Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The newess of you

Tonight is New Year's Eve, and I am yawning already.

For everybody else who will ring in the new year, go ahead and stay up late, bang all the pots and pans you want, and by all means, dance!

But please, do everyone a favor and A: go easy on the bubbly; B: don't even think of getting behind the wheel if you've had a drink.

And before stepping out with the Mummers or settling in for wall-to-wall college football, remember to go to Mass. (Here's a directory to parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, many of which have Mass times and web sites).

Thursday isn't Sunday, but it is the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. What better way to start the new year than by worshiping God the Father and honoring Mary? She is the mother of Jesus, true God and true man, and our mother too.

Her "yes" to bear the son of God teaches a lesson no more valuable than these troubling times entering 2009. The best way to deal with the difficulties that lie ahead is to say yes to God's will for our lives each day, starting today, right now.

God has a plan for each of us. It unfolds every day even amid the weaknesses and sins of this life. The key is not to lose heart but trust in God's grace to help us fulfill his plan and vocation for each of us.

That's why the Church is so important in this journey: the font of graces through the sacraments and the support of our fellow Catholic pilgrims help us live the Christian life today, until we meet our God and Father ultimately in heaven.

With Mary as our guide and helper, the first day of a new year is the right time to renew a life of holiness. And don't forget to enjoy the world again on January 1. There are still more reasons for joy than sadness.

Friday, December 12, 2008

From the beginning, a matter of dignity

Today the Vatican released a document on ethical issues concerning biomedical research. And it's not just stem cell research.

The "instruction" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled "Dignitas Personae" -- The Dignity of the Person -- takes a balanced view of research that aims to improve the quality of life, acknowledging the benefits of research that could result in medical advances.

But the instruction also reveals a dark side to progress: if humanity loses sight of what it means to be human, especially the innate dignity of every person from conception to natural death, then new and dangerous threats to human life could emerge.

That is why the document emphasizes human dignity so strongly.

Read the Catholic Standard & Times for more on this important teaching of the Church.

In the meantime, a news release on the document nicely summarizes the key themes, including embryo adoption; pre-implantation (of embryo) devices and drugs; gene therapy; genetic enhancements/designer babies; and human/animal hybrids.

If time allows, read the whole "Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions." It's not too long, and it's in English.

There is also a Vatican summary (a poor-quality scan, but nevertheless helpful), and a handy Q&A on the document, including a brief teaching on in-vitro fertilization.

So there is the homework assignment. Read up on this important topic. It's the best way that Catholics can influence this emerging scientific field and convey the truth of humanity's God-given dignity, from the moment of conception.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mary, 'our pattern of holiness'

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Yes, of Mary, not of Jesus. That distinction is a cause for confusion every year around this time as somebody tries to square the "conception" on December 8 with Jesus' birth on the 25th. (And recent scholars tell us that date probably isn't the 25th but several weeks earlier. So what? As Mr. Pulitzer said, don't let facts get in the way of a good story.)

At any rate, the Immacuate Conception celebrates not so much an event in Mary's life but the doctrine of her freedom from the stain of original sin, the gift of God to she who would carry God's only Son. She was to be the sinless vessel of Jesus, true God and true man, son of Mary and son of God.

Who could put it better than Pius IX, who proclaimed the doctrine of the Church in 1854? As he said on this day 154 years ago: "the doctrine, which holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first moment of her conception was, by singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Human race, preserved from all stains of original sin, is revealed by God, and therefore to be firmly and resolutely believed by all the faithful." (Dogmatic bull Ineffabilis Deus, of Dec. 8, 1854.)

As Catholics attend Mass at any church today, we'll hear the prayers celebrating this great feast of our Blessed Mother. Among them is the day's Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. Sometimes it's better to read carefully the words we hear at Mass, and let them soak into the fabric of our life, thereby transforming us a little more each day. May it be so:

"Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

"You allowed no stain of Adam's sin to touch the Virgin Mary. Full of grace, she was to be a worthy mother of your son, your sign of favor to the Church at its beginning, and the promise of its perfection as the bride of Christ, radiant in beauty.

"Purest of virgins, she was to bring forth your son, the innocent lamb who takes away our sins. You chose her from all women to be our advocate with you and our pattern of holiness.

"In joy we sing to your glory with all the choirs of angels: holy, holy, holy Lord..."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Baking of the Bread

For my family growing up, it wasn't a meal without bread. And it wasn't a holiday meal without two kinds of bread.

One kind was the loaves made by my grandmother, who'd been up half the night kneading and waiting for the first and second rises, then baking into the early morning. Then my grandfather would get all the packages of two or three loaves each, and start driving all over the region to the children's, aunts' and cousins' houses. The bread was still warm when he came to our back door. But Papa couldn't stay; like Santa Claus, he had a lot of homes to visit.

The other kind was the blessed bread we got from church the morning or evening before Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Its quality wasn't as good as my grandmother's (disclosure: we called her Mommy J, as her name was Josephine), but bringing a remnant of church into our dining room gave the meal a solemn feel. That, and the blessed candle on the table, lit only during those meals (and during thunderstorms).

Today with my own family, bread remains essential for the table, especially this week. By the way, try this best bread recipe you'll have find, for perhaps the best bread ever to come out of your oven. Make your own -- it's easy!

While both grandparents have gone home to heaven, I'll drive to our church for Mass Thanksgiving morning. I might even be so fortunate to have a loaf blessed by our pastor.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A compassionate take on suicide

In our office we subscribe to most Catholic publications from around the United States. For some reason the Dialog, newspaper of the nearby Diocese of Wilmington, Del., is always gone before I get a chance to read it. Last week was an exception.

Thanks to the Dialog staff, the paper ran a commentary by Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser on the topic of suicide. It was the most compassionate take on the topic I've ever read. And timely, too.
A few days later, the owner of a prominent car dealership in my area had committed suicide.

Over coffee and sad eyes ever since, many folks have been discussing the man. Many of them had bought at least one car from him and his family over the years, my dad and myself included.

There was a lot of sympathy for him and his family. Everyone recognized this as a tragedy. Maybe they'd even spend a little more time with a loved one who is in a difficult period, to provide a hopeful word. That is my hope anyway.

The real questions and fodder for long conversations, however, was that the man received a Catholic funeral. Older Catholics thought that was improper, based on their understanding of Church teaching from their youth. Younger Catholics didn't see anything wrong with a Catholic funeral, but didn't know Church teaching precisely on the matter.

In short, the teaching from the Catechism that "the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (2283) seems a compassionate response to families dealing with the loss. Here is the full Church teaching on suicide from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

To this eminently reasonable teaching, Father Rolheiser adds an emotional summation: "we need to give up the notion that suicide puts a person outside the mercy of God. God's mercy is equal even to suicide."

Read his full article or, if time doesn't permit, digest this closing gem:

"The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the person's eternal salvation, and anxious self-examination about we did or didn't do. Suicide is indeed a terrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is, a sickness, and stop being anxious about both the person's eternal salvation and our less-than-perfect response to his or her illness.
"God redeems everything and, in the end, all manner of being will be well, beyond even suicide."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One week: a new champion, a new president, a new era

What a week it was, which explains the dearth of posts to this space.

Within the span of a week, the Philadelphia region saw history made twice, with street parties in spades. The Phillies won their first World Series in a generation, and an African American man was elected by his fellow citizens to lead them as president of the most powerful nation in the world.

The first was a long time coming, and it prompted shrieks of joy among millions around these parts. Who can forget the smiles and high-fives, and the parade?

The second, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America, was profound for two reasons. Certainly, all Americans witnessed the immense pride felt by African Americans who saw one of their own elected to the highest office in the land. The descendant of those brought in chains from Africa three centuries ago -- Obama himself is the son of a man from Kenya -- stands today as an example of what any person can achieve in this country through hard work and a strong family. No wonder the tears of joy, the hugs of solidarity.

Now is a new era. Now is also no time to forget the fundamental challenges to our nation. Can the president-elect, after he is sworn in, be persuaded to protect the lives of the defenseless, especially the unborn? Will his family's example of a loving husband and wife, with young children, affirm for all the necessity of supporting marriage and family life? Will he be able to provide compassionate help to the poor, health care for those without and economic oppportunities for more Americans? Will he use the nation's vast military strength wisely, and chart a prudent course through a litany of daunting challenges, including climate change, foreign relations and economic distress?

The American people have chosen one man, Barack Obama, to lead the country toward resolving these issuses. Regardless of how Catholics or other Americans voted on Tuesday, come January 20, 2009, each of us must salute the new occupant of the office of president. Encouraging him always, praising or confronting him when necessary, Catholics especially must advocate for our highest priorities as faithful American citizens.

We'll do so in due course. For now, everyone should appreciate the gravity of this milestone in American history.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Last-minute reading, in case you haven't been paying attention

The Church teaches that in order for a person to vote or make decisions with moral consequences, one's conscience must be formed properly.

To help in that formation process, the bishops exercise their role as teachers. While they teach consistently on a wide array of issues, in recent weeks Catholic citizens have seen an intensification of teaching at the convergence of citizenship and respect for life. Cardinal Rigali has led the way in this regard.

Anybody paying attention can't say he or she does not know Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life and the importance of integrating it and the whole of the Church's social teaching in all that we do -- especially in the votes we cast in this election that is looking like a milestone if not a turning point in American history.

Still haven't heard this teaching?

Hear and watch for yourself the Cardinal's homily at the annual Red Mass he celebrated Oct. 20 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, or read the text.

Also, Bishop William Murphy of New York joined the Cardinal in a statement about the social and political steps needed to protect life.

Then there's the handy if little-known pamphlet by Bishop William Lori of Connecticut called "Conscience and the Catholic Voter" that's a quick, insightful read, or the full-length version.

Finally, or at least up until this point, Cardinal Rigali's latest column for the Catholic Standard & Times may be the most powerful statement yet on the link between faithful citizenship and respect for life. Read through to the end; it's compelling teaching.

And remember to make time for prayer. If you haven't begun saying the Faithful Citizenship Novena suggested by the U.S. Bishops' Conference, try praying aloud with the podcast (and don't miss other pod resources on the election) or silently with the written word.
Now is the time to raise up in prayer this moment of greatest importance for our country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Voters Guide is just around the corner

It's Monday, so now that the yawns of the new week are out of the way, here's what's coming up in the CS&T on Thursday.

The voter's guide that we had planned to publish on Oct. 23 has been moved up by a week, to give voters a chance to read and digest the candidates' stands on issues near and dear to Cathoics and, hopefully, all people of good will. Before flipping the pages to get to the good stuff in the middle of the paper, go no further than page 2 for a few minutes. There's you'll find a statement from the Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania.

They explain a few things, such as how there are many moral issues such poverty, war, immigration, care of creation and others. But there is one issue that leads them all and must be the primary consideration: protection of innocent human life and rejection of any policy that would threaten the right to life for everyone, from womb to tomb. It must be considered first and foremost. On the other hand, it cannot be the only consideration for voters.

Yes, this is a nuance. What it means is, every Catholic must put on his or her own thinking cap, read, understand and live out the social teaching of the Church especially with regard to the ultimate issue of justice -- the right to life. Then we each must weigh how (or if) the candidates address these teachings. Putting all that together and taking it to prayer, we can then enter the voting booth with a well-formed conscience. It enables us to cast a vote in the most responsible way possible.

It not only means we don't have to rely on being told how to vote -- the Bishops aren't going to do that in this or any election -- but also that we can better handle the moral challenges we face every day.

It's not easy. But then what aspect of living the Christian life in a challenging world is? As the election approaches, here's a way to pray for peace, justice and life: the novena for Faithful Citizenship.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

That "wow" is ours

A colleague was going about her work on Wednesday when she saw a copy of this week's CS&T fresh off the press. "Wow!" was her reaction to the photo above, one that we shoot for every week in designing the front page. The hope is that folks picking up a copy at church will have the same reaction, and become regular subscribers.

The realization behind the "wow" of the photo is that the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which is hosting the Synod of Bishops that the CS&T is covering this week (along with Catholic News Service), is part of us. As much as we feel a sense of home for our own parish church, the ornate basilica is ours too. It's part of our heritage as members of the Catholic Church that we share in the gifts of the Church throughout the world. We may never be able to visit Rome and all its glorious churches (including St. Peter's), nor the high Middle Ages' masterworks such as Chartres or Notre Dame, but they too are ours.

But there's more to it than buildings. The modest churches of the developing world stand no bigger than most American homes, and they are ours, too. Again , we may never visit a village church in the Guatemalan highlands or teeming towns of India. But we know the vibrant faith expressed through the sacred liturgy in which we all share is part of us too.

Most important is the notion that the Catholic people bursting the walls of humble churches are just as much "us" as the neighbors in the pews around us each Sunday.

Our heritage is both high art and humble humanity, joined together in Jesus Christ through his Church.

Talk about a wow moment.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Leading off

Every journey begins with a single step, it's said. For Catholics, it can be said that we start our journeys as our Blessed Mother did: "Let it be done to me as you have said."

My journey as director and general manager of the Catholic Standard & Times newspaper began a few weeks shy of a year ago with the offer to lead this 100+ year-old organization by saying yes, or in other words, "let it be done."

As director, I don't have a canvas-frame chair and bullhorn, and it's never quiet in the newsroom. And as general manager, I'm not likely to trade for a left-handed pitcher. All it means is, I manage the managers as together we produce the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadephia each week.

This blog gives me the opportunity to share some of the news and information I hear about in the Archdiocese and, especially, its parishes and the people in them. They're the stories we report on in the paper (subscribe here) and on our web site each week. Standard Time gives even more information in support of the Catholic Standard & Times' mission: to present news and information that is accurate, orthodox and creative.

I've always held to the maxim that when you get good people together, good things happen. So folks, let's get together in the blogosphere and share the good news of the Body of Christ here in this Philadelphia Archdiocese. Let me know what is happening in your pew of the Church. Better yet, invite me to your parish church, or school, or facility. What better way to tell a story than to "come and see"?