Thursday, October 31, 2019

No Going Back

For only the fourth time in our nation's relatively short history, the US House of Representatives has now formally voted to proceed to the possible impeachment of a President. The House vote was 232-196, an indication of the near unanimity on this issue within each opposing political party.

Impeachment, as Alexander Hamilton famously wrote in Federalist 65, involves "offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust" and so "are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself." Accordingly, Hamilton warned, impeachment "will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or the other, and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt."

As noted above, we have been down this  rocky road before. The last time was the thoroughly partisan Clinton impeachment, when the party ("pre-existing faction") controlling the House impeached a President of the other party, who then proceeded to be acquitted by members of his own party ("pre-existing faction") in the Senate (a scenario still widely expected to be replicated in our current impeachment season).  In doing so in 1998, the Senate certainly acted reasonably, since the President's alleged offense, while real, was an injury to society only in a contrived sense. The President had indeed lied, but he had lied about a private matter about which many felt he should not have been interrogated in the first place, his interrogators being a "pre-existing faction" motivated mainly by "their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest." If anything, it was the odious Ken Starr and his clique that were injuring society, not the President's prurient behavior. Hence the reasonable argument that, whatever else might be sayable about the president's behavior, it did not meet the political standard the constitution calls "high crimes and misdemeanors."

But the precedent set by that unfortunate 1998 episode in constitutional gamesmanship suggests that what was once seen as an extraordinary constitutional remedy might in the future become just one more political weapon in our increasingly tribal warfare, with little in the way of wider purpose.

Anyone who grew up (as I did) at a time when the 1868 Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson was widely (if perhaps wrongly) remembered (and explicitly taught) as a congressional overreach, the malignant consequences of which we were spared by just one courageous vote, can recognize how great a change this was. It was Watergate, of course, that did the changing. It took a lot to overcome the reasonable reticence about invoking impeachment, but once that Rubicon was crossed the threat of impeachment became plausible in a way that it had not been for over a century. Just as Watergate changed the press and helped create our scandal-obsessed "politics of personal destruction," it likewise removed the stigma from resorting to impeachment.

President-by-Accident Andrew Johnson was one of our worst presidents. Perhaps he deserved to be impeached and removed from the White House. But, if so, it was not for his violation of the Tenure of Office Act (a law subsequently declared unconstitutional). Richard Nixon was no Andrew Johnson. He was a competent and effective President, recently re-elected by a landslide, who had nonetheless engaged in activity that, as president, he should certainly never have engaged in. The same might be said of Bill Clinton, who was also competent and popular. His bad behavior, however, was essentially private, not political (in the sense Hamilton and the founders had in mind).  Trump's case is quite different - a relatively unpopular president who lost the popular vote, and whose alleged wrongdoing is blatantly evident and can properly be described as political (in the Hamiltonian sense), the very sort of behavior the impeachment provision was probably intended to address. That suggests that, of the historical four, he is perhaps the president most obviously worthy of the serious sanction of impeachment. (Hence his supporters' struggle to defend him by spurious attacks on the process rather than actually attempting to justify his hard-to-defend behavior.) 

Things can change, of course, and numbers have been known to move, but the partisan division in the House vote seems more likely than not to predict the outcome of this exercise.

So the issue, as in all these cases of presidential misbehavior, remains determining what is actually an appropriate and effective response and what precedent it sets - a response and precedent in which the cure is at least not worse than the disease. 

And that requires clarity about the precise nature of our political disease,  a disease which predates the present president and of which - for all his norm-breaking behavior and all the long-term damage he may have done to our political culture and to our country's standing in the world - he is ultimately more a serious symptom than a cause. 

All of which reinforces the concern that the fantasy (associated above all perhaps with Joe Biden's campaign but hardly unique to him) of some possible post-Trump return to some sort of pre-Trumpian political normalcy is increasingly just that - a fantasy. As Tim Alberta argued in American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump: "It is imperative to assess Trump not as the cause of a revolutionary political climate, but as its consequence; the forty-fifth president's election was the by-product of a cultural, technological, and socioeconomic convulsion that bred disparate but interconnected strands of populism on both the Right (Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall street). Maybe those fatigued Americans pulling for moderate Democrats to take things back to 'normal' are fooling themselves. Maybe there's no 'normal' to which America can return."

Whatever happens with impeachment, there really is no going back. And that may be the most worrisome part of all of this.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


In last night's HBO special The Bronx USA, producer George Shapiro (photo) revisits his home borough of the Bronx with some of his DeWitt Clinton class of 1949 classmates. We visit his old Mosholu Parkway neighborhood, even his childhood apartment, and his old grade school where he teaches middle-school students how to play stickball. We get to hear him and other aging Bronxites also reminisce about their experiences growing up - hanging out with friends at the Candy Store, reading comic books, drinking egg creams, playing stickball in the street, and other spontaneous forms of play particular to the different seasons. We also get to hear from the South Bronx's Colin Powell about being a schlepper in a local shop and from Fordham University grad Alan Alda about meeting his wife in the Bronx. We see familar landmarks - the Bronx Zoo, Yankee Stadium - and hear the El clattering by. We even get to walk on Arthur Avenue and visit some of the old Italian shops that have graced that great neighborhood for decades and decades.

"Neighborhood" hardly exists anymore in most people's experience - at least not the way it did for first-generation Bronxites, who remember what it was like just to go out and play or knock on your neighbor's apartment door. Those octogenarian ex-Bronxites remember neighborhood and treasure it still in the life-long friendships that bring them back to the superficially very different Bronx of today. For this septuagenarian exile from the Bronx, it was a nostalgic treat - even if I didn't go to DeWitt Clinton or play as much stickball as they did.

But there is a lot more than nostalgia in The Bronx USA, which intersperses the oldsters' reminiscences with the contemporary life-experiences of modern-day DeWitt Clinton students - mostly first-generation immigrants as well, enduring experiences even more challenging than those endured by the Class of 1949. The visit to the high school (now co-ed) and the moving conversations between the two generations take the documentary way beyond the charming nostalgic kitsch one might have initially expected from such a production. 

The old guys back in the Bronx for a return visit and the contemporary graduating high school seniors have both been formed by their experiences of each other and their Bronx neighborhoods. The older generation represent those who in their time taught each other friendship and resilience and have succeeded in their lives. The younger ones are those who in our time are likewise learning from and teaching each other similar basic and fundamental lessons of friendship and resilience, as they aspire to move on and succeed in their lives. For all its wonderful nostalgia, The Bronx USA ends looking forward to the future - a future filled with hope in the kind of people New York's only mainland borough can and does produce in every generation.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Experiencing Mercy

Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. So begins one of Jesus’ most famous parables. [Luke 18:9-14]

For many, perhaps, as is so often the case with Jesus’ parables, the parable’s point is easily missed due to our over-familiarity with it and also to an excessively negative and caricatured popular image of the Pharisees, one that has been reinforced by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and contempt for Judaism.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a movement of deeply devout lay people, preoccupied with being holy and fulfilling God’s Law. They were among the most religiously observant and morally upstanding people in 1st-century Israel. After the destruction of the Temple later in the century, it was the Pharisees who rebuilt Jewish life and reconstituted it in its post-biblical form  (what we now call Orthodox Judaism). In effect, the Pharisees (and their followers) and those who became known as Christians were the two strains of Judaism that survived the Temple’s destruction. So they inevitably saw each other as rivals – one reason perhaps why the New Testament tends to highlight stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.

Even then, the New Testament preserves the memory of the good relations Jesus had with various Pharisees and the important beliefs – like faith in the future resurrection of the dead – that Jesus and the Pharisees shared in common. In any case, we can only appreciate the parable if we understand that the Pharisee is presumptively the good guy in the story – that he is, in fact, a good, religiously and morally upstanding person. Only then will we appreciate the surprise at the end.

Now the Pharisee, we are told, prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Presumably, he was telling the truth. The parable would make no sense if he were a phony, a hypocrite, someone who didn’t live the way he said he did. No, the whole point is precisely that he is a religiously and morally upstanding person, who faithfully and dutifully obeys God’s law. Indeed, he does even more than the minimum the Law requires. So, if anyone were going to go home justified, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee?

But the tax collector, we are told in contrast, stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was also telling the truth. Without knowing anything else about him, we know that, as a tax collector, he in effect collaborated with the Romans – and so for that very reason was widely seen as a sinner. God had given the land of Israel as part of his permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans was widely seen as self-evidently sinful. Hence, the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

And God had long been in the habit of being merciful – all the way back to when, instead of ending their lives after their sin, God had instead made clothes for Adam and Eve. So, as surely everyone would have understood, if the tax collector were truly sorry for his sins, God might indeed be merciful even to him, and he too might go home justified. Wouldn’t that have made a nice, happy ending to the parable, on in which, so to speak, everyone wins?

Jesus, however, had a surprise in store, which must have totally shocked his audience. “I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.”

The shocking part was not that God’s mercy might extend even to the tax collector and that he also could go home justified. The surprise was that the Pharisee – in spite of all the honest good that he was doing, in spite of his faithful obedience to God’s law – did not! So what went wrong?

In acknowledging his sin, the tax collector acknowledged that only God could get him out of the hole he had hopelessly dug for himself. But the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, spoke his prayer to himself. For all his moral correctness, even as he prayed he remained focused on himself – as if he, on his own, were the source of his good works, as if being justified in relation to God could ever be his own accomplishment.

That was – and is – a universal human temptation – as common in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. We all want praise and recognition for our accomplishments.. Yet didn’t Jesus just recently warn us? When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

If only the Pharisee had heard that and taken those words to heart! Then he might have understood – as the tax collector, whatever his other faults, evidently did – that God didn’t owe him anything. The kingdom of God is not about what I have accomplished. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about God and about experiencing God’s great mercy God in my life, and so allowing myself to be changed by that experience of God’s mercy here and now, so as to share it with others and thus continue to experience God’s mercy as a community in his kingdom for all eternity.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN October 27, 2019.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Caudillo Reburied

In the run-up to Spain's forthcoming election, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez scored a win - of sorts - when, after lengthy legal battles and delays. his government finally succeeded in removing the remains of the late Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco from the monumental underground Basilica (photo) in "the Valley of the Fallen" (el Valle de los Caidos) not far from Madrid.

In grad school in the 1970s as the Dictatorship was limping to its end in Spain, I remember several conversations about what it would take modern Spain to overcome the traumatic, divisive legacy of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and move forward toward some semblance of national unity as a renewed, democratic, constitutional monarchy. The consensus at the time (at least among us academics-in-training) seemed to be that the painful memories of that bitter and brutal conflict would likely lead Spain to try to avoid confronting its still disputed past in order to focus on making the necessary transition to Western-style democratic constitutional governance as smoothly as possible. That was more or less what happened - Spain's so-called pacto de olvido (pact of forgetting). 

The Spanish Civil War, which pitted Francisco Franco's Catholic nationalist movement (with military support from Hitler and Mussolini) against the violently anti-Catholic Republic (with support from Stalin) had been a veritable horror for Spain. So the attempt to forget - or at least to pretend to forget - seemed to be the most secure route to navigate the transition back to some sort of normal politics in a more modern, pluralistic Europe, itself then still stuck in the divisions of the Cold War.

As everyone seems to be acknowledging nowadays, that stable post-war order is now under multiple challenges. While the old grand narratives of communism and socialism no longer inspire or frighten the way they once did, all sorts of old familiar fault lines are reappearing in the European landscape (as they are here in America as well). So perhaps it is no surprise that the unresolved questions about the Cvivl War and what followed - which are in some sense still the unresolved questions about Spain's history and its national identity and unity - are being resurfaced there by different political factions. 

I visited el Valle de los Caidos during my first visit to Spain in the 1990s. I found it interesting historically (though less so than Philip II's Escorial not that far away). But I found it somewhat uninspiring as a church. As such it serves as a suitable symbol (with or without the Caudillo's body buried there) of a failed attempt to recreate a kind of integralist Catholic kingdom that (for better or for worse or perhaps for some combination of both) can now exist only in memory or fantasy.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"True, Permanent, and Burning Enthusiasm"

Today is the 170th anniversary of Paulist Fathers’ Founder Isaac Hecker’s ordination as a Redemptorist priest in 1849. He had become a Catholic a mere five years earlier after an intense spiritual journey, and had immediately embarked on the next phase of that journey – discerning his proper vocation within the Church.

On July 28, 1844, just days before his reception into the Church, Hecker had written in his Diary: “I have commenced acting. My union with the Catholic Church is my first real, true act. And it is no doubt the forerunner of many more – of an active life.

This second major period of Hecker’s life – from his reception into the Catholic Church in 1844 through his separation form the Redemptorists in 1858 – was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his search had so earnestly led him, transforming the young contemplative mystic into a mature active missionary.

His immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in his Diary on May 17, 1843, more than a year before his baptism, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation. He had done so, as his first biographer, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, observed, “even before entering the Church or arriving at any clear understanding of his duty to do so.”

In 1845, however, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to travel to Europe to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. Hecker decided to join them. As the familiar story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, showed up at the Redemptorist house at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded the Provincial that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot.  Taking the morning train back to New York, he said a quick goodbye to his family and set sail for his new life in Europe. In the words of his 20th-century biographer, David O’Brien, “at the most crucial moments of his life, leaving home, entering the church, joining a religious order, Hecker acted suddenly and decisively and never turned back.”

In a letter to Brownson a week earlier, Hecker had expressed “the need of being under stronger Catholic influences than are so far as my experience goes, in this country.” Providentially, the Redemptorists met that need, and he threw himself fully, physically and spiritually, into the rigorous process of 19th-century religious formation. Despite difficulties with his studies, what he himself later described as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors, Hecker was able to make sense of his own personal conversion experience and find a suitable structure within which to live it in his encounter with Catholic Europe, in the Redemptorist religious routine and ascetical practices, and in his reading of Catholic spiritual writers like the Jesuit author Louis Lallemant (1538-1635).

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, providentially) academic difficulties continued to present a problem for the enthusiastic young seminarian. Convinced as he had become, however, that he had a vocation to labor for the conversion of his non-Catholic fellow Americans, he successfully persuaded his superiors that, if permitted to study at an appropriate pace, he could yet qualify to be ordained a priest. Thus, after a year’s novitiate in Belgium and three years at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he was sent to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in London, where, on this date in 1849, he was ordained a priest.

After a brief period ministering as a priest in London, he was sent back to the United States as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included Clarence Walworth and two other American ex-Protestants, Augustine Hewit and Francis Baker. On March 19, 1851, the 31-year old Father Hecker was home in New York – in his old neighborhood, at the Redemptorist house on East 3rd Street.

Parish missions were intended as a kind of parish renewal experience (in American terms, sort of like a Catholic revival meeting - focused, however, on the sacraments). Missions sought to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed or become alienated. By challenging Catholics to a higher standard of religious practice and moral behavior, missions contributed to what Hecker, in a letter to Brownson, called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country,” one consequence of which, Hecker hoped, would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker well understood that any successful mission to non-Catholic America presupposed an effective pastoral ministry within the American Catholic community. “The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker famously wrote to Brownson in 1851, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.  

That was the challenging foundational task for the Church in the United States in the mid-19th-century – and remains a real, demanding, and ongoing challenging task for the American Church in the radically changed circumstances in which she finds herself today.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Latest Update on America's Religious Decline

The latest Pew Research Center update on America's religious decline appeared last week - ironically just in time for World Mission Sunday! What seems so striking about this latest study is both the fact of the decline of Christianity in the United States and the rapidity of that process, both of which suggest a significant transformation of American society and its political culture - significantly transformed from the way American religiosity was widely seen just a decade or two ago as different from the secularization so evident elsewhere.

According to this latest study, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians - down 12% from a decade ago. Simultaneously, the religiously unaffiliated are now 26% - up from 17% a decade ago. The Christian decline applies to both Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestants are now 43% - down from 51% a decade ago. Catholics are now 20% - down from 23%. The data also show that rates of church attendance are declining, just like rates of religious affiliation - something significant enough to be noticeable in our weekly attendance statistics. The Pew Study suggests that this reflects not so much Christians attending Church less often as fewer Christians as a share of the American population.

Meanwhile only 22% of Millennials attend weekly services, while another 22% say they never attend.

Particularly ominous is the news that 47% of American Hispanics now describe themselves as Catholics - down from 57% a decade ago. Meanwhile the religiously unaffiliated share of Hispanics is now 23% - up from 15% a decade ago.

Also the religious gender gap, while still real, has diminished, and the share of women who identify as Christians has dropped from 80% to 69%. 

Geographically, the pattern holds in all four regions of the U.S. In the Northeast, Catholics have dropped from 36% to 27%. In the South, Protestants have declined from 64% to 53%. Politically, "nones" and infrequent churchgoers are growing in both political parties, although more evidently so in the Democratic party. Among white Democrats, fewer than half claim to be Christians, more than 40% are "nones," and just 30% regularly attend religious services. Of course, Blacks and Hispanics - key Democratic constituencies - remain more likely to identify as Christians, although they too seem less so.

However sobering, such statistics are really not so surprising. Much more research needs to be done to explain these phenomena in fuller detail. Even so, to paraphrase Marx, having understood the phenomenon, the task now is to change it.

(Photo: Pew Study Cover Photo Sungjin Ahn photography/Getty Images)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Much Merited New York Statue

The Church in the United States commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini as the patron saint of immigrants. Born in Italy in 1850, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini became the founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Pope Leo XIII asked her to go to America to minister to the waves of Italians then immigrating to the US. So, accompanied by six sisters, she came to New York in 1889. She established schools, orphanages, and hospitals. All told, she made 23 Atlantic crossings in 35 years and established 67 houses. She became a naturalized American citizen in 1909. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. Her body is venerated in a shrine in Manhattan's Washington Heights. She was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 and named patroness of immigrants in 1950.

But in 2019 she became embroiled in an unexpected - but so very New York - controversy.

New York City has some 150 statues of historic public figures, only five of whom, however, are women.  To remedy this perceived imbalance, a She Built NYC commission conducted a survey last year, to identify female figures to honor with statues for their contributions to New York City’s history. Of the 320 women who were nominated in the 2018 survey, Mother Cabrini received the most support of all, but when final selections were announced for the first set of seven statues she was not included.

Italian-American New Yorkers reasonably recognized this as an affront. On October 6, more than 1000 people marched in Brooklyn in protest. The march was led by Brooklyn's Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Monsignor David Cassato, the director of the Brooklyn diocese’s Italian apostolate. At Mass after the march, Bishop DiMarzio lauded the saint and said her statue would honor the memory of immigrants and remind New Yorkers of their responsibility to one another.

The controversy continued until Columbus Day, when as people were assembling to march in the day's great Italian-American parade, New York's Italian-American Governor Andrew Cuomo rectified this injustice and announced "we are going to build a statue to Mother Cabrini.” Cuomo called Mother Cabrini "a great New Yorker, a great Italian-American immigrant,” who “came to this city and she helped scores of immigrants who came to New York. She opened dozens of institutions, academic institutions, health care institutions.” And he committed the state to work on the project together with local Italian-American groups and Bishop DiMarzio. 

Mother Cabrini's statue, when finally erected, will be a fitting civic honor to a great immigrant to this country and a reminder to the rest of us - immigrants and descendants of immigrants - of our duty to honor the memory of past immigrants and to support contemporary refugees and immigrants everywhere, especially in this terrible time  when a detestable and odious anti-immigrant (and thus ultimately anti-American) ideology has established itself at the very pinnacle of political power in our country

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The 2020 Democratic Debates (Round 4)

Another debate! And, instead of winnowing the field, the debate stage has actually grown, even as the billionaire vanity candidate made his first formal appearance on the debate stage! And, as the debates have grown larger and longer, the audience has inevitably declined - from a high of some 18+ million back in June to something like 9+ million last night. How much more of this can the candidates take? How much more can the country take? And, of course, Cory Booker's pathetic appeal to remember the real enemy and not try to destroy each other fell on deaf ears, as most of the candidates joined in ganging up on the apparent new front-runner Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Given the concurrent impeachment inquiry in Washington and the media's obsession with that subject, it was no surprise that the debate began there and went 20 minutes before moving on. It was Andrew Yang who best stated the obvious - that impeachment would not likely result either in removing Trump or in solving the problems that got him elected in the first place. Unfortunately, impeachment then yielded to another repetition of the how to pay for "Medicare for All" debate. If there is one issue on which it should be easy for Democrats to present a united front it should be opposing the Republicans' repeated efforts to deny people health care coverage. Instead they fight each other repeatedly over the arcane details of different plans and let journalists do their customary thing of highlighting Republican talking points about taxing the middle class.

As it should, given recent events, foreign policy got a lot of on-stage energy. Both Buttigieg (more combative than in past debates) and Klobuchar distinguished themselves in that field. While the nuances of alliances and Middle Eastern power balances may be too complex for the debate stage, the horror Trump has recently unleashed in Syria seems sufficiently understandable to all.

In the end, the debate highlighted Warren's front-runner status and further diminished Biden's claim to that honorific. Meanwhile Pete Buttigieg had his best night - tackling Tulsi Gabbard on foreign policy, Beto O'Rourke on guns, and (most important for him) pointedly challenging challenging Elizabeth Warren.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A Love To Live For

This past Sunday in Rome the Church celebrated the canonization of Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the famous English convert to Catholicism via the Anglican Oxford Movement, the movement which also gave us Francis Baker, Augustine Hewit, and Clarence Walworth here in the United States.

Newman, whose life spanned almost all of the 19th century, never visited the United States, but Isaac Hecker visited him several times in England. After Hecker's death, Cardinal Newman wrote to Hewit: "I have ever felt that there was this sort of unity in our lives - that we had both begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England, and I know how zealous he was in promoting it."

Both men had much earlier set out on a journey - Newman from a respected position in the Established Church, Hecker from a somewhat unchurched background - and both had finally found a home. Once there, both understood in the depths of their hearts what a treasure they had found, that their journey was done, and that they really were at home, the home God had made for them in his Church.

Karl Marx famously called religion "the heart of a heartless world." and both Newman and Hecker found in the Church not just an answer to their questions but a powerfully beating heart overflowing with a love to live for. both shared a common priestly calling, captivated by the abiding presence and action of the Holy Spirit, and a ministry expressed in prayer, preaching, and writing, devoted to guiding others - especially others like themselves - to find the same home, and so spread Christ's kingdom to every human heart.

Zealous, big-hearted men themselves, the home they cherished was bog as well - big enough to open its doors to be shared with everyone else, everyone still on life's seemingly so treacherous road. That road may be much more crowded and treacherous today, in a much changed society which seems to resist finding any real  home and would rather risk perpetual disappointment and dissatisfaction. 

All the more reason, then, to recall Hecker's hope that a common home and shared love can overcome the conflicts and hatreds that divide our society. All the more need, then, to emulate the heroic virtue of these two great men of the Church, so that all may finally find a home, where the noise of our increasingly heartless world is hushed by the angelic hymn in Neman's famous poem published in Hecker's magazine The Catholic World in 1865:

Praise to the holiest in the height
And int he depths be praise
In all his words most wonderful
Most sure in all his ways.

(Photo: Image of Saint John Henry Newman displayed at Saint Peter's Basilica during his Canonization, October 13, 2019.) 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Succession Season Finale

With the second season's finale of HBO's acclaimed series Succession, we inevitably circle back to the obvious question: What is it about these terribly rich - and just plain terrible - people that so mesmerizes us? Of course, the series is so well plotted, the characters so well crafted, the settings so exotic, the acting so good, that there are many obvious reasons to like the show, in spite of the metastatic moral disaster it portrays. 

And, while it may well be true that - except for the fact that they have more money - the rich aren't all that different from the rest of us, the fact remains that the reasons that they have more money and the extent of personal and social mischief that their money frees them to do definitely do make them - and the evil they do - interesting in a much more than ordinary way. 

Then, of course, they are a family, and everyone, whether he or she likes it or not, is (or at least has been) connected to a family, and so can relate to a greater or lesser extent to some of the familial dynamics that dominate the show. There is no escaping family, even when family members routinely let each other down, which is both the privilege and the pathology of Succession's Roy children, each of whom has been bullied and manipulated by their odious father, whose wealth has made all four of them odious bullies and manipulators in turn. True, while father Logan is always odious, each of his heirs has some less obnoxious qualities, which make them at times comic characters and even sometimes sympathetic characters. 

For example, despite his despicable drug habits, it is hard at times not to feel for Kendall. After all, the whole series started with him set to be the successor only to be betrayed by his father - sort of setting the tome for everything to come. So, when the family and hired guns gather on their luxury yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean to await Logan's decision of whom to throw overboard, it is hard not to feel at least a twinge of sadness for Kendall when it becomes clear he will be the one (as we might have guessed he would be from the conclusion of the previous episode). Indeed the whole pathos of Kendall's story is summed up in the final conversation between father and son when, after accepting his fate (after a whole season of sol-destroying submission to his father's tyranny), Kendall pathetically asks his father for a final affirmation - that he could have done the job - and is cruelly turned down. That Kendall steps up in the end (with documentary help from cousin Greg)  seems to confirm one's intuition that, for all his corruption, Kendall may yet find an escape - not the physical escape Naomi offered him on the boat but an inner - dare one almost say moral - escape from his father and all his works and pomps.

And then there are the seemingly interchangeable and apparently expendable hangers-on, the "extended family," as it were, also bullied and terrorized at times but apparently addicted to the thrill of being even in the shadow of so much money and so seemingly committed to the continuation of the business venture that could just as well be called the Roy crime-family syndicate. Their subservience is a testament to the widespread human condition which Adam Smith famously diagnosed as the "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." (To the extent that we all suffer some of that syndrome, that too undoubtedly accounts for some of our fascination with this show.)

And, of course, the rich repay our fascination with their appalling sense of entitlement. Sunday's NY Times Book Review recalled a story about FDR's Labor Secretary Frances Perkins yelling over the phone at the head of General Motors: "You don't deserve to be counted among decent men! ... You have betrayed the men who work for you." To that, he is supposed to have responded: "You can't talk that way to me! I'm worth $70 million." Worth many more millions than that, all the Roys - old and young, male and female - share that same smug sense of entitlement - whether closing an amusement park for a private birthday party, covering up manslaughter, or thumbing their nose at Congress.

Perhaps the paradox of Succession is how it exploits our fascination with the rich while undercutting that fascination by highlighting the moral wickedness of wealth and the moral damage it does - not just to those unjustly deprived of it but to those who unjustly possess it an cannot free themselves from it

Thank You

Back when I was in school, some of my more creative colleagues acted out this gospel [Luke 17:11-19], changing the 10 lepers to 10 “leapers,” hopping around the sanctuary accordingly. I remember the occasion, but not the point. And ever since it has been challenging for me as a preacher to approach this story with the seriousness Luke intended (and which it undoubtedly deserves).

Diseases scare people. You don’t have to be a hypochondriac to be unnerved whenever some new plague presents itself. I was a boy back at the time of the last big polio epidemic in the U.S. in the 1950s, and I can remember how frightened people were by a dangerous disease, against which they felt so defenseless. I remember the panic in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was killing thousands of people. More recently, we’ve seen epidemics of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. And now we see one of the consequences of climate change in the spread of malaria and other so-called “tropical” diseases.

Having experienced all this in our own time, we should easily understand how frightened and threatened ancient peoples felt faced with the mysterious illness they called leprosy. Those afflicted with it were often legally segregated outside cities and towns (as was done in 19th-century Hawaii). Indeed, the sick are often seen as a threat – or at least a source of discomfort – to be avoided by those who think of themselves as healthy and normal.

In actual fact, what the ancients called “leprosy” was often a curable skin condition – hence the Law’s provision of a procedure for examination by the priests, But until one had been examined and certified as cured, the leper was considered impure and unclean. Cut off from normal social life, the lot of the leper was a hard one - until suddenly into all this misery moved Jesus, for whom the fact that the sick were shunned and despised did not detract from their significance in his sight. All the lepers said was, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” The sick don’t need to say much. They can communicate quite effectively just by being who they are.

Desperation often makes for hope. So, when commanded to go and show themselves to the priests, they went immediately.

And, suddenly, they were cleansed - whereupon one of them, realizing what had happened, returned to thank Jesus.

Presumably, the other nine went on to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests as Jesus had directed them to do. But this 10th leper was a Samaritan. As misfortune often does, disease had brought together people who would not normally have associated with each other. Once they had been healed, however, once the barrier that united them by separating them from the society of the healthy had been breached, then all the normal social barriers reappeared.

Perhaps the Samaritan could have found himself a Samaritan priest in Samaria. It is quite likely he did that anyway when he finally returned home. Once healed, however, something special had happened to him, something so special it changed his whole outlook. He returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Seeing he had been healed, his vision broadened and (like that other famous foreign leper Naaman the Syrian [2 Kings 5:14-17]), he was drawn into the deeper insight we call faith. He recognized not only what had happened but why. And the why was Jesus. Leper no longer, he was still a Samaritan; but he was no longer an outsider in relation to God. And so he responded with faith and thanksgiving.

Gratitude is the first fruit of faith. It’s our response to the God who (as Paul said to Timothy [2 Timothy 2:8-13]) always remains faithful. Giving thanks is what it actually means to live as a Christian. It is our awareness – made individual and personal in each one’s own experience of God’s particular kindness – an awareness that God’s power to save is greater than all the obstacles we or the world put in his way.

And that is why the Eucharist (a word which literally means thanksgiving) has to be at the very center of our Christian life. Our thanksgiving finds its center in the Eucharist, because that is where we find Jesus, our one and only healer and savior. Through him, with him, and in him, we give thanks to God the Father for all that he has been for us and done for us.

But true gratitude cannot be confined to one hour each week or one event in a year – any more than the Samaritan’s gratitude could authentically end in one single emotional scene. My whole life must become one extended Eucharist, one prolonged prayer of thanksgiving, giving thanks for what God is doing right now for me and with me and within me.

After he had been healed, Naaman, that earlier foreigner, also found faith, and he too returned to give thanks. Not only had he been healed, his whole life had been changed. So he took some of Israel home with him, so that, wherever he went in the world, he would be able to worship the Lord on the Lord’s own land. What will we taken home from here? We are here today, as every Sunday, to celebrate the thanksgiving that stands as the very center of our lives as the Lord’s grateful people. So how will we continue to give thanks – to be truly thankful people - today, tomorrow, and every day?

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 13, 2019.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Heart Speaks to Heart

Cor ad Cor Loquitur ("Heart Speaks to Heart") was the motto on the coat of arms of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), an influential member of the English Oxford Movement while still an Anglican and a famous English convert to Catholicism, whose feast day is today and who will be canonized by Pope Francis on Sunday. 

He was the author of a famous autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1866), The Grammar of Assent (1870), the poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865, published in the new Paulist magazine The Catholic World), and the popular hymns Lead, Kindly Light and Praise to the Holiest in the Height. A priest of the Birmingham Oratory, Newman was created a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United Kingdom at an open-air Mass in Birmingham on September 19, 2010.  Newman’s significance for the wider English-speaking world will be reflected in the presence of the Prince of Wales at Sunday’s ceremony in Rome.

Newman never visited the United States, but Paulist founder Isaac Hecker visited him several times in England. After Hecker's death in 1888, Cardinal Newman wrote to his successor as Paulist Superior, Augustine Hewit: "I have ever felt that there was this sort of unity in our lives - that we had both begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England, and I know how zealous he was in promoting it." 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Living By Faith

How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen!

Who hasn’t felt like poor old Habakuk [Habakuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4] at times? Who hasn’t felt helpless and abandoned? Even saints – some of them certainly – have been known to suffer through such experiences. Some people just never seem to get a break. No matter how hard they try, things just don’t go right for them. Jobs are lost. Careers fail. Husbands and wives betray each other. Children disappoint their parents. Parents disappoint their children. Sickness strikes indiscriminately. Our economic system is unjust and unequal. The world is warming quickly and dangerously. Our society seems too divided to address any of these problems. And the sheer frustration of it all takes its own terrible toll.

And, when things go wrong, don’t we all want to blame someone? And then there is God – often a popular object of blame and complaint. For many, searching for answers to their struggles and pains, the struggle and pain of it all can become a complaint about God. Habakuk too wanted an answer, but for his complaint was not a complaint about God but a complaint to God – an acknowledgment of God’s perplexingly mysterious power in the face of human limitations. Complaining to God instead of about God, Habakuk becomes paradoxically a spokesman for hope: For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint. …the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

Nice words, to be sure, encouraging words even; but what exactly does it mean that the just one, because of his faith, shall live?

Faith – famously defined in the New Testament as the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1-3] – seems a lot easier said than done. Even the apostles asked, Increase our faith!

Now faith, of course, is more than just belief. But even belief can be a challenge. Among the reasons Americans identify as one major motivation for leaving their childhood religion behind, some 60% say it is because they simply stopped believing.

Like Habakuk, Jesus [Luke 17:5-10] offered encouragement to his questioning disciples - assuming one is encouraged by the image of a mulberry tree, despite its deep and extensive root system, being uprooted and transplanted into the sea! Where, one wonders, would one ever find such faith even to try to transplant a mulberry tree into the sea?

Personally, I can think of no reason to want to transplant a tree into the sea. But, like the apostles, I do certainly want to increase my sometimes at best barely sufficient faith. At minimum, don’t we all want to have sufficient faith, as Habakuk says, to live?

And, indeed, it is in the living, day-in, day-out, that Jesus seems to suggest that faith is to be found – as unprofitable servants doing what we are obliged to do. Even supposing I did somehow miraculously transplant a tree into the sea, what difference would that make? Whom would that benefit? On the other hand, if I could at least qualify as an unprofitable servant, successfully doing what I am obliged to do, now that just might make a difference!
Faith is about living daily the way we are supposed to live, becoming over time, through the kind of life I live in response to God’s grace the kind of person God intends me to be –living by faith, surrendering to God with confident hope and love.

Maybe living as we do now in an increasingly superficial culture that overdoses on image and special effects, doing what one is supposed to do lacks the spectacular drama of transplanting a tree into the sea. It is, however, in fact the real challenge of a humanly serious and morally worthwhile life, the real challenge that faces each of us every day.

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 6, 2019.