Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Themes of a Life

A few weeks ago in my weekly column in our bulletin ( available here: ) I mentioned that one of the themes of my life has been gratitude.  Another is education.  From my earliest memories I recall the importance my parents placed on my brothers and me doing well in school.  Mom and Dad were children of the Great Depression.  Dad did graduate from high school, Mom was a 10th grade dropout.  Both did not want their sons to work in the coal mine or steel mill as did Dad, or as a janitor, as did Mom.  Education was their golden highway to success.

This may be an odd scene from my childhood, so bear with me.  I have a vivid memory of one night taking a bath.  I think I was in the 7th grade.  As I was in the tub, Dad came into the bathroom, sat on the toilet seat, and began to tell me how important it was that I worked hard in grade school, succeed, and went on to high school and college.  This vivid memory has stuck with me all these years, because (1) I was embarrassed by Dad coming in to see me; (2) Dad talked to me so long I started to shiver as the bathwater got cold; and (3) Dad was clearly pouring out his heart about something urgent to him, and so to me.

Mom and Dad's desire came true.  All four of us finished college, three of us have graduate degrees.  Education was and is meaningful to us.  Further, as a priest I came to treasure teaching adults about the Catholic faith, in various parishes through the diocesan adult education program, at Duquesne University, in the diocese's permanent diaconate program and now at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh (where I am an adjunct professor of moral theology).

Why do I mention this?  Somewhere in my education career the church taught me that learning was a lifetime endeavor.  It was not enough to earn a degree.  Faith formation, and growth in God's grace through the sacraments, was my responsibility to nurture and building on cradle to grave, assisted by the church.

This was the message Bishop Waltersheid tried to impart to our 77 young adults who received the sacrament of Confirmation last month.  Confirmation was not the end of CCD.  It is the beginning of a lifetime of learning Jesus, living Jesus, loving Jesus and sharing Jesus.  And I dare to say it should be your witness too.

Our parishes have offered many classes and talks over the past several years, most successfully the 24 week bible study, with over 100 adult learners.  A four-session explanation of the Mass begins in a week.  The diocese continues to offer a number of interesting courses.  

And, of course, anyone can pick up the bible to pray or read, or borrow or buy a book to read.  

Next year the parishes of Lawrence County will be working together to offer growth in the Catholic faith through a program called Christlife.  Our evangelization task force is considering other programs for leadership development and maturing in the Catholic faith for parishioners.  On Mission for the Church Alive offers many avenues for ministering to others.

The message is the same, whether 13, 33, 63 or 93:  All of us believers in Jesus Christ are responsible for growing in faith and knowledge.  We can make use of the ordinary--and still very valuable--means of practicing one's faith.  These include daily prayer, participating in Sunday Mass each and every week, receiving Holy Communion reverently and frequently, going to confession a couple times a year, reading and studying the bible, reading Catholic authors from ancient times and today, praying the rosary, spending quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament in our Adoration Chapel, and being willing to share our faith with our family and neighbors.  Every Catholic learns differently, and each of us has to find out what works to grow in the love of God in our lives.  All of us are in the "dynamic ongoing school of faith development."  We can hope that the Holy Spirit, who taught his apostles and hungry crowds, and who bestowed the Holy Spirit on all his followers, guide our efforts to know, love and serve him better.  

A Prayer for Thanksgiving

We used this prayer at our most recent meeting of the Pastoral Councils of the city of New Castle parishes.  I saw on line that it was attributed to "an unknown Confederate soldier."  Well, wherever it came from, it's very appropriate to the season.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.

I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy.

I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of people.

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I received nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all people, most richly blessed.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Bad News and Good News from the Holy Land

It was one year ago this week that 32 pilgrims, along with our expert guide Mrs. Helene Paharik and me, visited the holy shrines of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Galilee.  My memories are still fresh for these very special eight days of travel, prayer, common meals and fellowship.  When these sites come up in the lectionary's gospel readings--such as yesterday for the Beatitudes, or this past Sunday, for the cute story of Zaccheus in Jericho--my imagination and memory go wild in having these stories, and places, burst into view in my brain.

Two of the holy shrines we visited, and most Christian pilgrims visit, have been in the news lately.  One good, one bad.  Let's start with the sad one.

Sometime in the night of October 24, vandals and burglars broke into the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mt. Tabor.  They destroyed the tabernacle, desecrated the Sacred Hosts, and stole the ciborium after throwing the Hosts on the floor.  Icons were damaged, chalices were stolen, and the donation box was robbed.  

The tabernacle at the Church of the Transfiguration in Israel, desecrated by burglars.

There have been other Christian churches in the Holy Land which have been vandalized by Jewish extremists.  Last year we saw some of their anti-Catholic graffiti and their arson attempt at the shrine of Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.  But church officials said they believe only robbery was the motive in this instance, since there was not graffiti painted on the church.

This act of robbery strikes me as odd, since the church sits atop 1,500 foot high mountain.  The way most people get there is by taxi or tour bus.  Almost nobody walks up the steep slopes, where Jesus and three of his closest friends went to pray, and his appearance was physically changed.  According the gospels, Jesus conversed with the prophets Elijah and Moses.  This location is next to a Franciscan monastery, whose friars guard the church and grounds.   So how did the robbers get there?  And how did they get down the mountain? 

I remember this site vividly, as the simple lines of the late 19th century church moved me to prayer.  I must have sat in the cool of the church for 30 minutes or more, admiring the icons on the walls and taking in the presence of Christ.

On a blessed more positive note, in Jerusalem archaeologists have been deconstructing the facade of the Edicule, the  shrine which houses what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The Edicule has been held up by scaffolding for a long time, as water has damaged the shrine.  This act of conservation in itself is a minor miracle, as the five Christian denominations which control parts of the Holy Sepulchre Church have not been able to agree on anything for decades.

But news broke the other day that after the marble cladding was removed, the researchers found first a layer of fill material, and then another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface.  It is believed that the original limestone burial bed where the crucified body of Jesus was laid was revealed intact.

National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence, Fredrik Hiebert, said, "I'm absolutely amazed.  My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this.  We can't say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades."  

Chief scientific supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou of the National Technical University of Athens, who is directing the conservation and restoration of the Edicule, said, "This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen."

In addition, researchers confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the 18th century Edicule, which encloses the tomb.  A window has been cut into the southern interior wall of the shrine to expose one of the cave walls.

According to a story on the National Geographic website, when Constantine's representatives arrived in Jerusalem around 325 to locate the tomb of Christ, they were allegedly pointed to a temple build by the Roman emperor Hadrian some 200 years earlier.  Historical sources suggest that Hadrian had the temple built over the tomb to assert the dominance of Roman state religion at the site venerated by Christians.  But his action actually seemed to have preserved the site.

According the church historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, the Roman temple was razed and excavations beneath it revealed a rock-cut tomb, just as the gospels stated.  The top of the cave was sheared off to expose the interior, and a church was built around it to enclose the tomb.  This church was destroyed in 1009, and rebuilt a century later.  

This restoration has been going on for months, but the burial bed was only left exposed for 60 hours.  It was extensively photographed and all work recorded by video.  The burial bed has been resealed in its original marble cladding dating to 1555, and may not be exposed again for centuries or even millennia.  

Last year Helene and I were able to visit the Holy Sepulchre three times, and twice we entered the Edicule to pray.  I also celebrated Mass in a side chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Church for our group.  Only feet away from the tomb is the actual hill of Golgotha. Once can hardly describe the feelings you have to get down on your hands and knees, reach down under a marble altar, and touch the actual stone of the site where Jesus was crucified. 

Both of these sites I hope to visit again one year from now.  I have begun preparations, with Unitours of New York, which guided our tour last year, to spiritually lead another pilgrimage to the Holy Land from October 31--November 7, 2017.  Let me know if you are interested in joining us.  

Monday, October 31, 2016

Jubilee Year of Mercy Soon to End

In three weeks on Sunday, November 20, the Roman Catholic Church will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King (or as it is formally titled in the Roman Missal, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe").  This day also marks the conclusion of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

How does anyone judge the "success" of a Jubilee Year?  Certainly the Vatican can point to the several international pilgrimages Pope Francis made during this year:  to Sweden, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Greece, Mexico and to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland.  Literally millions of people have themselves made the pilgrimage to Rome to see and hear the Holy Father and walk through the Holy Door of St. Peter Basilica.  Untold millions have journeyed to Holy Doors of cathedrals, chapels and shrines in their own diocese.  

(The website of the Jubilee Year, , incredibly states that 19,246,338 persons have participated in the Jubilee in Rome, as of October 24.  How do they know this?)

Image result for jubilee year of mercy

Catholics are just beginning to gain insight into the love of husband and wife in the sacrament of marriage by reading the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love.  The them of "Merciful like the Father" has been tweeted and re-tweeted around the world, as the key understanding of Pope Francis's ministry of Christ-like service, and the witness of Christians everywhere.

But more importantly than these externals are the spiritual exercises known only to God conducted by Catholics and other Christians.  These include the gift of plenary indulgences offered to the faithful who received Holy Communion, made a confession, and prayed for the Holy Father and his intentions.  

How many souls were re-awakened to the challenges and joys of performing the corporal works of mercy:  

  • feeding the hungry
  • giving drink to the thirsty
  • clothing the naked
  • welcoming the stranger
  • healing the sick
  • visiting the imprisoned
  • burying the dead.
Or how many have carrying out the spiritual works of mercy:
  • counselling the doubtful
  • instructing the ignorant
  • admonishing sinners
  • comforting the afflicted
  • forgiving offenses  
  • bearing those who do us ill patiently
  • praying for the living and the dead.
We priests know that our dear pope's kindly persistent references to mercy allowed us to be vehicles of God's forgiveness in the sacrament of confession (reconciliation) to larger numbers of penitents in Advent, Lent and throughout the year.  In other words, like St. Peter we caught a great deal of big fish, and were blessed to bring them God's life and love.

Bishop Zubik was moved by the Jubilee Year of Mercy to waive all fees associated with the annulment process in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  This act has opened the door for so many more persons to seek a nullity of their prior marriage, and to move toward the sacrament of matrimony and more grace-filled lives.

We in New Castle had an official pilgrimage to the Holy Doors of St. Paul Cathedral and St. Anthony Chapel.  At the end of June 52 parishioners joined me in a wonderful journey to Pittsburgh.  In two weeks I will accompany the children, chaperone parents and faculty of St. Vitus School on a similar prayer-filled and joy-filled pilgrimage to these beautiful churches.

Perhaps the Jubilee Year of Mercy brought home the many references to mercy in the bible. Here are a few:
  • Psalm 136 ("For his mercy endures forever")
  • Luke 15: 1-32 (parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the merciful father with two sons)
  • Matthew 18:22 ("forgive 70 times seven times")
  • 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ("Love is patient, kind, not rude")
  • Ephesians 4:26 ("Do not let the sun go down on your anger")
  • 1 John 4:8 ("God is love")
In every Sunday Mass we celebrate God's mercy
  • in the penitential act ("May Almighty God have mercy on us")
  • Gloria ("You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us")
  • Creed ("I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins")
  • Eucharistic Prayer III ("In your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children")
  • Lord's Prayer ("Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us") 
Truly any success of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy will be found in the days and years to come as we act upon the lessons offered and learned. 
  • When families more readily forgive.
  • When the unborn, children, elderly, persons with disabilities and immigrants are given full human dignity.
  • When diplomats are busy building peace and soldiers can stand down from waging war.
  • When we desire to grow in the wealth of humble service, not mammon.
  • When our parishes are hospitals for the sick and sin-filled.
  • When our common home, the earth, is treated with mercy.
  • When our daily prayer is enflamed by the words of Pope Francis:  "Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy.
In the few days remaining for this Jubilee Year, may we revel in the superabundance of God's mercy.  May the blessings and joy of God's ineffable mercy because of our experiences of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.  

Things I've Heard

Here are three comments I heard recently, and my responses.


(Sorry about the all caps. This one is usually shouted at me.)  Three years ago I heard this when the Diocese of Pittsburgh conducted Our Campaign for the Church Alive.  The goal for the entire diocese was $150 million.  Over $233 million was pledged.  Our goal for the four parishes in New Castle was $2.7 million, which we reached with the help of less than 15% of our total census population.  

I also heard this thrown at me several times in the past few weeks, as our four parishes conducted "Together in Faith, Sharing our Gifts," our gentle effort to promote Christian Stewardship and to suggest increasing Offertory donations.

I have to say, this saying hurts.  When this is thrown at me, the accuser also says I don't preach the Gospel of Christ, and implies that I (and all priests) are greedy.  Here's the fact:  Priests never ask for money for themselves.  They only ask for contributions for the church and its ministries.

Sometimes I push back by responding, "OK, when was the last time you heard the priest at Sunday Mass actually talk about money."  "Well, when I was a kid the priest always talked about money."  "How old are you?"  "76."

It's also true that Jesus talked about money--a lot--more than love, heaven and hell.  Eleven of 39 parables deal with money.  Once scholar reports that one of every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke speaks of money.  In the bible as a whole, depending on your definition of money and possessions, somewhere between 800 and 2,000 verses address this subject.

I know that I (and my brother bishops, priests and deacons) do not "talk money" every Sunday.  We take our preaching topics from the biblical readings in the lectionary, or the feastday, or the saint.  If we do talk about money, however, it is to to ask the same question Jesus asks:  What is in your heart?  Money (and possessions) are means to an end, not the end itself.  How we spend and use money, whether we are generous or selfish, reveals our character and our values. Jesus asked for wholehearted devotion to the Kingdom of God.  This includes our time, talents and treasure.  We express our devotion to God's will, and our desire to help our neighbor, through our time, talents--and money.

I do talk money once a year, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is the kickoff for the Parish Share Program in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  I do this to encourage ever faithful parishioners to make a pledge or gift to PSP.  But the bigger reason I address Parish Share is to point out how our parishes in New Castle are in communion with the other 188 parishes in the diocese, and how we need each other to build up this local church. Parish Share is not just another collection.  it is a tangible expression of our spiritual communion.  

This was the answer I put in our bulletin yesterday.  But upon reflection, I have to add that I have never heard this accusation said (or shouted) at me by someone who regularly gives to the church.  Inevitably it is used by those who do not give, and do not understand the value and necessity of giving to their parish/church.  Isn't that interesting?

"I don't need to be registered to be a Catholic."

No, you don't.  But.  On the positive side, being registered and in the census of a parish is each baptized Catholic's way of saying my faith is not just about me.  It's also about us.  Each of us is connected to one another in the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12), and particularly, with our sisters and brothers in the parish (and thereby, by extension, in the diocese). 

Negatively, your parish doesn't know you unless you're registered (or an under 21-year-old is registered under her/his parents).  This becomes a problem when someone who is not registered in one of our parishes is asked to be a godparent for baptism, or a sponsor for Confirmation.  If you are not in our census, it makes it very difficult for the pastor to give you a "sponsor slip," an acknowledgement to another parish and pastor that you are baptized and confirmed, attending Mass, in a valid sacramental marriage (if married), and an active member of the parish

Folks sometimes say, "But I was baptized at St. Vitus Parish!"  Great!  But being baptized in a parish, 20 or 40 o 60 years ago does not mean you are registered in the parish, particularly if you moved at any time in your life or you do not currently live in the great New Castle area.

Parish registration is easy.  One can stop by the parish office, or call, or visit the parish website, to join.  It only takes a few minutes of filling out basic information.  If someone is in doubt whether she/he is registered,  a short phone call can clear up the mystery.  Like the old American Express commercial, "Membership has its privileges."

This question came up in the Q&A in a recent edition of Our Sunday Visitor.  The priest answering said that parish registration is a peculiarly American practice.  I didn't know that.  But if the "world" of a parish was a small village in Italy or France, and the priest had been at the parish for a long time, sponsor slips and computerized census forms would not be necessary.  He knew everyone.  All the information needed would be in the parish priest's head.  But that's not the case now, with our transient society and parishes of 10,000 souls or more.  

 "I don't believe Bishop Zubik when he says no decisions have been made in On Mission for the Church Alive."

To this remark I can only say, it is a fundamental Christian act to accept that people are telling the truth.  St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that Christian charity leads us to a "presupposition" to put a good interpretation on another's statement, rather than condemn it.  The first step in any relationship is compassion and understanding.  Time may reveal that another is lying, but our first response is to take that person at his/her word.  We have to take Bishop Zubik at his word, and accept that no decisions have been made by him or by the diocese for On Mission for the Church Alive.  These decisions will come in the first quarter of 2018.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Charities Accountable

A couple of days ago the New York attorney general's office announced that it had ordered Donald Trump's personal charity to cease fundraising immediately.  It had determined that the Donald J. Trump Foundation was violating state law by soliciting donations without proper authorization.  The foundation had 15 days to register with the state as a charity that solicits money, as well as to provide financial audit reports for any year it had solicited money.  

James G. Sheehan, head of the charities bureau in the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, wrote that if Trump's foundation does not comply, it will be considered "a continuing fraud upon the people of New York."

The Trump Foundation has come under increasing scrutiny by reporter David A. Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who over the past several months has tried to shed light on the Republican presidential nominee's assertion that he had given millions of dollars to charities, and to which organizations.  Among many discoveries Fahrenthold found that "The Donald" has stopped giving his own foundation any personal money in 2008.  With its founding in 1987, Trump himself was the foundation's only source of money.  Between 1987 and 2008, he donated $5.4 million to his own foundation.  Since 2008,  the foundation has received donations from a wide variety of people and organizations:  Vince and Linda McMahon (pro wrestling executives), NBC Universal, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Comedy Central, Richard Ebers (NY businessman) and others.  

In a statement the Trump campaign spokesperson said the foundation "intends to cooperate fully with the investigation."

This news story brought back a long forgotten memory.  In the winter of 1978-79, I was one of eight people in Pittsburgh who worked to open a soup kitchen in the Hill District.  The steel mills had begun to shut down, and unemployment ran high in the city.  We were determined to help people with a free meal who were on the streets or on the margins.  The Jubilee Soup Kitchen opened on November 11, 1979.  Sister Liguori Rossner, our first executive director, has recalled that at the time the soup kitchen had only $9.39 in its checking account.  

We had begun raising funds during the winter in order to open in a leased (for $1 a year) building owned by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Pittsburgh on Wyandotte Street, off Fifth Avenue.  Over the next two years we increased our fundraising, with personal appeals to our friends and neighbors and churches, and with an annual variety show and dinner at St. Anne's Parish in Castle Shannon.  My friend, and president of our founding committee, Father Jim Garvey was associate pastor there, and with the help of my cousin Rudy Richtar, who did the cooking, and the late Jude Puhl, who directed the show, we filled the school auditorium, ran a 50/50 raffle and raised some money (how much I've forgotten).

What I haven't forgotten was one meeting of our organizing committee.  After two years it was clear Jubilee was a going concern.  Sister Liguori was our leader (and only paid employee), volunteers continued to come and help, food purveyors made donations when we begged and we were helping people.  But we were not legal.  We took in donations and paid our bills--but we were violating the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's laws regarding a "public charity."  At this meeting, one member of our founding committee vehemently opposed filing the necessary papers to become a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit corporation.  In Father Jim's words, he was an "anarchist," and wanted nothing to do with supporting corrupt government.  He only wanted to help homeless and near-homeless people by feeding them.

The rest of us wanted to do the same thing--but we didn't want to go to jail, or at least, not be arrested for violating the law.  Jubilee was beginning to get into the newspapers.  We were public and a going concern.  Getting publicity brought more offers for volunteering and donations.  We didn't want to shut down our good works, or be accused of failing our brothers and sisters who came between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. for a free meal.  So our committee voted (with one nay) in favor of using a lawyer friend's pro bono offer to prepare the necessary papers to become legal.  Our anarchist friend then left the committee, which became the board of directors of Jubilee Association, Inc.

Over the years Jubilee has grown in its service to the poor.  In 1980 the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank was started on the second floor, above the soup kitchen.  Later Jubilee expanded its services to helping guests (not clients) find jobs, get health services, receive in-home delivery, and help families with day care and parent education programs.  I left the board of directors in 1993, after 14 years, when I became a pastor on the North Side and could not find the time to continue my volunteer help.  But others blessedly continue the ministry.

That decision to incorporate, with its paperwork, audits and legalization, has been vindicated in the lives helped over the decades by the Jubilee Association, Inc.  That decision also confirmed in me the understanding that public charity has to be accountable to its many audiences:  the clients served, the generous benefactors, donors and volunteers, its own mission statement and listing of values, and finally the general public.   Public charities are accountable.  I have supported that value every time I became a director of a not-for-profit organization. 

Maybe the Donald J. Trump Foundation needs to learn that lesson too.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Another Anniversary

You know all the cheap sayings:  "Time flies when you are having fun."  "Time flies, but memories last forever."  "The older you get the faster time flies."  

But they are all true.  Which leads me to say I celebrated another anniversary of my priesthood ordination, number 38.    Our Diocese of Pittsburgh class was the "no pope" class.  By dumb luck--or divine providence--my 11 classmates and I were ordained two days after the untimely and unexpected death of Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani.  Two weeks later, on October 16, 1978, Pope (and now saint) John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, was elected.  the "year of three popes" was a good year for the church, and for us.

Today I celebrated in the best way possible, by saying Mass for the children and teachers of St. Vitus School.  The kids gave me a pack of hand-drawn cards, which they know I love.  And so I asked them to join me in a photo.  

Our priesthood class will gather with family for the Eucharist and a meal this Sunday, as we do every year.  May we have a few more years of proclaiming God's love and mercy, of serving the People of God through priestly ministry, of sharing the wisdom of the Spirit.  "Jesus said, 'When you have done all you have been commanded, say, "We are useless servants, we have only done what we were obliged to do.'""  (Luke 17:10)

The Pittsburgh Ordination Class of 1978: (l-r) Fathers Dan Whalen (honorary), Tim Whalen, Bob Cedolia, Sam Esposito, Mike Decewicz, Vic Molka, Ben Vaghetto, Rich Yagesh, Frank Almade.  Sunday, October 2, 2016, in Holy Sepulcher Church.

My brother Martie joins me in Holy Sepulcher Church, Butler, Pennsylvania.  

Captain Sidney Crosby

Being a fan (short for fanatic) is fun.  You get to watch the game, root for your team, rejoice when they win, move on to the next thing on your to-do list when they lose.  At it's best, fans and sports teams get to rise up a nation (USA Olympic team, 1980; 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks post 9/11)) or city (1970s Pittsburgh by the Super Steelers in the midst of the demise of the steel industry; 2016 Cleveland by LeBron"The Promise" James and the Cavaliers).  At it's worst, being a fan is merely a waste of an hour or two.  It's easy to be a demanding, boorish fan.  It's easy to be a fan-lite.  It's not hard to be a fan of any kind.  

But we fans do not appreciate all that athletics do to get to where they are, whether high school, college, minor league, major league or Olympics.  The practices, the repetition, the training, the dieting, the demands of coaches, management, teammates, or your own inner voice.  And we don't appreciate when an athlete gets injured, has a slump, is traded halfway across the continent.  

It's so easy to appreciate Sidney Crosby from the far distance of my Amish swivel rocker in front of my 55 inch tv.  By all accounts Crosby is a winner.  Two-time Stanley Cup champion with our Pittsburgh Penguins, two-time Olympic gold metal winner, World Championship in 2015, and just the other evening up in Toronto, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, both for his native Canada.  He captained both Penguin Cup winners, both Canadian Olympic winners, and the two international championships.  As they say, he'll never have to buy a beer anywhere in Canada ever, after scoring "the Golden Goal" in overtime against the USA in the gold medal game of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.  

But I really appreciate Crosby for how he conducts himself, the reputation he has carved, the kind of person he tries to be.  Crosby is widely known for his work ethic of preparation and practice.  Since the day he played his first game in the National Hockey League, he has been the "face" of hockey, with a microphone in front of him win or lose.  He is gracious and self-deflecting in these interviews, playing up his teammates and passing over his own incredible feats.  From news accounts he wants to be "just another guy," albeit one destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame and he's not yet 30 years old.  A recent profile in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review labeled him "polite, patient, humble."  This past summer he began a youth hockey camp in his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.  In that same article he says when his playing days are over he'd like to be a philanthropist.   

It's also easy to overlook what every athlete dreds.  In the 2011 Winter Classic on New Years Day here in Pittsburgh, an outdoor game in Heinz Field no less, Crosby received a vicious hit from Washington Capital Dave Steckel.  Another hit a few days later, and Crosby's concussion became evident.  He missed the rest of the 2011 season, and most of the 2011-2012 season.  Many wondered if he could or would ever return to play from what were puzzling and painful symptoms of multiple concussions, much less compete at the world-class level of play we'd all become accustomed to see.  

He did come back, roaring back, but the team did not.  Quick departures from the playoffs over two years were disappointing to Crosby, his team and Pittsburgh fans.  By now every hockey fan knows how a year ago Crosby began the 2015-2016 season in a dreary slump.  At one time he was something like 165th in scoring in the league.  But a change of coach, and change of tactics, righted the Penguin ship, and the team roared through the rest of the season and playoffs to earn its fourth Lord Stanley Cup in June.  

It this adulation?  Yeah, I guess so.  But I appreciate all the aspects of this fine hockey player--captain, scorer, student of the game, hardest worker on the ice, fine human being off the ice.  

After the conclusion of the winning game for Canada in the World Cup of Hockey on Wednesday, ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose said Crosby earned the MVP award for the tournament.  He said, yes, he was the highest scorer in the tournament.  But better, every time Crosby stepped onto the ice, he changed the flow of the game.  "If anyone says that Sidney Crosby isn't the greatest hockey player in the world, he's crazy!"  On the ice, and off.  

May we fans in Pittsburgh and throughout North America have many, many more years of enjoying the skills and talents of Captain Sidney Crosby.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Pittsburgh Priest Convocation Report

Every three years, since 1992, the presbyterate of the Diocese of Pittsburgh gathers for four days of prayer, fellowship and learning.  These triennial convocations have been held at the Oglebay Resort and Convention Center in Wheeling, West Virginia.  The most recent one this week was the ninth, and I would judge it another successful one.

The official title speaks to the lofty ambition of the convocation:  "Prophets of a Future Not Our Own:  Leading with Confidence in this Time of Transition."  This convocation came as On Mission for the Church Alive is moving into a more active phase of consultation.  Three weeks ago the priests and deacons of the diocese received the proposed models of parish configurations for the 21 districts of the diocese.  Next week the lay parish leadership teams will see these same models, and the following week over the following two months these same models will be shared with interested parishioners and parish staff in over 350 consultation sessions in our 192 parishes. 

Everyone acknowledges that leadership is key to the success of implementing On Mission.  The leadership will come from the lay parish leadership teams, the members of finance and pastoral councils--and from the priests and deacons of the diocese. 

It is indeed "a time of transition."  On the final day of the convocation Father Jim Conroy, S.J., shared his insights with us priests on the convocation as an invited official observer.  Using categories from a book, "Managing Transitions," he distinguished between "change" and "transition."  Change comes quickly.  We have to take significant amounts of time to deal with the transitions of change. Father Conroy said he saw much hope and courage in the conversations with priests he had over the four days.  he also admitted that he hears stories of priests being weary, tired and having difficulty absorbing the magnitude of the proposed changes.  No one denies the need for change in the Diocese of Pittsburgh--the statistics are too stark and revealing.  But how we all deal with the transition "to a future not our own" will determine in great measure whether "success" will come.

 One great blessing of the convocation were three addresses by Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.  Father Rosica is a Scripture scholar, founder of Salt and Light Television Network in Canada, and a key adviser to the Vatican Press Office for English language media.  Father Rosica enlightened us in the unique aspects of the three year ministry of Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio).  He also 

opened up the special Gospel passages which inform Francis' vision, as well as how the 266th successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome is clearly in continuity with his holy predecessors--Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, John XXIII, and Pius XII.   His talks were a crash course in "The Pope Francis effect" while calling us to "go to the periphery,"  "smell like our sheep" and draw ever closer to Our Lord Jesus Christ.

As with the other eight convocations, the heart of our convocation was prayer.  The planning committee did its usual excellent job in preparing nourishing and holy liturgies.  Bishop Zubik repeatedly exhorted us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and the faith-filled adventure of the Acts of the Apostles.  We need his leadership, and his courage in convening On Mission for the Church Alive.

Another joy of the convocations has been the fellowship.  But I have to admit that the schedule was so tight that few had the energy to continue fraternal conversations in the evenings, much less into the wee hours.  This was no vacation, it was hard work with a packed schedule, yet valuable work, building up bonds among the priests.  

I myself wish that we did these convocations more often.  Either two days together on an annual basis, or maybe this same schedule every other year.  Many other dioceses manage to do this for their presbyterates.  As our numbers decline, it seems to me even more important that, in the words of Father Conroy, we care for each other as brothers.  Nevertheless, it is good to return to our various ministries with the learning, prayer and conversations of this convocation in our memories and hearts.

Here is the entire beautiful prayer from which the title of our convocation came, which was composed by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romaro.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church's mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pittsburgh Priest Convocation

For the ninth time the presbyterate of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh convenes for a four day convocation at the Oglebay Resort and Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia, this week.  We will hear talks from Father Tom Rosica, the executive director of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto, and producer of "The Francis Effect," a documentary on the impact of our pope on the world.  We will discuss the next steps in On Mission for the Church Alive, the planning and evangelization process for the future of our local church.  We will pray together and eat together and talk with each other.  It's a good time, and probably not enough time, for us to renew acquaintances and get to know a few of the younger guys.  (My classmates and I from the class of 1978 have somehow passed from clerical "middle age" to "old fogey senior citizens" status.   A "young priest" for us now is anyone under the age of 50.)

Pray for us as we priests step aside from daily ministry for a few days of rest, study and relaxation.  

Springsteen beyond words

One week ago I attended the second Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert in Pittsburgh this year, at Consol Energy Center.  18,000+ fans turned out to see a second edition of The River tour.  But unlike the first concert back in January, which began this year's tour, he did not play the entire set list of the two-volume River album.  Instead, he spanned his entire history, from the first album to the most recent, and lots inbetween. 

The concert began with eight violinists sitting on stage behind the band.  "New York Serenade" commenced with that so unexpected (for a rock n roll band) classical piano solo by Roy Bittan, then the voice of Bruce and his storytelling, then those heavenly violins, then the rest of the story.  (Read Brian O'Neill's human interest story here.)  That began a roller coaster ride of pure joy.  With the concert on the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, without saying a word the band acknowledged that day and its many losses with "Into the Fire," (tears came to my eyes as I thought of how I used its faith-filled refrain in Dad's funeral Mass homily), "Lonesome Day," and a truly poignant "You're Missing."  (The line "there's too much room in my bed" always hits me hard.)  

But it was time to move on.  "Mary's Place" upped the tone and tempo, and on to early songs "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" and, after a talkative introduction about how he had to work cutting grass, clipping hedges and tarring roofs on a 95 degree day ("the last honest work I've ever done") to save up to buy a guitar as a kid, Bruce launched into "Growin' Up."  Along the way I heard live for the first time "Lost in the Flood" and "American Skin (41 Shots)."  Pittsburghers Joe and Johnny Grushecky joined the band for raucous "Light of Day," and on and on and on.  They closed with "Bobby Jean," and three hours, 50 minutes after it started, we breathed again.  It wasn't a record (Bruce and the band broke four hours three times in concerts in New Jersey and Washington in the previous two weeks), but it was enough.  ENOUGH!  We never get enough of the Boss!

The River tour continues with eight concerts in Australia and New Zealand in January (it's summer Down Under!  Anyone up for a looooong flight?), but that's it for a while.  Bruce is rumored to be bringing out a solo album, and of course we await the publication of his autobiography later this month.

2016 was a good year to get my share of Bruce.  Three concerts, two in Pittsburgh and one in Cleveland in March, bringing me to a total of ten lifetime.  "Is there anybody ALIVE out there?"  Yes!

(All photos from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/12/2016.)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How Bruce Springsteen Concerts Cure Loneliness

Bruce Springsteen and the ("heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, justifying, death-defying, legendary") E Street Band come to Pittsburgh this Sunday, September 11, for the second time in ten months.  Bruce and his merry gang of musical friends began the River Tour back in January at Consol Energy Center, and in one of the last concerts on this tour, return.  Of course I'll be there!  This will be my third take this year, as I also managed to drive to Cleveland and see them at the Q in March.

I saw this article in the Washington Post  the other day, and it captures some of my feelings and joy that I experience at a Bruce concert.  It also helps that the author sees The Boss through the lens of Catholic sacramentalism, Catholic imagery, Catholic theology, just as I do.  When he mentions Springsteen's performance on stage as "work" I think of the Catholic theological understandings of labor, its drudgery hearkening back to Adam and Eve outside the Garden of Eden, and its divine possibility of building and co-creating the very Kingdom of God.  I think of the nobility of my Dad, going to work at the J&L Steel mill, my Mom cleaning offices of big-shots in Downtown Pittsburgh.  I think of the families of workers I've ministered to and with over almost four decades throughout western Pennsylvania.  

Recently, amazingly, Bruce and the band have been playing longer.  When I saw them in January, the show was an exhilarating three hours, twenty-five minutes.  Three times within the last month he's broken the four hour mark.  I really really look forward to the concert on Sunday night.  "Is there anyone really alive out there???!!!"


So I reprint this column by Michael R. Strain.

We live in a fragmented society.  The Boss tries to fight that.

The night before his 27th birthday, in the spring of 1974, music critic Jon Landau attended a concert at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.  It changed his life.  He got up early the next day and wrote of the concert that "on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time."  That "he" is Bruce Springsteen, whom Landau, one of the most influential rock critics in the country at the time, had famously anointed "rock and roll's future" one sentence earlier.

I saw Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band last week, here in Washington, on a night when I needed to feel young.  (Who doesn't need to feel young these days.?)  And whenever I see a Springsteen show, I feel like I'm hearing music for the first time--music, and all the wonderful things that come with it.

A Springsteen concert is a celebration of community.  There's an intimacy associated with seeing those seated near you in compete abandon, and that intimacy fosters friendliness.  Last week's show offered a new spin on this familiar theme:  I happened to meet the guy seated next to me a few days earlier when I sold him a couple of my extra tickets.  He arrived during the third song, and we greeted each other as if we were old friends.  It's odd, but there was more warmth between us than I have with any of my neighbors.  Springsteen brings people together.

Many different kinds of people.  There are the veterans, who share stories of their favorite concerts in anticipation that what will happen on that stage in a few minutes will top what they've seen before. There are the skeptical first-timers--five songs in, and they are always mesmerized, stunned, in awe of the fact that all the hype they've heard for many years wasn't hype after all.  But my favorite are the kids, often with their parents--a generational handoff.  My unborn son has been to two shows already.

We live in a fragmented society.  People feel isolated.  Many feel invisible.  Springsteen is aware of this, and he explicitly tries to combat it with his concerts.  For a few hours, any trace of loneliness vanishes.  A Springsteen show is a balm.

The community created at a Springsteen concert is, in part, sacramental.  (Springsteen himself used this word in a 2005 documentary, albeit sheepishly, to describe his music.)  From the "Badlands" chant to sharing his guitar with the audience during "Born to Run" to the crowd taking the first verse of "Hungry Heart" to the very frequent audience call-and-response--Springsteen uses action and participation ritualistically, sacramentally:  as a means to create fellowship and confer grace.

A Springsteen concert is a celebration of life.  First, the show is a blast.  So much of it is just pure fun, pure joy.  (That I'm not spending many words on the fun shouldn't underweight its importance.)  And there are the songs, which cover the gamut of lived experience:  fun, lust, fathers and sons, racial division, renewal and rebirth, duty, longing, fatherhood, marriage, murder, desperation, anger, mothers-in-law and more.  Springsteen songs are about more than chasing the girl.

The characters in a four-minute song are often as developed as those in 200-page novels.  Sean Penn based his 1991 film "The Indian Runner' on Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman."  Springsteen stepped into the shoes of a man dying of AIDS, and won an Academy Award for it.

But more important than the range of content and quality of execution, Springsteen's songs celebrate the grandeur and importance of ordinary life.  Getting up and going to your job is an act of great heroism.  A father and a son sitting around a kitchen table late at night commands the drama of an ancient myth.  An anthem about friendship and camaraderie reminds one of Henry V at Agincourt.  Rolling Stone wrote that "Backstreets"  -- a song about friendship and betrayal -- "begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad."

The truth is that life is grand and life is important.  Every day, we are all faced with choosing between angels and demons.  For a Catholic like me, the stakes are a high as they come -- the product of those countless, daily choices influences where I'll spend eternity.  It is important to be reminded of the majesty, romance and enormity of daily life.  One of Springsteen's great gifts is expressing the epic drama of the mundane in popular art.  His concerts are shaped by this gift.

Springsteen the performer is a role model.  There's not a drop of gas left in the tank when he's done performing.  He is dead serious about his job on that stage.  There is something refreshing and deeply admirable about a man of his stature and wealth working so hard for his audience.  Apart from all the rest, a Springsteen concert is an experience simply because of the energy, effort, devotion and dedication of the man himself.

That's all well and good.  But the reason I keep going back is simple:  redemption, the unapologetic embrace of the need of it and the possibility of it.  Springsteen's music looks reality squarely in the face, recognizes that life is cruel and unfair, that this world is fallen, that we are all sinners and that we are all broken, sometimes significantly so.  But we are alive.  We can get up off the mat.  We can defy the world.  We can hope.  We are not alone.  Faith is powerful.  Things might be better tomorrow.  There's always another chance, waiting just a bit further down the road.

What better message could there be for the world today?

Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.  From the Washington Post, September 7, 2016.  

Foolishly Picking Pigskin Winners VI

Yes, tonight a new NFL season begins.  After a defensive blow-out Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers go at it again.  As usual, there are a multitude of No Fun League story-lines.  But since I'm a priest and not a sports writer, I only know two or three of them.

Like the St. Louis Rams becoming the Los Angeles Rams.  Like a four game suspension for Tom Brady, and a three game sit-down for Le'Veon Bell.  Like Peyton Manning retiring as a quarterback, and making a career as a couch potato.  Like Roger Goodell hitting his tenth anniversary as commissioner, and his salary rising to over $30 million.

Last year's predictions were not pretty.  I managed to get only two of six playoff participants right in both the AFC and NFC.  My guess of the Packers over the Colts in Super Bowl 50 was way off.  I missed the looming disasters of 7-9 Eagles, Saints and Rams (all which I thought would make the playoffs), the 5-11 Ravens and the 4-12 Chargers.  I also missed the rising Cardinals, Broncos and Steelers.  I just didn't see Big Ben and his fabulous receivers coming together as they did.  I didn't see Cam Newton's incredible season.  And nobody but nobody saw the QB disaster twins of Manning and Brock Osweiler be saved by the superb defense of Wade Phillips to carry Denver to victory in Santa Clara.  

But that doesn't stop me from boldly predicting the winner of Super Bowl XI, and the 31 losers who fail to touch the Lombardi Trophy.  I am really tempted to pick the Steelers to go all the way.  Lots of internet predictors are.  Sports Illustrated says they will reach the Super Bowl, but be taken down by the Cardinals--a reverse of Super Bowl 43.  That same year Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their third Stanley Cup.  There were two championship parades in Pittsburgh in 2009.  Let's do it again.  But, no, I don't think so.  Lord, make me WRONG!

So here goes:

NFC East          Washington (4)

NFC North        Packers (3)

NFC South        Panthers (1)

NFC West          Cardinals (2)

Wild cards          Seahawks (5) and Vikings (6)

In the playoffs:

Packers over Vikings
Seahawks over Washington

Panthers over Seahawks
Cardinals over Packers

Cardinals over Panthers

AFC East           Patriots (1)

AFC North         Steelers (2)

AFC South         Texans (3)

AFC West           Chiefs (4)

Wild cards           Bengals (5) and Raiders (6)

In the playoffs:

Texans over Raiders
Bengals over Chiefs

Patriots over Bengals
Steelers over Texans

Patriots over Steelers

SUPER BOWL LI:  Cardinals over Patriots

See you in Houston on February 5, 2017!  Have a great season, everyone!