Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Let Them Eat Cold Cuts

Last week, I praised Fr. Bob McLaughlin, a priest of my archdiocese who had the temerity take the pulpit and tell his people "We Was Duped" about the disparity between what we were told before the abuse grand jury rolled out and what the devastating investigation actually found.

As expected, I was promptly spat upon and accused of ruining my good name for speaking favorably of a "dissident, misinformed, misformed, disobedient apostate."

You see, our "orthodox" contingent here has a very tough time coming to terms with the reality that the local church's public relations message strategy is not an element of Revelation.

Well, if that's what I got last week, I might well wake up one morning to find my tires slashed (or worse) after taking on another one of those "Catholics Are From Mars, Philadelphians Are From Venus" things with which our, um, unique ecclesiastical culture is rife -- you know, those kind of things that inspire people from other dioceses to marvel and ask, "You lot still do that?!"

I took the Loggia on the road yesterday afternoon and made some courtesy calls around the area. I try to make it a point every so often to pop in on the good soldiers in the trenches, because they're the ones who keep the church purring and keep our people Christo-centric, faith-filled and well-served.

At one point, I spent some time with one of Catholic Philadelphia's exceptional servants, a true shepherd-leader who just makes you feel so proud to be Catholic. We hadn't talked since before The Report, so we spent some time commiserating and just trying to figure out, "Well, what do we do now? How the hell do we get past this?" Because we've been told that now is the time for moving forward and so, as Benelli said, "OK, OK, we go, we do."

But we've gotta think, talk and pray about it first.

We talked about the culture, this culture of church which we were told would get us through everything and vindicate us, because while everyone else was off "dissenting" and allowing all kind of things, we were told we were doing everything as Rome and the Holy Father would have us do. That made us special, faithful -- and, most importantly, we were told it made us Catholic, we were told it made us correct.

To believe that now would stretch reason.

And then my friend brought up an idea, "You know, if we're really serious about reparation, about all of us getting through this together, then we should show it by doing away with the Forty Hours Dinners."

My jaw dropped. Not out of any revolt at the idea, but of an amazement -- "Why didn't I think of this?!"

As a primer to everyone, the observance of the Forty Hours is our cherished tradition. Its American iteration was instituted by St. John Neumann, our fourth bishop, during his episcopate (1852-60). The solemn celebration of it, which rotates through the parishes of this archdiocese through the year, is a highlight of ecclesial life and provides a beautiful opportunity for our people to experience and deepen the spirit of prayer, renewal and Eucharistic mission.

But it's not the Hours itself that's at issue here. It's the decadent festivals that they enable in our Rectories.

On the last night of a parish's Forty Hours, a bevy of priests who weren't there the two nights prior show up -- classmates, neighboring pastors, sons of the parish, friends, everyone and their mother, basically. And, either before or afterward, the boys are treated to a sumptuous -- and I mean sumptuous -- meal for which those pastors most eager to impress are known to call Williamson's (the big Catholic caterer in town), and Williamson's brings portable ovens to cook on-site. Because, you know, one oven just ain't enough for the Pastor's Showcase.

As a corollary, the booze that goes around at these affairs is legendary. I remember hearing from someone who had been to a Forty Hours close that, "I could smell the alcohol from my pew." And, unless an indult had been granted for the liturgical use of scotch, it wasn't the whiff of what was going in the chalice.

The quest to put on the best, most lavish, most memorable and filling Forty Hours Dinner has rightly been called "a competition." Coming out on top brings bragging rights. And, if they're lucky, the People of God get chips and soda in the parish hall. No bragging rights there because, well, we love our priests in Philadelphia, and we love our priests, too.

But if we're all about the reparation these days -- Cardinal Rigali has mandated a weekly Holy Hour of prayer and penance in each parish -- should that spirit not be a substantive one as opposed to a superficial one? Do away with the dinners, or at the very least trim them down sizably, because the double standard of bacchanal for the clergy and sackcloth for the congregation sows no beneficial seeds at all. If we're all going to move forward, won't it be best if we do it together for once?

We need to think about this. Especially when the best example of the optimal austerity might just be the sitting Archbishop, himself.

When a friend of mine was to host Cardinal Rigali for a meal at his rectory, he asked the archbishop's secretary what kind of setout he should have. (For the record, Rigali's a man of simple tastes who rarely eats at the parishes on his visits, preferring to spend his time with the people. And when he does eat somewhere, he insists on cleaning the table and doing the dishes. God love him, I'm such a fan.)

The priest -- who had been expecting some esoteric epicurean reply -- was damn near bowled over when the secretary said, "Just get some cold cuts and bread; he likes building his own sandwich." (We're not used to such a literal adherence to Presbyterorum Ordinis' exhortations on priestly poverty here.)

When the visit came, this good father was putting mustard on his corned beef sandwich only to look up and see his Archbishop standing next to him, spoon in hand, saying "Would you like some cole slaw?"

Suffice it to say, a little cole slaw would go a long way these days.



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