Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sermon in a Bottle

First Sunday of Lent - B.  "He remained in the desert for forty days."

Sacred scripture loves symbolic numbers.  Jacob had 12 sons, and thereby 12 tribes.  Jesus chose 12 apostles.  The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years.  Jesus prayed in the desert for 40 days.  Peter betrayed Jesus three times.  Jesus commanded Peter to love his sheep three times.  We go into the desert of Lent for 40 days to find silence, revel in God's companionship, even confront the three temptations of Satan, so that we can joyously celebrate the Great Three Days of Easter.

Bonus Sermon in a Bottle

Ash Wednesday.  "Rend your hearts, not your garments."

These annual readings for Ash Wednesday never fail to challenge us, and lead us well into Lent.  What is the nature of God?  ["Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness."]  Who are Christ's ambasadors?  [All of us the baptized.]  How do we avoid being hypocrites?  ["Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."]  How should we fast, pray, give alms?  ["Do not look gloomy."]  Happy Lent!

Sermon in a Bottle

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  ""It is I, I, who wipe out your offense."

You don't have to be a sociologist, or an 80 year old parish priest, to know fewer Catholics go to confession than generations ago.  But outside the "sin bin" people confess to enormous mistakes, even mortal sins, on insipid daytime tv shows, internet scandal screeds, and the sports pages of newspapers.  Maybe it would take a miracle to convince folks that God forgives sins through sacramental signs.  But, boy, do we need God's forgiveness for our sins now.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Episcopal Mottos You Will Never See, II

Last week I offered mottos from the Old Testament which you will never see on the coat of arms of a Catholic bishop.  This post offers mottos from the New Testament.  Because of the explicitly Christian nature of the 27 books, there's lots more to pick from.  So, here are the Top Twenty passages from the New Testament (New American Bible, revised edition) which you will never see on a bishop's coat of arms.

20.  "A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not a lover of money."  [1 Timothy 3:2]

19. "Do not throw your pearls before swine."  [Matthew 7:6]

18.  "I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling."  [1  Corinthians 2:3]

17.  "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites."  [Matthew 6:5]

16.  "Do not be amazed if the world hates you." [1 John 3:3]

15.  "Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?"  [James 2:20]

14. "Are you envious because I am generous?"  [Matthew 20:15]

13.  "Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter."  [Matthew 14:8]

12.  "As Paul talked on and on a young man named Eutychus who was sitting on the window sill sunk into a deep sleep, fell down from the third story, and was dead."  [Acts 20:9]

11.  "No one should consider me foolish, but if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little." [2 Corinthians 11:16]

10.  "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, for she must be quiet."  [1 Timothy 2:11]

9.  "Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine?"  [Matthew 15:17]

8.  "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"  [Luke 24;5]

7.  "I neither know nor understand what you are talking about."  [Mark 14:68]

6.  "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."  [Colossians 3:18]

5.  "I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal."  [1 Corinthians 13:2]

4.  "They said, 'He has an unclean spirit.'"  [Mark 3:30]

3.  "Now for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me."  [Luke 15:27]

2.  "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather."  [Matthew 24:28]

And the top passage from the New Testament that you will never see in a Catholic bishop's motto is:

1.  "And Jesus wept."  [John 11:27]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Remembering Bevi

Like bosses everywhere, bishops seem to acquire nicknames, some in humor, some, well, not so humorous.  And so with the recent bishops of Pittsburgh.  John F. Dearden (1950-1959) was "Iron John."  John J. Wright (1959-1969) was "Lefty."  Vincent M. Leonard (1969-1983) was "Uncle Vince."  Donald W. Wuerl (1988-2006) was "The Donald."  And Anthony J. Bevilacqua (1983-1988), who passed away January 31 at the age of 88 in Philadelphia, was "Bevi."  

When Bishop Bevilacqua was announced as the tenth bishop of Pittsburgh, the general reaction here was "Who's he?"  We had been spoiled by having Bishop Leonard, born in the Hill District and a lifelong Pittsburgher, as our own shepherd for 15 years.  Bevilacqua came from "faraway" Brooklyn, New York, speaking in a funny accent (as if yinzers in the 'Burg had any right to criticize an outsider).  

He did not exactly make an immediate positive impact.  In public the bishop's natural shyness and caution came across as stiff, formal and off-putting.  (True story.  One time in St. Mary of Mercy Church I served as his master of ceremony.  After the opening song,  he went to the presider's chair.  I held the sacramentary for him, as I was instructed, open to the first page.  He made the sign of the Cross, said, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  The people replied, "Amen."  And then I turned the page so the bishop could read from the text without looking up, "Peace be with you.")  

When Bevilacqua chose a religious order priest as his personal secretary a few weeks after his installation, the Pittsburgh priests were up in arms.  What, he couldn't choose one of us to serve in his office?  (As it turned out, the religious order priest's Roman contacts did not help him from being horribly disorganized.  He moved on to another assignment after six months, and Bevi chose Father Tom Tobin as his secretary.  Tom restored order to his office, and later was named our auxiliary bishop.)

And then there was the debacle about "viri" vs. "homines," or for those of you without training in Latin, the great footwashing fiasco.  One day prior to Lent Bishop Bevilacqua send a letter stating that only men could have their feet washed in the "mandatum" ceremony, at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper.  He based this decision on the gospel account that Jesus only washed the feet of his twelve (male) apostles at the Last Supper.  This command overturned local custom in our parishes of washing the feet of twelve parishioners, men and women, younger and older.  Whether Bevi was currying favor in Rome, or just expressing his opinion, his announcement came out of the blue.

(In response to the outcry, most of the pastors refused to carry out a "male only" mandatum in the liturgy, and just deleted the ceremony.  A few pastors washed hands instead.  Bevi eventually asked for a clarification on his ruling from the national conference of Catholic bishops's liturgy committee.  A year later came the reply:  local custom is OK.  There is no need to be literal about whose feet are washed.  "Homines" [persons] trumped "viri" [males].  Bevi backed down, and after newly-appointed Bishop Wuerl washed the feet of six women and six men at St. Paul Cathedral, we all went back to normal on Holy Thursday.)

Each priest's relationship to his bishop is unique, whether distant or close, warm or cold.  The general sense I had in the Diocese of Pittsburgh when Bevi was announced as the 11th archbishop of Philadelphia in fall 1987 was, "That's where he was headed all along.  Good riddance."  Our provincialism was expressed to me by Father Roy Getty, longtime pastor of St. Sebastian, Ross, when I bumped into him outside a funeral home hours after Bishop Wuerl was announced as Bevi's successor.  "At last we got one of our own again."

But despite the negative pubicity and not-very-warm reception by the priests, my limited contacts with Bevi were good.

The biggest one was indirect but significant to me.  Not long after Bevi came, he appointed Father John Kozar as pastor of St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown.  He told John he wanted a more active Catholic presence in the Golden Triangle, with its tens of thousands of workers.  In an unheard of move, Bevi gave John carte blanche to pick a parochial vicar to assist him, and to invite any other priests to live with him in the rectory.  So in September 1984 I got a call from John, inviting me out to lunch.  I barely knew John, and had never had another priest take me to lunch.  But I had gone on one of John's annual 17-day mission trips to Peru a year earlier, visiting Father Jules Roos and the maternity hospital in Chimbote.  John explained he liked what he saw in me when we were in Peru.  He wanted me to join him in ministry Downtown.  I was startled, yet very pleased.  I readily agreed, with one condition.  I had begun my Ph.D. studies at Duquesne University, and I didn't want to end these.  John said he wanted me to continue my studies, and in fact he felt the parish would benefit from my studies.  John said he also invited his friend Father Ron Lengwin  and Father Charles Bober to join us in residence at the rectory.  The three of us moved into St. Mary of Mercy Rectory on December 8, 1984.  So began six very happy years with a great and convivial group of priests, a unique parish, and most interesting and engaging urban ministry.  Along the way I was able to get to know the chancery priests, who ate lunch daily in the rectory lunchroom.  These contacts were beneficial when I later served in the diocesan social concerns office.  And I was able to complete my doctorate at Duquesne.

During Bevi's tenure I was serving on the Priest Council.  The issue of the age of confirmation came up, as the national conference of Catholic bishops had ruled that there would be no national uniform age.  Rather, each diocese and bishop had to make a decision, in light of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  Bishop Bevilacqua asked me to chair a committee to review the law, theology, liturgy and customs, and to make a recommendation to the Priest Council.  I put together a committee, working closely with Father Eric Diskin, then head of the liturgy office. 

Our committee debated between the two prevailing theories:  "maturing into adult Christians," which argued for an older age, usually junior or senior in high school, and "sacrament of initiation," which argued for a younger age, placing confirmation after baptism but before first Holy Communion.  Our committee was persuaded to buck the catechetical leaning to an older age, and on the basis of history and liturgy, we made an unconventional recommendation to have pastors confirm children in the third grade, and then in the same Mass have the children receive their first Holy Communion. Bishops would no longer be the regular minister of Confirmation in this plan.  We felt this was consistent with the practice of the sacraments of initiation in the R.C.I.A., and gave greater emphasis to the need for lifelong formation and grounding in the Catholic faith.

Well, our proposal was too novel for the Priest Council to accept.  A few months after our presentation Bevi went to Philadelphia.  But attentively listening to our proposal that day was Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Bosco.  Two years later the pope named him bishop of Greensburg.  He remembered our proposal, and began to implement it there.  Also, through the intervention of the late Father Frank Sokol, our proposal was included in a 1990 book, When Should We Confirm?, published by Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago.  I still believe our conclusion was correct -- just a few decades ahead of its time.

I doubt that any of us in Pittsburgh got to see the "real" Bevi, who was lonely in Pittsburgh, away from his large Italian family (one of 13 children, with loads of nieces and nephews) in New York and elsewhere.  As the obituaries have recounted, his 15 years of dedicated service in the archdiocese of Philadelphia will always be overshadowed by what he did, or didn't do, regarding the clergy abuse scandal.  

But in my own small way I remember Bevi fondly.  One day when I was at St. Mary of Mercy I got a call from the bishop's office.  They needed someone to drive him to the Catholic Charities's annual dinner the next evening.  (I guess they went through the whole clergy book before coming to me!)  I picked him up in the tomb-like garage under the diocesan building, and drove him to the hotel across from Epiphany Church.  I was instructed to take him to a room in the hotel, where he would put on his ceremonial robes, before taking him into the banquet hall.  As I placed his suitcases on the bed, I felt so awkward.  I didn't know the skull-cap from the cassock from the pectoral cross.  He saw my embarrassment, showed me how it all went on, and laughed about his "Batman" suit.  It was obvious he didn't take himself too seriously.

May you rest in peace, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, servant of the church and brother in Christ.

Sermon in a Bottle

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  ""He remained outside in deserted places."

Each time you see/read/pray the sacred scriptures, you see sometime new.  It's easy to understand the logic of the contrast in today's first reading from Leviticus and Mark's account of Jesus healing a leper.  But notice the second reversal:  In the Old Testament the one with "the sore of leprosy" is unclean and must "dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."  In the New Testament, Jesus, who returns the leper to health and community, must leave town into the "deserted places."  Jesus the healer becomes "unclean."    

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Episcopal mottos you will never see, I

Going back to the Middle Ages, it has been customary for Catholic bishops to have a coat of arms with a motto.  Almost every bishop creates his own coat of arms, and when he becomes an ordinary, that is, the head of a diocese, he joins his to the coat of arms of the diocese or epharchy.  Sometimes he adds a motto to the coat of arms.  The mottos may be taken from Sacred Scripture, a writing of a saint or pope, or from an ancient source.  He may also make one up.  Pope John Paul II's motto was "Totus tuis," or translated from the Latin, "Totally yours," (that is, totally dedicated to Christ).  Pope Benedict XVI has a coat of arms, but no motto.

For example, here are the mottos of the Latin bishops of Pennsylvania:

Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia:  "As Christ loved the church."

Joseph Bambera, bishop of Scranton:  "Walk humbly with your God."

Mark Bartchak, bishop of Altoona-Johnstown:  "Christ our hope of glory."

John Beres, bishop of Allentown:  "Holiness and mission."

Lawrence Brandt, bishop of Greensburg:  "Ignis caritatis."

Joseph McFadden, bishop of Harrisburg:  "Mary the model - Jesus the center."

Donald Trautman, bishop of Erie:  "Feed my sheep."

David Zubik, bishop of Pittsburgh:  "Nothing is impossible with God."

Mottos obviously have great spiritual significance to the man who chose it.  But they can also be the subject of jokes.  Bishop Thomas Tobin, former auxiliary of Pittsburgh and now bishop of Providence, chose a passage from Second Timothy, "Strong, loving, wise." However, a couple of his friends, knowing his personality, changed it to "Strong, loving, cheap."

I dearly remember that when then-Bishop Donald Wuerl was ceremonially installed as 11th bishop of Pittsburgh in March 1988, Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, attended the Mass and offered remarks after Holy Communion. The cardinal had many good things to say about the young (47 year old) bishop, then said, "With his appointment as bishop of Pittsburgh he has fulfilled his episcopal motto, 'My kingdom come.'" The SRO congregation in St. Paul Cathedral roared with laughter, at the pun on his real motto, "Thy kingdom come."

Last week I was jazzing one of my classmates about becoming a bishop, and was offering him some (irreverent) suggestions for an episcopal motto. It got me thinking -- always a dangerous pasttime -- and so I came up with the Top Ten mottos from the Old Testament you will never see a Catholic bishop put on his coat of arms. 

10.)  "Common folk are only a breath, great men an illusion."  [Psalm 62]

9.)  "I am poor and needy."  [Psalm 86]

8.)  "Am I my brother's keeper?"  [Genesis 4:9]

7.)  "I am a worm and no man."  [Psalm 22]

6.)  "Lord, why do you reject me?"  [Psalm 88]

5.)  "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb."  [Job 1:4]

4.)  "We have sinned and transgressed."  [Daniel 3:27]

3.)  "It is not good for the man to be alone."  [Genesis 2:18]

2.)  "Oh that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts."  [Isaiah 66:11] 

And the number one Old Testament passage you will never see in the episcopal motto of a Catholic bishop,

1.)  "He who sits in the heavens laughs."  [Psalm 2]

Next week, passages from the New Testament you will never see as episcopal mottos of Catholic bishops.

Sermon in a Bottle

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up."

When 21st century Christians hear the story of Jesus and Peter's mother-in-law, they focus on the miraculous cure of her fever.  Sometimes they get mad, too, thinking about how the sexist culture forces her to wait on lazy men.  But a 1st century listener sees Jesus affirming the sick woman's dignity (approaches her), treating her with respect (touches her), and healing her (allows her to leave her isolating sick bed and rejoin her family).  Healing, not curing, is what is most important to Jesus. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Fearless Super Bowl Prediction

On September 12, 2011, in what I hope is an annual tradition on this blog, I made my NFL predictions. 

Guess what?  I was wrong!

I predicted the 12 playoff teams, and the eventual Super Bowl XLVI winner.  Ha!  I hope nobody took my predictions to Las Vegas.  In the AFC I got three of six right (Steelers, Patriots, Ravens) and in the NFC four of six (Packers, Falcons, Lions and Giants).  I did correctly identify two of the four of the conference championship participants.  But I was wrong that the Ravens would win and the Giants would lose.  I predicted that the Ravens and the Packers would advance to SB 46, and that the Pack would win for the second straight time, 31-14. 

Let's try again.

So on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday (which the Vox Clara Commission of the Vatican is considering making a Feast in the new Roman Missal, complete with its own Collect ["Grant, we pray, O Lord of the pigskin, that our venerable faces may partake of guacamole and chips to our hearts content and not get heartburn as our beloved team loses in the fourth quarter..."], Preface ["... we give thanks for Bradshaw, Harris, and Bleier, Swann and Stallworth, Greene, Ham and Lambert, Noll and Cowher, Big Ben, Big Snack, the Bus, smiling Ward, scowling Harrison and little Troy with his Signs of the Cross..."] and Final Blessing ["I've just won the Super Bowl and I'm going to heaven!"]), I offer another prediction.

Each year that the Steelers are not in the Super Bowl I base my prediction on the team which is furthest from the Steelers' six SB rings.  (Which is why in the NFC championship game, with the 49ers the underdog despite being the home team, I rooted for the Giants.  The 49ers have five SB wins, and could have tied the Steelers for six.)  This year that calculation doesn't work.  Both the Patriots and the Giants have three rings.  So, on the basis that the Gronk's ankle will work enough for him to be a minimal threat to the Giant defense, that Brady won't have two lousy games in a row, and that Belichick will out-think Coughlin, I predict the Patriots over the Giants, 24-21, in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.  For the fourth time the Patriots will win the Super Bowl by a margin of three points.

There.  Enjoy the game.  Better, enjoy the commercials and the hospitality of your hosts.  Go Steelers, next year!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Catching Up on Sermons in a Bottle

Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God.  "Born of a woman, born under the law."

I never had a formal course in Mariology in all my seminary studies.  And, truth be told, I never used to have much devotion to Mary.  (My piety was drawn to her spouse, Joseph the woodworker of Nazareth, and a lot of apostles of charity and justice.)  But one thing I did learn.  All healthy devotion to Mary leads to her son, Jesus the Christ.  If it does not, it is in vain.  Amen.

The Epiphany of the Lord.  "The stewardship of God's grace."

Catholics love the magi.  These royal Matthean visitors from the East stand proudly next to Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in every creche, alongside the humble Lucan shepherds and the animals.  The magi have the same job as the shepherds:  Receive the revelation of our savior, honor him, and share the story with those who haven't yet met the son of God.  This is indeed good news to be shared.  May we do the same. 

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, B.  "Rabbi, where are you staying?"

Father Charles Bober told me he once wrote and delivered a week's worth of retreat talks for priests, based only on the questions people poised to Jesus in the gospels.  Sound adult learning.  The question signals interest, curiosity, openness to the new.  Andrew's question to Jesus began a lifetime of loving discipleship (and lead to martyrdom) for him, his brother, and who knows how many more souls.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, B.  "After John had been arrested."

Some biblical scholars speculate that before Jesus began his own ministry of healing and teaching, he was a disciple of John the Baptizer for a time.  Only after John was arrested and imprisoned, the thinking goes, was Jesus moved by the Spirit to strike out on his own, recruiting his own band of followers.  We can never be sure when "the timing is right" for us, or for any prospective believer.  But we are sure that "the reign of God is at hand."

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, B.  "What is this?  A new teaching with authority."

For children religion is a world of rules and laws, seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Part of the passage to adult religious belief is the transition from the language of rules and the emotion of fear, to the language of relationship and the emotion of love.  Jesus teaches in a new way, fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he embodied a loving relationship with all who have ears to hear.  When we adopt the language of relationship, authority changes from power to service.

The Doldrums

It's been over a month since I have posted.  I have no explanation for why I haven't "fed my blog."  Christmas vacation was relaxing.  A new year's eve party with friends was fun.  I went to Florida for 6 days with my brother Martin to visit my brothers Fred in Port St. Lucie and Lenny in Brandon.  I got sick for two days.

Yes, it was "the doldrums."  My online dictionary defines this as "depression, gloom, melancholy; a bored state of mind; a state of inactivity."  To pile on, the online thesarsus offers these synonyms:  "black mood, blue funk, ennui, flatness, incuriosity, indifference, lassitude, listlessness, the mopes, stupor, tedium, yawn."

Are you yawning, my loyal and long-suffering readers?!

So, please give me a pass.  January has never been one of my better months (except when the Steelers were winning and headed for the Super Bowl).  Today starts a new month, and a new, renewed commitment to feed my blog regularly.