Tuesday, May 31, 2022



After the horrible hiatus of the covid pandemic and despite its continuing and growing dangers, people are traveling and visiting again. Today the Church remembers the most famous visit, so famous that we just call it that – the Visitation.

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 us, might seem more like 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 - 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!


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 himself 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, 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 us, Christ can truly be our hope and become so for all the world.

Homily for the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, May 31, 2022.

Image: Visitation Fresco by Florentine artist Giotto de Bondone (1267-1337), Lower Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Memorial Day


Unlike Commonwealth countries, the United States does not actually celebrate Remembrance Day (although November 11 remains a little-noted federal holiday under the title Veterans Day). The closest we really come to it is today, Memorial Day, which did in fact originate as a kind of post-Civil War American Remembrance Day. Since then, of course, Memorial Day's contemporary character as the first of the three outdoor summer-centric holidays - start-of-summer (Memorial Day), mid-summer (July 4), and end-of-summer (Labor Day) - has considerably altered Memorial Day's originally intended commemorative character. That character was perhaps more explicitly reflected in the holiday's original name, Decoration Day. (I am old enough to remember when some people still called it by that older name and put that name into practice by visiting cemeteries and decorating veterans' graves.)

It is to be expected that the traditional start of the American summer season will be accompanied by an even greater desire to return to "normal" (notwithstanding covid's widespread increase and spread and the increasing abnormality of our politics). That said, the holiday's call to remembrance remains relevant.

And, while it is always important to remember on this day those who have died in the service of our country, it has long been popular custom to remember others as well. At this tragic time in our troubled history, it seems especially right to remember, in addition to those who died in the service of our country, those who have died as victims of our country's moral and political dysfunction, for example, those students and teachers murdered at a Texas school last week and all the victims of gun violence. Our country suffers from many moral and political failings, but none seems so immediately pressing as our failure to do something about the scandalous plague of private gone ownership.

After the monstrous killings in Uvalde, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, TX, the Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, commented that Americans “sacralize death’s instruments, and then are surprised that death uses them.” This American fetishization of guns is seen in the Republican party's widespread obsession with constantly increasing legal access to guns and poignantly illustrated especially in the performative gun displays associated with certain politicians' ads and even their Christmas cards. and, of course, there are the right-wing churches with their performative gun displays. Talk about sacralizing death's instruments!

Elaborating on his original statement, Bishop Flores added: "when I say 'sacralized,' I mean that we make it seem almost as if it detracts from human dignity, or the human good, simply to say that we need to have some reasonable limit on these things. To say something is sacralized is to say it’s almost taken out of any possibility for conversation. ... and I must say that in some sense, we have kind of sacralized the whole idea of the individual right, such that it trumps any communal concern."

Well said! At this tragic time in U.S. history, it is heartening to hear a shepherd who prioritizes the well-being of the sheep!

None of this is new, of course. The pathological American obsession with individual rights has long corrupted our politics and our social life. This is, indeed, "American exceptionalism," but an exceptionalism that blocks our capacity to learn from experience - unlike other countries which have restricted access to guns and hence minimized such traumatic tragedies. (It also, of course, blocks our capacity to learn from the classics. It was, after all, Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, who noted that the Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a more civilized life-style. How long ago was that?)

Of course, there have been exceptions to our exceptionalism. Much as Americans obsessively love their cars, we require drivers to be of age and trained and licensed and impose all sorts of safety requirements on the cars themselves. Imagine if we required gun-owners to be older and suitably trained, etc., with at least as much seriousness as we already apply to drivers and driving? We have also radically transformed our approach to drunk-driving in my lifetime, as we have also changed our approach to and imposed all sorts of restrictions upon the vile practice of smoking, about which we were once likewise told that nothing could ever be done either.

But guns seem to be different. And, while the problem is bigger than the prevailing individualistic misinterpretation fo the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court's unfortunate 5-4 misinterpretation of the Second Amendment in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller has had a disastrous effect in further legitimizing the anti-social, individualistic mindset that has come to dominate contemporary American gun culture. Surely District of Columbia v. Heller has to count as one of the most catastrophic decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in my lifetime.

That is why William Shapiro's recent proposal in The New Republic (May 26, 2022) deserves greater attention. "It is time for gun control advocates to start talking about life without a Second Amendment," he wrote. The idea that he is ultimately arguing for, "is to paint a portrait of an America of the future with sane gun laws and no need for active-shooter drills in elementary schools. Unless voters can aspire to a different America, gun control will never be a compelling single-issue cause."

Guns, of course, are a key component of the problem. Without guns, troubled teenagers and domestic terrorists would have a much harder time inflicting damage. Even so, without in any way letting gun owners off the hook here, our country also needs to address the ever growing crisis that seems particularly to plague so many young men in our society, who seem so lost and angry.

It is a traditional truism that it is not good for a community for its young males (or anyone else, for that matter) to be socially isolated and detached from the socializing benefits of family, work, and other social and communal networks of various sorts. And, while there have always been troubled teens and others on the margins, it does seem to be widely recognized that the contemporary breakdown of traditional socializing institutions has taken a particularly dangerous toll on many today, while the omnipresence of screens of all sorts seems to exacerbate such social isolation and the desperation isolation induces. Obviously, troubled 18-year olds like the alleged shooters in Buffalo and Uvalde shouldn't have access to guns, but the fact that so many are so troubled is itself a catastrophic crisis that warrants more attention and response.

A lot to think about on this Memorial Day!

Friday, May 27, 2022

Come, Holy Spirit!


These nine days between the Ascension (the 40th day of Easter) and Pentecost (the 50th day of Easter) are traditionally focused on preparing the Church to recall the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a time in which we are invited to identify our present situation with the uniquely formative experience of the early Church in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. Now as then, the life which originates in God the Father and has been revealed to us by God the Son, the Incarnate Word Jesus Christ, becomes fully ours through God the Holy Spirit, who operates in and through the Church. The Holy Spirit is inseparably connected with the life and eschatological mission of Jesus, whose presence and action the Spirit continues in the Church and in each individual Christian.


But when he comes, the spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you [John 16:12-15].


It was the second ecumenical council, the Council of Constantinople (381), which expanded Nicaea’s simple formula, I believe in the Holy Spirit, elaborating both on the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the Father and the Son and on his role in the history of salvation, the Lord, the giver of life, who has spoken through the prophets.

In the nineteenth century, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) discerned the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in God’s providential care for him and identified his own inner aspirations and longings with the action of the indwelling Holy Spirit. After becoming Catholic in 1844, one of Hecker’s strikingly distinctive emphases - in his own personal spiritual life, in his reflections regarding the religious community he founded, and in his general spiritual teaching – was his personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to foster among the faithful an increased appreciation of and openness to the fundamental activity and inspiration of the Holy Spirit operating in the life of the Church and in each individual. Throughout his Catholic life, his unfailing commitment to the Church’s mission remained rooted in a deeply felt, intensely lived personal experience of the indwelling presence and action of the Holy Spirit:

An act of entire faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things – in its infinite love, wisdom, power; that it is under its influence and promptings up to now my life has been led. Though not clearly seen or known, He has directed every step. On this faith, on this principle, promised to act now and in time to come. To be above fear, doubt, hesitation, or timidity, but patient, obedient, and stable [From private memoranda made in Europe during his illness, 1874-1875]


Hecker was no systematic theologian and did not write as one. What he wrote was his personal appreciation of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity.


It cannot be too deeply and firmly impressed on the mind that the Church is actuated by the instinct of the Holy Spirit, and to discern clearly its action, and to cooperate with it effectually, is the highest employment of our faculties, and at the same time the primary source of the greatest good to society … In accordance with the Sacred Scriptures, the Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is infused, with all his gifts, into our souls by the sacrament of baptism, and that without His actual prompting or inspiration, and aid, no thought or act or even wish, tending directly towards our true destiny, is possible [The Church and the Age, 1887].

In effect, Hecker posited three renewals: that of "the age" (the world, society), dependent on that of "religion" (the Church), itself inseparable from that of each individual soul:

The light the age requires for its renewal can come only from the same source. The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul. [The Church and the Age, 1887].

Lest there be any ambiguity about how Hecker understood “a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” Hecker himself wrote to his colleague Augustine Hewit: I anticipate no special outpouring of the Holy Spirit – in the miraculous sense, no more than the present action, or the action of the Church in any age was miraculous. [February 13, 1875.] In this, Hecker was echoing Saint Thomas Aquinas: Nevertheless, we are not to look forward to a state wherein man is to possess the grace of the Holy Spirit more perfectly than he has possessed it hitherto. [Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 106, art. 4].

It is this habitual grace of the Holy Spirit which is at the heart of the Church's life and which the church invites us to be especially attentive to during these final Easter days prior to Pentecost. And so the Church prays at Mass tomorrow: O God, whose Son, at his Ascension to the heavens, was pleased to promise the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, grant, we pray, that, just as they received manifold gifts of heavenly teaching, so on us, too, you may bestow spiritual gifts.

(Photo: Pentecost Mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice.)

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ascension Thursday


Parting, as Juliet famously said to Romeo, is such sweet sorrow. But it is not just romantic lovers, who find separations hard. Moving, which we Americans notoriously do too much of, is widely recognized as one of the most stressful of human activities. If so, then the Ascension was surely the stressful move to end all stressful moves – not, of course for Jesus, the one moving, but certainly for those he left behind!

I am old enough to remember when, right after the Gospel on Ascension Thursday, the Easter Candle – our very visible symbol of the unique presence of the Risen Christ – was ceremonially extinguished, and then disappeared from the sanctuary. Even more dramatically, in former days, in certain places, the Easter Candle (or sometimes an image of the Risen Lord himself) might be hoisted up into the Church’s roof until it disappeared. The people would stand and stretch out their arms, while a shower of roses would recall Christ’s parting promise to send the Holy Spirit to his Church.

Such quaint customs recall those familiar pictures of the Ascension that show the disciples staring up at an empty space – sometimes with 2 feet sticking out from a cloud (with holes in them, just to make sure we know who it is that is missing). The point, of course, of all such customs and practices is to highlight that Jesus is now gone, and that we are left behind.

What exactly does it mean for us to be left behind? Does it mean we have been left alone?

Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of that short period - Luke quantifies it as 40 days - when the Risen Christ appeared several times to his disciples after the resurrection. Then, those appearances ended. And the disciples were left behind to do the work he had given them to do.

Left behind, but not quite alone, since Christ continues in his Church through his gift of the Holy Spirit. “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” the departing Jesus said to his disciples, “so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high [Luke 24:49]. So, Jesus may be gone, but he is still with us in a very real way.

Meanwhile, the Ascension invites us to ask where Jesus has gone to, now.  He is, as we say week after week, seated at the right had of the Father. And, just as he is still really with us here, through the gift of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments we celebrate, so we too are also in some sense with him there. So we pray in today’s Mass, we celebrate the most sacred day on which your Only begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. In having his Son’s humanity enthroned at his side in heaven, God now has at his side in a sense the whole human world, which his Son embraced in himself and experienced to the full. And so now, having experienced our world with us (and in the process having invested it with more meaning that it would ever otherwise have had), God in turn now shares his world with us. For where Christ has gone, there we hope to follow. Where he is now, there we hope to be.

So the Ascension is also about us, as well as about Jesus – not just about our being left behind, but about what is now in store for us thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, and about what goes on in the meantime. The Ascension sets the stage for that hoped-for future, which we get a glimpse of already in Jesus, who, although ascended, still invites us to approach him even now – as the epistle says with a sincere heart and in absolute trust [Hebrews 10:22].

Photo: Early 20th-century Watercolor ceiling painting of the Ascension, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Church in China


Since 2007, May 24 (traditionally the feast of Mary, Help of Christians) has been observed as a Day of Prayer for the Church in China. The recent arrest of 90-year old Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, highlights the former British territory's increasing subjection to its Chinese communist government, 25 years after its abandonment by the U.K.

Cardinal Zen, called by some "the conscience of Hong Kong," is widely recognized around the world for his forthright defense of Chinese Catholics against the communist regime (and also for his reservations regarding a recent Vatican agreement with that oppressive government). Whatever else may be said or sayable about Cardinal Zen's arrest, it suggests ever more intense anti-Church militancy on the part of China's rulers.

The Vatican Press Office's somewhat weak response - “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention” - merely confirmed the widespread sense that China is definitely winning its long war with religion.

The actual details of the supposed agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese regime have never been made public. So it is impossible to analyze and evaluate it. Presumably, it recognizes a major role for the state in the appointment of Chinese bishops. But that in itself need not be seen as problematic. After all, civil rulers have played a prominent (sometimes predominant) part in the appointment of bishops for much of Church history.  When the newly independent United States indicated to the Holy See that it did not intend to play such a role, it was an exception to what was then the widespread practice. The more serious problem rather is the Chinese regime's long-standing hostility to religion and its desire to control and manipulate religion for ideological and political purposes, illustrated, for example, in the restrictions imposed on public worship and on the religious education of youth.

China is not the only state which directly or indirectly limits the Church's most fundamental freedoms, but it is the largest and most important of such states and hence poses an important challenge to the Church going forward. 

The invocation Mary, Help of Christians, is an ancient one, dating back to Saint John Chrysostom. (I can remember how we prayed it - in its Latin form, Maria Auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis - when I was in high school in the early 1960s.) In 1815, Pope Pius VII, who was imprisoned by Napoleon from 1808 to 1814, established the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, to be celebrated annually on May 24, the day on which he returned to Rome after Napoleon's defeat and first abdication in 1814. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI declared this day - so long associated with the Church's modern historical sufferings at the hands of governments - a Day of Prayer for the Church in China.

(Photo: Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired Bishop of Hong Kong, recently arrested by the Communist Chinese government.)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Rogation Days


In the former calendar, tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday would have been Rogation Days - the three consecutive weekdays before the Ascension, when a quasi-penitential procession was traditionally held while the Litany of the Saints was sung. Although I am old enough to remember remember Rogation Days appearing on our home wall calendar and in my Missal, I never actually experienced their celebration. They just weren't part of typical, mid-20th-century, American, urban, liturgically minimalistic parish life. One hopes that they were still observed in more rural areas; but, if that was so anywhere in the U.S., I really don't know.

Like the similarly abandoned seasonal Ember Days, which involved fasting and actually were still observed in my time, the Rogation Days demonstrated how the post-classical and early medieval transition from paganism to Christianity did not destroy pre-modern people's consciousness of their dependence on nature or their need for a successful harvest or the value of ritualizing those needs in traditional ways on traditional days. In light of our own modern alienation from the natural world and the environmental catastrophe that has caused, we would have done better – instead of rationalistically abolishing such traditional observances in the 1960s - to have reaffirmed and reappropriated such ancient rituals of neediness and dependence that remain at the heart of our human experience, in a world which is in its own way just as threatening and challenging as was that of our ancestors.

(It is, of course, the 1960s which must be blamed for this liturgical misfortune, for the pre-conciliar commission which prepared and anticipated many of the later liturgical changes was only moderately hostile to the Rogation Days. In 1952, the rationalistic fixation on the unity of a desired 50-day Easter season led to the conclusion that the three pre-Ascension Rogation Days were not "in harmony with the spirit of Easter" and so "should be eliminated," but that a place should be found for a rogation procession and litany elsewhere during the year, probably on one of the Ember Days. The 1960 calendar compromised, keeping the Rogation Days but allowing Local Ordinaries to transfer them to other more suitable times of the year. Since they were already essentially a dead letter in the U.S., I rather doubt that too many did so.)

The old, pre-Ascension Rogation Days were Gallican in origin, supposedly introduced by Mamertus of Vienne at a particularly catastrophic time around A.D. 450. Thus, along with the seasonal aspect, these ancient observances highlighted the sense of struggle against dangers of all sorts (which even in more peaceful periods persist as an inevitable dimension of Christian life).

The centerpiece of the old Rogation Days was the procession during which the Litany of the Saints was sung. Speaking personally, I love litanies, because they are such a great vehicle for large congregations to participate actively and fully in communal prayer without needing either advance preparation or individual texts (since only the leader needs the text.) I especially like the Litany of Saints because of its antiquity and complexity, its multiple invocations that highlight our dependency and neediness, and its dramatic role in some of our more spectacular religious ceremonies such as ordinations and dedications of churches. Nowadays, ordinations are no longer associated with Ember Days and have largely lost any vestige of their traditionally quasi-penitential character. Thus, the litany may be the last link with that ancient tradition and ancient sensibility.
It would be pointlessly nostalgic liturgical romanticism to recommend reviving Rogation Days in our urban, post-industrial, commercialized world, but there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about the neediness and dependence that originally motivated them and that are reflected and expressed in the petitions of the litany - and that are still very real aspects of our life on this planet, however much we have tried to pretend otherwise.

Friday, May 20, 2022

At the Movies Again


After a hiatus of more than two years, I have (for now at least) rediscovered the joy of going to a movie theater (even if it cost $21 and had to endure half an hour of noisy ads for obnoxious action movies). And what better film to force me back to the real movie experience than the second Downton Abbey movie? After six successful seasons and a full-length film sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era takes the Crawley family saga forward into 1928 - and geographically to the south of France (a foreign country occasionally referred to during the original series but one to which we have never previously been transported, except with unhappy consequences during the Great War).

The popularity of Downton Abbey has been phenomenal. The six-season series was the most viewed PBS drama ever. (Its highest number of viewers was a weekly average of 13.3 million viewers during season four.) Likewise, the movie sequel proved an unsurprising success at the box office, earning some $194 million. We will know soon enough whether this second movie will fare as well. Certainly this viewer has not yet tired of the aristocratic Crawleys and their extended household and social network, both upstairs and down. Regarding the epic's long-term future, Downton's creator Julian Fellowes recently said: "I'm not going to go on forever. So I think there would be a real difficulty getting Downton to go on forever. Whether it's come to an end or not, I couldn't tell you." 

Fellowes' coyness aside, the series must come to an end, and this film is as good an ending as any. But enough about about!

Meanwhile, we have this second Downton movie, which features many of the classic cast - all the main ones, including once again Samantha Bond back as Lady Rosamund, but sadly without Lady Mary's second husband Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode).

It involves no unnecessary revelations ("spoilers") to say that, in the 1928 iteration of Downton Abbey, the unexpected excursion to France follows from the Dowager Countess' having inherited a villa in the south of France from the Marquis de Montmirail, with whom she had once been briefly involved in some fashion back in the 1860s. When asked why she didn't turn it down, she answers, “Do I look as if I’d turn down a villa in the south of France?” So off they go, Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughter Edith and her husband (Lord and Lady Hexham), and the supposedly retired (but back whenever there is a movie) butler, Carson. Also invited, for particularly relevant reasons, are son-in-law Tom Branson and his new wife, Lucy (a marriage already predictable froim the end of the previous movie). Obviously, one can never have too many weddings in a saga which is, after all, ultimately about family!

Meanwhile, as Lady Grantham says, "the modern world comes to Downton," as Lady Mary, responding to the ever increasing financial challenges of keeping the estate going in the 20th century (a perennial theme of the series), allows Downton to play host to the making of a movie. Reprising the wartime transformation of the house, this entails the disruption of ordinary routines and relationships by the intrusive presence of movie stars and film crew, including stars from a very different social class, highlighting as Downton does so well the complex dynamics of class in an inexorably changing Britain. 

That's probably as much as I should reveal on the film's opening day - exceprt to say it is a beautiful film and not to be missed!


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A Gentler American Christendom?

In December 1831, having reflected on the U.S. constitution and The Federalist Papers, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), then in the course of his momentous visit to America, observed that “only a very enlightened people could have created the federal constitution of the United States, and that only a very enlightened people singularly accustomed to representative forms is capable of operating such a complicated machine and of maintaining within their separates spheres the various powers, which otherwise would not fail to clash violently with one another.”

Tocqueville was not alone in stipulating the pre-requisite political culture presumed to be required for a particular political system such as that of the U.S. to perdure. Thus, John Adams famously wrote: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other" (To the Massachusetts Militia, October 11, 1798).

Tocqueville's particular contribution involved assessing the viability of a modern liberal polity characterized by a lack of a historical pre-liberal alternative. The traditional pre-liberal alternatives included monarchical and aristocratic arrangements, but also other cultural components, most notably some version of union of throne and altar, whether as actual empirical reality or an idealized integralist aspiration.

Tocqueville saw in the U.S. an alternative to all of that. Hence his fascination with religion's role in 19th-century American democracy and especially (for obvious personal reasons as a French Catholic aristocrat) the surprising compatibility of Roman Catholicism with American democracy, a recognizable reality in place well before the official Catholic magisterial rapprochement with modern democratic pluralism in the mid-20th-century.

Tocqueville appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of modern society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with a regime of liberty. In 19th-century Europe, the Catholic Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order that sought to constrain it.  In surviving liberalisms's assaults, the 19th-century Church sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. Accordingly, in Democracy in America, Tocqueville recognized “that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy,” but he observed that , while American Catholics were "faithful to the observances of their religion," they nevertheless constituted "the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States."

However counterintuitive that then seemed on both side of the Atlantic, it became one of the major projects of a certain development of 20th-century Catholic political philosophy to make something like that American accomplishment normative for the new post-Christendom era in which we now find ourselves. One of the preeminent architects of this project was the French Catholic convert and Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), who without actually disowning the "sacral society" associated with the Catholic Middle Ages, attempted to express a completely new relationship between religion and modern, democratic, pluralistic, post-confessional societies.

What Maritain attempted to mainstream in 20th-century Catholic political philosophy could be called "A Gentler Christendom." That is the title of a recent First Things essay (originally delivered as a lecture for the Morningside Institute) by conservative Catholic author and NY Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argues that Maritain "was essentially describing something like the mid-century American model of church-state relations, of Christian politics playing out in a pluralist society, albeit reimagined in his argument for a society with a Catholic majority rather than a Protestant one." Douthat sees Maritain's model "in the role that Protestant churches, eventually joined by the Catholic Church, had played in the United States for generations." In this model, Douthat suggests, "the state could disentangle itself from the church without disentangling Christianity from politics, without undermining Christian faith, without even abandoning the ideal of Christendom itself."

I think Douthat's description does justice to what Maritain was doing, while also recognizing how Maritain's "optimism was timebound and ill-fated." Yet, contrary to contemporary integralist interpretations, Douthat defends the long-term viability of aspects of Maritain's model. Thus, he argues against the more integralist claim that it has been primarily secular (and anti-Christian) state power that has driven "American Christianity's retreat." Instead he highlights later internal Christian divisions, the "failure to respond effectively to social and economic and technological changes," and "theological civil wars and failures of leadership." He points out how the justly famed American Catholic subcultural infrastructure had flourished during earlier period of anti-Catholic opposition only to collapse a century later "because of terrible internal divisions over how to adapt, or not, to the social trends and changes of the era," as well as the triumph of "therapeutic forms of spirituality," and he juxtaposes all that with the even more dramatic collapse of pre-pluralist, more traditionally integralist models in Quebec, Spain, and Ireland. 

The empirical evidence, for Douthat, rather "suggests the moral and spiritual advantages of putting limits on faith's temporal ambitions, and trying to wield power within pluralism rather than over and against it." He concludes "religious power wielded too much against pluralism, with political ambition substituting for real faithfulness, will corrupt and enervate and bring about its own reward."

Presumably representing an integralist alternative to Douthat's Maritain-modelled "Gentler Christendom," Edmund Waldstein highlights how "secularism has always opposed Christianity in the name of freedom," and that the Enlightenment turned "the spirit fo Christian reform" against Christianity. He suggests that Maritain's "less subtle followers" may have conceded "that the church had been the enemy of human freedom, and secular Enlightenment its tru defender." His alternative model is how he interprets the Church's 16th-century Counter-Reformation strategy "not to water down Catholicism, but to radicalize it, to draw more deeply from the sources of tradition to invigorate the present." 

In response to Waldstein, Douthat agrees on "restoring a thick and rigorous internal culture for the faith, after so much thoughtless iconoclasm, moral laxity, and bland cultural conformity." But he questions Waldstein's assumption that that calls for a full integralist political theology that "political life, too, must submit to God." Among other things, Douthat sees in this a misplacing of priorities. "The two immediate realities of the church in much of the world today are institutional crisis and numerical collapse," which suggests "that the church needs to figure out how to govern itself before it aspires to any other sort of governance, and hoe to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively before it imagines itself ruling a society it has reconverted."

Finally, he challenges integralism to answer "why its vision was ultimately abandoned by so many within the church itself." If, Douthat challenges integralism, those who ultimately dismantled integralism were "people who thought of themselves as faithful Catholics, and if this happened in different ways almost everywhere at once, then anyone who wishes to restore such a system needs a clear account of why Catholics themselves so universally rejected it." By way of illustration, he notes that Quebec and Ireland "in the first half of the twentieth century simply did not feel like shining examples of Christian freedom lived in obedience to truth."

He concludes "the record requires more than a few concessions to tolerance and mercy" and "requires a greater reckoning with why that form of Christendom was both defeated and abandoned and an account of why its revival would not bring the same unhappy destination round again."

As Tocqueville once told his colleagues in the French parliament: "believe me when I say that the real cause, the effective cause that deprives men of power, is this: that they have become unworthy of wielding it.”

It seems Tocqueville and his American religious contemporaries may have been on to something after all.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

One Million Dead

From the onset of the pandemic until the end of my term as pastor on December 31, 2020, I wrote a daily email to my parishioners which frequently included updated statistics on the number of covid cases and deaths worldwide, in the U.S., and in Tennessee. Since then I haven't paid that much attention to those steadily rising statistics, but I could hardly not notice this past week when the U.S. pandemic death toll finally passed one million. "One million empty chairs around the family dinner table," President Biden said in a video message marking this tragic milestone. "Each irreplaceable, irreplaceable losses. Each leaving behind a family or community forever changed because of this pandemic." The President has even ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff this weekend in recognition of our collective national loss.

And loss it is. Not just the one million tragically dead, but the millions who survive them, who have tragically lost parents, spouses, siblings, caregivers, friends, colleagues. And then the are all those who were sickened with the virus, some extremely severely at the time, and many still afflicted with the mysterious mix of symptoms we casually call 'long covid." so, yes, indeed, there is plenty to mourn this weekend.

Back in March 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the new White House coronavirus response coordinator projected as many as 200,000 covid deaths "if we do things almost perfectly." That seemed shockingly high at that time.

One obvious response to such a shocking prediction might have been to "do things almost perfectly." Presumably that would have meant a major investment in mass testing and mitigation measures (.e.g., masking). Well, we know how that went! 

The one thing we did do "almost perfectly" was the amazingly rapid, unprecedentedly rapid, development of effective vaccines. But then the same politicization of the pandemic that caused a casual attitude toward masking and social distancing, especially among certain populations and in certain parts of the country, took over and diminished the social benefit of such an amazing and unprecedentedly rapid scientific breakthrough. Thanks to irresponsible politicians, pundits, religious leaders, and others, vaccination rates did not rise as high as they should have, while a narcissistic "done with covid" mentality took over everywhere, even among many of the vaccinated - shedding masks prematurely as if the pandemic were gone for good.

The pandemic is not gone for good, although thankfully vaccines and new therapeutic drugs have radically diminished the likelihood of severe disease in most cases. Still, the virus's continuance in circulation increases the potential for new variants, some of which might prove less constrained by existing vaccines and therapeutic measures.

It seems as if we never learn from experience. 

Meanwhile, we haltingly mourn those we have lost and hope another new virus isn't lurking somewhere ready to exploit our unpreparedness to "do things almost perfectly."


Monday, May 9, 2022

Another Trump-Biden Book


Historically, one-term presidents who have been defeated for re-election and lost control of Congress to the other party have not been popular party favorites. In this as in so many other things, Donald Trump has proved to be an exception retaining almost total control of the Republican party more than two hears into his post-presidency (or possible pre-presidency if he runs again and is re-elected in 2024). That alone is enough to explain the continued fascination with Trump as candidate and president, and the quantity (and high quality) of books about Trump and what we may well call this Trump-era in American politics.

The latest such effort is This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America's Future (Simon and Schuster, 2022), by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, which was the talk of the town (that is, DC) and of the more politically oriented mainstream media in the run up to its publication earlier this month.

The book dramatically retells the now increasingly familiar story of the catastrophic final year of the dysfunctional Trump Administration and the halting and increasingly ineffective first year of the Biden Administration. Martin and Burns highlight how our problematic political system was devastatingly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic and the January 6 Trumpist insurrection, and Biden's thus far minimally successful supposed return to political normalcy. 

By the authors' own account, they initially "envisioned a richly reported account of what was sure to be a memorable presidential campaign" - which they have given - but as they "lived through and covered the events of 2020, the extraordinary aftermath of the election and the tumultuous months since, it became clear" to them that this "crisis in American politics, in the years 2020 and 2021, deserved something more." So they crafted "a work of history—to capture the campaign yet also the equally important story of how the election and its violent conclusion shaped this country and its two political parties."

Sunday, May 8, 2022

To the Ends of the Earth


History, as Pope Saint John XXIII is supposed to have said, is the greatest of teachers. Thus, it is no accident that the bulk of the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is history of one sort or other. And thus it is also that every day of these seven weeks we call the Easter season the Church reads from the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, actually the second volume of Luke’s Gospel, his continuation of the story of Jesus in the history of the Church.
Acts tells the amazing story of the Church’s growth, of the gradual but definitive expansion of its membership and the widening of its mission as the Good News spread – first in Jerusalem, then through Judea, then into Samaria, and eventually into the Greek-speaking, pagan world of the Roman Empire. All this took place, not by happenstance, but as part of God’s long-term providential plan – as Saint Paul makes clear quoting Isaiah in today’s 1st reading: I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

We get some sense of what that is supposed to mean from the Book of Revelation’s inspired vision of the heavenly liturgy, with its great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. But how do we get from here to there? Getting from here to there – that’s the mission of the Church and the history of the Church, modeled for us in the Acts of the Apostles.

It’s called the Acts of the Apostles, but it is Paul who eventually emerges as one of (if not the) central figures in the history of the Church’s growth and expansion - perhaps because Paul was bi-cultural and bi-lingual, a Jew from a Greek city (and a Roman citizen besides). Such human and cultural considerations are always important, always have an impact on how effectively the Church fulfils its mission.

Most important, of course, Paul’s conversion to Christ was so complete that it compelled him to share Christ with everyone. Paul recognized in the Risen Lord, who had appeared to him, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and God’s plan to include all people in that promise. Ultimately it was Christ who counted, and Paul saw no conflict between being a Gentile and faith in Jesus – thus making it possible for the Gospel to become Good News for all.

The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission hasn’t. There is always a natural temptation to turn inward, to become a cozy community, caring a lot about ourselves, concerned with who we are and what we have. As a Church, we have been doing a lot of that lately. Indeed, ever since the 1960s we have been doing lots of that. It is certainly arguable that the Church may be less effective in her pastoral ministry and her missionary outreach to the wider world than might otherwise be the case, whenever more energy is directed to internal battles between and among factions and interest groups within the Church. But the mission of the Church, our literally quite Catholic mission, remains that of the Good Shepherd, whose voice in the world we now are – we, who have been commanded, as Paul was, to be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.

On this annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we are also reminded of what we might call the “personnel needs” of the Church for it to fulfill its mission of making the Good Shepherd’s voice heard in today’s world. The wonderful story Acts tells of the growth and expansion of the Church needed people like Paul and Barnabas to respond to the Risen Christ’s invitation to full-time involvement in the mission – even at the risk, as Acts acknowledges, that such a life might put one at odds with prevailing cultural and societal trends.

All the more reason, therefore, why it is so necessary for all of us to be always ready to respond filled with joy and the Holy Spirit to the challenge of God’s call – whatever in particular it may be in our individual lives – and ever on the alert to identify, encourage, and support some future Paul or Barnabas, who may be right here in our community today and whose energy and commitment will be needed if the Good Shepherd’s voice is to continue to be heard in our world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, May 8, 2022.


Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Making Sense of the Endless Easter Season


Sometime back in the 1980s, one of my seminary classmates ventured the opinion that the Easter season, as we now have it, is simply too long and should be confined to one week (in other words, to the existing Easter Octave). His argument, if I recall it correctly, was that it was just too difficult to sustain so much enthusiasm for seven long weeks. Certainly, in our contemporary world of radically reduced attention spans combined with our current addiction to celebration by anticipation (e.g., the way we celebrate Christmas before December 25 rather than starting on December 25), it seems our current seven-week Easter season is problematic. (In this discussion, I am, of course, completely prescinding from the obvious fact that, for many people, probably none of this matters at all. In a modern secular world, where religion itself, let alone liturgy, barely impinges upon the ordinary routines of life, whether it is Easter Time or, say, Advent, may matter much less than religious professionals would like to imagine.)

In any case, our current seven-week Easter season is itself a relatively recent construct, dating back only to Pope Saint Paul VI's 1969 calendar reform. "The fifty days from theSunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one 'great Sunday'" (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 22). This post-conciliar Easter season certainly recognizes some diversity within it - the Octave of Easter, Ascension Day, and the nine "weekdays from the Ascension up to and including the Saturday before Pentecost." But the prevailing tendency of the reformed calendar (evident even more so perhaps in its treatment of Lent) was to flatten such internal seasonal diversity in favor of a unified, somewhat monochromatic conception of the season as a whole.

Thus, for example, one of the most commented upon features of the contemporary version of the Easter season is the replacement of the traditional collects of the (themselves renamed) Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. The traditional collect for "Low Sunday" famously spoke of having completed the paschal festivities (paschalia festa peregimus), while those of the subsequent Sundays said nothing specific about Easter at all. This was seen as a serious problem by the liturgical bureaucrats charged with revising the Missal, and those collects have all accordingly been replaced - perhaps the best evidence of the intention to establish a uniformity in the Easter season over the seven-week period.

Of course, the old Paschaltide (like the current Easter season) had certain distinctive features that perdured uniformly throughout the entire time, notably the numerous alleluias, the Regina Caeli, and the Vidi Aquam. But, then as now, apart from the octaves, an ordinary saint's day took precedence over a ferial day. (In practice the ferial Mass was seldom celebrated anyway, yielding as in most of the rest of the year to the then much more popular Requiem Mass.)

That said, the current Easter season's predecessor seemed to take a more realistic, less uniform approach to sustaining prolonged celebration. Thus, the pre-conciliar Paschaltide, which ran from the beginning of the Mass of the Easter Vigil to None of the Saturday within the Octave of Pentecost, was explicitly defined to include a distinct season of Easter, a season of Ascension, and the Pentecost Octave. The difference between the Easter and Ascension seasons within Paschaltide was dramatized best by the requirement that the Paschal Candle, a symbol of the uniquely paschal presence of the Risen Christ, be solemnly extinguished after the Gospel at the Mass on Ascension Thursday and then removed from the sanctuary. Nowadays, of course, the paschal candle keeps reappearing all year (at baptisms and funerals, for example, and in many places where the baptistery is not really separate from the main body of the church it remain visible all year long). So the fact that it remains an extra 10 days after the Ascension may not seem so counter-symbolic as it obviously is. (Then again, I once witnessed the Paschal Candle ceremonially extinguished after the Gospel on Pentecost, an even more symbolically confusing conflation of old and new. Hopefully, no one went home imagining that it was the Pentecostal tongues of fire that were being extinguished!)

In addition to the major variations already mentioned, the traditional Paschaltide also included the "Lesser Litanies," that is, the three Rogation Days" on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the Ascension. (In Milan, they were more logically celebrated on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after the Ascension.) And the Octave of Pentecost included the summer Ember Days, somewhat contradicting the ancient notion that there should be no fasting during the Easter season.

But, other than celebration fatigue and the shortened attention span problem already alluded to, perhaps the difficulty resides not so much in the desire to sustain celebration for too long a time as in the flattening of that same time by the downgrading of Ascension and Pentecost. Along with Christmas and Epiphany, the feasts of Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are the five principal festivals of the liturgical calendar, still distinguished as such in the Roman Canon and previously distinguished by Octaves. There is a certain logic to dividing "the  50 days" into an Easter 40 and an Ascension 10, not least in order to correspond with some fidelity to the biblical account. The modest reference in the present arrangement to the weekdays between Ascension and Pentecost as ever so slightly set apart from the rest of the season represents a minimalistic vestige of that division. In the absence of an Ascension octave, treating Ascension Thursday (obviously always on Thursday) as the end of the specifically Easter season, followed by a nine-day period of preparation for Pentecost would be one way of making sense of the season.

That still leaves the problem of Pentecost and its now lost octave. Whether due to the reformers' apparent antipathy to octaves in general and to an overly literal obsession with the number 50, the destruction of the Pentecost octave can only be seen as a (presumably irreparable) loss. According to the familiar story, when Pope Paul VI went to vest for Mass on the day after Pentecost in 1970,  and found green vestments laid out for him, he asked "Where are the red vestments?” He was told that the Octave of Pentecost had been abolished. “Who did that?” he supposedly asked, only to be told “Your Holiness, you did.” And so the story concludes, the pope wept. Whether true or apocryphal, the story does express the damage done to the liturgy by the gratuitous abolition of the Pentecost Octave. More recently, Pope Francis has made a small gesture to correcting that mistake by instituting the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, to be celebrated always on the Monday after Pentecost.

Restoring a sense of Easter not as a uniformly flat time but as a season with several (specifically three) peak moments might help to retrieve Ascension and Pentecost as feasts truly celebrating the beginning of the Church's current life.

Meanwhile, on the ground in the real world of contemporary American religion, the peak moments of the otherwise flattened Easter season will continue to be First Communions, Confirmations, Graduations, maybe May Crownings, and the biggest American pseudo-religious commercial feast of all, Mother's Day.

(Photo: Easter 1963, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, Bronx, NY)