Going once, twice, on saints’ relics

They say you can get anything on eBay.

But how about sacred “relics” — including pieces of bone from the bodies of long dead saints?

A group called the “International Crusade for Holy Relics,”:http://www.ichrusa.com/ which claims to represent Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Anglicans who believe in preserving relics, called today for a boycott of eBay.

The group says it has tried and failed to convince eBay to stop allowing the sale of relics on its website.

“Our saints should be enjoying their eternal reward in peace, not having their body parts sold like cheap trinkets,” said Tom Serafin, founder and president of the ICHR.

For centuries, more liturgical Christians (particularly Catholics) have practiced the veneration of relics — a form of spiritual inspiration in the presence of the mortal remains of saints or even objects that saints came in contact with.

Hinduism and Buddhism also have long histories of venerating relics.

Now they have eBay.

The Catholic Church’s canon law prohibits the sale of relics. So it’s no surprise that some don’t like seeing relics auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The ICHR noted yesterday that many of the relics for sale are of “dubious origin” and some are outright frauds.

I went on “eBay”:http://search.ebay.com/search/search.dll?from=R40&satitle=relic+saint just now to see what’s out there. An alleged piece of Saint Don Bosco’s hair has attracted 12 bids, topping out at $100. A supposed piece of a collar worn by Pope Piux X has 14 bids, the highest being $102.50.

The only piece of “bone” I saw was supposed to belong to Saint Ursule, “from the attic of an old convent in Portugal.” There were no bids as of 2:20 p.m.

Will calls for a boycott of eBay go anywhere? We’ll see.

U.S. Methodists in Mozambique

You wouldn’t know about it if you’re not a Methodist, but the bishops of the United Methodist Church will begin meeting tomorrow for the first time ever outside the U.S.

They’ll meet in Mozambique through Monday.

The location is significant because the UMC has become increasingly connected to Africa in recent years. There are an estimated 2.2 million United Methodists in Africa, meeting in 6,000 chuches. There are United Methodist ministries — schools, universities, clinics, hospitals — in at least 14 African countries.

The UMC also operates Africa University in Zimbabwe.

The United Methodist Church, the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination with almost 8 million members, is more than 90 percent white. It is a descendent of American’s first Methodist denomination, which was openly racist (pretty mainstream for the time).

Blacks left the Methodist Episcopal Church between the late 1700s and mid-1800s to form the three historically black Methodist denominations — the AME, AME Zion and CME churches.

When I spoke to Bishop Jeremiah Park, the United Methodist Bishop of New York, a few weeks ago for a profile I plan to write of him, he said that the gathering in Africa would be history-making for his denomination.

“It will be something we’ll never forget,” he told me.

Just last week, the UMC released the “The Africana Worship Book,”:http://www.gbod.org/worship/default.asp?loc_id=1040,1041,1061&act=nav_loc a new liturgy that “addresses the ethos, traditions and innovations of United Methodist worshippers of African descent.”

American Jewish opinion, 2006

The American Jewish Committee’s “annual survey”:http://www.ajc.org/site/apps/nl/content3.asp?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=846741&ct=3152877 of American Jewish opinion is out, and it includes lots of interesting findings (as it does every year).

The survey is conducted by a private research group, which calls self-identifying Jewish respondents who are considered “demographically representative” of the U.S. adult Jewish population.

It stood out to me that 33 percent of respondents identified themselves as Conservative Jews and 31 percent as Reform — at a time when the Conservative “slice” is supposed to be shrinking.

Other notable findings:

— 54 percent favor the establishment of a Palestinian state (with 38 percent opposed), but 56 percent believe that Israel and its Arab neighbors will never reach peace.

— 62 percent disapprove of how the U.S. is handling the war on terror.

— 66 percent believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. to work if they meet certain criteria; 17 percent think illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay for a limited time; and 14 percent believe all illegal immigrants should be deported.

–53 percent think anti-Semitism around the world will increase in coming years; 36 percent say it will remain the same; and 8 percent think it will decrease.

Halloween — or not

There’s been a lot of religious hand-wringing the past few years about trick-or-treating.

Halloween, for many, is a fun, goofy and utterly meaningless holiday. Nothing more. But over the past few autumns, it has been “revealed” to have pagan roots, Wiccan connections,  and a mix of Celtic and Christian influences that I can’t possibly explain here.

Christians, Jews, Muslims and others now seem to have their own reasons for not dressing up their kids as witches and vampires. Beliefnet.com offers a nice selection of “columns”:http://www.beliefnet.com/index/index_1003.html that explain several points of view.

But “Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church”:http://stmarysml.dioceseny.org/ in Mohegan Lake has its own spin. Tomorrow night (Saturday the 28th), the church will offer its “All Hallows Eve, Tales from the Script(ure)” event. Kids and adults will act out four “scary” stories from the Bible — the Witch of Endor and the Raising of Samuel, Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones, Jesus and the Demon Possessed Man of the Gerasene Graveyard, and the War in Heaven.

“Ours will take a look at what the Bible stories are that speak to the scary elements of ghosts, skeletons, demons and monsters,” said the Rev. Claire Woodley-Aitchison, rector  of the church.

The whole thing should run from 5 p.m. to 5:45 or so. A map and directions are on St. Mary’s website.

The cardinal’s column

Cardinal Egan certainly deserves to have his say on the events of recent weeks. He doesn’t do many interviews, but he does write a column for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. In this week’s issue, which reached mailboxes yesterday, he writes very directly about what’s been happening.

I believe that CNY’s circulation is about 140,000 copies, but there are supposed to be some 2.5 million Catholics in the archdiocese (it’s a very, very rough estimate, based on the overall size of the population from Census data).

If you don’t get CNY, you can read Egan’s column on the “website.”:http://www.cny.org/archive/eg/eg102606.htm

More on the U2 Eucharist

A few weeks back, I wrote something about All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor planning to offer a “U2 Eucharist.”

The U2 Eucharist has been catching on at Episcopal churches across the country (and overseas) since it was introduced by a Maine priest only last year. The service is a traditional Episcopal communion service that uses U2’s songs as hymns.

Well, USA TODAY was interested in the story. So I visited the service in Briarcliff Manor and wrote a “feature”:http://www.usatoday.com/life/music/2006-10-25-u2-churches_x.htm about this rockin’ worship trend that’s in today’s edition of the national newspaper.

Lots of talk (but anonymously)

By any measure, it’s been a strange couple of weeks for the Archdiocese of New York. Strange.

An anonymous letter calling for a vote of “no confidence” in Cardinal Egan’s leadership stoked tremendous interest among the priests of New York. Even though many disliked the anonymous nature of the letter and felt uncomfortable with the aggressive language directed at the cardinal, many agreed that the criticisms are widely shared.

Then the Priests Council met with Egan and issued a statement supporting him, promising an abrupt end to the story.

But Egan surprised everyone by sending a letter to all his priests in which he blamed priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse for stirring up the criticism of his leadership. He didn’t say who the guilty priests are.

I have an “article”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061026/NEWS05/610260426/-1/WEBHEAD02 in today’s Journal News/LoHud.com about how priests are baffled by the cardinal’s response. None of the priests I talked to would allow me to use their names.

What stands out about the whole episode, from a journalist’s point of view, is all the anonymous mudslinging.

One reader didn’t understand why I wrote about the initial letter criticizing Egan when its author or authors are unknown. It’s a fair question. My answer was that the interest in the letter on the part of priests — everyone was talking about it — had superceded the letter itself as the news of the day.

I also knew, from private conversations, that many priests had problems with aspects of Egan’s leadership (particularly, they say, with his lack of communication and isolated decision-making). I can’t say how many priests feel that way. But it’s more than a few.

A more immediate question: Why did I quote unnamed priests in today’s article? The Journal News/LoHud.com generally avoids using anonymous sources. Exceptions are sometimes made — but not by me. Either the editor & vice president of news or the senior managing editor has to make the call.

In this case, I interviewed or had email exhanges with 14 priests over the past two days. I felt very comfortable summarizing their overall angst and their confusion over Egan’s letter. But no one would let me use their name. It seems clear that the cardinal does not like public criticism and most don’t want to be transfered to the upper reaches of the archdiocese (but, hey, some love it there).

The only way to advance the story was to use a couple of anonymous quotations that represented what the others told me.

It’s a tough call. But there it is.

Do you talk with God?

With the release this Friday of the movie “Conversations with God,”:http://www.cwgthemovie.com/ the popular religion website “Beliefnet.com”:http://www.beliefnet.com/ asked its users in a survey about their conversations with God.

Here’s their findings (taking into account that their users are people to whom religion and spirituality are important):

— 97% talk to God

— Over 90% believe God speaks to them

— Only 1.5% speak to God in church or their house of worship

— Only 2.5 percent say they think God is “more accessible” in a house of worship

— Less than one percent feel that clergy have “better access” to God than anyone else.

The movie is based on the story of Neale Donald Walsch, who has written a series of best-selling books about, what else, his conversations with God. BeliefNet offers an “excerpt”:http://www.beliefnet.com/story/146/story_14648_1.html from one of Walsch’s books, “Tomorrow’s God.”

Reading the cardinal’s letter

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of interest today in Cardinal Egan’s letter to the priests of New York.

The letter is Egan’s reponse to the recent anonymous letter attacking him that has been the talk of the archdiocese for the past couple of weeks.

Egan seems to blame the criticisms of him — both in the anonymous letter and from priests quoted in the media — on untruths spread by priests found guilty of sexually abusing minors. “At the core of the letter,” he wrote, “are stories that are being told by priests who have been found guilty of sexually abusing minors after thorough treatment of their cases according to well-established Archdiocesan procedures.”

I had trouble understanding the connection between priests found guilty of sexual abuse and the anonymous letter attacking Egan’s leadership until Joe Zwilling, Egan’s spokesman, explained it to me last night.

He told me that the priests who have criticized Egan in recent weeks (or have supported the contents of the anonymous letter) have also been critical of Egan’s treatment of priests accused of abuse.

So there’s the link.

Egan’s letter does not deal with other, more general criticisms of his leadership. He says only that the anonymous letter “has done immense harm largely because it has been so shamelessly exploited by the media.”

I’ve heard from several priests today who are insisting that Egan’s handling of sex-abuse cases, while important to priests, is not as central as the cardinal may think.

They also think that Egan’s letter is referring in several spots to deposed Monsignor Charles Kavanagh, the former head of fundraising for the archdiocese. Kavanagh was removed from ministry in 2002 after a former seminarian accused Kavanagh of having an inappropriately close relationship with him more than 20 years ago.

Kavanagh openly challenged Egan’s handling of the case, wearing his clerical collar in public after being told not to. This past January, the Vatican granted him a church trial. But it has not yet been scheduled.

Madonna on the cross

A quick update: I posted something a couple weeks back about Madonna’s television concert that’s set to air on Nov. 22 on NBC. Madonna has been “crucifying” herself during her world tour and several Christian groups did not want to see this part of her act on national TV.

Well, a few days ago, Madonna’s spokeswoman told Reuters that NBC decided against showing the mock crucifixion — she sings suspended from a giant mirrored cross, wearing a crown of thorns — and that the singer had relucantly given in.

Madonna’s still going to do the bit, but the TV cameras will look elsewhere until she’s done.

Still, Bill Donohue, the president of the “Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights,”:http://www.catholicleague.org/ isn’t quite satisfied. “NBC did the right thing, but the fact that it did not say why the offensive part of Madonna’s concert was cut shows cowardice,” he said.