Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Sign of Jonah

My Homily at the annual Downtown Lenten Ecumenical Service at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 25, 2015.

[Scripture Readings - Jonah 3:1-10 and Luke 11:29-32]

Once upon a time, the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh was the largest city in the world. On the eastern side of the Tigris, right across the river from the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, its ruins still remind us of its onetime greatness.

It was to that enormously large city, which it took three days to go through that our great Lenten preacher, the prophet Jonah, once went preaching repentance. To this day, some of the ancient Churches in the Middle East commemorate Jonah’s mission with a three-day fast, called the Fast of Niniveh. And, until last year, among the ruins of Nineveh was a shrine believed to be the site of Jonah's tomb, revered as such by both Christians and Muslims, a popular place of pilgrimage – until the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) conquered Mosul, expelled its Christian community, and on July 24 destroyed Jonah’s tomb as part of its campaign of destruction and desecration.

Jonah’s mission and Nineveh’s repentance were already ancient history by Jesus’ time, when Jesus himself cited it as a warning to his contemporaries – an evil generation, that seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given it, except the sign of Jonah.

Likewise, the Lenten liturgy returns each year to this story of Jonah – because, after all, what generation isn’t evil, what generation doesn’t seek a sign, and what other sign is there for every generation to remember and relive but the sign of Jonah?

Lent is the Church’s annual wake-up call to take to heart the preaching of Jonah, as did the hard-hearted king and people of Niniveh, and to join with them in the ashes of repentance – so that, through that simple movement of letting ourselves be turned around by the power of God’s word we may experience that change of heart which we call conversion and repentance, and so we too, like the king and people of Niniveh, may find the forgiveness that brings life.

In this way will we also, as Pope Francis has said, “receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent, or prey to the globalization of indifference.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

My Soap Operas

I didn't watch the Academy Awards show last night. Given the choice, there was no chance I would choose to skip Downton Abbey (the penultimate episode of the season) or even Grantchester's season finale for the Oscars, which I generally think of as a tedious show at best. In another year I might have been tempted, after Grantchester,  to switch the channel to see the last half-hour or so of the Oscars. Instead, I just went to bed, never knowing which nominee got Best Picture. That was probably just as well, since Birdman was not one of the nominated films that I had seen, and so it is impossible for me to have any valid opinion about its having won. Of the nominated films that I did see, I would have been happy to see American Sniper, Boyhood, or The Imitation Game win the honor, although not The Grand Budapest Hotel. On the other hand, I was happy to hear that Ida, the one foreign language film nominated that I had seen, won in its category.

That said, that's probably enough attention to the Oscars! I certainly didn't feel I had missed anything when I woke up and I still don't, having since read David Edelstein's review of the show, "This Was the Best Oscars Show in years (But it Was Still Terrible)."

So, while Hollywood was indulgently celebrating itself, I was contentedly immersing myself in the family dramas surrounding Lady Rose McClare's interfaith wedding in 1924 London, Lord Grantham's improving attention to his family now that his dog is dead, Lady Mary and Lady Edith realizing how much emptier life at Downton will be for them without their brother-in-law Tom, and of course the unspeakable tragedy of Anna's arrest (a continuation of the cosmic injustice the screenwriters seem determined to keep visiting upon her and her husband). The final scene, the dedication of the War Memorial was a true tearjerker, as well as a good dose of reality - the reality of the appalling loss a whole society and all classes were still reeling from as a result of the pointless war that had undercut modernity's fantasy of perpetual progress. But the effect of the scene for me was diminished somewhat by the oddity of it coming right after Anna's arrest and the lack of any apparent efforts being made to aid Anna.  (I can understand wanting the show to end with that scene, which would have made sense without Anna's arrest, but Anna's arrest deserved to be seen as a much more destabilizing event.) 

Undoubtedly, Downtown is intended to be a parable about the overall liberating benefits of postwar change, as old standards and old rules seem to disappear each hour. Undoubtedly, all correct-thinking viewers are supposed to applaud the greater choices available to all the characters of all classes. But one cannot escape seeing in the collapsing aristocratic culture another parable about the loss of a meaningful narrative about what life, family, and society are supposed to be about - a narrative once meaningful and controlling enough to have enabled successful social institutions to flourish, but no longer.

As for Grantchester, I have never read the books but the TV version hooked me in the very first episode. Perhaps that is because the central figure is a Vicar (although obviously far better looking than most clergy can ever imagine themselves to be). Like Downton AbbeyGrantchester, also takes us back to a post-war world - this time, the post-war world of Britain in the early 50s. For all his amazing good looks, Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of a C of E parish in the village of Grantchester, a suburb of Cambridge, is tormented by his wartime service experience. (We finally find out the full measure of why in the final episode.). His crime-solving is therapeutic as well as providing him with his closest real friendship - with a notably less devout detective. But his life and relationships (especially with women) seem hopelessly burdened - making possible endless plot developments!

The other cleric in the series, Sidney's curate Leonard arrived in episode 2 with seemingly little to recommend him. He appeared at first to be set up as the less attractive, less talented, less personable - and hence less "pastoral" - foil for Sidney's star power. But from a figure of fun and mockery, Leonard has quickly grown into not just a good priest but a good friend and support for Sidney. May we expect more from him in the next season!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

In the Desert

Today is traditionally called Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day season of Lent (called Quadragesima in Latin). Of course, our contemporary Lent now begins four days earlier on Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the three following days were a later addition to the original Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. So, if perchance you missed out on Ash Wednesday because of the weather, just think of yourself as following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, if you prefer, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.

This Sunday’s ancient importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!

And so every year on this Sunday the Church invites us to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the silence and solitude of the desert [Mark 1:12-15]. The Judean desert is a harsh and dangerous place – horribly hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, and silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent, among wild beasts, and where he invites us to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among whatever wild beasts threaten and challenge us, as we choose what to make of our lives.

Way back when, as the familiar story reminds us, Adam had lived peacefully in harmony with nature, his food provided for him (according to Jewish legend) by angels. So Jesus’ sojourn, among wild beasts while angels ministered to him, Is a reminder that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of all the obstacles we put in God’s way.

That, of course, was the point of God’s covenant with Noah [Genesis 9:8-15]. Despite the virtual universality of sin in the world, God in his mercy patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. And - in a much nicer conclusion than we saw in last year’s movie about Noah - God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his righteous anger and setting his bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, to guarantee the continuance of human life on this planet.

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sin, descending himself into the prison of death to free those who had gone before. Jesus’ descent among the dead, described in the 1st letter of Peter from which we just heard [1 Peter 3:18-22], anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Lent, Pope Francis has reminded us, challenges us to go out of ourselves to acquire what he calls a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God.


Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation 1] in his kingdom, so too the Church gives us this special Lenten season every year to take time to renew ourselves - not in a self-centered, self-focused sort of way, but by focusing once again on the big picture, and where we hope to be in that bigger picture. The point is not so much what we do for Lent, as it is how we do Lent.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, february 21, 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Very New NY Times Magazine

With an abundance of fanfare, the NY Times has introduced its new (did I emphasize new?) version of the venerable NY Times Magazine. That magazine is, as the Times is reminding its readers, 119 years old and is read in print by nearly four million readers each week. Sadly (thanks to accessibility problems and cost concerns) I no longer read it in print, but I was a reader of the print magazine for much of my life, and I still regularly read it on-line. In fact, i have just finished reading an excellent article in this weekend's new magazine, an article on Marine LePen's National Front Party in France. (I trust I shall continue reading the magazine regularly. Indeed, I still hope someday to be able to read it regularly in print once again.) 

It was, as I said, an excellent article, the kind of good quality news analysis I have come to expect from the Times through the nearly six decades that I have been a regular reader of it. And for that I am grateful.

Still, the Times' Editor wants the world to know how really new the magazine now is:

"You will find new concepts for columns, new writers, new ideas about how to compose headlines, new typefaces, new page designs in print and online, new ideas about the relationship between print and digital and, animating it all, a new spirit of inquiry that is both subversive and sincere. (You will also find, in this Sunday’s print edition, more pages of advertising than in any issue since October 2007.)"
[For the full Editor's Letter, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/magazine/behind-the-relaunch-of-the-new-york-times-magazine-by-jake-silverstein.html?emc=edit_th_20150221&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=38393923&_r=0]

By my count, that was seven times that that silly word new was used in just one single sentence! The second sentence - the one bragging about many more page of advertising - presumably attests to the commercial benefits and success that accompanies being (or at least claiming to be) so new. 

Well, for all the readers' and the writers' and the company's sake, I wish the Times and its new magazine commercial success. I also wish abundant bragging success to those who have successfully launched this newness. May they be appropriately lauded at all the right parties, by all the right people!

Meanwhile, I will remain content to read a good article every week or so, however new (or not).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Brothers and Sisters

Today is my sister's birthday. The old 1950s photo portrays my sister and me a long time ago. I don't recall the particular occasion when that picture was taken, but I certainly do remember the day she was born. It was a Saturday morning when my mother went to the Bronx Lebanon Hospital on the famous Grand Concourse, but it was already Saturday evening by the time she gave birth and my father called to tell me and my grandmother that I had a sister. And I remember how thrilled I was by it all. Had I been in a position to do so, I would have celebrated with the same glorious gusto that John Adams famously prescribed for celebrating the birth of the American nation in 1776!

Completely coincidentally, yesterday Pope Francis devoted his Wednesday General Audience to the theme of Brothers and Sisters. He began by noting how Christianity loves the familial words Brother and Sister. "And, thanks to the family experience, they are words that all cultures and all times understand."

Such familial bonds are basic to human life as it has been lived by most people in most places at most times. In his Audience, Pope Francis identified the special place of the fraternal bond in the history of God's People as an instance of how God's revelation is received "in the midst of human experience."

"Human coexistence," the Pope continued, "is learned in the family among brothers and sisters, as one must coexist in society. Perhaps we are not always aware of it but it is in fact the family that introduces brotherhood in the world!" 

That special familial relationship can be damaged, of course, as we all know, by individualism - as the sad story of humanity's first family famously testifies. But the powerful positive potential of the sibling bond remains as one of the human race's most precious personal resources - both for the unique relationship between the siblings themselves and as an analogous resource for the larger world. Thus, Pope Francis both celebrated that bond and related it to the larger Christian story: "To have a brother, a sister who loves you is an intense experience, invaluable, irreplaceable. ... In fact, when Christians go to encounter the poor and the weak they do so not to obey and ideological program, but because the Lord's word and example tell us that they are our brothers [and sisters]." 

Fittingly, the Holy Father finished yesterday's address by inviting everyone present to "think of our brothers and sisters. Let's think in silence and, in the silence of our heart, let us pray for them - an instant of silence."

Amen!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Lent

After a wonderful weekend with my family, I returned to Knoxville yesterday ready for to begin Lent, only to end up canceling two out of three of our Ash Wednesday Masses today because of treacherous driving conditions on the snowy, icy roads leading to Summit Hill. Of course, now as I am writing this in mid-afternoon the sun has come out! Was I wrong to cancel? Am I too overly cautious? Well, I guess there is my matter for my first lenten examination of conscience! On the other hand, the weather forecast still calls for more snow later today. So, who knows?

Of course, Ash Wednesday is important; but Lent lasts 40+ days more, after all. If this year's Lent is getting off to an awkward start, there is still time to get more completely on track. In the old liturgy, although the lenten fast and the ancient lenten Mass propers began on Ash Wednesday, the full lenten office didn't begin until the First Sunday (as, I suppose, is still the case in Milan's Ambrosian liturgy). I seem to recall at one time hearing these preliminary four days of Lent referred to as Lent's entranceway or "the porch of Lent." So, however we choose to think of it, we still have more time to get our penitential act together!

So what to do for Lent? In his lenten message for the season, Pope Francis has challenged us to tackle what he likes to call "the globalization of indifference." Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure… Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.

In particular, the Pope is calling upon every Christian community to go out of itself and to be engaged in the life of the greater society of which it is a part, especially with the poor and those who are far away. The Church is missionary by her very nature; she is not self-enclosed but sent out to every nation and people.

Of course, all that is easier said than done. Going out of oneself is an inherent challenge of any Christian's calling (including obviously a vocation as a professed religious.) Paradoxically, Lent challenges each of us in our particular place and particular vocation to pay attention to putting our own house as part of that essential going out of ourselves To me, that always includes trying to examine where I am at in my life and work as a pastor, priest, and religious. (As always, as part of that, I have assigned myself some specific spiritual reading for Lent. This year, again, it is an eclectic list, that runs the gamut from the CDW's new Homiletic Directory to some sturdy old classics like Yves Congar's True and False Reform in the Church  and The Spiritual Doctrine of Father Louis Lallemant of the Company of Jesus.)

Lent started as a time to learn to love God and the Church. It still is.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Touching the World

Last year, the world's attention was captured by an Ebola epidemic in Africa - attention that turned to extreme panic in some places when a very few cases appeared here in the U.S. More recently, we have had an epidemic of measles, that started in, of all places, Disneyland, producing more anxiety and panic. Sickness is certainly one of the most universal human experiences. some lucky ones may be generally healthier than others; but few of us get to escape any sickness at all. Some are much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill. And we all worry about some new disease - or the return of some old disease - unexpectedly upsetting business as usual.

Those of us above a certain age can recall how widespread polio was within our own lifetimes. My “Baby-Boom” generational cohort can clearly remember the last of the great polio epidemics in the early 1950s – the last such epidemic in the U.S., thanks to the development of the polio vaccine, which as 1st graders many of us were among the first to receive. Beforehand, however, that last epidemic induced tremendous panic. People were terrified of this dangerous disease, which many feared might never be conquered and before whose power people felt defenseless. Thanks to effective efforts to vaccinate people everywhere against polio, that disease is now close to being eradicated in the world.

But recalling all that should help us appreciate the anxiety ancient people felt when faced with the mysterious disease that they called leprosy. Hence, the Old Testament’s extensive instructions on how to deal with it, some of which we just heard in today’s 1st reading. Until 1969, the United Sates had a similar system of legally enforced segregation of lepers in Hawaii – made famous for generations of Catholic school children by the heroic story of Saint Damien of Molokai, whose statue stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall, and the more recently canonized Saint Marianne Cope, who also served the lepers in Hawaii.

In ancient Israel, however, what was called leprosy was often actually a superficial skin condition, which was in fact curable. Hence the Jewish law made provision for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being cured. Until one had been properly examined and certified as healed, however, a “leper” remained ritually impure.

In such a world, where it was believed that only God could heal leprosy and where sickness was seen as a serious threat, the leper was shunned. Cut off from ordinary life and regular relationships with others, the leper’s lot was a sad one indeed. Then suddenly, into all this sadness appeared Jesus.

Apparently, the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds. So suddenly a leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

If you wish!” What exactly are we to suppose that “if” meant? Did the leper doubt Jesus? And, if so, what exactly was he doubting about Jesus? Apparently, he didn’t doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him – quite amazing actually, given the general belief that only God could cure leprosy! If the leper had little or no doubt about Jesus’ power, Jesus’ ability, to heal him,  however, he still seems evidently to have wondered whether Jesus would heal him, whether he would want to heal him, whether he cared enough to heal him. 

Jesus understood and answered: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But, before he said that, Jesus did something even more meaningful, something so radical in fact that it implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.

In his desperation, the leper had boldly broken the Law and approached Jesus directly. Jesus reciprocated with a dramatic, unexpected touch, that spoke more than all the words in the world. With that one touch, Jesus identified himself with the leper, dramatically ending his segregation from society. With that one deliberate touch, Jesus summarized his entire mission to become one with us, and so to end our segregation from God and enable us to join together in the fuller, more abundant kind of life that God wants us to live.

The same Jesus, who stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, continues his healing touch here & now in the institutional and sacramental life of his body, the Church.  That touch is every bit as necessary now as it was then – not just because sickness and suffering still surround us, but because the leper’s doubt also persists. How many of us at times doubt deep down whether anyone cares? How many of us at times doubt deep down whether even God cares? It is the mission and challenge of the Church – the mission and challenge therefore of each and every one of us – to express visibly, to embody physically, and so to become God’s healing presence and saving power present in our world, to continue Christ’s caring for us, by caring as he does.

As the Law required, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to verify his healing, and to make the ritual offering in thanksgiving that the Law prescribed. Presumably, the leper went and did what was required for him to re-enter society, but the leper’s most powerful act of thanksgiving was to spread the report abroad and publicize the whole matter.


Whatever difficulties and doubts we may harbor, our healing will not be complete until we let Christ’s healing touch transform us, in and through our life and worship together as his Church, into agents of Christ’s caring touch to and for all the world.

Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, February 15, 2015.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

After Brian Williams

I'm not an ABC Nightly News watcher. It's not just that, for my generation, no one quite comes close to replacing Walter Cronkite, although that is more true than it should be. The fact  is I get my news at 6:00 a.m. from NPR's Morning Edition and at 7:00 p.m. from The PBS Newshour, supplemented on Friday evenings by Washington Week (which has survived the test of time well since I first started watching it as a grad student in the 1970s in the glory days of Watergate). In between, I read The NY Times (on-line, unfortunately), read this or that blog or column and maybe catch some CNN. That's enough! The traditional evening newscast is a venerable institution that by al means ought to be preserved. It should also have more news and less of whatever it is that it has so much of.

So I really have no strong feelings about Brian Williams as an anchor. From what little I've seen, he seems like a nice enough guy, who probably was a good reporter in his day and successfully climbed the news industry's greasy pole to the coveted anchor desk, thanks to whatever combination of talent, personality, good looks, and good luck that climb calls for. Personally, I hope he survives the latest contretemps reasonably intact.

Memory is a funny thing. Of course, we can - and do - distort our memories by conscious amendments (sometimes called lies). But the process is often more complicated, as we all increasingly remember things the way we would like to remember them, the way we wished they might have happened, etc. It's a familiar phenomenon, for example, that more people remember voting for the winning candidate in an election than actually did so. After JFK's assassination, famously, many more people remembered having voted for him than had actually done so. Retelling earlier incidents in our lives lends itself almost automatically to embellishment, if not outright distortion.

How seriously all of this should be treated depends, I suppose, on the case. Clearly, most of us are not news reporters, for whom accuracy would seem to be an absolute prerequisite. So perhaps the standards ought to be much higher in this case, if we are to have any confidence at all in the accuracy of what we hear on the news. We live in a culture quite different form that of Walter Cronkite's time. We live in a society where a hermeneutic of suspicion surrounds authorities of all sorts. People once trusted government, churches, the media, etc. They certainly trusted their physicians, when they told them to vaccinate their children! Now distrust reigns where trust once ruled. Much of that came about as a response to misbehavior and lying on the part of many in authority. Meanwhile the media, especially in our post-Watergate world, have elevated cynicism and distrust to a sort of ersatz virtue. But meanwhile we as individuals and as a society are much the worse off as a result.

Whether all that means Williams deserves the extreme penalty of losing his job is, of course, another question. Not every offense ought to be a capital crime. Perhaps, as David Brooks ("The Act of Rigorous Forgiving," NY Times, February 10, 2015) for one has recently suggested, there ought to be someplace for forgiveness in society's response.

(To read Brooks' actual article, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/opinion/david-brooks-the-act-of-rigorous-forgiving.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad)

I agree with Brooks that the way we respond to so many scandals these days is indeed "barbaric." He writes "When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over leaving no place for mercy." In my opinion, this is the flip-side, so to speak, of our contemporary culture's unwillingness to hold itself and one another to any serious moral standards on most matters. On so many important issues, we have become pathologically non-judgmental, which we make up for by being pathologically over-judgmental on the things our reigning liberal orthodoxy disapproves of. 

Important as that issue is, however, Brooks' lengthy argument about forgiveness is not what interested me most about his article. Rather it was his initial diagnosis of the precipitating circumstance that intrigued me. "The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it's never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry. Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler."

Indeed, don't we all? Isn't that what so much of our professional and relational lives is about? I dare say it isn't just famous people who are tempted to want to seem "cooler." (That word "cool" is another one of those contemporary expressions we would do well to exorcise completely form our vocabularies.) 

What Brooks' remarks tap into is the increasing vacuousness of what passes for fame, for popularity, for success, etc., in our morally empty society. The human desire for love is infinite and can never be fully or completely satisfied by any human response. (Perhaps Valentine's Day is an especially appropriate day to be saying this!) Finding fulfillment in human love and relationships that are generally mutual and life-giving is the challenge of a lifetime. Finding substitutes in superficial vanities like fame, popularity, success, etc., inevitably is, as Brooks, says, "never enough." 

Ultimately, as Saint Augustine so famously said: Fecisti nos ad te et cor nostrum inquietum est donec requiescat in te. ("You [God] have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.") A society which is premised on finding fulfillment anywhere and everywhere else puts itself on a path of permanent seeking without ever finding.



Monday, February 9, 2015

Immigrants' Shrine

Yesterday's NY Times referenced the restoration of the 1959 mosaic at the shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) on Fort Washington Avenue between Fort Tryon Park and West 190th Street in northern Manhattan. Italian-born Mother Cabrini, as she was known in life and is still referred to now as a saint, was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 - the first American citizen to be so recognized - and then declared the patron saint of immigrants by the same Pope in 1950. So her shrine had special significance for my grandmother, who made sure we went to visit it yearly to venerate her body (exposed under the altar). 

I am old enough to remember when Mother Cabrini's body was still enshrined in the old convent chapel, before being moved to the current shrine church around 1960. It was always a treat to visit the shrine, not least because of its magnificent location in Washington Heights, the highest part of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, a mile or so north of the George Washington Bridge. But, while we took in the sights and enjoyed being in the beautiful park (home also to the world-famous medieval art museum, The Cloisters, my grandmother made certain that we visited the chapel, honoring the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.

I was glad to hear about the restoration of the mosaic, though saddened last year by the closing of Mother Cabrini High School, which had long continued Mother Cabrini's commitment - and that of the community she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus - to serve the immigrant population. For decades now, the Washington Heights neighborhood has been the New York home for many Latino immigrants, primarily from the Dominican Republic.

The article also highlights the hope that, during his forthcoming visit to New York, perhaps Pope Francis might include Mother Cabrini's shrine on his itinerary. Surely that would be an appropriate stop for him. One of the Cabrini sisters quoted in the article recalled how Pope Francis has credited Mother Cabrini's works in his native Argentina as contributing to his vocation. Obviously there are many competing claims for the Pope's limited schedule in New York, but such a stop would certainly serve to combine his own personal story - as a child of Italian immigrants in the New World - with that of contemporary immigrants in the neighborhood. 

When the Pope's visit to the U.S. was first being talked about, I and many others hoped that he might celebrate Mass on the US-Mexican border to highlight the plight of today's immigrants and the Church's solidarity with them. Unfortunately such an event could not be incorporated into the papal itinerary. Visiting Mother Cabrini's shrine would certainly give Pope Francis an opportunity to address a constituency that seems especially dear to his heart and visibly put the power of his papal prestige and present popularity in service of the Church's mission to advance the cause of immigrants' rights.

To read the NY Times article in full, go to (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/nyregion/in-upper-manhattan-restoring-the-golden-halo-of-mother-cabrini.html?emc=edit_th_20150208&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=38393923&_r=0)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Healing Touch

Last year the world’s attention was captured by the Ebola epidemic in Africa – attention that turned to extreme panic in some places when some cases appeared here in the US. Now we have an epidemic of measles that started in, of all places, Disneyland, an epidemic probably could have been prevented if only everyone had been properly vaccinated. But, since that is not the case, more anxiety and panic have ensued. Sickness is certainly one of the universal human experiences. Some of us may be lucky to be generally healthier than others; but few of us get to escape any sickness at all. And some of us may get much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill. And we all worry about some new epidemic unexpectedly upsetting business as usual. As Job reminds us, when we are sick, we experience how powerless we really are, how limited our control; and, like Job, we may feel discouraged and angry.

Judging from today’s Gospel, Jesus spent a lot of his time curing the sick, liberating people from the various physical and spiritual disabilities that has hitherto overpowered them. That seems to be how his reputation spread.

So, when he entered Simon and Andrew’s house and heard that Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, Jesus grasped her by the hand and helped her up –a scene so encouraging that it could have lifted even Job out of his depression! In doing this, by healing the sick, Jesus was revealing his Father to us – demonstrating god’s care for us. The Gospel says he grasped her by the hand. Touching is one of those things people tend to be especially squeamish about with the sick. I saw on TV recently an explanation of why people on Downton Abbey shake hands so infrequently. People were worried about catching things! Fair enough, in a world without antibiotics! But Jesus often touched the people he healed. With that one simple gesture, he joined himself with the sick and suffering who were stuck at the margins of normal social activity. In so doing, he summarized the story of his life, his mission to become one with us and so to empower us to get up and live that fuller life God really wants us to live.

Good news travels fast. Soon, the whole town was gathered at the door. And so it has been ever since as the Church continues Christ’s life and mission in our world – caring for the sick and accompanying them with the Church’s prayer.

The same God who cares enough to touch us, by becoming one of us in his Son, continues to bring us together in the same struggle against suffering. We all know how sickness – especially serious sickness – separates people, straining, limiting, even destroying normal social activities and relationships. In Jesus’ presence, however, the healthy were drawn to the sick and became part of the healing process. The first thing the disciples did was to tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law. Later on, when other sick people were brought to Jesus, they didn’t come alone. The whole town brought them.

This Wednesday, February 11, we celebrate Our lady of Lourdes. More maybe than any other single site, Lourdes is known as one of those special places to which pilgrims come from all over the world to seek physical and spiritual healing.  It is especially inspiring to witness the compassionate and loving way in which the sick are welcomed and enabled to participate in all the various activities there. Since 1997, February 11 has been observed as the Church’s annual World Day of the Sick – so designated by Saint John Paul II as “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of the human race.”


The Church also expresses Christ’s continued care and concern for the sick through the special sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Contrary to some common misconceptions, it is not a sacrament primarily for those at death’s door, but rather the special sacrament for all whose health has been seriously impaired by sickness or old age. In fact, for centuries, the ritual has prayed that the sick who have been anointed may recover. Like Lourdes, but more easily accessible than a pilgrimage, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one very visible expression of how Christ’s healing presence and saving power continue in our world – continue Christ’s caring for us, calling us too to care as he does.

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 8, 2015.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The President and the Crusades

One would think the present were problematic enough without dredging up controversies from ancient (or almost ancient) history! Yet that is what President Obama - whether intentionally or not - appeared to be doing at the annual National Prayer Breakfast the other day when he introduced references to medieval events - e.g., the Crusades  - in his response to a quite contemporary problem.

To be fair, much of what the President said was excellent, and the larger point he was trying to make by his misuse of history was itself a good one. The President came to the National Prayer Breakfast as a fellow-believer and spoke positively about faith as a force for good in the world  even while he acknowledged - as should be acknowledged - the less beneficial ways religion can and has been used.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another -- to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
So far, so good! As the President rightly noted, Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. But then he continued, making the analogies that have subsequently caused controversy: And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 
So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. 
As is obvious from the actual text, the questionable references were all in one sentence, as part of a larger discussion of how all religions - Hinduism as well as islam and, yes, even Christianity too - have to grapple with this problem. 
Again, the President's larger point is a valid one and one well worth raising in the context of any discussion about contemporary religious conflict. The President's problem here, however, is twofold, at least as I see it. The first is that not all these situations are equal or necessarily even comparable. The Crusades, for example, were an effort to retake territory that had earlier been Christian which the Muslim armies had conquered from the Byzantine Roman Empire. In that regard, the Crusades could be said to resemble the current effort to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. How wise that earlier undertaking was may be debated by historians, just as historians will in the future debate the merits of the President's present interventions in the region.. That there were unworthy motives and even more unworthy behavior intermingled with the Crusades' fundamental goal can hardly be denied, and so must also figure in any moral evaluation of the Crusades overall. (And, remember, there were several Crusades to consider, not just one). But "collateral damage" is an ever-present factor in any conflict, and must be factored into any moral evaluation of any war - including the present "War on Terrorism." There were atrocities associated with the Crusades, to be sure, but will history evaluate every action taken in our present "War on Terrorism" as unambiguously good? The Crusades were also long ago, which makes it very difficult for modern people to understand and relate to the mentality and values of those who fought in them - on both sides. Judging other times and places by the norms adopted by people of this time and place is always problematic. And willful ignorance about the Muslim conquest of Christian territories in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain centuries ago and subsequent Christian efforts to reverse those conquests does not enrich discussion and debate about these issues. It confuses and distorts discussion and debate.
Which is why he would have done better to stick with the slavery and Jim Crow analogy. That was not ancient history. It was part of our own national experience in a society which professed the values of the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal." Unlike the Crusades, slavery and Jim Crow were recognized by a good many of their contemporaries as morally iniquitous. The debate was contemporary with the facts - not an after-the-fact self-righteous judgment in hindsight.

It is, of course, true that Christianity arose in a world which took slavery for granted. Jesus' parables apparently took the existence of slaves and their presence in households for granted as a fact of contemporary life. Paul gave moral advice to both salves and masters, advice which again took the institution for granted as part of the framework of the world they lived in - a world Christians had no political power and no expectation of attaining it. Over time, Christians (who by then had attained political power throughout the Western world) came to question the institution of slavery and a serious moral debate ensued. It is true that many Christians opposed slavery and sought its abolition, and it is also true that many Christians continued to defend it and cited scripture in its support. That history raises interesting and important religious questions, which it is right to raise. How illuminating that history is for the present discussion is perhaps itself debatable, but at least it involves modern American history and modern Americans who shared many similar experiences and values, both with each other and with us - a far cry from self-righteously imposing contemporary experiences and values on the very different experiences of the people of the Middle Ages.
The second problem with the President's approach is that he frequently seems to be reluctant to recognize the close connection between Islam as a religion and the behavior that we are witnessing in the Middle East, Africa, Paris, and elsewhere. But, of course, if religion has nothing to do with it, then why bring up examples from other religions?

In fact, religion has a lot to do with it - which, of course, is a far cry from saying that all Muslims are in agreement on these matters, any more than all Christians were in agreement about slavery and Jim Crow. How close the connection is between Islam as a religion and the behavior that we are witnessing in the Middle East, Africa, Paris, and elsewhere is a subject on which there is certainly some serious disagreement. It is a legitimate topic for debate - a debate that should not be arbitrarily curtailed.

President Obama's parting advice to religious people in pluralistic societies such as ours is worth repeating: But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

Wise advice - not unlike remarks I myself made here on this blog not so long ago. (http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2015/01/free-expression-and-its-discontents.html). If we are going to have a religiously pluralistic society that functions successfully for the good of its citizens, then we must both have a government which is constrained from penalizing free expression, while we at the same time speak out to stigmatize socially such expression that denigrates particular religions or religion in general.

All that having been said, how does that address the current crisis in the Middle East, which is about war and religious persecution on the ground and terrorism exported around the world - a crisis hardly about religious pluralism or even co-existence.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"In Hatred of the Faith"

Yesterday, I posted about the Decree recognizing Servant of God Oscar Romero as a martyr. Having been schooled in the official criteria for recognizing a murder as authentic martyrdom and having personally long wondered whether Romero's assassination should just be categorized as a politically rather than religiously motivated act, I concluded yesterday that his assassination while in the act of celebrating Mass created a presumption of a religiously as well as politically motivated hatred on the part of his killers - somewhat analogously with the case of Saint thomas Becket.. So it very much pleased me today to read in Britain's Catholic Herald, that, at Vatican media briefing today, the Postulator for Romero's Cause - Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family - highlighted the special significance of Romero's having been "killed on the altar." That fact, Archbishop Paglia argued, showed that Romero's killers "wanted to attack the Church" and that Romero's death was therefore caused "by hatred for a faith that was not silent in the face of injustice."

"The killing on the altar," Archbishop Paglia declared, "had a symbolism that sounded a terrible warning to anyone who wanted to go on that road. St John Paul II, who knew the two other saints killed on the altar, St Stanislaus of Krak√≥w and Thomas Becket of Canterbury, said: ‘They killed him right in the most sacred moment… It was the murder of a bishop of the Church of God who was carrying out his sanctifying mission by offering the Eucharist.'” 

I was especially happy to see the same Becket analogy being invoked!

For the full Catholic Herald article, go to:
http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/02/04/murder-at-mass-shows-romero-was-killed-in-hatred-of-the-faith-says-vatican/

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Oscar Romero, Martyr

Today (February 3) the Holy Father received in audience the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints and authorized the Congregation's promulgation of a decree acknowledging the martyrdom of Servant of God Oscar Romero (1917-1980), who is now officially declared to have been killed out of hatred of the faith (ucciso in odio alla fede).

Romero's cause for canonization has been vigorously advocated by many (especially in Latin America) for quite some time. It has also, however, been something of a political hot potato, because of continued controversy about how to interpret his role in the complicated political conflict of the time. Romero was one of some 75,000 who may have met violent deaths during El Salvador's notorious civil war. His murder inevitably associated him with one side in that civil war, despite the fact that he was in many ways a priest of very traditional piety and was hardly a Marxist in any philosophical sense.

Politics aside, the substantive concern about acknowledging Romero as a martyr was whether his murder met the traditional criterion of being done out of opposition to the faith. It could be argued that he was killed because of his political advocacy, that his killers (presumably also at least nominal members of the Church) were motivated more b political hatred than by religious hatred. 

There may indeed be something to that argument. But could not one say something similar about the case of Saint Thomas Becket, for example? Becket, after all, was killed as part of a power struggle between the Church and England's King Henry II. While the rights and freedom fo the Church were in some sense at stake, the presenting issue was whether civil courts should have jurisdiction in criminal case over clergy or whether they should be exempt from such jurisdiction and subject solely to the disciplinary authority of the Church. Not only does the Church no longer make such claims in the modern world, but in today's climate is increasingly challenged to cooperate completely with civil authorities in criminal cases involving the clergy.

Of course, Becket was murdered in his own cathedral where he was about to celebrate Vespers, a sacrilege which shocked Christian Europe. Undoubtedly that strengthened his cause. But, of course, Romero was also sacrilegiously killed - in his case, in the very act of celebrating Mass. In both cases, the sacrilegious character of the crime contributes to the presumption that the killers were attacking him as a religious figure. Certainly his political opponents were attacking a political enemy, whose opposition they recognized as motivated by religion. Likewise, Romero's opponents were certainly attacking someone they saw as a political enemy, but a political enemy whose religious motivation they implicitly acknowledged by murdering him as they did at Mass.

Other recent causes (e.g., Saint Maria Goretti and Saint Maximilian Kolbe) have also amplified our understanding of the appropriate criteria of martyrdom. The case of Archbishop Romero, whose beatification we may now confidently expect to follow sometime soon continues this important development in our appreciation of martyrdom in the life and mission of the Church.





Sunday, February 1, 2015

Still "Missing Septuagesima"

In the old calendar, that the Church enjoyed the use of for some 1500 years, today would have been Septuagesima Sunday, the first of three Sundays that marked off these weeks as a distinctive pre-lenten season. Last year, on February 15, I posted "Missing Septuagesima," reflecting on our loss of this pre-lenten season in the current calendar. (http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2014/02/missing-septuagesima.html). 

That generated some modest interest. So I thought I might revisit that topic today. If, on one side of the proverbial aisle, there are fanatics who totally disparage the way the Church worshipped for over 1500 years, there are, on the other, those who seem convinced that the Church's worship reached a state of Platonic perfection with the Breviary and Missal of 1568 and 1570 respectively, to which any improvement is inconceivable and from which all alteration might as well be a sign of the apocalypse. Both positions are absurd, of course. The problem with trying to stake out a plausible position somewhere in between those extremes, however, is that it requires one to make intelligent judgments about which aspects of the post-Tridentine arrangement it may have been wise to alter and which it may have been mistaken to change. 

In such matters, I think the saying supposedly attributed to Chesterton may apply: "If it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change." Applying that principle to the liturgy, I can easily acknowledge the obvious merit, for example, of a more extensive Sunday and weekday lectionary, of the restoration of the Universal Prayer, of eliminating Commemorations at least from the Mass (although perhaps not from the Office), and of extending the Kiss of Peace to all Masses - even if the way some of these have reforms have taken shape in actual practice over the past half-century may leave something to be desired. On the other hand, I can just as easily lament the loss of the Last Gospel, for example, and much more importantly regret the wholesale rearrangement of the calendar on questionable premises and with such unimpressive results. To me, the abolition of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays certainly falls in this latter category - along with the abolition of Ember and Rogation Days and the pointless and apparently arbitrary reassignment of so many saints' days.

To the extent that a plausible case could have been made for eliminating pre-lent from the calendar, I think Septuagesima suffered certainly from its inherent in-betweenness - being a little like Lent but not quite Lent yet. Ambiguity is always a challenge, and I think the bureaucracy that created the current calendar probably had very little appreciation for ambiguity. Septuagesima meant purple vestments, no Gloria, and absolutely no more Alleluia till Easter. On the other hand, flowers could still decorate the altar, the organ could still be played at will, and Wedding Masses were still celebrated. The Sunday Masses were proper, but the Office remained that per annum. It was just much too hermaphroditic a season to survive the more binary bureaucratic mindset!

On the other hand, the three now completely lost Sundays each had a magnificent Mass formulary dating back to Pope Saint Gregory the Great's time, and their Roman stational churches - St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, St. Peter's - attested to their importance, particularly in terms of the catechumenate. Perhaps, the desire to homogenize traditional liturgical variations that seems to have motivated so much of the reform may have been misplaced. Maybe more discernment might have separated valuable variations from merely antiquarian customs - like the subdeacon holding the paten with the humeral veil in front of his face for much of the Mass, for example. The abandonment  of which quaint antiquarianisms has not really been much of a loss (except perhaps in that case for vestment makers who have lost their market for red, green, and purple humeral veils!)

In an earlier age, all those visual and other variations in the liturgy aided the community in letting the liturgical seasons facilitate faith's connection with the rhythms of ordinary life. Today now that that connection has been almost completely severed, even if Septuagesima somehow were to be providentially restored, how much notice would it even get?