Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fred Phelps Sr. meets God, Who is Love

You don't have to know much about the history of violence by and among religious groups to see that unfortunately it is alive and well at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.  It's founder and former preacher, Reverend (???) Fred Phelps Sr. died on March 19 at the age of 84.

I read the obituaries.  I read several commentaries.  Then I went to the website of the Westboro Baptist Church.  It's website name: .  You read that correctly.  This is a church which dares to call itself Christian.

Mr. Phelps's community has been known by its protests with anti-gay, anti-Semitic placards, often at the funerals of veterans.  It was his view, and that of his small Baptist community, that an unforgiving, vengeful God was poised to destroy a nation of sinners.  In one interview with Religious News Service, he said, "You're not going to get nowhere with that slop that 'God loves you.'  That's a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant."  Bumper stickers distributed by the church said, "Hate is a Bible Value."  A list of biblical verses on the website, "God's Hatred in the Bible," lists 18 verses, but none from the four Gospels, and none quoting Jesus Christ.  The community's protests were widely reviled by everyone from the ACLU, gay and lesbian activist groups, mainstream media, and to even -- bizarrely -- the Ku Klux Klan.

I confess that it is so easy to live only in your own community, with its troubles and difficulties, small joys and successes.  You don't want to see evil.  I remember vaguely seeing Phelps' protests on national network television news.  And then there was something else to engage the national media.  I never stopped to protest what Westboro's members were doing, or even to consider that these are my brothers and sisters in Christ through baptism.  What this community of faith was/is doing is evil. 

May God have mercy on Phelps' hating soul.

Congratulations, Red Hurricanes!

Congratulations and kudos to the Red Hurricanes of New Castle, as the boys basketball team won the PIAA Class AAAA championship last night at the Giant Center in Hershey.  New Castle beat La Salle College High School of Philadelphia, 52-39.

Not only did New Castle win the gold state championship trophy, they did it with an undefeated season.  31 wins, zero losses.  According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazete, this is the first team from the WPIAL to go through an entire season undefeated since Sto-Rox in 1983, and only the 12th team from the WPIAL to finish with a perfect record.  

Three years in a row New Castle won the WPIAL championship.  Two years ago they lost in the state quarter-final game, last year in the state semi-final game.  This year they broke through that barrier to win it all.

A huge shout-out to Coach Ralph Blundo, starters Malik Hooker, Drew Allen, Stew Allen, Anthony Richards, and Jake McPhatter, all the players and coaches, and the great Red Hurricanes fans.  An estimated 3,000 folks from Lawrence County and environs traveled the four hour ride to Hershey to support their historic team.  These New Castle fans travel as well as do Steeler ones!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Churchy Things that "Used to Be" V

A final Lenten rant about "used to be's."

Remember when the Catholic Church taught that those outside the Catholic Church were going to hell?  Is that still true?

One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic faith is this statement.  Another phrasing of this was "There is no salvation outside the church."  Simply put, this was not the teaching of the Catholic Church.  But many, many Catholics,and not a few priests, communicated that.  What is true teaching.

On the one hand, the Catholic Church has always taught that only through the salvific act of Jesus dying on the cross is anybody able to receive salvation, and therefore be admitted into the blessedness of heaven.  How does one know Jesus?  In and through the church.  So the Catholic church is a necessary instrument of the salvation Christ freely gives to those who embrace him, through baptism, the sacraments and the life of grace.

Having said this, we much recognize that this doctrine is not as far reaching as some imagine it to be.  People will sometimes ask, "Does this mean non-Catholics are going to hell?"  Not necessarily.

The church recognizes that God does not condemn those who are innocently ignorant of the truth about his offer of salvation.  Regarding the doctrine in question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Lumen Gentium #16, states:  "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation."  (CCC 847)  Further, the Vatican II document Nostrae Aetate says, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions.  She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens humanity." (16)

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes teaches similarly on the possibility of salvation:  "All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all persons of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way.  For, since Christ died for all, and since the ultimate vocation of humanity is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to everyone the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery." (22)

But once a person comes to know the truth, he must embrace it or he will be culpable of rejecting it.  Much of the church's teaching in the past was directed to Catholics who explicitly and publicly rejected the authority of the Catholic Church.  Then the Catholic Church was much more willing to identify itself by who was not inside its borders.  Today we recognize that many who have left the active practice in the Catholic Church have not rejected faith in God or Christ, and still pray.  As Pope Francis said, who am I to judge?

In our time Catholic leaders are much more reticent to say who is going to hell.  That there is a place called hell, or eternal 

damnation, is sure; however the Catholic Church has never pronounced definitively who is there.  That we who are baptized, and those who are not, could end up in hell is real.  But our very desire to follow the way of Christ (or for those who do not know Christ, to follow what is good and true) opens us up to God's merciful salvation.

Churchy Things that "Used to Be" IV

Here's another rant on churchy ideas of the past.

Remember when the priest lived like a prince and the priesthood was considered a very privileged vocation?  What happened?

One of the definitions of "privilege" is "the advantages, rights and prerogatives enjoyed by a small usually powerful group or class, especially to the disadvantage of others."  When the Roman Catholic Church was politically powerful, there was a tendency for its leaders (popes, bishops, priests) to build up both their own power over others, and their residences and possessions.  The priest was "spiritually powerful," being the only one who could hear confessions or confect the Eucharist.  Such specialness in church was also marked out by where he lived, what he owned, and how he expected others to treat him.

This was not always the case, and there are examples of poor and saintly priests (for example, St. Vincent de Paul or St. John Vianney, and soon Saints Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II). 

But in western Europe and northeastern U.S., the Catholic Church over time gained riches and power.  Some of those riches went into beautiful and ornate churches.  Some of those riches went into the houses for the bishops and priests.

As it did in so many other areas of church life, the Second Vatican Council took another look at priestly life, through the lens of the life of Jesus and the apostles.  Vatican II identified the role of the priest as a "servant," one who minsters to others.  Yes, the priest's role in the life of the church was spiritually important, but he was to exercise ministry in the manner of Jesus Christ, who came to serve and not to be served.   The pastor as a leader in the parish (and the bishop as a leader in the local church, or diocese) was to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who specifically instructed the apostles not to lord it over their subjects as did pagan leaders.  "Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave."  (Matthew 20:27)

Vatican II also said that priests are not to be separated from the people they serve, but should live among them as a good shepherd.  (Famously Pope Francis said last year that priests "should have the smell of the sheep on them.")  Priests, like all baptized Christians, are called to holiness, in and through their ministry and life.  Diocesan, or secular, priests make promises of obedience to their bishop, and in the Latin Church, of permanent celibacy.  Diocesan priests do not make a promise of poverty, like members of religious orders.  But priests are urged to live a simple life of voluntary poverty.  In the words of Vatican II, "By voluntary poverty priests become more clearly conformed to Christ and more ready to devote themselves to their sacred ministry.  For Christ being rich became poor for our sakes, that though his poverty we might be rich." (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 18)

The priesthood as a vocation remains a very special calling.  Over and over again I have witnessed Catholics, Christians, Jews and even atheists give great respect to the priesthood.  The clergy sexual abuse scandal of the past decades has revealed the horrible sins of a small but significant percentage of my brothers.  The scandal has also unfortunately lowered the esteem people have for the priesthood.  But the "spiritual specialness" of the Catholic priesthood is not seen in privilege or wealth, nor diminished by sin.  It is lived out in humility, personal prayer, service for others and leadership of parish communities toward closeness to Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Churchy Things that "Used to Be" III

During this Lent I am ranting on sayings about "how things used to be."

Remember when the pastor preached fire and brimstone half the time, condemning non-Catholics and non-church attending Catholics to hell, and preached money the rest of the time?  What happened?

Unless you've been visiting family in Outer Mongolia for the past year, everyone knows that Pope Francis has brought a new emphasis on compassion, mercy, forgiveness and care of the poor to the Catholic Church, through his deed and his words. But the changes in preaching began with the Second Vatican Council.  The Council Fathers wanted the entire church to read and pray the bible.  So they expanded the Sacred Scripture passages which are read at Sunday and weekday Masses.  They also wisely decreed that priests should use the scriptural readings as the basis for their preaching, in both style and substance.

Take the gospel of the third Sunday in Lent in the A cycle, the story of the woman at the well in John 4.  Jesus astonishes his disciples by actually talking to a woman in public--a no-no in his culture.  And not just any woman, one who is shunned by her village neighbors and has been married five times.  He treats her and her questions with respect.  By the end of their conversation, she is going to other villagers and urging them to see this man who knew everything about her.  She becomes a most unlikely "evangelist," telling the good news of Jesus to those who haven't heard of him.

In style and substance we preachers are to imitate Jesus.  He doesn't condemn, but he does confront sin.  He engages his listeners, even those whom others want to write off as losers.  He teaches in a way that invites people to learn more.  He doesn't condemn people to hell.  He invites people to learn more about him.

(The only persons Jesus is critical of are the most religiously observant--the Pharisees and the scribes.  He calls them hypocrites, or actors, because they perform all the necessary prayers but their hearts are far from love.)

Jesus preached money--but not like the pastors of old.  He wasn't clergy, and accepted what donations came his way.  He recognized the value of money as a means, not an end.  Money should be used to help the poor, and provide for the temple in Jerusalem.  But only God is truly rich.  Any human being who worked at accumulating wealth was "owned" by it, and thereby placed his trust in things not God.  ("You cannot love God and mammon.")

I've long been challenged by this saying of Jesus:  "Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."  How does one make friends with dishonest wealth?  By giving it away to those in need.  Jesus lived in voluntary poverty;  translated today it means our lives are characterized by simplicity and generosity.  "Give us this day our daily bread," not an excessive savings account.

One final thought.  I've often wondered if those old-time priests really did preach fire-and-brimstone or give-money-to-the-church as often as they did.  My suspicion is that those sermons were only occasionally given, but so harsh that the faithful remembered them all too well, and then repeated and repeated their self-serving and mean message.   The faithful knew that God is love more than some priests.  Yes, we human beings sin, and need to be reminded of our sinful ways.  Yes, we human beings need to support the church, and some members of the parish fail to do so.  But any follower of Christ cannot do the reminding of our failures with self-righteous anger.  Pope Francis, and the Sacred Scriptures, lead us to the compassion of Christ our Savior.

Churchy Things that "Used to Be" II

During Lent I am ranting on sayings about "how things used to be."

Remember when Catholics went to hell if they ate meat on any Friday during the year?  What happened?

For a long time prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Catholic Church held that the primary way to remember that Jesus Christ died for us on Good Friday was to fast from meat every Friday during the year.  In our country this penitential custom and rule defined us Catholics.  After the council, Pope Paul VI wanted to emphasize the voluntary nature of this penitential act, and to make it more than just following authority's rule.  So he reduced the requirements to fast from meat on all Fridays to only Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, which still remains to today.

(I remember one of my moral theology professors in seminary joking about how when he was a teen, his gang of friends would go out on Friday nights, and wait until after midnight to order their hamburgers and milk shakes.  They knew how to get around that Catholic rule.)

What was missed by this reduction in law was the pope's encouragement to continue doing personal and voluntary penitential acts on Fridays, in memory of Jesus' death on Calvary on Good Friday.  The pope back then rightly recognized that for some (like me) fasting from meat was no big deal.  I love eating fish!  So do millions of others.

(An old joke:  The bishop reminds his cook that he has to fast from meat on Friday.  So he instructs her to prepare shrimp cocktail and she-crab soup as appetizers and lobster for the entree.)

But the pope--and the church--wanted us to remember how special Friday is in the church's calendar.  So individuals would have to do something more personal and taxing to carry out a penitential act.

Today each of us is called to perform penitential acts, on Fridays, during Lent, and throughout the year.  Some may carry out "a black fast," that is, no food at all for one day a week.  Some may pray the Stations of the Cross.  Some may volunteer once a month at a senior citizens home or shelter for abused women.  Some may make an annual and substantial gift to Catholic Charities or United Way.  Everyone can do something.  It starts with us recognizing that acts of self-denial, mortification and renunciation are part of following Jesus.  

On every first Sunday of Lent Catholics hear the story of Jesus fasting 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.  Each of us can choose how we will discipline ourselves and our bodies, during Lent and for our lifetime.

Churchy Things that "Used to Be"

One of my favorite rants is how folks in western Pennsylvania obsess over how things "used to be."  Perhaps you've heard -- or given! -- directions to a visitor:  Make a left at where the Isaly's used to be, then go three blocks to where the old firehouse used to be.  No wonder outsiders look at us funny.

It's no different with matters of faith.  Many many Catholics look backwards at how things "used to be," and get stuck in the past.  During this season of Lent I'm ranting on several of these things I've heard, and how we might see with new eyes.

Remember when talking in church used to be a sin?

Catholics of a certain age can remember when Sister or Father shushed us kids for talking in church.  "Be quiet!  You are disrespecting Jesus in the tabernacle."  Walk into a Catholic Church before the 10:00 a.m. Mass back then and all you heard were the shuffling of footsteps and the bang of an occasional kneeler being let down.  An usher might come over and whisper to you to move to the center of the pew, to allow another couple to sit next to you.  It was quiet in church.

There was something good about such silence.  One could pray in a personal way before Mass, or listen to the choir sing their warm-up song.  People identified "prayerful" with "a quiet church."

What is forgotten today is that during the Tridentine Mass (pre-1969) the congregation was silent before and during the entire Mass.  Only the servers, and/or the choir, answered the priest's recitation of Latin prayers.  For 45 or 55 or 65 minutes the folks in the pew observed but did not participate in what happened beyond the altar rail.

Fast forward to today.  Before Sunday Mass one family greets another when they enter.  The priest may say hello to an elderly parishioner and ask about her recent hospital stay.  The lector and servers bustle about getting the altar ready.  A teenager may take her younger sister to the bathroom.  (Remember, there were no bathrooms in the church pre-1970 either!)  The cantor comes out to the lectern and welcomes visitors before announcing the opening hymn.  I often make goo-goo eyes at the babies and toddlers, and enjoy watching their reactions.  It's not like a saloon on the South Side of Pittsburgh after a Steelers win, but there is some talking, some noise, some movement of people.

What changed?  We the church changed.  Fifty or more years ago the image of the ideal church was that of a monastery, with its pervasive adult silence.  Today we value hospitality and words of welcome; activity by several liturgical ministers; and participation by every person (younger and older) in the church.  The faithful participate by singing hymns and psalms; responding to the priest's greeitng and sign of the cross; answering prayers with a hearty "Amen"; actively listening to the familiar Eucharistic Prayer; giving greetings of peace; and walking forward to receive Holy Communion.  Today's prayerful Mass is seen in the active--and verbal--participation of the assembly, before, during, and after Mass.  Today we value the warmth of our parish communities gathered for the Eucharist, expressed in hugs, hellos and (for the little ones) high-fives.

Can there be too much talk, too much loud laughter in church?  Yes.  Everyone (even us priests) has to be sensitive to our neighbors in how we conduct ourselves in church.  Those who are looking for a place of profound silence should visit a place like our Perpetual Adoration Chapel, at Mary Mother of Hope Parish  in downtown New Castle.  I myself love silence, especially when I am on retreat at a place like the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  But today it's ok to talk in church--indeed, it's necessary to sing and respond during Mass, all for the praise of God.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Six Masses in 24 Hours?

There is a great scene in the movie, "A Few Good Men."  The character played by Tom Cruise, an attorney, is trying to get a marine in the witness stand to describe a "code red."  This is when a superior officer orders a marine to rough up another marine, because he was not carrying out his duties in a satisfactory way. 

The prosecuting attorney in the court marshal, played by Kevin Bacon, challenges the marine to point to where in the marine handbook is there a definition of a code red.  The marine can't, because it's not written down.

Cruise jumps up, grabs the marine handbook from Bacon, and asks the marine, can you point to the chapter where it describes the mess hall.  The marine can't.  Cruise, in mock horror, says, you mean the Marines don't feed you?  No, the marine grins, we get three squares a day, good food.  But where is the mess hall, if it's not described in the handbook?  Well, everybody knows where the mess hall is.  Just follow the crowd at lunch.  Point taken.

Lots of things are not written down, just "known."  

For example, from time to time, parishioners ask, "How often does a priest have to say Mass?"  They expect me to say, "every day" or at least "several times a week."  I quote canon 904 for the 1983 Code of Canon Law, "Priests are to celebrate frequently."  The 1917 code obliged priests only to celebrate the Eucharist several times a year.  I quickly add that priests, like all Catholics, are obliged to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday and holyday of obligation.  But preside at the celebration?  Only frequently.

In fairness to the canon, it goes on to offer not law but exhortation:  "Indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly."  Several other post-Vatican II documents on priestly life and ministry encourage daily celebration of the Mass, as a foundation for engaged priestly spirituality.   But it is not required for a Catholic priest to say Mass every day.

Canon 905 goes on to define limits on how often a priest may celebrate the Eucharist.  

"#1.  A priest is not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist more than once a day except in cases where the law permits him to celebrate or concelebrate more than once on the same day.
"#2. If there is a shortage of priests, the local ordinary can allow priests to celebrate twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holydays of obligation."

The 2000 commentary on the Code of Canon Law by the Canon Law Society of American notes that there have been limitations on how often priests can celebrate the Eucharist dating to the 11th century.  An improper motive could be to say many Masses just so you can receive several stipends (which is against canon 951, which states that a priest can receive only one stipend per day, no matter how many Masses he says).  Another reason for restriction is "is to ensure that the manner of celebrating by priests does not become too hurried or routine due to the pressures of multiple Masses."  Further, the commentary says, "The Apostolic See discourages the multiplication of Masses when a church is large enough to accommodate the faithful at a smaller number of Masses....The pastoral effort is weakened by multiple Masses because the participation of the people in a scattered congregation is diminished and the effectiveness of overworked priests is reduced."

Canon 905 is regularly violated in our neck of the woods.  I know of priests who say six or seven Masses on a weekend, every weekend.  Our diocesan bishop has been known to do the same, in the period from Saturday morning to late on Sunday evening.  I have to believe that in other situations -- a large prison, rural areas with far-flung churches, huge pilgrimage groups -- priests often celebrate more than three Masses in one day.  Certainly "pastoral need" impels them.  But the distinction between convenience and pastoral need is often hard to discern.

This weekend I presided at the celebration of six Masses within 24 hours.  On Saturday, a funeral Mass at 12:30 p.m.  Regularly scheduled 4:00 and 6:30 p.m. anticipated Sunday Masses.  Three on Sunday:  7:30 a.m., 9:30 and 11:30.  Plus I heard confessions, as we have them scheduled, from 3:00 to 3:30 and from 5:30 to 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening.

This is not to knock my two associates.  They were equally apostolic.  One did five Masses (a funeral Mass here and a wedding in Pittsburgh on Saturday, three regularly scheduled on Sunday) and the other did four Masses and a funeral blessing service.  Plus, both heard confessions for over an hour on Saturday.  

We priests have been talking among ourselves about whether in our four parishes (with three fulltime priests) we have "too many" Masses for Sunday.  We have twelve--four on Saturday evening and eight on Sunday morning, in four church buildings.  About 3,300 souls on average participate in these 12 Masses.  We have come to no conclusion.  We priests are all healthy, and can manage the four each weekend without much trouble, and with the enthusiasm and energy needed for a healthy and holy celebration.  At some not-too-distant point in the future,  I'll have to have a conversation about this topic with our pastoral councils.

But six in 24 hours?  I don't believe that any canon lawyer would believe I broke the law.  But common sense?

I feel that I "gave it my all" at these six Masses.  The faithful parishioners who participated can let you know if that is true.  I am blessed that I have the health to do all six.  

(A few weeks ago I had an attack of sciatica, I think.  A sharp pain in my back made almost any movement excruciating.  In four days it went away.  But during those four days even the simple act of saying one weekday Mass was most painful.)

Six Masses in 24 hours seems to me a neon indication both of "pastoral necessity" and "a shortage of priests."  Where this goes, I have no idea, either in New Castle or the Catholic Church.    What is written down, and what is known, grow farther apart.

Father Donald McIlvane, R.I.P.

"HOF" in baseball and football lingo is shorthand for "Hall of Fame."  One of the HOF Pittsburgh priests died the other day, Father Donald McIlvane.  He was 88, and had been residing in the Vincentian Home.

Don was one of the "social justice activist" priests in our diocese who were motivated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).    Ordained in 1952, he served in the Hill District, East Liberty and Midland.  

But he was best known for his protests.  Against the Vietnam war, against segregation (including a brief but impactful march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965), against apartheid in South Africa, for civil rights, for the poor.  Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does a nice job of summarizing Father McIlvane's life.  To be praised by Molly Rush and Father Jack O'Malley alone is enough to warrant HOF induction.  

When I was chaplain to the Sisters of Divine Providence and diocesan secretary for social concerns in the 199s, Don was my go-to guy for taking my place when I had to be out of town.  He enjoyed coming out to McCandless and saying Mass in the motherhouse chapel.  By then he had retired from active ministry, but not from helping another priest.  He was always gracious to me, and over time grew to love the sisters.  He even formally became one of their associates.  

Two things about Don struck me.  One was anger.  He seemed to radiate anger, a low-boil yet ever-present sense of the wrongness of how life was structured.  Some of this anger could truly be called "righteous," and probably motivated his activism and protests.  Some of this anger was directed at the church.  He had little good to say about the hierarchy (with the exception of Pope John XXIII) and was acute at pointing out the inconsistencies in policy and clerical privilege lots of us unfortunately took for granted.

Yet at the same time, Don was "a man of the church."  He remained a priest in good standing for 62 years, and as Father Jack O'Malley mentioned in his funeral sermon, Don was knowledgeable about the liturgy and liked to show the links between prayer and social justice work.  Bishop David Zubik's comment in the obituary captures this:  "Even when he challenged the church's practices and traditions, 'he did it in a way that was respected and respectful.'"  

Don spoke out for the poor, whether through he support for labor unions, increasing the minimum wage, or attacking racist hiring practices.  He also lived in a very simple manner, never putting on airs.  

May the Lord reward you for your unsung labors, Father McIlvane, and show you the promised land where justice overrules structural sin and love reigns in the hearts of all.