Sunday, May 31, 2020

Filled with the Holy Spirit

I was glad when they said to me: We will go to the house of the Lord. The musicians here may recognize those opening words of Psalm 122 as the beginning of Sir Hubert Parry’s great British coronation anthem.

This is no coronation, of course. But we are rejoicing today! Most of us haven’t been here, at least not together for Mass, in more than two months. So we are glad, all of us, to be back again in the house of the Lord! It is great to be back in church again, and I am thrilled to see so many of you again here today! Gathering here around the altar is at the heart of how we express who we are and become who we hope to be.

But, of course, the point of coming to church is that this then continues outside - in who we are and who we become, the Church we are and become, in and for the sake of the wider world. That is the point of Pentecost, the challenge of Pentecost, which we are celebrating in a special way this year not just by getting together again but by welcoming new members into the Church.

“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the “week” of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar Pentecost story in the Acts of the Apostles.

By then, Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt.  Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning.

Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses empowered to transform the whole world.

In our current calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when we reflect the resurrection’s promise in our ordinary lives. Gathered here, we worship the Risen Lord, seated at his Father’s right hand. From here, we continue Christ’s work in the world.

And there remains much work to be done.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit symbolically repaired the division of the human race, when strangers from every nation heard the apostles speaking in their own tongue.  Even so, still today, as Pope Francis has reminded us, “fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other,” someone different from ourselves, and so deprives us “of an opportunity to encounter the Lord” [Homily, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 14, 2018]. We have all struggled these past months – and will continue to struggle for some time yet (as our seating arrangement reminds us) - with how fear (in this case the very sensible fear of a disease) can distance us – and, if we let it do so, separate us completely from one another. All this therapeutic distancing has also thrown a bright - but sad - light on the deeper distances that divide our society and so set us apart when we most need to come together as one.

Hence the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church. Back when many of us were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. We call them gifts, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them too - charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.

That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost ritualizes annually what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth, as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 31, 2020.

(Photo: Pentecost, Roman Missal, copyright 2011 Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ)

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Lost Vigil of Pentecost

As churches reopen for the public celebration of parish Masses, some of us find ourselves celebrating the Sacraments of Initiation - delayed from Easter - on this Vigil of Pentecost. So one - utterly unintended - consequence our current crisis may be a rediscovery of the ancient baptismal character of Pentecost and particularly its long-lost Vigil. 

That Pentecost paralleled Easter as a baptismal festival has long been a well known fact of liturgical history. Tertullian, for example, called Pentecost "another solemn day of Baptism" (De Baptismo, 8, 1). In the ancient Roman liturgy, the stational church for the night-long Vigils of both Easter and Pentecost was the Lateran Basilica. By the Middle Ages, in the absence of adult catechumens, those ceremonies were routinely celebrated in the afternoon - after the canonical hour of None. Like the Masses on other penitential days, by the end of the Middles Ages they too continued to be celebrated after None, but None itself and the rites that followed had by then been anticipated to early morning.

Such was the strange state of affairs until the 1955 Holy Week Reform, which moved the Easter Vigil to Saturday evening but saw no point in trying to preserve the Pentecost Vigil, which it simply abolished, leaving only the festive Vigil Mass in red vestments on the Saturday morning before Pentecost. Then even this vestige of liturgical antiquity was eliminated in the 1969 Missal. (Of course, at that time, hardly anyone was thinking about, let alone expecting, a restoration of the practice of baptizing adult catechumens at either Easter or Pentecost. The Vigil had become an occasion to bless baptismal water for the coming year - much as Holy Thursday blessed oils for the coming year - but not about actually baptizing anyone, although that possibility remained on the rubrics.)

Admittedly, those who lament the losses the 20th-century inflicted on the Roman Rite are probably few and far between. Outside of monasteries, seminaries, and similar such settings, who even attended or otherwise paid much attention to such ceremonies, especially the Easter and Pentecost Vigils, probably the most poorly attended major ceremonies of the year? As one of my aunts once said of sung Masses in general, who needs them? (I didn't agree with her then and don't now, but I am sure lots of others did and do.)

And, obviously, such critics do have some point. There are undoubtedly far more pressing problems to worry about than our hopeless contemporary disconnection from our ritual heritage (however much that disconnection remains a real impoverishment in our present experience and limits our abilities to imagine alternative futures). Yet, here we are, baptizing and confirming catechumens once again on Pentecost eve, but without the ancient ritual resources from our tradition to contextualize that celebration.

Restoring the pre-1955 Holy Week and Vigil of Pentecost is a pointless pipe-dream, except perhaps in enclosed and semi-enclosed communities that can celebrate such ceremonies properly and that want to make such rituals a badge of their communal identity. That said, however, a more pastorally sensitive and relevant future Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, if and when we get one, would do well to reconsider our ancient rites and how to retrieve elements from them to re-contextualize the Church's experience of Initiation for our re-paganized, post-Christian age.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


This week the History Channel showed a three-night docudrama, Grant, adapted from historian Ron Chernow's 1,104-page 2017 biography of victorious Civil War General and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The series is an act of reparation of sorts, seeking to restore the once famous (but now barely remembered) Grant to his proper place in the American pantheon.

The first episode dealt with Grant's early life, including his West Point and Mexican War experiences, his marriage and family life, his opposition to slavery, his drinking problem, and his business failures - from which he was finally freed by the opportunity to return to military command provided by the Civil War. The second episode highlighted his successful rise to top commander in the Civil War. The final episode takes us through the war's conclusion through his post-war service and support for reconstruction, his two-terms as president, and his post-presidency, memoirs, and death.

Grant has long been remembered as Lincoln's most aggressive and successful General - in a war in which so many Union generals were a disappointment, to put it mildly. The series does a good job of highlighting the qualities that made Grant such a successful general and relating that experience to his earlier life and to his overall character and commitment to such critical qualities as fairness and equality, all of which made him a natural partner for Lincoln and Lincoln's natural successor. Grant's post-war commitment to Reconstruction gets the emphasis it deserves and solidifies Grant's place as Lincoln's spiritual and political heir.

The history of the Civil War has long suffered from "Lost Cause" pro-Southern, racist romanticism, which has unjustly elevated the memory of traitors like Robert E. Lee. This series serves as a good counterweight to that deplorable historical revisionism. The bad history my generation grew up with also seriously distorted Reconstruction, even treating the despicable Andrew Johnson as a sympathetic figure and distorting our understanding of his well deserved impeachment.  Grant rushes past the disastrous Johnson administration, but it does serve to rehabilitate our recollection of the Grant Administration, which heroically sought to implement Reconstruction, after which the victory in the Civil War was lost to the Jim Crow era, and has only begun to be recovered in our own lifetime.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

More on Masks

Being neither a scientist nor a medical professional, I really have no idea how effective masks are in combatting Covid-19. I heard on TV the other day the theory that if 60% of Americans wore masks for 2 weeks that could kill off much of the virus. If so, that should certainly be more than enough motivation to do the right thing. And even if that theory were to prove false, there would still be plenty of good grounds to encourage - and even mandate - face coverings in public. So why is it that this practice - admittedly a new and inconvenient change in our customary behavior - has become so apparently controversial, at least among certain segments of the population?

The fact is that, while the actual degree of scientific certainty behind this practice may be open to legitimate debate, in fact rational debate about the alleged medical benefits of covering one's face in public is not what this controversy is really all about. Rather it has become yet another expression of the tribal division of American society - sometimes dignified with the more academic-sounding term "political polarization." 

Whatever one calls it, American society is increasingly divided into two tribe-like groups, whose main basis for group identity and group solidarity seems to be their hatred for those in the other group. Scientific facts and their medical applications, which one might think would be paramount to decision-making in the face of a global pandemic, seem to have a lot less to do with how one views the advice or requirement to wear a mask than which "tribe" one has chosen to identify with. This is tragic, of course, because the virus (like climate change) does not discriminate on the basis of tribal divisions. 

Way back when, most people had multiple overlapping identities ("cross-cutting cleavages" in academic speak). So one could be a factory worker, a union member, a hunter and gun owner, a Catholic, a citizen of California, a male, married, etc. One's political party, probably an inherited identity, would have been one more (but not necessarily any more decisive) group with which one identified. Increasingly, however, political party has become the predominant identity, within which all else is largely subsumed (including in many cases religious affiliation). This is all part of what has been called "the big sort." Given this decades-long development and given the Republican Tribe's intense animus against scientific expertise, it should come as no surprise that the scientific and medical merits of masks in the current COVID-19 crisis have become secondary considerations compared with the primary consideration of which Tribe one identifies with - and how wearing or not wearing a mask has become symbolic of one's tribal identification. 

By ostentatiously refusing to wear one himself, the President has reinforced the mask's symbolic character - continuing the division of our society to its long-term detriment. And so it is that recent research reveals that "Democrats are more than 20 percentage points more likely than Republicans to (75% versus 53%) report wearing masks in public," and that "Mask-wearing levels are consistently lower across the board in states that voted strongly for Trump." (The researchers were political scientists Shana Gadarian, Sara Goodman, and Tom Pepinsky.)

First Things' editor R.R. Reno's recent (and now infamous) extreme tweets and other fulminations on the subject simply illustrate this absurd situation in which those on that side of the partisan divide have abandoned all other perspectives and can see things only through one narrow culture-war tunnel. As Vox's Zach Beauchamp has observed, the question for Reno "is not 'does wearing a mask contribute to public health,' but rather 'what does wearing a mask say about where I stand in the culture war.' He sees the issue not through the lens of substance but of symbolism." 

It is, of course, the insistence of reducing all of life to that narrow culture-war tunnel (with no proverbial light at the end of it) that has brought our politics to this state.

Monday, May 25, 2020


Sunday's NY Times devoted its front page ("U.S. Deaths Near 100,00, an Incalculable Loss") to listing the names of many pandemic-connected fatalities.

Memorial Day disposes us (or at least used to dispose us before we turned it into just another long weekend summer holiday) to think about those who have gone before us - an occasion to recall those who have die and continue to die in our ongoing apparently interminable wars, and an appropriate occasion (so it might seem) to remember the almost 100,000 Americans (and the thousands of others around the world) whose lives have been cruelly cut short by this pandemic, an opportunity to mourn them collectively as a society, something individuals have been unable to do in anything like a normal way because of the necessary restrictions under which we have been living.

Collective rituals of national mourning are rightly restricted to losses to our common life - the deaths of statesmen, tragic accidents (like the deaths of the challenger astronauts), and casualties of war and terrorism . Our mounting national death toll from COVID-19 comes closest to resembling a long-term terrorist attack - not just the sum of so many individual tragic losses but a wound penetrating deeply into the nation's heart.

In normal times of course, our national leaders would lead us in national mourning. Such mourning, however, as Jessica Goldstein has written in The New Republic, "requires one to pause and remember; this administration is hell-bent on hurtling forward as if what is currently happening never really happened at all." Indeed, the pandemic has only illustrated how our national leaders are themselves a major part of our national illness. "The president's boundless cruelty and ignorance," Goldstein reminds us, have been "enabled by his administration's incompetence ... and avarice ... aided and abetted by staggering civic indifference from elected officials who ran for office on 'pro-life' platforms only to turn around and demand the rest of us be willing to sacrifice our parents and grandparents on the altar of the Dow." 

All the more reason then "to pause and remember," which is what this day is supposed to be for.

Sunday, May 24, 2020


Saint Bernard of Clairvaux described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” Our belief in the Ascension is, of course, one of the key components of the Creed, which we recite regularly . After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

As the words of the Creed suggest, the ascension actually involves several things. Historically speaking, it has to do with the fact that the Risen Christ was no longer living among his disciples as he had been before. The Risen Lord lives already the new life of the future of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament authors assure us that the Risen One presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church.  Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of the period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.

That being the case, the question then becomes: well, where exactly is he? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically speaking, what the Ascension celebrates is that the Word-made-flesh, the incarnate Christ is now with God his Father, the fact that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) that is with God.

In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended and so is now with God.

As St. Augustine famously said in one of his sermons: “Although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend, not by reason of our own virtue but on account of our oneness with him” (Sermon 263).

Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.

In the meantime now - in this interim between Easter and the end - though he is absent, he has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Hence, his instruction to his disciples: to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. This Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is still present among us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and its sacraments. Hence the intense focus of this final part of the Easter season on his parting gift of the Holy Spirit to us in his church. Meanwhile, not only does the Risen Christ continue present in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit; but, through the sacraments and in particular the Eucharist, we participate already even now in the heavenly liturgy, where Christ, as our High Priest intercedes forever on our behalf with his Father.

Our confidence in his heavenly intercession a simultaneously continuing presence among us in his Church should encourage us as we make our way through our daily difficulties and the seemingly overwhelming crises and calamities the world keeps throwing at us.

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 24, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website

Photo: Watercolor Ceiling Painting of the Ascension, 1913, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Memorial Day

Many of us may be old enough to remember the original name for Memorial Day - Decoration Day. It began as a day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became a day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring their graves. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and visiting the cemetery on or near Memorial Day was part of that war legacy. Even today, volunteers still visit cemeteries to place flags on graves – a reminder of the importance of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.

So we celebrate this annual Mass today for all the dead buried in our own parish cemetery, established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to faithful departed. That we do so here in an almost empty church rather than at the cemetery as we usually do speaks to our present predicament in this time of pandemic, which has made it difficult if not impossible for many of us to gather at all and has been especially hard on those who are mourning their beloved dead without the usual rituals of wake services, funeral Masses, and burial rites. All the more reason, then, to reflect upon the importance of those rituals and the realities that underlie them.

In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in ordinary English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because they is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. So, even when we cannot gather as we would wish, to remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope which we still share with them after death.

Homily for the Annual Memorial Day Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 23, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website

Friday, May 22, 2020

Come, Holy Spirit

These nine days that occur between the traditional date of the Ascension and Pentecost are the origin of the Catholic custom of the novena - nine days of prayer (usually in preparation for a feast day), which has its foundation in the uniquely formative experience of the early Church in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. As the Church’s original novena, this period is particularly focused on highlighting the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, who animates and empowers Christ’s mystical body, the Church, for its mission in the world. 

Invoking the aid of the Holy Spirit is always appropriate, of course, but it seems especially so this year as we prepare for a new experience of Church and parish life this Pentecost, when we will resume the regular celebration of public parish Masses under the restrictive regulations which we must follow to minimize risk to ourselves and everyone else from this dangerous disease.

If the expression "New Pentecost" takes on an unexpected connotation this year, all the more reason to highlight our perennial dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit to animate our life and activity in this world.

(Photo: Paulist Press Pamphlet, Novena to the Holy Spirit by Rt. Rev, John J. Burke, CSP, 1925)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"The Life in the Years"

My mother, Camille Franco, would have been 98 years old today. She died after a brief illness on March 5. A Funeral Mass in her parish in Walnut Creek, California, was planned - to be followed later by interment in the family plot in New York. But all that then had to be indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic. Grieving apart without the traditional ritual comforts of wake services, funerals, and burials is one of the many sad side-effects of this pandemic. Since my mother has not yet had a proper funeral Mass, her birthday seems an appropriate day to remember her liturgically at least until such time  as a proper Funeral Mass is possible.

So here is my Homily from the Memorial Mass for my mother at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 21, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website

Abraham Lincoln famously said: “in the end, it is not the years in a life, but the life in the years.”

My mother was blessed with both. She outlived her siblings and in-laws, surpassing the psalmist’s famous saying: “The sum of our years is 70, and if we are strong 80, and most of them are toil and trouble, for they quickly pass, and we vanish.” We are so used to people getting old now that we forget that until recently people did not automatically expect to reach such an old age. My mother’s generation generally did not begin life expecting to live as long as so many of them did. Certainly my mother didn’t, having been assured as a somewhat sickly child that she might not make it to 16. Well, one thing we all know is we don't know the future!

A person’s tombstone may be fancy or plain, but it always features a name and two dates – the deceased’s date of birth and date of death, separated sometimes by a little dash. More important than the years, however, as Lincoln reminded us so tellingly is the life lived over the course of those years. It is that life - lived in the dash between the dates - that imparts purpose to all that “toil and trouble” and continues to have meaning even after “we vanish.” Above all, it is in the life one lives that one becomes the person one will forever be in eternity.

As the only American-born child in a family of Italian immigrants, she inherited the heritage of the old world, reinforced by a brief but memorable sojourn as a child in the kingdom of Italy in the 1920s, while being firmly rooted in the promise of opportunity which had enticed her parents, her husband-to-be’s parents, and so many people’s parents to uproot themselves, like Abraham of old, and to put down new roots in a land of promise.

From her 20s through her 50s home was New York’s borough of the Bronx – often with typical New York hyperbole referred to then as the “Beautiful Bronx.” And beautiful it was – from the natural beauty of Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach, where as a young family we spent so much of our time in the summer, westward along the great commercial artery that was Fordham Road, where she did so much household shopping, to our typically pre-war apartment building, where we lived, and the great gothic parish church across the street, that set so much of the tone for that life.

But, before the Bronx, there was Macy’s! My parents were both employed by Macy’s in 1946 when they met there at the first big soap sale after the war. For my father, it was love at first sight. Soon he was taking my mother on their first date – to the Radio City Christmas Show. While they waited in line, my father serenaded my mother, singing the then popular song “All the Things You Are.” They were engaged before Christmas, and married two months later. And, as Macy’s employees, my parents sat under the lights for what seemed to them like forever as part of the background crowd for the cafeteria scene in the famous 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street. Who knows how many miracles of love Macy’s made!

From a distance, we look back on that life we shared with her and all the people that were a part of it, so many of whom are themselves gone now. It was not always easy. It was a struggle, she used to say, just to make ends meet. My father held two jobs, and my mother continued to work part-time in Macy’s. Both he and my mother were “Saturday only” Macy’s employees, which did indeed mean that they worked all day on Saturdays but inexplicably also meant that they worked Monday and Thursday evenings! Those were long, hard days not getting home until almost 10:00 p.m. Since my mother had the same Macy’s hours, they could at least commute home together on the subway those late nights and back and forth on Saturdays.

I often think back to how much my parents had to work. And so I think it a special blessing that she got to enjoy as many years as she did – first, together with my father in the home they finally owned in Westchester and then after my father’s illness and death a whole new life for my mother here in California. It was a difficult and challenging decision at her age – 82 – to move across country. But how happy she was there, being near Linda and Nick and Claire and Laura. And all the friends she made there, so many friends, whom she treasured.

At my parents’ wedding, the priest would have instructed them about the life they were committing themselves to, in these once familiar words “That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes.” No longer hidden but fully lived, all those hopes, disappointments, successes, failures, pleasures, pains, joys, and sorrows accompany her now to the throne of the living God and his all-purifying grace and mercy.

We all struggle in life with the contradiction between who we are now and who God created us to become – until united with him in his kingdom we can finally see all things from God’s point of view and so experience the full effect of God’s patient, life-long transformation of us by his grace.

For my mother, that process began in a parish church in New York’s Little Italy where she was baptized and first brought into relationship with the One who is the resurrection and the life, a relationship that he has continued to develop with her for almost a century now, flourishing in her final years in Walnut Creek's Rossmoor community and Saint Anne’s, Parish, which my mother cherished so much.

In their earthly lives, Martha and Mary and Lazarus had all responded to Jesus’ invitation by committing to him as to their own family. That invitation was extended to my mother at her baptism, as it has been to each of us, an invitation that makes everything different from what it might otherwise have been, and that, having blessed my mother’s life, now imparts new meaning to her death as, with confident hope and trust in God’s promises, we commend her to share forever in the new life of the Risen Christ.

Monday, May 18, 2020

John Paul II at 100

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, born on this day in the newly established post-World War I Polish state in 1920. He died 84 years later on April 2, 2005, having served as Pope from October 16, 1978, a papacy of more than 26 years. Because of the pandemic, his fans must settle for a somewhat muted celebration. Pope Francis will mark the occasion by celebrating Mass at his tomb in Saint Peter's Basilica (Photo taken by me in 2012).

History, which Pope Saint John XXIII famously called "the greatest of teachers," tends to take the long view. It may simply be too early, historically speaking, to come to any definitive assessment of John Paul II and his pontificate. One need only compare how US Presidents have been assessed during and at the end of their terms with how history has reassessed them. (Both Truman and Eisenhower, for example, have fared much better from the vantage point of history than they did at the end of their terms.)

By the sheer force of his personality and the unique circumstances of his nationality, John Paul inevitably played a larger-than-life role on the world stage. He did much to create our contemporary image of the Pope as someone whose job includes being successful as a media celebrity. There are obvious advantages to this for the Church's public presence in the world. It also reinforces the contemporary centralization of the Church, an almost inevitable modern phenomenon, but which is historically somewhat unique and which, while obviously beneficial in some respects, may prove less so in others.

The first decade of the Polish Pope's pontificate was, unsurprisingly, dominated by the critical final years of the Cold War. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the Soviet system was destined to collapse eventually, with or without a Polish Pope. Andrei Amalrik's Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, which I read in college, was written well before most people had ever heard of Karol Wojtyla. Amalrik got some details wrong (including, obviously, the date) but was otherwise on target. Instead of the war he predicted with China, the Soviets undermined themselves with a disastrous was in Afghanistan. 

Even if the Soviet system was perhaps on the road to self-destruct eventually, its immediate failures, for example, at Chernobyl certainly accelerated the process. Even so, the historical confluence of particular personalities played a key part in the process. Most notable, of course, but obviously not inevitable, was Mikhail Gorbachev - as was Margaret Thatcher's embrace of him. That said, the Polish Pope played some part for sure in how the process played out - particularly the part Poland played in accelerating that process. While he certainly did not single-handedly overthrow the Soviet system, he was a player, who obviously mattered enough to warrant the attempt to assassinate him. As Tony Judt, conceded in The New York Review of Books in 1996: "In any history of the last years of the Cold War, or of the collapse and fall of the Soviet Union, the pope will obviously figure prominently, not least for the part played by Solidarity and the Polish opposition in the undermining of Communist credibility."

However one evaluates John Paul II's contribution to the collapse of communism, once that had happened his influence in world politics diminished significantly. For the rest of his reign (and from a religious perspective even for the first part of his pontificate) his dominating role within the Church is what matters. 

1978 seems so distant that it may be hard to recall how depressed the Church's internal life and overall situation seemed at that time - at least in the West. (What was then called the "Third World" was a somewhat different story.). Young by papal standards, an exotic foreigner with a dramatic flare for showmanship, Pope John Paul II seemed to be just what the doctor ordered to strengthen the Church's self-confidence both in her inner life and in her posture toward the world. There can be no doubt that something like that happened, although the long-term significance of the change must remain open to debate.

In retrospect, what stands out is how personality-driven that pontificate was and how little it accomplished institutionally. The much noted contemporary symbol for that was the Pope's enormous personal popularity, especially with the young, which did not, however, translate into a long-term institutional recovery of strength for the Church - either in its internal life or in its public position in the world. (Here again, the "Third World" was different.)

Attending World Youth Day in 2005, the first such extravaganza after John Paul's death, I was struck by how the new Pope Benedict XVI seemed to be trying to get away from a focus on the personalty of the Pope and focus more on the Church. This more institutionalist orientation obviously was more in keeping with Benedict's more reserved personality. If in retrospect Benedict's pontificate appears as a modest interlude between the two intensely personality-focused pontificates of John Paul II and Francis, that probably reflects the celebrity-orientation of  contemporary culture and the correspondingly diminished standing of all contemporary institutions, religious and secular.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Great Joy in the City

It’s really not too far from Jerusalem to the city of Samaria to which the Deacon Philip traveled in today’s 1st reading. The Samaritans were, so to speak, the Jews’ next-door neighbors. Neighbors, however, don’t always get along, as we all know. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but over the centuries, thanks to a complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity, worshiping the same God but in a different place and in a different way. The result was two groups, whose differences from one another came to matter more than what they had in common, causing them to regard each other with suspicion and hostility. (Being suspicious of and hostile to other people who are different in some way seems to be typically human behavior – now as then.)

Yet, surprisingly, none of that seems to have stopped Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to the Samaritans. Nor did it prevent the Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity (in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels fast. Good News travels far. Good news builds the Church and heals the world.)

Even so, what Philip was doing and had done inevitably raised some serious questions back in Jerusalem. So Peter and John went to Samaria to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it all meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, strangers whom they would until then have probably preferred to avoid, Peter and John recognized God’s grace at work in in this unexpected way in that unexpected place, and so they laid their hands on the newly believing Samaritans, and they, in turn, received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. So, if the Samaritans were going to become believers like them, then they had to be connected by that one Holy Spirit with the rest of the Church led by the apostles.

Luke’s point in telling this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world.

The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from experience, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.

Faith does not eradicate the many and various differences that exist among people, but it does create a completely new relationship for all of us with God and with one another - in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting, drawing different people and peoples together in a completely new kind of community that overcomes the ordinary divisions of our ordinary world.

Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience even in our new life together as Christ’s Church. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church, and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which can resolve those conflicts and so transcend our human divisions and limitations.

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 17, 2020.

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


As a seminarian in the 1980s, I suggested to my Religious Superior that people ought to be able to look into their priest's eyes and that therefore contact lenses were in order! He happily approved my request for contacts, whatever he may have thought of my concocted argument. I went on to wear contacts for another 20 years or so, until I finally tired of them and reverted to old-fashioned eyeglasses. I guess by then I realized that that particular barrier to looking into one's eyes probably didn't matter much after all. Now, all of a sudden, we have become a society in which we hide most of our faces from one another as well!

Of course, the precise purpose of the masks we all are now supposed to wear is not so much to hide our faces from one another as to hide our faces from the mysterious virus which others may have. Unlike those whose vanity makes them resist hiding their good looks or those whose right-wing ideology disposes them to oppose solidarity with others, I embraced the mask immediately as soon as we were told wearing one was good and the right thing to do. I do, however, find it physically uncomfortable, frequently causing my glasses to fog up and often falling off. Unfortunately, I have never been very good with technology, whether simple or complicated, from mask-wearing to live-streaming.

That said, however superficially uncomfortable my mask may be and however strange and awkward the sight of covered faces still seems, it is indeed the right thing to do; and, as with so much else, I do not doubt that we will largely learn to adapt. Other societies have been wearing masks much longer than we have. Obviously, we can learn a lot from others. (That, sadly, is something we Americans are notoriously bad at.)

Those other societies, of course, are characterized, more often than not, by more social cohesion than we have, certainly more than we have had these past 40 years or so. The lesson we really need to learn is less how to adjust our masks physically to fit better than how to adjust our emotions to wear the masks better. In other words, we too need to acquire greater community cohesion as a society. We need to relearn to value social solidarity above our over-celebrated individualism.

If and when we can relearn those older values of community and social solidarity, then it will in fact matter much less whether we can see each other's faces because we will see and feel so much more. We will, as John Winthrop exhorted some of our country's early settler in 1630: abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities ... delight in each other; make other's conditions our own rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

Whatever the infection-fighting benefits, wearing masks may prove to be a beneficial exercise in moral transformation for a society that has been taking the wrong path for far too long.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Meeting Jesus

On the night before he died, Jesus tried to console his disciples with the now familiar image of his Father’s house’s many dwelling places. Apparently, his disciples felt the need for even more reassurance “Master,” the Apostle Philip said to Jesus in the Gospel we just heard [John 14:1-12], “show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Now, most of us were brought up to be properly respectful to our teachers. So we instinctively peg Philip as a bit bold. Jesus’ response would seem to confirm our instinctive sense that what Philip was asking was really rather over-the-top. “Have I been with you for so long,” Jesus said to Philip, “and you still do not know me?”

On the other hand, if we’re really honest, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all want a direct line to God? Especially at a time like this, surrounded by so much sickness and death, don’t we all want at least some tangible sign from God – some tangible signs that God cares about us and acts in our best interest?

So how did Jesus answer? “Whoever has seen me,” he said to Philip, has seen the Father.” Jesus is saying the he himself is our direct line to God, and that we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives most fully and effectively in our experience of Jesus.

There is an added irony in this Gospel story. A few days earlier, some Greeks had asked to see Jesus, and Philip had served as their liaison, their conduit, to Jesus [John 12:21-22]. Already, without knowing it, Philip was evangelizing. Often, in fact, we may be bringing others closer to God without fully knowing that we’re doing it!

Now the normal way we meet Jesus – and also the normal way we share him with others – is in the Church, where we do so not as isolated individuals, but as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own,” as Saint Peter proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading [1 Peter 2:4-9], quoting God’s words at Mount Sinai to the people of Israel [Exodus 19:5-6]. What God told Israel and (according to Peter) applies now to the Church is to be the liaison, the conduit, between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in his Church.

What God told Israel and applies now to the Church is to be the link between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in our spiritual house, his Church.

As our unique and indispensable connection with Christ, the Church continues Christ’s mission in us and in our world, proclaiming the uniqueness and centrality of Christ for all the people of the world, thereby echoing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.”

It was precisely the apostles’ confidence in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence – as Lord – in his Church, that enabled them to take the bold step we just heard described in today’s 1st reading, from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 6:1-7]. – a forerunner of further and even bolder steps the Apostles would courageously take to put power into their words.

If nothing else, this episode and others like it remind us yet again of the perennial problem of factional conflict, of cultural and ethnic divisiveness, and of ideological division and polarization, that characterize our world and can so easily undermine the unity and universality even of the Church and thus get in the way of its mission – not just in 1st-century Jerusalem but in every time and place. Then as now, aspects of life within the Church community can sometimes seem simply to replicate the conflicts and divisions that themselves seem to define our secular society – so much so that it is said that Americans increasingly choose their church affiliation or their local parish on the basis of their politics! 

But there was more to the story of the apostolic Church than out-of-control factional conflict. After all, the Jerusalem Church didn’t split into separate sects. Instead of a threat to their unity, this episode shows us how - trusting in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence as Lord in his Church - the apostles responded to the challenge they faced with creative confidence. They saw how the challenge they were faced with could become an opportunity instead of a threat.

In 1851, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, wrote to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Today, faced with a terrifying global pandemic and divisive conflicts, even within the Church itself, about how to respond to this challenge, we are being called upon to show once more that “true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds,” which is what it will take for us to continue to be that powerful link that Christ intended his Church to be to all types of people – a Church as alert as were the apostles to the challenges and equally as ready to respond to the opportunities.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 10, 2020.

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

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Perennial Third-Party Problem

I don't think I had ever even heard of Michigan Congressman Justin Amash (photo) until a year or so ago, when the first Palestinian-American Congressman (and one of just five Eastern Orthodox members of Congress) emerged as that rare Republican who publicly opposed President Trump - to the point that he left the Republican party and even voted for Trump's impeachment. Now he is threatening to run for President as the candidate of a third-party (the Libertarian party). 

This possible misadventure has suddenly been attracting attention. It was the topic for this week's NY Times podcast The Argument, and Richard Ostling wrote about Amash on Get Religion at

Now I regard Libertarianism as one of the more morally repulsive of political ideologies. So I wouldn't be tempted to vote for him or his party in any conceivable case. Nor do I fear too many others will.. (In 2016 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received a record 3.29% of the popular vote.) On the other hand, third-party fetishism is found on both extremes of the political spectrum. And, in our electoral college system, it can clearly make a disastrous difference in some pivotal swing states - as Ralph Nader is alleged to have done in 2000 helping to make George W. Bush president, and Jill Stein and the Green party are alleged to have done in 2016 helping to make Donald Trump president.

The only instance in American history when a third-party actually won the presidency was the unusual four-way race in 1860, from which the Republicans emerged as one of the two major parties. Other than that, the only time a third-party amassed more electoral votes than a major party (but still not enough to win) was ex-President Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" Party in 1912. That was obviously a consequence of TR's personal popularity; and, when he returned to the Republican fold in 1916, his third-party returned to the more typical, marginalized status of most third-parties.

As an academic political scientist actually teaching the subject in 1980, I knew perfectly well the absurdity of voting for a third-party or "Independent" candidate. Yet even I did so that year, when - out of anger at the Democrats for renominating Jimmy Carter instead of nominating Ted Kennedy - I voted for John Anderson. So I can clearly appreciate the appeal of such politically harmful behavior. But it remains harmful - a narcissistic self-indulgence in feeling too morally superior to make the binary choice our political process requires serious citizens to make. One can, of course, quarrel with that system and suggest better alternatives, but it remains the system we now have and within which we must live and operate as citizens.

It is true, of course, that in that same system most of our votes for president don't matter. In Tennessee where I vote now and in New York where I used to vote, there is no real doubt which party will win the state's electoral votes. So a symbolic third-party vote in such states makes no practical difference and so does no immediate damage. Only in the relatively few closely contested states can a third-party candidate's votes determine the result - as Nader's and Stein's supporters are alleged to have done in certain states in 2000 and 2016.

Fair enough! But what makes those dangerous situations so much more possible is the greater legitimacy third-party voting, when actually and widely practiced, acquires nationwide, which is why such votes even in totally safe states do moral damage to the process, regardless of their lack of practical political electoral effect.

At this point, no one can predict what impact an Amash candidacy may have or not have in distorting this year's outcome. All one can say is that our society as a whole and our fragile political culture would be better off without that distortion.