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The Narthex has moved!

The Narthex has a new permanent home over on the Catholic Review’s snazzy new website.  Please bookmark the page at www.catholicreview.org/blogs/the-narthex.  Come check out my new home!


Forrest Gump of Catholicism began humbly in Baltimore

Archbishop Philip M. Hannan as a seminarian at St. Charles College in Catonsville. (CR/File)

A friend once referred to the late New Orleans Archbishop Philip M. Hannan as the “Forrest Gump of Catholicism.”

Just like the Tom Hanks’ character, Archbishop Hannan always seemed to be at the right place at the right time – making history as much as witnessing it.

Just consider some of the roles the native Washingtonian so ably filled in his 98 years: paratroop chaplain during the Second World War, Catholic newspaper editor, counselor to President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights and pro-life advocate, attendee of all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, shepherd to the New Orleans archdiocese and broadcast journalist.

A day before one of the American Church’s greatest figures is laid to rest, it’s good to recall that Archbishop Hannan’s spectacular priesthood began humbly in Baltimore.

Before receiving a master’s degree from The Catholic University of America and studying in Rome for four years, the young Phil Hannan was a student at St. Charles College in Catonsville, a minor seminary for boys considering a call to the religious life.

After his Dec. 8, 1939 ordination in Rome, Archbishop Hannan’s first assignment was as assistant pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore.

In his 2010 memoir, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots,” Archbishop Hannan recalled that although he had been the recipient of a “brilliant academic preparation” for the priesthood, he knew little of the practical “soul-to-soul work of helping other human beings walk in the grace of God.”

Baltimore gave him that experience.

One of Archbishop Hannan’s primary duties as assistant pastor was to help take the census and contact parish couples who were married outside the church. In the 1940s, of St. Thomas’s 400 registered families, about a fourth were not in a valid marriage.

One day, Archbishop Hannan recalled in his memoir, a “tall, strongly built” Appalachian man with a “surfeit of missing teeth” knocked on the rectory door. He wanted then-Father Hannan to convince his wife to return to him. The priest visited the woman’s address the next morning, receiving a curt greeting from a woman who said she didn’t know where her mother was.

Archbishop Hannan recalled that he told the woman that her father wanted her mother to return home, adding that he would guarantee that the man would neither bite nor harm her. Another woman suddenly appeared at the head of the stairs, Archbishop Hannan recalled, and asked how Father Hannan could make such a guarantee.

“Because he has lost his teeth,” Father Hannan replied.

Humor won the day and the woman returned to her husband.

“A priest’s most important task is to know the spiritual needs of his parishioners,” Archbishop Hannan wrote in his memoir, “which requires getting out among them. You learn how to be a priest by doing the work of one – most importantly, listening.”

Census-taking ended up being “just the spiritual-engagement short course needed by this rookie,” he said.

While at St. Thomas, Father Hannan’s greatest achievement was launching a pioneering youth ministry. He spearheaded the renovation of an old school building to host dances and other events for area parishes.

The future archbishop organized an inter-parish moonlight cruise for young people, using his own money as a down payment on the boat. The event was the first of many activities of what would become the Council of Catholic Social Clubs, later to be renamed the Catholic Youth Organization. Father Hannan headed the group until he entered the armed services in 1942.

In a 1992 interview with The Catholic Review a few days before the archdiocese celebrated the 50th anniversary of Archbishop Hannan’s historic youth cruise, the archbishop said young people were a priority because he knew they needed a place to gather and grow into responsible, faith-filled adults. He recalled that one of his techniques for attracting crowds was picking the “prettiest girls” to be members of the welcoming committee.

“That way,” he said, “we didn’t have to worry about boys coming. It’s a law of nature.”

Archbishop Hannan said the dances were opportunities for catechesis. He would field questions from young people regarding the doctrines of the church, he said. Archbishop Hannan told The Catholic Review that combining catechesis with attractive activities is the formula for a successful youth group.

“Young people have greater needs today and face bigger challenges because of things like premarital sex and drug use,” he said in the 1992 interview. “There is an even greater need today for outreach to young people. Priests also have to be active in meeting with young people.”

From Baltimore to the world, Archbishop Hannan was a man of great wisdom and vision. Our church has been greatly blessed by his life.


‘For heroes proved’

Happy Independence Day!


The changing face of the media

Several members of The Catholic Review are attending the annual Catholic Media Convention in Pittsburgh. Pictured are Nina Schuler Heckman (sales manager), George P. Matysek Jr. (senior writer) and Christopher Gunty (editor/associate publisher). (CR photo)

PITTSBURGH – A big chunk of the talk at the Catholic Media Convention here in the Steel City seems to be swirling around the state of print publications and the growing influence of new media.

During a general session yesterday, Amy Mitchell, deputy director for the Pew Research Institute’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, pointed out some eye-opening trends uncovered in a 2010 Pew study:

* For the first time, online news consumption surpassed print consumption. 46 percent of people surveyed said they read their news online regularly, while 40 percent said they read it in print. Local TV news was the most popular platform, with 50 percent of people surveyed citing it as their source for news.

* Digital platforms are becoming the preferred choice for reading news. The web continues to gain ground, while other sectors are losing. In 2009-10, the web saw a 17.1 percent growth in audience, while traditional platforms lost audience share (cable TV, -13.7; magazines, -8.9; audio, -6; newspapers, -5; network TV, -3.4 and local TV, -1.5).

* Facebook is becoming a major force in directing users to news stories. It is now among the top-10 sites that send people to news sources.

* 47 percent of Americans are getting their local news on a mobile device.

* $1.6 billion was lost in print news budgets from 2006-2010.

Like all print products, Catholic publications are feeling the crunch. Advertising revenue and circulation have fallen – putting tremendous pressure on newspapers as they attempt to continue serving their readers in ink while also offering a vigorous – and critically necessary – digital presence.

Some newspapers – including The Catholic Review – have initiated strategic planning programs to come up with the best ways of remaining viable in an ever-changing age.

It’s clear that Catholic journalism is essential these days.

“There’s been a loss of institutional memory and beat reporting,” said Mitchell, noting that with downsizing, many secular newspapers no longer cover religion as closely as they did in the past. “It’s harder for these topics to get attention.”

More than ever, Catholic journalists can fill the void.


Media musings

A bridge stands near PNC Park in Pittsburgh. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

I’m in Pittsburgh this week for the annual Catholic Media Convention.  Stay tuned for some musings!


Mayoral candidate might be on to something with voucher proposal

Otis Rolley unveils an education voucher proposal June 13 in Baltimore. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

Otis Rolley is trying to shake things up in his bid to succeed Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as the next mayor of Baltimore.

During a June 13 press conference outside public school headquarters on North Avenue, Rolley said he wanted to close the city’s five worst-performing middle schools and give $10,000 education vouchers to the affected students. The vouchers could be used at Catholic and other nonpublic middle schools in Baltimore. (See The Catholic Review story here).

During the news conference, I asked Rolley what he thought about the contributions made by Catholic schools in the city.  I was impressed that the former Baltimore City director of planning viewed Catholic schools as allies – not enemies – in the common goal of educating children.

“When I think of city kids in city schools, it’s public, parochial and independent schools,” he said. “All of these kids are our kids. All of these schools are our schools.”

That’s a sentiment that’s not always popular in some education circles – although Dr. Andres Alonso, current Baltimore public schools CEO, has gained kudos from Catholic school leaders for keeping lines of communication open between the systems and for serving on Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic education.

Rolley’s plan isn’t perfect, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Pamela Sanders, principal of St. Ambrose School in Park Heights, pointed out that it will face stiff opposition from teachers unions and others. Rolley will also have legal issues to overcome in appropriating $25 million from the city schools’ budget for the voucher program.

Ellen Robertson, associate director for education with the Maryland Catholic Conference, said there might be some challenges with the candidate’s requirement that enrolled children maintain a consistent level of achievement to be eligible for vouchers.

“These students are coming from underperforming schools to start with,” said Robertson, who was eager to see more specifics in the Rolley plan. “It might be putting a lot of pressure on them.”

Yet, as both Sanders and Robertson pointed out, it’s a step in the right direction for a candidate to put vouchers squarely on the line for public debate.

“At least people are talking about it,” Sanders said. “Putting the question out there raises awareness.”

Catholic schools in the city have consistently produced students who go on to earn college degrees and become productive citizens. Yet, because of increased expenses and declining enrollment, they have struggled to stay open in recent years. Vouchers could be a way of bolstering Catholic schools, while also improving educational opportunities for kids stuck in underperforming public schools.

It will be interesting to see whether Rolley’s proposal gains any traction. In the coming months, The Catholic Review will followup on the plan and explore where the other candidates stand.

Rolley deserves credit for including Catholic and nonpublic schools in his vision for making Baltimore a better place.

“I know defenders of the status quo will attack me and my ideas,” Rolley said. “My plan provides hope to parents of current students.”


VIDEO REPORT: A tune for Our Lady and a city

The Church of St. Mary stands in Krakow. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

KRAKOW – At the top of every hour of every day, a trumpeter climbs to the top of a tower at St. Mary’s Church in Krakow to sound a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Known as the “Hejnal,” the tribute is played four times in four different directions.

If you listen closely, you will notice that the call is abruptly cut short mid-note. The unexpected break recalls a 13th-century trumpeter who is said to have repeatedly sounded the Hejnal to warn the townspeople of an invasion of Tatar warriors. As the galloping cavalry approached Krakow, the invaders directed their arrows at the trumpeter – striking him in the throat and silencing the alarm. The trumpeter lost his life, but saved his city.

Today, the playing of the Hejnal is a much-loved tradition among the Polish people. The noontime edition of the trumpet call has been broadcast live on Polish radio since 1927.

A group of pilgrims from Baltimore got to hear the often-repeated melody during a recent visit to the former Polish capital. They even got a wave from the trumpeter. Check it out below.


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