A yearly story: creches and controversy

Early last week I received a call from a man in Wilkes Barre, Pa., who was very upset when he looked out from his office across to the Luzerne County Courthouse lawn and saw that for the first time in years there was no Nativity scene or menorah display.

Turns out, according to The Citizens Voice, the local newspaper, the displays were taken down Dec. 16 after several weeks of county officials attempting to work with the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the display was not allowed under the Constitution. People protested —  despite 27-degree weather and a 14-degree windchill. There was more negotiating, the paper reported, and the display was put back Dec. 22 with some additions — Santa Claus, candy canes and a Kwanzaa greeting.

According to a recent statement from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, “the courts have made it clear that the display of religious symbols in a municipal building, or on a courthouse lawn, must be accompanied by secular symbols.” But it added that in a public forum like a park or a place where musicians and artists gather at various times during the year, “the government cannot prohibit the display of privately funded religious symbols, even if they are not accompanied by secular ones.”

The league pays to put up a life-size creche for two weeks in Central Park. Behind it is what is described as the world’s largest menorah. 

According to a 2008 Rasmussen poll, 74 percent of  American adults think religious displays should be allowed on public property. Only 17 percent disagree. And those who are afraid that the nation as a whole has lost the true meaning of Christmas might be heartened to know the same poll showed that 64 percent of Americans celebrated Christmas last year as a religious holiday honoring the birth of Christ.

Coping with Christmas blues

Although few seem to mention it, not everyone experiences Christmas joy during the holiday season.

A story in The Compass, diocesan newspaper in Green Bay, Wis., highlights how the Christmas season can be a difficult time for those who have recently, or even not so recently, experienced the death of someone close to them. 

During a seminar on coping with grief during Christmas a Catholic cemetery administrator noted that the holidays are “filled with reminders of loved ones gone before us.” He stressed the importance of taking time to grieve. 

“Do not attempt to block or ignore it, as this is not healthy for you or others around you who are suffering as well,” he said.

Year for Priests: What we learn from video games

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

When I was a child my parents bought an Atari video-game console for my brother and I.  As it was situated in the living room, it was not long before the whole family began to hold Pac-Man and Pong tournaments on Saturday evenings.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the world of video gaming.  The simple square, dot-matrix type graphics have been replaced with scenes so advanced, one might have difficulty distinguishing the game from actual television.  You only need to go to any entertainment store to know that video games have integrated themselves into the fabric of our society — more than many of us may realize.

Recently, I commented to a few teachers that I am often amazed at how easily the boys in my class fold under pressure.  These young men, who are fearless on the court and field, seem to lose their fight in the classroom at the first hint of failure or setback.  After quickly agreeing with my assessment, one teacher said that the students learn this mentality from video games.  Now, I am always hesitant when such claims are made, but when I asked my students, they could not disagree with the connection and it led to a fruitful discussion.

In a video game, when the scenario is not going as you planned, you simply restart the level, which, my students agreed, happens frequently.  In fact, they admitted to restarting more often than continuing.  When things are really difficult, they get the codes from somebody else rather than wrestling with the problem.  After our discussion, many students saw similar behaviors in the “real” aspects of their life — academics and personal relationships most especially.

I have held that conversation in the back of my mind for a few months now, and as we enter into a new year and bask in the joy of Christmas I believe we can learn something about the spiritual life from video games.

If we learn anything from the Scriptures, it is that the spiritual life does not have a restart button; rather, we are to learn from our successes and failures.  While we are forgiven, we must not forget the lessons learned from our past, and when things get tough, we must work with what God has given us, rather than passively wait for a better scenario.

Over the course of my young ministry, I have met many people who have given up on God because they were not given the scenario they desired.  In their mind, belief in God should offer answers to life’s most difficult circumstances; when it does not, the reason to believe in or even pray to God diminishes.  However I have found that, while there are not always answers in the spiritual life, there is always meaning — and it usually occurs after we want to hit “restart.”  Too often, we are all too ready to erase the pain, the false starts, and the errors, but we do not advance very far without them.  Rather, we are to reconcile and learn, forgive and move forward.

As we all begin a new year, let us not be too eager to hit the restart button, as we often receive the greatest blessings in our lives by learning to persevere through the challenges in the great game of life.

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.

Click here for more in this series.

Catholics who have made their mark in Iowa

A couple of recent issues of The Witness, Dubuque’s archdiocesan newspaper, draw attention to some prominent Iowa Catholics.

The paper highlights Father Thomas Zinkula, an archdiocesan priest who has been inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Cornell College for his turn as a star football player in college. Years after his 1979 graduation, he was named to Cornell’s all-century football team. He also excelled in the classroom.

The newspaper also points readers to a new book and a new DVD. The new book, “Letters to a Pioneer Bishop,” is the full collection of the correspondence of a French bishop who was the first bishop of Dubuque — Bishop Mathias Loras. The DVD tells the story of  Father Bill Barragy, an archdiocesan priest who was the first U.S. Army chaplain to be killed in the Vietnam War in 1966.

Christmas on the big screen

The end of the Christmas rush of shopping, baking, decorating and card writing provides the perfect time to sit back and watch some Christmas classics.  Those looking for some good movies they might have forgotten or never seen should check out this story from the Catholic  New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper, for some ideas and get the popcorn ready.

John Paul II and Pius XII move closer to sainthood

VATICAN CITY — As expected (see our post below), Pope Benedict today officially declared that Pope John Paul II had lived a life of “heroic virtues,” a major milestone toward his beatification.

But the big surprise was that Pope Benedict also signed the decree of heroic virtues for Pope Pius XII, whose sainthod process has been a cause of contention with some Jewish groups and others.

Pope Pius XII meets with Allied news people in 1944. (CNS photo/U.S. Navy)

After the Congregation for Saints’ Causes unanimously recommended the heroic virtues decree for Pope Pius in 2007, Pope Benedict appointed a commission to study how the beatification of the wartime pope would affect Catholic-Jewish and Vatican-Israeli relations. During this time, the Vatican asked both critics and supporters to stop pressing the issue.

Clearly, after more than a year of reflection, Pope Benedict thinks the time has come to move Pope Pius’ cause forward.

Today’s action does not mean imminent beatification. Both of the late popes still require verification of a miracle attributed to their intercession.

In other decrees issued today, Pope Benedict recognized the miracle needed for the canonization of Blessed Mary MacKillop, the Australian founder of a religious order dedicated to educating the children of the poor. 

And he recognized the martydom of Polish Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who was abducted and killed by communist agents in Poland in 1984. The priest was was known for his outspoken support of the then-outlawed Solidarity movement. The martyrdom decree clears the way for his beatification.

The pope also recognized the heroic virtues of Sister Mary Ward, an English religious once jailed as a heretic by the same pope who sanctioned Galileo. She founded the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Loreto Sisters.

1959: Sen. Kennedy cautions Democrats

Here’s a news item from this time of year in 1959: Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., cautioned Democratic leaders that if he were denied the presidential nomination because he was a Catholic, “it could grievously damage the party.”

The New York Times notes that news outlets reported that Kennedy “was particularly candid in making the point to several key figures in the Democratic hierarchy of Pennsylvania, including Gov. David Lawrence, it was learned today (Dec. 16). Sen. Kennedy declared he expected to win a string of state primaries next year and to go to the Los Angeles convention with at least 500 delegates, which is a sizable bulk of the 766 votes needed for nomination.”

It goes without saying that the NCWC News Service — the precursor to CNS — was reporting vigorously on the upcoming election. One of the stories the news service carried around the same time as the Times anecdote above was about the president of the Baltimore City Council, Philip Goodman, asking the local postmaster to investigate the mailing of a pamphlet he described as “a scurrilous and disgraceful attack” on Kennedy. 

The pamphlet was titled “The Pope for President.” Turned out it had been written by an ex-priest who had set up his own anti-Catholic organization and was selling anti-Catholic booklets he wrote around the country.

The news service also reported that Kennedy, considered the frontrunner at that point for the presidential nomination in 1960, expressed dismay that only the Catholics considering a run for the White House had been asked whether they thought U.S. funds should be used “to promote birth control abroad.” Kennedy said it would be “a mistake for the United States government to attempt to advocate the limitation of the population of underdeveloped countries.”

The bishops issued a statement saying Catholics would not support any public funds — by direct aid or “by means of international organizations” — going for birth control, abortion or sterilization.