Friday, April 25, 2008

Adventures in popeaucracy ... or, how I scored those awesome mass tix

Something I learned last weekend: As far as massive, important bureaucracies go, you can do worse than the Archdiocese of New York.

Pope Benedict's visit was obviously a wonderful, holy thing. But from a logistics standpoint, I'm made to understand from folks on the fringes of the storm, it was also something of a nightmare.

Kinda like you'd expect.

My experience with this was relatively minor. Saturday morning (as I started to describe in the post previous), I was one of a hundred-odd volunteers assisting at the Papal mass for clergy and religious at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Supposedly, our role was to meet the priests as they got off their busses and escort them to the rooms reserved at the Palace Hotel where they could change into their vestments. (No one, obviously, was allowed to get anywhere close to the Cathedral on their own initiative.) Thing was, the clergyfolk knew the drill already, so our job basically became to stand in line along the sidewalk corridor leading to the hotel and greet them as they passed by.
This was actually very cool. For one thing, I had no idea that nuns had so many different kinds of habits. Plus the weather was gorgeous. I was also standing right there as busses and busses of bishops unloaded for their procession, and again as the entire American delegation of cardinals filed out of the hotel.

Then there was lots of free food and plenty of downtime while the mass was going on. Problem was, no one was really around to explain to us where we needed to be next, or when. And we were the least of anyone's problems. There was the bus full of priests that broke down and couldn't get into the cathedral for security reasons until -- somehow this mattered -- the pope was already seated. There was the Secret Service deciding not to let through any more people who had special tickets to stand on the steps of the cathedral. A friend and I finally found a "volunteer coordinator" who had little more idea than we did as to what was next (not much, it turns out), but who told us all kinds of tales of woe from that morning -- most of them involving the Secret Service and the NYPD contradicting each other at every turn.

I found it hard to get frustrated at any of this. I was fine, it was a beautiful day, the pope was there and besides, don't these things tend to happen when four or five all-important institutions get together to coordinate a series of massive, max-security events in the busiest city on earth? Nothing more than a gentle lesson in human folly, poised in poetic contradistinction to the presence of the Vicar of Christ next door.

Or so I thought, until I found out that this very confusion was my chance for a much-coveted ticket to Yankee Stadium.

As it turned out, this volunteer coordinator was also working for the archdiocese on the papal visit, and she shared with us (as a variation on a theme) that there were still loads of tickets to the next day's mass that hadn't been given out. Again, this didn't surprise me greatly, given what I gathered was the intricate politics of distribution (with each parish and diocese just so) and the supposition that at least some people who had reserved tickets wouldn't show up to claim them.

But I didn't expect to be able to walk right into the official archdiocesan papal visit command center and ask for some.

Yet that's precisely what this woman suggested we do. Needless to say, we set out immediately (the offices were ten blocks away), and after a few minutes with a confused security guard, we were welcomed right upstairs.

The woman who greeted us was juggling ten other things -- "The governor's office is on the phone! They want to know about the photographer!" -- but she wasted little time handing us (at my friend's request) two tickets apiece.

Then she took them back. They were handicapped reserved. But out came two pairs of new ones, with the promising label "FIELD CHMP SEC 15, BX 59." Didn't know exactly what "field chmp" meant, but it sure sounded nice.

By now, it was becoming ever more apparent that they still had more tickets than they knew what to do with. So I went for it: "Can I have four?"

Moral of the story? Always ask.

I hesitated for a while to share this too broadly, lest anyone who missed out on tickets trying through the proper channels bemoan (understandably) the unfairness of it all. But as I think back on it (if you'll follow me for a second), that's precisely what made the whole thing kinda special.

There were any number of reasons the powers that be could have cited to turn away two brash young volunteers who showed up the day before the event. There was a system, after all -- as there needed to be, especially for something as big and important as the pope.

But there we were, and so were the tickets -- and as I'm sure the pope reminded us at some point during his visit, if everything were meted out by the standards of exacting justice, we'd all be goners anyway.

Besides, God wouldn't like it as much.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I'll tell the story later, but I just so happened to score four utterly amazing last-minute tickets to the pope's big mass at Yankee Stadium yesterday. Right on the first base line. And yes, that shot's with no zoom. I'll post some more pictures later, too, but for now, my colleague Robert George (a much more disciplined blogger than I) has his up. We were sitting in the same section.
I also want to say that I was never prouder to be associated with the New York Post than I was this morning, reading the headlines and captions on the special pope-visit pull-out section. A sampling:
--Communion crews bring host to most
--PAPA'S MITER FINE ATTIRE (with picture caption: "Infallible taste")
--"It's the pope-arazzi!" (caption for a line of priests in full vestments snapping pictures of Benedict)
And, of course, Sunday's wood: COME TO PAPA

Saturday, April 19, 2008

About that speech...

This is cool. I'm blogging live from outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, where I'm volunteering for the pope's mass for clergy this morning. Our "job" was mostly just to welcome the priests and nuns as they came into the hotel across the street to robe up. As one would expect from an event of this size staged by several of the largest bureaucracies in the world, confusion abounded. Still don't know what I'm supposed to be doing once the mass ends.

But we did get to see the pope. Very briefly. After our "duties" (and breakfast) were over, about 70 of us kind of just filed through these metal detectors separating the hotel from, well, another gate separating us from Madison ave, where his motorcade passed on the way to the cathedral.

Anyway, still thinking about that UN address from yesterday. The tension that jumps right off the page, of course is the vast gulf of seriousness separating Benedict from the body that commands his "deepest respect" or whatever his precise wording was. There's more than a touch of absurdity in delivering a friendly, general-sounding lecture on the importance and foundation of human rights to a body that's elected Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia to its Human Rights Council.

And yet. Benedict was never going to give a public tongue-lashing to dictators. That's not his way -- and it probably wouldn't do much good anyway. But there's a few spots in his speech that give the distinct impression that he's up to something just as radical.

I don't know, for example, exactly what he was up to when he said:

"Every state has the primary responsibility to protect its own population from gross and sustained violations of human rights... If states are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the UN Charter and other international instruments."

-- But it's the kind of statement that makes the Bush doctrine seem downright isolationist. And I don't doubt he knows exactly how pathetic the UN has been in this regard for the entirety of its history.

Then he launches on a discourse as to how human rights require a foundation in the natural order of things -- that is, in a full understanding of the human person -- to be effective.

And he has this to say: "When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining 'common ground,' minimal in content and weak in its effect."

Say what? Pragmatic, common-ground approaches to human-rights issues is what the UN was DESIGNED for. The soviet bloc and the West were never going to agree even as to what "human rights" consist of -- let alone how to promulgate them. But it was concievably a good thing to have a place for us to talk and vote about stuff before we started firing missiles.

Indeed, as I'm pretty sure I understand from the people who think about these things, the thrust of the post-WWII "human rights" project has remarkably little to do with discerning the true foundations of liberty -- to the extent that it doesn't reject the possibility of such a foundation explicitly. It's much more along the lines of: "What are the bad things that we can all get together and agree (for whatever reason) to call bad?" And the absence of each bad thing gets to be called a "human right."

Benedict would argue -- with ample evidence, if he chose to employ it -- that that approach doesn't quite work.

The question for us: What would the United Nations look like without it?
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Friday, April 18, 2008

Benedict at the UN

The more I think about it, the more I love the address Pope Benedict gave this morning at the United Nations. More thoughts to come.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Running for bishop, and other perils of modernity

I'm not always one for browsing the lefty Catholic periodicals, but this piece in Commonweal Magazine caught my attention, especially in light of the Pope's visit.

As I understand it, Fr. Reese is presenting a fairly well-worn argument: The Vatican is too top-down authoritarian; that's not how it always was; and given the post-Vatican II embrace of modernity, the Church should finally adjust its governance to our democratic age.

By, among other things, returning the selection of bishops to a general election of the faithful. I'm hardly of the competence to comment on any of his other proposals, but this one strikes me as a seriously bad idea. And Reese basically makes the argument for me.

As he acknowledges, the centralization of power in the papacy in the first place was in part a response to meddling in Church affairs by secular powers. But then there's this remarkable specimen of comfortable, Western-style obliviousness: "But now that few kings or noblemen are in a position to meddle with the church," he says, "one could argue that such centralization is no longer necessary -- and that it is in fact counterproductive."

No position whatsoever -- as any good Catholic from China to Zimbabwe will gladly tell you.

I'm all for the Church embracing the modern world, but -- and I'm starting to believe that this is the fundamental divide between liberal and conservative Catholics -- there's still a huge open question as to what the modern world we're embracing consists of.

Is it the peaceful, tolerant, democratic world of liberal imagination -- or something a lot more complex? Because if, as both the persistence of tyranny and a strong dose of Christian realism attest, humanity has yet to reach its broad, sunlit uplands, we're going to need a strong and independent Church hierarchy for some time to come.

Contrast Reese's take on the demands modernity places on the Church to Pope Benedict's, from his speech at the White House on Wednesday. There's little doubt he's completely alive to the blessings of the modern world -- as he shows, for one, in his great love for the United States. But he has an equally good idea of what might be coming down the pike.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's the matter with Obama?

Or, specifically, this doozy (given at a San Francisco fundraiser, no less):

"[People in economically struggling small-town Pennsylvania] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Rich Lowry's got a good column here, taking what I'd consider the appropriate amount of umbrage. For me, it's not so much that Obama's some kind of closet Marxist (though I'm sure it's still in the water at Columbia and Harvard). It's not even that he's an "elitist" -- at least as the word should be defined. And yes, I know this kind of unthinking condescension should hardly surprise me. Still, what the hell?

Lowry hits it on the head: "Obama prides himself on his civility, but it has to go much deeper than dulcet rhetoric. A fundamental courtesy of political debate is to meet the other side on its own terms. If someone says he cares about gun rights, it’s rude to insist: 'No, you don’t. It’s the minimum wage that you really care about, and you’d know it if you were more self-aware.' "

In other words, what makes this kind of thing so interesting coming from Obama is that it reveals so strikingly the false promises of "hope" and "change" and "unity" so central to his campaign. (Harvey Mansfield, tangentially, has plenty to say about the kind of civility we really need in politics. Hint: It has nothing to do with "disagreeing without being disagreeable.")

Or think of it this way: What kind of hope does Obama really have in America if he thinks Americans' first reaction to economic hardship is to get "bitter"?

Friday, April 11, 2008

I wish this was a joke...

Ever encountered something so morbidly ironic that you just wanted to find a corner somewhere and cry?

It just so happened this afternoon that my official duties required me to pick through something called Schedule C of the New York City Council's 2008 Adopted Expense Budget. For the layman, that's big stinking piles of municipal pork.

As I understand it, one activates this particular trough (there are others) by getting together with a few other council members and requesting money for a certain city-wide need, which can then get doled out to various favored non-profits.

In any case, I was hardly surprised (this is New York) to discover that one of these items lists Planned Parenthood as the recipient of a cool $50,000. My only question: Did they really need to fund it through the "Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative"?


Thursday, April 10, 2008

"This is the Vietnam of newspapers!"

So, I'm not exactly in the habit of hawking MTV high-school docu-dramas, but this one looks almost promising. Or at least unintentionally hilarious.

Apologies (once again) for the prolonged absence. Feel free to assume that I was off somewhere committing daring and heroic acts in the name of truth and justice. Or something like that.