Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Like the stars forever

The lessons from the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time:

  • Daniel 12:1-3
  • Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
  • Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
  • Mark 13:24-32
Just a brief reflection this time. It's that time, both of the natural year, the Church year, and my own life -- autumn. Even here in the San Joqaquin Valley, leaves are turning color -- and because of the fast change of temperature, some very nice colors for once. This past weekend was also the last Sunday in ordinary time -- next week will be the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the year. And I am much to close to 50 for comfort, so the days are getting short in several different ways. The lessons involve prophecy, the last days, and what Jesus has already done about it.

Biblical prophecy is terribly misunderstood in this country -- just look at the Left Behind books. To me, you interpret prophetic passages the same way you handle any other piece of scripture, you begin with the literal sense of the words, in their historical context. Embarking on an excurstion to find some equivalent of a secret treasure map that can be used to fortell the future in some magical way is not what interpreting biblical prophecy is about.

All (dangerous word) prophetic scripture is aimed by its writer at an immediate situation, and you can generally see a specific pattern to such writings:
  • warning - the prophet warns the people of God of coming troubles, often caused by the unfaithfulness of those same people;
  • exhortation - the people of God are exhorted and encouraged to stand fast and remain faithful to what they have been taught, despite troubled times;
  • promise - a promise is given to the people of God's continued love, and that he will deliver them from the coming troubles, if they will keep their faith.
Any particular piece of prophetic scripture may show only one or more parts of the pattern.

The immediate context of the book of Daniel is the threat of the Hellenistic world to Judaism. The early Roman persecutions and the coming destruction of Israel as a political unit is the context of the prophecies in the Gospel of Mark. In both cases, not only did the tribulations come as warned, rooted in the unfairthfulness of the people, but God did fulfill his promise to preserve those same people.

The reason these writings are in Scripture is that they are still applicable in an allegorical sense to the new Israel, the Church, both in her present situation, and in her ultimate destiny. There will always be tribulations and the Church will be in crisis all the way to the end of time. And the answer is alwyas the same, to hold fast as the Body of Christ to what we know and to do justly as we have been taught.

There is a personal side to this as well. For those of us "of a certain age", we know that our own personal tribulations may be on the way. It is easy to become worried, angry and bitter as you get older and struggle with health and financial issues -- I feel that temptation many days. But we too as individuals must stand fast to what we have been taught, because there is a promise to hold onto, even in the worst days.

The promise of these selections is not that God will be nice to us and make us feel better when things get bad. No, we are assured that by the sacrifice that Jesus offered for our sins we will be made perfect. God declares that he will not abandon those he loves but with power and glory gather them in "from the end of the earth to the end of the sky." And, as Daniel reports, God promises:
But the wise shall shine brightly
like the spendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.
Something to hold onto while you watch the leaves fall.

Friday, July 18, 2003

The Church as an Employer

The hot personnel issues in the Catholic Church in this country have mostly involved clergy of late:

  • priestly pedophilia (and how many bishops mishandled the issue)
  • the increasing shortage of priests, and
  • the quality of American bishops (the first and second issues lead to the third).
There is an ongoing conflict in Texas that outlines another problem: the treatment of lay church employees, especially parish staffs. David Morrison of Sed Contra blogged nicely about this last week -- my post is becoming a longer essay for some reason, in three parts: how it started, the most recent explosion, and what may mean for the Church. I don't have any pretty answers yet, just questions.

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the poorest places in the United States, with a population that is 85% Roman Catholic (at least in some sense). Dominated by agriculture and immigration, it reminds me strongly of the San Joaquin Valley where I live. For the past year, several parishes have been in conflict with Bishop Raymundo J. Peña of the Diocese of Brownsville over contracts with the United Farm Workers of America representing parish workers.

Last Year - The Background

The open breach came a year ago, as reported in the McAllen Monitor, when four parishes (reportedly, another joined them later) signed UFW contracts covering about 30 workers, providing improvments in job security and pension benefits - the issues that started it all:
"I’m 65 years old. I’ve worked for the church for 24 years," said Angie Peña, who works for St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen. "Then they told us our pension fund is over. I want a future. I want security. And I want justice."

Last year, Bishop Raymundo Peña switched the Brownsville Diocese’s pension plan to a new retirement plan, without any consultation with the diocese’s many workers, said Rebecca Flores, a spokeswoman for the UFW, AFL-CIO.

"We continue to be left out of many decisions that affect our living in our diocese," said Delia Ortiz, who works for Holy Spirit church.Father Robert Maher, vicar general for the diocese, said the plan was changed to help all diocese employees.

"It became evident that people would not have a healthy income from that pension plan," Maher said. "The diocese acted in the best interest of the employees. According to the provisions of that plan, employees were given everything they had coming — nobody was cheated."

But many workers received much less than they expected when it was cashed out, said Father Sam Arizpe of St. Joseph the Worker in San Carlos. Angered, they turned to the UFW, AFL-CIO for help.

"When I retire, under this contract, I’ll have a regular monthly income to help me," said Ann Williams Cass, who has worked for Holy Spirit church since 1981.

Workers also expressed concern about job security, because priests have the power to hire and fire parish workers at will.
Note: the switch in pension plans was from defined benefit to defined contribution, a change made by many corporations in recent years as it eliminates the problem of overfunding or underfunding pension benefits. It can also eliminate any real corporate contribution to that pension benefit, and moves market risks from the employer to the employee. Also, there was reportedly a history of new pastors firing parish employees upon taking over at a parish. To be fair, none of these reports include any information on the financial state of those parishes -- for all we know, the stories could be based on parishes that were near bankruptcy.

This Year - The Explosion

But recent events seem to confirm the fears of those workers, as reported in last week's Washington Post:
The family fight burst into public view June 18 when the Rev. Ruben Delgado, newly assigned to Holy Spirit by the bishop, arrived at the church for his first day on the job and fired four of the unionized workers.

The fired workers received little explanation. One, Ann Cass, had been a key member of Holy Spirit's administrative staff for 22 years and played a central role in building the church's new building in the 1980s. Another, Edna Cantu, a young secretary who is several months pregnant, had been dismissed last fall from yet another parish church shortly after she and her co-workers unionized there.

The United Farm Workers (UFW), which represents the employees, received a court order temporarily halting the dismissals; the church then placed them on paid administrative leave. In the ensuing uproar, Delgado resigned as pastor of Holy Spirit after a week. Aside from a written statement defending the firings as an administrative reshuffle designed to replace some paid staff with volunteers, he did not communicate with his parishioners and never celebrated Mass there.

Peña said he had no hand in the firings, noting he was out of town when they took place. He has reaffirmed his opposition to unionizing parish lay workers, whose minimum wage of $7, he said, is well above the average in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I honestly do not believe that it is necessary or beneficial for church employees in the Valley to join a labor union," he said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Washington Post.

Hundreds of parishioners at Holy Spirit have accused Peña of engineering the firings to break union contracts that he publicly denounced as "invalid in church law" because he, as bishop, was not consulted and did not approve them.

The character "Otter" Stratton said it best in the movie Animal House: I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part. Yep, that seems to sum up what now is regarded nationally as Fr. Delgado's brief foray into union busting. And the bishop was out of town so he wasn't responsible -- oh that sounds wonderful . . . just the kind of leadership we need.

There is now a restraining order reinstating the employees, which comes up for review next week.

The Conflict, and the Opportunity for Scandal

Now it is clear that there is more to this story on both sides. I think that the bishop may well have a case in canon law, and with midnight candlelight processions, informal communion services in front of churches, and opinions being thrown around, the pro-worker side may be a bit off center as far as eccesiology is concerned. But the scandal here is real, and it is a very public sign of a growing problem. This is not a matter of bashing one side or the other -- it is a matter of understanding the social and economic structures that have helped create this situation.

The drop in priestly and religious vocations over the past 40+ years is old news, along with the move by well educated men and women religious into parish adminstration and pastoral roles augmenting the supply of priests. (I wonder if anyone has ever worked out the actual numbers on the migration from parochial schools to parocial offices over the past 30 years. Just curious . . .) One important point is that both priests and religious are mobile -- they can be moved around at the will of a bishop or superior as needed. Also, the long term welfare of these workers were the responsiblity of a diocese or order. If you elminated a job, they were generally taken care of until the next job came open.

But the the number of both priests and religious available has now dropped to the point that more and more work in the hands of paid lay workers, people who have homes and families and often deep ties in a particular community and parish. You can't just move them around or eliminate their jobs -- not without consequences that the Church is not used to facing. (I am told that the previous bishop in my area did not want permanent deacons for just that reason.) These workers cannot look to the diocese or an order for job security, security that they need to raise families.

And the Church teaches that those workers have a right to a decent wage and job security, and to unions to secure them. From the USCCB A Catholic Framework for Economic Life:
4. All people have a right to life and a right to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, a safe environment, and economic security).
5. All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, and to organize and join unions or other associations.
As others have pointed out, even many workers at the Vatican are unionized.

There is a serious risk of scandal when the Church as a visible human organization fails to live up to its own teachings. That risk is only greater when that failure is justified in terms of those teachings -- that somehow the work of the Church requires that those who do that work not be treated with the dignity that all persons deserve. And I am speaking of scandal in more than simply bad press; this is the creation of social conditions that make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult . . . (Catechism 2286). This can be a situation that creates a barrier between people and Christ.

The Challenge

But this is not something that can simply be blamed on a bishop, as so many problems seem to be lately. This is also not simply a Texas problem, it is a national problem that is worse in poor dioceses, in areas where there simply is not much money. It is simple to say that there should be an uniform living wage policy across the American Church. But who will pay for it in McAllen? Bishop Peña is trying to, with the money he can gather in a very poor diocese. We need personnel policies that give parish employees more effective status than personal employees of the pastor (which is effectively how it works now, and legally makes little sense as the only real legal entity in most states is the diocese). Those policies will mean very little if the rest of us, the laity, do not provide the practical financial support that makes such policies possible. And that support will, at times, have to extend beyond diocesan boundaries.

Like I said, more challenges and questions than answers. But if we don't get cracking and start praying and searching for answers, this kind of scandal will occur in many more places.

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Takashi Nagai and the Rosary

Blessed Titus Brandsma was martyred for his anti-Nazi work in the Netherlands before and during the early stages of the Second World War. Dr. Takashi Nagai is known for his involvement at the end of the war -- the destruction of Nagasaki by American nuclear bombing in 1945. What binds the stories of the two men? Their Christian faith, and the Rosary.

A couple of years ago a young man made a (rather good and effective) presentation to the youth group Marilee and I were helping with. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot understand, he interjected a story he had heard about miraculous protection of a group of priests near ground zero in Nagasaki in 1945. Somehow, this struck me as urban legend material, just because of how it was related. (I have no problems with miracles, per se.) After a few hours of intensive internet and library research I came to the conclusion that my suspicions were probably right (although my mind is still open -- enter a comments below if you have some information or a link.). What I found though, was a truly profound miracle, something far beyond the anecdote we had heard.

Takashi Nagai was born and raised whithin Shinto, but influenced by Blaise Pascal's Pensees, begain to inquire about Catholicism. He boarded with a Catholic family while studying medicine, and their example strongly affected him. He became a Catholic, and married their daughter, Midori. He served as a radiologist with the Japanese Army in China, where he worked tirelessly to serve all his patients, no matter which side of the conflict they came from. In June of 1945, he was diagnosed with chronic leukemia, and given roughly three years to live. Nagai was sustained by his wife's unflagging faith, even in the face of this news. Then, as reported here, everything changed:

August 9, 1945, 11:02 AM. A blinding flash. An atomic bomb had just exploded at Urakami, the Northern section of Nagasaki. In the war that they were waging against Japan, the leaders of the United States had available to them a new and terrifying weapon: the A-bomb. The first bomb had been dropped on Hiroshinia, and a second one devastated Nagasaki: Temperature 9,000 Centigrade, 72,000 dead, 100,000 wounded.

At the medical school, located 700 yards from the center of the explosion, Nagai, who was filing X-ray films, was thrown to the floor, his side riddled with glass fragments. Blood flowed heavily from his right temple... objects fluttered about like dead autumn leaves. Soon there was an uninterrupted flow of the wounded: bloodied shadows, clothes torn, hair burned, rushing to the doors of the hospital... A vision of Hell.

Fire was approaching the hospital. Patients were evacuated to the summit of a neighboring hill. Takashi worked to the very limit of his strength. At 4:00 PM, the fire reached the Radiology Department. Thirteen years of research, instruments, valuable documentation, everything went up in smoke. August 10 was spent taking care of the wounded. On the 11th, work was a bit less hurried, and Takashi left to search for Midori, who had stayed at home while the children and their grandmother were safe in the mountains, since August 7. He found the site of his home with difficulty in an area of tiles and cinders. Suddenly, he came upon the carbonized remains of his wife. On his knees, he prayed and wept, then placed the bones in a container. Something shone weakly through the powder of the bones of her right hand: her Rosary!

He bowed his head: "My God, I thank You for permitting her to die while she prayed. Mary, Mother of sorrows, thank you for having been with her at the hour of her death... Jesus, you carried the heavy Cross until you were crucified upon it. Now, You come to shed a light of peace on the mystery of suffering and death, Midori's and mine... Strange fate: I believed so strongly that it would be Midori that would lead me to the tomb... Now her poor remains are resting in my arms... Her voice seems to murmur: forgive, forgive."

Takashi's pardon would be perfect. Later, he will lead Christians discouraged by the loss of their family to consider that the A-bomb was part of God's plan, who always brings good from evil.

On August 15, 1945, the radio broadcasted a message from the Emperor announcing the surrender of Japan. At the beginning of September, Takashi was dying. The radiation from the A-bomb aggravated his illness. He received the last rites and said : "I die happy," then he fell into a partial coma. Water was brought to him from the Lourdes grotto constructed not far from there by Father Maximilian Kolbe. He would write, "I heard a voice telling me to ask Father Maximilian Kolbe to pray for me. I did so. Then I turned to Christ and said to Him: 'Lord, I place myself into Your Divine Hands'" The next day, Takashi was out of danger and he attributed to Father Kolbe (now canonized) the remission from his illness that he enjoyed for six years.

Nagai was never in truly good health again. but was able to write The Bells of Nagasaki, concerning his expereinces before and after the bombing, which remains in print today. He worked to spread Cristianitiy in Japan, as the one hope for a lasting peace, as well as research the effects of the atomic bombing and work to help its victims. Nagai died in 1951, and was mourned throughout Japan.

For more information, The Man Who Loved Others as Himself is a wonderfully detailed Japanese site (with an English language option), this is another interesting site, and Nagai's house that he build after the war is now part of a museum.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The effect spreads

Last month I posted a story about Cary Stayner and mentioned his parents, Delbert and Kay. The local paper, the Merced Sun-Star, last weekend ran an interview with them about their children and what their family was like. A good, basic interview, with some flavor of these two decent people coming out. It has a little about the ripple effect of evil on other lives:

When Steven Stayner was abducted while walking home from Charles Wright Elementary School in Merced by Kenneth Parnell in 1972, it turned the stable, solid family inside out. Cary and his three sisters refused to talk about their missing brother. The family's equilibrium had been thrown off; they lived with a knot in their stomachs and a gap in their lives.

Delbert and Kay spent the first two years of Steven's disappearance following tips, looking at pictures of dead children to identify if one was Steven's body, even listening to leads from psychics who claimed to know their son's whereabouts.

But nothing panned out, and "life went on," Kay said. "We still had four other children to take
care of."

Cary is in jail, Parnell is in jail again, their three daughters are getting on with their lives in other parts of Califorina, the writer who made millions off of Steven's story is now dead, but Kay and Delbert keep moving forward.