Year for Priests: Answering a ‘great’ question

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

A couple of weeks ago, an older gentleman, who I will name Steve, approached me after Mass, convinced that I was the right person to answer a question that he has been unable to answer for the past 30 years.   He would go on to warn me that many people have tried, thinking they were up to the task, but failed to satisfy the logical mind of a retired Ford engineer.

“What are some of the rational and logical explanations that could explain WHY a “Good & Kind & Loving & All-Powerful God” would create an Earth populated by emotional & greedy humans who have free will to do as they please only to watch them destroy each other and eventually die to never be heard from again at which time they will be judged for their sins he already knew they would commit and shuttle them off to Heaven or Hell?”

After handing me a printed copy of the question above, we agreed that I would come to his house for dinner and discuss the question.

This past week, Steve and I met as planned. After the usual small talk, Steve told me about the God who saved him from the depths of darkness.  He also rattled off tenets of the Baltimore Catechism as he described a Catholic faith that provided his life with necessary parameters, rules and categories.  Later, Steve would describe the great hurt he felt when he was laid off by Ford, and the great joy he felt when he married his wife 40 years ago this year.

As Steve spoke, I prayed that God might use me to give him the answers he so desperately longed to have. At the same time, I wished that my high school students could be with me that evening to hear someone speak with such meaning about life’s deepest longings and most simple blessings.

When it was finally my turn to respond, I prayed and started to speak.

When it comes to our faith, many of us start off on the wrong foot — mostly likely because that is what we were taught to do.  We have approached our relationship with God in categories:  this equals that; that equals this; and this has such and such consequence that requires such and such to remedy it.  The difficulty with this approach is that our faith is first and foremost a relationship; therefore, it does not fit so neatly into categories, nor is it easily mapped out into problem-and-solution statements.

Thus, our relationship with God is not defined by our devotions and obligations; rather, by its gifts and communication.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving.”  I have always loved that quote because it puts the emphasis on the process.  What we learn simply by being in this relationship is that we are not nearly as independent as we believe.  The very act of praying reminds us that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.

In response to Steve’s question, I think its answer lies in our very ability to ask the question.  Ultimately, Steve’s question concerns the meaning of our lives.  Yes, God could have made humanity without the capacity to sin, but the meaning of our life is increased because of our potential — in either direction.  I believe a fulcrum is a good metaphor:  the greater the distance between the poles, the greater our ability to rise to greatness.  Our dignity is found in the tension we hold along the spectrum of good and evil, and our challenge is see ourselves as God sees us.  Ultimately, we are worth saving because we are not only greedy, but also generous; not only selfish, but also selfless.

As for Steve, he was more than satisfied with my answer (which I have greatly condensed for this blog).  After I finished my explanation, I watched him think to himself for at least 10 minutes with his eyes closed and head tilted back.  Much like a computer processing through equations, Steve tried to find holes in the logic.  Somewhere along the way, he accepted that God could not not have created us, because love, in its essence, is generative.  God creates, and what God creates is great.  Amen.

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

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Down to the wire on House health care bill

“Today all members of Congress were afforded the opportunity to vote their conscience and represent the wishes of their constituents on the issue of federal funding for the abortion,” U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Catholic and pro-life Democrat from Michigan, said Nov. 7. He was the leading sponsor of an amendment to the House’s landmark health care reform proposal. The amendment passed 240-194. The House bill passed 220-215.

Like the Hyde amendment it prohibits the use of federal funding for abortion under the public health insurance option and prohibits using government affordable-health-coverage credits for any policy that covers abortion.

The same day, before the House vote, the U.S. bishops in a letter urged House members to support the Stupak amendment to “keep in place current federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections” in the House bill. The letter was signed by Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the Committee on Pro-life Activities and Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“Our bishops’ conference has been working for many years to support health care reform legislation that truly protects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all. Adopting this amendment will help move us toward this essential national priority and moral imperative,” Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Murphy wrote.

A day before the vote the bishops sent a letter to House members reiterating their position on how the legislation deals with abortion and immigrants.

The Nov. 6 letter to House leaders — signed by Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop Murphy and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the Committee on Migration — emphasized points that have been made often and firmly by the U.S. bishops.

It urged members to:

“– Support an amendment to keep in place current federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections and to oppose a closed rule that would prevent the House from voting on this crucial matter;

— Oppose measures that would leave immigrants, especially legal immigrants, worse off as a result of health reform;

 — Support access for immigrants to the health-insurance exchange, regardless of legal status, and support removal of the five-year ban on legal immigrants accessing Medicaid and other federal health-care programs; and

 — Support strong provisions that would make health care more affordable and accessible, especially for the poor and vulnerable, by expanding Medicaid to adults who are living at 150 percent or lower of the Federal Poverty Level and offering adequate affordability credits for households up to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.”

The bishops’ full remarks are available here.

The complexities of the Catholic Church in China

One thing I learned during my 2007 trip to China is that the situation of Catholics living there is very complex.  As a result, I have learned to rely on those much more familiar with the situation there and to respect their opinions.

One of those people is Belgian Missionhurst Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, who directs the Verbiest Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven and is one of the most authoritative experts on Catholicism in China. His text, which follows, illustrates the complexity of the situation.

Respect and Prayerful Support for Most Rev. Francis An Shuxin, Coadjutor Bishop of Baoding Diocese

Recently, there have been widely circulated and conflicting reports about the situation of Bishop An Shuxin, coadjutor bishop of the Baoding Diocese in Hebei province, China. Whether we agree or disagree with Bishop An Shuxin’s purported move to have recently accepted membership in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as a zealous pastor who has long witnessed his fidelity to the Holy See, Bishop An deserves not only our prayerful support, but complete respect for his pastoral judgments. I doubt whether those outside China who criticize Bishop An have ever met him. I know the bishop personally well and had several long conversations with him in recent years. I have learned to respect him and to understand the complexity of his situation. In any case, before making any public criticism one should be better informed. Did Bishop An really sign any document? And if he did, what was the content of the document and how is “membership” in this case understood? The interpretation of this word in China is often quite different from what is understood in Italy or in other countries outside of China. We all are far removed from the harsh realities under which many church leaders have lived in China for decades. At very least, we in the sister churches abroad must refrain from setting out our own nonnegotiable terms and conditions for their ministry and thereby increasing the heavy burdens they already bear.

Since the time of Pius XII in 1958 and more recently since the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, all Chinese Catholics know very well that being a member of the CCPA is “incompatible with Catholic faith.” They know this association seeks to separate the Chinese Catholic Church from the pope and, in effect, to establish a Catholic Church in China completely independent of the Holy See. This is why all of us in the sister churches around the world admire the courage of Catholics in China, some of whom, because of this incompatibility cited by the Holy Father, long ago opted to remain in “underground communities,” enduring all the opprobrium and suffering entailed. This is the great and historically meritorious contribution to the Chinese Church of the so-called “unofficial bishops” and the faithful under their jurisdiction. It is also the road long followed by Bishop An Shuxin.

At the same time, also since 1958, Catholics inside of China have long sought yet another way to assure the viability and future of their church. Some bishops opted to follow this third way and succeeded very well. They perfunctorily accepted to be members of the CCPA, not because they freely chose, but because they were compelled to do so. It was commonly understood that they paid mere lip-service to the association in order to carve out space for the church to not only re-emerge in open society, but to expand, grow and develop in every dimension — both as a community of faith and as an ecclesial institution. Without the courageous stand of the “unofficial church community” on one side and that of the “official church community” on the other, the church in China would not be what it is today; nor could it have offered such a sterling witness of meritorious sacrifice and fidelity to the universal church. When speaking about the church in China, one must always take into consideration this dual reality — thereby avoiding gross errors in judgment based on a biased and partial view.

In most cases, after being named bishop by the PRC government, many priests who were appointed “official bishops” succeeded in secretly securing validation and approval of their appointments from the pope prior to episcopal ordination. Among these so called “official bishops,” all per force members of the CCPA, were a few very highly respected and famous pastors known to us all. p It is unnecessary to rehearse their names here; we all remember “Bp X, Bp Y, Bp Z” … and we remember them with respect. They were loved by tens of thousands of Catholics, by bishops and by many priests and religious. We need only recall reports of the thousands of Catholic faithful who filled cathedrals and even rural graveyards to participate in each of their funerals! These pastors gave a magnificent witness and service to their church. It is also well known that even the recent popes and past and present officials of the Holy See, through these decades, admired the testimonies of both the “unofficial” and “official” communities in China. Of course, it is inconceivable that the Holy See would ever have encouraged these official bishops to freely become members of the CCPA. In the same way, despite questionable news reports of late, it is also inconceivable that the Holy See would have encouraged Bishop An Shuxin of Baoding to accept membership in the CCPA. It is unjust and a grave failure in charity to spread such accusations in the media, thereby causing serious harm to the Chinese Catholic Church, and, in effect, exacerbating its suffering and existing internal divisions.

Most all Chinese Catholics (and even government officials!) know in their hearts that these so called “official bishops” have remained faithful to the Holy See; as admonished by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, they strive to be good Chinese citizens, patriotically serving their country. Those outside of China, who truly have the cause of the Catholic Church in China at heart, need to walk in the shoes of their Chinese sisters and brothers in the faith, to listen with their hearts, to see with their eyes, to open their minds to understand from their perspective the reasons why these bishops took the path they did.

As we all respected and admired the well known “official” bishops who went before him, so, too, Bishop An Shuxin deserves our respect and admiration. Naturally, just as we never agreed that “Bps X, Y and Z” should be members of the CCPA, so too at this juncture we cannot agree in principle (if reports are true) that Bishop An has joined the CCPA as a condition of his being openly recognized by the PRC authorities. At the same time we question the wisdom of certain articles in the media quoting “Vatican sources” without further specifying them. Nonetheless, whoever would venture to speak publicly about the church in China must take into account the merits of both China church communities (“underground and “official”) and the harsh reality in which both sides have been forced to live for many, many years. Whoever professes to follow the instructions of Pope Benedict XVI — seeking to foster reconciliation and unity in the Chinese Catholic Church — must understand the extreme ambiguity in which this church lives. In solidarity and in union of prayer, we must all respect the judgments and ecclesial decisions of these courageous pastors in China who bear the heat of the day. Above all, we must refrain from imposing our own judgments on situations and people of whom we cannot have first-hand knowledge. “Judge not and you shall not be judged.” That is the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s letter. That letter and its compendium show us the way as he discusses such situations (cfr Par. 7): “… all this should be lived out in communion and in fraternal understanding, avoiding judgments and mutual condemnations …” and “… in order to evaluate the morality of an act it is necessary to devote particular care to establishing the real intentions of the person concerned, in addition to the objective shortcoming. Every case, then, will have to be pondered individually, taking account of the circumstances and guidelines which we all follow.”

Jeroom Heyndrickx cicm

November 6, 2009

Irish bishops lay groundwork for pastoral on environment

UPDATE: Here is our Nov. 10 story after the pastoral was released.

As the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference prepares to issue a pastoral reflection on Christian responsibility to care for the environment on Nov. 10, they are laying groundwork with material posted on their Web site.

In one piece, Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel is interviewed about the church’s environmental stewardship role and people’s individual responsibilities.

The patron saint of the environment is not “St. Al Gore,” as one 12-year-old student suggested when the archbishop made a recent school visit, but St. Francis of Assisi, Archbishop Clifford notes.

He called all people to do even simple things, like recycling and not wasting water.

“Everybody plays a part,” he said. “It’s not just the American government or the other world governments.”

In a second video on the page, John Sweeney, director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units, is interviewed about global warming, its consequences and individual responsibility.

Year for Priests: Keys to a successful parish merger

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

The parish I serve as pastor has, within the last month, completed a merger. Since pastors around the country are facing similar situations (particularly in the Northeast), I thought that a recap of our own experience might be helpful and could save some stress.

I can’t claim credit myself for engineering what I think has been a successful transition; other people did far more work on this than I did. It helped, too, that the direction of the merger seemed to be evident from the start. A church one mile down the street from us was averaging 250 worshippers on a weekend, while our own church drew nearly 1,300, due largely to the outward flow of Catholics from the cities. (And the pastor of the closing church made things much easier by preparing his people well for the transition.)

When the mergers were first announced in January of this year (33 churches in the diocese were slated to close or merge — about 20 percent of our worship sites), our first move on the local level was to form a transition team, consisting of six representatives of each of our two parishes. That team’s first task was to help select a new name for the merged parish. The team proposed to the parishioners of both churches, in their bulletins on the same weekend, several possible choices, explaining the rationale for each one. Parishioners could then mark a ballot, selecting one of the choices offered or making their own suggestion.

A fair number of parishioners wanted some combination of the names of the two churches — St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the transition team saw from the ballots (and the accompanying comments) that any attempt to preserve the original patronesses would only perpetuate division. (Some comments argued that the older church, the one that was closing, should come first in the combined name; others argued, even more strongly, that the surviving church should predominate.) It was quickly evident that the unifying move was to pick a brand-new name, so that everyone would begin on an equal footing.

The team determined that a second vote should be held, asking parishioners to choose among the top three choices which did not involve the old names. In that re-vote, there was a clear winner — Mater Christi, a name which also had a local connotation because it was the name of the former diocesan seminary, which had been located in the same neighborhood.

Next came a letter from me, as pastor of the merged parish, to all registered members of both churches, telling them of the start of the new parish and inviting each of them to return a card indicating their desire to be a part of this new faith community, Mater Christi. That was followed by a letter to all ministers at both parishes — catechists, lectors, ushers, eucharistic ministers, home visitors, etc. — encouraging them to “re-up” for those ministries at the new parish.

Next came the signage on all parish buildings, a key factor in making people feel welcome, and all of that was changed quickly in preparation for the opening Mass for Mater Christi Parish.

Some of the furnishings from the closing church were moved to the surviving one — statuary, in particular, photos of former pastors, etc. — to ease the transition. A large artistic banner was fashioned and placed in the sanctuary, showing the facades of both churches cupped tenderly in the hands of the divine, with the name of the new parish displayed below.

The opening liturgy was joyful and unifying — a choir combined from the two churches, ministers from both parishes, a procession carrying sacramental records and communion vessels from St. Teresa’s and St. Catherine’s.

That liturgy was followed by a celebratory picnic on the church grounds, hosted by the confirmation candidates from both churches. (I’m still in the picnic director’s doghouse; I had told her to prepare for 200 people since, I said, a lot of people would go straight home after Mass to watch football; instead, 550 hungry people showed up — to my great surprise but also my delight.)

There is still, of course, some sadness over the merger and some adjustment yet to be made; it is not an easy thing to give up the place where, for years, you have known peace; where you were baptized and married perhaps; the church from which your parents were buried. But there are no public protests, no sit-ins and a good deal of enthusiasm for celebrating an enthusiastic liturgy in a full church. (Our average weekend attendance a year ago was 1,295; this month it has been 1,548.)

Much of that success is due to the two-and-a-half years of diocesan planning, with representatives of each parish meeting in clusters to suggest the new configurations and the bishop accepting virtually each of their recommendations. But the rest of the success is due to the resilience of Catholics who view things realistically, who adapt flexibly and who value their faith far more than their buildings.

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.

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800 miles to the farthest parish in the archdiocese

Managing church functions in the vast expanses of Alaska is not like doing the same in most states.

Among the fascinating bits of information in this article in St. Anthony Messenger is that the comparatively simple matter of flying one of the eight priests incardinated into the Archdiocese of Anchorage to its most remote parish — 800 miles away — can cost $1,000, if the jet can even make the trip based on weather conditions.

The article looks at each of the state’s three dioceses and the challenges of a largely unchurched population, vast distances, few priests and those months when winter weather makes travel impractical.

Lay leadership, a strong diaconate and other approaches that keep the church in Alaska vibrant may well hold lessons for the rest of the country facing demographic shifts and priest shortages.

Vatican gets ready to talk sports

VATICAN CITY — While North Americans — including two top U.S. prelates — are focused on the 2009 World Series, sports is on the Vatican’s mind as well.

This weekend the Pontifical Council for the Laity will host a study seminar on church and sports, titled “Sport, Education, Faith: Toward a New Season for Catholic Sport Associations.” Participants will explore how sports can help develop human beings both physically and spiritually.


Children play soccer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before the weekly audience of Pope Benedict XVI in this Sept., 2005, file photo. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

The two-day seminar will kick off with a written message from Pope Benedict XVI. Then, representatives from bishops’ conferences and Catholic sports associations, flanked by sports experts with professional experience, will suit up for a series of lectures, panel discussions and debates.

The event’s location, Rome’s Villa Aurelia Conference Center, is a limited- capacity venue, so Vatican scouts personally chose and invited each participant. The drafted speakers include American author and athlete- turned-coach Susan Saint Sing and former British Paralympian, Sir Philip Craven.

Sing, who now coaches rowing at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., has inspired many people with her incredible story. A standout high school athlete and member of the Penn State University lacrosse team, Sing broke her neck and back in a gymnastics accident. After briefly suffering from paralysis and receiving treatment in a pain control center for 10 years, Sing discovered the sport of rowing.  She was selected for the 1993 U.S. World Championship rowing team.

Sing plans to present her latest book, “The Wonder Crew: The Untold Story of a Coach, Navy Rowing, and Olympic Mortality,” to Pope Benedict XVI. The book tells the of how the U.S. Naval Academy rowing team came to win the Olympic gold medal in 1920 and how its style ensured U.S. teams won the Olympic gold for the next 40 years.

Sir Craven won the gold medal in the 1973 wheelchair basketball World Championships as well as two gold medals the European Championships in 1971 and 1974. He also competed in five consecutive Paralympic Games from 1972 to 1988.

The decorated athlete has hung up his jersey, but continues to be involved in the sport he loves. Sir Craven has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 2003 and currently holds the position of president of the International Paralympic Committee.

This will be the third seminar on the church and sport hosted by the Vatican. The first one, held in 2005, analyzed the impact of sports in contemporary society. The second one, held in 2007, sought to deepen the role of the church in the field of sports.