Friday, December 31, 2021

On New Year's Eve

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

On New Year’s Eve, I often like to recall what the late comedian George Burns once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new. And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”

The Roman god Janus, for whom the first month of the year is named, was the god of beginnings and endings, of doors and passageways, of past and future. Hence, he was typically portrayed with two faces – one looking back to the past, the other ahead to the future. In a sense, that is what we all do every year at this time. We look back on the past, particularly the past year, perhaps with some mixture of gratitude and regret, while we likewise look ahead, sometimes with increasing worry but with worry mixed with hope.  Some of these sentiments are captured in the religious customs that have traditionally been associated with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – the traditional singing of the Te Deum, the Church’s official hymn of thanksgiving on New Year’s Eve, and the Veni Creator, the Church’s great hymn invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit on New Year’s Day.

To be sure, for all our holiday cheer, many of us may be marking the end of another socially difficult and politically challenging pandemic year by looking ahead to 2022 with more than a little anxiety. It’s not for nothing, after all, that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  

But, if our distress and anxiety as we look ahead to a new year are real enough, so too must be our hope, the hope we all share as Church, the hope we have been proclaiming this Christmas season, and on which we must all rely in all things and at all times, all the year round: the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our hope is founded and focused on Jesus Christ, the one whose birth 2000+ years ago is the very basis for the calendar we mark today. God’s showing up in the world in Jesus – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us – has realigned all of time and given all of history a new and more hope-filled meaning, giving us a hope for the future we would never otherwise have had.

Time has always been very precious – precisely, I suppose, because we have only such a limited supply of it. By becoming part of our time, however, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So today he invites us to look ahead to a new year – this year of our Lord 2022 – with gratitude as his gift and to enter it not in fear or anxiety, but with the hope that counts as one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.      

Happy New Year!


Homily for New Year’s Eve, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, December 31, 2021.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Looking Back at 2021

To borrow (and update) Queen Elizabeth II's famous November 24, 1992, annus horribilis speech at the London Guildhall, l might begin by saying that 2021 "is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure." Nor, I suspect, am I at all alone in that sentiment!

For me personally, this year began with an inevitable but nonetheless painful period of transition. On New Year's Eve 2020, I woke up still the pastor of a parish (albeit a "lame duck" one), with full responsibility for a parish community of which I was an integral part. On New Year's Day 2021, I woke up with no responsibilities and a part of no parish community. That, of course, is what happens as we age, and we are rightly required to pass on our responsibilities to others who are younger and fitter. Still, it would be the most unbelievable fantasy to pretend that such a transition, however necessary and appropriate, is anything but depressingly difficult and challengingly lonely.

Yet, life goes on (until it doesn't), and we all adapt. So, in January, I moved back to my community's mother house in New York, where I had previously lived until 10 years earlier, and so was already "home" on so many levels. And here I am, a year later, still discerning a proper path for myself. As the future Pope John XXIII when he turned 70 in 1951: "the bell has rung for Vespers and our best course is to hold ourselves ready in loving expectation for any summons."

Meanwhile, a lot more happened this year (sadly most of it bad) on the bigger and more important stage of the wider world.

Looking back at 2021, I suppose that the year's biggest story had to be the pandemic's persistence. On the one hand, there was the amazing scientific success with developing and administering vaccines (and boosters). There can be no question that one of the greatest advantages of living in our modern world is the success of science in developing such vaccines and (on the horizon) effective treatments which, while not eradicating this disease, may eventually transform it into a more manageable, endemic affliction. On the other hand, however, we have suffered society's simultaneous failure to get the rest of the world fully vaccinated and the consequent continuation of the pandemic, as the virus has continued to mutate and threaten to undo the progress we have made against it, something we are experiencing so dramatically now with this latest omicron-induced surge.

Undoubtedly, this has been the great tragedy of this year now happily ending: the failure of so many of our political and cultural leaders (including inexcusably even some religious leaders) to get the world (and even our own country) completely vaccinated. Indeed, in far too many cases, we have seen political, cultural, and religious leaders, who certainly should have known better (and in many case probably do know better), actively opposing vaccination mandates and other self-evident public health measures like mask mandates. We would have had a pandemic no matter what, and many would certainly have sickened and died, but it would be much more under control and many fewer would sicken and die if vaccine and mask mandates had been universally employed and enforced, and if all political, cultural, and religious leaders had done the right thing rather than exploiting this crisis in a bid for crass culture-war political power.

All of which, of course, brings us to the other great calamity of 2021 - the attempt to overthrow our constitutional government on January 6 and the enabling of this by too many powerful political, cultural, and religious figures both before and since. If the covid pandemic represents a direct threat to human life, January 6 and its enablers (before and since) represent a real and direct threat to the continuance of our over 200 years of admittedly imperfect but surprisingly successful and resilient constitutional government. In this, the coming year and the outcome of the 2022 elections may prove dangerously decisive, a threat to which a surprising number of people seem somewhat indifferent. The ultimate test will come, of course, on January 6, 2025, when we will either pass or fail the test Benjamin Franklin famously set for future generations of Americans: "a republic if you can keep it."

Finally, as if all that weren't enough, there remains the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable threat of climate change, which has this past year shown itself in increasing threats to our existing way fo life in one weather disaster after another. Of course, this is not new news at all. Scientists have been warning that this was coming for decades. Yet still - as recently as this past summer's failed climate conference in Glasgow - we have again shown ourselves unwilling to reform our demonstrably destructive way of life. Accordingly, the consequences for even the near term, but even more so for the long-term future of human civilization on this planet will likely be catastrophic.

All in all, then, 2021 has been a really bad year. Surely, good things have happened here and there in individual lives and in families, for all of which we one and all ought to be grateful. But (for all the FDR and New Deal wishful thinking this year) sadly this is certainly no time to sing Happy Days Are here Again. A year ago, there was widespread hope that, thanks to vaccines, we might be putting the pandemic behind us, and that, thanks to the 2020 election, we might be putting Trump and the malevolent movement he personifies behind us. Instead, the opposite has happened. To update what Queen Elizabeth said so well in 1992, this now ending year 2021 is not a year on which anyone should look back with undiluted pleasure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Christmas Confronts the World

About a decade or so before the birth of Jesus, the Roman Senate commissioned the Ara Pacis Augustae ("Altar of the Peace of Augustus") celebrating the peace which Caesar Augustus had brought to Rome and the world over which Rome ruled, thereby ending decades of civil war and Roman political and social conflict. This memorable monument to the famous pax romana remains in Rome to this day and should be seen by everyone - tourist or pilgrim - who visits the city. On the Emperor's behalf, it was also claimed (for example, in the so-called Priene inscription) that the birthday of the divine Augustus marked the beginning of good news for the world. Luke's Christmas Gospel famously situated Jesus' birth during the reign of Augustus (whose pax romana would later facilitate the spread of the good news of Jesus and the growth of the apostolic Church). But, in the inversion of priorities which is so characteristic of the Gospel story, Luke's account wants us to know that someone else is the true divine Savior of the world, at whose birth in seemingly insignificant Bethlehem a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed an even greater peace that that produced by political power.

Luke also mentioned Qurinius, but neglected to repeat his earlier mention (cf. Luke 1:5) of Rome's client king of Judea, Herod the Great. If Augustus was happily remembered for the peace and unity his universal empire had provided, Herod has been remembered mainly for his malevolence, which highlighted and took to extremes the vicious violence which often accompanies the exercise of political power. It is Matthew's account which injects this tragic dimension of misused political power and its catastrophic consequences into the heart of the Christmas story, with Matthew's sad story of the massacre of those the Church commemorates today as the Holy Innocents.

in the Roman calendar, the Fourth Day of Christmas, December 28, has been dedicated to commemorating the slaughter of the Holy Innocents since the 5th century. Although included within the joyful Christmas Octave, prior to the 1960s today's celebration had a somewhat sorrowful aspect. Violet vestments were worn, and the Gloria and Alleluia at Mass and the Te Deum at Matins were omitted. The Holy Innocents were credited with martyrdom, despite their inability to will it, because of their death's special connection to the coming of Christ into the world. Even so, the usual note of triumph associated with the festivals of martyrs yielded in this unique case to the more human feeling of sorrow and expression of lament, suggested by Matthew himself, who cited Jeremiah's prophetic lament for the children of Israel, reflected in the matriarch Rachel, whose supposed tomb (photo) is within a short walking distance form Bethlehem, crying unconsolably for her children.

This juxtaposition of the jubilation appropriately associated with Christmas with the mourning and lamentation appropriately associated with Herod's murder of the Holy Innocents illustrates the complexity inherent in the Christmas story and message, whose meaning simultaneously comforts us and challenges us. On the one hand, as Saint Leo the Great said in his first Christmas sermon, "sadness should have no place on the birthday of life; the fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness." On the other hand, human history reminds us that the amazing inversion of priorities from the empire of the divine Augustus to the kingdom of Jesus Christ does not come about without opposition from those already in power in the world - and accordingly cautions us against any facile identification of the Christian story with any political party or agenda, with any ambition yo transform the earth through the acquisition and exercise of worldly political power. The latter lesson is one which needs to be repeated in churches in every age and especially in our own.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Language in the Service of Civilization

80 years ago yesterday, on December 26, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the U.S. Congress in the Senate Chamber. It was less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor and the belated American entry into the Second World War. Churchill was the first of several  allied leaders to address Congress during the war (among them, King George II of Greece on June 15, 1942, and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on August 6, 1942). 

Once the U.S. had joined the war, Churchill was eager for another face-to-face with his new ally, who he understood would be Britain's (and civilization's) savior. He arrived in Washington on December 22. Famously, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt recalled being told by the President “that we would be having some guests visit us.” As she later wrote in The Atlantic: “He told me that I could not know who was coming, nor how many, but I must be prepared to have them stay over Christmas.” He also told her to "see to it that we had good champagne and brandy in the house and plenty of whiskey.” On December 23, Roosevelt and Churchill held their first join press conference of the war. On Christmas Eve, they participated in the traditional lighting of the National Christmas tree. On Christmas Day, they attended church together. After his December 26 address to the U.S. Congress, Churchill went on to Ottawa to address the Canadian Parliament on December 30.

Roosevelt and Churchill disagreed on many matters, but they were a good wartime team, just what was needed at that perilous moment in the history of civilization. Both were men of authentic principle, who understood and practiced the art of the politically possible. Both were men of broad vision, able and willing to lead their fellow-countrymen in a necessary, if also dangerous, direction. And both were skilled orators, who knew how to employ the English language to persuade their countrymen to follow where they needed to go, even (indeed especially) at that seemingly darkest hour in European history. We have seldom seen their like since, although our desperate need for political leaders who possess principled political vision and are able to lead with morally persuasive political language is as acute now as then.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

A More Fully "Family" Christmas at Nonnatus House

Mother Mildred, the Mother Superior, reappeared at her Order's London mission, Nonnatus House, just in time to be part of a very busy Christmas at the even more than usually, strained to capacity East End maternity home, and just as Lucille and Cyril were set to celebrate their much anticipated wedding. What better place to be on Christmas night, what better way to end Christmas Day, than with the Call the Midwife 2021 Christmas special on PBS?

The year is 1966. Last year's Christmas special took us to the Outer Hebrides, which was wonderful to visit (apart perhaps from the fact that some of the Scots Presbyterian locals didn't care much for Christmas). This year, however, the crew stayed closer to home. As always, there were challenges and problems, some frightening birth situations and novel learning experiences. And, fortunately, Mother Mildred was able to draw on earlier experience on how to save an already drug-addicted newborn. As always, over these last 10 seasons, despite the occasional ethical misjudgments and morally misplaced priorities that afflict human interactions, good things keep happening. And, since it is Christmas after all, we get to hear some Dickens, before attending a beautiful Boxing Day wedding. All in all, a loving holiday tribute to the strength and sacredness of the binding ties of various kinds of communities.

In the Paul VI liturgical calendar, today (the Sunday after Christmas) is the feast of the Holy Family, a modern (1892) celebration, one which, I must admit, I have never fully felt unambiguously enthusiastic about. American Christianity, which is increasingly more about sentimentality than salvation, notoriously tends to focus a lot on family, forgetting perhaps that Jesus and the New Testament in general were much more focused on God’s kingdom and showed relatively little interest in marriage and family life. In this contemporary social and ecclesial context, today's feast easily lends itself to an ahistorical and ideological romanticization of the modern nuclear family, whereas for much of human history - including obviously the time of Jesus - "family" for the most part usually meant something more extensive, while the basic social unit, the oikos, the household, often included multiple generations of relatives (direct and collateral kin), along with non-blood-related retainers, servants, apprentices, etc. (There is a hint of that even in today's Gospel, which refers to Mary and Joseph journeying with "relatives and acquaintances.") It was a much more expansively social sense of "family" - much as the Call the Midwife nuns, lay nurses, the doctor with his wife and children and receptionist, and diverse other neighbors formed a sort of inclusively expansive "family," which would have been recognized by all involved as family-like.

To be fair, given the diminished prospects for family formation in American society today, a sincere word of praise for family life may seem somewhat in order right now. That said, today’s feast should be about so much more than that.

Like those Old Testament parents Hannah and Elkanah, about whom we hear in today’s 1st reading (1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28), today’s Gospel (Luke 2:41-42), portrays a devout Jewish family, faithful to their religious obligations and obedient to God’s Law. Our modern “adolescence” not having been invented yet, Jesus in today’s Gospel was old enough (12), to be expected to assume his adult responsibilities and obligations as a member of God’s Chosen People, and so he accompanied his parents and their extended familial and social network on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Hannah and Elkanah, and Mary and Joseph were families dedicated to the Lord, whose sons' lives would take them far beyond the limits of familial relationships. For us, likewise, through the Church, our new relationship with God in Jesus incorporates us into a new network of relationships both wider and more inclusive than any narrowly familial relationships. Jesus introduced what the 2015 "Synod on the Family" called a “revolution in affection,” which represents “a radical call to universal brotherhood” [Synod 2015 Final Report, 41].  

In our modern world, the social functions and so the very forms of family are in flux, as are all communities and forms of social connection, something that was already beginning to be evident for the Call the Midwife community in 1966. Today, while there are still old-fashioned extended families and modern two-parent, nuclear families, there are also single-parent families, and “blended” families, and other complicated configurations, while tragically there are also more and more people passing through much of life alone, with hardly any recognizable "family" at all. (Less than half the adult population in the United States is married now, compared with more than three-quarters of the population half a century ago.)

The example of the Call the Midwife community and, in particular, the presence and ministry of the nuns, remind us that the Good News of God’s Kingdom offers the support of much needed contemporary communal solidarity, combined with a long and strong tradition of moral and spiritual seriousness, that challenges all of us to accompany individuals and families of all types, who are stressed in so many ways, to advocate for sound public policies that benefit parents and children and communities that support them, and to instill in individuals and families a stronger sense of belonging to that larger human community that is the Church on earth.

Friday, December 24, 2021

At Advent's End

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).

Way back when I was a parish priest here at Saint Paul’s, I was part of a monthly book discussion group. One December, our book was, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, by Oscar Hijuelos. When it was published in 1995, one reviewer compared Hijuelos to Dickens and called his novel a “’Christmas Carol’ for a crime-ridden, ethnically divided urban America.” It told the story of Edward Ives, a commercial artist at a New York advertising agency and his wife and family living in Morningside Heights, who had been abandoned as a baby, raised in a Catholic Foundling Home, and finally adopted just before Christmas in 1924, all of which had left him with an intense desire for a family of his own.

The central event in the novel is the killing of Ives’s 17-year-old, seminarian-to-be son, shot coming home from choir practice at Ascension Church a few days before Christmas 1967. The loss of his son sends Mr. Ives into decades of mourning and grief, from which he eventually emerges by the grace of forgiveness, receiving redemption himself through forgiving his son’s murderer. As Christmas stories go, it has it all – family and faith, testing by tragedy, and redemption by grace.

Like so many of us, Oscar Hijuelos loved Christmas. In the chaotic 1960s, he cherished his Christmases with his best friend’s family. In later life, he and his wife loved decorating their tree with ornaments collected during their travels. “When we looked at the tree,” his widow later said, “we saw our life.”

And don’t we all in different ways do that too – as each Christmas comes as a kind of gift to us?

I think we all want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really OK. In fact, however, and not just in novels, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those (like Mary and Joseph) who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick, by immigrants far from home, by refugees in temporary camps that have a way of becoming permanent, by soldiers at war (like my own father, fighting at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).

We’ve all heard the saying 90% of life is just showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions so often experienced by poor immigrants and refugees then as now - and with just some shepherds (hardly a high-end audience) taking notice.

But God didn't just show up; he stayed with us! He stayed with us for the long haul. He stays here in his Church! And that's what makes it possible for us, as his Church, to show up ourselves, despite whatever obstacles we've put in God's way, to continue what he started back then, to continue what he started here and now in our world today, this Christmas, this year, and every year – uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, past, present, and future in one communion of saints, one universal network of friendship with Christ.

When, at the end of the story, Mr. Ives visited and reconciled with his son’s killer, in that moment, the reader is told, “Ives knew, his son was somewhere in that room, and approving of what he beheld.” The God who became incarnate in Jesus is inviting us this Christmas to become incarnate in our world – to overcome whatever barriers remain between us, between young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, native and immigrant, friend and foe.

So every time we hear and celebrate the Christmas story, may it truly become our story. May it challenge us to bring the brightness and beauty we experience in this church with us back outside and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Merry Christmas!

Homily for Christmas Eve, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, December 24, 2021.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Church for a Divided World

Earlier this week, while  concluding my Advent recollections of the Jesuit Alfred Delp's wartime Advent homilies and prison meditations, I adverted to David French's recent post, "The Wounds Politics Cannot Heal." In that piece, French focused on yet another survey highlighting the impact of America's contemporary class divide (i.e., between those college educated and those non-college educated) and the sad fact that "America's less-educated, working-class citizens have fewer friends, have less-stable families, and participate in religious life less than their college-educated peers."

Along with many others, French worries that "as religious and civic engagement declines, too many Americans are replacing religion with politics, and the false god of politics does not present the answer for what ails our hurting nation." For French, "political combat or the hope of an inspiring campaign can provide a sense of purpose, but it's a thin gruel compared to the holistic impact of a loving family of deep relationships, and of a healthy church."

Now (again along with many other observers of our sadly fractured society) I largely agree with French - at least on this issue.

But what if the desired "healthy church" may be at present not so healthy, at least not so healthy as it might otherwise be, were it not itself so divided within and so poor at promoting its fundamental message to those increasingly "disaffiliated"?

That was one way into this dilemma taken by Ross Douthat in last Saturday's New York Times. In that column, Douthat introduced this larger topic with an anecdote about the circumstances surrounding the Dominicans' departure from his local Connecticut parish, which prompted him to suggest "today's official Christina leadership feels more at sea, more subsumed into partisan identities ... and more baffled about how to handle the continuing reality of Christian disaffiliation."

Now I personally know nothing about the specific situation in Douthat's particular parish or the motivations of and internal conversations within and among the diocese and the Dominicans. So I can neither endorse nor dissent form his interpretation of that situation. But his larger claim, which he purports to see illustrated in that local case, does point to a widely held perception of institutional weakness in much of American religion at this particular time, a larger picture which inevitably seems to circle back to what seems to be an almost desperate striving among some (maybe many) for a politically produced rather than religious road to salvation.

Douthat does acknowledge the potential power of what he calls cultural Christianity. "A more fully Christian politic would be a powerful witness for the faith. Political power can lay the social foundations for religious growth. and a healthy church inevitably generates a 'cultural Christianity' that draws in cynical and half-hearted figures as well as true believers."

Even so, suggests Douthat, that possibility presupposes a situation somewhat different from what we seem to be experiencing right now - at least according to his analysis. In contrast to classically successful experiences of cultural Christianity, Douthat argues that "when the church itself is unhealthy or poorly lead, a plan to start its revitalization with secular political actors and cultural Christianity - with Donald Trump and Eric Zenmour presumably - seems destined for disappointment. (Zenmour is non-religious, right-wing French politician who is currently candidate for the French presidency in next year's election.)

Regardless of what one makes of Douthat's take on particular leaders of Christian churches - about whom he may n some cases be excessively harsh - his larger point seems in principle well taken.

I am reminded of Cardinal Lamberto's pebble in the third Godfather movie. In conversation with Michael Corleone, Cardinal Lamberto picks a pebble out of the water and breaks it in two. While the outside is smooth and wet, the inside is completely dry, completely unaffected by the water in which the stone has been sitting. The Cardinal uses this as an image for how Christianity has been the European ambience for centuries, seemingly without penetrating deeply into people themselves.

Douthat employs an interesting analogy with the rise of progressive "wokeness," whose "cultural advance has had political assistance, but it began with that most ancient power - the power of belief." Analogously, "if similar numbers of previously secular Americans were suddenly endorsing Christian doctrine we would rightly call it a revival." Douthat's point is that political power, while it obviously played a part in Christianity's successes, was never its principal resource. He cites Saint Thomas Aquinas, for whom "the most efficacious argument" in support of Christ's divinity is precisely that "without the support of the secular power he has changed the whole world."

What French and Douthat are doing - in their different ways - is to highlight the imperative for Christian Churches to get their houses in order, so to speak, and somehow figure out how to respond to growing disaffiliation by being what at their best they purport to be, what French calls "not just a story of. hope, but the story of hope ... indispensable and irreplaceable" - and most certainly not replaceable by politics.

Addressing the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in September 1963, Pope Saint Paul VI described the Council's starting point and goal as "that here and at this very hour we should proclaim Christ to ourselves and to the world around us: Christ our beginning, Christ our life and our guide, Christ our hope and our end." That, not a pointless striving for ecclesial control of political power, remains the heart of any program for a "healthy" Church to heal a divided world.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

A Blessing in the Shadow of Death

Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, died on this date in 1888, at age 69.

Hecker's final illness had intensely focused him on the one most important thing – his relationship with God – ultimately a greater and more important thing than anything one does in life. In sentiments that somewhat recall those of Saint Thomas Aquinas shortly before his death, Hecker expressed his own experience: "There was once a priest who had been very active for God, until at last God gave him a knowledge of the Divine Majesty. After seeing the majesty of God that priest felt very strange and was much humbled, and knew how little a thing he was in comparison with God.In his final years, Hecker lived what one of his favorite spiritual authors, Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Caussade had written: “To be satisfied with the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will moving through all we have to do and suffer as events crowd in upon us.”
In his eulogy at Hecker's funeral, the Jesuit Provincial recounted the scene at Hecker’s deathbed, when his fellow Paulists asked him for his final blessing. Hecker "roused himself from the depth of pain and exhaustion, and his ashen lips which death was sealing pronounced the singular words … “I will give it in the shadow of death.” His feeble hands were raised, and like a soldier dying on the field of battle he reconsecrated his followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the struggle in which they had chosen him as Leader."
Eulogizing Hecker after his death, Bishop John J. Keane (1839-1918) wrote: "He has planted germs of thought, of aspiration, of life-purpose in many and many a soul, in every rank of the church, in every corner of our country; and they will go on fructifying, to his honor, as well as for the glory of God and the welfare of the world."
Animated by an increasingly conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, Hecker had opened himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s care for him, and through that experience he had recognized the grace to attach himself to the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. Himself a product of the religious fragmentation of American society, but drawn by God’s providential grace to seek the light of truth and find it in the unity of the Catholic Church, he then committed himself completely to share what he had found with others similarly inspired to seek and to find, and to whom his story continues to speak. All his diverse pastoral and missionary efforts and accomplishments would remain rooted in his abiding trust in God’s presence and action in his own life and in the world in which he lived. His conversion was complete, and his spirituality was generously and determinedly evangelizing – expressing a prayerful, lifelong, intimate dedication to and cooperation with God’s design for human beings.
His enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him to an active vocation as a priest and religious, giving his all to cooperate with God’s grace in serving God, the Church, and his contemporaries. His difficulties as a student had helped him to discern that his own sanctification and whatever efforts he might in time expend for the salvation of his fellow-Americans would themselves be products of God’s grace, according to the means God gave him.
Thus formed by Providence through the crucible of contradictory experience, Hecker lived a consecrated life of priestly mission as a parish pastor, a preacher of missions, a public speaker lecturing to Catholic and non-Catholic audiences, an author and apologist, and the founder of a religious community, which, as a canonically approved clerical Society of Apostolic Life in the contemporary Church, continues his charism “to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and a prophetic instrument for His sanctifying action.” 
Finally, he  surrendered himself and all his activities to the call to conform his life to the mystery of Christ’s Cross – filling up, in the words of his patron, Saint Paul, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the church (Colossians 1:24).
Through it all, Hecker lived a life of recognizable holiness. His reputation for sanctity was evident in his own lifetime and has continued to inspire pastoral and missionary zeal in the Church down to today. Summarizing Hecker’s legacy, one of his 20th-century successors as Superior General of the Paulist Fathers, Joseph McSorley (1874-1963), wrote that Hecker manifested “a magnetic power commonly associated with personal holiness.”
In his life as a Catholic convert and a priest, Isaac Hecker practiced the theological and moral virtues to an heroic degree, confident that he was “living and working in the dawn of light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church."

Tuesday, December 21, 2021


In our Northern Hemisphere, 11:59 a.m. today marks the winter solstice - the day when the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun, when the sun seems at its lowest in the sky, the day with the shortest length of daylight and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Historically, it is no accident that we do not celebrate Christmas in June when the sun is high and the days are long, but rather now when the world is at its darkest and the light seems so precious a gift from above.

Given the widespread displacement of the Christmas Liturgy to Christmas Eve and the understandable appeal and popularity of "candlelight" Christmas services, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the liturgical symbolism of Christmas is connected not with celebrating darkness but is rather a celebration of light - the light of Christ coming to illuminate our sinful world just as the "the unconquered sun" conquers winter's darkness.

Whether or not Christmas was explicitly assigned to its date in order to correspond to the Roman dies natalis solis invicti, the theme of the light illuminating darkness has always been central to the traditional imagery of Christmas. Thus, the Introit for the traditional second (Dawn) Mass of Christmas began Lux fulgebit hodie super nos ("A light will shine upon us this day" - Isaiah 9:2), while the Alleluia verse for the traditional principal Christmas Mass (during the day) proclaimed quia hodie descendit lux magna super terram ("for this day a great light has descended upon the earth").

The light is indeed coming, but it comes to us who are in the dark. Hence the abiding beauty of this winter season and its imagery, expressed, for example, in this familiar poem and carol.

In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.
Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.
Photo: In the Bleak Midwinter, as first published in Scribner's Monthly (January 1972) 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Advent with Alfred Delp (Week 4)

We no longer hear Luke's great account of the beginning of John the Baptist's public ministry on the 4th Sunday of Advent, as was the case for so many centuries and was still so in Alfred Delp's day. That) particular pericope is particularly famous for its list of some of the relevant political power of the day, beginning with the Emperor, presumably to situate the Gospel story int he specifics and particularity of its human time and place. At the same time, it offers an alternative to the claims of salvation through politics - a message obviously of particular relevance on 1940s Germany, but also of special relevance here and now. As David French wrote just yesterday, reacting to yet more statistics on the subject of religious disaffiliation especially among those without college degrees: "I suggest that our nation’s increasing political zeal is fundamentally misplaced? Could I suggest that as religious and civic engagement declines, too many Americans are replacing religion with politics, and the false god of politics does not present the answer for what ails our hurting nation?" ("The Wounds Politics Cannot Heal" - ).

For Fr. Delp, preaching in Munich in 1941, this final week of Advent represented "a fourth call to mankind, to our very being. ... a call to bring reality into the order it should be in, if we want to meet the Lord and if we really are practicing Advent—which means being under way, seeking, and waiting." He contrasted the figure of John the Baptist with his contemporaries who sought "to build temples to the divine emperor," and with Pontius Pilate, "the man who had only one priority in his life: to remain a friend of Caesar," with the other pagan powers of the day, and with the ruling religious establishment in Jerusalem (also mentioned by Luke), who showed "not only was there no hope from worldly power, the holy place was also sold out."

"Think of it," asked Fr. Delp: "Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas. When was there a more hopeless hour?" Was her perhaps suggesting a similar unease about his own, hardly hope-filled 1941 Europe? How might we hear this in our own morally challenged political and religious time?
Preaching in Munich again a year later, Fr. Delp challenged his wartime (and perhaps war-wary) congregation against "concealing Christmas behind bourgeois customs and sentimentality, behind all those traditions that make this holiday dear and precious to us." In a message every bit as timely now as then, he asked his hearers to recognize in this holiday celebration "the founding of a final order for the world, a new center of meaning for all existence. We are not celebrating some children’s holiday, but rather the fact that God has spoken His ultimate Word to the world. Christ is the ultimate Word of God to the world."

Two years later, meditating while imprisoned in Berlin on this final Advent Sunday, which was to prove to be his last, he again recalled this historical context highlighted by Luke's Gospel, which "enumerates the power brokers who determined the structure of the small sphere where the light was about to appear and salvation would be proclaimed." He recalled "a hopeless moment in history is signaled here. It was hopeless from Caesar’s throne all the way down to the guards of the temple sanctuary." Yet, "while history was so hopeless and unspiritual all the way into the sanctuary of the Lord, then the Word of the Lord came to John."

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Visiting Us

After the horrible hiatus of the covid pandemic and despite its continuing dangers, this week once again many people all over America and the world will be visiting family or friends for Christmas. For, whatever else is happening, this is, as that great 19th-century fan of Christmas, Charles Dickens, delightfully described it: “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time … on the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” So what more fitting Gospel account for this final Sunday before Christmas than the forever familiar story of Mary’s family visit to Elizabeth?

On the other hand, as we all well know, holiday visits are not always what we would like them to be – whether for the visitors themselves or for the ones being visited. It’s hard sometimes to show affection when affection is not so fully felt, or – especially in this period of intense political polarization and division - to come up with the right words that won’t cause or exacerbate conflict! Sometimes, opening our “shut-up hearts” may be difficult, undertaken only grudgingly – more a matter of duty than desire – or, more likely some confusing combination of the two. How fitting, then, to hear today about a visit by one person whose motives, we know, were never mixed! 

The traditional site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home and so the presumed site of the Visitation is the little town of Ain Karim, some 5 miles west of Jerusalem – a journey at that time of several days from Galilee through Samaria to Judea. Obviously, we cannot know now exactly what Mary may have felt as she undertook that difficult journey, in response to God’s plan that had been revealed to her by an angel. The story says she set out in haste. No procrastination, no putting off what, to our “shut-up hearts,” might seem merely a dutiful but burdensome social obligation. Perhaps, she sought to draw on the wisdom and strength of her older relative. Surely, she must have wanted to make contact (in a world without Facebook and Twitter) with the only other person who had thus far been let in on God’s great plan, that was even then quite literally taking shape in the bodies of these two remarkable women.

After so long, Elizabeth in her old age had also conceived a son - and had responded to this incredible favor by going into seclusion. Also unexpectedly pregnant, Mary responded to this problematic and potentially dangerous development differently - by rushing off to visit Elizabeth.

Instead of shouting her good news to the world (which until then had reproached her for being childless), Elizabeth waited silently for the miracle’s full meaning to make itself known. Instead of cautiously keeping quiet, Mary rushed to tell all to Elizabeth, thus showing her own complete confidence in the God who had totally taken over her life.

What a wonderful story, this episode in the greatest story ever heard, this story that every year at this time demonstrates its incredible capacity to command our attention and touch us where we feel it most deeply!  Every year, despite all the tragedies and difficulties that get in the way, all sorts of people, all over the world, with different personalities and preoccupations, different needs and wants, different fears and hopes, hear the Christmas story and are captivated by it - for it speaks directly to each one of us, reviving our capacity to believe and our willingness to hope.

Back in 5th-century Christian North Africa, one of the great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine, said: “If God’s Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity, and we would have been in despair.”

That is what the Christmas story is all about – a chance not to despair, an incentive to hope. The God for whom Elizabeth silently waited for so long, the God whom Mary carried in her womb so faithfully, has come at last to live with us. In the process, he connects us not only with him but with one another. As he brought Mary and Elizabeth together, filled with the Holy Spirit, so he leads us to one another and unites us, thought the same Holy Spirit, in a new community, formed by faith, directed by hope, and alive with love. And we, as a result, must never let things be the same again!

And they won’t be - and we won’t have reason to despair ever again - if, like Elizabeth, when we hear him coming, we offer him the hospitality of our hearts, and if, like Mary, having conceived him in our hearts, we are willing to carry him into the world with confidence – so that, through each of our no longer “shut up” but now wide open hearts, Christ can truly be our hope and become so for all the world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, December 19, 2021.

Photo: Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) The Visitation, Fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

"Ernest the Seeker"

Servant of God Isaac Hecker was born, here in New York City, 202 years ago today, on December 18, 1819. Like so many New Yorkers, now as then, Isaac was the son of immigrant parents. And, like an increasing number of young Americans now, he apparently received little formal religious instruction in his youth. Such at least was his claim in an account of his life, which he wrote in Rome in 1858, a state of affairs he characterized as typical in the United States at that time. 
With or without formal religious instruction, however, Hecker grew up in a society still Christian in its ambience and in its publicly professed morality. Moreover, it is at least likely that he attended at least some Sunday services with his devout Methodist mother. Methodism was then the largest religious group in the country. It was also, in George McKenna's words, “a religion of the upward aspiring at a time when ‘self improvement’ was itself almost a religion.” And, from an early age, Hecker had internalized a belief in God’s special providence – that God had a providential plan for his life. (This is reflected in the first of the six images at the base of Fr. Hecker’s sarcophagus in Saint Paul the Apostle Church in New York City, which shows Isaac as a sick child, in danger of death from smallpox, reassuring his mother: “No, mother, I shall not die now; God has work for me to do in the world, and I shall live to do it.”)
Hecker briefly attended a local New York City Public School, but his formal education ended early when as many of his contemporaries he needed to go to work. (His limited education, however, hardly suggested the profundity of his future thinking.) Meanwhile, his father’s failure to provide for his family had effectively transferred that responsibility to Isaac’s two older brothers, John and George, who became bakers and eventually owned four shops and their own flour mill. Isaac joined his brothers as baker and delivery boy. (Thus, the second image at the base of Hecker’s sarcophagus shows him as a young man along the Hudson River wharves delivering bread from his brothers’ bakery.)   
Even then, however, Hecker was asking big picture questions about the direction of his life. "What does God desire from me? What shall I attain unto Him? What is it He has sent me into the world to do?" Fortunately, “Hecker and Brothers, Makers of Hecker Flour” had become a successful, quite prosperous business, and the Hecker brothers became sufficiently wealthy to be able to support Isaac in his increasing attention to his spiritual search.
The Hecker brothers were also very actively involved in Jacksonian-era New York Democratic Party politics, and John Hecker was one of the leaders of the Locofocos, a pro-reform faction. In his 1858 narrative of his life, Isaac recalled how he initially viewed political reform as "the remedy for existing evils and of rendering mankind happy.Isaac remained committed to the ideals of Jacksonian democracy even after American politics had long since evolved beyond that, but his priorities quickly evolved from political to social to religious concerns. 

This was, after all, the era known as the "Second Great Awakening." Hecker took time examining his religious options, sampling as many as possible of the leading contemporary religious ideas, none of which, however, answered the demands of his reason or proved satisfactory to his conscience - until, as he put it, "The Catholic Church burst upon my vision as the object to which all my efforts had been unintentionally directed. It was not a change, but a sudden realization of all that had hitherto obscurely captivated my mind, and secretly attracted my heart". In thus describing his spiritual quest and its seemingly surprising outcome, Hecker wanted to emphasize what would become his lifelong conviction that Catholicism was consistent with and indeed the true fulfillment of the aspirations of human nature – a 19th century version of the theme of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
En route to finding his home in the Catholic church, Hecker had come under the influence of Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), and Brownson's emphasis on the social dimension of religion. When Hecker first heard Brownson lecture in New York in early 1841, he was a prominent Unitarian minister, journalist, and active social reformer. Hecker and Brownson would soon become perhaps the two most influential 19th century American converts to Catholicism. 
The third image at the base of Hecker’s sarcophagus shows him searching for God at Brook Farm – a transcendentalist, utopian community, founded in West Roxbury, Massachusetts by Brownson’s friend George Ripley in 1841. New England Transcendentalism had its roots in the Unitarian rejection of classical Calvinist doctrine and orthodox Christianity in general – what Hecker later characterized as “a gradual loosening of the Christian principles in men’s minds and a falling away into general scepticism.” 

A smart, if relatively uneducated, working-class young man, Hecker was excited to enter this elite community and participate in its intellectual life. This transcendentalist environment was quite conducive to Hecker’s intense preoccupation with exploring his inner life, and his companions nicknamed him “Ernest the Seeker,” the name of a character in a contemporary short story by William Henry Channing. Hecker certainly absorbed the Transcendentalists’ critique of mainline New England Protestantism. “Against Calvinism we had a particular grudge,” he later recalled.” To the end, he would critique “the Calvinistic error that nature and man are totally corrupt.”
Yet, while benefiting from an environment that encouraged him to value and explore his inner life, Hecker - in part, perhaps, because of the class difference - consistently maintained a certain intellectual independence from the beliefs of the Transcendentalists, thus enabling his exploration of his soul to lead to conclusions quite different from what the Transcendentalists believed. “I don’t know,” he wrote in 1843, “but that I will be unable to become one of the Community. In their life it is clear that they commune with different kind of objects from what I do.”
As he came to understand his inner spiritual experience in terms of the action of the Holy Spirit, he found himself more and more drawn to institutional Christianity. His early identification of Divine Providence with the indwelling Holy Spirit made theological sense of the continuity between nature and grace, which he felt from his own experience, thus easing his way into the Church and laying the groundwork for his mature thought about the relationship between Church and society and the evangelization of the latter by the former.
As Hecker continued his inner exploration and comparative study of different churches, he 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. Writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, one year before his death, 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 certainty of the distinctively Catholic doctrine of the union of God and men made the institution of the church by Christ exceedingly probable.                                                                                                  
Finally, he was received into into the Roman Catholic Church at New York's original Saint Patrick's Cathedral on August 1, 1844. Subsequently, he and his brother George, who had followed Isaac into the Church, were both confirmed on May 18, 1845.
Like Christian history’s most famous seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker had examined the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, paying intense attention to his own inner spiritual sensibility, before finally finding a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church. In our contemporary idiom, Hecker was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, eloquently exemplifies the perennially human appeal of such a spiritual search and certainly speaks to the spiritual longings of some in our own (admittedly more secular) society today. What was significant about Hecker’s “spiritual but not religious” period, however, was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church would permeate all his subsequent activities – from his initial conversion experience as recorded in his Diary, through his active ministry as a priest and missionary preacher, to his final mature exposition in his last book, The Church and the Age.

In this first phase of his life, Hecker, animated by an increasingly conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, had opened himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s care for him, and through that experience he recognized the grace to attach himself to the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. Himself a product of the religious fragmentation of American society, but drawn by God’s providential grace to seek the light of truth and find it in the unity of the Catholic Church, he then committed himself completely to share what he had found with others similarly inspired to seek and to find, and to whom his story continues to speak. All his diverse pastoral and missionary efforts and accomplishments would remain rooted in his abiding trust in God’s presence and action in his own life and in the world in which he lived. His conversion was complete, and his spirituality was generously and determinedly evangelizing – expressing a prayerful, lifelong, intimate dedication to and cooperation with God’s design for human beings.

Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.”