Thursday, May 26, 2011

Priests who taught me, II

Father George E. Saladna, S.T.L., S.S.L., died April 17 “with his boots on,” still pastoring St. Alphonsus Parish, Springdale, at age 78.  His parishioners (SRO in the church), Bishop Zubik, 80 priests and homilist Father Ed Bryce gave him a wonderful funeral liturgy on Wednesday of Holy Week.

George was vice rector of St. Paul Seminary for a dozen years, and taught the first year collegians “Baby Bible” and the third year students “Big Bible.”  Your first impression of Father Saladna was a buffoon, a clown.  He was quick with a quip, and had a nickname for almost everyone.  You thought he didn’t take the Bible, or anything else, seriously.

But it slowly dawned on me that despite the hillbilly style of speech and the odd techniques in class (getting three points on a test for correctly spelling your name, and another four points for identifying the seminary’s pet dogs, Caleb and Avis), there was real learning happening.  I truly came to understand this when I took my first course in major seminary, Synoptic Gospels, from Father Addison Wright, S.S., at St. Mary Seminary, Baltimore, and realized I knew a lot more than I thought I did—courtesy of Father Saladna.

Father Bryce in his funeral sermon called George “brilliant.”  He was.  He was also humble.  He was just as comfortable changing the oil in the mini-vans at St. Paul Seminary as he was speaking fluent Italian, or explaining Hebrew verb forms.  He never mentioned that he was one of only two Pittsburgh diocesan priests with a rare S.S.L. degree, or that he studied at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, or that Father Charlie Curran, the prolific moral theologian, was a Roman classmate.     

George was known for his jokes and sense of humor.  Eulogizing his good friend Father Sylvester Doyle, on a bitter cold Christmas Eve morning funeral liturgy in St. Raphael Parish years ago, he cracked, “Sylvie was always sick.  He had just about every operation except a hysterectomy.”  Bishop Bevilacqua turned white in his presider’s chair while the people and priests in attendance howled with laughter. 

His most famous stunt was stealing stationary from Bishop Wright’s office, and sending letters of transfer to classmates, complete with episcopal seal.  As Father Bryce noted, if anyone of us had done it, we would have been sent to ecclesiastical jail.  But Bishop Wright just laughed—it was George being George, not a mean bone in his large body.

Just 18 months ago I drove up to Springdale for Confirmation.  I sat with Bishop Zubik and George at the dinner prior to the ceremony.  The three of us kept bursting into laughter with remembrances of some of the crazy people we knew and lived with at St. Paul Seminary.  The other priests in the room looked askance at us.  George’s best line, Bishop Zubik and I agreed, was the nickname of a certain religious order, which I dare not print on the internet.  (Ask me in person.)

What did “Gorglein Q. Salatney” teach me?  Mostly that the many talents and gifts God gives us priests are not for show, but to be used for ministry.  He did that, in humble and human and humorous ways, as an effective professor of Sacred Scripture and as a warm  and caring pastor of  well-organized parishes.  May he rest in peace. 

'A Super Bowl for women'

I have a love/like relationship with sports.  When you grow up in a household where there are four boys, you do sports.  My Dad was a Little League manager for 18 years in North Baldwin.  Two of my brothers played sports on a collegiate level.  My youngest brother is jogging at age 50.  I was the one without athletic talent. 

But growing up we not only did sports, we watched sports.  Pirate games at Forbes Field.  Steeler games at decrepit Pitt Stadium.  Hornets hockey at the then-new Civic Arena.  (I can remember when the Hornets let fans skate on the ice after some games.  Yup, we even did a little ice skaing.) In the summer, Federation League semi-pro baseball games all over the area.  In the winter, high school basketball. 

So sports are in our blood.  My brother Fred is enamored by all things University of Miami.  My brother Len, NASCAR.  My brother Martie, the Pirates.  (The Pirates???!)  As I’ve aged, I’ve lost interest in some (anything college, the PGA) and grown more enthusiastic about others (Steelers and pro football, Penguins and the NHL, especially playoff hockey).   

Sports used to be a surefire conversation-starter when priests got together.  But not today.  Most priests I know have little use for sports.  (Even golf.  I can remember in seminary golf being labeled “the sacerdotal game” because of the affinity of some priests to hit the links three or four times during the week—but never on Sunday!). 

I can get very passionate about some sporting events.  So I have no credibility when other people who hate sports (read: women) have the same passion for so-called “reality shows.”  You know their names:  Bachelorette, American Idol, The Amazing Race, Dancing With the Stars.   Now my idea of a reality show is the Steelers trying to come back from a 21-3 deficit in Super Bowl 45.  But who am I to criticize others (read: women) who spend as much time analyzing the rumbas, quickstep and freestyle dances as I do the faceoff statistics of Sidney Crosby?   A friend called DWTS the “Super Bowl for women.”  Sounds good to me.

Congratulations to Hines Ward and Kym Johnson for their delightful win, and to Steeler Nation for coming through once again for the Black and Gold (dancers).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Priests who taught me, I

Teaching is a profession, but for some it goes farther to be  both a vocation and a ministry.  Many stand in the front of the classroom, and communicate information, but few convey the love of a subject and the desire to learn.  This is teaching as a vocation, a call to elevate the spirits of the young people in the classroom or learning center.

Teaching as a ministry includes the basic competence of communication of information.  But a teacher who ministers goes beyond the 8:15 am to 2:45 pm daily slog of periods, tests and grades.  He or she not only passes on information, but by the way they interact with students they open up insights into the adult world.  There is a memorable connection with a unique, unrepeatable, sometimes quirky, always real person.

Two of my teachers who combined elements of both vocation and ministry recently passed away.  Father Joseph E. Henry, S.J., came to Pittsburgh in 1962, in the second year of existence of the Bishop’s Latin School.  BLS was a high school seminary founded by then-Bishop John Wright.  It was part of his grand vision of establishing 12 years of seminary education for candidates for the priesthood in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  Bishop Wright had attended the Boston Latin School, a secular school with a heavy academic dose of “the classics.”  He brought such a school here, under the leadership of Jesuit priests and brothers, with their “ratio studiorum” method. 

Father Henry taught Latin and Greek during his 11 years at BLS (until it closed in 1973).  He was moderator of the Greek Club and the basketball team.  But most of all he molded young men by his very presence.  To this frightened 13 year old, Father Henry seemed ancient (although he was not yet 40 when I first encountered him in the classroom!).  His stern face, black cassock, and way of looking not at you but through you brought me often to the point of peeing my pants.      

Yet as I moved up the ranks during those four very formative years, sitting in his office after school hours I came to know Father Henry’s humor and opinions.  This was the 1960’s, and a world of change was swirling outside of the ramshackle BLS building in East Liberty.  Father Henry was from the old school.  He would have nothing of newfangled educational ideas.  A system of Jesuit education that stretched back to the 16th century was good enough for him.  As a senior I can remember his mutterings about the school (and certain decisions of the administration) going to “heck” in a hand basket.  He didn’t like the concessions made to us high school seminarians—dances, less homework, easing of the dress code. 

But it was only after I graduated in 1971 that I was privileged to get to know Joe Henry.  I remember serving Mass for him in his tiny studio apartment in Oakland around 1975, when the Society of Jesus allowed him to stay in Pittsburgh and get a master’s degree in classics at Duquesne University.  I remember his fond recollections of Cardinal Wright, whose wit and intelligence Joe admired.  I remember listening to Joe’s stories from Rome, when he was a personal aide to the American assistant at the Jesuit world headquarters, and his few privileged meetings with Father General Pedro Aruppe.  I remember having a delightful three-hour lunch with Joe at a restaurant overlooking the Sonoran desert outside Tucson, Arizona, when Joe was administrator of the Vatican Observatory. 

Joe was an even more wonderful teacher after school was over, for me and for dozens of us BLSers (and later the wives and children of graduates through our alumni association.)  He was a dedicated Jesuit priest and caring teacher.  He died at the Jesuit infirmary in Scranton, Pa., on May 5, at age 82.  May he rest in peace.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Confession tales

Not long ago I came across a 1986 letter to me from the diocesan vicar for clergy, appointing me the “visiting confessor” for the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse in Oakland.  The sisters have a chaplain who says daily Mass for the sisters, and does hear confessions.  But it is the wisdom of the church to also offer the sisters an “outsider priest” like myself for the sacrament of penance.  Five or six times annually I go to the big building next to Carlow University and hear the sisters’s confessions.  Twenty-five years is a long time to do anything.  On my most recent visit at the beginning of lent I checked the large poster in the main lobby, on which is a listing of all the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy who have died.  Over 175 sisters passed away during those 25 years. 

       This small milestone got me thinking about lessons I have learned from hearing the confessions of the sisters, and the nature of the sacrament itself.  When I first starting going, I was put in a small activities room, with opportunity for the sisters to talk with me both face-to-face and behind a screen.  Most seemed willing to go face-to-face, and at some point (I don’t remember when) the sisters stopped putting up the screen altogether.  In 1999 the sisters built a new chapel, and I have heard confessions in its modern confessional, which allows for privacy as well as room for the many sisters who come to me in wheelchairs.

       From the beginning I recognized that the ones who spoke to me face-to-face used different language than the ones who prayed behind the screen.  Face-to-face:  conversational, natural, telling stories.  Behind the screen:  stilted, rote, same sins as they told 40 or 50 years ago when they were in high school.  I admit that I liked it when the sisters went face-to-face.  I could “read” their facial expressions, and better hear the feelings behind their words.  Sometimes I would ask general questions like, “How are you doing?” or “What’s going on in your spiritual life?” and would be amazed at the depth of their answers. 

       This led to another lesson:  The sacrament of reconciliation is as much about the increase in virtue and holiness as it is about forgiveness of sin.  As you might imagine, most of the (increasingly elderly) sisters are not “big sinners.”  But it is to their credit that they come to confession.  Yes, they seek forgiveness from God for the times they failed to say their daily prayers or got angry at a fellow sister or motherhouse employee.  But more, they want to know that God loves them, that their good works are acknowledged and affirmed, and how they can grow in the virtues.  I have come to see these confessions as “holy conversations,” closer to the spiritual direction I received when I went on my 30-day retreat last summer.   These are privileged moments when the sisters allowed me a glimpse into their deepest “joys and hopes, grief and anguish.”

       Everyone who goes to confession is to be commended.  But I wish more of those who go behind the screen would try face-to-face, and share with the priest “what’s goin’ on” in their spiritual life.  Such holy conversations have the potential to be life-changing.    

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bin Laden and the Vatican

It’s  been two weeks now since the American SEALs invaded the compound of Osama bin Laden and killed him.   The initial picture painted by the White House regarding the raid into Pakistan has changed a bit, but the basics remain.  Acting on plausible but not “slam dunk” intelligence, at the express orders of President Obama, two helicopters of American military violated Pakistani airspace, landed at a large residential compound in Abbottabad, encountered resistance, found bin Laden in a third floor room, and killed him. The SEALs took his body, and an enormous catch of computer files and papers, and safely made their way back to their base in Afghanistan.

Religious leaders from a number of faiths have responded to this news.  (Here’s a national round-up ;

Both these news articles mentioned the brief response of the Vatican, from Father Federico Lombardi, S.J.  Here’s the statement in full:

“Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end.  In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for further growth of peace and not hatred.” 

You can be complimentary of the Vatican when it responds to current events, or critical, but what you cannot say is that the people there are stupid.  Vatican diplomacy, with actions or words, is always subtle, smooth and civilized.  This was a very short, almost blunt, statement, and what fascinates me is not what was said, but what was not said.

For example, the statement made no reference, and had no comment, on the manner of bin Laden’s death.  Now I have not seen the word “assassination” used in major media accounts of that raid, but after moving beyond the first breathless account of White House spokespersons, it seems to me that there was little or no expectation in a very well planned operation to capture Osama bin Laden alive.  New accounts seem to agree that bin Laden was found without any weapons on his person, and the most he did to resist was to flee up a stairs into his bedroom.  He was shot “in cold blood” by two SEALs.  This is not a criticism, just an attempt on my part to lay out the facts.  The online defines assassination as “to murder premeditatedly and treacherously.”   Shots to an unarmed man in the gut and forehead sound like premeditated killing to me.  

Yet the Vatican said nothing about how bin Laden died.  Silence is not agreement, but the absence of any comment, less criticism, of the way he died, is significant, at least to me.  I read into this silence that “assassination” is the wrong way to categorize this killing.  In the context of war, and with the background of horrendous terrorist murder of thousands of innocent civilians, it is justified.

Second, the statement made an unassailable presumption.  This was one very very bad man, who has done horrific things—“as we all know.”  When was the last time the Vatican pronounced a judgment in such a without-a-doubt manner on one man’s behavior?  There were no “weasel words” respecting a person’s reputation, civil rights or presumption of innocence. He done it.  What he done was evil.  Period. 

Here too I note the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, from the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.    Available non-lethal means to protect and defend people’s safety dictates that recourse to the death penalty is “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”  Is this not a case where even holding Osama bin Laden in a secure “super-max” prison has the possibility of inciting more violence from his al-Qaeda supporters?  From paragraph 2267:  “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”   While never brought to trial (where?  how?  by whom?) Osama bin Laden has been decisively convicted in the court of world opinion, and in effect justly received the death penalty on May 2. 

Third, there was no criticism of the U.S. invading the sovereign territory of another nation.  Imagine if the U.S. flew into, say, a suburb of Toronto, banged down the front door of a suspected terrorist’s ranch house, killed him, and returned the body to Buffalo and U.S. soil.  Or for that matter, the U.S. raided Pyongyang from an offshore ship to snatch North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who evidently is starving a large portion of his nation while he lives in luxury.    (Which is what the U.S. did in the 1997 film thriller Air Force One, except that it was a Kazakhstan leader and supporter of terrorism.)  What an outcry would erupt from the nations, including the Vatican.  But on this incursion, nary a negative word.

What the Vatican did do, and which the church usually does well, is teach.  Rejoicing at the death of another is unseemly and always inappropriate.  Each of us can bring about good or ill.  Thinking about God’s judgment on our lives can motivate us to change behavior away from evil and toward the good.  Manipulating religious belief to support terrorism is itself an evil. 

All this from two sentences, well crafted, from the Vatican.


Whether it is the way I was taught and trained, or just the manner my brain is wired, I seem to make connections incessantly between faith and “real” life.

A simple recent example.  I was in my bathroom getting a drink of water before I retired for bed for the night.  The sink in my bathroom has a slow leak, and sometimes I place a plastic cup I brought back from a Florida spring training game underneath it just to determine how much water is wasted.  As I drank my glass of water, I remembered a conversation with a parishioner from a couple of days ago.  Her brother is a priest, a missionary in Ethiopia.  He has served there half his life.  She occasionally receives emails from him, and in his most recent post he told her about the severe draught his region of Ethiopia was experiencing.

And it hit me.  Here I am, unthinkingly drinking clean pure water from an indoor bathroom sink, and my brother in Christ (and his parishioners and many poor neighbors) halfway around the world are in danger of dying for less water than I waste in a night.

I think I’ll call the plumber tomorrow.  And pray for my brother in Ethiopia.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Amusing ourselves to death?

Friends invited me to attend a Pittsburgh Power football game on Saturday evening.  This is an ersatz Arena version of football, on an artificial surface half the size of a regular outdoor field, hemmed in by three feet high padded walls.  It was entertaining enough, with lots of points scored, due to almost every offensive play being a pass.  Without a running game, however, it doesn’t have the subtlety of “real” football. 

What struck me was the showmanship that surrounded the actual game.  A loud and loutish announcer assaulted our ears after every play.  The jumbotron of the Consol Energy Arena is impressive, showing not only instant replays of the home team’s successful plays, but also kids in the stands cheering, couples kissing, and the mascot hamming it up.  A dozen talented dancers/cheerleaders entertained us between plays.

In short, all senses were bombarded continually.  You had no ability to converse with your companion or think for yourself for 150 minutes.

This is in contrast to my experience as a priest who regularly gets up in front of my parishioners and leads them in the public prayer of the Mass.     We have a sound system, an organ, and aesthetic visuals.  But the low-key liturgical celebration, with its rhythm of ritual responses, listening to the Word of God, silence, songs and simple gestures, is a very dramatic contrast to the noisy and controlling arena football game.  In a sense, among younger people used to overwhelming sounds and sights (like the more personal video games), without any silence, we the church don’t have prayer when it comes to liturgy.

This reflection is not new.  Academics and liturgists have cried about it for years.  I first encountered the contrast when another priest introduced me to Neil Postman’s 1985 seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.    All I know, I was glad to leave the arena, recover my hearing, and enjoy engaging conversation with my friends on the way home.   



Sunday, May 8, 2011

New phone, old keys

A couple of days ago I “traded up” my two year old Blackberry for a Droid smartphone.  I had gotten comfortable with the keyboard and trackball of the Blackberry.  My two thumbs could crank out my thoughts on the screen with impressive (to me) speed.  But after two years the older technology tends to leave you behind, and it seemed like a good time (that is, after my contract is ended and I can’t get hit with a ridiculous fee for breaking the contract) to go to 3G level.

The trouble is, I now have to learn an almost completely new device.  And it’s frustrating.  What I used to do quite easily, now makes me mad.   I have to find an on-line “Droid for Dummies” training video, or some such, and just as difficult, find the time to watch it and put the learning into practice. 

And that brings back the not-so-happy feelings I had when I arrived at my current assignment almost four years ago.  Named the administrator of three parishes in this small community, I was handed a shoe box brimming with unmarked keys for ten buildings and God knows how many doors.  It took weeks of trial and error, and no little sinful cursing under my breath, to determine which were the keys I needed to keep on my person daily, which ones could be left (marked) in the parish office, and which ones to throw away.    Today my hand can reach for the properly shaped key in my pocket without looking.  But it took many many weeks and more failures to arrive at that comfort level.

I will slog through this learning process for my new smartphone, because I know that on the other end will be more efficient and effective communication.  And I will hold onto the feelings of frustration, the better to be sympathetic when I meet someone who is having a hard time adjusting to change. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Let's start with being human

A few months after my ordination to the priesthood, I was home for a day off.  My youngest brother, then a senior in high school, kept looking at me funny, in a puzzled sort of way.  I said to him, “What’s wrong?”  He said, “Frank, I know what you do on Sunday.  What do you do the rest of the week?”

That question regularly comes up, either directly or indirectly, from all sorts of people I meet and interact with.  In a sense, the question also asks, “Are you a human being, or an alien from outer space?”  My humanity is evident to me every minute of my waking life.  But I guess it is not evident to some.

So this blog is one priest’s attempt to share stories, incidents and reflections from a human life full of gifts.  Most of these gifts are given graciously and in abundance by the loving God.  Many come through friends, parishioners, co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord, brother priests, and even an “enemy” or two.  I’d like to think that I also give gifts too. 

For those who are students of the bible, you’ll see the blog title in 1Peter 4:10, Acts 20:35, and Matthew 10:8.   For those who are not, I hope you’ll see the theme in what follows.