Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Themes of a Life

A few weeks ago in my weekly column in our bulletin ( available here: ) I mentioned that one of the themes of my life has been gratitude.  Another is education.  From my earliest memories I recall the importance my parents placed on my brothers and me doing well in school.  Mom and Dad were children of the Great Depression.  Dad did graduate from high school, Mom was a 10th grade dropout.  Both did not want their sons to work in the coal mine or steel mill as did Dad, or as a janitor, as did Mom.  Education was their golden highway to success.

This may be an odd scene from my childhood, so bear with me.  I have a vivid memory of one night taking a bath.  I think I was in the 7th grade.  As I was in the tub, Dad came into the bathroom, sat on the toilet seat, and began to tell me how important it was that I worked hard in grade school, succeed, and went on to high school and college.  This vivid memory has stuck with me all these years, because (1) I was embarrassed by Dad coming in to see me; (2) Dad talked to me so long I started to shiver as the bathwater got cold; and (3) Dad was clearly pouring out his heart about something urgent to him, and so to me.

Mom and Dad's desire came true.  All four of us finished college, three of us have graduate degrees.  Education was and is meaningful to us.  Further, as a priest I came to treasure teaching adults about the Catholic faith, in various parishes through the diocesan adult education program, at Duquesne University, in the diocese's permanent diaconate program and now at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh (where I am an adjunct professor of moral theology).

Why do I mention this?  Somewhere in my education career the church taught me that learning was a lifetime endeavor.  It was not enough to earn a degree.  Faith formation, and growth in God's grace through the sacraments, was my responsibility to nurture and building on cradle to grave, assisted by the church.

This was the message Bishop Waltersheid tried to impart to our 77 young adults who received the sacrament of Confirmation last month.  Confirmation was not the end of CCD.  It is the beginning of a lifetime of learning Jesus, living Jesus, loving Jesus and sharing Jesus.  And I dare to say it should be your witness too.

Our parishes have offered many classes and talks over the past several years, most successfully the 24 week bible study, with over 100 adult learners.  A four-session explanation of the Mass begins in a week.  The diocese continues to offer a number of interesting courses.  

And, of course, anyone can pick up the bible to pray or read, or borrow or buy a book to read.  

Next year the parishes of Lawrence County will be working together to offer growth in the Catholic faith through a program called Christlife.  Our evangelization task force is considering other programs for leadership development and maturing in the Catholic faith for parishioners.  On Mission for the Church Alive offers many avenues for ministering to others.

The message is the same, whether 13, 33, 63 or 93:  All of us believers in Jesus Christ are responsible for growing in faith and knowledge.  We can make use of the ordinary--and still very valuable--means of practicing one's faith.  These include daily prayer, participating in Sunday Mass each and every week, receiving Holy Communion reverently and frequently, going to confession a couple times a year, reading and studying the bible, reading Catholic authors from ancient times and today, praying the rosary, spending quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament in our Adoration Chapel, and being willing to share our faith with our family and neighbors.  Every Catholic learns differently, and each of us has to find out what works to grow in the love of God in our lives.  All of us are in the "dynamic ongoing school of faith development."  We can hope that the Holy Spirit, who taught his apostles and hungry crowds, and who bestowed the Holy Spirit on all his followers, guide our efforts to know, love and serve him better.  

A Prayer for Thanksgiving

We used this prayer at our most recent meeting of the Pastoral Councils of the city of New Castle parishes.  I saw on line that it was attributed to "an unknown Confederate soldier."  Well, wherever it came from, it's very appropriate to the season.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.

I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy.

I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of people.

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I received nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all people, most richly blessed.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Bad News and Good News from the Holy Land

It was one year ago this week that 32 pilgrims, along with our expert guide Mrs. Helene Paharik and me, visited the holy shrines of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Galilee.  My memories are still fresh for these very special eight days of travel, prayer, common meals and fellowship.  When these sites come up in the lectionary's gospel readings--such as yesterday for the Beatitudes, or this past Sunday, for the cute story of Zaccheus in Jericho--my imagination and memory go wild in having these stories, and places, burst into view in my brain.

Two of the holy shrines we visited, and most Christian pilgrims visit, have been in the news lately.  One good, one bad.  Let's start with the sad one.

Sometime in the night of October 24, vandals and burglars broke into the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mt. Tabor.  They destroyed the tabernacle, desecrated the Sacred Hosts, and stole the ciborium after throwing the Hosts on the floor.  Icons were damaged, chalices were stolen, and the donation box was robbed.  

The tabernacle at the Church of the Transfiguration in Israel, desecrated by burglars.

There have been other Christian churches in the Holy Land which have been vandalized by Jewish extremists.  Last year we saw some of their anti-Catholic graffiti and their arson attempt at the shrine of Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.  But church officials said they believe only robbery was the motive in this instance, since there was not graffiti painted on the church.

This act of robbery strikes me as odd, since the church sits atop 1,500 foot high mountain.  The way most people get there is by taxi or tour bus.  Almost nobody walks up the steep slopes, where Jesus and three of his closest friends went to pray, and his appearance was physically changed.  According the gospels, Jesus conversed with the prophets Elijah and Moses.  This location is next to a Franciscan monastery, whose friars guard the church and grounds.   So how did the robbers get there?  And how did they get down the mountain? 

I remember this site vividly, as the simple lines of the late 19th century church moved me to prayer.  I must have sat in the cool of the church for 30 minutes or more, admiring the icons on the walls and taking in the presence of Christ.

On a blessed more positive note, in Jerusalem archaeologists have been deconstructing the facade of the Edicule, the  shrine which houses what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The Edicule has been held up by scaffolding for a long time, as water has damaged the shrine.  This act of conservation in itself is a minor miracle, as the five Christian denominations which control parts of the Holy Sepulchre Church have not been able to agree on anything for decades.

But news broke the other day that after the marble cladding was removed, the researchers found first a layer of fill material, and then another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface.  It is believed that the original limestone burial bed where the crucified body of Jesus was laid was revealed intact.

National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence, Fredrik Hiebert, said, "I'm absolutely amazed.  My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this.  We can't say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades."  

Chief scientific supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou of the National Technical University of Athens, who is directing the conservation and restoration of the Edicule, said, "This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen."

In addition, researchers confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the 18th century Edicule, which encloses the tomb.  A window has been cut into the southern interior wall of the shrine to expose one of the cave walls.

According to a story on the National Geographic website, when Constantine's representatives arrived in Jerusalem around 325 to locate the tomb of Christ, they were allegedly pointed to a temple build by the Roman emperor Hadrian some 200 years earlier.  Historical sources suggest that Hadrian had the temple built over the tomb to assert the dominance of Roman state religion at the site venerated by Christians.  But his action actually seemed to have preserved the site.

According the church historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, the Roman temple was razed and excavations beneath it revealed a rock-cut tomb, just as the gospels stated.  The top of the cave was sheared off to expose the interior, and a church was built around it to enclose the tomb.  This church was destroyed in 1009, and rebuilt a century later.  

This restoration has been going on for months, but the burial bed was only left exposed for 60 hours.  It was extensively photographed and all work recorded by video.  The burial bed has been resealed in its original marble cladding dating to 1555, and may not be exposed again for centuries or even millennia.  

Last year Helene and I were able to visit the Holy Sepulchre three times, and twice we entered the Edicule to pray.  I also celebrated Mass in a side chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Church for our group.  Only feet away from the tomb is the actual hill of Golgotha. Once can hardly describe the feelings you have to get down on your hands and knees, reach down under a marble altar, and touch the actual stone of the site where Jesus was crucified. 

Both of these sites I hope to visit again one year from now.  I have begun preparations, with Unitours of New York, which guided our tour last year, to spiritually lead another pilgrimage to the Holy Land from October 31--November 7, 2017.  Let me know if you are interested in joining us.  

Monday, October 31, 2016

Jubilee Year of Mercy Soon to End

In three weeks on Sunday, November 20, the Roman Catholic Church will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King (or as it is formally titled in the Roman Missal, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe").  This day also marks the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

How does anyone judge the "success" of a Jubilee Year?  Certainly the Vatican can point to the several international pilgrimages Pope Francis made during this year:  to Sweden, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Greece, Mexico and to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland.  Literally millions of people have themselves made the pilgrimage to Rome to see and hear the Holy Father and walk through the Holy Door of St. Peter Basilica.  Untold millions have journeyed to Holy Doors of cathedrals, chapels and shrines in their own diocese.  

(The website of the Jubilee Year, , incredibly states that 19,246,338 persons have participated in the Jubilee in Rome, as of October 24.  How do they know this?)

Image result for jubilee year of mercy

Catholics are just beginning to gain insight into the love of husband and wife in the sacrament of marriage by reading the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love.  The them of "Merciful like the Father" has been tweeted and re-tweeted around the world, as the key understanding of Pope Francis's ministry of Christ-like service, and the witness of Christians everywhere.

But more importantly than these externals are the spiritual exercises known only to God conducted by Catholics and other Christians.  These include the gift of plenary indulgences offered to the faithful who received Holy Communion, made a confession, and prayed for the Holy Father and his intentions.  

How many souls were re-awakened to the challenges and joys of performing the corporal works of mercy:  

  • feeding the hungry
  • giving drink to the thirsty
  • clothing the naked
  • welcoming the stranger
  • healing the sick
  • visiting the imprisoned
  • burying the dead.
Or how many have carrying out the spiritual works of mercy:
  • counselling the doubtful
  • instructing the ignorant
  • admonishing sinners
  • comforting the afflicted
  • forgiving offenses  
  • bearing those who do us ill patiently
  • praying for the living and the dead.
We priests know that our dear pope's kindly persistent references to mercy allowed us to be vehicles of God's forgiveness in the sacrament of confession (reconciliation) to larger numbers of penitents in Advent, Lent and throughout the year.  In other words, like St. Peter we caught a great deal of big fish, and were blessed to bring them God's life and love.

Bishop Zubik was moved by the Jubilee Year of Mercy to waive all fees associated with the annulment process in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  This act has opened the door for so many more persons to seek a nullity of their prior marriage, and to move toward the sacrament of matrimony and more grace-filled lives.

We in New Castle had an official pilgrimage to the Holy Doors of St. Paul Cathedral and St. Anthony Chapel.  At the end of June 52 parishioners joined me in a wonderful journey to Pittsburgh.  In two weeks I will accompany the children, chaperone parents and faculty of St. Vitus School on a similar prayer-filled and joy-filled pilgrimage to these beautiful churches.

Perhaps the Jubilee Year of Mercy brought home the many references to mercy in the bible. Here are a few:
  • Psalm 136 ("For his mercy endures forever")
  • Luke 15: 1-32 (parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the merciful father with two sons)
  • Matthew 18:22 ("forgive 70 times seven times")
  • 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ("Love is patient, kind, not rude")
  • Ephesians 4:26 ("Do not let the sun go down on your anger")
  • 1 John 4:8 ("God is love")
In every Sunday Mass we celebrate God's mercy
  • in the penitential act ("May Almighty God have mercy on us")
  • Gloria ("You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us")
  • Creed ("I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins")
  • Eucharistic Prayer III ("In your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children")
  • Lord's Prayer ("Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us") 
Truly any success of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy will be found in the days and years to come as we act upon the lessons offered and learned. 
  • When families more readily forgive.
  • When the unborn, children, elderly, persons with disabilities and immigrants are given full human dignity.
  • When diplomats are busy building peace and soldiers can stand down from waging war.
  • When we desire to grow in the wealth of humble service, not mammon.
  • When our parishes are hospitals for the sick and sin-filled.
  • When our common home, the earth, is treated with mercy.
  • When our daily prayer is enflamed by the words of Pope Francis:  "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy.
In the few days remaining for this Jubilee Year, may we revel in the superabundance of God's mercy.  May the blessings and joy of God's ineffable mercy because of our experiences of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.  

Things I've Heard

Here are three comments I heard recently, and my responses.


(Sorry about the all caps. This one is usually shouted at me.)  Three years ago I heard this when the Diocese of Pittsburgh conducted Our Campaign for the Church Alive.  The goal for the entire diocese was $150 million.  Over $233 million was pledged.  Our goal for the four parishes in New Castle was $2.7 million, which we reached with the help of less than 15% of our total census population.  

I also heard this thrown at me several times in the past few weeks, as our four parishes conducted "Together in Faith, Sharing our Gifts," our gentle effort to promote Christian Stewardship and to suggest increasing Offertory donations.

I have to say, this saying hurts.  When this is thrown at me, the accuser also says I don't preach the Gospel of Christ, and implies that I (and all priests) are greedy.  Here's the fact:  Priests never ask for money for themselves.  They only ask for contributions for the church and its ministries.

Sometimes I push back by responding, "OK, when was the last time you heard the priest at Sunday Mass actually talk about money."  "Well, when I was a kid the priest always talked about money."  "How old are you?"  "76."

It's also true that Jesus talked about money--a lot--more than love, heaven and hell.  Eleven of 39 parables deal with money.  Once scholar reports that one of every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke speaks of money.  In the bible as a whole, depending on your definition of money and possessions, somewhere between 800 and 2,000 verses address this subject.

I know that I (and my brother bishops, priests and deacons) do not "talk money" every Sunday.  We take our preaching topics from the biblical readings in the lectionary, or the feastday, or the saint.  If we do talk about money, however, it is to to ask the same question Jesus asks:  What is in your heart?  Money (and possessions) are means to an end, not the end itself.  How we spend and use money, whether we are generous or selfish, reveals our character and our values. Jesus asked for wholehearted devotion to the Kingdom of God.  This includes our time, talents and treasure.  We express our devotion to God's will, and our desire to help our neighbor, through our time, talents--and money.

I do talk money once a year, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is the kickoff for the Parish Share Program in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  I do this to encourage ever faithful parishioners to make a pledge or gift to PSP.  But the bigger reason I address Parish Share is to point out how our parishes in New Castle are in communion with the other 188 parishes in the diocese, and how we need each other to build up this local church. Parish Share is not just another collection.  it is a tangible expression of our spiritual communion.  

This was the answer I put in our bulletin yesterday.  But upon reflection, I have to add that I have never heard this accusation said (or shouted) at me by someone who regularly gives to the church.  Inevitably it is used by those who do not give, and do not understand the value and necessity of giving to their parish/church.  Isn't that interesting?

"I don't need to be registered to be a Catholic."

No, you don't.  But.  On the positive side, being registered and in the census of a parish is each baptized Catholic's way of saying my faith is not just about me.  It's also about us.  Each of us is connected to one another in the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12), and particularly, with our sisters and brothers in the parish (and thereby, by extension, in the diocese). 

Negatively, your parish doesn't know you unless you're registered (or an under 21-year-old is registered under her/his parents).  This becomes a problem when someone who is not registered in one of our parishes is asked to be a godparent for baptism, or a sponsor for Confirmation.  If you are not in our census, it makes it very difficult for the pastor to give you a "sponsor slip," an acknowledgement to another parish and pastor that you are baptized and confirmed, attending Mass, in a valid sacramental marriage (if married), and an active member of the parish

Folks sometimes say, "But I was baptized at St. Vitus Parish!"  Great!  But being baptized in a parish, 20 or 40 o 60 years ago does not mean you are registered in the parish, particularly if you moved at any time in your life or you do not currently live in the great New Castle area.

Parish registration is easy.  One can stop by the parish office, or call, or visit the parish website, to join.  It only takes a few minutes of filling out basic information.  If someone is in doubt whether she/he is registered,  a short phone call can clear up the mystery.  Like the old American Express commercial, "Membership has its privileges."

This question came up in the Q&A in a recent edition of Our Sunday Visitor.  The priest answering said that parish registration is a peculiarly American practice.  I didn't know that.  But if the "world" of a parish was a small village in Italy or France, and the priest had been at the parish for a long time, sponsor slips and computerized census forms would not be necessary.  He knew everyone.  All the information needed would be in the parish priest's head.  But that's not the case now, with our transient society and parishes of 10,000 souls or more.  

 "I don't believe Bishop Zubik when he says no decisions have been made in On Mission for the Church Alive."

To this remark I can only say, it is a fundamental Christian act to accept that people are telling the truth.  St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that Christian charity leads us to a "presupposition" to put a good interpretation on another's statement, rather than condemn it.  The first step in any relationship is compassion and understanding.  Time may reveal that another is lying, but our first response is to take that person at his/her word.  We have to take Bishop Zubik at his word, and accept that no decisions have been made by him or by the diocese for On Mission for the Church Alive.  These decisions will come in the first quarter of 2018.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Charities Accountable

A couple of days ago the New York attorney general's office announced that it had ordered Donald Trump's personal charity to cease fundraising immediately.  It had determined that the Donald J. Trump Foundation was violating state law by soliciting donations without proper authorization.  The foundation had 15 days to register with the state as a charity that solicits money, as well as to provide financial audit reports for any year it had solicited money.  

James G. Sheehan, head of the charities bureau in the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, wrote that if Trump's foundation does not comply, it will be considered "a continuing fraud upon the people of New York."

The Trump Foundation has come under increasing scrutiny by reporter David A. Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who over the past several months has tried to shed light on the Republican presidential nominee's assertion that he had given millions of dollars to charities, and to which organizations.  Among many discoveries Fahrenthold found that "The Donald" has stopped giving his own foundation any personal money in 2008.  With its founding in 1987, Trump himself was the foundation's only source of money.  Between 1987 and 2008, he donated $5.4 million to his own foundation.  Since 2008,  the foundation has received donations from a wide variety of people and organizations:  Vince and Linda McMahon (pro wrestling executives), NBC Universal, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Comedy Central, Richard Ebers (NY businessman) and others.  

In a statement the Trump campaign spokesperson said the foundation "intends to cooperate fully with the investigation."

This news story brought back a long forgotten memory.  In the winter of 1978-79, I was one of eight people in Pittsburgh who worked to open a soup kitchen in the Hill District.  The steel mills had begun to shut down, and unemployment ran high in the city.  We were determined to help people with a free meal who were on the streets or on the margins.  The Jubilee Soup Kitchen opened on November 11, 1979.  Sister Liguori Rossner, our first executive director, has recalled that at the time the soup kitchen had only $9.39 in its checking account.  

We had begun raising funds during the winter in order to open in a leased (for $1 a year) building owned by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Pittsburgh on Wyandotte Street, off Fifth Avenue.  Over the next two years we increased our fundraising, with personal appeals to our friends and neighbors and churches, and with an annual variety show and dinner at St. Anne's Parish in Castle Shannon.  My friend, and president of our founding committee, Father Jim Garvey was associate pastor there, and with the help of my cousin Rudy Richtar, who did the cooking, and the late Jude Puhl, who directed the show, we filled the school auditorium, ran a 50/50 raffle and raised some money (how much I've forgotten).

What I haven't forgotten was one meeting of our organizing committee.  After two years it was clear Jubilee was a going concern.  Sister Liguori was our leader (and only paid employee), volunteers continued to come and help, food purveyors made donations when we begged and we were helping people.  But we were not legal.  We took in donations and paid our bills--but we were violating the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's laws regarding a "public charity."  At this meeting, one member of our founding committee vehemently opposed filing the necessary papers to become a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit corporation.  In Father Jim's words, he was an "anarchist," and wanted nothing to do with supporting corrupt government.  He only wanted to help homeless and near-homeless people by feeding them.

The rest of us wanted to do the same thing--but we didn't want to go to jail, or at least, not be arrested for violating the law.  Jubilee was beginning to get into the newspapers.  We were public and a going concern.  Getting publicity brought more offers for volunteering and donations.  We didn't want to shut down our good works, or be accused of failing our brothers and sisters who came between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. for a free meal.  So our committee voted (with one nay) in favor of using a lawyer friend's pro bono offer to prepare the necessary papers to become legal.  Our anarchist friend then left the committee, which became the board of directors of Jubilee Association, Inc.

Over the years Jubilee has grown in its service to the poor.  In 1980 the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank was started on the second floor, above the soup kitchen.  Later Jubilee expanded its services to helping guests (not clients) find jobs, get health services, receive in-home delivery, and help families with day care and parent education programs.  I left the board of directors in 1993, after 14 years, when I became a pastor on the North Side and could not find the time to continue my volunteer help.  But others blessedly continue the ministry.

That decision to incorporate, with its paperwork, audits and legalization, has been vindicated in the lives helped over the decades by the Jubilee Association, Inc.  That decision also confirmed in me the understanding that public charity has to be accountable to its many audiences:  the clients served, the generous benefactors, donors and volunteers, its own mission statement and listing of values, and finally the general public.   Public charities are accountable.  I have supported that value every time I became a director of a not-for-profit organization. 

Maybe the Donald J. Trump Foundation needs to learn that lesson too.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Another Anniversary

You know all the cheap sayings:  "Time flies when you are having fun."  "Time flies, but memories last forever."  "The older you get the faster time flies."  

But they are all true.  Which leads me to say I celebrated another anniversary of my priesthood ordination, number 38.    Our Diocese of Pittsburgh class was the "no pope" class.  By dumb luck--or divine providence--my 11 classmates and I were ordained two days after the untimely and unexpected death of Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani.  Two weeks later, on October 16, 1978, Pope (and now saint) John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, was elected.  the "year of three popes" was a good year for the church, and for us.

Today I celebrated in the best way possible, by saying Mass for the children and teachers of St. Vitus School.  The kids gave me a pack of hand-drawn cards, which they know I love.  And so I asked them to join me in a photo.  

Our priesthood class will gather with family for the Eucharist and a meal this Sunday, as we do every year.  May we have a few more years of proclaiming God's love and mercy, of serving the People of God through priestly ministry, of sharing the wisdom of the Spirit.  "Jesus said, 'When you have done all you have been commanded, say, "We are useless servants, we have only done what we were obliged to do.'""  (Luke 17:10)

The Pittsburgh Ordination Class of 1978: (l-r) Fathers Dan Whalen (honorary), Tim Whalen, Bob Cedolia, Sam Esposito, Mike Decewicz, Vic Molka, Ben Vaghetto, Rich Yagesh, Frank Almade.  Sunday, October 2, 2016, in Holy Sepulcher Church.

My brother Martie joins me in Holy Sepulcher Church, Butler, Pennsylvania.