Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Liturgy's Beauty: The Pope's Apostolic Letter

One common observation about Pope Francis, especially in the earlier years of his pontificate, was that he appeared relatively uninterested in matters liturgical (especially in comparison with his predecessor), a characteristic sometimes ascribed (fairly or unfairly) to his being a Jesuit! Whatever truth there may have been to those earlier interpretations, in recent years he has seemingly overcompensated, expressing renewed interest especially in promoting the uniformity of the Roman Rite in its post-conciliar form, something which presumably the Pope sees as integral to the larger post-conciliar project. His latest foray into the frequently divisive disputed terrain of the Roman liturgy occurred this week on the highly symbolic occasion of the annual celebration of Rome's apostolic founders Saints Peter and Paul. On that especially solemn day, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi "On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God."

At the outset, Pope Francis makes clear both that the liturgy is "fundamental for the life of the Church" and that, rather than an exhaustive treatment of the subject, his purpose is to "aid in the contemplation of the beauty and truth of Christian celebration" [DD,1]. The letter begins with a meditation on the Last Supper and the Liturgy as a place of encounter with Christ. Of particular note is his stress that, while the world may not know it, "everyone is invited" to the feast, which only requires "the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word." 

This turns out to be an explicit argument for evangelization. Explicitly referencing Evangelii gaudium, he warns: "We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living" [DD, 5]. Later he adds: "A celebration that does not evangelize is not authentic, just as a proclamation that does not lead to an encounter with the risen Lord in the celebration is not authentic. And then both of these, without the testimony of charity, are like sounding a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)" [DD, 37].

For Francis, the liturgy guarantees the possibility of encounter with the Risen Christ: "if there were not given also to us the possibility of a true encounter with Him, that would be to declare the newness of the Word made flesh to have been all used up. Instead, the Incarnation, in addition to being the only always new event that history knows, is also the very method that the Holy Trinity has chosen to open to us the way of communion. Christian faith is either an encounter with Him alive, or it does not exist" [DD, 10].

Having laid that groundwork, Pope Francis turns to  the more controverted territory of the modern renewal of the liturgy, which he interprets in terms of "the rediscovery of a theological understanding of the Liturgy and of its importance in the life of the Church" [DD, 16]. He considers "the Liturgy in its theological sense" to be "the most effective antidote against these poisons," those "distorted forms of Christianity," Gnosticism and neo-Pelagiansm, which he has often warned against [DD, 17-18]. Against the intoxication of the latter, he cites the Confiteor which at "the beginning of every celebration reminds me who I am, asking me to confess my sin and inviting me to implore the Blessed Mary ever virgin, the angels and saints and all my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God" [DD, 20] However, he makes no reference to contrary practices (which the official liturgy itself supports), which widely replace this salutary Confiteor at the beginning of many Masses.

Lovers of liturgy will be edified by Francis' critique of an "attitude, which confuses simplicity with a careless banality, or what is essential with an ignorant superficiality, or the concreteness of ritual action with an exasperating practical functionalism." The Pope insists "every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music…) and every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what is owed to it; namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down" [DD, 22-23]. 

He is obviously well aware of abuses and diagnoses their root cause. "In visiting Christian communities, I have noticed that their way of living the liturgical celebration is conditioned — for better or, unfortunately, for worse — by the way in which their pastor presides in the assembly. We could say that there are different “models” of presiding. Here is a possible list of approaches, which even though opposed to each other, characterize a way of presiding that is certainly inadequate: rigid austerity or an exasperating creativity, a spiritualizing mysticism or a practical functionalism, a rushed briskness or an overemphasized slowness, a sloppy carelessness or an excessive finickiness, a superabundant friendliness or priestly impassibility. Granted the wide range of these examples, I think that the inadequacy of these models of presiding have a common root: a heightened personalism of the celebrating style which at times expresses a poorly concealed mania to be the centre of attention. Often this becomes more evident when our celebrations are transmitted over the air or online, something not always opportune and that needs further reflection" [DD, 54]. In the aftermath of the pandemic and the resulting prominence of live streaming, the Pope's call for reflection about this practice obviously acquires even greater salience!

The Pope's principal preoccupation, however, is not with those issues in themselves but with entire Church's appropriate formation for liturgy. What he himself terms the fundamental question," therefore, is this: "how do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action? This was the objective of the Council’s reform. The challenge is extremely demanding because modern people — not in all cultures to the same degree — have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act" [DD, 27]. It is in the context of this contemporary problematic that the Pope places the conciliar reform (and the liturgical movement which led up to it). 

Both "the non-acceptance of the liturgical reform" and what the Pope calls "a superficial understanding of it" are distractions "from the obligation of finding responses to the question that I come back to repeating: how can we grow in our capacity to live in full the liturgical action? How do we continue to let ourselves be amazed at what happens in the celebration under our very eyes? We are in need of a serious and dynamic liturgical formation" [DD, 31].

While not ignoring liturgical formation in the typical sense of that term - "A liturgical-sapiential plan of studies in the theological formation of seminaries would certainly have positive effects in pastoral action" [DD, 37] - the focus remains relational. "Only the action of the Spirit can bring to completion our knowledge of the mystery of God, for the mystery of God is not a question of something grasped mentally but a relationship that touches all of life. Such experience is fundamental so that, once seminarians become ordained ministers, they can accompany communities in the same journey of knowledge of the mystery of God, which is the mystery of love" [DD, 39].

Quite eloquently, the Pope proclaims that clearly "knowledge of the mystery of Christ, the decisive question for our lives, does not consist in a mental assimilation of some idea but in real existential engagement with his person." Thus, the "Liturgy is about praise, about rendering thanks for the Passover of the Son whose power reaches our lives. The celebration concerns the reality of our being docile to the action of the Spirit who operates through it until Christ be formed in us. (Cf. Galatians 4:19). The full extent of our formation is our conformation to Christ. I repeat: it does not have to do with an abstract mental process, but with becoming Him. This is the purpose for which the Spirit is given, whose action is always and only to confect the Body of Christ" [DD, 41].

Pope Francis also addresses the "absolute importance" of silence, as "a symbol of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit who animates the entire action of the celebration" [DD, 52]. He writes about liturgical gestures, for example, kneeling [DD, 53], and highlights the unique role of the priest, whose role "is not primarily a duty assigned to him by the community but is rather a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit received in ordination which equips him for such a task. The priest also is formed by his presiding in the celebrating assembly." [DD,56]. Thus, "it is of fundamental importance that the priest have a keen awareness of being, through God’s mercy, a particular presence of the risen Lord" [DD, 57]. As a priest, I could not but find the Pope's reflections on priestly presiding [DD, 59-60] particularly moving - and challenging.

The Pope concludes with another appeal to re-establish the unity of the Roman Rite [DD, 61] and "to rediscover the meaning of the liturgical year and of the Lord’s Day" [DD, 63]. Here, however, it might have been helpful for him to have addressed the dramatic cultural changes which have occurred since the Council and the resulting virtual disappearance of the Lord's Day from our modern society. 

Finally, Francis appeals to us to "abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Let us safeguard our communion. Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the Liturgy. The Paschal Mystery has been given to us. Let us allow ourselves to be embraced by the desire that the Lord continues to have to eat His Passover with us. All this under the gaze of Mary, Mother of the Church" [DD, 65].

Notwithstanding the Pope's plea, polemics about the liturgy (and almost everything else) will continue. To the extent that liturgical polarization in the Church is a subset of wider social polarization, probably little can be done about it. On the other hand, a sincere study of the Pope's letter, coupled with an honest openness on all sides to address the acknowledged deficiencies in our contemporary liturgical experience could well contribute to restoring the liturgy to its proper place as an experience of unity rather than division.

Photo: Pope Francis greets U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Saint Peter's Basilica before celebrating the Mass for the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul, Rome, June 29, 2022, the same day he issued his "Apostolic Letter on the Liturgical Formation of the People of God," Desiderio Desideravi.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Human Empire vs. God's Kingdom


The 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch (1884-1954)  said of today’s great festival of Saints Peter and Paul: "it was the birthday of Christian Rome and marked the triumph of Christ's victory over paganism. Rome's provincial bishops came to the Eternal City to celebrate the feast together with the Pope. As at Christmas three services were held, at the graves of the two apostles and at their temporary depository in times of persecution. The two apostles were never separated; they were the two eyes of the Church's virgin-face."

Such splendor seems so far beyond us now, when this great festival seems barely noticed by many! Back when I was a pastor, I liked to preach on this day about Peter and Paul as the second founders of Rome - brothers in faith rather than by blood, who founded the new Christian Rome, that replaced the pagan power of ancient imperial Rome. That ancient theme may be acquiring a new salience in this troubled time when a right relationship between the Church and the pursuit of political power is again at issue.


According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. Like many of the biblical brothers, Romulus and Remus quarreled. The two fought about which of their future city’s hills to build on. According to the story, when Romulus began building on his preferred Palatine hill, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over his brother’s wall, in order to belittle his brother’s project. Romulus responded by killing Remus - thus determining which brother the city would be named after! In due time, Rome became the greatest city in the ancient world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.


To that same city, some eight centuries later, came Peter and Paul - brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be disciples and commissioned them to be apostles. The small, marginal Christian community they found in Rome was socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire that had occurred on July 18 in A.D. 64. What followed was the first of several state-sponsored persecutions of the Church. Among those eventually martyred in that first Roman persecution were the apostles Peter and Paul - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way.


One version of the story recounts how Peter started to flee from the city but then returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded. The Roman church [photo] of Domine Quo Vadis marks the site on the Via Appia, where this encounter occurred.


If the persecuted Christians of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles, who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself? For some 20 centuries since, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to the two great basilicas that rise above the apostles’ tombs - Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls.


Which brings us back to where we started. The old Rome of Romulus – proud, powerful, pagan Rome, based on the murder of one brother by another – was, for all its real accomplishments and authentic grandeur, a human state like any other, a warring conqueror empire conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul conquered that old Rome, but in a new way. Proud, powerful, pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was itself in turn conquered by the faith that empowered Peter and Paul as brothers-in-Christ to evangelize an empire and die together as witnesses to a new way of life and a veery different kind of kingdom.


Just as there was an incomparable difference between the behavior of the two pagan brothers and the two Christian apostles, there is also an incomparable difference between their relationship to temporal power. The martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul – indeed all martyrdom – highlights how the establishment of God's kingdom comes about apart from (if not in outright opposition to) all earthly empires of political power and calls into question that perennially popular strategy of identifying religion with the pursuit of such political power.


As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, let us also – as Saint Augustine once recommended on this feast – “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” [Sermon 295, 8].

Monday, June 27, 2022

What Makes a Eucharistic Revival?

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has embarked upon a multi-year "Eucharistic Revival." According to the USCCB's Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis, the "Mission" of this "Eucharistic Revival" is to renew the Church by enkindling a living relationship with the Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Its "Vision" is movement of Catholics across the United States, healed converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist - and sent out in mission "for the life of the world."

Admirable goals, and God grant that we may move forward together on this journey!

Meanwhile, however, like just about everything else in these days, this "Eucharistic Revival" is bogged down in controversies - from how to interpret the research showing widespread ignorance about the Real Presence (research which allegedly sparked this preoccupation with "Eucharistic Revival" in the first place) to continuing arguments about weaponizing the Eucharist for partisan purposes to on-line debates about whether the "Eucharistic Revival" is also a "liturgical revival," and exactly what that quaint question actually means anyway.

I have already written in this space about the first two controversies (cf. "Conflicting Conversations about Holy Communion," June 21, 2021). It may be worth repeating here that, regardless of technical questions about the survey itself and its data, the research in question at least appears to show serious deficiencies in some American Catholics' understanding about the Eucharist. But really this should hardly have come as any surprise. For decades now, traditional practices which highlighted the unique sacredness of the Eucharist for previous generations (e.g., fasting before Communion, frequent Confession, kneeling for Communion, receiving on the tongue, reverential silence in church, etc.) have all been in decline. There may be multiple reasons for these developments, which are not necessarily bad, but it still should have been expected that such developments would have inevitably predictable cultural consequences for how the Eucharist has actually been experienced by many, regardless of whatever they may have been formally taught (if in fact they have been taught). In any case, clearly a conversation needs to occur about the way the Eucharist is experienced in the Church's life - a conversation that extends the narrow language and preoccupations of religious professionals. How such a conversation occurs, however, will significantly impact its efficacy, which places a significant burden on whatever happens during this national "Eucharistic Revival." Whatever happens, continued and at this point probably unavoidable partisan conflicts about how to be Church in a modern democratic, pluralistic, and increasingly secular society seem unlikely either to promote the mission or foster the vision articulated for this "Eucharistic Revival."

I'm not sure of what to make of the questions about the relationship between "Eucharistic Revival" and "liturgical revival." It seems to me that examining and (hopefully) improving the ordinary American Catholic's experience of how the eucharistic liturgy is celebrated is inherently desirable at any time and obviously ought to be a component of any "Eucharistic Revival" for the vast majority of American Catholics, who will not be assembling in Indianapolis for the 2024 Eucharistic Congress. Clearly, any serious "Eucharistic Revival" should care about  improving the ordinary American Catholic's experience of how the eucharistic liturgy is celebrated in actual parishes in a contemporary America in which religion, like more or less everything else, is riddled with consumerism. For many that experience may seem somewhat sub-optimal at present - whether measured in terms of  welcome and hospitality, length and reverence of celebration, music, preaching, etc. At the same time, any serious "Eucharistic Revival" ought also to include reviving (where they have been lost) such historical up-datings in eucharistic worship as Corpus Christi processions, Forty Hours, and ordinary experiences of Exposition and Benediction. That the Church's liturgy developed in certain directions over the centuries is part of its historical vitality. Without inordinately privileging any particular practice or any particular period in the Church's history (a common failing on both sides of contemporary generational liturgical divides), our post-modern predicament challenges the Church to draw upon all her treasures - heeding the familiar teaching of Jesus himself, Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).

On the other hand, however, no amount of liturgical revival - not even a Corpus Christi procession and Forty Hours in every single American parish - would alone be sufficient to promote the mission or foster the vision articulated for this "Eucharistic Revival." As Sacrosantum Concilium, 9, famously acknowledged: Before we can come to the liturgy we must be called to faith and to conversion: "How then are they to call upon him in whom they have not yet believed? But how are they to believe him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear if no one preaches? And how are men to preach unless they be sent?" (Romans 10:14-15).

Clearly, we still have a lot to do in the U.S Church to get us from here to there!

Saturday, June 25, 2022

That Weird and Dangerous NatCon Manifesto

National, nationalist, nationalism are all honorable words with legitimate political referents - as are conservative and conservatism. But the ideological neologism National Conservatism - as in the recent public statement "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles" - is another matter altogether, a weird document, its weirdness exacerbated by its ideas' evident danger to democratic constitutional governance.

The so-called "national conservatism" project appears to have arisen as an alternative to some more traditional types of conservatism, in other words a MAGA-updating of conservatism purporting to give the latter a more morally and intellectually plausible veneer. Although Trump himself is never mentioned, the movement's recently issued manifesto,  "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles," would hardly have even been conceivable apart from the Trump phenomenon and its "populist" triumph over traditional conservatism. The manifesto's signers were themselves, many of them, likewise more traditional respectable conservatives before boarding the irresistible MAGA train. That train, of course, has long since left the station, and any window-dressing restraint from more traditionally conservative moral and political precepts must likewise inevitably be left behind in the end.

Of course, as with most ideologies, there are sensible statements of moral and political principles in this document, principles many might happily accept. Thus, for example, the statement begins by affirming "the idea of the nation because we see a world of independent nations - each pursuing its own national interests and upholding national traditions that are its own - as the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe." In practice, that means that they "oppose transferring the authority of elected governments to transnational or supranational bodies—a trend that pretends to high moral legitimacy even as it weakens representative government, sows public alienation and distrust, and strengthens the influence of autocratic regimes." If that is a reference to the EU, for example, I fully share the concern about the EU's infamous "democratic deficit," which is why, were I British, I too would probably have supported Brexit. For the present, at least, there appears to be no political unit larger than the nation state, which seems able to offer its citizens both a sufficient sense of participation and actual political accountability. 

But nothing in the statement seems to acknowledge the fundamental reality that  it has been capitalism, more than anything else, that has imposed "a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe." One need not have read Karl Marx to know that!

When it comes to how this particular independent nation state of ours should be organized and governed, the authors purport to "believe in a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers. We recommend a drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state and the policy-making judiciary that displace legislatures representing the full range of a nation’s interests and values." Fair enough, but then we read "in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order." It hardly seems possible not to read that as code for the claim that Republican-run states should be free to pursue their preferred policies, but that a presumably Republican-run federal government should freely interfere with local autonomy in Democratic states, presumably to prevent measures that would combat climate change or restrict gun violence - obvious examples, one supposes, of blue-state "lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution." Put differently, the constraints of federalism for Democrats but centralized authoritarian power for Republicans.

But the statement really gets weird when it addresses religion. I would heartily agree that "No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition." But, while I would agree that the wanton secularization of American society and culture has done us grievous harm, what if anything can be done about that is problematic at best. "Where a Christian majority exists," the statement proposes, "public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private." Attaching the adjective "Protestant" to "Christian" in the above formulation, something like that may once have been the case earlier in US history, when the country was less pluralistic and hence less secular, when the Protestant majority set the cultural tone and discriminated against the Catholic minority. But that is not our national reality anymore, and it ought to be manifestly out of the question now. Achieving it is, in any case, a practical impossibility in that it would require the kind of governmental religious power and moral coercion that the constitution (which the authors purport to revere) disallows and which modern experience (e.g., Quebec, Ireland, Spain) suggests can only be harmful to religion itself in the end. I suppose a lot depends on whether one's concern is with the actual flourishing of religion or rather with religion as a prop for political authoritarianism.

The authors advocate "accepting and living in accordance with the Constitution of 1787, the amendments to it, duly enacted statutory law, and the great common law inheritance." What does that even mean? The "Constitution of 1787" no longer really exists, having been amended first by the Bill of Rights, and then even more radically amended by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments after the Civil War, and then otherwise democratized by the 16th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th amendments. The original constitution was a determinedly anti-democratic document, which has been - not totally - but radically democratized since then. Ironically, the statement stresses that "change must take place through law" and condemns "rioting, looting, and other unacceptable public disorder" - conveniently ignoring the fact that the most salient example of such "public disorder," an explicit attempt to accomplish a political change outside of the law, was, of course, the MAGA riot/insurrection/attempted coup on January 6, 2021. Like the globalizing and secularizing role of capitalism, the MAGA insurrection seems to be yet another inconvenient truth.

To be fair, when addressing economics, the authors do say "the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation." But the bulk of their economic complains concern "globalized markets" and right-wing ideological culture war concerns about "trans-national corporations showing little loyalty to any nation damage public life by censoring political speech, flooding the country with dangerous and addictive substances and pornography, and promoting obsessive, destructive personal habits." Likewise, what starts out as a commendable commitment to reenergize a national effort to refocus national resources - as an earlier American generation did to go to the moon - degenerates into petty pot-shots at "most universities." One wonders what intellectual institutions would merit a role in their culture warrior vision of America. The Claremont Institute? Whatever one thinks of the varied virtues and faults of mid-20th-century America, we did not make it to the moon by subordinating science and medicine to divisive culture-war priorities.

Speaking of culture war, there is, of course, really no such thing as "the traditional family," given the many and various ways that fundamental institution has evolved and adapted throughout all of human history. That said, the authors are, in my opinion, quite correct when they lament that "The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations." And they are likewise correct in faulting  "an unconstrained individualism that regards children as a burden." But they again neglect to acknowledge the connection between that "unconstrained individualism" and the "free enterprise" system they largely endorse. Again, one need not have read Marx to know that capitalism "has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." The NatCon statement laudably advocates "Economic and cultural conditions that foster stable family and congregational life and child-raising are priorities of the highest order." Yet it offers no actual examples of relief for today's socially stressed and economically hard-pressed families, nor any suggestion of how the authors' presumably preferred political party might ever be dragooned into signing on to any policy proposals that might actually address the pressing needs of real families.

In a somewhat surprising display of historical honesty, the authors acknowledge the "immense contributions" of immigration and "note that Western nations have benefited from both liberal and restrictive immigration policies at various times." But they seem to think that this is one of those times when more restrictive policies  would be better for the country. If so, they should then at least be obliged to tell us who is going to do the work in "the sciences and engineering" that they are calling for - not to mention who is going to do the increasingly required work of health care for our aging population (which will grow even older without immigration).

There is so much in this that, in a modern, pluralistic, 21st-century, secular society, seems just plain weird . Sadly, however, these are not disembodied ideas to be debated by academic intellectuals and on-line pundits, but a manifestly dangerous anti-democratic agenda. If recent history has taught us anything, it should have taught us that fringe ideas - like fringe candidates in 2016 - can acquire political power even if the majority of citizens oppose and vote against them.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Sacred Heart


In his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Walter Cardinal Kasper, considers the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the Church celebrates today. "In many centuries," Kasper writes, "veneration of the sacred heart of Jesus functioned as a special expression of faith in God's love and mercy." In Jesus' heart, "we recognize that God himself has a heart for us, who are poor, in the broadest sense of the word, and that he is, therefore, merciful. In this way, the heart of Jesus is an emblem of God's love, which became incarnate in Jesus Christ."

We recall the "important fact that the modern veneration of the sacred heart of Jesus became pervasive in the context of the dawning enlightenment and secularization, and in connection with the strengthening sense of the absence … of God. ... In the middle of this night of moribund faith in God and the world's increasing obtuseness and apathy toward God's love in Jesus Christ, we may experience in the heart of Jesus God's suffering because of the world and his never-ending love for us."


Especially on this annual solemnity of the Sacred Heart, this is a message of God’s overwhelming love and mercy may be well worth meditating upon on in this troubled time.

Photo: The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Holy Picture which belonged first to my grandmother and then to my mother and now is mine.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Midsummer Eve/Day

Because of a unique occurrence in the Latin Church's liturgical calendar this year, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart falls on Midsummer Day, June 24, which would normally be the liturgical commemoration of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. As a consequence, the commemoration of the Baptist’s birth has been anticipated one day. And so, uniquely this year, Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day coincide.  

Typically, when major festivals coincide and one must be transferred, the transferal is to the next available day. But anticipating the commemoration of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist on Midsummer Eve this year just makes a lot more sense, since it keeps the connection with the festival’s ancient date and its cosmological symbolism. (An even better, if perhaps rubrically unthinkable  solution, might have been to keep the ancient festival of Saint John on its ancient date and move the modern feast of the Sacred Heart to some other Friday!)


The old Rituale Romanum provided a blessing for a bonfire on June 23, Midsummer Eve. People have historically reacted to the solstice in multiple ways, and even in our de-natured society some people still experience the seasons as significant. So this week I heard several people reference “the longest day of the year,” despite the obvious fact that “the longest day of the year” makes almost no difference at all to most people in our modern urban, electricity-determined lifestyle.


Meanwhile, even as we work our way through the hottest months of the year, the advent of the summer solstice also means that we will shortly begin to notice progressively less light as the days start to shorten and the nights start to lengthen once again according to their annual routine.

This other dimension of the solstice - decreasing daylight following soon after the year's longest day - invites us to a whole other level of symbolism, a symbolism especially associated with the commemoration of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist - the Christianized version of Midsummer Day. The reason John the Baptist's birth is celebrated at the time of the summer solstice has less to do with summer than with the fact that it is exactly six months before Christmas (in keeping with the New Testament chronology in Luke's infancy narrative).  Still, the occurrence of this feast at the time of the solstice inevitably invited a seasonal symbolism of its own, especially in light of John the Baptist's own famous words with regard to Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

According to Anthony Aveni, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays (Oxford, 2003), "Assigning the summer solstice, exactly six months away in the seasonal calendar from the birth of the Savior, to fete St. John the Baptist, is another brilliant example of religious syncretism. ... With that delicate stroke, midsummer, a pause in the breath of the seasons when the sun makes its seasonal turnabout, became a festival of water as well as fire."


To me, today’s anticipation of tomorrow's feast also heralds the hope (admittedly still several months away) that the dryness of summer will eventually yield to the autumn rains and the life-giving wetness of winter - nature's way of symbolizing the effect upon our spiritually dry and sterile world of the coming of Christ, whose mission it was initially John's - and is now that of the entire Church - to announce to the world.

Photo: a Finnish Midsummer Eve Bonfire.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something wicked this way comes.

In Shakespeare's play (act IV, scene 1), it is the increasingly monstrous Macbeth himself who is identified as wicked, when he goes in search of the three midnight hags, whose ambiguous prophecies were calculated to induce even more wickedness on Macbeth's part.

A lot of wicked keeps coming our way these days - from the terrifying Eric Greitens' campaign video to the disgusting and dangerous death threats sent to Congressman Adam Kinzinger and his wife and their infant child. The explicit references in the Kinzinger threat - to the "hurt" done to "God fearing families" and the threat to send the three of them to hell - highlight how religion has been thoroughly weaponized (here literally weaponized) by increasingly unscrupulous Christians, whose Hobbesian lust for power after power has replaced the Beatitudes and the Commandments in an apocalyptically deformed kingdom. 

So much wicked has come our way that it increasingly loses its capacity to shock. 

Macbeth's "witches" were no mere bystanders, however, let alone innocent bystanders. Macbeth's personal responsibility and guilt for his own actions notwithstanding, it was the "witches" who, in a manifestly evil manner, enabled and empowered Macbeth's dramatic descent into criminality. Power-oriented religious people who have during this troubled time demonized Democrats and sacralized Republicans resemble in this respect those three midnight hags, who happily told Macbeth what would support his pursuit of power regardless of wider world consequences.

(Image: Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters; title page by John Gilbert for an edition of Shakespeare's works, 1858–60.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Moral Power of Institutional Commitments

Recuperating from a morning medical test, I am treating myself to an afternoon with the House January 6 Committee's televised hearing. The focus today has been on the Trump campaign's unconscionable attempt to illegally influence the election's outcome at the state level - notably in Arizona and Georgia. The witnesses called to testify today have been elected state officials in Arizona and Georgia and an election worker in Georgia who experienced threats and harassment for merely doing her job.

What does it say that the "heroes" who helped save the country from Trump's effort to secure for himself and illegal second term were, for the most part, politicians and ordinary people who were just doing their jobs? In recent days, there has been an inordinate amount of debate about how to evaluate former Vice President Pence's behavior, about whether his merely fulfilling his constitutional duty somehow counts as heroism. Of course, anytime anyone's life is threatened to intimidate him to violate his constitutional responsibilities and/or to punish him for having done his duty, the official in question can be said to have displayed some degree of courage. Most of us have likely never been in such a position. So it ill behooves us from a position of safety to denigrate the real courage it can take merely to do one's job and fulfill one's duty in the face of threats and intimidation. In that sense, certainly, Vice President Pence acted courageously - even more obviously so in his insistence on remaining in the Capitol throughout that dangerous day. An analogy might be a certain 3rd-century anti-pope who ended up a martyr, the latter experience compensating, so to speak, for his earlier errors.

That said, however, history cannot completely pass over the iniquities characteristic of Vice President Pence's behavior as a Trump-enabler during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns and during his term as Vice President. Pence proved to be a consistently loyal enabler of Trump's tragic presidency. Recognized for his right-wing religious self-righteousness, Pence was perhaps a primary actor in facilitating the acceptance of Trump and Trump's behavior among the Republican party's supposedly religious, Christian evangelical elements prior to and during Trump's ill-fated presidency. If, on January 6, Trump erroneously expected Pence to put loyalty to him above anything else, perhaps he had reason to have such hope based on Pence's slavish servitude to Trump until that point. One easily gets the impression that Pence might have preferred to escape having to decide what to do and only acted publicly when he had no choice. Obviously, that is not completely contemptible. One could perhaps say something similar of Saint Thomas More, who avoided publicly opposing Henry VIII until the King left him with no other choice. 

What such cases actually suggest, however, is that, while the individual's personal commitment and courage were essential to the outcome, what facilitated that was an underlying institutional commitment. Because of that commitment, Pence did what he knew to be the only thing the constitution actually allowed him to do - once he found himself with no other options. In spite of years of servile subservience to Trump, Pence suddenly found himself in an unavoidable situation in which he had no choice but to act, in which case his institutional loyalty and commitment won out.

Obviously, this whole sorry story highlights the importance of having people in such positions who take their institutional commitments seriously. But it also highlights the importance of first having such institutions - institutions important and powerful enough in our political and moral imagination to compel our loyalty to them to take precedence over alternative courses of action. Ordinary people aspiring to moral virtue require a clear conception of what moral virtue commits them to.

Central to such a political and moral American imagination is institutional commitment to the constitutionally constructed responsibilities of one's office and to a constitutional political culture which valorizes the priority of legal elections and the peaceful transfer of power, recognized as such by winners and losers alike. Allow that to be weakened, and we weaken as well the very framework within which individual officeholders and citizens are able to recognize a duty to resist any kind of coup.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Corpus Christi

The popular custom probably most widely associated with the celebration of Corpus Christi is the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance through the local streets with great solemnity and communal festivity. The procession is a public witness of the Church’s belief in and popular devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Beginning with Saint John Paul II and continuing until the pandemic shut it down along with so much else, recent popes have revived the custom at the papal level, celebrating Mass at the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran (Rome’s Cathedral), and then going from there in procession with the Blessed Sacrament up the Esquiline Hill to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the procession concludes with Benediction outdoors.

As a seminarian in 1984, I was fortunate to attend a particularly impressive Corpus Christi procession in Montreal, Quebec, where we followed the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets of the Old City to the historic basilica of Notre Dame. But perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving outdoor eucharistic procession I’ve ever attended was actually not on Corpus Christi but the one that takes place every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under a tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried at the end of a procession of sick pilgrims and their caregivers to the massive underground basilica. Empty, the basilica (the only structure large enough to contain the vast number of pilgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the experience is – as my British friends would say – “brilliant.”

A more traditional word might be ”awesome” – a word which really used to mean something before it became a contemporary synonym for “nice.” Thus, the Mass for the Consecration of a Church used to start with the words of the Patriarch Jacob in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17].

We build and decorate churches (with a small “c’) to be “awesome,” so that “awesome” things can happen there - so that the community of faithful which we call the Church (with a capital “C”), can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist in which Christ is present in a unique way in his Body and Blood. Prefigured by the bread and wine offered (as we just heard) by the priest-king Melchizedek [Genesis 14:18-20], the Eucharist was established as a sacrament (as we also just heard) by Christ at the Last Supper [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and now is celebrated daily on our altars and  permanently reserved for adoration in our Tabernacles. Today’s celebration is meant to highlight all of that, all the while inviting us to a deeper devotion to and appreciation of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and its transformative effects in our lives.

But, if the Eucharist is one of the Risen Christ’s great gifts to his Church, its transformation effect is also a challenge. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians are part of a longer text which highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, divisions, and factions – in other words, their resistance to being changed by the very Eucharist that they were privileged to experience together.

We hear a lot in the news about the conflicts, divisions, and factions in our society and we can certainly see and experience the consequences all around us. Well back then, among those to whom Saint Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well either, even among themselves. It seems that the values of secular Roman society, with its social and class distinctions and inequalities, were making themselves felt even within the Church community, to the point that even the celebration of the Eucharist seemed to mirror those conflicts, divisions, and factions.

Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. It is always temptingly easy to miss the point and focus on the wrong food, as Pope Francis reminded us on Corpus Christi a couple of years ago, when he said: If we look around, we realize that there are so many offers of food which do not come from the Lord and which appear to be more satisfying. Some nourish themselves with money, others with success and vanity, others with power and pride. But the food that truly nourishes and satiates us is only that which the Lord gives us! The food the Lord offers us is different from other food, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as flavorful to us as certain other dishes the world offers us. So we dream of other dishes, like the Hebrews in the desert, who longed for the meat and onions they ate in Egypt, but forgot that they had eaten those meals at the table of slavery.

So, what about us? “Where do I want to eat? At which table do we want to be nourished? At the Lord’s table? Or do we dream of other flavorful foods? What do we recall? The Lord who saves me, or the garlic and onions of slavery? On this feast of Corpus Christi, when the Church in the United States is embarking on an official program of “Eucharistic Revival,” let us, as the Pope suggests, recover the right memory and learn to recognize the false bread that deceives and corrupts, because it comes from selfishness, from self-reliance and from sin.

In the traditional Corpus Christi procession, the Church ritually acts out the reality of Christ coming into our world and overcoming all our conflicts, divisions, and factionsIn the Eucharist – and in the transformed life we share together as Christ’s Church united by and through the Eucharist we celebrate – Christ doesn’t just come to us. He remains with us, blessing the world where we and he walk together, nourishing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, flesh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us – like the 5000+ people in the Gospel [Luke 9:11b-17] – to put aside our conflicts, divisions, and factions to eat until we have more than enough.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, June 19, 2022.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Pope at War


Historian David Kertzer, already famous for his Pulitzer-prize-winning The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House, 2014), has now continued his account with the story of his successor, Pope Pius XII, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler (2022), in which he makes use of the Vatican wartime archives, sealed since Pope Pius XII's death in 1058 and recently opened in 2020. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958) had served as Pius XI’s Secretary of State, even as the latter became more and more alarmed not just by Hitler's Nazi Germany but also by Mussolini's Fascist state in Italy, with which he had successfully negotiated the Lateran Treaty and Lateran Concordat in 1929. By the time of his death in 1939, Pius XI had become thoroughly disillusioned with Mussolini, who by then had become tightly allied with Hitler. Pacelli, elected to succeed him as Pius XII, was a lifelong diplomat who would prove much more cautious in dealing with both dictators.

Especially since Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, but less publicly even while the war itself was still going on (as Kertzer demonstrates), there have been questions about and criticisms of Pius XII's diplomatic Neutrality and supposed "silence" the face of German aggression and war crimes, including but not limited to the Holocaust. The Pope at War presents a dramatic picture of what Pius did or did not do as Germany conquered most of Europe and the Nazis began their systematic mass murder of Jews and others. Whatever we choose to think of the Pope's (or anyone's) moral judgment and behavior during the war, the fact remains the Holocaust happened as a consequence of Germany's conquest of much of Europe, and the Holocaust ended the only way it could have ended, thanks to the Allies' overwhelming military victory and Germany's unconditional surrender. Sometimes some of Pius's critics sound as if Pius himself by sheer moral exhortation (and possibly by excommunicating both Hitler and Mussolini) could somehow have altered the history of the war. While all the evidence suggests that Pius XII never seriously considered excommunicating either Hitler or Mussolini, Kertzer believes that the Nazi leadership showed some concern he might. That said, I think it remains rather unlikely that such a move would have been any more successful than Pius V's infamous excommunication of England's Elizabeth I, which was a notorious failure.

One key component of the Pope's reserve, Kertzer suggests, was "the pope’s recognition that nearly half the citizens of the enlarged German Reich were Catholic, and millions of them were avid supporters of Hitler." He believes that Pius XII’s "silence" was motivated both by his "fears of the actions that the Axis powers might take against the church if he spoke out," but also "by his fears that denouncing the Nazis would alienate millions of Catholics and risk producing a schism in the church." Italy, on the other hand, may have been different. The ease with which the Italian fascist apparatus collapsed when the King finally removed Mussolini "shows how tenuous the Duce’s hold was on the Italian people in the end."

Indeed, Kertzer sees much of what went on through the filter of the Church's unique relationship with Italy. In fact, he considers the effort "to remember Pius XII as a heroic figure," as "part of a much broader effort to recast Italy’s uncomfortable Fascist past that goes well beyond the church."

That said, Pius's failure - if that is what it was - was not his failure to end the war or dramatically affect its outcome. His failure - if it was his failure - was what Kertzer calls a "moral failure." In the end the Pope proved successful at "protecting the institutional interests of the Roman Catholic Church at a time of war," and "the church came out of the war with all the privileges it had won under Fascism intact." These were, it ought to be recognized, real accomplishments. But, to achieve that outcome, "Pius XII clung firmly to his determination to do nothing to antagonize." However, Kertzer considers the Pope's policy to be a failure of moral leadership. and judges him a failure "precisely as a moral leader."

Thanks to his massive research, Kertzer present a very detailed account which allows the reader to evaluate the accomplishment and failures of the Pope's policies and the Holy See's wartime behavior in the context in which it occurred and how it was judged by people at the time. For that alone, his account is well worth reading. The ultimate challenge, however, is Kertzer's moral critique, which takes the issue beyond the realm of diplomacy and international politics and the art of the possible and moves it to a different standard suggested by the very nature of the Pope's unique office, which makes him - and our expectations of him - altogether different from a Roosevelt or a Churchill.

That very different standard and the expectations that accompany it remain perennially relevant, as reflected in the widespread reactions to Pope Francis' supposed reticence recently regarding Vladimir Putin.

Intellectual and political honesty requires dispassionate analysis of Pope Pius XII's behavior as a political actor with very limited and constrained options in a time of total war, which for a while looked as if it would end with total Nazi domination of Europe and then later led to the real possibility of Soviet communist domination of Europe. At the same time the moral question Kertzer raises requires a very different kind of analysis rooted in a radically religious understanding of the Pope's purpose - and the Church's - a purpose which cannot be confined to institutional survival and the effective exercise of diplomatic influence or political power, however valid and legitimate such considerations may sometimes seem.