Saturday, January 24, 2015

My Boyhood Hero

In 1959, I was a third grader at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic School. Some of the boys in my class were trading baseball cards at recess. I didn’t have any, but I talked my mother into buying me a pack at the local grocery. The Chicago Cubs were the favorite team of my closest friends and Cub cards were the most cherished. In addition to the bubble gum packs, one could also purchase cards in a cellophane wrap that displayed the top card in clear view.

I found a pack with a Cub on top, Bobby Adams, third baseman. I didn’t know Adams from Adam, but he was a Cub and that’s all that mattered to me. The next day, I proudly took my Cub card to the playground, only to be told that Adams was no longer a Cub. In ’59, he played only three games and his career was over. Undeterred, I decided I needed to learn more about the Cubs.

Most of my friends had a favorite player, so I needed one too. That weekend my dad was watching a ballgame on our old black and white Philco. Passing through the living room I noticed the game and decided to take the opportunity to choose my favorite player. I was in a hurry to go back outside, so the first Cub I could identify was going to be it. So happened that number 14, Ernie Banks was coming up to bat. I quickly memorized the name and went about my way.
When playground conversation eventually turned to favorite players, I interjected that mine was Ernie Banks. Turns out, he was the favorite of most of my more knowledgeable friends too. Fortunately for me, I picked someone whose ’59 season faired far better than that of Mr. Adams. According to, Ernie played in 155 games in 1959 (not bad for a 154 game schedule), hit over .300, 45 home runs, and 143 runs batted in. And, he was named Most Valuable Player in the National League for the second year in a row, unusual for a team with losing records.

As my interest in baseball grew, Ernie Banks became my boyhood hero, even to the point of dressing up as him for Halloween. My mother found an old maroon softball uniform that she tried to dye white with Rit. It came out a rather dark gray, but close enough. She sewed a Cub insignia on front and a blue number fourteen on the back. Of course, a boy can’t be recognized on Halloween, so I wore a mask like the Lone Ranger. I wish I had kept a picture!

Playing summer baseball in our town league, I tried to imitate Ernie’s batting stance. He appeared to hold the bat vertically to my nine year-old eyes, so I stood at the plate holding my bat much like Mary Poppins held her umbrella. Suffice to say it didn’t work too well for me.

I grew up following Ernie’s career. He played until 1971, the year I turned twenty-one. He was always my favorite, not just for his talent, but mostly because of his always positive attitude which continued to be displayed in his many subsequent public appearances.

Last night, we all learned of Ernie’s death, just eight days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. Today, the tributes, stories and photos abound in all forms of media. Typically, Ernie displays that big smile on nearly every picture. Coming up through the Negro leagues in the early 1950’s, I am sure he faced many difficulties. Just watch the movie 42 on Jackie Robinson’s life if you do not know what it was like. Yet, Ernie was always upbeat, always optimistic, always friendly, and always a gentleman. What a better world this would be if we all had his demeanor.

Imitating Ernie’s batting stance didn’t make me a better ball player, but imitating his outlook on life has made me a better person. He will continue to inspire all the lives he touched. May his soul rest in peace.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

One by One

Last month, I announced our second effort at reaching Catholics who have drifted away from the faith. We had invitations printed with a photo of our beautiful stained-glass Nativity window on one side, and a message of reconciliation on the other. We included the names of about six parishioners who were behind this project, and a phone number for personal contact. A colorful insert explained how and why to return to Sunday Mass and Confession. We also included one of the little cards provided by the Catholics Come Home organization with our Mass times printed on the back.

On the day of the scheduled gathering, one of our group members, Mark, called me to make arrangements to set up the room since I had a key to the hall. I agreed to meet him at 1 PM on the Wednesday afternoon. Shortly after we arrived as we were wiping off tables, a woman knocked on the door asking for help. She, her seven year-old son, and his father were living with another couple where some abuse was taking place. She felt threatened and was worried about her safety and that of her son while his father was working an afternoon shift.

Without going into detail, I spent the next six hours with her at the hall while we tried to find a remedy for her situation. During the afternoon, she revealed that she was baptized and confirmed as a child in the Catholic Faith, but had not practiced for many years. I asked her whether she had ever considered coming back. She said she felt peace here at the Church and would very much like to come back and also raise her son as a Catholic. I told her we would be having Mass at 6 PM, and she agreed to go. By this time, the school day was over, and her son was with her. I took both of them to Mass, her first time in some twenty years.

Afterwards, it was time for our gathering for lapsed Catholics. As it turned out, she and her son were the only guests we received that evening. Our little group of evangelists listened to her story and made her feel welcome. When the father got off work, he picked them up and they left, presumably to return to a difficult living arrangement.

As Mark and I were cleaning up after everyone had gone home, we remarked on how the Holy Spirit seems to work in such mysterious ways. We mailed about sixty-five specially printed invitations to our Christmas gathering, and not one of the invitees attended. Yet, had we not scheduled this event and arbitrarily decided to meet at 1 PM to prepare, we would not have been there when this woman knocked on the door. No one would have been there. But, a woman who had not been to Mass in many years, went to Mass that evening, and that was our purpose for being there.

Two events, and two success stories. Incidentally, the gentleman we reached at our October meeting returned to Mass for the first time earlier this evening. Shortly after he made his confession, he became ill. His cancer has returned and he is facing another long battle. Please keep him in your prayers. His name is Jerry.

Wishing everyone a very Blessed Christmas and a joyous faith-filled New Year!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Step 2

Our October attempt to draw fallen-away Catholics back to our parish was successful. We said we would call it a success if even one person attended, and that is what we got. He made his first confession in about fifty years, and that definitely made the effort worthwhile. Now, it is time for step two.

With Christmas approaching, we are going to schedule another gathering during Advent. This time, we will send Christmas cards with an invitation to spend an evening with us hoping that the spirit of the season will draw a bigger response. The theme will be Christ’s Mass. What better way to celebrate Christmas than at Christ’s Mass.

At the first gathering, we had numerous fliers and other materials available for the taking. We still have them! This time, we will try sending some of them with the invitation. All of the apologetic literature in the world will do no good if not in the hands of those who need it.

Persistence may be the key, persistence without annoyance. We want people to know the door is still open without nagging them. Arm-twisting does not work, but we also want fallen-away Catholics to know we have not forgotten them, we are praying for them, and the ceiling is not going to cave in should they decide to reenter the church.

I can only imagine the anxiety one might feel walking into a church for the first time in thirty to fifty years. What will people think? Will I know what to do? Will I have to go to confession? Do I have to tell the priest everything I have ever done? If I don’t go to communion, will everyone stare at me? I sense that some people may have the desire to reconnect with their Catholic Faith, but they are afraid. We want our gatherings to dispel that fear.

A very spiritual woman I know recently expressed indignation at some advice a good priest once gave her. When someone is looking for affirmation, correction is not always accepted gracefully. People who have left the church occasionally bring up something a priest said to them years ago as their reason for leaving. The priest may find himself in the crosshairs after trying to adjust a parishioner’s moral compass. At some point, they must ask themselves whether they had just cause, or just an excuse. Perhaps they did not understand the Church’s position. Those are ones we hope to bring back with a kind word and gentle explanation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

One small step

Last month, I reported on our effort to reach out to non-practicing Catholics in our parish. A group of about six parishioners took the initiative to plan a Wednesday evening informal social gathering over pizza and refreshments. We placed a box in the rear of the church where people could leave the names and addresses of family members, friends or acquaintances who were once Catholic but no longer attend Mass.

During the weeks preceding, our little group met frequently to plan our approach. Each time, we prayed together for a successful outreach. Announcements were printed in the church bulletin and our pastor talked about the effort at Sunday Masses. Ads were placed in a local advertising paper. Pamphlets and other information resources were purchased for distribution. We even taste tested the pizzas from two different sources.

We went through old parish rosters to find former members who no longer attended. Invitations were professionally printed with space left for personal messages. The box containing potential contacts had more than a dozen potential contacts. We later discovered that all but one were provided by a member of our group. Still, sixty-six personalized invitations were mailed out.

On the day of the event, we met to decorate the room, clean tables, display resources, hang signs, and set up a Catholics Come Home video. Not knowing what the response would be, we decided to order six pizzas and five 2-liter bottles of soda to start. Everything appeared to be ready to go.

When the time arrived for the gathering to begin, several parishioners not part of our organizing group came to support the effort. As for the sixty-six invited guests, only one showed up, an older gentleman who had been away for some 35 years. Before you call our event a failure, we all considered even one returning Catholic to be well worth the effort. The evening was spent listening to his concerns. He asked to meet with us again, and we also arranged a luncheon date for him with our parish priest.

Since that evening, a couple of others have expressed regret at missing the gathering. We plan to continue meeting on Wednesday evenings with an eye toward attracting more involvement. We won’t give up and are not discouraged. We can only plant the seeds. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Extending the Olive Branch

At the beginning of the third millennium, Pope John Paul II called on Catholics to participate in a New Evangelization by deepening our faith and proclaiming the gospel to a world that has become secularized. This new emphasis on the Great Commission has been a great omission for most of us. The time has come to take action.

Our small parish has seen numbers reducing substantially over the past thirty years or so. We all know family members, friends, and former parishioners who no longer practice their Catholic faith. If we were to ask a hundred of them why they left, we might get a hundred different answers. In many parts of the world today, Catholics are dying rather than forsake their Christian faith. Why is it then that so many in this country are so indifferent to Christ and the Church He founded?

Several of our parishioners met over the summer in what began as a bible study, but evolved into a discussion of our dwindling numbers and what we can do about them. Some of us had read a book called Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter by Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran, the story of a dying parish turned into a thriving parish. While some staunch Catholics have been critical of the methods employed in the book, the results are impressive. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of moving from a maintenance mode into a mission mode, and making the parish more welcoming.

The United States Council of Catholic Bishops website statement on the New Evangelization calls on us in a special way to focus on those who have experienced a crisis in faith at some point in their lives. Knowing that we need to take an active role, our little group decided to reach out to people who were raised in the Catholic faith, but no longer practice any religion. After much discussion on how to approach fallen-away Catholics, we opted for an informal evening of fellowship over pizza and refreshments. This gathering is scheduled for a Wednesday evening next month.

Getting our separated brothers and sisters to attend is going to be our biggest challenge. We have placed a box in the rear of the church where parishioners can leave us names and addresses of people they know who were raised Catholic but no longer practice the faith. Our plan is to send them a personalized invitation. We will also publicize the event in the local media.

Another problem is how to charitably address their concerns sufficiently in one short evening to make them want to come back. While we are trying to prepare ourselves for the common objections to the Catholic Church, none of us are accomplished apologists. We are relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us and do the bulk of the work. Most of the evening may be spent listening rather than talking.

The odds for success may be against us, but we are eager to take the risk. If we are able to bring even one person back to the Catholics Faith, the effort will be well worthwhile. If not, we will try something else. I hope to report good news next month.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Damascus Road Moment

My recent retirement has given me the opportunity to spend time doing projects in our town park. Having served on the local park board for some 35 years, I have always enjoyed getting my hands dirty doing voluntary maintenance on equipment and facilities. Performing actual labor is not generally the role of municipal board members, but our lone employee occasionally needs help keeping up with his duties.

When frequent summer rains kept the grass growing, I managed to get one of the older lawn tractors running sufficiently to help with the weekly mowing. On several occasions while riding on the mower, I noticed a group of young people arriving mid-morning with books in their hands, appearing to be Bibles. They would usually sit down on a park bench or under a tree and read.

After witnessing this for a few weeks, I approached a young man sitting alone and asked him if he was doing a Bible study. He said he was part of a non-denominational youth group doing a summer Bible study and this was the final week. They met daily at a local youth center for group lessons and prayer time. Then they would go off on their own to a quiet place like the park and read the Scriptures. In a time where our encounters with youth in the park so often involve vandalism or inappropriate behavior, how refreshing to see a young person reading the Bible. I commended him for setting such a fine example.

Hoping to do a little evangelization, I continued pursuing the conversation. Pointing to our Church across the street, I told him I was Catholic and that we were having a difficult time reaching our young people. He said we were not alone. Teenagers have a difficult time taking direction from well-meaning adults. Judging from the tattoos on his forearm, I suspected he had some personal experience along those lines. I asked him what drew him to Christ, and he told me quite a story!
As a child, he was abused by his father. The only time his parents paid any attention to him was when he got into trouble, which he did frequently. He got involved with drugs. When money was needed, robbing a local convenience store seemed like a good idea. Donning a camouflage jacket and rubber mask, he entered the store one evening armed with a knife. When the clerk refused to open the cash drawer, he panicked and fled on foot. He was soon apprehended and eventually sent to prison where he continued to get into trouble, fights mostly. Shortly after his release earlier this year, his best friend committed suicide. Despondent over the loss of his friend and his own hopeless situation, he decided to end his own life. On his way to hang himself, his knees literally buckled under him. At that moment, he felt the presence of God telling him there was another way. The transformation was almost instantaneous. He turned his life over to Christ.

He told me he was here in the park yesterday meditating. He said he looked at a memorial plaque in the park and saw history. He looked at the trees and saw creation. He looked at the adjacent cemetery and saw resurrection. He said, he then looked over at people around a neighboring business and realized that there was a world out there that was not getting the message. He has now dedicated his life to the church and the great commission. I thanked him for sharing his story with me. I could see the Holy Spirit was at work here, so I left him alone.

Last week, I witnessed another incident involving a boy and his mother. On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was again in the park on a warm sunny day. School had started earlier in the week. Some boys were playing basketball on the asphalt court after classes ended. A short time later, a silver mini-van pulled up in a parking area across the field. A woman got out and began angrily shouting to one of the boys at the basketball court. He immediately left his friends and walked toward the woman who was screaming profanities at him at the top of her lungs.

I heard her say, “Why don’t you answer your (expletive deleted) phone?” He remained silent as she repeatedly screamed the question inches from his face. The other boys stood and watched from a distance. She proceeded to take his cell phone away from him, threw it on the ground and stomped on it until it was in pieces. At that point, she yelled at him to get in the van, which he did without a word, and they drove off.

Concerned for the young man’s well being, I asked one of the other boys who he was. He didn’t know the mother’s name, but the boy’s name was Ricky, and Ricky was having a bad day. He got into a fight in school, got kicked off the football time, had been smoking pot, and lying to his parents and coaches. I got the feeling even his friend thought Ricky had it coming! He added, “My brother is going to get it when he gets home too, but not in public.” I smiled and thanked him for the information.

While Ricky may have been deserving of reprimand, the manner in which his mother handled the situation was troublesome. Might this be another case where a young man instigates trouble to get attention? Losing one’s temper in a profanity-laced outburst only exacerbates an already bad situation. Handling problems in this immature way is a learned behavior that can be passed on to the child. Parental conduct modeled on guests of the Jerry Springer show is not going to mold a child into a mature responsible adult.

When I see young people getting into trouble in our community, I am often quick to blame lack of parental involvement. After my encounters in the park, I am led to wonder whether misapplication of parental involvement may be more accurate. Raising a child is not easy. Most training is done on the job. Children will not respect a parent who screams obscenities at them, and they will likely repeat such behavior with their own children someday. Not every one will experience that life-changing instantaneous knee-buckling encounter with God. That is why it is important for all of us to be good role models, not only for our own children, but for others who may not find one at home.