Monday, September 30, 2019

Aperuit Illis

At the Lateran Basilica today, Pope Francis observed the beginning of the 1600th anniversary year of the death of Saint Jerome (347-420), the ascetic Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate and is one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church. To mark the occasion the Pope issued a Motu Proprio Aperuit Illis, which takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45).The immediate practical object of this Motu Proprio is the dedication of the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time as The Sunday of the Word of God.

The Pope's purpose in this is to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposes that on that Sunday the proclamation of the word be highlighted and the honor due to it be emphasized in the homily - and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." 

Exactly what form all this will take in local liturgical practice means to be seen. The calendar is already marked with special days devoted this or that theme that often hardly get noticed - sometimes because not adequately publicized, sometimes because of other already established local themes or special collections or other special activities assigned to that day. Yesterday., for example, was the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. How many people had even heard of it? Of all such special Sundays, the recent renaming of the Sunday after Easter as "Divine Mercy Sunday" may well have been the most successful such effort - probably because it built upon an already existing (albeit modern and far from universal) popular devotion.

That said, this newest papal initiative seems especially timely. The Bible, the Pope points out "belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words." It "is the book of the Lord's people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity." What could be more timely than that?

Saturday, September 28, 2019

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Tomorrow is the annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees. 

In his Message for this World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis has warned: 

The most economically advanced societies are witnessing a growing trend towards extreme individualism which, combined with a utilitarian mentality and reinforced by the media, is producing a “globalization of indifference”. In this scenario, migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion. In addition to the hardships that their condition entails, they are often looked down upon and considered the source of all society’s ills. That attitude is an alarm bell warning of the moral decline we will face if we continue to give ground to the throw-away culture. In fact, if it continues, anyone who does not fall within the accepted norms of physical, mental and social well-being is at risk of marginalization and exclusion. 

For this reason, the presence of migrants and refugees – and of vulnerable people in general – is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society. That is why it is not just about migrants. When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well regarded nowadays. ...

Dear brothers and sisters, our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Yet these verbs do not apply only to migrants and refugees. They describe the Church’s mission to all those living in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. If we put those four verbs into practice, we will help build the city of God and man. We will promote the integral human development of all people. We will also help the world community to come closer to the goals of sustainable development that it has set for itself and that, lacking such an approach, will prove difficult to achieve.

In a word, it is not only the cause of migrants that is at stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family. Migrants, especially those who are most vulnerable, help us to read the “signs of the times”. Through them, the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and the throw-away culture. Through them, the Lord invites us to embrace fully our Christian life and to contribute, each according to his or her proper vocation, to the building up of a world that is more and more in accord with God’s plan.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Impeachment Circus

Predicating serious strategy when it comes to President Trump's behavior is, of course, problematic. But, strategically planned or not, the President does seem to have maneuvered the Democrats into a position more likely to ensure his reelection next year. I refer, of course, to the ever increasing eagerness of many Democrats to hop on the impeachment train, despite the obvious evidence that it will most likely help the President's cause and hurt the Democrats' cause. Then again the American Left has always seemed more comfortable with expressive political gestures than with actual political action and accomplishment.

Let us start with the obvious fact that impeachment (presuming its goal is actual removal from office) is by its nature a move by the political class to overturn the results of an election. In an ostensibly representative government, that is inherently problematic and is best attempted only when the elected official's offenses are super serious and represent either a deviation from what the electorate voted for or a genuine change in the electorate's attitude toward the official. It can easily be argued that the President's actions have long been sufficiently serious on their merits to warrant impeachment. There is much less evidence, however, that they represent any deviation from the President his supporters thought they were voting for or that his supporters' evaluation of him has markedly changed. The last attempted impeachment is - or ought to be - a lesson in how and why a partisan impeachment lacking in democratic legitimacy is likely to backfire.

Putting aside this fundamental issue of democratic legitimacy, as impeachment's advocates seem so eagerly prepared to do, there remains the strategic argument. This President seems acutely aware of the political benefits of extreme conflict. It is possible that he personally prefers it. As Ross Douthat wrote in yesterday's NY Times,  "the circus is the part of politics that he [Trump] fundamentally enjoys."  Personal enjoyment aside, being persecuted by his elite, establishment enemies (and fighting back) is precisely what may be most endearing about Trump to his "base" supporters, many of whom also feel looked down upon by the same elite establishment and see his fights with them as in some strange way vicarious fights on their behalf.

Besides energizing his "base," impeachment would totally dominate our conflict-oriented news media, pushing aside not only anything positive Democrats may be doing in Congress but also anything positive the 2020 Democratic candidates may be offering the American people. Again, I think Douthat gets it right: "if Democrats impeach him they will be doing something unpopular instead of something popular. ...The Democratic agenda is more popular than the Republican agenda (whatever that is), the likely Democratic nominees are all more popular than Trump, and so anything that puts the Democrats on the wrong side of public opinion may look better, through Trump's eyes, than the status quo."

And then there is the obvious fact that an impeachment is only an indictment. An indictment with certainty of acquittal is a fool's errand. Acquittal in the Senate would be spun by Trump and his supporters as complete vindication, which - in an election dominated by impeachment rather than by any alternative Democratic agenda - would likely lead to easy re-election.

All of which brings us back to 2020 and the alternative of replacing Trump the old-fashioned, democratic way - by voting him out of office.

If Trump's behavior is as bad as is alleged, if his presidency is as destructive as is alleged, then his opponents would do well to offer the country an attractive alternative that can win an election - not engage in empty expressive politics that would likely only increase his chances of re-election.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Education of Bret Kavanaugh (The Book)

What The New Republic's Matt Foster has called "the wound that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle left in the American body politic" remains deep and unlikely to be healed anytime soon. Certainly every 5-4 decision in which he casts the deciding vote to advance the Republican party's agenda will be a particular reminder of that long-term wound. Of course, that particular partisan outcome was to be expected no matter who was named, even someone with less personal baggage. Nor does one need to come to any conclusion concerning the allegations about youthful misbehavior in order to judge Kavanaugh to be unsuitable for the Supreme Court. His record of collaboration with Ken Starr, for example, could conceivably be cited against him, and his ill-tempered outburst during the Senate hearing was certainly sufficient in the opinion of some - including the late Justice John Paul Stevens, who had previously supported his nomination but who now declared Kavanaugh had "demonstrated a potential bias involving litigants before the court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities."

Putting aside the hopelessly controverted question of Justice Kavanaugh's fitness - or lack thereof - to sit on the Supreme Court, this book highlights two other aspects of this sad story that I think are at least equally worth wider attention.

The first is the problem of economic and social class privilege. (The authors themselves have a connection to Kavanaugh's privileged background. One of them was his Yale 87 classmate. The other grew up - albeit a decade later - in a similar social circle in the Washington area and was part of that same network of same-sex high schools.)

The authors do take us back to last year’s hearings, but more importantly they take us back – as the book’s title promises - back decades to the troubled world of high school. The story advances beyond high school, of course, but the privileged wealthy world it portrays never seems to advance much beyond the material vulgarity and narrowness of spirit that apparently defined high school in that preppy teen environment of country clubs and drunken parties. The “education” described was about how to star in the clubby, misogynistic playground where rich kids congregated.

The narrow-minded, soulless world we call high school, with its bully-friendly stratified social order and privileged athletic bubble, extends well beyond the boundaries of wealthy suburbs. But the life-long privilege which wealth promises adds a toxic ingredient to the high-school syndrome.

Add alcohol to that toxic stew and the concoction can become lethal. The license to indulge in drunken partying and otherwise obnoxious behavior, which seems to have been evident in certain social circles, is ultimately less likely to produce preppies in the nation’s service than in smug service to themselves and to their social class.

In this connection I think the book's telling of the Deborah Ramirez story speaks significantly. As the authors note, it highlights how different the experience of anyone from a less privileged background is at a place populated by privileged elites: "While Ramirez may have come into Yale with the determination to prove herself, her experiences there ... made her question whether she belonged." 

The second is the problem of our inquisitorial culture of ex post facto judgment of public figures based on their adolescent and/or young adult behavior. 

The authors take us through the allegations against Kavanaugh and the investigations that followed - or didn't follow. It is evident that the investigations were inadequate. That in turn highlights a serious problem about our politicized confirmation process - and ultimately about our politicized judiciary. Ideally, in a less polarized society such procedural defects could be corrected, in which case some good would come from this bad experience. But, even if the process had been better and the investigations had produced a less ambiguous conclusion, what then?

The authors themselves invite us to consider this dilemma. They conclude "that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh as a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next thirty-five years became a better person." As for his denials of his youthful misbehavior, they consider the possibility that he "was a blackout drinker who lost portions of his memory and simply wasn't aware of it."  They note "that our juvenile-justice system is built on the long-held belief that a young person's bad decisions shouldn't haunt them for years to come. that is why most juvenile records and many juvenile court proceedings are kept largely confidential." 

Of course, none of that settles the question of whether the adult Kavanaugh deserves a seat on the Supreme Court. Even if one came to the conclusion that Kavanugh did really seriously misbehave in high school and college, but that such misbehavior had ceased in adulthood, one might still have found very good reasons, as indicated above, to vote against his confirmation - but on other substantive grounds, not on the basis of alleged youthful misbehavior. The Senate's vote might likely have been very similar, but the experience would have been very different for all concerned.

I think this reality speaks not just to our problematic confirmation process but more generally to the increasingly judgmental and inquisitorial approach to people's past mistakes that increasingly characterizes our contemporary culture. The authors quote one of Kavanaugh's Prep classmates, who suspects Ford's account is true but said, "then perhaps Brett would have been able to render an apology to her that might have helped her heal in a real, genuine way. But as it stands in my mind, neither one was healed by the incident, because it was so politicized."

Whether that ever could or would have happened can be argued for ever. What is unarguable, however, is the real need in our society for some opportunity to experience some of the healing power of reconciliation - reconciliation between those who offend and those they have offended, as well as reconciliation within selves, between their past selves and those they have struggled to become.  

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Downton Abbey (The Movie)

Rolling Stone probably got it right that Downton Abbey "is less an actual movie than a special episode" of the fantastic, six-season TV series that won over audiences, literally the world over, from 2011 to 2016 - PBS's highest rated dramatic series ever. Written by the same Tory peer Julian Fellowes and featuring most (sadly not all) of the much beloved original cast, the film exists entirely in response to its faithful audience's desire for even more of this wonderful period-piece drama of love and loss, tradition and change, set in early 20th-century Yorkshire - a fitting successor to the venerable pioneer of this genre, the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs (set in London in roughly the same time period).

The film takes place in 1927, some two years after the series' finale, when the seemingly staid and conventional (but actually often in constant turmoil) aristocratic routines of the extended Crawley family and their army of servants are unexpectedly (indeed tumultuously) interrupted by a visit from Their Majesties the King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary - with all the wonderful things Their Majesties get to do and that others get to watch (and in various ways work to make happen).

Our favorite familiar characters behave more or less as we would expect, which is not to say stereotypically, since the the characters' behavior (both upstairs and downstairs) has always been more complex and surprising - and for that reason more interesting than the stereotypes the series suggests. 

So we get to see the staff pull off an implausible but successful coup to avoid the day off. We watch Tom Branson, one-time Irish revolutionary, provide exemplary service to the Crown.  We enjoy Andy and Daisy finally figuring it out. We see both Barrow and Branson finally find love. And we watch Lady Mary come completely into her own as the new doyenne of Downtown Abbey.

Downtown Abbey's monumental evocation of an era of bygone glamor and aristocratic order and its dutiful sensibility seems to have touched a chord in our disordered post-modern era of glamorless crassness and duty-free sensibility. In this, it may be not unlike the recent craze for the previous century's eminent author Jane Austin and her world of good language and good manners.

Of course, Downtown Abbey appeals to a certain sort of nostalgia - for a world none of its audience ever actually has lived in, but which is chronologically and culturally close enough that we can still really recognize and relate to it. However encased in cultural expectations their audience no longer shares, its characters are recognizably like us, at least enough so. And however staid and conventional the traditions according to which the characters live and understand themselves and their world (both upstairs and downstairs), their actual experience is one of constant and at times tumultuous change, accompanied by the threat of even greater change. From our historical vantage point, of course, we can see that threat of even more and greater change coming over the horizon. In human terms, we can relate to the characters ambivalence about the changes in their world from the perspective of our own comparable ambivalence a century later.

In the end, of course, it is a story of recognizably real people living in a world and system they didn't create, the benefits of which they are desperately trying to hold onto, while alternately resisting and embracing changes that are tearing apart the very fabric of their lives. Downton Abbey reprises that universal story of modernity - stunningly portrayed in a beautiful setting by excellent actors playing genuinely interesting and complicated people.

No wonder so many fell in love with the series and have so eagerly awaited this movie!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

All TV's Fault?

No, of course, it is not ALL TV's fault, but Chief New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik does a great job of demonstrating the connections between TV and where we are now in his new book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. Poniewozik considers his book "a work of applied TV criticism, for a time when all of public life has become TV." His book recounts the history of how that happened to American life - and of Donald Trump's place in that story. Trump is, for Poniewozik, "possibly the most public American who has ever lived," someone who :knew that it was better to seem like New York's most successful business man than to actually be it."

He starts with Rona Barrett's 1981 interview, the first time Trump was publicly asked if he wanted to be president, when he said that someone like himself probably could not get elected because TV "favored inoffensive nice guys." He then fast forwards 35 years to Trump saying essentially the opposite on Fox & Friends.  According to Poniewozik, Trump "was not wrong either time." The book is his attempt to describe how "TV had changed, which is to say, America had."

Those of us old enough to remember TV's early years - those halcyon days of 3 TV networks that we all watched together - will resonate to his description of mid-20th-century TV as "a homogenizing force," the greatest aggregator of a simultaneous audience ever invented." and how "cable TV, the Internet, and social media" have since fragmented us "into niches," sorting us "into superfans and superpartisans, like speaking to like, affirming, exhorting, and misinforming one another." This book recounts that story of TV's transformation of American culture, into which it merges the story of Donald Trump, whose lifespan corresponds almost exactly to that history. It is also about how he embodies a certain sort of TV experience: "That life is a constant, zero-sum competition, and if you are not beating someone then someone is beating you. (The lesson of sports and game shows.) That the best response to any controversy or crisis is to heighten the conflict. (The lesson of TV news.) That people perform best when set to fight against one another for survival. (The lesson of The Apprentice.) That there is no history and no objective truth beyond your immediate situational interests, and that reality resets with every tweet or click of the remote."

So much has been said and written about Trump that even the details of his impressive mastery in using TV tells us little we didn't already know or at least intuit.  In some ways, the book's greatest accomplishment lies in its tour de force, comprehensive treatment of the transformation of TV during the last several decades - and the Trump story's parallel progression. (There are many shows I never saw that I learned a lot about from reading this book.)

Poniewozik also makes an interesting parallel between.the post-war middle class mass prosperity and the mass media TV audience "an era of common experience that had no parallel before or since." Then starting in the 1980s both dimensions of common experience ended. He also traces TVs reinforcement in the post-9/11 period of the breakdown of the traditional belief that leaders should be good people (George Washington, Disney's Davy Crockett craze in the 1950s). And, of course, there was TV's increasing glorification of greed. He describes the wedding ceremony at the end of the October 2000 TV show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? as "under a floral arch large enough to double as the funeral wreath for Western civilization."

He examines in detail TV's role (i.e., Fox News' role) in heightening the politics of cultural resentment - anticipated in Richard Hofstadter famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." He shows how "With the fragmentation of all kinds of cultures and markets - demographics who are this, watched that, voted thus - came the idea of cultural choices as ideological markers." 

Finally he examines the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency, illustrating, for example, the change from when chaos was considered alienating, something politicians accordingly sought to avoid being identified with, to chaos as an asset in an era when "what alienates one audience strengthens the resolve of your own." 

He makes an interesting contrast between Reagan and Trump: Reagan, an actor who played other characters and so learned to understand others, Trump, a reality-TV star, who "played an amplified version of himself."

And he quotes Steve Bannon's reaction to how much TV Trump watches, "Think what your brain would be like if you did that?"

Friday, September 13, 2019

The 2020 Democratic Debates (Round 3)

As I (and many others) have said so many times, this is a terrible way to pick a president. Ever since the triumph of primaries over national conventions, the candidate selection process has become more "democratic," destroying our political parties in the process and the parties' traditional function of vetting viable and serious candidates. But this is the system we are now stuck with, and "debates" are now an integral part of it (which should not, however, preclude some serious efforts to reform our debates to make them more about the presidency and less reality TV, perhaps by diminishing the role of reporters and pundits as debate "moderator" and replacing them with other sorts of citizens.)

The one great advantage to last night's debate was that all the debaters were on the same stage for the first time. Also they had more time to speak. On the other hand, the winnowing process that produced this result remains heavily dependent on money and polls. 

But the biggest problem with these debates is the journalism/entertainment-driven tendency to focus on candidates' tactical disagreements that undermine their overall agreement on common principles. Thus, for example, the debate began with the by-now tediously repetitive (and somewhat wonky) arguments about the cost of "Medicare-for-All" and the possible elimination of private insurance, which at least some people are presumed to favor. With Elizabeth Warren, I doubt that too many people really like their insurance company! What people want is good, comprehensive coverage at a manageable cost, all of which gets easily lost in the weeds of arguments about how to pay for "Medicare for All" and whether private insurance will still play a part. (The common sense solution is probably something like Pete Buttigieg's "Medicare for All Who Want It," which adequately addresses most of those controverted issues.) Meanwhile, while the other candidates were all attacking each other's plans, Kamala Harris finally reminded everyone that Republicans want to - and are still trying to - destroy what the Affordable Care Act already has accomplished.  She should  also have reminded everyone that to make any of these things actually happen, the Democrats not only have to keep control of the House but have to win control of the Senate. Whoever the nominee is will need to keep these two realities front and center in the awareness of voters who care about comprehensive health care.

And so the night went on. It will be interesting to see how the debate is interpreted and what the post-debate polls suggest. Personally, I did not get a sense that much really changed, especially when it comes to the ostensibly top three candidates, Biden, Warren, and Sanders. Meanwhile the next debate will include Tom Steyer, whose only significance is to demonstrate the disproportionate influence money plays in our politics, and so we will probably be back to two nights again.

What the Democrats and the country need is real voters weighing in. Iowa, New Hampshire, etc., hardly the best possible system for picking a president, but way better than what these debates are doing.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Strange Debate

Unlike conservative politicians, conservative thinkers can often be quite interesting. After all, at least one wing of contemporary conservatism traces itself intellectually back to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France highlighted the damage done to human society by the French Revolution in particular and totalitarian revolutionary movements in general. His writings also highlighted the importance of religion and other traditional social institutions for social cohesion and human flourishing (concerns I certainly share).

So it was with some curiosity, if not interest, that I watched the YouTube replay of the recent debate at Catholic University, "Cultural Conservatives: Two Visions Responding to the Post-Liberal Left," pitting Sohrab Ahmari (New York Post)  against David French (National Review), which can be watched in full at 

Entertaining at times and personally confrontational at times virtually to the point of nastiness, the debate did not disappoint entirely, but for the most part the two protagonists seemed ultimately to be talking past each other, so different were their premises and priorities. It did not help either that so much of the discussion was taken up by Ahmari's obsession with something called "Drag Queen Story Hour." On the other hand, that obsession does seem to illustrate quite well the heart of the difference between the two. Living in the same society as  "Drag Queen Story Hour" is part and parcel of living in a free and tolerant society. Discomfort with freedom and tolerance has a long intellectual pedigree - not least in pre-Vatican II Catholic political theory. Making a modest peace with democratic modernity, however, was one of the accomplishments of Vatican II. French's defense of the American constitutional order and the First Amendment's "value neutrality" may never bring about a certain vision of a good society, but it does free churches and citizens to pursue and promote their vision of a good life, even at the cost of having to live alongside other competing visions which enjoy the same legal standing.

Ahmari did make one good historical point in his insistence that it was only with Constantine that the widespread diffusion of Christianity through all levels of society became seriously possible. (Actually, it was Theodosius the Great a few decades later who finally established Christianity as the imperial state religion, the familiar union of Throne and Altar that lasted until the French Revolution.)  The problem is that the Constantinian settlement, itself a product of historical change, has been undone in turn by subsequent historical change, and - whether for better or for worse - we no longer live in a Constantinian empire.

This debate has been going of for a long time, and given the inherent importance of the issues involved is likely to continue at a theoretical, philosophical, and ultimately theological level. At a practical level, however, it is increasingly irrelevant to how religious people live, inasmuch as most Americans of any religion (or none) have long ago accepted that in the modern world a society with First Amendment freedoms is ultimately more conducive to social peace, religious liberty, and human well-being than one without those protections - and that it is worth protecting those freedoms even at the cost of sharing the world with "Drag Queen Story Hour."

Not all conservatives care about tradition and religion. (Libertarianism, for example, is a very different version of what in this society is classified as " conservative.") But these two thinkers and their constituencies clearly care a lot about religion, religious freedom, and the widest possible diffusion of religious values in society. Given this preoccupation with religion, it matters that Ahmari's campaign against "civility" seems like an endorsement of a combative "populist" politics, which, in one way of thinking, may radically negate much of what Christianity purports to be about, which French suggests has more to do with "love your enemies" and "bless those who persecute you." French's most powerful rejoinder in the debate, it seems to me, comes when he says, "I'm not going to recognize them [my ideological opponents] as enemies in the way you describe them as war and enmity ... enmity is not love."

All of which brings one back to Russell Moore's famous observation back in 2016: "The Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about."

So much of what passes for religion in America seems surprisingly very preoccupied with the acquisition and exercise of political power, surprisingly so when compared with Jesus’ own words and actions. And so much of what passes for religion in America sometimes seems more like apocalyptic outrage - just another part of our ambient culture of conflict and outrage - than about the kingdom of God.

I guess it all goes back to the perennial Gospel warning about trying to gain the world at the possible cost to one's soul.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Becoming a Disciple - For Real

Science teaches us, what all of human history confirms, that from infancy our brains quickly distinguish between those who are members of our group and those who are not, and encourage us to be more friendly to the former and more hostile to - or fearful of - the latter. Scientific studies have shown, what again all of human history confirms, that infants favor what is familiar to them, responding more positively to people who resemble them – and their parents – in appearance and language, a pattern that persists among adults. So as adults we too tend to favor what is familiar, people who are familiar, and to be apprehensive, fearful, or at least somewhat skeptical of others.  We tend to respond more favorably, more trustingly, more empathetically, more generously to members of our own group - family members, teammates, fellow citizens of the nation with which we identify.  At its best, this inclines us to love our families and take care of one another, to be loyal to organizations we are part of, to pay our taxes and fulfill our other civic responsibilities, even to the point of risking our lives to defend our nation against hostile attacks from other nations.
These relationships can, of course, also limit us and cause us to get into all sorts of conflicts with those in groups other than our own. To some extent what we call civilization is all about managing these relationships and minimizing those conflicts, sometimes stretching us to expand the boundaries of those we identify with and consequently care about. At its best, that has been the story of the United States. Our national story, despite powerful past and present efforts to forget it, has been all about the coming together of different races and nations, forming one nation out of many, creating one common community of citizens.
For most of us, most of time, we depend on these networks of family, culture, and society, relationships without which we could not successfully navigate through life alone. So, of course, did Jesus’ disciples, who were undoubtedly shocked by Jesus’ challenge to the importance of those relationships [Luke 14:25-33], as we too would be if we actually paid attention to Jesus’ words and actions.
To an outside observer, much of American religion might seem very family-oriented, -surprisingly so when compared with Jesus’s own words and actions in a society which was, if anything, far more family-centered than ours is.  To an outside observer, much of American religion might also seem very preoccupied with acquiring political power, surprisingly so when compared with Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus’ challenge to rethink all our relationships and refocus our sense of community and loyalty seems so extreme – and extremely demanding - with the inevitable result that, while we may hear Jesus’ words, we may not really be ready to listen all that intently. Yet Jesus does challenge us, if we are really serious about being his disciples, to listen to all his words – not just the nice, comforting, convenient ones. And, if listening makes me worry that I may be too attached to my family, friends, and fellow-citizens, that I am too swayed in my judgments by people who are close to me and whom I care a lot about, perhaps too timid at times about disagreeing with them or challenging them, or, if listening to Jesus’ words makes me worry whether I am too attached to people and things, well that is what listening to Jesus is supposed to do, that is the effect it is supposed to have.

Most of us, of course, are usually quite uncomfortable with words that challenge. And, because most of us have families, friends, and possessions, we probably prefer Jesus’ more sensible-sounding sayings – like the parable of the tower or the one about the king marching into battle. That’s the sensible Jesus we all know and love – or, rather, love to know – a Jesus who provides prudent practical advice that respects regular common sense and our ordinary human feelings. The prudent tower-builder and the cautious king who knows when it’s time to fight and when it’s time to negotiate are examples we can all relate to – good examples of reasonable people who know how to put their priorities in order and whom we would all do well to imitate in our day-to-day lives.

But, just as we all know (or think we know) how to set short-term priorities, Jesus also challenges us to pick the proper priorities and act accordingly in the long term too – and to let no shorter-term personal relationship or possession deflect us from our long-term goal.

With all the people and things that constantly compete for our attention – nice people and nice things, without which we would find it hard to live in society – Jesus wants us to focus, first of all, on him. But, with all the people and things that constantly compete for our attention, who knows where and how far focusing on Jesus will take us, just how much of a disruption it may prove to be?

Today’s 2nd reading [Philemon 9b-10, 12-17] reminds us of the disruption becoming a Christian caused in the comfortable, socially respectable life of Philemon, whom Paul had at some point converted, and who had acquired a respectable position in the local Church as the host in whose house the local Church assembled. Meanwhile, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away and apparently found his way to Paul, who then converted him too. Paul apparently appreciated Onesimus, whom he saw as a potential partner in his missionary efforts; but instead he sent him back to his owner, with a letter imploring Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul himself, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you as a man and in the Lord.

In a world of precisely structured social relationships, the new, outside-that-structure relationship of being a disciple of Jesus, changed everything and transformed all those existing social relationships. It had done so for Paul himself. It was doing so for Onesimus. And it would do so (as Paul confidently hoped) for Onesimus’ owner Philemon. The stories of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon show just what happens when we take seriously our new relationship with Jesus and the whole new network of relationships that being a follower of Jesus creates among fellow believers.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 8, 2019.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Nativity of Mary

In the post-1969 Roman Calendar, tomorrow's feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary will pass uncommemorated in the liturgy, thanks to the contemporary calendar's inexplicable allergy to multiple commemorations occurring on the same day. This is unfortunate, not only because of the great antiquity of tomorrow's feast, but because such ancient and once widely observed celebrations are nowadays noticed by virtually no one - except when they displace a Sunday as, for example, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist does every few years when June 24 falls on a Sunday..

The traditional story of Mary's birth is, of course, completely apocryphal. The earliest account comes from the very influential (2nd-century) Protoevangelium of James, from which we get the traditional names, Joachim and Anne, for Mary's parents. A different (but obviously not completely unrelated account) also occurs in the Qur'an. Islam considers both Jesus and Mary as having been born untouched by Satan. 

Mary's freedom from all sin from the very beginning of her existence is, of course, the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated on its own feast on December 8. (That too will fall on a Sunday this year. Instead of being completely ignored, it at least will get transferred to the following day. Since, however, the obligation to assist at Mass does not get transferred with it, it too will likely pass largely unnoticed by many.) 

Mary's entrance into this world free from original sin is what makes her an exception to the general rule that it is a saint's death but not his or her birth that is celebrated in the liturgy. (According to the traditional interpretation of Luke 1:15, John the Baptist was purified from original sin while still in his mother's womb. Hence his birth is also celebrated - six months before Christmas, on June 24.)

It is generally thought that the current celebration of Mary's birth on September 8 is derived from the 5th-century dedication of a church in Jerusalem on the supposed site of her parents home by the biblical pool of Bethsaida or Bethesda. The crusader-era Church of Saint Anne stands on that site today (photo). 

Given the antiquity of the (albeit apocryphal) traditions associated with Mary's birth and the ubiquity of its celebration both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, we would do well to find some way to revive the popularity of this celebration.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Remembering My Novice Master - Fr. Thomas Stransky, CSP (1930-1989)

“What is the Church becoming? When someone like Fr. Stransky is here, I think she is waking up.” So wrote Thomas Merton, on August 9, 1962. Even if confided to his private Journal and not published until decades later, that was still quite an accolade!

Milwaukee-born, Paulist Father Thomas Stransky, who died yesterday on his 89th birthday, was ordained a priest in 1957. Subsequently sent to study in Germany and then in Rome, in 1960 he became part of the original staff of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, which Pope Saint John XXIII had established in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. (In the photo, Fr. Stransky is the young priest at the far right of the picture.) He only left the Secretariat in 1970 after his election as President of the Paulist Fathers, but continued as one of the Secretariat's Consultors and continued to be active in ecumenical activities, culminating in his 11 years as Director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem (1988-1999). During his eventful tenure as Paulist President (1970-1978), the community expanded its mission, assuming pastoral responsibility for many new parishes around the country - among them here in Knoxville, TN, where the Paulists have served now since 1973. 

From 1981 to 1988, he served as Paulist Fathers' Novice Master, presiding over the initial year of formation for each year's new class of novices discerning religious life and priesthood as potential members of the Paulist community. Fr. Stranskly will be remembered rightly for his many ecumenical endeavors and his prodigious scholarly activity, for which I obviously lack the credentials to comment credibly, but about which others much more qualified than I will surely have much to say. World-travelling ecumenist and serious scholar that he was, it was in his more mundane ministry of novice master that I came to know and appreciate him.

The Paulist Fathers' Novitiate was then situated in an ideal location on some 1100 acres of rocks and trees in northern New Jersey, amazingly only 50 or so miles from New York City. It was in this beautiful and contemplative setting that I met Tom on August 24, 1981, as a member of his first novitiate class. Years of seminary study and formation would follow, for which I am grateful; but I remain most grateful for that wonderful year at Oak Ridge, NJ.

Intended to bridge the gap between secular life and religious life, the novitiate under Tom's leadership was meant to be a uniquely intensive experience in which one would not escape from oneself, from others, or from God. Although obviously part of a prolonged process of community socialization and ministerial education, the novitiate was unique in being entirely about the present. It was neither in studying the past nor in preparing for the future, but in learning to live, work, and worship with others that God's will was to be discerned. I learned many things from Tom, from our novitiate community, and from the uniquely evocative atmosphere in which we lived, but above all I learned from Tom patience - patience with an unpredictable and uncontrollable world, patience with my confused and conflicted self, and patience with the God Tom taught me to trust above all.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

War and Its Children

Today is the 80th anniversary of the British and French Declarations of War against  Germany, Sunday, September 3, 1939, which marked the "official" beginning of World War II in Europe. At a distance of 80 years, the significance of that event for the history of the 20th century still cannot be underestimated. Of course, in a certain sense, the war had already begun almost six months earlier, when Germany had invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, Hitler's first conquest of non-German territory. That definitive shattering of the Munich illusion pushed Britain and France to promise Poland to come to that country's aid if it too were invaded by Germany, an eventuality which became a virtual inevitability after Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world with their "non-Aggression Pact" on August 23, 1939. Free, for now at least, from the danger of that World War I nightmare, a two-front war, Hitler could safely invade Poland and take a gamble on whether those he derisively called "the men of Munich" would actually attempt to stop him. In fact, they didn't really do anything to stop him in Poland, but they did - after an unconscionable two-day delay - duly declare war on Germany and so set out on the road that eventually led somewhat circuitously to V-E Day, a road no one in 1939 could have foreseen.

The calamitous six years that ensued ended up sucking almost the entire human world into the worst war the world had ever experienced. The United States had helped pave the path for war by first unnecessarily intervening in the previous "Great War" of 1914-1918 and then abandoning to its devices the Europe it had gratuitously thus helped disrupt. Once war was declared, the U.S. played at neutrality for over two years until finally forced into action by Pearl Harbor, emerging at the war's end as the world's most dominant and powerful Power and the promoter of a successful civilizational revival in Europe's western half. That accomplishment was clouded, of course, by the "Cold War," which in a sense prolonged the fragility of the post-war settlement for another half century.

That was the world I grew up in, filled with movies and stories and remembrances of those formed by the experience of World War II - "the Greatest Generation," which, of course, included my parents and virtually all the adult authority figures in my world. Their experience - and how they had interpreted their generation's experience - had formed them to oppose subsequent challenges in whatever way seemed to differentiate them from Chamberlain at Munich. Hence the 1948 Berlin Airlift. Hence the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Hence also Vietnam. As one distinguished American historian warned, way too late,  “historical models acquire a life of their own,” and we may become “bewitched by analogy” (Arthur M. Scheslinger, Jr,. War and the American Presidency, Norton, 2004,  p. 123).

None of that, however, detracts from the greatness of the World War II generation's accomplishment, both in saving Europe and the wider world from one of the 20th-century's greatest scourges and then saving Western Europe and much of the world from the other great 20th-century scourge - in the process building durable social and political and economic alliances that have, on balance, served the world well for almost three-quarters of a century. As King George VI said in his famous speech 80 years ago: For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge. 

Photo: Britain's King George VI addressed the British Commonwealth and Empire after war was declared on September 3, 1939, the speech immortalized in the 2010 movie "The King's Speech."

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Kingdom of God's Inverted Social Order

On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully [Luke 14:1].

Now, what do you suppose they were watching for? Were they like modern journalists or, worse, social media trolls trying to cause trouble? They were so busy observing Jesus, that they apparently didn’t notice how he was watching them, watching how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. They must have been taken aback a bit when Jesus took the opportunity to give them a lesson in manners, in the alternative manners of God’s kingdom.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth [Act 3, Scene 4], when Macbeth welcomes the various lords, he assumes that they all know who ranks where, and so says to them: You know your own degrees; sit down. In an honor-based culture, in a society where one’s social status and rank were of primary importance – and where everyone presumably knew his or her proper place at the table – Macbeth’s assumption was common sense.

Jesus, however, chose instead to offer alternative advice, based on the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of the great; for its better that you be told, “Come up closer,” than that you be humbled before the prince. [Proverbs 25:6-7] Now I actually know someone who did as Jesus suggested (whether or not that was his intention) – and it worked!

Years ago I was studying abroad when the mayor of a major American city was visiting, and the local mayor held a lunch in his honor, to which someone I knew was invited. As he told the story later, he had wandered into the banquet room and just sat down at a table where there were several empty seats. No one seemed to notice him or pay him any particular attention, until suddenly someone came up to him and said: “Here you are! You’re supposed to be at the head table!” So he followed her to the head table, all the while noticing how the very same people who had not noticed him or paid him any attention a few minutes before were now suddenly very interested in learning who he was!

Knowing him, I suspect his behavior that day came quite naturally. That’s just who he is! Others may be more manipulative, exhibiting an externally humble pose, all the while expecting a contrary compliment from others. What we now fashionably – and somewhat obsessively - call poor self-esteem might motivate some to minimize their accomplishments in the hope of being contradicted by someone who will give them the praise they think they deserve (but are afraid to claim for themselves). This can prove to be a problem, of course, if your poor self-esteem turns out to be accurate, if your humility is not contradicted, if, when you take the lowest place, no one says, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Most of us, I suspect, might be rather reluctant to risk confirming that we do in fact belong down there in the lowest place. So frightening is that prospect for most of us that, rather than risk it, we willingly spend much of our lives playing the dangerous game of competing constantly for the next higher position.

But the kingdom of God, as Jesus never seems to tire of teaching us, is about the complete reversal of all those ordinary expectations. Jesus told us this parable to help us break through all those obsessions and preoccupations, which stand in our way, inhibiting us from becoming the people God wants us to be.

One of my seminary professors used to say that the problem is not that Jesus is a male but that so few men are like Jesus. The gospel began by telling us that the people were observing Jesus carefully. In some ways, the tragedy of so much of our Church’s history has been how much and how often we as Jesus’ disciples have failed to observe him carefully - and having observed him to imitate him.

False humility may make life a little easier and ease the way for certain interactions to be more successful. But the true humility of Jesus’ disciples has a new and priceless dimension of meaning, since Jesus himself has revealed the humility of God toward us and has invited us to imitate him in that.

Jesus’ advice becomes this challenge for all of us who call ourselves his disciples. Can people look at us and say: “See how differently they do things”?

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, September 1, 2019.