Embracing and Celebrating Failure.


It is easy to laugh at Jesus’ disciples, as they all seem like a bunch of clowns running around trying to outdo each other and failing miserably. James and John, the famed sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus asking for the seats of honor when he comes in His glory. They just don’t get it. You see, it’s not about glory; it’s about service. It’s not about the honored place; it’s about honoring God. Ha ha! Those silly disciples! They were always out for something, when what they had – ‘the pearl of great price’ they all wanted deep down more than anything else – was in front of them all along!

We laugh with our modern ears today because we don’t understand the importance of honor in that ancient first century culture. In those times honor was everything. You measured your life by how much honor you could accrue in your hometown. The scales of life were calibrated in terms of honor and shame, and you did everything you could to tip them in favor of honor. That woman at the well that Jesus went and talked to; she had no honor. The blind beggar at the side of the road, was a ‘nothing’ to those around him. Those who climbed down from sycamore trees and through holes in roofs and who walked miles in the dust, all were ‘nobodies’, until they met Him! That was why it continues to be such a shocking story to tell after over two millennia!

But this is not so much how we see things today, so it’s easy to chuckle at the disciples arguing over who gets the honored seats. We have our own scales, though, don’t we? Instead of “honor”, we often weigh the worth of our lives, and of others, in terms of “success” and “failure.” We praise people who are successful. We avoid becoming a failure, and as we witnessed this week by the anonymous letter I received from “Concerned”, still scarlet letters stay placed prominently upon folks even after 40 years of change and doing good. Yes, we still measure, we just measure more harshly.

In American Magazine this week, Pope Francis clearly and unabashedly stated that, “A priest who perhaps has studied a lot of theology and has one, two or three degrees, but has not learned to carry the cross of Christ is useless. “He might be a good academic, a good professor, but not a priest.”  This lesson can apply to all of us who, as Catholic Christians, are unwilling to carry our cross and nourish the hearts of others, and support the work of God in the world, but instead judge, harm people, and lay upon the shoulders of other folks a weight which we ourselves could never bear.

I know that this makes no logical sense! Yet, it is a theme that runs throughout the whole of Sacred Scripture. We, as God’s people, are often the butt of the joke, the least and the last, those who turn the other cheek and get another slap! Then, we forgive the unforgivable and kick the and off our sandals and do it all over again. In the end, the way to free ourselves from worshipping the false idols of this world: fame, honor, being liked the most, and success is to turn these things upside down and to reverse the logic of the world in order to point folks Heavenward; we must become a servant.

This past week we received great news as we marveled at what God can do yet again to those who put Him first in their lives! We welcomed Father John Connors to our ministry team and into our family and our hearts. Together, we will serve God by honoring our life of service and giving to all of you first. In keeping with the Holy Father, we promise to continue to be servants and pastors, not lords over you. We will strive to be models of trust and compassion, but we will also hold your feet to the fire of Christ and direct your paths toward salivation. You may not always like us, but you will always trust us and love us.

Yesterday, we received some good news, too! Our building permits were issued by the township and soon you will see construction workers traipsing about our campus and scurrying upon the rooftops, as they build for us a Rectory for the Friary to house those who dedicate their lives of service to others. It is, as they say the least we can do by providing them a place to lay down their heads.

However, in the midst of all this joy, I also received some challenging news. It seems that many of you feel that stewardship is for someone else? As of today, less than 22% of you even bothered to complete your pledge cards, or update your electronic giving online. The total increase was less than $1,200 a month. For a parish of our size, this is not only unacceptable, but pushes the weight to others of us who already give so much that it hurts. In other words, it is unfair and un-Christian and certainly not in keeping with Saint Miriam. Here, in this beautiful place that so many take for granted in all that we have been able to do in our short but amazing life together, we do not demand equal giving, but we do ask for equal sacrifice. I trust that you will pray in earnest and go to our website today and complete your pledge and sign up for electronic giving, or I promise you this: we will fail without your support.

Jesus must laugh at all of us as we now scurry for the prizes of this world, because He came to reverse the scales completely. He says to seek the role of a servant. Seek the lowest place, the last position, so that you may be first!  Give to His holy Church so that life and light might be made more abundant to others in a world that knows more of darkness. If you want to become great, then first give away more of yourself, and what you have, and learn to be a servant; a servant that loves God more than any other single thing in the world. If you want real honor, be ready to endure shame, and do not increase the shame of others for their past mistakes, as we all have a past, and so does every single one we honor with the title of ‘Saint’.  If you want true success, then seek something the world would consider to be failure. Become a religious, a priest, a sister, a secular Franciscan, a better Catholic, a stronger Christian, a lover of the lost, and a willing supporter of God’s mission. In doing these things, you may never have a building erected bearing your name, but you will have eternal life.

When Jesus willingly took the lowest place, when He was lifted, lifted up high upon that wooden cross, that act of being crucified ended in the Resurrection and gave us hope and true life, even in our sinful ways. The failure of our Christ to become the earthly king almost everyone of His day despised, ridiculed, hated, and then killed, becomes for us the greatest success story of the world, as He rules in our hearts for eternity as the ultimate One whose sacrifice saved the likes of you and me. Can we not sacrifice something of ourselves and give back to Him now, too? 

I do hope our stewardship campaign will be a success in order to allow us to continue to serve a God of hope. I hope more of us than ever will experience the needed leap of faith that giving in and through our church can be. I do know that I have learned my greatest acts of goodness have been those when I was willing to give generously. 

Embrace failure and watch your life become a success!

The Monster is Inside.


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once famously said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”  In other words, the tormentor becomes the tormented. People, in the end, become what they love and hate, because their mind focuses on it. It is all consuming as the hall of mirrors folds in on itself. It is just madness. Then they lash out at the darkness that was, in the end, created by their own design.

That is why we spend such an inordinate amount of time at Saint Miriam on focusing on Jesus, enhancing our liturgy and worship opportunities, as well as building, renovating, upgrading, and creating. We want to bring to our community, to visitors, to the world; as well as leave a legacy that shows who we are and what we believed. We also want to avoid becoming what we disdain most: a world, and a people, who think God dead and that we can do it all on our own. We can’t. We never could.

Often, we, in our human brokenness, battle various forces of evil. They come in our life’s journey in the form of illness, delays, rejection, debt, grief, job loss, divorce, and so many others that we often have little or no control. But, some of the evils that plague us and have the deepest of dramatic impact are of our own making: poor word choices that pass from our lips and harm others, not offering the gift of forgiveness, walking away from a friend, or a relationship, leaving a community that we loved – and who loves us – like Saint Miriam, for example. These are the monsters to be battled, we rationalize, those who would manipulate us into doctrines that serve their purposes, and not our own, but often our premise is wrong and based on irrational outlooks that feed our own hurt.

Once we’ve battled these forces, then what? We have to come to face an abyss. Once we’ve torn away the morality and the manipulations of the past, and once there is no one left to blame for our lot in life but us, we are left with ourselves. Then the hurt turns into our own brand of evil and we gossip, backstab, and harm others once more, and the cycle begins anew.

The abyss always looks into us and causes us to rely on only what we have left inside. What we have inside is determined by that which has fed us all along during our journey.  If we are a crappy person inside, then the abyss will turn us into a monster. That is why I urge you to not abandon your life with us. I don’t mean we just want to see you on Sunday, there must be more to truly be fed! Take advantage of the numerous ways we feed you, even during the coming summertime!

Come adore our Lord, and enjoy the mid-week liturgies, and pray the rosary on Thursdays, attend a Baptism Sunday Mass and relive and renew your own covenant with God, bring your children to Mass weekly, and show them in practical and real terms, how important God is in their lives, because He is important enough in yours to put God first! Walk the new Outdoor Stations of the Cross during your lunch break, or on your way home, and watch how God changes your life and reduces your worries! Explain to others why we honor our Blessed Mother, as we will this Sunday with a grand May Procession! Seek out a volunteer opportunity and help us reduce our expenses, while feeding your giving side, or send a Mass card or offer a Mass Intention to someone, and show them you are praying for them and believe in the power of prayer and God. Don’t forget to be a good steward of all the beauty that we have here and choose to tithe this year; complete your stewardship card and join the many of us who love this place so much that we are willing to give to God, first.

When you immerse yourself in something, it’s almost unavoidable that you’ll become it. Remember that what is inside us, we often have cultivated on our own.

What will you choose to become?

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…



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.