Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Changes in My Life

On March 28, the Diocese of Pittsburgh held the fourth in a series of "priest collaborative" meetings.  These are organized by the Secretariat for Evangelization, to help priests (and deacons) prepare for the coming drastic changes dictated by On Mission for the Church Alive in 2018.  
These sessions are focused on helping us clergy to change our ways of ministry.  I was asked to be one of four priests to offer personal reflections on change in our lives, priesthood and ministries.  Here's the talk I offered.

Father Joe Mele asked me to offer some reflections on change in my life and my priesthood.  I'm grateful for the invitation to speak.  Let me offer an opening scene and three points (like a good Jesuit sermon).

The scene is St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.  I'm a first year theologian.  The year is 1974, less than ten years after the end of the Second Vatican Council.  It's the annual alumni day.  A visiting bishop-alumnus has just celebrated a Solemn High Mass at 10:30 a.m., and now the alumni, faculty and guests have made their way to the hall for appetizers and drinks, prior to the festive midday meal.  Us fresh-faced seminarians are milling around, serving drinks and gawking at the elderly (to us) priest alumni.

Priests ordained 40 or more years are mingling and laughing, with a Manhattan in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  They have beer bellies bigger than mine.  These are the guys who went through the seminary when it was tough as nails, with all the prayers and lectures in Latin.  They've been through the huge changes of Vatican II.  Now they are doing what priests always do when they gather in social settings -- bitch about their bishop and the church.  I overheard this comment:  "I haven't read a book in 40 years, and I'm damn proud of it!"

At that moment, I decide then and there, that's not going to be me.

I've always been fascinated by the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  (Mark 7:25-30; Matthew 15:21-28, "Canaanite woman").  She is a feisty pagan, and she has the backbone to approach Jesus and ask a Jew for healing for her daughter.  Jesus refuses.  "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  She pleads, Lord, have mercy.

Jesus is firm.  No.  "It is not right to take the food to the children and throw it to the dogs."  But this insult does not stop her.  She is able to give back as good as she gets, after Jesus calls her "a dog."  "Hey, even us dogs gotta eat!"

This is certainly not official teaching, but in this encounter I believe Jesus changed.  Up until this point this faithful Jew had directed his ministry of teaching and healing only toward his fellow Jews.  But this pagan woman taught him that other human beings needed to receive his ministry.  From now one, he would widen his audience, proclaiming the reign of God to the Samaritans, and all folks.

(As a side comment, not all biblical commentators share this understanding of the event.  It may be retrojected back into his public ministry after the council of Jerusalem in 49 and Paul's successful appeals to faith in Jesus among the Gentiles.  Who knows?)

From this passage I conclude it is false to say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."  Jesus was confronted, Jesus learned, Jesus changed.

The way I have phrased this is we are all in the school of continuing education and formation.

If I may be personal for a moment,, I have grown significantly as a person, a Christian and a Catholic priest beyond the usual college and seminary studies, by these post-ordination schools of learning.

  • RCIA.  I started the second parish catechumenate in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in my first priestly assignment at St. Therese, Munhall.  I followed Tom Tobin after he stared the first RCIA at St. Sebastian, Ross.  Studying and learning the stages and liturgies of the RCIA, sharing them with catechumens and candidates through their growth in the faith, and teaching them to others was a source of great joy early in my priesthood.
  • Like all of us, I began ministry as an associate pastor (now parochial vicar).  BUt one day I realized, I could become a pastor.  I could do that!
  • I expanded my ministry by teaching adults, through the diocesan continuing ed program, and later at Duquesne University and the Byzantine Catholic Seminary.
  • My graduate studies at Duquesne allowed me to learn and love Catholic social thought, and to share it through talks, a book and even a job.
  • I stumbled upon the little gem, "Getting to Yes," by the Harvard Negotiation Project, and learned to integrate sound principles of conflict resolution.
  • I learned Bowen family systems theory from Msgr. Jack McCarren by listening to him at the lunch table of St. Mary of Mercy rectory.
  • With the help of my brothers in our priest support group I've tried to stay healthy physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • A spiritual director introduced me to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. What a joy to pray in profound silence for days on end.  I've been blessed by doing 12 eight-day silent retreats, including the 30-day long retreat.
  • More self-knowledge through DISC and the "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds" program.
  • Now Father Mele's secretariat has introduced us to "StrengthFinders."
Each one of these has changed my attitudes, actions and background for ministry.  These various programs have improved my performance as a priest and one who is trying to be a compassionate minister of the Gospel.

Now a new mantra is, "Do what you are good at."  This is healthy stuff.  I want to dive deeply into StrengthFinders, first to learn about myself and then to engage our parish staff as well.  I hope that there will be positive fallout, even carryover, to the lay leadership -- pastoral council, finance council and On Mission leadership team members.

My first point:  I can change, with the help of new ideas.

In the Gospel we heard this past weekend, where Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9), his understanding of Jesus evolves:  from calling Jesus a man, a prophet, of God, Son of Man and then Lord.

In a similar evolution I have changed as a pastor.

I'm a first-born son, so I'm naturally bossy.  He, I realize, I can be a pastor, not realizing my limitations.  Then from hard experience, I learn that being bossy is a lousy way of pastoring.

My two assignments in diocesan administration taught me to be a team player, as well as a leader within my specific areas of responsibility.

All four of my pastor assignments forced me to be an agent of change, not just a manager of people and administrator of buildings.

Along the way, I think I picked up the smell of the sheep, just by doing the ordinary ministry of a parish priest (well before Pope Francis popularized the phrase).  I was also learning from some of the great pastors of this diocese:  Leonard, Rooney, Getty, Schultz, the brothers Farina, Vanyo, Rice, Kraus, Saladna, Dattillo, Bassompiere, all gone to their heavenly reward--and others who are today members of our presbyterate, active and retired.

Key elements were learning the value of pastoral planning, delegating and using staff wel, and engaging and respecting the wisdom of lay leaders of pastoral and finance councils.

Today, I think I am a good administrator.  But I am being stretched to be a better pastor, as well as chief evangelist for our four parishes in New Castle.  Our demographics, culture and church have changed, and thereby force me to change too.

I don't know if I can become an evangelist.  But there is no doubt that this is what is demanded by the times in which we live.

Second point:  I have changed, forced by circumstances and adapting to circumstances.

Let me share a story.  Fifteen years ago I was called into the clergy office.  Bishop Wuerl wanted to transfer me. I was upset and confused.  I loved my job in the social concerns secretariat of the diocese.  I thought I was doing it well.  In my anger, I said, I don't want to be transferred.  I put up objections, but the sharp men of the clergy office knock them all down.

I pray.  I cry.  I say to myself, I love what I'm doing.  I don't want to move.  I pray and reflect some more.  The Holy Spirit intervenes.

Finally I have my appointment with the bishop.  He startles me, by having the two chairs in his office set side by side, not in the usual pattern of facing his desk like a schoolboy.  Is this a signal that we are brothers, working together?

I tell the bishop, you know I have resisted this reassignment.  But in my discernment this biblical scene came to me (John 21).  Jesus said to Peter, "Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted.  But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."  The Gospel continues, "He said this signifying by what kind of death he [Peter] would glorify God."  Then Jesus said, "Follow me."

I tell Bishop Wuerl, yes, I'll move.  I'll do what you want.

From the perspective of 15 years, I can still see a slight smile on Wuerl's face. I imagined that he was thinking of his own faith journey:  leaving Pittsburgh for an unexpected detour to Seattle, the disastrous first years as a bishop, all the pain along the way, his return to Pittsburgh as ordinary, and his slow evolution from alleged Vatican hatchet man to a wisdom figure in the U.S. conference of bishops.  Of course, today he is cardinal archbishop of the nation's capital, and an advisor to three popes.

My third point:  We re in a different church, in a different time.  We must change.  We're going where we do not want to go, but are led by the Lord Jesus.

On a different alumni day at St. Mary's Seminary long ago, I overheard another comment which has stuck with me.  "This is not the church I was ordained in."

When my classmates and I gather for dinner, we say exactly the same thing to each other.  "This is not the church we were ordained into."  The church and its ministers, have had to change.

I've been in the school of continuing education and formation all my life.  What school are you in?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Back Story to a Front Page Story

Right after Christmas I received an email from Peter Smith, the religion editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  We had corresponded by email last summer, when he was pursuing a story idea about the Diocese of Pittsburgh's "On Mission for the Church Alive" reorganization.  But he never wrote the story, and obviously he never used my comments.  I had never met the man.

In the midst of the email interview Peter learned that I was pastor of four parishes.  (We have a couple of priests who pastor three parishes, and one who pastors one parish with four churches.)  In his email Peter wanted to do a "one day in the life of a pastor who has four parishes" story.  I was flattered, but wondered, where are the pitfalls.  

So I consulted with some folks.  My staff thought it was OK.  My two associates thought I was crazy to open myself up to a reporter, but were good sports and were willing to go along with it.  A couple of friends thought it was a great idea.  But one friend, an attorney, said, "No way!"  She was afraid of a "hack-job" article, and the writer saying things which made me, or our churches, look bad.  She worried I would be misquoted, or taken out of context, or betray a parishioner confidence.   She was doing what any good lawyer does, look at the "what's the worst thing that could happen."

I checked with the vicar general and the director of communications for the diocese.  I told them, if they thought it wasn't a good idea, I would not go through with it.  But they thought well of me, and said, go for it.  They knew I had talked many times with reporters in the past.  I hadn't put my foot in my mouth -- yet.

So I gave the reporter some available dates on my calendar, ones that included meetings with representatives of all four parishes--our pastoral councils, finance councils, and On Mission team.  He picked last Tuesday, February 7, to come to New Castle.  It turned out the day was mild, so I only had to wear a suit coat.

I had agreed to do a 10 am funeral Mass that day in St. Vitus Church.  That's the church you see so well on page 8, with the large mural behind the altar.  The rest of the day was, conversation with the reporter and photographer, Andrew Rush, from 11 to 12 (including a 5 minute video interview, available on-line), our priests lunch at 12 noon in the dining room of Mary Mother of Hope rectory, visiting a classroom in St. Vitus School from 1:30 to 2, time in the Adoration Chapel from 4 to 5, dinner with Peter Smith from 5 to 6:30, and the pastoral council meeting in the Marian Room underneath Mary Mother of Hope Church from 7 to 8:30.  It was a usual day for me, but not a unique day.  

The two of them, Andrew and Peter, followed me from 9 am to 9 pm.  It was really weird being photographed at every turn by Andrew, but he was unobtrusive and only doing his job.  Even when I went to the Adoration Chapel for my usual one hour time slot (4 to 5 pm every Tuesday), praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Andrew walked around me shooting.  I personally think we Christians ought to take Jesus's words about praying literally.  "Go into your inner room, close the door, and don't let anyone know you are praying."  But while I sat or knelt in the chapel, I thought of Pope Francis, who is photographed every moment and at every turn, and still manages to pray in public.

Peter Smith turned out to be a sensitive soul, and a good listener.  He told me the best part of his job is meeting different people.  Over dinner ("You treated me to lunch, I'll let my publisher treat you for dinner") we talked politics, church politics and the job of being a religion writer.  I told him I had to commend the Post-Gazette for having a "religion beat."  Ann Rodgers served that beat so well for more than 25 years.  (Now Ann works for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.)  Peter took over for Ann three years ago.  Both Peter and Andrew are Presbyterian, but both were knowledgeable about our Catholic church and its ways.

When the article appeared yesterday, I was flabbergasted that it was so long, and double flabbergasted that it appeared on the front page.  But I am glad that I did it.  It was no hack-job.  The same friend who was worried about all the potential problems with such a story told me, after reading the article, "I think he really captured you, Frank.  I was wrong to oppose doing it."

When I agreed to the day-long interview, in my mind I was not doing it to pad my ego.  I believe that what we are doing here in New Castle is honorable Catholic ministry, and a positive story that is under-appreciated.  I believed that good could come out of such a long interview.  Through Peter's clear, accurate writing, and Andrew's illuminating pictures, I think my belief came true.

Since the story has appeared, I've gotten lots of emails and texts, all of them complimentary.  I pass them on to Peter Smith, the writer.   I am only a representative of so many unsung, hard-working priests and pastoral ministers.   I never imagined that this would be such a long story, and that my picture -- and my bald spot -- would be on the front page, above the fold, of the Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  I just hope through this story that people -- Catholics and others -- see better the good that we priests, parish staff and parishioners are doing in and through our parishes.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Post-Gazette Article

Reporter Peter Smith and photographer Andrew Rush shadowed me for 12 hours last Tuesday.  Peter had emailed me about the possibility of doing a story, "a day in the life of a priest who pastors four parishes."  I was amenable, so were the powers that be.

So read what they discovered.  This article  appears in the February 12, 2017 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


I'll offer more comments in a couple of days.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

40 Suggestions for "Best Lent Ever" Part Two

Here is part two of my 40 suggestions for "the best Lent ever."

21.  Read one of the four Gospels from beginning to end.  Takes about 3 hours, or maybe 30 minutes a week for six weeks.
22.  Think about a habit that is keeping you from being whom God is calling you to be.  Consciously give up that habit for Lent.
23.  Lent started as a time of preparation for people who were preparing for baptism and sacraments at Easter.  Pray for the parish's catechumens and candidates for full initiation.  Pray for the 2nd graders who will be receiving First Holy Communion.
24.  Fast from drinking alcohol.  Give the money you save to Catholic Charities.
25.  One morning a week don't turn on the radio on your commute to work in your car.  Use the silence to reflect on God's creation around you, and the people you love.
26.  If you don't have one, make out your will.  Include that you wish to be buried with a funeral Mass in your parish.  Reflect on what you want people to say about you after your death.
27.  Look up information about your patron saint, or a saint you'd like to learn more about.  Ask for help from that saint.
28.  Tell a friend about Jesus, and how much you love him.
29.  Give a compliment to a co-worker each day.
30.  Fast from anger and resentment.

31.  Write a letter to your congressperson about a political issue you are passionate about.
32.  Visit a local nursing home, and participate in one daily activity with the residents.  Smile at folks when you walk down the corridors.
33.  Go 20 minutes early to Sunday Mass, and spend the time reading the Scriptural readings, and thinking about them, for that day.  
34.  Forgive an enemy, without expectations of thanks.
35.  Review your charitable giving over the past year.  What percentage of your total income do you give away to church and charity?  Prayerfully consider whether you can increase your giving by 2%.
36.  Before shutting down your computer at the end of the work day, visit the online prayer website,  www.sacredspace.ie  .
37.  Fast from pornography.
38.  List five things you are grateful for each day in Lent.
39.  OK, you can give up chocolate and sweets (or tobacco/smoking) for Lent.
40.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday in the Roman Catholic tradition, and ends around noon on Holy Thursday.  This is actually 46 days.  Sundays are not counted as days of fasting or penance.  Use the six Sundays of Lent to avoid work, relax and spent time with family.

40 Suggestions for "Best Ever Lent" Part One

Lent is coming.  Ash Wednesday is March 1.  It's not too early to think about what you might do to make this "the best Lent ever."  Let me offer 40 suggestions to help you, in recognition of the 40 days of Lent.  Pray over this list, pick one or two (NOT all 40!) and commit to them.  

These are adapted from suggestions I made for New Castle folks.  Here's ##1-20.

  1. Read the daily Scriptural readings for each Mass in Lent.
  2. Say a decade of the rosary each day, or even a rosary each day.
  3. Volunteer at a local food pantry.
  4. Have a technology-free day.  Put away your cell phone, tablet, games, email and telephone.  Spend time with your family, your spouse, a friend, or just time in quiet reflection.
  5. Go to one daily Mass each week during Lent.
  6. Attend the Stations of the Cross on Fridays (check your parish bulletin for schedule).
  7. Invite someone to join you when you go to confession at a Lenten penance service.
  8. Make a really really generous pledge or gift to the diocesan Parish Share Program for your parish.
  9. Join a local Bible study.
  10. Give up using curse or vulgar words.  Penalize yourself $1 per word, and give the money to Catholic Charities.

  1. Telephone a family member you've lost touch with.
  2. Donate articles of clean clothing you haven't worn or don't need to the St. Vincent de Paul Society stores or Goodwill.
  3. One week in Lent pray for Pope Francis.  One day each week pray for all church leaders.
  4. Visit a local Eucharistic Adoration Chapel.  Sepnd 30 minutes in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
  5. Before you go to bed each night, say the Jesus prayer:  "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
  6. Fast from cruel comments about neighbors or co-workers.  Avoid gossiping or reading celebritye tabloids.
  7. Make a list of the excesses in your life.  Think about which ones you could do without.
  8. If you don't have a cross or crucifix in your home or apartment, buy a simple one and put it in your bedroom.
  9. Get some friends together and go to a local church, VFW or club for Fish Fry meal on Fridays in Lent.  
  10. Research a charity you are interested in and commit to giving either time or a donation each month for the rest of the year.  Find a way to gie time and talent to your parish by volunteering.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Homily from Pro-Life Mass: "Sanctuary"

This is the text of the homily given by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the 2017 Pro-Life Vigil Mass on January 26, 2017, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

"We have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary..."  These are consoling words we heard in this evening's reading from the Bible.  And here we gather in this splendid shrine of the Mother of Jesus, whom he gave to us as our mother, too, from his cross before he died.

The Italians, the Spanish-speaking, would call this, not a shrine, but a santuario, a sanctuary.

How fitting indeed that we would assemble in a sanctuary, as we seek protection, grace, mercy and guidance in a holy, safe, secure place that reeks of the divine, that envelops us in God's embrace, where we sense the presence of our heavenly mother, as we are renewed by prayer, encouraged by the solidarity of so many brothers and sisters in the faith, as we are heartened by his Word, as we are nourished by the bread of angels, as we are sent out in confidence for our pro-life testimony tomorrow.

"We do indeed have confidence within this sanctuary."

Our ancestors in the faith, the People of Israel, sought such divine solace in their sanctuaries, remember?

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus annually to the sanctuary of the great temple in Jerusalem, didn't they?

Through church history, those scared, in trouble or need, those on the run escaping pursuers, would claim the right of sanctuary as they rushed frightened and breathless in the safety of their Father's house, the sanctuaries of great churches like this one.

The pilgrims who left religious harassment in England sought such sanctuary in this land we now, with them, gratefully cherish as our earthly home.

Our grandparents and ancestors continued that grand tradition, coming to this country as immigrants, with hardly anything but the clothes on their back, but clinging within to that "pearl of great price," their faith, which inspired dreams and hopes for safety and security in a land they approached as a sanctuary.

Today, refugees and immigrants continue to believe that this nation is still a sanctuary, as they arrive with relief and thanksgiving, and we pray they are never let down!

We come together this evening in a church we call a sanctuary, in a land historically termed a sanctuary, on a planet the Creator intended as an environment of a sanctuary.

To reclaim the belief of nature and supernature that a mother's womb is the primal sanctuary, where a helpless, innocent, fragile, tiny baby is safe, secure, nurtured and protected.

Should it shock us, as Pope Francis asks in his ongoing global examination of conscience, that a culture that violently intrudes upon the life of a baby in the sanctuary of his or her mother's womb, would soon lose reverence for all places intended by God as safe, secure, and nurturing;  that such a society would begin to treat the sanctuary of the earth's environment as a toxic waste dump;  would begin to consider homes and neighborhoods as dangerous instead of as sanctuaries where families are protected and fostered;  would commence to approach the poor as bothersome instead of brothers;  would lock the doors to a nation celebrated as a sanctuary to scared, scarred, and shivering immigrants eager for a new home, and would burden the dying with guilt for peacefully and patiently savoring each day until God takes them, pressuring them instead to suicide?

Can any of us be safe, can any of us claim a sanctuary anywhere when the first and most significant sanctuary of them all, the mother's womb protecting a tiny life, can be raided and ravaged?

I think this evening of another sanctuary, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the massive square leading into it, brilliantly designed by Bernini.  When asked about the geometry of the massive colonnades surrounding the square, the artist explained that these were the arms of God, the outreach of Jesus gathering us in, the embrace of our Mother Mary and holy Mother Church, tenderly protecting her children.

Behold our model, our paradigm...a sanctuary which beckons us, where we are safe and secure in our mother's tender yet strong embrace, where the Creator himself assures us of protection and life itself, a sanctuary God has designed for us to protect our lives now and in eternity.

Behold the baby in the sanctuary of the womb.  Once that's violated, once a society deems it legal to invade it, the integrity of the natural and the supernatural are ruptured, and we have no place safe and secure left to go.

We praise you, dear God, for your assurances and encouragement of this evening; we have confidence in the sacredness of sanctuary, you intended to protect your children;p and we entrust to you all our efforts to uphold the sacredness of human life.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York

As soon as I read this sermon, I knew that Cardinal Dolan, current chair of the U.S.C.C.B. committee for pro-life activities, was alluding to the spirit and person of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a former chair of the same committee.  For it was Cardinal Bernardin who popularized the important concept of the "consistent ethic of life."  In this understanding of Catholic moral theology, all human life has to be protected, from womb to tomb.  It was a way of linking opposition to abortion, capital punishment, economic injustice, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and unjust war.  The consistent ethic of life was also known by the image of a "seamless garment," in reference (John 19:23) to the garment taken from Jesus before he was crucified.  

Since Bernardin's death in 1996, many anti-abortionists and pro-lifers moved away from the seamless garment image and concept.  They felt that it allowed Catholic politicians to support Roe v. Wade while still remaining Catholic; they felt that it knocked abortion down to "just one issue among many."  From my reading of Bernardin's many sermons and talks, and others who followed up with theological reflection on this, I fervently disagree.  But there is no doubt that a small but vocal slice of public Catholicism rejected and continues to reject the seamless garment, even as they sneered at Bernardin and his efforts to bring Catholic teaching into the public square of American culture and politics.

So, hurray for you, Cardinal Dolan.  No one can doubt your bona fides as an out-spoken opponent of abortion.  No one can doubt your orthodoxy as a Catholic churchman.  And, perhaps for a new, younger, generation of pro-life advocates, you can again link determined opposition to abortion with several of the other anti-life evils of our world, in a seamless garment.   

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Commercials and Parables

The numbers are staggering.  Americans watch an average of more than four hours of television a day.  If you add this up over a year, it's 61 days.  If you add this up over 40 years it's just shy of seven years. Phew!  That's a lot of TV watching.  What useful things could we do if we leave our easy chairs and break away from the "boob tube?"

Further, at least 25% of this TV time is commercials.  Haven't we seen our fill of sexy new cars, goofy insurance companies, skinny people eating fattening pizza, young people drinking beer, old people swallowing pills, and promotions for forgettable movies?  (At least the despicable political commercials are gone for another four years.)

Actors and directors have a love/hate relationship with commercials.  All want to do "important work," yet production values have risen for these 30-second stories, and doing commercials sometimes pays the bills for starving talent.  And once in a while a well-written commercial brings out the best in the human condition.

Over the Christmas holidays I saw two commercials which touched my heart.  One was for Toyota.  The opening scene is a typical Friday night high school football stadium.  Boys competing on the field in a playoff game.  Time running out, the quarterback throws a pass into the end zone.  The receiver catches it, but the referee rules he was out of bounds.  No touchdown, the receiver's team loses.  A huge disappointment.

The next scene is Dad and Mom driving their son home through a driving rainstorm.  Dad sees a car broken down, and a soaked man trying to fix it.  Dad pulls over, winds down the window and asked the stranded man if he'd like a ride.  It's the referee!  Dad says, "Son, move over."  The receiver looks at the referee, dripping wet, looks at his father, then reluctantly moves over in the back seat.  The referee says nothing, acknowledging the awkward moment, but gratitude is written all over his face.  The receiver hands him a cloth to wipe his face. Simple human compassion beats a football loss.

The second one is by Amazon.  Two elderly clerics are enjoying conversation and a cup of tea in a rectory.  One is a Muslim imam, the other a Catholic priest.  As they make their goodbyes, both have trouble getting out of their chairs.  Oh, those aching knees.  The priest and imam embrace, and grin at each other as they depart, recognizing their shared stiffness.

As the imam walks home, he has an inspiration.  He pulls out his smart phone, and buys something.  The priest, back in his rectory, also has an idea.  He does the same. (Commercial pitch--2 day free delivery with Amazon Prime!)  In the next scene, an Amazon delivery person comes to each of the clerics's doors.  Both gave the other the same helpful gift--a lime green knee brace.

In the concluding scenes, the imam puts on his knee brace, and then the priest does the same.  Both kneel in prayer, in mosque and in  church.

This commercial is truly unique.  Have we ever seen a priest in a commercial in a positive light, much less in genuine friendship with a Muslim leader?  Interfaith relations are presented in a positive, personable light.  When have we seen men at humble prayer, with bended knee?  In our violence-filled world, a subtle yet powerful message of peace.

I confess that the first time I saw this commercial I had tears in my eyes.  There was no dialog, only a haunting piano score in the background.  The bonds of affection between the clerics were clear.  This is the way friends act.  Isn't this the way we should act too?

My twelve years of seminary studies consisted of reading and studying the best textbooks of theologians, and the most important papal and episcopal statements.  Yet one day someone said to me, "You know, Jesus never wrote a single thing.  All he did was tell stories and live out stories of compassion."

These two commercials confirm the power of storytelling.  How should we act?  What kind of persons do we want to be?  In the wasteland of television commercials and popular culture, these imaginative parables help us to see how to do the right thing and be good persons.

You can see these commercials on YouTube at Toyota  and at Amazon .

Letter from a Dying Priest

Father Mike Crosby, O. F. M. Cap., is another noted spiritual writer.  He is also a social activist.  Recently he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and colon.  Here is a circular letter he sent recently to members of his family, his Capuchin family, and his friends around the country.  Truly an "encyclical."

When our Founder, St. Francis of Assisi, wrote his Testament, he urged us to greet people with the words of Jesus:  "May the Lord give you peace."  So, as I begin this blog post, I repeat the same to you.

I didn't expect I would begin 2017 writing a blog like this but none of us knows the day nor the hour when some of us will hear the words, "You have cancer."  This happened to me the last week of Advent.  While I still don't know the extent of it and my prognosis, my GP has let me know that most people with my type of cancer die within the year of experiencing the symptoms.  A CT scan shows I have cancer of the esophagus (four centimeters at the juncture of the esophagus and stomach) that also has entered at least one lymph node.  It is lodged in an inaccessible place in the area of the esophagus, stomach and pancreas.  I also have a cancer of the colon (which is in its initial stages).  Because of this uncertainly I will have a PET scan on Friday, January 6.  I will then meet with a radiologist and my oncologist.

While studying in Berkeley, I had a very bad car accident.  My injuries later turned into blood clots.  When the doctor told me I might die, my first reaction surprised me:  "That wouldn't be too bad."  This led me to try to maintain the same attitude if I lived and if something like this would ever happen again.  A key element of this involved having no hard feelings in my heart against anyone.  It seems this time has now arrived.  So, while I am prepared for that day and hour (for which I'm not volunteering) I have no especial desire to postpone it.  This gives me great peace.

While I can't yet answer the question, "What's the prognosis?" I can respond to a question many have asked me since I've received the diagnosis:  "How are you doing with all of this news?"  Simply said, I'm doing (to my own surprise and gratitude) very well.  Not only am I not afraid of Sister Death; I find something deeper is happening in me.  And for this I cannot thank St. Francis of Assisi but the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

You may recall that when the Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, he did not take the name "Francis" to honor the Jesuit missionary disciple, St. Francis Xavier; rather he took the name of our founder, Francis of Assisi.  Well, conversely, I have learned something very important from St. Ignatius.  He wrote the Spiritual Exercises; I prayed them for 30 days some years ago and have been forever thankful for the experience.

Many of us who attended Catholic grade school were asked in Catechism:  "Where is God?"  We dutifully replied:  "God is everywhere."  Now that I have an adult faith that response is becoming ever more meaningful.  Heaven isn't a "place" that we "go to" but a way of being in relationship with and connected to God and all God's people, whether friend or foe, now and forever.  This realization led me to adapt something from the Exercises.  I greet each day praying:  "Loving, Trinitarian God, grace me to seek and find you in everything and to love and serve your Divine Majesty in everyone and everything."

Now at this time of my cancer, I can thankfully say, I have found God's real presence in my cancer and all those cell-critters that are fighting the good cells in me.  "This is my body" too, another form of the Eucharistic banquet of life to which I now find myself invited.  I don't know if I'd have this assurance without faith and know many without it also find such acceptance in the face of their cancer too.  But I believe it and it grounds me and sustains me.  I also am sustained in this faith by a passage from Exodus 15:2.  I read it the other day during the Prayer of the Church shortly after my diagnosis:  "God is my strength; this is the God who saves me.  This is the God I praise, the God of my people."

You, good reader, are "my people" and for this I am most grateful.  As we continue this part of my journey, I am thankful that we have been able to walk together and hope it will be a long, long time before we part ways here on this earth!

In hope, Mike

P.S.  If you want to make a donation in my name, I'd ask that you consider our Province, the Midwest Capuchin Franciscans.  We still are not fully funded for our retirement and health care (which will be at my service these days) nor for the care of the significant number of men who are now in the process of making their full commitment (vows) to our way of life.  You can send anything you desire to St. Benedict Friary, 1015 N. Ninth Street, Milwaukee WI 53233.  Thanks for this too!

  Father Mike Crosby, O.F.M. Cap.

A personal connection.  One day several summers ago I was preparing for Sunday Mass at St. Mary's Church in Sharpsburg (St. Juan Diego Parish), where I was pastor.  I saw a bunch of men in brown robes walk into the church, and sit in the middle pews.  Most were young, in their 20's, one an older, bald man.  It was very unusual for us to have men in brown robes in our church!  But Mass went on.  That day, for a Spirit-filled (but unknown to me) reason, I preached on connecting the Gospel to everyday life.  Somehow I mentioned as an example the difficulty the city transit authority was having getting stable funding.  I said, I have a car, and find it easy to get around.  But what about people on the margins, who need bus transportation.  Supporting their need was an act of solidarity in this community.

After Mass, I greeted the men in brown robes.  As I had guessed, they were Capuchin Franciscans, in stages of formation.  And yes, the bald leader of the pack was Father Mike Crosby, whom I had never met.  He complimented me on my sermon, which was right up his (social justice) alley.  I mentioned I had read several of his books.  I dropped the name of a friend whom I knew he knew from his years of working in the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York City, and internationally.  Mike said he was giving a retreat to Capuchin novices and seminarians in Pittsburgh, and thought it would be good to go to "an ordinary parish church" for Sunday Mass.  How small the world is, that a famous author and speaker would end up in tiny Sharpsburg.  

Pray for Mike.  Share his words.


Five Nice & Easy Pieces of Advice for a Happier New Year

Here is a new year's piece by noted contemporary spiritual writer Father Jim Martin, S.J. "Nice and easy!"  This sounds like a talk he gave.  The advice may be "simple" but it is sure down-to-earth.

Okay, we all like making lists of New Year's Resolutions.  And most of the time--well, much of the time--we have a really hard time keeping them because they're so difficult.  Lose 20 pounds.  Read a new book a month.  Avoid all sodas and alcohol.  Don't eat any chocolate again.  Stand up to my boss.  Go to the gym every day.  Sometimes you feel defeated by January 2!

But how about five simple things you can do to be happier--which you really can do?  Here are five easy things you can do for a happier life this year.  And they're a lot easier than losing 20 pounds.

1.  Be a Little Kinder.  I think that 90% of the spiritual life is being a kind person.  No need to have any advance degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's religious traditions, to get this:  Be gentler and more compassionate towards other people.  In other words, say "thank you" and "please."  Ask people how they are.  Listen more carefully when they speak to you.  Don't say snotty things about them behind their backs.  Basically, give them the benefit of the doubt.  I know that sometimes you feel like acting like a jerk--you feel justified because of the way you're being treated--but you don't have to.  Most of the time you have a choice:  I can be a jerk or I can be kind.  Be kind.  You'll find that you'll be happier with yourself at the end of the day.  And, as an added benefit, everyone around you will be happier.

2. Relax a Bit More.  Let's not belabor the point:  a lot of us are rushing around like lunatics these days.  Overbooked.  Overscheduled.  Overworked.  Crazy busy. Exhausted.  Checking our phones and iPads and blah blah blahs every five seconds.  Do you really, really, need to be checking in every few minutes?  Can you set those things aside for just a little bit?  And aren't there just a few tasks you can let go of?  A few months ago I realized that I had completely booked myself for the next few months and started to bet a little overwhelmed.  The more I thought about these supposedly fun things, the more depressed I got.  I had to ask myself:  How many of these things did I really have to do?  For me, the answer was about there-quarters of them.  The other quarter I could let go of.  Maybe the proportion is different for you, but looking at cutting back a bit is a good exercise.  Relaxing a little bit more can lead to more creativity, more time to think, and more time to pray.  Paradoxically, it may make you more productive.  It'll certainly make you happier--and again, everyone around you happier because you're not stressing everyone else out with your stress.  I'm not saying check out completely, or quit your job, or tell everyone that you're stopping every activity you presently do.  Just relax a little more.  You're a human being not a human doing.

3.  Enjoy Nature More.  Look up at the sky.  It's pretty amazing.  Every moment of the day.  Yesterday where I saw staying it was a brilliant blue. Clear. Cloudless.  Ahhhhh.  Enjoy it.  How about noticing something as the trees in your neighborhood?  Are you watching them cycle from spring green to green to red to barren?  Give yourself a few seconds to be aware of that.  If you life in a city, can you notice the wind on your face or the occasional burst of sunshine peeping through the gray buildings?   If you're lucky enough to live by the ocean or a lake, well, I envy you!  Notice nature a little more.  It's always changing and so it's always a surprise.  And can you thank God for the natural things that you notice everyday?  Natural beauty is, I think, happy-making for most of us; and being more grateful to God will add even more to your happiness.

4.  Be a Little More Grateful.  Try this:  Notice the small daily things that you tend to overlook.  The stuff you take for granted or like, but don't really consider "special."  The taste of your favorite cereal or coffee or juice in the morning.  An unexpected phone call from a friend.  Your child's laugh or a nephew's or niece's giggle.  Your cat's crazy antics.  A funny TV show.  A small house job finally finished.  Stop and savor those little things.  And say thanks to God.  I'm not saying that you can't be sad or bummed out.  Life's really tough sometimes.  Most times.  But I'll bet that there are a few things in your life that make you feel lucky.  Just a few seconds a day is all it takes.  Gratitude is the gateway to the spiritual life.  Open that door today. You'll be a happier person once you step through.

5.  Pray Just a Tiny bit More.  I'm not saying that you need to enter a monastery or take out a mortgage on a hermitage.  But just a few more minutes a day is enough to jumpstart your spiritual life.  Think of it as a relationship. If God is important to you, wouldn't you want to spend some one-on-one time with God?  That's what prayer is.  And there's no best, or only way, to pray.  Whatever works best for you--imagining yourself with God, quietly meditating on a favorite Scripture passage, or reciting an old prayer that comforts you--is what's best for you.  Just a little bit of prayer will help you feel in closer touch with God.  And that relationship, because it connects you to the transcendent and makes you feel less alone in those tough times I mentioned, will make you happier.

There.  Those aren't so hard, are they?  Be kind.  Relax a little bit.  Enjoy nature more.  Be a little more grateful.  Pray just a tiny bit more.  You can do all those.  And in doing those you'll be happier.  And have a Happy New Year.

Father Jim Martin, S. J.