Friday, March 23, 2018


Alone among the Lenten weekdays, today's Mass for this last Friday of Lent provides a choice of two alternate collects. The second optional alternate is a vestige - the only visible vestige - of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors which used to be kept on this day, before being reduced to a Commemoration in the 1960 pre-conciliar liturgical reform (and then abolished completely in 1969). A duplicate feast, that of the Seven Sorrows on September 15, survived the reforms, although downgraded in rank and now renamed Our Lady of Sorrows (thus eliminating any reference to the number seven). 

Even so, whenever I think of Our Lady of Sorrows ("l'Addolorata"), I unfailingly recall the many popular portrayals of Mary pierced with seven swords! I remember too a beautiful church I once saw in a crowded urban neighborhood which had a statue of Mary pierced with seven swords standing atop its golden dome.

The illustrious 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch, reflecting the antiquarian attitudes so prevalent in the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, contrasted "the older and more austere Lenten Mass" and the "newer, more spirited one devoted to Our Lady's Seven Sorrows." He suggested that, whereas the traditional weekday Mass presents Christ's passion prophetically, figuratively, and historically, in the festive Marian Mass "sentiment and emotion is strong." 

Such distinctions and discussions all seem so obsolete now in the light of an infectious contemporary sentimentality that would make the supposed sentimentality that pre-conciliar liturgists discerned in the old feast of the Seven Dolors appear austere in retrospect!    

It is, of course, quite laudable that the reformed Missal retains a Marian collect today. In actuality, however, I suspect that identifying with Mary in contemplating her Son's Passion (to which that collect refers) primarily occurs for most people, if at all, in such devotional contexts as the praying of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and 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 - a devotion which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible.

Missing  today, however, is what was the liturgical highlight of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors (and the still observed September feast of Our Lady of Sorrows) - the (now optional) Sequence of the Mass, the great Stabat Mater, which 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 has also survived as the most common and popular processional music for the Stations of the Cross. For many, surely one of the most memorable and traditional features of the Lenten Stations is the singing of verses of the Stabat Mater during the procession from station to station. The Stations just would not be same without it! 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. Well sung, it 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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Facebook Freakout"

So shocking was Donald Trump's election as President of the United States that it requires explanation - and assignment of blame. Vladimir Putin was clearly a major culprit in what appears to be an ongoing saga. But what about Facebook? More to the point, what about our current fixation on Facebook's multiple failures - what Ross Douthat, in today's NY Times, terms "our current freakout over Facebook"? 

Douthat is by his own admission "not a fan of Facebook." He considers social media "a cancer on our private lives and a source of derangement in our politics." He may be correct about that, especially the derangement part. Even so, I am one of the approximately 2/3 of Americans who are on Facebook, and I remain a fan of sorts. I appreciate the ability to keep in contact (however superficially) with people I would otherwise probably not be writing to or telephoning. And I especially appreciate the opportunity Facebook has provided to reconnect with people from previous periods in my life whom I would otherwise have forever lost any contact with. 

That said, I do not think of it as a legitimate source of political news. Recognizing that some may do so, I share the growing national concern with Facebook as yet another out-of-control corporate giant, which may also have contributed in some measure to the corrupting of the 2016 election. Having said that, however, I am reminded that it was not primarily the social- media generation that elected Trump president. So I must also agree with Douthat's larger point that the media format that made Trump president, the media format "whose weaknesses and perversities and polarizing tendencies he brilliantly exploited ... was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news." Trump accomplished this in two steps, Douthat argues. the first was The Apprentice, which portrayed "a much-bankrupted real estate tycoon ... as a titan of industry, the for-serious greatest business man in the world." We who had seem Trump close-up in New York might have been immune to such illusions, but we now that many other Americans probably formed an impression of Trump as some sort of great businessman - a dangerous perception when combined with the erroneous but ever popular American notion that success in business ought to qualify one for political office (instead of being the disqualification that the conflict between private and public interest might suggest) 

More menacing than The Apprentice, however, was what happened once Trump became an actual candidate. "Step two was the use of his celebrity to turn news channels into informercials for his campaign." Douthat is referring both to the "more than $2 billion in effective advertising" Trump benefited from during the primary season and to his exploitation of "the polarization that cable news, in particular, is designed to feed." The former is essentially built into TV's business model. Trump's celebrity sold. It made money for networks and cable companies. The latter, however, is not inherent in TV per se, but political polarization has become TV's default way of covering the news, something that probably wasn't inevitable even if it now seems to be the natural state of affairs.

Everyone recognizes that, as those who get their information from newscasts die out, the failings of social media may matter more in the long-term. Meanwhile, however, any accurate accounting with what happened in 2016 needs to lay at least as much blame on old media as new.

At least since the 1960s, TV has been a decisive player in American politics - more often than not harmful. In the future, we should probably expect the same from social media.

Monday, March 19, 2018

7 Days in Entebbe

7 Days in Entebbe is a historical drama about a familiar event (familiar at least to those of us old enough to remember it), the terrorist hijacking of an Air France airliner in 1976 and the subsequent hostage standoff in Idi Amin's Uganda that lasted for a week until their heroic rescue by Israeli commandos. Since we know what is going to happen, the audience’s interest is inevitably focused on other elements in the drama. Personally I was particularly interested in the conflicts and debates within the Israeli government, in particular the back-and-forth between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Defence Minister Shimon Peres. Another great drama is the debates among the terrorists themselves. Although it was ultimately the Palestinian Terrorists who took over and made demands of the Israeli government, the film focuses mainly on the German couple, members of the infamous Baader-Meinhof Gang, one of the bizarre European terrorists groups spawned by the political and social chaos of the Western world in the 1970s. (From our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary “war on terrorism,” it may be easy to forget how much terrorist violence there was in the world in the 1970s – not just the obvious terrorist activities of the PLO and the IRA but also other groups like the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Brigades, and the American Weather Undergound and the SLA.).
Terrorist groups like the IRA and the PLO were utterly reprehensible, but at least they had causes which one could comprehend and debate the possible merits of - or more likely their lack of merit, The actions of affluent Americans and Europeans who adopted a pseudo-Marxist world-view and a commitment to world revolution never made much sense, however. The film does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of the German terrorists’ revolutionary rhetoric and the pointlessly suicidal nature of their movement. Ultimately they are portrayed as the destructive fanatics that they were, but not in a way which excludes some appreciation of their complexity as otherwise possibly sympathetic individuals, absurdly committed to and warped by a crazy ideology.
The film also does a credible job of highlighting the tensions (personal and political) within the Israeli government and the fiddiculty - in a democratic society - of maintaining a necessary but inevitably unpopular policy of never negotiating with terrorists. Unfortunately, especially toward the end, the film seems to veer into an absurd, ideological linkage between that dilemma and the larger dilemma of how to deal in the longer term with the problem of Arab intransigence.
Where the film fails terribly, however, is in its bizarre attempt to give the events a uniquely creative, possibly symbolic, artistic feel. One of the commandos involved in the rescue is portrayed as having a girlfriend who is a member of an Israeli modern dance troop. For most of the film, this is just a distracting sub-plot. But then, when the long-awaited rescue sequence arrives, it is amazingly interspersed with a performance by the dance troop! Undoubtedly the dance was “creative.” Undoubtedly, interspersing the climax of the film with this distracting performance was also “creative.” Undoubtedly it also almost completely ruins an otherwise good film!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Death and Life

Homily for the celebration of the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 18, 2018.

The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard [John 11:1-45] recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs,” because they reveal Jesus and invite us to respond with faith. But the raising of Lazarus also had as a consequence the authorities’ decision to execute Jesus. So life and death are mixed together, as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.

Meanwhile this story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus - and the extension of Lazarus’ earthly life - becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.

Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness, thus setting the stage for a series of conversations, the most important (and familiar) of which was for so many centuries read at Catholic funerals.

Listening in on their conversation today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else might happen to people when they died, ancient people knew that dead people do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would follow – in the future, on the last day.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.
We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary mortal life.  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot. But no one had to help Jesus rise up or had to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”

Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Providing Religious Cover for Moral Squalor"

Once more, Michael Gerson had added his voice to the ongoing discussion about the relationship between right-wing religion and Donald Trump's presidency and its long-term consequences for American religion in general, what he fittingly labels "providing religious cover for moral squalor". (See "the Last Temptation," The Atlantic April 2018 -

A life-long Evangelical himself, Gerson recognizes the shocking incongruity between right-wing religion's past attitudes toward licentious language and behavior and right-wing religion's current embrace of President Trump. But he quickly moves on to the heart of the problem: "Trump's unapologetic materialism - his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth - is a negation of Christian teaching." Once there, however, we are really no longer speaking solely of Trump (however extreme an example he may be) but of the essential project of the Republican party (an institution to which Gerson still has a historical attachment).

That said, Gerson's portrayal of the statements and behavior of one-time opponents of cultural and moral decay, now turned court chaplains, their supposed moral convictions corrupted by partisan identification hits home. "Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can't see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness."

Gerson recalls (in lengthy detail) the familiar history of American evangelicalism's "fall from a  great height" and how the resulting defensive stance against contemporary culture "was happily exploited by the modern GOP." Interestingly, he contrast evangelicalism's "lack of a model or ideal of political engagement - an organizing theory of social action" - with Catholicism's "coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection." Of course, Gerson well knows, "American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard."

In contrast, Gerson stresses how wholly "reactive" the evangelical political agenda has been. His own experience suggests the real potential for evangelical social engagement, but laments how "such concerns find limited collective political expression" in part, he argues, because of "the relative ethnic and racial insularity of  many white evangelicals." Here he makes another unfavorable comparison with the heavily Hispanic Catholic Church.

One result of this highly reactive dynamic has been an apocalyptic self-perception as "a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules." In this understanding,  "protecting Christianity" has become "a job for a bully." By giving political considerations "pride of place," evangelicals, Gerson argues, "have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense."

He is particularly troubled that Trump supporters' decision "that racism is not a moral disqualification" for the presidency "is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities." Acknowledging the presence of counter-examples in the evangelical orbit and the growing disenchantment of younger evangelicals with political negativity, Gerson remains, however, highly anxious for the future - for the evangelical religious tradition and - "because, religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country's public life" - for America. he concludes by calling on evangelicals "to rescue their faith from its worst leaders."

It is edifying that Gerson remains inspired by his faith and motivated to recall it to a more positive relationship with civil society. Christian history, however, offers abundant examples of opportunities missed, with catastrophic consequences - for example, the amputation of a once vibrantly Christian North Africa and a thousand years later the religious partition of Europe, both of which weakened the Church for centuries and continue to do so today. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term legacy of the unholy alliance between right-wing religion and an unapologetically materialist partisan project.