Friday, January 10, 2003

Letters. I get letters.

With stickers.

Let me explain:

Any newspaper columnist is accustomed to mail, much of it negative, because, of course, most of us are only moved to write to a journalist when we disagree with him or her.

I’ve found that e-mail has changed this situation a bit. Before email, I probably received one positive letter for every ten negatives. But with email, I actually receive more positive feedback than negative. Why is this?

I think it has to do with that energy level, again. Just think, if you didn’t have email, all that you have to do to send a letter to a columnist. You have to get paper, pen or typewriter and physically write it. You have to find an envelope and a stamp. You have to find the address of the columnist. You have to go mail the letter.

Given how busy our lives are, most of us are not going to go to all that effort to tell a columnist, “Nice job!” (and God bless those who do!), but we’re more likely to get motivated to do the work if we’re ticked off, strongly disagree or are deeply moved to correct an error.

Email, of course, is far simpler, especially if you’re reading something online, with the writer’s email link conveniently embedded in his or her byline. And even if you’re reading it in print, there are fewer steps involved in whipping off an email than doing snail mail, and so if you’re impressed or happy with a columnist, you’re more likely to let them know via email.

By the way – in case you’re wondering. In my fifteen or so years of column-writing, the issues that prompted the greatest volume of negative mail were two: a Florida Catholic column on the purported apparitions in Conyers, Georgia – which may seem minor to you, but were the Big Thing back when I wrote the column, especially in that region, where parishes were regularly taking busloads of people up to The Holy Hill to see if visionary Nancy Fowler was going to see Mary again. I nailed her, pointing out some conflicts in what she’d written she heard with Church teaching, and further daring to state that experiences like Jesus on the crucifix in Nancy’s room gently chuckling at the face cream on her face and allowing, “You look funny,” were not arguments for credibility.

Had a lot of people telling me they’d be praying for me after that. I remember Michael at the time saying that I shouldn’t get mad, I should be grateful. Who doesn’t need prayers?

Oh, and the second greatest outpouring was after an OSV column in which I suggested that Dr. Laura was not, indeed the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Well, despite the benefits of email, I still get snail mail. Since Michael works in a division of OSV, he gets to bring it home to me. When he tells me over the phone that I got mail, my first question is always, “Does it have stickers on it?”

Because, you see, a high proportion of people who write to me festoon their envelopes with stickers: pro-life stickers, stickers with Mary, stickers with Jesus, stickers with St. Anthony, stickers with the Sacred Heart, pasted all over the back, sometimes on the front, and often inside.

One sticker is usually harmless, but more than one unfailingly means trouble. It means that what is inside is either an scribbled note written on half a piece of paper in illegible handwriting or a single-spaced typewritten (not word processed) missive, often several pages long.

Well, yesterday, Michael brought home some mail – one from an older gentleman in Ocala, Florida, who writes me some kind words about once a year on the back of a copy of one of my columns that he particularly liked. The other looked more dangerous. There were no stickers, but it was in a large manila envelope. And glancing inside, I saw that it was three pages of typewritten (again, not word-processed) material. With clippings.

Well, I needn’t have worried. It turned out to be a most interesting, and heartbreaking letter, from an older lady who is in the Illinois parish whose former pastor was the unfortunately named Jeff Windy who engaged in the even more unfortunate activity of manufacturing GHB – the date rape drug – out the rectory.

The writer reports that the parish – 150 years old, peopled mostly by the elderly – had actually been suffering for years under the pastorate of Fr. Windy. He had (true to form) engaged in renovations without asking the parish, and, as he was arrested, left the parish $181,000 in debt. She says it has come out that Fr. Windy has had a drug problem of some sort or another since he was 16, and she (this is her opinion, remember) finds it difficult to believe that Bishop Meyers (now of Newark) didn’t know about it. There’s no resident priest in the parish any more, and a pastor of another parish is their acting pastor with an 80-year old retired priest helping out by saying 2 masses on Sundays.

She writes:

I feel this matter will mean the end of our church of over 150-year old parish. The flock scatters when there is no shepherd….First of all I think that the clergy should be operating on the same page, instead of putting their own spin on things. I think the hierarchy in the church should review the capitol sins. If my memory serves me right, from the pages of the Baltimore Catechism where I learned the matter of faith that PRIDE is the number one, which is a condition that affects a lot of members of the leaders of our church. My daughter says she thinks priests should have to stay out of jail like the rest of us. I realize that we are not to make a comment on Jeff Windy’s conduct – he has to work out with the Lord, however, Jesus wasn’t happy with the money changers in thee temple, so I don’t think He would be please with a priest dealing drugs out the rectory door.

What does this show? It shows the responsibility that leaders – lay and clerical both – have to lead, and the wide-ranging consequences of failure to lead. It’s not just one priest doing one wrong thing and going to jail. It’s an entire parish left floundering, saddled with debt, left, essentially, to fend for itself….

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