Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 20 November 2016 – “Who Do We Think We Are?”


Christ the King of the Universe 112016 – “Who Do We Think We Are?”

Click here for today’s biblical texts

In his science-fiction film Arrival, [1] Denis Villeneuve tells of a linguist enlisted by the US military to interact with creatures from an alien craft that has landed on earth. She has a difficult time understanding the foreign sounds and hieroglyphics and becomes frustrated and frightened. Countries around the world, imagining a global disaster, begin to panic.

In the movie, which challenges a linear way of thinking and speaking, the linguist realizes she is not alone in the universe which can be both comforting and scary. Eventually she comes to think in the unfamiliar language of the aliens. The underlying message in this “head and heart” film is applicable today. Our experiences of and with others reshapes our understanding of our humanity, relationships to each other, and our God.

I have been thinking, as I know you have, about the implications, both rumored and real, the election of Donald Trump may have on our nation and the world. There are many who are comforted and there are others who are scared. That our country is divided on many issues is real. The need to meet with and understand others who do not agree with a certain way of thinking, one way or another, is imperative if we are to move forward together as a nation.

Pope Pius XI instituted today’s feast of Christ the King on December 11, 1925. Church historians argue he did so to address the swift emergence of nationalism and secularism particularly in the countries of Italy, Germany and Russia. In our nation, at that time, the “Roarin’ Twenties” signaled prosperity and hope even while protests against Catholics, Jews and people of color were raging in the streets. 

President Obama speaking in Athens, Greece last Wednesday echoed the Pope’s admonition, unintentionally I am sure. He warned that Americans and people everywhere, “are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism.” 

Nationalism, especially ethnonationalism, is an ideology that emphasizes belonging to a particular nation state. It stresses independence from other nation states and avoids anything that might threaten the culture or identity of a country especially people who do not fit the ideology. Patriotism or national pride, on the other hand, may be expressed precisely in the different characteristics of a country including ethnic, racial, cultural, political, religious or historical aspects.

In his 1925 encyclical Quas Primus, Pope Pius XI offered some wisdom for Catholics. To affirm Christ as sovereign over all, by allowing Christ to reign in our lives, the Pope wrote, should sanctify us and our actions … as instruments of justice unto God.” The pope surely was offering a counterpoint to the emergence of dictatorships.

In 1969 Pope Paul VI renamed today’s feast as Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe. By then most European countries had agreed to assure democracy for its citizens and to protect the rights of individuals. [2] In our country, during the 1960s we experienced assassinations, we passed laws on civil rights, we moved to end an ugly conflict in Vietnam. It was decade of cultural rebellion, at the same time we landed on the moon and watched the Jets and Mets win championships against all odds.

Pope Paul VI created a bigger picture. As members of a cosmic family he implied we could take comfort that the sovereign Christ walks among us encouraging us to take care of each other. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end today what do we do now? How should we act?

Professor of Sociology Linda Woodhead wrote “…religion flourishes when it is enmeshed with the lives of those it serves and dies when it no longer connects.” Religions depend on a healthy relationship with their societies, she said, even when there is mutual criticism. In the words of Sister Simone Campbell,“My faith tells me that now, more than ever, we need to mend the gaps and bridge the divides among us.”

This coming week offers just a couple of examples how we might fix the fractures in our society. Today is a day of remembrance honoring lives lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. How do we respect members of the LGBTQ community? At the end of this week is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. What will we do to stop discrimination against women? 

And, on Thursday we will gather in thanksgiving for the gifts we have — the gifts of God, family, friends, our land and our universe. So much to be grateful for! Next weekend we begin a new liturgical year with great hope and yearnings for the advent of peace and justice. We have the capacity to act in the spirit of our Catholic Christian heritage.

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  1.  An adaptation of science-fiction writer Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.
  2. The Maastricht Treaty (formally, the Treaty on European Union) undertaken to integrate Europe was signed on 7 February 1992


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Homily – 6 November 2016 – Citizens of Heaven and Earth


The Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C – Citizens of Heaven and Earth

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Driving south on the Northway (I-87), between exits four and two you can see a tall tree standing like a sentinel over several tombs. This peaceful graveyard, surrounded by a fallow field, appears undisturbed by the pollution and noise of nearby traffic. It is the Socks-Kemp-Reed Cemetery with markers dating to the early 19th century. Even though the deceased laid to rest there are unknown to me, every time I drive by that cemetery I think of life, suffering, death and eternal life.

I have often thought there are at least three kinds of deaths that we can suffer: 1) physical death, 2) being forgotten and 3) the loss of memorials. The destruction of photos, monuments, buildings, burial grounds can leave us with only fading, mental memories of our deceased loved ones.

This weekend follows two commemorative days on our church calendar — All Saints and All Souls. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a curious but provocative way, combines two groups of people when it asks this question, “What is the church if not the assembly of all the saints? The communion of saints is the church.” (CCC No. 946) 

It is an ancient practice in most religions to honor those who have died and to keep their spirits alive in some way. Like many shrines and temples our sanctuaries contain silent reminders of our ancestors — relics, sculptures, icons. These images not only keep us in touch with the saints of yesteryear they prompt in us a desire to be followers of Christ. 

In a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter, (September 23-October 6, 2016, 5a-6a) I noted that, like the gospel, these sacred images call us to a sense of mission — “to tend to the needs of those people living on the fringes of society, those people who are abused and oppressed.” For example, Dorothy Day, written in one of our own icons, whose birthday is, ironically, this coming November 8th, tackled issues of social justice. Today, as we recall those from own our faith community who have died recently we remember what they taught us by their lives.

Our memories of these dear loved ones whisk us to our place in the communion of saints as citizens of the earth. While today’s gospel does raise a question about life after death, we cannot wait that long. We are, after all, still in the race, with our eyes on the prize — the creation of the kin-dom of God here and now. In that regard, as citizens we have the privileged opportunity to cast a vote this coming Tuesday, November 8th. It is an opportunity to connect responsible citizenship with the presence of God. As Christopher Hale (Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good) noted “voting allows us to reimagine the world with God’s eyes.”

The first reading from the Book of Maccabees this morning is a grave reminder that power, prejudice and phobias can cause human beings to do terrible things to one another. The mother and her sons in the passage were tortured, whipped and maltreated just because they were Jews. Many people we know today (refugees, immigrants, prisoners) are also mistreated and oppressed because of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, status in society.

According to the Rev. William Barber, one of the authors of the Higher Ground Moral Declaration, we want to establish “deep connections between shared religious faith traditions and public policy, rooted in our Constitutions and the moral values of justice, fairness, and the general welfare.”

But how does someone vote when given a choice of candidates, some of whom, nationally and locally, are not entirely in synch with every single moral conviction held by our faith tradition? Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard recently spoke here on responsible citizenship. When in a quandary about casting our ballots, Bishop Hubbard suggested that we vote for the candidate who will do the most good for the common good and the least harm to all. 

I began by noting the tranquil cemetery along the Northway. In another part of our country a life and death protest is occurring. Two months ago the ancient sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were desecrated by the intrastate natural gas pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners

Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors.” Archambault quoted Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, (New York Times August 24, 2106) “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” That appeal, Chairman Archambault wrote, is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.

Today you and I remember our deceased loved ones of yesterday who are now citizens of heaven. We also remember our responsibilities as citizens of the earth. And, we vote next week as a practical act of Christian love keeping in mind all the citizens of tomorrow — you, me and our children!