Sunday, October 31, 2021

Autumn Triduum

Happy Halloween!

The 20th-century remodelers of the Roman Liturgy displayed a strange, seemingly inexplicable disdain for vigils. Hence, such centuries-old vigils with recognizable resonances in popular culture as today's Vigil of All Saints ("All Hallows' Eve"), were abolished to the obvious benefit of no one anywhere. Still, Halloween has successfully survived as a popular, secular celebration instead. In fact, it has thrived in the decades since the Church abandoned it to revert to its pagan origins. Thus, the traditional Autumn Triduum of All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls remains recognizable - with lots of secular celebrants for Halloween, far fewer religious celebrants for All Saints, and fewer still, sadly, for All Souls.

For many revelers today, Halloween is just an excuse for children - and increasingly for many adults - to dress in costume and extort candy from their neighbors (and even from perfect strangers). That adults also "trick or treat" seems at first thought to be bizarre at best, although in a society in which adults have now for decades imitated their kids in how they dress on a daily basis, perhaps it is not so bizarre that they should imitate kids in costume on Halloween as well. 

Historically, however, Halloween had another, much more serious dimension. An ancient pagan festival occurring at a major seasonal turning point in the year, originally a night of fear in the face of the forces of evil, it was incorporated into the Christian calendar late in the first millennium when All Saints Day was moved to November 1. In moving the feast of All Saints to November - from the May 13 anniversary of the 609 Dedication of the Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church Sancta Maria ad Martyres - the medieval Church was symbolically celebrating the triumph of Christ over the demonic elements traditionally associated with the pagan festival we now call Halloween. In effect, this ritualized the triumph of Christianity over older pre-Christian European paganism by celebrating the triumph of God's grace (exemplified in the saints) over sin and Satan. If Halloween is now a $7 billion extravaganza that now largely overshadows All Saints, perhaps that sadly symbolizes the cultural triumph of a new post-Christian paganism over a Christian faith increasingly being consigned to society's margins. 

That said, whether Halloween is experienced as a traditional Christian vigil, a harmless children's holiday, another regression by adults into infantilized behavior, or a reassertion of anti-Christian paganism, for the Church the next day, All Saints Day, still celebrates the Church Triumphant - triumphant over Satan, sin, and death. Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued relationship with them – a "communion of saints," which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us with the saints already in heaven, who have gone before us with the sign of faith.

In the Church, saints are seen as visible examples of the effects of God’s gifts of grace and as models of sanctity, of whose friendship and intercession we are beneficiaries. So, citing Saint Augustine, the Church prays in her liturgy:


For you are praised in the company of your Saints

And, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.

By their way of life you offer us an example,

by communion with them, you give us their companionship,

by their intercession, sure support,

so that, encouraged by so great a cloud of witnesses,

we may run as victors in the race before us

and win with them the imperishable crown of glory,                                                                     through Christ our Lord.

In his journey to Catholicism, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) famously studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent (The Roman Catechism) and was especially impressed by Article IX on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Many years later, writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, Hecker recalled: "When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented."       

The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just tomorrow but in every Mass everyday, signifies our union, as the still struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror that heavenly community of angels and saints – and so transform the world according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

When Origen (c. 184-253) recommended praying in a place where all the faithful assemble together, he assumed the presence also of the spirits of the dead and the guardian angels of those assembled (De Oratione 31, 5-7).

All of which brings us to the third and last day of the Church's great Autumn Triduum, All Souls Day - now perhaps the least noticed of the three days, but an occurrence which not that long ago was widely observed by many and was widely seen as the popular culmination of the three days. This unique day turns out attention to Purgatory and to the Communion of Saints, that especially attractive doctrine that, as already mentioned, played so important a role in the conversion of Isaac Hecker.

Yet, as Karl Rahner already observed some 80 years ago in Theological Investigations: "Most contemporary Christians have already ceased to have any sense of being actively in communication with their own dead, the members of their family and the relations whom they have lost. ... They are forgotten, and in so far as they are thought of at all attention is focused upon their lives while they were still among us and not in any true sense upon the fact that they are still living." My guess is that anyone who has attended a representative sample of Catholic funerals since Rahner wrote that will readily recognize this problem.

While very much a reflection of our contemporary alienation, the modern neglect of the Church's tradition of prayers for the dead, at least in America, is not entirely unique to today. In his first Pastoral Letter  (May 28, 1792), Archbishop John Carroll found it necessary, considering the especially challenging situation in which the American Church then found itself,  to admonish the Catholics of the United States: "Follow your departed brethren into the regions of eternity, with your prayers, and all the assistance, which is suggested by the principles of faith and piety."

The almost unthinking resort by some in the pre-conciliar liturgical practice to the Requiem Mass on ferial days with multiple options - not unlike the similarly lazy resort to repeating the Sunday Mass in green vestments on such occasions by some in the contemporary rite - was an unfortunately overdone practice, one which I can well remember. Unfortunately, that common practice distorted the place of prayer for the dead in the liturgy and, by extension, may have undermined the salience of the doctrine of the communion of saints in practice. That said, all those Requiem Masses focused on praying for the souls in purgatory probably did sustain a real relationship between the living and the dead, even as the changing conditions of modern society were increasingly undermining that relationship.

Certainly, the excessive overreaction against Masses for the dead in the Church's post-conciliar liturgical experience has itself been yet another distortion and a pastoral disaster. As Saint Augustine told his congregation: "the dead can be helped by the prayers of holy Church, and the eucharistic sacrifice, and alms distributed for the repose of their spirits; so that God may deal with them more mercifully than their sins have deserved" [Sermon 172, 2; tr. Edmund Hill].

Or, as Dante expressed it in the hopeful words of the soul of Manfredi, grandson of the Empress Constanza, in the last line of Purgatorio, Canto 3 : "For those on earth can much advance us here" che' qui per quei di là molto s'avanza.

(Photo: Stained-glass Window portraying Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, Patron of the Souls in Purgatory, celebrating Mass to intercede for the souls in Purgatory, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church, Bronx, NY)

Friday, October 29, 2021

Pope and President

The two most prominent Catholics in the world - Pope Francis and U.S. President Joe Biden - met in Rome today. This is something all modern presidents like to do, regardless of their religion. The first U.S. president to visit a Pope was Woodrow Wilson, who met with Pope Benedict XV in 1919 while in Europe for the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. At that time, presidential travel abroad was a controversial novelty, while the Pope was infamously a "Prisoner of the Vatican." Forty years later in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Pope Saint John XXIII. By then, presidential travel abroad had become more routine, and the Pope and Italy had been reconciled, thus eliminating the awkwardness associated with visiting both the Vatican and the Qurinale and making future such visits a regular occurrence. 

So President John F. Kennedy visited Pope Saint Paul VI on the day after his coronation in 1963, followed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and 1970, and Gerald R. Ford in 1975. Jimmy Carter visited Pope Saint John Paul II in 1980, followed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and 1987, George H.W. Bush in 1989 and 1991, Bill Clinton in 1994, and George W. Bush in 2001, 2002, and 2004. Bush later visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and 2008. Barak Obama visited Pope Francis in 2014, and Donald Trump did so in 2017. 

Of these, before Biden only Kennedy was a Catholic. What is distinctive this time is that, while once again the President is a Catholic, this time both the President and the Pope appear to be actively disliked by some very vocal American Catholics. Obviously, that conflict or complex of conflicts (or even just the appearance thereof) is what the media will want to focus on. If this particular presidential visit to the Apostolic Palace will likely get a lot more media attention than the typical, in-passing coverage that such largely ceremonial events usually get, it will be because of this perception of serious conflict - not conflict between the Pope and the President but between both of them and some very vocal American Catholics. And, as we all know all too well, journalism is intensely addicted to prioritizing conflict over other aspects of the news. All this, of course, will take place against the background of ideological polarization in both American politics and an American Catholicism which seems to be replicating that political polarization in its internal life.

That said, what actually brings Biden to Rome is the 16th G-20 Summit on October 30-31, after which the President will head to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 meeting focused on climate change. (COP26 refers to the 26th annual "Conference of Parties" since the Rio meeting in the 1990s.) One would guess that the issues that will preoccupy those two meetings, especially climate change, would unsurprisingly primarily preoccupy the Pope and the President during their private meeting.

Indeed, prior to the meeting, the White House released a statement saying that the Pope and the President would discuss ending the pandemic, tacking the climate crisis, and caring for the poor. One would expect that those same issues would also be on the Pope's agenda, along perhaps with another issue close to the Pope's heart, immigration (an intractable issue in U.S. politics which, one suspects, the President might prefer not have to talk about). 

On what is increasingly emerging as the fundamental moral challenge of our era, responding to the climate crisis, Pope and President are allies. The Pope, in particular, has staked out a very strong position, notably in his monumental encyclical Laudato Si', but is sadly not going to Glasgow in person. Biden is going to Glasgow but with his climate agenda apparently weakened by the short-sighted politics of senators in his own political party - yet further evidence of American unwillingness to respond adequately to the climate crisis. (Biden's Build Back Better Bill will eventually pass in some form and possibly with many of its climate provisions intact, but the inability to pass it in time for the president to be able to showcase it at Glasgow is yet another instance of American politics' notorious lack of any real sense of urgency about climate - or almost anything else.)

Still, the visit seemed to serve its purpose. The private meting between the world's two most prominent Catholics lasted 75 minutes, followed by the customary exchange of gifts. According to the official White House statement, the President praised "Pope Francis' leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an adequate global economic recovery." Afterwards, Biden commented that the Pope had blessed his rosary beads and added, “He was happy I’m a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion.”

(Photo: Vatican Media via Associated Press)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

26 - and Still Standing

Among the many events of world-historical significance associated with this date - Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge (312), the Dedication of the Statue of Liberty (1886), Mussolini's March on Rome (1922), the election of Pope Saint John XXIII (1958), and the Declaration Nostra Aetate (1965) - the world will little note nor long remember my ordination 26 years ago on October 28, 1995. But I always do!

Because of the pandemic, my 25th anniversary Mass last year had only modest attendance. But, thanks to the same pandemic, it was live streamed and so lives forever at:

It was a beautiful celebration, a simple but fitting capstone to 25 years of priestly life and ministry in Toronto, New York, and Knoxville. Obviously, there will be no such elegant and solemn celebration this year! Nor, for that matter ever again, since I am no longer a parish priest. All the more reason to revisit and savor that happy celebration of 25 years, of what I described at the time as:

an amazingly grace-filled path, punctuated by thousands of Masses - daily Masses, Sunday Masses, school Masses, Spanish Masses, Italian Masses, Wedding Masses, Funeral Masses - an amazingly grace-filled path from Toronto, Canada, to New York, NY, to Knoxville, Tennessee: singing Christmas carols on Bloor Street and blessing Saint Anthony’s Bread, living through the soul-searing sadness of 9/11 and the welcome comfort of weekly breakfasts with parishioners at the Flame, the spiritual uplift of pilgrimages to famous shrines and a summer spent studying at Windsor Castle, the challenge of walking for miles in the pre-dawn dark at World Youth Day and the adventure of saint-school in Rome, and, then, finally, back to this beautiful and historic Knoxville church, and the amazing adventure of chairing meetings, paying bills, replacing a boiler, restoring the church ceiling and climbing the scaffolding to touch a century-old ceiling painting, blogging and e-mailing and eventually even live-streaming, teaching and learning, preaching, praying for the sick, baptizing babies, burying the dead, caring for the cemetery, then ending up in a global pandemic that has challenged and stretched all of us in ways we had hardly ever expected.

And now add to that the new challenge of living out the rest of one's priesthood within the limitations (and increasing infirmities) that come with age. Every day is always a gift. All that much more so is every added day a gift once one has achieved the famously allotted sum of 70 years.  Like Pope Saint John XXIII in his 70s, "I cannot forget the wealth of graces and mercies which Jesus has lavished so generously upon me, contrary to all my deserts." (1952). “On the one hand I tremble at the approach of my last hour; on the other hand I trust in you and only look one day ahead” (1953).

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Five Porticoes of our Common Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Blessed Kaiser Karl - 100 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Moving Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit.Dave Sanders for The New York Times 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Going "Full Beast" - Succession (Season 3)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 15, 2021

I Love Lucy at 70


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Tormenting Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Who Can Be Saved?

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Saint John Henry Newman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 7, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Cathedral for the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 4, 2021

Nursing Nuns and a Vicar Cop


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

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

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

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

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

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