Friday, September 28, 2007

Fessio Interview Posted

Yes, another radio show posting. What can I say? I've found my groove, the "sweet spot" of the bat, I'm swinging for the bleachers. Enough baseball metaphors? o.k.

As I wrote about in a previous blog entry, I interviewed Fr. Joe Fessio back at the beginning of this month for the radio show that has made me more popular in Germany than David Hasselhoff: Proclaim the Good News. Fr. Fessio has been on the show before, and his insight into the mind of Pope Benedict come from years of friendship as well as discipleship (Papa Ratzinger was Fessio's mentor for his doctoral degree back in the 1970s).

This episode will air on radio stations this weekend, but it is posted now on the Proclaim the Good News Archive page. Click the link on the right.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And Yet Another PGN Episode Posted

I've just posted another episode of the greatest radio show ever produced, Proclaim the Good News. This episode deals with what is being done to reach out to "inactive Catholics", "alienated Catholics", "cultural Catholics", "nonpracticing Catholics" (there are so many sanitized terms nowadays), etc. Let's just say that they are Catholics who don't go to Church. I interviewed one of my predecessors as host of PGN who has a program in his parish that reaches out to such folk, as well as someone from another parish who came back to the Church through a similiar program.

Check it out by clicking the "PGN archives" link on the right side of the screen.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

New PGN episode posted

I've just posted this week's episode of Proclaim the Good News, the radio show that Oprah wishes she could host. This week's episode is an interview with the directors of four departments in the Diocese of Metuchen. We talk about how the money generated from the Bishop's Annual Appeal (which kicks off this weekend) helps them to do their work. Check it out by clicking the PGN Archives link on the right.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Whatever It Takes

I'm back from St. Louis and "caught up" on the regular mail, e-mails, and phone calls that amassed in my absence.

St. Louis is an interesting town. The arch, the whole history thing (the Lewis & Clark expedition, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, "Dewey Defeats Truman", etc.), perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in the United States, AND AS IF THAT WEREN'T ENOUGH, a professional hockey team. What else do I need?

I happened to be in town for the St. Louis Blues' "Fan Day", in which they open up their arena for a day of intra-team scrimmages, autograph sessions with the players, and games for the kids. It was a pretty neat thing, even with the fact that I knew the names of only one or two players on the team's roster! This year, the team is using "Whatever it Takes" as their slogan. It reminded me of one of the first blog entries I put on this site. Like the New Orleans Saints, "Be A Saint", isn't "Whatever it takes" a great follow-up slogan for our spiritual lives and the ever present quest for holiness?

This "Whatever It Takes" is also a great segue into today's feast of St. Matthew. In his Wednesday audience addresses on the Apostles back in 2006, Pope Benedict said this about St. Matthew the Apostle:

Another reflection prompted by the Gospel narrative is that Matthew responds instantly to Jesus' call: "he rose and followed him". The brevity of the sentence clearly highlights Matthew's readiness in responding to the call. For him it meant leaving everything, especially what guaranteed him a reliable source of income, even if it was often unfair and dishonourable. Evidently, Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not permit him to pursue activities of which God disapproved.

The application to the present day is easy to see: it is not permissible today either to be attached to things that are incompatible with the following of Jesus, as is the case with riches dishonestly achieved.

Jesus once said, mincing no words: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Mt 19: 21).

This is exactly what Matthew did: he rose and followed him! In this "he rose", it is legitimate to read detachment from a sinful situation and at the same time, a conscious attachment to a new, upright life in communion with Jesus.

Yes, God loves us, created us, calls us to follow him (blah blah blah), but in the end it's up to us to respond to that call. Am I willing to do "whatever it takes" in my response to God's plan for me? "Come, follow me." Yeah, Lord, this week isn't so good. Ooooh, I've got painters coming next week. I'd love to go to confession, really, but now's not a good time.

Be a saint! How? That's easy: Whatever it takes!

Oh, and by the way, to see the Pope's whole discourse on St. Matthew, click here. Or even better, to order a copy of the book of all Pope Benedict's addresses on the apostles, click here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pope on a Slope

First, some housekeeping. I'll be away until the middle of next week, so there probably won't be any new entries until then.

The latest issue of "Totus Tuus", the monthly magazine for the postulation of Pope John Paul II's cause for Beatification and Canonization, has a great article about JP2's love for the mountains of Italy's Valle d'Aosta. Two of the photos in the article (taken during his 1989 vacation) are great, and I thought worth showing.

This first one stands out because it's the first one I've seen in which JP2 is not in a cassock. There's plenty of pictures of him out of priestly garb before the papacy, but almost none after he became Pope in 1978. Not that I was questioning whether he actually had legs. He's pictured here during a hike with (on the left) Bishop Alberto Careggio of the Diocese of Ventimiglia-San Remo (where Vale d'Aosta is located), and a mountain guide on his right (no, it's not Karl Rove).

Hey, don't you know that if you write on the wall you'll never get back your security deposit?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Here's something new & original: A blogger comments on 9/11

I've spent the whole day avoiding the computer. Of course I have to write something about the anniversary of 9/11/01, don't I? Everyone else is doing it. My crowds of adoring readers (all four of them) expect it from me, don't they?

The truth is that it's a hard thing to remember. Not that the memories don't come back, but that spending time remembering them is not easy. Last week when I was on my way to Alabama, a former parishioner recognized me in the airport and stopped to say hello. I'll be honest, I had no idea who he was (my previous parish, St. James in Basking Ridge, has about 3,000 families, plus it's been over four years since I left there, so give me some slack). But he remembered me and spoke about how me and the pastor, Msgr. Bill Capik, got the parish through 9/11. Six years later, he sees me and that comes to his mind. I admit, I was speechless. Not because of any false and useless pride, but because the moment he mentioned 9/11, all the memories came back at once.

On September 11, 2001, I had been ordained just over three years, and I was is Parochial Vicar (a.k.a. - "the other Priest") at St. James. I remember having the 8am daily Mass that morning, and though I don't remember the readings for the day, I remember saying something in the homily like, "What will it take for people to come to God? What has to happen in their lives to get them to think about God?" I came back from the Mass and made myself breakfast. There were two guests staying in the house that day, Fr. Guy Selvester and a seminarian (now a priest) named Richard Abourjaily (an Australian). Fr. Guy came into the kitchen and together we watched the smoke coming from the World Trade Center. At first we both thought it was a replay of the 1993 WTC bombing, but we remembered that the bombs at that time were in the basement, not in the towers. After a short time, the telephone rang. The parish secretary said there was some unease among the staff at the parish school. One teacher had a brother who worked in the Trade Center, and parents were calling the school asking about whether they should come and take their children home. Then news of the crash into the Pentagon hit. I spent the day over at the school, where we made the decision to not tell the children. All day long a small TV was on in the school library, and faculty peeked in to get the latest information, all the while trying to keep their emotions from showing in the hallways and classrooms. Cell phones weren't working. Rumors were that Camp David was attacked. The White House was evacuated and the President and leaders of Congress were in secure locations. The TV replayed the plane crashes on a constant loop. Even taking the school kids out for recess was tricky (and it just figured that that day was unseasonably pleasant - you couldn't NOT let them go outside) because the smoke from the towers was visible on the horizon. One school family had a husband who worked at the Trade Center, and the wife insisted on coming in and taking her children home (in her heart she already knew something had happened to her husband). I had just performed the marriage of one of my best friends, and I knew he commuted into Manhattan every day, taking the PATH train to the World Trade Center stop; something can't have happened to him, can it? We made it through the day, the pastor in the parish office handling the phone calls and organizing an evening Mass, and me in the school, trying my best to keep teachers calm (and keep the students anesthetized from the world around them) while it seemed that life as we knew it ended on 9/10/01.

At the end of that day we had a Mass; I don't remember what time it was. Now St. James Church has seating for 800 people (the architects said it could seat 1,000, but that's if my butt cheek on the pew begins right where your butt cheek on the pew ends, and we know people don't squeeze into pews like that). That night the church was the fullest I've ever seen. Full pews. Standing in every available space. Standing in the narthex and spilling down the stairs leading from the parking lot. People hugging, crying, praying. People scared, grieving, unsure about the world. We ran out of Communion Hosts, but no one seemed to care (they understood the crowd was just too big). That night I watched in awe as my pastor gave them something to hold on to. God. I spent the morning opining from the pulpit in the daily Mass chapel, "What would it take for people to find God in there lives?", and by the end of the night he was in the main church pulpit telling them, "You've come looking, and God is here." For the next two weeks, it was amazing: lines for Confessions, people who had been away from the Sacrament for years! Weekend Masses had the crowds we normally only got on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. Yes, those crowds went away by Halloween (Rudy Giuliani asked people to go back to living their lives as they normally did before 9/11 and sadly for many that meant dropping weekly Mass once again), but God had answered my question: I now knew precisely what it would take for people to think about their relationship with God.

Names were floating around. Names of people from the town. "Has anyone heard from ___?" "Yeah, he called his wife a few hours ago. He's fine.", or, "No, no one's seen or heard anything about _____.", or, "Have you heard? _______ called his answering machine and left a goodbye message for his wife and kids." The cars still parked in the lot at the Lyons train station at 11pm were eerie. How many people went to work that day and are dead? That night was, and still is, the only time in our 24-hour cable TV world that I've ever seen TV channels (sports, food, etc.) stop all programming and go dark. Eventually Msgr. Capik spoke to a parishioner who had been a grief counselor, and we asked families of those who died to give us a photograph of them. They were put in a display in front of the altar, along with a row of vigil candles, one per person. A woman, a parishioner, shyly asked if we'd put a photo of her grandson up there. He wasn't a parishioner, but he was missing, too, and could we light a candle for him? Of course we did. I went back to the school. How do you explain this to kids? The truth was that I used the kids, especially the young ones. When the grief would hit me and I was about to "lose it", I'd go in to visit the Kindergartners for a laugh and some smiling faces. Eventually we had a list of 11 people who had died (12 with the lady's grandson, but the family was obviously making arrangements nearer to his home). Tim Soulas, Kevin Hannaford, Lou Fersini, Ludwig Piccaro, Tom Reinig, Chris Forsythe, Stacey McGowan, Steve Genovese, David Campbell, Stephen Dimino, and a few others. All stuck in my head. Yeah, some we had never heard from (Newsflash: not every Catholic is a good Catholic), but their families and friends and even strangers were here now, trying to make sense out of it all and looking to us Priests to do so (and all the while we're trying to make sense of it, too!).

Two weeks of death. As a priest, you're prepared for a sad death, a tragic death: a young child, a battle with cancer or something like a heart attack. But even if you, as a Priest, deal with that sort of death, as bad as it is, the funeral is over in an hour and you can "escape it" and get busy with some other aspect of parish life. That wasn't possible in this case. These were all the same: a historic, infamous event on the world stage which saw the murder of innocent people who had young families. 9/11 was not abstract to these people; it was personal. It had a face, a name, a voice, a smile. The terrorists didn't kill "people" on 9/11, they killed Steve, or Tim, or John, or Stacey. Death hung in the air like mist on a humid morning, right at your eye level, and for a while it seemed like there was never going to be that moment during the day when the mist would burn off. Their children. Oh, man. Looking them in the face? The teens and college-aged sons and daughters just stunned with grief. The toddlers too young to know they should be sad, who'll have no memories of their dads. The unborn ones who won't even have any photos or video of them with their fathers to look at when they're older. In those two weeks we had one funeral (with the one body that was recovered), and the rest were memorial Masses (remains of these victims wouldn't start to trickle in until about a year later, as they excavated the rubble and DNA analysis would give the families perhaps a piece of bone to bury). Every day we dealt with large, sad crowds mourning the loss of a loved one or a friend. Every night everyone went home and watched it replayed and analyzed all over again on TV. Then every day we'd all come back and do it all again with another memorial Mass for another tragic death.

Each year since 2001, I remember not just that day, but the weeks afterwards. But there's nothing I could ever say as people said "Thank you", or, like the guy in the airport, "I remember you during those days." I was just as much a mess as you were. Maybe I hid it better, that's all. The pastor of the parish did most of the work with his leadership and his priestly presence. If I did anything, it was because God and Msgr. Capik put me in the situation and gave me what to do or say. In some ways, those days are burned into my memory. Other ways, it's all a blur of one memory overlapping into another. And each year on this date, or when someone asks me about it, the feelings all come back.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dress For Success

Once upon a time, there was a Pope who really doesn't get to pack his own bags anymore. He doesn't really want to bother anybody or make a big fuss, so he just wears whatever vestment they put out for him when he goes out of town.

Some complain that what he wears is just "too left".

While others complain that what he wears is just "too right".

And then there are times when the clothes just won't cooperate at all!

Poor Heiliger Vater, all this vestment criticism can give a guy a headache!
(photos by AP, Reuters, and the internet)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Yes, today is our mom's birthday, so everyone be sure to talk to her today to wish her a happy birthday. Like any mother, she'll probably give you grief because you don't call more often, and she won't want any fuss being made about her birthday. Also, don't dare ask her how old she is!

Today's feast day is also a special day here in my home diocese of Metuchen. It was ten years ago today, September 8, 1997, that Msgr. Vincent DePaul Breen was ordained and installed as the third Bishop of Metuchen. He came to us from Brooklyn, one of three children in his family (two of the three became Priests). His father worked for the St. Vincent DePaul Society in the Brooklyn diocese, and Bp. Breen would joke that his older brother (Edward) was named for his father, his sister (Irene) was named for his mother, and he (Vincent DePaul) was named for the family business.

His ordination and installation was the first (and still only) time that a bishop of Metuchen was ordained in our cathedral. Before his early retirement due to Alzheimer's Disease in 2001, he ordained ten men to the Priesthood (affectionately called the "Breen-ie Babies"). On May 30, 1998, I was number four.

I once heard him remark that, when he was ordained to the Priesthood, he was the first ordination of a newly ordained auxiliary bishop in Rome. For years, when he'd visit Rome, he would stop in to visit this bishop who ordained him. He was always amazed to see a photograph of him from his ordination day in the bishop's residence, even years later after this bishop had done probably dozens of Priesthood ordinations. That bishop never forgot his first ordinandi, and Bishop Breen would continue that tradition. He ordained a friend of mine, Fr. Guy Selvester, to the Priesthood on September 27, 1997 (the Feast of St. Vincent DePaul), and kept a picture from that ordination for posterity. He said a bishop always remembers the first Priest he ordained.

My first Bishop Breen memory is this: Two of us who would be ordained in 1998, myself and Fr. Paul DaSilva, approached him in the receiving line at the reception at the Pines Manor following his ordination. We introduced ourselves, telling him we were transitional Deacons. Bishop Breen put his arms around us, smiled, and said, "...and you will be my first class? I'm very excited."

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on him. May he rest in peace.

Card. Schönborn

The Zenit News Service has posted part two of the Cardinal Schönborn interview that I spoke about in the previous blog about Fr. Fessio. It has some beautiful stuff about marriage, family, and openness to children (even how he spent his summer vacation).

Friday, September 07, 2007

Bp. Bootkoski Interview

In my absence down in Alabama last week, the editor of the diocesan newspaper here in the Metuchen diocese interviewed our Bishop, Paul Bootkoski. Last Tuesday (September 4) was the 10 year anniversary of his episcopal ordination, and this year marked his 5th anniversary as our Ordinary. Check it out by clicking the link on the right.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Fr. Fessio interview

Today I recorded an interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ of Ignatius Press and Ave Maria University. Ignatius has put together a collection of the start of Pope Benedict's Wednesday Audience discourses on the Church as undertood through the people in the Scriptures, entitled, "Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church".

During the interview, he told me he is about to spend a week with Pope Benedict at Castelgandolfo as part of the annual Schulerkreis (student circle) meeting. This tradition, which Fr. Fessio says began in 1977, is an annual reunion of former doctoral students of Papa Ratzinger with their mentor. The topic this year: Creation.

Another guest at the Schulerkreis meeting will be the Archbishop of Vienna (and another former student of then-Professor Ratzinger), Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, OP. He just gave a great interview, the first part of which appeared on the Zenit webpage (they'll post part 2 tomorrow) about understanding Pope Benedict. Here's part of it:

Q: Everyone is talking about the Pope's upcoming visit. Who is the real Benedict XVI?

Cardinal Schönborn: He is very simple. He is the successor of the Apostle Peter and therefore for us, he is the Vicar of Christ, the Lord's representative here on earth in the visible Church.This is at the same time incomprehensible and immense, but it is the secret of the Petrine ministry. Whoever meets with him, whatever country he is from, whatever language he speaks -- all of that is important, but it is secondary. For us he is, above all, according to the faith of the Church, Peter among us, with all the depth, greatness and strength of what Jesus prophesied to Peter, of the ministry that he entrusted to him, a ministry that continues to exist beyond the historical figure of Peter.

Q: How are your meetings with the Holy Father?

Cardinal Schönborn: Very normal. He is a man I have known for 35 years, under whom I studied and with whom I have worked for many years, a man that throughout the years, I learned to know and deeply esteem and greatly admire. But April 19, 2005, in his life and in our lives, something greater happened -- he was chosen as the successor of Peter. This naturally represents a new dimension, which is evident in meeting with him. He is the man, the teacher, the cardinal that I know well and have known for many years, and at the same time, he is Peter.

Q: You have known Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI for many years. What distinguishes him as a man?

Cardinal Schönborn: I could mention many things. In his memoirs he wrote in a very modest but wise way about his life. He is very restrained in manifesting personal matters. He does not talk much about his life, but its deep Christian roots are notable. You can tell that he comes from a family profoundly formed by faith, a family united in faith and love.I had the opportunity to get to know his sister Maria well, who died unexpectedly on Nov. 2, 1991. The three siblings were very close and they must have had parents who profoundly shaped them.Who is the Pope based on his personal history? He is a particularly gifted and intelligent theologian. I do not hesitate to say that he is the last of the great theologians of the Council generation -- de Lubac, Congar, Rahner, von Balthasar. He was the youngest in a long line of theologians who influenced the Second Vatican Council and he is certainly one of the greatest because of his spiritual and theological abilities.

Q: During your meeting with Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo you discussed the details of his upcoming trip. What is the Holy Father expecting?

Cardinal Schönborn: He will let us know and I think this is good. When Benedict XVI speaks, it is necessary to pay close attention, because what he has to say is always very clear, important, incisive and very personal and fascinating. I don't know what he will say to us. It is good to be open. What I can say with certainty is that we will receive enough material for further reflection.

I love this quote: "When Benedict XVI speaks, it is necessary to pay close attention, because what he has to say is always very clear, important, incisive and very personal and fascinating."

Atheism Interview

I've just posted an interview which recently aired on my radio show. This episode explores the question of atheism and the way that it seems to be making a comeback on the shelves of bookstores. Check it out by clicking on the link on the right side of this webpage: "Proclaim The Good News Radio Show Archives".

Diana versus Teresa

Last week's 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, brought all kinds of news specials, documentaries, and made for TV movies.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's death, where's the media?

Football = Religion?

Check out Carl Olson's reflection, called "The Sacramentals of Sport", on the Ignatius Press blog. How many times do clergy hear that we're a different, more laid-back culture, and that average people are just unwilling to accept concepts like "infallibility", "holy days of obligation", etc. Apparently not.

Little Johnny's football coach can require mandatory attendance at all practices and games, and the parents will accept it. But if little Johnny's parish Priest reminds him that Catholics are obligated to attend Mass every Sundays and Holy Day of Obligation, the parents respond, "You can't seriously expect us to come every week."

Little Mary's soccer coach can give her parents a list of required (and not necessarily inexpensive) clothing items which must be worn as part of the uniform when she goes to team events, and the parents will accept it. But little Mary's Priest dare not comment on the fact that she dresses to go to mass as if she's doing a photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Little Jimmy's lacrosse coach can dump 20 cartons of candy bars in his parents' car and tell them that they're required to sell them as part of the team's fundraising efforts, and the parents will accept it. But if little Jimmy's parents get a homily that talks about stewardship and everyone's obligation for the financial upkeep of their parish, they complain that "The Church is always after money".

Little Tina's piano teacher can tell her that if she doesn't practice for the upcoming recital, she won't be allowed to play, and the parents will accept it. But if little Tina's Priest tells her that she can't serve because she didn't attend the rehearsal for altar servers for a special Mass, then the parents tell their neighbors that "Father hates our family".

Little Eli's wrestling coach will impose a special diet, early morning workouts, and late night scrimmages, and the parents will accept it. But if little Eli's parents hear that the Pope has called for fasting and abstinence during Lent, early morning prayers, and late night spiritual reading, the parents will opine, "Who is that old man to tell us how to live our lives?"

Little Ashley's cheering coach can announce that the squad is going to be cheering in a tournament at Walt Disney World, and everyone has to go, and the parents will accept it. But is little Ashley announces she wants to attend World Youth Day, then the parents question the cost of such a trip.

Luciano Pavarotti, Riposino In Pace

Grazie, Maestro, and say "hi" to dad.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pope Benedict's "Mood Cape"

Two Flaps: A great day. Feel free to ask if he'll grant a private audience to your visiting mother and the 220 members of her Canasta club.

One Flap: An o.k. day. The kind of day the Holy Father invites you to listen to him play piano (but don't even think of bringing along your banjo).

No flaps: Run. Don't walk. Just run.

(Thank you Reuters for the photos)

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.