Monthly Archives: December 2010

A glimpse of heaven?

Helen Nale, right, enjoys conversation with her daughter, Helen Valley. Nale believes she caught a glimpse of heaven after a near-death experience. (CR Staff/Owen Sweeney III)

Everyone has seen stories on television about people who believe they died and went to heaven.  They often speak of “seeing light at the end of a tunnel,” being reunited with deceased relatives and returning to earth for unfinished business.

A few days before Christmas, I met one of them.

Helen Nale, a 94-year-old parishioner of St. Andrew by the Bay in Annapolis, suffered a stroke in early December. At the hospital, doctors told her family she was dying.  She even began a “death rattle.”

But, for some unknown reason, Nale’s health made a sudden and dramatic turnaround. She awoke from a coma, said some prayers and was eventually released.

Nale doesn’t remember much of what happened in the hospital that day because she believes she was in a better place. She says she caught a glimpse of heaven and returned to earth with a mission to help some family members return to church.

Nale didn’t see any bright lights in the next world, but she told me a lot about winged angels with curly hair, happy reunions with family members, magnificent buildings and an overwhelming feeling of happiness.

“It was all a beautiful thing to be with God and the angels,” she said.

Helen Valley, Nale’s daughter and a fellow St. Andrew parishioner, said her mother has a “new lease on life” and that her experience has inspired the entire family.

Skeptics might say there’s a neurochemical explanation for Nale’s experience – that her brain was under stress and released chemicals that caused hallucinations.  Maybe.  Talk to Nale, however, and you will meet a woman who has no doubt about experiencing God’s profound love in a deeply personal way.

You can read the story here at The Catholic Review

What do you think?

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What was the big story of 2010?


VIDEO REPORT: Mount St. Mary’s Seminary is booming

The Jan. 6 issue of The Catholic Review will feature a vocations story about an enrollment boom at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitburg. The nation’s second-oldest Catholic seminary is putting up some impressive numbers and producing priests known for their passion and commitment to the church. Look for the story next month. In the meantime, check out this companion video report:


Baylor balances religion and academics

Catholic universities are not alone in their struggle to balance religious identity and academic freedom. The Dallas Morning News explores how Baylor University – the largest Baptist university in the country – is stepping up to the task under the leadership of its new president, former Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr. It seems the Texas university is discovering that committed religious identity and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive.

A snip:

“At Baylor, we believe fervently in academic freedom and we do not flinch from the truth,” said Starr, referring to the fact that, unlike many more conservative religious schools, Baylor teaches evolution and other biblically sensitive topics from a scientific perspective, as it always has.

“But we do have a world view where we are called to use our talents and gifts for the benefit of our fellow human beings who are created in the image of God. There is no requirement that you check the box saying ‘I covered the Sermon on the Mount’ in physics. But we do provide the freedom to talk about these other things that are part of this centuries-old tradition that animates much of Western civilization, what T.S. Elliot would call the permanent things.”

In 1990, after a decadelong fight between fundamentalists and moderates in the Southern Baptist church, Baylor’s charter was changed to restrict the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ board representation to 25 percent, effectively taking Baylor out of the strict control of the Baptists. This meant the end of any talk of teaching courses based on the Bible as the inerrant word of God.

Many faculty members and alumni also believed that this event would mark the beginning of secularization, a process that had transformed other once-prominent Baptist institutions, including Brown University, the University of Chicago and, most recently, Wake Forest.

In fact, the reverse happened. The charter change – which blocked a fundamentalist takeover of the school – actually freed Baylor to reassert its Christian identity. In 2002, it embarked on an ambitious plan, known as Baylor 2012, whose goal was to completely alter the character of the university. Baylor had long been content to be primarily a low-tuition teaching university for children of Texas Baptists. Professors did not publish much and were generally not leaders in their fields.

Under Baylor 2012, all that would change. Faculty would teach less and publish more, and their tenure would depend on it. The university would also greatly expand its graduate schools. The largest building campaign in the university’s history would add whole colleges and academic buildings. Students would come with improved boards and grades. The idea was to move the university’s ranking from the mid to high 70s in the U.S. News and World Report list into the top 50, the cutoff for “Tier One” status.

The university’s second and far more controversial goal was to reaffirm its Christian mission, which meant hiring only faculty members who were not only Christians, but also deeply committed to their faith. (Roughly one-third of Baylor’s faculty and students are Baptist these days.) Though Baylor’s Christianity is visible in many ways, from mandatory chapel attendance to the abundant school-sponsored mission programs in the U.S. and abroad, the school’s religious character resides primarily in its faculty.

The result, in 2002 to 2005, was a small civil war inside the university that centered on President Robert B. Sloan Jr., the man whose vision Baylor 2012 had been. Sloan declined to comment for this story.

The primary issue was the wrenching change in the faculty, both in the insistence on research and publication and in the often confusing new religious standards, which many interpreted as a doctrinal litmus test. Prospective teachers were grilled about their Christian convictions, and the existing faculty was split into “A” and “B” groups, separating the newly favored “research” types from the teachers. Sloan was soon at war with both his faculty and his alumni association; he received two votes of “no confidence” and resigned under fire in 2005.

For a while, it seemed that what the many skeptics had said was true: Baylor could never be both Christian and a great academic institution.

Then something interesting happened.

Slowly, quietly, the main precepts of the 2012 plan began to take hold. The number of faculty with degrees from top-flight research institutions rose substantially, as did their rate of publication. In departments like sociology, Baylor managed to land world-class faculty members who were also Christians.

In 2002, the number of faculty articles in major publications was 202; by 2008 that number had risen to 496. Scholarly citations soared, too, as did external grants for research, the number of doctoral programs (rising from 14 to 20) and enrollment in those programs (up 32 percent). Student SAT scores have risen 50 points in the last 10 years, while undergraduate applications rose stunningly from 7,431 in 2002 to 34,224 in 2010.

Baylor’s biggest challenge is finding talented Christian faculty members. For many academics, the prospect of being asked about their religion in interviews is not an appealing one.

“It’s difficult, and you have to work very hard at recruiting,” says Kevin Pinney, associate professor of chemistry and a leading cancer researcher. “It is not always easy to find people without offending them. They can even have strong Christianity and still not want to be asked about it.”

 Much more here.


World’s most coveted painting

Hubert Eyck/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

NPR has an intriguing story about what might be the world’s most coveted painting.  Completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck, the Ghent Altarpiece features panels depicting biblical themes and pilgrims adoring the Lamb of God. Throughout the centuries, it was stolen or faced the threat of theft many times. NPR spoke with Author Noah Charney, who has a new book out on the subject.

A snip:

The altarpiece was painted for the cathedral of St. Bavo, in Ghent.  And during the first century of its existence, nothing much happened.

Then, in 1566, all hell broke loose. Protestant militants broke down the cathedral doors with an improvised battering ram, intending to burn the altarpiece, which they considered to be an example of Catholic idolatry and excess. But alert Catholic guards had disassembled the enormous work and hidden it in the cathedral tower, where it survived unscathed.

Over the next few centuries, the Ghent Altarpiece was taken as booty in the Napoleonic Wars and then returned to Ghent.  Parts of it were stolen by a vicar at St. Bavo and ended up, after several sales, in a Berlin museum.

When World War I broke out, a brave cathedral canon hid the painting away in a junkman’s wagon for safety. It took the Treaty of Versailles to finally reunite all the panels in their original home.

Enduring Mystery

The Ghent Altarpiece didn’t stay safe for long. Thieves broke into the cathedral one night in 1934 and made off with the lower left panel.

“This is the enduring mystery that really is part of the popular cultural awareness of the people of Ghent still to this day,” Charney says.

The theft has never been solved. Visitors to St. Bavo Cathedral today will see a copy of the missing panel, painted during World War II. The copy is so good that many people thought it might be the original, hidden in plain sight, though recent conservation work has disproved that theory.

Raiders Of The Mystic Lamb

Missing panel and all, the Ghent Altarpiece was stolen one last time during World War II, on the orders of Nazi Gen. Hermann Goering.

“This may sound very silly,” says Charney, “but in fact, the Nazis and Hitler in particular were absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural was real,” and the Ghent Altarpiece was thought to be a sort of mystical treasure map showing the location of relics of Christ’s passion.

The altarpiece ended up hidden with thousands of other looted artworks in a converted salt mine in Austria. The local SS commander had wired the mine with dynamite, determined to destroy all the art as the Allies began closing in.

Charney says the Ghent Altarpiece was eventually saved through the heroism of salt miners who disabled the bombs, and the work of local Austrian resistance fighters and Allied “monuments men” whose job it was to hunt for stolen art.

Read the full story here.


A special Polish Christmas carol

If I’m counting correctly, tonight’s Midnight Mass at Our Lady of Hope in Dundalk will mark the 20th time I’ve had the honor of serving as organist for the joyful Christmas liturgy. People of all ages will crowd into the contemporary-styled church, which is usually dimmed slightly and illuminated with flickering candles and glowing Christmas lights. The effect is warm and almost otherworldly.

In front of the ambo, figures of Joseph and Mary will stand next to a hay-strewn manger bearing the newborn Christ child. The Magi statues will be placed on the other side of the church, symbolically traveling toward the holy scene before arriving on the Epiphany.

Tonight, there will be a certain formula we dare not break in the singing of the carols. Expect to hear “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World” – in that order.

But there’s another, less familiar song I’ve added to the repertoire.

As a postlude, I always pull out the stops and fill the massive worship space with a lilting Polish carol, “Dzisiaj w Betlejem” – “Today in Bethlehem.”  Nearly every year I’ve played the charmingly simple song, a gentleman approaches me after Mass and thanks me for highlighting his favorite Polish carol. He presses a $20 bill into my hand despite my protests.

“Dzisiaj w Betlejem” holds a special place in my heart, too.

Growing up in a Polish and Czech family, it was one of the kolendy – carols – we heard every Christmas season. It became an even more important song more than a decade ago when my mother was battling the last stages of cancer.

On the Christmas of 1998, my mom only had a few weeks left to live. She slept almost constantly in the hospital bed we set up in her bedroom, relying on morphine to manage the pain. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she would speak of seeing long-gone relatives and would sometimes talk in the Polish tongue she remembered from her youth.

On that Christmas Day, I set up a speaker in her room to let her hear an album of kolendy that included “Dzisiaj w Betlejem.” I don’t know if she was aware of the music, but I like to think it may have lifted her spirits in some way and brought her some sense of peace.

When I play that tune tonight, I will be thinking of my mom and all those who have lost loved ones this year. My prayer is that no matter what you are going through in life, the Prince of Peace will bring you comfort.

In the words of Dzisiaj w Betlejem’s refrain:

Angels are singing, Kings gifts are bringing, Shepherds are praying, Cattle are kneeling; To the little Jesus, To the Son of Mary who this day is born to us!

Have a blessed Christmas, everyone!  Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia!


Archbishop O’Brien, Bishop Malooly extend Christmas messages

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien has an audio Christmas message here and Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly (former Baltimore auxiliary bishop) has a video Christmas message here.


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