Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Rich Man's End

More on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31): 
We hear this same parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest as he reads Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple - when he himself is, of course, conspicuously dressed in purple.
Other than his wardrobe, we know little about the rich man – just that he was rich (which was why he could afford expensive purple clothes) and lived in his own wealth-constructed world that psychologically separated him from the beggar Lazarus. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption the prophet Amos harangued against. Or, as I wrote yesterday, he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society. Disconnected and indifferent, he seems very modern. His wealth-constructed selfish world resembles the way so many live today.

But then the man died. In fact they both died, as indeed we all will. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment – says the Letter to the Hebrews. This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed between himself and Lazarus in life is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.

The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers. Something of that sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There, the rich man himself (the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham replies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – Jesus, the teller of the parable. Knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.

So, are we listening?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Carol and a Parable

Christmas is still almost three months away. But one Christmas carol is especially appropriate today, when the Church calendar commemorates "Good King Wenceslaus." Historically, the martyr Wenceslaus (907-929) was actually the Duke of Bohemia, not quite a king, but a real ruler nonetheless - a good Catholic ruler, killed by his pagan brother. But it is not his martyrdom that the carol extols but his commitment to care for the poor. The carol tells the familiar tale of how Wenceslas and his page braved the harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the day after Christmas ("the Feast of Stephen'). Along the way, the page finds the trek too difficult and wants to give up, but the saint encourages him to follow in his holy footprints in the snow. Lest the lesson be lost, the carol concludes:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
By convenient coincidence, Saint Wenceslaus' feast falls this year on the same weekend when the parable of the rich man and Lazarus  (Luke 16:19-31) is proclaimed. The rich man in the parable is the anti-Wenceslaus. He is traditionally known as “Dives” – the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable: Homo quidam erat dives, "There was a certain rich man." But in fact he is unnamed in the story. In the “real” world, of course, it’s typically the rich whose names we remember. The carol observes that social convention. Neither the poor man nor the page is named in the carol. In the parable, however, it is the beggar, Lazarus, whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man functions as a kind of “everyman” figure. He could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society.

In Wenceslaus' world, as in any pre-modern society, including that of Jesus, there would have been plenty of poor people. The people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood his parable. They could picture it perfectly. Beggars were everywhere, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus - like Wenceslaus' world and that of the poor man - coexisted, so to speak, side-by-side. The parable suggests something more, however. It suggests that for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate.

Within his own separate, wealth-constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was particularly wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that his wealth was obtained dishonestly or anything of that sort. His only - but decisive - failing was his having constructed a private, disconnected world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus – and his consequent failure to bridge the great chasm thus created between himself and Lazarus. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his wealth-constructed private world resembles the way so many people live today.
Wenceslaus, however, overcame that separation. He bridged the destructive chasm wealth creates between human beings. 
Flash forward to the sorry spectacle of the U.S. Congress, where the very functioning of the government and the full faith and credit of the United States are being held hostage by a bizarre political movement that seems motivated  mainly by an unceasing anxiety that the rich may not have enough money and the rest of us may get too much health care!

What would Wenceslaus say? What would Jesus do?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Challenge of Authentic Reform

In September 1964, during the Vatican Council's third session, Thomas Merton, like so many others at that time, was considering proposed changes in liturgical observances - for example, "concelebration, should priests say private masses or go to communion at High Mass?" Looking at the bigger picture, however, Merton made this prescient observation: "Looking through the Usages for things that might be dropped as 'artificial' - noticed with alarm that they are all built into the very structure of the life. To take away these observances would be in fact to take away what practically constitutes the 'Trappist Life' for many monks! This is very serious. It seems that there is no real 'adaptation' possible??"

Merton was on to something - as anyone who lived though the "changes" (as they are sometimes still called by veterans from my generation) that the Church put itself through in the 1960s and after, changes that in some respects still divide the community. Nor, needless to say, does his observation apply only to the religious changes of the 60s. Secular society went through the same thing - with even more radical consequences and lasting divisiveness. It is a lesson everyone who had ever studied the history of the French Revolution should have been ready for. But, then as now, the wishful thinking that mere "adaptation" is possible without heading down the road to either substantive reform or radical revolution (or both) is perennially seductive.

The fact is that human beings (and a fortiori human societies and institutions) require and depend upon stable and habitual behaviors. So changes, even truly necessary and benevolent ones, are challenging and difficult at best, disruptive and destructive at worst. Small "adaptations" without deeper consequences are certainly possible - but only in truly small, inconsequential matters. When it comes to important matters, the consequences of destabilizing are always serious and can be catastrophic. Enlightenment Europe learned that lesson as it watched the French Revolution careen uncontrollably from constitutional monarchy to reign of terror to Bonapartist despotism.

Of course, the Church is not the same as secular society.  Yet, insofar as the Church is a human organization, the dynamics of what happens among actual people may be similar when adaptations are unreflectively made and change spirals uncontrollably in a revolutionary rather than reformist direction.

So real reform is never easy and cannot be implemented unreflectively. It requires  what religious language calls discernment. Hence, the importance of paying careful attention to Pope Francis' recent remarks on the subject.

“This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months. Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor. My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing.

“But I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hecker and Francis

In an 1876 essay On the Mission of New Religious Communities, Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) expressed his opinion – pivotal for so much of his later thinking – that the Church of his time was “not in the last days of the world, but in the last days of an epoch which began three centuries ago, and at the opening of a new age.” The era he believed to be ending was “characterized on the side of the Church by the more perfect development of her divine external authority, her government and discipline. The era he believed to be beginning would be “by a necessary law of development, an upward and forward movement, characterized by an increase and a greater display of the internal life and glory of the Church.” Hecker made these observations in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council (1969-1870), which, by definitively settling past disputes about authority in the Church, he believed had met the challenge of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras and thus “prepared the Church for a fresh start.”

Hecker, of course, did not live to see the results of that fresh start – among them, the revival of Thomism, the slow but real rapprochement between the Church and modern society (making peace with modern democratic institutions and challenging them with a renewed conception of social justice), resourcement in theology and renewed attention to history, the liturgical movement, Catholic Action, and the inculturation of Christianity in the non-Western world. Then came Vatican II and the ensuing period of internal turbulence in the Church. (As happens in history, Councils stir things up - or, as Pope Francis might say, “make a mess” - after which it takes time to settle down). For a time, that post-conciliar turbulence turned the Church in on itself. If the Church has been less effective in its outreach to the wider world than it might otherwise have been in this past half-century, this has, to some extent, been because so much of Catholic energy has been sapped by internal battles between factions and groups within the Church. Meanwhile the world has moved on from where it was 50 years ago (both more secular and more religiously divided and conflicted), and the Church’s challenge to focus on its essential mission in relation to the world has correspondingly developed.

Hecker himself certainly appreciated the importance of intra-Church concerns. After all, most of his active ministry was involved in the building up of the Church. Having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of 19th-century American Protestantism, Hecker always appreciated the importance of authority in the Church. But he always understood that the Church exists to evangelize, and he seems to have had little fondness for the distractions of factionalism. One of his Rules for the Guidance of Writers, Lecturers, and Others Engaged in Public Life was “To keep our minds and hearts free from all attachments to schools, parties, or persons in the Church, so that nothing within us may hinder the light and direction of the Holy Spirit.”

As any student of politics would readily recognize, there is nothing surprising in how both ideological extremes, on the right and on the left, inside and outside the Church, have tried to spin Pope Francis’ words and actions (above all his now famous interview). That’s what factions do. But such obsessions distract from what may be a fundamental storyline of this papacy, the Gospel’s challenge to get beyond ourselves and refocus on the re-rooting of God’s kingdom in the problematic soil of post-modernity.

Hecker’s uncompromising commitment to the Church and his equally uncompromising commitment to the Church’s purpose in the world remain as relevant – are even more relevant - in our even more fragmented society, in which the Church is constantly being challenged to embody a more effective communal experience of the Body of Christ (e.g., Francis’s “field hospital”), responding to the world’s deepest needs, both outside and inside the Church.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Managing Civiliational Conflict

In the old (pre-Paul VI) Church calendar, today was the feast of Our Lady of Mercy (also called Our Lady of Ransom). In its origin, it commemorated the apparition – on August 1, 1218 – of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Peter Nolasco (1189-1256), to his confessor Saint Raymond of Penafort (1175-1275), and to King James I (King of Aragon and Count of Bercelona from 1213 to 1276). The vision encouraged them to establish  an Order for the redemption of captives – Christians who had been captured by the Muslim Moors. The order, The Royal, Celestial and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of the Captives, commonly called the Mercedarians would undertake to ransom Christian captives and if necessary its members would offer themselves as a ransom pledge. Another such order is The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives or The Order of the Most Holy Trinity, commonly called the Trinitarians, founded shortly before by St. John of Matha (1169-1218).

It is impossible to over-estimate the human and social dimensions of the ongoing problem those orders were founded to address. Nor did it go away for several centuries. Oxford University Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch in his The Reformation: A History (Viking, 2004, p. 55) has noted how the Muslim threat to Europe persisted until the end of the 17th century. Modern historians “produce reliable estimates that Islamic raiders enslaved around a million western Christian Europeans between 1530 and 1640; this dwarfs the contemporary slave traffic in the other direction, and is about equivalent to the numbers of West Africans taken by Christian Europeans across the Atlantic at the same time.” MacCulloch notes that the Religious devoted to the ransoming of captives “over the centuries honed diplomatic expertise and varied local knowledge to maximize the effectiveness of this specialized work.”

 MacCulloch also asserts that  “the fear this this Islamic aggression engendered in Europe was an essential background to the Reformation, convincing many on both sides that God’s anger was poised to strike down the Christian world, and so making it all the more essential to please God by affirming the right form of Christian belief against other Christians. It is impossible to understand the mood of sixteenth-century Europe without bearing in mind the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire.”

The events of the last dozen or more years – including the tragic events in Kenya this week – are a stark and vivid reminder of how little seems to have changed in the world. Indeed, “the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire” only dissipated during its final centuries. What history suggests is that that relatively brief period beginning with Ottoman decline that lasted until the late 20th century seems to have been the exception to a significantly longer term pattern of civilizational conflict.   What we have been experiencing since 2001 (or maybe since the 1979 Iranian Revolution) is an old story being replayed in modern dress.

Religious orders did not resolve that earlier experience of civilizational conflict. Western military and technological supremacy and corresponding Ottoman weakness and decline did that – if only temporarily. The Religious Orders did, however, make an important contribution to managing the human and social stress of that ongoing and constant conflict. Conflict management is just that – the management of unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable) conflict. Now as then, “diplomatic expertise and varied local knowledge” are of limited utility compared with military power and technological expertise, but now as then they may have a useful role to play in particular places in reducing the temperature of immediate conflicts by relieving some of the severe human and social distress the conflict is causing in especially threatened communities. What such efforts at the prudent and effective diplomatic and humanitarian management of civilizational conflict can perhaps also do is likewise to lower somewhat the temperature of the intense apocalyptic emotion that this particular conflict between civilizations continues to generate on all sides.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Humble Pope for the Middle

In all the torrent of commentary which the Pope's now famous interview has inspired, two in particular strike me as especially noteworthy. In today's Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni has a column called "The Pope's Radical Whisper." Bruni, of course, comes at the papal interview from what might be called an "angry Catholic" and liberal perspective. (The two are by no means synonymous. There are also a bunch of noisy extreme right-wing, angry Catholics too. Neither side seems to have taken seriously Saint Paul's injunction to Timothy in today's 1st reading, to pray "without anger or argument"!)
Thus, like a Tea-Partier perpetually ranting about "Obamacare," Bruni predictably faults the Pope for being insufficiently "progressive" on women's issues. The tendency to read the interview through one's own already established ideological filter also shows up in his praising the Pope for preferring "modest quarters over a monarch's suite." He repeats this commonplace, despite the fact the Francis himself says - in that very interview - that the papal apartment is not "luxurious" and that his main motivation in living at Santa Marta is for community. Besides, Bruni, being a smart political analyst, should surely understand that wherever the Pope lives becomes "a monarch's suite," just as the wherever the President is becomes a "White House."
But that's all beside the point. What is interesting and engaging about Bruni's commentary is not what he says about the Church but how his appreciation of how the Pope's humble attitude applies to our decidedly un-humble contemporary society. Bruni sees the Pope's tone "as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It's our of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of success." He particularly singles out our politics, which "rewards braggarts and bullies, who muscle their way onto center stage with the crazy certainty that they and only they are right, while we in the electorate and the news media lack the fortitude to shut them up or shoo them away." One could hardly have said it better! And I especially like how he spreads the blame around, so that our entire narcissistic, self-referential culture clearly gets its hare of the blame!
Of course, recent popes - Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI among them - have consistently critiqued this contemporary distortion of human values. It is certainly no surprise that our culture - including and especially the news media - have been so unreceptive to these repeated admonishments. So maybe the lesson here is the obvious one. Style matters. Critique must be done lovingly - and must seem to be done lovingly - for it to have any chance of being heard. It is Francis' personal style, his genuineness, his authentic modesty that touches people's hearts and maybe - just maybe - may open some ears to hear his message.
Which brings me to another commentator. On the NCR website this past Friday, John Allen analyzed Pope Francis as "a pope for the Catholic middle." By that, Allen means that what he calls "the liberal wing of the church" will eventually end up being disappointed by the reality that the Pope's "desire to project a more merciful tone" on the sex and gender issues liberals obsess about "isn't the same thing as disagreement" on the substance of Catholic teaching. As for the "Catholic right," it seems evident to Allen that Francis "doesn't intend to use his bully pulpit primarily to fight political battles." What Allen calls "the Catholic middle as the pope's natural constituency" are people who "don't have a chip on their shoulder about authority in the church." That actually says more than it sounds like, since what characterizes both extremes, in my opinion, is simultaneously an authoritarian impulse to remake the world in a certain ideological image combined with a hyper-critical suspicion of existing authorities whenever (which is most of the time) they do not advance their politicized outlook.
Those in Allen's Catholic middle "are people who regard Catholicism fundamentally as a force for good in the world and who long for moderate, accessible and inspirational leadership who can lift up the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it tailored to advance a specific political or theological agenda."
That's a craving for both style and substance. The style sought is "moderate, accessible and inspirational." The substance  is "the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it." So far, Pope Francis seems to excel at both. And therein lies his popular appeal and, may it fervently be hoped, his prospects for actually being heard and eventually being taken seriously by the modern world's multitude of noisemakers.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Converted and Called

On this feast of the Apostle and Evangelist Saint Matthew, I am thinking of the famous Caravaggio paintings of Saint Matthew that I got to admire last year in the beautiful church of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In his now famous Civilta Cattolica interview, Pope Francis reflected on Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew (the painting on the left in the above photo). This was in the context of talking about his episcopal motto, Miseranado atque Eligendo ("By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him"), which he took from a homily by the Venerable Bede (673-735) on the Gospel account of the calling of Saint Matthew.
The Pope says that when he would be in Rome he often visited the French Church of Saint Louis to contemplate Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew. "That finger of Jesus. pointing at Matthew," said the Pope. "That's me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. ... It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, 'No, not me! No, this money is mine.' Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff. ...I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance."
Francis identifies himself with Matthew among the converted and called - as indeed we all must. In his homily on Matthew, Bede called special attention to "the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation."
As I suggested yesterday, reflecting on Mary Magdalene and the other women who, having themselves been healed, accompanied Jesus and the 12, it is by fully embracing our primary identity as recipients of God's mercy - as patients in the "Field Hospital" that is Pope Francis' image for the Church - that we become collaborators in the mission - nurses in that very same "Field Hospital."
It would seem that the Venerable Bede and Pope Francis would both have us appreciate Matthew's conversion and call in that light.

Friday, September 20, 2013

After the Interview

In the immediate aftermath of the Pope's amazing interview, attention will inevitably be focused on what the Pope may have said or implied about the controversial issues that define the Catholic Church in the perception of the secular media - and in the perception of some Catholics who congregate on the political extremes on these issues - for some of whom St. Paul's description in today's 1st reading of those with "a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes" [1 Timothy 6:4] may apply! It will be interesting to watch how advocates on opposite sides will each endeavor to spin the Pope's comments.
Which is why it is so very important for people to read the entire interview and actually hear for themselves what the Pope is attempting to call the Church to. The Pope's appealing image of the Church as a "Field Hospital" is certainly a good place to start. I thought of it as I was proclaiming today's Gospel reading about the "women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities," who accompanied Jesus and the 12 and "provided for then out of their resources." [Luke 8:2-3]. So often we speak of mercy, healing, reconciling, etc., as activities of the Church, things that the Church does - and that is certainly true. But, as today's Gospel succinctly suggests, it is mercy, healing, and reconciling that gather the Church together in the first place. It was as recipients of God's mercy, healing, and reconciliation that Mary Magdalene and the other women came together as a new community; and it is as recipients of God's mercy, healing, and reconciliation that we too are brought and bound together in the Church. Hopefully, having personally experienced mercy, healing, and reconciliation, we then become, as Mary Magdalene and the others did, collaborators in the Church's mission of mercy, healing, and reconciliation. In that sense, having all started out ourselves as patients in the Church's "Field Hospital," it is our mission now to serve as nurses in the same "Field Hospital."

But even that powerful and challenging image of the Church as a "Field Hospital" does not exhaust the life-lessons we may take from the Pope's words.
Of particular interest to me as a member of a religious community is how the Pope experiences his ministry in the context of his religious vocation as a Jesuit. (It will be very interesting to see what effect the Pope's approach to his office will have on Jesuit vocations! My guess is that they will se an increase! Hopefully, some of that may rub off on the rest of us too!)
The Pope has some very specific things to say to those of us who have embraced community life in the Church within the framework of the evangelical counsels. Personally, I was struck by the importance the Pope places on religious community - an experience that resonates well with my own vocational journey. "I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community." For religious priests, brothers, and sisters to make their proper contribution to the Church's evangelizing mission, it seems to me they must highlight the distinctively communitarian dimension of their ministry and life - something contemporary individualism may increasingly inhibit. And, when it comes to religious community life, the Pope's take on the evangelical counsels - while hardly original with him - speaks very directly to the challenges facing religious life today. Religious men and women, the Pope says, "have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the father, poverty, community life and chastity. ... The vow of chastity must be a vow of fruitfulness. In the church, the religious are called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the kingdom of God will be in its perfection."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Pope's Big Interview

Published today in Jesuit publications around the world is an unprecedented 10,000-word interview Pope Francis gave to his fellow Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the authoritative Roman Jesuit journal  Civiltà CattolicaThe Pope himself approved the original Italian text before its translation into other languages. In the U.S, it is available in English in the Jesuit journal America. It can be accessed online at

In this wide-ranging yet highly personal interview, the Pope addresses a full spectrum of issues - his Jesuit vocation and his prior experience as a Jesuit superior, Jesuit spirituality ("thinking with the Church," Ignatian mysticism, "Finding God in All Things,"), the Church's mission to heal wounds and what that implies for a problematic over-emphasis on certain hot-button issues, and his reflections on religious life and the vows, on the Roman Curia, on women in the Church, on the Second Vatican Council, on certitude, on hope, on literature and the arts, on the development of doctrine, and on prayer.

We get some insights into the Pope's personal life and cultural tastes. We learn, for example, that he reads his Breviary in Latin and particularly prefers his evening time of Eucharistic adoration. And we find out some of his favorite books, movies, and music. He likes Dostoevsky and Holderlin. (I haven't thought of Holderlin since I wrote a paper about his poetry in German class more than 40 yars ago!) He likes Manzoni and Hopkins, admires Caravaggio and Chagall. He loves Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Wagner. For films, he mentions Fellin's La Strada and Rosselini's Roma, Citta Aperta.

This was an interview with a Jesuit for publication in Jesuit journals. So it is hardly surprising that he devotes so much time to his Jesuit vocation and to religious life more generally. I think this confirms that one of the distinguishing features of this pontificate is that this Pope is personally and spiritually very rooted in religious life. He speaks frankly and openly about mistakes he feels he made in governance as a young superior, about the meaning of the vows, and about the importance of community. "I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others." (This, apparently, accounts for his preference for living at Santa Marta rather than the official papal apartment, which - contrary to the interpretations of some - he acknowledges is not excessively luxurious.) He emphasizes that the Jesuits "must be contemplatives in action, must live a profound closeness to the whole church as both 'the people of God' and 'holy mother the hierarchical church'." 

The Pope has a lot to say. Still, we can be quite confident that the media take on his comments will almost certainly emphasize his comments on the issues the media most cares about. Indeed, while his reflections on religious life  give great insights into who he is, they will be of greatest interest to others in religious life and to those who generally pay particularly close attention to such matters - the Church equivalent of being "inside the Beltway." For the rest, the proverbial people in the pews, undoubtedly the most attention-grabbing words will be these:

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

That this is more than a purely pragmatic tactical concern on his part is clear from the following paragraph:

"The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

What we are witnessing here is the working out on various levels of the Pope's repeated emphasis since his election on mercy. His episcopal motto, as he reminds us early on in the interview is Miserando atque Eligendo ("By Having Mercy and by Choosing Him"). In this context, I found it interesting and encouraging that the attention-grabbing comments quoted above come in a section of the interview sub-titled "The Church as Field Hospital." It is a very intriguing and very apt image. in the Pope's words, "the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. ... The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small minded rules. the most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. ... In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds."

The Pope's words will be much studied and analyzed. For now, they speak simply in a heartfelt fashion. And the right response is Amen

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ember Wednesday

In the pre-1970 liturgical calendar, today would have been the Ember Wednesday of September. There were in fact four sets of Ember Days - the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the 1st Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, and September 14 - roughly corresponding to the four seasons. Before fast and abstinence were deemed incompatible with the spirit of the age, the Ember Days were all days of "fast and partial abstinence." Growing up, I was, of course, still too young to have to fast, but the Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays - identified on the calendar with a half-fish - did impact even us youngsters with the limitation of meat to only the principal meal. The Daily Missal I used in the early 1960s described the Ember Days as days of "repentance for sins, spiritual renewal, and a special preparation for solemn ordinations."
All that is now long gone, of course, as is the connection between the liturgical cycle and the annual rhythm of the natural seasons. Yet, as it happens, the weather today seems suddenly to have grown milder - a mere hint, but a real hint nonetheless, of autumn's answer to the killing heat and garish sun of summer.
Not only that, but tonight begins the great Jewish autumn harvest festival of Sukkot - commonly called the Feast of the Tabernacles in the gospels. Whereas the Advent and Lenten Ember Days were more or less subsumed into the overarching themes of those seasons, the Pentecost and September Ember Days explicitly connected with the corresponding Jewish seasonal festivals. Our Christian Pentecost corresponds, after all, to the Jewish Pentecost, Shavuot. So it made sense that two of the four "prophecies" at Mass on the Ember Saturday after Pentecost referred to that festival. Likewise, the old second reading for the Ember Wednesday of September was Ezra's account of the reading of the law on Rosh Hashanah, while the first two "prophecies" on September's Ember Saturday was from Leviticus - the first regarding Yom Kippur, the second concerning Sukkot.
We lost many things when we foolishly discarded Ember Days - not just fast and abstinence, but also a liturgical acknowledgment of the changing seasons and a reminder of our spiritual unique relationship with Judaism - all things we could use more of in our life and worship.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pride and Prejudice at 200

Full disclosure: when I was in high school (junior year to be precise) we were assigned to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in English class; but I didn't read it. I was going through a particularly problematic period in my life just then - actually the prelude to my almost complete meltdown (an expression not yet then in general use) a year later. For whatever reason, I didn't get the book and didn't read even a word of it. Alas, the quarterly exam had only one question, and it was about Pride and Prejudice. Needless to say, I failed the exam - my first failure ever. And so my quarterly report card duly contained a failing grade in English - an absurd situation somewhat mitigated somewhat by the fact that by then it was already obvious there was a problem that needed attending, a problem of which this sorry episode was obviously just a symptom. 
I recovered from that particular crisis moment and eventually rebounded from the larger failure of which that was a just harbinger. But Pride and Prejudice remained unread. Years passed. Then, thanks to film and TV, I finally rediscovered the literary gem from 1813 that I had missed out on in high school. (Of course, even if I had read it back in 1964, it's unlikely I would have fully appreciated it then!)
Back in the 90s, when Jane Austen seemed all the rage, one explanation for her enormous contemporary appeal was the mannered world it evoked. There is, I think, something to that. Certainly, that lost world invites us to contemplate fundamental human aspirations and experiences which our ill-mannered world lacks sufficient vocabulary to address anywhere nearly as well as Jane Austen could in the language and context of early 19th-century English country life. Of course, she captured those aspirations and experiences so incredibly well, in such well-written prose, creating characters of such depth and interest, and wrapped them in the appealing charm of the ordinary. If the very different manners and mores of turn-of-the-19th-century English country life render the story somewhat exotic to us today, still the universal aspirations and experiences it portrays transcend its exotic appearance and apparently narrow setting.
And so, as Anna Qundlen observed in 1995, Pride and Prejudice demonstrates how what she called "the search for self" occurs in the context of the ordinary, that it "is as surely undertaken in the drawing room making small talk" as in great events of supposedly world-historical significance.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

At the Eucharistic Congress

The Diocese of Knoxville celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding this past Friday and Saturday with a Eucharistic Congress - the first ever in East Tennessee. As the Bishop of Knoxville, Bishop Richard Stika had said, what a blessing it was as Catholics came together at our Diocesan Eucharistic Congress last week – “to celebrate the greatest gift of our Church, the Holy Eucharist, shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of Catholics from throughout our diocese, the United States, Canada and Latin America to rejoice in his presence with such ‘unique intensity’.”

Unique it was! And intense it was! From the start on Friday afternoon, as thousands converged on the Sevierville Convention Center, the excitement and enthusiasm were evident. After hearing confessions for an hour, it was time for me to concelebrate at the All Schools/Youth Mass. As Dean of the Smoky Mountain Deanery, I was up on the “stage” with the Bishops and the other principal concelebrants, and so I got a good view of the congregation gathered for the Mass and could appreciate the joy and hope that seemed to emanate from the altar to the whole complex. 
The principal day of the Congress, Saturday (the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), began with thousands more gathered together for a multi-media Morning Prayer that celebrated in turn the created beauty of East Tennessee, the churches and institutions of the diocese, and the faithful themselves. There followed a busy day of crowded presentations and other activities. Long lines formed in the main corridor for confessions, manifestly one of the principal blessings of the Congress. In addition to hearing confessions, I took a couple of turns standing at the Vocation Table, ready to answer questions about religious life and to distribute literature about the Paulist Fathers and other communities serving in the Diocese of Knoxville.  
Saturday afternoon’s events also included a service of Eucharistic Adoration in the main hall, led by His Eminence Justin Cardinal Rigali. (It was during that event that the only notable mishap of the day occurred, when someone accidentally set off a fire alarm!) Then the Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, delivered the Congress’s Keynote Address on the Eucharist as Sacrifice, Mea., and Real presence. As anticipated, His Eminence's presentation was entertaining and humorous while simultaneously serious and inspirational. The afternoon and the Congress itself concluded with a Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by our own Bishop with several other archbishops and bishops, an abbot, and most of the priests of the diocese concelebrating. Again from my place up close to the altar, I could see the entire congregation filling the packed meeting hall. It really was a uniquely intense experience of strong and living faith and a diverse but united Catholic community – alive and well and building God’s Kingdom here in East Tennessee.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

101 Days

It was exactly 101 days ago that the movers came and removed the pews from our beautiful and historic downtown Knoxville church. so we could begin the replacement of the church's over-the-hill acoustic-tile false ceiling. Then the scaffolding went up and the work began. The scaffolding is all down now. Yesterday, 101 days later, the movers were back to reverse the process and bring us back where we belong.

It was never supposed to take this long, of course; but so it has. It is what it is, as our linguistically challenged contemporary idiom would have it!

Meanwhile, for over three months now, we have been celebrating Mass in our parish hall, rearranged to serve as our “lower church” for the duration. All things considered, we did a good job of making our temporary “lower church” experience a satisfactory substitute. Our liturgical ministers, Mass coordinators, music ministers, and ushers have all risen to the occasion and worked together to make everything work amazingly well, and I am extremely appreciative of all  their efforts and of the patience and amazingly positive spirit of our parish community during this challenging time.

But now we are ready to return to where we really belong - to the church, that not only looks like a church, but really is a church, that sacred place set aside permanently and exclusively for the celebration of Mass, the central action of our life as God's people in the world.

May every sacred action in our restored church - from solemn Pontifical Mass to private solitary prayer - effectively express God's powerful presence among us, even as he sends us out from here into the world to challenge and transform it!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

12 Years

The shock and terror have long since diminished and the emotional rawness has likewise subsided, but the annual recurrence of this anniversary of the attack on New York City by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001, is a painful reminder not just of friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens killed on that day but of the extreme fragility of civilization itself.
Everyone has his or her own special memories of that day. I always  remember the beautiful blue sky to which I awoke and under which I went to vote in that year's mayoral primary, during the course of which short trip next door everything suddenly changed. I also remember the eerie gloom that quickly settled over the city, the smell of destruction and death in the air, the empty streets, the roadblocks, the closures - even of Starbuck's. And I remember the 1000+ people pouring into the church three days later for noon Mass on the National Day of Prayer, the prayer service at the local firehouse that Sunday, and then the funerals - at the parish and for weeks on end at the cathedral.
We were a very complacent country that summer of 2001. In some ways, perhaps, we still are; but since September 11 we are also a much more fearful and fretful people. A generation that had grown up in affluence and security suddenly learned how ephemeral such blessings are and that security and civilization aren't automatic but must be vigilantly defended and fought for - although we then quickly got into the habit of farming out that task to a select few while the rest of us resumed our shopping sprees, until that too didn't quite work anymore.
But, on this day, at least, it remains right to pause to remember the lives brutally extinguished and the burden of suffering that became the lot of those who loved them and the beloved city we once all shared.
For those of us above a certain age, who remember 1968, Robert Kennedy's haunting quote from Aeschylus' Agamemnon naturally comes again to mind on this date: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The President's Speech

It's been a weird run-up to whatever - ever since the President decided action (some action but not too much action) needed to be taken to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons and so deter Syria and others from future such uses. Such weapons have, of course, been "illegal" since 1925. They have, however, been used more than once since then - most notably by Saddam Hussein both against his own people and against Iran during that terrible war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. While we did eventually remove Saddam Hussein from power, that came later and was not a punishment for his having violated the international norm condemning such weapons. The Assad regime's use of such weapons is consistent with the character of that terrible regime. The question the President has been so publicly and visibly wrestling with was what, if anything, should be done about it. And then how to persuade a reluctant American public to follow his lead.
Of course, a good case can be made for some sort of intervention. It is, as the President has said (if expressed with politically dubious outrage), in our general national interest to deter further use of such weapons. Our interests are, however, many and complex. Our interests are particular as well as general. Whether we ought actually to do so in this particular case has always been the complicating question. We didn't act when Saddam Hussein violated the chemical weapons norm not that long ago. (Does anyone seriously think we would use force if, for example, China used such weapons on, say, the people of Tibet?) So the real question is the one that is always at issue when it comes to making war. What would be the most prudential judgment to make, given all the dimensions of this conflict, given the uncertain outcomes? And given in this case the inconvenient fact that the American public remains reluctant?
Enter Russian President Putin, who somewhat unexpectedly has found it to be in his interest to play peacemaker. Putin's intervention warrants skepticism, to be sure, but our enemies' behaviors always warrant skepticism.  Like military action, diplomacy is inherently uncertain. Collaborating with Putin and involving the generally useless UN, these are as fraught with uncertainty and danger as any military action. But may be marginally more prudent.
If the President's threat to use force pushed Putin to act a bit more responsibly, so much the better. If Putin's intervention has given the U.S. a way to back down from enforcing our self-imposed "red line" without a complete loss of credibility, so much the better. And it might manage to keep the lid on the perennial powder-keg that is the Middle East. This could be, as they say, a win-win.
A win-win for everyone except the Syrians, whose suffering will undoubtedly continue.
But the Syrians' suffering would likely continue regardless of U.S. action.
So would the President's muddled, somewhat amateurish approach to projecting American power to safeguard American interests. So would Congress's reluctance to take real responsibility.
All things considered, maybe it's just as well we tone down our outrage and continue to muddle.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Ordination

A bright late-summer sun shown over Washington's beautiful Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as Franciscans, Dominicans, and Paulists assembled in the Shrine's Crypt Church this morning for the ordination of 4 seminarians as deacons, the final phase of their preparation for ordination as priests in the months to come. Washington's Auxiliary Bishop officiated at the ordination and preached about the challenges of the New Evangelization. The Dominican Schola Cantorum chanted Latin antiphons and led the congregation in the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. As often happens, we priest were assigned seats without kneelers, rendering kneeling on the stone floor during the Litany a much more painful experience than it needs to be. (Somehow we just can't stop pretending priests are all still 25, even when most of us are at the other end of the age spectrum!). All in all, however, it was a wonderful, decidedly edifying experience as Deacon Yao and the others took this decisive last step toward the priesthood.

After my own diaconate ordination in April 1986, an older Paulist priest (as it turned out with but a few more months left to live himself) told me the ceremony had further affirmed him in his vocation.  Life-long commitment is so counter-cultural today that such ceremonies as these really do carry with them enormous evangelizing energy, even beyond the inherent signification of the rites themselves.

Of course, when I contemplate my own diaconate ordination, I cannot separate the joy of that long-ago occasion from the imposed interruption of my vocational journey the following September, that transformed my "transitional" diaconate into a painful nine-year ordeal - something I have not failed to recall (however privately) on September 9 ever since. Still, all that is in the past now. For better or for worse, it helped make me the person and priest I now am. But the very different trajectory that has ensued since my vocation was restored to me in 1995 invites my many positive memories of diaconal ministry to assume a more appropriate prominence.

But enough about me! Today's ordination ceremony was a vibrantly hopeful celebration of joy and hope - joy for the Paulist community and for the wider Church, hope for the New Evangelization and the renewal of the Church's life and mission in this problematic time.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Final Profession

At Saint Paul's College (photo) in Washington, DC, a Paulist student is making his Final Profession later today. In the contemporary American religious landscape, such events happen insufficiently often - or, more precisely, perhaps they happen often enough but with an insufficient number of persons being professed. So every such celebration is an especially important and hopeful occasion - affirming not only the life-long commitment of the individual Religious making his or her profession, but also the ongoing vitality of religious life and its continuing importance in the mission and life of the Church.

It is true, of course, that religious life is not intrinsically necessary for the Church's survival - in the specific sense that, for example, the sacrament of holy orders is necessary in order to provide the community with the validity ordained clergy needed to continue the mission and life of the Church. 

But to stop there would at best reflect an historically and spiritually minimalist experience of Church. For religious life, in one form or other, has existed in the Church and has enriched the Church's mission and life since the Patristic era. In the first millennium, religious life was primarily monastic (as it still is primarily in the Eastern Churches). "Monastic," of course, is a term which covers a lot of territory. The forms of religious life which developed and flourished in the first millennium involved both men and women, took both eremitic and cenobitic forms, and were found in both urban and rural (and, of course, desert) locations. The second millennium saw a flourishing of non-monastic, "apostolic" forms of religious life - canons regular, mendicants, Jesuits, societies without vows, etc. All these made a vital contribution to the the Church at the time of their founding, and they survive in the Church today as living witnesses to complementary aspects of discipleship, each community highlighting its distinctive emphasis - prayer, poverty, ministry to the poor and marginalized, teaching, evangelization, etc. No doubt, this third millennium will require - and produce - distinct expressions of religious life attuned to its particular needs and the new manners. At the same time, the older expressions of religious life will likely continue to be needed to continue to make more evident and prominent their particular - and perennially relevant - emphases.

As Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote, reflecting late in his life on his own experience as a religious founder, "A new religious order is the expression or evidence of an uncommon or special grace given to a certain number of souls in order to sanctify themselves by the practice of certain virtues to meet the special needs of their epoch and in this way to renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold."

Thursday, September 5, 2013

In the Library

In Washington, DC, for a meeting, a Final profession, and a Diaconate ordination, I spent this afternoon in one of my favorite places - the library at St. Paul's College. In my day, the room that is now the library was the seminary chapel. In fact, my class was the last class ever to make its Final Profession in that chapel on January 25, 1986. (That the current library was the seminary chapel from 1956 to 1986 is now only evident from the still surviving stained glass windows.) At that time, the seminary library was housed in the building's oldest wing - part of it in what had actually been the original chapel from 1913 to 1956 and then after 1986 reverted to being the chapel once again - retaining the original windows (but little else of its original beauty). 

But it is not the architecture or the windows that make me want to pass an afternoon in the library. It's the books. Where else can I spend an hour or more with old favorites like Pierre Batiffol's 1912 History of the Roman Breviary or Archidale King's 1957 Liturgies of the Primatial Sees? Where else can I catch up on recent issues of Theological Studies or Journal of Church and StateNot being attached to an academic institution or a religious community's House of Studies, one misses the easy access to books and periodicals a good old-fashioned library provides. 

Of course, one can still personally subscribe (as I do) to some periodicals - The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Economist, Worship - with the added access the Internet now provides to all sorts of sources. And, of course, Amazon offers easy access to new books - often at a really reasonable price, especially if I settle for reading them on my KindleFire! That's all to the good, and I appreciate how today's technology makes available what was once accessible almost exclusively in libraries. But I still savor the timeless treasure of a traditional library.

What is the future of such treasures? Are they fated to extinction or minimal survival as museums from a distant past - like so many real-world Downton Abbeys? Does it make a difference? Is a world which cherishes libraries - cherishes the actual books that are housed in them - a better one than the emerging alternative? The contrary can certainly be asserted, I suppose. But I have no doubt it is a loss that libraries are among the disappearing treasures of a world we are rapidly leaving behind.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syrian Hiatus

In this age of instant everything, the President's decision to follow the constitution and ask congress for authorization to use force against Syria seems to some to be excessively extending the crisis. (Of course, it's still not as long as the crisis of July 1914, which lasted over a month - only to produce the worst of all possible outcomes!)
I listened over the weekend as the President's decision to go to Congress was characterized as a sign of weakness, further undermining American credibility in the world. Personally, I don't buy that. In any case, the advantages - legal, moral, and political - that come from following the law seem to outweigh any disadvantages. Of course, it all depends on what finally happens, what kind of military response we make, what effects it has on Syria and the other players on the global stage. That is what will ultimately enhance or undermine American credibility.
American credibility would certainly be undermined if Congress did nothing or if it explicitly rejected the President's request of authorization to use force. Admittedly, there are isolationists in both parties and their voices have become even shriller recently. Still, it's hard to imagine even this dysfunctional Congress taking the onus on itself of undermining American standing in the world in that way. So I do think that in the end Congress will pass something authorizing the President to do something.
That something, however, remains problematic. As I wrote the other day, it is hard to envision any intervention - however limited, or however massive - that would produce a good outcome. And part of the problem is that we really don't know what a good outcome would be. With or without chemical weapons, Assad is a fist class Bad Guy. But would his elimination better serve regional stability and security? The two likely outcomes of Assad's fall would be chaos (worse even than Iraq after Saddam) or an Islamist victory that would likely endanger Israel and the Christian minority in Syria.
American standing and credibility in the world may indeed require forceful American action. Such is the burden of being the global superpower. But precisely what military action should we take? And to accomplish exactly what goal? That, to my mind, remains still unanswered.
Perhaps this hiatus while Congress finishes its summer vacation (and the President goes - of all places - to Syria's ally Russia, for a G-20 Summit Meeting in St. Petersburg's Constantine Palace) might give us time to grapple better with those questions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Having slept the full five hours apparently allotted me last night, I woke up around 4:00 this morning. Rather than just stay in bed, I decided (for a change) to do follow more traditional exemplars. So I got up and began to read from the Bible. I had in the back of my mind something Thomas Merton wrote in 1949. "Test a religious rule by the way it reflects the calm and the measure of the sapiential books."
Merton, of course, had a close familiarity with the Old Testament's wisdom books from their use in the Cisterican liturgy. In the Roman Rite, too, those books were quite prominent. In fact, until centuries of tradition were unaccountably abandoned by the new, post-conciliar Pauline Office, the wisdom books were regularly read at Matins in late summer - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) in August, followed by Job in the first half of September. Following that sequence, I suppose I should perhaps have opened up Job this morning, but instead I took a less demanding course and read from the more easily accessible Book of Wisdom - often traditionally referred to as "The Wisdom of Solomon," who lived centuries earlier but who was reputedly very wise.

At Mass today, the first reading comes (abridged) from the Book of Sirach. Overall, however, the post-conciliar liturgy likes to use the prophetic books a lot. (Thus, for example, whereas the old Roman Breviary would have started two weeks of Job at Matins today, the current Liturgy of the Hours has Jeremiah instead). The predominance of the prophets - especially at Mass - makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose, given the promise-fulfillment approach we have traditionally taken towards the prophetic books. (How well that actually works, given the highly abridged character of the readings and their general denseness may be another question).Even so, I think a good case could be made for a greater and more comprehensive liturgical use of the wisdom literature - and by extension a greater and more comprehensive devotion to the wisdom literature outside the liturgy.

Whereas the Pentateuch and the historical books look back at the great things God has done for us in the past and the prophetic books point forward to our redemption in Christ, the wisdom literature is focused mainly on life in the present - how to live wisely and well in this present world, which sometimes seems to go its own way but in which traces at least of God's action are evident. How to live day-by-day is, after all, the essential ethical question. to be sure, religion is never just about ethics, but neither can it completely be separated from ethics. How to live day-by-day in light of God's action in the past and his promise for our future is central to any Christian understanding of life in the world. And which of us wouldn't benefit from making part of our own daily prayer the prayer of "Solomon" in Wisdom 9?

For in everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places (Wisdom 19:22).