Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Here We Stand at Your Door, As We Did the Year Before...."

"I'm looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before/
One is for sunshine, the second is rain/
third is for roses bloom in the spring/

No need explain' the one remaining is somebody I adore/
I'm looking over a four leaf clover that I overlooked before."
Cue drums, banjos, saxes, screaming, dancing.

Here in Philly, it's that time again. And not a minute too soon.

The rest of the world may live it up on New Year's Eve, but in this most-contrarian of places, the real party kicks off on 2007's first morning with the 107th Mummers Parade.

For an outside audience, words would fail to explain why and how 15,000 marchers -- mostly men, most of whom spend the other 364 days of the year working at the ports and in the trade-unions -- never fail to begin the calendar's cycle in makeup, ostrich-plumed costumes, or the traditional "Wench suit" of long braids and a sequined satin frock. But especially in the little corner of South Philly where I was raised that remains Mummerdom's vibrant heart, it's our sacred tradition bar none, a celebration of family and continuity, a prayer for the future and a thanksgiving for the blessings of the past.

The parade is comprised of four divisions, representing its historic evolution from a band of gun-toting revellers -- the Comics (still revelling, but without the firearms) -- to the choreographed, Broadway-esque spectacle of the Fancy Brigades. Whether it's the fracas that is Froggy Carr or the quasi-martial precision of Shooting Stars, the ten-hour strut up Broad Street, the city's main drag, melds into one joyous, raucous festival -- a ritual that, for the most part, remains non-corporatized and strictly in-house.

The road to January 1 is a year-round labor of love for the clubs, and the cottage industry of costume-makers, musicians, drill-masters and the like who, though not actually suited up on the street, form as much a part of the finished product as the marchers themselves. Arguably the most emblematic part of the parade, however, are the String Bands, whose members usually stay working through the year playing far-flung parades, weddings and other private gigs to help defray the huge expenses incurred to execute their four-and-a-half minutes in the City Hall spotlight. (Believe me, it ain't about the prize money.)

Through the miracle of YouTube, here's a taste, courtesy of last year's first-placer, Fralinger String Band:

Though wedded to its traditions, some have changed. For several years in the late '90s, the parade was moved to the main east-west span of Market Street, a decision which drove the Mummers crazy and were eventually able to have reversed. In an attempt to lure out-of-towners -- and reopen Broad Street to traffic at an hour earlier than 10pm -- the brigade judging was transferred into the Convention Center, though the clubs still march for a portion of Broad (albeit sans floats). The onetime route that comprised something near ten miles has been shortened to about three; the former 6am start-time has been pushed back to 9. The crowds numbering six and seven deep throughout are no more. And the marchers' triumphant, night-ending return to the epic block party on their home base of Second Street ("Two Street") is now punctuated by cops, cattle-chutes and curfews.

For all that, though, some things have gotten even better with time.

As with almost all things South Philly, the church looms large over the day; just as the overwhelming majority of Mummers are the descendants of the Irish immigrants on whose shoulders the old neighborhood was built, once upon a time, the steps of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Rectory at the foot of Mummers' Row became an impromptu reviewing stand as Fr Thomas Wassel held court and blessed the passing strutters.

In the days when he walked the earth, Wassel -- a son of the upstate coal country who spent most of his 53 years of ministry along Two Street, where he became less a legend than a demigod -- was the only party all sides trusted to receive their annual marching themes, ensuring that no two would take up the same idea and that no premature leaks would spoil the contest.

The longtime pastor died in 1996, but his impact remains palpable; with an Augustinian brother now "keeping" the themes and each of the bigger groups now boasting at least one chaplain of their own, most will gather tomorrow night at Mt Carmel as the church gets packed out the doors for yet another year of the Mummers' Mass. The bands play prelude and postlude, club members serve the ministerial roles, parade participants receive a special blessing, a special tribute for deceased Mummers is observed, and symbols of the four divisions -- including a pair of golden fancy boots and Wassel's Mummers' Doll -- are placed near the altar.

The only question that hangs over this year's march -- well, beside the perennial "Who's gonna win?" -- is the weather. Monday's forecast is calling for showers, and an early-morning conference call will determine if the parade will be delayed 'til Sunday, the 6th.

Thing is, though, rain's slated for then, too.

So, if this keeps up, it might just be that the (indoor) February ritual of the Show of Shows could end up taking place before the actual strut. Whatever the case, whenever it actually happens, it'll be no less joyous. But the wait, if there is one, will indeed be painful.

Happy New Year from Mummerville!


Churchman On Ice

OK, folks, so here's the story. As most of you know -- and, maybe, two or three were anticipating -- I've been keen to cap off the daily whispers of what's been a very full and eventful year with tomorrow's scheduled rollout of what's become the traditional package for the Churchman of the Year, comprising a year in review piece and a look at the honoree(s).

Looking over the drafts so far, however, I'm finding that their quality leaves much to be desired. And, well, that won't do; you've got every right to expect the best your narrator can compile, and such is your trust that I need to get the mental space to take it up a notch. (This is what happens when you plan on having the time, coherence and energy to get something done as the Octave keeps whirring away... and then reality sets in.)

Ergo, in the attempt to do it right than simply do it for its own sake, once the champagne's downed, the 12 grapes are gobbled, the confetti's cleaned up and another year's strut has gone into the history books, the breathing-room should be there for a better package. In the meantime, however, you may be interested to see who one Muslim website's "Person of the Year" is...

As this batch of posts is likely the last you'll be seeing for 2006, get hoppin', and be safe. Happy New Year to all of you and your loved ones -- may all its gifts, joys and promise be yours.

Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur....


Money Trouble

A shocker of a stat, from a recent academic report:
A whopping 85 percent of U.S. dioceses have detected embezzlement over the past five years, according to Villanova University researchers. “No question about it, it’s a large number,” said Charles Zech, director of the school’s Center for the Study of Church Management and coauthor of the 15-page paper, “Internal Financial Controls in the U.S. Catholic Church,” that details the findings. Supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute, Zech and Villanova accounting professor Robert West surveyed 174 diocesan chief financial officers. Seventy-eight responded.

The researchers don’t put a precise dollar figure on how much was embezzled, but the range indicates it’s significant. In 11 percent of the dioceses at least $500,000 was stolen over the last five years (meaning that a minimum of $4.3 million went missing) while one-third of the dioceses reported thefts of under $50,000. “You can only wonder about those [96] dioceses that didn’t respond to our survey,” said Zech.

Dishonest church employees and volunteers are the immediate cause, but the heart of the problem lies elsewhere, say the researchers.

“Unlike corporations which provide quarterly financial statements to the SEC and hold quarterly conference calls with outside analysts, the church is subject to almost no recurring outside financial scrutiny,” according to the report. Further, while “many dioceses provide parishioners with an annual financial and administrative newsletter, which provides a highly summarized view of the cash flows for the year and the results of social and spiritual programs offered by the diocese -- many other dioceses do neither.”

While external oversight of diocesan and parish finances is virtually nonexistent, internal checks are hardly any better. “Only 3 percent of the dioceses conducted an annual internal audit of their parishes,” while “21 percent of the dioceses indicated that they seldom or never audit their parishes.” When such reviews do occur, the researchers say, it’s frequently because a pastor or bookkeeper has ceased working in the parish.

Meanwhile, in more than 10 percent of the dioceses, the chief financial officer is responsible for hiring the external auditor, whose job it is to review the work of -- the chief financial officer. The bishop or the diocesan finance council should hire the external auditor, say the researchers. “It’s one of those controls that is so obvious that you wonder why it isn’t being done,” said Zech.


Desperately Seeking... Pallium

Several items of pontificalia belonging to Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile -- including the first pallium bestowed on the newly-created province 25 years ago -- were stolen from his car on Christmas Eve:

Lipscomb had backups for most of the items taken -- a crosier shepherd's crook, a pectoral cross, a gold antique chrism vessel and other valuable symbols of his office, Farmer said. But the pallium, which the Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary describes as a white, woolen circular band two inches wide, ornamented with six small black crosses and having a weighted pendant in the front and in the back, can only be replaced by the Vatican, church officials said.

Farmer said Friday that the pallium, while made simply from inexpensive material, is highly valued by the archbishop.

"The pallium is very much part of being an archbishop," Farmer said. "And is given by the Vatican to an archbishop."

To get a replacement, Lipscomb possibly will have to petition Catholic Church officials at the Vatican in Rome and that could take a month, Farmer said.

As a last-ditch option, every so often a pallium goes up on eBay... but of course, the feeling just isn't the same.


Friday, December 29, 2006

A Check of the Chessboard

In early September, the former bishop of Pittsburgh said he expected the appointment of his successor to come "later in the year."

Well, here we are. It's year's end, and....

If the Donald can't peg it, friends, how on earth do you expect me to?

All's seeming quite quiet on the Steel City front. As buzz swirls that the report on one long-standing vacancy just made the trip across the Pond within the last couple weeks, it's looking as if the 'Burgh'll be waiting a bit longer than many thought at the outset.

Then again, as the locals there will readily and gladly -- gladly -- chime in: they may not have an ordinary, but they do have a bishop... and are more than happy to defer to Lake Charles (where the faithful are getting angry), Youngstown (where the faithful are getting curious) and Salt Lake (where the faithful are getting Wester... so they say).

Ten US bishops will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in the 2K7. While seven of these lead dioceses, the year's first succession is already in the bag: Bishop John Nevins will turn the reins of the diocese of Venice over to his coadjutor, Bishop Frank Dewane, shortly after the former hits the canonical age-barrier on 19 January. (The former undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Dewane spent his first episcopal Christmas in Rome with family.)

Other dioceses going up for grabs in the New Year for reasons of age include the metropolitan churches of Omaha and New Orleans, the suffragan sees of Kalamazoo, Syracuse, Fort Wayne-South Bend -- and, of course, la Gran Manzana, New York. Three auxiliaries -- Dougherty of Scranton, Chavez of San Diego, and Quinn of Cleveland -- will also have to turn in their letters.

On top of the twelve US diocesans currently remaining in office with their resignations on the table (including the A-list sees of Detroit, Dallas, and Mother Baltimore), the eight openings still pending, a flood of auxiliary requests piled up, and with the Ratzi-Sambi Revolution in full swing, we are in for a blockbuster year, folks. And here's to it.


La Nueva Iglesia Norteamericana

Lost in the Christmas shuffle: a piece in the NYTimes Sunday magazine on the US church, Latinized... not so much in the direction of "Et cum spiritum tuo," but of "Y con tu espíritu."
Nationally, Hispanics account for 39 percent of the Catholic population, or something over 25 million of the nation’s 65 million Roman Catholics; since 1960, they have accounted for 71 percent of new Catholics in the United States. The vast increase, both proportionally and in absolute numbers, is mostly because of the surge in immigration from Latin America, above all from Mexico, that has taken place over the course of the past three decades. Today, more than 40 percent of the Hispanics residing in the United States, legally and illegally, are foreign-born, and the fate of the American Catholic Church has become inextricably intertwined with the fate of these immigrants and their descendants.

Nowhere is this clearer today than in Los Angeles. One key to the history of the city (mostly forgotten by non-Latinos) is the fact that the great migration of Mexican nationals northward in the past 30 years has a precedent in the 1920s, when waves of migrants flowed into California after the failure of the Cristero rebellion — an uprising against the abolition of many of the church’s privileges by Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. The regime of President Plutarco Elías Calles suppressed the Cristeros ruthlessly. (“The Power and the Glory,” Graham Greene’s novel that follows the hunting down of a “whisky priest” by government forces, is set during the Cristero rebellion.)

On one level, this is all ancient history, yet for many new immigrants from Mexico, the echoes linger on. One battle cry of Cristerismo, as it was known, was “Long Live the Virgin of Guadalupe,” a reference to the apparition of Mary that Mexican Catholics believe appeared to a native Mexican in the 16th century. In a caustic moment, the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz suggested that Mexicans believe only in two things: the national lottery and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The fascination continues: ask any Border Patrol agent, and he will tell you that many of the illegal immigrants whom the service intercepts today wear tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In the aftermath of their defeat, many of the Cristeros — by some estimates as much as 5 percent of Mexico’s population — fled to America. Many of them made their way to Los Angeles, where they found a protector in John Joseph Cantwell, the bishop of what was then the Los Angeles-San Diego diocese. Though he was born in Limerick, Ireland, Cantwell was determined to serve his Hispanic congregants. During the course of his tenure, Cantwell created dozens of new Hispanic parishes and missions — this at a time when race relations in L.A. were at a nadir, and the bishop’s mostly Irish congregants wanted little or nothing to do with their Mexican co-religionists.

The Cristeros arrived in the tens of thousands, but the current wave of immigrants dwarfs their numbers. Roger Mahony, the current cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, likes to point out that the United States is reaching “the greatest levels of immigration in our nation’s history,” and to him and others in the church hierarchy, the new arrivals herald a rebirth of American Catholicism. Many within the church also say that these new arrivals could reverse the trend toward more tolerant attitudes on issues like contraception and abortion — what orthodox believers dismissively call cafeteria Catholicism. If Los Angeles is the epicenter for the astonishing Hispanicization of the American Catholic Church, it is also the site of a return to orthodoxy....

What is taking place in Los Angeles is an erasing of the border between Catholicism in the United States and Catholicism in the rest of the Americas. When I asked Mahony about the Virgin of Guadalupe or the church’s view on immigration, he referred to studies and declarations issued jointly by American and Mexican prelates. In a sense, as mass immigration and economic interdependence have all but erased California’s southern border, so the Hispanicization of the American Catholic Church has made it increasingly part of a single pan-American Catholicism.

But even the Virgin of Guadalupe, powerful though she is symbolically, would be no more than a symbol were Latino Catholics not convinced of the sincerity of their church’s commitment to them. The authority of the church in L.A. finally boils down to the fact that for the poor, the church has come through and continues to come through. When all is said and done, can a poor immigrant really depend on anyone else caring about his or her immortal soul and also his or her material fate?
It's a very long piece -- still making my own way through it. But as a sign that the amped-up, all-over Latino outreach in LA is only the vanguard of the trend, in a first New York St Patrick's Cathedral instituted a weekly Sunday evening Mass in Spanish this past fall. Word on the street is that the crowd keeps growing with each one.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Egan On... Everything

Christmas is always high season for the archbishop of New York, and as he marked what could be his final one in the post, Cardinal Edward M. Egan stepped before the cameras, both to fulfill some annual traditions and for an extended interview with WABC that ran on Christmas Eve.

Despite penning a lengthy response two months back in Catholic New York in the wake of October's anonymous letter calling for a vote of no confidence in his leadership of the US' most influential local church, as they're wont to do the New York press viewed Egan's recent media spree as his first public reaction to the document.

In the Sunday interview with WABC's Diana Williams -- available both on video and in podcast form -- questions about the letter and the cardinal's 75th birthday on 2 April took center stage.

Saying that his health is "better than ever" following a September knee replacement, Egan appears headed to be the first archbishop of New York to leave office after reaching the canonical age-limit. However, he quipped to WCBS last week that "if I'm here till 150 years old, you'll just have to put up with me, eh?"

Here are some snips of the ABC session, transcribed by your narrator:

On the prospect of retirement: "When I was ordained, I made a promise to myself... I would ask for nothing, and I'd refuse nothing. I'd never do anything to have an appointment or an assignment -- whatever came, came. And whenever they wanted me to stop what I was doing, I'd stop. I've lived that way for 49 years [of priesthood], and I intend to continue living that way. Whatever happens, happens, and I am delighted with any decision that's made."

Retiring to France?: "Well, who'd want to leave New York? Now, first of all, it'd be nice to visit France every so often, but you want to stay in the capital of the world. I think that if I retired I would, maybe, take a little trip and have a little, uh, relaxation but, ultimately, sure, I would want to be back in New York. And then I could do some of the things that every bishop does -- I wouldn't have to be facing all of the paperwork and all of this kind of thing, you know. So if the Lord were to give me some extra years, I would, I hope, take a little 'R&R,' as they say, and then after that see if the New Yorkers let me back to do some confirmations and get around to the diocese, and I would love to do it that way.

On the letter: "My own guess is that this was written by a layman. I know no priest that was involved in anything like this, and the language is such that it doesn't sound like it doesn't come from a priest....

"I feel that anyone reading the language of the letter would say it was not written by a clergyman. But that's allright, whoever wrote it makes no difference. But the news media did everything they could to make it be something important."

On the mood among his priests: "I think they're quite satisfied. But we say 'no one is a good judge in his own case.' But I believe we have as fine a situation in the archdiocese of New York as we've had in the many years of its long history.... I believe anyone can put out a letter. Someone can put out a letter about Diana Williams, ask some newspaper to publish it, and then you'd be put on the defensive, eh? And you'd have to say, 'Diana is not a very nice person,' 'But I am a nice person.' Well, when you start that, 'I am a nice person,' you really are kind of damaging yourself....

"[I]t was one anonymous letter, sent to a blog, that's what it was. Not even in New York. And the newspapers and the television made a lot out of it, eh? But I believe we handled it very well, and I believe that the priests were wonderful about it and I think that, uh -- I want to put it behind me."

Biggest Accomplishment in New York?: "Well, I always think my biggest acomplishment as a bishop and as a priest is to lead the people in prayer. I would never think that anything I could do in any other effort would be equal to that."

Biggest Regret?: "We have not had the growth in vocations we've had to the priesthood and to the religious life... [I]f you match us with other dioceses, our growth is quite good, but it's nothing near what we need -- we have almost 400 parishes, almost 300 schools, and so forth, I could go on and on.... It would be the greatest possible grace, and I would hope that all your listeners who're Catholic will pray for me, and with me that vocations will grow."

How would Egan like to be remembered?: "Well, I hope [New Yorkers] remember me as one of the archbishops of New York, who came here because he was assigned to come here, and worked as hard as he could to proclaim the Gospel, to see to it that the sacramental life of the church was available, and to announce the Gospel of charity and justice. in t Pope Benedict XVI says very explicitly toward the end, 'the purpose of the church is to proclaim the gospel,' eh?, 'to lead in prayer and to announce justice and charity.' And if, in the providence of God, I were lucky enough to have someone say 'That's what Cardinal Egan did, or at least tried to do,' I would consider my years here a tremendous grace. But I'll tell you, Diana, I already consider them a tremendous grace."

A message to his priests?: "I think the priests know that I am 100% with them in everything, and I've done everything I could to get that story out.... I'm with the priests all the time. And I would say to the priests that they can just look at these six and a half years and see that I'm 100% one of them and I'm very proud to be a priest of the archdiocese of New York. And I'm very proud of them, and what they've done."

The Ninth Archbishop's memories of New York?: "I have such great memories of New York -- St Patrick's Cathedral, of course. You can never forget St Patrick's Cathedral. I'll never forget 9/11. I was there everyday, until the funerals started, and I did as many as three funerals in one day; I did two many days.... I think the scars are still there in the hearts of many of us. But I know that I look back and I see in my mind's eye the police officers of this town, the firemen and women of this town -- firefighters, as we like to say -- the emergency workers, the health-care professionals. And I can tell you story after story that ought to be on television, ought to be on radio, ought to be in our newspapers of such heroism, such goodness, such decency, such courage.

"Msgr Mustaciuolo, my secretary, and I stood there when the two men came up out of the ground, you know? I had just blessed a body in a plastic bag down there at Ground Zero, and as we all stood there there were a group of firefighters and as they all began to clap as these men came up. And it's such an experience of courage and decency and strength that you couldn't help but be touched, with all this dust going around and a dead body in front of us. So I'll never forget 9/11."

Jim Tynan/9/11 Digital Archive


A Christmas Tragedy

A New York Redemptorist who battled clinical depression jumped to his death yesterday:
The Rev. John Kiwus, [70], a Kingston native, was dead when he was recovered from the Hudson River by a crew from the Ulster Hose fire company, said Bill McDermott, chief of the East Kingston Fire Department. Rhinebeck is approximately 92 miles south of Saratoga Springs.

Kiwus, a Redemptorist priest, was stationed at the St. John Neumann Residence on Lake Avenue in Saratoga Springs, said the Rev. Patrick Woods, provincial of the Redemptorist order in Brooklyn. Woods said Kiwus suffered for many years from clinical depression and had undertaken many efforts to treat the condition. Kiwus left no suicide note, Woods said. A priest for 42 years, Kiwus trained as a missionary at Mount St. Alphonsus Seminary (now the Retreat Center) in the Ulster County town of Esopus, Woods said. Kiwus spent much of his priesthood in Campo Grande, Brazil, and left missionary work several years ago to return to the United States.
Within the next few days, you'll likely be seeing a gradual ramp-up of stories to mark the fifth anniversary of the first revelations from Boston which gave birth to a continuing national scandal. More about this as we get closer, but for now, in light of this story, let us be reminded of the effect the vicious cycle of the last half-decade has had on many of those priests who remain in ministry in our midst.

We've all heard a lot about the accused and the survivors, and rightfully so. But one of the less reported-on effects of the abuse crisis has been the immense shock and sorrow that the rank-and-file have had to absorb, on top of an even more expedited increase in their workload, waves of closings/mergers and keeping at the leadership of a people feeling bruised and enraged at the years of disclosures only now coming to light.

As many of the guys will tell you, in many ways 2002 marked the sudden arrival of a new world, a changed reality where even decades in the trenches often hadn't prepared them to deal with the new challenges which, so it seemed, had practically manifested themselves overnight.

The state of priestly morale in this country is such that, earlier this fall, the Pope was said to be "very concerned" about it. The new state of things has been dealt with in various ways; many priests have turned to therapy and found it more a renewal experience than they ever imagined. Others have found a renewed camaraderie with the only other people who can truly understand the ins and outs of their daily lives -- i.e. among themselves. And others still have discovered that a recharge of six months or a year away has been the optimal means of taking care of themselves so that, on their return, they could continue an exemplary level of work. (In many dioceses, the waiting list for this latter option is quite extensive.)

However, there are some among the brethren who, despite bearing the best and noblest of intentions, continue to suffer in ways they feel are beyond their control, but which could easily be remedied. While these great and good souls feel that they'd be selfish, ashamed, or needlessly drawing attention to themselves by seeking out some sort of aid beyond the spiritual, that's absolutely, absolutely not the case. If anything, the health and nourishment of the People of God hinges greatly on the health and nourishment its ministers maintain for themselves, and taking care of oneself in whatever way necessary is an important component of better, richer and more fruitful service.

Bottom line: gentlemen, take care of yourselves and keep an eye out for each other. If any of you has felt the need to seek out some kind of help but hasn't yet done so, please take the step. Even now, and possibly now more than ever, more of our people look to you and rely on you than you probably realize, and whatever it takes to restore some peace in your own soul would have a richer yield than you'd think, not just for your own journey, but also for those of the people entrusted to your care.

No matter where you are or what kind of moment you find yourself in, all you lot have a place in my prayers... and I know I'm far from alone in that.


Renato: Save Sadaam

With the death by hanging of the former Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein expected to take place in a matter of days, his traditional Vatican advocate returns to the fore:
Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's [Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace, was quoted in Italy's [La] Repubblica newspaper on Thursday saying there was a chance for last-minute clemency for Saddam after an appeals court upheld his death sentence.

"There's still a period of 30 days (before the death sentence must be carried out), the president's signature is required, things can happen," Martino was reported as saying.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has also condemned the decision to impose the death penalty.

Martino criticized the U.S. authorities at the time of Saddam's capture in December 2003 for releasing TV pictures of soldiers checking his teeth "as if he were a cow," images that he said needlessly humiliated the man.

The former papal envoy to the United Nations said there was "no doubt" that Saddam was responsible for mass murders, but that did not change the Church's opposition to capital punishment.

"You can't think of compensating for one crime with another one," he said. Saddam was sentenced in November for crimes against humanity and the death penalty was upheld on Tuesday.

Martino said he backed the idea of holding a peace conference aimed at solving all the major conflicts in the Middle East and reiterated the Vatican's position that invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led coalition was wrong.

"(Pope) John Paul II did his duty. He said it would be an adventure from which there was no return. Now that is what we are seeing."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Home for Christmas: The Godfather of Soul

Not since I walked upstairs on the first Christmas after we got the internet and broke the news to my father that Dean Martin died has the Holy Birth taken place under such a pall as it did this year.

As you probably know by now, the Good Lord clearly wanted the best to help him get down with His Bad Self on His Birthday, calling James Brown home early Monday morning to headline what was, without doubt, Heaven's Funkiest Christmas Ever.

I thought I'd get a longer apprenticeship, but your scribe's now become the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

Before the news of JB's death at 73 broke, I was fulfilling the annual Christmas late-night tradition of listening to Handel's Messiah in its entirety whilst winding down for the night. Then the word came from Atlanta and, like the Godfather dropping to his knees mid-performance, there went the oratorio, in its place another of my favorite sacred pieces: Brown's 1958 classic "Try Me," followed by the rest of the collection built up over a half-century of performing.

The video you see embedded above is a Whispers first, appropriately enough in tribute to an artist who infused pop culture with the vibe and soul of the Black Church, an icon of the age who had his struggles, battled his demons, found redemption in the profession that became his ministry, and in the process changed the craft for all time.

Taken from the 1965 TAMI Show, this clip features JB's famous "cape thing" (if you can't handle the rhythmic stylings, fast-forward to about 4:10). As an homage, I might just have to work the rite into my speaking gigs for the next six months. The host-bishop can play cape handler... and, for once, put his ferraiolo to good use.

I was aiming to head up to New York today for yet another Sirius on-air raid with Catholic Guy Lino Rulli and some other errata, but ended up kiboshing the trip. So it'll be a phoner at 5pm Eastern on The Catholic Channel.

In advance of tomorrow's viewing at the Apollo, the Godfather's on deck, among an assortment of Octave goodies.

Lux perpetua, Soul Brother.


Santa Boss Is Coming to Town

In a first, Mom's side's fearless chieftain donned a Santa hat on Christmas. Too good a pic to not post. She's shown here after opening a particularly merry tribute envelope.

Every time she started getting crabby, I'd throw another one at her; she'd spend five minutes counting the cash over and over, and then she'd be happy for about 10 minutes... Repeat cycle.

Thankfully, it kept her calm. Hope your nonliturgical festivities were as eventful.


Vatican Bishops Czar: Prelates and Politics Don't Mix

As if the appointment backlogs weren't enough to keep tabs on, Re & Co. have another retired bishop problem on their hands -- this time, it's a seemingly deposed Paraguayan prelate aiming to run as a leftist candidate for president:
The Vatican on Tuesday called on a retired Roman Catholic bishop to give up his plans to run for Paraguay's presidency or face canonical sanctions.
But retired Bishop Fernando Lugo [shown above at a March rally] said he had already resigned from the priesthood to lead a planned opposition alliance and challenge conservative President Nicanor Duarte of the Colorado Party in elections scheduled for May 2008.

The communique from the Vatican, signed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, threatened to suspend Lugo's authority as a priest as a "first sanction." It was not clear whether the text was written before or after the resignation.

"In the name of Jesus Christ, I ask him to seriously reflect about his behavior," the Vatican warning read.

It added that a run for the presidency "would be clearly against the serious responsibility of a bishop ... Canonic [sic] Law prohibits priests from participating in political parties or labor unions."

Lugo, 55, was appointed bishop of the impoverished northern San Pedro diocese by Pope John Paul II in 1994, but 10 years later he was ordered to retire. No reasons were announced.
Elsewhere in the American South, B16 this morning appointed Auxiliary Bishop Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago de Chile as archbishop of Concepcion, the nation's second largest metropolitan church. Key to decoding why Ezzati got the nod -- the three magic letters of the pontificate.... No, not B16, but SDB (scroll down).

Home to the departing CELAM president Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, the Schoenstatt cardinal-archbishop of Santiago, Chile lost half its "If the conclave were held today" delegation last Saturday with the 80th birthday of Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez.

A deity of the Tridentine circuit, the superannuation of the former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments excludes him not just from future papal elections, but also from his remaining curial memberships, including his coveted seat on the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei -- known to many simply as "The Indult People."

If another conclave were to take place before February 2008, however, though he won't be able to vote, the prelate who took obvious glee in proclaiming the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the Chair of Peter would still get to do the "Habemus Papam!" honors. Though past the voting age, Medina remains the Protodeacon, the senior cardinal-deacon who announces the new pontiff to the world.

As cardinal-deacons -- the junior rank of the college, reserved for curial officials and red-hats who lack the episcopal dignity -- traditionally "opt-up" to the order of cardinal-priest ten years after their elevations, currently next in line for the Protodeacon slot is Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, the former head of the APSA (the Holy See's investment office) who served as pro-nuncio to Washington from 1990-1999 and is the senior surviving deacon from the Wojtyla mega-consistory of 2001.

Should the Big Announcement fall to Cacciavillan, however, he'll also have to be informed of the specifics secondhand -- the veteran diplomat marked his 80th birthday last August.

PHOTO: AP/Jorge Saenz


Best of the Halo

BustedHalo unveils its favorites of the year, along with an "In Memoriam" of some of the staff's kindred souls who left us in the '06... including CBGB's.


Because You're Once, Twice... Six Times the Celebrant

Hopefully those of our clergy who needed it are just waking up from a well-merited post-Santa Notte respite.

In more places than many of us probably realize, it wasn't just bination or trination on IV Advent/Christmas Eve/Day -- it was "sexination."

No, that's not a Boratism -- it's a real term, shorthand for celebrating six Masses in one day.

As many of you know, the law of the church as a general rule allows priests to celebrate the Eucharist just once a day on weekdays and twice ("bination") on Sundays and holy days, with three celebrations universally permitted on All Souls Day and Christmas. The local bishop may permit bination on weekdays and trination on Sundays and holy days on his own authority, and at least one US diocese has an indult from the Holy See permitting daily trination and Sunday quatrination -- if you're lost amidst the nations, that's four turns at the presider's chair.

Well, with Advent's last Sunday and Christmas back-to-back, the celebration rules got maxed out like many of our credit cards this year, even though the two are technically separate liturgical days with distinct obligations for attendance. One East Coast friend, alone in his parish and with no help 'til Monday morning, had to do his place's three Sunday morning liturgies and the three on Christmas Eve -- including what now seems to be universally known as the "Zoo Mass," i.e. the first vigil liturgy which, in the current practice, is dominated by hordes of families.

As he told me on Saturday night, in the final lap of the frenzied preps, "All I want for Christmas is the 26th."

Even the LATimes picked up on the story:
By the time Monday afternoon rolled around, the San Gabriel Mission had offered 18 Masses and services in two days in English, Spanish and Vietnamese between its two adjacent sanctuaries....

That it all got taken care of was "kind of a miracle," said Berg, 71, who has been pastor at the mission for the last five years. He heads a staff of six fellow Claretian missionaries, half of whom are too old or ill to work full time, and a small cadre of lay volunteers.

"We just try to make this a good experience," said Chuck Lyons, public relations director at the parish, which serves more than 3,500 households.

And then there was music. Organist and pianist Paul Puccinelli played seven Masses in two days at San Gabriel. He got home from the midnight Mass at 2:30 a.m. and was up at 6 a.m. Monday for the round of morning services. He played a lot of "Away in a Manger" and "Joy to the World" and held quick consultations with soloist singers.

He was so tired that at one point, he joked about grabbing a catnap on the keyboard. But he finished his last service with a melodious "Silent Night" and was about to head off to a final assignment at a Pasadena church before joining his family.

"It's exhausting; it's hard. But I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way," Puccinelli said. "As tired as I am, it's all worthwhile."

Roman Catholics were obliged to attend both regular Sunday Mass and a service for the holiday, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The exception is when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday.

But the crunched timing had a downside: It cut attendance somewhat Monday, parish leaders said. Some people asked the priests if they could meet the requirements by coming just to, for example, the vigil Mass at 5 p.m. Sunday. The answer was no, although that advice was not always followed.

Anticipating that some people were reluctant to attend church twice in two days, some other churches, particularly Protestant ones, reduced their Sunday morning schedules. And some Christian denominations hold Christmas Eve worship but traditionally don't conduct Christmas Day services as long as it is not a Sunday.
...while in the Windy City, the Trib got wind of fluctuating Midnight Mass times:
Christmas preparations under way, Rev. Mark Bartosic struggled with an increasingly common holiday problem: how to get more people to attend midnight mass.

Bartosic discussed the matter with his parishioners at St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in Cicero, then decided to make a radical change. He moved midnight mass to 10 p.m.

"People just weren't coming at midnight," said Bartosic. "So, we started talking and thought an earlier mass would be better suited for people who want to pray first and then party and celebrate with their families after church."

It is a change being made by many Catholic churches, and it has spawned one of the season's great mysteries....

At St. Procopius Catholic Church in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, Rev. Timothy Howe said the service was switched from midnight to 9 p.m. in the early 1990s, a response to concerns about crime and people walking outside late at night.

In recent years, even as crime has dropped in Pilsen, the church kept bumping the service earlier. Last year, the Christmas Eve mass at St. Procopius was held at 7 p.m.

This year, with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, Howe said the church will celebrate at the hour when Sunday evening mass is normally held. That means the midnight mass will be said at 5 p.m.

"Initially, it started as a safety thing. People just didn't want to be out on the streets that late," Howe said. "But once that midnight thing was broken, we started asking what was the most convenient time for families to come to church."...

In addition to safety concerns, reasons for the change include aging of church populations, efforts to attract young children to mass and family obligations.

"Most churches have done it so people can go home after church and spend midnight with their families," said Marilu Gonzalez, a graduate student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
For the record, I'm a die-hard Midnight guy -- when it's actually, you know, at Midnight. This is not to critique those places which move it up; whatever it takes to reach the people. (For all we know, the Virgin Birth took place at 3.06am and 23 seconds, or 9.14pm and 38 seconds. Whatever.) For my own snotty gustibus, however, there's just a particular magic to the literal dead of night; and, by and large, the people who're there want to be there, moreso than at the "Zoo Mass" or any other of the Christmas liturgies.

This year, after three Christmases roasting under TV lights from the first stall of the cathedral-basilica here (one of my mentor's many good gifts), then a couple years of wipporwilling it and, finally, the memorable-as-a-train-wreck debacle that was Christmas 2K5 in Jersey, I returned to the closest thing I've ever had to a home parish: the little Italian church with a heart bigger than Bernini's Colonnade.

Per usual, it was, in a word, divine. Sure, the choir had a bit of a rough ride with the Alleluia from Mozart's Exultate, and the Kyrie and Gloria were choral, but like the best of old sweaters that've worn well with time, it had a comfortable dignity to it.

And, guess what, it's all good -- I've seen enough to realize that, when the sincerity of worship is trumped by the golden calf of an anal-retentive precision, we'd do better to just stay home and let it all burn, because in the walk of faith, the greater glory lies in the effort as opposed to the achievement.

Seems no less than the Ratzi Bear agrees. In his Midnight homily, the Pope spoke to the excessive tendency as proof that, even after the Coming, some things in religion remain the same:
[S]o we come to the second meaning that the Fathers saw in the phrase: "God made his Word short". The Word which God speaks to us in Sacred Scripture had become long in the course of the centuries. It became long and complex, not just for the simple and unlettered, but even more so for those versed in Sacred Scripture, for the experts who evidently became entangled in details and in particular problems, almost to the extent of losing an overall perspective. Jesus "abbreviated" the Word – he showed us once more its deeper simplicity and unity. Everything taught by the Law and the Prophets is summed up – he says – in the command: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Mt 22:37-40). This is everything – the whole faith is contained in this one act of love which embraces God and humanity.
Back to my place, it didn't go unnoticed that, at long last, they've started incensing the people at the Presentation of the Gifts. That was a quantum leap.

I couldn't help but notice, however, the aggregate disappearance of the Old Guard. Not all that long ago, it was the case that you couldn't get a seat if you showed up a second after 11.08 or thereabout. With that in mind, I got there at 11.45, fully expecting to stand, but finding the back half of the place (which comfortably seats about 550)... empty. It eventually filled in, and there were a couple of standers, but nothing like the out-the-door-and-down-the-steps crowd that was there in, say, '98 and '99.

Highlight: "Tu Scendi," of course. All of six or seven congregants knew the words, and the other five or six were old ladies in black mantillas. Go figure.

But between this, and the ramping-up of the time in many places, can it be said that we're witnessing the long, slow death of Midnight Mass?

I haven't seen enough to know, but good God I hope not. Consubstantial night owl that I am, I'm more awake for it than any liturgy all year.

Whatever the case, to the troopers who endured the weekend crush, yours is the thanks of a grateful church. Good work feeding the masses, and hopefully you all got to enjoy a bit of down-time.

And now, back to work.


Monday, December 25, 2006

The Value of the Saviour

From the Christmas Urbi et Orbi:

"Salvator noster natus est in mundo" (Roman Missal)

"Our Saviour is born to the world!" During the night, in our Churches, we again heard this message that, notwithstanding the passage of the centuries, remains ever new. It is the heavenly message that tells us to fear not, for "a great joy" has come "to all the people" (Lk 1:10). It is a message of hope, for it tells us that, on that night over two thousand years ago, there "was born in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11). The Angel of Christmas announced it then to the shepherds out on the hills of Bethlehem; today the Angel repeats it to us, to all who dwell in our world: "The Saviour is born; he is born for you! Come, come, let us adore him!".

But does a "Saviour" still have any value and meaning for the men and women of the third millennium? Is a "Saviour" still needed by a humanity which has reached the moon and Mars and is prepared to conquer the universe; for a humanity which knows no limits in its pursuit of nature’s secrets and which has succeeded even in deciphering the marvellous codes of the human genome? Is a Saviour needed by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the Earth, our great common home, a global village? This humanity of the twenty-first century appears as a sure and self-sufficient master of its own destiny, the avid proponent of uncontested triumphs.

So it would seem, yet this is not the case. People continue to die of hunger and thirst, disease and poverty, in this age of plenty and of unbridled consumerism. Some people remain enslaved, exploited and stripped of their dignity; others are victims of racial and religious hatred, hampered by intolerance and discrimination, and by political interference and physical or moral coercion with regard to the free profession of their faith. Others see their own bodies and those of their dear ones, particularly their children, maimed by weaponry, by terrorism and by all sorts of violence, at a time when everyone invokes and acclaims progress, solidarity and peace for all. And what of those who, bereft of hope, are forced to leave their homes and countries in order to find humane living conditions elsewhere? How can we help those who are misled by facile prophets of happiness, those who struggle with relationships and are incapable of accepting responsibility for their present and future, those who are trapped in the tunnel of loneliness and who often end up enslaved to alcohol or drugs? What are we to think of those who choose death in the belief that they are celebrating life?...

"Salvator noster": this is our hope; this is the message that the Church proclaims once again this Christmas day. With the Incarnation, as the Second Vatican Council stated, the Son of God has in some way united himself with each man and women (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). The birth of the Head is also the birth of the body, as Pope Saint Leo the Great noted. In Bethlehem the Christian people was born, Christ’s mystical body, in which each member is closely joined to the others in total solidarity. Our Saviour is born for all. We must proclaim this not only in words, but by our entire life, giving the world a witness of united, open communities where fraternity and forgiveness reign, along with acceptance and mutual service, truth, justice and love.

A community saved by Christ. This is the true nature of the Church, which draws her nourishment from his Word and his Eucharistic Body. Only by rediscovering the gift she has received can the Church bear witness to Christ the Saviour before all people. She does this with passionate enthusiasm, with full respect for all cultural and religious traditions; she does so joyfully, knowing that the One she proclaims takes away nothing that is authentically human, but instead brings it to fulfilment. In truth, Christ comes to destroy only evil, only sin; everything else, all the rest, he elevates and perfects. Christ does not save us from our humanity, but through it; he does not save us from the world, but came into the world, so that through him the world might be saved (cf. Jn 3:17).

Reuters/Max Rossi
PHOTO 2: AP/Pier Paolo Cito

If I could write 10,000 cards, I would.... Until then, I pray this one'll suffice.

Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory – the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, "it has shone around them". Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up – charity towards others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness. From Bethlehem a stream of light, love and truth spreads through the centuries. If we look to the Saints – from Paul and Augustine to Francis and Dominic, from Francis Xavier and Teresa of Avila to Mother Teresa of Calcutta – we see this flood of goodness, this path of light kindled ever anew by the mystery of Bethlehem, by that God who became a Child. In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.
--Benedict XVI, Homily at Midnight Mass
Christmas 2005

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"God's Sign is Simplicity"

Below is the official English translation of Pope Benedict XVI's homily at the Midnight Mass of Christmas in St Peter's Basilica, as released by the Holy See.


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We have just heard in the Gospel the message given by the angels to the shepherds during that Holy Night, a message which the Church now proclaims to us: "To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:11-12). Nothing miraculous, nothing extraordinary, nothing magnificent is given to the shepherds as a sign. All they will see is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, one who, like all children, needs a mother’s care; a child born in a stable, who therefore lies not in a cradle but in a manger. God ’s sign is the baby in need of help and in poverty. Only in their hearts will the shepherds be able to see that this baby fulfils the promise of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder" (Is 9:5). Exactly the same sign has been given to us. We too are invited by the angel of God, through the message of the Gospel, to set out in our hearts to see the child lying in the manger.

God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him. The Fathers of the Church, in their Greek translation of the Old Testament, found a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: "God made his Word short, he abbreviated it" (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28). The Fathers interpreted this in two ways. The Son himself is the Word, the Logos; the eternal Word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way he teaches us to love the weak. In this way he teaches us respect for children. The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved. In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us pray this night that the brightness of God’s love may enfold all these children. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of l ove, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life.

And so we come to the second meaning that the Fathers saw in the phrase: "God made his Word short". The Word which God speaks to us in Sacred Scripture had become long in the course of the centuries. It became long and complex, not just for the simple and unlettered, but even more so for those versed in Sacred Scripture, for the experts who evidently became entangled in details and in particular problems, almost to the extent of losing an overall perspective. Jesus "abbreviated" the Word – he showed us once more its deeper simplicity and unity. Everything taught by the Law and the Prophets is summed up – he says – in the command: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Mt 22:37-40). This is everything – the whole faith is contained in this one act of love which embraces God and humanity. Yet now further questions arise: how are we to love God with all our mind, when our intellect can barely reach him? How are we to love him with all our heart and soul, when our heart can only catch a glimpse of him from afar, when there are so many contradictions in the world that would hide his face from us? This is where the two ways in which God has "abbreviated" his Word come together. He is no longer distant. He is no longer unknown. He is no longer beyond the reach of our heart. He has become a child for us, and in so doing he has dispelled all doubt. He has become our neighbour, restoring in this way the image of man, whom we often find so hard to love. For us, God has become a gift. He has given himself. He has entered time for us. He who is the Eternal One, above time, he has assumed our time and raised it to himself on high. Christmas has become the Feast of gifts in imitation of God who has given himself to us. Let us allow our heart, our soul and our mind to be touched by this fact! Among the many gifts that we buy and receive, let us not forget the true gift: to give each other something of ourselves, to give each other something of our time, to open our time to God. In this way anxiety disappears, joy is born, and the feast is created. During the festive meals of these days let us remember the Lord’s words: "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite those who will invite you in return, but invite those whom no one invites and who are not able to invite you" (cf. Lk 14:12-14). This also means: when you give gifts for Christmas, do not give only to those who will give to you in return, but give to those who receive from no one and who cannot give you anything back. This is what God has done: he invites us to his wedding feast, something which we cannot reciprocate, but can only receive with joy. Let us imitate him! Let us love God and, starting from him, let us also love man, so that, starting from man, we can then rediscover God in a new way!

And so, finally, we find yet a third meaning in the saying that the Word became "brief" and "small". The shepherds were told that they would find the child in a manger for animals, who were the rightful occupants of the stable. Reading Isaiah (1:3), the Fathers concluded that beside the manger of Bethlehem there stood an ox and an ass. At the same time they interpreted the text as symbolizing the Jews and the pagans – and thus all humanity – who each in their own way have need of a Saviour: the God who became a child. Man, in order to live, needs bread, the fruit of the earth and of his labour. But he does not live by bread alone. He needs nourishment for his soul: he needs meaning that can fill his life. Thus, for the Fathers, the manger of the animals became the symbol of the altar, on which lies the Bread which is Christ himself: the true food for our hearts. Once again we see how he became small: in the humble appearance of the host, in a small piece of bread, he gives us himself.

All this is conveyed by the sign that was given to the shepherds and is given also to us: the child born for us, the child in whom God became small for us. Let us ask the Lord to grant us the grace of looking upon the crib this night with the simplicity of the shepherds, so as to receive the joy with which they returned home (cf. Lk 2:20). Let us ask him to give us the humility and the faith with which Saint Joseph looked upon the child that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. Let us ask the Lord to let us look upon him with that same love with which Mary saw him. And let us pray that in this way the light that the shepherds saw will shine upon us too, and that what the angels sang that night will be accomplished throughout the world: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." Amen!

PHOTOS 1-2, 4: AP/Andrew Medichini
PHOTO 3: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi


Sunday at the Vatican: Christmas -- and Controversy

Framed in the above image by the Vatican Christmas Tree, here's the translation of B16's message at this morning's Angelus:
Dear brothers and sisters,

the celebration of the Holy Birth is now upon us. Today's vigil prepares us to live intensely the mystery that the liturgy will invite us on this Night to contemplate with the eyes of faith. In the divine Newborn, who we will lay in the crib, is made manifest our salvation. In the God who made himself man for us, we all feel ourselves loved and welcomed, we discover being precious and unique in the eyes of the Creator. The Birth of Christ helps us to be conscious of how much human life is worth, the life of each human being, from his first instant until his natural end. Whoever opens their heart to this "baby wrapped in swaddling clothes" and lying "in a manger" (cf. Lk 2:12) he offers the possibility of looking with new eyes upon the reality of each day. He will be able to relish the power of the interior wonder of the love of God, who succeeds in transforming in joy and also in suffering.

Let us prepare ourselves, dear friends, to encounter Jesus, the Emmanuel, God with us. Born in the poverty of Bethlehem, he wishes to make himself a companion on the journeys of each one of us. In this world, from when He himself "extended" into it, no one is a stranger. It's true, we are all in passage, but it is this Jesus who makes us feel at home on this earth sanctified by his presence. He ask us, then, to make him a home that's welcoming for all. The surprising gift of Christmas is precisely this: Jesus has come for each one of us and in him we have been made brothers. The corresponding engagement is that of ever-more surpassing preconceptions and prejudices, breaking down the barriers and eliminating the differences which divide, or worse, place individuals and peoples into conflict, so that we may build together a world of justice and peace.

With these sentiments, dear brothers and sisters, let us live these last hours that separate us from Christmas, preparing ourselves spiritually to welcome the Baby Jesus. In the heart of night He will come for us. It's his desire, therefore, to also come within us, to live in the heart of each one of us. With that coming, it's indispensible that we be prepared and make ourselves ready to receive him, ready to make space for him inside ourselves, in our families, in our cities. May his birth not find us [merely] impelled to celebrate Christmas, forgetting that the protagonist of the feast is He himself! Help us, Mary, to maintain the interior recollection indispensible to taste the profound joy that marks the birth of the Redeemer. To her let us return now with our prayers, thinking particularly of those preparing to spend their Christmas in sadness and in solitude, in sickness and in suffering: to all of them, may the Virgin bring comfort and consolation.

Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae....
Insider tip: the strong human-life references in the first paragraph are likely due to the recent controversy in Italy over the right-to-die advocate Piergiorgio Welby, a muscular-dystrophy sufferer who died Wednesday after his respirator was removed at his behest.

Author of a book called Lasciatemi Morire -- "Let Me Die" -- Welby's case has inspired a fierce political row in Italy, where the church weighed in after his death by denying the activist a Mass of Christian Burial. (The title of his book appears to be a play on Lasciatemi Andare -- "Let Me Go" -- last year's published account of the final weeks of the life of Pope John Paul II.)

Secular funeral rites for Welby were held today in Rome. In the above photo, a religious sister comforts Welby's mother, Luciana.

AP/Andrew Medichini
PHOTO 2: AP/Riccardo De Luca


Saturday, December 23, 2006

From the Cerimoniere's Office

This year's Christmas liturgy marks Archbishop Piero Marini's 20th Midnight Mass alongside a Roman Pontiff as Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations.

Yesterday, several e.mails popped in on the appointment of Msgr Guillermo Javier Karcher, an official of the First Section of the Secretariat of State, as a papal "cerimoniere." This seemed to cause a bit of confusion, with some asking after the longtime papal liturgist's status. For the record, the "cerimonieri pontifici" are those officials designated to assist the Maestro in the exercise of papal liturgies whilst retaining their day jobs. When Marini is absent, the others may take his place as lead master of ceremonies.

With the appointment of Karcher, a priest of Buenos Aires, the number of assistant papal MCs now stands at ten; three others were named earlier this year. One veteran of the group is Msgr William Millea, a Stato official and a priest of the diocese of Bridgeport.

For the liturgy buffs among us, yet another Marini new release might well be of interest:
The Holy See has published a commentary on the installation rites used for the inaugural Mass of Benedict XVI.

The volume, published in Italian and entitled "Inizio del ministero petrino del vescovo di Roma Benedetto XVI" (Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome Benedict XVI), offers liturgical, theological, historical and ritual commentary on the liturgical text followed for the inaugural Mass.

The Mass -- "Ordo Rituum pro Ministeri Petrini Initio Romae Episcopi" -- was approved by Benedict XVI days before the inaugural Mass took place April 24, 2005.

Benedict XVI and Archbishop Piero Marini, master of pontifical celebrations, appear on the cover.

The flap reads that "the rites of opening of a pontificate, celebrated in the spirit of the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, remain as a sign and hope for the Church's journey in the world."
With a nod to Flannery, the international celebrations for Marini's 20th anniversary in the Maestro's post early next year will bear the theme "The Habit of Being... Still There."

Not long after, the long-awaited English translations of the archbishop's books on the conciliar reform and the history of papal liturgy will be published.


Two Years of the Munus Blogendi

“So, two years?” the Catholic Guy asked me on Wednesday. “It’s your longest relationship?”

“Not the longest,” I shot back, “but, without question, the best.”

If you’re having difficulty following – what’s new? – Wednesday marked the second anniversary of the day when, with nothing but a whim and a brain-fart of a title, Whispers went live. Boasting a readership of three. And bearing no hope nor agenda whatsoever.

At least some things never change. But along the way, a strange thing happened. Almost 1.9 million strange things, actually – the number of visitors which, for no explicable reason, keeps growing… and keeps me ever more humbled, shocked and, with each passing day, more and more aware of my limitations and insufficiencies. (I know myself well enough that no one should have to put up with me on a daily basis, let alone want to.)

I could write a pastoral on the many stories and lessons of this journey. By turns, it’s been just like the life of the church and the characters you find in it – a mix of the uplifting, inspiring, astonishing, and appalling. But whatever the story or the moment, each encounter, each message has been a priceless gift and blessing, which only two words do justice: “thank you” and “forgive me.”

Despite my keenness to keep these pages under wraps and the province of a tightly-knit circle of friends, it just so happened that, for all my efforts to the contrary, they “broke out.” With that, the responsibilities increased and the circle widened, far beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined when first clicking away in my folks’ basement two years back. But even for all that, no less a spirit of friendship and kindness – truly, the best of the church – has held sway, often from the most unexpected of places.

I can’t express how much this means, and no words could adequately match my thanks for it; the same goes for my unworthiness to be a part of all this. Whether it’s been a chance meeting on the road, a moving e.mail, the promise of prayers or one of the many, many other manifestations of support and encouragement I’ve gotten in the course of this journey, the only reason Whispers has been able to keep on is because of you, the readers, the People of God, because of your richness in spirit, love for the church and goodness to this rookie on the beat, whether as sources, donors, supporters, candid (and wise) critics, givers of the love that is friendship – and, in many cases, all of the above.

Thanks to all of you for renewing my faith each and every day. Seeing and hearing of how you heroically give of yourselves without counting the cost, in the most diverse of settings and, often, under taxing and difficult circumstances has been a blessed experience in itself. Whether you’re lay, religious or ordained, whether your work takes place in a hospital, a law office, a homeless shelter or in the halls of prayer, by your lives and in your witness each of you prove anew (in ways you probably don’t recognize) that the church is alive, the church is young, and that sharing in its life is the greatest richness of our own. You don’t hear it often enough from on high – and far be it from me to speak for those up there – but, speaking for myself, thank you for bearing the light of Christ into the world. And as so many of you have been so kind as to reveal that light to me day after day, thanks for making me feel that, for all the pain and sorrow I’ve experienced here at home, there really is a place for me within the church’s embrace.

At the same time, I have to ask your forgiveness – if, for nothing else, for putting up with your narrator’s idiosyncrasies, lapses, off days, and the ever-rising mountain of things I either don’t do right or don’t get to at all. This is particularly the case with the e.mails, which I love so much but, in the midst of the daily chaos, often get lost in the shuffle. (I’ve weighed the idea of getting some sort of Blackberry to aid in the effort, but the cost of sanity would be way too high… not to mention the cost, period.) It’s also true with the donor “thank-yous” which, admittedly, I’ve also been terrible at handling, a failure for which I can’t apologize enough.

Bottom line: if there’s one regret I have about the state of things, it’s that I can’t be on top of everything as I’d like to be. I love and cherish the intimacy of reader mail and getting to know as many of you as possible, and it drives me crazy that I don’t get to respond in kind as often as I’d wish and as much as I should. However, I do read every last thing that drops in – the messages keep me laughing, crying, connected, and sane – so please, please, please, keep ‘em comin’ and hopefully we’ll meet up somewhere along the road, be it in this world or the next.

Speaking of the road… it’s looking as if a good bit of the 2K7 will be spent on it. And thank God. I’m really looking forward to seeing as many of you who care to show at the various gigs and appearances in the coming months. More on those as they’re firmed up, but particularly close to my heart is a two-day engagement in Denver, 9-10 March, at the invitation of the good archbishop, who for many years has served as one of my voices of conscience.

Five years ago, it was in the Rockies that my ecclesial mindset was opened to two things: a culture shock in the best possible meaning of the term, and a more fleshed-out concept of vocation, which eventually and unexpectedly led to this. Even when I find myself in places I’ve never been before, each journey, each experience is a homecoming, but none’ll be more so than returning to Denver, where I left a big piece of my heart and found a bigger piece of myself many moons ago. (Here’s hoping they’re not buried under several feet of snow again when that rolls around…. And, given this week’s big NBA trade, I’ll probably end up co-hosting some kind of late night party with AI.)

With that, it’s Christmas. Mom’s family is back, the Boss is preparing to preside at another Feast of the Seven Fishes – and, once everyone’s stuffed, kicking everyone out to count her envelopes. Aside from B16’s Midnight Homily and a few other things, posting will be light through the Octave; the Christmas card above is the first I’ve gotten to this year, so the rest need to be done, not to mention enjoying the gift of the family and friends whose loyalty and support remain my strength.

In the peace and quiet of this Holy Night, Light returned to the world. That Light continues in the life of this church, in the work and witness of each of you, in the love, joy and hope you bring to the many people weary from having walked in darkness.

On retreat last week in New York, I spent a good bit of time in St Patrick’s Cathedral, one of my favorite places and home to some of the most cherished experiences of my younger days. All through the year and away from its sanctuary, incredible things happen there: in its aisles, its side-chapels and pews, but this time of year makes that even more true. For especially at Christmas, floods of tourists, pilgrims and simply wandering souls bring their joy, their anticipation, their hope, their doubts, anxieties and heartaches through its doors. Looking around at any given moment, all these are present in one’s line of sight.

Kneeling before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the midst of this tapestry of emotion, I lit a candle for all of you, your loved ones, your intentions, and that the joy of this blessed season be yours in the richest and most lasting of ways. Being distracted at prayer is nothing new, but on this evening a brass plaque along the altar rail caught my eye.

It was a request for help in maintaining the edifice that is, as none other even comes close, our national church. There are several of these plaques throughout St Pat’s, but I never took the time to read them before. I’m glad I finally did, as its last line has stuck with me: “This Cathedral is a gift from one generation to the next.

One by one, the faithful and the curious who flock to it prove the truth of that statement. But truer still is this: The church is a gift from one generation to the next, in its teachings, its traditions, in its life, in the faith, hope and love it inspires, both among its own and for the life of the world.

In ways and to people you might never see or know, each of you make this gift better and better each day. For that, and for the grace of being able to watch it all from the sidelines, thanks be to you and thanks be to God for these past two years, which’ve been the experience of a lifetime.

God love you all forever, and may every good gift of Christmas be yours!


Friday, December 22, 2006

Quote of the Day

One of the few things that've really gotten in my craw of late is the downright anemic state of bulls of appointment in the new pontificate.

Suffice it to say, it's not good for business.

Gone are the long, flowery, easily de-encryptable Wojtylan testimonies of a nominee's strengths that played into the considerations. (Albeit written by another.) In their place: the catch-all, bland (and completely impossible to read into) statement that the elect is "endowed with the requisite qualities" for higher office.

Whoever's doing the ghostscribing hasn't completely lost the flair, however. At least, they were able to get away with it in one recent letter....

Earlier in the week, I caught a screener of last week's ordination of the new auxiliaries of Boston, Bishops John Dooher and Robert Hennessey; the ring shown above, its image taken from a Japanese fumier of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was given the two new bishops. (Excellent homily and more at the Eminent Blog, also the source of the photo.)

But the closing line from the Pope's letter appointing Dooher caught my ear as probably the most profound, rich, succinct counsel any bulla's manifested in quite some time:
"Then, on receiving the office of Bishop... constantly beg for Divine Help, and conduct yourself as an irreproachable Pastor. The faithful ought to find an exemplar of charity in their Bishop, whose very demeanor is a great lesson, and whose meekness is a power."


More Simbang Gabi

From a Filipino blog (because we don't have many stories about full churches here in the States... let alone full churches at 4.30am for nine days straight), a commentary on the "packed-to-the-rafters" attendance at the Big Novena:
It never ceases to amaze me how, year after year, the churches are always full for the Misa de Gallo.

It's not an easy tradition to carry out, mind you. The Masses typically start at half past four in the morning. The sky is still deep velvety black and the air still retains its nippy bite. And yet never have I gone to a church or chapel that was not packed to the rafters and overflowing with devotees. Not in Manila, not in Cebu, not in Davao, and certainly not in Dumaguete.

Oh, to be sure, not everyone has pure and high motives of worship for going to the pre-dawn Masses. For some, it's the superstition of a sought-after wish. For others, it's the pull of their peers. And still for others, because that's the way it's always been. My own reasons incorporate a little of each....

Not all our reasons might be noble, but such a sacrifice cannot be carried out without some degree of holiness seeping in. Whatever the primary reasons, it achieves some bit of its true purpose.

So early in the morning, the body is still in repose and the soul is still composed. Unfettered by worries and unhampered by distractions, it's a much easier time for prayer . In those quiet moments, waiting for the Misa de Gallo can be a contemplative experience. That atmosphere lends to the nature of a vigil, which the Masses are. It heightens the anticipation for the coming Christmas season.

To the uninitiated, here's a secret: it actually becomes easier once you've done your first set. In fact, it becomes something to look forward to. I'm a latecomer to the tradition, having been introduced to it only five years ago by the Fortunatos in Cebu. Since then, I've completed this Christmas novena without fail despite any initial doubts attending on the first day. It has its own strange attraction; the wait for Christmas now seems incomplete without the Misa de Gallo.

PHOTO: AP/Pat Roque


Christmas in New Mexico: White Snow and Purple Rain

The gradual liberation of wide swaths of the US church from Purple Drought continues: two new monsignori in the archdiocese of Santa Fe... where only two other clerics have basked in the fount of honor over the last 40 years.


"A Ray of Hope"

Word's come from Toronto that Archbishop Thomas Collins' installation will take place on 30 January at 10.30am in St Michael's Cathedral.

To think: almost two years exactly after an early Friday morning of pre-Super Bowl revelry in an Irish pub here in Philly, the "T.O." chant will be getting quite the unanticipated resurrection. (Don't expect to hear it from me on Christmas evening, however.)

Writing in yesterday's National Post, the columnist Fr Raymond De Souza -- a priest of Kingston and onetime student in Rome -- offers his take on the appointment:
While Toronto's archbishop has no formal authority outside his diocese's boundaries, the sheer size of Toronto and its status as the nation's media capital make the archbishop the sine qua non of the Church's presence in Canadian public life. While it might pain those of us outside the metropolis to admit it, it is often the case that if doesn't happen in Toronto, it doesn't happen at all. Cardinal Ambrozic recently reorganized his communications office for this reason, appointing a new communications director who understands that in order to communicate the Gospel, you first have to communicate. In so doing, he prepared the ground for his successor, a formidable intellect with a winsome way of preaching the Gospel.

In this, Archbishop Collins is cut from the same cloth as the Archbishop of Quebec City, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, appointed in 2003. Both are modest men, rather soft-spoken, authentic scholars able to propose the Catholic tradition to a skeptical, even hostile, culture. They are both men who, if left to their druthers, would probably choose the library and the classroom, but, given their vocations, are quite content to serve as bishops too. They are not long-faced pastors, wearing their sacrifices on their sleeves. They were both made bishops by John Paul II, but are more in the mode of Benedict XVI, the reserved scholar-pastor.

In Ouellet and Collins, the leading French and English bishops respectively, Canada has moved to the front rank in terms of the quality of its Catholic leadership. Ouellet is already regularly consulted in matters of concern well beyond Canada, and it won't be long before Collins is in demand far and wide....

On my last visit to Edmonton, I stayed with him in his very modest home, the basement of which was given over to a makeshift library. Even the altar was alongside a long shelf of books. I offered the Holy Mass there privately, a circumstance in which there are rarely distractions. Not the case that time, where my eye was constantly drawn to the library -- the Thomas More section was closest. Yes, he has a Thomas More section, to which he will no doubt be frequently referring in his newly prominent role in dealing with political and cultural leaders who, now as then, only wish to go along to get along....

Every new archbishop is welcomed by all parties. Those who loved his predecessor think he will carry on in like manner; those who didn't will hope a revolution is at hand. Thus Archbishop Collins comes to Canada's largest city as a ray of hope. Once the decisions come which displease this or that group, his mission will be to remind the Church and the city that a bishop, despite his manifest talents, cannot bring hope himself, but only point to the One who does.