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We've got a winner here; loved and hated equally, bingo is a mainstay of Catholicism. (practicing catholic).

IT COMES AS A TRIUMPHANT SHOUT, A RISING CRY, arms outstretched, hands aloft. Or maybe it's a quavering, questioning stammer, doubting even as it proclaims the victory. Whether it comes from a gravelly voiced grandma, a gruff construction worker, a teen, or a child, it doesn't matter. When the dots line up across, vertical, or diagonal, the prize is yours, you've won the game. You get to holler, "Bingo?

Bingo is a mainstay of Catholicism, decried by as many as laud it, loved and hated equally. Still, it's really fun, and in some cases it beats out rummage sales, potluck suppers, and even Sunday Mass for packing in the people and racking up the revenue. If church is about gathering, then bingo is the name of the game.

My mom still goes; her 87 years won't keep her away. "That's what God gave me a car for," she says, snapping on her driving gloves. I've known her all my life, and she's always gone to bingo. "It's part of the church," she says. And it is, as much as Friday night devotions, Wednesday Bible study, or the novena to the saint du jour. When Thursday night rolls around, it's time for bingo.

"And the $35,000 a year extra is nothing to sneeze at," the pastor of the church where Mom plays told me. Don't I know it. Where I once served as an assistant pastor, bingo was the financial cornerstone. Without it, our poor, urban parish would have gone right down the tubes with no survivors.

In fact, bingo got its foothold in this country by bailing out a financially strapped church. In 1929, a New York toy salesman by the name of Edwin Lowe came across a game being played at a carnival in Jacksonville, Kentucky. Called, "Beano," it was a variation of the classic Italian game of Lotto, involving a card with numbers printed on it and a pile of beans. A number was called out and if a player had the number on his card he'd cover it with a bean. When he got a row of beans lined up across his card, he'd call out "Beano!" and win a Kewpie doll.

Lowe returned to New York, made up some cards, got some beans, gathered a few friends, and tried out the game on them. By the time the last number was called, the tension was so high that the winner flubbed the shout and, instead of "Beano," cried out "Bingo!" And the legend began.

So Lowe started producing and distributing his new parlor game. Then a Catholic priest from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania approached him for help with his financially ailing parish. Lowe cranked out a bunch of new cards for a large operation and the priest began calling numbers every Thursday night. In no time at all the parish was back in the black. Next, bingo began filling a Knights of Columbus hall in Utica, New York. Soon after, Lowe was handling thousands of requests for bingo setups from Catholic churches all over the country.

Parishioners embrace the game with typical Catholic piety. Strolling through a crowded bingo hall, you'll see cards surrounded by rosary beads, medals and scapulars doubling as bingo chips, and maybe even a plastic Jesus dauber, praise God.

A lady once held up her card to me and said, "Oh, Father, would you please bless my card?" My hand rose instinctively and carved the little cruciform through the air over the dog-eared cardboard. And God, may his holy name be blessed forever, made good on the benediction and the woman won the next game. After that, I could no longer walk through the bingo hall without the crowds wanting me to bless their cards. Even Hilda, the little Jewish woman who came with the gang from the elder condo, was willing to give the triune God a tumble in hopes of a winning card.

Moralists argue that we shouldn't make a place for gambling in the church, that gambling ruins lives and bingo churches send the wrong message. But Catholics are a pretty loose bunch. We play cards, dance, drink whiskey, listen to rock `n' roll music, eat too much, and do all kinds of things that make the fundamentalists roll their eyes. And so far, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hasn't pronounced bingo to be gravely disordered or inherently sinful. So what the heck, let's have another game!

By FATHER PAUL BOUDREAU, a priest of the Diocese of Norwich and author of Between Sundays: Daily Gospel Reflections and Prayers, available from Twenty-Third Publications.
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Author:Boudreau, Paul
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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