Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Free air: 5 Cents"



Serious family matters have interfered with me writing blog articles lately.  However, many fascinating things in our Church have captured my attention during this lapse and have been rattling around in my brain.  I’ve tried forming them into a single cohesive article but I think a series of vignettes might work better.  Here are a few recent ones from my hometown, diocese and state:

1. My former pastor recently pleaded guilty to embezzling large sums from the parish’s accounts earmarked for helping the poor pay for education, food, housing, and utilities.  He’s been sentenced to several years in prison but is still a priest because stealing money donated to help the poor does not merit defrocking.  To be defrocked, it requires doing something really reprehensible like advocating for women’s ordination or reproductive health.    

I feel rather sorry for the guy.  I think he simply blurred the lines between schmoozing encouraged by the hierarchy, such as for acquiring golden chalices, and schmoozing that displeases the hierarchy…when caught, such as funding the trappings of personal pleasure.  Due to weakly written and even more weakly enforced Canon Laws, pastors can get away with blurring these lines for decades.  Kudos to the current pastor for his whistleblowing.  However, he is frustrated because people’s lingering mistrust has impacted weekly donations.  People don’t trust the system; it’s probably not personal.

2.  Four of our diocese’s Catholic high school football players were not permitted to start in last Friday’s football match.  Their crime?  Stealing from the poor?  Nah…  Before the game, they respectfully kneeled during the playing of the U.S. national anthem as a poised social justice act denouncing the (sometimes deadly) biased treatment young men of color frequently receive from law enforcement officials. 

It was very windy this past weekend so all I can figure is the wind tore apart diocesan officials’ Catholic theology books, blowing away all the pages covering Catholic Social Justice teachings which would justify these young men’s actions.  I did not attend the game but I envision clergy and school officials scurrying about to collect, reassemble and study these pages during the game because, miraculously, in time to snatch a come-from-behind win, the players, including the star quarterback, were admitted to play in the game.  Catholic Social Justice won in the end.  But, praise Jesus, the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not lose sporting matches,” remained intact too.  Kudos to the young men who schooled their school and diocesan officials in Catholic Social Justice.

3.  My dad often tells the story of a service station in his youth that advertised this ironic slogan, “free air: 5 cents”…the air itself was no-charge but using the air pump to direct it where it was needed cost a person 5 cents.  (For my non-US readers, 5 cents is 5% of one US dollar.)    

I share that story because in the Detroit Archdiocese, we have one of these “free air: 5 cents” situations tied to the beatification Mass for Fr. Solanus Casey.  The Mass will be held at Ford Field in Detroit, the sporting arena for the Detroit Lions professional football team.  Tickets are “free” but you have to pay a $5.00 USD processing fee.  I guess with over 70 years of inflation, free air now costs $5.00 instead of 5 cents.

Solanus Casey was a Capuchin friar who spent many years at St. Bonaventure monastery in Detroit.  He lived a life of minimalism with almost no personal possessions and he gained local fame for interacting with people like my grandfather who brought a few alcoholic colleagues to Fr. Solanus for healing.  Though Solanus’ life was noted for simplicity and poverty, his beatification Mass, it seems, will not.  Tickets have been given for “free” at $5.00 per ticket to 60,000 people already, yielding $300,000 for “free” tickets.  That’s some expensive processing.  I assume further profits will be made in the name of this simple man because concessions will be open for the beatification Mass.  Maybe instead of the typical sporting event concessions combo of a hotdog, popcorn, pretzel and a soda, pious participants attending the beatification Mass can get a hotdog, popcorn, rosary and some holy water to-go.

The Church officially prohibits charging for reception of the sacraments such as attending a Mass.  To do so is called “simony.”  To get around this prohibition and pretend no one is charging for access to the sacramental beatification Mass, the tickets are free, but the processing fee to order and receive the tickets costs $5.00.  Yes, between hawking tickets at $5.00 apiece as well as hawking concessions, the money changers will be in the temple!

I guess if it were a Mass for someone like the embezzling priest, the money changers in the temple wouldn’t seem so garishly vulgar as it does capitalizing on the good name and works of a man who owned one religious robe, one pair of sandals, a shaving mug and a violin.  Forgive them God, though I think they know full well what they do…

Finally, a side note: I will be speaking at Call to Action’s regional conference in Detroit, MI on October 21.  Here’s a link for more details.  I look forward to praying and discussing spiritual journeys with those who attend.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

When the clergy are the 1%



This might strike readers as unusual but sometimes I just don’t know what to say. 

Earlier this month I received an email from the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) inviting me to join its rector on a pilgrimage.  PNAC is the US bishops’ seminary in Rome.  Somehow, I do not think of myself as being on the PNAC’s “A” list for invitations to anything.  Nonetheless, I received the invitation. 

Maybe some readers would like to join the PNAC trip so here’s a link to the flyer advertising the trip. 

Receiving the invitation is not what left me speechless.  It was the pilgrimage’s description and price…$7,699 per person for a 9 night luxury cruise on the Mediterranean.  There is also an option for $12,399 per person for folks with more discerning tastes.  The flyer describes free-flowing champagne, butlers, room service, shoe shine service, spas and marble-clad bathrooms…you know…all the amenities Jesus had.  I am sure there will be reflection exercise on “where would Jesus cruise” and “what kind of marble would inspire Jesus to excrete.”

To put this in perspective, the global annual median salary in 2012 was estimated at about $1,225 USD.  Thus, the modest per person pilgrimage package, in the name of Jesus, is equivalent to about 6 people’s annual income.  About every day and a half on the cruise, each of these fine pious folks will burn through the equivalent of one person’s entire annual income.  The more luxurious package equates to 10 people’s annual income, burning through more than a person’s annual income equivalent per day. 

And I had no words for weeks.

Thankfully my words have returned.

It is one thing to opt to spend money in this way.  It is another thing to think somehow you are closer to Jesus by lavishing the equivalent of people’s annual income on yourself each day for a course of 9 days.  It is yet another thing to do this as a priest, who theologically I am told intrinsically reminds me of Jesus and operates in persona Christi.  But it is beyond the pale to be the rector of a premiere Catholic seminary, responsible for forming priests for an entire nation and undertake this kind of extravagance.  But hey, they will say Mass every day aboard the cruise ship. 

Pope Francis, this is all happening in your backyard.  Can you do something about that?  You are scheduled to meet with the rector a few days before his trip because this “pilgrimage” is all timed around diaconate ordinations of PNAC transitional deacons.  I hope everyone has their Gucci chasubles back from the cleaners for the occasion.

In this same timeframe, two priests in my diocese have been arrested for embezzlement, one from my parents’ former parish and the other from my sister’s former parish.  Here’s a link to information about one and the other.  Both are accused of embezzling several hundred thousand dollars and one seems to have embezzled about $1.85M from parish coffers to pay for his rather grand gated residence.

The bishop and his staff are said to be fully cooperating with police and both priests may well serve prison time.  The bishop has been on television regarding at least one of these priests, explaining he is a sinner who succumbed to temptation.  He asks the good people of each parish to withhold judgement until the criminal justice systems plays out…innocent until proven guilty…though in each case it was the diocese’s audit that surfaced suspicions which prompted the bishop to call the police.  So, the laity are to withhold judgement but evidently the bishop already suspects guilt, or he would not have turned these guys over to police. 

I find it peculiar that the rector of PNAC goes on a cruise for over $850 per day (not including airfare) and we call that a “pilgrimage” and sprinkle all sorts of holy awe around it whilst two other guys from the same brotherhood merely did stuff like take about $844/day and $228/day respectively (if you average $1.85M and $500K over 6 years’ time.) To me it is two sides of the same coin.  The embezzlers are a bit of a bargain compared to the rector.  I guess these guys saw their superiors living marble-clad lives and just went about securing that lifestyle for themselves the wrong way. 

In general, I think the PNAC pilgrimage involves more moral bankruptcy than the two embezzling priests.   With the embezzlement situations, most likely people gave money innocently albeit incorrectly thinking their money would be used for good causes.  In the case of the PNAC cruise, people knowingly are paying for themselves and the rector to live in luxury, deluding themselves that this equates to pious devotion. 

Truly, I believe the best chance of encountering Jesus on the PNAC cruise might be in the experiences of very likely underpaid cruise employees serving as butlers, shoe shines and wine stewards.

In both the PNAC and embezzler situations, it seems a clamoring to live like the 1%.  Though I probably would fail to answer correctly the question, "which marble inspires Jesus to poo," I will go out on a limb and guess that "what would Jesus do" does not involve butler service.  I've been looking for the gospel passages where Jesus said to lavish upon one's self and ignore the poor.  Alas, that only seems to be in the gospel according to Paul Ryan and the Mighty Pious Catholic Republicans.  Have mercy on us!

Might I suggest that they follow Sia's advice and pursue "Cheap Thrills" that "don't need dollar bills to have fun...?"  It avoids scandal and might help eliminate prison time...provided there's not a sexual impropriety issue as well.  Just a suggestion...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Without cost have you received; without cost shall you give (MT 10:8)



I must offer a deep respectful bow in the direction of Opus Dei Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, archbishop of Lima, Peru.  The best I can tell, he unabashedly stands for what the Roman Catholic hierarchy is all about…money.

Last week I visited Lima and tried unsuccessfully to visit its cathedral.  Here’s a recap of my effort.

Cashier: (As I tried to just walk in the church door.)  Excuse me, you must buy a ticket.
Me: A ticket?  For a church?  I’ve visited many of the greatest cathedrals in the world and never paid. 
Cashier: You have to pay to visit the Religious Art Museum.
Me: We don’t want to visit the Religious Art Museum.  We want to visit the Cathedral.
Cashier: The cathedral is only a church when there are services.   The rest of the time it is a museum.  It’s free only when there are services.
Me: (Thinking any cathedral I’ve visited has oodles of services) Well, when is the next service?
Cashier: Saturday (This was Monday, by the way.)
 Me: Saturday?  When does the cathedral have services?
Cashier:  Saturday and Sunday mornings only. 

Canon 1221 states, “Entry to a church at the hours of sacred functions is to be open and free of charge.”  This leaves the option to charge for things like sacred music concerts offered in a church.  One probably assumes a cathedral for an active bishop has many hours of sacred function.  But Cardinal Cipriani has whittled his cathedral’s sacred function times down to 2 Masses: Saturday at 9 a.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. He even schedules confessions to occur during Sunday Mass, conveniently minimizing those pesky hours of sacred function which interfere with making money.

To put this in perspective, in all my travels visiting Cathedrals and famous Catholic Churches throughout the world, the only times I have ever paid an entrance fee to visit a functioning Catholic Church were my visits to the Vatican museum which included stops at the Pope’s private Sistine Chapel.  St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John Lateran, St Peter in Chains, St Paul, St Mary Major, St. Paul in Rome?  Free, free, free, free, free and free.  Holy Cross, Santa Maria del Fiore, and Holy Spirit in Florence?  Free, free, and free.  Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris?  Free and free.  St. Patrick in New York?  Free. 

Perhaps I have successfully visited all these other Catholic Churches without price because, primarily functioning as churches, they all frequently offer Masses and other services every day.  However, at 2 Masses per week, each of which at a generous estimate might account for 4 hours, it seems Cipriani’s cathedral functions as a church, at most, 8 out of the 168 hours in a week.  That’s less than 2% of the time.  I suspect he takes advantage of tax breaks given to churches 100% of the time, though.

Who knew that when reading about the Cathedral and the Religious Art Museum, I was actually reading about the exact same building which miraculously varies identity and function relative to day and time.  Through some never previously revealed building transubstantiation process, it seems his cathedral can agilely flip its functional character back and forth.  As much as Cardinal Cipriani blusters against moral relativity, he seems to support building function relativity enthusiastically.   

Though Cipriani supports building functional relativity, I’m not sure Canon Law does.  According to Book IV, Title I, Caput I of Canon Law, cathedrals must be dedicated as sacred spaces and undergo an even more elaborate process to turn them from sacred spaces to ones for profane usages like that of a museum.  Yet, somehow the Cardinal manages to do this on a weekly if not daily basis with his cathedral.  Maybe the cathedral’s two Masses begin with a dedication service and end with a decommissioning one? 

Does that mean that since his chair of authority (cathedra) spends most of its time in a museum it is an historical artifact versus a functioning cathedra?  Does he speak and teach with authority only during the two Masses per week in which the building housing his cathedra actually functions as a church, 2% of the week?  Does that make him a cardinal only 2% of the time and a museum piece 98% of the time?

Cipriani’s focus on money does not stop with turning his cathedral into a revenue-generating museum.  He holds personal and diocesan shares in Yanacocha, a controversial mining company with a gold mine in the poorest province of Peru that poisoned about 900 people in 2000 via a mercury spill and introduced high levels of cyanide into the local water supply amongst a population mostly lacking funds to purchase bottled water.  Cardinal, by any chance, do you wear a “WWJP” bracelet?  “Who would Jesus Poison?”

Maybe in comparison to his gold mining stock, the $10 USD admission to enter his church seems like kittens’ play.  However, with a $118 USD average weekly Peruvian wage, $10 USD is not a small amount. 

Cipriani, a critic of moral relativity while exhibiting morally questionable behavior, regularly writes and says sexist things, has been barred from contributing to certain periodicals after he was caught plagiarizing two popes’ writings, has his hands dirty in not properly addressing clergy sex abuse, and denounces homosexuality, social movements and environmental activists.  So, maybe he falls short in most clergy requirement areas like advocacy for the poor, compassion, decency, honesty, protecting children, etc… But, baby, he is rock solid in the profiteering category!  He gets an A+ there, for sure.

As much as we suspect so many hierarchy members are all about money, they at least give a good show of effort by having things like daily Masses. That might fool some people into thinking they actually care about God’s people.  Not this guy!  He lays it right out there.  “Show me the money!” 

In fairness, the guy has his positive points.  It costs money to erect and illuminate the huge Jesus statue and cross, both of which can be seen for miles around Lima, especially at night.  Also, for $10 USD, you can get a combo ticket and tour his palace as well as the cathedral…such a bargain! Maybe, deep down, he really is sensitive to people’s economic concerns.

At this point the Pope Francis fans might be wondering, “Yes, but what does Pope Francis think of all this profiteering at the expense of the environment and poor people’s health?  What does he think about a guy who operates a 2% cathedral/98% museum?”  In 2014 Pope Francis appointed Cipriani to his newly formed Papal Council on Economic Affairs.  Evidently, Pope Francis thinks this guy is just a little bit of alright…actually someone to lead the way on how to handle money in the church.

So, hats off to Cipriani for openly operating as a money grabbing cleric.  His honesty demonstrating the primal importance of money amongst the hierarchy is refreshing…albeit contrary to the gospel and in no way reminiscent of Christ.