Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Whispers at the Circus

And now, it's time for your narrator's least-favorite part of the job.

Bear with me... it only comes but twice a year... and only when it's especially needed.

It's almost time, gang -- the Big Top is a-comin' and it's off to DC on Sunday to start getting a lay of the land (and, of course, kick up the conversations). For the record, I'm already exhausted -- a 20-hour day Monday, a relaxing 14-hour one yesterday... and God only knows what lies ahead.

As veteran readers know, for the 85 million or so "All Things PopeTrip" sites which've sprung up over the last month, next week's visit has been covered on these pages longer than anyplace else -- the first draft of the plans were, of course, leaked here in mid-September, two months before their formal announcement. That was just the beginning of this long, wild marathon, and while it's definitely a joy and almost a relief to see everything finally coming together, the interest so high, none of it would've ever hit the page without your support... because the page would've been closed... and that's truer now than ever before.

Bottom line: as it's been from Day One, Whispers can keep on thanks to one person -- you. And so, it's time for another -- and, this time, especially crucial -- Fund Drive.

To repeat, this is my least favorite part of this work. I was lucky enough to learn early on that a good host should never spoil anyone's good time, so I do my best to keep these little pushes as sparse as possible. (Suffice it to say, living like a hermit helps this greatly....) But much as the shoestring lifestyle keeps the house budget at a bare minimum, I still have to pay the bills, keep the phone and 'net from being shut off, etc.; they call this "reality"... which is, as some might've noticed, just one of the many things I've never really been good at.

With the visit in sight, another, more pressing part of this reality is that the costs to cover the ground next week are eye-popping. (At least, by the aforementioned hermit/shoestring standards.) Thanks to the cherry blossoms and Nationals' baseball, April is already -- as a friend put it the other day -- "one of the worst times to come to Washington" cost-wise, same goes for New York, and the arrival of the Pope, over 5,000 colleagues plus the close to 120,000 pilgrims who will, between the two, either be attending an event or just want to catch a glimpse has sent the rates of everything through the roof.

Of course, this is one of the moments where it'd help to have a frou-frou desk-job and expense budget... then again, this medium is where the future's at, not to mention seeing the most important bits of context edited to death as too "inside baseball" would be too great a cost to pay for creature-comforts.

The whole story is, after all, the reason you're here, right?

(Thankfully, exorbitant as it's all looking to be, there's at least one thing I can seemingly go without. While it initially seemed that I'd need a Gallagher-esque plastic shield or tarp for the Catholic education speech, it's looking as if that won't be necessary... not to mention that the Secret Service probably wouldn't let it into the room. Regardless, you get the idea.)

All this is to say that, candidly, everything I've got, everything that keeps these pages afloat comes from this readership, through the famous "guitar case." Over time, given the growth in numbers, Whispers has become the almost sole focus of my time and energy; it receives no other support, I'm practically unable to take on any more commitments due to the investment required here (aside from the odd speaking gig) and, as a matter of professional ethics, I can't accept donations from the people covered here... though some have seen fit to try, with genuine sincerity and out of great kindness. (Speaking of which, some attempted gifts from that department still need to be returned... see you at the Shrine.)

Keep in mind that, while I really couldn't picture doing anything else now, I never asked for any of this; this little project of ours began with three readers... and my most optimistic hope was that, if it was worth anything, maybe at some point it'd have six (i.e. 3 + 3). Never anything like this; in the truest sense, it's all been an unexpected deluge, a shocking grace... and a major adjustment in more ways than I could explain. Having heard about these pages elsewhere, you lot literally just showed up to a place with no budget, no promotion materials, nothing except the content, and while that still never ceases to blow my mind, humbles me to no end and leads me to wonder how or why on earth it all happened this way, it's also raised the bar on the quality, precision and range of content these pages are expected to provide -- a challenge which is, even in the full knowledge that mistakes and errors will happen, better tackled than shied away from... something that's always, always, a work in progress.

In other words, thanks for your patience.

I've said it before and need to say it again -- I've made nothing approaching a fortune from this work (more like subsistence... and barely at that) but I can't say I terribly mind; as Boss taught me, the bottom line might help, but it's far from the answer to everything. All I need, all I'm looking for is to simply be able to pay my bills, keep the resources on-hand to do the job as you've come to expect, have some sense of stability and keep a little bit aside for contingencies, having a life (or trying to)... that kinda thing.

To give a clearer picture, even as that number at the bottom of the page keeps getting bigger and bigger (and quicker and quicker at that), Whispers has been able to survive -- i.e. your narrator has been able to scrape by -- thanks to the support of little more than 2 to 3% of the daily readership. So, if nothing else, if those of you who, get a little something out of what you see here every so often could just say a prayer of thanks for the donors and their kindness, that alone would mean a lot. These are tough times in the country, and I know many have young families or, like me, more due in college loans than we could ever fathom. That's why you'll never see a subscription to get in here -- each of us does what we can, but the only price of admission to all this can never be anything more than the interest, the curiosity, the "yes" to simply seek it out. At its core, that's all it takes... and no sum can ever be put on it.

Speaking of thanks... the way things have become, most of my waking life has become a never-ending apology tour -- whether for calls or e.mails unreturned, kindnesses long unacknowledged, errors in posts or to folks confused or offended.

Bad for the ego? Sure. But very, very good for the soul -- and, candidly, it's just what I've needed, and keep needing, everyday.

I know so many of you who've supported these pages over time have never gotten a note of thanks from me, and for that I can never apologize enough; it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but I was in over my head a long time ago. A well-meaning friend recently recommended that I hire an assistant... and I couldn't help but laugh because, really, the way things are, I can't even hire myself. But even so, simply to be able to wake up in the morning and do the work I love -- a gift come completely out of nowhere and, strangely enough, without ever having applied for the job -- is such a joy and blessing that I could never really put it into words. (Not just because I'm closer to carpal-tunnel than I'd like to admit....) And I wish I could say thanks to each of you, personally, as I ought. But that in itself, it seems, would take a lifetime, and hopefully the daily feed is a somewhat adequate sign of appreciation and thanks.

However, for those of you who've been so good and such a gift, a grace and a help, please just know one thing.

Next to my bed, there's a nightstand that -- like everything else in my life -- has always been one big cluttered mess. It used to be stacked with books and newspapers, but now -- unintentionally... maybe providentially, too -- it's covered to overflowing with the notes so many of you have sent, each sweeter, kinder and more priceless and moving than the next.

In those rare moments of relative quiet, I usually end up looking at the pile for a second and thinking, "OK, where do I begin?" Then the phone rings or an e.mail comes in, and it's back to the races.

If nothing else, please don't think I don't try....

But then, every so often, a note comes in saying, "Did you get it?" Suffice it to say, I got it, it's helped keep my load easier, kept me more sane than I could express... and the words and prayers mean the world. I might be terrible at getting back to them, but just know they're always the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night... and to have them there isn't just a sign of encouragement and comfort... but another reminder of how far I've got to go and how little I actually get done. And simply to have the encouragement to keep trying is the greatest blessing and gift of all.

In case anyone can lend a hand, the guitar case lies along the right sidebar -- this medium's equivalent of a busker's patch of pavement. For the more snail-mail inclined, the postal address is PO Box 63890, Philadelphia PA 19147-7890. (Just to remind, there's no such thing as Whispers, Inc. -- that's an indirect way of saying "checks payable to the scribe.")

Like the church it covers, this work's been built by a lot of folks -- by all of you, all of us, each lending a hand in our own way. To one and all, no words can say thanks enough.

Pray for me as you're in mine, especially during these days, that I get through in one piece. It'll be crazy, but it'll be fun... and it'll be a joy to share with all of you, wherever you are.

Again, all thanks always.

* * *

On another note, while I've got you here -- and before the last blitz of pre-visit high-hats rains down in the morning -- I need to offer a brief word on one of the bread-and-butter elements of the usual feed given recent events.

Hopefully it shows that, of everything else you see on these pages, my greatest love and fascination is with the appointments. One of the joys of this experience has been to see the extent to which I'm far from alone in that.

I've never explained the "why" behind the fascination... in a nutshell, it goes way back to my boyhood and the realization early on that for all its politics, positioning, rumors and delays, the Holy Spirit is, indeed, present in the process, and its ensuing events are merely instruments of His Will -- not just when it comes to who is chosen, but where, in fact, they are sent.

Hard though it may be for some to believe, I can honestly witness to this, and the years have only revealed it to me over and over again. After all, I owe my life, this work and my education's greatest lessons to the archbishop of my formative years, just as the freedom to take on my vocation was the gift of his successor's foresight, which time has proven nothing short of prophetic. Among friends, I first successfully "called" a nomination when I was 13, two months before that one was announced, and the years since have shown it, too, to be the Spirit's choice.... And now, many moons -- and many, many Bollettini -- later, here we are.

However, this isn't to say the record's been perfect -- it hasn't. While experience shows that a glimpse behind the curtain does wonders to encourage and build up communion, engagement, and (in both the healthy and crazed senses of the word) excitement, a lack of restraint and responsibility can also open the door to great damage, difficulty and suffering for good people and their amazing work.

Despite the best of intentions and what appeared to be the best of information, in one case I have been, and am, guilty of this. I was recently asked whether I knew what sort of impact these pages have and, honestly, I only do when things go horribly wrong and I need to take my lumps for reporting it -- because, hey, if you can roll with it when it's good, you've gotta shoulder the blame, too.

Because of what it can wreak, an error of this kind has always been my nightmare. Its coming to pass has weighed more heavily on me than anything else, and has led me to pray intensely about a change of focus or simply, about closing up shop altogether. Circumstances are such that an inter nos briefing really isn't possible when you've got 20,000 readers a day, and realizing that is always a continuing responsibility; my grey hairs and wrinkles in the forehead have increased considerably over the course of this ride.

Before anything else, I need to beg a lot of forgiveness -- first, from the good and holy man who's had to bear the brunt of the tumult these reports have caused, from everyone else affected by the chaos, from all of you for mistakenly running on what only time showed to be a false start.

By the same token, however, the beauty of faith's big picture allows us to find some comforting parts to this, too. (For all the excitement, it might be cold comfort, but you take what you can get.)

First, it shows us that -- however wrenching all this has been -- it's nothing that never happened in the (cushy, salaried) Italian press. Second, that especially in the midst of the storm, where the church is truly alive and well-served, love, loyalty and goodness surround the worthy and show a believing community at its very best -- in other words, good triumphs. Third, we can see that the Psalm's reference to the pricelessness of "fire-tried gold" still rings very true in our own time... and its results still beat those of any process we've been able to come up with. And lastly, it shows us anew that this church has no more contagious, effective example than the selfless devotion of the good shepherd -- in this case, rector -- who seeks nothing for himself but the life and nourishment of the many. Where this exists, it is known, its energy sensed, even from long distances. Even now, its fruits can't be taught nor manufactured -- it simply is, and where it is, all who hear of it wish to be. (Even if one of us risked being stoned to death should he show up.)

There are not a few dashed hopes out there on the part of many good folks, whose only "fault" was wanting to see something good happen to one of their own, even at their own sacrifice. In the process, experiencing their hope has made it my own, and their faith and commitment has renewed mine in a much-needed way. Yet even though we find ourselves in the Easter Season, as a people, let us never forget the only thing that could've birthed the Resurrection -- Good Friday, when all was thought to be lost, conclusions were too quickly jumped to, blame was cast all over, and suffering and love were thought to have been given and experienced in vain.

How little they knew at the time... and how much that can still teach all of us. First of all me.

Even at the foot of the Cross, church, the plan of God was at work. Tough though it can be, whatever our situations in the journey, together let us trust in his time and the guidance of his hand, however strange or difficult the paths it marks out for us.

Today and always, gang, God love you all.