Saturday, August 31, 2013

Labor Day 2013

Those with special devotion to St. Joseph, the just spouse of Mary and foster-father of Jesus, were very happy to hear the news from the Vatican in June that Pope Francis had approved the recommendation to include St. Joseph's name in all Eucharistic Prayers at Mass, immediately after the invocation of the Blessed Mother.  St. Joseph is already named in the First Eucharistic Prayer (the Roman Canon).  This inclusion was approved by Pope John XXIII around 1960.  Now you will hear St. Joseph's name in all the Eucharistic Prayers, for daily and Sunday Masses.

The other picture of Joseph is that of worker or carpenter of Nazareth.  In Matthew 13:55, the astonished people in the synagogue of Nazareth rhetorically ask, " Is [Jesus] not the carpenter's son?"  In John "murmuring Jews" are opposed to Jesus' teaching on the bread of life and ask, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?  Do we not know his father and mother?"  (6:42)  The earliest recorded published devotion to St. Joseph comes only in the 8th century, but March 19 is established as his feast day as early as the 11th century.  In the 19th century Pope Pius IX names St. Joseph the patron of the universal church, and Pope Leo XIII called on all Catholic to pray to St. Joseph for intercession.

In 1955 Pope Pius XII established a second feast day, May 1, specifically for St. Joseph the Worker.  Many people at the time saw it as a Christian response to the Communists' celebration of military and political power (particularly in the then-Soviet Union) on "May Day."  But this designation also reflected the Catholic Church's positive view of the value of labor, working men and women, and unions.  Atheistic communism has passed into the "dustbin of history," but the value of May 1 honoring St. Joseph the Worker continues to grow.  It is through work that human beings build up their families, homes, towns and cities, and the world at large.  Human labor is always to be honored, whether it be through the sweat of farming, manufacturing or nursing, the drudgery of the assembly line, cash register or housework, or the creativity of teaching, business entrepreneurship and the arts.

I find it significant that way back in 1888 Bishop John Tuigg, the third bishop of Pittsburgh, named the second parish in New Castle after St. Joseph the Worker.  New Castle was already known for its workers in manufacturing plants and on the canals and railroads.  Over the next three decades the waves of European immigrants seeking work who came to New Castle would push the Diocese of Pittsburgh to open parishes for Italian immigrants (St. Vitus in 1901; St. Lawrence, Bessimer, in 1906; St. Lucy in 1913), Slovak immigrants (St. Michael in 1910), and Polish immigrants (Madonna of Czectochowa in 1902; SS. Philip and James in 1923).  This year is the 125th anniversary of St. Joseph the Worker Parish.  In October Bishop David Zubik, the twelfth bishop of Pittsburgh, will come up to help us celebrate this anniversary.

Labor Day in our country is at one and the same time a way to honor all workers, to pray for the unemployed who are seeking honest work at a living wage, and to rest from our labors to enjoy family and friends   One of my parishes, appropriately St. Joseph the Worker, will host a Mass at 9:00 a.m. on Labor Day.  Let us pray for St. Joseph, the loving husband of Mary and woodworker of Nazareth, to guide us in our work on Earth.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Walking Toward Unity

My first anniversary (July 30) as pastor of the four parishes in the city of New Castle came and went.  My two associates have also passed their first anniversaries serving here.  When I tell people about our unique (to the Diocese of Pittsburgh) pastoral situation here in Lawrence County, they often ask, well, are you merged yet?

I explain (with maybe too much an air of "been there, done that") that when the bishop gave me this assignment, he and I agreed that the first thing was not "merger" but "being church."  I have long felt that it takes a priest anywhere from 18 to 36 months to feel that he is settled into his assignment.  With the people, organizations and histories of four parishes, that number of months probably has to rise.  So my brother priests and I are trying our best to "just be church" and do our work in all four parishes.

At the same time, however, we are working together.  For the first anniversary, I sat down with my associates at our weekly lunch-and-business-meeting and came up with a list of areas where we have collaborated.  Let me share it here.  

First off, at the suggestion of Bishop Zubik, all three priests live under one roof at Mary Mother of Hope rectory.  We only had to do minor fix-up, paint-up to put together three nice four room suites for each of us.  We have weekly business meetings and three regular shared meals together, as well as a schedule which allows each of us a full day off each week.  The people have been incredibly supportive of our small fraternity of priests.  

In January I reorganized the pastoral and finance councils of all four parishes.  Instead of meeting with each parish's councils separately (potentially 40 meetings a year!  Ugh!), the councils meet together five times a year.  The pastoral council has done good work in discerning three goals (catechesis, evangelization, stewardship) for our situation.  It has also made concrete suggestions for action under each goal, which we are tackling and planning to accomplish over the next 12 months.

We have hosted joint meetings from all four parishes of the secretaries, musicians, directors of religious education, St. Vincent de Paul Society conferences, and bookkeepers.  I hope that these meetings continue, so that people can work collaboratively and effectively.  One result of the meeting with DREs is for the first time (ever?) there will be one celebration of Confirmation for the young people of all four parishes this fall.  Bishop Zubik is coming on Wednesday, October 16, to confirm 110 ninth graders in St. Vitus Church.

We have set schedules for the four parishes, for Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, civil holiday and holyday Masses, and Masses in local nursing homes.  Fathers Nick and Bill (with others) have organized a one-day marriage preparation workshop for engaged couples, which is offered twice a year.  Parishioners have led a schedule of monthly classes for parents to prepare for the baptism of their children.  This class is rotated among the four sites.  Our parishes continue the longstanding cooperation with the other four Lawrence County parishes for shared penance services in Advent and Lent, the youth group and the RCIA process.

One special achievement was the planning and execution of a chapel for the extended adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  After more than eight months of preparation  on the Feast of Corpus Christi (June 2) we began round-the-clock adoration (six days a week) in the Mary Mother of Hope religious education building on North Beaver Street.  Over 190 parishioners have signed up for a weekly hour of silent prayer.  Many have thanked me for the spiritual enrichment this hour in the presence of Our Lord has brought them.  But this cooperative effort was led by parishioners, I'm happy to say.

Another nice thing was the diocese assigning two seminarians to us for a pastoral internship this past summer.  Chris Mannerino and Zach Galiyas worked hard, and (God willing) are looking forward to be called to the Order of Deacon for ordination in June 2014.  I know I enjoyed their youthful enthusiasm and energetic assistance.

Last winter two of our parishes, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus, completed their efforts for Our Campaign for the Church Alive!  Both parishes exceeded their diocesan-set target:  St. Vincent de Paul (103%; $493,000) and St. Vitus (125%; $1,435,000).  Now is the "fulfillment" stage, and parishioners who made pledges fulfill them monthly, quarterly or annually.  In November these parishes will receive their first payment (40% of money received since January) from the Church Alive Campaign, to begin fulfilling their parish case statements.

There may be other ways we've worked together, but this is a start.  I would say we've been busy about the Lord's work.  And as parishioners from each of the parishes get to know each other, go to each others churches for Mass and halls for meetings and festivals, we are walking together on the journey to unity.

Prayer Before Math Class

Our parish school, St. Vitus, began classes one week ago.  It's great seeing the kids back in school, although I'm not ready to admit that this Labor Day weekend marks the coming of fall.

When I went around to see the kids on the first day, our fourth grade teacher, Justin Venasco, handed me this cute prayer.

Dear God,
May we, through your blessings,
add purity to the world,
subtract evil from our lives,
multiply your good news,
and divide your gifts and share them
with others.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

McGuire Memorial Home 50th Anniversary

The McGuire Memorial Home in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, is one of the holiest places in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  For 50 years McGuire has taken care of the most physically and mentally challenged of children, and in recent years, adults, and do so in a caring, compassionate, professional and Christian manner.

The vision of the home was shared by the Felician Sisters and then-Bishop John Wright of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1960.  It took three years to bring the vision into reality, with the first home on Mercer Road in Beaver County.  

In the words of McGuire's mission statement:

McGuire Memorial is a co-sponsored ministry of the Felician Sisters of North America and the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Forming a joy-filled community of Christian believers, McGuire Memorial is committed to providing comprehensive services to people with mental and physical disabilities that may include complex medical conditions and offers supportive services to their families and caregivers.

In its 50 year history, McGuire has only had two Executive Directors, Sister Mary Alice Sobieraj for 27 years, and Sister Mary Thaddeus Markelewicz, of the Felician Sisters, since 1990.  Both have been excellent administrators, and both have been visionaries of service to "God's special children."

McGuire started with one large institutional building.  But over the past 15 years it has expanded to include 22 residential homes, an educational center, a respite program, and employment and adult training center, and an outreach to the spectrum of autism care.

I invite you to learn more about McGuire by visiting their website, .  In the interest of full disclose, I represented the diocese for eight years on the board of directors when I was secretary for social concerns.  And recently Sister Thaddeus asked me to rejoin the board, which I am happy to do.

Last Sunday, August 11, McGuire formally marked its golden anniversary with a Mass and festive dinner.  Bishop David Zubik presided at the Eucharist, held at the convent of the Felician Sisters (their former motherhouse) in Coraopolis.  The dinner for over 200 was held at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott Hotel.

One of the delights of the program was viewing a short portion of an interview in the Channel 11 studio with Sister Mary Alice conducted, I would guess, sometime in the 1960s, probably about 1964 or 5.  Sister was in the severe face-pinching habit of the Felician Sisters at that time.  Also interviewed was Bishop John Wright, in cassock, pectoral cross, and biretta.  The grainy black-and-white film was touching, with the cameraman catching some of the children at the home playing with and being fed by the sisters.  

The best was the last, however.  After the awards had been given and the speeches made, MC Larry Richert of KDKA was interrupted by "Sister T".  She barged to the microphone (Larry quipped, "I never say no to Sister T!") and blurted out, "I wasn't supposed to speak tonight, but I couldn't help myself."  Everyone laughed at that truth.

She went on in her heartfelt way to thank everyone present and all who helped McGuire to be the driving force in the care of physically and mentally challenged individuals.  Then she said with a straight face:  "You know, when I became a Felician Sister 50 years ago, I made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.  Well, I have more bills than any of you out there.  I have more bosses than any of you.  And even though I made a vow of chastity, I have more men in my life than I ever thought possible.  And I like them!"  At this point, I looked at Bishop Zubik, who was sitting next to the speaker's podium.  He was laughing so hard, so red in the face, I thought he was going to have a stroke.  The audience was roaring with laughter.

Sister Thaddeus wouldn't stop.  She mentioned among "her men," the great work and support of the Knights of Columbus, the men on the boards of directors, her senior staff and caring staff, Father Bill Gillum of the Capuchin Fathers, and all the men benefactors present.  

Well, how could you top that?

McGuire Memorial Home is the institutionalization of our Catholic pro-life teaching.  The guiding leadership of Sister Thaddues and the Felician Sisters, the support of the bishop and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, its staff, parents and benefactors, all witness to what it means that God created every human being with worth and dignity.  Visit the home.  Offer to volunteer.  Support it with your prayers and with your money.  And may McGuire Memorial Home continue to serve the most fragile individuals in our midst for another 50 years.

Perceptions and (my) Reality

August 1 marked the second anniversary of my appointment as a pastor in New Castle, Lawrence County.  I now begin my third year "up north."  To my friends in Pittsburgh, I might as well be in Nunavut or the Yukon in Canada, I am so far north.  But as the weeks turn into months, the 60 or so miles of interstate highway get shorter, and the hour-long trip for picnics, diocesan meetings or a day off becomes more tolerable.

One thing however which friends and acquaintances remark to me, is how dangerous Lawrence County it.  They tell me there "always" seems to be something bad on the TV news happening in Lawrence County.  I tested this out by looking back at the files of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WTAE-TV.  Here are the major stories of the past few months to come out of Lawrence County:

  • Body found in Kino Quarry
  • Body of a person drowned in Slippery Rock Creek
  • Tornado in New Beaver Township last month
  • Man arrested for possession of child pornography in Ellwood City
  • Several fatal auto crashes, including the tragic death of 15 year old Shane McQueston in January
  • The Valley View Casino on Route 422 that has encountered many detours to being built
  • A mobile home fire that killed two people
  • The tragic death of Shenango Township officer Jerry McCarthy in May
  • Lots and lots of drug arrests
Since I rarely watch local television news, I don't see these stories.  Given the propensity of TV news to put only the bad news on the air ("if it bleeds it leads") I can understand my friends's perception of Lawrence County.   What they know is what they see and hear on TV.

Perhaps I am just impervious to such bad news.  I have lived in some crime-ridden neighborhoods (McKeesport, North Side, Mt. Oliver, Beltzhoover) and these same realities occur there also.

Perhaps it is that "the news media" dislike good news.  You seldom see stories about the valedictorian of the local high schools, the generous volunteers among our senior citizens, feel-good events like our just-completed and very successful (and no-crime) St. Vitus Big Festival, the hard work and practices by local athletes, the ordinary grind of police officers, accountants, teachers, shop owners, baby-sitters.

Perhaps it is that our ears and memories only listen to bad news.  I have heard other priests say this, and I can certainly relate:  You can receive ten or twenty or thirty compliments about a sermon, but the only thing you remember is if one person comes up to you and says his time was wasted by such a dumb talk.  His criticism rankles and angers and hurts far in excess of the many compliments (for the same sermon!).

What it comes down to is that my perception of life in Lawrence County is very, very different than what my friends hear (thankfully, only seldom) on the airwaves and on the internet.  I do not live in fear of car-jacking or attempted murder as I drive the streets of New Castle or the surrounding townships.  Neither, do I suspect, do my parishioners or neighbors.  Yes, there are drugs in our community, and they tear families apart and harm young lives.  Yes, there are car accidents and homicides and house fires and wrenching poverty.  But this is not my/our daily experience of life.

One person's perception is not my reality.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

What's in a Team Name?

On Monday, August 19, the Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, to play the National Football League franchise of Washington, D.C., in an exhibition game.

Or I could have said "Redskins."

What's in a name?

There is another outbreak of a long-simmering controversy regarding the name of the Washington team.  Three Washington-based non-football media outlets have vowed to banish the nickname from their coverage:  online magazine Slate, The New Republic, and Mother Jones.  Powerhouse The Washington Post refuses to go along.  Neither do the major TV networks nor ESPN.  A recent AP poll showed that nationally, "Redskins" still enjoys widespread support.  79% of those surveyed think that the team should not change its name.  Only 11% think the name should be changed.  A similar poll in 1992 said 89% supported the use of the name.

A short google/wikipedia search turned up the information that about 55 high schools across the U.S. still use "Redskins" as their team nickname.  (Although last week two New York schools using "Redskins" decided to change their name.)  A whole bunch use Indians, Apaches, Braves, Chiefs, Comanches, Mohawks, Savages, Seminoles, and Tribe. 

In the pro ranks there are the Atlanta Braves (with their "tomahawk chop"), Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, and Chicago Blackhawks.  Prominent colleges are the Florida State Seminoles, San Diego State Aztecs, and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.  

The number of "ethnic" and "national" names could be extended:  Vancouver Canucks, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Boston Celtics, Minnesota Vikings, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Eskimos, Southern Cal Trojans, West  Viriginia Mountaineers, Iona Gaels, Idaho Vandals, and the well-known Edinboro University of Pennsylvania Fighting Scots.

Several colleges have abandoned references to native Americans in recent years.  Marquette (from Warriors to Golden Eagles), St. John's (from Redmen to Red Storm), UMass (from Redmen to Minutemen/women), St. Bonaventure (from Brown Indians to Bonnies), Stanford (from Indians to Cardinal), Southeastern Oklahoma State (from Savages to Savage Storm), and Quinnipiac (from Braves to Bobcats).

So what about the "Redskins"?

It's obvious that the name is not going to change soon.  Football team owner Dan Snyder has repeatedly said he will not change

the name.  Their general manager, Bruce Allen, said, "There is nothing that we feel is offensive, and we're proud of our history."

Their fan base is rock-solid, among the most passionate in the NFL (despite the lack of success of the team in the past two decades).  And the fans love their burgundy and gold " 'Skins".

But I am persuaded by other voices.  One writer said twenty years ago, would you accept a "Washington Negroes" or "Washington Jews" nickname?   One could go down the list for all the offensive slurs for Jews, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, native Americans.  How about the "Washington N-word players"?  In February the National Museum of the American Indian held a daylong symposium on the use of Indian mascots by sports teams.  Museum director Kevin Gover, of the Pawnee Nation, said the word "redskin" was "the equivalent of the n-word."  The Washington City Paper now substitutes the name Pigskins for the football team.

In 1997 the owner of the the NBA franchise in Washington, the Bullets, decided the nickname was inappropriate because of its association with urban violence.  The team became the Wizards.

(Kudos to Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 8/14/2013.)

It's long overdue for the nickname "Redskins" to disappear.  The name is insensitive and an ethnic slur.  It has to go.

Now let's see, what new names can we suggest for the team?  The Washington Federals?  Generals?  Bureaucracy?  Lobbyists?  Constitutionalists?   Supremes?   I know, the Washington Gridlock!


Extended Eucharistic Adoration

While I took two months off from blogging in May and June, our parishes in New Castle started a new ministry.  It was to initiate a chapel for the extended adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

It began with the laity.  Back in October a half dozen parishioners, from all four parishes, met with me.  They had seen several parishes in the region host a chapel for "perpetual" or "extended" adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Butler has had such a chapel, they tell me, for 27 years.  There has been adoration for many years also at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, in Youngstown, Ohio.  The parish of St. James the Apostle in New Bedford/Pulaski has two Fridays of adoration each month.  More recently the priests in the Chippewa/Darlington area began one.  My parishioners were asking that I begin one here.

These folks had benefited from their prayer times.  But they wanted a chapel closer to home, here in New Castle.

I am all for prayer.  And I like praying in a quiet, even silent chapel, with the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle.  But I had never thought of beginning such a program--until they said these words:  "Father, we know you and the other priests are busy.  We will organize it, raise the funds, and recruit the adorers for the times.  All you have to do is give us your blessing."

What generous words!  Music to my pastor's ears!

So we explored all the practical, and spiritual details.  I talked with a couple of priests who had done this, and my priest associates.  I visited the chapel in Youngstown.  One member of the committee volunteered to pay for the security system.  Another volunteered to coordinate the volunteers.  A preliminary letter to some diocesan officials gave me confidence that we were on the right track.  In January I wrote the bishop about our idea, and he sent two priests up from Pittsburgh to look over our site and talk with us.  They gave us the green light.  In April and May the committee used the bulletin and pulpit to recruit parishioners to take one hour a week.  Right now we have over 190 persons regularly scheduled, for the approximately 144 hours of adoration.   The bishop formalized the permission in May.

And so, on June 2, 2013, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, my associate, Father Nick, processed with the Blessed Sacrament at the conclusion of the 11:30 a.m. Mass at Mary Mother of Hope Church, across the street to the chapel of the religious education building.  Our extended adoration of the Blessed Sacrament had begun.

I use the word "extended" rather than "perpetual," because we decided that we would have prayer round-the-clock only six days a week.  Adoration ends about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, prior to the 4:00 p.m. Sunday vigil Mass in Mary Mother of Hope Church, and begins again 24 hours later.  This is to respect the primacy of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.  It is also practical, since during the school year there are C.C.D. classes going on in the chapel on Sunday mornings.  Again when school starts next month, there will be a couple of hours on Monday afternoon, when the children from St. Joseph the Worker Parish are attending classes in the building, that the adoration will be suspended.

Technically, "perpetual" is not correct anyway, because in the church's liturgical cycle, no adoration is permitted during the Sacred Triduum (from the end of lent about noon on Holy Thursday until the end of Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday).  

But whatever title is given, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar has already proven to be spiritually fruitful to those who have volunteered.  Many parishioners have told me how they look forward to their one hour--even if it is in the middle of the night!  (They love the silence.)  I am signed up for an hour on Tuesday afternoons, and I confess that the hour flies by, almost to the point that I am thinking of putting in two hours back-to-back.

Perhaps if parishioners had come to me years earlier, I would have turned a deaf ear to their request.  I might have thought that such prayer is too individualistic, of no benefit to the community.  But my experience with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius has given me a rich appreciation of the value (and need) for quiet time, especially in the Presence of the Lord.  And the Catholic Church knows that deepened prayer (of whatever kind) leads to more active charity.  In the words of a Vatican document:  "Exposition of the Holy Eucharist is intended to acknowledge Christ's marvelous presence in the sacrament.  Exposition invites us to the spiritual union with him that culminates in sacramental communion.  This exposition fosters very well the worship which is due to Christ in spirit and in truth."  

In other words, exposition is one way of following the command of St. Paul the Apostle to "pray always" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), as well as affirming the Real Presence of Jesus, who said, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and who ever believes in me will never thirst."  Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament allows us to appreciate the presence of Christ under sacramental signs.  It can also lead a willing disciple to a deeper love for the Mass, the church community that gathers in his name, and Christ's own command to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).  Anecdotal evidence from around the country swears that such adoration of the Blessed Sacrament also leads to increases in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and ministry.  Let us hope so.

Until then, you are cordially invited to sign up for a regular weekly hour of prayer.  Call Vicki at St. Vincent de Paul Parish (724-652-5829).  And all are invited to pray any time at the chapel in the Mary Mother of Hope religious education building, across the street from the church on North Beaver Street in New Castle.  Come and adore Him, come and love Him, leave and love his people.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Transfiguration Light, III

The other connection with August 6 is that it is the death anniversary of one of the most misunderstood, and least appreciated, popes of the past two hundred years.  Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Baptista Montini) died in 1978, in the 15th year of his pontificate, at the age of 80.

His priesthood was spent almost entirely in the diplomatic corps of the Vatican.  He was a close aid to Pope Pius XII, yet he was pushed out of the curia in the last 1950s and denied being named a cardinal while named archbishop of Milan.  Therefore, he was not a candidate for the papacy in the conclave of 1958 upon the death of Pope Pius XII.  Pope John XXIII knew his value and his talents, and named him a cardinal within three months of being elected Bishop of Rome.

Montini had nothing to do with the calling forth of the Second Vatican Council -- that was the work of the Holy Spirit through Pope John XXIII -- but immediately became one of the pope's biggest supporters and key advisers.  When good and jolly Pope John died of cancer on June 3, 1963, after the first session of the Council, the cardinals wasted no time electing Montini as Bishop of Rome.  Like John, he took an apostolic name, and one not used for centuries, to signal his desire to promote evangelization.  His election sent the signal the cardinals wanted:  complete the work of the Council, begun by your predecessor.  (There was nothing automatic that the Council should continue.  That was purely a decision of the Holy Father.)

And complete it he did.  In this era of embarrassing political gridlock in Washington, it is nothing short of astonishing that Pope Paul VI guided the Council to completion in only three sessions.  When it concluded on December 7, 1965, the Council Fathers wrote 16 documents which would shake the Catholic Church (in a good sense) to this day and provide the practical roadways of aggiornamento (literally, "bringing up to date," the opening of the windows of the church to the modern world) desired by Pope John XXIII.   

We take for granted the historical fact that the Second Vatican Council was completed in four years, with the death of one pope and election of his successor in between.  But this was not automatic.  The forces of conserving the past traditions (liturgical, catechetical, ceremonial) were in a minority, but by no means without power.  Paul VI kept both sides, the progressive and the conservative, in check and in tension, and allowed the Spirit to work through the stilted debates in St. Peter's  Basilica, the committees, the multitude of document revisions, to bring about what has been called the most important spiritual event of the 20th century.

If it wasn't enough to bring the Council to completion, Paul then made several groundbreaking trips:  to the Holy Land; Bombay, India; Bogota Columbia; Fatima, Portugal; Africa; Manilla, 

Philippines; and New York and the United Nations.  It was from the world's podium at the United Nations that he gave his cry, "No more war! War never again!"  He was the first pope to travel to six continents.

His encyclical letter "Ecclesiam Suam" on the need for dialogue and his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Nunciandi" on evangelization only grow in importance and speak to our very divided church and world.   His encyclical "Populorum Progressio" is critical to the 20th century social justice magisterium, such that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote encyclicals on its 20th and 40th anniversaries.

But of course it was the encyclical letter "Humanae Vitae" ("On the Regulation of Birth") that seared Pope Paul VI into the history books and into the lives of Catholics everywhere.  It was Pope Paul's decision that two issues would not be debated or discussed by the Council Fathers:  birth control and celibacy for Latin Church priests.  Both issues he addressed several years after the close of the Council.  And in both issues he landed on the side of continuity, not change, disappointing many, many progressives in the church. 

From my knowledge of family systems theory, issues not talked about, topics avoided, become topics which bring great anxiety to the system.  However would have been the decisions (and I guess that the same conclusions--namely, continuity with the teachings on both--would have been issued by the Council Fathers) it's my humble judgment that it would have been better for the Church to have had public debate, rather than executive decision, decide these.  

Nevertheless, I believe that, looking at the totality of his pontificate, like his predecessor John XXIII and his (second) successor John Paul II, Paul VI was saintly in his personal life and great in his leadership of the church.  

On August 6, then, we the church celebrate the mystery and feast of the Transfiguration, with the light of the mushroom clouds over two cities in Japan still in our rearview mirrors, and with the holy memory of a peaceful apostle, whose memory we venerate on his death anniversary, shining from the blessed light of paradise.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Transfiguration Light, II

Three years ago I went to Japan to do a family wedding.  My cousins, Stan and Mary Ann, invited me to officiate at the wedding Mass of their son, John, and his bride, Kyoko.  John had been living in Tokyo for several years, and that's where he met his beloved.   Kyoko had recently converted to Catholicism, and they were going to me married in the chapel of the Jesuit college, Sophia University.  I jumped at the chance.

It was a fantastic week.  I could go on and on about the wedding, my sweet cousins, and our short time in Tokyo.  

But pertinent to the Transfiguration was my side trip to Hiroshima.

You see, ever since I was in grade school, I was intrigued by the two bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which set the stage for the unconditional surrender by the Emperor, and the end of World War II.  I had read so much about the bombs, the aviators 

who dropped them, the planning, and the deaths (about 145,000 died in Hiroshima, and at least another 90,000 in Nagasaki, plus 

more from radiation poisoning years later).  I also wanted to go to Hiroshima.  I didn't know how, or when, but I wanted to go.

So when I was invited to John and Kyoko's wedding, I planned my side trip.  On the Monday after the wedding, when my cousins flew back to their home outside of Los Angeles, I used my JapanRail pass and boarded the shinkasnen, the so-called bullet train, for a five hour journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima.  What a smooth ride, at speeds over 200 km/hour (125 mph).  I arrived in Hiroshima after dark, about 8:30 p.m., and walked a short distance from the train station to a hotel.  (The concierge in my Tokyo hotel had made a reservation for me days earlier.)  The tiny, but immaculate, hotel room is a story in itself -- but for another time.

In the morning I jumped on a trolley (not very different than the one I remember as a kid travelling on Brownsville Road through Mt. Oliver to Carrick) for the twelve stops to the Peace Park, the site of the bombing.  It was 7:00 a.m.  People were hustling to work, schoolkids in their uniforms giggling on their way to school, the city of two million (and world headquarters for Mazda Motors) was awakening.  At the Ota River, I disembarked, and began my seven hours of viewing the museum, cenotaph, eternal flame, and over 50 memorials around the park and the river.  Language was not a problem, as every sign was in (at least) Japanese characters and English, and I could hear various accents around me in conversations (Australian, British, Indian, second language Japanese, and American/Canadian).  

About 3 p.m. after taking more than 1,000 photos and saying numerous prayers of thanks to God for the trip, I reboarded the trolley for the train station, reboarded the shinkansen for Tokyo, and, the next day, my flight back to the U.S.

I learned a lot on my short but powerful trip to Hiroshima.  I learned that planning by the U.S. Army Air Force had begun in the winter of 1944, for two assaults on Japan.  One, the bombings with these unknown weapons, and the other, a massive ground assault by 750,000 American soldiers and a feared forced march up the Japanese islands to Tokyo. (Up against at least 2 million Japanese soldiers and the rugged mountainsides.)   I learned that the U.S. bombers had not bombed Hiroshima, Nagasaki and ten other cities for more than a month, but rather took high-level photos--the better to contrast with the photos which would be taken by the Enola Gay, which dropped the "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, and the Bockscar, which dropped the "Fat Man" on Nagasaki on August 9.  I learned the post-war history of the Hiroshima people, who after the years of effort to bury the dead, care for the hibakusha, the atomic survivors, and rebuild their destroyed city, dedicated themselves to peace and the eradication of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.

(Hiroshima today, and Mazda Zoom Zoom baseball stadium.)

And I realized that deep deep within my fascination with this bombing was the realization that if the bombings had not taken place, my dad, Marine Sergeant Frank Almade, who served and fought on many islands in the Pacific Theatre in World War II, would have been one of those 750,000 invading Americans.  Would he have survived?  Casualty rates were estimated at 33-50%.  Would he have come home, married mom, and had me and my brothers?   Would I have come to existence, without the bombing?  This was not just a journey of historical study for me, this was a personal facing of my own mortality.  Moralists debate to this day whether President Harry S Truman's decision to drop those two atomic weapons was justified.  I have never been able to decide myself.  The personal gets in the way of the intellectual.

Yet it is in the context of the Transfiguration that I find peace and light.  Jesus is changed, "dazzlingly white," beyond the comprehension of this friends.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki were utterly destroyed by those now-famous mushroom clouds of energy, light, dirt and radiation.  But their survivors and future citizens have, in peace times, gone on to rebuild.  And, unlike most every other city destroyed in war, both cities, and their country, have refused to seek revenge.  

If that is not in the spirit of Jesus, nothing is.

Transfiguration Light, I

Today is one of the oddest feasts in the Catholic liturgical calendar, the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain.  (See Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36)  I say odd in a most humble way.  What happened to Jesus was clearly beyond the comprehension of his three dear friends, Peter, John and James, who by his invitation accompanied Jesus up the mountain.  What happened to Jesus may have also been beyond the comprehension of the gospel writers.  

I found this passage intriguing, on the online "Laudate" prayer website, for this feast:

"The Transfiguration of the Lord can sound embarrassingly magical.  Jesus goes up onto a mountain and his clothes become dazzlingly white.  Prophets appear and talk to him.  And then it is all over and Jesus tells his disciples to say nothing.

"We should hold on to the absurdity of the incident. There is simply no reason for all this to have happened.  In particular, there is no reason to put it into a gospel -- the evangelist makes no capital out of it, it is simply there.

"And this is the strength of the Transfiguration as an historical incident.  There is no reason for anyone to have invented it.  It is not central to the Christian case.  It is not used to win arguments.  There is only one reason to put it into the Gospel, and that is because it happened.  It is one of those cases of the evangelists writing things down without knowing why they were important, and their very puzzlement is what makes the story so convincing."

Some commentators have suggested that this is another post-resurrection story, retrojected into the life and ministry of Jesus.  Others have suggested that it was an illusion, a kind of parable of linking Jesus to his Jewish ancestors and their traditions of law and prophecy.  Who knows?

But I also like this feast, not only for the not-knowing of the story, but for the historical coincidence of two other events in recent memory which fell on August 6:  the U.S. using a nuclear weapon in war for the first time in human history, bombing Hiroshima, Japan; and the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978.

Let me do a post on each of these two events, and try to link them.