Remembering When We Bled…

 

Well, it has been quite a year. Even as we enter 2021, the remnants of what was is still clouded by what could have been. We need to heal. I remember being asked what makes me a good priest. I replied that if I am a good priest, it was because of the lessons I learned at my mother’s dining room table. A place where everyone was welcomed, and no was ever excluded. A mother who taught me to welcome was to love. But, as the pandemic has deepened, I have another. I never forget when I bled. I think that is the hallmark of what we are at Saint Miriam: we love because we have bled.

Before I was appointed at a Pastor, I was a Trauma Chaplain at Albert Einstein Medical Center for many years. When the pandemic hit hard in back this past March, the hospital, like many, shut its doors to visitors and that included clergy. But Catholic patients, in particular, were challenged as they needed to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. The Holy Father began permitting virtual or distance/no contact anointing and I was soon summoned back into chaplaincy service. I now visit – either in person (when permitted) or virtually – an average three to five patients a week. I answer the call and serve as needed. I bring healing and hope, if only from a distance. It is hard and I realized today it has taken a toll on me as I feather chaplaincy into my pastoral position.

My phone alerted me to an incoming call about 8:05am this morning. It was Einstein and my first instinct was to press the “Decline Call” button. I was tired. I had a difficult day yesterday and did not sleep well last night. As my thumb navigated to the red button, an inner voice reminded me that someone was alone. I answered the call, and with the help of a wonderful nurse named Samantha, I met a woman sitting vigil at her husband Larry’s bedside. We spoke, she cried, she reminisced; I anointed him, then we visited some more. Before I hung up, she asked me to remember Larry. I promised that I would. Then it came. “You saved me today, Father.” Mary Lou shouted out. “I was alone and about to give up my faith when no one would come to help me, but you came. You saved me.” And there it was. God is here.

The image I used today was from a greeting card sent to myself and my cohort on the homelessness front, Tom Frey. It reads, ‘Thank you for you and St. Miriam’s (sic) for reminding us – when we forget for while.’ I am glad we help people remember. I pray I will never forget.

As we navigate the turmoil that 2020 spilled into 2021 and as we become bewildered by politicians and plagues and insurrections and indifference, let us remember the times in which we bled and then help another.

I pray, with your support and prayers, Saint Miriam will be here to welcome you back when this is all over. No matter what, I know that we always remember when we bled.

 



The Year of Being a Good Joseph!

This past week we placed a list of needed items for our homeless outreach on our Blessing Bag Outreach Facebook page. A gentleman replied that, “We should take care of the homeless and the veterans, not illegal immigrants!”

Now, to be clear, I don’t care what identification someone living on streets is carrying or not carrying; we simply care for them. As they are. Where they are. Whatever their need, we try to help. We carry food, water, Bomas Socks, winter clothing items and yes, even Narcan. So, let me clear here that nothing in the post said anything about illegal aliens. In fact, nothing was said about immigration at all. This man simply ‘read into’ what we posted with his own bias and prejudice. It was upsetting, but not totally unexpected. After all, sadly, everything is political these days, even the work we do on the streets.

I once was asked what makes me a good priest. I often reply if I am that – a good priest – then it was the care and teachings of my parents. I learned to be a good priest at their dining room table where everyone was welcome. I never learned to hate anyone based on skin color, or economic status, or religion, or sexuality. My dad taught me better than that; my dad never had an innate hatred for anyone else. He helped me to be a man, and to love. This is why I am so grateful that the Holy Father has declared this year to be all about Joseph!

Pope Francis recently announced the Year of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which began December 8th and concludes on December 8, 2021. The decree, in his letter entitled Patris corde (“With a father’s heart”),  said that “every member of the faithful, following his [Joseph’s] example, may strengthen their life of faith daily in the complete fulfillment of God’s will.” 

You see, each of us can discover in St. Joseph, a man who goes so often unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence, an intercessor of sorts, akin to the Holy Spirit, where support can come to guide us in times of trouble.

Pope Francis wrote, “St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”  I think there is a gem of a needed lesson here for all of us this Advent. In Joseph’s relationship with his son, Jesus, he became the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father. Joseph watched over Jesus and protected Him, never leaving him to go his own way. In other words, Joseph taught Jesus how to be a good man, all without ever knowing what was to come!  

I chose the image I did today because I have been a spiritual father for many years. I love being a priest! Now I am also a father to Jameson. And, despite the false rhetoric of some churches that say it would be a hindrance to have a married Catholic Priest, I have found an even deeper meaning to teaching, unconditional love, and modeling good behavior. I am a ‘softer‘ man now, more patient and calm. I see in his eyes the love he already has for me, not even knowing I am his daddy, all because I am kind to him and love him with forever. I have much to teach him before my own journey is done. I pray it will be good.

I know that Saint Miriam will be an even better model of this unconditional love and welcome in the years to come – for us and for our children – we will be a beacon of hope. I hope and pray this is something worthy of your gifts this season. We need your support to remain through this difficult time to engage the world when we return fully. We are needed, just like Jesus needed Joseph.

In life, at work, and within the family, through joys and sorrows, through doubts and the uncertainty of the world then, Joseph always sought and loved the Lord, deserving the Scriptures’ eulogy that described him as a just and wise man. May each of us be so remembered and honored.

Welcome to the Year of Joseph!
 


No Disney, Just a Car Wash This Year, and That’s OK.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thanksgiving and what to even say to all of you who read my blog; it’s a different kind of Thanksgiving this year, that’s for sure.

This past Monday, I needed to take my Jeep in for service; it seemed that the steering was acting erratically on our last trip from Erie. If you hit a bump in the road, the Jeep would begin to shake violently to the point that you almost needed to pull over to the side of the road; it was terrifying! We did what most ‘roadside’ neophyte mechanics do, we Googled it and found that it called ‘The Jeep Death Wobble’! Wow, huh!? It is a result of how the way the Jeep front end is manufactured, and it needed to be fixed soon. Since Katelyn and I are a one-car family now, we rely heavily on our vehicle to be stable and always ready to go.

On my way home from the Jeep dealer after the repairs were completed (which only took them a half a day as they are used to dealing with this issue) I stopped to get the car washed in Flourtown. Two gentlemen were also there, standing next to each other along the glass wall watching their car get washed. I made a comment as I passed by them, “You can’t take the boy out of the man!” We all laughed and then began a brief conversation wherein we reminisced about how we shared the boyhood experience of going to the car wash with our dads and watching the process and being so thrilled! I told them that once in a while my dad would take me to the carwash where we could sit in the car and drive through it! Oh, how exciting that was! I said, “We didn’t have Disney, but we always had the car wash!” And there it was, my Thanksgiving message for you this year!

This year, as we all curtail our gatherings and travel plans to comply with the CDC guidelines to bring this pandemic to end, I thought about Saint Miriam and the car wash experience! You see, we will always try to keep our parish present, vigilant, and strong so that when we return – when we need her the most – she will be there. I have learned that just like I rely on my jeep, I also depend on on the strong ever-present and vigilant presence of the parish we created together, and I give thanks that she is always there when we need her. I couldn’t imagine a world without her. And I also realized that so many of us wish we had Disney, but in doing so we miss the ‘car washes’ of our days that are still strong and present to bring us joy.

My wish for you is a safe, heartfelt Thanksgiving where family is present where they mean the most: within our hearts. And I wish you to remember and experience those more mundane car washes of our lives where the childhood joy is within us again. This is what Thanksgiving is all about.

I promise I will do my best during this in-person shutdown to try and keep Saint Miriam here. With your support, we will make it through this time and the sun will rise on Disney again.

Happy Thanksgiving from our home to your home; from our heart we send you love and hope…
 
Monsignor +Jim
 


I Won’t Give Into Fear.

“There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.”   — Etty Hillesum

How do you feel when you hear these words or phrases? Love, passion, freedom, receive, a full belly, generous, lavish lifestyle, low debt, enjoyment, pleasure, delight, acceptance? Now, pause for another moment and reflect on how do you feel when you hear these words? Rejection, restraint, limitation, withhold, resistance, empty, scarcity, abstinence, insecure, displeasure, pain?

Most of us respond far more positively to the first set of words, and far more negatively to the second. It’s almost visceral. However, like it or not, we swim in a culture of pleasure, and, in our view, God would only care about (or be characterized by) words that speak of generosity and giving and enjoyment. Our new-age God would never ask us to be in scarcity.  After all, we worship a God of abundance, right? Just ask the like of Joel Osteen who has amassed an empire based on the ‘prosperity gospel’, an aberrant theology that teaches God rewards faith—and hefty tithing—with financial blessings.

But, for many, we live in fear and denial of the reality: many are our to literally wipe us away. If you are ‘different’ by their standard, you are rejected and deemed expendable. Ask those of us who ever loved someone of the same sex, or lives our lives openly as a gay/lesbian person, or married someone younger, or finds our truth in a fluid gender status, or is fully whole as alternatively gendered than birth, or we inherited a darker skin color, or emigrated from a land distant from our preset shores. The list is endless.

But wait! Under the present Administration and its allies there are more to add to our list! If you seek support, need welfare assistance, are food insecure, or are anything other than a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant that lift your hands high to a God you worship while you stick your foot on the neck of those you dislike. No, the gospel is not alive and well, only the hatred that comes from a gospel warped by our own prejudice and violence and hatred of the ‘others’ we despise. We run quickly past the scriptures for love and embracing our enemies and we instead invoke a semi-Levitical code for death to all who we hate. We have now even allowed the courts to stack the deck against freedoms gained. I stand back and ask myself quietly and disgustedly, ‘what have we become; it can’t get any worse.’ But, it does.

Yes, we are indeed a generation that needs to receive the fullness of the lavish love and the border-breaking permissions of God, but we must first see that God for what He demands of us; see it in truth, not distorted. We are also a generation that is chained by both public and secret lack of restraint, self-control, and multiple levels of addictions and hatreds. Perhaps we might remember something Jesus taught us in the desert: The ‘Destroyer’ knows exactly how to tempt, how to test our limits. The devil – in all his forms – loves to break someone who is good at saying “Yes” to themselves, and “No” to others. We can easily identify the others now, right? They don’t wear the red hat of hate and division.

So how do we do it? How do we look outwards toward others and not lose ourselves? I think that somehow our vocation as believers in these sad times must be to first restore our inherent ‘Divine Center’ by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. It is why we offer Adoration, Rosary and Contemplative Offerings to fortify our prayer life at Saint Miriam. It is why we welcome everyone through our doors and freely to our altar. It strengthens us to serve the homeless in the city and still maintain the beauty of a parish in the suburbs. If contemplation and joy would ever mean anything deep, it must include that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Hillesum described it, but truthfully and wholly and inclusively.

What could it mean to find this kind of deep rest in God in a world such as ours today? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather, and as Fr. Rohr says so well: a neurotic news cycle driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words incite true hatred, violence, sows discord, and amplifies the daily chaos between people of color, varied sexualities and gender status, wide-ranging national origins, and differences that our nation has tried to overcome for centuries. We made such strides, but now we are in full reverse mode. And, the pandemic seems to be returning in waves greater than before and many who follow him are more concerned with their own comfort and ‘false freedoms’ than the lives of the weak and the vulnerable. The power of hatred comes through a false idol and a warped sense that by harming or eliminating those who literally live on the edges of the margins somehow makes us fuller, more blissful, beyond content. It’s no wonder our mental and emotional health are decline. We hate openly now. Others – those we hate – now are forced to hide in fear, as the sun is setting on their brief moment of safety and light. Shame on us.  Shame on us who permit it and shame on those who perpetrate it.

So, I will not give into fear. I will not post that you must rush to me to be married before your rights are removed, or that someone our doors will one day shut to your need for sanctuary. No, I will not give into that fear. I will instead pray, and vote, and stand up, and even lose my life for your rights. And, no, Saint Miriam will never change its course or cause. Yes, by our living only for ourselves; by our turning only to God when we are in need, by our rejecting the true values of being a Catholic Christian, we have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth or caring.

Things must change. Living in fear will not help. Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul, for these next coming months, and whatever they bring, know God is still God. We are still here, and we will not live in fear.

 
 


I Am Burned Out, too; I Get it, but I Won’t Give Up.

I get it. I am tired of it all, too. “They” keep saying just do certain simple things like distance and wear a mask and we will be back to some resemblance of normal. But, now, here we are – some 8+ months into the worst of the pandemic and we are canceling holidays and much of the world is shutting down. Even our highest officials in government can’t agree and our president wants us to believe its over. Well, it’s not. I have seen the face of this virus as I anointed and helped families say goodbye. It isn’t over; not even close. I wish it were. I am tired, too.

So, yes! I am burned out. I am fighting to keep our parish alive and help maintain all the jobs for all the folks that call Saint Miriam home. I am fighting to keep our doors open despite the fact that my pleas for financial support are falling on ears, who like mine are burned out, tired, and fatigued. I am fighting to feed the homeless and fill empty blessing bags. I am fighting as we move our silent auction and concert into a virtual world, expand our safe distancing opportunities, like pumpkins and photos, and still I know the truth: we are all tired.

Summer did not extinguish the virus as promised. And with fall has come another dangerous, uncontrolled surge of infections that in many parts of the world is the worst of the pandemic so far. Hospitalizations are up, new restrictions are being imposed, and some nations are finding that their health care systems are in danger of collapsing. We, as the public have a deep weariness about us and now a growing tendency is abounding as many are willing to risk the dangers of the virus, out of desire or pure necessity. And, in sharp contrast to the spring, the rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first surge have given way to exhaustion and frustration. There are no window signs or messages of hope. We are weary. We are burned out. I get it, but I won’t give up.

For me, this pandemic has taken so much. It robbed me of a spring and now a summer, too. It robbed my wife and I of a normal birth for my son. It took away our ability to baptize him with all of you near. It robbed me of time with my mother who is now seriously ill. It took away joy and plans and hope. This pandemic has taken so much that I won’t let it rob me of Saint Miriam, too. Whether others join me or not is of no consequence. If we close down because others don’t care enough to support us, I will still fight and give until the last ember of Saint Miriam glows. Why?  Because we are different, and we are desperately needed.

This past week, in consultation with my school administration, we hired back someone who had been terminated earlier in the year for cause. She pleaded her case, took ownership of her issues, and asked for another chance. I agreed. Some didn’t and voiced their opinion and dissatisfaction. I wrote these words to them.

“It had come to my attention that our rehiring a former employee has caused some issues. So, I wanted to take a moment to address it directly. I, too, had some reservations with respect for hiring somebody that was terminated for cause. However, after much prayer and consideration, I decided to actually live out the way the world should be and to allow another opportunity for someone who was owning responsibility for their past actions and was contrite in there asking to be considered for another chance within our organization. As many of you know some 30 years ago, I made a terrible mistake and it costs me a few months of my life and to this day I am still often reminded how unworthy I am and that I did something wrong. Saint Miriam has always been sincere; we have lived the truth in speech and in practicality; that we worship a God of grace and of second chances. As pastor it is my responsibility to uphold the values of Saint Miriam and to remind us as an organization, to never stray from those values. I am not sure if this rehire is going to work, but what I do know is that we would be less of a people of faith if we rejected her without one more try. Thank you for listening to me today.”

This is why we exist. This is so many other ways that we are inclusive, welcoming, loving, forgiving and different. I pray we are worth your time and your support.
 

 



The Blessings of Ordinary to Extraordinary.

This Sunday, October 11th 2020, at the 9:00am Mass, I will do something I rarely do. I will exercise my authority as a Bishop and consecrate holy oils. I will take the vulgar and transform it to the sacred, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the profane to the hallowed.

Some of the church’s most ancient traditions and rituals are witnessed during Holy Week, including the preparation, blessing and distribution of oils central to the Church’s sacraments and rites. This chrism Mass is usually celebrated on Holy Thursday at the local cathedral with the bishop gathered with his priests but can be moved as needed for pastoral reasons. We are doing so out of both need and symbolism: perhaps can we, just for a moment, still remember that God can do the same with our lives and the pandemic we now endure?

There are many Old and New Testament scriptural references to “anointings,” suggesting the importance of holy oil in ancient and biblical cultures. The oils we will consecrate this Sunday include the oil of the sick, used in the anointing of the sick; the oil of catechumens, which is for those preparing to be baptized, and the chrism oil, which is consecrated and used for baptism, confirmation and holy orders.

Apart from the Holy Oils (Sacred Chrism, Oil of the Sick, and Oil of Catechumens) sanctified by the Bishop, the Church also provides for the blessing of ordinary olive oil as a sacramental. This oil may be burned before the Blessed Sacrament, or before sacred images and then used by the faithful in the same way as they would use any other blessed sacramental. Such devotional anointings accompanied by prayer are not to be confused with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, any more than one would confuse the use of Holy Water with the water of Baptism. I have chosen to include this offering as well on Sunday as a new candle has arrived that will burn before the stunning Tabernacle that is coming, made by the hands and effort of our own parishioner, Don Pauley. We will also use this oil to refill the lamps before the main icons within the Chapel of the Mother of God, Searcher of the Lost, at our Falls Retreat Center in Starlight; an absolutely stunning place for prayer and contemplation. 

The oils this week will be set out for display for all Masses in large glass decanters, but consecrated only during Sunday’s 9:00am Mass. Virgin olive oil will be used for the oil of the sick and oil of catechumens. However, the oil of chrism, is distinct in that it is mixed with a resin, balsam, giving it a sweet perfumed fragrance, after which the oil is consecrated only by a bishop. It is set apart to be used for a person who is baptized and later at the sacrament of confirmation; the bishop literally breathes upon that oil as a visible sign of the Holy Spirit coming down on the chrism oil. It is a beautiful symbolism that is desperately needed with all we find ourselves living with in today’s world; I pray it will be for us a symbol of renewal.

In that same spirit of a sense of finding renewal, I have requested that the clergy gather to join me. In doing so, they will renew their vows as ordained clergy and their devotion of a life of service through their calling to help them – as it will prayerfully do for all gathered – persevere through hardship.

Our Franciscan-inspired simplistic designs – here at our main parish and farther north at our Retreat center – creates a sense of peace, allowing you to let go of the busyness of your daily life. 

I pray you will join me.

 



It Didn’t Matter.

As said in my latest video, I know that I haven’t written much lately. My blogs and devotionals are hard to fathom as I grapple with the world around me.

As a priest, some think I am somehow immune to it all, but I am not. To be honest, I am just tired. I’m so worn out I often find that I cannot even pray, let alone write. Then, recently, we had a parishioner leave us because he didn’t like chairs over pews. (Yes, sadly, we have kept people safe, allowed for easy distancing, but unbelievably I am still dealing with this issue.) And, it wasn’t his leaving that caused me so much pain, it was the manner in which he dismissed all the good we do, and all over a damn pew. It didn’t matter how we loved or welcomed him as we do so many others. It didn’t matter how we care for those experiencing homelessness. It didn’t matter that our priests and deacons sacrifice their days and talent for literally almost no pay. It mattered not to him in his leaving that we are always here, always praying, always replying and always trying to make the best decisions. It didn’t matter that we built a school for every child to learn, regardless of their ability to pay, invested in a hybrid and very expensive faith formation program for our children (and absorbed all the costs) and care beautifully for a historic, 300 year old cemetery, too. It didn’t seem to phase him that we refurbished a stunning retreat center and got it opened in record time. No, what mattered most was sitting in a wooden pew that we never purchased and was just part of the deal when we purchased the building. In fact, from our founding as parish we have never even had pews until our last move to Flourtown.

This past week, I went to the hospital to visit a man dying of COVID; his own priest refused to come, so I went. I also traveled to visit my mom who won’t leave the house due to the pandemic, which isn’t healthy mentally or physically. I helped my family deal with Katelyn’s grandmother being placed on hospice, and then her grandfather being dupped and robbed at his own home. I returned from that trip of over 1,300 miles in 5 days to meet with my school leadership team to ensure our safety, record a video on our next steps of opening, rearrange our sanctuary space, and tried to get the parents of our children to value their role as first educators for faith formation. I even reached out to several, and while most got back to me, but some still haven’t taken the time to even respond. If this weren’t enough, our bank merged with another bank and we have been literally rebuilding our financial information and new credit and debit cards as well as completing our end of the year audit to finish our financials for all four entities! Oh, and I am guiding the reopening of our new retreat center this Saturday and supporting our outreach to the homeless, too, and still trying to be a good husband and dad and preparing myself for medical procedure. It is daunting, overwhelming and at times, to be completely honest, I just want to walk away from it all.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not dealing with much more than many of you! I just have a voice here to vent, but there are many who think no one else is dealing with an abundance of stress. I have news for you: we all deal with it and we all deal it with in a variety of ways, and we should care about one another more.

A few days ago, a parishioner stopped by our offices; she stuck her head in my office to say hello. We reminisced (and truthfully moaned a little, too, about the state of the world!) but then she paused to ask me how am I have been coping with all that is going on; the COVID-19 pandemic with no end yet in sight, the continuous loop of injustice, the killing of black men and the retaliation against good police officers, mobs in our streets, a president who delights in literally being mean and who dishonors anyone who disagrees with his ways like a bully on a playground, the resentment and animosity among people, especially on social media, and keeping a parish afloat through it all. “How, Father, do you do it?”  I thought about it briefly, as she reminded me in the middle of her question how she has known me and Saint Miriam since our beginning days in the synagogue where we began in Philadelphia. “You’ve always done things 100%, Father.”  Her praise lifted my spirits, but just momentarily.

What she didn’t say – and probably doesn’t know – is how often I deal with disrespect and questioning and backstabbing from those who do it with little or no information, just innuendo, even as I try my best to do what is right. Isn’t it the Christian thing to do lately?  We find someone to vilify even as they do their best. It makes us feel superior somehow as we swallow them into submission and walk away with our own false superiority intact. We are no longer focused on community building, only ourselves. And, in doing so, we reject God.

And, as if all of that weren’t enough, even the sun is now covered by the dark smoke of unending west coast wildfires, mostly caused by the carelessness of human beings like the couple who decided to bring to light the sex of their unborn child, but instead lit aflame 10,000 acres. There are some fires also caused by more mundane human actions, like driving a car into dry vegetation, and still others by power transmission lines or other utility equipment, which spark and ignite fires in remote areas, and a few more by natural occurring phenomena like lightening strikes. All of these together have so far caused 6,500 firefighters to battle 28 major fires in more than 3.2 million acres, and at least 24 people have died in California alone. Then, more sadness strikes at us as we all woke up a few days ago to learn of the death of the liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It seems that our hopes are being taken way bit by bit; at least we think so, if we look at is only the worldly.

So how do I not fall to pieces every day, in a world so clearly on the very edge of a vast chasm, and anarchy in every valley down below? I pray. At least I try. And last night I sat with a few others and together we prayed the rosary via Zoom. It was needed and beautiful and simple. There we were, just a few of us, from our own homes laughing and chatting and then praying together. We prayed for you, and us, and the world. We prayed.

We don’t do that much anymore either. The pandemic has sadly robed us of church and prayer, too. We instead hate so easily and isolate ourselves from the very places that used to give us true life. And the statistics for Christians attending church or finding value in the holy Mass are more than troublesome. It is now more likely for a Christian to have stopped attending church altogether during the pandemic than trying to find their way back to worship. In fact, 32 percent of practicing Christians have done just, that and over 58% of families with children have not cared to enroll in faith formation this year! The remaining 18 percent of practicing Christians are viewing worship services from multiple churches throughout the month, but none have expressed any desire to go back to in-person worship. It is no wonder we so easily hate today. Everything is bewildering in this brave new world we are creating by our actions and our inactions. Especially by our unwillingness to be what gives us life; true life. This is sin.

A friend and fellow clergyman, Daniel, reminded me in his recent post, about author Audre Lorde who writes, in what reads like a checklist of our 2020 anxieties,

“…when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid.”

What can save us from the madness of despair in this context? Is it no wonder people stay home and simply self-isolate and hate so easily? I find that the thing that helps me is remembering that I am not alone in all of this and that the things that truly bring me peace are at places of peace, like Saint Miriam.

None of us would be here, were it not for those who prayed, believed, and loved. My mom and dad taught me how to love and forgive and welcome at our dining room table; by doing so, we created Saint Miriam. It is now up to all of us to keep a legacy alive, or one day, we will simply drive by a boarded up and shuttered dream on the way back to the isolation and loneliness of our lives; another victim of the pandemic, or worse, our own inaction.
 


The Burden of Hate; Lifted Here.

In a recent survey, about 80% of people believe churches should be subject to the same rules on being open and on requiring social distancing practices as other organizations; some 28% said they believe their own place of worship should be closed for all in-person meetings, while 57% said their own churches should be open, but with modifications, and 13% said their congregations should be open just like before the pandemic.

However, that doesn’t mean that everyone is showing up to open church. The Pew study found only 12% of American adults reporting they have personally attended an in-person worship service in the past month. This compares with 70% of American adults who believe their churches should be open in one form or another. Overall, fewer than 1-in-6 adults who want their churches open say they are attending themselves. The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on worship and church sustainability. Many churches are simply choosing to close rather than try and navigate these unprecedent circumstances and large financial strains.

I found it interesting that Evangelical Christians and Catholics are most likely to say they have attended in-person worship within the past month. Evangelicals top that list at 44%, followed by Catholics at 32%. And online worship participation ranks high among all Americans who identify as regular churchgoers, with 72% of such adults accessing online services weekly. But, let us not all lose hope, because among the other half of American adults remaining, a full 42% say they will return to regular church attendance at the same rate as before the pandemic once it is all behind us. In other words, we all need to hang on!

I think that is the most wonderful thing about Saint Miriam. We were well-prepared to deal with the pandemic, despite not even being aware it might hit us so hard! We had strong online giving and virtual worship opportunities, plus we had already begun to see the need for virtual learning. Our school and Children’s Faith Formation (CFF) teams had already begun implementing the start of such learning prospects. Then, the pew removal ended up being a Godsend as we found the need to distance and allow space for worship to return. Our new Sanctuary allows for adaptation and multiple tier uses. Yes, we were in good standing and since them we have done so much more.

Despite the circumstances, we also have increased our outreach and serve more persons experiencing homelessness than anyone could have imagine; both on the streets and in our own parking lot, we care for literally hundreds weekly with food, nutrition, fellowship, warm clean socks (And, we just received word we will be receiving another 5,000 pairs of Bombas Socks by fall, too!), and a safe place to park and find rest.

We also have not stopped caring for our property. We added new signs out front, completed parking lot safety upgrades and maintenance, added cameras and livestream enhancements, worked to open our new Retreat house, and covered additional costs of disinfection protocols and PPE gear needed for staff and attendees. We also added a RSVP Seating System to help keep us safe, mandatory maximums on attendance for the time being, and Plexiglas protection screens to the ambo and pulpit. We added a CFF Hybrid Program to teach our children love and values, and not only absorbed all the costs, but still managed to cut in half the annual tuition for our children programming to help parents already overburdened. 

At the school level we added MyON, a virtual reader program and Learning Pointe, a safe place for virtual learning to happen when parents need to return to work, but students are out of the classroom. Now, regardless of their school district, we have a place for them to learn and be safe.

Through it all, we have reduced ancillary, marketing, and staff costs to allow needed funds to be freed up, but sadly, fundraising support is down, and general giving is down, too. We received in the past as a matter of regular occurrence a full ¼ of our income every Sunday by in-person giving. Now, that income is almost non-existent. 

So, we must all ask ourselves now, where do we go from here? How do we continue to be light, in dark? How do we bring love where others so easily sow hate? Do we want Saint Miriam is exist when we are ready to return?

The late, well loved, Congressman John Lewis once memorably once said, “We must find a way to… lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” I think that is one of the best ideals of Saint Miriam! We are founded in the belief that Jesus loved, not hated, even those who hated Him and that He is recognized best when we stand, as He did, among the sick, the poor, the excluded with open hearts and doors. We are our best as we show them God’s merciful love through our own willingness to sacrifice and to love even the most unlovable.

This is why we adhere to a Church teaching on giving priority to the well-being of the poor and marginalized; this is not a political or ideological choice, as it lies at the very heart of the Gospel itself.  This preferential option for the poor, which includes feeding the hungry and drawing close to the excluded, “is the key criterion of Christian authenticity,” as Pope Francis recently reminded the world.

At Saint Miriam, our needs are ever expanding, and we cannot find it in our hearts to turn even one person away from the life changing … even lifesaving … programs we offer. But, with reduced giving, the lack of participation in regular fundraising activities, along with the unexpected emergencies and the impact of the global pandemic it is all taking a toll on our budget. I need your help; we all do.

 So, I write to you today because I refuse to lose heart. I remain an optimist, trusting in God’s unfailing goodness and also in your generosity. Just as it was said so wonderfully by our staff wanted to do a beautiful video to show their support of our mission and families, ‘We are in this together.’

As I talk with many of our parishes loyal and kind friends, I know many too are suffering through these hard times of uncertainty. I hope there is assurance when I tell them – as I remind you now, too –  they are remembered in our prayers and Masses. Will you please help by sending your most generous gift today?

Through your generous partnership, you are us accomplish so much good in the world. I do trust in God, and YOU, to help us through this challenge.

God bless and reward you for all you have done. May our loving Lord draw you ever closer to His Heart. Be assured your intentions will be remembered in my prayers.

I look forward to seeing from you!

Sincerely in hope,

Monsignor +Jim 

 



Here’s What Pastor Moments Taught Me.

 

I’ve been thinking all summer about being a pastor, especially as I continue to navigate the unknown for months on end now. Many have thought that I simply made these decisions and was left fine, but the truth is, I am not sure.

First, the decisions were about closing. Do I close the school as the governor ordered? Do I close the church, as he didn’t even ask? Who would be harmed either way? How do I control a virus? What would my life be like if someone got sick, or worse, died because of a decision that I made, or didn’t make? Then, the decisions came about reopening! Who needed us to reopen? What would parents do with their children if we chose – like so many other school – not to reopen, but they still needed to go to work? Who would come to Mass in a pandemic anyway? Or, were there others like me who desperately needed God now more than ever? Where would they go if not here? And, if we opened, how could we do so in the safest manner possible? What would it cost? How could we afford it when no one was coming for so long? How could we track, manage, and protect and still worship at the same time?

Of course, those were the public decisions so many now know I had to make as pastor of Saint Miriam. But there were those that many failed to realize that I needed to make, too, but that I was still faced with on a daily basis; these included, who would serve Mass? How would I keep my team safe? What of the sick, the injured, the dying, and the dead at hospitals and nursing centers? Would I instruct my priests and deacons to go to the very places where the virus was the most active; would I even go? Who would be quarantined and for how long?

Then came another plague to our parish life, too: the mental health crisis that came underneath it all. So many of our older parishioners especially were literally shut inside with no way for us to go visit, or touch, or hold them. It produced a mental health crisis not predicted, and still, truthfully, not handled. After all, how do you handle it when often the person can’t see they are ill to begin with?

And, there were those things that many folks don’t want to hear about, too! Like budgets and paying the mortgage, the light bill and insurance. How would we – how could we – survive when more than 25% or more of our income came on a Sunday basis when people came and dropped off their donations in person, but now, no longer could? How could we remain vital without income? Would people drop off or mail their checks to help us stay here? To remain…

Then there were furloughs and staffing and PPE gear expenses and virtual reality upgrades, not to mention the Sanctuary renovations and a new retreat center! Yes, these pastor moments  were tough; they remain so. I wonder, what we will look like once a vaccine is found and people can return to whatever the normal will then look like? Will God still matter?

The power of these pastoral decisive moments are those none of us like, wish for, and sometimes run away from. These are the times in our lives when we actively must choose a particular path, and they require us to be brave and to believe. I know that I never have thought of myself as particularly brave, but at their root, these moments require just that, and we all want to be brave when it counts, to be the one who steps up, leans in, does the right thing, all when it matters most.

A pastoral moment for me ― one that we remember as having marked or defined us ― is often preceded by a long season of preparation and prayer that most never see or even think about. And when the moment passes, and the decisions have been made, and the adrenaline rush is over, we are left to live according to what we felt at the moment of decision. Right or wrong, we live with our decisions and pray we are somehow right. 

The last few months, especially since mid-March, have been a bit like riding a wave. Like all waves, it has been all-consuming for a brief moment, and then, and here’s my point, the moment passed. As all such moments do, it passed and here we are, again, with only ourselves. Our God. Our life together.

I guess my bigger point with my blog today is that God has been with us. He never left not once. No, sadly, not in some ‘Moses strike that rock’ moment, but more subtly, consistently, calmly guiding our thoughts and actions in prayer and belief and because we stayed and believed in Him, Saint Miriam remains stable and alive and vital. Yes, we have adapted to the pandemic like many of you have personally at home, and dare I say, we have come to see a new us where things that were important, no longer are and people and relationships and commitment are the real stuff of our life together, and our connection with God.

For me, I have learned that everyone is needed; everyone has an important part to play, and an offering to make to our life at Saint Miriam. And while we grieve when some people choose to leave, most of us stay and pray and do what we are called to do: believe and remain in relationship with each other. Then, by our doing so, prayer is easier, we are kinder, changes hurt a little less, anxiety is reduced, and God still comes.

I am not a perfect man, and I am far from a perfect priest and leader, but I show up and I remain. I think it’s important to acknowledge that as we step up to the plate, we’ll miss more balls than we hit, but if we run away, we are left alone with ourselves and that is often harder than staying in the game itself.

Faithfully, imperfectly, in an ever-changing world in which we, too, are being changed is where we now live. So, I have TWO gifts for you today! The first is a prayer video for those who are unsure and even scared, and the other is video for parents who are praying about whether to, or how, to send their children back to school and to help their kids pray about it, too.

Please know that I am often scared, too. I pray that knowledge – and these gifts –  help steady you until the world comes to a new day when we are gathered home again.

Please also know I am here for you. Saint Miriam is here for you. In person, virtually, in prayer, by phone, email, text or chat. We are here, because we are better together.

Be well,

 

Monsignor +Jim