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?


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