Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Ascension

Back where I grew up, the Ascension is still celebrated on its proper day (this past Thursday). So, there, one is still greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that in the entire city what is called “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holy day. It’s even better in Germany, for example, where Ascension is still a legal holiday and where even the Stock Market is closed in observance of the Ascension. 

Back when I was a kid, of course, what we especially liked about the Ascension was that we got off from school. And certainly some of us here are also old enough to remember the wonderful old custom of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. Even more dramatically, in certain places, either the candle itself or a statue of the Risen Christ would be hoisted up to the church’s ceiling, to be replaced by a shower of roses as a sign of Christ’s parting promise to give the Holy Spirit to the Church. The point of such rituals, of course, was not to highlight Christ’s absence, but rather the new way he is now present to us. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the Risen Lord’s series of periodic appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walked earth the way he did before he died and rose, but he did, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 days [Acts 1:1-11], speaking about the kingdom of God.

So, now, if Jesus doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34].

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock (photo), which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint and the idea that he pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. As Pope Francis has recently reminded us: Even though the Lord may now appear more distant, the horizons of hope expand all the more. In Christ, who brings our human nature to heaven, every man and woman can now freely “enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” [Hebrews10:19-20].

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile - in this interval between Ascension and the end, a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of crises and conflicts in the world and even in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries, in this interval between Ascension and the end – we too may be tempted to doubt, just like the apostles in the Gospel. Yet, although he is absent in one way, he has nonetheless promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20]. Hence his instruction to his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father.

This Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is actually still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has expressed it:

Those who, in faith, entrust themselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit come to realize how God is present and at work in every moment of our lives and history, patiently bringing to pass a history of salvation. [Papal Message for the 51st Annual World Communications Day]

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 28, 2017.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Week of Wonderful English Saints

The current Starz TV series The White Princess (sequel to The White Queen, both based on Philippa Gregory's novels about the Wars of the Roses) focuses on Elizabeth of York, wife of England's Henry VII, who founde the Tudor dynasty, after defeating the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485). As part of the peace between the rival houses of Lancaster and York, Henry married Elizabeth (daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III). The two of them are thus the ancestors of all subsequent English and (from James V on) all Scottish monarchs, down to the present occupant of the British throne. ("The White Queen" was her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, mother of the murdered "princes in the Tower.") 

A relatively minor character (photo) is the Queen's first cousin, Margaret Plantagenet (1473-1541), daughter of Edward IV's and Richard III's traitor brother George, Duke of Clarence. In the series, as in real life, Margaret was married off in 1487 to King Henry's cousin, Sir Richard Pole, who eventually became Chamberlain for Henry's first son, Arthur. Margaret, in turn became lady-in-waiting to Arthur's wife, Catherine of Aragon, a role she resumed later when Henry VIII married his widowed sister-in-law. As countess of Salibury in her own right, she was wealthy and prominent. Her son Reginald Pole eventually became a Cardinal and, during Mary Tudor's Catholic restoration, Archbishop of Canterbury - the last Catholic Archbishop in that line. Her and her son's fidelity to the Catholic faith (and their potential claim as surviving Plantagenet Yorkist heirs to the English throne) eventually caused the English Reformation's proto-Stalin, Henry VIII, to imprison her in the Tower, where she was executed on May 27, 1541. Her son, Cardinal Pole, subsequently said he would "never fear to call himself the son of a martyr." And In 1886 she was duly beatified by Pope Leo XIII. May 28 is the date assigned for her commemoration.

Margaret Pole is one of three outstanding English saints celebrated this week. On Thursday, in places where the Ascension is postponed to Sunday, we celebrated the Venerable Bede (c.673-735), a monk at Jarrow in Northumbria, author most famously of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as a result of which he is remembered as "the Father of English History." He wrote much else beside, including some poetry in the vernacular. Among other things, he also popularized the use of the new (now universally used) dating system based on the Birth of Christ (Anno Domini). His scholarly reputation extended far beyond his home island, and he was mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso, X). However his feast became part of the general Roman calendar only in 1899. It was originally assigned to May 27, but in 1969 was moved to May 25.

And today the Church commemorates the great Saint Augustine of Canterbury (534-604), the Roman monk sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to evangelize the English and who founded the See of Canterbury in 597. His relics were lost during the barbaric destruction of the English Reformation, but a new shrine has been recently re-establlished near the site where he first landed in England. Celebrated in Britain on May 26 and elsewhere on May 28 until 1969, he is now celebrated on May 27.

The Collect for today's Mass prays "that the fruits of [Saint Augustine's] labors may remain ever abundant in your Church." And so they did, reaping a rich harvest for more than six centuries until the wanton destruction inspired by Henry VIII's lust for unlimited, unchecked spiritual as well as temporal power.

This unique collection of great English saints in one week is, of course, coincidental. Still, it highlights for us English-speakers the great debt we all owe to our linguistic ancestors who brought the Catholic faith to the English-speaking world, nourished it with their piety and scholarship, and defended it to the point of martyrdom at the hands of a monster monarch whose insatiable lust for power led him to the mother of all Brexits, gratuitously separating his kingdom from the Universal Church, in the process destroying countless lives and erasing a great nation's glorious religious heritage.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How many Divisions does the Pope have?

Like so many of his recent predecessors in the White House, President Trump is traveling to Rome today to be received in audience by the Pope.  On April 29, 1903, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XIII then still a seminarian in Rome, wrote in triumphalistic tones in his journal (posthumously published as Journal of a Soul) about the visit of Britain's King Edward VII to Pope Leo XIII, whom Roncalli called "the poor old Pope, held like a prisoner in his own house." Leo's future successor was moved "to thank the good God who holds the keys of men's hearts and who, through all the intrigues of politics, finds a means of making known the glory of his name and the glory of the Catholic Church."  

And, in fact, King Edward's visit to the Vatican really was a tribute of sorts to Leo's success in restoring prestige to a beleaguered papacy after the Italian conquest of Rome and the many other humiliations the 19th century had inflicted upon both Pope and Church. If anything, papal prestige is even higher today, thanks largely to the widespread growth and expansion of the Church around the world. Thanks to its increased influence, more states than ever before in history now have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. (When the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome in 1870, there were just 16 diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See. By the time Italy and the Church made peace in 1929, the  number had grown to 27. With the recent establishment of relations with Myanmar earlier this year that number has passed 180.) 

Both the Holy See and the United States are global powers, albeit very different types of global powers, which makes tomorrow's meeting of Pope and President at least symbolically significant. At times, of course, the relationship has had more practical impact. Papal diplomacy has been credited with playing a role in the Obama Administration's restoration of relations with Cuba, and of course the Cold War cooperation between the Pope and President Reagan is now legendary. More importantly than any of that, however, the Pope himself and the Holy See as an institution serve as a global reference, reminding political actors of imperatives beyond the important but limited constructs of national interests and international relations.

So Pope and President, each of whom has a very different mandate, should not normally be expected to look at the world's problems through the same lens. It is hardly likely that this Pope and this President will. Everyone remembers their apparent disagreement a while back about Trump's proposed border wall. Even so, this Pope and this President have some things in common, which may make their relationship more interesting. Both came to their current office as outsiders. Both remain reluctant to subordinate themselves to some of the more traditional expectations of their office. Both seem to have a keen sense of public relations and the value of direct communication with their constituents over the  heads of traditional filters. Both seem to appreciate the contemporary primacy of image over more traditional concerns. Both have a somewhat critical stance toward the very institutions that they need to work through in order to accomplish substantive goals, and both likewise maintain a comparably critical perspective toward inherited global political and economic arrangements. 

How many divisions does the Pope have? Stalin is supposed to have asked Winston Churchill, when the latter spoke up about the rights of the Catholic Poles. It turns out that he may still have quite a few!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mater Si, Magistra No?

Mater si, Magistra no was a once provocative phrase originally used by William F. Buckley (allegedly suggested to him by Gary Wills) in Buckley's journal National Review in his negative response to Pope Saint John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher"). It was a take-off on a then popular anti-Castro expression, Cuba si, Castro no. Appropriating the slogan in this way, Buckley meant to convey that one could be a devout and loyal Catholic son or daughter of Mother Church while rejecting particular Church teachings. In subsequent decades, the phrase came to characterize the more widespread phenomenon, on the left as well as on the right, of dissent from other authoritative Church teachings (e.g., on contraception).

I was reminded of all that recently with the publication of an excellent new Buckley biography, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., by Al Felzenberg, a political scientist and scholar of the presidency, presently a lecturer at the Annenberg School of Communicatio- and (full disclosure) a former grad school classmate of mine at Princeton in the 1970s. Dr. Felzenberg provides a detailed account of Buckley's life, his career as a public face of and mentor to the revitalized conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century, and, as the title suggests, his personal and political interactions with the presidents (at least the Republican presidents) who dominated that period. The "odyssey" part of the title may be more problematic, since, although he did evolve in certain respects which Felzenberg details, basically Buckley began, continued, and ended as a convinced and polemical conservative throughout his entire public life. That said, as a study of Buckley's beliefs and how he promoted them, irrefutably influencing his era, Felzenberg's book is a tremendous success. Significantly, he highlights two of Buckley's greatest accomplishments - his "fusion" of disparate philosophical factions in a common anti-communist movement and his "gatekeeper" role, which functioned to de-legitimize more extreme and conspiratorial edges of the movement - some of the very elements which seem to be reasserting their influence on the right today under the rubric of "populism." An elitist by personality and background, Buckley (as Felzenberg relevantly shows) never quite resolved the competing claims of elitism and populism in his own thinking and in the movement at large.

Felzenberg acknowledges and highlights the significance of Buckley's Catholicism - and the influence it apparently had in moderating his inherited racial prejudices. But, unless I missed it, Buckley's 1961 reaction to Mater et Magistra and the larger, life-long Mater si, Magistra no question of how he reconciled his highly individualistic (almost libertarian) orientation with the communitarian-oriented teaching of the Church is hardly addressed. Perhaps what that really reflects is how - apart from his rejection of the most extreme  (and conveniently atheistic) version of libertarianism promoted by Ayn Rand - Buckley himself managed somehow sufficiently to compartmentalize his faith and his socio-political beliefs such that the challenges one proposed to the other could themselves be minimized or ignored. 

In this, unwittingly perhaps, Buckley became a paradigm for contemporary American Catholicism's internal divisions, which virtually mirror the larger social and political divisions in American society at large. Like the country, Catholicism in America is largely polarized between between its right and left wings which tragically seem increasingly to be moving in separate politically rather than religiously defined directions, despite the challenge to both by the authoritative teachings of the Church's magisterium.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Learning from Experience

From Jerusalem, the city of Samaria to which the Deacon Philip traveled in today’s 1st reading was about the same distance as, say, San Francisco is from Walnut Creek. The Samaritans were, so to speak, the Jews’ next-door neighbors. Neighbors, however, don’t always get along, as we all know. The Samaritans were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, but over the centuries, thanks to a complicated history, they had acquired a separate identity, worshiping the same God but in a different place and in a different way. The result was two groups, whose differences from one another came to matter more than what they had in common, causing them to regard each other with suspicion and hostility. (Being suspicious of and hostile to other people who are different in some way seems to be typically human behavior – now as then.)

Yet, surprisingly, none of that seems to have stopped Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Nor did it prevent the Samaritans from paying attention to what was said by Philip. The result was great joy in that city and yet another leap on the Church’s part, another experience of expansion, growth, and diversity (in keeping with the whole trajectory of the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles which, can be summarized as: Good News travels fast. Good News travels far. Good news builds the Church and heals the world.)

Even so, what Philip was doing and had done inevitably raised some serious questions back in Jerusalem. So Peter and John went to Samaria to see for themselves what was happening and to interpret what it all meant. Surrounded by Samaritans, strangers whom they would until then have probably preferred to avoid, Peter and John recognized God’s grace at work in in this unexpected way in that unexpected place, and so they laid their hands on the newly believing Samaritans, and they, in turn, received the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. So, if the Samaritans were going to become believers like them, then they had to be connected by that one Holy Spirit with the rest of the Church led by the apostles.

Luke’s point in telling us this story seems to be to stress the importance of the unity and universality of the Church, specifically its apostolic leadership, which links us with the Risen Christ, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the Church continues Christ’s presence and action in our world today.

The apostles may well have been surprised initially, both by Philip’s initiative and by the Samaritans’ response. Surprised or not, they saw in what was happening the direction they were intended to go. Acts constantly presents the Church as learning from experience, confident that, thanks to the Risen Christ’s continued presence in the Church through his Holy Spirit, what happens in the world really is significant.

Faith does not eradicate the many and various differences that exist among people, but it does create a completely new relationship for all of us with God and with one another - in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  Peter, John, and Philip all learned this from their actual experience of how God was acting, drawing different people and peoples together in a completely new kind of community that overcomes the ordinary divisions of our ordinary world.

Likewise, faith alone does not resolve all the problems we will experience even in our new life together as Christ’s Church. It does, however, give us confidence in the Risen Lord’s presence among us in the structures of his Church, and in the power of the word of God, which continues to be proclaimed in the Church, to create a unity which can resolve those conflicts and so transcend our human divisions and limitations.

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, May 21, 2017.