Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Impending Doom

"I'm going to reflect on the reoccurring feeling I have of impending doom," CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently said, adding, "we have so much reason for hope, but right now I'm scared."

And well we might all be, because, given the chance to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, if only we persevere with what needs to be done to get us to the end, so many instead have opted to try to break out through the tunnel walls, risking the flood of another covid surge. So we hear about and see pictures of people traveling here, there, and everywhere, "partying" (a contemporary word that seems to cover a multitude of bad behaviors) and otherwise endangering themselves and everyone else. And it is not just youthful "spring breakers" who are to blame. however much they may be a big part of the problem. Of course, the obvious question about "spring breakers" is, why are they still having "spring break" at all? Given the obvious malignancy of allowing "spring break" in a time of pandemic, why are schools and institutions of so-called higher learning not keeping students home, in class, or glued to zoom sessions instead of encouraging them to roam around the country causing such mischief? It is not just "spring breakers" who are to blame, but all those who have enabled that despicable and destructive custom to continue.

"Spring break" aside, there is also the widespread political problem of irresponsible officials abolishing mask mandates and otherwise encouraging risky behavior. How public health precautions like mask-wearing and getting vaccinated became politicized is something historians will look back on as undoubtedly one of the main contributors to the length and severity of this pandemic. That this has become a particular problem in this country is, of course, unsurprising, since it is one of the axioms of the classical liberal tradition (intellectually rooted in Hobbes and Locke and associated with important strains of American political thought and popular culture) that identifies as among the highest human values irresponsible individual freedom and liberty from government, which is understood as essentially coercive. So much of our political tradition has been rooted in the equating of government action with compulsion and coercion, and the consequent exaltation of individual private liberty at the expense of the common and public good. For some, the very point of refusing to wear a mask, for example, seems to be to display one's contempt for the common and public good. 

And that is how, even with the light already visible at the end of the tunnel, we risk flooding and drowning in the next surge.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Revealing Numbers

The title of an article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey in Monday's Washington Post put it starkly: "Church membership in the U.S. has fallen below the majority for the first time in nearly a century" (

The article is based on a recent Gallup poll, according to which 47% responded that they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque, while 48% said religion was important. This was the first time since Gallup first asked the church membership question in 1937 that the number has fallen below 50%. (In 1937, it was 73%).

To a large extent, this just confirms a pre-pandemic evolution in American society which many have long been observing. The picture, of course, varies somewhat generationally.  According to Gallup's data cited in the article, 66% of those born before 1946, 58% of baby boomers, 50% of Generation X, and 36% of millennials belong to a church. The article quotes Ryan Burge, who is both a Baptist pastor and a political scientist and also the author of The Nones: Where They Came From. Who They Are, and Where They're Going, who wonders "How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked when Christians are half what it was. Who picks up the slack, especially if the government isn't going to?"

A good question, which we cannot answer inasmuch as it is about the future. Questions about the present are another matter. The article also cites Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, who points to two particular trends among younger Americans. The first "points to broader shifts suggesting a larger distrust of institutions" and disillusionment with religious leaders, for example, white conservative Christians who aligned with Donald Trump. The second refers to "how people are mixing and matching from various religious traditions to create their own." She suggests that already existing trends in American religious life have been exacerbated "in Internet culture that celebrates ownership - the idea that you can re-create a meme or narrative ... curating your own experience."

Bot these tendencies should be very familiar to anyone who has been following the evolution of religious practice in the United States in recent decades. In my experience and observation, the second tendency has been around for a while. We see it increasingly even among churchgoers and especially around occasions which attract more marginal churchgoers such as weddings and funerals. The first tendency, rooted in a dangerously increasing distrust o institutions, has also been around a while, but it has been significantly exacerbated by the politicization of religion in recent decades. This the Post article also cites Shadi Hamid's recent Atlantic article that argued that religion is increasingly being replaced for many by politics. Recent events have, of course, highlighted how, many conservative Christians, for example, "are being less defined by their faith than by s set of more narrow concerns." Recognizing that Americans require "structures of belief and belonging," Hamid also asks what will replace religious affiliation.

At this point, no one can confidently predict what will actually happen once the pandemic is really behind us. We do know, however, that these worrisome trends preceded the pandemic. And we also know, from the way 2020 played out economically socially, and politically, that what was first and foremost a health crisis dramatically revealed existing economic, social, and political inequities and consequent crises. So it seems plausible to expect that this year's unexpected experience in the religious realm is revealing unanticipated - but actually already anticipatable - crises for religion as well.

(Photo: Floor Mosaic at Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY, depicting ancient Athens and the opening words of Saint Paul's speech to the Athenians: "I perceive that in every way you are very religious.")

Monday, March 29, 2021

Holy Week

Today's Gospel reading (John 12:1-11) is all that survives from the ancient liturgy for today. It is an especially appropriate Gospel for this first weekday of Holy Week. Mary of Bethany's lavish gesture in anointing Jesus' feet with expensive aromatic nard six days before Passover suggests a link between Mary's extravagant gesture and the Church's elaborate ceremonial in Holy Week. This story serves as a great introduction to what we do as Church during Holy Week - with intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, deliberately over-the-top ceremonies, extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church pulls out all the stops this week - and for a good reason. Not for nothing was this week once (not so long ago) called The Great Week.

Of course, thanks to the pandemic and the necessary precautions we have had to adopt, last year's Holy Week's ceremonies were reduced to a minimalistic residue. This year, presumably, will see something more than last year's minimalism but less than the extravagant ceremonial this week properly calls for.

The Church has a great story to tell - better by far than any TV mini-series - and an important one, which needs to be told with all the ritual riches in the Church's treasury. Right now however, it is increasingly minimally heard and minimally seen.

(Photo: Palm Sunday at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

Typically, Palm Sunday has been one of the most popular days for church attendance, and normally no pastor would ever want to be caught with an insufficient supply of palms to satisfy the earnest demand of the eager crowds. Last year, however, we had no congregation. The then prevalent preoccupation with touching things (at that time taken so seriously as a vehicle for spreading covid-19) meant that we dared not even leave the blessed palms on a table for people to pick up and take home. So just a few palms were blessed at our first live-streamed Mass that Sunday and the rest stored in a freezer for hoped-for later distribution or church decoration. (As it happened, when that opportunity came we found that the palms had rotted even in the refrigerator. So last year's order of palms went wasted.)

This year, for the first time in many, I won't be personally blessing any palms, but I do hope at least to receive a piece of palm. Palm Sunday may be about more than getting palms, but Palm Sunday certainly starts with blessing and getting palms, as even the traditional name for the day suggests. (The palms have given the day its typical title at least since Saint Isidore in 7th-century Spain and Saint Bede in 8th-century England.) 

But, personally, my favorite feature of Palm Sunday has always been singing Gloria Laus et Honor during the procession (its original 39 verses composed by Bishop Theodulph of Orleans in 818). It is a fantastic hymn, well worth waiting once a year for. 

In contrast to the exuberance of the procession, the Roman Rite has historically emphasized the memory of Christ's Passion and Death during the Mass, the centerpiece of which was traditionally the proclamation of the Passion According to Saint Matthew. Back in the day, Saint Augustine stressed the importance of the practice and its solemnity (Sermon 218). Of course, back when most people went to Mass on Sundays (especially on Palm Sunday), this was the annual occasion for most people to hear the full Passion story. It still is the most likely occasion for most people ever to hear it, although, of course, now fewer and fewer people attend Sunday Mass. (In the contemporary Pauline liturgy, instead of reading each of the four Passion accounts on its traditional day of Holy Week each year, the three synoptic Passion accounts are rotated on Palm Sunday. So this year the reading will be from the Gospel according to Mark.)

What will remain of Palm Sunday post-pandemic? Even before the pandemic, a novel, rather disturbing trend had appeared - people leaving their palms in the church at the end of Mass. In fact, we had noticed this particular development a couple of years ago and I was all set to crank out some targeted catechesis on the role of sacramentals like palms and reasons to take the blessed palms home. Then the pandemic came and rendered the issue at least temporarily moot.

Another threat to Palm Sunday comes from the increasing (already pre-pandemic) tendency to arrive late at Mass. When a large part of the congregation arrives after the procession, what is the point of the procession? (In retrospect, the post-conciliar liturgy's relocation of the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes from the beginning of Mass to the middle, while liturgically illogical, has proved to be a great pastoral success.) 

It is certainly true that the liturgy, as Vatican II famously said, "is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." But if church attendance continues to plummet post-pandemic, what then?

(Photo: Palm Sunday at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY)

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Wasting a Crisis?

Back when I was in school in the now ancient history of mid-20th-century America, it was widely thought that an American president's most effective year was typically his third  - given the time it takes to adjust to the job (consider, for example, JFK's disastrous first year) and given the need to campaign for re-election in the fourth year. Since then, of course, campaigns are permanent, not just reserved for the fourth year; and the increased likelihood of losing control of Congress at the mid-term have moved the most promising period for presidential success to the very beginning of an administration. Correctly or not, it seems almost axiomatic now that President Biden has at most a matter of months to implement his agenda. What that means, of course, is that the Democrats need to maximize whatever benefits their 'control" of Congress gives them not only before losing that control at the mid-term election but also while the current atmosphere of crisis remains center stage. As Rahm Emmanuel is alleged to have said, one should never let a crisis go to waste, which, however, may be exactly what the Democrats appear to be doing.

Now, given the Biden Administration's incredible success in passing the monumentally transformative ARP, I may seem to be exaggerating to make my point. So what is the point? As I see it, the Biden Administration and the Democrats face two particularly powerful threats. The first is the persistence of immigration as an issue - not immigration per se but immigration as an issue, exacerbated by the media's obsession with seeing it as a "crisis" at the border. Policy considerations aside, immigration as an issue can help only Republicans, who (aided and abetted by sensation-seeking media) stand to exploit and benefit from it. The other is that, in addition to the ARP, Biden and the Democrats must continue to be seen as actually improving people's lives, which, however, is hard to do under our system. Unlike most democratic polities, which benefit from parliamentary political systems, winning elections does not automatically enable a party to implement its program. Hence the electorate gets disappointed and loses faith in government, which always works to the advantage of Republicans, who instead of offering to improve people's lives successfully exploit people's perceived grievances, both real and imagined.

However, to implement much of a program that may actually improve people's lives and the overall condition of the country, both the President and his party must finally shed vestigial illusions about the chimera of bipartisanship and about the institution of the Senate. They must abandon their fondness for the storied traditions (which are actually relatively recent and hardly all that traditional) of that anti-democratic and drastically dysfunctional body. While the inherently unjust character of the Senate itself, rooted in the unfortunate equality irrevocably accorded by the Constitution to the states - Madison famously described the equality of states in the Senate as a departure from justice - cannot be undone, some of the Senate's more modern failures, like the infamous filibuster, could be undone, were there a will to make the Senate serve its proper legislative purpose.

In theory, Democrats see government action as a solution to many of the social and political problems which afflict American society. On the other hand, despite their ostensible desire to accomplish things through government action, many Democrats do seem unduly susceptible to the misguided popular affection for "bipartisanship" (an ideal many in the public profess but few if any are willing to support or reward) and to the fantasy that maintaining manifestly obstructionist tactics like the filibuster somehow promotes bipartisan debate and compromise (the very things that the filibuster in fact functions to prevent). In fact, the filibuster has proved to be precisely the "poison," which Hamilton in Federalist 22 predicted any supermajority requirement would be.

It is all good and well to denounce voter suppression efforts in Georgia and elsewhere as "Jim Crow," but the analogy is ominous. The last time we had "Jim Crow" in this country, the federal government did nothing about it for decades. A misguided affection for non-existent "bipartisanship" and an even more misguided affection for such dysfunctional Senate traditions as the filibuster would once again guarantee a repetition of that history of inaction.

Friday, March 26, 2021

New York, New York, New York (The Book)


Once, when asked to name his three favorite American cities, Willian "Holly" Whyte (1917-1999) answered "New York, New York, New York." Thus, the inspiration for the title of Thomas Dyja's delightful chronology of four decades of New York City - surviving and thriving through its four R's (Renaissance, Reconsideration, Reformation, Reimagination) - New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation (Simon and Schuster, 2021).

Dija begins his story at Tavern-on-the-Green on Valentine's Day 1978, the first "I Love New York Day," when the city was just beginning to recover from its period of drastic decline from the "workers' paradise," my generation had grown up in - a city " with its own free university, hospitals, low transit fares, and lots of public housing  that balanced the mansions along Fifth Avenue." In place of the city's old social contract, the city had become dysfunctional, more surviving than thriving. Dija tells the story of how, in the aftermath of that crisis, mayors from Koch to De Blasio and countless other individual New Yorkers combined to make New York so much better - but also, in some ways, worse.

Dija identifies seven themes through the story: "how City Hall made an ungovernable city governable; how the once Great Conversation of New York culture broke apart; how AIDS transformed Gay New York and the city as a whole; how the built landscape and public space were fundamental to new growth and community while also creating inequality and new forms of control; how millions of immigrants stabilized and globalized the city even as its People of Color confronted diminished power, dislocation, and brutality; the impact of technology on nearly every aspect of life in New York; and finally, the rise of Brooklyn as an expansion fo the city's consciousness of itself."

As a New York native and lover of the city's public parks, I particularly appreciated his treatment of the recovery of the city as a public space, starting with its amazing network of public parks, which had become "a textbook example of  the 'Tragedy of the Commons' wherein a public good is destroyed because every individual takes advantage of it with no thought of the greater good." Another important moment in the recovery of the city as a public space was the historic State Health Law 1310, which went into effect on August 1,1978, which for the first time required citizens "to pick up after their dogs" and so "admit their own civic responsibilities."

Inevitably, the book recounts the rise of two New Yorkers who were subsequently inflicted on the country as a whole, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani.. "Of all the things [Mayor] Abe Beame can be blamed for," he writes, "Donald J. Trump is by far the worst." As for the politically ambitious Giuliani, Dija observes how Giuliani's "Catholic righteousness made him look above politics. Which was a very good thing when you wanted to enter politics." It was in the Mayor Giuliani years, Dija notes, that "New Yorkers suddenly noticed changes that had bene in the works for years." Unfortunately, that was also the period that, in the words of former UDC head Richard Kahan, we redefined "our sense of community in the narrowest possible manner."

Then, came September 11, which Dija recalls vividly and well, as so many of us who were New Yorkers at the time still do. He writes of "the silence of those empty, blasted streets" and "memories shoved behind a door that never fully closes," and of how "the full grief of past decades was released." Dija sees 9/11 as "the final vindication of people like Holly white, Jane jacobs, and Gordon Davis who believed that New Yorkers wanted to trust each other and did; that they had a natural inclination to live reasonably and civilly with each other." Then, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Giuliani was succeeded by another nominal Republican, Michael Bloomberg, of whom ex-Mayor Koch said, "he's changed the climate of the city so that people are no longer frightened of the mayor." Amazingly, Dija continues the story from Bloomberg to DeBlasio, through the financial crisis and the bailouts to Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy to Trump's election and the pandemic.

Through it all, the lesson to take away is that "New York City will not die ... because the world needs it too much, because New Yorkers want it too much. The density and the constant dance of shared space; the speed and convenience; arts, commerce, and conviviality all tied together; that's always been the ultimate purpose of cities - to facilitate exchange between human beings." 

Any New Yorker would do well to read this book, both for the past memories it recalls, the present problems it describes, and the future hopes it offers in its prescriptions for responding to today's challenges.

Thursday, March 25, 2021


On retreat in Algeria on Holy Saturday 1950, as the Easter bells were already ringing from Oran's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the future Pope Saint John XXIII (at that time, the Apostolic Nuncio to France) wrote in his Journal this passage, from which I quoted in this space when I turned 70 three years ago:  

When one is nearly seventy, one cannot be sure of the future. ... So it is no use nursing any illusions: I must make myself familiar with the thought of the end, not with dismay which saps the will, but with confidence which preserves our enthusiasm for living, working, and serving.  … As for my soul, I shall try to make the flame burn more brightly, making the most of the time that remains as it passes more swiftly away.

Some sober and sensible thoughts to consider on my 73rd birthday today! 

A lot has happened of course, since I first quoted that passage - not least a world-wide pandemic, a catastrophically imminent reminder of mortality, which totally upended my final 10 months as a pastor, forcing me (like everyone else, young or old) to face unique and unexpected challenges and to acquire hitherto unnecessary skills (like live streaming and holding zoom meetings). If old age didn't already activate a certain sensibility about one's life and destiny, the experience of this past year has further forced the issue.

One constant, of course, is the coincidence of my birthday falling on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. The day the Church commemorates the Incarnation, has always given my birthday an added focus. The Incarnation is, after all the mystery at the very center of Christian faith, our otherwise incredible experience of God's option for radical connection with his world. The divine self-communication, the Word of God, has become part of our world, adapting himself to us in a genuinely human historical life - lived, as we humans all must live, in a particular time and place, with all the specificity that requires - in order to be and reveal God's solidarity with us, precisely in our vulnerability. The Incarnation is the sacred centerpiece of God's action, for the sake of which the world itself was created.

There is also a tradition which links this day with the crucifixion as well as with the Incarnation, reflecting, I suppose, a very classical fondness for symmetry. In 2016, when I was only 68, Annunciation and Good Friday fell on the same date, something not scheduled to happen again until 2157. When it happened in 1608, the English poet John Donne wrote: "This Church, by these days join, hath shown Death and conception in mankind is one." (From Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day 1608).

In patristic and medieval tradition, since at least the 3rd century, March 25 - then the date of the vernal equinox in the Julian calendar - was thought to be both the anniversary of the Annunciation, the Incarnation of the Son of God as Son of Mary, and of the Crucifixion. This represented the kind of spiritual and symbolic thinking that our ancient and medieval ancestors so loved and understood. (The traditional Roman Martyrology reflects this in making March 25 the anniversary of the death of "the Good Thief.") However fanciful and historically uncertain, this idea underlines the profound fact that Christ's death completed his mission in the world, overcoming the human race's historical alienation from the God who created us in order to be in solidarity with us. Now, having lived and died in solidarity with us, the Risen Christ, seated forever to intercede for us with his Father, invites us to live now forever solidarity with him.

Meanwhile, the advent of another birthday invites me to reflect more upon my new experience of life in retirement. Coincidentally, I recently read an article by a British priest (Thomas O'Loughlin, of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham), evocatively titled: "Ministry, vocation and life: a reflection on resigning oneself to resignationRecovering our sense of the real difference between life in Christ, vocation and ecclesial function." (To access the actual article, go to:

The occasion for O'Loughlin's article is the curious case of Fr. Enzo Bianchi, the charismatic founder of the Italian ecumenical community at Bose, recently forced out by Pope Francis. "A charismatic leader grows old – the effluxion of time – and a new person must take over leadership," O'Loughlin suggests. This and other such cases, he argues,  "should remind Christians of a more fundamental truth. We have always said that we recognized that ministry and vocation within a person's life are distinct, even if often overlapping. But, in fact, we have not really believed it!"

It is this customary conflation of ministry and life under the rubric of "vocation," which contributes to the situation in which one's work is one's life, which is what makes retirement so problematic and even painful for so many. While I don't actually agree with everything O'Loughlin argues in his article, I do agree that, with the contemporary institutionalization of retirement in Church life, we are very "slowly recovering our sense of the real difference between life in Christ, vocation and ecclesial function." He cites the unique example of Pope Benedict's resignation in 2013, whereby "he demonstrated that his own vocation as a human being is distinct from his ecclesial role." He calls this "a far more important demonstration of this forgotten aspect of our theology than if he had written several encyclicals on the presbyterate!" And, while I do worry that papal resignations pose problems for the Church, I see his point. 

On the other hand, we live in an era that drastically devalues lifelong commitments - whether in marriage or religious vocation. And the world and the Church are all poorer because of that. All the more reason, then, for a more nuanced treatment of this issue, one which balances the lifelong character of vocation with cultivating an age-appropriate approach to the ministerial component inherent in one's vocation, an approach that recognizes that vocation is, first and foremost, the call of a person to a life, which includes work but is more than work, a call which perdures regardless of the transient forms the work may take. The practical problem, remains, of course, of discerning anew how to continue living the fullness of one's vocation in increasingly limited circumstances, in a world in which secular society offers only two models, both problematic, the active life entirely all about work and the retired life largely all about unproductive, pointless leisure.

Monday, March 22, 2021

New Rules at Saint Peter's

A new policy, promulgated (somewhat unusually) by the Holy See's Secretary of State specifies that, at Saint Peter's Basilica as of today, individual celebrations of the Eucharist (commonly called "private Masses") are prohibited. This in a basilica with a multitude of side altars originally erected for precisely that purpose and where hitherto a multitude of priests (many of whom presumably are there because they work in the Vatican) have been accustomed to offer daily Mass at those altars, mostly individually! 

The practice of celebrating Mass without a congregation is, admittedly, a peculiar one. It is, however, a longstanding practice in Church history and one which is well established in priestly piety and is ostensibly protected by Church law. It was, in fact, explicitly enshrined at Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium 57, 2, 2: Nevertheless, each priest shall always retain his right to celebrate Mass individually, though not at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass, nor on Thursday of the Lord's Supper. (Presumably, the new policy's provision for specifically scheduled concelebrated Masses alternately at the Altar of the Chair and in the Chapel of the Choir may be interpreted as a way of getting around this conciliar guarantee.)

The provision for specifically scheduled concelebrated alternatives "liturgically animated with the assistance of readers and cantors" suggests one motive may be an attempt to make Saint Peter's (prior to the pandemic, one of the most visited churches in the entire world) an exemplary showcase for a post-conciliar style of liturgy. All things considered, this may be a promisingly positive step. One of the problems with the "ideal type" of post-conciliar liturgy is that it is hard to do on a daily basis, but presumably Saint Peter's has the resources to do this. (Typically in parishes, at least in my experience, readers may be found at many daily Masses, but cantors almost never.)

When the pandemic set in a year ago, there was a period of more than two months when public celebrations of Mass were suspended and I regularly offered Mass privately by myself. on weekdays. (Sunday Mass was live streamed with the assistance of a deacon, a reader, and a cantor.)   As a parish priest for almost 25 years prior to the pandemic, however, I had only limited occasions without public responsibilities, when I might accordingly celebrate privately all by myself. While I preferred it to no Mass at all, generally speaking, I did not find it as spiritually enriching as I had anticipated, and I certainly would have preferred celebrating or concelebrating Mass with others present. Vatican II's revival of concelebration, whatever else may be said on the subject, has had a very beneficial effect on the Church's liturgical life, vividly expressing the public and communal character of the liturgy. At priests' gatherings (retreats, convocations, study days, etc.), I always looked forward to concelebrating in fellowship with my brother priests, and I cannot imagine preferring the pre-conciliar alternative of everyone celebrating on one's own on such occasions. The post-conciliar liturgical reform may have been only a partial success and may have multiple flaws, but one very positive development has been reclaiming the public communal character of the liturgy and helping priests and people both to learn to pray the Mass together rather than praying alone even while maybe being physically together in the same place.

Of course, especially in a place like Saint Peter's, there are all sorts of special cases - for example, a priest who needs or wants to celebrate in a language different from the one in which the scheduled Mass will be celebrated. Likewise lay people visiting the basilica early in the morning might appreciate the opportunity to find a Mass being celebrated in a familiar language. Hence, the desirability for some more pastoral flexibility than that displayed by this new policy. And, of course, riding roughshod over the rights of others (in this case the priests whose rights are ostensibly guaranteed by Sacrosanctum Concilium), while common, remains regrettable. That said, the Secretariat of State's stated goal of "wishing to ensure that Holy Masses in St Peter's Basilica take place in an atmosphere of recollection and liturgical decorum" is a desirable one, and this policy, if intelligently and sensitively implemented, may perhaps make a contribution to that goal's realization.

(Photo: Saint Peter's Basilica, as seen from the Roof of the Pontifical Urban University, Rome, 2012)

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Seeing and Hearing


Some Thoughts on this 5th Sunday of Lent, March 21, 2021.

Back in the old days, that is, before this terrible pandemic and the shutting down of so much of public life, I remember how, after the Saturday afternoon matinees, a crowd would gather outside the Broadway theaters to get a good glimpse of some actor or actress in the cast and maybe even talk to him or her and get an autograph. That’s more or less how I imagine the scene in today’s Gospel [John 12:20-33], when some Greeks came to Philip and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” They approached Philip, because being from Bethsaida in Galilee, Philip presumably could converse comfortably with them in Greek. Mindful of his place in the hierarchy, however, Philip went and told Andrew, Peter’s brother. Then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 

Now, you might think, after all this, that we might hear more about those Greeks and their meeting with Jesus.  John never mentions them again, however. We never hear whether or not they actually got to meet Jesus. We may presume that they did, and that, along with Andrew and Philip and the rest of the crowd, they got to hear him speak about how the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and hear him pray “Father, glorify your name,” the prayer of a faithful Son, full of confidence in his Father’s response. In fact, assuming they hung around long enough, they would also have heard the Father’s answer.
Of course, the crowd there disagreed – as people still do (and do a lot) - about Jesus. Some said “An Angel has spoken to him,” but others just thought it was thunder.  Who and what Jesus is – the living Son of God, or a long-dead historical curiosity, a passing fad that came and went with all the permanence of the last thunderstorm or the latest cultural fad – is also at the heart of who and what we are. 

Conditioned as we all are nowadays by photo and film records of recent historical figures and events, we too perhaps would like to have seen Jesus. Obviously, such access to the past is impossible. The only Jesus to whom we have actual access in the present is the Risen Christ, the living Son of God. Like the Greeks, who, for access to Jesus, went to Philip and Andrew (in other words, those appointed as Apostles), our access to Jesus, our encounter with Christ, is through the Church, which continues his life and work in the world.
We encounter Christ through our ongoing experience of being his Church – not just in what happens (or at least used to happen prior to the pandemic) on Sundays, but in a very special way what is meant to happen on Sunday to form us as Church for the rest of the week and for the rest of life. The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus once remarked how consistently touched he was by the phrase before the Sign of Peace, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” The Church is that faithful host of faithful people, both living and dead, who sustain us in faith, in hope, and in love - a Communion of Saints that, in spite of our sins, unites us here and now with the faithful all over the world and back through time with those who have shown Christ to the world in the past.
What this also means is that (again like the Greeks in the Gospel) the rest of the world also encounters Christ explicitly through its experience of his Church. Indeed, as has so often been said, the Church is essentially the only experience of Christ most people will ever have in life – the one face of Christ they will see, the one word of God they will hear. So, if in any way, our behavior conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent - precisely when and where it most needs to be proclaimed - and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ sacrificed himself in order to save.

(And how often has that happened - not just through malice and forethought but through misguided inadvertence, when the word of God and the love of God are formally proclaimed but obscured by the careless insensitivity of the proclaimer to those to whom the proclamation must be addressed!)
We hear many stories about sons in the Bible – beginning back at the literal beginning with Cain and Abel. In Jesus, we see the ultimate Son, God’s Son, whose perfect obedience is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him [Hebrews 5:7-9].
In that he is everything there is to be, while revealed in and through his church, he is everything anyone ever needs to see.

Saturday, March 20, 2021


At 5:37 a.m. today, with the sun directly above the equator and the day divided into equal hours of light and dark, spring came to 2021. In my experience, spring means, first and foremost, increased sneezing. Beyond the sneezing, spring suggests mild temperatures, rain, pretty plants and flowers, and doing things outdoors more than in winter. Before the climate got so hopelessly distorted, spring was a serious season that lasted a determinate amount of time and had it own appropriate attire. (Remember spring coats?) Nowadays, sadly, spring sometimes quickly comes and goes, as winter winds down into summer. Very cold days are soon succeeded by very hot days with only a modest interval in between, the interval we have historically experienced as spring.

This year, spring signifies something special. The milder weather that invites one to venture outdoors parallels the milder societal environment of diminishing anxiety as more and more of us are vaccinated and more and more restrictions and pandemic precautions gradually lapse. In point of fact, of course, it is still quite cold out - and we are all (or almost all) still wearing our masks. The change in our behavior as the pandemic crisis wanes will have to be gradual - as gradual as the change in the weather once was. Meanwhile, we seem caught between two extremes - those wedded to a forever winter in which the maximum precautions continue indefinitely as our new normal and those insisting on an early summer ready to shed all restraints and precautions right way. Myself, I am standing somewhere in the spring-like middle. I wear my mask faithfully. I am okay with riding the bus (where masks are mandatory), but I am still scared to go to a restaurant. (conveniently the latter is both less necessary and much more expensive than the former!)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Universal Patron

In his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde (December 8, 2020), Pope Francis commemorated the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pius IX's proclamation of Saint Joseph as patron of the Universal Church, by establishing this year as a "Year of Saint Joseph." He did so in the midst of and in conscious response to the terrible world-wide pandemic we have been living through this past year.

Almost 260 years ago, in the midst of a terrible Civil War, on March 19, 1863, Servant of God Isaac Hecker preached a famous sermon on Saint Joseph, the doctrine contained in which he described as the groundwork of all his thoughts, actions, and plans. Joseph, Hecker said, referencing the Gospel of the day:

was a just man. He possessed all virtues, he was faithful in all the duties and relations of life, and so the Holy Ghost calls him just, not kind, or affectionate, not self-denying, or devout, or humble, though he had all these virtues, but just, which includes all these and more. His virtue was like the light, colorless because it was complete. He was an all-sided man. He combined in himself the sanctities of different and variously separated states and conditions. ... The more a civilization solicits the exercise of man's intelligence, and enlarges the field for the action of his free-will, the broader will be the basis that it offers for sanctity. ... Christianity is designed for the sanctification of our whole nature, with all its faculties, powers, and propensities, since it was the entire and complete manhood that was united to the Godhead in Christ; we affirm, therefore, that the more advanced and complete a civilization, the wider will be the sphere for the display of the divine character. ... [Saint Joseph] was in the world, and found God where he was. He sanctified his work by carrying God with him into the work-shop. St. Joseph ... found the means of perfection in the world, and consecrated it to God by making its cares and duties subservient to divine purposes. ...While occupied with the common, daily duties of life, his mind was fixed on the contemplation of divine truths, thus breathing into all his actions a heavenly influence. ... St. Joseph stands forth as an excellent and unsurpassed model of this type of perfection. ...For it is the difficulties and hindrances that Christians find in their age which give the form to their character and habits, and when mastered, become the means of divine grace and their titles of glory. Indicate these, and you portray that type of sanctity in which the life of the Church will find its actual and living expression.

Photo: Altar of Saint Joseph, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY.

Photo: Saint Joseph Altar, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Waking up in the Dark

Thanks to our absurd annual fetish for changing the clock (sometimes supported in lieu of a coherent energy policy), we are again waking up in the dark this week. Of course, we are supposed to wake up in the dark during the winter. When winter slides into spring, however, dawn is supposed to start arriving earlier. Such is the marvelous mechanism of the change of seasons, which I for one generally enjoy. (The variety of the different seasons is, I think, one of the more attractive aspects of living in the non-equatorial latitudes.)

A year ago, the unwelcome annual arrival of Daylight Saving Time meant a few extra weeks of driving in the morning in the dark. Now that I am no longer a commuter, that concern is no longer mine. Maybe that is why, since it matters to me less now, Daylight Saving Time came upon me almost unexpected. That said, as public policy, this semi-annual ritual of tinkering with the clock continues to inconvenience many with no obviously greater contribution to the common good.

And now there are proposals to make DST a year-long thing. The measurement of minutes and hours is inherently an artificial convention of civilization. Time zones, which standardize minutes and hours over a wide distance (approximately a full hour's course of the sun from the time zone's eastern end to its western end) add additional artificiality, deviating to some degree from what the local "sun dial" time might be. (Interestingly, I have lived virtually all my life at the more extreme ends of the time zones - most of the time at the eastern end of the Eastern Time Zone, for the last 10 years and more briefly in the mid 1980s at the western end of that same zone, and once for four years at the end of the 1970s at the eastern end of the Central Time Zone.)

So year-long DST would add an hour's worth of artificiality to an already artificial system of "standard" time. I would personally prefer junking DST altogether and sticking with standard time all year round, with what seems like just the right amount of getting up in the dark. Given the choice, however, I would personally prefer even year-long DST to the present nonsense of switching back and forth, with all its unnecessary disruption and inconveniences.

(PhotoDaylight Saving Time 101 National Geographic)

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Ides of March Then and Now

A year ago, the Ides of March fell on the Third Sunday of Lent. By then, the Covid-19 pandemic, which had already been insidiously making its way around the world for months, was now an established presence in the United States, and we were suddenly (and somewhat unwillingly) being roused from our lethargy and complacency to acknowledge the increasing threat. Whereas a mere one week earlier, it had been more or less business as usual, by that Sunday, attendance was already noticeably down and and the first precautionary adaptations were being implemented.  

It all happened so fast. A year later, the return to "normal" (whatever "normal" might mean) is happening slowly, in fits and starts. Encouraged by increasingly widespread access to the new vaccines, more and more we are stepping back out into something like an ordinary world. Meanwhile, we wonder, what have we learned, and what difference has it made?

The more I look back on this past year, the more perplexing the whole experience seems. Notwithstanding the historical memory of plagues past, including the last proper pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, such horrors seemed alien to modernity, more like the stuff of science fiction. The last big polio scare of the the early 1950s is remembered, after all, for being the last, before Jonas Salk saved the world with the first polio vaccine. My generation had all been vaccinated against smallpox, polio, and more recently shingles. Diseases were preventable now. Pandemics were for far away places where people intermingled too freely with wildlife, and diseases like ebola resulted. But, then, what was Lyme Disease or Zika?

Then suddenly we were surrounded on all sides by this new virus for which we had neither vaccine nor any anti-viral medication, and we were as exposed and endangered as our ancestors were when the Bubonic Plague arrived, equally uninvited, in Europe in October 1347.

Except that we had Zoom - and Facebook. Imagine if a year ago anyone had told us we needed to learn how to celebrate Mass on Facebook! Who would ever have thought of such a thing, apart perhaps from some obsessive technophile eager to equate evangelization with the latest soul-destroying technological upgrade? Then, all of a sudden, it was something we were all expected to do - and right away. (Actually it took us a couple of weeks to get up to speed. It was Palm Sunday already when we celebrated our first Facebook Mass.)

Instead of the interpersonal joy of meetings, there was zoom. Instead of a quick stop at the supermarket, there were pre-planned excursions to the store, maybe at certain, early morning, "senior" hours, armed with mask and gloves and sanitizer, followed by the ludicrous washing and sanitizing of groceries and even mail. Such "hygiene theater," as it later famously came to be labelled probably contributes less than we hoped to our health and safety, but it somehow reassured us in some obsessive-compulsive way. 

Meanwhile, as we slowly learned what precautions really did matter and really might make a difference in keeping one alive or out of the hospital or even better not sick at all, we found ourselves surrounded by foolishly fearless folks, for whom the precautions mandated for public health were an intolerable burden on their inalienable right to oppose the common good. Even now, one year later, when I go out for a walk or to do an errand, I still find myself uncomfortably walking past the occasional unmasked person or (just as bad) someone with his or her mask on wrong, as if the mask were a useless fashion accessory rather than a practical health precaution.

And, for all the talk about being all in this together, we all know, because we have seen it, how this pandemic has affected different people and different communities in very different and unequal ways, and how our morally corrupt "system" of health care continue to prioritize making money. A year ago, during pre-pandemic presidential primaries, the issue surfaced of the need for something like "Medicare for All." The pat year has highlighted our need for that, but are we any closer.

And so it goes. Of course, we all want to see family and friends again and go out to dinner on occasion and go to a movie. But do we want to enrich airline companies by flying again, now that we have all survived a year without flying? There are so many such questions that we need to be asking. And, not just asking, but answering.

Sunday, March 14, 2021


Some Thoughts on this 4th Sunday of Lent, March 14, 2021.

God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes I him might not perish but might have eternal life [John 3:16]This sentence may be one of the best known in the entire New Testament. I guess that’s good publicity for the Gospel! And what could count as better news, in a world like. ours so starved of good news? God loved the world so much, that he gave us who life in this world his only Son, so that we might have eternal life. The grammar of the sentence suggests cause and effect. So much does God love the world that this is what he has done for it!

Of course, it should hardly come as a complete surprise that God loves the world. He is, after all, the one who created it! On the other hand, we may easily enough be tempted to forget just how much God loves the  world, when we see so much that seems so wrong with our world. Left to itself, the world can seem to be a dreadful place at times - much of the time, for many maybe most of the time. With all the world’s natural calamities, of which the current pandemic is just the most dramatic contemporary example, to which must be added all the misery directly attributable to human behavior, much of it intensely illuminated by the bright light this pandemic has shown on our social and economic and cultural inequities and dysfunctions, the world must seem a horrible place indeed - if left to itself. 

Listening to today’s 1st reading [2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23]we sense how little seems to have changed in the world. The point of the story – certainly the point of including it in the Lenten liturgy on this Mid-Lent Laetare Sunday– is to remind us of the long and loud legacy of human sinfulness, and to remind us that the one piece of good news is that God has not abandoned the world and left it to itself. God’s compassion on his people and his dwelling place, led him to inspire Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, to let the Jews return to Jerusalem. That same divine compassion ultimately led him to send us his Son – because, as Saint Paul assures us [Ephesians 2:4], he is rich in mercy 

Yet how easily tempted are we to escape from the burdens and responsibilities of this messed-up world which God loves so much? How many sects and cults have tempted people to try to avoid the messy, complicated burdens of society, work, and citizenship, the human burdens that define our life in the world – rather than accepting, healing, and renewing our relationships with others and with the created world [Cf. Placuit Deo (2018), 2]?

In classical mythology, when Pandora opened the box that released so many evils into the world, she closed it just in time to trap hope in the box - thus effectively leaving the world to itself. The book of Chronicles, in contrast, highlights how the long cycle of human misbehavior and its consequences was broken by God’s not leaving the world to itself, by his surprising choice of Cyrus to be a beacon of hope in the midst of so much misery and wickedness.

The Good news of the Gospel is the hope God has offered us not in another Cyrus-like political figure but in Jesus his Son, who, far from leaving the world to itself, has become part of it. The hope he offers is thus not a license to abandon the world but a challenge to move forward with the task of living and working in the world. This Good news – which the Church is in the world as part of the world in order to proclaim to the world – is the hope offered us in Jesus in whom we have been transformed into agents of God’s grace for the transformation of the world which God loves so much.

For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in him [Ephesians 2:10].

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Promisingly Hopeful Anniversary

One year ago today, we were officially declared to be in a pandemic. It was Lent, and all our ordinary parish Lenten activities already were in full swing. By the next weekend, however, the obligation of  Sunday Mass attendance had been lifted and by mid-week all public Masses and parish activities had been cancelled. And thus we began a year unlike any that any of us had ever experienced.More than half a million Americans have died. Many more have suffered serious sickness, some of them still even after the immediate danger has passed. All of us know people who have died or been sick. All of us have experienced extreme disruption in our families, in our work, and in our community commitments. Some of those most in need of work have been unemployed. Children have missed out on necessary schooling. And all of us have endured social separation and the stunting of our interpersonal lives and life-enriching interactions. Today we pause to remember all this, even as the amazingly rapid development of vaccines makes this a promisingly hopeful anniversary.

But today's hope goes beyond the accessibility of vaccines. The passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill may be the biggest such socially progressive legislation in generations, something almost on a par with the Great Society legislation of my youth, moving forward into the 21st century by recovering the mid-20th century's commitment to greater equality through renewed faith in the efficacy of political action - the faith that has been so consistently undermined since the moral disaster of Reagan's election in 1980. When President Biden gives us his first prime-time address tonight, he can celebrate this wonderful fact that government is back as a positive force for social progress and great economic equality.

The end of this pandemic will not come in one great moment of common celebration. We won't all be gathering in Times Square or in front of Buckingham Palace as if it were another V-E Day. Rather the end is coming is a series of singular separate steps to eliminate by medical means the health threats posed by this particular virus and  and to address by political means the social inequities and economic dysfunctions this pandemic had highlighted. But they are happening, and they are good

It is, in Churchill's famous words, "the end of the beginning" - and then some.

    psoed by  threats

    Tuesday, March 9, 2021

    Lucky (The Book)


    Four years ago, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes gave us Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign. That title played on the Clinton campaign's mission to shatter what she herself labelled "the highest, hardest glass ceiling," but which instead ended up leaving that ceiling solidly in place, shattering instead both Clinton's and the Democratic party's hopes and expectations for 2016 (meanwhile saddling the country with the disaster that was the Trump presidency). The book recounted how everything that could go wrong did go wrong - a set of trials and tribulations virtually unlike any other in American campaign history: a partisan congressional investigation; a primary opponent who attacked her character; a rogue FBI director; the rank misogyny of her Republican rival; a media that scrutinized her every move while failing even to get that Republican rival to turn over his tax returns; and even a Kremlin-based campaign to defeat her." That book becomes a kind of autopsy of what is rightly called a "doomed campaign," in which according to one staffer, "We're not allowed to have nice things."

    Four years later, Allen and Barnes have given us Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely won the Presidency, in which the authors show how, whereas four years before everything went wrong for Hilary Clinton, in this alignment of political time and space everything Joe Biden needed to right for him went his way. "It is the story of a candidate whose life, politics, and message best met the moment, as judged by the collective wisdom of the 155 million-plus Americans who cast ballots." Whereas Hilary "had used her platform to try to define Trump, but everyone already knew Trump’s flaws, Biden thought. If you’re going to take on Trump, he told confidants, people want to know what you’re for."

    Despite the obvious roadblocks to his party's nomination, including his age and the party establishment's antipathy to his candidacy, time, "Biden put a lot of faith in his own charm as a tool for bridging personal differences and substantive divides." Biden, we learn was always quite confident that he could beat Trump and win the general election, but recognized that his problem would be winning the nomination. As for theObama, et al., establishment, "Biden most resembled the establishment, and the establishment had reacted to him by turning up its nose. It was painful, and embarrassing, that even when he led in the polls, Democratic insiders did not seem to believe in him." And, then, there was his age: "a courtship-era candidate operating in a Tinder world" (something which, again turned out to be less of a disadvantage than might otherwise have been the case).

    But Biden was lucky. So, for example, when he came in a poor 4th place in Iowa, the story was instead about how poorly the party primary was conducted. Then, of course, he got Congressman Jim Clyburn's endorsement, which probably guaranteed him a win inSouth Carolina and set off a massive move on the part of the party establishment to coalesce behind Biden as the only way to avoid the disaster to the party of a Sanders nomination. Then, of course, came the pandemic, which saved him from the risks of tripping over his words while running a traditional campaign while pitting him against Trump's catastrophically incompetent performance against the pandemic. For all the pre-campaign anxieties about whether he could or would run a viable campaign, the pandemic freed him from the need to campaign in a traditional way, while highlighting the contract between him and his opponent, who kept making himself look bad without any effort on Biden's part. And Biden "believed that his life, his values, and his conduct as a public servant reflected what his party preached—but didn’t always practice—and provided a black-and-white contrast with the silver-spoon president."

    Biden as also, of course, especially lucky in locking up African-American support, the support of a constituency desperately desirous of defeating Trump and willing to vote strategically to accomplish that.. "Biden had already established a broader coalition among Black voters and conservative Democratic whites. Some voters of color were attracted to him because of the affinity conservative white Democrats had for him, not despite it. The chance that white voters in swing states would pick Biden over Trump—backed up by polls showing Biden defeating Trump head-to-head—appealed to many Black Democrats who were more concerned with a Democrat winning the presidency than which Democrat did it."

    As for the General Election campaign, Biden was agin lucky in which he had for an opponent. "Like so much of the campaign," the authors note about the first debate between Biden and Trump at the end of September, this was not the way Biden had envisioned his bid for the presidency. And yet, once again, an unpredictable moment—an unbelievable moment—favored him."

    As with the 2016 book, three authors' coverage of the election itself is riveting. And, once again, despite a clear win in the popular vote, the electoral college would be the scary challenge. Unlike Clinton in 2016, however, in the electoral college in 2020 Biden got lucky: "what was striking was how close Trump had come to pulling off another upset. In 2016, Clinton had lost the three pivotal Rust Belt states by a total of 77,736 votes. Trump lost the three states that would have given him a victory—Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona—by a total of 42,918 votes. In Wisconsin, Biden wound up with a 20,682-vote margin, topping Trump by less than two-thirds of a percentage point. In Georgia, the number would be 11,779 votes, or less than a quarter of a percentage point. And in Arizona, where Fox had doubled down on its call for Biden despite pressure from the Trump camp, it would be 10,457 votes, or less than a third of a percentage point. To get Trump to a clear victory of 270 electoral votes—adding roughly 23,000 votes to flip Nebraska’s Second Congressional District—it would still have taken fewer votes for him to win than his margin in 2016. Publicly, Biden’s team struck the posture that he had won a big victory. Privately, campaign officials acknowledged they had hung on by their fingernails."

    In the authors' words, "between Trump’s pernicious efforts to invalidate the results by lying, intimidating state election officials, and inciting his followers to storm the Capitol, and Biden’s incentive to portray the outcome as a landslide, many voters didn’t realize how close the president had come to winning a second term."

    In short, both Biden and the country got lucky. "In 2016, Trump had needed everything to go wrong for Hillary Clinton to win. This time, Biden caught every imaginable break."

    Of course, being lucky. being the right candidate for the right moment, does not diminish the effectiveness what he himself brought to his campaign. "The key to Biden’s victory, more than anything else, was the consistency of his message about what he would do for voters—restore 'the soul of this nation'—and why he was uniquely capable of delivering on that promise. Ridiculed for so long about his lack of discipline as a candidate, Biden stuck to his theory of the case during a brutal primary slog and in the face of pressure from his allies—even members of his own staff—to change his strategy and tactics in the general election. ... Knowing who he was, and where he wanted to be politically, allowed Biden’s campaign to capitalize when luck ran his way—and it did, time and again."