Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Five Porticoes of our Common Home

From 1921 through 1969, today (October 24) was observed the the Roman calendar as the feast of the Archangel Saint Raphael, whose name means "God has healed."  He lived up to his name in his main biblical appearance, in the Book of Tobit, where he healed Tobit of his blindness and healed Tobit's daughter-in-law Sarah of the demon that had afflicted her. Later Jewish tradition made him one of the three angels (along with Michael and Gabriel) who appeared to Abraham and then sent to Sodom to save Lot. Although unnamed in the New Testament, Christian tradition has likewise identified him with healing and as the angel who periodically stirred the  water in the five-porticoed pool of Bethsaida (Bethesda) in John 5. Current lectionaries now routinely omit the former verse 4: an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. (Whatever the origin of that verse, without it the whole context of the story of the grumpy man, sick for 38 years, who could never make it into the water in time to get healed whenever the water was stirred, is missing.) 

In John, Jesus healed the man himself (apparently purposely performing a miracle on the sabbath). So Raphael and the stirred water were not needed. But, besides the grumpy (and as it turned out ungrateful) miraculously healed man, there were also, according to John, many blind, lame, and paralyzed - presumably waiting an opportunity to avail themselves of the water's healing power. No miracles for them - just the ordinary means of healing generally available in that time and place!

Miracles continue to occur according to the mysteries of God's providence. (They play an essential part in Church's process for recognizing - "canonizing" - saints.) Still, for most of us, most of the time, it is the ordinary means of healing that are available to us in our time and place that we must rely upon. Luckily, we live in an era of enormous medical and scientific progress and hence have many more means of preserving and restoring health available to us than the five-porticoed pool.

In particular, we have vaccines - against smallpox and polio and countless others ancient afflictions, as well as the latest vaccine developed just one year ago against the great scourge of our time and place, Covid-19. The gospel's many blind, lame, and paralyzed knew what to do, in terms of what was available to them in their time and place. Like them, we too need to recognize what to do and avail ourselves of the amazingly stirred water of vaccination - now increasingly available to more and more people, soon including children.

Of course, there are many who, like the miraculously healed man in the gospel, do not have easy access, for any number of reasons. Instead of populating five porticoes, they populate all five continents. Like the the miraculously healed man before Jesus healed him, access for many is dependent on others - others to put them into the pool when the water is stirred up.

Clearly, it is the first responsibility of national leaders to get as many as possible of their own citizens vaccinated - and then be the helpers the paralyzed man in the gospel lacked to aid everyone enter the stirred water of a vaccinated world. Here in the U.S., the first task is proving to be much more difficult than it was expected to be, much more so than it would have been had so many Republican politicians not made it their perverse mission to hurt their own constituents! Whether for their fellow citizens in our society or for fellow dwellers on the planet that is our common home, the challenge for all of us in these crowded five porticoes is to alleviate the congestion and help one another to get into the pool that is the means of healing together.

(Image: Painting The Pool of Bethesda, 1977, by Robert Bateman)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Blessed Kaiser Karl - 100 Years Later

Almost 100 years ago, on April 1, 1922, Austrian Kaiser Karl I (Emperor Charles I, who was also King Charles IV of Hungary) died - largely unappreciated and unlamented in his post-war exile in Madeira. His body still rests there, in exile, even though both his wife, Empress Zita, and his son, Archduke Otto, have since been interred, with the traditional Hapsburg ceremonial, in Vienna's Kapuzinergruft. His commemoration in the liturgical calendar occurs today, the 110th anniversary of his wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 2011, prior to which the then Archduke Karl said to Zita, "Now we must help each other to get to heaven."

In his homily at Blessed Kaiser Karl's beatification on October 3, 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II, who had himself been named after the last Hapsburg Emperor by his father, who had served in the imperial army in World War I, said: 

The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. 

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Descendants of the Swiss Count Rudolf of Habsburg, Karl's family famously acquired many lands in middle and eastern Europe by marriage. The dynasty eventually assumed, among their many titles, that of Archduke of Austria and was often referred to as the House of Austria (as in Charles V's famous son, the victor at Lepanto, Don John of Austria). Importantly, the Hapsburgs also held the elected office of Holy Roman Emperor most of the time from 1440 until the Empire's abolition by Napoleon in 1806. (After the marriage of Maria Theresa to the Duke of Lorraine, the family's official name became "Hapsburg-Lorraine," von Habsburg-Lothringen.) The highpoint of the family's power was, of course, the reign of Emperor Charles V, after whom the dynasty divided into two branches - the Spanish branch, supplanted by the Bourbons in the 18th century, and the Austrian branch, which ruled in Vienna until 1918.

When I was a college undegrad in the late 1960s, my International Relations professor (who was an exiled Czech, and so knew something of which he spoke) speculated whether his part of Europe might have fared better had the Hapsburg Empire not been destroyed in 1918. Nor was this the idle speculation of one isolated academic. No less an author than Tony Judt wrote in The New Republic in 1998: "I would go so far as to say that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to almost all of its lands and citizens."

It is a sad historical fact that the post World War I destruction of the old polyglot, multi-ethnic (what we would now call "multicultural") empire into small, nation-states, all containing discontented minorities, proved unsurprisingly unstable and was tragically followed, first by German conquest before and during World War II, and then by Soviet conquest and domination during the decades that followed that war. Then, after the collapse of communism, came the break-up of Yugoslavia, one of the old empire's "successor states" and a brutal war, the likes of which Europe had not seen since 1945. The "successor states" are now at peace, but imperilled in so many ways - not least by the perennial prospects of neo-fascist dictatorship within and Russian meddling without.

Born August 17, 1887, Blessed Kaiser Karl succeeded his ancient great-uncle Franz Josef I in November 1916, by which time, more than midway through World War I, the Hapsburg empire appeared increasingly weak, on the way to losing the war it had foolishly started. Stepping into the shoes of his legendary predecessor probably would have been difficult at any time, but that was probably the worst time for the pious young Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary to ascend the throne. Nonetheless, he did attempt to repair the damage which that pointlessly destructive conflict had already caused and would continue to cause. His well intentioned but poorly executed peace initiative - the so-called "Sixtus Affair" (named after his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus on Bourbon Parma, who served as intermediary) - ignominiously failed, further limiting Karl's freedom of action and discrediting both him and any remaining efforts to negotiate an end the war which Pope Benedict XV correctly called the "suicide of civilized Europe." 

Both in his peace initiatives and in his efforts in April and October 1921 (100 years ago today) to regain his Hungarian crown, Karl was a complete failure in worldly terms. Exiled with his wife and children to the Portuguese island of Madeira, Karl lived out the remaining few months of his mortal life. As he sickened, he invited his 9-year old heir, Archduke Otto, to witness his final anointing, in order for him "to know how one conducts oneself at times like this - as a Catholic and as an Emperor."

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Moving Jefferson

This week, New York City Council officials unanimously voted to remove the 7-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, from the City Council Chamber. The statue - commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces - is a plaster model of the bronze statue of Jefferson by the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers which stands in the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It has been at City Hall since 1834. (At first, Levy charged admission to view his statue and used the proceeds to feed the poor.) It has graced the NYC Council chamber since the 1910s.

The desecration and removal of statues (preferable to the execution of actual people practiced, for example, by the French Revolution which Jefferson so enthusiastically welcomed) is a peculiar contemporary example of symbolic expressive politics, which can generate lots of attention and anger on all sides, while conveniently accomplishing nothing positive for anyone in any actual need. This is to be distinguished, obviously, from the justified efforts to purify our country of monuments to Civil War traitors. (Jefferson was, of course, also a traitor - but to the Kingdom of Great Britain, as it was then known. so one should not expect a statue of Jefferson in Westminster Hall or at Windsor Castle. On the other hand, there is a statue of Jefferson in Paris, the capital of Britain's traditional enemy and the Americans' main ally in their war for independence)

Apart from the special case of the Confederate traitors, I am no great fan of eradicating the public honor accorded to historical figures whose accomplishments are deserving of our memory. I include Jefferson in this, although he was far from my favorite among the Founding Fathers. In the great rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, I remain completely on Hamilton's side. His was a far better image of what America could become and a more realistic expectation of what it would become. The Broadway play Hamilton is no substitute for reading and studying The Federalist Papers, but - in this age of massive historical ignorance and unprincipled political posturing - it is an excellent introduction to Hamilton's heroic life and stellar achievements.

If statues  and other expressions of public art are going to be continually controversial, perhaps we should eliminate all public art and render our public spaces naked of all artistic expression (not unlike some modern churches). That would be aesthetically disastrous and soul-destroying, but maybe more honest than the selective reimagining of a history which must inevitably be different from however we imagine the present.  As L.P. Hartley famously said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It is the task of history to examine and illuminate the past in all its difference and complexity. It is the task of politics, educated and informed by history, to resolve conflicts and allocate and mobilize power in the present (and in the process become the history for the future to learn from in turn).

"These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all sincere lovers of the union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the states from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from TIME and EXPERIENCE." (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 85).

(PhotoThe statue of Thomas Jefferson in New York’s City Hall,  a model of the bronze statue that sits in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Dave Sanders for The New York Times.)

Credit.Dave Sanders for The New York Times 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Going "Full Beast" - Succession (Season 3)

Season 2 of HBO's Succession ended two years ago with Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) - instead of accepting his appointed role as designated fall guy for the scandal in the family business - finally going public with what every viewer of the series has known from the very first episode of season one: "The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar, and he was fully personally aware of these events for many years, and made efforts to hide and cover up."

Kendall's father Logan Roy (played in fully malevolent mode by Brian Cox) is, of course, the very malignant boss (as in "crime boss") of a toxic media empire, ("Waystar Royco") a billionaire who has been forever poisoning society - and more immediately and poignantly poisoning his family, especially his four super-rich, ostentatiously entitled, morally vacuous adult children - for a generation. (Sound familiar?) They - having lived the entirety of their scandalously privileged existences in their father's shadow - are simultaneously fellow victims of his tyranny and competitors for his favor (and the succession) and also utterly bereft apart from him, so totally has he controlled and dominated them and their entire world.

Logan, meanwhile, like any number of other aging public figures, can't/won't let go of his power, refusing to retire and let one or more of his scheming and utterly unworthy heirs assume the authority and power he has wielded for so long. Yet, although the show's creator is British, this is not the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy. The characters are larger-than-life in one respect only - their excessive wealth. Nothing else about them is impressive, let alone attractive or likable. And that is what makes the show so spectacular - in addition to its immediate cultural-political salience - the sheer horribleness of it all. 

I would willingly concede that, unlike the four adult Roy children, a character like cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) can come across, in contrast, as marginally likable. I think that is largely because he is really on the margin of the family and so all his self-serving scheming seems reprehensible in perhaps more normal ways, which more normally situated people can somehow relate to. His relative marginality also serves as well as a vehicle for us to get inside the family's pathological dynamics. Meanwhile, the other marginal relative, Shiv's husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) remains simultaneously both monstrously contemptible and personally trivial. Parenthetically, it is also nice to see Kendall's ex-wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), reappear after her absence from season 2. 

Not being a reviewer with access to episodes in advance, I do not know for certain what increasing evils season 3 will explore. Already in the first episode, everyone is obviously under pressure to choose sides in this spectacular family squabble with billion-dollar implications, complicated  by the constant need (now out in the open) to keep covering up evidence of past corporate crimes. At this point, it's all about “I need to know where everyone is and what they’re doing” What is simultaneously a bitter corporate battle and a family civil war exacerbates the basic tension which has always been at the heart of the series: what happens after Logan? 

Friday, October 15, 2021

I Love Lucy at 70


Some 20 or so years ago, my sister, her family, and I had occasion to watch some old I Love Lucy episodes. I, of course, could remember watching I Love Lucy episodes as a child. What struck me so strongly, however, was how my nieces, who were growing up in a very different world, were as amused as I was by a black-and-white TV sitcom from the 1950s. What better evidence for how universally and perennially and authentically funny Lucy was!

I Love Lucy made its debut on CBS 70 years ago on October 15, 1951. The series ran on Monday nights for six seasons - 180 half-hour episodes - until May 6, 1957. The show starred Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz as Lucy and (Cuban-American bandleader) Ricky Ricardo, with co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley as neighbors, Ethel and Fred Mertz. During the second season, on January 19, 1953, Lucy famously gave birth to a son, "Little Ricky," in an episode entitled "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," timed to coincide with Lucille Ball's real-time birth of her and Desi's son Desi Arnaz, Jr. After the series ended in 1957, The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show continued for three more seasons as 13 one-hour specials.

The show, was filmed in front of a studio audience, won five Emmy Awards and in 2012 was voted the 'Best TV Show of All Time' in a survey conducted ABC News and People Magazine. It influence even extended to the invention of the summer rerun tradition! 

I don't remember at what point I started watching I Love Lucy.  Whether I actually first saw "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" live, or in the series' summer reruns, I don't know, but Ido remember watching it and laughing. In those days, there were limited TV options (although we had many more stations to choose from in New York City than in many other locations). And, of course, there was only one TV. So whatever was on was watched by all. 

Lucy wasn't the only sitcom, of course. In my family, we watched Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet and I Remember Mama among early TV classics, but they were more like light dramas, whereas Lucy was unambiguously all about being funny in a classically clownish kind of way. And it was wonderful. And we all loved it! 

And, while the society and style of family life Lucy presumed and portrayed, seems anachronistic today, the comedy is still funny.  Somehow Lucy tapped into something universal in her humor, in a way few comedy acts can. 

It is also a reminder t hat there was once a time - in living memory - when life could be funny.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Tormenting Words

Today, we are at Canto 16 of the Inferno in our "Hundred Days of Dante" (about which, see my previous post on September 14). In this canto, three once famous citizens of Dante's home city Florence ask him about the state of their temporal homeland. "Valor and courtesy, say if they dwell within our city, as they used to do, or if they wholly have gone out of it" (cortesia e valor dì se dimora ne la nostra città sì come suole, o se del tutto se n'è gita fora).

What would a modern-day Dante - an American Dante - respond to such a question were it asked about the U.S. today?

In the Inferno, the three Florentines actually already know the answer because a recent arrival is tormenting them (assai ne cruccia co le sue parole) with the news of contemporary Florence's "pride and extravagance." 

"The age is out of joint, Men run to and fro to find the truth." So wrote Isaac Hecker in 1855 (Questions of the Soul, Preface). Looking at American today, it seems we're still running "to and fro." But, in our "pride and extravagance," not only is truth today even more elusive but for more and more of us it is less and less an object of our search. And, as a society, we are certainly seeing and paying the consequences. 

As Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Centuryhas warned: To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. 

On so many levels - cultural, moral, and political - we are, in Snyder's words, "demeaning the world as it is" and so creating "a fictional counterworld."

Each side in our polarized society can point to the other side's "demeaning the world as it is" to replace truth with ideological fictions. Each side would be correct.

Where will that lead us? Where will that leave us?

Photo: The oldest known image of Dante, painted prior to his exile, probably by Giotto, in the Bargello palace chapel, Florence.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Who Can Be Saved?

Sometime in the 2nd half of the 3rd century, a young Egyptian named Anthony arrived at Church, just as the Gospel account we just heard [Mark 10:17-30] was being read.  The future Saint Anthony of Alexandria, the so-called “father of monks,” was 19 or 20 at the time. Hearing Jesus’ words, Anthony felt that they had been spoken directly to him. Not long after, he gave away his possessions, in order to lead a life of intense self-denial in the Egyptian desert. Ever since, many have followed Anthony’s lead, interpreting Jesus’ words as a call - not necessarily for everyone in exactly the same way - to embrace an evangelical style of life, formalized eventually in what we now call the vocation of consecrated religious and apostolic life in the Church.


All that, obviously, was still far in the future when Jesus looked lovingly at the rich man and said, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, then come, follow me.” These words, we are told, caused the rich man to go away sad.  What, exactly, was the source of his sadness? Here was this man, who came to Jesus of his own accord, who all his life had observed all the commandments. Yet, when he heard Jesus’ invitation to go even farther, to enter into a closer relationship with Jesus by changing his relationship with the world, his face fell, and he went away sad. Why? Because, so we are told, he had many possessions.


That, the Gospel seems to be saying, is what possessions will do to you!


The rich man’s sadness reminds me of one of Pope Francis’s descriptions of our contemporary situation:


Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom… The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.

The Pope continued by comparing our experience today to that of Adam alone in the Garden before the creation of Eve: so much power and at the same time so much loneliness and vulnerability. The remedy for Adam’s isolation was, of course, a relationship with another person. The remedy for the rich man’s isolation, Jesus seems to be suggesting, is likewise a renewed relationship with his fellow creatures, one which privileges people over possessions. Adam was lonely because he was, literally, alone in the world. Today we are lonely in a world full of people because we prize our individuality and thus suffer from a diminished solidarity with those with whom we share our common home.


It wasn’t just the rich man who was shocked and dismayed by Jesus’ words. In the kind of society in which Jesus’ lived, wealth was seen as a sign of blessing – a notion which our own consumerist society seems to have taken to its ultimate extreme. No wonder Jesus’ disciples were exceedingly astonished and worried “who can be saved?” No wonder if we, who live in the richest society in the history of the world, if we too ask that same question and ought to be worried as well!

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, October 10, 2021.

Photo: San Antonio Abad, painting by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664)

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Saint John Henry Newman

Today, October 9, is the liturgical commemoration of Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one of the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers, canonized just two years ago in 2019.

Newman was an influential member of the English Oxford Movement while still an Anglican, prior to his conversion to Catholicism and his reception into the Church on this date in 1845.

He was the author of a famous autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1866), The Grammar of Assent (1870), the poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865, published in the new Paulist magazine The Catholic World), and the popular hymns Lead, Kindly Light and Praise to the Holiest in the Height. A priest of the Birmingham Oratory, Newman was created a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United Kingdom at an open-air Mass in Birmingham on September 19, 2010.  Newman’s significance for the wider English-speaking world was reflected in the presence of the Prince of Wales at his October 2019 canonization ceremony in Rome.

Newman never visited the United States, but Paulist founder Isaac Hecker visited him several times in England. After Hecker's death, Newman wrote:

"I have ever felt that there was this sort of unity in our lives - that we both had begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England, and I know how zealous he was in promoting it." (Letter to Paulist Fr. Augustine Hewit, February 28, 1889).

(Photo: Portrait, Newman in Choir Dress, by John Everett Millais, 1881)

Thursday, October 7, 2021


450 years ago today, on October 7, 1571, the Holy League for the Defense of Christendom, under the leadership of Don John of Austria (son of Emperor Charles V) with a formidable fleet, finally and decisively defeated the Turks at the Gulf of Lepanto, effectively ending the long-term Ottoman naval threat to Europe. (There would be one more decisive military encounter between Western Christendom and the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1687, after which Ottoman power would be in continuous decline until the 20th century.)

Pope Saint Pius V attributed the Christian victory at Lepanto to the intercession of the Mother of God, whom the faithful had invoked by praying the rosary, and October 7 is still celebrated as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Even Protestants celebrated the Christian victory over their common enemy, and the Protestant King of Scots James VI (the future King James I of England) composed an epic poem celebrating Don John's victory.

Actually, the Ottoman threat to Europe did not disappear immediately. According to historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (The Reformation, Viking, 2004, p. 55), "Islamic raiders enslaved around a million western Christian Europeans between 1530 and 1640; this dwarfs the contemporary slave traffic in the other direction, and is about equivalent to the number of West Africans  taken by Christian Europeans across the Atlantic at the same time." MacCulloch considers the fear engendered in Europe by this aggression "an essential background to the Reformation, convincing many on both sides that God's anger was poised to strike down the Christian world, and so making it all the more essential to please God by affirming the right form of Christian belief against other Christians. It is impossible to understand the mood of sixteenth-century Europe without bearing in mind the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire."

It has been suggested by some that one of the defining features of the post-Cold War world has been the rise of a more militant Islam and "the deep anxiety" that this has inspired throughout the Western world. The two situations are not the same, and the differences between the sixteenth century and now are major. Christendom no longer exists, and opposition by Europeans and Americans to certain Muslim states and non-state actors, whether militant or immigrant, is motivated much more by secular factors than by religious ones. Islam itself is divided along sectarian and national lines. It is impossible to speak univocally about Muslims, just as it is impossible to speak univocally about Christians or secular Westerners. 

The one constant, however, is that "deep anxiety," which undoubtedly exists on both sides. The post-9/11 "War on Terror" partakes of some of the same apocalyptic anxiety, such as Europe experienced during the Reformation period and the post-Reformation wars of religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the notable exception of the PLO, terrorism had been more a left-wing Western phenomenon (the IRA, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, etc.). At present, probably the greatest terrorist threat to the United States may now be from domestic right-wing, white supremacists. Even so, the end of the conflict in Afghanistan has heightened anxiety about that country possibly once again becoming a safe haven for terrorist activity.

For Europe, on the other hand, Islam is now a domestic reality in a way in which it never really was before. When Charles de Gaulle visited Moscow in December 1944 to seek Russian support against any revival of Germany, he is supposed to have said: “I deal with Stalin as François I dealt with Suleiman—with this difference, that in sixteenth-century France there was no Muslim party.” (He was referring, obviously, to the French Communist party.) Now, however, France has a significant Muslim minority. How European states, with much less of a tradition of immigration and assimilation than the United States, can successfully integrate immigrants from non-Western countries is a major challenge for those societies.

Hopefully, Europe's remaining Christians and its many former Christians and the new immigrants continuously coming to Europe's shores will figure this out more peacefully than their sixteenth-century ancestors were able to do, and will successfully set out on a new path toward a realistic accommodation of different traditions in an inevitably more multi-cultural, globalized Europe.

(Photo: The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Paolo Veronese, 1528-1588).

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Cathedral for the World

In our local liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the feast of the Anniversary of the Dedication of New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral, perhaps the most famous and most visited Catholic cathedral in the United States.

When the Diocese of New York was created in 1808, it had one church, Saint Peter's on Barclay Street, dedicated in 1786. Thanks to the Napoleonic Wars, New York's first bishop never made it across the Atlantic. So it was Boston's Bishop John Cheverus who dedicated the first Saint Patrick's Cathedral (now a Basilica) on Mulberry Street in 1815. It was New York's fourth bishop (and first archbishop), John Hughes, who planned the construction of the present magnificent structure on 5th Avenue at 50th Street. His intention was "to erect a cathedral in the city of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth as a religious community" and "a public architectural monument of the present and prospective greatness of this metropolis of the American continent." Designed by architect James Renwick, Saint Patrick's was formally opened by Hughes' successor, John Cardinal McCloskey, in 1879. It was finally consecrated by Archbishop John Cardinal Farley on October 5, 1910.

According to archdiocesan historian Thomas Shelley, in those early years "two parishes set the standard for the rest of the diocese, the new cathedral and the Paulist Church of St. Paul the Apostle." 

The combination of its neo-gothic grandeur (modeled on the cathedral of Cologne, Germany) and its accessibility at the heart of midtown Manhattan have made Saint Patrick's a constant stopping point for both resident New Yorkers and visiting tourists. When I was a boy, it was just a given that when the family went downtown to, for example, Radio City, we would "make a visit" to Saint Patrick's, a visit that was itself a unique amalgam of religious devotion and domestic tourism. That habit has lasted into adulthood and even old age. That is certainly a tribute to what a special place Saint Patrick's is - especially for us New Yorkers, for whom it is everything that Archbishop Hughes hoped and predicted. 

When we celebrate the dedication of a church, we obviously celebrate a place, a very special and sacred place set apart unlike any other. We also celebrate a people, the people the place represents. And we celebrate a relationship, the community connection that binds the people together.

All churches are special places, of course. As a priest, I am very fortunate to have served in two very different but especially beautiful and historic churches – Saint Paul the Apostle in New York and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, TN, the Victorian Gothic “Mother Church” of that city. There are, of course, many beautiful churches and many styles of churches, each with its own richness. There are ancient Roman basilicas, rugged Romanesque churches, great gothic cathedrals, and beautiful baroque churches. (Unfortunately, there are also any number of ugly churches to be seen - sterile modern structures, whose standard-issue ugliness expresses the spiritual impoverishment of our age, and testifies in its own way to a culture that seems at times to be losing its way.)
But, whatever they look like, churches are always special places. From time immemorial, people have had their special sites – hilltops, sacred springs, stone temples – to which to go to worship. God, of course, is personal, not local, and so is not confined to any one place. Still, as human beings, we can only operate in space and time, which is why God himself became human – in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. So it’s no surprise that, through the ages, God has continued to inspire his people to set aside special places in which to assemble to worship him. So Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple to be a holy house of prayer and sacrifice. So too the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great built and dedicated the Lateran Basilica in Rome to be the Pope’s special church, his cathedral, and hence “the mother and head of all the churches of the City and the world.”  
So too Archbishop Hughes and his successors planned and built and consecrated New York's great Cathedral, a gloriously neo-gothic imitation of the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany, located (like its model) at the heart of a great city center. I was privileged to visit the Cologne Cathedral during the 2005 World Youth Day. As part of the program, we went on pilgrimage, walking across the Rhine River on the Hohenzollern Bridge (the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany) to the cathedral's shrine of the Magi. The cologne Cathedral is big and grand and illustrates the legacy of the Old World of Christendom. Its American imitator is likewise big and grand and signifies the aspirations of the New World.
But, when we commemorate the dedication of a church, we also celebrate the people the place represents. That is why the anniversary of a church’s dedication is celebrated liturgically as a feast for all those whose church it is. As New York's principal church, Saint Patrick's is, in a sense, the church of everyone in this city. and, since this is a city of and for the entire world, it is a church for everyone from far and near. It is no accident that one and the same name, “Church,” is used for both the people who continue Christ’s presence in the world and the place where they assemble to experience his presence most directly, by proclaiming his word and celebrating his sacraments.
And, when we commemorate the dedication of a church, and especially when we celebrate that of a cathedral church, we also celebrate the relationship, the community connection, that binds its people together. As the site of the bishop’s cathedra, the chair from which the bishop exercises his teaching office and pastoral power within the local church, a cathedral is a sign of the unity of believers in the one faith, which the bishop proclaims and represents, which is why having a proper cathedral is so important in the life of a local church.
We need all three. We need places where we can be Church. We need to be a people who aspire to be Church and to build the Church in our city and our world. And we need the relationships with one another. the community connections, that can make this possible.
Throughout the United States, the Church is largely built - both physically and also spiritually - for a world that flourished a century ago. It was a world which the Catholic Church effectively reflected in cathedrals like Saint Patrick's and as effectively enriched, nourished, and served by means of cathedrals like Saint Patrick's and the community connections and relationships represented by such structures. Such places, their people, and the relationships they represent are now being challenged, no less than the New York Catholics of Archbishop Hughes' time were being challenged, to respond to new needs and new situations in ways which continue the accomplishments of the past and continue to foster faith and hope as we enter an increasingly uncertain future.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Nursing Nuns and a Vicar Cop


Two of my all-time favorite British TV series - Call the Midwife and Grantchester - have now returned for another new season of PBS.

Season 10 [!] of Call the Midwife continues the story of the nuns and their lay collaborators at Nonnatus House in the poor Poplar district in London's East End, bringing the sisters and their extended community of health workers, patients, and neighbors up to 1966. Originally based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who had worked with an Anglican religious nursing order, the Community of St. John the Divine (founded in 1849), serving the poor from their convent in London's East End, the series has continued beyond its original setting in the 1950s, still depicting the the day-to-day work of the midwives and the challenges faced by those they seek to serve, enriching each season with recognizable historical events and their effects on the characters' religious and social lives and the medical storylines.

It is now1966! So the Sisters are experimenting with an innovative plan to fund their ministry to Poplar's poor, and maybe modifying their Habits in the process. Tragically Dr. Turner and the midwives are confronting yet another new man-made cause of illness, deformity, and death for both parents and babies. And religious life remaions an unpredictable and challenging journey at every stage of life.

Meanwhile, also starting out in the 1950s but set in a Cambridgeshire village, Grantchester is based on an expansion of James Runcie's The Grantchester Mysteries, about an Anglican village Vicar who involves himself in solving murder mysteries with a local detective. For the first three seasons, it featured Vicar Sydney Chambers (James Norton), replaced in the next three seasons by Vicar Will Davenport (Tom Brittney), both of whom have unofficially partnered with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). We are now starting season 6, set in 1958.

In Cambridgeshire 1958, Reverend Will ("I am my work, and my work is me") really needs a vacation. So he and his whole Grantchester crowd - curate Leonard Finch (Al Weaver), housekeeper Mrs. Chapman (Tessa Peake-Jones) and her husband Jack (Nick Brimble), also Geordie with wife Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth) and their less-easy-to-entertain children, and even Leonard’s boyfriend Daniel (Oliver Dimsdale) - go to Merries Holiday Park, which is indeed as horrible a place as it sounds. Of course, the very next day, there is a body on the floor. Inevitably, Will and Geordie get to work and quite quickly solve the crime in time to return home on schedule. Meanwhile, however, an ominous cloud hovers on the horizon for Will's curate.

Welcome back, both series, for what will surely be another memorable season!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Emergency - or Business as Usual?

"The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves," warned Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan in a now famous article a little over a week ago. What Kagan called "the warning signs" of this crisis," he wrote, "may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial."

Indeed, it seems like "business as usual" in Washington, where the Democrats are fighting among themselves about the fates of the Build Back Better "Reconciliation" bill (which represents the President's legislative agenda) and the "bipartisan" Infrastructure bill, and fighting with Republicans in the perennial (and utterly unnecessary) soap opera about raising or suspending the federal debt limit. These "distractions of politics" may well be very entertaining, perhaps, for some. For most of the country, however, all this will likely do is simply confirm the widespread conviction that Congress can no longer do its job, that democratic government is increasingly unable to meet the needs of its citizens - even when what Congress is failing to do is what voters overwhelmingly want done. If government cannot do what it needs to do and what voters want it to do, is it any wonder that confidence in government is so low and that the viability of our political system seems in such jeopardy? As David Brooks asked in The New York Times, "Have we lost faith in our ability to reverse, or even be alarmed by, national decline?" De facto, for the likes of Senators Sinema and Manchin and all that much more so for most Republicans, the answer seems to be Yes, resoundingly so.

The crisis Kagan has warned about is connected, of course, with the Trump phenomenon in American politics. "Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024," Kagan insists. And "Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary." Many Americans have too easily reassured themselves, Kagan contends, that, because Trump failed to overturn the 2020 election, the system has survived unscathed. The system's framers, however, "did not establish safeguards against the possibility that national-party solidarity would transcend state boundaries because they did not imagine such a thing was possible. Nor did they foresee that members of Congress, and perhaps members of the judicial branch, too, would refuse to check the power of a president from their own party."

I have long been convinced that surprise calamities - like 9/11 in my lifetime and Pearl Harbor in my parents' time - were surprising not because there were no warning signs but because humans always find it hard to imagine what hasn't happened before. Likewise with the Trump phenomenon, it may be that many have failed to grasp its unique dangers. The Trump movement is historically unique, Kagan argues, not because of the passions that animate it, which "are as old as the republic and have found a home in both parties at one time or another," but because "for millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements."

Hence, the traditional workings of the American political system (even when they worked better than they do now) are inadequate to this current crisis. "The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of Trump supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns," according to Kagan. Again according to Kagan, "the most important thing Trump delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on Trump by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers."

Kagan "wonders whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves" as would be required to safeguard the next election, "whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system."

it is this current crisis, this existential emergency, which makes it suddenly so dangerous to adhere obsessively to past political forms like the filibuster and the cowardly chimera of "bipartisanship." It is likely the case, as Kagan implies, that responding to the material needs and cultural concerns of die-hard Trump supporters would not change many votes. It is however, arguably the purpose of government to do precisely that - not just for Trump voters, obviously, but for the majority of their fellow citizens whose needs and concerns need to be addressed promptly. It would be preferable, of course, to debate the substance rather than the cost of Build Back Better. It would make much more sense for Congress to debate, negotiate about, and vote on each of that bill's programs (child care, Medicare reforms, climate change, etc.) separately. But that is not possible because of the filibuster and the need to push everything through under the ridiculous senatorial rubric of "reconciliation." That said, however, the political imperative remains to accomplish something (undoubtedly something less than the utopian $3.5 trillion maximum). It is imperative both for its own sake, since these are things that need to be done and ought to have been done a long time ago, and also to begin the process of rebuilding confidence in our country and its form of government among the majority of non-Trump voters who need a reason to remain that way. 

Susan Glasser sums it up well in The New Yorker. "It’s about the central premise of Biden’s Presidency, the thing he sold America on: that government could actually get things done. That democracy works, that competence and calm could produce better outcomes than the chaos and craziness of the past four years. Biden’s success in getting things through Congress would be not just a policy victory but a vindication of the idea of his Presidency." 

More than Biden's presidency, it would be a much needed - very much needed right now - vindication of constitutional democratic government.

Friday, October 1, 2021

It's Synodality Time!

Sometime around 1960 or 1961, I mentioned at home something that had been said at school about the upcoming ecumenical council. My father asked what that was. Outside the rarified religious environment of a Catholic school, such complete unawareness of the upcoming council was probably quite common among ordinary American Catholic laypeople. (Of course, Catholic elites were involved in pre-conciliar consultations. A total of 138 responses were submitted by U.S. Bishops. These included a request from Washington's Archbishop O'Boyle for a conciliar condemnation of racism and racial discrimination.)

In two weeks, the world-wide "synodal process" proclaimed by Pope Francis is scheduled to begin at the local level throughout the Church. But, as in the period prior to Vatican II, one wonders how many American Catholics are even aware of it at all.

The official launch of the synodal process is scheduled to take place in Rome on October 10. Its conclusion will be the Synod of Bishops' next ordinary assembly, which will be held in Rome two years from now, focused explicitly on the issue of "synodality." Its official theme, chosen by Pope Francis, will be For a synodal church: communion, participation and mission. Meanwhile, all Local Churches (e.g., dioceses) are supposed to start engaging in the synodal process locally on October 17. During that first, local phase (through April 2022), input will be collected from local parishes and other groups. All that data will then be synthesized into a 10-page report to the national episcopal conferences (e.g., the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Then the national episcopal conferences will compile all the local input for the seven continental meetings - Africa, Oceania, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and North America (the U.S. and Canada) - the final documents from which will be the basis for the October 2023 Synod's working document (Instrumentum Laboris).

According to the official preparatory materials, the purpose of this present, first phase "is to foster a broad consultation process in order to gather the wealth of the experiences of lived synodality, in its different articulations and facets, involving the Pastors and the Faithful of the [local] Churches at all the different levels, through the most appropriate means according to the specific local realities." While they are encouraged to participate in the process in the context of the local Churches, religious communities, lay movements, and other ecclesial associations and groups may also contribute directly. The synodal process is intended "as an opportunity to open us, to look around us, to see things from other points of view, and to move out in missionary outreach to the peripheries." This "means broadening our perspectives to the dimensions of the entire Church," asking "What is God's plan for the Church here and now? How can we implement God's dream for the Church on the local level?"

Undoubtedly these events will duly take place, but at least in the United States unawareness of and indifference to the synod and "synodality" still seem to be widespread in the experience of many ordinary Catholics. 

Of course, just as Vatican II happened and changed the Church beyond recognition despite the unpreparedness of many Americans, so too the Synod on synodality will meet in October 2023 and will do whatever it is going to do, regardless of how actually engaged - or not - ordinary Catholics in local Churches have been. But, just as the American participation during Vatican II and the American reception of Vatican II after the fact might have been different had the level of prior popular engagement been greater, so too the same might be said of this upcoming synodal process.

"Understandably, I think everyone is wondering where this is going," observes Knoxville's Bishop Richard Stika. "Pope Francis recognizes this and has stated quite clearly that this is part of a bigger journey. That we are a Catholic community, and that as Christians, we are part of the largest faith group in the world. But we're not too big to still communicate with each other. The Holy Father has also reminded us that this is a spiritual process that requires discernment. It's not an exercise in holding meetings and having debates. We need to listen to each other, but mostly listen to what God and the Holy Spirit might be trying to tell each of us."

Thursday, September 30, 2021

"Midnight Mass" on Netflix

Horror films frighten me. Hence, I tend to avoid them. But Netflix' seven-episode limited series Midnight Mass not only comes highly recommended, but its title, with the obvious religious resonance and the implied Catholic context and concerns, was enough to make me at least curious. I still don't like horror. I have no absolutely interest in vampires. Yet, even at the cost of averting one's eyes at its worst, Midnight Mass is so much more than just a fright night.

Midnight Mass is a horror show set in an intensely (if increasingly bizarre) Catholic context, created by film maker Mike Flanagan, who is apparently known for his successful horror productions. Dramatically, almost all the action takes place on Crockett island, home to a small and shrinking island fishing community, that unexpectedly experiences surprising - possibly supernatural - events after the arrival of a new young parish priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who replaces their old monsignor, who has been pastor on the island for most of the characters' lives. Just as in our real life liturgical abuses often indicate even deeper disorders, likewise the increasingly strange liturgical life of the parish (culminating in a bizarre parody of an Easter Vigil) highlights how much is going wrong in the underlying experience of the community and the lives of its individual members.

The other principal protagonist is island native and former altar boy Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford). who, having left the island and apparently become quite successful, has now returned to his hometown after serving a four-year prison sentence for a drunk-driving accident that killed a young woman. Having lost his faith in prison, Riley struggles with lingering guilt over the woman he killed, even as he tries to reunite with his devout parents and with the island's Catholic community, which includes his former girlfriend, Erin Greene. She, having herself likewise earlier gotten away, has left her abusive husband and returned to town pregnant, and is now working at her mother's old job as a schoolteacher.

There are many other characters, of course. Among them are Riley's parents and his teenage brother, Warren. There is a girl Warren likes who is confined to a wheelchair after having been (accidentally) shot by the island's resident alcoholic. There is the local doctor, who, like Riley, rejects religion, while caring for her senile, but once very devout mother. Also outside the Church is the local sheriff, a widower and a Muslim, recently arrived along with his teen son. And at the center of the parish community is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who is portrayed as obviously unlikable, the very embodiment of the sort of self-righteous and self-serving religiosity that people like Riley and Erin find so off-putting. As such, she represents what to many today sadly seems to be the public face of religion. She is the sort of person who functions as the proverbial stumbling block for so many.

To say more would reveal too much and spoil the suspense for those who desire it. Suffice it to say that those attracted to horror will find enough of it. But, although weird things happen even in the first episode, it takes a while for the really scary stuff to emerge. Meanwhile, much of the series is taken up with some very serious dialogue on religious and spiritual issues, which is what makes it worthwhile for non-horror fans to tune in. And then there is an Easter sunrise that is worth the wait.

Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations occurs between Riley and Erin concerning what happens when we die - while Nearer My God To Thee plays softly in the background. Having lost all faith, Riley still understands the appeal of religion, but rejects it for himself. He understands death in totally materialistic terms. Everything stops: "clinical death." Yet, in the brief interlude before his brain dies, he believes his brain will release all of its dream drug, and he will dream bigger and better than ever before, "this firework display of memories and imagination." Then, it stops, "and there is nothing left of me." Erin, however, is completely preoccupied with the fate of the baby she has just miscarried, and tells Riley how her daughter has floated back above to where she came from, where she will wake up "wrapped in a feeling of love. Just pure, amazing love." Then, she will meet her family, achieve her perfect age, and happily await her reunion with her mother. That is heaven for Erin. "You are loved. And you aren't alone." In short, her hope is the opposite of Riley's despair.

Meanwhile, as miracles and seemingly supernatural phenomena appear to accumulate, different characters react differently. Bev, of course, exploits what happens in order to advance her own agenda, with catastrophic consequences for the entire community. Some seem innocently taken in, while others remain skeptical and look for rational explanations. There is, of course, another obvious - what I would suggest might be the correct - religious response: that, while real enough, some seemingly supernatural manifestations may be demonic instead of divine.

But even demons cannot defeat the power of love.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Surrounded by Angels


When I was confirmed in 1957 at the mature age of nine, I chose Michael for my confirmation name. I did not choose it to honor some relative or family friend. Rather, what impressed me most was its association with the great warrior archangel, Michael who battled against the dragon … who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:7-9). In those days, we regularly prayed to Saint Michael the Archangel after (Low) Mass: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. I really liked that prayer; and, for my confirmation, I wanted to identify with that great warrior archangel.

For centuries, Michael has been honored on this day. Hence, the traditional English name Michaelmas for today. Coming just after the autumnal equinox, as the days are visibly darkening, it must have seemed a very appropriate day indeed to honor the Church’s champion against the original “Dark Lord.” Since the calendar reform of 1969, the archangels Gabriel and Raphael (the only other angels identified with proper names in the Bible) have been folded in with Michael in one composite feast of the Archangels.

Where would we be without angels? Here in this church we are literally surrounded by statues, murals, and windows of angels – among them the three gilded bronze angels kneeling above the baldachin over the High Altar (photo) and the four bronze angels with outstretched arms and interlocking hands that encircle the huge globe of the sanctuary lamp. The Angel of the Moon, high up on the south wall of the sanctuary is considered one of the most notable of John La Farge’s murals. Its companion piece, The Angel of the Sun, on the north wall, was painted by William Laurel Harris (the same artist who also did the monumental mural The Crucifixion above the Church’s main entrance). Above and behind the High Altar, the central window depicts Mary Queen of Angels. On the south side of that central widow is a stained glass window of the Archangel Michael, and on the north side is one of the Archangel Raphael. The Archangel Gabriel appears in the painting above the Annunciation Altar in the south aisle. Painted figures of angels also flank that altar on either side, and angels are depicted adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance painted about the Sacred Heart Altar in the north aisle.

Likewise, the liturgy daily reminds us of angels. At every Mass, we join in praying the Sanctus, an acclamation based on the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the angels in heaven (Isaiah 6:3-4). The Gloria’s opening words recall the hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds on the first Christmas (Luke 2:14). At Funerals, we pray May the angels lead you into Paradise. That familiar In Paradisum prayer was, of course, the basis for Horatio’s famous farewell to Hamlet, Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2).

Then, there are the Guardian Angels, commemorated this coming Saturday, October 2.

It seems the angels really are everywhere – not just in pretty pictures and in the countless books found on the shelves devoted to angels in contemporary bookstores! Where would we be without them?

Homily for the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 29, 2021.