Monday, July 23, 2012

A Message to the Catholic Community in New Castle

Here is the statement I placed in the four bulletins of New Castle parishes this weekend, July 21-22.

Maybe you have heard this bouncy pop song, "Glory Days," by Bruce Springsteen when you were shopping in Giant Eagle or walking in a mall.

I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you, make you look like a fool
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar, I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back insie, sat down, had a few drinks, but all he kept tlaking about was

Glory days
They'll pass you by
In the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days

There's a girl that lives up the block, back in school she could turn all the boys' heads
Sometimes on a Friday I'll stop by and have a few drinks after she puts her kids to bed
Her and her husband Bobby, well, they split up, I guess it's two years gone by now
We just sit around talking about the old times, she says when she feels like crying she starts laughing thinking about...Glory days...

Think I'm going down to the Well tonight and I'm gonna drink till I get my fill
And hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it, but I probably will
Just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the Gloria
Time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of...Glory days...

The Boss wrote this song when he was 33 years old.  He's now an ancient (for a rock musician) 63 years old, and has many more stories of past glory days.

I'll bet you do too.  These are the memorable stories about your kids growing up, or a funny time on vacation, or a tough time of transition or loss in your life.  People from our part of the country love to tell these stories, mostly about when things "used to be " better.  The stories look wistfully at the past, at "things that are no longer there."

Bishop David Zubik has appointed me pastor of the four parishes in the city of New Castle:  Mary Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus, effective Monday, July 30.  He has also appointed Fathers Nicholas S. Vaskov and William P. Siple as parochial vicars for the four parishes.  As I accept this immense challenge from Bishop Zubik, I would like to change our focus and our stories from past "glory days" and "used to be's" to looking to the future with hope, to new "days of glory."  I would like us to sing the future-facing songs of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus called his disciples and sent them out two by two to proclaim the Reign of God.  Jesus said to his apostles, "Go teach all nations."  Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit upon his followers, and on Pentecost fulfilled that promise with power and fire.  Jesus said that we, his disciples, would do even greater things than he did.

These words of Christ our savior direct us outward and forward, to be his missionaries, to share his promise of salvation for all people.  We probably won't travel to another continent, but we can be missionaries right here in New Castle, in Lawrence County, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  These teachings of Christ are words of evangelization, of proclaiming the Good News of God's love for all people.  These words call us to be Christ's committed disciples and joyful witnesses right now and into the future.  They are the Word of God which we can make present today and tomorrow in the actions of our lives.

My appointment comes at a special moment in the life of the universal church.  Earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI called for the entire Catholic Church to celebrate a "Year of Faith."  This year (from October 11, 2012, to November 24, 2013) commemorates the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  Vatican II was the 20th ecumenical (worldwide) council in the almost 2,000 years of the church, and probably the greatest religious event of the 20th century.  Pope Benedict said, "The Year of Faith is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord Jesus, the one Savior of the world."  The Year of Faith also "would give renewed energy to the mission of the whole church to lead men and women out of the desert they are often in and toward the place of life: friendship with Christ who gives us fullness of life."  The Year of Faith would help the church "intensify the witness of charity" in the world.

With similar vigor Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote to the whole church at the end of the Great Jubilee Year 2000.  He called the church "to gain a new impetus in Christian living."  He recalled the words of Jesus to Peter, "Put out into the deep," that is, to go forward in a journey of faith "which would enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mold communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture."  He called for all local communities to do pastoral planning.

Many of you, I know, are fearful of the future.  What will happen to my parish?  What will happen to my church?  I hope in the coming months to ease these fears, by focusing on building our four parishes into the church alive.  Jesus said to the crowds when he went to heal the sick daughter of the synagogue official, "Fear is useless.  What is needed is trust."

The only reason to look backward is to thank those great Christians who have build our parishes and churches and schools.  I want us to go forward, to celebrate a Year of Faith, to put out into the deep, to develop many means of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I want to work with the pastoral councils and finance councils, the staffs and volunteers and people of St. Vitus Parish, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, St. Joseph the Worker Parish, and Mary Mother of Hope Parish.  I am grateful for the help of my brother priests, Father Bill Siple and Father Nick Vaskov, in this journey of faith forward.  I hope that you will also join me on this exceptional journey of faith into God's future days of glory.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A New Challenge

Spiritual writers who reflect on the life and ministry of Catholic clergy -- deacons, priests, bishops -- do not like the term "career" to describe what the man has done since ordination.  Careers are planned, executed with focus and precision, and most often in our money- and famed-soaked society are filled with unholy ambition.

In contrast, in an ideal world the life and ministry of the ordained are to be guided not my personal desires but by the needs of the faithful, or the needs of distressed people.  Also, Catholic clergy, whether secular (diocesan) or vowed religious, pledge obedience to their superior, and go where the diocese/order/Vatican direct.

I accept all that.  Yet you can still look back at one's "career" and see patterns.

One of those patterns in my 33 years as a priest is shorter assignments.  Depending on how you count, I've had no fewer than 13 assignments, with the longest being 7 1/2 years.  Another pattern is moving around.  I have changed residences about once every three years.  And I have fallen into the pattern of being an agent of change as a pastor.  I merged two communities into Incarnation of the Lord Parish (North Side); I closed three church buildings (St. John Vianney, Hilltop); I merged three parishes into Saint Juan Diego Parish, Sharpsburg.  (Of course I didn't do these things alone.  In each case I worked closely, and for years, with the lay leadership of each parish, and acted only after the support of diocesan staff and the formal approval of the diocesan bishop.)

Now again I am asked to transfer, move and be an agent of change.

On Wednesday I met with Bishop David Zubik and received from him the assignment of being pastor of the four parishes in the city of New Castle:  Mary Mother of Hope Parish, St. Joseph the Worker Parish, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, and St. Vitus Parish.  Last August 1 the bishop had assigned me as administrator of St. Vincent and St. Vitus parishes.  Now, in addition I take leadership of the two parishes Father Victor Molka formerly guided.  (On July 9 he was given a new assignment as pastor of St. Valentine Parish, Bethel Park.)

In canon law, an administrator of a parish is a temporary appointment, a pastor is a stable office with a term of six years.  Functionally the administrator and pastor do the same work--lead the community.

To help me in this task the bishop has given me two fine parochial vicars, Father William Siple and Father Nicholas Vaskov.  And the bishop suggested that instead of spreading the priests around, one each to a separate rectory, that we guys reside in the same rectory.

Today I visited the 28 room Mary Mother of Hope rectory just off the "diamond," the center of New Castle's business district.  There is more than enough room for all of us priests.  Each of us will have a five room suite, if you can believe it, with a few rooms left over for the occasional guest and for storage.  Living under the same roof will help us communicate better, and allow us to support one another in this challenging ministry of serving four parishes.

So I receive another assignment.  I move again, out of my current home on the campus of St. Vincent de Paul.  And I'm asked to be an agent of change.

But this change is different.  The four parishes in the city of New Castle, along with the other four parishes in Lawrence County, have been working together on several ministry fronts for years now:  RCIA, nursing home pastoral coverage, youth ministry.  Bishop Zubik and I are agreed that now is not the time to pursue formal structural change, such as merging parishes or closing churches.  Rather, I hope to work with the pastoral and finance council members, the staffs, volunteers and faithful of all the parishes to work even more closely together on as many issues as possible.  Collaboration is the key term.  

Then, open to the Spirit, and recognizing the declining number of people in our county and priests in our presbyterate, somewhere down the line (that is, years from now) the people may recognize the need for unity as one parish.

For now, however, my desire is to work with four unique parishes to be the very best we can be, as a hospitable, evangelizing, caring Catholic community in New Castle.  

Stay tuned.

Googlenope? Nope!

I almost did it!  I almost had a Googlenope.

What's a Googlenope?  (Of course, you can google it to find out!)  Humor columnist Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post coined the term a few years ago to describe a phrase which when you put it into the Google search engine between quotes, has no hits.

For example, Weingarten's first Googlenope was "Queen Elizabeth's buttocks."  Others he has found and written in his column are "In my past life I was an ordinary person" and "my gynecologist respects me."  

Of course, the Googlenope is elusive, and once identified, disappears.  The very act of identifying a Googlenope kills it.  Then it becomes a Googleyup--a phrase which has only one hit in the search engine.

A few weeks ago I did a post on the current heat wave enveloping the U.S.  In an attempt to be funny, I titled the post "Palm trees in New Castle."  Ha!  When a few days later I googled this phrase I came up with only one hit -- from 1956!  Not a Googlenope, but at least a Googleyup!

Try it!  See if you can come up with a Googlenope!  You read it here first.  

Let's see some other phrases I'll try:  "matinee idol handsome accordion player"; "holy atheist"; "evil nun"; or "dumbest blogger in New Castle."  

Retreat by the Sea

Late Tuesday evening I returned home after a ten hour drive from an eight-day retreat at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Universal canon (church) law and diocesan clergy personnel policy require each bishop and priest to make an annual retreat.  No one has to force me to do this!

What a blessing my retreat was this year.  I returned to the same house where I did the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola two summers ago.  I returned and was greeted by the same wise and kindly spiritual director, Father Ken Hughes, S.J., whom I had for the 30 day retreat two summers ago.  I returned to a site bordered on three sides by water, with its own rugged beauty as it overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  To see photos of the property visit . 

A directed retreat in the Ignatian tradition is different from the usual preached retreat diocesan clergy are used to. It is done in silence by all retreatants. No talking in the dining room, no chit-chat in the hallways, no night-time tv surfing, no telephone conversations (well, at least not in the open where your voice carries and startles). I was taught to try to spend four one-hour periods in intense prayer every day.  These are in addition to participating in daily Mass as a community, and the personal celebration of the liturgy of the hours.  Each retreatant meets with his/her director for about 30-40 minutes each day in private.  The retreatant talks about what went on in prayer, what are his/her desires, concerns, sometimes obstacles to prayer.  Most times the director will give his/her directee one or two passages from the bible, to meditate on and to use as a "jumping off point" for conversation with God.

The whole exercise is grounded in St. Ignatius's understanding that God wishes to have a personal relationship with each one of us.  Only in a "deafening" silence, and with an open and listening heart, can we "allow God in."  We listen not only to the voice of God, but also to our own desires, which can lead us to where God wishes us to be.  

This was my eleventh eight-day silent retreat.  I love the silence.  Only in silence, I believe, can one really "pray hard."  Each of these retreats has brought me closer to God, to the point that I dare to call our relationship a friendship, and our occasional conversations as personal, idiosyncratic, and even humorous, as one with my best friend.  

Two years ago I did longer explanations of both the Spiritual Exercises and my reaction to my 30-day retreat for the parishioners of Saint Juan Diego, Sharpsburg.  When I can put my hands on these essays, I'll paste them in this blog, with some of my photos.

If you are at all interested in a developed explanation of the Spiritual Exercises, or even in growth in the spiritual life, I highly recommend Jim Martin's wonderful book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything:  A Spirituality for Real Life.  He explains Ignatius's vision, and the Spiritual Exercises, with clarity, insight, personal stories, and not a few jokes.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Palm Trees in New Castle?

It's hot on the Fourth of July.  It's a comfortable 77 where I am sitting, indoors with air-conditioning.  Outdoors it's a blistering 93 degrees Fahrenheit, under a brutal sun.

We've has a week's worth of 90+ degree days.  Most of the time I enjoy the warmer weather.  It was a very mild winter in New Castle, Pennsylvania, 2011-12, and spring was simply gorgeous, with that streak of 80+ degree days at the end of March which prematurely brought out of the ground all the spring flowers.   Some of the mild spring days bring out brilliant sunshine and impossibly blue skies--so unlike our usually cloudy western Pennsylvania springs.

But what's comfortable for me (with large doses of car and house and church air-conditioning) can be near deadly for others.  Last Friday it reached 104 in Washington, D.C., followed by a "derecho," a harsh line of storms which killed two persons and left more than one million persons in the capital region without electricity.  Some of those folks still have not been connected to the grid, five days later.  Over the past few days many southern U.S cities have hit all-time high temperatures:  105 in Raleigh; 106 in Atlanta; 108 in Columbia, S.C.; and 109 in Nashville.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the past winter was the fourth-warmest on record in the United States.  And the months of spring--March, April, May--were the warmest since record keeping began in 1895.  

Further, nine of the warmest ten years on record have occurred since 2000.  These statistics, put together into a coherent pattern, are what has come to be known as "global warning."  Because of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global temperatures are almost a full degree warmer than they were in the mid-20th century.

As I said, I like these warmer temperatures.  (Beware:  Suspect childhood remembrances ahead.)  My recollection of attending grade school is that after Halloween, and certainly by Thanksgiving, Mom had to drag out of the attic the boots, gloves, scarves, tossel hats, and sweaters we needed to wear in order to walk the 7/10 of a mile to St. Wendelin Grade School.   Winter went from early November to Easter.  As I moved into adulthood, I joined my Dad as a charter member of the "I hate winter" club.

My first three years as a pastor, on the North Side of Pittsburgh, constituted two of the snowiest winters on record (1992-92 and 1993-94).  Yet over the past 15 years my impression of a Pittsburgh winter has shrunk.  In my mind winter is now a paltry ten week period from New Year's Day to St. Patrick's Day (1/1 to 3/17).  Yes, there was that Halloween 10" snowstorm a decade ago, and the 36" of snow a nor'easter brought in the first week of February two years ago, but we've really escaped most of the wickedness of winter.

As a pastor, I like "no snow" and "mild temperatures."  You don't have to shovel rain or heat, and higher temps in winter mean less expenses in the parish budget.

But global warming is a serious topic.  No less than the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a document in May 2011, "calling on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses."  The authors of the report go on to say that "Failure to mitigate climate change will violate our duty to the vulnerable of the  earth, including those dependent on the water supply of mountain glaciers and those facing rising sea level and stronger storm surges....All nations must ensure that their actions are strong enough and prompt enough to address the increasing impacts and growing risk of climate change and to avoid catastrophic irreversible consequences."   (See a link to the full report at .)

No less than Pope Benedict XVI, whom some have dubbed "the greenest pope ever," wrote in his 2010 World Day of Peace statement, "if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us."  (Read the full statement at .) 

Palm trees are not coming to New Castle next year.  But if the current trend continues, and there is every indication that it will, we will continue to enjoy warmer temperatures.  What that means for the rest of the planet is another story.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Health Care for More

On Thursday, July 28, the Supreme Court of the United States voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).  After the three days of oral arguments back in March, pundits right and left had opined that SCOTUS would strike the act down, in part or in full.  However, when Chief Justice John Roberts read the decision, two "wild cards" on the court did not play their expected roles.  Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the four usual conservative members and voted to strike down the act, on the reasoning that the U.S. Congress had overreached in applying the Commerce Clause.  The chief agreed with those five justices that the Congress' power to regulate commerce does not give lawmakers the authority to force people to buy insurance. 

But in what may become known as a Solomon-like decision, Chief Justice Roberts ruled that the law's individual mandate represents a tax on people who do not choose to get health insurance--a tax the Constitution gives Congress the power to impose.

Even today, five days after the decision, there are reports from behind the Kremlin-like walls of the Supreme Court that Roberts at first sided with the conservatives, then changed his mind.  However Roberts' decision-making played out, the Affordable Care Act will now continue its march toward near-universal coverage of health care for most Americans.  

This decision is good news for the approximate 50 million Americans who today are without health insurance, as well as for other groups.  Under-26-year-olds can continue to be covered by their parents' insurance.  There will be no lifetime caps on the amount of dollars spent on an individual who needs health care.  Pre-existing conditions will not prevent health insurance companies from accepting people for coverage.  And, with the expansion of Medicaid and the still-to-be written health insurance exchanges, somewhere between 30 and 45 million Americans by 2014 will receive at least a modicum of basic health care. 

From a political standpoint, Republicans are aghast, grasping at straws regarding the agreement by five justices that the Congress has to rein in its application of the Commerce Clause.  Democrats are giddy, receiving the unexpected boost to President Obama's reelection effort through an unexpected route--a penalty that Obama (and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) was at pains not to call a tax which Roberts called a Constitutional tax.

But from my perspective, this decision is not about politics, it is about human rights.  Finally our country can take a big step toward establishing in law what has been recognized around the world and by our church as a human right--health care.  Health care is already a right for over-65-year-olds (Medicare), for veterans of military service, for under-7-year-olds, and for some poor people (Medicaid).  But the link between employment and health care benefits is eroding, down to perhaps 40% of all full time workers, and costs of health care continue to spiral upward.  With the Affordable Care Act working to include as many "free-riders" as possible within the unwieldy patchwork of  current U.S. health care system, it may be possible for insurance companies, hospital systems, and doctors to work on moving from the super-expensive (and often wasteful) fee-for-service mentality towards a preventative care model of patient care.

Among my three or four loyal readers (thank you!) there are probably gasps!  Almade will be thrown out of the Catholic Church for his heretical view agreeing with the Supreme Court decision.  But read closely the one page statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic  Bishops, issued on June 28 ( ) in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

First, the bishops affirm the need of health care for all:  "For nearly a century, the Catholic bishops of the United States have been and continue to be consistent advocates for comprehensive health care reform to ensure access to life-affirming health care for all, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable."  There.  In what has been missed over the heated controversy over the religious employer definition, the Health and Human Services administrative ruling, and the possibility of the church funding contraceptives and sterilization procedures, the basic principle is still there.  Health care is a human right, for all human beings.  (See  the encyclical of Blessed Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, paragraph 22.)  

Then the bishops argue against Obamacare for three reasons:  the potential of federal funds being made available for abortions; failure to provide statutory conscience protection in the HHS mandate: and ... the ACA does not go far enough.  What?!  Yes, the ACA does not go far enough.  It "fails to treat immigrant workers and their families fairly."  In the words of the bishops, "life-affirming health care" is held back from immigrants, legal (and presumably illegal).  In other words, some people in this country will still be left out and unable to access health care (except through  a hospital's emergency room doors).

Now we will see how seriously HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the Obama administration are in wanting to revise their wrong-headed regulations of last September, and return to the decades long expansive view in law allowing religious bodies to employ members outside their religion and to serve persons not of their religion.   Now is the time for the bishops (and us citizens) to push not against some vague watering down of religious liberty, but for practical political and legal acceptance of what the Catholic Church's health care institutions, colleges,  universities, and social service organizations do:  serve the poor and all comers with respect, competence, dignity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ.