Thursday, February 29, 2024

Leap Year


Every fourth year, our otherwise predictable, relatively repetitive civic calendar does something just a little bit different (albeit predictably so), which makes me think that today, February 29 - this extra day we have every fourth year, every "Leap Year" - should always be a holiday! (After all, why should labor-extracting employers be given the benefit of an extra day's labor by their employees, just because this happens once every four years?)

"Leap year," as anyone who cares already knows, was first introduced into the ancient Roman calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. Originally, Caesar intended a"Leap Year" to occur every fourth year,  which was what happened until the introduction of the reformed Gregorian Calendar in October 1582. Caesar's reform, while presumably an infinite improvement over whatever the Romans had been doing with their calendar before, was nonetheless slightly off, so much so that by the 16th century the Julian Calendar was about 10 days off, The Gregorian Calendar, which we now almost universally use, corrected Caesar's calculations by omitting 3 leap years every 400 years - e.g., not adding the extra day in 1700, 1800, and 1900, but doing so in 2000 (As a result, the Julian and Gregorian calendars are now a full 13 days out of sync.)

For reasons that made more sense to an ancient Roman than to us, Caesar inserted the extra "leap year" day in late February - duplicating the sixth day before the Kalends of March, which in the Roman way of computing dates was February 24. (February 23, the seventh day before the Kalends of March, was the pre-Christian Roman feast of Terminalia, devoted to Terminus, the god of boundaries, temporal as well as geographical, which may perhaps explain Caesar's choice of the following day.) Hence, the Latin term for "leap year" is annus bisextilis, i.e., a year in which the sixth day before the Kalends of March occurs twice. This curious term for what in English we call leap year is as a result common in all the Romance languages, for example, “anno bisestile” in Italian.  

In the pre-conciliar Roman liturgical calendar, the sixth day before the Kalends of March, February 24, was celebrated as the feast of Saint Matthias. But in a "leap year," when there were two sixth days before the Kalends of March, Saint Matthias was celebrated on the second of them, February 25. Sadly - and to no noticeable advantage to anyone - the present, post-conciliar calendar reassigned Saint Matthias to May 14. So another quaint survival from liturgical antiquity was gratuitously abandoned.

Be all that as it may, we still have this oddity of "leap year," which gives us a February of 29 instead of 28 days and means that for the next 12 months every date will fall two days of the week later instead of the usual one. (Hence the term "leap year.") 

In my ignorant youth, I very foolishly embraced the project of an artificial, invariable "World Calendar." Having long ago recovered from the ultra-rationalist folly underlying the proposed "World Calendar," I can now better appreciate the charm of having so much variety in our actual calendar! (The Second Vatican Council wisely poured cold water on the proposed "World Calendar" with its caveat that, when it comes to any alternative calendar system, the Church has no objection only in the case of those systems which retain and safeguard a seven-day week with Sunday, without the introduction of any days outside the week, so that the succession of weeks may be left intact.)

Not surprisingly, all sorts of popular folkloric customs have developed over the centuries in regard to "leap year." There is, for example, the British-Irish tradition (dubiously associated with Saint Brigid of Kildare, whose 1500th anniversary has been celebrated this very month) that a woman may take the initiative and propose marriage to a man in "Leap Year." 

I don't know what to make of that curious concession in today's very changed society. But I still think this extra day should always be a holiday!

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Freud's Last Session (The Movie)


I used to go to movies much more often. Now I seldom see new films. Finally, however, one 2023 movie which I have been really wanting to see has recently become available for rental via YouTube. Freud's Last Session, based on an earlier stage play of the same name, depicts a fictional meeting between the founder of psychoanalysis, Dr. Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and author C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, and just 20 days before Freud's own death. 

Dr. Freud, of course, had escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna a little over a year earlier thanks to the efforts of various friends and allies (notably Dr. Ernest Jones, U.S. Ambassador William Bullitt, and Princess Marie Bonaparte). It is known that Freud did meet with an unidentified Oxford don near the end of his life. That could possibly have been Lewis. We will likely never know, but the opportunity for this fictionalized account obviously suggests itself. (Given the extent of Friend's then terminal illness, one wonders how vigorous a conversation could have taken place in September 1939, but again this is fiction.

The storyline of the film is that Freud, a long-term Jewish atheist, and indeed one of modernity's most effective exponents of the case against religion, objected to Lewis' rejection of atheism in favor of Christianity; and so the two met to debate the question of the existence of God. In the course of their discussion, other subjects also arise, among them Lewis' own lingering traumas from his childhood and from  World War I. Meanwhile, we also get to meet Freud's famous daughter and child psychologist Anna (Liv Lisa Fries), on whom Freud was very obviously dependent at that point. We also meet her lesbian partner, Dorothy Burlingham (Jodi Balfour), a relationship in constant conflict with Freud's possessive attitude toward his emotionally dependent daughter. Despite the film's title and its implied emphasis on the debate between the two men, much of the film focuses on Anna and her complicated relationship with her father, who had famously abandoned the canons of psychoanalysis in analyzing his daughter himself.

The opening scenes set the stage in the context of the panicked atmosphere in London on the first official day of war, including an air-raid warning which at one point causes the two men to take refuge in, of all places, a local church, where Freud correctly identifies the statue of Saint Dymphna, patroness of the mentally ill. Otherwise, most of the men's interaction takes place in Freud's London home, within which Anna seems to have done her best to replicate their Vienna home, and which reflects Freud's long-term interest in religious artifacts. Indeed, he describes himself as "a passionate disbeliever, who is obsessed with belief and worship, ancient beliefs and worship, yours [Lewis's] included."

Freud was, of course, a dying man at this point, which adds further pathos to the story and its seemingly unresolvable debate about God. "Death," Freud acknowledges, "is as unfair as life." Freud's life represented the ideal of scientific rationality, which just cannot make room for religion, no matter how interesting it may find the pre-rational in human existence. Lewis, for his part, asks in exasperation, "Why does religion make room for science, but science refuses to make room for religion." His question remains unanswered, on the screen as in real life.

In the end, the two men part - presumably as friends. but the religion question remains unresolved, as it perhaps inevitably is in this life. Both men remain essentially unchanged, which may be the film's honesty and its virtue.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Two Years of War

Exactly two years ago today, Russia, under its current Orthodox Tsar Vladimir Putin, launched an imperialist aggressive war against its European neighbor Ukraine - the first such imperialist aggressive war on European territory since 1945. Under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the U.S. and NATO originally responded effectively. Since then, however, MAGA isolationism and a general societal fatigue with "forever wars" have imperiled that response and endangered Ukraine's long-term survival prospects.

As if a reminder were really needed, the death of Russian dissident Alexei Novalny has further reminded the world what a monster the current Orthodox Tsar actually is - and by extension how serious the threat Putin's Russian imperial expansionism poses in the immediate term for Ukraine and in the longer term for the rest of Europe. 

The religious component of the conflict may be too complicated to sort out here. However, there is much to be said for Tim Alberta's observation: "Russia wasn’t merely using Christianity to endorse its ambitions. Russia was using Christianity to define its enemies. It was the kind of identitarian programming that presaged some of history’s greatest crimes—and, in the case of Russia’s butchery in Ukraine, it would not have been possible without the blessing of the Church." The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (HarperCollins, p. 236).

Since 2014, Ukraine has lost about 18% of its territory to Russia's imperialism (about 7% before the current war and about 11% more since this war began). In this terrible two-year war, some 130,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed, or wounded, or are missing. Meanwhile, some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have also been killed and some 25% of the population has been displaced. While Ukraine has never really been "winning" the war, there was a time when it looked at least as if Ukraine were on the offensive. Now that illusion has been dispelled - as may be the illusion that the United States is a reliable ally, After delaying four four full months the President's request for military aid to Ukraine, Congress has taken two-week vacation. So much for any sense of urgency about the government's business!

In the "second-guessing" game that inevitably follows any major conflict, it may well be that the Biden Administration has been too slow in supplying needed weaponry to Ukraine out of  (possibly reasonable, possible misplaced) fear that Ukraine might use the weapons against Russian territory and thus "escalate" the war. Whatever the reasoning was, a mistake may thus have been made in the pace of American military aid. (To be fair, of course, there was reasonable doubt at first that Ukraine could resist effectively. There would have been no purpose sending large amounts of weaponry, only to have it fall into Russian hands. However, Ukraine's willingness and ability to resist were quickly established. And taking the conflict to Russia's homeland was a wise strategy, at least from he Ukrainian perspective, regardless of American nervousness about "escalation.")

What the Biden Administration did do very well was to mobilize European support behind the defense of Ukraine. Europeans, having frittered away the post Cold War "peace dividend" and having for far too long relied too much on the U.S. defensive umbrella, were finally fully awakened to the degree of threat posed by Russian imperialism. Russia's neighbors - Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland) know from their long history what a dangerous enemy Russia inevitably is. So their awakening seems to have been more complete and effective. Of all of this war's ironies, Putin's goal of undermining NATO led instead to Sweden and Finland joining NATO and the overall strengthening of that indispensable alliance.

The problem now is not Europe but the U.S. - more precisely the Trump MAGA dominance of American politics and stranglehold over Congress. Thanks to Trump's envious admiration of Putin and his hostility to NATO and thanks to the slavish subservience of the Speaker and his Caucus to Trump, the U.S. may be on the verge of an irresponsible abandonment of its international obligations analogous to its abandonment of its international obligations after World War I. And we well remember how that story ended!


Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Church's Rock


Among the many wonderful things which one can watch nowadays on YouTube, there is a series of videos from the Italian TV coverage of the coronation of Pope Saint John XXIII on November 4, 1958.  Several times during that lengthy ceremony, the choir chants Jesus’ words which we just heard in today’s Gospel: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”).  Also, that Gospel account was chanted, not once but twice – first by a Latin deacon, and then by a Greek deacon. I think that’s what is called making a point!


Today’s feast and its Gospel take us back in time - from the baroque splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica and the modern papacy to the region of Caesarea Philippi and to Peter himself. Caesarea Philippi was situated some 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee in territory ruled by King Herod’s son Philip, hence the name. That place is now known as "Banias," a deformation of its pre-Roman name, "Paneas," referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location at Israel’s northern border at the foot of Mount Hermon. That border was obviously a lot easier to cross in Jesus’ time, than it is now; but it was still a border, laden with symbolic spiritual significance. 


It was to that faraway, pagan place that Jesus took his disciples and asked them what is, in some sense, still the basic Christian question: Who do you say that Jesus is? As befits the prominent role he is being prepared for, Peter answers on behalf of the disciples – on behalf of the entire Church: You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God. Not only does Peter proclaim that Jesus is Israel’s hoped-for Messiah, but – in that site sacred to Pan, the son of Zeus – he proclaims Jesus as the Son of the living (that is, the one true) God.


Then, as now, Peter speaks for the Church –for all of us. In response, Jesus assures us that Peter’s profession of faith is not just another opinion, one option among many in the global religious marketplace, but a revelation from God – one which Peter himself still probably at best only poorly understood. From such a modest beginning in such an oddly out-of-the-way place, Peter’s profession of who Jesus is, has been the center of the Church’s proclamation – as Peter’s role has since likewise remained central to the Church’s identity and mission. 


Fast forward to the baroque basilica built above Peter’s tomb, where Peter continues to speak - on the Church’s behalf for the sake of the whole world. In a Church that right now, as so often in her past, seems much more divided than united, the papal office continues to serve as a visible source of the unity of the Church across space and time. Across space, “people of every nation, culture, and tongue” (as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer) are “gathered as one,” so that “in a world torn by strife and discord,” we “may stand forth,” as a Universal Church, “as a sign of oneness and peace.” Such a unity across space is, in turn, uniquely possible because of the Church’s unity across time - our unity with Peter in his profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of the living God, whose own victory over death has definitively guaranteed that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church.


Homily for the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 22, 2024.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Our Ongoing National Nightmare

Today is "Presidents Day" - as good an occasion as any perhaps to reflect upon our ongoing national nightmare. Way back when (in the mid-1970s) - during our last "long national nightmare" (i.e., Watergate) - one of my Princeton professors wrote, "How did we get from the Federalist Papers to the Edited Transcripts?" On this Presidents Day, we may likewise wonder: How did we get from Washington to Trump? How did we get from Adams vs. Jefferson to Biden vs. Trump? How did we get from Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists to Democrats vs. MAGA?

Despite its popular name, "Presidents Day" is not a celebration of the presidency. In fact, "Presidents Day" doesn't really exist - except in the fevered swamp of American capitalism, where it is February's analogue to November's Black Friday. Legally, "Presidents Day" is really still Washington's Birthday. Since February 22 (Washington's actual birthday in the Gregorian calendar in 1732) became a federal holiday in 1879, George Washington has been the only president honored with such a holiday. However, in one more obvious sign of the misplaced priorities which characterize our contemporary our society, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 considered the creation three-day weekends more important that the historical and cultural meaning of holidays like Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day.

Meanwhile, as if pretending it were still a serious organization, the Senate, every year since 1896, has deputed one of its members to read out loud Washington’s 7,640-word farewell address. Last year, Senator James Lankford, an arch-conservative Republican Senator from Oklahoma, since then now apparently a persona non grata in MAGA circles for actually being willing to try to govern, read the address. Of course, Congress, as if it were oblivious to the multiple crises confronting our country and our world, any number of which are being exacerbated by congressional malfeasance, has gone on vacation. So the ritual reading of Washington's Address will have to wait a while!

All of which, while obviously trivial in itself, seems somehow symbolic of the sad state of our politics and society. The relationship is reciprocal. Our deranged politics unhinges our society. And our increasingly unhinged society stimulates the derangement of our politics.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Kingdom Is At Hand

How many here showed up for ashes this past Wednesday? I’ll bet almost all of us - and a lot of others besides, people we may seldom even see on other days! It has to be one of the great examples of the Church’s liturgical genius that it can take something so unattractive (but so true) as our inevitable return to dust, and ritualize it so effectively every Lent.

Now back when Lent really was exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the 3 following days got added on), Lent began on this Sunday, and the 40 days are in fact still counted beginning with today.


So, every year on this day, we are invited to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life and mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert. The Judean desert is a harsh and somewhat forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent and where he invites us (symbolically at least) to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desertleads us to spend these 40 days with him among the wild beasts that threaten and challenge us to choose what to make of our lives.


According to the biblical account of human origins, Adam had originally lived peacefully among those same wild beasts – his food provided, according to Jewish legend, by angels. Jesus’ sojourn among the wild beasts with angels ministering to him, tells us that God’s original plan is still in place – despite whatever obstacles we put in his way. 

That’s the point of the story of Noah. Despite all the obstacles people put in God’s way, in his mercy God patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his just anger, to guarantee the continuance of life on earth.


In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sinfulness, descending into the prison of death to free its victims. Jesus’ descent among the dead anticipates the final fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”


That’s what Lent is all about because that’s what life is ultimately all about. One Ash Wednesday some years ago, I overheard someone explaining Lent as “a time to get connected with ourselves.” Well, Lent is a time to renew ourselves. But we do that by focusing not on ourselves, but on the big picture, and where we want to be in that picture. Lent is our special time to connect with Christ – Christ tempted in the desert and victorious on the cross, Christ descended among the dead and risen at the right hand of his Father – and to allow that experience, his experience to make a real difference in our lives, because the kingdom of God really is at hand.

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 18, 2024.



Friday, February 16, 2024

Her Emails - Again?

Eight years ago, the U.S. electorate was asked to choose between a predictable, neo-liberal, internationalist Democrat and a pseudo-populist, neo-isolationist demagogue. And so, to help voters in their discernment, mainstream media endlessly obsessed about the Democratic candidate's emails. There were, in fact, many issues worth debating in 2016. If, however, the proverbial visitor from Mars had been dropped to earth for the election, he or she might well have concluded that the single most important issue - and without doubt the most serious challenge facing the United States that year - was Hillary Clinton's emails.

And now media coverage is doing it again. This time it is not Hillary's emails but President Joe Biden's age, which is the media's fixation. Forget that Biden's opponent in the election is just a few years younger and if elected will also be in his 80s by the end of his term. Forget too the Biden, whatever his physical frailties, has governed like a normal president (and actually governed quite competently and successfully), while his opponent sounds increasingly unhinged and is facing four trials for 91 criminal indictments. 

Media malfeasance undoubtedly helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, and may well do it again in 2024. That said, that is the political universe which we inhabit at present. Somehow or other, Biden and the Democrats must defuse the age issue in some way and get on with the campaign.

Perhaps, in an ideal world Biden would have been satisfied with one term, as some supporters may have hoped he would back in 2020. The problem with that, of course, is that, in American politics, a one-term president is inevitably remembered as a failure. History may treat George H.W. Bush better than his contemporaries did, but that is no compensation for being remembered first and foremost for having lost re-election. It is hard enough, if you are the sort of person who has spent much of your life imagining Hail To the Chief was composed just for you, to choose not to run again. It is even harder to do so knowing that any such decision would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, a harbinger of historical failure.

Perhaps, Biden could have gotten away with it if he had declined to run in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterm election, in which the Democrats did very well. (Had the Democrats done badly, as had been expected, there might have been more pressure on Biden to withdraw, and any such withdrawal would almost certainly have been seen as an acknowledgement of failure.)

And, perhaps, Biden will follow Ross Douthat's recommendation and announce his withdrawal at or just before the Convention and throw the Convention open to choose the party's candidate. While it might be nice to see the Convention reclaim its historical role, that would be a scenario at least as risky in terms of defeating Donald Trump as Joe Biden's running against him. And, however attractive Douthat's scenario of an open convention, it remains extremely unlikely that Biden will actually do it - or that many in the party would really want to sail out into such uncharted waters. After all, it is not the case that there is any obvious alternative for the party to rally around, whose electoral prospects appear any better than Biden's. (That, of course, highlights a larger problem in American politics of a lack of obvious heirs to replace the current ruling gerontocracy.)

So, in the real word in which we live, Joe Biden will be the candidate of his party, and the fact that he is old must simply be factored in - like Hillary's emails in 2016 - as an unfair burden to be borne by the campaign. (Hopefully, however, with a less spectacularly catastrophic outcome!)

It has been suggested by some that maybe some of the (artificially inflated) anxiety about President Biden's age is symbolic of other concerns, in particular the sense that Biden represents - and is overly wedded to - a 20th-century style of politics, which may have made sense when Biden entered the Senate 50 years ago but which no longer describes the way Washington and political parties work now. There is some truth to that, of course.  I certainly think Hakeem Jeffries may have a better appreciation of the full meaning of Republican MAGA intransigence than Biden does. On the other hand, Biden has accomplished a great deal - perhaps more than any president since LBJ. If only that message were as interesting as his emails (I mean, his age)!

Underlying all this is the perennial problem that, whereas Democrats really want to fall in love, Republicans are more ready to fall in line. There are still some less than fully MAGA Republicans around, most of whom, however, will faithfully endorse Donald Trump by Election Day, if they have not done so already. On the other hand, disgruntled Democrats are a common occurrence and appear perennially prepared to imperil their candidate's and their party's prospects by attacking their own leadership instead of attacking the opposition. And the Democratic coalition is basically looser and harder to hold together against the bizarre attractiveness of third-party candidates or the seemingly greater satisfaction of staying home rather than voting at all. Republicans are just better at supporting their candidates and their party than Democrats are. And, if the Republicans win again this year, that may well be the main reason why.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Getting "On With It"

Seventy-seven years ago, on February 15, 1947, my parents, Felix Franco and Camille Bonaccorso (photo), were married  at a Saturday morning nuptial Mass at Saint Nicholas of Tolentione Church in what was then justifiably called "the Beautiful Bronx." There is a wonderful scene in the final season of The Crown, the acclaimed Netflix series about my parents' contemporary (albeit a few years younger than either of them) Queen Elizabeth II, in which the Queen responds to her grandson Prince William's anxieties about dating, "We met someone, then married them, and got on with it" (season 6, episode 7).

Like so many of the Queen's wise words in The Crown, that sentence effectively expresses my parents' generation's expectations and experience. The "Greatest Generation," as they were so rightly labelled by Tom Brokaw, experienced unique historical challenges in war and peace. Having won the war and brought home what President John F. Kennedy would later call "a hard and bitter peace," they were ready to do what generation after generation had done for all of human history - meet someone, marry, and get "on with it." And that they did, producing the famous "Baby Boom" generation, of which I am proudly a member.

It is no secret that, since then, something has gone amiss when it comes to the basic business of family formation - getting "on with it." Some other countries are even worse off than the U.S., but the entire developed world seems to have been afflicted. It is not yet quite the biological catastrophe that British author P.D. James described so poignantly in The Children of Men, her 1992 dystopian novel set in England in 2021, which frankly portrays the tragic results of mass infertility, a world without a future, a world without hope.

We're not there yet, of course, but James' depressing depiction of what happens when, for whatever reason, the continuation of the human race has seemingly ceased, is a profound warning to all of us of where we seem to be heading. Unsurprisingly it seems to be commentators of a more conservative orientation who seem most alert to this crisis in humanity's future. Among conservative pundits, Ross Douthat of The New York Times has been particularly eloquent in highlighting this issue and the catastrophic prospects it portends for our world.

On the other hand, as The Atlantic's Brad Wilcox"The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage" has recently written, “Social media, meanwhile, tends to send bad signals to kids and young adults. The dopamine-driven ethos that infuses much of TikTok and Instagram enriches the executives at Sequoia Capital and Meta but provides little support for anything but living for the moment, and undercuts the values and behaviors needed to sustain long-term love, not to mention marriage." Meanwhile, more traditional media, Wilcox notes, "oscillate between occasionally acknowledging the benefits of marriage and frequently praising the alternatives to it." 

At their wedding, 77 years ago today, my parents would have listened as the celebrating priest read the Rituale Romanum's "Exhortation before Marriage," one of the treasures of the pre-conciliar liturgy and one of the most beautiful English-language liturgical texts ever composed - now sadly lost from the marriage rite at a time when perhaps its message may be more necessary than ever. That "Exhortation" famously began:

My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care. Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. 

Then, after a brief excursus on the specifically sacramental character of Christian marriage, the "Exhortation" continued:

This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. 

I wasn't there, of course, when my parents listened to those words. Yet, I myself heard them many times as a child, when I served at weddings as an altar boy. I still particularly remember remember certain sentences which especially impressed me: Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.

I knew, of course that my parents weren't perfect. I assumed that only television families like those on Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were perfect. In fact, like any child, I was acutely aware of what I perceived to be the imperfections in our family life. Yet I also learned to appreciate the struggle to approximate that perfection of love ,which is the key to all human striving and the ultimate aspiration of all moral living.

That extremely sensible and wise "Exhortation" ended:

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy did not know about television families, which (at least in my childhood days) really were happy families all happy alike. Off television, in this vale of tears, it seems every family is unhappy in its own way. But hands and hearts joined in true love and unselfish spirit transform the ordinary challenges of family life into opportunities of grace. I think of one former classmate of mine who, after his first child was born, told me his respect for the human race had greatly grown now that he more fully understood the challenges men and women undertake to keep the human race going, what The Crown's Queen Elizabeth would have called getting "on with it."

I recall with special personal gratitude the commitment my parents made 77 years ago today to get on with the business of keeping the human race going, I honor them and all the other striving parents I have known, and I pray that their example will rekindle in today's world that necessary commitment to marriage and family formation.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Remember ...


There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was much more rigorous than it is today. Basil didn’t mention Ash Wednesday - because Ash Wednesday didn’t exist yet.  The custom of everybody flocking to church to get ashes was a relative latecomer to Lent. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday. 


For many who come to get ashes today, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings this curious custom may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much-desired ashes?


The use of ashes, the Church reminds us, “symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.” Remember, the Church tells us today, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What is it about having dirt smudged on one’s face and being reminded that we are going to die that is so amazingly attractive – and on Valentine’s Day, no less?

Every year, I ask myself that question, and I always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with words and images we can barely begin to process, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, for once we are being told something that is simply, unambiguously TRUE.


We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about ourselves. Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday - with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repent - somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lies that envelope us.


Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem somewhat reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.


Homily for Ash Wednesday, Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Grand Rapids, MI, February 14, 2021.


Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Valentine's Day (Anticipated)


Ash Wednesday's modern popularity is so strong that it has spread well beyond its originally Roman Catholic context. So this year's inconvenient coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day has sparked a surprising amount of even secular commentary. Of course, in my line of work, Valentine's Day has no place. The post-conciliar Roman calendar having ridiculously removed the celebration of Saint Valentine himself, I have no obligation to take any notice of the occasion at all. So I am at most a passive spectator in the debate about how best to celebrate Valentine's Day this year. 

Given today's long tradition as a day of feasting - Carnevale, Mardi Gras - it would seem sensible, for those who care about Valentine's Day, to anticipate their celebrations today. That certainly seems more appropriate than the alternative of postponing it to Thursday, which is, after all, the second day of Lent, which is a six-week season of penance, not a single day of ashes. 

Anyway, I hope those to whom this holiday applies are able to do it the justice they undoubtedly feel it deserves. And, while perhaps under more normal conditions I might not care that much, nothing is normal anymore, and this year I am aware of at least one additional reason to give at least two cheers for Valentine's Day.

Patriarch Kiril, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and thus Vladimir Putin's spiritual cheerleader in his war of aggression against Ukraine and Western civilization, has added Valentine's Day to his list of enemies. “The celebration of the so-called ‘Valentine’s Day,’ imported from the West, also raises many questions,” Kiril claims. “Despite all attempts to ennoble it,” Kiril says that Valentine’s Day “still remains propaganda of relationships that have nothing to do with true love.”

So take that, you romantic couples, friendship-celebrating school children, and everyone else who enjoys the holiday - not to mention the florists and chocolate sellers who profit so handsomely from it! Now that Putin's chaplain has weighed in, will MAGA world be far behind? After all, MAGA world has already gone to war against romance in its insane response to Taylor and Travis. Perhaps the whole romance-related industry is also some deep-state, pro-Biden, anti-Putin plot that needs to be attacked too?

Assuming that is not the case, to all who choose to celebrate it today: 

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

"If You Wish ..."


All of us here have lived through and remember the covid pandemic of 2020, especially those early weeks when, almost overnight everything closed down – schools, stores, even churches. And we were washing our hands all the time and keeping our distance from one another. Some of these emergency measures made sense, some didn’t. I was a pastor in Knoxville, TN, at the time, and I remember leaving the mail out in the sun on the porch for several hours for the sunlight to kill the virus, at a time when even touching the mail was thought by some to be dangerous.

Recalling all that should help us appreciate the anxiety ancient people felt when faced with the mysterious disease that they called leprosy. Hence, the Old Testament’s extensive instructions on how to deal with it, some of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading [Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46].  Generally speaking, those suffering from the disease were segregated by law and required to live outside inhabited communities. And, since the disease was widely believed to be very contagious, they were supposed to warn away anyone who approached them. Until 1969, the United Sates had a similar system of legally enforced segregation of lepers in Hawaii – made famous for generations of Catholic school children by the heroic stories of Saint Damien of Molokai, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall, and his associate Sant Marianne Cope.

In ancient Israel, however, what was called leprosy was sometimes not Damien’s fatal disease but a relatively superficial skin condition, which was actually curable. Thus, the Jewish law made provision for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being healed. Until one had been properly examined and certified as healed, however, a “leper” remained ritually impure.

In such a world, where it was believed that only God could heal leprosy and where sickness was seen as a serious threat, the leper was shunned. Cut off from ordinary life and regular relationships with others, the leper’s lot must have been a miserable one indeed. Then suddenly, into this sad world of sickness and exclusion, appeared Jesus.

Apparently, the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds and reached even the marginalized leper. So, suddenly we see a leper actually approaching Jesus directly, doing precisely what the Law prohibited him from doing. A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” [Mark 1:40-45]

If you wish!” What exactly did that “if” mean? Did the leper doubt Jesus? And, if so, what exactly was he doubting about Jesus? Apparently, he didn’t doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him – actually quite amazing, given the general belief that only God could cure leprosy! If the leper had little or no doubt about Jesus’ power, Jesus’ ability, to heal him, however, he still seems evidently to have wondered whether Jesus would want to heal him, whether he cared enough to heal him. (Fear of germs, after all, is only one of many motives for erecting barriers between ourselves and others).

Jesus understood and answered: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But, before he said that, Jesus did something even more meaningful to the leper, something so radical it in fact violated the Law and implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.

In his desperation, the leper had boldly broken the Law and approached Jesus directly. Jesus reciprocated with a dramatic, unexpected touch, that spoke more than all the words in the world. With that one touch, Jesus joined the leper in his impurity and uncleanness, dramatically ending his segregation from society. With that one powerful touch, Jesus summarized his entire mission to become one with us, and so to end our segregation from God and enable us to join together with one another in the fuller, more abundant kind of life that God wants us to live.

The same Jesus, who stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, continues his healing touch here and now in the life of his body, the Church.  That healing is every bit as necessary now as it was then – not just because sickness and suffering still abound in our world, but because doubt also persists. How many of us at times really wonder whether anyone cares? How many of us at times doubt deep down whether even God cares? It is the mission and challenge of the Church – the mission and challenge therefore of each and every one of us – to express visibly, to embody physically, and so to become God’s healing presence and saving power present in our world, to continue Christ’s caring for us, by caring as he does.

As the Law required, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to verify his healing, and to make the ritual offering in thanksgiving that the Law prescribed. Presumably, the leper went and did what was required for him to re-enter society, but the leper’s principal offering in thanksgiving was to spread the report abroad and publicize the whole matter.

Whatever difficulties and doubts we may harbor, our healing will not be complete until we let Christ’s healing touch transform us, in and through our life and worship together as his Church, into agents of Christ’s caring touch to and for all the world.

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cathedral of Saint Andrew (photo above), Grand Rapids, MI, February 10-11, 2024.

Friday, February 9, 2024

He Grasped Her Hand and Helped Her

Sickness is certainly one of the universal human experiences. Some of us may be lucky to be generally healthier than others; but few of us get to escape any sickness at all. And some of us, especially as we get older, may get much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill. And, after the traumatic experience of the covid pandemic, we all worry about some new disease, some new epidemic unexpectedly upsetting business as usual. As Job reminds us, when we are sick, we experience how powerless we really are, how limited our control; and, like Job, we may feel discouraged and angry, and ask Is not life on earth a drudgery? [Job 7:1-4, 6-7].

Judging from today’s Gospel [Mark 1:29-39], Jesus spent a lot of his time curing the sick, liberating people from the various physical and spiritual disabilities that has hitherto overpowered them. That seems to be how his reputation spread. 


So, when he entered Simon and Andrew’s house and heard that Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, Jesus took charge of the situation, grasped her by the hand and helped her up – a scene so encouraging that it might have lifted even Job out of his depression! In doing this, by healing the sick, Jesus was revealing his Father to us – exemplifying God’s care for us. The Gospel says he grasped her by the hand. Touching is one of those things people tend to be especially squeamish about with the sick. It has been suggested, for example, that one reason people on Downton Abbey shook hands so infrequently was that people were worried about catching things! Fair enough, in a world without antibiotics! All of us here have lived through and remember the covid pandemic of 2020, especially those early weeks when we were washing our hands all the time and keeping our distance from one another. Some of these emergency measures made sense, some didn’t. I was a pastor in Knoxville, TN, at the time, and I remember leaving the mail out in the sun on the porch for several hours for the sunlight to kill the virus, at a time when even touching the mail was thought by some to be dangerous.


But Jesus often touched the people he healed. With that one simple gesture, he joined himself with the sick and suffering who were stuck at the margins of normal social activity. In so doing, he summarized the story of his life, his mission to become one with us and so to empower us to get up and live that fuller life God really wants us to live.


Good news travels fast. Soon, the whole town was gathered at the door. And so it has been ever since as the Church continues Christ’s life and mission in our world – caring for the sick and accompanying them with the Church’s prayer. The same God who cares enough to touch us, by becoming one of us in his Son, continues to bring us together in the same struggle against suffering. Even apart from global pandemics, sickness separates people, straining, limiting, even destroying normal social activities and relationships. In Jesus’ presence, however, the healthy were drawn to the sick and became part of the healing process. The first thing the disciples did was to tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law. Later on, when other sick people were brought to Jesus, they didn’t come alone. The whole town brought them.


Something similar still happens at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes. More maybe than any other single site, Lourdes is known as one of those special places to which pilgrims come from all over the world to seek physical and spiritual healing.  It is especially inspiring to witness the compassionate and loving way in which the sick are welcomed and enabled to participate in all the various activities there.


Like Lourdes, but more accessible than a pilgrimage, the Anointing of the Sick is another expression of Christ’s healing presence and saving power continuing in our world – calling us too to care as he does. For centuries, one of prayers of that sacramental ritual has taken inspiration from the story of Peter’s mother-in-law to pray that the sick who have been anointed may return to their regular work, restored by the gift of God’s mercy. Isn’t that how all of us - healthy or sick - experience God’s mercy every day in our here-and-now ordinary lives?

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, February 4, 2024.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Of Taylor and Travis

I read recently that, according to at least one poll, 18% of voters would be more likely to vote for whichever candidate Taylor Swift endorsed. That alone, I suppose, might make Taylor - and her romantic relationship with Kansas City Chiefs' Tight End Travis Kelce - a matter of major importance, a phenomenon of significance for everyone to engage with.

Of course, in a normal country, with normal politics, that might mean that both parties might try to compete for her endorsement and (more importantly) for the votes of those who love her. Instead, however, on the Republican side we have been witnessing a weird psycho-political meltdown of apocalyptic proportions. Only a party like the contemporary Republican Party - i.e., a party that has ceased to be a bona fide political party and become a quasi-religious personality cult - could conceivably see any advantage at all in going to war against both the world's most popular woman and the NFL.

Everyone recognizes football's quasi-religious (i.e., idolatrous) hold on American culture, and it is hard even to imagine anyone attempting any potentially successful political strategy involving denigrating a football star and his girlfriend! As many others have already pointed out in the recent barrage of coverage and commentary, Taylor and Travis are acting out one of the most ancient archetypes of heteronormativity, which we all grew up with in their fairytale forms, and it only serves to highlight the bizarre weirdness of contemporary Republicans that they feel so deeply threatened by this happy expression of normalcy.

Ours is a society which, by a monumentally consequential historical accident, deprived itself of real royalty and has ever since sought for substitutes in celebrity royalty of various sorts. What else are Taylor and Travis but the latest ersatz Princess and Prince for our royalty-starved civic culture?

The right's moral panic is presumably exacerbated by the fact that Travis has previously endorsed a life-saving vaccine and that Taylor in 2020 endorsed Joe Biden. Both of which, of course, only further highlight the couple's normalcy. In a normal country, with normal politics, why wouldn't an athlete endorse something intended to keep people healthy? Why wouldn't the world's most prominent woman be expected to be more likely to support someone who is running against a candidate whom a jury recently found liable for defaming a woman whom an earlier jury had found liable for sexually assaulting?

Taylor's and Travis' normalcy just highlights how pathologically abnormal our politics have become - and thus the world we live and work within.

Photo: Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, Chariah Gordon/Instagram

Friday, February 2, 2024

Isaac Hecker and Political Polarization


The following is an edited version of a talk given at Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, New York, January 27, 2024.

Isaac Hecker lived from 1819 to 1888. His life spanned the Second Great Awakening, the rise (and fall) of Jacksonian democracy, the U.S. Civil War, and the Gilded Age. A saint, Thomas Merton wrote, “is a sign of God for his own generation and for all generations to come.” Hecker, of course, is not yet a saint, although hopefully he will be someday. That said, as a man of his time, his story invites us to start with ourselves in our time here and now.


One of the preoccupations that surfaced at the Paulist pre-assembly meetings in 2022 was the destructive divisiveness and political polarization that characterize both contemporary American society and the Church, and which man are experiencing even in their parishes. Many have compared this situation to the pre-Civil War period in American history. It was, of course, precisely in that period of division and polarization when Hecker himself proposed to Blessed Pope Pius IX that Catholicism might “act like oil on troubled waters” and so “sustain our institutions and enable our young country to realize its great destiny.”


Such polarization is of particular importance for the Church, both because the Church is tasked with the ministry of reconciliation [2 Corinthians 5:18-19] but also because the Church herself is also currently characterized by deep divisions that reflect and in some ways may mimic the political polarization that so preoccupies political analysis today. (The increasing politicization of religious identity is itself a significant issue, which deserves additional separate treatment another time.)


On the one hand, as Georgetown political scientist Thomas Zimmer has remarked, "the least controversial thing you can do in American politics is to decry polarization."


On the other hand, everywhere we look, Americans appear more divided than at any time in our recent history. Certainly, our two political parties have moved apart, which is to say that the once central middle ground previously occupied by moderate Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats has largely disappeared. This has happened steadily over the last 50 years, thanks to a multitude of political factors, which students of the subject have easily identified. If I may regress for a few minutes to my previous vocation as a political scientist, these include the declining power of party leaders and the increased role of party primaries in choosing candidates, the role of money in campaigns, the changed incentives for elected politicians in a media-centered celebrity culture, the increasing number of "safe districts" in which there is no incentive to appeal to and persuade voters beyond one's own  party, and the increasing nationalization of American politics, due to the loss of local newspapers and other factors which once made local politics different from national politics. This last factor may deserve more attention than it has generally received, because, for many people on a practical level, local involvements with neighbors and the wider community, including people with different political sensibilities, may be their one opportunity for constructive engagements which counteract the overwhelmingly national pattern of polarization. (And, if that sounds like the description of what was once a traditional Catholic parish in the U.S., that’s no accident.)


It is likewise problematic that we have increasingly re-sorted themselves socially, politically, geographically, and even in our parishes. In the post-war world in which I grew up, American pluralistic politics used to be characterized by what were commonly called "cross-cutting cleavages." That described a situation in which different groups and interests overlapped, in which voters allied with one another along different lines on different issues depending on their different interests, in which all the aspects of one's life did not all align together. One can trace some appreciation of this back to James Madison's Federalist 10, and it was the staple of mid-20th-century pluralist political thought. In contrast, "reinforcing cleavages" occur when the groups and issues which one identifies with all fall on the same side of the political spectrum.  


The problem is not that there are disagreements among different groups with different interests, which is inevitable; but that the differences are increasingly reinforcing, rather than cross-cutting.  All of which at best tests, at worst corrodes our capacity to advance the country's interests and the common good.


That said, that post-1945 world so many of us so fondly remember, what the French fondly remember as “Les Trentes Glorieuses,” was not the historical norm, which actually may have been more like Hecker’s America and, in that sense, more like ours.


How did Hecker respond to polarization in his time?


At his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker had confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties and act like oil on troubled waters.” 


For Hecker, the Roman Catholic Church, the Body of Christ which continues the mission of Christ’s Incarnation in the world, was a powerfully unifying force, binding citizens together, and thus blunting the dangerously sharp cutting edges of conflict and dissension, fusing the private interests of individuals and factions into a common social and civic unity.


At the heart of what he said and wrote, was this basic appreciation of what he had experienced in the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ which continues Christ’s life and work in the world - and the individual and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity. As he wrote in his final book, The Church and the Age, published the year before he died, “The church must justly be said to be the expansion prolongation, and perpetration of the Incarnation” . 

Hecker’s charism is a continuing invitation to read and reread our time and place through the unique experience of the Church’s life and then to share that experience with the world in our particular time and place. So, while many of Hecker’s 19th-century hopes and aspirations have been contradicted by historical developments, we may still rightly seek inspiration in Hecker’s vision of social reconciliation through religious evangelization. In our own time of religious and political division, we may do well to look at our church life more intensely through this particular lens.


Hecker proposed a religious renewal of American society rooted in authentic personal spiritual renewal. He aspired to what he called, in a letter to Orestes Brownson, “a higher tone of catholic life in our country.” The Catholic faith, he continued, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.” 


Hecker hoped his Paulist Fathers’ community could be an effective vehicle for getting us all from here to there. 


The abiding question remains how, formed by Hecker’s charism, we can freshly read our time and place to implement Hecker’s proposed renewal as part of the present-day mission of a seriously stressed and divided Church, in a society in which so much of what Hecker admired about the US now no longer exists.


How had Hecker found the Church, and what had he found in her?


Hecker’s proposed solution to the problem of polarization was the Roman Catholic Church, which he himself had discovered as the solution to his own spiritual search. That search had started at an early age. This is reflected in the image at the base of Fr. Hecker’s sarcophagus in St. Paul the Apostle Church, which shows Isaac as a sick child, in danger of death from smallpox, reassuring his mother: “No, mother, I shall not die now; God has work for me to do in the world, and I shall live to do it.”


So Hecker soon started asking some big-picture questions about life: “Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? What shall I attain unto Him? What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.


In American religious history, this was the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which was even more socially and politically conscious than the earlier, colonial-era First Great Awakening. So much of the distinctive character American culture and its mingling of religion and politics stem from this period, which was when the U.S. became what Chesterton would famously call: “a nation with the soul of a church.” 


By his own account, Hecker spend several years examining the principal Protestant sects, sampling as many as possible of the leading contemporary religious ideas, none of which, however, proved satisfactory to him. Confident that “it is not reasonable to suppose that [God] would implant in the soul such an ardent thirst for truth and not reveal it,” he eventually continued his search for the truth in the Catholic Church, “the place,” as he put it, “where it is supposed among Protestants the least to exist.” But then: “The Catholic Church burst upon my vision as the object to which all my efforts had been unintentionally directed. It was not a change, but a sudden realization of all that had hitherto obscurely captivated my mind, and secretly attracted my heart.


In thus describing his spiritual quest and its seemingly surprising outcome, Hecker wanted to emphasize what would become his lifelong conviction that Catholicism was consistent with and indeed the true fulfillment of the aspirations of human nature – a 19th century American version of the famous theme of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 


Hecker’s sarcophagus portrays him searching for God at Brook Farm – a transcendentalist, utopian community, founded in Massachusetts by George Ripley in 1841. New England Transcendentalism had its roots in the Unitarian rejection of classical Calvinist doctrine and orthodox Christianity in general – what Hecker himself later characterized as “a gradual loosening of the Christian principles in men’s minds and a falling away into general skepticism.” 


Such was the circle that the 20-something Hecker associated with in 1843 – first at Brook Farm and then at Bronson Alcott’s short-lived, somewhat more ascetic Fruitlands community. A smart, if formally relatively uneducated, working-class young man, Hecker was excited to enter this elite community and its intellectual life. This transcendentalist environment proved quite conducive to Hecker’s intense preoccupation with exploring his inner life, and his companions nicknamed him “Ernest the Seeker,” the name of a character in a contemporary short story by William Henry Channing. 

Whereas the Puritan preacher Cotton Mother had once said, “I like to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to sleep,” Hecker thoroughly absorbed the Transcendentalists’ critique of mainline New England Protestantism, recalling “Against Calvinism we had a particular grudge.” To the end of his life, he would oppose “the Calvinist image of human nature as totally corrupt.”


Apart from that, however, even while appreciating the friendships there and benefiting from an environment that encouraged him to value and explore his inner life, Hecker maintained a certain intellectual independence from the beliefs of the Transcendentalists, thus enabling his exploration of his soul to lead to conclusions quite different from what the Transcendentalists believed. In his Diary, he described a transcendentalist (e.g. Emerson) as one who “prefers talking about love to possessing it, as he. Prefers Socrates to Jesus. Nature is his church and he is his own god” [June 13, 1844].


Instead, he found himself more and more drawn to institutional Christianity. His early identification of Divine Providence with the divine indwelling made theological sense of the continuity between nature and grace, which he felt from his own experience, thus easing his way into the Church and laying the groundwork for his mature thought about the relationship between Church and society and the evangelization of the latter by the former. 


He studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent and was especially impressed by Article IX on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, one year before his death, Hecker recalled: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented. … The body made alive by such truths ought to be of divine life and its origin traceable to a divine establishment: it ought to be the true church.    


In our contemporary idiom, Hecker had been “spiritual but not religious” for the first 25 years of his life. The story of his spiritual search eloquently exemplifies the appeal of such searching and may speak to the spiritual longings of some in our own society today. What was significant about Hecker’s “spiritual but not religious” period, however, was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. 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. His missionary activity reflected his deep devotion and fidelity to the Church. Above all, he prized the unity and universality of the Church, which had attracted him to it in the first place. Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.” For us today, living in an era when people find it increasingly hard to make substantial commitments, those are words well worth meditating upon.


So how did Hecker’s Roman Catholicism redefine for him the America of his time?


Like the most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals in a new kind of society. De Tocqueville and Hecker came from completely different backgrounds, had very different experiences in the Catholic Church, and arrived at their conclusions by very different means. But, already in the 1830s, de Tocqueville had famously described American democracy’s utterly unexpected compatibility with Catholicism. He recognized “that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy,” but he argued that “the Catholics of the United States are at the same time the most faithful believers and the most zealous citizens” – a view Hecker himself would soon share. 


In 19th-century Europe, the Catholic Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly individualistic and irreligious liberal political order that sought to constrain it. In reaction, the 19th-century Church sought to counteract the growing social fragmentation and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. One approach was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon the Church’s political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state and upon the traditional constitutional arrangements (for example, the union of throne and altar) that appeared most compatible with the Church’s social and political position, if only because of the security this seemingly offered in the face of frightening and unpredictable change. (A contemporary version of that is “Integralism,” which is enjoying a certain renaissance among some conservative Catholic intellectuals, but which has never had any serious prospect of succeeding in an American context, something Hecker certainly understood.) 


Hecker’s religious alternative to that primarily political approach envisaged a social solution in which individuals, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop society along Catholic lines. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely capable of addressing social and political concerns.


Whereas for Hecker’s famous contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion meant alienation and its survival in society showed the inadequacy of its purely political separation from the state, for Hecker Roman Catholicism was the 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.


In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker, quoting an anonymous acquaintance, said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.” Such comments convey how he continued to conceptualize religion’s role in the transformation of society, and how he confidently expected this to accomplish more effectively what others hoped for from politics.


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 Americans. For Hecker, who, he hoped, would better appreciate how Catholicism simultaneously accepted the necessity of revelation and grace while still recognizing the permanence and value of nature and reason. 


Having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of modern society, Hecker had found an alternative in the mission of the Church, as the organic temporal expression of Christ’s life, to continue Christ’s work by pouring oil on the troubled waters of the world. There was nothing new about this. Christ’s life and work are realized in the Church through the mission of the Holy Spirit who dwells by grace in each of us. According to Hecker, to discern the Church’s action clearly, “and to cooperate with it effectually, is the highest employment of our faculties, and at the same time the primary source of the greatest good to society” (The Church and the Age). 


On this basis, Hecker’s approach sought to root the renewal of American society in a Catholic religious renewal inseparable from the spiritual renewal of his fellow citizens made possible by grace.


Hecker’s important insight was that, since all creation is always ultimately ordered to grace, even certain new situations and social arrangements, which are perceived as obstacles, (like American democracy and separation of church and state) may actually be new opportunities for individual and social transformation through the Church’s ongoing realization of Christ’s incarnation. Applying this to today, we might well also ask: What other apparent novelties which might be perceived as obstacles might really be opportunities?


Hecker was well aware that his spiritual insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. He never wavered, however, in his conviction that what he had been able to find only in Catholicism could and would be America’s answer as well. He combined Catholic universalism and a distinctly American self-understanding of the relationship between religion and society in a providential perspective, which could work politically within the framework bequeathed by classical liberalism’s separation of society and state. 


If Hecker’s solution as Religion, how Americans had previously experienced Religion represented the Problem.


Hecker’s practical judgments about the optimal relationship between Church and State reflected his assessment of the relationship between religion and society. His American alternative was not a political solution to the problems posed by liberalism, but a social solution to the underlying religious problem that he believed afflicted America. This was specifically two aspects he found fundamental in Protestantism – the Calvinist belief in, human depravity, which he believed made people unfit for self-government, and the Protestant principle of  individual interpretation, which he believed ill-fitted people for community.  


So, in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Hecker wrote in a letter: “Our present crisis is not an unmitigated evil, if it leads us to see the necessity of a greater dependence on God for our well-being as a nation …  Who can tell, God in his inscrutable providence may in our present trials and sacrifices be preparing our people to see the necessity to acknowledge the truth of his holy Catholic religion.” 


Always inclined to see Divine Providence at work, Hecker interpreted the fragmentation of the country religiously rather than politically, an opportunity to highlight what Catholicism had to offer. 


Hecker’s curious conviction concerning the compatibility of Catholicism and American institutions, surprising as it seemed to so many at the time, was paralleled by what must have seemed even more surprising, his even more curious conviction concerning the incompatibility of Protestantism and American institutions, a continuous theme in his writings for the rest of his life.


Hecker continued the Transcendentalist critique of Calvinism, understood as a doctrine of “total depravity” - the cornerstone of his novel apologetic approach, which highlighted Catholicism’s compatibility with human nature – in contrast to Protestantism as he understood it. 


Already in Aspirations of Nature, he had warned: “If our nature be wholly bad, desires nothing, and can do nothing, but sin, of course, we cannot be expected to desire the truth, to love the good, to crave religion, to reverence God, or to wish for any virtue or goodness whatever.” 


Americans, Hecker believed, realized that the philosophy of democratic self-government could not be reconciled to doctrinal Calvinism. And this was actually happening, but it did not in fact necessarily lead Americans to Catholicism. 


Of course, Hecker’s whole understanding of Protestantism was deeply colored by his encounter with the anti-Calvinist Transcendentalists at Brook Farm. And, though he gained many positive things from this experience, he tended to see Protestantism too much from this particular perspective. From that angle he concluded that Protestantism was disappearing – to be replaced by Unitarianism or Catholicism as the only alternative options - a view he never quite overcame.


In this too, however, Hecker was very typically American.

Much as the traditional U.S. founding narratives typically privilege the influence of New England over the Spanish settlements and even over the other English colonies with different variants of Protestantism, Hecker’s narrative of American religion regularly privileged New England Protestantism and its historical variants over other American religious experiences. He seemed to ignore the strong roots of Protestantism in other parts of America, which his travels should have shown him. In particular, Hecker’s narrow picture of American Protestantism dramatically failed to appreciate Protestantism’s capacity to revitalize itself precisely at its own evangelical roots. Indeed, already in his somewhat critical 1857 review of Aspirations of Nature, Orestes Brownson had highlighted how Evangelical Protestantism was by then the more dominant American religious tradition, one reason why Brownson became increasingly less confident in the conversion of America.  


In our day, of course, mainline Protestantism may appear in fact to be fulfilling Hecker’s expectation that it would die out, but Evangelical Protestantism has not only grown and thrived – at least until very recently. Meanwhile, it has somewhat successfully assumed for itself the identification with America’s destiny that the Mainline had inherited from old New England Puritanism and which Hecker had thought would pass to Catholicism. On the other hand, the more recent but increasing phenomenon of the thorough politicization of the religious identification with America’s destiny suggests a movement in the direction opposite to Hecker’s expectation – not religion replacing politics, but politics replacing religion.


In our own time of cultural, moral, social, and political polarization in both our society and our Church, the inevitable temptation is to imagine alternative futures for either or both – as if such alternatives were easily in our power. However, Hecker’s “approach remained rooted in religious conversion, our own and that of our fellow-citizens. 


That said, neither can we escape the bigger picture. Much of what Hecker admired about America, including its egalitarianism and sociability, no longer characterizes the contemporary post-industrial, corporate, centralized state. Likewise, American Catholicism - the religious remedy he posited for the social fragmentation which the United States still experiences - has changed as well. While conversions continued both during and after Hecker’s lifetime, they have never been in the numbers necessary to make the kind of impact on society Hecker had hoped for. What did make an actual impact, then and now, has been immigration, which has historically uniquely positioned the American Catholic Church to play a prominent part in the desperately required mission of cultural, ethnic, and racial reconciliation in this country.  


It can be argued, meanwhile, that Hecker may really have been too optimistic about America and so did not appreciate how much, for example, the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution really do reflect the Protestant Founders’ very negative view of human nature and human possibilities. The things that Hecker liked about America and the things that he disliked may have been more intrinsically connected than he was inclined to credit.


On the other hand, as the Claretian Fr. Martin Kirk has suggested, if the U.S. Catholic church had been more open to Hecker’s impulse “to enter more fully into American culture, the position of the Church to bear prophetic witness within the culture might have been more feasible and more effective” [Kirk, 1988, pp. 382-383].


Some things to think about! 


Always bearing in mind, however, that our question cannot be What would Hecker do if faced with the problems we have today? Our question must rather be What should someone inspired by Hecker’s life and ideas do, faced with the problems we have today?