Bishop O’Connell On His Recovery, the Synod, and More

oconnellI had a chance to interview the Most Reverend David O’Connell, Bishop of Trenton, about his recovery from an emergency amputation, his Lent, the synod, and his diocese. An excerpt:

Has [your recovery] given this Lent any added meaning?

It’s something that has been part of my own movement into Lent. I’m conscious of this disability, and that it is requiring sacrifice on my part. The biggest sacrifice is the fact that I can’t get out and see my people. I’m here in the residence, and I do a lot of work from here, but this has been a real challenge. There’s something about confronting real challenges in life that does test your faith, and that’s what Lent is all about.

Lent is recognition of the challenges you have to face and the resolution that you make to overcome them to be better. In the course of my ministry and many years as a priest, I’ve can’t tell you how many people I’ve told, “Don’t lose faith, hope, don’t give up, don’t be afraid.”

Now this Lent and this experience has been my chance to listen to my own advice. God has been ever-present. I’ve had that sense very clearly in the crosses and also the successes each day. This is a Lent that I won’t soon forget.

We are drawn closer to the Lord because we become aware of our shared dependence. That’s something as human beings we don’t think about a whole lot. We are totally dependent on God and on others. When you don’t have a leg you can’t walk. You need people to get you out of bed, you need people to help you. I need people to teach me how to relearn how to take a step, stand up, sit down, walk up a stair. You don’t think about these things. I do feel that this experience has deepened my realization of dependency, and that maybe isn’t the worst thing.

Read the whole thing at the National Catholic Register.

Bishop O’Connell is my bishop, and I’m glad to see him healing so well.

Bishop Undergoes Amputation

photo1036A statement from the Diocese of Trenton:

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., Diocese of Trenton, underwent surgery, Dec. 29, in a Trenton area hospital to remove his left foot, ankle and part of his lower left leg reaching halfway between the knee and the ankle. The surgery was needed to address several serious infections brought about by diabetes.

Bishop O’Connell’s surgery was described as successful by his surgeons, and his recovery is going well. He will remain in the hospital for a brief period of observation, and then will be moved to a local rehabilitation center. He is expected to make a full recovery, and will be fitted for a prosthesis at a time to be determined by his doctors.

We ask members of the community to pray for Bishop O’Connell in the coming weeks and months, as he recovers and completes his rehabilitation. Anyone wishing to send a card or note may do so at the following address: Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., The Chancery, Diocese of Trenton, 701 Lawrenceville Rd., Trenton, NJ 08648, Attn: Office of Communications. To send via email, write to

St. Anthony of Padua and St. Josemaria Escriva, pray for the speedy recovery of your servant David.

Being Catholic Online

Internet Catholicism has been a true boon for me. As someone who works at home, it plugs me into a network of people who share my faith and help me figure it out and build it up. It will take years to understand its true impact as an evangelization tool, but I think it’s an important one, if only because it allows people to witness to their faith in a public way.pope-francis

And that’s also the problem. When we project ourselves into this online space we are, for some, the only witness to Catholicism people will have. That doesn’t mean we have to be sunshine and puppydogs, but it does mean that what we say and how we say it matters.

Even good people get drawn into the anger, anxiety, and factionalism that occurs whenever two or three are gathered in just about anybody’s name. Factionalism dominates the Catholic news sites, blogs, and social media, and it’s an ugly and unproductive thing.

I’ve been trying to figure out my place here as a blogging Catholic, and it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I just put up something I find interesting or amusing, and those posts usually find their audience.

I can tell you from experience that poring time and work into good, noncontroversial pieces about things you love will usually yield far fewer clicks than rancor, controversy, and attacks. For all we may complain about negativity in the media, we are draw to it like moths to flame. Or, more accurately, like flies to crap.

The reason isn’t that hard to figure out. Controversy provides a jolt of emotion and allows us to situate ourselves on a moral spectrum. It draws the circle around “us” and lets us recognize “them.” That’s simple tribalism, and we’re hard-wired for it.

The latest controversy to blow up the Cathonet is the appointment of Bishop Cupich to Chicago, which comes right on the heels of Cardinal Dolan’s Big Gay Parade controversy.

Cupich is being hailed as the second coming of Bernardin, and for those outside of the Commonweal/America/National “Catholic” Reporter tribe, that’s a bad thing.

Choose one, but remember: the Holy Spirit did not descend as a hawk.

Choose a side, but remember: the Holy Spirit did not descend as a hawk.

Bernardin was the prototype squishop, and the only appropriate thing about his elevation was that his hat could finally match his politics. He is the saint of the Catholic left, which never gets tired of being wrong about almost everything.

The appointment of a bishop to a major see is not a small thing. Squishops steered the American church into a ditch after Vatican II. Whether or not Cupich is one of them remains to be seen. His past behavior is certainly troubling. His bizarre and strident opposition to the pro-life movement* don’t leave me feeling very hopeful for Chicago.

But even if we assume that Cupich is a nightmare, and that by extension this indicates that Francis is shaping the church in ways that may reverse progress made under St. John Paul and Benedict (and let’s not forget that Mahony and Bernardin were both elevated by John Paul), what exactly do the most vocal and hostile critics think they can do about it?

When you do something, you should have some achievable result in mind. Sometimes, being human, our “result” is mere venting of emotion. I get that. I do it too. Sometimes it’s extremely therapeutic.

Bitching about inside baseball in the church or, worse, in the very tiny world of online Catholics, is pretty small beer. No matter how much people bloviate about the important issues at hand, there’s no escaping this sense of an internet populated mostly by 8th grade girls gossiping around their lockers.

When we’re Being Catholic in this space, we need to check ourselves and ask hard questions. How exactly does it all contribute to our spiritual welfare and growth? How does it build up ourselves, our families, our community, and our church? Am I preaching truth in charity, or just blowing a gasket? Am I spreading hope, or fear?

As I never get tired of saying, the internet is an amplifier. It doesn’t just distribute information: it amplifies it, often making small things seem more important than they really are.

Does that mean we don’t speak hard truths, even if they involve criticism of our leaders right up to the pope himself?

Of course not. It’s our duty to speak clearly about our faith, particularly when our leadership seems to be drifting off course. I’ve made my reservations about Pope Francis’s leadership pretty clear, but I don’t think any of those issues come even close to the serious, schism-provoking levels we’re hearing from his more hysterical critics.

You know what does provoke schism, however? Constantly talking about it!

As someone steeped in church history, I’m aware that we’ve already been through the worst of times. Despite this, we still have a tendency to dramatize our own times as somehow uniquely filled with dangers to the church.

Understand this: every age is full of dangers to the church–both from inside and out–and always as been, every single year, for 2000 years. Among the first bishops, one out of twelve was a traitor, and eleven out of twelve were cowards.

When we survey this whole vast history and ask ourselves “Are our times/leaders uniquely bad/dangerous?” the answer is obviously no. Even the horrible persecutions in the middle east are of a type we’ve seen before and will see again. All is as it was foretold: “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is doing the work of God.”

We were promised a couple things:

First: the gates of hell will not prevail against our Mother, the Church.

Second: a cross.

These people who sneer about “The Church of Nice” always make me wonder, “You’d prefer a Church of Total Bastards?” They haven’t understood Benedict at all. The idea of affirmative orthodoxy has flown right over their heads.

Yes, we have to criticize, and some people won’t like that at all.

Yes, we have to stand up and make our voices heard when leaders attempt to distort or weaken the unchangeable teachings of the church, or fail to lead as they did in the abuse scandals.

But we have to do more than that. We have to be a witness to the true happiness and fullness of life that is only found in Christ and the One True Church.

And lately, all I’m seeing when I log into Facebook or check some of my blogs is a Litany of Despair offered not by people attempting to speak a hard truth, but by people who are afraid, and fear breeds fear.

All this inside baseball is, as practical matter, of no interest whatsoever to 99% of Catholics, and all of this doomsaying does nothing–not a damn thing–to help the church. It is, in fact, poison. No one in leadership is paying attention to a bunch of internet denizens kvetching on Facebook. There is no Blogosterium. There are only everyday ordinary people, and those people are in need of solid faith formation and guidance in their lives.

The only thing we can do online to change the church is to teach and be.

Teach the truth, hard as it is, always and everywhere, even when our leaders don’t, and even when they need to be corrected in charity.

Be people of hope and joy, as much as we can, always and everywhere.

Everything else is just sound and fury.

Related: Catholics Coming Unglued

Update: Abbey Roads has similar thoughts.

*After posting this, I cut a reference to some personal knowledge I have which, on further thought, I don’t feel I have the right to share.

In Baltimore With Bishops and Bloggers

So if you’ve been cruising around the Catholic blogs and news sites, you may have already heard about the bishops and bloggers meeting that took place on Sunday, a day before the official start of the USCCB’s general convention. Security was light and I was able to sneak in and pretend to be worthy of spending three hours among the princes of the church and some of the best religious bloggers on the interwebs. I even managed to photobomb the Patheos class picture when no one was looking:

I’m the one on the far left, wearing my uncanny Lisa Hendey costume.

Meanwhile, the guy who takes care of my chickens is being subjected to a Vulcan nerve pinch by Mark Shea while Kathy Schiffer stands on his feet and says “Smile and you may escape with your life.”

I’m a day late in posting because my first coverage had to go to the National Catholic Register, which now has a journalism-type article written with objectivity and professionalism:

 Bishop Coyne began the discussion by forcefully stating that the question is not “If bishops and the Church should be involved in digital media, but how.”

“Facebook is the new parish hall,” said Poust. She cited the recent example of Hurricane Sandy, during and after which people used Twitter and Facebook to stay connected and share information.

Palmo observed that almost all of these technologies are free, and that even if only a minority of Catholics is using them, that still represents people who are seeking ways to be connected to their Church and parish.

“Yes, it’s unofficial,” Palmo continued. “Yes, there are dangers, but the thing I’ve found is that it has an intimacy that speaks to people, which institutional commentary doesn’t have.”

Okay, enough of that jazz. What you really want to hear is what Mark Shea is really like, if Leah Libresco is really going through with this Catholic thing, and if Rocco Palmo actually has the Pope in his rolodex. Here are some random memories from my 12 hours spent on the Baltimore jaunt.

I drove down from South Jersey for the day. Our Sandy-strained electrical grid gave out again shortly after I left home, and the day after Chris Christie promised all the power in the state would be restored. Except, you know, for those places where it wasn’t.

Only the weak use real navigation software: the daring among us use Apple maps, and we like it! Sure, you can have software that sends you to your location quickly and efficiently, but when you’re trying to squeeze in a morning mass at the Baltimore Basilica, pick someone up at the train station, drive someone to their hotel room, and make your 12:30 meeting, you want something that adds a little spice to your day.

That’s where apple Apple maps comes in. It’s like have a drunk with Tourettes reading a map upside down and acting as your navigator, randomly shouting out bizarre directions. Turn left! No! No! The other left! Arggg! You’ve killed us all! At one point it ordered me to take a left, a right, a right, and a left on a straight road: a perfect U. Was that block of route 40 mined, perhaps? Did Siri save my life?! And when it suddenly blurted out “MAKE A U-TURN,” did it meant that I should literally start heading in the other direction, or was it offering advice about the spiritual direction I was taking? Mysteries upon mysteries.

I got to the venue for the conference early and ran into the other bloggers. I asked where registration was. Some weren’t sure. Some thought there was no registration. There was some debate about whether it was on the third or fourth floor, or perhaps in another hotel, or maybe on another day, in another city. Why, yes, this event was organized by the Catholic church. What makes you ask?

Baltimore Basilica, under wraps

I zipped out to the 10:45 mass at the Baltimore Basilica, which is in the midst of restoration and wrapped in muslin like a new work by Christo. The Basilica is quite beautiful in its undraped form, but there was something appealing about the tent-like wrappings that shrouded everything, like attending mass inside a tent at the Quidditch World Cup. The mass itself had a full choir. They offered a fine rendition of “Gift of Finest Wheat” that almost made me not want to puncture my eardrums.

Since I cover the conference in my story, I won’t rehash the details here. I think it went fairly well. I’m not sure what the successors to the apostles made of a bunch of self-appointed public diarists holding forth, but it seemed to be pretty productive. A few points:

Some people pronounced blogs “dead.” I’ve also read people pronouncing  Facebook “dead.” Or Twitter “dying.” Or Pinterest the “next big thing.”  Or this or that. Let me give you a final and definitive answer about what’s dead and what’s not, based on years of experience in tech trends: anyone who pronounces this or that medium dead has not one single clue what they’re talking about. I have no idea if Facebook is played out, and neither does anyone else. I suspect it has peaked. It may decline. It may not. Anyone trying to predict anything else is just guessing and assigning the word “analysis” to their guess.

About that “Blogs Are Dead” bit: bullshit. We were told that USA Today killed all their blogs because they couldn’t get ads for them, thus the blog format is history. Meanwhile, checks arrive at my house each month containing money from Patheos blog ad revenue. The crappiness of USA Today‘s blog effort–and the failure of their sales team to build a functional revenue model or their editorial team to provide interesting content–does not translate into the death of blogs. (Exit question: USA Today is still published? Who knew?)

You want the truth about social media trends? We’re off the grid, people. Nothing is dead. Everything is in flux. I have no map through the next few years of technological shifts because too much is in the mix right now. I wouldn’t dare make that kind of bold predication, and I spent years writing columns on various tech trends for major magazines.

My gut is telling me that Twitter is ascendant, but it could peak soon too.

My gut is telling me that bloggers need to find a new means of convergence along the Patheos and Gawker model, with single URLs opening to multiple writers.

My experience is telling me that young people are cooling on their Facebook attachments, which means usage will contract to a smaller, but still large and dedicated, user base. Again: these are not predictions. They’re guesses informed by experience and observation.

The bishops seemed curious but unsure just what it all might mean. Bishop Samples rose to say that his whole purpose is to bring the presence and message of Jesus Christ to people, and he wanted to know if this technology can do that. The answer is: it’s a part of it, yes. You have to find people where they are if you’re going to evangelize them, and where they are is online, on Youtube, in MMOs, playing games, watching streaming television, listening to podcasts, following social media, and so on. It’s a vast apparatus of tools–almost every one of them free–that can be tapped to spread the message. Gutenberg gave us the printing press and the explosion and democratization of knowledge. The internet and social tools are not a new Gutenberg revolution: they are the same revolution extended into new spaces in new ways.

My own comments were limited to the end, where I pointed out that we have a model for how this all works, and it’s really not hard to follow. Fr. Barron is the master of these media, and has already shown the way to use it all. He plays new media like a concert master plays the violin. When trying to understand a new format, find someone who does it well, and do what they do, then add your own twist. (I also babbled something about World of Warcraft, but I was rushing and didn’t connect up my point, which was this: Fr. Barron began evangelizing the culture through movie reviews. Cultural engagement. Games, mobile tech, even viral videos are all cultural touchstones, and need to be places where we are present as Catholics.)

I may write about the CARA study–mentioned in my NC Register story–in the future, so I don’t want to go into it now. I take a dim view of survey-based studies. The sample size was adequate but hardly decisive, and the tendency of people to reply with what they may perceive to be “correct” answers skews the results. Yes, I know the models take that into consideration. I still don’t find them useful.

F’rinstance, CARA would have us believe that the posts people want most are on church history and the saints. Um … no. Really not even close. Those are what people think they should want, because what they really was are snarky posts, scandals, celebrities, sex, media reviews, and puppies.

Hit counts don’t lie. Survey results do.

Also, they made a big deal about the fact that “Catholic” attached to other words in Google search took something like a 34% dive between 2004 and 2012.

Hmmmm, let me think … what was happening in 2004 that might make people search more for the word “Catholic” than they would in 2012? Anything coming to mind?

In other words, they misread a spike in 2004 as a dip in 2012. They make some passing reference to this in a footnote, but the takeway was that PEOPLE AREN’T SEARCHING FOR CATHOLIC TRUTH ANY MORE! OMG! EVERYBODY PANIC!!!!! No. Wrong. Next.

The meeting was quite good, but the real cherry on top was retiring to the James Joyce pub to consume beverages and victuals with the other Catholic media types. What a fine bunch of folks, really. Some quick observations:

Yeah, Brandon Vogt is really like you might suspect: an absolute unlimited bundle of energy and good will. He’s a man you just like. He would have been an awesome preacher, and in a way, he is a true lay preacher in the digital realm. I love seeing that much joy in one so young. He will move mountains.

Telling moment in my time with Leah Libresco: She’s quick, no-bs, scary smart, very down-to-earth, and a pleasure to be with, but when she started talking about scattergraphs, she just kind of lit up. It was statistics-as-religious-experience. If math is indeed the true language of God (which I suspect), Leah is already talking with Him. She’s ready to enter the church this month, thanks be to God.

Leah Libresco, Mark Shea, Kevin Knight (l to r)

Mark Shea is a grand soul, which should surely vex his enemies, who have him pegged as some sort of monster for speaking boldly and passionately on important issues. He’s a pure force of good cheer and generous spirt, the way you imagine Chesterton would have been. He also ordered two glasses of milk at the same time. In an Irish bar. And he bears the name “Shea.” Yet he still held his head up high. That, sirs and madams, is a man.

I liked Kevin Knight right away. He’s quiet and unassuming, yet when you remember that he built what is arguably the single most important Catholic resource on the internet single-handed, you can’t help but be a little awed. With the exception of Fr. Barron, I can’t think of another Catholic whose presence on the internet is so consequential, and he’s just a nice guy.

If I heard tomorrow that the next pope was being personally selected by Rocco Palmo, I’d probably believe it. I don’t know how he knows what he knows, but I can’t think of many Vatican watchers who are more perceptive or better writers. He’s also a damn good guy. He spoke with some passion–and irritation–of the digital realm’s lagging outreach to the booming Hispanic Catholic population, and expressed chagrin at the combox hostility towards them, a point echoed by Mark.

I’ll be perfectly candid: I’m inclined to resist that kind of balkinization along ethnic lines, assuming that what I write about prayer or technology or history is as interesting and relevant to someone with Latino roots as to someone with anglo roots. On the other hand, I understand that this is my own blind spot, and cultures have their distinct ways of understanding and experiencing the faith that is no less valid than the forms we’ve evolved in our largely Irish/Italian/German/Polish/French-Catholic heritage. Rocco is right: there is work to be done.

The biggest disappointment of the day was not meeting The Boss. Elizabeth Scalia’s plane broke down on the runway and she didn’t make it, so I lost a chance to meet a woman I admire tremendously. Same goes for Kat Fernandez and Fr. D. Next time, okay?

I had a lot less time to speak with Deacon Greg, Lisa Hendey, Sarah Vabulas (who knows social media better than anyone else in the Catholic pond), Thomas Pringle, Fr. Kyle Schnippel, and Kathy Schiffer, but I was glad just to  shake their hands and say hi. Thanks letting me ride along. It was grand. Let’s do it again some time. I’ll bring the chickens.

“Evil talks about tolerance only when it is weak”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia offers one of the most powerful meditations on modern life I’ve seen in ages. In it, he ties together the descent of our culture into a kind of moral insanity, its eugenicist tendencies, and its profound frivolity.

He begins by linking the extermination of unborn children with Down Syndrome and other disabilities to the selfishness or modern man:

The vulgar economic fact about the disabled is that, in purely utilitarian terms, they rarely seem worth the investment. […] And, just as some people resent the imperfection, the inconvenience and the expense of persons with disabilities, others see in them an invitation to learn how to love deeply and without counting the cost.

Archbishop Chaput makes it clear that our corrupt culture has led us to this point, with cowardly pseudo-Catholics all-too-often leading the charge.

Catholic public officials who take God seriously cannot support laws that attack human dignity without lying to themselves, misleading others and abusing the faith of their fellow Catholics.  God will demand an accounting. Catholic doctors who take God seriously cannot do procedures, prescribe drugs or support health policies that attack the sanctity of unborn children or the elderly; or that undermine the dignity of human sexuality and the family.  God will demand an accounting. And Catholic citizens who take God seriously cannot claim to love their Church, and then ignore her counsel on vital public issues that shape our nation’s life.  God will demand an accounting. As individuals, we can claim to believe whatever we want.  We can posture, and rationalize our choices, and make alibis with each other all day long — but no excuse for our lack of honesty and zeal will work with the God who made us.  God knows our hearts better than we do. If we don’t conform our hearts and actions to the faith we claim to believe, we’re only fooling ourselves.

We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of death; the nature of real beauty; the impermanence of every human love; the oppressiveness of children and family; the silliness of virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith.  It’s a culture of fantasy, selfishness, sexual confusion and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves. And we’ve done it by misusing the freedom that other — and greater — generations than our own worked for, bled for, and bequeathed to our safe-keeping.

What have we done with that freedom?  In whose service do we use it now?

Catholics need to wake up from the illusion that the America we now live in — not the America of our nostalgia or imagination or best ideals, but the real America we live in here and now — is somehow friendly to our faith. What we’re watching emerge in this country is a new kind of paganism, an atheism with air-conditioning and digital TV.  And it is neither tolerant nor morally neutral.

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed more than a decade ago, “What was once stigmatized as deviant behavior is now tolerated and even sanctioned; what was once regarded as abnormal has been normalized.” But even more importantly, she added, “As deviancy is normalized, so what was once normal becomes deviant.  The kind of family that has been regarded for centuries as natural and moral — the ‘bourgeois’ family as it is invidiously called — is now seen as pathological” and exclusionary, concealing the worst forms of psychic and physical oppression.

My point is this: Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it.  So it always has been.  So it always will be. And America has no special immunity to becoming an enemy of its own founding beliefs about human freedom, human dignity, the limited power of the state, and the sovereignty of God.

Read every last word.