Sunday, December 31, 2023

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Whenever I preach on New Year’s Eve, I often like to quote the late comedian George Burns, who once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new.” Burns was a lifelong, professional comedian; so that was his laugh line. But, then, he added: “And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.” 


The Roman god Janus, for whom the first month of the year is named, was the god of beginnings and endings, of doors and passageways, of past and future. Hence, he was typically portrayed with two faces – one looking back at the past, the other ahead to the future. In a sense, that is what we all do every year at this time. We look back at the past year, with some mixture of gratitude and regret about where we have been so far, while we likewise look ahead at where we may be going in whatever time may yet be left, sometimes with increasing worry but with worry mixed with hope.  A new year, as Burns’ comical comment reminds us, is, by definition, something new, a gift that offers an opportunity for hope.  


Historically, different peoples and cultures have marked the passing of the year on many different dates and with many different customs. Our preoccupation with the computing of time, the movements of sun and moon, the changing of seasons, and the repetitive cycle of years, however, has been universal. Whether celebrated in spring, summer, autumn, or (as we do) in the dead of winter, the end of an old year and the start of a new one has universally been seen as a special moment in time, when past and future meet.  Before anyone ever exchanged Christmas presents, people were giving each other New Year’s gifts.  The Chinese even had New Year’s greeting cards – over a thousand years ago.


Our apparently timeless preoccupation with time may be one of our most distinctly human traits, since one of the earliest things that human beings became aware was probably our own mortality – the fact that we live and die in a set period of time. Time is precious - precisely perhaps because we have just a limited amount of it.


Of course, most of our time is what we might call “Ordinary time” – the day-to-day routine of personal life – of home, family, work - punctuated by those special high or low moments, most of which happen when they happen, not particularly according to any calendar. Yet the calendar is always there, and never more obviously than today, when the simple act of changing the date makes us stop and wonder what it all means.


If history has taught us anything, of course, it has taught us the fragility of so many of the things we are tempted to pin our hopes on. For all our holiday cheer, many of us may be marking the end of a very difficult and challenging 2023 by looking ahead to Election Year 2024 with more than a little anxiety. Everywhere, people are beginning the new year with worries and anxieties amid far-away wars and close-to-home violence and all the perennial problems of home, family, and work. There’s a reason, after all, why we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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

Our hope is founded and focused on Jesus Christ, whose birth 2000+ years ago is the very basis for our calendar. God’s showing up in the world in Jesus – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history as a light of revelation to the Gentiles, has realigned all of time and given all of history a new and more hope-filled meaning, giving us a hope for the future we would never otherwise have had. 

Like Simeon and Anna in today’s gospel [Luke 2:22-240], the world is old and has seen its share of woe. But they were awaiting the consolation of Israel, and they recognized that consolation when he came to them, as we must recognize him when he comes to us, revealing the thoughts of our hearts, and even more importantly God’s heart.


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


Happy New Year!


Homily for New Year’s Eve (Feast of the Holy Family), Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 31, 2023.

Photo: The Times Square Ball's 2024 Sign Arrives in Times Square. Courtesy of the Times Square Alliance.



Friday, December 29, 2023



On this, the Fifth Day of Christmas, the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr, murdered by royal knights in service of King Henry II's expansive power over the English State. According to the famous account of Becket's martyrdom in the Canterbury cathedral, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door against the King's knights, 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 31 years ago today, I was at Canterbury Cathedral 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. 

That Archbishop was Becket's successor, of course, 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 approach that envisaged a particular 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." 

In a modern world, in which relations between Church and State and between religion and society are increasingly fraught, Becket's challenge to today's Church is not to try to re-establish the Church-state order that Becket died to uphold, or to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, strategies suitable for Becket's era but obviously less so for ours. Today's challenge rather is to witness to Christian faith in a world without the the kind of cultural supports the Church and religion once enjoyed and in which there are many other attractive alternatives to religion, which challenge 
religion's role in our increasingly secularized culture. 

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

Image: One of the earliest known depictions of Saint Thomas Becket's assassination (c. 1175–1225).

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Holy Innocents


Today's feast of the martyred infants of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents, injects a strikingly somber note into the Church's Christmas festivities. (I am old enough to remember when this feast was even more somber, celebrated in penitential purple vestments and omitting the Gloria in excelsis.) Understandably, the slaughter of the Innocents gets relatively little attention in our modern appropriation of the Christmas story. The famous Coventry Carol, however, harking back to an earlier era, speaks specifically of this terrible tragedy. Originally, the sad lament was sung during the pre-Reformation Coventry Mystery Play by three women of Bethlehem, who enter on stage with their children immediately after Joseph is warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.

The Gospel account of the mass murder of Bethlehem's babies is sparse in details, with just a touch of sentimentality, a reference to Rachel, the patriarch Jacob's second wife, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, whose tomb still stands on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Historically, we know that Herod was, as the Gospel portrays him, a tyrant terrified of any potential threats to his power. Famously he had two of his sons executed for fear they might become threats to his throne. 

But, in the midst of so much suffering and tragedy, the Gospel is also effectively reminding us of an earlier mass murder in Egypt from which Moses had been saved, thus making possible the liberation of the entire people of Israel. Just as the story of salvation had been given a new start by the exodus of the Chosen people from Egypt, Jesus' story symbolically repeats that exile and exodus, and the story of salvation is given a new start for the entire world with Jesus' escape.

In the Gospel, Matthew quotes only Jeremiah's lament of Rachel weeping for her children - a reference to the defeated and dispersed tribes of Joseph and Benjamin. But in Jeremiah's text, the prophecy continues: Thus says the Lord“Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lordand they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

The story of Jesus was not ended by Herod. The story of Christmas does not end in the massacre of the Innocents. It will end only with all of us finally coming back out of Egypt into the future of which Christmas is but the beginning and promise.

Homily for the feast of the Holy Innocents, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 28, 2023.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Christmas in a World of War


According to the traditional announcement of the feast of the Nativity in the Roman Martyrology (originally proclaimed on the morning of Christmas Eve but which nowadays frequently precedes the celebration of the Midnight Mass) Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace.                                                                              

One of the great monuments of Ancient Rome is the the Ara Pacis Augustae ("Altar of Augustan Peace"), consecrated just a few years before the birth of Jesus.  The altar celebrated the Pax Romana, which was the product of Caesar Augustus' successful establishment of his empire-wide imperial rule. This was the world-wide peace, to which the Martyrology refers, a world-wide peace which brought hope to an empire tired of endless wars and civil wars, a world-wide peace which enabled Caesar to present himself as the world's savior, and which eventually enabled the good news of the world's true savior to be proclaimed from Jerusalem to Rome.

Caesar's peace was a real peace, in so far as it marked the end of a long period of wars and civil wars, and it brought many benefits which would be remembered fondly for centuries. But, like all human political peace, it was an ambiguous peace, based on conquest, control, and domination. The true peace of the Prince of Peace born at Christmas can also appear ambiguous, because it proclaims a hope which is often belied by the continued actual human experience of power, control, and domination, both within societies and in the conflicts that characterize the relationships among them. Thus, it was that first Christmas, and thus it is still now in a world of war.

Of course, we all want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is one way we use to say to the world (and so maybe reassure ourselves) that everything is really OK. In fact, however, as is obvious from the original Christmas story, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those, like Mary and Joseph, who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by immigrants far from home, by political refugees seeking asylum, as Mary and Joseph and Jesus would soon be forced to seek in Egypt, and by soldiers at war (like my own father, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).

On Christmas Eve 1942, midway through that terrible Second World War, Pope Pius XII addressed that war-weary world with the perennial promise of "mercy, love, peace to the countless hosts of those in suffering and tribulation who see their happiness shattered and their efforts broken in the tempestuous strife and hate of our stormy days.”

Such "stormy days" and "the tempestuous strife and hate" which characterize them are very much the world's present reality - whether we consider Hamas' war of aggression against Israel, Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, or any of the many (if less publicized) conflicts in Congo, Sudan, Syria, etc., and the September 2023 ethnic cleansing of over 100,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Such was the world into which the Word became flesh. Such is the world in which Christ comes to us and stays with us today.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Second Day of Christmas


Back when the Christmas season still really began on December 25, the 12 days from Christmas until January 5 really were widely observed as "the 12 Days of Christmas." Today is, of course, the 2nd Day of Christmas. In the classic carol, one's "true love" (God) is supposed to give one "two turtledoves" (representing the Old and the New Testaments) today.

In Canada, where I served for six happy years, the day after Christmas is called "Boxing Day," after the British fashion. In those Catholic countries where December 26 is still a holiday, it is known “Saint Stephen's Day," after the first martyr, whose feast day today is. 

The juxtaposition of St. Stephen, the first Martyr, with the Nativity seems uniquely  compelling. (If we also add in the Holy Innocents on December 28 and St. Thomas Becket on December 29, martyrs seem to figure quite prominently indeed in this Christmas Octave. Such "coincidences" are hardly insignificant).

Here in the U.S., of course, today is just an ordinary workday - a big day for shoppers to return or exchange unwanted Christmas presents and get started on the post-Christmas sales. Observing the ubiquity of Christmas shopping on a day trip to Louisville in 1958, Thomas Merton described it as “people running around buying things for no reason except that now is the time which everybody buys things.” 

The dynamic of our modern American Christmas calls for an ever longer, frenzied "holiday season," building up to the big day, then a sudden let-down on or immediately after December 25. One sees discarded Christmas Trees by the curb as early as today. As a culture, we find it a challenge to keep things going. That seems to be true about a lot of things. The news tends

 to fixate on one issue or event for a while, as if nothing else were going on in the world, but then at some point it becomes old news and might as well be ancient history. The pre-Christmas frenzy and the immediately post-Christ let-down seem to fit that pattern.

There is not much to be done about that, of course, but those of us whose responsibility it is to keep celebrating Christmas until after Epiphany just have to keep doing what we're supposed to do. The Word became flesh and has made his home among us – for the long-term, and that is what we are here to celebrate.

Homily for St. Stephen’s Day, St. Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 26, 2023.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas!

A child is born for us, and a son is given to us.

To anyone anywhere, who may read this, 

Merry Christmas!

"Awake mankind! God became a human being to save you from death. If he had not been born in time, a happy eternal life would have been impossible for you. You never would have escaped your sins if he had not taken on your humanity.

It was only through his mercy that you escaped eternal unhappiness. You would have perished, had he not come. And so, let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption.

Let us celebrate the festive day on which Jesus-God, he who is the great and Eternal Day, came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time."

Saint Augustine, Sermon 185, 1-2.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas Eve

Today you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, 

and in the morning you will see his glory.

The manger is still empty, but will not be for much longer! 

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 Shakespearean 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.

To anyone anywhere, who may read this, 

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Retrieving the “Four Times” for the Sake of “Our Common Home”


“Four Times” is the literal translation of quattuor tempora, the official Latin name for what in English were traditionally termed Ember Days, the four Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays specifically set aside as days of fasting at the beginning of each of the four seasons and so observed since ancient times until their unexpected abolition by Pope Paul VI. Thus, until within living memory, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this third Week of Advent were universally observed in the Latin Church as the Winter Ember Days - until they weren’t anymore. (Indeed, at a meeting of the Pian Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy on February 5, 1952, there was apparent unanimity that the Ember Days "should be upgraded and that their celebration should be really observed.")


Since so much of the Church’s inheritance was unceremoniously discarded by Paul VI (to no apparent benefit), the loss of the Ember Days hardly seems so significant. With the inevitably proximate passing of the last generation that can remember them, they will soon have disappeared completely from common Catholic consciousness (apart perhaps among some quaintly “high church,” liturgically enthusiastic, “Anglo-Catholic” remnants in the Anglican Communion).


In retrospect, of course, it is obvious that the annihilation of the Ember Days was not just an act of historical and cultural vandalism and an extreme expression of the contemporary antinomian allergy to penitence. It also highlights our contemporary disconnect from the natural world and the annual rhythm of the natural seasons (at precisely the time in human history when that disconnection is undermining even the very survival of human life on this fragile planet, which Pope Francis has fittingly called “our common home.”)


In addition to their connection to the natural rhythm of the seasons, the Ember Days long had a special ecclesial significance – at least since the late fifth-century Pope Gelasius designated the Ember Saturdays as especially suitable for ordinations. At Rome, those ordinations took place at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Hence Saint Peter’s has long been the Roman stational church for the four Ember Saturdays. I cannot confirm this, but I seem to recall having heard or read somewhere sometime that this week’s Advent Ember Saturday was once the particularly preferred Roman ordination day. 


Apparently, on Ember Wednesdays there was a procession from St Peter in Chains to St Mary Major, where the formal announcement was made of those to be ordained. On the Ember Saturdays, five prophecies were read before the Epistle and the Gospel, making a total of seven readings. Tonsure was conferred after the Kyrie, and minor orders each after one of the first four readings, porters first, then lectors, exorcists and acolytes. Subdeacons were ordained after the fifth reading; deacons after the epistle; and priests just before the last verse of the tract. 


In any case, the connection with ordinations highlights another important value associated with these quarterly Ember Days. Much as the world (especially the developed world which has been the culprit causing the current climate crisis) needs to rediscover our connection to and dependence upon the natural world, likewise the Church (especially in secularized and increasingly priestless societies) needs to retrieve a collective commitment to providing ordained ministers to serve the perennial mission of the Church.


Indeed, imagine if we still celebrated ordinations fasting in purple vestments on Ember Saturdays! How much more fitting than the overblown triumphalism that sometimes seems to characterize many such celebrations nowadays! (Of course, ordinations are joyful occasions for the life of the Church and in the life of the individuals involved. In proper proportion, festivity is certainly in order - for example, on the subsequent occasion of the newly ordained's First Mass. But ordination is not meant to be an anticipated Golden Jubilee, let alone a canonization!) 

Obviously, we are not going to get the old Ember Days back, but their disappearance reminds us of what we have lost and what we would do well to retrieve for both the fulfillment of the Church’s mission and the continuation of flourishing life in our “common home.”

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Dark Days

No, this is not a post about the Winter Solstice, which will occur at 10:27 p.m. tonight. The natural darkness of the Winter Solstice is a darkness I embrace. Winter (as in the photo above) is often beautiful. Meditating in my room in the early morning darkness, wrapped in my weighted blanket against the winter cold, this season seems supremely peaceful. In any case, we have remedies for the dark days and long nights of winter - a useful technological remedy (electric light) and a beautiful ritual remedy (Christmas).

No, the dark days to which I refer are what we are currently experiencing communally in our social and political lives.

Christmas comes in good times and bad, and because it always comes the promise of future good outweighs the present experience of bad. But the bad present continues to do damage.

All of which brings us back to the inescapable crisis in which our society finds itself this Christmas, a crisis which will undeniably dominate the new year, namely, the virtual collapse of constitutional democracy in the U.S., one increasingly probably consequence of which would be the reelection of Donald Trump as our 47th president. As everyone knows, our constitution puts numerous obstacles in the way of democratic governance - not least a seriously unrepresentative Senate and a largely out-of-control imperial Judiciary. Absent the extreme polarization of contemporary American life, those obstacles might not be so problematic. After all, there was a time, not so long ago, when presidents were occasionally elected by landslides, and when the two parties in Congress collaborated well enough to pass at least some significant legislation, let alone to keep the government open and in business from year-to-year. None of that can be presumed anymore. Instead, we begin election year 2024 with the imminent threat of another minority victory in the electoral college - or, even worse, in the House of Representatives if the several self-serving third-party and independent candidates can muster enough votes to throw the election there.

Then, there is the latest legal-constitutional wrinkle in the form of the recent decision of the Colorado Supreme Court to exclude Trump from the primary ballot based on the 14th Amendment's insurrection provisions in article 3. Whether that provision remains a viable constitutional impediment to qualifying for office or whether, like presidential impeachment, congressional declarations of war, and the emoluments clause, it is now essentially a dead letter remains to be seen. It is our out-of-control, imperial Supreme Court which will have to resolve this latest case of legal-constitutional chaos. 

My guess/hope is that the Court will find some way to privilege the democratic electoral process over this ostensible constitutional impediment. The Court could reaffirm the applicability of article 3, while rejecting the Colorado court's application of it on the sensible grounds that Trump has not (yet) been found guilty of insurrection. Of course, when Congress adopted the amendment in 1866, it was reasonably obvious who had committed insurrection - either by serving in the Confederate government or the Confederate military. (The omission of any specific reference to the office of President probably reflected the fact that the only one it would apply to, John Tyler, had died in 1862.) To many Americans, it may seem obvious that Trump is an insurrectionist, but to many Americans it is not (at least not yet). Many Americans may never be convinced, although perhaps a criminal conviction might convince enough to make the application of article 3 viable. But we are not there (not yet). 

Not being there means that a judicial decision to exclude Trump based on article 3 inevitably must appear as an anti-democratic effort to deny voters their say, something more likely to exacerbate our divisions rather than to heal them. Democracy means including non-elites in the political process. Democracy, therefore, inherently entails the risk of a populist Trump restoration. Democracy does not always produce the results that thoughtful elites believe it should. (If it did, Plato would not have opposed it.) As has been said so many times, the only satisfactory way to exorcise Trump from our politics is to defeat him at the polls - to defeat him by sufficient votes as to make the defeat decisive.

In 2000, the Supreme Court, in its infinite arrogance, intruded itself into the electoral process and decided a presidential election against the popular will. One would have hoped never to see us in a similar situation again. Already, however, given the way political decisions masquerade as legal-constitutional questions in our system, it is obvious that the Court cannot avoid intruding in the election this time around.

In any event, it is evident that truly dark political days lie ahead in the coming new year.


Wednesday, December 20, 2023



The new Leonard Bernstein movie Maestro made it to Netflix this week, where I finally watched it in lieu of a trip to the theater. The film centers on the relationship between Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Directed by Cooper, based on a screenplay he cowrote with Josh singer, Maestro has already been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards. 

The film opens with Leonard at 70, being filmed and interviewed at home, while playing a modern classical piano composition while still grieving and reminiscing about his dead wife, missing her "terribly." Flashing back to 1943, and black-and-white, a 25-year-old Bernstein makes his successfully dramatic debut as the Philharmonic’s substitute conductor. Although then in a relationship with clarinetist David Oppenheim (Fellow Tavelers’ Matt Bomer), Felicia  his homosexuality is diverted, when he meets Felicia, an aspiring actress. whom courts and eventually marries, and the two have three children.

The film walks us through Bernstein's marriage and complicated personal and sexual life, paralleling his successful professional career as a conductor and composer. The black-and-white filming for the earlier years (along with the omnipresent smoking throughout the film) capture the period, prior to the film's sudden transition to color in the later years.

Bernstein's career contuse to flourish fantastically against the background of a seemingly idyllic and prosperous existence, although his double-life does catch up with him. The tension explodes one drunken Thanksgiving, when Felicia calls out "the hate in your heart" and warns  "you're going to die a lonely old queen."

The genuine love between them, however, survives and is highlighted by her final illness and death in 1978.  Meanwhile, Bernstein continues his behavior - and his musical triumphs. (And, of course, one of the highlights of the movie is the bits and pieces of his music we get to hear.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2023



Yesterday, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an ex Audientia Declaration, Fiducia Supplicans ("On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings"). The document derives its title from its opening sentence: "The supplicating trust of the faithful People of God receives the gift of blessing that flows from the heart of Christ through his Church" [1]. While the Declaration does address the meaning of blessings more generally, the clear context for this relatively short document is to deal directly with the controversial contemporary question about the possibility of Blessings for couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.

Thus the Dicastery repeats its established position that "rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage - which is the 'exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children' - and what contradicts it are inadmissible" [4]. This point is repeated, in various ways, throughout the document. The result is that, whatever is being proposed here it is not the sort of public ritual validation of certain particular types of union that some may have been advocating.

So what exactly is being proposed? The document briefly outlines its theology of blessings as sacramentals, which "lead us to grasp God's presence in all the events of life and remind us that, even in the use of created things, human bings are invited to seek God, to lion him, and to serve him faithfully" [8]. The document definitely seems to want to distinguish the blessings which are its focus from formal liturgical blessings - for fear "that a pastoral gesture which is so beloved and widespread will b subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God's love that forms the basis of the gesture of blessing" [12].

The Declaration appears to want to treat blessings largely as "pious practices," separate and distinct from liturgical rites and forms. "In this way, blessings become a pastoral resource to be valued rather than a risk or a problem" [23]. The imagery that seems to underlie this analysis is the kind of impromptu blessings people routinely ask for when celebrating an occasion or facing a crisis or embarking on a journey, etc., experiences most priests must immediately recognize as familiar. Indeed, the Declaration specifically calls for "the pastoral sensibility off ordained ministers" to "be formed to perform blessings spontaneously," apart from any official rites and forms [35]. 

Indeed, the document deems it essential to grasp "that these non-ritualized blessings never cease being simple gestures that provide an effective means of increasing trust in God on the part of the people who ask for them, careful that they should not become a liturgical or semi-liturgical act, similar to a sacrament," a ritualization which "would constitute a serious impoverishment" or popular piety, "depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in there pastoral accompaniment of people's lives" [36].

Thus, unlike what has sometimes elsewhere been proposed, "one should neither provide for nor promote  a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation" [38]. Nor should such blessings be in any way connected with "civil union" ceremonies or "with any of the clothing, gestures, or words that ar proper to a wedding" [39]. 

Rather, are "an expression of the Church's maternal heart - similar to those that emanate from the core of popular piety" - with "no intention legitimize anything, but rather to open one's life to God, to ask for his help to live better, and also ti invoke the Holy Spirit so that tthe values of the Gospel may be lived with greater faithfulness" [40]

The distinction the Declaration desires to make is clear and may be pastorally opportune, although one wonders whether some might find it too limited in terms of what might have been wanted. The long-term impact of this document will likely depend on how it is implemented, in other words, on whether its distinctions are respected. The Dicastery does not seem disposed to want to address this topic further: "What has been said in this Declaration regarding the blessings of same-sex couples is sufficient to guide the prudent and fatherly discernment of ordained ministers in this regard. Thus beyond the guidance provided above, no further response should be expected about possible ways to regulate details or practicalities regarding blessings of this type" [41].

Obviously, the lesson of history suggests that, whatever limits this document decrees, not all will be satisfied, and the road may yet be open to further developments, contrary to the principles proposed. Time will tell not just how this document will be received and interpreted, but how strictly or less strictly it will be applied in time.

Meanwhile, however, the Dicastery has done something inherently very interesting in retrieving a renewed theology of blessing and affirming the importance of such pious practices of popular devotion free from liturgical interference.

Sunday, December 17, 2023



The familiar, traditional title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin command to rejoice.  Until 1969 (and in theory still actually even now), today’s Mass always began with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone.  Back when we took Advent more seriously, this Sunday had numerous distinguishing liturgical markers in addition to the rose vestments. In still living memory, on this special Sunday the deacon and Subdeacon wore dalmatic and tunicle instead of "folded chasubles" (planetae plicatae), flowers were permitted to decorate the altar, and the organ was permitted to be played (neither of which was officially permitted on the other Sundays of Advent). Of course, that is all ancient history now. The rose vestments remain - a vestigial curiosity that is charmingly popular but basically bereft of its original meaning. Other than the oddball liturgical enthusiast, who actually cares?

Nonetheless, the liturgy today continues to command us to rejoice. For example, today’s second reading - from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians – commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.

Well, it is Christmastime, of course. So there is a lot of rejoicing going on, even in spite of the fact that 2023 has hardly been a particularly joyful year for many people. There are two big wars going on, plus a number of other wars, which our news media are much less interested in. The U.S. economy is apparently doing fairly well, but people don’t seem to be experiencing it that way, which may have something to do with the price of eggs and our contemporary society’s extreme inequality. And then there is our dysfunctional and self-destructive political system, which may provide some joy for late-night comedians but by any rational standard is certainly tragic for everyone else.


Saint Paul, of course, wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a feel-good Christmas card. In fact, Christmas cards did not exist in his time. Neither, for that matter, did Christmas, which we only started celebrating some two-to-three centuries later.


According to Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica - the capital and major port of the Roman province of Macedonia - around the year 50 (on his second missionary journey), and established a Christian congregation there.  His first letter to those Thessalonian Christians – thought to be the earliest New Testament letter - was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice, therefore, was not some sentimental slogan or empty holiday greeting, but was for Paul the logical consequence of faith in Christ. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.


Put that way, what behavior but rejoicing and thanksgiving ought ever to characterize the lives of believers? What other possible response would proclaim Christ and his Church in a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, which, without Christ, admittedly does present precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving? 

A world into which Christ has not come (or in which his coming is just not acknowledged) is indeed a ready recipe for a seriously conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, the kind of world we sadly see so much of. But therein lies the problem, of course, for we may all be spending too much of our time and expending most of our energy in that still so conflicted, anxiety-ridden world without Christ.       


How often do we hear for example, how “the holidays” may be the worst time of the year for some people, perhaps far too many people, including people we may personally know and love and care about? Talk about a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world without Christ! So absent has he become from so much of our bizarre modern life that even the celebration of his birth becomes, instead of news of great joy for all people, an occasion for stress and sadness for some!  


Christmas, of course, can have its poignant side. (After all these years, I still am tempted to tear up whenever I hear Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas). More pointedly, Christmas calls attention to the contradictions in our lives, and highlights how hard it can be to internalize the faith we profess, how challenging it can be to live joyful and thankful lives in the world in which we actually find ourselves. Christmas commits us to that world, a world where other people make demands on us, and duty challenges us to care about things bigger than just ourselves.  


Joy, of course, the consequential kind of joy that Paul was talking about, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances, of the reality and vitality of how we have experienced God’s presence and action in our lives regardless of transient circumstances – in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, in prosperity and in recession. Hence, St. Paul’s injunction to test everything, for he well knew that not every random thought or happy feeling comes from the Holy Spirit, but only what actually leads us to recognize Christ and to act upon that recognition.


It was for a similar reason – to test whether or not John the Baptist was the real thing – that priests and Levites and Pharisees were sent to John from Jerusalem in this Sunday’s gospel account [John 1:6-8, 19-28]. John responded, first, by clarifying the scope of his activity – or, as we might say in our bureaucratized manner of speaking, defining his mission – situating it not in reference to himself, but in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – as, through them, we ourselves are challenged today – to recognize Christ in our world in the here and now, and to act upon that recognition by situating our lives in relation to him. 


At all times – especially in difficult times, but at all times – the rejoicing and thanksgiving of which Paul spoke, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter that sadness that corrodes our desire for God, do not just happen automatically. They happen when I recognize what a difference it makes to me that Christ has come into the world, and then act on that recognition through my participation in the community of his Church.


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 testify to the light against the darkness. It takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas, however. Rather it requires us to become Christmas Trees ourselves, to testify to the light 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.

Photo: The Advent Wreath at the Paulist Fathers' Mother Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, NY.