Sunday, January 21, 2018

Fishers of Men

In this season of new beginnings, just three weeks into a new year, the Church today recalls what we might call the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission – with Jesus’ call of Simon and Andrew and James and John to be apostles and missionaries, the very core from whom the Church would expand and grow. Today’s Gospel must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text!  Not that I would ever be likely to serve as a vocation director, part of the job description of which is presumably to be young and thin.  Nor have I ever been much called upon to give Paulist Appeal talks, which is what is supposed to happen today. Some of you may have come to Mass today expecting to hear your former Pastor, who will be celebrating his Golden Jubilee, 50 years as a priest in 2018, and who was scheduled to be preaching our Paulist Appeal today. Unfortunately he is in bed with the flu. So you’re stuck with me instead.

Be that as it may, today’s Gospel is indeed a Vocation preacher’s dream, and so it is an easy transition to speak about a particular vocation – that of the Paulist Fathers – and to ask all of you who are here today not necessarily to become Paulists yourselves (although if there is anyone here who fits that profile, let’s talk later) but to offer your support to the Paulists – as people in this parish have done so consistently and so generously ever since the late Fr. Tom Connellon came to Immaculate Conception in 1973 as our first Paulist pastor.

By the way, one of the best Vocation-Promotion-Recruitment films ever made was Fisher of Men, our own Paulist Vocation-Promotion-Recruitment film from the early 1960s, which takes its title from Jesus’ famous words in today’s Gospel. It was written and produced by the founder of Paulist Productions, as a "day in the life" of a fictional Paulist priest (played by Brian Keith, the star of the 961 movie, The Parent Trap), with scenes filmed at out Paulist parish and at our university ministry in Los Angeles. It is visually very dated obviously, but still well worth seeing.

One of my own favorite vocation stories is from the 4th century. In 391, Saint Augustine, then 36 years old, but baptized only 4 years, visited the North African town of Hippo. Knowing Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator, the Bishop, Valeriaus, took advantage of his presence to say that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until he agreed to be ordained!

Like Saint Augustine, our 19th-century Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, also told his own account of his own personal journey – how God led him into the Catholic Church and then inspired him to devote the rest of his life to leading others there as well. Often in my boyhood, Hecker wrote, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.

For all the drama we may be inclined to associate with the vocations of the Apostles or of Saint Augustine, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call can come in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. And it was to share the Church’s life in our ordinary, everyday world that Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers 160 years ago. Animated by Hecker’s vision and inspiration, generations of Paulist priests have crisscrossed this country in order (as we like to say) to “Give the Word a Voice.” 

But none of that happens automatically. When the Paulists started they were just four in number and had the immediate task of building a brand new parish, church and all, from nothing. So they sent out an appeal, announcing their hopes and plans, and asking for contributions to buy land and build on it. A lot has changed in the world in 160 years. But that hasn’t. We need all of you to be our partners, to share our hopes, and to help us build and grow the community of God’s kingdom here in East Tennessee and throughout this country.

The brochures in the pews illustrate how our Annual Paulist Appeal supports the important work of priestly formation, our seminarians (some of whom you know personally). Our Annual Paulist Appeal supports this important he work of priestly formation, which is essential for our future; it supports our mission and ministries in the present; and it helps the community care for our senior Paulists, some of whom have served here in the past. If you have already been contacted by mail and have already given, I thank you. For everyone else, there is an envelope attached to the brochure and there are larger, easier-to-use envelopes in the pews. Whatever or however you may plan to give, please take the time between now and the collection to check the boxes and fill in the blanks, and put that envelope in the 2nd collection.

Again on behalf of all the Paulists Fathers from senior ministry to our students and novices, I thank you for your support of the Paulist Fathers past and present.

Homily for the Annual Paulist Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 21, 2018.

To give online to the Annual Paulist Appeal, go to

Saturday, January 20, 2018

One Year

In a more normal time (which no longer exists and may never return again), the first anniversary of a presidential administration might be the occasion for a balanced assessment of the new president's accomplishments (or lack thereof). But, of course, these are not normal times, either for the presidency of for the country as a whole. In a more normal time, in a more normal presidency, the prospect of a government shutdown on the very eve of the administration's first anniversary would probably have been viewed as an appalling prospect (as indeed it should be). In the current climate, it is just part of the way things are now. The disgrace of Congress's unwillingness to fulfill its most fundamental responsibilities merits little more than a shrug.

As it has been experienced in this first year, the Trump presidency presents two particular types of problems, which invite two opposite responses. The first concerns the president in particular, his unconventional behavior, his seeming ignorance of and apparent indifference to traditional norms of democratic politics and the expectations of his high office, and the corrupting effect of all of this in terms of governance, democratic deliberation and debate, and the very existence of commonly shared standards or truth and political expectations. The almost inevitable response to this, of course has been an unrelenting preoccupation with the person of the President. with worry about his personality and/or opposition to him personally dominating the discussion - largely to the neglect of a preoccupation with his and his party's policies.

The second problem, however, concerns precisely those policies - more precisely how this President has empowered his party's destructive political agenda, some of which (deregulation, hostility to immigrants, etc.) has already been successfully implemented.and more of which (e.g., attacks on Medicare and Medicaid) ominously threatens. The right response to all of that, of course, should logically be a focus precisely on those policies and a strategy to disempower their policymakers. The problem is that the two responses conflict with one another.

President Trump's behavior has been both offensive and erratic. That has gotten in the way of his being the post-partisan "populist" alternative to our stagnant "establishment" politics that some hoped he might be. Instead, he has largely empowered his party's political agenda, which is anything but "populist." 

As David Leonhardt noted in Friday's NY Times, the danger with an obsessive preoccupation with the President himself, with his personality and with his problematic behavior, is the resulting disappearance of the necessarily intense focus on the harm his party's policies are actually doing. Leonhardt cites Luigi Zingales' comparison of Trump to Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: "The Italian opposition, Zingales wrote, 'was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different'.”

Leonhardt argues that, just as Berlusconi’s opponents did better when they treated him as a normal politician and criticized him on substance (because Berlusconi’s actually agenda was unpopular), so too the opposition would do better by focusing on policy issues that could win over certain voters. "A focus on economic issues will almost certainly be more effective than a focus on personality. But the question isn’t just personality versus policy. It’s also which kinds of policy Democrats emphasize. And economic issues are much more likely to be effective than cultural issues, even if Democrats rightly feel passionate about cultural issues like immigration and Trump’s racism."

As we begin the second year of the Trump presidency, that sounds like advice his opponents need to take very seriously if their goal is actually to make political change rather than merely make noise.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Norwegians and Other Immigrants

So accustomed have we become - thanks to HBO et al. - to uncivilized vulgar language in situations where it would not ordinarily be expected, it was inevitable that real life would soon start imitating the vulgar corrosiveness of cable TV language. Thus the foul-mouthed town mayor in season one of HBO's The Leftovers prefigured the real-life vulgarity of our current Head of State. 

But beyond vulgarity, other questions clamor to be asked in the wake of the President's now infamous comment. How, for example, do we - and how should we - think and speak about problematic places in the world? Immigrants have come to our shores from all backgrounds, for all sorts of reasons, and from all over the world. But, at an given time in our national history, immigrants have been especially likely to have arrived from problematic situations in problematic places - for example, mid-19th-century Irish immigrants from famine-devastated Ireland, or late-19th-century East European Jewish immigrants evading Russian pogroms. The immigrant group I know the most about - Southern Italians - came in greatest numbers in the aftermath of the unification of Italy, when the only real solution the newly united Kingdom of Italy could offer to the predominantly poor population from southern Italy and Sicily was  immigration (whether to the US or to Argentina or wherever). Nor should anyone ever forget that, then as now, many of those immigrants were quite unwelcome by many of those already here, many of whom perversely identified America with their particular ethnic identity and who demeaned the places those immigrants came from (not unlike the attitude of our current President). In spite of that, immigrants from problematic situations in problematic places came and thrived in this country - as has continued to happen with more recent immigrants from the places the President insulted. 

That said, another obvious next question is: why Norway? Why would anyone expect immigrants to come to the United States from contemporary Norway? The modern Kingdom of Norway became independent in 1905; but, as a nation, Norway has existed with a distinct identity since at least 872. According to the World Bank and the IMF, contemporary Norway has the 4th highest per capita income in the world. Its citizens enjoy social security and universal health care. Its government is considered one of the world's most democratic, and its people among the world's happiest. 

So the obvious question becomes: if there were to be any significant amount  of contemporary immigration between Norway and the US, which would be the more problematic place? From which country's problems would immigrants seek to escape?

(Photo: The current King and Queen and Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Norway.) 

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Post (the Movie)

Steven Spielberg's The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, recalls The Washington Post's involvement in the epochal conflict between journalists and the US Government surrounding the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. 

The Pentagon Papers (for anyone who may not remember) was actually a study prepared by the Defense Department of the US-Vietnam relationship over the period from 1945 to 1967, leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, who had been involved in the study Although it was the Nixon Administration that fought to stop their publication, the documents themselves focused on the two decades prior to the Nixon Administration - the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Their significance was in revealing the full scope of US involvement in the region with little expectation of ultimate success - suggesting in effect a decades-long failure of policy and a pattern of persistent government deception. The publication of the Pentagon Papers further helped to undermine whatever credibility US policy in Vietnam may still have had by the 1970s. So, even though it was previous Administrations whose failures were detailed int he papers, the Nixon Administration tried to halt the papers' publication, which embroiled it in a legal case against The New York Times and The Washington Post, a case which quickly went to the Supreme Court where the government lost and the newspapers won by a vote of 6-3.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent court cases constituted a watershed event in the unravelling of the American policy in Vietnam and the unravelling also of the credibility of the government. It marled a major moment in the creation of the adversarial culture between government and media (soon to be reinforced and institutionalized by Watergate) which has largely existed since then. Whether that has been entirely beneficial is a question that needs to be asked, although there can be no doubt that the unmasking of the duplicity underlying American foreign policy in regard to Vietnam was a great  and much needed service. That, followed soon after by Watergate, definitively altered the balance between trust and distrust in our culture - a mixed blessing at best, as tan adversarial culture of mutual mistrust has spread to virtually all institutions and relationships in society.

Given the importance of the events recounted and the stellar cast, the film succeeds in its purpose. It is also a window (for those who don't remember) into the early 1970s and into the cozy (corruptly cozy?) relationships that existed among governmental and media elites. Paraphrasing Lord Acton, elites are corrupt, and elites being cozy with each other corrupts absolutely! That should be kept in mind whenever the press engages in its favorite pastime of self-righteously lecturing the rest of us on how essential the press is. There is a bit more of that in the film than anyone needs to hear - especially coming from, of all people, Ben Bradlee.

The characterization of Katharine Graham is especially superb. (What else would one expect form Meryl Streep?) We watch her grow in her self-confidence as leader of her company, a role she had not originally expected to play and which the mores of the time had not prepared her for - in the process helping to transform The Post from a local newspaper to a national media treasure.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Amid all the authentic outrage (and also predictable virtue signalling) over yet another bizzarely crude comment by President Trump, Tomorrow, Sunday, January 14, is appropriately observed as the World Day of Migrants and Refugees

In his Message in preparation for this day, Pope Francis reaffirmed that “our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.

Considering the current situation, welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.  …  The second verb – protecting – may be understood as a series of steps intended to defend the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, independent of their legal status.  …  Promoting essentially means a determined effort to ensure that all migrants and refugees – as well as the communities which welcome them – are empowered to achieve their potential as human beings, in all the dimensions which constitute the humanity intended by the Creator.  Among these, we must recognize the true value of the religious dimension, ensuring to all foreigners in any country the freedom of religious belief and practice.”  [Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the  World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018]

For the complete text of the Pope's Message, go to: