Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Saturday, January 10, 2004
PRAYER REQUEST: Thanks to all who posted prayers for our upcoming parish Bonfire retreat. If you are still interested in sending a message to our candidates telling them that you will be praying for them the weekend of January 16-18, please feel free to post one below or e-mail me and we will pass it on. And keep me in your prayers too! I'm going to need it!

posted by Peter Nixon 9:49 PM
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Friday, January 09, 2004
THE VIEW FROM ROME: As expected, John Allen gives us the Vatican perspective on the National Review Board's audit. In general, Vatican officials are positive about the report and think it is a step forward after the crisis of the last two years. At the same time (not surprisingly) they have a few reservations:

For one thing, officials told me, it’s still unclear to them what “sexual abuse” means in the American context. Thus if the John Jay report lists “x number of incidents in y years,” these officials will wonder what the criteria were for classifying something as an “incident.” This becomes a particularly acute problem if one review board in one diocese decides that a given behavior constitutes sexual abuse and thus a priest is removed for life, while in another diocese similar behavior triggers no disciplinary consequences.

Second, some officials still question the “zero tolerance” policy itself, which stipulates that a priest will be removed from ministry for life for even one incident of sexual abuse of a minor. These officials believe that in cases of a less serious offense in the distant past, priests should, at least in some instances, be able to resume a ministry. Since the norms were approved by the Holy See with an expiration date of March 2005, the U.S. bishops will have to begin the process of requesting a new recognitio, or canonical approval, in 2004. The “zero tolerance” issue will likely come up in talks with the Holy See.

A related concern has to do with due process rights. One hears horror stories in the Vatican about priests who have been suspended as a result of an accusation, and then “cut off” by their bishops, with no further communication and hence no chance for their day in court.

Finally, some Vatican officials continue to express reservations about the role of the National Review Board, especially the concept that laity are exercising a sort of ill-defined authority over bishops. Encroachment on episcopal authority from prosecutors and lawmakers in the civil sector has also created alarm. If the heart of the sexual abuse crisis was a failure of some bishops to do their jobs, these officials reason, it’s unwise to create other means to “pass the buck.”

To some in America, especially victims and their families, it might seem almost obscene to fret over the authority of bishops when the issue is the sexual abuse of children. Yet from the Vatican’s point of view, this concern has deep historical and psychological roots. Periods when the church has been fuzzy about the role of bishops have tended to coincide with crises. The corruption that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, for example, was made possible in part by absentee bishops who let clergy go to seed. (By the time the Council of Trent opened in the mid-16th century, no bishop had lived in Milan for 100 years). Ensuring that bishops are clear as to their powers and responsibilities is thus, rightly or wrongly, considered the best means to prevent all manner of abuse.
There is, of course, much more worth reading in Allen's column this week.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:16 PM
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A GIANT LEAP FORWARD? Fr. Andrew Greeley is quite positive about the recently released audit of diocesan compliance with the sexual abuse policies adopted by the USCCB. That doesn't mean, of course, that he thinks we're out of the woods yet:

Does that mean that Catholics ought to trust their bishops? They should trust their own bishop to the extent that he was won their trust. It is no longer to be given automatically and as a matter of course. Bishops today (and parish priests, too) have to win the trust and respect of the laity. They might not like this change in the rules, but, on reflection, the more intelligent ones (there are a few) will realize that this is the better way.

As for the hierarchy as a group, perhaps the best way to describe the current situation is that they have begun to pull out of the hole they dug for themselves. How long and how hard they will pull remains to be seen.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:07 PM
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Thursday, January 08, 2004
TRYING TO DECIDE? Are you a Democrat trying to decide who to vote for in the primary? The New Republic just endorsed Lieberman, but gives supporters of four other candidates the chance to make their case. A good summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates from a moderate Democratic perspective. As a former union hand, I've always had a soft spot for Gephardt but I suspect his time has come and gone. Should be an interesting primary season.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:31 AM
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Wednesday, January 07, 2004
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BISHOP: Out of a field that included Pope John Paul II, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, and President Bush, Beliefnet has chosen Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap. as its Most Inspiring Person of 2003. Nice interview.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:01 PM
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PRAYERS NEEDED: In a little over a week, the weekend parish retreat that my wife and I have been planning will begin. Known as the Bonfire retreat, it draws heavily on the Cursillo model, but has been adapted to our own parish circumstances.

I am asking my readers if they would be willing to pray for the 40 Bonfire retreat candidates at some point during the weekend of January 16th - 18th. If you a member of a religious congregation, perhaps you could remember the candidates in your community's prayer that weekend. If you are a priest, perhaps you could remember them at a mass you are celebrating. Anything you could do would be appreciated.

For those interested in offering prayer for the candidates, it would be nice if you could post a short message in the comments section (or e-mail me), perhaps noting what city or parish you are from. There is a point during the weekend where we show the candidates messsages and cards from people in the parish who are praying for them, and it would be nice, I think, for them to know that there are people across the United States--perhaps even around the world--praying for them as well.

Many thanks for your continued readership and support.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:03 PM
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MASTERY OF CRAFT: Godspy (which is rapidly emerging as a favorite publication) has an fascinating interview with Barbara Nicolosi. Nicolosi, a former Paulist sister, is the founder of Act One, a training program for aspiring Christian screenwriters. One of the reasons she founded Act One was that she was bothered by "the overall dreadful dramatic writing that we've seen coming in to the industry from godly people.":

Beauty is magnitude of truth—see Aristotle—plus mastery of craft, where the elements are all in harmony. The industry is very good at the second thing. A good example is a movie like American Beauty—beautifully crafted, beautifully produced, beautifully acted, beautifully written, but fundamentally a lie. So therefore it's ugly by our standards. On the other side are Christian projects like Therese—beautiful message, profound truth, all the right motives—badly crafted, ugly. We have to have the courage to say that you have to have mastery of craft along with a magnitude of truth.
Nicolosi (who is also a blogger) has another good quote: "beauty is not necessarily pretty. Too often I hear the church saying that great art is, say, the painter Thomas Kincaid, for example—this stuff that's pretty and clean and neat. But it's schlock."

posted by Peter Nixon 10:11 AM
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GOD-TALK: The Atlanta Journal Constitution takes a look at Howard Dean's new efforts to talk about Jesus on the stump. The verdict: not terribly convincing. However, blogger Allen Brill (The Right Christians) gets a quote.

I have to say that this is probably the least convincing attempt by a New England WASP to remake himself as some kind of Southern evangelical since...well...George Bush Sr. in 1980.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:27 AM
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I WANTED A MISSION, AND FOR MY SINS THEY GAVE ME ONE: The results of taking the "What Classic Movie Are You Test?"

posted by Peter Nixon 9:05 AM
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Tuesday, January 06, 2004
EXCRUTIATING MARTYRDOM: Slate is hosting its usual end of year movie roundup by a group of film critics. I loved this comment about The Passion from David Edelstein:

"Please discuss Mel Gibson's Passion," writes one reader. I can't: I haven't seen it. And I'm frankly dreading its release and the pots of anti-Semitic mail I'll doubtless get if I respond in any way except religious conversion. I don't doubt Mel Gibson's belief, his—if you will—passion; but I also think he has a bit of a fixation on excruciating martyrdom. He's all but crucified in his Lethal Weapon movies, and in Braveheart he gets to be drawn and quartered while shouting "Freedom!" I suppose I betray my Jewish psychiatric roots here, but I'd love to hear him think aloud on this subject.
Edelstein didn't even mention The Road Warrior, in which Gibson (spoiler coming) puts his life on the line to drive a tanker full of scarce gasoline across a post-apocalyptic Australian desert pursued by leather-clad bikers in mohawks. He ends up bloody and broken and realizes that he was being used as a diversion while the real gas was transported in a school bus.

Wow. I just realized I know way, way too much about Mel Gibson movies...

posted by Peter Nixon 1:53 PM
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WHO GOT DINGED AND WHY: I'm cross posting this comment from Amy Welborn's blog in case folks don't see it over there. Amy posted a link to the list of dioceses and eparchies found non-compliant with one or more elements of the Charter.

So why did dioceses end up on this list? Articles 9, 12, and 13 of the Charter seem to be the sticking points for a majority of them. Article 12 concerns Safe Environment programs and Article 13 concerns background check procedures. The report notes that a number of dioceses have selected, but not yet implemented such programs and procedures. Foot dragging? Perhaps, although I suspect simple bureaucratic inertia is the more likely cause. If you take out the dioceses with only these two problems, the number of non-compliant dioceses drops to 10 (from 20)

Article 9 is a little more worrisome, as it concerns the National Review Board's study of the scope of the clerical sexual abuse problem. 97% of dioceses participated in the survey. Some of the dioceses pleaded conflicts with state law, but since no state appears more than once, it's hard to know how seriously to take this excuse. Some of the non-participating dioceses did ultimately provide the information requested, but four still have not: Lincoln (NE), Newton-Melkite/Greek (MA), Our Lady of Deliverance (NJ); and Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn (NY).

posted by Peter Nixon 11:37 AM
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90 PERCENT? The audit report on diocesan compliance with the sexual abuse policies adopted by the USCCB is up on the USCCB web site. Some of the press reports focus on the fact that 90 percent of dioceses appear to be in compliance with the policies. Other reports focus on the fact that victim advocacy groups like SNAP are critical of the report (click here for SNAP's statement). VOTF has also issued a statement on the report.

Some of SNAP and VOTF's concerns are reasonable, but on the whole I would say this appears to be a solid piece of work. Obviously, there are always ways in which the process can be improved and the report makes a number of recommendations in this regard.

Some of the advocacy organizations argue that it is not credible that the bishops could have turned around their performance so quickly. But the truth is that a large number of dioceses had already made significant changes in the 1980s and 90s in how they handled abusive priests and employees in response to the last round of major abuse allegations. While there are a few dioceses that continue to drag their feet, many others only had to make a few changes to come into compliance. If the issue is whether dioceses have made significant progress in implementing policies that will reduce the future incidence of abuse, I think the answer has to be "yes."

I think the issue that continues to rankle is not so much how the Church currently deals with abusive priests (or employees), but how it deals (and how it has dealt) with victims, particularly in the context of litigation. The audit only examines how dioceses responded to allegations of abuse after the Charter had been adopted. But some of the most bitter disputes involve cases that are many years old. The report notes that victims of abuse "who had reported their abuse to the dioceses and eparchies before June 2002 may not have received the pastoral care and support described by the Charter," which is probably something of an understatement.

I certainly don't think this is a day for anyone to be patting themselves on the back. On the other hand, as a parent, I see some significant progress that gives me hope, and I hope that that progress will continue.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:45 AM
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Monday, January 05, 2004
Visit America's forgotten state --
This is supposed to be a banner for CHD's Poverty Awareness campaign. Can people read it? Let me know if you can't.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:09 PM
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SCENES FROM A COUNTY JAIL: I've blogged before on why I think the most moving part of our Sunday service at the jail is usually the prayers of the faithful. What always blows me away is when guys thank God for the fact that they are in jail. I usually get at least one guy who says this every service and for some reason it always chokes me up. It happened again yesterday. The fellow was thanking God for bringing him to jail and helping him realize the path he was on was not where he wanted to go. He asked forgiveness from God and from the family members and friends who he had hurt. It was a moment.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:13 AM
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JOHN ALLEN's TOP TEN: John Allen looks at his own list of the top ten Vatican news stories of 2003.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:48 AM
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BAD MOVE: The Bishop of Raleigh has fired the longtime editor of the Diocesean newspaper, N.C. Catholic. Media reports suggest that the reason for the termination was the printing of an interview with a local author who made critical comments about priestly celibacy and the Church as a whole. The Bishop, however, has refused comment on the case, citing the need for employer-employee confidentiality.

There are few people, I think, who labor under the delusion that diocesean papers are an independent press. They seem to serve the same function as local union newspapers. I'm not sure I ever saw a local union paper (and I've seen a lot of them) run a story critical of the local (although I've seen a few that had no problems criticizing their internationals). So one would expect the editor of the paper to understand that he has a different role than the editor of a the New York Times. I will say, though, that in my experience the most effective communications organs are those that appear to show at least a modicum of independent editorial control.

All that said, I still think this is a bad move and displays exceedingly poor management and public relations skills. For one (assuming that the interview was the proximate cause of the termination), you don't fire a long-tenured employee for a single error in judgment, even an egregious one. Most people will make a serious, potentially catastrophic mistake at at least one point in their career. You get the employee to take responsibility for the mistake and fix it and (hopefully) learn from it. Then you move on.

Now if, in fact, this was merely the "last straw" after a series of incidents, that would be a different matter. But nobody who had spent a week in a PR shop would tell a Catholic bishop to fire the editor of his paper 1) a week before Christmas and 2) immediately after an incident in which the editor had made an error of editorial judgment. I cannot think of a better set of circumstances to get the local press (and potentially the national press) riled up. And to make matters worse, Bishop Gossman is correct that he shouldn't comment on the reason for the firing, which puts him in an impossible situation of being unable to defend his actions publicly. It's like watching a train wreck...

Todd at Catholic Sensibility and Amy at Open Book also have some commentary on this case.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:03 AM
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Sunday, January 04, 2004

Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Feast of the Epiphany

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

Epiphanies are revelations. Our English word comes from the Greek verb “to show forth”. The Epiphany relates necessarily to the Birth of Jesus because it would not have been enough for Jesus to have been born if he was not recognized by humanity as being Lord and Saviour of the world. The Magi did not come to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem in order to complement Mary and Joseph on having a cute, healthy child. These outsiders came to honor a King and preach to the Jewish race not only that their King, but the awaited Savior had been born.

Nativity sets tell the stories of both the Nativity and the Epiphany, but they are visual mixtures. They present images found within both the Matthean and Lucan birth narratives; for example, no shepherds came to Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel reading. Recall that Herod and all the people of Jerusalem -- supposedly good Jews -- were disturbed at the idea of a king being born. If anyone was going to tell them that their king was born, it was going to be a fellow Jew. No good Jerusalem Jew would accept the idea that someone outside their faith would give them such important news.

So look at who recognizes Jesus as Lord and King. In Matthew, wise men -- Gentile outsiders – come from a far distance to honor their King. In Luke, shepherds -- social outsiders – come from a far distance to honor their King.

The following is not meant to make Scripture a bunch of bunk, but there is a possibility that this story in Matthew is not a true one, but rather a device used to show how outsiders recognized Jesus before Jews did. This would certainly enrage the people of Cologne, Germany. The great Kölner Dom, one of the largest churches in Europe, houses the supposed relics of the Magi. We must accept strictly by faith alone the events Matthew presents us because we do not have physical evidence to show that this event occurred. We do not know as fact whether those relics in Cologne are authentic. But then, even if this story within Matthew is not true, the Magi should always provide a great example for us because they recognized Jesus as their Lord and King. This Gospel reading might be a “too good to be true” story for the sake of spiritual edification rather than for the sake of historical accuracy, but the important point Matthew presents very plainly is this: Gentiles recognized and honored Jesus as the King of the Jews and the Savior of the World before many Jews did. Also, by giving myrrh, an aromatic substance used in burial ointment, the Magi understood through faith how deeply this King would offer himself in order to save humanity.

If we ever need someone to set us straight in the ways of faith, then God is going to send someone to correct us. If ever we grow complacent in our faith, God will send to us other Magi, kings, astronomers, or wise men in order to disturb us. If it happens, then we must follow the prophets’ lead. After all, true prophets reveal both how God is with us and how God wants us to be with Him. True prophets lead us to Jesus so we can all offer gifts to the King.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:43 PM
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