Saturday, June 28, 2014

Letter to Younger Clergy

Two weeks ago  I attended the Mass of Ordination of Deacons in St. Paul Cathedral.  Three of the seven men ordained served with me as interns:  Levi Hartle, Chris Mannerino, and Zach Galliyas.  A week ago I attended the Mass of Ordination of Priests in St. Columba Cathedral, in the Diocese of Youngstown.  One of the two men ordained, John Ettinger, had lived with me for two summers in St. Juan Diego Parish, Sharpsburg.  And, with the previous post, today we are announcing that newly ordained Father Mike Ackerman (one of four men ordained today by Bishop Zubik) will be coming to our four parishes to replace Father Nick Vaskov.

Obviously gifts are appropriate at a joyous time like an ordination.  I gave the requisite check, a copy of an excellent new spiritual book by James Martin, S.J., Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and a letter.  I tried in two pages to put down what advice I would give these young men.  (Presuming anyone would ask for my advice!)  Here is the letter I gave them.

Dear brother in Christ,

I am a little jealous--you have a whole lifetime of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ ahead of you!

Please allow me to share with you eight brief pieces of advice I have learned in my 35 years of priestly ministry.  I give them to you in the spirit of one of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  "Begin with the end in mind."  In other words, envision yourself like me, an old dog, 35 years into the future.  What would you do right now and for the immediate future so that you could become the best servant of Jesus you could be, so that you could do the most to share and live the Good News of God's love with everyone over those many years?  Here is my puny attempt to answer that question.

(1)Pray every day.  You know that you committed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day of your lives with your diaconate ordination.  I hope you are able to fulfill this demanding yet rewarding obligation.  But even if you do not, pray every day.  It may be a decade of the rosary, maybe the Examen, maybe simply an Our Father, but pray each and every day.

Father Charlie Bober once said to me:  "Priests think that they have to say Mass each day but only pray occasionally.  They have it backwards.  Priests need to pray each and every day, and say Mass when the demands of ministry call for it."  Amen.

(2)Take your day off each week.  It is counter-intuitive, but the person who takes a day off, I believe, works harder the other six days than someone who "works" seven days.  If you "work" seven days a week, you increasingly allow yourself time off during those days for non-ministry activities.  At first, these are for very legitimate things, like getting a haircut or making a doctor's visit.  Later, you slide into afternoon naps, watching your favorite soap opera, long visits to Starbucks, grazing the internet for useless information--or more unhealthy or unholy behaviors.  Taking a day off forces you to leave the campus of the parish, forces you to have relationship with family and friends, forces you to develop a hobby, reminds you that you are a "human being" not a "human doing." Taking a day off allows you to come back to ministry with new or renewed energy.  Taking a day off also prevents the opposite slide into workaholism.

(3)Make a spiritual retreat each year.  See above.  The Catholic Church will pay you to go away somewhere quiet just to pray for four or five days.  Why not accept the gift?

(4)Tithe.  Priests today receive an adequate salary.  Most of your essential expenses (housing, food, health care, dental care, pension contribution) are paid for by your assignment.  The only two essentials which you must pay for are your automobile and clerical clothing.  The rest of your salary will go to "non-essentials," that is, whatever you like (e.g., vacation travel, hobbies, books, gambling, entertainment, etc.).

Tithing allows you to recognize that all gifts come from God.  It is a practical way to give at least the first ten percent (yes, a literal 10%) back to God (whether to parish, diocese or other charities) in thanksgiving for all gifts received.  I assure you, if you tithe (and also if you save regularly for retirement and a rainy day), you will never want for money. 

(5)Keep a health notebook.  When you are younger you will seldom need a doctor or medical services.  But as you age, such services become more frequent and necessary.  Get a dime-store notebook, and write down every doctor's and dentist's visit, every prescription filled, every E.R and hospital visit (I hope you have none for a generation), every health problem.  This will assist you to keep track of your health over the long haul, and come in handy when bad things happen.

(6)Keep a spiritual notebook.  Not quite a diary, but rather I'm suggesting writing down a running conversation with yourself (you don't have to show it to anyone) about what is going on in your spiritual life.  Include scriptural quotes that touch your heart, powerful sermons you hear (or you write/deliver), quotations from authors or friends or other sources that mean a great deal to you, notes from your annual spiritual retreat--even photos or poems, these and anything else you want to include go here.  It will help you to see a "trajectory" and pathway in your spiritual life.

(7)Remember the poor.  See most of the sermons of Pope Francis.  Read Matthew 25:31-46 regularly.

(8)Be open to criticism and to new ideas.  None of us is perfect. None of us is beyond improving one or another portion of our lives.  Listening to what others say about us helps us see our faults.  Reading widely opens doors to new horizons.  If we remain open to constructive criticism and to new ideas, we stay young, no matter what our chronological age.

There are other common pieces of advice I could mention (exercise, drink alcohol in moderation, find and keep a spiritual director who is smarter than you, keep your weight down, practice celibacy daily), but these are the ones that have served me, and I believe will serve you the best.  And along the way.......enjoy and give thanks to God for the wonderful challenging fruitful joyous serving Christ-filled vocation God has given to you.  Know of my daily prayers for you.

Clergy Changes for New Castle

"There is nothing permanent except change."  --Hericlitus

This morning at the Mass for the Ordination of Priests in St. Paul Cathedral (and on the diocesan  email server), Bishop Zubik announced changes for the clergy serving the four parishes of New Castle.  The bishop has named our parochial vicar, Father Nicholas S. Vaskov, the vice-rector of St. Paul Seminary in Crafton, and director of the pastoral year program for seminarians.  He will begin his new responsibilities on Monday, July 28.  At the same time Bishop Zubik has named newly ordained Father Michael Ackerman as  parochial vicar to our four parishes.  Father Mike begins here on Monday, July 14.

Father Nick Vaskov came to New Castle in May 2012.  He was ordained a priest on June 27, 2009, and formerly served as parochial vicar at St. Charles Lwanga, Homewood, and St. Paul Cathedral, and as secretary/master of ceremonies for Biship Zubik.  Father Nick's parents, Gene and Connie, are members of Our Lady of Joy Parish, Plum, and reside in Murrysville, Westmoreland County.  Father Nick's uncle, John Vaskov, is a permanent deacon of the diocese and serves at Sacred Heart Parish, Shadyside.  Father Nick earned an S.T.L. degree in liturgy from the Gregorianum University in Rome, Italy, where he resided at the North American College.

We will all miss Father Nick's hearty laugh, ever-present smile, excellent musical skills, and willingness to help in any way in our parishes.  I'm sure the youth group members and adult leaders will especially miss him.  The parish staff will also miss his ability to whip up excellent meals for lunch.  We wish him all the best as he takes on important responsibilities in guiding the formation of young men who are studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, at the college, pre-theology and theologian level.

"Things do not change; we change."  --Henry David Thoreau

Father Mike Ackerman is the son of Richard and Nancy Ackerman, and a member of St. Pio of Pietrelcina Parish, Blawnox/Harmar.  He attended St. Scholastica grade school in Aspinwall, North Catholic High School, and graduated from Duquesne University with a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in education.  For several years he was a teacher in the Riverview School District in Allegheny County.  In the fall of 2008 he entered St. Paul Seminary for pre-theological studies for the priesthood.  He recently graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a Master of Divinity degree.  While in Washington he resided at the Theological College, on the CUA campus. Father Mike was ordained earlier this morning, June 28, by Bishop David Zubik in St. Paul Cathedral.  Father Mike is 31 years old (same age as Father Nick) and will join Father Bill Siple and me in residing at Mary Mother of Hope rectory.

"Growth is the only evidence of life."  --Cardinal John Henry Newman

When I was ordained a deacon, a priest gave me a lectionary, the book of readings for Sunday and weekday Masses, as a gift.  I started using the book to record all my assignments, and the priests who served and lived with me.  I have now more than a dozen moves written down, and am on page three!  I have learned the hard way that every diocesan priest gets moved, usually when you least expect it.  (You can "bid" on a pastorship, or request a change of assignment.  My pattern has been that jobs find me.) 

So also Father Nick understands this.  Yesterday he celebrated the fifth anniversiry of his priesthood ordination, and in a few weeks will begin his fifth priestly assignment.  I hope this one brings him happiness--and stability.

All of us in New Castle will miss Father Nick dearly.  But I am grateful that the bishop has sent us a replacement, an energetic and bright newly ordained one at that.

"When it rains on your parade, look up rather than down.  Without the rain, there would be no rainbows."  --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Audience participation time.

How many of you, gentle readers, have ever made a spiritual retreat?  Show of hands, please......  I thought so.  Not many.  I'm sorry to hear that.

How many of you have ever been invited to make a spiritual retreat? .......Even fewer, I see.  Yet one of the great gifts our Catholic faith has is to take time off from the ordinary busy-ness of life to pray.

The evangelists give us good examples in the gospels of Jesus retreating from "the world" to pray.  St. Mark writes:  "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed."  (1:35)  Sometimes Jesus would spend an entire night in retreat:  "In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God."  (Luke 6:12)  Jesus also invited his dearest friends to join him in retreating:  "The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.  He said to them, 'Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.'  People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.  So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place."  (Mark 6:30-32)

All Catholic clerics are required by canon law to make an annual retreat, usually of five days duration.  Some priests follow Jesus literally, going off to a mountain cabin or hermitage alone.  Some priests attend a "preached" retreat.  A spiritual director, usually a wise and older priest, sometimes a seminary professor or retired bishop, offers three or four 45 minute reflections daily for the retreatants, along with a sermon at daily Mass.  The priests then spend the rest of the day reflecting on the content of these reflections during the days of the retreat.  

This is a good model, and I've attended several preached retreats with fine presenters.  But I have to admit that much of the time out of the chapel is spent in casual conversation or sharing clerical gossip.  On my bad days I call these "country club" retreats, and wonder whether the guys actually pray.  I know I found it hard to pray in that environment.

I found more richness in a silent, directed retreat.  Sister Marge Berry, a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden who was my spiritual director for a few years back in the day, invited me to join some sisters at their motherhouse for the first time in a silent, directed retreat.  I have been very very grateful to her ever since.  

This model is based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).  In this model all retreatants (and spiritual directors and staff) keep total silence on the grounds of the retreat house.  No talking in the hallways, no chit-chat on the grounds or at meals, no TV or radio or internet.  This profound silence helps the retreatant to focus mind and heart on prayer and contemplation.  

Each retreatant also meets with a spiritual director once a day for about 30 minutes.  In these personally revealing conversations, the director listens to how God is speaking (or not speaking!) to the retreatant.  The director will offer one or two short biblical passages for the retreatant to intensely reflect on.  As I was taught this model, retreatants pray each day at least four one-hour periods of personal prayer, in addition to attending Mass and time for adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  The rest of the day might include walking in a park, spiritual reading, a hobby such as painting (or doing cross-stitch for me) and relaxation.  All done, of course, in total silence.  

Retreats are not just for priests.  Lay folk, religious sisters and brothers, deacons, clergy and parishioners from other Christian denominations, attend retreats in Catholic retreat houses all over the globe.  All benefit from "time away," to be renewed in their faith and prayer, to be (sometimes) surprised by the Holy Spirit in their own spiritual journey.  We have several fine retreat houses in our diocese and western Pennsylvania used by laity, religious and priests.

The week of May 24-31 I drove up to Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to make my annual retreat.  I regretfully state that I did not make a retreat in 2013, so in January I made reservations for this year.

Eastern Point is very special to me.  This very beautiful campus sits on the rocky shore of the Atlantic Ocean, about an hour's drive north of  Boston.  I love the profound silence there, and the rugged grandeur of Eastern Point.  It was there that I was privileged to make the full 30 day Spiritual Exercises in 2010, truly the experience of a lifetime.  In 2012 I went back for another eight day silent retreat.  And again this year, although for only six days this time, my 12th week-long silent retreat.

The logic of retreating in our busy world is inescapable.  But making time to retreat is much much harder.   All of us benefit from stepping aside, for however short or long a time (Jesus was interrupted in his retreat too), to pray, reflect, meditate and appreciate the life given to us by God.

(All photographs from the website of Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House.  Visit  for more images of the natural beauty of the land, as well as resources for further information about the Spiritual Exercises and retreats.)  

Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, R.I.P.

The first column I ever wrote for a bulletin was a personal reflection on the death of a priest with whom I lived in a previous assignment.  Father Frank C. Sokol was only 45 years old when he was taken home to the Lord, and I expressed my admiration and respect for him and his ministry.  Let me reflect on another of God's holy servants whom I knew and greatly respected.

Bishop Andrew J. McDonald was the fifth bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas.  He served in that role for 28 years, from 1972 to 2000.  Bishop McDonald passed away on April 1, at the age of 91.  He was living in the St. Joseph Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a suburb of Chicago, at the time of his death.  

Life is full of God's quirky surprises.  How did I get to know the bishop of Little Rock?  In the 1980s I was parochial vicar at  St. Mary of Mercy Parish, in downtown Pittsburgh.  Bishop McDonald would come to Pittsburgh and conduct two Confirmations each day for two weeks straight.  In this way he helped the bishops of Pittsburgh, and also made some money for his missionary diocese.  His home away from home was St. Mary's at the Point.

Late in the evening after a full day of two Confirmation ceremonies, dinner and travel, Bishop McDonald would join us priests in our TV room for casual, friendly conversation.  He would talk about his family (he was the 11th of 12 children, born and raised in Savannah, Georgia; four of his sisters became nuns) and the goings on in his local church, and we priests would talk shop about church stuff and personnel gossip in western Pennsylvania.

Bishop McDonald had a shy smile and an easy laugh.  He like to tell corny jokes, make fun of his golf game, and enjoyed the company of priests.  He was a great supporter of the pro-life movement, founding the annual March for Life in Little Rock that endures to this day.  He established ministries to and with the Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrants who came to live in his adopted state.  He told us many funny stories about parish life in rural (and sometimes anti-Catholic) Arkansas.

He was also a devout, prayerful bishop.  Each morning Bishop McDonald would attend the 7:15 a.m. Mass in St. Mary church, pray his office and a rosary after Mass, then vest and concelebrate the 8:00 a.m. Mass with whichever priest was scheduled.  He did not preach, but rather wanted to listen to our sermons.  I vividly remember the first time this happened to me.  I was only seven years ordained, in my early 30s, and I couldn't believe that a bishop--A BISHOP--wanted to concelebrate with me and listen to my sermon.  But he was insistent, and so I did as he wanted.  The good bishop was also kindly, complimenting me on my words that day.

One year Bishop Andrew came to Pittsburgh right after his "ad limina" visit to Rome.  Pope John Paul II gave each diocesan bishop 15 minutes of personal time.  Using a large map of the United States, Bishop McDonald proudly pointed out where his diocese was located.  The pope squinted at the map, and then smiled and said, "Ah!  RRRR-Kansas!"  It was Bishop McDonald's turn to smile.  "That's right, Your Holiness."  As he said to us later, who was I to tell the pope he mispronounced the name of my diocese?

Each year I would look forward to Bishop McDonald's visit.  I was privileged to share lunch with him, and came to know the depths of wisdom hiding behind his laugh and puns.  He made many friends, clergy and lay, in the Pittsburgh area during his celebrations of Confirmation and missionary appeal Masses.  His Christmas letters were full of folksy Gospel insights.

Upon his retirement, Bishop Andrew left Little Rock and at age 77 took up a new ministry.  (He told me he wanted to give his successor space to be himself--ever the considerate Christian.)  He became chaplain at the St. Joseph Home for the aged poor in Palatine, Illinois.  About five years ago I was vacationing in Chicago for a long weekend.  I called him, and drove out to see him.  We talked for hours about his pastoral ministry, his new home of Chicago, and the church at large.

Like all retired clergy, he was glad to be freed of administrative duties, and loved offering the sacraments and his presence among the residents, the Little Sisters and the staff.  Age had slowed him down, but did not squelch his sense of humor or love for Jesus Christ.

Eternal rest grant unto your ever faithful servant, Bishop Andrew McDonald.  May he receive the reward of all good and holy ministers of the Gospel in the peace of your heavenly kingdom.

Publications Alert

One of the great benefits of this blog (when I do post to it!) is to give an outlet to the creativity gene inside me.  Some of you know that I write a column each week in our combined parish bulletin.  Sometimes stuff I write for the bulletin I also post here.  Sometimes it goes from blog to bulletin.

And once in a while I get the feeling that something I write might be worth sharing with a larger audience.  For example, last winter I wrote a (humorous?) post on the occasional unscripted phone calls Pope Francis was placing personally to ordinary people, in Argentina, Italy and elsewhere.  I sent it to our diocesan newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic, and the kindly editor, Bill Cone, published it.  So also he published my column urging more saints who were married or single, in the June 6 edition.   In a spurt of ambition, I also sent this column to Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic weekly paper.  But I haven't heard from them, one way or the other.

I've also sent the Catholic my reflections on the death of Bishop Andrew McDonald, which I wrote for our bulletin on June 8, and which is the following blog post. 

In March I posted "Six Masses in 24 Hours," a reflection on the fact that one Saturday during Lent I presided at six Masses withing a 24 hour period.  I'm not sure why, but I felt moved to send this to America magazine (a national Catholic weekly where I had a one page article published back in 2006).  Within ten days I got back a positive email reply from the editor, Father Matt Malone, S.J. Two days after that, I signed the brief contract they sent me.  And -- amazing, amazing -- a week after that I received the check, for an article which has not yet been published.  So, watch for my byline in an edition of America sometime in the next three months.  (America is a publication of the Jesuits of the United States.  Annual subscription is $49.  Contact them  at 1-800-627-9533 or .)