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Inside NCR

As Lent begins, last thing church needs is Sic

All is not well in the NCR newsroom. The trouble started as I tried to throw a few words together for the Inside Box.

"What about me?" asked a small forlorn entity in the corner of my new office. (I have, by the way, been moved into a spanking glass box, where, however, I feel rather lonely, even though I'm only a window away from fellow inmates Patty, Jean, Tom R., Andres, Therese and Pam, who, I now realize, are even grander human beings than I had realized when we were all cheek by jowl in the newsroom).

"So who are you?" I asked the sulking entity in the corner. I was just playing for time -- already I could see trouble.

"Name's Sic," he said. "As if you didn't know," he pressed on. "All I want is what's rightfully mine."

"And what's that?"

"Just a page. One miserable page to strut my stuff -- it's not asking a lot."

"Sorry. Sic has been retired. Put out to pasture." (Incidentally, on the other side of my glass box is the production room where the real work happens, done by Teresa Malcolm, Pierre Jorgensen and Toni-Ann Ortiz.)

"Stop changing the subject," Sic snapped from the corner. "I suppose it was the new publisher got rid of me?"

"Shame on you. Tom Fox is a great human being, not to mention a friend of mine. He is open to almost every conceivable point of view, even goofy ones like yours."

"Have you seen the letters coming in from our readers?" Sic's gloom gave way to a feisty bout of bravado. " 'How sick I am over Sic's retirement.' These are the very words of Mary Hazlett of Akron. 'Sic had become my favorite column,' she goes on. And listen to this from Lizzie Salamander III from Boulder Creek: 'Today is my 47th wedding anniversary, and when I turned to Sic and found you are taking a sabbatical I lost my composure.' Even Sic is not at liberty to say what happened after Salamander lost her composure."

"Words, just words," I shot back.

"And this from Zoe L. Belth of Hempstead: 'A most regrettable affair. This [she means Sic!] was a most delicious interlude that made the NCR a balanced reading adventure."

I snorted in derision. But Sic kept pulling letters out of his hat, including one from Jim Orgren and 17 others from Williamsville, with stuff like "We love you, Sic, oh yes we do." From an executive editor's point of view it was nauseating.

"I get letters, too, you know," I huffed. "Including one from a woman who said she would have given five gift subscriptions at Christmas were it not for the obnoxious presence of Sic in the paper. Put that in your pipe and smoke it." I was all wound up.

"So who was this woman?"

"She didn't give her name."

"Hah! I rest my case."

"What case?"

"Are you forgetting I'm infallible?

"Give me a break. You're slacker than the pope at infallible pronouncements."

"And I won a Catholic Press Association award."

"Don't make me laugh."

It went on like that, an affront to Catholic theology, culture and journalism.

"You said it was only temporary, a sabbatical, not an out-and-out heave-ho," Sic was now sniveling.

"It's a question of standards," I replied. "How could I expect to be taken seriously if I associated with dopey Sic stuff?"

"It's over then?"

"I didn't say that."

"You mean it's not over?"

I love this job.

Anthony Padovano's Lent series begins on page one in the shadow of the cross. A distinguished author and lecturer, Padovano is also president of CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood.

He tackles the Christian project head on: "The cross in the early darkness ... is not the hope of an easy Easter or a ready response. When Easter comes too quickly, it dismisses the pain without healing it."

This is not a feel-good Christianity, nor religion as a social outlet. We're stuck with the fact that there was a cross back there on the Hill of the Skull, and the Messiah of our Catholicism was on it. Even if the resurrection came later, you couldn't skip the hard part and start singing alleluia.

Times have changed. Progress never means making life harder but instead revolves around softening the blows. Materialism is the search for stuff to smooth our journey. But of course we're not all crass materialists. We value the more airy and spiritual side of existence and pursue it in varying degrees of dedication and even fervor.

Yet more and more we seem to want it as painless as possible. It's not the fashion to pursue hardship, as martyrs and monks, among others, once did; as nearly everyone did in the old days when Lent was truly a season to shiver our timbers. We did some ferocious fasting and other expressions of self-denial. It was tough, yet old-timers aver that there was a certain satisfaction, even joy, as the determined pilgrim bent into the wind and plodded toward what some nameless Puritan called "the stormy north side of Jesus Christ."

It's only a few years ago since the Mass was seen to evolve around Christ's crucifixion. It was, we said, the re-enacting of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. It was radically awesome. It was about blood and pain and the altar was an altar of sacrifice on which mystically we pledged to die to our old selves and make ourselves new and holy.

Then, in the maelstrom surrounding the Second Vatican Council, a softer theology seemed to emerge. Life was good, creation was good. It became somewhat unworthy of us, we told ourselves, to go out of our way to make harder a life already causing us enough aches and pains.

Our interpretation of the Mass seemed to change in step with this more sunny outlook. The passion and death of Jesus were eclipsed by the resurrection. The Mass became a commemoration not so much of the crucifixion as the Last Supper. The altar became a table for the meal. We became a family gathered in love and community. The mystery sunny side up.

As I was trying to fall asleep last night, my spouse insisted on reading aloud from James Plunkett's The Gems She Wore a passage about the heroic lives of early Irish saints. Some prayed standing in icy water. St. Ailbe lay on a bed of stones to pray the Psalter. The Rule of the Penitentials called for "300 prostrations every day." The scourge was widely used -- six blows for not shaving before serving Mass. There was punishment for singing out of tune. St. Kevin of Glendalough prayed for so long with his arms outstretched that a bird nested in one of his palms. Yet, the book goes on, the monasteries overflowed.

The overall gist (other than keeping me awake): They don't practice Christianity like they used to.

Welcome to Lent.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997