Friday, October 26, 2012

Hurray for the Little Sisters

Last night Bishop David Zubik hosted "A Heavenly Feast," a fundraiser for the Little Sisters of the Poor in Pittsburgh.  Nine "celebrity chefs" used their culinary skills to benefit the Sisters' ministry to the aged poor, at their facility on Benton Avenue in Brighton Heights.  

Over 400 guests came to the new Cardinals' Great Hall, on the campus of St. Paul Seminary, to enjoy such entrees as Orrecchiete San Matteo (Father Brian Welding), Fettucini Carbonara (Father Larry DiNardo), Baccala in Bianco (Father Joe Sioli), Farfalla Farnese (Father Jim Farnan), Sausage and Peppers with Polenta (Father Tom Sparachino), and Chicken Piccata (Father Sam Esposito).  For dessert we were treated to 2,000 homemade cookies baked by Father Sparacino's mom and her friends in the New Castle area, the "Second Collection" wines of Father Bob Miller and homemade Limoncello of Father Sam.  

My associate, Father Nick Vaskov, was also one of chefs.  Reaching into his Polish heritage, he contributed Bigos (a hunter's stew) and Mizeria (a cucumber salad).  Every priest's dish was excellent, and a yummy to savor.

Another fun part of the evening was a live auction of such neat events as tickets to a Stephen Colbert show in New York City, tutorial in wine by a Duquesne University Spiritan priest, hour-long flight over Pittsburgh with pilot Father Joe McCaffrey, and pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. personally escorted by Bishop Zubik.

It was a delightful evening, made even more so by the unseasonably warm weather, and the spirit of the Little Sisters.  The Little Sisters residence on the North Side has sometimes been called "the holiest place in the Diocese of Pittsburgh," and with good reason.  The Little Sisters trust completely in  God's providence and their patron, St. Joseph, to provide the means to carry out their ministry to the aged poor. Their founder, Jeanne Jugan, was recently canonized a saint.  Their prayer to her, and to St. Joseph, often produce "miracles" on which their ministry rests.

There was a serious note, however, at the end of the auction.  Long-time benefactor Dick Fisher told us how the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has cut Medicaid reimbursements by $10 per day per person, leaving a shortfall in the Little Sisters budget for the next year of at least $200,000.  Donations have been down as well, and they don't think that they have enough money for the $30,000 a month heating bills for the upcoming winter.  So Dick Fisher challenged the audience for greater generosity.   He asked everyone to dig deeper for the Little Sisters, and pledged to match the first $100,000 raised toward these shortfalls with an equal amount.  I don't like to solict funds through my blog, but if your heart moves you, you may contact the Little Sisters at 1028 Benton Avenue, Pittsburgh Pa 15212.  There is not a better expression of the love of Christ anywhere.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Respect Life Month - II

I was asked by our diocesan office for human dignity to prepare two columns on themes of respect for human life.  Here's the second:

Who thinks about the death penalty?  Who thinks about men and women on death row, hidden in a faraway state prison?

I sure didn't -- until years ago one of my parishioners was killed, and the convicted murderer was her husband and also my parishioner.  Then the issue of capital punishment became real for me.  This was a couple I had prepared for marriage, and happily witnessed their vows of love.  Yet 18 months later one was dead, and the other was on trial for his life.

"Blunt force trauma."  What horrible words.  That was the cause of death, at the hands of her husband, as determined by a jury of his peers.  You think, if she died, shouldn't he as well?  Didn't the bible say, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"?  Well, what about a life for a life?

It is at moments like these that one has to ask, does being a Catholic Christian mean anything?  For forty years our church has spoken against the death penalty as an offense against human dignity.  As the U.S. Catholic bishops have written, "We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing."  In a 1995 encyclical, Blessed Pope John Paul II asked governments to stop using death as the ultimate penalty.  The Holy Father pointed out that instances where its application is necessary to protect society have been "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Our fellow citizens must be listening to this pro-life message.  Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been 1,307 executions.  But the annual number of sentences and executions has declined for the past five years.  In 2005 the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles.  Study after study have shown the arbitrariness of the death penalty, depending on the race of the victim, race of the defendant, or region of the country.  Due to DNA testing, somewhere around 130 men have been exonerated and released from death row in the U.S. after years of incarceration.

If Americans are not swayed by moral argumetnts they are changing their minds to oppose the death penalty because of cost.  Enforcing a capital case can mean millions of dollars more in legal expenses for states than sentencing murderers to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  Recent polls indicate waning public support for use of the death penalty. Most law enforcement officers consider the threat of the death penalty a poor means to reduce violent crime.

Christian faith ofers a unique perspective on crime and punishment.  We see human dignity both in the victim and in the perpetrator.  The God-given dignity of human life does not end when a person does great harm, even to the point of murder.  Again, the U.S. bishops:  "Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life."

And my former parishioner?  He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  As Sister Helen Prejean taught us, we can hope and pray that in his long hours locked up he comes to reconsider his murder and seek God's forgiveness for the evil he did.  Others may be able to minister to him and fellow death row inmates.  The abolition of the death penalty is a small, but importnat step in turning away from state- sponsored violence and toward upholding human life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Respect Life Month - I

I was asked by our diocesan office for human dignity to prepare two columns on themes of respect life.  Here's the first.

Sometimes there are many paths to the same goal.  For example, one path to the near elimination of abortion is through the political process.  Another arduous path is through the reconciliation and healing of a Rachel's Vineyard retreat.

What is a Rachel's Vineyard retreat?  According to its website, "Rachel's Vineyard is a safe place to renew, rebuild and redeem hearts broken by abortion.  Weekend retreats offer a supportive, cofidential and non-judgmental environment where women and men can express, release and reconcile painful post-aborting emotions to begin the process of restoration, renewal and healing.

I have been blessed to serve on two RV retreat teams.  It is an intense but very satisfying experience, for me as a priest, and even more so for the retreatants.  Each participant who comes had at least one abortion.  The first day of the retreat is focused on the retreatants telling their stories: how they were raised, any marriages, how the abortion came about, other significant issues in their lives.  As you might imagine, this story-telling is very emotional.  We go through a lot of boxes of Kleenex during the weekend.  A key goal of the first day is that each retreatant takes responsibility for her/his sinful act.

At the same time the retreatants are introduced to God's love through several spiritual exercises.  These retreat exercises help participants to accept forgiveness for themselves and others.  There is also an opportunity to re-connect with the children who have been aborted on a spiritual level, to name them, given them honor and dignity, and specially remember them in a concluding memorial service.  Again, according to the website, "Mourning and grieving are necessary milestones which must be passed so that healthy lives can continue.  When their retreat is concluded there is re-birth and resurrection.  There is new life within our spirit which gives us hope in the future.  Through a very personal and intimate encounter with the Living God, we come to know that God knows and loves us despite our many weaknesses and human failures."

Twice-a-year Rachel's Vineyard retreats are sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Cataholic Charities.  Retreatants are invited to attend Mass on Saturday morning and the concluding Mass on Sunday; to receive the sacrament of reconciliation; and to pray in silence before Eucharistic Adoration in a specially prepared chapel.  Throughout the weekend there are neighboring Catholics who pray for the retreatants in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  Each participant and team member has a prayer partner praying for them.

As the priest on the retreat team I am able, through confession and the Eucharist, to minister to these women and men in a most powerful way.  Many of the women had not been to confession or Holy Communion in 15 or 20 or 30 years.  Most of them had never said out loud what they felt like when they became pregnant, when they told their husband/boyfriend, when they went for the abortion, or how they have dealt with the abortion since.  Walls of silence, denial and avoidance are broken down, to lay bare the human reality that we all need and depend on God and God's love.

The Rachel's Vineyard retreat brings hope to broken souls, one at a time.  I believe that as our church shares the mercy of God's love, over time the general population of our country will see with new eyes the evil of abortion, and advocate against it as the offense against human rights that it is.  If you want more information, go to  , or call the diocese at 412-456-3156.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The New Evangelization

It came up during the latter days of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and has almost become a mantra, if not a central theme, of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.  It is "the New Evangelization."  The current Synod of Bishops has as its theme, "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith."  Pope Benedict established a new Vatican dicastery earlier this year, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.  And it is a major component of the current Year of Faith, from October 11, 2012 to the Feast of Christ the King, November 24, 2013.

A couple of days ago the clergy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh gathered for their twice-yearly convocation, on, of course, the theme of the New Evangelization.  The featured speaker was Father Howard Bleichner.  Father Bleichner is a native Pittsburgher, from St. Basil Parish, Carrick, but has served his entire priesthood as a member of the Society of St. Sulpice, in the service of the education and formation of candidates for the priesthood.  He has been a professor of dogmatic theology, author, seminary rector, and advisor to the U.S. bishops.  Howie is semi-retired now, but soon to return to Pittsburgh as an assistant and spiritual director at St. Paul Seminary in Crafton.  

His talk on the New Evangelization brought a great deal of light to what could be just a cliche or a throw-away Catholic insider line.  He addressed the topic from the metaphor of a gun:  the shooter (priests and deacons), the target (the audience of NE) and the shell (the content of NE).

To us priests and deacons gathered, Father Bleichner expressed sympathy about the workload we shoulder today. He made comparisons with the priests who were serving his parish in the 1950s as he grew up:  the pastor, a canon lawyer who was also the  best-read man in the community, and the assistant pastor, who on the side pursued a master's degree in Russian at the University of Pittsburgh.  They had the time to read, reflect, think.  Today it is different.  Yet in the midst of our hours and hours of ministry, what the New Evangelization calls forth from us clergy is authenticity.  We must preach the person and message of Jesus Christ from deep within us.  We clergy have to be personally renewed ourselves, if we are to ask our congregants and the world around us to embrace Christ.  A primary way is to tell stories about our own faith journey, so as to get others to see themselves in a faith journey also.

The audience is vastly different today.  Father Bleichner mentioned some of the seminarians he encountered at St. Patrick Seminary, in Menlo Park, California, and at Theological College, in Washington, D.C.  they are Christians in a digital age. And any proclamation of the Word of God and Kingdom of God has to be in language they understand.  He said we have to be familiar with email--texting--tumbler--flicker--skype--facebook, and all the instruments of the internet.  Yet in that digital universe, he said, these young folks are lonely.  They desire community.  And what can the church give (and knows a great deal about)?  Community.  We catechists have to know our audience, and then respond using their languages.

The content of the New Evangelization is a timeless message--the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What is new is not the content, but how we deliver it.  And he remarked upon the need to touch people through their experience, and then, and only then, lead them to the deeper levels of faith, liturgy, and doctrine.  

Father Bleichner concluded by asking us bishops, priests and deacons to "be specific, be particular  be practical" in how we proclaim the Good News of Christ where we are, in how we make real in our parishes and communities the New Evangelization.


Sermon in a Bottle

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "One who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin."

Rarely a month, sometimes only a week, goes by, and you get the question.  "Why did God do ... to me?"  It could be someone suffering from advanced cancer, or going through a divorce, or remembering the death of her daughter from a drunk driver, or just a 90 year old who wants to die.   How do you answer that?  I have no better answer than anyone else in Christianity's history.  

What I do have is a response:  Jesus has been there before.  He lived, he understands our joys and pains and griefs, he suffered horribly and he died.  And we respond to the question not with answers but with accompanying the hurt one through their pain, as a servant and as a friend.

Springsteen Sightings

The woeful Pirates collapsed down the stretch and didn't make it into the Major League Baseball playoffs.  But the world continues.  I've noticed that the "theme song" for Fox and MLB Network's introduction to its games this year is Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams."  Most of what you hear is the long guitar riff, but you can catch the title words in the longer intros.

Speaking of themes, the Boss came out of political retirement to offer two concerts for President Obama, tonight in Ames, Iowa, and yesterday in suburban Cleveland.  The Boss's warm-up act was former President Bill Clinton.  

And...only eight more days till Bruce and his bandmates come to Pittsburgh to sold-out Consol Energy Arena for another concert on Saturday, October 27.  For those who doubt--of course I'll be there!  Can't wait!

Human Rights for All

It is a commonplace in contemporary religious discourse in our country today to rail against secularism.  In a front page story in last week's Pittsburgh Catholic, Cardinal Donald Wuerl did just that, in a speech preparatory to the ongoing Synod of Bishops in Rome.

There are many things bad about secularism.  But some are good.  One is the focus on human rights.  In an all-too-brief explanation, the articulation of human rights began with 17th and 18th century philosophers, who influenced the Founding Fathers of our country and placed human rights in the core documents of the American Revolution, and culminated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

The Catholic Church was all-too-slow to catch up with this world development.  But Pope John XXIII affirmed the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration in his seminal encyclical Pacem in Terris in 1963 (paragraphs 11 to 27 if you want to be precise).  

Since then, the Catholic Church has been among the staunchest supporters of human rights throughout the world.  It even overturned 1500 years of contrary teaching when the Second Vatican Council in 1965 affirmed the right to religious liberty for all human beings.  No more would the Catholic Church call for burning heretics at the stake, imprisoning persons of different religious, or teach "error has no rights."  Instead, in the words of Dignitatis Humanae: 

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. 

The Council Fathers in this statement affirmed Article 18 of the Universal Declaration:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." 

The statements of the Universal Declaration, however, can go in many unanticipated directions.  Take for example Article 3 and Article 7.

Article 3 reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of persons."  It is in this right that I believe that abortion as an important moral issue is a human rights issue.  "Everyone has the right to life."  Everyone.  Science and medicine have proven over and over that human life begins with conception in the womb, not with the moments of birth.  "Everyone has the right to life."  Therefore this right should be protected within the human community.  

Many people are under the mistaken notion that abortion is a peculiar Catholic teaching.  They say, those celibate Catholic bishops want to impose their crazy and unfair ideas on women (and men).  But from the perspective I am offering, abortion  is not a religious doctrine or teaching.  It is a grave crime against the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.  

Has this view won the day?  Not at all.  As is well known, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, advocates of abortion on demand have managed to get their position made legal, whether through legislative or judicial processes.  The U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973 are only among the most famous of decisions throughout the world.  More than 40 million abortion -- all legal -- have resulted since that terrible ruling.

However it is my belief that eventually the human race will come to see that killing innocent human life in the womb is against the most fundamental human right, and therefore should be seen as barbaric as slavery or torture or genocide or racism.  When will this happen?  Well, I don't know.  But to the extent that anti-abortion foes join their opposition to abortion with support for all other human rights, and do so in a completely non-violent way (pace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), I believe that position will eventually be enshrined in the laws of the countries of the world.

But the articulation of human rights, as I said, can lead in unexpected directions.  Yesterday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-to-1 decision affirming a lower court's decision that section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.  Section 3 defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman for purposes of federal law.  In this decision in the case of Windsor v. United States, the court goes a step farther than the May ruling from the Boston federal appeals court that also found DOMA unconstitutional in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management.  

The rationale of the court is discrimination, that is, inequality before the law.  The senior judge said in his ruling that discrimination against gays should be scrutinized by the courts in the same heightened way as discrimination faced by women was in the 1970s. He stated that "homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination."  This would lead to a recognition that discrimination against gays (in DOMA) would be assumed to be unconstitutional.

This decision is surely not the final word.  There are 32 states which have stated that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, similar to the federal law passed in 1996 by bipartisan majorities.  Some seven states, including Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York, have approved so-called gay marriage.

My point here is not to agree with the two judges of the 2nd Circuit Court.  My point here is to say that the argument of "equality," so important in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will, I believe, trump the thousands of years old understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.   In our country, in our day, you cannot win an argument by advocating for "inequality."  And to many eyes, and increasingly it seems to judges and justices, the exclusion of two men or two women from the definition of marriage is seen as unequal and discriminatory.  So, for example, Article 7 of the Universal Declaration states, "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law." 

In response to the October 18 decision, Archbishop Salvatore Cordelione of San Francisco stated, "The recognition that marriage is and can only be the union of one man and one woman is grounded in our nature, being clear from the very way our bodies are designed.  This recognition obliges our consciences and laws.  It is a matter of basic rights--the right of every child to be welcomed and raised, as far as possible, by his or her mother and father together in a stable home.... The public good demands that the unique meaning and purpose of marriage be respected in law and society not rejected as beyond the constitutional pale.  Redefining marriage never upholds the equal dignity of individuals because it contradicts basic human rights."

I cannot know where this trajectory of human rights, in the matter of marriage is going.  I affirm our church's teaching, and the long experience of human history, that marriage is and only can be the union of one man and one woman.  But my strong suspicion is that the human rights language of "equality" will trump the traditional language of "grounded in our nature," and that a redefined marriage--the unions of several varieties (man/man, woman/woman, perhaps even polygamy)--will eventually become part of our culture and society and law.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon in a Bottle

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God."

If there is one thing harder than to propose ethical norms for human sexuality, it's to propose ethics for business and finance.  But trust Jesus not to duck the hard questions of life.  In his response to the man with many possessions  Jesus managed to blow up -- to the ears of his disciples -- the entire understanding of ancient Jews around wealth.  The pervasive thought was that if a believer does what the Lord desires, the Lord will reward him with many children, fat cattle and riches.  Let go of your grasp on possessions, Jesus says, and I will reward you in different ways both here on earth and with eternal life.  There's a stark contrast!

Getting Our Systems in Order

Since I began this great adventure of pastoring four parishes in July, many people have asked me, "How is it going?"  My response depends on my mood at the time.

I have gone from shock, to acceptance, to humble pride (is that an oxymoron or legitimate feeling?) during the bishop's four installation ceremonies, to wondering why I ever said yes to this assignment.  At the moment, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the questions that are thrown at me, big and small, important and not-too-important.  I feel like I have way too many balls in the air, and any moment my arms are just not going to windmill fast enough to catch enough of them to keep them up there.  

When I do have a few minutes to think seriously about the question, and not just react to my feelings, what pops into my head is "systems."  Two dictionary definitions of "system" are:  "an assemblege or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole," and "a coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure."  It's probably more the latter definition that captures my understanding of systems.  I am struggling to put together the methods or plans of procedure for a whole raft of issues among our four parishes.

It was one of the great Pittsburgh priests of the 20th century who introduced me to systems thinking.  Msgr. Jack McCarren was the head of the diocesan office for social action for 30 years.  At one point he stumbled upon the ground-breaking work of Dr. Murray Bowen, and finagled a sabbatical year from Bishop Vincent Leonard. Jack used this time to get a master's degree in psychology from Dr. Bowen at Georgetown University.  Jack always liked to talk, and when he returned home he never passed up an opportunity to tell one and all about the incredible insights into human behavior of Bowen's family systems theory,  When I served St. Mary of Mercy Parish in downtown Pittsburgh way back in the 1980s, I used to listen to Jack's stories and ideas over lunch (our conversation -really a McCarren soliloquy--sometimes extending to 2:30 or 3:00 p.m.  I must not have been working very hard!).  

(For more information about Bowen's thinking, go to .  From the website:  "Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interaction in the unity.")  

It was Jack who introduced me to such concepts as triangles, differentiation of self, emotional cutoffs, sibling position, and multigenerational transmission processes.  Others extended Bowen's theory beyond the family.  In particular, reading Rabbi Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (1985) opened my eyes to seeing how parishes, dioceses, even the entire church was affected by the emotional currents among its leaders.   To this day I continue to look for the connections within families and within parishes using Bowen family systems theory.

In a certain sense, systems theory works at two levels.  One are the "methods or plans of procedure."  In my particular situation in New Castle, this means setting up step-by-step ways of planning, addressing questions, dealing with ordinary life (e.g., scheduling priests for daily Mass, how funeral directors contact the priests to schedule a funeral, working with engaged couples to plan their wedding, etc.) and crises (e.g., visiting a sick parishioner in the hospital ICU).  But I can't just think about one parish.  I have to think of each parish as both an individual parish and part of a larger unit.  

For example, at the moment we are in the process of setting up a central calendar, so that the priests, the school principal, and the parish secretaries know what is happening among the parishes and St. Vitus school.  Each parish knows what is happening in its own universe, but generally does not know what is happening among the other neighboring parishes.  Until there's a process of collecting information about parish events in one location, I feel like I am driving through fog, never sure what's ahead.  Further, the lack of shared information does not help parishioners to see themselves as part of something bigger:  the Catholic community in New Castle.   This is an example of a system my staff and I have to set up.

The other level Bowen systems theory works is on the emotional level.  If we are honest, we all have emotional content to any question or action.  For example, when a parishioner comes up to me after a Sunday Mass, and says, "The priests are hard to get ahold of.  No one wants to answer my question."  I know that I am dealing not just with a person seeking information, but also her emotional content (probably volatile feelings).  Instead of shooting back in a snarky way, "Well, just who do you think you're talking to?  Are you not talking with a priest now?" I've learned the hard way just to listen.  Or, perhaps, I might suggest we go back into the church where we can sit and have an extended conversation -- again, with me mostly listening to her feelings.  There may be a question there, but I have to respond gently to her feelings first.  Perhaps her feelings come not from any priest or church, but from how she has been treated in her family of origin or family of marriage.

As I learned from Rabbi Friedman's book, such emotional context also works within and among parish communities.  For example, before I give a permission or allow some activity in one parish, I have to think about how the parishioners in the other parishes will react.  Will they feel put down by my action, or that I "played favorites" to their detriment?  Or am I just over-thinking?  Parents who have more than one child understand this very well.  I have learned the hard way there are always some emotional currents in decisions I make, on my end as the pastor and in the reception by the parishioners affected.  Having four parishes and a school makes this decision-making a little like a "five-dimensional chess" game and even more complex.

So day by day I am trying to set up the modes of procedures for many important questions and parochial issues.  With Bowen family systems theory in mind, I also try to consider my emotional place in the whole complex of New Castle parishes, as well as where the leaders and faithful are as well.    As Msgr. McCarren was fond of saying, "Don't just do something, sit there and think."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Priests in the Local News

My classmate and friend, Father Sam Esposito, was featured in a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday, October 4.  He is an excellent cook, and is one of the eight "priest celebrity chefs" who will be recognized at a fund-raising dinner for the Little Sisters of the Poor Home in Pittsburgh on October 25.  Gretchen McKay captures his skills well.

I got the front page treatment in our local New Castle News on Sunday, September 29, for being installed as pastor of four parishes in New Castle by Bishop David Zubik.  A sidebar by reporter Dan Irwin also accurately quoted me regarding the issue of whether our parishes are going to merger soon.

Sermon in a Bottle

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  " ' Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?' "

There are some teachings of Jesus which are just hard sayings.  Forgive and love your enemies.  Rejoice when you are persecuted.   Only through the cross is eternal life.  And, marriage is for a lifetime, no escape clauses.  In every age and century this has been resisted, with some Christian churches giving in to divorce, and some, like my own, using the law to wiggle around it.  But the words are there in the gospels, in black and white.  Better to preach it, and then add, "Hate the sin, love the sinner," and "Let the children come to me."  Nobody said following the Lord Jesus was easy.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The rituals which hold us together

Whenever I conduct wedding rehearsals at some point I usually give a three minute instruction on the ritual nature of the wedding ceremony.  In front of me are all these young people, usually very casually dressed, uncomfortable to be in church (which is not a usual habitat for most of them), and certainly uncomfortable when I (channeling my inner Miss Manners) tell them how to walk down the aisle, when to sit or stand, and explain the various parts of the Mass.  When I tell them that the best way they can pray during the wedding Mass is to be attentive to the readings, prayers and words of the newly-married couple, I feel like I am throwing pearls before swine.  Oh well.

I try to make the point that what we are about in the wedding ceremony is ritual behavior.  We are a casual people, I say, but tomorrow we do things that have basically been done the same way for centuries.  The formal entrance of the wedding party and the bride, the outlandish attire (tuxedos and thousand-dollar bridal dresses), the formal setting of a church, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a priest dressed in alb and chasuble -- all of these are formal ritual behavior, with important meanings.  Our very formality and participation in the wedding ritual points to the public importance of the vows pronounced by the bride and groom.  Some brides add to the ritual -- taking flowers to the altar of Mary and invoking her assistance, lighting a so-called unity candle, even crazy after-wedding ideas of blowing bubbles or throwing rice or releasing doves.

I have no idea if the members of the bridal party understand what I am talking about with my explanation of ritual.  But I am sure that rituals are all around us.  In an earlier post I described attending the first Steeler home game.  Talk about a place and time full of rituals!  

Another place I see clear and impressive ritual behavior is after some of the funerals we conduct in New Castle.  There is a lively group of local military veterans who, when asked by family, conduct a ceremony either at graveside in the cemetery or after a blessing service in the funeral home for a person who served in the military.

All of the men, veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam or Iraq I, come dressed very neatly in their crisp matching pale-green slacks and blouse, with appropriate military decorations over their breast.  Usually there are at least eight or ten, once in a while two dozen.  There are defined roles:  the leader who calls all to their service, the chaplain who prays, the one who reads a description of the deceased's military service, the shooters who fire three rounds, the one who plays (the tape) of Taps, the ones who so reverently and precisely fold the flag and present it to the widow or surviving son or daughter with such solemnity:  "On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, I present this flag to you in sacred memory of your loved one's service to his country."  At the conclusion all the veterans gathered go to the casket, two by two, salute smartly, and say, "Farewell, comrade."  Then they march away.

It is an impressive performance, and often calls forth tears from the deceased's family.  The veterans are very sincere, and do this freely.  They practice it, and do it very well.  The way they conduct themselves certainly calls forth the virtues they declaim in the ceremony:  "Duty, honor, service."  And all of it is ritual. 

I enjoy kicking back in my tee shirt, shorts and Crocs.  I enjoy being casual as much as the next guy.  But we human beings give meaning to our deepest beliefs through ritual  How many folks recognize them?


Sermon in a Bottle

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "For whoever is not against us is with us."

The great moral theologian Bernard Haring in the 1950s dramatically changed the way moral theology was conducted by focusing not on law but on Christ.  Another change post-Vatican II in moral theology is the focus on virtue.  We are judged by our actions, but behind them are the virtues we hold, and the attitudes which give rise to virtues.  When Jesus cautions his disciples not to attack folks not of his company, but using his name, he says, in effect, it's ok, allow good works to go forth even if you don't have communion with them, or even if you don't have power over them.  What are the attitudes we hold which give rise to the virtues we act on?