Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sermon in a Bottle

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord - B.  "They all left him and fled."

It has taken years for me to sort out and appreciate the subtle differences among the three synoptic gospels--Matthew, Mark and Luke.  This year we hear Mark's passion.  It is marked by an austerity of compassion and a brutal awareness of human sin.  The male disciples run away; only the unnamed woman with expensive spikenard and the women of Jerusalem remain faithful.  Both revolutionaries, crucified to Jesus' right and left, verbally abuse him.  Jesus hangs on the cross for six hours (not the usual three).  There is no resurrection story.  Yet the power of Mark's gospel is clear.  In spite of all that happened to Jesus, the pagan centurion proclaimed, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"  Can we say the same thing?

Bonus Sermon in a Bottle

Fifth Sunday of Lent - A.  "And Jesus wept."

This is a very familiar gospel passage for me, as I use a portion of it for almost every funeral Mass I celebrate (and I have celebrated a LOT of funerals in my time).  The downside of such familiarity is that I can gloss over the harsh reality and vivid pain of death.  Why are people crying, I sometimes think to myself during the funeral Mass.  But death is real, it hurts, and we should never overlook its power to hurt.  Only by acknowledging the death of our body (and worse, the death of our loved ones) can we never take for granted the unique power of the resurrection of Christ. 

Sermon in a Bottle

Fifth Sunday of Lent - B.  "He offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears."

In a peculiar way, I think it is easier for Catholics in our day to believe that Jesus is divine rather than human.  Today's Scriptures help us to see the humanity of our Savior.  The Letter to the Hebrews explicitly says that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered."  Just like us, he had to grow into knowledge.  Just like us, his prayers were filled with tears.  And from the gospel, just like us, he was troubled and wanted to avoid doing God's painful will.  But unlike us, divinity and humanity come together in Christ for faithfulness.  "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternity."

Bonus Sermon in a Bottle

Fourth Sunday of Lent - A.  "Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?"

How often we make sins of presumption.  We presume to know who is good, who is bad, what is the best way forward.  John the Evangelist's brilliant story of the man born blind challenges presumptions at every turn:  who is a sinner (not the blind man); who is strong (not his fearful parents); who believes (the now sighted young man); and who is truly blind (those who reject Jesus the Christ).  We need to pray daily to be "a people of the light," seeing as the Lord teaches.

Sermon in a Bottle

Fourth Sunday of Lent - B.  "The LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation."

The issue of the role of religion in politics is much on people's minds in the USA.  Many think this is a new concern.  Far from it.  Today's first reading shows the impact that civil leaders (in this case, Middle Eastern kings) have on people of faith.  One king destroys the great temple in Jerusalem and hauls the Jews into exile for three generations.  Another king ends the exile and grants the Jews freedom to return home and practice their faith.  The Church of Christ has endured all kinds of persecution, yet remains ever-faithful.  Salvation, on earth and in heaven, is "a gift of God, so no one may boast."

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Old Barn

We all experience time going faster and faster, the older we get.  Scientists who have studied this phenomenon say that it has to do with the ratio of a year to our life.  For a two year old, one year is 50% of her life.  For a five year old, 20%.  For a twelve year old, 8.3%.  And for a fifty year old person, one year is a mere 2%.  So we perceive time going faster, even though it moves at the same pace.

All that time under our belt allows us to have lots of experiences, too.  As a kid, Dad took my brothers and I to many hockey games in the Civic Arena.  We watched the Pittsburgh Hornets -- yes, the American Hockey League franchise that pre-dated the creation of the Penguins in 1967.  The Civic Arena was less than ten years old.  And Dad talked to us about seeing this same team in the "old" Duquesne Gardens, which was located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, near to St. Paul Cathedral.  When the Penguins came, ticket prices went up, and it was too expensive for Dad to take five of us to a game.  But I have many memories of hockey at the Civic Arena, getting pucks when they flew up into the stands, seeing the tough goalies without masks, even bringing my skates and going out onto the ice after the games for a half hour of free skating.  Yes, can you imagine the current owners just allowing ordinary citizens onto their precious ice at the Consol Energy Center?!  But we did it.  Of course, the Hornets rarely sold out.  6,000 or 7,000 fans were a good crowd

I distinctly remember the last Hornet game, as they played for the Calder Cup in a Game Seven of the playoffs.  We were in a mob that rushed up to buy tickets.  I was next to Dad and my brothers, and I sort of got trampled.  My glasses were pushed off my face, and broke at my feet.  But we got in, and saw the Hornets win their last Calder Cup.  The next day I got some tape and made my eyeglasses good as new! 

Over the years I did make it to the Civic Arena (later Mellon Arena) to see Duquesne Dukes mens basketball games, the Dapper Dan High School All-Star game (when that was the only event in the country bringing the best high school players together), hockey games (several with Dad when he was in Vincentian Home), rock concerts (including two of Bruce Springsteen), and in their final season, another Penguin game. 

Now the old barn is being torn down.  These photos were taken on March 11, and I gather that by now the entire roof is down.  The Penguins organization, which has the rights to develop the land under the old arena, recently let a contract to begin the planning process for the mix of housing, shops, and street grid. 

I am just another Pittsburgher who remembers "things that aren't there anymore."

Mario Lemieux Statue

Have you been over to Consol Energy Center, Uptown, to see the new statue of Mario Lemieux?  It's worth taking a look.

The setting is a little odd, at first glance.  When we drove up Center Avenue, and pulled over just behind Epiphany Church, my first thought was, Why are we looking at these two bums?  Then the scene becomes clearer.  Mario has swept by these two defensemen, whose backs are to you, the viewer.  Mario is cruising up ice with the puck on his stick in a breakaway toward the goalie.  It's from an actual event in a game against the New York Islanders on December 20, 1988.  Some have called the statue "Le Magnifique," one of Mario's many nicknames.  But others have dubbed it "Resiliance," to represent the many health problems Mario had to overcome throughout his great career. 

Initial reviews in the sports pages upon its unveiling earlier this month were mostly negative.  But I have to say (just another opinion) that it is a worthy and suitable remembrance for a great sports figure in Pittsburgh, and a great Pittsburgher.  As many remarked at the statue's dedication, Mario Lemieux came to Pittsburgh as a callow, and not very pleasant, 18 year old.  Over the years, he made Pittsburgh his home, raised his four children here, and continues to live in Sewickley.  He saved our hockey franchise once as a player, and once as an owner. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Land of Hope and Dreams?

Rock great Bruce Springsteen brought out a new album, "Wrecking Ball," the other day.  Like so much of his past work, the songs focused on the down-and-outers, the jack-of-all-trades desiring work, the families hurt by fat greedy bankers, the broken-hearted looking for a "land of hope and dreams."  Critics have not been kind to "the Boss."  They've made fun of the seeming insincerity of a rich musician (estimated net worth:  $200 million) showing concern for the victims of the Great Recession.

But Bruce knows his America.  And New Castle, Pennsylvania (though I doubt he's ever been to town).  I saw the anxieties and fears, depression and concerns of his new album in the faces of every neighbor who came to the St. Vitus food pantry on Saturday, March 10.  Over 600 families waited patiently in line around the corner of St. Vitus School before registering in the lobby.   Two dozen dedicated volunteers organized two lines of food distribution in Fabbri Hall (our gymnasium).  A minister began the food distribution with prayer--then got in the line himself.  Our food pantry gave away canned vegetables, fresh pears and cabbages, frozen meat, breakfast cereal and day-old pastries.  Teens helped the young families and seniors load their heavy packages into their aging vehicles.  The sunny day lifted spirits as people gratefully received this food supplement.

It is commendable that St. Vitus Parish sponsors and supports this once-a-month food pantry, now four years old.  It receives generous food donations from the local Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle and Aldi's, and the invaluable assistance of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.  It is the down-to-earth application of the corporal work of mercy, "feed the hungry."  That Saturday I thanked every food pantry volunteer, and chief organizer Denise Bryson, in person.  I am also most grateful for the local businesses which donated food.  Our food pantry, as well as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, are among the best expressions of what it means to be a Catholic Christian, reaching out in the name of Jesus to the least, lost and last.

Yet it shouldn't be.  In the wealthiest country on earth, why are people hungry?  Why do we need such food pantries?

According to a recent series in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12.2% of western Pennsylvania residents live below the poverty line, which is currently defined by the federal government as income of $22,350 for a family of four or $10,890 for one person.  The national poverty rate is actually higher, 15.1%.  Nevertheless, Pittsburgh's level grew by 1.4 percent in the last ten years.  In the last two years, for example, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank served more than 22 million pounds of food to 384 food pantries like ours.  (Read more disturbing facts about local hunger at .)

Where do these uncomfortable facts lead us?  On the one hand, we Catholics must continue to provide charitable assistance.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church points to the Letter of James to urge carrying out the works of mercy.  "Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity; it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.  [As the Lord said] 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food must do likewise.' "  (Luke 3:11)

If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  (James 2:15-16)

The Catechism goes on to quote from another document, ironically enough on liberation theology:

"In its various forms--material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death--human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of fraility and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin.  This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his bretheren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere."  (CCC ## 2447-8)

Recognizing individuals and churches can only do so much, we must also press elected officials to provide job training for low-skilled workers, child care for working mothers, and public policy which encourages "a hand up" and not just "a hand out."  The collection taken up for the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development in our diocese this past weekend is an excellent example of low-income folks working to better themselves by organizing and acting for justice. 

The recently-reissued document from the bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, adds, "Welfare policy should reduce poverty and dependency, strengthen family life, and help families leave poverty through work, training and assistance with child care, health care, housing and transportation.  It should also provide a safety net for those who cannot work.  Improving the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credits, available as refunds to families in greatest need, will help life low-income families out of poverty." (#77)

The folks in line at our food pantry are our sisters and brothers and neighbors.  They need our help.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Church and Politics

Back in October I posted a word of support for the U.S. Catholic bishops, as they reaffirmed the 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens, for the upcoming 2012 presidential election cycle.  The wisdom of that decision, and the document, continues to be applicable.  I wrote this for our parish bulletin last week.  The quotes are from FCFC.

"Why does the Church have to get involved in politics?"

How often I have heard this question!  Sometimes it is raised with the continuing issue of the federal Health and Human Services mandate to religious bodies to provide contraception, sterilization and the "morning after" pills, as part of "ordinary health care" for Americans as our country moves to near-universal health coverage.  Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Catholic bishops nationally have been at the forefront of addressing the issue of religious liberty, and whether religious bodies have the right to define themselves and not violate their consciences.  Sometimes it is raised when the Catholic Church speaks out to oppose legal abortion on demand, or expansion of war in the Middle East, or when the Catholic Church stands up for the human rights of immigrants, unemployed, the elderly, families or the poor.

All these issues, and many more, are political issues.  Through politics we the people put our values into public policy.  In the words of the U.S. Catholic bishops, "The Church's obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith, a part of the mission given to us by Jesus Christ.  Faith helps us see more clearly the truth about human life and dignity that we also understand through human reason.  As people of both faith and reason, Catholics are called to bring truth to political life and to practice Christ's commandment to 'love one another.' "

It is important to distinguish between "political" and "partisan."  Agsin, in the words of the bishops, here are the urgent political moral choices facing us:  "We are a nation at war, with all of its human costs; a nation of immigrants strugging with immigration.  We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty; part of a global community confronting terrorism and facing urgent threats to our environment; a culture built on families, where some now question the value of marriage and family.  We pride ourselves on supporting human rights, but we fail even to protect the fundamental right to life, especially for unborn children."

These are political issues that every citizen has a duty to address.  What the Church is not is partisan.  The Catholic Church does not endorse or oppose any political party or particular candidate for public office.  The Catholic Church is not the chaplain to the Republican Party, nor the Democratic Party at prayer.  We are not beholden to any interest group or PAC.  No bishop, priest, or deacon can tell you from the pulpit whom to vote for.

Again, the bishops tell us, "In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation."  Those who serve in political life, whether in elective office, appointed or the judiciary, serve all of us, and deserve our prayers, support and yes, sometimes our criticism of positions or decisions which violate a consistent ethic of life.  All of us need to see beyond party politics, analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere-self interest.  This is why Bishop Zubik is speaking out.  It is his right, and his responsibility.  We should follow his lead by reading closely the messages he has sent to his faithful, and share them with our elected officials.  Then we, the Church, the People of God, are being political in the best sense of the word.

Bonus Sermon in a Bottle

Third Sunday of Lent - A.  "Many of the Samaritans began to believe because of the word of the woman."

The RCIA encourages the use of the A cycle of readings for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent every year, especially when celebrating the Scrutinies with the elect.  I love these three great stories from John's gospel.  Each is timelessly evangelical.  Here Jesus's eliptical conversation with the unnamed Samaritan woman at Jacob's well leads her to place her faith in him, and even drive her to share this good news with others in town.  With her string of failed marriages she is a most unlikely apostle.   But aren't we all unlikely candidates for faith, or apostolic preaching, or sainthood?  This is an encourageing message for the elect and the candidates, longing for Easter sacraments, as well as a challenge for us cradle Catholics.  

Sermon in a Bottle

Third Sunday of Lent - B.  "You shall have no other gods besides me."

Ever heard of the SBNRs?  This is the new term sociologists use for people who are "spiritual but not religious."  In growing numbers over the past decade Americans reject joining a religion, but insist they believe in God, or a god, or some Divine Person.  For us Catholics, yes, but.  The good news is SBNRs teach us that we too must be spiritual, that is, have a real, personal relationship with God and his son Jesus.  The "but" is that our Jewish ancestors teach us (with the Ten Commandments and so many other stories) that to be in a loving relationship with God demands following an ethical code of how to relate to our sisters and brothers who are also loyal to Yahweh.  We call that religion, the organized group of God-believers and rule followers.  Now if we members of the Christian Church can be as enthusiastic as the "spiritual only" folks. 

Sermon in a Bottle

Second Sunday of Lent - B.  "Questioning what rising from the dead meant."

I go to movies only occasionally.  Most of the movie theater experience is good -- except for the multitude of trailers.  Six, eight, ten, twelve, before you get to the actual movie.  But you have to hand it to the editors of trailers.  They can make the shaggiest of movies look Oscar worthy.  That's how I see the transfiguration experience of Jesus.  It's a preview of coming attractions, a hint of what comes after death in Jerusalem.  And, like many trailers, it leaves the three friends of Jesus wondering what it's all about.  In the middle of Lent, it's good for us to peak ahead too, to Easter's joy.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Unorthodox Lenten Penances

It may have been said by my homeletics professor in seminary, or by Father Walter Burghardt in one of his numerous books of sermons, but I learned that stealing is always a sin -- except when it comes to homilies.  If another guy/gal preaching the Gospel has a good idea or turn of phrase or metaphor, steal it!

In that spirit, I offer four unorthodox Lenten penances which appeared in a recent (2/20/2012) edition of America magazine.  Each of them challenges us to move beyond our usual ways of thinking or acting in lent.

Father John Kavanaugh, a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University and longtime commentator in America, suggests "an asceticism of truth."  Huh?  As a wise Christian and priest, he knows how easily we can delude ourselves into hiding our sins and thinking we are a much better a follower of Christ than we are.  How to pursue such asceticism?  It could be with bracing doses of silence, a holy solitude for ten or thirty minutes a day.  Or "a weekly visit with marginal persons who make us uncomfortable."  Or a sincere prayer, not to do the works of a Christian, but just to be in the presence of our living and loving God.

Professor Gerald W. Schlabach, of the University of  St. Thomas in Minneapolis, suggests that we love the enemy in the pew next to you.  Terrorists and other faraway enemies are easy to forgive, he suggests.  Much harder to actually try to love the person praying next to you at Sunday Mass, whose ways or thoughts are fingernails on your proverbial blackboard.  How to love?  By engaging in listening, without arguing back, without debating, listening "for the back story behind positions you may never agree upon."  Your neighbor could be, he offers, an openly gay Catholic who continues to receive the Eucharist.  Or a pro-life activist who is so impassioned about some ways of defending life that he or she seems to ingore other ways.  Or the liturgist who still includes "those awful guitar-Mass ditties" which you hate.  Or the person who regularly changes "his" to "God's", for "the good of all God's holy church."  Maybe by listening you (and I) might hear the real story of another child of God.

Dr. Margaret Pfeil of Notre Dame comes from the heartland, and so does her suggestion for Lenten penance.  She notes that the food we buy in super-duper markets comes from around the world.  She suggests that we work to bring locally grown food (crops, vegetables from urban gardens, home-baked goods) to needy people in your neighborhood.  "Running a community grocery stocked with local foods and cultivating cooperative economic practices represent civic actions of nonviolent love."

I've met, and heard, Father Tom Massaro several times.  He is a professor of social ethics at Boston College, and a fervent proponent of Catholic social thought.  Even with approval ratings for our Congresspersons hovering at 11%, he suggests we get to know our own legislators and their staffs.  It could be on the state or federal level.  He writes, "Think of civic involvement for structural change as an alternative form of almsgiving . . . If it is good to provide a single meal for a hungry person, how much better it would be to advocate for more generous and reliable public food assistance programs for the long haul."  You don't have to travel to Washington or Harrisburg.  He wisely notes that it's much easier to get an appointment with a staffer (or the legislator) in a local office.  Do your homework.  Be prepared with your brief but clear advocacy for a policy or bill.  Tell pertinent stories of why this will improve the common good.  Work with others (Catholic, ecumenical, interfaith) on the same topic.  "If you still prefer to think in terms of 'giving up something for Lent,' then let it be civic apathy that you relinguish."

Have a happy Lent!