Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Eve

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

The annual ritual of changing the calendar inspires some serious reflection for many, such as I myself engaged in here yesterday. But it also has its lighter side.  I am too old - and, increasingly, too socially isolated - to party on New Year's Eve. I am enough of a traditionalist, however, at least to stay up until midnight - long enough at least to call my family (who live three time zones earlier) to wish them a  "Happy New Year" before I slouch off to bed.

My first memory of New Year's Eve dates back to the early 1950s, when much of my extended family gathered at what was in effect the old homestead in Italian Harlem - my aunt's apartment on 124th Street and 2nd Avenue. I remember our regular visits there and walks around the neighborhood to the Triborough Bridge. But all I remember of New Year's Eve there was the midnight noisemakers and streamers. Soon enough, my aunt moved uptown as had the rest of the family already, and our celebrations were held in her - or another relative's - East Bronx apartment. Apart from the late hour and the uniquely midnight-related hijinks, those parties were not much different from the many extended family gatherings that took place all year long. But, for a child, the fact that it was late at night made it special, even exciting.

Midnight itself was, of course, completely ritualized. Guy Lombardo was on the TV, and his Royal Canadians sang their familiar staples, like Boo Hoo and Enjoy Yourself, It's later Than You Think. As midnight approached, the TV took us to Times Square, where a large crowd (comparatively small by today's standards) awaited the midnight ball drop (atop what was then still the NY Times Building).  The entire event revolved around that ball of lights. The extravagant entertainments we nowadays associate with that event  were way off in the future. The ball was the show. And one year, I well remember, the ball got stuck on the way down and never quite made it to the bottom of the pole. But the new year's number lit up anyway. 

Once the ball came down and the new year lit up, we all jumped from our seats, made noise with our noisemakers, shouted "happy new year," and kissed each other. The more traditionally inclined might also venture out into the apartment building's hallway banging pots and pans. (Another venerable Italian custom - throwing dishes out the window - had by then become ancient history, clearly a casualty of assimilation.)

All that was, of course, accompanied by Guy Lombardo and his band playing Auld Lang Syne, the Scottish origins of which I was hardly aware of. I only knew it as Guy Lombardo's new year's eve song! Then we all sat down to eat. This was the only time we kids stayed up so late and so the only time we ate at such an absurd hour, one consequence of which was that none of us could then receive Communion at Mass later that morning. (Although most adults received Communion only occasionally, my generation was socialized to receive every Sunday and holy day. On January 1, we faithfully attended the 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass under the watchful supervision of the Sisters as usual, but so universal was the custom of staying up late and eating after midnight that hardly anyone received Communion on New Year's Day.)

As the years passed, New Year's Eve gatherings grew smaller, lonelier, and less exciting. There were occasional exceptions, of course.  At Princeton, I and my housemates did host a gloriously successful party for a number of our fellow grad students to usher in 1976.  Several years later, in the novitiate, it seemed almost everyone else had someplace else to go, so one of my classmates and I prepared snacks and celebrated together with the assistant novice master.

For the Great Jubilee, the Archbishop of Toronto asked each parish to celebrate a Midnight Mass. I led a pre-midnight "vigil" service that ended with me standing in the nativity scene proclaiming the Prologue to John's Gospel, as the midnight hour sounded, whereupon the first Mass of the year 2000 began. 

During my decade as a parish priest in New York, I was frequently a guest at a very pleasant gathering at a parishioner's apartment on Central Park West, from whose balcony, we could watch the midnight fireworks in the sky and the midnight runners starting their ridiculous race in the park below. Living as I did within walking distance from Times Square, I also saw how that traditional event grew and grew, even as our post-9/11 security state mentality has deformed it and all such public gatherings beyond recognition.

Nowadays, I am more likely alone on New Year's Eve. Yes, I still stay up to see the ball, but then I quickly phone my family and then call it a night. I am now old enough to feel free to dispense myself from the obligation to have fun on New Year's Eve. Instead, it has become an occasion for quiet gratitude - that I have made it to another year and that the world has made it to another year - and to hope that both I and the world will make it to the next New Year's Eve not too much worse for wear.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Technically, of course, 2020 will be the last year of the second decade of the 21st century. Even so, a common convention makes it the beginning of the new decade of the "20s," while the year that is now ending likewise marks the end of the decade of the "teens." Even Queen Elizabeth II, in her Christmas Broadcast the other day, followed that current convention. So I might as well too!

For me personally, this sort of works anyway, since 2010 was a decisive turning point for me, when I transitioned from seemingly somewhat permanent vicariousness to a pastorship. All three of my postings as a priest have been amazingly wonderful experiences, and each place and its people will always have a special place in my heart. But I have especially cherished these almost 10 years as a parish pastor - the people I have served and worked with, the experiences we have shared together, and the extra opportunities I have had to be more deeply involved in the larger life of the Church in this region. In effect, I have been challenged to live what priesthood is for and what ministry is about. And so I am grateful to those who have made this unique and blessed opportunity possible for me. On the other hand, with what the British call becoming "redundant" staring me in the face in the new decade, I may experience much more satisfaction in looking backward rather than forward!

The reverse may be true for the wider world, however. If this has been on balance a good decade for me personally, it has been dramatically less so for the wider world, which may have no alternative but to look ahead to the future with some guarded hope.  

Decades are an artificial kind of chronology, of course. For the world, I suppose this troubled "decade" actually began in 2008 with the financial crisis, which, on the one hand, exposed (as if there should ever have been any doubt) the moral defects of capitalism, and, on the other hand, began a prolonged period of heightened economic and social distress which has adversely impacted many Americans, many of whom have felt "left behind" as a result - a widespread experience that has had catastrophic political consequences. (The ongoing Democratic primary process will reveal whether the Democrats have come to understand the Trump is a consequence, not a cause, of our present predicament, and that returning to the status quo ante 2016 is not what most Americans appear to want - especially those already "left behind" well before 2016.)

That same year that gave us the financial crisis also saw the election of "Hope and Change" President Barack Obama, whose administration ended up producing much less change than it promised and inspiring a lot less hope than hype. Obama's single greatest accomplishment was, of course, the Affordable Care Act, which barely passed after a year of Democratic dithering that frittered away the opportunity to pass it before Senator Kennedy's death led to the Democrats' loss of his seat. Universal Health Care had been a Democratic aspiration for decades. The Affordable Care Act did not fulfill that aspiration, but it did bring the country a lot closer, for which the Obama Administration rightly deserves credit, even praise. The most successful part of the law, however, in terms of significant expansions of coverage, was probably the Medicaid expansion. So the moral of the story is that what the rest of Obamacare resisted - a single payer ("Medicare for all") model is ultimately the best way to go. Yet, given so many Americans' fetishistic devotion to private (employer-provided) health insurance, that option didn't have any serious chance of being enacted in 2010, even if Obama had had the courage to propose it. 

Obama's biggest problem, of course, came from the opposition party's fanatical opposition to him personally. At the time, I (like so many others) interpreted his election as  a gigantic leap away from our nation's lingering legacy of racism. Rather than that, however, the election of a non-white president proved to be an event of such traumatic dimensions for enough voters as to trigger an intense reaction, which in retrospect probably should have been predicted instead of appearing as something of a surprise. 

So, instead of heralding a gigantic leap away from our racist past, the Obama years exposed our lingering racist present. All that was needed to stir the toxic brew to  destructive intensity was a political charlatan to exploit it for his own advancement, which, of course, happened soon enough.

In addition to traditional American racism's revived visibility and virulence, other similar evils  - American nativism, religious bigotry, and anti-semitism have been on the rise. The latter has a history and constituencies all its own and is very visibly on the rise throughout the world on both the political right and the political left.

All this has occurred alongside another terribly destructive phenomenon - the virtual universalization of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the general calamity commonly called "social media," all of which has isolated individuals from traditional social connections, has fragmented our society into niches with separate realities with little or nothing shared or common, has vastly increased the long-standing American gullibility for conspiracy theories of all sorts, and has fostered foreign interference in American politics on an unprecedented scale. It has also enabled bigots to find like-minded haters and widely propagate their malicious messages without ever even having to stir from their homes

Meanwhile, the role played by traditional social institutions that used to occupy the cultural space between the isolated individual and the leviathan state (thus making the individual less isolated and the state less leviathan) has radically diminished. Churches, in particular, once so central in American society, have lost much of their significance - in part due to world-historical secularizing tendencies, but in large part due to Churches' own internal difficulties and to their problematic efforts at regaining political power.

The decade has also highlighted the differences between the two opposing sides in our political and cultural divide. The Right produced the Tea Party. It also engaged in political action to acquire and keep control of the levers of political power. The Left produced the Occupy movement and some impressive political marches and demonstrations - in other words lots of expressive, symbolic politics, but fewer votes that could actually change anything. For all that Russia and Comey may have contributed to Trump's election in 2016, it was the failure to get out the vote in certain places (and votes cast for frivolous third-party candidates) that helped decide the actual outcome. 

Generational differences and conflicts are hardly new, but they too may have been exacerbated in this decade by the unprecedented phenomenon of my "Baby Boomer" generation's longevity and consequent reluctance to move aside. The fact that the incumbent president and his three most prominent potential rivals are all septuagenarians is really rather remarkable (and should be remarked upon more). I am not an "ageist," and I do not advocate for compulsory retirement or any other age-related discrimination. Still, there is only so much one can accomplish in one's life, and learning to quit ought itself to be an important component of wholesome aging. And while I don't completely agree with the columnist who recently suggested that my Baby Boomer generation is leaving the world so much worse off than we found it, there is some sadly serious substance to that claim. Certainly there are many things that are much better today than 50, 60, or 70 years ago. But there are also many more things that are worse. In particular, regarding what may turn out to be the most decisive issue of our era, what we have done to damage the environment and our failure to arrest climate change, my "baby Boomer" generation is most definitely leaving a world which is much worse than world we inherited.

That is true in other areas as well. What we Baby Boomers can do to correct the world we have helped create is obviously limited. At least we can bear witness to the fact that there was once a time when we shared a common culture, when the institutions that mediated the space between the individual and the state (families, churches, schools, labor unions, civic organizations, etc.) were all a lot stronger, when income inequality was less, and when we (unlike the next generation) could realistically expect to live better off then our parents' generation. It may be difficult for those who are inheriting the world we are leaving behind even to imagine the world we had inherited; and, given contemporary ideological deformations in the understanding of fundamental human realities, what we have lost may be too hard for too many to appreciate adequately. But, if bearing such witness is all Baby Boomers can still do, we ought at least to be doing it.

As the last year of the second decade of the 21st century and the first year of the "20s," the year 2020 will inevitably be perceived as a liminal year, but it will be especially so because it will be an American Presidential Election year. As a consequence of the decade that is ending, one can confidently predict that the election will have at least one, rather sad, result. It will leave about half the country pleased but still very angry, and the other half just very angry! What a commentary on the decade that is ending - and on us who have lived it!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Holy Family

The feast of the Holy family is a modern invention – much like the 19th and 20th century nuclear family it may seem to some to romanticize.

Families come in all kinds and shapes and sizes, and the forms family takes have evolved over time, and have evolved especially dramatically just in our own lifetimes. That said, everyone begins life, biologically at least, as a member of a family. And family life in some form has almost universally been the basic unit of social organization, and for most people the focus of their day-to-day lives. Even those of us without families of our own treasure our extended family connections and family-like connections.

One of the striking things about God’s relationship with the human race, as revealed in both the Old and the New Testaments, is how it is largely a series of family stories - beginning with the creation of a family, from whom the whole human race is descended. After several generations, during which things seem to go from bad to worse, God singles out one particular family to be his agent for renewing his promise to the entire human race. The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of God’s promises to Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants, culminating in the New Testament in the homeless, refugee immigrant family, known to us today as “the Holy Family.”

We’re all familiar with countless artistic portrayals of the Holy Family. It’s safe to say there are more portraits of the Holy Family than of any ordinary family. And, of course, we have them here on display in the familiar Christmas scene. Such nativity scenes invite us to appreciate the circumstances of Christ’s birth, to consider the concrete reality of God becoming one of us, a human being like ourselves. “The nativity scene.”  Pope Francis has reminded us, “is like a living gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.”

Indeed! But, of course, nativity scenes are also somewhat artificial. The figures appear frozen in time. All the participants who came and went at different times in the actual story all appear together and seem stuck in one moment. And, of course, we have so sentimentalized the story that, even though we are staring at a less than optimal setting in which to give birth under obviously sub-standard conditions, we hardly think at all about that aspect of the story.

And yet, if we but read the Christmas story as told by Matthew and Luke – certainly if we do so without passing it though the filters of holiday sentimentality, if we read it as it was originally written to be read – then what do we find? A young unmarried girl is inexplicably pregnant. Her fiancé marries her anyway, based on a dream he had. She gives birth far from home, in a cave, with some animals for company and some strangers for visitors. In the ancient world – indeed for much of human history in most of the world – childbirth was a dangerous, life-threatening experience. Assuming mother and child both made it safely through that, there were further threats in the form of diseases that carried away both rich and poor. And, of course, most people were poor, and so everyone in a typical family – adults and children – lived close to the margin, often hungry or in danger of becoming so. 

And if you were poor – then as now - you were almost certainly also politically powerless, and that could pose problems too – as it definitely does for the Holy Family in today’s Gospel reading, which reminds us how, born in poverty far from home, Jesus’ very life was soon threatened by political violence and his family forced to seek asylum as political refugees. It should not challenge our imagination to picture the Holy family’s situation. Our contemporary world is full of political refugees. We think of the especially tragic situations in the Middle East and parts of Africa and all the people whom those conflicts have displaced, perhaps permanently. Meanwhile, right here in our own country, we also have immigrants who came here to escape political persecution or oppression. That’s what Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to do, immigrating to Israel’s ancient enemy Egypt, to escape King Herod the Great’s “killing fields.” But, unlike our government, Egypt welcomed them. Nor did it forcibly separate the parents from their child, as our supposedly Christian country has done.

Many families – then as now – experienced similar problems. The Incarnation wasn’t some sentimental novel.  When for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven (as we say so routinely in the Creed), it was for real. God became one of us, part of our world, a member of a family, a family struggling to make ends meet from crisis to crisis.

I remember a friend of mine, talking to me about the challenges of being a parent, saying that he thought the fact that the human race has survived at all is itself a tribute to how families have struggled, stuck together, and pulled through.

Of course, the Holy Family had some special help – Joseph’s dreams, for example. But, if the Incarnation means that in the Holy Family God himself has experienced and identified himself with our lifelong stresses and insecurities, then the corollary also follows from that – that God is present with us too, to sustain us in our stresses and insecurities. And even without any special dreams, we do have God’s word directing us to stick together and support one another – in good times and bad. We have God’s word directing us to put on, as Paul says, heartfelt compassion, kindness humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, December 29, 2019.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Little Women (The Movie)

In October 2008, a group of us took a tour of certain sites in the Boston area associated with the early, pre-conversion life of Paulist Fathers' founder Isaac Hecker.  One such site was Fruitlands, a utopian transcendentalist community founded by Bronson Alcott and Charles lane, where Hecker, hoping for a more ascetic life than what he had experienced for several months at the transcendentalist community at Brook Farm, was very briefly a somewhat dissatisfied resident in 1844. While there, he met Bronson Alcott's young daughter Louisa May Alcott (photo), who later published an account of Fruitlands' somewhat less than successful story in Transcendental Wild Oats (1873). Louisa May Alcott, of course, grew up to write the perhaps also somewhat semi-autobiographical novel Little Women (1868-1869) about the four March sisters, that has since become an enduring American classic. It has seen seven film adaptations, as well as several made-for-TV versions. I first saw it in the 1933 movie version, which I saw on  our original black-and-white TV sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. 

Now, this much loved literary classic has been made into yet another movie, released appropriately on Christmas Day. The book famously begins with the lament that Christmas won't be Christmas without presents - a vacuum this book has well filled for 150 years. Now this beautiful and uplifting film may do the same for a new generation of audiences. 

Directed by Greta Gerwig, it stars Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Harry Potter's Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, with Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, and  Meryl Streep as Aunt March. With a cast like that, who can complain?

Fresh and vibrant, this film is faithful enough to the Alcott's timeless story. It is a visually delightful evocation of that extremely familiar place and time in American history, with enough of a nod to contemporary preoccupations to please those seeking a more modern sensibility. 

Instead of leading us sequentially through the familiar story, the film follows its own chronology, constantly flashing back and forth between earlier and later events. I wonder whether someone unfamiliar with the story might find it challenging at times to keep up with where in the sequence the film actually is at any moment. On the other hand, for probably most of the audience, already familiar with the story and the development and fates of the various characters, this is likely not much of a problem and may in fact contribute to this adaptation's novelty and freshness.  

And, of course Jo does indeed find love in the end - and also gets her book published. So the two - at times seemingly competing - trajectories of her life both find fulfillment, as Alcott's readers and the movie's audience all would want!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Joy to the World

This past week, thinking about what I should say this Christmas, I reread all my homilies from my nine Knoxville Christmases past. One thing I noticed was that I have repeated myself quite a bit. No surprise, I suppose! How many new and different things can anyone say? And Christmas is, well, Christmas. We have been celebrating it for centuries. It is an old story. What new is there to be said?

That was the dilemma, sort of, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I am sure most of you have seen, probably more than once, since its debut in 1965.  There, when Christmas seemed to have lost a lot of its luster, it was precisely the retelling of the old story in its plainest simplest version - Luke’s story of the angel’s surprising message to the shepherds, the same story we just heard tonight - that seemed to say everything that needed to be said and so changed everything in the process.

Of course, people have been retelling - and adapting - the Christmas story for centuries in literature and, more recently, onscreen. I suppose hardly anyone in the English-speaking world hasn’t heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have even read it. Many more have seen some of the many movie and TV versions – classic Black & white to IMAX 3-D. Dickens was such a great fan of Christmas that he wrote several Christmas stories, in addition to the one about Scrooge. One of my favorites is The Seven Poor Travellers – about a Christmas Eve spent by the narrator with 6 others in a hostel for travelers. The story includes Dickens’ famous line: “Christmas comes but once a year, which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year round we shall make this earth a very different place.”

Making the earth a different place is something of a staple Christmas theme. After all, Christmas is, as Dickens also said: “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time on the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”

Of course, as we all also know, not everyone will have a place to go or will be getting gifts this Christmas. For some, this is a day to feel even more lonely or more poor than usual. We all know how difficult opening those “shut-up hearts” of ours can be at times. Hence the permanent appeal of every Christmas story that confirms for us the power of Christmas to do just that – whether for Ebenezer Scrooge in Victorian London, or for Mrs. Hamilton in 1940s New York in the Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, or for the Grinch in late 20th-century Whoville. In my own personal favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34thh Street, Kris Kringle gets all sorts of different people to believe in him and be reconciled with one another – simply by doing the sorts of things all those other people had unfortunately become incapable of doing on their own.

Christmas – the Christmas that unites us here together in this church today – challenges us (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis) to believe that, in a world like ours, the Son of God became one of us – and then to imagine what must result!

Which brings us back to the shepherds!

In Christmas pageants, boys often compete to play Joseph or perhaps one of the kings. Not so many try out for the role of shepherd. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, it was Linus who was assigned that role.

Even in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status either. As so often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant laborers today), the shepherds were under-appreciated, and they knew it. To top it off, they were probably pretty poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.

So it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds themselves) when the angel announced the birth of a savior who is Messiah and Lord - to them. To them, a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (the implication being that the shepherds themselves were now numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. The gift was nothing less than what Saint Paul, writing to Titus, called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!
There must be something special about angelic messages that suggests urgency, something special about good news of great joy for all people that just takes hold of its hearers and makes them move! So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger. As Pope Francis recently remarked: “Unlike so many other people, busy about many things, the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation.” [Admirabile Signum, 5]. In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called the shepherds’ arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”
The Christmas story which we have heard so many times before and have just heard again tonight, begins by announcing who the Emperor was and what was going on in the world at the time. Saint Luke wants us to understand that the story he is telling really happened as part of the history of the world. Jesus was really born. God’s Son became Mary’s Son, a human being like us.

if Christmas had never happened, the whole history of the past 20 centuries would have been very, very different. And, even more important than that, we ourselves would be very different. As Saint Augustine (354-430) so succinctly expressed it: “If [God’s] Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.”

But instead, because of Christmas, we do have an alternative to despair! Hence the angel’s reassuring words to the shepherds: Do not be afraid! We heard those same words this past Sunday, spoken by the angel to Joseph. We will hear them again at Easter, from the mouth of the Risen Lord himself, the same Risen Lord whom we encounter whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. “Laid in a manger,: Saint Augustine said, “he became our food.” [Sermon 189, 4]
Of course, all those people all really were afraid, and for good reasons. And for all our holiday cheer, so perhaps are we as well, in this truly turbulent time in our national life, in a country bitterly and angrily divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, at a time when anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world, menaced as we are by our changing climate with its hotter-than-ever summers, melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, bigger-than-ever hurricanes, widespread deforestation, and wildfires. It is in just such a world that we hear and celebrate this ancient, yet so contemporary-sounding story of the birth of a baby in poverty, far from home, his very life soon threatened by political violence, his family forced to seek asylum as political refugees.
It’s not for nothing that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our distress is real enough, and our anxiety about it is honest, but so must be our hope - the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
That is why we celebrate Jesus’ birth not with a birthday cake but with the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. For this is not some nostalgic holiday pageant, and the baby whose birth we celebrate is not just some distantly ancient historical figure, but God-with-us!
How often have we all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that so much of life is just showing up? That’s what God did for us on Christmas. He showed up in our world – in a somewhat out-of-the-way place under the less than optimal conditions that are so often experienced by immigrants, then as now, and with only some shepherds taking notice.
But he showed up! And he stayed! He stuck with us! He’s still showing up! He’s still sticking with us – here in his Church! And that in turn makes it possible for us – as his Church – to show up, without fear, to continue what he started, in our world today, this year, and every year.
We celebrate tonight what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Tonight, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is the Christian story – our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to free us from fear, once and for all.
A Catholic church has graced the top of this hill now for 164 years. Back then, so I am told, the poor, unpopular immigrants who made up the Catholic community at the time would walk up this hill for Christmas morning Mass, penetrating the gloom of night and early morning with the light of their lanterns. That is what Christ’s coming does for our otherwise gloomy world, what Christmas calls each of us to do here and now. And so, having climbed this hill to this bright and beautiful church and here heard the familiar Christmas story, this story of God-with-us, we must make sure it really remains our story, challenging us, wherever we will be in Chistmases future. to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our fear into trust, our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our despair into hope, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our divisions into unity, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
Merry Christmas!
Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2019.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Two Popes (the Movie)

For those of us who don't live in elite coastal cities, The Two Popes is now finally available for viewing on Netflix. The two "Popes" in the title are, of course, Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Price, and as a younger man by Juan Minujin). The film depicts a series of imaginary conversations during an imaginary meeting between the two men, punctuated with flashbacks to illuminate further the future pope's personality.

Personality is indeed what this is all about. The fictional conversations, even when ostensibly about theology or politics, are primarily a stage for highlighting the contrasts between the two personalities. All the media's favorite stereotypical cliches about the differences in personalities between Benedict and Francis are on display in this film, which seems to presume the popular perception - not just that being an extrovert is more effective in public relations than being an introvert, but that extroverts are in some sense morally superior and are also more likely to be effective in implementing their goals (in this case the mission of the Church). 

Both major actors are excellent, and the film is, therefore, very pleasing to watch, even if its heavy-handed, nuance-free ideology can get tedious at times.  Indeed, it is the actors' skills that transform the film's stereotyped, ideological stick-figures into real people, relating to and learning from one another (as real people do in real life).  And while the film's ideology is itself rather humorless, the movie itself can be quite funny at times - for example, when the two popes dance the tango. Of course, part of the humor of such a scene stems from the fact that it is so completely counter-factual. Hardly anyone watching it is likely to imagine it ever actually happened!  On the other hand, the scenes of the future pope watching soccer on TV might easily be interpreted as realistic by a viewer who may perhaps not know that Pope Francis doesn't watch TV and hasn't since July 15, 1990, when he says he promised the Virgin Mary that he would no longer do so. But such facts must not get in the way of such a deliberately stereotyped portrayal of the two men!

The ostensible context for the film is Cardinal Bergoglio's attempt to persuade Pope Benedict to permit him to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Meanwhile Benedict is contemplating his own, much more radical retirement and has sent for Bergoglio, in part, apparently, to assess whether he is likely to succeed him and what that would mean. The two are portrayed as representing different poles of the Church's perennial "both/and" - both tradition and change. Negotiating the right relationship between those two is inevitably part of the job description of a Church leader - in any age, but especially in this tumultuous time. As they continue to interact, they get to know each other better, revealing more about one another, and even confessing to each other.

Just as the two main actors are excellent, the Argentine actor who plays the young Bergoglio does a good job of dramatizing the present Pope's past history - and, in particular, the challenges and changes that have marked his personal evolution. Most importantly, Bergoglio is presented as still tormented about the part he played (or didn't play) in Argentina's history during its period of military rule. It becomes Pope Benedict's job to console and reassure him, as it unexpectedly becomes Cardinal Bergoglio's job to speak for tradition and prudence to dissuade Pope Benedict from his planned resignation. Their ability to listen to each other and empathize with each other gives the film its human heart, which more than makes up for its flippant stereotyping and cliche humor.

Of course, it all remains in the realm of fiction. Certainly fiction can illuminate, but fiction can also in certain cases be a dangerous misrepresentation of reality - as seems to happen in Pope Benedict's fictional "confession" to Begoglio. 

(Rita Ferrone offered an excellent criticism of this scene in Commonweal - https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/papal-fiction).

That said, there remains much in this film to recommend it - the humanity and humor of the two "popes," two good and dedicated men who love the Church, as they share their struggles and learn from one another, the serious dynamic of tradition and change that at least gets recognized if not really resolved in the movie, and the straightjacketing effect of personality (whether introverted or extroverted) on public figures in our celebrity culture. It should be evident by now that personality cults can be just as pervasive in religious as in secular settings - and just as problematic. After all, history suggests that the personality cult that developed around the previous papal extrovert, Pope Saint John Paul II, did not, in the end, all that successfully advance either his internal Church reform agenda or his external evangelization agenda!

It would be fascinating to know what led Pope Benedict to do what he did in 2013. How much of it was his health? (The film does highlight the infirmities of age.) How much of it was a sense that management of the Church's machinery had gotten out of his control and needed another, stronger hand than his? How mulch, maybe, did he sense that a new direction was called for - a direction he was temperamentally ill-equipped to provide? The film hints at some of these things, but it all remains speculation - as are whatever conversations continue to occur behind the Vatican's walls between the two to this day.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

God With Us

Homily for the Conclusion of the Bicentennial Celebration of Servant of God Isaac Hecker's Birth, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019.

Today is the 131st anniversary of the death of Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, who died at the Paulist house in New York City on December 22, 1888. Today, too, we conclude our celebration of the Bicentennial Year of Hecker’s birth on December 18, 1819. We began, a year ago, by reading from one of Hecker’s most famous sermons, preached at the Paulist Church in New York on Saint Joseph’s Day in 1863. On that occasion Hecker described Saint Joseph “as an excellent and unsurpassed model” of the type of Christian perfection called for by our modern age.

Of course, we actually know very little about Saint Joseph’s life. In his preaching and writing, however, Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted models of holiness that he believed resonated with the new context created by what he saw happening in the modern world. Consistent with his understanding of the role of free citizens in modern society, he sought to highlight the kind of contemporary holiness he believed most relevant to today’s world.

Basically, Hecker held up Saint Joseph as a model of someone who lived an ordinary life in the world, working at his trade, taking part in the ordinary activities of his community, raising a family. If he stood out at all in his society, it would have been because he was, what the Gospel calls, a righteous man – a good thing to be in any age.

One of the few other things today's Gospel tells us about Joseph is that he was descended from King David. Plenty of people were descended from David. So Joseph’s royal ancestry did not somehow single him out as someone special in his society. But being legally Joseph’s son made Jesus David’s descendant also, thus fulfilling the requirement that the Messiah must be from the house of David. On the other hand, as the Gospel also makes so poignantly clear, while Jesus was legally Joseph’s son, he was physically only Mary’s. Joseph may have had the greatest of ancestors, but his son was not his own.

We do not know what Joseph’s original hopes and plans might have been for himself and the family he hoped to have – or, for that matter, what Mary’s original hopes and expectations might have been. Presumably they would have both been somewhere within what would have been considered conventional in their society – until, all of a sudden, as the Gospel tells us, Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit, and everything changed, and not just for Joseph and Mary, but for all of us!

But imagine what a jolt that must have been! And how confused and perplexed Joseph must have been by what had happened! Confused and perplexed, groping in the dark, wondering what had happened to all his hopes and plans, trying to decide what to do, Joseph in a sense stands for everyone who has ever been confused and perplexed by life, living from day to day wondering what will happen next, trying to do the best one can in situations that seem so much bigger than we can ever understand.

If the complications to Joseph’s marriage plans had come unexpectedly, Joseph’s dream was just as unexpected – and, at least initially, quite as confusing. It didn’t conform to the Law. It didn’t even conform to common sense. Waking up and marrying Mary anyway, just because he’d had a dream, contradicted common sense and all conventional expectations. 

In repairing his threatened relationship with Mary, however, Joseph’s dream set the stage for the salvation of the world and the repairing of all its ruptured and ruined relationships.

In the 19th century, Isaac Hecker has his own idea, his own “dream,” so to speak, about how to repair American society’s ruptured and ruined relationships.

As a young man in the Jacksonian era, Hecker himself had been interested in politics, and in fact his older brother John remained active in New York Democratic party politics all his life.

And, like the 19th-century’s most famous observer and analyst of American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections between individuals, and the resulting dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their experience of a free society. A convert himself, Hecker saw in Catholicism an answer to the questions of people’s souls and the aspirations of human nature - and so a solution to society’s divisions. Thus, at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, where (as the Pope put it) “parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers, dated Rome, December 22, 1857,” The Paulist Vocation, p. 46.]

We could certainly still use some of Hecker’s Catholic oil on our troubled 21st- century waters!

There is a reason, after all, why we don’t celebrate Christmas in June, when the sun is high and the days are long and bright. We celebrate Christmas in December when the days are dark and short.  We celebrate it, as Joseph did, in a confusing and perplexing, often threatening and frightening world, where the bright light of Emmanuel, the God who is with us, seems itself sometimes little more than a dream. The marriage of Mary and Joseph was a marriage built on a dream – a dream which brought to birth Jesus, who is God’s great dream for the salvation of the world, the divine dream that enlightens even the densest darkness.

And so, this Christmas, let us (like Hecker) join Joseph in his dream - so that we too may be prepared to do as the angel of the Lord directs us.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malik's dramatization of the story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), the otherwise unremarkable, ordinary (hence "hidden") Austrian farmer executed in 1943 for his refusal to serve in the military during World War II and take the requisite oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler. At the time, his actions were widely criticized as disloyal, but since then his refusal has come to be evaluated more positively. Finally in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him a martyr, and Jägerstätter was beatified later that year. (Although he died on August 9, his feast day is May 21, the anniversary of his baptism.)

The movie is quite long (almost 3 hours), an obvious challenge to a contemporary audience's limited attention span! The film is filled with beautiful Austrian mountain scenery - a striking contrast to the horror taking place in the world beyond but which tragically transforms even this seemingly idyllic setting. It is a beautiful evocation of what would have been, were it not for Hitler and the war, an ordinary life in an ordinary family in an ordinary setting. It evokes a centuries-old, easily romanticized (but actually very difficult) way of life, the rural folk-Catholicism that, for all its charm, sadly proved no match against Hitler and, in any case, in the post-war world has long-since largely disappeared.  

Seven decades later, Jägerstätter's anti-Nazi and anti-war actions are increasingly celebrated. The movie reminds us, however, how unusual his behavior actually was in its actual context, how counter-intuitive his position appeared to be to so many contemporaries, how pointlessly self-destructive his actions seemed (and in a sense were). It also suggests some of the moral self-questioning Jägerstätter may have induced in others at varying levels of society. The film invites us to contemplate not just Jägerstätter's own actions but the reactions of others and what they might well have been thinking, as the great  moral challenges of world politics penetrated the ordinary routines of daily life.

The real Jägerstätter was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschluss. His subsequent wartime resistance raises perennial problems of political morality, such as the proper place and limits of patriotism and the proper role of individual conscientious discernment. The fact that Jägerstätter is a beatified martyr highlights the inescapable fact that his response to such moral dilemmas was, inevitably, not typical. Shakespeare's famous expression of conventional wisdom, If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1), constantly competes with Jägerstätter's alternative, which he expressed to his bishop that God has given us free will to out to use. 

Jägerstätter refrained from forming judgments about how others responded to the crisis. He himself came to a clear conclusion, which he expressed in one of his letters to his wife that, while it "is admittedly true" that Christ commanded obedience to secular authority, "I do not believe that Christ ever said that one must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked.”  

Famous models of conscientious moral resistance have usually been already famous figures - e.g., Jägerstätter's contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Jägerstätter was invisible to the world and would have remained that way according to the way of the world. It is important to remember that, as he was constantly told, his actions had no beneficial effect whatsoever - no effect at all actually, other than his imprisonment and execution and the great suffering his choices imposed on his family. The only thing that ended Hitler's horror was Germany's military defeat by the Allies. No personal protests or conscientious resistance made the slightest difference. In making actual judgments about political policies to be pursued, it is important always to remember that and not be deluded into thinking that symbolic actions and expressive politics are agents of actual change.

So what then to make of Jägerstätter's actions, which everyone - himself included - expected not only to make no difference but not even to be noticed, let alone remembered, by the wider world? The film almost incidentally highlights how his difficult discernment and subsequent sufferings involved a real transformation in the formerly rather wild young man, who rode a motorcycle (and fathered an out-of-wedlock child before his marriage). Yet that is the obvious lesson of his story, that indeed free will does have real consequences and does oblige each person to discern the right response - for him or herself - to the signs of the times. In the same letter quoted above, he also wrote: "That we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something I cannot and never will believe.”

Friday, December 20, 2019

Another Debate

Last night, the PBS News Hour and Politico hosted yet another Democratic presidential primary debate, the final such debate of 2019. (There will be another debate - appropriately in Iowa - in January shortly before the first actual votes are cast at the Iowa caucuses.) To qualify for this round, candidates had to reach 4% in four early-state or national polls or 6% in two early-state polls between mid-October and mid-December. The seven who qualified for this debate were Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang.

The smaller number of candidates on stage certainly improved the experience - probably for the candidates and certainly for the audience. Soon enough the voters will tell us if those who have survived so far are the ones who should have survived. Certainly the quality of both the questions asked and the candidates' answers were on balance better than in previous debates. Probably the candidates themselves have gotten better, hence their generally better answers. (Notably, Biden seemed much better on stage than in the previous debates.)

Predictably, PBS JudyWoodruff's first question concerned impeachment, but then she and the other questioners moved on to other subjects - none of that earlier nonsense of spending the first half hour or more on health care!

Actually the impeachment question was a good one - why so many don't agree with impeachment and what candidates can say or do to persuade them otherwise. Mayor Pete spoke eloquently about not surrendering to cynicism and helplessness that may accompany a predetermined Senate outcome. Andrew Yang highlighted the need to obsess less about impeachment and start solving the problems that got him elected in the first place.

Tim Alberta asked about climate in a concrete way - whether the government should subsidize relocations from endangered places like Miami and Davenport, Iowa. He also challenged Biden on whether he would sacrifice the oil and gas growth previous presidents have benefited from.

When Alberta quoted a silly-sounding statement recently from Obama that sounded completely mired int he quagmire of identity politics, Sanders sensibly moved back to real issues, like who has power and how to create an economy that works for all.

Amy Klobuchar had a good night, making her case against her fellow midwestern, moderate rival with modest experience, Pete Buttigieg, while he went after her with his attack on Washington experience.

Finally, Judy Woodruff's Christmas question about whose forgiveness one might ask or want to give a gift to illustrated what happens when candidates get asked a question they probably weren't completely prepared for!

Iowa is some six weeks away. Soon actual voters will start to have their say.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Servant of God Isaac Hecker at 200

Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, was born 200 years ago today on December 18, 1819, and died on December 22, 1888. 

Looking back at Hecker's life today, we can consider it in four fairly distinct periods. The first comprised his early life and spiritual search, culminating in his baptism as a Catholic in 1844., when, animated by a conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, he allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s providential care for him, and which he received the grace to recognize and follow in the Roman Catholic Church. 

The second spanned his 14 years as an enthusiastic new Catholic, a Redemptorist seminarian, and then priest, culminating in the crisis which led to his formal separation from the Redemptorists in 1858. In this second period of his life, his enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him to an active vocation as a priest and religious and formed him, through the crucible of opposition and suffering, into a thoroughly committed “man of the Church.” 

The third was the period of Hecker’s greatest pastoral and missionary activity, beginning with the founding of the Paulist Fathers in 1858, through the American Civil War and the 1st Vatican Council, during which period he” concentrated on the Church’s perennially essential mission of evangelization, both within the Church and outward to the world – planting his vision in the solid soil of his religious community and their growing parish in New York

Then, fourth, his final years, characterized by physical illness and emotional suffering, in which he surrendered himself and all his activities to the call to conform his life to the mystery of Christ’s Cross – filling up, in the words of his patron, St. Paul, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

I believe that the distinctive character of each period can highlight for us a distinctive aspect of his sanctity that remains especially relevant for the Church in the 21st-century.

Of course, to suggest that Hecker in the 19th-century exemplified a heroic sanctity that is exemplary for the 21st-century does not mean that one should be asking what Hecker would say or do in this or that specific situation today (an unanswerable question in any case), but rather to ask what someone inspired and motivated by the example of Hecker’s heroic sanctity should say or do today. Hecker himself, commenting on the significance of Saint Francis of Assisi, warned that what the age called for was not so much people attempting to relive Francis’s life, but rather people inspired by him to address their age as Francis had his. That, of course, is always the challenge presented by the life of any admirable historical figure.

For example, his knowledge and understanding of American religion – American Protestantism – was somewhat limited, due to the narrow limits of his religious exposure. New England Protestantism, became his model – and really his only model - for mainline American Protestant Christianity and its decline. In fact, for most of its history, the U.S. has been a Protestant country, its founding mythology deeply identified New England Protestantism. That said, just as the classic U.S. founding narrative inordinately privileges the influence of New England over, for example, the Spanish settlements in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida – and even over the other English colonies with different variants of Protestantism – Hecker’s narrative of American religion likewise overly privileged New England Protestantism and its devolution into Unitarianism and Transcendentalism over other and somewhat longer-lasting experiences and forms of Protestantism in the US.

Hecker was clearly incorrect in his insistence that American Protestantism was inevitably doomed to disappear. As even so sympathetic an account as that of Paulist Father James McVann acknowledged, Hecker’s “facts and figures mostly took account of a decline in Eastern Massachusetts, without considering the strong roots of Protestantism in other parts of America, which his travels South and West should have shown him” While so-called Mainline Protestantism may today be in serious decline in the United States, Hecker failed to appreciate Protestantism’s capacity to revitalize itself precisely at its own evangelical roots. And, while it may well be that in the 21st century even Protestantism’s more successful Evangelical form has also begun to decline, the predominant direction of that decline has been towards secularism, not Catholicism as Hecker had hoped.

Looking back on Hecker’s ideas from the vantage point of the present, we can appreciate his consistent commitment to enhance the quality of Church life, to build up the Catholic Church in the United States, to achieve what, in a letter to Brownson, he called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country.” one consequence of which would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker understood that any successful impact on the wider American society presupposed an effective mission and ministry within the American Catholic community.

“The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker famously wrote in a letter to Brownson, “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.”  Hecker was convinced that the same Holy Spirit, who spoke in his own heart and in human hearts in general, spoke through the Church, and that the evangelization of American society through missionary action aimed at the conversion of individuals would benefit both Church and civil society.

Nonetheless, much of what Hecker admired in America – the egalitarianism and sociability which Tocqueville analyzed and which Jacksonian populism celebrated – no longer characterizes post-industrial America. Hecker’s America is gone – forever. And, of course, Catholicism has changed as well and in certain respects increasingly mirrors rather than challenges the changes in secular society. 

Also, while conversions to Catholicism continued both during and after Hecker’s lifetime, they have hardly represented the numbers necessary to make the kind of impact on American society Hecker had hoped for. What made the difference (then as now) has been immigration. In his own way, Hecker linked this to his theory of American’s providential significance. As he wrote near the end of his life in The Church and the Age: “But the discerning mind will not fail to see that the republic and the Catholic Church are working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people, and by their united action giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development of man than has been heretofore accomplished.” That aspect of Hecker’s thinking may be more relevant now than ever.

In the end, Hecker would have agreed with Marx that a citizen might remain religious as an individual: not on a political level – in the union of church and state – but on a social level – in the union of religion and society. But, whereas for Marx, that meant human alienation and religion’s survival showed the inadequacy of democratic politics, for Hecker religion meant the solution to alienation and the fulfillment of human aspirations, And so his confidence that religion’s power to heal and reconcile the contentious divisions of modern society would solve the problems politics could not.

The Church’s mission happens when people are excited enough to witness to it in their lives and when they really believe (as Hecker so strongly did) that those who accept the Church’s faith will be better off as a result – both individually and as a society. In a politically polarized and socially fragmented society, Hecker’s personal religious experience formed the foundation for his ministry as a priest, proclaiming Catholic faith and building Catholic community, confident that that could change society for the better.