Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Austen

Today is the bicentennial of the death (at 41) of Jane Austen, Regency England's most famous novelist. In her memory, this year I resolved to reread Pride and Prejudice. Actually, much as it shames me to admit it, this was in fact really my first reading of it. Of course, I know the story and have seen more than one film version of it. But, back when I was actually required to read the book in junior year of high school, I did not do so - for ridiculous reasons embarrassing enough not to go into any further. I have always looked upon this as one of the more regrettable lacunae in my education, and this finally seemed the right time to rectify it.

This is not the first time in my life I have read a book after seeing a movie or TV version of it. (Usually, in fact, it is the latter that kindles interest in the former.) When one does that, of course, inevitably one's reading is amplified by visual images from the film or TV version. Having seen more than one version and each more than once, that was certainly especially true with my reading of Pride and Prejudice. I could anticipate scenes and vividly picture them in my mind as I made my way through Austen's masterpiece. It was an experience that says a lot about the dominance of visual media in the way we experience real literature today.

As for the novel itself, which Winston Churchill is supposed to have re-read during World War II, I have little to add to the virtually universal chorus of praise that has enveloped it these past two centuries. (Even Japan has a Jane Austen Society!) That its popularity has survived such dramatic social change, which has made the novel's world almost unrecognizably alien, in a way that it was not yet quite so alien when I first ought to have read it as recently as 50+ years ago, is another tribute to Austen's art. 

A Vicar's's daughter (something she shares with Britain's present Prime Minister, Theresa May), Jane Austen was, I believe, at first published anonymously. But then her work was applauded by no less a person that the Prince Regent himself. Her work has continued to be applauded ever since - and if anything even more so - in recent decades. 

The basic building block in a novel like Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the archetypal human story: boy meets girl, boy and girl get together in spite of any number of real and imagined obstacles, all set in the context of a social marriage market, accepted as critical for the fortunes of the individuals involved and taken for granted as foundational for society's successful functioning and continuance. In Pride and Prejudice, after turning down the unappealing but obviously sensible choice for a woman in her position, Mr. Collins, the heroine gets to marry (and for love) the much more desirable Mr. Darcy, and becomes therefore the mistress of Pemberley, with all that accompanies Pemberley in terms of wealth and social position.

In retelling the archetypal human story, Austen creates characters completely recognizable in their human dilemmas, even as she flawlessly evokes a faraway world whose intricacies of class and social status she seems to have been perfectly skilled at portraying. Sir Walter Scott said she presented her readers "a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around" them. That too is part of her appeal – especially so today, when we look back with wonder and amazement at such a seemingly well-ordered world (so unlike ours in its orderliness and sense of place), while at the same time we recognize the underlying emotional stress that could chaotically co-exist with all that apparent orderliness and which she identified so well - and so perhaps helps us better to identify in our own less well-ordered world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing Seed

A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we all heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing those familiar opening words to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived almost all of my life in cities, parables about farmers sowing seed sound strangely exotic to me. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ original audience would have understood the farmer’s behavior. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farming-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been difficult at best. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean that some seed will be wasted, but it probably also guarantees that at least some will fall on good soil and take root and produce good fruit.

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and so is how he expects his Church to act in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.

We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it - if in fact all we do is talk. We rightly honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who journeyed to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute some 20-something percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

Hence Pope Francis’ evangelization prayer intention for July: that those who have strayed from the faith, may, through our prayer and witness, rediscover the merciful closeness of the Lord and the beauty of the Christian life.

Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them.  The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church. Knoxville, TN, July 16, 2017.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What a Family!

These past three weeks (in churchspeak, the 12th, 13th, and 14th weeks of Ordinary Time), the Old Testament reading at daily Mass has been taken from the biblical book of Genesis. The readings have recounted the amazing family story of the patriarchs - from God's initial call of Abram in Genesis 12 to today's account of Israel's settlement in Egypt and the deaths of Jacob and Joseph in Genesis 50. 

As is so often the case with the Lectionary, large sections of the story are omitted - even at times within particular pericopes. So, for example, a week ago Friday the reading strung together several excerpts from Genesis 23 and 24, mentioning the death of Sarah, then Abraham's plan to marry his son to a relative from back where he came from, and then jumping ahead to Rebekah's arrival and marriage to Isaac. In the process, of course, a lot of the family story's details get left out. The omissions obviously make the story harder to follow. But, even considering all the omissions, it remains a fascinating story of history's most famous family.

God's sudden move in Genesis 12 to call Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) marked a shift from the universal primeval history of Genesis 1-11 to a new focus, centering salvation history in the story of one family - Abraham and his descendants, through whom, in Jesus, the promise would be finally fulfilled, that All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you (Genesis 12:3).

Abraham has rightly been exalted (e.g., in Romans., Galatians, and Hebrews) as a paragon of faith. There is much that is edifying in the story of Abraham's readiness to respond to the Lord's call and to trust in God's promise, even at the cost of having to pick up and move (at the age of 75 - the age at which we nowadays compel bishops to retire). God famously tested Abraham's faith in the promise when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac (through whom the promise was supposed to be fulfilled), and Abraham passed that extreme test. 

All that having been said, still the story of the patriarchal family stands out as much for its strange and seemingly unedifying aspects as for its edifying ones. There is, of course, Abraham's lying about Sarah. Then there is Isaac's seemingly frivolous way of awarding his final blessing, Jacob's cheating to get it, and his mother Rebekah's collusion with her favorite son in what certainly seems like an impious act of deceiving his father (as well as cheating his brother). Jacob himself turned out to be an even less successful parent - favoring Joseph over his brothers, provoking their jealousy and thus causing them to try to kill him. That all of this providentially made Joseph everyone's savior in the subsequent famine highlights God's ongoing commitment to this family and his ability to bring about blessing for many others as well, even in spite of repeated human misbehavior and chronic familial dysfunction. But it does not hide that repeated misbehavior and chronic dysfunction from our notice.

Just as well! For the biblical story is not intended for perfect families such as only exist on Norman Rockwell magazine covers, but about actual struggling people and their consequently flawed families - the regular folks who might be inspired by the Rockwell cover and aspire to imitate its idealized image, but most likely fall far short of it (although are nonetheless better off for aspiring)..

Most of us may feel we fall short of the ideal embodied by Abraham's faith-inspired move to Canaan at 75, but we may find much more to identify with in the more mundane struggles of the patriarchal family, though which we too may aspire to the faith of Abraham and its abundance of blessing.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Focus on the Senate

Amid the endless daily distractions concerning which Trump or Trump surrogate may have said what to which Russians and vice versa, the most immediately consequential issue remains in the Senate, which is still struggling to find a way to keep the majority party's promise to take heath care away from millions of needy Americans in order to give more money to the richest ones, who have no need at all.

Of course, Russia is important. Finding out what happened in the 2016 election (and hopefully not normalizing candidates' cooperation with hostile foreign powers in the future) is important. 

But, our media-driven obsession with scandals and rumors of scandals notwithstanding, the future health prospects of millions of Americans are more important!

A column in last Sunday's NY Times compared Kentucky and its neighbor Tennessee. Prior to Obamacare's full implementation, Kentucky had 14% of its population uninsured and Tennessee had 13% of its population uninsured. But, by 2015, Kentucky, which took full advantage of Obamacare's provisions and implemented the law as was intended, had cut its uninsured percentage of its population to just 6%, while Tennessee was stuck at 11%. That shows what Obamacare, when fully implemented in the public interest for the sake of the common good, has accomplished. And it shows the peril into which people are being put by the majority party's repeal agenda.

Like Obamacare itself, the proposed replacements are complex. One can easily get distracted by all the dreadful detail. And obviously attentiveness to detail is important if we are ever to be at all successful in addressing this problem. Even so, the essence of the problem with the Senate bill (as with the bill already passed by the House) is clear. It was simply stated by the Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a June 27 letter to the Senate and reaffirmed yesterday in light of recent proposed changes in the bill: "All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does not provide access for all people which is truly within their means." 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Air-Conditioning and Its Discontents

It is summer. It is hot, very hot. So I virtually live in air-conditioning. I didn't do so growing up, of course, because then air-conditioning was (or was thought to be) an expensive luxury, something people of our social class presumably didn't deserve. Even the family car wasn't air-conditioned. Nor, come to think of it, was the only car I ever owned (as an assistant professor from 1977 though 1981). The seminary wasn't air-conditioned either, nor were some of the churches I have served in. I know there are people who don't like air-conditioning, who don't mind the heat. But I have no patience with heat, whether at  home or at work or in the car. Heat kills! And air-conditioning has been invented!

That said, I am all too aware of the vicious circle of environmental damage air-conditioning contributes to. As Brian Strassburger, SJ, has recently written at The Jesuit Post
“With global temperatures hitting record highs the past few years, AC use has likewise increased. World energy use for cooling has outstripped the energy used for heating. … In an increasingly hotter planet, air conditioning can be a life-saver. But if it is contributing to heating the planet, does that balance out?”

(Strassburger is a Jesuit-in-Formation, currently working - without air-conditioning - in Managua, Nicaragua. His entire post can be read at: https://thejesuitpost.org/2017/07/air-conditioning-a-luxury-we-cant-afford/)

Air-conditioning has been a godsend - not just in beating the summer heat but also in enabling me to make it through allergy season each year. I can't even imagine anymore ever choosing to go without it. Still, I get the Jesuit's point - not to mention that of an even more prominent Jesuit, Pope Francis, who also has rightly taken aim at air-conditioning (see Laudato Si', 55).

Of course, air-conditioning is one of many culprits in environmental degradation and climate change. But so is so much of modernity. I consider the automobile to be perhaps the most disastrous modern invention - not just for its deleterious effects upon the earth's physical environment, but also for its destructive effects upon our social environment, the harm it has done to family life, community (especially urban) life, etc. I genuinely hate the automobile and all its works. Yet I drive every day. I have to - to do my job, to do almost anything. Like the rest of my contemporaries, I am trapped in modernity's self-destructive web.

All of which points to one of the core dilemmas of contemporary life. Modernity may be killing us (certainly spiritually and, in the case of environmental degradation and climate change, physically as well). We know modernity may be killing us, but we no longer know how to live without it - and probably couldn't do so even if we did know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Longer vs. Shorter Collects

It is no secret that the Collects of the "Ordinary Form" of the Roman Rite (the Rite of Paul VI) are often longer and wordier than the orationes of the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Rite, i.e, the traditional Roman Rite in use in the Latin West until the late 20th century. As is well know, the classical Roman Rite developed within a culture and in a language which lent itself to a sober style that was simple and direct in expression. This characteristic (sometimes called "the Genius of the Roman Rite") was especially evident in the collects, which were often short to the point of virtually interchangeable generality. But in recent centuries a more modern, expressive sensibility began to creep into the liturgy - long before anyone even imagined the Novus Ordo. This sensibility can be detected in some of the more modern Mass texts added to the Missal of Pius V - for example, the 18th-century Mass of the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Of course, it was only to be expected that this modern tendency to verbosity would find an even more congenial home in the contemporary rite's late 20th-century compositions.

Recently British blogger, Fr. Hunwicke, commented on how the newer sanctoral collects in the contemporary rite refer more often than those in the older rite to the distinctive charism of the saint being commemorated. Although himself liturgically clearly quite conservative, he acknowledged that "some of the new collects are indeed fine and cited one example, that of Saint Joseph, "an elegant, slinky, almost Leonine piece of Latinity." Still his endorsement is limited by his view that "A rite should not too closely reflect the fashions of any one particular phase in its history." combined with his concern that the contemporary preference for 'biographical' collects is a something of a modern fad. He emphasizes that "The most important thing about the saints is that they are our fellows now; not dead figures in the past with whom the only relationship that we can have is that of recollection and emulation ... we seek the protection of their prayers, and admission into their consortium."

Fair enough! I agree that the role of the saints as contemporary intercessors certainly needs to be highlighted in the liturgy at least as much as their historical significance and value as role models for our imitation.  But, in defense of "biographical" collects, I would also suggest that the saints' historical significance and value as role models for our imitation has always been relevant and is often a major factor in why a particular saint gets canonized at all and why a particular saint gets a feast in the calendar. If our devotion to the saints were exclusively focused on our contemporary fellowship with them as intercessors in the communion of saints, then in fact we would have little need for feasts of individual saints. The feast of All Saints would suffice! It is precisely the particularity of an individual saint's historical significance in the Church's life and his or her image as a model of sanctity that distinguishes one saint from another and warrants particular as opposed to generalized devotion.

There is undoubtedly something to be said for the classical simplicity and sobriety of the traditional Roman liturgy. But, especially when it comes to the veneration of the saints, the more modern, more wordy, and thus more particularized prayers are, in my opinion, probably a major improvement.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Past Life

Past Life, a hauntingly powerful film by Israeli director Avi Nesher, is a complex story of an Israeli family struggling with coming to terms with a painful past and achieving what partial healing and reconciliation may be possible in this world. Set in Israel, Germany, and Poland in 1977, it is part detective story, as a talented young Israeli singer and would-composer undertakes to uncover the secret of her father's World War II past. It is part medical mystery as her more angrily frustrated sister struggles with serious illness, which in her mind is inseparable from the family's wartime legacy. And it is a moving family drama, as two families, permanently damaged by the war are unexpectedly reconnected and forced to reconsider their lives and their responses to their past. 

It takes time to uncover the whole past. What we start out thinking was the crime in question turns out to be but the entryway to a more complex and much more morally problematic tragic post-war experience. The gradual process of revelation is symbolically ritualized, as it were, in the father's drawn out re-construction of his wartime diary.  Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come together, resulting in a deeply moving conclusion, in which (against the background of Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem) the human difficulty of offering forgiveness and the limitations of achieving reconciliation are demonstrated. Although healing and reconciliation are tragically incomplete, it is still possible at the end for everyone, through honest confrontation the past, to end up in a better place than where he or she started.

This may be one of the year's most thought-provoking and challenging films.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Searching for Amelia

I have never been an aviation aficionado.  The history of World War II and the period leading up to it has always fascinated me, but never enough to generate any serious interest in the Amelia Earhart mystery.  As I suppose most people know, Amelia Earhart (b. 1897) was a famously successful American aviator, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, who mysteriously disappeared somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific on July 2, 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe by air. 

Earhart was an accomplished person as well as an advocate for aviation and for women’s issues. (United Press called her “Queen of the Air,” and she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment). But she is mostly remembered less for her accomplishments and advocacy and more for her mysterious disappearance. The still unresolved story of her strange disappearance has fascinated people for decades and produced a host of theories – from the reasonably obvious (running out of fuel and crashing into the ocean, or landing on some other island and dying there) to the clearly conspiratorial (Earhart and her Navigator, Fred Noonan, as American spies captured and executed by the Japanese, Earhart as “Tokyo Rose,” even Earhart returning incognito to the US and living in New Jersey under a new identity).

Generally speaking, I eschew conspiracy theories. The more reasonable, more obvious explanations are usually more obvious precisely because more reasonable. Of course, I can understand that, when something novel or unexpected happens, it is tempting to go outside the perimeter of plausibility to concoct an explanation, But, as a general rule, such explanations are implausible for good reason. Conspiratorial explanations do seem to appeal more to some sorts of people than to others - often to those themselves in some respects beyond the perimeter or at least on the border. The danger of course, is that conspiracy theorizing normalizes such borderline thinking and breeds distrust - distrust of institutions and of each other, something we have more than enough of right now.

That said, i watched last night’s History Channel special "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence," with a skeptical bias but (given how little I know about her story) with a somewhat open mind.

The program's case rests on a hitherto overlooked photo photo found in the National Archives (possibly taken by someone spying on the Japanese) that could plausibly portray both Earhart and Noonan (and their airplane) in Japanese captivity in a harbor in the Marshall Islands (then  under Japanese rule). Of course, the identification of the two and their plane cannot be absolutely certain. Nor is the photo's date definite.  The argument is that the two Americans were eventually kept captives by the Japanese on Saipan until they were executed and buried there.

Besides the photo, what makes the case somewhat compelling is the number of islanders who claimed to have seen the two in Japanese custody at various times. The belief that they landed in the Marshall Islands is sufficiently strong there to have even been the subject of postage stamps. In 1987 the Republic of the Marshall Islands issued a set of four commemorative stamps for the 50th anniversary of their crash-landing in the Mili Atoll.

The program makes a plausible case for its story. An implication is that the US knew Earhart survived but kept that secret - perhaps in order to keep secret the fact that the US had broken the Japanese Code. That latter possibility makes the whole scenario somewhat more credible - more than just the standard conspiratorial view that the US government is hiding something from us!

Why all this might have happened is what I find intriguing. It is, of course, possible that she was an American spy. More likely, she was just the victim of Japanese suspicion. Why were they so suspicious at a time when war with the US was still not inevitable? 

Like so many historical mysteries, this one may never be satisfactorily resolved. But the theory that Earhart and her companion survived a crash landing only to fall into Japanese hands certainly has credibility - and continues as a result to raise even more questions about the mysterious history of that pre-war period.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Oil on Troubled Waters"

This past week, we celebrated our national Independence Day holiday, commemorating the epic conflict in which our country was created and assumed its place in the larger world community of nations and states.

The great 19th-century observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1835 that a person “will endeavor … to harmonize the state in which he lives upon earth, with the state which he believes to await him in heaven.” As Catholics, of course, we have a long history (going back to the Roman Empire) of thinking seriously about how to relate our faith to civil society – a long tradition of practical wisdom which we need to take seriously both as disciples and as citizens.

For we share with our fellow citizens in both the benefits and the responsibilities of our 21st-century American society. What resources does our faith offer us to participate in civic life? What lessons from centuries of Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition and the experience of Catholic history in the United States can we share with our fellow citizens? What can we do together to promote the common good and care for our common home? The evident seriousness of the issues facing us in the present and future make it all the more essential for us to ask these questions and to share the particular perspectives of our rich Catholic faith and experience.

Over time, the Church has adopted as her own - and adapted to ever changing political and social situations - the ancient philosophical understanding that human beings are social and political by nature, that human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others, and that the most developed and fulfilling form of that is our political association as fellow citizens. This political association as citizens with one another provides us with many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy. At the same time it also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community.

In this traditional understanding, social and political choices – such as whom or what party to vote for, who should benefit from public policies and how to pay for them, what commitments we have to one another and to other countries, and how to relate to other nations and states in the world community – all such choices are ultimately moral choices that express what we value. Such choices identify whom we care (or don’t care) about enough to include, and highlight what kind of nation we want to be and what kind of world we want to be a part of.  As Catholics and citizens, we are challenged to be particularly attentive to these dimensions of our common life. As Catholics and citizens, we are challenged to respond in a morally serious way that transcends simplistic sloganeering and emotional appeals to narrowly defined secular identities and group interests

Coincidentally, today’s 1st reading, from the prophet Zechariah [Zechariah 9:9-10], foretells the coming of the Messiah as the ultimate king, whose dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. It reminds us that, over and above all the many inter-related networks of human relationships of which we are a part and which we need to care about – family, work, country, etc. – we are also, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God, a new, world-encompassing kingdom without borders, in which we are all immigrants but none are strangers, a relationship which gives added meaning and transforms all those other, necessary human relationships, like family, work, and country, of which we remain a part and which we still need to care about.

Likewise, Saint Paul, in today’s 2nd reading from his letter to the early Christian community in Rome [Romans 8:9, 11-13], reminds us that, even while we remain thoroughly engaged in the otherwise ordinary-seeming life of our world, we are simultaneously starting to live a new life, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s idea is that Christ’s new life has become our new life too, thereby reversing the direction of our ordinary existence and empowering us to allow ourselves and our entire lives – public and private - to be re-shaped by the Gospel’s stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.

Of course, the complexities and very real burdens of living in our world do not automatically get erased just by the fact of our becoming disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ words were not simplistic soundbites or campaign slogans, such as we often substitute for serious moral reflection and engagement with the facts we have to respond to in our social and political life. In fact, what Jesus seems to be proposing in today’s Gospel [Matthew 11:25-30] may at first appear as adding yet another additional burden – the burden of following him – to the complexities and burdens we already have. Yet it is precisely this added dimension – this yoke, as Jesus calls it - which somehow puts all the other complications and burdens of living in a totally new context – an insight, which (Jesus warns) is sometimes lost to the wise and the learned of the world.

160 years ago in another time of terrible social conflict and political polarization in the United States, Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker expressed his confidence in what Catholics had to offer our country. Already at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States in which, the Pope noted, “parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that  “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.”

Hecker’s hope that we act like oil on the troubled waters of a conflicted and politically polarized society remains relevant for us today and always – especially given the many contemporary trends that seem to go in a contrary direction.

So the rest that Jesus promises us is not a release from our necessary ties to the world and the tough realities and responsibilities of ordinary human life. It is rather a new way of living and being involved in the world. Strangers to one another no longer, Jesus challenges us to a new way of making sense of all our worldly relationships and responsibilities with and for one another.

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 8, 2017.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Political Hobbyism

Standing out in the spectrum of this year's Fourth-of-July themed commentary was Eitan Hersh's particularly pointed op-ed in last Sunday's NY Times Sunday Review, entitled "The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants." – a provocative title in this contemporary era when we are increasingly disposed to blame everything that’s wrong either on systems and institutions or on other people but never on ourselves.

Hersh contends that many Americans engage in what he unflatteringly labels political hobbyism: "Americans who live in relative comfort are emotionally invested in politics, especially after the election, but in a degraded form of politics that caters to the voyeurism of news junkies and the short attention spans of slacktivists. They are engaging in a phenomenon I call 'political hobbyism.' They desperately want to do something, but not something that is boring, demanding or slow."

Most of us can probably recognize of whom and of what he speaks. Hersh in any case offers sufficient examples. The ultimate problem, as he sees it, "is that hobbyism is replacing other forms of participation, like local organizing, supporting party organizations, neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, even voting in midterm elections — the 2014 midterms had the lowest level of voter participation in over 70 years." 

And we all have seen where the tendency of so many - especially younger voters - not to vote has left us! Not voting, of course, has been a perennial problem in this country and keeps getting worse. It is all part of a larger phenomenon of increasing individual detachment from - and consequent lack of support for - institutions of all sorts. 

Hersh warns "that an unending string of activities intended for instant gratification does not amount to much in political power."  Politically concerned citizens should ask "whether their emotions and energy are contributing to a behind-the-scenes effort to build local support across the country or whether they are merely a hollow, self-gratifying manifestation of the new political hobbyism."

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The American Dream at 241

Is the American Dream Really Dead? is the title of a recent article (in the US edition of The Guardian) by Carol Graham, author of Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream (Princeton University Press, 2017)Her contention is that both the facts and our attitudes about what we used to call “the American Dream” have changed. The facts are familiar enough by now: "While 90% of the children born in 1940 ended up in higher ranks of the income distribution than their parents, only 40% of those born in 1980 have done so." But the attitudinal shift may be even more significant: "in 2016, only 38% of Americans thought their children would be better off than they are." Maybe even more amazing in terms of attitude: "Poor people in the US were 20 times less likely to believe hard work would get them ahead than were the poor in Latin America, even though the latter are significantly worse off in material terms." In short, her research leads her to "find strong evidence that the American dream is in tatters, at least."

Just as our popular culture has tended to trivialize our national holiday into little more than an occasion for hot dogs and fireworks, we likewise may tend at times to reduce "the American Dream" to its merely material and consumerist components. But for James Truslow Adams, who coined the now familiar term, it was "not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (The Epic of America, 1931).

When I was in elementary school, in addition to memorizing lots of poems and the answers to catechism questions, we also had to memorize the Preamble to the United States Constitution. My guess is that students do a lot less memorizing today - to their loss. And they probably don't memorize the Preamble any more - to their loss and to our entire society's loss.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

I have highlighted certain words in that once universally familiar text. Those words are all about us - not as isolated libertarian individuals forever fearful of each other and of society as enemies of our supposed freedom, but as a society (albeit imperfect) of authentically free persons united as a community in pursuit of the common good - a society that extends as well to future generations to whom we are also obligated as we are obligated in the present to one another.

Needless to say, that is about as opposite as one can get from the dominant ideology of our current ruling Party. No wonder our society seems so sadly fragmented on its 241st birthday!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Remembering My First Fliight

My first-ever airplane trip was on this date in 1970. It was a trans-Atlantic flight from New York's JFK airport to Luxembourg, with a stop-over in Iceland. I was a college student at the time, heading off to Europe for the summer in order to study German in Salzburg, Austria. And, like so many other financially limited travelers in those days I used Icelandic Airlines, which (as this 1973 ad from Icelandic's 5th Avenue window emphasized) then offered the lowest jet fares to Europe. Airfares were, of course, all wonderfully regulated in those days, but apparently the agreement allowing a US Air Base in Iceland also allowed Icelandic Airlines to fly to and from the US at its lower rates. (I am not sure what exactly Iceland's deal was with Luxembourg!)

Besides being inexpensive, flying was for the most part a much pleasanter experience then than now in almost every way. Of course, real meals were served on the plane - on real plates, with drinks in real glasses. In those days, unlike now, airport security had not yet become such a preoccupation. So your family and friends could accompany you all the way to the gate and wait with you as long as they chose, without ever having to go though metal detectors or any other such machines. While I obviously get the case for contemporary airport security, there is little else about the changes in the modern airport and airplane experience since then that seems like much of an improvement. 

Why remember 1970? My summer in Europe was a  great experience, but in many respects it was an otherwise grim year - most memorable for the spring of the infamous Cambodian "incursion," the shootings of students at Kent State, the construction-worker riots on Wall Street, etc. It is obviously not the case that everything was always better in the past! We have certainly had more tranquil years since then and have lived through a lot of progress in so many areas of life since 1970. Even so, remembering some of the nicer things from the past can remind us how much has also been lost, losses both tangible and intangible, and how those losses are symbolic of an ongoing unraveling, the fuller implications of which are only now becoming evident.

It is helpful to remember how much better at least some things in life were back then and what we have lost - the price we have paid as our greed and lust for individual convenience have contributed to a progressively inexorable degradation of the fundamental fabric of social and community life.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Strangers No Longer

Whoever receives you receives me. … And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel [Matthew 10:37-42] reflected the high value in which hospitality and welcoming were held in his society, something also illustrated in our reading from the Book of Kings [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a]. The Shunemite woman did more than just give Elisha a cup of cold water. She gave him dinner and furnished a room for him! In this, she foreshadowed the generous women in the Gospels, like Martha and Mary of Bethany, who offered hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, welcoming them into their home, and serving ever since as models for the Church and the high spiritual value the Church has placed on hospitality and welcoming down through the centuries right up to our own time.

Having himself as a child been a political refugee from Herod’s terror, Jesus knew from personal experience the stress of leaving one’s own homeland and facing an uncertain welcome in another land.

Inspired by Jesus’ own words in his parable about the Last Judgment, I was a stranger and your welcomed me, Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks famously prescribes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. Nor have hospitality and welcoming been confined to monasteries. When 17-year old Annie Moore crossed the threshold of the New World as the first immigrant to pass through the new Ellis Island immigration Facility on January 1, 1892, she was welcomed by, among others, Father Callahan of the Mission of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who blessed her and gave her a silver coin, a symbolic expression of the historic role of the American Catholic community – itself throughout its history a community of immigrants – in providing hospitality and welcome  to generation after generation of new arrivals, in this land and nation of immigrants.

Annie Moore’s story – along with the stories of so many others, among them my own grandparents and the parents and grandparents of so many of us assembled here today – ought especially to impress themselves on our consciousness, both as Catholics and as Americans, as we prepare to celebrate another Independence Day holiday this week. For we have always been a Church of migrants and strangers, in this land and nation of immigrants. Immigrants have always been the face of our Church in this country – in our parishes and in our schools and in our other social ministries.

On Independence Day, we honor the great legacy left for us, often at great sacrifice, by generations of citizens past, immigrants to this new land but strangers no longer, with whom we remain linked in a great social compact, bounded by history to one another, both past and present, for the sake of the future. We celebrate our past history as a nation, our present life together, and our hope for our common future.

As citizens, we properly celebrate our national day as John Adams famously proposed: “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

Nowadays, however, Independence Day is all too often reduced to just hot dogs and fireworks. But, as we assemble today, as we do every Sunday, to profess our faith as migrants passing through this world en route to our final homeland, this week’s national holiday ought to remind us of our country’s complicated history as a land and nation of immigrants: of our admirable civic and religious traditions of hospitality and welcome, worthy of comparison with the Shunemite woman and Elisha, but also of our many failures to live up to that challenge – failures in which we Catholics have been as complicit at times as others in our society. As the US Bishops reminded us several years ago, “today, as in the past, the treatment of the immigrant too often reflects failures of understanding and sinful patterns of chauvinism, prejudice, and discrimination that deny the unity of the human family, of which the one baptism is our enduring sign.” [Welcoming The Stranger Among Us: Unity In Diversity, NCCB/USCC, 2000]

More recently, Pope Francis has challenged us to oppose what he has called the “globalization of indifference” and deploring the “throwaway culture” - both so expressive of our way of life today, but so contrary to the biblical emphasis on hospitality and welcome. As the Holy Father said to the U.S. Congress just two years ago, “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants to the United States were often scorned by those who had gotten here earlier – often on grounds very similar to those nowadays alleged against Muslim immigrants. But that only emboldened the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, to highlight the overlap between the universal reach that has historically been this nation’s exceptional ambition and the inherent universality of the Church’s mission. That mission, he reminded his contemporaries, “embraces the whole human race in one brotherhood” [The Present and Future Prospects of the Catholic Faith in the United States of North America, 1857-1858]. Hecker saw both the Catholic Church and American society as “forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people … giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development than has been heretofore accomplished” [The Church and the Age, 1887].

As a society, we will always inevitably fall short of our own inclusive ideals and heroic ambitions, as just as certainly we will - more likely than not - fall short of Jesus’ challenge of mutual hospitality to one another and to all we encounter. But by baptism into Christ, we are no longer permitted to be strangers to one another, for we have been brought beyond the ordinary human limitations of family, state, and society, and raised instead with Christ to live in newness of life, responding to one another and welcoming one another as we would never otherwise have known how to do or dared to have tried.

As Pope Francis challenged Congress: “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us give opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 2, 2017

Saturday, July 1, 2017


When pressed, I will concede that even summer has certain charms. As a child, although it was still my least favorite season, I looked forward to going to the beach with my cousins and Sunday picnics with the extended family. Later, in grad school, summer was a relaxed time - days spent in the library, but at a more leisurely pace with lots of social time. Even so, it was always miserably hot and humid. (In the Northern hemisphere, it is on average the warmest month.) The ancients appropriately called this time of year the "Dog Days" and associated them with the ailments that accompany the heat. Before being renamed the "Temperature Humidity Index," the daily weather report used to announce the day's "Discomfort Index," (especially appropriate back in those days when most of us lacked access to air-conditioning).

July, of course, comes at the year's mid-point, the 7th month of our 12-month solar year. In the original Roman calendar (attributed to Romulus himself and which began with March) it was counted as the 5th month, Qunitilis. Like September, October, November, and December, all echoes of that older numbering, Quinitllis at first kept its name in the Julian calendar. But, after Cesar's death (and presumptive deification), it was renamed in his honor, and 10 days of games were henceforth celebrated in Caesar's honor every July. (Caesar's birthday was July 13.)

In England, July 15 is Saint Swithin's Day. (Swithin was a 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester.) According to a superstitious tradition, whatever the weather does that day - sun or rain - the same will continue for 40 days more. Not a particularly pleasant prospect either way!

Much more pleasantly, in the United States July is National Hot Dog Month, presumably because of the ubiquity of hot dogs at summer picnics and outdoor barbecues - and, of course, the cultural association of hot dogs with the July 4 holiday. As the hottest month, it is also appropriately designated as National Ice Cream Month in the United States.

If we must necessarily suffer through July, I agree that hot dogs and ice cream can certainly help make the month much more endurable!

(Photo: July from the justly famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)