Tuesday, December 15, 2015


When I was in high school, my first thought of a career was not priesthood or ministry, but journalism.  I wanted to become a writer.  I seriously considered going to a university which had a nationally known journalism school.  Obviously, I decided against that path, which is why I am writing in the Pittsburgh Catholic and the bulletin of the Catholic Community in New Castle, and not for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the Los Angeles Times.

That long-ago ambition came back to me when I went to see "Spotlight."  This movie (released in November) details the work of four investigative reporters for the Boston Globe as they pursue the story of priests who abused children in the Archdiocese of Boston.  We see their initial lack of understanding of the scope of the scandal, their frustration in interviewing victims, their editors' skepticism of the project, and their ultimate vindication.  For their work the Spotlight Team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service.  Every newspaper review of "Spotlight" which I have read says that director Tom McCarthy and his actors accurately and vividly portray the life of contemporary reporters in gritty detail.

Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James

But this is not just a movie about writing newspaper stories.  It is also the fact-based retelling of one important part of the largest scandal in the Catholic church in the past 100 years.  Going back decades, a few priests harmed children.  ["A few" is relative.  The John Jay report of U.S. Catholic clergy sexual abuse in 2004 noted that about 4% (4,392 clergy) of the 109,694 priests active between 1950 and 2002 were accused of abusing children under the age of  18.]  When they did, and the victims' parents complained, these priest were moved from parish to parish to avoid scrutiny.  Through the intervention of their bishops, most of these priests escaped punishment from the criminal justice system.  

"Spotlight" focuses on the Archdiocese of Boston in the years 2000-2002.  But as the final credits of the movie note, clergy abusing children was not a problem just in the Archdiocese of Boston, or just in the United States, or even just in the Catholic Church.  Sexual abuse of children is a human problem.  It is one which the leadership of the Catholic Church was painfully slow to realize, and even slower to bring into the open.

Even today, we see educational institutions (for example, the Sandusky affair at Penn State; some local school districts), other churches and religions and social service agencies still grappling with how to acknowledge the harm done by a few adult leaders, and do everything in their power to protect children.  These institutions have not learned from the hard experience of the U.S. Catholic Church.

"Spotlight" is accurate, as the Boston Globe writers dig up the story of 67 priests who repeated sexually abused children and still were in active ministry.  Their reporting caused Cardinal Bernard Law to resign as archbishops, and force major changes in every diocese of the United States.  What "Spotlight" does not tell is what has happened since 2002:  how much the dioceses and eparchies in our country have done to admit openly the wrongdoing of priests and bishops, plead for forgiveness, and attempt to bring healing to victims through counselling and symbolic monetary payments.

Cardinal Bernard Law, John Geoghan

Today, one can confidently say that in the United States there are no clergy or parish leaders in active ministry who have been accused of harming children.  Over two million Catholic church workers and volunteers have undergone "safe environment" procedures of fingerprinting, FBI and state clearances, and education in identifying possible child predators.  Shame--and $4 billion in reparations by the dioceses and religious orders of the U.S. and Canada--are our history.  Constant vigilance is our church's future.

One remark in "Spotlight" is wrong.  As the Boston reporters focus on Boston priest, one speculates that it is celibacy which causes priests to harm children.  This is false.  Most child abusers are married (whether clergy or lay).  It would take another movie to disprove the false belief that celibacy drives priests and bishops to harm young people.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, current archbishop of Boston, said "Spotlight" illustrates how the newspapers's reporting prompted the church "to deal with what was shameful and hidden."  In a review, Vatican Radio called the movie "honest" and "compelling,"" and said it helped the U.S. Catholic Church "to accept fully the sin, to admit it publicly and to pay the consequences."  I encourage adults to see this movie.  I think all parish safe environment coordinators, and all clergy, need to see it.  "Spotlight" is gripping in its storytelling, the ensemble acting (including Pittsburgher Michael Keaton) is superb, and the way it presents the horror of child abuse is restrained yet pointed.

"Spotlight" is an important movie, if you want to see a truly shameful portion of our church's past.  But it is also important to know that our church has changed as a result of the newspaper reporting of 2002.  We are more humble and chastised because of our sins.  May we never forget; may we move forward to do God's work with contrite resolve.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving With No Idea of Repayment

By chance the other day I came across this column I wrote for the Pittsburgh Catholic on November 28, 1997.  It seems just as appropriate for today as it did back then (except for the reference about commercial activity stopping on Thanksgiving Day--my crystal ball failed to see that change coming).

It's not an official liturgical season of the church, but I like to think that the months of November and December are "the season of giving."

The American national celebration of Thanksgiving is as close as we get to a secular holy day.  Just about every commercial venture stops to allow employees to join their families in shared feasting and giving thanks.

Churches and synagogues host cheerful and thankful worshipers that day.  Ecumenical and interfaith prayer services abound.  More than once after Mass on Thanksgiving Day I've heard people say, "I wish every Sunday could have this same joyful spirit."

Of course, the day after Thanksgiving we are bombarded with advertising.  But buried underneath the commercial avalanche is the Christian season of Advent.

During these days, Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate the gift of  our Savior's birth with our own gift-giving.  Stores and malls take this idea of gift-giving to extremes.  They conveniently forget the reason for the season of giving.

The biblical roots are deep.  In the beginning Yahweh gave breath to human beings and brought them into life. 

Ancient worshipers responded to God's generosity by giving up the first fruits of field and flock.  The Lord gave the law, the path of righteousness, to the Hebrew people.

When the people strayed from the law, the Lord sent prophets.  Because the Jews were once exiles and enslaved in Egypt, they are constantly exhorted throughout the Scriptures to care for the poor in their midst.

Jesus, the faithful Jew, inherits this spirit of giving.  My concordance records the word "give" 65 times in the Gospels.  Jesus gives healing to the paralyzed, blind, lame, even the dead.  He gives food to the hungry multitudes, instruction to his disciples, correction to Peter when this fisherman tries to rework Jesus's teaching.  Jesus gives forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery and the thief on the cross next to him.

Jesus tells us he will give us a new commandment of love and a Spirit of life-giving power.  He gives us his Body and Blood.  He gave his life for us so that all might live eternally.  In the only saying of Jesus quoted outside the Gospels, Paul recalls Jesus's teaching, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  (Acts 20:35)

Jesus gave to those who could not repay him.  This is true in all of these examples.  He instructs us to give to those who beg from us, regardless of our judgment of their worthiness.  He chides us by asking, "If you love those who love you, what reward is there is that?"  All that the Master asks for is a word of praise to God, not to himself.

St. Paul once wrote, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor 4:7)  A moment's reflection tells us that all that we are and have comes from someone else.

We would do well to recheck our personal Christmas gift lists in light of the challenge from Christ himself.  Are we giving to those who can't repay the gift?

This is already happening through food drives, Jesse or Giving trees, and significant donations to the charities in the name of loved ones.  This year, consider giving as much in response to people's needs as to return the love of family and friends.

In the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, shepherds and Magi all gave to the Christ Child without expecting any return.  They witness to us the wisdom of Christ our Teacher, "You received without paying, give without repayment."  (Matthew 10:8)

The word "give" resides deeply in my heart.  It's the reason I gave this blog the title it has.  It's what I received (and can never repay) from my parents, teachers and friends.  Give in greater measure this year in "the season of giving."  And remember, you cannot never exceed the generosity of  God.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Prayers for Year of Mercy

Here are two prayers for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

This one was composed by Pope Francis:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful
like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.

Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew
from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene
from seeking happiness only in created things; 
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us,
the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
"If you knew the gift of God!"

You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all
by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world,
its Lord risen and glorified.

You willed that your ministers
would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion
for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them
feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us
with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy
may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.

We ask this through the intercession
of Mary, Mother of Mercy,
you who live and reign
with the Father and the Holy Spirit
for ever and ever.

Pope Francis has a personal devotion to Mary under the title of Undoer of Knots.  Here is a prayer to her:

O Virgin Mary,
faithful Mother who never refuses to come
to the aid of your children;
Mother whose hands never cease to help,
because they are moved by the loving kindness
that exists in your Immaculate Heart,
cast your eyes of compassion upon me,
and see the snarl of knots that exists in my life.

You know all the pains and sorrows 
caused by these tangled knots.

Mary, my Mother,
I entrust to your loving hands
the entire ribbon of my life.
In your hands there is no knot
which cannot be undone.

Most holy Mother, pray for Divine assistance
to come to my aid.
Take this know [mention your personal need here]
into your maternal hands this day.
I beg you to undo it for the glory of God,
once and for all,
in the name of your Divine Son, Jesus Christ.

Like so many people, I had never heard of the devotion to Mary, Undoer [or Untier] of Knots until Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., was elected pope two years ago.  When he was doing doctoral studies in Germany in the 1980s, he saw this painting.  It is titled "Wallfahrtsbild," and was done by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner (1625-1707) in 1700.  It hangs in the Church of St. Peter am Gerlach in Augsburg, Bavaria.  When Father Bergoglio returned to Argentina, he brought a postcard of the painting with him, and began to promote devotion to Mary under this title.

In the painting, Mary is holding a rope of knots, which she unties.  Her foot rests on the head of a "knotted" snake, a clear reference to Satan from the creation story in Genesis.  This image of Mary is a reference to St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his "Adversus haereses."  The saint creates an analogy between Eve and Mary, describing how "the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary.  For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, thus did the Virgin Mary set free through faith."

Jubilee Year of Mercy

In the spring Pope Francis startled the Catholic Church by announcing an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.  Jubilee years have been celebrated every 25 years by popes since 1300.  The most recent one was when Pope John Paul II celebrated with greater fanfare the Great Jubilee of 2000.  In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year Pope Francis is calling the church "to contemplate the mystery of mercy.  It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace."

From the first sentence of the Bull of Indiction ("Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy.") I was entranced by the pope's vision for this year.  This is the first jubilee which is not tied to the every-25-year pattern (or to anniversaries of the death and resurrection of Christ, as celebrated in 1933 and 1983).  

This special year will begin on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and run until Sunday, November 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King.   With this starting date, the pope is not only honoring Mary, he is reminding the church about the Second Vatican Council, which ended on that date 50 years earlier.  On that day Pope Francis will open a "Holy Door of Mercy" at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  But this Jubilee Year is different.  The pope wants all Catholics, and Christians everywhere, to do works of mercy locally.  So in another first the pope asks every local bishop to also have a "Holy Door of Mercy" opened in their cathedral.  Bishop David Zubik will ceremonially open this door at St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland, on Sunday, December 13, with a Mass at 2:30 p.m.

Second, the pope is calling for all of us to carry out corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  

The corporal works of mercy:

  • feed the hungry
  • give drink to the thirsty
  • clothe the naked
  • welcome the stranger
  • heal the sick
  • visit the imprisoned
  • bury the dead
The spiritual works of mercy:
  • counsel the doubtful
  • instruct the ignorant
  • admonish sinners
  • comfort the afflicted
  • forgive offences
  • bear patiently those who do us ill
  • pray for the living and the dead
Each of us, in our own ways, can perform these works of mercy in our families, neighborhoods and parishes.

Third, the pope suggests that we carry out pilgrimages.  No necessarily to faraway places, like Rome or the Holy Land or Marian shrines such as Fatima (Portugal) or Guadalupe (Mexico), but locally.  It's certainly possible to visit another church other than your own parish.  In our neck of the woods, these are beautiful and nearby buildings:  St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh; St. Paul, Butler; St. Ferdinand, Cranberry; St. Anthony Chapel (where there are 5,000 relics of saints), Troy Hill/North Side; Sacred Heart, Shadyside; St. Mary of Mercy, Downtown Pittsburgh.  Outside of our diocese there are St. Columba Cathedral and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel basilica in Youngstown, and St. Joseph Cathedral in Wheeling.

In this year of mercy the pope urges all to receive the sacrament of confession (reconciliation).  Certainly our parishes offer many opportunities to receive this sacrament, whether on the weekends at regularly scheduled times or penance services with individual confession during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  We priests are also happy to hear any confession of a person who is home-bound, in a nursing facility or hospital at a time beneficial to them.

Another new wrinkle the pope proposes is sending out "missionaries of mercy."  These are papally designated priests known for the preaching skills and compassionate embrace of mercy.  Nobody is real sure how these are designated or what ministry they will carry out, but they are to be sent out in Lent 2016.  

Most of all this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy give all of us encouragement to reflect on how important mercy is in the ministry of Jesus.  We can reflect on these bible passages:  Psalm 136 ("For his mercy endures forever"); Luke 15:1-32 (parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the loving father with two sons); Matthew 18:22 ("forgive 70 times seven times"); and 1 John 4:8 ("God is love").  As disciples of Jesus, we are asked to examine our consciences to see how we can grow in being merciful to ourselves, to others, and to the structures and cultures of our times.

Let me invite you to go on the Vatican's special website ( www.im.va ) for the Jubilee Year of Mercy resources.  Here you can read the papal bull "Misericordiae Vultus," which is truly rich spiritual reading from the pope.  Pray that all of us can be "merciful like our heavenly Father."  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land III

My previous post was a little formal describing how the geography of the Holy Land was "a fifth Gospel" to me.  That was partially because I wrote it for our diocesan newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic (in which it was published November 20; see www.pittsburghcatholic.org ).  Here let me tell some informal stories about our wonderful pilgrimage.

*Overall the pilgrimage was a fantastic experience.  We had warm sunny weather throughout. (I never wore the Steelers jacket I brought with me.)  It was so sunny, that upon returning to New Castle parishioners said I had a sun tan.  Our group of 34 pilgrims got along well.  Our diocesan guide, Helene Paharik (who works with Bishop Zubik as an associate general secretary for the Diocese of Pittsburgh), was an excellent and enthusiastic interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures.  Her love of the land, and her joy at leading our pilgrimage, was infectious.  All logistics went well.  No one got lost or hurt.  We never felt threatened in Israel (despite the fears of our family members).

*Our tour company, Unitours, provided a local guide.  Jerry is a 40 year old American Catholic who emigrated to Israel ten years ago and married a Jewish woman from Morocco.  He had two children, and his wife was 8 3/4 months pregnant.  He was a fountain of information--historical, archaeological, biblical, political, cultural.  However, his wife gave birth to a baby boy on the Friday of our trip.  So while Jerry when home to be with his wife and children, for three days we had Isaac, a native of Israel who was more formal.  Isaac also had a sly sense of humor.  When we went to the Dead Sea, he told us that our bus driver was actually 900 years old, because he swims in the Dead Sea several times a year, and the minerals from that very salty lake keep him young.  Sammy (Osama) the bus driver roared.

*We had daily Mass in the holy sites.  Each one was special, as we celebrated the Mass prayers for that particular site (and not of the universal liturgical year).  We had two outdoor Masses (under a tree steps away from the Mount of Beatitudes church; and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee); we celebrated the Annunciation of Mary in Nazareth, the prayer of Jesus atop Mount Carmel; Christmas in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Passion of Christ in the Gethsemane Church, Easter in a chapel of the Holy Sepulcher Church, and the Emmaus post-resurrection story in Emmaus Church.  We also read and prayed Gospel passages on the bus as we approached the different churches and towns, along with Helene's insightful commentary.

*Israel is a first-world country.  We enjoyed all the creature comforts of a new retreat center (Pilgerhaus at Tabgha) a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee, and the four star Dan Hotel in Jerusalem.  We had sumptuous buffets for breakfast and dinner each day.  Special meals we sampled were St. Peter's fish from the Sea of Galilee (head, tail, eyeball and all!), lots of Middle Eastern hummus, falafel and pita bread, and cheeseburgers at the Elvis Diner in Tel Aviv.  We found Elvis in the Holy Land!

*We had fun on the trip.  The pilgrims found out that it was my birthday during our tour.  So our Muslim bus driver and our Israeli Jewish guide worked with a Muslim baker to surprise me, a Catholic priest, with chocolate birthday cake on the Sabbath in Jerusalem (when all the bakeries were closed).  It was delicious.  Yes, I did have a second slice for breakfast the next morning.

When we took a boat ride on the calm Sea of Galilee we belted out "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" and "Amazing Grace," with a harmonica accompaniment by one of our pilgrims.  Several of us floated in the (ten times saltier than ocean) Dead Sea, and coated ourselves with its healing mud.  No incriminating photographs remain, however!   

*We were serious too.  Pilgrims got first-had information about the fractious political situation and conflict between Palestinians and Israelis from Palestinian non-violent peacemakers in Bethlehem and from the Latin Patriarchate's Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali.  Christians are an oppressed minority in Israel and throughout the Middle East.  We also had the sobering task of visiting the Yad Vachem museum of the Holocaust.

*Archaeologists have contributed much to contemporary understanding of the books of the bible and the culture in which Jesus lived.  This was especially true at Capernaum, where St. Peter's family house and compound are located.  Another recent non-biblical "dig" was Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea.  We saw an actual Dead Sea scroll (from about 100 B.C.), one of about 800 which were found between 1946 and 1994.  We walked through the remains of buildings of the Essene community which generated the scrolls.  This strict sect for men only was active during Jesus's time.  Scholars speculate that St. John the Baptist may have briefly joined the Essene community at Qumran before beginning his own ministry along the Jordan River.

*We did not stop at the Jordan River.  It is, in good Pittsburghese, a "crick" [creek].  Yet as it leaves the Sea of Galilee it gives life to hundreds of acres of fruits and vegetables, as the Israelis have "made the desert bloom" through advanced irrigation practices.

*I had not done my required spiritual retreat this year.  So I decided I would treat the pilgrimage as my retreat.  The pace of the days allowed for both communal prayers (Mass and other services) and personal prayer.  The whole trip was filled with special moments of grace, as we literally walked in the footsteps of Jesus and prayed in churches which were 250, 400, even 1,000 years old.

*As our country celebrates Thanksgiving next week, I give thanks to God for the huge gift of this spiritual pilgrimage, which helped us pilgrims to "learn Jesus, love Jesus and live Jesus" more.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land II

Andrew Lloyd Webber is best known as the composer of such musical blockbusters as Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Cats. But when I was a college seminarian his most attention-getting creation was Jesus Christ Superstar.  In ways we cannot appreciate today, this "rock opera" shocked audiences with its sympathetic depiction of Judas, Mary Magdalene crooning "I don't know how to love you," and presentation of Jesus as a reluctant rock star.  When the movie version of the record came out, we seminarians eagerly went to see it.  We were worried, however, whether the seminary's priest leadership would criticize us for watching the movie.

I still remember how surprised I was when Father George Saladna, seminary vice rector and a true scholar of the Sacred Scriptures, calmly accepted the news that we saw the movie.  "It's a fifth Gospel," he said.  Noticing our puzzled looks, he explained, "The four Gospels are the church's official accounts of Christ.  But there are many ways of depicting who Jesus is." 

That phrase, "a fifth Gospel," was much on my mind as our Pittsburgh pilgrimage group recently (October 26--November 4) walked in the footsteps of Jesus in Israel.  For the geography of the Holy Land became for me a fifth Gospel, giving fresh insight into Jesus and his saving ministry.  Let me share five points.

Jesus was a country boy.  Jesus was raised by Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, a tiny village in "the Galilee," the region around the Sea of Galilee (also known as Genneseret, or the Sea of Tiberias), a freshwater lake five miles by 14 miles large.  Pilgrims looking for desert found green grass and many trees in the Galilee hills, fed by streams from Mount Hermon to the north.  Inhabitants of the Galilee region were disparaged as "hicks" with a funny accent by more sophisticated city dwellers in Jerusalem 60 miles south (see Luke 22:39).  Our group celebrated Mass outside of the Mount of Beatitudes Church overlooking the Sea of Galilee, on a sunny picture-perfect day.  One could easily imagine Jesus feeding the 5,000 on a nearby hill, and praying to his heavenly Father in such a beautiful place.

Jesus worked in cities.  The Gospel of Mark calls Jesus a tekton in Greek.  We've heard this usually translated as "carpenter"; a better translation would be "worker," whether in wood, stone or metal.  There would have been little available work in his tiny village for him and Joseph.  Scholars speculate that the two of them went to larger communities around the Sea of Galilee for employment, such as Tiberias or Sepphoris (which is, very interestingly, never mentioned in any of the four canonical Gospels).  In these cities Jesus would have likely picked up some knowledge of the Greek language, as he dealt with traders and travelers from the north and east. His native tongue was Aramaic, and he knew Hebrew which he employed when he prayed the Psalms in the synagogue.

Jesus walked everywhere.  The hills of the Galilee are similar to the hills of western Pennsylvania.  However, Jesus didn't have the privilege of riding in an air-conditioned motor coach like we 21st century pilgrims did!  When we went to Mount Tabor, to celebrate Mass in the Church of the Transfiguration, we marveled at Jesus's stamina to climb the steep path up the 1,500 foot mountain.  The gospels tells us that Jesus preached in cities we did not visit on our pilgrimage--Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast, and Caesarea Philippi to the north--which were 20 or more miles from his home base of Capernaum.

Jesus knew fishermen.    Matthew tells us that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth and moved to Capernaum (4:13), a much larger town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Capernaum was wiped off the map by invaders in the 6th century, but archaeologists have found what they believe are the remains of Peter's house and a nearby synagogue where Jesus taught and did many healings.  On our pilgrimage we prayerfully visited the ruins, and a contemporary church which was cantilevered over the site ten years ago.  It gave us new appreciation of the close relationship Jesus had with the fishermen brothers Peter/Andrew and James/John.  

On my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1989, the Franciscan friar who was conducting the archaeological dig had only reached through the ruins of a 5th century church to a 4th century church.  I was amazed on this visit how much more the scientists had uncovered.  I was also startled to see the contemporary church, covering the ground, sitting like a flying saucer spaceship over the ruins.

The day after our group visited Capernaum, we saw the so-called "Jesus boat," a 27 foot fishing boat from the first century.  It was recovered during a drought three decades ago and is now nicely displayed in a museum on a kibbutz.  This one is probably not Peter's actual boat.  But viewing it allowed us to picture Jesus falling asleep in the stern during a storm, and Peter gathering a great catch of fish at the command of Jesus.  In my imagination whenever the stories of Peter and his boat were read, all I could see was a canoe.  I wondered, how could 153 fish, plus several co-workers of Peter, fit in such a tiny thing.  Now, seeing the 27 footer, it was far easier to picture those stories.

Jesus was a frequent pilgrim to the holy city of Jerusalem.  The four canonical gospels differ on how often Jesus walked to Jerusalem from Nazareth/Capernaum.  Mark and Matthew, once.  Luke, twice (once as a 12 year old with his parents, once as an adult).  John, at least three times.  Why?  Because John mentioned Jesus being in Jerusalem three times to celebrate the Feast of Passover.  

The church has never pronounced on which number is historically accurate.  I've tended to agree with the evangelist John, because of Jesus's seeming familiarity with the city, as well as his friendship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.  This also would mean that Jesus's ministry was at least 2 1/2 years in length, not one year.

The second half of our pilgrimage was in Jerusalem.  Our motor coach took the "Jordan road" south from the Galilee.  This is a modern two lane highway that paralleled the Jordan River, and was close to the probable route Jesus took.  We went to Jericho, the oldest known place of human continuous habitation in the world, and then turned up the 4,000 feet mountain to the holy city of Jerusalem.  

In Jerusalem, we prayed at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, walked the Way of the Cross ("Via Dolorosa") through crowded alleys, and celebrate the Eucharist (in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) footsteps away from the hill of Golgotha on which Jesus was crucified.  We marveled at 2,000 year old olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the probable site of the prison where Jesus spent Holy Thursday night/Good Friday early morning after his arrest (the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu).  We pilgrims prayed at holy sites where pilgrims from all over the world have prayed for two millennia.

When I returned home after my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I told people seeing the geography made reading the Gospels change for me, from black-and-white TV to color TV.  Now that I have returned home, the analogy is the same, just that it has been elevated to a 75 inch flat-screen 3D TV.  I continue to "see" new images when I read or pray or proclaim the Gospels, because of this pilgrimage.

The geography of the Holy Land is truly a fifth Gospel, which allowed us pilgrims to draw closer to the Jesus of the four Gospels and the Christ whom we worship and follow today.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Mission for the Church Alive: the timetable

On Mission for the Church Alive is on the move.  This planning and evangelical outreach initiative was begun by Bishop Zubik more than three years ago, as a followup to the very successful capital campaign, Our Campaign for the Church Alive.  Much of its work has been behind the scenes.  I served on the preparatory commission for the last three years, during which we reviewed the current statistics of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, future projections for priests, lay ecclesial ministers and people, models of parish ministry from around the country, and what outcomes we wanted to make happen.

On of the decisions the commission recommended, and the bishop accepted, was that the current diocesan staff is stretched to the max with ordinary ministry, and that the diocese should engage a planning consultant for this special project.  In January the Catholic Leadership Institute of Philadelphia was hired to accompany the bishop, the leadership commission, and the people and clergy of the diocese for On Mission for the Church Alive.  CLI [ www.catholicleaders.org ] is well known to our diocese, as it has organized the "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds" and "Tending the Talents" projects.  I completed the second GLGS cohort three years ago, and my associate, Father Larry Adams, and our neighbor, Deacon John Carran, began the fourth GLGS cohort just two weeks ago.  (GLGS uses sound and excellent business practices to teach priests and deacons how to pastor more effectively.)

For the past year, and continuing into 2016, Bishop Zubik exhorts the faithful to pray for On Mission [ www.onmissionchurchalive.org ].  We do that using the prayer at the conclusion of the Prayers of the Faithful at all Masses, when adorers pray in the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel, and in our personal intentions.  Prayer is an essential part of this planning initiative.  In prayer we collectively and individually open ourselves to the will of the Father and the creativity of the Holy Spirit.

The next step in On Mission is forming and training a parish team.  Each pastor is being asked to suggest six active parishioners who will form a parish team to lead consultations with their parishioners.  Deadline for submission of names of team members is the end of February.  In April 2016 each team member will be required to attend a training session led by CLI and diocesan staff.  Then in the second half of 2016, each parish team will conduct listening sessions within its parish, and within its cluster.  The teams will share the results with the priests, pastoral and finance council members, lay ecclesial ministers, and other teams in their cluster and district.  Also over the winter, CLI will conduct one-on-one listening sessions with active priests, deacons and lay ecclesial minsters.

The goal of all these listening sessions is to have the parish teams in each district make recommendations for the future leadership of parishes.  This will happen early in 2017.  This consultation will proceed "from the ground up" through the parish teams, to district meetings, to the regional vicar and ultimately to the bishop.  If necessary more consultations will be held.  Finally about two years from now the bishop will confirm or adjust recommendations for parish leadership for the future.

This is the timetable as the leadership commission and the bishop now see it.  It may be adjusted in light of new concerns and creative ideas as it is implemented.

What does this mean in my specific situation?  Our district (the eight parishes in Lawrence County) is already a pilot program for On Mission.  We are using two newer models of parish leadership:  the deacon administrator model and the one-pastor-for-multiple-parishes model.  Deacon John Carran since August 1 leads Christ the King Parish, Hillsville-Bessemer, and St. James the Apostle Parish, Pulaski, along with Father Phil Farrell as priest director and us four nearby priests as sacramental ministers.  I am pastor of four parishes, supported by two parochial vicars and parish staff.  Two other priests are pastors of four parishes, and one of three parishes, in our diocese.  

There are other models of ministry available.  Each of the 21 districts in the diocese will have its parish teams look at all available models, in light of four key criteria--being missionaries to the unchurched and fallen away; caring for our active faithful; being financially viable; and sharing the clergy equitably throughout the diocese.

For right now, parishioners need to pray for the bishop, diocesan staff, CLI consultants, and all 200 parishes and 650,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  Pray for the success of On Mission for the Church Alive.  Pray that we be willing to think "outside the box," open ourselves to change, act courageously, and position our parish communities and institutions for growth.  Parishioners need to work to grow their church.  Parishioners also need to keep themselves informed by reading the weekly On Mission column on page 5 of the Pittsburgh Catholic, and their parish bulletin.  Parishioners need to continue to love their Catholic faith and their church by sharing time, talent and treasure with their parish.  

On Mission for the Church Alive: being home missioners

In the U.S., the third Sunday in October is designated World Mission Sunday.  The Catholic Church recognizes the worldwide dimension of missionary activity, through our prayer and our contributions.  This year in the Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik call for all to join prayers for universal mission work with our local initiative, On Mission for the Church Alive.  

The Gospel reading tells us how Jesus corrected his disciples who wish to "lord it over others."  He reminded them that true disciples of his are ones who serve others, who are responsive to the needs of others.  In this regard, the four parishes of the city of New Castle join with our sisters and brothers in every parish in all six counties of the Pittsburgh Diocese, to serve others and proclaim Jesus Christ to others.

The theme of "missionary disciples" is near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis.  He repeats it in almost every homily, and made it a cornerstone of his recent pastoral visit to our country.

For a long time parishes, school and parish organization worked in isolation from each other, as "silos" standing apart.  But gradually parishioners and pastors are breaking down barriers and learning to cooperate, share and collaborate.  Before I came to New Castle in 2011, the city parishes were already offering one RCIA program, and had been sharing Sunday Offertory envelopes dropped in different parishes.  The priests had been working together with joint penance services in Advent and Lent.  The former St. Mary's Parish and St. Vitus Parishes had put their cemeteries together way back in 1969 as the Lawrence County Catholic Cemetery Association.  There may have been other collaborative efforts I don't know about.

We have gone further.  Our four parishes (Mary Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Vitus) share one bulletin, one business manager, one pastoral associate, one religious education program, and three priests. Their pastoral councils and finance councils meet together and work together.

The eight parishes in Lawrence County, which comprise District 1 of Vicariate 4, also work together.  The three parishes in New Castle city (along with Father Michael Peck, pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Neshannock) provide sacramental ministry to St. James the Apostle Parish and Christ the King Parish, where Deacon John Carran is administrator.  Fathers Mark Thomas and Zach Galiyas from Holy Redeemer Parish, Ellwood City, help whenever necessary. Retired priests Fathers Joe Pudichery and Jim Downs provide much needed relief for us priests on Sundays and at "crunch times" of many liturgies, particularly funerals.  

Just this past Wednesday the lay ecclesial minsters from District 1 met with the priests and deacons and regional vicar Father Phil Farrell to go over the specific timetable for the On Mission for the Church Alive process.  (Lay ecclesial ministers are trained and skilled professionals who are employed by the parishes, institutions and dioceses in the areas of religious education, music, social services, administration and pastoral care.)  I am open to many more ways of collaboration and cooperation.  

No longer do we think that evangelization (the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ in and through the Catholic Church) only happens in faraway lands of Asia and Africa.  (Actually, for some time now it is not unusually to see these places--such as Korea, the Philippines, and Nigeria--send missionaries to Europe or the U.S.!)  Evangelization can and must happen right here, in our diocese, our county, and our towns and communities.  Evangelization is the work of every follower of Jesus Christ, in a multitude of ways.  May we grow as a church by loving Christ more and making new friends for him.

On Mission for the Church Alive: the basics

On October 6 St. Vitus Parish, New Castle, hosted the Vicariate 4 fall conference for priests and deacons.  Much of the meeting was Bishop David Zubik giving us an update on the movement and timing of On Mission for the Church Alive diocesan initiative.

Perhaps you have heard about this, perhaps you haven't.  Folks who attend Sunday Mass regularly know that we now conclude the Prayers of the Faithful (Universal Petitions) with a prayer written by the bishop for the success of On Mission.

I put this description of the basics of On Mission in our bulletin last month, to increase the awareness of this planning and evangelical progress, which will be our prime issue in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the next several years.

The core of On Mission is Bishop Zubik's call for our local church (the Diocese of Pittsburgh, its 200 parishes, all schools and institutions) to make spiritual and structural changes.  The spiritual call is very biblical.  Jesus Christ preach the coming reign of God, and sent out his disciples to do the same (see Luke 9:1-6).  After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers, "Go make disciples of all the nations, baptizing...and teaching."  (Matthew 28:16-20)  The entirety of the Acts of the Apostle is stories of apostles (particularly focusing on Saints Peter and Paul) spreading the Good News of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Missionaries travelling to foreign lands are an essential part of the Church's history, in all centuries.  St. Thomas the Apostle went as far as India, St. Philip preached to the Ethiopian eunuch, priest spread the Catholic faith to all lands around the Mediterranean Sea.  In the age of European explorers, friars accompanied Christopher Columbus on his journeys to America.  St. Francis Xavier went to the Far East, to Japan and China.  Religious orders of women and men were (and are) missionaries and educators on all continents.

Today the missionary impulse in the Catholic Church, and in many other Christian Churches, is still strong.  But St. Pope John Paul II also called for areas which had been fervent in the faith and has lost many active members to conduct "the new evangelization."  It in this spirit of being missionaries at home, in our own families and neighborhoods, that On Mission for the Church Alive challenges all of us to share the Good News of God's love and Christ's salvation.

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh we also need structural change.  It's no secret that for two decades the number of active priests has been declining.  At the same time the number of deacons, lay ecclesial ministers and active volunteers is increasing.  Fewer people attend Sunday Mass regularly, and there continue to be population shifts in various neighborhoods of the diocese.  Structural changes may include new patterns of pastoral leadership (such as Deacon John Carran becoming administrator of our neighboring parishes in Lawrence County, Christ the King, Hillsville-Bessemer, and St. James the Apostle, Pulaski, or team ministries in  Greene and Washington Counties, consolidations of parishes under one pastor (such as our own situation of four parishes with one pastor in New Castle), and in a few cases closing church buildings and merging parishes.  All parish communities have to work harder at collaboration and sharing ministries.

Right now On Mission for the Church Alive is in a stage of prayer and study.  Bishop Zubik asks each parish and all the faithful to pray that we hear more urgently the missionary call of Christ.  Next spring pastors and parish council members will begin studying statistics, situations and different modes of pastoral governance.  But structural changes can only work if they are build on a foundation of trust in God and focus on the call of Jesus for all his followers to be missionaries.  This means more attention to hospitality, service, stewardship and fervent prayer.

In August TIME magazine interviewed Archbishop Charles Chaput about Pope Francis's trip to the U.S. He is the leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, appointed five years ago to address the financial and spiritual problems left by his predecessors.  Archbishop Chaput was blunt in saying, "I moved from a church that was focused on mission [the Archdiocese of Denver] to one that was focused only on maintenance and survival."  He is trying to change the Philadelphia archdiocese, its people and priests, to concentrate on mission.  This spotlight on mission is also what Bishop Zubik has called for in the six counties  of our diocese.  Please pray for On Mission for the Church Alive throughout the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

For various reasons I have not been consistent in blogging about issues and ideas and events near and far.  Most of those reasons have to do with parish ministry in four parishes in New Castle.  But for ten days I'll have a good reason not to blog.  I'll be on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel from Monday, October 26 through Wednesday, November 4.

In December of 1989 through the intervention of Father John Kozar I went on a "fam-trip" quickie to Israel.  Two days in Jordan, five days in Israel, with 15 others from the Diocese of Brooklyn.  The idea was that we priests and laity would return to the United Sates and organize our own pilgrimages, using the tour operator who sponsored our cut-rate "familiarization" tour.  That is what I did.  I contacted a sister I knew who was an excellent teacher of the Bible, and who had many students in the greater Pittsburgh area who might want to go with us on a pilgrimage.

But in May of 1990, the first intifada between the Palestinians and the Israelis began.  Near open warfare, which killed tourism for quite a while.  I know it stopped any hope of sister and me leading a pilgrimage to the holy sites.

Time passed.  But the notion that I might return to the Holy Land never left me.  Last year I contacted a representative of the company which hosted our own bishop's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Unitours, an outfit headquartered in New York.  Publicity in parish bulletins and the Pittsburgh Catholic brought 30 courageous souls forward to go on this trip.  Helene Paharik, who is associate general secretary for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and a veteran pilgrim to the holy sites, agreed to join us as a co-leader.  

So, I'll have lots to talk about when I return.  Here's a bare outline of our trip:

Day One:  air travel from Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv.  
Day Two:  Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, overnight in Pilgerhaus guest house.
Day Three:  Church of the Annunciation, Cana, Mt. Tabor.
Day Four:  boat ride across Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Jordan river.
Day Five: bus ride to Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethany, overnight in Dan Jerusalem Hotel.
Day Six:  Church of Pater Noster, Dominus Flevit Chapel, Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Ein Karem, optional tour of Yad Vashem.
Day Seven:  Bethlehem and Church of the Nativity, shopping in Palestinian stores, Qumran, possible dip in the Dead Sea.
Day Eight:  Via Dolorosa through the Old City of Jerusalem, Holy Sepulchre, Church of St. Ann, Kidron Valley, Church of St. Peter Gallicantu.
Day Nine:  Mt. Zion, Church of Dormition, Western (Wailing) Wall, Emmaus, Jaffa.
Day Ten:  overnight flight returning to Pittsburgh airport and home.

I am really looking forward to this pilgrimage, which will double for me as my spiritual retreat for the year.  Pray for us pilgrims.  We promise to pray for you, your health and your families.  

Churches of Eastern Europe - VI

This is the last of my travelogue of major churches our Pittsburgh vacation group saw, as we enjoyed "the blue Danube" on the Viking Prestige in late April and early May.

Three couples in our group departed for the States after our last boat stop in Passau, Germany.  They flew home via Munich.    Two friends and I had added a bonus to our river cruising--a four day/three night tour of Prague, in the Czech Republic.  We boarded a modern bus for the four hour journey through the mountains to Prague.

One moment of that boring trip stays with me.  While my friends snoozed across the aisle, our Viking guide got on the PA system and asked us to note the wide swath of cut trees to our left, as we descended a gentle valley.  Twenty-five years ago, this was a genuine flash point in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West.  The cut trees marked the border between West Germany (free and democratic) and Czechoslovakia (under Communist rule).  Our guide pointed out a window-less two-story concrete structure, a guard post.  The wide flat areas between the forests were, back then, divided by high fencing, razor wire, and sometimes, land mines.  All to discourage or prevent any Czechs seeking freedom to pass from their country into West Germany.

Today the concrete building is abandoned, not even noted by signage for its historical significance.  In the new Europe, we didn't even have to stop to have our passports looked at.  It was just like when I drive over to Boardman, Ohio, to go shopping or enjoy Chipolte, and don't even think when I cross the Pennsylvania-Ohio line.  

One reason we three wanted to see Prague was that we heard and read that it was a vibrant, alive, contemporary city.  It was all that and more.  But my reason was more personal.  I wanted to see the OTHER St. Vitus church in the world.

I may be wrong, but I think I am the pastor of one of the two St. Vitus churches.  Who knew that the Italian church in New Castle, PA, USA, could be linked with the grand Bohemian cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic?

St. Vitus is not the only important worship site in Prague.  There are St. Nicholas Church and the Virgin Mary of Tyn Church in Old Square, Loretto Sanctuary, St. Salvator Church, even a working Jewish synagogue which dates to the 12th century.  But St. Vitus towers over them all.  From its pinnacle over the Vltava River it is visible throughout the city and the region.  

Christianity came to this region in the 900s, through the missionaries and brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius.  A chapel dedicated to Mary was first built on the hill about 920.  Later a St. Vitus rotunda was added to the chapel.

(It is a puzzle to me, never explained by our guides or by the guidebooks I read, how a 3rd century Italian boy who was martyred became the patron of this church in the 9th century, and later the cathedral.)

Prague became a bishopric in 973, and hence designated this church as its cathedral.  As with so many of the great churches in this region, it has a roller-coaster history.  Later, in 1344, Emperor Charles IV commissioned a new cathedral.  One hundred years later it was occupied by Hussites.  The cathedral as designed was only completed in the middle of the 19th century.  After World War II new stained glass windows were commissioned in the rear of the church, which sit glowingly next to more solemn windows centuries old.

I would love to tell you in personal detail about how beautiful, how gorgeous St. Vitus Cathedral is, as well as the surrounding Prague Castle, but truth to tell, we were with a group on a five-hour whirlwind tour of the entire city, and had a mere 20 minutes to look around.  Not even the whole church, just a small section of the rear of the nave.  We three resolved, on the next day, to go back and visit it with the time it deserved.  But, the best laid plans, and so on.  The next day, a free day for us, we took the city trolley up the hill, only to find the cathedral surrounded by TV trucks and large numbers of police.  It was closed.  St. Vitus Cathedral was hosting a civic commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the close of World War II.  We were not allowed even to peak inside.  

So, here are some photographs of the exterior and a couple of interior shots.  Maybe another time I'll see more of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

And just for humor, a couple of its ancient gargoyles.

A post-script.  We were bummed out by not being able to see St. Vitus Cathedral.  So we got back on the trolley for the trip down the hill and back to our hotel.  But my friends were hungry, so we hopped off and found a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant for lunch.  As I was looking across the street, what did I see, but the Infant of Prague Church.  Yes, that Infant of Prague, a statue ubiquitous in churches and convents and certain homes in our country.  We walked across the street, enjoyed the relative spare (for a 17th century Baroque-style) church, with its modest statue of the Infant on a side altar.  Next to the altar was a large photograph of Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the church in 2009.  

And on two other (smaller) side altars, there were images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Africa.  We are a Catholic Church after all.

Synod on the Family

I have to admit I have not been paying much attention to Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome.  There was so much in the media during the pope's recent visit to our country that we could all be forgiven for a little "pope-exhaustion."

As the synod draws to a conclusion this weekend, it does seem that the same tensions we experience in parish life and diocesan life are becoming more public among the bishops and cardinals who are synod delegates.

Not that it's easy to agree, or even to wrap your arms around "the family."  Tom Reese, the perceptive columnist (and fellow Jesuit with Bergoglio) wrote recently five reasons the synod is doomed to fail.  One of them is the sheer number of topics to be covered.  He wrote, "The family touches everything and is touched by everything."  Here are his lists:

Social and economic factors:  unemployment, housing, war, terrorism, climate change, inter religious differences, consumerism, social media, education, etc.  "Every problem in the world has an impact on families, from addictions to political corruption."

Moral issues:  the sexual act itself, fidelity, abortion, contraception, surrogate mothers, homosexuality, divorce, gender equality, child abuse, spousal violence, etc.

Canonical and theological issues:  marriage as a sacrament, annulments, the Gospel sayings of Jesus, liturgical ceremonies, the family in the church, etc.


You have to hand it to Pope Francis, though.  He does not seem phased by these discussions/disagreements/verbal sparring.  Again, Father Reese in another column said that Papa Francisco is positively Jesuitical in wanting full discussion, frank conversation, about the issues surrounding the modern family.  Only by honest sharing, in the Ignatian understanding of discernment of spirits, can the Holy Spirit begin to work through all the words and the people speaking to them and listening to them.  

One story does stand out for me, which I read two days ago.  In a press briefing, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago spoke about how hierarchs and church pastors have to listen to persons who may be, in the delicate language of canon lawyers, "in irregular situations."  [Read the whole article here .]  That is, divorced and remarried persons, gay people in permanent relationships, and others.  Cupich said he knew a retired archbishop who said he wants his tombstone to read:  "I tried to treat you like adults."  Then Cupich went on and said, "I think that what he means by that is we really do have to have an adult Catholic response to living the Christian life.  That I think is where the Holy Father is leading us."

Cupich later said, "We should look at a way in which people are not just accompanied but integrated and reconciled.  We have to believe in the mercy of God and the grace of God to trigger conversion, rather than having it the other way around as though you're only going to get mercy if you have the conversion.  The economy of salvation doesn't work that way.  Christ receives people and it's because of that mercy that the conversion happens."

Then Cupich told this story, which to me is astounding that he supports it, and further, that he told it in a public briefing.  A priest told him of celebrating a funeral for an young man who had committed suicide.  The man's mother, the priest said, was divorced and remarried and also "very angry" at God and the church over what had happened.  When she came forward in the Communion line at the funeral Mass, she folded her arms, a common sign that she would not receive Communion [because she was divorced and remarried] but wanted a blessing from the priest.  The priest said to her:  "No, today you have to receive."

The archbishop continued, "She went back to her pew and wept uncontrollably.  She later came back to visit with the priest and began reconciliation."  Cupich went on, "Her heart was changed.  She did have her first marriage annulled; her second marriage is now in the church.  But it was because that priest looked for mercy and grace to touch her heart.  That is something we have to keep in mind.  And I think the Holy Father has talked about that."

Wow.  I wish once I could be so wise, and so merciful.  Ponder that very gospel-like story of mercy beyond measure.  

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Long Week

Among the many Pope Francis stories told by commentators during the pope's recent pilgrimage to the United States, I liked this one.  Whenever the pope meets a bishop or priest, he looks at his shoes.  If the shoes are dirty, he knows that the cleric has been visiting parishioners and doing work.  If his shoes are shiny, well (ahem), the cleric has been spending a lot of time shining his shoes.

I have to say that my two associates and I had dirty shoes last week.  From Monday, September 21, through Monday, September 28, we did 13 funerals (with prior visits to  the funeral homes the night before), two weddings, two baptisms, five communion calls, two nursing home Masses, as well as the usual schedule of ten weekday and eight Sunday Masses for our four parishes in New Castle. Plus, that week Father Larry Adams celebrated a Mass at Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, on the same day Pope Francis was canonizing Padre Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C.  Father Adams is an alumnus of Serra High.  Two local television stations showed clips of the Mass, and quotes from his sermon were in two Pittsburgh newspapers.  Phew!

We did have the help of visiting priests Fathers Jim Downs, Dave Bonnar and Joe McCaffrey, who each did one funeral Mass at the request of families who knew them.  

Most weeks, thank God, do not have such busy-ness or heavy weight of family sadness and loss.  But often the work (ministry) priests do is not seen by many parishioners in public areas.  I'm thinking of the times we priests meet:
+ with engaged couples who are preparing to receive the sacrament of matrimony;
+ with persons seeking annulments;
+ with families who ask us to anoint a loved one at home, in local nursing homes or Jameson Hospital;
+ with the women's guilds, or adult bible study, or the RCIA group;
+ with children in St. Vitus School or in our four CCD programs.

The three of us have participated in two day-long workshops over the summer conducted by the diocese just for us in pilot programs of pastoral governance.  In our case we join deacon administrator Deacon John Carran from the two parishes in Pulaski and Hillsville-Bessemer.  And as diocesan priests we are obligated to attend four vicariate meetings and two clergy conference each year.

We priests are certainly not the only ones in our town who work hard at their jobs.  It's just that sometimes parishioners don't see us in other venues outside of weekend Mass.  As my brother asked me in the first month after I was ordained, "Frank, I know what you do on Sunday.  What do you do the rest of the week?"

It's a question I ponder regularly.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Churches of Eastern Europe - V

Some of the great blessings of travel are the surprises you uncover.  Such was our vacation stop in Passau, Germany, on the Danube River.

Our floating hotel, the Viking Prestige, was made for a city like Passau.  We tied up at the confluence of two tributaries, the Ilz and the Inn, flowing into the Danube.  (Hey, a city of three rivers!  I can identify with that!)  We walked off the boat, and --voila!-- we were in the old town.  A short walk up a mild grade took us into the center of town, and the subject of this blog, St. Stephen's Cathedral.

If you have been reading my church accounts, you may have noticed the name Passau come up in previous histories of other churches and cities.  From what I can gather, in the 13th and 14th and 15th centuries, before the prominence of Vienna or Budapest or Prague, Passau was the ecclesiastical center of this part of Europe.  From the plains around Saltzburg, Austria, a mere 90 minute bus ride south, came salt.  Salt was the gold, the industrial might, the digital revolution, of the Middle Ages.  Salt meant wealth.  Salt came to Passau, with its accessible transportation downstream on the Danube, and made a few bishops and businessmen very rich.

However, before telling the tale of another overwhelming Baroque cathedral, let me share with you two stories from our university-educated guide Passau guide.  As we walked through a narrow alley, he stopped at a nondescript old brown wooden door.  He said that the door, and the building, were hundreds of years old.  In the door was a smaller (maybe 10" square) cut-out at shoulder height.  He explained that the cut-out was used during the Black Plague as a way of townspeople giving the home's inhabitants food.  But the kindly Good Samaritans didn't want to get close to the home's residents, lest they catch the deadly disease.  So they would put the food on a long stick, and from a distance insert the stick, with its food, into the cut-out.  Hence came the saying, "Don't touch me with a ten-foot pole."

Another story is that in the Middle Ages it was hard to tell if a person had died.  In some cases coma and death were too close.  So the undertaker would put a bell on the hand of the deceased as the body was placed in the coffin.  If in the church or the graveyard the mourners heard a noise, they immediately opened the coffin.  He was "saved by the bell." 

Floods also mark Passau.  Some were from centuries ago.  But the city endured a "500-year" flood in 2013.  Usually the Danube is no more than two meters (six feet) deep.  But heavy rains in April 2013 caused such flooding in the area that the Danube River rose to a height of 10.5 meters (40 1/2 feet).  We saw the flood water marks on bridges and buildings. 

As with most of the church buildings in this part of the world, St. Stephen's Cathedral was built over centuries.  The earliest church on the site dates to the 700s.  (If this date is amazing, it is no less than the restaurant in Saltzburg which has been in continuous operation since 803.  "St. Peter's Restaurant" was begun alongside a Benedictine monastery, and still is open for food today, 1,212 years later.)   A three-aisle basilica was built about 990, and survived until 1662, when it was destroyed in a fire.   The current cathedral was begun shortly thereafter, with completion about 1707.

Besides its very ornate Baroque frescoes, the Cathedral's claim to fame is that it holds "the largest cathedral organ in the world" and "the largest organ in Europa."  The original organ was installed 1684-91, and enhanced in 1715-18.  Later renovations of the organ were done in 1886-90 and 1977-80.  The organ now has 233 stops and 17,974 pipes.  "Organ" is a mis-nomer, as it is actually five organs, in three locations in the cathedral.  

God was with our little group, as we arrived for our eight hour visit to Passau on Friday, May 1.  Organ concerts are held daily from noon to 12:30 from the first day of May until the last day of October.  We were able to hear the year's first concert.  Our guide gave us tickets (two euros) to the concert.  The cathedral's seats were filled with rubber-necked tourists who obviously had never been in a Christian church.  The sound of the organ can only be described as "AWESOME."  From the lowest of low notes to the highest of bird chirps, it was magnificent to be surrounded by visual and aural beauty in St. Stephen's Cathedral.

After the concert, we strolled through the old town.  There was a market just outside the cathedral.  I bought a warm fresh pretzel from a truck of "Ratzinger Brothers Bakery."  (Any relation to Pope Benedict XVI?)  There was also a puppet show for the children.  The kids sat on the ground entranced by the movements of the small wooden marionettes.  A lone accordionist accompanied the action on stage.  

I found a nice church books and gifts store on the other side of the main square.  Nearby were contemporary stores--and fine ice cream for a warm sunny day.  Down two alleys I walked into a Franciscan church, a complete opposite of the ornate cathedral.  This poor church was merely white walls and a few wooden statues.  What a contrast.  

I enjoyed our short stay in a delightful old/new town, Passau.