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

20 July 2014

More Like An IV Than A Torrent

            We heard last week how, like a seed planted in the ground, God’s Word has a purpose and accomplishes it, despite the various hindrances we encounter. According to Saint Paul, “all creation groans” in expectation of the full revelation of God’s power: that is to say, man’s personal struggles with knowing and choosing what is good are matched by a sense of incompleteness and even treachery on a global scale.
            My daily ministry has me encountering people in their worst moments of physical pain and spiritual discouragement. The beds of Schuylkill Medical Center, the beds of our nursing homes and many people's homes as well, are fields in which wheat and weeds are found together: human beings, good creations of a good God, are afflicted with various ailments. In their understandable impatience they wish He’d rip out every trace of the ailment, but He doesn’t tend to work that way with that or much else.
            The other day a professed atheist shooed me away, wanting nothing to do with “hocus-pocus” (which, by the way, is a corruption of the words of consecration in Latin, “Hoc est enim Corpus Meum,” “For this is My Body”). He challenged me for any sort of proof beyond this material realm, but at that point I didn’t have the presence of mind or the patience to dialogue with him. It wasn’t the time or place, anyhow.
            While most of my audience shares with me a lifelong identification with Christ and the Church, I want to see where this man is coming from. God seems slow and distant at times; the dispensation of His love resembles an IV more than a torrent. We might consider that slowness and silence to be a grand disappointment. Although our all-powerful God enlists the help of human beings in carrying out His wise, loving plan, many things lie outside of our control—especially the behavior of other human beings who, like us, do not always operate in a wise and loving manner. And then there are the calamities that arise from weather, creatures, and so forth. When it comes to sickness and aging, however, the uncontrollable factor is the deterioration of our mortal frame, and even there with an honest appraisal we find that we may bear some responsibility.
            There is no quick answer to the mystery of evil, whether it’s physical decay or moral injustice. Our Catechism points out that the entirety of the Christian faith is the response to that mystery. Insofar as God has created it, a person or a thing is good. The old saying goes, “God doesn’t make junk.” He created the human person with the ability to appreciate beauty, know truth, and choose good—abilities which are divine in origin. We sin when we fail to exercise those abilities, but God patiently has moved in the redemptive direction by establishing covenants with us, chastising and consoling us by turns. The sending and sacrifice of the Son in human flesh, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, and the establishment of the Church as the reliable vehicle for salvation: finally these divine gifts demonstrate unending, unconditional love that God commissions us to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37), to “pay it forward” as we might say today.

             In the myriad, mystical ways of His Providence, the Lord brings good out of evil, even if we may not perceive it this side of heaven. In faith, hope, and love, with courage, justice, temperance, and fortitude, we persevere.

13 July 2014

Life: It Takes Practice

Why do they say that doctors “practice” medicine? I don’t want them to “practice”; I want them to do the real thing! Then I looked up the word “practice,” and found out that it really means “carrying out”—doing. Whatever the craft is—medicine, parenthood, law, metalworker, priesthood, or whatever—every participant is “practicing” it. Will we ever get it right? When it comes to my “practice” of ministry, I often doubt that I’m doing it right, and certainly suspect that I could be doing it better. I am open to learning, even though I sometimes resist having to practice new skills.

For nearly the past month now, my exercise of priesthood largely has consisted of ministry to the hospitalized and nursing home residents. In the day-to-day, they are my parish. That’s a real departure from the variety of full-time parish life! My “parishioners” are in various levels of physical pain, emotional and spiritual unrest. Many are upset with God, with their family members, with the Diocese, and likely with themselves. When I ask, “What I can do for you,” they unload their sorrow and confusion, even if they cannot express it in words. Whether they are looking for consolation, for a different perspective, or what else, I am not always sure.

The words of Paul’s letter to the Romans speak to this situation, the human situation marred by sin and its effects. In chapter 7, Paul expressed frustration with his own occasional inability to do what he knows to be the right thing. Then, in the famous chapter 8, he concludes that his personal struggle also happens on a global scale. “Creation was made subject to futility…all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but…we also groan within ourselves.” The physical world erupts in earthquakes and storms, and causes destruction. Our bodies don’t always cooperate with our spirits, and our actions don’t always align with our consciences. The true, the good, and beautiful aren’t always easy to recognize or to choose in this world.

So that’s the story; but thanks be to God, that’s not the whole story! Yes, “the struggle is real,” and we really experience the need for God’s help in every dimension of our lives, if we’re honest about it. But Saint Paul reminds us: “The sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Everything about this life will prove insufficient; it always leaves us waiting and wanting for “more”; and that is good.

With every moment of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice, we enter more and more into the salvation won for us in Jesus, which satisfies our human longings yet continuously must be renewed in further prayer, repentance, and sacrifice. Our human groanings, therefore, are the very stimuli that draw us closer to Christ and to His people, especially to those who suffer. By alleviating others in their difficulties, and by experiencing that same care from others, our life stories are incorporated into the Gospel Story, in which Love overcomes fear, anger, and sorrow. Like any worthy art, it takes practice.

07 July 2014

Better Days

I often encounter people whose identification with the Catholic faith has seen better days. One gentleman recently cast it almost in terms of a kind of phase he went through. "Oh, I did the whole Catholic thing – I was an altar boy, a lector, and all that." Now, I suppose, he has detached the training wheels, is eating grownup food. A woman whose original parish merged six years ago with the others in her town just "let it go" instead of registering with the new parish. Upon further inquiry, "let it go" meant she stopped going to Mass.

As I sit down to continue this post after a few days, I realize anew how much of a cultural and religious commentator I am not. Just a simple parish priest, who now has a hospital and nursing homes as a parish.

But many of my "parishioners" are unaffiliated Catholics, or more properly put, formerly affiliated Catholics. They had to start somewhere! For some their parish was closed; in other cases they relocated and never returned to regular Mass attendance. Still others participated in a parish for several years and then fell away for whatever reason. I have met people in all of these categories, and listened to their stories.

Only through honest, open, and willing dialogue do full stories surface. I would seek and cite them not merely for an argument, but for a better survey of the religious and spiritual landscape. These recent accounts could happen to any pastoral minister at any time. They prompt questions that admit of no swift and satisfactory response.

A. What is it about people that moves them to jettison their religious identification/practice?

B. What is it about people's religious identification/practice that foments their gradual distancing or precipitous rebellion from it?

A: People (among whom I must include myself!): A priest is a "company man," and one may find it hard to believe that he can lose the sense of being, as St. Augustine said, "a Christian among you." I hope that priests would attend Mass weekly, even daily, if they were not celebrants of Mass. Flowing from the faithful and devout offering of Mass, too, is a "devout life" in every sense of the term, with attentiveness to Our Lady and the Saints, to worthy reading and other diversions. I have not been surprised to learn how the good example of individual priests has been a "selling point" for the Catholic faith. Such was my own experience.

Priests need to cultivate a demeanor that draws people to the Lord. So many people I've met were turned off by a priest because of a sour encounter. Isn't everyone "entitled" to a bad day? It would seem that representatives of God are not, for they are always watched for their choice and tone of words, etc. Actually, nobody is "entitled" to a bad day, but we should not be surprised when one happens. Of course, we must distinguish bad days from bad patterns, and note many examples of the latter, which happens when priests get isolated from people and stop engaging in good pursuits such as prayer and exercise.

But people can be stubborn. They can allow one unfortunate moment to foment a lifetime of practical apostasy (i.e. rejecting the faith by default). But what is practical apostasy if not the dissolution of a relationship--which happens in many parish and family situations because of a misunderstanding, silly argument, or other human foible?

B: People's religious identification and practice: If religion has been reduced for one's lifetime to superstition, "hedging your bets," at a point of genuine enlightenment (or at the suggestion of an unsympathetic cynic or evangelical atheist) the tabernacle of cards may collapse. Misinformation abounds. Get thee to a catechism! Fulton Sheen said that what most foes of Catholicism reject is their mistaken notion of Catholicism and not the real deal; except he didn't use the phrase "real deal."

Some religionists of any stripe can get so caught up in their leader of worship (priest, minister, rabbi, imam...) that when he or she departs, they lose their interest. I have written before on people who turn down (for what?) their faith because Msgr. Pierogie-san looked funny at me in 1972, or took out the altar rail, or put in an altar rail, or railed from the altar on leaving Mass early. While there are many cases of genuinely traumatic instances--more than credit is typically afforded--some people need a sense of perspective (and in my hubris, "I'm just the one to give it to 'em!") and others just might be looking for an excuse.

Yet amid the poor examples who have soured people's experience of Catholicism, there are many good ones. I partially attribute my vocation to them. Longing for the parochial equivalent of Greece's Golden Age, however, does no justice to the present leadership--not to neglect the present parish roll who most fully express the unity of the Mystical Body when all parts are functioning to their utmost.

At the hospital I am daily reminded of Pope Francis' now-famous reference to the Church as a field-hospital for the wounded. That "Model of the Church" belongs right up there with those of Avery Dulles. When I enter someone's room, their sacred space for recuperation and reconsideration, I often find someone for whom the Catholic faith is a thing of their past, but in those moments I want to foster another soul for whom the Catholic Faith can become a thing of their present and future.

22 June 2014

New Roads to Run

My life in the past couple of weeks has witnessed newness. The Bishop has transferred me to full-time hospital and nursing home ministry in Schuylkill County. I moved to my new digs in Saint Clair almost a week ago, and received a very warm welcome from the pastor and various parishioners.

One humorous anecdote: Having just arrived on the scene, I have not yet acquired an ID badge for the hospital, but that hasn't stopped me from visiting people. On either Tuesday or Wednesday evening I was surveying the floor, probably appearing puzzled. The nurse at the desk asked me if I could be helped. (I'm not so sure sometimes!) Anyhow, she decided to call security just to make sure I was legit. Apparently Collar-ID doesn't work anymore! I told her I didn't blame her for doing it. I can look suspicious, with shifty and furtive eyes sizing up the joint. But then, a Deus ex machina appeared in the form of one of the nurses, a parishioner who vouched for me. Since that evening, the nurse at the desk and I have exchanged friendly hellos.

Running has not abated since my arrival, but the standard routes are getting old quick. Since we have so many hills, it is meet to meet those hills head-on. Only recently have I begun to attempt hills. In the interim between the March and April marathons I took to the hills of Temple and Alsace Township in Berks County. Up here in County Schuylkill there are plenty more--steep ones, mercilessly steep. Take "the Burma"--Burma Road, so named because of its barrenness. After the coal was mined, a wasteland remained. But there is considerable forested area, good for concealing target shooters and beer-guzzling teenagers.

Another anecdote: last night after the vigil Mass I finished up six miles by coming toward the rectory from the direction of the Burma (I didn't attempt the hill, but went up only as far as a new development just past the newer crop of homes from the 1980s). No cars were behind me. The borough set up a speed-indicating sign across from the rectory and church. It showed "8," with brief vacillation between 7 and 9. The sign was working, and so was I.

I look forward to many visits, many opportunities to extend the Lord's Charity through His Word and Sacraments. "The fields are ripe for harvest" (Jn 4:35), for this area used to be known--and still is--for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. It used to be known for Catholics, for devout people of many faiths. "The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full" (Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach). Every priestly contribution helps: every offering of the Lord's Sacrificial Banquet, every Hail Mary, every Anointing.