Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Advent images

      There are many images of the season of Advent, each reflecting the face of Christ which bring us into a deeper love of the Lord of Life.  These "icons", or sacred images that show us the Christ, always begin with Mary, but are found in so many other champions of the Faith present in these four brief weeks prior to Christmas.  Today is one of them, Saint Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra in what is present day Turkey.

     Nicholas lived from about 270 to 343 and served as the Bishop of Myra.  Many legends grew up around him, with a great many surrounding his wonderful love of the needy and especially children.  He saw the face of Christ in these innocent ones, and most of the traditions involved his sharing his blessings with the young as he shared his love of Jesus.  Gift giving was involved, but so was gentle love and compassion.  The image of Nicholas above, as a Latin Rite bishop, is inaccurate, since he would have been of the Eastern Church Tradition, but it led to the image we have of Saint Nick as the jolly old man dressed in red and being a model of generous love.

     Many parishes in these early days of Advent share the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time with their youngsters who are preparing for their Sacraments of Initiation.  I shared in wonderful celebrations these past two days - on Monday at my former parish of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton where the kids were excited at seeing me again (even though I did not wear red, with my size and the gray beard, I probably reminded them that Santa was coming soon) - and on Tuesday at Our Lady of Grace in Greensburg.  Both were beautiful experiences of the gentle love and mercy of the Lord in our lives - for the youngsters, for their parents and families, and for the priests present.  I had an awesome thing happen yesterday as well.  A young lady needed some encouragement before receiving the Sacrament (she was nervous).  As her mom came to me to encourage her daughter she pointed out that she knew me.  She said that I had baptized her when I was an Associate at Saint John the Baptist in Scottdale and then married her and her husband when I was pastor at the same parish.  And now I had the honor of hearing her child's confession.  It is a small world, and our past moments of ministry often bring us continued blessings.

     There are many icons of Advent, many faces of Christ that bring us closer to him.  Look for them in your lives.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Friends and Family at the beginning

     Time passes so quickly.  We have now entered into a new year, not according to the calendar, but in the tradition and the practice of the People of God, the Church.  We call this transition Advent, and it leads us into a renewal of our journey of faith.  

     A week ago we acclaimed Christ to be our King, the King of the Universe and the Lord of our lives.  With that acclamation, all that had brought us to that moment was called to mind and celebrated, or reflected upon and repented of.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, on our national holiday that precedes Advent, we paused to call to mind the blessings of the Lord.  In the Scriptures for these last few weeks of the Church year, we heard readings that spoke of the end times, of the end of an age, of a day of judgement.  In our attentiveness to the news, real and fake, we see the ever deepening needs of our society and world, of our failures in learning the lessons of life, and most importantly, our failure to learn the message of the Gospels.  We reflect upon the past year and face the challenge of the new year.  And then we begin again.

     But as we continue our journey of Faith and face the uncertainty of the new day, we do so with a spirit of hope.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls us to join the Church at Corinth in reflection, and in giving thanks to God always for the grace that he has bestowed upon us.  He tells us to count our blessings as we "wait" for the revelation of the Lord.  He assures us that the Lord will keep us firm to the end in our Faith.  With this assurance we can cry out with the Psalmist today, "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved."  Paul tells Corinth that "God is faithful, and in him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."

     We forget what Paul reminds us of, and we seek the face of anyone but Christ to lead us or comfort us or be our foundation.  And all too often we repeat our mistakes because we have not learned the lessons of history and the message of the Gospel.  As we enter into Advent, break out from the pattern of repetition and move forward in grace with grace.  And may we remember the words of Isaiah the prophet: "No ear has ever heard, no eye has ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him."

     Our courage to move forward into this new year with confidence happens when we see the face of God and turn toward him.  We see the face of God in others: in Mary who is the icon of Advent, and in our friends and family.  I was blessed these past two days in spending time with family, and with friends who have become family to me.  My sister, Janie and I had lunch today with cousins, and yesterday I shared an early Christmas party with the Christian Mothers of my former parish, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Following the party I joined the parish for the evening Mass and was graciously welcomed by the pastor, Father John Moineau, and greeted by the parish family with warmth and love.  It was a good beginning of a new day, a new season of grace, and a new year of blessing for the Church.    

Monday, October 23, 2017

The memory of a good visit

     Years ago on one of my visits to California, we visited the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in southern California.  As so often happens, it was a beautiful day as we toured the Mission grounds and the church with its lovely ornate altar piece.  Later we had lunch at a restaurant across the street from the Mission entrance.  This is the same place made famous by the yearly return (migration) of swallows from a place in Mexico to this very location, the return takes place on the Feast of Saint Joseph every March 19th, and has been celebrated since the 1930's.

     This good memory comes to mind today as the Church celebrates the Memorial of Saint John of Capistrano, for whom the California Mission was named.  Saint John was born in Capistrano in the Abruzzi region of Italy in 1386.  He studied law in Perugia and served as governor there.  Inspired by the example of Saint Francis of Assisi and his followers, he entered the Order of Friars Minor.  Ordained a priest, he led a life of untiring preaching and ministry throughout all of Europe.  He sought to encourage the Christian Life and to refute heresy.  He died in Austria in 1456.

     From a writing of his entitled "Mirror of the Clergy" Saint John
said of priests:  "You are the light of the world.  Now a light does not illumine itself, but instead it diffuses its rays and shines all around upon everything that comes into its view.   So it must be with the glowing lives of upright and holy clerics.  By the brightness of their holiness they must bring light and serenity to all who gaze upon them.  They have been placed here to care for others.  Their own lives should be an example to others, showing how they must live in the house of the Lord."

     Yesterday I joined with many people from a number of parishes from throughout the Diocese to celebrate with Father James Bump his seventy-fifth birthday and his fortieth anniversary of ordination.  Father Bump is a good friend, and is a model of what Saint John of Capistrano spoke of in the words above.  His ministry, even in retirement, is a continued bringing of the light of Christ to a waiting world.  His celebration was a great event, and we wish him well.

     Please pray for Father Bump, for your priests, and please pray for me.  

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Grace of Martyrdom

     Between the years 1642 and 1649 eight members of the Society of Jesus were killed in the missions of North America.  These deaths took place in what is now upstate New York following the terrible torture of these men of God by members of the Huron and Iroquois tribes.  Two of those men who the Church recognizes as saints are the North American Martyrs Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf.  Isaac died on October 18, 1647 and John on March 16, 1648. 

     I remember hearing as a youngster of the torture and suffering of Father Isaac Jogues.  His suffering was excruciating and involved among other things the mutilation of his hands.  He was lucky enough to escape his captors, and was sent home to France to recover.  He needed a special dispensation to offer Mass due to the infirmity of his hands.  After recovery, he insisted on returning to the  New World to continue his ministry, which came to an end on that October day.  And yet his ministry continued through the example of his courage and faith.

     Years ago I made a retreat at a Jesuit Retreat House, where I heard the more detailed description of the death of John de Brebeuf.  He was tortured mercilessly by his captors, and suffered every indignity and every pain with courage and a peaceful resolve.  So impressed were those that observed this persecution that they honored his bravery and courage by partaking of his heart - the heart of a warrior.  It sounds gruesome to us, but to them it spoke of their respect that they wanted to share in his courage.

     From his spiritual diaries before his death, John de Brebeuf said this: " truth I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy should offer it to me, your most unworthy servant."  Again he says: "May I die only for you, if you grant me this grace, since you willingly died for me."

     There is a parish in the neighboring Diocese of Pittsburgh named after these North American Martyrs.  The architecture is unique, and the tabernacle is in the form of a teepee, as befits the Native Americans that were ministered to by these first saints of the New World.  The Church's prayer says:
you consecrated the first beginnings
of the faith in North America
by the preaching and martyrdom
of Saints John and Isaac and their companions. 
By the help of their prayers
may the Christian faith continue to grow
throughout the world."

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sharing the Word

     We all know of the four Evangelists - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  These four passed on the story of Jesus and shared his teaching, inspiring the communities to which they wrote with their witness.  Sometimes that witness was an eyewitness account, and at other times it was the inspired sharing of the testimony of others.

     Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Evangelist Luke.   Luke was born of a pagan family.  He was a convert to the Christian faith and a follower and co-worker of the Apostle Paul, who also came to believe in Jesus after his death and resurrection.  Luke travelled with Paul on a number of his journeys, and came to know of Jesus through Paul, and to know Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  He gave us the Gospel that bears his name, but he also gave us an account of the beginning of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  Tradition tells us that he was an educated man, probably a physician, and an artist.  He is reported to have painted ancient icons, and again tradition tells us that he may have painted the icon of Virgin and Child that is found in "The Black Madonna".

     We hear in the Acts of the Apostles that "The word of God continued to increase and spread everywhere, and all who were destined for eternal life believed in it."  This was the testimony of Paul and it was fleshed out in the life of Luke.  

     In my radio program which aired on WAOB FM this past Sunday evening, I was given two passages from Luke to reflect upon: the 16th chapter and the later half of chapter 11.  In verse 35 of chapter 11, Jesus says: "Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness."  I shared that "We have been gifted with the light of truth, and empowered to bring that light into a darkened world.  We are challenged to allow our life of faith to be seen and followed, and thus transform the world."  Luke did just that.  

     And so, on this Feast of Saint Luke we pray:
you chose Luke the evangelist to reveal
by preaching and writing
the mystery of your love for the poor.
Unite in heart and spirit
all who glory in your name,
and let all nations come to see your salvation."

     The priests of the Diocese had a meeting here at the Bishop Connare Center this afternoon, discussing a number of issues that touch the life of our parishes.  It was a good day of sharing information as well as our thoughts.  One unique thing that took place was a formal photo of the entire presbyterate in the Saint Joseph Chapel.  Nearly all of our priests were present.  Yours truly is in the front row on the right.

Pray for your priests ... and pray for an increase in vocations.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A new beginning

     I find it remarkable that my days go by so quickly and are so filled with activities that demand my attention, especially in retirement, but so it is.  Last week in particular saw much time spent in preparation for preaching and/or teaching.  At the Neumann House retirement residence, the priests take a week at a time celebrating the Eucharist in our small chapel, and last week was my turn.  Since retiring I have been listening rather than preaching, but it as god to get back into the swing of things.  In addition, this past Saturday and Sunday I filled in at Saint Paul Church for one of the priests who was away.  All this took much prep time, but brought to mind one of the things that I miss most about not being in active ministry - celebrating with a community, preaching and being a minister of the Lord's love.  I also had a great experience in the confessional on Saturday at Saint Paul parish and rejoiced in the merciful grace of God.  On Sunday evening I shared in my sixth live radio program of "lectio-divina" on WAOB-FM (106.7 FM) the local Catholic radio station.  I am enjoying this new aspect of ministry.


    Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a early bishop and martyr of the Church.  He succeeded Saint Peter as bishop of Antioch and was put to death by being thrown to wild beasts during the persecution of the Emperor Trajan I the year 107.  On his journey to Rome and his death, he wrote seven letters to the various churches.

     One was to the Church at Rome itself.  He tells them that he is God's wheat and he shall be ground by the teeth of wild animals.  He said that he was ready for death, because he knew where his treasure lay.  In his letter he says: "No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way.  I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth.  He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest.  He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.  The time for my birth is close at hand."

     The conviction of people of faith and the courage of the martyrs has always given me reason to pause.  We have been so blessed, and take so much for granite, that a little adversity at times is so challenging.  And yet we have never faced death as did Ignatius and those others who were given little option: be faithful and die or deny and live.  The courage that it takes to embrace and express the words above in bold print can only be spoken in the grace of the Spirit of God. Thank God for the witness of the martyrs and the courage of Ignatius.  The prayer for the day says it all:
"All-powerful and ever-living God, you ennoble your Church with the heroic witness of all who give their lives for Christ.  Grant that the victory of Saint Ignatius of Antioch may bring us your constant help as it brought him eternal glory."

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Francis of Assisi

     October 4th has always been a great day of celebration in my life, ever since I became aware of the saint of that day, Francis of Assisi.  The story of his life in the late 1100's and early 1200's is one of simple faith, poverty and humility, and transforming love that is as important today as it always has been.  In our complicated world, self-centered and commercial, absorbed in power and greatness, the message of simplicity of life and joy of  heart is refreshing.  It almost seems too ideal, too make believe to be real or practical.  If it were not lived out in the life of Francis and his early followers, it would be a fairy tale.  But it is real.

     Francis appeared at a moment in history when the Church was absorbed in itself and in need of renewal.  After Francis, in a moment of conversion, renounced all for the sake of the gospel and embraced poverty, the message of love found in the gospels and the joy of heart found in those that responded to the call of Jesus became a reality in his small portion of Italy, and spread to all corners of the earth.  Francis is honored by people of every religion and even those of none.  The Lord told him to "rebuild the Church" ... and before realizing the greater implications of that call, saw his task as being the rebuilding of a small church outside of Assisi - San Damiano.  The story is well known, and tremendously beautiful.

     This evening our small community of retired priests had a movie night, and watched Franco Zeffirelli's wonderful movie of 1972 - "Brother Sun, Sister Moon".  Zeffirelli knows how to make a beautiful film, and this one was no exception.  I saw the movie years ago, but it was good to see it once again.

   I have had the blessing of visiting Assisi on at least three occasions, and found great peace in the hillside community of Francis and Clare.  Their spirit obviously pervades the town after these 800 years.  And the spirit of Francis of Assisi is still sought after by the restless of heart and often found by those who seek the joy of life.

    On this feast of Francis of Assisi, the troubadour of the great King, may his joy of life and his respect for all of God's creation find a home in our hearts, and continue to renew the Church, under the leadership of another Francis.