The End of an Era (Another…) & Lessons Learned.

 

Since I lost my dad a little over a year ago so much has changed. I have moved twice in that time, sold my primary home in Philadelphia to help enable my parish to purchase the beautiful campus we now call home, and I moved into what the world calls ‘tiny house living’ in an RV at the edge of that same campus. We rescued a failing congregation and restored hope to a school and re-envisioned an historic cemetery and added a friary, too. Yes, a lot has happened in a short few ten months time.

Now, we have a parish that is growing, a school that is engaging, a summer camp that is the most successful in its history, and a staff of nineteen fine folks – and many more volunteers – who make the dreams of so many come true. Our Saint Miriam Cafe’ is a hallmark of our hospitality and stewardship, our Small Groups engage people where they are and fill them with renewed faith, our Mass schedule reflects the needs of those who come, and we continue to improve our facilities to make it more comfortable for everyone, just witness (and feel) the new air conditioning systems installed this summer in our Sanctuary! Yes, a lot has changed. We have much to be proud of.

This past Wednesday, in anticipation of my mom moving to be closer to me in Flourtown this past holiday weekend, I called home like I had done countless thousands – if not millions – of times before over my now fifty years of life. But, this time, the call ‘could not be completed’.  The number was disconnected and I fell into a heap of tears. I wept so hard that I had to pull my car over to the side of the highway, as I traveled back from my medical appointment near Allentown on I-476. I just sat at the edge of the roadway – as hundreds of cars passed by without every knowing – and I wept – I wept tears of sorrow and change – I wept tears of things lost – I wept in my continuing bereavement for my dad and this one last earthly connection I maintained, and yes, selfishly cried for myself and all that I lost – all that I gave up by becoming a priest. The time I lost with my family. The income I gave so willingly. The time I will never make up for. The vacations I never could afford to take. The pleas that I make to other parishioners to help us financially at the parish so we don’t lose what we have together; pleas that sadly almost never get answered. It may have seemed just a telephone number, but for me it was a lifeline. A standard. A constant in my life whereby no matter where I was, what was happening – good or bad or indifferent – I always had a home and this is how I got there when far away…

Then, in my despair, it dawned on me: that is why Saint Miriam is so important to me. She has become my lifeline now. My constant. My home. She is where I go to build and to play, to work and to cry, to mend and to grow, to worship and to laugh, to make mistakes, but to be uplifted in them despite my human frailty. She is where I find people who once felt like they could never fit in, and now finally fit perfectly. She is where those who thought they could never pass the ‘Catholic litmus test’, do and do so well! She is where all are welcome and where we prove that simple adage every single day. Yes, she is worth fighting for; worth keeping, worth the struggle. No, you may not always like me, the manner in which I pastor her, or even agree with the way I ‘build’  for tomorrow, or the decisions that I make, but you must admit she works, and for the most part, she works so well.

I learned how to do that at home. At home in Erie, Pennsylvania, on a small street called Clayton Avenue, in a small white house with red shudders numbered 128, and that bore the telephone number of 866-0950 that is now no more…
 

I sit at my home as I began the first draft of this week’s reflection. It has been my home for as long as I can remember now. We moved to this home when I was less than age five, and no matter where I was, or what I was doing, when someone asked me where ‘home’ was, this is what immediately came to mind.

 
So, yes, the phone is gone, and the address changed, but the lessons learned here?
 
Well, they have built a legacy called Saint Miriam.
 
 


Things I have learned in diapers keep me alive and well…

 

In the end, I am a mama’s boy. Self-admitted and very proud of it as I grow older! I will be moving my mom closer to me this coming weekend. I am both excited and little nervous, too! I hope it is for the good – good of her, not just for me. I am more and more irrelevant. I guess that is why I am a pretty good pastor: you need to be less relevant or there is no room for those who actually need you. 

I’ve read studies that higher than some 80 percent of male pastors say they are much closer to their mothers than their fathers. So, I am not alone! But, this has a lot of implications, and it explains why those of us who are momma’s boys are more likely to play an instrument than fire a gun, have coffee with a friend than watch a good ball game, or read a book than restore a vintage Corvette! So, when you’re dealing with me in the coming weeks, keep in mind that because as a momma’s boy I will likely to speak the language of nurture over discipline, collaboration over competition, forgiveness over punishment.

These aren’t things I’ve learned in seminary; these are things I have learned in diapers.

This is also why I worry a lot more than is wise, and am sad when you stay away from the church that I have given my soul to build. I literally have nothing left, own almost nothing anymore, it is all here, all within the walls and grounds of this campus we call Saint Miriam. In fact, if I died tomorrow, you would all be receiving a panicked phone call from Alan to help raise needed funds to even bury me! (Thank God we own a cemetery, huh?) I know it’s summer, but I still need God and I still need you. I hope you still need me and each other, too.

I also know enough to realize that we are not alone. As the weather warms up all across America, churches empty out and attendance drops dramatically. At Saint Miriam, we are down by 40% already and it’s barely July! There are many reasons people give me for not coming: No church school, they have a shore home or a boat or even a standing 9am Sunday tee time, they go on weekend trips, or just stay home to enjoy the weather. But, as a member of Christ’s holy Church, do we not need to also honor God and those things we learned from the time we were in diapers? You know, caring for one another, uplifting one another, supporting God and the church, praying, remaining strong spiritually, being present so others are there when we need them, too? I know that there are many reasons not to come to church in the summer, but there are many more really important reasons to show up. So, I leave you with a story…

A member of the church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor’s visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.

The pastor made himself at home but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs. After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent.

The host watched all this in quiet contemplation. As the one lone ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead.

Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave. He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.

Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.  As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said with a tear running down his cheek, ‘Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I will be back in church next Sunday.’

We live in a world today, which tries to say too much with too little. Consequently, few listen. Sometimes the best sermons are the ones left unspoken.

I know it I summer…but please allow me to help keep the fires aglow?
 


My Heart Goes Out To You; Does Yours To Me?

 

The quick thinking of a Target Store manager, and his employee, saved the life of a 72-year-old woman who went into cardiac arrest at their store last Saturday evening. Manager Brad Dickerson and Austin Snelling found the woman face down. Snelling began CPR and Dickerson brought and used an Automatic External Defibrillator on her chest. The AED was used, CPR was re-applied and the woman woke up. By the time emergency responders arrived, the woman was conscious and speaking. It all happened in less than 6 minutes after the 911 call was placed. She as saved. She lives today. Yes, life is about choices.

Life is about choices. You can attend Mass to honor God and build your stamina as you become part of a family of hope, or stay home and relax and hope that trouble never finds you. You can sacrifice a little more to help God build a church, or you can go to the movies, or buy that new pair of shoes you want to add to an already large collection of shoes rarely worn. You can help a child fund an education they could not get on their own, or you can buy that Grande Latte at Starbucks again this morning on your way to the office. You can save a life, or let someone die. Yes, life is about choices.

Target and its employees made the right choice. So did Saint Miriam. A few weeks ago we began to ask folks to donate to allow us to purchase and install our own AED (automated external defibrillator) so that we could – if called upon – possibly save the life of someone we love and care about, or a visitor with an unknown heart ailment, or a child in our school with a diagnosed heart condition. We asked. Only eight of you responded at all, and one in a bigger way, and that is the only way we were able to finally achieve our goal. Only eight in over hundreds of parishioners who call Saint Miriam home felt this was worth your giving. Yes, life is about choices.

When easy-to-use heart defibrillators came onto the market two decades ago, they were billed as a way to save the lives of tens of thousands of victims of cardiac arrest each year. But today defibrillators are still few and far between. And, they often sit in back rooms or lockers, shuttered away from public view (Our AED unit is located in the Connecting Corridor between the parish and school/admin wings. It is clearly marked by several signs and easily accessible.) These devices are small miracles! They are ‘smart’ devices that allow anyone – even those not certified in CPR to save a life. The AED devices are designed to restart an individual’s unbeating heart through electrodes placed on his or her chest, and the devices are programmed not to shock an individual with a pulse. The version we installed even speaks to you, and tells you step-by-step what to do! The device determines the needed charge and delivers what is needed to save a life. There are no liability concerns, no one can sue you, and studies show that every minute it takes before a defibrillator is placed, your chances of success decrease by 10 percent. To have a mere 50-50 chance of survival, you have less than five minutes to get the defibrillator in place and the shock delivered. But, that means you need the device and the willingness to use it. Yes, life is about choices.

Statistically, when you dial 911, the average emergency response time for first responders is 8 to 12 minutes. Every minute that defibrillation is delayed, the chance of survival is reduced by about 10 percent. Experts estimate that improved training and access to AEDs could save over 50,000 American lives annually. At Saint Miriam, we felt that worth the investment. I am glad 8 of you agreed with me.
 
Yes, life is about choices.
 
PS The links are still live if you wish to help us, just Click Here. Remember, the life you save…may be your own.
 


In the end, love won. It always does.

 

“If I would have known my son was in the club, I would have gone inside myself and put him on my back, and carried him to the trauma center.”

These were the words that finally broke me. They are the words of Christine Leinonen. She is the mother of Christopher “Drew” Andrew Leinonen, only 32 years old, and she spoke these words after his name had been added to the list of the dead. She had waited some 30+ hours after the murders in Orlando, holding a small sliver of hope. It was not to be.

I have been almost stoic – in many ways too stoic – through much of the Orlando tragedy. Why? I just can’t take it anymore. I could not allow myself to grieve, to weep, to hurt, to allow my innards to break through the surface of my skin and feel the outside hurt of the prejudice, hate-filled air again. I couldn’t. But, I finally did. These words broke through to a place where I do not let many people in, and I grieved deeply. I am sad; terribly sad.
 

I knew the moment would eventually come. It had to in order for me to heal, and to begin to think of how to help. It came. Finally. Christine’s words, a mom in a place she would never have imagined when Drew was born and placed in her warms all those years ago, did it for me. I broke wide open, like a fragile vase fallen from a narrow shelf where it had been precariously perched for years gathering dust. This was not how it was to go for her; how the ending was to come. But it has, and as a compassionate person who often wears his feelings on his sleeve, the tears came so overwhelmingly as I held her close, though the distance great between us; so close that in my empathy, I could hardly breathe. I hate hate. I do. I don’t hate much, but I hate hate.

I hate that people hate gay people. I hate that people hate those who are poor or on the margins. I hate that people hate immigrants and those  feeling persecution and war without a single thought to their own ancestors who most likely did the very same thing. I hate how many of the affluent and the privileged have no time for the indigent, or the different, except to hate them or enslave them by low wages and menial jobs. I hate that people hate based on religion or God.  Like Roger Jimenez, the Baptist pastor in California (I use that term loosely) who refused to mourn these murders, but instead filled the airwaves with the hatred from his dark soul as he proclaimed that “Orlando, Fla., is a little safer tonight” because “50 pedophiles were killed today.” and then added, “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is — I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job!”

And, if you think Jimenez is alone, try Steven Anderson, of Arizona, who is well known for his violability an hatred from the pulpit if his tiny church, Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, who actually celebrated the shooting rampage, by stating: “The good news is that at least 50 of these pedophiles are not going to be harming children anymore,” Anderson added, “The bad news is that a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit people into their filthy homosexual lifestyle. The other bad news is that this is going to now be used as propaganda not only against Muslims, but also against Christians.” 

No, God is not hate. That I know. I guess, in the end, that is enough to know, but now we must continue to act for the God we know, the God of love.

If you don’t think what we do at Saint Miriam is important, stop today and think of the 49 killed and the 43 injured and still fighting for their lives. Think of how we fight against hated in all its varied forms. Think of how we have succeeded in building a place of light and love and hope, despite being hated ourselves. Think of this place we have built together; a place to allow everyone to worship. To be loved. To be welcomed. To be Catholic without all of the bullshit that normally comes with that word.

I need your help today. I rarely utter those words, as I usually just do things myself, but today I need you to support our work. Why? Because I recognize that try as I might I cannot do it alone. Because it is that vitally important, even more important than ever before, because hate is about to win and we cannot allow it to happen. No, not on our watch. Not now, not here, not ever. I fight every day to help others feel loved. Join me and make a donation in memory of time killed, honor Drew, to help us change the way people are hated within the church. Let us prevent more hate. Let us continue to grow a place that knows not one single boundary on our ability to welcome and to love. 

“If I would have known my son was in the club, I would have gone inside myself and put him on my back, and carried him to the trauma center.”

That is what we do every day at Saint Miriam. We carry many to this place we have built together, as we care for those who are sick of hate, too, harmed by the greater church, and those who claim to be followers of a God of love, we help repair those who have been  maimed – or now even killed – by religious prejudice. Christopher would like that, I am sure. 
 
Christopher Leinonen’s boyfriend, Juan, was killed with him. They died side-by-side. They will be buried together this coming Monday. I think they would have liked that, too. In the end, love won. It always does.
 


Praesertim Oboedientiam.

 

“praesertim oboedientiam”  that is what was written, literally in stone, across the transom passageway from where we lived and where we ate together in the refectory at my seminary when I began my journey to the priesthood. A journey that would take some twenty-one years to complete. It summed up, at least for me, what the Church expected of me – and the other men in formation – strict, unadulterated, and unquestioning obedience above all; nothing less would do. I failed. Many do. Here are three tales and I will still end these brief sagas of woe in a spirit of peace and with a lesson of hope.

This past week I met with a woman who left the church because of something that happened almost 28 years ago. Since that time she has been struggling to find a place of refuge; a spiritual home that would – could – fill her needs, embrace the diversity inherent in her family, inspire her, give her hope, light…peace. She has failed many times. Despite the many churches, denominations, and even a synagogue that she has attended and tried to ‘fit in’, she had yet to find her way to a place she could feel ‘at home’. Then she walked into Saint Miriam one Sunday and ‘felt more love and care than in all the other churches I ever went to combined!”, she said. But, is it a ‘real’ Catholic Church, she inquired of me? That was her struggle. After nearly three decades away from the Roman Church, she is still struggling with what she had been erroneously taught so many years ago.

The week before this appointment, I met with a gentleman who demanded an appointment with me. He entered my office, almost angered, because he visited our parish website and discovered that we do not use the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass. I explained to him that we do, but only at the 7:30am Early Mass; that the later Masses use Novus Ordo Missae, which literally means the “new order of the Mass” or the “new ordinary of the Mass” as promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970. He was not amused.

A brief history: For a long time, we referred to the new liturgy (or the Missal of 1970) as the “new rite”, and the older liturgy (the most recent version of which is the Missal of 1962) as the “old rite.” In his July 2007 letter, however, Pope Benedict XVI said that we should instead think of these Missals as being two forms of a single Roman rite, rather than as two separate rites. Thus he prefers that instead of “new rite” and “old rite,” we now are to call them, “Ordinary Form” (his name for the Missal of 1970, or Novus Ordo Missae) and “Extraordinary Form” (the Missal of 1962, or the traditional Latin Mass). In other words, the pontiff (ref: motu proprio Summorum Pontificum) declared that the traditional liturgy of the Roman rite, which he said was never abrogated, was officially available to all the Church’s faithful alongside the new liturgy of Pope Paul VI. OK, back to brass tacks!

So, with all that in mind, I gently reminded this obviously irate man, now almost ready to rip my throat out, of the words of the Holy Father emeritus, in a letter he wrote to bishops explaining his decision are but an elegant expression of common sense: If the older liturgy was sacred in the past, then it is sacred now as well. He said, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” Makes sense, no?  Apparently not, as the man ended with the fact that a true and effcaious Mass has not been celebrated in this area since 1570! Then, he stormed out of my office. “Thank you, Jesus”, I said under my breath…

Fast forward – or actually, backwards – to yet another human struggle within the greater Church. This one is a young man who is in seminary at present and struggling because, in his heart, he knows he is not called to be a priest within the Roman rite, but within his mind…he is stuck! He knows – deep down where let few people in – that his personal views, his God beliefs, the way in which he sees the word and feels the Holy Spirit is not in keeping with the rules, regulations, and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But, here he is, now literally within a mere few months of ordination, and finds himself in quite a quandary! (I have been there so I know the depth of his struggle.)

Yes, there are many who leave the Catholic faith because of trauma, the priest abuse scandal, theological disagreement, or some other event that either destroyed their faith in one fell swoop, or ate away at their soul bite by bite. Almost everyone I speak to has that one proverbial, “final straw that broke the camel’s back” moment and poof, they’re gone!

Unlike me examples here today, most cannot point to any specific thing in the Church that is keeping them away, and unless that thing is changed, they will not return, but they know it is not home anymore. How sad for me to hear, but I know of what they speak. For the average ‘Catholic’, there is little we can do to remedy these situations because the thing is often well outside of our control, and no matter how much hope Francis has brought to them, they are quickly realizing, nothing of substance will soon change; praesertim oboedientiam.

So, no, we can’t change theology, we certainly can’t undo the past, and we can’t take away the pain that they feel, whether imagined or actual, but there is something left for us to do: in the words of Father John Dear, “We can listen with the ears of our heart.” In many ways, the best we can do is to simply live our faith with patience and hospitality for those struggling, and listen well.

But, I also wonder with so many people leaving, and so many people disaffected by their experiences of God as brought to them by the holy Church today, isn’t it time that we are forced to evaluate what we do, how we do it, and how we make it relevant to them again so that we get back to the work of the Church and save real souls, rather than make more pretty outfits for us clergy to wear, and archaic rules for people to follow, as we blindly lead them to the precipice of hell? Is there something wrong with a Mass that leaves so many unfulfilled, empty, struggling, sad? And if so, what can we do to make it better?

Oh, wait…we have! She is called Saint Miriam…
 


You Can Go Home Again.

 
A few years ago, Monica McGoldrick, a family therapist and Director of the Family Institute of New Jersey, wrote an interesting book that caught my attention from the moment I read the title: You Can Go Home Again: Reconnecting with Your Family.
 
Beginning with the premise that understanding your personal family history is essential for making informed choices, she offers an innovative method of combining genealogical research with self-awareness that leads to understanding one’s family patterns. This new understanding makes it possible to connect with one’s ancestors and to recreate better family relationships for oneself. Although the writing is a bit dry at times, as it is apparently targeted to the educated lay reader and professional, the causal readers will find that this book is very helpful in researching and understanding family information and patterns of behavior. For me, the greatest take away was ‘those who learn from the past are not condemned to repeat it’! Oftentimes, a family’s history of estrangement, alliance, divorce, or even suicide, reveal intergenerational patterns that prove more than mere coincidental. It was insightful and I needed to know that I can go home again.

 

This past week, I did just that; I went back home, but this time with a focus on just being present and not trying to change anything or anyone; including myself. It was a wonderful time, and in many ways a very sad time, as I sat in the front yard of my family home – a home I had known since I was less than 5 years old – and listened to my mom reminisce about the days now gone. I went back in my mind’s eye to the day we moved into this new neighborhood, one that was so brand new that most of the lots were still covered in mud or trees, the road was barely there and one could find lots with only new foundations poured for a future home to be built upon them. Those homes, now fully built and aged some 45+ years, are now almost all owned and occupied by ‘others’, all but one – my home – is all that holds one of the original occupants from so long ago.
 
A generation has since come and passed through the walls and lived on this street we so warmly called home, Clayton Avenue. I stood in our front yard, holding my mom’s hand as we walked back into the only home that I can really remember well, and as I turned I saw the two long rows of homes, one on either side of this simple, one block long street, and remembered the faces that once were, now vanquished only to my memory: my father, Alton, Mr. & Mrs. Longley, The Spencers’ and Miller’s, The home of the Mr. & Mrs. Dedad and my fist best friend, David, Joanne, the single woman down the street, and Foy and his wife Marie, my mom’s best friend in all the world. Tony, called “T”, and his wife who was one of the last, Marianne, just gone this past month now and resting next to her husband; a husband she missed so dearly. The Flatleys’ and Grandma DeDad and that long-time wooded lot we affectionally called, “The Woods”, where I built my first ‘fort’ with David and our friend, Robby. Yes, the rows stood the test of time, but the people, they are now all gone…all gone, but one now, my mom.

 

Later, we visited my dad’s grave at Laurel Hill Cemetery. My family and I stood there and then after a prayer and a few tears, we got down on our hands and knees and cared for the chores of weeding, edging, and then placed mulch and flowers capped by one U.S Flag to mark my father’s care of us and his nation in WWII. We stood together – as a family held together through the years of love and pain, disagreement, illness and being frightened, misunderstanding, agreement and hope and let down, through moments of great joy and heartache – and then we held hands and wept for the one not there among us, at least not the way he once was; the way we wish he still were…
 
Then, we gathered our composure and I wiped my eyes dry and looked up and down and saw two rows – standing strong – but this time, not of homes, but of tombstones marking the graves of those now held as part of my life and legacy and the manner in which I see the world today: my father, Alton, Mr. & Mrs. Longley, The Spencers’ and Miller’s, Grandma DeDad, T, and now Marianne; my Uncle Jim and his wife Hazel, their son, Richard, one day me. Yes, it was insightful and I needed to know that I can go home again.

 

We built something so wonderful here at Saint Miriam. It is a home to many of us, just as strong and as needed as that one I grew up in on Clayton Avenue so long ago now. And that is where I will focus what days I have left on this earth, because that is now home for me and is the most valuable asset I have to care for in all the world.
 


Anything For God is Worth the Effort.

 

The Greek word leitourgia derives from two root words – ‘laos’, the people, and ‘ergas’, a work. But the popular definition being that “liturgy is “the work of the people,” can be highly misleading. Leitourgia was never actually used to mean “the work of the people”. It was, rather, a word that described acts of public service, usually initiated by a private benefactor. So, by way of example, some wealthy person might build a temple and foot the bill privately, but the work itself was for the community. Likewise, any public work done in service to “the gods”, but that would also benefit an entire community, would qualify as leitourgia. It’s work, yes; but, it’s always about the people. So let us be clear:  it’s not the people’s work, it’s work “for the people”, and transformative of the wider world. It is for me, like the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the phrase found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings, a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. In other words, by our actions we heal a broken world. That is liturgy to me.

So, with that in mind, liturgy at Saint Miriam might legitimately said to be our work for God; a work and act that transforms the world for the better, and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. In short, it’s never just about me, or you, it is about God and the community. Liturgy and attending Mass heals. Sadly, many Catholics don’t see it that way. Rather, it is viewed as a must, or an obligation, and joy is thereby removed from our attendance. You derive much less joy from being forced than from attending something by our own will. That is why I relish celebrating the Mass! It is a beautiful and moving experience where I become closer to God and my week is better off for it. My joys heightened, my sorrows diminished, my strength improved. However, since few agree, we come to another ending…

The 4:00pm Late Mass will be ending this month. June 26th will be its last day. Why? No commitment. No participation from our parishioners, and declining attendance make the Mass a hardship on our clergy, and to be honest, there is nothing more depleting for our priests than to invest all the time, energy, and planning to make our liturgies so beautiful and meaningful and then to have few show up.

Now, let us be clear here: it was not any of us in parish leadership who created the Late Mass out of whole cloth; it was many of our parishioners who asked us for it. “We can’t always come in the morning, so we would be able to still meet our Mass obligation.” And, our last parish wide survey results regarding the Mass times question added a, “later afternoon Mass” as the number one request. So we did what you asked and we were met with resistance when it came to helping us to serve, read, and greet. So it failed. Ministry is not a priest-only sport!

Humans have a terrible time taking information that they haven’t directly experienced and turning it into feelings in our hearts, wisdom in our minds, and action in our hands. There always exists a great divide between what we “know” and what we “feel” remains. We “know” that we can be forgiven our sins and walk with Christ to the promises of Heaven. But do we really understand what that means, what that entails? The Church is good about turning lofty ideals into tangible elements that we can experience. That is why attendance at Mass and fellowship with the community of the faithful is so important.

Let us, then, work in our hearts and minds to ever try to realize – truly realize – what God has done for us, what He wants for us, and how we can do His will on Earth. Let us begin to attend Mass as a joyful act – together as a family – because, regardless of what we think we “know”, it is in that small act of participation that we make the truth real and we truly become closer to God.
 
Anything for God is worth the effort; just ask Noah.
 


The Honoring of Commitment.

 
Do you trust yourself? Do others trust you? Do you follow through with promises you make to yourself, your family, your communities, and others? Or, do you let yourself and others down on a regular basis like skipping your workout, not making time to eat well, going to bed late, saying “yes” to one more project you don’t really want or expect to do, allowing others to ‘pick up the slack’ where you left off or just walked away, not attending Mass weekly? Are repeatedly feeding your mind with “I’m not worth it,” or “Other people’s needs are less important than mine.” If so, then this week’s message is for you.
 
You see, I already used it for myself. I do every anniversary to my priesthood, which is tomorrow. I stop, think, look back, pray, reminisce, and often cry. I look at my failures, my successes, my ‘should have’s’ and ‘why did I do that’s’! I use my anniversary as a time to gauge how well a Christian I am; how good a Catholic priest. I am not always the best, but I always give my best. I know how to commit, how to follow through, and how to love abundantly. I do so, often with the harsh words of some, the disdain of others, and a few compliments now and then, too. I continue on because I made a promise some 30+ years ago when I decided to begin a journey to ordained life. I renewed it as a Deacon, then a Priest, a Friar, and then a Bishop. I am not proud of every moment, but I am proud of my journey overall.
 
This Sunday we will mark another journey as we dedicate the new beautiful iron gates for our cemetery. It may seem like not much at all until you realize that these gates were dreamed of, fashioned collaboratively, planned for, and then made reality through work, dedication, and commitment. The funds came from the Cemetery Trust – it is only there because people we never met gave generously to create it so we would not have to worry about the care of the cemetery property. These gates also follow on the heels of many such projects: purchasing this property we now call home, the extensive renovations, lighting, painting, land development, tree removal, numerous upgrades and interior renovations, the school and offices, new kitchen and appliances, the St. Francis statue that greets us, and soon the pet memorial garden and new St. Francis Section F with a beautiful new Joliet Francis Statue there, too! All of it resulted from deep and generous commitments, mine and many others, who have honored their promises to God and to one another. But some of our parishioners have not done so. Some of have failed to support us on a weekly basis through stewardship, some have already neglected to keep up on their Building Campaign pledges, some are not showing up to serve Mass, as promised, to read, serve as acolytes and Eucharistic Ministers, and some do not even attend Mass weekly. In other words, they have failed to honor their commitments.
 

St. Francis of Assisi was a man without covetousness, without anger, and without delusion and a person who committed himself to the special ministry of “healing wounds, to uniting what was falling apart, and bringing home those who have lost their way.” Through his commitment, his legacy has lasted down through the centuries to us here today. Think of this: none of what we have, none of the great gifts we recognize and honor and live our lives by would exist if he just walked away and failed to keep his promises. From the famous Prayer of St Francis, to our school that cares for so many children, our parish, our cemetery, down to our beautiful campus today; from my own vows as a Friar to our welcoming everyone – none of this would be here for we would not be here because here would not be.

This week we build yet again on the legacy we started just a mere nine years ago or so with our coming together to bless these new cemetery gates, but by doing so we do something more: we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, who served this nation without running away whom we call Veterans, and something deeper: we honor commitment.

I am a man of honor and commitment. I am not perfect, but I have never once failed you. You may think me too hard, but I never ask of you more than I double on myself. I have worked for you without pay, while being treated for a brain tumor, and without sleep for days’ end, and I give half of my income to the parish. I expect the honoring of commitments for those who call Saint Miriam home. While I do not expect that you will sacrifice as much as I do, I do expect equal commitment to the care of this parish. When you fail to keep your promises, fail to show up to help, fail to give to support us, someone else must pick up that promise, fill in, or dig deeper. That is not only unfair, it is not Christian.

At the core of Francis’ spirituality was the belief, “My God loves me.” And so he reduced his prayer to “My God and my all.”  Therefore, I will look for you to attend Mass more regularly, honor your stewardship and care of this parish community on a regular basis, and love one another through the keeping of your commitments and promises to our building fund and one another and all who come to visit us. Why? Because as your pastor that is my job to remind you – and myself – when we are failing to honor God. We are better. We are Saint Miriam.

 


We Keep Our Eyes on Jesus.

 

In our culture today, everything has become increasingly caustic to human and human dignity. Words have become more volatile, communication instant and devoid of feeling, rhetoric more hateful, vehicles armored, guns with larger magazines more deadly, social media is harsh, communities less caring, politics more mean-spirited, international relations more and more hostile, and yes, even Jesus has become weaponized.

Church and religion are nothing more than vehicles to promote hate, separation, division, and a culture of inhumanity and hatred. Scripture is used to divide and to falsely condemn. From the Vatican to the compound of Franklin Graham to a church near you. They are more like inclusive, invite-only clubs than parishes where who is in and who is out is often determined by the strongest – the Pharisees and Sadducees of the day –  rather than than those who are in need of inclusion and love. In other words, the weakest are once again on the outside looking in, being further oppressed and marginalized, as the insiders – the rich, the powerful, the in-crowd and the often white and rich and non-struggling – are being warmed by the glow of their own denial of the true gospel, as they worship their non-Mexican, non-poverty ridden, non-Afro-Asiatic, non-inclusive, and weaponized version of Jesus.

And, to be clear, this construct of Jesus is an equal opportunity hater. The list is endless but includes the non-patriotic, the non-white, the non-straight, the divorced, the female, the immigrant, the bullied, the non-Catholic, and oh, ya, the non-believer, too, because after all they are of the devil, right? It seems lately that God is far more concerned with gender identity, who wins the Whitehouse, and proper restrooms for folks to use based on some archaic interpretation of the lawgiver, than on war, poverty, genocide, and lifting valleys and bringing down hills, huh?

The lines in the world have been drawn more clearly now. In this information age of instant communication and instant results, we are awash with a variety of means to determine how formerly called ‘cute quirks’, or differences, can be turned from pride to sources of shame. We are not permitted to beat our children now, so we do worse: we shun when our sons say they want to be princesses, or force our daughters to wear pretty flower-print dresses when they want to wear pants or play with fire engines. We reject out of hand those whose views are different rather than embrace individuality.  In our brave new world, their is no welcoming God; there is just us.

This new weaponized God, whose greatest concern in the universe, is making sure that gender norms are strictly enforced is a projection formed by our need for an uncomplicated world. God’s love is threatened by today’s freaks so we must ban together to deny them ever flourishing as human beings. We create new priests and pastors and other religious leaders who are cut from the same cloth as us, and who will inform and direct and deny the life-giving Gospel to protect our version of the Church so as to enable us to freely hate under the cloak of religious freedoms. Today’s Christians are not interested in love, but rather a Neanderthal image of a God with lightning bolts who strikes out if they should ever fully know Him and they would rather retain a first century anthropology than welcome everyone under their theological tent.  How sad, or worse…  

Why would we think that God would love everyone – even those society deems as different – all of God’s created, all of them God’s children, and include their families, their parents, their communities, and even us, those who dare to embrace them; could God not love us as God once did our ancestors whom He led from the harshness of oppression and slavery through the sea and desert alike? Why would we ever think – and worst, project unto others – that God would give them a snake when they ask for a fish, or a scorpion when they ask for bread?
 
Not here. Not at Saint Miriam. Ever. We believe and follow the one true God, our Jesus, the Christ of the world and all that is; the loving God who died with arms outstretched so that all – every.single.soul – might live.
 
We keep our eyes on Jesus…