RIP, Big Frank

DiLorenzoThe man kept Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop on his desk for years. So you figure he was ready.

For all of bishop’s many kindnesses to me, I give thanks. For his few injustices against me, I right readily forgive him. May the blame not attach itself to him. I refuse to press charges.

May he forgive me for all the ways I have failed him–all of which he sees with perfect clarity now. He has much more to forgive me than I him.

He knew how to have fun. He and I had fun in his office, over straw hats, and with a desk calculator (trying to figure out how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to rebuild all the Church property within 300 yards of Orange Avenue in Roanoke). And I basically laughed in his 300-pound face when he lectured me about keeping fit.

I pray with all my heart that we will dine together in the life to come, a proper southside-Philly Italian meal, without him having to worry about his tricky digestion or his sugars. My dear departed dad was 100% clueless, and that often left me in difficult situations. But I always knew he loved me, with the desperate love of a father who wished he could guide his son, but just didn’t know how. I’m weeping right now, because I saw the same in Bishop DiLo. Resquiecat in pace, both of you, dear fathers. I owe you both.

…Richmond sede vacante is weird. For us parish priests of the diocese, I think it’s even weirder and more doleful than Roma sede vacante. May the good Lord comfort us and help us.

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

How many second chances ought we to give, Lord? Seventy times seven second chances.

In the parable we read at Holy Mass today, the servant owed the king a huge amount. After the servant begged for mercy, the king forgave the loan.

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77
77 pardons in honor of Shawn Lavao?

We want to relate to the magnificently magnanimous king. But can we deny that some debtors really do push us too far? Everyone knows somebody who simply doesn’t know how to stay out of debt, and won’t learn. Black holes of the good will of everyone around them, helpless and incorrigible. They try the patience of good people beyond the breaking point.

So: Let’s give the first servant in the parable the maximum benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that he had borrowed from the king only this one time. Meanwhile, his fellow servant had borrowed from him, without repaying, over and over again. Let’s acknowledge that any of us, driven to the extreme by such a deadbeat relative or friend, would long since have let him or her rot in jail, rather than swoop in with an “emergency” loan again.

All this may have been true in the scenario outlined in the parable. But still the king faulted the first servant for his lack of mercy.

Now, is this a reasonable judgment, considering the genuine limitations of human generosity? I’ve had to say it myself; after all, it is true: “Look, I want to help you. But I am not made of money.”

So, to understand all this, I think we need to keep in mind the context of this exchange between St. Peter and the Lord. Peter asked how often he must forgive his brother immediately after the Lord Jesus had explained a particularly amazing power that the Church possesses. The Church, a living family with duly appointed authority figures, has the power to bind and to loose, in the name of God. The living authority of the Church keeps the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

peterjesusBoth to bind and to loose. Holy Mother Church can and does bind. She can and does impose penalties–penalties with potentially horrifying and everlasting effects. There are things we have to stay far away from, if we know what’s good for us. Sacrilege, apostasy, abortion.

But the Church, when she binds someone with a penalty, always binds with the hope of ultimately loosing. Church penalties aim at correction and then restoration of communion. She never tires of forgiving the miscreant who repents. No one ever runs out of second chances with the Church. Everything the Church has belongs to everyone who humbly seeks Her goods, even if it’s a deadbeat who has confessed the same terrible sins too many times to remember.

So it doesn’t necessarily make any of us a bad person if we conclude that such-and-such cousin or nephew or old college roommate or former co-worker has come asking for help just one too many times. We individuals on our pilgrim way have our limits.

But what we can’t do is judge anybody any more harshly than Holy Mother Church does. And the Church is always ready to start over, as if today were the first day of a brand new friendship.

The View from Mount Nebo

Pope Benedict Mount Nebo

If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted. (Matthew 18:19)

If two of you agree. Sounds pretty easy. But if you think so, you’ve probably never attended a parish council meeting. And you’ve definitely never been married.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw the entire Holy Land, from Dan to Beersheba, from Naphtali to Idumea. To be sure, the view from Mount Nebo is majestic, like the view from McAfee’s Knob, or Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, NC. But no human eye could see the entire Holy Land from Mount Nebo. The Lord must have given Moses a share in His own divine vision, in order for the prophet to see the whole expanse of the land.

Then Moses died, and Joshua assumed his office. Now, two popes have stood at the same place on Mount Nebo and taken in the same view as Moses, at least the part that can be seen by the human eye.

At Holy Mass a week from Sunday we will hear the Lord speak about the Church’s authority to bind and loose (we hear about that at Holy Mass today, too). Our spiritual Mother, the family formed by God through the sacrifice of Christ, governed by Christ’s Vicar on earth: She possesses the holy concord, the agreement, the harmony of spirit which the Lord promised to reward. She teaches us how to pray and how to live.

We human beings rightly cherish our sacred personal independence. But this does come as good news: our Creator has not left us on our own to seek Him. He has not made us religious free agents.

Yes, we only truly find Him when we have the courage to enter into the depths of our consciences to find our true selves, the saints He made us to be. But our true selves never stand alone. We always belong to the family God forms from the flesh of His only-begotten Son.

Little World

downtown Charlottesville mall

The other night, I reached the end of an era in my little life. I read the final words of Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. Sweet sadness overwhelmed me.

Six Barsetshire novels–all of them about the country clergy, their families, their interactions with their neighbors and doctors and benefactors. About how young people move from the county into London, and their city lives. About the scramble for suitable marriages and adequate incomes.

Trollope concludes the series with a seriously wise reflection on the clerical life, which I would like to quote at length. But I will save that for an appendix to this post.

…For five years, from 2011 to 2016, I lived in greater Roanoke, while my dear mommy lived in Washington D.C. She hasn’t driven a car in decades, but she loves to ride the train. It doesn’t take a geographical genius to figure out the perfect place for the two of us to meet for a couple days during those years: Charlottesville.

Airbnb provided us with small downtown apartments. We ate at The Nook, or Citizen Burger, or Downtown Thai. My mom shopped at Caspari while I took my daily run up the hill and around the University Rotunda.

So my first reaction to the big news of the weekend involved intimate geographic familiarity. “Emancipation Park” is not a place I read about in the news; it is where I have done cool-down stretches at the end of numerous runs.

So I have experienced an enormous amount of frustration in trying to find a straightforward and clear report of what exactly happened on Saturday and where–by which I mean: at the corners of which streets (because I know them all).

I weep because downtown Charlottesville does not in any way deserve this crushing disturbance. Downtown Charlottesville deserves to have its own quiet life, and not be the object of a news-camera spectacle.

In August of 2015, the peaceful carp pools of Bridgewater Plaza, Franklin County, Va., also became the focus of the insatiable media spectacle, because of arbitrary and cruel death. I wept then, for the same reason.

I refuse to do any grandstanding for an end to racism here on my blog, at least not today. What I want to do is: pray that downtown Charlottesville gets to return to normal life, with people eating al fresco of a summer evening, sipping Budweisers, and leaving the moral absolutes alone.

Appendix. From the final paragraphs of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series:

Before I take my leave of the diocese of Barchester for ever, which I purpose to do in the succeeding paragraph, I desire to be allowed to say one word of apology for myself, in answer to those who have accused me–always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness–of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen, the first and most prominent characteristic of the ordinary English clergyman’s life.

I have described many clergymen, they say, but have spoken of them all as though their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them, were matters of no moment, either to me, or in my opinion, to themselves…

There are those who have told me that I have made all my clergymen bad, and none good. I must venture to hint to such judges that they have taught their eyes to love a colouring higher than nature justifies.

We are, most of us, apt to love Raphael’s madonnas better than Rembrandt’s matrons. But, though we do so, we know that Rembrandt’s matrons existed; but we have a strong belief that no such woman as Raphael painted ever did exist. In that he painted, as he may be surmised to have done, for pious purposes–at least for Church purposes–Raphael was justified; but had he painted so for family portraiture he would have been false.

Had I written an epic about clergymen, I would have taken St Paul for my model; but describing, as I have endeavoured to do, such clergymen as I see around me, I could not venture to be transcendental.

The Day Our Lady Went to Heaven

st mary major mosaic
apse mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

We keep the feast of our Lady’s immortality. Not just her immortality of soul, but also her immortality of body. Today her earthly pilgrimage ended. Her flesh, rather than facing the corruption of the grave, entered right into heaven.

Blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). St. Elizabeth said this about the Blessed Mother.

Now, at the particular moment when Elizabeth pronounced that beatitude, the Lord had spoken but few words to Mary. Only that she would have a son, who would reign forever on the throne of David. How? By the Holy Spirit.

Mary learned only this much information from Archangel Gabriel. You will give birth to the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit. Very simple. No extra details. –She believed it.

But what about later on? Did she learn more during the course of her life? More about the great mystery of the Christ–the mystery in which she had believed, when the Archangel visited her? Had she learned more about those original promises by the time her earthly life neared its end? What more had she learned?

Whatever more she learned about the Christian mystery in the time between her conception of her son and her last earthly breath–whatever further aspects of the great promise had been revealed to her–certainly Mary believed it all, with a heart full of love.

We humble sinners really can’t even begin to speculate about all the intimacies that passed between Jesus and Mary during their pilgrim lives on earth–both before and after He suffered, died, and then rose from the dead. We can hardly doubt that the Blessed Mother became a thorough expert regarding Christ’s promise of eternal life in the flesh. She saw Him, of course, during the forty days He spent on earth in His risen body. Mary, first among all Christians, saw the resurrected Jesus. And she believed that He had risen, not for His own sake, but so that she, too, and all the faithful, could conquer death in the flesh, as well.

Which means that this feast of our Lady’s bodily entrance into heaven is the feast of our immortality of body, too. Until August 15 arrived, in the year she finished her earthly life, Mary participated in Christ’s mystery like we do: by faith. We do not begrudge her the privilege of having seen Jesus during the forty days after Easter. We don’t begrudge her because, now that Jesus reigns in heaven, we can, by faith and prayer, achieve our own intimacy with Him, too. After all, as Mary’s cousin put it: “Blessed is she who has believed.” Not she who has seen. She who has believed. Believed in the Christ, and His triumph over death–which He accomplished for the sake of all mankind.

So we stride on towards the inevitable end of our own pilgrimage with vivid assurance. The luminous assurance with which the Virgin herself faced the end of earthly life. That, by the power of Christ, our bodily death will get swallowed up Jesus’ victory.

Resurrected Agility

Before we get into reflecting on Jesus walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee (which we read at Holy Mass this Sunday), let’s remember how, last Sunday, we kept the feast of the Transfiguration. The glory of God shone through Christ’s body, before the eyes of Saints Peter, James, and John. The Lord offered these Apostles this glimpse of heaven to help give them strength to endure His subsequent Passion and death. [Click HERE for Spanish.]

Now, as things turned out, it seems like only St. John really took advantage of that help. He alone, of course, among the Apostles, got through Good Friday without abandoning Jesus. Did the Transfiguration not help Saints Peter and James? Well, the Lord always knows what He’s doing. Maybe Peter and James would have fared worse, and perhaps never repented of their cowardice in abandoning Christ, had they not seen the Transfiguration. As we know, the human heart is a complicated thing.

sophia lorenBe all that as it may, when the Transfiguration occurred, the truth about Jesus became evident to those three Apostles. They saw on earth, at that moment, what Jesus looks like in heaven now.

Therefore, in one sense, Jesus’ Transfiguration didn’t exactly involve a “miracle.” He is the God-man, after all. He always had the glory of God in Him, from His first moment in the Blessed Mother’s womb.

But the Transfiguration does count as a miracle, in the sense that the Apostles got a glimpse of Christ in heaven ahead of time. They saw Christ as He looks now, having risen from the dead and ascended—they saw Him that way before He had completed His paschal mystery, before He rose from the dead. Therefore, the Transfiguration was a bona fide miracle.

Now, why do I bring all this up today? Because what we just said about the Transfiguration, about how it was a glimpse of heaven, ahead of time–we could say that about Christ walking on water, too. Both events have to do with what a resurrected body is like.

The holy Body of Christ, risen from the dead, makes Superman and Spiderman look like nothing. As we know, Christ, in His risen body, ascended by His own power, not to the top of the Empire State Building, but to heaven. It’s not just that He can leap tall buildings in a single bound. His soul, communing perfectly with God, can move His body with an agility that we cannot even fully imagine—since our own bodies still bear the effects of original sin.

In other words, the human body, when united perfectly with God, is not limited by time, space, and gravity—like our bodies are now. Maybe that sounds odd. But we are talking about the heavenly life prepared for us by God, in which we will commune with Him bodily, without ever growing tired, or hungry, or hangry, or running late and risking a speeding ticket. A supersonic Google self-driving car will have nothing on us, once our bodies rise from the dead.

dq blizzardHence the “miracle” of Jesus walking on water. Yes, certainly, He defied gravity. He traveled across the Sea of Galilee with mysterious alacrity. As the disciples in the boat put it, He showed Himself truly the Son of God.

So yes, it was a miracle. But it was no magic trick. Christ did then, on the Sea of Galilee, nothing more physically amazing than what He does now, when He makes Himself simultaneously present in every tabernacle on earth, without ever leaving His throne in heaven. That’s no magic trick, either. It is simply the supernatural, glorified prerogative of Christ’s Body in its resurrected state.

This is what awaits us, in the life to come. We believe in Christ’s resurrection. We commune with His immortal Body and Blood through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we confidently hope that, by His gracious gift, our bodies, too, will rise to share in His immortal, bright, and indescribably agile life.

We know very little about heaven, if by “knowing,” we mean: we can picture it or understand it. We can’t. But that’s because heaven is actually better than anything we can imagine, whatever it might be. Better than somehow being at a Dairy Queen, and at the Redskins’ season opener, and at Sophia Loren’s 29th birthday party, all at the same time. It’s better than all of that rolled into one, if all of that could be rolled into one.

So we don’t really “know” about heaven. But that does not mean that heaven is something vague. Nor does it mean that heaven in something “totally spiritual.” Heaven is where Jesus is. And where Mary is. Our bodies ultimately belong in heaven, just like our souls.

To finish this subject, let’s briefly recall one other bodily marvel of Christ’s life. Blessed Mother gave birth to Him without losing her virginity. Jesus grew in Mary’s womb, just like we grew in our mother’s wombs. Then it came time for birth. The man who eventually walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee, and whose flesh allowed the divine light to shine through on Mount Tabor—He, as He traveled through the birth canal as an infant, emerged without any strain or strife on the part of His mother.

Again, a miracle, yes–but not a magic trick. And not something vague. Our bodies will have that same quality of not straining or disturbing anything they touch, when we rise from our graves. All our klutziness will be gone.

Which is good, since the church will be very crowded then, please God. When we praise God together in the temple in heaven, we will not crowd or jostle each other; we will not have to fight each other for our favorite pew. No–our bodies will move together, dance together, like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dance together for all eternity.

Basilicas of the Patron of Comedians

Titian Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence died for the faith 1,758 years ago today.

Rome has at least two grand basilicas of St. Lawrence. But we have one, too—a basilica of St. Lawrence, here in the Appalachian mountains.

Why did they erect a basilica in honor of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina? Is it because Lawrence exercises a special patronage over brewers? But the basilica came before the craft-beer movement…

St. Lawrence loved the faith, and the Mass, and the poor. He went to his martyrdom so fearlessly that he made his famous joke, as they burned him alive: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” At that moment, he became the patron of both cooks and comedians. The Perseid meteor shower occurs on or around St. Lawrence’s feast day to remind us of the sparks from the fire that burned him into heaven.

Anyone visited the basilica in Asheville? It’s no St. Andrew’s—just like Asheville is no Roanoke. But you don’t visit a church with a soaring elliptical-dome roof every day. It’s like the peaceful and prayerful Oval Office of God.

Good St. Lawrence, pray for us.

75th Anniversary of a Holocaust Death

Exactly seventy-five years and two weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands issued a statement condemning the Nazis for deporting all Jews from the country.

Seventy-five years ago today, the Nazis killed a German Jewish philosopher in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, as an act of retaliation against the bishops’statement.

St. Edith SteinNow, how’s that? Kill a German Jewish philosopher to retaliate against Dutch Catholic bishops? Well, this Jewish philosopher had become a Catholic nun. Edith Stein had become Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

The sisters of her convent had escaped Germany, and made it to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them. And when the Dutch Catholic bishops had the gall to call the Nazis the vicious racists they were, the Nazis proceeded to arrest and deport all Jewish converts to Catholicism. As we know, the Nazis were efficient. They only needed two weeks to get their revenge, in the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II declared that we must remember the Holocaust on St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day. Nazi racism justified the systematic killing of millions of innocent people—racist killing carried out with scientific coldness. My departed grandfather participated, as an American G.I., in rescuing people from one of the concentration camps. What he saw horrified him so much, he could never talk about it.

But we must. We must acknowledge the fact that man can, and does, inflict such evil upon man—and for no good reasons other than his own profound spiritual delusions.

On the other hand, man can, and does, also love his fellow man. St. Teresa Benedicta died for love. “Come, let us go for our people,” she said to her sister, who had also become a nun, as they walked to the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this, when he canonized St. Teresa Benedicta, “We must stand together for human dignity. There is only one human family.”

Miraculous Signs

tabgha loaves fishes multiplication mosaic

They all ate and were satisfied. (Matthew 14:20)

This verse, perhaps more than any other, has given rise to the widespread misconception that Jesus Christ was Italian.

But let’s rejoice in the wonderful God-incidence that sees us reading about the Feeding of the 5,000 at Holy Mass today. We would have read this passage at Mass yesterday, had not August 6, and the Feast of the Transfiguration, come along and supplanted the readings for the 18th Sunday of Year A. Which might have proven vaguely awkward for us this coming Sunday, when we will read the sequel, Matthew 14:22-33.

…Why did the Lord Jesus work miracles, like multiplying the five loaves and two fish?

To show us that the Father had sent Him as the promised Messiah. To inspire us to believe in Him, and in the Kingdom of Heaven that he has brought to the earth.

In other words, Christ did not work magic tricks; he made miraculous signs. Signs of the greatest miracle of all, namely that we mortal and sinful lumps of clay can look forward to eternal bliss.

The particular miracle of the multiplication of the loaves signified something in particular. We read: “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves, He said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples.”

He said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to His disciples. Sounds familiar. Sounds like…Holy Mass/the Eucharist/the Bread that does not, cannot, and never will run out.

Sacred Cosmopolitanism

Christ: the Light of the American Nation

[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]

Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…

The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…

When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.

“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.

Vatican II stallsChrist the light of the Church, the light of all nations.

Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.

What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.

By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.

These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.

Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.

Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.

king davidSo ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.

Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.

Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.

On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.

We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.

So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”

When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.

Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.

Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:

The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.

First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.

So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.

So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.

The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.

But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.

Mark TwainBut that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.

Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.

So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.

We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.

So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?

Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Frederick DouglassThe Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.

So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.

During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.

During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?

US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”

American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:

Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.

The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:

I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.

My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.

We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:

Mexcio in 1845

undocumented immigrant pop by state

Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.

Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.

Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.

Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.

I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.