Thursday, April 29, 2021

100 Days

Just as generations and decades have become increasingly popular - if pointlessly arbitrary - markers, much that same might be said for the infamous "First 100 Days" by which we insist on judging our contemporary presidents. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, the country was in shambles; and it was FDR's decisive leadership in his first 100 days and the special session of Congress which met during that time that dramatically uplifted the nation's spirits and started the country on the road to recovery - and in the process provided pundits and others with this pointless but popular measure of every new Administration.

Joe Biden may be the first president since FDR to inherit a country as comparably devastated - above all by the global pandemic and its manifold consequences, all exacerbated by four years of misgovernment by his predecessor. So the impetus for immediate, decisive, and dramatic action is similar, which may make the "100 Days" less an arbitrary journalistic gimmick than it would normally be. Certainly, as in 1933, the country is in crisis and has ousted one president and elected a new one in the expectation that the new president will make a difference in ways his predecessor had failed so ignominiously to do.

And Biden has not disappointed. On the eve of his 100th day, our second Catholic President and thus the most prominent and influential American Catholic, addressed the Congress in a sort of unofficial "State of the Union." He gave his address in an unusually semi-empty House Chamber, with only about 200 people present and without the usual extraneous guests in the gallery, in order to exemplify Covid precautions. There was an added strangeness to this, in that - thanks to the Administration's success in getting so many Americans vaccinated - such precautions may soon be ancient history. One hopeful benefit of the smaller audience, however, was that there were fewer opportunities for Republicans to engage in childish silliness and misbehavior. It also, of course, highlighted how the speech was being actually addressed directly to the rest of us. (At least since LBJ started giving State of the Union Addresses in the evening instead of at noon, Congress has long been more of a prop than the main audience on such occasions anyway.)

The strange setting also enabled the President to highlight the unique "crisis and opportunity" that is, effect, the state of our union right now.

The speech celebrated the many amazing accomplishments already achieved in the first 100 days and challenged Congress to act - to argue and debate but above all to act. At the end, he articulated the overarching question: Can democracy deliver? And he challenged Congress and the American people all to "do our part." The speech was Roosevelt-like in inspiration. (Indeed, his closing words were reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor day radio Address in 1941.) 

It was good - for the first time in many decades - to hear a President speak like a traditional Democrat and friend of the working class (in other words, neither Clintonian neo-liberalilsm nor woke progressivism). It was refreshing and encouraging to throw away - hopefully for good - the destructive government-is-not-the-solution Reagan playbook that has undermined this country for the past 40 years.

There remains, however, one important difference between FDR in 1933 and Biden in 2021. While FDR's actions altered and transformed America, Biden has so far, for the most part, mainly proposed to do so. His proposals would likely change an America desperately in need of transformation - on as significant a scale as FDR and LBJ's legislative accomplishments. But, apart from the already passed and monumentally significant ARP, most of Biden's agenda has yet to be enshrined in legislation. And, like LBJ, he has only until next year's election to get that done. The reality remains that the Democratic Party's hold on Congress is so fragile that caution and moderation serve no purpose, nor do obsessive appeals to a long-gone chimerical bipartisanship. The goal at this point must be to accomplish whatever one can, as much as one can, as quickly as one can, before the likely loss of congressional control in 2022 puts a virtual end to all domestic legislation, while in fact the only possible hope to avoid that 2022 loss would be to have actually accomplished a lot that actually makes a difference in people's lives and can drown out the obsessive nihilism of the culture warrior opposition.

(Photo: President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on the eve of his 100th day in office, as Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stand behind him on the dais. Melina Mara/Pool/Getty Images)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Oscar Night

The 2021 Academy Awards have come and gone. As always, some people get really excited by the Oscars, while others pay no attention at all. In recent years, the latter group seems to have been increasing and, I suspect, may perhaps have hit an all-time high this year. After all, most of us haven't set foot in a movie theater in over a year. At its best, Oscar Night is basically an exercise in elite Hollywood narcissism, minimally connected with the realities of ordinary Americans' lives solely because of the ultimate power of the box office, which at least reminds the people applauding themselves at the ceremony what actually sells with ordinary viewers. Take that away, and in a world in which fewer people than ever have actually seen the movies being lauded, what is left?

Add to that the fact that this has been an exceptionally hard and unhappy year for so many. So who wants to see so many movies entirely devoted to depressing topics, as so many of this year's nominees are?

In some years, I usually made an honest effort to make sure to see all the nominees for Best Picture (at least when there were still only five of them to see). This year, I saw fewer than usual, of which the expected (and actual) winner, Nomadland, was one. I concede that it has merit as a movie. It is the film's politics (or lack thereof) that bother me. (Cf. my earlier review of the film in February at

Set against the background of the Great Recession and the hollowing out of the once great American working class, the film could have been - and really ought to have been - a powerful critique of what has happened to this country since 1980. Instead, the tragedy of elder poverty and the criminality of a political and economic system that has gleefully produced the tragedy  of elder poverty get lost in a haze of American individualism and a pseudo-libertarian, romanticized freedom of the open road.

As for the Oscar show itself, the introductions to the awards were often way too long, as were many of the acceptance routines, while there was less of the customary music and fewer excerpts from actual films - and, of course, lot of privileged elites' political posturing and virtue signaling. All in all, a tiresome night!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Of Shepherd and Sheep

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021.

Today's annual "Vocation Sunday" Gospel's image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd [John 10:11-18], is a very familiar and popular one – even, it seems, in our modern, urbanized society, in which most of us obviously are not shepherds and mostly know next to nothing about sheep. What we do all know, of course, is that the luckier sheep live to provide us with wool, while the other sheep become lamb chops.

For all its obvious ambiguity, the ruler-as-shepherd image is an ancient one, at least as ancient as Plato. That, I suspect, may be precisely what makes Jesus so special as a shepherd. This shepherd lays down his life for the sheep – a somewhat unexpected reversal of roles, a reversal of roles which brings about a new kind of relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.

In most ancient pagan religious understandings, one of the things that most seemed to distinguish the gods from us was that the gods enjoyed a greatly envied freedom from death - in contrast to our own inescapable human mortality. But, by becoming one of us himself and experiencing our human predicament by his voluntary death, Jesus overcame that separation between God and us, and so reversed not just the traditional job descriptions of shepherd and sheep, but also the pagan idea that human beings exist, like sheep, simply to serve for the satisfaction of the gods.

It even turns out, furthermore, that God actually takes satisfaction precisely in this reversal. This is why the Father loves me, Jesus says, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. So an age-old separation has been overcome, and something new has happened in our world. A brand new connection has been created between God and us by the death and resurrection of the Good Shepherd, who accepted the limits of our mortal life in order to bring us, together with him, to something new beyond those limits.

Now that’s all well and good, but didn’t it happen such a long time ago? And not much really seems to have changed in the world since then, has it? After all, as the 6th-century Saint Anastasius of Antioch famously said, apropos our Easter faith, people still die and bodies still decay in deathAnd all we have to do is tune in to the news to see how the same sad patterns keep repeating themselves - killings by police, for example, to mention just one obvious example of a long-standing serious American social problem very much in the news right now

Easter comes and goes, year-in and year-out, and it all begins to sound routine, doesn’t it? If anything the routine is reinforced in our churches and parishes and parish schools by the predictable repetition of the annual activities and events that routinely recur to punctuate this season. (Of course, now that I am no longer involved in parish life and no longer mark the routine passage of time by the annual recurrence of precisely those predictable activities and events, I miss them all very much!)

In any case, there was certainly nothing routine about Peter’s sermon in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 4:8-12], in the aftermath of the first post-Pentecost miracle, an amazing cure which Peter somewhat modestly called a good deed done to a cripple. It all happened, Peter proclaimed, in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom God raised from the dead … ‘the stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

What a claim! The sheer boldness of it – that humanity can be saved and that Jesus Christ is its one and only savior!

Recognizing the boldness of that claim and taking it seriously – making it our own claim – is what Easter time is all about. Admittedly, given the inevitable limits of our attention, it takes considerable effort to keep up that Easter enthusiasm – to keep it from wilting along with the Easter flowers in last week's cold snap!

And so we have to make the effort, a conscious and deliberate effort, to take seriously directions the calendar gives us and so celebrate Easter for seven wonderful weeks, during which we recall the fervor of those first new Christians, who were transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and in the Church's sacraments. And we see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is also being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. For, as Peter’s sermon makes clear, the universal power of Jesus’ name is not limited or constrained by any human failure to hear it.

Jesus himself says he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also he must lead, and they will hear his voice. The Savior of the world calls all people to his Father, as he continually transforms the world through the uniquely saving power of his death and resurrection. In Jesus, God can now be found in every aspect of human life, in places and people where one might least expect, in situations which our limited imaginations may even turn into obstacles to God’s presence - itself also a particularly apt lesson for Vocation Sunday.

Our mission, the mission of the Church animated by the power of the Risen Christ, is to go beyond the limits of our imaginations, and become, like the otherwise ordinary people whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, effective witnesses to God’s saving power in our desperately needy world.

And all this we have to do together, as the Risen Lord's Church. We can’t be seriously spiritual without being really religious.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Lessons from a Funeral

Few rituals straddle the intersection between religious faith and future hope, on the one hand, and the increasingly narrowing horizons of secular society, on the other, than do funerals. And seldom is that more obvious than when secular society becomes an invited guest at a Christian funeral, which happens every so often when public officials' funerals are celebrated in churches with unabashedly Christian rituals. Of course, many ostensibly Christian funerals are increasingly Christian in name only, deteriorating more and more into incoherent "celebrations of life" or some similar neologisms. What a blessing, then, when a semi-state occasion like the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh illustrates, on world-wide TV, the essential meaning and purpose of a Christian funeral service!

In the United Kingdom, only the sovereign (and anyone she designates) gets a full "State Funeral." The only such event in the current Queen's reign was the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. So Prince Philip would not have had a full "State Funeral," in any case. Even so, the strange circumstances of the present pandemic put additional limitations on what would otherwise have presumably involved the presence of many representatives from all over the Commonwealth and the wider world, as well as the participation certainly of many more musicians. Having worshipped daily in Saint George's Chapel during my summer sabbatical at Windsor in 2005, I am familiar with the site and so suspect that it could easily have fit many more, even with social distancing, but it was obviously important to be obedient to the official restrictions, however arbitrary they may seem. In the end, the unusual circumstances may have made the ceremonial details stand out all that much more, amid the sad images of the royal widow alone with her immediate family, all the while thereby highlighting even more the religious ritual itself.

With only a handful of singers instead of a full choir, the simpler music managed to convey the mood maybe even more effectively than would likely have been the case otherwise. Even the National Anthem's muting of its normally (and appropriately) triumphant sound seemed to make it uniquely fit the occasion, further highlighting the aloneness of the Queen, symbolically linking her bereavement with that of so many who have been unable to mourn their loved ones with full ceremonial this past year. 

Of course, most of the military and ceremonial flourishes were unique to the military and royal occasion. But there were other features of this modern but very Anglican service that other liturgical churches could appreciate and appropriate - among them the welcome presence of black vestments (matched by a congregation wearing appropriate funeral attire) and the even more welcome absence of any homily or eulogy. (There were, admittedly, appropriately personal references integrated into the Program and the Prayers recited by the Archbishop and the Dean, but they were modest encroachments on the liturgy compared with what happens when a homily - more typically a eulogy labeled a homily - is preached.)

If there has been any long-term benefit in the wake of the unanticipated forced abridgment  of so many funeral rites because of this pandemic it may be in the recovery of the basics of what a funeral service is supposed to be about, which we saw so beautifully on display in the dignified and somber, but faith-filled rites celebrated on Saturday for the Duke of Edinburgh.

(Saint George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, site of the Duke of Edinburgh's Funeral)

Sunday, April 18, 2021

"Be a Member of the Body"

The Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021.

Years ago (more years than I care to. count), a colleague remarked that the liturgical Easter season is too long, that 50 days are just too many, to sustain interest, let alone a sense of celebration. Certainly, he had a point. In our fast-paced present of abridged attention spans, ritual minimalism, and diminished imaginations, who anymore has the time, the patience, or the interest for seven weeks of celebration? Haven't even the Easter lilies given up by now? (One reason I have never been all that fond of Easter lilies is in fact that they last such a short time!) 

As Americans, we are all addicted to anticipating everything, to celebrating everything in advance. Halloween candy is on display in the supermarket for at least two months, but by Halloween itself the shelves are already being restocked for Christmas. Then by Christmas for Valentine's Day. And so it goes, all year long. Our American lust for anticipating and commercializing everything is ill-suited to the timing and rhythm of the liturgical year.

But the Church – in her providentially counter-cultural wisdom – does the opposite. The liturgy holds off on celebrating until the day itself (or, somewhat problematically in the case of Christmas and Easter, the day before). Then we are expected to keep on celebrating for days and even weeks – weeks that to some may seem to drag on and on, apparently with no end in sight.

Part of the problem, of course, can be just figuring out what exactly we are celebrating for seven long weeks. Even the most symbolically challenged modern observer probably gets it eventually that there is something special about the number seven. Those in the know can elaborate endlessly on the season’s symbolic significance, historical antecedents, Jewish parallels, and so much more. At the end of the day, however, the question always remains. So what?

It probably happened naturally enough - once the Jewish Passover had been reimagined as the Christian Easter - that the 7-week period from Passover to Pentecost reappeared as the Easter season. And, as the modern Church has reorganized its initiation rituals, this has acquired the eminently practical purpose of providing the newest members – those baptized at Easter – time to understand their experience and better appreciate what it meant for the rest of their lives. In the early Church, that time was in fact one week, the one week my onetime colleague would have liked us to revert to. In effect, the modern extended Easter season seems to exist precisely to answer the question, So what now?

That is why the Church reads every day during this season from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, and thus the ongoing story of the Risen Christ’s continued life and work in the world, as experienced in his presence and action in his Church. Who better to answer our So what? Question than the first Christian generation, whose exciting experience the Acts of the Apostles recalls for us?

Today’s 1st reading [Acts 3:13-15, 17-19] is an excerpt from Saint Peter’s second sermon recorded in Acts. Peter may have been new at his job, but (at least as he is portrayed in Acts) he was already quite good at it. He got right to the point of what had happened and why it mattered. He outlined and summarized the central tenets of Christian faith – the significance of Jesus’ life and mission, how his death has revealed him to be God’s suffering servant, how his resurrection confirms him as the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, promised by all the prophets, all of which challenges his hearers - which is to say, us - to repent and be converted.

Precisely how to do this is what John elaborates in our second reading [1 John 2:1-51], another standard Easter season staple. Jesus Christ the righteous one is our Advocate with the Father and expiation for our sins and for those of the whole world. And the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments – being transformed, truly perfected in him by conforming ourselves to the truth of his words.

Obviously, all this transformation of ordinary people leading otherwise ordinary lives in a routine world may be easier said than done! Like the disciples in the Gospel [Luke 24:35-48], we may all be more than a bit startled and terrified by the intrusion of the extraordinary into that ordinary routine, by the realty of the Risen Christ and the challenge this resurrection requires us to experience in our no longer quite so ordinary lives.

And that is why we must meet - as the disciples did, as the early Christians did, as Christians of every time and place have done – every first day of the week, to re-encounter our Risen Lord, listening together with one another, learning together with one another, at the very altar where the still wounded but forever living Lord promises us his peace as he feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

Many of us, of course, have been away from one another and from that altar for far too long, as a result of this destructive pandemic which has so damaged our world and diminished our lives. The disciples' Easter experience and the early Church's Easter-Pentecost experience remind us, as Pope Francis also reminded us a few years back, in his Apostolic Exhortation "On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World," that Growth in holiness is a journey in community. Side by side with others.

It has often been remarked that the change in Jesus’ original disciples – from self-absorbed individuals, confused, scared, and hiding from the world, into a community of convinced and confident disciples, who would become a world-wide Church – was surely one of the most visible effects of the resurrection, dramatically transforming individuals, society, and history.

So that is why we have to come back - now that we again can - Sunday after Sunday, to be filled in on what happens next, to learn how to make our own the experience of those first disciples and those who responded to their appeal and became those we call the first Christians. In North Africa in the early 5th century, Saint Augustine famously told the newly baptized members of his congregation: When you were baptized, it is as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it is as though you were baked. Be what you can see and receive what you are. Be a member of the Body of Christ in order to make your Amen true. [Sermon 272].

Be a member of the Body! Ultimately, that is the task of a life lived with others in the Church. It is the slow transformation of our lives, individually and together, into the offering the Risen Christ makes to God on our altar today. These seven weeks are barely long enough just to begin – just to begin to make our own the story of those first Christians and so discover the real difference the Risen Christ can actually make in our lives, in our society, in our history, beginning right here and right now.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Forever War

If one wanted to identify an example of a traditionalist society better left undisturbed by modernity and its competing ideologies, it would be Afghanistan before the July 17, 1973 coup that overthrew King Mahammed Zahir Shah and set that sad society on the trajectory that led seemingly inexorably to the "Saur Revolution" of April 19789, which installed a pro-Soviet Communist government, which then led to the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the U.S. supported insurgency that followed, ending in the Taliban takeover of the country after the Soviet defeat and departure, followed finally by the 20-year American military intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, our "forever" war.

Now, 20 years since President George W. Bush went to war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, President Joe Biden is apparently prepared to call its quits. The Afghan adventure is hardly the only extra-constitutional war the U.S,. has waged since the last legitimate declaration of war in 1941, but it has been the longest. (Technically, I suppose, the Korean Conflict has gone on even longer, but de facto in terms of actual fighting that war actually ended in the 1950s.)

A lifelong internationalist, who grew up in the Cold War, I remain sympathetic to the idea the the U.S. as the world's principal Power has global responsibilities which will at times entail military interventions. Both U.S. political parties have their neo-isolationist wings, and all such "America First" arguments, whether of the right or left-wing version, ought to be approached with utmost caution. That said, sometimes retreat is the least bad option among many, and this may be one of those times. There was nothing honorable at all about our 1975 helicopter flight from Saigon, but what really viable alternative was there then, apart from a long-term involvement to maintain an ultimately unsatisfactory status quo - at a price the American people appeared no longer willing to pay? The same seems to be the case now in Afghanistan.

Just as the American abandonment of our Vietnamese allies in 1975 made a communist takeover of the entire country inevitable, so too our projected flight from Afghanistan may mean a return to power by the tyrannical Taliban. It might even mean more opportunities for whatever has replaced Al Qaeda. Of course, the Afghan government could conceivable get its act together and prevent or at least minimize such undesirable outcomes. Whatever happens, if the only alternative is a continued conflict involving American forces, fighting for no attainable objective except to forestall something worse happening the day after we leave, then some humility about what American power can actually accomplish may at last be in order.

There is also the political reality that, outside the elite foreign policy establishment, there seems little popular appetite for a forever war. If we still had a citizen army, as we did until the 1970s, the popular pressure to end this war would have been even greater and would have arisen even sooner. Even so, Donald Trump's knee-jerk, poorly thought-out isolationism was likely one contributing factor (even if only one among many) in his initial success. 

There is no obviously goof outcome here. Senator Reed, the Chair of the Armed Services Committee, may have said it best when he called President Biden's decision "the least of many bad options." 

Admittedly, historical analogies are all inevitably problematic, but the Vietnam analogy is not irrelevant. We now know that many policy-makers had come to doubt our Vietnam policy prior to our eventually changing it. I do not deny or make light of the worries of an earlier generation of policy-makers who were afraid to acknowledge the lack of light at the end of the tunnel. No one wanted to have that last helicopter leave Saigon on his watch. Fair enough. And no one really wants to see the Taliban (or worse) conquer Kabul and be the one not to have done anything about it. But Biden - like those Vietnam-era policy-makers before him - long ago sensed the inability of "endless American military force" to "create or sustain a durable Afghan government." And that concern counts too.

A lot has happened these past 20 years since the U.S. first invaded and occupied Afghanistan, a lot that has made the world situation if anything even more threatening - including a worldwide financial collapse, a global pandemic, and the perennial reality of climate change, along with the rise of China, the persistence of Russia, and the development of newer forms of terrorism that don't require a base in far-away Afghanistan. And, maybe most threatening of all, American society has been fragmented and polarized in dangerous ways. All that needs to be attended to now. That, I presume, is what President Biden means by the battles of "the next twenty years - not the last twenty."

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)