Wednesday, March 15, 2017

America's America.

As suggested by my recent posting of a homily given in Palo Alto, I spent some time this month in the San Francisco Bay Area. This part of California has played a small but special role in my Jesuit life. I visited California for the first time when I was a novice, spending two months living at Santa Clara University and working at Catholic Charities in San Jose. (On one of my first nights in the Jesuit community at Santa Clara, I commented at dinner that it was my first time west of the Rocky Mountains; putting things in perspective, an elderly priest at the table commented that he didn't venture east of the Rockies until he was in his forties.) I was well enough received at Catholic Charities that my supervisors invited me to come back, and two years later I returned to spend a summer working there and strengthened the ties that had drawn me back to Silicon Valley. After I began theology studies in Toronto, I took advantage of the long summers afforded by the Canadian academic calendar to spend a couple of months after my first year of theology living and studying in Berkeley. All of this has enabled me to form friendships that give me an incentive to return to California, as I was glad to do for ten days this month.

My experience of California has been geographically limited: I've gotten to know the Bay Area well, and I've explored the coast as far north as Fort Ross and as far south as Big Sur, but I've seen little of the rest of the state (for example, I've only made one brief visit to Los Angeles, and a busy conference schedule kept me from seeing much while I was there). Nevertheless, I've seen enough of the Golden State to appreciate the mythic place that California holds in the American imagination. For generations of Americans – and perhaps especially for those who grew up in damp, wintry, long-settled places like New England – California has been an object of fascination and a repository of dreams, a lush and verdant place at the far end of the continent where people go to carve out new identities. The reality is more complicated than the myth, and one could easily cite California's many modern problems – a bloated, debt-choked state government, years of drought, a high cost of living, and so on – as evidence of a crumbling dream. In spite of all that, California retains its mythic appeal, and I still feel drawn to return there as often as I can.

Another Jesuit who appreciated the allure of California was Father Ray Gawronski, whom I met by chance in Berkeley at a time when we were both guests of the Jesuit community there. A native New Yorker who first visited California as an eighteen-year-old college student in the summer of 1969, Father Gawronski spent various periods of time living and working in the Golden State from then until his death of cancer at the Jesuit infirmary near San Jose in the spring of 2016. In an essay entitled "California Coming Home" published in the Summer 2012 issue of the journal Logos, Father Gawronski wrote very eloquently about the place in his own life and in the American imagination of a state he called "America's America." The full text of the article is currently available online through Project MUSE, but I'll share some excerpts here to give the flavor of it.

When Ray Gawronski visited California for the first time, fresh off his sophomore year at the College of the Holy Cross and wearing a three-piece suit (because "[t]hat's what a young man at a college in New England still wore in 1969"), he was stunned both by the shock of recognition and by the distance between the world in which he had grown up and the new world suddenly presented to him. The movies, music, and television of his youth gave him a sense of California as "the ultimate American place," and, visiting relatives in suburban Cupertino, he found himself "in the world I had been watching on television for my entire life... a world that was all new, all shiny, sparkling, full of hope and confidence." The beauty of the natural environment offered a vivid contrast with gray, industrial New York, as did the values that seemed to define this new place. Silicon Valley was just being born – the term wouldn't appear in print until 1971 – but its distinctive culture already stood out. As Gawronski wrote:
The sorrows of the old world were left far behind, replaced only by science and technology as sources of meaning. The world in which I had been raised was a world of tradition, family tradition above all. There was the Church. There were the traditional schools, which appealed, not so much for their academic excellence as for the simple prestige reflected by their ivy walls...

And suddenly, all this was deemed irrelevant. Science was the new religion... The old world was the world of the broken heart – the hearts broken in human experience – and salvation was found in the heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart. Here, now, salvation could be found in technological safety, free from the labyrinth of the heart.
Years later, having passed in and out of the California counterculture before returning to the faith of his childhood and entering the Jesuits, Gawronski found himself studying theology in Berkeley in the 1980s in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. By now, Gawronski had come to realize that "California represented the ultimate nonhistorical place. Not that it did not have a history, or people affected by history: but history was not part of its image, nor was it for history that people came here. People came here to get away from the nightmares of human history, and to seek refuge in the beauty of nature." After years of intensive study of Zen Buddhism and other Asian spiritual traditions, Gawronski's own efforts to escape the burden of history had led him to re-embrace his Slavic roots. He found fellowship with other "refugees from modernism" worshiping at the Russian Catholic parish in San Francisco, and he later cultivated close ties with a Ukrainian Catholic monastery nestled among redwoods a couple of hours north of the Bay Area. Reflecting late in life on his long relationship with California, Gawronski reached the following conclusions:
. . . [T]he beauty of [California] remains: the magic of the air, the smell of the ocean carried in on the fog, the night blooming jasmine. The fruit is better than any on earth, and, curiously, the bread is fantastic. Place remains.

History is something else. Perhaps California was the ultimate attempt to replace history with technology and, along with it, to undercut the sorrows of the human heart by technique. Zen (as Balthasar writes) is perhaps the ultimate technique, and the various attempts at reviving religious tradition have all foundered, I believe, because their ultimate guide has itself been technique. The only real antidote to technique is faith: that acceptance of our human limitation that trusting in a word of promise reaches out in humble confidence. Psychology as religion has proven inadequate. And original sin remains the one Christian doctrine that should be obvious to all.

In a place dedicated to timeless being in this world, where the only reality is what can be created for the future against a seemingly perfect present – occasional earthquakes being odd reminders of original sin – the only revolutionary act is tradition (the insight is that of the late Fr. Tom King, SJ, of Georgetown, who shortly before his death visited me in California, where he made a "Teilhardian" retreat). It is fidelity that is the revolutionary act, fidelity in marriage, fidelity in relationship, fidelity through time, in which the horrors of life in this fallen world are experienced, the cup drunk to its dregs. Fidelity is the only revolutionary act, not mobility, not change, which are merely of this world.

Which leaves me – leaves us – with the Cross, which is where I started back in 1969, a student at Holy Cross in old New England, where the campus had the Jesuit cemetery at its heart. All this beauty is cold and empty without the Cross. All human endeavor is folly. All human relations are variations on power trips, without the Cross.
Writing "California Coming Home" at a time when he was living and working in Colorado, Gawronski concluded by saying that "I hope to keep coming back to California all my days," a hope that now seems poignant given that he would ultimately die a few miles from the place where he first encountered the Golden State. I don't know how well "California Coming Home" will be understood by readers who didn't know Ray Gawronski or experience the state in the way that he did, but I like the essay enough to discuss it here, and I hope that it reaches an appreciative audience. AMDG.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High.

Today I was privileged to celebrate the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, California, which I've mentioned here before as the home of the St. Ann Choir, an ensemble devoted to the performance of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony directed for over fifty years by Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University. It was honor to celebrate Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas and to chat afterward with Professor Mahrt on various topics related to sacred music. For the hopeful edification of some, I'm posting the text of my homily below. The readings were those of the First Sunday of Lent (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11), with some reference made also to the liturgical propers and to the tract, which was sung in its entirety at the Mass by the St. Ann Choir.


Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent, and as we do so the liturgy gives us a few special reminders that we have entered a season of penitential preparation for Easter. In Lent, as in Advent, we hear a different setting of the ordinary parts of the Mass, with chants of the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei which are particular to the liturgical season and different from those heard on other Sundays of the year. The Gloria and the Alleluia have temporarily retreated from the liturgy, and in the place of the Alleluia we have a series of Lenten tracts, the first of which we have just heard.

I'll say a little more about the tract later in this homily, but for now I think it's worth repeating a point that you may have already noticed if you have read the leaflet for today's Mass, or indeed as you may have noticed simply from listening to the tract itself. The tract for the First Sunday of Lent is particularly long – it is much longer than the tracts that we hear on the other Lenten Sundays, though we will hear tracts of similar length again on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This fact alone suggests that there is something out of the ordinary, something unique, about this Sunday.

Why does the Church give us this special time of preparation for Easter? Why, in other words, does Easter require Lent? A theologian of the last century named Alexander Schmemann described Easter as a celebration of the gift of new life that has been given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, as Schmemann observed, we often live our lives as if the resurrection never occurred – we can easily forget about the gift of new life that Christ has given us. As Schmemann wrote, "because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes 'old' again – petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless..." "If we realize this," Schmemann continued, "then we may realize what Easter is and why it presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, that we may repent and return to it."

In today's epistle, St. Paul the Apostle contrasts the sin of Adam with the redemption brought by Christ so as to remind us of the gift of new life that we have been given. As Paul tells the Romans, "just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:19). As consoling as this message is for us, I believe we also know that it can be very difficult to break out of the patterns of sin and temptation to which we are all prone. An important first step for us is to own up to the enormity of the challenge, so as to more effectively overcome it.

The first reading from the Book of Genesis reminds us that the most subtle forms of temptation can also be the most difficult to resist. When Eve repeats God's command forbidding her and Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent offers a counterargument that proves convincing to Eve: once she and Adam eat from the tree, the serpent tells them, they "will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil" (Gen 3:5). It is the desire to discern between good and evil that clinches the serpent’s argument. Given that we know what happens afterward, it can be easy to forget how attractive the serpent's argument must have been. The serpent uses the appearance of good – namely, the desire for wisdom – in order to convince Eve to violate God’s command.

We might ask ourselves whether we have been tempted in similar ways: do we sometimes find ourselves tempted to sin in the belief that something good will result? On the same token, we can perhaps think of times when we have acted with mixed motives, doing good deeds in ways that are ultimately self-serving. I think that T. S. Eliot captured this dilemma particularly well in Murder in the Cathedral, which shows the twelfth-century English archbishop Thomas Becket anticipating his martyrdom with the awareness that he will win adulation on account of the manner of his death. As Eliot has Becket say, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

In the Gospel, Jesus faces temptations every bit as subtle as those faced by Eve. The temptations that the Devil presents to Jesus rely upon base human instincts and desires – the instinct for self-preservation, and the desire for wealth and for power. The Evangelist Matthew presents the temptation in the desert as a battle of wits waged through competing appeals to scripture – notably, the Devil quotes the very same psalm that is quoted in the tract for today's Mass. Indeed, all of the musical propers for this Mass are taken from this psalm, numbered Psalm 90 in the Latin Vulgate and Psalm 91 in most modern English translations.

Scholars suggest that this particular psalm was chosen to play such a prominent role in today's Mass precisely because of the way it is referenced in today’s Gospel. The Devil uses this psalm to attempt to mock Jesus, urging him to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple by suggesting that the Father "will command his angels concerning you," and "with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Ps 91:11-12). The liturgy for this Sunday offers a kind of rebuttal to the Devil by invoking the same psalm to call upon God for help and protection. As the Tract has it, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven. He shall say to the Lord: you are my protector and my refuge, my God, in whom I trust" (Ps 91:1-2). As we journey through Lent, the words of this psalm remind us of our need to call upon God for help and protection. This is the special invitation that God extends to us during Lent: to clothe ourselves in prayer to and to allow it to permeate our lives, just as the prayer of the Psalmist permeates today’s liturgy.

May this Lenten Season be for us an opportunity to grow in closeness to the One who has called us to new life. In our struggles to overcome the temptations that we all face, let us take heart from the example that Christ gives us in today's Gospel, for, as the Preface of today's Mass reminds us, it is he who "consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance, and by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice, so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery, we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast."


If you would like to hear the tract featured during today's liturgy, please listen to the video featured above. If you would like to learn more about Bill Mahrt and the St. Ann Choir, this article by Cynthia Haven would be a good place to start. AMDG.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Belated thoughts on Ash Wednesday.

Yesterday morning I concelebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass at Gonzaga College High School, the Jesuit boys' high school in Washington, D.C. As a procession of young men in blazers and ties came forward, I traced an ashen cross on each one's forehead and repeated the ancient formula: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. This memento mori always strikes me as poignant and sobering, but it seemed all the more such today as I addressed it to a succession of teenagers for whom death and judgment are hopefully very far away.

I've written before about Ash Wednesday as a sign of contradiction challenging a culture that seeks to deny the reality of death, and it is no accident that Lent should begin with words and gestures that remind us of our frailty and limitation. The recognition of our own mortality should prompt us to think about how we live and what we make of the time that we have been given. The formula that traditionally accompanies the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday also serves to trace a direct line between our own actions and lives and those of our first parents; the words that we hear are those with which God cast Adam and Eve out of Paradise in the Book of Genesis: "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).

In recent decades, the traditional "remember that you are dust" formula has perhaps not been heard in many churches, as the more recent editions of the Roman Missal suggest the substitution of another set of words: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." These words are taken from Mark's Gospel, forming part of Jesus' preaching in Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist (Mk 1:15). Though both formulas are taken from scripture, I think that they do different things in the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The 'modern' formula taken from Mark is rather didactic, telling us exactly what we should do during Lent. The older formula from Genesis does not tell us what to do, but instead poetically addresses an existential dilemma that affects us all. I prefer the poetic approach, so on Ash Wednesday I always say, "Remember that you are dust..."

My prayers and good wishes are with all who mark this penitential season. Conscious of our own sins and shortcomings and our need for God's mercy and pardon, may we profit from this opportunity to grow closer to the One who calls us to Himself. AMDG.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Young Pope.

For a while I've been meaning to write about Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's ten-episode television series The Young Pope, which premiered on Sky Atlantic in Italy and other European countries late last year and made its U.S. debut on HBO in January. The Young Pope tells the story of an enigmatic American cardinal named Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who is unexpectedly chosen as the Successor of St. Peter at the age of forty-seven, taking the name of Pius XIII and proceeding to shake things up with a back-to-basics focus on doctrine and an unconventional personal style.

The Young Pope proved a hit with audiences and critics in Europe, but the show has drawn a more mixed reaction in the United States. Some have found the series boring or difficult to follow, others have made inapt comparisons between Jude Law's New York-reared pontiff and a certain American president, and others (who sometimes admit that they haven't actually watched the show) have lamely denounced The Young Pope as anti-Catholic (it isn't, even though the program's warts-and-all view of Vatican politics may scandalize viewers with a weak grasp of Church history).

At the same time, The Young Pope has also attracted an enthusiastic following among a particular subset of young Catholics. In a recent blogpost, Rick Yoder draws comparisons between some contemporary reactions to The Young Pope and the reception enjoyed by the BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1981. As Yoder writes, just as "Brideshead was . . . the rallying cry and inspiration for a whole new kind of youth rebellion" led by self-described 'young fogies,' The Young Pope has been warmly welcomed by a cohort of Millennial Catholics – a group of "meme-savvy, Latin-loving, anti-liberal folks" – who share a love for Catholic tradition and a skeptical view of many of the religious and political dimensions of modernity. In a similar vein, Matthew Schmitz of First Things analyzes the popularity of The Young Pope against the backdrop of a broader divide between many Millennials and their Boomer parents (and, by now, grandparents):
Among my peers there is a vague, floating sense of dislocation and disinheritance. They have been schooled in rebellion but have nothing to rebel against. This is the cause, I think, of the enthusiasm many young people show for ritual, ceremony, and all things traditional. Having been raised in a culture of unending pseudo-spontaneity, they have had time to count its costs. They prefer more rigid forms.
As Schmitz observes, "The baby boomers defined themselves by revolution, and even after that revolution failed, they refused to take on the stern trappings of authority. Rather than forbid and command, they sought to be understanding and therapeutic." A bit provocatively, Schmitz concludes that this therapeutic approach created "a generation of orphans" – not necessarily by leaving children without parents, but more broadly by leaving young people estranged from the past and forcing them to search for their own roots.

Commenting on all of this, P. J. Smith of Semiduplex observes that The Young Pope may be seen as "an extended fantasy about what happens when someone rejects liberalism as a conscious reaction to the post-1968 world." According to Smith, what is at stake here isn’t merely a desire for strong authority figures or an attachment to traditional aesthetics, but something that touches more deeply on the nature of religious belief:
But [the issue] is more than a mere abdication of authority, especially within the Church. Certainly St. John Paul and Benedict XVI projected authority — and were, we observe, wildly popular among young Catholics. No. It is a sense, we think, that something of great value has been hidden. This extends beyond liturgy and ceremony to doctrine. We could point to specific doctrines, but to do so would understate the problem. It is the idea of doctrine itself — and the implicit requirement that one conform one's belief and conduct to that doctrine — that has been hidden in many places and replaced with a soft, condescending "do your best" attitude. It is, as Schmitz says, an understanding, therapeutic mentality — and it is ultimately infantilizing. And this is, we think, part of the attraction of a "Pius XIII" figure: when he tells us, in effect, that our best is not good enough in a matter as important as our eternal salvation, whatever else he may be doing, he is not infantilizing us.
Smith concludes by taking a provocative look at the preparatory document issued by the Vatican in anticipation of next year's Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Smith finds cause for worry in the document's use of "understanding and therapeutic" language that appears to rehash past approaches and doesn't seem to acknowledge that the needs and concerns of today's young people are not the same as those attributed to youth forty or fifty years ago. If the Synod doesn't reckon with this reality but instead "offers more of the same, 1960s-vintage answers to the questions of these young Catholics," Smith warns that "the Church will be forced to revisit all of these questions sooner rather than later."


I appreciate what Schmitz, Smith, and Yoder have written about The Young Pope – indeed, I've written similar things about young Catholics, and I've done so more than once – and I should also add that Yoder has a lot more to say about the show in posts about its visual style and its music. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't write about another aspect of Sorrentino’s drama that deserves to be explored in greater detail. Whatever one might think of The Young Pope’s ecclesial politics, Sorrentino is more interested in matters that lie beyond the ecclesial and the political. What interests him most, I think, is the nature of human loneliness and solitude and the ways in which people manage them and even make them a creative force.

Questions about loneliness and human connection have permeated Sorrentino's work. His breakthrough feature The Consequences of Love (2004) focuses on a businessman whose past misdeeds have left him living an isolated existence in a Swiss hotel. The Family Friend (2006) tells the story of a misanthropic moneylender who falls in love with a customer's daughter. Il Divo (2008) treats the relationship between personal isolation and political power through a study of long-serving Italian premier Giulio Andreotti. This Must Be the Place (2011) concerns a retired rock star who copes with the death of his father by setting out on a manhunt for a Nazi war criminal who is still at large. In The Great Beauty (2013), perhaps his greatest international hit, Sorrentino offers a portrait of an aging writer struggling with ennui and feelings of failure amid the glitz of Roman high society. Youth (2015) deals with the same sorts of issues with a look at two old friends confronting the realities of aging, retirement, and questions about what they’ve really made of their lives. Sorrentino once told an interviewer that "my protagonists tend to be people who need to learn how to be in the world," which seems like a nice way of summing up the meaning of his work: coming to grips with who they are and what they have done, the denizens of Sorrentino's cinematic world also have to consider their relationships with others.

Against this backdrop, it's easy to understand why Sorrentino sees The Young Pope as another meditation on the same themes. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sorrentino tried to explain what The Young Pope is really about:
In the final analysis, it talks about that unsettling little noise of solitude, of loneliness that's inside all of us and that never balances. Which is not the solitude of somebody who doesn't have anybody to chat with in the evening, but it is a more profound, deeper condition and sense of uneasiness [that] in the final analysis you are alone. And that's why those who have that knowledge of this solitude ask themselves the question of God.
Sorrentino has said that he isn't a religious believer, but he has also admitted that the concept for The Young Pope grew out of his youthful fascination with the Catholic priests who taught him in high school in Italy, men whose lives were characterized by a kind of solitude turned toward service. Earlier this year, Sorrentino told a reporter for The Toronto Star that the goal of The Young Pope was "to investigate deeply the secret of loneliness. Real loneliness, permanent loneliness, not the more common but more superficial loneliness that consists in not having anyone to chat [with] at hand. A priest who is also incidentally a man of power like the Pope is the most emblematic example of the secret of this loneliness."


Part of the genius of The Young Pope is the way its characters grapple with "the secret of loneliness" that fascinates the show's creator. As "the young pope" who gives the series its title, Pius XIII is a man forced to wrestle with memories of childhood abandonment who also uses his reputation for inscrutability to try to direct the world's gaze away from himself and toward Jesus Christ. As the nun who raised the future pope in an orphanage, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) manages her own loneliness by devoting herself to her "two gems," orphans she raised to be princes of the Church: Lenny/Pius and his friend Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), a missionary bishop in Latin America who unsuccessfully attempts to stifle his own melancholy by pursuing an illicit affair with the wife of a local drug lord. As the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando, in a superb performance) publicly relishes his reputation as a Machiavellian political operator (at one point, boasting about the eighteen books written about him, he says that the hostile ones are the best, "because they turn you into a legend"), but he also practices altruism in secret by spending his evenings babysitting a disabled youth. Lenny's erstwhile mentor Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) grumbles about his unfulfilled ambition of becoming pope and engages in futile schemes against his former protégé. A fragile and sensitive man who struggles with alcoholism and feels lost outside the Vatican, Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) initially seems unable to cope when sent to the United States on a sensitive papal mission but gains a sense of courage and purpose through the unlikely friendships he develops there. Dealing with a strained marriage to a Swiss Guard and frustrated in her efforts to conceive a child, Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) finds fulfillment in a rich and deep prayer life.

Whether it is in spite of his proclaimed lack of faith or because of it, Sorrentino is clearly very interested in questions of belief and transcendence. Having noted that "the question of God" often emerges in solitude, Sorrentino has also said that The Young Pope is about "the issue of faith — the question of believing or non-believing — which sooner or later affects us all." Sorrentino's fascination with this theme is perhaps that of the artist who feels compelled to take what I have elsewhere called "the last look" - the glimpse of one who can see the attraction of the Church even though he cannot bring himself to make the act of faith. Regardless of Sorrentino's personal commitments, in The Young Pope he has offered a fine exploration of the relationship between faith and personal identity. I encourage those who are interested in such things to give The Young Pope a look, and I further encourage those who know The Young Pope but nothing more of Paolo Sorrentino to give the rest of his work a try. AMDG.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On the inauguration of a new president.

This is the second time that I've been in Washington on Inauguration Day. George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States early in my last semester in college; I thought about making the trek from Georgetown to the Mall to witness the inauguration in person, but I ended up watching it on TV in my dorm room. Sixteen years later, living in Washington once again and having a second chance to attend a presidential inauguration, I decided to go.

Regardless of one's personal politics, all Americans have reason to be proud of the rituals that attend the inauguration of a new president, for they remind us that the peaceful transfer of power remains a hallmark of our political system. In a world where political change often comes about through violence and the shedding of blood, the extraordinary stability of American democracy is something for which we can be grateful.

Donald J. Trump has often courted controversy as a presidential candidate, and he may continue to do so as the 45th President of the United States; the fact that we have enjoyed a greater measure of stability than other nations does not mean that American politics are not contentious, or that national unity is easily restored after the rancor of a bitterly-contested election. What it does mean, however, is that our resilient Republic has the strength to persevere in spite of ongoing debates and divisions. On Inauguration Day, I thank God for that. AMDG.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Be True To Your School.

As another year comes to an end, here is a different sort of item, posted simply because I like it. Robert Frost once urged that "if you have to love something, you could do worse than to give your heart to a college." I imagine that Brian Wilson and Mike Love were making a similar point regarding high schools when they wrote "Be True To Your School," which became an early hit for The Beach Boys in the Fall of 1963. I came to appreciate the song in a new way when I discovered this 2010 cover by the Brooklyn-based band Oberhofer, perhaps because the disarming simplicity of Oberhofer's rendition gives the song a plaintive yet winsome quality that I don't readily associate with the original. In any case, I hope that some will enjoy this as much as I did, and I extend my best wishes to all as 2016 yields to 2017. AMDG.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The power to become children of God.

The following is the text, more or less, of a homily that I gave this morning at the Mass of Christmas Day at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester, Massachusetts. The Gospel reading appointed for this Mass comes from the Prologue of John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), which forms the core of my reflection.


Christmas is a time for stories. If your experience is anything like mine, your memories of Christmas involve the sharing of stories. For many of us, this means retelling stories of how we have spent Christmas with family and friends, reminiscing about where we were and who we were with when we celebrated Christmas in years past. The best stories are the ones we never tire of retelling, the ones we look forward to hearing again. Sharing these stories over and over again can be a way of reminding ourselves of the many gifts that we celebrate at Christmas: the gifts of family and fellowship, the gifts of kindness and of caring for one another, and the gift of coming together to break bread and to give thanks for the blessings we have received.

Many of us look forward to Christmas not simply for the opportunity to come together and to celebrate, but also to hear some of our favorite stories over again. I don't just mean the stories we tell at Christmas dinner, but the stories that we read and the stories that we see on stage or on television. Some may look forward to reading again the opening lines of The Night Before Christmas – lines that many of us probably know by heart: "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Perhaps you look forward to once again seeing Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or – dare I say it – A Christmas Story.

As great as all these stories can be, the greatest story of Christmas is the one that we gather here in this church to remember, the story at the heart of our faith. It's a better story than all the others, because it happens to be true. It's a story that changed the world forever, a story that gave us a new way of understanding our relationship with God and with one another. It's the story of how, out of love for humankind, the God that we worship chose to become a human being, to share in our humanity and to share with us the gift of his divinity. In the collect, the opening prayer of today's Mass, we find a reminder of what Christmas is all about. The collect tells us that God "who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature . . . still more wonderfully restored it" in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same prayer, we ask "that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."

In one of the other prayers of this Mass, the preface at the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded again of God's extraordinary decision to enter into our world. As the preface puts it, "though [God was] invisible in his own nature, he has appeared visibly in ours," and though he was "begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time." We may be tempted to think of this poetic language as something abstract, something totally removed from our day-to-day lives, but I want to invite you to think about what this means for you, for your family and friends, and for all the people you know. What difference does it make that God chose to become like us, in all ways but sin? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to be hungry and thirsty, to have to work to support himself and to find a place to live? What difference does it make for us that our God knows what it is like to experience human sorrow, to be disappointed, to suffer pain, and to die?

The Gospel reading provided for the Mass of Christmas Day speaks about the difference that all of this makes. It may seem a bit strange that today's Gospel doesn't give us the familiar account of how Mary and Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem, or how the shepherds heard about the Savior's birth from the angel. As you may know, the readings and the prayers that the Church provides for Christmas are different depending on which Mass you attend, and different parts of the story of the birth of Jesus are told at each of the Christmas Masses. If you attend the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading recounts the genealogy of Jesus, followed by the dream that convinced Joseph to accept Mary as his wife (Mt 1:1-25). The Gospel at Midnight Mass describes the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and the words announced by the angel to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord" (Lk 2:1-14). The Roman Missal also provides for a Mass at Dawn, celebrated as the sun rises on Christmas morning. The Gospel for that Mass continues the story heard midnight, recounting how the shepherds heeded the message of the angel and visited Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus in the manger (Lk 2:15-20). Finally, at this Mass, the one provided for Christmas Day, we hear the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which puts the story of the birth of Jesus into a broader perspective.

The Evangelist John reminds us that Jesus is the Incarnate Word, who existed from the beginning of time with God the Father. As John writes, "All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be" (Jn 1:3). The Evangelist recalls the testimony of another John – John the Baptist – who spoke not only about the coming of Jesus but also of the opposition he would face. John preached that Jesus was "the true light, which enlightens everyone," and yet when he came, "the world did not know him," and "his own people did not accept him" (Jn 1:9-11). Even so, John promises, "to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God . . . [for] the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us . . ." (Jn 1:12-14).

For the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. To return again to a question that I posed a few moments ago, what difference does it make for us that God became a human being and dwelt among us? If we take an honest look at the state of the world, we find that there are still many who do not know the true light, or have not accepted him. I suspect that we have all seen images of churches in Iraq and Syria that have been destroyed by ISIS, and more recently we may have seen images of the funeral of twenty-five Coptic Christians killed two weeks ago in an attack on a cathedral in Egypt. There are still many places in the world where openly professing faith in Christ can lead to persecution and even to martyrdom. Closer to home, we are perhaps most threatened not by persecution but by indifference – by the fact that many simply are not interested in the message of Christ. Over two thousand years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it remains the case that "the world did not know him," and that "his own people did not accept him."

Considering the challenges that we face, it's important to remember once again the promise made to us in today's Gospel: "But to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God." So great was God's desire to make us his children that he chose to take on our human condition, becoming more like us so that we could become more like him. We may consider ourselves unworthy of this gift; we may hold back on account of our own awareness of our own sinfulness, or out of a feeling that we'll never really be holy enough. But if the Church were a place only for the perfect, none of us would be here. Whenever we wonder whether or not we're really worthy to become children of God, we ought to consider how God came into the world and who welcomed him when he appeared. Joseph and Mary were people of modest means, a mere carpenter and his wife, who welcomed the birth of their son far from home and soon had to flee to another country. After his parents, the first people to see Jesus after he was born were not people of wealth or influence, but shepherds tending their flock by night. When the newborn king received a visit from someone we might think of as important, it wasn’t the Jewish religious authorities or Roman political leaders who came to see him – it was the Magi, foreigners in the land of Israel who had come from far away, guided by a star. These were the unlikely people whom the Son of God called to himself, just as he calls each of us today.

In being received by the Son, we are also received by the Father – the Evangelist John reminds us that it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who reveals the Father to us (Jn 1:18). The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews makes a similar promise, telling us that, though "God spoke in partial and various ways . . . through the prophets," he has spoken in the present age through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Jesus Christ shows us the way to the Father, and in so doing he gives us the power to become God's children. By coming to Mass and participating in the life of the Church, by seeking to imitate the example of Christ and by following his teaching, we have been given the means to reach the goal of eternal life. God has offered us the invitation, but how we respond is up to us.

What difference, then, does faith in Christ make? For us, it makes all the difference in the world. Today, as we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, we celebrate the many gifts that God has given us. Above all, we celebrate the gift that we all received long ago in a manger in Bethlehem – the gift of a child who invites us all to become God’s children.


Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.

A new and wondrous mystery.

Having returned from Midnight Mass and before going to bed, I would like to repeat the annual tradition of this blog by extending to all readers my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing a portion of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.