Thursday, August 23, 2012

Get Out Of That Lane

I enjoy driving.  I especially enjoy long drives on the interstates. From New Castle, Pennsylvania, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for our recent vacation, it is 560 miles of interstate highway driving.   I readily volunteered my almost new car (a.k.a. the white diamond limo) for the trip, as long as I was the driver.  (To quote the Dustin Hoffman character Raymond from Rain Man, "I'm an excellent driver.")  We drove through some beautiful, if mountainous, country--Greene County, Pennsylvania; much of West Viriginia; the westernmost tip of Virginia; and Tennessee. 

I also like to drive fast.  Not Indy 500 fast, or NASCAR fast, but, I dare to say, a bit-higher-than-the-posted-speed-limit fast.  One of the unspoken rules of U.S. interstate highways is that if you drive the speed limit in good weather, you will be passed by every truck, SUV, car, grandma, and Yugo on the road.  So you have to go faster than the speed limit.  I like to go more than the speed limit, if conditions allow.  To do so, however, on the two lanes almost all of the interstate highways are, you have pass, legally, on the left.  So, as I drive, I spend a good bit of time in the left hand lane.

Except when some slowpoke is walking his, or her, automobile in the left hand lane.

I hate people who drive  incessantly, mindlessly, unawaredly, SLOWLY, in the left hand lane.  They are oblivious of their surroundings.  They don't see the cars piling up behind them which want to pass the even slower trucks or cars on the right.  They don't understand that they pose a danger to themselves and others.  

And they prevent me from going faster.

At one time I might have stereotyped these drivers.  (Yes, older women, if you are guessing.)  But after 1,715 miles of vacation driving last week, and 18 months of quasi-commuting between New Castle and Pittsburgh on Interstates 79 and 376, I can safely say I've seen all kinds of stupid people hogging the left hand lane.  These include blue-haired women of a certain age, bald-headed men of that same certain age, teenage girls, dads or moms with the family in the back, and lots of others.  White, Black. Any color you want.     

I want the state police trooper to pull them over for violating state law.  I want them to move over.  I want them to get out of my way.  I want them to learn better driving etiquette. 

And all I get is mad.

So, to all those people who love to drive in the left hand lane on superhighways, and you know who you are, get out of that lane and let me pass.

Ahhhhh, vacation!

"A vacation is like love -- anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, and remembered with nostalgia."

A motley group of friends and I had the wonderful fortune to go on vacation together last week.  We have gone away a couple of times before -- cruises to the Carribean and to  Alaska -- and like to picnic together.  This time it was a land-based trip, to the Great Smoky Mountains outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

"Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation.  To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment.  Go some distance away, because work will be in perspective and a lack of harmony is more readily seen."  --Leonardo DaVinci

Eleven of us rented a "million-dollar" log cabin for one week, with nine of us staying there and two bringing their camper and staying in a nearby campground.  Our super-organized friend got a great laugh out of the rental agent when she said the group of us wanted a cabin which could sleep nine, "with seven of us not wanting to sleep with one another."  (We had one married couple and seven singles.)  So "Luca's Lookout" was ours for a week.  (To see this modern marvel, google "Luca's Lookout" with the zip code, 37738.)

"Those who say you can't take it with you never saw a car packed for a vacation."

What do you do on a vacation?  Eat.  Prime among our decision to go away was to experience the great cooking gifts several of us had.  It took us two Sunday-afternoon picnics, but we finally got the menu planned:  ham and all the fixins on Saturday, steak (really prime filet mignon) on Sunday, chicken on Monday, pork on Tuesday, salmon on Wednesday, and left-overs on Thursday and Friday.  And what leftovers!  Of course, this listing fails to include the appetizers, fresh veggies, whipped potatoes, lucious salads with homemade dressings, wines from various locales, and desserts such as fruit, apple cobbler, strawberry shortcake and homemade vanilla ice cream. 

My contributions were three:  eat, say "Fantastic!" about every five minutes, and do the dishes.  I say without a hint of vanity I was excellent at all three.

"Unless there is a grave reason to the contrary, a pastor is permitted to be absent from the parish each year for vacation for at most one continuous or interrupted month."  Code of Canon Law, canon 533, #2.

Among our group were two priest friends.  This made celebrations of the Eucharist easy.  We brought all the "ecclesial stuff" necessary for Mass with us, and enjoyed our prayer on Sunday and on August 15, for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the luxury of a great room.  The huge windows overlooked several mountaintops of the Great Smoky range.  Offering a long sermon is impossible, when your congregation can tune you out and see God's bountiful beauty right in front of them.  And no collection, either!

"A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in."

One of the unexpected pleasures of our luxurious cabin was that there was no cell phone service and no internet service.  No one had told us this during all our preparations.  At first this was terrifying.  What, go without looking at our cell phones about every 15 minutes?  It took two members of our group until Tuesday to stop looking at their smart phones, and finally "learn" this truth.  One, a lawyer, was particularly stymied, and drove to the the top of the hill, about a mile, every day to talk with his secretary. 

I was secure, however.  I had given strict instructions to the parish secretaries and my priest associates.  I was only to be disturbed on three conditions:   If the pope called me; if the bishop called me; if one of my four churches burned to the ground.  Thankfully, none of these happened.

(You never know, however.  As I was preparing for vacation last month, I told this joke to our seminarian intern, who politely laughed.  Then he said that a classmate's home parish pastor had also given this instruction when he went on vacation to the Jersey Shore, only to be called on the second day of vacation.  When the pastor responded testily to the phone call, his parochial vicar said, "Well, the church burned down.  Really.  Really."  And he wasn't fooling.) 

"A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you've been taking."

Our vacation got a curve on its first day, when the rental agent called while we were en route, to say that we could not use Luca's Lookout.  Bats had taken up residence, and it would be a couple of days before they could be removed.  So we repaired to Taygen's Place, which one humorist promptly dubbed Pagan's Place.  This turned out to be just as nice a temporary home as Luca's.  Six bedrooms, a home theatre, poot table, kitchen worthy of any cable tv chef's competition, two hot tubs, gas grill, and two wonderful porches facing the mountains.  We learned that each of these cabins sits on no less than three acres of land.  At night I could only see the lights of one other cabin off in the distance.  And a billion stars.

"There is probably no more obnoxious class of citizens than a returning vacationist."

We did not count on unexpected visitors, however.  On Tuesday night, after everyone else had got to sleep, and I was the last one watching tv, two bats decided to join us.  "Beavis" and "Butthead" flew around, well, like bats.  They are fast!  And tiny too.  They seemed to avoid me as much as I wanted to avoid them.  I woke up two of the most responsible of my friends.  We had to drive up to the top of the mountain to get cell phone service, where an hour passed before the emergency call operator finally realized we were not kidding when we said we had a bat infestation.  The rental agent was understanding, no easy thing after we woke her up at 12:30 a.m., and readily offered us a comparable unit, which was conveniently empty further down the mountain.

After much searching on google, and some sleepy discussion, the three of us made an executive decision not wake our friends.  We simply closed the doors yet left all the lights one.  In the morning we could make a group decision.  Blessedly, by morning's light the bats also retired out the unknown opening they had found between the logs, and never returned.  We stayed in our cabin, leaving the lights one all night as a preventative.  It worked.

"No man needs a vacation so much as the person who has just had one."

Among the good things about my friends is that they have the capacity to do things without imposing their desires on another.  So some went walking; one day we made a group trip to financially contribute to the arts and crafts community coffers of Gatlinburg (an eight-mile loop of roads with 150 different shops); a few ventured to the honky-tonk town of Pidgeon Forge; four took a cable car ride to a mountain peak; some read;  I managed to complete a cross-stitch piece.  Several of us drove 100 miles into Asheville, North Carolina, to see the Biltmore, the largest private home in the U.S.

On the last evening we caravaned in two cars to Cades Cove in the national park.  The brochures said that at dusk the wild life (animal, not human) comes out for viewing.  For once the brochures were right.  We saw four stands of deer, assorted crows and squirrels and spyders and old old cabins, and a mama bear and her cub.  In fact, we witnessed mama bear climb a tree at least 40 feet into the air, to protect her baby nestled higher up the tree.  If you saw on the National Geographic channel what we witnessed with our eyes you would gasp.   Nature at its best.

"If only we would give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life to the question of what to do with a two week vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimles procession of our busy days."

Then it was time to go home.  I can say that this was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable vacations I've ever had.  Why?  No cell phone certainly helped.  Great and pleasant friends even more.  And the knowledge that I return to work that I love, refreshed to do the ministry with more energy and perspective.

"Laughter is an instant vacation."  --Milton Berle

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Like an MBA for Catholic pastors

Thirty-two of us graduated today.  The Diocese of Pittsburgh cohort #2 of the "Good Leaders Good Shepherds" program concluded with a festive lunch and graduation.  

The GLGS program came about because so many clergy realized that the seminary teaches men how to be priests, but does not teach us how to be pastors.  This responsibility of teaching men how to pastor had devolved upon the local church.  In decades past, a newly ordained priest could trust that he would have three assignments of at least five years each in different parishes prior to becoming a pastor.  (At least this was the custom in the large Northeast and Midwest U.S. dioceses.  In smaller dioceses, and in mission territories, a man might become a pastor in only a year or two.)  If the learning did not come explicitly from the pastor's mentoring, it came by osmosis and observation.  But as our priestly numbers have shrunk, so has the time between ordination and becoming a pastor.  In our diocese it's now not unusual for men to assume pastoring responsibility after only four or five years of ministry   

At the same time, pastoring has become more complex.  "Going My Way" went and gone years ago.  Today's U.S. pastor has to deal with millions of dollars of buildings and income, and guide a dozen or more paid staff.  I've met pastors from Texas and Florida with 20,000 or 30,000 people in their parish.  The Five L's of Administration -- lights, leaks, locks, loot and lawns -- have been supplemented by the leadership, multiple languages of immigrants, lawsuits and the occasional loony.

To respond to the felt need of so many priests and bishops, the Catholic Leadership Institute created the "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds" program.  In the words of their website:

"Using Jesus Christ as the ultimate shepherd and model of leadership, the Good Leaders, Good Shepherds curriculum for clergy was specifically designated to help Catholic priests overcome the challenges today of a diminishing number of clergy and more complex circumstances for priestly ministry.  The goal is to minimize the frustration and energy spent on their administrative roles and maximize the joy and time spent on the pastoral duties for which they were uniquely ordained.  The impact will be more holy, healthy, and happy shepherds of vibrant parish communities, leading more people to a deeper relationship with Christ."  ( Visit ) 

The curriculum uses the best contemporary business practices and applies them to the world of the 21st century U.S. Catholic parish.  GLGS sees leadership in five contexts:  self, one-to-one, team, organizational and strategic alliance/relational.  We attended 30 full days of workshops over the past 18 months.  The GLGS program takes pride in avoiding like the plague boring lectures.  Rather, the "learning leaders" engage us with multimedia, role playing, small and large group discussion, personal reflections, even the occasional movie.  (We watched "Hoosiers," "The Karate Kid," "Twelve Angry Men," "Romero" and "Keys of the Kingdom."   Each one showed us the concepts we were learning in vivid narrative.)  We were constantly exhorted to take what we learned and apply it to our pastoral situations.  It was not all work.  Our "final exam" came by our learning teams competing with "GLGS Jeopardy."   

Along the way we priests, along with our diocesan bishop, David Zubik, not only learned a new language of leadership, with such ideas as DISCposition, phases of performance, sponsor and charter documents, team formation and nurture.  We also grew a little closer as a presbyterate, in priestly bonds of fraternity.

And so today at our graduation, Catholic Leadership Institute executive director Father Bill Dickinson congratulated us on our perseverance.  He likened our certificate of achievement to receiving an MBA in Catholic pastoring.  He also gently challenged us, saying that completing the hours and hours of workshop only brings us 20% of the potential of the curriculum.  We have to see GLGS with the vision of a three, five, or seven year implementation.  If we apply the GLGS concepts in our parishes and pastoral situations, we can really break open the potential of what we learned, to become excellent Christian leaders in the manner of Jesus Christ, and to build up alive and vibrant and energized Catholic parishes.

I am most grateful for our bishop and diocese to bring GLGS here, and for the opportunity to experience a vision of what excellent leadership might look like.  The end of the workshops comes as I begin pastoring four parishes in New Castle.  For years we priests have been exhorted to "work smarter, not harder."  Now, along with my two fine parochial vicars, and the dedicated volunteer members of our pastoral and finance councils, I have the chance to put this rich learning into practice.


Drone thoughts

The committee which organizes the annual offerings for clergy education of the Diocese of Pittsburgh approached me to offer a class this fall.  I've been blessed to have been asked several times to be a presenter.  Many of our priests and deacons take seriously their professional and ministerial responsibility to continually update themselves, and attend these sessions.  Each year there are a wide range of topic covered, both in the annual fall and spring convocations, and with individual classes.

The topic suggested to me for the fall is to discuss the morality of the use of drones in warfare.  I confess that I've not paid much attention to this subject, as our country is winding down its war presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But a series of op-ed pieces, on both sides of the morality issue, have recently been published.  

I am only at the beginning of my research.  If anyone has thoughts about the morality of the use of drones, or just wants to share with me insightful articles, please let me know by the email address: .  Thank you!


And a great time was had by all...

The St. Vitus Parish Big Festival of 2012 is history.  We were blessed by fantastic weather.  In pastorspeak, that means there was no threat of rain to dissuade parishioners, neighbors and friends from coming onto our church grounds.  The festival committee worked very well together to tweak a good program and make it better.  Our sponsorships were up, our Kiddieland was rejuvenated, Joe and his hard-working kitchen cooks brought out some new items, and the grounds were alive all four evenings.  (To those who laughed at my idea to add salads to our menu, I can only say, haha!   We sold out all salads every night.)  And who knows how important the Baby Doll Dance on Thursday was to our attendance!  What a show!

I was able to report to parishioners at Masses on Sunday, August 5, that a preliminary financial report showed our gross receipts were up a huge 33% over last year.  We'll post a full financial report in a few weeks, after all the bills are paid, but the one bill I have is a gigantic debt to our veteran and almost four dozen new volunteers who made the St. Vitus Parish Big Festival the success it was.  

Let's do it again next year, bigger and better!

Church vs. Arena

Have you driven by Epiphany Church in the Uptown neighborhood recently? It is unnerving to drive away from Duquesne University, toward either Bigelow Boulevard or the ramp onto the Veterans Bridge (I-579 north), look to your right to the Hill District--and see nothing.  

The Civic Arena is gone.

The historic space-ship shaped structure, built during "urban renewal" -- read, 1950s neighborhood destruction in the name of Mayor David L. Lawrence's Renaissance -- has been demolished.  All of the steel and concrete which anchored the building have been removed.  Large earth-moving cranes are pushing around dirt to level it out, probably to make temporary parking lots.  The Pittsburgh Penguins moved into brand new Consol Energy Center two years ago, making the Civic (nee Mellon) Arena economically unnecessary.  A couple of brave souls tried to stop its demolition, in the name of historic preservation.  But economics won out.  The Penguins didn't want a useless arena on their hands.  They (and the city of Pittsburgh) would rather have the land turned into businesses.  And maybe a few new homes, too.

I'm all in favor of building new homes in the city.  And new homes and smaller businesses will expand the Hill District  toward Downtown, allowing the two neighborhoods to (almost) meet.  But it was striking how quickly the city pushed aside any arguments to preserve the Civic Arena.  Or even just to delay its demolition for a year or three in the possibility some other use or money might make it a viable building for our community.

Contrast that speed with the delay, delay and delay over the proposed demolition of the St. Nicholas Church on Route 28, in the East Allegheny neighborhood of the city of Pittsburgh.  The parish formally left the building five years ago.  All religious items were long ago removed.  The vandals have taken what exterior copper off the building they could.  A plucky and vocal group of preservationists have proposed making the church into a museum to the Croatian immigrant experience in the United States--but have never proven to the Catholic parish and the Diocese of Pittsburgh that they have resources beyond a dream, or anything resembling a sound business plan.  

Yet the city still holds the church, and the parish, hostage, because of the Historic Preservation label imposed on it in 2001.

At least, until Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Colville reversed a Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission decision on July 23.  Colvill's ruling describes the church's historic designation as, in effect, "a taking."  His ruling also questioned the legal standing of the people who testified and offered opinions about the building's alleged viability.  A 2009 feasibility study reported estimated renovation costs to the church building of $7 million.  The court decision noted that there is no evidence that anyone "would attempt to raise $7 million" for that purpose.  

I could bet that  when he heard about Colville's ruling, parish administrator Father Dan Whalen probably said to himself, at last sanity is breaking out.  (The contemporary demands of full disclosure make me admit that Dan is a brother priest, friend, and a former colleague when we both served St. John Vianney Parish, Hilltop.  But he is not responsible for anything I post in my blog.)  But wait, the city one day later announced that it would appeal Judge Colville's ruling.  And so more delay, and more hardship on the St. Nicholas Parish of Millvale, which does have a church which has real historic artifacts -- the paintings of Maxo Vanka.  (Go to .  Or better, drive up the hill and see the paintings in person.)

Why is it government can move so quickly when possible tax dollars, and the influence of the sports team Penguins, speak, and when the church speaks, all it gets is ... well, lots of words and lots of delay?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Email Disaster

To my dear and few friends who read this!

Yesterday I lost my email account.  I had kept my email address ( ) from my former parish, Saint Juan Diego, in Sharpsburg.  But the parish changed its phone and internet service yesterday, and forgot that I had my account with them.

Bye-bye emails, history, saved photos, and address book.

So, to those brave souls who read this, would you be so kind as to contact me at my new email address: ?  Yes, St. Vitus Parish has Verizon service.  This new email address is through our parish account.  But after a kindly Verizon service representative worked for 45 minutes to recover my former email address, I learned that the Saint Juan Diego account was a business one, St. Vitus is a residential one.  Ne'er the twain shall meet.  The service rep could not transfer the information in my former address to the new address I set up.

If you don't hear from me by email, this is why! 

I look forward to hearing (emailing??!!) from you.

Festival Time!

All are most welcome to come to the St. Vitus Big Festival now going on on our parish grounds here in New Castle.  We are known for great Italian food -- cavatelli, eggplant sandwiches, fried dough, pizza greens, pepperoni puffs, pasta fagioli, and new this year, chicken salads.  We've improved our Kiddlie Land with new rides and booths, and have added dozens of new and enthusiastic volunteers.

Every night, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 6 to 10 pm, at 910 South Mercer Street, on the South Side of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

Tonight we have the locally famous Red Coat Band from Mahoningtown offering entertainment at 7 pm, and the Baby Doll Dance at 9 pm.  Friday night is the Lawrence County Brass at 7 pm and the Tonelli Brothers at 8 pm.  And on Saturday local band Capri performs their magic at 8 pm.

See you on the grounds!