Friday, April 27, 2007

"The Harvest Is Great..."

Back home in the River City of the Pharaohs, a certain high school at 45th and Chestnut has long loomed large.

West Catholic, now staffed by the Christian Brothers, has produced one of the largest contingents of priest and religious alumni of any high school in the US. The most-known of these was one of the "good priests" of my formative years: John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, Class of 1938, called to the Father's house seven years ago next week.

Of those who remain, many converged on their alma mater yesterday for a special reunion:
Since its founding as a boys' school in 1916, and the addition of the girls' school in 1926, West Catholic has turned out more than 1,000 religious sisters, 600 priests, at least 300 Christian Brothers, six bishops, and Cardinal John O'Connor, the late archbishop of New York - Class of '38.

That may be a record for any Catholic high school in America, according to West Catholic's president, Brother Timothy Ahern.

But the 180 cassocked and habited alumni who came for Mass and a light breakfast were having too much fun to solve the mystery of their great numbers.

"Are you a St. Joseph?" Sister Elizabeth Heller shouted above the din in the crowded library after the morning Mass. She meant a Sister of St. Joseph.

"No, I'm an RSM" - that's Religious Sisters of the Americas - answered Sister Kathleeen Waugh, who stuck out her hand in greeting.

"Betty Heller, Class of '54," said Heller, clasping Waugh's hand.

"Fifty," replied Waugh. In an instant, the two were laughing and reminiscing about their girlhoods at "West" a half-century ago.

Milling around them, clutching foam cups of coffee, doughnuts, and a few canes and walkers, were gaggles of SBSs, IHMs, OPs, OSFs and many more nuns, along with 14 priests, two deacons and a handful of CBs, or Christian Brothers, the school's male teaching order. (SBS is Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; IHM is Immaculate Heart of Mary; OP is Order of Preachers-Dominican, and OSF is Order of Saint Francis.)

Yesterday's reunion was the idea of the Rev. David Engo, a Capuchin priest who arrived at West only last fall as the school's chaplain.

He and Ahern sent out invitations two months ago and were "amazed," Ahern said, when nearly 10 percent of all the school's religious graduates replied that they were coming....

In the 1950s - an era when many of yesterday's visiting alums were teenagers - West was one of the nation's largest Catholic high schools. Actually, it was two campuses, West Catholic for Girls and West Catholic for Boys, and in any given year each had about 3,000 students in grades 9-12.

But those numbers, like the school's vocation supply, are history.

The boys' and girls' schools merged in 1989 because of declining enrollment, and today West Catholic numbers just 561 pupils, only 52 percent of whom are Catholic.

"Only a few" have entered a seminary or convent in recent years, according to Ahern. Since 1995, he said, "none of our graduates has joined the Christian Brothers."

And so, while celebration was the theme of yesterday's joyful gathering, the call for Catholic vocations was its subtext.

The homilist at the Mass was Msgr. James T. McDonough (Class of '49), who told how the school's principal had stopped him in the hall one day and asked: "James, did you ever think of becoming a priest? I think you would be a good one."

In fact, McDonough said, he had been thinking about it since he was 4 or 5, when he had asked his mother who the man on the altar was.

"He's a priest," she said. "And you can be one too."

McDonough urged any students who felt called to religious life to "listen to that voice within, and respond."

"See how old we all are up here?" he joked, pointing to the other gray-haired priests at the auditorium altar, who laughed. "We need some of you to come along and take over."
Meanwhile, just up the Northeast Extension in Scranton, one of those who's come along to supplement the new generation did so after a bit more journeying than usual. Eric Bergman is now Fr Bergman, again; a former priest of the Episcopal church, he, his wife and four children crossed the Tiber with over 60 of his parishioners, who've formed an Anglican Use community.

Last weekend, Bergman was ordained to the Catholic priesthood by means of the pastoral provision.
Deacon Bergman, 36, and his wife Kristina, 29, grew up as an Episcopalians in Bethlehem. He attended James Madison University followed by Yale University, where he received his master’s degree in divinity. The couple met at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and were married there in 1996. They have four children: Clara, 5, Eric, 3, Julia, 2, and Joan, 5 months.

Qualities that Mrs. Bergman sees in her husband also makes him a good priest, she said.

“He’s very caring, very thoughtful and he likes to take care of people and he wants to spread the Gospel and the truth of the Gospel and he doesn’t waver, just like the Roman Church doesn’t waver,” she said. “And he’s very dedicated. If he says something, it’s true. That goes for being a priest, and a husband and father.”

With many memories, friends and milestones wrapped up in their faith, leaving the Anglican Communion was not a rushed decision.

“We had been talking for a very long time about where the Episcopal Church was going and what we were going to do,” Mrs. Bergman said. “We thought, Eric and I thought, that one day we’d be united with the Catholic Church.”

The ordination of women, ordination of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the increasingly liberal stance on birth control and abortion have led to great divisions within Anglicanism over the years. The Bergmans’ strong pro-life beliefs played a major role in their decision.

“The Catholic Church is pro-life, pro-responsibility and pro-unity,” Deacon Bergman said.

“The Roman Church hasn’t changed with the culture,” said Mrs. Bergman. “That appealed to us.”

The road has been difficult and uncertain for the once and future Father Bergman and his wife.

Renouncing his vows in late 2004, meant the loss of his salary. The Bergmans also had to move out of the Good Shepherd rectory, where they had been living, and rent a home.

“That was the scary part — not knowing how we were going to be provided for,” said Mrs. Bergman. “Fortunately, the children were young enough so they knew we moved but they didn’t ask a lot of questions.”

At least 60 parishioners left Good Shepherd and Anglicanism, following the Bergmans to the Catholic Church.

Ray Hays, 55, of Scranton was one of that flock. He said he was raised Episcopalian because his mother brought her faith with her to the United States from England.

“I never really felt comfortable in the Episcopal Church,” he said. Like the Bergmans, Mr. Hays found his beliefs at odds with the church, though he wouldn’t elaborate on specific complaints.

“I think things over the years built up,” he said.

Deacon Bergman became simply Mr. Eric Bergman again, but continued serving as a spiritual leader for the former Anglicans as they moved through catechism classes taught by the Rev. Charles Connor, pastor of St. Peter’s Cathedral, to confirmation by the Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino, bishop of Scranton, on Oct. 31, 2005.

In March, Mr. Bergman was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church.
Speaking of the Anglican Use in the Roman rite, a conference on it will be held at the Catholic University of America in Washington from 31 May to 2 June. Among the slated speakers is Msgr Bruce Harbert, himself a convert and currently the executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.