Saturday, August 31, 2019

Caring for our Common Home

Tomorrow is the 5th Annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, established by Pope Francis in 2015 as an opportunity to reaffirm our “personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live.”

As Pope Francis has warned in his 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home (202, 204):

Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal. … When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.

Beginning with Pope Benedict XVI and continuing with Pope Francis, the Holy See has taken a real lead on this issue, serving as a strong voice for the moral imperative of caring for our common home.  But the challenge "to change course" is an imperative for all at every level in Church and society.

Photo: “Earthrise,” the famous photograph of the Earth, taken from lunar orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, called "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” by Australian photographer Galen Rowell.

Friday, August 30, 2019

"A Deep and Boiling Anger"

In this Stephen Lam/Reuters photo, counter demonstrators and supporters of President Trump fight for a U.S. flag during a March 2017 rally in Berkeley, CA. The photo appears at the head of an August 25 "NBC News/Meet the Press article about the latest NBC/Wall street Journal poll, which found that a majority of Americans "are angry at the nation's political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they're leaving for the next generation.

The complete article can be accessed at (The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted August 10-14 of 1,000 adults — more than half reached by cellphone — and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.)

“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”

That anger and dissatisfaction remain widespread - at what once upon a time might have been considered alarming levels - is evident to the most casual observer of the contemporary American scene. What may be even more interesting in the poll results may be what they reveal about some significant shifts in important values. Thus, for example, whereas 20 years ago 70% said patriotism was very important, now only 61% do. The number citing religion as very important  decreased even more, from 62% in 1998 to 40% now. The generational difference regarding these important social values is also significantly stark. Among those 18-38, only 42% consider patriotism very important, while, of those over 55, 79% do. Regarding religion, among those under 38, only 30%  regard religion as very important, compared to 54% of those over 55. Also, ominously, only 32% of those under 38, say having children in very important. Ideological factors aside, that is less surprising given that majorities of all groups - adults under 35 (68%). seniors (64%), poor and working class (71%), high income (64%), white (67%), black (73%), and Hispanic (64%) - "all say they are not confident that their children's generation will be better off."

“There is an emerging America where issues like children, religion, and patriotism are far less important,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “And in America, it’s the emerging generation that calls the shots about where the country’s headed.”

None of this sugests a particularly promising future!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Debate Deadline Day

Yesterday was the final day for candidates to qualify for the September 12 Democratic presidential candidate debate to be held in Houston, TX. Conveniently, it appears 10 have qualified – convenient because that is the maximum number that can debate at the same time according to the rules of the Democratic National Committee and the debate’s sponsor ABC. The lucky 10 are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Juli├ín Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang.

Obviously, not everyone is pleased with this outcome - notably those who didn't manage to make the final cut. Of course, if they are able to persevere, they still have a chance to make it into October's debate, since the requirements will be the same (which means that everyone who has qualified for September has already qualified for October, and others may yet join them).

The whole thing is a bit of a mess, all of which makes me even more nostalgic for the good old days when people waited until election year itself to announce their candidacies. (John F. Kennedy, for example, announced his candidacy on January 2, 1960). Of course, for that to work we would have to be willing to wait for the voters (or at least that privileged minority of voters who participate in the early primaries and caucuses) to register their preferences. Instead, we want to start the winnowing process way before any actual votes are cast. Hence, our dubious reliance on polls and fundraising as measurements of a candidate's worthiness. A more "democratic" system that prioritized the votes of actual voters in the primaries and caucuses would have to treat this pre-election-year noise with a lot less attention and not try to sort out the candidates by pre-political means. But, since politics has become entertainment, there is obviously no chance of that happening.

Of course, if you are going to have debates this early, some sort of criteria have to be set for who can qualify. Otherwise the "debates" would be an even more disorderly shambles than they already actually are. Who can blame the DNC for "fighting the last war" and trying to avoid the sorry spectacle the Republicans served up with their debates in 2016? The problem is that every reform, every change in process almost invariably involves "fighting the last war" and results in unintended consequences that are objected to in the current context.

The candidates who failed to qualify remain free to continue their campaigns. They can still campaign the old-fashioned way, by asking people in Iowa and New Hampshire to vote for them in 2020. Who can predict any outcome with certainty? Maybe one of the candidates who failed to qualify for the September debate will surprise the pollsters, fundraisers, and pundits in Iowa or New Hampshire.  That might or might not produce the best possible president, but it would probably be good for the democratic process overall.

The one really good thing about the September debate is that, for the first time, all those generally thought to be major contenders will be on the same stage debating each other. Having 10 people competing on one stage is still procedurally too many and not the best format for picking a president, but it does at least offer the public an opportunity to compare them in that unique setting, which certainly is better than relying on the comparisons fed to us exclusively by pollsters, fundraisers, and pundits..

Monday, August 26, 2019

One Heart and Mind

The New Testament Acts of the Apostles famously describes the original apostolic Christian community in Jerusalem as one in heart and mind (Acts 4:32). That image came back to me yesterday at Sunday Mass as I prayed the Collect: O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that,, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found (literally: Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id desiderare quod promittis, ut, inter mundanas varietates, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.This collect is ancient and used to be that for the 4th Sunday after Easter in the traditional (pre-1969) Roman Rite. 

In Acts, the implications of the faithful's unity in heart and mind were clear. No one claimed any possessions as exclusively one's own, and they shared everything in common. While that specific arrangement didn't last, it anticipated the various approximations to it throughout the Church's history and recalled the traditional Christian concept of the universal destination of goods. "Solidarity," as Pope Francis has recently reminded us, "is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property" (Evangelii Gaudium, 189)

All of which led me to wonder while contemplating yesterday's Collect: Is it because we are so divided (despite the Collect's wishful thinking) that we are so in the grip of "possessive individualism," to use C.B. Macpherson's famous phrase (C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, 1962)? Or is it because we are so stuck  in "possessive individualism" that we are so divided? That we are divided - not just within the Church but throughout society - is obvious to any observer. And it seems increasingly evident that more and more people are tailoring their religious beliefs to conform to their political ideologies, thereby reinforcing and compounding such divisions. So much for having our hearts fixed on that place where true gladness is found!

That is hardly a novel phenomenon; but in our era it seems to have attained new salience, as, for example, journalist Tim Alberta recently wrote in American Carnage (p. 456), "students of a faith that stresses the eternal, not the ephemeral, pledged their uncritical allegiance to an earthly leader in exchange for political gratification." How often has that happened?

Political power may be just one more, particularly insidious, form of worldly wealth (also very useful for guaranteeing long-term possession of other forms of worldly wealth). All of which brings one back to Acts' normative, if idealized, image of the apostolic community's unity in heart and mind rooted facilitated by their detachment from possessiveness.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Time Is Now

Since the 1870s, the Paulist Fathers have had a summer vacation home in the Adirondack Mountain Region at Lake George, NY, where Isaac Hecker and the early Paulists would go for relief from the summer heat of the city. Our seminarians still go there each year after they finish their summer assignments and before going back to school. In the late 19thcentury, before the local parish church was built, the Paulists used to celebrate Mass for the local community in a public building in the village. One Sunday, so the story goes, some unfriendly neighbors locked the door to prevent Father Hecker from getting in. Hecker, however, found an unlocked ground-floor window and climbed in – followed by the entire congregation. He then used as his sermon theme Jesus’ words we just heard: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”

For several weeks, the Sunday gospels have highlighted Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about their new life and the choices it requires. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus says. Strive suggests struggle, commitment, focus, intensity of effort. Even more, in a conversation in which most of the verbs are in the future tense, Jesus speaks specifically in the present, do it now, Jesus says. The time to enter that narrow gate is now. There is only just so much time.  Time is that one absolute constraint on our human freedom that we cannot overcome or transcend. Time – that is, the limited amount of time – challenges us to focus our lives on what matters most in human life. When it’s over, we may wish we had used our time better, used it to focus on the things that should have mattered more to us. We may wish we had entered when the door was still open, but by then the door will be locked, and it will be too late to change our minds.

The point, of course, is that however narrow the gate may be, as of now it is still open - open for us, for all sorts of people to squeeze through, from the east and the west and from the north and the south, as Jesus says, echoing Isaiah’s image of the Lord coming to gather nations of every language. Imagine Gentiles being transformed by God himself into priests and Levites!

Isaiah’s image invites us to hear today’s Gospel in its fullness. The fact that gate is narrow is indeed a challenge – but not a menace. Sure, the gate is narrow – too narrow for me to squeeze through on my own. But, of course, it’s not about me. It’s about God’s great plan for the world. It’s about what God is doing and going to do – and about my and your and his and her and our wanting to be part of it, wanting to focus on what matters most, here and now.

The opposite of discouragement and despair, of course, is presumption, the idea that entry is some sort of right, no effort required. We will avoid both despair and presumption when we appreciate that the effort and energy involved is a team project. Listen to Isaiah. People don’t just show up from all the nations. They are brought in by others sent out to get them. We squeeze through the narrow gate together. And, as long as we willingly help one another – and are willing to be helped in turn – that gate will prove wide enough.

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 25, 2019.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Mike Wallace (The Movie)

I haven't watched 60 Minutes in years, but there was a time when I watched the show, which debuted in September 1968 when I was 20, fairly faithfully. For almost almost four decades from that program;s beginning, Mike Wallace (1918-2012) was one of its regular correspondents. Mike Wallace Is Here, a documentary film directed by Avi Belkin, chronicles his TV career almost completely out of archival footage, portraying him largely as he portrayed himself.

So we see footage from his early, pre-CBS career as an entertainer in 1950s TV and his first opportunity to find his vocation as an interviewer on Night Beat in 1956.

But it was his CBS work and, above all, his 60 Minutes interviews that defined him for a generation of news-watchers - even as his image and voice defined his distinctive style of journalism. Even if one doesn't care that much about Mike Wallace personally, his interviews with the great and the good - and the bad and the very bad - made their mark in their time and are well worth revisiting in this wonderful movie, which highlights not only the high points of his investigative journalism (Vietnam, Watergate, tobacco) but his interpersonal interactions with everyone from Bette Davis to Barbara Streisand to Oriana Fallaci to Ayatollah Khomeini to General Westmorland to a young Donald Trump to Bill O'Reilly (the last two perhaps a look ahead into the world Wallace's style inadvertently pointed ahead to).

We learn about the death of his 19-year old son Peter in a 1962 hiking accident in Greece, but not too much more about his private life until late in the film when he suddenly becomes frank and personal about his struggle with depression and his reflections on aging. As I experience the diminishments of age and look ahead uncertainly to the ambiguities of life no longer defined by one's work, I found that particular part of the film especially engaging.

As he reveals more about himself, Wallace becomes if not more likable at least somewhat sympathetic a character, which makes this movie much more than just another nostalgic journey down memory lane.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In Search of the Common Good

Jake Meador's In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Inter-Varsity Press, 2019) offers an explicitly evangelical perspective on politics and society that is also surprisingly somewhat Catholic in its inspiration, language, and aspirations. It is perhaps unsurprising that he starts out asserting: "Our decline is a predictable product of choices we have made." More surprising, that statement introduces a critique not just of secular society's social breakdown (saved for chapter two) but of the Christian Churches themselves: "Where God calls his people to service, the American church has far too often pursued power. ... A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up."

Only after confronting the Churches' failures does he turn to society. Though he never uses the term, Meador makes a sort of natural-law argument for connecting Christian and more universal moral norms: "Christianity's moral norms are based on the idea that there is a way people are meant to function in the world." Meador's corollary: "Religious life and common life decline together."

He eloquently describes the increasingly familiar consequences of our individualistic culture: the depletion of America's "social capital," Americans' increasing loneliness, social media and screen-based activities, and the decline of the family, "the spiritual cost to having fewer children in a society" and the outsourcing of everyday care. The crisis is "a comprehensive social breakdown that leaves no corner of life untouched, no person immune to its effects. What we are seeing is a comprehensive crisis of public life." 

He locates that crisis such formulations as Justice Anthony Kennedy's infamous line in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." He traces such sentiments back to the traditional villains of modern political philosophy, Locke and Rousseau, and more originally to the influence of existentialism, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. "What has happened," he argues, "is that the modern story has seized on one of love's necessary qualities - freedom - and forgotten all the others." And he illustrates the consequence by considering the contemporary crisis of climate change: "the story of how human beings have seen the chief purpose of the earth as being to facilitate their own immediate freedom from constraint, even at the cost of the planet's health."  

He devotes an entire chapter to what he calls "the loss of good work."  He stresses how one way "our economy impoverishes us spiritually is by teaching us that the only sort of work that is really work is work that a member of the capitalist class will pay us to do in the form of a wage of some sort." He cites traditional classical Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on the universal destination of goods and the relativity of private property, even quoting Pope Francis: "Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property" (Evangelii Gaudium, 189).

Having diagnosed what ails us, Meador tries in the second half of his book to offer alternative practices for Christians to make their own: "the most important thing we can do is be properly Christian in the totality of our lives, starting with the way we shape our homes and carrying that out into our individual vocations, whatever those may be." Basing himself on the Genesis creation account and its image of human life before the fall, he identifies three norms for recovering common life: "work, home, and sabbath."

Treating them in reverse order, he starts with sabbath, which he contrasts to the ideology of the factory. Sabbath is an Old Testament institution which Catholics have integrated into our spiritual life differently from evangelicals. Both, however, historically have emphasized, as Meador does, the primacy of participating in public worship on the sabbath (or, as Catholics would prefer to say, the Lord's Day): "public worship is an inherently social thing that breaks me out of my natural individualism ... it also forces me into contact with people I might not like very much if not for Christ." Meador warns against the widespread contemporary tendency to "find ways of fitting our religious practice into a schedule that is otherwise defined and controlled by other concerns and obligations." To combat this, he proposes returning to the older evangelical practice of a second service on Sunday evening. (The long-lost Catholic equivalent was Sunday afternoon Vespers and Benediction - or, later, vernacular devotions and Benediction. Trying to imagine returning to that highlights what a lifestyle challenge Meader's proposals imply!)

Secondly, he emphasizes what he calls the membership: "the idea that we do not exist in the world as lonely, alienated individuals, but as embodied creatures made by the same God, who made the rivers and the animals and the mountains and the ocean." He highlights two callings to membership: marriage and celibacy. He emphasizes a traditional understanding of marriage that long predates our contemporary preoccupation with the married couple. Thus, "marriage is a covenant relationship ... designed to provide a stable place for children to grow up and for the couple to mature in love fore on another ... a relationship oriented toward the flourishing of the world, seen in the bearing of children and making of households."

If his emphasis on the more traditional family and household model of marriage goes against the contemporary preoccupation with the couple, he valorization of celibacy seems even more counter-cultural - especially coming from an evangelical. He quotes Oliver O'Donovan (Resurrection and Moral Order) on how marriage vindicates "the order of creation," while singleness points "beyond to its eschatological transformation."

Finally, work, which he pointedly distinguishes from what he calls "technique" (an argument which draws significantly upon Jacques Ellul). Referencing the pre-lapsarian human state in Genesis, he speaks of "the work of men and women given to them by the God they are called to imitate." Referencing the way we work in contemporary society, he notes how hard it is "to feel enthusiasm for work in which a person has minimal freedom to make their own decisions about how to do a task and in which they are under constant surveillance, two qualities that describe a great deal of the jobs people now do in the United States." Referencing Luther's notion of being turned in on oneself, he notes that "there is such a thing as bad work" in which people are "curved inward, focused on their own desires and comfort rather than the divine call to love their neighbor." He even identifies particular jobs that "are utterly unnecessary to the welfare of society."

Returning finally to our contemporary political context, he notes that in recent campaigns Democrats devalued "nongovernmental community," while Republicans "actively despised nearly half the population and virtually every poor American." Accordingly, Christians need to adopt "ways of thinking that have become quite foreign to us in an era in which both parties are so stridently committed to their own bankrupt ideas." To this end, he argues the values of solidarity, sphere sovereignty, and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is the easiest for me to appreciate, since it most explicitly rejects a neo-Hobbesian "modernist understanding of politics," which is all about securing "the right to narrate one's own identity" through "action and choice." Sphere sovereignty, a term I had never encountered, emphasizes the "distinctions between the work and different communities that exist in a society," a Protestant formulation for prioritizing the pluralism of mediating institutions in society. Finally, subsidiarity, which "helps us to recognize the unique social utility offered by different human institutions and frees up those communities to do what they are best at."

More interestingly, he argues for an inherent priority of doctrine and virtue over policy: "The most basic work of Christian citizenship is to cultivate the virtues of humility and wisdom in order to make oneself a gifted public servant in whatever venue God has called one to. By understanding the basic Christian political doctrines as well as the civil virtues, we can equip ourselves to repair the fracturing body politic of America and to offer a positive vision of mutual flourishing and hope in our decadent society."

Monday, August 19, 2019

Blinded by the Light

Watching Blinded by the Light, I couldn't help but remember those old musicals when, all of a sudden, someone would start signing, and everyone else would join in the singing, sometimes dancing, sometimes accompanied by a full orchestra that magically emerged on the movie set.  Minus the orchestra, Blinded by the Light does something similar as its 16-year old lead character Javid (Viveil Kalra) - a member of a Pakistani immigrant family in the dead-end English city of Luton, at an emotionally and economically fraught moment in his family's and Margaret Thatcher's Britain's intersecting stories -discovers Bruce Springsteen's music and is excited and inspired by its power to move beyond melancholy to reimagine his life.

The power of music to express otherwise inexpressible longings and to inspire change is the transformational agent in Javid's coming of age struggle against the rigid traditionalism of his father, while growing up in a society itself in flux and not sure of where it is going or the kind of country it wants to be. The film touches all the traditional bases of stereotypical coming-of-age narratives (including the feel-good family reconciliation at the end), all set in t e context of the Thatcherite assault on the British working class and social responses to it from both the left (represented by Javid's love interest, Eliza, a politically active daughter of true-Blue "no society" Tory parents) and the right (represented more ominously by the racist, sometimes violent, nativist movements that thrive amid such social distress).

Everyone who hated high school (presumably most people) will find something to identify with in this film, as will anyone who struggled to grow out of the confines of limited family expectations and limited economic and social resources. 

Based on a true story about actual Springsteen fandom, this film highlights the particular power of music to speak simultaneously to our frustrations and aspirations. In real life, of course, different people find different vehicles for escape, inspiration, and motivation, music being perhaps only one of several such possibilities. It is likely always the case, however, that love and friendship will play a prominent part. For all the social stresses of the immigrant experience, economic collapse, cultural breakdown, and nativist hostility, the film highlights the necessity and power of community, of a networks of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, all of whom live out one fo the film's favorite Springsteenisms: "Nobody wins unless everybody wins."

Sunday, August 18, 2019


One of the interesting side-stories of the great wars of the 20th century was their particularly devastating impact upon the interconnected royal and noble families of Europe, which suddenly found themselves divided by military conflicts created by politicians. For example, Prince Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse, head of the distinguished dynasty that had helped make the Protestant Reformation possible, was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s in 1866. During World War I, Philip’s cousin, Britain’s King George V, was his country’s principal enemy. In World War II, Philip’s father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an ally who famously switched sides midway through the war, with consequences catastrophic for Philip and fatal for his wife, the Princess Mafalda, who died in a German concentration camp 75 years ago this month.

Royalty, of course, were not the only ones divided by wars. The American Revolution famously found Benjamin Franklin and his son on opposite sides, while in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy – family divisions that were widely replicated in the experience of so many families at all levels of society.

Nor are wars the only causes of family conflict. In the Gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus used the case of a family conflict over inheritance to illustrate why wealth and possessions are problems for any serious disciple.

In today’s Gospel [Luke 12:49-53], Jesus used the potential for family conflict to illustrate his larger point about the complete commitment demanded of every disciple. One of the fundamental facts of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment often entails saying “No” to other options. So it is with the decision to follow Jesus, a commitment that is meant to matter enough to change everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or while on vacation somewhere. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced [cf. Hebrews 12:1-4]. So it was – and is - with martyrs.

Of course, no one should want to be at odds with others - with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should seek conflict for conflict’s sake. Yet conflict happens – not always, but often enough, and especially in those great either/or choices that produce martyrs (and almost martyrs, like poor Jeremiah in today’s 1st reading [Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10]). One of modern history’s more sobering facts is that the past century has produced more Christian martyrs than any other century. And then there are all the ordinary situations, which lack the high drama of martyrdom, but which can on occasion also call on us to do something different from what we would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition - like Scott Daniel Warren, for example, who was put on trial by our government earlier this year after providing food, water, beds, and clean clothes to immigrants in Arizona.

Of course, we would all prefer a calm, untroubled life, in a calm, conflict-free world. We voice that sentiment every day when we pray that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress. It’s not conflict per se to which Jesus calls us. It is commitment which he challenges us to live – to be clear about what matters most, clear about our purpose in life, clear about what needs to be done (or not done). It is the challenge of being willing to be transformed by God’s grace into the person God wants me to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.

And, because we live in an otherwise untransformed world, that transforming experience can at times really resemble a sword separating us from whoever or whatever we would otherwise have so readily clung to.

Jesus does indeed promise peace to his disciples – the peace of his kingdom, a very different peace from a momentary absence of conflict. There are Christians, unfortunately, who seem to live with a permanent chip on the shoulder, claiming persecution all the time and spoiling for a fight. But the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, joy, and peace – not hatred, hostility, and anger. The challenge, rather, is to build bridges, not knock them down – to pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while struggling to do so in an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN, August 18, 2019.

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Years ago - 49 years to be exact - I was a college student studying in Austria, and on the feast of the Assumption, which was, of course, a legal holiday, the churches all sang Mozart's Coronation Mass. and I remember watching how people went from church to church comparing choirs - the Kyrie here, the Gloria across the street, the Credo down the block, etc.  Whereas in traditionally Catholic European countries the Assumption is still a legal holiday, for the rest of us, however, the Church's great annual summer "feel-good" festival - the oldest and most important of all of her feasts - may perhaps pass almost or entirely unnoticed, sandwiched into the middle of the post-modern work week, filled as it already is with frenzy, fury, and folly.

While this neglect in no way diminishes Mary's heavenly glory, it does diminish - and deprive us of - the joy we ought to derive from it.

At the end of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council, as part of its lengthy meditation on Mary, recalled that the immaculate Virgin preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things (LG 59), and that the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and the beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise, she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (LG 68).

So, while we celebrate today something wonderful which happened to Mary at the end of her life one earth, we also celebrate our continued connection with her and with her Risen Son in the Church.

In Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary [Yale U. Pr., 2009] Miri Rubin writes of the medieval celebration of the Assumption: "Everything about the feast was designed to remind participants that Mary was seated alongside her son in heaven.  The Assumption set Mary apart from other saints and reassured those who sought her intercession and help as she sat alongside her son there. ... All the senses were touched by the Assumption. ... European devotion had never  spoken of Mary as elaborately before. Written for an occasion when heaven and earth met, it was fitting that sermons for the Assumption used ornate language, full of pomp. ...The Assumption celebrated the enduring hope of heavenly intercession, the hope that linked heaven and earth" [pp. 139-140].

Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church as we are now with the Church as we hope to be.

Our world is full of natural disasters, inexplicable personal tragedies, and deliberate destruction. Violence and sickness seem to surround us. So powerful does the dragon of death appear, that it dared to attack even Jesus. Only after death had done its worst did God decisively step in, conquering death by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there. For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2019.

(Photo: The Assumption altarpiece oil painting by the early 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist Titian on the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sacred Time

"I miss all the Vigils. Why on earth were they suddenly suppressed?” lamented Thomas Merton in his monastic diary on December 7, 1959. Given the date, Merton was obviously lamenting the loss of the liturgical Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Today's much more ancient Vigil of the Assumption survived the 1950s, only to be swept away in 1969. By then, Merton had died and so missed the complete extermination of all the ancient vigils in the 1969 calendar. Originally, of course, a vigil was a nocturnal preparation for a festival, but as the liturgy evolved over the centuries, the vigil Mass came to be celebrated on the previous morning of what came to be considered a penitential day.

As Pius Parsch put it, "vigils are days of penance, days of interior purification. They provide for the penitential implications of the feast. If in spirit we are to ascend heavenwards with the Blessed Virgin tomorrow, we should today loosen ourselves from the earthly bonds that chain us to this world."     

Of course, apart from those traditionally Catholic countries where the Assumption is still a legal holiday, this great ancient festival itself likely gets lost in the ordinariness of a secular work day. So why worry about its lost vigil, which at best might be barely noticed at all, and largely only by a tiny part of the population? Fair enough, but, of course, the entire calendar is largely irrelevant to the patterns and preoccupations of ordinary daily life. Liturgical and secular timetable have long since parted ways, and there is little doubt which actually matters more in real life.

So any lament for our lost vigils really reflects a lament for our loss of sacred time, such as it once was, such as it conceivably could be, but most certainly isn't now.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Fixing the Filibuster

Writing in The NY Times today, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) made a compelling case for eliminating the filibuster once and for all. Reid himself, as he acknowledges in his article, abolished the filibuster for confirmations of most presidential appointees in 2013 Of course, what he should have done was eliminate the whole thing then and there, while he had the chance. The question at present, however, assuming the Democrats can actually regain control of the Senate, a crucial prerequisite to their accomplishing anything at all, is whether Reid's recommendation will ever be followed.

The qualifier that none of this matters unless the Democrats first regain Senate control is no mere technicality, given the Democrats' historic neglect of non-presidential politics. However one evaluates Barack Qbama as president, he was certainly unsuccessful as party leader - losing over the course of his two terms not only 11 Senate seats and 62 House seats, but also 12 Democratic governors and 958 state legislative seats. And, as the US divides more deeply into two separate competing cultures with nothing but their mutual hatred for each other in common, the prospects for recovering the senate seem more, not less difficult.

Assuming somehow that the country elects a Democratic Senate next year, what would happen? Would the majority act to restore some semblance of procedural sanity to the system by abolishing the filibuster once and for all? If Harry Reid is now a belated convert to Senatorial democracy, what about the candidates for president? What about front-runner potential President Joe Biden?. As some of the former Senator's recent unfortunate comments have shown, he suffers from a severe case of senatorial nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body." The fact, of course, is that the Senate has long ceased to be a serious deliberative body and, in any case, the purpose of such deliberation is supposed to be legislating, something which an immobilized Senate has virtually ceased to do.

Admittedly institutional reforms, however necessary or desirable, seldom inspire or excite. And no conceivable constitutional or other change can rid us of the Senate, however desirable such a change might be. But there is nothing constitutionally mandated about holding on to the century-old procedural nightmare that is the filibuster. If a future Democratic Administration has any actual agenda, then the only conceivable way to enact it at all would be by, first, winning a working majority in the Senate and then governing by majority (as the constitution clearly contemplated the Senate doing).

Misplaced nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body" is a symptom of the peculiar idea that our present predicament is largely due to one president's idiosyncrasies, rather than reflections of deeply felt ideological and cultural conflicts that have poisoned our politics, a politics already rendered quasi-dysfunctional by its systemic weaknesses such as the Senate itself and its foolish filibuster rule.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Succession (Season 2)

HBO's Succession is back for a second season. One would have thought the world had already seen enough of the repulsive Roy family; but, of course, we can never get enough of the rich. And really what more timely topic is there for our entertainment? The  evil Roys are all fictional, but the salience of their story lies precisely in the fact that they so effectively express the oligarchic values we seem increasingly surrounded by,

Succession and its collection of utterly evil and reprehensible rich people - all foul-mouthed and variously over-sexed and/or drug-dependent - is an unsubtle study in the unambiguous evil of wealth and the moral depravity that accompanies its possession. It is also, as its title suggests, a study in the specific corruptions connected with inherited wealth, it being one of the peculiar consequences of modern democracy to have replaced the classical nobility of aristocratic dominance with rule by a narcissistic oligarchy.

Except perhaps (occasionally) for cousin Greg, there is hardly a character that could remotely be considered likable. Moral monsters all, they have all been totally twisted by their wealth, the unearned power it has given them, and the thoughtless cruelty it has equipped them to practice on the rest of the world - and, most notoriously, on each other. Whereas drama usually succeeds by inviting us to identify with or sympathize with one or more major characters, Succession succeeds precisely in proportion to the repulsiveness of the characters - a reflection, perhaps, of the show's obvious off-screen relevance.

Last night's season opener picked up where season one had left off - with Kendall (once upon a time the presumed successor) still hopelessly drug-dependent, now recovering (if that is what it is) from his very own Chappaquiddick experience (what his father at the end of last season called "the defining moment" of Kendall's life) by accepting his new fate of total subservience to his father. Totally defeated personally and professionally, he is treated with contempt on all sides. Now that Kendall has been completely disempowered and Logan has obviously recovered from whatever impairment he suffered in his season one stroke, Logan has to decide whether and how to fight to keep control of his company, which in the show's twisted capitalist irony requires him finally to choose his successor. And the winner is ... Shiv (always obviously the best brain of the bunch of siblings, even if she has seemingly spent her adult life so far pursuing an alternative career outside the family business).

The setting for most of the action in the season opener is a gathering of the Roys at the family's "summer palace" at the shore. The attractive seaside setting is spoiled by a bad smell which permeates the house (due, we discover, to dead raccoons in the chimney).  The bad smell serves as a sort of symbolic metaphor for everything that happens there. Supposedly on account of the smell, Logan throws out all the expensive fancy food and orders pizza, a parable, I suppose, for the sheer waste that is at the heart of the capitalist hell that is being perperated in real life at that "summer palace."

As Adam Smith (1723-1790) so famously warned in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Traveling through Life

By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

We have been hearing a lot about Abraham lately in the liturgy over several recent Sundays. According to the account in Genesis, Abraham - at the astonishing age of 75 – was commanded by God to move from his ancestral home to a new land which God promised would belong – eventually – to his descendants. Unlike so many migrants, past and present, Abraham not only got to bring his wife and his nephew, Lot, but also their herds of animals and whatever other possessions he had accumulated in those 75 years. The New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews rightly wanted to emphasize Abraham’s faith. And surely Abraham’s faith was the most important thing he brought with him, but obviously those other people and things that he brought along mattered to him too.

Jesus famously told his disciples to travel light, to trust in God’s care for us in money bags that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven. We all appreciate that detachment from other people and from possessions may be important – and at times absolutely necessary. Still, as Aristotle insisted, a life without friendships would be hard to bear. And Jesus himself valued his friendships, as did his disciples in the early Church. As for things, they too can be very attractive. All those homes and cars and gadgets we accumulate may weigh us down with possessions - and possessiveness - and may distract us from more important human relationships; but we know that they can also make our lives easier and more fulfilling in some fundamental ways. Even those phones and computers and other technological toys that, on the one hand, may make our social interactions so artificial may, on the other hand, also make some social interactions possible that wouldn’t even happen otherwise.

So I think Abraham basically got it right when he realized that living productively in this world and maintaining fulfilling human relationships were important values in themselves and would always require paying attention to other people and things. But what made Abraham’s human relationships and possessions so especially meaningful and gave them a whole new dimension was the confident faith that freed him always to respond trustingly to God’s commands, wherever that took him.

So it must be for all of us, as we navigate our way through the ordinary demands of daily life and the extraordinary challenges of this increasingly troubled time in which we live.  A faith like Abraham’s invites us to recognize, even in the challenges we encounter, new opportunities to respond to, new opportunities to rediscover the heart of who and what we are fundamentally meant to become, by means of our relationships with other people and things – and so become the people we hope to be when we settle down once and for all forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 11, 2019.