Bless you, bless you, bless you

I’ve gotten quite a reaction to my FaithBeat column Saturday about why we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.

Everywhere I’ve gone the past few days, people have been greeting me with a fake sneeze or an over-the-top “God bless you.”

I’m not surprised that many people have wondered about the origins of the Sneeze Blessing. I’m glad I was able to shed just a tiny bit of light on, well, what we don’t know about it.

Anyway, here is the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the U.S., from 1894, of a sneeze:

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Last call: Martin Marty tonight in Briarcliff

A reminder: Martin E. Marty, perhaps the nation’s most respected analyst of the role of religion in our culture, will speak at 7:30 tonight (May 26) at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor.

It’s free and open to the public — and bound to be good.

The advance I wrote for LoHud is HERE.

Come on out and bring that question you always wanted to ask about religion in America.

Bridgeport sex-abuse files should be released, court rules

All through Cardinal Egan’s tenure in New York, court battles were going on in Connecticut over whether hundreds of pages of depositions from Bridgeport sex-abuse cases should be released.

Today — only weeks after Egan’s retirement — Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled that documents from 23 lawsuits against pedophile priests from the Bridgeport Archdiocese should be unsealed and made public.

The documents relate to cases settled in March 2001 involving 23 victims. Egan was the bishop of Bridgeport when most of the lawsuits were filed.

The AP notes: “Connecticut justices considered the Bridgeport case for more than two years, then issued the ruling just a month after the 77-year-old Egan retired.”

The AP also quotes Terence McKiernan, president of Bishop, who says: “I think what you’re seeing is Egan is a prince of the church, and he’s extremely vulnerable here because of how he did his job in Bridgeport…I think the church has gone to great lengths to prevent these documents from seeing the light of day.”

UPDATE: Here is a statement from Joe Zwilling of the Archdiocese of NY:


Today, May 22, 2009, the Supreme Court of Connecticut ordered that documentation concerning the sexual abuse of minors by clergy of the Diocese of Bridgeport in Connecticut during the tenure of The Most Reverend Walter W. Curtis (1961-1988) be made public.  The decision involves documents regarding five priests accused of sexual misconduct prior to the December 1988 appointment of The Most Reverend Edward M. Egan as Bishop of Bridgeport.

There were no allegations of misconduct by these five priests occurring during Bishop Egan’s tenure apart from an accusation that one of them made an improper gesture in the presence of a minor.  The priest is not alleged to have had any physical contact with the minor in question, and two religious women who were present at the time have indicated that they were not aware of any such act.

Of the five priests, one died prior to Bishop Egan’s appointment to the Diocese; and the other four were all sent to the most highly regarded psychiatric institution in New England and the Greater New York area, which had no affiliation whatever with the Church, for treatment and expert evaluation. They were returned to ministry only upon the written recommendation of the aforementioned institution along with the advice of experienced members of both clergy and laity.  At the time, this was the recognized professional manner of handling cases of sexual misconduct with minors.  Indeed, this manner of dealing with such cases was widely accepted in the psychiatric community, and even commended in an editorial of the New York Times.

When, during Bishop Egan’s tenure, new information was received about misconduct prior to his appointment on the part of the four priests mentioned above, two had their authorization to exercise ministry removed indefinitely; one, who had suffered a brain injury, was retired from ministry; and one was permitted to continue in a restricted ministry as an assistant chaplain in a home for the aged, residing in a convent of religious women.

Three other priests, whose cases are not included in the above-referenced court decision, were mentioned in various newspaper articles during Bishop Egan’s tenure as Bishop of Bridgeport as having been accused of sexually abusing minors, again, long before the Bishop’s assignment to the Diocese.  For one the Bishop obtained a decree of laicization from the Vatican within six months.  For the other two, the same procedure was followed as for the four priests mentioned above.  However, the second of these two was sent for treatment and expert evaluation to another nationally prominent psychiatric institution near where he was then residing.

It should be noted that the information provided above regarding Bishop Egan’s precise handling of cases of the sexual abuse of minors by priests was made known through statements of the Archdiocese of New York as far back as 2002, in response to the publications of articles in a Connecticut newspaper concerning selected documents having to do with these cases.

Finally, it needs to be repeated that, apart from the priest accused of making an improper gesture in the presence of a minor, there were no known instances of the sexual abuse of minors by priests of the Diocese of Bridgeport occurring during Bishop Egan’s eleven-year tenure as Bishop of that Diocese, just as there have been no known instances whatever of the sexual abuse of minors by priests of the Archdiocese of New York occurring during Edward Cardinal Egan’s nine-year tenure as Archbishop of New York.

Garrison Institute a meditation retreat fave

Readers of Tricycle, the “Buddhist Review,” have named the Garrison Institute as one of their 11 favorite “meditation getaways.”

They write:


Occupying a former Capuchin monastery on the Hudson River north of New York City, the Garrison Institute is a nonsectarian organization that explores the intersection of contemplation and engaged action. One Tricycle reader picks Garrison as his favorite center because it “is at a fantastic location and serves amazing food.”


The picture shows the Meditation Hall at the Institute.

Meditators love retreats — if you have the time and money to get away from the rat race, right?

About retreats in general, the editors write:


As for why they go, a large majority of respondents attend retreats to develop their meditation practice. Most also indicate that working closely with a teacher and “refreshing their minds and bodies” are among the most important elements. Nearly a third prize time for Buddhist study, and a little under half say that “joining a community of practitioners” is of foremost importance.

“There is something very powerful about being in a community of people who value mindfulness,” one person writes. “It is a brief, imperfect glimpse of enlightened society. On the way to one retreat, the bus driver got lost and drove us around in circles. When we finally arrived, he was a nervous wreck. The passengers, however, broke into applause and offered him thanks and sympathy.”

Evangelical group trying to rally foes of same-sex marriage in NYS

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative, evangelical lobbying group in Albany, has launched a “40 Days for Marriage” campaign to galvanize opposition to same-sex marriage in the Empire State.

The group explains:


Forty days marks the time between the New York State Assembly’s passage of same-sex marriage legislation on May 12, 2009, and the end of the legislative session on June 22, 2009. The reference to forty days however, is much more than just a legislative countdown. Rev. Tom Stiles, Director of Church Relations with the New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, notes that there is strong biblical imagery connected to the number forty. Stiles points to the fact that:

  • In the Book of Numbers the twelve Hebrew spies spent forty days scouting the land of Canaan (Num. 13:25; 14:34).
  • Moses interceded for the people of Israel for forty days and nights (Deut. 9:25; 10:10).
  • Goliath stood before the Israelites cursing their God for forty days, before young David defeated him with God’s help, a sling and a stone (1 Sam. 17:16).
  • Elijah was refreshed by an angel, and went on the strengthen of that encounter for forty days (1 Kings 19:18).
  • It was in only forty days that Nineveh was to be destroyed for her sin (Jonah 3:4), but Jonah’s preaching was used by God to bring revival to the people of Nineveh and they were spared from judgment.


The group is asking people to pray for their state senator (who will likely vote on the matter soon), have friends contact the Senate, attend a Stand 4 Marriage Rally on Tuesday, June 9 at 10:30 a.m. outside the Capitol, and to contribute $40 for the cause.

The NYT wrote the other day about the lack of an organized opposition in Albany to same-sex marriage. The article noted that New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms doesn’t have the resources to wage a major campaign.

But they appear to be doing what they can.

The Irish report: 2,600 pages of madness

In case you’re interested, you can read online the entire report detailing decades of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools in Ireland run by the country’s Catholic religious orders.

The massive report — as in 2,600 pages — is the result of a 9-year investigation of abuse that occurred between the 1930s and 1990s. The abuse took place at 52 “workhouse-style” reform schools and 216 other church institutions for children.

I’ve skimmed parts of the report. It is shocking in its detail.

A section on physical abuse of boys includes:


Witnesses described a daily existence that involved the possibility of being hit by a staff member at any time, for any reason or for no reason. Witnesses also reported being physically abused by co-residents. It is notable that witnesses at times described daily, casual and random physical abuse as normal and wished to report only the times when the frequency and severity of the abuse was such that they were injured or in fear for their lives. Three hundred and forty six (346) of the 403 witnesses reported that they were subjected to frequent physical violence; they described a climate of pervasive fear in the Schools and provided consistent reports of generally not knowing why they were being beaten.

The forms of physical abuse reported by witnesses to the Committee included punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods, made to sleep outside overnight, being forced into cold or excessively hot baths and showers, hosed down with cold water before being beaten, beaten while hanging from hooks on the wall, being set upon by dogs, being restrained in order to be beaten, physical assaults by more than one person, and having objects thrown at them.


I hesitate to include anything about sexual abuse because it’s too graphic.

The whole thing can only leave one wondering how on earth this could happen (in Ireland, the U.S., anywhere).

There is extensive coverage in the Irish Times. Victims of abuse were not happy over being barred from a press conference for the release of the report.

An editorial in the Irish Independent is headlined: “Our Sinister Legacy of Abuse.”

It includes this:


Among the thousands of accounts are shameful details of boys and girls being raped, flogged, beaten up, burned, scalded, left hungry and cold and tortured in ways that only perverted sadists could invent.

The numbers of abused and the nature of abuses are so vast that trying to grasp the magnitude of the inhumanity is like trying to visualise the length of a light year, or the depth of the Atlantic ocean.

The extent of the cruelty involved can only be grasped when we hear personal accounts of individual incidents and multiply them a thousand fold.

No money for United Methodist hymnal

Another blow from the Great Recession:

The United Methodist Church has had big plans for a new hymnal.

But the project has been halted because the United Methodist Publishing House doesn’t have the $2 million needed to make it happen.

“The resources required to sustain a dedicated staff and pay for the planned activities are simply not available at this time,” said Bishop Ernest S. Lyght, chair of the hymnal revision committee and the immediate past bishop of the New York Conference (that’s him).

The current hymnal was published in 1989.

‘It’s quite a day for us all’

As everyone tries to make sense of the bombing plot in Riverdale…

Yesterday, I happened to interview Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a White Plains resident who is about to become the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, a group that represents Conservative rabbis around the world.

It’s an important position at an important time for Conservative Judaism, so we had a lot to talk about. I’ll be writing about her one day soon.

I asked her, of course, where she is from. The answer was Riverdale.

So I thought of Schonfeld as soon as I heard about the alleged plot against the Riverdale Temple.

I talked to her again this morning, just before she was heading to commencement at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the main seminary of the Conservative movement.

It turns out that Schonfeld’s father still lives in Riverdale. And her children attend school there.

“It’s quite a day for us all,” she told me.

Schonfeld was adament that the Jewish community will never change or weaken in response to terrorist threats — other than preparing the necessary security.

“We understand the risks in the world today, but we are unshakable,” she said. “We won’t be moved one inch from our commitment to the sanctification of life.”