Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Unwelcome Comparison

Today the prosecution and the defense rested in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.  Jerry Sandusky, one-time assistant coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, is accused of 51 counts of sexually abusing ten boys.  After the judge's instructions, the Centre County jury will begin deliberation tomorrow.  By venerable U.S. law, Mr. Sandusky is innocent until judged guilty by a jury of his peers.

That said....

Am I the only one who sees so many comparisions of this case with the clergy sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church?  Let me count the ways:

Jerry Sandusky.  Like the priests who sexually abused, here is a man who seemed (seems?) to be universally loved, known to be very compassionate, one who went out of his way to help so many kids (Second Mile Foundation), even to the point of bringing the kids home with him, giving them attractive gifts, and taking them on exotic trips.  Many of the kids came from difficult family situations, often without a father figure, which role Sandusky was more than willing to fulfill.  When accusations of sexual abuse began to come forward, his friends and family cried, "It can't be him!  Impossible!  He's too kind, too compassionate.  It could never be him!"  He is persuasive in his protestations of innocence even to those closest to him (wife, other coaches on the team, the whole college football community).

Penn State Football, the legendary coach.  Joe Paterno was one of the greatest football coaches in American history.  He was also self-effacing, humorous, above reproach, igniting an eternal loyality among his fans.  An icon in the state of Pennsylvania, he is "the pope of Happy Valley."

When Paterno is given information that names one of his closest aides a child abuser, he makes a half-hearted attempt to communicate what he does not believe about his co-worker and friend.  No follow-up.  No calls to reporters.  No calls to the university president, who is not nearly as important as he.  No nothing.

Penn State Administraton.  "We'll take care of it."  The athletic and university administrators know what to do--nothing.  No investigating.  No challenging questions.  No talking to alleged victims.  And certainly no reporting to law enforcement.  Possible lies, certainly CYA all around.

The defense attorney.  Like some diocesan attorneys, and some attorneys representing priests accused of child abuse, they use that time-worn technique, "pin the blame on the victim."  The victims are lawyered up!  The victims are only in it for the money!  The victims were well coached in what to lie!  And of course, the poor accused is guilty only of loving the boys too much. 

The media.  TV trucks, reporters, and internet scribes descend on Bellefonte to report on a trial of a man accused of child abuse. It is as if this is the first time in the 21st century, the first time in the U.S.A., the first time ever a man has so been accused.  Obviously the esteemed and ever-so-knowledgeable media have never heard that legions of parents, grandparents, priests, ministers, youth ministers, rabbis, imams, teachers, athletic coaches, scout leaders, etc., have been accused, been convicted, and gone to jail for child abuse.  No one in the media (and few of their listeners/readers) has learned one of the most important lessons of the clergy abuse scandal of the Catholic Church--that child abuse is all around us, and that all of us adults (whether legally mandated reporters or not) have a grave and solemn duty to protect all children from abuse of any kind.

I must be the only one to see the comparisons.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Practicing Christian Stewardship

Since I started this blog, I have cribbed posts from the weekly column I write for our parish bulletins, entitled "Faithful Chronicles."  Here are the columns for this Sunday and next Sunday.  I wrote this for general information for our parishioners, but also with an eye to the upcoming $125 million first-ever Capital Campaign for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which will begin early in 2013.

When I was a summer seminarian intern, like first year theology student Chris Mannerino,who is with us in the two parishes until August 5, on my first Sunday in the parish the pastor asked me to come into the rectory dining room.  After the first Mass of the morning, he, the two parochial vicars and the housekeeper spilled the collection from the Saturday evening Mass onto the dining room table.  The pastor instructed me to go into the kitchen and get a knife.  Then he sat me down, and showed me how to open the offertory envelopes from the parishioners, make sure the amount inside the envelope was marked on the outside of the envelope, put the cash in a pile in the middle of the table, and set the envelope aside, so that later the parish secretary could record the contribution of the parishioner or family.  (I used the knife when there was so much scotch tape on the envelope I couldn't open it with my hands.)  When we were finished opening the envelopes, we counted the cash, checks and coins, marked the total on a sheet, and moved onto the next Mass's collection.

Back in the 20th century there were no tamper-proof bags (the ushers put the collection in an old pillow case), no diocesan procedures to prevent theft, no laity involved with a revolving list of money-counters.  This was my introduction to parish fundraising.

Taking up a collection at Mass is probably as old as readings from the bible at Mass and boring homilies by the priest.  In poorer countries the collection might have little money, but include a few chickens or basket of vegetables for the priest's meals.  Today in the bulletins I read from parishioners and their travels near and far, it is not unusual to see Sunday offertory collections exceeding $30,000 for one weekend, and $100,000 for Christmas.

We still take up a collection for the needs of each parish at every Sunday and holyday Mass, as well as 12 second collections in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for a wide variety of local, antional and international Catholic needs.  But in recent years the Catholic Church has learned that such collections have to be part of a comprehensive vision of how to use God's gifts.  Such a vision is called Christian Stewardship.  It starts with reflecting on two of my favorite passages from the bible: 

"Jesus said, 'The gift you have received, give as a gift.'"  (Matthew 10:8)

"As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace."  (I Peter 4:10)

What identifies a good steward?  Someone who safeguards material and human resources and uses them responsibly.  Who is a good Christian steward?  Ah, that means much more.  In the words of the U.S. Catholic bishops, in their ground-breaking 1992 pastoral letter, Stewardship: A Disciples's Response, "As Christian stewards, we receive God's gifts gratefully, cultivate them responsibly, share them lovingly in justice with others, and return them with increase to the Lord."  (Read the entire pastoral letter at  .)

Being a good Christian steward begins with being a discple of Jesus Christ--someone who wishes to follow the Lord with all his/her heart, soul and being.  Disciples look to the life and teachings of Jesus for guidance in living as  Christian stewards.

By virtue of our baptism, we are called by Jesus to follow him.  This means we desire to shape and mold our understanding of our lives and the ways in which we live by the teachings of Christ and his Church.  We practice stewardship of God's creation, by appreciating the awesome God-given beauty and wonder of nature, and protecting the environment.  We practice stewardship by respecting all human lives, from conception to natural death.  We practice stewardship by honoring our vocation (single, married, widowed, vowed religious, deacon, priest, bishop) as Christ desires.  And we practice stewardship in the four steps of the above definition:

  • We understand that all that we have and are comes from God, and we are very, very grateful to God for all these gifts.
  • We use the gifts of time, education, skill, talent and energy for good purposes.  We don't waste our gifts on fruitless pursuits.
  • We share our gifts with our family, our church, our community and the needs of poor people, as Jesus taught.  We don't hoard our gifts for ourselves.
  • At the end of our lives we again give thanks to God for what we have received, and hand them over to God's purposes with whatever increase we have brought through our hard work and ingenuity.
To bring these ideas back to the image of opening church envelopes around the dining room table, Christian stewardship is so much more than putting a $1 (or $5, or $20) bill in a collection envelope. 

Christian stewardship invites me to see my whole life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  It challenges me to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to me, the unique person that I am.  Each person who takes up the disciple's way of stewardship is going to do it a little differently, because of our uniqueness.  But all can contribute, and all contributions (of money, time, energy, skill, talent or prayer) are valuable and worthwhile.

One of the mistakes we pastors have made is to limit the generosity of the faithful.  We tell the parishioners, we need X, Y and Z for our parish.  Can you help?  X, Y and Z are important, and help to implement our parish's mission.  X could be the amount of money needed to run the basic parish functions and offices.  Y could be things or scholarships for parish school, CCD, or festival.  Z could be volunteers in liturgical or social service ministries.  These are all good things.  It is worthwhile to share the church's needs with the faithful, so they can respond generously.

But a Christian steward goes deeper, and asks more basic questions:  What can  I  give?  To whom should I give?  In what manner can I give?  Can I stretch my giving to be sacrificial?  For what reasons do I give?

If you are reading this, I ask, have you ever heard of the concept of Christian stewardship?  Do you have more questions?  It is my hope over the next several months to enlighten our parishioners more about this very exciting, and very challenging, message, of committed discipleship to Jesus the Christ and stewardship of all my gifts in his name.  Drop me a line if you have questions, or maybe wish to tell me a story when you practiced true Christian stewardship, or saw someone else do so.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nothing Ordinary about Ordinary Time

This Sunday, June 17, we celebrate the 11th Sunday in Ordianry time.  The liturgical season in the Roman Rite of Ordinary Time formally began three weeks ago, on the day after Pentecost.  We have just completed the 93-day cycle of Lent/Triduum/Easter.  We Catholics are also familiar with the Advent/Christmas cycle.  Ordinary Time is the rest of the year.

With a title like "Ordinary Time" one might think that nothing happens in this season.  This is far from the truth.  To understand this, you have to go to a rather new concept in Catholic theology, the "sacramental imagination."  Catholics who are already cashing in their Social Security checks remember the Baltimore Catechism (1884) definition of a sacrament:  "An outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace."  The current Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) definition of a sacrament is similar yet expanded:  "Efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.  The visible rites by which the sacrments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament."  (#1131)

Catholic theologians have taken these classic definitions and expanded on them.  They see in the "sacramental imagination" of us believers that grace (that is, God's life, love, presence) is all around us.  God's grace and life are not just signified when a deacon baptizes a baby or a priest anoints a sick person in the hospital or when a bishop ordains priests.  God's grace and life are also signified when a mom comforts her daughter when she cries; when a friend forgives a buddy for a cruel remark; when young adults give a year of their lives to do missionary work in Haiti or Alaska; when a married couple makes love; when a CCD catechist teaches his second graders about Jesus Christ present in the sacrament of holy communion.

In other words, God's abiding presence is all around us in our wounded world.  Father Andrew Greeley identified several aspects of the Catholic sacramental imagination:

^Enchanted:  Open to a world filled with angels, saints and mystery.
^Sacramental:  A more general attitude that all created reality is open to the present of a God who "lurks" there.
^Analogical:  It tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of persons, places and things.
^Exists in a dense forest of imagery and story.
^Imminent rather than transcendent.
^Recognition that "all space is sacred and some space is more sacred."
[From The Catholic Imagination, 2000, pages 1-21]

This sacramental imagination is also connected to "vision."  Cardinal John Henry Newman is often quoted as having said, "The real battles of life take place within the human imagination."  In the words of Franciscan Father Michael Weldon, "It is there that our most foundational images of church dwell, the place of our most vital memories of religious epiphany, of comfort, healing or grappling with the realities of sin and death."

I can still remember attending Sunday 8:00 a.m. Mass as a third or fourth grader with my Dad and brothers, sitting in the little upstairs side balcony in St. Wendelin Church.  Dad pointed out to me the difference between a low Mass and high Mass:  the number of lit candles (two or six).  I can still see him gently striking his breast when the priest raised the Host and the Chalice at the consecration of the Mass.  And -- in that Catholic way -- I fondly remember conversations with Dad in our backyard, on a summer evening, after we had changed the oil in his car and my car.  Nothing earthshaking was said, but the conversations in their own way were holy.

And so, Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary.  During the Sundays of Ordinary Time we hear Jesus teach through parables, like the mustard seed which images the Kingdom of God (this Sunday, June 17), and miracles, such as Jesus healing a woman afflicted with hemorrhages and raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead (July 1).  We revere saints like John the Baptizer, whose feast we will celebrate on Sunday, June 24.  John was conceived in the old age of Elizabeth and Zechariah to proclaim the coming of  Christ our Savior.  What could be more ordinary--or extraordinary!--when a childless couple who desire to have a baby have their wish fulfilled.  We follow in John's footsteps when we witness to Christ's presence in our world, from the time we were in the womb.

Ordinary Time is filled with our ordinary lives:  we get out of bed, shower and wash, go to work or take care of kids or do some volunteering, make lunch and wash dishes, watch a little tv and kiss our loved ones good night.  But Ordinary Time is at the same time filled with the posibility of seeing God's grace in each and every one of these activities, and so many more.  God's loving presence is extraordinarily all around us in Ordinary Time.