Monday, December 31, 2012

Off the Cliff?

After months and more of doing what Congress does best – wait till the last minute to confront a crisis of its own creation – our dysfunctionally unproductive 112th Congress has arrived at last at the so-called “Fiscal Cliff.”

As Jonathan Cohn observed in The New Republic last Friday: “when the deal materializes still matters less than what the deal entails.” He’s right, of course, but our crisis-oriented approach to reporting on politics remains focused mainly on the deadline and the drama fo the last-minute deal. And it is indeed part of the pathology of our present-day politics that, since settling things rationally is no longer a value and is likely instead to result in a primary challenge, no one ever expects a settlement until the deadline is imminent - or has passed. Now that we are at that point, it looks as if some modest deal is going to be struck. But again it is the quality of the deal more than the timing that we should be caring about.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Holy Family

One very popular, modern English Christmas tradition is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols created in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge. It begins with a single choirboy singing the 1st verse of the 19th century English hymn Once in David’s Royal City.  The choir and eventually the whole congregation soon join in the singing. One of the verses seems to have been tailor-made for today’s feast of the Holy Family:

And through all His wondrous childhood / He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly Maiden, / In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as He.

I can still remember attending Mass on this feast back when I was in elementary school more than 50 years ago (when this feast was still celebrated in the 2nd week of January). It was, of course, the parish “Children’s Mass,” and the priest took advantage of the occasion to preach to us about our obligation to obey our parents. Fair enough, I suppose. But I can remember thinking to myself how the priest seemed to have based his whole sermon on one line near the end of the Gospel – He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them (Luke 2:51) - conveniently ignoring Jesus’ somewhat more independent behavior earlier in the story!  (As an altar boy at an adult Mass one of those years year, however, I heard another priest base his sermon on the significance of Mary and Joseph finally finding Jesus “in church”).

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is, obviously, about more than obedience to parents – or children going to church. Introduced by Pope Leo XIII 120 years ago, it reflects the modern Church’s concern, in the wake of both the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, to reaffirm the essential nature and fundamental importance of the family as a natural institution in society and as the unique human community through which society institutionalizes its commitment to the next generation. Addressing that concern is inevitably a critical component of the Church’s social mission. That said, the scriptures read at Mass today focus only tangentially on family life.

Like those Old Testament parents Hannah and Elkanah, about whom we hear in today’s 1st reading (1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28), Mary and Joseph are portrayed as devoutly faithful to their religious obligations. Luke’s Gospel recounts an incident in which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph travel to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus is now at an age when he will soon assume his adult responsibilities and obligations as a member of God’s Chosen People. He is, in effect, what we would today call an adolescent. Indeed, in purely human terms, Jesus’ behavior coudl be said to resemble that of a maturing adolescent, out to define his own personal identity. Of course, I doubt that many modern teenagers would choose to show their independence by hanging out in church for 3 days! I suspect it wasn’t too common then either.

On the other hand, the Gospel’s interest in this episode was obviously not to suggest some sort of teen rebellion or to explore issues of adolescent personal identity. What this really is, I think, is a kind of “vocation” story – Jesus’ first public acknowledgment of who he is and what his mission will be. Already anticipating his later behavior as an adult, Jesus here puts his priority on his relationship with his heavenly Father rather than his earthly family. Hence, his mission is to be in his Father’s house, rather than in the caravan among relatives and acquaintances. Likewise, the wonder experienced by the teachers in the Temple anticipates the wonder so many will eventually experience at Jesus’ teaching during his public life - and the wonder we continue to experience as we experience his continued life among us in his Church.

Like Hannah and Elkanah, Mary and Joseph had a son dedicated to the Lord, a son whose mission in life would take him – and his followers – beyond the limits of natural human relationships – reflected in the contrasting uses of the word “Father,” first in Mary’s question and then in Jesus’ surprising response. Through the Church, our new relationship with God in Jesus incorporates us into a new network of relationships both wider and more inclusive than any natural human relationships.

At the same time, we continue to be involved in and dependent upon those natural networks of human relationships, of which the family is the first. Yet, today’s feast calls our attention to the transforming effect of the Incarnation in all aspects of our daily life - intruding into and transforming everything else and all those day-to-day natural human relationships, including our families.

When he established this feast, Pope Leo XIII wrote: “When Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are invoked in the home, there they foster charity, there they exert a good influence over conduct, set an example of virtue, and make more bearable the hardships of every life.” (Neminem fugit, 1892)

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Exactly 20 years ago today, on my first-ever trip to England, my friend Steve and I took the train from London to Canterbury, where we visited the historic cathedral and attended Solemn Evensong, celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, at the end of which we were all led down to the exact spot where St. Thomas Becket was martyred on this date in 1170.
It's obvious that my main intellectual interests (i.e,. the things I read serious books about) are religion, politics, and history. One of this year's books that wonderfully combined the three was Cambridge Fellow John Guy's Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel: A Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story Retold (RandomHouse, 2012). As his chosen subtitle suggests, Guy retells the familiar story of the ambitious and talented, middle-class Londoner (later titled Lux Londoniarum, "The Light of Londoners"), who improbably rose to be Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, only eventually to fall out with his powerfully ambitious King - Henry II, who reigned as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou from 1154 to 1189. As the king's patronage had elevated Becket beyond what would have been warranted by his modest background, the king's enmity (and some would say Becket's uncompromising stance) drove him into exile for some six years. The two were formally reconciled in France in 1170, and Becket returned to England and Canterbury Cathedral in December of that year. But the reconciliation was superficial. John Guy recounts how in October on the occasion of one of their final meetings, "when it looked as if [Becket] might accompany the king to mass in the royal chapel, the order of service was hastily changed fromt he liturgy for the day to the liturgy for the dead, in which the prayer for peace is omitted and no kiss exchanged." Becket was back home less than a month before his dramatic murder in the cathedral. His dying words were: "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." Devotion to him as a martyr developed immediately. (According to The Golden Legend, when the clergy were about to intone the Requiem aeternam, choirs of angels interrupted them and began to chant the Mass for a Martyr!) Thomas was quickly canonized on Ash Wednesday 1173. On July 12, 1174, the prudently politic Henry submitted to public penance at the martyr's tomb. 
While Henry II succeeded only in part and so dramatically and conspicuously failed in part, timing and circumstances were more favorable to his Tudor namesake Henry VIII, who would in due course systematically end the independence and freedom of the Church in England. In the process of his reducing the English Church to a department of the State, Henry VIII had what he hoped was the final word on Becket: "notwithstanding the said canonization, there appeareth nothing in his life and exterior conversation whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and a traitor to his prince."
Becket's story was played out in a medieval world in which religion was omnipresent and a factor to be reckoned with. Modern western societies may think themselves immune from such pressures - and so that much more free when it comes to exercising complete control over their citizenry. The competition for people's ultimate allegiance will continue, and in every age will require its own Beckets ready to embrace martyrdom "for the name of Jesus and the protection of the church." 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Holy Innocents

Today's feast of the Holy Innocents, on this "Fourth Day of Christmas," is known to have been celebrated in this Christmas week since at least 485 A.D., along with the feasts of St. Stephen, the 1st Martyr, and St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, on December 26 and 27 respectively.   It has been suggested (cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia) that these three days commemorate Stephen (as a martyr by will, by love, and by blood), John, (as a "martyr" only by will and by love), and the Infants of Bethelehem murdered by King Herod (as martyrs by blood only). As an explanation for the celebration of these three within the week of Christmas, that is certainly an edifying, if also a somewhat imaginative one!
At "saints' school," great emphasis was put on the proper requirements for martyrdom.- the "material" element of actual death and the "formal" element of motive, both the motive of the persecutor and the motive of the persecuted. Our textbook insisted on l'accettazione volontaria della morte per amore della fede (the voluntary acceptance of death for love of the faith). Now whatever else we may want to say about the Hoy Innocents, that criterion clearly could not have been fulfilled by them. So what then is the significance of their death and their veneration by the Church as martyrs?
In ancient and medieval times, in both eastern and western Churches, a seemingly astronomical number of Holy Innocents was postulated (even as many as 144,000 - to harmonize with Revelation 14:3). In reality, of course, Bethlehem was a tiny little town. In all likelihood, there might have been perhaps a dozen victims - probably even fewer. Hence the lack of any reference to this event in any secular source. Herod's atrocities were many and so well known that this particular crime could well have seemed small and would hardly have attracted much notice outside of Bethlehem itself. (The supposition that the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the walls - the stational church for this feast - contains the actual relics of the Holy Innocents might likewise seem somewhat less than certain).
Until 1960, in the Roman Rite the liturgical color for today's feast was purple - not martyrs' red - and both the Gloria and the Alleluia were omitted (except when the feast fell on a Sunday). While the use of penitential purple was much more common then than it is now, its use on one of the 12 Days of Christmas certainly stood out and suggests that, while the title of martyr may have been bestowed upon them by the Church, the Holy Innocents are in a category all their own. This feast, it seems to me, speaks to us less about martyrdom as such, than about the world's rejection of Christ (which in turn, of course, creates the basis for all authentic martyrdom).
Certainly the story as told by Matthew is only incidentally about Herod's homicidal personality and primarily about his rejection of Christ. What captures it for me is the curious line in the Gospel, when herod hears about the Magi's arrival in Jerusalem: When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled (Matthew 2:3). What the Magi (and elsewhere the shepherds) had greeted with joy, Herod found troubling. And not just Herod! The account continues: and all Jerusalem with him. In Herod's case, of course, we know he was worried - in his case a worry bordering on paranoia - about threats to his power. This was a misplaced fear, a clear case of missing the point. “To save his kingdom Herod resolves to kill [Jesus], though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come” (St. Quodvultdeus).

Yet Jesus was a threat to the worldview of Herod and others like him. The world's rejection of Jesus is irrational in the sense St. Quodvultdeus intended, but it may seem rational in the sense that the good news of the gospel may translate as bad news if one's will and heart are totally given over to the world's agenda of power, domination, and control. It was the human tragedy fo the Holy Innocents to be caught up among history's many victims of thew world's insatiable lust for power, dominaiton, and control. It was their unique privilege to suffer as unwitting witnesses to the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as the definitive alternative to that.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day 2

In most other Christian countries (even if lamentably now mostly post-Christian), this "Second Day of Christmas" is still a holiday - whether referred to by its liturgical title (St. Stpehen's Day) or, as it is called throughout the British Commonwealth, "Boxing Day." Here in the U.S., of course, it just an ordinary workday - and a big day for shoppers to return or exchange unwanted Christmas presents and get started on the post-Christmas sales.
It is usually suggested that the placement of so many prominent saints' days within the Octave of Christmas is evidence of the late development of the Christmas Octave. Let the liturgical historians argue about such matters! In any event, the juxtaposition of St. Stephen, the 1st Martyr, with the Nativity seems especially compelling. (If we also add in the Holy Innocents on December 28 and St. Thomas Becket on December 29, martyrs seem to figure quite prominently indeed in this Christmas Octave. Such "coincidences" are hardly insignificant).
Notwithstanding St. Stephen's importance, in our time this "Second Day of Christmas" is mainly, I think, for most of us just a "day after." I remember my father saying how he always preferred it when Christmas was aSaturday or a Sunday, which meant December 26 was a day off. Since school was closed and I had the day off anyway, I didn't care much about that, although now I can appreciate his thinking much more. (My own particular preference has always been for Christmas on a Monday, because it means the shortest possible Advent).
The dynamic of our modern American Christmas calls for a long (and getting ever longer), renzied "holiday season" building up to the big day, then a sudden let-down on or immediately after December 25. When I used to visit my family on the West Coast for new Year's, I used to find it sad how the public Christmas decorations (still in place when I would arrive soon after Christmas) would mostly all be gone by New Year's. And even in New York one would start seeing discarded Christmas Trees by the curb sometimes as ealry as December 26. As a culture, I think we find it a challenge to keep things going. That seems to be true about a lot of things. Our contemproary newsmedia tends to fixate on one issue or event for a while, as if nothing else were going on in the world, but then at some point it becomes old news and might as well be ancient history. The pre-Christmas frenzy and the immediatley post-Christ let-down seem to fit that pattern.
There is not much to be bone about that, of course, but those of us whose responsibility it is to keep celebrating Christmas until after Epiphany just have to keep doing what we're supposed to do. For the few who come, the festive Masses each day of the Christmas Octave and the daily repetition of the Gloria and of the special insertions in Roman Canon convey the sense of religious fesitivity continuing in spite of the surrounding secular let-down.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Showing Up

By now most of us have probably seen the famous photo, taken by a tourist from Arizona some six weeks ago on November 14, on 7th Avenue at 44th Street in New York City – the by now familiar story of how NYPD Officer Larry De Primo went into a local store and bought a pair of insulated winter boots and thermal socks, then knelt down, and put them on an apparently homeless man. In our overly interactive and scandal-obsessed society, we have all become accustomed to what were, once, private indiscretions becoming instantly public - in most cases to nobody's real benefit. Now it seems that even individual and private acts of charity are also likely to get captured by someone's smartphone and sent around the world – “going viral,” to use the common, current expression. But, unlike the popular scandals of people's private indiscretions going public, scandals which bring us no tangible benefit beyond entertainment, such individual acts of private charity do bring benefit – first of all, to the person on the receiving end, whatever his or her actual circumstances and whether or not he or she puts the benefit to good use. But beyond that, the story having gone public, we all benefit in some sense. Certainly society benefits, when we are so vividly reminded of our connectedness and maybe moved to do something similar someday, some time, to someone, somewhere. At minimum, it makes for a nice, “feel-good” story in the midst of so much depressingly sad news – shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters, and temples, civil war in Syria, the “fiscal cliff” in Washington, etc. 

In this season so focused on giving, it’s only natural in human terms to identify with the policeman and perhaps to hold him up as a model of how we might like more people to behave. But, on this Christmas Day, it seems to me more fitting to look at the picture from another angle – to identify ourselves rather with the shoeless, sockless street-person, whom we would otherwise never even have heard of, but into whose otherwise insignificant and anonymously cold existence a warm-hearted visitor came with shoes and socks – into whose otherwise insignificant and anonymously cold existence came (if only temporarily) a savior.
Like shoes and socks, most of us probably take Christmas for granted. Do we ever even consider where we'd be without Christmas – what the world would be like if Christ had never been born, what we would be like without Christ? As one of the leading lights of the ancient Church, St. Augustine, so famously said: If [God’s] Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity and we would have been in despair.” Not just cold and alone, Augustine says, but “in despair.” Almost 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council [LG, 16], echoing St. Paul’s depressing portrayal of humanity without Christ in his letter to the Romans, spoke of living and dying in a world without God as exposing people to what the Council called “ultimate despair.”
A serious problem calls for a serious solution. Officer De Primo didn’t casually throw some change in a cup and continue on his way. He took time and spent some serious money. So does God. So did God, who, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, has spoken to us through his Son. And so the angel said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid … For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”
We’ve all heard the saying – perhaps even quoted it ourselves – that “90% of life is just showing up.” That’s what God did on Christmas. He showed up in our world – in a somewhat out-of-the-way place, under the less than optimal conditions that are so often experienced by immigrants, then as now, ... and with just some shepherds - not exactly a high-end audience - taking notice.
We tend to want our Christmases to be perfect. That perfect Christmas-card family picture is a way of saying to the world (and maybe reassuring ourselves) that everything is really OK. In fact, of course, Christmas is often celebrated in less than optimal conditions – by those (like Mary and Joseph) who are homeless and have only strangers for company, by the lonely and those who mourn, by the sick in hospitals, by immigrants in refugee camps, by soldiers away at war (like my father, 68 years ago, fighting with the 186th Field Artillery Battalion at the Battle of the Bulge, in what one historian called “the worst Christmas for American soldiers since Valley Forge”).
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus showed up when and where and the way he did. As Pope Benedict has noted, in his recent book about Jesus' birth: "From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path" [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 67].
We celebrate today what we profess every Sunday: that the Only begotten Son of God … for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. This is the Christmas story. Today, we kneel when we say those words, to highlight the fact and solemnize what we celebrate, but we say those words all year round. The Christmas story is our story – all year round. It’s the story of God showing up and sticking around – to warm not just our feet but our hearts, our entire selves, and so to save us from ourselves, once and for all.
The point is that God didn't just show up; he stayed! He stuck with us for the long haul! He's still showing up, still sticking with us - here in his Church! And that's what makes it possible for us, his Church, to show up ourselves, despite whatever obstacles we've put in God's way, to continue what he started back then, to continue what he started here and now in our world today, this Christmas, this year, and every year – uniting heaven and earth, spanning space and time, past, present, and future in one communion of saints, one universal network of friendship with Christ.
For, as St. Paul put it in his letter to Titus: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.
In showing up in his Son and staying with us in his Church, God really has given us the greatest of all Christmas presents. As another Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) so memorably expressed it in the 12thcentury: “It is as if God sent upon the earth a purse full of mercy. The purse has been burst open to pour forth its hidden contents.”
So every time we come up this hill to hear this story of God-with-us, it really must become our story, challenging us, as we go back down the hill (where we have been blessed with warm homes to return to), to be remade by it ourselves and so to reimagine our world – and so transform our frustration into fulfillment, our sadness into joy, our hatred into love, our loneliness into community, our rivals and competitors into brothers and sisters, and our inevitable death into eternal life.
Merry Christmas!
Christmas Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 25, 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

Cum ortus fuerit sol de cælo, videbitis Regem regum procedentem a Patre, tamquam sponsum de thalamo suo ("When the sun rises in the morning sky, you will see the King of kings coming forth from the Father like a radiant bridegroom from the bridal chamber," Magnificat Antiphon at the 1st Vespers of Christmas).
At the main Mass on Christmas Day, the Church prays that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. May the beauty and brightness of this Christmas feast fill you will joy and peace, now and throughout the new year!
Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2012


This week, people all over the world will be visiting family or friends for Christmas. This is - as that great 19th century fan of Christmas, Charles Dickens, delightfully described it - “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time … on the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” So what more fitting Gospel account for this final Sunday before Christmas than the forever familiar story [Luke 1:39-45] of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth?

On the other hand, as we all well know, holiday visits are not always as wonderful as we would like them to be or as we try to pretend they are – whether for the visitors themselves or for the ones being visited. It’s hard sometimes to show affection when affection is not fully felt, to come up with the right words that won’t cause or exacerbate conflict! Sometimes, opening our “shut-up hearts” may be difficult, undertaken only grudgingly – more a matter of duty than desire – or, more likely some confusing combination of the two. How fitting, then, to hear today about a visit by someone whose motives, we know, were never mixed! 

The traditional site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home and so the presumed site of the Visitation is the little town of Ain Karim, some 5 miles west of Jerusalem – a journey of several days from Galilee through Samaria to Judea. Obviously, we cannot know now exactly what Mary may have felt as she undertook that difficult journey, in response to God’s plan that had been revealed to her by an angel. The story says she set out in haste. No procrastination, no putting off what, to our “shut-up hearts,” might seem merely a dutiful but burdensome social obligation.    Perhaps, she sought to draw on the wisdom and strength of her older relative. Surely, she must have wanted to make contact (in a world without Facebook and Twitter) with the only other person who had thus far been let in on God’s great plan, that was even then quite literally taking shape in the bodies of these two remarkable women.

After so long, Elizabeth in her old age had also conceived a son - and had responded to this incredible favor by going into seclusion. Also unexpectedly pregnant, Mary had responded to this problematic and potentially dangerous development by rushing off to visit Elizabeth.

Instead of shouting her good news to the world (which until then had reproached her for being childless), Elizabeth waited silently for the miracle’s full meaning to make itself known. Instead of cautiously keeping quiet, Mary rushed to tell all to Elizabeth, thus showing her own complete confidence in the God who had totally taken over her life.

What a wonderful story, this episode in the greatest story ever heard, this story that every year at this time demonstrates its incredible capacity to command our attention and touch us where we feel it most deeply!  Every year, despite all the tragedies and difficulties that get in the way, all sorts of people, all over the world, with different personalities and preoccupations, different needs and wants, different fears and hopes, hear the Christmas story and are captivated by it - for it speaks directly to each one of us, reviving our capacity to believe and our willingness to hope.

Back in 5th century Christian North Africa, one of the great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine, said: “If God’s Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity, and we would have been in despair.”

That is what the Christmas story is all about – our one chance not to despair, our one incentive to hope. The God for whom Elizabeth silently waited for so long, the God whom Mary carried in her womb so faithfully, has come at last to live with us. In the process, he connects us not only with himself but with one another. As he brought Mary and Elizabeth together, filled with the Holy Spirit, so he leads us to one another and unites us, thought the same Holy Spirit, in a new community, formed by faith, directed by hope, and alive with love. And we, as a result, must never let things be the same again!

And they won’t be - and we won’t have reason to despair ever again - if, like Elizabeth, when we hear him coming, we offer him the hospitality of our hearts, and if, like Mary, having conceived him in our hearts, we are willing to carry him into the world with confidence – so that, through each of our no longer “shut up” but now wide open hearts, Christ can truly be our hope and become so for all the world.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculae Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 23, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Isaac Hecker's Final years

Pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum eius (“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones,” Psalm 116:15). For centuries (until the late 20th-century reform of the Roman Rite), that verse was recited virtually every day of the year at the canonical hour of Prime, following the reading of the Martyrology. It is in any event a fitting meditation on this 124th anniversary of the death of Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Paulist Fathers.

In the contemporary ordination rite, the bishop instructs the newly ordained priest to conform his life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross. This instruction is connected with the presentation of the people’s gifts to be offered to God. Sometimes, however, the challenge of the cross comes in such a way as to take one away from a more active ministry with people.  Although Hecker is listed as Paulist General Superior and parish pastor from 1858 through his death in 1888, the last period of Hecker’s life (beginning around 1871) was dominated by physical illness and emotional suffering. Thus, not unlike the experience of some other religious founders - St. Francis of Assisi (+ 1226) in the 13th century, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), the founder of the Redemptorists, in the 18th, and Blessed Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879), the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, in Hecker’s own 19th century, Hecker’s last years saw a radical reduction in ministerial activity that challenged him to surrender himself totally to the Lord.

Even so, Hecker continued to contribute to the Catholic World, for example, and even attended (briefly) the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. Throughout the 1880s, he engaged in written polemics on issues of great contemporary importance to the Catholic community. In conspicuous contrast to the secular press, he strongly supported the Papacy in its ongoing dispute with the Kingdom of Italy (“the Roman Question”), and he pressed forcefully for Catholics’ right to run their own separate school system – both of which issues he argued for in the specifically American language of freedom of religion.

In late 1874, which convalescing in Europe, he began his essay An Exposition of the Church in view of recent Difficulties and Controversies and the Present Needs of the Church, eventually the first chapter of Hecker’s final book, The Church and the Age, published the year before his death. The latter work offers Hecker’s final and mature formulation of his core convictions about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the evangelization of America, and American democracy, which he had developed and articulated over the years of his active ministry.

The aging Hecker was also actively involved in the design and construction of the present Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York. He insisted, for example, that the nave be at least 60 feet wide, that there be no seats in the side aisles (thus assuring an unobstructed view of the High Altar from all the pews), and that the only outside light to enter the church come from above.” In his last years, he had a small oratory built between the Paulist house and the new church, with a window opening into the sanctuary, so he could watch High Mass on Sundays and feast days. 
Also Hecker had ambitious ideas for  possible Paulist participaiton what today we would call the “new evangelization” of Europe. While in Europe in 1875, he wrote: “In the United States the Church is advancing gradually and surely to a great triumph. It is in this work of the Church in Europe at the present moment that I am conscious with an overwhelming conviction that divine Providence calls me to labor. The Church in the United States is the offspring of the zeal, sacrifices, and blood of the Church in Europe, and shall not the child in gratitude repay the parent in the time of her trial, distress, and danger?”
The reality competing with Hecker’s bold vision was, in the words of one of his more recent biographers: “the struggling life of the Catholic Publication Society, the modest success of its Sunday School paper, the tiny improvement in Paulist affairs evidenced by the resumption of the missions, and the growth of the parish, where Deshon and Young were trying to find the money to build a scaled down version of the ‘basilica’ Hecker had planned earlier” [David O'Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic, p. 260].  
Not for the first time in the history of religious life in the Church, it would fall to others – notably Augustine Hewit and George Deshon – to translate Hecker’s vision into functioning human institutions, among them St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York and the Paulist Fathers around the country and extending even into Canada.
Ultimately, his illness intensely focused Hecker on the one thing most important – his relationship with God – ultimately a greater and more important thing than anything one ever does in life. To his closest disciple and confidant, Wlater Elliot, Hecker expressed himself in sentiments that evoke St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous experience shortly before his death in 1274: "There was once a priest who had been very active for God, until at last God gave him a knowledge of the Divine Majesty. After seeing the majesty of God that priest felt very strange and was much humbled, and knew how little a thing he was in comparison with God” [Elliot, Life of Father Hecker, 1891, p. 380]. 
Finally, on Saturday, December 22, 1888, Isaac Hecker died. In his eulogy at the funeral four days later, the Jesuit Provincial recounted the scene at Hecker’s deathbed, when his fellow Paulists asked for his final blessing. Hecker "roused himself from the depth of pain and exhaustion, and his ashen lips which death was sealing pronounced the singular words … 'I will give it in the shadow of death.' His feeble hands were raised, and like a soldier dying on the field of battle he reconsecrated his followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the struggle in which they had chosen him as Leader."
In the first period of his life, Hecker, animated by a conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s providential care for him, and which he received the grace to recognize and follow in the Roman Catholic Church. In the second period of his life, his enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him away from mystical self-absorption to an active vocation as a priest and religious and formed him, through the crucible of opposition and suffering, into a thoroughly committed “man of the Church” (as New York's Edward Cardinal Egan called him in 2006). In the third period, this “man of the Church” concentrated on the Church’s perennially essential mission of evangelization, both within the Church and outward to the world – planting his vision in the solid soil of the first American men’s religious community and their growing New York parish . Finally, in the last period of his life, he learned (in the wise words of my own novice master) to look beyond the consolations of God to the God of all consolation. He surrendered himself - and all his activities - to the call to conform his life to the mystery of Christ’s Cross – filling up, in the words of his patron, St. Paul, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the church[Colossians 1:24].
Through it all, Hecker, as he wrote to a friend, lived in hope: “Living and working in the dawning light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church. A future whose sun will rise first on this continent and spread its light over the world.”

Friday, December 21, 2012

In Five Days

Nolite timere, quinta enim die veniet ad vos Dominus noster. ("There is no need to be afraid; in five days our Lord will come to us.)" Thus speaks the antiphon at the Benedictus at Morning Prayer today. Thus the Church has prayed for centuries every year on December 21.

While the secular world worries whether the world will end today (confirmation once again of the saying that, when the world stops believing in God, that doesn't mean it now believes in nothing at all but rather that it credulously believes in everything), the Church heightens its joyful expectation for Christmas just five days hence.

Of course, it's not just Christmas, the day, that she awaits with such joyful expectation. Much less is it presents under the tree or a tasty Christmas ham (wonderful though those things are).

In the old calendar, today was the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, "Doubting Thomas" - certainly a saint for our age if ever there was one. Recalling the story of "Doubting Thomas" five days before Christmas certainly highlights the connection between the two mysteries of Christmas and Easter.There is indeed a certain symmetry to those two hinges of the Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter - and, more importantly, to the central mysteries that they celebrate, the incarnation and the resurrection.

Thus, in his just recently published book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict, following Karl Barth, observes "that there are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb, in which Jesus did not remain, nor see corruption. These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is 'allowed' to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain - but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. ... But here we are dealing ... with God's creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments - the virgin borth and the real resurrection from the tomb - are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hail Mary

The Annunciation story (Luke 1:26-38) is one of the most famous and familiar of all gospel readings. The scene has certianly been one of the most frequently painted and otherwise depicted in Christian art. All of which suggests the significant importance of the event.
What is this event we call the Annunciaiton? It is nothing less than the incarnation itself, the central moment in the entire span of all history, the moment when divinity assumed humanity and heaven came down to earth - a joining together the likes of which had never happened before.
Annunciation stories are somewhat standard fare in the scriptures. Just yesterday, we heard the story of the Archangel Gabriel's annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25). Such annunciations prepare us for the coming career of the special person whose birth is being announced. It is in that Christ-centered way that we must understand Mary's question to Gabriel and Gabriel's answer - as an opportunity to explain what the Church believes about Jesus. What the resurrection revealed about Jesus to his disicples (and through them to the early Church), the Annunciation story assures us, was true from the beginning and was revealed to Mary at the moment of Christ's conception in her virginal womb.
The purpose of Mary's question and Gabriel's answer was to say something about Jesus. When we get to Mary's answer, however, we're being told something significant about Mary - and, through Mary, about what it must mean for one to be a true disicple. Mary's answer indicates that she heard and accepted Christ's coming, becoming the first of those her Son would later praise who hear the word of God and observe it (Luke 11:28). In saying that, Jesus would broaden the meaning of Mary's motherhood, so that it became something in which we can all come to share. In showing the Holy Spirit  at work in such a unique and special way in Mary, the Annunciation prepares us for the Holy Spirit's work in us in the Church - something we start to see happening already in the very next episode, tomorrow's story of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Vision of Christmas Grace

Today's gospel (Luke 1:5-25) has one of my favorite lines: Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary (Luke 1:21-22).
I can think of few sentences which so dramatically illustrate the difference between a traditional world-view and a modern one, between an "enchanted" universe and a  secularized, rationalist one. If something unexpected happened to me at Mass that produced a sudden change in behavior or an obvious disability like being unable to speak, how many people would immediately jump to the conclusion that I had seen a vision? 
In a pre-modern universe, however, such an interpretation appeared perfectly reasonable. Indeed, in his first sermon, St. Peter explained the Pentecost phenomenon with reference to these words from the prophet Joel: Then afterward I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions" (Joel 3:1; Acts 2:17).
Peter interpreted Joel's words as a sign of the new beginning initiated by the Risen Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It was Peter's way of inviting his hearers to open up their hearts and minds to God's intrusion into our world.  Zechariah undoubtedly believed that in theory, but he had a hard time when something new and wonderful was actually happening in his own life. The "modern" rationalist in Zechariah answered Gabriel's good news with worldly incredulity: I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Luke 1:18). 
But isn't it so that one reason we celebrate Christmas is to transform the incredulity of our tired old world by the infusion of God's rejuvenating grace?

The otherwise ordinary story of old man Zechariah's once-in-a-lifetime turn to offer incense in the Holy Place is transformed by the Archangel Gabriel's appearance - as Gabriel had earlier appeared to Daniel at the hour of the evening sacrifice (Daniel 9:21) - telling Zechariah that his prayer has been heard (Luke 1:13). If Zechariah was actually praying for an heir, his prayer had likely been a hopeless one. Everything in the story suggests he had no expectation of that such a prayer would be heard - as is so often the case in human affairs, as is likely often the case with most of us much of the time. But Zechariah's prayer was caught up in that of the whole assembly of the people praying outside (Luke 1:10) - Israel's prayer, itself a surrogate for the longing of the entire world.

That the world continues to express its longing despite all the rational arguments against any such hope is what makes the world even now still a fertile ground for Crhistmas grace.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Prior to the liturgical revisions of the late 1960s, editions of the Missale Romanum regularly included an interesting appendix-like section generally referred to as Missae pro aliquibus locis (MPAL) - officially Missae propriae quae in aliquibus locis celebrari possunt (“Proper Masses which may be celebrated in various places”).  Among the many Masses conceded to various places was one for today, December 18, In Expectatione Partus Beatae Mariae Virginis (in English commonly called the “Expectation of Mary” or “Our Lady in Expectation”).

Once celebrated widely in the Western Church, the feast of the Expectation of Mary was a duplicate of the Annunciation, (March 25) owing originally to a certain squeamishness about celebrating feasts during Lent. Long after that concern had been overcome and all sorts of feasts had come to be celebrated in Lent, the duplicate Annunciation celebration on December 18 remained popular in many places. In Spain, it was known as Santa Maria de la O – apparently because on that day after Vespers the clergy in the choir used to sing a loud and protracted "O", to express the universe’s longing for its Redeemer.

The author of the famous 15-volume commentary The Liturgical Year, the 19th century liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875), who re-founded Benedictine monastic life in France after the Revolution, ably expressed the sentiment at the heart of the December 18 feast and indeed of Advent as a whole:

“Most just indeed it is, O holy Mother of God, that we should unite in that ardent desire thou hadst to see Him, who had been concealed for nine months in thy chaste womb; to know the features of this Son of the heavenly Father, who is also thine; to come to that blissful hour of His birth, which will give glory to God in the highest, and, on earth, peace to men of good-will. Yes, dear Mother, the time is fast approaching, though not fast enough to satisfy thy desires and ours. Make us redouble our attention to the great mystery; complete our preparation by thy powerful prayers for us, that when the solemn hour has come, our Jesus may find no obstacle to His entrance into our hearts.”

Monday, December 17, 2012

Holy Ancestors

On the Sunday occuring on December 11 through 17, the Byzantine Church celebrates the "Sunday of the Holy Ancestors of Christ." We have nothing quite comparable in the Western calendar. The closest approximation might be the feast (reduced since 1969 to memoral) of Saints Joachim and Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But that comes in July and is celebrated in a quite different liturgical context. December 17, however, traditonally marks a certain turning point in the Advent season, the liturgy of the weekdays from today through December 24 all being "ordered in a more direct way to preparing for the Nativity of the Lord" (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 42). Fittingly, therefore, the Gospel today is taken from the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew, the "genealogy" of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17), which lists three sets of 14 generations highlighting Jesus' descent from Abraham and David.
"To the modern reader," Raymond Brown famously wrote (The Birth of the Messiah, 1979), "there are few things in the Bible less meaningful than the frequent lists of descendants or ancestors." Obviously Brown did not share that view. (In fact, I think it was Brown - if not, it was someone comparably prominent - who once lamented that the genealogy got left out of the Sunday lectionary). In any event, neither does the Pope, who devotes much of the first chapter of his latest book (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives) to Matthew's and Luke's genealogies. The sub-title of that first chapter sort of says it all: "The Question about Jesus' Origin as a Question about Being and Mission."
Thus, regarding Matthew's genealogy, the Pope observes that "the focus is already on the end of the Gospel, when the risen Lord says to the disciples: 'Make disciples of all nations' (Mt 28:19). In the particular history revealed by the genealogy, this movement toward the whole is present from the beginning: the universality of Jesus' mission is  already contained within his origin."
The presence of four Old Testament women in the genealogy - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah the Hittite) - has (at least since Martin Luther) been seen as consonant with this theme of universality, since they were all four presumptively foreign, gentile women. "So through them," the Pope writes, "the world of the Gentiles enters the genealogy of Jesus - his mission to Jews and Gentiles is made manifest."
Earlier, St. Jerome had argued that the four Old Testament women were sinners, and so their includsion foreshadowed Jesus's role as savior of sinners. Brown doubts that Matthew's audience would have caught this, if in fact such was Matthew's intent. While the Pope acknowledges the view that the inclusion of those four Old Testament women "would serve to indicate that Jesus took upon himself their sins - and with them the sins of the world - and that his mission was the justification of sinners," he also acknowledges the limit to that interpretation in that it is not completely clear that all four were really seen as sinners.
The nice thing about scriptuire is that it is capable of bearing multiple meanings. Neither of the above interpretations excludes the other, and neither excludes what has become the most popular interpretation today - that each of the four involved exceptional circumstances making posible the continuation of the messianioc line, leading logically to the most exceptional circumstance of all, the virginal conception of Jesus by the fifth woman in the list, Mary. As the Pope puts it: "the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around. Mary is a new beginning."
Indeed, although a genealogy is by definition about the past, the genealogy of Jesus really is more about the new beginning the incarnation represents for the world. Without the past, there would, of course, be no present; but, in the story of salvation, past and present are both subordinate to the new future which the Gospel heralds.
Hence the importance of the genealogy and its appropriateness for today - just one week to go till Christmas. The genealogy, as the Pope notes, illuminates "the intricacy with which he [Jesus] is woven into the historical strands of the promise, as well as the new beginning, which paradoxically characterizes his origin side by side with the continuity of God's action in history."

Sunday, December 16, 2012


What should we do?” The crowds asked John the Baptist [Luke 3:10]. And well might they ask! After all, what question could possibly be more basic? Or more relevant? Or more universal? Isn’t that why we have advice columns, website medicine, talk show chatter, expensive psychotherapy, spiritual direction, TV’s psychic hotlines, and personal trainers, and “life coaches” – that all purport to help people answer that question?
John, being John, didn’t hesitate to answer – quite categorically in fact. Particular groups – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – each got specific answers targeted to them, tailored to the specific moral challenges connected with their professions. John obviously believed that what one does at work matters. In our society, certainly, we largely define ourselves by our work. Everybody understands what is being referred to when someone is asked “What do you do?” John was neither the first nor the last to observe that one’s work matters, what one does at work matters, how one works matters. And it’s not just one’s work that matters. When all is said and done, we define ourselves by whatever we actually do – or fail to do – in all aspects of life – at work, at home, at play, with those we love, and with those we don’t. What I do – or don’t do – demonstrates who I am, the kind of person I am choosing to be, and, in the end, determines who I will be for all eternity. As one of the 4th-century Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa [335-395], once said: “we are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.”
Of course, we now live in a world, which has in some ways turned all that upside down and encourages us to shift responsibility to everyone and everything except ourselves. That’s what makes this Gospel story so especially appropriate at this Advent midpoint. The crowd’s questions and John’s very down-to-earth practical answers, seen in the context of the Gospel message as a whole and as heard in this Advent setting, all seem to highlight just what is supposed to happen when we take the Christmas story seriously today.
Now the people, so Luke tells us, were filled with expectation [Luke 3:15]. But what were they expecting? Santa Claus? Not likely! A year-end Christmas bonus? Probably not that either! For that matter and more to the point, what are we expecting this Advent? Obviously, we’re not in expectation for Christ to be born. That already happened – a long time ago at that! We’re not play-acting here, as if living a Christian life were like some sort of perpetual Christmas pageant! The people, we’re told, all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John assured them that he wasn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, we know even better than his hearers. In his instructions to the tax collectors and the soldiers and everyone else, however, John was telling the people where to look. Repeating those long-ago instructions to us today, John is telling us too where to look – in what’s going on in the here and now and the day-to-day. Because what was ultimately so especially extraordinary about Jesus Christ’s becoming part of our world is precisely how his coming has transformed the seemingly ordinary in human life from being, at best, merely more of the same, into an opportunity for something altogether new.
Hence St. Paul’s powerful and challenging invitation to us to rejoice – in the famous words which give this 3rd Sunday of Advent its special name, Gaudete: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again rejoice! The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all [Philippians 4:4-6].
How does one have no anxiety at all? How can anyone do that, with all the daily worries that weigh us down, the bills that never stop coming and seem to get bigger all the time, the sense so many people have (especially in the last dozen years or so) that the economic deck is stacked against them, not to mention the big picture problems of the larger world – an epidemic of shootings in schools, and malls, and movie theaters, wars, terrorism, fiscal cliffs, climate change – which inevitably intrude even on our private problems? The fact that St. Paul made his point with such emphasis, even repeating himself, might suggest that anxiety was as much a reality for his 1st-century audience, that they too may have found rejoicing a bit of a challenge.
Of course, the rejoicing St. Paul prescribed was not some passing sentiment, but rather was rooted in the new identity they had acquired as disciples of Jesus. It’s the same for us today. It is not the ups and downs of the world around us, but who we are becoming by our choice to live a Christian life that enables us to rejoice and counteracts our inevitable anxieties.
Advent expresses the fundamental character of our Christian experience, lived (as it must be) between Christ’s 1st coming and his final advent as our judge - and defined (as it also must be) by the Risen Lord’s continued and active presence among us, in the here and now. And so, our fundamental attitude (and not just at Christmas) must be to rejoice, somehow, despite the anxiety that threatens to dominate our days. Our choice to rejoice results, St. Paul suggests, in peace – not some superficial social or political peace, but the peace of God which surpasses all understanding [Philippians 4:4-7], the peace which makes possible an authentic and morally compelling life (which John recommended and Christian discipleship requires), the peace which penetrates through our personal and social anxieties as surely as the rising sun on Christmas morning will penetrate and defeat the deep dark of the long winter night.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Decembere 16, 2012.

Friday, December 14, 2012

America's Crazy Addiction to Guns

Among the multitude of enormous evils inflicted upon our country by the Supreme Court - along with Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore, and Citizens United - must surely also be numbered the horrendous, five-to-four, 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller, which upended established jurisprudence and nullified the plain and obvious meaning of the 2nd Amendment to re-interpret that amendment to create an individual right to bear arms. That was followed two years later by McDonald v. Chicago, which extended that new interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the states. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent: "The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people in each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia ... Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature's authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms."  
Neither history, nor the intent of the framers, nor plain-old common sense seems to carry any weight anymore when it comes to our crazy American addiction to guns. It is a source of perpetual amazement to people in other civilized societies that we as a country continue to endure the scourge of widespread, private gun ownership. Yet we do. And, for all the grief guns have brought and continue to bring and for all the hand-wringing every time a terrible mass shooting occurs, we as a society seem stuck, seemingly unable any longer even to address the problem, let alone effectively resolve it.
Nothing can restore the lives that have been lost or heal the hurt left in those who have lost children or loved ones. But society's self-inflicted wound could be bandaged by some serious grappling with this problem of widespread private gun ownership.
I can well remember when smoking in public was the norm, when smoking was considered cool and seen as sexy. It is now widely recognized for the filthy, disgusting, harmful habit that it is. That would not have happened had people not spoken out courageously and consistently against the entrenched power of tobacco and gradually but effectively changed minds and eventually behavior.  Perhaps someday our society will grow up enough to abandon its romance with an idealized Wild West and think of guns the way we have come to think of cigarettes.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Picking a Party

R.R. Reno writes for First Things, a rightward-oriented journal, founded by the late Rev. Richard Neuhaus, which provides a platform for conservative cultural criticism, conservative-oriented politics, and conservative Catholic and Protestant religious views. These represent, of course, at least three different world-views, which are not necessarily always in harmony (despite the common invocation of the "conservative" label). When they get mixed together (almost always driven by a political agenda), the mixture can get even more problematic.
Thus, in his journal's January 2013 issue, Reno recommends to Catholics that they support the Republican party. There is, of course, nothing wrong with recommending that someone support a particular political party. The problem arises when one's recommendation is based on ostensibly religious grounds. In 19th-century Imperial Germany, there was the Catholic Center Party. In Europe after World War II, there were Christian Democratic parties. The United States has never really had anything quite like that. If, historically, particular denominations identified more with one party than the other, it was more likely an ethnic association rather than a religious one, more a matter of socio-economic status and the group's social and economic interests than religious doctrine. Reno reconginizes this - sort of - in his claim that a century ago American Catholics were encouraged to identify with the Democratic party "not necessarily because it was an ideal or even reliable vehicle for the Catholic vision of a just society, but because it was the political force that would defend them and their flocks." 
It would seem reasonable, therefore, to apply that same test to today's politics. Catholics have prospered in America, and undoubtedly there may be some in that top 2% that might expect to benefit from the Republican agenda. Most, however, are either middle class - increasingly squeezed by an economy increasingly stacked against them - or recent immigrants - more likley to be poor (and possibly undocumented). If Reno wants to sway such groups to the Republican party, he needs to show how their needs and interests would be better served by such an allegiance. Merely asserting it is insufficiently persuasive.
Reno himself recognizes his problem. "It's not going to be easy," he admits. "The Republican party is a coalition tempted by libertarian dreams and dominated by interests that act as though keeping down the top marginal tax rate is the great moral issue of our time." The President could hardly have said it better! If Republicans want to make a pitch for middle class and immigrant allegiance, by all means they should try to do so - by advocating policies that are in those constituencies' interests. When (and if) they start doing that, their party, the two-party sytem, and American politics in general will be better off.
Meanwhile, trying to argue a particular poltiical preference should be religiously necessary remains problematic - and in the end not much more likely to succeed than the view that supporting the restoration of the Bourbon monarch in 19th century France was a religiously necessary (as opposed to a poltiical or social or cultural) strategy.
As a practical matter, American voters have seldom responded well (at least not over the long term) to primarily religious partisanship.  Perhaps, as Reno suggests, at one time American Catholics were encouraged to identify with the Democratic party. I wonder about that. When I was growing up, almost everyone I knew as a Democrat, but I can't recall anyone every framing his/her party affiliation in religious terms. In any case, that was then,and now is now. While I think there are multiple factors contributing to and/or explaining the decline in religious identification among the young, there certainly seems some credible basis for believing that the politicization of religion is at least one of those factors. 
More fundamentally, the reality is that both political parties have embraced and are increasingly identified with policies which have contributed to our contemporary trajectory of moral and cultural decline. The contemporary crisis of marriage and family life, for example, is certainly due in part to the liberalization of divorce laws and the philosophical transformaiton of marriage from primarily a social institution for the forming of the next generation to a private relationship between two persons. But it is also a consequence of economic changes which have increased inequality and radically reduced opportunities for lower socio-economic status young people, making it much more difficult for them to establish stable families. In fact, it can be argued that, absent the social and cultural destablization caused by a market economy and economic individualism, lifestyle changes embraced by the "left" (like no-fault divorce) would never have happened.