Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sports Heaven?

Pittsburghers of a certain age look back to the 1970s as a heavenly time for local sports teams.

Most folks think about the Super Steelers for that decade.  But it was the Pirates who were really first in the minds of Pittsburghers.  They won two world championships, in 1971 and 1979, with Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, and a supporting cast of very colorful characters.  The "Lumber and Lightning" and "We are Fam-i-lee!" teams were in the hunt for a trip to the World Series just about every year that decade.

Of course, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in a period of six seasons, a record never to be bested.  After four decades of futility, the path to greatness started in 1969, when Dan Rooney, having just taking over control of the club from his famous father, Art, hired unknown Chuck Noll to be the head coach.  Noll and the scouting staff had a fantastic run in picking players through the draft.  In 1969, Mean Joe Greene (first overall), Terry Hanratty, and L.C. Greenwood.  In 1970, Terry Bradshaw (first overall) and Mel Blount.  In 1971, Jack Ham and Dwight White.  In 1972, Franco Harris and Joe Gilliam.  And the historic 1974 draft class, when in the first five rounds the Steelers drafted four future Hall of Famers, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.  The "Immaculate Reception" by Franco Harris from Terry Bradshaw, via Jack Tatum (see the detailed description at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Reception )  on December 23, 1972, is the most famous single play in NFL history, and was the start of playoff winning for the Steelers.

You can't forget that the Pitt Panthers football team was having great success under coach Johnny Majors.  In 1976 Pitt went undefeated with all-world running back Tony Dorsett and won the mythical national championship.  A couple of years later local boy and Central Catholic grad Dan Marino led the Panthers to bowl wins.  Across town Duquesne was king of local college mens basketball (not Pitt).  Under coach Red Manning the Dukes were consistent winners in the 1970s.

But that was then.  I think that Pittsburgh is experiencing another sports heaven.  Maybe it was the glorious return to the lineup last night of Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins which made me think that.  He spent over ten months recovering from concussions suffered in early January.  For a while there were reports that his entire career was in danger of ending.  His return to the ice was nothing less than spectacular, with two goals and two assists, and his usual aggressive and creative presence.  Ever since "Sid the Kid" arrived in Pittsburgh as a callow yet hearalded 18 year old six years ago, the Pens have shown spurts of greatness.  Of course the highlight was the Penguins wining the Stanley Cup in June 2009 (after losing in the finals the previous year).  Sid's return last night was international news, as his media-friendly persona has become the very face of the NHL.  (Scoring the gold medal winning goal for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver didn't hurt either.)  With fellow star players Marc Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and unflappable coach Danny Bylsma, the Penguins promise us much more excitement at the new Consol Energy Center (and maybe another Cup?).

Our Steelers are again super, and have been to the Super Bowl three times in six years, winning two.  (What a royal bummer the loss to the Packers was last February.)  We witnessed a future Hall of Famer in Jerome "the Bus" Bettis for ten years.  Now we're enjoying the defense of HOF coach Dick LeBeau, and greats Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, James Harrison, and the corps of young receivers.  Head coach Mike Tomlin is certainly one of the top three in the NFL.  Pitt mens basketball keeps knocking on the Final Four door under excellent teacher and coach Jamie Dixon.  The Dukes are rising.  College womens basketball is exciting.  Scholastic sports for football, basketball and hockey rank among the best in the country.

And then there are our Pirates.  Oh well, maybe there has to be a little purgatory (in gorgeous PNC Park) before we truly reach heaven.

Theology on Tap

Last Thursday I spoke to the Theology on Tap group here in Lawrence County, at the Four Brothers Urban Bistro in beautiful downtown New Castle.

New Castle sparkled that evening with its annual pre-Thanksgiving parade.  Our St. Vitus school children led one of the 50 floats in the parade.

The parade was a problem for me, however.  I visited two parishioners in Jameson Hospital, just north of the city, around 5:00 pm.  At 6 I drove back into the city.  I found I couldn't get through the smallish business district to where the bistro was located.  Just about every street was blocked by police to direct the parade.  I tried going around the city--and found I couldn't.  I drove for miles outside the city (halfway to the Grove City shops).  My GPS was useless, as its route was blocked by the parade.  There are no bridges over the Shenango River--who knew?  As 7:00 pm approached and the scheduled start I had the panicky thought that I'll miss the talk in my own city.  Finally I decided to dump my car illegally next to a bank, and just walk the six or so blocks to the pub--and through the parade route.

Theology on Tap was started by two Chicago priests thirty years ago, as an attempt to reach out to young adults (ages 20-39).  The thinking was, if the young adults don't come onto church campuses for meetings and adult formation, the church will go to where the young people are--bars!  If that sounds heretical, well, it works.  Theology on Tap has spread to cities all across the country.  In our diocese we have several groups associated with parishes.  This was the third time I spoke to a Theology on Tap group in western Pennsylvania.

Eleven not-so-young adults were gathered to listen to me.  They knew each other, and gave me a warm welcome.  I am on a kick to present the U.S. Bishops' document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.  (See my blog post of October 10.)  This document was first issued in November 2007, prior to the 2008 presidential election.  A month ago it was reapproved as the bishops' effort to educate Catholics and others about our values and principles going into another presidential campaign.

I talked for 20 minutes or so, and then took questions.  We jumped around a wide range of issues:  the loss of "community" in our country; who can/can't tell you whom to vote for; gun control; abortion and abortion politics; taxes; the environmental issues around Marcellus Shale drilling.  If there was a down-side to our lively discussion, it was that almost everyone spoke from their experience, but couldn't use the church's principles and social concern messages to challenge their experience. 

I don't think we resolved anything.  But when we departed at 9:30, it was clear, as one participant said, that Catholics have to do a lot more to learn about their faith after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation at age 14.  These folks, and Theology on Tap, were doing just that--learning about the church's social teachings, to be better and faithful Catholics.    I hope they invite me back.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe - A.   "Shepherding them rightly."

Four times in Jesus' powerful vision of the sheep and goats we meet people with needs.  How easy it is for us to overlook the hungry, thirsty, sojourner, sick, imprisoned, even the naked!  The prophet Ezekiel's shepherd sees the lost, stray and injured.  Do we see -- and listen attentively to -- the person in front of us, with all her/his needs?  Do we acknowledge this person's humanity?  Judgment awaits us if we do not open our eyes.

Sermon in a Bottle

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - A.  "Out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground."

For a long time I thought this odd parable of judgment was praise of the first two servants and condemnation of the guy who sat on his talent.  But is this thinking like a 21st century capitalist, not a 1st century Palestinian?  In this contextual view, the master is a thief whose immoral activity the first two servants learned too well.  Hence the servant who buried his talent is admirable, not willing to engage in wrongful behavior.  Clearly the master's greedy way is so far from the king's concern for the poor in next Sunday's gospel.

Monday, November 14, 2011

More Sad Connections

In an earlier post I mentioned the comparison between the scandal happening in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, after the sex abuse charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the thirty years of clerical sex abuse revealed in the Catholic Church worldwide. 

One way the two scandals are not similar is how accountability was exercised.  In the Catholic Church there was a steep, way too steep, learning curve, first at the level of national bodies of bishops, then later at the Vatican.  Few bishops (save Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston) lost their positions because of their cover-up and criminal negligence.  Most culpable bishops, in the Holy See's typical process ("we think in terms of centuries, not years"), resigned after reaching the age of 75, and were replaced in the ordinary manner.  To my knowledge, only one bishop has gone to jail, a Canadian, and that was because he personally possessed child pornography, not because he was hiding priest pedophiles.  At Penn State the Board of Trustees acted within a week to fire university president Graham Spanier and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno.  Good for the trustees.

Here are two more articles which make the comparision, from USA Today (November 6, 2011)  http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2011/11/penn-state-paterno-sex-abuse-catholic-priest-scandal/1  and The New York Times (November 13, 2011)  www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-devil-and-joe-paerno.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat

Columnist Ross Douthat, in the second referenced article, goes further than just making the comparision.  He calls to mind Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a bishop from Columbia, who stood up to drug dealers in his native Medellin, fed the poor, and was highly regarded by his countrymen.  Then he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.  When stories of the priest pedophile cases reached Castrillon's desk, he dismissed these as nothing more than an American problem.  He even praised a French bishop for refusing to denounce an abusive priest to civil authorities.

Douthat asks, "How did the man who displayed so much moral courage in Columbia become the cardinal who was so morally culpable in Rome?"  Rather than summarize his points, I urge you to read his brief but challenging argument.  

The practice of virtue and good is ever a challenge, especially for those who are good.


"The New Roman Missal Is Coming!"

Those of you who are Catholics are probably aware that on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, English-speaking Catholics will begin praying the Mass with newly translated prayers and an up-to-date listing of recently canonized saints. 

The roots of this adjustment in translation go back to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which ordered that the Mass, the sacraments, and other public ritual prayers of the church be translated from Latin into "vernacular" languages, that is, the languages of the people praying around the world.  In 1970 we English-speaking Catholics began using "the new Missal," when the priest began facing the people.  This Missal was promulgated by Pope Paul VI, and replaced the 1570 Missal issued by Saint Pope Pius V.  In 1975 there was a second edition of the Missal with a few minor changes.

In the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 Blesed Pope John Paul II promulgaged the third edition of the Roman Missal.  He directed that the various conferences of bishops around the world translate the Latin text of the prayers into the languages of the people.  Many other language-groups have already translated this third edition.  Because of the extensive consultation (and no little controversy and disagreement between "dynamic equivalence" and "literal" theories of translation), it took eleven years for the English language translations to be approved.

One other change:  For the 1970 "new Missal" each English-language conference of bishops issued its own translation of the Roman Missal.  So the Canadian translation and Missal was slightly different from the English/Wales, from the U.S.A., from the Australian, etc.  For the third edition, Pope John Paul II dictated that there could be only one translation for all English-speaking countries, whether India, New Zealand, Oceania, U.S.A., Ireland, South Africa, etc. 

There have been voices to resist this translation, or to delay it, or...what?  We obedient pastors have few options.  I am not a liturgist, but what I had read about the upcoming Roman Missal translations had not been good.  What to do?

The following article sums up very well my feelings, and my actions.  It is entitled, "Missal Defense: Learning to Live with Change," and appeared in the November 4, 2011, edition of Commonweal magazine (a magazine which I highly recommend).  The author is "Father Nonomen," a pseudonym for a U.S. Catholic priest and pastor. 

This year, thanks to the adoption of the new translation of the Roman Missal, the First Sunday of Advent is looming like a date with a root canal. As I mentioned in my recent lament on this topic (Commonweal, “Up against the Wall,” July 15, 2011), the new missal is intended to steer us back toward a more traditional liturgy. Those who welcome such a move look forward, as one commentator put it, to “a new sense of dignity and decorum,” promoted through “reforms such as an altar orientation toward the East, kneeling for Communion, and better and more dignified vestments and furnishings.”

As a priest who does not welcome these changes, I’m under pressure. No, I’m not having trouble choosing which laminated in-pew response card to install. The problems are a lot bigger than that. I am wondering, for instance, how to reconcile a parish staff grumpy about the changes with a largely unsuspecting parish populace. Or what to do when attempting to explain this Trojan horse of a translation and the pointed agenda it may be hosting. In short, how does one make a sale when it’s tough to believe in the product?

As for parishioner reaction, I expect it to be mixed. Some—those who have been following this issue, faithfully reading their subscriptions to independent publications—will understand what worries priests like me about the new missal. On the other hand, some who have been teetering on the rail since the sexual-abuse scandals, alienated from the church to the point of leaving it, will see these changes as so many deck chairs being rearranged on a vessel that is sinking fast, and might well jump ship. But mostly what I fear is that the majority won’t care. They will dutifully learn all the new responses and musical settings and generally remain unaware of the powerful changes this liturgical language is likely to work on the church their grandchildren will inherit.

So, how to proceed? Do I and other likeminded priests simply refuse to comply? While I admire those who can pull off dramatic Berrigan-esque tactics, I’m not one of them. I love my parish too much to risk losing it; and besides, that’s not the way things work in the church I signed up for. I’d rather look for ways to work within the system. And there is always a way. Finding it is a matter of keeping a sharp eye out for those moments of grace when inspiration comes from a most unlikely source—like the one I stumbled into about a month ago.

I had been asked to bring Communion to someone’s aunt, newly moved into a nursing home after a massive stroke. To be honest, I dread visits like this, especially when the person is unknown to me. The conversation is one-sided and awkward, and I am also alarmed by the fragile nature of the human body, including my own—realizing that in the blink of an eye I could change from visitor to resident.

The family had warned me that their aunt could no longer speak or walk, so when I walked into her room I was prepared for those limitations. What I was not prepared for were her eyes—bright and shining, filled with the kindness and warmth that come from a deeply settled sense of peace. I introduced myself and explained why I had come. When she smiled, fifty years melted from her face. I asked questions and, with a slight movement of her index finger, she would indicate a picture or a letter on a board in her lap. For over an hour we “talked” about her family, her grandchildren, her own childhood. She laughed easily at the familiar stories, and sighed in frustration at her present condition. Toward the end of our visit, this lovely and amazing woman articulated something I doubt I will ever forget. “I keep wondering,” she said, “what the Lord wants me to do next.”

Next? Most people living her life would probably have trouble getting through the morning, let alone thinking about their next mission from God. Such determination inspired me, reminding me yet again how God perpetually offers some new word, some new lesson, even through a person crippled in speech and movement. With Spirit, there is hope. What is required is that we show up, even with dread, and remain faithful to the task.

Perhaps my new friend and the courageous question she posed may help suggest a strategy for implementing the coming liturgical changes. We certainly need to present these changes in context, encouraging such likely and important questions as “What next?”—that is, encouraging everyone to consider and discuss the long-term effects the changes might have on the church. We also must provide a new “word board” for the people in our parishes—a discourse that supplies the language necessary to articulate any number of personal responses, from individual noncompliance to letter-writing to informed acceptance.

Most of all, as that amazing woman reminded me, we cannot forget to laugh; we must never forget the joy that brings us together to worship in the first place. Such joy remains the most important consequence of trusting that the Spirit is at work—even in our silences, and even in our errors.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sad Connections

As soon as I heard the horrible news that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been arrested on 40 counts of child abuse over the weekend, I thought of our own church's recent sad history.  And I wondered, how long would it take for others to make the same connection I was making in my mind.

Not long.

Here's an opinion piece from the Orlando Sentinel  http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-11-08/sports/os-bianchi-joe-paterno-penn-state-scandal-20111106_1_penn-state-jackie-sherrils-state-coach-joe-paterno  and one from the New York Times  http://nytimes.com/2011/11/09/sports/ncaafootball/joe-paternos-grand-experiment-meets-an-inglorious-end.html  .  Google "Joe Paterno" and "Catholic Church" together and see how many are making the connection.

Let's see, in this despicable allegory, Sandusky is the avuncular and smiling parish priest who loves and cares for kids at all hours of the day and night, Paterno is Cardinal Bernard Law who hears but does nothing, and Penn State University president Graham Spanier is the Vatican dicastery which has nothing to say about the victims but embraces the (implied falsely) accused Tim Curley, university athletic director, and Gary Schultz, university vice president for fiance and business (insert here nameless diocesan bureaucrats).  Paterno, like Cardinal Law, will have his resignation gladly received and get pushed upstairs and out of sight.  College athletics, at least big-time football and basketball, remain caught in their own form of clericalism, an undeserved entitlement because of media fame and fortune.

The comparisons are deserved, and the bad taste in my mouth doesn't go away.  Penn State's JoPa and university officers did not learn anything, anything, from what the Catholic Church went through over the past decade or more.

Yet I also can't help thinking, as this parallelism of moral miss-the-boat inaction is made, where are the "mea culpas" from media commentators and columnists, who said in 2002 that this kind of thing only happens in the Catholic Church.  Even several Vatican Cardinals were known to whisper knowingly that "this sort of thing is a peculiar American problem.  It never happens to us in Italy (or insert any other country)."  Boy has that proven to be wrong.  Sexual abuse of children, and subsequent cover ups, have occured in Canada, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, and on and on.   And sexual abuse of children, and subsequent cover ups because of an institutional sense of entitlement, appear among political leaders, public school teachers, youth football coaches, ministers and rabbis and imams and lay leaders in all the religions, branches of the military, and on and on.  What area of institutional life is immune? 

Abuse of children is a human problem and sin, not merely a problem of the Catholic Church or religious leaders.  When will our society learn this?

I believe that the Catholic Church's leadership in the United States does "get it."  Our institutional church has made huge strides to protect children, young people and vulnerable adults.  Our vigilance has also highlighted the occasional (and terrible) lapses, such as in Kansas City and Philadelphia.  I believe that Pope Benedict XVI gets it too.  His meetings with victims in recent overseas trips are serious and sincere.

Clearly the NCAA and football-university complex doesn't get it.  A fine institution of higher learning learned nothing from the past sins of the Catholic Church.

Sermon in a Bottle

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - A.  "Resplendent and unfading is wisdom."

A seminary professor long ago urged us seminarians to preach on the Old Testament readings once in a while.  "They too are the Word of God."  Gladly.  We believers are called to learn continually, having no fear of any human science.  Knowledge moves toward wisdom when we exercise the virtue of prudence.  Wesdom is found when our hearts and minds seek her, yet wisdom is ultimately of divine origin.  Like the wise women in Jesus's parable, we should be ever ready to put wisdom into practice in daily living.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Protecting God's Children Today

Sitting on my desk, awaiting my action, is a list of 24 parishioners to call.  These are the ones who are currently serving in various liturgical ministries, but have either failed to begin or not yet completed all the requirements of the Diocese of Pittsburgh's Safe Environment Program.

In August, right after I arrived in my two parishes, I met with the safe environment coordinators of both parishes.  They shared with me the good news that hundreds of our wonderful volunteers were compliant with diocesan policy.  They also told me that a very small percentage of ministers had not completed the requirements, and what was necessary to help them complete the program.  I wrote a letter to all of them, urging them to complete the requirements.  Our coordinators and I were ready to offer our assistance (e.g., paying all costs of state and FBI checks and the three hour workshop; helping those who did not have a computer to complete the online data base survey).

In that same letter, I stated that I would follow diocesan policy.  If any volunteer failed to complete the requirements and be in compliance with the safe environment program within a reasonable period of time, he or she would not be permitted to serve the parish as a volunteer minister.

In response, some told me what we needed was to have the diocese hold the Protecting God's Children workshop in Lawrence County, so that parishioners didn't have to drive one hour to a Pittsburgh location.  The diocese cooperated, and scheduled one.  On October 16 there was a workshop at a neighboring parish, and 60 ministers from my parishes and others in Lawrence County attended.  This was very good. 

But I am still left with two dozen folks who, for their own reasons, have not completed the requirements.

A few have made excuses for their failure saying that being part of the diocesan data base and petitioning the state for a statement that they have never been convicted of child abuse or any felony is invading their privacy.  Others say, I've been an (usher/lector/whatever) for umpteen years, and I've never harmed anyone.  Why do I have to do all this rigamarole now?

My response is clear.  The sins of the Catholic Church in this country and elsewhere are many and all too public over the past 60 years in failing to protect children, young people, and vulnerable adults from abuse.  They have made headlines for decades.  A few of my brother priests have gone to jail for their crimes.  More have been permanently barred from ministry. 

Nine years ago the Catholic Church's hierarchy in this country said we need to do better.  They said, we will establish certain norms for all in ministry--bishops, priests, deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, paid staff, and all volunteers.  And we will hold ourselves accountable with external, objective audits.  In the Diocese of Pittsburgh over 32,000 are registered in our data base, and have completed the simple requirements.  Our diocese has received accolades from the outside auditors for our written diocesan regulations and policy guidelines.  But all 207 parishes and every institution have to implement them.  We must be vigilant in continuing to protect children, young people and vulnerable adults.

Some of my parishioners might think that the crisis has passed, and that we can relax our vigilance. 

Maybe in January they never read the second Grand Jury report issued within the past six years on the failures by the two former archbishops of Philadelphia to enforce the safe environment norms.  Two priests, a former priest and a former school teacher are now indicted and on trial for various charges of abusing young people. 

Maybe they don’t read the newspapers, and see that hardly a week goes by without a story about a teacher or youth minister (in other-than-Catholic churches) or coach who is arrested for child abuse.

Or maybe they missed the news just three weeks ago that the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Robert W. Finn, was charged with a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse.  In December a Catholic school principal reported what she saw as “grooming behavior” by her pastor as he interacted with the parish’s children.  When the diocese investigated, the priest’s laptop was found with (according to an AP wire service report) “disturbing photos on the hard drive.  The photos included pictures of female children at parish events, including one of a naked female child who was not identifiable.  In May a search of his family’s home turned up a disk and hard drive with 18 different images of child pornography.”  The priest, Shawn Ratigan, was arrested on state charge of possessing child pornography and on federal charges of producing child pornography.  The diocese and the bishop held onto this information for six months before they reported what they knew to the local county prosecutor.  During these six months the priest remained in good standing and was often seen at school and parish events with children.

The charges against the bishop and the diocese come not only nine years after the U.S. bishops’s conference overwhelmingly ratified the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but also three years after Bishop Finn himself made promises to report suspected abusers to law enforcement authorities as part of a $10 million legal settlement with 47 sexual abuse victims in Kansas City.

My parishioners are not going to be happy when I talk with them about the safe environment program, and their failure to comply.  I will tell them that if it is their decision not to work with us to protect God’s children, I respect that, but following diocesan policy and national church norms, I also must not allow them to volunteer and serve in the name of the church.  They will remain Catholics in good standing, and in my esteem.    I doubt I will be held in much esteem by them.  But such is the price to pay in trying to protect the children entrusted to the church’s care.