Wednesday, November 29, 2023

O Christmas Tree!

Christmas Trees (real or phony) are everywhere. Most people have one (again either real or phony) in their homes or apartments. But when New Yorkers speak of the Tree, it is usually evident which one they mean.

The first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was erected in 1931. The above photo shows that first tree, erected by construction workers in 1931 shortly after the site was cleared. Fittingly, the photo shows the workers lining up for their pay beside the tree, which was adorned with garlands made by workers' families - a Christmas memory from one dispiriting time for this dispiriting time.

The first formal Rockefeller Center Tree-lighting took place two years later. In 1951, for the first time, NBC televised the tree lighting with a special on The Kate Smith Hour, an annual event that has since then evolved into the elaborate and festive (if not necessarily all that Christmasy) musical extravaganza, featuring live performances celebrity appearances, that will take place this evening, still covered by NBC.

Meanwhile, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan has long been a major New York tourist attraction, for there really is no other time of year when New York puts forth its very best face to the world. To us native New Yorkers, however, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center ("the Tree") it is just one of those especially great and glorious things that make the season Christmas what it is in this city. 

The Tree to be formally and officially lit late this evening is obviously quite an elaborate advance on the 1931 original, let alone the much more modest medieval model associated with Martin Luther and the somewhat similarly simple trees that used to light up our Bronx apartment when I was growing up. But, when it comes to Christmas, can anything ever be too much? 

When I was growing up, the subway ride to midtown to see the Tree was one of several musts in the annual Christmas observance, one of at least two Christmastime trips to Manhattan. That particular itinerary routinely also included the Radio City Christmas Show (which then cost all of $1 and included a movie as well) and a visit to Saint Patrick's, the cathedral.

As Christmas customs go, the Christmas Tree is Northern European in origin and obviously predates Christmas itself. But it is now universally observed, even in places where Christmas itself has relatively little religious salience. As one ages and the memories of holidays past recede further into the background, the presence of a Christmas Tree under one's roof remains the touch more meaningful.

When I became a pastor in Tennessee in 2010, one of my few early innovations was to set up a Christmas Tree outside the church, which we blessed and lit annually on December 8 (our parish's patronal feast). On such occasions the Church prays: Lord God, let your blessing come upon us as we illumine this tree. May the light and cheer it gives be a sing of the joy that fills our hearts. May all who delight in this tree come to the knowledge and joy of salvation. 

May that be our prayer for all again this much needed Christmas season!

Friday, November 24, 2023

Napoleon (The Movie)


On Thanksgiving Eve, I went to see the new Napoleon movie, produced and directed by Ridley Scott and written by David Scarpa. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as his first wife and Empress, Jos√©phine.

Napoleon is, of course, one of modern history's more interesting figures, not just for what he actually accomplished but for his symbolic significance. He was, after all, a forerunner of the modern European Community. Of course, one could consider the Holy Roman Empire (which Napoleon dissolved in 1806) also a forerunner of the EU, but the Holy Roman Empire (which, as has often been said, was by then neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) hardly exercised the invasive power over people and nations which the modern EU does. But Napoleon did approximate that at least in 19th-century terms. Of all of this, however, the movie has nothing to say. It is more or less obvious in the film that Napoleon tried to conquer Europe, but how actually close he came to success and how thoroughly he remade European institutions is hardly hinted at.

Another aspect of Napoleon that is appears extremely contemporary is his charisma. Unlike the Bourbon kings who preceded and succeeded him and whose rule was obviously traditional in nature, Napoleon's rule was charismatic in nature. That his rule was charismatic in nature is demonstrated in the film especially towards the end - for example, when he makes his personal appeal to the royalist troops sent to halt him after his return from Elba and in the admiration the British midshipmen show for him.

Also, of course, in contrast to the Bourbon kings' religious legitimacy, Napoleon's legitimacy, such as it was, was secular. Yes, he was crowned by the Pope (to play at a legitimacy comparable to the Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's other anointed monarchs), but that event was instrumental rather than traditional, and the constitution he swore at. his coronation to enforce was secular rather than religious. The film clarifies none of this. The coronation just happens, with little preparation and less context. 

I had been looking forward to seeing this film, and it does have its merits. It portrays one of early modern Europe's great love stories. It displays some dramatic battle scenes, which highlight the horror of the experience and make one wonder why it was seen as worth it. Like so many contemporary films, it is unfortunately too long - two hours and 38 minutes long.  The actual story of Napoleon and Josephine's love and/or the actual story of Napoleon's anticipation of the European community by conquest might merit two hours and 38 minutes long, but I don't think this effort is sufficiently successful to make such a claim.

The French newspaper Le Figaro said the film could be renamed “Barbie and Ken Under the Empire.” That is certainly unfair, but it is, I think, fair to say that the film may not merit an audience's attention for all two hours and 38 minutes. True, the movie spans 28 event-filled years in Napoleon's life — from Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 (which I don't believe the real Napoleon actually attended) and his career-making success at the Siege of Toulon later that year, all the way through his coup d'etat and reign as Emperor of the French, up until his defeat, exile and death at Saint Helena in 1821. That may be part of the problem since the multiple events in Napoleon's career are presented in rapid-fire sequence without a lot of explanation of how each event led to the next. Nor does it help that the actor who plays Napoleon is so much older than the actual Napoleon would have been for most of the events in the film.

The battle scenes are filmed on a grand scale, and the visuals (costumes, palaces, etc.) are worth looking at. But it is not clear to this watcher that Napoleon the man, the eccentric way he is actually depicted in this film, would likely have been such a successful military commander. Indeed his victories seem more like acts of perseverance than of real heroism. Domestically, too, there is little of the historical hostility between Napoleon's family and his wife, but the film does portray the disdain Europe's real royals had for him and his dynastic aspirations. In the end, of course, the empire he created as an alternative to France's thousand-year old monarchy lasted only a decade.

How a low-born Corsican transformed himself through obvious military valor and genuine political talent into an Emperor should surely be a story well worth depicting, but again everything happens so rapidly, just one thing after another, that one doesn't get much feel for the details of how those events unfolded - or even what talents of his (in addition to his obvious success at winning battles) made such a counter-intuitive ascent possible.

It does, however, capture his personal hubris, which presumably is. historically accurate!

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving!

To anyone anywhere who reads this, Happy Thanksgiving!

And now bless the God of all,

who everywhere works great wonders,

who fosters our growth from birth,

and deals with us according to his mercy.

May he give us gladness of heart,

and may there be peace in our days

in Israel, as in the days of old.

May he entrust to us his mercy,

and may he deliver us in our days!

Sirach 50:22-24.

Photo"Thanksgiving Dinner," Norman Rockwell's famous illustration of Freedom From Want, part of Rockwell's Four Freedoms series, based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" State of the Union Address to Congress, January 6, 1941. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

60 Years Since Dallas


For my "Baby Boomer" generation, maybe no event stands out so memorably as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, TX, sixty years ago today. It was undeniably the defining national trauma of my high school years. 

Like Caesar in ancient Gaul, I look back on the 1960s as divided into three parts – the fantasized “Camelot” sixties that began with Kennedy's election and inauguration and ended so tragically and dramatically in Dallas in 1963, the “Great Society” sixties that lasted until the “off-year” election of 1966, and then the revolutionary sixties, the highpoint of which was the terrible (but so exciting to have lived through) year 1968, after which the sixties seemed to limp on to a somewhat tepid and inglorious end in the Nixon years. (In my personal life, those years chronologically correspond almost exactly to high school, personal failure and recovery, college, and graduate school.)

We were in high school English class that now infamous Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. It was the last period, and the principal had already made his customary end-of-day announcements over the loudspeaker. Suddenly, he came back on and said, “We ask you to remember in your prayers …” I immediately thought that some student’s parent had died or was seriously sick, because that was how such announcements usually began. But then he continued, “… the President of the United States, who has been shot.” Our English teacher looked up and said, “I thought they didn’t do that in this country.” As we walked home from school, some of us talked somberly about what had happened and what would happen with a new president. At home, I went straight upstairs – no lingering that day. As I entered our apartment, my grandmother told me that the President had been shot. I told her I’d already heard and then turned on the TV, where I heard the announcement, “John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is dead.” I then went back to my grandmother and told her, “E morto, il presidente √® morto.”

Anyone who was alive and old enough then can likely remember such amazingly miniscule details of what was one of the defining events of my generation. I can remember leaving the TV on and listening briefly to some talking head speculating whether we were in for another period of anarchist activity as had happened at the turn of the 20 century! (I guess academics just can't help themselves!). Then my mother rang from downstairs and I went down as usual to help her lift the baby carriage with my sister Christine in it up the entranceway stairs and into the elevator. It was already dark by the time my father came home from work, somberly carrying a now obsolete pre-assassination edition of the New York Journal American. A few minutes later, one of us looked out the window and saw that a more up-to-date extra edition had arrived, and he sent me down to buy one, just to have it. Then, after supper, we all watched the late President’s body arrive at Andrews Air Force Base and heard the new President’s simple and comforting first words to the nation.

And, thus, it continued for four unbelievable days – days of national public pomp and solemnity we had seldom seen before. I still associate Hail to the Chief (played on that occasion at 88 beats per minute instead of the customary 120) and the naval hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save (which I had never heard before then) with those sadly solemn and strangely powerful ceremonies! As Catholics, of course, we were all acutely sensitive to the religious dimension of this civic state ceremonial – the private Mass in the White House East Room, the presence of priests in the funeral procession, and above all the pontifical Requiem Mass at Washington’s Saint Matthew’s Cathedral on Monday. Liturgical enthusiast that I then was, I was genuinely disappointed that it was a Low Mass. High or Low, it was definitely not the traditional Catholic liturgy at its best. But, at the time, we were all for the most part proud to see a Cardinal celebrating a Catholic Mass for the largest national TV audience ever yet!

Of course, Kennedy was historically an odd figure for such Catholic pride. As Jacqueline Kennedy famously had said to Arthur Krock“I think it is unfair for Jack to be opposed because he is a Catholic. After all, he’s such a poor Catholic. Now if it were Bobby: he never misses mass and prays all the time.” Murray Kempton had put it more caustically back in 1960, when he wrote: “We have once again been cheated of the prospect of a Catholic president.”

In any case, if Kennedy's Requiem was the first Catholic Mass to be seen by such a large TV audience, it was also one of the last of its type, since so much of that timeless ritual would be lost in the liturgical transformation none of us as yet anticipated but which would very quickly come upon us with the force of an unstoppable storm. That is just one more way in which that incomparably traumatic weekend really proved to be a liminal line between the more distant past and the now less past, between post-war national self-confidence and the universal loss of confidence that started in the 1960s and has grown ever since.

Neither then nor since have I been at all attracted to any of the many and various conspiracy theories that have had such seemingly widespread currency in these 60 years. (I recently read somewhere that some 65% of the American population believe in some version of Kennedy-assassination conspiracy.) In retrospect, I suppose that the salience of such conspiratorial thinking was consonant with tendencies that have long been present in American culture and which may have anticipated the far more dangerous conspiratorial tendencies that have run riot in our deeply disordered present time.



Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Home for the Holidays


In the 2003 film Latter Days, Lila (Jacqueline Bisset), welcomes her Thanksgiving Day guests with these words: "I want you to know that wherever we find ourselves in this world, whatever our successes or failures, come this time of year, you will always have a place at my table and a place enemy heart."

Thanksgiving Day has always been - and remains - my favorite secular holiday. It perfectly captures the autumn season's spirit and invites us (whether or not we chose to respond) to reflect upon our history as a nation and on the condition of our current national community (a not particuarly pleasant prospect at present). But, most of all, it is an especially beautiful time for basic human community, that of family and friends gathered around the table of God's and nature's bounty and the results of human labor. Hence the crowded airports and highways all this week, as from one coast to the other we fly or drive or otherwise make our way to whatever counts as "home." 

Deep in my treasury of childhood holiday memories is Perry Como's annual Thanksgiving TV show, which always began with this silly song:

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home

I met a man who lives in Tennessee, and he was heading for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania folks are travellin'
Down to Dixie's sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific
Gee, the traffic is terrific

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
If you want to be happy in a million ways
For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home

(When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze

I met a man who lives in Tennessee, and he was heading for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania folks are travellin'
Down to Dixie's sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific
Gee, the traffic is terrific

Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
If you want to be happy in a million ways
For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home

For the holidays, you can't beat home sweet home

[Source: MusixmatchSongwriters: Al Stillman / Robert Allen. (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays lyrics © Kassner Associated Publishers Ltd., Music Sales Corp., Charlie Deitcher Productions Inc., Kitty Anne Music, Charlie Deitcher. Productions Inc, Kitty-anne Music, Kitty Anne Music Co. Inc.]
"Home" for many Americans in our mobile and disconnected society may increasingly seem a somewhat elusive concept, endlessly redefined as needed. For many of us in today's fractured mobile society, "home" here may refer less to some particular place than to particular people, often family (if we are lucky enough to have family) or some constellation of people (if we are fortunate enough to have friends) who have become a substitute for family.

For Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), who was an abolitionist, an activist for both women's and Native American rights, and an opponent of American expansion, as well as a journalist and the author of the familiar 1844 poem we all learned long ago in school, The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day, "home for the holidays" was a traditional New England family house kept by Grandfather and Grandmother who made everyone feel at home. 

Over the river and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river and through the woods,
To Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
For 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river and through the woods,
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and through the woods,
And straight through the barnyard gate;
We seem to go extremely slow,
It is so hard to wait!

Believe it or not, the full poem has another 8 stanzas! But I think we've gotten the point by now - that it takes some effort and can be a challenge to get home for Thanksgiving, but that it is obviously well worth it! 

For many today, "home" might be a local church's "Thanksgiving Dinner" for seniors, creating at least a temporary "home" where none any longer exists, for those for whom the need to share a turkey with family, with friends, with someone remains deeply rooted. And, if those examples are but two ends of the Thanksgiving Dinner spectrum, there are a lot of traditional and innovative versions of "home" in-between. 

More than any other secular holiday, Thanksgiving follows the ancient, apparently universal human model of a ritual meal, which connects the domestic dimension with the civic celebration. We all need to eat. Indeed (as in the resurrection appearance of Jesus in Luke 24:41-42) our ability to eat also shows we are really alive. And, because we are social and political animals, we need to eat together. Our meals, whether alone or with others, reflect our dependence on the fruits of God's creation and ritualize our dependence on the world from which we are inseparable. Our shared meals highlight our dependence on one another and ritualize our common aspiration for what the ancients understood as the good life. Our festive Thanksgiving holiday dinner is all of that, contextualized by our shared history of family (those immediately gathered at the turkey table and our memories of those who gathered at that table with us in the past) and a particular national community, whose origins and aspirations are mythologized and ritualized in this annual observance, which links us with our fellow citizens across space and time. A nation is found, first of all, in its shared history. With its historically prescribed festive menu, Thanksgiving connects our national past with our immediate present of families and friends.

As such, Thanksgiving Day has been most associated in American history and national mythology with the 17th-century colonial experience. Thanksgiving’s narrative of American religion has regularly privileged New England Protestantism and its historical variants over other American religious experiences, as in general the traditional U.S. founding narratives typically privilege the influence of New England over the French and Spanish settlements and even over the other English colonies with different variants of Protestantism. 

Thus, in his last Thanksgiving proclamation, 60 years ago, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy recalled the predominant New England tradition (along with that of alternative colonial claimants): "Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God."

These ideals are intrinsic to the symbolism of this celebration, as is Jonathan Winthrop's familiar invocation in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” of the New Testament image of a city upon a hill - invoked not (as it has since sometimes been invoked) in a spirit of self-congratulation, but as a challenge to become an authentic moral community:

For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

To hear Perry Como's rendition of There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays, go to:

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Those Troublesome Talents

Today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:14-30] reports one of the last parables of Jesus’ public life. In the liturgical context of these final weeks of the Church’s annual cycle, we apply this (and similar parables) to ourselves, as we anticipate Christ’s second coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of history.

This particular parable portrays two good and faithful servants, who successfully invested their master’s money and returned a good profit, justifying their master’s investment in them. There is also a third, wicked, lazy servant, who seems somewhat timid, someone perhaps preoccupied with caution above all else, who hid his master’s money in a hole in the ground.

Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, caution in economic matters is usually a good idea. These parables, however, are not about providing practical advice on how to invest one’s money (assuming one has money to invest, which for many in Jesus’ audience might not have been the case, any more than it may be for most people in our world today). But, of course, these parables are not about our ordinary day-to-day world at all, but about the kingdom of God. And, in the kingdom of God, the two good and faithful servants are praised and rewarded, and the wicked, lazy servant is condemned – clearly for his failure to actually accomplish anything, but maybe even more for his fear of failure, and for the inexcusable inactivity and passivity his excessive caution produced.

The successful servants were prudent in their own way (which turned out in the end to be the right way). Presumably, they also knew that their master was demanding. But, (like the fear of the Lord, which, as the psalm says [Psalm 128:1-5], makes people blessed), their master’s expectation that they accomplish something with what he had given them, his determination to hold them to account and to judge them accordingly, far from immobilizing them, instead inspired them actually to do something bold with the resources entrusted to them. We all know that in real life all sorts of people, of whom not much is ordinarily expected (like the Ron Weasley character in Harry Potter), when suddenly pressed to take responsibility, when put in a position that challenges them to do something, often respond unexpectedly well, succeeding in ways above and beyond whatever was stereotypically expected of them.

Of course, since this is a parable primarily about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants seem obviously intended to suggest God’s expectations of us – expectations which, when the time comes to settle accounts, may end up being most threatening precisely to anyone who is determined, like the third servant, to keep life unthreatening. 

To the first two, however, their master must have seemed incredibly generous. Surely, he turns out to be the most imaginative and adventurous person in the parable, the one who risks treating his servants as partners and rewards them with greater responsibility and greater closeness. So cautious, however, is that wicked, lazy servant that he fails to see what the other two see so well. He cannot see what he is being encouraged to make of his life, what he is being personally empowered to become. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is defeatism, which stifles boldness and zeal [Evangelii Gaudium 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

So, now, with which of the servants do we identify? Whom do we see when we imagine God? How do we interpret and experience his expectations of us? Do we feel threatened, as if God were just out to get us? Do we - like the wicked, lazy servant - imagine that the challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life are more like traps God sets for us to catch us in failure to fulfill his will? Or do we recognize, in his will for us and in those challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life, an unprecedented opportunity - to live a new and abundant life of moral responsibility, and an invitation to a life of ever-increasing intimacy with God? 

For those starting out on life’s pilgrimage, this parable is an invitation to make the most of the as yet uncertain challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. For those of us nearing the last stop, this parable is more like an examination of conscience, calling on s to look back over our lives, at how we have responded to those challenges and opportunities as we prepare our own answer when the Lord calls each of us to give an account of ourselves. 

With which of the three do we identify? Notice that we have three possibilities here, and I for one have always been struck by the fact that the servant with the 2 talents, in terms of the resources he has to work with, actually starts out a lot closer to the wicked, lazy servant than he does to the superstar servant with the 5 talents. Like the servant with only 1 talent, the one with the 2 may seem to lack any obvious star quality or other signs of greatness. In terms of what he is willing to do with what he has been given, in terms of his outlook on life, however, the one with the 2 talents seems so much closer to the one with the 5 – and light years away from the wicked, lazy servant with only 1 talent, whose self-absorbed focus on his powerlessness, his sense of himself as a victim (how contemporary that sounds!), have turned him into someone like the person one of my professors once called a silent spectator in the story of one's own life!

Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, so extolled for her endeavors in today’s first reading – each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by being boldly invested in one another, in getting out of ourselves and joining with others in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church, whose mission it is to share our master’s joy with that same world.

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, November 19, 2023.

Friday, November 17, 2023

"Oh, That Girl" (The Crown, Season 6, Part 1)


"Oh, that girl," sighs Queen Elizabeth in the first episode of season 6 of Netflix' The Crown. 

"That girl," of course, is Diana. Who else? And well might we sigh as well, as Netflix has seen fit to devote the first four episodes of the series' final season to the final summer of the Diana soap opera. The late Princess of Wales, by any honest account the most over-hyped person of the 20th century, was by then the star of endlessly lurid tabloid interest and scandals. Indeed, as The Crown portrays with effective harshness, even before her tragic death Diana's post-royal life had been spiraling increasingly out of control - something her Derbyshire psychic tries to warn her about in episode 2, warning Diana against "living in the madness." It was a lesson she tragically appeared not to learn. (Nor apparently has her hapless second son!) In the series, a young but prescient Prince William registers his unhappiness and warns his mother that Dodi is "weird." Would that she had been able to absorb incoming messages!

Like all the royals - like all real human beings - Diana was complicated. The Crown portrays her complexity and that of the other members of the royal family, above all the Queen. Both in the series and in real life, Diana did do real, serious humanitarian work, which actually made a difference, but the fact (whichThe Crown portrays in all its vapidity) was that the world always only cared about her looks, her clothes, and, above all, her love-life. As the Queen says at one point, "one would almost feel sorry for her, if one weren't so cross with her."

The world at large felt "sorry" for Diana and became increasingly "cross" with the Queen and her duty-governed outlook on life. The series seems to want to highlight the contrast - Diana cavorting amid Fayed's capitalist extravagance (which the rest of us are presumed to desire and so identify with) contrasted with the royal family being properly Victorian in cold and wet Scotland (which presumably we can't identify with and must dismiss as archaic and out-of-touch). The series assumes (probably correctly) that we are all largely paparazzi at heart, that the values personified by the paparazzi's mad chase reflect the world true values, in contrast to the royal family's representation of some long-lost world of duty, honor, and country.

Of course, the way the series unfolds Diana is portrayed as in some sense replacing one hierarchical family with another. Dodi is a subordinate in his father's empire, a servant to his father's tyrannical and somewhat absurd ambitions (and aspiration to UK citizenship). Perhaps, we might even infer, Charles really was working for the far better monarch, after all.

The Crown is, of course, fiction, albeit fiction based on facts we well remember without necessarily agreeing about. So it portrays Diana conflicted at the end, even resisting the Fayed empire's marriage proposal and trying to reinvent her life in a more rational direction. Whether the real Diana might have been ready to embrace a saner outcome, whether that would even have been possible given the constraints of her post-royal celebrity, we can now never know. The Crown can indulge in such fantasy, because we all know what happened next.

Episode 4 takes us into well trodden territory made familiar by the 2006 film The Queen. Here, as in the film, it is Charles who immediately recognizes the implications of Diana's death. "This is going to be the biggest thing we have ever seen." Here the series follows the familiar script of the struggle at Balmoral between being a private family and a public institution embodying the soul of a nation. Here, however, it is Charles (with some help from Diana's ghost) who is the protagonist in that struggle, not the Prime Minister.

Charles's and his mother's conversations with Diana's ghost seem somewhat contrived, but they accomplish their purpose and probably help the audience achieve some closure after having stirred up so much intense emotion. Indeed the series does effectively recapture for those who remember that time some of the extreme emotion of those tragic days. At that same time, in keeping with the series' trajectory, the episode highlights the underlying conflict between what Diana (or, rather, a certain popular perception of Diana) meant versus what the crown as an institution is intended to mean.

If anything, as in the hunt for the missing Prince William, this series takes even more liberty with history than the film The Queen did. Admittedly, Balmoral is an enormous estate, but it strains credulity to imagine how the heir presumptive to the heir apparent could just go missing for 14 hours. The Crown uses this fictional incident to illustrate what was at issue and help trigger the Queen's eventual response.

It was, perhaps, inevitable - given audience interests and expectations - that The Crown would devote so much of its limited space to Diana. For better or for worse, the Diana saga succinctly summarizes the tensions which The Crown has chosen to focus on throughout the series, the personal/institutional struggle which The Crown has employed as the primary lens through which to examine the Queen and what she represented. Of course, this is more of a challenge when the persons being portrayed are for the most part still with us. Queen Elizabeth is only recently deceased, and Charles and Camilla are still very much alive and are now reigning on the throne the Queen bequeathed to them. It now remains to be seen how the final six episodes (to be released a month from now) will pull it all together.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Compline: The Gift of Old Age


Jesuit Father John LaFarge (1880-1963), son of artist John LaFarge (1835-1910), whose art graces the windows and walls of the Paulist Mother Church in New York, may be most famous for his progressive commitments, his authorship of Interracial Justice: A Study of the Catholic Doctrine of Race Relations (1937), and his founding of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York in 1934. LaFarge was also the principal author of Pope Pius XI's planned (but eventually aborted after the Pope's death) encyclical against racism and anti-semitism, Humani generis salutis (On the Unity of the Human Race"). 

At the end of his life however, Fr. LaFarge also authored a short, meditative book, The Precious Gift of Old Age: How to Make the Golden Years the Best of Your Life (Doubleday, 1963, Sophia Institute Press, 2022). Written in 1962, La Farge's little book obviously reflects its time and place,  the early 1960s ("Camelot") in the prosperous, post-war United States on the eve of Medicare, but it nonetheless speaks words of perennial wisdom to all who have grown old or who ever expect to (presumably everyone else).

The author's goal was "to explore what old age has to say to us, in the light of our faith, in the light of our personal experience." While it has much human wisdom to share with all older people, this is an unambiguously faith-filled Christian book, that looks beyond old age and forward to "closer fellowship with Him, toward whose life and peace we are ever moving." Hence, the analogy the author makes with the canonical hour of Compline. "When this life's work is over, you yield your spiritual component or soul to its Creator, just as each night you yield your sensitive psychic structure to the remoteness from daily reality that we call sleep."

In human terms, the author acknowledges the multiple physical and social diminishments that inevitably accompany old age. "Your outer circle is narrowed, and internally you are in poorer shape to cope with the changing world around you." To start with, it is important to acknowledge the naturalness of old age. Like other stages in life, it has "its own prerogatives and is best judged by its own standards," and he stresses how "so any human abnormalities come from trying to act outside of one's own age."

Even in natural terms, attitude is central to how one interprets old age. "Aging in a world of hope is a totally different affair from growing old in a world, in a community, or in a network of family relationships poisoned by the bitter and unnatural atmosphere of despair."

The centrality of human and social relationships is especially important in old age with its potential for increased isolation and loneliness. If that was an issue in 1962, how much more of an issue is it now, in our problematic present, when - as is well known and increasingly written about - people of all ages are experiencing increasing isolation and loneliness! Hence the value of LaFarge's emphasis on love of neighbor. "Advanced years give an extra opportunity to make the love of neighbor your own in new and unexpected ways, and one way is the relief of loneliness for other aged persons." For those not yet old who might venture to read this book, he gives advice about "the importance in one's younger years of forming wide interests, so as not to be caught short when life around you seems to fade."

The author also acknowledges the pros and cons of intergenerational living, which again is even less common today than it was in 1962. (In that year, there were five of us living in our apartment - ranging in age from my sister at seven to my grandmother at 81.) Of course, in religious life, intergenerational living remains the norm. So his observations may have a special salience for those of us in that special state of life.

LaFarge recalls a December 1962 TV documentary, The Superfluous Ones, which highlighted "the various types of people for whom the metropolis spells, loneliness, aimlessness, or neglect." Nowadays, of course, the situation is so much worse - for many more people across the age spectrum. In fact, thanks to the Great Society (i.e., Medicare and Medicaid), while there are still seniors who are poor and underserved, in general seniors are among the better off in our society. Even then, however, the author saw in the modern world's "impersonal and ruthless, destructive[ness] of human values and neighborliness," an opportunity for older persons to help and serve others.

The author acknowledges that prosperity is not universal, that worldwide "the proportion of aged men and women who are tormented by the most elementary types of want - the lack of even the bare essentials of nourishment, clothing, medicine, and so on - is usually very much greater than your imagination can conceive." Even in the United States, while "only a society of abundance could produce such a high proportion of old people," not all "these human products of abundance" benefit fully from its fruits.

Finally, in words which seem so prescient today, he stresses in relation to how we live leisure and retirement, "our responsibility for the goods of the earth in general, whether they be our own personal gifts or the material and spiritual goods that surround us." And certainly every senior who has struggled with the latest technological innovation can resonate with the contrast between "a simpler, less highly organized world" which we once knew and "the highly rationalized intricacies of our modern existence" in which "so many inventions bring added burdens in their train."

The Precious Gift of Old Age invites us, whatever our age, to embrace "the courage to accept our natural life, whatever be its length or circumstances, and the courage to accept the divine life, the life of the resurrection, which is love."

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

One Small Step

The Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the founder of the Paulist Fathers, advanced one small step yesterday. By a vote of 230 to 7, with 2 abstentions, the USCCB endorsed New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan's advocacy of Hecker's Cause.

Addressing his brother bishops, the New York Cardinal Dolan spoke eloquently about Hecker's life as a classic American story of a son of immigrants. He called Hecker a modern-day Augustine, who studied and researched the religious movements of his age, and identified Hecker's religious search with that of many today, as. he described the yearning of Hecker's heart meeting the rigor of his mind.

Cardinal Dolan particularly praised Hecker's zeal and his efforts to make the Catholic faith appealing, accessible, and compelling and to form Catholics better in their own faith. He spoke of what he called Hecker's apostolate of attraction, his deep sense of hope in the U.S., and his belief that the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to heal and unite the American people.

He concluded that Hecker's faith ought to inspire us as we strive to continue the work of this son of our shores and saint for our times.

In a November 9, 2006, Catholic New York column, cardinal Dolan's predecessor, Edward Cardinal Egan, wrote that, as a saint, Hecker would “be an inspiration for us all,” and he described Hecker’s life as “nothing less than an adventure in faith.”


An adventure in faith, indeed! Like Christian history’s most famous seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker had examined the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, paying intense attention to his own inner spiritual sensibility, before finally finding a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church. In our contemporary idiom, Hecker was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, eloquently exemplifies the perennially human appeal of such a spiritual search and certainly speaks to the spiritual longings of some in our own (admittedly more secular) society today. What was especially significant about Hecker’s “spiritual but not religious” period, of course, was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church – from his initial conversion experience as recorded in his Diary, through his active ministry as a priest and missionary preacher, to his final mature exposition in his last book, The Church and the Age - remain exemplary.


Looking back on Hecker’s ideas from the vantage point of the present, we can appreciate his consistent commitment to call American Catholics to the fullness of their mission to evangelize their society and – to that end - to enhance the quality of Church life, to build up the Catholic Church in the United States. We may be even more apt to appreciate today the importance of internal Church community life for the effectiveness of its mission outward to society. Hecker’s invitation to his colleagues “to adapt ourselves to accept what is good in our social and political customs and institutions” was an expression of missionary vitality. He was convinced that the same Holy Spirit who spoke in his own heart and whose speaks in human hearts in general simultaneously speaks through the Church, and that the evangelization of American society through missionary action aimed at the conversion of citizens will benefit both Church and civil society.


In 19th-century Europe, the Catholic Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly challenging political order that sought in multiple ways to constrain it. Classical liberalism’s privatization of religion deepened the rift between modern society and religion. Ever since, the Church has been challenged to counteract the social fragmentation associated with modernity and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. 


Hecker never wavered in his conviction that what he had found in Catholicism – and what he had been able to find only in Catholicism – could and would be America’s answer as well. He was confident “that neither Calvinism nor Unitarianism or Transcendentalism would ultimately have much appeal to the moderate American mind.” For Hecker, Catholicism offered a religious alternative which recognized the necessity of revelation and grace while also appreciating the permanence and value of nature and reason. 


Hecker combined Catholic universalism and a distinctly American self-understanding of the relationship between religion and society in a providential perspective, which could work within the framework bequeathed by classical liberalism’s separation of society and state. 


Hecker’s simultaneously uncompromising affirmation of Church authority and his equally clear commitment to the providential purpose for that authority remain even more relevant in this similarly religiously and socially fragmented century, in which the Church is constantly being challenged not just to proclaim its authoritative answers but also to incarnate a communal experience of the Body of Christ in the world, which responds to the deepest desires and questions of people both outside and inside the Church.


Whereas for Hecker’s famous contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion meant alienation, and its survival in American society showed the inadequacy of religion’s purely political separation from the state, for Hecker Roman Catholicism was the providential fulfillment of the most authentic aspirations of human nature; and its power to transform society through the conversion of citizens more than compensated for the Church’s loss of political power thanks to its separation from the State.


Servant of God Isaac Hecker continues to provide an inspirational model for our contemporaries to think about the search for God, receptiveness to God's grace, the experience of conversion, the giving of oneself heroically in service, and the furthering of the Church's mission in our time and place.