Sunday, June 27, 2021

Powerful Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

Eighth Grade + 60

Sixty years ago today - on June 25, 1961 - I graduated 8th grade. Four years later, to the day, I graduated high school. This morning, I offered Mass for the intention of all my grade school and high school classmates, living and dead.

Our parish grade school (tragically closed in 2019) opened in 1907 in an old building, solidly built, but barely able to accommodate the 1400 or so students enrolled in it in the 1950s. In winter, the heat sometimes didn’t work, and we would sit in class with our coats on. Such privations probably would be unacceptable in most schools today, but then they seemed perfectly normal, completely coherent with how we lived – in apartment buildings where likewise the heat sometimes didn’t always work in winter! 

As for the Sisters who ran the grade school and taught us, surely teaching anywhere from 50 to 60 kids five days each week had to be a real challenge. Some of my teachers were quite experienced, while for one teacher we were her very first class. The amazing thing, I think, about the parochial school system in those days was that putting a girl in a habit and sending her into a crowded classroom right out of novitiate and expecting her to control and teach a class of more than 50 kids somehow managed to work – and, on balance, really worked rather well. Again, what made it work so well was that it was so completely coherent with the rest of our world. And, of course, adults at that time fully supported the school, valued the Sisters, and almost always sided (if that is the right word) with them.


As I already said, parochial schools in those days were fairly basic. Ours had no kindergarten, just 8 grades. So, in the fall of 1953, my mother took me to the local public school, P.S. 91, for 1st grade.  (Why I could start 1st grade in public school but not in the parish school I can’t say, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the overcrowding in the Catholic school. This was the post-war “baby boom,” after all!) Then, the following year, I started in 1st grade again at the parish school. (Why I repeated 1st grade instead of transferring into 2nd grade is likewise still somewhat of a mystery to me.) School was so crowded that classes were half-day sessions through grade 5. By then the new parish high school had been built, and the old high school building became part of the elementary school, virtually doubling the amount of classroom space available. Except for 8th grade, my elementary school classes all had more than 50 students. Obviously, we lacked many of the educational resources of contemporary technology, let alone facilities for recess, but beyond all that we suffered no major academic disadvantage from such large classes, and we were probably at least as well educated as (if not better educated in certain respects )than some students are today. Side by side with an all-encompassing, seemingly “otherworldy” spirituality, we cultivated good spelling and penmanship, memorized our multiplication tables, received a rudimentary appreciation of art and music, learned practical social skills like the right way to write a “friendly letter” and a “business letter,” and studied civics and were taught to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship. 

I myself was a sufficiently good enough student that, midway through 3rd grade, I was “skipped” to the middle of the 4th grade. Having students “skip” a grade was not then all that uncommon either. I suspect it was one more way of dealing with the then widespread overcrowding! Of course, I had no say in the matter at all, but I most certainly did not want to “skip.” Being wrenched out of my class and dropped down into another one was certainly destabilizing. Also it meant dropping me into the middle of a grade the first half of which I had already missed. In particular, what I had missed that year was long division – something I struggled with for quite some time. I cried a lot that spring, struggling with my long-division homework. Of course, I eventually caught up and continued with my new set of classmates into 5th grade, where we continued to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

This was, of course, at the height of the Cold War, when international relations were often the focus of the news. We were all caught up in the fear of communism and of nuclear war, a danger brought home to us by the semi-annual civil defense drills, when – at the sound of the air-raid siren - we would all crawl under our desks at school (or run and hide in a nearby building if we were playing in the park). 


Needless to say, in parochial school in the 1950s, it was not politics but religion that permeated every day of the school year and every subject of study. Undoubtedly, the strongest influence in our world was the Church, physically embodied in the great Gothic parish church across the street from where I lived, It was by far the biggest and most impressive structure in the neighborhood and perhaps the most influential in that it served as the spiritual center and source of stability for most of our neighbors. What a sight it was in those days, Sunday after Sunday, as thousands of people poured out of the 13 Sunday Masses celebrated in both upper and lower churches! A local storekeeper once remarked that they probably made more selling newspapers to the people coming out of church on Sunday than on anything else the rest of the week! (That was also a reflection of the character of urban neighborhood communities, which were like villages in certain respects. One of the many unfortunate consequences of post-war suburbanization was the creation of communities in which churches were not longer at the center.)

In school, we prayed at the beginning and the end of the day (and before and after lunch). We recited the Morning Offering in the morning, the Angelus at mid-day, various other prayers throughout the course of the school day, and an Act of Contrition at day’s end. Was that because it was assumed that we must have sinned at school? That was certainly how it seemed to me.

Whenever a priest came into the classroom to speak to us or to our teacher, before he departed one of us would reverently request his blessing. Then we would all (including Sister) dutifully drop to our knees while Father raised his hands in a semicircle and then made the sign of the cross over us, saying Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus. Meanwhile, from celebrating Our Lady’s birthday in September, to the daily Rosary in October, decorating the crib at Christmas, and making the Stations of the Cross in Lent, all the way to Mary’s annual May Crowning at the end of that month, the calendar followed a set cycle of taken-for-granted devotions that punctuated the year and marked the recurring rhythm of months and seasons, while on the Thursday before the First Friday of every month we would all be marched class-by-class over to the Church for confession. And, of course, there were the special life-cycle celebrations, such as First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation, for which the school faithfully prepared us.

From 5th through 8th grade, many of us also served as altar boys. That was considered a great privilege (although a quite common and widely shared one). We prided ourselves in mastering the complex maneuvers of moving the missal from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side and then back again, kissing the cruets with the wine and water, ringing the bells, carrying the communion plate at the altar rail, and, of course, memorizing the Confiteor and all the other Latin responses, starting at the foot of the altar with an enthusiastic Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam! Serving as an altar boy meant Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, Low Masses, Sung Masses, Nuptial Masses, Funeral Masses, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross in Lent, carrying "torches" at Forty Hours, and (the crowning event for me in 8th grade) serving as the thurifer at Christmas Midnight Mass. But we all probably most looked forward to funerals since they got four of us out of school for an entire hour!

It was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations. Not everyone benefitted equally or fully from all those rules and expectations. For some, in the end, the burdens seemed to them to outweigh the benefits. But, for many at that time at least, the burdens seemed bearable enough and paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life.  In the half-century and more that followed, enormous economic and cultural changes have eviscerated the opportunities available for working class families with modest educational background and have radically diminished the prospects of many for financial and social stability and forming successfully functioning families. Social change always has winners and losers. And, while many have certainly done well, nationwide there equally certainly have been lots of losers. And our economically unequal, socially siloed, and politically polarized 21st-century America has surely paid a price for the alienation those losses have produced.

Chris Matthews once said of Pat Buchanan: “To Pat, the world can never be better than the one he grew up in as a young boy. … No country will ever be better than the United States of America of the early 1950s.” In fact, there was actually quite a bit about 1950s America that was wrong and much that needed fixing. But there was also much to appreciate in the way we lived, much that was nurturing and nourishing and supportive and strengthening, the loss of which has in its way diminished us as a society.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Conflicting Conversations about Holy Communion

The acrimonious argument at the USCCB's June meeting last week about a possible teaching document on the Eucharist has made it into the mainstream media, with the inevitable result that from now on anything and everything that is said about worthy reception of the Eucharist will likely be filtered for most people by their partisan political allegiances, which is increasingly how religion is perceived anyway in the U.S. 

This specific situation is complicated by the fact that there are actually two overlapping conversations taking place in the American Catholic Church at present. This first represents a religious response to recent research that at least appeared to show shockingly serious deficiencies in many American Catholics' understanding about what the Eucharist is. Perhaps, this should hardly have come as a surprise. For decades now, traditional practices which highlighted the unique sacredness of the Eucharist for previous generations (e.g., fasting before Communion, frequent Confession, kneeling for Communion, receiving on the tongue, reverential silence in church, etc.) have all been in decline, with inevitably obvious consequences for how the Eucharist has actually been experienced by many, regardless of whatever they may have been formally taught (if in fact they have been taught). In any case, whatever the cause, addressing this concern is certainly legitimate. It is a conversation which probably needs to occur. How it occurs, however, will significantly impact its efficacy. Meanwhile, however, potentially undermining the efficacy of the first conversation, there is now a second conversation, unfortunately overlapping with the first, which will almost certainly completely overwhelm the first one in the public's perception.

The second conversation is less a religious conversation, however, than it is a political one about restricting the reception of Communion on the basis of the recipient's political allegiances. Whatever else one may say, either way, on this subject, (and there is indeed much that could well be said on both sides of this argument), it is mind-boggling to imagine that, in today's United States, making support for a particular political strategy a prerequisite for receiving Communion could somehow promote greater reverence for the Eucharist or foster a more doctrinally correct conception of the Real Presence or even increase regular Mass attendance. In any case, of course, the USCCB has no actual jurisdiction in that matter. Only a local bishop can make a determination to deny access to the sacraments to someone in his diocese, and in this area diocesan bishops already possess authority and so do not need the USCCB to get involved. 

As with misunderstandings about the nature of the Eucharist, any alleged non-adherence to any authentic doctrine by public persons is indeed a properly religious issue on which the Bishops may well have reason to make pronouncements. But is this a matter of widespread non-adherence to actual doctrine? Has the President, for example, ever actually formally dissented from the Church's doctrinal teaching? Or is it a disagreement about politics? More broadly, is it a practical disagreement about how to be Church in a modern democratic and pluralistic (hence, secular) society - a question of judgment and about how best to practice the traditionally preeminent political virtue of prudence?

The underlying fundamental political question of a somewhat traditional integralist vs. a modern democratic and pluralist approach to contemporary political life seems less obviously a question of religious doctrine and more in the realm of what has traditionally been viewed as prudential political judgment.

In the 20th century, the Catholic Church seemed to have left traditional throne-and-altar, sacral society integralism behind and attempted to make at least a limited peace with modern democracy and pluralism. Evidently, however, whatever the consensus supporting that turn may have been 50 years ago, it now appears to have been significantly less widespread than may have been thought then. Objectively speaking, there would appear to be coherent intellectual and moral arguments that could be advanced (and have been) on behalf of both approaches. Coherent arguments can clearly be advanced for integralism (not least its prevalence in earlier tradition). There are also, however, comparably coherent arguments that can be advanced in support of contemporary attempts at limited reconciliation with the modern world (not least the empirical evidence of the catastrophic failures of 20th-century integralist experiments, for example, in Ireland and Spain). But any such reconciliation with the modern world, however partial and limited, would have to recognize the changed (i.e., secular) character of contemporary political life. As some 60 members of the US House of Representatives recently stated: "no political party is perfectly in accord with all aspects of Church doctrine. This fact speaks to the secular nature of American democracy, not the devotion of our democratically elected leaders." 

That both contrasting approaches articulate important priorities and values for the Church ought also to be acknowledged. A serene dialogue (as one would say in Church speak) is certainly called for between these two alternative ways of imagining the practical relationships between the Church and modern pluralistic societies and modern democratic (or at least constitutional) states. There is, however, a big difference between such serene dialogue and an acrimonious politically framed factional argument. Hence the utility of Cardinal Ladaria's recommendation to the U.S. Bishops "to dialogue with other episcopal conferences as this policy is formulated in order to learn from one another and to preserve unity in the universal church." And, in any case, it seems at best counter-productive to conflate this issue with a perhaps very much needed strictly religious conversation about how the Church understands and experiences her sacramental life.

The seeming subordination of religion to politics is increasingly a society-wide challenge in the United States today. As conservative Christian pundit Peter Whener recently wrote in The New York Times: "the Christian faith has far too often become a weapon in the arsenal of those who worship at the altar of politics." But, as J.D. Greear, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2018 to 2021 recently warned, “Anytime the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”

Sunday, June 20, 2021

In the Same Boat

The 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 20, 2021
Mark 4:35-41

As a pastor during the covid pandemic, especially in those early weeks when Mass could only be said behind closed doors, I often celebrated the new (2020) Votive Mass in Time of Pandemic. The Gospel appointed for that Mass is Mark's account of Jesus' calming the storm, which was the text for Pope Francis's powerfully simple pandemic prayer service in Saint Peter's Square on March 27, 2020 (photo). Clearly the disciples' poignant plea, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing,"  acquired a new salience in those unusual circumstance, a feeling all could relate to.

Now, more than a year later, with life largely returning to something relatively resembling normal in our increasingly vaccinated society, the turn of the Church's liturgical calendar carries us back again this Sunday to that same Gospel account, to the same struggling disciples in that same storm-tossed boat.

When Pope Francis preached on this Gospel almost 15 months ago, he expressed the common collective experience of a world suddenly brought together by a common calamity:

Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.

How many times since then have we heard - perhaps even quoted - those challenging but reassuring words?  Overwhelmed by the omnipresence of disaster, we repeat the Pope's hopeful-sounding sentiments: we are on the same boat ... all of us called to row together ... only together can we do this.

The reality the Pope referenced remains an objective fact, which has always been true and was true long before covid added evidence to confirm it. We are all interdependent members of a common human family, which can only advance if all its members are enabled to advance. That said, we have all long known what the pandemic experience has now further reinforced. We don't act at all as if we were all on the same team, all rowing the same boat together. It has recently been claimed claimed, for example, that billionaires have gotten 54% richer during the pandemic - as if they weren't scandalously rich already!

George Packer has recently offered a model of an America compartmentalized in four narrative compartments, 2 Red and 2 Blue. On the Red side are "Free America" (the libertarian narrative of "personal freedom without other people") and "Real America," the right-wing populist revolt against that (responding to decline not by rebuilding but by mobilizing anger and despair). Both of them are opposed on the Blue side by "Smart America" (corresponding to what was sometimes called the new "knowledge class", cultural, economic, and social winners who have largely "lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can't grasp its importance for others") and "Just America," which "assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America" and "upends the universal [liberal] values of the Enlightenment."

However illustrative and illuminative, there are also limitations to Packer's four problematic compartments. As New York Magazine's Eric Levitz sees it, the alternative which Packer proposes is "a liberalism that disavows meritocratic elitism, champions economic redistribution, brims with unabashed patriotism, and recognizes the persistence of racial injustice — but also the feasibility of racial progress and the necessity of policing." Levitz sees this alternative as alive and well in "the narrative of America’s sitting president" and his working-class voters.

That said, the fundamental insight of such analyses is that the once familiar Tocquevillian image of an essentially egalitarian America (and its modern political analogue in the New Deal and Fair Deal politics of widespread material improvement throughout a unified American nation) have been replaced by intense political and cultural fragmentation rooted in increasing social and economic inequality, resulting in the very opposite of all of us rowing together in the same boat.

But the reality of the troubled waters we are all sailing in, demonstrated by the destructive storm of the covid pandemic, poses a powerful challenge to this divided and compartmentalized experience. And there can be no getting away from the fact that, unless the basic inequities increasingly now built into how we live are addressed somehow, the boat cannot safely sail.

In this contentious context, can the Good news - the proclamation of which is always and everywhere supposed to be the Church's mission - again offer an effective antidote to the toxins of conflict and division? Such was famously Isaac Hecker's 19th-century aspiration. At an audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker had confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties and act like oil on troubled waters.” For Hecker the Church was a powerfully unifying force, binding citizens together, and thus blunting the dangerously sharp cutting  edges of conflict and dissension, fusing the private interests of individuals and factions into a common social and civic unity.

Obviously, it has not yet worked out that way. In the United States, on both sides of the old Catholic-Protestant divide, there are integralist tendencies wedded to an anachronistic model of Church as a major possessor of political power. This both limits the alternatives and also poses them even more starkly. As Mike Lewis recently wrote in Where Peter Is: "We can retreat further into our collapsing fortresses ... and cling to a self-referential concept of the Church, or we can get into the boat with Peter, Pope Francis, and venture out into the wider world, riding on the choppy waves, seeking out a new future for the Church." 

Even that would not guarantee safe sailing for the increasingly pluralistic and diverse American boat, but it might at least add an additional crew of rowers, committed to working together for the common good, which would surely represent a much needed and highly beneficial change.

Photo: Pope Francis prays in an empty Saint Peter's Square, March 27, 2020,                                             (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Post-Pandemic Distress

Recently I watched with combined amazement, amusement, and horror as someone removed his mask, momentarily, to cough, and then immediately replaced it carefully covering his nose and mouth! Thankfully, I am already fully vaccinated! Otherwise, I would have been very frightened. Still, to say the least, it was somewhat disconcerting to watch someone using his mask in the exact opposite way of how it is meant to be used. Might it be that our common pandemic experience has so unsettled and unmoored most of us to the point that we have become even more than customarily mindless about what we do on a daily basis?

Worse than mindless, many otherwise peaceful people seem increasingly angry. There is, of course, much to get legitimately angry about, much of which has been exacerbated by this demoralizing pandemic experience. I use the word "demoralizing" deliberately. The customary constraints of civilized social life, let alone the restraints required by morality, normally compel us to filter our angry feelings into more socially and morally acceptable behaviors. Has so much social isolation undone some of those social and moral behavioral filters? 

Fifty years ago, as a graduate student, I recall participating in conversations about ambient social breakdown. So this is certainly not all new and not ascribable only to the pandemic. But has the pandemic intensified existing dangerous emotions? And has our institutional response of socially disconnecting ourselves made this emotional mess even worse?

Traditionally, of course, churches have been the particularly privileged places where we meet one another with maximally benign expectations and behaviors. The secularization of society long predates the pandemic and can hardly be blamed either on the pandemic or on our response to it. But both the pandemic itself and even more so our institutional responses to it have even further marginalized religion and moved churches even more to the margins of society, precisely when their traditional spiritual, social, and moral functions were most desperately and widely needed.

Among the challenges as we return to ostensibly normal life will be restrengthening weakened social and moral filters and relearning how to channel angry feelings and emotions more effectively and less dangerously. If churches no longer provide sanctuaries in which to learn and strengthen such basic social and moral skills. where else will that happen?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

In the Heights (The Movie)

"The Heights", as every Manhattanite knows, refer to New York's Washington Heights, the highest natural neighborhood in Manhattan, one of New York's ever-changing communities, where General George Washington once had his fort and where his namesake bridge beautifies the sky - and which has been for decades now a densely populated Latino neighborhood, pulsating in summer with the omnipresent sounds of Caribbean and other Latin American music. In the Heights is the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning Broadway show, Miranda's musical prequel, so to speak, to his much more famous Hamilton. I haven't been to a Broadway play in decades, and so I never saw In the Heights on stage, but the film version is not only everything reviewers have raved about but is so obviously, so naturally suited to the artistry of the big screen. Indeed, In the Heights is big in every way, an exuberant, 143-minute return to the best expressions of the classic musical and also a grandiose celebration of the glorious panorama of urban life and of the New York immigrant experience and the big American Dream that for generation after generation has inspired it. 

Miranda himself plays a small part in the show as a summertime street vendor (struggling to compete with Mister Softee). The starring role of Usnavi, which Miranda originated onstage, is perfectly played by Anthony Ramos, who dreams both of returning someday to the Dominican Republic and of his local love interest, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose very different dream is to have a successful fashion career downtown. The other parallel love story features Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), the neighborhood's academic success story and the pride of her father Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Nina is home for the summer from Stanford, somewhat traumatized by the prejudice she experienced there and the stressful struggle of being a Latina at an elite institution - an experience previous generations of immigrants also have had to endure along the way. In the Heights is in the long tradition of movies about immigrant neighborhood life, an especially touching highlight of which is when the community's culture-carrying grandmother figure Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) sings "Paciencia y Fe" surrounded by dancers in the subway.

Dancing is one way to get through the hot, humid Manhattan summer, and there is certainly plenty of dancing in this film, dynamically choreographed, maybe most memorably in the joyful swimming pool scene.

Love doesn't quite conquer all. It seldom does. There remains injustice in the world and in particular in the immigrant experience. The electrical Blackout, around which the film is chronologically ordered, is an unsubtle metaphor for individual and community powerlessness, but also for the power inherent in community solidarity and the strength and joy that derive from it .

In the Heights was supposed to open in movie theaters a year ago. But, as with so much else, that opening had to be put on hold, as not just the theaters but our very lives were shut down by the covid pandemic. Available now, this is just what the proverbial entertainment doctor would have ordered - a splashy, exuberant, song-and-dance celebration of immigrant life, love, youthful hope, American aspiration, and the sheer joy of being alive.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Another Welcome Sign of Normalcy

Yes, they are still "socially distanced" (sort of), although they weren't while walking to the site of the photo-op. But the fact of the photo-op itself means that they are all together for this year's G-7 Summit, which is a big change from last year, and an another encouraging, welcome sign of returning normalcy.

The G-7 Summit may or may not make a major difference in terms of any actual accomplishments. The same for the forthcoming NATO summit and then the bilateral Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva. But this meeting in drizzly Cornwall is a welcome change from both the acrimonious meetings of the Trump years and the non-meetings of this past year. 

Good news all around!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

What Can the Church offer the World - and How?

At this critical inflection point (to use that strange but suddenly fashionable expression) in the life of contemporary Christianity, Where Peter Is blogger Mike Lewis has offered an insightful and challenging, if somewhat unsettling, analysis of the Catholic Church's current and prospective capacity to offer a message to the contemporary world. Taking his cue from Pope Saint Paul VI's 1975 Exhortation (which Lewis mistakenly calls an "encyclical") Evangelii Nuntiandi and its reminder that the Church "exists in order to evangelize," Lewis' article "What Can We Offer To the World?" looks at the challenges for evangelization in contemporary contexts. Here in the West (which is the article's almost exclusive focus), "the evangelization challenge for the Church is to show that Catholicism is not an obsolete religion filled with superstitious bigots and conspiracy theorists. If we are unsuccessful, sharing the Gospel will be impossible." 

In other cultural contexts, the challenges and consequences of failure are different. "In the developing world, the evangelization challenges are to inculturate the faith and to liberate the oppressed" with failure leading people "to seek God elsewhere." In those places where the Church is tiny and persecuted. "the challenge is to show these societies that Catholics can live in fraternity as neighbors despite differences in belief, and can help work toward the common good of all," with failure meaning "they will be crushed."

But, back here in the West, "if we fail to recognize how the Church is perceived by the wider society, our beloved faith will be reduced to little more than an afterthought by the prevailing culture in a generation or two." Lewis focuses primarily on what he believes is "a unique danger to the Church" presented by right-wing reactionary Catholic dissent, which he believes has increasingly become both anti-papal and has led "the embrace of dangerous ideologies, including forms of nationalism, populism, and integralism that are incompatible with the Catholic faith." Lewis ascribes the resulting "chaos" to "a rejection of the Living Magisterium" among Catholics, some of whom who have "unmoored themselves from the teaching authority and coherence that comes from unity with the pope and the bishops in communion with him," some of whom have succumbed "to the dangerous post-reality mindset typically associated with Protestant fundamentalism."

Lewis' concern is that many U.S. Church leaders seem somehow unaware of these problems and lacking in "understanding of the culture at large," and instead "seem to think fighting the same culture wars in the same way they've fought them since the 1990s and early 2000s is right where the US Church needs to be." Ultimately what this comes down to, for Lewis "is a crisis of credibility."

Of course, criticism of Church leaders, whether warranted or not, is increasingly common in our contemporary context - both inside and outside the Church community. What is interesting about Lewis' essay is what underlies that "crisis of credibility" that he is so concerned about. While Mass attendance and religious practice in general have historically been higher in the U.S. than in many other countries, it is also the case "that the number of Catholics who practice the faith and agree with the Church on social and moral issues is in steady decline." While indifference to traditional Church teachings on sexual morality is widespread throughout the West, in the U.S. "many conservative Catholics disregard the bishops' views on immigration, the death penalty, climate change, poverty, racism, healthcare, refugees, education, and most other teachings seen as 'liberal' in the contemporary American political ecosystem."

One especially important insight in Lewis' analysis is how he describes the relatively recent shift in Western societies from what Pope Benedict XVI once called "the dictatorship of relativism" to "a new set of moral doctrines in mainstream society." So, Catholic positions which were, not so long ago perhaps, "stereotyped as uptight, dogmatic, and old-fashioned" are now increasingly "viewed as immoral and oppressive." In this new situation, "being harsh, condemnatory, and dismissive contributes to the image of the Church as morally reprehensible, turning off potential converts," even causing some "to see the Catholic Church as a hate group." So, for example, whereas some in the Church have criticized what appears to be happening in the German Church as capitulation to the world, Lewis sees "a Church that is searching for something to say to a world that has given up on listening." (That said, he does acknowledge that some of what he has read from Germany comes across as to deferential and lacking "the degree of doctrinal assertiveness" to which he is accustomed.)

A key concept to be derived from this new reality may be a new need, even when one personally faithfully assents to Church teachings on today's controverted topics, to develop a capacity to "understand why many think the Church's official justifications are lacking." (Of course, while understanding one another may be more conducive to peaceful coexistence - to retrieve a useful phrase from the Cold War - there is also always the sad reality of irreconcilable intransigence on the part of some who will persist in advocating positions which, however understandable, can never be completely accommodated within the faith of the Church, despite all the dialogue in the world.)

As Lewis sees it, there are really just two choices: "we can retreat further into our collapsing fortresses ... and cling to a self-referential concept of the Church, or we can get in the boat with Peter, Pope Francis, and venture out into the wider world, riding on the choppy waves, seeking out a new future for the Church."

The strength of Lewis' analysis lies in its critical examination of our precarious situation in the West today and its recognition that something other than retreat into a sectarian sub-culture is called for by an authentic commitment to the Gospel. That said, it must also be recognized that the boat, which we may be being called to get into, is unlikely to dock anywhere remotely resembling the relatively safe harbor we have historically become accustomed to. There is no guarantee of success in even the most sincere openness to dialogue with the world. The defining contemporary challenge is to accept the inevitable loss of cultural and political power for what it is and then do what can be done to find in cultural and political marginalization renewed opportunities to offer something salvific to the world, empowered only by the fervent belief that what is offered is ultimately what is in fact needed.

Photo: Pope Francis prays in an empty Saint Peter's Square, March 27, 2020,                                             (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Battle for the Soul (The Book)

Another book about the Trump years and the election that (for the time being, at least) saved the country from another Trump term! But Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns To Defeat Trump by Edwad-Isaac Dovere (Viking, 2021) is only incidentally about Trump and very much about the Democrats, the multiple Democratic candidates, and especially about the Democrats' internal challenges.

For those who love campaign accounts, there is plenty of that here, including fairly comprehensive attention to many of the "minor" candidates in the Democratic primary contest. But top billing goes to Joe Biden himself, who against the expectations of many and the hopes of the party's progressive wing, won the nomination, and then went on to be the one who could actually defeat Trump. "Biden was the compromise candidate, the collective consensus about who could actually beat Trump, but who wasn’t exactly inspiring." Indeed! But it turned out to be Biden who alone could make the case that best spoke to the American electorate, "as the old white man who was so well known that this made it clear what he stood for." In part, that was because, "Biden was actually the guy Trump pretended to be, with the working-class sensibility and the close family, and by being an older, white, straight man, he didn’t give Trump any of the usual openings he used for his bullying."

But, even more interesting than his account of Biden's amazingly on-target campaigns (for both the nomination and the general election), is Dovere's depiction of the divisions within the Democratic party, the structural and institutional weakness of the party, and especially Barack Obama's weaknesses as leader of the party. The author devotes a lot of space to describing Obama's failures, what he calls "the long rot of the Obama years"- both as president to bring about the change he had once promised and as party leader for neglecting the party. Whereas  some Obama aides "privately described his abandonment of the party while he was in the White House" as  “Benign neglect,” Dovere calls it “Negligence.” 

According to Dovere's account, "Obama never built a Democratic bench and never cared to, aside from a few scattered candidates who interested him. ... In his first term, Obama used the party structure as a host for his campaign. In his second term, he cared about what happened to the husk as much as any parasite does." Moreover, Dovere describes a Democratic party that during the Obama years "was hopped up on delusion" - the delusion that "Everything had changed."

As for Biden's prospects to succeed him in the presidency, Obama recognized "how unprepared logistically and emotionally Biden was for a presidential campaign" especially in the personally devastating aftermath of his son's death. "Obama wasn’t naive about Clinton’s political weaknesses—he had beaten her because of them. Still, he believed she would win. He thought she would do a good job, and he would say privately at the time, she seemed to him to be the only plausible option to succeed him, which was in itself a pretty clear comment on what he made of his own party’s bench under his presidency." It was also the case that, as Jen Psaki observed, Obama "undervalued Biden’s political abilities because they had such different styles.” 

Looking ahead to 2020, "Obama always assumed Biden would run against Trump, that his theory of his own candidacy made sense and that Biden might just be the right antidote. ... [but] Obama remained skeptical about Biden’s chances. In his account of the 2020 primary campaign, Dovere highlights the the problem that the Left created for itself in that campaign. "A progressive could have won the 2020 primary. Arguably, with the energy in the party where it was, one probably should have. ... Medicare for All is a major reason why the left did not.”

As everyone knows, Biden secured the career-saving endorsement of Congressman Clyburn and won the  South Carolina primary, after which the moderates in the party immediately united behind Biden to prevent the possibility of a Sanders candidacy. And so it happened, almost overnight, that by "Super Tuesday" Biden was suddenly transformed into the frontrunner - and more.

Presidential campaigns typically have two parts - the primary campaign as its fist half, followed the general election campaign. In 2020, the effective end of the primary campaign coincided with something no one could have anticipated or prepared for - the pandemic. Roughly halfway through the book, the coronavirus takes over the country and effectively ends the primary campaign. The author highlights the difficulties the pandemic created for Biden's campaign. "Building a wider sense of team and community was close to impossible—except for the shared, almost religious mission of beating Trump." His description of the convention experience for Biden is poignant: "The prize without the ceremony. The acclamation without the acclaim. Shrouded in a sense of mourning. Incomplete. Imperfect. A Biden nomination."

One of the peculiar paradoxes of the 2020 election was how the failures of the Obama years and the trauma of the Trump years steered the Democrats to choosing the safest possible candidate, who proved possibly to be the only candidate who could successfully defeat Trump, and who then surprisingly, in large part in response to the unprecedented twin calamities of Trump and the pandemic, positioned himself to aspire to become a truly transformational president. How effective that aspiration may prove remains to be seen - the topic for future books.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi
Exodus 24:3-8                                  
Hebrews 9:11-15                         
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Nowadays, whenever the subject of the Holy Eucharist comes up, it is usually in the context of controversy and conflict - mask mandates at Mass, the pandemic-period prohibition of Communion on the tongue, partisan politics about so-called "eucharistic coherence," and the shocking 2019 Pew research results that have been interpreted as showing that many Catholics may not to be fully in step with the Church's true teaching on the Real Presence.

So let me start with something different - a happy memory. This past Friday was the anniversary of my First Holy Communion on June 4, 1955. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) - the Corsican soldier-politician who eventually turned himself into a French emperor and in 1804 compelled poor Pope Pius VII to come to Paris in person to watch Napoleon crown himself - that same Napoleon, who presumably enjoyed many successful and happy days in his adventurous life - once famously described his First Communion as the happiest day of his life.  


I am not so sure I would completely echo Napoleon, but I would certainly agree that my First Communion was a very happy occasion. Of course, what many – maybe most – Catholics remember most about their First Communion Day is frequently the frills: the outfits, the photos, and, of course, the presents. Those are all perfectly nice things, and their significance should not be minimized. They mattered a lot to everyone around me and so also mattered to me. Yet – lover of ritual and ceremony that I already was becoming - what I actually remember most about my First Communion was all the hours we spent practicing beforehand. The Sisters were not about to leave anything to chance! (For us at the time, First Communion, along with First Confession the day before and Confirmation a couple of years later, were significant life-cycle celebrations, for which the parish school faithfully prepared us.) And I remember my mother having to persuade my Aunt to have her babysit for my 3-month old sister, so that both my parents and my grandmother could attend the ceremony. And then came the ceremony itself - an 8:00 a.m. Solemn High Mass! Actually, I remember very little about the ceremony itself. But I do remember how we walked up to the altar, two-by-two, and then how I returned to my pew with my hands held together very piously - something which my father found noteworthy enough to comment on later. Finally, I remember my mother’s dress as she approached the Communion rail right in front of me later on in the Mass. (In those days, when most adults still went to Communion only occasionally, First Communion was one of those rare events when one’s parents would typically go to Communion.)


As for the actual reception of Communion itself - kneeling on the altar step (rather than at the altar rail) to receive the Sacred Host on my tongue, as the priest prayed, Corpus Domini nostri, Jesu Christi custodiat anuman tuam in vitam aetaernam, Amen - that memory is real but much less vivid. Perhaps that is because it merges in memory with so many other subsequent  Communions. For many of us in my generation (brought up after Saint Pius X encouraged frequent Communion), that would have typically been once a week (and later in life for those of us who embraced a religious vocation, likely as often as once a day). That's a lot of Communions! So, if the first one merges in memory with all those subsequent Communions, that may be as it should be. As a pastor, I always used to stress when preaching to First Communicants on their big day, the key word to remember about the experience is “first” – the first time they are doing what (hopefully) they are going to be doing many more times, over and over again, at least once each week, all the rest of their lives.


Unlike Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, which are defining, once-for-all events, and despite the life-cycle significance of First Communion in contemporary Catholic culture, the Eucharist really is meant to be a regularly repeated sacrament. Of course, any sense of that was largely lost for so much of our history, when people went to Communion relatively rarely. At some level, that was always clearly contrary to the plain sense of the liturgy, and to the very nature of the sacrament. As Saint Thomas Aquinas himself explained centuries ago, by Baptism a person is oriented to the Eucharist, so that by virtue of being baptized one is destined for the Eucharist by the Church (Summa Theologica, III, q. 73, art. 3). On the other hand, it may well be that frequent Communion as it evolved in the last third of the 20th-century and since, may have now made the experience something more like a routine for far too many recipients. And that too may well be part of what is broadly, if imprecisely, reflected by that recent research about what many Catholics may or may not believe (or think they believe) regarding the Eucharist.

Today the Church celebrates the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the feast commonly called Corpus Christi. The meaning and spirit of this festival is succinctly summarized in the familiar collect – so familiar because it is also the collect traditionally sung after the hymn at Benediction: O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood that we always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.

This prayer, one of the very few liturgical collects addressed directly to Christ rather than to God the Father, reminds us that the sacrament of the Eucharist is intimately connected with Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  Of course, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, which recalls the institution of the Eucharist, certainly sets it within the fuller context of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection; but there is so much else going on then that, over the centuries, it increasingly appeared appropriate to accent the Church’s joy in this wonderful sacrament on a day (and for centuries an entire octave) all its own. Hence, this feast – established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 with its Mass and Office specially composed for the occasion by the great 13th-century Dominican Doctor of the Church Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The prayer he composed calls on us to revere the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. Hence the special traditions of Eucharistic veneration associated with today – the traditional outdoor procession, for example, which elaborately marks this occasion in Catholic countries. As a seminarian in 1984, I had the privilege of witnessing the impressive outdoor Corpus Christi procession in Montreal’s Old City. In Germany, they have a tradition of the procession stopping at altars four erected along the way, at each of which is read the beginning of one of the four gospels before Benediction is given with the monstrance. It is a symbolic way of suggesting that the entire story can be summed up in some sense in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But along with our veneration of this wonderful sacrament, the primary point is for us to experience its benefits. One particular ancient Roman prayer expresses this idea very eloquently in the Canon of the Mass:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every heavenly grace and heavenly blessing.

In other words, by participating in the Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion, we, like Christ’s offering of himself, are also, as it were, carried along to the Lamb of God’s heavenly altar as a pledge of our future glory.

In the beautiful words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which the Church recites this evening at Vespers: How holy this feast, in which Christ is our food; his Passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts, and we receive a pledge of the glory to come.

The current controversies and conflicts about Communion are not going to go away any time soon. They are part of the terrible time of polarized politics and politicized religion in which we are living and the toll all that has taken - on the unity of the human race, on our unity as a national community, and on our unity as the Body of Christ, which, speaking scholastically as Saint Thomas would have, is the res tantum of the Eucharist, the final end of the Eucharist, our unity in the Body of Christ.

But, for today, at least, let us rejoice in the sacramental sign of that ultimate reality, which Christ has given to the Church, not to divide us but to unite us forever with him.

(Photo: Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN)

Friday, June 4, 2021

Peril at the Summit

Sixty years ago today, on June 4, 1961, the young, newly elected, evidently unprepared American President, John F. Kennedy, unwisely met in Vienna, Austria, with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Krushchev, who was neither young, nor new, nor unprepared. The result was disastrous and remains a reminder to all new American presidents of the dangers of engaging in such summitry. Unlike Kennedy, of course, President Biden, who is scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin later this month in Geneva, is not young and is quite experienced in foreign policy. He is, however, like Kennedy before him new in the job and goes to the summit at a time when American prestige abroad is low. (Kennedy met with Krushchev less than two months after the dual humiliations of the Soviets' first-ever manned space flight and the U.S.' failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It has long been believed that Kennedy's poor performance in Vienna strengthened Krushchev's hand and may have led directly to his ill-fated 1962 decision to put missiles in Cuba.)

There is always peril at the summit. By its nature, a summit meeting means an enormous investment in national prestige. The pressure to produce - or to appear, at least, to produce - is correspondingly enormous and accordingly dangerous. Even if President Biden is better prepared and thus less apt to be bullied than Kennedy was, the danger of making the meeting an end in itself, of claiming something to show for it in order to make the exercise seem to have been worth it, will be very great. 

Yet what are the prospects at present for some sort of breakthrough in our relations with Putin? Perhaps there are particular practical problems that can be resolved and areas of cooperation that can be encouraged. That is almost always the case. Even so, as such recent events as the cyber attacks on first the energy supply and then the meat supply suggest, the more fundamental challenges to our relationship remain for the present beyond resolution. 

Generally speaking, summits seem to work best when the ground has been well prepared prior to the actual meeting at the top. Assuming neither party actually expects to transform the other leader's personality or convert him to a different ideology, the way to make progress usually presupposes practical problems that can be negotiated at the lower level.

Where summits do works best is when the participants's experiences of each other have led them, if not actually to like each other, at least to develop some sort of interpersonal relationship that enables them to get beyond the inevitable posturing and national and ideological assertiveness. The problem is, of course, the other side of that coin. FDR famously tried to charm Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, and perhaps at some level he did, but that could not change Stalin's toxic personality or the ideological filter through which he saw the rest of the world or the military facts on the ground which tilted the balance of power in Stalin's favor. Can Biden realistically expect to soften someone so incorrigible as Putin any more than FDR could do with Stalin?

The nature of modernity, the directness of our communications capabilities, and the ease of personal travel have all made summits an ordinary, taken-for-granted component of ordinary diplomacy - in ways that would hardly have been imagined in the past. But because something is now easy to do and correspondingly expected, does not make it any less perilous in the long term.