Friday, July 23, 2021

"Dear Elderly Friends"

 



This Sunday (the eve of the annual liturgical commemoration of Saints Joachim and Anne, Christ's grandparents) has been designated by Pope Francis as the First World Day for Grandparents and the ElderlyObviously I am not a grandparent, but at 73 I am certainly elderly - like the Pope himself who addressed his Message for this Sunday: Dear Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Dear Elderly Friends. 

That was a particularly nice touch on the Pope's part - to address his Message not just Dear Elderly, but Dear Elderly Friends. As we have increasingly come to appreciate, in our contemporary context of widespread loneliness and isolation, friends are fewer and fewer. For various reasons, fewer people are married, and fewer find much connection to others, thanks to the modern breakdown of traditional mediating social experiences based in churches, neighborhoods, and work. Many report having no close friends at all, a devastatingly burdensome state of affairs for all, but especially for us old folks.

In Giotto's famous fresco, The Dream of Joachim, Pope Francis finds an image "of those many sleepless nights, filled with memories, worries and longings to which many of us [elderly] have become accustomed." In Giotto's fresco, based on an episode in the 2nd-century Protoevangelium of James, the Lord sent an angel to console Joachim and his wife Anne in their elderly loneliness and isolation - feeling, Pope Francis reminds us "that became more acute during the pandemic."

Always interested in inclusion, Pope Francis includes the elderly in the Resurrected Lord's Great Commission to his Church. Jesus' words help us "understand that our vocation is to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones." As I noted, in my comments on the continuing controversies connected with the different forms of the Roman Rite, one of the preeminent challenges the Church faces right now is the increasingly inadequate response to the all-important task of sharing the faith from one generation to the next. What a challenge for us, the old, who long ago received the faith as a free gift from our families and the surrounding society, to pass it on as freely and as fully!

Quoting the prophet Joel, Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will have visions, Francis reminds us how the world's future "depends on this covenant between the old and the young." For Francis, "Keeping memory alive is a true mission for every elderly person: keeping memory alive and sharing it with others." In this atomized, ahistorical world which, I fear, we have lamentably left as our legacy for future generations, memory may no longer be prized. "Without memory, however," Pope Francis warns, "we will never be able to build; without a foundation, we can never build a house. Never. And the foundation of life is memory."

Finally, Francis focuses on prayer. He cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict "a saintly person who continues to pray and work for the Church," who said "the prayer of the elderly can protect the world, helping it perhaps more effectively than the frenetic activity of many others." I recall a now deceased friend, who in his old age, retired from the active priestly ministry he had loved and devoted his entire adult life to, told me he saw his role as spending his newly free time in prayer.

Invoking the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Francis reminds us "how it is possible, even in the solitude of one's own desert, to intercede for the poor of the whole world and to become, in truth, a universal brother or sister."

What a timely treasure is this reminder to all of what the elderly may yet have to offer! And what a challenge to all who are already elderly to respond to our mission in this world for the sake of the world as well as ourselves!

(Image: Giotto, Fresco, The Dream of Joachim, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Vaccine Politics



I am not a bishop. So I do not experience either the ordinary day-to-day difficulties of governing a 21st-century diocese, nor the cross-cutting and conflicting pressures that burden bishops in this era of post-Christendom ecclesial free-fall. That said, I have occasionally wondered what, were I in a position to address the People of God authoritatively, would I say? How might I responsibly respond to the multiple crises which increasingly envelope us (and which, with our characteristic complacency and inertia, we may all be inclined to ignore.) 

Obviously, the preeminent political and moral challenge that faces the world today is climate change, the catastrophic consequences of which we are all beginning to experience - no longer as predictions but in the present. In the immediate term, however, there is the very present-tense catastrophic calamity of covid-19. Worldwide this terrible disease has already claimed the lives of over four million, and in the United States over 600 thousand of our fellow-citizens. 

In the United States, however, covid-19 has become, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine and the science of vaccination, a totally preventable disease. What science accomplished with the effective eradication of smallpox and (in my own lifetime) the virtual elimination of polio, science has come to society's rescue again with the highly effective covid vaccines. When I was a child everyone int his country was automatically vaccinated against smallpox, and the first time I travelled abroad in 1970 I was required to carry along with my passport a document certifying that fact. I was already in school when first the Salk polio vaccines were introduced, followed later by the Sabin vaccines. Since then in most school systems today vaccinations against polio and numerous other ailments are routinely required  of all students. The same, obviously, ought to become the case with the covid vaccination. And I believe it would be an act of extreme moral irresponsibility to take any other course.

Yet, especially in certain sections of this country, typically those with the poorest political leadership, many remain unnecessarily unvaccinated, with the inevitable resulting increase in infections, hospitalizations and utterly unnecessary, preventable deaths - what has aptly been called a self-inflicted "pandemic of the unvaccinated." Allowing for invincible ignorance in those whose only source of information may be the falsehoods found on social media and on a certain supposed "news" network, the obvious response must be to counter that - both with actual facts and with responsible moral guidance in regard to those facts. After all, in the familiar words of the great 20th-century Thomist scholar Josef Pieper: "not only the end of human action but also the means for its realization shall be in keeping with the truth of real things" (The Four Cardinal Virtues, U. of Notre Dame Pr., 1966, p. 20).

For far too much of human history, the human race's ability to prevent or treat deadly diseases and epidemics was minimal at best. That is obviously no longer true. So our moral obligations to ourselves and to one another must reflect "the truth of real things" that is this change in our human circumstances.

So, if I were in a position authorizing me to do so, I would be addressing the People of God in a pastoral letter, recalling both the great blessings bestowed upon the human race by the responsible use of modern medicine and science, which now make practically possible what was once only utopian aspiration, and the perennial moral responsibility incumbent upon all to promote the common good.

According to the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (24):

"God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who "from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.

"For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: "If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.... Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance."

There is no morally responsible escape from our obligations to one another in human society in our common home - including this current contemporary obligation: Everyone who is able to do so has a duty to be vaccinated as promptly as possible.

(Photo1955 newspaper headlines on the development of an effective polio vaccine.)





Friday, July 16, 2021

Sacrament of Unity



In the aftermath of today's Motu Proprio Traditiones Custodes, by which Pope Francis has further regulated liturgical celebrations according to the Roman Rite as it existed prior to the reforms of Pope Saint Paul VI, we will likely see lots of liturgists and canonists contending with one another about the exact extent and meaning of these new restrictions. On one side, we will likely see an increasingly angry, resentful, and rebellious attitude toward the Church's official liturgy and the established post-conciliar regime of which the novus ordo is one part. On the other side, we will likely see a continued unwillingness to face up to the multitude of social, political, and cultural factors which are reflected in both the apparent appeal of the ancient liturgy among some (especially the young) and the larger contemporary context of ecclesial exhaustion and decline.

There has always been a problematic aspect to the persistent popularity of the ancient rite, just as there has always been a problematic aspect to what Pope Francis calls "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite. Pope Francis is to be lauded for his desire to restore unity "throughout the Church of the Roman Rite." It is clear that the pastoral concessions allowed by his predecessors to those who wish "to celebrate with devotion according to the earlier forms of the liturgy" - originally "motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the [Lefebvre] schism" with the "intention of restoring the unity of the Church" - have been "exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division."

It is an interesting, but ultimately unresolvable, historical speculation whether a more modest liturgical reform (along the lines of what Vatican II actually prescribed rather than what Paul VI actually did), a reform more charitably implemented and with better catechesis, could have avoided these decades of self-inflicted gaps, divergences, and disagreements that have in fact injured the Church, blocked her path, and exposed her to division. That is a question that can never be answered and so, for that reason, is increasingly irrelevant to our present predicament. Whatever the intrinsic merits of the competing liturgical forms, the social, political, and cultural context has completely changed since the 1960s. This means that the celebration of the historical and traditional liturgical rites, however aesthetically pleasing to those participating, cannot retrieve the lost social, political, and cultural context that many so-called "traditionalists" aspire to restore. Whatever the future may hold for the Church in the traditionally Christian countries where it is now so conspicuously in decline, the only viable course heading forward is within the framework of the Church's post-conciliar regime, which inevitably includes the Church's post-conciliar liturgy. 

Of course, that does not preclude a continued critique of "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite and increased efforts to promote its celebration, "with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books," as Pope Francis has once again asked. That too would go a  long way toward pacifying not all but many of those who feel their spiritual and aesthetic aspirations are unmet and to restoring the unity of the Roman Rite within what Pope Francis calls "the dynamic of Tradition."

As is well known, many alternative communities which celebrate the traditional liturgy are increasingly composed of younger people, who obviously have no memory of the social, political, and cultural context that supported the traditional liturgy. While some polemicists for the traditional rite may advance some sort of neo-integralist agenda, for many ordinary worshippers such congregations constitute supportive communities for young families eager to pass on their faith to their children - an environment less easily replicated in mainstream parishes with their increasingly aging congregations, many of whose children and grandchildren no longer attend Mass. If, as the Pope seems to have determined, allowing alternative communities organized around the celebration of the traditional Roman Rite is not a satisfactory solution to answer this need, then it behooves the Church - particularly parishes and diocesan structures - to recognize this situation and start responding to it in some other way. Without that, the present reform could conceivably only increase alienation and division.

It was certainly not the intention behind previous indults to encourage political polarization in the Church. That, however, has happened - and by no means exclusively in connection with the traditional liturgy. But, to the extent that alternative liturgical communities have fallen prey to politically divisive elements, that has distorted the context for which the previous indults were primarily intended. This, more than any other factor, would seem to explain this present reform.

Finally, let this be a reminder to all - on all sides of this debate - that the liturgy is not a matter of personal preference but "celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity." A lot of conflict could have been avoided these past 50+ years if those on all sides of this debate had maintained this principle as the priority.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Let's Make Friends



One of the more striking things about Mare of Easttown, the HBO series which I wrote about here on Saturday) is the interconnectedness of so many of the characters, so many of whom are related by blood, marriage, or friendship. As a relative outsider to the community, Detective Colin Zabel picks up on this quickly. At their first arrest, he asks Mare, if she is friends with these people, and is told that she is.  When Mare introduces him to the local pastor as her cousin, he says, "Of course." It is, of course, the closeness among the characters that makes their community seem so close and attractive in certain respects, but that also makes the secrets they hold and the things they do to one another even more tragic. The community comes across as so broken precisely because of the breaks within and among those powerfully precious circles of friendship (including but not limited to extended family networks).

Were he able to watch the show, Aristotle would undoubtedly quote himself: "No one would choose to live without friends, even if one had all other goods" (Nichomahean Ethics, VIII, 1). He would also note (in the very same chapter) how "Friendship also holds states together." Yet, he would likely also caution, "The wish to be friends can come about quickly, but friendship cannot" (VIII, 3).

That sad state of affairs is increasingly reflected in recent studies, for example, the most up-to-date data from the Survey Center on American Life, showing that 15% of men claim no close friends - up from only 3% in 1990 - and that only 15% report 10 or more friends. (Among women 10% say they have no close friends and only 11% have 10 or more.)

In "Lost Friendships Break Hearts and Nations," The Dispatch's David French (https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/lost-friendships-break-hearts-and) cites such sad statistics and references on the decline of the extended family and of opportunities men to work and recreate together and how "the very nature of modern work ... often leaves us isolated and alone." French refers a lot to "The Politics of Loneliness is Totalitarian," by Damon Linker (https://theweek.com/politics/1002095/the-politics-of-loneliness-is-totalitarian). Linker in turn refers back to Hannah Arendt who famously connected the 20th-century rise of totalitarianism loneliness having become "an everyday of experience" for many. For Linker, "we're developing a in direction that will make more of us lonelier and more isolated. That is bound to lead to deep and increasingly widespread discontent with our way of life." He warns "that if loneliness and isolation become worse, so could our political pathologies." Unsurprisingly, Linker highlights "the wasting away of these intermediary institutions in civil society. Families are smaller than they used to be, and fewer people marry in the first place. Communities are fraying under economic pressures and as a result of social shifts. Fewer people go to church." The familiar list goes on.

Addressing this issue with a more explicitly spiritual focus (and within a Thomistic perspective) in "On the Necessity of Friendship and the Loss of It in Our Times," Monsignor Charles Pope (https://spiritualdirection.com/2021/07/09/on-the-necessity-of-friendship-and-the-loss-of-it-in-our-times) highlights how we are increasingly mobile and often have little opportunity or need to interact with those in our neighborhood. Such factors, together with the rapid pace of or contemporary lives, get in the way of developing deep lasting friendships, without which "we remain incomplete." 

David French puts it best when he writes, "we were not created for power or prosperity. We were created for community and fellowship."

(Photo: Michelangelo's fresco, The Creation of Adam, part of the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted between 1508 and1512), illustrating the Genesis creation account of God giving life to the first human being.)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Take Nothing



Jesus instructed them to take nothing for the journey [Mark 6:7-13].

 

I am one of those people who finds travel – whether for a long or even a short distance – stressful. And I always stress over whether I have everything I need. Before I moved back to NY last January after 10 years as a pastor in Knoxville, TN, I gave away or threw away books, clothes, and lots of other things that I had accumulated in my 70+ years, but I still ended up bringing a lot with me – a lot more than I need, a lot more certainly than Jesus appears to have intended his followers to take along wherever they went. In general, whenever I go anywhere, I usually worry whether I have enough, which, of course, causes me to accumulate even more. And, as we all know, the amount of baggage one brings actually tends to increase along the way. So not only do I usually start with too much, I frequently finish with even more - this is the kind of problem that can only arise in a society such as ours, where most of us already have too many possessions to begin with.

 

Of course, even Jesus allowed his followers to have some things. He allowed a walking stick and sandals, which I suppose even he considered essential when going on a journey. But nothing else. I suppose the command to take nothing else was intended to stress the special nature of the journey – its urgency and importance - allowing no time for distractions and requiring complete commitment, as well as a whole lot of trust in the One who was sending them. Jesus seemed to be leading the Twelve into a kind of guided insecurity, sending them out as missionaries, without most of the props they would have been familiar with and normally might have depended on – separated from the routine of ordinary things in order to embrace fully the new reality of God’s kingdom.

 

Obviously, this was no ordinary move, let alone some sort of vacation trip, that the apostles were being sent on. What it was, in fact, was a kind of practice run for their future work as full-time missionaries. That mission, which they were being prepped for, is never finished (at least not in this life). Hence the command to travel light, lest constant accumulation weigh us down and get in the Kingdom of God’s way as it moves out into our world.

 

Of course, we are not all – or even most of us – called to be missionaries in the same way that they were.  But we are all part of that new kingdom of God that the apostles were appointed to proclaim, all expected to adopt the kingdom of God as our standard for how to live. So, what does that say about our relationship with things?

 

Obviously, no one – not even an apostle - ever wants to start out on a trip with insufficient supplies. Jesus himself makes precisely that point elsewhere in the Gospel. So, Jesus’ point here is, I suspect, not so much about the things themselves, which (whether many or few) are, after all, just things. No created thing is evil in itself, but all things can become obstacles if we let them. If we get focused exclusively on how many things we need to shed, then those things are still driving the discussion as surely as if we were carrying them all around with us.

 

But, if we are not to rely on things, then what can we rely on?  Obviously, the 12 were in some sense relying on Jesus, who gave them authority over unclean spirits. But that is the big picture. And, while the big picture may matter most, we don’t live just in the big picture, but also in the day-by-day, here-and-now, small stuff. And that is as true in our mission to advance the Kingdom of God as in any other human endeavor, in which we must depend on one another. So Jesus sent them out two by two, forcing them to learn to support one another and rely – not on individual talents and accomplishments – but on one another.

 

It is together, not as competitors but as a community, that we accomplish what we value most in human life – in our families, in our work, in society as a whole. And it is together, not as competitors but as a community, that the Kingdom of God grows and makes a difference in our world.


"We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other.,” wrote Pope Francis in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’. “Unless we do this,” he warns, “other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings.” [208] 


Homily for the 15th Sunday on Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NYC, July 11, 2021.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

"Our Job Is Only to Love"

 


"Binge-watching" has become an apt, if horribly inelegant, expression for an experience increasingly common in this past pandemic year. Although Mare of Easttown premiered on HBO back in April, I only recently discovered it. And, as befits the discovery of something so beautiful and precious, I immediately watched all seven episodes on HBO-on-Demand over the course of two days. The way each episode leaves one in suspense, eager to learn what happens next, only increases the likelihood that the viewer will want to go right to the next episode.

Mare of Easttown which features an amazingly fantastic cast, stars Kate Winslet as Mare, a personally traumatized, grieving police detective, obsessively pursuing a murder case (and the possibly related, possibly not, cases of two missing girls) in a Delaware County, PA, community, where everyone seems to know everyone else and many are related by blood or marriage. The struggling detective whose personal life seems to be completely falling apart is almost as familiar as the common plot line. But the viewer should not be lulled by this familiarity. Winslet's acting is amazing, as is the creative script and story. We watch Mare go about her police work with a studied intensity, which parallels the intensity of emotion bottled up inside her as she struggles with her own familiar dysfunction, pain, and grief. The show itself parallels her intensity, taking us on a veritable roller coaster through a diverse array of suspects, while digging deeply into the personal, familial, and communal pain that permeates this sad "blue-collar" community.

The latter element gives the story an especially poignant contemporary resonance. The setting, somewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs is, of course, Joe Biden country. Clearly, it could also be Trump country (or would be, if politics were actually directly addressed in the series, which it never explicitly is). The beautiful image of simple brick homes, their chimneys all lined up row by row and seen against the melancholy winter light, serves as the stage on which the multiple intersecting personal tragedies, familial and social dysfunctions, and increasing cultural collapse of "blue-collar" culture in post-industrial decline are dramatically displayed in families devastated by divorce, drugs, too much alcohol, and an aimlessness that seems inexorably inclined to violence.

On top of all that, but deeply embedded in it is religion, reflected in the (largely Irish-American) Catholic culture that permeates the community. Or does it? When the story starts, Mare doesn't go to church anymore, but the parish priest is her cousin,  and his assistant deacon has problems of his own, that  impact the investigation.  Crucially, the story is framed by two Sunday Mass scenes, the basic ritual of Catholic belonging, in which practically the entire community is (somewhat improbably) all gathered together, listening to two thematically significant sermons. This religious framing somewhat parallels the secular framing of a story of separation, with Mare's separation from her lost son at the start and another traumatic separation of a mother from her son at the end, with all sorts of other sorrowful separations in between. 

Given the cast's powerful performances and the great script they have to work with, the series could conceivably work quite well without the religion angle. In an interview, Brad Ingelsby, the series' creator, recalled his own Pennsylvania Catholic family background. Of course, the Church has long been one of the anchors of such communities, and 50 years ago those scenes where everyone is assembled at Mass might merely have reflected an ambient social reality, regardless of personal faith. Today, religion is as much a post-industrial casualty as are good-paying lifelong jobs, stable marriages, deferred gratification, and sobriety. Even so, the church scenes serve a very valuable purpose in showing most of the community together in one place, internalizing and reacting to their personal and commonly shared pains. 

But those scenes seem like more than merely an historical-cultural relic, a remnant of the good old days (which weren't really so good, as we also learn) - not unlike Mare's local semi-heroic status as the star (25 years earlier) on a winning high-school basketball team. Not is it just that past is always with us. In the second sermon, which captures the community after a year of turmoil that has exposed both individual and collective anguish, Deacon Mark tells his congregation, "Our job is only to love." This sets the stage for some final reconciliation - a hint of the power perennially present in the cultural remnant that is the Church, to the extent that she can remain empathetically rooted in the morally messy lives of those for whom the message of mercy is intended.

Friday, July 9, 2021

The Challenge of a Nation in Pain



Five years ago, when the author of the widely read Hillbilly Elegy was still presenting himself as a serious thinker before donning his new MAGA hat to serve as altar boy in the idolatrous Trump cult, J.D. Vance effectively analyzed our national Trumpist malaise. "Trump is cultural heroin," he famously wrote. "He makes some people feel better for it. But he cannot fix what ails them" (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/opioid-of-the-masses/489911/).

What makes Vance's very well formulated former views still relevant, despite the depth to which he has since fallen, is that they really did diagnose at least some of the economic, aesthetic, domestic, political, and cultural dysfunctions that have brought our country to this crisis, which, like heroin itself, has "crept slowly" into American "families and communities - not by invasion but by invitation."

Employing his heroin/opioid analogy, Vance diagnosed the pain that so many seem to be seeking to dull. He identified economic pain, "as the factories that provided many U.S. towns and cities material security have downsized or altogether ceased to exist." He identified aesthetic pain, "as the storefronts that once made American towns beautiful and gave way to cash-for-gold stores and payday lenders." He identified domestic pain, "as rising divorce rates reveal home lives as dependable as steel-mill jobs." He identified political pain, "as Americans watch from afar while a government machine that rarely tries to speak to them, and acts in their interest even less, sputters alone. And he identified cultural pain, from the legitimate humiliation of losing wars fought by the nation's children to the illegitimate sense that some fall behind only because others jump ahead." 

The result has been what he calls "the vengeful joy of a Trump rally. That brief feeling of power, of defiance, of sending a message to the very political and media establishment that, for 45 years, has refused to listen. Trump brings power to those who hate their lack of it, and his message is tonic to communities that have felt nothing but decline for decades."

Meanwhile, of course, the establishment has continued to enjoy the opposite of decline. While jobs and homes were being lost, the Bush and Obama Administrations saved the perpetrators of the 2008 economic collapse. While riding to office in part on the unsatisfied anger of the victims of global capitalism, Trump promptly passed a tax cut for the richest elite in modern American history. And so on. Even now, as the hapless "infrastructure debate" drags pointlessly on, the political process continues to prove itself unable to repair our collapsing country, while the dysfunctional political elite remains enthralled by bygone fictions like "bipartisanship" and destructive elite rituals like the Senate filibuster.

There is more to the story, of course. All this largely unnecessary pain inflicted upon the many by the wealthy and powerful few has happened at a time of demographic and cultural transformation. Increased immigration and the election of our first non-white President did not cause these crises, but they triggered the neuralgic reactions long ago wired into our society by our national original sin of racism. No one needs to study "critical race theory" (whatever those words might actually mean outside academia) to know these basic facts of American history. One need only remember the violent overturning of Reconstruction (thus undoing what the military defeat of Confederate treason could have accomplished for fulfilling the American dream). Likewise, one need only remember the racist and anti-immigrant violence in the aftermath of World War I a century ago and the infamous anti-immigrant legislation of the 1920s.

That said, the pains Vance identified were real then and remain real now, intensified by the real and symbolic violence of the past five years, pains made even more acute by the economic, aesthetic, domestic, political, and cultural costs imposed on the overwhelming majority of Americans by the covid pandemic. Candidate Joe Biden's almost miraculous come-from-behind victory in the 2020 primaries opened a path for a majoritarian coalition to reclaim power. Yet, as long as government keeps proving itself increasingly incapable of resolving our nation's problems (even when a majority of voters have voted that way), we are in increasing danger of serious system collapse, culminating in extremist neo-populist tyranny.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden coalition can acquire sufficient political power - and relearn how to use it - in time to make a difference.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

After the Primary



The results of the NYC mayoral primary have now been finalized. In the final round of ranked-choice voting, Brooklyn Borough President and former police captain Eric Adams narrowly defeated former City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia

Adams led in the initial round with 31.8% of the vote. Maya Wiley came in second with 22.2%. and Kathryn Garcia came in third with 19.3%. The point of ranked-choice voting in situations such as this where no one candidate has a majority is to allow voters to indicate their second choice, thus hopefully producing a kind of consensus winner. In such a system, Adams' plurality need not necessarily have translated into an eventual majority, but in this case it narrowly did. by Round 7, with all but the top four candidates eliminated, Adams had 35.5%, Wiley 26.8%, Garcia 23.8%, and Andrew Yang 13.9%. Round 8 eliminate Yang and gave Adams 40.9%, Wiley 29.5%, and Garcia 29.6%. Garcia's narrow lead over Wiley eliminated her and resulted in the final round in which Adams won with 50.5% with Garcia second with 49.5%.

In the end, the result, while close, was clear. Adams carried every borough except Manhattan in the first-choice tally, and was the winner among working-class Black and Latino voters and also did well with white moderate voters who held more moderate views, which (as the NY Times noted) is similar to the coalition that gave the Democratic nomination to President Biden in 2020. 

Garcia was also popular with white moderate voters across the five boroughs, but dominated in wealthy Manhattan, where she appealed to highly educated, affluent voters, while doing less well with voters of color, but well enough overall to come in second over Wiley, the unambiguously progressive, left-wing candidate.

This would all seem to be further evidence of what we witnessed in the 2020 presidential primaries - the continuing role of Black voters as a moderating force in the Democratic Party, a party which has (largely though its own fault) lost much of its traditional white working class base, while meanwhile more and more of its more educated and affluent white non-working class voters have moved decisively in a direction that seems increasingly guaranteed to alienate much of both that traditional white working-class base that is gone and the (also predominantly working class) Black base that remains.

The lesson(s) for Democrats who would like to keep control of Congress in 2022 and want to keep Trump from being reelected in 2024 should be obvious. Given the importance of those goals for the survival of the Democratic Party and (more importantly) for the health of democratic and constitutional governance in this country, the relevance of these post-primary lessons should also be obvious.

(Image: The flag of the City of New York. The city's famous flag displays the Seal of New York City in blue in the white center bar of a blue, white, and orange vertical tricolor, representing the Prince of Orange's flag used in the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, which eventually became New York.)


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Man of the Church



On this date in New York City in 1858, four American Catholic priests - all converts to Catholicism and all just recently released from membership in the Redemptorist Order - formed the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as the Paulist Fathers. Three days later, came the creation a new parish on Manhattan's West Side for the new community’s ministry, Saint Paul the Apostle, located near what is now Columbus Circle 

Their leader in this ambitious enterprise, Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), had been born to an immigrant family in New York City and from an early age had become convinced that God had some special plan for his life. His older brothers were bakers who founded a successful flour business, becoming quite wealthy in the process. Young Isaac worked in the family business and shared his brothers' political interests in Jacksonian democracy, but increasingly turned his attention to religious questions. Confident that “it is not reasonable to suppose that [God] would implant in the soul such an ardent thirst for truth and not reveal it,” he deepened his spiritual search for the truth, examining the varied options 19th-century American had to offer, until finally finding his way into the Catholic Church - “the place,” as he put it, “where it is supposed among Protestants the least to exist."

Like Christian history’s most famous spiritual seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker had examined the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, paying intense attention to his own inner spiritual sensibility, before finally finding a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church in 1844. In our contemporary idiom, Hecker was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, eloquently exemplifies the perennially human appeal of such seeking and certainly speaks to the spiritual longings of some in our own (admittedly more secular) society today. But what was most significant about Hecker the seeker was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, searching was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church would permeate all his subsequent activities – from his initial conversion experience as recorded in his Diary, through his active ministry as a priest and missionary preacher, to his final mature exposition in his last book, The Church and the Age (1887). 

 

Fundamental to Hecker's experience was his recognition of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God acting to call him out of himself and into the Church. Animated by an increasingly conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, Hecker opened himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s care for him, and through that experience he recognized the grace to attach himself to the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. Himself a product of the religious fragmentation of American society, but drawn by God’s providential grace to seek the light of truth and find it in the unity of the Catholic Church, he then committed himself completely to share what he had found with others similarly inspired to seek and to find - and to whom his story continues to speak. All his diverse pastoral and missionary efforts and accomplishments would remain rooted in his abiding trust in God’s presence and action in his own life and in the world in which he lived. Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.”

 

That enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him to that active vocation as a priest and religious, giving his all to cooperate with God’s grace in serving God, the Church, and his contemporaries. "I believe," he wrote, "that providence calls me to an active life; further, that he calls me to America to convert a certain class of persons amongst whom I found myself before my own conversion … But to convince me that this work will not be mine, and that I shall be only the mean instrument for the accomplishment of His designs, He wills me to be deprived of all human means, so that I shall not attribute his glory to myself. Contrary to my first provisions, He has unmistakably shown me that it is by neither learning nor eloquence that he calls me to convert others but solely by His grace and power."

 

Formed by Providence through the crucible of contradictory experience into a thoroughly committed “man of the Church” (as New York's Edward Cardinal Egan once described him), he lived a consecrated life of priestly mission as a parish pastor, a preacher of missions, a public speaker lecturing to Catholic and non-Catholic audiences, an author and apologist, and the founder of a religious community, which, as a canonically approved clerical Society of Apostolic Life in the contemporary Church, continues his charism, in the words of its Constitution, “to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and a prophetic instrument for His sanctifying action.” It was precisely his love of his newly found faith, explains the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, “that led Isaac Hecker to dedicate his life to serving Christ and Catholic Americans.”

 

In his active ministry, Hecker focused on the Church’s perennially essential mission of evangelization, both within the Church and outward to the world – founding a congregation of priests whose ministry reflects his inspiration even today.  What he lacked in formal philosophical formation and theological precision was abundantly compensated for by his spiritual insight, docility to the Holy Spirit, and filial obedience to the divine authority of the Church. 


Like the 19th century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedoms. While enthusiastically supporting the Church’s full spiritual authority over its own members, he envisaged a social solution in which individuals, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations and thus opened to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop this consensually based society along Catholic lines. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely capable of addressing social and political concerns. Prescinding from direct politics, Hecker anticipated overcoming the adverse consequences of liberal individualism at a social level through personal conversion and the consequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a recovery of the communal possibilities of democracy through overcoming the fragmenting forces he found in Protestant individualism.


Whereas for Hecker’s famous contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion meant alienation and its survival in society showed the inadequacy of its purely political separation from the state, for Hecker in contrast Roman Catholicism was the providential fulfillment of the most authentic aspirations of human nature; and its power to transform society through the conversion of citizens more than compensated for the Church’s loss of political power thanks to its separation from the State.


Although he is listed as Paulist General Superior and parish pastor from 1858 through his death in 1888, the last period of Hecker’s life was dominated by physical illness and emotional suffering. Even then, Hecker was hardly inactive. He was directly involved in the design and construction of the present Saint Paul the Apostle parish church in New York City. He also continued to contribute to the Catholic World, the monthly Catholic journal he had founded in 1865. The Church and the Age, published the year before Hecker’s death, remains the most comprehensive summary of his most mature thought on the themes that had preoccupied him for most of his life. It offers Hecker’s mature insights on his lifelong faith in the simultaneously interior action of the Holy Spirit within the individual and the Holy Spirit’s exterior action in the authority of the Church. It also represents Hecker’s final and mature formulation of his core convictions about the Church and the contemporary world in general and in particular the vexing question of Church and State in the United States, Italy, and France (the latter two being the countries where Church-State relations were persistently neuralgic at the time and where such issues had the most immediate impact on the government of the Universal Church).


Hecker was no systematic theologian and did not write as one. What he wrote was not some “theology” of the Holy Spirit but an appreciation of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity in the world. Here Hecker effectively posited three renewals: that of the age (the world, society), dependent on that of religion (the Church), itself inseparable from that of the individual. Through the Church and its sacraments and its worship, “the object of Christ in the church is,” wrote Hecker in his later years, “to come in personal contact with the soul, and by the power of his grace to wash away its sins, communicate to it fellowship with God as the heavenly Father, and thereby to sanctify it.” 


Especially in his final years when burdened by illness, Hecker lived what one of his favorite spiritual authors, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Caussade had written: “To be satisfied with the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will moving through all we have to do and suffer as events crowd in upon us.”

 

Through it all, Hecker lived a life of recognizable holiness. His reputation for sanctity was evident in his own lifetime and has continued to inspire pastoral and missionary zeal in the Church down to today. A decade after his death, the great Cardinal Gibbons wrote:


"He was undoubtedly a providential agent for the spread of the Catholic faith in our country, and did immense good by drawing non-Catholics nearer to us, allaying prejudice, obtaining a fair hearing for our holy religion, besides directly and indirectly making a multitude of converts. His spirit was that of a faithful child of Holy Church, every way Catholic in the fullest meaning of the term, and his life adorned with fruits of personal piety, but especially he was inspired with a zeal for souls of the true Apostolic order, aggressive and yet prudent, attracting Protestants and yet entirely orthodox."


Summarizing Hecker’s legacy, one of his 20th-century successors as Superior General of the Paulist Fathers, Joseph McSorley, wrote that Hecker manifested “a magnetic power commonly associated with personal holiness.”

In his life as a Catholic convert and a priest, Isaac Hecker practiced the theological and moral virtues to an heroic degree, confident that he was “living and working in the dawn of light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church.”

On May 23, 2006, the Paulist Fathers General Assembly, “conscious of the need for contemporary models of holiness,” resolved to promote the canonization cause of Paulist Founder, Father Isaac Hecker, declaring his life and teaching “truly a valuable resource that needs to be widely recognized and communicated,” that he “can inspire others beyond ourselves towards holiness of life, heroic virtue and personal faithfulness to Christ,” and that “the time has come” for Father Hecker’s story “to be disseminated throughout the larger church.”



Sunday, July 4, 2021

Independence Day


Today, the U.S. celebrates 245 years of its independence.  Still a relatively young nation, the U.S. has long projected itself first as a, then as the major world power, with a particularly powerful and attractive narrative that once appealed to people to come here from all over the world, among them my own grandparents.

As John Adams famously wrote, Independence Day "ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." Sadly, I suspect that far too few "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty" will mark this holiday. (The U.S. edition of the Roman Missal does provide a proper Mass for Independence Day, which I will celebrate tomorrow). How easy it has become for Americans to forget the necessary prerequisites for a moral community and, in the U.S. case, how that ultimate expression of American exceptionalism, "a city on a hill," has an explicitly Christian origin and makes sense only in that context. In applying that New Testament image to the Puritan colony in New England in 1630, John Winthrop challenged settlers in this new land:

"We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ 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. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going." 


No wonder, signer of the Declaration of Independence (and third President of Princeton) John Witherspoon said that one "is the best friend to American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion.”


That said, we can in any case certainly expect the rest of Adams' proposed festivities in glorious abundance as we celebrate today not only our historical independence from the British Empire but our present independence from the covid pandemic and more than a year of personal and social restrictions. The desire to celebrate today is understandably almost universal.

Less frequently quoted is the continuation of what Adams wrote. "You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

As Adams well understood, it would take lots of "Toil and Blood and Treasure" for his small minority of American colonists (certainly less than half, maybe merely a third) to impose their will on both their fellow colonists (not to mention on the Native and African Americans they were sharing the space with) and on the mighty British Empire, well on its way by then to being the world's greatest naval power and at that time (after the French and Indian War) also the preeminent land power in North America. Adams also understood, as his collaborators in the subsequent and equally challenging task of forming an actual nation from 13 fractious former colonies (and then actually governing it) did, what "Toil and Blood and Treasure" it would take to create and maintain vibrant and stable political institutions that could endure the multiple stresses of the next two centuries and more.

We who are the beneficiaries of all that "Toil and Blood and Treasure" - most of us descendants of subsequent migrations of immigrants or else immigrants ourselves - must also understand the challenges involved in maintaining a stable and successful society in this very changed world. As the current "infrastructure" debate has highlighted and so many commentators in recent years have lamented, this country that once led the world in innovation and landed the first man on the moon is increasingly incapable of accomplishing much of anything or even trying - a dangerous state of affairs indeed as we face the full force of climate change, which is challenging us to change our ways right now. Additionally, the solidifying of our cultural divisions and political polarization, the increasing and rapid deterioration of democratic and constitutional norms among so many of our fellow citizens, and the increasing and rapid abandonment by one of our political parties of previous presumptions about democracy and constitutionalism, highlight how precarious our situation has become, how imperiled the national project Adams and his collaborators set in motion 245 years ago. 

In the musical Hamilton, King George III presciently foresees the fundamental challenges facing the new country and warns "they will tear each other into pieces."

Thanks to our cultural conflicts, political polarization, and social separation into mutually antagonistic communities no longer ready to recognize one another as fellow citizens with a common purpose, we are today, to paraphrase Lincoln, engaged in a cultural, political, and social civil war, testing whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

Let us pray that it does. Let us pray that we will rediscover the challenges of citizenship that energized previous generations of Americans, while there is still time.




Thursday, July 1, 2021

Mid-Year Woes and Hopes



In the traditional Western (i.e., Christian) calendar, a week ago was "Midsummer Day" (midway between May Day and Lammas Day), which was also, in effect, the mid-year day (midway between last Christmas and next Christmas). Our civil calendar (for curious reasons connected with the terms of ancient Roman consuls) runs one week later. So today, July 1, is midway between the last New Year's Day and the next New Year's Day. So where are we today, with the first half of this unhappy year behind us?

When the year began, the covid pandemic was still our primary reality. Hope had appeared on the horizon in the form of vaccines, but those vaccines were still virtually inaccessible to most people. For me personally, the pandemic had put me into quarantine over the New Year. So, what was originally supposed to be my last day doing the work I loved - before my descent into the soulless state of retirement - was instead involuntarily wrenched from me by covid's casual creep into my home. Fortunately spared infection myself, I then had to endure the further risk of infection by having to travel to my new home in New York, where I was then subjected to a second quarantine. (Thank God for Netflix!) Then, seemingly just as suddenly, the possibility of a saner future opened up in the form of access to the life-saving vaccine; and, by the beginning of March, everything (or, at least, many things) started to change.

That, of course, represents a narrow self-referential view of how this year began. But the public stage was comparably tumultuous. Our public space was shared somehow by the dangerously bad (January 6, and mask and vaccine resistance) and the encouragingly good (January 20, and widespread vaccine access). As the pandemic went from seemingly inexorable spread to the possibility of containment, our politics progressed from lies, cruelty, and unprecedented incompetence to our new president's conventional moral decency and normal governance. Even so, sadly, the pandemic remains a real threat in much of our country and most of the world, while the political cult of cruelty and hatred, hopefully exorcised by the 2020 election but actually kept alive by lies, remains a real force fully engaged in undermining our present and future prospects for constitutional governance and a more humane society.

Meanwhile, as if all that weren't enough, we find ourselves in one of those appalling summer heatwaves that remind us that climate change is not only really happening but is already here and now. In the northwest, where once summers were much milder than our local annual northeastern ordeal, the temperature has risen to unprecedented heights, while the rest of the west in general continues to experience unprecedented drought. How long before heat and drought combine to make significant sections of our country completely unlivable?

Yet, in spite of all this horror that increasingly surrounds us - so much of it our own fault - the second half of the year is beginning on an exhilarating note as more and more of the vitality of urban life returns, and with it a revived hope in the future's possibilities. Having crossed the rubicon of lunch with a friend in Manhattan a week ago, today I plan to go to a movie - my first trip to a movie theater anywhere in some 16 months! 

On one level, that may sound as self-referential as the whining of elite narcissists who, having spent the past year in a state of casual dress and are now traumatized by the prospect of dressing properly again - a level of self-absorption that must seem absurd to most people who still did have to show up in real life on at least some level even during the pandemic. On the other hand, every return to normal human activity and conventional standards of behavior, however modest and merely individual, is one more step back to social civility and should be celebrated for the significant step it is.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Powerful Touch



The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 27, 2021)

Having just lived through a global pandemic (which is sadly still by no means over in far too much of the world) and after more than a year of social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, and washing hands, we can all appreciate, in a somewhat heightened way, the ancient world’s anxieties about inexplicable illnesses and about direct physical contact with sick people. Ancient people knew nothing about viruses or even bacteria, but understood the dangers of close contact and touching. They had all sorts of anxieties about contact with blood - not because they understood the biology of blood-borne pathogens, but because they saw blood as the sacred repository of life, which, being sacred, was presumed to be dangerous, with all the dread and awe that typically surround the sacred in traditional societies. Perhaps that was itself an evolutionary response to help ward off certain contagions that they could not then otherwise understand. 


In such a society, the plight of the woman afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years, whom Jesus encountered in today's Sunday Gospel [Mark 5:25-35a], was much more than a merely medical condition. A whole set of social and religious restrictions would have been involved. Like covid, her illness had a public, social dimension. It rendered her ritually unclean, effectively excluding her from the community. Anyone she touched (or who touched her) would also automatically be unclean. Likewise whatever she touched or whatever touched her would have to be washed. Imagine what they would have done had they had all the hand sanitizers that we have become so addicted to in the past year! Considering how fearful we have all become of touching people and things, imagine how afraid the woman in the Gospel must have been of touching people – even accidentally! Imagine living like that for 12 years! Imagine what that would do to her sense of herself – and her relations with others! What happens to a person when the very way one is has been so strongly stigmatized, socially defined as evil?


Suddenly, into all this sadness and suffering, into this burdened world of separation and mutual avoidance, of anxiety and shame, Jesus, showed up. Jesus was, of course, already famous for his powerful acts of healing which also overcame separation and stigma - in the process revealing what kind of God our God really is, a God who, as the Book of Wisdom proclaims [Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24] does not rejoice in the destruction of the living. As it says in the Catechism [1503]Christ’s compassion toward the sick and his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a resplendent sign that “God has visited his people” and that the kingdom of God is close at hand.


Somehow, something about Jesus’ presence empowered the woman afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years to risk taking a chance on Jesus. So, instead of maintaining the socially expected and legally prescribed social distance, she took advantage of the cover provided by the crowd and boldly touched Jesus’ cloak. And immediately her bold faith was rewarded. Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was freed of her affliction.


What the expensive medical establishment could not accomplish in 12 years, Jesus cured in an instant – and for free! And, in the process, Jesus set the sick woman free, not only from her illness, but from all its catastrophic social consequences and its oppressive emotional and psychological burdens.


Jesus, for his part, was aware at once that power had gone out from him.  after more than a year of social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, and washing hands, we can all appreciate, in a somewhat heightened way, what it means to touch - and to be touched by - one another, the natural human power touching possesses. How much more power, divine power, must have been when the woman touched Jesus?


The woman, we are told, approached in fear and trembling. But, instead of scolding her (as religious people sometimes seem so addicted to doing), Jesus recognized her as a Daughter of Israel, a member of God’s People. And, because she was a member of God’s People, she deserved to be included as a full member of the community. So Jesus would not permit her healing to remain secret and unnoticed. In that crowded scene, certainly her secretive, hidden touching of Jesus might have remained hidden, neither asked not told about – had it not been for Jesus’ insistence that everyone present should hear the whole truth.


In the 1980s Billy Joel sang: And isn’t that a kind of madness To be living by a code of silence When you’ve really got a lot to say.


Secrecy is seldom wholesome, seldom beneficial, seldom serves the larger interests of justice, equality, and inclusion. And so Jesus chose not to be an accomplice in the destructive dishonesty that is both the root and result of the secrecy that poisons so many human relationships and societies.


And so she fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. She said what needed to be said. And In response Jesus promised her liberation from her suffering and told her to “Go in peace.” 

Jesus’ words were not meant to comfort just one woman who happened to have been afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years and just happened one day to touch his clothes! Jesus’ words were and are equally addressed to all of us in the here and now - whatever hidden or not-so-hidden burdens we bear, whatever sad (or not so sad) secrets define us - to do as she did, to take the chance that she took, to tell the whole truth, and so experience ourselves the coming of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of healing and health, of honesty and inclusion, and so begin to become ourselves active agents of God’s kingdom of reconciliation and peace.


(Photo: 6th-century mosaic, artist unknown)