Sunday, November 29, 2020

God Is Faithful

Even without a pandemic, autumn – late autumn, autumn turning into winter –always gives this year-end holiday season a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, a mood that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which begins today

Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continues the end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!”  Like the servants in today’s Gospel [Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with a mission, each with his or her own work, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.

Meanwhile, of course, there are many distractions that get in the way of our being attentive. As Pope Francis has warned: “Whenever our interior life gets caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” [EG 2]

So, Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be on guard against whatever distractions dull our senses and lull us into sleeping!

In the darkness of the winter night, when sleeping seems so natural, Advent yanks us out of our ordinary, secular time into what we might call liturgical time, which teaches us to wait for Christ’s coming in the future by looking back, by our annual remembrance of Christ’s 1st coming in the past, so as to recognize Christ’s continuing presence in the present. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.

In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, the pandemic has already slowed us down, interrupting all our customary activities, disrupting our long-term life plans as surely as it has disrupted our short-term holiday plans. It has, as I said on Thanksgiving, brought our world to the abyss of the abyss of an apocalyptic-like crisis, in which almost everything we used to take for granted seems to have evaporated all at once, separating and isolating us, dividing and diminishing us, and shattering all our empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and self-sufficiency. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves.

And those fears are real. We fear many things, which we rightly ought to fear – from climate change to economic recession. Above all, we fear the coronavirus and covid-19. Religious faith is not delusional thinking and denialism. Religion recognizes reality and the legitimacy of our human fears.

Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope –the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, the enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The older I get, the more aware I become that time is running out, and the more I appreciate the importance of the present, the limited time I actually have.  Time – this time, our time – is precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future.

Advent annually expresses in ritual form for us what we actually presently experience, where we actually find ourselves right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting, as we say at every Mass, in joyful hope.

The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways in this difficult and challenging year. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be brightened and transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past.

That means re-imagining Christmas as more than just shopping and presents and parties (those wonderful things that we will especially miss this year) - to recognize in the reality of the Christmas story something even more wonderful, something really new.

In his 2008 book, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, the former Master General of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, recalled how one of the first things immigrants did when they settled in cities like Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution was to build big churches. Radcliffe writes: “it was a sign that they were not as they might seem, mere members of the urban proletariat, but citizens of the kingdom. They were fellow citizens of the saints whose statues filled their churches, God’s own children. Their houses might be slums, but their home was heaven.” Similar sentiments undoubtedly characterized the immigrant Catholic community that founded Immaculate Conception parish and built our parish church – a visible sign not just for them but for the whole world of the Kingdom of God present and active here in East Tennessee.

Advent is a wake-up call to all of us here and now to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters – matters enough to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

And so we say with Saint Paul: God is faithful, and by him we have been called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN November 29, 2020. 

The entire Mass can be watched at:

Thursday, November 26, 2020

"To Deliver Us in Our Days"

This will be my 11th Thanksgiving as your pastor, but only the second one I have celebrated here in Knoxville. Usually, I used to fly to California to spend this most familial of holidays with my mother and my sister and her family. This year, however, is very different - not just for me but for most of us.  My mother died in March, but the pandemic precludes any long-distance travel or large family gathering for almost everyone. So this holiday, so associated more than any other with travelling and gathering around the table, must be celebrated very differently this year.

And, anyway, some may wonder, what is there really to be thankful for?

Some of you who watched the HBO series Succession  may recall an episode from the first season, set on Thanksgiving Day, when the much too rich and much too dysfunctional Roy family and their guests go around the table and say what each one is thankful for. As you’d expect, most of the thanks are perfunctory – for the food, for family, for having been made to feel welcome in the family, etc. The obvious awkwardness of the scene may be one of the few occasions when the overly rich and overly dysfunctional Roy clan come across as almost normal in their awkwardness.

And maybe there is something awkward about Thanksgiving itself. Thanksgiving is – or at least it used to be – the ultimate American holiday. In recent years, however, it has more and more become just a prelude to Black Friday, which itself in recent years increasingly seemed to begin sometime on Thanksgiving Day itself. Of course, if we think of America as the world capital of out-of-control, predatory capitalism, then perhaps Black Friday should be thought of as the ultimate American holiday. But some of us certainly are old enough to remember when holidays were really holidays, when most people didn’t have to work; and we can remember Thanksgiving as it was then, when it really was the ultimate American holiday, and its story was one with the story we tell about our national origins.

At least since the Civil War, the New England narrative of the pilgrims, has served as the symbolic centerpiece of our national imagination. The PBS series The American Experience ran a 2-hour show on the Pilgrims some years ago. An excellent program, worth the effort to watch whenever it is repeated, it highlights the Pilgrims' relationship with the world around them before they came to America and with the indigenous peoples they encountered after they arrived, some of whom made a mutually beneficial alliance with the Pilgrims against other Indian tribes. This was possible in part because they already spoke some English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans, and because of the extensive devastation recently brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out the tribes that had previously lived in the area where the Pilgrims would settle. When the Pilgrims' arrived exactly 400 years ago this month, they found not some pristine wilderness, some re-imagined Garden of Eden, but a place of death and desolation. What we now look back on as the first "Thanksgiving," was a celebration of sheer survival and relief from the shared, mutual losses experienced by both the natives and the English settlers.

The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe for America early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618, - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse here in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be (and that the Puritan settlers some 10 years later would explicitly challenge it to be), the Pilgrims at least aspired. And they attempted the next best thing with a social contract (the famous “Mayflower Compact" we all learned about in school) creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.

Historians and others can argue about the precise significance of that "social contract." Symbolically, however, it expressed something of our American self-understanding of what it means to be a people, whose freedom is protected by a system of law. Having just come through a period of notorious lawlessness at the highest levels, we as a society would do well to relearn the lessons our Pilgrim predecessors understood so well about the "guardrails," as they are commonly now called, that are so essential to who we are and who we hope to be.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis thanks to this terrible pandemic, when almost everything we used to take for granted seems to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all our empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and self-sufficiency. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there are lessons for us in the present - from the faith, which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and in a place of devastation, and from the hope, that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.

The Pilgrims probably would never have read the Book of Sirach at their Thanksgiving feast, but I think the reading [Sirach 50:22-24] we heard earlier would have spoken to their experience, as I hope it still speaks to ours:

And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth;

Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb

and fashions them according to his will!

May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you;

May his goodness toward us endure in Israel to deliver us in our days.

Homily for Thanksgiving Eve, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 25, 2020. 

The entire Mass may be watched at:

(Photo: Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899) 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Turkey Day

Ancient religious holidays like Christmas have an abundance of popular customs, which typically include an amazing variety of national and ethnic foods popularly associated with the holiday. Thanksgiving, being a uniquely American holiday, has, for all intents and purposes, only one such tradition - the Turkey Dinner, immortalized in Norman Rockwell's famous Freedom From Want illustration (photo), part of his Four Freedoms series, based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous Four Freedoms Address to Congress in 1941. 

Some years ago, I was shocked to hear form an acquaintance how he had eaten not turkey but  prime rib on Thanksgiving in the company of some very wealthy hosts. At the time, I dismissed it as an oddity, a wealthy host's eccentricity.  I had 9and still have) no idea how widespread such a practice might be among our plutocratic elite. Perhaps it is more widespread than I then imagined. If so, it might be just one further example of how our globalized elite has become more and more alienated from the country they live in and the fellow citizens they ostensibly share it with.

It is, I suppose, one more sign of the social catastrophe covid-19 has visited upon us that this most American holiday has been impoverished at its core, thanks to our inability to gather together at family tables this year. I suspect fewer turkeys than usual will be cooked this year. I have heard from others how they are just buying turkey breasts and cooking them (or even buying them already cooked) in lieu of the traditional large bird. In this time of pandemic when so many are sick and so many have died, that seems at most a modest loss. But, as a symbol of all the many other losses so many of us have endured this terrible year, it somehow speaks volumes.

Besides taking all the necessary and proper precautions that reflect our legitimate fears, the next thing to do this Thanksgiving Day is to recommit ourselves as individuals, as families of all sorts, and as a nation to the values our annual turkey feast is supposed to signify - values articulated so well by one of our country's greatest presidents in that famous Four Freedoms speech almost 80 years ago.

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.                                                                                     

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King

This past week, along with lots of other fans, I watched, one after another, all the episodes of Season 4 of The Crown, the Netflix series that dramatizes the life and reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. That has become a kind of November ritual for me. (In the past, I would do it twice – once by myself, and then, visiting my family in California for Thanksgiving, with my mother.)

Season 4, which is getting rave reviews as the best season so far, highlights (among other things) the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman Prime Minister. Like all relationships, it was a complicated one; but at its core was a conflict between competing concepts of what a country is and what different elements in society owe to one another. Thatcher, you may remember, was once famously quoted as saying there is no such thing as society. 

Here in the United States we too have just finished presidential election campaign which has likewise pitted two competing concepts of what a country is, what a society is, and what we owe to one another as members of society.

In our Church too we have witnessed deep divisions between competing factions favoring competing conceptions of Catholic life in this world.

Of course, there is nothing new or surprising about people having differences of opinion and the conflicts they cause. But, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, Christ the King himself has already revealed his priorities. In the gospel account we just heard, Christ the King has already revealed what the Kingdom of God’s priorities about our life in the world are, and what we are supposed to care most about in this world. And they may come as something of a surprise for religious people whose idea of religion reflects very different priorities.

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time.

Yet, that final, general judgment will really ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

The Gospel’s judgment story illustrates the connection between what we profess to believe and how we live, who we really are, who we have become by how we have chosen to live and what we have cared about. It dramatically demonstrates how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. It illustrates how the person that I am going to be forever is the person that I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now.

What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities.

And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 22, 2020. 

The entire Mass may be watched at:

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Crown (continued): Family and its Discontents

"Every unhappy family," according to Leo Tolstoy "is unhappy in its own way." If so, then royal families are unhappy in particularly royal ways. From season 1, The Crown has had to wrestle with a uniquely familial dynamic. Constitutionally, of course, the "Crown" is an institution at the center of which is one person, around whom everything else theoretically revolves. But inevitably in a hereditary institution, it is in fact a family through which everything is filtered. Earlier seasons have highlighted familial stresses and tensions - between the Queen and her husband, between the Queen and her sister, between the Queen and her children - all somewhere within the range of normal stresses but magnified by being royal, that is, by their wider implications and social significance, but all seemingly somewhat satisfactorily resolved in relation to royal duty. In Season 4, the tragic marriage of Charles and Diana moves to center stage, and with it the royal family's royal way of being unhappy, as royal duty seems more and more to fall by the wayside.

Modern family life is lived against the background of cataclysmic cultural and social change - changes which have prioritized the individual self over the social group and have inevitably re-sorted family relationships - royal family relationships no less than others. In The Crown's telling, this conflict goes back, like so much else, at least to the 1936 abdication crisis - a calamity that has ever since hung over Elizabeth and her family and still very much does in season 4. The ambiguous way the infamous Duke of Windsor was treated in the earlier seasons - alternately seen as a terrible culprit, disloyal to both family and country, alternately seen as a sympathetic figure, drastically penalized for daring to prioritize his personal happiness - highlights this tension. Repeated in part in the story of Princess Margaret, this tension now comes to a head in the Diana drama.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of an earl, country-bred, neighbor of one  of the royal family's homes, easily passed the Balmoral "Test." On the one hand, there was Charles, under extreme pressure to settle down at last and to do his royal duty,. On the other, there was Diana, probably too young for the role and certainly too young for Charles (whom Anne infelicitously characterizes as older than his age). Obviously entranced by the romance of the fairly tale Prince Charming. Diana was on paper a perfect choice for the role of Princess of Wales and future Queen. In fact however she was at best unprepared and at worst temperamentally unsuited for the role she was about to assume. In The Crown, it is Margaret and later Anne (two survivors of failed marriages) who are willing to speak the truth that the great 20th-century fairytale was a catastrophic mismatch.

It is also Margaret who uncovers another scandal lurking in the shadows of the family (in this case her mother's family, not the Windsors). This terrible and unnecessary instance of familial cruelty helps tip the scale in souring the audience on how family makes impositions upon people's lives. On the other hand, as the Queen reminds her children - and especially Charles - they are actually far too privileged to complain so much about the expectations imposed on them. Ultimately it all comes down to whether or not seeking to have a happy marriage is to be thought of as some sort of universal right (as Edward VIII had implied in 1936).

Temperamentally unsuited to her role (too young for her age as Anne suggests), Diana also epitomizes the contemporary mistake of equating celebrity with significance. Charles, in the other hand, in addition to his primary fault in never having given up Camilla, seems completely incapable of appreciating what Diana does contribute. Whether Diana deserves primary credit, for example, for keeping Australia a monarchy, as the show suggests, may be debatable; but there can be no question that her celebrity and star power did enhance the institution and might, if better appreciated, have been an asset rather than the liability they became.

Of course, the audience cannot be unaware of the rest of the story. The historical fact is that the Prince of Wales is now at last happily married to Camilla. What once seemed unsuitable has proved very suitable indeed, whereas what once seemed the ideal solution proved to be a nightmare for all involved. So what does that say about duty and about the renunciations imposed on individuals for the sake of the family? That primordial question, so starkly raised by the abdication crisis, continues to haunt, with no prospect of resolution.

One is reminded of Harold Wilson in season 3 telling the Queen that people don't really know what they want the Queen and her family to be, because they want multiple contradictory things simultaneously. The series dramatizes the universal fact that the same may be true of contemporary family, that the benefits of adhering to traditional family expectations are still very much desired, but so are the comparably attractive benefits of leaving those expectations behind.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Crown (Season 4)

It's November - time for another much anticipated season of The Crown, the glorious Netflix series that chronicles the life and times of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. The first three seasons took us from Princess Elizabeth's 1947 wedding (with occasional flashbacks to scenes from her earlier childhood) to the 1977 Silver Jubilee. Despite the "jolly" that was the Jubilee, for Britain that was a problematic period of political and social decline, a motif that permeates the series through its focus on the singular institution that theoretically is best placed to transcend the transitory character of politics; but which cannot escape the difficulties and distress of being a family. 

Season 4 fortunately finished production just prior to the pandemic. Hence its release has not ben delayed - one small mercy amidst the misery covid has inflicted on our world.

As was historically inevitable, Season 4, which picks up after the Jubilee and takes Queen and country through the tumults of the 1980s, features the Queen's complicated relationships with the two most powerful and threatening women of that period - Margaret Thatcher and Diana Spencer.  The memory of those two figures still really resonates. While most of the series has reflected the living memory of my aging Baby Boomer generation, now we are on the cusp of our contemporary world - and the forces that have fed this long winter of our discontents.

Ably played in The Crown by Gillian Anderson, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). was born just six months before the Queen herself, and became head of the Conservative Party in 1975 and the UK's first female Prime Minister in 1979, remaining in office until 1990. Her rise roughly corresponds chronologically to the rise of Ronald Reagan and his malignant ideology in the United States. However rocky her relationship with her sovereign may or may not have been, Thatcher's relationship with Reagan may have mattered much more historically.

Like all relationships, that between Queen and Prime Minister - two women of the same generation in what was largely a male world, one of whom personified ascribed status and inherited privilege, while the other exemplified bourgeois individualism and privilege-undermining mobility and personal achievement - was a complicated one. It is generally believed, as the series suggests, that  between them there was a conflict between competing concepts of what a country is and what different elements in society owe to one another. (Thatcher, as we all remember, was once famously quoted as saying there is no such thing as society.)  
The Crown, season 4, begins with two perennial problems that seemed intractable in the late 1970s - Ireland, which famously led to Lord Mountbatten's murder and the apparent inability or unwillingness to Mountbatten's protégé, the Prince of Wales, to find a proper wife. It is against this double background of political and familial dysfunction that we and the Queen first meet Margaret Thatcher.

The two get off to a seemingly good start.  But then the infamous "test" at Balmoral (what Dennis Thatcher calls "half Scottish half Germanic cuckooland"). Nothing could symbolize the radical difference between the Royal Family, with their love for aristocratic country life and outdoor country sports, and the urban, incorrigibly middle-class, work-obsessed Thatcher, who disdains "upper-class habits" (like husband and wife sleeping in separate rooms) and who is already at war with the traditional, aristocratic values and ways of her own conservative party.

Thatcher did, however, have one great moment of genuine glory, the Falklands War. Against the background of that impending conflict, the series successfully seeks to humanize both women in a surprising way by paralleling - in the same episode - each one's complicated emotional struggles with her children. Those private dramas inevitably get overshadowed by the deeper difficulty posed by a Prime Minister determined to transform Britain into a different kind of country - a transformation the Queen was clearly quite uncomfortable with. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the social pyramid, that transformation was proving disastrous - for people like the famous palace intruder Michale Fagan. I have no idea what the real Michael Fagin said to the Queen on that occasion, but in this dramatized depiction he proves quite eloquent - as well as quite prescient about the long-term social harm Thatcherism initiated.

Their ultimate quarrel, of course, came over the Commonwealth, especially dear to the Queen and not at all to Thatcher. While we may applaud the Queen's commitment to the Commonwealth and the relationships she cultivated with Commonwealth leaders, we wonder whether in the long run the Commonwealth will matter less and less, leaving Thatcher the long-term winner in that struggle over British identity.

In the end, Thatcher is overthrown by her own party colleagues. And, when that happens, the Queen shows her unexpected understanding and appreciation of Thatcher's own struggle.

Next Time: The Diana Drama and the Perennial Problem of Family

(Photo: Netflix promotional poster for The Crown, season 4)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Mother and Patron of Immigrants

Today the Church commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). Born in Italy, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880, of which she remained Superior General until her death. When she asked Pope Leo XIII's approval to establish a mission in China, he advised her to go "not to the east, but to the west" - to the United States to serve the immense needs of the hordes of poor Italian immigrants who were then flooding the cities of the United States. So she and six other sisters came to New York. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities. She died in Chicago in 1917. Having become a naturalized American citizen in 1909, she became the first American citizen to be canonized in 1946. 

In 2018, a She Built NYC commission conducted a survey to identify female figures to honor with statues for their contributions to New York City’s history. Of the 320 women who were nominated in the 2018 survey, Mother Cabrini received the most support of all. Last year, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo announced "we are going to build a statue to Mother Cabrini,” whom he called "a great New Yorker, a great Italian-American immigrant,” who “came to this city and she helped scores of immigrants who came to New York.” 

So last month, on Columbus Day, Governor Cuomo unveiled a new Mother Cabrini Memorial located in lower Manhattan with a direct view of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a fitting location to pay tribute to the patroness of immigrants. The Memorial includes interpretive panels highlighting Mother Cabrini's service to Italian-American immigrants and the poor in New York. The plaza is surrounded by seating and a mosaic created from stones from Mother Cabrini's birthplace of Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, Italy. 

"This Columbus Day, the celebration of Mother Cabrini is even more appropriate than when we announced it last year because of the difficulties that we are facing. We all know that these are challenging times, but we also know that in the book of life, it is not what one does when the sun is shining that tests our metal - it's what one does in the fury of the storm, and that's where we are today," Governor Cuomo said of the new memorial. "In this complex world, may this statue serve to remind us of the principles that made us great as a country and as a people and the principles that keep us special on this globe - the values of Mother Cabrini: compassion, acceptance, community, freedom, faith, hope and love."

Mother Cabrini's statue is a fitting civic honor to a great immigrant to this country and a reminder to the rest of us - immigrants and descendants of immigrants - of what that must mean for a nation seeing to rediscover and revive whatever is left of its heart and its soul.

 (Photo:©Kevin P. Coughlin/State of New York)t York

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

On the Mayflower

400 years ago today, 41 adult male passengers on the sailing ship Mayflower, anchored off Cape Cod, signed what history has since named the Mayflower Compact, a formal legal agreement binding its signers to maintain order and establish a civil society in the territory where they were about to settle. In my day, this was sometimes presented as a rare empirical example of a Lockean, second stage "social contract," in which already socialized individuals freely form themselves into a political society. Indeed, in 1802 John Quincy Adams (son of the 2nd President and himself later the 6th President of the United States)  called it "the only instance in human history of that positive, original, social compact." Insofar as our country can claim multiple "founding" moments, Cape Cod 1620 was another one of them.

Of course, the Pilgrims were not leaving a "state of nature." They already lived in society and, in fact, thought of themselves as already citizens of an existing political community, as subjects of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. They were, however, outside the physical boundaries of those kingdoms, outside the physical territory they had been authorized to settle; and so, pending a new royal "patent" to settle there, they believed they needed to establish an agreement among themselves to organize their common life as a settler community - to "Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a civil body Politic." 

This is what they actually covenanted and combined themselves together to do:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

Historians and others can argue about the precise significance of this "social contract." Symbolically, however, it does express something of the American self-understanding of what it means to be a free people, whose freedom is made possible and protected precisely by a system of law. As we Americans approach the end of a period of notorious lawlessness at the highest levels, we as a society would do well to relearn the lessons our predecessors knew so well about the "guardrails," as they are commonly now called, that are so essential to who we are and who we hope to be.

(Photo: Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899) 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Our Incongruous Electoral College

In a few weeks, 538 "electors," most them largely unknown to us, will assemble - not together, but in their respective state capitals - to cast their votes for the 46th President of the United States. On January 6, their votes will be tallied and certified by Congress. And, if all goes as expected, everything will indeed be exactly as expected. 

The electoral college is by custom quite predictable but remains potentially unpredictable. It usually exactly reflects not the judgments of the individual electors but the popular vote of the constituency that elected them, while simultaneously extremely distorting the effect of the total popular vote of the nation. We rightly recognize the President as uniquely representing the nation as a whole, but choose him or her in a way which at best distorts and at worst (as in 2000 and 2016) negates the actual vote of the actual nation. 

To be fair, this was not how it was originally intended to work. In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton could barely contain his satisfaction with the system the constitution had created: "If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages; the union of which was to be desired." 

However one judges Hamilton's assessment, it was a clever solution to the conundrum of how to elect a president in the late 18th century - in a geographically spread-out union of semi-sovereign states with no political parties to organize campaigns and nominate candidates. It was, of course, the development of political parties which fatally undermined the original system. The founders' ideological blinders on this subject, their obsessive fear of factional politics upending the public interest, which the tragic history of pervious republics seemed to warn about, prevented them from recognizing the necessity of political parties in a large representative republic. Hence Hamilton's (historically unwarranted) pride in what the electoral college could guarantee: "The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."

If nothing else, the past four years have proven the utter falsehood of that expectation!

In the absence of political parties, perhaps the electoral college might have worked out as planned. Electors would function, in effect, more like nominating conventions, surfacing several distinguished figures from the different sections of the country, from the top five of whom the House of Representatives would finally choose a president. That system collapsed, of course, almost immediately, once electors became creatures of national political parties, which organized the election and provided candidates for a genuinely national contest.

This almost immediately required the 12th Amendment to remedy the most dramatic flaw in the original arrangement by providing separate ballots for president and vice president and reducing the number of candidates the House of Representatives might occasionally have to choose from. Other than that, however, the electoral college itself has not been subsequently altered.

My first awareness of the electoral college came on Election Night in 1956 when, as a mere eight-year old, I sat in the living room with my parents as they watched the election returns. Every time results were announced, the  latest popular vote total was accompanied by an electoral vote count. Confused, I asked my father what an electoral vote was. I don't remember exactly how he answered, but I remember that I was still confused. After the next election, Theodore White (The Making of the President 1960) praised the foresight of the Founders, who "invented the device of the Electoral College, which, while preserving free citizen choice, prevents it from degenerating into the violence that can accompany the narrow act of head-counting." In addition to providing such a definitive outcome, the Electoral College was widely lauded when I was studying political science for its stabilizing effect by reinforcing the two-party system. Obviously, none of this was part of the original plan. These unintended consequences of the system should serve to remind us that any changes will also have unintended consequences, which may or may not be beneficial.

But as long as the electoral college just distorted the vote but still awarded the presidency to the winner of the popular vote, such academic considerations remained academic. The 1968 election posed the possibility of it ending up in the House, but that did not happen, and we continued sailing along until the disastrous election of 2000 - the first time the popular vote winner lost the election since 1888. Then it happened again in 2016. And it became clear that it could possibly become a regular feature, that contemporary party realignments and political polarization had produced a bizarre geographic division which was unjustly weighting the electoral college in favor of the Republican party at the very time when that party was becoming increasingly incapable of attracting the votes of a majority of Americans.

The only foolproof way to solve the problem of the popular vote winner losing in the electoral college would be to amend the constitution to abolish the electoral college and establish a single  national popular election for president (with all the attendant practical problems and unforeseen consequences that would entail). Obviously, the likelihood of that happening any time soon is minimal. 

On the other hand, one could radically reduce the likelihood of such outcomes by reducing the electoral college's distorting effects simply by changing the way the states choose electors. At present, in 48 states electors run "at-large" as a single "winner take all" slate. Maine and Nebraska, in contrast, choose electors by congressional districts, with only the two extra electors being chosen statewide. This still distorts the vote, but much less so. In a winner- take-all system, it would make no sense for a Democrat to waste time and resources campaigning in Nebraska. But this year the Democrat carried the Omaha congressional district, winning one Nebraska electoral vote. Unlike the more typical experience of, say, a Democrat in Tennessee or a Republican in California, a Democrat's vote in Omaha actually mattered. Of course, it diminishes any single state' electoral influence if it adopts this system. In any case, it is unlikely to be adopted by states where the party that usually carries the state also party has effective control of the state legislature.

That leaves a third way to overcome the distorting effect of the electoral college, which in some ways would be the best way for all concerned. That would be for the parties to learn (or, rather, relearn) to broaden their appeal to people in different parts of the country. As long as we continue with the present system, if Democrats want to win 270 votes they will increasingly need to learn how to talk to people outside the more densely populated cities and suburbs. If they can start talking again to people in the more "rural" regions, any number of states might be put in play. And, of course, if the Democrats start broadening their appeal enough to diminish the Republicans' advantage in the electoral college, then the Republicans would also start having to broaden their appeal, which intriguingly this election suggests they may actually have been doing as is evident in their increased shares of the Latino vote and the African-American vote.

For the present, constitutional tinkering with the electoral college remains very unlikely. Political realignment, on the other hand, is always possible when political parties broaden their appeal and start having something to offer to new constituencies.

If there is any 21st-century merit in the electoral college, it is precisely in how it may make our increasingly narrowly based political parties start getting out of their respective cultural bubbles.

Monday, November 9, 2020

On Eagles' Wings

What a difference four years make! Exactly four years ago today, America awoke to discover that we had somehow elected as our president a notorious, outer-borough businessman noted for his bankruptcies and divorces. He did, however, have a very good sense of the national mood and had successfully engaged and played upon the alienation and resentment so many Americans were feeling, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. That calamity, as Pope Francis recently recalled in his encyclical Fratelli Tuttiwas a tragically missed opportunity for fundamental change. Instead it “increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed.” Donald Trump saw that alienation and anger in so much of America (admittedly all hiding in plain sight) and exploited it to win the presidency, throwing out the Republican "conservative" agenda, which was all about making the rich richer at everyone else's expense, and instead embraced a vague but powerful "populist" position.

It is plausible that, had he actually governed as a "populist," he might be heading into a second term today. Instead uninterested in actually governing, he outsourced his policy agenda to the Republican party elite, people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and their colleagues, who cared mainly about tax cuts for the already overly rich, taking away people's access to health care coverage, shredding what is left of the social safety net, and appointing Republican business-friendly judges. This was the same unpopular Republican establishment that had been rejected in the Republican primaries that led to Trump's nomination! Trump meanwhile focused more and more on racial, religious, and cultural grievance politics - to the delight of his populist "base," which reveled in his performative authoritarianism, cruelty, and contempt for constitutional norms, but which got no tangible benefits in return. With the passage of time, Trump, reverting ever more to type, focused more and more on his own personal grievances to the exclusion of almost anything else. Add to that the pandemic, which he refused to address seriously and which he politicized appallingly, resulting in the world's worst casualty rate.

One of the traditional tropes of classical political theory has been the decline of constitutional government into rule by a demagogue tyrant. For four years, President Trump and his Republican party enablers pushed the country closer and closer to the brink. From that brink the American people themselves, roused to vote in unprecedented numbers, have suddenly pulled us back. Saving constitutional government from its deliberate destruction is no minor accomplishment, and it is also a prerequisite for any further political accomplishments.

It also didn't hurt - and almost certainly helped - that Biden basically ignored the so-called "culture war" in his campaign and completely ignored it in his post-election victory speech. There is a moral in that too, likewise hiding in plain sight, if only the culture warriors on both sides would notice!

It is widely assumed that Joe Biden will not seek re-election in 2024. Rather than thinking of himself as a helpless lame-duck, however, he may feel liberated by this and focus his energies on actual accomplishments. Our political culture considers re-election a president's primary accomplishment, but his party will have a better chance in 2022 and 2024 if he has more concrete accomplishments to point to. What the Democratic party needs to be doing in the meantime is aggressive and intense party-building at the local level, something it seemed to have ignored during the previous Democratic presidency..

Of course, the impediments to accomplishment remain many, mostly coming from the opposition party's hold on power.

One way of looking at the election results would be to see the prospect of a renewed Republican party gradually self-transforming into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working-class party. There is indeed that possibility. But there remain two obvious obstacles. The first, of course, is the continued persistence and probably prevalence of racist and nativist white grievance politics as the symbolic face of the party for the foreseeable future - at least as long as those who have profited from fostering it remain on the scene.

The second is the continued presence and power of the Republican party establishment in Congress and the judiciary. Their reverse Robin Hood ideology of taking from the poor and giving to the rich will likely reassert itself in a rediscovered commitment to fiscal austerity, which will hobble the Biden Administration's attempts to enact most useful legislation.

For all its awesome majesty and despite the new president's popular mandate, the American presidency can be an amazingly weak office. In his 1960 classic, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt famously said "Presidential power is the power to persuade." If that was true then, at the zenith of 20th-century bi-partisan comity, then persuasion and bargaining are, if anything, more of a challenge today, when so few people are persuadable. 

Our antiquated and overly admired arrangement of checks and balances biases the system toward inaction. In today's hyper-polarized politics, an opposition party in control of Congress has few incentives to cooperate and compromise. If anyone can bridge this gap, Joe Biden, a traditional man of the Senate, is that one. His task, for which he is temperamentally and experientially well suited, will be to craft policy proposals and argue for them in a way which ordinary people can hear and comprehend. The challenge will be to find enough people who are actually willing to hear anything he says.

Fittingly, in this time which has seen so much unnecessary suffering, President-Elect Biden ended his post-election victory speech by inviting us to let ourselves be lifted beyond ourselves and our precarious present, meditating on the familiar words of the contemporary Catholic hymn, which so many Evangelicals also sing: And he will raise you up on eagles' wings, Bear you on the breath of dawn, Make you to shine just like the sun, And hold you in the palm of his hand.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

No One Else to Blame

Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say Thy kingdom come; and at Mass we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the words as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ).

Yet I think it is safe to suggest that, despite what we say in our prayers and despite the obvious importance of the topic, most of us, most of the time, don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about Christ’s coming again. The exception, of course, is those who do think about it, and maybe think much too much about it, as happens with those who think that the Lord’s coming can be predicted precisely, especially in relation to events occurring in the world American religious history has been full of such expectations and the movements they gave rise to, a chronic misuse of scripture to fit what happens in the world - both natural and humanly caused catastrophes and both welcome and unwelcome political events - into convenient categories that serve our immediate interests.

Now, of course, there is really not a lot that is new about all this. It is obvious from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard [4:13-18], that Paul’s 1st-century audience also apparently expected Christ’s coming to occur soon – and so were worried whether those who died in the interim would miss out on something. And Paul himself, while telling the Thessalonians not to worry about that, sounded as if he also probably expected it to happen soon - and may even have expected to be there himself, as he says, to meet the Lord in the air.

Meanwhile in today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:1-13], Jesus seems to be addressing this subject simultaneously to two different groups, covering all the bases, so to speak. To those who think that the Lord’s coming can be predicted, he says you know neither the day nor the hour. Jesus says this at the end of a parable about a wedding feast – a standard symbol in both the Old and the New Testaments for the coming of God’s kingdom – but a wedding for which the bridegroom was long delayed.

On the other hand, to those among us who might not be sufficiently concerned about the Lord’s coming, perhaps precisely because his coming has been so long delayed, Jesus cites the case of the five foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, when taking their lamps; and so, when the bridegroom finally did arrive, they found the door to the wedding feast locked shut, leaving them outside.

At an ordinary wedding in Jesus’ time, the bridesmaids would have waited with the bride at her house for the bridegroom to come and lead her to his home. But the coming of the kingdom doesn’t follow the ready-made script of an ordinary wedding. Hence, the delay.

As Christians over the centuries have eventually come to understand, the delay has turned out to be a lot longer than was originally expected. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, it is only natural for us to settle down for the long haul, to make ourselves comfortable in the here and now. And the here and now has become very comfortable indeed for far too many of us, dangerously comfortable for far too many of us, especially in this country. But sooner or later the call will come: “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” And when the call comes, then, like the five wise virgins, we must be ready. Each one of us individually must be ready.

In an age when taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions seems increasingly out of fashion and blaming others is the order of the day, the obvious question comes up: why not get some oil from the wise virgins? Why couldn’t the wise virgins share some of their oil? The most jarring thing about this parable may be the fact that, when the kingdom comes, there will be no one else to pin the blame on, if my own inattention and irresponsibly have let the lamp of goodness go out. When the time comes, each one of us must be ready to meet the Lord, my way lit with the lamp of what good I have made of my life.

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 8, 2020. The entire Mas may be watched at:

Saturday, November 7, 2020

"Put Not Your Trust in Princes"

Given the polls and predictions prior to the election, millions of jubilant Democrats might well have expected to channel the Duke of Gloucester (through the imagination and pen of Shakespeare) at the accession of his brother England's King Edward IV: Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of Scranton.  Shakespeare's famous metaphor about a sun of York might still be so adapted today in the imagination of many millions of relieved Democrats. But relieved rather than jubilant may be now the right word. Had Joe Biden's election been clear on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and had it conformed more to the pre-election polls and predictions, and (much more important) carried with it a Democratic Senate, certainly there would have been jubilation for many, who now must settle for mere relief. Even so, relief remains better than despair!

It won't be official, of course, until the electors vote on December 14 and their votes are counted by Congress on January 6. It appears, however, that Biden has won the presidency with at least 273 electoral votes to Trump's 214 (with several states and their electoral votes yet to be called). In the popular vote, as of this morning, Biden won 50.6% of the popular vote (74,819,484), compared to 47.7%  for Trump (70,561,283). That is more votes than any other candidate in American history. This also means that the Democrats have now won the most votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections, the first time any political party has accomplished that in American history. In its own terms, that is quite an accomplishment, although it is still not quite enough in our dysfunctional political and constitutional system to make much of a difference in our politics. 

So once again (even more decisively than last time) a majority of voters have voted against Trump. And this time they were successful. Trump will soon be evicted from the White House, and the country's second Catholic President will move in. Yet, while the Democrats did a credible job of motivating and turning out an energized "base," so did the Republicans who may even have enlarged theirs. Thus this was not quite the "persuasion election" that some had been predicting (or, more likely, just hoping for). On the contrary, this election, like the last one (but even more so), reveals an America almost evenly divided, an increasingly Disunited States, in which the political cleavage increasingly coincides with geographical and cultural cleavages, creating a dysfunctional polity in which each side largely defines itself in terms of its hatred and fear of the other.

More than anything else, Biden, without actually using Warren Harding's famous phrase from 100 years ago, has seemed to promise a return to normalcy - highlighting and opposing especially those aspects of the Trump presidency that made it so abnormal and so uniquely frightening to so many these past four terrifying years. In that President-Elect Biden will personally behave differently from President Trump and will conduct himself more according to the law and conventional norms, in that he will try to unite the country President Trump set out deliberately to divide, that may prove to be his main legacy. Liberating the land from some of the particular pathologies that have so seriously aggrieved it these past four years is in itself an accomplishment.

Yet, as has been pointed out so often by so many, Trump's rise to power in the first place was possible precisely because the old political "normal" had already failed for so many alienated Americans, who felt left behind, left out, passed by, ignored, and looked down upon as "deplorables" by their globalist, cosmopolitan, coastal betters, and so have turned for reassurance and satisfaction to a demagogue who provided them no tangible benefits but compensated by skillfully spreading hatred and Nietzschean resentiment. Sadly, even if the deliberately divisive demagogue will be gone from the White House, little else has happened, and little is likely to happen, to overcome those deep divisions in our society.

I Moreover, for President-Elect Biden and the incoming Democratic Administration to accomplish much of anything substantive (including much needed electoral and voting rights reforms) would have required a Democratic victory of sufficient dimensions to have both definitively repudiated Trump and won control of both houses of Congress. As it is, with the Senate still almost certainly in Republican hands, we can expect Mitch McConnell to oppose any and all initiatives from the new Administration. While Biden may still be personally nostalgic for the good-old-days of bi-partisan cooperation, we must expect from the Republicans more Obama-era obstruction, gridlock, and inaction, which will further alienate voters and thus make Democratic losses in 2022 and 2024 even that much more likely. Biden will presumably be somewhat successful in improving the U.S. response to the covid calamity (an obvious priority). Beyond that, he will probably do as other lame-duck presidents without complete control of Congress have done - seek success abroad. Rebuilding our alliances, restoring trust in America around the world, returning to the Paris climate accord and the JCPOA would all be eminently worthy accomplishments. But they will not heal America's broken heart. 

nInevitably, there needs to be some serious soul-searching in the aftermath of this election on the part of the Democrats who missed an opportunity to make more inroads where predicted. Now may be the time to discard simplistic models of demographic change (to appreciate, for example, the diversity of Latinos and Latinas, who transcend the ideological construct of "Latinx"). It is time to relearn that other people exist outside one's own social and information bubble, and that acquiring political power is predicated on persuasion and coalition-forming. This should be a challenge for the more extreme wing of the party to reflect upon how demonstrably out of touch it continues to be with so many otherwise potentially receptive voters. 

 May it also be an occasion for reflection for those on the other side - such as the so-called "Religious Right" - who seem to have forgotten the words of the psalmist, Put not your trust in princes (Psalm 146:3), and have allied themselves with Trump and his political party in the vain pursuit of earthly political power, a devil's bargain that may unhappily boomerang and haunt the Churches going forward.