Is another round of home foreclosures on the horizon?

FINANCIAL/USA-HOUSINGIs another massive round of home foreclosures possible starting in 2010?

It just may happen, according to Thomas Shellabarger, a policy adviser for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The reason can be traced back to 2005 and 2006, the peak years for home loans that offered low interest rates with little or no money down. Under the terms of such loans, interest rates usually reset automatically to higher levels after five years. That points to 2010 and beyond for potentially greater fallout in the real estate market as homeowners face higher mortgage payments they can no longer afford.

Defaults on the same kind of home loans in recent years led to the current depressed real estate market and were a key factor that led to the current economic recession.

This year alone, more than 1.4 million people have lost their homes through foreclosure and 6,600 more foreclosures occur daily, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, N.C.

It’s a enough of a concern, Shellabarger told CNS, that federal officials are monitoring mortgage defaults closely, hoping to stave off the entry of another glut of homes into a still overstocked real estate market. Any significant growth in foreclosures would likely derail any hope of economic recovery in 2010 and probably beyond.

Federal legislation to keep people in their homes is being considered. Shellabarger identified one model that comes from Pennsylvania that has caught the eye of federal policymakers and economic advisers.

Under the 26-year-old Keystone State’s plan, a homeowner laid off from work can borrow money from the state to use for the monthly mortgage. The plan allows people to stay in their homes and resume mortgage payments when economic times are better.

Once a homeowner starts making mortgage payments again, the homeowner also pays off the state loan. The minimum payment is $25 a month.

Since its start in 1983, the program has been profitable for the state as well, with more than 43,000 Pennsylvanians paying back $26 million more than they’ve borrowed over the years.

CNS will keep watch on what transpires and the bishops’ role in the situation as well.

Keeping up those rewriting skills

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of spending a few weeks on a story, turning it in with the expectation that it will run “tomorrow,” then hearing on the radio the next morning that the entire premise of your story is about to be made irrelevant.

Is it good news that it hadn’t run yet, or bad news that you now have to rewrite the whole thing (and here)?

Do you feel disappointed that your story didn’t get out in time to explain the problem before an announcement is made about its resolution? Or do you sigh with relief that you don’t have to put out a “stop the presses, don’t use that story, a new version is coming ASAP” advisory?

After covering the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in San Antonio in June, I stayed in Texas a few days for a couple of other reporting projects, including the chance to cover a rally focused on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy of detaining families in a former medium- security prison in the small town of  Taylor.

The  T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility had been on my “write about this” list since 2007, shortly after ICE began putting families there and reports came out about the conditions inside. Pax Christi, Catholic Charities organizations, and several men’s and women’s religious orders had long been among groups protesting the use of Hutto to detain families.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which frequently partners with various Catholic immigration organizations, had co-written a report that led to a lawsuit against ICE, resulting in a settlement which brought some significant changes, though problems remained. My immigration sources regularly pointed to Hutto as a situation in need of more public exposure.

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

So I was glad my Texas trip coincided with one of the regular protest events in Taylor. I wasn’t able to arrange a visit inside, but I made some good contacts, heard the issues aired and got a firsthand sense of what the detention center is like from the outside, as well as what the Taylor community is like.

When I got back to the CNS office in July, amid other assignments, I worked on explaining Hutto’s history and the issues it presents, relying on a stream of relevant reports (by a court-appointed monitor,  by the National Immigration Law Center and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Jusice) that came out one after another in July.  And I started trying to get background information and answers to questions about Hutto and ICE detention policy from various public affairs staffers at the Department of Homeland Security.

I wasn’t having much luck. I received a series of “we’re working on your questions. We’ll get back to you” responses. Finally, I let my contact know that I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d given them a couple of weeks already and the story was going to run with an “ICE didn’t respond” clause by midweek.

The story went to my editor, lacking ICE comment.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only reporter working on Hutto stories, though. The morning of Aug. 6, The New York Times reported on “leaked” information that ICE was that day going to announce the end of family detention at T. Don Hutto and a revamping of the entire immigrant detention system.

That was indeed what John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE, announced later that morning.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go completely back to the drawing board and our clients didn’t have to rip a now-outdated story from their page layouts just before press time.

I’d still rather not have had to redo something I’d worked on for so long. But it is kind of refreshing to be able to simultaneously explain a problem and report that someone in charge has already announced a plan to fix it.

Two Catholic leaders among nation’s top nonprofit executives

Father Larry Snyder, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA, and Franciscan Sister Georgette Lehmuth, president and chief executive officer of the National Catholic Development Conference, have been named to a list of the country’s most influential nonprofit executives.

The NonProfit Times’ 12th annual Power and Influence Top 50 selected the two for “the impact the have now and for the innovative plans they are putting in place to evolve the charitable sector.”

The newspaper cited Catholic Charities USA’s work to cut poverty in half by 2020 and its strong collaboration with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican’s office for promoting and coordinating charity. 

Sister Georgette’s work to facilitate conversations between a corporation in bankruptcy and conference member clients to find alternatives that saved numerous programs from closing. Her work to promote educational collaboration between conference members and other organizations also drew the newspaper’s attention.

Also making the list were Israel Gaither, national commander, Salvation Army; Brian Gallagher, president and chief executive officer, United Way of America; A. Barry Rand, chief executive officer, AARP; Bill Gates, co-founder, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and John Seffrin, chief executive officer, American Cancer Society.

Year for Priests: No longer on the front lines

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

One of my favorite “one-liners” comes from Precious Blood Father Anthony Gittons, who wrote, “We cannot transform ourselves, but we can create the space for transformation to occur.”  Over the years, I have applied this to my life on an almost daily basis, but recently I have begun to understand it in the context of those to whom I minister — or my “audience.”

One of the very quick lessons I have learned is that, as a priest, I am no longer on “the front lines.”  As I walk around campus and around town, I am very aware that I am set apart, not because of my own actions or preference, but because that is what people need (despite the objection of some, by far I have found the majority of people want their priest to be different — to represent an alternative way of life).  The collar I now wear around my neck is a sign and at times a barrier that does not allow me to be as close to people as was once possible.  However, I do not see this as a negative; rather, it has caused me to shift the audience of my ministry.

If the ministry of the priest is modeled on Christ, then it seems my primary ministry is to those ministers who are close to me, for it is they who will go out to live and work on the front lines long after I have moved on.  Though I continue to speak to the “masses” on certain occasions, I have realized — at least for the moment — that my job is to be a minister to the ministers.  After all, this seems to speak to the spirit of Vatican II that emphasizes the role of the laity as those who bring the Gospel into the world around us (see Gaudium et Spes or Apostolicam Actuositatem).

At its very core, I am discovering that ministry is relational and reciprocal.  The ministers with whom I work every day know me as Chris, with all of my gifts, weaknesses and quirks.  They are close enough to see the finesse and the nuance — things many people in the Sunday congregation do not want and are not ready to learn.  Likewise, my priesthood is shaped by them.  So much of what I do in ministry seems to concern creating safe environments for people to encounter each other and touch the Divine.  In the context of ministry, I think this is what Father Gittons meant:  “to create the space for transformation to occur.”

I should add, by the way, that these are working thoughts.  Should you have any thoughts on who the audience of a priest is, I would love to hear them!

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and will be teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan beginning in late summer.

Click here for more in this series.

First Catholic-run pregnancy support center opens in Denver

“Being pro-life, it’s so important that we don’t just ‘talk the talk,’” said Annette Davis, a volunteer with the Gabriel Project, a pro-life outreach in the Denver Archdiocese. “We need to be there to support the courageous women who are choosing life.”

After eight years of ministry, the Gabriel Project will move into its own building, and hopes to triple the number of women it serves.  The Denver Catholic Register recently wrote about the new building and the program’s new expectations. It will be the first Catholic pregnancy support center in the archdiocese.

Debating the effects of social networking on community life

An English archbishop’s recent warning about social networking sites has been getting a lot of attention in news stories and blogs — to the tune of hundreds of Google search results.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminister told the Telegraph that the Internet and cell phones are “dehumanizing” community life, and that sites such as Facebook and MySpace promote transient relationships for teenagers and place too much emphasis on the number of friends you have.

“Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships,” Archbishop Nichols said. “They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships. Then it collapses and they’re desolate. … It’s an all-or-nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity — a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity; friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it’s right.”

The archbishop has gotten a lot of criticism from social networking fans. Mostly, though, reaction has shown an understanding of his concern, but also an understanding of the benefits of social networking sites, wrote Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald in London, in an e-mail to Catholic News Service.

“My own view is that the decline in community life in Britain began decades ago and that online networking is a reaction to this decline rather than a cause of it,” Coppen wrote. “I imagine that our communal life would be even more impoverished if we didn’t have tools such as Facebook, Bebo and Twitter to draw us out of our solitary routines. The archbishop is right that online communities are fragile, but they are surely better than having no community at all.”

He added that the church should use online communities to draw people into the deeper community of faith.

That’s the idea at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations, in an interview with CNS. The conference uses its Facebook , Twitter and blog to get the church’s message out through the most popular media.

But when it comes to personal networking, Clemmer also warned against letting online habits become superficial.

“Like so many tools, it can be used to build up or to tear down,” he said. “Relationships are supposed to be built on love and a deeper sense of authentic community.”

But if used in constructive ways, networking sites can actually enhance communities, said Bill McGarvey, chief editor of Busted Halo, an online magazine for spiritual seekers. The archbishop’s comments should not be interpreted as a ban on Facebook, but as a warning sign to be careful online.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the Telegraph religious affairs correspondent who wrote the original story, followed up with an Aug. 5 story about the criticism floating around the Internet.

“If people actually bothered to read the story and read the quotes they would see that the archbishop actually has an impressive grasp of modern culture and cares deeply about its future,” Wynne-Jones wrote. “Much of the criticism of Nichols derives from a hostility to the Church and a drive to have its leaders’ pronouncement pushed from the public square, no matter how pertinent their comments are. Some also no doubt comes from those who are addicted to these sites and don’t want to face the facts.”

A hospital, chaplains and acts of kindness

I was laid up, as they say, in the hospital for a weekend last month. It was the first time in more than 40 years I had to spend the night in a hospital. It was an unwelcome surprise, especially since I was able to drive myself to the Catholic hospital’s emergency room — and was expecting to drive back home once the diagnosis and treatment regimen was known.

First, they said they were going to keep me “for the day.” Before the morning was over, “for the day” was interpreted as “overnight.” One night became two, and threatened to become three, when I unexpectedly showed marked improvement in my condition as a doctor was making her rounds.

Before I could settle in my bed for very long, someone from the hospital arrived to take my vital information. One item on the checklist was religion. “Catholic,” I said. It was a Catholic hospital, after all.

About an hour after I finished a late lunch, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a chaplain, who talked with me after visiting my hospital roommate. The chaplain had the Eucharist and that was the most gratifying surprise of my hospital stay. Communion on Saturday!

And on Sunday, from a permanent deacon. And on Monday, from a third chaplain. While it may be hospital policy, these were extraordinary acts of kindness that this ex-patient will long remember.

The toughest jobs are the ones you love most

The Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., recently profiled Katie Yohe, a graduate from a Catholic high school in the diocese who, upon getting her college degree, has decided to commit a year to teaching second-graders in the West African nation of Ghana. The school is part of a mission run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Katie won’t be by herself; another 2009 graduate from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., Megan Ryan, will also go to Ghana to teach. Check out the full story.

Year for Priests: One small plan to encourage vocations

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

Our modest-sized Diocese of Albany, N.Y., is in the middle of a transformation.  Within the next two years, 33 churches will merge or close, about 20 percent of our worship sites.

One of the reasons is the outward migration of Catholics, from the cities to the suburbs.  The other — and more compelling — factor is the decline in the number of priests.  In the planning for these changes, our study group (“cluster”) was made up of five parishes, all well-established city parishes with long and storied histories.  When I was ordained, in 1966, these five parishes were served by 14 full-time priests.

As of the fall of this year, these same five parishes will have only two priests.  The consolidation plan calls for four of these parishes to merge into two and the fifth to be served by a part-time priest as a sacramental minister.

The situation begs the question, “What happened?”  Why, when seminaries were bulging at the seams in the 1960s, are they somewhat-suddenly empty?  What has changed since then?

Theories abound:  there is the increasing secularization of culture, a growing grasp for material security.  There is the current unpopularity of any long-term commitments, marriage being the first example.  There is the shame that came to the priesthood over the tragedy of sexual abuse of children (although, to be fair, the decline in priestly vocations long antedated the exposure of that reprehensible behavior).

I believe, though, that the single most significant factor is this:  priests themselves are not encouraging vocations to the priesthood.  We just don’t ask enough people whether they’ve ever thought about it.

Recently our diocese sponsored a workshop for priests.  We were asked to identify reasons for our reluctance to steer young men toward the seminary.  The responses varied: for some, it was dissatisfaction with certain teachings of the church — mainly, mandatory celibacy and an all-male priesthood.  For others, it was an awkwardness in speaking privately with boys or young men at all, lest that be confused in their minds (or their parents’) with the well-publicized scandal of years gone by.  For me, it was something else: a desire to avoid the notion that the priesthood is the only way to be a faith-filled and effective disciple of Jesus.

Whatever our reservation, we were encouraged, “Get over it!”  The stakes are too high, we were told: there are people in America deprived of regular Eucharist because there’s no priest to celebrate.  Statistical data is ample:  Catholic priests are far happier and more fulfilled in their work than any other subset of American males — far more likely, given the opportunity, to make the same vocational choice again.  Why not trumpet that fact?

A course of action was determined: in five different sites in our diocese, over the next several months, our bishop, Howard Hubbard, will have a simple pasta supper for young men who might make good priests.  Each of us is asked to identify one or two such potential candidates from our parish and bring them to one of these dinners.  The agenda is short:  we’ll go around the table, and each priest will say in a few words what drew him to the priesthood, and then we’ll eat.

The plan is in place; the results are still to be seen.  I’m thinking it might work — and praying, too.

Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Click here for more in this series.

A view from the pew

A summertime routine for Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., is to attend Sunday Mass as a “private citizen.”

In a column appearing in the July 30 issue of the Rhode Island Catholic, his diocesan newspaper, he said: “Even though I truly cherish the privilege of leading the liturgy as I do almost every Sunday, it’s also refreshing once in a while to be on the other side of the altar.” 

That perspective gives him a “renewed appreciation for the truly ‘faithful’ who come to Mass Sunday after Sunday,” he wrote.

When they come to Mass, he said, Catholics are seeking “authentic community, effective preaching, the Eucharist and sanctuary. … It’s what they need for a faithful living-out of their Christian vocation. It’s what the church should give them.”

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