Monday, September 03, 2007

Back From 'Bama

I've come from Alabama (sorry, no banjo on my knee), and thought I'd use this Labor Day to write about the experience. Which gets me thinking:

Why is it that a day supposedly honoring human labor is commemorated by not working? I mean, on Mother's Day, do we make it a point not to call or send flowers to our mothers? But I digress.
Last Sunday night, along with Fathers John Trigilio and Ken Brighenti, I flew down to Birmingham to tape "Crash Course in Pope John Paul II", a series based on the international best seller soon to be made into a Broadway show, "John Paul II for Dummies". For some reason, the publisher of the series wouldn't allow the EWTN series to use the word, "Dummies", in the title (though they have no problem at all accepting free advertising for the book or series during the show itself). EWTN came up with the "crash course" idea, because somebody presumed that if you heard the word "crash", your subconscious would immediately connect it to "dummies" (as in "crash test dummies"). To confuse the matter even more, even if you accept the premise of a 'crash test dummy' theme, then the set for the show should be an automobile testing ground (or a mechanic's garage, as I suggested), right? Wrong. The set is a mix of a futuristic sliding door and computer lights with a draped curtain and large back chairs. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that EWTN is willing to produce the show, but it just seemed to me that the whole concept was made up like a quilt in which each patch was made by someone different with no cohesiveness.

I began Monday by concelebrating the 7am Mass in the chapel at EWTN. This is the Mass that gets beamed all around the world four times a day every day. It's an odd feeling being there. I've seen the place so many times on TV and I find myself saying, "Wow, they've got it set up like the chapel on EWTN. Oh wait, this IS the EWTN chapel!" The first thing that hits you while you're in the chapel is the size. TV makes it look much bigger than it is. The truth is that the chapel has only six rows of pews, and each pew can hold five people (six if they squeezed in). But even if the chapel is small, one can't underestimate the fact that it is this Mass that is, for many who cannot (or will not) get to church for whatever reason, sent around the world. Small chapel with a Mass with a big audience; kind of a metaphor for Mass itself. Monday was the feast of St. Monica, and Fr. Trigilio gave an excellent homily on her life. Perhaps her greatest achievement, the one she is best known for, is her constant intercessory prayers for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, and Fr. John used the homily to encourage those people watching whose children have let their faith become like holiday decorations that only come out once or twice a year.

Following Mass and a little breakfast, we headed over to the studio. The series has two sets: one for Frs. John & Ken, and one for me. In the series, I'm kind of like "The Great Oz", in that I'm the man on a video screen behind the curtain who interacts with Fr. Trigilio for the first half of the show. I'm actually about twenty feet away from him in front of a mural backdrop of photos of JP2. The first thing that hit me about making the series is that this is not some amateur production. The people who put these series together, from the director to the cameramen to the production designers, etc. are professionals at what they do. Thankfully, also, they're pretty forgiving when it comes to clergy who are not professionals who flub up their cues and lines. In addition, these are people of faith, who paused before doing their manual labor to ask God to bless their work. It was funny hearing Frs. John & Ken and myself referred to as "the talent", as in, "The talent is ready", or, "The talent needs 5 minutes". What's a kid from Port Reading, New Jersey, doing here? I did try to milk this for what I could get, but as much as I tried "the talent" was not able to get a production assistant to get him a bagel and a super-grande-mocha-frappa-chino-skim-latte. Ah well, it was worth a shot.

My portion of the episodes were taped all at once. Editors will go back and take my "first halves" with Fr. John, and Fr. Ken's "second halves" with Fr. John, and make them into a dozen or so half-hour episodes. Each show begins with an introduction by Fr. John, at the end of which he turns around, a big curtain pulls up, and I am there on the screen to answer his questions. Here's where I freaked out. While each episode has a theme, the shows themselves have no precise script. When Fr. John asked me questions on screen, that was the first time I heard the question. Please remember that when you eventually watch the series and think to yourself, "Some expert. This guy can't tell the difference between St. Gianna Molla and St. Gemma Galgani!" While I could cram study on a topic between taping (of course using "John Paul II for Dummies"), the first time the viewer is hearing the question posed to me was, at that moment, the first time I was hearing the question. For example, the episode may deal with John Paul's early years in Poland, but it wasn't until the cameras were rolling that I heard the specific question, "Father Jay, could you tell us a little bit about the history of Latin-rite Christianity in Poland?" (in one minute or less, by the way). Combine your own memories of studying for final exams with what you've heard about the pressure of a live presidential debate, and you won't have to wonder why makeup had to constantly be applied to my sweaty forehead! My portions of the taping were finished by Tuesday afternoon, and it was then that I could relax a little bit.

While down there, we stayed at the Casa Santa Maria retreat house, just two miles from the studio and run by the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word. It is a very comfortable place with the most joyous community of sisters (with an average age of about 22) you will find. Frs. John & Ken have stayed there before, and Tuesday night I became part of a promise they made to cook dinner for the sisters. Monday night we "prepped" by chopping onions and pancetta and crushing tomatoes, and Tuesday night we got the chance to sit down and enjoy the Spaghetti All' Amatriciana with the sisters and their chaplain, Father Lambert Glennan (a 90 year old Dominican who was the first editor of the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano back in 1968 - a link to the history of the Church's efforts in social communications). If you get the chance to visit Birmingham, you'd do well to stay at the retreat house these sisters go out of their way to make comfortable as well as prayerful.

On Wednesday, Fathers John & Ken finished taping their portions of the show, and then after lunch we taped a commercial and little promos for advertising the show. All I'll tell you is that James Bond looked much better in a jetpack than I do. On Wednesday night we were the guests on Fr. Mitch Pacwa's show, EWTN Live. They're not kidding, the show is done live, and so the questions during the interview (as well as our responses) were not staged or planned. If you saw the interview, then you know that Fr. Mitch had no idea I was a convert. Following the show, we spoke to the audience for a while (and I made the obligatory cell phone call to my mom, "Hey, did you see me on TV? How was I?"), and then we went back to Fr. Mitch's place to do what Priests do best, relax and solve all the problems of the universal Church. There was also a "drop in" from EWTN's news director, Raymond Arroyo.

On Thursday, it was my turn to be the main celebrant and homilist for the daily Mass. I was surprised how nervous I was before the Mass. I mean, this isn't just a Mass in a chapel for 30 people, this goes all over the world as you're saying it. The audience isn't just made up of Catholics with a basic level of theology, these are people who've done their reading and praying (that's why I admired Fr. Ken's homily on Tuesday's feast of St. Augustine; to tackle Pope Benedict's favorite Father for everyone to see and hear is not an easy task). Also, this Mass isn't just being shown once with a "hit or miss" viewing potential; it will be recorded for posterity and the homily posted on the internet. When I think of the clergy I've watched preach from that ambo through the years, it was surreal to think that now as my turn to "step up to the plate". Also, before I forget to mention this trivia factoid, next time you watch the EWTN daily Mass, notice how the ambo is always the right height for the preacher. Underneath it is a button which can electronically raise or lower the height of the ambo! Why doesn't every parish have that? Finally, when you finish the homily (which is when most Priests could rest easy), you've still got to go "solo" when it comes to the Latin chant introducing the Our Father, etc. I was pretty comfortable with the words, having done my share of private Masses in Latin, but when doing so I usually recite Latin words (I don't chant them). To be honest, I was more nervous about getting the chant tones right than the words themselves. And to add the final nail in the coffin: just as we're processing into the chapel, Deacon Bill Steltemeier says to me matter-of-factly, "Mother Angelica watches this Mass every day. She loves to hear what young Priests have to say."

Thursday afternoon we drove about an hour north of Birmingham to Hanceville, site of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery where the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration moved a few years back, as EWTN grew larger on a plot of land that was getting smaller and smaller for the cloistered religious (whose vocations also were, at the same time, growing in numbers) who were also located there. Of course, the centerpiece of the place is the Temple of the Child Jesus, a eucharistic shrine that brings the glory of a 16th century european cathedral into 21st century Alabama. We spent the night in a retreat house for Priests which is on the property.

On Friday morning we concelebrated the conventual Mass at the Shrine. The sisters sang beautifully (practically angelic) and the sight of so many young families with large numbers of children recharged my batteries. Following Mass, the sisters prepared breakfast for us (the sight of us collecting our plates passed to us by the nuns through the cloister grill is embedded in my memory). I found out that we had one more amazing moment left in store for us. We found out that Raymond Arroyo was coming to visit with Mother Angelica, and we'd also get to see her. Yes, she's up there in years, and yes, she's been largely silenced by a stroke. But she hears very well, speaks occasionally, and still has that impish twinkle in her eye and smile on her face that tells you she knows exactly what's happening. I had met Mother during my last (and only previous) trip to Birmingham in 2000, and I found myself thinking the same thing: She started all of this with nothing. Nuns who earned income for their monastery by boiling peanuts and tying flys for fishing created a global media network that daily sends the Roman Catholic Church's teachings and message around the planet earth. It is a well known fact of history that the Shrine and the monastery was built on donations given by only five families. One wonders whether some of the today's more "progressive" orders of religious would have the courage to leave their current lodgings and build their own housing and "worship spaces" using funds donated by people who'd donate based on their belief in the orders' vision of what it means to be Church? Following the visit, we headed back to Birmingham for our flight home. Those who are regulars to my blog know of my angst about flying, but I have to say that both flights were pretty smooth. Thank you, Lord.

In the end, it was a great trip. When Frs. John & Ken approached me to help write the book, they did so because the publisher wanted it done in a limited amount of time. In the end, the book was published a year and a half after the offer was extended, so the bottom line is that I should have never had this chance to write part of this book. So this whole trip to Birmingham, the TV series, the daily Mass, the interview, is all by God's providence. Through this whole week, my attitude has been that I may never write another book, so I may as well "enjoy the ride" now. Once again, thank you, Lord.


matthew archbold said...

congratulations Father on the longest blog post ever. Holy Cow. I enjoyed it immensely but I had to go make breakfast for the children about one quarter of the way through and I made lunch before I finished the last paragraph. lol.

Unknown said...

Good Morning, Father -
I enjoyed your interview on EWTN and ordered your book - Pope John Paul II for Dummies - the next day. I look forward to becoming more knowledgeable about Pope John Paul the Great.
God Bless You

Unknown said...

Great job, Father!



leutgeb said...

Thank you for that amazing post.

Unknown said...

Father Ken Brighenti and I consider it a great honor and an enormous asset to have Father Jay Toborowsky collaborate with us as a co-author on 'John Paul II For Dummies'. It was a pleasure working on both the book AND the new TV series for EWTN (Crash Course ...) I personally enjoyed the recent trip to Alabama and hope to see Father Jay (a real young fogey) on an episode of the Journey Home with Marcus Grodi.

BTW, heard Joan Lewis on EWTN radio this week and was glad to hear that your trip to the Eternal City was most memorable.

ad multos annos

Father John Trigilio
(alias the Black Biretta)