Avelut Ends. Joy Comes!

 
In Judaism, there are several terms commonly used in connection with death and mourning rituals, customs, and traditions. Most of us who are not Jewish are at least familiar with the word shiva, the traditional seven-day period of mourning, following the burial, when mourners remain at home, mirrors are covered, activities cease, and guests are received to offer comfort and participate in daily religious services. The less known word that you may not be familiar with is Avelut, the Hebrew word for mourning, which consists of three periods: shiva, sheloshim, and the year of mourning.
 
The word mourning is not used as often in our culture, as say grieving, but I have been in such a state of mourning, which to me is a much deeper and certain expression of deep, dark sorrow when someone you love has died. When I was growing up in my family’s funeral business, those who mourned typically followed certain conventions such as wearing black clothes, a torn ribbon on their lapel, or a wide black arm band over their suit jacket that told all who encountered them that they were is sorrow; mourning for someone, and we treated them differently. These “mourning bands” were first worn in the 18th century as a sign of respect for a recent monarch’s death. Black armbands are sometimes even seen in sports, after the death of a significant person. It’s been a tradition among ballplayers at least since the twenties. Even Emily Post wrote in her etiquette guide in 1940 regarding the deep meaning of the arm band. I am sad to say that the rarity of these bands is now pretty much a vestigial survival of the practice, at least in the United States. 
 

In our society today, however, we want the ‘bad’ to go away, and to do so quickly and quietly; that includes grief. We will hurriedly slide into a funeral for a visit, and leave directly afterward; we will hold your hand for a moment, and send a card, or a bouquet of flowers, but then it is time for you to just ‘get over it’ and move on; after all, we have text messages to reply to, and Facebook posts to read.

But it does not work that way in my world. I have been in deep mourning since the loss of my dad, Alton, at Christmas now two years ago, as unbelievable as it seems to me to say (I say his name often so no one will ever forget that he walked gently on this earth). Before that, mourning came with the loss of my friend, mentor, and our Associate Pastor, Monsignor Joseph Klemas. 

Father Joe was a good and honest man. I never understood the phrase, “He is such a lovely man,” but if anyone was so, it was Joe! He was, as I often ruminate, the ‘yin to my yang.’ He balanced my sometimes volatility and passion with a direct calmness that sprang from his own illness  with a heart attack. He was my confessor, my confident, and my friend. He was brought to us, I still believe, by a loving God who knew he needed to die an active priest, as much as we needed him to serve us, as a living one, until God was ready. God called on May 20th 2015 after a relatively short illness with leukemia. I wasn’t ready; Joe was.
 
We sat for our last time all alone in his room at Temple. We laughed, reminisced, and cried. We held hands, sitting knee-to-knee as he told me what he wanted, how he felt, how he loved me as a brother, and how he was worried about Dot, and how sometimes I just plain pissed him off! Then, he said to me, “Thank you, Monsignor, for giving me my priesthood back; I am good to go.” He was, and it was only two short days later that he met his Creator, the One he served with distinction all his life. I am still in mourning. 
 
I made a promise to Father Joe, and to all of you who made up the parish, that no one would be considered for the positon of  Associate Pastor for at least one year. When I told Joe that at Temple, he rebuffed and said, “But you need help…(long pause) but I am humbled.” I retorted that he deserved it; nay, he earned it! He had!
 
It has now been more than two years since we buried Monsignor Joe. God is ready, I am ready, and we, as a parish are now ready to welcome a new Associate Pastor. I have been in deep prayer and discernment as to the type of priest we needed. We have two good Assisting Priests in Father Bryan and Father Ken, but we need another full-time priest now as we grow into where God will lead us next. It is time. So, I asked God to send me someone like Monsignor Joe; quieter than I, more contemplative, prayerful. Someone who loves God and people, but also has the heart of a servant. I also hoped for a Franciscan, of course, to share my worldview and ideals! Someone once said that I may be exactly what God needed to build Saint Miriam, but my greatest strength is that I have the ‘heart of a pastor.’ I pray it is so, but I also know that I am Type-A, high energy, and often misunderstood as my emotions and energy run very high. I need a good balance, not a clone. God brought us Father John Connors!
 

Father John is much like me in that we both migrated from the Roman Catholic Church, attended Catholic Seminary, lived within a community of Order Priests, have a love for people, a fondness for liturgy, and we both believe in a loving God, and a life of unconditional service. We both served as Chaplains and know the pain of illness and loss. He, too, knows what it is like to be ostracized, misunderstood, and maligned. He knows what it is like to live in poverty, without anything, and was once even homeless for several months where his residence was a tent in a park. And, while he is not yet a Franciscan, he has a desire to discern its call! 

Where we differ is as important, too! He is much more contemplative, reflective, and prayerful! He enjoys engaging youth in sports and teaching scripture as well as leading retreats! He is married to a lovely woman named Joanne, and has a step-son; a family they have made together with the help of a God who loved John and Joanne so much that He made a way for John to remain a Catholic Priest, and honor his covenant as a new husband, and still remain faithful to his call, as a servant of God.

I am overjoyed to formally welcome Father John Connors, as our new Associate Pastor at Saint Miriam, and pray you will welcome him with me on Sunday, May 7th 2017!
 

Avelut Ends. Joy Comes!

 
 
 


Authentically Catholic Is Deeper Than a Big Hat!

 

I am rapidly approaching the fourth year of my episcopacy. I never thought I’d say that, as I felt surely it would be temporary! I have tried to lead my parish, and my appointed diocese, with the heart of a shepherd, but some say that I often run things ‘more like a business than a church.’ 

I have done a lot of praying and thinking searching; of my heart and the internet! My conclusion? They are right! You see, to build what we have built in less than ten years, to go from a rented chapel space with an annual budget of less than $3,000 to a 12.5-acre campus with a vibrant parish, thriving school, and renewed historic cemetery with a combined operating budget of over one million dollars, takes business acumen, and the heart of a shepherd. I try to find a good balance between the two, but perhaps it is a misconception of what a shepherd is, and does, that may be at the center of the issue.
 

I have watched on social media and within church news lately how many bishops are made! I was astounded! Why the heck do we need so many darn bishops?! And why do they need to dress up every day!? Then I realized that it much more to do with showing how powerful your jurisdiction is, rather than doing the work of the Church. A pastor should be a deacon first, a chief pastor (a bishop) should have the smell of their sheep always. Being authentically Catholic is far more than playing dress-up for the world; it is about keeping the waters calm, leading a flock, and providing constant direction, love, and care to those God brings to you. You don’t need a big hat to do all of that, you do need a rod and a staff, and thick skin!

The most famous example comes to us from the very pages of scripture in the 23rd Psalm, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That single portion from David’s Psalm of a what shepherd looks like places the emphasis upon a staff. A shepherd’s staff, or crook, is the long stick with a curled end we all think of so easily when the word ‘shepherd’ is presented to us. The staff has a curved end that fits the neck of the sheep perfectly, and it formed from a gradual u-shape, so it is gentle. I use it when I must present myself in my episcopal attire!

The staff has two purposes: First, it gives you a longer “arm”, since the shepherd has hundreds of sheep to watch over! For example, when you need to reach out to that ‘lost proverbial one’! Secondly, you need a staff to push a stray sheep into a trailer, or pen, or move them to turn at a crossing, when they think it the wrong direction! Waving a stick in your outstretched arm helps you block them off and steer them in the direction they need to go. Interestingly, the staff is designed to take hold of little lambs, as well as the full-grown sheep, using the same staff. After all, we all need a little direction from time to time!

But, so little is often said about the rod! The shepherd can lead and nudge with the crook, but he defends the flock from the wolves by his rod, and correct the sheep with the very same rod, when it is needed. Even today in many parts of the world, shepherds still carry rods and staffs to protect and care for their sheep, but the crook has a significantly different meaning and use than the rod.

God loves us so much not to leave us to ourselves. He cares enough to discipline us with the metaphorical rod when we need it, and loves us gently with the nudge of His staff. If God didn’t love us, He would allow us to just wander off like sheep over a cliff. God protects us from the enemy with the rod, and God uses the staff to keep us close to the Good Shepherd to save our soul. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, and He uses both the staff or crook when we need it, and the rod when we need it, too. So do His pastors. It is our job.

So, maybe next time you might think about both the staff and the rod before thinking me and my brother priests so callous! We may just see the cliff ahead and want us all to survive…

 

 



But it’s so long, Father!

 
Yes, it is long. In fact, tonight’s Mass is admittedly the longest of the church year, chiming in from start to finish somewhere around two to two and one half hours, but it will change your life deeply. And, think of what our Lord endured, so you cannot come impatient, watching a clock, and without allowing yourself to fall deeply into the experience. The Vigil liturgy tonight must be experienced; you must allow yourself to be immersed in every nuance.
 

The Easter Vigil begins with darkness. The darkness itself is the actual first movement of the liturgy, so we begin our preparations with that darkness. It represents all darkness – and all the meanings of darkness – whatever, wherever, and whomever is devoid of light; evil thoughts, motivations, deeds, actions; all that is hidden and secret, things deceitful and dishonest, gossipy, divisive, and abusive, and yes, immoral and sinful. It is all the ways and means that darkness is of our world, and all the ways that this darkness finds its way into my heart, and I am sure your heart, too. So, if you come to the Vigil tonight and restless, and impatiently fidgeting in the darkness that we begin within “until something happens,” you will miss the power of what is about to happen! We begin, today, in the sunshine that is trying to become our Holy Saturday, under the semi-clouded skies of God’s created world, to prepare by readying ourselves to experience the darkness so that we will then even more appreciate the Light. 

Why come then? Because #MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) needs to be replaced with #CTLOW (Christ The Light of the World). To do anything less is distasteful and reprehensible, embarrassing and humbling, fearful and despairing. It is only in the Light where true power, deep grace, and ultimate love lies, not in any-sized-bomb that destroys anything.

So, what are the movements you will experience if you dare to come tonight and join us in the darkness? First, we begin outside were in the darkness, a fire is kindled. Then, the candle is lit from the new fire and processed into the community – into our parish – into our hearts to warm us again. We receive its light, and experience its power, as that light grows among us. When the candle is brought to the front of the sanctuary, we experience, too, the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation,and so begins our journey through Salvific history and life is renewed.

We will then bless water, renew our baptismal promises, re-engage as Christians and as Catholics in a world that would rather know us not, as so many hearts are bent on revenge, and plotting, and amassing more things, rather than changing the world with light, love, selfless giving, and hope.

Yes, even as a priest, I am always human; and as a man, I like you, openly share some of the original Apostles’ doubt that day, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” they met those women who had he audacity to say He lives! After all, how could we not doubt? We live in a scientific age when truth must be verified by some controlled means for validation. No one alive today has witnessed a person rise from the dead! And yet, we believe…we believe the unbelievable testimony of those Galilean women that came full-force to those apostles in their deep grief and unimaginable loss, just as much as it comes to us today…tonight…after the sun sets and the world is drafted into darkness again.

But, pause for a moment today as you go about your busy Saturday lives and think for a moment as to ‘why’? Why do we believe? We believe not only because the apostles came to see the risen Jesus, but also because of experiences that you and I have all had just like that woman whose daughter rose from a death-like condition, because so many of us have been raised, too, from the plagues of our own lives. We do more than give credence to the story, we live it over and over again.

Amid your busy springtime, as the weather softens and our bodies beg to become lazier, God’s holy Church comes and begs us be different! The Church comes and interrupts our days and intrudes on our ‘standard way of life’ to summon and to haunt us.

Around that fire tonight at eight o’clock in the evening, just after the twilight has vanished, witnessing the first light of a brand new Paschal Candle, and in those wooden pews hearing about how we became a people of God, will be those who know for certain, absent any scientific fact, that we believe and so we conform our lives to Jesus, that we, too, might rise from the dead.

There is among us a deep and engaging wonderment of a world that can be made anew, a place where conservatives, moderates, and progressives alike can start a world again that loves first. It begins tonight with the longest Mass of the year, yes, but oh the peace that will come is worth every single second…

Come…

 


A holy, Holy Week: Your strength is found in Him!

 

Well we did what we could…

We offered programs to deepen your spirituality, prayer time to change you and the world, a special Lenten Retreat, homilies that inspired, Stations of the Cross that allowed you to walk with Jesus, beautiful liturgies, and now it is up to you. Each of you must decide if the preparation will bring you to the cross.

The Church demands that we, as Her followers, live differently. The gospels are not a collective of advice, they are the certain assurance that God lives and we live, too. But, we must believe differently; act differently. Every time you walk into the doors of the parish, you must change, be willing to change, as God demands. Each time you take Holy Communion – the very Essence and Presence of Christ – into your hands and bodies, you are called to renew your commitment to be the vessel that returns to the world and shares the extravagant goodness and hospitality of our loving God; called to lay your own life down, so that others might find Him and love Him, too. This is never truer than the journey we take of Holy Week.

We, as broken human beings, ache for a chance to start gain. To feel new, renewed, refreshed, and loved. To find a means to let go of the stress of life and embrace the calm embrace of God. But it costs. The price is a willingness to interrupt our lives for the journey, embrace God and the lessons He will impart, come to the Lord empty-handed, willing, and vulnerable, ready to accept the freedom that is about to come.

Scripture tells us that many of Jesus’ followers were ‘locked in fear’ until He came and said those words we all long to hear, “Peace be with you!”

Join us for Holy Week this Year. Come on Holy Thursday at 7:00pm, Good Friday at 3:00pm, Great Vigil of Easter of Holy Saturday at 8:00pm, and Easter Sunday at 7:30am and 9:00am, and when you reach the light of Easter Day, rejoice!

For the Lord is Risen, and so have you!
 
 


The Real Work of God.

 

We are about to enter Holy Week. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week of events leading up to Jesus’ death. It is one of the most important days in our Christian calendar for with this day, the Church willingly enters with the Lord into the commemoration of the mysteries of His Passion.

Lent was our time to make changes and to become better people as we prepared our temple for Jesus’ arrival. Our temple is to be the place where our goodness meets the holiness of Christ with a freshness and a renewal of purpose. It is to be a moment of clarity where we gain new direction and a deeper sense of worth and value from the disciplines we endured during Lent. But, what if some of us neglected Lent? What if we find we are in the wrong temple yet again, or worse, that our temple is the same as it was last year? What if we are still misguided, directionless, or think the most important temples are the movie theatre, the market,  the mall, or a stadium? Instead of setting our eyes on the Cross, we have them locked on some product that pales in value to that which the Lord did for us, and we find ourselves rudderless and lost still.

I shared a Facebook Meme this past week that told a story. It speaks to a growing problem with the world, and one that drips even into parish life, despite the Covenant we promise to abide and live by. It seems that we would rather make up ‘pleasing’ facts of our own, than live in the uncomfortable truth of what is. The story goes that once an old man spread false rumors that caused his neighbor to be arrested. The judge, before passing sentence on this falsehood, told the old man to go home, but on his way, he was to“write all the things you said on a piece of paper. Then, cut it up into little pieces and throw the pieces of paper out of your car window. Tomorrow, come back to hear the sentence.”  The next day, the judge told the old man to go out and gather up all the pieces of paper that you threw out of your car window yesterday.” The old man said, “I can’t do that! The wind spread them all over the place and won’t know where to find them.”  The judge replied, “In the same way, simple words destroy the honor of a person to such an extent that a person may not be able to fix it. Gossips are worse than thieves because they steal another person’s dignity, honor, reputation and credibility which are impossible to restore. So, remember this: when your feet slip, you can always recover your balance, but when your tongue slips, you can never recover your words!”

This past week, North Korea launched another ballistic missile, in Syria, the Asaad Regime murdered well over 70 of its own people, including at least 10 children, in what is suspected to be one of the deadliest chemical attacks in history. St. Petersburg, Russia was the latest site of another suicide terrorist attack on their Metro system; over a dozen killed and many more injured. A Meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, Africa has claimed the lives of nearly 300 people. 30 men and women were killed at a Muslim shrine in Pakistan. And that doesn’t even touch on what is happening on our own streets, in our own families, right here within our own cities; within our own borders. And, here, within our own parish, even as we approach Holy Week, a small, but vocal faction wishes to spur on false rhetoric regarding recent staff changes, and that our budget is failing because of our school, rather than doing the real work of God.

As pastor, I have learned that rumors will always be part of our culture. Despite the effort to be open, honest, and transparent, gossip seeps in and the rumor mill winds up every now and then. Even though we have outpaced almost every other parish around us, grown in less than nine years into what most do not achieve in tenfold that time, care for those who are hurting, welcome the desolate, embrace the lonely, and welcome everyone. Despite us being designated a ‘Sanctuary Parish’ to the refugee, and caring for local children with a quality, affordable, private education that otherwise would not be possible, we would rather talk behind the pastor’s back and point to him and decisions that never actually happened to soothe our conscious with falsehood and produce upheaval in a parish that is based on everything beautiful.

As a priest and pastor, I have sacrificed to live out my call and given much. As pastor, my job is to issue corrections to destructive behavior that harms the fabric of who we are, just as much as it is to anoint the dying, pray for the world, visit the sick, and bury the dead. And, as pastor, I am charged by God who called me, and my Bishop who appointed me, to care for you – all of you – even those who wish to dishonor me and my positon. But let us be clear: I do not work for you; I shepherd and sacrifice for youI work for God, and I am charged with caring for God’s holy Church by Bishop Gregory.

Transitions may be uncomfortable. Change may be unwelcome. However, both are needed and necessary to produce growth. We – this entire parish – are a product of such change and transition. In our short, but vibrant life, we have grown and changed and transitioned many times. If we did not, we would still be back renting that small chapel in a Jewish synagogue with the just handful of people. Our ability to impact the thousands of lives we do would be harmed and even eliminated; in fact, it would never have existed at all.

I have tried to be a source of consummate support, love, and care for all who come here. I feel that I have been that to many of you, even those who have turned away from me for no reason. In Lent, I know that the devil is alive and well. I also know that I am not he, despite the words of some of you. It would be so much more comforting if the source were a devil with horns and a pitchfork. But the source, unfortunately, looks unremarkably ordinary: indifference, self-centeredness, clannishness, self-righteousness, pride, moralism, gossip, innuendo, and false superiority. None of these have a place at Saint Miriam.

I will make decisions that you may not always like. If I have not offended you yet in my life as pastor, I promise I will get around to you sooner or later! In other words, you may not always appreciate what I do, but I do so with all the facts, and all the prayer, and with the fullness of my office with all the facts. After all, is that not what you want? A strong pastor who is selfless and determined to care for everyone? Why not appreciate those who remain, too, while you mourn the loss of those who leave?

I endure the losses of staff, parishioners, and visitors right alongside you. I often sit alone in my office and weep, and yes, I often blame myself. But, I will never disclose personal information, or engage in gossip or backstabbing. I know the sting of feeling like you have failed. I have resigned from three jobs and was terminated from two others in my lifetime; one very publicly. I know the feeling, and I will not engage anyone on a transition. If someone departs, I will wish them well, pray for them, thank them for what they did in their life of service for us during their time here, and hope they find that which they seek. I pray they will do the same for me.

On the other hand, for anyone to state that I do so devoid of feelings, or with malice of intent, is not only cowardly, it is wrong and without a shred of truth. I do not deserve your respect simply because of my office or title, I have earned it because of my dedication, sacrifice, and unconditional love.
 

There are real problems in the world. Real death. Real poverty. Real illness. Real loneliness. Real war. If any of my readers, parishioners, and friends wish to engage in such harmful and unwarranted behavior, you are welcome to do it elsewhere, as harsh as that sounds. Why?

Because we have work to do; the real work of God…
 
 


“Father, whatever you need, just ask…”

 
When I was a young boy we had a rather elderly Monsignor who had served our parish with dedication for some twelve-plus years. He was a good priest and wonderful pastor. He was honest, always available, and would go wherever he was asked or needed. Many a Saturday you would find him toiling in the rectory garden, gathering his prized vegetables to give freely to the neighbors. It was this priest who introduced me to the compassion of God’s ministry when, rather than scold me for giving ‘communion’ to my pets in the form of Ritz Crackers and Grape Juice, he took me into the sacristy, found some loose ‘priest’s hosts’ and wrapped them in a small baggie telling me sternly in his broken Italian-English accent, “Whatever you doa, Jimmy, don’ta tella your momma! Onea day, you’rea gonna makea a gooda priest.”
 

I think I am a good priest, and I attribute it to his leadership, his love, but most of all to his compassion and dedication. It took me many years to get here; to let go of myself in order to give more to others. It is the model I follow to this very day. I try to go where needed, always be responsive, and never let anyone in need remain alone. I think often about Monsignor Marino after all these years. He lives on in my ministry because it was this elderly priest that gave me the core gift needed in every good priest: a relentless dedication to the love of Jesus and to those who come to him.

Monsignor was well taken care of in the rectory. We prepared his meals, did his laundry, and he was given a brand-new car every two years, too! But the highest honor we gave to him was when we replied, “Yes, Monsignor, whatever you need!”  We knew that being called to pastor a parish was by God and we honored that office with every word, every action, and with our every prayer.

This past Monday, Chester and Donna called me to tell me how much they love me. They called and said that they knew that every change, every loss, and every transition was hard on me, but that they appreciated me and all my hard work. They appreciated even more that I have stayed as pastor, never once abandoning them, or the parish. Then, they said something that I haven’t heard for quite some time, “Father, whatever you need, just ask…”

In a perfect world, we wish everyone who comes to our church would stay forever. I get that. I share that desire, too. But, the reality is, that on this side of heaven, people come and people go, not just in church, but everywhere. Think about it: I bet that fairly recently you’ve switched gyms or supermarkets. You’ve probably bought or sold your car in the last few years; maybe, like me, even your home. And, I bet that in your lifetime, you’ve even changed numerous jobs (either by choice or by directive!) The church is not a commodity, but the law of averages tells us a certain percentage of people inevitably come and go. It is the hardest part of my life as pastor, I’m always saying goodbye.

I have found that usually, when people leave a church, it’s because there’s a problem, a disagreement or a conflict of some kind. Sometimes it is even me! They don’t like my leadership style, or a decision made, or even a change. They rarely come and talk about it, they just give into gossip or innuendo and leave. But my job as Pastor is to protect the parish – all the parish – every single member – from the youngest to the oldest and I do so with great thought, much prayer, and sometimes many tears. I also know that I make these decisions – many of them very difficult – with the highest of ideal and intent, and with full depth of knowledge, because I actually live here and spend hundreds of hours a week here. So, perhaps those who think my decisions rash, might stop and rethink? Maybe they should pause and say to themselves, ‘He is the pastor, he knows more than I do; let me go talk to him, or just trust him. After all, he’s gotten pretty far!’

Ironically, I’ve also come to learn that people leave churches when things are going well, too. As surprising as it sounds, every time we make progress, we’ll lose people. So why do people leave even when we’re making improvements or growing? Simple. The people who are at our parish today are there because they like it the way it is. Change that, even for the better, and some will leave. Add new staff members, or transition one as they leave, build a new building or move locations, start a new program, stop an old one, or God-forbid announce a new initiative to reach out beyond the walls, and people will leave.

A longstanding parishioner remarked recently that he had never seen our school. In fact, he had never been in any other part of the parish building except from the door to the sanctuary and back out! He had no idea what it looked like, or how it functioned, or how many children we impact. Now, to be clear, he regularly comes to Mass, but walks in, walks out, and this is about all he does and all he knows. Once he visited the school, saw the tiny faces and the warm embrace of our wonderful educators, he gave $100 a month to support their work, in addition to increasing his pledge to the parish, too!

We all have a way of keeping to certain habits and paths; some are far narrower than others. This may be comfortable and easy, but it’s distinctly unhelpful for the church and for ourselves. Many parishioners have little knowledge of the true scope of our programs and the reach Saint Miriam has on the world. Many, in similar manner, have little concept of what their pledged contributions provide, or how they impact real people; making their lives better. They fail to take pride in all that Saint Miriam offers and accomplishes. And the smaller their vision, the less satisfaction they get in giving, and the less impetus there is to give generously, the more their very small God fails them, and then they leave in search of something they already had all along. If you are one of these, I pray that this is the Lent you will find a reason to change.

There will always be a tiny minority that likes the church just the way it is. They don’t want it to get bigger. They don’t want it to get better. They just want it to stay the same. As exciting as the future is, some people prefer the present. Others live in the past. I never have; I go where God calls…

Living in the past often produces dead roses and lifeless skulls upon our altars, and I have learned that’s life in a parish that doesn’t embrace change. So, I refuse to let us fall into complacency…after all, we have work to do!
 
 


We Dared to Allow for Change.

 
So far, during this holy season, I have spoken on reflection, self-examination, the inevitability change, and the willingness to emerge from our intended holy cocoon into something better; more beautiful. It is a process that growth demands, but it is never easy, and often uncomfortable.
 
I have been thinking a lot lately about dedication, willingness to be used by God (metaphorically and literally), letting go of our inherent selfishness, human desired focuses, and the prevailing entitlement mentality common in today’s age, into one of true servanthood. What I’d like to reflect on with you today is my leadership role, as a pastor, in the midst of change; intentional and unintentional, expected and unexpected, that so often accompanies parish life.
 
When I first began serving as pastor, I wasn’t used to such dramatic and inevitable change. I certainly didn’t welcome the plethora of change that so often comes with the job! I was, quite honestly, used to my intense role as a Trauma Chaplain. I went to the Trauma Center, did my 18-24 hours, and I went home. I was good at my job, loved the fast-paced culture, and my entire ministry was wrapped up by the end of my shift.
 

Pastoral leadership at the parish level is quite different. Days are really weeks or months, there are no shifts, one day can change as quickly as the weather, and ministry is marked by years, not days. And, as I have often ruminated, perhaps the hardest thing for me to get used to is saying goodbye, or worse, watching someone walk out the door knowing that it is good for the whole.

Most folks who come to us, come for a season. A season is a biblical term often used, but never defined, and I have learned that is very true in parish ministry. Some come for years, others for a mere number of weeks or months, and some just for a single Mass. But, however long their season is with us, they deserve our love, respect, greatest effort, and warmest welcome. In other words, we are to be radically hospitable to all, even if they are not to us, or leave abruptly.

I have also learned a valuable lesson on goodbyes; some folks are just not good at them. This is not a reflection on them, positive or negative, it is simply the truth. Some leave without nary a word, others with much hoopla, and still a minority go out with a proverbial bang! Some leave because they move or relocate jobs, others due to life changes such as illness or loss, still others because they have fulfilled their time – their season – with us and are ready for the next adventure, wherever it may be. Those are all valid reasons and we wish them well, but mourn their absence; and, as I said, it is part of healthy parish ministry. The hardest ones for me, however, are those who leave because they give in to gossip, or feel harmed in some way without giving anyone a chance to hear them out and perhaps, prove their perception wrong. I also find that many people are afraid of change, and that fear inhibits their ability to find where God truly lives and God’s best for them.

I find many of the issues holding us back to accept change are structural. This is where I, as a pastor, have my greatest responsibility. Where do we spend time, energy, and resources that are not bearing fruit? Who or what is causing inner-turmoil, dissension, or unhappiness? What programs are failing, or in need of a ‘fresh coat of paint’? I once heard something I’ve never forgotten: the biggest difference between a small church and a large one is that a small church has a much harder time letting go of the things that aren’t working! That is certainly true of our parish. It’s also true of our diocese, and many other churches, too. So, perhaps this Lent, we are called to practice authentic reevaluation, and learn to let go.
 
The other primary areas of what holds us back are cultural, embedded in personal preferences masked as core values. I have found that these values are often not worth dying for, if pressed. So, they are merely preferences without a gauge as to why, but hard-pressed are we to let them go without a fight! Jesus once said to Nicodemus that we speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen. This is what I know to be true in parish life. For how we respond amid the ‘storm of change’ will have more lasting impact than the storm itself.  
 
Okay, back to the task at hand: what, then, is my primary task in the midst of change or storm? Well, that is simple: it is to hold us steady.  I need to keep my hand firmly on the rudder and listen to God’s voice. Rest assured, I feel a whole range of emotions with each loss, each change, each storm, but it would not be healthy for me to express them publicly. How could I remain calm enough to pay attention and truly listen to God if I am perplexed by own emotions? I have found that my service to all of you is to go deep inside of myself, in prayer and self-examination, and remember how big my God really is, and allow change to come…
 
So, then, perhaps my most important reconciling work as a pastor can be identified as doing everything from my position to equip leaders, ministry team members, parishioners, staff, and visitors, in the hard work of adapting to the changing world around them; even if it is right here at home. After all, our beautiful community of faith, centered around the good news of Jesus, once began because we dared to allow for change. 
 


Peter, do you love me?

 

Lent this year at Saint Miriam has been intentionally deeper. We carefully added both liturgical and reflection elements to allow us all to find God in ways we could never have imagined. We were intentional and reflective in our choices and decisions; just like Lent should be.

We began with Ash Wednesday and used the powerful symbol of ashes made from the burnt palm branches that welcomed in Christ at last year’s Palm Procession. We then added the ominous words, ‘Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust that shalt return.’ But, we were not selfish in our investiture day of Lent, as we then took those ashes to the streets with Ashes-to-Go and stood train side at the Ft. Washington Commuter Station to help others welcome in this time of refection and change, too. So, began our journey together.

Since that day, we have added moments of reflection in Adoration, and Stations of the Cross and the 24-hour Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to take place the 29th-30th from 6:00pm to 6:00pm; as well as moments of instruction in the Instructed Eucharist and the coming Evangelism 101 on March 26th. We will soon enjoy together a beautiful and moving Lenten Retreat with Sr. Eleanor Francis this coming Saturday, and then – being a people of welcome and inclusion – will welcome her to our Altar for the Morning Mass on Sunday, the 19th and then enjoy her forum discussion afterward in our Undercroft space! A special Lent-edition Sacred Meal is slated for tonight, the 15that 6:30pm, and we will gather for Mass and Stations again, and the cycle will repeat until God deems us ready and we welcome in the Easter Triduum and the Light comes again on Easter Sunday

Lent is a time for cold, sober, intentional reflection on what we have become and what we wish to – nay, need to change. Lent is a time of reflection on that which, deep down, our faith knows to be true, but our human spirit fights to change in our brokenness and selfishness. Lent is an opportunity, given us by a god of love and grace, to move closer to the ultimate reality of community and love and dedication to God and church that we want to be true, but have mostly forgotten in our hustle and bustle life.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of community. The God of light and love and peace. The God of hope and of grace. Is also the God of the poor, the marginalized, and the hurting. He is the God of the outcast, and the needy, the hungry, and the lost. Our God is pro-life in every sense of the word; God loves all, created all, and welcomes all. We, as followers of that God are to welcome the outcast, the seeker, the naked and the afraid. How we, as a community, do just that is the barometer of how we will be judged. This is what Lent should bring to us. Are we willing to give up something of ourselves – some enjoyment, some need, some desire, some time, some convenience – and add to our day an inconvenience, an outreach, a handout, to improve the life of another, or to stop long enough to worship this God we say we love, but rarely actually show it.

On my recent visit to St. Padre Pio, I met a man who desired to become a deacon. He has a heart of service, but he also has a severe learning disability. He drives a school bus and is simple in his demeanor. He is sometimes unkempt and disorganized. He often presents himself with a less than pressed attire and looks a bit disheveled. He has been the object of ridicule, even within his own parish, and yet he serves. Some believe he should not be at the altar, some have even suggested that he should never be allowed entrance into the discernment process, let alone ever be ordained a deacon. I met with him during my visit and he was very clear on his ‘issues’ and his disabilities. He admitted his failings and his shortcomings. He told me of his concerns in learning and how he would even be able to complete the intensive formation of diaconate training. I listened and I observed. Later, I returned to both priests of the parish and I asked the same question of them at two different times: What do you think of this man? The common line was this: “He is a good man, he is considerate, he is kind, he is compassionate, he loves God and the church and is dedicated to the parish.”

With the consent of the pastors of St. Padre Pio, a letter of welcome to the process will soon be going out from my desk to this man. And, one day, within the next few years, I have little doubt that we – as the community that calls God’s one holy catholic church our home – will welcome a new deacon!

The promise of God is He is here and now. The reality of God is there are no shortcuts to His love. Even in our humanness we are called to be more, to do more, to love more, to become more, to abandon ourselves more to serve more. The light is a gift to us. The work is all on us. The fast is required for us to get there a changed and ready people. In order to truly serve, we must be willing to abandon our boats and follow…
 
“Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep…”
 


New Wine, Old Wine Skins…Our Lenten Journey

 

New Wine into Old Wineskins is a parable of Jesus. It is found in all three synoptic Gospels at Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22 and Luke 5:33-39. It reads:

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”

While speaking out against the status quo of His day, Jesus referred to Himself, His message, and the recipients of that powerful life changing message, as new wine poured out into new wineskins. Jesus was scandalous and even intoxicating at times during His tenure on earth. He challenged the everyday ‘way things used to be’ and promoted a new way of living based on the Gospel. But, it scared people because they had to change their current ways of living and believing. Things have not changed all that much in the two millennia that has passed, as we are still frightened of change.

Jesus to this very day is still very much scandalous and intoxicating. The problem is that those of us who claim to follow Him — no matter our status, or stage in life — are so prone to pour the new wine of His life and word into our old rotten skins of “Church-ianity” that can never contain it, ruining both in the process. You see, we must change to grow, and the church must grow and change, and yes, it must allow for growth and change or good people will never grow, never find Christ, never be what God intended.

Think of it this way: IF things always stayed the same, leadership never changed, and oppressors always won, then Miriam would never have been born, never saved Moses, never influenced the course of Salvific history, and later, some thousands of years later, Saint Miriam Parish would never have come into existence either! This place we call home, where we worship, pray, cry, baptize our babies, anoint our sick, pray for the dead, welcome the foreigner, feed the hungry, warm the lost, cloth the naked, support the needy, and bear witness to a living, breathing, alwaysexisting God – this place – would never have existed for you to find it in the first place!

However, this place must learn to deal with change, too. That is why I prefaced my blog post today with my opening comment in my weekly Franciscan Moment Reflection this past Monday with the words, “Change is inevitable”.  And it is. For us, for our parish, for our nation, and for the world. Change is here, and change must always be here; and we must welcome and embrace and endure change with a spirit of playfulness and whimsy, or our wine will surely spill and our salt will lose its saltiness.

This past week, I accepted a very kindly worded written letter of resignation from Kathleen, as she will soon leave the position of Parish Administrator. This position has grown and changed tremendously, just as we have grown and changed greatly in the past almost two years now here on our new campus home. She feels it is now beyond what she wanted, far more things to care for than ever imagined, and she is ready to search for a new beginning. We support her in that choice. We send her with our best wishes, our regret for the times we disagreed, (especially me, as pastor, in my own humanness and brokenness) and we wish her nothing but faith, love, and happiness! We also thank her for the gifts she brought to the parish for the time she spent with us in this position and she leaves with a new computer laptop, and many good memories, as our gift for her journey! In her caring style, she asked for no fanfare, we will honor that request, but send our love and support.

The Board and I decided that we will not replace this position. I will accept more work in my current role, and we have promoted from within to others already this week on our team several of the tasks; they were thrilled to accommodate. Further, we will hire a new employee that will serve in an administrative support role, as well as a very much needed receptionist for our school at the start of every new day! These changes will reduce our payroll expenditures by almost 18% and increase our ability to serve even more students, families, and parishioners alike. This new position is slated to be filled within the next two weeks so get ready to welcome a new face to the team! We welcome what new wine God will bring our way and stand ready to accept with openness and love the changes to come.

At our school side, we welcomed Miss Margaret, back after the tragic loss of her son, Nick. She returns to us, changed as she is, to continue her journey and to touch the lives of the children she has come to love so deeply. We welcome her home.  Too, we also have a few board transitions coming up. Every Board member, except for the Executive Board, has imposed term limits for 2-4 years. Many of them automatically renew, but this year a couple members wish to finally step down after several such renewals; who could blame them? They have served well and helped us to be where we are today! So, we are excited to welcome Ms. Donna Mitchell who fill one such position, and we are hoping that someone new will help us by volunteering to serve for a two-year term? We need new wine to continue to strengthen, and to challenge, the status quo! Please see me, or email me, if you are so inspired. We would be grateful and certainly can use your talent and voice!

Finally, I would be remiss, as a priest and your pastor, if I did not take us back to Lent. This holy time of year is a good time of our journey to experience change that makes us uncomfortable. It challenges us to look within and see how we, too, must change to grow. If we do not readily accept change, we should seek out why? If we gossip over change and harm those who remain to serve, we should seek to change that destructive habit and become more in tune with our Covenant here at Saint Miriam. If we seek to cause division by spreading innuendo and falsehoods, we should recognize that Jesus was killed by the same activity. We are all better than that, and this is perhaps why God gives us the gifts of change, one another, and this holy Season of Lent.

The New Wine into Old Wineskins is also a good metaphor for building relational bridges with one another, even those we fall out of relationship with, or do not know yet. Our duty as Christians and practicing Catholics. We must all understand that relations change, but they never end unless we – in our brokenness and human selfishness – cause them to do so.

I will not be with you this weekend, as I will be traveling to St. Padre Pio for a diocesan pastoral visit and to confirm five new Catholics! I am excited and I will miss you greatly, but I leave you in the very capable hands of one Father Bryan! I hope you will pray for me, the Confirmandi, and their ministry team, but always pray for one another, too.

So, perhaps then, Lent is not just a time for loss or change, but also a time for a gathering up. We can use this time for self-reflection, penitence, and preparation before the Easter sunrise to gather up, with what I like to call intentional love, new habits, new ways of looking at our world, a renewed sense of commitment to our parish and greater church, and a renewed sense of wonder and respect for all God has given to us through His generosity, love, and grace, as well as our willingness to accept the change that always comes. I believe that such an increased recognition will better enable us to give to those in need, and receive even greater blessings because of our unconditional trust in God.

So how do we start? I think that our Catholic Catechism is clear:  We need, first, to gather up the disposition of the humble heart.

I will bring mine with me, I pray I meet all of yours, too.

See you next week.