Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, his bad purple plumpness himself, recently asked all Catholics to boycott Smitty's grocery chain because the supermarket will be open on Christmas Day.

I think that's a hell of an idea.
If there is one sure-fire way to embarrass the sinners tempted to purchase canned goods on the very day the baby Jesus was born, it's to throw up a picket line and organize a boycott.

As the Eminence who presides over an earthly empire in Arizona that pays no property taxes, Bishop O'Brien has a sophisticated understanding of the separation of Church and State. At his press conference, he acknowledged that not eating meat on Fridays was never part of the Constitution; nonetheless, he insisted that his particular pipeline to God gave him an insight into business that the executives at Smitty's might find useful.

"I also understand that non-Christians do not celebrate the holiday," said the alert and breathing prelate. "However, over 70 percent of the population in the Valley is Christian . . . "

Who could argue?
In fact, I wonder if the bishop has considered the natural ecumenical allies his calculation creates.

Thinking strictly in terms of percentages, if O'Brien compares the amount of foreign aid Washington sends to Rome with the amount it sends to Tel Aviv, it would appear only natural that Smitty's ought to honor our Jewish neighbors by shutting down for Hanukkah.

But this boycott need not confine itself to these groups.
The last time I shopped at Smitty's the check-out clerk was a woman who looked me right in the eye as she took my money and made change. This female made no attempt to conceal her smoldering features behind a veil. After freeing the hostages, this is the sort of cheeky insult that local Moslems are expected to endure? I don't think so.

And what of Arizona's Native Americans? I'm not sure all the tribes could agree upon just one feast day, but I'll wager there would be no argument from the Indians with the recognition that all those Smitty's outlets are built on Holy Mother Earth. You can take it to the bank that some of those supermarkets were built on sacred land.

Hindus! Let's not belabor the obvious: cows/sacred; filet mignon/$10.98 lb; sacrilege/aisle 4.

Having been raised a Catholic, I liked that the Church tolerated a rather relaxed laity. The priests understood that a lot of Catholics only went to services at Christmas or maybe at Easter if Momma got a new hat or Poppa got a brand new bag. By contrast, atheists pretty much ignore God 365 days a year. Smitty's ought to be forced to acknowledge such steadfast devotion by closing down occasionally.

If he orchestrates his protest and reaches out to other denominations, Bishop O'Brien, without any heavy lifting, can elevate that audience of potential boycotters from his original figure of 70 percent to pretty much everyone.

As I've discussed the bishop's press conference with others, sooner or later, some high-church Episcopalian-type always says, "Look here, any poor devil found in a grocery store on Christmas Day is only trying to put food on the table. What's troubling the bishop? Did Smitty's forget to send over enough deli platters on the old girl's birthday? It's not as if people buying cold cuts on Christmas is taking the family milk money to play bingo in the basement of Our Lady of the Perpetual Collection Plate."

His holiness himself provides the best answer to this heresy that nutrition comes before God.

Bishop O'Brien, like all his predecessors, has a cook who prepares his meals, washes his china, polishes his silverware and shops for his groceries. No matter how many guests the bishop entertains, no matter how elaborate the celebration, no matter how long the shopping list, the bishop, personally, has never found it necessary to purchase a loaf of bread on Christmas Day. It's simply a matter of insisting that your domestic staff be organized.

Just last Sunday, I got to witness the spirit of Bishop O'Brien's philosophy--that commerce and God don't mix--as I joined a throng of people, some of whom were obviously members of his flock, at Walgreen's.

As I stood in a long line, the druggist talked to an elderly cowboy in Levi's and a workshirt. The pharmacist, nearly as old as his customer, spoke tenderly regarding constipation. As the druggist pointed to a shelf of laxatives, the cowboy swung his gaze 180 degrees and our eyes met; the two of us quickly glanced down at our boots.

Next in line was a family of Spanish- speaking Indians. A little girl, no more than 12, translated for her relatives. The young ones in the family all had crucifixes dangling from their necks. When the prescription was totaled, druggist Leo Deitch, inquired of the nina how you would say $11.98 in Spanish.

Using compassionate charm, the Vandyked and bespectacled Deitch kept other customers placated. It was not easy.

The prescription for the painkiller my 2-year-old needed to relieve the throbbing in his ears would take nearly an hour for the druggist to prepare, explained Deitch. There were so many orders. Near the counter a waiting room was jammed with people, the overflow spilling into the aisles.

Deitch was backlogged, as he is on most Sunday evenings, because many commercial establishments, including drugstores, are closed on the Sabbath.

All of us at Walgreen's had driven across town to fill our prescriptions because neighborhood pharmacies were shuttered.

Not wanting to catch any of the earthly diseases obviously lingering in the Walgreen's sitting area, I went next door to the pizza joint and grabbed a beer.

As I sat and thought about my boy waiting at home with his earache, I felt all warm and toasty knowing that, even though he hasn't even made his first communion, he, too, has been able to participate in the bishop's crusade to separate the worship of commerce from the worship of the Lord. Kinda made me wish I could move to one of those dry southern counties that refuses to sell beer on Sundays so that I, too, could get a little closer to O'Brien's God.

That week at work I thought my spiritual quest would only be enriched by learning what other important matters the bishop had an insight into.

We rang up the Diocese headquarters and asked for copies of all the bishop's press conference statements going back three years.

Marge Injasoulian, who is not part of Bishop O'Brien's domestic staff, but is his excellency's public relations officer, said that would simply be too much work.

Well, I'm a reasonable sort and quickly offered to settle for his press conference statements going back over just the past year.

Marge Injasoulian also is a reasonable, if terribly pressed, sort, and she agreed that this was a level of work she could handle.

As I soon learned, the bishop had not spoken out at a press conference on a single issue confronting Arizona over the entire year.

Now, obviously, that can't be true.
Poor Marge must be so swamped she'd lost her memory.
Why, Arizona has been confronted with monumental problems this past year, from AIDS to homelessness. You name it. Surely Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien has spoken out to do more than drive some greengrocer over the edge. Arizona's plight has repeatedly captured America's imagination.

Just last Monday the national press carried photographs of federal marshals handcuffing Arizona's most prominent Catholic, Charles Keating, and leading him back into court to face a new round of charges of fraud and racketeering in the nearly $3-billion-dollar collapse of his savings and loan empire.

Don't try to tell me that Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien hasn't spoken out about the commercial greed that looted the savings of the elderly?

While it's true that the bishop is not actually familiar with most people in jail, Charles Keating is one felon O'Brien knows a little something about.

When Charles Keating was flying high, he donated lots of other people's cash to his favorite Catholic charities, even making his corporate jet available to the chosen.

One of my fondest memories of Catholic grade school was of the nuns extracting lunch monies from us kids for the Church's foreign missions. If you gave enough money, the good sisters would excuse you from homework. I didn't eat much lunch, but I also didn't do much homework. At one point, Keating was laying off so much money to Mother Teresa that it looked like there might not ever be any more pagan babies left for kids to save.

But I'll be damned--and I'm sure the bishop agrees--Marge Injasoulian was correct.

Bishop O'Brien did not call a press conference all year long except to try to close down Smitty's on Christmas Day.

I think Bishop O'Brien's silence repudiates the idea that little short guys are Napoleonic tyrants insistent upon imposing their beliefs upon the world.

The great hush that usually emanates from Bishop O'Brien's mouth also offers a spiritual lesson to be learned from the holy man's example: If you can't say anything intelligent or relevant, don't say anything at all.

"I understand that non-Christians do not celebrate the holiday," said the alert and breathing prelate.

I could move to one of those dry southern counties that refuses to sell beer on Sundays to get a little closer to O'Brien's God.

Bishop O'Brien, like all his predecessors, has a cook who shops for his groceries.

The bishop has not spoken out at a press conference on a single issue confronting Arizona over the entire year.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey