Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of Pittsburgh

In 1994 Pope John Paul II announced that the year 2000 would be a "Great Jubilee Year."  The Vatican planned dozens of events in Rome for that year, to celebrate two millennia since the birth of Christ.  To conclude the Great Jubilee Year, John Paul wrote what has been for me one of the most uplifting and encouraging documents written by any pope, Novo Millennio Ineunte, "On the coming of the Third Millennium."

This was the third in a triptych of documents.  The 1994 piece, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, announced a three year period of reflection on the Trinity (1997, God the Father; 1998, God the Son; 1999, God the Holy Spirit) as preparation for the coming Great Jubilee Year.  The papal bull of announcement for the Great Jubilee was Incarnationis Mysterium in 1998.  The third document has the aging pope reflect on many of the events of that year, almost wistfully looking back as what he set in motion.  But he also looks forward, to the beginning of the third Christian millennium.

In Novo Millennio Ineunte the pope advocated "pastoral planning."  He wrote that the Gospel "must be translated into pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community."  He saw that different dioceses will emphasize different parts of the Gospel.  "With its universal and indispensable provisions, the program of the Gospel must continue to take root in the life of the Church everywhere.  It is in the local churches that the specific features of a detailed pastoral plan can be identified....I therefore earnestly exhort the Pastors of the particular churches confidently to plan the stages of the journey ahead."

For years Bishop David Zubik has been quietly laying the groundwork for such a pastoral plan for the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the next generation.  He set out his vision in his opening sermon as the 12th ordinary, the catch-phrase "a Church alive."  He amplified this in his pastoral letters:  "The Church Alive!"; "The Church Evangelizing!"; The Church Living!"; "The Church Sharing!"  He initiated Our Campaign for the Church Alive! to raise millions of dollars for our parishes and diocesan initiatives, but much more importantly, to raise up Catholics committed to a more vibrant church.

About two years ago the bishop formed a committee called "Tilling the Soil" to work for over a year to identify the gifts and challenges of being Catholic in the six counties of southwest Pennsylvania.  Now he has sponsored the Commission for Planning for Parishes.  Priests, laity and diocesan staff have begun to look ahead, asking probing questions:
  • How can our parishes become more active and alive?
  • How can pastors lead and engage laity in the working of spreading the Gospel?
  • How can parishes work more closely together?
  • How can the diocesan central administration serve the priests, lay ecclesial ministers and parishes better?
  • Where should parishes merge to strengthen their communities?
  • Should any church buildings close?
  • How can Catholics encourage more vocations to the priesthood, married life, committed single life, and religious life?
And maybe the most important question, Where do we discern the Holy Spirit is leading us?

The Commission for Planning is looking at five distinct pastoral ares in this process.  These are evangelization and pastoral engagement; communications; leadership development; vicariate planning; and finances.  At this stage of the process, the Commission has more questions than answers.  But the questions are good ones.  And they involve many complex steps:  identifying our needs, opportunities, demands and resources; clarifying our vision, values and norms; outlining processes, structures and policies; and implementing those behaviors which will bring about a more vital and engaged church.

Sound complicated?  It is.  Sound challenging?  You bet!  Is it necessary?  Without a doubt.  People in all walks of life (retail businesses, manufacturing, government, the military, schools and universities, social services) know that if you stand still, you get run over.  Or worse, you get ignored.  "We've always done it this way" is a paralyzing phrase which prevents growth.  "How can we do this better?" is the hope-filled mantra which leads to healthy organizational change and promotes growth.

I have been privileged to be appointed, first, to the "Tilling the Soil" committee, and now to the Commission for Planning for Parishes.  Like most of the people on these bodies, I have learned the hard way that change in the Catholic Church is difficult.  (Ask some of the "old dogs" like me on the commission who went through the diocesan reorganization of 1989-1995 about the emotional scars we still hold.)  But with a willing spirit and an open mind, pastoral planning can focus our energies to carry out Christ's foundational command, "Go make disciples in all the nations."  (Matthew 28:19)

You will see much more about this process over the next two years, from Bishop Zubik and diocesan staff in the Pittsburgh Catholic, from me in our parish bulletin and (maybe) on this blog.  The goal is to use the best of change/transition processes to make more energetic and larger Catholic Christian communities, here in New Castle and throughout the Diocese of Pittsburgh.


Tortured Logic on Torture

It seems the older I get the more the daily news fades to the background.  Time should bring perspective:  what is important and what is unimportant.  But time can also just make everything look unimportant.

Then there is the feeling of powerlessness.  Those in power (political, military, artistic) use it, and I watch from the sidelines.  What can I do?

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture post-9/11 makes me feel that it is important, and I am powerless.  In the wake of the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, the CIA used all manner of torture on "terrorist actors" in the attempt to gain "actionable intelligence" on future attacks and current terrorist organizations.  Reading the news reports about the 500 page statement (no, I've not read the report), it seemed that the authors wanted to make not a moral argument against torture but practical arguments.  It didn't do what it was intended to do:  get insights about terrorists and their plans for more attacks on U.S. soil and in allied countries.  

This in itself is a fascinating perspective on the times.  Morality is only in the eye of the beholder, but practical actions can be judged.  And judged they were:  Republicans (with the signal exception of Senator John McCain) criticized the report and its authenticity (Dick Cheney:  "it's full of crap"); Democrats praised its report and lamented its blotch on American history.

The Catholic Church and its teaching is much clearer.  Bishop Oscar Cantu, the chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an 'intrinsic evil' that cannot be justified under any circumstance.  The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong.  Congress and the President should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again."  He released his comments along with those from many religions, on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture website.  See all 18 quotes here.

A "backgrounder" on torture, issued by the same Office of International Justice and Peace of the USCCB in February 2013 was blunt.

Church teaching is clear:  Torture is abhorrent and can never be condoned nor tolerated.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (2297).  Quoting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated that "the prohibition against torture 'cannot be contravened under any circumstance.'"  Torture is morally wrong and can never be justified because it debases human dignity of both the victim and the perpetrator, estranging the torturer from God, and compromising the physical or mental integrity of the tortured.  
Torture is corrosive to the society in which it exists as it devalues human life and dignity.  Any society that tolerates torture places the human rights of all of its citizens at risk.  It creates a climate hostile to the dignity of the human person.

Torture is illegal according to international law and the Geneva Conventions.  The Catholic Church is a strong supporter of international humanitarian law and its prohibitions against torture.  As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states:  "[T]he precepts of international humanitarian law must be fully respected."  U.S. moral standing and credibility were seriously compromised by tolerance of torture at [Iraqi prison] Abu Ghraib.  It is important for the U.S. government to demonstrate the highest ethical standards to restore global confidence in U.S. leadership.  

There are also practical arguments against the use of torture.  Often, popular culture portrays a "ticking time-bomb" scenario, where torture is used to obtain information from a terrorist that will save countless lives.  However, many professional interrogators and investigators argue that intelligence obtained through torture is generally useless or misleading because victims give answers they think their torturers want to hear, not the truth.  In the fight against terrorist organizations, torture can actually be counterproductive, hindering U.S. efforts by sparking anti-American sentiment and fueling recruitment of militants.  Torture doesn't make Americans any safer, or help obtain information that cannot be gathered by legal and moral means.

USCCB has consistently and strongly opposed torture in a series of letters to Congress and the Administration, in public statements, op-eds, and in study guides produces in collaboration with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  In their 2007 statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops declared that because torture assaults the dignity of human life, it is "intrinsically evil," one of very few actions to be so labeled.  USCCB advocated vigorously for a Presidential Executive Order banning torture and President Obama did so two days after taking office in 2009.  The bishops continue to speak out against expanding of "enhanced" interrogation techniques and to call for the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on CIA interrogation practices so that the public becomes aware of past practices, and of the illegality and ineffectiveness of torture.  Public scrutiny would help ensure that our government does not engage in torture again.

The report this backgrounder advocated for finally came to light yesterday.  For the full backgrounder on torture,  click here .  For a critical Catholic take on the Senate report, see Michael Sean Winters' blogpost, "The immorality of  torture".  In a Sunday address this past summer, Pope Francis said torture is a "mortal sin."  






Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Incarnation of the Blessed Mother

For a time in the 1990s I was pastor of Incarnation of the Lord Parish, on the North Side of Pittsburgh.  It was a new (read, merged) parish, formed out of the re-joining of Annunciation and Nativity of Our Lord Parishes.  I thought the new parish's name, given by then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, was inspired.  However some parishioners grumbled about the merger, sarcastically calling it "Inquisition Parish"or "Incarceration Parish" or even "Reincarnation Parish."  (Maybe their compaints had something to do with the pastor!)

Since then I have had a deep appreciation for the theological word "incarnate."  It comes from the Latin, "in the flesh."  A secular dictionary definition is close to the Latin, "embodied in flesh" or "given a bodily, especially a human, form."  Jesus, the Son of God and Word of God, is enfleshed as the son of Mary.  The Second Person of the Trinity became human.  Jesus in the flesh felt and experienced everything human we do, as a person (except sin).  This is Whose birthday we celebrate on December 25.  Our church is vibrantly, richly incarnational.  Our spirituality is nourished by eating the Bread of Life and drinking the Blood of Christ.  Our faith must bear fruit in good works on this earth.  We worship not just with silent prayers, but with beautiful music, artwork, architecture, and poetic words.  Following Christ is done side-by-side with our sisters and brothers who have been baptized, never alone or without company.

For me, a significant expression of this incarnational theology is in the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego in 1531 outside of Mexico City.  The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, and of St. Juan Diego on December 9.  Mary has appeared to many persons down through the Christian centuries, but never as she did on Tepeyac hill.


Many reading this are familiar with the story.  In her first meeting with Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the young Lady, who identified herself as the Mother of God, asked that he speak with the local bishop and convey her desire to build a church on that site.  As the story goes, the bishop made this poor peasant widower cool his heels outside his office for a whole day before receiving him.  Then the skeptical bishop said, ask the lady for a sign.  Juan Diego missed his appointment with the mysterious young Lady, because he was worried about the grave illness of his Uncle Juan Bernadino.  So the Lady appeared to him again, and assured him that his uncle would survive and be healed.

The Lady told Juan to take roses (growing in the dead of winter?) which were blooming nearby to the bishop, as a sign.  Juan gathered these beautiful flowers in his rough tilma, or cloak, and did as requested.  He presented them to the bishop, opening his cloak.  Then the bishop saw not only the roses, but the Virgin herself, in an image miraculously imprinted on the inside of Juan's tilma.  That tilma still hangs in the Basilica in Mexico City, visible to all 438 years later.  This "incarnation" of the Blessed Mother leads believers to her son, the Savior of all peoples.  It is said that within ten years of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, over 10,000,000 natives throughout the Americas come to faith and to be baptized.  No wonder Pope John Paul II proclaimed her Patroness of the Americas.  And her cult has grow from Mexico, to throughout the Americas, to the whole world.


I am proud to say that I have seen the tilma of Juan Diego with my own eyes, having made a pilgrimage to Mexico City several years ago.  And that image (with its rich Catholic and native symbolism, too detailed to go into in this short column) continues to draw people to deeper faith in Christ, the Incarnate Word.  As the church celebrates these two feasts, pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe this week, and ask her to guide you to a more enfleshed and down-to-earth experience of discipleship in Jesus and the love of God.


Unclaimed Property, Surprise Gift

In November St. Vitus Parish received an early and very unexpected Christmas gift.  Here's the story.

Back in August, just as he was preparing to move out of our parishes and into the administration of St. Paul Seminary, Father Nick Vaskov was reading the New Castle News.  He noticed a full-page ad, with a listing of "unclaimed property" held by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  One of the listings was for a "Stvitus" along with a strange address.  He brought this to my attention.  We were both puzzled by it and didn't know what it meant.  So I asked our business manager, Nancy Bonk, to complete the on-line forms to submit our claim for the unclaimed property.  Then we forgot about it.

(Several years ago I found my own name in such a listing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  I submitted the necessary paperwork, and received two checks, for $22 and $40, as the result of a court settlement with AT&T, which I had missed.)

On Friday, November 22, my new best friend, Rob McCord, the treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sent St. Vitus Parish a check in the amount of $55,788.10.  Yes, you read that amount correctly.  This was the fulfillment of a bequest that Miss Carolyn Black had given to the parish in her will when she died back in 1996.  Somehow the bequest was lost and ended up in the state's Unclaimed Property office.  And now 18 years later the gift reached its intended beneficiary.

So, I am grateful to Miss Black for her generosity to St. Vitus Parish.  I will be publishing this notice in our bulletin next weekend, both to thank her and to suggest to parishioners that they can include their parish as a beneficiary in their will.

Also let me suggest that gentle readers of this blog might go online to determine if our state, or any state, has your "unclaimed property."  For Pennsylvania, go to www.patreasury.gov/unclaimedproperty .  For a national listing, visit www.missingmoney.com .  News reports said that Pennsylvania has over $1.9 billion in such unclaimed property, New York over $14 billion.  You never know what you might find!


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving prayers

Here are two prayers I came across, one for Thanksgiving and one for Christian stewardship:

A  Thanksgiving Prayer

If Jesus showed up for dinner on Thanksgiving, there wouldn't be any fighting over the drumsticks.  He'd just multiply them.  He could turn water into cranberry sauce if you ran out.  The last to arrive would be the first to get served.  He'd let the little children come to him at the big people table.  He'd make sure all the food was ready at the same time, and dished up piping hot.  He'd grant everyone's wishbone wishes.  There'd be enough leftovers to feed a whole multitude.  May Jesus be with you on Thanksgiving and always.



A Stewardship Prayer

My church is composed of people like me.  I help make it what it is.  It will be friendly, if I am.  Its pews will be filled, if I help fill them.  It will do great work, if I work.  It will make generous gifts to many causes, if I am a generous giver.  It will bring other people into its worship and fellowship, if I invite and bring them.  It will be a church of loyalty and love, of fearlessness and faith, and a church with a noble spirit, just and charitable, if I, who make it what it is, am filled with these same things.  Therefore, with the help of God, I shall dedicate myself to the task of being all the things that I want my church to be.  Amen.  


A BLESSED AND HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!


Friday, October 24, 2014

What's Your Accent?

I had to leave Pittsburgh before I learned I had an accent.  I grew up listening to Bill Burns on the KDKA-TV noon news saying, Getta load of dis! and Myron Cope and his Double Yoi! as he announced Steelers football.  At age 20 after college I was assigned to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimroe, Maryland, to study theology.  I was the only student in my class from the diocese of Pittsburgh.  And immediately the seminarians ribbed me for the "funny way" I talked.



The kidded me:  "Say again I'm goin' dahntahn to git a pahnd of grahnd rahnd."  They were puzzled when I called my classmates yinz guys.  They didn't know what gumband or stil mill or Arn City Beer or jumbo sammich or pop meant.  I told them they were nebby and they laughed, but they didn't catch I just insulted them.



So I began to listen more intently.  I heard the men from New England drop their r's ("Let's drive in my cah to Hahvahd.")  The natives of Bawlmer (Baltimore) made fun of the politicians in Warrshngton (Washington).  The guys from upstate New York would tawk (talk) and wawk (walk) funny, ayeh.  (Like the Canadians who ended each sentence with eh!)  Southerners from Loovul (Louisville, Kentucky) and Nawlins (New Orleans, Louisiana) obviously had a distinctive dialect.

Then it hit me--EVERYONE has an accent, every person has a "funny way" of talking to someone not from their 'burgh.  Listening to NPR radio, I heard interviews with English-speakers and their distinctive accents from Britain, Scotland, Ireland, South Korea, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Australia.  On CNN were diplomats, movie stars and athletes from every corner of the globe for whom English was a second or third language.  Their pronunciations were very different from mine, yet still able to be understood, and sometimes downright charming.  In his first address to the world after his election as pope in 1978, Saint John Paul II poked fun of his faulty Italian grammar, delivered with a Polish accent.

In my assignments over the years I have lived with priests from Nigeria, India, France, Canada, and South Korea.  Parishes throughout our diocese have hosted priests from a dozen countries, who were studying at Duquesne University or Pitt, or sharing their stories about their missionary needs.  I will admit some were easier to understand than others.  But from time to time I also wondered, could they comprehend my Pittsburghese?

This is a long way of asking for everyone's patience when a visiting priest celebrates the Mass in one of our churches.  You may think, "He speaks funny."  The priest is probably too polite to say he thinks the same about you.

When you think about it, the Eucharist is a structured back-and-forth between priest presider and people responders.  All of the dialog, and the great Eucharistic Prayer, is familiar ritual.  The only real problem at Mass with a priest who has a nonnative accent is the sermon.  This is a good time to reflect for ten minutes that the Mass is primarily about our worship of God through Jesus Christ our Savior, not about how eloquent (or lengthy) the preacher is.

Over the previous three decades, western Pennsylvania has grown more diverse again with immigrants.  In the period from 1880 to 1915, immigrants (and their "broken English") were from Germany, Italy, Poland and Ireland.  Since 1980 we have welcomed folks from the Carribbean, Mexico, Japan, the Phillipines and China.  Walk the campuses of CMU or Pitt and you will overhear many versions of English-speakers.  

In New Castle we are blessed to have Father Joe Pudichery reside at St. Vincent de Paul Rectory in his retirement.  Father Joe, a native of India, has been a priest for 52 years, almost all as a member of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  The parishes where he has served sing his praises for his compassionate ministry and love of them.  I know that Father Joe retains a particular lilt and inflection from his native country.  Yet he prays the Mass with us and for us with the same fervor and spirit.

Jesus understood what it meant to be a preacher in a foreign land.  Early in his public ministry Jesus left his home town and moved to Capernaum in Galilee.  Philip was one of the first to accept Jesus's invitation to be a disciple.  Philip then invited Nathanael to listen to Christ.  Nathanael's snarky response was, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"  (John 1:46)  In effect, Nathanael called Jesus a "country bumpkin."  But after a personal conversation Jesus won him over.

When Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem, the apostle Peter followed him into the high priest's courtyard.  Here Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  Bystanders from Judea knew Peter was a disciple of Jesus, because his Galilean-accented Hebrew gave him away.  (Matt 27:73)  Yet the Holy Spirit had the last laugh.  After Christ's resurrection and ascension, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and preached to Jews from twelve communities around the Mediterranean Sea.  Despite their varied languages, all understood Peter.  (Acts 2:7)  May our every word, conversation and prayer--in a world brimming with languages and accents --give praise to God.




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"I Thought We Were All Done With That" another painful chapter

In August one of our priests was taken off of active ministry, and placed into "administrative leave," while accusations of sexual abuse against him are investigated.  We have no word on the progress or lack thereof in that investigation, as nothing more has been given to us by our bishop.

But in the news there are many examples of sexual abuse, use and possession of child pornography, by clergy of various religions and denominations as well as leaders of professions.  As I wrote in my previous post on August 6, sexual abuse is real, even if the various entities in the Catholic Church in our country and around the world are getting more serious about preventing it among professionals and volunteers working in the name of the church.

A few examples...

  • In July 2013 19 former students of prestigious Yeshiva University in New York City filed a $380 million lawsuit against Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor, for failing to protect them from the abuse by Rabbis George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon.  The former students alleged that the rabbis abused them in the 1970s and 1980s.  Rabbi Finkelstein left Yeshiva University high school for boys in 1985; Rabbi Gordon left in 1984.
  • However, The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that Finkelstein had "allegations that he behaved inappropriately with boys...for at least 30 years."  These were at his subsequent posts in the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, between 1995 and 1999.  And more recently one student filed a complaint against Finkelstein with the Jerusalem police, which he alleged took place at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue over a 30 month period ending in 2009.
  • In May 2014 71 people were taken into custody by the federal Department of Homeland Security for producing or distributing child pornography.  These included two registered nurses, a New York City police officer, a paramedic, a rabbi, and a Boy Scout leader.  Another one taken in was a police chief who was teaching classes about sexual abuse at a Catholic Church in Shrub Oak, New York.  The district attorney of Staten Island said the images and videos implicated in the arrests showed children raped and sexually assaulted by adults.  70 of the arrested were men; the sole woman was accused of having produced a sex video with her young son.
  • Last week Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was arrested on charges of voyeurism.  He was accused of secretly using a camera inside a clock radio to film women undressing and naked in mikvah (a ritual bath).  Police found over 100 deleted files of photographs on his computer.  Freundel, 62, is nationally known for his work in supporting women in leadership positions within synagogues, and reaching out to women to convert to Judaism.  Yesterday the D.C. Rabbinic Council admitted that it had received allegations against Rabbi Freundel at least two years ago of inappropriate behavior with adult women, but failed to act.
  • Justice Seamus McCaffrey of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was temporarily relieved of duty by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for using office computers to send and receive pornographic files.  This is part of a larger investigation by the state Attorney General's office of many high level executive and judicial employees using state computers to send and receive porn.  
  • A volunteer youth worker at Living Waters Family Worship Center in Irwin was arrested a week ago on possession and distribution of child pornography.  Andrew Mark Patterson, 45, is alleged to have had over 1,000 images and videos of children engaged in sexual acts, some as young as age 4.  Patterson was also charged with child endangerment.  He is married with a daughter.  When police showed up to arrest him at his Monroeville home, the house was found to be in "deplorable condition," with strong odors of urine and ammonia, and feces from ten dogs.  
  • LOCAL UPDATE:  Today (October 23) a New Castle man pleaded guilty to one count of producing child pornography.  Donald Miller, 43, videotaped himself while abusing an 8-year-old girl in December.  He sold the computer at an Ohio flea market, but left the video on the computer.  The buyer saw it and notified police.  He was indicted in April.  He will be sentenced in U.S. District Court in January.
I take no pleasure from reporting just what I have come across in casual news-surfing over the past few months.  But it does show that the lessons of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church have not been learned by school officials, religious centers or other professional organizations.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

New Parish Employee Manual Promulgated by Diocese of Pittsburgh

In 1986 the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a long and detailed pastoral letter on the U.S. economy in light of Catholic social moral teaching.  For hundreds of pages in "Economic Justice for All" the bishops gave spiritual guidance to leaders of business, industry, government, agriculture, the military, education, and academia, on how to look at our economy though the lens of human dignity and human rights.

Then in an almost unprecedented act, the bishops turned the spotlight on themselves.  They noted that the Catholic Church in our country employed tens of thousands of people, in 18,000 parishes, 1,400 social service agencies, hundreds of schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, hospitals and related organizations.  They acknowledged that historically Catholic institutions were known to violate church teachings, and sometimes did not treat workers justly.  The U.S. bishops called themselves and their collaborators in leadership ministry to provide just compensation and fair treatment for every employee.  But they went further, and urged in bold terms, "Indeed, the Church should be exemplary [as an employer]." (#347)


This fall the Diocese of Pittsburgh is working to put those challenging words into action at its grassroots.  Various diocesan offices collaborated to write a template of employment policies for the parishes which conform to civil and church laws.   The diocese itself has a generation of experience with a personnel policy, since the first personnel manual for central administration employees was implemented in 1990, and significantly revised last year.

Now every parish in the diocese is implementing a written personnel manual for its employees.  The pastors, finance council members, and business managers of our parishes have been reviewing the document from the diocese to make it applicable to their own specific pastoral situation.  At the same time, every employee will be consulted about his/her job description, designation as either fulltime or parttime, and what benefits (e.g., medical insurance, vacation, days off, etc.) beyond compensation they receive.  All of this is done so as to treat workers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Written policies help build up dialogue and trust between the pastors and employees of the parishes.  They prevent arbitrary or capricious decisions.  These diocesan guidelines for a parish personnel manual foster accountability, transparency and sound business practices.  They assist in fulfilling church mandates and applicable civil law.  Written employment policies provide a framework for the spiritual practice of Christian stewardship to grow in the Body of Christ.


When I became a pastor for the first time years ago, I was ill-equipped to be "the boss."  I knew nothing about how to lead the parish employees or how much to pay them.  Over time, with the advice of astute businessmen and women on our finance councils, I was able to grasp the basics of employee administration.  But "ad hoc" decision-making was never a good idea.  Parish employees would ask me questions about their salary or benefits as I was running from one place to another.  Only when the details of the work situation were written down and put into the context of a system was I able to treat all parish paid workers fairly.

Some church professionals have a contract with the parishes or schools for their services.  These "lay ecclesial ministers" include school principals, directors of religious education, directors of music ministries, business managers and social service workers.  But equitable employee administration needs to extend to all workers, whether paid hourly or salaried.

If the Catholic Church is to retain its integrity as a voice for justice in the economic affairs of the world, it is essential to act in a just manner as an employer.  The road to fulfilling the right to just, family compensation for workers is a process of employment, administration, in light of our church;s social doctrine, which is marked by participation, collaboration and commitment to execution.  The implementation of a personnel policy in each parish is leading them to closer to be exemplary in the treatment of their workers.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Twelve Reasons Why Jesus Would Make a Terrible Bishop

We were talking about a couple of issues at our most recent pastoral council meeting.  Someone mentioned a saying from Jesus, to enlighten all of us.  Without thinking, I blurted out, "That doesn't help.  Jesus never had to make a payroll or pay Parish Share.  Jesus would make a terrible pastor."  The group laughed, and another parishioner shot back, "That would make a great blog post."

So, upon further review and reflection, with tongue firmly in cheek, here are 12 reasons why Jesus would make a terrible bishop and pastor (with Gospel references).

+   Jesus never stayed in one place to minister.  He was always on the move.  (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:28-29)

+   Jesus angered the most devout members of his faith.  (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 14:1-24)

+   Jesus played favorites.  He had an inner circle of 12 men, he had three close friends (Peter, James and John) and he dearly loved the poor.  (12: Luke 6:12-16; 3: Mark 9:2-8, Mark 14:32-42; poor: Matthew 18:1-4)  

+   Jesus chose a bookkeeper who was a thief.  (John 12:16)

+   Jesus prayed.  (Luke 6:12; 11:1)

+   Jesus ate with sinners.  (Luke 5:30; 15:2; 19:1-10)

+   Jesus loved women.  (Luke 8:1-3; John 11:5)

+   The family of Jesus thought he was crazy.  (Mark 3:31-35)

+   Jesus brought forth division, not peace.  (Luke 12:49-53; John 6:66)

+   Jesus angered the Roman authorities.  (Luke 13:31-33)

+   Jesus said he was God.  (John 13:19; 18;5; 18;33-37)

And the final reason Jesus would have made a terrible bishop...

+   Jesus taught with authority.  (Matthew 7:28-29;  Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32)

Happy Birthday, Boss!

In 2009 at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, Barack Obama said, "I may be the president, but he's the Boss!"  Of course I'm referring to Bruce Springsteen, who celebrates birthday #65 today.

 Bruce on the set of his first directorial effort,
a short film, Hunter of Invisible Game.
 

What strikes me on this entrance of another rock 'n' roll crooner into the world of Social Security is how much Bruce has accomplished during years which are usually quasi-retirement.

What do I mean?  Go back to 1999, when Springsteen celebrated his 50th birthday.  He had just been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  In his career, dating to 1973, he had issued 12 path-breaking and record-smashing albums.  He appeared (approaching his 27th birthday) simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.  He was a cultural figure--and at the same time many thought he was washed up.  He had gotten married (for the second time) in 1988, moved to the West Coast to have and raise three children, and in the 1990's was primarily known for his Academy Award-winning song "Streets of Philadelphia" in the 1995 movie Philadelphia with Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks.  But his last three albums had gotten tepid reviews, his touring was so-so, and many thought his best days were behind him.  For anyone else, it had been a great career--and it was mostly over.  Enjoy your wealth, enjoy your future grandkids, have them prepare your obit.

Or was it over?  I would say that between the ages of 50 and 65 (today) Bruce and his band of E Streeters have done as much, or more, than they did in their first quarter century.  In 15 years, he gave us seven studio albums, another collection of older and unpublished takes and several "Live in..." albums, world wide touring that just keeps getting better and better, and more honors than Rolling Stone can shake a list at.  In the first half of his career, he garnered seven Grammy awards.  Since 1999, since he turned 50, he's gotten 13.  His 2002 album The Rising captured with incredible poignancy the stew of American feelings over the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks.  His energy on stage and covering of a wide variety of artists showed he was anything but creatively dead.

No doubt part of it was the re-assembling of the E Street Band, around 1999, as "his" band.  This culminated with the E Street Band being inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, a worthy and long overdue honor.  But part of it was Bruce's continued dedication to his craft.  Expanding his reach.  Stretching his vision.

One example is the "Seeger Sessions" album and songs.  Here he used unknown but skilled folk musicians known to his wife Patti and her best friend violinist Soozie Tyrell to reach deep into the history of American folk music.  These songs, and others in the same vein, link populist themes of one hundred years ago with similar themes today.

The other example is the expansion of the E Street Band.  Now it has "the horns" and "the choir" and friend Tom Morello which allow a wide variety of sounds for older Springsteen workhorse songs, as well as to be creative (such as using rap in "Rocky Ground" on the Wrecking Ball album) and expansive in his concert touring.  

Happy birthday, Bruce!  May we do half as much creative work after age 50 as you've given us.  May the next 15 years be just as creative.







Photos by Jo Lopez taken at the Consol Energy Center
in Pittsburgh PA on April 22, 2014.  


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Foolishly Picking Pigskin Winners IV

Another year, another NFL season to watch and enjoy.  256 regular season games, 10 playoff games, and The Big Game, Super Bowl XLVIIII or XLIX or IL or 49 or 2015.

Last year I got half of the Super Bowl combo right.  I picked the Aaron Rodgers's Green Bay Packers to beat Peyton Manning's Broncos.  Right loser, wrong winner.  The Seattle Seahawks roared out of the NFC (North)West and conquered the Broncos from the very first snap (over the head of a hapless Manning for a first-play safety), and went on to win 43-8.

As usual there are multiple story lines for the 2014 NFL season.  The one that intrigues me the most is that even though most people enjoyed the offensive fireworks of the 'Hawks (and Broncos, and 49ers, and Saints, and Patriots, etc.), the sneaky strength of Pete Carroll's team was its defense.   What team can put together a defense that can hold down some of the explosive offenses, quarterbacks, and receivers?

Of course, all pro football speculation is local.  What will our newer, younger, more immature Steelers do this year?  Last year I did not see them making the playoffs--and they didn't, despite a furious effort at the end.  Maybe five or six plays kept the Steelers from 12-4 or better.  That's the nature of the game today.  To quote a baseball manager, Clint Hurtle, and apply the same line to football, "There are no little plays."

I am down on the quality of the Steeler players this year.  Despite high caliber coaching, I just do not think that the Steelers have the quality and experience it takes to win their division.  I've seen predictions for the Steelers everywhere from 6-9-1 to 10-6.  I'm firmly in the 6-10 camp.  (And I hope I'm wrong.)

So, here goes for my predictions for the 2014 NFL season:

NFC EAST:  Eagles (4)

NFC NORTH:  Packers (1)

NFC SOUTH:  Saints (2) 

NFC WEST:  Seahawks (3)

Wild cards:  49ers (5) and Bears (6)

Seahawks over Bears
49ers over Eagles

Packers over 49ers
Saints over Seahawks

Saints over Packers

AFC EAST:  Patriots (1)

AFC NORTH:  Bengals (4)

AFC SOUTH:  Colts (2)

AFC WEST:  Broncos (3)

Wild cards:  Chargers (5) and Chiefs (6)

Broncos over Chiefs
Chargers over Bengals

Patriots over Chargers
Broncos over Colts

Patriots over Broncos

SUPER BOWL 49:  Patriots over Saints




And for our Steelers (and poor Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu), it's wait till next year.  

A couple of more predictions.  If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, as I predict, Tom Brady retires, having equaled Terry Bradshaw's four Super Bowl rings (albeit in six tries).  And win or lose, I'm guessing that Peyton Manning also retires at the end of the season, ending one of the great, great mano-a-mano competitions in league history.

The Washington Football Team Playing In Maryland will be forced by public opinion to change its nickname by the end of the season. Owner "Chainsaw Dan" Snyder will change his position, see the light (and the dollars) in a new name (same colors), and the fans in the nation's capital will have one less thing to encourage political gridlock.  

Several more passing records will be broken this season, amid calls for tweaking rules to bring more balance into the game.  

The NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will again try to increase the number of playoff teams to 14 for the 2015 season, and again will be beaten down by public opinion (and common sense).  But next year there will only be three pre-season (exhibition) games played.  

And the Oakland Raiders will try to move back to a stadium-to-be-built in the greater Los Angeles area.  But the league officials, and LA politicians, will reject the move.  Stay in Oakland, steal a real NFL team from some other city!

Enjoy the show!







Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day Reflections, 2014

Through the kind invitation of Bishop David Zubik, and the usual gracious hospitality of presider Bishop Bill Winter and pastor Friar Rich Zelig, I offered the following sermon at this morning's annual diocesan Labor Day Mass in St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District, prior to the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade.  

Readings:  Isaiah 32: 15-20; Philippians 2: 1-4; John 15: 18-21

Last week there was an article in the Washington Post.  The headline read, "The economy's doing great, except for the people in it."  The article detailed how the federal G.D.P. is up 4.2% this year, and up 11% since 2009.  Since that year corporate profits are up 45% and the New York stock market has doubled.  

On the other hand, wages are stagnant, even among the highly educated.  The median household income is down 3% over the past five years.  The only way hourly wage workers can increase their income is by working more, either taking a second job or doing overtime.

The Great Recession has led to the Great Divide, between the haves and the have nots.

I don't need to tell you these statistics.  Whether you are a labor leader, political leader, or union member, you see these statistics every day in the folks around you.  Underemployment grows, and even though unemployment figures are shrinking slightly, it's mostly because people are dropping out of the effort to find work.  In minority communities, and among young people under 30, the unemployment rate may be two or thre times the national rate.

Union membership unfortunately continues to decline.  When my dad returned from World War II and began working at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill in Hazelwood, and joined the U.S.W. local 1837, union membership in some industries was as high as one in three.  Even a generation ago one in five workers were in a union.  Today, maybe 11-12% of workers are unionized, depending on industry.

I am a pastor, not an economist.  So let's look at the scriptural readings the church gives us today.  Each of the three readings offer us vision and support.   

Isaiah was the prophet who brought hope in the face of fear.  In times probably more troubled than our own, he called for plowshares to be built out of the weapons of war; he called for kings to rule justly; he made the people obey laws, which benefited all the people, not just the few or the powerful.  Isaiah told us not to give up hope that a new day is coming:  not because of one politician, not with one political party, not with one slogan, but with the hard work of continually speaking the truth of concern for people to the power of unjust gods of men.

Paul's letter to the Philippians says in  the midst of our concern for the common good, each of us has to do the right thing before God.  Each person has dignity, and has the ability to contribute.  In this reading, humility is the watchword.  We are to reject that t-shirt slogan, "The one who dies with the most toys wins," and ever be concerned for the lowest worker, the immigrants, the weak, those on the margins.

Today's gospel acknowledges that sometimes the world rejects the good.  Jesus was rejected by the religious and political powers of his time.  His response was not violence or vengeance, but continued faithfulness to the mission given him by his Father.  This faithfulness helped him to see the robbed traveler, the lost sheep, and the hungry, thirsty, and naked people, and speak of these in some of his most famous parables.  We see his concern for the hurting both in his words and in his healing actions.

Where does all this lead us?

One place to go is to listen to Pope Francis, a new voice on the world stage who has caught the world's attention.  Although some critics say that Pope Francis is a communist or a radical leftist, you and I know that he is a traditionalist when it comes to social justice.  He speaks with knowledge and out of the wisdom of the 125 year old tradition of Catholic social teaching.  However, he speaks of this tradition in such a plain and clear way that he has captured the church's and world's imagination.  He speaks of this social justice tradition with his actions (rejecting moving into the Apostolic Palace and instead taking a two room suite in the St. Martha hotel, and rejecting the Mercedes limousine for a used Ford Focus with 125,000 kilometers on it) as well as his words.  

I took the liberty of inserting into your program today some quotations from Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation, "Evangeii Gaudium."  I urge you to read not just the news-making quotations, but the entire rich document.

You are on the front lines of social justice, and I am just a commentator from the cheap seats.  I could stop here, but following Pope Francis's urging for the church to be a valued contributor to public policy debate, in light of the church's vision, let me take two minutes to offer four practical comments of my own for today's Labor Day.

(1) Make the case for increasing the minimum wage. 

You all know that the minimum wage is not a living, family wage.  But it is a bridge to that wage, a step on the road to achieving a family wage.  Blessedly many municipalities, and a few states, have taken the initiative to increase the minimum wage.  I believe that the arguments against it are weak.  Any increase across the nation immediately helps 20 or 22 million people, and puts more money in their checking accounts and helps to feed their families.  At the same time, I believe that the best way to increase the minimum wage is to index it to inflation, or increases in household expenses, so we don't have to have those stupid political fights every ten years to increase it.

(2) Be the best union you can be.

Be a union full of integrity, open to cooperation with business and any and all political leaders.  Be transparent in your own workings, open to collaboration, a full democracy among the members.  Avoid petty political fights, and focus on your core strengths.

(3) Continue to reach out to the most oppressed groups of workers, in this country and around the world.

Remember that workers in other parts of the country, south of our border, or outside our borders anywhere, are not your enemies.  These workers are your brothers and sisters, and in need of your support.  Support workers who are immigrants in this country without proper documentation, so that they have pathways to citizenship, and are not exploited.  Support unions and worker associations throughout the country which are reaching out to the most needy workers, to minorities and to women.

(4)  Be joyful yet assertive messengers of the right to organize, to associate, of the right for all workers to receive a full living wage.

You know the church's teaching is behind you (even if not enough church leaders and bishops vocalize this support).

The modern human rights movement is behind you (even if some voices in the media or Congress or business don't get it).

You know that a world of workers who organize themselves in a democratic and free way builds up a better world, a world which supports the dignity of every human person.

The economy is about people, not money.  When we support people's dignity and work, we do God's work here on earth.





As usual, Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette understands "an economy which is great, except for the people in it."









Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stealing Your Identity

Back in the spring, UPMC grudgingly announced that "a few dozen" of its employees were the object of identity theft by person or persons unknown, hacking into the health care giant's computers.  Then the number grew, to 300.  Then to several thousand.  By the end of May, UPMC admitted that all 62,000 of its employees were at risk of identity theft, with at least 800 known cases of fraudulent federal tax returns caused by the hacking.

I became one of the statistics this morning to a variation on identity theft, when I received within a few minutes four text and email messages, marked URGENT, from the bank of my main credit card.  Four purchases overnight were made on my credit card, and (for some reason) not approved by the bank.  The bank was contacting me, to determine if I had indeed purchased $61.30 from "Register A" company, $500 from a computer programming company, $499.97 in women's accessories (ME???) from "BAGZ", and $1,190.30 from "Tokyo GM Shokai Company" sometime during the night.  

NO!!!


I called my bank within an hour of the text messages as requested, went through the usual identity questions, and confirmed that I had not made any of these purchases.  As a result of this my card number was immediately shut down and that account closed.  A new card, and a new number, will be sent to me very shortly.   


My first thought was practical.  What accounts automatically used this credit card number?  Within hours I caught the blowback.  A purchase I made on Amazon.com about a week ago, of a few books, was stopped because -- surprise to them, not to me -- my card was no longer valid. Amazon.com was seeking payment!  A phone call to them, I think, will give me a few days to allow me to give them a new credit card number.

My next one is EZ PASS.  It automatically debits my account $35.00 when I go below $10.00.  No tolls for me for the next week.

But then I began to think, what did I do to cause this theft?  Or did I do anything to cause this theft?  Was my set of numbers picked out by Russian hackers from a Target purchase (oops, guilty), or some other retailer who's been hit by hackers, or just by random access? 

According to Wikipedia, credit card theft only hits 0.1% of all U.S. transactions, and has been trending down over the past six years.  But that's 0.1% of 12 billion transactions, about 10,000,000--one out of every 1,200 transactions.    

I am glad that some algorithm in the fraud protections unit of the credit card computers picked up the unusual behavior (for me) on my account and acted to prevent payment.  Up to now credit cards were a pleasant and effective way to pay for things at stores and online.  But now I have become another statistic, and a victim of theft, just as if a pickpocket had done his work.  

   

Coping with Suicide

The suicide by Robin Williams yesterday has brought to public light again a very sad reality.  Many people unfortunately take their own lives.  Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 38,000 Americans annually commit suicide. (This is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.) Over  the past twenty years the rate has varied from a low of 10.4 per 100,000 to 12.3 per 100,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which the rate is reported.

More than pity has been the awareness that despite Robin Williams' comic genius, there was real illness in his life.  He achieved sobriety for more than twenty years, then relapsed.  He dealt with drug addiction and depression.  

From news reports I've guessed that the most prevalent age group for suicide is teens/young adults.  But facts and figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention show that the most likely age group is 45-64, by white males.  The next age group, again, surprisingly, is persons 85 and older.  Men are far more likely to commit suicide than women, by about a ratio of 78% to 22%.  Estimates are that for every reported death by suicide, another 12 persons harm themselves probably with the desire to kill themselves.  These are estimates, because it is hard to distinguish intentional suicide attempts from non-intentional self-harm behavior.  

Perhaps the death of the great comedian will also give priests and minsters and pastors the opportunity to talk openly about the facts.  The Catholic Church wisely changed its behavior towards one who committed suicide.  We understand now that most of the time, whether observable or not, there are mental disorders at work in the person.  We should not try to judge the person who attempts suicide; rather, prayer, love and support are necessary.  The Catholic Church will bury someone who committed suicide, with a Mass of Christian Burial, and prayerfully commend their soul into the hands of our loving God.  We are also called to offer support to survivors and family members.  

I unfortunately learned this years ago when my Uncle Tony committed suicide.  I did not understand it.  Neither did his family.  But we all grieve, to this day, his death.

For more information visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  ( www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org ) or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( www.afsp.org ).    The Knights of Columbus also publish a fine resource, "Coping with Suicide:  Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Response," available on their website.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Prayers for Persecuted Christians in Iraq

The chairman of the Committee of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked his brother bishops to invite the people of their dioceses to pray for peace in Iraq this coming Sunday, August 17.  Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, made the request on Wednesday, August 6.  He also sent to the bishops a prayer composed by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Rafael Sako.  

Yesterday Patriarch Sako said, "The Christians, about 100,000, horrified and panicked, fled their villages and houses with nothing but the clothes on their back."  He described the scene as "a real via crucis" or Way of the Cross.

It has been much in the news over the past few days that the Islamic State has been persecuting Christians in northern Iraq.  Iraqi Christians were forced to flee the city of Mosul with only the clothing on their back.  Churches have been occupied and turned into mosques, the property, homes and businesses of Christians have been confiscated.  The Islamic State (ISIS) has given Christians in Mosul and other towns a terrible choice:  convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or face death.  

A parish priest, Father Boutrous Moshi, in Qara Qoosh, a Christian area southeast of Mosul, said to a reporter for The Guardian, a British newspaper, "If Isis stays, there is no way the Christians can return.  It is up to God whether we return or not.  They have not burned the churches but they did set fire to the pictures and the books and broke the windows."

Again according to The Guardian, monks at the 4th century Mar Behnam monastery, a major pilgrimage site run by the Syriac Catholic church, were allowed to take only the clothes they were wearing.  Another Christian said, "There is not a single family that left [from Mosul] and was not robbed.  They took our money, gold, even the earrings from the women's ears.  They have taken our houses."

On July 22 Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona of Mosul said what is happening is "a crime against humanity--religious cleansing.  It is an ugly word but it is what happened and is happening."  Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad, in an interview with Catholic News Service, said, "There are no words to describe [the Islamic State fighters].  They have no conscience, no religion.  Even though they talk about God, they don't know God."

Islamic State forces were also persecuting Muslims and members of other religions.  Shiite mosques were also demolished and all Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs were destroyed in Mosul.  

Yesterday, President Obama directed that American military carry out airstrikes against the Islamic forces, who were evidently overwhelming the small Kurdish military attempting to protect their cities.  Obama also directed that air drops of food and water be given to patches of Kurdish people fleeing from the Islamic State.

Christians in Iraq trace their heritage to the Apostle Thomas and other Apostles of Jesus.  They are among the longest line of Christians in the world.  Father Drew Christiansen, S.J., a noted expert on the Middle East, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, "The persecution and expulsion of Christians from northern Iraq by the Islamic State is the latest, most organized, highly destructive blow to hit the Christians of the Middle East in more than a century...Not since the Nazis' war on the Jews has there been such complete depredation of a people."

Pope Francis has repeatedly asked for Christians around the world to pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters.  Two days ago he also called for coordinated international action.  Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, "The pope is making a pressing appeal to the international community to take initiatives to put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, to take steps to protect those involved and threatened by violence, and to ensure the necessary aid for so many displaced people whose fate depends on the solidarity of others."  Father Lombardi said the pope was appealing to the conscience of all people and every believer in God.

Here is the text of the prayer offered by Patriarch Sako:

Lord,
the plight of our country
is deep and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.
Therefore, we ask you Lord,
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.
Lord, peace is the foundation of life.
Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.
Glory be to you forever.




Friday, August 8, 2014

A Big Book about a Big Topic

The older I get the fewer books I read.  I say this with real sadness, because one of the great great pleasures of life is to read.  When I was in grade school and high school, my dad would drive me to the Carrick branch of the  Carnegie Library about every two or three weeks.  There I would wander around and take out (FREE!) four to eight books.  Some I would read, some I would return and check out again to read later, some I just perused.  But the opportunity to read, especially in the slow summer months, was pure delight for me.

I especially like big books.  That is to say, long books.  One of my long ago achievements was to read the two volume biography (published 1955) of James Cardinal Gibbons by Msgr. John Tracy Ellis--all 1,600 pages of it.  Gibbons was a great Catholic churchman and a great American.  Another was the "magum opus" of theologian Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith.  I determined that it took me one hour to read just ten pages of his dense, translated-from-the-German, theological prose.  That's 45 hours for a 450 page book.  And, I remember, there were no typos, not one, in the entire volume!

On a lighter note, I have read all 21 novels by John D. MacDonald of his Fort Lauderdale beach bum character Travis McGee about six times.  And I am making my way this summer through the "alphabet series" by Sue Grafton of Santa Teresa private investigator Kinsey Milhone.  I'm up to "R is for Richochet."

A more recent big, and important book, is Eric Schlosser's Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.  Schlosser first came to national and international attention with his Fast Food Nation (2001), an expose of the fast food industry.  But this is an incredible achievement.  In one book, he manages to capture with detail and engagement the personal effects of "the Damascus Accident," in the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980, the science of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and the "science" of preventing an accidental detonation of a nuclear devise by their handlers, the military branches of the United States.  I say "science," in quotes, because the key word in the long book title is "illusion."  We thought--we still think--we (the United States military and the United States government) control these weapons.  Schlosser shows us otherwise.


The most chilling quote comes near the end of this tale.  After forty years of SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) which governed nuclear weapon policy for the U.S.A., General George Lee Butler managed to end "mutually assured destruction" as the one political response to any attack on our country.  He said in 1991, "With the possible exception of the Soviet nuclear war plan, this [SIOP] was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life.  I came to fully appreciate the truth...we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

Butler can say this, after he learned of the long long list of "broken arrows," code word for accidents with nuclear weapons, over the decades since the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the New Mexico dessert on July 12, 1945.  The list is frightening in the extreme.  Schlosser received a copy (through the Freedom of Information Act) of one document "Accidents and Incidents Involving Nuclear Weapons" from 1957 to 1967.  It ran 245 pages.  There were missiles accidentally released from fighter planes, missiles crushed in the elevator of an aircraft carrier, two missiles which fell out of a B-52 and landed in the backyard of a South Carolina family as they were enjoying a barbecue, missiles burning in Greenland and the United Kingdom, and safety problems galore.  Another report, detailing the period from 1950 to 1968, offered at least 1,200 "significant" incidents and accidents with nuclear weapons.  


The book personalizes this history of nuclear craziness with the real life stories of ordinary Air Force technicians, and what happened when one man dropped a wrench down a 9 story silo against the thin skin of a missile--which caused the Titan II rocket fuel to explode 15 hours later in the Arkansas countryside.  One died, several were severely injured, and the credibility of our military and political leaders fell again.

The author also describes the almost impossible "always/never" demand which nuclear weapons bring:  they must always work when they are launched or fired; they must never work when stored, transported or carried in time of peace.  

This history affects each one of us.  Though the Cold Ward ended a generation ago, we live in a world of too too many nuclear weapons.  Schlosser reports that today the United States has approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons.  About 300 are assigned to long-range bombers, 500 deployed atop Minuteman III missiles, and 1,150 are carried by Trident submarines. Anther 200 are stored in various NATO countries, and another 2,500 are stored in reserve, near Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We will spend about $180 billion (with a "b") over the next 20 years to maintain these nuclear weapons, run our weapon laboratories, and upgrade our uranium-processing facilities--and hope we never have to use them.

One nuclear weapon on the face of the earth is too much.

But we are not alone.  Russia has about 1,740 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and perhaps 2,000 tactical weapons.  France, Great Britain, China, Israel, possess nuclear bombs.  North Korea and Iran aspire to join that club.  That terrorists desire to possess these frightening weapons is not just the stuff of paperback writers. 

   
Schlosser maintains an admirable level of objectivity to this account.  He backed up his writing with 130 dense pages of notes and bibliography.  Only at the end of the book does he break his reserve and admit his fears--which should be ours.

"Right now thousands of missiles are hidden away, literally out of sight, topped with warheads and ready to go, awaiting the right electrical signal.  They are a collective death wish, barely suppressed.  Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder.  They are out there, waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial--and they work."





Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"I thought we were all done with this"

The title above was the first thought I had when this story broke on Monday morning, August 4.  But the truth is, we are never "done" with this.

On Monday the news media reported that Bishop David Zubik sent a letter to all parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Conway, Beaver County, advising them that their pastor, Father John "Jack" Fitzgerald, was being placed on administrative leave immediately.  A person had come forward within the past couple of days and accused Father Fitzgerald of sexual abuse.  According to the diocese, the abuse allegedly occurred in Allegheny and Lawrence counties in the late 1990s.  The diocese followed its policies and immediately reported the allegations to the district attorney's offices in both counties.

The bishop also said that when Father Fitzgerald was informed of the accusation, he "vehemently denied any acts of sexual abuse."  Father Fitzgerald is 66, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1974.  Prior to this, no other allegation of sexual abuse against Father Fitzgerald had come to the diocese.

Administrative leave means that a priest is moved to a temporary residence, away from his assignment.  He is not allowed to carry out any public priestly ministry,  cannot administer the sacraments, dress in clerical attire, or identify himself as a priest.  According to the bishop, "If a determination is made that Father Fitzgerald did what he is accused of, those restrictions will become permanent.  If it is determined that the allegation is unfounded, all that is possible will be done to restore Father Fitzgerald's reputation and return him to active ministry."

Over his clerical career Fathe Fitzgerald served as a parochial vicar in Braddock, Butler, McCandless, Etna, Swissvale, and Ross.  He was administrator of St. Anthony Parish (now part of Christ the King Parish) in Bessemer, Lawrence County, from 1991 to 1995, when he became fulltime chaplain at Pittsburgh International Airport.  He has been pastor in Conway since 2009.

Some people, hearing this news, might be angry at the media:  Why do they persecute the Catholic Church?  Some might be angry at the alleged victim:  Why didn't he or she come forward sooner?  Why now?  One or two people might say, wrongly:  Well, we know that the bishops and priests are liars, and all of them are perpetrators of the young.

Here are some facts:  In 2002, the United Stated Catholic bishops promulgated "The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."  They issued a "one strike and you're out" policy.  If a deacon or priest has one credible accusation against him, he will never serve in ministry again, anywhere.  All clerics, seminarians, employees and volunteers undergo training in the protection of children and young people, and undergo background checks.  Every diocese has an audit of its performance by an outside national agency.  Since 2002 over 3,000,000 U.S. Catholic have gone through this training, "Protecting God's Children," and undergone state and F.B.I. background checks.

But the terrible fact is, sexual abuse still continues in our country.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, usually by someone they know well.  Self-reporting studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.  

The Catholic Church, every religious body, every family, school, sports program and agency which helps children have to constantly be vigilant to protect young people from abuse, and to respond compassionately when abuse is reported.  Preventing child sexual abuse, and reporting it when when know about it, is every adult's responsibility.  If you know any child who has been abused, or anyone who has been harmed by someone who represents the Catholic Church, I urge you to call the diocesan victim assistance hotline at 1-888-808-1235.  Or call the Pennsylvania state abuse hotline at 1-800-932-0313.  


In 2002, the Catholic bishops of the U.S.A. made this promise:

We  pledge most solemnly to one another and to you, God's people, that we will work to our utmost for the protection of children and youth.

We pledge that we will devote to this goal the resources and personnel necessary to accomplish it.

We pledge that we will do our best to ordain to the priesthood and put into position of trust only those who share this commitment to protecting children and youth.

We pledge that we will work toward healing and reconciliation for those sexually abused by clerics.

Each year, as the bishops receive and review the annual audit report on the implementation of the Charter, the bishops renew this pledge.

Let us pray for all victims.  Let us pray for the accused, Father Fitzgerald.  And let us pray for one another, as Bishop Zubik said in his letter to parishioners, so "our words, our deeds and our prayers always reflect the healing love of Jesus."