Joseph A. Komonchak

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

By this author

Nothing but grace

 Wake up! For you God was made man! “Arise, you who sleep, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall enlighten you” (Eph 5:14). For you, I say, God was made man. You would have been dead for eternity if he had not been born in time. You would never have been freed from sinful flesh if he had not taken on the likeness of sinful flesh (see Rm 8:3). Endless misery [miseria] would have possessed you if this mercy [misericordia] had not been accomplished. You would not have come back to life if he had not taken on your death. You would have faded away if he had not healed you.


The November 8th issue of the TLS has a review of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a memoir written by Christian Wiman, a poet and former editor of Poetry.  (Last May Kathleen Norris gave the book a very appreciate review in the New York Times.)

The TLS reviewer, Graeme Richardson, notes that the “rules” for modern poetry don’t really allow for overtly religious poetry, and Wiman has received criticism as his poetry has come to include explicitly religious themes and topics. The memoir describes events in his life that help explain this development. The result is what Richardson says “could function as a field guide to making atheists angry.” One of the steps struck me:

“Step three: question whether being non-religious is really possible anyway. (“Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond your self, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never?”)

Wiman’s question reminded me of a couple of pages of Karl Rahner that explored the possibility of an experience of grace.

Seven score and ten years ago...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In his anti-biography of St. Augustine, James O’Donnell has these two evocative paragraphs:

The Lincoln Memorial is a good place to go to think about Augustine. Nothing we know suggests that Abraham Lincoln was a particularly happy or well-adjusted man. His life was full of failures, personal and professional. His side won a war that it had seized almost every opportunity to lose.

But if you go up those steps and enter that space, you find yourself between two panels of words. One contains the Gettysburg Address, the other his second inaugural address. Those short texts have a fiery power that leaps across a century and a half. Go there of a Sunday afternoon and there will always be a half-dozen people standing or sitting quietly in alcoves, just reading those texts, slowly, carefully, from beginning to end, and going off thoughtfully afterwards.

Not a stone upon a stone

Just some notes as background for tomorrow’s Gospel. It begins with the admiration being expressed by some people at the Temple in Jerusalem, with its “costly stones and votive offerings.” To which Jesus replies: “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Lk 21:5-6).

Memory or History?

A day or so ago, while watching Norah O’Donnell interview Bob Schieffer about the assassination of President Kennedy fifty years ago, it dawned on me that she isn’t old enough to remember the event herself. (I checked: she was born in 1974.)  And that got me thinking about how for everyone under, say, 55 years of age, that moment is a matter of history and not of personal experience. People older than that will be able to say where they were when they heard the news, and how they learned of it, and what it was like to live through it and the events that followed immediately. 

Camus and Sartre

Albert Camus was born one hundred years ago tomorrow, and the occasion is being marked in various ways. The TLS Recently had a review of his writings on Algeria, his homeland.

Aaron and Hur

During Ordinary Time, the first reading at Mass, usually taken from the Old Testament, is chosen in function of the Gospel. Today’s Gospel gives the little paragraph about the wicked judge and pestering widow that Jesus told, Luke says, to illustrate “the need to pray always without becoming weary.” The first reading was chosen to provide an example of perseverance in prayer in the story of Moses standing on a hill holding up a staff and watching a battle between Israelite and Amalek forces the outcome of which depended on whether Moses could hold the staff up high.


Commenting on the same interview with Justice Scalia to which Molly draws our attention below, David Carr in today's NY Times discusses how people today tend to self-select the information and commentary to which they wish to subject themselves. Some quotes:

Knowing your limits

 Diane Ravitch has just published a controversial book on the state of education in this country. As revealed in this blog on Huffington Post, she is unhappy about some of the criticisms and has referred her critics to a very funny video about how women should keep their proper place in polite society. 

Holy Church

Pope Francis devoted his catechesis today to the holiness of the Church. His insistence that the primary meaning of the Creed’s statement that the Church is holy is that she is the creature and the recipient of God’s holy grace and gifts is well founded in the New Testament. This is a holiness that may and even must be acknowledged by those who constitute the Church on earth, not one of whom is not a sinner. As Augustine said somewhere, it is holy Church that prays every day: “Forgive us our trespasses.”

I note that the Pope did not make use of the view that has recently threatened to become canonical: that the Church is without sin but not without sinners. This formulation came from the Swiss theologian Charles Journet, but he, along with his close friend Jacques Maritain, defended the view that the Church has a “subsistence” of its own that is not reducible to the subsistences of its members, that it is itself a “person” not reducible to the persons of its members. It is that supra-personal Church of which holiness is predicated. Journet did not, of course, deny that the Church was composed of sinners nor that among the worst of them were high ecclesiastical personages, but he did not think that their sins could be attributed to the Church which he identified instead with the gifts of God and their holy effects in the Church’s members. Yves Congar thought that this reified the formal element of the Church.

Augustine and Aquinas thought differently. Identifying the Church on earth with its members, all of whom are sinners and must plead everyday for the Lord to forgive them their trespasses, they said that the Church would be “without stain or wrinkle” only in the Kingdom.  Here is the neat short explanation in St. Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on the article of the Creed: