Friday, August 31, 2007

"Thank You, and Bless You, So Much..."

The days have been intense on this end, but your outpouring has been nothing short of tremendous.

I knew this readership would come through... but, friends, wow. Over three years and 3,200-plus posts, I've never seen anything like it.

Thanks to our clerical contingent, Danny won't just have one "First Mass," but close to 500. And that's on top of hundreds more expressions of prayer, closeness and sympathy sent from, literally, every corner of the globe, each more touching and heartfelt than the next, each marked by the same spirit of faith, love, and generosity that marked his extraordinary journey, both among his own and toward the Lord.

Whenever the church called, Parrillo's "yes" was never given with anything less than all of himself. And in these days, the church -- the People of God -- has come together to return that gift to him and those closest to him in an even more resounding way.

The other night, I brought a book with just a sampling of the notes to Dan's dad, Al. The rate they've been coming in, several more books will be going to the family -- that's how amazing, both in heart and number, all of you have been through the week.

No words can express how your notes, the Masses, prayers and support have overwhelmed and consoled Dan's family and friends, especially Al, who wept as many of them were read to him, or the places where they were coming from. When I asked him for some words to pass along to everyone who took the time to reach out, he said, simply: "Thank you, and bless you, so much."

Some of you have spoken of how you only wish you knew Danny. Thing is, though, now you do. And it seems that, just as a good many of us were so blessed to be able to call on him down here, he's got a lot more people who will do that now. As one of his colleagues wrote on a tribute page, "I'm sure he's [already] on some special assignment only he could do."

Or six. Or ten.

No words could offer adequate thanks to all of you for welcoming Dan into your hearts, into your prayers, and helping us send him home with the same amount of love he gave so many of us.

Tonight and tomorrow won't be easy to get through, so keep the prayers coming -- and for those of you traveling this Labor Day weekend, please be safe.

Especially for your goodness these last few days, God love and reward you always.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

So if you thought the pages were having a prolific week before now, be forewarned… it’s about to get worse.

The post below is, by miles, the longest to ever appear here. But at the close of a 20-hour drafting session, all I can say is that I’ve never written anything more personally meaningful, nor sent up a story that needs to be told more than this.

Appropriately enough on this feast of St Augustine, the only fitting introduction that comes to mind is “tolle, legge!” – “take and read!” The rest explains itself, and I pray at least some find it worthwhile.

For making these pages a part of your days, all your kindnesses, all your feedback and all your prayers, I’ll never be able to thank you all enough.

Keep it all comin’, keep up the great work -- God love you all today and forever.


The Story of a Soul

Even in the midst of pain and loss, God is good and God is love.

The moon over Philadelphia shone incredibly bright last night, as shockingly radiant as I have ever seen it.

Normally, the occurrence would lead one to wonder, but heaven speaks to earth in signs, and on this night its message was clear: that one of the great figures of our local scene, a leading light of my own journey, had been welcomed home to the Father’s house.

Our faith impels us to remember God’s goodness always, and if you’re lucky in this life, you get to learn that goodness – easy to invoke, but tough to imitate – from the example of a master teacher. If you’re really lucky, you get a handful of these intrepid souls, each worth their weight in gold. I’ve been blessed with more of them than I’ll ever deserve, but last night, all too suddenly, the Lord called the best of the best unto himself.

I’ve said repeatedly over time that the voice with which these pages are written isn’t so much my own, but that of the saints of the trenches who, through the years and their presence in my life, wove a tapestry of words and witness that showed me what it means to truly love the church. Two weeks short of his 58th birthday, Dan Parrillo was big in body, but even bigger in heart – and until his last breath, his Lord and his church were the great love of his life, the spring from which all the rest flowed.

To say his homegoing comes as a shock is the height of understatement. But one of the many things Danny taught me was that the Lord always knows what he’s doing, however much we can’t understand it in the moment. And to know Dan was to know that, though he would never seek the credit for it, he was always right. Any great teacher is first and foremost a great student, and he always sought to learn well: not so much for himself, but that his would be the joy of passing the lessons along to others that, indeed, “they might have life and have it to the full.”

The first of these lessons was a steadfast faith. For four decades, Dan devoted himself to the work of Catholic education and the community of St Nicholas of Tolentine – “St Nick’s,” the Augustinian church on South Philly’s 9th Street that, more than any other, is my spiritual home. In more than a few cases, his thousands of students over the years included three generations of 7th and 8th graders from the same family – one of whom would, to his ecstatic joy, grow up become his home pastor at St Monica’s, the great South Philly bastion on the other side of Broad Street.

Danny knew that the mission of Catholic education wasn’t something to be left at the classroom door at twenty ‘til 3; on most nights, he could be found holding court on the church steps, surrounded by students past and present and joined by his pastor of a quarter-century, Augustinian Fr Nick Martorano, the native son whose now-elderly parishioners, sensing what lie ahead, knew him in his boyhood as “Nicky Priest.”

While the girls kept to custom and called him “Mr Parrillo,” to the boys Dan was always, simply, “Parrillo” – an accolade with a message: that they saw him as one of them.

And nothing made him happier.

Walking the streets with Dan, you were lucky to get 10 or 15 seconds of movement between his sightings of the people he knew, calling out to him or vice versa. When his gravelly voice would boom out a name or his trademark greeting of “HOW ARE YOU?!” it could be heard no less than two blocks away. Every family member he knew was asked for, the sick or suffering were prayed for, all the time anyone needed was theirs, and no matter what their age or how long they had moved on from his classroom (populated by scores of statues of saints alongside his secular patron, Goofy), they – and, for that matter, the rest of the community – saw themselves as he saw them: always his students, his friends, his fellow-travelers.

Beyond his roster of teaching Social Studies and Religion, if there was a job to be done, Parrillo usually ended up doing it. From supervising the yearbook to planning every school liturgy down to the most minute detail, his many years as Baseball Czar for the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization, a beloved and respected leader among his peers and – one of the things he loved the most – the creator of the ritual that became his signature: the annual Crowning of Christ the King on the liturgical year’s closing Sunday.

The girls had the May Procession, he thought, but what about the boys? And so, ever the worker, he decided to stop mulling and do something about it. As its fruit, year after year of St Nick’s 8th grade guys can recall going through weeks of regimented rehearsals, each being entrusted with the task of either placing some piece of regalia before an oversized Sacred Heart statue, or processing the crowned statue around the church at the end of the rite, which bookended the homily of the day’s big Mass.

Right behind them throughout was Danny and – just as importantly – his meticulous eye… and if one step ended up out of place, the young man who made it would hear about it afterward.

Well, after the lunch.

What made Parrillo so beloved by so many was their ability to sense with the wise eyes of simple people that the great faith which marked everything he did was never simply an external exercise, nor did he ever feel that it, nor his intense spirit of devoted labor for the good of the church, entitled him to an attitude of superiority over others. If anything, the beauty of Danny was that he was, always and everywhere, completely human, completely humble, always and everywhere himself – and unceasingly, unceasingly, committed to seeking out and doing God’s will in his life, finding the pointers in the people and circumstances that popped up in his path.

To have this example in my life through my formative years is one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever receive, and I can honestly say that, if there weren’t a Danny in my life, there wouldn’t be a Whispers, either. From the stories he told, the larger-than-life presence he brought to them, to his spirit of prayer, his contagious joy, warmth, oft-biting humor (but with the palpable undercurrent of affection always evident) and, most of all, his commitment to the good people he served, always with great love, and often at great sacrifice. All of it, and experiencing it all at close range for a decade and more, became my master-course in the art of churchmanship and what, at its sincerest, most exemplary core, it means to be a believer, to be a Catholic, to be a leaven in the world, and that taking on the work can only begin it by living it out oneself.

The memories have been flooding through my head all through these hours, and there are hundreds more whence they came. However, and especially for this audience, more than a few stand out: how the Parrillo-mobile would rarely roll up to my house without him screaming “PANEM DE CAELO PRÆSTITISTI EIS!” out the window; the nicknames he had for everyone and everything (a particularly zealous Charismatic woman, for example, was christened “Barker”; a difficult music director earned the moniker “Bonkers”); his love for the garish – including a fully-detailed statue of John Paul II carved for the Jubilee Year, complete with papal throne, that pontificates from one of my bookshelves; the Saturday morning pro-life marches; free-for-all dinners he’d whip up for days in advance in the kitchen he could barely fit into; the confluence of his surprise 50th birthday party with the first hurricane to hit Philly in 26 years – and, of course, the way the folks at Ambasciata d’Abruzzo, L’Eau Vive, Turella Adriana and every other one of his Roman haunts would greet him like a family member every time he rolled back into town, even though the only language they had in common were frenetic hand gestures.

(And then there was the time when, thirty years ago this summer, on his first trip to the Eternal City for the canonization of Philadelphia’s “little bishop,” to whom he was so immensely devoted, Danny carried with him a petition signed by the archdiocese’s elementary teachers in which, citing the social Magisterium of the church, the educators appealed to Pope Paul VI for the establishment of a union – a move which, for the parochial schools, had been fiercely opposed by the great John Krol.

(In a characteristic move, armed with nothing but the document and his fervor, Parrillo maneuvered the basilica crowd and slipped the petition onto the sedia gestatoria as the Holy Father was carried by.

(Three weeks later, he received a phone call from the diocesan counsel of the time – a friend of his – which began as follows: “The shit has hit the fan, Danny! What did you DO?!”

(Suffice it to say, they didn’t get their union.)

Dan sure loved teaching, but there were three things he loved even more: the Eucharist, the Mass and the priesthood.

At least through his years of teaching all the way to yesterday, I doubt he missed Daily Mass once – and, some days, even with every other plate he had spinning, he’d go twice. Always laughing and/or screaming the rest of the time, the liturgy was, for all intents and purposes, the only time I ever saw Parrillo fall silent for more than 10 seconds at a time. A quiet intensity overtook him, except during the responses (when he’d try and beat everyone else to the punch) and the singing parts when – despite having what anyone who ever heard it would’ve judged, hands-down, as the world’s worst singing voice – he’d let loose, piena voce.

The latter is especially something none of us will forget anytime soon. Then again, it was another of his lessons: God doesn’t love the artistry of one’s voice so much as the song of a joyful heart.

Every Holy Thursday morning for a number of years provided Danny with one of his favorite singing moments of the calendar. Longstanding custom held that as many people as could pile into his car – clergy and faithful alike – would hitch a ride with him to the cathedral-basilica here for the Chrism Mass. And every year, like clockwork, at the stroke of 8.30 he’d make a point to drive up 18th Street, where, just past the front doors and across the way, he’d roll down the window in front of the women’s ordination protestors as they began to gather outside.

And, as if to reprove, The Voice would launch into the River City's time-honored warhorse:
“Long live the Pope/
His praises sound/
Again and yet again/
His rule is over space and time/
His throne the hearts of men…”
He'd sing the whole thing.

The annual performance was the closest thing to an uncharitable gesture I ever saw him commit. But even so, it always made for a sight as priceless as it was catty.

* * *

One Saturday afternoon a couple years back, Dan called my cellphone and asked if I had a minute. As the conversations traditionally began with his invariable “HOW ARE YOU?!” from which he’d usually veer straightaway into a raucous commentary on something or other, the atypical question indicated that something important was up.

“Rocco,” he began, “there’s something I’ve been wrestling with for a very long time….”

Never married, Parrillo was in his mid-50s by then, still sharing his childhood home with his father, a retired cop who kept a spryness belying the reality that he was halfway through his ninth decade. Still, the two doted on and cared movingly for each other, just as Dan and his dad had together helped his mother through her final years. (And every year at the parish festival, during the video horse races, he’d bet without fail on a horse he’d call “Lala” -- his mother’s nickname.)

His “revelation” was the least surprising thing of all: that, for longer than he hadn’t, the object of his struggle was the call to the priesthood. In many ways, his years of serving as 24/7 leader, counselor, mediator, mentor and teacher for so many had prepared him impeccably for it – and you can only see someone rifle through vestment closets so many times before you think to yourself “He’s fighting it.”

In an age that, some say, is unfriendly to the call to ordained ministry, that he had finally resolved, at 55, to go for it was met by with an immense outpouring of encouragement and support from all sides, even the allegedly-cynical young, and plans were quickly made for a huge farewell bash at the end of the year.

And then, out of the blue, everything was stalled in its tracks. Dan’s intended course of entering formation for the archdiocese of Philadelphia was scuttled when, after a process that he found hurtful and a spiritual trial, the local church he loved intensely and served selflessly for 40 years in a myriad of capacities rejected his application for the seminary, citing his age and issues of health.

Just as the parishioners, his students and friends were overjoyed at his decision to seek the priesthood, so the archdiocese’s refusal was met with palpable discontent – and at a moment when, among its people, the already-diminished credibility of its central administration could afford no further incitements of public outrage.

En masse, the cadre of Danny’s priest-friends, students, alums and admirers stormed the chancery with letters, asking for the denial to be reconsidered. The bosses even got an emotional appeal from his dad – one that, apparently, minced no words.

Yet at the center of the storm that surrounded him externally and disheartened him spiritually, Parrillo told me that all he wanted was a chance – not a fight, and especially not any kind of reaction that would lead to anyone’s loss of faith or a lack of love for the church and all its richness.

Though no ordination can take place without the consent of the people, something the outpouring of appeals had expressed beyond a doubt, a further review was denied. But the veteran pilgrim would soon be reminded that, for those great in faith, Providence’s plans always trump the designs we make for ourselves.

Once Philly’s final verdict came across, Dan asked me if he should try again, this time for another diocese. The prior experience would’ve crushed the spirit of a weaker soul, and he had a tough time picturing himself anywhere that wasn't his lifelong home, but he wanted to know for sure if the Pharaoh’s “no” was, indeed, the Lord’s, and the only proof could come from trying his hand elsewhere.

I told him he had no choice but to go for it again, and not only for his own peace of mind. His worthiness for the call and the good of the church warranted nothing less than one more try, however painful another refusal would be.

And so, Parrillo applied again, this time going across the Delaware to the diocese of Camden. Just as the Psalmist promised that “those who sow in tears will sing when they reap,” not only did Bishop Joseph Galante accept Danny in a heartbeat, he – and, for that matter, the whole Jersey crowd – showered the new seminarian with every last bit of the affirmation, support and respect the man and his vocation deserved.

After an emotional farewell to teaching and his beloved St Nick’s, Dan began his formation a year ago this week at Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception Seminary. And there, in our occasional phone calls, he sounded as if he had been born again – in love with the place, energized by his (much-younger) confreres, the relaxed atmosphere, the challenging content of the classes and the vibrant, enthusiastic community spirit.

Even from a few weeks in, he spoke of his gratitude for the way things had worked out; despite the pain of his rejection, Dan said, he realized in retrospect that “God brought me here,” to only the second place he ever lived. And though he no longer faced the students but sat among their number, his peers saw him just as the St Nick’s family did – as a leader, a trusted counsel, a wise observer and faithful friend.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” saith the Psalm. And, in our own time, it remained true.

From what I’ve been able to cobble together, the end came yesterday afternoon as Parrillo was returning from a welcome Mass for Seton Hall’s new seminarians. Heading back to the old neighborhood for a few more days with his dad before the start of classes, he was involved in an accident on the road. Still alert at the scene, he was rushed by ambulance to a Camden hospital, where the High Priest called him home at dusk.

I find several lessons in Dan’s life and, hard as it is to believe, his final “yes” to the Lord’s call of “follow me.”

Firstly, the timing of all this couldn’t have been more strangely providential, even consoling. Danny left us on the night between the feasts of St Monica and St Augustine – arguably, the two members of the heavenly host who most marked his own life. It was only on his departure for the sem last year that he resided for the first time outside the shadow of his home parish of St Monica’s, and his eons of teaching and ministry were chiefly carried out alongside the Augustinians of St Nicholas and the sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini, who held such a special place in his heart.

Second, unlike Augustine, who famously wrote of discovering the “ever ancient, ever new” beauty of faith only belatedly, Parrillo took to it right from the start. But even so, that never meant his journey had ended until last night. Not only did he know this instinctively – he conveyed it with every fiber of his being. “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” St Paul wrote, and Danny integrated this completely into his life. It didn’t mean he was without his faults, nor the habits only he could make charming, nor was he without his excesses – his years-long struggle with his weight, with the added difficulty of diabetes in later years, had long been a concern expressed to him and others close to him – but each of these only contributed to remind him always that, as much as he had mastered the Christian life and exemplified it for so many, his need for God’s love and mercy only became greater, as did his desire to reflect these just as they had been given to him. Much as he taught them, lived them and knew them like the back of his hand, Dan never claimed to be the master of the church’s teachings, but their grateful servant who always strived, day by day, to do better by them. And in doing that, he left us one of his most powerful lessons of all.

Third, Dan once told me on the death of a family friend that “When someone dies, people only cry when they have something to regret.” And, candidly, I do. Two years buried in a workhole had the unintentional effect of cutting me off from more regular contact with a lot of important people in my life. And Parrillo was one of them. As noted on Friday, I’ve been spending a good bit this summer trying to catch up with as many of my long-lost ones as I can, and over the past couple days I’ve been thinking to myself “I need to call Danny…. I need to call Danny,” but got sidetracked by one or another thing that would pop up. And now, much as I want to call him, I can’t. And I have to live with that now. And that isn’t easy. And I can only hope that whatever distracted me from getting to it hasn’t been in vain. This is the second time this has happened in my circles this year and I just pray it doesn’t happen again…. Moral of the story: if you’re thinking of someone, REACH OUT NOW. Everything else can wait, especially as you just never know. It seems this is one of those things you only learn from the pain of experience.

Please God, please, no more warning shots.

And lastly, and most importantly, there’s this: Dan Parrillo didn’t leave this world a priest, and his passing deprives the long black line of a guy who would’ve been a damn good member of it, a tremendous asset. But even in that, Someone’s telling us something: that Danny’s greatest contribution and most lasting impact for the life of the People of God wouldn’t be wrought by means of the vocation he had taken up in Camden last summer, but the one that was his for forty years at 9th and Pierce and all over his beloved South Philly. God might’ve called him to priesthood just as he called him to teaching, but even more than this, He called Danny to be Danny, and the titles by which he accomplished that weren’t the end, just the means. To call his own to faith, to encourage them, support them, help get them through the rough patches, cook for and visit anyone and everyone, call on the phone and go off about whatever and let you know that he cared – he didn’t need the grace of orders to do any of that to the hilt for the thousands upon thousands of people he touched in his life, and the rich fruits of his sterling witness, always as nothing more and nothing less than himself, warts and all, won’t be fading anytime soon from those places where he sowed the seeds given him from above.

Sure, he didn’t make it to ordination, but this I know: Parrillo went happy in the knowledge that he was on his way, as part of a diocesan family that welcomed him and his vocation with open arms, a people he quickly came to love just as much and burned to serve in that new mission, yet with the same energy that kept him buoyant throughout.

Bottom line: God called Dan home as he followed His call. And if there’s any better way to go, let me know – I’m terribly hard-pressed to think of one.

That doesn’t mean this hasn’t been a very, very rough day. But the moon was shining like the sun, like it never had before, for a reason last night, and it was to say that – even though things panned out as none of us would’ve ever expected – a faithful light had completed its mission on earth and now would shine eternally from beyond… where, already, he’s probably commandeered a small kitchen to cook one of those famous dinners for the whole cast of characters he loved so much who had gone before to prepare a place for him.

Suffice it to say, his friends up there’ve been waiting a long time to share the feast with him, and I've got a funny feeling -- motivated by my greatest hope -- that at the close of a life punctuated by his constant repetition of the famous greeting that exemplified his concern for one and all, God's first words to him were nothing other than, “Danny, HOW ARE YOU?!”

So, I know, it must feel as if this post has gone on for half a century, but two last things… just two. Promise.

More than anything, even before he ‘fessed up to wrestling with the call to priesthood, Parrillo longed to say the Mass; I can recall not a few occasions from his my high school days when, behind the wheel, he’d launch into the Roman Canon, verbatim, from memory. He burned to be up there, even just once in his life, and to bring everything he had to it – and if there’s a tragedy above the rest in all this, it’s that the many who’ve supported him along the way, most especially his dad Al and brother Joe, will never get to witness it.

However, my dear priest-readers, that’s where you come in.

If there’s one favor I'd ever wish to seek from you men in black, it’s this: say the Mass that Dan never could… for him. If at least a couple of the clerics who get a little something out of these pages every once in a while could offer a Mass intention in the days to come, both in thanksgiving for his life and in supplication for his happy repose, it’d mean the world – remember, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here and these pages would never have existed, so if you’re grateful for this work, please consider doing this.
For those who are able and willing to offer one of these, drop me a line with your name and where you’re at. As you’d expect, his dad is having a tough time with the news, but Al’s faith is just as great. The bond of communion we all share, whether across the globe or across time and space, is one of this faith’s greatest gifts, and I’d like to get a list together of the Masses offered so that Al can see that, just as Dan always came through to love and serve the church, the church has come through in this difficult hour to pray for him and his closest ones who remain.

And for everyone, please pray for Al, Joe, Fr Nick and all of us who mourn this tremendous loss in the sure and certain hope of his rising in glory, with all the departed, at the last day.

Finally, among the habits only he could make charming, Dan had a unique penchant for being able to fall asleep, sitting up, at the drop of a hat.

He did it practically everywhere – on the couches of friends’ houses, during dinners, movies, Masses (even whilst sitting in the sanctuary as a commentator), in the front row during a performance of Nick’s beloved “Les Mis” and even in St Peter’s Square during the canonization liturgy of St Katharine Drexel. One minute, he’d be awake, the next you’d see that gruff head nodding up and down, until you hit him with a gentle elbow and he’d pick up right where he left off – until, usually within five minutes, the cycle would repeat itself.

Now, our beloved Parrillo, South Philly’s teacher and Camden’s cleric-to-be, who taught, formed, loved and changed the lives of so many, sleeps a sleep none of us can wake him from. It’ll never be the same without him, and he will be missed beyond all explaining, but his new rest is the one he always sought at the end of his work – a timing which wasn’t of his own making, but the last of the many unexpected calls he accepted readily from the Lord.

On numerous occasions over the years, he’d remind me of his favorite hymn, his favorite verse its final one – and never, ever, without the reminder that he wanted it to be the closing song of his funeral.

I never thought I’d have to disclose his choice publicly so soon, but it was his among his favorite prayers, and the one he asked for when this moment came.

So with a heart full of memories and gratitude, as the sun rises on a new day and the dawn of Dan’s new life, for him, I make his prayer my own:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Blessed Jesus make us rise,

From the life of this corruption

To the life that never dies.

May your glory be our portion,

When the days of time are past,

And the dead shall be awakened

By the trumpet's mighty blast.
Well done, and thank you, thou devoted and loving friend, thou good and faithful servant.

Rest well, memory eternal, in Paradisum deducant te angeli.

God love you forever, Parrillo. We will miss you… we will miss you so much.

Danny, pray for us!


Digging Out of "Deep Kimchi"?

Last week, the judge overseeing the bankruptcy filing of the diocese of San Diego issued a preliminary ruling to release 42 of the SoCal see's 127 abuse claims to civil trial in state court.

While local reports at the weekend noted that the diocese and plaintiffs' attorneys had made significant strides in settlement negotiations over recent weeks, word from the ground tonight says that an "emergency meeting" of the consultors and deans has been called for later this morning, local time.

To date, the diocese -- home to almost a million Catholics -- has publicly maintained a settlement offer of $95 million, an amount the court found insufficient on grounds that its per-victim average payout was significantly lower than those of similar deals made by California dioceses. Most notable among these, of course, is last month's $660 million settlement inked by the archdiocese of Los Angeles with 508 survivors.

Filed a day before its first civil trial was slated to begin in February, the San Diego bankruptcy has been marked by numerous difficulties and missteps on the part of the diocese, whose senior officials were summoned to testify at an April hearing amid inaccuracies in the church's financial disclosures to the court.

In related news, already the hardest hit US locale in terms of damages, a "second wave" of abuse claims in the Golden State is threatening to cause further fiscal tumult to its local churches, another of which is reportedly weighing a Chapter 11 filing of its own.

Bottom line: that glimmer at the end of the tunnel? Still a ways off.

Stay tuned.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Of Low Lands and High-Hats

In the interests of full and ethical disclosure, the photo above -- which previously surmounted the Danneels interview below -- is actually of the Dutch Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Utrecht. (Catholic Press Photo had misidentified the two-wheeling prince of the church... but they're still the best ecclesiastical photo-shop around, bar none.)

While Simonis, who's stayed faithful to his pedaling habits despite painful hip ailments, was technically relieved of his archbishopric in April -- four months after reaching the retirement age of 75 -- Pope Benedict still has yet to tap a successor for the Netherlands' senior church post. In the interim, the cardinal is holding down the fort as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, where he's served since 1983. (On a side note, Simonis' 1970 elevation to the episcopacy as bishop of Rotterdam was a flashpoint moment in the Dutch church's post-conciliar outbreak of liberal insurrection.)

Utrecht isn't the lone the major European see where B16 long ago created a vacancy without simultaneously filling it.

The 68th successor of St Corbinian, Papa Ratzi has kept the archdiocese of Munich and Freising -- his home church, which he led from 1977-81 -- waiting for almost seven months since taking the retirement in early February of his own successor there, Cardinal Frederich Wetter. Like his Dutch counterpart, Wetter, 79, has remained at the archdiocese's helm as apostolic administrator; his eventual replacement will be the 70th head of the church in Bavaria since the saintly founder-bishop settled at Freising in 723.

At an April audience with a delegation from Munich's chapter of canons who came to Rome for his 80th birthday, B16 intimated that the jury was still well-out, asking for prayers that "the Good God might help me find the right person to take Corbinian's staff in his hands."

By the looks of it, though, seems he'd have an easier time finding a successor to Corbinian's famous pack-bear.

PHOTO: Alessia Giuliani/Catholic Press Photo


"Big Boys Don't Cry"

For almost 30 years -- the longest reign going of any A-list prelate worldwide -- Cardinal Godfried Danneels has been the lead face and voice of the church in Belgium. And in an age where a red hat behind the wheel is still among the rarest of sights, he wants you to know that he drives a Volkswagen.

Tapped by the newly-elected John Paul II to succeed the famed Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 1979 and elevated to the cardinalate four years later, the wildly-popular 74 year-old prelate, known for his progressive approach to the church's challenges couched in a common touch, marked his golden jubilee of priesthood last week. But next month, the milestone will be observed with an even bigger splash on the release of Grote Jongens Huilen Niet -- "Big Boys Don't Cry" -- a book-length interview of Danneels by the Belgian journalist Peter-Jan Bogaert.

In advance of its debut, a section of the book was published last week in the leftist daily De Morgen. The excerpt -- featuring the cardinal's musings on Providence, the priesthood, celibacy, obedience, the state of the faith and Benedict XVI, among other things -- is reproduced below in an unedited, exclusive English translation.

Many thanks to Caroline and Gene Foley for providing the translation, and the many other players involved along the way.

* * *

Bogaert: You were ordained a priest 50 years ago, on 17th August 1957. Can you still remember that day vividly?

Danneels: “Sure. It was in the church of Kanegem, there was a feast that day in the village where I was born. Not for me, but for the new town hall, right across from the church, that was being inaugurated that same day. The festivities were disturbed by a terrible thunderstorm, a typical August storm. I presume it was not symbolic”.

Did you realize already, at that moment, what kind of life you had chosen?

“It was certainly a very conscious choice, but at the age of 24 you never know what the implications of it are going to be when you are older. Even now I don’t know. You know the titles of the chapters of your life, but not the exact content”.

Is it difficult to remain true to your vows?

“In itself it is not difficult to remain true. Not when your ideal, your life plan, is clear. If you put God absolutely above yourself and others. Those vows are symbolic. You are really saying that your life for Christ is worth more than money, passion, getting married, children, or power. It becomes more difficult when your ideal fades, when the inner vitality and dynamics are not there anymore.”

You had to promise obedience to your bishop.

“That’s right. It is a little like signing a blank check. You are putting your fate in the hands of the bishop. You don’t know what all the implications of that are going to be. Even though the bishop doesn’t have total authority over a priest. It is only regarding your pastoral task that you have to be obedient. The bishop cannot tell you which suit to wear.”

Were there moments in your life when it was more difficult to remain obedient?

Not many, but there were some. For instance when I was suddenly asked to become bishop of Antwerp. I had been a professor for years, both at the seminary and at the university, and I had planned the rest of my life accordingly. I would live amidst the books and the students. Then I had to say yes, even though I didn’t know what exactly the job would imply. That was a moment of detachment, of the well known letting go, and stepping into the unknown. Even though you know that after a while you can feel at home in your new job too.”

How is such a thing asked, actually?

“It was rather abrupt. I was called into the nuncio’s office, the representative of the Catholic Church in Belgium, and was asked to become bishop. You can ask for a little time to consider, but much time isn’t needed. You know then what you have to do”.

Isn’t that squarely opposite to the spirit of these times?

“Yes, it is more difficult now than 50 years ago, to be obedient. There are many more choices; people are also much more attached to their own desires. In the past people didn’t always get what they wanted. I don’t regret that evolution, I just note it. This new spirit of the age has its advantages too; people try harder when their whole heart is in it.

Now, a bishop tries to take a priest’s wishes and abilities more into account. That is in your own interest as a church leader. It used to be that someone like Cardinal Van Roey would enter, and say: “Hello, pastor of ..”, and he would state the name of a village. And so you knew, as a priest, that you had been appointed there. The times of blind obedience in the church are past by now, even though I doubt they ever existed completely.”

Have there been moments that you thought: I would have done things differently, if I had been in a higher position, hierarchically?

“Yes, but that is all in the conditional. Those trains of thought are very hypothetical. You don’t get far with them. And, as in every job, there are things that go with it that you have to accept.

You also promised, 50 years ago, to lead a sober life.

“Strictly speaking priests do not explicitly have to take a vow of poverty, in contrast to monks and nuns. But it is good that priests also live soberly. You know, as a priest, that you will never be rich. But also that you will never be so poor that you can’t live. Priests in our country earn enough to do their pastoral work. They don’t have too much, nor too little. I also - I have enough to do what is required of me in my position. Personally, I don’t need much. Besides, I don’t have the time to occupy myself with luxuries. I don’t feel the need to take extensive trips, or to go out every weekend.

Yes, we have the assurance that we will never lack in anything. We don’t have any poor priests, that’s right. In that sense we have an easier life, and are more privileged, just like millions of our countrymen. I do give away part of my income. No fixed amount, or percentage. But if there is a need, I will contribute”.

The most talked about issue is still the vow of chastity. Does celibacy add extra value for you personally?

“Yes, of course. It is the expression of your putting God above everything. That you can dedicate yourself totally to him. That is a point of principle. There is also a practical element. Because by being celibate you have much more time to dedicate to your pastoral task. I’m not saying it is never possible to combine - doctors, for instance, also combine their family and a very demanding job, and there are good ministers who are also able to do that - but it does make everything more difficult”.

Do you know what you are missing?

“Yes, of course. I cannot say it does not affect me, to miss a wife and children. If a man says he doesn’t care about those, I question that. I knew it in advance, and I had been informed beforehand. Yes, I miss that. But there are so many other things in life that you might have to miss. People always talk as though celibacy is the worst of the worst, but that is not true”.

Have you never, in your naughtiest dreams, longed to love a woman?

“In my dreams yes, but not while awake”


Besides missing a partner, you also have to do without physical affection. Do you ever cuddle?

“At times I may give a big hug to a friend, or cuddle my nieces and nephews. That is something I do. Other than that, you have to know who or what you are hugging. I have, in view of my function, to show a certain restraint. You, yourself, can’t hug everybody, do you?”

You have a large family, with many nieces and nephews, which are very important to you. But you will never be able to cherish any offspring of your own.

“Yes, during my funeral the first row will be empty. Behind that will be a number of canons and some bishops. That will be it. No direct family. I realize that. That remains open, something that will never be filled”.

Do you sympathize with priests that have problems with celibacy?

“Yes, I know it isn’t necessarily bad intentions. It is hard to imagine, when you are 24, how you will feel when you are 40. But when your life’s project is clear enough, that nothing is too difficult. That is why a crisis of celibacy in priests often has to do with the crumbling away of their own faith. (pause). And there exists something like a midlife crisis. Why would we [be able to] escape that?

Have you yourself experienced such a midlife crisis? A period in which you asked yourself if the path you had chosen was the right one after all?

“If this was the confessional, I would tell you, but it isn’t, right? You ask yourself those questions every day. Is it good? Will I ever miss children? Is this worth it all? It is logical that one poses those questions. You can’t fulfill your priesthood on automatic pilot. In the meantime I am past the midlife now. I have now reached an age where I am above suspicion, but you are never out of the danger zone. It can always storm”.

You have been working for the same employer for 50 years now. That is exceptional.

“I have never seen the church as my employer. It is something that I am a member of, that I am connected to by love, and that I share my ideals with. It is my life’s project, so then 50 years is not so exceptional”.

Are you faithful to the pope or to Jesus Christ?

“I am in the first instance faithful to Christ, because the pope is 'only' a representative of Christ. If I am faithful to the pope, it is because he asks that which Christ says in the gospel. Faithfulness to Christ and the church is not only a human accomplishment. It is not only effort and austerity, you get a lot in return. Much more than you are giving. We call that grace, it is given to us to be faithful. That is often difficult to explain to people who do not believe. If we give something, it is because we also receive much. Strength and insight, among other things. We see things more clearly, and so we are getting captivated, and that gives us more vitality to follow our faith.

Could you think of circumstances in which you could not remain faithful to the pope?

“The obedience to the pope implicates also the frankness to say what you are thinking. And he is happy with that. Inside the church there is room for dialogue, more than you would think. I feel confident in that, and that is the reason I confide in him from time too time. Or ask: is that really necessary? Especially this pope, Benedict XVI, will respond to that. It is easy to have a conversation with him, man to man. But when he, after thinking it over, says that he wants to do things a certain way, than I accept that. Often I realize afterwards that he is right, that he has made me see things in a different way. It is therefore certainly not blind obedience”.

Have you ever had to defend something that, in your innermost heart, you didn’t agree with?

“Not really. At times I have been disturbed by the way in which a certain text or directive was being communicated. When the pope could have said the same thing in a more accessible or sympathetic way. But then we’re talking about form, really. Even if that (form) does say something about the content too. In some encyclical letters – Humanae Vitae, for instance - the same things could have been said, but in a less abrupt and frigid tone.

I have told pope John Paul II that there was a need for a warmer, and more open tone. And he agreed - only that was our task, he said. In Rome the general rule is drawn up. The bishops have to make the texts clearer, warmer, and explain the practical applications.

That’s what you are good at: in the softening of the hard message from Rome – isn’t it?

“The bishop is always a pontifex, a bridge builder, a go between. That is his task, but the essence of the case must not be blurred by an explanation or compromise. You look for the best way in which people can be brought to understanding. There is a difference between the law itself, and the application of it”.

Some people call that typical Catholic hypocrisy. It really isn’t allowed, but we permit it anyway?

“The law has to be clear, but the judge considers within the confines of that law. That happens in each human court with a good judge. The law can be strict, but the application gentle. That is what God is. The law tells you what to do, the law pulls you up, but the priest says: if you cannot reach the ideal, then at least you have done your best, if you have reached it half-way or 75%. We don’t judge you, but we cannot say it is good either. That is not Catholic compromising, that is having understanding of what the law is, and what man is. That attitude is not always easy, because you are being attacked from two sides. By those that want to interpret the law in a stricter way, and those that call you a hypocrite, a compromiser.

Are there points of religious doctrine that you have had difficulty with yet?

“No. Certainly not about the fundamentals of the faith, even if there are some things that could be refined or adjusted. But faith itself is not a matter of adjustment. Some matters of religion can evolve with the times, others can not”.

Like female priests, for instance. Do you think we will ever reach that point?

That is a very important point, and one that touches the essence of the church. I’m not so sure there will ever be female priests within the Catholic Church. Not now, and also not in 50 or 100 years. In other Christian churches it is possible –and I don’t deny that there are good female priests there - but it remains, also in those churches, a big point of contention. There are many arguments one can give for that, and I know it is not explainable in our society, but yet I sense that it isn’t possible. But that isn’t the biggest problem in the church today”.

What is?

“Faith itself. People ask themselves if the invisible world and God still are relevant. Christ was the Son of God, but did he really rise from the dead? Those are questions that occupy my mind, too.”

Do you have sympathy for believers who look carefully at the many religions offered, and only are true to the choices they make themselves?

“That is today’s man, you have to have understanding for that. We are people of choice. We are not happy anymore with the 'plat du jour', but we want to eat 'a la carte'. Whether we are totally right in that, is another question. Are we right? May we make absolute our image of man? Are we the most perfect people ever? I don’t know”.

You have a large family. Have you been confronted yet with a divorce?

“Who hasn’t? I think you have to distinguish between the facts and the people. What has happened, I cannot applaud, and the people themselves are not happy about that either. But on the other hand you should not identify the people with their divorce. You can never identify anyone totally with his deeds. You can only adopt a pastoral attitude of understanding and of offering help. People that are divorced are often the first ones to say they would rather not have, but that there was no other way”.

Do you feel disappointed then?

“Each time somebody does not reach the ideal, it is a disappointment. I cannot applaud people that do not succeed in their intentions. That is, for them, a human drama. And that tragedy in almost not perceived anymore. As if it is 'normal' that people split up. While that is not so. But it is more difficult to remain faithful than say 50 years ago. We live longer; there are many more choices. Much more can happen. The cards are dealt differently, and you have to have an understanding for that. The only things I regret is that the lawmakers do not use enough the pedagogic force of the ideal. A law should pull a person 'higher'. Right now the law is too much a thermometer that just registers, and too little a thermostat that you can set a degree higher”.

Are there people that have disappointed you personally, that have not been loyal to you?

“Who has never been disappointed? That is inherent to mankind. You have to remind yourself then that you may have disappointed people too”.

And, have you ever violated other people’s trust?

“Not consciously in any case. Perhaps I have been clumsy, unthinking. At times gone too rapidly over a file. I am in a difficult position anyway; there is the criticism that I have to be stricter, more orthodox. Others then feel that I should take a more liberal position. Thus I disappoint different people. My greatest problem is not the question if I am disappointing other people, but if I have not disappointed God. Has he not expected more of me?


“Sometimes I think so. Have I not fallen short? Has my prayer life been deep enough? Have I been sympathetic enough towards other people? Is there enough love for my neighbor? Is there care for the poor? Do I have the courage to preach the gospel, and not to live for my own interests? Those are the questions I ask myself.

Do you make up a balance before going too sleep?

“Yes. It is good to look in one’s own heart. I don’t analyze everything into the smallest details, but I do have a good view in the evening on what went well and what went less well. And then I give it to God and ask him: now you make up the account. And in the morning I then take over again”.

How would you judge your own management as a church leader?

“ Historians will have to do that, even if I think I have not taken any decisions that were fundamentally wrong. We are not perfect- and fortunately the media do not know everything that didn’t go too well. You may not understand it, but I do ask myself if I am holy enough. When people look at me, do they then see the gospel, or the person Godfried Danneels? That is a big, serious, question”.

You are admired, even by non-believers, because you can explain well, and always find a positive way to look at things.

“Those are the good points, but there are perhaps also some weak points. Some people probably think that I showed too little action at times”.

You were too little like Leonard, the ultraconservative bishop of Namur.

“Yes, maybe I didn’t stand enough on the barricades. But that is not in my character. I am no Marianne from the French Revolution who storms the Bastille. And then of another one, who does act like that, they say he doesn’t show enough tact”.

Something totally different now. Are you true to certain brands?

“I don’t really think much about that, except with regard to cars. I have been driving a Volkswagen for many years. I am happy with that, why change?”

Are you also that faithful in your political preference?

“The vote is secret. But I have always been steadfast. Only the party changed its name at times (smiles). My world lies totally outside the political world, on purpose. I have my mandate, the politicians have theirs. It is not good to mix the two. I am not emperor-sextant. I am Cardinal Danneels.

[The book will be released on 15 September in Belgium, ostensibly in the Low Country's twin tongues of Flemish and French.]


Breaking News: The Sky Is Green, 2 + 2 = 5, Power of the Keys Transferred to Milwaukee TV Station....

...all that must be true in light of WISN's "breakthrough" pronouncement over the weekend: "West Bend Woman Becomes Ordained Catholic Priest."

Well, at least they got the "Bend" bit right.

In a related development, yours truly is settling comfortably into his cushy new gig... as Chairman and CEO of Apple.

(Hear all about it on 'ISN, tomorrow at 5, 6 and 11!)

Welcome to the brilliant world of TV news, whose breakthrough "reporting" so often does wonders for the honor and credibility of journalism everywhere...

...that is, to kill it.

Apologies for the lowly newspaperman's rant.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

From LA, Sinful "Tidings"

It may come as a shock to some, but one of the lead pieces in the current edition of the newspaper of the US' largest diocese offers a lengthy reminder that:

1. not only does mortal sin still exist, but;

2. "the contemporary understanding of the concept... is all too ambiguous among the people of God."

Among its citations: none other than the Baltimore Catechism...
An illustration:

Chaim is considering entering the Catholic Church and so is a very active participant in a local parish's RCIA process. She has found so much of the experience rich and valuable. She strongly believes that for the first time in her life she is finding church, religion and God a powerful influence in her life. She is yearning for the sacraments of initiation, especially the Eucharist.

This past week she and her fellow catechumens were continuing their discussions on the moral life of Catholics and the Church's fundamental teachings about sin. She finds herself a bit conflicted and confused for the first time in the process. She politely but firmly addresses Patricia, the Parish Life Director, who is one of the three RCIA team leaders:

"I do accept that mortal sin is real and that it does exist. My problem is recognizing it. Is it automatic when I break one of the Church's rules? Are all the rules equal? For example, I know I have to be willing to commit myself to attend Mass every Sunday to be a good Catholic and also I have to commit myself to fasting one hour before Communion. If someone goes to Communion when they know they haven't kept their fast, is that a mortal sin? Is missing Mass on Sunday just as big a sin as adultery or murder? Are some mortal sins 'bigger' than others?...

"It doesn't seem fair that a person who breaks their Communion fast or misses their Easter duty commits the same kind of mortal sin as the one who tortures a prisoner of war or cheats on their spouse."

In today's society the appreciation of mortal sin ranges all the way from a shrug and dismissal of its reality --- and, thus, its importance in the life of Christian discipleship --- to an extreme of scrupulosity that in effect externalizes discipleship by defining it according to rubrics, and turns God into a severe and punishing judge, rather than a concerned and caring Father.

One major cause of the problems surrounding an authentic understanding of the concept of mortal sin is found in the fact that, too often, two legitimate questions about mortal sin are asked as if they were a single inquiry.

If we want to understand the concept and reality of mortal sin we can first ask: What IS mortal sin? This question seeks to comprehend the heart of the concept by seeking the essential nature of mortal sin. In other words, how can a disciple recognize the real potential for mortal sin when she or he is confronted with a significant temptation? Will we know when we have chosen to sin mortally? Are there visible criteria?...

Baby boomer Catholics will generally have no trouble recalling their lessons from the Baltimore Catechism. While the question and answer format has become generally accepted fodder for jokes about the "pre-Vatican II" church, it is interesting to recognize how deeply ingrained were the learnings from that Catechism. Many theologians and contemporary catechists have reminded us that the mere memorization of formulae and doctrine can never be absolute proof of authentic Christian discipleship.

On the other hand, the contemporary church has been similarly reminded that authentic discipleship is based on "living the Word," and that catechetical instruction without both serious and age appropriate interaction with the Word is hardly effective in helping the people of God "put on the Spirit of Christ."...

Question 54 of the Baltimore Catechism can provide a starting point:

Q. What is mortal sin?
A. Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.

How does the new Catechism of the Catholic Church define mortal sin?
Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of a person by a grave violation of God's law; it turns a person away from God, who is every person's ultimate end and beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to God (n. 1855).

Both Catechisms agree that mortal sin is essentially a breaking of one of God's laws.

The second question is raised now. What are the effects of this "grave violation" of God's law on the sinner? Despite this clearly legal language, it is vitally important that we not reduce Christian discipleship, our relationship with our God and our attendant moral life, to a judicial system.

In its essence, the Church has always understood that mortal sin is so much more than the "act" of breaking a law; rather, it is a personal commitment to a deliberate divorce from God. It is a sad but thoughtful choice to abandon one's personal and ecclesiastical relationship with God. Mortal sin is mortal precisely because it is deeply and altogether personal, not judicial....

We still must address Chaim's question about how to weigh sin. What in fact is "grave matter?" This issue has been a center of discussion among the Church's moral theologians since the Penitential books of the Celtic monks in the 6th century.

Apart from the area of human sexuality where the Church teaches clearly that there "is no light matter," there is no universal norm for determining how serious an issue is. Adjudicating the seriousness of a choice is usually done when the Church examines individual decisions or commandments. The "seriousness" may in fact depend on a greater or lesser quantity of the "matter" involved.

For example, the Church, following the commandments, has always taught that stealing was a sin, but at the same time, stealing small and insignificant amounts of money or property was not generally considered as grave matter. Moral texts throughout the centuries are filled with thoughtful considerations about what level or kind of content might move a choice from light to grave matter. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that even when serious or grave matter is involved, mortal sin is not automatic since there are three essential elements: serious matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent.

The tragic reality of mortal sin is that it is a completely intentional choice that involves full knowledge of the choice and its implications for one's relationship to God and the Church. Yes, mortal sin does exist. Its truly catastrophic outcome on our relationship to God cannot be underestimated. It is important that its reality should not be made insignificant by making it trivial, nor should it be seen as contrary to an authentic spirituality of hope and charity.
...and with that, another myth blown out of the water.


Mother's Day, Mother's TIME

"If I ever become a Saint — I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from Heaven — to [light] the light of those in darkness on earth."
So much for sanctity not making the covers of magazines....

As shown at left, TIME's extended look at the spiritual trials of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has been revealed as the cover story of its upcoming edition, on newsstands tomorrow.

Underscoring the global awe and admiration that surrounds the apostle of the poor even a decade after her death, the sub-hed caption refers to the Missionaries of Charity foundress as a "beloved icon"; "even CNN was completely positive," exclaimed one observer of the last few days' coverage on the upcoming book of the letters of the saint-to-be, edited by the postulator of her cause for canonization.

It's worthwhile to note that, while Mother Teresa's departure for the Father's house ten years ago next week was overshadowed at the time by the intense public outpouring of grief at the loss of Diana, Princess of Wales, it seems that this anniversary has witnessed a turning of the tables that is a commentary in itself. A short essay on Diana is buried near the back of the pages, asking whether the "age of emotionalism" which climaxed in the week leading up to the princess' funeral has, in fact, "come to a close."

It could be said the cover-choice and story-emphasis have answered the question.

Blessed Teresa's posthumous spiritual memoir, Come Be My Light is holding at #3 on Amazon's list of best-sellers more than a week before it's release. Given all the exposure it's received -- an amount only set to increase as its 4 September pub-date nears -- the figure likewise looks set to only go upward.

And the Little Nun That Could just keeps on....


B16: Heaven Isn't For the Big

With a powerful catechesis, the Pope riffed on this Sunday's readings at today's Angelus:
“Dear brothers and sisters, if we want to . . . pass through the narrow gate, we must commit ourselves to being small, that is humble of heart like Jesus; like Mary, His and our mother. . . . Christians call upon Her as Ianua Caeli, Gate of Heaven. Let us ask Her to guide us in our daily choices, take us to the path that leads to ‘Heaven’s Gate’.”...

Benedict XVI joined the devotion to Mary and the Gospel’s needs by explaining a ‘perplexing’ passage from the Holy Scriptures quoted in this Sunday’s liturgy, when Jesus said: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough (Lk 13:23-24).”

The Pontiff explained that in Christianity there are not “privileged gateways”. “The gateway to eternal life is open to all, but is ‘narrow’ because it is demanding, requires commitment, abnegation and denial of one’s own selfishness”.

What is more, “he is the one Redeemer inviting us to his feast of immortal life, but on one and only condition, that of following and imitating him, bearing as He did our own cross and devoting one’s life to one’s brothers. This is the single, universal condition to join the heavenly life.”

Talking about today’s liturgy, the Pope excluded religious practices as a “source of security” and “false merits.”

“On the last day,” Benedict XVI added, “it is not on the basis of alleged privileges that we shall be judged but on the merit of our deeds. The ‘agents of iniquity’ will find themselves excluded whilst those who did good deeds at the cost of sacrifices shall be welcomed. It will not be enough to say that ‘I was a friend” of Christ, and claim false merits like: ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets’ (Lk 13:26). True friendship for Jesus is expressed in how one lives; in the goodness of one’s heart; in one’s humility, kindness and mercy, in one’s love for justice and truth; in one’s sincere commitment to peace and reconciliation. This, we might say, is the ‘identity card’ that qualifies us as true ‘friends;’ it is the ‘passport’ that will let us enter eternal life."
As the academic year begins anew in the Eternal City, following his catechesis the Pope made a particular point to greet the incoming students of the Pontifical North American College who were present in Castel Gandolfo's inner courtyard.

B16 said he would "pray that their formative years in Rome will help them to grow in wisdom and pastoral charity."

Reuters/Dario Pignatelli


Mother's Day

In Calcutta and the world over, the Missionaries of Charity are holding special prayers on this, the 97th birthday of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu -- whose life made her known to the world, now as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

Reuters/Jayanta Shaw


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Attack of the (Bertone) Clones; US Church on Alert

In his latest Letter from Rome, the venerable Robert Mickens of The Tablet quotes an Oltretevere high-hat's recent musing that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was “making more appearances, and with greater fanfare, than even the Madonna!”

Sure, veteran readers of these pages know well that B16’s chief intermediary with mankind's been keeping quite the high profile of late. However -- and just like our Blessed Lady -- it's looking as if every reported apparition of the Secretary of State isn’t as genuine as the faithful might wish to believe.

After learning that “some priests” in the States “have been receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be” Bertone, the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington circulated an official advisory earlier this week saying that the purported outreach from above was, in fact, “bogus, having no merit whatsoever.”

Similarly deceptive e.mails were also believed to have been transmitted, with some of the communications claiming to be from the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo.

Clearly, the scammer didn’t do his homework – a number of the messages were said to be in English, which Bertone doesn’t speak.

As with the best (and most amusing) of everything -- like Bertone's own report last summer that the late, great Papa Wojtyla appeared to him -- it's just another bit you couldn't make up if you wanted to.

In other news from the papal inner circle, the invites have gone out for the 29 September episcopal ordination of Archbishop-elect Mietek Mokrzycki, who served as deputy private secretary to John Paul II and Benedict XVI before his July appointment as coadjutor to the Ukrainian archdiocese of Lviv of the Latins.

Suffice it to say, the guest-list for ecclesiastical Rome's first big event after the summer recess has been drawn from far and wide.


"The Chalice of His Pain"

As if anyone needed further proof that the frequently-cited claims of the "hostile, God-hating, anti-Catholic secular culture" are an excuse that's as wrong as it is lazy/convenient/poor/blind, TIME's extended serial on the five-decade long "dark night of the soul" of Bl Teresa of Calcutta has been the most-viewed piece on its website since its Thursday release....

...and, though its pub-date is still 10 days off (4 September, the eve of the 10th anniversary of her death), Come Be My Light -- the book containing the in-depth chronicle of the spiritual struggle of the "Saint of the Gutters" -- is at #3 on Amazon's list of top-selling books.

In death as in life, The Little Nun Who Could just keeps on doing that which the great powers can't bring themselves to muster...

Nothing astonishing, that -- it's just the sign of the faithful witness.
Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the "Saint of the Gutters," went to Oslo. Dressed in her signature blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-abnegating care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. "It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'" she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had "[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one." Jesus' hunger, she said, is what "you and I must find" and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youthful drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world "that radiating joy is real" because Christ is everywhere — "Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive."

Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. "Jesus has a very special love for you," she assured Van der Peet. "[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand."

The two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

And in fact, that appears to be the case. A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."...

The book is hardly the work of some antireligious investigative reporter who Dumpster-dived for Teresa's correspondence. Kolodiejchuk, a senior Missionaries of Charity member, is her postulator, responsible for petitioning for her sainthood and collecting the supporting materials. (Thus far she has been beatified; the next step is canonization.) The letters in the book were gathered as part of that process....

Why did Teresa's communication with Jesus, so vivid and nourishing in the months before the founding of the Missionaries, evaporate so suddenly? Interestingly, secular and religious explanations travel for a while on parallel tracks. Both understand (although only one celebrates) that identification with Christ's extended suffering on the Cross, undertaken to redeem humanity, is a key aspect of Catholic spirituality. Teresa told her nuns that physical poverty ensured empathy in "giving themselves" to the suffering poor and established a stronger bond with Christ's redemptive agony. She wrote in 1951 that the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus' life that she was interested in sharing: "I want to ... drink ONLY [her emphasis] from His chalice of pain." And so she did, although by all indications not in a way she had expected.

Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa's spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church's perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus' call for her. "She was a very strong personality," he suggests. "And a strong personality needs stronger purification" as an antidote to pride. As proof that it worked, he cites her written comment after receiving an important prize in the Philippines in the 1960s: "This means nothing to me, because I don't have Him."...

for most people, Teresa's ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem. One powerful instance of this may have occurred very early on. In 1968, British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts full-bore. "Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you," she wrote. "He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite." Muggeridge apparently did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist and converted to Catholicism in 1982. His 1969 film, Something Beautiful for God, supported by a 1971 book of the same title, made Teresa an international sensation.

At the time, Muggeridge was something of a unique case. A child of privilege who became a minor celebrity, he was hardly Teresa's target audience. Now, with the publication of Come Be My Light, we can all play Muggeridge. Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. "The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on," he says. "And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn't 'feeling' Christ's love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, 'Your happiness is all I want.' That's a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms."

America's Martin wants to talk precisely in religious terms. "Everything she's experiencing," he says, "is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who have felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God's existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way but shows her full of complete trust at the same time." He takes a breath. "Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith?" he asks. "And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?" Martin has long used Teresa as an example to parishioners of self-emptying love. Now, he says, he will use her extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence to illustrate how doubt is a natural part of everyone's life, be it an average believer's or a world-famous saint's.
...on seeing the piece, a friend wrote in thus:
"I have changed my opinion concerning her Canonization. Previously, I had wondered just how much of the push for her Canonization was the result of pious energy - NO LONGER. I have no doubt that this holy woman is deserving of Church Canonization. To suffer as she did and remain loyal to her cause is the best attestation that her journey through her "Dark Night of the Soul" was her way to heaven. Her letters are the best proof of her authenticity.

I predict that in a short time this book will become an all time best seller. She will become a source of strength for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Catholics, non- Catholics, even non- Christians. For those who thirst, hunger, and find nothing but desolation in their faith journey, this tiny nun will be their source of strength to "Carry On".

Finally, I am willing to be that, in the not too distant future, we are going to be reading numerous stories about folks living in their "Dark Night" who will claim to have "seen a great light" as a result of Mother Teresa.

"It's Like Krakatoa"

On his home turf, Bishop Geoff Robinson's confrontation of "sex and power" has hit...

The Age in Melbourne compares the retired Sydney prelate to another Luther:

In English, it's only a tiny preposition, two little letters, but it has helped the Catholic Church get its power relationships wrong for centuries

Dissident Sydney Bishop Geoffrey Robinson shows how in the translation from Greek to Latin the church took a serious wrong turn that gave priests an inflated view of their special status and helped create a climate in which abusers could flourish.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible talks of a priest being "chosen". The Greek word means "taken" but in Latin it became "taken up". The "up" implies they are lifted to a higher level than laypeople, which allows an element of "messiah complex", and eventually a mystique.

It's an example of the close reasoning and broad scholarship behind Robinson's call in an explosive new book for perhaps the most radical and all-embracing reform ever suggested by a Catholic bishop, re-examining centuries of carefully guarded doctrines.

"Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous power of all," writes Robinson, a retired Sydney bishop, in Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, to be launched tomorrow.

"If the governing image of how to act as a priest is tied to the ideas of lordship and control then, no matter how benevolently ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present." It also adds to the pressure on priests.

"It was not a healthy idea, and it must now be confronted," writes Bishop Robinson . But it's not the only serious problem he thinks needs correcting.

He believes the church needs to ditch its traditional thinking about sex _ in which all sex apart from a married couple who must not use contraception is an offence against God _ in favour of a relational model. This has implications for sex outside marriage, contraception, homosexuality and women priests.

And there's much more, ranging from the sort of God Catholics worship _ wrongly focusing on an angry God made the lives of millions sadder and poorer, he says _ to curbing the power of the Pope and Curia, down to the sort of clothes bishops wear.

Carefully reasoned and presented, the book is set to electrify the Catholic Church. Such is the significance of the changes he seeks, Robinson could be likened to a modern Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian whose challenge to key doctrines and the authority of the papacy gave birth to Protestantism.

It's a thought, naturally, that a Catholic bishop is not entirely comfortable with. "It's not quite as dramatic as that," he says. "I don't have inflated ideas that the book will change the world, but if no one speaks out nothing will happen. I think if you asked an out-and-out Protestant to read this book he would say `that's not my church'. For a start, there's a pope in it."

Little in his past would suggest that Robinson might break ranks so spectacularly. Indeed the full force of the tradition and the institution and an oath of fidelity to the pope are used to prevent bishops doing so. Robinson outlines the way this works, and writes "please believe me that all of the above and more have been in my mind as I have written this book".

He is well regarded in the Australian church as a careful and scholarly thinker, an excellent canon lawyer who was a sensible head of the Marriage Tribunal, a pastoral bishop who was good with priests, well versed in Scripture and author of devotional studies. Those who know him say he never courted popularity or power, but was well liked.

He ruffled legal feathers in 1990 by asking a series of pointed questions about lawyers' fees and their links with big business at a Mass for the opening of the law year.

As chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference professional standards committee, Bishop Robinson headed the drive for a national protocol that served victims better, the Towards Healing program.

He finally convinced all but two of the 180 bishops and leaders of religious orders whose assent was needed to introduce the protocol, but one of the pair was then Melbourne Archbishop George Pell, who broke ranks to introduce a separate protocol. (To this day, Melbourne has a different protocol from the national one.)...

The Catholic Church is still not truly confronting the abuse problem, he believes. "I have a serious fear that many church leaders are now feeling the worst of the problem is now behind them, that it has been successfully `managed' and hence that they do not need to look at deeper issues," he writes.

Pope John Paul II failed his duty of responsibility and therefore failed to hold the church together. Even now, no pope has apologised to victims or promised to study the causes of abuse and ruthlessly change factors that contribute.

Abuse is most likely when three factors come together to create a "murky" climate: an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sex, and an unhealthy environment, according to Robinson....

Robinson says the search for meaning which religion answers concerns love, and it is his developing understanding of God's love that underpins his book. But the Catholic Church for the last 1000 years has reflected far too much an angry god, a view responsible for "many of the worst pages in church history".

"At its worst people were ordered to perform the impossible task of loving a most unlovable god under pain of damnation. Millions of people were affected by these ideas and their lives were made sadder and poorer."

Catholics have no monopoly on the angry God, he told The Age, but "where that happens you will have a pretty angry sort of religion with lots of rules and lots of thundering from the pulpit".

A related problem is that the church has tried to constrain the beliefs of its members too rigidly in too many non-essentials. He cites the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, declared an infallible truth in 1950 so that to deny it is to deny the Catholic faith. As it happens Robinson believes the doctrine, but admits it is not in the Bible, it is not an early tradition, the arguments are weak and if it's wrong, the essentials of the Christian faith are untouched. It should not be made a test of faith.

Bishop Robinson makes some interesting proposals for restructuring the church, from the top down. The pope's authority should be reduced, partly by requiring far wider consultation and partly by setting up regional "patriarch-presidents". The Latin church already has patriarchs of the Melkites and Copts, a model the church knows and accepts.
...and Sydney's Morning Herald kicks in a 2500-worder:
Robinson, shy and guarded, broke his lifelong silence in an explosive critique of the church's use and misuse of power which outlines a radical vision for the church that questions the very nature of its power and sexual ethics and slays the sacred cow of papal infallibility.

Robinson, 70, was a teenager at the time of the abuse, the nature of which he does not fully disclose. The offender was neither a family member nor a priest.

Even now he finds it hard to tackle the topic and prefers his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, to speak for him. "Neither in my age at the time it happened nor in the duration of the abuse was it as serious as much of the abuse I have encountered in others, and yet, if the man had been caught in any one of his acts against me, he would have been sent to prison," he writes in the book's introduction.

"It was never a repressed memory but for most of my life it was, as it were, placed in the attic of my mind. That is, I always knew it was there but I never took it down to look at it."

When he was appointed in 1994 to the church's national professional standards committee to help develop procedures to respond to sex abuse complaints he made a vow to himself to "never defend the indefensible". He strove to act as a "decent human being, a good Christian and caring priest" and listened to the complaints of as many victims as possible so he could to learn from their experiences....

Robinson says his writing was in development for almost 50 years, from the age of 12, when he entered the rarefied atmosphere of a seminary.

In his description of seminaries and novitiates as unhealthy places to grow into maturity, there is a sense of the wounded boy. He laments the absence of parents and other nurturing figures, the lack of intimacy and the perception of women as threats to vocation rather than as a positive and essential influence.

"At the time I wouldn't have found seminary life impossibly difficult but looking back I observe absences," he says now.

"I never wish to see any boy taken into the seminary at that age again."...

"This is a very unusual book," says the church historian Ed Campion. "Bishops normally keep dissident thoughts to themselves but Bishop Robinson has gone public with his disquiet about how church authorities responded to sexual abuse scandals. He calls for change at the highest levels of the church, including the papacy. His compassion for abused victims is remarkable and welcomed.

"This grew out of his hard years of caring for injured people. Beyond this, the book is a fresh look at the fundamentals of Christian faith. When a Catholic bishop does this he surprises many people. Others will be grateful that Bishop Robinson has now joined in an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a Christian today."

Father Michael Whelan, of the church reform group Catalyst for Renewal, says Robinson's lifetime of service in the Catholic Church, including 20 years as auxiliary bishop of Sydney, has been one of intelligence, fidelity and generous commitment.

"He is a man beyond reproach. He is also a man of considerable intellect and substantial scholarship. No one who knows him could doubt his love for the church. Indeed, those of us who knew something of his personal struggles with the Vatican in the late '90s will be always grateful for the faith-filled and humble manner in which he continued with his duties as a pastor during that time.

"This, above all else, has shown him to be a leader of the Catholic Church in Australia."

Robinson probably raises more questions than he answers, but he turns his searching gaze and reforming zeal to every corner of the church. His message of love to the church is that it must take its role to tackle sexual abuse more seriously, not simply manage the scandals.

Whelan says Robinson is urging all Catholics to dare to imagine a new way of being a church, a way that is more obviously rooted in the gospels and less obviously beholden to the Roman Empire and the historical circumstances of the fourth and fifth centuries. "Geoffrey Robinson has written a gracious book about a graced institution that too often forgets grace," he says.

"In its forgetfulness, that institution becomes prey to the 'absolutising instinct' and means become ends. Relative rules and relative teachings and relative roles and relative customs mysteriously become absolutes.

"Robinson asks us to remember the gospel and the reality of Jesus and common sense and humility. If this book has one message for us Catholics - and it is addressed primarily to us - it is simply this: Remember who you are. Remember why you are church. Remember Him."

A fellow member of the national committee for professional standards, Sister Angela Ryan, remembers Robinson for being dogged in his pursuit of a just church response to abuse claims.

In Australia, a country of 5 million Catholics, a nationally binding response to sexual abuse required the unanimous consent of more than 160 people, including bishops and religious superiors. When Robinson had finished cajoling and crafting the document only two refused their consent.

As a result of Robinson's persistence, the Towards Healing protocols is a "standout document" that has no peer in any other Australian religious denomination, says Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney.

"The first version of Towards Healing was a victim-centric document. He was adamant that victims of abuse should hear the church cared for them, wanted to help the victims and that they would not tolerate the abuse in future, and Towards Healing was, and is, still full of that," he says.

Robinson concedes the document will never satisfy everyone but says it succeeds in encouraging priests to confess their misdeeds, sparing the victims more pain and adversarial criminal proceedings where convictions are rare....

Like every bishop, Robinson takes seriously his oath of fidelity to the Pope. Rebellion is like breaking an oath to God. He eventually resigned, and Pope John Paul II accepted his retirement in July 2004, due to ill health. It was true that Robinson was battling a coronary condition that brought on bouts of pneumonia.

But it was also disenchantment that finally drove him out of ecclesiastical office.

Some of Robinson's supporters had wanted him to succeed Edward Clancy as archbishop of Sydney.

Perhaps Robinson's blackened copy book with the Vatican and his chronic shyness ruled him out of contention but, in any event, he never coveted the job. George Pell did.

"I was aware a number of people wanted that to happen and I was aware that was not going to happen, and I would not have wanted that to happen because it would have created intolerable pressure for someone who was as disenchanted as I was," Robinson says carefully.

Campion says anyone who has studied the church's response to sexual abuse is entitled to feel disheartened. "They were just unprepared because the mind-set is to think of these things as a sin that could be forgiven rather than as a crime that should be punished and the victims cared for. I think Robinson's book is a sign of that, surely a sign of change in itself."

Robinson says: "The most loyal person in the kingdom is the person who tells the truth. It's like the emperor with no clothes, I thought now had come the time to speak the truths."