Welcome! This blog celebrates both the local and the catholic -- that is, universal -- aspects of the Roman Catholic Church by sharing reflections on experiences of the Church in a variety of settings and cultures. Postings will come from around the world and around the corner. You don't have to be a Catholic to come along.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spirits and Spirituality in Kentucky

James Beauregard Beam, founder of the bourbon company that bears his name, was a Baptist. But his grandson, F. Booker Noe II, for 40 years the legendary master distiller of the same company, was an active Roman Catholic.

We twice stayed in a bed and breakfast on Fourth Street in Bardstown, Ky., right across the street from the handsome home first occupied by Col. Beam and later by his grandson until the latter's death in 2004 at the age of 74. According to our hostess, Col. Beam endowed the Bardstown Baptist Church on the same street. Booker, on the other hand, worshiped regularly at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral.

This last fact was confirmed for us last week by our guide on a tour of the pro-cathedral, a church worth visiting by anyone who has even a passing interest in American and/or Catholic history.

The former Diocese of Bardstown was created in 1808 at the same time as the dioceses of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Up to then there had been only one diocese in the United States -- Baltimore. The territory of the Bardstown diocese was vast, far bigger than the other U.S. dioceses, including parts or all of 10 states.

The first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, St. Joseph was built between 1816 and 1819. Among its treasures are paintings donated by Pope Leo XII and Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies.

Eventually the Diocese of Bardstown was divided into 44 dioceses and archdioceses, beginning with the then-Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821. When the episcopal see in central Kentucky was moved from Bardstown to the fast-growing city of Louisville in 1841, St. Joseph lost its status as the bishop's seat and became a proto-cathedral.

In 2001, however, this great church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II in recognition of its historic importance. Tours are available on a regular basis April through October and by reservation the rest of the year. It's not always open to visitors, though, because sometimes more important things are going on there -- weddings, baptisms, funerals and daily Mass. It's a thriving parish church of almost 5,000 members, not just a historical artifact, which is what took Booker Noe there on a regular basis.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Poet-Priest of the South

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reminds me that the unofficial “poet laureate of the Confederacy” was a Catholic priest, and we were guests in his house.

On a trip to visit our son, Mike, at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., some years ago, we spent two nights at the Father Ryan House Bed & Breakfast Inn.

The house, built in 1841, was a National Historic Landmark directly looking out on the Gulf. Right in front stood a palm tree with steps build around. Our top-floor room had a great view.

Although the house took its name from Fr. Abram Ryan (1838-1886), once tremendously popular as a poet-priest in southern and Catholic circles, Fr. Ryan apparently lived in Biloxi less than a year.

I was more interested in the house’s present than in its past: The owners of the B&B used the proceeds from the business to fund their medical missionary work in, I believe, Central America. So we had a great stay and supported a great cause.

Sadly, all of the references to the Father Ryan House are in the past tense because it is no more. Hurricane Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Only the palm tree in front was left in one piece. The website lives on, however, with an excellent photographic tour of this once-great house.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

West Should Meet East

Pope John Paul II used to say that the Church needs to breathe with both lungs, east and west. Unfortunately, most Roman Catholics are only dimly aware that there is another lung.

From the time I first learned about the Eastern Rites, probably in high school, I've been fascinated by the idea that there are non-Roman Catholics -- just as Catholic as Latin Rite Catholics with the same faith and the same pope, but with very different liturgies, traditions and approaches. Even the art (icons) and architecture (onion domes) are different.

Among the Eastern Rite churches are the self-governing Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Geez, Maronite, Syrian, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Alankara churches as well as a number of churches of the Byzantine-Constantinopolitan family.

Despite my interest, the only Eastern liturgies I had attended were a Greek Orthodox wedding and a Maronite Rite funeral until four years ago. Our friend Stephanie Moore had a Byzantine Divine Liturgy offered for my father at a church in Columbus 40 days after his death, an Eastern rite tradition. Some time later we attended another liturgy at Stephanie's own parish, St. Emilian Byzantine Church in Brunswick, Ohio (pictured above in her photo).

Even though I practiced and tried hard, I could never get the right-to-left sign of the cross right. It didn't matter! The smells and the bells, the icon screen and the chants -- the mystery of it all swept me away.

"Too many people think candles are just candles, and incense is just smoke, and icons are just pictures," Stephanie wrote to me recently. "When you begin to understand what they truly represent, the Liturgy takes on a new and holy meaning that transcends us through the ages."

Transcendent it certainly is!

At the beginning of Advent 2011 a new English translation of the Roman Missal, accompanied by a major thrust in liturgical catechesis, should have Roman Catholics thinking a lot more about Latin Rite. This would be a great time for us to learn more about the Eastern Rites as well. The best way to do that is to experience the Divine Liturgy. You won't be sorry you did.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Sistine Chapel in Two Acts

Context is everything. Really.

On my first trip to Rome, in 2004, I sat on a marble bench on one side of the Sistine Chapel and marveled at what Michelangelo had wrought. The tourists were noisy, but not enough to distract me from the wonder of the masterpiece above me -- and something else.

Pope John Paul II was a old and frail. I looked around and realized with tears in my eyes that it could not be long before this sacred space would be the site of a conclave to elect a new pope.

A few days later, as Ann and I were standing outside the Coliseum, I overheard a tourist say, "That's the most impressive thing I've seen in Rome." I was much more impressed by the Sistine Chapel, both the vision of the grand plan and the execution of the individual elements.

By our next visit, four years later, the expected election had taken place and Pope Benedict XVI sat on the Chair of Peter. This time the Chapel was packed with lots of tour groups. The noise level was almost deafening and the guards had to yell "Silenzio!" and "No pictures!" every few minutes. (We obeyed, which is why the photo above by best friend and traveling companion extraordinaire Steve Winter, is not from inside the Sistine Chapel.)

Later on that same trip, we visited the Cenacolo in Milan to see Leonardo's "The Last Supper." The contrast in setting was stunning. Here there was no crowd and no noise. The couple of dozen or so visitors appreciated the genius of Leonardo's work in almost total silence.

Although part of a church, the huge wall on which "The Last Supper" is painted was in a refectory -- a dining room. At one time in its long life, that room housed horses. During World War II, it had no roof and was exposed to the elements. In no way does the Cenacolo have the dignity of the famous chapel in which popes are elected . . . and yet, viewing Leonardo's masterwork there was much more of a spiritual experience for us than our second visit to the Sistine Chapel.

What a difference silence makes in the spiritual life.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Praying for Cuba

When I am saying grace by myself, usually at breakfast and lunch, I always pray for the people of Cuba. This is how that came about:

In April 1998 I took a course in Caribbean theology in Cuba as part of my studies for a Doctor of Ministry degree. That was only a few months after Pope John Paul II had visited the island. Posters displaying his likeness were still common, along with communist slogans as well as ads and T-shirts for such familiar consumer products as Coca-Cola, Reebok, Pepsodent and Jameson's Irish Whisky.

During my time in Cuba my interactions were mostly with Protestant theologians and ministers, but I did get to visit the San Carlos seminary (pictured here) and take part in Mass at the Cathedral in Havana.

The baroque 18th century Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Havana is located on a bustling square filled with hustlers, prostitutes and tourists. In fact, the prostitutes spill over into the Cathedral and approach the tourists; bouncers ask them to leave.

Sunday Mass at the Cathedral was awe-inspiring -- dynamic, moving, spirit-filled and joyful. Ten children were baptized, only one of them an infant. The priest was enthusiastic and animated as he preached (of which I understand not a word). The choir and the music, very Cuban in its beat, were top-notch. A couple of the parishioners, one of them a lector, wore T-shirts with pictures of the pope.

At the end of the Mass the classmate I was with, a Presbyterian minister, and I introduced ourselves to the priest. "Pray for us," he said. "We have a lot of work to do." And he blessed our foreheads with the sign of the cross.

Everywhere I went in Cuba people asked for prayers, but that priest's sincere appeal is the one that I remember best.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

St. Peter's Square

As a city boy, I like city squares.

Ever since I first started working in downtown Cincinnati in 1969 I have regarded Fountain Square as the heart of the city. With great satisfaction, I have watched it undergo two renovations to bring it up to its current glorious state.

But to me no square can match Piazza San Pietro -- St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. The first time I saw it -- after a missed plane, misdirected luggage, and a cab drivers' strike that forced us to walk a memorable distance from the train station to our hotel -- the size of the square and the magnificence of the Bernini colonnades took my breath away. Photos just don't do it justice.

But scope and beauty are not the only attractions for me. I love to look at the Egyptian obelisk at the center of the square and reflect that it was already almost two thousand years old when the Emperor Caligula installed it in his circus in 37 B.C. It has only been at its current location since Pope Sixtus V moved it there in 1586.

If you work in the Vatican and you look at that monument with some frequency, it has to have some impact on your definition of words such words "immediate," "urgent," "timely" and even "important"!

I love to cross the piazza anytime, but especially in the evening with the lights illuminating the two fountains. And I never fail to look up at the Apostolic Palace to see the lights there, the ones burning in the windows of the papal apartments. I find them a comforting sight.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Patron Saint of Television

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of television, who died on this day in 1253.

She is Chiara Offreduccio, daughter of a count and countess, co-founder (with St. Francis) of the Poor Clares, and first abbess of San Damiano -- St. Clare of Assisi.

We have prayed at her tomb in Assisi, located in the church named for her. Also in the Basilica di Santa Chiara is the beautiful and famous San Damiano cross that spoke to St. Francis, telling him: "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."

Not far away -- nothing is far away in Assisi -- in the Church of San Ruffino we saw the font where Francis and his friend Clare were baptized. Later, they both abandoned worldly goods to embrace Lady Poverty, dismaying and angering their wealthy families. Their sincere and simple witness soon attracted followers to their mendicant orders, and still does.

So why is a 13th century nun who was cloistered for more than 40 years the patron saint of television, as designated by Pope Pius XII in 1958? It is recorded that when she was unable to join her sisters for midnight Mass at Christmas because of an illness, she was granted a vision of the liturgy on the wall of her room in a different building.

I'm pretty sure that St. Clare isn't as well known as St. Francis, even to Catholics. She should be. Perhaps today more than ever, television could use her prayers.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Giving for Grenada

A life of service is a gift that keeps on giving, sending out ripples of love after the giver has gone home to God.

Fr. Ed Conlon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, served in pastoral work on the Caribbean island nation of Grenada from 1983 until a few months before his death in 1997 at the age of 77.

Upon his passing, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese commented that the word most often used to describe him was "saintly." Among those he inspired was his nephew, Bishop Dan Conlon of the Diocese of Steubenville, who followed his vocational path.

Members of the Conlon and Kolkmeier families also have been inspired to continue Fr. Ed's work in Grenada. Tonight we attended the annual Fr. Ed Conlon Memorial Benefit Dinner to support the Mary Rose Mission in such projects as the creation of a Catholic radio station, rebuilding the Cathedral destroyed by Hurricane Ivan (it is scheduled to be rededicated Dec. 8), completing churches and operating a nursing home.

The dinner, held on the west side of Cincinnati, each year raises an average of $22,000-$23,000. From the west side to the West Indies -- that's what you call the Church Universal.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Pope at Hiroshima

In Hiroshima, Japan, where the first atomic bomb explosion occurred on Aug. 6, 1945 -- the Feast of the Transfiguration -- the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum stands as part of a 122,100-square-meter peace park.

As you might imagine, the museum contains many touching testimonies to what happened on that day 65 years ago. But the first thing that we noticed when we visited in 1999 was a marble monument displaying words uttered there by Pope John Paul II in 1981:

War is the work of man.
War is destruction of human life.
War is death.
To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future.
To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.
To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.

It was quite moving to me that the words of the Holy Father were given such prominence in a non-Christian country. Perhaps only later did it hit me that Hiroshima was one of the few cities in Japan with a substantial Catholic population, dating back to the work of Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The most important center of Japanese Catholicism, however, was nuked three days after Hiroshima -- the port city of Nagasaki, was founded by Portuguese Catholics in the late 16th century. After the Jesuits were driven out of Japan by persecution, underground Catholics around Nagasaki maintained a form of the faith without priests for more than 250 years until the Japan's ban on Christianity was lifted in the late 19th century.

Today the Catholic Church, though embraced by a small percentage of the population, is safely above ground throughout Japan, attested by churches, schools and universities. A Jesuit friend of ours from Cincinnati has served there for 58 years.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Something New for God

The other day I was present as a new parish came into existence in Cincinnati.

The aptly named Church of the Resurrection -- created by the merger of four predominantly but not exclusively African American parishes -- became a parish and celebrated its first liturgy on Sunday, Aug. 1.

The beautiful church was packed for a joyous two-hour Mass. When the congregation sang "Let Us Go Rejoicing," they sounded like they really meant it.

Processional crosses and banners from the four former parishes proceeded the celebrants into the church. Later, holy water from the four were poured into the font of the new parish and congregants were invited to bless themselves with the united water.

"We are here to do something new for God, with God and with one another," Fr. Dennis Chriszt, C.PP.S., pastor of the Church of the Resurrection wrote in the parish's first bulletin. "Together, we can do more than we could apart. Together, we can do great things, and that is what gives me hope!"

There have been some birth pangs; not everyone was pleased by the location of the new parish. There may be growing pains ahead. But from my position in the balcony, observing the first Mass along with the saints on the stained glass windows, it seemed that the Church of the Resurrection got off to a marvelous, grace-filled start.