Sunday, June 30, 2013

Peter and Paul

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. But the two argued about which hill to build on; and, when Romulus began building his city wall, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over the wall. Romulus responded by killing him - thus determining which one Rome would be named after! In time, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.

To that same city, some 8 centuries later, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire. Among those martyred in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.

One story recounts how Peter started to flee but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded. 

If the Christians of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles, who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself!  - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way.

At the west end of the south aisle, over the simple but impressive altar dedicated to St. Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative painting depicting St. Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below the picture are the famous words we just heard from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith!” [2 Timothy 4:7]

Inspired by Saint Paul’s evangelical energy and apostolic zeal, on July 7, 1858, Father Isaac Hecker and three other priests founded  the “Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle,” known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” Three days later, the Archbishop of New York assigned them the care of a new parish on Manhattan’s west side – placed, like the Paulists themselves, under the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle. For over 150 years, the Paulist Fathers have ministered here in this parish, the life and mission of both Paulists and parish intimately tied together. And for most of these years the spiritual center of both Paulists and parish has been this big beautiful church, opened in 1885.

Nowadays, worshippers entering through the main door of this great church, leave the modern secular city and its empire behind by passing under a monumental modern portrayal of what we commonly call Paul’s conversion. That great event transformed Paul from an enemy into a disciple of Jesus and an apostle on equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Lord had earlier appeared. From then on Paul would exemplify – as all of us who pass through that door are being challenged to exemplify - what it means to be truly converted to Christ, his witness in the world, an apostle sent to make disciples of all without exception. That mission is also the theme of the beautiful early 20th-century floor mosaic at the church’s entrance, recalling Paul’s preaching outreach to pagan society and culture in 1st-century Athens.

Isaac Hecker wanted the architecture of this church to focus attention on the high altar – as indeed everything in the life and mission of the Church must be focused on leading us and the world we live in to Christ.

Above the high altar within Stanford White’ golden dome is a verse from the Divine Office for the feast of Saint Paul’s Conversion: “You are a vessel of election, holy apostle Paul,” the response to which, “Preacher of Truth in the whole world,” is in turn inscribed in another mosaic on the church floor at the foot of the sanctuary steps.

Communicants coming to the altar rail used to see that mosaic, designed to highlight the symbols of Saint Paul’s apostleship – the book open to Saint Paul’s words, To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ [Ephesians 3:8] and the sword, the symbol of Paul’s martyrdom.

Which brings us back to where we started. The old Rome of Romulus – proud, powerful, pagan Rome, based on the murder of one brother by another – was, for all its accomplishments and authentic grandeur, a human state like any other, a warring conqueror conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul conquered that old Rome, but in a new way. Proud, powerful, pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was in turn conquered by the faith that empowered Peter and Paul as brothers-in-Christ to evangelize an empire and die together as witnesses to a new way of life.

As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, here in this Paulist “Mother Church,” let us in turn – as Saint Augustine once recommended on this feast – “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” [Sermon 295, 8].

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York, June 30, 2013.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Some Immigration Sanity

Six years after the last failure, a new Immigration Bill - the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act - finally passed the Senate yesterday, hopefully launching some 11 million undocumented persons, presently living and working at society’s margins, on a path to legal residency and eventually U.S. citizenship. The bill passed the Senate 68 to 32. All 54 Democrats and 14 Republicans voted in favor of the Bill that had been carefully crafted and then ably shepherded through the Senate by the so-called "gang of eight" -- Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Marco Rubio (R-Florida., Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado). The gang of eight’s four Republicans were joined in voting "yes" by 10 other Republican Senators – including, I am happy to report, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

As a grandson of immigrants myself, I can only applaud and give thanks that this first step has been taken to restoring some sanity to our immigration system. Admittedly, such is the degree of chronic dysfunction in Washington that in order to move forward with such a sensible solution to this long festering national problem some other, notably less sensible provisions had to be incorporated – for example, throwing lots of unnecessary money at “border security,” in order to please people who ordinarily claim that they want to cut government spending and not increase it! But even that would be well worth the price to make progress toward restoring America’s authentic character as a land of immigrants.

It’s rare nowadays good to get such good news out of the Senate. The big challenge, of course, will be whether it will be possible to get good news even out of the House!  But for the moment good news is good news – hope for millions of our undocumented neighbors and hope for a severely challenged political system that it might again rediscover the proper purposes of politics.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Roberts Court

From the enhanced enfranchisement of corporate wealth and power in Citizens United to the potential disenfranchisement of many minority voters as a result of Shelby County v. Holder, the trajectory of the Supreme Court’s current majority is increasingly clear. With that latter decision this week, the Court gutted the single greatest legislative achievement of the Civil Rights era - the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally made the 15th Amendment a living reality even in those parts of the country which had resisted it for so long. 

Of course, if the Congress had done its job all along and enforced the 15th Amendment (as the Amendment itself prescribed), African-Americans would not have lost the vote with the end of Reconstruction, and politics in the century between the 1860s and 1960s would have been very different indeed!

American politics did finally change radically for the better following the 1965 law. The continued relevance of that law was evident as recently as last year when old strategies of voter suppression appeared in new forms – with “Voter ID” requirements replacing long abolished poll taxes and literacy tests. The demographic direction of the country being by now obvious, voter suppression may be one highly effective way to help preserve a regime of privilege and power based on wealth. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was undoubtedly the strongest weapon in society’s arsenal to move the country in a more egalitarian and democratic direction.

Of course, judicial usurpation of power properly vested in the people’s democratically elected representatives is nothing new. It began, after all, with Marbury v. Madison. But given the explicit language of the 15th Amendment empowering Congress to legislate the enforcement of the right to vote, the Supreme Court’s arrogant substitution of its judgment for that of Congress is truly monumental!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hannah Arendt

I woke up this morning and realized that I didn't have to drive anywhere today. And that I won't have to drive anywhere at all tomorrow either - or the next day - or any day - for the next 10 days.  To me, that's almost an earthly analogue to paradise!

Well, probably paradise may be too strong a term. What it really is, of course, is urban living. The  joys and satisfactions of urban living are manifold - among them, being able to walk places, high quality public transit, lots of places to walk or transit to, and always lots of people on the street. And also "arty" movies - like Margerethe von Trotta's latest film Hannah Arendt, which I saw this afternoon downtown at the Quad Theater. 

Hannah Arendt (1906-1976) was one of those brilliant German-Jewish "Weimar" intellectuals who made such a dramatic impact in American intellectual life. The film does a great job of portraying the academic and social environment in which Arendt and her colleagues worked and lived and conveys a sense of what it meant in that time and place to make "thinking" one's vocation. (Some of my own best professors as an undergrad at City College were emigre European intellectuals; one of the best was a wonderful old German-Jewish "Weimar" Marxist.) 

Arendt's most influential work , addressing one of the central political and moral concerns of her era, was The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). This film, however, takes place (apart from a few flashbacks to her relationship with Martin Heidegger) a decade later and centers around Arendt's response to the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, which she attended and analyzed in a series of articles in The New Yorker, and which were then published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). I myself can remember Eichmann's trial. I was in 8th grade at the time. Needless to say, however, it wasn't till over a decade later when I was a grad student that I actually read Arendt's books (and took note of the controversy she caused).

Arendt's main point was to identify the "banality" of Eichmann's actions - indeed of Eichmann the man, a miserable mediocrity who, far from being some satanic ideologue, seemed to be someone who didn't really engage in thinking at all. Evil committed "without motive or conviction, without a wicked heart or demonic words" was, of course, still evil, but was what she called "banal." She was severely criticized for this claim, for supposedly analyzing the issue solely as a philosopher. She defended herself by saying that anyone "trying to put pen to paper on this subject" had a responsibility to understand and that understanding is not the equivalent of forgiveness. 

Her commitment to analysis was complicated further by the facts the trial had brought out about the activities of some local European Jewish leaders. In her intellectualism, she here mainly saw herself as reporting the facts in all their complexity and ambivalence. But it was a super-sensitive subject, and she was attacked as honest analysts of social problems sometimes are for "blaming the victim." (She probably could have moderated her intellectualism a bit and maybe should have been shown more sensitivity to the rawness of her readers' emotions). In a sense, her experience anticipated our contemporary discomfort with the notion of facts, whenever they challenge our feelings.

The issues Arendt raised about the nature of evil, of personal responsibility, and of the moral collapse of a culture which abandons thinking remain central to any serious consideration of contemporary moral and political life. With the wisdom of her European generation now passed from the scene, how well equipped are we today to consider these issues?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Having What Matters

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” So wrote the famous Yale Divinity School Professor, H. Richard Niebuhr, some 76 years ago, summarizing the easygoing comfortable kind of Christianity that even then seemed more and more to characterize our contemporary culture. But it’s a tendency to which Jesus’ disciples were themselves already susceptible, as today’s Gospel [Luke 9:18-24] illustrates.

Jesus began, unthreateningly enough, by asking, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” That’s a question a pollster could ask and a social scientist could answer. It requires no personal commitment from the respondent, just honest observation. Except that the disciples were hardly disinterested observers! They were already committed – sort of.

So Jesus asked them the key question: “But who do you say that I am?”

We, of course, with hindsight’s perfect vision, already know the answer. So we expect Jesus to applaud Peter when he says what seems so obvious to us. But instead Jesus rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. What’s that about?

We, again with hindsight’s perfect vision, already know the whole story. We understand – or at least think we understand – when Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Peter and the others didn’t understand. Why would they? They hadn’t lived through that part of the story yet. And nothing in their background had prepared them for the idea of a suffering messiah. Given our modern fondness for a friendly, affirming Jesus, a suffering Savior seems not much more attractive today than it was then.

If, however, the cross was a non-negotiable for Jesus, what about those who purport to follow him, who claim to have clothed ourselves with Christ [Galatians 3:26-29], who have made following him the highest priority, outranking all other identities? Jesus insists that only his passion, death, and resurrection really reveal who he is. So he defines his followers in terms of how fully they identify their experience with his. “If anyone wishes to follow me,” Jesus insists, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Those are strong, stark, challenging words, which we ignore only at our peril.

In our psychologized society, Jesus’ words will certainly sound harsh, demanding, exclusive; and following him has to seem dangerous. In a world in which we not only want to have it all but increasingly expect it as a matter of “right,” Jesus makes it clear that following him means not having it all but having what matters instead.

Homily for the 12th Sunday in ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 23, 2013.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Pernicious Effects of Wealth

"Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality" is the title of a PBS Newshour report tonight  on University of California study that addresses the question of whether and how the amount of wealth one has affects the kind of person one is. The supposedly surprising conclusion (although I can't imagine why anyone would be surprised) is that it does - and negatively. According to the report (which one can watch for oneself at drivers of luxury cars. for example, were more likely to ignore crosswalks. Likewise in the experiments being reported, the better off were twice as likely to help themselves twice as much to candy supposedly intended for kids, more likely to cheat in games of chance, etc. 

Again, I don't know why anyone should be particularly surprised. The "generosity is for suckers/greed is good" mentality generally resonates more with those who have than with those who have not. Entitlement is indeed a perniciously powerful emotion. The study suggests what our politics and culture confirm all the time, namely that rich people tend to ascribe their advantages to themselves and their own merit and tend to ignore the social factors which contributed to their success. (Does anyone recall the ridiculous "We built it" sloganeering from last year's political campaign?)

All of which reminds me of my favorite Adam Smith quote: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, Part I, Chapter iii).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer Solstice

The Summer Solstice is that magic moment when the sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North Pole, i.e., when the tilt of the earth’s axis is most inclined toward the sun in the northern hemisphere. It occurs during the night tonight, i.e., tomorrow morning, at 1:04 a.m. EDT. So tomorrow will be the longest day of the year, i.e., the 24-hour period with the longest period of daylight. (Above the Arctic Circle, of course, it will be uninterrupted daylight all day).
The traditional folkloric celebrations that surround the solstice – still very much a part of life in many places – are obviously pre-Christian in origin. Hence their popular appeal among modern neo-pagans (for example, at Stonehenge and elsewhere). But, just as Christmas was assigned its place in the Christian calendar to correspond to the Winter Solstice, the Summer Solstice (which in Roman times occurred on June 24) was long ago Christianized as St. John’s Day – The Nativity of John the Baptist, who, according to Luke 1, was born about six months before Jesus. (Thus, it was in connection with the Celebration of St. John’s Day that northern European "Midsummer’s Eve" customs such as bonfires made their way even into the popular culture of the Catholic southern hemisphere). 

The Church still celebrates St. John the Baptist on June 24. The connection with the Solstice survives, for example, in St. Augustine’s use of the Fourth Gospel’s reference to John the Baptist as a burning and shining lamp [John 5:35], so that (according to Augustine) “to a world held in the night of ignorance he might show forth the light of salvation, and amid the thickest darkness of sin might by his ray point out the most resplendent Sun of Justice” [Sermon 20 on the Saints].
There is, of course, another side to the Summer Solstice. Soon, the length of daylight will start to decrease again, just as after the Winter Solstice the length of daylight soon starts to increase. In my experience, you can begin to notice the slight  but certain change by around July 4. While the summer heat lasts - and lasts and lasts - much longer, the annual seasonal change is assured.

It was that familiar aspect of the Winter Solstice as the shortest day of the year after which the days immediately start to increase again that suggested it to the Romans as a holiday to celebrate "the Birth of the Unconquered Son," and that same imagery likely contributed to that date's transformation into Christmas. Unlike our more technological mentality, pre-modern sensibility more easily recognized and related to such imagery - linking the parallel seasonal celebrations of the two births of John and Jesus with their two complementary missions. And so somewhere in one of his sermons St. Augustine also made the connection between the days becoming shorter after John's birth and longer after Christmas with John's famous words about himself and Jesus and their respective missions, He must increase, but I must decrease [John 3:30].

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Cum Beato Joseph

Somewhere in his famous day-by-day account of Vatican II, Xavier Rynne recounts one bishop's somewhat impassioned appeal for Saint Joseph's name to be inserted into the Canon of the Mass. That bishop was not alone in this desire. That same fall my high school religion teacher had suggested that St. Joseph's inclusion in the Canon might be one outcome of the Council. In the year before the Council, a petition had been circulated (signed by some 100,000 people in the US alone) requesting St. Joseph's inclusion in four of the five prayers in the Missal which mentioned specific saints - the Confiteor in the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the Suscipe Santa Trinitas at the Offertory, the Communicantes in the Canon, and Libera Nos, Domine  after the Our Father. It was, nonetheless, something of a surprise when, at the Council's 18th General Session on November 13, 1962, it was announced that Pope John XXIII had ordered St. Joseph's name to be included in the Communicantes, effective that coming December 8. The change altered that liturgical list of apostles and early Roman martyrs for the first time since about the 6th century.
Since then, the Roman Rite as a whole and the venerable Roman Canon itself have undergone changes unimaginable in 1962. But Pope John's devotional addition of the name of the patron of the Universal Church has remained in Eucharistic Prayer I (as the Roman Canon is now called). Not too many years after its addition, however, as part of the post-conciliar liturgical reformation, Pope Paul VI added alternative Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV, none of which specifically included St. Joseph. In my experience, apart from certain special days and certain special occasions, most people rarely hear Eucharistic Prayer I. So, in spite of Blessed John XXIII's historic intervention, St. Joseph rarely gets much mentioned in most people's ordinary experience of Mass.
All that is now about to change. Fifty years later, petitions were again received in Rome on the subject of St. Joseph. According to a May 1 Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship, beato Joseph, eius sponso is now to be added immediately after the reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV.
Obviously, this change adds nothing to St. Joseph's heavenly stature, but it is a salutary reminder of his quiet but significant supporting role in salvation history and of his present position as patron of the Universal Church. According to the Congregation's Decree, St. Joseph "stands as an exemplary model of the kindness and humility that the Christian faith raises to a great destiny, and demonstrates the ordinary and simple virtues necessary for me to be good and genuine followers of Christ." Kindness and humility seem to be in particularly short supply  in post-modern societies, which seem systematically to devalue ordinary and simple virtues. Both those who recite and those who hear the Eucharistic Prayer are hardly immune to cultural contagion, and presumably we will all benefit from being reminded of the unassuming qualities of substance, dedication, and integrity St. Joseph models for the world - qualities which in 1863, during the tragic experience of the American Civil War,  caused Isaac Hecker to call St. Joseph "The Saint of Our Day."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To War or Not to War

Part of being a "Great Power" (a fortiori, a "Superpower") is a certain global responsibility to use one's power judiciously to maintain a stable balance of power in the world. I have never had any sympathy with isolationism, which I regard as an unrealistic ideology and an irresponsible one.
That said, Syria is a mess. And that indisputable fact, far from clarifying what the US should be doing in that region, really rather obfuscates it - and argues, in my opinion, more powerfully against intervention than for it.
Some 90,000+ people have been killed in consequence of Syria's civil war, while many others have been displaced, to their own detriment and that of the stability of neighboring countries (e.g., Jordan). It is a genuine humanitarian crisis, which naturally invites the question what, if anything, might be done about it. It is also a serious political crisis threatening to destabilize the region even further. The Syrian regime is supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah - three good reasons not to want it to remain. The alternatives, however, are ambiguous at best. The defeat of Assad would likely lead to a further civil war between competing revolutionary factions, and the likely result could well be worse for the world than what is there now.
So I think this certainly seems to be one of those times when prudence should cause one to be very wary of intervention. At minimum, any argument for intervention should be required to spell out the exact aims to be achieved and where that fits into a larger international strategy and by what military means it can realistically be hoped to achieve those aims.
At the moment Asad seems to be gaining (with outside help, of course). Those who think that the US has some vital national interest in ending the Asad regime have reason to be worried whether the prospect of such an outcome is decreasing. But others also have reason to be worried - worried that we don't have a clear and coherent picture of what  alternative we might be able to achieve and how we might actually get to it, worried further that we may end up in the long run only arming our enemies. 
Obviously, were we able to wave a magic wand and stop the carnage, we should surely do so. In contrast to waving a magic wand, however, our options are much more traditional - military intervention (more or less, directly or indirectly) on one side or other. 
But which of several sides, and how much help, how deep and long our involvement, and for what hoped-for final outcome? 

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Borgias

To reach the Roman church of  S. Pietro in Vincoli from Via Cavour during my Roman sojourn, I climbed a stone stairway, officially called Via S. Francesco di Paola. But that stairway is also known as Salita dei Borgia, because it passes under an archway which was part of the house of Vannozza Cattanei, mistress of Pope Alexander VI and mother of Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Gioffre Borgia. Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia (referred to by his Spanish name, Juan, in the TV series), may well have been murdered there in 1497, possibly by either one of his two brothers. 
That the just concluded Showtime series The Borgias unambiguously portrays Cesare Borgia as his brother's killer is just one of the liberties that series may have taken with history. For example, the SHO series portrays Cesare Borgia as killing three Sforzas - Giovanni (Lucrezia's first husband), Ludovico (Duke of Milan), and Benito (Catarina Sforza's son). In fact, all three outlived Cesare. Savanarola was executed in Florence, not Rome. Nor was the real Michelleto illiterate. Cesare likely did kill Lucrezia's second husband, Alfonso of Aragon, but most likely for political not personal reasons (after which, the historical Lucrezia went on to a happier and more successful third marriage).
Of course, The Borgias is hardly the first historical drama to be historically challengeable, none of which necessarily detracts from its dramatic artistry. And the series certainly does an effective job of dramatizing the milieu of Renaissance Italy - its politics, diplomacy, warfare, and court life - opening a window onto a world we assume to be so very different from our own. In the process, however, it may narrow our ability to understand and appreciate the real historical Borgias and their actual world.
Thus, presumably to highlight Cesare and make him more sympathetic to the TV audience, the older Borgia brother (the Duke of Gandia) is portrayed the most malevolently. In fact, however, he did not kill the Ottoman Prince Cem, for example. And, whatever his faults, his daughter became a nun and his grandson a Jesuit and a saint - Saint Francis Borgia. (Juan still has descendants with the Borgia name in South America, one of whom became President of Ecuador!)
Nor does the series do full justice to the complex pontificate of Alexander VI, although all the Borgias, Alexander among them, do tend to be portrayed less uni-dimensionally and with more nuance than Juan. Historically, Alexander seems to have been an effective administrator and reasonably successful politically in his Italian renaissance context, something that does actually come across in the series, despite the emphatic overlay of scandal that seems everywhere to surround him.
Apparently, Cesare Borgia was thought of as an irreligious man even in his own time, which is certainly saying something. So it is not necessarily anachronistic for the TV series to portray him that way. But the complex emotional relationship depicted between Cesare and his father may in the end be beyond our ability to access with any accuracy. It may make sense for our psychologized culture to project onto father and son such intense sentiments as were expressed in the dramatic confrontation between them in the next-to-last episode. But we really cannot access their feelings, nor would they have shared our modern psychologized vocabulary in which to express them.
That, of course, is always a problem with any modern historical drama. We today are much more interested in the feelings and emotional lives of historical characters than their contemporaries probably were, and we have invented a complex vocabulary to talk about such things, a vocabulary that they and their contemporaries lacked. Similarly, a secularizing society such as ours, even when it admits the factual omnipresence of religion in previous periods of history, will increasingly find it hard to comprehend the complex way in which religious belief and religious feeling were interwoven into all aspects of ordinary life.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lavish Love

As is sadly so often the case, today’s reading about King David [2 Samuel 12:7-13] is such a small excerpt from a larger episode that someone unfamiliar with the whole story might have some trouble figuring out exactly what’s going on. Even so, it is clear that David has committed a serious sin, but that God forgives him. David does actually get punished for his sin, but God’s commitment to the royal family of David is decisive. So he was forgiven and kept his special place in God’s plan.

The situation is completely different in the Gospel, however, where we meet another sinner, but a non-royal, not at all important, anonymous one [Luke 7:36 – 8:3]. I stress her anonymity, because this story has historically been the basis for a famous case of mistaken identity – identifying the sinful woman in this story with Mary Magdalene. The confusion may have been caused originally by the fact that Mary Magdalene does get mentioned at the end of the story – not, however, as the sinful woman but rather as one of the wealthy women, whom Jesus had healed and who accompanied Jesus, and helped pay the bills. (Mary Magdalene and her friends remind us that, from the start, the Church’s mission has always depended on collaborators able and willing to provide material support; but Mary Magdalene herself has nothing to do with the sinful woman earlier in the story).

Another common misunderstanding, which this story can help correct, concerns Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were pious laymen, committed to living as religiously as possible, devoted to observing faithfully all the commandments of the law, but living in the world (not going off to the desert as some other groups did, for example). The Pharisees also had certain distinctive beliefs that separated them from the more conservative, priestly aristocracy, known as the Sadducees. Jesus shared many of the Pharisees’ beliefs – for example, belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead. After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees would emerge as the leaders in post-Temple Judaism, setting the stage for the next 2000 years of Jewish life. Their only real rivals would be the one other group to emerge from 1st-century Judaism – the Christians.

Reflecting the later 1st-century quarrel between Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah and those who did not, the New Testament highlights the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. Still, stories such as this, in which a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, remind us that the actual relationship was not always hostile in every respect.

Needless to say, this was not coffee at Starbucks. It was a real meal in a home, the kind of social and religious fellowship one did not normally share with just anyone.

Shortly before, Jesus had been acclaimed (as we heard last week) as a great prophet. Prophecy had by then officially ceased in Israel and was not expected to reappear until the coming of God’s kingdom. Hence the excitement generated first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus himself. Was Jesus really a prophet? Was he the prophet they were expecting? And how would one know for sure?

This accounts for the Pharisee’s reaction. If Jesus were really a prophet, the Pharisee figured, he would know who and what sort of woman was touching him! He probably wasn’t alone in wondering. Formal dinners were public events. The woman’s presence in the crowd watching the festivities was no big thing, but weeping and bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing and anointing them, that was not normally accepted behavior. If she didn’t have a reputation already, such behavior certainly assured her one!

Simon the Pharisee kept his reaction to himself. But we know his thoughts. And we know who Jesus really is! And Jesus does know who and what sort of woman is touching him even better than the Pharisee does. Hence his little parable about the two debtors – suggesting that if only Simon understood his own need for forgiveness, then he too might respond to Jesus just as the woman did.

The point, of course, is that we all need forgiveness. The anonymous woman appreciated what Jesus had to offer – nothing less than the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. The Pharisee had taken an important first step in inviting Jesus to dinner, but that was as far as he was ready to go. Like David before him, he could recognize others’ sinfulness but seemed clueless about his own.

When we hear this story, knowing already who Jesus is, we recognize the insufficiency of the Pharisee’s hospitality – because, from God’s perspective, everyone is like the debtors in the parable. Everyone is totally unable to repay. Everyone needs to be forgiven by God, who is willing to write off our debts, reconciling us to himself through Jesus his Son. So everyone should really respond to Jesus as exuberantly and lavishly as the sinful woman in the story.

The story ends with Jesus on the move again, journeying from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. What was that already but the Church in miniature? What was that but what the Church was then and what it must likewise be now – a community of forgiven sinners, reconciled to God and to one another, recognizing what Jesus had to offer and embracing him in a life lived in love, caring for one another and the world in a life lived in love!
Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 15, 2013.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel

I went to see the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, earlier today. I generally avoid action movies and have little feel for science fiction. But, having grown up with Superman comics and the George Reeves' 1950s Superman TV series, I find each new iteration of the Superman story almost irresistible. 
As I posted earlier this afternoon on Facebook, the movie has more mayhem and special effects silliness than anyone should need, but I thought it was worth it in spite of that. That's partly because - special effects silliness aside - the timeless story still soars, as of course does the star, Henry Cavill (formerly the Duke of Suffolk in Showtime's series, The Tudors). Thus, critic Kenneth Turan claims that Cavill is “a superb choice for someone who needs to convincingly convey innate modesty, occasional confusion and eventual strength.” I would agree, and add that Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are excellent as Superman/Clark's kryptonian and human father respectively - the two figures who together formed him into the unique being he is.
What makes the Superman myth so special is how it highlights what one could call its "incarnational" theme - the alien who becomes human and who, while remaining kryptonian, identifies himself fully with the human race for the salvation of the human race. The analogy is not perfect, of course. No analogy ever is. But the parallel has been made many times. And it does resonate enough to be immediately recognizable. 
Indeed, one of the problems with the inevitable overdoing of the special effects silliness is how it distracts from Superman's assumption of humanity, how his identification with humanity determines his decisions - as does his heroic (but admittedly still human) morality. One of the most poignant lines in the movies is when one of the kryptonian villains tells Kal-El/Clark that the fact that he has morality will be his undoing, that the kyrptonians have evolved beyond morality, and that evolution always wins. The movie's outcome poses the possibility - and the hope - that that may be wrong.
Of course, evolution did win on Krypton, which was why the planet destroyed itself - because its culture had destroyed itself morally. It's not that Kal-El somehow rose above a decadent kryptonian culture, but rather that he escaped being formed by it and instead was formed in a non-decadent human culture (a traditional farming family in Kansas) which still had serious moral values. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

O Sant' Antonio

Today's feast of the "Evangelical Doctor," Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), one of the Church's most popular saints, reminds me of my first assignment - as associate pastor at St. Peter's parish, Toronto, in the late 1990s. One of the annual highlights of parish life was the St. Anthony Festival, in which for six years I had the great privilege of carrying the saint's relic in the procession through the neighborhood. What a wonderful parish community I experienced there! Anthony being my middle name, that also makes Saint Anthony one of my patrons. O Saint' Antonio, prega per me!

My grandmother was very devoted to Saint Anthony, to whom she had prayed for the safe return of one of her sons who was serving in the war against Japan. She had a high opinion of his intercession - and was of the opinion that he ranked very high in the heavenly court. Like St. Francis before him - and Padre Pio after - Anthony is indeed very popular. I'm sure the Franciscan habit helps!

It was the Franciscans who gave him the name Anthony when he joined the order in 1220 filled with missionary zeal to imitate the Franciscan martyrs of Morocco. He had been born Ferdinand and had initially pursued a more conventional vocation as a Canon Regular of Saint Augustine in his home city of Lisbon, Portugal. Anthony never got to Morocco. Instead sickness and shipwreck landed him in Italy, where he exercised a fruitful, productive ministry for the rest of his life - hence, the popular identification of Anthony with Italy and Italians' great devotion to him. He was a zealous missionary preacher - and, as anyone who wants to preach should aspire to be, also a very learned one. He was the first Franciscan professor of scripture, and was referred to as "the Living Ark of the Testament" by Pope Gregory IX.

After his death in Padua  on June 13, 1231, he was quickly canonized in less than a year. When his tomb was opened some 30+ years later, his tongue 9with which he had preached so eloquently and effectively) was found to be incorrupt. On that occasion, Saint Bonaventure, held the precious relic in his hands and exclaimed "O blessed tongue, that always blessed the Lord and made others bless and praise him, it is now manifest what great merits you possess in the sight of God!"

Preaching is not the only way God's kingdom advances in this world. As Saint Anthony himself said (in a sermon!): "The man who is filled with the Holy Spirit speaks in different languages. These different languages are different ways of witnessing to Christ, such as humility, poverty, patience, and obedience; we speak in those languages when we reveal in ourselves these virtues to others. actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak."

And, as Anthony's own life of heroic sanctity eloquently witnesses, preaching - aimed at true conversion - has its important part to play in evangelization. Historically, it has been understood as a constituent element of the Paulist charism.  Anthony's example of learning and eloquence combined with zeal for souls remains a model to be emulated, as he himself occupies his present prominent place in the Mystical Body as intercessor and miracle-worker.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Titanic in Tennessee

My friend and fellow Paulist Ivan Tou (presently a pastor in Minneapolis, Minnesota) is in Knoxville this week. So yesterday the two of us  went to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge.  Now what's East Tennessee doing with a Titanic Museum? Good question! This isn't exactly Belfast or Southampton or Cherbourg or Queenstown or New York or Newfoundland - all places with some tangible connection with the Titanic itself, either with its construction or its tragic voyage. And the Titanic clearly wasn't cruising too fast on the Tennessee River that calm, moonless night when it hit an iceberg. Yet here she is! (Or at least a facsimile of half of her!)
For all sorts of reasons, the Titanic's sinking became a quasi-universal tragedy. So perhaps it's presence in Pigeon Forge is not so odd, after all, speaking as it does to the universal interest and emotional responses that the Titanic evokes over a century after her sinking. And in fact it really is a great museum - filled with lots of information about the experience of being on that ill-fated ship and stories about the actual people who had that experience, only one-third of whom survived it. 
The exhibit includes photos taken by the Irish Jesuit Fr. Brown, who sailed on the Titanic from Southampton to Queenstown and took a series of pictures - the only photos we have that were ever taken during the actual voyage (photos found years later in the Jesuit house in Dublin). This summer, the museum also features for the first time in the United States the actual violin that was used by Wallace Hartley on the deck that night. The violin had originally been given him by his fiance, and it is the violin on which Hartley famously played the hymn Nearer My God To Thee, the last music ever heard on the Titanic.
When you enter the museum, you get a "Boarding Pass," with the name and some biographical information about a passenger. I got James Hyland, a 19-year of member of the crew (one of 431 in the crew), whose pencil sketch of the ship is included among the exhibits.  At the end, you pass through the Memorial Room, where you can look up the name and learn his or her fate. My guy survived - and died at age 81! 
The Titanic's tragic end occurred on Low Sunday night. The following Sunday, April 21, 1912, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) preached about the Titanic: "I believe that, just as we may not approach events such as this one out of curiosity and a thirst for sensation, nor may we disregard them in silence and indifference, however much daily newspaper reports might cause us to do so. Rather they should speak to us. For through them God addresses us with a power and urgency that we only rarely perceive concerning the greatness and nothingness of human beings who are so like God, and yet so unlike him, concerning the wrath and the mercy of the eternal God who reigns in us and over our destinies, sometimes close at hand and tangibly, but sometimes infinitely far away and mysteriously. (Tr. Christopher Asprey, in The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, ed. Karl I. Johnson, 2007)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Summer of '63

Fifty years ago today, Governor George Wallace famously stood "in the schoolhouse door" to block the integration of the University of Alabama. It was the summer of Civil Rights, the beginning of a much more violent time in American life than post-war Americans had become used to, and also an important transitional season in the struggle for racial equality. The summer ended with the March on Washington and led eventually to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts under the effective leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. 
And 1963 was also the year of Buddhist protests in South Vietnam against the American's client, the Catholic President Diem, which culminated in a November 1 coup and led rather inexorably to a pattern of escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam.
The Civil Rights revolution dramatically transformed American society largely for the better. - so much so that it is hard to convey to those not then alive how different things are now. In the process, however, it created a template that claimant group after claimant group has invoked to pursue its own aspirations, regardless of how similar or not its grievances are. One result has been a vastly more open, more tolerant society, which younger people now more or less just take for granted as the obvious state of affairs. That undeniable benefit has been balanced, however, by the elevation of identity politics and a pervasive culture of grievance and victimization. The accompanying "political correctness" had created  its own intellectually "closed" society, which is the problematic underside of our much more open one. Meanwhile, politically, Barry Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act presaged a pattern of political realignment culminating in today's radically polarized political culture of "red states" and "blue states."
Along with the Civil Rights revolution, the Vietnam War was the other major contributor to replacing the world of 1963 with what we have today. Unlike the Civil Rights revolution, Vietnam's legacy was almost entirely negative. A long and destructive war which destroyed far too many lives was lost in the end. Meanwhile it set in motion an ambivalence and uncertainty about America's global role and the use of its military power that remains with us.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Surveillance Society

In yesterday's New York Times, Ross Douthat ("Your Smartphone Is Watching You") argued that  Americans "understand the essential nature of life on the Internet pretty well. The motto 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' — or, alternatively, 'abandon all privacy, ye who enter here' — might as well be stamped on every smartphone and emblazoned on every social media log-in page. As the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote recently, it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet, in effect, is a surveillance state." 
Douthat is legitimately concerned about the effects of this - an atmosphere in which. "radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate." But he also recognizes that "genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught," and he accordingly concludes that many will find this "privacy-for-security swap" to be reasonable, "especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely" (certainly something most of us are obviously ill-disposed to do).
For all the noise about infringements to our "privacy," the fact is that my phone records are not my private records but the business records of a commercial entity. My credit card companies keep track of my purchases. So does Amazon and any other company that has my credit card number on file. When we debate (as we rightly ought to) the implications of the growing surveillance state, we have to start with the realistic recognition that ours is already a surveillance society - something which is an inevitable by-product of the technologies our society has created and most of us have largely embraced. 
Of course, the State has police power. So allowing the State access to all sorts of "private" information is not exactly the same as banks and other commercial entities having such access. Still, it is this surveillance society that makes the surveillance state possible - and much more acceptable to people.
Add to that the concern - both legitimate and exaggerated - for personal and national security. It's probably true that we crave more security from life's misfortunes than we can realistically attain. An ongoing New York Times discussion "Risk and Legal Fear in Schools" addresses the increasing contemporary obsession with creating a perfectly secure environment, something which is probably impossible and probably would be somewhat unhealthy were it actually achievable. The fact is that life is risky, and no matter how hard we try to be totally safe bad things do sometimes happen. The absurd effort to hype last September's tragedy in Benghazi into some sort of scandal presumes a context that suggests that somehow governments can be expected to guarantee total security from any bad things happening anywhere anytime. 
On the other hand, government's principal responsibility is national defense and security. Striking the balance between a robust pursuit of our national defense and domestic security in this time of terrorism and unrealistic expectations of total safety is a preeminently political discernment (an adult activity our current political culture is ill equipped to undertake, but which must be faced).
I don't know the answers to  all these questions. If ever deliberation and debate were called for, this would be an instance. It doesn't help, however, when, on the one hand, every example of something bad happening is treated as a failure to be corrected by increased limits on liberty, or, on the other hand, our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties are automatically invoked in ways which do not respect citizens' legitimate fears and legitimate desire for some reasonable level of security.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Two Widows

When St. Paul wanted to make his case to the Christian community in Galatia, he felt the need to introduce himself, to talk about his background, and to make the case for his authority in terms of how he came to be an apostle [Galatians 1:11-19]. The same was true with many of the Old Testament prophets – but not with the prophet Elijah. One of the most famous and important prophets in all of Israel’s history, Elijah just appeared on the scene so to speak, with not much introduction, to reprimand the wicked King Ahab. His arrival coincided with a severe drought, which led him to seek the hospitality of a certain poor widow. Then, after a year during which Elijah’s presence had been a blessing for the widow and her only son, suddenly the son got sick and died [1 Kings 17:17-24]. Not much repayment for her hospitality!

Nowadays it is divorce, which is more often the ticket to poverty for women and children. In the ancient world, being left a widow without a man to provide for her often led to poverty and destitution – as it often still did in our own society before Social Security and Medicare. So no wonder the widow was angry at Elijah and Elijah’s God! But, instead of reacting defensively when challenged by the widow’s grief and anger, Elijah seemed to take her side. He called out to the Lord, “will you afflict event he widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” And the Lord heard his prayer, and Elijah was able to return the boy alive to his mother.

Elijah is remembered for many things. One of them is this story of his compassion for this widow. Jesus mentioned it in his hometown synagogue in one of the early episodes of his public life [Luke 4:26].Unlike the story of Elijah and the widow, we don’t know what in particular may have brought Jesus to a city called Nain [Luke 9:11b-17],where, lo and behold, he was greeted at the city gate by another grieving widow, mourning her only son (to borrow St. Augustine’s famous phrase, misery meeting up with mercy). Jesus had no prior connection with her, had not received her hospitality, didn’t owe her anything so to speak. But that didn’t block his compassion. It was that compassion, in fact, which created a connection. Moved with pity for her, he touched the coffin, and said, “Young man, I tell you arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Both these events were revelations of God. In Elijah’s case, the widow declared: “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.” At Nain, the crowd exclaimed “A great prophet has arisen in our midst”and “God has visited his people.” These incredibly miraculous events identified Elijah and Jesus as true prophets, great prophets, who embodied God’s word, and revealed God’s power. But more than power, they revealed God’s presence. “God has visited his people”!

In those otherwise unimportant places, God visited his people – unimportant people, poor people, widows with no source of support, sons whose lives were being cut short way ahead of time. God didn’t just visit. He connected. Elijah and Jesus connected directly by touching the dead, which, of course, risked ritual impurity from contact with a dead body. Elijah and Jesus didn’t just speak God’s word, they acted it out, by touching, by becoming one with the dead, and thus bonding with all grieving and suffering people there and everywhere.

Both Elijah in anticipation and Jesus in fulfillment were revealing the kingdom of God – not just talking about it as an abstract theory, but making it happen in our lives by bonding with us. And, like the widow’s son, our only response to the surge of new life within us must be to get up and speak. Like the grieving widows and the people in the crowd, we too must recognize God’s word at work in our world, God visiting his people.

And not just visiting, but staying with us – in his Church! Our human lives are created by the power of God, but they are maintained and sustained by his incredible compassion. We are witnesses as well as beneficiaries of that compassion and are called upon to continue to express it and share it in our lives together as a Church, embodying God’s new kingdom in our world.
Homily for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 9, 2013.