The Point of It All.

 
Sometimes I come and sit in the sanctuary. I come when I know that there will be no one else around. I come alone and I sit in the back of the last row of pews that face the altar directly and, when I kneel alone in that pew, in that far back area consumed by the shadows of our church, my face buried in my hands, a forbidden thought intrudes: ‘You should have left all this behind a long time ago. Your work here is done. It is too much work now, and no one really cares.’ 
 
Why does our culture care so little about coming to this place, or others like it? Why do so many abandon us on a weekly basis only to show up, or call, or plea when death comes, or babies are born, or illness happens upon them? Why don’t those who care to be members and ‘active’ parishioners enjoy the sights and sounds of what we endeavor to bring them with so much work and effort and sacrifice? Why is the mall, or a movie, or the beach, the place ‘to go to’, but the church is no longer a ‘destination’ of joy – or even of need – until something unthinkable strikes? 
 
Is an awful truth about the modern backlash against all things ‘church’ on real display here, too, or are we so far into a post-modernity of the world that God is no longer important unless a crisis abounds? Is my work as a priest so worthless that people do not care to even notice how we (my fellow priests and deacons and ministers) suffer for our craft on their behalf?
 
No one cares whether one bent over Friar in a back pew of a small parish, like me, throws in the altar cloth at last, but the religious disenchantment of the secular age puts the question even more broadly: Why the church at all?  Yet as soon as the voice in my head forces the question to the forefront again, I know the answer, although it’s hard to explain. Unlike many Protestants, Catholics have long put their practical faith more in the community of belief than in the person around whom that community gathers. In other words, it is God’s decision, not mine and if I must suffer, so be it. I will stay until God says, ‘Go‘.
 
As Catholics, we are on intimate terms with Saints, the Mother of God, the parish priest, the good sisters, fellow sojourners who love Mary and her Son. We make our home in the seasons of the year, from Lent and Easter to Advent and Christmas; the trusty liturgical cycle; a beloved Sacrament for each stage of life; the silence before and after Mass; holy water and Baptisms. But what’s left when, owing to intrusions of power, or sex, or new ideas, the ancient solidarity cracks? Compared, to say, with the Evangelicals, we Catholics do not often speak so easily of Jesus THE Christ: no “Closer walks with Thee” for us. No, our faith is more reflective, but then the unthinkable happens, our faith – just like Saint Miriam – becomes so commonplace that we take it for granted.
 
Cynthia Ozick once wrote, “We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”  How true. And I have found that those things we take for granted, often disappear. Sadly, our brains don’t seem to be built to pay attention to what’s good in life, but more to what seems urgent or threatening. That makes sense, as fundamentally, safety and security trump happiness and well-being as biological beings, but what about our spiritual side? What about the things that will survive this life and usher into the next?
 
So, I remind myself from my darkened and often lonely back pew, and now you, my faithful reader, that Jesus is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic, and the reason we gather here week in and week out. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’ astounding excitement of recent press, for far beyond all matters of style, doctrine, and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees, washing the feet of the tired poor, is the Son of God. It is us. It is what we are required – beckoned – to do, to become anew, by the One we claim to follow, worship, and adore. Everything else is fleeting and but dust.
 
This past week, during a point when I was ready to allow that thought to intrude into my consciousness again, Nevaeh Lee handed me a homemade card; I used her card as my image for this blog post today. If you noted the minutiae, it took her four times to get my title spelled correctly, but finally, “Father James” appears! That is how I find myself to be, and a good reminder for you, too; we are not meant to get it right the first time, for if we did we would have no need of the gift of Jesus in our lives. We are not meant to be perfect, we are meant just to be faithful.
 
Come back. Come back and join me on a regular basis! Show me, and my fellow priests, that what we do is not worthless. Show me that the God we proclaim is alive and well and that the world will hurt less because we value the time we gather together here in this place we have built by believing in the power of love and a radical welcome!
 
Pope Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the greater Church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pontiff, the Church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is just rules.
 
We have been living that truth since we began. Come and show the world the love of the Gospel of Jesus lived out here at Saint Miriam. You may just find me in the back pew waiting…
 


God, Guns, Guts, and Francis.

 
The statement that “God, Guns and Guts made America free” is full of deep philosophical meaning to many, and has become a rallying cry for those who believe their gun rights to be under attack. We have all heard the basis for this opinion: firearms are the only means to protect one’s property and against the siege of a tyrannical government. Oh sure, a few now throw into that mix the terrorists that have harmed and killed so many under their delusional use of the term ‘Islam’. But truth be told, the greatest attacks on our soil have been perpetrated by people who look like the majority.
 
Among the most common mechanical possessions in the households of America, outnumbering even the motor vehicles and flush toilets, is the mechanical device known collectively as the gun. These guns include all types and forms from rifles, shotguns, to pistols and revolvers, and according to the Congressional Research Service, there are roughly twice as many guns per capita in the United States as there were in 1968: more than 300 million guns in all!
 
Some folks keep them tucked away in bureau drawers, night stands, cupboards, or racked splendidly on display as mantel-pieces. There are large ones and small ones; Sig Sauer SIG MCX, AR-15, Krags, Enfields, Springfields, Mausers, Mannlicher-Carcanos, M-1 Garands, the infamous Remingtons, Winchesters and Brownings, too, but also Berettas, Rugers, Lugers, Colts; guns for all seasons and for all reasons; guns to punch holes in targets, or in tin cans far afield. Those used to kill a deer or prize a large Kodiak bear. There are guns for their own sake, some guns never used, just collected, and those we squirrel away (no pun intended) as some sort of last line of defense against the intruder at night, or burglars or the worst, a lone rapist. We prize our guns in an effort to fend off the possible looter or the lunatic invader of our home. And, if you believe the rhetoric lately, we need our guns as part of our quiet patriotic duty as Americans to stave the raving terrorists bent on doing us harm, but more so to help against our own government, because we passionately believe that the U.S. Constitution gives us a personal right to keep and bear arms, but that there are those who secretly are trying to take away our every gun and amend our right to bear these arms and we aren’t going to let that happen. Ever. Period.
 
Now, to be sure, there are earnest sportsmen and gentle collectors of guns who do not feel this way. In fact, most gun owners believe we need some gun legislation to protect our own. And, I would venture to guess that most would never believe that we should allow the modifications that allowed Stephen Paddock to fire on the crowd of 22,000 concert-goers from more than 300 meters away, from the window of his 32nd-floor Las Vegas hotel room. 
 
Think of this: the modification that allowed this death and mayhem is called a bump stock, and it was originally created with the aim of making it easier for people with disabilities to shoot a gun. It works by allowing semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons by unleashing an entire large magazine in seconds. A modification designed to help, is now literally killing thousands of our own citizens. Far more than any terrorist attack. It needs to stop. 
 
America has only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world. We also have six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and nearly 16 times as many as Germany. And, if that is not enough to rattle your cages, take this statistic on:  There have been more than 1,518 mass shootings, with at least 1,715 people killed and 6,089 wounded, all since Sandy Hook in December 2012. Yes, I said since the end of only 2012. We should all be astonished and ashamed. 
 
Let me be clear here. I am not a perfect man. I admit that often. I do, however, love my country and uphold her rights and no, I do not want your right to bear arms taken away. I sat in a jail cell once when very young because I violated a law of this land. I know the consequences. I also took gun safety training to hunt with my uncle and learned how to safely handle a firearm at age 16. I then served my country in the US Navy and was trained to use a gun. I stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem, and I kneel in support of my love of God and all God’s created, and to honor those who have been harmed by the majority that may take their lives for granted. I am not a gun owner now, admittedly. I have never shot a firearm after that initial training. I admit that, too. But, I do not believe your right to own a firearm should be taken away. I do believe, however, with the firmest of belief that automatic weapons need to be banned and banned today
 
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, supporters of gun rights often argue that it’s inappropriate to bring up political debates about gun control in the aftermath of a tragedy. I do not understand this logic. When I was hurt at my gym last month we automatically began to speak of cleaning the gym better, watching how we use weights, wiping down our bars after use, etc. We all made modifications to prevent another injury. This is no different, but far more dangerous and we need to discuss it! And, not one of my fellow athletes demanded their rights to a dirty gym. 
 
Weapons that reload automatically and fire continuously with one trigger pull have been banned for civilians in the United States since the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. But it is the semi-automatic rifle—those guns that reload automatically but fire only once per trigger pull—that have seen wide use in recent mass shootings and that probably constitute the majority of rifles used in homicides and other crimes. So, let us begin here, with these? Let us come together and figure out with non-gun owners like myself, and gun owners around the nation how to get rid of this one type of gun to better protect all of us? Can we not set aside our petty politics and spun-out-of-control belief that everyone wants to ban guns long enough to save the next life, or worse, lives from the next massacre? There is only one reason to own an automatic weapon: to protect this nation as a member of our military or to kill as many innocents as one can as a deranged civilian. Stop it. 
 
Today is the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi, my Seraphic Father, as a Franciscan. This weekend, children in this country will bring their pets to the church to be blessed on St Francis’ feast day because of his love for animals as expressed in his Canticle of Creatures. St Francis is the patron saint of animals so many parishes like ours will offer animal blessing services to honor the life found in every creature. And, by my calculation that includes human beings, too. St. Francis was also a strong and unrelenting prompter of peace. In fact, few prayers are more popular around the world, or better loved than the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” Nearly everyone recognizes a happy harmony between the words of this prayer and the generous, joy-filled and peace-loving spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi. 
 
Though written in rather simple language, the Peace Prayer of Francis provides us with rich material for spiritual reflection and change. Like that of Christ, our mission on earth is to bring to others God’s peace, God’s state of “perfect well-being”, of completeness and fullness of life for all people and all created. 
 
Francis saw this as his mission. In fact, in Chapter 3 of his Rule of 1223, that we follow as Friars, he advised his followers that in going about the world “they should not be quarrelsome or take part in disputes with words…or criticize others; but they should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble, speaking respectfully to everyone. Whatever house they enter, they should first say, ‘Peace to this house’” Surely, Francis was an instrument of peace.
 
Now, I wonder when will we be, too?
 


Homecoming.

 
Last week someone posted an image on Facebook that read, “Why is the sun out?! Come on Fall! Go away sun!!” It has been unseasonably warm and yet, we are amid the return of Autumn already and many homecomings, too!
 
I could not help but become emotional, as I reflected on last weekend’s homecoming. We all gathered together last Sunday for our annual InGathering Mass, and shared our beautiful Water Communion Service, renewed our covenantal commitments, and reminded ourselves of the home we share, a home that we come back to, whether after a long or short absence, a home we welcome all to make their own: a home of love and hope and faith; a home we named Saint Miriam some almost ten years ago now. It was a beautiful homecoming
 
We also should have all been profoundly struck on the paradox within our midst when we reminded ourselves the importance of water.  We gathered ritually last Sunday morning and thanked God for all the blessings that water had on our lives. We were carrying gifts of our summer – symbols of the water that we have been present with, and which have been present to us. These symbols called to mind light summer showers, thunderstorms, dewy mornings, and misty evenings, or perhaps moments at oceanside, poolside, rivers, and lakes—swimming, fishing, hiking, strolling. They helped us to remember who we were with while there, even if we were alone. We thought deeply and remembered that we found ourselves in the presence of water during a moment of grief or birth or rebirth, or maybe in a mundane place whose sacredness is palpable nonetheless. But, we also should have thought about the destructive power of water, too, and effects in places like Houston, Florida, and now on the people of Puerto Rico. 
 
As I prayed for, and dug deep into my wallet to send aid to my brothers and sisters suffering the effects of destructive forces in Puerto Rico, just as I did for Florida and Houston before that, I also prayed that they would be the recipients of the great gift we received here as a community this past summer: a brand new and beautiful home, renovated and made even better, after the disturbing effects of ravaging flooding. I pray that their homecoming will be safe and the present-day destruction will one day be just a memory that makes them stronger as a people.
 
Last Sunday was also a homecoming for Father John Francis, too! After being away from the East Coast for many years, while living in California, he and his family are now safe in their new home in Wilmington where Father grew up! He and his partner will raise their son there, and he has made his new home at Saint Miriam, as one of our Assisting Priests. Another wonderful homecoming
 
And, to make my post even more personal, I am home now, too! After giving up my home in Philadelphia, selling my condo and giving the proceeds to our parish to allow us to close on the loan that made this new home possible, God – a God of restoration and hope – gave me a new home this past week with the opening of our new Friary Rectory. It was a long three years living in a very small space, but now I am here, and I am finally settling in to my own homecoming
 
And that is why my last reflection today is also one of welcome and homecoming for another person! Deacon Pat Heffner and I have maintained a relationship during her sabbatical announced months ago. She has used her time away from active ministry to reflect, and to pray, and to discern her path again. She now realizes the importance of Saint Miriam and her people in her life. She personally met with me last week, asked to return, and I gave her my blessing. I know you will join me in her homecoming this month.
 
It was a heartfelt moment for me when I noted her gaze that day we met last week. Unbeknownst to her, as I came downstairs from the Rectory, I caught a glimpse of her and watched as she looked around at the parish with new eyes, witnessing all that we have become in her absence, and I could tell she was deeply moved and ready to return. She will be with us for her first time back home at Saint Miriam next Sunday, October 8th, the Feast of St. Francis! What more beautiful way to return home than on the feast day of the Saint we follow as a welcoming Franciscan parish? So, on behalf of all of us, to Deacon Pat, I say welcome home and enjoy your homecoming to us! 
 
I often ruminate how we, as a parish, are like water. We are a living, breathing organism that ebbs and flows. I serve as her pastor, and I am proud to do so, but we must all remember that, as such, we are a parish, not a prison. People come, and they go, and some return, too! We should be mindful that this is part of parish life; part of all life. 
 
Life is all about homecomings in whatever form God brings to us.
 
Welcome home.
 


The Occasional Parishioner Meets iGen

 
Dr. Jean Twenge, noted author, professor, and psychologist, wrote recently in The Atlantic, on the newest generation dubbed, iGen, (those born between 1995 and 2012). Members of this particular generation have grown up with smartphones, tablets, and smart devices, have their own social media accounts even before they start high school. They also do not remember a time before the internet! Yes, they are the first fully electronic and ‘plugged in’ generation.
 
Twenge has been researching generational differences for over 25 years, but around 2012, she noted an abrupt shift in teen behavior and emotional states. Smartphones and tablets quickly spawned adverse effects of increasing “screen time”, but the impact of these devices had not been fully appreciated, as she believes, the effects go far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans in children. The arrival of these smart devices has radically changed every aspect of our children’s lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their state of mental health. A red flag is now before us. 
 
This is also coupled with what I call the advent of the occasional parishioner. These are folks who attend Mass sporadically, interact with the ministry team rarely, and who do not engage the activities, small groups, worship opportunities, and other outside activities and events that our wonderful parish offers on a weekly basis. Their accountability is low and their involvement worse. I have witnessed this in a variety of forms; By way of example comes a parishioner last week who walked into our renovated space and stated, “Wow, Father! When we did we renovate?!” Or, another who made an appointment with me and asked me where to meet. When I told her my office at the end of the Administration and School Wing, she replied, “We have a school?” 
 
Now, to be clear, these may be extreme cases, but they are given to point out how low on the scale of activities church has become in the lives of many of us. We are not “good Catholics” anymore, we are “rarely Catholics” at all! We drop in to church when there is nothing else better to do, rarely will change an opportunity to do something else that beckons our attendance, and then when we do go, we basically ‘tip God’ from whatever we have left in our wallets or purses on our way out the door until we come again, maybe next month! What we miss in the interim is life giving, life changing, life altering, and fulfilling. We miss community, togetherness, shared experience, wholeness, worship of our Lord, spiritual depth, and God Himself. We reject our Baptismal Covenant, and in doing so, we miss that which sustains while we prefer to build ‘paper houses’ that will fail us once wet. In the end, this will not only fail us, but it fails our children, too. Case in point…back to Jean Twenge. 
 
Twenge sees the rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocket since 2011. She believes that it is not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Today’s teens are less likely to date. They are also having less sex, which many would think a good thing, until you find it is because they are spending so much time alone in their room, tethered to a ‘smart’ device. And then there is driving! Nearly all of what we called “The Baby Boomers” received their driver’s license by the spring of their senior year; today more than one in four teens still lack one by the end of high school! 
 
And if you think since they are not dating, not driving, and not having sex they are out working and earning money, well, you’d be wrong there, too! In my era of growing up, we couldn’t wait to get a job, and almost every one of my friends worked, eager to finance our freedom! But the iGen teens aren’t working. Statistically, the late 1970s found over 77 percent of high-school seniors working, but by the mid-2010s, less than 55 percent did; and the number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half!  So, what are they doing with all that extra time away from relationships, sex, working, and driving? They are on their phone, in their bedrooms, alone and often distressed. 
 
Almost all this corrosion of happiness and cultural change of norms can be traced to the creation of smart devices. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve permitted in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives, and in the end, actually making them seriously unhappy. So unhappy, in fact, that they are depressed and – in alarming numbers –  often suicidal. The bottom line for Twenge: “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” 
 
Look, I know that depression and suicide have many causes, and too much technology is clearly not the only one. I personally have dealt with depression for many years and I have, admittedly, been suicidal, too. I only survived because of the love and care of other people. Therefore, we must realize that for all their power to link children to the greater world, smart devices may just exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out; being ‘a loner’. Today’s teens go to fewer parties, spend less time together in person, and stay to themselves to the point that when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly on various Social Media platforms and ‘feel’ less and are less engaged while present to one another. They date less, have sex less, drive less, hangout less, engage less, sleep less, and feel helpless and alone more. This is not a good trend and we can fix this right here at our church. 
 
I watched television the other evening and a major basketball star had his little girl in the driveway of their multi-million-dollar mansion playing hopscotch. Yes, hopscotch! Why? It is back to basics for him and the relationship he wants with his daughter. He wants her to grow up knowing that happiness comes from the simple things in life, and that no matter how much money you have, happiness can never be bought.  
 
This is the time! This is the year! This is the place where you can save a life! And maybe the life of your own child! Allow your children to see, not just hear, of the value of honoring God, worship, and community. Let them watch you wake up every Sunday and say with great joy, “Let’s go kids! It is Saint Miriam time!” Come and witness a God who loves you so much that He sent His own child to die, so that you and your child might live and live life abundantly! In addition to Sunday, why not plan to attend a weekday Mass occasionally, say the rosary, bring the children to Adoration and teach them the value of sitting with Jesus for a time, and as you do, watch them grow into balanced adults with a love of God and an inherent duty to love the world around them. The way to save the world is to remove the stranger in their midst, and make them all friends
 
Together, you, me, and Saint Miriam can offset this trend, if only for our own children here, and bring them life in abundance!
 


“It’s Crazy; it was just a simple accident!”

 

“It’s Crazy; it was just a simple accident!”  Those are the words of my friend, Kate, a nurse and a fellow Crossfitter, who often works out at the same class I go to every morning. She texted those words to me following my emergency surgical procedure to remove an infected hematoma from my lower left leg. We all thought it was nothing really.  After all, I simply tripped and fell into a weighted bar; it was nothing but a concussive hit to my leg. But, after a few days, the swelling was immense and the pain unbearable.

I went the emergency room and they prescribed antibiotics, but just as a precaution. The physician thought it to be just a swelling from the hit, but gave a prescription just in case. There were no broken bones and no clots. He limited my gym activity, but days later, it got progressively worse. I returned, but this time to my family doctor, he added another antibiotic; that failed, too. One more trip last Monday to my family doctor and he walks in, takes one look at my leg, and says, (with a crunched up face) “Oh my God, Father! You are going right for an emergency surgical procedure! This is horrible!”  [Note: you never want a doctor to scrunch up his or her face and say those words. Ever!] I tried to get my family doctor to treat the wound himself, but he stated emphatically that we needed a surgeon. So, off I went. 
 
It took my doctor a few phone calls before he located a surgeon who could do the operation right away. I went immediately to the clinic and they performed the procedure as an outpatient. No anesthesia and no numbing allowed for this one, so very painful. After he finished and packaged up the culture, he turned and said to that if I had waited even one more week, the infection could have spread into the bone and I would have been in a lot of trouble. “Best case, Father Jim, you would have been in the hospital with IV antibiotics for a few weeks, worst case, you could have lost your leg!” Wow, I thought. And here I thought I was actually getting better! 
 
Over the past three weeks, since my initial injury, I have been dealing with the injury, the pain, and my limited mobility. I have riled in pain the middle of the night and cried, too, through much of it. I have also dealt with something I try never to do, my own mortality. How quickly I went from lifting large amounts of weight, performing CrossFit moves that would hamper many, and still come back to the parish to work a full day. How quickly I went from being ‘pretty good for my age’ to an almost invalid. How quickly friends from my life, the parish, and even at the gym, whom I thought would always be there for me, have forgotten about me, and worse, never even checked in to see how I was doing, or offered their support. I realized quickly that if I died tomorrow, any impact that I have had on the world around me would soon be forgotten. 
 
One of the aspects of disease, injury, and illness that regularly causes a lot of pain and heartache is the dealing with the change it brings. Prior to being ill, one has a sense of who they are and what to anticipate in themselves. I know that my world was pretty static in that regard! My strong sense of identity was based on what I have or didn’t have, and not on what I have achieved, in my life. It also was based strongly on how I knew and related to my own body. Daily life and expectations were defined by these relationships, to either positive or negative effect. Even, as a priest, I was fully human and fully broken. 
 
However, when this identity that I had created was challenged, eroded away, and even lost in the face of my unplanned injury, things became much more complicated. As humans, you could argue that we are perpetually changing all the time. Purely in terms of the molecules that construct us, we are different at every given moment of the day. Even the act of breathing changes us in some way, but this injury showed me that I was alone again. The words of my mentor, Father Henry Krider, as we sat on the close at Catholic University in Washington eating our lunch from a paper sack, came flooding back, “Jim, one day you will make a good priest and you will find how lonely your world will be. Even in the midst of hundreds of people, you will feel alone. Whatever you do, don’t give up.” 
 
I felt the loneliness of the life of a priest before, but not like this time. And, since my world revolves around working every weekend, friendships are hard to maintain, as most people use weekends as their down time. For me, it is the busiest part of a week. I have learned that much of my life is isolated in God-stuff, and now I have learned that what I thought I was, I am not, and those who I thought would be, are not, either. 
 
If our sense of the world and ourselves is static, then we misunderstand much of life. Change is happening both in us and all around us at some level at every moment of the day. So, my injury has had a few powerful impacts, too; vestiges for the good, as I have embraced the changes that have come, and through it I now return toward physical wholeness again. 
 
I know for me to move forward, I needed to let go of the person I knew before it, and embrace whoever the new person is that may follow. That doesn’t mean there will necessarily to be drastic difference, but that I must be very wary of spending my recovery chasing someone who may not completely exist anymore. Oh, and yes, I need to regain my focus on the fact that we are all but fleeting, and so I will keep my eye on Jesus. For, it is only in Him, that I find my true strength and Someone who never fails, never abandons, never leaves my side, even when I am at my worst. 
 
Ecclesiastes remind us the hardest lesson of all: “Teacher: Life is fleeting, like a passing mist. It is like trying to catch hold of a breath; All vanishes like a vapor; everything is a great vanity.” 
 
Hold on, Jesus, I am learning. Hold on until I get it right.
 


The Boy Who Ate a Hotdog and Almost Died!

 
You may think that my blog this week will be about the two major hurricanes (I have prayed, spoken about, preached on, and given my own funds to help with relief), so it is not. Or, perhaps Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known widely by its acronym,  DACA, a program that had protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. (I abhor the President’s decision and I will continue to declare us a Sanctuary Parish, and pledge to do whatever needs done to ensure that Dreamers, stay dreaming within our borders!) so it is not. Or, perhaps you may think it would be about North Korea? (A very tense and frightening situation. One scarier than I can ever recall, and sadly, one without an immediate resolution. I do know that until one respects everyone in a conundrum, no one wants resolution and conflict will ensure.) Therefore, as I am not a diplomat, so it is not. 
 
What I am going to first talk about is the story of the boy who ate a hot dog and almost died. Yes, an extremely rare story about a boy with a very rare condition! It is reported that a 9-year-old boy was enjoying a hot dog and took an overly big bite, and immediately went into cardiac arrest. Not from choking, as you might think, but rather from a rare syndrome called, Brugada Syndrome.
 
The total number of cases of Brugada is difficult to measure, but based on EKG findings alone, about four in 1,000 Americans is diagnosed, and most do not even know they have the condition until later in life. Despite immediate panic, the story has a happy ending: After defibrillation, the boy was resuscitated, and doctors implanted a defibrillator into his chest to prevent sudden cardiac arrest again. He is fine and will hopefully live a full life, even with a rare condition. 
 
I also have a rare condition! Much to the chagrin of many, whilst in seminary, I became aware of myself as a liturgical creature. I absolutely love liturgy! It is why I continued at St. Louis University to gain a deeper understanding of all thing liturgical! No sooner did I matriculate my first week then I discovered weekly Chapel Service, the beauty and rules of the Mass, Evensong, the Daily Office, the Rosary, and Contemplative Prayer. I quickly discovered, however, that prayer was not in my bailiwick, nor was being overly contemplative or quiet! While I stayed for an extended time at L’abbaye Le Bec-Hellouin, a Benedictine Monastery nestled in the Normandy region of France, being quiet, silent, and contemplative almost drove me to the edge of insanity! But, there was one service, also in our chapel, that took my breath away: Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament! 
 
We introduced Adoration last year. Quietly, often with only a few of us, ever since – week in and week out – we have been ‘Adoring our Christ’ ever since. We have brought to the community a few 24-hour Adorations, as well as Lenten observances of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, this week, we will introduce Adoration and Benediction along with a beautiful new Monstrance, given in loving memory of my dad, Alton. (see inset image). 
 
Now, I will admit, that sitting in front of a Monstrance that contains the Essence of Christ, may seem a bit unexciting, tedious, or even weird. Then again, almost everything we do as Catholics falls into one of those categories. But, each – and everything we do – is needed, necessary, and life preserving. To truly appreciate the Blessed Sacrament, one must understand it and experience it. 
 
Unfortunately, the lack of familiarity with exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is not uncommon these days. Exposition (and Benediction) of the Blessed Sacrament is not only a very old devotion in the history of the Church, but one that highlights the fundamental mystery of the Holy Eucharist that our Lord is truly present – body and blood, soul and divinity – in the Blessed Sacrament. In his letter, “Dominicae cenae”, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Since the Eucharistic mystery was instituted out of love, and makes Christ sacramentally present, it is worthy of thanksgiving and worship. And this worship must be prominent in all our encounters with the Blessed Sacrament.”  And it is! 
 
Basically, what we do is pretty simple: The priest places the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance or ostensorium on the alter for adoration. a song of praise (like “O Salutaris Hostia”) is sung, as the priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament. During the period of Adoration that follows, the faithful may pray in quiet and foster a deeper spiritual communion with the Lord. Sometimes, Adoration includes prayers, readings from Sacred Scripture, etc., or may be accompanied by a homily or exhortation to increase the understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. All in all, the service is pretty short, (Benediction is less than 7 minutes!), but so needed! 
 
At the end of a period of Adoration, the priest then again incenses the Blessed Sacrament as a hymn of praise is sung (maybe, “Tantum Ergo”?), and then blesses the gathered with the Blessed Sacrament, making the sign of the cross using the beautiful Monstrance. After the blessing, the priest then reposes the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle. That’s it. Pretty simple. Pretty life changing. Pretty much our life! 
 
Look, as a reminder, the death that Jesus died is the death we re-enact every Sunday morning at Mass. We lift Jesus up from the altar and we do what some call strange, or even weird, as we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Really. We believe His flesh and blood are here and present through the mystery we call Transubstantiation. And so, the mere sight of the very real and present Jesus, in His Sacramental form, is good for us, too, because Jesus is here and now. Really. Or, as St. Augustine was keen to emphasize, ‘eternity is seeing God.’ Wow, huh? 
 
We have not seen as the disciples did. Oh, man, how I wish I could see Jesus! Walk with Him, talk with him, experience His call at the side of a sea! But, because we cannot, we not left in the dark; nor is a vision of eternity outside our experience in the present age impossible; we have Adoration. We have Jesus here, now, every week! Through His Presence, eternity has begun in the worship of the holy Church; a foretaste of what is to come. 
 
Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament may be weird, but it also so wonderful. Be not afraid. Come and join us every Thursday from 5:30pm – 6:30pm and gain a bit of heaven at Saint Miriam!
 


If Your Dreams Don’t Scare You…

 
Hanging on the wall, in one of the restrooms, of the Crossfit box I go to almost every day during the week is a plaque that reads, “If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough!”  
 
I always thought it strange that Coach David would place it in a restroom at CrossFit Manayunk. Then, I realized that it has become a focal point for me, especially when I don’t feel like working out, or when a movement is going to occur that day that I will undoubtedly – at least in my head – fail at, or when I am at my weakest, emotionally or physically. If it wasn’t placed there with intention, then God’s hand was certainly in it, because it is where most of us go for a brief respite, a mindless retreat, or a place to simply cry for a moment and let it out to get us back on track. It has become a place of regenerating my soul to allow me to get back to the tasks at hand; to get back to work. 
 
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard this saying before. But how much do you wholeheartedly believe in it? I wondered the same thing about myself, until I realized that I have been constantly scared for the last ten years now! It all started for me with a dream, as I sat in my new apartment in Allentown. I was scared then, too. I had just been ordained and moved to a new town to begin my journey to become a Trauma Chaplain at Lehigh Valley Hospital. I wanted to stay in Washington, DC, but God, and the bishop, had other plans. So, I yielded and went, as promised by my vows. I was in my new place and began to dream. I was also very scared. 
 
I dreamed, because I had been hurt so often by the ‘institutional church’. A place that seemed to only care for itself and its own preservation. God’s Church, at least to me, had become a place of oppression, hate, and division; I was frightened. I was scared, then, too, but not in any good or productive way. I was scared because I was always being told how bad I was, how worthless, how unworthy, how broken, how unwanted. The church, for me, had become a place of horrors, and I believed that was not what God had in mind when He sent His Child to dwell among us. I believed in something different.
 
So, I set out! One day, I abandoned all that I knew and set out on a journey to discover that place. I packed up my relics, icons, religious images, seminary books, and degrees, and I set out to on a journey wherein I visited literally hundreds of churches, synagogues, and mosques. I met with countless religious leaders and read many books. I prayed, too, but in admittedly spits and spats. I was seeking something of the lost ‘pearl of great price’, and I was scared again, but this time, determined, too.
 
During these outings, I kept a journal and listed on the left side of the page all the things I would end up liking about a particular visit to a house of worship. On the right side, all the things that I despised, or that made me uncomfortable, or unwelcome. When I was done, I compiled the list and set out to design something that would harness the best of these, but all in one place. It became Saint Miriam.
 
She took shape in my mind’s eye initially, then pen went to paper and a parish began to emerge! Finally, I placed her on a website and she had a landing pad to grow into reality. That is why to this very day, our digital footprint is always bigger than our parish! She is always growing into the next shape, the next edition, the next way that God wants her to grow and care for others. 
 
My dream, that day so long ago now, was that I could help build a parish like no other. One where all folks would find a home, where dreams would be shared, where the vision would be common, and where hope would abound. I wanted a parish that welcomed  everyone, through its doors and to Jesus Himself at the altar, but not at the expense of a single soul. I wanted a place where we could love God, love one another, endure our pains and trials, lift one another up when we fell, share the financial burdens, and still walk away in love and joy every week with a renewed sense of hope. I also wanted to do it where a collection during Mass was never needed, and where even the most broken among us would find a comfortable seat. 
 
I was scared back then when I began to dream. I am scared to this very day. Surely, others who dream fear their dreams, too? But that didn’t stop them. It fueled them. It did so for me, as well.
 
I have learned that at the very heart of any successful person’s goal, is a plan. That plan needs to be acted upon daily, and not simply set and forgotten about. It’s easy to give up along the way rather than suffer through the torment and pain of one failure after another. We have had our share of pain, and I have made many mistakes, but the one thing I never did was give up. We never gave up.
 
It’s been said that it takes an average of 3.8 failures before a dreamer achieves success in whatever endeavor they’re after. That’s just what it takes. The thing that sets a dreamer apart from the average person is that big dreams always scare them, but they are persistent
 
So, then, it’s not just about having big dreams that scare me; it’s about having the wherewithal and an immense capacity of persistence to see those dreams through. We have done that together at Saint Miriam for almost ten years now. Many of you have joined me in being scared, most have stayed, some have left he dream, but in and through it all God came and waited for us to stay strong, find our bearings, and keep building. We have been truly blessed. From that small rented chapel in a synagogue, to that leased space in Blue Bell, to our present day vibrant campus, our dreams have become a reality because we kept our eye on the ultimate proverbial ball – Jesus – even when we were most scared!  It didn’t happen overnight, but with constant dedication, in came to be. 
 

You never actually know how close you are if you give up. We never did, and that is why next Sunday is so important! On September 10th, at 10:30am Morning Mass, we will realize another dream come true, another promise kept, another way to serve God with the blessing of our Friary Rectory and the literal resurrection of a broken, water damaged parish building into something even better! God is indeed good, even though, in my humanness, I will always be scared.

I will end with another quote from Francois Rabelais, “Everything comes in time to those who can wait.
 
How true…
 


Rules for Loving God.

 

Well, we are almost there! In just about two weeks we will hold another dedication and blessing; this one for our new Friary Rectory! Another dream come true, another project completed, another promise kept. Welcome Saint Miriam 5.0!

It may not seem much to the world at large, especially against a background of million dollar deals, a PowerBall Lottery over 700 million, arms negotiations, terrorism, not to mention the plague of white supremacy, but I can assure you that what we do here is a very big deal to God. What we do here is heal gaping wounds, bandage lost hope, bring renewed strength, worship a loving God, and save real lives. We do: here we save lives for those who wish to place themselves last and honor God first.
 
The world does not much like being last. Everyone wants to be first, have the best, live the finest. God then breaks through these clouds of falsehood to remind us that our Creator is always on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the impoverished, the forgotten. God comes, but always when least expected, not in the raucousness of life or your newest acquisitions, but in the din of solitude in the quiet places like Saint Miriam. What we once dreamed, then realized and built, now continues to create is nothing short of a dream come true. A place where God dwells and love is shared. A place like few others when it comes to Catholic parishes.
 
The image for my blog today is where we began. This is the small, rented chapel at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia where Saint Miriam was birthed. This is where we began as a community some 9+ years ago, but in truth she began long before that day, in the hearts of a few who dared to believe and dream, and who were willing to sacrifice so much to get us to where we are today.
 
As we turn the page on another dream fulfilled, and as we fast approach March of next year when we officially become a ten-year-old parish, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on how far we have come in such a short span of time. I sat with my mom at lunch yesterday and for the first time she looked across the table at me and said, “Son, you should be proud of what you have built. Think of how far you’ve come; it’s beautiful!” She’s right. Mom always is.
 
You see, mom was there when we began in that Jewish Synagogue. She, and ‘mom Carol’, too, have been there in the struggle, the growth, the joys, the tears, and the sorrows. They, along with my dad, now gone, supported us with their prayers and their financial gifts, but most importantly they instilled in me the gift of never giving up, sacrificing what needed to be sacrificed, to build what we have now. Even when the world said it is a fool’s errand, they believed. Their gift is in my learning there are no short cuts to success.
 
When we left Blue Bell for Flourtown, I thought it would be a time of great joy for everyone! We all had given so much, prayed so hard, and our time in that location was fast becoming a place of ‘used to be’s’. We were all so excited, and yes, terribly frightened, too, when God led us here to this vast 12+ acre campus. We knew in our hearts, though, that we were ready! A former parishioner came to this new campus one time only, and after our first Sunday Mass, came up to me and said, “This will be our last time here, this was your dream, not ours.” I was stunned and hurt, but then I reflected in my tears that followed, and in doing so, God brought to me some solace. Here are a few a few lessons that I have learned over the last nine years together.
 
  1. It takes a willingness to dream to build one.
  2. Nothing is ever built without sacrifice.
  3. Not everyone will understand what a pastor does or sacrifices.
  4. It’s ok! Not everyone is called to be a pastor.
  5. You cannot listen to the naysayers; they are always plentiful.
  6. Keep your eyes focused on Jesus; always!
  7. Amid your darkest storm, God is always at the helm.
  8. People are broken and will leave you.
  9. People are broken and will find you.
  10. People will come and go; we run a parish, not a prison!
  11. Some people will never put God first. Do not be like one of them.
  12. Folks break promises all the time; don’t let it eat at you, or you will become like them.
  13. God and church are somewhere toward the bottom of people’s ‘to do list’. Refer back to #6!
 
And, my most important lesson learned is the last one: #14. Those who ‘stay in the water’ over the span of time, have the deepest dedication, the most prolific love of God, honor the Lord’s day weekly, are the most generous to the Church and one another, and have the deepest joy because they embrace the most valuable thing of all: there is nothing more valuable than a relationship with the Creator and that is what we have built in this dream we named Saint Miriam!
 
I wish to end on a note of thanksgiving. To those who dared to believe a ridiculously crazy dream and supported me, even when I tripped along the way, especially to those who recognized the sacrifice and were willing to dig a little deeper to make a dream come true…thank you! If I am doing anything close to what God wants me to do, it is because of you!
 
See you in September when we witness yet another miracle come true!
 


Hate has a name, it’s me.

 

A hard reset. That is what it needed. For the world. For our nation. For the hate-mongers. For the defenders of injustice. And, yes, for our President, too. We are falling apart, our moral compass is not pointing due north any longer, we are becoming devoid of our values, losing our way, and causing fear where fear was thought once diminished.
 
I was sitting at home last evening, watching the latest news to find myself literally sickened to my stomach. I could not figure out what was happening to me. At first, I thought it was just the Charlottesville terror and hate being reviewed before me that stirred within me these awful feelings, or the sadness in hearing the words that were given by my President, or the infighting between the Administration, the media, congress, and the world at large. But, then, somewhere deep down, I knew I needed to get out and walk. I did. I began to weep almost uncontrollably.
 
When I was in high school I came out to my family. It was a very difficult time for them and for me. I was not sure at that point why I had the feelings that I did, and I was never convinced if God, or anyone else for that matter, would ever understand me or love me again, but I knew for sure that I was different.
 
Growing up in a strong and faithful Catholic-Italian family, and me, being the first-born son – the eldest of only two siblings – made it even harder. In this type of family, you simply did not come out! Instead, you got married, settled down, and had babies, so mom could become a nana! I failed. At least that is what I was carrying around with me, and trust be told, I still do in many ways. And, I was afraid.
 
I had a few good friends who did not abandon me. And I had many who just stayed away from me. But perhaps the worst were the few that came at me to threaten me, denigrate me, and cause me harm. They were the very few, but their voices and their actions were the loudest and most powerful; so powerful in fact, that after all of these years, in my living room, yesterday, they came back to me with a freshness that only the injured could ever understand. Yesterday, I was afraid all over again.
 
One time, I wanted so desperately to be part of anyone’s ‘in club’ that when I was asked to go to a football game with a group of boys I knew vilified me, I went. They picked me up, got me drunk, beat me up and left me at the side of a road some 9+ miles away from home. I was alone, hurt, afraid. I know how those who heard the President’s words feel. I am one of them, if not to their degree. We are one, and we are afraid.
 
I will never forget those feelings. I will never truly get to a place where I am not afraid. I thought that we, as a country – as a people – were doing so much better. But under the splendidly politically correct surface, we hate. Yes, Veronica, there is an under belly and it is us! Now hate is free to roam the streets again, but more terrible, to roam in the lives of those of us who fear and tremble when no one else is looking.
 
In our parish, we have many good and loving people. I can safely say that all our parishioners, who call Saint Miriam home, are good and honest and caring folk. We also have some ardent President Trump supporters and I have honored their beliefs because we are family. But I can also safely say that today even they are discouraged, bewildered, and non-supportive of these last few days. None of us want hate to thrive. We are Christians first.
 
Over the past weekend, a white supremacist rally erupted into violence, leaving three people dead and many more injured. There will never be room in our society for Nazism. That is the raw, unfettered, unvarnished truth. It happened in this country. The violence, the rhetoric, the intolerable speech, the inciting of hatred, and the harming of others must end.
 
Unlike many who will not state the name of a killer, in my homily last Sunday I stated the name of James Alex Fields, Jr., who murdered, out of nothing but pure hate, 32-year-old Heather Heyer. I told you to remember his name. Why? Because hate always has a name, and the victims of such hatred always have a face.
 
In the end, hate doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Those who destroyed lives last weekend were not born with hatred in their hearts. Those who, so many years ago now, took me on their ‘joy ride’ to beat me, embarrass me, and demean me did not learn that hatred on their own. Those who strung lives from a tree for no other reason but the color of their skin learned to hate. Hate is not born in us. It is always taught.
 
St. Francis once said, “May all through our gentleness be led to peace.”  May it be so, and may it begin with me.