Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A Vision and a Dream

     On October 3, 1226, a young 45 year old friar of Assisi named Francis died.  In his brief life he experienced a transformation that changed his life and he brought about a transformation that changed the Church and society at large.  He had a vision of a renewed Church that led to a dream of a new way of living life that was rooted in the Gospels.  His vision caught on ... and his dream became a way of life.

    On October 3, 2020, 794 years after the young Francis died, an older Francis, who chose his name in honor of the Saint of Assisi when he became Pope, celebrated Mass at the tomb of the other Francis in Assisi, and then signed and promulgated an Encyclical Letter entitled "FRATELLI TUTTI" on the Fraternity and Social Friendship.  The encyclical was published on the feast of Saint Francis, the 4th of October.  Here is how the encyclical begins:

     "FRATELLI TUTTI" ["Brothers and sisters all"].  With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.  Of the counsels Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother 'as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him'.  In this simple and direct way, Saint Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.

     This saint of fraternal love, simplicity and joy, who inspired me to write the Encyclical " LAUDATO SI' " ["Praise be to You" from the Canticle of Saint Francis - an encyclical "on the care for our common home"], prompts me once more to devote this new Encyclical to fraternity and social friendship.  Francis felt himself a brother to the sun, the sea and the wind, yet he knew that he was even closer to those of his own flesh.  Wherever he went, he sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters."

     Pope Francis continues: "It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we may contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity.  Fraternity between all men and women.  [As the Holy Father said in an address at the Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting with Young People in Skopje, North Macedonia, on 7 May 2019].  'Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure.  No one can face life in isolation ... We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead.  How important it is to dream together ... By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there.  Dreams, on the other hand, are built together.'  Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all."  

      I look forward to sharing aspects of this Encyclical Letter as they touch my heart, and I encourage you to find a copy soon and prayerfully read it.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Saints and Angels - Part III

      As we continue with this past week's feasts of saints and angels, we move to October 1st, in which the Church honors one of the more popular saints - Saint Therese of Lisieux, or the "The Little Flower".  Her Religious name is Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, and she was a cloistered Carmelite nun who lived from 1863 to her death at the age of 24 on September 30, 1887.  She entered Carmel at the age of 15.  She died of tuberculosis.

     In her short life she lived a simply yet intense life of prayer and humble service, and shared her life in written journals that have become spiritual classics.  She is recognized as a Doctor of the Faith for her exemplary life.  She is seen as a highly influential model of holiness because not only of the simplicity but the practicality of her approach to the spiritual life.  She is often depicted with roses.

    The next day, October 2nd, is the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, a celebration which first surfaced in the 4th century and has found various expressions over the centuries until established by Pope Paul V in 1608 and made a major feast in 1883.

     Angels are very popular today as they have been over the years.  Growing up, I remember being told that we each have an angel that God gives us to watch over and protect us, helping us to find our way to the Lord.  Even George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life" had Clarence as his guardian angel, thanks to Hollywood.  I would say that most of us who grew up Catholic remember the prayer we were taught - "Angel of God".

     I often comment on the incorrectness of popular thought when people say that a person is an angel ... the truth is, we are called to be saints, and the angels are those entrusted with our care along the way to holiness.  

     Then comes today, the 4th of October, which this year is celebrated as the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  But traditionally the 4th is the feast of the great Francis of Assisi, one of my favorites.  Francis lived from the late 1100's to the early 1200's, and in his relatively short life literally changed the course of the world, both culture and society and definitely the Church, with his simplicity of life and his radical vision of joyful Christianity.  Our present Holy Father, who chose the name Francis after the friar of Assisi, wrote an encyclical letter five years ago entitled "Laudato Si!" which echoes Saint Francis' love of all of creation ... and Pope Francis yesterday issued another encyclical entitled "Fratelli Tutti", using the opening words of Saint Francis addressed to his brothers and sisters calling them to a gospel way of life.  The Holy Father presents a vision of humanity working in love and respect with each other to create a world where "all are brothers and sisters" in Christ.

     Francis was a man of vision who challenged the status quo to reach for the heavens, and Pope Francis shares his vision of a better world in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ by living out the gospel imperative of love.  He speaks of fraternity and social friendship among the human family.  I'm sure it is worth the read ... as I'm sure that for the most part it will be ignored.  What a shame, in a world that has lost its way.

     This has been a great week of inspiring and challenging examples of friendship with Jesus.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Saints and Angels - Part II

      Today our Holy Father, Pope Francis, issued an Apostolic Letter entitled SCRIPTURAE SACRAE AFFECTUS at Saint John Lateran in Rome on the Memorial feast of Saint Jerome.  This 6,000 word Apostolic Letter commemorates the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome, who died on September 30 in the year 420 in Bethlehem.  Saint Jerome studied the scriptures and translated the Word of God from the original languages into the common Latin language of the every day person, the Vulgate.

     Here are the opening words of this Letter, which I will be recording tomorrow for broadcast on the local Catholic radio station, WAOB.

     "Devotion to sacred Scripture, a "living and tender love" for the written word of God: this is the legacy that Saint Jerome bequeathed to the Church by his life and labors.  Now, on the sixteen hundredth anniversary of his death, those words taken from the opening prayer for his liturgical Memorial give us an essential insight into this outstanding figure in the Church's history and his immense love for Christ.  That "living and tender love" flowed, like a great river feeding countless streams, into his tireless activity as a scholar, translator and exegete.  Jerome's profound knowledge of the Scriptures, his zeal for making their teaching known, his skill as an interpreter of texts, his ardent and at times impetuous defense of Christian truth, his asceticism and harsh eremitical discipline, his expertise as a generous and sensitive spiritual guide - all these make him, sixteen centuries after his death, a figure of enduring relevance for us, the Christians of the twenty-first century." 

     Jerome translated first the Old Testament and then the remainder of the Scriptures from the original Hebrew.  Up to this time, Christians in the Roman empire could read the Bible in its entirety only in Greek, the language of scholars and the educated.  This translation was called the Septuagint.  Now the "average person" could read or hear the holy Word in their ordinary language.  Our early English translation was from Jerome's Latin Vulgate.  Today's English versions are translations from the original languages and thus clearer and truer.

     We owe a great deal to Saint Jerome for his labor of love.  The Scriptures are the Word of God which guides our every step on our journey to Christ and to holiness.  Saint Jerome, thank you ... and pray for us!

Monday, September 28, 2020

Saints and Angels - Part I

      We have entered into a week of wonderful celebrations of saints and angels who draw us ever closer to the source of our holiness, the Lord himself.

     Sunday, the 27th of September, was celebrated as the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time this year.  But otherwise we would have recognized a saint whose name is well known to us for the work that is accomplished in the Church by those who follow his example - Saint Vincent de Paul.  He was a French priest who lived from 1581 to his death on September 27, 1660 and was dedicated to serving the poor.  He did much to meet the needs spiritually but also physically of those that he met.  He was canonized a saint in 1737.  He is the patron of all works of charity, and through the Vincentian family which includes the Saint Vincent de Paul Societies which are found in our parishes and dioceses as well as the Ladies of Charity, his work continues.  The society is today present in at least 153 countries.

     The 28th finds us remembering a saint whose name is often heard in our Christmas celebrations.  He is Saint Wenceslaus, of the "Good King Wenceslaus" hymn.  Remember?

"Good King Wenceslaus looked out

on the feast of Stephen,

when the snow lay round about,

deep and crisp and even.

Brightly shown the moon that night, 

though the frost was cruel.

When a poor man came in sight

gathering winter fuel."

     Wenceslaus I was the duke of Bavaria from 921 until he was assassinated by his younger brother, Boleslaus, on September 28 in 935.  He was known for his piety and his righteousness, ruling with compassion and concern for all peoples.  Almost immediately from his death he was seen as a martyr for the faith and held in high esteem as a saint.  When you hear or sing the Christmas hymn this year, think of good king Wenceslaus, and pray for the holiness and righteousness of all earthly rulers.

     September 28th commemorates the three Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.

      Michael is most popular.  In Hebrew, his name means "Who is like God".  He is the Lord's champion, the one who cast Lucifer from Heaven, who is the guardian of the Faith and defender against heresies.  The Prayer of Saint Michael has regained popularity in our day, seeking his protection in our battle against evil.

     Gabriel we know from the Annunciation, when Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she was "Blessed among women" and would be the mother of the Son of God.  The name means "God is my strength" or the "Might of God".  He is the herald of the mysteries of God.  He is a messenger of Good News.

     Raphael is found in the story of Tobit in the Hebrew Scriptures, and brings healing sight to the ailing Tobit.  Raphael's name means "It is God who heals".

     Three special angels, gifts of God for his people, who stand as champion/defender ... bringer of Good News ... and bearer of God's healing love.

     More to follow as we look at the rest of the week.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A Time of Storytelling

      It was 125 years ago yesterday, to the day, that the Slovak parish of Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church in the City of Connellsville Pennsylvania was established and the first record noted.  September 19th, 1895 was the date.  This was the second parish in Connellsville, flowing from Immaculate Conception, and was designated for the worship of people of Slovak heritage.  The original church was one block from the present structure, and was a former small Protestant church.  The present structure was built just a few years later, and still serves the people of the area.  Three other Catholic congregations followed Saint John's - the Polish, the Italian and the Hungarian.  Two of them are now closed, and the three in Connellsville that remain, along with the neighboring Saint Aloysius in Dunbar, are now partnered and share the ministry of three priests for the four parishes.  Times have changed, numbers have fluctuated, but the ministry of the gospel continues in the Connellsville area.

     Yesterday the Saint John the Evangelist family celebrated their 125th anniversary with a Mass at 4:00 pm followed by a dinner at a local event location.  With Covid-19, the year long planning was curtailed with limited seating at church, a much reduced attendance at he dinner, masks and all the protocols called for to be safe..

     I served as pastor at Saint John the Evangelist from August of 1984 through October of 1986, my first assignment as a pastor.  I was honored to join the priests of Connellsville in concelebrating the Mass and sharing a few words at the dinner event.

     Saint John is a beautiful community of people who live their faith in an old but beautiful church.  I'm having difficulty downloading the pictures that I have, which is a shame.  As I said, the church is beautiful.

     I mentioned at the dinner that history, as I read recently from one of my favorite authors and historians, David McCullough, is more than a collection of dates and events.  If it is presented in this way, it may be informative but generally it is boring.  History are dates and events that need our storytelling ability, for they do not stand there in isolation, but they are rooted in the fabric of our experience.  The revelation of our experience of that data bring life to the history that we celebrate.

     The stories told of these past 125 years of Saint John the Evangelist Church will strengthen the journey into the next segment of their history.  My stories in my two and a half years at Saint John include the beginning of the stained glass window restoration.  Two of those large windows include unusual scenes and beautiful treasures - the death of Saint Joseph and the Holy Family in a family setting.  Another thing that I am proud of was the creation of a new altar for the Eucharistic celebration.  Borrowing from an altar that I saw, we took the pew ends from the old pews, refinished them, and worked them into the base for the oak altar top.  It turned out wonderfully, and still serves the parish well.  But my greatest memories involve the wonderful people of faith that comprise the parish.  I was blessed by them in abundance.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Duty to Remember

      I find it an irony that the emergency distress call in our nation is 911 ... and that one of the most distressing events of our time took place on September 11th, 2001 - 9/11.

      It has become common among those who have lived through historic events to ask: "Where were you?"  In my memory it began with November 22nd and Kennedy's assassination and includes other tragic deaths like MLK and RJK, the Challenger disaster, Pope John Paul II's shooting and so on, including the morning of 9/11.

     It was in the midst of our Fall Priests' Retreat at the present Christ Our Shepherd Center.  We had finished breakfast and morning prayer when word came of a tragedy in New York City involving the World Trade Center.  I believe we cancelled the morning conference and gathered as everyone else was doing around a tv.  Our retreat master was retired Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco.  We were mesmerized, shocked, brought to tears and horrified at the turn of events as the realization dawned that this was terrorism involving both Towers, the Pentagon and then Shanksville.

     We had a Mass scheduled for later that morning and even though most of the tenants who leased space at the Center closed up shop, those that remained - those on retreat, the staff, and others who were still on campus gathered to pray for those involved and for the nation.  Many tears were shed, much fear was found in our hearts, and our concerns in the midst of the unknown grew more intense.   Our Center, which is a regional training center for the Pennsylvania State Police, suddenly saw a rapid exit of multiple police cars, going we knew not where.  Later we would learn of flight 93 in Shanksville, which is not that far from where we were in Greensburg.

     That afternoon I went back to the parish to see how everyone was and to see what was being planned locally in response.  The trip home was unusually quiet, with little traffic.  People were home ... people were scarred ... I trust that people were praying.

     What a day ... a day I will long remember.  Watching those building come down still brings me to tears ... and remembering those who lost their lives in the attacks, the first responders who gave their lives, and the historic response of the nation, is a duty that I hold sacred and I hope everyone will as well.  But we are, 19 years out, in a new generation.  Kids in college today probably don't remember, and those younger probably know little if anything about that days and those that followed.

     We have a duty to remember.  We have an obligation to become stronger.  We have a responsibility to rebuild, not only buildings and monuments, but the moral fabric of our great nation.  The unity and national resolve that followed 9/11 I believe has passed us by.  How sad!  Today our politicians and society at large tell us that our greatness lies in our economy, our political acumen, our might, and the fact that each of us is right/correct/holding the key to future happiness.  And we use that to beat down and demean the opposition and neglect our responsibility to build a better nation, a better world that is rooted in a reliance upon the Almighty and the strength of his teachings ... for we are a nation "under God".

     Let us do our duty and remember with love those touched by the horror of 9/11/2001.   

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Happy Birthday, Mary

      Today, September 8th, is the traditional date for celebrating the birth of Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Ann and the future mother of Jesus, the Lord.  How do we know that "this is the day"?  Obviously, we don't.  And yet the Church sets this day aside as it falls nine months after the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary and her YES allows the Holy Spirit to come upon her and she conceives her child.  Nine months is a traditional amount of time for the carrying of a child to term.  Whatever the date ... and whatever the reason to celebrate her birth, the Church rejoices that this woman of faith is a mother to us all.  Happy birthday, Mary!

     Yesterday in the United States we celebrated Labor Day by taking the day off and enjoying each other's company as best we can in this time of restriction.  The Church has spoken countless times about the dignity and respect that needs to be given to the "work of our hands" and the rights and protection of those who use their God-given talents for the good of all.  The Church has stood on the side of labor, and despite one's political position or party or platform, we must strive for fairness and justice as we promote the best use of our talents for the common good.  We have our work cut out for us.

     Tomorrow, the 9th of September, is the feast of Saint Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit from a wealthy family who chose to become a priest and a missionary in the New World.  He was born in 1580 and died in 1654 on September 8th.  His ministry was spent in Cartegena, Columbia, where he did something that few others were prone to do - he ministered to the Blacks who were brought over from Africa as slaves to the New World.  He took up this ministry seventy years after Spain sanctioned the slave trade for economic reasons.  Slavery was not new, but had been condemned by Pope Paul III in the mid 1500's and by Pope Urban VIII in 1638, and was later described by Pope Pius IX as "supreme villany".

     For Peter Claver, Black lives mattered, as did the lives of all who were seen to be children of God.  During his 40 years in Cartegena he ministered to the slaves when they arrived on those terrible slave ships, he brought them whatever comfort that he could, he shared with them his love and the love of Christ, and he brought them the faith.  It is reported that during those years he personally baptized over 300,000 souls and would often reconcile these new Christian peoples in their darkest moments by hearing nearly 5,000 confessions yearly.  And he also ministered to others in the community, some involved in the slave trade themselves, much to their discomfort and unease.  An example of gentle, sensitive, uncompromising love for his sisters and brothers, especially those who were regarded so unjustly as nothing.  In our day, we need more such examples.