Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New (and hopefully improved) Everyday Faith

Faith requires change, so I am trusting in the system and moving the blog to The Times' new website. It has its own blogging software, which should boost visibility, and that is one of the points of this exercise (If a journalist writes, and no one reads it, does it matter?). So as of today, I'll be moving to that location: http://www.shreveporttimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=EVERYDAYFAITH

I'm still figuring out how the new site works and the best way to structure things. But I can tell you that it's much easier to comment. So I look forward to hearing from more of you on the new page!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Passover and converts

In all the other religious excitement going on now, I nearly missed Passover, the Jewish holiday which remembers the Exodus.

A friend of mine is in the process of converting and she's trying to figure out exactly what she needs to do for her first Passover. Jews don't usually make a big deal of the sacrifices the week entails, but it can be pretty extensive. The law requires that the house be emptied of all bread products with leavening -- which includes rice and corn syrup. Many Jews have a seperate set of dishes and cookware so the food is not contaminated. My friend has emptied most of the bread from her pantries and found kosher for Passover Diet Coke, so I think she's set.

It made me realize that people new to a faith tend to get caught up in the rules and regulations. They want to make sure they are doing everything "right." Those rules certainly have a point -- usually, the goal is to bring us closer to God -- but when does it become too much? When do we commit the sin of scrupulosity or legalism?

Local reactions to the pope

Even over the phone, I could tell Monsignor Earl Provenza was glowing this morning when he called to tell me about his couple of days in DC with the pope.

"I sense a fresh air," he said. "The window was opened to hope."

As the diocesan administrator he was able to attend the meeting with the bishops on Wednesday which has received significant attention because of the pope's mention of the sexual abuse scandal. Provenza said he was frank but fatherly in talking about the crisis, which has understandably shaken the faith of many.

"He said his heart was so heavy but he said we need to extend help to victims, move forward and I see goodness in the horizon," Provenza said. "A a priest I was very pleased that he said this. He surely wasn't hiding anything."

The atmosphere for the welcome ceremony and Mass was electric, he said, as more than 45,000 people gathered for worship. They clapped, responded and cheered. Provenza also appreciated Pope Benedict's attention to the shortage of priests.

"Any young man to hear him they will be encouraged to think about priesthood," he said.

I also heard from Casey Simpson, a member of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, who attended Thursday's Mass with his 11-year-old daughter. Part of his story made it in today's paper, but here's more.... Simpson was particularly impressed by the emphasis placed on unity of people regardless of race and culture. The Mass included people of all hues, and the pontiff spoke in Spanish toward the end of his sermon. Simpson thought it was a direct comment on the controversy over immigration laws.

The experience also renewed his zeal for his faith.

"The man is inspired by God," he said. "I need to pay more attention."

The day was not all cheering the pope. He saw some protesters, but was particularly struck by a priest who stopped to talk to them.

"He’s trying to show the protester the love of the risen Christ," Simpson said. "He was doing what I’m supposed to be doing too by loving those who would oppose me as a Christian."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Analyzing the pope

I founda few more websites offering some interesting reaction and insight on the pope.

The Washington Post/Newsweek blog On Faith, gives a broader perspective with commentary from ardent supporters to anti-pope ex-Catholics.

Thanks to beliefnet's David Gibson, I just found the American Papist -- another young Catholic blogging about the church. He had a particularly cool entry of photos of popes and presidents.

And somehow in all this I forgot about the ever-insightful John Allen of National Catholic Reporter, who has been covering all things Vatican for years.

Bishop update

While we're talking about all things Catholic, I have some more details on the new bishop's ordination. Everything will be held May 19 at the Convention Center.

The Cathedral looks big from the outside, but if you start bringing in family and friends of Bishop-elect Duca, all the priests/religious of the diocese, community representatives, and just Catholic folks who want to welcome their leader, it fills up quickly. So the Convention Center isn't as pretty, but we just saw that even a ballpark can be sacred space.

Mass will be at noon and a reception will follow. I'll let you know more as I hear....

Papal Mass no. 1

What a beautiful worship service. I had the webcast of the Mass in Nationals up off and on for the last couple of hours and it was a great example of Catholic worship. It's even more cool that we can share this experience across the globe.

His homily (sermon) was full of encouraging words but also a call to constant conversion. The theme of his visit was hope and today's gospel reading (which provides the basis for the sermon) was from John 20, when Jesus appears to the disciples. Here's a few excerpts:

"The Church in America can rightfully praise the accomplishment of past generations in bringing together widely differing immigrant groups within the unity of the Catholic faith and in a common commitment to the spread of the Gospel. At the same time, conscious of its rich diversity, the Catholic community in this country has come to appreciate ever more fully the importance of each individual and group offering its own particular gifts to the whole."

"I have come to proclaim anew, as Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah, risen from the dead, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father, and established as judge of the living and the dead (cf. Acts 2:14ff.). I have come to repeat the Apostle's urgent call to conversion and the forgiveness of sins, and to implore from the Lord a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in this country."

"The world needs this witness! Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of Christ and God. The Church, too, sees signs of immense promise in her many strong parishes and vital movements, in the enthusiasm for the faith shown by so many young people, and also in the number of those who each year embrace the Catholic faith, and in a greater interest in prayer and catechesis. At the same time she senses, often painfully, the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel."

"It is in the context of this hope born of God's love and fidelity that I acknowledge the pain which the Church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors. No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church. Great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation, and to ensure that children - whom our Lord loves so deeply (cf. Mk 10:14), and who are our greatest treasure - can grow up in a safe environment. These efforts to protect children must continue."

"Those who have hope must live different lives! (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior. "

Papal Mass underway

You can see the Mass here. I'm amazed at how a ball park can be turned into a sacred space. I'll have excerpts/impressions later...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Who needs charisma?

It was bound to happen in the first few seconds of any TV story or the first few paragraphs of most print accounts of the pope's visit: some mention of Pope Benedict XVI's "lack of charisma" especially in contrast to his predecessor John Paul II.

ABC News was making that statement last night as I edited a story about the 15th anniversary of the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. I had to think to myself, is charisma really necessary for a religious leader?

Granted there have been plenty of holy men, who were well liked and attracted a crowd -- JPII, Billy Graham, Rick Warren. But more often than not, it seems that when religious leaders are described as "charismatic" bad things happen. Think David Koresh, Jim Bakker, Jim Jones.
Benedict may not be a rock star, but he is a deep theologian and thinker. Even more appropriate to his office, he is a teacher, capable of translating complex ideas into ordinary language. We need more of those, in all denominations.

I have visited lots of new churches, where the worship services are full of glitz and flash and the pastor is a laid back, easy to talk to guy. But they are startling in the lack of substance. One pastor even told me he didn't think theology was important. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying something inappropriate.

In a way, that pastor can't be blamed. As a society we seem hung up on the idea of likability and convenience. It's even permeated the presidential election. Tell me what I need to know in two minutes or less. How do you get people to sit in church or even in a Bible study at home and wrestle with complex issues?

Polls show deep disagreements between American Catholics and the teachings of the church. I wonder how many of them have tried to understand why the church teaches what it does or if they have dismissed it was being "out of touch."

Slowly though, we're seeing a change. Those denominations that are growing -- Pentecostals, Mormons -- demand much from their members. And I've talked to plenty of friends who want substance from their spiritual leaders. They want to be challenged. Personally, I am much more impressed by local pastors who have a great grasp of their theology even if I don't agree with it.

Maybe that is what American Christians can learn from Benedict XVI. Ideas and theology are important, and they are not easily grasped. We must be less concerned with high-tech, high-energy and more concerned about what we believe, why we believe it and how it can change the world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Montessori and "liberal religion"?

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church will recognize the Montessori School for Shreveport with its annual Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.

In the past that award has recognized "individuals or organizations in the wider Shreveport-Bossier community that best exemplifies the principles and practices of liberal religion." I'm not sure exactly what they mean by liberal religion, but recipients have included Sister Margaret McCaffery of Christian Services, Dr. Peter Huff of Centenary College, Shreveport civil rights attorney John Hodge and the Rev. Mack McCarter of Community Renewal International.

The Montessori school is not at all connected to any faith tradition but it does promote individuality, diversity, respect for children and the belief that “the path to world peace is through children.”

Head of the School, Angie Day will accepting the award at the 11 a.m. church service on Sunday, 9449 Ellerbe Road, Shreveport.

Questions for the pope

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive at Andrews Air Force Base to be greeted by President Bush and a host of church dignitaries. His visit has already begun with some statements to the press on the plane.

From what he said to reporters and other writings, this pope is not afraid to address hard issues. According to the New York Times story, the Vatican chose the questions the pontiff answered on the plane and it was issues of pedophilia and immigration. He did not mince words when talking about the scandal: "Who is guilty of pedophilia cannot be a priest,” he said.

I'm also currently listening to his book Jesus of Nazareth, and I saw the same trend. In his exegesis of The Lord's Prayer, Benedict acknowledges that the beginning of the prayer "Our Father" is hard for those who have not had a good example of father. As well, he asks the question "what about God as mother?" It's clear this is a man so confident and rooted in his theology that he sees the answers to these difficult questions.

As he meets with members of other religions and denominations and address the youth at a seminary, difficult questions will be a consistent theme through his visit. In his blog yesterday, Gary Stern of the Gannett suburban papers had some great questions. What questions would you have for the pope?

Monday, April 14, 2008

The pope is coming!

We're just more than 24 hours from Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to the United States, and both secular and Catholic media sites are in a frenzy.

The trip to Washington DC and New York is centered around an address to the United Nations, but his itinerary also includes meeting with President Bush, public Masses in both cities, meeting with leaders of various faith traditions, a youth rally, prayer at Ground Zero and the pontiff's 81st birthday (April 16).

A video message released last week expounds on the theme for the week, "Christ our Hope," which continues the subject of his second encyclical. It struck me that he's speaking to a much wider audience than just Catholics. In the message to Americans, the pope said: "I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: “Christ our hope”. Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition."

Locally, I know we have a few people that have tickets to one of the Masses, and I will do my best to catch up with them later in the week to see what it was like.

In the meantime, if you're looking for more coverage, here's some recommendations:
* Conference of Catholic Bishop's site has official news.
* Beliefnet has a blog by pope watcher and biographer David Gibson.
* Lohud.com, our sister site in the NYC suburbs has an extensive site with stories, charts, blogs, etc.
* And of course, Whispers in the Loggia is on the ground in DC. Palma does a particularly good job of printing the full text of the pope's speeches, etc.

And feel free to comment and discuss the pope's message and the spectacle of it all.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Let the weddings begin

This is the year of the wedding for the Haag family. My brother, my oldest cousin and I (that's three of the four grandchildren on that side) are preparing for nuptial bliss.

My brother starts the trend this weekend. I'm excited for him, and I adore my soon to be sister-in-law. As we've done all the preparations, it also made me realize how important it is to have faith to lean on at this time. The whole idea of marriage is saying there is something bigger than you now. That might just be the relationship, or for people of faith, it would be God. Even though I haven't experienced marriage myself, that would be my thought for them: when life gets tough, remember you're not in this for yourself, but for God and each other.

Now, I turn to you -- what is your advice to those of us preparing for marriage?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Changing Times

After more than five years on the religion beat here at The Times, I'm starting a new adventure. I'm now a full time editorial writer as of this week.

Don't panic. I will not let down the two dozen of you or so that read this page regularly. Everyday Faith will remain, and I'll probably keep my hand in some faith-related reporting, but it will just be on a different scale. The Conversations, or opinion, section certainly lends itself to lots of great stories about the intersection of faith and life (think the current election or the ways churches are involved in creating social change). It also might allow me to write about more theological questions. I can envision something about suffering or forgiveness. Day to day religion coverage will be handled by the Metro staff.

Obviously, I'm still trying to figure out what my role will be, but I'm excited for the challenge and the chance to use my skills in a different way. We'll still be talking faith and religion here and in the pages of The Times, and as always, I look forward to your thoughts.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Thank you, Ethan

Ethan Powell never learned to walk or probably to talk very much. He spent much of his 16 months of life in pain as his tiny body battled leukemia.

Yet, he was one of the most powerful evangelists this area has seen. The night of his diagnosis, Ethan's father, Ben, set up a website asking for prayers. Within weeks, it became a phenomenon as tens of thousands of people across the country checked in to read the daily progress reports from St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. Ethan's picture appeared around town at bone marrow drives and benefits. Throughout, the Powells kept reminding us that "Prayer Works!"

For whatever reason, the miracle of a cure was not realized for Ethan. It's tempting to say that we didn't pray enough or didn't have enough faith. But I would still consider him a miracle worker. It's a miracle his parents had such faith that they would share their story so openly. It's a miracle that leukemia has received renewed attention and people were willing to give their own bone marrow if it would help. It's a miracle that so many people came together to pray.

We are all still praying, for the family and for a cure.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Remembering a great dreamer

40 years doesn't sound like a round number, but 40th anniversaries are key. Many times it is the last big anniversary where the majority of the players in an event are still alive. So today, we stop to remember a man and an era that forever changed our history: the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

You can still visit the spot. At Christmas, I went to see my parents in Memphis and I took my brother and our respective fiance(e)s on a trip through the historic sites of the city. The Lorraine Motel - now the National Civil Rights Museum - was a must see even though the museum was closed (it was Christmas Eve).

Without a doubt, it is one of the eeriest museums I have ever visited. Just south of all the new construction and development downtown is a relic. Time appears to have stopped at April 4, 1968. It's got the same aqua colored doors and the same model cars that were parked out front. the only thing new is a giant wreath in front of room 306, marking the spot where the Civil Rights leader was slain.

All around the motel life has moved forward, but this place always remembers and tries to shout above the nearby clubs, restaurants and galleries: Something important happened here! Please remember and don't let it die here!

Whether we have fulfilled that mission is a topic for another day. But I'll let history speak for itself, and maybe call you to remember through these images and the following excerpt from Rev. King's "Mountaintop" speech. (Complete audio and text can be found here)

"If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" ...

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis....

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation....

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! "

Religion and the election

Charles Haynes brings up an oft-asked question in today's Conversations section: Does religion matter when we choose a president?

Haynes is a first amendment scholar, who I have talked to before, so I don't doubt his legal opinion. Basically he said it shouldn't matter, but he glossed over what I see as the deeper question people are really asking. It doesn't matter as much what religion they profess, but how do they practice it. Do they really believe and follow all that their faith proclaims?

The faith itself can tell you a lot. For instance, I tend to lean toward being socially conservative and economically liberal. I believe we rise and fall together as a society, so we should be helping each other out and raising up those on the bottom. Much of that is informed by my Catholic faith. Similarly, I would expect a Baptist, whose theology is more focused on individual responsibility and salvation to be socially and economically conservative and to lean a little more on the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality while still being compassionate.

So how well you believe that faith tells me a lot more about your future decisions than if you just check a box marked Episcopalian or Jewish. Rudy Giuliani and John Kerry claim to be Catholics, but their beliefs and actions demonstrate that they reject much of what the church teaches. That raises even more alarming questions in my mind. Similarly, I don't agree theologically with Mormonism, but if Mitt Romney is a faithful Mormon, then I feel I can trust where he's coming from.

What do you think? Should religion matter in the presidential election and how do you evaluate it?

Why is this bishop a big deal?

I went t get my haircut last night, and I was telling my hairdresser that I was exausted from all the bishop news yesterday. And she asks why is he so important? Then I got paranoid that I hadn't adequately explained it so I actually called work later to tweak the story.

And I thought I would explain a little more here. Basically a bishop is a leader of a geographical region, or diocese. He is a priest who gets promoted and is the head teacher, preacher and pastor of an area.

He is particularly important because Catholics believe in "apostolic succession." After Jesus' death, the 12 apostles spread out across the known world to preach the good news. And Catholics believe that those teachings and practices have been handed down from leader to leader ever since. If you look up former Bishop William Friend on Catholic Hierarchy (which is pretty cool, if you're into Catholic politics), you can find the bishop that ordained him, and the one who ordained that bishop, and so on all the was to the 16th century. Before that, choosing Bishops was a little less formal process, plus I'm guessing the records get foggy.

So Catholic faithful see the bishop as the person trusted by the church - past and present - to carry on its teachings and lead the people to God. In the case of Shreveport, that means supervising 44 congregations and 40,000 believers.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

More from Bishop-elect Duca

The hard thing about print is you can't write everything, so here's some more excerpts from the morning events with the new bishop.

* He noted that everywhere he went people were smiling. I can verify. Everyone is thrilled to have him and I heard more than one person say something along the lines of "he's everything we wanted."

* He's Italian -- rare for a bishop in Louisiana -- and true to that he was already looking forward to trying local restaurants. Apparently, some of his family members own a deli in Dallas.

* "Every time I read something, I'm encouraged by the depth of the programs here." Duca especially noted the Greco Institute, the adult education arm of the diocese.

* Ecumenism has been part of his ministry for several years. He is part of the American Religious Town Hall meeting TV program, which brings ministers of several faiths to discuss issues.

* Being a shepherd means he will "walk with the people, not so far ahead that they have to look up to you."

* He also celebrated his first Mass, surprising some of the regulars at the Cathedral's noon service. It was his first time to wear the purple (pink?) skull cap of the bishop, which he was a little resistant to until he was assured it was appropriate.

* In his homily, he referred to the first reading assigned for today from Acts, which talks about the early Christians sharing everything they owned.

"Those who are ordained are ordained to share that gift with the whole community," he said. "You begin to understand its not with the parish, or the diocese but the whole church. I am beginning to experience that kind of giving. I do that with a joy in my heart...."

"When we are faithful to our commitments they will drag us through life in an unexpected way.. I pray I will be everything God wants me to be and everything you desire for a bishop."


The pope's mission prayer intention for the month of April is "That the future priests of the young Churches may be constantly more formed culturally and spiritually to evangelise their nations and the whole world."

And the same day he names the rector of a seminary to lead the Diocese of Shreveport. I think Benedict is trying to tell us something...

First impressions

So far the news is good for Bishop-elect Michael Duca, as he marks the halfway point in his whirlwind, introductory tour of the diocese.

The Catholic Center was all smiles and twitters this morning as people through around words and phrases like affable, easy going, extroverted, perfect match and mission minded to describe the new bishop of Shreveport. Duca first appeared at a press conference and seemed very comfortable behind the microphone and willing to answer questions.

It could just be he was thrilled to finally admit the news. The papal nuncio called him two and a half weeks ago, and he was sworn to secrecy.

He also looked a little overwhelmed, like he was still trying to figure out exactly what he does next, but that's understandable. From what he said, he's clearly a man who believes God will lead him as he goes.

Bishop watch comes to conclusion

Monsignor Michael Duca, rector of the Holy Trinity Seminary in Iring, Texas, will be the new bishop of the Diocese of Shreveport.

Here is the official announcement from the Vatican (the English version should be posted later this morning. And here is a little more scoop on the new shepherd from the ever-present and very helpful Rocco Palmo.

Bishop-elect Duca should be present at this morning's press conference and I'll certainly have more to share here and at shreveporttimes.com.

UPDATE: Here's the official release from the Diocese of Dallas.