Sunday, April 12, 2020

Happy Easter!

Art by Eugene Bernand, 1898

(To be honest, I forgot to post this on Easter Sunday; somehow in my mind finding the picture was the same thing as hitting "post" on the blog. I hope your Easter Octave is going well!)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Holy Thursday

Last Supper by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret

Surrounded by mirrors

In the Mass readings for this week we hear a lot about Judas. There's no denying that a lot of us are haunted by two competing impulses: the desire to think we're in no danger whatsoever of being a Judas, and the uncomfortable suspicion that we already are one. 

The truth is that we all have the capacity for betrayal. What's even more sobering to contemplate is that we don't always see our own temptations and bad motivations. It's easy to put the most positive spin possible on our own actions, and criticize everyone else for doing the wrong thing while ignoring our own worst faults and habits.

If this year's unusual Lent has taught us anything, it's that we have to avoid that. When the Lord tells his followers not to judge, lest they be judged, He isn't saying that we must ignore sin or fail to speak out against it; but He is giving us a serious warning about the risk of minimizing our own sins and demanding forgiveness for them while holding others responsible for the slightest of faults. It is not good enough to tell ourselves proudly that at least we avoid the more serious sins; as a wise priest used to say in is homilies: "Quit priding yourself on not committing adultery; has anybody ever even asked you to?" His point was a good one: we should never think well of our own virtue merely because we avoid sins nobody (including our own internal selves with all our weaknesses) has asked us to commit. The teetotaler who hates the taste of alcohol should not pride herself on avoiding drunkenness but look to her reputation as the worst gossip in town; the man who is known everywhere for his violent temper should not be overly proud because he isn't tempted to cheat on his taxes, and so on.

This Lent, we're surrounded by mirrors: our family and our relationship with each member, our jobs and our willingness to do a fair day's work, our habits of wasteful spending or laziness or selfishness have all been magnified so that we can see them more clearly than usual. When the long Lent of 2020 ends (well past Easter in most cases) we should be humble about our failings and eagerly seek the sacraments to give us strength.

Many scholars have pointed out that in the end the difference between Judas and St. Peter was this: St. Peter had the capacity for self-reflection and true repentance. We are all capable of betraying Christ, as both Judas and Peter did--but we should strive to be like Peter and humbly admit our grievous faults to the Lord. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Let this be our prayer

Here and there on social media I've seen people saying--some joking, some not--that they've "failed" Lent this year.

Many of them mean that they've had to set aside their voluntary penances of prayer and sacrifice. Yes, even in the midst of a global pandemic where most of us were under stay-at-home orders by the middle of Lent, some of my fellow Catholics are feeling guilty because, while shifting to work-at-home and/or homeschooling and/or whatever other challenges were going on, they ate a few treats or failed to say all the daily prayers and meditations they'd planned on praying.

Catholic guilt is a real thing, you know.

But the answer to this is simple. Sometimes we choose our Lent, and sometimes God chooses our Lents for us. None of us could have imagined last year that this year's Lent would involve what it does, or that it would feel like a Lent that does not end on time (as we will all still be dealing with the novel coronavirus through Easter and beyond).

The challenge, when God chooses our Lent, is to embrace it for what it is. For parents working from home while homeschooling all of a sudden, Lent is a place for patience and connection. For college students trying to figure all of their suddenly-online assignments out, Lent is a place to reach out, communicate, and try not to freak out. For single people working alone at home, Lent is a time for quiet and focus. For those working essential jobs who have to continue to go out, Lent is a time for courage. For health care workers, especially those working to help those suffering from the coronavirus, Lent is a time for strength and hope.

For all of us, together and apart, Lent 2020 is a time to let go of the things that aren't important and to embrace the things that are.

Let our present sacrifices made out of love for each other be our prayer, and let those prayers rise up to the throne of God as we petition for an end to the most prolonged Lent most of us have ever experienced.

Monday, April 6, 2020

A hermeneutic of suspicion

It's Monday of Holy Week, and my Lenten weekday blogging will be coming to an end soon; usually in the past when I've done this I've posted a prayer or brief reflection on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and put up a message for Easter Sunday before ending the daily blogging for a while.

This year, everything is so strange, and this blog has not been at all what I thought it would be. But I'm glad it has given me space to talk about the unique events that are going on as they have unfolded. Someday these days will be only memories like all days, but when you're living through something the history books are going to talk about it feels a bit different.

One thing that I know I'll remember is the response of various people in the Church to this crisis. The pope and the bishops have been good shepherds in these days. Their concern for the life and health of all people, their desire to be creative in ways of offering the sacraments until or unless even that was impossible, their closeness to the people in prayer--all has been a blessing. I have had my differences with members of the hierarchy before, and I may yet again, but for now I have been most appreciative of their willingness to make the tough decisions.

On the other hand, many of the public figures within the Rad Trad movement have not been as inspiring. Approaching everything as they so often do from a hermeneutic of suspicion, they have accused bishops of being wimps and weaklings for not standing up for the right to keep churches open and keep packing people into Mass during a deadly global pandemic. They have attended secret, private Masses and have bragged about it online. They have insisted things aren't as bad as they seem and have hoisted so many conspiracy theory flags that it's hard to keep track of them all. Blending politics with religion, they have insisted on seeing the virus through a political lens and have gone so far as to accuse Catholic clergy in general of being happy and excited about Mass suspensions or restrictions on various sacraments.

It is in the unusual times that we often see things in their true colors. The Church's representatives on earth are far from flawless and in their human capacity they can, and do, make mistakes. But when it comes to decisions made in a time like this, the bishops around the world are making prudential decisions prudently, as such decisions should be made. It is not a weakness of faith that motivates their actions, but a deep concern for the well-being of all people coupled with an intelligent weighing of public policy based on the science of viruses and the experience of those who have already fought this particular pandemic in their own nations.

The Rad Trad laity may have sincere hearts and great personal piety, but they are simply wrong in making demands the Church would be highly imprudent to meet. This time of deprivation will not last forever, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass goes on, even if it goes on without a congregation. When this is all over, they will not be seen as prophetic heroes, but as foolish people who didn't take this whole situation with the seriousness it commanded.

This will be a strange, silent, reflective Holy Week, but I am certain that the Church is inviting us to do exactly what Christ wants of us here. Let us, with obedient hearts, join in prayer from our homes, remembering that this too will pass.

Friday, April 3, 2020

One more week

Usually by this time in Easter I catch myself thinking "one more week" a lot. One more week of Lent, one more week of small sacrifices, one more week of prayer, one more week to make preparations for the Easter celebration and Easter dinner, one more week to get ready for the Triduum, or as much of it as I can realistically participate in depending on how bad the spring migraines are getting.

"One more week" means something different this year. It means one more week of sheltering in place with no end in sight. It means one more week of a year so far from normal that we can't quite remember what normal was like. It means one more week to brace ourselves against the next set of statistics, the next local policies or orders, the next delays and frustrations. It's one more week of crossing things off of the calendar because they're not going to happen, and one more week of hoping none of our loved ones catch this virus or become seriously ill with it if they do.

And yet--in one more week we will be observing Good Friday. Most of us will be at home, and will be finding ways to pray and fast on this most solemn of days in the midst of an unthinkable crisis, a piece of world history we just happen to be living through at the present moment.

It's surreal and strange, and there's no way to change that.

I wonder if the apostles felt like this when Our Lord was making plans to go to Jerusalem for the great feast of Passover. Jesus had been preaching and teaching for three years, and some of the apostles were convinced that He was going to claim the throne of David any time now. Did they think this particular Passover would be the beginning? Did they think that in one more week, Jesus would reveal His identity and purpose to the world, and that they would surround Him in His hour of triumph?

If they did think so, they must have been even more convinced after Palm Sunday, when Our Lord entered the city of Jerusalem to the accompaniment of palm-strewn pathways and crowds singing a psalm of praise. This was it; this was really happening. Just one more week...

...and then He died.

Not only did He die; He died an ignominious death on a Roman cross, crucified for the alleged crime of claiming to be a king. He died with criminals on either side of him; He died facing the mockery of a crowd that had been ready to give Him a very different crown only a little while before.

All of the apostles except St. John fled in the face of so terrible a scene. Afterwards they gathered and hid, afraid that they would be next. They had not understood His words preparing them for this moment. They still didn't understand, even after seeing Lazarus raised from the dead, that death had no power over Him.

We can't blame them too harshly; we forget all the time that death has no power over us, either. Some of my fellow Catholics have turned this truth around a bit, in this time of suffering and sorrow: if death has no power over us Christians, they say, why are we obeying orders to stay home and not gladly risking our lives to go to Mass and to carry on as usual? I understand their hearts, but to say that death has no ultimate power over us does not mean we can be reckless with other people's lives, let alone our own. The saints and martyrs who died as witnesses to the Faith never went out of their way to seek that martyrdom, because seeking martyrdom is a form of pride, not of holiness. It is one thing to accept certain risks on one's own behalf, as St. Damien of Molokai did; it is another to decide to spread the risk of death indiscriminately to everyone we meet, just because we can't be bothered to stay at home for what will, in the end, be a short time, as compared to our lives.

Still, the truth of Easter is that death has lost its ultimate power over our lives. In our prayers, sacrifices, and witnesses to each other in this difficult time we must not lose heart. Our eternal destiny is full of hope by the grace of God and the death and resurrection of His Son; guided and shielded by the Holy Spirit let us look ahead with confidence and trust. One more week, and then another, and another, until the crisis is past: let us pray in solidarity with each other and for those most severely affected, as well as for all who are working to bring this present hardship to an end. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Globalists aren't patriotic

When the tale of America's battle with COVID-19 is told, the name of the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Jared Moskowitz, will likely be remembered.

Frustrated by his state's inability to obtain any of 3M's n-95 masks for Florida doctors and hospitals, Moskowitz began to troll the company on Twitter:
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, went on Twitter Monday to ask 3M to send N95 masks directly to hospitals, first responders and his division to avoid scams and price-gouging. 
“How many brokers and distributors do we have to negotiate with only to find empty warehouses?” he asked. 
3M tweeted back that it is doubling its global production to 100 million per month. 
Then Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and a star on the “Shark Tank” TV series, chimed in. He has said 3M’s distributors and resellers are bidding up prices to take advantage of demand. 
Moskowitz responded to Cuban that “it feels like a Ponzi scheme. Different distributors represented by brokers selling the same lot of masks bidding against each other. I’m chasing ghosts here.”
As Moskowitz explained to Tucker Carlson during a TV interview, 3M's distributors are selling the much-needed PPE articles to buyers, including representatives of foreign countries, who show up to 3M's warehouses with cash in hand. As states attempt to negotiate purchases of these same articles, prices skyrocket and the items disappear, sold, in at least some instances, overseas.

Now  President Donald Trump is expanding the Defense Production Act:
President Donald Trump on Thursday invoked the Defense Production Act to push 3M and six major medical device companies to produce protective masks and ventilators needed for the coronavirus outbreak, bowing to weeks of pressure to expand the federal government’s use of the emergency statute. 
“Moments ago, I directed Secretary Azar and acting Secretary Wolf to use any and all available authority under the Defense Protection Act to ensure that domestic manufacturers have the supplies they need to produce ventilators for patients with severe cases of Covid-19,” Trump said at his Thursday press conference. [...] 
Additionally, the president said he signed “an element of the [DPA] against 3M.” That order authorizes the head of FEMA to acquire however many N95 face masks from the company he deems necessary for the crisis. And the administration indicated Thursday that more DPA orders could come soon, possibly related to black market activities.
It seems unconscionable for an American company to be selling vitally-needed medical supplies overseas, let alone to be condoning any kind of cash-priority or bidding war in the process. But then, to describe 3M as an "American" company is too simplistic these days, when it is often described as " American multinational conglomerate corporation..." as in its Wikipedia description. Globalist companies exist to maximize profits and shareholder values; they certainly do not exist to put their country of origin first in a time of relentless war against a deadly virus--unless, it would seem, they are made to do so under the Defense Protection Act.

After this is all over, people will remember Mr. Moskowitz for shining a light on what really is a typical globalist business practice. And Americans will also remember 3M.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The cry of the poor

I've heard some people of faith ask the question: what is this present crisis for? In what way is the Lord testing us or punishing us? What does He want us to learn, and what does He want us to do?

Those kinds of questions do show one weakness of American Christianity, and it is our bias for action, especially political actions. We Catholics aren't immune to this; in fact, sometimes we scandalize those without faith by our insistence that electing this person or that party will magically solve all of our society's ills because that person or that party will DO all of the right things. It's as though we never paid any attention to those parts of the Gospel where Jesus rebuked those of His disciples who wanted to call down fire from heaven or at least wield swords at the slightest provocation, and who didn't realize until after the Crucifixion that Our Lord had not, in fact, come to kick Rome out of Israel and establish an earthly kingdom. Again and again Jesus reminds His disciples that His kingdom is not of this world, and that they shouldn't be so focused on political solutions to problems that originated in the soul.

Now, I'm not dismissing the idea that Christians have strong and important duties to our fellow men, and most especially to the poor. The Lord, we are told, hears the cry of the poor. He is close to the broken-hearted; He heals and binds the wounds of the suffering; He is near to the powerless and the oppressed. The many Christian charities, the many works of Catholic religious and lay groups to alleviate the suffering of the poor, are not works done in vain; they are among the most important things we can do.

If this present time is to remind us of anything in particular, though, I can't help but think that it reminds us to have a certain spirit of humble solidarity in our outreach to those less fortunate. We are learning, for instance, what our brothers and sisters without reliable transportation already know about what it's like to miss Mass Sunday after Sunday--and even though they are excused from the obligation if they live too far from a parish to walk to Mass and do not have a car and/or live where public transportation does not run on Sundays, we are learning what a hollow comfort it is to know we incur no sin when we can't get to Mass for weeks on end.

Then, too, we are learning what it is like to live in a food desert, something some of us have already experienced in our lives but others do not know. Most of us have discovered that not all of our regular grocery store purchases are possible, and some of us are having to be creative, stretch meals, and do without some of the scarce items. Well, our poor brothers and sisters could tell us all what it's like to have one dirty, crowded, under-stocked store to shop from if they even have money to shop in the first place, or to line up at a food bank in the hopes that not all of the protein and toiletries will be gone by the time they reach the front of the line.

And some among us are experiencing a separation from ordinary health care, such as dental or optical visits or routine checkups we take for granted, because the coronavirus has led to some cancellations or scarcity in various areas as doctors and nurses rightly prioritize the call to help those suffering from COVID-19. Our poor brothers and sisters can tell us what it's like to try for ages to find a local doctor or dentist or optometrist who accepts Medicaid patients, to wait for ages more to get an appointment, to experience sudden cancellations when the doctor's schedule changes unexpectedly, and so on.

All of this in a land of plenty; all of this making the plight of the poor in much poorer nations hit home in a way that, perhaps, some of us are too inclined to forget.

I don't know why the Lord has chosen to permit this disease to appear on the earth; I'm not inclined to see apocalypses all around me, and I hesitate to assign motives to the Almighty at times like these, which seems presumptuous. But I do know that even now I am hearing the cry of the poor in a more poignant way than I have in a long time, and when the crisis is over I hope there will be opportunities to help in new and creative ways, without elevating a bias for action above the genuine solidarity of spirit and contemplation of our shared brotherhood with the poor from which all such actions should rightly flow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The scent of palms

Palm Sunday is rapidly approaching in the strangest Lenten season I've ever lived through. It is sad that many bishops, such as mine, have forbidden the blessing and distribution of the palms even if they are merely placed outside for the faithful to collect, and yet I do understand why some bishops aren't allowing this: if too many people come at once, or if people take the items with bad intentions, or if some other incident occurs then a parish might find itself in trouble. Blessed palms are a beautiful sacramental, and like most Catholics I still have dried palms from previous years in my home; perhaps on Sunday if the weather permits we might bury a few of the old ones outside as this is one of the approved ways of respectful disposal of blessed palms.

One of the things I will miss this Sunday is the scent of the palm branches, which is something I associate very much with this time of year. There is something about the crisp aroma that arises from the leaves that echoes in my memories of Palm Sundays past and gone: getting to hold the branches as a child, helping to confiscate a toddler sibling's palm if said toddler didn't stop using it as a sword, showing my own children how to carry and hold them and how to treat the palms with respect, watching as friends taught my children to make palm crosses (I still can't do it myself!), the mixture of the palm fragrance with the smell of the incense often used at Palm Sunday Mass--so many memories of Palm Sundays stretching over my life as a Catholic. It's hard to imagine this year being so different.

I'm grateful that we will be able to watch Mass on TV; I used to have trouble doing this, but the last couple of Sundays have been very blessed by the ability to watch Mass. But Palm Sunday is usually quite crowded, and that always seems fitting, in that it was a crowd of people shouting "Crucify Him!" as our Lord's Passion began.

It's very hard to miss these annual milestones, and harder still to know that we are still unsure how long all of this will last. But one thing the memories of past Palm Sundays reminds me is that life happens in seasons: we are children who don't understand why one Mass is so long and why we get to hold plants, then we are the "big kids" helping the little ones behave, then we are young Catholics discovering the richness of our faith, then we are living a vocation and deeply thankful to the Lord for the gift of that call, whatever it is, then, perhaps, if the vocation was marriage we are raising little ones and teaching them that the palms are not a toy--and for some the season has turned to the age of helping grandchildren to be instructed in these ways, too. This one season of emptiness will pass in God's good time and be swept up in all our other memories, and our parishes will fill up again with crowds, and become redolent with the scent of blessed palms.

We can only wait

The month of March is almost at an end, and it's a little surreal to look back and realize how normal things were when March began. Sure, there were lots of people already talking about the novel coronavirus, and many of us watched the news from China to see how things were going there in an attempt to predict whether we would be in trouble ourselves, or whether this whole thing would be contained in a few hot spots around the world. Some of us put a few extra canned goods in the grocery cart around the end of February or the beginning of March; some of us tried to imagine what we would need if we ended up being quarantined for a couple of weeks. But back then, back at the beginning of all this, many of us still believed the comforting stories: the virus wasn't that bad, it would be contained, we wouldn't face disruptions here in America, those of us who hadn't traveled abroad had nothing to worry about, and so on.

As I write this, it is just after midnight on March 31 (even though this is supposed to be Monday's blog post). March, 2020 has been one of the longest months I've ever experienced, and that's probably true for a lot of you, too. But the depressing reality is that in some ways we are still at the beginnings of all of this. We don't really know, at this point, how long it will be necessary to shelter-in-place in our homes, work from home if possible, make only the most essential trips for food and supplies, and otherwise keep isolated as part of the ongoing attempt to keep the number of critical cases from overwhelming hospitals and crashing the health care system.

And, of course, the longer we have to live like this the more the dangers that have nothing to do with the virus start to increase. We are being deprived of our spiritual nourishment; we are being deprived of the human contact that is necessary for good mental health; and many people are beginning to lose their jobs and livelihoods because you can't run an economy on virtually no activity for an indefinite period of time. That last will also take tolls on other aspects of people's mental and physical health, so it's not as though those questions are being ignored.

Still: what can we do? Covid-19 is a virus, not an entity we can fight openly or a political opponent with an agenda. For now, all we can do is wait. That's not very reassuring, but until we have some way to beat this thing, either an effective treatment that removes its deadly power or a sound way to trace and track infections while allowing the healthy to resume normal life a little bit at a time, that's where we are.

People who have lived through these kinds of life-changing historical events have a tendency to say things like "Oh, but we didn't know..." or "Things weren't clear at that point," or "Until the summer we thought our little part of the world wouldn't be affected, but then..." And this is true whether we're talking about disease and plagues, or wars and uprisings, or famines and riots. People who are living through situations like this always admit, later, that what is perfectly clear to observers twenty or thirty or forty years after the fact wasn't clear at all when history was being made around them.

History is being made around us now. The curse of living in interesting times has come upon us. And we can only wait and see what April will bring.