Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, September 26, 2003
HALF FULL? AP wire story notes that mass attendance is down to about 50 percent in Ireland, a drop of 10 percentage points from a similar poll taken in 1998. Not the most cheering news, to be sure, but if you scroll down you find that belief in a number of core Catholic doctrines remains quite high: 87 percent for the perpetual virginity of Mary, 90 percent for the real presence, and 95 percent for the divinity of Christ. 87 percent also said that they wanted their children raised Catholic. Given that Ireland was hit fairly hard by its own clerical sexual abuse scandal, I'd say the glass is at least half full here. But maybe that's just me....

posted by Peter Nixon 4:04 PM
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QUID HOC AD AETERNITATEM: Fr. Jim Tucker has a great homily I wanted to link to before it scrolled off. Favorite line: "Even the most stubborn and difficult personalities can be molded into serenity by the grace of Christ." I certainly hope and pray this is true, because I'm not very serene! Here's a paragraph I particularly liked:

The founding pastor of my little German parish in Kentucky is said to have frequently repeated a particular phrase: “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?” -- “What is this in the light of eternity?” I suppose, with a parish full of German immigrants, old Father Volk had plenty of reason to pray for patience. At any rate, when we are faced with a source of disturbance or anxiety, when something is provoking us or trying our patience, we should ask ourselves whether this matters in the light of eternity. Viewed against the the vast stretches of the universe, against the timelessness of the mind of God, against the endless life that we hope one day to gain, is this particular irritation of any real importance? Do you think the Archangels really care? This simple question, “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?” helps us keep perspective and see all things in the context of our eternal goal. Applying this little question to my own life, I find that nine tenths of my problems fade away into insignificance.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:42 AM
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HERE TO STAY: John Allen's Word from Rome column is the Word from North America this week, since Allen is on a speaking tour. Allen addresses the controversy about a leaked Vatican document about the liturgy that some believed would ban altar girls. Allen argues that this is "not so," and that document envisions no change to current canon law on the subject, which allows altar girls when there is a "valid pastoral motive." "One can of course debate the need for such language," writes Allen, "but a 'ban' this is not." As usual, Allen takes on a wide range of topics in his excellent weekly column.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:34 AM
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Thursday, September 25, 2003
EVERYTHING TO GOD IN PRAYER: I often find that integrating my faith life and my work life is difficult. I know that it shouldn’t be, particularly since I work for an organization that is more driven by its social mission than by business imperatives. But I often find myself peering into the screen while I work on yet another Power Point presentation and asking myself “Where is Jesus in this?”

I had an experience recently that drove home the truth that God really does make use of every aspect of our lives—including our work lives—to draw us closer to Him. I have been working on a major project at the office that involves facilitating communication between a small but diverse group of stakeholders who often have very different interests and communications styles. Communication and sharing of information has been an ongoing problem and it’s been very frustrating.

Three weeks ago, I realized we had a major crisis. The work that the project team was planning to carry out—indeed, they had already started—was not going to meet the expectations of the principal client. The truth is that I should have realized this several months ago, but because of the ongoing communications problems, I had failed to do so.

I sent out a memo to the principal stakeholders, explained the problem, and proposed a meeting to discuss and resolve it. The project team was very angry, feeling that the goalposts were being moved. I received a rather blistering e-mail (which was, of course, copied to the other stakeholders) on Friday afternoon. It looked as if things were falling apart.

I decided not to respond to the e-mail immediately and spend some time thinking about it over the weekend. I was pretty upset, embarrassed over my own failure to catch the problem, but also angry that the project team had not done a better job communicating what they were doing to the rest of us. I imagined chewing out the project team lead at the meeting and venting my months of frustration. I thought that it was at least as much their fault as mine, if not more so.

I will confess that I am usually not a person who prays spontaneously. Despite Saint Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing,” I tend to pray at regular times in the morning, evening and before bed without a whole lot of prayer in between. But that weekend, I found myself praying spontaneously, offering up my problem to God because I could not see an easy way out of this situation. Despite this, I remained short-tempered through most of the weekend, snapping at my wife and kids and lying awake at night when I should have been sleeping.

But sometime late in the afternoon on Sunday, something began to change. I had been asking myself—and I suppose asking the Lord as well—whether there was a particular way that I, as a Christian, should try to solve this problem. Would Jesus have responded to anger with more anger? Would he have been concerned about making sure everyone knew who was really responsible for this mess? For some reason, asking these questions and confronting the inevitable answers helped lighten the load. I began to see a way forward.

When I got back into work on Monday, I penned a memo to the group that began “If anyone wants to get mad, get mad at me.” I explained that my unique role in this process had been to facilitate communication between the stakeholders and therefore if anyone was to blame for the mess we were currently in, it should be me. Having said that, I moved on to lay out the various options for moving forward as I saw them.

I wasn’t sure how people were going to react to this, but it actually worked out well. In essence, I had taken the “blame game” off the table, which avoided what had looked to be an inevitable p---ing match over who should have sent what to whom by when. This allowed all the stakeholders to come back to the table without defensiveness and engage in a serious and productive discussion of the changes we needed to make to the project.

It’s fair to ask whether my actions had any specifically Christian content or inspiration at all. After all, isn’t this the way the heroes in those business school case studies always act? Well maybe. But the truth is that in the real world, it often doesn’t work that way. Trust me, I’m as good as playing CYA as the next guy. The “real world” solution to this problem (as opposed to the business school solution) would have been to let the project team take the heat and threaten them with the wrath of executive leadership if they didn’t get with the program. And as of late Saturday night, that was the course of action I was planning to take.

So I’m not sure I would have come up with this particular solution on my own. I’m not sure I would have been able to get beyond my anger without the example of Jesus who counseled his disciples to “turn the other cheek.” I’m not sure I would have been inspired to “take the heat” for things I wasn’t entirely responsible for if I hadn’t had the example of Jesus who took a lot more than heat for things he wasn’t responsible for at all. I’m not sure that those examples would have been enough if I hadn’t been willing to bring my problem to God in prayer and been open to the response.

It seems like such a small thing, and it is. And yet I can’t help feeling that something greater was at stake. Like most people, my life is fairly ordinary and largely free of the kind of dramatic choices between good and evil found among those whose lives are more eventful. But over time, even the smallest chisel can produce a beautiful sculpture or a pile of rubble, depending on how it is used. We face little choices every day—at home, at work and elsewhere—that shape us for good or for ill. As Mother Teresa once put it, it may not be given to us to do great things, but we can do little things with great love.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:59 PM
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Wednesday, September 24, 2003
WHAT HAPPENED TO WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE? While pressure continues to mount on one of the two leading Republican candidates for governor to drop out of the race, the media have ignored the fact that there are two candidates splitting the critical socialist vote. Joel Britton is running as the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party:

I am a longtime trade unionist (having been a slaughterhouse worker—member of the United Food & Commercial Workers union and a refinery worker—member of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers). I serve on the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and am its Southern California organizer. I have actively opposed U.S. military interventions against the peoples of Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, joining millions around the world demanding “U.S. Hands Off! Bring the GIs home now!” I have backed efforts to unite working people to fight for “Jobs for all! Cut the workweek with no cut in pay! Raise the minimum wage!”; “Stop INS raids and deportations—end ‘no match’ firings!”; “Fight police brutality—Abolish the death penalty!”; “Defend women’s access to abortion!”; “Debt relief for working farmers! Stop foreclosures!”; “Defend affirmative action!”; “Stop Washington’s economic war against Cuba! Normalize relations now!” I have opposed Democratic and Republican moves to put the economic crisis of capitalism on the backs of working people. I’m for a workers’ and farmers’ government, which will abolish capitalism in the U.S. and join in the worldwide struggle for socialism.
John Christopher Burton, however, is challenging Britton's claim to be the annointed tribune of the laboring classes and is running under the banner (red, no doubt) of the Socialist Equality Party:

I am a civil rights attorney in Pasadena. My 25-year practice in California has been devoted to the defense of working people victimized by police misconduct and discrimination. I am also a political activist who supports the policies of the Socialist Equality Party. My experience has made me aware of the economic and social problems confronting working people in California and the human costs of the state’s budget crisis. I oppose all measures that propose to solve this crisis by placing new burdens on working people and small business owners. This crisis is caused by federal and state policies that serve the interests of multibillion-dollar corporations and the extremely wealthy. The recall campaign, which I oppose, is an attempt by right-wing forces to undermine democratic rights and accelerate the accumulation of corporate profits and the wealth of the rich. But if the recall is successful, California’s working people need an alternative to the pro-big business policies of the candidates associated with the Democratic Party. To obtain the resources necessary to guarantee full employment, provide universal health coverage, expand educational services and eradicate poverty, I advocate the transformation of large corporations and banks into publicly owned and democratically controlled utilities. The diversion of resources to finance aggressive wars must be stopped. The satisfaction of human needs, not the amassing of corporate profit, must be the basis of California’s economy.Voters can learn more about my program by reading the World Socialist Web Site (
No word yet on whether the trailing socialist candidate plans to drop out of the race to preserve working class unity...

posted by Peter Nixon 10:27 AM
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YOGA? The 9th Circuit decision that allowed the California recall election to go forward was good news for marijuana activist and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Margolin, who offers the following biographical sketch:

We must end the intolerable waste of tax dollars on the unjust drug war and the escalating prison population, thereby preserving personal liberties and human rights.We should teach basic criminal penalties and yoga in our schools. I’ve been the Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (N.O.R.M.L.) Chapter since 1973 and was Criminal Defense Attorney of the Year 1999. I was formerly elected to the Democratic State Central Committee. Contact Bruce at bmargolin-at-aol-dot-com or call (800) 420-LAWS.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:18 AM
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VISIT THE SICK: Interesting piece about hospital ministry in The Catholic Advocate, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark. Does a nice job explaining the mechanics of running such a large program.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:56 AM
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DEM BONES: At least one archeologist still thinks the alleged ossuary of Saint James is authentic.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:34 AM
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Tuesday, September 23, 2003
WE'RE HERE! WE CHEER! GET USED TO IT: Waving pompoms and wearing kilts, these young men and women root for political causes, not sports teams. Radical cheerleaders might seem like an oxymoron, but in the last few years, teenage and twentysomething activists around the world have turned an American tradition into potent political theater. There are Radical Cheerleading squads from Burlington, Vt., and San Diego, as well as France, Poland and even Japan. Some squads carefully choreograph routines and wear matching outfits, complete with pompoms and megaphones. Others go for a more eccentric look.

No, I am not making this up...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:57 PM
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FIRST THE LATIN MASS, NOW THIS. WHERE WILL IT END? The Arizona Star reports that church bingo is on the wane in Tucson parishes. Some players are opting instead for high-stakes bingo at Indian casinos while many church leaders question the compatibility of Catholicism and gambling.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:42 PM
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PETER'S BONES: Interesting piece in the Atlantic Monthly about the archeological excavation of Saint Peter's grave under the church that bears his name and the bitter archeological battle that ensued. The author thinks it unlikely that Peter's bones are actually present and suggests that Peter was dumped in the Tiber after his martyrdom. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but my faith is not affected one way or another by where the good saint's body actually ended up.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:22 PM
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ALLEN: NCR Vatican correspondent John Allen is increasingly breaking into the mainstream media as a recognized expert on the Vatican. In this Newhouse News story, he handicaps the next papal conclave, but offers that he believes that the event is probably years, rather than months away. I can imagine religion desk reporters at the wire services calling Allen every time the Pope has a hiccup...

posted by Peter Nixon 11:23 AM
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COULD LEAD TO DANCING...: Much ado about an article in an Italian magazine that allegedly contains excerpts from a forthcoming Vatican document aimed at curbing certain "abuses" in Catholic worship. Some of the practices mentioned include: altar girls, liturgical dancing, "self-service" communion, reception of the Precious Blood, applause, and non-scriptural readings at mass. Several of these are, of course, quite common in the United States.

I suspect everyone ought to take a deep breath before getting their knickers in an uproar. It's hard to tell whether this is a leak or a trial balloon. In any case, the document is likely to be revised before it is finally promulgated.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:18 AM
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BUCKING THE TREND? Bucking the national pattern of efforts by states and juries to rein in the use of the death penalty, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said today that he had assembled a panel of experts to help him develop a law that would institute capital punishment in Massachusetts.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:18 AM
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Monday, September 22, 2003
INTERIM OR THE FUTURE? Different perspectives on lay ecclesial ministry offered (are you surprised?) by the National Catholic Reporter and George Weigel this week. NCR has an article (access to subscribers only) entitled "Lay-run parishes point to future." The article focuses on Appalachia (Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia in particular), where large distances between parishes and a shortage of priests have led the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky to appoint lay "pastoral directors" for some parishes. Glenmary Home Missioners also make extensive use of lay pastoral leaders for their mission parishes in the American South:

One of those pastoral coordinators, Christine Ramirez, told NCR of recognizing her call to parish ministry after raising three children. At the age of 50, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in sociology, then a master’s degree in pastoral theology from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She went on to serve as a lay minister, providing spiritual guidance to parishes in Iowa and Indiana. Then an ad in the National Catholic Reporter caught her eye. A Glenmary mission of 28 families in Clintwood, Va., was seeking a minister for this small parish -- “trained in social justice,” the ad said -- where everyone was involved in outreach of some kind. She applied, was hired and moved to the southwest corner of the Richmond diocese. “I love being part of a church that is church,” Ramirez said. “This has been a tremendous time of ministry for me.”

Glenmary Fr. Bob Rademacher, the last priest-pastor of the Virginia mission, still lives in the area and serves as sacramental minister. Ramirez described their relationship as a “collaborative ministry.”

“There were challenges,” Rademacher said. “For instance, we needed to encourage the people to look to Christine for spiritual guidance and pastoral care. Now they call on both of us.” After three years in her position, Ramirez is recognized as the spiritual leader of the community
George Weigel also focuses on the phenomenon of laypeople serving as Pastoral Life Directors (PLDs) for parishes. He focuses on Switzerland, where these ministers are in wide use, and tells a cautionary tale of a local PLD turning down an offer from the bishop to celebrate mass. He concludes with a warning:

It must be clear to everyone --- the local bishop, the local priests, the pool of candidates for the position of Pastoral Life Director, the parish councils asked to accept a PLD --- that PLDs are an interim solution until normal pastoral structures, meaning a resident priest-pastor, can be re-established in a parish. Sure, there are things priest-pastors do today that could be done just as well, and arguably better, by lay Catholics. By the same token, however, everyone involved in the PLD phenomenon has to understand that pastoral leadership and governance in the Catholic Church are, in normal circumstances, functions of the ordained priesthood.

If some parties don't understand that, what's virtually inevitable here is something akin to what's happened around Fribourg. Pressures to regard PLDs as the norm, rather than the exception, will intensify. Priests will be further marginalized (and demoralized). Vocation recruitment will be commensurably more difficult. The American temptation to think of "the church" as the local congregation, period, will be even more difficult to resist.

Calling PLDs an "interim solution" isn't a put-down; it's a frank description of Catholic reality. In fact, I'd suggest that anyone who takes "interim" as a put-down is automatically disqualified to be a Pastoral Life Director. Parishes are Eucharistic communities governed in a Eucharistic context. That's why priest-pastors are crucial. And that's something everyone making decisions about PLDs ought to understand.
Well, what do you all think? Are PLDs (or whatever you want to call them) an interim measure or the future? Will we soon be seeing them everywhere, or only in rural areas? Is this a positive development, a negative one, or a little of both? Feel free to post your comments.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:26 PM
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A SMUT PEDDLER WHO CARES: I've been focusing on some of the more obscure candidates for California governor, but let's not forget that there are a number of reasonably well known people who have thrown their hat into the ring. Like Larry Flynt, publisher of H-stler magazine, for example:

I am running for Governor because California is in crisis and needs the kind of strong leadership and sophisticated business sense that I can provide to help restore it. California is big business. I have been a businessman for 35 years. I can do a better job at balancing the budget than those pinhead bureaucrats in Sacramento. I have a simple idea of how to eliminate the deficit without increasing anyone's taxes or cutting funding for any programs—and that is to expand California gaming to include slot machines for all private clubs. State revenue from this would easily enable lawmakers to balance the state budget. My goal is to revive our schools, create secure jobs, lower our water and gasoline bills, as well as our rising insurance costs; and I will fight to create a decent health care system that all Californians can afford. California is the most progressive state in the union and I'm sure its citizens would welcome having a smut peddler who cares as their Governor. I am a staunch civil libertarian; I have fought for most of my adult life to expand the perimeters of Free Speech, even taking a bullet for the First Amendment. People who know me know that my primary concern is basic personal freedoms for all of us—and I will be diligent in securing those freedoms for all Californians.
"Taking a bullet for the First Amendment." Yeah, that's sure the first thing I think of when I think of Larry Flynt...

posted by Peter Nixon 10:43 AM
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WORRIED OPTIMISM: Tom Friedman takes stock of where we are in Iraq. He's still optimistic, but believes that long-term success requires that Iraqis take on more of the military task of finally putting down the remains of Saddam's resistance. A related need is for Iraqis to take greater public "ownership" (as we say in the management consulting biz) of this process:

The other thing that will make me stop being a worried optimist, is when I not only see Iraqis fighting for the aspirations we have in common, but when I hear them speaking out to defend those aspirations in public — in Arabic. Whenever senior U.S. officials tell me about Iraqis who thanked them, with tears in their eyes, for getting rid of Saddam, I have a simple response: Could you please ask those Iraqis to say it in public, in Arabic, on Al Jazeera TV? There's been way too little of that.

In part, this is because many Iraqis are still afraid that we're going to leave and Saddam will come back and punish all who worked with us. In part, this is because America is so radioactive in the Arab-Muslim world that even an America that has come to Iraq with the sole intention of liberating its people cannot be openly embraced. In part this is because while we think we've "liberated" Iraq, and deserve applause, we forget the fact that Iraqis couldn't liberate themselves is deeply humiliating for them, and our mere presence there reminds them of that. And in part, it's because while we and the Iraqis share the same broad aspirations, it doesn't seem to them that we have a workable plan to achieve them.

We need to ease those doubts, and Iraqis need to get over them, because we can't stay as long as we need to, to get the job done, without Iraqis ready to defend the progressive outcome we both aspire to.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:37 AM
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