Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's a holiday tree?

It’s OK, you can say “Christmas.”

The folks at the New York based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights certainly do. But they know people who just can’t bring themselves to say the word.

Take the officials of Cary, North Carolina, who relabeled the pine tree cut, placed and decorated in their town hall the “community tree.” They’re joining other towns that are celebrating something around their holiday tree, state capitol tree or solstice tree.

The League reports that Howard County, Indiana, retired its manger scene in favor of a lighted display of the Loch Ness monster, a whale and other animals. And a corporate executive advises against saying “happy new year” in favor of “looking forward.”

Standard Time might be cutting across the new cultural grain, yet we proudly wish readers a merry Christmas and happy new year.

There, that was easy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Survey says...

Today we closed our reader poll on health care reform. Here's an analysis of how visitors to answered the question, "Do you favor health care reform..."

41 percent: I don't wish to change the health care system in any way.
26 percent: if it provides health care to everyone in America
17 percent: if it includes a public option and excludes abortion funding.
16: only if it excludes funding for abortion.

One could read much into the responses of each group. But be cautious: only a total of 291 votes were cast in the poll.

Still, the largest group (118 votes, or 41 percent) would prefer no change in health care at all. It may be discomforting for those without health care to know that even though the U.S. Bishops worked to get a bill through the House that excludes abortion funding and provides affordable care to 96 percent of Americans, a large block of Americans oppose any tinkering with the system, especially a plan run by the government.

I had dinner with a friend who's in his third decade serving in the Army Reserves. When he says, "The government can't run anything," I'm inclined to agree. Whether a public option in some form is the way toward a more just way to deliver health care to those who need it, I don't know.

The bishops don't say definitively whether they favor a public option. They do make priorities of affordability, broader access, care for immigrants (and they're almost alone in calling for it) and of course, the status quo on abortion as a minimum.

On the last point, the fewest votes in our poll came for the position closest to the bishops: favoring reform only if it excludes abortion funding. From this chair, the bishops' points make the most sense. Fortunately they won the day in the House.

In the Senate it's a different story. Those exclusions currently are missing from the Senate bill, so a lot of work remains.

Amendments will be added and deleted until Christmas at least, with a final vote expected to come in January. Until then, keep the emails and phone calls churning out to senators. Here are key points from the bishops to keep you on message.

Health care reform is important to the Church (if not some of its members). Any final legislation must reflect Catholic principles of fairness and justice, especially for the unborn persons without a voice in this debate.

For a change of pace after all that, try our new poll on a more eternal topic: the beginning of Advent.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now they tell us

It's been said that journalism is what you know when you know it. For journalists painting their story in the medium of ink on newsprint, production deadlines mean one must file a story with what is known now, and provide updates in the next edition.

So it is this week that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's favorite newspaper, the Catholic Standard & Times, does not report on the outcome of the United States Catholic Bishops' meeting in Baltimore in the paper's Thursday edition. The conference's Tuesday evening session produced, among other items, approval of new translations of the texts of the Catholic Mass.

The lash of the deadline descended upon the paper's editors and production staff, so news of this closely watched development needed to be deferred to next week's edition. Here is what we know today, after deadline:

The bishops approved the new English Mass texts, which feature translations said to be more faithful to the liturgy's Latin source texts. Some bishops objected for years that although the translations better reflect Latin, they will be obscure for most people participating in the Mass.

See what you think. The U.S. Bishops Conference offers many examples of the changes expected to be fully implemented by 2011. Here are two:

Current Nicene Creed: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, ... begotten not made, one in being with the Father."

New Nicene Creed: "I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, ... begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father."

Current Lamb of God: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

New Lamb of God: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

It should be noted that the Roman Missal, the texts we pray at every Mass, have been in development since 1963 at the Second Vatican Council. And, it is still the same Mass as it always was: Word and Sacrament, perfect praise and thanksgiving through communion with the most holy Eucharist, source and summit of our worship.

Learn more about the changes, including the extensive period of catechesis (teaching) on this subject from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' site.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Catholic biz pros: All for One

For a first-time get together, the new Catholic Business Professionals of Greater Philadelphia that met last night was an impressive success.

The new group, which also has an online presence at LinkedIn, drew about 50 Catholics from various business backgrounds and parishes around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to Kildare’s Pub in King of Prussia. There was some chat about doing business in this tough economic environment, no matter in what field people worked.

But mostly people seemed excited to make connections with fellow Catholics and to support each other in living their Catholic faith.

Some companies’ unethical practices put enormous pressure on Catholics who sincerely try to integrate their spiritual and moral formation into their work life. All the more so at a time when just walking away from a job means one might not find another for a long time.

People at the meeting shared their stories and strategies (doing what the boss wants but finding a way to do it in an ethical way) but mostly they shared good fellowship.

The group’s founder, Nick Gibboni, won a hearty round of applause for introducing himself and thanking those who had helped him pull together the gathering, featuring free attendance and donated food and drinks. Deacon Bill Masapollo led everyone in a prayer to thank almighty God for the friendship and Catholic connections forged last night.

In addition to the evident smiles and handshakes, more than a few people remarked how the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was incorporated into Catholic Business Pros’ logo. On fire for and united with the Lord, only good things are no doubt in store for this group.

Look for future coverage and promotion of the group’s next meeting, anticipated to be quarterly, in a coming edition of the Catholic Standard & Times.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How a tale of two schools ends

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced tonight at its 7 p.m. news conference that Cardinal Dougherty High School and Northeast Catholic High School would close at the end of the current school year, June 2010.

The archdiocesan schools boast a long and proud history, serving the heavily Catholic North Philadelphia neighborhoods that today lack the numbers of families to sustain the large buildings.

Cardinal Dougherty, located in the Olney section, and Northeast (commonly known as “North”), in Frankford, at one time boasted some of the largest student bodies of any Catholic high school in the world. CD packed almost 6,000 students into its halls in 1965, while North enrolled almost 4,500 in 1953.

Today those big physical plants are largely underutilized. Each has student populations that fill only about a third of the building's capacity.

At the press conference Bishop Joseph McFadden cited the key reasons for the recommendation of a strategic planning study, and they are not hard to understand. The buildings are underused but still must be heated throughout and maintained, making them costly. And retrofitting them for contemporary usage, such as for technology needs, becomes exceedingly expensive.

Underlying it all, despite heroic efforts to raise money for scholarships, is the stark fact that enrollments keep dropping. The huge numbers of Catholic families in the North and lower Northeast Philadelphia areas that built the enormous student populations of the past simply are not present today. Sadly, few alternatives exist to the decision that was announced tonight.

Check the Catholic Standard & Times at for updates on this story. And for comprehensive coverage and a retrospective, don’t miss the weekly newspaper’s Oct. 15 issue.

Monday, August 10, 2009

70-page paper? Check. Back to school? Working on it...

We’re still basking in the glow of producing 70 pages in a handful of days, in honor of Bishop Timothy Senior’s ordination and a week of news.

Enjoy the coverage and other interesting news, such as a breakthrough in stem cell research courtesy Catholic News Service, and an editorial on the topic.

But the glow fades and we’re on to the next deadline. This time it’s an Aug. 20 edition featuring a supplement on going Back to School. Sorry to make the kids cringe. But a growing number of students in the good 'ole US of A are heading back to school several times a year as this report or this more dated one shows. Year-round school it's called. Decide for yourself.

Whether you can’t wait to spend more long days with the little darlins’ or can’t wait till they board the bus on day 1 of 180, August seems to be flying by in a hurry.

Get those toes wet and fire up the grill for just a few more weeks. Most kids in archdiocesan schools head back September 9.

The truths behind the polls

The CS&T ran a story last year that referred to a study of academic achievement in our Catholic schools. Seemed like a nice, positive piece about Catholic education.

One reader took high offense at our failure to list the science behind the study – “what was the standard deviation of the sampling group?” and so on.

Just goes to show you can’t please everybody in this business. It also leads one to suspect that online polls, which seem to be on every web site these days, are not supported by rock-solid empirical evidence. They’re part diversion (isn’t that the purpose of the Internet?) and part window into people’s thinking.

In the spirit of the latter and with a cavalier attitude for data mining, our web site at has been running polls for close to a year now. The sampling is small, normally less than 200 votes cast over a four-week period, but one can learn a lot about the mindset of visitors who took the time to weigh in.

A poll we ran this summer concerned immigration, and it was enlightening. The question was, “The bishops of North and Central America are calling for a summit to discuss migration issues. What do you think?”

Of the five sample answers, the leading one chosen was, “The bishops should only speak about just treatment of people, not immigration laws.” (40 percent of the 131 votes). The other answers ran the gamut from expressing the desire for the bishops to lead the immigration policy debate (30 percent), to the view that current U.S. immigration law should be enforced, and other countries and their bishops ought to stay out of American affairs (20 percent).

In sum, most respondents to our poll (60 percent) not only disagree with the American Catholic bishops’ teaching on immigration – that the stranger should be welcomed and current law must be reformed – they don’t think the bishops should even weigh in on the issue.

How often do we see a disconnect in the Church between her members and her teaching? It seems that many people misplace the truth of Church teaching, based on Scripture, the tradition of the Church and the teachings of her magisterium, for a certain political view. How can it be that members of the Body of Christ choose one teaching or another that they support in full throat, while conveniently assigning others to the periphery?

You’ve heard them: “This one is a core teaching. That one is a political issue which the Church should avoid.”

The Church needs discipline, which is another way of saying obedience. Even the disciples in the Gospels grumbled at Jesus’ words: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Nevertheless, the truth of human dignity and mankind’s relationship with God serves as the foundation for all Church teaching.

We do not get to pick and choose. We do get the opportunity to study and reflect upon the teaching, even if it is hard to accept at this time.

While we are reflecting, open to the will of the Spirit to illuminate us with the light of truth, couldn’t we at least accept that the successors of the apostles, the bishops, have the right to teach in public, and that Church teaching deserves a hearing in the heart?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Manning up against porn

You read about the pervasiveness of pornography. You recognize its destructiveness both to the viewer and on marriage and family life. Usually all you can do is shake your head. Except now.
There is one small step you can take for men, and a leap for women and children.

A protest of the porn purveyor Adult World at Routes 202 and 309 in Montgomeryville will happen the afternoon of July 1, led by the King's Men, a group of Catholic/Christian men.
These guys don't accept the maxim "boys will be boys" as a lame excuse for men behaving badly. They know how bad porn is for individuals and society, and they know the men who buy it can do better.

As the King's Men's mission states: "Under Christ the King’s universal call to serve, we as men, pledge to unite and build up other men in the mold of leader, protector, and provider through education, formation and action." Read about them on Facebook.

These good men will peacefully witness to anyone pulling up to the sex shop how strong, moral men ought to behave, for their good and everyone's. It ought to be a moving gesture, so come out and show your support in the effort to fight the systematic degradation for profit that is the porn industry.

It won't break the back of this insidious business, but if they can turn away one man even for a day, it's a beginning.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thanks to Dad, on his day

A friend who works for John Patrick Publishing, the good folks who publish many of the parish bulletins in the Archdiocese, sent me a poem he wrote about the fine example of his father to mark Father's Day this Sunday.

His father was another of the heroes of the greatest generation, as they have come to be known. The hero-as-dad might be uncommon these days, with TV shows often depicting fathers as bumbling fools. Sure, guys have a way of earning that reputation at times, but most men live lives of humble goodness, devoted to their wives and families without fanfare.

The father of George Gerlach was one of those men. He was not only a hero to his son, but over the years taught George how to love his own wife in the fullest measure, to sacrifice and guide his children with gentle strength, and to be joyful whenever possible.


He Taught Me How to Love My Wife

Dad was a big guy.
He consumed the open area of a doorframe as he passed through.
His presence became the focus though he didn’t wish it to be.
He would brighten up the room with his Big Band smile and got everyone laughing with his one-liners, even if we heard it for the tenth time.

At other times you could hear a pin drop as he LISTENED to your trials, tribulations and concerns, waiting for you to finish, to get it all out… then he would often, without saying a word would have helped you to realize that you just answered your own question or solved your problem just by giving voice to it.

His most potent times of being Dad were just in being present, being there to show he cared or because his wife, his bride, agreed we must go.

He lived for his family, his wife and children. Yet he never minced words or left any doubt who was most important to him after his God. Bernice, his wife, his lover and companion on the journey, mother of his children, yes, but first his wife.

Through the years they would be happy, sad, challenged, stretched, twisted, conflicted, joyous and always busy.

But, make no bones; Dad was loyal, faithful, loving and in love with Mom. They marched as one, some days with different drums but in the end they made beautiful music.

Never afraid to express affection for his wife in front of others, Dad was a man’s man. The hug, the kiss, the knowing glance and yes the pinch under the table brought back visions to Dad of never wanting again to be separated from his girl as he was in the War across the Ocean, of losing the grip of her loving hand.

Being taller than Mom was no problem because he always had her on a pedestal.

This larger than life husband would take his wife in his arms and gracefully whisk her across the dance floor and sing to her with his eyes “ I’ll being loving you always”….

Dad had the grace and humility to laugh, cry, lead the way and ask forgiveness all at the same time.

His pace would slow as he got older, his sore tired legs, feet and heart told him how far he could walk but whatever he could do, even to the end, it was always holding the hand of his lover.

Dad, thank you for teaching me how to love my wife.
I pray that I keep learning from your wonderful life. Happy Fathers Day 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reason and faith, perfect together

What do high-energy particle physics and Bible study have to do with one another? Two unrelated Catholic News Service stories this week point to the connection between reason and faith.

In a talk June 10, Pope Benedict XVI reviewed the thought of a ninth century Irish monk, John Scotus Erigena.

He taught that the only way to understand the Bible fully was with an approach that relied on intelligence and prayer at the same time, and that the final result was not understanding, but contemplation, according to CNS.

Christians, the Pope said, have "the obligation to continue to seek the truth until one reaches an experience of silent adoration of God."

This concept of using one’s intellect not merely for its own ends but to orient the person toward the Other finds a parallel in a Vatican delegation’s visit to CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

The research at CERN is not strictly theoretical, even though the leader of the delegation, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, expressed his personal interest “regarding the farthest limits that astrophysical science is striving to reach with proton acceleration."

CNS reports that the idea of having the Vatican visit CERN came from Ugo Amaldi, the president of TERA Foundation, which collaborates closely with CERN in finding ways to apply atomic research in treating cancer, especially in children.

It’s been fashionable for people to say science and religion are mutually exclusive. Far from it.
As this one example shows, science and religion meeting in the service of human needs can work in harmony, not opposition.

In doing so, one can help the other affirm life and seek truth, both of which come from God, the origin and end of humanity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Go digital, go tell the Good News

Today Pope Benedict XVI mentioned World Communications Day, held this Sunday, May 24. Since you're reading this, you're no stranger to new communications media. Neither is he.

The Vatican is taking the occasion to launch iPhone and Facebook apps to reach young Catholics (and ages on up) and to launch a new site,, going live Sunday.

Beyond the bling of blogs and treat of Tweets, content is still king. That means it is still the message that counts most. And what better message than "the Good News of God's infinite love for all people"? Christians in the digital world have the job of witnessing our faith -- in the words we choose to read (or skip past) and especially the words we write.

The Holy Father's words on the topic:

"I am inviting all those who make use of the new technologies of communication, especially the young, to utilise them in a positive way and to realise the great potential of these means to build up bonds of friendship and solidarity that can contribute to a better world.

"The new technologies," he added, "have brought about fundamental shifts in the ways in which news and information are disseminated and in how people communicate and relate to each other. I wish to encourage all those who access cyberspace to be careful to maintain and promote a culture of respect, dialogue and authentic friendship where the values of truth, harmony and understanding can flourish.

"Young people in particular, I appeal to you: bear witness to your faith through the digital world! Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God's infinite love for all people, will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!"

Under the Rainbow

CS&T reader John Firn sent us the above photo some weeks back. With apologies to John for the delay -- as the CS&T has shown over the past six weeks, it's been a busy/hectic/frantic time. (Holy Week and Easter, the Catholic Charities Appeal, Priesthood jubilarians and ordination, two multi-part series including parish life and violence among youth, Bishop Cistone's appointment to Saginaw, Mich. -- and they're just the high-profile items.)

Here are John's words after he snapped this photo at the Burholme Ambulance Station in Northeast Philadelphia, reminding us all of the beauty and fragility of our earthly home, and Who is ultimately in charge of it...

"On the 8th of April, at 1830 hrs, a heavy rain and wind came on suddenly. To the north, it was dark , cloudy and raining, and to the south, behind our Station it was sunny.

"A large rainbow appeared where the two fronts met, just out front of the Station. I took a couple of pictures with my cell phone, and the one here was the one I sent to my e-mail.

"Something in the picture caught my attention. Hardly anyone notices it the first look, but keep looking."

That something is, with the gift of imagination, an image of a man's arms spread wide. Thanks to John for sharing a reminder of God's gift of salvation through the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A new economic order?

“Economies based on greed must be replaced,” read the headline on Catholic News Service.

Interesting concept from the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is president of the Catholic relief organization Caritas International.

OK, your eminence, but replaced by what?

Agencies like Caritas, Catholic Relief Services in this country and many others work to ease the suffering of poor people. They naturally look at the economic system in which those who are well off tend to get richer, while the poor struggle to survive.

To paraphrase Churchill’s description of democracy, capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.

Certainly communism has failed in most cases, though the jury is still out on the long-term economic success of China’s mix of repressive communism and competitive capitalism. Socialism compares poorly with capitalism in terms of prosperity, especially when the latter is functioning in a healthy manner. A barter system, while it has merits on a small scale, is impractical to meet the demands of global and interdependent commerce.

One emerging idea is peer-to-peer commerce, part of what is called cooperative economics. Here’s an interesting read on it plus a broader economic overview.

Don't get anxious, fellow democratic capitalists. Free-market capitalism didn’t surpass feudalism overnight, and the former likely won’t be supplanted any time soon.

Cooperative economics might not be what Cardinal Rodriguez was thinking, but getting people to consider a more charitable, more sustainable economic system might really be what he had in mind.

Using natural resources as though they were infinite cannot continue as it has. Nor can wealthy nations give lip service to development in poor nations.

If there is going to be economic progress after the crash of 2008, a system must emerge in which resources are used efficiently while jobs are created by entrepreneurs. At the same time, governments with the means must seriously address the lack of basic necessities and education in poor countries that lead to radical movements and that ultimately threaten prosperity (perhaps even life) for all.

How to do that? There is no agreement at this point, but one couldn’t disagree with John Lennon’s line: “We’d all love to see the plan.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Eucharist every day, from the beginning

Along with the other unasked-for mail I received at home last week was a brochure addressed to Current Resident, from the local congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

It was slick, tri-fold, full color and invited people to join the congregation's reenactment of the Last Supper. It quoted from the (synoptic) Gospels how the Eucharist was instituted by Jesus the night before He died. Of course the words were familiar: "... this is my body ... this is my blood."

Since the congregation takes the command to "do this in memory of me" (First Corinthians) literally, they are doing so on April 9, Holy Thursday -- on just this one day of the year!

Excuse me, but as a Catholic I have to ask, if it's so important to print a brochure, mail it to every home in the local area, and ask folks to share in this great feast by the Lord's command, why do it only once a year?

I do hope their celebration, in whatever form it takes, leads the participants to a deeper and yes, literal understanding of the Eucharist: Christ, the son of the Father, second person of the Holy Trinity, becomes truly present among the community of the faithful in the appearance of bread and wine. I hope they discover that in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is celebrated every day of the year as it has been from the beginning of the Church!

The Eucharist is our Lord Jesus Christ's gift of himself to us every time we participate in the sacrifice of the Mass. What a great gift we share as Catholics. Christ established his Church and gave us His real presence in the Eucharist as spiritual food for the journey, as memorial sacrifice to help remember all that he did and said, as a sign of unity and of thanksgiving -- the literal meaning of Eucharist.

This source and summit of our worship bonds us together with one another in the Church and to our Lord Jesus. More than community, this is communion, thanks to the Eucharist whose institution we celebrate tonight, at the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.

As Lent ends tonight we begin the Triduum -- three days of intense communal prayer leading toward Easter. Tonight we thank God in the most solemn way for the gift of himself.

Personally, tonight I pray also for those who have heard and read the Lord's command to "take, eat, this is my body..." but do not share full communion with the Catholic Church. In a special way, I pray for those people who were raised Catholic with the gift of the Eucharist but have chosen a different path.

May they, through the providence of God acting perhaps in an unasked-for brochure, find their way to Jesus Christ the bread of life, in his most precious body and blood.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Welcome to church. Take some palm.

You might have heard the complaint that goes something like, “Some people only go to church on Christmas and Easter!”

True, it’s not the optimal expression of one’s faith, but it’s better to have full churches one some occasions rather than none, right?

Two other times that witness full churches are Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, which is coming up this April 5. Ash Wednesday of course is where last year’s palms are recycled into the ashes marking Catholics’ foreheads.

Palm Sunday packs in the crowds too, as churchgoers take home blessed palm fronds. Whether you display the palm in your home in a vase or turn the fronds into simple crosses tacked above doorways (my family’s preferred practice over the years), there’s an art to handling palm.

This week the Catholic Standard & Times shows how the masters weave palm – both in step-by-step photos and a fascinating story by Lou Baldwin in the newspaper, and four videos of the nimble fingers at work on our web site,

The video is new for our web site, but weaving palm is nothing new for the parishioners of Our Lady of Consolation in the Tacony neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. Basically an Italian immigrant tradition, intricate palm displays are becoming more prevalent throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s churches.

They’re a beautiful way to welcome the King of Kings as we commemorate his entrance in Jerusalem this Sunday.

Just as palms give way to ashes then to the giving of new palms at the end of the Lenten journey, so too do we journey with Jesus from the excitement of this palm Sunday to the nadir of his Passion and death on Good Friday, and the joy of His resurrection on Easter Sunday.

And please God, perhaps some of the Palm Sunday Mass participants will be moved to stay with Jesus, like the disciples in Gethsemane, throughout Holy week to Easter.

As you try your hand at weaving some palm, try also to devote more intense prayer next week beginning Sunday.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Are knit ties far behind?

Every business article produced these days mentions something like “the lowest since 1982” or “worst since 1983.”

The last was from today, as it’s been announced that unemployment is its highest since 1983. I remember those days well. I had graduated high school the year before with no prospects for college, believing the chatter all around that I was "lucky to have a job.”

So I worked third shift in a supermarket, stocking cans of beans from midnight to 8. I should have felt lucky, but didn’t.

Point is, these days again folks are fortunate to have a job, and more fortunate to have a career in which they can grow. Those career paths still exist, even if their roads are showing potholes and detours.

It’s even true for journalism. This field and many others are going to change and demand different ways of thinking and acting from its remaining adherents. But most embattled industries aren’t going away.

The larger point is that as bad as the early ‘80s were, 2009 could be worse. Pop music isn’t as bad (remember “Safety Dance” and “Flashdance”? Don’t get me started.). Interest rates remain at rock-bottom. Squared knit ties (guys) and leg warmers (ladies) are as out as zoot suits.

Also gone from those days is a sense of the inevitable decline of America. We’ve been down this road before. Few today think that we’re consigned to the ash heap of history. Though we don’t know how long the current troubles will last, we have confidence they’ll bottom out and our rebound will begin.

Americans continue to show a resilience and optimism that as bad as things are, they’ll get better. Tough times come, but they also go.

Happy days (not the TV show, which was another 80s casualty) will be here again. Our country will be changed when the recovery comes, but perhaps not worse off.

Another relic of the 1980s might stay with us as we turn our eyes upward to the cross, source of hope in dark, uncertain times: “Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive.”

Glimpsing Tooker's world

A recent 60-degree day invited me out for a midday walk in center city. I had seen an ad in the Catholic Standard & Times for an art exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I had never heard of the artist George Tooker, but the poster featured his painting “Subway” and that was so striking, I wandered over to the museum.

The exhibit was more than worth the price of admission. Organized mostly in chronological fashion, the paintings tell the artist’s story from an early self-portrait through the period where he made his significant mark on the art world.

Tooker uses an ancient technique called egg tempera (you can tell I never studied art in school), so his paintings seem to project light from the canvas. The effect is astonishing.

From “Subway” placed midway through the exhibit, I was not surprised to find similar works of social commentary. Tooker amply explored themes such as alienation, totalitarian fear and urban isolation especially in the late 1940 through the ‘50s. Those images burn themselves into one’s mind and challenge us to think about the culture and society of the time in which they were created, and our own.

But what really surprised me was Tooker’s volume of work from the last 30 years. He had already made a name for himself in the 1950s as a young man. In the 1960s he became involved in the civil rights movement with other artist friends.

After his homosexual partner died in 1975, Tooker became introspective. To deal with his grief, he turned to religion: not the Episcopalian church of his birth, but to the Catholic Church. In 1976, he converted to Catholicism.

Ever since, his works reflect not only the beauty of the human person, but people in relationship. Gone (mostly) were the disturbing images of fear, paranoia and alienation in harsh, urban landscapes. They’d been succeeded by scenes of people in warmer light -- in a sense, from broken and disconnected individuals to a harmonious, even redeemed, humanity.

While the exhibit’s companion book is pricier than admission, it reveals more of Tooker’s emerging spirituality of his later period. Particularly remarkable are the commissions of sacred art for his parish church in Vermont.

The Stations of the Cross and a triptych depicting the seven sacraments accurately express orthodox Catholic theology, according to the parish’s pastor, for whom Tooker presented early sketches to ensure he was on the right track theologically.

The triptych, for instance, shows people receiving such sacraments as baptism, holy orders (this one depicts a man kneeling before the crucified Jesus) or reconciliation. The people receiving the sacraments are pointing to the work’s center panel, which is the sacrament of the Eucharist as the host is being raised at the moment of consecration. The symbolism that the Church is oriented toward and draws its life from the Eucharist is unmistakable.

The George Tooker exhibit runs through April 5 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here is an excellent review of the show when it was in Washington, DC last year.

The experience is worth the trip into center city. And because the Academy doesn’t draw the big crowds, you can linger on the stunning pieces in the Tooker show. Enjoy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Fortress of Solitude

Having just ticked over another birthday on my life’s odometer, I’ve been the recent object of well-wishing. From co-workers to friends and especially family, the many words, hugs and handshakes were all welcome, of course.

But after all the cards and some gifts – including dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant, Giacomo’s in Norristown, and my mom’s incomparable lasagna – something hit me late Sunday night.

As I walked the fairways and roughs of a darkened golf course at 10 p.m. with my dog, the desire for solitude became intense. Nothing but stars above, grass below my feet, the cold air and jangle of Doc’s collar occupied my attention. People, especially people I love, are great, but there is a need for aloneness, too.

It’s a personal asceticism of great value to me. A piece to be published in the Catholic Standard & Times on Thursday gives a wider sense of asceticism for the family.

This week readers of the CS&T will read Michelle Francl-Donnay’s Catholic Spirituality column about the value to a family when it “gives up” ordinary ways of living for simpler ones.

This kind of “Christian simplicity” is rooted in the baptismal call we all share, and further in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Asceticism is not an easy way, but as the saying goes, nothing good ever is.

We’re entering the Church’s annual season of Lent soon. That’s often a time for “giving up” foods or other things. After this weekend, while I reflect on Michelle's column (read past ones plus more resources) and before Lent begins, I am going to seek a bit of healthy asceticism.

There’s a challenge for everyone to find ways to fit solitude into our busy lives. Like our master did, we need to withdraw to those “out of the way places.” No need to travel to a desert, but rather, carve out a time and setting from which solitude and prayer enable us to be people for others.