Thursday, September 29, 2011

Religion in the Public Square

My dissertation director and professor at Duquesne University, Dr. Jim Hanigan, and I used to attend the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  In a 3 1/2 day period there would be four plenary presentations (major talks) and four break-out sessions.  Eight ninety minute talks in a long weekend is a lot of listening.  Jim was of the opinion that if only half of the talks were decent, you were blessed.  Nobody bats 1.000. 

I have adopted this lower expectation for any public presentations or talks I attend.  When one is good, I am very grateful.  So it was when last Friday, September 23, I attended the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Town Meeting, on the topic of "Religion in the Public Square."   It was excellent.  I felt the buzz of anticipation when I walked into the hall at the Pittsburgh History Museum and found it filled with 700 people.   Who knew religion was so popular?  (Excuse my lame attempt at humor.)

The forum was co-sponsored by the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame and underwritten by PNC .  This gave moderator and P-G executive editor David Shribman in his introduction the chance to riff, "The Rooney Center at Notre Dame studies democracy and religion in the universe.  The Rooney Family in Pittsburgh is the center of our universe."  Much of the conversation centered on the findings of what is described as a "groundbreaking examination of religion in America," American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us.  Professors David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Robert Putnam (Harvard) published this analysis of several comprehensive national surveys on religion in our country last year.  After attending the forum and listening to these two engaging teachers, I ordered the book from when I got home.  I look forward to reading it. 

Also on the panel were Rabbi Jamie Gibson from Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, Ann Rodgers, religion writer for the Post-Gazette, and Gerald Seib, the Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. 

What made the town meeting interesting?  A timely topic, very knowledgeable speakers, humor, and brevity.  Moderator Shribman took questions from the audience via written cards and text messages -- and avoided those bloviating, irritating folks who are supposed to use the microphone to ask a question and instead give a rambling speech.    Obviously religion in the public square struck a chord with the attentive audience, because four pages of proffered questions went unasked.   And I learned stuff.   For example, Dr. Campbell said they deliberately placed "divides" first in the subtitle of their book, because religion does divide.  This is particularly true between Muslims in our country and all other faith groups.  Yet the divisions are declining.   Today one out of five of each person's best friends in the United States is of a religion different than yourself.  Dr. Putnam (author of the influential book Bowling Alone, an analysis of the decline of community groups and organizations in the 1990s) said that almost every family has an "Aunt Susan," a close relative who is of a different religion or denomination from the rest of the family.  But because she is a relative, and because the family members see her as good and loving, their attitude to people in different religions softens and improves.

There was a range of opinions on whether the speech (and its content) given by then-candidate for president Senator John Kennedy to the Houston ministerial association in the summer of 1960 could be replicated today.  In response to the question why evangelical Christians are sparse in western Pennsylvania, Ann Rodgers said our neck of the American landscape is quite different.  The leadership of evangelicals here resides in the mainline Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, Republicans are mostly pro-choice on abortion and Democrats are mostly pro-life.  Political columnist Seib said he knows first-hand the finding in American Grace that Catholic parishes are the most diverse of all church groups in the U.S. (because of the growth of Hispanic and other immigrant groups).   He said he attends a parish in Washington, D.C., in which both the late Senator Ted Kennedy and conservative commentator Bill Bennett were members.  (I'm guessing that is Holy Trinity Parish, Georgetown.)  Seib also opined that we might see a Mormon elected president (two are running, Romney and Huntsman), but he doesn't expect to see a Muslim or an atheist elected president in his lifetime. 

Much time was devoted to analyzing that growing group, SBNR.  Never heard of them?  "Spiritual but not religious."  These folks, mostly in the "millennials"  (today's cohort of 18-30 year olds), do believe in God, but reject the organization of religion and its institutions.  They pose particular challenges to us who represent, and love, the church, not just as a community or tradition but also as institutionally embodied.

Rabbi Gibson credited the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, for the excellent (and vastly changed) relationship between Jews and Catholics.  He also said this document, in which Catholic doctrine affirms the Jewish faith and their enduring covenant with Yahweh as a religion separate from yet valued by Christians, avoids supersessionism, a major roadblock in relations with most evangelical Christians.   Rabbi Gibson should know about the healthy relationship here, dating back to then-Bishop Wright interfaith efforts in the 1960s.  He and Father Dan Valentine are co-convenors of the priest-rabbi dialog in Pittsburgh, at which I've been privileged to give several presentations.

This forum was one of the few times you went to a panel discussion and left saying, I wish it had gone on longer.  Kudos to the Post-Gazette, all the panelists, and the co-sponsors for a wonderful, enlightening 90 minutes.  Would that political discourse could be so civil and ennobling.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A. 

Most cradle Catholics were taught to use the Ten Commandments for an examination of conscience.   But I think a better route for adults is to use foundational Scripture passages, such as today's readings.  Haven't we all cried out, "God is unfair," only to realize that we, not God, have to change?  Christ, the Divine Second Person, voluntarily and humbly becomes a slave to the will of his Father.  Do we obey the will of God, as we discern it?  And Jesus says words can be empty.  He channels the Nike commercial, "Just do it, for the reign of God." 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A.  "Looking out not for his own interest."

Appearances are so important.  Saying the right thing and looking good impress others more than doing the right thing.  We also tend to exaggerate our own goodness.  The kingdom of God could care less about appearances.  From the solemn blessing at the end of the wedding Mass:  "May you [newly married couple] always bear witness to the love of God in this world so that the afflicted and need will find in you generous friends and welcome you into the joys of heaven."

Belated Labor Day Quotation

In light of the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time's Gospel parable about workers hired early and late in the day, let me share a quote from Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.

"No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or 'because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.' For this reason, on 1 May 2000 on the occasion of the Jubilee of Workers, my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II issued an appeal for 'a global coalition in favor of decent work,' supporting the strategy of the International Labor Organization.

"In this way, he gave a strong moral impetus to this objective, seeing it as an aspiration of families in every country of the world. What is meant by the word 'decent' in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labor; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one's roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living" (Caritas in Veritate, #63).

Sermon in a Bottle

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - A.  "Are you envious because I am generous?" 
My spiritual director last summer said to me,  "Expectations are the seedbed of resentment."  I was stunned by this unexpected insight.  It certainly applies to Jesus's parable today.  The workers hired at dawn expected more money than the ones hired near dusk.  They presumed they'd get more in wages, because they worked longer.  This parable is not about economics.  It points to the utter radical generosity of God, in contrast to our human measly-measured-out charity.  The word entitlement does not belong in the Christian vocabulary.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Foolishly Predicting Pigskin Winners

Since a blog is nothing more than sharing my foolishness with the world, I thought I'd go public with my fearless (and foolish) predictions for the 2011 NFL season.

AFC North:  Steelers
AFC South:  Titans
AFC East:  Patriots
AFC West:  Chargers
Wild cards:  Ravens & Jets

NFC North::  Packers
NFC South:  Falcons
NFC East:  Giants
NFC West:  Rams
Wild cards:  Lions & Vikings

In the playoffs:

Ravens over Chargers
Jets over Titans

Ravens over Patriots
Jets over Steelers

Ravens over Jets

Giants over Vikings
Rams over Lions

Packers over Rams
Giants over Falcons

Packers over Giants

Packers over Ravens, 31-14

Yes, the Pack will be back for a second straight Super Bowl win.  Mike McCarthy might contribute enough to western Pennsylvania Catholic education to get his name on the new North Catholic high school.  

These predictions are not to be taken to Las Vegas or your local bookie, but are for the laughter and entertainment of my non-football fans.  My friends who are true football fans are already cringing.

Sermon in a Bottle

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time -- A.  "Forgive your neighbor's injustice."

Given today's readings, every Christian preacher's temptation in the U.S.A. this weekend is rhetorically to ask, "Do you forgive Osama bin Ladin?"  This is misguided.  Better questions are "Were Osama bin Ladin and the murderous terrorists your neighbor?  Is your co-worker your neighbor?  Are the immigrants without papers in your neighborhood your neighbor?"  The fact is, we don't get to pick our neighbors.  Until the interconnectedness of Christ's vision of humanity (and a deep sense of the common good) supercedes the indvidualism of American cultural norms, we cannot even think about forgiving any neighbor.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Power of Sacrifice

On Sunday, April 20, 2008, I was sitting in (the old) Yankee Stadium, the Bronx, New York, N.Y., dressed in cassock, surplice and stole, awaiting the second public Mass by Pope Benedict XVI on his first (and maybe only?) trip to the U.S.A.

I had been one of 80 blessed individuals invited by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to represent our local church at this Mass.  (Another larger contingent, 300 young people, were invited by then-Archbishop Donald Wuerl to Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., a few days earlier for the pope's other Mass in our country.)  Somehow several of us Pittsburgh priests were contacted by the New York office of the organizer of the papal visit, and asked if we wished to help distribute Holy Communion at the Mass.  A double blessing!  We got prime seats, assisted in the Mass, and were soon to stand only feet from the pope as he prayed the Eucharistic Prayer.

Our two buses had to leave our hotel in the wilds of New Jersey that Sunday at 7:00 a.m. to allow enough time to travel into New York City, find our parking lot, and get through security.  The Mass was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m., but the stands were full of 59,000 faithful by 9:30 a.m.  About 11:00 began "A Concert of Hope," arranged by the host Archdiocese of New York.  The concert was obviously offered to entertain the folks in the seats while waiting for the pope to arrive in his popemobile, and the Eucharist to commence.  But the musicians (including Stephanie Mills, Jose Feliciano, the West Point Choir, Harry Connick Jr.) went far beyond entertainment.  They provided true spiritual preparation for the liturgy.

The weekend visit to New York City by the pontiff had already made worldwide headlines.  Pope Benedict had met with six victims of sexual abuse by priests in private.  This was a first for any pope, and a clear, public signal that "he got it," that Benedict understood the severity of the clergy abuse scandal, not just in the U.S. but terribly across our universal church.  He reached out to victims as a pastor could, and should.

Pope Benedict earlier that spring morning had also visited Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.  He added his prayers and presence at that holy ground to those of millions, in a call for an end of terrorism and attacks anywhere against innocent human life.

So there I was, sitting only feet from the historic baseball field of Ruth, Gerhig, Mantle, Maris, Stengel, Berra, Ford, Jeter and Rivera.  (And where Pope Paul VI had presided at Mass on his first and only visit to our country back in 1965.)  As the concert unfolded, a distinguished singer dressed in tuxedo took the stage.  From his accent it was clear he was Irish.  Without introducing himself he spoke about his first song.  He said this was not just a song by an American rock musician, but one which people everywhere could make their own, as we gathered in the dark and deadly shadow of the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Then tenor Ronan Tynan began to sing in ballad fashion:

Into the Fire

By Bruce Springsteen

The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May our hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your love bring us love

All lyrics copyright Bruce Springsteen

As Tynan sang, it dawned on me that I knew this song.  (Remember, we had no program for any of the musicians or music.)  It was from Springsteen's "The Rising" album, issued the summer after 9/11.  In this album Springsteen offers his thoughts and feelings in song in light of all that took place on and after 9/11.

(If you don't believe me, listen to "Nowhere Man," "World's Apart," "Calling on a Miracle," "Empty Sky," "My City of Ruins," and his anthem of hope, 'The Rising," from the album.)

Then I realized I knew this song well.  I had quoted the chorus in my sermon at my dad's funeral Mass three years earlier.  How many times had I sung this song, and its words lifted my spirits.  Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I quietly sang along with the Irish tenor.

My mind screamed:  He's made the connection!  Ronan Tynan understood the meaning of Springsteen's song, a lament at the sacrifice so many firefighters and other first responders made that fateful day.  For me, the song meant more.  It was an affirmation of the pain and value of sacrifice for another by anyone, whether famed or not.  It was also about my dad and mom, who sacrificed so much of their lives for my brothers and myself, and for many others in their own way.  The Boss may not mention the sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior in his song, but to me his Catholic upbringing and sensibility inform every word.

So as we mark the tenth anniversary, to those who died so tragically on September 11, 2001, to all those who tried and did save victims, to those who prevent further terrorist attacks anywhere, and to those peacemakers and peacebuilders who work to eradicate violence and war,

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love.

Labor Day Statement

I can't allow a very difficult Labor Day pass without mentioning an excellent and very challenging Labor Day Statement issued by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, bishop of Stockton, on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.  It's titled "Human Costs and Moral Challenges of a Broken Economy."  The late and beloved Msgr. George Higgins, chaplain to the labor movement for four decades, began issuing statements on Labor Day in the 1950s.  After his passing, the USCCB has continued this valuable tradition. 

Visit Bishop Blaire's statement on the home page of the bishops' conference website, .  And let us pray for living wage, family benefits jobs for all those who seek work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time -- "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another."

In this section of Matthew’s gospel which reflects “rules of the road” for the early church, Jesus calls his disciples to forgive offenses done by a brother or sister.  He also asks for disciples to call the offender to task.   How often have we been hurt by someone, and responded instead with silence, anger, resentment, or retaliation.   In this time of scandal, leaders in the church have to beg for forgiveness of any who have been hurt by the church—its ministers, deacons, priests, bishops or institutions.  Apology and forgiveness are love in action.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Distinguished Visitor to St. Vitus School

This past week we had a distinguished visitor to our two parishes here in New Castle.  Father George Mangalapilly is a priest of the Diocese of Satna, India.  He came to the USA this summer to do mission appeals in various parishes on behalf of his missionary diocese.  I asked him to talk with the students of St. Vitus School, and he gladly accepted my invitation.

Father George is rector of the college seminary in his diocese.  He holds a S.T.D. from the Greg in Rome in dogmatic theology, but don't hold that against him.  He is a cheerful and delightful priestly presence, and we are glad that he came our way.  He will preach at all Masses in St. Vitus Parish this weekend.

Here is Father George and myself, and the response of our students.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Labor Day images from the Boss

Here are two songs offering visions, one with a dream, one all-too-real, for Labor Day 2011, courtesy of the artistic vision of Bruce Springsteen.

Car Wash
By Bruce Springsteen

Well my name is Catherine LeFevre
I work at the Astrowash on Sunset and Vine
I drop my kids at school in the morning
And I pick them up at Mary's just 'fore suppertime

Well I work down at the car wash
For a dollar and a dime
And mister, I hate my boss
It's at the car wash I'm doing my time
Pick up my water bottle and my towel, sir
And I take 'em one by one
From Mercedes to VW's
I do 'em all and I don't favor none


Well someday I'll sing in a night club
I'll get a million-dollar break
A handsome man will come here with a contract in his hand
And say "Catherine, this has all been some mistake"


The Ghost of Tom Joad
By Bruce Springsteen
Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin' on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' downhere in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

All lyrics copyright Bruce Springsteen

Good Leaders, Good Shepherds

It’s been my custom as a pastor to let parishioners know when I am out of the parish.  I could be away for vacation, or retreat, or a continuing education workshop.  The Diocese of Pittsburgh (and universal church law) allows all diocesan priests to annually take four weeks of vacation (three weekends), five days for retreat (mandated by universal church law) and five days for continuing education (optional).

This past week I was away from my parishes for three days attending the “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” program.  This national program is based outside of Philadelphia.  It has as its goal to give priests skills to improve their pastoral leadership of the parishes or communities they have responsibility for.  GLGS was created by lay Catholics, for Catholic priests.  GLGS has been so well received that the program has grown in less than ten years to serve in 1/3 of the dioceses of the U.S.  There are plans to expand to the Caribbean, and to English-speaking countries around the world.
GLGS came into the Diocese of Pittsburgh two years ago at the invitation of Bishop David Zubik.  The first cohort was a group of 28 priests.  Several of these priests made a presentation at our triennial clergy convocation last September at the Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia.  They were so enthusiastic about GLGS that I was persuaded to sign up.  (Priest are never enthusiastic.  I knew the program had to be good.)  Our cohort has 30 priests.

The core of the program is that we priests need to lead in the manner of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  Much of the content of the program comes from excellent business practices.  These include such techniques as writing a mission statement, goal-setting, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), DISCposition, phase of performance analysis, and sound time management.  GLGS recognizes that the seminary teaches men to be priests, but not to be pastors.  Most of us who are pastors learned whatever leadership skills we have “on the job.”  Some well, some not so well.  GLGS intends to give us the practical skills in leadership which are so necessary for every pastor today.
Our first several workshops focused on leadership of self.  This week’s three day module concentrated on leadership in the one-to-one context.  Next year we’ll move to leadership in team-building, in organizations (like a parish) and in building strategic alliances. The entire program comprises 30 workshop days over two years.  Cost of the program is split between the diocese and the priests. 

Bishop Zubik is one of five national moderators of GLGS.  He felt so strongly about the value of this program for his priests that he is taking the workshops himself, along with six of his episcopal vicars.  It helps that there is little travel, as the “learning leaders” of GLGS come to us.  We meet at the Gilmary Retreat Center, near Pittsburgh International Airport. 
One of the many blessings about the workshops is priestly camaraderie.  I am getting to know priests from other parts of the diocese, and especially younger guys with whom I’ve not come into contact.

GLGS prides itself on practicing the best of adult learning techniques.  No long lectures here.  We move from a ten minute introduction by our learning leader, to small group discussion, to personally writing in our large notebook, to large group discussion, to role-playing, even watching a movie and then dissecting it.  We repeat, and repeat, and repeat the core concepts.  We also are able to apply the particular ideas we learned in our module yesterday with our staff and pastoral situation today. 
Good Leaders, Good Shepherds is an excellent program for us pastors, and soon-to-be pastors.   I am very glad to be part of it.  I hope in time that my parishioners and pastoral co-workers feel the same way.