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Fr. J. Bryan Hehir is one of the quiet treasures of the U.S. Catholic church. The president of Catholic Charities USA since September 2001, he has held prestigious positions in the academic world and for two decades (1973-1992) was a model of distinguished service to the U.S. bishops as director of the Office of International Affairs, secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace and counselor for social policy.

An authority on the role of religion in American society, he was Joseph P. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics in the Kennedy Center for Ethics at Georgetown University from 1984, the year he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, to 1992. More recently he was the first Catholic to head Harvard Divinity School, from which he had earlier earned a doctorate in applied theology.

During his years with the bishops’ conference, Hehir was the behind-the-scenes intellectual architect of some of the most significant documents -- on war and peace and on the U.S. economy -- to come out of the conference at the end of the 20th century.

NCR is pleased, then, to offer Hehir’s analysis of the past year of church and state -- concentrating on the aftermath of 9/11 and the sex abuse scandal -- that appears on Page 14. The analysis was given as a speech to the annual gathering of Catholic Charities USA.

I found it a welcome and profoundly helpful reprieve from the bluster and clichés that have grown up around both crises. Hehir dares to turn the question of security from the arena of Homeland Security to that of individual security for the least among us. In considering the question of the place of the church, one whose credibility has been deeply wounded, in the wider debates of the day, Hehir sees hope. But his hope is rooted in the community’s ability to face squarely the complexity and difficulty of the problems we face, not in the attempts of some to diminish or deny the severity of the problems we face.

Read any good books his year?

NCR invites readers to share with us your favorite or most memorable book read this year.

Please write and tell us about the book that most charmed, enthralled, galvanized, energized, enraged, inspired or enlightened you that was published this year. Limit your enthusiasm to less than 300 words. Include the title, author, publisher and price. There will be no payment, just the chance to share with fellow subscribers the book that most turned your world upside down this year.

The edited selections will appear in our Oct. 4 Winter Books issue. The deadline for submissions is Sept. 15. Send your submission to “Favorite Book” at National Catholic Reporter, 115 East Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111, or by e-mail to our book review editor, Rich Heffern, at rheffern@natcath.org.

Once, while listening to a lecture about particularly gruesome elements of black history in the United States, I remember feeling a jolt when the speaker asked a roomful of listeners obviously unfamiliar with the events: “How come I know your history and you don’t know your history?”

That’s the point. We go to hear or read black history and really don’t get it unless we understand that it is our history.

So I invite you especially to read Sr. Diana Hayes column on Page 21. We will be reporting from the Black Catholic Congress in Chicago. It is a gathering to hold in your thoughts and your prayers. If one of the sins of our church is the ongoing separation of African-Americans, it is also simultaneously one of the strengths that African-American Catholics are meeting and finding new voice. The white members of the church, I think, are just in the beginning stages of listening, of learning our history as we’ve seldom before been taught.

Though I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, a fair distance from the coalfields of that state, the lore of the coal region was nevertheless thick in the air. I knew those regions through ex-miners and their families who had abandoned that rather strange underground world and moved east either because of economics or a close call. So I shared a certain native state pride and pleasure when the nine miners were rescued last week, and I was glad President Bush scheduled a visit to an area that doesn’t normally get much of the limelight.

But I was just as quickly distressed at his immediate equation of the human spirit exhibited in such abundance in that town with the spirit that will be needed to hunt down terrorists. The current crowd in Washington has no imagination beyond the hunt for terrorists, no spark of an idea or vision beyond that theme that might serve as an organizing idea for the culture.

Mining has rich veins of lore and song, stories of danger and love and self-sacrifice. Too bad some aide didn’t take the time to dig even lightly into those stories to find something more than terror upon which to frame the incredible rescue of the summer of ’02.

Given the current climate of crisis in the U.S. church, it is noteworthy that Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado attended the papal Mass in Mexico City.

Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, who has been charged by eight former members of his order with sexually abusing them as seminarians, was personally greeted by the pope (see brief, Page 13, and John L. Allen Jr.’s on-line column). The accusers include a range of accomplished professionals, none of whom has sought any money in bringing the charges. Their case has attracted the attention of significant church figures and even won favorable attention at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome before being mysteriously dropped (NCR, Dec. 7, 2001).

This much is clear: If Maciel were a priest in the United States today, given the gravity of the charges and the credibility of his accusers, he would no longer be active. He certainly would not be front and center at a papal Mass, receiving a personal greeting from the pope. Priests in the United States in recent weeks have been summarily booted for far less serious charges and on much thinner evidence.

In recent months, the mailbag -- traditional and electronic -- has been stuffed with wise words, insights, compassion and concern, good analysis and suggestions. We simply don’t have space -- particularly during the summer months when we publish every other week -- to run all or even most of it. You’ll catch a good representation of the thought on the letters pages.

To give you some of the best material, however, we’ve come on what I like to think is a good solution: A summary in the newspaper and full texts on the Web site. You’ll find the summaries on Page 8.

Go to www.natcath.org for the full text, in this case of a piece by Eugene Kennedy, the widely respected analyst whose advice decades ago might have spared the church enormous embarrassment had the bishops chosen to read it. He has written a long analysis of what he considers the monster the bishops created during their meeting in Dallas. In another article, Dr. Leslie Lothstein, the director of a mental health network who has treating hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by priests and priests who have been sex abusers, describes his understanding of the current crisis in an extensive interview conducted by Katherine DiGiulio.

Another feature you’ll discover this week on the Web site is the Richard McBrien Archives. The archives contain essays by Fr. Richard McBrien, the distinguished theologian from the University of Notre Dame, whose material regularly appears on our opinion pages. NCR is unable to run his Essays in Theology weekly, so, with his permission, we are making them available to you electronically. In accordance with our agreement with McBrien, we are posting the last eight essays available. The essays will be updated weekly with the newest one first.

Following last issue’s cover story on the Voice of the Faithful meeting in Boston, we have received several requests for its mailing address and phone number: Voice of the Faithful, 1191 Chestnut Street, Newton, MA 02464. Phone: [(617) 558-5252] Web site: www.voiceofthefaithful.org

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002 [corrected 08/30/2002]