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

29 January 2014

Where Your Feet Can Take You

In a previous post I offered a review for "Running Shorts: A Collection of Stories and Advice for Anyone Who Has Ever Laced Up a Pair of Running Shoes" by Joe Muldowney. From page one I devoured Joe's exercise exploits like believers devour Scripture! Already a believer in running, my faith was deepened by the good book. Soon thereafter I discovered Running Shorts: The Blog, which one might consider a "part two" of the book, like the Acts of the Apostles to Luke's Gospel.

Since that post in August I have gleaned some personal advice from Joe, and even got to run with him and one of his "cast of characters" on Black Friday! Most of my visits home are not very long and do not include running, so that day was and will remain a memorable occasion, laced with good humor and conversation. I hope we will be able to reprise it before long.

Joe's fondness for writing and running promise to converge later this year in a second tome called "Personal Best." In one chapter he will chronicle three individuals whose dedication to the sport favorably ties into other aspects of their lives. One of them is Elizabeth Withey, who overcame the opprobrium of an abusive marriage through running. In the interest of inspiring like successes in others, Withey has founded Marathons Against Domestic Violence. I understand that she intends to run marathons in every state in the nation and continent in the world. More power to her--and to anyone who dares to make life changes, despite the dissuading attempts of others (or the false self)!

I was humbled to learn that Joe also wanted to include my story as well. While I didn't get into running in order to motivate anyone else, I know that everything we do in life can influence others, for good or ill. In that regard, Ms. Withey shared with me a Scripture quote that is relevant to her efforts and mine:
For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones. We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises. (Heb 6:10-12)
Joe's forthcoming book reminded me of another inspiring individual whom I've come to know in the past year. Angeline Piskorski recently started her own blog, The Encouraged Runner. Running has become an integral part of her recovery from brain injury. In three years Angie has come to know the transformative joys of putting one foot in front of the other.

It is easy for an individual in a parish of 2,000 families to be "just another parishioner." But then God provides, and I take, the opportunity to converse and learn. Over the past six years I have accepted those calls and have become a better, more human priest for doing so. A few minutes into my first conversation with Angie, I learned of her interest in running--I learned we'd be running the Via Marathon in a couple of weeks! Soon enough, the news of a shared sport would be the springboard to her faith journey. It pays to listen!

This online world has helped to connect me with people, ideas, and resources. To think it can even be used to spread the Gospel! Let's say it spreads the Gospel of Life. Everyone's story can become a source of enrichment and empowerment. And why not: If God made you, you're worth knowing about!

25 January 2014

A Light Has Shone

The Church in the United States begins its annual observance of “Catholic Schools Week.” Consider with me how today’s readings offer an oblique tribute to education.

Ignorance and error are often described as a kind of darkness, or a burden that inhibits people’s development. Education therefore provides a joyful release from the oppression of error and the darkness of ignorance, even as Our Lord declared: “The truth shall set you free” (Jn 8:32; veritas vos liberabit is the motto of numerous institutions of higher learning). 

The prophecy of Isaiah easily could be applied to the learning process and its results: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light […]. You have brought them abundant joy […]. For the yoke that burdened them…you have smashed” (9:2-3). Insight sometimes may come to people “in a flash,” but growth in knowledge and wisdom tends to be slow and incremental.

Such was the case for Peter, James, John, and the other Apostles, whom Jesus called into His school. They had to respect and trust the educational process. Like all other students of Truth, they would constantly need to “repent”—that is, to set aside incompatible ideas and practices. As Jesus’ disciples grew in knowledge and love, more would be revealed to them; more would have to be discarded to make room for the Lord’s light and life.

Our Catholic schools are privileged to teach the essentials of every academic discipline. In addition, they endeavor to form disciples of Jesus, devoted participants of the Kingdom of God and human society, people who are willing to set aside sinful habits in favor of virtues. This sort of formation has never been easy because of the wounded situations in families, wayward human inclinations and the enticements all around us. Both public and Catholic schools have to work with the support of their contributing families, who are the first teachers of their children in the ways of humanity and holiness.

I pray that every school does its best in these matters with our kids. But it is a true consolation that Catholic schools incorporate Jesus’ person and mission into their own, not only between the opening and closing prayers of each day, but also “after hours” when the real sacrifices must be made.

I can speak about the sacrifices my parents made toward tuition and expenses; although I helped, they certainly contributed the bulk of it—not to mention the rides to and from activities, and so forth. The teachers sacrificed time and effort and finances; some traveled to Pottsville each day from as far as Lebanon or Temple, and kept long hours in service to us kids. The priests in St. Clair and at Nativity were holy and human men who inspired me in my discernment of the priesthood. We also had a few religious sisters whose devotion was encouraging. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities for Mass and communal prayer, for nourishing friendships that endure to this day.

The sacrifices of every family and school community are movements toward the unity about which St. Paul spoke in the second reading. The Corinthians were given to creating factions based on whose sermons they listened to, whose curriculum they were following. Paul emphasized the centrality of Jesus and the need to stay close to the sacrificial love embodied in His saving passion. While Catholic schools work exceptionally well, especially in conjunction with a devout household and close-knit parish, we praise God for every context by which the new generation walks in Truth and Charity, celebrating Christ’s victory over the darkness of error and ignorance.

19 January 2014

May You Live in Ordinary Time

The Church gives us special times and seasons in which the Liturgy emphasizes one aspect or another of Jesus’ person and mission, so that we can derive its special value for life. Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter have their appeal; but what for “Ordinary Time,” which we have just entered for a handful of weeks? What’s the appeal to Ordinary Time? More than we may appreciate.

The diversity of liturgical seasons corresponds with the diversity of foods. In any given congregation, we can expect to have some fans of Chinese food. These people may enjoy reading the contents of the fortune cookies they get with their meal. One seminary classmate used to save every fortune he got. I keep one in my wallet: “Listen to everyone. Ideas come from everywhere.” Another I found in a humor book, but received it as if it were meant for me: “You appeal to a small, select group of confused people.” And then there’s a famous fortune: “May you live in interesting times.”

While most children might appreciate the mystery and excitement in their lives, adults might strive to avoid it whenever possible, in favor of routine and predictability. It seems, however, that much of life is “interesting,” meaning, laden with situations, cares, heartaches, obsessions, illness, and all the rest: nothing ordinary about it! We may jump from one “interesting” event to another without savoring the pause of quiet routine and recognizing God’s presence in it.

Inside all the diverse moments of our lives—the failures and the successes, the joys and the sorrows—there is God’s invitation to deeper communion with us. In the first of his two letters to the Corinthians, Saint Paul reminds them that they have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” It is at once a “given,” that they are holy, and a “task,” that they are to become holy. Life’s “interesting” events can obscure our spiritual vision, so that we cannot keenly perceive Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” If we are unable to perceive Him, it is all the more difficult to be “a light to the nations” that carries salvation to everyone in our path.

Later in John’s Gospel, the Baptist declares, “He must increase; I must decrease.” This is the epitome of holiness: allowing Christ to be evident in your thoughts, words, and actions.

12 January 2014

This Word is on Fire

I suspect that many people--more, as time goes on--are accessing religious and spiritual content online.

As is the case for all online material (good and evil), one can seek it here in comfort and privacy; here one can listen to it, weigh it, filter it with one's previous understanding and preconceived notions, and dismiss it, lest it disturb and foment personal change.

Of course, one also can learn and grow. That is, at heart, the fundamental desire of the seeker, no matter how much we may resist.

The Catholic Church, as a long-time purveyor of wisdom and truth, is sore indebted to Father Robert E. Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who has a terrific thing going with the Word On Fire enterprise. I first became aware of Fr. Barron through his Catholicism video series a couple of years ago. He has since released a sequel, Catholicism: The New Evangelization. The latter term is what it's all about, according to Bl. John Paul II, with the generous agreement of his successors. The time is ripe for the sowing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, now as ever; but the Church cannot rely on older methods to accomplish this. Because the Internet is the place to be, the Internet is the place to evangelize, particularly on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of others that pop up when you press the "Share This!" button on an article or photo.

By order of his Ordinary, Cardinal George, Fr. Barron has been devoting his entire priestly ministry to the New Evangelization through "Word On Fire." If you become a regular listener, doubtless you will begin to pick up on some of his favorite words and phrases. That happens with any standing commitment or relationship; and the extent to which you are not deterred by that is the extent of your maturity.

Here is a link to Father Robert Barron's most recent homily, for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Enjoy it, and pass it on (by way of this blog, if you would; it may help me improve).

11 January 2014

Three-In-One Oil

The Liturgy of the Hours is at once God's daily gift to the Church, and the Church's daily gift to God. It extends the fruits of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the day.

Like an old friend, however, the LOH can be taken for granted, ignored, and effectively replaced. For that reason the sacred texts are worth a more contemplative look, perhaps to reawaken our interest and devotion.

In my first year of praying the LOH, I encountered the antiphons of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer II of the Epiphany. Their content made me curious.

Morning Prayer:
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan's waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.
And Evening Prayer II:
Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.
Last time I had checked, that "today" celebrated only the Epiphany: the visit of the Magi. How, then, did all these other events get involved?

For those who may be interested in an historical treatment of the subject, consult the Wikipedia entry for the feast of Epiphany, which contains a link to an article by an Eastern priest-monk, Nicholas Pokhilko. According to his article, Epiphany/Theophany focuses on the Lord's Baptism. Here the Father and the Holy Spirit manifest the Son to the nations as God Incarnate, which mystery unites and elucidates "most of the fundamental principles of faith."

On the day after the Epiphany, the LOH "Office of Readings" features an illuminative sermon of Saint Peter Chrysologus. It provides a key to the conflation of several mysteries in the feast of the Epiphany.
Note: While the Psalms comprise the bulk of the Divine Office, the Second Reading of the Office of Readings can be taken from numerous sources: a writing from or about the "saint of the day," a relevant passage from a Magisterial document, a homily, or elsewhere. Sometimes a single text is used over several consecutive days, and sometimes several different texts are used on consecutive days to illuminate a particular mystery from different angles.
Chrysologus wants to dispel any misunderstanding of "this great sacrament of his love." It is not clear to me what "sacrament" the preacher intends. Here I suggest the visible sign of the Godhead made known in the Body of Christ that is born of the Virgin. Crucified and raised for our redemption and sanctification, that sacred Body is the foundation of the seven sacraments.

"Today" features the Magi's discovery of the long-awaited One whose coming was foretold by the star. The three gifts of the wise men, offered in faith, attest to Jesus' identity as God, king, and corpse that death would not conquer.

"Today" also marks the coming of Him whom servant and best man John foretold as the "Lamb of God," whom the Father's voice declared "my beloved Son."

Chrysologus deftly contrasts type and antitype (foreshadowing and fulfillment) using two images from the primeval deluge: the dove and the olive branch (cf. Gen 8:8-12). Noah sent the dove three times to reconnoiter the earth for signs of dry land. The second dispatch proved successful, as the  dove returned with the branch in its beak. In the Christian mystery, the Holy Spirit alighted upon Jesus to declare a definitive end to "the world's shipwreck," heretofore under the thumb of sin and death. The fruit of the olive tree, once used to anoint kings, prophets, and priests, now anoints Jesus with "the oil of gladness" (Ps 45:7). The citation of this Psalm is not insignificant: Psalm 45 is considered the wedding song of Solomon, a figure who, in his own right, bears broad overtones of messianic "abundance."

Finally, "Today" commemorates Christ's miraculous transformation of water into wine at Cana. Saint John records this event as the first of Jesus' "signs"--external manifestations of His glory as God for human benefit. As a sign, it points to the later and greater reality of Jesus' institution of the Eucharist, which occurs in two moments: Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The reader may not readily recognize how Chrysologus connects the Eucharist to Psalm 23:5, translated thus from the Vulgate: "How excellent is my chalice, warming my spirit." Most readers simply know this as, "My cup runneth over."

Returning to the antiphon for Morning Prayer. Nuptial imagery binds the three commemorations in that solemn feast, as the Lord treats His Bride, the Church, to the washing of Baptism, the Magi's gifts, and a bottomless glass of the best wine. Although these events may be separated in time, they are joined in eternity as revelations of divine power and motives for abundant joy.

04 January 2014

The Definite Article

Isaiah's stirring words: “You shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you” (60:5). The six verses of the Epiphany First Reading fittingly describe what the Magi doubtless were seeking, what they found, and, therefore, what they guarded against the infiltration of hatred and envy.

About a month ago there was an article circulating the Internet in which Pope Francis announced rather sweeping changes in the Church. The article was a fabrication, another argument for a Catholic fact-checking site à la "Snopes" (cf. my last post). A careful reader could tell simply by reading the whole title, which included a reference to the “Third Vatican Council.” That event hasn’t happened; but whenever groups of Catholics get together and talk about what they like or don’t like about the Church, one can jokingly refer to such gatherings as sessions of the “Third Vatican Council.” Guys held them in the seminary all the time.

The article, I must say, caused quite a stir among my friends: for some of them quite a letdown, for others quite a relief. We are now used to Pope Francis raising eyebrows, to the extent that even my heart skipped an anxious beat. It unmasked my careless reading! I had to hand it to the writer, who peppered the article with alleged statements that had a ring of truth to them alongside the patent falsehoods. In the article’s title Francis declared, “All religions are true,” a statement easily open to various interpretations. With patience and attention we can trace out the nourishing grain of truth.

According to the actual Second Vatican Council, all human hearts bear within themselves the desire for God, and the call to communion with God. God put that there, so that people might acknowledge the love that holds them in existence and entrust themselves to that Love (cf. Gaudium et Spes 19; cf. CCC 27). As social beings, men and women have partaken together in prayers, rituals, sacrificial offerings, and other attempts to transcend themselves and reach the mysterious Force at work in the world. These actions have been motivated, at least in part, by the patently evil actions and attitudes in the world, which in more candid moments people recognize even in their own hearts. 

We’d be astounded to realize how pervasively our fears can animate our religious and spiritual activity. At the same time, the Scriptures seem to depict God’s greatest interest: moving hearts to the joy of knowing and being known by Him. If that joy is long in coming, or if it seems slippery to the touch, we should not be surprised. The absence of joy and the striving for joy are universal currents. The Catholic faith is God’s comprehensive portfolio, His lavish proposal, more than matching our human strivings for God with God’s revelation to human beings.

All of the Popes since the Second Vatican Council have encouraged the faithful to behold the threads of truth, goodness, and beauty that run through the various religions of the world, even the shards of fractured Christianity. Such an appreciation diminishes not at all the staggering splendor of truth, goodness, and beauty that the Triune God has unfolded for the world in the Catholic faith.

Why, then, do people fall away from this faith? Why do they seek other sources of religious expression, or, with increasing popularity, seek none at all? Have we Catholics a ways to go in terms of how transparent and engaging our witness of faith can be? Instead of basking in the truth, goodness, and beauty at our disposal, we may sometimes engage in a sort of unhelpful critique, the equivalent of applying sunblock because of overly sensitive skin. The risks of exposure we deem too deep.

Whatever acts of prayer, study or sacrifice we can do to rediscover the joy of our Catholic faith, be they large or small, they will move hearts to seek the Lord and do Him homage. We can take cues from the Magi, from the saints, and from each other. Do not be ashamed of that faith. Seek inspiration and sound direction, and boldly implement it each day, so that nobody may be excluded from God’s great endowment.

Mon-"See Ya Later"

Anytime a story about Pope Francis is released, I get suspicious. The Church now needs a BS detector, along the lines of Writers of books and pamphlets once had to acquire an imprimatur (Latin for "let it be printed") from a bishop or his designate in order to assure that the reader would not be misled in matters of faith and morals. When it comes to the Internet, however, anything is fair game.

The Vatican Insider: La Stampa reports that Pope Francis has decided to restrict future bestowals of the honorary title "Monsignor" (Italian for "my lord") to priests age 65 and older. Since the reforms of Pope Paul VI, there were three ranks of monsignori; now the title will be limited to the first rank, "Chaplain of His Holiness." For the sartorially-inclined, that's the black cassock with purple buttons and sash. (Our pastor was named a Chaplain of His Holiness John Paul II in 2005.) All current monsignori are "grandfathered" regardless of age, and will retain their rank and attire.

Somewhere--most recently, here--I read that no more than ten percent of a diocesan presbyterate should be monsignori. Our diocese would need to have almost double the current number of diocesan priests in order to observe that rule! A friend spoke of a diocese where "you couldn't shake the tail of a dead cat without hitting a monsignor." By contrast, some dioceses have "bled" purple and fuchsia very sparsely.

As a kid I was always impressed by the cavalcade of colors in Forty Hours processions. To me it was the closest thing to parades of military, emergency personnel, or marching bands, which still induce goose bumps and tears. The processions for diocesan-wide Masses (where we are, of course, "fully clothed" in chasuble and stole) continue to make my hairs stand on end, more so because I get to be a part of them.

The title, too, tickled my young ears. It seemed like a kind of hot commodity, reserved for the "big cities" like Allentown, Reading, or...Pottsville. For years Saint Clair never had one, until the present pastor in town, Msgr. Glosser, who, like many monsignori I've known, are just as happy to refer to themselves, and be called, "Father [Bill]."

I've always appreciated the vesture of the "Domestic Prelate" (fuchsia cassock with red buttons and sash, or black cassock with red buttons and fuchsia sash), but henceforth it will be restricted to bishops. Fortunately we'll still have a couple dozen of Domestic Prelates in our diocese for some time. The purple-speckled "monjuniors" will be with us for quite a while, and their ranks will be fortified in time. The ambitious need not lose heart!

Well, perhaps they should, as disillusionment can set the heart right.

The theme of clerical ambition has been prominent in Francis' addresses, as it was for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. I'm sure it has been an issue since the mother of two apostles jockeyed for her sons to be seated alongside the King (cf. Mt 20:21). The priesthood is not an avenue to career advancement, and diocesan offices are not status symbols. As a friend posted in his link to the La Stampa article, "We are but unprofitable servants, who have merely done our duty" (Lk 17:10).

The aforementioned monsignor in my hometown and others wear their cassock with humility, just as they might wear the black "witness shirt" most days. We cannot at all conclude that whoever is or will be a monsignor, has received the title for being a sycophant.

While I can admit to tinges of ambition and interest in trappings, it truly is enough for me to be a Catholic priest who is, for the moment, still in good standing. The discharge of daily responsibilities can be enough of a challenge. When people call me "Father," it still astounds and humbles me. May it always be so!