Is the winter hiatus between Christmastide and Lent regarded by you men of the cloth as a sort of midterm break, a chance to loosen your clericals and put your feet up, so to speak? If so, I trust my letter finds you in robust health and with time to ponder some thoughts regarding our diocesan newspaper.
On the Wednesday before Advent, my weekly diocesan newspaper arrived, as usual, crisp and fresh in the mail. Although long experience has taught me to toss the paper in the trash without so much as a glance at its contents—my reasons for doing so, Your Excellency, will soon be clear—on this particular afternoon, I beat down my prejudices and opened the paper. With the approach of the Christmas season, I was looking for some juice to jump-start my sputtering spiritual engine. Surely, I reasoned, a Catholic newspaper would devote space to Advent, to special prayers, to Scripture readings, to family traditions.
Nothing. Nada. This issue of the Catholic Herald contained no Advent page, no review of Advent practices, no articles on the efficacy or practice of prayer, no reminder even of Advent itself. Instead, Church news and articles on good works (that word good being open to interpretation) so filled the columns of the Catholic Herald that some innocent readers might conclude that we Catholics really do believe in working our way into Heaven.
Since your name appears under Publisher, and since I know you don’t agree with some of these articles, I assume that you, like me, consign each issue of the paper to your own wastebasket without bothering to read the contents. Perhaps, however, we both need to follow the paper more closely.
Several of these articles will strike alert readers as exercises in postmodernist satire. One feature describes how Buddhist monks tell Catholic monks how to practice celibacy; another piece tells about Indonesian schoolchildren asking visitor George W. Bush to change his foreign policy in regard to Islam. (Indonesia? Isn’t that one of the places where Muslims keep murdering Christians?) We will find yet another report on the ecumenical failures between Anglicans and Catholics. (Surely, this issue is moribund; by the time full communion is restored, there won’t be enough Episcopalians left in America to get up a good game of shuffleboard.) We learn that Massachusetts bishops are “disturbed” by a legislative vote on same-sex marriage. (Members of the press, both secular and Catholic, increasingly describe bishops as “disturbed.” What exactly is a disturbed bishop? How does one identify a pothered prelate? Does the usage of disturbed possibly refer to some deeper, darker psychological state?)
Any of these articles merits review by an editor with the gimlet eye of an old-fashioned mother superior. Aware of your busy schedule, however, I offer only two of these pieces for examination. The first bears the headline “Revisiting Yesterday’s School: St. Joseph’s Celebrates 50 Years of Catholic Education.” The article reports that the Sisters of Saint Joseph started the school and that 11,000 students have passed through its doors in the last half-century. (Since only one nun remains in the school, and only five in the entire system, these numbers make me wonder how many graduates of our Catholic schools ever become priests, monks, or nuns.) The writer tells us that “one classroom had been retrofitted to represent a typical classroom of the 1950s. Current students took the opportunity to use slate boards and read books like Davy Crockett.” Slate boards? In the 1950’s, I attended an impoverished public school in a town of 600 people in Piedmont North Carolina, and we never used handheld slate boards as depicted here. And Davy Crockett? Does the writer mean to imply something old-fashioned in reading about a great frontiersman? He then quotes a retired school official: “Teachers in Catholic schools never work there for the money. It’s all about the values. The greatest gifts are the children.” If this is true, Your Excellency, let me suggest slashing the salaries in these schools. Such cutbacks, which would apparently leave the teachers unperturbed, should reduce the high price of education, thereby allowing many more gifts in the way of children to swarm the classrooms.
Another reporter writes, as if in triumph, that Catholics differed little from other groups in the November elections. She tells us that Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Pax Christi USA pushed a “life does not end at birth” campaign designed to persuade Catholics to vote “on a broader basis than just abortion.” In a teleconference sponsored by the Catholic Alliance, the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners stated, in regard to the Pennsylvania senatorial race where both candidates opposed abortion, that “it took abortion and religion off the table.” Is that the message the Herald meant to send, Your Excellency? Does the Church really support the position, as this article seems to suggest, that it’s best if we “neutralize abortion as a litmus test issue”?
Let me make two suggestions regarding the Catholic Herald. As you know, parishioners pay involuntarily for this puff-and-fluff. Parishes are billed for subscriptions whether parishioners want them or not. Why not let individual readers decide whether they wish to subscribe? Let each reader who so chooses pay for a subscription.
Being reasonably certain that this boat won’t float—the Herald would sink quicker than the Titanic—let me offer another suggestion. Why not set aside two pages aimed at teaching the Faith? These pages could include explanations of the Mass and the Catechism, guides to a richer interior life, brief forays into Catholic history and traditions. The “Keep-’Em-Dumb-And-Dutiful” crowd might object, but a lot of us might actually find something worth reading.
Wishing us both a harshly penitential Lent,
Your obedient servant,