Sunday, August 30, 2015

"First-Fruits of his Creatures"

What Jews call the Torah - the statutes and decrees Moses taught the people to observe [Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8] - was God’s gift to Israel, a sign of God’s special closeness to his people even in the regular routine of their daily lives. It challenged the people to become wise and intelligent enough to observe it, and so serve as a witness to the nations. In contrast to superficial “spiritualities,” that demand relatively little (and accordingly give little in return over the long-term), the conscientious observance of God’s Law was intended to transform every aspect of daily life into an experience of God’s presence – giving meaning and purpose and structure to the regular routines of daily life.

For this reason, for centuries before Jesus – and for centuries since, down to our own troubled time – faithful Jews have observed not only the 613 laws explicitly listed in the Torah, but a host of other observances designed to shore up the fundamentals of the Law. In times of persecution, this so-called “Fence around the Law” could call forth great heroism – as in the famous case of a Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, who used his limited supply of drinking water to observe the rules regarding hand-washing, even at the risk of dying of thirst.

So why this battle between Jesus and the Pharisees [Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23? And who were those Pharisees anyway?

The Pharisees were one of several factions in 1st-century Jewish life. Other major factions included the Sadducees (who were the Temple priests), the Zealots (who wanted to liberate Israel from Roman rule), the Essenes (who lived a quasi-monastic life in the desert), and, later in the century, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, the faction that came to be known as Christians.

Of all their contemporaries, the Pharisees aspired to live the most intense degree of religious observance, while combining that with life in society – unlike, for example, those who went off to live apart from society in the desert. The Pharisees time promoted a day-to-day spirituality. They sought to make the Law come alive in the daily life of every Jew, by relating its commandments to the various spheres of life – living an active, involved life but remaining (as Saint James says in today’s 2nd reading) unstained by the world  [James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27].
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were revered for their religious zeal and dedication. Jesus and the Pharisees likely agreed more than they disagreed. Jesus also engaged in discussions with Pharisees and accepted dinner invitations to Pharisees’ homes. Nonetheless, the Gospel reports that Jesus also had some very harsh words for the Pharisees.

At Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus, God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. In their desire to build a “Fence around the Law,” the Pharisees, who, Like Jesus himself, were all laymen, not Temple priests, had apparently adopted the more rigorous rules of ritual purification that applied primarily to the Temple priests - thus taking seriously the biblical image of all Israel as in some special sense a priestly people. The evangelist, trying to explain all this to his 1st-century Gentile Christian audience, emphasized that this tradition of the elders represented a human addition to God’s commandments. One of the likely reasons why this incident was recounted in the Gospel may have been because of the ongoing concern about how Gentile converts could best be assimilated into the originally all-Jewish Christian community. The account clearly portrays Jesus as a higher authority than the Pharisees when it comes to the interpretation and application of what God commands as opposed to merely human custom.

Identifying what is essential to living an authentic Christian moral life, sorting that out from the human and cultural envelope within which we inevitably receive it, is – always has been, and will always remain – a constant challenge for as long as the good news of Jesus brings new people from every nation, race, culture, and language into his Church.

On the other hand, creating and maintaining a cultural envelope within which one can live a moral life is essential. Ultimately, what we do does matter, lest we delude ourselves, as James warned us against in today’s 2nd reading. Neither Jesus nor his disciples would have lived as they lived or died as they did, if they had believed that anything goes. If anything, Jesus actually challenged his hearers to an even more demanding moral standard. Listen to the list of sins Jesus warned against: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Imagine if we all gave up folly!)

The Pharisees’ problem was that, while the Law was supposed to be a special sign of God’s closeness, here was God himself present in Jesus, but the experts in the law were completely missing the point.

Of course, this is not a temptation unique to 1st-century Pharisees. It is a universal temptation that can cause us to miss the point at any time and in any place. It is a temptation to which Pope Francis referred last October in his Address at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. It is “a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit),” wanting to close oneself “within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.”

In Jesus, God has become present to transform us into the priestly people which the Law was meant to signal, to turn us around, to turn our entire lives around, to authentic, life-long, day-in, day-out discipleship – or, as James more poetically expressed it, that we might be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 30, 2013.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

American Citizenship

But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.  (Acts 22:25-29)

On at least two occasions - the incident in Jerusalem cited above and an earlier incident in Philippi (Acts 16:37-39), Saint Paul publicly invoked the fact of his Roman citizenship - a status which the local authorities felt constrained to take seriously. And when the Roman Tribune who questioned Paul in Jerusalem acknowledged that he had paid a considerable sum to acquire Roman citizenship for himself, Paul proudly retorted, "But I was born a citizen."  

One of the things that has made America so exceptional has been the primacy of an American civic identity which coexists with Americans' other inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. Generally speaking, most modern national states have an identity which is inherently bound up with an inherited national, ethnic, racial, or linguistic identity, which somehow helps to define both the state and its citizens in terms of their Frenchness, Germanness, Italianness, etc. In contrast, the United States has from the beginning cultivated a distinctive civic identity, shared by all citizens regardless of their inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. One key component of this shared American civic identity, of this experience of Americanness, is the fact that American citizenship is automatically acquired by those who are born here, whether their parents were themselves born here or came here as immigrants (as almost every American citizen's ancestors did at some point).

This has been a guiding principle for much of this country's history. When the infamous Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans in 1857, Jone Justice argued in dissent: At the Declaration of Independence, and ever since, the received general doctrine has been, in conformity with the common law, that free persons born within either of the colonies, were the subjects of the King; that by the Declaration of independence, and the consequent acquisition of sovereignty by the several States, all such persons ceased to be subjects, and became citizens of the several States.

It was to undo that justly derided Dred Scott decision that the 1866 Civil Rights Act aimed to declare citizens all those born in the United States (with certain specific exceptions, such as Indians who were then still considered primarily as members of other sovereign nations). This position was ultimately incorporated into the Constitution in 1868 in the 14th Amendment, which famously states: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction therefor, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

That is the brighter side of the story. A sadder, darker side of the American story is the periodic appearance and persistence of anti-immigrant nativist movements, as the descendants of yesterday's immigrants seek to close Lady Liberty's Golden Door shut against today's immigrants and their children. Nativism is one of those curious constants in this nation of immigrants' otherwise inspiring story. Just recently, for example, I have been reading Paul Moses, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015), which recalls the 19th and early 30th-century hostility of early generations of New York Irish against the more recently arrived Italians. Particularly interesting is his account of the hostile reception Italians received from their clergy and co-religionists in the Irish-run Church. (The rest of society also treated the Italians badly in that era when progressive opinion endorsed then fashionable theories about superior and inferior races and nations.) How much more defenseless would Italian and Jewish and other immigrant groups have been had they not benefitted - as all immigrant groups have benefited - from the American legal tradition of Birthright Citizenship.

Birthright Citizenship has had a particular relevance for my family story. What little family lore I learned growing up all came form my immigrant non-citizen grandmother. My grandparents and their children came to the US in 1920 at the tail end of the great wave of Italian immigration. At some point in the mid-920s, my grandparents and their younger children returned to Sicily for several years, while the two oldest children had remained in New York. But, before they went back, my mother was born in New York in 1922 - a native-born American citizen. Eventually, in 1930, my grandparents and the younger children (including my mother) returned to America in order to reunite the family. By then, of course, entrance into the United States had become much more restricted. But, because my mother was an American citizen, they were able to get back in.

If America is the land of e pluribus unum - one identity out of many nationalities, races, religions, and languages - that one identity has in large part been possible because of the common American citizenship that has been the first benefit of being born in this free country.

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Atypical and Unique Year

As I mentioned in another context a week ago, today is the 34th anniversary of my reception into my community's Novitiate - then still located at beautiful Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ. We were a class of 8, which was then still considered small! (Of the 8 of us, 3 of us are still serving as priests, but I am the only one still in the community.)

This month, God willing, we will welcome two new novices. Their novitiate experience will undoubtedly differ from mine in important respects - not least because their novitiate year will not be in semi-rural northern New Jersey but instead will be passed in Washington, DC, and under the same roof as the students in Temporary Profession who have already completed their novitiate and are now studying theology at the Catholic University of America. 

But, unlike the academic study of theology and the various programs of pastoral formation which are essentially similar in most seminaries, the novitiate experience - regardless of its physical location - is a unique component of formation for membership in a religious community. Its purpose is to provide a process for the novice’s transition from secular life to religious life,  - no small feat in a society which is increasingly post-religious and thus less and less capable of comprehending, let alone supporting, any kind of spiritual vocation.

It would be false to say that as novices back in 1981-1982 we were isolated from the world around us, but it was (and was deliberately intended to be) an atypical and unique year - substantially different from the lives we had individually been living before that in order to enable us together to embrace a qualitatively different experience of life. A more simply focused style of life, revolving around the routines of shared community and a more intensely lived liturgical experience, it was intended to concentrate our attention by offering (as our wise novice director used to like to say) no escape from oneself, from the others in the community, or from God.

These many years later, I still treasure that experience, that time shared with myself, my fellow novices, and God in the natural beauty and uplifting environment of my novitiate. May all future generations of novices be similarly blessed as they respond to the invitation and challenge of religious life!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

To Go or to Stay?

I, for one, am old enough to remember when candidates for president didn’t even announce their candidacies until after January 1 of a presidential election year. But no more! Although the next election is more than 14 months away, the campaign (and the media coverage of it) is already in full swing.  And that usually means excessive attention to short-term fluctuations in public opinion: who’s up and who’s down in the latest poll and the profound significance of that – at least until the next poll says something completely different! And our addiction to polls doesn’t stop after the election. Elected officials, presidents in particular, constantly ride this ridiculous roller-coaster of short-term ups and downs in popularity, which we (guided by the media) invest with inflated significance.

Towards the end of the 2006 film The Queen, there is a wonderful scene when the British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) comes to the palace for his regular audience with the Queen. In the course of their conversation, the Prime Minister tries to reassure Her Majesty that her temporary slip in popularity at the time of her daughter-in-law’s death was - just that – temporary. To this, the older, wiser, and much more politically experienced Queen replies: “you saw those headlines, and you said, ‘one day that will happen to me.’ And it will, Mr. Blair, suddenly and without warning.” And, of course, by the time the movie was made that was exactly what had happened, which was probably why that scene was in the film and why that scene got the audience reaction it did when I first saw it!

Similarly, the 2008 PBS mini-series John Adams had a scene when the normally not particularly popular President Adams goes to the theater and unexpectedly receives a rapturous ovation thanks to a particular position he had recently taken. Unimpressed, Adams, who realizes how temporary and short-lived such a sudden burst of popularity probably may be, says to one of his associates: "A mob is still a mob, even if it's on your side"

And, of course, what Adams understood and what the Queen was warning her Prime Minister about is all so very true. Popularity is ephemeral. Obviously, an important lesson for anyone who wants or depends on having a popular following!

Jesus also attracted a noticeable popular following in his time. Backtracking through 5 weeks of Sunday Gospel accounts to the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, we will recall how the delighted crowd responded by attempting to acclaim Jesus as their king – a dubious honor perhaps, given the perilous political situation in Israel at that time, but certainly a good barometer of Jesus’ popularity, thanks to his demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker.

Since then, however, just like a modern news audience tracking a candidate’s declining poll numbers, we have watched the steady drop in Jesus’ popularity, as he proceeded to tell his audience things they really didn’t want to hear. That, of course, is the danger any serious public figure faces! That's the age-old difference between a leader, who tells people what they need to hear, and a demagogue, who just tells them what they want to hear! In Jesus’ case, the cheering stopped as it became apparent to people that the miraculous feeding of the 5000 was not just an entertaining interruption in life’s regular routine, or a ticket to a lifetime of free lunches, but rather a challenge to reorient their lives in relation to a more permanent reality.

At the point at which we pick up the story today [John 6:60-69], the popular disillusionment with Jesus has become aggressively vocal: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  The “hard saying,” of course, was Jesus’ shocking claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Strong language to be sure – a bit too strong for his hearers’ tastes! The Gospel account allows us to listen in on this drama of division and discord which Jesus’ tough talk has caused – as a result of which many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
At this critical juncture, Jesus turned to that most select group of his disciples - the 12 - and asked: “Do you also want to leave?”

At this critical juncture, the 12 are called upon to step up and commit themselves. They do so through their designated leader, Peter, who performs this fundamental function in all 4 Gospels. “Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Centuries earlier, something similar had transpired when the Israelites had gathered with Joshua at Shechem [Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b].  Challenged by Joshua, the people answered, reflecting on what they had learned about God through their own experience as a people - how he had brought them up out of slavery, how he had performed great miracles, and how he had protected them along their entire journey.

What was anticipated in Israel’s experience was finally fulfilled in Jesus, who is God’s personal experience of human existence from the inside, from our side. So, if we want to encounter God and find life for our world, then we must recognize the human ways in which God has chosen to encounter us – as Joshua challenged the people to recognize in the experience of Israel, as Paul challenged the Ephesians to recognize in the sacrament of Christian marriage [Ephesians 5:21-32], as Jesus challenged the 12 to recognize in himself - and challenges us to make our own Peter’s question and answer: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Is Jesus just one option among many? Or have we too come to believe and be convinced that he is the one and only one to go to.

Just as Peter had to answer the question whether to stay or to leave and why, so too must we – today and every day. What does it really mean here and now for us to stay?

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 23, 2015.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Sacrament of the Moment

Earlier this week, 90-year old former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he has begun treatment for cancer in his liver and his brain. His announcement elicited the predictable, sympathetic comments from well-wishers. A potentially fatal illness naturally invites sympathy and compassion. A good reminder of our common mortality, it is one of the few things that still seems able to transcend the narrow niches into which we have tragically segregated ourselves, with all the now all so evident resultant cultural divisions and political polarization.

But in a special way the style and grace exhibited by President Carters in his announcement also seem to have touched many of his hearers, as reflected in the repeated airing of his announcement and the many admiring comments it has received. On Friday's PBS Newshour, for example, Judy Woodruff referred to how "gracefully" Carter spoke of his condition. Against the contrasting background of our increasingly secular society, Mark Shields highlighted this as yet another illustration of the "social as well as individual value of religious faith," showing what Shields called "grace, courage, and humor, and faith in the face of this daunting and dooming news." Meanwhile Michael Gerson saw in Carter's behavior and example of how to approach the danger of death - with "calmness," "grace," and "gratitude."

Carter indeed highlighted how he has much to be grateful for - a long and until now healthy life, rich in family and friends and experiences, including one term as President of the United States and an impressive (and, he seemed to suggest, much more satisfying) productive post-presidential career full of good works. While we all may have much to be grateful for, some certainly have enjoyed exceptional opportunities to excel in the kids of accomplishments a good person might want to be remembered for. Carter has certainly had that opportunity, and (it seems fair to say) has made the most of it, doing much good for the world.

Carter's political legacy may be debated. I have never thought of his presidency as particularly successful. One could argue that his spectacularly unsuccessful presidency resulted the electoral revolution of 1980 which produced such a profoundly tragic transformation of American society and politics. That said, few former presidents have demonstrated a commitment to the public good as obviously effective as his post-presidential Carter Center years have demonstrated. And it cannot fail to be noted how rooted his life and work have been in his Christian faith and zeal. 

None of us is perfect. Even canonized saints, whose virtue has been deemed heroic, have exhibited flaws in life. In the end, it all comes down to grace - God's grace - and how one responds to it and lives it. How fitting, I think, that the words "grace" and "gracious" have been so plentiful in comments about Carter's announcement. And I am old enough to remember candidate Carter, when asked to name his favorite hymn, naming Amazing Grace. Obviously, there may be a certain historical and cultural context connected with that particular choice, and a person of faith coming from a different milieu might well have named some other hymn instead. But the hymn he chose certainly speaks to how the invitation and the challenge of the Gospel have been experienced by him and many others with abundant and fruitful benefit for the world.

We pray that his treatments may be successful, but also that his faith-filled resilience may inspire all of us as we struggle through the ups and downs of life and leading to its inexorable end. May we all learn to approach both life at every stage and life at its end with grace and gratitude. 

Thinking about what it means to live and age well, I have often reflected on a sentence of Thomas Merton (written on January 18, 1950, as he approached the age of 35).  “There is nothing left for me but to live fully and completely in the present, praying when I pray, and writing and praying when I write, and worrying about nothing but the wish and the glory of God, finding these as best I can in the sacrament of the moment.” [Entering the Silence, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 400.]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For the Sake of the Kingdom (continued)

In his now famous conclusion of the Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (6/26/2015), Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Justice Kennedy's conclusion that the Constitution therefore somehow mandates same-sex marriage may in fact be an unjustified legal and logical leap. But the sentiments which Justice Kennedy expressed so evocatively in his opinion's concluding paragraph certainly suggest how many - maybe most - people have experienced marriage and family and how seriously they feel about it even now. It is something people typically want - indeed strongly desire. What they want is not necessarily the stylized nuclear family of 1950s sitcoms, but people do definitely desire connectedness, family feeling, mutual emotional and economic support, and love. And this desire perdures despite the varied social and institutional forms family structures have assumed over time. Family life is certainly not stress-free and often involves disappointment and heartbreak. But by and large people for the most part still want it. And family life remains still the bedrock foundation for society. (Hence the intensity of the controversies concerning problematic new definitions of marriage and family.)

Long before Justice Kennedy discovered the universal hope "not to be condemned to live in loneliness," biblical revelation recognized this desire for connection and communion, this desire to love and be loved, the widespread human feeling that it is not good that the man should live alone (Genesis 2:18). On the other hand, the New Testament explicitly recognizes that, for some, circumstances may preclude this natural fulfillment, while still others may freely embrace an alternative to the natural family for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12).

The alternative vocation of celibate religious life simultaneously affirms and transcends the natural human desire for family. It recognizes that the latter remains the ordinary way to live in this world. It is a way of life which not only contributes to human beings' natural fulfillment and the common good of society but also expands people's moral horizons - as the young Saint Augustine famously learned from the experience of having a son (cf. Confessions, IV, 2, 11).  And, inasmuch as nature is inherently oriented beyond itself to the order of grace, the faithful living out of any ordinary state of life in the world is itself a life of devotion and a way of perfection. For God "has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character,his status, and his calling" (Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, chapter 3).

That is why I think that certain statements in the First Things article I mentioned yesterday (calling for an increased emphasis in the Church on the celibate vocation) may unfortunately be somewhat overstated and misleading and thus counter-productive. Moreover, in this present era, when the wider world no longer serves as a social and cultural support for faith as it once (actually until relatively recently) did, it seems to me that mediating institutions like the family are inevitably challenged to step up and do that much more to provide that supplementary social support. All the more reason, therefore, to highlight the family's vocation to holiness and to encourage couples and families in its conscious pursuit! All the more reason to highlight examples of heroic familial sanctity and to canonize more married people and more married couples!

All that having been said, however, God's revelation of himself in Jesus ultimately points to a final human fulfillment far more complete than the limited temporal horizons of family and society and a destiny more permanent than the generation-after-generation continuance of the human story which marriage and family life make possible. Hence, the highest, most special vocation of all - martyrdom. And, hence also the special vocations of consecrated and apostolic life in the Church, which today also need to be more consciously valued and energetically promoted.

The chastity "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse (Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, 12)

Monday, August 17, 2015

For the Sake of the Kingdom

Today's Gospel reading at Mass (Matthew 19:16-22) recounted the sad story of the rich young man, who initially approached Jesus with enthusiasm, but who, after being invited by Jesus to go beyond the ordinary path to salvation and to follow Jesus in an extraordinary life of evangelical poverty, went away sad, for he had many possessions. This part of the story is traditionally sometimes seen as suggesting the special vocation in the Church of religious life according to the evangelical counsels

That reminded me that one week from today will be the 34th anniversary of my own reception into the Paulist Novitiate, then located at beautiful, semi-rural Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, NJ (photo). We were a class of eight, which at that time (1981) still seemed somewhat small. Of the eight of us, while all made 1st Profession and began theological study in Washington, DC, only four of us went on to final profession in 1986. One of the other four was ordained a diocesan priest later that year and is still serving faithfully in that ministry. Of the four who made Final Profession as Paulists, three of us were eventually ordained, and two of us are still serving as priests, but I am the only one still a Paulist. I mention that not to toot my own horn but to call attention to the tragic pattern of attrition which exemplifies what seems to be religious life's contemporary vocations crisis.

Just recently, I came across an interesting article calling for a renewed emphasis in the Church on the celibate vocation - Patricia Snow, "Dismantling the Cross, First Things 252 (April 2015) - 

First Things is, of course, a conservative publication, founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus that purports to oppose the reigning ideology of contemporary secular liberalism, from a politically and socially conservative perspective. However, given that the exaltation of (faithful, monogamous, heteronormative) marriage has now become such a centerpiece of American traditionalist thinking, encountering such a strongly made argument in that publication seemed to me not quite but almost as striking as finding it in, say, the Sunday New York Times Magazine might be!

Put simply, the article's argument starts from a traditional Catholic contention, very much rooted in certain New Testament treatments of the issue, that the celibate vocation (not just singleness but celibacy for the sake of the kingdom) has a privileged position because it anticipates "the world of the future resurrection," that the Church has historically "depended upon a healthy interaction" between "the normal calling of marriage" and "the exceptional calling of priesthood or religious life," and that the contemporary failure to present this traditional teaching adequately is resulting in an increased emphasis "on natural rather than supernatural relationships" - and a consequent decline in religious vocations.

Although this is a case that clearly deserves to be made, my first reaction to the article was that certain elements of the argument are somewhat overstated. For example, I wonder whether the contention that people in earlier periods were less likely than people today to remarry after the death of a spouse may be historically sustainable - or is it an unusual reading of past experience that fits in with a certain theological scheme of argument. I think that, until only very recently, for most people in most societies of most of human history, marriage was the normal state of life. Accordingly my guess is that second (and third) marriages of widows and widowers (if only to provide for adequate care of children and management of households) must have been actually quite common.

That said, however, the article's questionable overstatements notwithstanding, its core contention still compels consideration - in keeping with the clear sense of the New Testament and the Church's consistent tradition. 

Until the end of the world, marriage, which perpetuates the human race and produces new members for the Church, is essential for the Church's life. It is, as the Anglicans say in their beautiful liturgical language, "an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency," which "Christ adorned and beautified with his presence," and which "is commended by Saint Paul to be honourable among all." But, because maintaining human community and continuing the human race from generation to generation in this world isn't humanity's exclusive end, celibate religious life, which anticipates the eschatological future, when they neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35) is also essential for the Church's life. So it needs to be valued and promoted accordingly.

The people of God have no lasting city here below, but look forward to one that is to come. Since this is so, the religious state, whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below. Furthermore, it not only witnesses to the fact of a new and eternal life acquired by the redemption of Christ, but it foretells the future resurrection and the glory of the heavenly kingdom. Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church. The religious state clearly manifests that the Kingdom of God and its needs, in a very special way, are raised above all earthly considerations. Finally it clearly shows all men both the unsurpassed breadth of the strength of Christ the King and the infinite power of the Holy Spirit marvelously working in the Church. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 44)

To be continued.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Our Vanishing Holy Days

Today the Church celebrates the great and ancient feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (a feast my grandmother affectionately used to call La Madonna di mezz'agosto, "Our Lady of Mid-August"). But one might easily be excused for not noticing it here in the United States, where once again the celebration of a major holy day is seriously attenuated by the misfortune of its falling on a Saturday this year. (Next year the Assumption will fall on a Monday, thanks to Leap Year, which will have essentially the same effect.)

The curious American practice of dropping the obligation from some of our few remaining holy days of obligation whenever they fall on either a Saturday or a Monday is one of the more difficult things to explain. No doubt it was done with the best of intentions, but its de facto legacy will likely be to be remembered as part of the late 20th-century's dismantling of a once vibrant American Catholic culture. Why Monday should be any less sacred than Tuesday or Wednesday is anybody's guess. In the end, of course, Tuesday and Wednesday suffer too, since it is the holy days themselves that are the ultimate losers in this process - as is the very idea of sacred times intruding into conventional secular time, as that very notion becomes increasingly incomprehensible.

All holy days - precisely by being holy - represent the sacred intruding upon our otherwise secular time, the conventional calendar of the work week. That is why they are so inconvenient. That is precisely why they are so important!

If anything, the make the proper impact, we need more holy days - not fewer!

Given the great mystery that it celebrates, the Assumption represents that sacred intrusion into secular time in an especially heightened way. It certainly deserves to be a full-fledged holy day every year!

In his meditation on the Assumption, which he attached to his 1961 Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Pope Saint John XXIII wrote:

"[The Assumption] is a source of consolation and faith, in days of grief or pain, for those privileged souls - such as we can all become, if only we respond to grace - whom God is silently preparing for the most beautiful victory of all, the attainment of holiness."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Our Vanished Vigils

“I miss all the Vigils. Why on earth were they suddenly suppressed?”

So wrote the 20th century's most famous monk, Thomas Merton, on December 7, 1959, which until recently had been observed as the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. When Merton wrote that, today (August 14) was still the Vigil of the Assumption. Prior to the rubrical reforms of 1955, the Roman Rite had 16 vigils of varying rank. After 1955, the Roman Rite retained only 7 (those of Christmas, Pentecost, the Ascension, the Assumption, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Lawrence), suppressing the other 9 (those of the Epiphany, the Immaculate Conception, All Saints, and the Apostles Andrew, Thomas, James the Greater, Bartholomew, Matthew, and Simon and Jude.) But now, since the 1969 calendar reform, it has none at all. Not even Christmas Eve survived the bureaucrats' cut!

There are, of course, a great many factors (both liturgical and non-liturgical) that have contributed to the erosion of the liturgical calendar's impact on people's consciousness, and it is fair to argue that in a post-Christian culture the deck is already sufficiently stacked against a serious liturgically based spirituality. That said, the general flattening of the calendar, however modest a part of the overall picture, certainly hasn't helped.

Of course, what really gave vigils even greater salience well beyond the few faithful who attended daily Mass (and who might therefore have taken note of the vigils' violet vestments and their significance) was the practice of compulsory fasting and abstinence on at least the more important vigils. I am old enough to remember when fasting and abstinence were still observed on the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, Assumption, and Immaculate Conception. My guess is that in an even earlier era fasting and abstinence were likewise observed on some of the other vigils as well. In contrast to today's almost uniformly flat weekly calendar, that widespread and recognized practice helped to highlight at least some of the greatest festivals as they occurred during the week. 

A story. On one December 7, not quite 60 years ago, My mother, my sister, and I went to Macy's on 34th Street to buy new shoes for Christmas. As we were being fitted by one of my mother's Jewish co-workers, she asked my mother what holy day it was that day. What had made her think it was a Catholic holy day? She had inferred that it was a Catholic holy day because so many people were eating fish in the local eatery! My mother explained to her friend that the next day was the actual holy day, and that what as being observed that day was the vigil (hence the fish). 

Can anyone imagine such a conversation occurring today? More to the point, when a major holy day occurs on a weekday, what are the chances of almost anyone even noticing at all?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Politics of Emotional Intensity

Over at Marquette Warrior (, my old friend and colleague from my brief and now almost forgotten career in academia, Political Science Professor John McAdams, presents what might be called an "establishment," "conservative," "Republican" case against Donald Trump's candidacy. (The case as presented is largely cited from the blog of a lawyer and colleague of his, Rick Esenberg, whose full post can be found at

In contrast to those of us on the other side of the ideological divide, who who may be experiencing some Schadenfreude at the problems Trump has posed for his Republican rivals and, more to the point, who perceive in Trump's apparent excesses an unfiltered, unedited version of what American "conservatism" has become, Esenberg argues that such a view is "preposterous" because Trump "is not conservative. He is a big government crony capitalist who has fed at the subsidy trough and advocated for eminent domain abuse. He is a pro-choice (or was, until yesterday afternoon) and a supporter of Obamacare. He has contributed to Hillary Clinton."

Of course, all that is true. In the long run it may well weaken Trump with more establishment-type GOP primary voters and deny him the nomination. Time will tell. That said, however, at least in the short run all that likely matters a lot less than Esenberg seems to want it to. That is because the basis for the intensity of Trump's support in his distinctive constituency is, as everyone recognizes, primarily emotional and affective, not intellectual or even ideological. The essential emotion involved is anger, a powerful force in politics. And, as political scientists certainly know, intensity can compensate for any number of other deficiencies in a campaign. 

Trump the businessman is the archetypal capitalist - as his responses to the debate questions about his bankruptcies and his political contributions illustrated. Logically, that might make him an odd spokesperson for anti-elitist, "populist" rage. but, of course, in politics logic does not necessarily rule. One of the historical paradoxes of American politics has been the readiness of many ordinary Americans to admire and even identify with successful businessmen, instead of scorning the successful elites in whose interests the system seems so rigged.

The easy readiness of other Republican candidates to acknowledge that the Trump campaign is genuinely in touch with the feelings of a significant segment of society may not merit any of them a place in Profiles in Courage, but it does authentically reflect a certain political reality - including the reality of where their party is now after the years of political incivility and self-induced dysfunction.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A New World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

In an August 6 Papal Letter, addressed to Their Eminences Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson (President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) and Cardinal Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity), Pope Francis has announced the institution of an annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, to be observed on September 1, following the practice of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox connection is significant. The Pope begins his letter by stating that he is instituting this day "at the suggestion" of Metropolitan Ioannis, the representative of the Greek orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose concern for the environment the Pope had already acknowledged in his encyclical Laudato Si'.

Our contemporary secular society seems inundated with all sorts of special thematic, days, weeks, and months. Some, like Mother's Day and Father's Day, are widely observed. Others have much more limited appeal and may only be known to a somewhat more limited audience. Some, like National Doughnut Day (the 1st Friday in June) may merit as much humor as serious observance. 

In recent decades, the Church too has begun to institute such special days, creating a kind of thematic calendar apart from the more traditional liturgical calendar. Thus we now have, for example, a World Day of Consecrated Life on the feast of the Presentation (February 2), a World Day of the Sick on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (February 11), and a World Day of Prayer for Vocations on the 4th Sunday of Easter - to cite three of the better known such special days. To these, Pope Francis has now added a new World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation on September 1.

Such special days (both religious and secular) seem to be one of our modern ways of highlighting a particular cause or concern. So it seems especially fitting that the cause of the Care of Creation, so obviously an important preoccupation of the Pope as his recent encyclical attests, should likewise merit a day of its own. "The annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation will," Pope Francis hopes, "offer individual believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live." In giving the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation such an explicitly ecumenical context, Pope Francis is acknowledging and highlighting the fact that this is "a time when all Christians are faced with the same decisive challenges, to which we must respond together, in order to be more credible and effective."

Hopefully, this new Catholic and ecumenical World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation will heighten the consciousness of Christians regarding the spiritual and religious dimensions of the world-wide environmentally related challenges outlined in such detail in Laudato Si' and will further foster the kind of spiritual and religious conversion of heart which alone can effectively respond to those challenges. 

For American Catholics, this new World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation comes virtually on the eve of the Pope's pastoral visit to the United States, a further invitation to the American Catholic community to realign its priorities along the lines laid out in Laudato Si'.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Rudeness Factor

The news continues to be dominated by Donald Trump's latest comments (in particular his post-debate onslaught against debate moderator Megyn Kelly) and by both media and Republican reactions Of course, to a certain extent this is what we have come to expect. The media focuses on that sort of thing, indeed thrives on it. One of the constants of American political campaigns is how journalists consistently distract the electorate with short-term "horse-race" comparisons, and an emphasis on "gaffes" and "inside-the campaign" news and "inside the beltway" concerns.

That said, Trump's litany of insults - beginning with his comments about Mexicans, then moving on to his dismissive characterization of Senator John McCain, and now his weird reaction to Megyn Kelly's questioning - may well be pushing the envelope of what is palatable political rudeness. But in doing so Trump is really reflecting two other already well established trends. The first is the long-term coarsening of our society, reflected in the increasingly rude and vulgar character of ordinary language. This has been going on since at least the 1960s, got a great boost first from the growth of cable TV and subsequently from the development of social media. There has always been vulgar talk in the world, of course; but 50-60 years ago there was also a standard for polite conversation. That standard has consistently been eroded in the past 50-60 years (along with any real distinction between polite and vulgar conversation), each generation further debasing what was left of the civil culture it inherited. What was once simply unacceptable in public is now normal.

But there is a second trend, which parallels the first and to some extent benefits from the first. That is the increasingly not just coarse and vulgar but spiteful and hateful character of political speech. This is not unprecedented either. Its antecedents can be detected int he early years of the republic. In the 1950s, it characterized Joseph McCarthy and his allies. In the early 1960s, it was associated with what was then labelled "the radical right." In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, it was the New Left. In recent years, it has been opposition to President Obama that has increasingly expressed itself in this way, what some commentators have called "Obama Derangement Syndrome."  Certainly, something - perhaps the election (and re-election) of a non-white President - seems to have traumatized certain segments in society, rendering them increasingly incapable of rational analysis and civil discourse (both prerequisites for any successfully functioning democratic polity). Trump and his admirers may be taking political rudeness and incivility to new heights, but in this the political Right in general and the Republican Party in particular are just reaping what they have been sowing for years in not distancing themselves from the debasing and destructive direction so-called "conservatism" has taken.

The Trump campaign may have become the latest vehicle for expressing the anger of some of those who feel left behind by the changing character of our society. As is often the case, however, their spokesman hardly fits into that category himself but rather represents extreme success. He is, after all, as his responses to the questions about his bankruptcies and his political contributions illustrated, basically a businessman. If there is an ideology there it is an ideology that values success and favors "winners" while disparaging society's "losers."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lesson Under a Tree

There are times in life when nothing seems to go right, despite all our best efforts. We try our best, but our best just isn’t good enough. Too much is being demanded of us; too much expected of us. We get worn out and want to give up – just like Elijah in today’s 1st reading.

Elijah was maybe the most remembered prophet of the Old Testament. He appeared abruptly - as if out of nowhere to resist King Ahab and his pagan Queen, Jezebel, who had corrupted Israel’s religion with worship of the foreign god Baal.

In competition with 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, he had dramatically demonstrated God’s superiority over Baal. He had then executed the 450 pagan prophets, and God had finally ended Israel’s 3-year drought. But what should have been Elijah’s greatest moment of triumph ended in frustration as he then had to flee from the Queen, who was determined to kill him in revenge.  So he descended from the mountaintop of elation into the desert of despondency, which is where we encounter him at the beginning of today’s reading [1 Kings 19:4-8] - on the run, exhausted in body,  broken in spirit, filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Most of us don’t lead such significantly public lives. So our own dramas of frustration and failure seldom seem so dramatic. Occasionally, the feelings of otherwise ordinary un-public people sometimes spill out in public - even erupting in violent acts such as so many of the ones we have witnessed over and over again in various cities around the country. At the other extreme, some try, with greater or lesser degree of success, to keep such feelings behind a defensive wall, in an attempt to insulate both themselves and society from their effects. In between these extremes, feelings of frustration and failure frequently spill out in bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling – malicious behaviors, which Saint Paul [Ephesians 4:30 – 5:2] said grieve the Holy Spirit of God.

In contrast, Paul instructed the Ephesians to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done!

So how does one get from here to there?

Ready to give up, Elijah fell asleep under a tree. Awakened by an angel, he found the nourishment he needed (which he obviously would not normally have expected to find there in the desert), a sure sign that help was on the way. So depressed was he, however, that even after eating and drinking, he fell asleep again - only to be wakened and fed again.  Apparently, Elijah was ready to give up on God, but God was not willing to give up on Elijah.
God really was demanding a lot from Elijah. Hence, God’s unwillingness to let him give up, but hence also his readiness to help, to accompany Elijah on the way, personally providing him with what he would need.

None of us is Elijah, of course. Yet God does expect results even from us. Like Elijah, we too may be tempted at times to feel that much is being expected of us. After all, who can really be expected to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – especially when it seems to produce few if any results?

Just as God was prepared to accompany Elijah and personally provide him with whatever he would need, he does the same for us on our own difficult, tedious journey.  As Saint Paul has reminded us, Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God. Paul’s reminder is always timely – but never more so than in those times and situations when we too feel discouraged and are tempted to give up.

As we have been hearing now week after week, Jesus, the Bread of Life, is our very visible food for the journey – our life-long journey out of the desert of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling to the mountain where, having experienced for ourselves God’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, we can at least begin to become in turn people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for the life of the world.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 9, 2015.