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 .  For a national listing, visit .  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!