Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Blessings

     On this Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, we hail her, who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth forever,  It is through her that we have been bestowed with the grace of eternal salvation.  Her fiat paved the way for God's love to become manifest in our midst in Emmanuel - "God With Us" - her son and our Lord Jesus Christ.  May she intercede for us before the throne of our Father so that we may be found worthy of receiving the author of life.

     May this New Year's Eve be safe, peaceful and filled with joy ... and may the New Year of 2014 be filled with joy and hope and lead us to peace.  Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Freedom of Heart

     As the old year comes to a close we look back and reflect, we assess the state of our lives with each other and as members of enlightened societies, and we find much to be desired in the quality of our lives and the direction that we are pursuing.  Caught up in the long darkness of these Winter nights and the dreariness of the the overcast, cloudy, rain or snow filled days, we long for sun, and warmth, and Spring.  I know that not everyone shares my sentiments on the weather, but I believe it is universally accepted that there is a prevailing darkness and need in our lives that is not wholesome.  We await a relief, a new beginning and fresh start with a positive attitude.  We behold the "old year" as Father Time with his scythe that is meant to "cut down" and we await the "new year's child" of optimism and hope.  Some drink themselves into oblivion on New Years Eve in order to be able to face the future. 
   The Entrance Antiphon for the Mass on the Sixth Day Within the Octave of Christmas (today) says:
"When a profound silence covered all things
and night was in the middle of its course,
your all-powerful Word, O Lord,
bounded from heaven's royal throne."
The Collect says that "the ancient servitude holds us bound beneath the yoke of sin" until we are "set free" by the newness of the Word made flesh in the Nativity.  When we realize the awesome gift that the Nativity is to us, then we begin to understand the freedom that is ours, and the foolishness of continuing to walk in darkness, and sin, and doubt and loss.  Let us not give way to either controlled or reckless abandon on this eve of the New Year, but rather let us with gratitude for the gifts received, celebrate this passage of time with enthusiasm and hope and prayer. May the Year of Our Lord 2014 be an outstanding time of grace and favor. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

A passion for the Good News

     Evangelization, in a particular way the "new" evangelization, is the key word/phrase that describes the direction that the Church is headed in the years ahead.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both have spoken of it often, a Synod took up the issue, our Diocese is embarking upon an effort to stress the need for it, we have prayers to pray, catechisms and programs that explain the faith to follow, and all sorts of creative ways to make the message known to those who have not been exposed to the Good News and to renew that message within the lives of all who do believe but have become complacent. 

     And while all of this is good, the simple reality is that they build upon the introduction of an individual to the person of Jesus, the Savior.  Unless you know him personally there will be little interest, except for curiosity, in knowing more about him and the Church that he founded.  There will be little desire to enter into the life he offers, the family that he shares, and the promise that is at the heart of the message.  This new evangelization is about rejoicing in our blessedness and sharing what we have found.

     One man who had a deep love for Jesus and who was beloved of Jesus is John, the evangelist.  He is the beloved disciple, the teenager that Jesus accepted as a son, the only one of the disciples to live to a ripe old age and spend his time reflecting on his experiences and sharing that particular good news.  Today is his feast.  What is evangelization to be like?  In the first reading for his feast, which comes from his 1st letter, John says:

What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life -
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us -
what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete."
     Read this through slowly, prayerfully.  It is powerfully simple.  It is the model for evangelization.  John says that what he has seen and testified to and proclaimed are realities that are from the beginning of time, the reality of the Word of life that became visible among us, Jesus Christ.  And the reason he shares this is so that all may share in fellowship with him and all believers in the Word of life, who share a fellowship with the Father of all and with his son, the Word made flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The other reason that he shares this is equally important - so that his joy may be complete. I am moved by the clear and precise conviction found in John's words.  This is what leads others to Christ - personal story, deep conviction, a desire to share, and a joy that can only be complete if I give what I have been given.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Reflection

     The journey has come to its completion, the night is silent, the rest is needed, and the quiet hope is tangible.  These were the experienced realities of a young couple who found themselves away from home, without a place to stay, ill prepared for birthing but at a major moment in the course of history.  These are the experienced realities of those who in this moment in time have prepared their hearts for the Lord, who await his glory, who live in the here and now while learning from and celebrating the blessings that have touched their lives in times past, and who have not lost grasp of the hope that this birth in Bethlehem has generated.  This is the end of Advent, the birthday of the Lord, and our celebration of Emmanuel - "God with us".
     We celebrate this evening the coming of the Lord of lords and the King of kings, the Prince of Peace and the King of the newly established Kingdom of Heaven.  The Truth has come among us and wrapped his arms around us.  Love is made manifest and Life is freely shared.  It would take teachings and signs, a passion and even a sacrificial death to make this a reality, but this was the beginning.  That is why we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord.

     Pope Benedict wrote in his trilogy on Jesus "What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?  What has he brought?  The answer is very simple: God.  He has brought God ... He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him.  Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world.  Jesus has brought us God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love.  It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little."

     The reason that we celebrate Christmas year after year is to acknowledge the presence of Emmanuel - God with us - and to do so in the person of Jesus - God become man.  This is our reality, our life, our hope.  On this Christmas eve in the year of Our Lord 2013, I assure all of you of my prayers and thoughts and good wishes, and thank you for your continued interest in Journey Thoughts.   Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A good end to Advent

     As I was waiting to begin the entrance procession for the 4:00 pm Mass yesterday, with people streaming into church, a little girl of about two or three entered the vestibule with her dad and very excitedly kept saying "We won!"  "We won!"  "We won!"  I asked her "What did you win?" but she just looked at me puzzled and did not answer.  A few moments later her mom and older brother entered the vestibule together, and then she opened up - "I beat my brother to church!"  I laughed.

     As I began Mass I remembered the Collect Prayer of the new translation for the First Sunday of Advent which states "Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ ..."  I love the image of "running to meet Christ".  And here was this sister and brother "running to meet Christ" as they came to Church for Mass.  What a wonderful reminder, on the last Sunday of Advent, of what we prayed for on that First Sunday.

     I mentioned this moment to the people gathered and shared the joy of the little girl at being first ... but also commented that her brother was the gentleman who waited with mom (thus saving his pride).


     Our small but dedicated crew decorated the church today following the last Mass, and it looks beautiful.  The flowers arrive tomorrow, the manger will be set in place, I pick up the apples tomorrow (we gift each child with a red delicious apple at the Christmas Masses), and all will be ready for God's People to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord.  To all who have and continue to prepare for Christmas, many thanks!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A week of healing love

     This has been an exhausting yet very blessed week for me.  I call it "Confession week".  The patron of parish priests, Saint John Marie Vianney, used to spend hours upon hours in the confessional of the small town of Ars in France where he was pastor.  At first, no one came.  But as time went on and people began to realize the holiness of the man, his God given ability to look into their hearts and see their sinfulness, and to acknowledge their need before God, they came to be shriven, to be forgiven, to be reconciled.  Just as we do in Advent, they came to express a desire to draw closer to Christ and to the light of his grace.  And their pastor, this man of God, became the portal to that grace.

     In our day, like those early days in Ars, many people went about their business with little concern for this grace that God provides through this sacrament.  Our numbers seeking forgiveness are low, compared to even forty years ago when I began this ministry.  We spend some time in the confessional each week, but there is not an overwhelming response. (I hope that it is not because of the confessor!)

     But our preparation in Advent and again in Lent brings out the crowds.  This was our week in the area - our own confessions last Saturday and then Advent Communal Penance Services with individual confessions on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the four local parishes.  We had anywhere from six to eleven priests available for confessions, and the people came.  They were four very busy and rewarding evenings of grace.

     I was particularly blessed with the people that came to me.  The number that appeared to be going through a routine confession without much thought was minimal.  Most were there to confess and be reconciled, but they were also seeking healing and help, grace and blessing.  A few came back after a long period of time, some brought their particular problem or fault that was becoming a challenge to them, some sought advice and nearly all simply placed themselves within the tender mercy and love of God.  Being at the center of that experience, as the priest confessor who speaks the word and the reality of forgiveness that the Lord grants to repentant sinners, and being in the position as the servant of the Lord and of the Community to grant forgiveness and reconciliation on behalf of the Community as well, is a deeply powerful moment.  To those who trusted, to the One who graced, and for the gift of priesthood, I am deeply grateful.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A humbling realization

     Having spent over fifteen years of my priesthood in a parish that bears the name Saint John the Baptist, I  have come to appreciate the unique role that he plays in our lives.  One of those is an example by comparison.  In the Gospel of Matthew today we hear Jesus tell the people that "among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist ..."  But the continued line is the kicker - "...yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater then he."  Think about that a moment.  No one greater than John born on this earth ... except you and me and all called to belong to the kingdom of heaven by being born again in Christ!

     We have the assurance of Jesus that this is true, that we are greater and of more importance in the kingdom of Heaven than John the Baptist or any who had come before the Christ.  And yet we are keenly aware that we are imperfect, that we are unworthy, that we are nothing without God.  Who we are in the sight of God at times does not compare with who we are in the eyes of men, or even in our own vision of self.  We are called today to REJOICE in the who that we are in Christ despite the present appearance.  And we are reminded that the best way to become who we are meant to be - great in the kingdom of God, reflecting the glory of Christ, joining with the hosts of heaven in singing the praise of the Father by words and deeds - is to help others ... "strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you."

     As we continue our journey through Advent and towards a deeper immersion into Christ Jesus, today we pause and truly rejoice in his gracious love.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Faith restored ... for the moment

     I am not speaking of faith in God, but rather faith in the wisdom of humanity in one small decision that was announced today - Time magazine's 2013 Person of the Year.  This acknowledgement goes to the person who has has "the most impact upon the world and the news - for better or worse - over the past year."  I posted on Monday on the list of candidates that was made known that morning.

     Time magazine's 2013 Person of the Year is Pope Francis.  In the choice, his humility and compassion were brought forth as powerful dynamics of the man that has drawn countless people worldwide to look afresh at him and the Church that he shepherds.  He is the third Pope to be so named, with Pope John XXIII in 1962 and Pope John Paul II in 1995, both to be recognized by the Church as saints in the coming year.  John XXIII, of course, with the renewal brought about by Vatican Council II and John Paul II for so many reasons, primarily in the renewed vitality of faith and in the struggle against oppression.

     The others in the top five included Edward Snowden, the U.S. whistle blower, Edith Windsor, the gay activist who brought about a reversal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) by the Supreme Court, President Bashar Assad of Syria and Senator Ted Cruz of the U.S. Congress.   Pope Francis was chosen by the editors, but also received 59% of the popular vote.

     Obviously I am appreciative of the fact that the editors of Time saw the impact of Pope Francis not only on the Church but the world family as well.  Just yesterday the Vatican announced a global initiative to focus on dealing with world hunger through the Church's various organizations and advocacy and leadership on the international level.  More on that at another time.  But for the moment, in an example of wise decision making, Miley Cyrus (also on the top ten list) did not win out over Pope Francis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What shall I cry out?

     This morning at Mass we heard Isaiah the prophet say "A voice says, 'Cry out!'  I answer, 'What shall I cry out?' "

      With Christmas soon to be upon us we remember singing the lovely hymn "Silent Night".  There was a peaceful calm about that night in Bethlehem when He was born.  But the night was anything but silent.  There was a peaceful excitement the began to fill the hearts of all creation.  There was a joyous noice as the choirs of Angels sang of the Good News of His birth.  The stars in the sky aligned to announce His birth.  Nothing would ever, ever be the same.

     Isaiah's voice invites God's People to cry out to prepare for the coming promise, to repent of our self centeredness, to look ahead, to be expectant.  The voices that spoke that Christmas night invite us to rejoice in the fulfillment of that promise, to repent, to celebrate in the here and now, to be open.  And yet the world continues to need a voice that urges us to "Cry out!"  But what shall we cry out?

     The message is still the same.  Everything is transitory, all flesh is like grass, here today and gone tomorrow.  Everything that we are told will sustain us, will satisfy us, will be our security is passing.  Everything EXCEPT this Good News -

"Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care."
     This Good News is as vital and as fresh as in any previous moment in time, and maybe even more so in our very secular and floundering societies.  If the future is to be life giving, this truth, that the Lord rules, that GOD is all, needs to be cried out full throatedly by all of us.  This is what we should cry out!

Monday, December 9, 2013


     In an age of unbelief, I suppose that the broad scope in the announcement of TIME magazine's "Person of the Year" nominees is not surprising.  Each year the magazine's editors chooses a person who has, for better or worse, had the most impact on the world and the news in the past year.  The nominees were announced this morning.  The top nine include our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who since his election this Spring has captivated the world and inspired the Church that he leads.  Others included are: Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Bashar al-Assad of Syria who is alleged to have been behind a chemical attack on his people during their civil strife; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Edie Windsor who spearheaded the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the Supreme Court; Edward Snowden who leaked top secret info on the U.S. government and fled to Russia; and of course, Miley Cyrus.  To see the side by side pictures of Miley Cyrus/Pope Francis/President Bashar al-Assad was a little bazaar.  What company to find yourself with.

     With this article from today.com they ask the question "Who should be TIME's 2013 Person of the Year?"  As of a short time ago, there were nearly 9,000 votes cast.  I was pleasantly surprised that Pope Francis was ahead with 63% of the vote, followed by Edward Snowden the alleged spy with 11% and then Miley Cyrus with 7%.  But this is early on a Monday morning - Miley's fans are not on line as yet.  Guess who I voted for?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A promise of hope

     We tend to think that things as we know them will go on forever.  We tend to think that we will go on forever.  But things end - everything ends.  Good as it may be, there is certainty that life will end in death, that what we have relied upon will no longer sustain us, that promises made will be broken, that this world disappoints.  Depressing, isn't it?

     Depressing only if we lose sight of the hope given us by God, only if we fail to recognize the one promise that is true and unshakable, the promise of God's love for us.  Depressing only when we fail to recognize the life and love that the Lord has invested in us - a life and love that has its origins in a death freely accepted in absolute love.  Depressing only if we fail to be attentive to the Scriptures that were written for our encouragement and endurance in order that we might have hope.

     From Jesse's stump a shoot shall sprout and from its roots a bud shall blossom.  Jesse, blessed by God, source of the Davidic Kingdom, honorable and guided by God, was cut down.  Yet from its root, from its stump, something new has come, something that will assure the continuance of the eternal promise.  The tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, not to destroy, but rather to purify so that new life can come forth from death.   It is like the new shoots that spring up after the destructive forest fire.

     On this second Sunday of Advent, in this time of preparation and anticipation, in this winter of our discontent, we hear John the Baptist calling us to "Repent!"   The time is at hand!  Now is the moment to let go, to allow the Lord to enter in, to die to ourselves and to sin and to let Christ live in us.  As the author of Romans reminds us today:
"May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant that you think in harmony with one another,
in keeping with Christ Jesus,
that with one accord you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God." 
     Here lies our promise of hope.  Here lies our life.  Here lies our eternal future in Christ Jesus.
     I helped our neighbors at Saint Agnes Parish celebrate First Reconciliation this afternoon by hearing confessions.  As always, the kids were great.  I appreciated the opportunity.
     This evening I went out to eat and just after I sat down at my favorite restaurant in Irwin, Romano's, a family came in as well.  The little guy with them saw me and was very excited, for he had come to me that afternoon for the Sacrament.  We shared dinner and conversation and a great evening together in honor of his special day.  Again, I was blessed.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A dignified and fulfilling life

     In "The Joy of the Gospel" Pope Francis in paragraph #9 says:  "Goodness always tends to spread.  Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others.  As it expands, goodness takes root and develops.  If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good."   The Holy Father was speaking of the joy of evangelizing others, of sharing the Good News.  This can only be done with joy when we are set free of our self centeredness, of the destructive hurts and pains that harden our hearts, when we can see beyond ourselves to the needs of others.

     We are aware of the extraordinary courage and witness of so many good men and women throughout history that have done so in the spread of the Gospel, in the living out of lives of faith and goodness, who have impacted the world.  Some go way back, like Nicholas, a bishop and figure whom the Church honors today and whose spirit the world still emulates at Christmas with kindness and gift giving and sharing in the name and spirit of Christ at his birthday.  Some are personal favorites like Francis of Assisi who, misunderstood and disappointed in life, found hope in casting all aside and embracing in poverty the needs of all in the name and spirit of Christ.  Some we know in our own day, like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, a little woman whose simple yet deep love of Christ allowed her to pour herself out for others and who became a witness for the world.  Others saw injustice and responded in ways that changed societies - in our country through the efforts and witness of Martin Luther King and in South Africa in the work of Nelson Mandela.  President Mandela died last evening, and the tributes from throughout the world are coming forth.  This man experienced a long imprisonment, experienced a "profound liberation", did not become bitter or hardened, but was deeply resolved to work to meet the needs and sensitivity of others, and helped to transform a nation from an accepted yet unjust form of prejudice to a country that includes all. 

    He, and those that have impacted the world communities and the Churches in their witness, while yet sinners and imperfect, have been known to have lived "a dignified and fulfilling life".  May the Lord give peace and eternal rest to Nelson Mandela.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


     On Monday evening of this week two of my neighboring brother priests joined me in our parish celebration of First Penance, the service in which nearly twenty-eight youngsters from our parish on their way to the Lord's Table this Spring encounter the mercy and forgiveness of God.  The weather was unseasonally warm, the atmosphere was right, the anticipation was high, and the kids were great.  There have been years when the anxiety level was so high that the youngsters were almost non responsive.  But this was not my experience with those that came to me on Monday.  They were ready, a few were nervous, but they were into the experience.  I give their parents and our catechists a lot of credit.

     We also extended the invitation to parents and family to also approach the Lord for the embrace of forgiveness.  I experienced a great spirit of sorrow and openness to forgiveness, humility and hopeful expectation of new beginnings, and of a desire to do better or even start anew.  It was a blessed evening for me.

     Of those that came to me to confess, there were a few that had not been there for a number of years.  If it is a long time, I usually ask if there is some reason?  Sometimes there is, and we can talk about that.  Other times there is nothing pressing that has kept them away.  I remind them of God's unfailing love, of his never ending presence in our lives.  I often ask them, then, why they are there today?  What is their motivation to return at this moment?

     Obviously on Monday their motivation was in joining their child in this precious moment of encounter with God.  I know that in my years of preaching, those homilies of "fire and brimstone" are unusually well received and can provide a motivation.  Many times the person has reached a point of no return, and realizes that "now is the time".  And for most it is the knowledge that the time is right.  Whatever the motivation, the need to come to the Lord, to be securely wrapped in his loving embrace, to be shriven (a strange word) and forgiven, is a part of the human experience, and for the person of faith an absolute necessity.  Pope Francis tweeted on October 29th "We are all sinners.  But God heals us with an abundance of grace, mercy and kindness."  That is the ultimate motivation to come and be reconciled.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A needed break

     Today I joined a number of my brothers in the Greensburg diocesan priesthood for a day of recollection and reflection, prayer and fellowship at the Bishop Connare Center, our diocesan retreat/conference center (the former Saint Joseph Hall).  This Advent Day of Recollection was presented by Father Joe Mele of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, a seminary classmate and friend and rector of Saint Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.  His theme was "A map of the homily in proclaiming the Gospel as found in the Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium".   Joe was a preaching professor for many years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe.

      Today was just the day I needed at this moment in time.  The fellowship we shared, the short but very clear presentations, the times of prayer and the opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation were a blessing.  To cap it off with drinks and a good dinner was perfect.  I was truly blessed.

     I have been struggling a bit lately with contrasting experiences.  On the one hand I have heard the lament and distraction of a few very good friends who are burdened by schedules or work or non uplifting experiences of Church and liturgy and preaching.  I feel for them, for the reality of life can be daunting for those of us of faith.  On the other hand, I have felt particularly blessed in the last few weeks with an uplifting spirit of joy and peace and hope.  Part may be because of the wisdom of age (I'm not so sure that this accounts for much).  Part of it is the Advent Season, the Advent readings and prayers, and a prayerfulness that permits me to not be overwhelmed by what needs to be done.  And a large part of it is the continued inspiration of Pope Francis.  I am finding his "The Joy of the Gospel" speaking to me in a clear way.

     My good friend Mike Ripple recently posted regarding less than uplifting experiences of preaching and liturgy.  He wondered aloud if he were part of the diaspora, the remnant, those who longed for better times.  I didn't know how to answer him.  I still don't, except to say that Advent reminds us to look back to the children of Abraham.  They waited in hope, despite being in truly lifeless situations.  They were children of the promise, a promise that was a long, long time in coming.  Did they all "hang in there"?  Not really.  But the remnant did, the diaspora lived in hope.  Mary, our Advent image, is the icon of the person of faith, that follower of the promise, that one whose expectancy opened the way for Jesus.  To the bad preaching, Francis reminds us that all are called to preach the Word of God ... and that priests are entrusted to this sacred task within the liturgy.  When they don't, then in love, we need to challenge and pray them into this sacred responsibility.  And whether it is preaching or prayer or liturgy or ordinary life, we are all called to authenticity - centering not on self but on "the other".  When we take the focus off of ourselves we leave room for Christ and his Church.

     The challenges will continue to be there.  They will at times be overwhelming.  In the opening paragraphs of "Evangelii Gaudium", Pope Francis says to "Never give up" on the joy of God's love.  I shared with our people over the weekend that a favorite movie of mine is "Galaxy Quest", a Star Trek and trekkie parody made in 1999.  The favorite expression of the captain, Commander Taggart, was "Never give up! Never surrender!"  We need to make that our saying when confronted by darkness and evil and mediocrity.  Never give up!  Never surrender!  He loves us too much!