2017-11-26- Christ the King – Matthew 25:31-46

Homily podcast.

A professor told me of two experiences he had when civilization was picking up its pieces after World War II. He was in the crowd when King George VI visited Cambridge University and was greeted with loud cheers. Then, as a U. S. soldier in occupied Japan, he watched as a vast throng became stone silent when the Emperor alighted from the imperial train, all heads bowed and eyes downcast. Hirohito no longer had divine pretensions, but the customary reverence was palpable. The one king embodied the familial aspect of a monarch as father, and the other was a reminder of a ruler transcending the ordinary commerce of life.

On the Feast of Christ the King, the Church proposes a sovereignty both human and divine: the Holy One who walked the roads of this world as a man among men was at the same time of Heaven, the Supreme Being.

This mystery stretches the limited intellect, as in the case of Pontius Pilate, who remains a fascinating psychological study, as he tried to figure out if Jesus was a king. Why he posed the question is not clear, and Jesus asked if the question was his own or a reaction to the cynicism of the mob. Pilate was a paramount cynic himself, not a skeptic who doubts whether something is true, but a man who doubts that truth exists at all. That is why Nietzsche, whose only god was selfish power, considered Pilate the only powerful character in the Gospel. But then, it was Nietzsche who said, “I am no man, I am dynamite.” Consistent with his claim, he ended up insane.

Because Pilate was too vindictive even for the Roman imperium, the governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, removed him from the prefecture of Judea. One theory is that Pilate committed suicide in what is now Vienne in modern France. As for his birth, there is more confusion: possibly Tarragona in Spain, or more implausibly in the Perthshire Highlands of Scotland, or Forchheim in Germany, or most likely in the Abruzzi of Italy. You might say that he was born wherever men refuse to recognize truth when they see it, and destroy themselves when they have walked away from it. The moral chaos is more widespread now than in the academic groves of the classical world, and we see its effect in the campus riots of today and the mental floss of such philosophers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

This much can be said for Pontius Pilate: He inscribed that sign “King of the Jews” and would not remove it. It may have been sheer irony, the cynicism of a cynic. Or perhaps when he began to roam the hills of exile, he sensed that the ultimate and only choice in life is holiness or madness: “And they will go away to eternal punishment, but the virtuous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

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2017-11-19 – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 25:14-30

Homily podcast.

The Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been made a shrine, for the massacre there has left it a hallowed place for mourners. A red rose marks where each of the victims died, and then there is one pink rose. That is for the unborn baby that died in the womb. To the frustration of some, Texas is one of 38 states that recognize an infant in utero as a victim when the mother is assaulted. Federal law also accords legal rights to the unborn in cases of federal and military crimes. A pink rose is at least a tacit acknowledgement that a human life existed before birth, and Catholics know that life is life, with no varying shades. This is one example of how truth prevails despite attempts to obscure it.

Confusion has also muddled marriage. When marriage is refashioned into an oxymoronic “same-sex marriage,” along with ambiguity about procreation and the permanence of natural marriage, the social order loses interest in it altogether. Even among self-professed Catholics, whose population has increased in the last forty years, there has been a 60% decrease in weddings.

As the Religious life is a consecrated form of spiritual marriage, opaqueness about such commitment has caused the virtual evaporation of many communities. In the past five years alone, with the exception of communities solid in doctrine, there has been a loss of over seven per cent among women religious, while orders of men declined somewhat less.

St. John Paul II spoke clearly about priestly charisms, and during his pontificate the number of seminarians worldwide increased from 63,882 to 114,439. The years of Pope Benedict XVI saw the numbers grow to 118, 257. Since then, in a time of confusion in the Church and society as a whole, there has been a consistent global decline. In our own vast archdiocese, of the small handful of recent ordinations none was a native New Yorker.

Yet often where there is clarity of doctrine and high morale, the picture is bright. In 2015, the most recent year for statistics, there was a 25% increase nationally in ordinations. The archdiocese of St. Louis, with a Catholic population roughly less than a quarter the size of the archdiocese of New York, has considerably more seminarians, and the dioceses of Madison, Wisconsin and Lincoln, Nebraska, relatively small in population, each have about twice as many seminarians as we have in “the capital of the world.”

In the pro-life movement, on the federal level there are positive developments correcting the anti-life legislation of recent years. And where better instruction is provided, Catholic marriages are becoming more purposeful and stable. Then too, a new generation of young priests sound in doctrine and liturgy is appearing. There is strength in clarity. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).

2017-11-12 – 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 25:1-13

Homily podcast.

Annals new and old are filled with quotations that most people can recognize. Reaching back, there are Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” and Brutus’ own “Sic semper tyrannis.” Preachers recall Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” A hymn quotes Francis as saying: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” To Voltaire is credited: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Poor Marie Antoinette labors under her “Let them eat cake.” Tediously over-quoted is Churchill’s jibe to Nancy Astor when she said that if he were her husband she would poison his drink: “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Along with that is his rather unchivalrous quip to Mrs. Braddock: “I may be drunk, Bessie, but you are ugly, and tomorrow I shall be sober.”

In our national lore, George Washington is quoted as speaking against “entangling alliances,” and Patrick Henry boldly declared: “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Actors recreate Paul Revere’s clarion cry from his horse: “The British are coming!” Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired many: “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” We smile at Mark Twain saying: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Soldiers were moved when General Pershing apostrophized:  “Lafayette, we are here!” Charles E. Wilson was mocked for saying: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Ginger Rogers boasted: “I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels,” and sportsmen take a motto from Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

To burst a few bubbles, though, those people never uttered those words. As the inimitable Yogi Berra explained, “I really didn’t say a lot of the things I said.” More problematic than misquoting, is cherry picking actual quotes out of context. Public figures, or their speechwriters, not infrequently affect familiarity with unfamiliar sources. President Kennedy paraphrased a line from Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, and his brother later quoted the same in a campaign speech: “You see things and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’ ” In the play, these fine sounding words in fact were spoken by the serpent in the Garden, fooling Eve.

Dreams may inspire visionaries, but fantasizing about illusions is how the Prince of Lies brought sin and death into the world. Jesus, on the other hand, said, “. . . The words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Saint John never misquotes the Master: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).

2017-11-05 – 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 23:1-12

Homily podcast.

Celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 was awkward and unlike our nation’s festivities of 1976, because the American Revolution did not have a Reign of Terror. The Russian people are in a situation even more perplexing when it comes to the one-hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7. (The dating confusion is because Russia was still on the old Julian calendar in 1917.) The Russian Revolution unleashed the horrors of Communism that led to the deaths of at least 94 million people in various countries, by genocide, execution, purges and famines caused by collectivization.

History is not ardently pursued in our schools these days, and when it is modified as Social Science, it often distorts historical reality. In a survey of youths between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, twenty-eight percent had never heard of Lenin, and fully half had never heard of Stalin, while nearly two-thirds were unaware of the existence of history’s worst mass murderer (65 million deaths), Mao Tse-Tung. The death of Fidel Castro was marked by many media commentators as something to be mourned, and Che Guevara appears on t-shirts as a chic hero.

In countries at least nominally Christian, the assaults on the Church by revolutionaries took a more subtle form through subversion. There is the witness of Bella Dodd, an organizer of the Communist Party in the United States and head of the New York State Teachers Union. After her return to the Church in 1952 under the guidance of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, she detailed how the Communist Party in the 1920’s and 1930’s strove to infiltrate American seminaries and other church institutions, often through the exploitation of the naïve and what, according to Soviet expert Vladimir Bukovsky, Lenin had called “useful idiots.”

There still are Russians old enough to remember seeing priests nailed to the doors of their churches. Their nation remains conflicted about their revolution, and still hesitant about what to do with the repeatedly embalmed corpse of Lenin; but facing his tomb from across the great square, Krásnaya plóshchad, is the Kazan Cathedral, restored in 1993. On its façade is written in bold Cyrillic letters: “Christ is Risen.” Since the “Second Baptism of Russia” when the old Soviet Union fell in 1988, 29,000 churches have been built there, at the rate of three per day. In that period the number of seminaries has increased from three to over fifty.

That is a picture far different from many places in the West, where innocuous Christianity has failed to resist the bacillus of secularism, as churches close and seminaries shrink. People who have suffered the consequences of evil in the East have expressions more ponderous and sober than the chuckling countenances of soft spokesmen for Christ in the West. The centenary of the Russian Revolution should be a time for reflection and resolve.

2017-10-29 – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 22:34-40

Homily podcast.

The Roman magistrate Appius Claudius Caecus, who died in 273 B.C., accomplished much despite physical infirmities: “caecus” means blind. His greatest monuments were Rome’s first aqueduct (Aqua Appia) and first highway (Via Appia), which is still in use today. He was also a literary man, who wrote of the working man (homo faber) and gave moral significance to the human ability to build: “Every man is the architect of his own fortune.”

In his youth Saint John Paul II had been a factory worker in a chemical plant, virtually a slave laborer under the Nazis, an experience that gave poignancy to his encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, written in 1981: “ ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ (Genesis 3:19). These words refer to the sometimes heavy toil that from [Eden] onwards has accompanied human work . . . And yet, in spite of all this toil—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. . . . through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’ ”

Made in the image of God, human beings do not merely toil, for they can use their imagination and reason to design and create. New York City is a virtual hymn to that ability, symbolized by the Empire State Building right up the street from our church. Despite the Depression and lack of the advanced power tools we have today, it took only 410 days to finish in 1931; in one spurt, fourteen floors went up in ten days. Thousands of workers, including Mohawks who have a talent for managing heights, completed it for $41 million, $19 million less than estimated. Hard hats were not used in those days, yet remarkably only five workers were killed—five too many, but still a tribute to skill and caution.

Our church is now in the heart of the largest building development in our nation’s history. Sixteen skyscrapers are rising in this Hudson Yards project, one taller than the Empire State Building. It will bring 12,700,000 square feet of office, residential and retail space, and an estimated 65,000 visitors daily. The sacrifices involved to build this cannot be overstated. In recent days three young workers were killed, and hundreds of devout laborers asked me to gather with them in the midst of the steel girders and concrete to lead them with prayers and Holy Water, for their work is more than mere toil.

Our Lord, who was a carpenter, certainly challenges all of us to do his work in this gigantic new chance to let his light shine. With all this engineering and commercial display, “homo faber” can only know himself rightly by knowing that he is a helper of God the Creator. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).

2017-10-22 – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 22:15-21

Homily podcast.

“Use your brain” is a maxim often heard, but often resented. Such was the case when our Lord confronted professional debaters. At the age of twelve his rhetorical skill astonished the rabbis, who presumably thought that he was just a child prodigy. But later on, the legal experts were not amused when he challenged their logical fallacies; yet he came into the world to win souls and not to win debates. Those experts did not think their souls needed saving, so they cynically used syllogisms to “entrap him in speech” (Matthew 22:15). They posed a trick question about paying taxes, to which Christ responded that they should use their brains: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Using the brain to figure out things of Caesar and of God does not easily answer the question, but it does establish some solid principles. Take for instance the neuralgic challenges to capital punishment. Well-used brains have understood that the death penalty belongs to the just domain of the government. The Catechism affirms this (CCC #2267).

This principle belongs to natural law, which in classical philosophy, is “. . . the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men as binding them to do good and avoid evil.” Saint Paul appealed to natural law: “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).

Governments exist to maintain “the tranquility of order.” When popes governed the Papal States, they measured out punishments including death. One papal executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti, served six popes, including Blessed Pius IX, and personally executed 516 felons.

That was the civil side of ruling; the spiritual side did everything possible to bring the guilty to confession and a state of grace before meeting God, because happiness is the realization of the purpose of life and is not mere pleasure; and unhappiness is the contradiction of that purpose, and not mere pain. Without that perspective, the death penalty seems an arrogant violation of life, and that is why today opposition to the death penalty increases as religious faith decreases. That dangerous alchemy substitutes emotion for truth and platitudes for reason. Such lax use of the brain is to theology what Barney the Dinosaur is to paleontology.

Two professors, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, have published an excellent book: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. Such right use of the brain explains that abuses of punishment are intolerable, and the application of mercy is a permissible use of prudential opinion. But to posit the death penalty as intrinsically evil contradicts laws natural and divine, and no authorities, be they of the State or the Church, have the right to deny what is right by asserting that.

2017-10-15 – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 22:1-14

Fr. Rutler’s homily podcast.

A bit of unintentional black humor made its way into the news some days ago, in an account of people panicking at rush hour on a commuter train in southwest London outside Wimbledon Station. Rail power lines were cut, disrupting train traffic for nearly twelve hours. The cause? Some sort of evangelist had stood up in one of the carriages and began to read aloud from the Bible.

In our neuralgic society, nervous about terrorism, we might empathize with the passengers, especially if the preacher was shouting. In New York our urban protocol is simply to avoid eye contact with people like that. But the first offense was the police description of passengers “self-evacuating.” As neologisms go, this conjured up some pretty frightful images; one expects better from the land that gave us our glorious English language. The bigger problem is that the unhappy passengers “self-evacuated” because the evangelist intoned “Death is not the end.”

In a more tranquil moment of human history, these words would be a consolation. In paraphrase they were the comforting motto of Mary Queen of Scots. T.S. Eliot used the words in his Four Quartets, and the crooner Bob Dylan made it the title of one of his most popular songs, but it caused none of his fans to self-evacuate.

The utter non-finality of death, the promise of life everlasting, is Good News for those who will listen. But for those who translate the meaning of life according to their limited narcissistic vocabulary, the good news of eternal glory is no more vital than ramblings in the Qur’an or Upanishads.

Saint Thomas More said that to be a real Christian is always to be surprised by the Resurrection. The essence of human response to the Resurrection is astonishment: it was not expected. That should be the psychology and flushed complexion of every encounter with Christ. It explains why the first words of the Risen Lord were not formulas for physics or cures for cancer, but “Peace. Don’t be afraid.” Awe, as holy fear, casts out the ignorance of servile fear. In the same vein, Saint John Vianney said that if we really understood what happens in the Mass, we would die, not out of fear but out of love. So one hyperventilating woman who jumped onto the tracks outside Wimbledon, was not altogether wrong when she said that the Bible the man was carrying was a bomb.

Perhaps it is because people do not love enough, that they panic when someone says that death is not the end. Our Lord said something more radiantly harsh than that: “And fear not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Some who first heard that adored him, but a great many self-evacuated.