A different flavor of PDB

prayer-1427565125dg4-300x200The President of the United States gets many perks.  Living in the White House.  Smart folks to help.  Air Force One.  Camp David.

And he also has each morning should he wish it, the opportunity to review the President’s Daily Brief (PDB).  Frankly, I think this is more a penalty than a perk.  It is the report from the intelligence community about what the greatest threats against peace and stability are that particular day.

Although I’ve never seen one of these reports, it isn’t difficult to figure out the things that might be covered.  There’s a 50 percent chance that goofy little guy in North Korean will launch a rocket.  There’s a 10 percent chance the Indians and Pakistanis will lob grenades at each other at a mountain checkpoint.  A plane will be shot down in Syria, a riot will break out in Baltimore, the Iranians are three steps closer to a nuclear bomb and a revolution could go live in Venezuela.

I have to think this report is pretty depressing reading, although there is the upliftinglikelihood that most of the awful things predicted the previous day didn’t happen.

Of course, the American president isn’t the only world leader who likely has sobering reading material over breakfast.  Think about Pope Francis.  Does he get a Papal Daily Brief (PDB)?

He isn’t worried about where to deploy his secret agents, armies, navies and bombs.  He has a different sort of weapon:  prayer.  We’ve needed a lot of that weapon of late, as the year of natural disasters continues.

Imagine you are the Pope and you want to pray for people who are suffering.  Where do you start – let alone finish?  In 2017, we’ve had hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Mexico has experienced two horrible earthquakes.  Around the world there have been floods, wildfires, mud slides and immigration tragedies.  Add in war, terrorism and plagues and you figure the Pope has a pretty thick prayer book.

Pope Francis often issues a statement of solidarity for those suffering in some disaster.  There have been so many that I wonder if he has standardized forms for hurricanes, typhoons, mud slides, earthquakes and general mayhem.  Maybe he reads the morning news, then turns to an aide and says:  “Monsignor, please get me two hurricane forms, one expression of sorrow over a kidnapping and a novena for the conversion of a mad dictator.

This isn’t to make light of a horrendous situation; the world needs prayer, fraternity, solidarity, mercy, peace and the love of Jesus Christ.  You know the Pope is praying for these intentions each and every day.

I admit to sometimes having doubt about the power of my own prayers, a doubt I doubt the Pope has.  But I think we all need to chip in with our prayers and help the Holy Father.

There is no limit to the prayers God can process.  I’m going to add to the chorus.

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Don’t exaggerate death

tree-2649411_960_720The report of my death was an exaggeration. – Mark Twain

I hope never to read my own obituary.  On the one hand, if it were accurate, I would be dead.  On the other hand, if it were inaccurate I might not like it.  On still another hand (oops, that’s three), it might be accurate and I like it even less.

From where I sit in Chicago, the death of the Church might not seem all that exaggerated.  This isn’t to say there are not great things happening, people getting involved, souls saved and all sorts of great things. It is an obituary I do no enjoy.

But if you pick out some obvious statistics, well, it can be sobering.  For example, from 1975 to 2015, the number of diocesan priests in Chicago fell from 1,261 to 776.  Ordinations totaled 37 in 1975 and only 14 in 2015. In 1975, Chicago had 6,497 women religious; in 2015 the number was 1,536. (See all the Chicago data here.)

I could go on with various other statistics that would indicate a decline in Chicago, and I bet I would find similar uninspiring statistics in other major American cities.  Most have or will have significant parish consolidations.  We’re getting ready for major parish closings in Chicago and it will be emotional, painful – and necessary.

If you look at the statistics for the Church in the United States as a whole, you get a similar impression.  We have 20,000 few priests than in 1975.  We lost nearly 90,000 women religious over the same period. And you can get all sorts of detailed statistics at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  The American statistics won’t make you feel like dancing, unless you are a closet member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

On still another hand, if you look at the global statistics, you might feel like a waltz.  You use the same link as the US stats, but have to click on the “global” data.

Spoiler alert:  If you look at global numbers, the Catholic Church is growing…a lot.  The number of priests is fairly stable: 404,783 in 1975; 415,656 in 2015.  The number of women religious is down.  But in other areas…

Priestly ordination:  4,140 in 1975; 5,947 in 2015.

Graduate-level seminarians:  24,183 in 1975; 55,988 in 2015.

Permanent deacons:  2,686 in 1975; 44,627 in 2015.  (Yes, that is a 16-fold increase.)

Catholic elementary schools:  79,424 in 1975; 95,644 in 2015.

Catholic secondary schools:  27,542 in 1975; 47,415 in 2015.

World Catholic population:  709.6 million in 1975; 1.285 billion in 2015.

I could go on with many more statistics that show the growth of the Church.  And there are some troubling trends with the Catholic population:  fewer marriages of Catholics to Catholics, fewer baptisms of babies, fewer Catholic hospitals.  But the trend clearly is toward a bigger, broader, more global Catholic Church.

So what do I learn from this as a resident of a big American diocese that is struggling to stop the bleeding?  It tells me if I want to have a Church as vibrant as it should be I better start evangelizing.  And I probably should expect that my future priestly role model may look and sound less like Bing Crosby in Going My Way and more like Cardinal Peter Turkson.

As a convert, I’m deeply grateful to have found the Catholic Church, mostly through the love and patience of a wonderful wife.  And it is rather thrilling to know the rest of the world is finding the faith, too.

I don’t want to lose my head

Altartafel_Kapelle_Spannweid_Zürich_StadtheiligeI learned a new word last week:  cephalophore.  Actually, it is an old word, so it is more accurate to say I learned a word that other people learned long ago.  An old word was new to me.

The word came up in a gathering of serious practicing Catholics.  As a convert, I thought I had a good excuse not to know the word.  Some of those present were cradle Catholics; they had less of an excuse.

But I’m straying from my point of discussing the word, cephalophore.  It is an art form that depicts a saint carrying his (or her) own head. The idea is that a saint can be decapitated and still have the presence of mind (albeit at arm’s length) to hold the severed head and, perhaps, express some holy sentiment.  Tradition has it that St. Paul spoke the name of Jesus after being decapitated.

Around 120 saints are so depicted in art.  The more famous include St. Paul, St. Dennis and St. Aphrodisius.  Of course, the Bible recounts some beheadings, St. John the Baptist likely being the best known. John didn’t get to hold his head, it being placed on a platter to please the whims of a dancing girl and her lecherous king.

Beheadings also show up in the news these days.  Muslim terrorist groups like ISIS like cutting off heads.  (This is where I add the standard disclaimer that not all Muslims are terrorists, nor do any but a pathetic few remove the heads of their enemies.)

As you might imagine, the history of beheadings is long and disquieting.  I did a little research and learned that execution by beheading seems to be a part of nearly every culture in every part of the world.  Executioners see it as a fast and effective way to kill – and certain to be useful as a behavior modification tool.

Some cultures used beheading as a more humane option to other methods such as burning at the stake, boiling in oil or hanging by the neck.  St. Paul was a Roman citizen and thus given the “humane” beheading rather than the alternative: crucifixion.

The French use of the Guillotine during in the wake of their revolution would seem to make them the beheading all stars.  During those terrifying times, the French removed the heads of a great many people, some of them quite famous:  Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre.

But I’m not willing to crown the French the best at beheading; the English started the practice early and did it often.  Losing a battle, failing to gain a crown or refusing to agree with a king brought many a noble Englishman (or woman) to the chopping block:  Sir Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell, Sir William Wallace (AKA Braveheart).

In cinema and literature characters occasionally lose their heads.  For example, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow gives us the headless horseman.  The rider was hardly a saint, but the United States produced a postage stamp in his honor.

Saints seldom show up on stamps, certainly not without their heads.  And it might seem rather obscure (random, as my daughter would say), but the way the world is going, the cephalophore could make a comeback as an art form.

Christians are persecuted around the world; thousands are killed for their faith each year.  And, yes, many are beheaded.  I don’t know if any are able to literally utter words after the horrid act.  But their conviction and courage speaks louder than words to my heart.

Pope Francis Plays Hurt

popeIf you have been watching the news the past day, you know that Pope Francis bumped his head.

That’s right.  It was the last day of his apostolic journey to Colombia.  He was riding along in his Popemobile, smiling, waving and being the happy ad welcoming Pope we know him to be.

He turned to reach out to a child and “bop” – Papal face meets Popemobile.  He got a little cut over his left eyebrow and cheekbone.  The bruise looked a bit ugly, but after a little ice the Holy Father continued on his demanding schedule.

I was impressed that Pope Francis played through the injury.  But a bump to the head was the least of the injuries he played through on this trip. I’m talking about spiritual injuries.

Pope Francis has called himself a sinner.  He is human, so I take him at his word.  (Of course, who am I to judge?)  But he is farther down the path to holiness than virtually everyone else on earth.

He is the proponent of mercy and God’s love. And he went to Colombia with a message of peace and reconciliation.

So here is the man who wants a world of peace encountering a culture that has been at war with itself for 50 years.  We’re talking oppressive governments, murderous rebel factions, drug lords, human traffickers, kidnappers and murderers.

He met with victims and heard testimonies from the hurt and some of those who did the hurting and mended their ways.  He was visibly moved numerous times.

If Colombia didn’t offer enough challenge, the bishops from Venezuela dropped by to talk about the mess their country is in, the result of a horrible government with years of mismanagement and corruption.

In other words, the Pope had the difficult job of bringing the Good News to people who have heard a lot of bad news for a lot of years.  And as soon as he got back to Rome, it was off to meet with his Council of Cardinals to consider more problems facing a world in turmoil.

It seems like there is no end to the pain and suffering the Pope witnesses, which has to hurt more than a bruised cheekbone.  I’m impressed – and deeply grateful – that he maintains the joyful spirit that uplifts the rest of us.