Handicapping a conclave

Jim Nicholson (CNS/Paul Haring)

Jim Nicholson, a former Republican congressman, Republican National Committee chairman and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, had never actually met former President Bill Clinton before. But there they were on the same plane, headed to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005.

Nicholson had, though, spent plenty of time skewering the president when both were actively on opposite sides of the political fence. So how to break the ice for the first face-to-face meeting proved a tough chore to think through, Nicholson recalled May 6 at a conference sponsored by Trinity Washington University and the National Catholic Reporter.

Eventually, someone brought up common acquaintances, and introductions were made. Nicholson said Clinton, hoping to leverage Nicholson’s insider status at the Vatican, asked him, “Who’s going to be the next pope?”

Nicholson said he didn’t really know, since he was not privy to that kind of information; about the best that happened, he said, was an occasional heads-up on an episcopal appointment yet to be announced,

But when Clinton pressed, Nicholson gave an opinion. “I think it’s going to be Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger,” he recalled saying, then launching into an encapsulated summary of the German cardinal’s career, and topping it off with “and he doesn’t want to be pope” as another qualification.

Clinton “spun on his heels” without saying a word, Nicholson said, leaving the former ambassador wondering if it was something he had said or done that might have irritated the former commander in chief. Instead, as Nicholson found out before the flight landed, Clinton was “telling the boys in the media who’s going to be the next pope” — a prediction that proved true in the days to come.

Year for Priests: One year ago …

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

One year ago, on May 9, 2009, I was ordained a priest.  Of course all the usual reflections have flashed in my mind over the past few days:  What have I learned?  Is it what I thought it would be?  Does it feel like a year?  Which moments have been the most significant?  Etc. …

However, perhaps because I am a teacher, the question that causes the most pause is what I would like to pass along to others who are considering this journey.

Recently, I was told by a friend that, to her, my priesthood is best summed up in the words of Nehemiah:  “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10).  After our conversation, I went back to read the whole passage and was reminded that Nehemiah’s exhortation occurs in the context of worship, among people who are saddened by the demands of God.  Nehemiah challenges them to see the day, not as a burden, but as holy.

I am quite fond of speaking about our paths to holiness, about how we create the right environment for ourselves in order to experience God’s mercy and grace.  The past year of my priesthood has indeed been a path to holiness, and my friend is quite right — the joy of the Lord has been my strength.

Priesthood is not easy.  Your heart must learn to hold the joys and sorrows of those you serve.  At the same time, you will undoubtedly make mistakes or wish you could have responded/performed a little better.  Then you remember that this is the first year of many, and you give yourself permission to be a rookie.  Perhaps the difference between seeing the day as a burden or as holy is being OK with knowing you don’t know.

Over the past year, I have learned the two secrets of the spiritual life are most certainly acceptance and gratitude – not because they are unknown but, rather, that they are so hard to master.  I have learned that faith is the convergence of our experience and our hope, and when all else doesn’t, our faith is what unites us.  In turn, that unifying faith is most clearly seen in the rituals and liturgy that make God’s grace so evident.

I believe my primary role as a priest is to make that grace visible – something I never really understood until now.  In seminary, we are taught to “safeguard” the sacraments, and while that is most certainly true, there is a delicate balance between making “safe” and making “visible.”

I have learned that the worst reason for doing anything is “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”  And if the secrets of the spiritual life are acceptance and gratitude, then vulnerability is how you learn them.  For so many reasons, priesthood is risky business, but only unnecessarily so when you forget your place and your prayer.

Perhaps far too many of us have seen the ugly side of priesthood this past year.  Most certainly, I have been affected by the sadness I have witnessed.  Years ago, I adopted a personal slogan that seems even more appropriate now than it did then:  “Accountability is what often lies between a problem and a solution.”  Lord, I can only pray …

So one year later, the emotions of my ordination day still stir deep within, only now they are mixed with the faces and stories of those I have met since May 9, 2009.  I could have never imagined all that God would do through me; yet, I think I am more struck by what God has done to me through the lives of those to whom I minister.

“The joy of the Lord is our strength” – yes, that sums it up quite nicely … for all of us, I pray.

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

Click here for more in this series.

Bipartisan bill will help Haiti rebuild garment trade

Haiti’s earthquake-shattered economy received a boost from the House of Representatives today with a vote to open the U.S. market to more Haitian clothing and textiles.

The Haiti Economic Lift Program Act handily passed in the House and will go before the Senate late today or tomorrow.

The bipartisan legislation was crafted by top House and Senate lawmakers and was introduced April 28. It extends existing trade preferences for Haitian goods for 12 years.

“The Haitian garment sector, Haiti’s flagship industry, was making important strides prior to the earthquake and helping the country’s economy establish a stable foothold,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., in a statement accompanying the bill’s introduction. “With this legislation, we will help get the garment sector and Haiti’s economy back on that critical trajectory.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that the bill will assist Haiti’s long-term economic recovery following the largest and most devastating earthquake in the country’s 206-year history.

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, supported an earlier bill calling for some of the same measures in a Feb. 19 letter to senators on the Finance and Foreign Relations committees.

In a follow-up letter May 4, Bishop Hubbard was joined by Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, in thanking Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for sponsoring the new legislation in the Senate.

In February, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced the Plus One for Haiti program, which calls on the American apparel industry to obtain at least 1 percent of its clothing imports from the Caribbean nation.

Haiti exported $513 million worth of clothing to the U.S. in 2009, an increase of almost 25 percent from 2008. Haiti is the 17th largest supplier of clothing in the U.S., according to the apparel industry.

Students launch campaign to end “r-word”

Students at the University of St. Thomas – a Catholic diocesan university in St. Paul, Minn. —  launched their own version of a campaign by the Special Olympics to encourage people to stop using the word retarded, or the “r-word.”

The student campaign organizers produced a video about their efforts and collected student pledge forms where students promised not to use the word.

Kari Jo Johnson, a St. Thomas senior who helped initiate the campaign, said her brother’s Down syndrome inpacted her in “unspeakable ways.”

“When I saw the campaign that Special Olympics started, I knew my campus, classmates and peers needed to be informed about how this word could actually be stopped,” she told the university’s news service.

 John Busch, another university senior and campaign organizer, also has a brother with Down syndrome and is offended when he hears the word retarded.  “As a residence-hall adviser, I hear the word on a daily basis and realize how important it is to get students to understand its true meaning,” he said.

The Special Olympics campaign  encourages people to make online pledges to stop saying the word and encourage others to stop as well. After a little more than two years, the campaign has received about 100,000 pledges.

The first of 1,000 wheelchairs make it to Haiti

Some of the thousands of Haitian amputees injured during the Jan. 12 earthquake are mobile again.

They are the beneficiaries of the first shipment of what eventually will be 1,000 wheelchairs, thanks to the Knights of Columbus and the American Wheelchair Mission, run by Chris Lewis, son of comedian Jerry Lewis.

Some of the wheelchairs were distributed April 27-29 to patients at a field hospital operated by a University of Miami medical team. Located on the grounds of the international airport in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, the 240-bed hospital has treated hundreds of people who suffered crushing injuries during the massive magnitude 7 quake.

“We gave wheelchairs to 15 people that day (April 27) who could not leave until they got a wheelchair,” Lewis told Catholic News Service May 3 from his office in Camarillo, Calif. “People are in the hospital but couldn’t go anywhere because they could not move. These wheelchairs are helping them resume their life.”

Lewis said the people he met were grateful for the wheelchairs. A few told him they were going to find a church to thank God for the gift.

During the last few days of April, Lewis’ foundation delivered 400 wheelchairs to the hospital in conjunction with the HHS Foundation in the Dominican Republic. Because of limited storage space, the rest of the delivery will be staged over the next several weeks.

The Knights of Columbus is sponsoring the delivery.

Knights’ spokesman Patrick Korten said the effort is part of the organization’s 7-year-old worldwide wheelchair program.

“It was very rewarding (to be there),” Korten said, “but a bit disconcerting … to see so many people with so serious injuries and without limbs. They can use these wheelchairs.”

Lewis, a fourth-degree Knight, started his foundation in August after working for another wheelchair foundation for nine years. He said he helped coordinate the delivery of 750,000 wheelchairs to 150 countries during that period.

Abuse fallout still among most-viewed stories for April

After the dominance of stories on sex abuse and health care in our last report on most-viewed stories for the preceding month, our report for April is a tiny bit more wide-ranging. But fallout from the abuse scandal still had a role — directly or indirectly — on eight of the 10 most-viewed stories for April listed below.

1. New coadjutor of Los Angeles one of 24 Opus Dei bishops (April 9)

2. Trials will leave priesthood, church stronger, priest-psychologist says (April 15)

3. Report for late New York cardinal’s sainthood cause presented to pope (April 14)

4. Oklahoma bishop to celebrate solemn high Mass at national shrine (April 22)

5. At Vatican, frustration and some optimism over abuse scandal (April 16)

6. At five-year mark, pope’s teaching mission hits some obstacles (April 1)

7. Vatican campaign to defend pope not orchestrated at the top (April 6)

8. Abuse scandal painful, but doing penance leads to grace, pope says (April 15)

9. Vatican rebuts allegations of stalling on California sex abuse case (April 14)

10. Cardinal accused of mishandling abuse case replaced as Mass celebrant (April 21)

Pope begins reform of Legionaries of Christ

VATICAN CITY — In initial steps toward reforming the Legionaries of Christ, Pope Benedict will name a personal delegate with authority over the order and a commission to study its constitutions, the Vatican said today.

In a lengthy statement, the Vatican indicated that the Legionaries would need to undergo very deep changes, including a redefinition of the order’s religious charism and a revision of the way authority is exercised among its members.

While the pope will have the final word on whatever changes are eventually imposed, one Vatican source said after seeing today’s statement: “It looks like they are calling for a refoundation of the order.”

The pope met Friday with the five bishops who conducted a visitation of the Legionaries’ institutions over the last year. They visited almost all the order’s religious houses and most of its pastoral institutions, meeting with more than 1,000 Legionaries.

The Vatican emphasized what it said was a high degree of sincerity and cooperation shown by the Legionaries, and said the visitators encountered many young priests who were “exemplary, honest and full of talent.”

The Vatican statement castigated the Legionaries’ founder, the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had been found to have fathered children and sexually abused seminarians. His “most grave and objectively immoral conduct” calls for “a path of profound revision” in the order, the Vatican statement said.

It said Father Maciel committed “true crimes” that reflected “a life devoid of scruples and of authentic religious sentiment.” Most Legionaries didn’t know about his conduct because Father Maciel was able to skillfully “create alibis and obtain the trust, confidence and silence of those around him,” it said.

Most Legionaries, because of their “sincere zeal,” believed that accusations against Father Maciel could only be lies, it said.

The Vatican said the visitation highlighted three primary requirements:

— The need to “redefine the charism” of the Legionaries of Christ, preserving “the true nucleus, that of ‘militia Christi’ (the army of Christ), which distinguishes the apostolic and missionary action of the church.”

— The need to revise the exercise of authority in the order, in a way that “respects the conscience” and is closely connected with truth.

— The need to preserve the enthusiasm and missionary zeal of younger members through adequate formation.

“In fact, the disappointment about the founder could place in question the vocation and that nucleus of charism that belongs particularly to the Legionaries of Christ,” it said.

The Vatican said the pope wanted to assure the Legionaries and members of the order’s lay movement, Regnum Christi, that “they will not be left on their own” and that the church will “accompany them and help them on the path of purification that awaits them.”

Part of that path, it said, is a reaching out to those inside and outside the order who were “victims of the sexual abuse and of the system of power put in place by the founder.”

“To them at this moment go the thoughts and prayers of the Holy Father, together with gratitude for those among them who, in the face of great difficulty, had the courage and the constancy to demand the truth,” it said.

As for future steps, the statement said the pope has “reserved to himself” those decisions, beginning with the naming of his delegate and the commission to study the order’s constitutions. He will also name a visitator for the Regnum Christi movement, at their request.