Archive for February, 2013

February 23, 2013 – Change On The Horizon

February 23, 2013

I hope you were able to plod your way through our winter storm.  I’m sure that people in Buffalo or Duluth, Minnesota would laugh at us and say “You call this a winter storm?”  But given the fact that we haven’t really seen much of this stuff the last couple of years, it turned into quite the event.  I think I am now officially ready for spring.

Last week I had something of local interest that I was going to talk about, but then I got on the Pope Benedict XVI resignation track and never got off, so I saved it for this week.  As you may recall, about a year and a half ago our diocese began a process called the “Pastoral Plan for Renewal and Restructuring.”  Each parish was asked to submit the input of its parishioners and also to submit its own reports regarding statistics, etc.  Until now we haven’t heard much about how the process was going, but a couple of weeks a memo was released from the Office of the Vicar General indicating that the process is coming close to a resolution.  The Bishop has accepted many of the recommendations that the committee who has been working on this submitted to him.  This memo is available for viewing by clicking the link I put on the homepage of our website, or you can click the link below:

The entire statement is about 10 pages in length, and so I though I would just summarize what I think is important and what may have a direct effect on our parish.  The first thing is that this will not just impact parishes and schools, but also could affect how deaneries and clusters are organized, as well as how the offices of the diocese are organized.  Major population shifts have taken place, yet our deanery and cluster structure has remained the same.  So it is possible we could see ourselves as part of a different deanery and/or cluster.  In judging the tone of the memo, a cluster will take on a little different meaning.  Currently we have 3 priests ministering our 5 cluster parishes.  In time, it may become a situation where 2 or 3 parishes will become its own cluster, with one parish as the central location for Masses and activities, and the others serving as chapels on at least a temporary basis.

Secondly, the final process of restructuring likely will not occur at one time.  It will be a more gradual process.  Circumstances may necessitate some changes to take place right away, others may not take place for another 2 or more years.  For example, we have received abundant assistance from international priests who are here as missionaries.  However, their individual Bishops have the right to call them back at any time.  Also, there is no guarantee that we will continue to have the assistance of additional priests.

Third, as expected, most parishes felt that they could maintain the status quo.  This obviously will not be possible given the factors of fewer priests, declining church attendance, aging populations, etc.  In the original plan the Bishop expressed a desire for recommendations to be made by the parishioners themselves at the local level.  To this point few parishes have done this.  It appears necessary that the Bishop, or Vicar General, or Vicar Forane (Dean) will have to consult with some parishes to give them a more realistic view of their situation.  If then, they still refuse to acknowledge the need for change, then the decisions will be made for them at the diocesan level.

So now of course the burning question is how this will affect us as a parish.  Again, there are no final answers as yet.  I can only take my own conclusions from the tone of the memo and float them out there.  This is what I think we will need to work on and consider:

I think the biggest short-term challenge for us will be to keep our school viable.  The committee is recommending that schools must have at least 50 students in grades K-8 in order to stay open.  Thankfully at this time we have about 85, with the largest classes in the lower grades.  Also, the diocesan recommendation in the past has been for parishes to not subsidize the school more than 40% of their total income.  This ensures that the parish can fulfill its other ministerial and physical needs.  Our school has made progress on this front, but we are still over this limit.  So we will have to find a way to make up the difference, whether it be through raising tuition, more fundraisers, bequests, etc.

Also, where does this leave our parish?  Will we continue to have a resident pastor?  Will we still be able to have 2 Masses on a weekend?  If we are placed in a different cluster, would we be the central parish?  All of these questions remain to be answered.  Again, I can only tell you what I think will happen.  I do not see any type of scenario where we would not be merged with at least one other parish.  Geographically, the one that would make sense is Ellis Grove.  It is close in distance, it is in the same school district, etc.  A merger would mean that we would essentially have 2 locations under the umbrella of one parish with one parish name, one parish council, etc.  Again, I am not saying that this is what will happen, and I hesitate to say things like this because I know it doesn’t take much for the rumor mill to get started.  I am only throwing out possible scenarios so people will know what types of changes may be coming.  The committee in the end may have a completely different slant.

The bottom line is that our future church in the next 5-10 years will have to take on a different form.  Some parishes for practical reasons will have to close.  Some will have to merge and work together.  Lay people will have to take on more responsibilities.  I echo what the memo says in that we cannot think of ourselves as just a parish family – we need to think of ourselves as a Catholic family, and we must do what is necessary to keep our CATHOLIC church strong and viable.  As these final decisions are made, please pray for our Bishop and the committee as they make their final decisions, and pray for our Diocese that we will be open to change and work to make ourselves a stronger church for the future.

Have a great week.  Peace.

February 15, 2013 – Once Every 600 Years

February 16, 2013

Well even though it’s been several days since his announcement, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is still sending shock waves around the world.  So much has already been written about it, I’m not sure that I really have anything to add to it except my own personal feelings.  I just caught a few minutes of news before I left the house Monday morning and nothing was said about it.  I did not find out until I checked my cell phone later on and saw Facebook and Twitter blowing up.  I definitely was surprised at first.  After all, this is an occurrence that has not taken place for 600 years.  However, as I started to think about it a little more, it made more sense to me. 

There were subtle signs that B16 was leaning this way.  In 2009 he visited the tomb of Pope Celestine V and left his pallium on top of the tomb.  Not much was thought of this at the time, but Celestine V took on the papacy under similar circumstances to B16 – he was close to 80 years old and was somewhat reluctant to take on this position.  Just 5 months into his papacy, after issuing a decree that allowed Popes to resign, Celestine V exercised that right.  So I’m sure B16 felt a bond with this previously “obscure” Pope.  There was also the scandal involving the Pope’s butler and the leaking of confidential documents which I’m sure stayed with him.

There are also of course the health and aging issues.  Though it appears he is not suffering from a particular disease, he does suffer from the normal rigors of an 85 year old man.  He has a pacemaker, now has difficulty walking, was reported to have fallen last year in Mexico and suffered a minor head injury, and has been advised by his doctors not to take any more lengthy, trans-Atlantic flights.  B16 was of course a close confidant of Blessed John Paul II, who suffered greatly in his final days, and I don’t think B16 wanted to find himself in the same position – being unable to perform the leadership and pastoral duties of the papacy.  So in retrospect the fact that B16 would come to this decision was not that surprising.  I think the shock factor came at the abruptness of the announcement.  He gave only about 2 ½ weeks notice that he would step down.  And judging from the reaction of the people in the room when he made the announcement, even his closest advisors did not see this coming, though I’m sure B16 had given this much thought and consideration.

Time will tell what the legacy of B16 will be.  He certainly had a tough act to follow in JPII.  While JPII was relatively young when he assumed the papacy and was a very outgoing person, B16 was much older and is a much more reserved personality.  However, he leaves behind some excellent writings, and I also admire the fact that he has allowed the Vatican and the church to join the fray of the internet and social media as a means of evangelization.  He of course has his critics.  There are those who do not believe he did enough for those who were victims of sexual abuse by priests.  Some others believe there should have been more changes within the church to “keep up with the times”.  But overall, given the position he was thrust into, I feel he did his duty in a spiritual and thoughtful way, and I think we owe him a great debt of gratitude and also our prayers as he moves into the final phase of his life.  “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

So the question now is what happens next.  According to Vatican spokesmen, there will be a conclave 15 to 20 days after B16 resigns to elect a new Pope.  The secret vote will be among the Cardinals under 80 years of age.  Normally this 15 to 20 day period includes a time of mourning and the funeral for the Pontiff who passed on, so this period is necessary.  However, in this case the time period will not have that, so I think it will allow for some “behind the scenes” discussions before the conclave takes place.  It would not surprise me if a Pope were elected quickly after the conclave convenes, but this is just my gut feeling, which of course has been wrong many times.  I assume that part of the reason B16 resigned so abruptly is to allow a Pope to be in place for Holy Week and Easter, and I would think the Cardinals would want to respect his wishes.

This of course leads to the other question: Who will be the next Pope?  Who knows.  You could make the case that he could come from Africa or South America, since those are places in which the Catholic faith is thriving.  Or they could continue on the “safe” route and elect an Italian or European.  I don’t think they are ready to take the leap and elect an American such as Cardinal Dolan, though I would love to see it.  My hope is that the next Pontiff will be someone who is in good health and energetic, can relate to young people, is willing to continue to use the tools of technology to spread the Gospel message, and will also stay true to the Scriptures in dealing with social issues.  I know there are many people who will say “elect someone who will let priests be married”, or “elect someone who will ordain women”, etc.  I think the main task of the Pope is to help keep the church in a relevant place in our culture while also staying true to what Jesus commanded of us.  A delicate balance indeed, which is why the Cardinals also need our prayers during this process.  It will be a very interesting month or so ahead.

I hope your Lenten season is off to a good start.  We had a nice crowd for Mass Ash Wednesday evening.  I also encourage you to participate in our adult education series the Tuesday evenings of Lent at 7:00PM in the parish house.  We will be watching episodes of Fr. Robert Barron’s series called “Catholicism” and discussing them.  Also, with Fr. Gene on vacation, you are welcome to attend our communion services on the Wednesday evenings of Lent.  This photo came across my Facebook page, and I thought Catholics, especially those who are fans of Seinfeld, would appreciate it:


Have a great week.  Peace.

February 9, 2013 – On the Cusp of Lent

February 9, 2013

As we begin we keep in mind two important prayer intentions.  We of course pray for the folks in New England and on the East Coast who have gotten the brunt of one of the worst winter storms in years.  We ask God to protect them and keep them safe.  We also pray for the security guards and staff of Menard Penitentiary, Chester Mental Health Center, and all corrections facilities in Illinois, that a resolution to the problems of overcrowding, short-staffing and violence may be found and that they become safer places to work.

Well my Facebook and Twitter feeds were overflowing with news, editorials, statements, and other items this past week.  When I was finished going through all of the material I took a picture of myself with my webcam, and here’s how I looked:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Of course, not nearly all of this expanded head size is brain matter, but rather just unused space.  As you can imagine, the approaching season of Lent brings its share of reading material.  Also, there has been a lot of reaction, accurate and inaccurate, to the revised proposal for the HHS mandate that was released last Friday.  So even though social media is a great way to bring things to people’s attention, sometimes you have to sort through it and see what is worthwhile and what is, um, not so worthwhile.

One of the better things I read was a blog which talked about how even in this culture of secularization and less reliance on God’s guidance, that the season of Lent still brings out something in folks that draws them to church, or at least to the practices of the church.  Though Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, it still brings crowds to church larger than the days we are obligated to attend Mass.  Someone joked to me a while back that this is because the church gives away ashes for free on this day, and anyone will come for something free.  Whatever the reason, there is something about this day and season that gives people pause.  Even people I know who haven’t attended church for many years will do some type of gesture.  They will still grab the fish sandwich on Friday instead of the hamburger, and so forth.  So why is this?

Well, think about many of our religious holidays and what society has done to them.  Halloween is all about trick-or-treating and ghosts and goblins instead of its original intent, which was All Hallows’ Eve, the eve of All Saints and All Souls Days.  Even Easter, the most important Christian feast we celebrate, has been commercialized by bunnies laying Cadbury eggs.  However, the more harsh tone of Ash Wednesday and Lent still resists these secular influences.  Lent provides more of a stark reality.  The words we hear when we receive our ashes remind us of this.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel,” do not give the greeting card companies a happy slogan to publicize.  Rather, they remind us that we all have faults, and that at some point we will have to face judgment for those faults.  Does this bring those “wanderers” back to church on a more permanent basis?  Most often, probably not.  But at least there is this one moment, or one season, when at least the thought enters their minds.  As usual, we will have a lot of Lenten activities that people are invited to take part in.  Let us also pray that the tone of this season will not only penetrate people’s minds, but their consciences and hearts as well.

As I also mentioned, there was a lot of reaction to the HHS proposal I talked about last time.  The Bishops of the United States offered their official statement this past Thursday.  Cardinal Dolan, the President of the USCCB, appears to believe that this is a step in the right direction, but still falls short in some areas.  The new proposal offers an “accommodation” to institutions such as Catholic health-care facilities, colleges, and Catholic Charities, but still does not accept the fact that these are an integral part of the Church’s ministry, and deserve the same exemptions as churches themselves.  It also gives the impression that religious ministries not deemed “religious employers” would still be forced to violate their consciences by being required to offer coverage that includes contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.  It does not provide a clear direction as to who would be responsible for offering this coverage and in the end, whom would end up paying for it.  Finally, the new proposal still does not provide any conscience protection for private employers who oppose the practice of contraception based on their religious beliefs, such as Hobby Lobby.

According to Cardinal Dolan, however, his statement was not an outright rejection of the proposal, as many have reported. Rather, he said in his response that “We welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all.”  So it appears that the main issue for the Bishops is clarity, and they hope to gain this in the next 60 days (this is the period public comments on the HHS proposal can be made).    So we will see what the next few weeks brings.

Then finally was the story I saw that made me say “huh?” A baker in Oregon refused to make a wedding cake for a same sex-couple claiming that their “marriage” violated his religious beliefs.  Now the baker is being investigated for discrimination by the Attorney General.  OK, first of all the man is a private business owner, and if he didn’t want their business, I’m sure there is another baker in Oregon that will accommodate them.  But what is more upsetting to me is that they are looking to charge this man based on a five-year-old statute trumping his first amendment rights.  I don’t think I need to make any other comments other than this is what it is coming to.

Well, I’m going to find a pin and release the air from my head now.  Have a great week and a blessed start to the Lenten season.  Peace.


February 2, 2013 – News of the Week

February 2, 2013

There were quite a few newsworthy items making their rounds in cyberspace this past week.  We have been talking for a long time about the HHS mandate, which originally stated that employers were required to offer contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as part of their health care plans.  This of course would have required religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals, universities, etc., to violate the social teaching of the Catholic Church.  An “accommodation” was offered last year in which those organizations who were non-profit church-affiliated entities would be able to opt out of the mandate and would not have to provide contraception in their health-care plans.  However, if a woman wanted coverage they could obtain it directly from the insurance company.  The problem with this is that many Catholic organizations are self-insured, and even those who are not would eventually have to pay for this coverage via higher premiums or other means.  Thus, the Bishops of the United States rejected this accommodation as not going far enough, and still insisted on the complete removal of this mandate.

Yesterday the Obama administration offered another compromise.  I certainly am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so I’m probably not really qualified to go too much in depth on what this new proposal really entails, but I’ll try to briefly state what the gist of it is. Under this proposal, objecting nonprofits will be allowed to offer employees a plan that does not cover contraceptives. Their health insurer will then automatically enroll employees in a separate individual policy, which only covers contraceptives, at no cost. This policy would stand apart from the employer’s larger benefit package.  The faith-based employer would not “have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.” Under the policy proposed Friday, self-insured plans opting out of contraceptive coverage would notify the company that administers their health benefits. That third-party administrator would then be responsible for arranging “separate individual health insurance policies for contraceptive coverage from an issuer providing such polices.”  Insurers who create these plans for self-insured companies will receive an offset from the federal government: Lower fees to sell plans on the new health exchanges run by the Obama administration.

Since this proposal was just announced yesterday, the U.S. Bishops have yet to issue a formal statement on whether this is acceptable or not.  Timothy Cardinal Dolan has only said to this point that “Today, the Administration issued proposed regulations regarding the HHS mandate. We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.”  In looking at this on the surface I immediately see a couple of things.  One is that this only applies to non-profit groups.  Businesses such as Hobby Lobby who have rejected this mandate on religious and moral grounds would still be forced to include coverage for contraception in their health-care plans or face steep fines.  However, on the other end of the spectrum, this could give new life to the many lawsuits filed against the government concerning this mandate, as to this point some of these lawsuits had been rejected or put on hold waiting for a more specific proposal from the Obama administration.

My hunch is that in the end our Bishops will decide that this compromise does not go far enough, as it does not fully take the burden of providing contraception off of anyone who objects based on their religious beliefs, and that religious organizations would still be a “conduit” for helping to provide birth –control methods.  It will be interesting to see more reactions to this next week.

Another item that garnered much national attention was the upcoming public revelation of documents which show that cases of sexual abuse by clergy were concealed in order to protect abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Though again, these cases were from decades ago, this is another black eye the church will have to deal with.  Archbishop Gomez made a bold step this week in relieving retired Cardinal Roger Mahony from performing any public duties and also allowing Santa Barbara Bishop Thomas Curry to step down from his position (Bp. Curry was a Vicar General at the time these allegations occurred).  These documents will show horrific instances of neglect, and those who were victimized deserve compensation.  However, this again shows how we have evolved in our understanding that a sexual predator cannot be cured of this mental illness.  Though what Cardinal Mahoney did was clearly wrong, it reflected the attitude and advice of doctors at the time that an abuser could receive treatment and was then fit to return to public ministry.  The Catholic Church, though it took too many years, has shown over the last decade that it is at the forefront of preventing cases such as this from happening again, and now delivers swift and decisive action.  We continue to pray for those who were victims of abuse and for the church that all of these cases come to light and that we can move forward as a safe, loving community.

This past week Timothy Cardinal Dolan wrote a column about Catholic Schools Week.  Recently the Archdiocese of New York announced the closure of 24 schools because of declining enrollment and unstable finances.  Instead of sadness, in his column Cardinal Dolan reminded us that Jesus observed that a vine must be pruned if it is to continue to provide good fruit.  We as members of the church, myself included, have a fear of numbers.  We see the number of parishes in our Diocese starting to decline, and will likely see more in the future.  We see a declining enrollment in many of our schools.  We see a decline in the number of people in the pews at many of our Masses.  These are concerns that we need to continue to address and evangelize about.  But I see the people that are here and know that they are devout, dedicated, and special people.  And though the “pruning” process can be painful, part of our faith is believing that we will continue to yield good fruit in the years to come. 

Finally, I almost forgot to give my prediction for the Super Bowl.  This year is particularly intriguing as we have Catholic brothers coaching against each other.  I think it will be a good game, and I’ve been going back and forth on a winner.  Both teams seem to have that “karma” going for them.  However, I think the experience of the Ravens will win out in the end, and I predict a 24-21 victory for Baltimore.  As always, no wagering please.

Have a great week.  Enjoy the warmer weather.  Peace.