Monday, April 17, 2017

The Ratzinger Revolution.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI turned ninety on Easter Sunday, marking his birthday today with a quiet celebration in Rome. Pope Benedict has had a profound impact on my life as a Catholic, as a Jesuit, and as a priest, and I proudly identify as a member of the Benedict Generation even though I came of age and entered the Jesuits before he became pope. Pope Benedict's decision to vacate the Chair of St. Peter was a spiritual trauma from which I have not yet fully recovered, and the efforts that some have undertaken to dismiss or to undermine his legacy have often rubbed salt in the wound.

Given the pain that the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI still provokes, I took some comfort from an article by Tracey Rowland published on Good Friday in the Catholic Herald. Looking at "the brave new world of 21st-century Catholicism," Rowland argues that Ratzinger's theological output "will form a treasury to be mined by future generations trying to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture." According to Rowland, Ratzinger's work could serve as a precious resource for young people trying to get their bearings in societies increasingly divorced from their roots:
Today we cannot even presume the existence of the baptismal certificate. Members of the millennial generation find themselves in a situation where they have rarely experienced a fully functional Christian social milieu. To find out about Christianity, especially the Catholic version of it, they watch documentaries and films. They interrogate older Catholics, and google information about the saints, liturgies and cultural practices.

The cultural capital that should follow as a natural endowment upon their baptism has been frittered away, buried and in some cases even suppressed by previous generations. They are like archaeologists. They discover fragments of the faith which they find attractive and then they try to work out where the fragment once fitted into a Catholic mental universe.

When a new generation arises in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era, craving a human ecology that respects both God and nature, and wanting to be something more than rootless cosmopolitans, Ratzinger’s publications will serve as Harry Potter-style Portkeys, giving creative young rebels access to the missing cultural capital – indeed, access to what Ratzinger calls the memoria Ecclesiae.
Having encountered Ratzinger and some of his interlocutors, from John Henry Newman to Henri de Lubac, Rowland hopes that "a generation tired of the banality of cheap intimacy and nominalism gone mad may rediscover the buried capital of a civilisation built on the belief that the Incarnation really did happen. They may also gradually learn to distinguish a secularised Christianity that hooked itself up to whatever zeitgeist wafted along from the real mysteries celebrated in something called the old Christian calendar." I hope and pray that she is right, and that future generations who did not know the pontificate of Benedict XVI at first hand might come to know and appreciate Joseph Ratzinger through his writings. AMDG.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christos Voskrese!

Observing another old tradition of this blog, I would like to mark the Feast of the Resurrection by sharing the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Are there any who are devout and love God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.

And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who came at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally, for the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Es ist vollbracht.

In the latest iteration of the Good Friday tradition of this blog, here is the aria "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is accomplished") from J. S. Bach's Johannes-Passion, BWV 245. This video comes from a 1985 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (RIP); the soloists are Panito Iconomou (alto) and Christophe Coin (playing the viola da gamba, a Baroque instrument).

In the Johannes-Passion, this aria comes immediately after Jesus' final words on the cross - "Es ist vollbracht" in the German text - and right before the Evangelist announces Jesus' death. Given below in the original German and in an English translation from the Bach Cantatas Website, the words of the aria move from mournful lament to sure yet somber faith in Christ's final victory:

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!


It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

Prayers for those who are celebrating the Paschal Triduum, and good wishes to all. AMDG.

"What she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

Once again, it is Holy Week. As often happens at this point in the liturgical year, I feel acutely aware of the challenge of finding a contemplative space at a very busy time; this time is busy on account of academic projects that tend to pile up at this point in the calendar, but it's additionally busy for me as a priest called upon to lead services and to hear confessions during the days of Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum. As I observed five years ago, it can be tempting for people in ministry to view the Triduum as "another damn thing," a pile of practical tasks and responsibilities added to an already busy schedule. What I wrote then remains true today: for one who works through the Triduum, praying through the Triduum can seem an elusive goal.

As part of my effort to prepare spiritually for the Triduum, I spent some time earlier this week praying with the various Gospel accounts of the Passion. As I did this, I was newly struck by a detail that the Evangelists Mark and Matthew both record in their accounts of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13). After an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with precious spikenard, provoking the ire of some observers who see her gesture as wastefully extravagant, Jesus defends the "beautiful thing" done by the woman and makes this statement: "Truly I tell you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her" (Mt 26:13, cf. Mk 14:9).

The anointing of Christ is recounted in all four of the Gospels, but the details of the event differ somewhat in each Evangelist's telling. Luke sets himself apart from the other three by setting the event not at Bethany but in "a Pharisee's house" (Lk 7:36) and by describing the woman as a notorious public sinner (Lk 7:37, 47). John is unique in identifying the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Jn 12:3), and tradition has often presented her as Mary Magdalene. Absent from Luke and John but found in Matthew and Mark is the insistence of Jesus that "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

What is it about the actions of this woman that should be remembered "wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world"? Part of the answer lies in the sheer lavishness of her devotion; some accounts note that a few witnesses were scandalized at the apparent waste of costly perfume, suggesting that it should have been sold to benefit the poor (Mt 26:9; Mk 14:5; Jn 12:5). One hears an echo of such attitudes today in the voices of some who wrongly argue that concern for beauty in church architecture and sacred liturgy is an affront to the poor. On the contrary, those who are materially poor often have a heightened appreciation for the beauty of the sacred. In this regard, I sometimes think of the Latin inscription chiseled above the entrance of a splendid old church in the city where I was born: Aedificarunt Domino opifices Sancti Antonii, which can be translated, "The workers of Saint Anthony [parish] built [this church] for the Lord." In much the same way that a humble woman felt moved to anoint Jesus with costly perfume, the desire to do something beautiful for God moved a community of poor French Canadian immigrants in a small city in New England to construct a magnificent temple.

In his enyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II described how the anointing at Bethany can be seen to represent the care which Christians should have for the sacred liturgy. "Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany," he wrote, "the Church has feared no 'extravagance,' devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the 'large upper room,' she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery." Given this, we can better see "how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated." Whether we associate her with St. Mary Magdalene, with St. Mary of Bethany, or with another person whose name we cannot know, the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany may be remembered as a patron for all who have exercised special care for the form of divine worship.

In praising the actions of the woman who anointed him, Jesus also presents her as an example to be imitated. Noting the extravagant care that she lavished upon the person of Jesus, we are invited to reflect upon our own care for Christ as he comes to us in the Eucharist and in the liturgical services of the Church. Do we receive him with affection and with reverence, unafraid to show our devotion in ways that others may fail to appreciate? May those of us who take part in the services of the Paschal Triduum find in these sacred rites an opportunity to grow in the love that moved the woman of Bethany to an act of profound adoration. In a special way, may those of us for whom this is a very busy time - particularly the clergy - increase our devotion to the One who has called us to service. AMDG.

The image of the Anointing at Bethany at the start of this post was found here.

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.