Monday, April 27, 2020

Failed State?

The forthcoming June issue of The Atlantic features an article by George Packer, "We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken"-

Now it is beyond obvious that the US response to the pandemic has been at best inadequate, especially given the length of time the Trump Administration wasted with denials and scapegoating instead of using it to prepare the country, develop effective testing, etc. Packer's point, however, goes deeper than that.

Packer begins his argument, employing the medicalized language we have all become so familiar with. "When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills - a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public - had gone untreated for years." It is those "underlying conditions" Packer wants his readers to focus on, conditions that have led him to use the loaded term "failed state" to describe the country we have become.

This, he notes is already the third big crisis of our short 21st century - after 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, which had already torn apart the increasingly fragile bonds of our national unity. In one, succinctly written paragraph, he lays bare the co-morbidities the coronavirus found in the America it infected.

"This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of shared identity or future."

Besides diagnosing the underlying causes and conditions of our national illness, Packer more positively points to the alternative community hiding in plain sight. "In the smartphone economy that hides whole classes of human beings, we're learning where our food and goods come from, who keeps us alive." It is no accident that so many of them are poorer people in low-paying jobs that our wealth-worshipping society habitually disrespects - and whom this present pandemic so directly endangers.

These underlying causes and conditions, these co-morbidities of our failed state, have been developing untreated for 40 years at least, ever since the morally disastrous election of 1980 and the enthronement of a political ideology that is anti-political, anti-social, and so ultimately anti-life.  Its moral bankruptcy long evident, the utter uselessness of that anti-democratic, small-government, free market ideology has been demonstrated once again by this pandemic.  If the Great Depression could cause capitalist America to look for something better, if World War II could cause a habitually warring Europe to look for something better, perhaps this pandemic can cause this failed state to do the same?

"We can learn from these dreadful days," Packer suggests in conclusion, "that stupidity and injustice are lethal: that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death."

Sunday, April 26, 2020

With Us Still

When something terrible happens, one response is to try to get away – away from the people, the places, the memories we might otherwise have cherished but which have now become painful. Another common coping mechanism is to want to talk about our troubles. We want others to know just how badly it hurts. I am sure many of us are making more phone calls these days, now that we are all under some stress but can’t go anywhere to get away.

The two disciples in today’s gospel [Luke 24:13-35] were likewise eager to talk, as well as to get away. They had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, where the most terrible thing had happened. We all know what that’s like. We hope for something, work hard to get it. Then something goes wrong, and the path is blocked – as so many plans and expectations have now so suddenly been blocked. The two disciples decided to get away as fast as they could – on Sunday, the first day after the Sabbath. For all we know, maybe they had to get back to work! After all the excitement they had had and the enthusiasm they had felt as followers of Jesus, what a let-down it must have been to return to their regular, ordinary lives!

(In our very different, stressful situation, many of us might jump at a chance to return to ordinary life and go back to regular work!)

But, however eager they were to get away, Jesus’ memory was still very much with them, and so they couldn’t help talking about him to the stranger who had suddenly joined them. And the stranger let them talk. He listened to their disappointment and disillusionment as they told of the dream that had lifted them up – only to let them down. But then the stranger didn’t just listen. He also had an answer.

Of course, the disciples did not realize who the stranger was. Obviously they were not expecting to see Jesus. He was dead, after all. And dead with him were all their high hopes for Israel’s future. In fact, Jesus would prove to be the one to redeem Israel. But, before they could recognize him, they had to relearn what that meant, what it meant for him to be the Messiah. And who better to teach them than this stranger? So beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.

We have a short version of what Jesus’ homily might have sounded like in Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading. What Jesus did on the road had quickly become the Church’s traditional way of reading the Old Testament, understanding the Old Testament through the lens of the Risen Christ and learning to recognize Christ through the lens of the Old Testament.

In re-interpreting the familiar scriptures, Jesus was refashioning an image they already had – because, rather than see things as they are, usually we see things as we are. The disciples had seen Jesus through their existing image of a messiah. In the secular world, we speak of “confirmation bias” – our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming our already existing and established beliefs. Now, however, the disciples had lost both Jesus and their image of what he was supposed to be. Without quite comprehending it, they had reached one of those crises in life when everything seems to break down and a change is required. Meanwhile, without yet recognizing him, they were getting him back. And he was giving them a new image to hold onto and have hope in.

And so they urged him to stay. They were beginning to get back their lost hope and didn’t want to lose it again in the night’s darkness. Then, once inside, the stranger revealed himself with a familiar gesture, which has since become the Church’s trademark. But this time they didn’t lose hope when he disappeared because he wasn’t gone. The darkness was. He had been with them on the road, a companion in their grief. He had been with them in his homily on the scriptures. And he was with them for keeps in the breaking of bread. So now they couldn’t wait to get back to Jerusalem, that place of pain they had earlier been so eager to leave.

And there they heard, “The Lord has appeared to Simon.” Simon Peter, their leader, would proclaim Christ’s resurrection for the rest of his life, beginning with the Pentecost sermon we just heard. And so would those two ordinary disciples, ordinary people like us.

And how is the Risen Lord here today for people like us? The same way he was with them – in the world we live in, in the people around us in whom we too frequently fail to recognize him (and whom we may fail to recognize at all). Our preoccupation with ourselves and our problems may hinder us from recognizing him. Still, he walks with us in our disappointments, hears and feels our frustrations, and keeps stride with us as we struggle to hope. He explains himself in the scriptures, stays with us in the breaking of bread, and then he sends us, to announce to the world, in union with Peter and the rest of the Church, that our hope is not just a wish and is more than merely a memory, and that in spite of everything, The Lord has truly been raised – and lives with us still.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 26, 2020.

The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Mass Alone

When I was an altar boy back in the late 1950s-early 1960s, it was quite common to serve Mass at a "side altar," for a priest celebrating Mass without a congregation. In those days, it was more or less the norm that every priest said Mass every day. And so, especially on weekdays, priests not needed for one of the "public" Masses at the main altar or one of the convent Masses for the sisters who taught in the parish schools, usually said Mass on one of the side altars - with a server if possible, sometimes without. By the time I entered religious life two decades later, changes in popular piety and priestly spirituality, along with some somewhat more problematic trends in academic theology, had created a very different environment in which such "private" celebrations, while remaining unambiguously legal and even officially encouraged (cf. canon 904), had become far less common and were, in some circles certainly, frowned upon. I never accepted the nihilistic ideology that may have motivated at least some of that frowning. But I was certainly inevitably influenced (as everyone has been) by the experience of celebrating Mass versus populum, with the result that it was hard to find the experience of celebrating Mass without a congregation very satisfying. Until recently, the only times I have done so were either to fulfill my obligation to renew the hosts in our house community chapel, or to fulfill my obligation to offer a Mass for a recently deceased member of my community, or for some analogous special need.

Then came the pandemic. Suddenly gatherings of all sorts ceased, among them public Masses. Suddenly I found myself celebrating Mass alone on a daily basis. On Sundays, we broadcast the Mass via Facebook, so I have a tiny congregation of assistants participating in person and a (hopefully) larger virtual one. On other days, however, I am on my own at a side altar, celebrating Mass all by myself.

Both experiences have been a bit awkward and have required some considerable emotional adaptation and adjustment. I definitely do miss the people's presence and would not normally choose either experience in preference to Mass with a congregation. Even so, the experience of celebrating Mass "alone" has proved much more spiritually satisfying than I might have expected - in part, because I do not feel completely "alone."

Perhaps that is due to the unique circumstances in which this is all taking place. I am constantly conscious of the almost apocalyptic crisis that is occurring and its impact on people all over the world. Unless circumstances require me to offer the Mass for some other specific intention, I offer it most days for the health and safety of my parishioners, family, and friends. And, in doing so, I do feel genuinely connected to them through that experience. Indeed, I feel much more connected to them then, during Mass, than at any other time of the day - more so even than when talking to someone on the phone or discussing pastoral issues in a zoom meeting.

Also, this has been a wholesome reminder that Mass is about a lot more than just getting together, however much we may rightly value that experience. It is a good counter to the creeping, crypto-congregationalism that increasingly afflicts American religion. It reminds me that the liturgy unites us with the whole Church - physically present and not - unites us across time and space, across time back through centuries of Christian life to the original apostles, across space connecting us with the faithful in every corner of the world.

Finally, the quiet and solitude of the experience, while awkward, has highlighted how much conscious attention (and less conscious anxiety) is often required - less than prayerfully - when celebrating Mass with a congregation, especially on bigger occasions at which one frequently finds oneself functioning not only as celebrant but also as de facto master of ceremonies and sacristan. Obviously I am still "sacristan" when I celebrate alone, but that experience is also obviously very different and far less pressured.

While I look forward eagerly to returning to "normal" - whenever that will be and whatever it will look like - this semi-solitary interlude has afforded a rare opportunity to focus in a unique way on what I am actually doing during the liturgy, which one may hope will that much better equip me to serve the Church in an uncertain future.

Friday, April 24, 2020


In the liturgical calendar of the Augustinian Order, today is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Augustine,  (354-430) baptized by Saint Ambrose in Milan during the night of April 24-25, 387. Besides being a towering intellectual and spiritual figure in his own right, Saint Augustine seems especially relevant to our contemporary society, since he lived (and embraced an ecclesial vocation) at a time when Christianity, while definitely on the rise, was still not the only option, when traditional paganism and other religious and philosophical stances were still viable alternatives to Christianity for many. At the same time, he ended up as a Bishop in a part of the Empire  (North Africa) where the Catholic Church had become both the established Church and powerfully so, a situation soon to collapse completely.

Both those realities characteristic of the transitional time in which Saint Augustine lived have a lot in common with our contemporary era in ways most other historical periods do not and hence provide ample opportunities for reflection.

However, today's feast focuses not on those issues but on his coming to faith snd full membership in the Church.  Fittingly, the proper 2nd Reading in the Augustinian Order's Office of Readings concludes with one of the most famous passages and perennially relevant from Saint Augustine's Confessions:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Cre­ated things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Dragon Slayer

Today is Saint George’s Day, hence the Onomastico (Name Day) of Pope Francis, whose baptismal name is Jorge.. Saint George is, most famously, the patron saint of England, the flag of which is the red cross of Saint George on a white field. (George is thus one of the 4 patrons of the United Kingdom - along with Scotland's Andrew, Wales's David, and Ireland's Patrick, three of whom are represented in the UK's Union Flag). 

All we know for certain about Saint George himself is that he was a Roman soldier martyred in the East during the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century. Devotion to Saint George is very ancient, and he was widely venerated in both East and West long before the martyred Roman soldier was turned into a medieval knight. Medieval tradition imaginatively portrayed Saint George as a gallant knight who killed a monstrous dragon. In the Book of Revelation, the Dragon is, of course, the classic image of Satan, the Devil, against whom, as Pope Francis himself has so frequently reminded us, the Christian life is a continuous battle. In his Sermon on Saint George, which is read in the Liturgy of the Hours today, Saint Peter Damian describes Saint George as "consumed with the fire of the Holy Spirit," someone who "overcame the prince of all wicked spirits, and encouraged other soldiers of Christ to perform brave deeds in his cause."

Celebrating Saint George's Day also reminds me of one of my happiest experiences, which was my summer sabbatical at Saint George's House, Windsor Castle, 15 years ago in 2005. Windsor Castle is home, of course, to the late-medieval high Gothic Saint George's Chapel, which is both a "Royal Peculiar" and the chapel of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. The Garter Knights' stalls, complete with each knight's banner, were where we sat twice each day for Morning Prayer and Evensong during my month at Windsor. It was an experience of Anglicanism both at its best and in its increasing complexity.. It was an unusual experience for me - as both an American and a Roman Catholics - and I can only be grateful for that eye-opening opportunity and for the wonderful fellowship I got to experience there with my dozen or so "classmates" and with the Canons of Saint George's. In these difficult times, happy memories of good experienced and valued relationships are all the more to be cherished.

(Photo: Saint George, Windsor Castle)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day

Earth Day has long since lost whatever novelty or glamor it had when it was first observed back in 1970 (photo), an event I remember being part of in New York's Central Park. Even as the coronavirus monopolizes our limited attention spans and physically keeps us apart, the world continues to cry out for collective action as the calamitous consequences of our alienation from nature and our failure to face up to the challenge of climate change become more incontrovertibly evident (while our current government's response to these crises stands out for its increasing ignorance and stupidity). Earth Day for me as a college student in 1970 was fun, but the occasion seems so much more somber now.

Of course, the situation was very different then. In the 1960s climate change was hardly on anyone's agenda, but environmental degradation was visible to all. The environmental movement which developed in response to that readily recognizable crisis gave us not only Earth Day but a veritable treasury of bipartisan environmental legislation in the 1970s. Then came the disastrous election of 1980 and 40 years of too many Americans drinking too much anti-government kool-aid, with the results that we are living with now - a government not only unwilling but alarmingly incompetent to address either the immediate threat of a global pandemic or the long-term threat of climate change.

For me Earth Day has also become a a suitable annual opportunity to recall - and mourn the loss of - the Church's traditional Rogation Days, traditionally observed on April 25 (the "Greater Litanies") and on the three days before the Ascension (the "Lesser Litanies"). Like so many treasured traditions the "Greater Litanies" had pre-Christian roots - in this case in the ancient Roman Robigalia festival, one of ancient Rome's significant spring agricultural commemorations. That ancient Roman festival was focused on protecting the spring and summer crops and included several chariot races. With triumph of Christianity these races were transformed into the Rogation Procession - the "Greater Litanies," as they were known until 1969.. 

Ancient peoples appreciated (so much better than we) their collective dependence on the natural world and on one another. The change in religion from paganism to Christianity redirected the focus of people's prayers, but that didn't change their appreciation of their dependence on nature, or their social interdependence, or the immense value of ritualizing this on traditional days. 

Today's environmental woes (famines, droughts, floods, storms, fires, and pandemics) and the many social and political crises and conflicts which stem from them wholly or in part seriously threaten both our physical world and the human architecture of civilization that has made our planet special. Having been so frivolously discarded half a century ago, the Rogation Days are undoubtedly gone for good, but the case for recovering and retrieving their spirit seems, if anything, even more obvious than ever!

Monday, April 20, 2020

To Open, or not to Open

At Mass yesterday, we momentarily opened the church door during the Sprinkling Rite, so that I could sprinkle some Holy Water on the church steps, symbolically blessing all the people and their homes. Such a gesture facing a totally empty street is symbolic in those most reductive sense, symbolic nonetheless of the widespread desire to recover some of what we have lost as inherently social beings.

The passage of time this past month has only highlighted what a loss this has been for all of us. Of course, we have lost so many things in this time - from the simple joy of time spent with a friend to all those places and activities we used to frequent routinely and only now appreciate how precious they were. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed it, "It is repugnant not to have closeness, to be afraid of it, to recoil from it." Most of all, perhaps, we have lost our confidence that the world we live in is predictable and that we can make plans for the future. Over and above all this, of course, has been the terrible toll this pandemic has taken on so many people's livelihoods, jobs lost, educations interrupted. And the the greatest loss of all, those who have died, and for those they leave behind the impossibility of even grieving for them in the normal way with family and friends. These are difficult times - much more so for some than for others, but difficult for most if not all of us. 

So inevitably the pressure increases to loosen up, to let more of life resume, if not normalcy, then at least some semblance thereof. Still, most of us know that the restraints under which we are operating are not (as some fantasize) the arbitrary exactions of tyrants but rather, as Queen Elizabeth II said on Palm Sunday, "the right thing to do."

But what of those who don't know this - or, rather, refuse to learn this, probably for the same reasons so many refuse to learn the reality of our changing climate or other scientific facts, for example, the value of vaccines? Given that such people may be endangering themselves and those they likely care about, one should not a priori exclude the possibility of actual ignorance. Ultimately, however, such apparent "ignorance" is more of a moral than an intellectual problem. People who assemble in mobs in defiance of proper precautions to denounce public health measures and utter threats against lawful authorities - actions affirmed by The Great Leader himself - such people may or may not be ignorant of science and common sense, but their primary failing is a moral one, a failure of fraternity, a failure to see themselves as part of a common human community rooted in mutual obligations to one another, that take precedence over modern fantasies of individual "rights."

Freedom of Assembly is, of course, a constitutional right, as is the right to say despicalbe things (e.g., "Lock her up") about one's Governor. But no constitutional right - neither freedom of religion, nor of speech, nor of the press, nor the right to assemble - is absolute, as American constitutional jurisprudence has long rightly recognized. Indeed, much of our 1st-amendment constitutional jurisprudence has historically been precisely in those intermediate, gray areas, trying to sort out what restrictions on such rights are appropriate and which are not. Rightly or wrongly, a key component of that has been the larger social consensus about what is appropriate.  For example, the one serious instance of real religious persecution by the U.S. government - the persecution of the Mormons  - certainly had an arguable legal basis but more importantly was based in the widespread social consensus that supported monogamy and reprobated polygamy, which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually termed "a notorious example of promiscuity" (Cleveland v. United States, 1946)

The point, of course, is that all constitutional rights - including assembly, speech, press, and religion - are inevitably limited by what, referring to religious liberty Vatican II in 1965 famously called the provision that "the just demands of pubic order" be observed (dummodo iustae exigentiae ordinis publici non violentur - Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, 4).

Of course, when it comes to organized resistance against the provisions put in place throughout the United States in defense of public health, all talk about constitutional rights may really be just an ideological superstructure for a decades-long anti-government movement whose effective purpose has been advancing a particular party's agenda to make the rich richer and everyone else worse off.

Meanwhile, the infamous virus, which has no political party (nor for that matter any passport, nationality, or ethnicity) continues to ravage the world, while those with the most morally depleted sense of community invoke ideologically motivated claims of constitutional "rights" to harangue against "the just demands" of public health.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Behind Locked Doors

It seems like a small detail, one we might even overlook in an ordinary year – the fact that the doors were locked, where the disciples were. The doors were locked, we note, from the inside, out of fear. Well doesn’t that sound contemporary? Our fears may be different, but we too have been behind locked doors for about a month now. (It seems like a lot longer, doesn’t it?)

Eventually, of course, at Pentecost Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to open those doors, once and for all - to open the doors for the Church to move out into the world. But today, although the doors remain locked, Jesus enters through those doors to come inside, to be with us, where we are confined.

Today’s annually repeated gospel [John 20:19-31] captures the novelty and uniqueness of the resurrection in its account of the disciples’ encounter (actually two encounters) with the Risen Christ, in which the Risen Lord demonstrated to his disciples that he was the same Jesus who had lived and died (hence the wounds in his hands and side), now alive again in a unexpectedly new and wonderful way (hence his presence among them, although the doors were locked.)

Understandably fearful for their safety, the disciples had hidden behind locked doors, much as we have hidden in fear this past month. But at least they were together – perhaps in the same “upper room” where they had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where they would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. If so, how appropriate! Since apostolic times (long before it ever became a day off from work), Sunday, the first day of the week, has been the special day, the irreplaceably privileged day, when Christians assemble in their churches to encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, present through the power of his Holy Spirit in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.

On that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Surely, that was no mere wish on his part! Christ, the Risen Lord brings peace – not some social or political peace that passes as quickly as it comes, but the peace that conquers fear. And isn’t that exactly why we so much want him to come to us through the locked doors of our lives today?

Now the time we have been spending apart has bene necessary – “the right thing to do,” as Queen Elizabeth said on Palm Sunday. Still fear is fear, and it exacts its toll on the fearful, wounding us in all sorts of ways we may hesitate to acknowledge.

Yet, when Jesus came to his disciples that first day of the week, far from concealing his wounds, he showed them his hands and his side – and the disciples rejoiced. As the absent Thomas acutely appreciated, Jesus’ wounded hands and side reveal that it is the same Jesus who really and truly died on the cross, who is now-living Risen Christ, who commissions his Church to heal the world’s wounds.

For the resurrection was not just some nice thing that happened to Jesus - and then leaves everything else in the world completely unchanged. It was – and is – the foundation of what the first letter of Peter, from which we just heard [1 Peter 1:3-9], calls an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading future inheritance to which, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we already have access here and now in the present.

Like Thomas, we were not there on that first day of the week, but we are here today, in spirit at least, on this first day of this week. The celebration of Sunday is, as the Catechism says, “at the heart of the Church’s life,” “the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice,” “a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church” – the Church, which professes its faith in the Risen Lord and his new creation, and “so bears, nourishes, and sustains” our faith and the possibility of a whole new way of life, in which, living for ever with the Risen Christ, we will finally become most fully human, freed from all our fears.

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 19, 2020.

The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and on the parish website

Thursday, April 16, 2020


I really cannot judge how well or poorly the World Health Organization (WHO) responded initially to COVID-19. It may  indeed be the case that the organization took too many Chinese pronouncements at face value. And there may well be very good reasons to fault China's initial response for being at best too slow, at worse too politicized. On the other hand, the same could be said of the Trump Administration's initial response (and subsequent responses). There may be merit down the road in challenging WHO to rethink its relationship with China. Likewise a more coherent and consistent approach to China on the part of  the Trump Administration might be welcome. 

At the present moment, however, all this is really something of a distraction. The preeminent preoccupation right now needs to be on caring for the sick and mitigating the spread of the virus in the wider population, then improving our pathetic capacity to test for the virus so that more people can plan to resume some normal activities in the near future. Given the Administration's colossal failures in these area, it may be no surprise that it seeks to distract us with questions about WHO and China, but they remain distractions.

As is, by the way, the silliness in certain circles that insist on calling COVID-19 the "Wuhan Virus" or the "China Virus."  There is, of course, a tradition of some diseases being named for where they were first discovered. Think of Ebola or Marburg or Lyme Disease. As scientific nomenclature, I suppose there is nothing really wrong about that. However, as with so many other things, the Trump Administration and its allies have politicized this - creating at best another distraction, at worst further fanning the flames of xenophobia and racism that seem to appeal to some of Trump's political base. So what was once merely a commonplace approach to naming new diseases is now yet another distracting source of controversy. Obviously that particular convention for naming new diseases has now outlived its usefulness and needs to be discarded for this and all yet-to-be encountered future diseases.

(Photo: World health Organization headquarters, Geneva)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

One Year after the Fire

One year ago today, on the Monday of Holy Week, April 15, 2019, a mammoth fire burned through the roof of Paris’s medieval Notre Dame Cathedral, among other things collapsing the cathedral’s famous 19th-century spire. Thankfully, some precious relics were salvaged from the destruction, including the Crown of Thorns, brought to Paris by Saint Louis IX in the 13th century and traditionally venerated every Friday in Lent. This year, the Archbishop of Paris returned the relic to the cathedral and venerated it in a widely televised, simple but moving Good Friday morning ceremony.

Notre Dame has been inseparably linked with the identity and history of France, "the eldest daughter of the Church." Through the centuries the trials and tribulations of the French Church - themselves exemplars of the trials and tribulations of both the Universal Church and the European civilization the Church created - have been Notre Dame's. In 1548, for example, Huguenots destroyed some statues. The cathedral was more thoroughly desecrated by the French Revolution, which rededicated it to "Reason" in 1793 and then turned it into a warehouse. Napoleon restored its religious, Catholic character and then crowned himself Emperor there in 1804. General Charles De Gaulle attended a triumphant Te Deum there on August 26, 1944, to give thanks for the liberation of Paris from the German occupation (even while sporadic gun shots rang out, both outside and within the great cathedral)..

Last year's fire was yet another tragic blow to that sacred place, as well as an incalculable blow to our Western cultural heritage. Our post-modern, secular society aptly expresses its spiritual emptiness and its inhuman ugliness in its soul-destroying inhumane ugly buildings, reflecting the diminished character of contemporary human aspiration. The age of the great cathedrals was limited and imperfect in many ways, but at least it directed human hearts and minds to look upward as opposed to our contemporary preoccupation primarily with our petty selves.

At the time, the fire seemed like one more disconnected calamity in this era of accumulating natural disasters and human-made tragedies. The present pandemic has focused our attention as none of those other disasters and tragedies have as yet been able to do. Some have ventured to see in the present pandemic a concentrated apocalyptic experience, a fast-forward into the destructive disruption approaching around the historical corner in the form of climate change. If nothing else, it has dramatically undercut the business-as-usual mentality that apocalypse cannot happen here, cannot happen to us.

A year ago, the French made a commitment to rebuild and restore Notre Dame, that precious symbol of faith and civilization. A year later, the whole world is being challenged to recommit to civilization itself through a renewed commitment to rebuild and restore a society whose fundamental failings have been so powerfully exposed by the present pandemic.

What kind of renewed faith will such a commitment require?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What Shall We Do?

In today's 1st reading (Acts 2:36-41), Peter concluded his famous "Pentecost Sermon," in response to which the people asked, What are we to do? As a grad student way back in the 1970s, I wrote a paper for a group project I was part of on the Global Resource Crisis. The title which the Director assigned it was that very response from Acts - "What Shall We do?"

Of course, in a sense that is always the question - in response to any situation that calls for action in response. 

The question stares us in the face right now as we try to figure out what comes next in the aftermath of the massive disruption we are presently experiencing. One thing we know - or at least ought to know - is that we cannot expect the world to return to business as usual.

Last week, seeking to situate the present pandemic in the larger context of our ongoing and growing global climate catastrophe, Pope Francis said, “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives'.”  (Even Bill Maher quoted the Pope's statement during his TV show last Friday.)

“This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it,” the Pope said. “This crisis is affecting us all, rich and poor alike, and putting a spotlight on hypocrisy,” he noted.

So what are we to do? If nothing else, the present pandemic has demonstrated in a very extreme way our lack of control over the world, which the global climate catastrophe has already demonstrated, but which some of our supposed leaders have failed to respond to. It has also demonstrated the economic and social inequalities which have radically corrupted our society. All these problems cry out for a response, for which there can be no reversion to business as usual, no 1920-style "return to normalcy."

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Long-Term Lesson from This Crisis

In addition to the usual Urbi et Orbi Message (unusually delivered without the customary military and pontifical pomp in an empty Saint Peter's Basilica), Pope Francis sent an even more unusual special Easter Sunday message to members of social movements around the world, one which would easily pass unnoticed but most certainly ought not to. The Pope recognized "the rage and powerlessness" felt "at the sight of persistent inequalities" and accordingly turned his attention to the "change that can no longer be put off."

Notably, he expressed his "hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the center. Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself."

Of course, the moral failure of capitalism was - or certainly ought to have been - evident long ago. No virus was needed to teach that obvious lesson. The Pope, however, has recognized what many others are also recognizing that this crisis cannot conclude somehow in some Hardingesque return to normalcy, but rather requires a comprehensive re-examination of everything that has brought our supposedly so advanced society to this calamitous condition - in particular the four decades of destructive ideology that have underwritten the breakdown of social solidarity, the same social solidarity which is proving essential to any hope for our economic, cultural, moral, and political recovery. 

Let us pray that, in this sense, this crisis will not be wasted!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

"Such is the wonder of his love; he gathers to this feast those who are far apart and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other." So wrote the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church Saint Athanasius in a 4th-century Easter letter.

His words seem especially apt today, as we celebrate this Easter feast "physically separated from each other," in a way none of us would ever have expected.

On Easters past, I have often talked about my love for the sound of the Easter bells, that still ring out triumphantly in much of the world today. Some years, I have recalled the famous legend of Faust (the scholar who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil), and how, in Goethe's dramatic version of the story, the glorious ringing of the Easter bells brought him back from the brink of despair. 

Of course, Faust was a unique case. Hopefully none of us is tempted to go down his self-destructive path. Yet, in its own way, his sense of abandonment and isolation may well resonate with us in this strange and difficult time which we are going through.

At the beginning of Goethe's play, the hopeless Faust plans to end his pointless life, when suddenly he hears the sound of the bells heralding what he calls "the Easter feasts' first solemn hour." Though Faust's faith is weak, and his hope is all but gone, even so just the familiar sound of those Easter bells brings him back from the brink of death.

Like Faust, we too have all heard the Easter bells, as year after year they continue to announce their glorious news. I've often told how, back in the Bronx in the 1950s, the sound of the Easter bells set in motion an important annual ritual in our apartment. In those days, the Easter Vigil service was still celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning, when hardly anyone was there to hear the bells ring at the Gloria of the Mass. But then, promptly at noon, churches all over the world let loose a cacaphony of bells. At that moment, my grandmother would sit us down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the best bells of all - the bells of Rome's several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Rome time) - all peeling gloriously, as we meanwhile cracked open our colored Easter eggs.

Even now, after all these years, the ringing of the bells still remains one of my favorite Easter moments, when the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent for two days, the bells now ring again with all clamor they can muster in an outburst of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year - and beyond.

After all, how else will the world hear this story? And hear it the world must - for everyone's sake! That is what the Church is for - commissioned to preach to the people and testify (as Peter proclaimed in the reading we just heard from the acts of the Apostles) that Jesus is really risen from the dead and that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

Now, in the Church, we are not all the same. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved in today's Gospel. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But, whether we are runners or walkers, we too have come, like those first disciples, to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world - may believe.

Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples - unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something new in a world where everything else seems at best ordinary and old, at worst depressing and dangerous. That is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles, how they first experienced the reality of the resurrection and its power to change the world - to change even this world, which seems to have been stopped inits tracks by a dangerous disease that sickens, even kills, some, and has taken a terrible toll on all of us.

The promises of holy Baptism, which we will now solemnly renew, are our solemn and collective commitment to keep ringing those Easter bells, even in this world of sickness and separation.

So may those bells that called Faust back to live again live on in us. May our whole world ring again with Easter joy and hope, so we all can experience that something really new has happened - the new life given freely to us by Christ our Risen Lord.

Homily for Easter Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 12, 2020.

Photo: Easter Sunday, The Roman Missal, copywright 2011 Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Reimagining Holy Week (5) - Easter Vigil

Because of this year's unique circumstances, this will be the first of my 10 years as pastor that I have not celebrated the Easter Vigil - and probably the first time in over 50 years that I have not experienced the Vigil personally. This enforced distance from the Vigil makes it even easier to reconsider it today. And, of all of Holy Week, it is perhaps the Vigil that is most pastorally problematic and most in need of reimagining.

Many aspects of the traditional Easter Vigil were very ancient, among them its baptismal character, which remained in evidence long after adult baptisms had ceased to be the norm and no one was being baptized anymore at the Vigil. Presumably Gallican in origin, the addition of the blessing of the new fire and the Paschal Candle to the traditional baptismal vigil created a unique combination of elements. The familiar story of Saint Patrick's famous lighting of the Easter fire in Ireland highlights the inherent popular appeal of that particular addition to the vigil.  If the Vigil had continued to be celebrated at night instead of being anticipated on Saturday morning, the fire and the candle could conceivably have made it a more popular event.

But, of course, for most of the second millennium at least, the entire lengthy vigil - fire candle, 12 "prophecies," the blessing of the baptismal water and font, the Litany, and finally the Mass (which concluded with a truncated version of Vespers) all took place early in the morning with next to nobody in attendance. It was to remedy that odd situation that Pius XII's Holy Week reforms were put in place - resulting for at least a brief period of some modest interest in the Vigil on the part of those disposed to attend "extra" Church services. The first Easter Vigil I ever attended - around 1960 or so - was that reformed Vigil. I am sure much of its appeal was its uniqueness, its nocturnal setting, etc. What I remember liking most of all were the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells. Some 60 years later, these remain my favorite parts of the Vigil.

Of course, there were no baptisms at the Vigil back then. The reformed Vigil of the 1950s introduced a totally new element - the renewal of Baptismal Promises - which was, I think, rather well received. While some liturgical scholars deplored this obviously modern intrusion into such an ancient rite, others recognized it as an attempt to retrieve the baptismal significance of the Vigil in a way modern Catholics could experience  as authentic. 

But then came the RCIA, and more and more parishes started celebrating baptisms at the Vigil - so much so that the baptisms have so come to dominate that one might be forgiven for forgetting that the main focus is supposed to be the Resurrection. As attendance at the Vigil has continued to decline, it seems as if most of those present are there because of some connection with those to be initiated or with the process. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Bringing new people into the Church is important - very important. But it means that the Easter Vigil is increasingly like when the Bishop comes for confirmation - a big event at which much of the congregation are there for a special sacramental moment, while most "regular" parishioners are absent. It hardly functions as the parish's celebration of the Resurrection.

That function is, of course, performed by the Easter morning Mass - typically the best attended of the year. The American option to repeat the Renewal of Baptismal Promises on Easter Sunday reflects that reality, allowing all to participate in the most pastorally relevant aspect of the Vigil, which otherwise most would never experience at all.

Historically, the Easter Vigil Mass, while an anticipation of Easter, was not quite the same as Easter. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the 20th-century reforms was to treat the Vigil Mass as an alternative to attending Mass on Easter. (I always encourage those entering the Church at the Vigil to come back again on Easter morning and join in worship with the wider parish community.) 

Since the precedent has already been set that a rite so historic and ancient as the Easter Vigil can be altered at will, maybe it is time to reform it again as an event focused mainly on those to be baptized (those actually there). Let it be celebrated earlier in the evening and sufficiently shorted so as to be less of a burden and more of a joyful experience. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

At the Cross

One week ago, in his daily morning homily on the traditional date of the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Pope Francis recalled the centuries-old devotion to Mary at the foot of the Cross, a devotion which acquired an added significance in the medieval Church at a time characterized by world-wide suffering and death – in particular that caused by the great plagues that decimated society from the 14th century onward.

In what seems like an eternity ago (although actually little more than a month ago), when we could come together still as a community to walk the Way of the Cross with Mary and with one another, we would contemplate Mary’s encounter with Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and her presence there throughout it all until she helped lay his body in the tomb. And we would sing the familiar 13th-century hymn Stabat Mater, which was originally a Sequence sung at Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

In the gospel account which we have just heard, we contemplate with empathy Mary’s presence at the foot of the Cross and the role she assumed there as Mother of the church. In his Passion, Mary accompanied Jesus as his disciple, modeling that role for us through her unique relationship with him and her role as Mother, sharing in his passion and death on our behalf. Again, it will be as Mother of the Risen Jesus that she will join in prayer with the disciples after Easter. With her, we participate in the experience of Christ’s Cross so as to share together in its benefits in the community of the Risen Christ.

In her suffering and sorrow, Mary exemplifies the Church – suffering and sorrowful in this terrible time of widespread sickness and death and of separation and loneliness.
As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should then have been the end of the story.

And yet this is not some sort of funeral service. If Jesus had in fact remained dead, if his body had indeed decayed in the tomb, then none of us would have any reason to remember this day at all. Nor are we acting in a play, pretending he’s dead until we see what (if anything) happens on Sunday. We are doing this today because he really did die, but really isn’t dead anymore. And that is why we celebrate the cross of Christ.

As St. John Chrysostom expressed it, some 16 centuries ago:

Before, the cross was synonymous with condemnation; now it is an object of honor. Before, a symbol of death; now the means of salvation. It has been the source of countless blessings for us: it has delivered us from error, it has shone on us when we were in darkness. We were vanquished, yet it reconciles us with God. We were foes, yet it has regained God’s friendship for us. We were estranged, yet it has brought us back to him.

In a short while, we will solemnly salute the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world, for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life, as Mary did, on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties and obstacles life puts in the way. We will venerate the cross, together as the community of Christ’s holy Catholic Church - born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission - because it is together as Christ’s Church (united with Mary, the Mother of the Church) that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world. That is why, following one of the most ancient traditions of this day, we will pray for that whole world – for the Church, for its leaders, for those joining the Church, for those outside, for our political leaders, for those suffering from this pandemic, and for all in any kind of need – for the whole world without exception.

Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus, we have been reborn as his Church in his blood and water, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our entire world.

Homily for the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, Good Friday, April 9, 2020.

Reimagining Holy Week (4) - Good Friday

One Good Friday afternoon, sometime in the late 1950s, after an afternoon hanging out in the park (unsupervised as we all were in those unenlightened days), a friend and I went to church for the 3:00 Good Friday service. When it was over, my friend said something like, "That was the strangest Mass I'v ever attended." He was, of course, both right and wrong. He was wrong in that it was not a Mass, but right in that it was the most unique service either of us had ever attended.

The pre-conciliar Good Friday rite - the first part of it in particular - preserved a unique link to Christian antiquity, to the ancient Wednesday and Friday Lenten "synaxes." It dated from a time when Good Friday was seen less as a separate commemoration of the crucifixion and more part of a unitive celebration of the paschal mystery. Hence the powerful traditional readings, Hosea 6:1-6 and Exodus 12:1-11, which regrettably are no longer read, having been replaced by modern choices that highlight the contemporary popular understanding of Good Friday (long fed by non-liturgical popular devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the Seven last Words) as exclusively about the crucifixion. Of the readings, the only traditional text still is John's Passion account (which Exodus 12:1-11 used to complement perfectly).  But the rite still can begin with the traditional prostration, which in our symbolically impoverished world, will still make an impression.

Unique to Good Friday were the Solemn Prayers - formerly nine - which had disappeared from the other ancient Lenten "synaxes" as they had evolved into Lenten Masses. As the only non-eucharistic service left, Good Friday retained those prayers in their ancient form.  After 1600 years, those prayers were deemed in need of improvement and rewritten for Paul VI's Missal. The prayers presently impress attendees primarily by their length and the repeated change of posture. In the modern rite there are now 10 of them, and this year a special additional one composed explicitly for the current crisis. It is quote appropriate:

IX b.   For the afflicted in time of pandemic.

Let  us  pray  also  for  all  those  who  suffer  the  consequences  of  the  current  pandemic,  that  God  the Father  may  grant  health  to  the  sick,  strength  to  those  who  care  for  them,  comfort  to  families  and salvation to all the victims who have died.

Almighty ever-living God, only support of our human weakness, look with compassion upon the sorrowful condition of your children who suffer because of this pandemic; relieve the pain of the sick, give strength to those who care for them, welcome into your peace those who have died and, throughout this time of tribulation, grant that we may all find comfort in your merciful love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Undoubtedly the most dramatic - and, to contemporary congregations, the most unique - part of the service is the Veneration of the Cross, clearly an importation from the Jerusalem liturgy, added on to the ancient Roman "synaxis." The venerated crucifix is clearly a substitute for the relic of the True Cross, but the ritual is so powerful that the fact that it is not an actual relic hardly matters. Back when I attended with my friend, only the clergy and servers got to venerate the Cross. Then, afterwards, multiple priests came to the altar rails with small crucifixes for us to kiss. Nowadays, on this one occasion at least, our addiction to brevity and minimalism has been overcome, and the entire congregation typically gets to come forward to venerate the Cross, regardless of the time it takes.

But, again, not this year. Not only will most people not be present physically to venerate the Cross, but it has been decreed that only the Celebrant is to do so. Dictated perhaps by concerns about contagion, this nonetheless has a symbolic value. It means that, other than the celebrant, whose role it is to officiate on behalf of all watching from afar, there are no privileged elites who get special access. 

Some of us have long wished the service ended with the Veneration of the Cross, which (because of its uniqueness and emotive power) I suspect will be even more missed this year than Communion. It is, however, thought that the ancient non-eucharistic "synaxes" routinely concluded with Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, and that the addition of Communion at the end is therefore traditional. Over the centuries, the Communion rite had become quite elaborate, even as reception came to be reserved only to the celebrant. The 1955 reform reversed that, giving us a stripped-down Communion service with Communion for all. That certainly spoke to the emerging liturgical sensibility of the time.  I wonder whether this year's absence of congregational Communion could reopen that question. 

Certainly the Veneration if the Cross is already for many the most powerful and popular part of the service, and it would be even more so were the service to conclude with it.

If Pope Francis uses the "Plague Crucifix" for the Veneration at Saint Peter's, it is hard to imagine what his personal reception of Communion would actually add to the rite as experienced by those watching from afar.

(Photo: Good Friday "Tenebrae," Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, 2019.)