Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When faith takes a hit--and recovers

Some close relatives and friends declare themselves atheists, and apparently feel no sense of loss. A couple of times my faith has taken a hard hit, and I felt like an airline passenger waking up from a nap to find there was nobody else on the speeding plane.

I’ve never lost my belief in God, but there was a time when we were barely on speaking terms. My taught faith became taut faith. It was God, yes; churches, maybe. Church is the body of Christ; churches are bodies of people.

Almost everybody loves Mom, and most Christians love Church. If someone finds out that an intoxicated Mom has, heaven forbid, been stealing from the poor, enabling sexual adventures, lying, cheating at cards, spreading malicious gossip and encouraging the torment of dissenters, love for that Mom would encompass pain and grief.

As a Roman Catholic I once thought that there was no other Church with a capital C. I was part of my parish church and worked as editor of The Catholic Review in Baltimore. After that I became director, and the first editor in chief, of the National Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C. After that I became editor of The New World, which became The Chicago Catholic before being renamed Catholic New World. Then I became editor of an Episcopalian periodical, and found that I was still immersed in Church with a capital C. Catholics were more numerous, but Episcopalians prayed and baked cookies more often.

John Cardinal Cody, then archbishop of Chicago, hired me also to help him write his autobiography. He planned to complete it after his retirement, but he died in office. Meanwhile I spent hundreds of hours listening to his accounts of life among the shepherds.

He told me about a special relationship with fellow Missouri native Harry Truman, about his own secret exploits in Viet Nam and about the ownership of his Chicago residence by nuns. The Truman story was somewhat true.

During a meeting in his office with Janet Diederichs, a highly regarded communications consultant, he proposed creating a new job for me as head of all archdiocesan communications, including the newspaper, television and media relations. He didn’t like it when I turned him down.

He had been a Vatican operative early in life, and there was no tougher politician in the Church. Under severe attack , he resisted efforts to remove him from Chicago, even as he held off testifying before a federal grand jury.

He was well acquainted with skeletons in Vatican closets. Three popes would have moved him from Chicago to Rome to head a Vatican office, but he knew how to stay put. He sometimes asked me to listen as he talked on the phone with his friends in Rome, such as a Vatican official who later became Archbishop of New York, or an archbishop who ran the Vatican bank while resisting Italian authorities, still a Chicagoan, still included in the Chicago archdiocesan pension plan.

Other cardinals I knew well were more careful than Cody. Cardinal Cody meant it when he said he didn’t care what anybody thought about him. His successor, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, cared a lot.

To be continued

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