Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Michaelmas Day

At the mature age of nine when I was confirmed – on September 22, 1957 – I chose “Michael” for my confirmation name. I did not choose that name to honor some relative or family friend. As best I can recall, what impressed me most about that name was its association with the great warrior archangel. Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon … who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth (Revelation 12:7-9). In those days, we regularly prayed this prayer to St. Michael the Archangel after (Low) Mass: St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin and destruction of souls. I really liked that prayer. And for my confirmation, I definitely wanted to identify with the great macho warrior archangel.

For centuries, St. Michael the Archangel was honored on this day (at one time a holyday of obligation). Hence, the traditional English name Michaelmas for this date. Coming just after the autumnal equinox, as the days are visibly darkening, it must have seemed a very appropriate day indeed to honor the Church’s champion against the original “Dark Lord.” Since the calendar reform of 1969, the archangels Gabriel and Raphael (the only other angels identified with proper names in the Bible) have lost their individual feast days and have been folded in with Michael in one composite feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Where would we be without angels? I haven’t yet encountered any images of the archangels in my new church, but I have found a beautiful statue of an angel kneeling in prayer, which I hope soon to put to good use. Individual angels and choirs of angels often appear in church decoration. At St. Malachy’s (“The Actors’ Chapel”) on West 49th Street in New York City, where I served as deacon in the early 1990s and celebrated one of my first Masses in 1995, paintings of angels adorn the upper reaches of the church. Ten blocks north at the Paulist “Mother Church,” St. Paul the Apostle, angels form the subject of statues, murals, and windows in the sanctuary – among them the three gilded bronze angels kneeling above the baldachin over the High Altar and the four bronze angels with outstretched arms and interlocking hands that encircle the huge globe of the sanctuary lamp. The circular painting, The Angel of the Moon, high up on the south wall of the sanctuary is considered one of the most notable of John La Farge’s murals. It companion piece, The Angel of the Sun, on the north wall, was painted by William Laurel Harris (the same artist who also did the monumental mural The Crucifixion above the Church’s main entrance). Above and behind the High Altar, the central window depicts Mary Queen of Angels. On the south side of that central widow is a stained glass window of the Archangel Michael, and on the north side is one of the Archangel Raphael. The Archangel Gabriel appears in the painting above the Annunciation Altar in the south aisle. Painted figures of angels also flank that altar on either side, and angels are depicted adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance painted about the Sacred Heart Altar in the north aisle.

Likewise, the words of the liturgy daily remind us of the angels. Thus, we join the angels and the saints in proclaiming your glory in the Sanctus, an acclamation based on the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the angels in heaven (Isaiah 6:3-4). The Gloria’s opening words – Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth – recall the hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds on the first Christmas (Luke 2:14). At Funerals, we pray (preferably in the hauntingly beautiful traditional chant) May the angels lead you into Paradise. That familiar In Paradisum prayer was, of course, the basis for Horatio’s famous farewell to Hamlet, Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2).

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, angels (whose existence is called “a truth of faith”) are spiritual creatures possessing intelligence and will, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures. As servants and messengers of God, they have been present since the creation, announcing salvation and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan.

Then, there are the Guardian Angels, commemorated separately on October 2.

It seems the angels really are everywhere – not just in pretty pictures and in the countless books found on the shelves devoted to angels in contemporary bookstores! Where would we be without them?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Can the Truth Hurt?

President Obama has been getting so much criticism lately that one hesitates to pile on with any further critical commentary. However, there is something the President said last week, which seems to me emblematic of what passes for serious political and moral discourse these days

Asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that some segments within the U.S. government had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks (and that much of the world actually believes that), President Obama responded: “It was offensive. It was hateful. And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones — people of all faiths, all ethnicities, who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation — for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.”

Of course, Ahmadinejad’s rant was offensive and hateful and inexcusable. But it was also untrue. Perhaps the President presumed that most sensible people already realized it was untrue and so that fact didn’t require repeating. But then I suspect that most sensible people probably also recognized Ahmadinejad’s statement as being offensive and hateful as well – and all the more so precisely because it is untrue.

Given that this is a case of words which were simultaneously both offensive and false, perhaps I am reading too much into the President’s remarks; but it strikes me as revealing – of something – that the emphasis seems to have fallen primarily on Ahmadinejad’s falsehood's offensiveness rather than on tis falsehood. Is this symptomatic of a way of thinking and speaking that is increasingly afraid of giving offense and is intensively offended by offensivensss, but seems less and less interested in the claim of truth?

It seems to me that something has happened in our moral language in recent decades that reflects a radical distortion in our way of thinking about things. Whether this reflects a widespread acceptance of an outright post-modern rejection of the possibility of objective truth or simply a decadent popular culture’s indifference to truth can be debated, but the practical result seems pretty much the same.

The consequence is increasingly evident in attempts to discuss moral matters, where a position (no matter how ancient and impressive its pedigree) can simply be dismissed as unacceptable because someone is offended by it (thereby freeing the one offended from having to confront alternative arguments and perhaps even reconsider his or her own position). It is certainly not a sign of a good and noble character to desire to be offensive. Ad hominem attacks, name-calling, dismissivenss of others’ motives and sincerity are always inappropriate. And, of course, many things that are offensive may also be demonstrably false. But surely there may be some things that are true that may also be offensive to some or even many people, and yet may need to be said if we are to see our way to moral clarity.

It’s purely a coincidence, but yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. I remember all four of those debates, but (like everyone else a that time) particularly remember the first one. As was noted at the time, many of those who listened to the first debate on the radio tended to consider Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV considered Kennedy the winner. There was a lot of serious substance discussed in those historic encounters between two serious and qualified candidates, but the 1960 Presidential debates – and especially the first one – are primarily remembered in history as the triumph (thanks to TV’s new role) of style over substance.

It seems we have been sliding down this particular slippery slope for quite a while now.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Great Chasm

Last Sunday’s Gospel [Luke 16:1-13] ended with the stern warning: You cannot serve both God and mammon. Today, Jesus brings his point even closer to home with a parable [Luke 16:19-31] that surely ranks among the New Testament’s story-telling masterpieces.

We hear this parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest as he reads Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously all dressed in purple. (At least we don’t have that problem today.)

Other than his wardrobe, we actually know next to nothing about the rich man – not even his name. (He is traditionally known as “Dives” – the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable: Homo quidam erat dives, "there was a certain rich man"). In the “real” world, it’s typically the rich whose names we remember. Here, however, it is the beggar, Lazarus, whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man functions as a kind of “everyman” figure. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption the prophet harangued against in today’s 1st reading [Amos 6:1a, 4-7]. Or he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society.

To appreciate the scene Jesus sets, we need to remember one of the fundamental differences between a modern, capitalist society, such as ours, and a "traditional society," such as Jesus lived in – and most people have lived in for most of human history. A modern, capitalist society is much more economically productive than a "traditional" society. It produces much more wealth and for a lot more people. With so much more to go around, there is usually a large middle class in addition to the small, very rich, upper class, and there are far fewer in poverty. In less productive "traditional societies," where the amount of surplus wealth produced is relatively low, the result is usually a very small upper class, a very small middle class, and lots of poor people – not necessarily so poor as Lazarus in the a parable, of course, but poor enough to be close to the margin. That is the normal state of affairs in "traditional," pre-capitalist economies. In such a world, of course, there would be beggars aplenty; and the danger of becoming a beggar would be a very real worry for the large multitude of insecure working poor, just barely making it.

So the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood this parable. They could picture it. Beggars were everywhere, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) there was no avoiding some direct contact between poor and rich. Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side. The parable suggests something more, however. It suggests that for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate.

Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was particularly wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that his wealth was obtained dishonestly or anything of that sort. His only apparent failing, in the parable, was his having created a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus – and his consequent failure to bridge the great chasm between himself and Lazarus. It’s not that he was personally hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was simply indifferent – and hence disconnected. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way so many people live today.

But then he died. In fact, they both died, as indeed we all will die. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment [Hebrews 9:27]. This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we customarily call “the particular judgment” – the definitive judgment of each person immediately after death, determining each one’s ultimate destiny, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.

And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his chosen lifestyle constructed between himself and Lazarus during their lifetimes is now conformed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.

The parable concludes with the rich man begging Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers. Something of the sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, with which we are all familiar. There the rich man himself (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham replies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise form the dead.”

The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – the teller of this parable. That, of course, is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.

So are we listening?
Homily at Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, TN, September 26, 2010.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


A long-time parishioner recently lent me a copy (one of the few still in existence, I suspect) of the 1902 Official Guide Book of General Information Pertaining to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

What a treasure is contained in that little blue booklet’s 96 pages! (Half the pages are advertisements, and what a picture they paint of Turn-of-the-20th-Century Knoxville – complete with an ad for $13.50 bicycles!) The booklet lists the names of the pastor and his one assistant, the parish ushers, and other prominent parishioners and a full roster of parish societies (Altar Society, Young Ladies Sodality, Newman Literary Circle, League of the Sacred Heart, Boys Sodality, Catholic Knights and Ladies of America, Knights of Columbus, Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Irish Benevolent Society). Low Mass on Sundays was at 8:00 a.m., followed by Sunday School at 9:15, and High Mass at 10:30. Baptisms were celebrated on Sunday afternoons at 2:00 and there were Vespers, Lecture, and Benediction at 7:30 p.m. Weekday Masses were at 6:30 and 8:00 a.m. Confessions were heard every Saturday afternoon and evening, before Sunday and weekday Masses, and on the afternoon and evening before First Friday.

Apart from such specifics, however, the bulk of the booklet is, as it professes to be, “General Information” – in effect, a kind of mini-Catechism. It explains the different sacraments and various sacramentals, prayers, and devotions. It provides practical norms for how to behave in church, how to send for a priest to visit the sick, and how to prepare the sickroom for the celebration of the sacraments. It explains Mass stipends, the precepts of the Church, holydays of obligation, fast and abstinence, what is expected of a godparent, the importance of Catholic education and the Catholic press – and much more. The total number of Catholics in the area at the time may have been modest when compared with elsewhere in the country, but notable effort was obviously being expended on their instruction in the faith and their formation as a vibrant Church community.

A person of my generation would have no trouble recognizing and relating to the Church life revealed in those pages, despite the occasional quaintness of expression in the language. Indeed, sometimes the situations described can seem quite contemporary. Consider, for example, this sentence about what might be called “parish shopping”.

To go now to one and then to another for various purposes, merely to enjoy a personal advantage, merely to enjoy a personal advantage in the one and to escape a burden in the other, is unjust, productive of confusion, and renders one liable to be overlooked in the hour of need, with no one to blame but oneself.

Sometimes, however, the quaint mode of expression offers insight into a now seemingly long-lost religious universe. For example:

Do not greet your acquaintances in church, much less hold conversation with them there. Do not be offended, if your friends, holding the church more sacred than yourself, take little or no notice of your courtesies. Do not expect the priest to notice you, even in the rear of the church.

Through it all, one senses the deep faith, commitment to the Church, and serene self-confidence which have characterized the American Catholic community for most of its history.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Prudent Steward

An earlier translation of today’s Gospel [Luke 16:1-13], that my generation grew up with, had the about-to-be unemployed steward say to himself: To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. The fact that I can recite that line and that some of you at least can also remember it says something about the difference between a memorable line and a forgettable one.

Well, we’re not here today to talk about the merits of comparative translations! Whatever words we put into the steward’s mouth when we translate him into English, his plight remains the same; and in this time of recession we may be even more sympathetic to his situation then we might otherwise be. We do not know exactly how the steward mismanaged his employer’s property, or even whether the accusation was true. Either way, the steward knows he’s going to lose his job. Rather than wasting energy trying to defend himself in a probably pointless effort to save his job, the steward looks ahead to the future. Building on the business relationship he already has with his master’s debtors, he cleverly ingratiates himself with them, networking with them for their short-term interest, in effect putting them in his debt, thus hopefully furthering his own long-term interest. And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

Presumably, his master still intended to fire him. So whatever he had done to lose his job in the first place was not being commended. Even so, the master recognized his steward’s cleverness in crisis and praised him for that. Maybe, he was wishing the steward had shown as much initiative and ingenuity in managing his employer’s affairs as showed in providing for himself!

Jesus too holds the steward up as a model – not necessarily for his failures as a manager, in other words, for whatever got him fired in the first place, but for his initiative and ingenuity in providing for his future. Jesus wants us to appreciate just how important it is to have proper priorities and a plan of action to get there. If we are serious about the kingdom of God, then we have to be as focused on getting there as the steward was on his future survival; and, like him, we too have to learn and employ the necessary means available to us.

The actual details of the parable are somewhat unclear. It is just a parable, after all. It is possible, for example, that what the steward was actually doing in reducing his master’s debtors’ obligations was simply foregoing his own share – his commission. If that is the case, then the lesson is even more pointed. To get where we want to go, we have to ready and willing sometimes to sacrifice short-term benefit for long-term fulfillment. If that is true even in worldly matters then how much more true must it be when it comes to the kingdom of God?

In the process, Jesus is also reminding us how part of getting from here to there, essential to the process of attaining the kingdom that is supposed to be our ultimate priority is making best use of the opportunities presented to us in the here and now. We are already citizens of God’s kingdom, and the new reality of God’s kingdom has already begun to take shape in our world in our life together as his Church. But it is precisely in our world that this is happening. And it is precisely this world in which we are now living that makes certain serious claims upon us.

An example of what this means is found in St. Paul’s instructions to Timothy in today’s 2nd reading [1 Timothy 2:1-8]: First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

At a crucial juncture in the Church’s 1st century, Saint Paul highlighted the connection between what we would nowadays call the secular with the spiritual – forever forcing us to do the same. Of course, the experience of life itself forces us to do the same. In the words of one famous early Christian writer from Roman North Africa: When the Empire is shaken, all of its parts are shaken also, hence even though we stand outside its tumults, we are caught in its misfortunes [Tertullian, Apology, 31] . Not much has changed since then, has it? He too promoted prayer for Emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end [39]. And so too must we! If a fully human life requires taking seriously the world we live in, then even our prayer and worship must actually acknowledge this.

Throughout Christian history, there have been repeated examples of individuals, movements, and sects, which have undervalued and tried to avoid the complexities of economic life, social institutions, and political obligations.

Yet, even if my involvement in earthly life – in my family, my work, my country – even if all that is ultimately temporary and transitory, still that remains where I am right now, where I am living, growing, developing, for better or for worse, into the particular person I will remain for all eternity.

In the Old Testament, when God allowed his Chosen People to be driven into exile in a foreign land, he gave them this parting advice through his prophet Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses to dwell in; plant gardens, and eat their fruits. … Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own [29:4-7].

What Jeremiah calls the welfare of the city – prosperity, peace, personal and collective security, and some relative degree of justice – such are the purposes of economic activity, social relationships, and political obligations. We cannot accomplish any of those purposes by being just passive spectators in the story of life, living as if life were like a short ferry boat ride, and not even noticing or caring how the boat is being steered and whether or not all the passengers are adequately equipped with life jackets. On the contrary, economic activity, social relationships, and political community are serious business that make serious demands upon us both short-term and long-term.

In today’s threatening and dangerous world, we are, if anything being challenged even more, to take seriously the world in which we live and what makes it work, stepping beyond our purely private space in order to be accountable for and to one another. Then, and only then, may we hope to lead what Saint Paul calls a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, September 19, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Two Sons

One of the problems with familiar parables, like this Sunday's “Parable of the Prodigal Son” [Luke 15:11-32], is that, having heard them all so often, it’s hard for us to hear them as Jesus’ actual audience might have heard them – and so be challenged, as they were, by what must have seemed surprising, even shocking, although to us today is now familiar and unthreatening.

A man had two sons, Jesus tells us, and the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”

In a world in which one’s family was one’s most cherished relationship, what would be worse than a son who behaves so unbelievably badly, scheming to inherit while his father is still alive? Even so, the father obliges, and gives his son what he asks for. For his part, the son soon skips town – one way to deal with community disapproval – and goes off to spend his inheritance.

Then comes the inevitable recession! So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. How, Jesus’ audience must be wondering, could anyone become so depraved as to tend to pigs? Quickly, the kid recalls his easy life as a spoiled brat back home. Why not go back? His father had indulged him in the past. Might he not do so again? Maybe, like a modern politician or CEO, he can get off easy by regretting that “mistakes” were made. So he got up and went back to his father.

On the way, however, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. This is not, I think, a statement about his superior eyesight. I think we are meant to understand that the father was, so to speak, on the look-out for his son, perpetually ready for his return. So, seeing him, he runs, embraces him, and kisses him.

In that society, a respected elder didn’t run, wouldn’t lift up his robe and expose his legs. But this father doesn’t stand on his dignity. He runs to his son. Still, he never forgets who he is. He peremptorily cuts short his son’s silly prepared speech, and instead orders his immediate reinstatement to the position he had so gracelessly forfeited. Then, full of fatherly joy, he throws a big party. (In a world without refrigeration, if you kill a fatted calf, that’s a lot of meat to eat. So you’re going to invite everybody!)

If only the story had ended there! Unfortunately, however, for those who always expect a happy ending, at least one person doesn’t come to the party. The older son had been out in the field. A good son sits at his father’s side when his father throws a party. Instead, this guy gets angry, refusing to come in. Now who’s disrespecting his father! Once again, refusing to stand on his dignity, his father came out and pleaded with him.

And what kind of response does he get? “All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat … But when your son returns” – notice, not my brother, but your son – “for him you slaughter the fatted calf.

Just listen to all that envy, all that jealousy, all those years of accumulated resentment camouflaged as loving obedience. “All these years I served you.” Is that the speech of a son? He sounds like an employee, suing for back pay – if not a fattened calf, at least a young goat! (One wonders whether he’d ever actually asked for that goat. After all, is there anything in what we have seen of the father’s character that suggests he would have refused?)

“My son,” the father answers, again completely in character, cutting off another ungrateful son’s speech, you are my heir; “everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother” – notice, not just my son, but your brother – “was lost and has been found”

And that’s how the parable ends. Does he come into the house and join the party? Or does he stay outside – alone with his resentments?

Remember the context. The Pharisees and the scribes began to complain … So to them Jesus addressed this parable [Luke 15:1]. When we hear this parable today, we correctly identify God with the father, but then we typically identify ourselves with the younger son (which misses the point). Remember to whom the gospel story says the parable is addressed! Isn’t it obvious that we are supposed to identify with the older son?

The younger son certainly deserved no praise. But he did understand something very important about his father. In the end, he understood the most important thing about his father. And so he could accept his father’s love and forgiveness – unlike his brother who’d completely missed the point of what kind of father he had and what kind of relationship he wanted with his sons.

The story ends there in the doorway, with the father pleading with his son to come in. It ends there because it’s up to us to relearn the real story of God’s fatherly love – and to decide whether or not we want to be part of his kingdom.

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TV, September 12, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Houston + 50

Sunday, September 12, will mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s famous Houston speech. On September 12, 1960, the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on the so-called “religious issue” – i.e., whether or not a Catholic should be elected President of the United States. In the course of his speech, he spoke about the role his Catholic faith might be expected to have on his actions as President. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

It was a very different America then, with a different kind of politics, when political conventions and party bosses still mattered more than primaries (in other words, more than money and the media) and General Election campaigns still began in earnest in September. It was a very different era, when Democrats were more bellicose than Republicans, and the great battle for the soul of the Democratic Party – the conflict over Civil Rights – remained as yet unresolved. The 1960 campaign highlighted the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in American society. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to be elected President of the United States in part because he amassed 83% of the Catholic vote – in contrast to the 45% won by the Democratic candidate (Adlai Stevenson) four years previously – while still holding on to approximately the same percentage of the white Protestant vote the Democrats had garnered in 1956. In other words, Kennedy got Catholics to vote for him in overwhelming numbers, without scaring Protestant voters away.

No doubt, many Protestant voters came on their own to the common sense conclusion that (whatever its theoretical claims and whatever may have happened in other places at other times) the Catholic Church in 1960 posed no credible threat to the US Constitution and the American way of life. If help were needed to come to that conclusion, however, clearly Kennedy’s Houston speech was a major, if not decisive, contributor. And, rightly so, for it was a masterful rhetorical expression of the case for religious tolerance, expressed in language which resonated with the experience of Americans of any and every faith.

“This is the kind of America I believe in -- and this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group ..."

It was JFK’s successful strategy - not just that night but throughout the campaign - to turn the anti-Catholic argument on its head and paint his opponents on this issue as the ones who were being un-American. He did it well, and he was right – as well as successful – in doing so.

But, in his effort to emphasize his – and American Catholics’ – commitment to our constitutional liberties, some of what Kennedy said proved much more problematic and has raised serious questions ever since. “I believe,” Kenendy asserted, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute …”

Found nowhere in the constitution, that infamous phrase “separation of Church and state” is from an 1802 letter of Thomas Jefferson, quoted by Hugo Black in a 1947 Supreme Court decision Everson v. Board of Education. Just one year later, in their 1948 pastoral letter, The Christian in Action, the US Bishops explicitly labeled “separation of church and state” as a “shibboleth of doctrinaire secularism.”

In effect, Kennedy’s formulation of the problem may have helped produce the present predicament in which one’s religious beliefs are increasingly seen as one’s purely private quirks which ought to have no impact on one’s views on maters of public policy, a view completely at variance with the entire previous trajectory of American history. As historian Mark Massa later expressed it, Kennedy secularized “the American presidency in order to win it” (“A Catholic for President? John F. Kennedy and the ‘Secular’ Theology of the Houston Speech, 1960,” Journal of Church and State, Spring 1997).

Clearly Kennedy did go quite far in appropriating the emerging language of radical secularism to make his case that a Catholic could be a good citizen – and so also a good president.

I think the fundamental problem with the legacy left to our religious and political discourse by Kennedy’s Houston speech, however, is that there has been a fundamental change in American society since 1960 that has rendered Kennedy’s simplistic formulation of a solution to the problematic of the relation of religion and society no longer viable. What worked pragmatically in what was still then an overwhelmingly religious country, characterized to be sure by a great deal of denominational diversity but united by a high degree of moral consensus, may simply no longer suffice in a society now so much more polarized on religious and moral matters.

Consequently, one of the things Kennedy warned against in his Houston speech - “the whole fabric of our harmonious society” being “ripped apart at a time of great national peril” - ironically may now be progressively coming to pass through the (by American standards) unprecedentedly aggressive radically agenda of secularizing elites, increasingly evident in such critical institutions as the academy, the media, and the judiciary.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"A Holy and Wholesome Thought"

In the calendar of the Augustinian Order, September 10 is the feast of St. Nicholas of Tolentine. My childhood parish in the Bronx was in the care of the Augustinians, and our parish church, prominently positioned at the corner of Fordham Road and University Avenue, was named after St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Nicholas was born in Sant'Angelo in Pontano (a town of some 1500 residents today) in the province of Macerata in Central Italy, in 1245. As a young man, influenced by the preaching of the Prior of the local Augustinian monastery, Reginaldo da Monterubbiano, Nicholas joined the Augustinians. Much of his religious life was lived in Tolentino, Italy, where he died on this day in 1305. In his lifetime, he was known for his charity to the needy and the sick and for his evangelical preaching.

According to tradition, Nicholas, asleep in bed, heard the voice of a deceased Friar, who told Nicholas that he was in Purgatory, and asked him to celebrate Mass for him and the other souls there. For seven days, Nicholas did as he had been asked. Then the Friar appeared to him again to thank him and inform him that a large number of souls were now in heaven. Canonized in 1256, Nicholas was proclaimed patron of the souls in Purgatory. The large stained-glass window over the choir loft above the main entrance of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx portrays St. Nicholas celebrating Mass for the souls in Purgatory. In my youth, that window was beautifully illuminated at night and thus really made an impression.

Sancta ergo et salubris est cogitatio pro defunctis exorare, ut a peccatis solvantur. (“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” 2 Maccabees 12:46).

Prayer for the dead is an intrinsic part of Catholic life, rooted as our life is in our participation in the Communion of Saints, by which we are united with one another across time as well as space. That is why cemeteries are so important and visits to cemeteries such treasured practice of piety. Even apart from cemeteries, monuments and memorials abound to remind us of the dead and of our obligations toward them. Thus, in my former parish in Manhattan, one of the side altars, the Sacred Heart altar, honors in a special way the memory of those who died during the Second World War and the victims of the terrorist attack nine years ago on September 11, 2001.

In his book On the Care to be Had for the Dead, St. Augustine (354-430) wrote: Remembrance and prayers for the dead are signs of true affection when they are offered for the departed ones by the faithful most dear to them. There can be no doubt that these prayers help after life those souls who while alive merited them. Should some emergency prevent the bodies of the dead from being buried at all, should lack of facilities hinder them from resting in a holy place, prayers for the souls of these dead should not be neglected. The church has taken upon herself, as an obligation, prayers for the dead. … If these offices are paid to the dead, even by those who do not believe in the resurrection of the body, how much more should they be paid by those who do believe in the resurrection on the last day. Thus these duties toward a body which, although dead, is destined to rise again, are in a way a testimony of faith in that belief.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


This coming Saturday marks the ninth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Nine years later, I still remember vividly how the sunny serenity of that beautiful late-summer morning was suddenly transformed into an experience of horror beyond anything most of us in my generation had ever even imagined, let alone experienced.

I can still quite clearly recall how, walking back to the St. Paul the Apostle parish office from John Jay College (where I had just cast my vote in that Tuesday morning's mayoral primary), I looked up at the bright blue sky and remarked that on such a beautiful day perhaps I might manage to spare some time later to spend in Central Park. How quickly everything changed! Already, by the time I had gotten back to my office, our country – and, in a particular way, New York City – had been suddenly and savagely attacked by an international terrorist movement motivated by a fanatical hatred for our country and our open way of life, The attack killed thousands of otherwise ordinary people and left the rest of us shocked, hurt, angry, and afraid, as we all saw the ugly face of war in a way we had not previously experienced it.

I remember in a special way those whose lives were lost – in particular parishioners of Saint Paul the Apostle Parish and Good Shepherd Parish, as well as our heroic neighbors from the local firehouse. I recall the outpouring of prayer that characterized the sad days that followed – Friday’s noon Mass attended by some 1000+ people in response to the President’s call, the Sunday morning Prayer Service I conducted at the Firehouse, the funeral at St. Paul’s of a United 93 crewmember who had sung in our parish choir, St. Patrick’s Cathedral draped in mourning for two months, and the many funerals and memorial services throughout the city, expressing our city and nation’s best values in the face of such terrifying evil.

Terrorism is not new, although the scale of that particular attack and the fact that it hit us at home were certainly new experiences for most Americans. If, once upon a time, we too easily took comfort in our country’s physical isolation from the rest of the world, we know better now. However ambivalent Americans have historically been about politics in general and international relations in particular, the age-old responsibilities of citizenship have, if anything, taken on a new urgency, as citizens in general and policy-makers in particular are challenged to make morally serious judgments in a threatening and insecure world.

Christian faith per se does not provide practical answers to particular political questions. The application of moral principles to social and political problems calls upon a particular type of human wisdom, traditionally associated with the cardinal moral virtue of prudence. As should be obvious, but sometimes seems to need repeating, when it comes to applying general moral principles to particular political or economic problems, perfectly sincere and reasonable people may well and legitimately come to competing and comparably compelling conclusions. That is why reasoned deliberation and respectful debate are so central to a healthy polity, and consequently why the increasing lack of such reasoned deliberation and respectful debate is so damaging to our current political life.

There are many factors that have contributed to this sorry situation. One of them is especially evident in the way the run up to this year’s 9/11 Anniversary has been dominated by the actions of a pastor of a 50-member congregation whose publicized plan to burn the Quran has gotten him more than his proverbial 15 minutes of fame, but who, in an earlier era, in a different media culture, probably would have gotten an amount of attention much more closely proportionate to the size and actual influence of his Church.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Birth of Mary

September 8 is universally celebrated in both Western and Eastern Churches as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The date is generally thought to be the anniversary of the dedication of Jerusalem’s Church of St. Anne (the name of Mary's mother according to ancient tradtion derived from the Protoevangelium of James). For many centuries, this feast was one of the four main Marian festivals in the Roman Calendar (along with February 2, March 25, and August 15). In the 7th century, Pope Sergius I ordered a procession to the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major on each of those four feasts. For several decades, this feast was Profession Day in the Paulist Fathers. Since September 2003, the Nativity of Mary has also been observed as the patronal feast of the Diocese of Knoxville.

In a prayer he composed in honor of Our Lady’s birth, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) prayed: Give me strength to praise you in prayer with all my powers, through the merits of your most sacred nativity, which for the entire Christian world was a birth of joy, the hope and solace of its life.

In the Ambrosian Rite (the liturgical rite proper to Milan), the Preface of today’s Mass proclaims: We celebrate this radiant birthday, when, like a wonderful bright star appearing, the Mother of God, Mary pure and glorious, was born into the world. She has opened to us the gate of eternal life which Eve in paradise had closed against us. Through Christ her Son she leads us back to the joyful light of our ancient home.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Endless Liturgy Wars

With the definitive approval of a new and improved translation of the Roman Missal, it may be hoped that the Church (especially the Church in the United States) may soon see some light at the end of the tunnel of internal polarization and factionalism that has sapped so much of the Church’s evangelizing energy since the 1960s. No, the new translation will not work miracles. Its implementation will not mark the end of the Church’s version of secular society’s culture wars. To borrow Winston Churchill’s famous phrase after the RAF had won the contest for control of the air known ever since as the “Battle of Britain,” it will not be the end or even the beginning of the end, but it may be “the end of the beginning.”

The “Liturgical Movement” of the 19th and 20th centuries was a serious scholarly enterprise, which illuminated the general shape of the Church’s liturgical life in the patristic period. Many of the 16th-century Reformation and Counter-Reformation debates about authentic liturgy had, in fact, been historical debates, conditioned on both sides by limited historical knowledge. The Liturgical Movement’s scholarship made it possible at last really to re-encounter the actual liturgical life of the early Church.

The Liturgical Movement, however, had an explicitly pastoral as well as scholarly agenda. In the wake of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, it was hoped that a pastoral re-appropriation of the liturgical dynamism of the early Church might be the answer – or at least an answer – to the increasing de-Christianization of Europe. It was this pastoral agenda, animated by solid historical scholarship, that led to the papal liturgical reforms of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, culminating in Pope Pius XII’s radical (at that time) reforms – e.g., the reduction of the communion fast, permission for afternoon and evening Masses, the simplification of the rubrics, and the wholesale reform (pointedly called a “restoration”) of the Holy Week liturgy. The Liturgical Movement’s crowning fulfillment came in December 1963 with Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Sacrosanctum Concilium established certain principles to be followed in the reform of the Latin liturgy and enacted certain specific measures for the Roman Rite. It did not (despite what some who may never have read it may think it did) directly mandate a vernacular liturgy or Mass “facing the people” (versus populum). The latter had, in any case, always been legal in the Roman Rite and was specifically provided for in the 1570 rubrics. Previously associated primarily with papal Masses, it had become much in favor among liturgists and became more or less the norm for the new liturgy, although again nothing even now prohibits the celebration of the new liturgy at an old altar (ad orientem). As for the vernacular, the Council clearly envisioned an increased role for the vernacular in the Latin liturgy. The snowballing of the post-conciliar reforms, rapidly leading to a virtually all-vernacular Mass by the end of 1967 and a new Missal and Lectionary in 1969, was a perfectly legal, legitimate extension of the reform by papal authority, but it certainly went well beyond the original liturgical mandates of Vatican II. (In the late 1970s I asked a certain Archbishop at a private party whether the Council Fathers would likely have voted for the liturgical reform had they known what was going to happen. He said he doubted it).

Much good has come from the liturgical reform. The new Lectionary’s selections may be too short and bereft of context in many cases and may excessively favor readings from the prophetic books, but they still represent a great improvement over the 1570 Lectionary in both the quantity and the variety of scripture that is read. One of Vatican II’s most distinctive liturgical reforms, concelebration, has helped priests to pray more communally; and the vastly increased participation of the people as a whole has amplified the communal dimension of our worship to the benefit of the entire Church community. And it may also be - as John Allen has intriguingly suggested (The Future Church: How 10 Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, Doubleday, 2009) - that the vernacular liturgy may even have given the Church an edge in its contemporary competition with Islam (which requires its adherents to pray in Arabic).

It is also fair to say that much was lost in the reform, at least as it was actually implemented – most notably the Church’s heritage of liturgical music, much of which was gratuitously discarded often in favor of compositions of questionable merit, musically, theologically, and spiritually. Also the coincidence of the liturgical reform and the social breakdown of the 1960s contributed to an informal style that has ill suited and ill served the essential dynamic of liturgical ritual. The new and improved translation that is now on its way represents one effort to correct some of this.

Extreme opinions abound on all sides of debates about the liturgy in general, and about liturgical language and liturgical music and art in particular. Whatever the advantages of the old liturgy (and I am old enough to remember it well and appreciate its beauty and spiritual sensibility), the fact is that, reverently celebrated in an authentically liturgical spirit (which starts with the recognition that the liturgy is the worship of the Church and not the self-expression of any individual priest – or any particular group), the new liturgy is a faithful, authentic, and effective expression of the Church’s life and mission – as, of course, was the old liturgy.

The challenge facing the Church, which is highlighted in (but by no means confined to) the liturgical wars of recent decades, is the pervasive individualism of contemporary culture and its corrosive effect upon our public life, diminishing whatever is intrinsically intended to be oriented toward something other than the self. An individualistic rejection of traditional religious experience in favor of “spirituality,” and a general loss of traditional criteria of evaluation of experience in favor of criteria derived from entertainment are principal factors. To the extent that these negative dynamics derived from our contemporary secular culture are also increasingly operative in our religious practices, then the liturgy will inevitably be diminished in its ability to orient us to a life of authentic discipleship. Whether an unreformed Roman liturgy in Latin would have held its own better against the challenges of the 1960s and after is certainly an arguable proposition, but it is one which ultimately can neither be confirmed nor falsified. The question confronting the Church today is rather how to encounter the awesome mystery of the transcendent God’s presence and action among us – in spite of contemporary informality and the secular social and political agendas that increasingly dominate all our discourse. The attentive, reverent, and devout celebration of the liturgy, according to the mind of the Church and for the good of the living community of faith is one critical component in the Church’s ongoing challenge to continue Christ’s life and work in our world today. It is to be hoped that the new translation, besides being a more faithful rendition of the Latin text, will over time contribute to that end.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day

Labor Day long ago joined most of our other civic holidays in losing whatever original public significance it may have had in order to become just a "holiday weekend." (My guess is that, having always been set on a Monday, it may actually have helped pave the way there!) Even as a kid growing up, before the American labor movement had entered its now evident decline, it was obvious to anyone that Labor Day was more about the end of summer vacation, the last day for women to wear their white shoes and men their straw hats, and the return to school and normal activities, than any civic celebration of American workers (and the affluence their astounding productivity had helped produce).

Even so, as a somewhat artificial date, not connected to any true turning point of the annual solar cycle, Labor Day does not necessarily suggest an end to summer and its sufferings. When I was in grad school, Labor Day weekend was distinctly dreaded, because the University library would be closed for 3 days for its annual sprucing up before the start of school. In those days when so few other places were air-conditioned, that meant not only no place for grad students to read and study (and socialize) but also no place to get cool and to breathe some pollen-free air.

And so it was, with a storehouse of such recollections, that I travelled to our national capital of heat and humidity, Washington, DC, this Labor Day weekend for the joyful occasion of a Paulist Final Profession and Diaconate Ordination. As it turned out, the weather has been beautiful beyond any expectation - a nice natural complement to the joyous celebrations I have happily been a part of these past few days.

Saturday morning's ordination of 4 deacons from 3 religious communities at the Basilica of the National Shrine was (as it should be) a joyful expression of what Vatican II called "the hierarchical constitution of the Church" and a solemn celebration of our confident hope in the continuance of the Church's mission in this country. Saturday evening's Mass of Thanksgiving at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish in Arlington, VA, further reinforced that sense of hope for the present and future of the Church in America, as a good representation of Paulists joined the resident Dominicans in concelebrating a Mass in their nice new church, accompanied by beautiful music from the parish's youthful choir and instrumental ensemble, followed by a delicious Vietnamese feast in the parish hall.

Labor Day may be a totally artificial seasonal marker, but it works. Once Labor Day is over and done with, no matter how hot it may sadly still be, everyone will be ready for the full schedule of normal parish activities, responding anew to the challenge of making Christ's presence and action in our world both visible and credible.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"I commit myself for life ..."

This evening, at the Paulist Seminary in Washington, DC, we celebrated the Final Promise as a Paulist for life of one Paulist student and the renewal of their Temporary Promises of six others. Tomorrow, our new, finally professed Paulist will be ordained a deacon at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, thus beginning the final phase of his formation which will culminate on May 28, 2011, with his ordination to the priesthood at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in New York City.

It was an intimate ceremony in the small St. Paul's College Chapel, attended by, I would suppose, somewhat less than 100 people. The president of the Paulist Community was the Principal Celebrant, and some 14 Paulists and a few other priests concelebrated with him. Our three new novices were in attendance, and our newly professed student, who just completed his novitiate a month ago, assisted as acolyte. The President, Fr. Michael McGarry, preached movingly about the integrity which is fundamentally expected of us, whatever our specific vocation. After the actual professions, all the finally professed Paulists who were present renewed our own promise for life, recommitting ourselves to membership and mission in this community for the sake of God's kingdom.

As I stood among my Paulist brothers and repeated the words of that promise (which has been part of my daily prayer these past 24+ years), My memory went back to that wet snowy evening, January 25, 1986, when I was blessed to make my own solemn commitment for life. Mine was the last class to do so in the "old" (1956) chapel, now the seminary library. That night, there was no way I could have anticipated the twists and turns that lay ahead (and perhaps it was a blessing that I couldn't). Almost a quarter century later, I am still amazed by the awesome providence of God that led and guided me to that chapel that winter night and that has led and guided me (however confusingly and mysteriously at times) through many winters ever since.

May God in his goodness complete the blessed work he has begun in the students who have today committed themselves to an evangelical life according to the Constitution of the Society and to all who strive to follow Jesus and proclaim his kingdom in the word of today, attentive to the Holy Spirit and faithful to the example of St. Paul and the charism of Servant of God Fr. Hecker.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Pope Paul VI supposedly remarked once in a conversation something to the effect that autumn seemed more like the real beginning of the year. Those of us who have spent much of our lives tied to academic calendars and school schedules naturally resonate with that. In the US and Canada, one often hears Labor Day referred to as the beginning of the year.

For various reasons, our Western Christian calendar (and hence the civil calendar in use in most of the world today) now begins on January 1. We number our years beginning on that date and count January as the first month of the year. (Neither was always the case, but that is another discussion). The Jewish calendar counts its years beginning on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month (Tishri), which occurs annually sometime in September or October. (This year, the Jewish Year 5771 will begin at sundown on September 8). Somewhat analogously, the Orthodox calendar begins on September 1, the years being counted from the supposed creation of the world on September 1, 5009 B.C.

It is easy to see why, in the Middle East, autumn would naturally be thought of as the beginning of the year – or at least a beginning of a year. After the scorching heat of summer, autumn brings the promise of the rain that makes sustained life possible in that desert climate. Jesus in the Gospel (Matthew 5:45) famously reminded his hearers how God afflicts the good as well as the bad with the hot sun and benefits the bad as well as the good with refreshing rain.

Like Israel, there are other places (e.g., Northern California) that experience a summer dry season and a winter rainy season. I have not generally lived in such places. So it is not rain per se that I look forward to particularly as September begins. The prospect of cooler weather together with the renewed social stability associated with another “school year” are what make September such a hopeful month for me. So I welcome September 1 – and look forward even more eagerly to October 1.