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

30 November 2013


“Violence and smut are of course everywhere on the airwaves. You cannot turn on your television without seeing them, although sometimes you have to hunt around.” (Dave Barry)

So begins another liturgical year, another cycle of Sunday readings. 

The prophet Isaiah starts us off. He is the official sponsor of Advent. We hear his invitation to "climb the Lord's mountain" to receive formation and to live out that formation in action (what it means to "walk").

Isaiah is particularly noting the fallen preference for contention.  His response: "All the energy you were about to put into getting one over on that guy--redirect it toward his good." Prayers are the first and best line of charitable offense. If other avenues present themselves, by all means take them!

The second reading from Romans is more concerned with sexual misdeeds. Instead of working on night moves, St. Paul exhorts us to "conduct ourselves properly as in the day." Orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry, and jealousy are covert operations. They may surface in the daytime, but until recently their practitioners have tended to hide themselves.

All the readings encourage the Advent watchword, vigilance. One never knows when and how our lives will end; "therefore, stay awake!" Jesus says (Mt 24:42).

Is the fear of death an adequate or ideal motivator for conversion? Maybe it's not the ideal one. We can aim for daily conversion, knowing we always need to adjust our attitudes and actions. 

Advent is built into the liturgical year so that we can revisit this theme of vigilance regularly. We can pay attention to what our eyes and ears regularly behold, because these sights and sounds form us. Are there channels of "violence and smut" that we silently program to the "Favorites" buttons, whether in our minds, on our television sets or Netflix queues, or elsewhere? God's people deserve better!

26 November 2013

In Memoriam: +David B. Thompson (1923-2013)

The Diocese of Allentown joins the Diocese of Charleston in mourning the loss, but celebrating the life and ministry, of the Most Reverend David B. Thompson, Bishop Emeritus of Charleston.

He left our diocese in 1989 to become Charleston's Coadjutor Bishop cum iure successionis. Because I was in eighth grade, I had no recollections of him. From reading his obituary I found out that he also attended World Youth Day in 1993, but then again, so did a million other people.

It was only when I was assigned to Holy Guardian Angels in 2008 that I got to meet Bishop Thompson. He was very close to HGA's pastor, Msgr. Hartgen. When Bishop Thompson was named the Rector of our Cathedral in February 1975, Msgr. Hartgen had already been there for over a year as a curate. The two remained together for almost ten years before Msgr. was named the administrator of a parish up in the Slate Belt. That's a long time to be an assistant in any one place. I'm going on six years now at HGA, mirabile dictu.

When the bishop would stay with us in preparation for his annual retreat, which he and Msgr. would make at Spencer Abbey in Massachusetts, it would be the opportunity for several priests of the diocese to join us for dinner and to be regaled with stories of our founding bishop, Joseph McShea, whom Bishop Thompson served as Vicar General for many years. Even at 90 "his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated" (Dt 34:7). He could keep us laughing for hours, though he was just as eager to hear from the fellow dinner guests.

It was also the bishop's annual custom to concelebrate the Labor Day Mass before heading up to Spencer. Dozens of parishioners would line up to greet the bishop as if he were our own Ordinary, including the late Joe Bonk, a sacristan of our former mission church in Temple. Each year until his death in 2012, Joe would come back to the sacristy and wait for the bishop to return and unvest.

I was honored that the bishop would take the time to talk to me every year. We sometimes spoke about Latin, a subject that both of us taught on the high school level. We discussed the new translation of the Mass and found ourselves to be of the same mind. He was known to send people books he considered worth reading. He sent me a splendid book, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin. It's been a good read, so far. Latin may actually change by the time I finish it.

From our short acquaintance I can say this much: Bishop Thompson was a man of the Church, an "impetus of Christ's peace" (his episcopal motto), a clever and insightful preacher, a gracious and thoughtful friend.

Of all priests, Monsignor Hartgen would be most qualified to write a remembrance of Bishop Thompson's life. But he would be one (though an intimate one) of many voices--clerical, religious, and lay--who witnessed his love for the Church and for all people. A festschrift would certainly be in order, as many in Charleston, Allentown, and Philadelphia (he spent eleven years as a Philly priest before our diocese formed in 1961) knew him long and well.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. May the Lord reward His son, servant, and bishop +Dave for his earthly labors, and may we join him in God's appointed time and manner!

24 November 2013

My Favorite March(es)

One of my regular reads, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, posted today on his favorite hymn, from the corpus of Methodist powerhouse Charles Wesley. As a longtime church organist (including three years for the United Methodists in St. Clair!) I am quite familiar with Wesley's contributions.

As a longtime trumpet player, I am also familiar with the corpus of John Philip Sousa, "The March King" who died in Reading, PA after conducting a practice session with The Ringgold Band, one of the oldest continuous marching and concert units in these United States.

Just today a woman approached me after Mass to tell me about the "Ringgold New Horizons Band," for senior citizens returning to their instruments. Perhaps, she suggested, we'd like to have them play a concert at the church someday. Although I can't speak for everyone in the parish, would we!! And perhaps I'd like to sit in with them. And with the main group, too.

Since 1991 I've been honored to play trumpet with the Cressona Band. Until about seven years ago I played for most of the summer concerts and occasionally with their stage unit; nowadays I'm happy to join them for a parade and a few concerts. I don't get to practice with the band, but they let me slide because I can sight-read well enough and have played many of these songs over the years. I have many good friends among the fine musicians in Cressona (and in Pottsville's Third Brigade Band, with whom I played for several years, alongside many of the same musicians). A good number of them are current or former educators who are very much responsible for the quality of music programs in Schuylkill County.

Anyhow, since Fr. Longenecker posted a favorite hymn, allow me to post a favorite march. First, I must decide on one...
I have, wait--
Well, since you understand about indecision, you don't mind that I chose two. But there are more, and I won't bore you with them, because you'll probably stop listening. But I do enjoy Sousa--listening as well as playing (except the 2nd and 3rd parts, which pretty much double the french horns with the rhythmic background).

If I haven't told you lately, patient reader: thanks for listening, and for reading.

22 November 2013

For-giving, Thanks-giving

I would fain introduce you, Beloved Reader, to The Greek word means "truth," and this website is all about the search for truth in numerous domains of the human enterprise.

As the Year of Faith concludes, Pope Francis has been tweeting on the topic of forgiveness, among others. Aleteia's Brantly Milligan presents seven such tweets along with a brief preface on the connection between forgiveness and salvation.

For many people the topic of "salvation" seems too distant or remote for immediate consideration. Indebted to our Jewish forebears, we may consider shalom (peace, well-being, health, wholeness) as the sneak-preview, or mortgage payment, of salvation. You can inhabit a house on which you are making mortgage payments!

The forgiving person knows what it is like to be offended. Perhaps, for a time, the offense may beleaguer his emotions; for what human being would not spontaneously feel the pain caused to him or one he loves, or feel the indignant smart of ego? But the merciful one (blessed is he!) does not allow offenses to control his understanding and freedom. Mindful, too, of the times he himself has offended others, he therefore proceeds to forgive--that is to say, to allow the offender the opportunity to regain (or gain for the first time) peace.

To "for-give" is to extend oneself so that another may grow through the disorder and disease caused by his offense. This certainly applies to the curious activity/process of "forgiving oneself," a topic about which several people have sought clarification from me in a very short time. Forgiving oneself is allowing yourself not to be defined by, limited to, the sin in question. You may have committed an unspeakable offense with unforeseen and grave ramifications. You may have expressed sorrow and regret, the wish to undo the action or unspeak the word if it were possible. You may have heard the irretrievable word of mercy from Christ's priest, and, when possible, from the offended party. Without "forgiving yourself," however, it's like trying to catch a fastball without a mitt.

Then there are traumatic occasions when one isn't guilty of an actual sin, or where the guilt is compromised by pressures from within or without. Here the ambiguity causes palpable torque in the unforgiving subject. The unforgiving subject has difficulty projecting outside of himself, even for just a moment, to see himself from a different, more compassionate perspective. Here an objective voice can provide helpful clarification and encouragement. Even so, if unforgiveness persists (and, if it persists, it also intensifies), the personal application of mercy can be delayed indefinitely, creating the feeling that "everyone else out there" has received the passcode or the owner's manual to a joyful life!

Where begin to permit oneself the relaxation and vigor of a second chance? In acquiring the habit of gratitude, however contrived and nauseating it may seem at first. To choose gratitude is to project outside of one's own inhibited interiority long enough to notice the goodness of someone or something outside of oneself. For the chronically ungrateful, bitter, or depressed, this often can be a most difficult endeavor. It takes courage and persistence.

Some people make a point of writing down, or at least mentally itemizing, persons, things or situations that inspire gratitude. As one becomes more capable of "living in the moment," he can become acutely aware of motives for gratitude and respond with seemingly impulsive delight. Public displays of gratitude need not be gushing or saccharine; upturned lips or raised eyebrows would suffice.

Somewhere you can find the obvious results of an expensive study, to the effect that physical expressions of happiness result in an increase of the appropriate favorable chemicals in the brain. I'd bet that the same chemicals can be found in the brain of the person in the act of granting forgiveness, as this act, like the choice of gratitude, is a mental exercise that strengthens one's capacity to affirm goodness. To forgive oneself is to recognize the existence of interior goodness as a quality that survives and indeed transcends any harm. Just as the mental discipline of unforgiveness is reinforced with persistence and increased intensity, forgiveness likewise thrives.

Pope Francis speaks for all sacramental conduits of mercy--all priests--when he tweets of the Church as "a place where everyone is welcomed, loved, and forgiven." For the moment, and only with God's eager extension of mercy, resolve to sit in, and walk in, the truth that "you" are a subset of "everyone."


17 November 2013

Apocalypse Eventually

First, a commercial for a brother priest in the blogosphere, "A Concord Pastor Comments." Fr. Austin Fleming offers daily prayers in print and audio. This link takes you to today's post, a prayer for the victims of the Philippines' Typhoon Haiyan. This link enables you to make a donation toward the efforts of Catholic Relief Services.

Second, a reflection on today's readings: selections from the "apocalyptic" genre. The sacred writers of apocalyptic works (e.g. later prophets, Revelation) used startling imagery and strange expressions to give hope to persecuted people. One commentator, Jesuit Father Jim Harbaugh, considers apocalyptic a strong pain-relieving medication for the soul. If you take too much of this medicine, especially when you're not in such grave pain, you can start to "need" it when you really don't--feel like you're being persecuted when you really aren't.
Consider the excitement over various apparitions, locutions, etc. Pope Francis had something to say just the other day about this craze. Now, we clearly affirm the numerous apparitions that have gained ecclesiastical recognition. Most apparitions contain nothing contradictory to the Faith, and indeed emphasize the "basics" of repentance and prayer, the unique role of Our Lady in the divine plan; but the Scriptures, Catechism, and Liturgy have all the revelation I need. Knowing my personality, I could easily get caught up in extraordinary iterations; the ordinary does enough to me.
The prophet Malachi foretold the coming of the "Day of the Lord" in terms of an all-consuming fire that would reduce sinners to stubble but reflect well on the righteous. Jesus sternly warned about the destruction of the Temple and related upheavals on the national and family levels. Read such Scriptures out of context, add your own anxieties and fears, and you have a prescription for madness.

The key to understanding the first reading and Gospel often can be found in the second reading. Today, Paul addresses the Thessalonians, many of whom were caught up in the possibility that Jesus should return soon. In the face of rampant persecution by the Empire, the Second Coming was a welcome prospect! Unfortunately these people also prematurely withdrew from daily concerns, contributing nothing but grief to the larger community.

Addicts, self-centered people--to some extent, all of us--share the traits of "apocalypse junkies": a penchant for excitement ("drama"); preoccupation with our feelings, especially those we label "bad";  a desire to medicate (with food, alcohol, pornography, spending, even prayer at the expense of tangible needs!).  If everything is just "going to hell in a hand basket," why bother caring?

Instead of losing patience with how slowly events unfold and people change in this world, St. Paul suggests quiet and steadfast work: efforts of daily prayer and service, fidelity to worship and obedience to the Lord's commands. With a return to responsibilities, curiosities fade away.

Perhaps the clever insight of a modern humorist, (+)George Carlin, can illustrate the point: "Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that..."

Of course, we don't necessarily have to be employed; we just have to get out of ourselves. A friendly phone call, e-mail, or visit--or any spiritual or corporal work of mercy--is a great restorative that heals us as much as its intended recipient!

As with potato chips, one doesn't tend to suffice: hence Jesus' prescription for "perseverance" (Lk 21:19). One "I love you" doesn't count for the duration of a marriage, unless you want it to have Kardashian longevity. One workout doesn't render you physically fit. One prayer does not maintain communication with God until our last breath--unless, of course, we happen to be praying at our last breath.

It's one of many crazy paradoxes in our holy faith. We have to take it seriously, but take it easy.

15 November 2013

Rebuild My Church

Just recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elected a new president, the Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky. (I am honored to note that Abp. Kurtz hails from the Diocese of Allentown, and more specifically from Mahanoy City, all of ten miles from my hometown of Saint Clair.) Kurtz served the diocese for over 25 years as an assistant pastor, pastor, and diocesan official. He was the favored candidate for USCCB president, and was handily elected for a three year term.

On CBS news, the rather outgoing president, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, introduced Archbishop Kurtz to the nation. The duo commented upon the "Pope Francis Effect," the term given to the reported upsurge in Mass attendance and positive regard for the Catholic Church owing to the words and actions of our Holy Father. Other topics of discussion included a renewed estimation of women's contributions to the Church, and a questionnaire released in preparation for an upcoming synod (gathering) of the world's bishops to discuss topics of marriage and family life.

Archbishop Kurtz wisely noted that women have always played a vital role in the Church. He cited the 1988 encyclical letter Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women") of Blessed John Paul II. He would not speculate (as did the National Catholic Reporter, perhaps a bit too hastily) whether this vital role might extend into governance and papal election, specifically in the appointment of female cardinals.

It seems certain, however, that the Synod will incorporate the voices of married persons, male and female. What better contributors could the Synod include, Cardinal Dolan noted, than the very persons about whom the Synod is concerned!

The Synod has released the lineamenta, or preparatory document, for the Synod, which also includes the survey questions. Consult this link for more information, provided by the bishops of the United Kingdom. I haven't seen anything on the USCCB site so far.

A venerable priest friend once and often shared with me this old chestnut: "The wheels of God grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine." The Church established by God the Son necessarily shares these qualities of slowness and fineness. This age, and most others, I'd bet, is eager for quick change. Is this a trait of the Western world in general, or most especially of the United States, herself a revolutionary experiment?

This questionnaire will likely reveal popular discontent with the way things are. I hope it does, and I further hope the survey participants suggest ways that the Church on every level can improve her presentation of her teachings. The teachings will not change because of popular opinion; it doesn't happen that way. But (and this is the marvel revealed by the very proposal of a questionnaire) the Church wants to hear from people how things are being presented and received.

I'd like to be involved with that process on the local (i.e. parochial) level, if our people would permit. They'd have to grant that, on the doctrinal level, I can't change anything, and I don't want to change anything that the Church wouldn't change. I'm not just saying that because I'm "on the payroll." But to suggest that there are better ways of conveying Church teaching is good; to suggest better ways of conveying Church teaching is better. The "one soul at a time" approach seems to work best. That's how Pope Francis seems to be rebuilding the Church: affirming the Real Presence in people even as he affirms that Presence in the Eucharist.


11 November 2013

Confirmation Conversation

In HGA Parish news, Bishop Emeritus Cullen will be administering the Sacrament of Confirmation upon over fifty of our youth this Wednesday. Please pray that these young people will remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit throughout their lives.

Some time ago I spoke with a parent of one of our confirmandi. I asked whether Pat (gender-neutral pseudonym, à la the Saturday Night Live character) was looking forward to Confirmation. Affirmative, but only after a period of uncertainty that providentially prompted the parent to make this move:
I started praying about Pat, for Pat's heart to crack open and instead of trying to force Pat I gave it over to God to fix. Around the same time I started looking for more natural opportunities to bring up Pat's relationship (and mine) to God. It all flowed really well and I, with the help of the Holy Spirit, had the right words. Pat was touched and over the past few months has really matured. Pat has strong values that we never really talked about.
This parental testimony immediately brought to mind a line from a poem: "The child is father of the man." Hopkins penned a comic verse on this saying, but Wordsworth's words were worth more:
My heart leaps up when I behold 
A rainbow in the sky: 
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Wordsworth idolizes the spontaneity of his youth, and wants to preserve the best of it as he ages. When it comes to my faith and to other practices and attitudes I've held, I'd prefer to keep growing; but then again, perhaps some of my current good qualities had their start in those tumultuous days.

O Divine Husbandman, I'll let You decide what to prune and what to retain!

What a parent we have in the one quoted above, who took the occasion of the child's Confirmation as a reason to engage in conversation, a reason to engage one's own relationship with the Lord so as to be a holier, human-er person! How can "taking the journey within" not fail to have some effect on those around us?

This parent took time to get to know the child, which helped the child to consider and articulate what is within. That conversation helped the parent, in turn, to do the necessary work of spirituality and religion. After all, these two (spirituality and religion) are meant to stay intact in this life as soul and body are. One dimension can nourish and strengthen the other, and make for a more integrated person.

Parents can't force their children to take their sacramental preparations seriously, but when they join them in that sacramental preparation (even if their own first Penance or Holy Communion, or their Confirmation, was years ago), untold blessings unfold. Children stay out of jail this way. They may not altogether stay out of trouble (who does?), but they are more grounded in Who and What matters.

09 November 2013

On the Desire for, and Acquisition of, Wisdom

There were many things that I found funny about the seminary while I was in the seminary. That's part of the charm of being in the seminary – a lot of stuff about it was pretty funny, and more so as we thought about it years later. We had to laugh at the absurdity, lest instead we cried.

A case in point (but first, some background for those who may not be familiar with the process of priestly formation):

St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia comprises two divisions of seminary formation – the undergraduate and graduate. Students in the college division were called "philosophers" and students in the theology division were called "theologians."

Do you see the absurdity? As if we were worthy of the designation "philosopher" or, stranger still, "theologian"! Philosophers and theologians of the armchair sort, perhaps. Dilettantes in all things but sin!

While at one point or another in the formation process we all wanted to be priests, most of us did not want to be philosophers or theologians, at least in the sense of earning postgraduate degrees and dealing exclusively in those academic fields. As my pastor often reminds me, we were trained to be parish priests, as much as one can be trained for such a fearsome and splendid endeavor.

But I always sensed within myself the desire to be immersed in whatever field I was pursuing at the time. And I wanted to be the best at it, as well. Now this desire was tempered to no small extent by my laziness and other character defects; but it persisted, then and now.

Early in the seminary, when I began to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in community, I encountered an antiphon for the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua. "I openly sought wisdom in my prayers, and it has blossomed like early grapes" (Sirach 51:19, Vulgate). For years I thought it was just a cool line, as so many lines of Scripture are. Think of Jules Winnfield, the character played by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, and his fondness for Ezekiel 25:17. 

To this day I am enamored with the idea of being a philosopher and/or theologian. Yes, there's a big part of me that wants to sound wise – but more importantly I want to be wise. And what else characterizes the wise person but a desire for wisdom?

In order to fulfill that desire, one needs to consider the Source: Divine Wisdom is mediated most clearly through the fonts of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, alongside the relevant commentary of the Church's Magisterium. But since the Magisterium has made very few definitive comments, it behooves us to reflect and comment upon those fonts personally, relating them to the realities of life.

But I have also found that it helps to get a life: i.e., to have experiences, and to become able to reflect profitably upon those experiences. For one can amass experiences like so many collectible toys found at the bottom of cereal boxes; but of what use are those experiences if we cannot discern the worth of them? Truth: Just as one cannot be saved by faith alone, so one cannot become wise by experience alone.

I spent the years 18 through 26 collecting information more than reflecting upon information. Since then I've had oodles of catching up to do, through life experiences inside and outside of official pastoral interaction. I am most grateful that not everyone has to do it the way I did, but I'm equally grateful that I did it the way I've had to.

03 November 2013

Loathe Nothing That God Has Made

I don't think I've had a "membership drive" for this blog in a long time, if I ever did. Anyhow, I have no mugs, t-shirts or any other swag to dole out. Just recommend the blog if you think that it may help someone.
In today’s passage from the OT Book of Wisdom, written only 100 years before the birth of Christ, the sacred author praises God’s mercy: a truth so profound, so fundamental, so easy to ignore. “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” It is worth repeating.
         It is not only worth repeating, but it is also worth writing down and sticking to your medicine cabinet or somewhere else where you can look at it regularly. Why? I can invoke the news stories of bullying, suicides, addictions, assaults, murders, and so much more that goes on in this world—this world that urges us to conclude the opposite of what the scriptural sage affirms. “What kind of world are we living in? In the midst of it all, where is the ‘loving God’ of the Bible?”
         God customarily keeps silence in the face of human wrongdoing. We consider this unbearable, as well, and to an extent we may be right. Raise your voice to God in objection to the world’s evils; shake your fist at Him if you wish. Yet it doesn’t help us or help the cause of divine mercy if we don’t soon move through that, in faith, toward acceptance of what we cannot change and repentance of our own wrongs.
Perhaps the best form of repentance is forward-looking. While it may seem to some people that every generation is worse than the one before it, we can say for sure that every generation is younger than the one before it; younger, and therefore in need of a formation in things divine, like mercy, and repentance, and justice, and generosity. They yearn, as much as their elders do, to believe that God loves all things and “doesn’t make junk,” including themselves!
For us rational creatures, that divine love exercises certain demands upon our attitudes and conduct. We can’t bask in the love of God and at the same time hurt ourselves, treat our bodies or others’ bodies as playthings, or care little for worship, praise, and contrition. When people start to indulge in things that oppose the love of God, they are really shooting themselves in the foot--denigrating their God-given dignity. We know that well, and shouldn’t be afraid to share our experiences with those who might learn something from them.
Naught else but love would motivate such an outreach—a love like Our Savior’s love for Zacchaeus. Here’s a man who has dealt in extortion for most of his adult life, and here’s Jesus who sees in his heart an inkling of distaste for the way he’s been living. And here’s Jesus calling Zacchaeus to join His company! Calling him out of his prison of self into a freedom and joy he couldn’t have begun to consider before! That’s the kind of love that motivates people to look out for each other amid the realities of life, to become involved before there’s a problem so that, when there’s a problem, they—or we—have someone we can go to in order to hear from human lips that God loathes nothing that He has made.

Show someone today how the loving God of the Scriptures is relevant in their world. Even if you are gently inviting them to repentance, you are showing them more love than they might have experienced before: someone cares enough to suggest that there’s a better path for their lives. At the proper time, they may thank you for it; but even if they don’t, you’ll have a little more peace in your life, because, like Jesus, you have “come to seek and to save what was lost.”