View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Here's Looking at You

Time magazine recently released a list of the “top 100 movies of all Time” (

I’m a bit of a movie buff. About a decade ago, the American Film Institute released its list of the top 100 American movies. I looked at that list and realized I had seen more than 80 of the films AFI cited. I’ve since seen almost all of them.

So I looked at the Time list –which was international in nature.

I’d seen 43 of them.

Disappointing. I’ve got some watching to do.

But as I looked at the list, I began to wonder: Where are the religious movies?

Of course, the term religious can be defined in any number of ways.

If you mean simply good triumphing over evil, there are such films on the list (Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, for example).

If you mean presenting situations in which the characters make moral choices, you can find them on the list, too (Schindler’s List is one).

Or if you mean making prominent use of religious imagery, you can find those on the list as well (Blade Runner fits this criteria).

But what I’m talking about are movies in which God, spirituality, or faith play a prominent role in the plot and/or in the lives of at least one of the major characters.

Of the 41 movies on the list I’d seen, only one fit that criteria: It’s a Wonderful Life.

To be fair, there may be others on the list that meet this criteria, but that I have not yet seen. Ikiru and The Decalogue are cited in other lists of religious movies, for example.

Still, three movies out of 100? Even if I missed a few, four or five?

So I began to consider what my list of best religious movies would be. Coming up with 100 seemed too daunting a task. (I do have a life.)

The folks over at Arts and Faith did manage to come up with an interesting list of spiritually significant films. (

I suspect that was a group effort, however. For an individual, twenty seems a more reasonable start.

To be honest, most religious movies I’ve encountered may be well-meaning, but are just not great movies. Some are downright bad movies, in fact (The Miracle comes to mind, though my wife likes it.)

On my good, but no cigar list I include movies like Entertaining Angels, Keys to the Kingdom, The Spitfire Grill, and Francis of Assisi.

There are the Biblical epics that don’t make the greatest list, including The King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Bible.

There are the movies that make me laugh (intentionally or not) but don’t make the list, such as Dogma, Life of Brian, or The Last Temptation of Christ.

There are some guilty pleasure religious movies that I enjoy, but can’t add to the list. They include: The Robe; Brother Sun, Sister Moon; Saving Grace; The Shoes of the Fisherman; A Man Called Peter; and The Scarlet and the Black.

And I’m certain there are great religious films that I simply haven’t seen yet. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Diary of a Country Priest, Monsieur Vincent and Andrei Rublev make a lot of lists, for example.

Meanwhile, there are some movies I’m still mulling over, like The Passion of the Christ.

Anyway, here’s my top 20 list, in no particular order:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
The Song of Bernadette
Babette’s Feast
The Mission
Tender Mercies
It’s a Wonderful Life
Going My Way
A Man for All Seasons
The Seventh Seal
Chariots of Fire
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima
Ben Hur
Jesus of Montreal
Jesus of Nazareth
Dead Man Walking
The Bishop’s Wife
The Exorcist

I’d be happy to see other films that people might suggest should be on my list. I’d even be willing to reconsider my opinions on some films, some of which, admittedly, I haven’t seen in years.

Now, where’s that popcorn?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Before Glory and Praise

I recently uncovered an old folder that contained some songs I used to play back in the 70s. The songs included many of the hymns we used to play as part of the campus ministry “folk group.”

Mind you, the St. Louis Jesuit songs had begun to filter in, but these were the main songs with which we had to work.

Ah, the memories.

I found myself humming along with hymns I hadn’t played or sung in more than 25 years.

I also found myself quickly turning the pages as I came across some songs I was sick of even then.

One memory that surfaced was of a Mass at which only about half the group showed up, and I was the lone guitarist. (Well, it was a Sunday morning on a college campus back in the days when the drinking age was 18 and the college had an on-campus pub.)

I started a song and began singing. At that point I realized I was the only one in the group singing.

I looked over at the others. Some were moving their lips without sound coming out (in the way Catholics often “sing” at Mass.). Others had glazed looks on their faces. (Remember, it was Sunday morning on a college campus that had its own pub.)

In between verses I whispered to the group, ”What is this, a solo?”

Seems my “whisper” was more of a stage whisper. I suddenly realized the entire congregation was staring at me. I looked at the priest at the altar.

He was struggling to keep a straight face.

I kept singing. The group joined me. Some people in the congregation even started moving their lips.

Anyway, here’s a partial list of the songs. Maybe they’ll stir some memories in readers that AARP is trying to recruit. Perhaps a few of those folks might even be inspired to move their lips.
To Be Alive
Enter, Rejoice and Come In
I Am the Resurrection
Put Your Hand in the Hand
I Am the Bread of Life
Gonna Sing, My Lord
This is the Day
Sons of God
Allelu, Allelu
For You Are My God
Shout From the Highest Mountain
All That I AM
It’s a Brand New Day
Lord of the Dance
Alle, Alle, Alleluia
Be a New Man
Yahweh is the God of my Salvation
Prayer of St. Francis
They’ll Know We Are Christians
Take our Bread

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Songs sung biblical

Theme Songs for Bible Characters

Noah: "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"

Adam and Eve: "Strangers in Paradise"

Lazarus: "The Second Time Around"

Esther: "I Feel Pretty"

Job: "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues"

Moses: "The Wanderer"

Jezebel: "The Lady is a Tramp"

Samson: "Hair"

Salome: "I Could Have Danced All Night"

Daniel: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

Joshua: "Good Vibrations"

Peter: "I'm Sorry"

Esau: "Born To Be Wild"

Jeremiah: "Take This Job and Shove It"

The Wise Man: "When You Wish Upon a Star"

Jonah: "Got a Whale of a Tale"

Elijah: "Up, Up, and Away"

Methuselah: "Stayin' Alive"

Nebuchadnezzar: "Crazy"

On a lighter "note" ...

Did you hear about the lazy musician?
He would only play rests.

How do you get a guitar player to play softer?
Give him some sheet music.

Did you hear about the short musician?
He could only play half notes.

What's the definition of an optimist?
A music director with a mortgage.

How do you put a sparkle in a soprano's eye?
Shine a flashlight in her ear.

What's the definition of an alto?
A soprano who can sight-read.

Where is a tenor's resonance?
Where his brain should be.

How many basses does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They're so macho they prefer to walk around in the dark and bang their shins.

A virtuoso is a musician with real high morals.

How many choir directors does it take to change a light bulb?
Nobody knows. Nobody ever watches the choir director.

Why did the musician refuse to play at games that his favorite team was losing?
He didn’t like the scores.

What is the difference between an organist and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.

What's the first thing a church musician says at work?
"Would you like fries with that?"

Singing is praying twice - if they'll let you

My friend Todd (catholicsensibility) has been running a series of pieces about an America article on the St. Louis Jesuits. He has been using it as a jumping off point for some reflections about liturgical music.

He got me reflecting about my own experiences as a liturgical musician.

In particular, I've been thinking about what led me to quit one parish and its music ministry and to join another parish's choir.

In the fall of 2003, I was attending a small suburban parish on the city's border. The parish was facing hard times: declining attendance, decreasing Sunday collections.

One thing that I thought might help would be improving the Sunday liturgies.

The pastor and the parish deacon both gave the sense that they were really celebrating when carrying out their liturgical duties. That was a good start.

However, the preaching was inconsistent. The deacon was better than the pastor, but they were both acceptable. On the other hand, the visiting priest, the sister, and the female staff member who also preached generally left me studying the hymnal or scribbling notes for haiku and limericks.

And the music? Let me say it was "sincere."

I'd been involved in liturgical music from the late 1970s, when I played guitar and sang in the campus ministry "folk group." From roughly 1981-91, I was involved in music groups at a vibrant parish that encouraged music (the same parish Todd has cited). My musical highpoints came in 1986 when our group was honored at a liturgical musicians' conference for the quality of our music, and in 1989 when I was invited by the Sisters of Mercy to be part of the chorus for the Peter, Paul and Mary holiday show at the Eastman Theatre.

I left the music groups and the parish in the early 1990s for a number of personal and theological reasons (the congregation is now a breakaway church!), and stayed out of liturgical music for more than a decade. I confined my playing and singing to performances for children (I’m a children’s entertainer), and busking (playing on street corners, outside events, etc. for money.)

I had been itching to get involved again when in the fall of 2003 I saw a notice in the bulletin of that struggling parish I was attending asking for musicians to help form a contemporary music group.

I called the parish office and left a message with the music director. After a couple of calls, he got back to me and referred me to two teenage girls who were trying to get the group started.


I called them. They responded right away (good girls). We talked about possibilities - even joking around that I was old enough to be their father. They said they would call when they were ready to get started.

They never called.

Maybe I shouldn't have brought up that "father" thing.

I called the parish music director again. Several times. When he got back to me, he referred me to the youth minister, who was apparently in charge of getting the group going.

I called him a couple of times and left messages.

I never mentioned that "father " thing.

Still, he never called.

In the spring of 2004, I spotted the music director at Mass and approached him. I said I would at least be interested in joining the choir. He said he'd meant to call me. The youth-based group was not happening, but he knew of another musician in the parish who wanted to get an adult group going. I said I'd be happy to try something with the other musician.

In the fall of 2004, the music director called and set up a time for us to meet.

I arrived expecting to find the beginnings of a group. The director introduced me to the other musician, then said he had to leave to take care of some other things.

The other fellow and I started talking about some songs to play, then got out our guitars. He could barely play. I had to show him some basic chords. He couldn't keep up on a number of the songs.

But we agreed to meet on a weekly basis. The music director came back and said he would put a notice in the bulletin and recruit some singers to join us.

He never did. No one else joined us. The music director said he would sing with us, but never practiced with us.

The one time we did get to play was January 2, 2005, with part of the parish choir. I asked to practice with the group beforehand to see how we blended together and if there were any adjustments we had to make, but the director told me there wasn't going to be a practice except right before the Mass.

We showed up. My partner did not feel ready to play guitar in public yet - so it was just me on guitar.

They placed me next to the piano.

With a mic that we had no time to test.

No one could hear anything out of me for the entire Mass.

The practices continued for a few more weeks with the music director promising again he would put a notice in the bulletin, and that he would sing with us, but he did neither. The other guitarist was improving, but still had to struggle to keep up at times.

Then the deacon announced he was retiring - so I was losing one of the few reasons I had to stay at that parish.

One Sunday, my wife and I had to go to an early Mass at another parish. They had a very good choir.

We attended the other parish again the next Sunday. The choir continued to impress.

The parish also had good preaching and priests who really celebrated Mass.

After a few Sundays, I quit the other parish and joined my current one. When I approached the music director at this new parish about joining the choir, she enthusiastically said I would be welcome, and told me when the next practice was. When I arrived for the practice, there was a folder waiting for me with all the music for the next few weeks.


So for now, I'm content to just be a bass in the choir. I hope to attend a vocal workshop this summer to help improve my singing.

I'll save my guitar playing for children's shows and busking.

Maybe I'll even go play in front of the parish I quit.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Todd - - tagged me, so here I go.

1 - Total number of books I've owned

6-7,000, many of which are now, alas, in boxes because we moved to a smaller house. I miss my “library” room.

2 - Last book(s) I bought

Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson

This wonderful reference work examines topics, season words and key words of haiku from an international perspective. It’s wonderful to see different cultures represented – and the poems are delightful to read.

3 - Last book I read

The essence of modern haiku: 300 Poems by Seishi Yamaguchi

An interesting collection by one of the best known of modern Japanese haiku poets. It includes some of his original art, as well as explanations for each poem. Not all the poems seemed to work in English – translation problems, perhaps? – but many of them were moving, amusing, or thought-provoking.

4 - Five books that mean a lot to me

Just five? I could list five books each from several different authors (Dickens, Shakespeare, Chesterton, C. S. Lewis)

I put aside the Bible as a given, so I don’t count it.

Then I cheat a little…

Shakespeare. I have the complete works in one volume, so I can count it as one book. Of the plays, MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello and The Tempest have meant the most to me. They revealed to me things about human nature and myself. And The Tempest is a celebration of the wise use of all that is creative and magical in the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book. Atticus Finch remains for me a model of wise parenting and basic human decency.

St. Francis of Assisi, by G. K. Chesterton. One of my favorite saints as examined by one of my favorite authors.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Perhaps not his best book (Bleak House competed for citation here), but the image of self-sacrificing love lingers in my mind. And the opening of the book is a wonder. (So is the opening of Bleak House. Sneaky how I jammed two of Dickens’s works into one listing!)

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. This book is meaningful to me because I discovered it at a key and dangerous point in my life. I’m not kidding: It may have saved my faith.

Honorable mention: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis; The Everlasting Man and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton; The Incompleat Folksinger by Pete Seeger; The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre; The Complete Poems of Robert Frost; Journal of a Soul by Pope John XXIII …

I’d better stop here!

5 - Tag 5 people and have them do this on their blog

Rather than tag specific people, I prefer to let anyone who has a blog do this on his or her own. If you don’t have a blog, share your answers here. Even if you do have a blog, feel free to share.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Three, three, three gods in one

One concept that often causes confusion among non-Christians – and among some Christians, for that matter – is the Trinity, which, of course, we mark this Sunday.

Some folks say Trinitarians worship three gods, and that makes us non-Christians. But even fellow Trinitarians get confused about what it means when we talk about the Three Persons in One God.

I’ve heard three explanations of the Trinity that put the concept in more concrete terms.

The most famous is that of St. Patrick, who used the shamrock to help explain how something could have three aspects, yet still be one.

St. Ignatius Loyola used music. He likened the Trinity to a chord – three notes combining together to produce one harmonious tone.

Another explanation is that the Trinity is like H2O. You can have ice, water and steam, all with different attributes, yet all the same.

All explanations work fine for me. To be honest, this is not one of the theological debates I find particularly gripping. Give me the ordination of women or the people who sit in the pew behind me and talk throughout Mass to chew on!

Then again, I also refer to the three Persons in the Trinity as the Boss, the Kid, and the Bird.

Somehow I don't think my description will make it into too many theology textbooks. It might make for a nice allegorical piece some day, though.

Fortunately, God does have a sense of humor.

At least, I think the Kid does. How else do you explain the Apostles?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Catholic Radical

I discovered the Catholic Worker movement many years ago. I even briefly served as a live-in staff member at one house.

One of the people in the movement who always impressed me was Peter Maurin.

Although Maurin co-founded the movement with Dorothy Day – and in many ways created its vision – he often seems to be overlooked when the movement is discussed. Of course, Day was such a powerful personality and such a prolific writer that it is easy to understand why.

But without Maurin, there probably never would have been a Catholic Worker movement.

Maurin was born in a French peasant family in May of 1877. He joined the Christian Brothers, then left to pursue a lay apostolate. He emigrated to Canada, and then to the United States, where he met Day in 1932.

Maurin taught Day about her faith and shared his insights into history. His preached a program for the modern world that included houses of hospitality to help the poor and unemployed. Such houses are keystones of the Worker movement to this day.

It was he who suggested she publish a newspaper. The paper she started is still published some 73 years later. Many of the Worker houses also publish their own newspapers and newsletters.

His belief in education through dialogue led to the round table discussions that many Worker houses continue to hold.

One of he ways to educate people about his brand of Catholic radicalism was his Easy Essays. These “phrased essays” were essentially free-verse poems that explained his social and religious ideas.

Some of these essay are dated, but many remain true today. His basic message was, as he said in one essay, that it was time to “blow the dynamite of the Church” … “so the Catholic Church / may again become / the dominant social dynamic force.”

Here’s a version of one of his Easy Essays:

Church And State

Modern Society
believes in the separation
of Church and State.

But the Jews
did not believe in it.

The Greeks
did not believe in it.

The Romans
did not believe in it.

The Medievalists
did not believe in it.

The Puritans
did not believe in it.

Modern society
has separated Church and State
but it did not separate the State
from business.

Modern society
does not believe
in a Church's State;
it believes
in a Business Men's State.

Catholic Worker papers continue to publish his Easy Essays.

Maurin died in 1949. People often promote Day for sainthood – something I think she would actually oppose. I think he should be considered as well – though I suspect, like Day, he would dismiss any such attempts.

You can find more of his essays at

Monday, May 16, 2005

Haiku - God bless you, 2

Rather than have you read through all that prose in the last entry, here’s just the haiku. I’ll start with mine:

April morning –
cardinals in conclave
at the bird feeder

April morning walk
reciting the rosary -
good exercise

abbey chapel –
monks celebrate Mass
as crickets chant

A single candle
burns in the quiet chapel
outside … cicadas

in the window seat
the divinity student rests –
sunlight haloes her

outside the abbey
the bird in the sycamore
falls silent
(in memory of Thomas Merton)

Pentecost Sunday –
the cantor turns red when she
sings the wrong note

Now the others -

Seishi Yamaguchi. -

The Lord’s hands and feet,
with nails hammered through them –
dewdrops on blossoms.

Mass on the river –
crystals of the rosary
scatter in the water

from Small world: Haiku on the way by Dermot O'Brien.

The pearl among stars
his new found knowledge of God
on a cold hill-top

Beneath the bright stars
a boy on a hill sensing
the nearness of God

Catholic Doors Ministry – Haiku Prayer #1

We praise you, O God,
for forming Mary to be
mother of your Son.

First communion:
light shining from the chalice
into the boy’s face - Rich Youmans

ash wednesday
a streetcleaner sweeps confetti
into the fire - Frank K. Robinson

Ash Wednesday –
on the playground children
compare smudges - Ursula Sandlee

Easter sunrise
lighting the candles
in the longleaf pine - Kenneth C. Leibman

Christmas Eve…
in the snowbank
a full-grown angle print - Elizabeth St. Jacques

Christmas Eve;
hanging her ornaments
without her - Ce Rosenow

Christmas Eve –
Lonely granny at the station:
Shelter till midnight mass. – Pachnik Zoltan

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Haiku - God bless you

On Pentecost Sunday my thoughts naturally turn to …short, Japanese nature poems.

I mean, of course, haiku.

English teachers have inflicted haiku on generations of elementary students, teaching them the rigid form: three lines, seventeen syllables divided over those lines in a 5-7-5 arrangement. The poem has to be about nature linked to human nature in some way.

Of course, haiku is not that rigid. I have seen one-line and four-line haiku. I have seen haiku as short as six syllables. The seventeen figure is based on an approximation of the original Japanese form, but Japanese and English are very different languages with different structures.

The linking of nature and human nature in some way remains true, however.

A good haiku captures a keenly perceived moment – which brings us to Pentecost.

On this day we mark the descent of the Holy Spirit, that moment of inspiration that led the Apostles to begin proclaiming the Good News.

What can be a more keenly perceived moment than when the Spirit fills us and moves us? And what is haiku but an inspired proclamation? (Okay, I know all about redneck haiku, and the automobile haiku known as honku, and other humorous forms, but forget about them for now.)

A lot of Japanese haiku has a deeply spiritual element to it. And it would seem a natural form for Catholics to express their sense of wonder and awe at God’s creation. Imagine if St. Francis of Assisi had known about haiku!

So I am puzzled that I have encountered very little Catholic haiku – or even Christian haiku for that matter.

I don’t mean haiku just written by Catholics – there are plenty of those. There are even a number of Catholics who play with the form. For example, there are some amusing music related ones over at Aristotle A. Esguerra’s Confessions of a Recovering Choir Director - And Envoy Encore has an interesting mix of humorous and spiritual -

But what I mean are haiku infused with some sense of the spiritual from a Catholic/Christian perspective. It could be that haiku is relatively new to the West – known only for the last century or so, and the writing of haiku only blossomed in the 1950s/60s. Catholic poets have also had a long tradition of working with western verse forms that have served them well,

Still, for a faith that has readily, um, borrowed, other culture’s traditions (Christmas, for example), haiku would seem a natural.

Oddly enough, one of the most moving “Catholic” haiku I have ever read was written by a Japanese Buddhist, Seishi Yamaguchi.

The Lord’s hands and feet,
with nails hammered through them –
dewdrops on blossoms.

He also wrote:

Mass on the river –
crystals of the rosary
scatter in the water

I have occasionally stumbled across Catholic haiku – though sometimes of mixed quality.

I did find some nice ones through – Culture and arts – -
which had a review and a selection of haiku from Small world: Haiku on the way by Dermot O'Brien. I haven’t read his book, but here’s two of them.

The pearl among stars
his new found knowledge of God
on a cold hill-top

Beneath the bright stars
a boy on a hill sensing
the nearness of God

Catholic Doors Ministry -
has 16 haiku prayers. Here’s #1

We praise you, O God,
for forming Mary to be
mother of your Son.

A few other Catholic/Christian spiritual haiku I’ve encountered include:

First communion:
light shining from the chalice
into the boy’s face - Rich Youmans

ash wednesday
a streetcleaner sweeps confetti
into the fire - Frank K. Robinson

Ash Wednesday –
on the playground children
compare smudges - Ursula Sandlee

Easter sunrise
lighting the candles
in the longleaf pine - Kenneth C. Leibman

Christmas Eve…
in the snowbank
a full-grown angle print - Elizabeth St. Jacques

Christmas Eve;
hanging her ornaments
without her - Ce Rosenow

Christmas Eve –
Lonely granny at the station:
Shelter till midnight mass. – Pachnik Zoltan

And then there’s a few of my own modest contributions:

April morning –
cardinals in conclave
at the bird feeder

April morning walk
reciting the rosary -
good exercise

abbey chapel –
monks celebrate Mass
as crickets chant

A single candle
burns in the quiet chapel
outside … cicadas

in the window seat
the divinity student rests –
sunlight haloes her

outside the abbey
the bird in the sycamore
falls silent - (in memory of Thomas Merton)

Pentecost Sunday –
the cantor turns red when she
sings the wrong note

There must be more out there. Maybe even some of my good readers have a few Catholic-oriented spiritual haiku tucked away in a notebooks. I’d be happy if you would share them, or direct me to more haiku.

Save the funny ones, though. That’s a future entry.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Nobody expects the San Francisco inquisition

The word is out.

Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco is the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I know little about the man other than what I've read in a few news articles. I knew he was involved with the CDF before, and that he helped to create the catechism. That was about it.

But then I went to some "conservative" sites (of The Wanderer wing - not of the rational conservatives). They are up in arms.


For now, I'm willing to give anyone who annoys them the benefit of the doubt.


Vatican, May. 13 ( - Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco has been named by Pope Benedict XVI to become the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A May 13 announcement from the Vatican confirmed widespread rumors that the Pope planned to nominate Archbishop Levada to fill the key doctrinal post, which he himself had held for over 20 years. The Holy Father's choice of a successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was the most critical appointment of his early pontificate.

With the appointment, Archbishop Levada becomes the most influential American at the Vatican today, and arguably the most powerful American prelate in the history of the Church.

As the official with primary responsibility for ensuring the preservation of doctrinal orthodoxy worldwide, he will rank second only to the Pontiff within the Vatican; the CDF is the only office that does not operate under the supervision of the Secretariat of State. Archbishop Levada is certain to be named a cardinal at the next consistory, and will be an important figure at the next papal conclave.

Several more prominent prelates had been mentioned as likely candidates for the CDF spot. Among them were: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, the principal editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, the former secretary of the CDF underthen- Cardinal Ratzinger; Archbishop Angelo Amato, the current secretary of the dicastery; Archbishop Antonio Canizares Llovera of Toledo, Spain; and even the Italian theologian Bruno Forte.

Rumors about the appointment of Archbishop Levada had swirled around Rome since May 3, when the Pope received the American prelate in a private audience.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Is that a fly in my soup?

Every night before dinner, my family and I hold hands and pray.

We thank God for the good things that have happened, we pray for other people who might need strength and help, and we pray for our own needs. Sometimes we also make comments or even jokes.

Because we’ve had some tough times lately, the other night I prayed, “Lord, they say you never give us more than we can handle. I think you’re overestimating me.”

It got the desired effect of getting everyone around the table smiling and laughing.

But in thinking about it later I realized that I don’t agree with the saying as it is often understood.

First, I don’t believe God “gives” us everything that comes our way.

Oh, I believe that life and all that is in it is a gift from God. But I think some of the specific bad things in it come from other sources. We are all affected by the consequences of our own decisions and deeds, the choices and actions of other people, and sometimes just the arbitrary forces of nature.

The decision to eat that burrito with the nuclear hot sauce, the boss who treated me unfairly, the fly that landed in my soup can’t necessarily be blamed on God’s direct action. (Well, maybe the fly: God does have a sense of humor).

Remember that in the story of Job, while God gave Satan permission to afflict Job, God himself did not inflict the misfortunes.

This doesn’t mean that God might not for his own purposes send bad things my way (such as that fly in my soup), but I don’t believe he is directly involved in causing them all.

Second, I believe that we do sometimes face problems that we really can’t handle. There are times when people suffer nervous breakdowns or mental problems. There are people who are addicted in ways they can’t control.

It’s at that point that we have to turn to a “higher power,” as the 12-step programs describe it. We have to rely on God.

Of course, turning to God for help and strength is a choice, and in this sense we do “handle” the problem. But that’s the same thing as a person hanging from a cliff reaching out to take an outstretched hand from someone trying to save him. He could choose not to reach out, just as we can choose to ignore God’s help.

So if I wanted to be accurate, I could have prayed for God’s help and for the openness, courage and strength to accept that help.

Of course, that wouldn’t have gotten my family smiling.

Maybe I could have added St. Teresa of Avila’s quip: ““If this is the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few!"

But then, I might have ended up with a fly in my soup.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Catholic -Muslim accord shows what can be done

Catholics, Muslims celebrate connections
Alan MorrellStaff writer ,
Democrat and Chronicle

(May 7, 2005) — Area Catholics and Muslims celebrated together Friday night at Sacred Heart Cathedral in commemoration of their landmark alliance.

"Look around," said J. Patrick O'Connor, a diocesan representative of the Christian-Muslim Commission, to the audience of about 200 people. "How many places in the world could ever do what we're doing now, here?"

Friday's event was the second anniversary of the signing of the Muslim Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation. It is thought to be the only such agreement signed by Muslims and Catholics in the nation.

The guest speakers were Dr. Sayyid Syeed, secretary general and CEO of the Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. Francis Tiso, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They spoke of mutual respect, cooperation and dignity. They embraced, to loud applause, after their speeches.

"There is not anything inherent in the religions that would keep them apart," said Syeed, who is based in Indianapolis. "We want people to go out and embrace others. ... Our religion says you should go out and invite people of the Book — the Bible — and find common ground."

Tiso spoke about listening to and respecting the doctrines of others, and uniting people of faith to speak out against unjust wars and terrorism.

"I hope people will feel motivated at the local levels to undertake projects," said Tiso, who studied at Cornell University and now is a priest of the Diocese of Isernia-Venafro in Italy.

"We have to help our country do what is right, examine our own conscience and be powerful in motivating people to be peacemakers."

Bishop Matthew Clark said the collaboration — particularly Friday's event — has renewed his spirit.

"Progress is possible and has been made," he said. "There is hope for the future."

This kind of outreach is typical of Bishop Clark.

He has been a bright light in this diocese when it comes to the roles of the laity and women in the Catholic Church, outreach to gays and lesbians, and support for people like Father Charles Curran (a priest of this diocese). He also tried to deal in a pastoral way with Father James Callan and his breakaway congregation.

As a result, Bishop Clark has had a few “conversations” with then-Cardinal Ratzinger over the years – though, to his credit, he has never said how many, or what exactly was said.

Then again, this has been typical of this diocese. The founding Bishop, Bernard McQuaid, left Vatican I early rather than vote on papal infallibility, with which he had disagreed during council discussions.

And Archbishop Fulton Sheen, that “patron saint“ of traditionalists, when he was Bishop of Rochester from 1966-69, set out to implement Vatican II when he was appointed here. He created a priests’ council and actually consulted them on some decisions, hired lay people to work in diocesan administration, hired a woman to teach at the diocesan seminary, and shocked a lot of people by speaking in a synagogue.

Bishop Clark is to be applauded.

And given the temper of the times, and the Church’s prophetic role, it’s a shame if this is indeed the only such agreement in the nation.

Father Reese ousted from America magazine

Editor of moderate Catholic journal ousted Criticism of church reportedly rankled Vatican leaders
- Laurie Goodstein, New York TimesSaturday, May 7, 2005

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit who is a frequent television commentator on Roman Catholic issues, resigned Friday under orders from the Vatican as editor of the Catholic magazine America because he had published articles critical of church positions, according to several Catholic officials in the United States.

The order was issued by the Vatican's office of doctrinal enforcement -- the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- in mid-March when that office was still headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter. Soon after, Pope John Paul II died and Ratzinger was elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI

Find out more at:

I find what happened to Father Reese disquieting.

The only comfort is that this was set in motion before Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict and while John Paul was still pope, so this is not some sort of pogrom begun as part of Benedict’s pontificate.

I’d also like to know exactly what Father Reese did, said, or wrote that led to this.

Still, it is disquieting.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Goodbye Hannah

We buried Hannah tonight.

She was an undersized calico cat just about six years old.

Hannah was my eldest daughter’s cat. But Clare is off at college, and so Hannah had latched on to me as the feeder, the scritcher, the litter-box changer.

We’d acquired Hannah about six years ago. She was a kitten someone had abandoned in a dumpster behind where my wife and daughter worked. We don’t know how long she had been in the dumpster, and how long she had been without food exposed to the winter weather.

She never grew large. And she was always nervous, ready to run at the slightest movement. Only Clare and I could consistently get near her without her dashing off in a blur of orange and black.

She also never learned to groom herself like other cats. Periodically we had to trim the knots that developed in her long hair. And she never seemed fully able to retract her claws, so trips across carpets became adventures, with her forever getting stuck. She had the same difficulty with items of clothing, as several of my sweaters bear witness.

We first noticed a problem a week ago when she suddenly stopped eating and drinking. She became lethargic. Concerned, I took her to the vet. After tests it was determined that her kidneys were failing, and that the problem had existed for a long time. The condition of her kidneys, her size, and her behavior may have all been linked to her those early days in the dumpster.

Because of her small size and her skittishness, we simply didn’t notice that she was having a problem until it was pretty advanced. Even if we had noticed, there was probably not much we could have done.

For the last week, I have been holding her, trying to feed her and give her water with an eyedropper. The vet gave her antibiotics and the hope was that maybe we could jumpstart the kidneys again. By last night, it was clear we could not.

I came home from work today and sat with her for an hour before taking her back to the vet. She responded, weakly, but she still responded, pushing her head against my fingers as she had done in the past. I don’t know if it made her feel better, but it certainly helped me.

She’s buried out back now, with my old cat Seamus, Lucky, the rabbit, Lady and BB ( beloved guinea pigs), and assorted other critters. I don’t know if animals go to heaven. I suspect a theologian would say that animals don’t have souls the way that humans do.

But I’d like to imagine that when I get there Duke, the dog of my youth, will be waiting for me, wagging his tail in anticipation of a run as I deliver newspapers on my bicycle.

And Seamus will be waiting to jump into my lap and curl into a gray ball.

And Mathom, a stray cat who adopted me when I worked at Covenant House in New York City, will be waiting with one of her throaty meows that always made me think she was part police car.

And, of course, Hannah will be waiting with her claws set to snag my heavenly robes.

All this makes me think of Maggie, my current dog. She’s 11, getting on in years for a dog her size. There’s already gray about her muzzle and ears, and she sometimes hobbles a little from arthritis. In a few years, she will join that heavenly menagerie that I hope is waiting for me.

This week has made me realize that maybe now is the time to take Maggie for more rides so she can stick her head out the window and snort joyfully, and for longer walks in parks where she can sniff to her nose’s delight.

Thank you Hannah for making me aware that I need to pay a little more attention to Maggie.

Thank you for those last minute signs of affection.

Oh, and thank you for your last gift: a thread now dangling from my robe after you snagged it this morning.

See, "feminist" is not an insult

I just had to share this story.

Actress gives clinic ultrasound machine

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Wednesday, May 4, 2005.

Valley Press Staff Writer

PALMDALE - While "Everybody Loves Raymond" character Debra Barone will live on in television reruns, a generous gift from actress Patricia Heaton will live on in the lives of babies born to Antelope Valley women who were considering having abortions.

Heaton, who has won two Emmy awards for her role in the hit sitcom, was honored Tuesday for donating a $25,000 high-tech ultrasound machine to theAV Pregnancy Counseling Center, which was renamed Women's Clinic of the Antelope Valley.

Ultrasound machines offer pregnant women a detailed view of their unborn children, even at only a couple of months along, and have helped convince many women leaning toward abortion to change their minds, center directorMarc Boileau said.

"We needed a miracle, and we got one in Patricia Heaton," Boileau said.

"Since opening with the ultrasound machine, our clients have tripled. Thisultrasound machine has really, really made a difference. and is saving lives."

Heaton, who is honorary chairwoman for Feminists for Life, offered to donatemoney for several machines at a fund-raising dinner for the Right to Life League of Southern California.

Heaton's donation purchased four machines, and the organization Focus on theFamily provided funds for a fifth, said former Right to Life League leader Bernadette Gonzalez. Besides Palmdale, pro-life medical centers in Monrovia, Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Ridgecrest received the machines.

Heaton said the pro-life perspective is perfectly compatible with feminism, saying she believes women should be able to choose to have their babies without risking their educations, their employment or their relationships.

"Women deserve better, and should be able to have children, have an education and have their jobs," Heaton said.

"This has enabled me to be in Hollywood, and challenge people if they are pro-choice to help people have a choice."

Heaton recently traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress on pro-life issues, something the actress has more time to do now that"Raymond," in its ninth and final season, has finished filming.

Heaton said Feminists for Life is hitting college campuses with the messageof changing society to become more supportive of parenting and children, so women who didn't plan to be pregnant feel supported in having their babies.

To use the ultrasound machine, the center applied for and received medical clinic status from the California Department of Health Services and began offering ultrasounds in June.

On Tuesday, the name change was celebrated with a second grand opening and a ribbon-cutting by Heaton.

Doctors Christine Cambridge and Beatrice Lauria are the center's medical directors; other medical staffers and volunteer counselors also help run the facility.

Women who decide to go through with their pregnancies are offered baby supplies, cribs, formula, maternity clothes and more, while counseling is offered to women who will give birth as well as to those who have had abortions.

Boileau said in the first four months of 2004, six women decided to give birth after leaning toward having an abortion; in the same time span this year, 36 women have made the same decision.

The center is on pace to see 130 women give birth after planning to have abortions, he said, compared to a previous high of 46 women changing their minds in one year.

It would be nice if more stories like this got into the mainstream media. I'm sure there are more people like Heaton in Hollywood.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Okay, at least it got me to smile

A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, "What is this, a joke?"

Sunday, May 01, 2005

A not-so-divine comedy

Father Frank McMann looked at his desk calendar and sighed.

Nothing scheduled for the next two hours. No meetings at St. Syzygy’s Parish. No marriage preparation talks. No phone calls to return. No diocesan reports due.

And his Sunday homily was already written and practiced.

He smiled, and took from the book case a copy of the John Ciardi translation of the Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Back when he was in college, his chaplain, Father Thomas Lombardo, one of the men who had inspired him to enter the priesthood, had been a passionate fan of Dante’s epic. References to the poem popped up in his homilies and conversations with regularity. He had often urged McMann to read it.

He promised he would.

He never had.

But two weeks ago, the diocesan newspaper published an article about the sixtieth anniversary of Father Lombardo’s ordination. Father McMann looked at the picture of the aged priest that accompanied the article, and happy memories of long conversations with the chaplain about life, and faith, and the eternal flooded his mind. He cut out the article, and kept it on his desk.

A week later, he bought the book, vowing that he was finally going to read it. Then he would call Father Lombardo and tell him after 30 years, he had taken him up on his suggestion.

He opened to the first canto, and began to read.

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray.…”

He had just reached the part where Dante lifts his eyes and sees the first light of sunrise when his phone rang. It was the parish secretary.

"Father, Joe Leopardi would like to see you. Are you free?

"Send him in."

He closed his book and put it back in the bookcase.

He made a sign of the cross.

Leopardi burst into the office.

"I've got a problem with the new pope," Leopardi boomed as he strode across the room and slumped into the easy chair by the window.

Father McMann's easy chair.

"Why? Pope Benedict hasn't done anything yet."

"That's just it," Leopardi snorted. "You know what that means."


"He's setting us up. The man is brilliant."

Father McMann nodded.

"He is smart."

"Smart?" Leopardi spat. "The man's a genius. He's sucker punching us, and we don't see it."

Father McMann knew better than to ask Leopardi to explain. He remembered previous lengthy conversations exploring such topics as Friday fast rules, the quality of liturgical music, Jesus' middle name, women's ordination, the meaning of infallibility, and, of course, Opus Dei taking over the U.S. Postal Service.

But he responded nevertheless.

"I don't understand."

"That's what he wants," Leopardi said, smiling, nodding, and leaning back in the chair. "He’s trying to fool us all. But I've figured it out."

Of course.

"You see, it goes back to John Paul," Leopardi said. "A good man. A holy man. Maybe even a saint, if you're into such things.

"But you know I had problems with some of his ideas."

Leopardi had repeatedly and regularly shared with Father McMann his problems with Pope John Paul II's positions on a number of issues. After Mass. In the pastor’s office. In the middle of a supermarket aisle. At a funeral. Over the buffet table at Leopardi's oldest daughter’s wedding.

"I hoped that when he died, the cardinals would pick a man who would loosen things up. You know, bring the church in to the 21st Century. Heck, the 19th century. Another John XXIII.

“A lot of us were hoping that. I even considered saying a rosary. But I couldn’t find it in my dresser.

"And then they elected Ratzinger. Ratzinger! I thought I was going to have a stroke. He'll bring back the index, the Inquisition. I expected an excommunication letter in my mail any day."

“Come now,” Father McMann joked. “If he didn’t get you before, why would he get you now?”

“Oh, that’s part of the cleverness of the man. I was convinced of that. He was keeping me waiting. A taste of Purgatory. I could see the mailman smiling at me every day. He knew. Opus Dei, of course.

"But then what does the pope do? He makes nice with Jews and Muslims. He smiles. He cracks jokes. He talks about reaching out. He’s pastoral, for God’s sake.”

"Is that bad?"

"Bad?” Leopardi sneered. “It's all part of his plan.

“You see, we all expected him to go far beyond JP II. Make John Paul look like a flaming liberal.

“But he crosses us up. He acts just like John Paul. He'll probably push the same ideas as John Paul. And we'll be so relieved that he's not as bad as we feared. We'll say, `Phew. I'm not happy about this, but it could have been much worse.' Then we'll accept whatever he dishes out. The things that we thought were unacceptable from JPII will suddenly become acceptable."

Leopardi shook his head.

“And we’ll thank God for it. Dang. The man's a genius."

The bell in the church tower chimed. Leopardi looked at his watch and jumped up from the chair.

"I didn’t realize the time. I gotta get back to work. But we have to do something about this. I’ll write a letter to the diocesan paper, if Opus Dei will let it get through. I'll email National Catholic Reporter and ask them to investigate. Maybe you could preach about it and warn people."

"Thank you for the idea,” Father McMann said. “I'll certainly give it the attention it merits."

"Just being a responsible lay Catholic. We’ll talk. "

Leopardi burst out of the office, loudly closing the door behind him.

Father McMann studied the door for a moment.

“That’s enough attention,” he mumbled.

He took The Divine Comedy back from the shelf and opened it to where he had left off.
The phone rang. He answered.

“Father, Leo and Lupi Longo are here. They say it’s urgent.”

“Send them in,” he sighed.

He picked up the article about Father Lombardo, and carefully folded it with the picture of the old priest on top. Father McMann smiled and stuck it in the book to mark his spot.

“I hope someday we’ll both reach Paradise,” he said.

He closed the book and put it back on the shelf.

Then he waited for the door to open.