Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blogging Bishops

I don't seem to have the time to read many blogs.  In my previous post I mentioned my distain for blogs my most clergy-types.  Two blogs I occasionally dip into and enjoy are written by Catholic bishops.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley is the archbishop of Boston.  He has blogged about his daily trips, school visits, sermons, and ministry in Boston and elsewhere since he was appointed back in 2002.  He likes to post a lot of photographs, and he and his brown friar's robe seems to be in just about every one of them!  But his genial and pastoral spirit shines through, as does his Franciscan and humble spirituality.  You can find this at  www.cardinalseansblog.org .

Bishop Robert Lynch is the bishop of St. Petersburg in Florida.  He was a "late vocation," only being ordained to the priesthood after years of work in communications.  He even worked in the offices of the U.S. Catholic bishop's conference as a layman.  I enjoy his blog for its down to earth spirit.  He really comes across as a pastor. 

In particular if you are interested in another take on the recent pronouncement of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding its examination into the workings of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States, read the blog he posted today (4/24/2012).  It gives some perspective on a very difficult issue. 

For more fun read his post on Easter Monday musings (4/9/2012), and what he learned "on the throne."  You can find his blog at  www.bishopsblog.dosp.org .

Sermon on "the Jews"

Before I began this blog (almost a year ago now) I looked at dozens of blogs by clergy-types.  I have to say that I didn't like most of them.  Many were self-centered to the point of narcissism.  Some were just screeds against the (always left-wing) policies of the current government.  (Not all the bloggers were living in the U.S.A.  I read blogs from the U.K., Australia, Canada, Ireland, Nigeria and elsewhere.)  And the worst thing about these blogs, in my estimate, is that most were just opportunities for the clergy to show off their (boring) sermons on a bigger stage.

This is why I started my "sermons in a bottle."  No long sermons from me, no sir!

So reluctantly I contradict my instincts and offer this sermon, which I gave in St. Vitus Church (four times!) yesterday for the Third Sunday of Easter.  I do so only because several parishioners offered me such kind words of praise, to the point of embarassment.

Third Sunday of Easter - B.  "Everything written about me in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled."

Let me start with a trick question.  Was Jesus Catholic?  [pause]  No hands please, I don't want anyone to be embarassed.  [pause]  OK, the answer is, No!

Jesus was Jewish.  He was born of a Jewish woman, he was circumcised like most Jewish boys, he was raised by Jewish parents and lovingly taught the Sacred Scriptures by these same Jewish parents, he was known in his adulthood to his Jewish friends and Jewish enemies as an excellent teacher of the Jewish law, he died a Jew at the hands of Roman authorities on the cross, he rose from the dead and spoke to his Jewish friends, and he ascended to heaven as that same Jew.

I'd like to say a little about "the Jews," because over the weeks of Lent, during the Great Three Days of Easter, and now in the Easter season, we hear a lot about Jesus, the apostles, and the Jews.  Not all of it is flattering.  Some is downright angry.  Specifically, in the first reading today, in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter speaks to the Jewish people (although it doesn't say "Jewish" people in the text just read, it is clear from a few verses before this passage) and calls them out for "puting to death the author of life."  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus explains to the two disciples and other disciples after his walk to Emmaus that "everything written about me in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled." 

After the ascension of the Lord Jesus into heaven, his apostles and disciples, the men and women filled with the Holy Spirit did indeed, as today's gospel said, become witnesses of the Risen Lord.  These friends and followers of Jesus, all Jews, told their joyful story to fellow Jews.  There were two reactions.  Some Jews were entranced by the preaching, accepted Jesus as the long-awaited messiah, and embraced "the way," as this group of apostles were first known.  Some Jews rejected the preaching and rejected the messengers, too.  See several places in the letters of St. Paul for this rejection.

Over the years the question among the Jewish leaders over whether the apostles and disciples of Jesus the Christ were actually Jews became more contentious.  Finally, scholars tell us, about 85 A.D., over fifty years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Jewish leaders in Jerusalem threw out these Christians (as they had become known) and said they were no longer Jews.  From a sociological standpoint it is here that you can say Judaism and Christianity became two distinct religions.

Within a few centuries Christians became more numerous than Jews, and more politically powerful, especially after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 315.  And a sad thing happened.  As Christians became more powerful, they persecuted Jewish people.  Such persecutions waxed and waned, but it is clear during the Crusades, the years of the Inquisition, and beyond that Christians persecuted Jews.  In particular, Christians labeled all Jews as "Christ-killers," and used this as the excuse for hatred, harassment and persecution.

In the 20th century two events caused Christians, and in particular the Catholic Church, to reconsider this history of persecution.  These were the persecutions of Catholics, others Christians and Jews, behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet communism, and especially, the horrific act of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany during World War II to attempt to wipe out the Jewish people.  Six million Jews were slaughtered in the death camps of the Holocaust.  But alongside of them were also murdered five million others, most of whom were Christians.  In the years after World War II, Catholics looked Jews and Catholics being persecuted together, and at our history of anti-Semitism in the light of critical new biblical and historical studies, and came to new conclusions.  These changes in official Church teaching regarding the Jews and the Jewish religion were stated by the bishops gathered in the Second Vatican Council, and remain official teaching to today.  Let me make a few points about these changes.

***In the words of the late Pope John Paul II, Jews are "our beloved elder brothers and sisters."  The Jewish people were the first to hear the Word of God over four thousand years ago, and they have been faithful to that Word down to today.

***The Second Vatican Council explicited taught that it is wrong to call Jews "Christ-killers."  In response to the question, "Who killed Jesus?" the answer is the Roman authorities under Pontius Pilate in first century Jerusalem, egged on by some Jews in Jerusalem at the same time.  You cannot accuse all Jews living in the Holy Land at that time of complicity in the death of Jesus, because historically that is not true.  And you cannot say that all Jews down through history and into today killed Jesus, because that is not true. 

***More positively, we Christians have to recognize that the Jewish people were the only ones to believe in the One True God (known by many names, "I AM," or "the Lord," or "Yahweh").  Just about every religion in the ancient world held belief in many gods.  Only the Jews were mono-theistic.  We Christians who follow from our Jews ancestors, and the Muslims who follow the teachings of Mohammed, are mono-theistic in this same way.  We, these three great religions of the world, all pray to the One and same True God.

Now it is true, that through revelation we Christians have come to know God as a Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But as we will pronounce in the creed in just a few minutes, we at the same time say, "I believe in one God."

***The attitude of all Catholics to the Jewish faith and Jewish people must be one of respect.  In fact, the Second Vatican Council went further and said that our attitude to peoples of all religions must be one of respect.  God can and does speak in and through many languages of religion.  We must look for the good in their faiths.  We must look for opportunities to work together with Jewish people, and other religious people, to protect human rights, care for the poor and needy, and promote peace.  Pope Benedict XVI has said that one religion inflicting hatred and violence against another is a sin and wrong.  All peoples of religion are called to live in peace with one another.

***Catholics are forbidden to actively proseletize Jews.  What does this mean?  It means that the best way for a Jew to get to heaven, if you will, is to be a good and faithful Jew.  We respect them as as they are.  Now, if a person with a Jewish background is attracted to learn more about Jesus because of you or the witness of other Christians, we will be glad to work with them and teach them our faith.  But we do not seek to change any Jew.

***In light of what I have said, all of us are called to learn more about the Jewish faith, its teachings, prayer, and history.  I myself have learned so much, both in seminary and in priestly ministry, about the Jewish religion by studying the Scriptures.  For example, the "Blessed are you" prayers I will say in the Offertory are almost exactly the same prayers Jesus said during the Passover meal of the Last Supper.  So much of our Eucharistic liturgy and theology is rooted in the ways and thought-patterns of our Jewish ancestors.  In every Mass, and in the Church's liturgy of the hours (morning and evening prayer) we pray the 150 psalms, and revere their prayer expressions.  I respect the rabbis I have become acquainted with, and their congregations and social-service institutions.

It is important in this context to realize that what we call the Old Testament, which is also known as the Hebrew Scriptures, is as much the Word of God as the New Testament, the gospels and other Christian writings.  A 4th century heresy tried to have the Christians reject the Old Testament.  But through the Holy Spirit the Church came to see that this was wrong.  We Christians must revere both the Old and the New Testaments. 

On a practical level, you and I rub elbows with Jewish folk all the time.  I remember fondly the Jewish doctor who ministered to my mother when she was dealing with cancer.  You may know Jewish doctors, attorneys, businesspersons, or just someone who lives on your street.  By our respect for Jewish persons, and their faith, and by our learning about their teachings and history, we have the possibility of deepening our own faith in Jesus the faithful Jew, our Risen Lord.  By our peaceful ways may we come to witness to Christ all the better.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Great Day for Hockey

This year I've enjoyed reading the "Empty Netter" blog on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website after Penguin games, offered by staff writer Seth Rorabaugh.   He live-blogs during and after each game.  You catch the ebb and flow of the game, in just a few words.

After yesterday's game five win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Rorabaugh captured well my feelings about the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"This is what playoff hockey is.  It's intoxicating.  It's gut-wrenching.  It breathes life into your soul and kicks you in the groin at the same time.  It's the most exhilarating of highs and the most hopeless of lows.  It's a drug.  And we can never get enough of it." 


The Boss Reigns

On Tuesday evening I went to heaven...musical heaven.  My friend J.B. and I went to Cleveland to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Quicken Loans Arena.  This was the seventh time I've seen the Boss -- three at the now demolished Mellon Arena, one at Petersen Events Center, one at P.N.C. Park, and two in Cleveland.  And, though I hate to say it, the two in Cleveland have to be the best of all of them.

What is it about theatre and music people?  The ticket says the concert starts at 7:30 p.m.  But promptly at 8:30 the ads on the walls cease, the house lights come up (I guess to allow all those senior citizens on stage to see where they are going!), the sold-out crowd roars, and Bruce and company appear.  For this tour he's beefed up the band.  In addition to 40-year friends and stalwarts Van Zandt, Bittan, Weinberg, Tallent, Lofgren, and Tyrell, he's added the "E Street Horns," including Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late, great Clarence Clemons, and the "E Street Choir" with three singers.  Charles Giordano has replaced the late Danny Federici on the B-3 organ and accordion.  The only one missing was Patti Scialfa, Bruce's wife, whom he said, "Is back home making sure the kids don't get into our drug stash!"

And thence begins three hours of pure joy.  His choices for tonight range from the most recent album, "Wrecking Ball," including the title song, a lovely and quiet "Jack of All Trades," the moving "We're Alive," and the anthem, "We Take Care of Our Own," through the rest of his career.  Of course, being in Northeast Ohio, we hear "Youngstown," one of my favorites, but also a medley of soul songs (which Bruce said in his lead-up "in the Sixties and Seventies every band in Jersey had to play soul at every V.F.W., high-school prom, Shop-Rite opening, C.Y.O. dance and corner bar."), "My City of Ruins," reaching back to "The E Street Shuffle." 

During "Waiting on a Sunny Day" Bruce waded out into the floor crowd to press the flesh.  Whether it was a set-up or serendipity, he pulled a eight- or nine-year old girl out of the crowd, put the mic in front of her, and allowed her to belt out the refrain.  Bruce so enjoyed her enthusiasm that he picked her up in his arms, walked her back up to the stage, where to the great great delight of the crowd, she continued to sing and dance with him for the entirety of the song.  What a fun scene!  Later he "crowd surfed" from the middle of the arena back to the stage.  You gotta see it to believe it!

To close the concert the house lights again came up, and the band gave us what we wanted:  "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."  During the last song, as the lyric "and the Big Man came to town" was sung, the band abruptly stopped, and we were treated with a three-minute video montage of the Big Man himself, Clarence Clemons, in every kind of wild attire, in front of stadium crowds, embracing Bruce, and blowing that horn.  What a tribute.  Then the spotlight shifted from Bruce to Jake Clemons, who admirably led with his sax, just as his uncle did for more than 35 years.

What a concert!  What was evident from the peanut gallery seats up against the roof where we were standing, was that 62-year old Springsteen loves Cleveland.  Every rocker who can croak out a song says "Hello Cleveland!"  (Leading to that great Southwest Airlines commercial parody, "Wanna get away?" where the aging rock singer comes out on stage and shouts, "Hello Detroit!" to silence as his band mate whispers in his ear, "It's Chicago.")  But Bruce must have greeted "Cleveland" six or seven times.  He even made reference to the Cleveland origins of one song, the high-energy "Light of Day."

In a review of the Springsteen concert a few days earlier in Buffalo, New York, a reviewer called the experience "transcendent."  It was.   Long may the Boss reign.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Philly Phanatic

Most folks know that the word "fan," as in "an enthusiastic devotee," is a shortened form of "fanatic," that is, someone with extreme zeal, moving toward unbalanced or obsessive behavior.  It's a short path from cheering to craziness. 

I wonder if I walked that path this week.

Five days ago, in my fearless hockey predictions, I opined that the Pittsburgh Penguins would beat the Philadephia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoff in seven games, and go on to win the Cup, just as they did in 2009.

Goes to show you what a crystal ball I have.

For those of you who are just returning from a vacation in Antartica, the Penguins are down three games to zero.  Worse, they have lost by 4-3 in overtime, 8-5 and 8-4.  Worse, they have blown leads of 3-0 (in game one) and 3-1 (in game two).  Worse, they have given up 20 goals in three games.  Worse, after leading the league in fewest power play goals given up they've allowed ten in three games.  Worse, they have given up three short-handed goals in three games.  (In an 82 game season, an average team will give up only six or eight "shorties.")  Worse, in game three they Penguins lost their composure and picked useless fights which only drove them deeper into defeat.  Worse, they're losing to Philadelphia, for heavens sake, our forever hated cross-state rival.

After an excellent regular season, with much to be proud about, and after many hockey writers picked them (including Sports Illustrated -- the dreaded SI curse -- see www.sicurse.com ) to win the 16 games necessary to gain the Cup, the Pens have completely embarassed themselves.

And I'm mad.  I'm confused.  I'm frustrated. 

I'm mad at "my team" for failing to live up to my (and our whole region's) expectations.  We expected more.  More quality play, avoiding stupid giveaways and stupid penaties.  More composure, allowing the Flyers to lose theirs.  More wins.  Maybe not the Cup, but at least a long run through the playoffs.

This is a perfect lead-in to a wise maxim I learned from my spiritual director two summers ago.  "Expectations are the seed-bed of resentment."  He was applying it to the spiritual life.  But I apply it to every aspect of human life.  I expected wins from the Penguins.  When they didn't come, I'm mad, because my expectations were not met.  I resent the Penguins for not giving me what I want, or expect.

I'm confused.  One of the things I've liked about the Penguins the past several years (besides their excellent players -- Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Letang, etc.) is that they have grown into a "class act."  Their calm coach, Dan Byslma, has a plan and sticks to it.  Their general manager, Fred Shero, has provided the right mix of veterans, rookies, roll players and all-world players, within the NHL salary cap limitations, for his team to win, and win consistently.  Their co-owner, Mario Lemieux, has been the face of all that is good with professional hockey.  Their captain, Sidney Crosby, is (mostly) regarded both as one of the world's best players, and a media voice for the NHL across two countries.

All that has gone by the board with these three terrible losses.  The team has been anything but a class act.  No one has shown leadership.    They've been the goats (in game one and two) and the goons (in game three).  The resiliency the entire team displayed throughout the last two seasons, dealing with severe injuries to Staal, Malkin and Crosby, and a host of other players, is nowhere to be seen.  What happened?

And I'm frustrated with myself.  Why have I had such an emotional reaction to a bunch of millionaires playing a simple game on ice which has tickets so expensive I can't afford to purchase?  Why am I resentful?  Have I blown up a pleasant pasttime of being a hockey fan into an obsession that threatens me with depressed feelings and lethergy in all areas of my life?  Is this game more important than my pastor responsibilities, my ministry, my Christian faith?  Whoa!  I'm not sure I want to go there!  Am I a fanatic, not a fan?

The fact of the matter is that the Pittsburgh Penguins, or any professional team, owes me, and the fans, nothing.  They can earn my loyalty by their play, but in a real sense owe me nothing at all.  It's entertainment, pure and simple, if very expensive.     

I'm not sure I can summon the energy to even watch game four on Wednesday night.  My expectations of the team are below the floor.  I can hardly see how any amount of good play will restore their self-respect, as well as the respect of us very bewildered fans.  Only three teams in seventy-some years of Stanley Cup playoffs have come back from down 3-0 and won their series.  I don't even care what they do.

Until next year.

Sermon in a Bottle

Second Sunday of Easter - A.  "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book."

I've always like that line in the Gospel of John.  It says to me, don't think you know the whole story of Jesus.  It brings a humility to our faith.  There is so much more to know about Jesus the Christ.  Knowledge of him is never complete.

Yet at the same time we can be complimented by the evangelist's comment.  The first-century followers of the man from Nazareth saw and knew and heard so much, we  twenty-first century disciples much less.  Yet we still believe.  "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."  Unlike the believing Thomas, we have not seen the Risen Lord in the flesh.  Yet we act in faith, however imperfectly. 

Sermon in a Bottle

Easter Sunday.  "This man God raised on the third day."

It's hard to preach on Easter.  I feel I am fighting colored Easter eggs, new outfits, chocolate bunnies, and larger numbers of the faithful crowding the usually half-empty pews.  It's like the guy on Palm Sunday who says, "Geez, every time I come to Mass some idiot is trying to poke my eye out with a strip of palm."  And it's hard for me to fight the temptation at the end of Easter Sunday Mass to say, "The Mass is ended.  See ya next Christmas! Alleluia!  Alleluia!"

I try to counter such negative thoughts in my Easter sermon by briefly repeating the liturgies and the insights of the Triduum.  Of foot-washing the old and the young, of being faithful to Jesus' command at the Last Supper to "do this in memory of me," of a horrible death by crucifiction and a totally shocking empty tomb, the joy of new Catholics through the waters of baptism and the oil of the Spirit.  And I do lots and lots of smiling.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Fearless Hockey Predictions

The second most wonderful sports season begins tonight:  the National Hockey League's playoffs.  Over the years hockey, and in particular playoff hockey, has crept up in my estimate of entertainment value.  Of course, having two of the best hockey players alive on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and winning the Stanley Cup three years ago, don't hurt.

The goal is to win 16 games, over four best-of-seven series.  So in typical fearless style, let me make my predictions for the first round, and for the winner of the Stanley Cup finals.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 8 Ottawa Senators -- Rangers in six.

No. 2 Boston Bruins vs. No. 7. Washington Capitals -- Bruins in five.

No. 3. Florida Panthers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils -- Devils in five.

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers -- Penguins in seven.

Team in Finals -- Pittsburgh Penguins

Western Conference

No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings -- Canucks in six.

No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 7 San Jose Sharks -- Blues in five.

No. 3. Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 6 Chicago Blackhawks -- Coyotes in six.

No. 4 Nashville Predators vs. No. 5 Detroit Red Wings -- Predators in seven.

Team in Finals -- St. Louis Blues

Winner of the 2012 Stanley Cup -- Pittsburgh Penguins

Finals MVP -- Evgeni Malkin

You read it hear first.  Go Pens!

Liturgical Joy

The liturgies of Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter are the most significant for the church, and the most joyful for this parish priest.

My first couple of years in the priesthood they were just confusing.  Too much, too confusing, too different from what I knew.  But two things, or three, changed my perspective.  The first was the RCIA -- the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.  My third year as a priest I started an RCIA class at St. Therese, Munhall.  We had studied the RCIA in seminary, using a provisional salmon-colored paperback text issued by the bishops's conference.  So the basics of the RCIA were familiar to me.  I had visited then-Father Tom Tobin's RCIA class at St. Sebastian, Ross, the previous winter.  To the best of my knowledge, his RCIA was the first in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  With his encouragement, I came to realize I could have such a class too.  So the fall-winter-spring of 1981-82 found me offering group instructions to four candidates (no catecumens, that is, unbaptized persons).  This was before the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or other such catechetical material.  I put together my own syllabus, got a friendly couple in the parish to be my "hospitality ministry" helpers, and away we went. 

As we approached Lent, and the three scrutinies, the excitement of these folks receiving the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist built.  The pastor, Father Joe Newell, actually let me lead the Easter Vigil that year, and I was privileged to receive them into the church, administer the sacrament of Confirmation, and give them their First Holy Communion.  I was truly on cloud nine after the ceremony.

Over the summer I papered the bulletin with invitations to welcome potential new Catholics.  A neighboring pastor asked me if I would take three of his candidates.  So I had eleven in the class.  Again, the liturgies of Holy Week and the Vigil came alive with these catechumens (elect) and candidates.  Through my pastor's classmate, Auxiliary Bishop John McDowell, we actually had a bishop do the rite of Election on the first Sunday of Lent.  Knowing I was to move to another parish in the fall, I talked the sister who was the director of religious education to take over the RCIA.  She did a very good job, and to the best of my knowledge thirty years later the RCIA is a routine part of St. Therese's parish ministry.

The second thing which made the liturgies come alive was reading The Three Days, by Gabe Huck.  Put out by Liturgical Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago, this wonderful text was a combination of how to, liturgical history, and spiritual reflection.  For the first time, I saw the connection of the 93 days--40 days of Lent to prepare for the Great Three Days (Triduum) of Easter to rejoice during the 50 days of Easter.   Huck's style combined the hardheaded practicality of a pastor with the soaring rhetoric of a 4th century Church Father.  He also linked the core value of evangelization for the church with its liturgical celebrations.  Huck has since revised the book a couple of times.  It's still worth reading, for savoring the power of these liturgies.

Finally time itself was helpful.  Since the church only does the liturgies of Holy Week once a year, you have to make them count.  Over the years I have learned to do as the authorized liturgical books say.  For example, on Palm Sunday I will go outside the church to begin each Eucharist.  The pseudo-reenactment of a crowd, a pilgrim people, walking into the church helps immensely to show the specialness of the day.  Washing the feet of representative parishioners on Holy Thursday links me to every text of Catholic Social Thought, and the parish's efforts to reach out to the poor.  The beginning of the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, with the presider prostrating himself on the floor, is unique in the church, and humbling too (all those people looking at my rump under my vestments--what do they think?).  Each year I try to have an actual fire outside to begin the Great Easter Vigil with the Light of Christ in the midst of the darkness of night.  And time, and the repetition of the Passion Narratives of each of the four evangelists, help to show the differences in each story, and their particular slant on the suffering and death of Christ.

Along the way as I have served in different parishes and chapels, I have learned to adapt.  I try not to be a "liturgical terrorist," with absolute demands.  Sometimes you can't do everything you want. Listening to catechetical leaders, and reflecting on the life of the parish, I still don't think that we have in a very real way captured the power of the Easter Season, and the mystigogia of the RCIA.  First Confirmations and spring Confirmations (during Lent--ugh!) don't connect with the RCIA.   But falling short of an unattainable liturgical perfection does not prevent me from experiencing sheer liturgical joy, as we celebrate the most sacred mysteries of the Christian faith.