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

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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).

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

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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

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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

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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.