Saturday, March 30, 2024

Fast Forward

Back in the 1990s, when I was serving as a deacon in New York, a colleague, who has since passed on to his eternal reward, drew upon the then common technology of the videocassette recorder to refer to Jesus' resurrection as a fast forward. That complemented another then popular image of the resurrection as the effect of the future upon the present. All such analogies are attempts to use ordinary language to describe the totally out of the ordinary happening we call Christ's resurrection, the unique and definitive experience which enables us to say that Jesus is, instead of Jesus was.

To appreciate the uniqueness of Christ's resurrection one need only compare the gospel accounts of the events surrounding the resurrection with the same gospels' accounts of the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:22-43), the widow's son (Luke 7:11-17), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Those were amazing occurrences, to be sure, which overjoyed and inspired those who witnessed them. They were well beyond normal expectations, given the medical technology available at the time. But they could be recounted clearly and comprehensively. As miraculous happenings or "signs," they filled those present with hope that God was making his presence manifest among his people in an extraordinary way, which would somehow be of even wider benefit beyond the temporary extension of ordinary human life for one particular 12-year old girl, one particular young man, and one particular family friend of Jesus. That's saying a lot, of course. But those events were not saying fast forward. They were a wonderful prolongation of the present, but they hardly represented the effect of the future upon the present.

In contrast, the gospels accounts of Jesus's resurrection - or rather of the experiences of these who were made aware of it - reflect the disciples' confusion and anxiety about something both unexpected and apparently unintelligible to them at first. Besides reflecting the really unique and mysterious character of the event, these reactions do us the favor of allowing us to share in the disciples' experience from our own as yet seemingly un-futured present.

It is one thing to recognize as an abstract intellectual proposition that, of course, God - if God really exists as the Creator - can re-create something new, something unimaginably new and hence completely unexpected. It is something else, however, to experience that directly or be confronted by that personally, and try to comprehend its significance. That was the challenge which faced the disciples, who not only had to discover finally what Jesus' resurrection from the dead meant for him but what it meant for them and what it means for us - and then spread the good news to all the world.

Tomorrow, the Church will triumphantly proclaim how Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb out of curiosity on the basis of Mary Magdalene's confusingly incomplete report. That familiar Gospel reading [John 20:1-9] assures us both that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed, and that they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

Whatever its present effects, the future remains the future and so cannot yet be completely understood. But we are able to see its effect and so come to belief. Easter invites us to put ourselves in the position of those disciples – unexpectedly (and excitedly) experiencing something surprisingly new in a world where everything else seems so ordinary and old. 

Like those original disciples, we are not all the same. Some like Mary Magdalene and the other women may come to the empty tomb in a spirit of devotion and a desire to be of service. Some like Peter and the Beloved Disciple may come out of curiosity and wonder. Some of us run fast, like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Others, beset by doubts or daily difficulties, run much more slowly, like Peter. But what matters most, the Gospel story seems to suggest, is that we get there - that we have come like those first disciples to that tomb that was supposed to stay forever closed and dark, but from which the stone has been removed, in order that we - and the world - may believe.

Thursday, March 28, 2024



In just a few more hours, the Church will begin the solemn three-day celebration officially known as the Sacred Paschal Triduum of the Death, Burial and Resurrection of the Lord, or simply the Triduum. The Pauline liturgy's Paschal Triduum of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (beginning the evening before with the Solemn Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday and concluding with Evening Prayer on Sunday) replaces the older medieval Sacred Triduum of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (which began with Tenebrae on Wednesday afternoon/evening and concluded with  pro-Vespers at the end of the "Easter Vigil" celebrated on Saturday morning).

The Triduum reflects the likely more accurate Johannine chronology, according to which Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14, the Preparation Day before the Passover, which began at sundown after Jesus' burial. The traditional liturgy's reading of John's Passion on Good Friday, preceded by Exodus 12:1-11 highlighted the salvific symbolic significance of Christ's death on Preparation Day and his identification with the Paschal lamb. Chronologically, then, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come [John 13:1]that he would be already dead by the time of the Passover ands would in fact never again celebrate the old Passover, anticipated the festival with a uniquely new Christian reconfiguration of the ritual meal at the Last Supper which has since become the Lord's Supper.

Chronological considerations aside, the Triduum is more than an historical commemoration - much less a theatrical reenactment of the great drama, as Christ were not already risen and reigning at his Father's right hand and we were instead waiting for something new to happen on Easter Sunday. It is the Risen Christ we celebrate these days - as we do every day. It is the Risen Christ whom we will receive in the Eucharist tonight, not the historical Jesus at the Last Supper nor tomorrow the dead and buried Jesus of Good Friday. The Triduum is, of course, an invitation to contemplate Christ's death and burial before celebrating his resurrection in order to identify with his death and burial so as to enter fully into the benefits of his resurrection.

The Triduum is, finally, the ritual reception of Christ's revelation of who he is and, therefore, who God is. We commemorate the Incarnation at Christmas, but we experience its fuller meaning and relevance for us in this Triduum. For God, as Hebrews says, in these last days having now revealed himself to us by his Son, we now experience and understand in an altogether new way, which would hav been impossible apart from Jesus, who God is and how God is for us. As Romano Guardini wrote long ago in his famous work The Lord, "What Christ did, God did. What Christ suffered, God suffered.  The Father rejected not part of the life of his Son" [tr. Elinor Castendyk Briefs, Gateway, 1954].

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered [Entrance Antiphon, Mass of the Lord's Supper].

Photo: "Hewit Crucifix," Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, 2010.

Monday, March 25, 2024



Another birthday!  

I'm now 76!!! 

At this particular point on life's trajectory, one has obviously only a very limited number of birthdays left. So it behooves one to cherish every one of them. After all, as Saint Augustine wrote in one of his letters:

As you look ahead in life you begin to realize that all of us are going to die someday. In your infancy you look forward to being a child. When you are a child you look forward to being a teenager. As a teen you look forward to being a young adult. In your days of young adulthood you look forward to being middle-aged. When you reach middle-age you look forward to old age. But when you finally get old you realize that there is nothing more to look forward to in this life. There is no age after old age (Ep. 213, 1).

That said, on one's 76th birthday one ought above all to be grateful - and certainly I am genuinely grateful -  for having lived this long, indeed for having lived at all, and for having lived so well, such an interesting, fulfilling, and in at least certain respects privileged life in this remarkable period of human history. I am grateful too to all those who have been a part of my life - living still or already dead - my parents and sisters and other family, friends and colleagues past and present, fellow Clergy and Religious, former parishioners in the places where I have been fortunate to serve. As Saint Augustine also said:

Signs of love coming from the hearts of friends shine through eyes and mouth and speech and thousands of gestures. They make one out of many, bringing hearts together like bundled kindling. (Confessions 4.18.13)

What a wonderfully uniquely complex journey it has been - and still continues to be! 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Palm Sunday


Pre-pandemic, Palm Sunday was one of the most popular days of the Christian year in terms of church attendance, and normally no pastor would ever want to be caught with an insufficient supply of palms to satisfy the earnest demand of the eager crowds. When I was a pastor, there was always that annual moment of worry whether the palms had arrived - and if there were enough of them. (They always did, and there were always enough!)

Even before the pandemic, however, a novel and rather disturbing trend had begun to appear, as some people left their palms in the church at the end of Mass instead of taking them home (a consequence, perhaps, of insufficient catechetical formation on sacramentals and on the apotropaic function of blessed palms). Another contemporary challenge to Palm Sunday's fullest celebration may come from an increasing tendency for people to arrive late for Mass. When many participants arrive during or even after the procession is over, what is the point of the procession? (In retrospect, the post-conciliar liturgy's relocation of the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes from the beginning of Mass to the middle, while liturgically illogical, has proved to be a great and wise pastoral success!) 

Palm Sunday is certainly about more than getting palms, but the palms have given the day its typical title at least since Saint Isidore in 7th-century Spain and Saint Bede in 8th-century England. One of the multiple misfortunes of the Pauline liturgical reform of Holy Week was renaming this Sunday, Passion Sunday (formerly the name of the previous Sunday). That renaming has not caught on - a very visible instance of liturgical non-reception. In any case, whatever the day's name, my personally favorite feature of Palm Sunday has always been singing the hymn Gloria Laus et Honor during the procession (its original 39 verses composed by Bishop Theodulph of Orleans in 818). It is a fantastically glorious hymn, well worth waiting once a year for. 

In contrast to the exuberance of the procession, however, the Roman Rite historically has long emphasized the memory of Christ's Passion and Death during the Mass, the centerpiece of which was traditionally the proclamation of the Passion According to Saint Matthew(In the contemporary liturgy, instead of reading each of the four Passion accounts on a different day of Holy Week each year, the three synoptic Passion accounts are rotated on Palm Sunday. So, this year, the Passion reading will be from the Gospel according to Mark.)

In the traditional sung liturgy, the Passion reading acquired additional drama from its proclamation by three deacons, singing in three different tones - Christ's voice low and slow, the Narrator medium, and the third voice high and fast. (Originally, each of the deacons was also distinguished by the color of his stola latior - black for the deacon singing the words of Christ, white for the narrator, and red for the third voice.) Charlemagne's 9th-century successor, Louis the Pious, popularized the practice of kneeling briefly at the words emisit spiritum ("He gave up his spirit"), a popular practice which has somehow survived late-20th-century liturgical informality and ritual iconoclasm.

Ritual, by its nature, is inherently somewhat dramatic. . The great ceremonies of Holy Week are even extravagantly so They are intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, over-the-top. They are extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil (of which we will hear in the liturgy tomorrow), the Church practices a sort of holy excess in her worship this week. In this case, however, it is we who are the beneficiaries.

Outside of communities of Religious men and women and those commendable individuals and occasional congregations characterized by liturgical enthusiasm, most people's experience of Holy Week (apart from Easter Sunday itself) starts and ends on Palm Sunday. So it falls to today's celebration to tell the Holy Week story in an attractive and memorable way. That highlights its importance, for there is nothing more inspiring and undying than the Church's annual celebration of our basic story.

In his 2011 meditation on Palm Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us towards his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; he comes to us and takes us up with him in his 'ascent' to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body."

Photo: A much younger version of me blessing palms in Toronto, ON,  in the late-1990s.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The World's Oldest Hatred


In the Jewish calendar, the festival of Purim is celebrated tonight and tomorrow. Purim is a holiday that commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman's plan to exterminate all the Jews living in the ancient Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C.. (How fittingly like Hamas Haman's name sounds!) According to the Book of Esther, the ur-anti-Semite Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus (possibly to be identified with the Persian Emperor Xerxes I) to kill all the Jews in his empire. But his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his adopted daughter Esther, who had previously providentially risen to become Queen of Persia. The day destined for the genocide became instead a day of deliverance and since then a day of feasting and rejoicing - a fun holiday with a seriously relevant message and a reminder of the world's perennially oldest hatred.

The Purim story highlights how hatred of Jews is even older than the Christianity that historically - and understandably so - has born the brunt of the blame for most of the anti-semitism that has poisoned western civilization for so many centuries. While remnants of that may still survive, anti-semitism is now widely in evidence especially on the secular post-religious left. (Of course, Marxism and its variants were themselves secularized versions of Christian eschatology. But very, very secularized!)

In the April Atlantic, Franklin Foer, in an article entitled "The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending," describes the growing experience of American Jews' seemingly newfound recognition that the rising tide of anti-semitism in the U.S. is bringing to a close what he calls "an unprecedented period of safety and prosperity for Jewish Americans." Certainly the escalation of anti-semitism in the U.S. since the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel appears to have come as something of a surprise to many. 

Revealingly, one of those referenced in Foer's article is quoted as having "moved her family from Chicago to Berkeley six years earlier, hoping to find a community that shared her progressive values." Perhaps a little more mature reflection on some of those "progressive values" might have been in order, if not to avoid such a move then at least to accompany the move with an open-eyed perception of the persistence of the world's oldest hatred. The author himself admits to having "consoled myself with the thought that once Trump disappeared from the scene, the explosion of Jew hatred would recede. America would revert to its essential self: the most comfortable homeland in the Jewish diaspora."

"Among the brutal epiphanies of October 7," however, has been the author's recognition that "a disconcertingly large number of Israel’s critics on the left" do not "believe Jews had a right to a nation of their own."

There is, I believe, a particular pathology to left-wing anti-zionist anti-semitism. At any moment, there are wars and ethnic and racial violence going on all around the world, oppressions of various sorts from Africa to Tibet. Yet seldom do any of these conflicts result in, for example, local government agencies like the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board demanding a ceasefire! There seems to be something special about Jews defending themselves that somehow deeply offends certain "progressive" sensibilities.

In his article, Foer effectively depicts an important transformation which American culture has been experiencing:

"America’s ascendant political movements—MAGA on one side, the illiberal left on the other—would demolish the last pillars of the consensus that Jews helped establish. They regard concepts such as tolerance, fairness, meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism as pernicious shams. The Golden Age of American Jewry has given way to a golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole, and political violence, all tendencies inimical to the democratic temperament. Extremist thought and mob behavior have never been good for Jews. And what’s bad for Jews, it can be argued, is bad for America."

Even now, after all that has been said and done by the anti-semitic left since October 7, some still want to suggest that there can be legitimate "anti-zionism" which is not anti-semitism. Of course, insofar as Israel acts as a state in the international order, its particular leaders are obviously fallible and its policies subject to analysis and legitimate critique. Witness, for example, Senate Majority Leader's laudable speech challenging Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies and indeed his long-term continuation in office, effectively calling for much needed regime change in Israel. But criticizing a particular politician and advocating a change in government is one thing. Rejecting the very concept of the Jewish state (in a way that few would reject the very concept of an American or British or French or German state) is a very different matter. As one correspondent quoted by NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg on this issue expressed it, “Israel is the political entity through which the Jewish people exercises its natural right of self-determination and control over its own fate. How is singling out the Jewish people to deprive it of those rights not antisemitic?”

Photo: Esther Denouncing Haman (1888) by Ernest Normand (1857-1923) 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Entering the Passion


O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.

This alternative collect for today is all that remains of the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Septem Dolorum Beatae Mariae Virginis) that for centuries was celebrated on this Lenten Friday. (A second feast of the Seven Sorrows still survives, somewhat renamed, on September 15.)

Formerly, the Fridays of Lent used to be cluttered with a number of particular passion-related feasts permitted pro aliquibus locis, but the Seven Sorrows - a medieval feast focused especially on Mary's compassion at the foot of the cross - was the only one which eventually made it  into the universal calendar, which it did in 1727. The duplicate feast in September - originally proper to the Servite order - made it into the universal calendar in 1814, and was more focused on the (traditionally seven) sorrows of Mary throughout the course of her life, from the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus' burial. Distinctive to both feasts was the special sequence Stabat Mater by Giacopone da Todi (1306), which Pius Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages."  Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that sequence still survives especially in the popular Lenten devotion of the Way of the Cross, where its verses are traditionally sung by the congregation as processional music while walking from Station to Station, in the intervals between the 14 Stations. The Stations just would not be same without it! And the familiar and easily singable popular tune to which it is typically sung also lends itself, by its familiarity, to congregational participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. 

It is, of course, of more than antiquarian interest among liturgical enthusiasts that the reformed Missal laudably retains this Marian collect today. In these last two weeks of Lent (traditionally termed Passionatide) the liturgy's focus very visibly shifts from penitential preparation for initiation and/or penitential preparation for reconciliation to the remembrance of and ritual representation of the paschal mystery of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. In actual popular piety, one entry point for contemplating the Lord's Passion is through Mary's compassion. The two devotional entry points for that are through the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and through the Stations of the Cross. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - an image which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible. Communally sung, the Stabat Mater certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deeper mystery of Christ's passion.

Today's Collect reminds us that these final days of Lent challenge us to identify ourselves with Christ suffering and dying - and in an important respect still suffering in his people. All the more should the image of Mary's identification with her son's sufferings resonate today in a world overflowing with so much undeserved and gruesome suffering - from Ukraine to Israel and Gaza, to the under-reported human tragedy in Sudan. 

Photo: The Fourth Station (Jesus Meets His Mother), The Way of the Cross, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

One Life (The Movie)


One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins, is based on the true story of British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton, looking back on his efforts 50 years earlier, when, as a 29-year-old London stockbroker visiting German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he enabled over 600 refugee children (many of them Jews) to escape Nazi rule just before the beginning of World War II. The film's title refers to the Talmudic expression: Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.

In both real life and in the movie, Nicholas Winton went to Prague shortly after the 1938 Munich Conference to work with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia and took it upon himself to do something to save as many refugee children as possible. Actively supported by his mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter), Winton overcame bureaucratic obstacles, got visas for the refugees, collected conditions, and found foster families for the children in England.

Fifty unassuming years later, wanting to do something useful with his scrapbook from that experience, Winton contacts the media and ends up on a BBC show, That's Life, which surprises him by inviting some of the children he helped to save onto the show to meet him, which provides some of the most moving scenes in the film. In recognition of his efforts, Winton was knighted by the Queen, and this movie is yet another tribute to his accomplishment and the lives he saved.

In this era of renewed anti-semitism around the world (and here in the U.S.), this film functions as a warning of what happened when too much of the world was willing to appease evil and as an encouragement to individuals to stand up personally and collectively to the growing menace. Meanwhile, it also highlights the dangers which refugees everywhere experience. The asylum seekers on our southern border may not all be as endangered as those refugees stranded on Prague on the eve of war were, but many of them are in fact at risk of their lives and have needs that only concerted outside efforts can relieve. 

Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Christendom (The Book)


Peter Heather is the chair of medieval history at King’s College, London, and has written an historian's history, Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion AD 300-1300 (NY: Knopf, 2023). In over 700 pages, Heather deals with a thousand years of European history, the first millennium of Christian Europe ("Christendom"). The premise underlying what he sees as his new approach to the subject is the change caused by our own contemporary experience e of the decline of Christianity in the modern world. In the past, it was possible to assume that Christianity's victory over its Roman and post-Roman rivals reflected Christianity's religious superiority. Christendom is the author's response to "the pressing intellectual challenge of reassessing Christianity's rise to pre-eminent hint he light of its modern eclipse, by re-examining the historical processes that first generated the defining coincidence between Europe and the cultural dominance of the Christian religion."

This leads him, for example, to reinterpret Roman religious history after Constantine's conversion less as the Christianization of the empire but rather more as the "Romanization of Christianity." This leads him to emphasize the element of contingency on the historical process. At any number of points, things could conceivably have gone differently had not this or that non-inevitably development occurred.

Part One deals with the late imperial period, when, in the aftermath of Constantine's conversion, the Christian religion recruited classical philosophy and institutionalized itself as part of the Roman state system, with all the advantages that gave it. Part Two examines the end of the empire in the West and the crisis that created for Christianity (specifically Nicene Christianity), resolved by a combination religious "self-reinvention" as a religion suitable for a warrior society and success in terms of the eventual embrace of Nicene Christianity by the successor states, which inherited the Roman emperor's religious role. Finally Part Three considers the coherent leadership of the restored empire of Charlemagne and the subsequent spread of Christianity to virtually all of Europe and its successful transformation into the popular mass religion and highly institutionalized structure we are familiar with from the High middle Ages. In the process, the reader learns an enormous amount of incredible detail about the political and cultural history of Christian Europe's formative thousand years.

Heather fully recognizes that some (maybe many) Christinas embraced their faith for authentically religious reasons and practiced and promoted authentic Christian piety. However, he always gives greater weight to the multitude of other complex considerations and motivations and contingent events which made the growth and expansion and triumph of Christendom possible, particularly among political and social elites. That faith itself was a key component in Christianity's constant "self-reinvention" is not denied, but tends to seem secondary to other more humanly explicable explanations for Christianity's success. Of course, a faith perspective will accept much of Heather's more secular data but also consider those developments as providential.

It is valuable to know the contingencies that - whether by historical happenstance or by the plan of providence - produced Christian Europe. For, as the author rightly recognizes, we are once again in a world where there are other alternatives, and Christianity can only benefit from fuller reflection on his the faith has managed at other times when here were other alternatives.

The author himself acknowledges that the present situation is not entirely new. Christendom also experienced a radical reduction in the aftermath of the rise of Islam, which not only conquered considerable Christian territory but provided an analogous situation (but this tine in reverse) to the mass conversion experience in the late Roman Empire. So the contemporary situation is not as new as it might seem. Then the old heartland of Christianity fell to Islam and was replaced by a new European centered Christianity. Now that European heartland seems to be giving way to a secular, post-Christian alternative, and seems likewise to be in the process of being replaced by a new "self-reinvention" of Christianity, based in the Global South.

Likewise, his emphasis on the weakness of the papacy in the first two periods he describes was in an analogous manner repeated in modern European history, in the period prior to and immediately after the French Revolution, only to be followed by the present period in which the papacy appears religiously more centralized and powerful than at any previous period, including even the High Middle Ages - but this time without the coercive powers he ascribes to the late medieval Church.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Seeing Jesus


 Thirty-something years ago, when I was serving as deacon down the road at Saint Malachy’s, the so-called “Actors’ Chapel” (so-called because of its historic ministry to the theater-district), I vividly remember how, after the Saturday afternoon matinee, a crowd would gather outside the theater across the street to get a glimpse of some actor or actress in the cast. More or less, that is how I imagine the scene in today’s Gospel, when some Greeks came to Philip and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” They approached Philip, because being from Bethsaida in Galilee, he presumably could converse comfortably with them in Greek. Mindful of his place in the group’s hierarchy, however, Philip went and told Andrew, Peter’s brother. Then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

Now, you might think that after all this we might hear more about those Greeks and their meeting with Jesus.  John never mentions them again, however. We never even hear whether or not they actually got to meet Jesus. We may presume that, along with Andrew and Philip and probably the rest of the crowd, they at least got to hear him – to hear him speak about how the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and hear him pray “Father, glorify your name,” the prayer of a faithful Son, full of confidence in his Father’s response. In fact, assuming they hung around long enough, they would also have heard the Father’s answer, when a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”


Of course, the crowd there disagreed – as many people then did and many people still do (and do a lot) - about Jesus. And, so, some said, “An Angel has spoken to him,” but others just thought it was thunder.  Just thunder.


Who and what Jesus is – the Son of the living God, or a long-dead historical curiosity, a passing fad that came and went with all the permanence of the last thunderstorm – is also at the heart of who and what WE are, here and now.  


Conditioned as we all are by our contemporary visual media and by photo and film records of recent historical figures and events, it would be only natural that we too would like to have seen Jesus. Obviously, such access to the past is not possible. The only Jesus we can have any actual access to in the present is the Risen Christ, the living Son of God, sitting at the Father’s right hand, who intercedes forever on our behalf. Like the Greeks, who, for their access to Jesus, went to Philip and Andrew (in other words, to those appointed as Apostles), our access to Jesus, our encounter with Christ, is through the Church, which continues his life and mission in the world.


We, who are here today, we encounter Christ through our experience of being his Church – not just what happens here on Sunday, but in a very special way what happens here on Sunday, which in turn further forms us as Church for the rest of the week and indeed the rest of life. At every Mass every day before the Sign of Peace, we pray Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church. The Church is that whole host of the faithful both living and dead who sustain us in faith, in hope, and in love, a Communion of Saints that unites us here and now with the faithful all over the world and back through time with those who have shown Christ to the world in the past. That is why the saints are so important for us. – like, for example, our city’s patron, Saint Patrick, who died on this date over 1500 years ago after having extended the Church’s reach even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.


What this also means is that (again like the Greeks in the Gospel) the rest of the world – the pagan world then, the secular world now - also encounters Christ primarily through its experience of his Church, which is to say, its experience of us. Indeed, as has often been said, the Church is essentially the only experience of Christ most people will ever have in life – the face of Christ that they see, the word of God that they hear. So (and this is the problematic part) if in any way our behavior conceals rather than reveals the face of Christ, then the word of God may seem silent - precisely when and where it may most need to be proclaimed - and the love of God may appear absent from the very world Christ became part of, precisely in order to save it.


We hear many stories about sons in the Bible – from Cain and Abel on – bad sons, good sons, jealous sons, prodigal sons, and faithful obedient sons. In Jesus, we see the ultimately good and faithful Son, God’s Son, whose perfect obedience is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.


In that, he is everything there is to be. Revealed in and through his Church, he is everything anyone ever needs to hear or see.


All the more reason then, to make sure he is heard and seen in and through us!


Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, March 17, 2024.

Photo: Lent 2024 at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Missionary to the Whole World

As if one Saint Patrick's Day per year were not enough, the calendrical quirk, according to which this year the anniversary of the saint's death falls on a Sunday, gives us two additional Saint Patrick's Days - the religious one on Monday, March 18, and the civic one, highlighted by the famous 5th-Avenue parade today. 

Other than the fact that he never saw, let alone ate, a potato, we don't know as much as we might wish about Saint Patrick. We do know that he was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest, who was born into a well-to-do family of landed gentry in the Roman province of Britain. At 16, his comfortable life suddenly ceased when he was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders. During 6 years as a slave herdsman in what is now County Mayo, Ireland, Patrick’s conventional Christianity was transformed into an ardent, fervent faith. After a successful escape and return to Britain, he felt a call to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity.  Ordained a bishop, he returned to Ireland and remained there until his death on March 17, 461.


Unlike Patrick’s home island of Britain, Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. It was beyond the borders of what then constituted civilization. Saint Patrick stands out as one of the first in Western Christian history to feel the imperative to evangelize beyond the borders of the Empire, to take literally the the Gospel’s mandate to teach all nations.  In his Confession, Patrick described his sense of mission. “I want to spend myself in that country, even in death, if the Lord should grant me this favor. I am deeply in his debt, for he gave me the great grace that through me many peoples should be reborn in God, and then made perfect by confirmation and everywhere among them clergy ordained for a people so recently coming to believe, one people gathered by the Lord from the ends of the earth. ... It is among that people that I want to wait for the promise made by him, who assuredly never tells a lie. ... This is our faith: believers are to come from the whole world.”


An altar in honor of the great missionary Saint Patrick is found at the east end of the north aisle of the mother church of the Paulist Fathers in New York, the city of which Saint Patrick is also patron. It was designed by the same John LaFarge who also directed the original design of the church's nave, painted the circular mural The Angel of the Moon on the south wall of the sanctuary, and did the two blue end windows above the sanctuary and the five lancet windows above the main door. The altarpiece (photo) was painted by William Laurel Harris, who also painted the large mural The Crucifixion over the main door. It portrays St. Patrick, flanked by Saints Columba and Bridget, driving out paganism, while, above, St. Patrick preaches to an Irish chieftan. 

In this particularly challenging period in the Church's life, when so much ecclesial energy is focused internally and Catholic elites are increasingly polarized about issues of internal church organization and polity, it is good to be reminded of the Church's missionary mandate. It may also serve as a bittersweet reminder that the mandate is never fully fulfilled, that many places once seemingly converted to Christ and his Church have since followed other paths and require re-evangelization, which may prove to be the contemporary Church's most pressing - and neglected - task.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Cabrini (The Movie)


She is the patron saint of immigrants, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who lived from 1850 to 1917. Born in Italy, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880, of which she remained Superior General until her death. When she asked Pope Leo XIII's approval to establish a mission in China, the Pope advised her to go "not to the east, but to the west" - to the United States to serve the immense needs of the hordes of poor Italian immigrants who were then flooding the cities of the United States. So, she and six other sisters came to New York, where, like so many other Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received by those in charge, including New York's Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission, and over time she founded some 67 institutions in major cities both in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities. Mother Cabrini died in Chicago on December 22, 1917, and is buried where her American mission began, here in New York, in a shrine on Fort Washington Avenue near Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Having become a naturalized American citizen in 1909 (thus, in effect, experiencing herself the fullness of the American immigrant experience), she became the first American citizen to be canonized in 1946. Mother Cabrini had special significance for my grandmother, who, as long as she lived, made sure that we went to visit her shrine yearly to honor the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.  

And now she is the subject of a full-length film, Cabrini, released earlier this month, which highlights her missionary and charitable efforts and the resistance she encountered, especially the anti-Italian bigotry and racism. The film focuses on the desperate plight of Italian immigrants in New York and on Mother Cabrini's immense energy (despite her physical frailty) and her enormous ability as in effect a shrewd entrepreneur, founding what the film calls "an empire of hope." In conventional treatments of her story, both her physical frailties and her business acumen are acknowledged but always seem secondary to her accomplishments. In this film, they remain front and center, giving her accomplishments a fuller, more rounded dimension.

In Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth I refers to herself as "a woman in a man's profession." Cabrini seems to want to highlight how Saint Francis Cabrini was a woman very much disrupting a men's world. In fact, much of the same could be said of many modern religious foundresses. Indeed, for much of its history, the Catholic church. has provided women with a unique outlet for this-worldly talent through the institutions of women's religious communities, especially teaching and health-care communities, of which many were founded here in the U.S. and Canada.

Overwhelmingly, the film focuses our attention not just on the plight of the late 19th-century Italian immigrants but. on the ethnic-racial-religious hostility to them on the part of the civic establishment and the larger society. Perhaps particularly relevant is how it portrays the struggle on the part of New York's Irish Archbishop to come to terms with the reality of a new ethnic component to his hitherto largely Irish flock. It offers insight into the dilemma that has faced each successive wave of immigration to this country, as unwelcome outsiders eventually get a toehold and gradually advance in society and then challenged their predecessors not to close the door behind them but to recognize their common humanity with the new immigrants. This, of course, is so very much an issue today as a nation composed almost entirely of descendants of desperate immigrants is confronted with the morally and politically challenging task of accepting and integrating new immigrants to our country.

The story of Mother Cabrini is always edifying and always relevant. It may be never more so, however, than at this particular juncture in American history, when who we are as a people, as "a nation of immigrants," is once again one of the central issues confronting the soul of America.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Oscar Night

The 96th Academy Awards - Hollywood's annual celebration of itself - took place last night. Because of travel, I missed the first part of the show. Usually, when I have watched the Oscar show, it has been more for social reasons than an overwhelming interest in the proceedings themselves. Las nights show, however, seemed - at least to my unsophisticated tastes - an improvement on past performances. Best of all, it seemed shorter, ending at a decent hour.

It was no surprise that Oppenheimer more or less stole the show. Personally, I would have given The Holdovers' Paul Giamatti the Oscar for Best Actor, but it is always hard to stop a runaway train. Robert Downey, Jr., may well have deserved his award, but Oppenheimer would have been a better move without most of the last hour, in which case Downey's award would inevitably have had to go to someone else. 

As seems typical of very long movies, Oppenheimer is likely longer than it needs to be. Apart, obviously, from the dramatic, convincingly scary, central scene of the Trinity atomic test, it is largely a three-hour talk-fest. Its artistry seems to me to be overdone and thus gets in the way of the story. Accordingly, I have been criticized for disrespecting the director's artistry, but artistic self-expression leaves me unmoved, whatever the medium. That said, its length is worth sitting through, and its artistry of entangled timelines, constant scene-shifting amid a confusingly large cohort of famous scientists (whose names most of us no longer remember or never knew), and its gratuitous back-and-forth from color to black-and-white are all still worth the extra work they impose on the audience.

Oppenheimer aside, it was nice that the original Mothers Day got so much attention at the Oscars. Maybe the most moving moment was when Mstyslav Chernov accepted the documentary award for 20 Days in Mariupol, which he called Ukraine’s first Oscar. Given what is happening (or perhaps one should say not happening) in Washington right now, the reminder of the Ukraine war's civilizational significance was timely. And, in keeping with the evening's primary purpose of focusing on movies, I resonated with what may prove to be one of the evening's more memorable comments, “Cinema forms memories and memories form histories.”

Otherwise, the Oscars show seemed somewhat less political than usual - apart from Jimmy Kimmel's great "Isn't it past your jail time?" response to Donald Trump, who unsurprisingly could not resist the opportunity for a real-time post on Truth Social by Trump. “Has there ever been a worse host than Jimmy Kimmel at the Oscars.” In that exchange (and with that audience) Kimmel clearly won.

But for me the most fun part of the evening had to be Ryan Gosling's rousingly wild, show stopping, rendition of I’m Just Ken. All in all, quite contrary to my recent experience and despite the obvious lack of suspense about most of the winners, the Oscar show was actually fun to watch this year!

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Mid-Lent in East Tennessee


A couple of weeks ago, we all heard Peter’s famous words while watching Jesus transfigured: Lord, it is good for us to be here! Now I am not Peter, and Summit Hill is not quite Mount Tabor, but – with all the appropriate caveats – I can with all my heart echo Peter today: how good it is to be here! In my 28+ years of priesthood, I have had an abundance of good experiences, but I can say with no exaggeration that I never have I been happier as a priest than in my 10 years here as your pastor. So, it is good to be here!


And in that spirit of genuine joy, we mark this Laetare Sunday, as is the Church’s custom with rose vestments and flowers on the altar, traditional symbols of rejoicing, even as we push full speed ahead into the even more somber second half of Lent.


Last night, some of you were present at The Foundry for our retrospective on 50 years of Paulist ministry in Knoxville. In fact, as many of you may know, the Paulist Fathers have been serving the Church in Tennessee much longer than that, starting way back in 1900 with 54 years of mission outreach in Middle Tennessee. With Winchester, TN, as the Paulist Fathers’ home base, those early missionaries preached literally from a trailer and helped establish parishes which still thrive today in the capable hands of the local diocesan clergy. Then, from 1954 until 2013, the Paulist Fathers maintained a major mission parish in Memphis. And then, as you all know, we have been here in Knoxville since 1973, sharing the good news of Christ and the life of his Church in this city’s downtown at its oldest Catholic Church and at its university. 


As Paulist Fathers, we are committed obviously to the mission of the Church and, in a special way, to our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s conviction that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Hecker’s time, but the Church’s mission - our mission - remains the same. 

As Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.” It was for that reason that Hecker felt inspired by the example of Saint Paul and chose him as our community’s patron.


Along with preaching and teaching and organizing local churches and recruiting leaders for them, an important part of Paul’s apostolic activity was raising money. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and his mission partner, Barnabas, brought financial aid for the struggling community in Jerusalem from the Church in Antioch when they went to Jerusalem around the year 46 [Acts 11:29-30]. Over the next decade, a very busy and productive period for Paul, he continued to raise money from his Gentile converts to assist the struggling Church in Jerusalem and wrote about this in some detail in his two letters to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8–9] and in his letter to the Romans [Romans 15:25-33]. 


Paul’s Financial Appeal was a charitable response to the real needs and struggles of the Jerusalem community and the special responsibilities the Jerusalem Church had in relation to other Christian communities. It was also an expression of – and, for his Gentile converts, a lesson in - the unity and interdependence of individuals and local communities in the wider Church. Paul took this responsibility very seriously, as an essential expression of what it means to be a Church community, what it means to be diverse and different people all united in one Church, one Body of Christ. That is the spirit in which we should approach all the appeals we receive to unite our efforts to meet the multiple needs of the Church here and elsewhere. Among those is our Annual Paulist Appeal, our annual invitation to you to contribute as you can to continue the life and mission of the Paulist Fathers as we with our reduced numbers and aging membership still seek to make real Hecker’s conviction that the Catholic Church is just what American culture needs – because, as we just heard, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


At a particularly challenging and decisive moment in Israel’s history, God called the king of Persia, of all people, to be his chosen instrument in restoring Israel and its Temple. Likewise today, God continues to call upon each of us in surprising and unexpected ways to do surprising and unexpected things.


Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) and the Annual Paulist Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 10, 2014.



Thursday, March 7, 2024



Fifty years ago today, to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Saint Thomas Aquinas, some of us celebrated that occasion with the late Professor Paul Sigmund and a bottle of Chilean wine at dinner in the Princeton University Graduate College's Proctor Hall. 

Much earlier (long before I was a grad student), most of my elementary school teachers had been Blauvelt Dominican Sisters. From them, I learned bits and pieces about the Dominican Order's history and distinctive liturgy. (We even recited the Rosary in the distinctively Dominican manner.)  Above all, however, we learned a lot about the Dominicans' favorite son among the saints and Doctors of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was especially relevant to us as the author of the two hymns (salutaris and Tantum ergo), which we sang so frequently at Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  At school, we also learned the familiar story of how young Thomas met the Dominicans at the new University of Naples, how his family opposed his professing a mendicant vocation, how they kidnapped him in 1244, and how he persevered in his vocation in spite of all family pressure. (During his captivity at the family's castles at Montesangiovanni and Roccasecca, the young Thomas supposedly read through the entire bible and also studied Peter Lombard's Sentences.) 

At some point, I encountered G.K. Chesterton's short 1933 classic account of Thomas's life, The Dumb Ox, which took its title from a famous story about the young Thomas and his classmates as students of Saint Albert the Great.  (Patron saint of scientists, Albert studied Aristotle and wrote a commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, during the very time Thomas was studying with him in Cologne.) 

Maybe more memorable for me than Chesterton's The Dumb Ox, however, was my reading in high school of Louis de Wohl's 1950 historical novel about Aquinas, The Quiet Light, which situated Thomas's religious vocation and theological achievement against the tumultuous background of 13th-century medieval Christendom in total turmoil. It was only later, in graduate school, the I engaged directly with the Angelic Doctor, primarily with his political and legal philosophy, some of which seems surprisingly topical today. (For example, at the end of chapter 6 of part 1 of De Regime Principum, Thomas warns about political actors who, not caring about the glory classically achieved by virtuous action, desire only to dominate and will openly commit crimes to obtain what they want.) 

Formed in the Aristotelian-Averroist atmosphere of the new University of Naples (founded by Frederick II, "Stupor Mundi," as an imperial rather than ecclesiastical institution), the young Thomas arrived at an early appreciation of Aristotle's philosophy - at a time when that was an increasingly controversial position. For Thomas, all truth - whether divinely revealed truth accessible through faith or naturally knowable truth accessible to anyone through philosophy - is truth. There are thus two kinds of truth but only one truth, which admits no contradiction. If Christian doctrine is true, then it must not be contradicted by the wisdom accessible to ordinary human beings, which is based on what we can understand from the world, within which we human beings are rooted. Theology is faith seeking understanding, relating what is incomprehensible to what is naturally knowable. Thomism was Christian history's most systematic answer to the perennial problematic (still very much with us today) of how to connect what is believed by divine revelation with what is naturally knowable both by believers and non-believers - addressing contemporary realities in a timely manner making use of both old and new wisdom.

In the theologically and polarized environment of the early medieval universities, Thomas's profession required him to participate in public disputations. But he treated these primarily as a common effort to arrive at truth rather than as a competition. How unlike the modern university, which one of my professors once described as "a holding company for individual entrepreneurs."

In the 16th century, Thomas was the first "modern" saint to be recognized officially as a Doctor of the Church, joining the ancient Doctors - Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. He is known as Doctor communis, the common or universal teacher. But he is also called Doctor angelicus, the Angelic Doctor, which reminds us how Thomas was always so much more than a university professor.

First and foremost, however, Thomas was a Dominican friar, who had successfully resisted the strenuous efforts of his powerful family in order to live the life of a mendicant, a vocation in some ways as controversial in the 13th-century Church as being as Aristotelian was. As an Order of Preachers, the Dominicans were especially devoted to study and cultivated an intellectual vocation, but that was always understood as serving the spiritual benefit of others (as the General Chapter of 1220 had explicitly prescribed). Thomas certainly saw himself as a contemplative, but he accorded the highest religious status to a kind of contemplative life that produced benefits for others in the form of preaching and teaching. Thus, he wrote his Summa ad eruditionem incipientium, for the instruction of beginners. And the same Saint Thomas who excelled as an author and professor, writing and teaching in Latin, also employed his talents as a public preacher in Italian churches. I am reminded of Louis Bouyer's observation in his Memoirs that, unless pursued within the context of Church ministry, theology "loses contact with what gives it meaning," and "can either vanish into fruitless abstractions or degenerate into an almost empty verbal pastime."

When faced with a challenge, Thomas prepared by prayer. He was, above all, a priest, a person of prayer, which he considered the most important contemplative activity and which he also recognized as God's gift. He went to confession daily, said Mass, and then served or attended another Mass in thanksgiving. His devotion to the Eucharist was recognized when Pope Urban IV commissioned him to compose the Office and Mass for the new feast of Corpus Christi (from which were derived those familiar Benediction hymns). Before receiving Communion shortly before his death, Thomas prayed: "I receive you, price of my soul's redemption; I receive you, Viaticum for my pilgrimage, for whose love I have studied, kept watch, labored, preached, and taught."

One may only hope that the same scholarly spirit that contributed so much to the renewal of the Church amid the political and intellectual turbulence of the 13th century may illuminate and inspire the ongoing renewal of religious life and the Church amid today's terrible tumults!

Photo: Image of Saint Thomas Aquinas, formerly on display at the Paulist Fathers' Seminary in Washington, DC, now at the Paulist Fathers' Motherhouse in New York City.