Tuesday, April 13, 2021

On Boehner's Book


John Boehner begins this stylistically somewhat unique memoir (lots of golf, with not as much but still more than might be expected about going to Mass) by recalling his first meeting with Donald Trump, appropriately enough on a golf course. That was also when he first witnessed Trump's anger, although he "had no idea then what that anger would do to our country." From that initial experience, he moves on to analyzing why "our government isn't working the way it ought to" - in part because some people "come to Washington intent on promoting themselves instead of working together," whom he calls "political terrorists, peddling chaos and crisis so that everyone keeps paying attention to them."

As a full-fledged member of the once powerful Republican party "establishment," John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2015, lived through and was himself one of the casualties of the moral and political crackup of the Republican party. On the House: A Washington Memoir (St. Martin's Press, 2021) retells that already very familiar story. All of which warrants the obvious question: What is it about dethroned "establishment" Republicans like him that they did not speak up when it might have mattered? Perhaps, probably, they realized it might not have mattered anyway - if , in fact, their diagnosis of the moral and political crackup of the Republican party proves correct. 

Perhaps, in his defense, Boehner could claim to have spoken up in an indirect way when he threw in the towel in 2015. Now, however, he is speaking up directly. 

He portrays his entry into politics as "a Reagan Republican" and his own rapid rise in Republican leadership under Gingrich. Reagan offers him an immediate point of contrast between then and now. "I don’t think Ronald Reagan would recognize the Republican Party today," he claims. "And he sure as hell couldn’t get elected in it. As a matter of fact, Reagan would be the most left-wing candidate in the GOP these days—by a mile."  Gingrich gets him to the Republican takeover of the House and to the politically motivated impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, part of the move to the extremist - and pointless - politics which he now seems to regret. 

It is useful to cover old ground like that, to recall that really not so distant past history, because the Republicans' present predicament (and that of the country) is rooted in the Republican party's perversion of our politics in the 1990s with the likes of New Gingrich and even earlier with Reagan and with Nixon's "southern strategy." All of that helped set the confrontational stage on which Boehner's speakership would be played.

Importantly, Boehner recognizes the distinctive dynamic of contemporary American politics which is highly polarized "with plenty of hardliners on both sides" and where the few "swing districts" determine which party controls the house at any time. Paradoxically, this "means whoever is in charge is still going to have to find common ground with the other side to get things done." But that, of course, is increasingly difficult to do. "There are people we are electing who will destroy this country if we aren’t careful. ... I worked with a lot of these people, and fought them plenty. Sometimes they were just annoying, but sometimes they were downright destructive." He makes of point of pre-dating such behavior before to rise of the Tea party - at least back to the Financial Crisis of 2008, his description of his party's poor response to which is one of the more interesting episodes in the book. "Some of the more reasonable members were panicked," Boehner recalls. "But the nuts were even more emboldened." So, when he took the Speaker's gavel midway onto Obama's first term, he became what he calls the "Mayor of Crazytown." 

And he was already gone from DC by the time Trump came on the scene!

Regarding January 6, Boehner leaves no doubt that "Trump incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons," .For the former Speaker, "watching it was scary, and sad. It should have been a wake-up call for a return to Republican sanity."

In the end, Boehner seems happiest recalling one of the few uplifting moments of his Speakership. 

"I tried for 20 years to get a pope to come visit the U.S. Congress. No luck with John Paul II, no luck with Benedict XVI. But by the time Francis was elevated, I had friends in the Vatican who could help the process along. In fact, I understand His Holiness was especially favorably disposed to the invitation I sent him after he learned about the work I (and my late pal Teddy Kennedy) had done for kids at Catholic schools in Washington.

"I’d never seen Congress more happy than it was that day. Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives—everybody was uplifted by Pope Francis’s visit. And it was the presence of the Holy Spirit he brought there that day that gave me the idea to announce my retirement not in the fall as I’d planned but the very next day."

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Through the Locked Doors

The Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021.

As he does year after year on Low Sunday, the Risen Jesus  passes through the locked doors to say to his disciples and to us, Peace be with you [John 20:19-31]. The disciples' doors were locked out of fear - for good reason. So, more or less, have our doors and lives been locked during this past pandemic year - also out of fear, also for good reason. All the more need, then, for us to hear those reassuring words, Peace be with you

Meanwhile, today’s 1st reading [Acts 4:32-35] describes what happened after Easter - the life of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. The peace the Risen Lord had given his disciples through the closed doors on Easter Sunday was soon lived outside in the city, which experienced the powerful witness of the apostles to the reality of the resurrection and the dramatic transformation in people’s behavior that resulted - the peace they lived, that then in turn became itself a powerful form of witness.

In a world torn by constant conflict and division, the community of believers strove to be of one heart and mind. In a world divided between rich and poor, between “haves” and “have nots,” between healthy and sick, no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.

In the world in which we now live, it is separation – not unity – that remains fundamental to the human condition. Social, economic, educational, ethnic, racial, regional, religious, and - summing up and subsuming all those divisions, defining and separating us into tribes - political divisions increasingly form the modern day fabric of our human relations. All the more necessary, then, is the living witness of the Church to the peace of the Risen Christ in our midst and his continued action in the world through his Body, the Church. All the more necessary, then, is the living witness of the Church to a new order of relationships linking people and communities of every race, language, and way of life – challenging us all, individually and collectively, to live as changed people because we have been recipients of the peace of the Risen Christ, as witnessed by his continued action in the world through his Body, the Church.

The Risen Christ brings the promise of peace and abundant life to all. Just as the disciples, after being initially full of fear, experienced the greatest joy on discovering Jesus to be truly and fully alive, for all of us too the encounter with the Risen Christ is to discover that same peace and abundant life which is the Risen Lord's great gift to us.

(Photo: The Paulist Fathers' House Chapel, NY, Easter 2021) 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Wrong of "Rights"

The famous frontispiece of the 1651 edition of Thomas Hobbes' classic masterpiece Leviathan (photo) shows Hobbes's sovereign, sword in one hand, scepter in the other, whose power provides peace and order to the community pictured below. Yet as Sheldon Wolin wrote some 60 years ago: "The sovereign's powerful body is, so to speak not this own; its outline is completely filled in by the miniature figures of his subjects. ... Equally important each subject is clearly discernible in the body fo the sovereign. The citizens are not swallowed up in an anonymous mass, nor sacramentally merged into a mystical body. Each remains a discrete individual and each retains his identity in an absolute way" [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, (Little, Brown, 1960), p. 266]. That famous image speaks volumes about the individualistic, non-communitarian language and political premises we Americans have inherited from Hobbes and the early modern Liberal tradition. 

Despite dire threats to public safety and public health, contemporary American society seems stymied by anti-social elements that oppose the public and common good - with a purported "right" to private ownership of deadly weapons, with a purported "right" not to wear masks in public, with a purported "right" to refuse to be vaccinated against a deadly disease that has spread all around the world and has claimed more than half a million American lives alone in this past year.

Obviously, anyone at all acquainted with the distinctive history of the United States and with the language of the  Declaration of Independence is familiar with how highly valued the idea of individual "rights" is in our society's self-understanding - and how its prominence sets us apart from other Western democratic societies. Individual "rights" and reasoning based on such assumptions are so pervasive that even critics of this tradition's consequences sometimes seem at a loss for words with which to counter it. 

And for a long time, of course, there were any number of pre-modern, non-individualistic communal institutions (e.g., families, churches) and other communitarian networks which persisted as healthy antidotes to the extreme individualism of orthodox "rights" language. Such residual elements of an earlier outlook and pre-modern social arrangements - what Karl Marx in his Grundrisse called "partly unconquered remnants" of "vanished social formations" - by their persistent presence and survival into relatively recent memory may have helped soften individualism's cutting edge, providing arrangements of sociability which individualism itself can never provide.

Surely the preservation of viable families, churches, and other communitarian networks and, to whatever extent possible, their recovery where they have already been diminished or have disappeared would be a beneficial alternative to our thoroughly fragmented present reality. All indications, however, question whether such solidarities can be salvaged in a society in which they have been increasingly strangled by the suffocating excesses of individualism. As the absurd arguments about guns, masks, and vaccines illustrate so poignantly, individual "rights" removed from any social reference and responsibility destroy any sort of solidarity and reduce everything to fantasized self-interest.

The traditional American fascination with John Locke (1632-1704) notwithstanding, it was Locke's immediate forerunner, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who first formulated in an important way our modern notion of individual "rights" - distinguishing between right and law, defining right in terms of liberty and law in terms of obligation. Hobbes' picture of politics, in which political order was a pure product of rational calculation, cannot appear unfamiliar to an American. It is an artificial alliance formed and based upon individuals for the most satisfactory attainment of their essential private, personal interests. While the calculation that created a necessary political arrangement obviously has rearranged the external environment, it aspires to leave our moral characters as unaltered as possible. We remain socially and politically compromised. Our purposes remain the products of our passions, and our reason remains no more than rational calculation. We will cease to be or really never become citizens in a properly political sense. We are hardly even friends - except in the rather qualified and incidental sense of friendship Aristotle ascribed to those who are so on the basis of utility [cf. Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 4, 1157b]. The inability to foster in people the kind of commitment to the common and public good which would cause them to embrace the burdens and benefits of citizenship points to the politically problematic dimension of defining ourselves in terms of our individual "rights," while the more general inability to instill and cultivate a capacity to care for one another indicates the socially problematic dimension of defining ourselves in terms of our individual "rights."

Hobbes had created his Leviathan state to clamp a lid on the conflicts which would be inevitable between and among "rights"-bearing individuals. Our own American Leviathan state (so much more powerful in practice than anything Hobbes could have actually envisaged in his time) has instead lifted the lid, allowing ever increasing inventions of individual "rights" and ever increasing advocacy on their behalf, increasingly unrestrained either socially or morally by whatever remains of "vanished social formations." The consequence, however, is (to appropriate Hobbesian imagery) a kind of continuation of a state of war within civil society.  The more the protective armor of "rights" is employed, the more seemingly inevitable is the persistence of conflict and the more inconceivable any alternative sensibility which would hopefully facilitate a transcendence of conflict.

Hegel somewhere said that weapons are but the essence of the combatants themselves. As citizens armed with "rights," Americans have become the antithesis of friends, hence hardly citizens at all. Friendship, Aristotle argued, "seems to hold states together." Friends, Aristotle also argued, "have no need of justice, but when they are just, they need friendship in addition" [Nicomachean Ethics, VIII, 1, 1155a].

Sociability, fostered by friendship, would hopefully help polarized Americans rediscover citizenship and overcome the perennial problem of inequality and other divisions. Needless to say, individual "rights" remain as much a symptom as an agent of division. Eliminating the language of individual "rights" would not, in and of itself, recover the language, let alone the reality of common citizenship, of shared responsibility for the public and common good. But we must begin somewhere, if we are to reconsider our relationships with one another and rediscover what it means to be human together.

Friday, April 9, 2021

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021)

Dead today at the amazing age of 99, the Duke of Edinburgh, the exiled Greek prince who once described himself as “a discredited Balkan prince of no particular merit or distinction”, ended up living a life of great merit and moral distinction as husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Leaving behind what might have been a promising career in the Royal Navy, he devoted himself totally to the role he had assumed at his marriage, to support his wife in her unique vocation. Dismissed by some as an outsider (despite impeccable royal credentials as a Prince of Greece and Denmark, whose mother was a British princess born at Windsor Castle), he became one of the most energetic members of the Royal Family (including a reported 22,000 solo public engagements), but always understood his role to be one of duty to crown and country, unlike the self-promoting behavior sadly associated with some others who have more recently married into the Royal Family.

Like the Queen herself and in partnership with the Queen, Philip demonstrated the timeless value of a life devoted to an institution and a purpose bigger than oneself. This is a way of life no longer valued much in our contemporary world, and our world is that much poor for it. Together Elizabeth and Philip have for almost 70 years been a powerful counter-cultural force, exemplifying the value of living a life of purpose. The United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the wider world have been notably enriched by their great moral example. Institutions (Churches among them) which by their nature might be expected to promote a morally serious way of life but which have fallen prey to therapeutic and other more limiting alternatives, might well look to Philip's example.

On a personal note, 16 years ago I had the great benefit of a sabbatical experience at Saint George's House, Windsor Castle, a program founded in 1966 by the then Dean of Windsor with the Duke of Edinburgh, one of many initiatives that form the legacy of a long and purpose-filled life of service to his country, the Commonwealth, and the world.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

Atlantic Crossing


Crown Princess Martha of Norway (1901-1954) was a Swedish princess who married Norway's Crown Prince Olav (later King Olav V) in 1929 and so became the mother of Norway's current King Harald V. In World War II, when the Germans invaded Norway, she and her three children fled across the Swedish border, while the King and Crown Prince continued the struggle, eventually settling with the Norwegian Government-in-Exile in the U.K. for the duration of the war. Martha's presence in her homeland was seen as problematic, possibly putting Sweden's (somewhat pro-German) neutrality in jeopardy. Fortunately, the Crown Prince and Princess had made an official visit to the U.S. the previous year and had met President Roosevelt, who now extended his personal invitation to her to take refuge in the U.S., where she and her children initially stayed with the President in the White House, while promoting Norwegian interests in the war. (I recall the 1983 TV miniseries Winds of War, based on Harman Wouk's 1971 book by that name, in which Princess Martha is one of the guests at a White House dinner attended by the series' main protagonist "Pug" Henry.) In 1941, the Princess accompanied FDR for the famous Atlantic Charter meeting with Winston Churchill. Roosevelt's son James said, "There was no question that Martha was an important figure in Father's life during the war." This was the historical relationship which is the basis for the new 8-part  PBS Masterpiece series Atlantic Crossing, the first episode of which was shown on Easter Sunday, but which can be watched in its entirety on PBS Passport. Here, however, I will confine my comments only to episode one.

After a brief prelude recalling Prince Olav and Princess Martha's happy marriage and their pre-war visit with FDR in 1939, the scene shifts to a year later. Olav and Martha's idyllic family life with their three young children and elderly widowed King Haakon is suddenly disrupted by the German attack on April 9, 1940. We get an insight into the confusing and uncertain political situation in Scandinavia as Denmark quickly falls to the invaders, while Norway's King and Government flee into the snowy north in what we know will be a fruitless exercise in resistance. Meanwhile we witness the sheer terror the German attack causes among the Norwegians - from hapless civilians on a ship to royal retainers separated from their children to the royal family themselves. Olav, of course, accompanies the King and the government officials in what appears to be pointless, obviously ill-planned wandering in the snowy north, just trying to avoid German warplanes. Meanwhile, Martha and the terrified children get in another car and flee toward the Swedish border, where she is denied entry, despite having been born a Princess of Sweden. Up until this point, Martha has appeared almost a passive witness to the complete collapse of her happy little world. Suddenly, she springs into action and tells her driver to ram through the barrier blocking the border. The episode ends with Haakon and Olav somewhere in the snow, while Martha and her children await an uncertain future in a Swedish hotel. Of course, we know, they will all make it out safely. So that somewhat standard ending of the episode on a suspenseful note serves no real dramatic purpose.

Despite the passing of the "greatest generation," World War II continues to fascinate. There seems to be an increased interest in portraying the complexities and ambiguities that upset and disrupted actual (often otherwise ordinary) lives. And that seems to be the direction this is going, highlighting the more "ordinary" aspects of the participants' lives. War, while not the equalizer it is sometimes supposed to be, proves universal in its unpredictable and disruptive impacts.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

From Grief to Hope

Easter Sunday, April 5, 2021.

On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1843, more than a year before he became a Catholic, 22-year old Isaac Hecker attended a Catholic Mass for the first time. In his Diary, he wrote how he had found the experience “impressively affecting.” He was especially struck by how the priest pointed, while he was preaching, to a painting of Christ’s rising from the tomb “with a few touching remarks turning all eyes towards it which made his remarks doubly affective.”

However impressive that painting may have been and however effective a prop for that priest's preaching, the gospels are clear that no one actually saw the resurrection. Artists have tried to picture it, of course, but that’s art, highly imaginative art at that. We have nothing either visual or verbal that depicts the actual event of Jesus’ resurrection, an event which apparently defies description. Instead, John's Gospel [John 20:1-9] tells us that on the first day of the week. Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. What Mary and the other women saw and experienced - what we experience and keep experiencing - are the effects of the Resurrection. 

Every morning is, symbolically, a new beginning, a chance to start over. In the normal course of events, however, the Sabbath day of rest should have been followed in the morning on the first day of the week by business as usual – both for the living, who would go back to their regular daily work, and even more so for the dead, decaying in their graves, who (then as now) were universally expected to stay dead. If anything, the ubiquity of dying and death during this terrible pandemic this past year has reinforced for us the awesome reality of death's apparently terrible finality, which separates family, friends, and fellow citizens from one another, as surely as that stone was meant to separate the living from the dead.

John mentions only Mary Magdalene. The other evangelists tell us that she was accompanied by other women as well and that their purpose was to anoint Jesus' dead body. They came in grief, not in hope. Instead they found something surprising and unexpected. For that Sunday – and every day since – the world has awakened not to business as usual, but to something totally new. And, yet, the story leaves no doubt that the first few to be made aware of history's most momentous news saw nothing at first but an empty tomb, which left them more confused than elated, For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

In a world which seemed permanently stuck in the dark, pre-dawn position, they needed to experience something more, the kind of change that could come only from the Risen Lord’s living presence among us in his Church. Easter invites us to put ourselves into the picture with Mary Magdalene, and the other women, and then with Peter, and all those disciples unexpectedly experiencing an alternative to endless grief.

Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event of the most monumental importance. Even so, however hard it may be for us to imagine - in this absurd age of social media and 24-hour news - the world hardly noticed the resurrection at first. And many still don't. Nor would we, if the story had stopped there.

Easter invites us to peer confusedly into the open door of the empty tomb, where nothing is anymore as it seemed before - and then to keep coming back, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, to be filled in on what happened next, what has happened since, and thus experience the effects of the resurrection for ourselves, to experience not just that Jesus was but that he now isThat is why every day for the next seven weeks, the Church retells the story of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles - the story of those who first experienced the reality of the Risen Lord and his power to change the world, changing them first of all.

Really important things are remembered for their long-term impact - not, as in the world of social media and 24-hour news, for the short-term noise they make. So, although no one actually saw or heard the resurrection, what we do see and hear are the resurrection’s effects – first of all on the disciples, and then on the world, and finally on us.

The resurrection’s effects on the disciples unfold in what we see and hear in the gospel stories of their visits to the empty tomb, then later of the appearances of the risen Lord himself, still later in the preaching of Saint Peter and others in the Acts of the Apostles and in the amazing response of those who heard their preaching, then finally in the testimony and letters of Saint Paul, who wasn’t there at all at Easter, but who himself eventually experienced the risen Lord and was forever changed as a result.

The effects on the world were soon evident in the enthusiastic response of Jews and pagans alike to the amazing story the apostles told. In the long term, its effects have been equally dramatic in how the story has spread and the Church has grown as a result, in the dynamism that is at the heart of the Church’s existence in the world and that has propelled it outward in almost 2000 years of world-transforming activity.

Finally, its effects are evident in us, transformed in mind and changed in heart, by the unique power of this utterly unexpected event, which has glorified the humanity Jesus shares with each of us, and which has brought us together in a way in which nothing else could have, empowering us - even in this world of ongoing grief - with unexpected and unimaginable hope. 

So, instead of the first day of the week condemning the world back to business as usual, this first day after the Sabbath is starting something new – not just a new week, but a new world, where grief gives way to hope. The resurrection is God’s powerful alternative to business as usual.  None of us were there that first Easter Sunday – and, had we been, we would surely have been as amazed and uncomprehending as the disciples themselves. But we are there now, because God has, on this day, re-created the world in his Son, Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, but now risen from the dead. That new day is today – and every day from now on, until we too will appear with him in glory [Colossians 3:4].

On the way, some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter – Peter, whom Jesus nonetheless chose to be his Church’s principal spokesman. But, whether we are runners or walkers, what matters most is that we too have come to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world – may look inside, may see, and may believe, and may be changed by the experience.

According to an ancient tradition, when Jesus descended among the dead, our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, saw his bright light penetrating the deep darkness they had been stuck in for so long, whereupon Christ released them, and they and their descendants joyfully joined him in celebrating his triumph over death. For the disciples who came to see Jesus’ tomb early in the Sunday morning darkness, whatever they thought they were going to do, it was a dead man whose tomb they came to see. They too were stuck in the dark, like Adam and Eve and all the generations in between, in a world where grief always seems to have the final say. 

But the amazing experience of encountering the Risen Lord led the first disciples out of the dark and beyond their grief to risk everything to create a unique new community, whose story we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. It is in the ongoing creating of - and living in - this community we call the Church, that Christ continues to reveal his victory over death.

The disciples’ story highlights how what was happening then continues to happen in the everyday life of the Church, as the Risen Lord continues to reveal himself to us through the experience we share as members of the uniquely new community that is the Church, brought into being and animated by the Risen Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit.

And so we say today: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

(Photo: Easter 2021, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Easter Eve

There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the king is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. [From an ancient Holy Saturday Homily]

I have very distinct childhood memories of Easter Eve (even more distinct, surprisingly, than Christmas Eve, which presumably must have mattered much more to a child). My parents both worked on Saturdays in those days, and so Saturdays were spent with my grandmother. I can remember her bringing me to church sometime during the day on Saturday to see that the statues had been uncovered after the Easter Vigil service earlier that morning. What I remember best, however, was how at noon (when Lent officially ended and Easter began in those days) my grandmother turned on the kitchen radio tuned to the Italian station, which played the sound of the bells of Rome's hundreds of churches (recorded at noon Rome time, some six hours earlier). Then, as we listened to the bells, we ate our first Easter egg.

In faraway Kentucky on Holy Saturday 1949, the monk Thomas Merton wrote in his Journal: "The confusion of sorrow and joy is so complex that you never know where you are. ... This is the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed." It was those historical circumstances which Pius XII's Holy Week reforms in the 1950s were intended to undo by returning the Eater Vigil to Saturday evening and transforming Holy Saturday into a day of waiting "at the Lord's tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell," while "awaiting his Resurrection" (Roman Missal). 

Of course, nothing like that is happening. On the one hand, the secular world goes about its workaday business or else has the frivolous feel of vacation time in those countries where Easter Weekend still has a holiday character. In churches, on the other hand, this is a time of frenetic activity and lavish decoration, all in preparation for the evening's Vigil service. The latter, meanwhile, is now no longer a preparation for the main event of Easter Sunday but, for most who attend, a substitute for Easter itself. This is just the most extreme example of the odd contemporary practice of allowing Mass on Saturday to substitute for Mass on Sunday. Indeed, the Vigil service itself, certainly once the Exsultet is over, is essentially structured not at all like a traditional Vigil but rather as a very long Easter Mass. (Its unconscionable length and oddly late hour are undoubtedly among the reasons why so few feel inspired to attend what must rank as one of the least well attended liturgies of the entire year.)

So, while the liturgy that inspired Merton's remark has disappeared, Merton's insight remains. Holy Saturday still remains a confusing complexity, "the product of the historical circumstances through which the Holy Saturday liturgy has passed." And any notion of reviving Holy Saturday as a day of waiting "at the Lord's tomb in prayer and fasting, meditating on his passion and Death and on his Descent into Hell," while "awaiting his Resurrection" remains as ephemeral and fantastic as observing Advent has become - and for more or less the same reasons.

Back in the 19th century, when the subsequent liturgical changes would have been well nigh unimaginable, Dom Prosper Gueranger wrote: "there is an apparent contradiction between the mystery of Holy Saturday and the Divine Service which is celebrated upon it; Christ is still in the Tomb, and yet we are celebrating his Resurrection: the hours preceding Mass are mournful—and before mid-day, the paschal joy will have filled our hearts. We will conform to the present order of the Holy Liturgy, thus entering into the spirit of the Church, who has thought proper to give her children a foretaste of the joys of Easter." 

Today, we must do the same, conforming our spirits to the present order of things, in which, despite all attempts at restoration and reform, the contradiction continues between "the mystery of Holy Saturday" and the way we actually observe and experience it now.

(Photo: Easter Vigil 2017, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN)

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday

When I was growing up, often on Good Friday my father would get off work early, and my mother would be waiting for him to arrive home so that they could go to the Italian market to finish off the Easter holiday food shopping. Years later, I remember some office staff asking the Department Chair for time off from 12 to 3 because it was Good Friday, which he happily agreed to, and they then happily enjoyed at the local mall. While for most of American history Good Friday was probably a regular workday for most people, it has often enjoyed this residual quasi-holiday character, rooted in its sometime status as a holyday/holiday in Europe.

Pope Urban VIII had already recognized in 1642 that Good Friday was becoming an ordinary workday. Pius XII's Holy Week reform in 1955 referenced that and sought to boost attendance by moving the Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday services to evening and Good Friday to afternoon. There was, as I recall, an actual increase in attendance at such ceremonies in the immediate aftermath of the 1955 reform - until both the novelty wore off and other social changes had their inevitable effects. When I was a pastor, attendance at the official liturgical services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, while nothing to brag about, was certainly respectable, Better attended and much more popular, however, were the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, possibly a matter of scheduling but more likely because so much simpler and shorter than the liturgical rites. 

Meanwhile the Good Friday liturgy has increasingly in the U.S. become more a mournful commemoration of Christ's crucifixion and death and less part of the unitary celebration of the paschal mystery, which it originally was. (This transformation has occurred mainly at the level of popular piety and is reflected, for example, in the kind of songs sung often in place of the traditional chants on Good Friday, but also in the liturgy itself in the displacement of the two readings traditionally read on Good Friday for more than a millennium, Hosea 6:1-6 and Exodus 12:1-11, both of which evoke the larger paschal mystery more than just Jesus' death.)

Last year, of course, I celebrated Good Friday in an empty church. It will be interesting to see what attendance is like in churches this year and which sorts of services are favored by more people. 

(Photo: The 1903 Hewit Crucifix, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.)

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Holy Thursday

"On this day the sacrifice of the sacred Body and Blood of the Lord was initiated as a celebration by the Lord himself. On this day the holy chrism is consecrated throughout the world; on this day too pardon is granted to penitents, those at enmity are reconciled, those who are aggrieved are pacified" (Letter of Pope Sylvester, 4th century).

The Rite of Reconciling Penitents remained in the Roman Pontifical until the 20th century, but the reality had long since lapsed centuries earlier with the decline of public penance and the rise of private confession. In The Liturgical Year, volume 6, Gueranger gave a detailed description of the ancient ritual and of the Papal Blessing that used to be given from the inner loggia of Saint Peter's on this day.

But if the Reconciliation of Penitents long ago passed into. history the other two ancient aspects of Holy Thursday have successfully survived into the present. While a separate Chrism Mass had long since disappeared, over the centuries the blessing of the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Sacred Chrism had become an integral part of the Pontifical Mass of the Lord's Supper celebrated at the Cathedral on Holy Thursday morning. Pope Pius XII's Holy Week reform in 1955 recreated the ancient Chrism Mass and assigned it to Holy Thursday morning, while moving the traditional Mass of the Lord's Supper from morning to early evening both in the cathedral and in parish churches. The Chrism Mass was radically revised as part of Paul VI's post-conciliar liturgical reform and has since acquired an unprecedented degree of popularity, particularly among clergy.

For the most part, "private" Masses have been prohibited on this day, with all priests encouraged to participate (and, since Vatican II, to concelebrate) at the one solemn community Mass., which since 1955 has been celebrated in the evening. Generally this has been my favorite of the Holy Week services, and I will especially miss celebrating it this year.

Other than the unfortunate transfer of the reading from Exodus 12 from Good Friday to Thursday, the other significant alteration in the post-conciliar Mass of the Lord's Supper was the elimination of verses 20-22 and 27-32 from the traditional reading from 1 Corinthians. The omitted verses frame and contextualize the institution narrative, which is all that now remains of the traditional reading. In recent years, as divisions within both the Church and society have increased (with the latter amplifying and further fueling the former), I have regularly referred to those missing verse in my Holy Thursday homilies to better relate Saint Paul's challenge to his contemporaries to our present situation. So, for example, as I said two Holy Thursdays ago in 2019:

Saint Paul wrote that earliest written account of what happened at that most memorable meal in all of human history not just to tell us a nice story about something that happened a long time ago. It was its present effect that Paul cared most about, and so Paul was in fact complaining, criticizing the Corinthians’ behavior in the present, telling them that they were missing the main point of the Lord’s Supper – receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood in an unworthy way, doing so to their peril. In giving this instruction, Paul wrote, I do not praise you. Your meetings do more harm than good. I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you. When you meet, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.
What an indictment! Saint Paul’s more complete account and discussion about the Last Supper was actually a challenge to the Corinthians - as, through them, it is intended to be a challenge now for us. Saint Paul highlighted the Corinthians’ conflicts, dissensions, and factions – in effect, their unfortunate failure to be changed by the Eucharist. Then as now, in 1st-century Corinth among those to whom St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well in the Church. The social, economic, and class distinctions, the inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions, endemic in ordinary Roman society were making themselves felt within the Corinthian Church community, so much so that even the celebration of the Lord’s Supper still seemed to mirror those same social, economic, and class distinctions, inequalities, conflicts, dissensions, and factions.
But those things that matter so much to us in the secular world, Paul insists, should have absolutely no significance whatever within the community of Christ’s body, in which Jesus’ death and resurrection have not only transformed our individual relationships with him but must also change our relationships with one another.
Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them - any more than we can, when we come to Mass. That is why what happens here is so important, intended as it is to enable us to leave here different from how we came, to enable us to go beyond our individual self-enclosed limits and so bring something new to the world, something new and different from what we brought here with us from the world. For Jesus’ command to his disciples to do as he did is an invitation to a whole new way of life, made possible for us by what Jesus himself has already done on our behalf.
Back at the Last Supper, in the scene that follows next in John’s Gospel [John 13:27-30], Satan is said to have entered Judas, who, then, after taking a morsel of food from Jesus, left the Supper. How many times has Pope Francis warned us about the danger posed by Satan! The Devil, Pope Francis warned just about a year ago, “poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice” [Gaudete et Exsultate].

How well might Judas have benefited, had he heeded such a warning! Instead, we are told, he went out into the night – leaving behind Jesus and his disciples, the community that could have been his, in order to commit himself instead to Satan’s cause.

What was that morsel of food Judas had received from Jesus? Was it the Eucharist? What a warning there is for us in that! What a reminder of Saint Paul’s warning words to the Corinthians that we will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

So too, for us now, as for Judas at the Lord’s Supper, how we depart from here may matter much more than how we arrive. What have we heard here, and what has happened to us here that has made us different from how we came? What kind of community have we become, thanks to the Lord’s Supper? In the constant competition for our attention and our loyalty, whose cause have we here committed ourselves to? What kind of people are we becoming? What kind of people do we want to become? What will we take with us from here to challenge and change this conflicted and divided world?

(Photo: Altar of Repose, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Holy Thursday 2019.)