Thursday, September 28, 2023

Another "Debate"


It is not as if the nation needs further evidence that presidential debates have outlived any usefulness they may have once had and are now just embarrassing entertainment. Nonetheless the Republican party's seven "also rans" (technically still "also runnings") provided such evidence in abundance last night. It is, of course, difficult at best to organize a genuine "debate" among so many candidates. The moderators, for the most part, asked good questions, but without the authority to shut off the candidates' microphones they could not prevent the event from degenerating into an exercise in mutual shouting at and over one another. This will perhaps please those ho have become accustomed to the idea that politics is another form of Springer-style entertainment. But it continues to be catastrophic for the future of the Republic.

The absurdity of the multi-candidate format was, of course, further, highlighted by the absence of the only candidate that matters, the front-runner and presumptive nominee, former President Donald Trump. Attacking the absent Trump is largely what Chris Christie's campaign is all about, and he did so - labelling the off-stage (but very much at the center of the stage) Trump "Donald Duck." In theory, it should only getter better from here, but actually the discourse consistently got worse. The Governor of North Dakota tried to talk policy, but policy is not what this campaign cares much about, and anyway he is the Governor of North Dakota! Nikki Haley and Tim Scott shouted at each other, obviously competing for donor class endorsement and looking ahead to the South Carolina primary. Haley distinguished herself by lamenting what a poor job Scott has done as the Senator whom she appointed back in 2012, while Scott further distinguished himself by focusing on the cost of the curtains at her official ambassadorial residence in New York (curtains purchased in any case by the previous Obama Administration).

Of course, some more important. matters came up. Several candidates seem eager to wage war in Mexico. And Mike Pence seems to believe that school shooters (who often kill themselves or get killed in the altercation) would be deterred by the death penalty, rather than reducing access to guns. And on and on it went.

The candidate they all seemed to despise (deservedly so) is, of course, Vivek Ramaswamy, who tried to be nicer this time, but who earned the best put down of the night when Haley said, "Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber from what you say." Indeed, we should all feel a lot dumber from hearing the lot of them!

When not shouting over each other, the candidates spent a lot of time and effort not answering the specific questions they were asked. The moderators deserve some praise for following up and reminding the candidates that they had not actually answered the actual question. But they failed to ask the most obvious questions concerning Himself the Dear Leader's four indictments on 91 felony charges - certainly an appropriate topic, especially considering the candidates' apparent obsession with law and order!

We've come a long way from Kennedy and Nixon debating Query and Matsu in 1960. Those days are gone forever. Would that the debates would be gone too!

Meanwhile the real campaign, which may determine the very survival or extinction of American democracy continues outside the debate hall.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


The Hollywood Writers' Strike may be ending, but it is neither the only nor the most important labor strike this season. Indeed, I am currently feeling a certain sort of nostalgia for an earlier, politically more coherent time when "working class" Americans understood their own interests at least sufficiently to be union members and to strike periodically.  Most vividly, I can remember the 1957 steel strike, but there were lost of strikes, big and small, back when organized labor still had real clout and real relevance. Then came a string of anti-labor presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, and the political transformation known as Neo-liberalism.

By background and inclination, however, President Joe Biden is different from his recent predecessors. He has consistently come across as pro-labor and, therefore, pro-union. And so today he will become the first American president to join a picket line in the current UAW StrikePolitics is about taking sides. Justice is also about taking sides. So more power to president Biden for taking sides in this perennial conflict between the workers who produce our nation's wealth and the CEOs and shareholders who pocket most of it.

In so doing, Biden, our second Catholic President, is also reflecting some of the best traditions in the American Church. As George Cardinal Mundelein (1872-1939) famously said at the Chicago Holy Name Convention in 1938: "Our place is beside the poor, behind the working man." In 1935, the U.S. Bishops abandoned their general policy of not supporting specific legislation in order to endorse the Wagner Act, which officially supported labor's right to organize and which established the National Labor Relations Board. 

In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Gary Gerstle recalled how at the beginning of the 20th century Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson both "rejected the notion that the free market constituted a natural order whose energies were beyond the capacity of humans to manage or redirect. They believed that unregulated markets had produced an intolerable imbalance in power and wealth between employers and employees."

That view would increasingly rise to political dominance in FDR's New Deal and in the corresponding alliance between the Democratic Party and organized Labor. As Michael Kazin, in What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, has observed, the New Deal Democrats became "the closest thing the United States would ever have to a party dependent on the support of organized labor."

That alliance famously began to break down in the 1970s, as the Democrats began their contemporary evolution to a party dominated by a higher status, college educated, non-working class component. In 1972, the AFL-CIO Executive Council voted to remain neutral in the presidential race between Democrat George McGovern and Republican President Richard Nixon. That was the first time since the 1920s that that body representing most union members had failed to endorse the Democratic nominee, and it reflected the increasing alienation between the Democratic Party and its formerly working-class constituency. One dire consequence of this parting of the ways has been that, during subsequent decades of economic growth, the  benefits have disproportionately gone to the rich, and that the Democrats have seemed to offer relatively little to those working class families whose incomes have hardly increased at all.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which paradoxically has increasingly attracted more and more working class voters, had long ago consolidated an intensely anti-labor, anti-union political and policy stance. This became increasingly the basis of national policy especially after the ascent of Ronald Reagan, who emphasized an ideology of personal, individual freedom and antagonism to what the New Deal had accomplished.

In 1981, Reagan famously fired more than 10,000 air traffic controllers who had gone on strike for better pay and improved working conditions. Reagan’s action signaled a more hostile stance toward unions than any administration had in decades. Symbolically, Gerstle suggests, Reagan's action "carried as much significance as the refusal of the Democratic governor of Michigan and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 to send National Guard or federal troops to Flint to oust the autoworkers occupying the plants of General Motors. This 1930s refusal signaled that a president and his party were serious about compelling corporations to reach fair agreements with unions that had organized their workers. Similarly, Reagan’s firing of an entire workforce for going on strike was the equivalent of a president sending in the troops to break a strike. It served notice that the president and the dominant party were now ready to eviscerate labor’s power." Indeed, the American labor movement has hemorrhaged members since the 1980s. As Gerstle notes, "there is no more powerful form of market deregulation than stripping government of its ability to strengthen workers in their negotiations with employers."

It is hardly accidental that, among the current crop of anti-Trump Republican primary candidates, Reagan's 1981 action has been recalled and invoked as an example to be followed (despite the obvious difference between public-sector and private sector workers).

For his part, "Populist" candidate Trump is trying to position himself as the candidate for the working class, despite the record of his presidency and the predilections of his party. Presumably, Biden's trip today to Michigan is intended in part to rebut Trump's curious claim.

As perhaps befits a president of his age (and the wisdom and experience that accompany old age), Joe Biden is a throwback to that older alliance between the Democratic Party and organized labor - in a way that recent Democratic presidents never were or really even appeared to want to be.

What impact Biden's gesture may have in the forthcoming election, in the absurdist theater that American politics has become, is anyone's guess. But three cheers for the President for taking sides in this perennial conflict between democracy and plutocracy!

Photo: Then-candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks outside the UAW Region 1 offices on Sept. 9, 2020, in Warren, Michigan: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Monday, September 11, 2023



Last week, while in Washington for a meeting, one of your former pastors and I were reminiscing about our time together here. And, of course, our recollections inevitably turned to that terrible day 22 years ago, a day still marked in memory, so terrible to remember that it lacks even a name and is known only by its numerical date, 9/11.

Many of us who were here then remember how the sunny serenity of an absolutely beautiful late summer New York City morning was suddenly transformed into an experience of horror beyond anything most of us had ever imagined we’d see so close to home. And how quickly, everything changed! Our country and city were being suddenly and savagely attacked, and we all got to see the ugly face of evil in a way my generation had never really experienced it before.


Soon, even the corner Starbucks shut down, as police barricades went up, closing our street to regular traffic. For days that stretched into weeks, we went around in a daze, past churches and firehouses draped in black, past posted pictures of missing persons who would never be found, staring at the vacant place in the skyline, as military jets patrolled the now grimly gray, but otherwise empty sky. We watched over and over again as TV told and retold the story, punctuated by occasional accounts of heroic courage and poignantly loving final conversations – powerful lessons not just about how to face death, but how to live a life that makes sense.


Today, we still remember – and mourn – those whose lives were wickedly cut short on that day of terror. Our ability to remember one another is one of the things that makes us most distinctly human. When we remember those who have died, we acknowledge our common humanity with them. And we also recognize our continued relationship. Remembering the dead is a fundamental and universal human need, which we neglect at our peril. (Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that, to understand a community, one should visit their cemetery.)

From earliest times (and down to today in the Church’s daily prayer and in every Mass), the Church also has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers on their behalf. St. Monica famously said to her son St. Augustine: “I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be.” So, besides being a fundamental and universal human need, remembering the dead is also a religious duty, that expresses our faith and our hope.

Meanwhile, of course, life goes on. The world, with its seemingly intractable social and political problems and conflicts continues to challenge us. We assemble here today, as individuals each bringing his or her own worries, fears, and hopes, and also as citizens collectively concerned for the security of our country, conscious – as world events continue to remind us – of how perilous life can be and how fragile the network of social bonds on which we depend for our survival. But, also and above all, we are assembled here in this holy place, in this our parish church, around this sacred altar as members of the Body of Christ, the one and only Savior of the world, whose own death and resurrection teach us that death no longer has the last word in our world and so challenge us to follow him and so find love in a hate-filled world.


Homily, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 11, 2023.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Like a Gentile or a Tax Collector


To anyone raised in an Anglo-American legal tradition, today’s Gospel almost has a degree of what we call “due process” sound to it.  Some years back, when I was stationed in Canada and this Gospel came up, someone suggested preaching wearing a wig and holding a judge’s gavel, to which I replied that in my case a wig at least might be a good idea.


Be that as it may, this is a “due process” kind of Gospel – this procedure which Jesus outlines to deal with (and hopefully even resolve) conflicts within the community of the Church. Jesus doesn’t pretend, as religious people sometimes try to do, that there will be no conflicts. But it is a very specific sort of “due process” that Jesus proposes – religious rather than secular (obviously), but also communitarian rather than individualistic and oriented toward reconciliation rather than punishment. Nowadays, reconciliation may have become an overused word (overused, that is, as a word, not necessarily as an attitude or practice, where it is more likely underused).


Obsessed as we are in our society with individual rights, when we speak of “due process” typically what get emphasized are legal guarantees for the individuals involved. The “due process” Jesus outlines here does do some of that, but the focus is less on the individuals and their rights or sensitivities and more on the community. Maybe even more importantly it is a process aimed at reconciliation. In that regard, it reminds me of the process in Church law for dealing with problematic people in religious communities. The problematic person is warned and given a chance to change course several times before the process ends in expulsion. That’s because the goal of the process is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community. Expulsion may end up being necessary, but always only as a last resort - as it is in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel.


Only after three tries – individually, in a small group, and finally involving the whole community – is the person excommunicated. Even so, the story doesn’t quite end there. The excommunication which Jesus outlines is specified as: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.


Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. Devout, observant Jews avoided (as much as possible) having contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them. That served a certain purpose on that society, as judicial proceedings and punishments do in our society.


Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, he may be muddying the waters a bit, because, of course, we can all recall how Jesus himself sometimes treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may in fact (as they clearly are in this case) be outside because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided, highly conflicted North African Church of the fourth century, Saint Augustine (354-430), speaking of the heretical and schismatic Donatist Christians he had to oppose so vigorously, said: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)].


I am a long-time fan of medieval mystery stories, like Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (set in 14th-century Cambridge) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century Shrewsbury). In the final Brother Cadfael book, Cadfael (who, over and above his avocation as an ersatz detective, is first and foremost a Benedictine monk) has, sadly, broken his vow of obedience. But, when, at the end of the story, he returns to the monastery and kneels before his Abbot, the Abbot simply responds: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”


Unlike Cadfael and his brother monks, we live in a conflict-obsessed society driven by social media and what some have called “cancel culture.” Clearly, we cannot be unaffected by all the vitriolic conflict that surrounds us. But, whatever we are or do as a community of disciples, our goal can never simply be to cancel one another. Rather, it must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now at this altar, and forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 10, 2023.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Encourage and Build


If we were meeting back in New York, today we would be celebrating the feast of Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Kolkata as she now is. But her feast has not made it into Washington’s calendar. So instead, we are celebrating a Votive Mass – the Votive Mass for Religious Vocations.


In the Gospel we just heard [Luke 4:31-37], Jesus came to Capernaum on a Sabbath and drove out a demon. In Judaism, the sabbath is the great day of joy and freedom. What more fitting day to do a miracle! What more fitting day to drive out a demon! Gathered in their synagogue on the sabbath to hear the old stories of what God had done in the past to free and save them, the people unexpectedly got - not just to hear, but to see - God freeing and saving them anew. In so doing, Jesus shows the true nature of God’s kingdom, freeing us all from the demonic powers that can keep us captive.


In our time, someone like Mother Teresa appeared as an unexpected intrusion in the ultra-cynical, ultra-skeptical second half of the 20th century. In first-century Capernaum, Jesus also appeared somewhat unexpectedly, driving out demons with his astonishing authority that gripped the crowd then and still holds us spellbound.


We all know from pastoral experience that, when anyone who seems in any way strange shows up, anxiety arises as no one knows what to expect next. The man possessed by the demon was strange, in the usual sense. But Jesus turned out to be stranger still and even more unpredictable – challenging those there to recognize what God is doing here and now, to recognize (as Saint John XXIII famously said) “the hidden guidance of divine providence in the present course of events.”


We notice also how, once forced out of him, the demon could do the possessed man no further harm. That man, that day, experienced what Saint Paul [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]expressed more generally for all of us – that God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation, from salvation’s one and only source, Jesus Christ.


And how do we respond to that? The Capernaum crowd reacted with astonishment and responded by spreading the news. That’s a start, a good start. But Paul, who had done a lot of news-spreading himself, challenges us to the next step. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up.

Sometimes, we may be tempted to think that we have done enough when we spread the good news, give the word a voice. But then what? 


In actual fact, most of our work – as a parish priest for 25 years, I would say almost all my work – has been about that next step, encouraging and building up, building Church in a contentious world where its presence is increasingly fragile. 


(Whenever I hear those words of Saint Paul, I am reminded of Bruce Nieli back in 1981 inviting me to follow Hecker’s call to build Church!) Of course, that was also Saint Francis’s call some six centuries earlier. Is there anyone in this business, past or present, from the Pope going to Mongolia to this group gathered here, whose call it isn’t?


But how do we do this? Do we do this all across the board? Do we encourage one another (while there is still time, as Hebrews says [Hebrews 3:13])? Do we encourage one another and so build together?


The Church may be a mystery. But she is not mysterious. The Church, the ongoing building and repair of which is our ongoing job, is part and parcel of our present reality, which may still be more demon-possessed than we care to contemplate. What divides the world also divides the Church – divides and wounds, wounds us deeply.


If we aspire to be, in actual fact, that communion of saints – that image that so attracted Isaac Hecker to the Church – that communion of saints that we profess to believe in, then we have to take the communion part much more seriously, as an antidote to the division and distress we absorb from the world around us. For God did nor destine us for wrath. 

Homily, Opening Mass, Paulist Fathers' General Council Meeting, the Paulist House of Studies, Washington, DC, September 5, 2023.

Friday, September 1, 2023

50 Years in Knoxville

Back when I was a pastor in Tennessee in the 2010s, an elderly monsignor once recalled how, at the beginning of the summer of 1973, there had been a total of four priests in the entire city of Knoxville, but then in September the Paulists came and the number of priests in the city doubled! 

Actually, the Paulist Fathers have been serving the Church somewhere in Tennessee continuously since 1900 - that is, for 123 of 165 years of existence as a Catholic Religious Community.  For the first 54 of those years, the Paulists were missionaries in Middle Tennessee. In 1900, at the invitation of the Bishop of Nashville, the Paulists purchased a farm and a large house, known as Hundred Oaks, in Winchester TN. The Winchester mission house was dedicated to Saint Francis de Sales and its chapel to Saint Michael the Archangel (in memory of which the small house chapel in the current Knoxville Paulist residence is also dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel). Hundred Oaks became the home base for an extensive missionary effort. Several Middle Tennessee parishes, nurtured from their beginning by the Paulists Father, are still thriving today. The mission to Middle Tennessee ended in 1954, when the Paulists sold Hundred Oaks and transferred their Tennessee foundation to West Tennessee, to Saint Patrick's Parish, Memphis, where they served until 2013.

Meanwhile, in 1973, the Bishop of Nashville invited the Paulists to East Tennessee to assume pastoral responsibility for the oldest Catholic parish in the city of Knoxville, Immaculate Conception, founded in 1855. The current Victorian Gothic structure, the second church on the site, was dedicated on September 19, 1886. In a famous photograph taken one week after that church’s dedication, Immaculate Conception parishioners posed in front of the parish’s original 1855 stone church with the new church in the background. Of the parishioners in the photo, I believe that in my time 24 were still able to be identified by name. I love that picture, which (as a major scene from Knoxville's urban history) can also be seen in certain secular settings as well as at Immaculate Conception Church. That photo powerfully portrays the Knoxville Catholic community of the time and shows their strong sense of identification with their parish church - built by their efforts and commitment. The familiar photo highlights their justifiable joy in their accomplishment and their sense of responsibility for its future. In 2011, 125 years later, Immaculate Conception parishioners were invited to repeat that 1886 experience. A new photograph (above) was taken in front of the main entrance of the church on West Vine Avenue, immediately after the Solemn Anniversary Mass of Thanksgiving. Since then, both photos have been prominently displayed in gratitude for Immaculate Conception parish’s past, in celebration of its present, and as an expression of hope for its future.

In 1973, the Paulists also assumed pastoral responsibility for the campus ministry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, at what is now Saint John XXIII parish. With one pastor and one parochial vicar at each parish, the Paulists became a major addition to the Catholic clergy in the city of Knoxville, which became the seat of a third Tennessee diocese in 1988. Over the years, various Paulist priests have served the city as police chaplains and a chaplain to the 1983 World's Fair, and have served the diocese as Dean of the Smoky Mountain Deanery, Diocesan Consultor, and Chair of the Presbyteral Council.

From 2010 through 2020, it was my privilege to serve as Immaculate Conception's 24th pastor. Though small in size, the beautiful "Church on Summit Hill" has had a long and distinguished history of pastoral service in the city of Knoxville, where it was the only Catholic Church for its first 20 years. An important presence in Knoxville's urban skyline and a vital resource for faith and community in the city's again growing and busy downtown, Immaculate Conception parish continues to thrive now as a multi-cultural, multi-faceted Catholic community and the center of Paulist mission and outreach in East Tennessee. As such, it embodies Servant of God Isaac Hecker's grand vision to extend Christ's life and mission in our time and place and so serves as a vital and vibrant sign of the Church's reach to all who live or work or visit within sight of its spire.