A Call to All

We all will recall for years where we were on Thursday afternoon, August 14, when word of the blackout spread. Fortunately, Buffalo for the most part was spared. But north, south, east, and west of us, from the Midwest and Canada to the Atlantic seaboard suffered terrible disruption.

It is important to remember not only where we were but what we did in reaction to the crisis. Buffalo and Western New York being the area of good neighbors, I know there was tremendous concern for elderly people living alone, for the sick, for children away from home, for people separated from loved ones. Where phones were working, they worked overtime. The important factor is that you reacted and did something.

A story might be in order. Most of us have read or heard about a famous radio program produced by Orson Welles on Sunday evening, the night before Halloween, 1938. Some of you may have listened to the program directly. The historian William Manchester has a very fine account of it in his book, The Glory and the Dream, A Narrative History of America 1932-1972.

What Orson Welles did was dramatize H.G. Wells' book, War of the Worlds, as a simulated news broadcast. An invasion from Mars was presented as the real thing. Actors pretending to be reporters in the field narrated horrifying attacks by Martians tall as skyscrapers and armed with heat ray guns. Names of real places, highways, and bridges were used. The New Jersey National Guard was annihilated. Space ships continued to land. The Army Air Corps was wiped out. Martian cylinders were falling all over the country: one outside Buffalo, one in Chicago, one in St. Louis. Poisonous black smoke was spreading over the country.

At the end of the program, Wells signed off lightheartedly: "Goodbye everybody, and remember please if your doorbell rings tomorrow and nobody's there, that was no Martian. It's Halloween."

The problem, however, as a Princeton University study later discovered, was that millions of people from Maine to California believed it was the end of the world. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that millions of people had switched radio stations during the commercial break on the competing and very popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They were caught up in the frenzy of the "news broadcast."

It is interesting to note in that same study that of all the people believing that disaster was inevitable, 70% did something: called relatives to say goodbye, went to church, overwhelmed police switchboards, jammed highways, train terminals, and bus stations. One woman called a bus terminal for information and cried, "Hurry, please, the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do."

The other side of that statistic is jolting: 30% of those who believed this was an enormous crisis did nothing.

Many people describe the difficulties the Catholic Church is currently experiencing nationally as a serious crisis. In years to come, we will continue to remember it. Very importantly, we should be able to remember what we did in reaction to the problem.

Structural reforms have been needed. You have seen by our reports what has been accomplished in that regard in recent years. The September 2003 issue of the Western New York Catholic describes more recent steps which have been implemented.

The reform must be institutional, yes, but it also must be personal. Fundamentally, every reform in the Church must involve all of us. Every renewal worthy of the name must be based on deeper personal faith and stronger personal sacrifice. We must step up our exercises of prayer, fasting, and works of charity. We must accentuate our participation at Mass and in the other sacraments. We must become more involved in our parishes, schools, religious education programs, social services, and health care agencies. We must become better Catholics.

Those are resolutions for reflection and action as we begin a new academic year. We pray they will illuminate our memories for years to come.

Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell
Bishop of Buffalo
August 22, 2003