Where is Bethlehem, anyhow?

Only 15 percent of Americans know that Bethlehem is home to a mixed Christian/Muslim population and that it is on the West Bank, according to a poll by “Zogby International.”:http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1224

Most Americans believe that Bethlehem is in Israel and is home to a mixed Jewish/Muslim community, according to the poll.

Still, the poll showed strong support for the birthlace of Jesus Christ among Americans. About 80 percent, not surprisingly, want Bethlehem to maintain a strong Christian presence (the Christian population has been shrinking for years).

Americans are split down the middle on Israel’s security wall, which has caused all sorts of problems for Bethlehem: 31.5% support the wall; 31.6% oppose it.

Two-thirds of Americans believe Bethlehem is unsafe to visit.

Cardinal Egan on TV

I blogged yesterday about Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., answering questions from the public on the website of “The Washington Post.”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2006/12/18/DI2006121800546.html?referrer=email I mentioned that Cardinal Edward Egan rarely talks to the mainstream media and has held only a few press conferences during his time in New York.

But he does do a TV interview now and then, maybe once a year. And he did one Wednesday with ABC, which you can see a bit of on the “ABC website.”:http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=local&id=4865524 The entire interview, conducted by Diana Williams, will air on Eyewitness News Up Close this Sunday at 11 a.m.

Egan looks good and sounds strong, about four months after having knee-replacement surgery (that’s him at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NYC with Grand Marshall Tim Rooney).

The interview deals directly with the much-discussed anonymous letter from several months ago that blasted Egan’s leadership. The Archdiocese of New York’s Priests Council defended Egan. But many priests said privately that the letter captured their feelings — even if they did not like the aggressive tone or anonymous nature of the letter.

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Egan responded by writing a letter to New York’s priests in which he blamed priests accused of sexually abusing minors of spreading the falsehoods in the anonymous letter.

The anonymous letter was signed “A Committee of Concerned Clergy for the Archdiocese of New York,” but Egan said this:

“My own guess is that this was written by a layman. And I know no priest that was involved in anything like this. The language is such that it doesn’t sound like it comes from a priest.

Asked by Williams if the priests of New York are satisfied with his leadership, Egan said:

“I think they’re quite satisfied, yes. But we say, no one is a good judge in his own case.”

Egan also said this:

“I would say to the priests that they can just look at these six and a half years and see that I am 100 percent one of them.”

Williams asked Egan if he has been a vocal leader as archbishop. He responded:

“I have been quite vocal, the way I should. I have been in the parishes. I have been in the schools.”

An archbishop takes questions

Get this: Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., “answered questions”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2006/12/18/DI2006121800546.html?referrer=email from readers today on the website of The Washington Post.

Wuerl (right) moved to D.C. six months ago after serving as bishop of Pittsburgh, where he developed a reputation as a “teaching bishop.” He took about 20 questions — mostly thoughtful and quite respectful — and answered them clearly and with a touch of humor.

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It’s a gutsy move for an archbishop, if you ask me. The questions came from ordinary Catholics, but it was in a Post forum. Many Catholic bishops aren’t anxious to cooperate with secular newspapers, which (everyone knows) are often perceived as liberal.

Who wouldn’t love to see Cardinal Edward Egan do the same thing? But it’s hard to imagine. The Archbishop of New York stays clear of the mainstream media. Off the top of my head, I can only remember him answering questions from the press four or five times since 2000.

I don’t know if Cardinal Egan would take questions from the public in some kind of on-line forum. I would guess not. But who knows?

Here are a few highlights from Wuerl’s “web conference:”

Suitland, Md.: Pope John Paul II transformed the position of pope more broadly into one of a cult of personality — his tone, his gentleness, his appearance appealed to so man more people; before him most popes were the spiritual leaders of the most pious and traditional.

My wife is a liberal Catholic. She loved Pope John Paul II, but is very wary of the new Pope. I have heard this from many other Catholics.

Why do you think this is? I keep hearing about how unapproachable the new Pope “seems.”

Donald Wuerl: My experience, limited as it is, with Pope Benedict XVI is that he is a warm, kind and sincere person. I think he shows all the signs of holiness. The task of being pope places him in the public eye all of the time. He teaches. He preaches. All of this he does with precision and I think pastoral sensitivity. Just watching him at St. Peter’s Basilica leads me to appreciate all the more his priestly and pastoral style. There will always be contrasts in personal pastoral ministry. That happens in every parish every time you make a change, but at the heart of our teaching and pastoral ministry is the same message and the same sacraments. Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as a living example of the continuity of the Church in papal ministry.

Fairfax, Va.: The Catholic church says that it is a serious sin not to go to Mass every Sunday. And those in serious sin should not receive Holy Communion.

Only about 40 percent of Catholics go to Mass weekly…far fewer on holy days of obligation. The number of people who go to Confession has been dropping for years.

Yet, little of nothing is said. Church is packed at Christmas and Easter. Holy Communion is freely handed out to almost everyone who attends Mass.

Explain.

Donald Wuerl: The reason the Church calls us to Mass every Sunday is because we are a part of God’s family, the Church. We are supposed to come together not just as individuals, but as a faith community to celebrate and rejoice in the mystery of our salvation. We believe that when we participate in the Mass we are actually sharing in the death and the resurrection of Christ in a sacramental way. This is so important for our spiritual life, for our relationship with God and for our salvation that the Church tells us we should come together once a week on Sunday to do this. Part of our task today in teaching and in explaining the importance of our faith is to bring people to a fuller understanding of the importance of the Eucharist and the importance of approaching the Eucharist in a worthy manner. This brings us to confession. One of the pastoral projects of the Archdiocese is to highlight for all of the faithful throughout the District and the five Maryland counties that are part of the Archdiocese, the great gift of forgiveness that is Christ’s gift to his Church in the sacrament of penance, often called confession. What we will be doing at the beginning of the new year, is visiting parishes to celebrate the sacrament of penance (confession) together with the priests of the area so that we can underline the significance of this sacrament. We hope also during Lent to have an Archdiocesan-wide effort to recall for everyone the importance of the sacrament and to ensure its availability.

_______________________

Potomac, Md.: Where do your true loyalties lie — Steelers or Redskins?

Donald Wuerl: Fortunately, the teams are in different conferences and both apparently need prayers.

_______________________

This year’s Ebenezer goes to…

The “Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty,”:http://www.becketfund.org/index.php/article/615.html?PHPSESSID=878722ed823cc447aef64057d6cb0577 a public interest group that seeks to promote and defend religious expression, today gave its “Ebenezer Award” to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Chicago holds an annual Christmas/holiday festival that features a Nativity scene, menorah and other religous symbols.

This year, Daley removed the movie “Nativity Story” from a list of sponsors of the festival, saying that ads for the film might offend non-Christians.

“This is the epitome of the stupidity governments exhibit when it comes to the Christmas and Hanukkah season,� said Kevin J. “Seamus� Hasson, president of the Becket Fund. “Banning Christ from a Christmas Festival is like banning the Irish from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade; it doesn’t make sense.�

As a write this, I got a release from the Beckett Fund saying that the city of Chicago has “caved.” Scenes from “Nativity Story” will be shown in Daley Plaza, where the festival continues.

“The clout of the Ebenezer Award has spread far and wide,” Hasson now says. “Mayor Daley felt the overwhelming shame, and he knew he had to make a change.”

Among other nominees for the Ebenezer was a local person:

“The Anonymous Grinch of Chappaqua, for complaining after a local shop owner bought Holiday flags to be displayed around town. The grinches complained that the flags looked too Jewish, despite the fact that they have no Jewish imagery on them at all.”

A time for gift-giving and arguing about the Constitution

It’s funny how many people have said to me this week that it’s sad to see public officials and suburbanities wrestle over holiday displays during what is supposed to be a happy season.

I wrote about the “creche controversy”:http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006612170352 on Sunday and colleague Jorge Fitz-Gibbon wrote a “follow-up”:http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006612190343 Monday about Briarcliff Manor taking down its holiday display. Also, check out our “editorial”:http://www.thejournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006612200312 today.

It seems that December is becoming the time when all sorts of conflicts over religion in the public square rise to the surface. No doubt, advocacy groups and certain media outlets are trying to push people’s buttons. But these conflicts are already there, even if they’re dormant most of the time.

This is the deal: Some people want to see more acknowledgement of religion in public places — including taxpayer-funded places. Others think it’s not such a good idea (for a variety of reasons).

The old “December dilemma” over how communities should acknowledge the holidays is not going anywhere.

Beliefnet, the always fun religion website, has a real good blog on the “Holiday Culture Wars.”:http://www.beliefnet.com/story/204/story_20471_1.html You can track each battle!

Interestingly, an overlooked but key factor in the rise of holiday display conflicts has been the aggressiveness of the Chabad-Lubavitch in displaying public menorahs.

This Hasidic sect, which emphasizes outreach to non-religious Jews, has worked tirelessly in recent years to display as many menorahs as possible. They usually succeed (that’s a Chabad of Rockland menorah lighting from a few years back).

But one unintended result is that Christians see the large Chabad menorahs and then want Nativity scenes for balance. Public officials become antsy about whether creches are too religious, and another community conflict has begun…

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I got an announcement from “Chabad of the Rivertowns”:http://www.chabadrt.com/ just yesterday, inviting people to two new menorah lightings. Today at 6 p.m., a new menorah will be lit in Hastings (in front of the VFW on Warburton Avenue). Tomorrow at 6 p.m., a menorah goes up in Ardsley’s Legions Park (at the corner of Ashford Avenue and Saw Mill River Road.

NCC’s Edgar back in Garrison

The Rev. Bob Edgar, who is about to begin his last year as general secretary of the National Council of Churches, will speak tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec. 20) at the “Garrison Institute,”:http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/home.php a retreat center in a former monastery on the Hudson River.

Edgar will be talking about the role of religious moderates in the public square, the subject of his recent book, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right.

Edgar recently “announced”:http://www.ncccusa.org/news/0610032edgarwontseekthirdterm.html that he will not seek a third four-year term as the leader of the nation’s most identifiable ecumenical body. Through this decade, he has tirelessly pushed the NCC’s mostly liberal agenda.

I was one of the first reporters to interview Edgar after he got the job in January 2000. He was in Garrison of all places, with the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, speaking at a service that marked the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

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He told me then that he hoped the NCC’s priorities would appeal to all Christians, regardless of denomination or political leanings:

“When children do not have health insurance and there are refugee crises that need serious attention, people want us to act as Christians. Period.”

The Garrison Institute is located at 14 Mary’s Way, Route 9D at Glenclyffe in Garrison. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. For information: “www.garrisoninstitute.org”:http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/home.php  or call 845.424.4800.

Another book, another revelation

I get a lot of strange press releases. I got one today about a new book called the “Adventures of God.”:http://www.crazyfoxpublications.com/crazyfox_002.htm

It’s by a gentleman named Michael E. Morgan.

The press release says this:

“Michael E. Morgan, an electronics engineer, awakened in the middle of the night several months ago startled to see God appear before him.  God requested that he write His story and make it available to mankind.  Over a period of several months, Michael received visual images and audible conversations directly through divine intervention describing the origin of God, the evolution of heaven, the creation of man and earth and the purpose of our existence.”

Sure enough, the book is available on Amazon.com, and it’s gotten several positive reviews.

Mary from Bronxville wrote:

“I could not put this book down. Often many parts of God’s story moved me to tears. I have been telling as many people I can get a hold of to read this book.”

Maybe Michael E. Morgan, electronics engineer, received detailed revelations from God. It’s happened before, they say.

No ‘faith’ required at Harvard

There was a bit of a media stir a few months back when a Harvard U task force said it was considering a religion requirement for general education.

Harvard would be the only Ivy League school to require students to choose a course from a category called “faith and reason.”

But it’s not to be. The faculty task force went in a different direction, suggesting that students take a course from a much broader category: “what it means to be a human being.”

This category, according to “The Boston Globe,”:http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/12/13/harvard_panel_sets_aside_plan_on_religion/ “would encompass religious thought, art, literature, and philosophy, as well as evolutionary biology and cognitive science.”

The task force won’t release a final recommendation until next month.

The bishop who wouldn’t talk to me

I just read on “Whispers in the Loggia,”:http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2006/12/removed.html the red-hot Catholic insider blog, that Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton is being removed from his parish in Detroit.

Gumbleton has long been a controversial figure in the Catholic world, a left-wing crusader who doesn’t like to hold his tongue.

I called him a few years ago about something (I can’t remember what) and he wouldn’t talk to me because I worked for a newspaper owned by Gannett. Workers at The Detroit News, then owned by Gannett, had gone on a long, costly strike during the mid-1990s. Gumbleton wouldn’t forget. Gannett was anti-union and he was in solidarity with the workers.

That’s Gumbleton. He’s long been a columnist for National Catholic Reporter and, as Whispers notes, “a hero to the church’s liberal wing.” Conservative folks, it seems to me, stopped taking him seriously a long time ago. Probably middle-grounders, too.

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Anyway, Gumbleton (that’s him on right) retired as an auxiliary bishop last February. He may soon be out as a parish priest. Either way, he’ll keep fighting the good fight as he sees it.

More on the creche controversy

Bill Donohue, the never-shy president of the Catholic League, has commented today on the creche controversy in Briarcliff Manor that I blogged on this morning.

Donohue said this:

“In Briarcliff Manor, village officials put up a Christmas tree and a menorah, but they balked at a request by an 80 year-old man to add a crèche (paid for by him). So he sued. In federal court, a judge ruled on Friday in his favor. Instead of adding the nativity scene to the display, officials in the Westchester, New York town took everything down. ‘The Village erected a Menorah and a Christmas tree display in a spirit of inclusion,’ officials said. They did nothing of the sort: they gave Jews a religious symbol and Christians a secular one, and when they were told to treat both groups equally they elected to demonstrate intolerance towards both. That’s their idea of neutrality—censor everyone equally.”

His thoughts on Briarcliff were part of a larger “statement”:http://www.catholicleague.org/06press_releases/quarter%204/061218_creches_legal.htm headlined: “Creches on public property are legal.”

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The Catholic League erected a Nativity scene in Central Park today, but Donohue (right) laments the fact that they cannot do the same in NYC public schools. A NYC schools policy says that creches can be left out of holiday displays that include menorahs.

A federal court upheld the policy early this year, but the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to say soon whether it will review the decision.

Donohue concludes with:

“If only the secularists learned to inculcate the virtue of tolerance, all would be well.â€?