Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Bishop is Coming! The Bishop is coming!

There are big doings around St. John’s church in Galva this week. Bishop Daniel Robert Jenky, the eighth Bishop of the Diocese of Peoria, is coming to town. The reason? Confirmation for 12 Galva students, plus eight more from St. John’s in Woodhull. The Diocese of Peoria serves 26 Illinois counties and nearly 200 Catholic Churches, with almost a quarter of a million parishioners in the central part of the state, so it’s a pretty big deal when the Bishop comes to Galva, with the last time being around 1996, I think.
I’m probably understating things when I say that this visit has set off a few alarm bells around St. John’s. A number of people have been busy, busy, busy cleaning, organizing and rehearsing for the big event, which, actually, took place last night. I’m writing this column, as always, on Tuesday, so you have the advantage over me as to how it went. But, I want to go on record right now as saying that if it didn’t go well, it was probably my fault. There have been moments in the process leading up to Wednesday night when I’ve had an inkling of how those early Christians felt just before they were fed to the lions, because, dear friends, I seem to find myself right smack-dab in the middle of this Sacrament of Confirmation, an important step in an individual’s life in the Church.
First off, my wife (who has specifically and firmly asked not to be mentioned by name in my columns from now on) and I are the teachers for St. John’s Confirmation class, which is made up of eighth and ninth grade students. She, as a trained teacher, devoted reader of scripture and responsible adult, has done much to prepare our students for this day over the past two years. I, on the other hand, have specialized in more esoteric faith-based matters, such as how to pick out a really cool-sounding Patron Saint name and how to wangle the last marshmallow at a church picnic. So, if our students tell the Bishop that Jesus had an apostle named Ringo, it’s on me.
Next, I’m responsible for the music for the Confirmation Mass. Now, I’m not unaccustomed to playing music at church. For awhile, I was even a part of the Bishop’s own pontifical choir at St. Mary’s Cathedral, until I was dismissed for singing the Latin parts with a Swedish accent. Even now, all the religious education students at St. John’s join me on a monthly basis to lead the congregation in song. But this is an important occasion. And the Bishop will be listening. My fear is that, in my nervousness, I’ll revert to the one song that I can generally remember all the words to, no matter what.
Frankly, I’m not sure “The Hokey-Pokey” is a good fit for such a solemn event.
I’m also charged with taking pictures of the Bishop and the newly confirmed students. As my colleagues at the Star Courier can tell you, my picture-taking skills can range from bad to worst. Oh, I’m not too bad at catching a point guard in mid-air on his way to the basket, but give me a group picture to take and I show an amazing talent for catching every eye closed and every mouth open.
But the task that truly keeps me tossing and turning at night is that of “Master of Ceremonies” for the events leading up to the actual Mass. I’ve been asked to be the guy who keeps the Bishop moving once he hits town. That means I’ll need to show him around the church and rectory, and keep track of time as he poses for pictures, greets parishioners, interviews the students and shares a meal with some of the clergy who will assist him with the ceremony.
I’m reminded of Rowdy Yates, the trail drive ramrod played by Clint Eastwood on the old “Rawhide” TV series. It was Rowdy’s job to keep things moving, too, but I’m also reminded of a line often used on that show:
“Don’t spook ‘em boys, they’re apt to stampede.”
Really, now, do I seem like the kind of guy who can tell a Bishop to “get a move on?” Will I have the will to tell the Bishop, a man who has a direct historical lineage dating back to the original twelve apostles, that he doesn’t have time for dessert?
But hey, by the time you--and I--read this, it will all be over. The young people will be confirmed, and that’s all that really matters. And who knows, Bishop Jenky and I may hit it off. He might even be Pope some day and decide he needs a bossy, guitar-playing photographer in Rome with him. What’s-her-name and I could live in the Vatican, eat pasta and learn to speak Italian.
Or maybe he’ll just decide to do the right thing, and turn me over to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of lost causes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One Last Thing about Basketball

Spring is in the air.
There are certain signs: The robins are back. Kids are riding bikes and playing in the park across the street from my house. The light and the breeze have a certain flavor about them that says that now, maybe, hopefully, winter is over and spring is finally here.
And, oh yeah, basketball season is over.
You might think I had written enough about the game already, but there is, for me, a little more to say.
This season was kind of a long haul at times, punctuated by wintry, cross-country drives; desperate searches for wi-fi hotspots in out-of-the-way places; and fast, post-game runs to the office to write quick stories and hastily upload pictures in time for our often too-early deadline.
But, I liked it. In fact, I loved it, at times.
I loved watching the way our kids and coaches sometimes displayed a level of skill and intensity that even amazed themselves.
I loved it when, in the heat of the moment, they suddenly found themselves having a good time just playing a game in front of their friends, fans and families.
There are a lot of great memories that go with this basketball season and the teams I covered. The Annawan boys’ run to the state finals is one, of course, along with the wonderful, historic season the Bravettes posted. The Boilermakers played an intense, uptempo brand of basketball that was enormously entertaining to watch and enjoy, while the Boiler Girls surprised a lot of teams with good, steady fundamentals and some inspired shooting and rebounding. The Flying Geese and Lady Geese, both led by record-setting individuals, coalesced into teams, with other players stepping up and making a difference, especially as seen in the boys’ marvelous undefeated Lincoln Trail season. Down Stark County way, there’s a pair of programs that showed some real talent, and should have opposing coaches and players worried, as both the boys and girls teams displayed a combination of youth and athleticism that will doubtless bear even more fruit in seasons to come. Galva, my alma mater, had its ups and downs this year, but has a youth moment of its own that gave valuable experience to underclassmen, who now have the opportunity to establish themselves in future leadership roles.
But the most important game-day memory, and the thing I loved most of all, was seeing the ways some of those kids developed as players and people over the course of the season.
Annawan coach Ryan Brown probably said it best when referring to his three senior captains: “They’ve become better basketball players and better men.”
Because, sports fans, that’s what games like basketball should be all about. Playing high school sports exposes our kids to so many of the events and emotions they’ll face as adults. Like success and failure. Like winning gracefully and losing well. And, most importantly, being a part of a thing that is bigger than any individual, whether he or she is a superstar or the kid way down at the end of the bench.
I loved seeing the players who, win or lose, kept their heads up and their eyes on the prize. Who learned to respect the game, their coaches, their teammates and, most importantly, themselves.
No matter what the record books say, they are surely the winners.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

About Face(book)

I have 67 friends.
I’ve never been driven to actually count the number of people in my life. But Facebook is.
I kind of accidently joined the popular social networking website a few months ago when I received an email with a “friend invitation.” Intrigued, I followed the link to a relatively simple registration and, voila! I was in.
In what, though?
Things were pretty quiet for several weeks and I, frankly, even forgot I had joined. But all of a sudden, my inbox started flooding with more invitations. Many were from folks I could see every day anyway, but an equal number came from a surprising worldwide mix of old acquaintances, friends of my two sons, and a smattering of people I hardly knew at all.
I briefly felt like Sally Fields when she gave her 1985 Oscar acceptance speech:
“You like me, right now, you really like me!”
But then, after I came to my senses, I decided to see if I could understand what online “social networking” is all about. My answer to this somewhat complex question is this:
I don’t really know.
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “(Facebook) users can join networks organized by city, workplace, school, and region to connect and interact with other people. People can also add friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves.”
To me, it’s kinda like this: Imagine you are in a big room. Everybody you know is in the same room...and they’re all talking at the same time.
A key feature on Facebook is a question at the top of your homepage that asks, “What are you doing right now?”
Well, it seems the logical answer would be “sitting in front of my computer trying to think of something to say,” but nobody seems to want to offer that. Users can also share pictures, notes, and other timely bits of flotsam from their lives, plus they can comment on the items posted by their friends. If I get a new friend or join a group, that’s reported, too. The messages, etc., which are then posted on every friend’s own page, range from informative and interesting bits of news to things that I’d survive quite nicely without ever knowing.
For instance, I was delighted to hear our friend Betty (note: all names changed to protect the privacy of my 67 friends) was in labor with her and Tom’s first child. I got to see pictures of their brand-new baby and add my congratulations to a list of good wishes sent from around the world. Less compelling, to me, at least, are the on-the-spot reports I’m now receiving on the baby girl’s diaper changes. But, I guess that’s the price you pay for being in the know.
The list of things I now know about those 67 friends of mine could go on. And on. And on. And it does.
And that can be a good thing. Sometimes.
I’m interested in the significant events in people’s lives that involve their families, jobs hobbies and pets, but I’m not sure if I really care about who’s hungover, mad at their spouse, doing their laundry or struggling with the sniffles. Nor do I think it’s always the best use of time when folks sit at their computers instead of getting out and doing a little “social networking” in a real, face-to-face way (as opposed to facebook-to-facebook.) It may well be my age and attitude that makes me a full step behind a brave new world that so freely replaces genuine human interaction, with all its mysteries and misunderstandings, with cyber-talk that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Meanwhile, I’d better check my page.
I might have missed something.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Season of Change

I was covering a basketball game a week ago Wednesday and, while talking to a spectator, noticed he kept glancing at my forehead. Then I realized there were faint traces of the ashes I had receive early that morning still lingering there. It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
The encounter reminded me of an incident that happened soon after Megan and I were married. It was long before I converted to Catholicism, and I was not aware of many of the beliefs and traditions of what was to someday be my faith. We were living in Marquette, Michigan at the time, which is an area heavy with Catholics of Finnish and Italian descent. We were at the supermarket when I noticed one of my fellow shoppers had a large, black smudge on her forehead.
“Wow,” I thought. “That lady has dirt on her forehead and no one knows how to tell her.”
Then I saw another shopper with the same mark. And another and another.
Finally, I turned to Megan and muttered, “Either I’m having some weird hallucination, or there are a lot of people in here with dirt on their heads,” I said.
“Those are ashes,” she said. “It’s Ash Wednesday.”
I’m a Roman Catholic myself, now, and lent has become a special time for me and for members of my church family. But, whether or not you are a part of a religion that recognizes the season of lent, it remains a time that can--and should--produce a sense of change in every heart.
The word “lent” simply means spring, and derives from the Germanic root for “long,” because, in spring, the days begin to visibly lengthen. We receive ashes (which are made from palms used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday) to remind us that it is a time for repentance and humility, as in the scriptural phrase: "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return." Lent is a time when we should remember and anticipate the sacrifice Jesus made for all of us, while we prepare for the great joy we feel at his resurrection at Easter.
It has long been a custom to “give something up” for lent, whether it be a favorite food or television show or something else that’s important to the person who does it. It is thought that those small sacrifices can bring better awareness of the big one Jesus made for us.
So you quit eating chocolate bon-bons for 40 days, then hit that Easter basket like there’s no tomorrow. Temporarily giving up something is fine. Heck, you might even lose some of those winter pounds. But Lent means more than a few weeks without chocolate or some other favorite thing. Remember, Lent means spring, and spring is a time of great change and renewal. That’s why it’s important to spend these days trying for some permanent, significant change for the better in our lives.
No one can tell us what that “thing” is that needs to change. I, for one, can think of plenty of ways I could be a better husband, father and person. The deepest meaning and purpose of Lent is to joyfully embark upon a journey of personal conversion. It is a time for us to examine our attitudes, our habits and the priorities we place on different aspects of our lives. You don’t have to be religious to believe in the value of conversion. You only need to believe in the value of being better.
It is a time for small sacrifices. And great change.
It would be difficult to think of sacrifice without thinking of Schuyler Patch. May God bless him and his family.