Archive for October, 2013

WHEN IN ROME…

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

This morning along with a crowd estimated in excess of 110,000, I saw the Holy Father up close and personal. My reason for being in Rome this morning I will share with you momentarily, but for the first time in a long time I had that sense of “chills” of being in the presence of the Pope. It is a sense I first had when as a layman I was introduced to Pope Paul VI but left me after repeated time spent with Blessed Pope John Paul II, on the road during three papal visits to the United States and and many, many other occasions with he and Pope Benedict. Perhaps I “overdosed” on Popes in my life but over time while holding the deepest respect for them and the office they held, awe gave way to “ho hum” perhaps.

Well “awe” returned with a vengeance this morning. First, when I arrived at my place reserved for all bishops and looked out over the sea of people in front of me. I have been in the square when it has been full but I have never been there when the square was full and there were thousands shoulder to shoulder down the Via Conciliatione, the Main Street leading up to the square. I had heard last night there were 92,000 requests for tickets for today’s audience, in mid-October, folks, when schools are finally reopened in Europe and everyone is supposed to be back to work but in front of me was this wave of humanity, all waiting for a glimpse of one man.

Looking out at the sea of people. Photo by yours truly.

Looking out at the sea of people. Photo by yours truly.

It’s too facile to say that all new popes draw big crowds. They do. But not this big. Ask the shopkeeper near the Vatican and he shouts “bella”or ask the cab driver trying to make his way through the area and he says “bruta.” Ask any person and they say they have never seen anything like it.

The audience is supposed to start at ten o’clock but precisely at 940am a roar goes up and out he comes on the jeep, smiling, waving, stopping for wheelchairs and babies. And they drive everywhere throughout the square and then, as I suspected, out into the deep of the Conciliatione where there were no barriers holding people back. They came to see him so he was not going to disappoint them.

Pope Francis greeting the people. Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris.

Pope Francis greeting the people. Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

For forty minutes he drove throughout and outside of the square, keeping we bishops waiting and everyone else at the “front of the line.” I have a feeling that he does it on purpose. Those who have the smallest or no connection with how to get tickets for one of the 90,000 chairs get just as much of his time and attention as those of us in the “orchestra” who hold jobs that ensure proximity or know someone who can land the best seat.

He walks up the incline plane from the car to the platform not like a 75 year old with one lung but like a younger man delighted to be there.

Pope Francis. Photo taken by yours truly.

Pope Francis. Photo taken by yours truly.

The formal part of the audience took, you guessed it, the same forty minutes it took him to drive through the crowd.

Pope Francis. Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris

Pope Francis. Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

He spoke of the centrality of Mary in the life of the Church in Italian – an Italian spoken so slowly that even I understood most of it.

He dropped his text and spoke extemporaneously three times this morning, each time drawing laughter from the Italian speakers and scattered applause. He does not attempt any other language but Spanish and after one Our Father and the blessing it is over. You can read his written text by clicking here or by watching a summary video below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AZR_qD3SYI[/youtube]

We bishops were first to greet him and have our picture taken with him. It’s a shame that others wait so long because this morning Cardinal Meisner of Germany and forty-one of we other “red caps” were there.

I thanked him for all he has done so far after first telling him I was from St. Petersburg, Florida, in the United States and smiling he said to me in perfect English, “Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers.”

Meeting Pope Francis. His reply to me, "Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers." Photo kindness of Msgr. Robert Morris.

Meeting Pope Francis. His reply to me, “Please pray for me, I have only just begun and I need prayers.” Photo kindness of Patty Morris.

I didn’t want to take any more time and my knees were shaking anyway. I left the upper platform looking at the recent brides and grooms in their wedding attire waiting to meet him and get a picture. One couple yelled out to me by name so someone was there from St. Petersburg. I know Monsignor Morris and his brother and sister-in-law were there in the crowd somewhere as well as Father Craig Morley and a pilgrimage group but finding other people in that Mass of humanity was like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. I have shared whatever free time they have the last two and a half days with our two seminarians, Ryan Boyle and Alex Padilla, but they had class this morning. Rome is beautiful right now.

I was on my way back to the North American College where I am staying by 1135am. I am in Rome for three days only because a man whom I deeply admire and with whom I worked for seventeen years, Kenneth Hackett, former President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, presented his papers to Pope Francis on Monday as the new Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, appointed by President Obama. It was an honor to share these moments with Ken and Joan, his wife, and their two children.

I am home again tomorrow (Thursday) and back at it in the diocese where I belong. I shall not soon forget that warm, smiling, welcoming face of Francis and the energy of the crowd who love what he is doing to and for our Church.

+RNL

HISPANIC CATHOLICS ARE NOT COMING, THEY ARE HERE

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

My favorite source for news about the Catholic Church in the United States which is the mother of all ecclesial blogs (http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com) recently reported that there is statistical evidence now that baptized Hispanics now outnumber any other grouping of Catholics and is above fifty percent. It affirms what every Church leader should recognize and accept as Gospel, the Church in the United States is already a very heavily Hispanic Catholic church. There is absolutely nothing to fear from this fact and a lot to be grateful for.

Last Saturday, this diocese celebrated Hispanic Heritage day with our annual Hispanic Mass at Nativity Church in Brandon and the large Church was filled to the brim.

Nativity Catholic Church was filled to the brim at the annual Hispanic Mass. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Nativity Catholic Church was filled to the brim at the annual Hispanic Mass. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

To help Hispanics (and sometimes ignorant bishops like myself) understand the cultural beauty of their faith, it has been the custom every year to honor the Blessed Mother in October by choosing her patronage from a Hispanic country. This year it was Our Lady of Lujan (Nuestra Señora de Luján), the patroness of Argentina.

Our Lady of Lujan. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens

Our Lady of Lujan. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens

Funny how she appeared with the Church’s first Argentinian pope but then my wonderful former secretary, Vivi Iglesias, who is now the Associate Director of the Office for Hispanic Ministry is also from Argentina (oh, well – I guess I am just another suspicious Irishman but then I don’t totally buy into Our Lady of Knock [too cold for her!]).

The Liturgy was wonderful – talk about complete and active participation – these people know how to do it and then some. I loved every minute of it and the joy on the congregation’s faces was enough to keep me going for yet another year.

Praying the Our Father together. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Praying the Our Father together. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Click here to see more photos from this year’s Hispanic Mass.

Last night, over 1000 people gathered at Sacred Heart parish in Tampa for a Candlelight Prayer Vigil for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

2013 Prayer Vigil for Immigration Reform

The Church was wonderfully full! Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

There were far too many people to fit in the Church (holds 650) so the overflow was outside.

The overflow outside during the prayer vigil. Photo kindness of Sabrina Burton Schultz.

The overflow outside during the prayer vigil. Photo kindness of Sabrina Burton Schultz.

We peacefully and prayerfully processed down Florida Avenue three blocks to the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse .

2013 Prayer Vigil for Immigration Reform

Processing down Florida Avenue toward the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

 

Peacefully and prayerfully processing to the courthouse. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Peacefully and prayerfully processing to the courthouse. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

In front of the courthouse, we concluded the Prayer Vigil Service (it was the only Federal property which we could find even though our minds and hearts are fixed on the Obama Administration and Congress hoping they will address this urgent matter when the current nonsense comes to an end).

Praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Jeanne Smith.

Praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Jeanne Smith.

 

The faithful praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

The faithful praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

 

Praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Jeanne Smith.

Praying in front of the courthouse. Photo kindness of Jeanne Smith.

This short video might give you another sense of the prayerful and peacefully energy that accompanied us, as well as the number of people in attendance.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/76968404[/vimeo]

To see more photos from the Prayer Vigil for Immigration Reform, please click here.

In the immigration experience of the last two centuries, the Catholic Church played a major role in settling, resettling, educating, inculcating, medicating, and safeguarding the rights of immigrants. I hope our generation of Catholics will be known for the same.

Click here if you wish to read my words this evening at the Prayer Vigil, but some of you may find it upsetting. To me, it has always been interesting that I get the greatest pushback when I speak out for immigration generosity and against the death penalty. The common complaint is, “Bishop, stick to the Gospel and leave politics alone!” But then, many of these same people and same voices articulate their complaint with me that I do not become more actively involved in the politics of the abortion issue. Go figure. I haven’t been able to.

So lots of time the last seventy-two hours was spent with and speaking for the rapidly growing Hispanic community of this local Church. Wish you could be with me for it because it is just wonderful.

+RNL

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES

Monday, October 14th, 2013

CRS is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, a child of World War II and a Church in one nation which had an unquenchable desire to help those outside its own borders as they coped with the horrors of war, famine, earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and floods to name but a few. Occasionally I am asked (and sometimes I prompt others to ask me the question) what three things have been the greatest blessing of your priesthood (now thirty-five years old) I respond, the episcopal conference of the United States of America, the church of St. Petersburg, and Catholic Relief Services. The first, now called the USCCB, has laid claim to fourteen years of my life as a staff member in the early part of my priesthood; the second has been my home and my joy for seventeen years, and the third has seen me intimately involved as a member of the Board of Directors for twelve years, including six as Chairman.

Catholic Relief Services has established over its seventy years a well-deserved reputation as among the very best of first-responders when disaster strikes. Secondly, among disaster relief and development agencies, it spends less on every dollar contributed on funding raised and advertising than almost any other agency (seven cents on the dollar). Third, it operates in ninety-six countries throughout the world and in one year helps millions of people in their struggles for daily life. The great tsunami of the day after Christmas in 2004 occurred on my watch as Board chair and within forty-eight hours we had a team on the ground in Banda Ache, Sumatra, Indonesia helping people live, cope, survive, revive and move on. I have witnessed women in India using microfinance tools (they get small CRS backed loans from banks in their towns and villages) band together for the first time, pool their loans and start small businesses which soon turn enough profit to feed and cloth and educate their children (and the loan failure rate among these women’s microfinance initiatives is close to zero). Proving they can do it, banks often on their own will then lend them more money and their businesses grow. It’s absolutely amazing in its empowerment. In famine stricken Africa I have been present for “Seed Fairs” where farmers gather on a Saturday in a village and bring their unused seeds from the prior year and trade them or sell them where as in the past they were simply thrown away. I have been present for pre-natal clinics for expectant mothers supported by CRS which have impressively and effectively lowered infant mortality rates. AND, I have never visited a country where having been invited by a local Church to be present have had that Church ask that we withdraw. It just does not happen. When CRS has to withdraw from a country, it most often happens because that country and the local Church have reached a level of self-sufficiency that our presence is no longer necessary. Do we occasionally disappoint a local Church? Yes, but often it happens when US-AID cuts back a program, usually and most often food support, as the US tries to balance its budget. Sometimes the local Church would like us to hire only Catholics. I remember during the height of the Ethiopian Famine in the mid-1980’s while visiting Addis Ababa the local Cardinal Archbishop was quite upset with me and with CRS because we hired Coptic Orthodox auditors and did not take well my response that we tried and failed to find Latin-Rite auditors who were capable of managing the US government reporting forms.  Many African churches wish we would just send them a check and let them spend it as they would want like the Germans and Italians do (or used to do in the case of the former donor nation/Church) and don’t realize that CRS does not build seminaries, restore or build churches, buy trucks for diocesan CARITAS organizations (unless we are present to help manage and supervise the use of vehicles) – we help people.

American Catholic women should see the faces of gratitude and happiness on their African and Central American counterparts (women) when we teach the community how to build a well in the midst of their village and eliminate the long walk to the well or water source miles away with the water jar on top of the heads of the women of the village. Why is the Catholic Church so well suited around the world to act as a delivery agent for human relief and development? Partly, it is due to the fact that we have the parish structure which serves the whole community regardless of religion and our local partners, most often diocesan CARITAS or Catholic Charities agencies, serve as the primary instruments of outreach. It is a great Church, good readers, and CRS is a great organization.

The Board of Catholic Relief Services takes its responsibilities quite seriously. It can by statutes and by-laws consist of thirteen bishops elected by the USCCB and twelve non-bishops elected by the Board. They meet four times a year as a whole and more often as committee assignments requires. World headquarters is in an old department store in downtown Baltimore. The chair of the CRS board is a member of both the USCCB Administrative Committee as well as the USCCB Finance Committee. CRS makes its annual audit and finance statements publicly available. It is transparent, accountable to its owners (the bishops) and its donors (God’s generous people).

Last week the priests of the Diocese of St. Petersburg gathered for our annual priests’ convocation for three and a half days at the Bethany Center. Monsignor David Garcia from the Archdiocese of San Antonio and two other representatives of CRS spoke to us about the social justice responsibilities of the Gospel and pointed out ways in which CRS enfleshes the Gospel imperative in today’s Church in a unique and special way. We left that session “pumped up” to perhaps better do the work of justice and if any agency of the Church in the United States mirrors the Justice and Peace Gospel imperatives, it is Catholic Relief Services, now seventy years old and getting better all the time. Happy Anniversary, CRS!

+RNL

POPE FRANCIS AND THE RAYS – WILD CARDS?

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

It occurred to  me early this morning following the win by the Tampa Bay Rays (the game did not end until 12:05am and then I just had to watch the post game celebrations and interviews) that our Holy Father and my baseball team have a lot in common. Let me outline the similarities:

1. Both find themselves in and with horrible outdated and inadequate spaces, places and some people. The Rays have a stadium which while I find it delightful when and if I can make a game, because of its shelter from our afternoon and early evening, totally predictable thunderstorms and because it is always 72 degrees inside, is still laughed at by the rest of the league and not so loved by their fans and patrons. The Holy Father finds himself in a museum which is stunningly beautiful to the casual visitor but nearly useless in which to conduct the business of the Church.

2. Both are worried about declining attendance. Even with a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area and even with new work spaces inside the Vatican (were that even possible), the management of the Rays is decidedly more pessimistic about winning hearts and therefore attendees at their game than Pope Francis who says, “who needs a new stadium when what we need is a new heart and zeal for our faith?” The Pope is sure that he can put more fans in the seats (sorry, Holy Father, for putting slang into your elegant expressions) than are the Rays ownership if only the present fans would behave more like Jesus, not Yankee fans, and serve the poor and the marginalized better. In the end, both the Rays ownership/management and the Pope yearn for a revitalization of interest in the object of their affection.

3. Both come from relative obscurity to stimulate the hearts, minds and imagination of their loyal followers. Take the Rays, with one of the smallest payrolls in major league baseball, once again for the fourth time in the last six years we find our name on the marquee of the playoffs leaving behind in the dust the likes of the Yankees, Rangers, Angels ( remember we used to be the DEVIL rays), White Sox, etc. Who are these Rays anyway and where did they come from people all over the nation and world are asking. The Church reached to “the end of the earth” in asking the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to serve as the successor of St. Peter and how he has captured the fancy of millions in what is basically the equivalent of one baseball season.

4. Both believe deeply in what can be accomplished with dedication, commitment, and the giving of one’s talents. Pope Francis needs a Joe Maddon who with incredible skill almost nightly leads his seemingly rag-tag team of youngsters who barely are old enough to shave yet or older players let go by other teams and together they serve up a winner. I hope the Holy Father gets a great manager to help him enflesh his dream for the Church and that young women and men respond to the call up from the “minors” to help this great team leader make Christ more present in the world in which we live. Many baseball managers (and so it would seem at least one professional football coach) lead by intimidation, fear, recrimination, and suspicion, but not Joe nor the Pope. They believe in the fundamental goodness of all people until the reverse is proved otherwise. Good men and good women produce winners because they start from the fundamental goodness of everyone.

5. Both will likely be around this time next year, spreading excitement, modeling humility regardless of what is happening in the Fall classic now taking place in Rome and tomorrow to begin in Boston and elsewhere. I shall not bet against Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston,  as seems to be the custom, partly because he is engaged much more at the present in the operation of the major ecclesial league than I and partly because what does one give a mendicant. Nor do I want to bet him on something which begins on the Feast of St. Francis to whom he has witnessed his whole life, in dress, in simplicity, in hope. But, if by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit who gave us Francis in March, our Rays should call forth the Cardinals to come to our shabby little dome-home in a few weeks, I invite him to sit with me for one game, as a consolation prize.

6. Go Rays. Go Pope Francis. It’s October!

+RNL