‘Catching up’ with the pope’s preacher

I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.

tjndc5-5f09fmxx0khlhhtfba3_layoutCantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.

On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.

I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.

When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”

On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:

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“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”

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On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”

Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”

What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.

Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.

John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.

Allen writes:

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What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.

For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”

All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?

Christian history and Good Friday

On this Good Friday, I’m staring at a book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, that arrived a couple of weeks ago.

It was written by a prominent English historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford. He is also an Anglican deacon.

christ-m_1498073fCounting notes and index, the book is 1,161 pages and must weigh a couple of pounds. I’ve toyed around with reading it, well, starting it, but have not been willing to make the commitment so far.

I’ve read a few 700- and 800-page books, but the 1,000-page mark is kind of scary.

Still, I just read a review of the book that will run Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It was written by Jon Meacham (also an Episcopalian), editor of (the recently refurbished) Newsweek and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”

Meacham describes himself as a serious Christian and an ongoing critic of Christianity. From his description, MacCulloch is at least the latter.

Meacham, noting a kinship with MacCulloch, describes the book as “sprawling, sensible and illuminating.”

The sprawling part, I could have guessed.

He writes:

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The story of how the faith came to be is a vast and complex tale of classical philosophy and Jewish tradition, of fantastical visions and cold calculations, of loving sacrifices and imperial ambitions. It was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a close-run thing: a world religion founded on the brief public ministry, trial and execution of a single Jew in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. In my view, an unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason. John’s Gospel says that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Perhaps; I do not know. (No one does; as Paul said, we can only see through a glass, darkly.) But I do know this: Short of the end of all things, it is the knowledge of the history of the faith that can make us free from literalism and ­fundamentalism.

It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and surprisingly accessible volume on the subject than MacCulloch’s.

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I don’t know. I may have to haul the great volume home one of these days.

tjndc5-5b4m4zcrh5512yia1nb6_layoutAdditionally, I will share part of an email blast I got yesterday from the Rev. Joe Agne, pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains.

Agne is soon retiring and moving out west, so this is his last Easter season with his flock.

His note includes this:

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This is quite a week, in the life of Jesus, and in our life as followers in the Way of Jesus. Last Sunday we arrived to find the sanctuary barred from us as Caesar was inside in an imperial procession (Just like in Jerusalem a couple of millenia ago). We learned some music from Jayson, talked about our predicament and decided to go into the sanctuary following Jesus in a peasant procession. It was joyous with palms, musical instruments, Jayson’s Djembe and lots of songs. We declared we are people of the Way. Last Tuesday Jesus confronted those who would get rich by taxing our religious observances and he upended their business tables. Tonight we will gather with Jesus for our last meal with him, a simple meal of bread and wine. All of us will wonder if we are the betrayers. Later one of our leaders, and one of Jesus’ closest friends, will deny Jesus three times and we know, given the opportunity,) that we could do the same thing. He will ask us to stay awake for him and we will go to sleep. He will be arrested, never found guilty and still sentenced. Tomorrow the Roman authorities will execute him. They are hoping that we will all be afraid and never try to get the peasant procession of Jesus going again. They want us to be afraid to live in the Way that Jesus has taught us. They don’t want us to have an option other than the imperial procession.

And then — on Sunday, some of our friends will go to the tomb and it will be empty. The authorities will have failed to keep Jesus and the Way locked up in a tomb. The peasant procession of Jesus continues on and again, we have a choice — Which procession will we join? If we stay afraid we will stay in the imperial procession. If we can live without fear we can once again choose the Way of Jesus. That’s what I want to do. I hope you do too. We can do it — together.

Good Friday, the ‘Coffee Haggadah’ and the Catholic-media showdown

A few things today after a day off:

First, two Good Friday items. For the last decade, the largest non-denominational Protestant service in the region has been held in Westchester, usually at the Westchester County Center. I covered the “Westchester  One in Praise” service a couple of times and saw thousands gather on Good Friday — mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals, a racial and ethnic mix.

This year’s 7:30 p.m. service will be at Mount Vernon High School. The featured speaker will be Dr. Carolyn D. Showell of First Apostolic Faith Church in Baltimore.

What else? Last year, I visited the Peale Center for Christian Living up in Pawling to write about their annual Day of Prayer on Good Friday.

I sat in the back of a chapel at the home of Guideposts magazine and watched a few dozen people read prayer requests from strangers and then pray for them. Rotating teams of staff and volunteers prayed for something like 16,000 people between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

If you want to know more or might want to send in a prayer request for this year’s 40th anniversary Good Friday Day of Prayer, go to www.Ourprayer.org.

Second, Passover. Someone gave me a copy the other day of a Maxwell House Haggadah. I found myself wondering how a coffee company wound up creating the most popular Haggadah in the U.S., used by countless families at their seders over decades.

I came across a short article from Moment magazine that answered my questions.

Here is the opening:

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In 1923, when Maxwell House Coffee signed on with the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in New York, it was already a legend. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly drank a cup in 1907 at the Nashville hotel for which it was named, proclaiming it “good to the last drop.” Fortune smiled even more on the brand when Jacobs conceived a plan to entice American Jews to serve the coffee at their Seders. First, he lined up a prominent rabbi to assure Jews that coffee beans were not forbidden legumes but fruit. Then he convinced his client to underwrite America’s first mass-marketed Haggadah. When it appeared in 1934, free with the purchase of a can of coffee, the Maxwell House Haggadah swiftly revolutionized how American Jews celebrated Passover.

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So there you go. Producing a Haggadah — and a good one — was good for business.

Kraft, which now owns Maxwell House, still produces the Haggadah. One million copies were printed in 2009 for distribution through supermarket chains like ShopRite.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, notes: “Local custom ruled liturgy. Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

Being something of a coffee snob, I haven’t had a sip of Maxwell House in a long time. Now I find myself wondering what it tastes like.

Third, an international conflict grows over the recent media coverage of various sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Several reports that have called into question the past decision-making of Pope Benedict have unleashed passionate defenses of the pope and increasingly  harsh criticism of the media — especially the New York Times.

Most of the criticism has focused on extensive NYT reporting about a late Milwaukee priest who allegedly molested close to 200 boys at a school for the deaf, where he worked from 1950 to 1974. While no one seems to dispute that the priest, Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, was a monster, the Times’ contention that the pope — then Cardinal Ratzinger — was slow to react in 1996 has created the firestorm.

Archbishop Dolan, who defended the pope after Palm Sunday Mass by comparing attacks against him to the persecution of Jesus, now writes on his blog about “diatribes” against the church and the pope.

He concludes with this GREAT soundbite:

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Let me be upfront: I confess a bias in favor of the Church and her Pope.

I only wish some others would admit a bias on the other side.

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Meanwhile, a Milwaukee priest who presided over a canonical criminal trial involving Murphy, has stepped out in the Catholic media to complain that he has been widely misquoted — even though he was never interviewed by a journalist.

“As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing from a sense of duty to the truth,” writes Father Thomas Brundage.

Brundage writes that Murphy was guilty of “unmitigated and gruesome crimes.” But he takes the Times to task for all sorts of things, which I can’t fully summarize here.

Among other things, he writes:

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With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged , vulnerable people. “ Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

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On NationalReview.com, Raymond J. de Souza also dissects the Times’ coverage of the Ratzinger connection.

“The story is false,” he writes. “It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism.”

Finally, Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and prominent historian of American religion, suggests on ReligionDispatches.org that Catholics who are “disgruntled” by scandal go Episcopalian.

He notes that the Vatican has reached out to conservative Anglicans who are fed up with their church’s leftward drift.

Balmer writes:

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So what do we learn from these developments over the past five months? Consider the evidence. I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It’s okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem.

I’ll take my Episcopal Church, warts and all, any day.