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!

Back At It

And you thought that it was a long time since Hillary Clinton met the press in a no-holds barred press conference. It's only been 267 days since I last posted on my blog.  That one was a quasi-review and commentary on the movie "Spotlight" just before Christmas 2015.   I later sent the piece to our local paper, New Castle News, and they were kind enough to publish it.

Where have I been?  Right here in New Castle, still working alongside the fine people of Mary Mother of Hope Parish, St. Joseph the Worker Parish, St. Vincent de Paul Parish and St. Vitus Parish.  We did get a change in parochial vicars.  In the spring, Father Larry Adams was appointed administrator of St. Ursula Parish, McCandless.  To replace him the bishop was kind enough to send Father Joe Codori, most recently serving in St. Thomas More Parish, Bethel Park.  One good one for another.  And we welcomed a second retired priest, Father Nick Spirko, to our parishes, to join retired Father Joe Pudichery.  Father Bill Siple is now into his fifth year working with me and us.  We were blessed with a seminarian, Kristian Sherman, who interned with us over the summer.  Kristian is now a first year theologian at St. Vincent Seminary, Latrobe.  And I marked my fifth anniversary in New Castle on August 1.  

Why have I not been posting?  God only knows, and God isn't sharing.  A few days moves into a few weeks moves into a few months, and wham!  it's 267 days, and I say, geez, how I have let the time pass by.  

Why am I coming back?  Because the "creativity bug" still resides somewhere in my soul.  Because I miss it.  And because there are still so many things to comment on.  Certainly it's not for the money (none), fame (a blessed 43 long-suffering friends) or attention.  

So, tonight I'm not thinking of what might have been.  I'm taking advantage of today.  And looking forward to new opportunities to write, reflect, rejoice and return the favor of God's love in my and our sin-filled world.  

A few Sundays ago at 6 a.m. I was trying to get out of bed to go say Mass.  On my radio, from the NPR affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio, WYSU, was "On Being," an interview show with host Krista Tippett.  Krista was interviewing a poet whose name I've forgotten.  She was reflecting on her work, and happened to mention that at age 12 she began to "see" the world around her.  She tried to write down in a journal three things she "saw" each day.  It was the beginning of a poet's life.  Now over 60 (I think) she still keeps to that discipline, which became and becomes the food for her writing and work.

I thought as I listened, yes, that's what I feel.  I "see" things each day, and sometimes am moved to write them down, reflect on them, share them, and even give thanks to God for them.  So, if Christianity is a religion of "second chances," let me begin again.