Gentlemen, start thy engines!

No matter your age, race, sex, station in life or occupation, it sure is nice to be able to have a priest nearby to pull you through to the good times and console you in the bad times.

It’s no different for race car drivers. The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit, profiled a priest who has been ministering to the racing community for the past 37 years. Any fan of racing will recognize the names bandied about in the profile.

And when you look at the photos accompanying the story, get an eyeful of the priest’s custom-made stole.

Sarah Palin’s pro-life credentials

Now that it looks like we’re going to be hearing a lot about Sarah Palin, here are two items from the CNS news archive: a story on how she was praised by Catholic leaders and others when she gave birth to a Down syndrome child earlier this year, and a guest editorial we ran from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, on how her family “serves as an incredible witness by embracing all life as a blessing.”

We also had a great article last spring by Effie Caldarola, one of our regular columnists, calling Palin “a politician who lives her truth.”

U.S. presidents grappled with Catholic issues long before JFK

John F. Kennedy might have been the first Catholic president, but he wasn’t the first president to deal with specific Catholic issues. You have to go all the way back to George Washington for that. Ever since Americans began electing presidents, the men who have held that office have dealt with issues specific to Catholics. Those issues have been both personal and political, cordial and stormy.

Our Sunday Visitor is publishing a great heritage series on U.S. presidents and Catholicism. To date the series has profiled George Washington, America’s first president; Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson; Reconstruction presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant; and two 20th century giants, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, among others. There will be more throughout the election season.

No doubt there will plenty for future journalists to write about the Catholic connections of the future President McCain or President Obama. We’ll know which on Nov. 5.

Record 100,000 baptisms in Los Angeles for 2007

The final figures are just in from the Official Catholic Directory, known as the Kenedy directory in church circles. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles recorded 100,604 baptisms in 2007, making it the first time any diocese or archdiocese has exceeded 100,000 in a year, reports Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in The Tidings, weekly newspaper of the archdiocese.

Cardinal Mahony notes that the total exceeds the entire Catholic population of 50 U.S. dioceses. The Catholic population of the Los Angeles Archdiocese is estimated at nearly 4.2 million, according to the directory. It is the largest diocese in the United States.

By comparison, the second and third largest archdioceses had just a fraction of that number, the cardinal notes. The Archdiocese of New York, with a Catholic population of 2.6 million, had 27,011 baptisms. The Archdiocese of Chicago, with a Catholic population of 2.3 million, had 38,533 baptisms in 2007.

At the upcoming synod: Women experts and a Jewish guest

VATICAN CITY — The buzz at the Vatican is that Pope Benedict XVI’s choice of experts to serve at the Oct. 5-26 world Synod of Bishops on the Word of God definitely will include women scholars; probably four of about 40 experts. The official list of papal appointees should be published in early September.

And, the rumor mill says, alongside the “fraternal delegates” from other Christian churches and communities, Pope Benedict will invite a Jewish scholar as a “guest,” highlighting the fact that Christians and Jews share the first part of the Bible, although they interpret parts of it differently.

Until the list comes out, synod officials are likely to continue receiving postcards encouraging them to make sure women’s voices are heard in the synod hall.

There were no women among the 32 experts appointed by the pope to the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. For the 2001 synod on religious life, Salesian Sister Enrica Rosanna was the lone female among 16 experts. (In 2004, Pope John Paul II named her undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.)

However, women’s voices consistently have been heard in the synod hall. Unlike the experts who serve as resources to the synod officers and to the bishops and priests who are voting members of the body, the synod observers are invited to address the entire assembly. At the 2005 synod, half of the two dozen observers were women. And both the experts and observers participate in the synod’s small working groups, which is where the propositions to be presented to the pope are drafted.

‘Half of my medal is Mexican,’ Olympic winner says

U.S. gold-medal winning freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo says “half of my medal is Mexican,” in an article in Spanish in El Pregonero, the Spanish-language newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. Cejudo was born in the United States to parents who immigrated without documents to find work and scrambled to keep food on the table. Cejudo says he’s “living the American dream.” A Los Angeles Times article about Cejudo’s background covers some of the same territory in English.

Studying Scripture on death row

When looking for examples to illustrate the point of a story, sometimes the example can overshadow the story.

Such was the case of a story I recently wrote on Little Rock Scripture Study, in which participants study different books of the Bible in thousands of parishes in the United States and elsewhere, including several other countries.

But one nonparish setting where Little Rock Scripture Study is used is death row at an Arizona prison.

Deacon Ed  Sheffer of the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., has been ministering for the past four years, at the request of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, to inmates at Arizona State Prison in Florence, Ariz., in the death row unit known as Eyman SMU II.

“It was not something I would have picked out” as a ministry, Deacon Sheffer confided. He develops spirituality programs for elder care and leads youth retreats, and he used to do bereavement counseling in hospice.

Unlike the typical Little Rock Scripture Study group, there is no small-group setting on death row. Instead, Deacon Sheffer conducts one-on-one studies with individual prisoners.

In an essay published in The New Vision, Tucson’s diocesan paper, Deacon Sheffer recalled his first visit to death row. “As I passed through layer after layer of steel doors, I was hit hard by a presence of a genuine darkness. But even more distinct from this feeling was how God was remaining present to me in the midst of all that darkness. When I arrived at the destination for the visit — a 6-by-10 room used for attorney meetings and pastoral visits — I looked searchingly through the thick safety glass. Sitting behind the glass was a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit who looked closely at me and smiled. I wondered apprehensively where this would all lead.”

From the first encounter came a referral for visits with another death row inmate. Then a third prisoner’s legal team asked Deacon Sheffer to minister to their client, as his attorneys greatly feared for the man’s well-being.

Two more invitations followed. None of the five prisoners he has visited to share Scripture has yet been executed, Deacon Sheffer said. One has since joined the Catholic Church while on death row.

In fact, that inmate wrote Deacon Sheffer a letter. It’s reproduced here,  just as the prisoner wrote it.

“Dear Ed,

“May the peace of Christ be with you! … Today I received my new scripture studies from Little Rock Scripture Study, they look very interesting, especially Parables of the Kingdom. I always praise God for all the blessings, and being able to study His word is always real high on my list.

“My journey has been an adventure, and continues to be, your fellowship has helped a great deal. It may seem strange, but being born again spiritually has transformed me in other ways as well. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I feel like a cocoon changing into a butterfly, praise God it is all good.

“Things seem to fall into place when I’m calm and at peace, another learning experience that I am very grateful for. Actually, I have learned it does not matter how many bible studies I do, or how often I read scriptures, without practical experience being able to apply them in my life I do not fully apreciate their meaning. In fact it is entirely possible that during our journey I learn as much from stumbling now and again as I do from any achievements along the way.

“For now things are going well for me, thanks to the many blessings, some of which I have yet to recognize. On the streets I’d probably be dead by now, so even being in prison could be a blessing. I make no judgments and leave it all up to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. …

“Love & Respect Always

“In Christ