The feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which the church celebrates at the end of the Easter season, is, I admit, hard to explain to a lot of contemporary people. Jesus passed, in bodily form, from this world to heaven? Wouldn’t his body still be in some identifiable place within the solar system or the galaxy? I’m sure that the traditional formulation of the doctrine strikes many today as hopelessly pre-scientific and mythological. And even if we were to admit the possibility of such a transition happening in regard to Jesus, how would this in any way affect us spiritually?
This May 24th, I will celebrate my 25th anniversary as a priest. This past quarter century—just shy of half my life—has been joyful indeed, and I have never once regretted my decision to become a priest. The priesthood has taken me all over the world and deep into the hearts of people I’ve been privileged to serve. Some warned me long ago that I would be lonely as a priest, but I have never found this to be true. On the contrary, the priesthood has connected me to an incredible number of people in a wide variety of contexts. My life as a priest of Jesus Christ has been unconventional, creative, energizing, unpredictable, and exciting.
I was in Rome the past couple of weeks, giving lectures at the North American College, the great seminary for Americans, Canadians, and Australians at the Vatican. One morning, toward the end of my stay, I met with my good friend, Fr. Paul Murray, the Irish Dominican spiritual writer, and we headed to the Vatican Library, where we met a colleague of Fr. Paul’s who works there in the manuscript section. Fr. Murray had secured permission to view some “autographs” of St. Thomas Aquinas, that is to say, some writings in Thomas’s own hand. I was approaching this appointment with enormous enthusiasm, for Thomas, the church’s greatest theologian, is my hero, my patron saint, the person who, more than any other, had directed me toward the priesthood, and the scholar whose work I have been studying and writing about most of my adult life. I was not disappointed.
Osama bin Laden was a wicked man, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people on several continents, and responsible too for something more subtle and insidious, the terrifying of practically everyone on the planet. I believe that fear-mongers deserve special opprobium, since, they produce that state of mind, which, as St. John tells us, is the opposite of love: “perfect love casts out all fear.” The memory of September 11th is like a nightmare that will forever haunt and nag and trouble the consciousness of mankind. It is impossible to doubt what President Obama said, namely, that the world is a better, safer place without the cruel and hateful man at the source of all this misery.
Knowing my interest in all things Bob Dylan, a friend sent me an article recently penned by Maureen Dowd, columnist for the New York Times. It had to do with the maestro’s recent (and unprecedented) appearance in China, but it was far from an encomium. Dowd took Bob Dylan sharply to task for caving in to the Communist authorities, apparently agreeing to their demands not to sing any of his best-known anti-war and counter-cultural anthems from the sixties: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” etc. How unlike the courageous young Dylan, she opined, who walked off the Ed Sullivan Show when the censors told him he couldn’t sing “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” a rather biting satire of the right-wing extremist group. Then again, she went on, didn’t Dylan himself, in his much-lauded autobiography Chronicles Vol. I, not admit that he was never much for the sixties counter-culture and that he never sought to be the voice of a generation? Wasn’t this latest episode not just one more indication that the “real” Dylan was but a conventional entertainer, willing to go along with anyone or adopt any style in order to make money?