Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – A.  “Get behind me, Satan!”

American culture teaches us in subliminal ways that we have complete control over our lives.  Simon Peter, a 1st century Palestinian Jew, certainly felt the same.  When Jesus instructs his followers on the true path to eternal life – arrest, suffering, crucifixion, burial in Jerusalem – Peter resists.  But Rocky’s ways are not God’s ways.  The paschal mystery is the core of Jesus’s lived proclamation of the reign of God.  Whoever wishes to saves their life will lose it, in fidelity to Christ, in practical love of neighbor, in outreach to stranger. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Praying for Prayer

Last year I was given the great privilege of doing a 30-day retreat, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  I left my people and parish of Saint Juan Diego for seven weeks.  On the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat Center near Gloucester, Massachusetts, my fellow retreatants and I prayed four or five hours a day in grand silence.  Our only daily responsibilities were to attend Mass and meet with our spiritual director.  I ate healthy food, walked an hour each day along the coast, journaled, did cross stitch, and awoke at 4:30 each morning without an alarm refreshed and renewed.

The days were glorious!  Not just because of the warm weather, or the hospitality of the retreat house staff, or the attentive and wise listening of my director, or watching the sunrise colors every morning over the ocean, but especially because of the freedom to “waste time” talking with God and listening to God and his son Jesus.        

Then I returned to the parish, and real life happened.

It is an irony often remarked upon by Christian ministers that we who lead the prayers of the public assembly are often the ones who pray the least in private.  Like Martha we are too often busy and worried about many things (Luke 10:41).  As I come to the end of the first month in my new responsibility here in New Castle, I acutely feel the imbalance in how I use the hours of the day.   My “to do” list grows longer, the unpacked boxes in my sitting room remain unpacked, messages and questions are thrown at me from all sides—and I plan and execute too little time to pray.

Part of the problem is simple new-ness.  It takes asking lots of questions to begin to get a handle on the past achievements, the present problems, and the future hopes of not one, but two, distinct faith communities.  My offices are only beginning to take shape.  I don’t have the Mass schedules memorized yet.  I’m meeting new parishioners at every turn.  Plans for the future collide with the pastoral needs of this moment.

Good daily prayer is born of routine.  The liturgy of the hours is a ritual which allows one to see the possibilities of holiness in disparate events.  In its absence, prayer becomes catch-as-catch-can.  When there is little or no sameness in the schedule of a day, personal prayer gets pushed to the margins, if done at all.  Something resembling routine is off in the future for me.

My expectations for my prayer have also gone up.  It’s not enough just to “do prayers,” or recite rote formulas.  Over the years I have grown to love silence with the Lord.  In that silence I can pray the brievary, or mediate on a Scripture reading, even think up ideas for my blog!—and sometimes just be, patiently waiting to hear the gentle, loving voice of the Lord.   This desire for silence, sustained and intense, jumped exponentially after the joys of last summer’s 30 day retreat. 

I am blessed however to have a quiet residence.  St. Vitus Parish is a busy place, with lots of activities and meetings.  The campus of St. Vincent de Paul, where I live, resembles a retreat center.  It even has grass and trees and statues on its grounds. 

The desire for prayer is one I hear almost every day from parishioners.  Their lives are just as busy as mine.  They too desire a quiet place, if only for a quarter hour, to converse with God. 

There are no “magic bullets,” for priests or for the Christian faithful, to establish a balance of work and prayer in our lives.  The phrase which comes to mind is, the only way out is through.  Failure is an option.  So is picking yourself up and trying again. 

Sermon in a Bottle

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – A.  “How inscrutable and unsearchable are God’s ways!”

To be picked for some position or function is a special honor anytime.  Peter was chosen by the Holy Spirit to proclaim Jesus as “the one and only,” the long-awaited messiah.   This brought him a special role among the Twelve and prudential responsibilities for the church.  When we followers of Christ hear his call, we put aside our misgivings of unworthiness and accept that we are but humble workers in God’s mysterious plan for human salvation.   

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Dust of History

          Sometimes I have the odd desire for empathy (“Who feels my pain?”).  To get parishioners to understand the pains of moving from Sharpsburg to New Castle I have taken to tell folks that in the 26 years Father John Petrarulo was pastor of St. Vitus Parish I moved ten times.  Twice I have moved within parishes.

         Still nobody understands.  These are Pittsburghers – oops, western Pennsylvanians who live in Lawrence County.  Everyone has lived in the same home since the Kennedy Administration and everyone has the same PA license plate since Maz hit his walk-off homer in the 1960 World Series.
         So I soldier on emptying my boxes of stuff.  I set the goal of one box a day, and have been making slow progress.  But today, with nothing on my schedule, I stopped “working” (that is, doing ministry) and spent the entire day in my play clothes emptying boxes.  As of this writing as the Steelers exhibition game is beginning I’ve gotten rid of about 25 boxes, with maybe another 25 to go.

          (Yes, I’m thinking the same thing.  How does a guy who makes only $2,000 a month, and a lot less in years gone by, accumulate so much stuff?)
          This has been a productive day.  I am operating in this excavation project with three principles: read everything; throw out as much paper and junk as possible; save every photograph.   I’ve whittled it down to five flat plastic containers (like the kind you can shove under the bed) packed with photographs, one with my unfinished cross-stitch projects, and one with some personal papers.  Six boxes of paper are waiting to be burned, and another dozen to be thrown in the dumpster.

          Going through these boxes has been like brief explorations into my history.  The past jumps around, since I never organized anything, just accumulated it.  This is much like Andy Warhol, who famously kept everything he ever touched or used in cardboard boxes, 610 at the time of his death.  Archivists at his museum on the North Side of Pittsburgh have only opened about a third of them.  Their findings range from a dried piece of wedding cake (not his), to $17,000 in cash, to $1 million in gemstones.  I have no pretensions of being famous like Andy, or even after my death having a team of Vatican priests review my every article and letter for orthodoxy, to prepare for canonization.
          Predictably I stumbled on a few surprises.  I found several photos of my dad while in the South Pacific as a marine in World War II.  There was a montage of his classmates in the Cecil High School class of 1940 (Washington County, PA), that I don’t believe I ever laid eyes on.   Dad was easy to pick out.

          Mom kept all the photos my married brothers sent her of their kids growing up in Florida.  I put these aside.  In a week or so my brothers will get nice surprise packages.  Mom even had lots of candids from their weddings, in 1981 and 1984.
          I found the shot we put on the front of the worship aide for mom’s funeral liturgy.  In front of our home at 1140 Michael Drive on a sunny day Mom has her arms around dad’s waist.  Both are grinning.  I’m pretty sure I took the picture when I was in high school, maybe even at the party after my graduation.

          Photos of all four of us boys are few.  One was at Len’s wedding, with his wife in her beautiful white dress, dad and my brothers in tuxedoes, and mom in some kind of fur wrap.  Another was from a half century ago, probably at Christmas 1960.  Mom is holding baby Martie in her arms, as her mother Theresa sits in a rocker and we three boys look on.  Theresa passed away in 1964, I think. 
          I seem to like to keep seasonal cards.  So I had (and have thrown out) rubber-band-bound packs of cards from the last several Christmases, mom’s death in 2006, and even from the party when I got my doctorate in 1990.  Names on the cards fly by, some still friends, bishops with their formal notes, parishioners now forgotten, a few who have subsequently died.  All loving and caring souls whom I touched at one time or another.

          The dust of my history in these boxes simultaneously makes me feel so grateful for what God brought me and makes my life so small and insignificant.   Food for prayer for sure.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sermon in a Bottle

Before I began this blog I looked at a lot of blogs by Catholic priests.  They were from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, and other places.  Almost all of them seemed to be not blogs, but thinly disguised vehicles for showing off their long sermons, and I dare say their lack of humility.  I swore I wouldn’t preach in my blog.

Then I saw a note by Father James Martin, S.J., author of the excellent The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything.  He is a big fan of the new media, and he tweets a 140 character sermon every day.  He said, I deliver a sermon every day at Mass to the handful who attend.  Why not share it lots more people?  (Don’t know the citation.  You’ll have to find it for yourself.)

So since I am beginning a new assignment I thought I’d break my vow (horrors!) and begin posting my Sunday sermons—with a twist.  Each will be less than 100 words.  Hence, sermon in a bottle.  For future reference I’ll list the liturgical feast if anyone wants to look up the readings.  I'll also provide a brief quote that reflects a point of the sermon.  Remember, less than 100 words.  Hold me to it!
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time—A.  “Take courage, it is I.  Do not be afraid.”
On this my first Sunday in St. Vitus and St. Vincent de Paul Parishes, I make two major themes of the ministry of Blessed Pope John Paul II my own:  “Open wide the doors to Christ” and “Be not afraid.”  Evangelization, the sharing of our Catholic faith, is the work of everyone in the Church.  Despite what the world gives us, we take courage knowing Christ never ever abandons us.  Let us together move forward into the future with faith and hope.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – A.  “The Canaanite woman said, ‘Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’” 
Names are important.  In the biblical world to be nameless is to be without value.  Yet the nameless Gentile Canaanite woman one-uped Jesus’s insult and caused him to change his mind, about healing her daughter and about limiting his mission to the Judeans alone.   This story also has a moral which challenges our sins of prejudice and racism, when we belittle people (“dogs”) who are different than us.

Engaging Media

Many many blessings came to me during the days I worked in diocesan administration.  An unexpected one was learning to deal with the media.  Social concerns and clergy/ministerial issues touched the public, and were of interest to the newspapers.  In my position as that dreaded animal, a “diocesan official”, I found myself called by print reporters, and on occasion by radio or tv reporters.  The more interviews I did the more I became comfortable with them—learning what to say and what not to say.  I’ve even learned to do what I hate politicians do:  not answer the question asked but give what message you want to give.

(One year I was attending the annual Social Ministry Gathering sponsored by the U. S. Catholic bishops’s conference.  All the participants were lobbying the Congress for national legislation to end the use of the death penalty in federal cases.  The conference’s media director asked me to be interviewed on two radio station’s “live-line,” in Philadelphia (KYW) and Pittsburgh (KQV), to explain the church’s evolving teaching on capital punishment.  So early the next day I found myself being interviewed over the telephone from a hotel room in Washington, D.C., by a reporter in Philly and by veteran KQV staffer P.J. Maloney—while in my skivvies.  I’m glad we didn’t use videophones.)

These experiences have made me sensitive to the value (and pitfalls) of talking with what Sarah Palin calls the “lamestream media.”   When a reporter calls me, I answer the call.  I don’t seek the publicity, but if I’m asked about something that promotes the church, I reply.  The media outlets reach far beyond the parish bulletin.

(In 2005 when I was pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, in the Hilltop communities of Pittsburgh, we were completing a 2 ½ year process of closing three churches.  KDKA-TV called and wanted to speak with me.  So reporter Kristine Sorensen interviewed me in St. George (soon to be St. John Vianney) Church.  She asked me why the parish is closing churches.  I gave the statistics on the steep decline of number of parishioners and thereby steep decline in offerings.  To make my point I appealed to higher authority.  I said something like, “As Bishop Wuerl once said to me, when you bury a parishioner you bury his envelope with him.  We are burying 175 parishioners a year.”  My priest friends loved that one.  Parishioners cringed.  Sometimes it does not pay to be honest.)

So it happened last month when I departed Saint Juan Diego Parish and Sharpsburg I was interviewed by Tawnya Panizzi of The Herald, a local subsidiary of Trib Total Media which serves Aspinwall, Fox Chapel, O’Hara and Sharpsburg.  See (July 28, 2011).  And last week I received a call from David Burcham of the New Castle News.  So the “story” of my appointment to St. Vitus and St. Vincent de Paul Parishes appeared on Friday.  See  (August 12, 2011).  In the case of The Herald, our parish had built up good relations with the paper.  We had given it a heads up for stories (when Bishop Zubik came to town, the merging of our three parishes into one, sale of parish properties, seminarians working in parish, etc.) and Tawnya and her associates were grateful.  I took their calls when they wanted a quote.  They even interviewed me when I went on my 30-day silent retreat last year.  See  (June 24, 2011).  I hope our parishes can have similar good relations with the New Castle News. 

Engaging the media is another one of those subjects which my seminary never taught us.  But I hope the seminaries are teaching media relations today.  If the pope can handle reporters’s questions in a news conference (albeit with questions submitted beforehand) so should any pastor.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Emotional Transitions III

I’ve talked about my own feelings as a pastor in the transition from one parish to another, and the “sending” parish from which I am leaving.  What about the “receiving” party? 

This situation is emotionally tricky also.  I jump almost overnight from a rectory which became a home and a community in which I knew most names and which knew me, warts and all, to (in my case) two communities I don’t know.  On a personal level in my new rectory I have yet to find out how to use the tclicker to turn on the satellite tv.  Somewhere amid two dozen boxes is the one with my clean underwear.  (Hope this is not "TMI.")  I'm a full hour’s drive from “dahntahn” (Pittsburgh, that is).  I just can’t pop over to kibitz with friends or catch a bite to eat late after a parish meeting. 

The internet makes me a marked man, to anyone who knows how to do a Google search.  It’s clear from my clergy “career” that I have been involved with parishes going through changes—merging parishes or closing churches.  In New Castle, too?

On the receiving end each community I have been charged to pastor has a different emotional feel.  One, St. Vitus, has said goodbye to a clearly beloved pastor, who served them so well for 26 years.  The parish has had only four pastors in its 110 year history.  Amazing.  At the same time many parishioners know that a few tweaks and changes need to be made.

The other, St. Vincent de Paul, sees its pastor of 2+ years leave, one in a string of priests who have served here since diocesan reorganization merged five ethnic parishes into one back in 1994.  Not much time for emotional investment in the departing pastor.  And not a whole lot of energy for emotional investment in me, the newest guy in a string of new guys.

This week I am meeting with the lay leadership of the two parishes and St. Vitus school.  At tonight’s meeting of the pastoral and finance councils of St. Vitus parish, one member said, “Father, there are rumors out there.  They say you’ve been sent to close churches, by May at the latest.”  Here is a case where my experience helps.  I've learned that how I respond is as important, if not more important, than what I say. 
Rather than be threatened or upset, I replied to the effect that rumors thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy.  I will use personal conversations, our bulletin and website to present facts to address rumors.  I just “keepin’ on keepin’ on” by sharing what I am doing, what the councils are telling me, and presenting the demographics, statistics and situations as they are.  In this case I said the rumor is just wrong.  The bishop did not charge me with that, and closing churches is nearly the last thing on my mind.  If I stay calm in encouraging questions and responding to them, I feel that most reasonable people will get to a calmer place eventually.
People have been welcoming to me, a very good sign.  It’s obvious their welcome is genuine and an indicator of the respect they have for their previous parish priests and for the priesthood generally.  I hope to respond with gratitude, as they begin the long process of building healthy relationships with me as their spiritual leader.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Emotional Transitions II

Earlier I noted that according to Bowen family systems theory, transitions reveal a great deal about both the individuals and the communities involved in the transfer of a pastor.  Paying attention and sorting out the emotions are very important as to whether the transition is successful (that is, healthy) or not.

This post is about my dear people at Saint Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg.  I arrived four years ago, knowing almost nothing about the town or the parochial history and the people knowing nothing about me.  I found a mess physically.  All buildings and property were neglected, dirty and in great need of repair.  Worse I found a people spiritually disheartened, perhaps even abused. 

So we went to work.  I say “we” because although I provided the necessary leadership it was the hard work of the people which made good things happen.  We cleaned out and repaired buildings.  We sold unused buildings.  We turned around the appearance of the parish cemetery, and planned to build a mausoleum.  We re-instituted active pastoral and finance and cemetery councils.  We merged three historic parishes into one unified parish.  We welcomed new members and attempted evangelization.  Despite having over 250 funerals in four years, our Sunday Mass attendance remained constant. 
Along the way I found I loved these wonderful people.  And they loved me back.  So when I broke the news of my reassignment to New Castle, it hit the faith community hard.  I say that in all humility.  They were hurt I was leaving.  A few were angry at the bishop.  Some said, “Didn’t you receive a six year term as our pastor?  Don’t you have to fulfill it?”  A few understood that Sharpsburg was not the final assignment in my clerical career. 

To each person I tried to respond honestly and forthrightly.  I said, I too was hurt that I was leaving such a loving and special people.  I too loved them.  I wasn’t angry at the bishop, though.  I rather explained about the promise of obedience I made to the bishop years ago at my priestly ordination.  It “worked” not just when I wanted something, but especially when the bishop said he judged I was needed elsewhere for the good of the local church.  I explained that the term could be overridden by the needs of another community and the request of the bishop. 

And to a few I could be more honest, saying I knew I would leave sometime, sooner rather than later.  But my feelings of sadness upon leaving were real. 

For a healthy transition, the people had to express their feelings.  I had to receive their feelings, and share with them their grief.  I’d like to think that’s what we did. 
Parishioners rightly also feared who would be my successor.  What was his attitude?  How would he treat us?  Fortunately in this case it was only a short time before the bishop appointed a successor.  Anxiety didn’t have a long time to build up.  Even more fortunately the new pastor is a friend, someone I have known and trusted for a long time.  It was easy to say good things about his personality and pastoral style.  When I said from the pulpit, “Don’t hold it against him that he is my friend,” I got laughter.  That was good. 

Now I am gone, and the individuals in the congregation have to build new relationships with their new parish priest.  I hope that I responded in a healthy and transparent manner, to position them emotionally to disengage from me and begin the long process of engaging with their new spiritual leader.

For my part, I have received in their cards and letters upon my departure deeply touching words of affirmation and love which will support me for a long, long time.  I hope I have given them the gift of an emotionally—and spiritually—healthy transition.

Starting Pains

Not long after I began this blog, I wrote a post about keys, and how after four years I was comfortable in Saint Juan Diego Parish.  I knew what keys went with what lock.  I contrasted that with the feelings of frustration and anger when I first arrived in Sharpsburg, when I found that there was no organization of keys.  Only by slow trial and error did I find my way around the buildings.

Little did I know that a few short months later I would be reliving the same feelings of being new in a parish.  My new assignment in New Castle officially began on Monday, August 1.   That day I attended a one-day workshop on leadership skills, while a moving company packed and hauled my stuff north.  I had an enjoyable dinner and long conversation with one of the true characters in our presbyerate.  During dinner I learned that the moving company was behind, and wouldn’t deliver my clothing, books and other things until Tuesday morning.  Good thing I had an overnight bag with my toothbrush and a change of clothing in my car.  I arrived at St. Vincent de Paul Parish at 10 p.m.  Upon opening the front door of the rectory I set off the alarm.  Nobody told me the alarm would be on, I had no knowledge of the company or the alarm code, so I stood there while the banshee wailed into the warm night.
Then I realized the former pastor had given me a list of employees, which was in the trunk of my car.  I called the janitor, and he came over about ten minutes later, just as a police officer did.  I certainly looked like a thief (tee shirt, baggy shorts, crocs) not a priest, but he passed on busting me.

That was my introduction to my new dual assignment as administrator (pastor) of St. Vincent de Paul Parish and St. Vitus Parish, New Castle. 
I’m now on day four, and I think I know the first names of most of the parish employees.  I still don’t have keys to St. Vitus church, rectory or school, but I do have a clicker to the garage, which gets me into the parish office.  I’m not yet at the frustration stage.  But it will come.