Saturday, October 31, 2009

Crazy Diocese

St Mary of the Lake Seminary ordained an average of 36 priests a year for the first 60 years of its existence (1927-1987) -- all for Chicago. The last few years averaged 12, and almost none were born in the United States. Many of the parish priests in Chicago today are from Poland, Africa, Mexico, South and Central America (not a bad thing) but many are not fluent in English which makes for some problems of communication especially in homilies. What is crazy is that Chicago is letting some of its priests join the neighboring diocese of Joliet. One especially sad loss was a vibrant, charismatic priest who had led one of the most dynamic parishes in the diocese. He had been assigned to a retirement village as chaplain so he joined Joliet as a parish assistant.

Romeo Marty

Friday, October 16, 2009


It was a miserable rainy day. The large man in the black suit and Roman collar was already running late for a wedding when he noticed his fuel gauge was on empty, so he pulled into a Shell station. A handwritten note taped to the pump declared, “Only pay inside today.” So after filling up, he headed inside to discover a lengthy line. When finally he plopped his credit card on the counter, the clerk said, “No credit card today. Only cash.” He had just $25.00 in his wallet. The clerk said, “Pay up or I call police.” An older man behind him said, “How much do you need?” The priest said, “Twenty more.” The stranger said, “I’ll give it to you.” The priest said, “I’ll mail you a check when I get home tonight.” He replied, “Not necessary,” but he finally agreed to give him a business card. It read Ira Goldman, Attorney at Law.

At the church, the priest began Mass with an apology for being late. He concluded his explanation by saying that he had been saved from jail by a good Jewish lawyer.

After Mass, a number of people came up to talk. One explained the he owned a string of Shell stations, and the problem was that their entire computer network had crashed that morning. Then a woman reminded him that it was Ramadan and the clerk was probably fasting. Low blood sugar coupled with extra stress probably explained his curtness. Finally, another woman commented that the Jewish lawyer was sincere in not wanting repayment because this incident had provided him with an opportunity to perform the “mitzvah” (commandment) of “tzedakah” (charity.) Indeed, he had been able to practice the 4th of the Talmud’s 8 levels of charity – giving before being asked. That proved to be true because when the priest sent his benefactor a check for the twenty, it was returned with a request to consider it a donation to the parish.

A miserable day had been transformed into something remarkable.

In his somewhat quirky best-seller “The Evolution of God” author Robert Wright describes a pattern in the evolution of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which, by fits and starts, has gradually moved them away from mutual belligerence and intolerance towards harmony, compassion and reconciliation. Using “game theory” from contemporary mathematics and economics, Wright sees a fundamental shift from zero sum dynamics (competition) to non-zero sum dynamics (cooperation). “Zero sum” describes a situation in which a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the loss or gain of the other participant(s). For example, a baseball game has only one winner no matter how many extra innings they have to play.

In contrast, “non-zero sum” describes a situation in which the interacting parties’ aggregate gains or losses is either less than or more than zero. For example, a barn raising. There are teams to hoist each of the four walls, but they aren’t in competition with each other to see who is fastest or strongest. Success is measured by how skillfully all four teams can raise the walls simultaneously

The contemporary religious scene has both kinds of people, but the gradual trend is towards cooperation, in Wright’s view. Zero sum practitioners range from the violence of jihads or crusades which seek to destroy or subjugate so-called infidels, to religious leaders who insist that their brand is essentially superior to the competition. One wit characterized some recent Papal pronouncements, for example, as saying, “God loves all of us human beings, but He loves us Catholics more.” By contrast, Non-zero sum folks have benefited from things like the Hubble space telescope, which reveals the immensity and complexity of creation. If we believe in a Creator, it (or she or he) must be even more astounding than we ever imagined, which introduces a profound modesty into our religious debates.

Also, the scriptural insight that “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God in them” alerts us to any and all manifestations of authentic love in our increasingly globalized world. Here in the United States, we have countless opportunities to rub up against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, other varieties of Christians, as well as sincere agnostics and atheists, whose goodness is deeply touching. Thus on that miserable day in the gas station, not only three individuals, but three traditions intersected in a wonderful way. Moreover, the comments after Mass alert us to the fact that there are others who are able to assist us in understanding deeper levels of our interactions with people of other faiths.

All of which is remarkable.