“If Not Now, When?”

 

One of our parishioners sent me a little encouragement when I was healing from my leg injury. For some reason, I kept it all these weeks, not discarding the email like I would normally do, but somehow knowing it would be needed. So, it was saved, until today.

She told me how she had been reading some literature of the Jewish Holocaust, just a few books that had been waiting for her attention, as they remained nestled on a shelf for years. Her most recent two readings are by a renowned Italian author, an Auschwitz survivor, and Jewish-Italian doctor named, Primo Levi, who was in a Partisan group and deported to Auschwitz in the last year of the war. His work, “If Not Now, When?”,  is a riveting story of Jewish partisans who fought back, both men and women, in Eastern Europe over several years. She enthusiastically reported that she ‘could not put it down.’ So much so, she decided to read his second book, “The Drowned and the Saved”. This work is replete with questions of moral ambiguity that are both disturbing and thought provoking. He finished this last contemplation of the Holocaust before his death in 1987, sadly at his own hand by suicide.

Observing a general loss of understanding about Nazi Germany, as time passes and eyewitnesses die, he asks this deep question, “How much of the concentration camp world is actually dead?” Now removed from the experience by time and age, Levi chose to serve more as an observer of the camp than the passionate young man of his previous work. He writes of ‘useless violence’ inflicted by the guards on prisoners and then concludes his book with a discussion of the Germans who have written to him about their complicity in the events of the war. In all, Levi tries to make sense of something that he knew made no sense at all.

Toward the end of the work, Levi asks his reader, and down to us here today, a vital inquiry for thought, ‘What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this one threat will be nullified?’ Levi’s answer is a thoughtful analysis of the process that was the camps back then, but his chilling conclusions about the conditions that created them, are uncomfortably relevant to current events we face, as terrorism and apathy pervade today.

I think that is why this week I am preparing for an end to Advent that ironically falls literally hours before Christmas will be observed. This year, the Early Mass at 7:30am on December 24th is actually the observance of The Fourth Sunday of Advent. Then, hours later, we will gather as a community for the 4:30pm Family Mass and Christmas will be upon us! But, for me, it is what happens, as we prepare our hearts in Advent, that will make or break Christmas Day.

So, let us gather and ask ourselves, have we become better people? Have we decided to care more for the parish and one another than some random toy or game? Have we cared for the poor and the needy? Have we given a gift to the underprivileged with our annual Giving Tree? What have you and I done – each one of us – that we can legitimately point to that will prevent chaos, heartbreak, and apathy from winning, while the Christ Child is born anew to us?

Perhaps I will end in a rather unorthodox manner for me. Rather than give you my answers, let me allow you to forge on you own. I will end with a writing from Sir Francis Drake, an English sea captain who lived from 1540-1596. He was the second sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Below is his famous prayer, found on page 143, one that it would appear God heard and rewarded.

Let’s make it ours today, and see where God takes us in our journey toward Christmas. After all, ‘if not now, when?’

 

Prayer for the Parish

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of the things that we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity;
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas
where storms will show your mastery,
where loosing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes,
and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain, who is Jesus Christ.
Amen.
 


Saving Advent.

 

Yesterday, I received a photo from one of our families via text message. They texted me because they missed Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, but wanted me to know that they still honored the traditional lighting of the Advent wreath at home with their children. They were gathered around their dining room table and the small Advent wreath was being lit by their children. They ended with a note of the impact Saint Miriam has had on their lives that they would do this, despite missing church. I was touched and felt as if we really do matter.

If you look at Saint Miriam by the barometer the world uses to measure success stories, we aren’t very much at all, I suppose. A medium size parish that is growing, but where most activity occurs only on Sundays. One where, despite our best pleadings, not everyone gives to support her financially, and where less than 30% of parishioners have returned their end of year gifts. A parish that is always present when needed, but that need often escapes most folks until they are in trouble; then we become more important for a time until the need or circumstance passes. Then, we are relegated to the periphery of their lives once again. I have learned to live at the margins until needed and then I give and retreat back. It is not always easy, but it is the life of ministry.

If you look at the way we place importance upon things, I would imagine that is how we do with most of them. The importance, or relevance, is always changing based on our needs, but that is why Advent calls us to look at things differently and to place others ahead of ourselves.

A few years ago, I don’t remember where, I found a short video posted online. It was called something like, “The Advent Conspiracy.” It was a grassroots movement that was started by a few Christian churches to bring some sanity back to the season we now find ourselves within. It hoped to bring more worship and less consumerism to Christmas, to “give presence.” Its four principles were, “Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.”  I wonder what would happen if we all made a concerted effort to just that this season; if only for a month?

For me, especially this month, the earth seems to be dying as I walk around our campus. Perhaps I am dying a little, too, and that is part of the plan of God. The once beautifully green and lush foliage now finds trees that have lost their canopy; the grass has withered and brought the mowers to a standstill. The beauty of colored flowers have given way to the emergence of the only things that stand to retain their hue: the dark green of the evergreen and the deep brown of the earth. The wind has increased from its more northerly direction and frost appears daily upon my car. Even the sunlight is less, the darkness more and the nights seem longer, deeper, darker, and sometimes more foreboding. In just a few days, we will come to the Winter Solstice, the longest day of the year, with the year’s least amount of daylight. Symbols not to be lost or overlooked, I would imagine for us now. These changes remind me of the impermanence of this world and that I need to always focus on something greater that will always be present, always sustaining, always giving, always feeding. It is during this time of year; this very specific time of year that God has deemed to grant us the wonderful opportunity called Advent.

I say opportunity because it is more than just a liturgical season. It is a time to be challenged as a world, as a people, as Christians, and as practicing Catholics, but more importantly, inside ourselves where God dwells and where the tensions of the world seem to be at their height; their strongest. We are called to pause and reflect on what needs to be changed in the world and within ourselves. What is broken, damaged, in need of repair, what needs to be changed, and Who do we want to help us effectuate those repairs? Is our parish worthy of more than a ‘now and again Sunday appearance’ and do we respect her – and all that she does for us – to give and sustain her from our bounty this season, and not just from our leftovers?

Yes, Advent is our season and our chance to change and to become better people, but to do we must focus on others and on God.

Will you help me save Advent this year?
 


Remaking the World with a Soft Reboot.

 

‘Rebooting’ is a rather new age verb defined to mean restart or revive. In computing, rebooting is the process by which a running computer system is restarted, either intentionally or unintentionally; like we all have to do with our smartphones from time to time! A “reboot” restarts a machine whose software has malfunctioned. Reboots can be either cold (alternatively known as hard) where the power to the system is physically turned off and back on again; or warm (known as soft) where the system restarts without the need to interrupt the power.

We often hear of rebooting a computer, but did you know that in cinematic terms, a reboot refers to a particular sort of revision of familiar properties. Characters who have grown tired and typical and situations that have become predictable and self-referential are reimagined in a bolder, more believable style.

God once intentionally hard rebooted the world with a great flood, and then promised to never destroy it again by making a covenant with Noah, his sons, and every living creature. He said, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And, the sign of that promise? Well, of course was God’s placing a rainbow in the clouds to remind God of the Covenant every time God sees it, not just us! This has been made into numerous films and children, and yes, even myself, have played with Noah’s Ark figures to much delight for centuries (Feel free to stop by my office and see the one mom made for me!) 

Another famous film torn from the pages of the bible is the Exodus story! But, how about the rebooting we find from the 1956 DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, to when Ridley Scott released a new, rebooted version called, Exodus: Gods and Kings, in 2014? In Demille’s version the hero was Moses, infamously played by Charleton Heston, and presents a man facing straightforward choices between right and wrong, who never doubted his mission. With his arms outspread from that famous scene played millions of times, Heston’s Moses orders the Red Sea to part before him. “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us! Behold His mighty hand!”

By contrast, Ridley Scott’s revision contains lots of ambiguity and subtle doubt. Moses, this time is played by the actor Christian Bale, who is caught by surprise – as much as anyone – when the waves begin to pull back from the rocky shores of the Red Sea. Here, the famous parting is less than biblical in proportion and is defined – or rebooted – as an unusual tidal, meteorological, or seismic event that could have created a temporary land bridge across a shallow section of sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have always loved the story of the ‘Parting of the Red Sea’! After all, the Exodus, at its heart, is a story of political freedom and release from bondage – it is about justice – which is why it has inspired so many people who have struggled against oppression, but let us not be naïve, the story is also a story of God destroying an entire society! Whoa, huh!? So that is where I always ran into trouble in my faith: how could God once destroy a people with a catastrophic flood, promising never to do it again, and then He does so again by visiting numerous plagues on Egypt – yet another cold reboot – in order to free the Israelites from servitude? Does the end justify the means? Was a hard reboot really the only way? 
 
I have learned not to just blindly believe what I am told, or to act out of impulse. I try to reflect, to learn, to hear the real story, both those given in thirty second sound bites, or in the new and improved Twitter at 280 characters or less per Tweet, or what the Bible says or the church, because for me it is not just about trying to raise emotions, or ‘selling more newspapers’, but I have found that the back story is often the real story – and that is where I find the means to change myself  in order to change the world.
 
I also know that the world, and all its evil, will never be changed if good people do not act, or act on false rhetoric, without first looking deep inside and decide to recommit – to reboot their ways – in order to make the world, the church, this parish, and one another a better place and a better people. This is the season we find ourselves in today as we turn our hearts toward the Christ child coming. A place, and a time, set aside by God to offer us all yet another chance at change – our change – and thereby change for the world for the better – for all our tomorrows to come; rainbows and clouds alike.
 
God once intentionally hard rebooted the world with a great flood and a plague, too, now He does so every year with a soft reboot that we call Advent.
 


True Thanksgiving Is So Much More.

 
After our beautiful interfaith Thanksgiving Service last evening, I thought I would begin with a reflection today on being grateful. For me, being grateful has a deeper resonance than just being thankful. I normally reserve the word grateful to things and people of greater significance, and so this week, I am far more than just thankful… I am grateful
 
You see, there is a difference between being thankful and being grateful. At Thanksgiving time, we pause, even if only in an often-cursory way to consider what we’re thankful for. Usually, however, we’re more interested in turkey with the trimmings, football games, holiday parades, and shopping than in the practice of deep gratitude. Isn’t it odd how on the one day set aside to give thanks for all we have, so many use it for a mad shopping rampage for yet more stuff? Why not stop for a minute this year and give gratitude a try?
 
Take a few moments this week, especially tomorrow before your day begins to reflect on what you’re most deeply grateful for. Most people’s lists are kind of short. Mine would need to include my family, friends (especially Kate, who has been there for me this year, even when I have been at my worst), my parishioners, ministry team and parish board, material comforts like my rectory with a warm bed at night, my CrossFit family, our nation (yes, even as it sits in some turmoil), our beautiful parish, the children and educators of our school, the historic cemetery we care for, and yes, Tucker and Friar, too, of course! That about covers it, at least the start of my list this year! 
 
But I would like us all to try and go deeper this year. If you’re being thankful for something, say, our parish of Saint Miriam, be thankful for the whole thing, not just your favorite parts. I know that I am grateful for Saint Miriam and God’s providence that led us to create her from the ground up! She is a miracle in only about nine years! So, I am grateful for all the varied people – all the kinds of people – all the races, all the ages and shapes and lifestyles and perspectives, all the colors and sexualities, and the varied versions of family that we embrace, the heroes, the lost, the lonely, and the ones who struggle. Everybody
 
And, if you are grateful for your family, give thanks for the whole darn crazy lot of them that make up your family tree! Give thanks for Uncle John who ruins every holiday by getting drunk and Aunt Bee who likes to pick on everyone’s spouse! Embrace the cheats and the losers and all those misfits, like me, that make your family, well…your family! Pause to thank God each and every one of them, for if it were not for them, you wouldn’t be you! If you are grateful for your health, thank God for your body, this amazing creation that may be older and weaker than you wish, but it keeps you alive. If you have a few health struggles as I do this year, thank the Lord we are still around to fight them! Be grateful that this created, magnificent machine of a human body knows how to move, bend, lift, heal, and feel! Show your gratitude that your organs know how to digest food, fight germs, and heal itself! Even pain is a necessary gift, so take a pause and thank God for all the pain because it has made your body – and you – stronger and who you are today! (Another lesson I learned overcoming my recent leg injury!)
 

In the Gospel appointed for Thanksgiving Day we find once again the story of the ten lepers. We begin with ten men who have the worst disease of their day. The physical ramifications are horrendous. Leprosy attacks the body, leaving sores, missing fingers, missing toes, damaged limbs. In many cases, the initial pain of leprosy gives way to something more terrible than that – a loss of sensation in nerve endings, leading to more damage to more body parts. The disease can take 30 years to run its course, and in that time span, entire limbs can simply fall off. It is, assuredly, a most horrible disease. We have nearly an impossible task in trying to fathom what it was like 2,000 years ago, when medical treatment, as we know it today, was almost non-existent.

And then, there was the emotional pain of a leper, which must have been even worse than the physical pain. He was removed from his family, from his community; ostracized. There could be no contact, whatsoever, with her children or grandchildren. None. Immediately removed. His wife would not be allowed to kiss him goodbye. No one would have allowed it, for fear that she, too, would become afflicted.

Then, comes this Jesus guy who says to these lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They pause to look down at their broken bodies. The hands of one man are still mangled. Another man looks at his leg, which ends with a filthy rag at the knee. Another looks at his skin, and finds it as repulsive as ever. In other words, these men were no better off than they had been ten minutes earlier, when they had first spotted the famous teacher. 
 
But, despite their doubts, they muster up enough strength, hope, and gratitude to head off in search of a priest. And on their way, they were healed! On their way, a hand reappeared, and tingled with new life. A crutch tripped on a filthy rag, as it fell to the ground. The leg was back, healthy, whole, complete. The skin cleared, and the tiny hairs on a forearm turned from snow white to brown. One looked at the other, another looked at the rest, and the screaming started. The smiles broke into cheering, and a sweet madness. They raced off in the distance, not believing that the nightmare was finally over. But for the miracle to happen, these men had to start walking in faith before their circumstances had changed one tiny bit. 
 
Is there a more deeply needed lesson for us on this Thanksgiving Day and as we turn our eyes soon to Advent? You cannot wait until the problems are over to start walking in faith. You cannot put conditions on holy God. You cannot say, “Lord, as soon as there’s enough money, I follow your instructions.” You cannot pray, “Lord, if you’ll just solve this issue in my family, I’ll start to go back to church again.”  You cannot and must not put conditions on God! Instead, God places a demand for faith on us, before anything at all has changed and we must begin in gratitude for all that we have been blessed with. 
 
In might sadden you to note that ten lepers were healed that day, but only one gives any gratitude. For most of us, if we are honest, that would be us! So, let us change our perspective this Thanksgiving! God might say, “Love me despite the disease in your body.” Or, “Obey me despite the lack of talent.”, or “Love me during the lack of resources.” or, “Follow me now, despite your depression or addiction.” or, “Praise me in your darkest night, and in the worst of circumstances, because faith in me will yield stores of riches beyond your wildest dreams!” How will you show your gratitude and love to God, as well as those you love this week? 
 
I was once asked why I sacrificed so much to build and maintain Saint Miriam? Why did I endure all the hardships, the public scrutiny? Why did I allow myself to be scourged in the press, beat up by other church leaders? Why did I persevere when ‘they’ said it could not be done? Why did I allow myself to be the object of ridicule and scorn? Why did I contribute all my life savings and my retirement funds and still tithe at a rate that takes away half my income to keep us going? Because none of it was a sacrifice in hindsight. Why?  Because I want to understand more and more about our wonderful Savior, and that is a cost I am willing to endure because…
 
I am grateful.
 


Pizza or Jesus?

 
Life is always about choices and passions. These choices and passions are life giving, or life taking. They guide our journey to make us better people, or leave us in a ditch along the roadside. We focus them for the betterment of others, God’s planet, the community of people we inhabit and share the earth with, or they cause us to lose values, and we deplete being human. Yes, choices and passions are important to who we are now and more importantly, whom we shall one day become. 
 
For instance, I have a friend who has a love affair with pizza! Not that he just enjoys eating pizza, like many of us, but he really enjoys what I will call the ‘art of pizza’! He dreams of it, develops new ways of creating it, introduces marvelous new topping combinations, posts dreamy images of his creations on social media, and travels to visit other like-minded pizza makers and dreamers to hone his skills in creating, not only one of the best pizzas around, but also the healthiest choice, too! He has spent lots of his energy and days becoming simply great at making pizza! Each is a true masterpiece! Yes, he loves everything pizza! 
 
Now, I have another friend who is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women in the world! She is elegant and well-spoken and very caring. Her beauty is intrinsic and goes far beyond just the exterior. Her career choice cares for the least among us, and she even has a place within her heart for the likes of me! She once said of her boyfriend, “I love him more than pizza! I just hope he never asks me to prove it!” 
 
So, what does pizza and Jesus have to show us? Life is always about passions and priorities. My pizza loving friend is also a wonderful man who dearly loves God, raises his children to be good Catholics and even better Christians, and adores his wife (who wouldn’t?!), but his passion for pizza occasionally causes him to miss his Sunday Mass obligation! We joke about it often and he knows my heart is always with him (I am quite sure he is laughing hysterically, as he reads everything I pen here, too!) My point is simple: priorities and passions lead us and guide us into what we become. 
 
This Friday is our annual Concert & Silent Auction, Strings and Keys in a House of God. This even has been alive and well from our very first year as a parish when we had but only a handful of folks. It was given to us as a gift from a very talent parishioner who wanted to give something of herself back to us. While Kimberly Foster and her family now reside in New York City, what she gave us almost ten years ago, by sacrificing her talent for one evening every year to perform a live strings concert, has endured and made us something of who and what we are now as a parish. You see, by using her time, talent, treasure, and passion; by her elective choice to give back to God and a small mission parish back then, she created something wonderful and shared her passion and love of music with others. To this very day, her gift continues and I know her passion and her priorities gel with mine. We are willing to sacrifice to allow a place of hope and love, like Saint Miriam, to thrive and grow, because we recognize where our heart is, and what we wish to one day become. That will be our true and lasting legacy.
 
How about you? Will you be eating pizza, or here with us and our Lord, Jesus this Friday, as make God’s church even stronger? Even if you cannot come for some reason, or if you are unable to reschedule an event or an obligation, why not send someone in your place to bid on an item, or at least purchase a few tickets to the concert to help us raise needed funds to continue our love and passion here at Saint Miriam? 
 

You see, this is far more than just a concert and silent auction, it is our yearly choice that allows our passion to welcome everyone continue. We cannot do it without you. 

After all, we love you more than pizza!

 



Divorcing Our Mother.

 

The institution of marriage is in trouble today. The divorce rate is anywhere from 40 percent for first marriages to 80 percent for subsequent marriages, depending on what survey you read. Perhaps, as a result, more and more couples are choosing to live together without bothering to get married. 
 
The Church’s response has been to get proactive about better preparing engaged couples before they marry. The Church believes that God, the author of marriage, established it as a permanent union. When two people marry, they form an unbreakable bond. However, we also recognize that as humans we are broken, and despite our best efforts, sometimes we simply fail. The main issue today is that we live in a throw-away, instant-gratification, all-for-me society, and since the focus is always on me and my wants and needs, when the ‘going gets tough’, well, we simply get going.  
 
When I counsel couples to be married, I often remind them that divorce doesn’t usually happen all at once. It is not a mile event, it is a millimeter of events. First, we stop talking, bringing home cards, saying I love you out loud. Then, we stop consulting, caring, doing things together. We then focus on what is broken and the bills to be paid and the kids issues, work, etc. Finally, we live together, but no longer know one another and divorce and separation become easy because the emotional connection was dead a long time ago. Much like an unattended garden, the weeds overtake any solid life. And that, my friends, is what we are doing with holy Mother Church, we are divorcing her one millimeter at a time. And, it is our fault. 
 
Less than 20% of people say they attend church regularly, as in weekly. 50% of Catholic parishes, of all stripes, report average attendance is less than the median. 74% choose to leave the Catholic Church between the ages of 10 and 20, and 87% of them say ‘it is for good.’ Yet, this is the group that needs long term connections, and so we are failing them, and one another, and yes, God, too. 
 
Vocations to the priesthood are down, too, and secular Sunday activities and sporting events are up. Mass attendance is down. And, according to CARA, (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), the decline will not change anytime soon. But, where everyone is saying that the Church is irrelevant, or even vanishing, and soon will be diminished all together, I say that the holy Church is not so much in a state of diminishment as it is in a state of change. Now, this is not to disregard concern for the numbers of young people leaving the church; nor is it to disregard concern for preserving the Eucharistic community as the number of priests continues to dwindle. But, rather, to simply state we all need to step back and look around us and decide: is church where we gain a new vision and hope for tomorrow, or is all there really is? 
 
In the last 35 days, our country has seen the worst mass shootings ever. Yes, ever. A total of 307 this year alone. (Yes, I said this year.) If ever we were in need of change, it is now. It begins with us
 
Last year, 200 men and women religious professed final vows in the United States. Like me, some decided that a life dedicated to God was for them. And what was discovered were some key habits which multiple religious cited as important to their vocational pursuit. First, every one of them had strong prayer life was noted as a key to discernment prior to entering the religious life. A full 86 percent of those who discerned a call, regularly participated in some type of private prayer activity before they entered their religious institute. And, about two-thirds participated in Eucharistic Adoration, prayed the rosary, or attended retreats before entering. In fact, nearly six in ten people participated in spiritual direction before entering. In other words, doing preceded calling. 
 
What else helped them make the ultimate decision? The encouragement of a parish priest. And that is why I have been speaking on vocations and encouraging my priests to do the same. Some of you already know that I feel your sons are called to Holy Orders, as I have spoken to you directly. Others, will soon get that call! (And, before I get beat up again, no, sadly, no women/girls have sparked my ‘your called to religious life’ voice YET!) Some of you are called yourself to be in ministry, too, but have abandoned that call for worldly reasons, or think it unattainable due to age, or lifestyle, etc. I assure you God is relentless. So am I! 
 
Pope Francis recently said, “to accompany young people along their existential journey towards maturity so that, through a process of discernment, they can discover their life plan and achieve it joyfully, opening themselves up to an encounter with God and humanity and actively taking part in the building of the Church and society.”  That is where life is and where it has always been: with God, in community with God, in prayer with God. It is time we move back toward God before we lose all that has true meaning. And, that means you and I – together – must work for the kingdom. 
 
In a culture concerned with disposable pleasures and instant gratification, the men and women who choose religious life possess an almost intimidating level of holy courage. But, it was not instant, it took time and cultivation, and lots of prayer and yes, even sacrifice. I know that sacrifice is not something the world like to do anymore, but it built Saint Miriam and those who serve her. So, even when others will not sacrifice anymore, or give to our funds, or buy things to help us offset the cost, or sacrifice their time and talent to help us grow and reduce expenses, I will, because I know where my life really happens.
 
Many people think those of us who have professed vows to stay within community and dedicate our lives to the world of ‘others’ are just plain mad. Perhaps they are right. But, we also have a solid engagement in the mystery of the Church and the love of the Gospels. This coming Season of Advent, I want all of us to change and point to the mystery to engage God more. Set aside what you don’t like about the Church and change it by doing, participating, praying, and loving. Be what you what Her to be. That is what I do every day; at least I try. 
 
The Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
 
Starting today, be the Church.
 


Of iPhones and Sebaceous Carcinomas.

 
Last Friday morning I was up at 2:50am. I had to be! You see, if I didn’t get up at that ungodly hour of the morning, I would have missed my chance to order the new iPhone! I have been saving all year for it; every gift, every gratuity from a wedding, every extra dime I could save, I did and I had just enough to buy it and I was so excited! I always am! Yes, every time a new Apple product emerges, I am like a school boy earning his very own letterman sweater! Three days later, at 7:40am, I am sitting in a medical procedure chair having a cancerous growth removed from my neck. Things change, perspectives change. What remains is what is important. Just ask the eight lives taken at the hands of yet another terrorist in New York City yesterday afternoon, if you could, what they wish they had made important in their daily lives.
 
Later today, at 6:30pm, I will walk the hallowed grounds of this cemetery, amongst the lighted luminaries we will place beginning at 5:00pm today, and I bless the graves of the dead. Each votive light will be placed by a grave – hundreds of them – to show the world what is most important to us as Catholic Christians, and as parishioners here at Saint Miriam. Then, on Sunday, we will light more lights, placing each at our beautiful stained glass windows to honor the dead, too, and to remind the world that the dead are part of us, as the living, and will never be forgotten. We know that together we are the Communion of Saints. Few will attend later today, I know that; I don’t care. You see, today, for those who will gather with me, we know the truth; that life is fleeting and the most important things we own are the things we cannot buy.
 
After I returned home yesterday from the surgeon, my mother was very upset with me. You see, I did not tell anyone. I knew of the potential diagnosis for several weeks, but I had work to do. So, I did my job, labored as a priest, and dealt with my own stuff in the middle of the night when I was alone and able to think and ponder and pray. After my mother calmed down, and after a few more “James Michael’s!” (Yup, I knew I was in trouble!) I took some time to lay down, as my neck was sore as the anesthesia wore off, and I wanted to just rest. My mom sat with me for over two hours. Never saying a word, just sitting with me. Later, my friend Kate reached out, then Sean, Pat, Chester, and then David, and Lorraine.
 

You see, it isn’t about iPhones or things that we amass that make our life plentiful. It is the hands and voices of those we love, and those who care. It is about those who will remember us should we ever depart. Today, we remember others with a simple light and a prayer at their grave. That is far more important than anything else I could possible do tonight. 

The surgeon thinks he ‘got it all’ and went deeper to extract below the margins. Now, we wait for the pathologist to do his or her job and to tell me the diagnosis. I am not afraid, not fearful at all. You see, I know the greatest gifts this life has to offer, and I have them all…people who love me and will always remember me.

It’s never about things…
 


It’s All About Them.

 

In a very moving, personal reflection on his imminent death, back in 1996, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote in, “The Gift of Peace”, several weeks before his death occurred:

“Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God, and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” 
 
Somehow, I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar for me; I will just finally be at home. That is why this entire next couple of weeks at Saint Miriam will actually be all about them, the dead. There is no greater corporal act of mercy that a Catholic can do then to honor the dead. What we believe, but much more importantly, what we do, demonstrates the importance of family and the communion of saints, both living and dead. 
 
That is why we will begin with All Hallow’s Eve and honor the history of our dead contained within our beautiful cemetery. While we will, of course, add a little Halloween fun to the evenings on the 27th and 28th , we will also add history and candles and increase our knowledge, as we walk the hallowed grounds that make up Union Cemetery of Whitemarsh at Saint Miriam with our annual Historic Tours. Then, we will turn our attention to All Saints and All Souls Day, which we, as a parish, will officially mark on Sunday, November 5th but add hundreds of candle-lighted luminaries to the cemetery in a moving ceremony on November 1st at 6:30pm. 
 
Many Christians know All Hallows Eve by the secular name “Halloween,” and avoid any celebration or religious observance of the day. The prevailing thought within many churches is that the holiday glorifies evil and is anti-Christian in its ideology. While many of the customs and traditions associated with the celebration find their roots in Medieval superstitions and ancient European rituals, the prevailing theme of the holiday was to give thanks for the harvest and honor family and friends who died in the past year. That is why these days hold one another in tandem as we honor, believe, and love. 
 
The Solemnity of All Saints, is a celebration of those who have died and attained Heaven, and we know that God desires all of us to become saints one day. And, of course, we remembered those who are undergoing purgation on Wednesday, November 1st, which is officially All Souls Day this year. 
 
To begin to understand these solemn days, it is necessary to understand what is meant when we refer to the Communion of Saints. The “Communion of Saints,” is at its most essential meaning, the sharing of the grace of Jesus Christ with and among His family members, the Church; all the members, living and dead that dwell with God. Those who have departed this life are alive. Blessed Mary, and all the saints in heaven, are alive, and are members of His one body. They continue to share in all ways, as St. Paul taught us, except their suffering is over and they see God more clearly than do we on earth who see only partially. And they remain intercessors on behalf of the Church not yet in Glory, doing as we all are urged to do, to make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for all men and women, that they may live a godly and peaceable life. Now that is worth celebrating! 
 
We can’t know for sure where our beloved deceased are, so when in doubt, we pray for them, and we hope they pray for us. I will never forget that bitter cold January day when I buried my dad in Erie. The snow was so cold and the depth so high at the cemetery, we were not even sure we could hold his funeral, but we did. If ever I was to believe, that was the day. No, it did not happen all at once, but it did come to me – God came finally – and I believe now more than ever. I know my dad intercedes for me; I know I would not be here today if it were not for his intercession. 
 
Join us this week. Come and learn some history at the cemetery entrusted to our care and enjoy a family night out (with Pizza, too on Saturday at 6:00pm!) Then, bring your children to the “Lighting of the Luminaries” on Wednesday, November 1st at 6:30pm and teach them that we care for the dead and love them still, and finally, celebrate the life of all the saints – living and dead – on Sunday, November 5th as we honor All Saints and All Souls Day. Your gifts of light will cover a cemetery and light the windows of our parish this year, as they honor and remember all saints, all souls! 
 
If the dead happen to need our help, our act of kindness can have great impact on them.  If not, this kind act still has great impact on us, exercising our love muscles so that we will be ready to enter directly into the wedding feast of the Lamb when our own time inevitably comes. 
 
Let us spend our earthly tour filling our minds with the thoughts of heaven, so that when we finally cross over into eternal life, the images we see may not be foreign, startling, or even strange. Let us pray that we, too, may be able to one day say: “My God, I know this place. I am home.”
 


The Lonely Walk of Me and God.

 
Yesterday evening, after I learned of the death of one of our own, I sat quietly and prayed for him and his family. I then put in my Apple AirPods and listened to Green Day’s, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. For those not familiar with the song, here a few lines of the song:

I walk this lonely road

The only one that I have ever known

Don’t where goes

But it’s home to me

and I walk alone

I walk this empty street

The video for the song most fittingly begins with the scene that features a stranded car on a lonely road. Sometimes being Christian means you walk alone, even when surrounded by others. Oh, I know what you are thinking, ‘I thought God walked with me and sometimes, wasn’t Jesus supposed to carry me?’ Yes. He does, but the world doesn’t.

You see, sometimes you need to carry your own water until you figure out what is truly important in life. No one, not even God can do that for you. The road is often lonely and long, but the reward is so great.  As a priest, I am often called to walk alongside those who struggle and who journey. Oftentimes, I am a comfort, sometimes I am a burden. Even with all my training; my vocation, my calling, it is not enough. The walk must occur, the strides alone. 
 
Sometimes it is I that must walk alone. It is me that must make the arduous journey. Sometimes God is asking me to journey to places I do not want to go, or to do things on the way that I do not want to do, or learn things that I wish I need not have to learn. But, I have learned in my journey on the road that I must. I must go, do, and learn to serve better. 
 
I used this song last evening as a source of strength. In my sadness for the family, and in my own ‘stuff’ of the past day, now ending, I took pride in my willingness to walk the path alone, as I have done on many occasions, much to the chagrin of family, friends, and others. But, I will admit freely, that sometimes in my journey to a better, stronger, more deeply feeling me, I throw a pity party to myself, but overall, I find these times of journeying alone to be cathartic and life-giving, thriving on a sense of independence, and the solace and understanding yet to come when God finds me again.
 
Far from being immune to loneliness found in needed journey, the Bible often shows that many of God’s people have struggled to endure the walk to a new freedom. Job expressed his sense of loneliness when he is accosted by his friends whom he calls “miserable comforters”, and Elijah journeyed 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb where he succumbed to his discouragement and loneliness. Hiding in a cave in the desert, he told God he felt as if he were all alone in the world.  Elijah and Job were both fueled by fear and uncertainty in their journeys. And, even Jesus knew true loneliness when His followers forsook Him at His arrest and crucifixion, but a needed journey was to follow that would save Him, and the world in the end. Yes, some journeys must be alone. 
 
When we finally arrive in that lonely place, we make a startling discovery: Jesus is there. Jesus carried His cross alone and Jesus died alone so that we will never have to suffer such heavy solitude. Jesus experienced a kind of aloneness that we never will. We need not fear the dark, solitary spaces of our journeys ever again; God is there and growth will come and new learning, new life. 
 
I leave you with this promise, and then a poem by Geoff Warden. As long as I am gifted with the geratets gift I have ever know, that of this wonderful, beautiful parish of Saint Miriam, even in our alone journeys that must occur, someone will be waiting with open arms at your journey’s end.
 
 

A somber stroll through parks delight, 
Taking notice of natures landscape, 
Ducks of summer, prepare winters arrival, 
As I stroll, I ponder the lonesome walk…

Reflection of things today and futures hold, 
reminiscent of ones lonely walk of yesterday, 
A sadden heart……by deceptions hurt
of a simple plan not comprehend.

As his lonely walk commence with step, 
Simple truths he would voice unaccepted, 
Continually dealing with the murmur and complacency
of blinding eyes that just would not see…

He who had all placed in palm of hand, 
Was seen in company of known harlot, 
The well to do would scorn such action, 
yet his heart filled a much greater need.

Imagine The simple plan of his love, 
continually they pick and tare apart..
yet the simple truth of love he shares
is a path of chose not of demand…..

Reflecting upon his lonesome walk, 
and the continual rejection of his voice,

has filled my heart with joyous sorrow

Yet comprehension of my own stroll 

 

Slowly, I begin to appreciate collaboration that must occur between me and God.  Maybe I won’t be walking a lonely street soon enough…