Stuck on the Vatican’s slow track

Vatican documents don’t spend equal time on the assembly line.

Next Tuesday, the Congregation for Catholic Education is issuing a text on how religious and lay people share responsibilities in Catholic schools. The wider role of lay teachers is apparent to anyone familiar with church-run schools, and it’s been under discussion at the Vatican for the last couple of years.

But another document has been waiting in the wings at the education congregation for at least eight years — and it may not see center stage anytime soon. It’s on a trickier topic: the use of psychological sciences in seminary selection and training. Inside the Vatican, just the term “psychological testing” can sometimes start a heated debate.

Back in 1998, Pope John Paul II asked the congregation to draft guidelines on how psychological sciences can help “discern and promote maturity” among seminary candidates and seminarians. But some Vatican officials are wary of such testing and say it could be easily abused. A judgment on someone’s vocation, they say, cannot be reduced to a psychological assessment.

In 2002, CNS was told that the guidelines on psychological testing were just about ready to roll out. But something happened on the way to final approval. Enough doubts were raised that another five years of study was needed. In the meantime, the congregation gave more urgent attention to a document against admitting homosexuals to the priesthood, issued with much fanfare in 2005. Some thought that made the psychological testing document even more important.

When I’ve asked Vatican sources about the delay on psychological testing guidelines, they’ve told me the text has been “reformulated and restructured” in the light of consultation with in-house and outside experts.  One problem, they say, is that the Vatican is expected to issue a universal document to fit all seminaries, but the situations in seminaries — and psychological resources — vary greatly from country to country. Psychological testing also touches on the sensitive issue of human rights, in particular the right to privacy, and that’s also been debated at length.

The Vatican doesn’t usually announce the progress (or lack of it)  of documents under preparation. That’s one reason why the CNS Rome bureau lays out $100 each year to purchase a thick book called “Activity of the Holy See,” which includes annual reports from Roman Curia agencies. I opened the most recent edition and, turning to the Congregation for Catholic Education, read that the document on psychological sciences was still being worked on.

Then I made a phone call and found out the congregation plans to discuss the latest draft of the document at its plenary session in January. Is the finish line in sight?

“We hope so,” my source said. Then, lest he whet journalistic appetites, he added quickly: “Of course, we’re not sure about that.”

‘Youth minister gets ready to meet her groom’

You’ve perhaps heard the term “consecrated virgin” but don’t know what it means or why someone would become one. Here’s an answer, courtesy of The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul, Minn., which interviewed a local youth minister who plans to become one this weekend. Among the facts you’ll learn: there are about 180 in the U.S. and 1,800 worldwide.

Tony Blair’s low-key conversion

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, attendants present a towel to you after washing your hands in the bathroom. It’s the kind of place where journalists cover events, but don’t bother to look up room rates.

Catholicism on his mind? Tony Blair arrives to speak at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York. (CNS/Paul Haring)On Oct. 18, the ritzy Al Smith dinner was held at the hotel, and the guest of honor was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Photographers from AP and Reuters mentioned that Blair, an Anglican, might announce his conversion to Catholicism during his speech to the black-tie crowd. As he began speaking in the elegant ballroom, it seemed as if Blair might be leading up to make the big announcement. The wire shooters, a New York Times photographer and I had our long Canon glass trained on him during his speech, ready to seize the moment of the big announcement. We were stationed on a balcony overlooking the vast room, lit as for an evening dinner in a fancy restaurant.

When CNS freelance writer Beth Griffin sent her story by e-mail to the office, she said she thought Blair sounded a bit nervous. But that seemed to fade as Blair launched into a speech about how America and Europe must stand together against terrorism. It seemed a speech that Blair had given many times, and he was comfortable giving. As is customary at the Al Smith dinner, Blair interlaced funny remarks with serious content. Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate, said that “if you can make a man laugh, you can make him think and make him like and believe you.” The idea at the dinner is to say something funny in recognition of that statement.

As Blair continued his speech, it seemed less and less likely that he would drop the bombshell of his conversion to Catholicism. Last week, The Tablet, a Catholic weekly newspaper in Britain, reported that Blair will formally be received into the Catholic church in the next few weeks. The news spread like wildfire throughout the media, with major news organizations crediting The Tablet for the story. Blair has already regularly attended Catholic Mass with his wife Cherie and their four children, all of whom are Catholic.

So did Blair choose to reveal his conversion in a low-key way to a relatively small Catholic paper and just let the news spread? While we haven’t be able to confirm the news of Blair’s conversion, it seems likely. As for the fancy New York hotel room, maybe this wasn’t the right spot for Blair to reveal something so personal and meaningful. Plus, as one CNS editor said, he would essentially have been revealing the news to a roomful of New York socialites. (By the way, we have nothing against New York socialites, if you happen to be one.) Maybe it made more sense to break the news to The Tablet in London. This clearly would have been the more modest choice, in keeping with what has likely been a very low-key road towards Catholicism.

A new liturgical translation with very little fuss

Cover for new Italian lectionaryAfter the Italian bishops announced Monday that their new Lectionary was approved by the Vatican and ready for parish use, the story made all the newspapers and the most popular Catholic blogs.

The focus generally was on changes made to familiar biblical passages. For example, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray to God, “Do not abandon us to temptation” rather than “Lead us not into temptation.” And the Angel Gabriel, in greeting Mary, no longer says, “Hail, full of grace,” but, “Rejoice, full of grace.”

But no one seemed particularly upset. And no one accused anyone of being too casual or too formal, too innovative or too old-fashioned.

Instead of planning a series of educational efforts to help Catholics understand the new translation, as English-speaking bishops are doing, the Italian bishops are putting extra energy into commissioning artwork to decorate the volumes.

Bishop Giuseppe Betori, secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, told reporters that the two main goals in the new translation were fidelity to the original language of the Scriptures and ridding the Italian text of “archaic” terms.

Name-calling aside, the English-language debate over the new translation of the Mass prayers usually focuses on how familiar or formal the prayers should be.

The Vatican itself called for the balancing act in the 2001 document, “Liturgiam Authenticam,” when it said, “So that the content of the original texts may be evident and comprehensible even to the faithful who lack any special intellectual formation, the translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts’ dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision.”

What our faith teaches us about death

A funeral in Utah for an Army staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan brought words of consolation from the priest who celebrated the Mass. The Intermountain Catholic in Salt Lake City has the story of what our faith teaches us in such times of sorrow.

George is not first cardinal elected bishops’ president

For you trivia buffs, Cardinal Francis E. George is not the first cardinal to be elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, as is being reported in some places.

The first was the late Cardinal John J. Krol of Philadelphia. He was elected vice president of the conference in 1966, was made a cardinal in 1967, and then was chosen president in 1971.

Another cardinal who also served as president of the bishops’ conference is retired Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, but he became a cardinal in 1994, two years after his election as president.

Spilling the beans on the pope’s U.S. trip

nuncio_web.jpgWe were as surprised as anyone when Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio — read ambassador — to the United States, today gave out a detailed itinerary of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United States next April.

Typically, the nuncio’s address to the U.S. bishops on the opening day of the bishops’ fall general meeting doesn’t make such big news. We always cover the talk — here’s a link to our story on an address by Archbishop Sambi last year – because the nuncio’s words often offer an important glimpse into the Vatican’s thinking on a variety of issues or simply give an encouraging word to the bishops on their work.

But I can’t remember the last time when the secular dailies did anything on the nuncio’s address. Let’s hope for their sake that their reporters at the meeting in Baltimore weren’t taking an early coffee break because they thought the speech wouldn’t be “news,” even though there had been numerous reports that the trip itinerary might be on Pope Benedict’s desk.

‘Our Catholic Youth: Learning today, leading tomorrow’

The Arkansas Catholic in Little Rock published a special section on Catholic youth earlier this month. If you want to see the state of youth ministry in one diocese or looking simply for ideas you can use locally, this might be a place to start.

This week in Origins

The latest edition of Origins: CNS Documentary Service went to press on time last week, but I forgot to tell readers here what’s in it. Here’s the lineup for the edition dated Nov. 15:

  •  The church’s “new” Code of Canon Law — now almost 25 years old — has proved a positive, flexible tool in dealing with many contemporary church challenges. Yet aspects of the church’s marriage law remain problematic, and the flaws exposed in efforts to penalize priests who sexually abused minors indicate a need for code revision, says Msgr. John Alesandro, a leading U.S. canonist. (Subscribers: Click here)
  • A bipartisan group of prominent lay Catholics issues a call for more civility in public life, specifically urging Catholics not to “enlist the church’s moral endorsement for our political preferences” or “exhort the church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them holy Communion.” (Subscribers: Click here)

‘Life lessons learned from my dad still resonate’

The headline above sounds like a Father’s Day feature, but there’s a good reason why Peter Finney Jr., editor of the Clarion Herald in New Orleans, wrote this column during football season (and I’m not giving away the answer).

You can download here a .pdf file of the Clarion Herald edition in which Peter’s column appears (go to Page 2), but since .pdfs sometimes take so long to download, I’m taking the liberty of reprinting it below. For those of you familiar with the full CNS news report, we posted it on the wire this week in our “Guest Commentary” section. Enjoy!

Life lessons learned from my dad still resonate

My dad is a master storyteller who has had a profound impact on my life. I am a journalist because he was. It’s that simple.

I type with four fingers because I learned to beat on his old Royal typewriter, fascinated by the mystery of carbon copies. I was unafraid to make mistakes — that’s what the “X” key and red pencils were for. My spell check was Webster’s dictionary. I never crashed and completely lost a story unless someone took out the garbage.

My dad can say more in one sentence than most people can say in a thousand. He once summed up the Mike Ditka era, a three-year train wreck from start (Ricky Williams in a wedding dress) to finish (3-13 in 1999), by writing of the coach’s inflated view of his own celebrity: “He coached the Saints as though he were double-parked.”

My dad couldn’t beat up your dad, but he sure could out-metaphor him.

He taught me some important lessons: the word “that” — when used after “said” — is the most overused word in the English language; be willing to admit it when you make a mistake; be fair.

Those life lessons still resonate and came into sharper focus a few weeks ago with an unusual convergence of circumstances. When Louisiana State University hosted Virginia Tech at Tiger Stadium, my dad wrote a column for The Times-Picayune; I covered the game for my former newspaper, the New York Post; and my son Jonathan reported for The Daily Reveille, LSU student newspaper. Jonathan is a 19-year-old sophomore at LSU, and he is studying mass communications. Yikes!

In reflecting on three generations of Finneys covering a football game from the same press box, I am wrestling with the image of the carbon paper winding through the roller of the manual typewriter. We are not carbon copies — I am not my father and my son is not me — but in so many ways we are blessed to share in a vocation that can bring joy and enlightenment to others.

Jonathan doesn’t really know if he will pursue a journalism career.

He enjoys writing, and he’s learned a few lessons of his own while covering Friday night high school football games for The Advocate in Baton Rouge: always eat the pregame meal if it’s offered or else risk getting a headache; don’t park in a grassy field after a four-inch rain; find a backup spot from which to file your story when the press box is locked 15 minutes after a game.

Jonathan has taken it all in stride. I’m biased, but I think some of his grandfather’s cigar smoke is rubbing off.

– Peter Finney Jr.

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