The Saints as saints…

I blogged last week about Trisha Hukins, an artist from Thibodaux, La., who has long painted icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints.

She recently started painting the New Orleans Saints, the heroes of her hurricane-ravaged region. She paints them in the style she would the other saints — using acrylic paint and gold leafing on canvas panels.

With Hukins’ help, I now have this picture of her with some of her work.

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From the left, there’s running back Deuce McAllister (26), quarterback Drew Brees (9), coach Sean Payton, rookie star Reggie Bush (25) and, I think, rookie receiver Marques Colston (from Hofstra!).

The Saints, who were 3-13 last year, will play the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at 3 p.m.

If the Saints can win another game (or two), I’m sure some folks down south will want them canonized for real.

The realignment is in — for now

On the surface, it might seem that the Archdiocese of New York picked on Westchester County in its long-awaited realignment of parishes, which was “released”:http://archny.org/news-events/news-press-releases/index.cfm?i=3501 this morning. Of 10 parishes that will be closed, four are in Westchester.

But nothing could further from the truth.

(My initial article on Lohud.com is “here”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070119/NEWS01/701190416).

The four parishes to be closed have been in suspended animation for some time. They are part-time parishes that are no longer essential to their communities, even if, understandably, some parishioners are deeply attached to them and won’t want to see them close.

The truth is that a good number of priests and church-watchers who I know expected more parishes to be shut down. I know of at least four or five parishes in Westchester that were widely believed to be on their way out, but have survived (there’s no point in naming them now).

The bottom line is this: Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties (the region that we refer to as the Lower Hudson Valley) make out rather well in the archdiocese’s blueprints. Three parishes in Westchester, two in Rockland and one in Putnam are all targeted for expansions, which is big news for some seriously overcrowded and fast-growing church communities.

The question is whether this is the end. Cardinal Edward Egan faced a lot of tough choices, and he may only have made some of them.

The archdiocese has said that it will continue to monitor trends across its 10 counties. Might Cardinal Egan (or his successor) decide to call for mini-realignments down the road? Probably, yes.

And keep in mind: the realignment does not address the worsening shortage of parish priests (something that overworked parish priests have noticed, I can tell you).

As the archdiocese has a harder and harder time filling parish posts, church officials may be forced to consider the best ways to reallocate their priests. Such decisions — say, one priest for three parishes — would have all sorts of ramifications for parish life.

These are challenging days for the archdiocese. But, in general, I would say that Auxiliary Bishop Dennis Sullivan is getting good reviews. As vicar general, he’s been Egan’s point man on the realignment, working tirelessly to get it right.

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A lot of people think big things may be in store for Sullivan (that’s him), who was pastor of the Church of Sts. John and Paul in Larchmont when he was made a bishop in 2004. He was widely respected for his parish work at St. Teresa’s Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and for his service on the archdiocese’s interparish finance board, which helps struggling parishes.

And he’s only 61, a kid among bishops.

What was Benedict trying to say?

NCR’s John Allen has a typically insightful interview today with Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, who is widely considered to be a contender for pope.

I know. I know. Isn’t it way too soon to talk about who might succeed Benedict XVI? Yes, it probably is. But there’s no getting around it.

Anyway, Scola (that’s him) has been “touring” the East Coast to promote Oasis, an interfaith journal he founded in 2004. He took part in a panel discussion at the U.N. on Wednesday, and has a lot to say about “cultural hybridization” and the future of interfaith relations.

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Here’s one Allen question on a major event of 2006 and Scola’s answer:

Allen: “Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg, and everything that followed from it, was obviously a watershed in the Catholic/Muslim relationship. What do you think the church learned from Regensburg?”

Scola: “I think that the dialogue grows when we learn reciprocally from one another. The Regensburg lecture, in terms of its content, had a prophetic force which the pope’s trip to Turkey revealed. The Turkey trip demonstrated what the true and deep intent of the Holy Father actually was; it spelled out, in concrete, the formidable reflection he offered in Regensburg on the relationship among faith, reason, and religion. This is the point, because these three things are never held together. We speak of religion, of reason, or the relationship between reason and faith, but we never put the three things together. However, these three things are always interwoven, always interlaced. You can never separate them, even someone who says he or she is an atheist. I can’t even know this object [pointing to the tape recorder] except for faith. Not ‘faith’ as a form of belief, but ‘faith’ as a fact. In order to make sense of this object, to ‘intentionalize’ it, I have to step outside of myself and direct myself to ‘being,’ to something that calls me and asks something of me. Thus, reason and faith are always in play, always situated within a weft of relationships with a religious implication — either in the form of a great religion with more than a billion followers, or a phenomenon limited to the four, five or six persons that someone actually knows. Even if someone thinks that God doesn’t exist, or that religion is simply a game of power and money, or that ‘God’ is created in the image of men, that person is ‘religious’ too, because none of us can avoid the constitutive question.”

Left and right join to fight lobbying bill

Boy, it’s not often that the “ACLU”:http://www.aclu.org/ and the “Traditional Values Coalition”:http://www.traditionalvalues.org/index.php are on the same side.

They’re usually painting each other as the biggest threat to the American way of life.

The Traditional Values Coalition is, as its name implies, a coalition of religious right groups. The ACLU is, well, the ACLU.

Today, the two groups are joining with others from across the political spectrum to oppose a U.S. Senate bill that would tighten lobbying rules. The Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 would, among other things, tighten financial disclosure rules.

The ACLU and the TVC agree that such rules would “chill” political speech on the part of advocacy groups.

In a letter to senators, the TVC says that a section of the bill would:

“Require registration and reporting as lobbyists by individuals and organizations who may never have face-to-face contact with members of Congress or staff and who only call upon citizens to weigh in a legislative issue” and “require registration and reporting as lobbyists by vendors hired by any entity to mobilize public involvement in a legislative issue in Congress.”

They say the bill would require lobbying registration for many people involved in advocacy communication, including direct mail, advertising and even blogs.

The Muslim role on ’24’

I don’t watch 24. But a lot of people do.

It’s no surprise that the Muslim community is concerned about how the wildly popular TV show depicts Muslims. Guess how? As terrorists.

The “Council for American-Islamic Relations”:http://www.cair-net.org/default.asp?Page=articleView&id=43074&theType=NB has this to say:

“The plot of the sixth season of “24” takes place two years in the future and is the most fear-mongering to date. America is being bombarded by Islamic suicide bombers, the president’s chief of staff sets up Muslim internment camps, civil rights and privacy laws are more flexible than Mary Lou Retton and the seemingly sweet Muslim teenager next door happens to be a terrorist complicit in the first nuclear attack on American soil.

Of course, it’s a show. But TV not only reflects the zeitgeist – it also influences it, some say, meaning the writers of “24” have to be careful, said Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

‘I saw ’24’ (on Monday) and we do have concerns with the show,’ Ahmed said. ‘We are monitoring it and will be contacting our contacts at Fox to discuss those concerns.’ “

Salvation Army soldier to lead NAE

The National Association of Evangelicals has named its new executive director: W. Todd Bassett, former national commander of The Salvation Army.

A lot of New Yorkers, I bet, would be surprised by the announcement. Doesn’t the Salvation Army take care of the poor? They’re the folks who collect money at all the supermarkets and malls at Christmas-time. You bring them your old clothes.

I doubt that most New Yorkers think of the Salvation Army as evangelical. But that’s what the Army is: an evangelical denomination. The Army is one of the 60 denominations that make up the NAE.

In 1865, a Methodist minister named William Booth began preaching in London’s slums. His followers didn’t feel comfortable in churches, so he founded a new church with a military flavor. The Salvation Army would serve as soldiers for Christ, reaching out to the the poor, the hungry, the addicted.

But they’re still evangelical Christians.

Bassett (that’s him) served as national commander of the Salvation Army from 2002 until this past April.

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Richard Cizik, vp for governmental affairs for the NAE, said this about Bassett:

“I’ve watched first hand his handling of a national crisis, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wreaked, and can say that the credit The Salvation Army received for its splendid response, can in part be given to his leadership. Moreover, Todd has a special burden for the poor and he’ll be able to lend his commitment and experience to this aspect of our governmental affairs work.”

By the way, Ted Haggard, who resigned amid scandal a few months ago, had been president of the NAE. Leith Anderson, senior minister of a church in Minnesota, is now president of the group,

A week to pray for Christian unity

Today begins the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

It is exactly what it sounds like — a week when Christians are supposed to pray that they will somehow overcome their countless divisions, splits and schisms and move closer to unity (whatever that means).

The Week of Prayer is important to a good number of Catholics, mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians.

It means little to evangelical Christians and probably most Catholics (who know little about the Reformation, let alone the differences between Lutherans and Methodists or what Pentecostals believe).

The Week of Prayer is a cornerstone of the larger ecumenical movement, which picked up steam after Vatican II but has largely fizzled over the last twenty years or so. That’s not to say that there aren’t many Christians who continue to work hard (mostly off the cultural radar screen) to bring denominations together.

But there are probably more people today who are leery of ecumenical talks than there are folks who think unity should be a priority.

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The Week of Prayer is notable in New York because it was started in 1908 by the Rev. Paul Wattson, who also co-founded the Garrison-based Society of the Atonement (at Graymoor). While the week is officially overseen by the “Vatican”:http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/weeks-prayer-doc/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20060703_week-prayer-2007_en.html and the “World Council of Churches,”:http://wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/wop-index.html “Graymoor”:http://www.geii.org/wpcu.htm continues to take the lead on developing and publishing Week of Prayer materials for use in the U.S.

Over the next year, Graymoor will focus on the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer. Among other things, the community has initiated an interesting hymn contest that I’ll write about soon.

One question that people often have about Christian unity is what exactly it means. What would unity look like? Are we talking about denominations merging into some sort of Super Church?

In 2005, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and the influential boss of the conservative religion journal First Things, gave a talk at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers about the essential need to pursue Christian unity while refusing to ignore the very real differences between Christian traditions.

No one knows what unity may look like, he said:

“It will not be a matter of Baptists or Presbyterians becoming Roman Catholics. It will be one church.”

Critic of Carter ‘apartheid’ book will speak Sunday in New Rochelle

Westchester’s Jewish community is fired up over Jimmy Carter’s new book.

No surprise there. Carter called the book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” in order to provoke. Judging from the national reaction, he has succeeded.

At last count, 28 synagogues and Jewish groups in Westchester had signed up to co-sponsor a talk this coming Sunday by “Kenneth Stein,”:http://www.ismi.emory.edu/stein.html a long-time Carter associate who recently resigned, in protest, as Middle East Fellow of the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta.

It was mostly a symbolic act. As Stein (below) wrote in a “letter”:http://www.imra.org.il/story.php3?id=31938 announcing his decision, he had not been active at the Carter Center for some time.

Still, Stein knows Carter. Carter knows Stein.

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More than 1,000 people came to hear Stein speak in L.A. last week. At least 500 are expected Sunday for Stein’s Westchester appearance, organized by the “Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee.”:http://www.ajc.org/site/c.ffITK0OyFoG/b.843955/k.3E56/Westchester.htm

He will speak at 7:30 p.m. at “Temple Israel of New Rochelle,”:http://www.tinr.org/ 1000 Pinebrook Blvd. That’s this Sunday, Jan. 21.

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In his letter, Stein — who remains head of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory — savages Carter’s book:

“President Carter’s book on the Middle East, a title too inflammatory to even print, is not based on unvarnished analyses; it is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.

Aside from the one-sided nature of the book, meant to provoke, there are recollections cited from meetings where I was the third person in the room, and my notes of those meetings show little similarity to points claimed in the book.”

In this week’s “Newsweek,”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16240761/site/newsweek/ Carter explains himself. He also answers three questions about Stein:

You’re obviously aware of your main critic, Mr. Stein, who used to be with the Carter Center.
Thirteen years ago! He hasn’t been associated with the Carter Center for 13 years.

He says that he was a third party in some meetings and that his notes don’t jibe with yours.
He was a third party in some of the meetings, I can’t deny that. And a lot of those meetings took place when I was still president and an exact transcription was kept and it’s in the official files. So the reports that I gave in the book are completely accurate.

He also accuses you of plagiarism, saying you took from other sources.
The only source that I took anything from that I know about was my own book, which I wrote earlier—it’s called “The Blood of Abraham” … Somebody told me [that Stein] was complaining about the maps in the book. Well, the maps are derived from an atlas that was published in 2004 in Jerusalem and it was basically produced under the aegis of officials in Sweden. And the Swedish former prime minister is the one who told me this was the best atlas available about the Middle East.

Obama’s faith already under the microscope

If Barack Obama continues to “explore” a possible presidential bid, we can expect to hear a lot about his faith.

He — like Hillary Clinton — has been gently trying to position himself as one of those Democrats who cares about religion. Developing a Democratic religious strategy has been one of the party’s priorities since President Bush’s reelection.

Of course, Republicans, especially those on the religious right, are not likely to see Obama or Clinton’s positions as authentically Christian.

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Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical and head of the super-conservative National Clergy Council, has taken a preemptive strike at Obama, releasing a quicky “analysis”:http://nationalclergycouncil.org/010807BarackObama.htm of Obama’s statements on faith.

He writes: “It is clear that Obama uses his own human criteria for what he will believe and what he won’t believe. This is unacceptable to Evangelicals. The Word of God instructs us; we do not instruct it. We conform to God’s Word; God’s Word does not conform to us.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of Schenck’s arguments reappear down the line, perhaps to be used against candidate Obama or Clinton or whichever Democrat tries to present himself or herself as a Christian.

One family’s story of betrayal

I watched “Hand of God”:http://www.handofgodfilm.com/ last night on PBS’ Frontline. It’s a powerful documentary that pulls no punches and was, at times, difficult to watch.

It’s the story of one man who was molested by his parish priest, lived with it for 30 years and finally took on the Archdiocese of Boston.

What stood out to me about the film was that the abusive priest, Joseph Birmingham, does not come across as the true villain. He’s a monster, of course, a deranged figure who abused dozens of boys. He died before Paul Cultrera, his victim and the focus of the film, was ready to face what happened.

The real bad guy in Hand of God is another priest, John McCormack. He was the head of personnel for the archdiocese who covered up for Birmingham and other molesters, moving them from parish to parish to escape their accusers.

Today, he is “bishop”:http://www.catholicchurchnh.org/index.cfm?content_id=453 of Manchester, N.H.

As the details of Boston’s sex-abuse scandal came out in 2002, many people “called”:http://www.snapnetwork.org/news/otherstates/NH_NYTimes_on_McCormick.htm for McCormack to resign. The Manchester Union Leader ran a front-page editorial headlined: “For the Good of the Church, Bishop Should Step Aside.”

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But McCormack remains (that’s his picture on the diocese website).

As the film progresses, Cultrera and his brother, Joe, who made the film, become increasingly hostile toward the Catholic Church itself. They basically dismiss the church’s leadership as a big fraud, top to bottom. They wonder how their parents can still go to Mass. Many Catholics, I’m sure, will find this part of the film difficult to take.

How much slack the Cultreras should get as a result of their experience will have to be determined by each viewer.

One final note: The website of the Diocese of Manchester says nothing about the controversy that has dogged McCormack. It describes his background like this:

“In 1984, Cardinal Bernard Law appointed him Secretary for Ministerial Personnel in the Archdiocese of Boston’s administrative Cabinet to provide oversight and planning for the institutions and offices of the archdiocese that dealt with seminarians, priests, deacons, and religious and lay ministers. He was ordained a bishop and appointed as an Auxiliary Bishop of Boston in 1995, and served Cardinal Law as regional bishop for the South Region of the Archdiocese.

Pope John Paul II appointed him the ninth Bishop of Manchester on July 21, 1998.”