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.

2017-10-08 – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 21:33-43

Fr. Rutler’s homily podcast.

When a mathematical problem stumped Professor Einstein, he played Mozart on his violin to put him “in touch with the harmony of the cosmos,” and often the solution followed. It does not require genius to sense that all relations in the creation are harmonious. Only because of celestial harmony is there a human intuition that wrong is wrong and right is right.

“Music” first meant being charmed by what Greeks like Hesiod called the Muses. To climb up to their mount, Helicon or Olympus, was to be “amused,” and to return from that peak was to bring happy harmony to a dissonant world. Wanting to be amused is a desire to become part of the cosmic harmony. In physics six centuries before the Incarnation, Pythagoras discovered how harmonies issue from the ratios of vibrating strings, concluding that music, based on ratios of numbers, is the definitive principle ordering the world. Two centuries later, Aristotle figured out that the planets and stars, arranged in harmonic ratios, produce the “music of the spheres.”

The Eternal Ratio, or Logos, is Christ, and the noisy darkness, to paraphrase St. John, has never overcome him. Union with Christ is, in reality and not myth, like climbing the mount to meet the Muses: “But you are come to Mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22).

Although Plato did not think in terms of evil, he did think of ignorance and confusion as the opposites of harmony. In the sixth century after the Resurrection, Boethius said in Platonic terms that morality is harmony with the music of the spheres. In the Eucharist, as the Second Vatican Council taught, the song of the Heavenly Jerusalem is brought to our earthly altars, like the singing angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder (Sulam Yaakov). Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Liturgy presupposes . . . that the heavens have been opened . . . If the heavens are not open, then whatever liturgy was is reduced to role playing and, in the end, to a trivial pursuit of congregational self-fulfillment in which nothing really happens.”

Last week as we celebrated the feast of our patron, Saint Michael the Archangel, in the Hammerstein Ballroom just a two-minute walk east of our church, a “Heavy Metal Anti-Christ Superstar” who calls himself a “Priest of the Church of Satan,” screamed noise, for which the audience paid up to four hundred dollars to be amused. Now a bit long in the tooth, he said in 1996: “Hopefully, I’ll be remembered as the person who brought an end to Christianity.” A collapsing stage set ended his performance by knocking him unconscious.

I do not play the violin as well as Einstein, but as a priest, in contrast to the “Honorary Priest of Satan,” even my faltering voice can bring the song of the Heavenly Jerusalem to our altar in Hell’s Kitchen.

2017-10-01 – St. Michael the Archangel – John 1:47-51

Fr. Rutler’s homily podcast.

The writer Flannery O’Connor, in her wit, did not think highly of local Catholic newspapers. They devoted more space to advertisements such as “Let a Catholic exterminator get rid of your pests” than to illuminating discussion of great issues. Much ecclesiastical “happy news” gingerly sidesteps challenging thought, churning out folksy columns as if to prove Chesterton’s definition of journalism as “writing badly.” Happily, this monopoly on banality is changing with the decline of the print media and the spread of websites.

But “parish pump” news deserves its place. I do not mean endless photographs of smiling people receiving awards for conspicuous philanthropy. Our Lord never named any apostle “Man of the Year.” But the principle of subsidiarity holds that the life of the local parish is the core of how grace works. Our parish newsletter now has over 7,000 international subscribers, and obviously most of them are not parishioners, as our local population in this commercial neighborhood is small, albeit growing and getting younger. So I ask your indulgence to mention a few local items as we celebrate the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, our parish patron.

An admirable inspiration chose Saint Michael as protector here in Hell’s Kitchen, just as the Church of the Holy Innocents where I was administrator, was so named when it was built in what then was a neighborhood notorious for an unfamiliarity with innocence. I still find penciled petitions on the stones of St. Michael’s pleading protection in days when knifings and shootings were more commonplace than now. At the Sunday Masses, we pray the Prayer to Saint Michael for persecuted Christians far away, but also for our own people here in the largest real estate development in the history of our nation. Those new skyscrapers are rising at a cost that is more than material. In just the past two weeks, three young workers on three buildings near the church were killed, and others injured.

To make our church ever more visible as a spiritual center in this urban development, we are making extensive repairs and improving its aesthetic (and, we hope, ascetic) quality. Over the summer the sanctuary was further embellished, and I spent my vacation gold-leafing more of the woodwork and training volunteers to assist. The carpeting around the middle altar has been replaced with marble matching the rest of the sanctuary, a two-month labor. Various statues have been restored to their original appearance or replaced by classical ones. All this has been done with the strictest economies and donated labor. Also, I am grateful for your patience as we transition to a new program for our expanding mailing list. Your support to meet the modest cost is vital and thankworthy.

Finally, and typical of domestic life in Manhattan, the digging and blasting all around keep the exterminator busy. And I have not asked if he is Catholic.