The End of America

So I was listening to CBS radio, like I do most mornings, to check the weather (more snow) and the headlines.

I heard some sort of ad warning of…the END OF AMERICA.

I figured that some religious group was behind the high-priced, drive-time ad. Who warns of the end of things as much as religious groups?

So I wrote down the web address it asked listeners to check out — — and checked it out.

I was wrong. Again.

No religious themes or messages. Just an investment firm warning that America’s debt will soon cause the economy to collapse, leading to riots in the street and “shantytowns coming to your neighborhood.”

I actually read much of the long explanation and a lot of it was pretty darn scary.

At the end, though, you get a pitch to subscribe to certain investment materials, which will include a secret asset that everyone should own when the economy collapses and America ends.

Maryknoll celebrating its 100th

Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Roman Catholic missionary group based in Ossining, has just started celebrating its 100th birthday.

Maryknoll was co-founded by Father James Anthony Walsh of Cambridge, Mass., and Father Thomas Frederick Price of Wilmington, N.C., as the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Pope Pius X gave the group his blessing on June 29, 1911.

Since then, Maryknoll has become quite famous for working with the poor all over the world, particularly in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the U.S.

There will be special events all year, including a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Oct. 30.

I hope to write something about Maryknoll’s history over the next few weeks.

Maryknoll kicked things off Tuesday with an opening Mass in Ossining. It included a specially commissioned composition by Father Jan Michael Joncas, liturgical theologian and composer of contemporary Catholic music.

Here are two pictures from the Mass, provided by Maryknoll:

This Tweeter follows no one

I just came across the Dalai Lama’s Twitter page.

Maybe it’s common knowledge that he has one, but I hadn’t seen it.

It’s really something — compact nuggets of Buddhist, but universal-sounding, wisdom.

4 minutes ago, we got this: “Genuine love should first be directed at oneself – if we do not love ourselves, how can we love others?”


On Monday: “We need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.”

Saturday: “Because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence.”

Friday: “An affectionate disposition not only makes the mind more peaceful and calm, but it affects our body in a positive way too.”

I assume he writes them himself.

Does he dictate them to someone? Or tap them out on his own smartphone?

Who knows?

How many followers does he have? 1,278,372 at the moment. Not quite Ashton Kutcher numbers (6 million-plus), but not bad.

How many Tweeters does the Dalai Lama follow? Zero.

Archdiocese planning another ‘realignment’ of parishes

Back in 2005 and 2006, I wrote a lot about the Archdiocese of NY’s plan to “realign” parishes.

I thought it was an important story. The church was looking at all sorts of demographic data — including the worsening shortage of priests — and might make some tough decisions about how to better allocate resources.

I wrote about a giant, 50-person committee overseeing the planning, about lay involvement in the planning process, whatever I could think of.

But when Cardinal Egan finally dropped the big plan in March 2006, it was a bit of a let-down. Only 15 parishes were targeted to close — and most of them were barely breathing.

People I spoke with were surprised that regions of the archdiocese were not touched, even though several churches appeared to be stagnant or worse.

There was a sense among some that the archdiocese deferred the hard choices until…a later date.

That date may have arrived (not today, but soon. Maybe.).

Archbishop Dolan has initiated a new planning process he’s calling “Making All Things New.” Yes, he’s presenting it as an opportunity to prune the archdiocese and make it stronger.

The planning process is well underway. Even though I’m no longer the religion guy here, I write about for tomorrow’s JN/LoHud.

Interestingly, the archdiocese has begun passing out surveys at weekend Masses, trying to get a sense of what people know and think about the pretty serious challenging facing their church in New York.

The first question/statement reads like this: “I am aware of the current situation facing the Archdiocese, particularly with such issues as the decline in Church attendance, shortage of priests, decreased financial stability, etc. For me this is a serious issue.”

The choices for the respondent are strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree.

Who would strongly disagree that these things are serious issues?

Many of the question/statements ask point-blank about the possible closing or merger of parishes.

The greatest challenge to Orthodox Jewish families? Tuition costs

We’ve all heard about the troubles facing Catholic schools, most recently in the form of nine more local schools to be closed in June.

I’ve touched a few times on the similar challenges facing Jewish day schools.

I was just reading the inaugural address of Dr. Simcha Katz, who on Sunday became the president of the Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox congregations across North America.

Many Orthodox Jews send their kids to yeshivas or day schools, which are quite expensive. Many Orthodox Jewish couples also have more than two or three kids, meaning their educational bills are HUGE.

Katz focused on this during his address. Here’s the part in question:


Let’s touch on tuition affordability. When I completed my doctoral thesis, we were living in a railroad apartment in Washington Heights; we had two children, and Pesh worked and took care of everything, so I could be free. I thanked and dedicated my thesis “to my wife who made it possible and to my children who made it necessary.” In taking on this OU responsibility and specifically my commitment to tuition affordability, I can easily state here “thanks to my wife who makes it possible and to my children who make it necessary.”

In the United States, the most challenging reality facing our families and affecting in a very negative way their quality of life is yeshiva tuition. We have a situation in which a family earning as much as $200,000 (only 3.5% of Americans earn more) with four children or more in yeshiva day schools cannot afford to pay full tuition and must apply for tuition assistance. This problem is decades in the making, and we now are facing a broken and unsustainable system. This challenge must be addressed and our success or failure in addressing the cost of raising an observant family will determine what Orthodox Judaism in America will look like 25 years from now. We will do our part by refocusing our internal resources and partnering with other stakeholders, whether they come from the Jewish or non-Jewish world. We will need multiple approaches to ameliorate this situation. It is a terrible problem and Rabbi Steven Weil (OU Executive Vice President), our lay leadership and I are committed to focus on it.



Defrocked Kavanagh calls self ‘…a priest forever.’

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the strange, eight-year case of Monsignor Charles Kavanagh had come to an end.

A Roman Catholic Church court defrocked Kavanagh, who had once been among the most visible and influential priests in the Archdiocese of NY.

Kavanagh had been accused by a former seminarian named Daniel Donohue, who grew up in Peekskill, of manipulating him into a romantic relationship with sexual overtones during the late 1970s. At the time, Kavanagh had been head of the seminary where Donohue was studying.

Donohue first wrote to the archdiocese in 2002 after — he once told me — he started reading about the sex-abuse crisis that erupted that year. At that time, Kavanagh was the chief fundraiser for the archdiocese (that’s him on the right during happier times for him.

I won’t reconstruct everything that happened since then, but the case lingered for eight years. Everyone involved complained about a lack of justice.

People disagreed vehemently about it. I heard from many Kavanagh supporters and others who thought that Kavanagh did Donohue wrong.

There was a lot of debate — and still is — about the nature of the allegations. Donohue essentially accused Kavanagh of using his position to manipulate him into a boyfriend-ish relationship. He said that Kavanagh once got into bed with him wearing only underwear.

Through the years, Kavanagh has dismissed the charges — and the church’s investigative process — in very public ways, even wearing his clerical collar after Cardinal Egan told him not to. He has periodically sent letters about his case to his many friends and supporters.

Kavanagh, 73, has just sent out another one. A bunch of people have forwarded it to me.

It begins:


I hope you had a blessed Christmas. I celebrated my 47th Anniversary of Ordination on December 18th and on the evening before that, the Archdiocese announced that I had been found guilty of a crime.

Words cannot describe how I feel. In almost fifty years, working with thousands of young people, I have never sexually abused anyone. No one has ever claimed that I sexually touched them and yet the Church has decided that all the times I was kind, (helping with tuition,driving a student home, buying a birthday gift, taking someone to a ballgame,) was “grooming” and that gestures like “hugging” and “holding hands” were crimes deserving the most severe penalty. I have been found guilty of the crime of “holding hands on the lap” which the Church has decided is a serious sin against the 6th commandment because it is considered physical contact with parts of the body which are
considered indecent.”

I cannot tell you how unjust this decision is and how I will never stop my fight to clear my name. I am so proud of my years of service and have been silent all these years hoping that I would be treated fairly.


Kavanagh writes that after he was accused, he became “damaged goods” and that he was denied due process because the church wanted to cover up its own mistakes.

He also quotes what he says is a letter to him from Donohue, circa 1983, in which the writer speaks of Kavanagh as a great friend and mentor.

Summing up the eight-year case, Kavanagh writes:


Any “case” which takes over eight years to decide cannot be fair. Any process which is so secret that one cannot talk publicly, or is not allowed to see evidence beforehand, or cross examine witnesses, cannot be fair. How can one defend himself against false statements and fabricated evidence when he is sworn to silence? In over forty years of priestly service how does one become a “predator” when there is a single claim of “inappropriate behavior” thirty years old, which involved no contact beyond hugging and holding hands? How can someone be considered a “threat to minors”, when I have worked so long with young people without even a hint of suspicion? There is much more to this story, which only compounds my feeling of injustice. Literally thousands of people have stood by me during these eight years. I do not know what the future holds but I  believe that the Lord is working in my life. I will never give up my fight for justice. I pray that people will stand with me in this struggle. I know what it means to give one’s life in service to God’s People, to be a priest forever!

‘…we are deeply troubled that rancor, threats and incivility have become commonplace…’

I don’t know what is left to say about the horrible Arizona shootings — or the reaction to the shootings.

I think pundits/talking heads are now reacting to the reactions to the reactions to the shootings.

But a group of religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum today released a statement, actually an open letter to Congress, that may be worth reading. So here it is:


Dear Members of Congress,

As Americans and members of the human family, we are grieved by the recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.  As Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, we pray together for all those wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as she fights for her life.  Our hearts break for those lives lost and for the loved ones left behind.  We also stand with you, our elected officials, as you continue to serve our nation while coping with the trauma of this senseless attack.

This tragedy has spurred a sorely needed time of soul searching and national public dialogue about violent and vitriolic political rhetoric. We strongly support this reflection, as we are deeply troubled that rancor, threats and incivility have become commonplace in our public debates.

We appreciate the sacrifices you make and risks you incur by accepting a call to public service, and we urge you to continue to serve as stewards of our democracy by engaging ideological adversaries not as enemies, but as fellow Americans.

In our communities and congregations, we pledge to foster an environment conducive to the important and difficult debates so crucial to American democracy. In our churches, mosques and synagogues, we come together not as members of a certain political ideology or party, but as children of God and citizens called to build a more perfect union.  We pray that you do the same.

Exorcism show in the works (will Linda Blair be a consultant on how to play possessed?)

Back in November, there was something of a media frenzy when word got out that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference was holding a conference to train potential exorcists.

I blogged at the time about the popularity of all things exorcism-related and wondered if there could be a reality TV show in the future about devil-hunting.

I joked: “Next on E: Get Me an Exorcist!”

Of course, in this culture where televised truth really, truly is stranger than fiction, such a TV show may be in the works.

Entertainment Weekly reports that the Discovery Channel is preparing a show called The Exorcist Files, which “will recreate stories of real-life hauntings and demonic possession, based on cases investigated by the Catholic Church.”

I don’t know whether recreations count as reality TV. But I guess it would be difficult to get camera crews inside wherever actual exorcisms take place.

EW also reports that the Vatican has approved the project — which didn’t sound likely.

John Allen reports that the Vatican is denying any involvement.

But the show goes on. I still prefer my title: Get Me an Exorcist!

Jewish musical muse Debbie Friedman dies

I got to interview Debbie Friedman in 2004 at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, just before she led a healing service with Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

It was one of those interviews you never forget.

I was asking her about her profound influence on the lives of many Jews. She had started writing Jewish music, often putting prayers to music, decades before. She wrote deeply moving compositions that stay with you. Many were aimed at helping people reconnect with their spirituality or to help people deal with suffering and pain.

When I asked her about the impact of her music on so many lives, she couldn’t find the words to describe her relationship with her fans. She seemed to still be trying to come to terms with it. She started to tell me — softly — about families that had placed tapes of her music in the caskets of children who had died from disease or accidents. But her voice began to crack and she momentarily broke down, overcome by her experiences.

I hardly knew what to say.

I’ve thought about this many times — as well as the healing service that she led afterward. One could see and hear the depth of her feeling come through in her music.

I thought about it again just before after reading that Friedman died yesterday. She had been suffering from multiple sclerosis and was fight pneumonia in a California hospital.

Friedman, although largely unknown outside the Jewish world, was the muse of Reform Judaism. But her compositions also became increasingly popular in the Conservative community. She was often compared to Joan Baez because she sounded a bit like her and even looked a bit like her.

She told me that she had decided long ago to adapt a healing prayer to music for a friend who was going through a difficult time. That composition, “Mi Shebeirach (The One Who Blessed),” has remained her most famous work.

“When I saw the way people responded to this prayer, I knew there was this need for people to deal with illness or whatever crisis is going on in their lives,” she told me. “It’s taken on a life of its own since then.”

Rabbi Jacobs told me then that everyone knew Friedman had a gift when she started singing at Jewish summer camps in California.

“All these kids from the San Fernando Valley were able to discover things within themselves that they didn’t know were there,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, said this in a statement: “Debbie Friedman was an extraordinary treasure of our movement and an individual of great influence. Twenty-five years ago, North American Jews had forgotten how to sing. Debbie reminded us how to sing, she taught us how to sing. She gave us the vehicles that enabled us to sing. Then she impacted our youth and our camps and, ultimately, from there she impacted our synagogues. What happens in the synagogues of Reform Judaism today — the voices of song — are in large measure due to the insight, brilliance and influence of Debbie Friedman.”

Many congregations will mourn Friedman this week, no doubt, as if she was one of their own.

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Anti-abortion leaders condemn NYC abortion rates

Archbishop Dolan and other religious leaders who oppose abortion held a press conference today to lament abortion rates in NYC.

They said that, based on data released by the NYC Department of Health, 41 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion in 2009.

That’s 126,774 live births and 87,273 abortions.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, said: “We’ve been hearing for many years from pro-choice supporters that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. If that’s the goal, we’ve clearly, abysmally failed, especially here in New York City.”

Dolan: “I re-affirm Cardinal John O’Connor’s promise of a quarter-century ago that every woman facing a difficult pregnancy will be provided with free, confidential help of the highest quality from the Archdiocese of New York,” said Archbishop Dolan. “We are prepared to do everything in our power to help you and your unborn baby to make absolutely certain that you need never feel that you have no choice but an abortion.”

According to the stats, released by the anti-abortion Chiaroscuro Foundation, 60 percent of pregnancies for black women ended in abortion.

Reverend Michel Faulkner. “There is something terribly wrong with this picture. As an African American, I cannot passively accept the demise of my community in the name of choice. I choose to stand up and say: ‘why are these numbers so high?’ We did not survive the middle passage and 300 years of Slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow laws to suffer this. I call on every New Yorker to stand for life. We must not allow this trend to continue. New York City is the place where people’s futures begin, not end.”