Eight years later, the Katrina ring tells a love story

finney0435    There is no such thing as an individual award. That truth manifested itself last week at the annual Catholic Media Conference in Denver when I received the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association for “outstanding contributions to Catholic journalism.”
    The award was a blessing and a mystery, mainly because I am a recovering sportswriter.
    My dad is nearly 86 and still writing sports columns. He’s absolutely the reason I got into journalism. I wanted to be his carbon copy. (For those of you too young to remember, a carbon copy was something you produced by sliding a piece of inked paper inside two plain sheets of paper.)
    I worked for 12 years covering sports for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. The Post leads the journalistic world in classic headline writing. When police found a man decapitated one night inside a Queens nightclub, the front page of the Post screamed: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
    The Post is still at it, even encroaching onto Catholic press turf recently with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI by trumpeting: “I’M OUTTA HERE, GUYS!” The crawler at the top of the page was even better: “Pope gives God 2 weeks’ notice.”
    In a lot of ways, I had the dream job: Super Bowls, Final Fours, Masters, Olympics.
    But I’ll never forget the call I got in January 1992. I remember it because I was in a Los Angeles hotel room eating dinner. It was prime rib – medium rare.
    My wife Carolyn was back on Long Island with our four children, then between the ages of 7 and 3. I very innocently asked: “So, honey, how’s it going?”
    There was this silence – which most husbands can relate to – before Carolyn finally replied: “Well, it snowed 4 inches and I just got finished shoveling the sidewalk.”
    Even for someone with “husband hearing” – that’s where you hear every other word or only what you want to hear – that conversation was a wakeup call.
    Later that year, I heard through the grapevine that the Clarion Herald was looking for an editor. Other than occasionally reading the Long Island Catholic, I didn’t know a thing about the Catholic press. So I called up Liz O’Connor, the editor of the Long Island Catholic in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and she gave me the Cliff Notes’ version of what I might be asked in my interview.
    One of the persons at my interview in New Orleans was Jerry Costello, the editor of Catholic New York. He asked a trick question I’ll never forget: “Peter, could you tell me who the Vatican secretary of state is?”
    I had one of those Jackie Gleason-Ralph Kramden moments, where the only word your mouth can form is “humminah … humminah … humminah.” I decided honesty was the best policy and replied: “I have no idea … but I can learn!”
    Somehow, a sportswriter got a job as editor of a Catholic newspaper, and I’m still learning every day. I truly can say that outside of my family, it has been the greatest blessing of my life.
    Eight years ago – which is hard to believe – Katrina came in like a freight train. If the levees had held, Katrina would’ve been just another storm. But the levees broke, and all hell broke loose.
    But here’s the Christian moment: In the midst of it all, God was visibly present through the infinite kindnesses of friends and total strangers. For three months, we published the Clarion Herald out of the basement offices of the Catholic Commentator in Baton Rouge. Laura Deavers, the former editor of the Catholic Commentator and a dear friend who just retired last month, simply said, “Come here and we’ll take care of you.”
    And they did.
    When we resumed publication, the papers were dropped off every Friday afternoon. Our staff members backed up their cars to the loading dock and tossed in the bundled stacks. Talk about a content delivery system – we were the content delivery system. We delivered papers to churches in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Houma-Thibodaux.
    I remember it being 95 degrees and being soaked from head to toe. As I walked to my car with four stacks under my arms, I told our ad sales rep, Ron Kogos, “Man, I’d hate to do this for a living.” And then I caught myself. “Wait a minute,” I said. “We are doing this for a living!”
    As we drove up to churches dropping off the papers, people literally grabbed them out of our hands. Displaced New Orleans Catholics hungered for information on what had happened to their priest and how badly their church had been damaged.
    If I ever wondered if what I did for a living had meaning and purpose, the embraces from total strangers provided the answer. We at the Clarion Herald were blessed because we found that out firsthand.
    When you lose most of your material possessions in a natural disaster, there are moments of fog and despair. That’s when the members of the Catholic press and thousands of people from across the country – God’s foot soldiers – carried us. The Catholic Communication Campaign provided two incredibly generous grants to keep us alive. We printed the newspaper free of charge to all parishes for one year after Katrina. The Catholic Press Association also sent money to individuals on our staff whose homes had been destroyed or heavily damaged.
    What I also will cherish was the love poured out on us by the staffs of the Louisiana and Mississippi Catholic newspapers who helped us during and after the storm. My Clarion Herald colleagues were heroic in fulfilling their mission to provide information and inspiration to readers who were so hurting. We had the privilege and blessing of truly knowing that our work made a difference.
    For me, the image of God’s fidelity is manifested in the story of the second collection for Katrina relief taken up on Sept. 18, 2005, in St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The working-class parish’s average weekly collection was $5,000, but on this day, it raised $7,000 for the Katrina collection alone. The money was earmarked for St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in New Orleans.
    But the real treasure was buried inside one of the collection envelopes. On the outside of the envelope, written in Spanish, were these words: “Para las victimas del huracan, no traia dinero pero esto debe de tener algun valor. Es de todo corazon.” (“For the victims of the hurricane. I did not bring any money. But this should be of some value. It is with all of my heart.”)
    Inside the envelope was a woman’s plain gold wedding ring.
    So if you want to understand why it took an entire village to raise a Catholic editor, look no further than the spiritual icon that sits on red cloth in a special case on the wall inside the parish office at St. Gabriel.
    It is gold and round and anonymous.
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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