard: The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

In the Eucharist, as the Church teaches, Christ is “truly, really, and substantially” present under the appearance of bread and wine – his flesh given us as Jesus himself said, for the life of the world.  In both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, Christ is present in the Eucharist, and we in turn experience his presence and share in the new life he offers the world through his Church.

Clearly, the uniquely precious moment of Communion is intended to continue, permeating every moment and aspect of life - just as Christ’s real presence in the Mass continues in his Real Presence in the Tabernacle, prolonging our act of adoration as his Church in the world. As St. Augustine famously put it (in his commentary on Psalm 98): “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it.”

Corpus Christi originated as a popular expression of the Church’s devotion centered on Christ’s presence in this sacrament. Each of the Church’s liturgical festivals, seasons, and devotions highlights in a particular and specific fashion some significant aspect of our Catholic belief and life. Today’s celebration invites us to focus in a particular and specific fashion upon our devotion to Christ’s Real Presence, celebrated sacrificially in the Mass and prolonged in continued adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the Tabernacle or exposed on the altar for an experience of more intense adoration. This annual festival of our devotion to the Eucharist invites us to a fuller, more conscious, and more active participation in the body of Christ, the Church, by believing firmly, celebrating devoutly, and living intensely Christ’s Eucharistic Presence given to us for the life of the world. 

Homily for Corpus Christ, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 18, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017


The Yiddish term for Norman Oppenheimer (perfectly played by Richard Gere in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer) is a macher (someone who gets things done, a "fixer," but also, less flatteringly, a pushy, overbearing sort of guy.) Norman is a macher - in both the flattering and less flattering senses of the term. He is a con artist, constantly building and trading on his supposed connections and ability to do favors for people and connect them with important people in New York Jewish society. This doesn't make him rich, nor does that seem to be his goal. He just wants to be connected, however marginally, with important people who matter and can accomplish important things. I guess the idea is that knowing such people and having a reputation for knowing them, by extension, somehow makes him matter too. And don't we all at some level want to matter?

And it does seem to work for Norman - for a while anyway (as the film's subtitle reveals). My first reaction watching him was how silly and pathetic he seemed. But gradually one warms to him (thanks in part to how effectively Richard Gere portrays his character). His most important "friend," an Israeli politician who becomes his country's Prime Minister, calls him "a warm Jew," which I take to be intended as a compliment. As the film progresses - and Norman digs himself deeper and deeper in difficulty - it gets harder and  harder not to like him and root for him to succeed somehow, even if it is never quite clear what ultimately he should succeed at!. 

It is not a subtle movie. One can practically pinpoint the moment (fittingly on Amtrak) when he overdoes his schtick and reveals too much to the wrong person. But, while the ultimate outcome is personally tragic, he does not depart a failure but happily leaves behind a real legacy of accomplishment. His bizarre desire to be loved results paradoxically in all sorts of other people being better off - as, analogously, the Prime Minister's ambitious desire for affirmation also (apparently) ends up accomplishing some real good.

This surprisingly feel-good movie is a truly wonderful "made in New York" story!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"When weapons rule, they kill the law"

Once again, a savage act of cruel and detestable gun violence has polluted our society, striking this time at the very center of our representative institutions. Apart from the January 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, I am unaware of any other recent gun assaults against members of Congress - since the still shocking March 1954 incident in which four Puerto Rican "nationalists" fired into the chamber of the House of Representatives. 

Paradoxically yesterday's tragic attack on the House Republicans' baseball team during their early morning practice was an assault not just on Congress but on one of the remaining vestiges of a less polarized, separate-silo style of congressional life. The annual congressional baseball game may be one of the few relics remaining of a time when members of congress lived in Washington with their families and socialized with each other across party lines.

Whatever the attacker's malignant motives, his attack was possible and so potentially deadly because, as so often happens in our society, the assailant was wielding a gun.

One is reminded of the ancient axiom, When weapons rule, they kill the law.

In the very first chapter of his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek historian Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) famously reported how the Athenians were the first to abandon going about armed within their city. He recalled how all Greeks used to carry arms: "to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians." But this, for Thucydides, was but a holdover from a less civilized era and way of life. When the Athenians stopped carrying weapons at home, they were able to develop the more refined style of life and vibrant political culture which we all still so distinctly associate with Athens. (So impressed with this feature of Athenian history was my undergraduate Ancient Political Theory professor, the late Marshall Berman, that the Athenians' abandonment of bearing arms in the city was one of the very first things he mentioned about Athens in our class.)

Of course, it was inherently required of citizens that they serve in the military to defend their city. For that, those citizen-soldiers obviously had to provide weapons and carry them into battle. But, when not soldiering, citizens went about without their arms and engaged in their civic culture free from their weapons' intimidating presence. 

Like ancient citizen-soldiers, the "militia" envisioned by the constitution also provided their own weapons and used them in the service of the common defense. Unfortunately, the constitution has since been unwisely interpreted to mean that, when not serving in the militia, citizens should individually continue to keep and bear arms unrestrictedly - with the obviously destructive consequences that the ancient Greeks had the wisdom to foresee and act against.

Meanwhile, with our barbarous acceptance of the private possession of guns, we continue to live with, as if it were inevitable, this brutal violence and the social breakdown it portends.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The King's Birthday

I suppose that, if ours were an acknowledged monarchy rather than merely a de facto one (like the Roman Empire under the Caesars), today might be a holiday. For today is our king's birthday. President Donald Trump beat me into the world by almost two years at the very beginning of the "Baby Boom." Happy 71st Birthday, Mr. President! Since Marilyn Monroe is lamentably no longer with us, we will have to make do with this old recording from May 1962:

By convenient coincidence, today is also Flag Day, the official birthday of "Old Glory." As we all learned in grade school, on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Act, which declared that the new flag would have "13 stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." At 240, the flag trumps all of us aging Baby boomers in seniority! If we ignore the changes over the years in the number of stars, the US Flag is surely one of the oldest national flags continuously in use. Even the current UK "Union Flag" dates back only to the creation of the United Kingdom in 1801, when the Irish Cross of St. Patrick was added to the already existing combination of England's Cross of St. George and Scotland's Cross of St. Andrew. But, if we treat that change analogously to the addition of stars to the US flag, then, of course, the British "Union Flag" - uniting the Crosses of England and Scotland and dating back to 1606 - is older than the US flag. (That British flag was obviously familiar to the American founders and presumably provided the American emblem with its famous red,white, and blue color scheme.)

For all the attention the flag gets in American popular culture, however, Flag Day has never managed to make it into the pantheon of official federal holidays (of which there are 10). So the day is acknowledged or not, according to individual and local priorities. (It has, however, been a state holiday in Pennsylvania since 1937.)

According to as of May 31 President Trump has proclaimed the month of June 2017 "National Homeownership Month," "National Ocean Month," "African-American Music Appreciation Month," "National Caribbean-American heritage Month," and, last but not least, "Great Outdoors Month." Given the role devotion to the flag has often had in our popular culture (obviously a symbolic substitute for a monarch as a focus of national loyalty and symbol of unity), perhaps a presidential proclamation of a "National Flag Appreciation Month:" might be in order. 

Or, even better, a full-fledged federal holiday, honoring both the king's birthday and the flag's?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

According to a famous legend, Saint Patrick is said to have used a shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity when evangelizing Ireland in the 5th century. (The lovely window of Saint Patrick in our church is one of the few depictions of him not holding a shamrock!)The fact that Patrick had to resort to using a shamrock illustrates our awkwardness when talking about the Trinity. The problem perhaps is not so much that the Trinity is a supernatural mystery, which we can never completely understand, but rather that it seems so hard to connect with experientially. It seems abstract, more like a philosophical idea than an expression of our regular religious experience.

And yet, as ideas go, it is inseparable from our religious experience as Christians. All of us, after all, were baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. On that occasion, we – or our parents and godparents speaking on our behalf - all made a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. My sins have been forgiven many times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And as a priest I have been privileged many times to absolve the sins of others - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I have officiated at weddings – at which rings have been exchanged, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have all been blessed – and have blessed ourselves – so many times in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We began Mass this morning with the Sign of the Cross, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we will end it with a blessing, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The principal prayers of the Church’s liturgy are all explicitly addressed to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In short, our entire lives in the Church have been defined, formed, and shaped by the awesome mystery of who God is, that defines the Triune God’s relationship with us and ours with God. If we seem sometimes to take the idea of the Trinity for granted, that may be because the Holy Trinity seems to surround us all the time.

So for all its apparent abstraction, the doctrine of the Trinity is our fundamental – and uniquely Christian – insight into who God is.  Created in the image and likeness of God, we all have a built-in natural longing for God. So we can theorize about God’s existence by our ordinary, natural reasoning process. But who God is - in himself - that is something we cannot possibly know on our own.  That had to be revealed to us.

Even so, the words we use to speak about God’s Trinitarian self - for example, the language of the Nicene Creed that we sing every Sunday at Mass – that language is very much the product of a process of reasoned discussion and debate in the early Church. We call it the Nicene Creed in memory of the 1st Ecumenical Council of the Church, held at Nicaea (in what is today Turkey) in 325, at which the famous “318 Holy Fathers” put the Church’s Trinitarian faith into official language. (The Creed we recite at Mass is actually the product of the first two ecumenical councils – Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 – and is officially called the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed” or “Nicene Creed,” for short).

The issue at Nicaea in 325 was the so-called Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. It was in response to this that the Creed was composed, formally articulating the Church’s faith in who God is. After that, devotion to the Holy Trinity developed in the Church and increased throughout the Middle Ages. Eventually in 1334, Pope John XXII established this feast for the entire Church and directed that it be celebrated annually on the Sunday after Pentecost.

We do not worship three gods, but one God – a unity of Persons in one divine nature or substance. Each of the three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is truly God. They are distinct. – not three modes or appearances of God but three identifiable Persons, each distinctly God, but inherently in relationship to each other. That is to say, their distinction resides in their relationship to each other: the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both.

On the one hand, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses our uniquely Christian insight into the inner life of God – where the Son is the image of the Father, the Father’s likeness and outward expression, who perfectly reflects his Father, while the Holy Spirit in turn expresses and reveals the mutual love of Father and Son. At the same time, the Trinity also expresses something fundamental about how God acts outside himself. Who God is in himself is how God acts. And so how God acts reveals who God is.

Already in the Old Testament, God was revealing himself – as he did to Moses in today’s 1st reading, as one who reveals himself in how he acts toward us: a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It was to such a God that Moses prayed – as we all pray – do come along in our company … and receive us as your own.

God’s action outside himself is the indivisible, common work of the Trinity of Persons, which each Person performs according to his unique personal property. Thus the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Constantinople [553] confessed: “one God and Father from whom all things are, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things are, and one Holy Spirit in whom all things are.”

It is, of course, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who, as the visible image of the invisible God, came down from heaven, so that the world might be saved through him. Risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit upon his Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. The Holy Spirit unites us with the Father in the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the sacraments, Christ continues to communicate the Holy Spirit to the members of his Church.

So it is no merely theoretical abstraction that God's grace is given to us from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. As the 4th century Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, famously wrote in one of his letters: “When we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit himself.”

Hence, the Church faithfully follows Saint Paul in praying: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Homily for Trinity Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 11, 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Pig's Breakfast

"A Pig's Breakfast" is a Britishism for a messed up muddle, which is what UK politics looks like right now in the wake of yesterday's disastrous parliamentary election that appears to have resulted in a "hung parliament." (It wasn't totally disastrous. The SNP lost something like 21 votes and both Conservatives and Labour picked up seats in Scotland, which was all to the good.)

Presumably Prime Minister Theresa May (the first regular, committed, weekly church-attender in 10 Downing Street in decades) had called this election ti increase her party's majority and so strengthen Britain's hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU. Instead she has no majority and a likely much weaker position vis-a-vis the EU.

That is obviously not good for her, or for her party, or (most importantly) for the United Kingdom. Particularly worrisome is the increased stature of the radical leader of the Labour Party, whom NY Times columnist Ross Douthat recently characterized as a kind of analogue on the British extreme Left to marine Le Pen on France's extreme Right. However that may be, the ascendancy of such an extreme figure as Jeremy Corbyn again highlights the ongoing collapse of traditional politics in Western democracies, of which the traumatizing 2016 US election of President Donald Trump has thus far been the leading example.

Since Theresa May is a woman, comparisons have inevitably been made to Hillary Clinton's stumbles last year. And perhaps there is some similarity in how both underestimated the degree of popular disenchantment with governing political elites and politics as usual. The more important question, of course, is where all this will lead. Whatever kind of coalition Theresa May may manage to cobble together, whatever drama passes for (or substitutes for) governance in the US in this age of Trump, the fact remains that Western democracies are increasingly widely perceived by more and more of their citizens as having failed them - something not so widely experienced since the 1930s.

Despite the cultural assaults on traditional institutions that has been going on in Western societies now since the 1960s, it is, of course, those traditional institutions and the values they embody that the US and the UK must now depend upon to keep both our countries on course. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Churchill - the Movie

Historically based movies often take some creative license with their stories and their characters. The movie Churchill takes this to an extreme that significantly distorts the historical record. Set on the eve of D-Day in June 1944, the movie revolves around Churchill's last-minute opposition to the Allied plan for the Normandy invasion. In fact while Churchill had expressed real reservations about a cross-Channel invasion earlier in the war, he had certainly become a supporter of the plan by June 1944. Indeed, the screenwriter, historian Alex von Tunzelmann, has acknowledged that she "telescoped" Churchill's opposition from earlier in the war into the days just before the invasion. Besides distorting the history,what this does is make Churchill seem at best ridiculous.

Of course, there was much in Churchill's character and way of operating that deserves to be examined more critically, without the aura of heroic greatness that has understandably enveloped him. (The portrayal of an even older Churchill in Netflix' The Crown, for example, certainly fits into that category.) But, it is one thing to pay greater attention to Churchill's personal peculiarities, his depression, his drinking, etc., and still be faithful to historical truth.

That said, the movie is still worth seeing. For one thing it does accurately depict some of the other high drama that preceded D-Day. This included Churchill's scheme to sail along with the invasion himself - something that the King himself had to intervene to stop him from doing. And the movie does depict effectively the stressful last-minute decision whether or not to count on a predicted break in the weather and go ahead with the invasion. That decision was Eisenhower's, of course, and the movie does a good job of portraying how stressful the decision was and ultimately how Ike took the responsibility to make the fateful decision.

Duty and responsibility are central themes in the film. Two characters in particular, Churchill's wife Clementine and King George VI are depicted - excellently - as both embodying those qualities and together calling Churchill himself to a fuller appreciation of how those qualities are to be best practiced in his wartime role. The movie actually does a good job of highlighting the differing challenges - indeed vocations - of political and military leaders and the importance of appreciating those differences in practice. 

The basis for Churchill's alleged opposition to the invasion in the film is his recollection of the carnage of World War I - especially his own role in the Gallipoli disaster - and his resulting revulsion at the idea of sending so many young men to die in a militarily problematic strategy. These are not in fact inappropriate considerations. They do deserve to be raised when discussing military strategy. One only wishes that the movie might have had Churchill voice these concerns in a compassionate way which did not exploit his character flaws to make him look foolish and even deluded.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Leftovers' Finale

Finally, the  3rd season of The Leftovers has come to an end - and with it the entire series. Seven years after the October 14 "Departure" of 2% of the world's population, Nora (having dramatically separated from Kevin after a fight in a Melbourne hotel) goes ahead with the procedure that will supposedly take her to where her disappeared children have gone. Before doing so, she and her brother Reverend Matt (who is himself terminally ill) have a lengthy conversation about mortality. Then she enters the machine. 

Fast forward several years, and an obviously older Nora (now going by the name Sara) is living on her own in rural Australia, operating a kind of carrier pigeon service. Out of the blue, Kevin (also older) shows up and pretends he's on vacation and just happened to recognize her on the road. As if they had had no history together, he tells her he remembers her from Mapleton and invites her to a local dance. Nora stops at a pay phone to call her therapist - Laurie Garvey, who obviously did not kill herself, and in fact is still living in Texas. Eventually, Nora goes to the dance, which turns out to be a wedding, where she dances with Kevin and catches up on the other characters, but challenges his refusal to acknowledge their past life together. The next day, Kevin comes calling and tells the truth, how he has been searching for her for years. She in turn tells him what happened to her when she travelled through the machine to a parallel earth in which the "Departed" have continued their lives. Having seen how her family have moved on, Nora realizes she doesn't belong there with them and gets the inventor of the machine to build another one to send her back, which is what brings her back to Australia. Kevin believes Nora's story, and the two are reunited in the closest thing this grief-filled series could come to a happy ending.

After all the gratuitous weirdness of the last two seasons, I was almost ready not to like the finale, but I'm such a sucker for romantic schmalz that I couldn't resist the reunion of the the older Kevin and older Nora. I could have done without some of the snarky religious symbolism, but I admit that I really liked the way Nora and Kevin got back together, and I think that having Kevin try the approach of pretending that their history together hadn't really happened was crazy clever. 

Nora's revelation of what happened to those who disappeared that infamous October 14 may be no more plausible than any of the show's other forays into the world beyond, but it is a surprisingly satisfying explanation - including the poignant detail that the disappeared have actually lost even more than those left behind, having in fact lost the entire other 98% of the world that they left behind when they departed. It is almost as if the series is suggesting that, now that we know what has happened to the departed, life on this side of the divide can resume, and the survivors' grief can be put behind them just like human sins on a scapegoat (a ritual actually employed by the participants in the wedding scene). 

Above all, Kevin comes across as somewhat sane again. In the first season, Kevin seemed to me to be someone who was desperately trying to hold his family together, against all odds and in particular against the dysfunctional and secretive behavior of his wife and children. Through the second and third seasons, even against the backdrop of his love for Nora, Kevin seemed to be on a constant collision course with any semblance of sanity. Suddenly, Kevin comes across again as weirdly normal, happy even. He is still living in Miracle (and who knows how crazy that place may still be!). But he is apparently living happily with his entire remaining family (children and ex-wife) and neighbors all nearby - except for Nora, whom he travels to Australia for two weeks each year in the vain hope of finding her. The older Kevin who confronts an older Nora in this final episode seems genuinely at peace with himself and his world - lacking only one thing, his relationship with Nora. But, because he now has his act more or less together, he seems better equipped to listen to Nora's story and accompany her back into what is left of their world, sharing her recognition that the world that is left to them, while it will always be incomplete thanks to the absence of those who departed, is a a full-enough world for them at least to make it work for them. Which is what will have to pass for healing in this planet of the forever sad.