Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

30 May 2020

Where’s The Fire

Pentecost takes me back to two separate though related occasions in my life: number one (chronologically speaking) was my first “mock” homily, preached to my classmates and homiletics professor. It pretended to celebrate the Feast of the Visitation (31 May). The second day usually falls close enough to it: 8 June 2003, on which the Church celebrated Pentecost, and I my first Mass in Thanksgiving for having been ordained priest the day before.

The two feasts bear a profound relation insofar as Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, was the first to communicate the Lord Jesus (who fully reveals Father and Holy Spirit as well) to the world, specifically to her cousin Elizabeth. The Holy Spirit, ever leading disciples “to all truth” (Jn 16:13), came upon Our Lady and the Apostles as a driving wind and tongues of fire.

This last manifestation—fire—was my chosen homiletic image for the Visitation. St. Luke tells us: “Mary proceeded in haste to the hill country” (Lk 1:39). In haste: the Greek μετὰ σπουδῆς pretty much means, “as if this were her business” (was she not her Son’s first and best teacher of what it means to be “about My Father’s business”? [Lk 2:49]). 

Sometimes when we see someone scampering about in haste, we ask them, “Where’s the fire?” Mary uniquely could have responded to such a perplexed passerby: “The Fire is within me.” She, the Bearer of Life, was the first “driving wind” to enlighten, embolden, and sanctify.

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The prophet Isaiah spoke of a “veil that veils all peoples” (25:7). We’ve been wearing masks that can obscure our voices, pinch our vision when we’re not wearing them properly, and in any case cause us layers of irritation—at the discomfort itself, yet also at the epidemiological and governmental reasons we’re wearing them. We want to shield not our sight or sound, but any possible droplets of COVID-19.

Meanwhile we show a certain obscurity and even obtuseness with our misuse of tongue and pen, fingers and feet. Hatred enters and escapes us, hardly veiled. We respire in fire, but of a spiritually destructive sort.

The latest ignition has been the riots in many cities across the U.S., but at their heart is righteous anger at police officers’ fatal violence toward Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the most recent of millennia worth of racial violence. Had they not been black men, Arbery and Floyd presumably would not have been treated as they were, unto their humiliating deaths. Even though Floyd’ had exhibited actual criminal behavior, it received a gravely disproportionate response.

Widespread desecration and destruction are by no means a meritorious reaction; by proportionate means they are worth police response,.Yet dimly they reflect the burning of hearts for that justice which will bring true peace to the world (recall Pope St. Paul VI’s famous dictum: “If you want peace, work for justice”). It’s almost a type of what Saint Paul today referred to as “all creation...groaning in labor we wait for...the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-24). Not only do we not know how to pray as we ought, we also don’t know how to act, instead favoring to react.

Today I saw a photo of graffiti upon St. Patrick’s Cathedral: true profanation (L. pro+fanum, in front of the temple). True to form, I started reading the social media rejoinders. One: “All the churches in the world could burn down, and it wouldn’t be as bad as one child being molested by a priest.” Abusus non tollit usum, the Romans pithily reminded, but the kernel of truth and goodness here still obtains: human dignity is not to be violated, nobody no-how.

Return to Pentecost. As the Jewish feast of Shavuot it marks the collection of countless wheat sheaves into one granary. Eventually fire enters to transform wheat into bread. The Holy Spirit unifies and clarifies, undoing the original sin and its myriad offshoots. The primal defiance of God, further exemplified in the hate of one’s own brother, registered finally as a Babel-ing failure to communicate truth, goodness, beauty, and unity-within-diversity.

This the Spirit undoes in His descent of supernatural gifts (wisdom, fortitude, and the rest; Lk 4:18; Is 61:1), which in turn yield joy, patience, kindness, long-suffering, self-control, and other fruits (Gal 5:22). These gifts and fruits, uniformly sought and applied, would at last reconnect a disparate, disparaging humanity, turning prehistoric Babel into the new and eternal  Jerusalem. That is the hope dreadfully spelling itself out in the world in these days of viral vitriol. Clarify and purify the heart of the world, O Spirit-Fire!


Almost a side note now, but something I never tire of telling: My alma mater of Nativity B.V.M. High School (Pottsville, PA) was built atop Lawton’s Hill, which once had been used as a KKK demonstration site. The chapel windows form a golden cross, which remains lit at night as if to redeem the crosses burned there years before. One way to make a statement, as to how the ardent devotion and service of Christians will channel the light of hope.

25 May 2020

"Lest We Forget"; Of Michael Christopher and Christopher Michael

My latest Coronatide Consideration comes at the cusp of transition time, when the five counties in our diocese act in consort with civil authorities in permitting public Masses, albeit with still-appropriate safety precautions. The Gospel (Jn 16:29-33) packs the punch, which our deacon delivered deftly. As for my follow-up, I cannot say much, except everyone was left standing.

Jesus' disciples claimed to appreciate His long-awaited clarity, though He never meant to be murky to them. In fact, the Lord observed, they still won't get it, "for had they known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2:8); they would never have done their part by abandoning Him at the moment of truth.

"Speaking plainly, with no more figures of speech"! I wonder where that would leave me, or any other poetically-plumed penman. Penmen of note like John McCrae of In Flanders' Fields fame, Recessional's Rudyard Kipling, or my man Hopkins' not-quite-titled "The Soldier," which starts with "YES."--fittingly expressing the consent of every redcoat and tar to their service.

In our day, to that last point, I would add "whitecoat" and "whitecap" to include nurses, doctors, and everyone in the way of this hidden harm, COVID-19. Many fallen heroes among them, too.

YES. Where would our world be without its poets? Some soldiers and patriots might opine poets' oft-controversial positions are posturings, virtue-signals, plain nonsense at best or subversive at worst. Casting things in a different light was never out of season, except in countries that weren't free.

The freedom in which we celebrated the Mass this morning was in some sense never withheld from us, although most bishops and priests considered it best to contain folks as much to their homes as possible, given how close quarters like churches can be flash-points for the sickness.

Today's open-air method is among the options when things officially open on 1 June. By then we will have an FM transmitter to spread the Word. (This morning I learned the transmitter is supposed to be coming tomorrow! Oh, to have been a little quicker to the draw when in other purchases a slower draw might have helped.)

Mass is at once a sacrifice, a banquet, and a memorial. The "Mystery of Faith" acclamation is ingredient to that part of the canon called Anamnesis (Gk, not-forgetting), according to Jesus' command to "do this"--take, break, bless, give, eat, and drink--"in remembrance of Me." Be with us yet, lest we forget, and do we!

Just as Memorial Day exhorts us not to forget the men and women "who more than self their country loved, / and mercy more than life," so every day's Memorial Offering mystically transports us to that moment of supreme truth, goodness, and beauty, the mountain of mercy that lends meaning to every sacrificial offering, large and small.

Please God, these days will remind us of the constant need for remembrance, in the Biblical sense that God remembers: acting concretely on behalf of the one in question.

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Sarah Coleman, top row, second from left; Helenann Welker, bottom row, last at right

My late mother was the best friend of Sally Coleman since high school and nursing school days. They both went on to be faithful and caring wives, mothers, and Licensed Practical Nurses.

They were so close, and so closely pregnant, that they made a kind of pact to name their children together. The first one to emerge was Michael Christopher Wargo (sharing her husband's first name); the second, a few months later, was Christopher Michael Zelonis (a name Mom had in mind and heart for years).

These two boys were in each other's company only a handful of times over the years, as their families' lives went on, fortunately enjoying periodic episodes of quality and quantity. This was much the case in the last fifteen years, after my Dad died in 2004. Mom had become an occasional beach bum in the Wargo pool. Many laughs and reminiscences shared, including a June 1977 birthday party of Michael when the two of us were in the same playpen--photo to follow. I met him as if for the first time at another party, years later.

Mom accompanied the Wargo family in moments delightful and difficult, especially when Michael, who had served his country nobly, took his own life on 20 May 2013, after an arduous struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which had taken a few family tolls prior to that day. As they do, every survivor was left holding the proverbial bag, mourning and speculating.

Many and varied are the battles of the "War at Home," as it has been termed, where servicemen and women still fall, often despite the best efforts of those around them--often amid a certain unawareness of those around them, or within themselves.

Mr. and Mrs. Wargo have since given their lives to foster mental health awareness and care for our veterans. They further honor their son's memory by volunteering for the "Valor Clinic" and "Mission 22," which has honored veteran victims of PTSD with steel silhouettes, including Michael's near the trailhead in his native Lehighton. I pass and pray often, while on the run. The templates of these soldiers are scheduled ("virus-permitting," Sally says) to repose permanently--appropriately, by name--in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, come October, having made a tour of duty in several spots.

Learning that my latest assignment would be in Lehighton was a joy, especially knowing the Wargos all my life, and even Sally's parents George and Margaret Coleman, who tolerated the precocious five-year-old who hung around George's typewriter stand at "the Auction" (the Hometown Farmer's Market). Margaret thought enough of me to buy me a religious item of my choosing at the one Catholic goods stand. I chose a crucifix, which I still have. God bless her, she still thinks of me so, with sharpest mind, in her 90s.

It was never far away: at my desk. St. Anthony has come through for me on lesser things with greater effort.
The pastoral delicacy surrounding self-wrought deaths is something that alas, not all priests, have exercised. I wonder sometimes, when it comes to any commendation in circumstances perhaps awkward, shameful, or volatile, how we do it. A Power Greater, no doubt, even when (only God knows why) that Power seemed utterly inaccessible to them, or they felt utterly unworthy of His regard--which in fact could never have been stronger, at any point.

Lord God of Hosts (armies), be with us yet, even when, for that final moment, we forget.

28 April 2020

Containment Considerations 8: I Need Cash Now

A couple of weeks have transpired since my last isolation reflection, and this is the eighth of that unspecified series. Both of these facts suggest it has been going on far too long. It promises to continue, at least in this part of Pennsylvania.

For many people, the containment doesn’t seem to have been going on at all, whether that’s because their usual business hasn’t involved much physical contact to begin with, their business has become unusually affected with the result of more contact (such as our noble first responders), or simply because they have been flouting the governmental directives.

As a parish priest, the core dimension of my ministry has not changed in the sense that I have not stopped offering daily the holy Mysteries entrusted to me by my bishop nearly 17 years ago. I have not stopped celebrating the Sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel, or caring for souls. I’ve just had to do it differently.

The World Online, like every novelty, has intrigued me since I first laid eyes on it. Here’s another shiny boulevard of Evangelization and self-expression! Which of those two purposes I have appreciated and enlisted more, varies depending on when you ask me what I’ve done with it today. I’m nothing if not inconsistent!

Sometimes those purposes look and sound rather similar. To this point, following up on an earlier post in which I laid out my ecclesiastical heraldry, I’ve actually changed a major component: my motto. It’s my expectation that you don’t fool with this stuff once it’s in print, but I do nothing if I don’t defy expectations, alone or with others.

My previous sacred slogan was Matthew 13:52, in which, after Jesus laid out a series of teachings on the kingdom of heaven in the form of parables, He closed out with a simple simile as the last parable in that series (like this episode, the 8th).

Ever the teacher, Jesus asked His followers, “Do you understand these things?” Upon their affirmative response, Jesus said, “then every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings forth from his storeroom both the new and the old” (profert de thesauro suo nova et vetera).

For my purposes (and those of the kingdom of heaven, I dare say), as a "scribe" I start off—and end up—both a recorder and an interpreter. That’s always the case whether the writings are sacred or secular. Traditore, tradutore: The one who hands things on for posterity, hands them over for betrayal. Not to say the original meaning is entirely lost, but like the genetic phenomenon of microchimerism, someone else gets handed on as well: something old, something new.

In jettisoning the phrase profert de thesauro suo nova et vetera, I am not altogether parting with it. Even though it will not appear below the crest, it still shows up in my thoughts, words, and actions. That’s how my new motto was germinating while I was working with the old one, and not surprisingly, that’s how the old one has been working since I’ve started with the new one. The more I cling to either of them, the more I suspect I am doing so in error: No rest for the wary.

I have turned my mind, for now, to chapter two of Saint Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. He goes to some length and depth to make clear the purity of his ministerial motives. When it comes to human praise, he is not in it to win it. In verse seven, he compares the apostolic labors of his coterie to a nursing mother; in verse eleven, he compares it to a father's exhortation and insistence. There is something poignant to his inclusion of both parents in his comparison.

But the phrase that pays here is verse eight, where Saint Paul relays: "with such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us" (non solum evangelium Dei, sed etiam animas nostras). When it comes to mottos, either one is somewhat large. Normally I don't see many over five words. So this is par for my course: why say in 500 words what you can say in 1000?

Speaking of which: This post had a main point, and I'm just getting to it. In an effort to convey "our very selves" as sometimes I do more than the Gospel of God as such, I sneaked up to the choir loft before my Zoom Pastoral Council meeting last night to record myself playing on the organ the operatic theme for the cash advance company J. G. Wentworth.

My only intention, to line the collective pockets with a little levity. That said, if they wanted to send cash now for a new Allen organ, I wouldn't refuse it.

The video has garnered a generous response from my friends on both the Facebook and the Twitter. I'm certainly humbled and grateful. It goes to show the solidarity of people in crazy times. We're all going through it.

As for my talent: Knowing the caliber of musicians alongside whom I've been playing in concert bands for thirty years, I make no claims at proficiency. What I lack in talent, I compensate for in willingness and schmaltz.

I just spied a quote from St. Jane Frances de Chantal: "Hell is full of the talented; heaven of the energetic." If I can bring the two together, following the "both/and" principle of Catholicism evident in both of my motto selections, I might hit the middle ground of Purgatory--and even that is temporary in favor of heaven.

Moving back to the Gospel of God, I include here my homily from this morning, in which I tried to tie together the readings and saints of the day to my exploits from last night. If we can't view current events--especially music and other cultural expressions--in light of the Gospel, why do we even culture?

08 April 2020

Containment Considerations 7: This Time It’s Personal

In my last post, Theophilus, I unpacked Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Here I submit a poiema (Gk, handiwork) a little more personal.

One friend called it a curious thing to be about when bored. After a pause I rather suggest it is an item of culture emerging from leisure. Granted, ecclesiastical heraldry is not everyone’s area of interest, but it has been one of mine since I was a kid.

Back then it was tied up with fantasies of promotion and pageantry; now it exemplifies Job’s longing for his words to be written down (19:23, also in the subheading of this blog). Dangerous, the desire to codify and “emblazon” the self, for words so often fail the Word.

Learning it was not just a thing for bishops lent me some courage to concretize, even this early in life and ministry. Others far younger than I have done so, even “right out of the gate.” Much of it is consistent with the cultivated “brand” so essential for marketing and social media. I shall continue to cherish the photo of my classmate and me prostrating at our Ordination to Priesthood; in a very real sense that is the most personally-revealing image available for me, and my best side as well.

There’s the shield, and the explanation of it. The easiest part is the priest’s black galero (ceremonial clerical hat) from which two tassels suspend. Colors and numbers of tassels differ by ecclesiastical rank or office; priests will use varied elaborate patterns for the cords that extend from the galero.

Everything on the shield is the meaty part. There are persons far more versed than I in these matters, whose opinions I have consulted online unbeknownst to them. They suggest that the shield is not a place to display one’s curriculum vitae or personal preferences (“favorite things“).

The presentation and description below indicate I have not taken that direction. I am not alone, I suspect, in this regard. If it is an offense punishable by law, I extend my hands for the cuffs.

Ever inclined to self-justify, my explanation of the “charges“ (elements) on the shield will reveal the extent of the infraction. A respected brother priest and fellow armiger (arms bearer) related how personal the coat of arms is. The bishop who ordained me uses his as an examination of conscience.

While I had a very intentional layout in mind, I entrusted the depiction of it to Luis Alves of, whose portfolio and pricing were equally acceptable. He worked with me, made suggestions based on his knowledge of the craft, and behold, the outcome:

Exceedingly close to my sketch, though far neater.

The official description:

“Front the point of view of the bearer, moving dexter to sinister, right to left:

A field of gules (red) is divided by a vertically flowing river (a pale wavy) of azure (blue) whose banks are argent (silver).

A pair of opposing swords, both silver with gold (or) ornaments, bisect the river diagonally, rising upward from right to left.

Two additional charges: at lower right, a blazing fire of silver; at upper left, a plow of gold.

The black galero with two black tassels, customary of a diocesan priest.”

The motto: profert de thesauro suo nova et vetera (Mt 13:52).

Continuing with my abridged yet amplified explanation:

Red and blue are colors in the Zelonis and Welker family coats of arms, at least according to the online researcher I consulted (not the same one as above). At any rate, they are also the colors of the Saint Clair School District where I attended Kindergarten through Sixth Grade. Saint Clair Catholic (grades 7 and 8) used a lighter blue. The crest of the Diocese of Allentown is predominantly red. One-third of the Lithuanian flag is red, and one-half of Poland’s as well. Blue is the quintessential Marian color.

Silver and gold are used for second and first place respectively—both high ranks, but ranks nonetheless. “Speech is silver, silence is golden,” says the proverb. Brass instruments typically are of one or even both colors. My alma mater, Nativity B.V.M. High School in Pottsville PA, claims gold (as well as green).

As the legend goes, Saint Christopher carried the toddler Jesus across a river, exemplifying priestly, sacrificial love. I enjoy running along rivers and roads.

The bottom, ascending sword recalls the Lithuanian heraldic “vytis” (knight), while the descending sword hearkens to Archangel Michael (the patron of my first parish, in Minersville PA)’s thrust into Satan. The priest preaches the “two-edged sword” known as God’s Word (cf. Heb 4:12).

Verbal and visual creativity accompany the swords crossing the rivers: together they form the ascending “sharp” symbol that indicates a musical note raised one-half step from its standard value. It also reminds of the “pound sign” or “hashtag” used in communications media. My linguistic love (including the language of music) attempts to share “not only the Gospel, but our very selves as well” (1 Thess 2:8).

I have cherished the burning bush of Exodus 3 since finding an icon of it during academic research (in a book). The Fathers of the Church compared Mary’s perpetual virginity to the bush aglow with, yet unconsumed by, divine love. I appreciate the connections between the Scriptures and the Church’s  thinkers and pray-ers.

The plow is a charge on my alma mater St. Charles Borromeo Seminary’s crest. Alves used a different plow, for what it’s worth.

The elevation of golden plow above silver burning bush show how prophetic eloquence, however valuable, is nothing if not subordinated to deeds of love—putting hand to plow (and not looking back in regret as to how I could have said it better!). Since kings—leaders—“cultivate” service by performing and inspiring it, the plow completes the “prophet/priest/king” triad, even if it’s something of a stretch.

The motto was the hardest part to decide even though I came up with it fairly early in the crafting process. Before taking Latin in high school, I would see bishops’ mottos, all wrapped up in ribbons, and try to pronounce and translate them.

How bold it is for people to choose one particular phrase, from Scripture or elsewhere, to summarize or guide their lives! I enjoy reading each armiger’s rationale and weighing its personal applicability. Sometimes I spy a phrase and it becomes my motto du jour, eventually to be consigned to forgetfulness, occasionally to resurface years later; eventually I started to keep a file and highlight possibilities in my Nova Vulgata.

So why this one?

No possibility that I’ve ever considered is without merit, even if another succeeded it moments later. The new ones don’t invalidate the old ones. This pattern reveals a reverence for tradition and innovation, for archival dust and creative juices.

As a writer (“a scribe”), specifically one ordained for priestly service to the Church (the Kingdom in seed form), I am, as Jesus described, “like the head of a household (more so as a pastor, though no less as a teacher or a hospital chaplain) who brings forth from his treasury (thesaurus!) the new and the old.”

Church history has not ignored the testamental overtones of “old and new,” nor do I. Teachers try to present eternal verities in new packaging, to new generations of students, although they often find the older packaging is useful and beautiful as well. Social media, thanks to the current Corona-Crisis, has furnished a new or more frequented mode of operation for most of us to communicate the Gospel and our own “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day.”

Since learning of it early in the seminary, the “Both-And” approach of Catholicism has become very important to me. The divine perspective harmonizes realities that seem contradictory at first, the Incarnation chief among them. How can God also be man? In Christ, He is fully both; to exclude the presence and operation of one nature in favor of the other is not only heresy, it is lunacy.

Human beings likewise must seek the middle path where virtue and sanity often reside, as hope strides the excesses of presumption and despair. It’s not “all on God,” nor is it “all on us.” That virtue registers highly with me: as the sharp sign raises a musical note, so my ministry, music, writing, life are called—in weakness and defeat as well as their opposites—to glorify God and make unto Him a pleasing offering.