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Embrace the Strange, News to Us, and Angel of the Infield…

Embrace the Strange, News to Us, and Angel of the Infield…

Embrace the strange, news to us, and Angel of the infield Skip to content

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Happy Friday friends, 

And a very happy feast of the Sacred Heart to you all.

It is, of course, a great feast. Added to the calendar by Pope Pius IX in 1856, the devotion dates back to the 17th-century visions of the French nun St. Margaret Alacoque, who was given a special insight from the Lord into his personal love for us, and his desire to be honored with the symbol of his heart.

It’s an intimate image — suffering, yearning, burning, longing, powerful. 

It contains and conveys a divine devotion to each one of us that is passionate, consuming, crowned, bleeding, terrible, and triumphant. It is, like the Lord himself and his love for us, fascinating and compelling. 

I’m using a lot of descriptors here, but that is because I started off calling this a “great” feast and, really, “great” hardly begins to cover what is conveyed by the image of the Sacred Heart which can be just as well be captured with the words “visceral” and “strange.”

And I think we need to be more open about the strangeness of our faith.

The Church is the custodian of an incredible intellectual tradition, the living school of immense knowledge, and the dispenser of great wisdom. All of these we should be offering the world with terrific urgency, given the state of things.

But the faith is also gloriously weird, speaking in metaphors and imagery to convey mysteries and realities our minds can hardly compass or our vocabulary express. 

In an era of (supposed) hyper-rationality, there’s a temptation to make the faith seem… I don’t know… respectable? The thinking person’s choice of creed, anyway. We Catholics, it’s tempting to say, are the builders of storied universities, the Church of Supreme Court judges, the ones who still (sometimes) speak Latin, cause we’re smart — you know? 

I get the impulse, but it can end up making the mystery of salvation sound about as radical as a pair of pleated khakis. 

The truth is that we are the Church of great intellectuals, yes. But we are also the home of the great mystics, visionaries, and miracle workers. The Church is the swinging door between the created world and the infinite — the portal through which pours the Divine nature that we can barely hint at with words like “love.”

As with the Sacred Heart, the Church’s mission is to confront our age with the message that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy — which they’ve only borrowed from us in the first place.


Anyway, here’s the news.

The News

National Eucharistic Pilgrims have been given instructions aimed at avoiding controversy over the disgraced artist Fr. Marko Rupnik when they visit the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC, on Saturday.

A spokesperson for the National Eucharistic Congress told The Pillar that perpetual pilgrims have been directed not to pose for photographs in front of mosaics designed and created by Rupnik, who has been accused of sexually abusing some 30 religious sisters.

According to the spokesperson, pilgrims have also been instructed not to enter the John Paul II Shrine’s Luminous Mysteries Chapel in groups, where prominent murals were designed and created by Rupnik, and to avoid wearing identifiable National Eucharistic Pilgrimage clothing in the chapel.

Read the whole story here.

While all eyes in America are fixed on November’s general election, several other countries are going to the polls soon, and even as we speak, with significant potential consequences for local Catholics — to say nothing of global geopolitics.

In India, a general election is already underway, where the Hindu nationalist governing party, the BJP, was widely expected to score a landslide return to power but is now eyeing a much narrower result and a possible coalition government.

At the same time, the party this week won its first seat from the southern state of Kerala, after a campaign to court local Christian voters.

Kerala is home to around 6 million Christians, more than any other Indian state. While national Hindu identity (and a reputation for winking at — if not outright encouraging — harassment of religious minorities) is its core identifier, the BJP shifted to courting Christian voters after failing to gain any seats in Kerala in the 2019 general election.

So where does this look to leave Christians in the national political conversation?

You can read Luke Coppen’s excellent report to get up to speed.

Meanwhile, in France, new polling shows Catholics are looking likely to skew heavily to the right in the upcoming EU elections.

According to one new research paper, 42% of French Catholics are expected to vote for parties frequently described as far-right. 

A new Ipsos poll also reported that while the share of the Catholic vote for right-of-center (or very right-of-center, depending on how you view these things) parties was the same whether you sampled Catholics or just practicing Catholics, which ones they preferred shifted considerably.

The French poll numbers are part of a wider generational shift in Catholic voting intentions across the continent. Traditionally, European Catholics were four-square behind the grand projet of European integration following the two World Wars. But younger Catholics are reporting much higher levels of Euroscepticism.

This is an important trend to keep eyes on. Read all about it here.

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A Florida woman pled guilty this week to embezzling hundreds of thousands from the parish where she worked. 

Heather Darrey, former finance manager at Christ the King Parish in Tampa, reached a plea deal with prosecutors after she was arrested last month on charges of stealing $775,000 from a parish operating account.

She is, as JD pointed out this week, not to be confused with a different Florida woman, in another diocese, currently on trial on charges that she stole more than $700,000 from the parish where she worked, Holy Cross Parish of Vero Beach.

As m’colleague rhetorically wondered aloud the other day: What are the odds? 

It would, you’d like to think, have to be some kind of extraordinary coincidence. 

Or, maybe the odds are shortened by parishes in the U.S. generally lacking some internal financial controls which could make this sort of theft much harder to pull off and much easier to detect early on.

That’s the opinion of a retired IRS investigator we spoke to this week, who laid out some frankly pretty common-sense proposals for plugging the gaps in our local ecclesiastical financial setups.

The bottom line is, the Church doesn’t have money to waste on fraud and theft — be it massive or low-level — and getting a grip on this sort of thing is going to become a matter of institutional viability sooner rather than later.

Read the whole story here.

Four religious sisters are road-tripping 1,000 miles in an Airstream trailer being hauled along by a former Navy lieutenant and her dog.

As Jack Figge noted for us in his report this week, it’s not a half-bad elevator pitch for a sitcom, though in this case the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love, are trucking along the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Seton Route from New Haven to Indianapolis.

They applied to be perpetual pilgrims, following the Blessed Sacrament across country on foot, but were told they were too old — the official cutoff age was 29. 

But they prayed for some way to be able to take part anyway, and what they got was Beth, a Navy vet and recent convert to the Catholic faith, who had just retired from her job at a shipyard, and was in the middle of building her own house.

“Every time I go to adoration, which is twice a week, I always ask God to show me what you want me to do,” Beth told The Pillar. So when someone forwarded the sisters’ general request for a willing driver “I immediately texted Mother and said, ‘You have me for the entire trip’.” 

“I’m starving, starving for information” about the Catholic Church, Beth said. While she became a Catholic a little more than a year ago, she’s still learning much of the richness of the Catholic faith.

“I want to know about our traditions, about the Lord,” she said. “This has just been so fruitful for me. The Lord knew that I was the right person for this task and that I needed to come. These sisters are great. They’re hilarious.”

Your standard “Nuns on a bus” these sisters are not. Read all about their road trip here.

Ten days ago, Archbishop Gabriel Mestre of La Plata resigned suddenly from his see following a meeting with Pope Francis.

As we reported at the time, Francis summoned him to Rome to discuss, as the archbishop put it, “some different perceptions of what happened” in his previous appointment, the Diocese of Mar del Plata in the months following his transfer.

We promised you at the time that we’d figure out what was going on there, and this week Edgar Beltrán reported it for us.

It seems that the archbishop had a clear favorite to succeed him in Mar del Plata, at least according to some. And, again according to some people Edgar spoke to, he was at least unopposed to a concerted campaign to see his preferred candidate (and former vicar general) brought back to the diocese out of exile and made bishops.

Along the way, two other Vatican nominees for the job have stepped down before they could be installed — with old allegations against them suddenly finding their way into local newspapers and “spontaneous” demonstrations breaking out in favor of the archbishop’s old colleague. 

That, it seems, accounted for the “differences of perception” between Mestre and the pope which led to his resignation.

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This is real reporting, and exactly the kind of story-behind-the-story stuff that makes me so excited about Edgar coming on full time later this year as our Rome correspondent.

Read the whole thing.

News to them, news to us

Two things I hate doing are asking people for money and discussing our “competitors.” I find them both to be terrifically vulgar. But this week, right here, I am going to make an exception because I think the circumstances merit it.

More than a month ago, we reported a story. The director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development had resigned, as the anti-poverty program faced serious questions regarding its financial management and ongoing viability.

Reporting from several sources, we wrote that the resignation came amid acute financial troubles for the CCHD, which had dwindled its cash reserves by conferring grants beyond its own financial resources.

The campaign was going to face a major review of its grant allocation practices and budget at the June USCCB meeting, we reported in April.

The CCHD is kind of a big deal, and its apparent financial trouble and forthcoming review was also, we thought, kind of a big deal. That’s why we reported it — it was news to us and we were, I don’t mind telling you, modestly proud to get the scoop.

It’s the sort of facts-forward, ahead-of-the-game journalism we like to think we’re all about. 

Pretty much no one else covered it after we broke it, and that didn’t really surprise me. It happens a fair bit that other sites can’t get the same information and they don’t want to just write up what we said while crediting us with saying it. That’s all in the game.

I say pretty much no one else picked it up. One other place did: The National Catholic Reporter. Though they took a different angle. 

The National Catholic Reporter ran a column with the headline “Pillar publishes hit piece on US bishops’ anti-poverty group,” which said that our “sources do not appear to know very much” and rubbished our report of financial troubles at the campaign saying, in effect, it couldn’t possibly be true since the CCHD annual second collection takes in plenty of money.

The only plausible reason we could write such a thing, the NCR columnist said, was that we must have an ax to grind against the outgoing director — why, I cannot imagine. 

Though the column did allow that “It is impossible to know if The Pillar was a willing accomplice in the hit job it published, or if it was simply ignorant of the malice and ignorance of its unnamed sources.”

So perhaps we weren’t malicious, just stupid. But we were definitely making it up, either way.

Whatever. It’s the sort of personality-driven, facts-blind partisan hackery you can read on plenty of Catholic media sites. NCR by no means has a monopoly there. 

And we’re plenty used to being accused of being somehow morally compromised for reporting objective facts about a newsworthy story in the life of the Church. 

It made me smile, though, to read yesterday that “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at its upcoming spring meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, may be looking to revamp or significantly scale back the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.” 

According to the story I read yesterday, the CCHD has a serious budget black hole — whoever would have guessed?

Where, you might ask, can you get this breaking news fully a month and a half after we published the story? Well, bust my buttons, it’s the National Catholic Reporter.

That’s right, the same one that said our original story was an ignorant, badly-sourced, uninformed, partisan smear.

They didn’t directly mention that we’d already covered the story, which would have been a bit awkward, I suppose. Though they did link back to their own article accusing us of running a made-up hit piece, and they called us “right-wing” to boot, which is news to me. 

I mention all of this for two reasons. 

First: Because it’s hilarious. Obviously.

Second: From time to time, rude financial necessity requires that I make a pitch to our tens of thousands of free readers in the hope that some small fraction of them will please become paying subscribers. Which if they do not do, The Pillar cannot and will not continue to operate.

In doing so, I have to find new and compelling ways to answer the rhetorical question “Why does it matter if The Pillar stays in business?”

Well, because this is what you’re left with if The Pillar goes away — Catholic media warming up month-old stories reflected back through a funhouse mirror of partisan myopia.

That’s not news to us, it’s not journalism as we choose to practice it, and it isn’t the kind of serious reporting on the life of the Church we think it needs.

If you agree with that, please become a paying subscriber.

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If you don’t, please let me direct you to the National Catholic Reporter. I doubt you’ll learn anything there, but they have plenty of money, and it’ll give you a good laugh now and then.

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Angel of the infield

Last week saw the retirement of Ángel Hernández, if not the worst umpire Major League Baseball has ever seen then certainly the most famously terrible.

Great dramas demand great villains. And Ángel Hernández was truly great.

He was universally loathed by fans, players, coaches, and seemingly anyone remotely invested in the sport. Hernández regularly polled at the bottom of players’ and fans’ assessments of umpires’ performance. And with good reason. 

Once video review came in, his manifest incompetence became a matter of statistics, not expert opinion: from 2016 to 2018 a whopping 78% of challenges to Ángel’s calls at first base were upheld.

Behind the plate he was, if anything, even worse — often comically so, assuming your team wasn’t batting. Any lover of the game could readily read off a litany of his worst calls and his moments of highest hubris. And in many respects, it was that combination that made him such a character. Anyone can be bad at their job, but few can be so defiantly, self-righteously awful as Ángel was.

After calling the game in which Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey pitched a no-hitter in 2012, Ángel was there to ask the pitcher to sign eleven (11!) balls for him. No doubt they were just for his private collection of game memorabilia, not for resale, I’m sure.

And despite reams of data and hours of highlight reels to consult, in 2017 he famously sued MLB for racial discrimination (he was born in Cuba) because he wasn’t assigned to call World Series games or promoted to crew chief. 

The court tossed the suit on the grounds that “no reasonable juror” could possibly dispute MLB’s claim that Hernández was simply the worst at doing his job. 

So universal is the opprobrium heaped upon him that thoughtful men I admire, lovers of the game and clear-eyes assessors of Ángel’s record, have made (qualified) calls for restraint in cheering his resignation. And since then, some have now speculated that the incessant abuse from fans may have played a part in his departure from the game.

For my part, I come to bury Hernández, not to praise him — but with a warning and with thanks. 

It has often been suggested, only semi-ironically, that the only reason he was allowed to stay in the league at all was because Rob Manfred thought his comedy turns behind home plate would make fans warm to robot umpires. 

I don’t know if that’s true or not. 

It is certainly true that I despise robot umps, as I have written before elsewhere. And I wouldn’t put it past Manfred who, as league commissioner, is possibly the only person more hated by baseball falls and worse at his job than Hernández.

But my warning is this: we will miss Ángel Hernández now that he’s gone. He unquestionably made bad calls and cost teams important results. He was unquestionably bad for the sport, qua contest, though I cannot but think he was somehow good for the game.

For much the same reasons that I oppose the imposition of robot umpires — that the game of baseball is about the inseparability of the objective from the subjective in how it is played and watched — I can recognize that Ángel Hernández was, at best, a necessary evil, at worst an inevitability. 

Baseball occupies a special place in our culture, and the unique designation as our “national pastime,” because it is not just a pure athletic contest, it is a communal event. It is a human drama, one with traditions, sometimes poignant, sometimes silly, woven around its every performance. 

Baked into the very essence of baseball is failure (the best hitters get out most of the time), luck, miracles, and yeah, injustice. Without these things, it would be just another sport. Great dramas have legends, curses, heroes, and villains. 

Ángel Hernández was one of baseball’s great heels, a pantomime villain who could bring a stadium to its feet with a roar, and galvanize a flagging team with one clench of his fist. 

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Baseball needs characters like him, and the passion and tension they bring with them, in just the same way as any other human dramatic narrative, high or low, from professional wrestling to Shakespeare. 

A game with Hernández behind home plate was made quantifiably less as a sporting contest but palpably more as a spectacle. He was a one-man emotional amplifier for thousands in the stands and millions watching on TV. 

He deserves every syllable of derision he receives for his umpiring skills, but for his work as an avatar of injustice and worthy service as universal bad guy, he deserves our thanks, too.

Yes, I mocked him, I railed against him. I laughed at what he inflicted on other teams and I swore when he did it to my own. But I am honest enough to say that, whatever he cost baseball as a sport, he was an asset to the game for the same reasons.

Others are less honest, and curse Hernández in the same breath as they predict a “better” day when men like him will have no place on the field at all. They have that luxury. 

They have the luxury of not knowing what I know — that Hernández’s career, while tragic, probably helped the game; and his existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to them, was necessary.

The truth is that deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties, we wanted him behind that plate — we needed him behind that plate.

So I say: Goodbye, Ángel Hernández, good riddance, and a long and happy retirement to you. I mean that, with all my thanks.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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