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.