Monday, February 26, 2018

Victorian Christmas

Season 2 of PBS Masterpiece's Victoria ended last night in typically British fashion with a Christmas episode. Of course, in the UK, these Christmas episodes are actually shown on Christmas. Here in the US, we have to wait for the series to be finished in Britain before we get to see it. So this "Christmas episode" comes in March, in Lent, when the temperature is spring-like, if not already more like summer!

Personally, I found season 1 of Victoria a bit of a disappointment. But season 2 has more than made up for that. Every episode in the second season has been superb. The distracting "downstairs" subplots are still there, but seem so much less intrusive (perhaps because the "downstairs" characters have become much more familiar and so maybe that much more sympathetic). Also, now that Victoria herself is safely enthroned and married, with the requisite heir and spare (and the odious Duke of Cumberland thus safely far away, reigning as king in Hanover), the series presents Victoria herself as more mature in her rule, more engaged in a positive way with her job, and of course more dependent on Albert and less on Lord Melbourne. (Cumberland's reappearance in the season finale invites one to speculate how different German and European history might have been had the Salic Law not applied in Hanover!)

Obviously, of course, one cannot tell the story of Victoria without Albert. Theirs was the great romantic love story of the 19th century. The way it transformed the queen herself - and thus the British monarchy - would warrant a dramatic series unto itself. Victoria retells that romantic and familial story and at the same time anchors Victoria's personal and family saga firmly in the context of the history that surrounded her.  Whether it was the Irish famine or the repeal of the Corn laws or her first state visit to France, or indirectly in this final episode the evil fo slavery, this season's episodes nicely situate her evolving personal story in the context of the tumultuous transformations that her kingdom and the world experienced during her reign. Like Netflix's The Crown, Victoria effectively uses real historical events to explore what can only be surmised. 

Inevitably, for drama's sake there are fictional elements introduced. In real life, presumably neither King Leopold nor Duke Ernst would have been able to spend so much time in Britain - away from Belgium and Coburg respectively.  But Leopold and Ernst were important to Victoria and Albert, and their Coburg dynasty sub-plot is a good way to highlight the fundamentally continental character of the British royal family at that time and its close connections with other continental families. Likewise the frustrated love affair of Lord Alfred Paget and the unfortunate Edward Drummond, while perhaps fictional (although they were real historical figures), serves to highlight a dimension of Victorian sensibility that a less adventurous series might ignore. 

Which brings us back to Christmas! The Victorians did not invent Christmas, of course. But Prince Albert's Germanization of the British Christmas did largely invent much of what we consider Christmas "tradition." Growing up in an immigrant family, I knew that there were other Christmas traditions. I had relatives who had grown up without Christmas Trees, but who nonetheless had celebrated Christmas. They had happily adopted Christmas trees and other Anglo-American Christmas customs without automatically assuming that that is all there is to Christmas! Even so, this season finale does highlight how Prince Albert really has enriched the English-speaking world's experience of Christmas - albeit at the risk of turning it into a middle class family feast rather than what it is in truth supposed to be.

Although the episode ends with a suitably sentimental, happy family Christmas dinner (even including Uncle Cumberland), everything leading up to that moment has challenged everyone - especially Albert - to see through the false familial sentimentality that the modern bourgeois Christmas has come to foster, a recognition that leaves all the characters - royal and not - better off in the end and more ready fro whatever lies in store next season.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"Here I Am"

Today’s Gospel [Mark 9:2-10] describes the unique experience of Peter, James, and John on Galilee’s Mount Tabor. An ancient tradition dated the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent.

Today’s liturgy, however, also recalls an earlier mountain-top experience, that of Abraham and Isaac experience on Mount Moriah [Genesis 22:1-18]. All 3 religions that trace themselves to Abraham ascribe special significance and give great prominence to this event.

Judaism identifies Mount Moriah with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In synagogue, this story is read annually on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year” festival in the fall of each year.  Muslims (who believe God's command was to sacrifice Abraham’s older son Ishmael rather than Isaac) commemorate it on the “Feast of Sacrifice” (Eid al-Adha), which occurs annually during the pilgrimage (Hajj) season.

Christians have also identified Mount Moriah with the Temple Mount. For Christians this story foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of his Son and Jesus’ obedient submission to his Father’s will - a connection alluded to in today’s 2nd reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in reference to God who did not spare his own Son Christ Jesus who died and was raised.

Common to all is an emphasis on Abraham’s faith in God, who, as the narrator tells us at the beginning of the story, put Abraham to the test. Of course, we know how the story ends, but Abraham didn’t and that is the point.  

Years before, God had commanded Abraham to move to a strange land, armed only with God’s promise to bless him with descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. In his very old age, Abraham had finally been blessed with the first installment of God’s promise – his son Isaac, on whom would depend Abraham’s hope for the fulfillment of the rest of God’s promises. When Isaac was 8 days old, Abraham had circumcised him as a sign of God’s promise and as a link to future promised generations.

Now, however, Abraham confronted what surely must have been his worst nightmare – the extinction of his line: “Take your son Isaac whom you love and offer him up.” Abraham learned what everyone who has ever loved anyone learns, that love always carries with it the possibility of loss and disappointment. But what choice did he have? For years he had trusted God to deliver on his promise. To disobey God’s command now would be to deny his own past, his whole history, and thus just as surely to forfeit his future (which is what inevitably happens whenever we deny our past).

Our reading skips the part of the story, where Abraham evasively answered Isaac’s question about what they were going to sacrifice. Abraham could not know that God was going to spare Isaac at the last minute. But he was convinced that somehow God would keep his promise. He understood that, whatever the future might hold, he could only have access to it by remaining faithful to his past – to God who chose him and whom Abraham had chosen in return. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.[Hebrews 11:17-19]

Not for nothing does the Roman Canon call Abraham our father in faith. He didn’t know precisely what would happen when he reached the mountain-top. But he did know that our relationship with God is based on trust and that, whatever else happens, the one thing we have to keep on doing is to keep on trusting. The binding power of any relationship is measured by its sacrificial seriousness, the depth of one’s commitment and of one’s willingness to answer, like Abraham, “Here, I am.”  We are here today to say our “Here, I am” to God’s invitation to the fullest possible relationship with him. We are able to do that, not just because of Abraham and Isaac’s example, but because we have come to know and have experienced the ultimate keeper of God’s promise - Abraham and Isaac’s greatest descendant, Jesus, who said “Here, I am” to his Father and so was called the beloved Son, the one and only Savior of the world, to whom we (with Peter, James, and John, and all the Church - past, present, and future - here and everywhere) have now been commanded to listen.

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, February 25, 2018.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Three Billboards (The Movie)

With just a week to go before the Academy Awards (and a Regal Gift card to use up), this seemed like a good time to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It is one of the nominees for the Oscars' Best Picture, having already won four Golden Globe Awards. It is unquestionably a well-made film, by In Bruges Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh, with superb acting - especially on the part of its three principal characters, Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the vengeful grieving mother of a raped and murdered daughter, Woody Harrelson, the town's popular police chief, and Sam Rockwell, his stupid, bigoted, violent, immature "mama's boy" deputy. The film also features young actor Lucas Hedges, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his 2016 performance in Manchester by the Sea. With such a lineup, the movie is certainly well worth seeing. 

That said, it is certainly one of the saddest portrayals of our present human condition currently on offer. Mildred, the grieving mother, is a bitter, vengeful woman, angry (so it seems) at virtually everyone and everything. Of course, she has a good reason to be angry (more than one good reason, actually); but the most public object of her anger, the terminally ill and very popular Police Chief, seems in fact to be doing his best to solve the crime, a crime which is no closer to being solved at the movie's end - after almost two hours of mayhem and misery - than it was at the beginning. What to do when what the situation one is so angry about has no prospect of being resolved to one's satisfaction? Mildred's answer seems to be to stay as angry as possible and to lash out at as many people (and institutions) as possible - and to do so in as irrational and destructive a way as possible.

The other characters aren't much better. All of them - Mildred included - have their redeeming qualities and are admirably capable of kindness to one another, in spite of all the harm they have suffered at each other's hands. But they are all caught up in the miasma that is life in that place at that time. What a parable about the quality of life in contemporary rural America!

Of course, the terrible tragedy that happened to Mildred's daughter, Angela - and by extension to the entire family and the larger community - has made everything worse. But things were obviously pretty awful in Ebbing even before. The one flashback scene - set shortly before Angela's death - says it all. In that scene, the family's dysfunction is front and center,  and the family members' mutual hostility is evident in the way they relate to each other - and above all in the pathetically vulgar way they talk to each other. (Hardly anyone in the film seems in the slightest bit capable of vocalizing a literate English sentence using words which would meet the minimal decency standards of Network TV.)

There are, presumably, other people in town. Apparently, there is a church. And obviously there is a school (which Mildred's son attends). If those institutions moderate the surrounding culture of misery, there is no evidence of it. The closest thing to a social center for the community is a bar, which tells us a lot right there about the kind of rural, small-town dystopia in which the characters are clearly trapped. If the individual and family lives lived by any of those other people in town are significantly better, we see no sign of it. Even the Police Chief's family life (seemingly so much more stable and satisfying than either Mildred's family life or the deputy's) turns out to have underlying problems.

Then again, of course, problems - even tragedies - are a part of life, and no individual or family can completely escape them. Rather it is how we cope with them that largely defines us. How well society equips its citizens to cope with their personal, familial, and social struggles significantly determines how well we survive, what kind of society we are, and what kind of people we become as a consequence. Three Billboards  illustrates how, at least in rural, small-town Ebbing, society has monumentally and abysmally failed its citizens. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Washington's Birthday

Despite the ubiquity of "Presidents Day," Washington's Birthday remains the official name for this week's federal holiday - albeit transferred for consumerist reasons from its proper day (today) to this past Monday. Back when I was in school, Washington's Birthday was the second of two patriotic holidays in February - school holidays roughly midway between Christmas vacation and Easter vacation. Washington's Birthday also served as a convenient illustration for teaching about the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars. The Protestant British initially refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar but finally did so 70 years later in 1752. That meant that when George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, it was still only February 11, 1731, in Virginia where he was born in what was then British North America.

Recently, The NY Times surveyed some 170 representative political scientists from the American Political Science Association who, unsurprisingly, rated Abraham Lincoln as our best president, George Washington as second, with FDR in 3rd place - rankings unchanged from the last time this survey was conducted in 2014, Our current incumbent came in last  at number 45.  Given how easily and frequently historical memory and judgments change, perhaps it would be fairer not to include incumbents at least until they are out of office - and perhaps maybe even a little longer. Be that as it may, there is nothing surprising of seriously controversial about Washington's high ranking in our presidential pantheon. 

Washington's administration had some significant substantive accomplishments. But surely his greatest accomplishment was to shape and define the office of the presidency. Article Two of the Constitution created a vessel that needed to be filled, and it was Washington who did the filling. He gave the office its dignity, effectively that of an elective monarch, who, however circumscribed his formal powers, effectively reigns as the embodiment of the nation. That is why a bad president is so problematic - not just because of the bad policies he may pursue but also because he represents us, and when he is bad we in turn become that much worse.

Above and beyond all that, for us parochial school kids back in the Eisenhower-Camelot era, Washington's Birthday also had a uniquely sectarian significance, since it coincided with the Church's feast of Saint Peter's Chair. It was pure coincidence, of course, but we were happy to ascribe significance to honoring "the Father of our Country" on the same day that we celebrated the papal primacy. Honoring thus our Holy Father and the "Father of our Country" on the same day seemed somehow a suitable expression of Catholic immigrants' long struggle to reconcile our dual loyalties in a way that made them complementary rather than competing - both in our own consciousness and to challenge established Protestant America's suspicion and disdain. And it worked.

But interconnected and cross-cutting concerns only highlight how important the person of the president - his public character - really is, the serious symbolic level on which he functions for American citizens, ever since Washington himself first defined the office for us and for his successors.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Munich (The Novel)

September 2018 will mark the 80th anniversary of the (in)famous Munich conference from which Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought back "peace in our time" - or, more precisely, another year's grace in which to build up Britain's military readiness to wage the war which would soon be inevitable. The story of Munich is a good example of how important it is to read correctly a situation capable of many correct interpretations. On its face, the conflict at issue concerned whether to unite with Germany those German-speaking populations who had been unwillingly trapped in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Versailles, something hardly worth starting another world war over. But it also represented one more step in Hitler's long-term plan to conquer Eastern Europe, something certainly more worth going to war about. From history's vantage point the latter reality colors our interpretation and evaluation of Chamberlain as an "appeaser." But obviously at the time the former interpretation was just as plausible. And, in any case, even if he were convinced that the latter interpretation was the the more relevant one, Chamberlain was hardly in any position to start a war with Germany. He needed time for Hitler to show his hand more clearly and for Britain and France to get ready to resist him.

That was the background both for the real Munich conference of 1938 and for Robert Harris' latest novel. Harris is the author of several well-received historical novels - ranging from the history of ancient Rome to the modern papacy. Harris faithfully portrays the events leading up to and during the Munich conference and does an excellent job of depicting the personalities of the principal characters - in particular, Chamberlain. Harris portrays a Chamberlain who understood Britain's unpreparedness and his people's obsessive preoccupation with avoiding another way (true also of the German people - to Hitler's chagrin - as Harris so aptly shows). Chamberlain is depicted as understanding (better than some of those around him) the need not only to buy time to prepare for war but also to use Hitler's own words to trap him - so that, when eventually he committed further aggression, his mendacity and hypocrisy would be revealed to all, highlighting the moral case for war (a case which could not convincingly be made as long as the issue was just the Sudetenland).

A novel needs fictional characters. So Harris tells his tale through the experience of two historically plausible but fictional participants. They are two relatively young men, one British and one German, who had been friends years before as students at Oxford and who now serve on the staffs of the real-life participants. Hugh Legat is in the British delegation ostensibly because he speaks fluent German. Paul von Hartmann, who speaks fluent English, is actually also part of a secret group that hopes to overthrow Hitler. The plot revolves around von Hartmann's effort to derail an agreement by revealing to his English friend information that proves Hitler has long-term aggressive plans. The fictional story is told with just the right amount of suspense and danger to highlight the complexities of the actual historical account,

Being a novel nowadays apparently requires some sex, but the romantic side-plots really add little to the story. Legat's unhappy marriage may serve as somehow symbolic of the general moral and cultural rot among the upper classes - the establishment elites that had led Britain into its weak position. But even that may be a bit of a stretch. Otherwise, Harris has created an excellent account that can contribute significantly to teaching about Munich and understanding its real historical significance beyond the polemics and slogans that have been attached to it.for so many of the past 80 years.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Caput Quadragesimae

This Sunday once served as the ancient beginning of Lent - before the belated addition of Ash Wednesday and the subsequent weekdays. Of course, our contemporary Lent now includes those four earlier days, starting with what has long been one of the most popular days of the year when churches everywhere are filled with people eager to get dirt on their faces and be told they are going to die. But anyone who perchance missed out on Ash Wednesday for whatever reason is free to think of him or herself as just following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, indeed, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.

For those inclined to count, the Lenten countdown of 40 days actually begins today. (Hence the traditional title Quadragesima Sunday). The late 20th-century liturgical reformation eliminated some distinctive Lenten practices (folded chasubles, Vespers in the morning, etc.) and standardized what was left so as to begin them all together on Ash Wednesday, rather than just some on Ash Wednesday and the rest today. On the other hand, the same liturgical reformation highlighted this Sunday in a new way with the restored Rite of Election, whereby catechumens and others preparing for the sacraments of initiation at Easter are formally presented to (and symbolically chosen by) the Bishop. The wonderful story is told of how a certain Archbishop, preparing to celebrate his first Rite of Election on this Sunday back in the 1980s, felt inspired when he realized that the reason his great cathedral was filled was that all those people wanted to become Catholic!

For the rest of us every year on this Sunday the Church invites us to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the silence and solitude of the desert. This Sunday’s ancient importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert! 

Way back when, as the familiar story [Genesis 2] reminds us, Adam had lived peacefully in harmony with nature, his food provided for him (according to Jewish legend) by angels. So Jesus’ sojourn, among wild beasts while angels ministered to him, Is a reminder that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of all the obstacles we have since put in God’s way.

That, of course, was the point of God’s covenant with Noah [Genesis 9"8-15]. Despite the virtual universality of sin in the world, God in his mercy patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved [1 Peter 3:18-22].  God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his righteous anger and setting his bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, to guarantee the continuance of human life on this planet.

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sin, descending himself into the prison of death to free those who had gone before. Jesus’ descent among the dead, described in the 1st letter of Peter, anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface R1] in his kingdom, so too the Church gives us this special Lenten season every year to take time to renew ourselves - not in a self-centered, self-focused sort of way, but by focusing once again on the big picture, and where we hope to be in that bigger picture. 
How to do that?
In a sermon probably preached on this 1st Sunday of Lent in 5th-century North Africa, Saint Augustine challenged his hearers to "fast from quarrels and discord" and to "pardon the offender what has been committed, and give to the person in need." [Sermon 205]

Friday, February 16, 2018


In what turned out to be his last public lecture (at NYU, October 19, 2009), the late Tony Judt said: Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. ... the rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

The twentieth century - as Judt well understood - was a century of unparalleled horror. It was, however, also a century (especially the latter half of it) of great progress. Between 1945 and 1965, for example (as David Goldfield has shown in The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good), America certainly became a better and more just society. And, just as it was Europeans who experienced the horrors much more directly than most Americans, it was Europeans who made greater social progress overall. The perversely American preference for privileging private profit over the public good has long limited our society's moral and cultural advancement and accounts for our moral and cultural backwardness compared with much of Europe. Still there were real accomplishments in advancing the common good in the United States in the 20th-century, which makes the regression that began with the disastrous election of 1980 that much more lamentable. 

In that same lecture, Judt quoted Tolstoy that there are "no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him." That certainly increasingly describes the sad state of American society today.

There is hardly a better example of this than our continued passive acquiescence in yet another tragic mass shooting - as if such events were some sort of natural disaster that just happens randomly to afflict us, leaving us with no better response than hypocritical "thoughts and prayers.".

Undoubtedly multiple factors could have contributed to the Ash Wednesday attack on students at a school in Florida. One factor, however, had the effect of making the event so fatal - the killer's access to a gun. It is a distinguishing mark of civilized society that society itself - through the agency of the State - exercises a monopoly on the use of deadly force, bearing the "sword," as Saint Paul put it, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:14). 

The individual private possession of deadly firearms for private disconnected from the public mission of law-enforcement is incompatible with what it means to be a seriously civilized society. But, once again, we have become accustomed to - and thus accepting of - the privileging of what is private over and against the common good.

Had there not been another mass murder on Ash Wednesday, this week's pre-eminent example of our "heedless rush to dismantle" some of the 20th century's more notable achievements would have been the failure - yet again - of Congress to come up with a solution to our conflicted response to immigration. 

Admittedly, immigration is a less clear-cut, more morally complex question than the problem of private persons' access to guns for private purposes. A "land of immigrants" we may be, but American history highlights the challenges - as well as the many benefits - that can accompany large-scale immigration and rapid ethnic-demographic change. The United States took a breather from massive immigration in the 1920s. and, while the motivations underlying that pause were wicked, for the most part, the pause may have served America well, allowing time for assimilation and putting the lid on a contentious and divisive issue in time for the stresses of Depression and World War. Then, in a time of renewed prosperity, post-war America's more ethnically diverse but culturally more united society successfully reopened Lady Liberty's "Golden Door" to new populations of immigrants, who have since enriched our society well beyond the expectations of the post-war era.

Inevitably, another stress-point seems to have been reached, beneficially increasing American society's ethnic and cultural diversity but with the problematic downside of dangerously explosive cultural disunity. As Judt himself noted in that same final lecture (and others have made the same point since then): it is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely.

The challenge on immigration policy is to negotiate the kind of compromise which will reduce some of that stress without dismantling more open immigration's great late-20th-century achievement. Whether there may be any realistic hope to negotiate such a compromise remains to be seen. That we have grown accustomed to and everyone seems to have accepted the structural dysfunctionality of our legislative process and the polarized politics that have produced it suggests little basis for any such hope - on immigration any more than on the issue of guns.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


There is ... no city or nation ... where the proclamation of the Lenten fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no man then separate himself from the number of the fasters, in which ever race of mankind, every period of life, every class of society is included. So spoke Saint Basil the Great (330-379) in one of his famous Lenten sermons, highlighting the seeming universality of the Church's Lenten observance in the 4th century. That observance was focused on fasting, a practice which continued, with growing mitigation, until its virtually complete elimination in the late 20th century. 

A somewhat progressively inclined confrere, now sadly deceased, once remarked how strange he thought it that Lent had survived at all in the post-conciliar liturgical reformation. Yet survive it did (albeit deprived of its most distinctive and ancient practice of fasting). It has survived and can still be said to be the most popular season of the Church's calendar.

And so here we find ourselves at the beginning of another Lent, with the seriousness of  Ash Wednesday competing this year with the frivolity of Valentine's Day. For all its popularity, Ash Wednesday (along with the 3 following days) was actually a late addition to Lent. The popular practice of receiving Ashes on this day probably originated in connection with the long-defunct Order of Penitents. Originally it was the official Penitents who received Ashes and who were then "expelled" on Ash Wednesday to spend the rest of Lent doing Penance in preparation for being reconciled to the Church and readmitted on Holy Thursday. In the absence of an Order of Penitents, the practice has been universalized and the Church now invites all of us both to receive blessed ashes and to undertake some modified version of penance. This is often popularized as "giving up something," but it can also take the form of added activities such as prayer and characteristic Lenten devotions as well as acts of charity and service to others. Far from being an end in itself, fasting was once seen primarily as a spur to prayer and charity

In effect, Lent represents a kind of (much needed for most of us) intensification in the Church's observance - an opportunity to reassess  one's relationships with God, with the Church, and with the world, a time to reexamine one's past in order to reform in the present in light of our common hope for the future. It represents in a heightened way what all our time on earth is meant to be: Even now you set before your people a time of grace and reconciliation, and, as they turn back to you in spirit, you grant them hope in Christ Jesus and a desire to be of service to all, while they entrust themselves more fully to the Holy Spirit. (Eucharistic Prayer I for Reconciliation)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lincoln's Birthday

When I was growing up, Lincoln's Birthday on February 12 was the first legal holiday after New Year's, our first day off from regular school after Christmas Vacation. With Washington's Birthday on February 22, that made two school holidays in this short month. Back then, the entire school year was punctuated by patriotic holidays - Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Lincoln's and Washington's Birthdays, and finally Memorial Day. Some of those holidays are hardly observed at all anymore, and if acknowledged at all they are mainly observed as occasions for popular pursuits utterly unrelated to the original purpose of the holiday.

I believe Lincoln's Birthday is still a state holiday in New York. It never was a federal holiday. The only February federal holiday is still Washington's Birthday - still its official name, but now emptied of its meaning by being celebrated on the third Monday of the month. Some states that used to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday have abandoned it and seem to have folded it in with Washington's Birthday into our meaningless "Presidents Day."

Abraham Lincoln is still widely regarded as our country's greatest president - both for having won the Civil War (and thus saving the Union) and also for having invested saving the union with a higher moral claim by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and pushing for the 13th Amendment. Of course, other presidents also deserve the label "great." Washington, obviously, deserves the label for making the constitution actually work and investing the presidency with serious and symbolic substance far greater than the sparse words of  the Constitution's Article II accorded it. And FDR, also obviously, for having transformed both the nation and the presidency in response to the needs of a new century, so dramatically different from the country the constitution was written for. Like Lincoln, FDR died at the time of his greatest success. So both are always associated with victory, rather than with war's messy aftermath.

That trio of "Greatest" Presidents are if anything all the more relevant today when virtually everything they stood for is being trashed by what was once "the Party of Lincoln."

Addressing the United States Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln as “the guardian of liberty.” The Pope then continued:

“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. … Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. … The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience. …It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"If You wish"

We began Mass this morning with an announcement about precautions connected with this year’s flu epidemic. Flu comes and goes – its seriousness varying in mysterious ways from year to year. This year marks the centennial of the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” –the most devastating world-wide flu pandemic of the modern era, which claimed up to 20% of its victims’ lives.

Some people are just healthier than others; but few of us escape any sickness at all. Some are much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill, the likelihood of which increases as we age. And we all worry about some new disease – or the return of an old one like the flu - unexpectedly upsetting business as usual. My “Baby-Boom” generation can clearly remember the last  great polio epidemic in the early 1950s – the last such epidemic in the US, thanks to the development of the polio vaccine, which as 1st graders many of us were among the first to receive. That particular epidemic induced tremendous panic. People were terrified of a dangerous disease, which many feared might never be conquered. Since then, thanks to effective efforts to vaccinate people everywhere against polio, that disease is now close to being eradicated in the world.

All that should help us appreciate the anxiety ancient people felt when faced with the mysterious disease they called leprosy. Hence, the Old Testament’s extensive instructions on how to deal with it, some of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading. Until 1969, the United Sates had a similar system of legally enforced segregation of lepers in Hawaii – made famous for generations of Catholic school children by the heroic story of Saint Damien of Molokai, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall, and the more recently canonized Saint Marianne Cope, who likewise served the leper colony in Hawaii.

In ancient Israel, what was called leprosy was often a superficial skin condition, which was curable. Hence the law provided for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being cured. Until one had been properly examined and certified as healed, however, a “leper” remained ritually impure.

In such a world, where it was believed that only God could heal leprosy and where sickness was seen as a serious threat, the leper was shunned. Cut off from ordinary life and regular relationships with others, the leper’s lot was a sad one indeed. Then suddenly, into all this sadness, appeared Jesus.

Apparently, the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds. So suddenly a leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

If you wish!” What exactly are we to suppose that “if” meant? Did the leper doubt Jesus? And, if so, what exactly was he doubting about Jesus? Apparently, he didn’t doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him – quite amazing actually, given the general belief that only God could cure leprosy! If the leper had little or no doubt about Jesus’ power and ability, to heal him,  however, he still seems evidently to have wondered whether Jesus would heal him, in other words, whether he would want to heal him, whether he cared enough to heal him.

Jesus understood and answered: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But, before he said that, Jesus did something even more meaningful, something so radical it in fact that it implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.

In his desperation, the leper had boldly broken the Law and approached Jesus directly. Jesus reciprocated with a dramatic, unexpected touch that spoke more than all the words in the world. With that one touch, Jesus identified himself with the leper, dramatically ending his segregation from society. With that one powerful touch, Jesus summarized his entire mission to become one with us, and so to end our segregation from God and enable us to join together in the fuller, more abundant kind of life that God wants us to live.

The same Jesus, who stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, continues his healing touch here and now in the institutional and sacramental life of his body, the Church.  That touch is every bit as necessary now as it was then – not just because sickness and suffering still surround us, but because the leper’s doubt also persists. How many of us at times really wonder whether anyone cares? How many of us at times doubt deep down whether even God cares?

It is the mission and challenge of the Church – the mission and challenge therefore of each and every one of us – to express visibly and to embody physically God’s healing presence and saving power present in our world, to continue Christ’s caring for us, by caring as he does.

As the Law required, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to verify his healing, and to make the ritual offering in thanksgiving that the Law prescribed. Presumably, the leper went and did what was required for him to re-enter society, but the leper’s most powerful act of thanksgiving was to spread the report abroad and publicize the whole matter.

Whatever difficulties and doubts we may harbor, our healing will not be complete until we let Christ’s healing touch transform us - in and through our life and worship together as his Church - into agents of Christ’s caring touch to and for all the world.

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 11, 2018.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Trumpocracy (the Book)

A decade ago, who would have thought that "conservatives" and Republicans would seem to be okay with Russian misbehavior but be filled with righteous indignation against the FBI? Such is the strange world we now inhabit - in consequence of the presidency of Donald Trump and the underlying evolution of Republican tribalism that facilitated his assent. One of the leading "conservative" figures who opposed Trump's rise - and has continued to oppose Trump since his election - is David Frum, onetime speechwriter for President George W. Bush, now senior editor at The Atlantic, and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (Harper Colins, 2018).

Corruption in ordinary English often refers to financial chicanery, but it also can refer more classically to the  undermining of representative constitutional institutions by authoritarian (particularly "populist") institution-demeaning authoritarian-type politicians.  Frum is a classic "conservative" constitutionalist. Hence his focus is primarily on "corruption," institutionally understood - on how democracy "dies by degrees."

Appropriately, therefore, Frum begins by recalling modern, pre-Trump, political rule-breaking, undermining what Frum considers the foundation of constitutional democracy "a commitment first and foremost to the rules of the game."  Frum's examples include Republican threats not to raise the debt-ceiling, President Obama's unilateral move on DACA, and, of course, the conspiratorial claim that President Obama was not born in the U.S., which, Frum suggests, "revealed that as the country diversified, its conservatives would insist ever more militantly that no matter who might reside within the United States, the country's institutions and identity should belong only to those recognizably like them." As a "conservative" intellectual, Frum is very sensitive to how little Trump has delivered "by way of an affirmative conservative agenda," but how his supporters are instead "locked in by their cultural grievances," by Trump's "successful exploitation of conservative anger and alienation."

Frum traces the process by which "Enablers" and "Appeasers" facilitated Trump's political rise and then considers the consequences in chapters charmingly entitled "Plunder," "Betrayals," "Enemies of the People," "Rigged System," and "America Alone," chapters titles which effectively summarize their content. Frum's primary concern is institutional and constitutional damage. So (in the chapter "Autoimmune Disorder") he also worries when, to prevent presidential misuse of power, other abuses and norm-breaking may come to seem acceptable, with long-terms harmful consequences 

Of course, Trump did not rise to power primarily because of anyone's disenchantment with traditional constitutional norms. He rose to power primarily by his successful exploitation of the contradiction that has long been at the heart of the modern Republican party, which, as Frum recognizes, has been "built on a coalition of the nation's biggest winners from globalization and its biggest losers. The winners wrote the policy; the losers provided the votes. Wile the party elite coalesced upon more immigration, less secure health coverage, and one more Bush, the rank and file were frantically signaling: less immigration, better health coverage, and no more Bushes." This insight is so important, I think, because the institutional and constitutional concerns that excite and inspire Frum's panic will never override ordinary people's anxiety and anger - as the history of populist authoritarianism illustrates. In his chapter, rightly entitled "Resentments," Frum quotes Dale Beran: "Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them."

This is notably relevant in relation to religion. In the late 20th century, "conservative" religion seemed to have been captured by the political right. More recently, however, religion seems increasingly to be in political eclipse. How else to interpret the supposedly religious voters' rejection of the lifelong, devoted Methodist Hilary Clinton in favor of Trump? Frum quotes an acquaintance's observation that Trump is "the first postreligious conservative of my lifetime. The first who doesn't hate gays, doesn't care if women have abortions - the first who talks about things that matters now."  Central to the transformation of American "conservatism" that has empowered Trump has been "this stripping away of religiosity, to reveal a politics of resentment and domination ungrounded in any traditional moral claim."

Related to this is another significant insight of Frum's, which is how Trump has "accelerated the divorce of political power from cultural power," as illustrated in the contrast between the Republicans of the 1920s, who "drew strength from the country's more economically and culturally dynamic places" and the opposite situation today. Frum's fear of a conservative rejection of democracy pushes him to advocate for an alternative "conservatism that  can not only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible, that upholds markets at home and US leadership internationally."

Frum notes that baby boomers have become more "conservative" (42% so labeling themselves in 2011 as opposed to only 35% in 2000). But their "conservatism" is neither pro-business nor anti-government, but rather what Frum calls "the politics of generational self-defense."

But what about "conservative" ideological self-defense. Frum is strongly committed to constitutional and democratic norms; but as the contemporary conflict over voter-suppression, for example, illustrates, the "conservative" threat to traditional constitutional and democratic norms is a real one and one independent of Trump. As Frum admits, "the great threat to constitutional democracy has not been the demands for largesse by the many, but the fears for their property of the few."

What might Frum's analysis suggest for the primary policy issue of the moment - immigration reform? "in a multiethnic society economic redistribution inescapably implies ethnic redistribution," writes Frum, who notes the obvious "reality that human being most willingly cooperate when they feel common identity." It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that part of any process of rebuilding political and cultural trust in our society may require some lowering of the temperature on the immigration issue through some at least temporary reforms that reexamine the immigration policy priorities of the last half century. Whether and  how that can be accomplished in a way which both calms the cauldron that has been stirred by the economic and cultural costs of immigration without losing all the incontrovertible economic and cultural benefits of immigration remains to be seen.

Frum's final chapter ("Hope") considers what "gifts may be gained from this bad moment in American politics." Most obviously, Trump the candidate highlighted "issues neglected by more conventional politicians: the ravages of drug addiction, the costs of immigration, the cultural and economic decline of the industrial working class." And, he admits, "there is no denying now the outdatedness of the dogmas that gripped the Republican Party over the past decade."

Donald Trump's presidency poses unprecedented problems for constitutional democracy because of his indifference to and apparent contempt for traditional institutional norms and restraints. Even so, as Frum acknowledges (with some legitimate procedural concerns) many of those institutional restraints remain in place. What may be undermining those restraints' ability to be effective in checking Trump is the unholy bargain by which a backward looking political party, its leadership still stuck in 1980s ideological fantasies, has enabled Trump's personal agenda in return for his enabling his party's political agenda.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pio Nono

Today in some calendars is kept as the feast of Blessed Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), popularly know as Pio Nono, who was Pope from 1846 to 1878. Pope Saint John XXIII was sufficiently devoted to his 19th-century predecessor that he wrote in his Journal in 1959: "I always think of Pius IX of sacred and glorious memory and, by imitating him in his sufferings, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization." Pope John did not live to do as he had hoped. It was Pope Saint John Paul II who finally beatified Pius IX (together with John XXIII) years later on September 3, 2000.

Unfortunately for his memory Pius IX continues to be in the news nowadays, largely because of the lamentable part he played in the regrettable Edgardo Mortara affair, which still haunts the Church's relationship with Judaism and with the modern world. More than enough has been said and written about that tragic event. There is no need to say anything more here - except to recall that Christian anti-semitism has had a long and pernicious history persisting into the present and manifested not just in the 19th-century Mortara incident but in the 20th-century Holy See's resistance to recognizing the state of Israel until Pope Saint John Paul II belatedly did so in 1994. The residual power of such anti-semitism still shows itself in the strange hostility of some to Israel's efforts to survive as a state in an implacably hostile neighborhood.

Growing up, I knew nothing about the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara (1851-1940). For me and my schoolmates in the 1950s and 1960s, Pius IX was best known for his dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), for the First Vatican Council (1869-1970), and for his final years as "Prisoner of the Vatican" (1870-1878) after the Italian conquest of Rome. E.E.Y. Hales' biography, Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (P.J. Kennedy, 1954), which I read in high school, filled in some more details. But it was Vatican I and the Pope's failed fight against Italian unification (and the politics of the subsequent "Roman Question") that most interested me at that time. From Hales, I learned more of the pre-history of the "Roman Question" - e.g., the 1948 revolution which temporarily exiled Pope Pius IX from Rome. In a sermon celebrating the Pope's return to Rome under imperial French auspices, New York's mid-19th-century Archbishop John Hughes analogized the Pope's exile to Christ's passion, expressing the deep devotion to the person of the Pope which would become a hallmark of American Catholicism for the next century or so. 

Another prominent 19th-century American Catholic deeply devoted to the person of the Pope was Paulist Fathers' founder Isaac Hecker. Father Hecker had famously met twice with the Pope during his eventful 1857-1858 Roman interlude, and they seemed to have made a positive impression on each other. In April 1871, after the Italian conquest of Rome and the Holy City's absorption into the newly united, secular Kingdom of Italy, Hecker wrote to Orestes Brownson: "Every day my admiration increases at the attitude of the Holy Father in his defense of those principles which underlie the political order and natural morality." Pius IX, Hecker argued "is resisting the destruction of all human society." As "Prisoners of the Vatican," Pius IX and his successors served as strong symbols of the Church's resistance to the encroachments of secular society, for which the anti-clerical but otherwise largely conservative to moderate Italian monarchy had become an unlikely flagship.

Interestingly, the ideological devotion which the papal cause so inspired among the (non-Italian), American Catholic Establishment contrasted somewhat with the more ambivalent attitude of actual Italian-Americans. Italian immigrants were sometimes seen (by other American Catholics) almost as if they were victims of the new secular Italy, which was true to the extent that the new secular Italy had nothing much to offer them except emigration, but a dubious argument insofar as the intractable problems of southern Italy obviously predated unification (and had nothing to do with secularism). On the other hand, Italian immigrants in the U.S. themselves notoriously held public services and processions mourning King Vittorio Emmanuele II in 1878 - in spite of strong objections from the (as always non-Italian) American Catholic establishment.

An Italian himself, Pius IX proved much more sympathetic and accomodating - allowing the King to be reconciled to the Church just before his death and permitting him to be buried in a noteworthy Roman church (the Pantheon). That stands in significant contrast to the barbaric behavior of the Roman mob that subsequently tried to throw Pius IX's corpse into the Tiber, while it was being transferred to his final resting place at Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls.

The pontificate of Pius IX, no less than the man himself, exemplified the pluses and minuses, the authentic religious devotion and problematic political obstinacy, that at  various times has characterized so much of the Church's relationship with the modern society and its secularized state. It illustrates the still unresolved dimensions of some of that tension that 140 years after his death Pius IX's memory is still a matter of contention - so virulently attacked by ideologues on one side and so obstinately defended by ideologues on the other. The reality is that he was in fact one part of the uncomfortable encounter between religion and modernity, and that some aspects of that encounter remain unsatisfactorily unresolved even today.

(Photo: Tomb of Blessed Pius IX, Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls in Rome, photo taken by me in 2012.)

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Superbowl Sunday

Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman times and the nineteenth century. Even in the English public schools the games cult did not start till the later part of the last century. Dr Arnold, generally regarded as the founder of the modern public school, looked on games as simply a waste of time. Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.  (George Orwell, "The Sporting Spirit," 1945)
That great holiday of our capitalist entertainment culture, Super Bowl Sunday (which used to be in January but has since migrated to February) has arrived. Its ritualistic over-the-top observance will undoubtedly dominate the media, (even without the more recent innovation of a presidential interview). It is, after all, a very big business. 

The first "Superbowl" was played on January 15, 1967. I remember the day.  At the time I payed no attention at all to the game itself, but I can remember lots of other people doing so. If I had had the words of Orwell's memorable essay on the tip of my tongue then, I would perhaps have expressed them They seem, if anything, more pointedly relevant now than they were even then or when Orwell himself first wrote them.

Growing up, I was more or less compelled to attend Baseball games at Yankee Stadium. Looking back at the experience, I think my main recollection would be boredom. But that was baseball, after all.  In my first year of graduate school, I and some of my classmates went to a football game - the Princeton-Harvard Game - mainly to enjoy (or at least experience ) the spectacle and soak in some Ivy League sensibility. Having enjoyed some Lower Manhattan Ticker Tape Parades for World Series winners, I can certainly appreciate the sense of civic pride some people take in their local teams' victories - especially when the things which we probably really ought to be taking civic pride in seem so much less so! Still, as pseudo-religions go the modern cult of competitive sports, seems rather more, not less, problematic all the time. 

If Orwell focused mainly on the moral costs connected with the cult of competitive sports, more recent attention has highlighted the physical costs associated especially with football. 

If competitive sports (football most especially) do physical and moral damage in the first place to their participants, what more pervasive moral damage must they do in and to a culture that thrives on them?

Friday, February 2, 2018


The familiar carol stops at 12, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas and the definitive end of the Christmas season. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one ancient way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. This is a very ancient religious feast, which incorporates several interrelated themes, reflected in the different names given to this day. All these different names illustrate how full of meaning this festival is, and how much it has to teach us.

What is officially currently called the Presentation of the Lord, was for several centuries called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Gospel story [Luke 2:22-40] recalls how. when Jesus was 40 days old, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses, that is to say, in obedience to God’s law, in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the obligation of a new mother to be purified 40 days after after childbirth. This reflected ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood. Life was believed to reside in the blood, which was, therefore, something sacred and mysterious. Hence, any direct contact with blood required ritual purification. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus).

Whether officially titled the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early pre-dawn procession and until the 1960s a penitential procession in purple vestments – with which today’s Mass begins.

The name Candlemas calls attention to the blessed candles, but more pointedly to their light – and to the One whom that light symbolizes. The Church’s official ceremonial says that “on this day Christ’s faithful people, with candles in their hands, go out to meet the Lord and to acclaim him with Simeon, who recognized Christ as ‘a light to reveal God to the nations.’ They should therefore be taught to walk as children of the light in their entire way of life, because they have a duty to show the light of Christ to all by acting in the works that they do as lighted lamps.”

A secular version of Candlemas is, of course, “Groundhog Day.” Not so long ago, everyone in the western world knew about Candlemas Day. Today, most seem to have forgotten. As I wrote yesterday, even in the vibrant Catholic counter-culture of my 1950s parochial school, Candlemas made no major impression. How much less can we expect it to do so now that the Church's liturgy and ordinary life have become almost completely disconnected?

Yet even people who have never heard of Candlemas can relate to the folklore connected with this day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer.  Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

Today we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek [cf. Malachy 3:1]. At the same time, we hear, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. So, even as we take a last loving look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter. Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.

When Simeon and Anna experienced in the infant Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim and share their good news. That remains our task today – to take the light of these candles out into our spiritually still so very dark world, and so to share with all the light reflected in our own lives from the brightness of the human face of God.