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

29 June 2013

Love Letters, Straight from the Heart (of the Church)

The Scriptures of the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) speak today about the resolution and fidelity needed to follow God’s will; they also hint at the interior freedom that one gains from the commitment of discipleship. Providentially these readings arrive in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision with regard to permitting same-sex marriage. For now, individual states will be free to redefine marriage if they wish. (One by one, I suspect, they will.)

I am not speaking about these things, as it were, “on the defensive.” It's always worthwhile to review and reaffirm the Church’s splendid, comprehensive vision of marriage and family life. Yes, we have to include the particular choices that the vision forbids; but most of all, we present the great dignity that the vision affirms even as it challenges us and challenges the culture. If I were to become a “one-trick pony” in the pulpit or on this blog, the Church’s marriage and family teachings might be the trick to pick; after all, most people are called to marriage and parenthood. But even these teachings appear  brightest and best against the backdrop of the entire Catholic Faith.

Speaking of which, I received a letter the other day. It wasn’t a personal letter; it was an online article addressed “to our priests and bishops.” Emily Stimpson, a freelance Catholic writer, was treating the subject of “What Catholics Need Now.” In light of the Supreme Court decision, as well as other present-day maladies and deficits, Stimpson asked priests and bishops to “step up [our] game” in presenting the authentic Catholic faith in preaching, governance, architecture, and music, so as to mobilize the Catholic faithful to appreciate and use their voice in the public square. Priests must lead their people in these times of persecution, by modeling and encouraging steadfast truth and steadfast love.

Stimpson isn’t the only writer or speaker to have done this. In a comment to her letter, another Catholic writer referenced an article he had written last September, which I had read and upon which I had commented. These two writers take on different tones and make different suggestions, but they (and others of their ilk) share several characteristics: 

  • Love for the Lord and His Church
  • A desire for truth, justice, and charity to prevail
  • Great and justifiable concern with the present state of affairs; and
  • Appreciation for the role of the clergy in addressing the Catholic faithful on contemporary matters
They are not unlike the prophets of the Old Testament. Some of them may even resemble James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” in the Gospel, who’d have liked to call down fire from heaven on the people who aren’t in our camp.

Jesus rejects that proposition, but in so doing He does not reject His prophetic role; instead, He bids the disciples to move on to another village. That is to say, they must continue their mission; and so must we. The Catholic Church has always maintained the same teachings without regard for the shifting sands of the culture, yet it is fair to say that the past fifty years have witnessed the diminution of the Catholic voice (both from Catholic laypeople and from your clergy). The fear of persecution cannot inhibit us Catholics from saying and doing what we believe. Now, you may say, “What if we don’t all agree on what we believe?” You know, we Catholics! Yes...well, not even Jesus would make people agree with Him, but it didn’t stop Him from speaking, heedless of the cost.

The Church’s teachings on marriage and family have been impugned at every level of government and in every corner of society. We can boil them down to the word "chastity." We are considered ridiculous for mentioning that very word, let alone for commencing to explain and encourage it. 

But here goes: 
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and spiritual world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman” (CCC 2337).
Outside of marriage, the “complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman,” sexual activity results in disintegration—breakdown: the breakdown of the individual and, in time, the breakdown of the culture. Do you notice anything like that going on?

When it comes to our lust (not to mention our pride, anger, envy, gluttony, avarice, or sloth), it is not easy to subject our tumultuous emotions to the higher powers of reason and will, enlightened by faith and sustained by God’s grace. But we must, if we want to be free—even if it takes a lifetime.

It's what we were made for, said St. Paul today to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (5:1).

Whatever your opinion on the Paula Deen situation, anyone can recognize how the condemnation of racial slurs sheds light on the meaning of words and the meaning of the human person. The past of slavery will never be forgotten, nor should it be. But the human race also ought to experience outrage at our continued slavery to sin in its many forms. It should move us all to greater prayer and vigilance, lest we keep grabbing for the shackles. 

Saint Paul reminds us of the great commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). But we do not really love ourselves, do we? Do we even know what that really means…what it could mean? 

Lord—here and everywhere, teach us what it means!

25 June 2013

Draw Near To God

The other day a young child, presumably accompanied by her grandparents, approached me on the way out of Mass and handed me three pieces of paper that looked like they were torn out of a reporter's notebook. Each piece featured a crayon drawing:
The girl explained the drawings to me: the first two were butterflies, while the third was a man in jail (the caption above him simply reads "bad"). She called him "evil."

She then asked me to "give them to God" (as the first one was addressed, along with her name) and had naught else to say. I thanked her, and devised a way to honor her request.

Later that evening, our Pastor, Monsignor Hartgen, would be offering Mass in honor of his fortieth anniversary of ordination to the Priesthood.

What to do with her offering was but the secondary question; the first, what to make of it!

This daughter of God (she couldn't have been older than 6 or 7) drew Him a picture, which He would hang on the refrigerator door with great delight. How many children pick a bouquet of flowers, make breakfast, or perform another small deed with great love!

It was also an example of intercessory prayer, which is at the heart of the Church's public and personal prayer. In the Liturgy, God Himself works in and through us, reminding us of the world's many and diverse needs, prompting us to "remind" God of those needs with humble confidence.

I can safely presume that this intercessor loves butterflies, but most of all that she loves God, and she showed that love for God by drawing a few butterflies for Him to look upon with delight in His winged creatures. Since human beings are the capstone of material creation, to my knowledge the only creatures capable of artistic representation, God delights in us and in the talents we employ for God's glory and for the edification of our fellows.

Somewhere in my research for a paper on iconography I recall reading that artistic expression itself is a kind of liturgical intercession. Human beings take pigments, parchments, marble, and other mute and mindless things, and do something with them for a higher end. They are doing something redemptive for them by acting on their behalf, adding a perfection, a reason, to their previous identities.

In his first epistle, Saint John said, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (4:20). Intercessors love people. That's why they pray for them. Knowing their own capacity for sin, their love for fellow sinners all the more increases, and finds continuous expression in prayer: prayer for their repentance, prayer for their health, their safety, and their salvation.

This child is hardly old enough to commit (grave) sin, yet she has heard of it. News programs show people being placed into police cars and hauled off to jail. At some point parents have the unenviable task of explaining the bad things people do--things far worse than the naughtiness that merits scarcely more than a few minutes in the corner or a pat on the behind.

Our darling intercessor is processing the reality of sin. She wishes it weren't so. When in time she joins the ranks of the culpable, she too will know what it's like to merit eternal damnation and perhaps even incarceration. She'd like God to take care of criminals and other sinners--but not in the way we'd often like to "take care of" them. In our pride we can forget our sinfulness in the face of someone else's, and easily lose our compassion for those who oppose us or do us harm.

I decided to shred her drawings and sprinkle some pieces among the coals that would burn the incense at Monsignor's Mass. (If you attended that Mass and wondered why the incense had a different odor, now you know.) There's more...always burn, and I'll save it for another day.

Quoth the Psalmist: "Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice" (Ps 141:2). Burning a sacrifice of livestock or produce was the Jews' way of giving it to God (and thereby rendering it useless to them). Adding incense to a holocaust was an attempt to mask the awful (offal?) smell, and it was a thoughtful gesture to God: if He had to receive it, at least it might smell a little better! It probably was as effective as air freshener in a stinky bathroom.

What else do we have, of our own accord (i.e., that God didn't give us), to give to God except our sins?   Yet that is precisely what He desires from us--and in a more concrete way than as snippets of paper in a smoking brazier fire pot. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is our spiritual latrine, where that most precious and foul offering is worthily made.

I was most grateful for this girl's colorful and thoughtful intercession, and you should be, too. Her prayer will reach maximum effectiveness if one previously unwilling person walks through his or her fears, headlong into the Sacramental Ocean of Mercy.

18 June 2013

Joseph: the Name Above Every Other Name, Save Two

Fr. Z the Greater has informed his readership that, by decree of the Roman Pontiff, the name of Saint Joseph is to be added to Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV, as Pope John XXIII had added it to the Roman Canon (EP I).

There should be a Catholic version of so that we can know this for sure and act upon it with due promptness.  If this is a leak or a tale, it would seem prudent not to Josephize any Eucharistic Prayers until we hear ex ore equi.  I don't see anything on the Holy See's website, nor on Whispers in the Loggia (granted, the latter is a rumor mill, albeit an accurate one).

I am not accusing Fr. Z of imprudence or inaccuracy, but this just seems strange. I didn't mention Joseph today, nor will I until I hear a diocesan liturgical directive.

But I love the idea. I lerve the idea. I lo-ove the idea. I luff it.

Most would consider devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary a Catholic/Orthodox thing, just like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Apostolic Succession. Devotion to Saint Josepha fortiori, is by no means the property of, but certainly the great treasure and heritage of, the Catholic Church (and of our Orthodox brethren, although the OCA website downplays the "Worker" aspect that Catholicism has highlighted (and I, who am less than nothing, think rightly) in the 20th century.

Pace the OCA, I don't think the fact that St. Joseph was a carpenter (as opposed to, say, a coal miner, an accountant, or a lion tamer) is what Catholics extol on 1 May; rather, that by his labors he participated in the creative process and provided for his sacred charges--as all caregiving laborers do. Our agreement with the subordination of Joseph's workmanship to his Marian Matrimony is patently evident by their respective liturgical ranks: Optional Memorial and Solemnity. You can't get much more disparate ranks than those!

Regarding this alleged inclusion: What about the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses of Reconciliation and for Various Needs and Occasions? I use them fairly often, and Joseph's absence from them would be an inconsistency. But we're no stranger to that (cf. the Lectionary and the Divine Office)!

We will wait and see. Meanwhile, because of the report of Joseph's inclusion in the Anaphora, this Reverend Blogger has taken the occasion to honor him, and thereby glorify His beloved Spouse, and above all, the Holy Trinity.

In an article from the Catholic News service ( a Vatican official says that priests may begin inserting Joseph's name now. We do not have to wait for any national or diocesan directives.

Or must we wait for further updates? The jury is still out. And I'm going out, too--for visits to the sick.

16 June 2013

I Have Something To Say To You

Lieutenant General David Morrison of the Australian Army had something to say about the improper conduct of some male soldiers toward some female soldiers. Exploitation and degradation have "no place in this Army.... Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army and the environment in which we work."

Jesus had something to say to Simon and fellow Pharisees who interiorly determined (i.e., "judged") the sinfulness of a woman who showed Him reverence. At first, He said it in the form of a parable, one of His familiar modes of speaking, which He often used as a ruse. Here, by leading His listeners to  conclude that someone deeper in debt might show Him deeper reverence--as that woman was doing--He was also revealing the Pharisees' pusillanimity and ingratitude.

Our Lord followed the prophetic path of Nathan, whom God directed to convict King David of his adulterous and murdering machinations. This weekend we do not get to hear the beginning of this exposé, a parable of a farmer who raises a lamb from her birth only to be callously deprived of that lamb by a visitor who needs to make a meal for his own guests. Nathan deflected David's misdirected wrath as it were by pointing a mirror to him, with a phrase considered a compliment in our time: "You are the man!"

While David famously repented of his treachery, we do not know how Simon and his fellow Pharisees fared. It's just like the "rest of the story" behind the Prodigal Son: did the elder son enter the feast? This much of the story we know: Jesus forgave the woman of lavish love, and the guilty bystanders had nothing to be forgiven of, as far as they could tell.

I wonder whether the lecherous Australian soldiers are admitting their wrongdoing. If it came to the point where I needed a general to set me straight, I hope that would serve as an adequate stimulus for personal change. Maybe I'd need to take his advice: if I'm not willing to change, I'd have to find me another line of work that would suit me better.

God save us from such spiritual and mental constriction!

11 June 2013

"The Logical and Appropriate Next Step"

A friend sent me the link to an article from the blog of GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) concerning the election of the first openly gay bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), only four years after the ELCA lifted a ban on clergy in same-sex relationships.  The executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, Amalia Vagts, has called the ordination of Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin "simply the logical and appropriate next step for our denomination following the 2009 elimination of policies precluding pastors in committed same-gender relationships."
The above-linked article refers to "same-gender relationships," suggesting a more-than-semantic difference between "sex" and "gender," especially in light of the acronym LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), and another expansive--and ambiguous--moniker.
The trajectory of the ELCA decision seems to parallel the movement of the Episcopal Church that most notably included the ordination of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson in 2003, as well as subsequent refusals to place a moratorium on the ordination of openly gay clergy.

Mathew Block over at First Things has noted the ELCA's membership decline since '09, in favor of at least two breakaway Lutheran communions. We already know about the "Anglican Use" that the Catholic Church has formed for disaffected C of Es; can we expect a similar Catholic expression for Lutherans who are declaring "Here I can't stand"?

I discern a parallel with the recent decision of the Boy Scouts of America to permit openly same-sex attracted boys while maintaining a ban on openly same-sex attracted adult leaders.

The BSA still considers any sort of sexual activity as unacceptable for youth.  It is likely that some same- and opposite-sex attracted scouts are sexually active; one may presume that no "witch-hunt" sort of investigations take place, and perhaps the only circumstance in which the no-sex policy would or could be enforced might be, say, a camping trip, in which any kind of hi-jinks is summarily addressed.  Eventually, a scout who is (same- or opposite-) sexually active turns 18 and no longer can identify as a boy scout.  If he wishes to serve as an adult leader, he applies and is likely accepted without any questioning or revelation of his sexual activity.

I predict that the proposed "two-tier system" of openly same-sex attracted boys and quietly same-sex attracted adults will soon be found intolerable, to the effect of the total lifting of the ban.  Perhaps the decision will occur by volunteer vote in the manner of the previous process, but it will happen in any case.  It is "the logical and appropriate next step."

Will we see increases among scout-alternative groups, such as can be found among several evangelical denominations and the Catholic Church? Girls and young women have, for example, the American Heritage Girls.  Will these organizations ever enjoy the notoriety and fiscal support of their revered counterparts? Until they do, BSA-chartering organizations like churches will not quickly pull up their tent stakes, unless BSA policy changes permit no other option.

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I deem it necessary to summarize the Catechism's already succinct presentation on homosexuality (CCC 2357-2359):

Sexual practices between persons of like sex are depraved and "intrinsically disordered" because of the lack of affective and sexual complementarity and because of the intrinsic resistance to the generation of new life. However the orientation comes about and however it has expressed itself, it is "objectively disordered," but persons so attracted are due no less compassion and should not become objects of discrimination. The Church encourages them, through every available human and divine help (prayer, friendship, sacraments) to practice chastity and openness to God's will. Thus they can and should approach Christian perfection.

In quotes I have retained the words intrinsically and objectively from the original paragraphs. I understand these words to mean "factually; unavoidably; independent of my, or anyone else's, thoughts and feelings." We live in an age that does not accept any judgment. One must not forget that the intellect is for judgment, for affirming the truth or falsity of a proposition after subjecting it to the objective truth to determine whether or not it conforms.

But the term "judgment" has come to mean "personal condemnation." The Church doesn't support personal condemnation, either; but to the modern mind, the true sense of the term judgment (determination of conformity or nonconformity to objective truth) isn't used because the modern mind does not acknowledge objective truth. Only personal condemnation remains, and to the modern mind, the Church does this in great measure.

The "objective truth" in question consists in the other word retained in quotes from the original paragraphs: disordered. Now this is the sore spot. I can already hear it: "How dare you call me disordered?!" Nobody has called same-sex attracted persons disordered, but rather the inclination, or attraction, towards members of the same sex. This inclination simply cannot be put on a par with opposite-sex attraction, because opposite-sex attraction involves a physical, emotional, and spiritual complementarity that does not exist between persons of the same sex. There is no "alternative lifestyle" to the communion of persons that joins a man and a woman in total, faithful, permanent, and fruitful self-giving--what, from time immemorial, has been known as matrimony; what, since the time of the Church, has become known as sacramental marriage.

"But that's what you say!"

After countless times around the block, we always reach an impasse. One fears that nothing further can be said or done, except to witness the unfurling of each "logical and appropriate next step," according to what modernity calls logic and propriety.

07 June 2013

Ten Years of Priesthood: A Retrospective

On the seventh of June 2003, the Most Reverend Edward P. Cullen ordained me and Angel L. Garcia-Almodovar to the Priesthood. It has been my greatest joy and privilege to serve as a Catholic Priest in the Diocese of Allentown, and as God wills, I shall serve until I draw my latest breath.
Anniversaries are times to look back and to look forward, usually with gratitude for blessings received and blessings given. Although ten years isn't a very long time, it's the longest amount of time I've been a priest; and I am sadly aware that many of us don't make it to ten years without leaving, whether freely or under duress. One of my classmates has already died.  For these and other reasons I feel compelled to write.

I fondly recognize the many people who have supported me up to this day.  Foremost among them are my parents, Helenann (Welker) and (+) Joseph R. Zelonis. Mom has been a devout Catholic since her teenage years, when she first discovered the faith and dove headfirst into instructions to get sacramentally "caught up." Dad came to embrace the faith more fully through Mom's example and intercession. I also believe that my approaching ordination and his own failing health each played a part. Hey--God uses what He wills.

Mom and Dad gave me the freedom to learn my prayers, to read about the Faith, to interact with ordained and lay Catholic adults, and to consider the possibility that God could be calling their only son (together; my half-brother is a husband and father) to be forever unmarried and without issue. For reasons too numerous to consider here, many parents do not afford their children this freedom. I'm glad my parents did, and I know they have never regretted it.
My primary shepherds, along with Msgr. Treston, my first pastor and Bishop Cullen, my ordaining prelate
The Zelonis and Welker families are godly yet earthy people. They have accompanied me throughout life's joys and sorrows. They respect my vocation, yet are not at all afraid to keep me right-sized when necessary. I know I belong to my family, even as I belong to Mother Church.

I knew dozens of priests and seminarians over the years. They always had time for me. Priests nurtured my vocation with frequent conversations in the sacristy, on the rectory porch, local restaurants, the halls of high school, and elsewhere. I used to hang around the rectory and bug the secretaries. Once, to get me out of her hair, M. suggested I write local parishes to volunteer my services as an organist. At the age of twelve I was hired by a priest who, for the past 25 years, has been a loyal friend and mentor.
Music kept me close to the Church. As an organist I played for my own and several other area parishes, including the United Methodist congregation in town. The organ and trumpet served me well in the seminary, and I hope my offering served St. Charles well. In every assignment as a seminarian and priest I've gotten to play for Mass (not while celebrating, unless you count the Entrance and Recessional hymns at nursing home Masses). It's a real treat. I'm not quitting my day job, as they say, but the occasional homecoming to an organ bench keeps me as sane as possible.

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary prepared me as well as possible to serve as a priest. They did their best with what they were given. They helped me to learn about the truths of the Creed, the practice of the Sacred Liturgy, moral teaching on traditional and contemporary concerns, and the life of prayer. I had regular exposure to people in "field education" assignments in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Allentown--a special needs school, senior citizen daycare centers, a high school, a college campus ministry, and several parishes. It was a long nine years, but it was only the beginning of my formation. More had to be revealed: not simply in terms of meaty content, but also the briny broth of human relationships. I was rightly trained to be a theologian, but soon had to learn customer service.
My first assignment as a priest was to St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in nearby Sinking Spring. Msgr. Treston was the pastor. He was very kind to me, and so were the people. They would often ask me to give a talk for their groups, to teach at the school, or simply to join them at social events. Every month I would offer Mass at the county prison, the county rest home, and/or the assisted living facility in our territory. Early on I came to enjoy visiting people in the hospital--a terrific moment for compassion and evangelization.
After only one year at St. Ignatius I was asked to be the Chaplain and to teach at Reading Central Catholic High School. I felt rather ill-prepared for the tasks of program/event coordination, classroom management, and intensive interaction with high schoolers. Nine years of seminary formation were, relatively speaking, a breeze for me. I enjoyed academic work, and did well in it. Being on the other side of the desk was another matter. Others have judged my time at Central more mercifully than I, but it was my own discomfort that prompted a return to parish ministry. Encounters with former students, fellow administrators/teachers, parents, and alumni are always joyful. I am grateful for their part in my learning experience at Central.
While teaching at Central I lived at St. Catharine of Siena Parish in the Mount Penn section of Reading. Msgr. Smith and the other priests helped me tremendously by their presence and encouragement. Even though my service to St. Catharine's was mostly limited to Sunday Mass, the people were always friendly. I continue to admire their devotion and service, especially when I "pinch-hit" for one of their priests for a weekday Mass. 

At my own request, the Diocese graciously granted me a mental-health leave. I took part in a program for priests about a half-hour outside of New York City. The staff helped me to regroup from the stresses of high school, and equipped me to face future challenges with greater confidence. I can understand if a priest might feel ashamed to ask for help; and if direction is offered, then it behooves us to follow it! Thank God and thank my trusted advisors that I don't have to face problems alone. A pro-active approach can spare individual priests, and the entire Church, untold hardship.

If I thought my first assignment was short, my next one at St. Joseph the Worker in Orefield (Lehigh County) was shorter--just about ten months! But Msgr. Wargo, fellow priests, and the people found a place for me in their well-oiled machine. As with St. Ignatius, I frequented the hospital and school, instructed converts and engaged couples, and observed the tireless efforts of numerous parish organizations.

In an offseason move (January), I went to Holy Guardian Angels in January 2008, where I have been serving until now. This is the first parish assignment where I've been the only Assistant Pastor, not the junior of two. In addition to other responsibilities mentioned above, I have become more closely involved with the Finance and general Parish Councils, RCIA, and CCD, ministry training and fundraising. I wouldn't give myself a stellar grade for my interaction with every parish activity, but I endeavor to be present to all of them while attending to my spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.
Crowning Our Lady while a student prays for my safety

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Thousands of people over the years have formed me in various ways and contexts, and thousands more await. I pray that I will have been a blessing to all of them and countless others. By the daily offering of the Church's liturgical prayer and my personal prayer, the reconciliation of sinners, attention to the needy and to children, study and sharing of divine and human wisdom, and the witness of steadfast love amid celibate chastity, I am becoming a pleasing oblation to the Father in the image of the eternal High Priest.  I can boldly say, in union with Christ: This is my body, which is being given up for you.

It seems appropriate that my 10th anniversary falls on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, also the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests and my favorite devotion. Once in Confession as a teenager, a priest bade me to pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that He "take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh" (cf. Ez 11:19). At the time I must have been dealing with one or more of the cardinal sin categories, as I still do; and that prayer still comes to mind for the sake of my priestly service. Of course, I want to avoid scandal; I don't want to dishearten any child of God. I cannot back down from the truth, but I want to help people to receive it as well as possible, and make any changes that the truth requires. If people walk away because the truth is too hard, I can't help that any more than Jesus could (cf. Jn 6:66); but God help me if my personality ever obscures the light and love of the Redeemer. Thank God for the many people who daily assist me to be of optimum service!

A devotional favorite of the upstate babas is still a favorite of mine. Enjoy it, patient reader, with my grateful prayers: