Preparing future priests for dinner conversation, email usage and dealing with the media

I had the privilege yesterday of addressing about 35 Catholic seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

The topic: How to “interact” with the media.

I was on a panel with John Woods, editor of Catholic New York, and Beth Griffin, a writer for Catholic News Service. They’re both real pros whose work I respect.

We each chatted for a few minutes and then took an interesting assortment of questions from the group.

As you might expect, I argued in favor of “openness” with the media. I tried to make the case that it’s in everyone’s best interest for priests to take calls from reporters, arrange interviews and try to explain their beliefs and actions (in a clear, concise and careful way). The opposite approach — not returning calls, offering a “no comment,” turning your back on a reporter — never makes reporters go away and ultimately contributes to less accurate and meaningful news reports.

Does interaction with the media ensure accurate and thorough news reports? Of course not.

The panel was asked about reporters with an “agenda,” the questionable accuracy of bloggers, the messy fall-out from the high-pressure, 24-hour news cycle and other factors that can make the media quite scary for clergy.

All good points. No question about it. But the Media Machine is not going away and many priests will have to face it at some point.

Beth, John and I all had the same message: Be truthful. Be helpful. Be clear. Be careful.

Father Gerard Rafferty (that’s him), who teaches Scripture at the seminary and introduced us, may have said it best: “We can’t be afraid of proclaiming what we believe.”

Our presentation actually came at the end of a two-day seminar called “The Priest in the Public Eye.” The idea was to help future priests fully realize that they will live much of their lives in the public eye and to understand what it really means.

They started on Monday morning with a presentation on — get this — social etiquette. How should you look, introduce yourself, greet others, even offer handshakes. How to interact with staff and parishioners. What it means to be a good host and a good guest. Even how to offer a toast and work a receiving line.

This is the life of a priest, right?

Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of the seminary, covered basic communication, from the parish bulletin and the parish website to answering invitations and writing thank-you notes.

Father Stephen Norton covered the advantages — and potential dangers — of Internet networking and email use. For example: Choose an appropriate email name, even for personal accounts.

Yesterday morning — and I wish I could have seen this — the seminarians learned about dinner etiquette. We’re talking how to deal with forks and spoons, how to make appropriate conversation (avoid politics and religion, anyone?) and knowing when it’s time to leave. Also: Silence the cell phone.

Then came our program about dealing with the media.

Griffin had one of my favorite bits of advice for the day: Don’t refer to your archbishop as an “ordinary” or an unknowing reporter may report that you referred to Archbishop Dolan as, well, an ordinary joe.

The new guy…in Yonkers

Observations from evening prayers at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers:

1. Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Cardinal Egan, upon pulling up in front of the seminary, were greeted by Bishop Gerald Walsh — the rector (center) — and Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone.

Also on hand was the Rev. Luke Sweeney (left), an Irvington native and vocations director for the Archdiocese of New York. Sweeney was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome when Dolan was rector there.

3. When Dolan entered the main lobby and received a long ovation from seminarians, faculty and guests, he looked like he had just walked into a surprise party — grinning ear to ear. I mean, this was after a full day of meetings and congratulatory phone calls.

4. Speaking of which, Dolan said that he got a phone call from President Obama just before leaving NYC for Yonkers. “I said ‘Thank you, Mr. President. I need those prayers.’ He said, ‘I need your prayers, too.’ ” He also got calls from Mike Bloomberg, Gov. Paterson and others.

5. This was Dolan’s first visit to Dunwoodie. During the vespers service, he talked about the seminary’s worldwide reputation.

6. Dolan said he’s never spent more than a couple of days in New York.

7. During vespers, Egan expanded on his role in Dolan’s rise. Egan explained that when he was chairman of the North American College, he sought out the best possible rector. He heard about Dolan and went to St. Louis to recruit him.

8. In the lobby, Egan and Dolan talked about the pressing need for more seminarians. Egan suggested that each current seminarian recruit four more. Dolan responded: “If you get more than four, I’ll ordain you early.” More applause…

9. Dolan said he will be spending most of the next month in Milwaukee, where he is still in charge. Ash Wednesday is, after all, Wednesday, and there is much for an archbishop to do.

10. The choir loft at the seminary was filled with more than two dozen reporters and cameramen. Several reporters were doing live reports for their 5 p.m. broadcasts while the service was going on. Not too much interruption, though.

11. Addressing the seminarians, Dolan said that after a long, packed day of excitement, the one thing that stood out from the rest was…Mass. “That is the most important thing that I ever do,” he said.

12. Tomorrow, Dolan may take part in a Milwaukee tradition for “Fat Tuesday:” eating jelly rolls made of fat and grease. He hopes his doctor won’t object.

13. Although it’s been announced that he will be installed on April 15, Dolan will actually take “canonical possession” of the archdiocese at a special service at St. Patrick’s on April 14. On the 15th, he will be installed and celebrate Mass.

14. One more: Dolan was off to the cafeteria for dinner with the seminarians. Penne vodka and chicken marsala.

And there you go.

Your chance to visit Dunwoodie

Never been to St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Dunwoodie neighborhood of Yonkers but curious about it?

The famous Catholic training ground for (fewer and fewer) priests will hold an open house this Sunday for “the people and parishes” of the archdiocese.

tjndc5-5ipf5e12zxwvbglg6di_layout.jpgIt will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. on All Souls Day.

The afternoon will feature: tours of the main floor led by seminarians; presentations on life at the seminary; tours of the seminary’s 42 acres; and a peak at the papal chair (pictured) used by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI during their stops in Dunwoodie.

Adortion of the Blessed Sacrament will be available all afternoon in the chapel.

And Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of the seminary, will lead Solemn Evening Prayer at 4 p.m. in the chapel.

Also on hand will be Father Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the archdiocese, and Father Luis Saldana, assistant director for Hispanic vocations and rector of the St. John Neumann minor seminary.

tjndc5-5ipf5gtkipgw3zxf6di_layout.jpg“This open house is for everyone — young and old, married and single, and for priests who would like to bring people by,” Sweeney tells Catholic New York.

If you’ve never been there, the seminary is a magnificent building. The chapel was just refurbished for Benedict’s visit.

In the main hallway, you can see graduation pictures of each class of priests going back decades. The pictures alone give you a real sense of Catholic history in New York.

Red Mass tomorrow in White Plains

Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary and vicar of development for the Archdiocese of NY (that’s him), will celebrate the annual Red Mass for those in the legal profession tomorrow (Wed, Oct. 29) in White Plains.

tjndc5-5b5pzovviyovzf85ezi_layout.jpgIt will take place at 6 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Church, 146 Hamilton Ave., the big, old church near the White Plains train station.

Some prominent folks have celebrated the Red Mass in White Plains, which is organized by the Westchester chapter of the Guild of Catholic Lawyers

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien — a two-time rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and now the Archbishop of Baltimore — presided several times.

And Cardinal John O’Connor did so several times during the late 1980s. In 1988, he said that his work was not unlike that of judges of lawyers:

“I have to try to administer the law, the divine law,” he said. “It is very difficult to preserve the law in its integrity.”