Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sede Vacante

About a half-hour ago, at 2:00 p.m. EST today, the Apostolic See became vacant. We tolled the church bells, and I removed Pope Benedict's picture from the church narthex and from the parish office. Earlier at the noon Mass, I had informed the congregation that this would be the last time we would pray with Pope Benedict in the eucharistic prayer, but that of course we should all continue to pray for and with him, as he devotes himself to prayer for the Church.
I was 10 years old the first time the Apostolic See became vacant in my lifetime. That was October 1958. I remember seeing a picture in the newspaper of Cardinal Spellman and a group of New York pilgrims having an audience with Pope Pius XII at Castel Gandolfo at the beginning of October. About a week later The Daily News had headlines like "Pope Sinking Fast," until finally on the morning of October 9, the front-page headline was "Pope Is Dead," complete with a hieratic photo of the Pope seated (somewhat sternly it seemed to me at the time) on his throne. Then came the pictures of him lying in repose at Castel Gandolfo - in winter mozetta and camauro, which prompted one of my classmates to remark that he looked like Santa Claus. I can recall the evening news footage of the procession returning his body to Rome along the Appian Way and the first references to the famous failure of the papal embalming. I remember too the helicopter picking up Cardinal Spellman from the ocean liner he and his fellow New York pilgrims had been returning home on - and his hurried return instead to Rome. And I remember walking home from school past the purple and black bunting over all the doors of the church. I recall The Sunday News "coloroto" magazine's photos of the Sistine Chapel ready for the conclave with the 50+ cardinalatial thrones, with their purple canopies, all but one of which would eventually be lowered when one of their number would respond accepto to his election as the next pope. And, of course, I remember the day the new pope was elected - how home for lunch I listened to his first blessing on the radio, then joined in the general jubilation in the street where we lined up to go back to school, even while we speculated when the new pope would be crowned and get us a day off. (Alas, Pope John XXIII was crowned on Tuesday, November 4, which was, of course, Election Day, which meant we were off from school anyway).
Of course, I remember all the subsequent vacancies and conclaves - June 1963, August 1978, September-October 1978, and April 2005 - but that first one really stands out, perhaps because it was the first, and , like most things, made an impression the first time one experienced it. It was, in fact, although I was largely unaware of it, a moment of tremendous challenge and change for the church. In his rather negative book on the popes of the 20th century, Carlo Falconi interpeted the visible decay of Pope Pius XII's body while lying in state as somehow symbolic of the sad state of things at the time and of the need for reform. In my ethnic, Bronx Catholic ghetto bubble, I had no notion at all as yet that anything might need fixing. But the 60s were just over the horizon and Harold Macmillan's famous "winds of change" would soon be blowing - not just in Africa and in politics, but everywhere and even in the Church. (And in my own life too, but tha ,as they say, is another story).
One hears a lot these days in the media about problems and even scandals in the Church. It sounds a bit like 1958 again. Of course, now as then, there are problems and even scandals - problems and scandals to be addressed and remedied,  not just by the next pope but by the entire Church. But hasn't it always been thus in the long life of the Church? I think Pope Benedict expressed it well when he said in his last General Audience yesterday:
"I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of ​​Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark is supposed to have said of his great-grandfather King Frederick VIII (1843-1912) that he is remembered more for the manner of his death (on a park bench in Hamburg) than for his life and reign. So historic, so precedent-shattering has been the Church's experience of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation that perhaps historians may easily settle for saying something similar about him - that the manner of his leaving the papal throne may be better remembered than anything else about his reign.
The Pope's decision to resign is indeed historic. It is indeed precedent-shattering. And it will indeed be remembered as one of "the signs of the times" in terms of the way we experience the petrine ministry in the contemporary Church. Long before assuming the papal office, Pope Benedict, who held his final papal audience today, had made his mark as one of the great theological thinkers and teachers of our time. As pope, he has continued to exercise the ministry of teacher in an incomparably profound and pastorally relevant way. He has also, from the beginning, approached his high office with great personal humility and visible devotion to the Church - an invaluable model for all of us who exercise offices in the Church. And it has been that humility and devotion to the Church that have been especially evident in the Pope’s decision to resign the papal office and devote himself to prayer and meditation. As I wrote this past Sunday, the Pope will be 86 in April; and, to his great credit, he is humble and honest enough to recognize the limitations of age and ill health and their inevitable impact on his ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today’s "24/7," constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy. As he himself said on February 11: "in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." In a world where people routinely cling to power for as long as possible, his action offers us all a good model of listening to the Lord - good practice, I think, for our own challenge of listening to the Lord - who often speaks to us through our day-by-day experience, including own human experiences of weakness and infirmity. It also reminds us all that ministry in the Church is never primarily about the minister but always about the Church.
At the Pope's final public audience this morning, a Roman woman said to an interviewer: "I understand why he did this. It was clear from the start that he was more at home in a library. A very good man but he realised in his heart that this was the right thing to do for himself and the Church and now he will pray, he will pray for all of us."
Analyses of Benedict's 8-year pontificate have highlighted his personality as a prayerful intellectual, whose vocation as scholar and teacher has been his strength and has enriched the Church immensely - notably in his three great encyclicals, in his regular catecheses, and in his books on Jesus. The same analysts have sometimes suggested that that same personality and qualities perhaps equip one less well for the very different challenges of administration and bureaucratic management. (Similar sentiments were sometimes expressed during the pontificate of his predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II, whose gifts expertly equipped him to lead the Church on the public stage of the world, but who likewise was not focused mainly on administration and management. )
The point, of course, is that we all have different gifts and talents. The challenges facing the Church - and hence the Pope - at any particular time are many and varied. It is absurdly unrealistic to expect that one person will be superlatively gifted in all the qualities necessary for meeting all those diverse challenges. Indeed, the Church has been amazingly fortunate in having had two popes in succession with so many - different but complementary - talents. Like Moses leading the people of Israel throuogh the desert, Pope Benedict has ably pointed the Church in the direction of the "New Evangelization." The next successor of St. Peter will hopefully be the Joshua figure needed to lead us there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Italy Votes

It's the comic opera aspect of Italian politics that usually gets the most notice in the media. But this weeks's Italian election also had its serious side. The European Union's anti-democratic ideal of buereaucratized government by elites has always been in conflict with the democratic sovereignty of its members states. Human factors being what they are, people are sometimes citizens and sometimes consumers (the latter perhaps more often than the former). So their aspirations are complex and sometimes veer in one direction, sometimes in another - one reason the EU has survived as long as it has and the clamor for a return to real citizenship in European states has seldom amounted to more than a nostaligic whimper.
The current conflict - as illustrated in this week's Italian election - centers on the obsession of Europe's elite political class on imposing "austerity," a remedy for Europe's troubles which may (or may not) benefit economic elites, but certainly is not benefitting anyone else. Italy is a society where the political class has consistently failed its citizens for as long as anyone can remember (and long before). So it is a fertile field for populist reaction against the apostles of austerity. Sadly, however, populist reactions generally gravitate to solutions that only make matters worse. Populist movements (in Western societies) generally err by equating the faults of the political class with government itself, undermining the admittedly already fragile bonds of political community, and seeking solutions that escape rather than embrace the challenges of citizenship.(One form that takes - in both italy and the U.S.- is resistance to paying the fundamental price for civilization, i.e., taxes).
In Italy (and in the U.S.) populist disenchantment with a dysfunctional governing class  produces an even more dysfunctional governing chaos. In Italy that might mean a short-term rellief from the ideology of "austerity." But unless an authentic national political culture can be created that overcomes people's inherited distrust of government and can bind people together as citizens rather than as consumers, what viable alternative can there be to more of the same?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Appropriately enough on this day after the Oscars, I went to the movies. I'd already seen Argo and Lincoln. So today I saw Silver Linings Playbook, which received eight Oscar nominations, and for which Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress. It has a happy ending (which, however, up until the last I worried it wouldn’t have). Before the happy ending, however, it explores the sad and dark territory of mental illness. The hero (played by Bradley Cooper) has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, lacks appropriate emotional filters, and easily gets violent. (He’s just spent 8 months in a mental institution by court order after beating up his wife’s lover, who has since moved on and has an order of protection to keep him from making contact with her). The widowed heroine, Tiffany, has neuroses of her own, and it is their shared mental suffering that bonds them together – and in the process makes them so good for each other. How true it often is that fellow-sufferers may often do more for each other’s healing than institutions and therapies. Of course, the world around them isn’t all that much healthier, starting with Pat’s obsessive-compulsive, football-fan father. Angry and violent emotions may routinely be better filtered by others – although even among them not always – but they too mostly seem to live lives of anxiety and desperation. As is so often the case, the difference between the well and the sick is largely the former's better capacity to function in spite of suffering - or perhaps the latter's more acute sensitivity to suffering which impedes their routine functioning.

The movie is a veritable parable of anxiety and desperation, highlighting the pain and suffering of ordinary people stuck in failing or failed marriages and problematic careers, for many of whom the closest thing to vicarious meaning and fulfillment  in life is found in the bizarre rituals of being fanatic football fans.  Love conquers in the end, but it is a love that becomes real in the small ways in which marginalized people can help each other, which may be the most powerful and beautiful element in the story.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


An ancient Christian tradition placed the mysterious event we call the Transfiguration (and which we just heard about in the Gospel [Luke 9:28b-36]) - 40 days before Jesus’ crucifixion. That is why we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration every year on August 6 – 40 days before the feast of the Holy Cross – and also explains why we traditionally hear an account of it early in Lent each year.

Of course, the Gospel says nothing at all about how much time actually elapsed between the Transfiguration and Good Friday. It does, however, tell us – not in the actual excerpt we just heard but in the larger context of the Gospel – that it occurred soon after Jesus’ 1st prediction of what was in store for him in Jerusalem. Situated as a sequel to Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, the Transfiguration was apparently intended to confirm Jesus’ somewhat astonishing claim that his death would not be the end of the story. In other words, this advance look at Jesus’ glory as God’s Son seems to have been intended to prepare the disciples for the challenge of following Jesus on the way to the cross – yet another obvious reason to hear this story now, early in Lent.

For all its mysteriousness, however, the story itself is simple enough. Jesus and his special inner circle of Peter, John, and James went up the mountain to pray – mountains being traditionally understood as the preferred place for divine revelation, where Moses and Elijah, for example, had earlier experienced God’s presence and had heard his voice. The traditional site – the Mount of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor – in Israel is accessed nowadays by taxi ride – a somewhat scary, high-speed taxi ride (at least as I recall the experience) - up the narrow mountain road. Presumably, Peter, John, and James walked up the mountain – physically far more challenging, of course, but perhaps safer and certainly calmer!

Jesus, we are told, went up the mountain to pray. Prayer, as we learned in grade school, means “lifting our minds and hearts to God.” It was while he was praying, while modeling for us how to be in God’s kingdom, that this majestically mysterious event occurred – in effect, revealing the very God whose presence and action our prayer is our response to.

Joining Jesus in this tableau, the Old Testament’s two preeminent prophetic figures, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem – a reminder that the Mount of the Transfiguration leads directly to the Mount of the Crucifixion.

Completely confused, Peter, blurted out the first thing that came into his head. Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Poor Peter! Moses and Elijah were actually already about to depart, but Peter wanted to make tents for them, as if this were everyone’s final destination, rather than part of a longer journey to Jerusalem and the cross! Distracted by everything he was seeing, Peter, not surprisingly, missed the point. So, from the cloud came a voice, God the Father himself speaking to clarify the situation, telling the disciples - and that includes us, who like them are also so easily distracted – to listen, not just to some prophet, but to his Son, God’s chosen Son.

Although Peter had already said that he acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, in fact he and the other disciples were still quite clueless as to what that really meant. Much like us perpetually distracted multi-taskers, Peter and the disciples desperately needed to listen, to learn what Jesus was going to accomplish for our sake on the cross. Listening, however, is not easy. It takes effort. It can be quite a challenge. How often - and how well - do we listen to one another? It’s taken for granted nowadays that most of our political debate in this country consists largely of people shouting at one another – or at any rate talking past one another – neither side listening to the other. Listening is hard because it takes time and energy and a readiness to take seriously someone’s experience besides my own.

Thursday of this week will mark the end of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who is handing over the papal office to end his days in a life of prayer and study. He’ll be 86 in April, and to his great credit he recognizes the limitations of age and ill health and their impact on one’s ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today’s 24/7, constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy. I’ll be 65 next month, and I’d certainly find it a challenge to meet those ever increasing public expectations. I think the Pope’s action offers us all a good model of listening to the Lord - good practice, I think, for our own challenge of listening to the Lord - who often speaks to us through our day-by-day experience, including own human experiences of weakness and infirmity.

In particular, as we all believe (or presumably we wouldn’t be here this morning), God speaks to us through our shared, common experience of being his Church. And it is as his Church that we are now being invited to listen to the Lord in a special way as the leaders of the Church prepare to choose a new Pope, by searching their own and our experiences to recognize the needs of God’s People – in the Church and throughout the world

Listening to the Lord is always a challenge. There is nothing automatic about it. , But it is always essential – for the Church as a whole, for Popes and Cardinals, and for each one of us - no less so than it was for Peter, John, and James!

The good news is that, even as Peter, John, & James listened (&, with them, we listen), to the lesson of the cross, they saw (& we see) in the transfigured glory of Christ, the first faint glimpse of the resurrection, already present in the frightening darkness in which we still find ourselves. That means the Jesus we need to listen to is not some figure form the past but the living Christ present in his Church as its Risen Lord, who affords us the confidence & encouragement we will need to navigate in the darkness.

Distracted as we all are by our preoccupation with ourselves, it is no less tempting for us than it was for the disciples to want to stay in a tent on the mountain & perhaps proceed directly to the resurrection. Such in the easygoing complacent Christianity that the great 20th century American Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr warned about, back in 1937 – what he called “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” [The Kingdom of God in America]

In contrast to all such complacency, Lent is given to us each year to challenge us to listen to Jesus, to listen to his words & learn the lesson of his cross. Walking the Way of the Cross together, as we do here every Friday afternoon during Lent, is a particularly powerful Lenten practice, intended to help us listen & learn the lesson of Christ’s passion. All our traditional Lenten practices – prayer, fasting, charity – are intended to help us to listen more attentively to Christ the living Lord present in his Church, & so to learn anew the lesson of his death & resurrection in our own lives.

 Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 24, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013


The infamous, frightening sequester is now less than a week away. It's so frightening in fact that, instead of trying to prevent it, Congress went on vacation all this past week. (Most people got one day off for Presidents Day - if that much. Congress claims a whole week).
Just how frightened anyone should be by the admittedly infamous sequester is unclear. The Administration is certainly beating the drum about how harmful it is going to be to the country. Inevitably, any reduction in government spending is potentially harmful to a slowly recovering economy, but exactly how harmful is quite unclear. What is clear, of course, is that the policy is stupid and irresponsible, which in fact is what it was intended to be. It was never actually intended to happen. It was supposed to scare congress into addressing the deficit in something like a rational way. Obviously, no serious country should operate this way - ostensibly putting its fiscal house in order by random, across the board budget cuts. Democratic governance is about deliberation and debate oriented to rational decision making. Like leaving important decisions to an irrational free market, random across the board budget cuts are an abdication of the faculty of judgment - the very opposite of deliberation and debate oriented to rational decision making.
The elite consensus that the deficit is our major problem is itself somewhat problematic. But, even if we grant that the deficit is a pressing problem and ought to be addressed immediately, it seems evident that the way to address it is through intelligent measures to raise additional revenue and reduce excessive spending. The sequester does nothing to raise revenue, of course, nor does it distinguish between efficient spending on programs that are important to our nation's well-being and excessive spending that the country can survive cutting. Most seriously of all, it does not begin to address the most problematic spending of all - entitlements, especially health care costs.
The only possible good that can conceivably come from this sequester is that more people may experience first hand how much worse life can get when important government services are sacrificed on the pagan altar of deficit reduction. American voters have long been guilty of believing they can enjoy the government services that go with being a civilized society - without having to pay for them. If more voters actually experienced how harmful "small government" actually is, then perhaps some sanity and moral responsibility might be infused into our political debates.
An injection of some modicum of sanity and moral responsibility hardly seems like a utopian goal. It remains to be seen, however, whether it is actually achievable.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Chair of Peter

The papacy is very much in the news these days, as the world awaits the end of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy on February 28 and the subsequent election of a new pope. Some of the news coverage so far has been quite good - intelligent assessments of Benedict XVI's accomplishments, historical context concerning papal resignations, information about how the Church prepares to select a new Pope, and intelligent speculation  about the conclave's outcome. Of course, some of the coverage has also been characterized by incredible ignorance of basic facts about the Church and the papacy and/or by secular political prejudices, which are allowed to define a discussion about something above and beyond the categories of contemporary secular politics. Still, while much of the coverage is ignorant and narrowly politicized, it has highlighted the unique character and importance of the papal office and of the person of the Pope, whom the media may sometimes reduce to a celebrity, but who is ultimately so much more.  

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the annual liturgical celebration of the primacy of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome. The primacy of the Pope unites the entire Church across space and time. Across space, the Pope is the center through communion with whom all bishops and the local churches they pastor throughout the world are united in one community of faith, hope, and love. Through time, the Pope is the Church's link back to Peter, who in the gospels publicly professed the faith of the entire Church and was appointed by Christ as both the Church's chief fisherman (evangelizer) and the Church's chief shepherd (pastor). In the modern world, the Pope is uniquely the Church's very visible face and audible voice speaking truth to the powers of this world. Internally and externally, therefore, the Pope is "a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and of communion" (Collect, Votive Mass "For the Pope").

Last year, I had the opportunity to celebrate this feast in Rome itself, assisting at the Papal Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on the occasion of consistory for the creation of new cardinals. My good friend (and former boss in New York) and I were among the priests privileged to occupy a place at the foot of the papal Altar of the Confession - just a few yards away from the Pope himself - and then to distribute Holy Communion to the throng filling the basilica. It was an awesome celebration of the universality of the Church and one of the genuine high points of my study-time in Rome.

This year, both the Pope and I are celebrating the feast more modestly. Indeed the Pope is on retreat - the lenten spiritual exercises of the Roman Curia, that annually occur in the first full week of Lent.

Long before assuming the papal office, Pope Benedict had made his mark as one of the great theological thinkers and teachers of our time. As pope, he has continued to exercise the ministry of teacher in an incomparably profound and pastorally relevant way. He has also, from the beginning, approached his high office with great personal humility and visible devotion to the Church, an invaluable model for all of us who exercise offices in the Church. That humility and devotion to the Church have been especially evident in the Pope’s decision to resign the papal office and devote himself to prayer and study. He'll be 86 in April, and - to his great credit - recognizes the impact of age and ill health on his ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today's "24/7," constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy.  (I'll be 65 next month, and I would certainly find it a challenge to met those ever increasing public expectations - expectations the likes of which were simply not present for previous popes, as recently as Pius XII and John XXIII.)

On this feast, when we annually celebrate Christ's great gift to the Church of the ministry of Peter, prolonged throughout the Church's life in the primacy of the Pope, we fittingly give thanks for the pontificate of Benedict XVI and look forward to the election of a successor to guide and govern the Church  as it confronts the challenges of the new evangelization.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Celebrity Tragedy

I have absolutely no idea - and no way of finding out - what really happened the night Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend. One side says it was pre-meditated murder. The other says it was an accident. In time, a judge will render a legal verdict, which may (or may not) be factually correct and which may (or may not) convince those disposed to think otherwise. So I make no judgment at all about the guilt or innocence of anyone in this case.

But I think this South African tragedy does highlight some things worth thinking about.

The mere fact, first of all, that this case has received so much international attention - so much attention at all - speaks volumes about our obsession with celebrity. Perhaps the one story that perennially fascinates modern popular culture even more than the personal lives of celebrities is a celebrity behaving badly. And we've had no shortage of such stories. For some strange reason, celebrity athletes are assumed to be as morally fit as they are physically. So when they disappoint on that score, somehow we feel they have let us down. One would think that contemporary society would have been cured of that strange attitude by now, and perhaps it will be eventually, but evidently that has not happened yet.

As powerful as is the cult of celebrity, so is the comparably curious - but much more dangerous - fascination with guns. The cult of celebrity disposes us to want Pistorius's story to be true. But, if it is true, if it really was an accident, then we are still faced with yet another example of the enormous horror that can happen in a society which tolerates private gun ownership. If indeed this tragic death was an accident, the fact remains that it would  likely never have happened had Pistorius not had a gun at his immediate disposal and had not been ready to use it.

How many domestic killings are actually accidents that would never have happened were a lethal weapon not readily available in the home? How many domestic quarrels have escalated to homicide because of easy access to a gun? How many suicides might never have happened were it not for the presence of a gun?

These are serious questions, which our gun-crazy society has for too long resisted. The celebrity tragedy in South Africa has highlighted them for us again, but these questions are not new, nor will they go away - regardless of what actually happened in a star athlete's home on Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Downton Abbey Season Finale

Both Seasons 1 and 2 ended on a tragic note - Season 1 with the outbreak of World War I. True, Season 2 ended with Matthew and Mary finally getting engaged, but Season 2's next-to-last episode had ended with Mr. Bates' arrest for murder. So it was to be expected that Season 3 would also end in further tragedy. Having already killed off Laby Sybil earleir in the season, the show faced the challenge of coming up with something comparably devastating at the end - or, better yet, a coexistence of joy and sadness comparable to the way Season 2 ended.
So I watched the final episode wondering what terrible tragedy was in store and looking for hints as to what it would be. With all the build-up to Lady Mary's pregnancy in the next-to-last episode (and given the importance of her pregancy for the succession), my first suspicion was that something might go wrong there. It would have been too much, I think, to have a second Crawley girl die in childbirth, but a miscarriage, for example, seemed distinctly possible - especially in light of all the anxiety being expressed about her trip to Scotland. But Mary successfully gave birth to a son - and heir to the earldom - in a sense the happy ending we've all been waiting for since the succession first became so problematic in the very first episode of Season 1.
The finale teased us with all sorts of unresolved problems. The Scottish holiday portrayed yet another aristocratic estate (and marriage) in trouble. By highlighting Matthew's great contribution to saving Downton - and Robert's belated recogniton of how much he owed to Matthew - was the show throwing us a hint? And what about  Matthew's memorable line to Lady Edith's already married suitor that, despite appearances, they were not living in a Walter Scott novel?
As usual there was enough other tension to be resolved to distract us. There was Mrs. Patmore's unsuitable suitor. (Other than Matthew himself, it seems every single suitor in the story has been somewhat unsitable!) There was the village doctor's almost proposal to Isobel. But both those tensions were resolved happily. There was the new maid's attempt to seduce Tom Ranson and the inevitable wonder whether he was getting over Sybil and what that would mean. But Sybil (and Mrs. Hughes) won that round. There was the hint that maybe O'Brien would desert the family for a chance to go to India, but no such luck! The smoldering tension between Jimmy and Thomas might well have led to one killing the other, but instead the one-time coward showed some heroism and the pretty boy came up short - resulting finally in a final, feel-good reconciliation of sorts. All in all, thngs seemd to be moving  to resolution. Peace seemed on the horizon for both family and staff, and, with the safe birth of an heir, even joy seemed possible. The Dowager's observation that we don't always get what we deserve sounded like a thanksgiving, but it contained a hint of foreboding.
In the end, it was obvious what had to happen. Mary and Matthew had overcome so many obstacles and now had it all - the estate and an heir. They were deeply in love and truly happy. It is a theme right out of Greek tragedy. There is only so much happiness allowable to mortals, lest the gods get jealous. The hint came when it was casually mentioned that Matthew would drive his own car to and from the hospital. Throughout the series, Matthew has represented middle-class modernity. (Richard would certainly have been chauffered and would never have driven himself).  Perhaps it was only fitting that the great symbol (and curse) of 20th-century modernity, the automobile, should be the catalyst for this final insult to the family's hopes and happiness. When I heard that Matthew was going to drive himself, something told me that this was it. Still, I hoped - hoped that, at least on this occasion, life would make an exception to its default position of tragedy and sadness and allow some happiness and hope. But then, when the camera focused on him in his car heading back to Downton and highlighted the the look of joy and happiness on his face, it was clear where we were going.
As usual, the dowager coutness was right. We often get better than we deserve. But we also - and maybe more often - get less.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Natural Law and Public Policy

I recently came across an article in a politically conservative publication, challenging the usefulness of natural law argumentation in the public policy arena in contemporary secular society (David Bentley Hart, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws,” First Things, March 2013).  As the title of Hart’s article (referencing David Hume’s famous challenge to natural law reasoning) reveals, the issue the author raises is hardly new. Its salience certainly seems to be increasing, however, with the progressive breakdown of anything resembling a consensus on the moral meaning or even the intellectual validity of a concept such as human nature.
Classically oriented moral theorists, of course, continue to propose public policy arguments which in themselves may make perfect sense, but only if one accepts certain presuppositions about the nature of things.

Broadly speaking, natural law thinking interprets the criterion “nature” as self-evidently knowable, objectively discoverable somehow in the universe.” The strength of natural law theory is its confidence that an honest examination of nature will corroborate it and so be convincing apart from any religious presuppositions. Thus, for example, Otto A. Pieper wrote - in 1946 (“What Is Natural Law?” Theology Today) - that the Geneva and Hague Conventions “were based upon ‘natural law’, i.e. on the very nature of international life.” His point was that, whereas one would not expect secular governments to adhere to explicitly sectarian standards (“explicitly Christian ideas of conduct”), on the other hand, “they can all acknowledge natural law.” Clearly, claiming to derive public policies from some sectarian source (scripture, divine revelation), however plausibly convincing that might within the confines of the Church community, would be to deprive those proposed precepts of the broadly universal communicability which would be needed to be convincing in a modern/postmodern pluralistic society. It is this very universality which, of course, is supposed to be the strength of natural law theory, the reason to employ it in a pluralistic society. (Jacques Maritain famously evidenced similar optimism about natural law in relation to the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

What happens, however, in a cultural context in which the applicability of the terms “natural” and “unnatural” no longer seems self-evident to many?  What happens in a modern/postmodern world in which - as many now increasingly believe - there are (in Alan Wolfe's words)  “so many ways of being human” with the resulting claim “that one cannot assume the automatic moral superiority of one over another”? (cf. Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, 2001).

Of course, as I can recall trying to argue back in the 1970s, one can continue to affirm the objective naturalness of principles and consider them as being universally applicable, even while recognizing that they are far from universally communicable.  At that time I wrote that, if the universal knowability of the natural law were the essence of natural law, then it would appear seriously compromised by the reality we experience in our world. As I saw it then, the issue of the empirical knowability of the natural law had to be secondary to the ontological claim of natural law to express the essence of human nature in relation to human beings' true destiny

The obvious policy problem, however, is that it is extremely difficult to see how a universal applicability can successfully be proposed for particular moral precepts in a cultural context in which the principles and premises on which those precepts are based increasingly lack communicability and hence increasingly appear implausible to more and more people.

And so, belief in natural law, argues Hart, “is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good.” This, however (Hart adds suggestively), “cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary expectations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural.”

This has certain evident implications for public policy as debated in our pluralistic secular society, in which what was once plausibly communicable as” natural” (whether that language was overtly used or not) can only come across today as at best purely sectarian.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fish Fry

The "tradtional" Friday Fish Fry is certainly a sectional tradition. I'd never heard of such a thing growing up on the east coast, where of course fresh, tasty salt-water fish and seafood were available in abundance. But it was certainly big in the midwest when I lived in Milwaukee in the late 1970s, and it seems similarly popular here as well. And so, we will be having a fish fry at the parish tonight - and every Lenten Friday night - before the Stations of the Cross.
"Fish on Friday" was once a staple of Catholic community culture. Even our calendars typically used to display a fish superimposed on the date number every Friday of the year (and the various other days like Ash Wednesday and Christmas Eve which were also days of abstience). There were also half-fishes for days of partial abstience, such as Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, when meat might be eaten, but only once. Apart from Lent, all of that is all gone now - and with it the fishes on the calendar.
Of course, there never was any rule requiring one actually to eat fish on Friday. The rule rather required abstinence from meat, which in earlier centuries apparently also included dairy products and eggs, but which by modern times had been defined down to include only the flesh meat of "warm-blooded" animals. It was not unheard of in my childhood home to eat omelets or pizza for Friday dinner, but fish probably was the most common option.
It was great for the fish industry. It also introduced greater variety into the average American Catholic's diet. But, best of all, it introduced religion into everyday life. Like keeping kosher among religious Jews, it was an intrusion of religion into the ordinary routine of the mudane world, very effectively so, because - to borrow from Ludwig Feuerbah - we are what we eat. Of course, Friday abstinence was a rather modest intrusion into our kitchens and dining rooms - in that regard hardly comparable at all to keeping kosher. But it still served the purpose and functioned as a valuable identity-marker. It may or may not have effectively formed people in a spirituality of self-denial, but it did at least make the point that religion required a consciousness of its restrictions in ordinary settings - not just for an hour in church on Sundays.
Perhaps I may yet live long enough to see that wonderful custom restored to our weekly routine - something sincerely to be hoped for!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day

As almost everyone with a pulse knows, today is Valentine's Day. For most people today, that means sending someone a "valentine" or giving a gift to one's "valentine." For adults this all has important romantic connotations, although when I was a school kid, way back when, we routinely gave "valentines" to our classmates and friends, with no romantic connotation whatsoever! 
The full title for today's holiday is, of course, Saint Valentine's Day - a title which suggests (and invites) an integration of the romantic relationships primarily associated with the day  into a larger conception of the world.
But first a word about the historical Saint Valentine! The Roman Martyrology's traditional entry for today - Die 14 februarii memoria Romae via Flaminia iuxta pontem Milvium, sancti Valentini, martyris - refers to a certain Valentinus, martyred on February 14, at Rome on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian Bridge. Beyond his martyrdom, nothing certain is known about his life - as Pope Gelasius I acknowledged when he added St. Valentine to the calendar in 496. Even the entry about Valentine in The Golden Legend is surprisingly brief. Valentine is traditionally identified as a Roman priest martyred c. 269, although another Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, supposedly martyred at Rome in 273, has also been identified with the Roman Valentine.
Pope Gelasius also abolished the ancient pagan Rome festival of Lupercalia, which used to occur on this date, a feast which honored the wolf which had nursed Romulus and Remus, but which was pre-Roman in origin and had strong associations with fertility and even romance. One unproven popular theory is that the romantic customs connected with Lupercalia survived in christianized form in Valentine's Day.
One late legend about Valentine is that he incurred the Emperor's hostility because he performed marriages in defiance of an imperial edict. While hard to substantiate historically, that legend does attempt to make a connection between the actual martyr and the romantic associations which have come to characterize his feast.
No emperors are attempting to outlaw marriage in today's world (at least none that I know of), but marriage and family life are widely recognized as being in a sorry state - as evidenced by the abandonment of marriage by many and the common acceptance of divorce among those who do marry, all of which is being exacerbated in our society by increasing economic inequality which is making marriage less and less attractive to many in less favored socio-economic circumstances. So, for all its admittedly frivolous triviality, perhaps Valentine's Day deserves more serious attention, as we as a society grapple with reintegrating romance into a larger, more holistic conception of human life and society.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Land of Lincoln

Way back when I was a school boy, today was a holiday - the birthday of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1809 - the President who freed the slaves, crushed the rebels, and saved the Union, probably our greatest President of the bunch.
Abraham Lincoln would be 204 today, but the Lincoln's birthday holiday is long gone, suppressed by the creation of an artifical "Presidents Day" holiday, part of the general evisceration of our national civic observances that has diminished most holidays and turned them into primarily shopping days. But Lincoln himself is having a sort of renaissance this year. The 2012 film Lincoln is a masterpiece and may well win an oscar this minth. At his inauguration last month, the President used Lincoln's bible (along with Martin Luther King's), presumably linking his own progressive agenda to the legacy of the Great Emancipator and the modern Civil Rights movement. And surely his choice of Lincoln's birthday for his State of the Union address is hardly coincidental.
We are already one year into the sesquecentennial of the American Civil War. That tragic war was the ultimate - perhaps inevitable - result of the compromises made in crafting the constitution and creating our union in the first place. The Founding Fathers set out to create a strong central government to replace the inadequate instrument of the Articles of Confederation. Sectional provincialism necessitated a federal system in which the individual states would retain an excessive degree of sovereignty - diminishing our national unity and ultimately threatening its survival. What exacerbated the problem, of course, was the Founders' deal with the Devil by which they allowed the continuance of slavery in those states which wished its retention. Armed with the reality of states' semi-sovereignty and a destructive ideology of states' rights, nullification, etc, certain states not only were able to retain their "peculiar institution" for almost another century, but also to make it the central issue facing the country, using it first to paralyze American politics and eventually starting a Civil War over it.
Lincoln's political genius effectively focused the resources of the rest of the nation on combatting this sectional folly. His moral genius recognized the institution of slavery as the cancerous cause of disunion and gradually catechized the country accordingly. The final step in the moral transformation of America under Lincoln's leadership is what the movie Lincoln dramatizes in its depiction of the passage of the 13th Amendment in early 1865.
A century and a half after the Civil War, we are still saddled with sectional ideologies that seek to utilize the continued existence of states to subvert national community through such diverse strategies as voter suppression and undermining the Affordable Care Act. The old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same seems confirmed again in our contemporary political impasse. Clearly, we are still far from becoming truly and completely the land of Lincoln.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Fishers of Men

One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed the lake in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” modern pilgrims can then dine on “St. Peter’s Fish.” That name, of course, recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish [Luke 5:1-11]. For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter never seems to catch any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear about him actually catching are the ones miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Of course, as that story itself makes clear, in the end the point is not really fish but the great growth in people that lies in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water of the world and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.

Like Peter’s fishing, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks. Yet, despite his obvious frustration with his failures and the depressing tiredness that commonly accompanies frustration (“Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing”), Peter the fisherman found the faith, the confidence in Jesus, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”

No sooner had he done so, of course, than they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-seeking, personality-driven media would surely highlight what would be seen as a gaffe on Peter’s part, Peter once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or perhaps we would be speculating about what sort of sin in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!

When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not just Peter being polite. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading, who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as seeing God directly.

Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause one to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing out into the deep with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. That’s the way we are. People are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.

As members of that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the Pope’s ceremonial ring has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on it is that of Saint Peter in a boat - fishing. It is precisely our union with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today with whatever energies and resources for renewal and evangelization we may have.

Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, but he is hardly its only fisherman.

We are all becoming increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church in this country – the sick missing out on the sacraments, the dead being buried without a priest present at the cemetery, everywhere everyone having to make do with less.

Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle and Isaiah the Prophet before him [Isaiah 61:1-2a, 3-8], listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth [1 Corinthians 15:1-11], we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves what we too can do, what God may be asking of us - and to ask ourselves if there is someone we know (perhaps right here in this church this morning) whom the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 10, 2013.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Medieval Funeral for a Medieval King?

I happily admit to taking a more than average interest in such matters, but I am really quite amazed at how much interest there seems to be in the recent discovery of the body of England's last Yorkist sovereign, King Richard III - including such unlikely venues as Bill Maher's Friday night show on HBO and a radio game show I caught part of while driving home from Church this morning. Of course, I suppose no one should be surprised that royalty fascinates - that's part of its purpose - and nowhere more perhaps than in a country constitutionally deprived of real royalty (and hence excessively devoted to every other form of celebrity). I admit I am surprised, however, by the level of interest in the question of where and how to re-bury the famous royal villain! (Richard was almost certainly not the villain Shakespeare, as Tudor apologist, made him out to be. But he was at best a usurper of his nephew's crown - and is still the most likely suspect in the murder of his two nephews,)
Then there is the argument being advanced in certain Catholic circles - including the British Catholic journal The Tablet - that the King, who, of course, lived and died before his Tudor rival's son's Reformation - should be buried in a Catholic Church. Frankly, I think that particular suggestion makes little sense. Modern British Catholic Churches are just that - modern. None of them existed in Richard's time. The logical place for him to be buried would be either in Westminster Abbey, where many medieval kings were buried (but no modern ones are) or else in an historic English Cathedral - preferably one with some connection to him or his family. Yorkminster might be a good choice in that respect. Apparently, however, the decision has already been made to bury him in Leicester Cathedral - in one sense an odd selection since it is in Lancastrian territory, but in another sense a choice that reflects the reality of where (and how) he died, in that it is walking distance from where he was originally interred.
On the other hand, a very valid case can - and should - be made for a Catholic funeral for Richard. Indeed, it seems almost like adding insult to injury to bury him accoridng to the rituals of the Church of England - a Church whose only reason for being created was to guarantee the Tudor dynasty's secure succession! A Catholic funeral in an Anglican (and formerly Catholic)  Cathedral would cover all the historical bases, so to speak, in a way which would be respectful of real history.
But what kind of a Catholic funeral? The contemporary Catholic rite would be even more unrecongizable to Richard than the Anglican one. Nor does the somewhat celebratory, pseudo-canonization character of the contemporary Catholic rite recommend it in this instance. What Richard really should get is a medieval funeral for a medieval king - i.e., a Sarum Rite Requiem.  (I read somewhere that the remains of the sailors of the Mary Rose received a Requiem in medieval England's Sarum Rite. If so, then there seems to be a precedent!)
It may or may not matter much to Richard himself at this point, but it would tie a lot of historical loose ends together and offer a fitting context for further discussion and renewed appreciation of the Medieval Church. Modern historians have long been challenging post- Reformation propaganda's calumnies againt the Medieval Church (a bit like Shakespeare's distorted portrait of Richard). As John W. O'Malley (Trent: What Happened at the Council, 2013) has recently written: "In fact, as historians have conclusively shown over the past fifty years, the situation was complex to a degree that defies summary and that challenges the negative stereotypes that still prevail in the popular media. ...It may be possible to judge the religious fervor of the age as misguided but impossible to deny its vitality and intensity."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Second Chances

Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York" With those two memorable lines that William Shakespeare put into his mouth, the great playwright's most memorable villain, King Richard III, stepped onto the stage, the same King Richard III whose mortal remains have recently been identified (with widespread hoopla and even more widespread interest).

Unfortunately, the "glorious summer" didn't last and ended rather badly. When “this son of York” (King Edward IV) died in April 1483, his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named Lord Protector (regent) for the 12-year-old King Edward V. But before the young king could be crowned, his father's marriage to his mother was declared invalid, rendering Edward and his brother illegitimate. Their uncle then began his reign as King Richard III. The young “Princes in the Tower” soon disappeared and were presumed murdered on Richard's orders. Two years later in 1485, the Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, until then a relatively hopeless exile in France, got his second chance, returned to England, where he famously defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field, ending the dynastic civil war known as the "Wars of the Roses," and by his marriage to Elizabeth of York (Richard's niece, the daughter of Edward IV), united the competing houses of Lancaster and York in his new Tudor dynasty.
Shakespeare was, of course, a partisan apologist for the Tudor dynasty; and his portrayal of Richard has marked him ever since as one of English history's greatest villains. Over the years, scholars and partisans of Richard have attempted to improve his image. Of course, no matter how much good Richard may have done in short reign, his usurpation and, above all, the fate of the "Princes in the Tower" would seem to block any real rehabilitaiton. Yet, now, with the rediscovery of his remains under a pathetic parking lot and plans afoot for a proper burial for the king in a proper cathedral, complete with some sort of visitors' center to memorialize him, perhaps Richard too will have his second chance at respectability.

In politics, it seems, second chances are always possible. Almost 5 centuries after King Richard III, we had the case here in the United States of another Richard - Richard Nixon - who actually was politically dead twice in his career, only to come back again twice. After his electoral loss in 1960 and his subsequent defeat for Governor of California in 1962, almost everyone - including Nixon himself, who famously gave his "last press conference" the day after that second defeat - regarded him as politically dead. But then the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, and the subsequent party implosion opened the path for Nixon's resurrection. Elected President in 1968 and re-elected by a landslide in 1972, Nixon seemed to have made the best use of his second chance and would surely have gone down in history as one of the 20th century's more effective presidents. But then came Watergate and the unprecedented disgrace of having to become the first president forced to resign the office. Who could have been more politically dead than Nixon in exile in San Clemente? Yet with time and the patient, unremitting effort the hard-workign Nixon had been noted for, he worked his way back onto the public stage, recognized for the foreign policy he was, accepted as confidant of Presidents (especially Bill Clinton), and restored to elder statesman status by the time of his death.

Second chances reveal a modestly more merciful world than is ordinarily the case. Who knows whether the last Yorkist king, soon to be properly reburied with royal honors, will find rehabilitaiton after 500+ years of ignominy? Does he deserve it? I really don't know. But it would be a nice ending to a sad story, which is what second chances are and why we like them so much.

Requiescat in pace!


Monday, February 4, 2013

Political Philosophy

The current issue of The New York Review of Books contains an article by Jeremy Waldron, Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, reviewing two new books by Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought (in 2 volumes) and The Making of Modern Liberalism. The review is concerned primarily with On Politics and more broadly with the enterprise of studying political theory historically. As a one-time student and teacher of political theory, I could not help but be engaged by the issue he raises and his arguments.
As Waldron notes, there have been such histories of political theory before. He mentions George Sabine’s classic History of Political Theory, and that of Sheldon Wolin (my graduate adviser at Princeton), Politics and Vision, as works which continue “to command a good general readership.” On the other hand, as he also acknowledges, many “are happy to eschew the historical approach altogether,” when grappling theoretically with such issues as “democracy, constitutionalism, nation-building, terrorism, and global law.”

Students of political theory often invoke the concept of a conversation across history. Waldron recalls the often-cited story of Machiavelli in exile, going into his library and there entering “the ancient courts of ancient men,” where “I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason or their actions; and they in their kindness answer me.” It’s a wonderful image, which well deserves its academic popularity, but it is at best the beginning of an answer as to why the history of political thought is important. Ryan emphasizes how “human beings are historical animals,” and Waldron draws from that the lesson that “we construct and enact our politics – not just our political theory – in ways that are haunted by the past.” He argues “that we are self-consciously nervous – and rightly so – about structures and practices that we have constructed, about their ability to hold their own in the vicissitudes of political life without an anchor of some sort in a respectable and enduring past.” The history of political thought illuminates “depths and resonances of other times and places in the institutions we regard as familiar” and “can help free us from the grip of any one particular picture of the relation between states and nations by articulating and making vivid to us a dozen different conceptions of the mission of the state.”
It seems to me, especially at the present juncture in human affairs, that that (and not some esoteric conversation among past and present elites) is the most significant dimension of doing political theory historically. For example, in recent years any number of revolutionary changes have begun to be introduced into how we view such human and social fundamentals as gender identity, marriage, and the family. Having opted for new unserstandings on these issues, contemporary elites tend to treat their newly acquired beliefs as self-evident. That is a time-honored technique for disarming one's opponents and securing success in the political arena. But, while the new understandings might be right or wrong, good or bad, none of that is necessarily self-evident at all. What is historically evident, however, is that most people throughout all of history - including our elites until very recently - saw things differently. New understandings may be an improvement or they may not. Either way, the case needs to be argued - not asserted as if it were self-evident.
Slavery, for example, was certainly self-evident for most of human history. It became less and less so in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the last holdouts was the United States, which required a brutal Civil War a century and a half ago to settle the issue. Now it is a settled issue in the West, and the intrinsic evil of slavery is now seen as self-evident. But, of course, the point is that neither position - the traditonal pro-slavery one or the moderen anti-slavery one is totally self-evident. Rather, like all political positions, it requires that people become convinced. In short, the case needed to be argued - not asserted as self-evident.
The merit, therefore, of doing political theory historically - as of historical study in general - is to encounter understandings that are different from ours but that once were every bit as certain and compelling as ours are now. We may emerge from that encounter with reason to change our newer ideas, or we may be re-inforced in our newer ideas. Either way our political understanding - both of ourselves and of the human story through time - will be improved.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


One year ago today, in the aftermath of the first of two Roman blizzards during my stay in the Eternal City, I ventured out in early evening to walk the short distance from the Paulist residence to the church of Santa Susanna in order to get my throat blessed. Treading carefully through the icy slush, I remember watching several Romans - all adults - thoroughly enjoying themselves making and throwing snowballs at each other. They were having fun, but the streets and sidewalks were really treacherous, and much of Roman city life (including my class) had shut down for the day.
Yet it never occurred to me not to make the effort to go and get my throat blessed! I'll leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to theorize about what makes certain social rituals and religious devotions particularly popular. Traditionally, blessings were provided for all sorts of objects and activities - from wine to herbs to bonfires - all assigned to specific days in the calendar. Most of those blessings are historical curiosities now, surviving perhaps here and there in popular religion in rural areas, but otherwise hardly known to the ordinary Catholic faithful. Yet the perennially popular Blessing of Throats on the feast of St. Blase seems to be that proverbial exception that proves the rule!
According to the Golden Legend, as he was being led away by Roman soldiers, St. Blase never stopped preaching amd worked many wonders - among them, most famously, laying his hands on a boy with a fish bone stuck in his throat and praying that the boy and anyone else who sought help from God in his name would be healed. For centruies since, St. Blase has been venerated as the patron of those who suffer from diseases of the throat. The ritual of the blessing of throats, however, invokes St. Blase's intercession for deliverance from every disease of the throat and from every other illness.
I have often thought that the Blessing of throats is one of the nicest things we do after Mass and the sacraments, and so I have always looked forward to it on February 3 - perhaps all the more so this year just two weeks after my mini-stroke certainly made me that much more sensitive to the fragility of the scarce blessing we call health.
Ordinary experience illustrates the universality of sickness in human life. Some, blessed with good genes and good circumstances, enjoy generally good health much of their lives. Others must struggle with chronic and serious sickness and other significant impairments. Modern medicine has produced previously unimaginable advances in the prevention and the treatment of disease, one consequence of which is the lengthened lifespan so many of us are enjoying (or expect to enjoy). Yet not all diseases have been defeated, nor does the prospect of a longer life alleviate our anxieties about aging and its physical and mental toll. Moreover, even some of the simplest and most common modern medical advances are far from universally available – even in our own affluent society, let alone in the world at large. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly healed the sick.  The longstanding commitment of the Church’s institutions and the resources of many religious communities to health care at all levels attests to the seriousness with which his example has been taken.  As for St. Blase himself, whose memory the Church invokes today in blessing us against every disease of the throat and every other illness, we know only that he was a healer in life and died a martyr's death - two of the highest acolades anyone can aspire to!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day

The familiar carol stops at day 12, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas & the true end of the Christmas season. It Italy and much of Europe, the presepio or nativity scene remains in place in church until today. So last year at this time, when I was studying in Rome, I had almost a full month to visit the various presepe – some monumentally elaborate, some surprisingly simple – on display in Rome’s many churches. (My own Peruvian nativity scene in my office will also get packed up and put away int he next day or so).

In the Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, but for several centuries it was known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel we just heard [Luke 2:22-40], Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses, that is to say, in obedience to God’s law, in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation to be purified after childbirth, reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after an direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a 1st-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s 1st-born at the time of the Exodus). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s participation in these rituals highlights for us, first, the inviolable sacredness of all human life, and, second, the special status (and corresponding responsibilities) which now define our entire lives, because of our identification with Jesus.

Whether officially titled the Presentation of the Lord of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and Procession - originally in Rome an early pre-dawn procession – with which today’s Mass began. The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the candles, but also to their light – and the One whom that light symbolizes.

Meanwhile, a secular version of Candlemas is “Groundhog Day.” Many people today have forgotten Candlemas Day. Yet many who have never heard of Candlemas recognize the folklore connected with today related to the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and longest night, Candlemas comes midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

So today, even while we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple, we hear, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. So, even as we take a last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent and Easter. Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.

Every Christmas we encounter Christ in a special way in the image in the manger. In the nativity scene in church and at home, we appreciate anew the great mystery of the incarnation of God’s Son. When Simeon and Anna experienced in the infant Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim and share their good news. That remains our task today – to take the light from these candles out into our spiritually still so very dark world, and so to share with all the light reflected in our own lives from the brightness of the human face of God.

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 2, 2013.