Sunday, October 29, 2023

War, Justice and Israel

Maybe this is obvious to my three or four regular readers, but when I see the sort of discussions out there, and claims by high-level people who ought to know better, it occurs to me that people may get gaslit on this whole subject of what's allowed in war.

If you want catechesis in "just war" teaching and so forth, Here's the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It's all there. I'm pretty confident nothing I post here will contradict Church teaching; feel free to flag anything as confusing or poorly expressed.

Basic principle: people and nations have the right of self-defense. If someone makes war on you, you get to fight back. There are accumulated rules and norms regarding more civilized warfare, and while that notion may make you snort out your coffee, let's point out that if you toss out the rules, you get what Hamas did to Israelis on October 7: targeting non-combatants, torturing and raping, defiling and mutilating dead bodies, even infants. If there is to be war, then let us at least try to mitigate the evil. And since war in self-defense is morally justified, it stands to reason that can't be true if you can do anything once attacked. So mock the notion of just war all you want, but the alternative is worse. Why not have some guardrails to avoid worse?

So is Israel overreacting? Israel was attacked, so Israel gets to respond. Same as the U.S. (and NATO) decision to go into Afghanistan, because the U.S. was attacked from Afghanistan on 2001. Same with Japan after Pearl Harbor, and with Italy and Germany, who declared war when the U.S. declared war on Japan. Notice: no one said the U.S. had to wait till Germany or Italy attacked us; they declared they would, and so our response of a war declaration was entirely justified.

Israel gets to use its military power to destroy its enemies capacity to hurt Israel. Israel is obligated by the laws of war to avoid harming non-combatants and allow for the surrender of combatants and to obey still other laws and treaties regarding treatment of POWs. But in the main, Israel gets to make war on the force that made war on Israel, until the enemy surrenders or is destroyed. Blockades and seiges are tools of war. 

It's worth pointing out that Israel goes to great lengths to avoid harming non-combatants. Even if you think they don't do it out of conscience, they have an equally strong motive to do it for reasons of politics and optics. No nation on earth can completely avoid harming civilians; the measure of morality in war is how hard you try. Some nations barely try at all. Israel tries harder than most, if not all.

Of course we hear the claims that Israel was unjust toward the Palestinians.* Let's just stipulate that it's pretty rare to have a history of two nations' interactions with each other, in which there is no injustice at all, or it's all on one side. 

It's a complicated history, and a great part of the complication is that time and again, Israel's enemies weren't interested in finding any peaceful solution other than exterminating the "Zionists." Not an accusation; look it up. What you hear on American campuses right now is "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." That means, from the Jordan River, to the Mediterranean Sea, the territory will be Jew-free. That is the stated goal of Hamas and even more extreme elements who stand ready to kill any Palestinian leader who tries to seek peace. Thus Fatah, which rules the West Bank, vacilliates between talk of peace and extermination.

Those claims of injustice deserve a hearing, but they don't alter the basic calculus all that much. To put it another way: Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, had other means to redress those injustices (such as negotiations); they spurned them. Principles of Just War apply to Hamas, too.

At any rate, the news will feature death and destruction and sadness, but that's true of all war news. I cannot imagine how it was for my mother and grandmothers who listened, day by day, to war reports on the radio during World War II, especially with sons and grandsons serving overseas. But when faced with the task of winning war, resolve is essential. We wouldn't have appreciated being told, over and over, that we should back off of the Axis; why should Israel put up with such nagging?

* This term is more a political and ideological term than factual. Until the League of Nations validated the creation of territory called "Palestine" to be administered by the UK, circa 1922, no political entity or state of Palestine existed. As a geographic descriptor, the term goes back to Roman times and till the early 20th century, described a territory, not a nation. Of course these terms evolve; an example would be "Italy/Italian." The place Italy existed for ages; the political entity began in 1861. When people began to think of themselves as "Italian" versus other descriptors? Well, that's complicated.

Similarly, before 1922, the people who lived in Palestine were part of a succession of states, for a long time, the Ottoman Empire. Ethnically they came from many places, migration being a constant in human history, often encouraged by rulers, as happened in Palestine, which was often sparsely populated. They included Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom can point to a constant presence in the Holy Land. Quite a lot of the people of historic Palestine were nomadic -- e.g., Bedouins -- and moved about across political lines. What seems incontestable is that some number of families, tribes or clans have long-lasting roots in the area. The whole thing is complicated; don't let people mislead you by making it seem simple.

Jesus says, and we must say: everyone counts! (Sunday homily)

 I don’t know who said it, but someone said this about the Bible:

So many people try to read between the lines, 

when maybe just focusing on the lines themselves 

is enough of a project!

So it is with today’s readings. They aren’t mysterious. 

No codebook needed.

Jesus is clear that all the laws of God boil down to: 

Love God first and more than anything else; 

And treat your neighbor as well as you want to be treated.

Then the first reading adds this: 

God measures our devotion, our religion, our love of him, 

by how treat the least, the last and the lost. 

In Bible times, they spoke about the widow, the orphan, 

the poor and the foreigner. 

In our times, who counts as the least and left-out?

Again, it’s not mysterious. 

You and I can figure it out, if we really want to. 

We have a very important decision to make in about 10 days – 

Will we continue to provide some protection for unborn children, 

Or will we go backward and render them completely vulnerable?

Those who are sick or elderly are increasingly being pushed just to die.

In nine states and the District of Columbia, 

it’s now legal to kill people who are sick, to help people kill themselves, if they ask.* 

God also says, “Do not molest or oppress an alien, 

for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” 

We all know there are challenges associated with immigration.

It’s a complicated subject. We want to be generous and we ought to be.

At the same time, nations have the right 

to regulate migration and to have borders.

Fixing the problem with our borders is not permission to be callous.

And the same point applies to assisting people in poverty.

You and I could talk all day about root causes and best approaches.

Just because it is a really hard problem doesn’t mean we give up. 

There is a saying: “better to light one candle, 

than to curse the darkness.” 

So we light a candle. We do what we can.

For one, you and I can pray: pray for our hearts to open wider, 

and that we seek out ways to make a difference. 

We light a candle when we vote. 

Vote this November to defend the vulnerable!

And each day, each of us can be a candle-lighter in the easiest of ways.

When you go to a restaurant, tip well. Really well.

The servers aren’t all poor, but some are, or they are just climbing out.

They don’t get paid much. Tip them well.

If you ever go to a Mexican restaurant, 

there’s a very good chance the people fixing your meal 

and cleaning up after you are not only poor, 

but they are our fellow Catholics. 

Do you realize that they often don’t come to Holy Mass?

Why don’t they come?

For one, they don’t speak English and they feel out of place. 

For another, many of them are working all day on Sundays.

We do have some Spanish Masses in some places.

But you know what would be an extra helping of justice and love?

Invite them! Welcome them!

Maybe write a note on the check -- along with a good tip! – 

that says, “You are welcome at St. Henry Church on S.R. 741.”

What I say next may upset someone, I’m sorry.

But I’d love to see the empty places in our pews 

filling with people speaking different languages.

Maybe we’d have to adjust. Maybe we’d use some Spanish.

Perhaps that wouldn’t sit well with everyone.

Will Jesus object to you and me stretching to make room?

You’ve heard mention about the future project of evangelizing. 

That’s the full purpose of the “Beacons of Light” project. 

Reorganization is a preparation for sharing our faith.

And it’s not only future; it’s now, with a lot more coming.

People wonder, how do we evangelize? That sounds complicated!

It’s not. The examples I just gave, those are ways to evangelize.

Invite people. Include people. Show compassion in concrete ways.

In the early church, pagans said of us Christians: “see how they love!”

It was the zeal of Christians to treat strangers 

and even our enemies with compassion 

that helped conquer the Roman Empire for Christ.

Jesus sends you and me to tell our community: everyone counts!

We don’t leave anyone behind.

* I changed this after the 9:30 am Mass for precision; but I would insist that legal assisted suicide is morally almost the same as killing people who are vulnerable to pressure. If it makes someone feel better about themselves to stand on that distinction, I say, "good luck with that."

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Caesar: hands off God's image! (Sunday homily)

 There are a number of passages of Sacred Scripture 

that get distorted in their meaning; today’s Gospel is one of them. 

Frequently, this passage is cited as if to say, 

if something is happening in the area of politics or public policy, 

that belongs to “Caesar,” and therefore, 

the bishops, or believers in general, have nothing to say.

And so, for example, our bishops and priests, and many of us,

have spoken out 

against the pro-abortion ballot measure this November.

Some people claim this is none of our business.

But that is not correct. 

That is not what Jesus is saying in this Gospel.

And that’s not an accurate representation of our rights as citizens,

and the right of the Church, and each of us, 

to speak out, under the First Amendment. 

First, notice the discussion was specifically about a tax—

and about a coin.

They show him the coin, and he asks, “whose image is this?” 

That word is the key: because if the coin bears Caesar’s image, 

then it belongs to him. Let him have what bears his image.

Got that? Then listen what Jesus says next: 

“And what belongs to God, give to God.”

The coin bears Caesar’s image; so Caesar gets the coin.

But tell me: what bears God’s image, God’s inscription?

Well, that would be all of Creation! 

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” Psalm 19 says; 

creation bears witness to God, Paul wrote to the Romans. 

And what, above all, bears the image of God?

You and I do, as members of the human race. 

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” 

is what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit said 

before they created humanity: 

“male and female he created them.”

So when our government says it’s OK to destroy unborn children? 

And to torture people as part of war? 

Or when the poor or the sick are pushed aside as not valuable?

These are God’s treasure! They bear his image! Hands off, Caesar!

And this applies powerfully with marriage. Again, Genesis said:

“in the image of God…male and female, he created them.”

When we speak of being an image of God, remember, God is Creator. 

But where God created everything out of nothing, that’s beyond us.

If you are an engineer or in construction, you can build whole cities, 

but you have to labor with wood and stone and steel – 

you can’t make it out of nothing. 

If you are a poet or a painter, 

you can create people and worlds and histories—

but they only exist on the printed page or the silver screen. 

You can’t breathe them into life.

But there is a moment—just one!—

when in breathtaking audacity we humanity soar to the skies 

and come whisper-close to being just like God.

In a moment of uncalculated love, generous and sacrificial,

we can actually create something from nothing!

And not just any something, 

but another divine image, a human being who will live forever!

That’s when a man and woman come together in the marital embrace.

Marriage – requiring a man and a woman – 

is when humanity is most fully the image of God!

Hands off, Caesar!

Remember that you and I are God’s “coin”; 

We were inscribed with his Name when we were baptized 

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, of the Holy Spirit!

As the coins in our pockets get soiled and disfigured, so do we.

The good news is that there is nothing God loves more 

than to restore his image, in you, to make you shine like new!

That’s what he does in confession, in calling us back to him.

In the Gospel, they were all concerned about that coin, 

bearing Caesar’s image. 

But notice, Jesus couldn’t care less about the coin.

What matters supremely to him is you.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Beacons Q & A, part 2

I know that somehow it was determined that there are only about 60 pastor-ready priests and that’s how the number of parishes was determined, but what are the metrics by which pastor-ready priests are evaluated?

That's a great question, but not an easy one to answer. It's not a matter of a simple formula, because we're talking about human beings, both the priests and the people they serve. The short answer is that the process of evaluating the situation involved the following:

- Counting how many priests currently were active in any way (including those who were retired and how old and infirm they were).

- Determining their age and condition, in order to calculate how many years of service could be expected. Again, this applies both to retired priests, and those who might be expected to retire in the near future.

- Take into consideration the sort of demographic projections you might expect an insurance company to use. Sorry, this sounds cold, but it's reality. If you are the archbishop, and you have, say, 200 priests in total (including those ordained a few months before, and those who are nearly in a nursing home, including those who are your own, diocesan priests, and those who are on loan from elsewhere, including religious-order priests whose leadership in their orders can re-assign them outside the archdiocese), and you are trying to project your situation in 10 and 20 years, you have to allow for the following things:

a) Some number will have unexpected health issues, and retire early, or become completely incapacitated.

b) Some number will unexpectedly die.

c) Some number will leave the priesthood for various other reasons.

d) Some number will have a personal challenge that means they need fewer duties, or specialized duties.

Obviously, you cannot know these unknowns, but you can anticipate this sort of thing. Some number, quantifying these realities, must be assigned to the formula, agreed? (This also means that, at any given time, there is "slack" -- because trying to plan for unexpected deaths or health problems means at any given point, you're doing better than projected and there's a priest who's "on the bench," till, whoops! Father X in Parish Y just had a massive heart attack! Who saw that coming? And this situation of "slack" is actually what you want; you hardly want to plan such that you're always catching up.)

And, let me just add, even if the "calculus" for determining readiness isn't a simple thing, it should be obvious such a calculus is needed. I know virtually no one who thinks a priest should be ordained on a Saturday and made pastor on Sunday. All reasonable people can agree there needs to be some seasoning. Of course it's not an exact science.

In my own case, I was 41 when I was ordained -- i.e., an older vocation with more life experience than is customary. I served two years as a vicar under a very capable pastor, in a large parish, with realistic challenges. I.e., a near-ideal situation. I was assigned as a pastor in a parish with many difficulties, and with the plan that, one year later, I'd take over a second one and have to serve as two pastors, instead of one, and make it work. In other words, a "cluster," or to use the term at the time, a "pastoral region." 

And I testify as before God, with utmost seriousness, that despite my relative maturity and prior life-experience, I was assigned too early in my priesthood. I made plenty of mistakes, more than I likely would have. None of them were malicious, yet there were many of the people of God who were hurt and angry about my mistakes. I do not blame them. I simply point out, I didn't have enough of the "we" my correspondent assures me will overlook a pastor not being the best CEO. And the truth is, I didn't lack the ability to be CEO; I lacked experience.

If all you do is think it through, the process of assessing the abilities of priests and assigning them isn't all that mysterious.

But notice this: if you are short-handed, as we have been for the last 30 or so years, guess what? Priests are going to be rushed into responsibilities for which they aren't ready. And do you think that fact might have something to do with why a notable number of them have left the priesthood? Does this cause you to appreciate more why the Archbishop and others thought we were in a crisis situation demanding action?

Why are we being threatened that if we exercise our rights and duties as laity through the channels that the Church provides, we might just get our churches closed?

Who is "threatening" you? Is that what you think I'm doing?

A "threat" is this: if you throw that book at me, I throw it back at you. A threat means my response is something I have power over, make sense?

But what if I say to you: if you don't fix that gutter, and the rainwater keeps pouring down on the foundation, you will eventually have to repair that foundation at a great cost. Is that a "threat"? Clearly not. The bad thing being warned against is not in my power.

Of course, in this case, you may say: but you're "threatening" to close a church. I am doing no such thing! I am giving a forecast of what is more or less likely, depending on how things unfold.

To be clear: closing and selling off a church building is not in my power! Re-read that last statement, to let it sink in. The pastor has no such power. He can propose it, but he must get a lot of others to agree, particularly those who call that parish church home.

And I refer you back to the point I keep making. What priest or bishop is so evil and so stupid, as to close a building, sell it or demolish it, when the building is well maintained and well loved and used? That's the implication when you talk about "threats" -- that pastor or bishop is going to pay you back for making unwelcome observations. 

Believe me when I tell you*, I have better things to do with my time, and the same for the archbishop and everyone else who would need to be involved in the tedious, lengthy and difficult process of shuttering and selling or demolishing a church. We'd rather do 100 other things than go down that road of misery.

So if you keep insisting that's our plan, will you please, I beg you (I'll offer money if that is what it takes), please give me a rational explanation of why we priests or bishops or others who are involved in that decision (it's a lot of people) would choose that misery when we could avoid it. This was a serious question: please give me a reason! Let me know what bonus I must pay to get that reason!

Let me return to the phase 2 of this, which barely gets talked about: evangelization. The fact that almost all the ferment about Beacons concerns phase 1 -- the reorganization part, and almost none about what follows, is extremely noteworthy. 

Maybe that's the fault of us priests and all those involved in the designing and implementing of this whole project; we aren't calling enough attention to the next phase. In our defense, it's well nigh impossible to say everything that needs to be said, and easy to say it without the right emphases. And I think a fair-minded person would acknowledge, the evangelization phase has gotten at least some mention.

But again, in our defense, if we're answering questions, then if evangelization doesn't come up enough in the answers, could it be it's not coming up enough in the questions? Again: this isn't about blame, but this is my way of hitting the pause button and inviting some reflection.

How might all our reactions to the process of reorganization be changed if we allot just 30% of our energy to consideration of the next phase, rather than, oh I'd guess the 5% of attention given to phase two, that is represented in the ongoing reactions to Beacons?

Weigh the possibility that there is what is called "opportunity cost" involved here. The change at work now, however costly, will cost notably more if further delayed. Perhaps one lesson from the past 20 or so years is that it already was delayed too long. What have we lost from inaction?

I'll tell a story from my own experience from a "cluster," where -- this is hard to understand, but true -- I was expected not to be one pastor, but two pastors, simultaneously (and which is actually impossible and doomed to failure). In that dual assignment, at a certain point, the need for evangelization became clear. I'm not saying it was my own idea; it was God's idea, that somehow percolated up through the entire enterprise. But at a certain point, I started talking about it, and tried mightily to get the two parishes, of which I was two pastors, to focus on evangelization. It was my express desire to get us all focused on that.

It failed. I blame only myself. It failed.

Here's a fact that may be part of causation, but I will leave to others to decide. At the same time I was trying to re-orient the two parishes toward evangelization, I was also trying to get them to work together. To combine operations in such a way that the whole enterprise was reasonably manageable. And that never happened. I failed at that.

Do you see it? Back in the oughts, in my two parishes, in my own way I was trying to do the same two phases now part of Beacons: first a reorganization so things are manageable, in preparation for a far more important focus on evangelizing. I failed at phase one, and that ensured I failed at phase two. All that cost me a great deal, but that isn't my focus. What did my failures cost those two parishes? 

Maybe this helps you understand why I am so emphatic about not returning to the model of multiple parishes sharing a pastor, nor do I find persuasive the claim that we can just put insufficiently seasoned priests in as pastors and it will all work out. And not only have I lived the alternatives, many, many priests have as well. But until recently, we didn't talk publicly about it, because until someone "upstairs" was willing to consider more fundamental change, what was the point? 

I'll close with this. Consider that the Archbishop (who didn't invent any of this or decide it all on his own) is now 75; he started down this road a few years ago, fully aware that, at 75, he must submit his resignation to the Holy Father. The Pope has allowed him to stay on, past 75, and although no one has confirmed this officially, the assumption is that he did so to enable the Archbishop to wrap things up with a celebration of his 50th anniversary of ordination as a priest.

The point being, Archbishop Schnurr could have kicked this can down the road for the next guy.

And similar calculations occur to pastors when faced with difficult challenges; do the minimum, postpone, let the next guy worry about it. (And believe me, pastors do that.)

So why do you suppose Archbishop Schnurr didn't do that? What can you deduce from that?

Isn't it just possible that the situation is rather worse, and less easily fixed, than you suppose? And will you please notice that what you are proposing as the alternative to the Beacons plan, was tried and failed? Or at least allow that the people who launched us on this path, have given your plan (which would have been easier for the planners than what they actually chose) consideration already?

* This is actually a figure of speech. I do not ask you merely to "trust me."

Think about the facts available and the easily discoverable, very human, motivations of all involved. Does it actually make sense for decision-makers to act unnecessarily in ways contrary to their own interest? To cause themselves more pain, when a less painful route lies open before them? 

If you don't know why a decision is being made, at least rule out that the decision derives from some indecipherable mystery, grounded in motives requiring those deciding to be stupid, evil or masochistic. Then consider, of what remains, seems most likely.

Beacons Q & A, part 1

Thanks to Christina who posted a thoughtful comment yesterday, containing many observations and questions that I suspect many would offer. I am grateful for her sharing them, and I gave what answers I could. But it soon occurred to me that they could form a post, so here goes. Note: the responses offered earlier are "first drafts," as I saw fit, I spiffed up my answers here, and for brevity, I summarized Christina's comments where it seemed reasonable. Let me know if any discrepancies raise questions.

Please remember when lamenting the challenges of pastoring a cluster of parishes that clustering nearly all of the parishes in the archdiocese was not “our” idea. This came from the priests, archbishop, and consulting firm – not the laity.

First, no pastor I know of ever proposed taking over more than one parish. If you actually believe it was priests who wanted this, name them, and I will pay a $100 per name to a charity we both can agree on.

Second, do you suppose Archbishop Schnurr woke up one day, and thought, "Golly, everything seems to be going along so well. I am bored. So I will launch a reorganization drive that will scramble everything..."

My point being, don't you see that what is happening did not come out of the blue? It came as a result of . . . wait for it . . . problems. And not just little or occasional ones. But LOTS of problems. Pause here, please: and contemplate that. What sort of problems, and how many, do you imagine reached the attention of the Archbishop (and others around him), before he took the step of initiating this?

Or, do you suppose the "consulting firm" talked him into it?

You state:

We sympathize with the difficulty of pastoring clusters and would love to have a pastor for each church or two, even if they aren’t “pastor-ready,” because we want fathers that we know and see, not CEO’s that are great at running organizations. If our pastor can be both a loving father and a great CEO, awesome. But if we have to choose, we’ll take the loving father.

I underlined all the "we's" in your comment here, in order to ask: who, precisely, do you mean by "we"? This is a serious question.

Again, I beg of you to consider that the "we" you have in mind is rather smaller than you realize. How do you imagine pastors who were assigned too early (I was one of them, by the way, in 2005) reached that conclusion? How do you suppose the archbishop, and those assisting him (i.e., he doesn't make pastoral assignments all by himself), reached this conclusion?

This, too, is a serious question, which I beg you to think about for a bit.

Do you know how many priests assigned as pastors in this archdiocese have contacted the archbishop in recent years, in order to beg to be released from being pastors? Do you know how many of those didn't just move to another assignment, but left the priesthood altogether? And how many of them needed serious help to recover from the difficulties?

Does it occur to you that perhaps there were others -- besides the "we" you have in mind -- who wanted and expected rather more from their pastors than the "we" you describe?

I am not trying to be difficult, I am trying to illuminate the reality at work here. And what I am suggesting is that while I doubt not at all your sincerity, your account of a "we" that has far fewer expectations of a pastor is far from a complete picture of the reality in parishes.

[Alternative solution:] Make more vicars pastors.

Some of the current vicars would certainly make fine pastors; many of them have been previously. And in the next few years, many of them will be. However...

Many of them are close to retirement. Are you suggesting they not be allowed to retire at 70 from administration? 

(For clarity: no priest ever really retires from being a priest. But even my mother, at a certain point, got to "retire" from daily laundry and meal preparation, precisely when I, the youngest, reached high school age, and was mature enough to do for myself, and my mother, in her 60s, wanted to enjoy some time with my father, approaching 70. Were they wrong to "retire"? Are priests not allowed to retire from administration?)

Even if every vicar who has been a pastor, or is otherwise deemed ready to be one, there aren't enough to be pastors if parishes are kept standing alone (as opposed to being grouped into 57 or so "families.") And it's not close. That's today. 

Over the next few years, as current pastors retire, and pastors leave for other reasons, the existing "slack" will disappear. The creation of 57 "families" of parishes is based on careful projections of where we'll be circa 2030 or so.

Also -- in part 2 of this Q & A, I talk about the issues involved in assigning priests as pastors too early. And, just in passing, I want to mention that through no fault of their own, not every priest, however good and holy and talented in various ways, is going to be suitable as a pastor, and then you have those who might be suitable here, but not there. 

If you were in a position to evaluate all the options and all the details of the priests potentially available, I think you would have a moment where your eyebrows rose, and a lightbulb appeared over your head (not really) and you said, "ohhhhh, now I see..."

I do not prefer the pastor to be an employee of the laity, and I am not sure who is proposing this. Is this a straw man?

Not at all. But your response makes me think you haven't read my other posts here on this subject. Please do so.

I made this observation precisely because this is something that has been proposed, however, those who propose it don't quite realize, I believe, that this is what they are asking for.

Namely: many are suggesting that pastors be "relieved" of administrative or financial responsibilities. That is, in effect, making them employees, because whoever does the hiring and evaluating (and, alas, even firing) of employees, and whoever writes the budget, and whoever oversees administration, whoever leads the long-term planning, is the actual person in charge. When pastors no longer do these things, whoever takes up these tasks in their place, is "in charge," and the "pastor" becomes at best an employee, or perhaps even a "contractor."

Now, you might respond, oh but can't we just make the administrative and leadership tasks of a pastor manageable? Yes! And that's exactly what's being proposed right now!

We have been told that the origin for Beacons was a meeting of the priests who already had clusters and they were unanimous in identifying the challenges in pastoring clusters.

That is true but very incomplete. Your account makes it sound as though, until that meeting, no one had the slightest notion of any problems, which I suspect you didn't mean to suggest. The current Beacons project is the product of far, far, FAR more than one meeting!

So the solution was to make more clusters? And then say it is horrible because now they are all clustered?


Please stop and re-read that last word. The answer is no!

Beacons of Light is not about more "clusters"! Add 100 more exclamation marks to that last statement!

Of course, you and I may be using this term in different ways, but rather than guess, feel free to come back with a question on precisely this point. But generally, "clusters" -- meaning, a priest was assigned as pastor to two, three or more pastors, and expected to maintain them as essentially stand-alone parishes -- was the attempted solution of the past 20 or so years. 

It. Didn't. Work.

The reorg portion of Beacons (which is preparatory for the more important portion, which is evangelization) is not "clustering" but consolidating parishes, combining the legal structures so that the pastor is no longer expected to act as if he were two pastors, three pastors or more.

Maybe this isn't clear? If that is the case, read what else I've written, and then, ask for more information on this. Without understanding this, none of it will make any sense.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Fighting Beacons reorg makes closing churches *more* likely, not less

Don't agree? 

Explain why keeping parishes stand-alone led by pastors either exhausted and cynical from impossible expectations, or otherwise neglectful as a coping mechanism, serves the good of said parishes. 

Don't understand? 

Read all posts on my blog about Beacons. Tell me what you don't find clear.

Forcing pastors into unworkable situations doesn't help them succeed. Why is that so hard to fathom?

Do you prefer the pastor be an employee of the laity? Then say so explicitly.

Contrary to the claims being made in some parts of the Archdiocese, blocking the legal consolidation of parishes does not make unwanted outcomes - such as, your beloved church becoming a brewpub - less likely. It may make it more likely.

Don't agree? Make your case!

Sunday, October 15, 2023

No guarantees but what is probable?

Here are a few thoughts pertinent to disturbing events when you are trying to spell out what is going on. One of my key principles is that rational and normally-motivated people tend to act in rational ways, that tend away from pain for themselves. Not guaranteed! But it is what is more likely. 

Of course, there are always "crazies" and people who make colossal bad judgements. My approach isn't capable of predicting everything. But it is observable that most people are generally capable of making choices aimed at what they perceive to be advantageous to themselves. 

They most often make sacrifices of self interest for reasons not hard to figure out. For example, parents living modestly to save for their childrens future. Also, people who make short term decisions, in effect, sacrificing their own long term benefit. Both decisions are not mysterious. 

Hence, it seems reasonable to assume decisions others make are likewise grounded in comprehensible motives, whether they are what we ourselves would prefer or not.

So, it makes sense to look for those comprehensible motives. And when guessing about the actual intentions, the explanation that supposes choices that are either irrational or bring pain that could be avoided, on balance seems less likely.

In a few minutes I will go buy a hat. Suppose I can buy one for $10 or one for $1,000. The more expensive one is only slightly better in some way but that isn't important to me. I don't like it better. I prefer the cheaper one. Yet you insist I am going to buy the very expensive one. Why would I do that? It's possible but so very unlikely.

Now Beacons of Light. Pastors and bishops sure could choose paths causing far more pain to themselves and others -- such as needlessly destroying thriving activities and boarding up and selling off, or demolishing well maintained buildings, alienating people and their financial support. 

But why, when other choices involving less pain are available? If you insist they will nevertheless make less rational choices, and you can't explain why, how likely is your explanation?

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Beacons of Light propter hoc fallacy


St. Nicolas Church, Diocese of Toledo 

This post may be a mess, as I am using my phone to create it.

Today some good folks in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati were treated on Facebook to the worst sort of scare-mongering about the ongoing Beacons of Light plan to reorganize parishes in preparation for a new focus on evangelization. They saw a story about the church above, being demolished. Obvious implication: this is what Beacons will mean to your church. Resist!

Here is a genuine offer of a wager, not just rhetoric: without knowing the story of the church above, I will bet real money that the church you see being demolished was poorly maintained and out of money. No doubt lots of bad decisions as well. Lots of candidates for blame. But a church is not often demolished when it is well cared for. Why do that?

That was a serious question. Why would a bishop order the demolition of a well maintained, well funded church? I know people believe bishops are both evil and stupid, priests too, but tearing down a well funded, well maintained building is a special sort of stupid. There is NO benefit. Nope, not even a payoff of money. 

Were there no reorg plan, none, there would still be unfunded, falling-apart properties. If the local community cannot or will not keep up the property, then what? Many times, people are shocked to find out what it really costs. They expect or hope to sustain these beautiful buildings on volunteer help. It is a nice dream, but it generally doesn't work. Maintaining buildings well costs serious money and it gets worse when it is deferred. 

It is also not hard to discern whether the working out of the reorg in your particular setting bodes well or ill for continued maintenance of your beloved buildings. ASK WHAT THE PLAN IS. There it is in five words.

Few are the pastors who are driven mad by parishioners brandishing wads of cash saying, we insist you keep our buildings in top shape. If you want to brighten the future of your beloved church building, help the plan for ongoing maintenance. Help secure funding. 

And, when you ask, where is the plan, it is possible the pastor will say, I can't get to it because I am forced to do triple the administrative jobs, because people are fighting the streamlining plan. Maybe next year, or the next pastor. 

Yes, that's right -- there is a connection between the consolidation of organizational structures -- which those fearing church demolitions are resisting -- and the pastor's ability to do long range planning. 

The untold story of the last 20 years or so is that pastors were forced into impossible administrative situations, and one way they coped was to postpone indefinitely the sort of long-term planning so badly needed. Organizing a capital drive for buildings is hard work, but oh so easy to put off till "later." As a result, pastors tended to focus more on the short term. 

The current reorg plan is intended to forestall the tragedy in the photo above. It may not succeed in all cases. But it takes a special sort of stubbornness to think this problem was created by Beacons, and if only we went back to the status quo of 2019, all would be well.
I am not asking you to trust me on this, or to trust higher-ups. Just ask: why is it in any way smart to demolish well maintained, well funded, well attended churches? 

What bishop wakes up saying, "I am bored. I could go to a movie!

"No, wait. I think I will go alienate a faithful community for no reason. I will gain nothing from it. The money will evaporate. They will hate me forever. Many will leave the faith. That is such a better way to spend my day!"

These are real questions. Please answer them if you can. My answer is that bishops and priests like everyone prefers to avoid pain. If a community is thriving and has a well maintained church, the obvious course is show up for the festival, smile, and then LEAVE THEM ALONE. But really smart people tell me, oh no, that's crazy talk. The double secret protocol is totally uncalled for shutdowns that reap no benefit, because...

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Be open! (Sunday homily)

 Today we celebrate a special occasion just for St. Henry.

That’s why the readings and the Mass prayers were different.

Today we recall when this church was consecrated

by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk on October 3, 1982.

Some of us are under the illusion that that wasn’t so long ago,

but it’s been 41 years!

A couple of days ago, I was looking through the program

created for that occasion,

as well as other historical records for St. Henry.

I noticed several names that are still active in the parish,

but sadly, many who have been called to eternity.

It was striking to see the way this part of Dayton was described then,

and the expectations reflected in the comments of Monsignor Gilligan,

the pastor at that time, and many others who were quoted.

There was a great deal of change at work in our Catholic Church.

This church, at the time, was an expression of modernist architecture,

and the hope was that it would reflect openness.

And even though this church is only 41 years old,

it has been modified since then.

The baptismal font didn’t use to be here, near the altar,

but back near the main entrance.

The pictures I saw did not show any image of our Lord above the altar.

And at one time, the tabernacle was located to one side.

Many here will remember that the first Mass for this parish,

when it was founded in 1960, was in a public high grade school.

Then the school was built, and part of it was used for the first church,

and Father Franer, the first pastor here, lived in the school as well.

Now, many times we want to look back at the “good old days,”

and we regret the turmoil and change of our own times.

But the truth is, we are remembering selectively.

There certainly are wonderful things to remember;

but there were other things, about the 1960s and 1980s,

that weren’t so wonderful.

May I suggest that we take a lesson from Monsignor Gilligan,

and from the design of this church, and continue to seek to be open?

And let me pause and say: during the past 15 months of change,

as St. Henry becomes part of a family

bringing Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Mary together,

you have been open.

All the parishes of the Archdiocese are going through this change,

and let me tell you, in many places, there are lots of frustrations.

We all say we know that change isn’t easy, but even when we know that,

you and I can still end up being surprised at how we stumble over it.

God’s grace, working through all of us, has made things go well,

and like this building, positions us to be more open

both to our community, and our future.

In the first reading, Ezekiel sees a temple.

This was not the temple that existed, but a vision of the ideal temple.

The actual temple in Jerusalem had been desecrated and destroyed.

God’s People were driven out of their own land.

Their hopes were shipwrecked.

That’s when God gives Ezekiel this vision.

It’s beautiful and perfect – but notice,

God does not bring Ezekiel inside the temple,

but inspires him to focus on what flows out from the temple.

The water starts as a trickle, but becomes a river with abundant life.

And the trees bear fruit that is “medicine” for the world.

That description of those trees is exactly the same

as the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (the Book of Revelation).

And you and I know that the true Tree of Life is the Cross!

The food that brings healing is Jesus himself, the Eucharist.

And in the Gospel, he reveals that he, himself, is the true Temple –

the flood of life that flows out to the world, comes from him.

Every Catholic church is meant to be a representation

in some way of this reality.

A place where we can find Jesus, receive his healing

and then go from this place, taking him to the world.

Today we look back with gratitude

at what the faith of our fathers and mothers made happen here.

But now it’s our task to imitate their confidence and openness.

They guessed about what the future would bring,

and often guessed wrong; we do the same.

But you and I don’t have to guess about what we have been given,

which is what we have to give:

Jesus Christ, the source of all life,

the hope of the world, the healing of the nations.

Beacons of Light: How do I stop it (from bringing bad)?

In a number of parishes, there is great anxiety and frustration about how the "Beacons of Light" reorganization and evangelization-preparation plan is unfolding. Folks are alarmed at the prospect of their particular parish-corporation* being on track to be merged into a new, larger parish-corporation, with several parish churches all part of one legal entity.

I've tried to explain at length that for pastors -- who are tasked with administering multiple parish-corporations, embracing multiple churches and communities of people -- it is almost certainly necessary to replace separate legal structures with a combined one, along with combining staffs and other parts of the operation, such as key commissions and programs, or else those pastors will fail. They will either fail through impossible exertion, or through neglect, or through silent, unseen abdication. Note this: any of these outcomes means that the person you assume is doing a key job, is not doing it. The harm done will be invisible until it suddenly comes into view, and you, the people of the parish, will be hit the hardest.

So, however much you may prefer the status quo -- your particular parish community and parish-corporation stands alone -- that is no longer possible once your parish (people, corporation and buildings) share a pastor with another parish (people, corporation and buildings). And you can want to have another priest arrive to be pastor, or you can hope that someday, lay administrators will replace pastors, but until then, once two or more parishes (people, corporation and buildings) share a single pastor, the status quo you want no longer exists. At that point, you can either have a good handling of this sharing, or a bad handling of it. But there will be sharing.

Still, I get that people are concerned. They don't trust any promises; and there are no guarantees (hint: there weren't before Beacons, by the way). Many people respond simply by protesting, organizing petition drives, hoping to stall the project. Many people are circulating very dark explanations, which only makes things worse. Certainly people have the right to know, the right to ask (ask a lot, I say!), and they can speak out in opposition, but I reiterate: the status quo you want -- your particular parish-community, parish-buildings and parish-corporations to stand alone -- is gone, once you share a pastor with another parish (community/building/corporation). The pastor and those assisting him will either lead well, or poorly, and however cooperative and open to change folks are, will make almost all the difference in whether it goes well...or poorly.

(To be clear: I don't take the position that Beacons is ideal or perfectly executed. I was critical at an earlier stage. I wish it had never been necessary. I'm not blind to negatives. But this is what we have, and the problems to which it is a response are REAL.)

So what can you do, if you are concerned? What do I recommend?

Well, not to belabor the point, but certainly you can resist. The faithful have far more power than many realize. You can withhold your time, your contributions and your presence. You can do a lot to slow things down and make the whole process painful. And don't misunderstand me: sometimes those are exactly the right things to do. I will leave it to you to contemplate how productive that will be.

I do caution you to consider that there is a very real chance that the fate you fear is made more likely by such resistance. If any of the parish-corporations that had stood alone (but is now being included into planned, larger corporation) has limited resources -- money and people in particular -- then delaying tactics probably won't help the future of that beloved community and church. It isn't that complicated: if facilities are not being cared for, and funds and the people who contribute them are slipping away, do you really think standing aloof gives the most hope for the future? Wouldn't two things -- sharing resources and shifting as soon and as fully as possible to evangelization (i.e., refilling the pews and coffers) -- be the obvious best move? You do realize those two things I bolded above, are what Beacons is all about?

So what can you do?

1. Ask questions -- that is, of actual decision-makers and those directly involved (as opposed to others who have the same questions you do). I do what I can to answer questions for folks in other families of parishes, but I can't speak for their pastors. 

2. Read more. Some people say they have read everything and aren't satisfied. I believe at least some people have done that; I suspect most have not. I also buy that in many places, not enough information has been shared; but again, if you haven't read all that is available, at least part of it is on you. And, if you say you don't have time to read more, attend more meetings, or otherwise get more involved, that's understandable, I'm not saying that's your fault, but that's not someone else's fault. If you make a choice to focus energy elsewhere, that is, indeed, a choice you've made.

3. Be constructive. If you can't have the "good old days," then spell out what you think the "not-so-bad new days" look like. It's so easy to complain and criticize; it's a lot harder to have to propose a solution. Once you put your proposal next to someone else's, it can become clearer why you got the proposals you did. "Huh! Now I see how we ended up here."

4. Discuss with the pastor and others in lay leadership what structures would give you confidence -- and be prepared to give when you see what you asked for.

In my family of parishes, our priests and lay leadership are all committed to maintaining as many options as we reasonably can for programs, for religious education, for our youth, for adult faith formation, the whole shebang. Our staff is identifying a long list of deferred maintenance, and before too long, everyone will see the list, and together, will develop a plan. But of course, it will all need parishioner support. Wouldn't repairing and improving parish facilities particularly beloved to you be an outcome you would want strongly?

Here's another thing we are going to do: create funds for each of our campuses, for our school, and a general fund, and we will encourage folks to put their money where they wish. They can do that now, with legally separate parish-corporations; the point of these funds is to safeguard donors' wishes after the three parish-corporations become one parish-corporation. If there are funds available for the maintenance of each campus, doesn't that make the future for those particular buildings, and the people who love them, more secure?

Look, if someone has an alternative that doesn't involve asking pastors to helm multiple parishes, in order to maintain the illusion those parishes (corporation/people/buildings) are actually standing alone even when they are not, I'm all ears. (Repeat: once multiple parishes share a pastor indefinitely, they are no longer "on their own" even if you think they are.) 

But all I've seen so far is either denial, or blame, or expecting pastors to do the impossible (while not grasping that what they want actually is impossible -- which I've tried to explain; read earlier posts), or else some version of parishes being neglectfully pastored, or else actually lay-administered. 

If what you want is a new attempt at trusteeism, at least be open about advocating it. I don't believe anyone actually wants parishes run neglectfully; I just think people are in denial about how often that happens, because the damage isn't obvious till later, so cause-and-effect is hard to see. Sometimes the most neglectful pastors are very popular!

* A note on verbiage: the term "parish" can mean different things to most people, either the people, the buildings -- particularly the church -- and the legal corporation that is associated with the first two meanings. To avoid confusion, I'll use terms like "parish-people," "parish-corporation" and "parish church" to be as clear as possible.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Today's guest homilist: the Archbishop

Archbishop Schnurr provided a recorded homily to be played everywhere in the Archdiocese, regarding the upcoming November ballot measure, imposing abortion-on-demand in Ohio.

If the link doesn't work, go here and scroll down.

Beacons of Light: it's not for more priests golfing

Image credit:

Maybe I should ignore it, but I pick up on comments posted on social media about Beacons of Light -- the current, ongoing project by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to reorganize things -- and about my own remarks about Beacons on this blog.

Here are some I saw recently:

- Parents don't get a day off.

- It's about making life easier for priests.

So, let's deal with these. It is true, parents don't get a "day off" from being parents. Do they never get a day off from work? What's the difference? Bonus if you can explain it in the comments.

Keeping this distinction in mind, priests likewise never get a "day off" either. We don't ever stop being a priest; and while there are always exceptions, the vast majority of priests I know fit this description: we will respond as quickly as we can to every emergency, we will give time generously to the needs of our children, and it doesn't matter what day or hour. 

So why even make the comment, "parents don't get a day off"? What's the real point here?

Do you begrudge a priest catching up on sleep, or being able to rest? Why? I don't begrudge parents doing this. And does it occur to you that a priest having time to relax might actually be good for parishioners?

I get that an infant will keep parents up all night; I also know that at some point, they stop being infants, and at some point, parents will take measures to teach older children, they don't get to interrupt mom and dad, or wake them up, for less than urgent reasons. Am I out of step here? Parents of teens, do you allow your kids to interrupt and wake you, any hour, for any reason? You don't claim time to rest?

(In case it isn't clear, my point here is that -- according to the family analogy, and the, "parents don't get a day off" remark -- it remains true that a priest, like a parent, can reasonably be true to his parental duties, and yet, rest. Am I wrong?)

Is this really about making things easier for priests? Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that that's exactly right. Easier for us...why? What do you imagine we priests, who are craftily pulling the strings on Beacons of Light, to make things easier, are going to do once we succeed?

This is a serious question. What do you suppose we are going to do with all the time we gain by these changes?

Let me be as blunt and plain as I can be. If all I wanted out of all the work we're doing in the three parishes where I've been assigned, is to "make it easier" for me, I could do that without any of the Beacons of Light changes! That's right: I could make my life easier without any of it!


By becoming an absentee or figurehead pastor. I could very easily rubber-stamp almost everything; cut pastoral initiatives to a minimum, and let staff and volunteers go along with only minimal involvement from me. The principal and the teachers and school board handle everything in the school -- I'll just wave as I walk by. Same for the religious education and youth activities; our staff and volunteers are very capable. 

I can easily flip through the financial documents I am responsible for reviewing; chances are, there's not anything problematic going on, and anyway, someone else can catch that. I can have a literal rubber-stamp created in order to sign checks, and why do I need to review the checks and underlying documents anyway? Just sign and pass along. Very easy to do. 

My life can be so much easier if I don't launch any efforts at evangelization; or for adult-faith-formation; or long-term planning; or encouraging greater involvement and engagement, so that people don't drift away. 

As far as our staff, I can just let them do as they think best, providing very minimal oversight. Ongoing evaluation and encouragement of employees is time-consuming but usually very important to any organization. Either I can just let things go, or else I can always hire someone to do it all and I won't do anything. I'll be a figurehead and life will be so easy!

Holy Mass can be very taxing, not just physically, but even spiritually, for a priest, because he is uniting himself with the Cross. If you insist the priest must offer three or four Masses each Sunday, and two or more times daily, there are ways to manage this. Pro-forma homilies. Easy! Run through Mass as quick as possible. Do the minimum. And when Sunday Masses are finished, I'll be finished for the day. I can let someone else attend other activities.

In fact, I could easily arrange it that, in effect, I am not in charge except on paper; I could, effectively, be merely a sacramental employee. Other people will hire and evaluate, and where needed, provide discipline to, staff. Other people will decide on budget priorities, I need not say a word about it. 

A lot of it can all be put on auto-pilot. It would make my life so much easier, for the next several years, till I reach 70 and I can retire from administration and then let someone else take up the task.

So I ask you again. Supposing this all really is about "making it easier for priests," why do you suppose that is? What do you think priests are going to do with their "easier life" when the plan works?