Saturday, December 31, 2022

Goodbye 2022!

To paraphrase one of Queen Elizabeth II's most famous speeches: 2022 "is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure." 

Covid continues to batter our world and even my local community, where several of my colleagues have been sick this Christmas week. Yet our country increasingly behaves as if the danger were over, thereby making things even worse. Personally spared the worst thus far, I have nonetheless this year increasingly experienced the fragility, frailty, and infirmities of old age - among them, a chronically bad back and knees, an episode of gout, a fall, and a quickly growing cataract that has definitely made an impact on my vision and needs to be attended to in the new year. Meanwhile, I still haven't been back in Starbuck's in almost three years now and have only been to the movies or out to dinner a handful of times, things I really used to enjoy very much and frankly miss. Looking beyond my narrow little world, Britain's Queen Elizabeth died, an expected but nonetheless significant loss for her country, for the Commonwealth, and for public Christianity. Her grandson Harry and his wife Meghan seem to be enacting an updated version of the sad saga of Edward and Wallis, which inevitably reminds one of Karl Marx's famous observation about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Here in the U.S., however modest their majority, the Republicans regained control of the House, with all the potentially problematic consequences that portends, and Donald Trump is still running for president. On top of all of that, back in February Russia launched a terrifying war of aggression against Ukraine, which continues 10 months later to create massive civilian suffering throughout that heroic country.

On the other hand, the Ukrainians, for all they have endured, have been holding their own and may yet succeed in repelling the Russian aggressor. Their President, Volodymyr Zelensky, famous for saying (when offered aid to escape) "I need ammunition, not a ride," has provided a much appreciated (and recently largely lacking) model of heroic political leadership, and has unexpectedly come to symbolize a reinvigorated Western Alliance. Meanwhile here at home, the Democratic Congress and President Biden managed to pass some significant legislation (including on infrastructure and climate change), the January 6 Committee did a better-than-expected job highlighting the full horror of what happened on (and in the run-up to) January 6, 2021, and the much feared "red wave" never materialized on Election Day. In my personal life, I got my fifth covid shot, my senior-strength flu shot, and new windows in my room. Happily, I also was able to visit my beloved former parish at Easter, something which I hope to get to do again in 2023.  I got to see some of my NY-area cousins back in March, and I visited my sister and her family in California at Thanksgiving. Finally, I reconnected with an old friend from Princeton days, whom I hadn't seen in over 25 years. So not such a bad year in at least some important ways, after all!

Good or bad (and what year isn't ultimately some mixture of both?), 2022 is quickly coming to an end. Honestly, I am really ready to say good-bye to it.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

"The house of God may not be defended like a fortress."


On this the Fifth Day of Christmas, the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr.  According to the famous account of Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury's cathedral, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door, Thomas opened it himself, saying, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God." Exactly 30 years ago today, I was at Canterbury for this feast, where, after Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury led us in procession to the site of Becket's death, where an original account of the saint's martyrdom was read. 

Of course, that Archbishop was Becket's successor but in a Church and state totally transformed less than four centuries after Becket's death by Henry VIII's Reformation. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket's feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine! Becket represented a pre-Reformation Catholic approach that envisaged a certain sort of partnership between Church and State. The Reformation successfully replaced that with the State in a clear position of dominance over the Church "by law established."

Nowadays, Becket is seen as a great defender of religious freedom. But 12th-century Europe and 21st-century America are very different in how they understand the relationships between religion and society and between Church and State. Our contemporary American context requires us to understand religious freedom as one constitutional guarantee among others and one occasionally in competition with other constitutional rights and social values.

For this reason, defenders of religious liberty need to sensitive their actual motives when making religious liberty claims, for example, when religious liberty is invoked opposition to the state's legitimate interest in protecting public health.

Becket's challenge to today's Church is not primarily to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, a strategy suitable for his era but obviously less so for ours. Today's challenge rather is to convince our culture of religious liberty's centrality for authentic human dignity and how it can be harmonized with strong and effective government and the recognized rights of others in our constitutional system.

And, whatever else we do, let Becket's own words never be forgotten, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress."


Homily for the Commemoration of Saint Thomas Becket, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 29, 2022.


(Photo: Freedom of Worshipone of the series of four 1943 oil paintings by Norman Rockwell, reproduced that year in The Saturday Evening Post, depicting "the Four Freedoms," identified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his January 1941 State of the Union Address.)

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Making of Ex-Christian America


Everybody has heard of the "nones," a word which likely gets a lot of its appeal and its staying power from being a homonym. An acquaintance of mine used to like to talk about the "dones," that is, those who were now "nones" but had once been something else. His "dones" would definitely count among Stephen Bullivant's "nonverts."

Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (Oxford University Press, 2022) is about those now "nones" who were once religious and who therefore view their non-affiliation differently from those who were raised without any religion or with at most nominal affiliation. "Nonvert" is obviously a play on the word "convert," a word with considerable resonance in American religious experience, in order to highlight what the author sees as particularly distinctive about the recent past in which suddenly so many adults seem to have been leaving religion behind.

The author builds his case around chapters based on interviews with formerly religious "nonverts," alternating with more theoretical chapters. His fundamental argument is that "nonverts are the key to understanding much of the so-called rise of the nones, how and why it happened, who they are exactly, and what it all means for the present and future of America." His aim is to show that "there are a whole lot of nones, and a whole lot of those nones were once religious. And they are in the process of fundamentally and decisively changing the face of American society." (In particular, he notes that there are "roughly 16 million nonverts who say they were brought up Catholic.")

In contrast with the demographic patters which have characterized religious growth over the course of American history, he argues that the rise of the "nones" is not due to immigration or non-religious parents producing a multitude of non-religiously raised children, "Instead, it’s primarily due to a vast, wholly unprecedented “mass nonversion” of millions upon millions of Americans who were raised religious." His "single, summarizable argument it is that the USA is in the midst of a social, cultural, and religious watershed—one that today’s Americans are not merely living through, but millions have actively lived out in their own stories. This shift, while in many (not all) cases a very gradual one from the perspective of an individual lifetime, has manifested itself at the national level very swiftly indeed."

This state of affairs is perhaps complicated by, but not contradicted by the fact that "a good chunk of people who say they were raised nonreligiously who might, on a different day, tick one of the religious options. Obviously, there are different degrees of being raised religiously: where a weak, nominal, or culturally Christian upbringing ends, and a nonreligious one begins, is not always clear-cut.)"

Bullivant's treatment is especially helpful in the way he looks at different groups of "nonverts" based on their previous affiliations. Thus, he has separate chapters on ex-Mormons, ex-Mainliners, and ex-Evangelicals. He fully recognizes as what he calls a "key Catholic distinctive" the "broad church" character of Catholicism,  "the sheer diversity it encompasses, not just ethnically and racially (though certainly that), but socially, culturally, and ideologically too." And, while, on the one hand, he recognizes "the ongoing salience of a Catholic upbringing, even long after one has fundamentally rejected it," he also notes how among "all US cradle Catholics born since 1970, a 'Catholic upbringing' has produced twice as many nones as it has weekly Mass-going Catholics."

The author acknowledges that the U.S. is "still a much more religious country than most of its Western, developed, democratic peers." That said, The Making of Ex-Christian America tells what are in effect two simultaneous but interrelated stories, the making of many Americans who were once Christians into ex-Christians and also the making of a once Christian nation into an ex-Christian one, which is what makes this such "a decisive moment in American religious and cultural history."

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas

I suppose practically everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Some have read it. Many more have seen one or more of the many movie versions. In Dickens’ story – as in the Gospel according to Saint Luke – while a lot happens during the night, it’s on Christmas morning when it all seems to come together.

Historically, this 2nd Mass of Christmas – the Missa in Aurora, “Mass at Dawn” – has sometimes been called the “Shepherds’ Mass,” because of the prominent part played by shepherds in the Gospel we just heard. Back in the 4th century, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) famously called their arrival at the manger “the beginning of the infant Church.”

That said, the shepherds do have a way of fading into the background, don’t they? In Christmas pageants, how many try out for the role of shepherd? (it’s no accident that, in that other great Christmas classic, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it was poor Linus who was assigned that role). And it surely doesn’t help that the shepherds sometimes seem as if they were mainly just filling in the time between the great Gloria in excelsis Deo of the angels and the star-lit arrival of the Magi. As for their day job, how many of us would choose to make our living as shepherds? How many people in any period would prefer being a shepherd to, let’s say, being a king?

Back in 1st-century Israel, shepherds didn’t merit much status either So, as often happens with low-status jobs that provide essential services (think of immigrant day-laborers today, essential workers during covid), the shepherds were under-appreciated and probably poor. The widespread tendency to admire the rich and despise the poor – what Adam Smith (1723-1790) called “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” – was likely as universal then as it is now.

Thus, it was probably a surprise to everyone (including the shepherds) when the angel announced the birth of a savior - to them. To thema multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed peace to those on whom God’s favor rests (implying that the shepherds themselves were numbered among those so favored by God). For perhaps the very first time, the shepherds experienced a free gift, rather than a commercial transaction. That gift was nothing less than what Saint Paul called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. The shepherds were being invited to experience God’s kindness and generous love themselves, and then to share it with others. And, just as surprisingly, that’s exactly what they did!

In standard Nativity scenes, the shepherds stick around for a while. They’re still kneeling there when the Magi arrive. In reality, however, they stayed just long enough to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus. And then the shepherds went back to work and to their ordinary lives. But nothing for them would ever be the same again. They returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. However socially insignificant they may have been, however ordinary the lives they returned to, the kingdom of God was being born among them. And, however insignificant and ordinary we and our daily concerns may seem today, the kingdom of God is also being born among us – if only, like the shepherds, we hasten to find it in Mary’s Son.

The same Son of God who revealed himself to the shepherds in the Son of Mary continues to reveal himself to us in his Church this Christmas morning. Like the shepherds, we too hasten with wonder to find him and to be found in turn. And, as his Church, we continue doing what the shepherds did, making known to one another and to the world the message about this child in whom the kindness and generous love, the mercy and forgiveness, of God our savior have appeared and forever more continue to appear.

Among us this Christmas morning, no less than among those shepherds so long ago, the kingdom of God is being born, breaking into our otherwise ordinary, self-enclosed world and offering it the precious possibility of hope. So, when the last carol has been sung and we disperse from here to our happy homes and holiday meals (or perhaps, as many must, to a somewhat sad or lonely home, or to a modest, maybe meager meal), may that same precious and powerful hope move us and fill us and change us, as surely as it did those long ago shepherds – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.

Merry Christmas!

Homily for Christmas morning, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 25, 2022. 

 To anyone anywhere, who reads this, 

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

"So hallowed and so gracious is the time"


Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.
[Marcellus to Horatio and Bernardo, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1].

In the dangerous dark of medieval Danish winter, one of the Elsinore castle guards, Marcellus, looks ahead to the coming of Christmas - that so hallowed and so gracious time - as a blessed alternative to the uncertainty and chaos that threatens the Kingdom of Denmark in the wake of its king's suspicious death, the king whose ghost's restlessness seems such a frightening omen to the castle watchmen. Indeed, the ghost will confirm that Something is rotten in the state of Denmark [Act 1, Scene 4]Not unlike Shakespeare's dramatized medieval Denmark, ours is also a polity in deep distress, and we need no benevolent or malevolent spirit to stir abroad to tell us so. Against all that awfulness and tragedy, the only blessing in that rotten state, whether Denmark's or ours, is one which we cannot bring about ourselves, that so hallowed and so gracious season wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated.

Hamlet is spread out over several months of the liturgical calendar. Another, more modern Christmastime ghost story, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, occurs all in one night, the holy night itself, the holy night of Christmas. Hamlet's ghost is a harbinger of evil, the increasing, self-multiplying evils that are the consequences of the original evil which ended his earthly reign and reduced him to a wandering spirit of warning and woe. In A Christmas Carol, however, occurring as it does on Christmas night itself (when ordinarily no spirit dare stir abroad), Jacob Marley's wandering spirit of warning and woe becomes the entryway for Ebenezer Scrooge's ultimate redemption. A different ghost, a different result, so hallowed, and so gracious, is this Christmas time.

 To anyone anywhere, who reads this, 

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2022

O Emmanuel!

I read somewhere that, on this date in 1869, there was anxiety in the Roman Basilicas that the singing of today's Magnificat antiphon at Vespers - O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster ("O Emmanuel, our King and lawgiver, desire of the nations and their Savior, come to save us, O Lord, our God") - might trigger popular demonstrations in support of the Piedmontese King Victor Emmanuel II, the poster-boy for the unification of Italy and the modern secular state. Well, whatever did or didn't  happen in the Roman Basilicas on that December 23, 1869, nine months later on September 20, 1870, Victor Emmanuel's army did indeed at last enter Rome - conquering or liberating it, according to one's perspective, and providing a united Kingdom of Italy with its desired capital. 

The desired Emmanuel of today's antiphon, whose advent we celebrate at Christmas, reigns over a greater and more permanent kingdom. His coming constitutes the greatest possible joy for the world. But, as the anxiety that gripped Rome that Christmas reminds us, as Ukrainian President Zelensky's inspiring address to Congress the night before last also reminds us, our joyous celebration of the coming of Christ cannot completely escape the concerns and anxieties that afflict our political world and our personal lives.

In the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to her sad little sister. The girl's sadness was personal. But the date - 1944 - recalls another, greater sadness, the separation and dislocation caused by World War II. It is said that Judy Garland's performance of the song at the Hollywood Canteen brought soldiers to tears. That's easy enough to believe, since the song still has that effect on me whenever I hear it now.

Christmas is a transcendently happy occasion, but we celebrate it in a world of woe. While we all want our Christmases to be perfect, reality regularly intrudes. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really just fine, just as it should be, just as we would want it to be. In fact, however, and not just in movies, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by migrants, like Mary and Joseph, and others who are homeless and have only strangers for company, 
by immigrants far from home, by refugees in temporary camps that have a way of becoming permanent, by the lonely in their own homes, by those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by soldiers at war (like my own father fighting in 1944 with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).

Christmas does not deny those realities. Rather, it heralds the hope that gets us through those realities and takes us beyond them. That hope keeps Christmas coming year after year, in good times and in bad.


Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yule tide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more.
Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington


On the day after Christmas in 1941, less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor and the belated American entry into the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the United States Congress. Churchill had arrived in Washington on December 22. Famously, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt recalled being told by the President “that we would be having some guests visit us.” As she later wrote in The Atlantic: “He told me that I could not know who was coming, nor how many, but I must be prepared to have them stay over Christmas.” (He also told her to "see to it that we had good champagne and brandy in the house and plenty of whiskey.”) On December 23, Roosevelt and Churchill held their first joint press conference of the war. On Christmas Eve, they participated in the traditional lighting of the National Christmas tree, and on Christmas Day, they attended church together. 

Not for as many days, but of similar symbolism and significance, was yesterday's inspirational Christmas-time visit to Washington by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed Congress in "prime time" last night, dressed in the khaki fatigues that have become his trademark uniform throughout the war. Even more than what he said, it was his presence in person, that spoke volumes, highlighting both his heroic stature on the world scene and America's continued commitment to Ukraine's cause.  

The trip was Zelensky's first outside his country since the Russian invasion almost a year ago. From Poland, Zelensky flew in an American military aircraft to Washington, where he spent much of the afternoon at the White House talking with President Biden, followed by a press conference, at which Biden praised Zelensky and the people of Ukraine and denounced Putin's "imperial appetites." He recalled the extent of U.S. and allied assistance to Ukraine so far, and heralded the $45 billion in aid in the Omnibus Bill, which Congress will hopefully pass this week, and he spoke in particular about the Patriot Defense Missile System at last being made available to Ukraine for its defense. Zelensky, for his part, effusively thanked President Biden and the U.S., especially for holding the alliance together against Russia, and also for the Patriots.

All that was prelude, of course, to the address to Congress, which Zelensky delivered in English, speaking for some 25 minutes. It was a powerful evocation of shared values, punctuated by references to Americans fighting the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas 1944 and to the turning point of the American Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (One wonders how many contemporary Americans are as well schooled in our history as Zelensky seems to be.) Obviously well aware of divisions among Americans and within Congress itself, Zelensky appealed directly tot he American people. "Your money is not charity," he reminded his audience. "It is an investment in the global security and democracy."

“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed, it cannot be ignored hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection. The world is too interconnected and interdependent,” Zelensky said, seemingly taking direct aim at historical American isolationism and its recent resurgence in the Republican party.

Although he did reference his 10-point peace plan, the overall sense of the speech was a rousing call to arms, an appeal for the necessary aid (which is in Congress's power to provide) to push on to the ultimate victory. Zelensky even channelled FDR's famous Pearl Harbor speech: "The American people will win through to absolute victory." Like FDR and Churchill in that long ago but not forgotten conflict, Zelensky was calling for victory, and his call resonated.

Symbolically, the highpoint of the speech was when he presented Speaker Pelosi and Vice president Harris with a signed Ukrainian battle flag (photo). In return, the Speaker presented him with an American flag flown yesterday over the Capitol in his honor.

Obviously, there remain many obstacles and difficulties between now and the final victory. But, last night at least, the signal was being clearly sent to Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin that the U.S. and its NATO allies remain united behind Ukraine.

Photo: Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Winter Solstice


At 4:47 p.m EST today, what we call the winter solstice, the official beginning of winter as an astronomical season will occur. Astronomically speaking, the North Pole will reach its maximum tilt of 23+ degrees away from the sun. Experientially, the sun today will travel its shortest path through the northern hemisphere's sky. Hence today (in the northern hemisphere) will experience its shortest day and longest night.

Since prehistory, the winter solstice (experientially sometimes seen as "Midwinter") has been a major marker of the year in many cultures, characterized by winter light festivals - most famously by Christmas, which is symbolically connected with the dynamic of the decline of the light and its annual increase (as in, for example, the ancient Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, celebrated on December 25). At a time when people were economically dependent on the natural cycle of seasons, this was also when animals would be slaughtered, since there would not be sufficient food to feed them during the forthcoming worst of winter. Hence, the availability of meat for feasting at this time of year, which gave this supposedly bleak season its especially festive character.

Whatever bleakness this season still has in contemporary society is largely psychological. Ever since the invention of electric lighting, the symbolic struggle between light and darkness has given way to massive humanly induced light pollution, such that in our increasingly urbanized world fewer people can actually see stars in the night sky anymore. An urbanized culture, increasingly cut off from nature (and increasingly acting against nature through the crime of humanly created climate change), has little or no appreciation of winter's importance in the annual cycle of human experience and so suffers from this special season instead of appreciating it. Modern society, centered on power, domination, and control, cannot appreciate winter's contemplative silence and so recoils from the beauty of this season and in the process diminishes its ability to appreciate the spiritual story the winter holiday highlights. For what is the Incarnation of the Divine Word but a silent alternative to our cult of power, domination, and control?


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The January 6 Committee Concludes Its Work


The 117th Congress convened in the waning weeks of Donald Trump's presidency and experienced directly his allegedly criminal acts three days later on January 6, 2021. The 117th Congress is about to go out of business - still in the shadow of Donald Trump.

So, yesterday, with just two weeks left in its mandate, the January 6 Committee held its last public session. And what a session it was! The committee unanimously voted to refer the former President to the Department of Justice on four charges: obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement (conspiring "with others to submit fake electors to Congress and the National Archives”), and acting to "incite," "assist," or "aid or comfort" an insurrection. 

In a sense, such action on the Committee's part is largely symbolic, since Congress can't compel DOJ to prosecute, and the DOJ doesn't need a congressional referral in order to do so on its own. However, as one friend of mine, who is much more of an expert in such matters than I, observed: "one important virtue of the referrals and the committee report will be to make everything public whereas a lot of what the DOJ has will stay secret (grand jury testimony), even if Trump is indicted.  The committee report will be incredibly informative; it looks like the committee has been very serious and very thorough."

I still have reservations about whether it would be prudent for the DOJ to indict Trump. Those reservations are exacerbated by my worry whether a conviction could actually be secured. Those are concerns for the Justice Department and the Special Prosecutor, however. As for the House committee, it has done a superb job making its case and highlighting for all to see the central part played by the president and his enablers in the effort to undermine the electoral process and the peaceful transfer of political power. DOJ and the Special prosecutor will do whatever they decide to do. Meanwhile, the broader political case has been made before the tribunal of the American people. And it has consistently been my view that it is the American electorate that must make the ultimate decision about both Trump himself and his political party.

The assault on the American constitution and the accompanying erosion of American political culture was not confined to January 6, 2021. It had been years in the making, and it will takes year more to undo.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Church on Christmas?

Like most children of my generation, growing up in the 1950s, I eagerly looked froward to Christmas - everything about Christmas, but especially Christmas morning. That was when ("Santa Claus" having come during the night) we all got up early to run into the living room to see what Santa (and others) had left us under the Tree. It was a wonderful, once-a-year experience, which we looked forward to with anticipation and savored while it lasted. In fact, however, it only lasted an hour or so, because then we kids had to put our gifts down and get dressed and ready for church. In those days, of course, "getting dressed" actually meant something. We boys wore jackets and ties and dress shoes, while the girls wore dresses, and hats, and gloves. All this for the 9:00 a.m. "Children's Mass," that is, the Mass which all 1000+ kinds in the parish school were required to attend on all Sundays and holy days. (Our parents went later, to one of the dozen other Masses celebrated on Christmas Day between 6:00 a.m. and 12:55 p.m.)

Christmas was, of course, as it still is, a "holy day of obligation," when attendance at Mass was mandatory for all active Catholics. And, of course, in those days it would never have occurred to any of us not to go to church on Christmas. If we thought about Protestants at all in those days (which wasn't often), we were probably aware that Episcopalians celebrated Christmas somewhat similarly to the way Catholics did, but that for many Protestants, lacking a liturgical tradition, it was another story.

All of which brings us to Religious Studies Professor Timothy Beal, quoted in yesterday's New York Times as saying that many "think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later." That Times article, "O Come All Ye Faithful, Except When Christmas Falls on a Sunday," which everyone should read, dealt with the difficulty which Protestant churches without a tradition of Christmas Day worship find themselves in when Christmas conflicts with Sunday, as it does this year. According to the article, only some 84% of Protestant pastors plan to hold services this Sunday, a drop from the 89% who did so in 2016, the last time Christmas came on a Sunday.

For some, this represents a "flexible sprit." Others, however, are more critical. When churches cancel their Sunday services for Christmas, suggests Mathews, NC, Pastor Kevin DeYoung, the message may be, "Hey, it's Christmas, and Jesus may not be the reason for the season."

As a parish priest, I encountered the contemporary Catholic equivalent of this problem in the increasing tendency of some churchgoers to get the religious part of Christmas over with by attending Mass on Christmas Eve  - by which I don't mean "Midnight Mass," which is a whole other tradition with its own value and significance, but in the early evening or even afternoon. Seemingly inadvertently, American Catholics appear in recent decades to have been moving increasingly in the direction pioneered by non-liturgical American Protestants and reinforced by the progressive secularization of our culture, in the process turning Christmas Day into a religion-free family festival for "stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later."

If there really is a "war on Christmas," as some (perhaps politically motivated) Christians claim, then this is it, and American Christians themselves are giving aid and comfort to it by turning Christmas into a religion-free family festival with less and less room on Christmas morning for the supposed "reason for the season."

Photo: Family Christmas, late 1950s.

Sunday, December 18, 2022


There are no literal "banshees" in Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin, starring the duo (familiar from In Bruges), Brendan Gleeson (Colm) and Colin Farrell (Pádraic) - although there is a somewhat witch-like old woman who hovers around as a suitably scary prophet of doom, presumably fulfilling the purported traditional role of ancient banshees, a warning that this isn't going to end well.

The Banshees of Inisherin is hardly holiday fare. Yet, despite the barely pronounceable names and its stark physical setting, this is a strangely universal film about the perils of friendship gone wrong, about mediocrity and despair, and about how quickly and dangerously conflict can escalate. 

The film is set in 1923 against the background of the Irish Civil War, although, if we were not told that explicitly, we would hardly have any idea, so seemingly isolated and turned in on itself is life on Inisherin island. Some have seen the absurd and pointless conflict between the two former friends as a metaphor of sorts for the absurd and pointless conflict that was the Irish Civil War, but one would have to bring that sensibility with one to the movie, since nowhere does the film explicitly explain the Civil War. It is just there in the background as a larger-stage example of neighbors turning each other into enemies, with little or no obvious benefit to either.

The film is beautifully executed, the scenery is stark but beautiful in an exotic sort of way, and the acting is superb, all of which more than compensates for the unattractive personalities being portrayed. It is hard to think of anyone on the entire island who is particularly likable - apart from Pádraic's clearly much smarter sister, Siobhán, who finally has the good sense to escape the claustrophobic limits of life on the island to move to the mainland, where (war or no war) life seems somewhat more promising.

The story revolves around two long-time friends who customarily went together each afternoon to the local pub, but whose friendship comes to a sudden and somewhat catastrophic end. Of the two, Pádraic is a plain, good-hearted, "nice" fellow, while his friend Colm considers himself a somewhat more serious sort of person, apparently because he is a musician. Colm cruelly - and, at least at first, inexplicably - cuts off the friendship, which leads seemingly inexorably to an escalating series of mutually destructive responses on the part of each of them. All this strange behavior is set against the background of gossipy village life in which everyone knows everyone else's business. In the end, the conflict transforms the "nice" Pádraic into something quite sinister, having already revealed Colm himself as strangely sinister in his own bizarre way.  Siobhán finds liberation, but one suspects that almost everyone else (apart from one other character who dies) remains more or less the same. 

Curiously, Colm is occasionally categorized as "depressed," which sounds to my much later, 21st-century ear as somewhat anachronistic for an early 20th-century rural sensibility. (In confession, the priest refers to Colm's "despair," which sounds more likely.) In any case, it is 1923 Ireland. So crosses and a large stone statue of Our Lady mark major spots on the island. While religion doesn't seem to matter much the rest of the week, everyone makes it to Mass on Sunday - at the local church served by a priest who ferries over from the mainland. The priest is probably intended to be seen as typical of his type. In any case, he seems unable to help any of his suffering flock transcend the banality of their lives and the bad behavior that life in such a community appears to inspire.

The one thing that is supposedly attractive about such small gemeinshaft communities is that they are actual, face-to-face communities. People are directly connected to one another and ought, therefore, to be more deeply engaged with one another and care about one another. Yet, for the most part, such fellow-feeling seems more absent than present. Even so, Colm's offense against Pádraic has to seem like a catastrophic offense against whatever community there is on that stark island. Telling Colm his behavior, while not sinful, is not "nice" (as the priest does) fits in with the flow of the film, but ultimately minimizes the moral failure seemingly endemic to life in such a community.

The film is a beautifully made, skillful portrayal of mostly unsympathetic characters in an even less likable setting, acting out universal human failings.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Should We Want Twitter?


Should we want Twitter?

The short answer is obviously NO.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never tweeted. In part, I suppose, that is because tweeting would have required me to become skilled at yet another new technology. If necessary, of course, I am certain I could have done so, but there never seemed sufficient reason to do so. 

There is no need to repeat all that one can say against social media and the damage it has done to our society and indeed to our humanity. Obviously, what can be legitimately lamented about social media in general may largely apply to Twitter in particular. Perhaps positive arguments might also be advanced on Twitter's behalf. Perhaps. But I have not had occasion to be interested in them.

There are alleged to be more than three billion active social media users around the world, of whom some 500 million may use Twitter, compared to Facebook's audience of over one billion. Facebook users over 75 years old keep (people like me) increasing, while 81% of Millennials reportedly check Twitter daily.

There is, however, a particular problem about Twitter, and that is its uniquely ubiquitous use among journalists. (Is it any accident that the suspension of some journalists from the platform in recent days has stirred such angst - even on the part of the EU?) Obviously, most people in the world are not on Twitter, but the journalistic elite through whom we learn about our world (in particular about our dysfunctional politics) are very engaged on Twitter. Would Donald Trump's infamous tweeting have mattered so much, been covered so incessantly, if journalists themselves had not been among Twitter's primary users? 

The result - or, at least, a result - has been the magnification of what is so negative about that particular platform's culture in so much of our political discourse. For that reason alone, Twitter's self-induced diminishment may be one possible outcome of the present chaos that some may much desire.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

Today's feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patronal feast of our American continent, recalls the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Juan Diego, an Aztec Catholic convert that occurred in Mexico on December 9, 10, and 12, 1531. To the amazed Juan Diego, Mary declared: "Know, my son, that I am the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God who is the Author of life, the Creator of all things, the Lord of heaven and earth, present everywhere. And it is my wish that here, there be raised to me a temple in which, as a loving mother I shall show my tender clemency and the compassion I feel for the natives and for those who love and seek me, for all who implore my protection, who call on me in their labors and afflictions: and in which I shall hear their weeping and their supplications that I may give them consolation and relief.”


The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe also celebrates the famous image, which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (tilma) and has been venerated ever since in the magnificent shrine in Mexico City near the site of the event. In 1988, in the course of a summer spent studying Spanish in Guadalajara, I had the privilege of venerating in person the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica in Mexico City.  Fifteen years later, in 2003, I was present in New York's Cathedral of Saint Patrick as a small, half-inch square relic of St. Juan Diego’s tilma was exposed for veneration.  (The only known such relic in the United States, it was originally a gift from the Archbishop of Mexico to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1941, and in recent years has been displayed in various U.S. cities in commemoration of Juan Diego’s recent canonization.)

At Morning Prayer, the Church's Office of Lauds, on this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the reading from Zechariah 2:14-17 contains this verse: Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they shall be his people, and he shall dwell among you, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For Zechariah, one sign that the Lord is with us and that the Lord has sent his messenger to us  is the providential union of many nations into the People of God.


In 1531, Mary asked for a church to be built on a hill. 

That year was, of course, a mere 12 years after the conquista of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortes - the destruction of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), then perhaps the largest city in the entire world and with it the destruction of the pagan religion that had animated Aztec culture. It was a depressed and depressing time - not just for the conquered and oppressed indigenous population but also for their Spanish conquerors who now ruled over a much larger and potentially rebellious population. It was also a discouraging time for the Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquistadores and whose efforts to evangelize the indigenous population had met with only modest success. 

Into this appalling mess, God sent Mary as his messenger of compassion and hope, appearing to the socially insignificant Juan Diego and speaking his native language. In the image which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego's tilma, the Mother of God appeared as a pregnant indigenous woman, whose image spoke in the symbolic language of native culture, but in which the Spaniards could likewise recognize the Christian symbolic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Likewise, the title by which she identified herself in the native language (Who crushes the serpent) resembled the Spanish word Guadalupe, in which the Spaniards recognized a familiar Marian title of Spanish devotion. 

And so began the great union of the two nations and cultures into a new nation and a new culture. At a time when the Native American population in Mexico was defeated and dispirited, having lost their gods and temples and compelled to build churches for an apparently alien European God, when the good news of Christ came apparently camouflaged by the bad news of conquest and cultural destruction, Saint Juan Diego received the heavenly command to build a church, and in the process Christ's Church began to be built up on this continent, through the encounter of European and Native cultures so dramatically symbolized and symbolically united in the iconography of the image Our Lady imprinted on Juan Diego's tilma.

This 16th-century building up of the Church in America echoed the earlier experience of Saint Francis of Assisi, commanded to rebuild a ruined local church as the symbolic starter for reinforcing the tottering structure of late medieval Christendom. These stories celebrate the perennial power of the Gospel to be planted and built and rebuilt - evangelization and re-evangelization, rooted not in the tearing down but in the building up of institutions in which and through which God's great love, compassion, help, and protection may be continually revealed and experienced, as Our Lady promised to Saint Juan Diego.

Mary had asked that a church be built where she had appeared. As a consequence, a new Church uniting European and American peoples was built on this continent. Under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic Church continues to be built on this continent - inspired by the example of Saint Juan Diego, whose life of faith-filled integrity in the specific circumstances of his society especially exemplifies the distinctive character of the lay vocation, which, as the Second Vatican Council has reminded us, is “to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.”

In his homily on the occasion of Juan Diego’s canonization in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II said “Guadalupe and Juan Diego have a deep ecclesial and missionary meaning and are a model of perfectly inculturated evangelization. … In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God.”

Today's feast is an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the providential union of many nations and cultures which has been our American history and heritage. This  country continues today to be a nation of immigrants, on whom it depends for its future - including especially its spiritual and ecclesial future. Our dysfunctional political system's failure thus far to achieve a just and comprehensive restructuring of our immigration system remains an ongoing moral and social disgrace that cries out to be addressed responsibly and rapidly. Thus, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and its particular prominence in the liturgical calendar in the United States speaks directly to the demographic destiny of the Church in the United States and to the multiple pastoral challenges facing the future for the Church in this country. For these and for reasons even more fundamental, this patronal feast of the Church on this American continent is an occasion which must not pass unnoticed. Today, as Saint Juan Diego's spiritual heirs face frightening new threats and challenges, the Church in America continues to struggle to achieve that fullness of encounter that may bring the Church's building and rebuilding on this continent to its fulfillment.

Sunday, December 11, 2022



The traditional title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin command to rejoice – from the opening words of the Mass: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone. Today’s first reading - from the Prophet Isaiah – foretells returning singing to Zion, crowned with everlasting joy.

Meanwhile, however, we are also being told to wait. Be patient, says the letter of James, until the coming of the Lord. For many of us, of course, patience can be a challenge - at any time. For most of us, I suspect, it is especially so during this holiday season. It is one of the many paradoxes of our peculiar modern way of life that we manage to be busiest precisely at the very time of year when everything in nature is telling us it is time to slow down. Winter is nature’s way of slowing us down.  Note, for example, James’s reference to the farmer, who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it, until it receives the early and the late rains. Back before modern technology made us think of ourselves as so superior to and separate from the natural order of things, everything naturally slowed down in winter. All sorts of activities came to a halt. Outdoor work - and even wars - stopped for the season. Of course, modern technology has made all these activities possible to do even in winter and, in dangerously changing our climate, may actually be in the process of largely eliminating winter - and lots more as well.

Popular folkloric customs like our Advent Wreath remind us that when winter was really winter, people paused. The Advent Wreath is thought to have originated in the practice of removing wheels from carts at the beginning of winter and then decorating a wheel with branches and candles. If the candles came to signify the bright light of Christ, coming to penetrate the dark night of our present world, the wheel itself signifies our readiness to slow down enough to be able to see the light despite the winter dark.

It may or may not have been winter, but John the Baptist was certainly in the dark. Confined in Herod’s prison, he too was looking for light and so sent his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"

John’s problem (besides being in prison) was whether or not his life’s mission had really made sense (a natural enough end-of-life question). John had confidently proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and had forcefully challenged people to repentance. Just how successful he was is hard to gauge, but he obviously had made an impression.

He had also acquired enemies – enemies powerful enough to put an end to his preaching and put him in prison. He had, however, also made disciples, whom he now sent to evaluate Jesus.

Jesus’ (somewhat indirect) answer was meant to reassure John, by recalling the biblical prophecies in which they both believed. Look, Jesus seemed to be saying, the things that are supposed to happen when the Messiah comes really are happening. What more evidence do you need? “Go, and tell John what you hear and see.” In other words, the reality of the kingdom is happening – happening here, happening now!

The Gospel gives us no record of John’s reaction to Jesus’ response. He leaves the scene with his question. But it’s a question that the world keeps asking: Are you, Jesus, the one who is to come, or should we be looking elsewhere? There are, after all, a lot of other places one could look, a lot of other places where people do in fact look. We may rush through the world at an increasingly faster pace than John's generation. But ours is a world similarly full of confusion and chaos, of broken hearts and broken lives, haunted, as yet another year comes to an end, by so many painful memories, lost opportunities, unfulfilled longings, and ruptured relationships. On top of that, we now live in a deeply divided country of bitterly angry people, polarized almost evenly along educational, generational, and geographical lines, while anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of the contemporary world.

So, John’s question cannot just go away – unless, of course, one is prepared to give up and abandon hope entirely.

And that John was not willing to do, and people generally have not been willing to do. That is why Christmas is so important, now maybe more than ever. In the dark winter night, full of fear, worry, and anxiety, in this long night of the present, Christmas comes in answer to John’s question – and our question.

Today’s rose vestments tell us to be joyful. Rejoice, Saint Paul tells us, the Lord is near. In the words of the familiar Sussex Carol, Then why should men on earth be so sad, Since our Redeemer made us glad? But it seems that joy can be just as challenging as patience!

That is why we celebrate Christmas when the nights are long and the sky is dark, when it is a real challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to lighten the darkness. It takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas, however. Rather it requires each and all of us to become, as it were, Christmas Trees ourselves, to enlighten the world with rejoicing and thanksgiving – so that the whole world will recognize the light of Christ present and active in his Church, and so see his face, and hear his word, and be embraced by his love.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 11, 2022.