Signing off

I guess it’s obvious from my lack of posts so far this year that I am no longer blogging religiously.

But I wanted to officially sign off and say thanks for reading. I wrote 2,383 posts over several years and enjoyed doing it.

I’m too busy covering education these days to give this blog anywhere near the attention it deserves. Plus, I’ve been off the religion beat long enough that I no longer have the insight or sources to offer a “New York point of view” on religion news.

I know some people found this blog from my “Faithbeat” Twitter account. I set up that account while I was still covering religion full-time (and when I was writing a weekly column called “FaithBeat.”) I linked the Twitter account to my blog — but also intended to Tweet religion news. But then I lost the religion beat and the Twitter thing never got going.

Again, thanks for reading. I hope to cover religion again, in some form, in the future. For now, I’m focused on test scores, teacher evaluations, school budgets and the strange mix of acronyms that drive education news.


What was the biggest religion story of ’11?

Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

My old friends at the Religion Newswriters Association just voted for the top 10 religon news stories of the year. I miss participating in the vote. I used to take it very seriously, shifting around my top stories until I came up with a solid top 10 (or so I thought).

Anyway, here the top 10 for 2011 (I’ll comment a bit at the end):


1. The death of Osama bin Laden spurs discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace,  justice and retribution.

2. Lively congressional hearings are held on the civil rights of American Muslims. In the House hearings focus on alleged radicalism and in the Senate on crimes reported against Muslims.

3. Catholic Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City. Mo. is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child, becoming the first active bishop in the country to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

4. The Catholic Church introduces a new translation of the Roman Missal throughout the English–speaking world, making the first significant change to a liturgy since 1973.

5. Presbyterian Church (USA) allows local option on ordination of partnered gay people. Church defections over the issue continue among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. 

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified—the last step before sainthood—in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

8. A book by Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell, “Love Wins,” presenting a much less harsh picture of hell than is traditional, stirs discussion in evangelical circles.  Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention rebut it.

9. The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion by declaring a fetus a person, fails on Election Day in Mississippi, but advocates plan to try in other states. Meanwhile, reports show the number of restrictions adopted throughout the country against abortion during the year are far more than in any previous year.

10. Bible translations make news, with celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version; criticism, notably by Southern Baptists, about gender usage in the newest New International Version; and completion of the Common English Bible.


 The first thing that strikes me is that it was a pretty quiet year for religion news. Yes, the death of bin Laden spurred a very interesting and unexpected debate about many things, including the right way to “celebrate” the death of a really bad guy.

But the only other story that really captured public attention — the only story I heard people talking about — was the Harold Camping “End of the World” prediction. For most people, it was a goof, a laugh, a distraction from the economy and everything else.

A few of the other stories were certainly important. The new Catholic liturgy affects a lot of people, although I haven’t heard many complaints about it or praise for it (a priest did tell me that a group of priests are getting together after New Year’s to voice their concerns). PCUSA’s decision to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians seemed inevitable. Ditto Pope JPII’s beatification.

The “Love Wins” book, which didn’t rule out salvation for non-Christians, didn’t get much attention around here, where most people already felt that way.

The congressional hearings on American Muslims — the number 2 story  of the year — stirred less talk than the question of whether they should have been held at all.

The criminal prosecution of Kansas City’s Catholic bishop, a significant story in obvious ways, also got little attention that I could see. It certainly wasn’t the sex-abuse story of the year.

I don’t have any better ideas for the top religion stories of ’11. I think RNA got it right. It was just a quiet year.

RNA, by the way, did not named a Religion Newsmaker of the Year, as it normally does. The vote was too close between Harold Camping, Pope Benedict and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

It wasn’t a good year for Camping, prediction-wise. But at least he was one of the top newsmakers!




A new chapter for Reform Judaism (starring Scarsdale’s Rick Jacobs)

The Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish “denomination” in the U.S. — opened its big Biennial conference today in Washington, D.C.

6,000 delegates. Five days. President Obama to speak. Big stuff.

To top it off, Rabbi Eric Yoffie will end his 16-year tenure as president. He will be replaced by none other than Rabbi Rick Jacobs (that’s him), the longtime spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.

The Reform movement is, of course, Judaism’s liberal wing.  The URJ represents something like 900 congregations and over 300,000 households, but there has long been concern over how “connected” to Judaism many of those households are. A lot of teens basically drop out after their bar and bat mitzvahs and many of the interfaith families that belong to Reform congregations are not terribly active in Jewish life.

Yoffie will be remembered for pushing tradition in a Reform context. He was big on Torah study and Jewish education and on the need for Reform Jews to stay connected to Israel.

Jacobs — well known in these parts as an energetic and personable leader — has been talking a lot about change and transformation and making new connections with Jews on the fringes. These are big, broad issues so it will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs suggests for the Reform future.

The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt has a typically thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what the URJ conference is facing. He writes:


Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs, a tall, ruggedly handsome man of 56, says the future of Reform Jewry is “all about transformation,” invoking the mantra of Billy Beane, the baseball executive portrayed in the film “Moneyball”: “adapt or die.” The rabbi wants to see Reform Jewry seek out “the unaffiliated and the uninspired,” beyond the walls of the synagogue.

Despite economic woes, he says this is not the time to “scale back” but to reach out more aggressively. Congregations can no longer “sit back and wait” for young adults who drifted away from Jewish life come back and join as young parents, as happened in the past.

This generation is distrustful of denominations and institutions, the rabbi said, and will respond to relationships more than programming. The job of Reform leaders is to reach young people where they are and connect them to the values of the movement, emphasizing ritual and observance, community, social action and moving tradition into modernity, Rabbi Jacobs says, all “rooted in serious Jewish learning at the core.”


Wanted: A few good chaplains

I got two interesting releases today about the need for military chaplains.

First I got a mass email from Father James Joslyn, a retired Navy captain and chaplain, explaining that there aren’t enough Catholic priests these days to fill the needs of the military services.

So the Archdiocese for Military Services is actively recruiting “contract priests,” civilian priests who can help out for stretches as chaplains.  “The word has to get out to bishops, religious superiors and priests that contracting is a way to serve without committing to a twenty year military career and without having to meet the rigorous age and physical requirements for active duty service,” Joslyn wrote.

Many priests don’t know that the opportunity is even there to serve the military in this way, he wrote. He urges all Catholics to become a contract priest recruiter by referring priests to the archdiocese website or the website for Federal Business Opportunities.

“Together we can meet the needs of our Catholic service men and women and their families,” Joslyn writes.

Not long after, I got a release from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect trumpeting the news that a Chabad rabbi has won a lawsuit and can become a chaplain — despite having a beard.

The release explained: “In keeping with Jewish teachings regarding preserving a man’s facial hair, Stern does not cut or trim his beard. This previously stood him in opposition to official military codes for dress and appearance. Back in 2009, he had received preliminary approval for a reserve commission in the U.S. Army, but he was twice contacted about errors that would delay his swearing-in because the issue of his facial hair was not resolved.”

Rabbi Menachem Stern filed a federal lawsuit in December, contending that the Army violated his Constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law. But the Army has settled the case.

After his commission, Stern wants to request active duty. Chabad rabbis and their families travel the world to serve Jews in many capacities, so Stern is ready to head out.

He said: “A soldier, whether they’re Jewish or not, will see someone who is serious and standing by his faith without compromise. They’ll respect that person and come to trust him.”


The new Catholic Mass translation: A bit like Y2K?

Catholics who attended Mass yesterday were introduced to a new translation of the liturgy that was in the works for many years.

My colleague Robert Marchant wrote about the much-anticipated changes:


“Some of the changes will alter the most familiar call-and-responses of the service. The greeting “The Lord be with you / And also with you” will be changed to: “And with your spirit.”

New words with a distinctly Latin flavor, such as “oblation” and “consubstantial,” will harken back to the old Latin Mass that was phased out in favor of services in the local vernacular language. Some new body language — striking one’s chest when asking for forgiveness — will also be added. Changes in the melody and the phrasing of the parts of the Mass that are sung — the Holy, Holy, Holy, etc — are also in store.”


Monsignor Edward Weber, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Nyack and Rockland’s Catholic vicar, described the change for priests: “I’ve been doing this for 35 years. As a priest, I’ve really had to study. You can’t go out there cold, or you’ll get lost. This Sunday will be the big test.”

At, the prominent Catholic writer Peter Steinfels started off his post — “The Aftermass” — with “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? Or was it?”

He also wrote:


“There was a good deal more stumbling over “and with your spirit” — about a 50-50 split, I’d say. After the post-communion prayer, we welcome any newcomers in the congregation, and when the pastor resumed “The Lord be with you,” the response was particularly ragged. So he laughingly tried it again and again, and we rose to a rousing, “And with your spirit!”

Frankly I wish he would do that more often. A majority of the congregation mouths most responses, if at all, with scarcely enough vigor to be heard by the person in back or front of them. This raises doubts in my mind whether forty years after Vatican II the basic idea of active participation in a communal worship has been successfully communicated. I was hoping that the introduction of the new translation might be an occasion to undertake the catechesis which had not been done in the 1970s.”


There are many interesting comments below Steinfels’ post.

One reader wrote: “My own pastor (after four masses with a total of 1500+ people) says he didn’t get one single comment, positive or negative, about any of the changes. Not at all sure what that means, and neither was he.”

Several people agreed with this observation from a reader: “To me the most jarring and wrong-headed change was the repeated use of “chalice” rather than cup – “the chalice of salvation”? This fussiness about Jesus using a chalice is particularly silly since in the assembly’s proclamation of the mystery of faith right after the consecration, it’s still a “cup.” ”

The well-known theologian Joseph Komonchak offered this: “In our tiny parish, no big deal. One woman remarked: “What is all the fuss about?” It was a little bit like Y2K–nothing disastrous happened.”


The next Episcopal bishop of New York is, among other things, a cartoonist

I’ve been too busy with massive education projects and way-complicated education stories of late to think about my old God-beat.

So time to do a little catch-up:

The Episcopal Diocese of New York on Saturday elected a bishop-coadjutor elect. This means that the fellow in question, the Rev. Canon Andrew Dietsche, is in line to become the next bishop when current Bishop Mark Sisk retires in 2014 (he needs the consent of other bishops and standing committees from other dioceses).

Dietsche, who lives in Poughkeepsie, is already on the staff of the NY Diocese, serving as canon for pastoral care. Interestingly, he was not one of five candidates put forth in August by a special committee of the diocese. But he was one of two candidates nominated from the floor and was elected on the third round of balloting.

His resume includes these responsibilities in his current position:


• Coordinated medical, mental health, spiritual and financial resources for clergy well-being.
• Liaison to the Clergy Critical Needs Committee, the Executive Committee of the Mid-Hudson Region,
and the former Clergy Wholeness Committee;  Member of the Liturgy Committee.
• Member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for the Relief of Clergy Widows and Orphans.
• Cartoonist for the Episcopal New Yorker.
• Keynoter for diocesan and regional conferences in New York and New Jersey, particularly priests’ and
deacons’ conferences.
• Workshops and Presentations, regionally and parochially, on Pastoral Care in Parishes, Spiritual and
Pastoral Issues of Death and Dying, and Clergy Stress and Self-Care.
• Vestry Retreats, Vestry Training, and Vestry Consultation.
• Stewardship education and preaching, and conflict resolution.


Dietsche, 57, will become bishop at a challenging time for the diocese and for the Episcopal Church. Membership has been falling for decades. Many churches in the Lower Hudson Valley have small, aging congregations. The denomination has, of course, faced all sorts of internal conflicts over homosexuality. And the profile of the Episcopal Bishop of New York is much lower than it was a few decades ago (despite Sisk being a really smart, level-headed and respected guy).

After his election, Dietsche said this:

“I believe that it is especially a privilege to be the church in uncertain times.  It is the greatest gift to face challenges which surpass our ability and understanding, for it is only then that we learn what it really means to trust God.  We are in a season in which so much of our common life, the life and health of so many churches, and the resources on which our ministries and our mission have depended, can no longer be taken for granted.  The particular challenges with which we will contend in this next chapter of our life will test us, but I am certain that, God being our helper, we will prevail over fear and doubt and by the witness of a courageous faith give glory to God.  I thank the clergy and people of New York for inviting me to lead them into that wonderful future, and I ask God’s blessing on this, our great Diocese of New York.”

Former Methodist bishop of N.Y. Ernest Lyght to retire

When I started covering religion, way back when, one of the first stories I wrote was a profile of Bishop Ernest Lyght, then the head of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The truth is that I was trying to get the lay of the land — to figure out who was who — and Lyght’s office was right up the road from my office. So I made an appointment to stop by and chat (probably after reading up a bit on Methodists). I don’t believe that Lyght had ever been mentioned in my paper.

We had a long and often fascinating interview. Bishop Lyght was at the time one of only 10 African-American bishops in the United Methodist Church. His father, he told me, had been a Methodist minister during the years when the Methodist church was, well, officially racist. The denomination had had a special diocese for its black members. This segregated diocese wasn’t dissolved until 1968.

I remember asking Lyght why his father hadn’t left the Methodist church for the AME or AME Zion denominations, which were formed by black Methodists who had broken away. He told me that his father was committed to staying put and seeing change.

And I was sitting across from the result. His son was the United Methodist Bishop of New York.

Bishop Lyght was a gracious and fine man, tall and soft-spoken. When his second, four-year term in New York was over in 2004, he was elected bishop of West Virginia.

I mention this now because I received an email blast today from the current United Methodist bishop of New York, Jeremiah Park, announcing that Bishop Lyght is retiring next month because of health problems.

I’m sure that a lot of Methodists around here — and others — miss him and wish him well.



Say goodbye to parish schools and hello to regionalization

When I was still on the beat, I wrote quite a few articles about the Archdiocese of New York’s plans to “regionalize” Catholic schools.

The idea was to end the old one parish/one school model and have all parishes — including those without their own school — take on administrative and financial responsibility  for the schools in their region. A lot of people hoped that this approach to running Catholic schools will give all parishes — all church-going Catholics, in fact — a stake in the future of Catholic education.

Something had to change, as all the school closings of recent years have shown.

After numerous delays, regionalization is happening. The archdiocese recently announced that all schools will be grouped into one of 10 regions — including Rockland, Central Westchester, and Northern Westchester/Putnam.

The Rockland group will be one of three that will begin operating next September. The others will take shape in the fall of 13.

Boards of trustees will be appointed to run each region, with clergy holding a majority on each board. ALL parishes will contribute financially to their region. There will be “a new parish assessment for schools based on a sliding scale,” according to Catholic New York.

Board members in the three model regions will receive training beginning in January. School principals will also be trained on how to work with the new boards.

Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said that Archbishop Dolan is on board. “He understands completely that what cannot happen is that we remain with the status quo,” McNiff told CNY.





Maintaining Catholic identity a hot topic

Some may remember John Dilulio as the one-time head of President Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office who resigned early on and criticized the president to Esquire magazine.

It was way back in August 2001, before 9/11 even.

Dilulio is now a political scientist based at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes a lot about religion, in particular his Catholic faith.

Next Tuesday (Nov. 8), he will be speaking at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor, continuing the parish’s unbelievably good (and free) lecture series run by parishioner and former Newsweek religion editor Ken Woodward.

Dilulio’s topic is especially timely: “Maintaining Catholic Identity: Right and Wrong Ways to Do It.”

It’s timely because a new study found that Catholic identity may be weakening for many Catholics.

For instance: About 40 percent of Catholics said you can be a good Catholic without believing that the bread and wine of Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus. Only about 30 percent support the Magisterium — the teaching power of the Catholic Church.

Anyone who knows a lot of Catholics (and talks to them about their faith and beliefs) can’t be that surprised by these findings.

It will be interesting to hear what Dilulio, a self-described “extreme centrist,” will say about how to maintain Catholic identity. And how not to do it.




Maryknoll on Father Bourgeois: Some agree, some do not

I mentioned the other day that Maryknoll’s Father Roy Bourgeois has been in the news again of late — taking his call for the ordination of women right to the Vatican.

I also wrote that he has a lot of support at Ossining-based Maryknoll, the generally liberal Catholic foreign missions society.

Turns out that Maryknoll has released a statement about that support (and its limits). So here it is:


The Maryknoll Society continues to receive correspondence and calls in support of Father Bourgeois. Maryknoll also receives many letters and calls from Catholics who do not agree with his views or his actions.

From the beginning, Maryknoll determined that this matter required a thoughtful approach. Since this matter is between Father Bourgeois and his Church and not between Father Bourgeois and Maryknoll, the Maryknoll Society decided it was necessary to have Father Bourgeois engage in communication with his Church to discuss the issues that separate them.

Maryknoll has repeatedly attempted to bridge the channels of communications. Father Bourgeois, unfortunately, always has elected not to pursue the opportunities provided to him by Maryknoll.

Currently, as this matter is reviewed, Father Bourgeois remains a member of the Maryknoll Society. Some within the Society agree with his view, while many others do not. Many also are not pleased with the manner in which he has conducted himself, indicating that this matter is between him and his Church and not with Maryknoll.

Whatever the final outcome between Father Bourgeois and the Church, Maryknoll will continue to provide for him spiritually and financially, should he be in need and request such support.

Maryknoll wishes that more Catholics would understand that it is Maryknoll that has tried to open the doors of dialogue for Father Bourgeois over these three years and that it is Maryknoll that will continue to befriend him as part of its extended family no matter his decision or the decision of the Church.


On a side note, Maryknoll’s year-long centennial celebrations will culminate on Sunday (Oct. 30) with a Centennial Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 2 p.m.

The principal celebrant will be Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington.

The Mass can be viewed live at