Sunday, May 25

Click on the picture if you want an explanation. Not that it will help.

A remembrance of four chaplains who sacrificed all on a troop ship in 1943

The freezing waters of the North Atlantic were sapping the life from young Ernest Heaton as he floated next to a lifeboat too full to take him aboard.

"So I asked a guy, 'If I put one arm in the lifeboat, could you hold it against the side of the boat?' He did."

The 19-year-old U.S. Army Air Forces soldier hung there until dawn, when a Coast Guardsman pulled his near-lifeless body from the water.

Heaton, now 80 and living in Vero Beach, is one of 230 men who survived the sinking of the Army troop transport ship Dorchester. Another 672 died during the terrible early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, after Nazi submarine U-223 torpedoed and sank the Dorchester.

The incident has become an American legend because of a stirring example of faith and courage shown by four chaplains who were aboard the Dorchester.

The four lieutenants, all of different faiths, went down with the doomed ship. After working to calm hundreds of scared GIs, the chaplains gave four of them their own life jackets.

Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; and Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, were last seen praying on deck with their arms linked as the ship went down.

It's been a bad week for Catholic ordained types and the outdoors here in Indiana. Maybe it's the long winters or something. A priest in Terre Haute was arrested at an interstate rest stop for public indecency, and right here in our own Fort Wayne, the word comes across the wire that a permanent deacon, who was given a big community service award a couple of months ago was arrested and pled guilty to an indecent exposure charge, and was suspended from his duties by the bishop.....why blog this? Well, because it's weird that two things like this happen in one state in a week. Secondly, this second case is particularly sad and interesting. The deacon in question is a pillar of the local Hispanic community, and is on the staff of the mostly-Hispanic parish here in town that the diocese just last week announced it's closing and merging with another parish.

By the way, those of you who have been with me for a while have heard me rail about skewed priorities, particularly in relation to Hispanic ministry in an area like this, which has an exploding Hispanic/Latino population. Yes, that's the answer. CLOSE their parish. No. Let's close TWO of their parishes - one in South Bend and one in Fort Wayne. That's the way the Catholic Church in the US grew and flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Actually, the test will be what, exactly they do with the 1200 members of St. Paul's (the FW parish) that they're throwing in with St. Patrick's. The test will be if they get a primetime Sunday morning Spanish language Mass (as, of course they had three of at their own parish), or if they get the good old 2pm Sunday afternoon liturgy, as is so often the case.

We'll see. And we'll see what the story is with this unfortunate case of the Deacon in the Park.

An updated story on the official announcement of the parish closings from today's paper, with the good news that the pastor of St. Paul's (the predominantly Hispanic parish) is being named pastor of the parish with which they're merging. So perhaps there's hope.

Molokai's other saint

A Roman Catholic nun whose ministry to Kalaupapa's leprosy patients on Molokai lasted twice as long as Father Damien's may take her first step toward sainthood.Mother Marianne Cope, who garners just a fraction of the attention given the Belgian priest who died in 1889, is on a Vatican waiting list for a hearing on her canonization cause -- an inquiry that could lead to her designation as "venerable."News of that progress in Rome comes as the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviews a miracle attributed to Father Damien de Veuster -- an unexplained healing that, if verified, could make the Belgian missionary a saint.

Dallas Catholics respond to their bishop in the letters section of the Dallas Morning News

Former Church insiders in Boston complain that they're being frozen out.

God bless anyone who does anything for the Church, and there is no doubt that Boston is still a mess, still in an absurd bunker mentality, still trying to figure out how what to do and how to proceed, especially since they still do not have anything but interim leadership...but there's something about anyone complaining about feeling "left out" that always irritates me. Maybe it's because as a child, the most frequent correction I received (or at least that I remember) was, "Stop whining." You want to help? There are Catholic schools that are struggling mightily in your Archdiocese. Lend your help to them. Go get your hands dirty, unless that's not the high-profile savior role what you had in mind and think you deserve when you offer to "help.."

You can tell that I hold wealthy lay benefactors who like being tight with church hierarchy in the same high esteem as I hold...the church hierarchy, in general.

With all due respect, of course.

Self-mortification and religion:

Shiite Muslims in Iraq celebrate the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by slicing their foreheads open with razor blades. In the Philippines, 14 Roman Catholics nail themselves to the cross in a macabre, Good Friday re-enactment of the suffering of Jesus. Closer to home, dedicated members of Opus Dei, a traditional Catholic lay group, privately practice "mortifications of the flesh" such as self- flagellation with a small whip and the wearing of a "cilice," a spiked wire mesh band wrapped around the upper thigh.

Why do people whip and cut themselves in the name of God?

What's pain got to do with it?

.....The Roman tradition has many stories of saintly self-mortification, but these practices are rare among Catholics today.

"We have moved away from physical penance to a more enlightened sense of spiritual penance," said the Rev. Gerald Coleman, president of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Seminary in Menlo Park. "What makes us holy is not wearing down our bodies."

Coleman acknowledged that some priests, monks and traditionalist lay people still hurt themselves in the name of God. But he doesn't look kindly upon those penitents.

"Any group that does something like that has not moved into a balanced sense of spirituality," he said. "They think there is something evil about the body. That is a denial of the incarnation."

"The Catholic church profoundly believes that there has been only one sacrifice," Coleman added. "That is Christ and he died for all of us, once and for all."

Yup. Living simply and accepting the suffering that comes your way is not the same thing as purposefully inflicting pain on yourself, which despite its presence in some strains of our tradition, has never struck me as having anything to do with the Gospel.

Well, perhaps not having "anything" to do with the Gospel is a mite strong, but I stand by my point.

Jesus tells us over and over that if we are his disciples, we must expect suffering. His way is our way, and since his way involved suffering, ours will as well.

But what is this "suffering?" The key to understanding this, it seems to me, lies in the Gospel first. When we read the Gospels and listen to and observe Jesus, the suffering that is called for seems clear. We are called to bear any suffering, first, that comes our way as the consequence of being faithful to God and all God calls us to be. That can be anything, can't it? It can be the suffering we endure as others mock us for sticking to our values. It can be the pain that results when we make the right choice, leaving the momentary pleasure of the wrong choice behind.

Secondly, we are called to bear suffering that is a result of living out the specifics of the Good News: to forgive, to live simply, to not strive after earthly things, but to trust in God's provision for us, to put God first, to put the needs of others before our own. To love "because He has loved us first" as today's reading from John's letter said. When we think about the ways we could be living that out in our own lives, the way they are now, it might give us pause. We see what we're called to. We see how we're only going halfway or less, and the reason is that we know drawing closer to the path Jesus forged will involve some kind of suffering.

Third, we are called to bear the suffering that comes our way from tragedy, illness and death - ours and of our brothers and sisters. Here, we look to Jesus again, and see how he bore his cross. We see that the ultimate hope that carries us through is the deep trust that despite all appearances, God will work through these events, and bring good out of them.

In Christianity, the general term for the practices discussed in this article is "mortification." They are generally embraced for one of two reasons: as a means of penance, and (related but not exactly the same) as a means of bringing temptation and desire under control - of disciplining oneself in the ways of suffering so as to better prepare oneself for the suffering that one might be called to endure, to focus one's mind, not on physical comfort, but on God, so that one might be able to truly experience God in all things.

Which is fine - and which is not unique to Christianity, either, I might add. It must be a inherent human instinct to practice this kind of mortification and self-discipline as a means to self-control and submission. That's fine. There is great diversity within spritual practices, even within Christianity, and when I wrote my Loyola Kids' Book of Saints, I explained these types of things when they came up - with Catherine of Siena or Simon Stylites, for example - as practices these people engaged in because they felt that they helped them come closer to God (for the reasons I outlined above.) A person who is tormented by lust, for example, in earlier ages, would have found it normal and even spiritually valuable to counter the temptation with mortification. That's fine.

The problem is twofold. First is that it becomes some kind of model for the rest of us, and there's no reason for it to be. This purposeful mortification is not what I see Jesus calling us - in general - to in the Gospels. I think that if we threw ourselves fully into the life he calls us to, which is truly seeing and treating each person as our brother and sister, and truly forgiving, and truly giving ourselves over to love, no matter what the price - that's sacrifice a plenty.

(Although there are those who find the self-mortification necessary in order to strengthen them for that we come around to that point again. Just to let you know I haven't forgotten).

But the other risk is of hubris. (And there are risks in any spiritual practice or stance. The other side, which might completely discount the value of mortification, can fall quickly into sloth and indifference). There is a strain in the writings of some of those who have practiced mortification which would probably make most you very uncomfortable if you read it. It is an implication, as a commentor noted, that the sacrifice of Jesus was not sufficient. That God won't continue to forgive sinners unless I wrap wire around my middle to do penance for their sins. That's dangerous.

Finally, I leave you with a quote from a letter of St. Jane de Chantal to a priest to whom she was giving spiritual direction:

Take my word for it, our Lord is more pleased with our accepting the relief our body and spirit require, than by all these apprehensions of not doing enough and wanting to do more. All God wants is our heart. And He is more pleased when we value our uselessness and weakness out of love and reverence for His holy will, than we do violence to ourselves and perform great works of penance. .....What God, in His goodness, asks of you is not this excessive zeal that has reduced you to your present condition, but a calm, peaceful unselessness, a resting near Him with no special attention or action of the understanding or will except a few words of love or of faithful, simple surrender, spoken softly, effotlessly, without the least desire to find consolation or satisfaction....

Good, balanced piece from the Baltimore Sun on Catholic colleges - new and established.

and another one from The Boston Globe, focusing on Magdalen College in NH, (and before you get riled up, the Globe piece is by Naomi Schaefer, regular contributer to the WSJ, who's writing a book on religious colleges.)


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