To Block or To Allow.

“I did not see the devil’s face at Ground Zero. I saw the face of God in the people working, caring, sweating, crying, rescuing, recovering and being very spiritual in their very humanness.” These are the words of Franciscan Father Joseph Bayne, chief chaplain of New York Emergency Services, and they represent for me what I would like to remember this year as we honor this historic tragedy. As a follower of Francis of Assisi, and a Trauma Chaplain that has witnessed the worst humanity can dole out to one another, I’m challenged to bring joy to a broken and sorrow-filled world. I lived through 911 in Washington, DC and I saw the US Pentagon ablaze, people on fire, destruction, the wounds that resulted and the death, and a city locked down as if in war. We were at war that day. In many ways, sadly, we still are.

Today is another anniversary of 9/11. Sean and I were actually living in Washington, DC: I was in seminary and in formation to become a priest and a Friar. I still recall, as if it were only yesterday, how the Today Show was preempted as reporters tried to make sense out of that day. In the end, some 2,977 innocent persons and 19 terrorists – in New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, PA – lost their lives that day. It began at 8:46 in the morning when Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center building. 102 minutes later, the North Tower collapsed. At 9:02 a.m., Flight 175 struck the South Tower. 56 minutes later, it, too, collapsed; the total length of time that these two massive towers took to fall was less than 12 seconds. By 10:03 am that same day, two more planes, at the hands of those terrorists crashed and took many more lives. In the end, some 3,051 children lost parents, 115 nations lost their nationals, and over 1,117 families, to this very day, have yet to receive any remains of their loved ones to bury and our nation was changed forever; the world was changed.

I am not sure if I understand this event now any better than I did that very morning when it occurred; that beautiful, crisp Tuesday in September. I still remember how beautiful a day it was; how those white clouds seemed to loft in the sky above DC forever; how the temperature was so perfect, no humidity, just the most perfect day. I still remember how scared I was, and how Sean and I, and our families, could not get ahold of each other for almost a full day. I still can feel that fear. I remember how quickly the streets of our Nation’s Capital became militarized as Humvees and soldiers set out to protect our national interests and those in leadership. I remember how I stood with my fellow chaplain-residents in a Level 1 Trauma Center for a ‘Mass Casualty Alert’ to receive the victims from the Pentagon, but few came; you see, most were already dead. Planes were diverted, The President was taken to a secret location, and Congressional leaders were entombed underground bunkers: our nation was attacked. I do not understand how several men could believe that killing people whom they don’t even know, people who certainly didn’t hate them, people who were simply going about their normal lives – thinking about their families, attending to the tasks of daily living and work, running into work a little early, or perhaps a little late, grabbing that quick cup of coffee before the day fully began – I do not know how they could kill these ‘others’ in the name of God. Perhaps that is why I follow St. Francis today and why I work so hard to be ‘poor’ in this life so others can taste the true God, too, at Saint Miriam?

Yesterday, I had a parishioner tell me they would not return to our parish. He stated that ‘our religious beliefs ran contrary to his political beliefs and that it caused his children to question why he voted for the [current] President.” Today, too, I blocked a good friend of mine on Facebook and reported her post. She posted an image of ‘laughing’ Muslims around the Twin Towers in New York City. The caption read, “My people” did something!” No, you are both wrong. Hate – in any form – has no place in church, political, or American life. And, until we learn that simple truth, that love is always greater than hate, we will be doomed to repeat the lessons unlearned from our past.

So, today, while I grieve the loss of anyone who decides the Gospel runs up against their politics, or friends who have decided it was a particular faith group that committed such a heinous act of terrorism, the one thing I will not do is change the mission of our parish, or my life as a priest, or give into join them and hate anyone. We are Catholic Christians, and as such we are obligated to follow the Gospel of the Christ we follow, worship, and adore. That means that Jesus really did not come to bring peace, but truth, and sometimes that truth is, well, very hard. It is always easier to hate and blame than to recognize the plank in our own eye.

How do we survive this anniversary of the single most horrific attack in our nation’s history? By allowing the fire and airplanes slamming into concrete and steel to fade, and remembering the light and the lives who gave up theirs so we might not become what we hate the most; by becoming the people the terrorists hated the most: a people of freedom, respect, love, acceptance, and peace. By blocking hatred in all its forms to usher in an era of new light.

I don’t know about you, as for me and my house we will follow the Lord…

 



How Our Journey Works!

“Every spring, and well into fall, Tucker and I begin a journey out into the neighborhoods around our home in Philadelphia. We travel anywhere from a mere few blocks up to several miles, sometimes six of seven miles in a single day! Along our route, we pray, think, reflect, ponder, and yes, even talk! (Well, I talk, and he just glares as if to say that I am somehow disturbing his walk!)”

The image, and that prologue, is how I began my 2015 version of the annual calendar that I made every year with my dog, and my best friend, Tucker. You see, we walked every day and shared our life every morning more intensely than any other part of the day. It was, as they say, ‘just him and me’.  He became my best friend, constant companion, and confidant. It was Tucker who was there for me when the world abandoned me. It was Tucker who would gaze into my eyes, as he trotted so happily next to me and in those eyes, I knew I was loved unconditionally. Tucker saw me as I wish I truly was; a good and honest man. Tucker never saw my brokenness; he just saw me – the human he fell in love with and made his companion. He trusted me, and I trusted him. It was how our journey worked.

When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was undergoing treatment, it was Tucker who waited for me to come home. After my surgery, it was Tucker who laid by my side, day in and day out, for some two weeks as I healed; only to disappear briefly to eat or use the bathroom. Then, back to my side he would come. It was Tucker who journeyed with me every week for some eight weeks to visit my dad as he was dying. He sat in the car for the often 7-hour journey to Erie and never once complained or showed discomfort. He somehow knew these journeys home were needed. And, when my dad finally died, and I was left a partial orphan, it was Tucker who knew first and simply sat at my feet and cried, too.

Perhaps the greatest tale I can regale is when my depression got so deep and so severe that I felt the only way out was to take my own life, it was Tucker who saved me. I sat in the empty garage in my car with the engine running. There was no way in or out save one and yet, there he was at my car door begging to be let in. How he got into the garage, I will never know; no one will ever know. But I could not take him with me, so I emerged and wept and he licked my face with the thousand kisses he always gave me or Sean when we were near him. Tucker saved me, perhaps with a little help from the Holy Spirit, neither of them were ready for me to let go. I had work still to do.

It was Tucker who laid at Katelyn’s feet last Friday, as she worked on the mural of St Francis that will adorn the entry to our new building renovation. His eyes aglow with his love for her now, too. And, it was Tucker, just two days later who looked at all three of us to say, ‘it is time; you are all ok now. I must go.’ And go he did, with us surrounding him, loving him, all as unconditionally and unselfishly as he did us for the last 12 years.

Timothy Braun said of his dog, ‘She knew how to manage her own life, and she made me make changes in mine.’ No truer words of Tucker, too, could be spoken. It was Tuck’s love and those beautiful eyes that allowed us all to heal and to move forward. It was his love that allowed us to let go this past Sunday when his work here was done.

As a parish, we have never known Saint Miriam without our Tucker. He was 6 weeks old when we began in that rented synagogue space and he has been at every location ever since. This place, we now call our home, was his home for the last five years. We will all need to let go, but not forget. We will grieve for a time, but never surrender to that grief, because a beautiful Golden Retriever named Tucker taught us to live better and dream more boldly than that.

I will leave you with the words of A.A. Milne from Winnie the Poor, that I used when we first announced our loss. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Rest easy, Tucker, we will always love you deeply, but never as much as you showed us all how to love unconditionally, too.

 

Monsignor +Jim

 

P.S. If anyone can help offset the expenses of the last few months, now some $8,000, we would be grateful for any assistance. A check or PayPal to jimstgeorge@aol.com would be appreciated. Our grief is complicated enough without the added financial pressure. Any amount would be helpful. 

 



Just A Boy and His Dog.

I’m selfish. Oh, I know I’ve sacrificed a lot and I’ve given a lot, and I’ve even sold a lot of my possessions (including my own home) in order to further the growth of our parish. I even lived in an RV for three years until we built the Friary-Rectory. But deep down, where I don’t let very many people in, I’m inherently selfish.

This past weekend, if you were at Mass, you would’ve heard me plead that somehow God would allow my best friend, Tucker, my 12-year-old Golden Retriever, to be around a little bit longer. He has lymphoma. I know there’s no cure intellectually, but in my heart, I pray every day for a miracle. I know Sean and Katelyn do, too. This past weekend he took so severely ill that he had to be rushed to the animal hospital and he remained there until yesterday afternoon. Literally thousands of dollars later he is back home and he’s doing OK for a dog as seriously ill. I know that part of me is grateful that I was willing to give so much to bring him back home and to afford him the chance at a longer life, as long as he is comfortable. And, I know that Sean and Katelyn agree that it was the right thing to do, but I also know in my heart that I’m simply being selfish; I wasn’t ready to let him go.

I think part of my anticipatory grief is that I am remembering my dad and those words now so famous from Nancy Reagan when she was bidding farewell to her husband, President Ronald Reagan. She called the process of dying to his disease, “The long goodbye”, and that’s where I am once again in my life: getting ready to say goodbye, again.

There is no easy way to deal with grief, and there’s certainly no easy way to let something you love, no matter how long you’ve had it, slip away into the vastness of what we do not know, but somehow I’ve taken comfort in the fact that knowing what I know today I still would not have changed one day with Tucker. He has been part of the journey of Saint Miriam from its very first day some 12 year ago. He was there through my brain tumor and recovery and when I lost my dad, it was Tucker – with his head on my lap – that grieved, too. Ironically the liturgy from this past Sunday where I found my solace, at least temporarily. When I found my heart breaking in all of the unknown of the crisis that we found ourselves in, it was the Sacramentary that reminded me that God is God, and I am not. It was in the simple words from the Opening Collect that read, “O God, who have prepared for those who love you, good things which no eye can see…which surpass every human desire.”

And so, here I am today, with my ‘best boy’ back at my side for as long as that very same God will allow, and I am grateful. I know that in my heart, I’m still very selfish, but I will continue to work on that sin until that day when I would join Tuck to wherever he is going, next to my dad, whom I miss so much today, too.

When Mass was ended this past week, I did what every priest does, I reverenced the altar with a kiss and as I turned to leave, I noted our Blessed Mother staring intently at me. I took one single flower from the vase in front of the altar and I went over to her, and I laid that flower at her feet and wept, I begged her for a little more time with him. I remember weeping in much the very same way as my dad was dying and the answer came just as quickly. Our Lady gave me a little more time and for that I am grateful, but because I am selfish it will never be enough; it never is.

The words of our catechism ring true that faith without works is dead. So in perhaps my humanness, and in my selfishness, I am broken, but in my displayed willingness to give without hesitation to God‘s holy Church, He gave me something that I cannot even imagine yet.

I wish each of you the same.
 
PS Lorraine set up a Go Fund Me to help us with the great expenses that we incurred. If your heart wishes to help, here is the link
 
 


We Did It…Again!

Well, we did it. Again! Our new school is ready and soon children will fill the halls as well as a brand-new staff! In fact, two of last year’s staff are back and a few of the older families, too! We are well on our way to a beautiful year together!

After working diligently over the last 12 years, we realized that we needed to do even more! So, this year, after another investment of $200,000, we opened what is the area’s only Franciscan S.T.E.A.M.M. School. A true full-day school from infant to kindergarten! Today we finally opened our doors and so many new families came to see what we created! The S.T.E.A.M.M. Classroom was a huge hit and the renovated school wings were received to many accolades! Another promise kept!

From more education, new fun learning modalities, the safest available school technologies, better administration and classrooms, two brand-new playgrounds, an easy drop off, we are the region’s best choice for learning! We will wrap all of our new programs and opportunities under a new image and name, as well as tie our school more closely to our Franciscan ideals!

Father Frank was with us and all of our team joined us later in the day for our first staff meeting. We could not be more pleased! I invite you to stop by or visit after Mass this weekend to see it for yourself!

So, to those who gave and supported and cleaned and built and prayed…thank you! Together, we did it. Again!

Welcome to Saint Miriam School, A Franciscan Preschool and Kindergarten! We look forward to your enrollment today for a brighter future for your child tomorrow!
 


Every Good Child Begins With One Good Adult.

“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery-the preconditions of all true freedom.”

This is what the catechism of the church believes. Parents are the first and center of all education. They – and what they do – teach – don’t teach – and observe – through words, actions, and by example will either support or hinder their child. The manner on which we make good citizens and a stronger church is by our lead and example.

This is why we invest in CFF and our school. This is why we have asked every parent to examine the manner in which they teach their children. Do you show them by example it is good and proper to put God first? Do you show them that tithing to the church is how you grow real wealth? Do you allow them to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities on Sundays, but only after they put God first? Or do you treat church as a casual thing to be observed only when convenient? Do you falter on your finances or happiness at home and then dismiss the fact that God is never present because God is never first? Do you have a death or loss and then run back to the church for help, only to abandon her later when all is well again? Do you think that your children are not taught by all that you do, or don’t do?

Since Pope Francis recently approved changes to the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father, we will be having an open dialogue at our church gathering to be held at Saint Miriam this coming week. We will seek guidance if we, too, will observe this change. Instead of saying, “Lead us not into temptation,” Catholics will begin soon to say, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” Pope Francis reminds us that “A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”  And, a father and mother teach their children what it is to live a life by putting God first, too.

Pope Francis also reportedly approved changes to The Gloria from “peace on Earth to people of good will” to “peace on Earth to people beloved by God.” I like this change. Why? Because that is what we are, ‘the beloved’ of God. So, let us begin to act like it.

 

 



What We Believe and Why.

Compassion. No, we are not perfect, but as a parish goes, we are very compassionate. We place humanity above rules and regulations emulating the very grace of God. We strive toward justice as we reach out to level the rough roads with special concern for those in need. We have a joyfulness of spirit about us from the moment you walk through our doors! It comes from an awareness of being blessed by God in so many ways as parish, school, friary, historic cemetery, and pet memorial garden. And, finally, we wrap all of that up in humility; being authentic at all times and a life of service as instruments of God. Broken? Yes.  But never so broken that we fail to live to these core values and that is why we now have an image to remind us of who we are so that we never lose our way.

In the coming weeks we will finish renovations, open a brand new school, once again be charged with teaching youngsters the meaning of love and life. We will gaze upon new administration space, signage, a brand new roof, and many upgrades. We will welcome another Franciscan Priest to help guide us as a parish. And press on we must, and love we must, and welcome we must, because it has served us all so well thus far, these core values of ours.

Living up to these core values is hard. It always will be in a world that so bent on ‘self’ and rejects the foreigner and the different. Not here. Not at Saint Miriam.

Father Critchley-Menor, a Jesuit, said it best at his arrest over immigration policies that tear families apart. He said, We are called to stand in the threshold between the church and the world and expose policies for which Christian consent is impossible.” And so we are.

In every age, God sends us opportunities to live the Gospel and to grow in holiness.
 
This is our time.
 


How Are You? How is Father Jim?

Every time Sean works on our school preparations, he often meets with Donna and Lorraine. Without fail, before the meetings begin, every single time, both of them always begin with “How are you? How is Father Jim? How is Katelyn?”Their asking is not just a nicety or pleasantry or even a salutation, it is a sign of respect. It is a simple, but very effective means of inquiring about someone you respect and care for, as well as meeting their humanity and their needs where they are. It is about ‘Imago Dei’, recognizing their humanity and inherent dignity given to them from their first breath, just as God created them. It is, for us, about being a Catholic.
 
This past week, a former Zion Lutheran Church member scolded me publicly for speaking out against the Administration. She told me that while she respected me, and all that we do as a church, that I was wrong for not supporting the President. I replied that she could unfollow, or even unfriendme, but that the Gospel Imperatives – nor my very soul – were for sale. I do not speak or play politics, but when you afront the very dignity of women, the immigrant, the refugee, the LGBTQ, the child, or any person of color, you are not worthy of my respect, let alone my silence.
 
I think that is what increases my fear all the more; we have become fear-mongering, inhospitable, unwelcoming people. This is sobering and very sad. We have become what the bible feared the most. What some of our congressional leaders – and most poignantly, our President – have said lately may sadly say more about the America we live in today than we may wish to admit. Those things that were once said only in secret are now safe to say out loud.
 
That is why I encourage all of us to heed our words closely, but to pay close attention to the words of those who lead us, too. After all, we are all responsible to do the work that begins with a self-examination of our own complicity, discrimination, and dehumanization of the other. We must begin to define for ourselves what is it that America should stand for, for all of its people. Instead of using the President’s tweets as a scapegoat of all that is wrong with our society, we should all focus on doing the self-work necessary to begin to embrace all non-white persons as valued members of our society, who deserve a government, and a people, that serves and respects them as much as all of us.
 
And, in case we have forgotten our way, as Christians, we have an inherent duty to see God in every human being and protect and welcome them, too. Hospitality is not meted out to those we like; it is attributed to all or we violate what we are as human beings.
 


God is watching.

The story we just heard in our Gospel of the Good Samaritan is so familiar that to some it is on the verge of becoming little more than a cliché. Even people who have never read the Bible know the image of compassion embodied by the Samaritan who takes a risk to help a stranger in the midst of great trouble. In fact, the notion of a “Good Samaritan” now has a cultural component almost entirely separate from the term’s biblical origins. And despite many repetitions and retellings, this story is no less powerful and no less needed today; for behind its simplicity we find a lifetime of wisdom and a shocking upturning of our modern values.

Lately, I feel as if I am trying to win an unwinnable battle. Not a battle that needs won by any demonstrative way, but rather won for the sake of humanity, and for justice, and for peace within me. I realized that it began long ago with the last presidential election, and it cumulated in the radical way we are now detaining, incarcerating and vilifying immigrants and refugees, and yes, children, too. It’s…well, it’s just unbelievable to me. (Let’s leave it at that since I am blogging for my church!) I have tried to voice my objections, and even have given to help organizations on the border. I have used my voice – and the pulpit of Saint Miriam – to say, ‘no more’ and to ask others to see how they are anti-Christian and anti-God in their rhetoric that demands the rejection of others who seek our help and care. Much of this has served no real purpose and some of those most vocal have been friends and dare I say, even parishioners. Again, it’s…well, it’s just unbelievable to me. I was at loss and then entered facts, and an author I enjoy reading.

First a few facts! You see, our hands have always been dirty in this nation, as have been many nations, too. From the Indian Removal Act of 1830, to ‘Operation Wetback’ of 1954, to us detaining anyone of Japanese ancestry, to the millions of deportations in the last decade, our history as a country is marred by the intentional dislocation of innocent people. And, every time we do it we have made those people dehumanized.

Now to be clear, the Bible includes over 170 verses calling for the just treatment of migrants, often referred to as “strangers.” But just as relevant is how we are called to treat our neighbors and these strangers at our shore (or borders). The policy of mass deportation announced this week – to take place ironically on the Sabbath, this Sunday, is an attack on our neighbors. Regardless of where you are born, a person in the community is a neighbor who must be treated with dignity and love.What we have allowed is the faceless to become dehumanized. The ‘Mexican’ and the ‘migrant’ and ‘the refugee’ are not political fodder for hate. Even showing the dead bodies of a father holding onto his daughter, floating at the edge of the Rio Grande River was not enough. We simply turned away. After all, we couldn’t see their faces, but if we could I assure you they looked like us. We – all of us – have allowed this to occur and we are all to blame, and we all should be so ashamed.

Enter that Author! I stumbled upon a new article by Mike Rumley-Wells, a writer who engages in what his friends dubbed “reckless transparency.” In a recent piece within Relevant Magazine entitled, Why So Many Christians Want to Go On Mission Trips to Help Kids But Don’t Want Them Here, he writes, “I have no argument for someone who believes that we should not share our resources with children who would otherwise be raped or burned alive in their homes, because ‘Why should our tax dollars have to go to them?’ When I say, “I have no argument” I mean we have no values in common from which I can argue.” Exactly! There it was! Now I understand what I have been fighting against without success. You see, you cannot change the heart of another from stone and hatred to light and love without their first recognizing their own hate and bias. You cannot argue with someone without the same values as you.

The story of an unlikely helper still rings true today; is still needed today; perhaps today… it needed even more than ever before. Our job as faithful people is to welcome people with mercy. Our religious images are supposed to remind us where God’s heart is. God’s heart is compassion. With people who are in need, and our heart should be there, too.

The commands of Scripture are clear. The weight of history rests on our shoulders. The fate of families literally hangs in the balance. And God is watching.

 



I Want the Old America I Knew Back.

I remember when the 200th anniversary of our country occurred. It was a very big deal! Growing up in Erie, PA, we only had one newspaper: the Erie Daily Times. Now, to be sure, they wanted you to believe they had competition! (That is why on Sunday the newspaper that was delivered to your doorstep at the hands of a young newspaper carrier was called, “The Sunday Times News”!) but, you guessed it, same paper, same publisher, different name!

So, what was the significance of the paper and the year 1976? Color ink was introduced to mainstream news publishing and this edition – the one that celebrated our country and it is 200thbicentennial birthday was in glowing colors of Red, White, and Blue stripes all the way down Page 1! And yes, above and below the fold! (Like I said, it was a very bigdeal!)

At any rate, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! So, when it was delivered, I ogled at every tint of color and at every word and then I found a box, wrapped it lovingly and carefully in aluminum foil from my mother’s kitchen cabinet, and placed it gently under my bed for safe keeping! I was so very proud to be an American that day, even as youngster.

Today, I am still proud, but I am sorely disappointed. This is notthe country I remember. And, what I want to do, is to bring it back to that day on Sunday, July 4th, 1976 when every person swelled with love for a country that had been proud to have its door a statue holding a bright lamp that proclaimed to welcome everyone who was willing to work hard, give back to others, embrace the American dream, and love her, too, just like me…just like you. You see, we were all immigrants. This was all of our adopted home. We knew it back then. Today, not so much.

Today, we are smug and unabashed and even violent. Today, we separate children from their parents and put them into detention camps that are bad even prisoners would file grievances! Today, we are unwilling to seeothers, let alone love them or recognize their inherent humanity. Today, we are arrogant, mean, rude; we are the playground bully on a national stage. Today, we are a nation that I no longer recognize. I would like the old America back that I once knew.
 
No, not perfect, and I am sure I romanticized a bit here, but one that was kinder, gentler, and more loving.
 
Happy Birthday, America. I pray we find you again.