Until Everyone Breathes Free.

This week was extraordinary. We witnessed the Supreme Court of the United States rule that the current administration may not immediately proceed with its plan to end protecting about 700,000 young immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s four more liberal members in upholding the executive action by President Barack Obama that established the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Then, last Tuesday, too, The Supreme Court majority ruled in the case, Bostock v. Clayton County, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, written to protect against discrimination on the basis of sex, also protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Today, we now also celebrate Juneteenth. The flags we see today, boasting a bursting star in the middle is the Juneteenth Flag, a symbolic representation of the end of slavery in the United States. The flag is the brainchild of activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Haith created the flag in 1997 with the help of collaborators, and Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf brought their vision to life. For two decades now, communities around the country have held flag-raising ceremonies on Juneteenth in celebration of their freedom, but few even recognized it until the tragic events of late in our nation have once again thrust equality – or the lack thereof – into the spotlight. Protests, and writings, tempers and voices are high, but none of this should lull us into a false sense that we are moving toward freedom for everyone. Hatred abounds. Racism is high. Equality is a dream for so many. We all must stand vigilant to care that everyone can one day love and dream in freedom.

This is why Saint Miriam is so important. We employ, welcome, and protect everyone. As pastor, I agreed to make us a ‘Sanctuary Parish’, a place where those afraid to walk in freedom because of their immigration status could come and be protected. I have stood in our beautiful Sanctuary marrying couples while agents of the ICE waited outside. Together, we stood in front of deportation that would have broken up young families. From the day of our founding, we opened our doors wide, without prejudice, to all who wanted to find a home; Gay and Lesbians persons, the Transgender, divorced, or addicted or recovered, all nationalities and even other religions, no matter the color of their skin, have found a way to a place of welcome and peace and hope. Our only requirement is not that we must always agree, but that we must always welcome – everyone – and love.

Our work must continue, it certainly isn’t done. We must continue to ‘walk the talk’ and that is why today, all of our educators who are working in our school will be receiving time and half in their paychecks. While we cannot close our doors to honor today as a holiday, because children need to be cared for, our small symbolic act will serve to further exemplify what we believe: all are created in the image and likeness of God and all are deserving of dignity and respect.

I recognize that this is a small gesture compared to the greater social needs of Black people in America. However, it is a gesture that can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.

While President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued two and a half years prior, and the Civil War had ended in April of that year, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that all of our ancestors were free. And forever we should honor their lives and celebrate that day of freedom.
 
Please support our work today. Visit my letter for this week by Clicking Here, and support us by Visiting Here. We need you.
 
Let freedom ring…and let it begin with us.
 
 


Every Promise Kept. How About You?

A few months ago, well before the current pandemic and the closures were even on anyone’s radar, we opened a brand-new school. We sat down, as a Parish Board and Ministry Team, and we prayed, thought, discerned, and asked God for help. Should we just leave the former Zion Preschool closed? Should we saddle the parish with another outreach that had already proven itself to be a frustration and high cost center for expenses? Do we really want to open the region’s only S.T.E.A.M.M. School for this age group that would also demand we get a state license to expand to daycare and infants?

These questions, at least the heaviest of the discernment points, were also similar to the very same discussions we had some 6 years ago when we purchased the campus that we now call home. Back then, the church and the school were closed, and the cemetery was in shattered form. The ‘inmates were literally running the place’! There was no pastor, and the renters (who paid no rent by the way) took advantage of that fact and came and went as they wanted and did whatever they chose to do, including building walls to suit their need! Yes, there was a lot of work to do; enough work that we had to literally decide of reopening an already closed preschool would be worth it. We prayed. We talked. We voted. We opened.

During that time, we also had huge buildings and grounds issues. We had planned to immediately renovate the sanctuary, but soon found out we needed new electrical panels and service at a cost of over $40,000. Then came lighting for safety, insulation, and mold and asbestos remediation, a new boiler, cemetery graves caving in, a huge bees nest underground, 42 trees that needed to be taken down for safety, new parking lot lighting, a garage that was on its last legs, and then AC units that needed replaced and new ones installed. Then the Bell Tower needed repaired, the Friary/Rectory needed built, and then that school again! We had to decide to reboot and reinvest or close it. Again, we prayed. We talked. We voted. We opened, but this time with two beautiful levels, all modern and brand-new technologies, and a renewed commitment to those who would come.

Last September was a tough start. It always is when you are doing something new. After a few months, we quadrupled our student population, expanded our staff to 12, and welcomed children into a private school that otherwise would NEVER receive such a quality education in such an awe-inspiring environment ever. If it weren’t for us, building the programs and costs centers into our parish life, we would never have succeeded. Then, just as we were heading toward being at a place where costs met income, COVID-19 hit! We were closed.

Many would have given up. Not me. Not my team. Instead, we invested again! We used this time of unexpected closure to add a new handicap restroom to the lower level school, something that was on the wish list, but never attained. We also built a new utility and storage closet, added a new sign for the Cemetery and parish campus on Church Road, and upgraded the Silvers’ Garden. We also added an entire Retreat Center (The Falls Retreat Center) to our life together, and not only continued but increased, our Outreach to the Homeless by putting out over 1200 Blessing Bags a month to meet the need during this crisis! And, of course, the biggest and most exciting item of all! We renovated our Sanctuary into something so beautiful and also (completely unknowingly, but certainly Spirit led!) safer for all to return to with distancing and safety in mind. Yes, God has been good, and we have listened, prayed and responded well. And, in the end, rewarded  for our faith.

All of this has been done without anyone asking you to increase your giving, add additional sums to a new Capital Campaign, and without a formal Stewardship Appeal for 20/21. All of this has been based on our request that you do one thing, and one thing only: Sponsor Chairs for the Sanctuary. Chairs, that I might add, you will sit on when you worship. Chairs that others will, too. Chairs that visitors and newcomers and seekers will sit on, as well. This was our only ask: sponsor some chairs and we can make all of this work and return to a beautiful place that can continue to do such wonderful things. Period! So, far, less than one-third of all of you have done so.

Every promise has been kept. I made some mistake along the way, I admit that, and I am only human, but I have been a good and honest pastor. I have never lied to you and have never led you astray. Everything I have ever promised has been brought to real life and ministry. We have built a parish like no other and one that any can be proud of, so proud of. Now, I am going to ask (even beg) again…And, I will tell you that I have now purchased 6 chairs, while many have not even done 1 yet.

Watch this Video. It features our latest Virtual Tour of our extraordinary school. You will see – in living color – what we do with your donations. Then, Click Here, and sponsor a chair or two and watch livestream this coming Sunday as we unveil a stunning new Sanctuary at Saint Miriam!

Every Promise Kept. How About You?

 



Singing Through the Rain.

“I am afraid to go back.” That is what I hear most often from everyone I speak to. From parishioners afraid to go back to in-person church and worship, to parents afraid to send their children back to school, to folks that are required to go back to work afraid to return to their positions and even more afraid to place their child in summer camp programs, to people afraid to travel or visit relatives, to medical professionals afraid to come home for fear they might infect their loved ones, to family of patients that I visit at the hospital, in my temporary return to chaplaincy to support the folks at Einstein, afraid to bring them back home for fear they will get infected again, to educator and teachers afraid to return to the classroom, to people like me, a pastor, afraid to open our doors wide for fear someone might get ill, even though we have literally spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours making plans to avoid just that! Yes, we are all ‘afraid’ in one way or another.

After struggling and struggling to keep our heads above the water in everything we’ve been through, this pandemic has felt like too much. In many ways, it was the proverbial ‘nail’ or ‘last straw’. We are tired and afraid and feel alone and isolated. And now, perhaps even worse, we have gone from being aggravated at staying home to almost becoming hermits: isolated, alone, insular and afraid. None of this is healthy. Not the infection, not the psychoses, and not the fear, and yet, here we are, “afraid to return to life.”

At the Vatican, Pope Francis stood alone, speaking before a huge, empty square during Hoy Week when most places are packed with worshippers. He simply said quietly,  “We find ourselves afraid, and lost.” He was. I am. You are. One pastor remarked, “I feel like I’m handing out life jackets of hope in a sea of despair.” I concur. It is not easy to return, and even the thoughts of doing so can embolden fear and make us all weak.

For me, in my own fear and isolation, there have been additional complications when it comes to pastoral care. In-person crisis counseling, comforting people as they die, providing sacraments, and consoling loved ones in the wake of death has been far more difficult. My life of summer weddings and the sad occasional funeral have all been but postponed; so are baptisms and First Holy Communion. My life – as a person and pastor – is far different. Add a new baby and new fears as a brand new dad, and you have a recipe for disaster! But I have maintained my composure and controlled my fear by focusing on things to come!

At Saint Miriam, we are retooling virtually everything we do to meet the needs of the current moment and our Sanctuary renovations are almost breathtaking! Everything is coming together to return to school and church life safely! The gatherings will be smaller, the health checks apparent, and the safety increased, but God will still come and we will still feel the Holy Spirit and our lives will return to normal; yes, perhaps a ‘new normal’ but a normal none-the-less, and we will have a choice: be still and know God is God and return to that new life with joy and faith, or be lost adrift alone on a sea of fear and isolation.

Our parish is alive and well. This pandemic has not changed us much at all, except perhaps, allowed us to realize what Saint Miriam really means to us and the deficit we have felt being apart from her physically. We have seen in living color the fact that while we are not at church it hasn’t kept us from being  the church.

I think that is a good way to end today. For a world in the grips of a pandemic, this was a time of tears. For a world now faced with a time of transition, it is a time of anxiety and fear. For Christians, like us, we are not immune; it is such a time for us as well, but it doesn’t end there. It can’t!

One of the highlights of my faith came, not from scripture, but from a television commercial. “Born in Quarantine” is narrated by a 100-year-old woman born in 1920 during the influenza pandemic. The message particularly speaks to new mom’s in quarantine, which my own wife and I endured with the birth of our first son, Jameson. But instead of it making people sad, it’s a vision of hope. You may find it here.

This is an enormous opportunity for Christians to show the world what we are for rather than all the many things they’ve heard us say that we’re against. I am for love, life, trust, faith, and hope.

How about you?
 


They Say That I Saved my Dog’s Life

She simply looked out the window all the way back home. Bailey, our youngest and newest member of the family, a beautiful 7 month old Golden Retriever, jumped in the rear of our Jeep – in her normal seat – and looked out the window all the way back home from the emergency veterinarian hospital. Katelyn, sitting in the front seat with me, almost without thinking commented, “It’s like she doesn’t even know what happened.”  It was exactly  that way.

It all began Monday evening. We, as a family, wet for a walk at Ft Washington State Park. Jameson was in his stroller and Bailey and Rory went along on their leashes. All seemed normal until we were about 2 miles into our walk when Bailey suddenly slowed down. Way down. We wrote it off in our minds to a busy day, but deep down, it was concerning. She walked slowly alongside me. Something was off. Later that evening, after dinner, Bailey threw up on the carpet near her pet bed. It had a lot of debris from the tree mulch and sticks she likes to eat. Again, we wrote it off to that, nothing more.

The next day, I went to the office and did some construction meetings with the crew renovating our Sanctuary. I came home and decided to wash the Jeep myself to get some exercise and down time. The dogs played in the yard and I washed and waxed the Jeep. All was well. As I finished up, Bailey came scampering up to me. She had emerged from the woods, like normal, but this time had a lot more weeds and vines around her neck. I pulled them off and asked her where she had been now and what did she get into?! We all came into the house and Katelyn made us a sandwich. As we sat to eat together, I noted that unusually Bailey was absent from her normal begging at table side. I found her on her bed, near the door the porch. I laid down on the floor next to her and she began to whimper and cry. I touched her neck and she let out a squeal and I knew in an instant something was drastically wrong. I yelled to Katelyn, “Honey, something is really wrong; call the Vet; we are on our way.”

As I picked Bailey up in my arms, she looked at my eyes and began to cry harder. I began to weep, too. I was fearful that I was losing her. I got in the car and held her close, as I pulled onto the roadway heading toward our Veterinarian in Philadelphia at Wissahickon Creek Veterinarian Hospital.

Bailey was declining quickly; her breathing was labored and her face swelling up. I knew she was having some form of anaphylaxis. She was in extreme crisis. I don’t know exactly how I got there in under 7 minutes, but I do know it involved great speeds and me often on the wrong side of the road. My horn never stopped blaring and my lights never stopped flashing. My four-way emergency flashers were on and I was praying for her and that a cop would see me driving this way and help so we could get there even faster. No such luck. But God was definitely with us because people were pulling over and arms waving out their windows and traffic stopping. Once I hit Ridge Avenue, I blew through every light and every stop sign and not one time did anyone object. It was if instinctively knew something was dreadfully wrong.

By the time I pulled into the vet’s parking lot, a team was waiting outside. They grabbed Bailey from my arms and rushed her inside. With COVID there is no entry, I knew that from our last routine visit. That is why I had Katelyn call ahead. A nurse, veterinarian and a  vet tech all stood waiting to help. Within a few minutes the nurse emerged and told me Bailey was ok! She responded well to the Epi Pen and her breathing was better! They would keep her for an hour or two and then I could come back to take her home. I called Katelyn, told her what I knew and made my way home. We were so grateful and relieved.

Two hours. No call. Three and a sudden call. “Bailey is failing. We need to transfer her to Metropolitan Hospital ASAP!” I was in the car in seconds. I called Sean and he met me in the parking lot of the church and we were on our way when they called back to inform us she was failing so quickly they were transporting her themselves with a veterinarian and nurse on board. We knew it was bad. We made it to Metropolitan and they were close behind.

Bailey didn’t even look like Bailey. She could no longer walk, her breathing labored had she had blood all over her once beautiful coat from the IV port that she managed to pull out. She was anxious, and the transporting team said she was ‘biting and aggressive’. I knew that wasn’t her. I made my way to her and she began to cry and lick me over and over. I kissed her, held her close, and I told her she was a good girl and we were taking care of her. They took her inside. Bailey was dying.

Within an hour they called us as we waited in the parking lot. Helpless. Alone. Afraid. We prepared for the worse. Katelyn with the baby at home did, too. They managed to stabilize her, but it didn’t look good. They asked if we wanted to be ‘aggressive.’ That is code-speak for ‘this will cost literally thousands of dollars.’  The credit card came out, she was being treated. We prayed and went home.

We never stopped praying. I called on every saint I could remember from Francis, and Mary, to my dad, and even asked Tucker who we lost last year to help. We didn’t sleep and the updates came, and the decisions were made, and the costs mounted up and finally, at 3am yesterday the call came, Bailey turned the corner toward healing. She was mending.

We picked her up today. She was back home within 30 minutes. Sleeping. A life saved. The vet told us she hit the ‘perfect storm’ of mushroom poisoning and a snake or bee swarm toxin. My mom said we should change her name to ‘Lucky’. It was worth it. Every hour. Every cent. Every worry. Every prayer. Bailey is home.

Katelyn, sitting in the front seat with me, almost without thinking commented, “It’s like she doesn’t even know what happened.”  That is my life as a pastor lived in faith. I make countless decisions, cry, pray, weep, curse, and worry. I make choices that cost money, unbalance budgets, direct funds and needs to those most vulnerable, or rely on the goodness and actions of others. I pray I am right, as I make decisions to help our lives together as faith community and to bring hope to those lost and a home to those homeless. I am not always right, but more often than not, I am. Most have no idea how hard, how scared, or how terrified I am so often. Some even ridicule or leave me alone in their own hatred, greed, skepticism, or  simply because they don’t get their way. But, then, almost without thinking they come, sit at the windows of our beautiful sanctuary, safe and loved and welcomed, and like Bailey don’t even know what happened. That is my Job. I am a pastor.

Oh, the vet was clear. Had I not driven like a ‘mad man’, or even waited another minute or two to leave for the hospital with Bailey cradled in my arms, she would have stopped breathing, and her heart would have stopped, and she would be dead. The veterinarian  said, as we picked her up for home today, “You saved her life.”

Yes, they say that I saved my dog’s life; truth is, she and my wife’s love save mine almost every day.
 
Welcome home, Bailey, daddy loves you.
 
 


I Had a Baby, Now I am a Better Priest.

As we approach Mother’s Day, I find myself thinking of parenthood and married life. I know all of the arguments for and against Catholic Priests being married. They include, allowing priests to marry would end pedophilia. A married clergy would create a larger pool of healthy priestly candidates, solving the current priest shortage. The discipline of celibacy among priests is one of the distinctive marks of the Roman Catholic tradition. Priests understand the sacrificial nature and sanctity of marriage in a way that few others do. Celibacy is historical; the best evidence for the scriptural support of celibacy is that Jesus Himself practiced it. The best image used to describe the role of the priest is one of marriage to the Church. Just as marriage is the total gift of self to another, the priesthood requires the total gift of self to the Church; and so many more.

As a lifelong Catholic, these – at various times in my life – were my belief and understanding, too. That is, until I needed to deal with my issues around my sexuality, inclusion, and of course, when fell in love. I, too, like many Catholics find the crisis of pedophilia and pederasty to be hurtful and disillusioning. How can any mother, especially Mother Church, allow such a terrible crisis to continue as it ribs us of life in a place that is to always affirm life?

In a Catholic world where debates over clerical celibacy have flared from the States to Brazil to the Vatican itself, there does exist the rarest of things: married Catholic priests. German Catholics reacted enthusiastically when bishops from across the Amazon called for the ordination of married men as priests to address the clergy shortage in that region. Such reforms have been pushed for decades by many bishops and lay groups who hope it can lead to the liberalization of centuries of Roman Catholic tradition.  

The Roman Catholic Church has demanded celibacy of its priests since only about the Middle Ages. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 under Pope Gregory VII made the promise to remain celibate a prerequisite to ordination, abolishing the married priesthood, but we should note that it hasn’t always been this way. Pope Hormisdas (514–523) was married. So was Adrian II (867–872) and he had a daughter. Then there was Pope John XVII (1003) who had three sons in his married life, and Clement IV (1265–1268) had two daughters.

The Church likes to now call celibacy a “spiritual gift” that enables men to devote themselves fully to the church, but what if that gift is not given to you? Do you fail to be called at all? Moreover, as a shortage of priests becomes a crisis in parts of the world, liberal wings in the church have been arguing that it’s time to reassess that stance. Worldwide the total number of priests has remained about the same since 1970, even as the Catholic population has nearly doubled. This is a crisis moment in some parts of the world.

So, why not be married and serve the holy Church? After all, although the celibacy is reaffirmed again and again, the Catholic Church already permits for married priests in Eastern (Orthodox Catholics) Rite churches, Old Catholic Communion, and in cases where married Anglican, Lutheran or other Protestant priests have converted to Catholicism. Orthodox priests can be married, but they must not marry after they become a priest, but Anglican Catholic and Old Catholic priests can get married before or during the time they are a priest. And there are presently well over 220 married Catholic Priests in the United States actively serving parishes, large and small.

By way of example, we find Father Josh Whitfield. He is a husband, and a father of four children, and a relentlessly good-natured priest loved by the parishioners of St. Rita Catholic in Dallas. His life is spent juggling two worlds, like many fathers. He does his vocational work like celebrates Mass, hearing confessions, but then he drives his son to karate practice, and encourages his oldest daughter’s love of baseball. Although he is now, as he says himself, “an ecclesiastical zoo exhibit,” one of the tiny community of married priests who slipped through a clerical loophole created some 40 years ago that even most Catholics don’t know exist.

Father Josh became a Catholic priest in 2012 through this Pastoral Provision, a set of rules crafted by Pope John Paul II in 1980 that gives married Episcopal priests who have converted to Catholicism the chance to apply for ordination in the Catholic church. He struggles with the issue and even ironically affirms the Churches’ position; he mostly doesn’t support opening up the priesthood to married men.

But inside St. Rita, he’s just Father Josh. “It’s people like you [reporters] who are interested in married priests. Here at St. Rita we just get on with it. My job is just to do the tasks the bishop has given me as best I can and try and make it work.”

Then there is the view of folks like Deborah Rose-Milavec, of the Catholic advocacy group known as, FutureChurch. She says, “Whatever their politics on marriage, by the way they live their lives they show it’s entirely possible to have a married clergy. They are effective in their ministry. They can say Mass and raise kids. They can administer the sacraments and have a family.” I think, that is where God brought me on a journey that no one – even myself – could have every predicted. I guess this is where God has led me at Saint Miriam.

It has now been almost four weeks since my son, Jameson, was born. He was born into the world after almost 50 hours of labor and five full days of being isolated in a small labor and delivery room due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that – to be honest – became like a prison of sorts for Katelyn and me. It has been a journey of love, joy, fear, and frustration. I have learned a lot about myself and the world and of God. Yes, I had a baby, and now I am a better priest.

I have been thinking long and hard about writing this particular blog. I have started it many times and stopped just as often. It has been a difficult piece to write because it required me to go back to that delivery room and face my greatest fears again. It also caused me to look back at my journey in what was often a hurtful and abusive place: the church. Perhaps it will enlighten others to see the depths to which God has brought me to know of those few minutes a few weeks ago when I almost lost my wife.

We labored for over 42 hours. I say ‘we’, but she did the bulk of the work. I just was her support person, her companion, and sometimes her punching bag! It was amazing for me to witness the strength of a beautiful and amazing woman in labor. I would have given up; she persisted and persevered to deliver into the world another living soul. Perhaps this is why men don’t get pregnant. Our friend, Father Stephen, almost innocently, reminded us of the monumental element of the moment when he said, “Katelyn carries two souls within her.” Wow. She did just that and beautifully and heroically.

Her labor eased for a moment as the active portion of labor finally came and within a mere and exhausting eleven minutes Jameson was out on Katelyn’s belly. It was then that I knew inside myself that something was drastically wrong.

Working in trauma for over 12 years, I know that look; the one that appears in a doctor’s eyes when something is wrong. Our obstetrician had it. Her eyes gave it away, but so did the fact that Jameson’s umbilical cord was too short and needed to be cut immediately, rather than wait to drain. And then there was the immense amount of blood. Dr. Gallella shouted to me, “Dad, if you’re going to cut the cord, let’s do it now. Just cut between the clamps and there’s going to be a lot of blood, because I don’t have time to let it drain.” I cut, it shot blood everywhere, soaking even the doctor. Dr. Gallella went right back to work. She called for a resident STAT (never good) then within moments yelled out, “Never mind, get me another attending.” Within minutes we had two attending and seasoned doctors and several nurses all trying to stop Katelyn from hemorrhaging. Blood was everywhere and I was doing my best to keep her calm, as she gazed in joy at Jameson’s face. I was trying not to panic, but my world was ending. I thought to myself, ‘How will I raise this child alone?’ ‘How will I live without Katelyn now?’

Katelyn knew something wasn’t right, but we all kept assuring her she would be ok. Dr. Gallela replied to my inquiry as to why this was happening and if it was normal. She said, “Do you want an answer or the truth?” I said emphatically, “Tell me the truth.” She said simply “No, it it’s not normal. I can’t get her bleeding to stop. I am trying.” Over 25 blood-soaked sponges and 19 clamps later, the bleeding finally stopped. It took almost 96 minutes and she lost enough blood volume that they called for emergency transfusions. I can tell you how long it took, but I still cannot accurately tell you how it felt, except that I never cried and prayed and pleaded more in my life, save once. It was akin to those last few minutes as I was driving to be with my dad as he was dying. “Please God. Please.” My pleas were heard, my son and my wife were alive, but it took a toll, and yet somehow, gave me a gift, too.

It has been weeks now and Katelyn is already coming down on her blood pressure medications and her health is returning to normal. The gestational hypertension is passing every day as Jameson becomes stronger all because she endured it to bear him into this world, almost at the cost of herself. Now, too, my priorities are different.

I love my God, the church, my parish and my parishioners all the more. I love being a priest and a pastor. I care for my family with just as much intensity as I care for the weight and duties of my vocation. I am better for knowing and experiencing emotions and events that changed me. I know pronounced loss, and I know incalculable joy. I now understand better when a mother is in labor or anxious about her pregnancy. I can sit with couples in marriage trouble and actually empathize, not just guess. I know what it is like to be a few miles from a hospital and running red traffic lights for fear that a few added seconds will mean the loss of your infant or his mother, your wife; your life. I know what it like to fall immediately in love with a small child, as he or she exits the safety of a womb. I know the feel of joy that comes when you embrace your child for the first time, and that enormous frustration that comes as you hold that very same child as they scream in the middle of the night and you don’t know what else to do! I know the sadness that fills my heart watching my wife cry as your newborn baby fusses and she thinks she is doing something wrong. “Am I a bad mother?”, she cries out and those words bring such sadness – and helplessness – to my soul. I understand the distance a new father feels from his wife as they cannot be intimate as she heals, and I know the utter exhaustion that plagues a new set of parents as they negotiate a world unknown before to them. I get why the hospital lactation nurses warned of pain that would pass and admonished both of us that when those days or nights came where our frustration was high to just set the baby down in his crib and walk away then come back. I know the anxiety now, too, of having a baby born in the midst of worldwide pandemic and feel even more isolated and alone. I know what it is like to almost lose the love of your life in childbirth. Something that you think is lost to ages past, and yet, it is not and still robs life and steals joy. I know. And because I know, I am a better priest.

I know, at least in theory, that one doesn’t need to be an adulterer to counsel other adulterers, but who better to counsel a person in the ways of keeping the marital vow of fidelity than one who keeps the vow in his own marriage? We, as priests, are to be representative of Christ, an alter Christus. In this respect, the priest understands his identity by following the example of Jesus, a man who lived His life in perfect dedication to God. As Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe of Grado explains, “The sacramental priesthood is holy, something set apart from the rest of the world. Just as Christ sacrificed His life for His bride, the Church, so too must a priest offer up his life for the good of Christ’s people.” Celibacy is a fruit that to those who are called to it allows the them to have as their first priority the Church, but I have found that to those who are not called God still makes another way.

 A priest’s first duty is to his flock. My wife and I both understand that. I grew up in a family where my dad placed his vocation as a funeral director first. People in grief couldn’t wait, and yet, he was still a good dad, too. Obviously, these two roles will often conflict, as St. Paul noted and as many married priests will tell you. A celibate priest may be able to give his undivided attention to his parishioners without the added responsibility of caring for his own family, but if not called to that life as a celibate, they are also often plagued my ailments and depression and loneliness. I, for one, didn’t want to fall into a bottle. Depression is hard enough.

Perhaps the image of the Pope in his papal shoes, those red shoes used to signify God’s burning love for humanity, may also be transposed to those who are married and still serve. The burning love of God and service are found in many ways, because God calls, and we listen, and a life of service comes, and in doing so yes, I had a baby, and still somehow, God made me a better priest.
 
 


Life (As We Knew It) May Not Be Coming Back Anytime Soon, But Don’t Fret…We Got This!

We realize that our life as a Catholic Parish isn’t coming back anytime soon; at least not the way we thought,  perhaps even hoped; at least not exactly like it was before this pandemic. Therefore, we have been actively moving along to adapt. Virtual-Worship and Gatherings have been our new way of life and we have found that God is using this for the good! So, while we will come back to in-person gatherings one day, we will also use the literal gifts we have learned from this time of hiatus, to make our wonderful Franciscan Catholic ethos all the stronger!

Almost every day without fail, I sit alone in my office and I pray and think to myself, “Lord, how can I help Saint Miriam survive this? Please God, help me. Please, Blessed Mother Mary, pray for me.” And every day, a new way comes to my mind, a new advertisement, way to communicate or involve you at home, or a new happening. God is indeed good, and I have learned to listen to God better during this time of increased quiet and solitude. It has been a real gift to me and to our parish.

While we continue to listen to our public health officials, honor social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we also are actively meeting daily, in-person through safe distancing meetings and via our new Zoom account, to discuss and plan for what life will look like once these restrictions are eased in all sectors of our society, but especially for us at Saint Miriam, parish and school.

In many places, like our own parish, publicly attended Masses have been suspended for weeks. But we need to prepare for the day when we are permitted to return and how to protect worshippers while offering Catholics access to the sacraments and a return to parish community life.

We realize that this reopening process will be gradual. As the Governor eases stay-at-home orders, we will begin to offer Masses that are open to the public, but it would be unwise to host large gatherings too quickly, especially as the true scope of infection remains unknown, and until everyone has access to testing. We also attend a weekly online gathering with Montgomery County Public Safety for worship leaders every Friday to keep us abreast of direct and timely information from the Governor’s Office. We are ready and will continue to prepare for the ‘all clear’ to reopen.

This is why we have been utilizing our virtual capabilities to keep us ‘gathering together’ and we will also continue to enhance those areas moving forward in some very exciting ways! We will also maintain, at least for the foreseeable future, some solid ways of keeping everyone safe.

So far, we have enhanced our Livestream, and brought great events like Virtual Egg Hunts for Easter and a Mother’s Day Basket Raffles for May, a Hymn request online, and a Virtual Choir, too! We offer Virtual CFF Lessons and we will soon bring you a weekly Zoom Mindfulness gathering every week, as well as a special ‘Mini Virtual Retreat on Silence’ offering with myself and Jesse Freschette from Center Mindful!

We have brought more technology, too! FM Broadcast of the Mass is now a weekly feature, and that will continue, AND we have decided to also bring you a weekly (weather-permitting) celebration of the Masses in our parking lot soon with parishioners remaining safe in their cars, and receiving Communion from a priest ready and sanitized! We are also adding a second Livestream camera to enhance our Virtual Mass offerings! And, our wedding couples can also now take pre-Cana classes virtually, too!

Additionally, we have opened our campus to the community while maintaining safe distancing and gathering requirements in our cemetery and gardens, with campus-goers staying six feet apart. Once we are allowed to hold public Masses inside the parish again, we are preparing to be in compliance with any state restrictions on large gatherings, and to offer other sacraments such as confession, anointing of the sick and weddings, and the Mass with increased distancing. This is why we are moving ahead with the removal of our pews and exchanging them for chairs to also permit greater distancing and discontinue the practice of ‘pew hoping’ over other people to get out of the pew during Mass!

We have also continued to be very Franciscan with our Outreach increasing! Our Blessing Bag program is over 1,200 bags a week (up from the norm of 300-400!) and we have cleared out old things and reformatted space to add a beautiful new Outreach Center! (Watch social media for the first images later today or tomorrow!) We also will soon have a ‘Virtual School Walkthrough online for those who wish to come to Saint Miriam School, and our infant and daycare will now be a year-round program!

Wow, huh!? Exciting what YOUR parish is doing! So, what about safety when we return? We need to be safe at home and when we gather, right? Yes! Therefore, when churches are permitted to open to the public, we will implement “a multi-prong system” to protect our worshippers.

First, we will continue what we started before we had to officially closed. During the cold and flu season and the current situation with the coronavirus outbreak, all parishioners will be reminded to use common sense and good hygiene.Those who are ill are not obliged to attend Mass and should stay home to recover and receive a dispensation; please attend Mass via Livestream. If you are feeling ill while attending Mass, we will ask that you please refrain from reception of Communion. Secondly, we will discontinue – for the time being – the reception of the Sacrament through the Blood of Christ in a communal chalice. We also will suggest that those who are not feeling well refrain from offering their hand to others at the sign of peace and instead a nice smile and a nod will graciously be accepted! Thirdly, all clergy including priests, deacons, subdeacons and Extraordinary Ministers will wash their hands immediately prior to Mass. Next, while nothing is better than washing your hands thoroughly, hand sanitizers are an effective supplemental to good hygiene and therefore access to hand-sanitizing gel will be provided near the entrances at every event and Mass. Also, everyone should continue to wear a cloth mask and follow social distancing guidelines, as required by the health and governmental authorities. We also begin to ask health questions as you enter for Mass and check your temperature with a no-contact digital thermometer. And, with our new chairs (post-sanctuary renovation), all worshippers will be automatically sitting six to eight feet apart! In addition, to try and attempt to keep gatherings small, we will be adding another Mass to our line up to permit worshippers choices in attending and spread us out a little bit more! As the infection rate comes down and testing capability increase, the size of the gatherings and easing of restrictions will change.

And, that leads me to my last announcement for this week! We were pleased to welcome Father Frank Souza to Saint Miriam Parish & Friary as Associate Pastor and Headmaster for Schools last summer, but with the changes to our school and parish, especially as we have grown our ministry and virtual life, I have seen the need for change.  Therefore, I met with him and have reassigned him effective June 1st, following the completion of our final licensing phase through the Department of Education, to Associate Pastor for Community Outreach and Virtual Worship. In this capacity Father will oversee all outreach and virtual operations, as well as maintain his Sunday Mass rotation! Please congratulate Father Frank in his new role and watch for more exciting news on our school front, too!

As your pastor, I wish to assure you that we’re going to reopen to public gatherings and celebrations in a way that is sensible, that follows the science, the data and the best practices, so that at the end of the day, we’re cooperating in keeping society safe, and keeping our parishioners and visitors safe, too.

I am excited about the future; I pray you are, too! Please support us with your prayers and kind financial donations to allow us to survive this closure. Soon, we will see the joy in one another’s faces as we gather again!

In Service and Hope,
 
 
Monsignor +Jim
 

 



So Shines a Good Deed!

One of my favorite movies growing up as a child was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder. In one of the final scenes, Grandpa Joe is arguing with Wonka about why his grandson, Charlie, won’t get the grand prize. Grandpa Joe calls Wonka an inhuman monster and a swindler. They go to leave, but Charlie turns back and places the Everlasting Gobstopper on Wonka’s desk as he unexpectedly returns it. Wonka gently cups the candy in his palm then quietly replies, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Our own Tom Frey is a living example of this, as are all of the countless volunteers and staff who selflessly work every day together to make our programs and ministry work!
 
While much of the world has stopped, our mission at Saint Miriam will not be placed on pause. That’s why we have been in 8 newspapers (like the Times Herald) in the last few weeks and last night and this morning we got even more press at Fox 29 News! We were featured on Bill Anderson’s For Goodness’ Sake and not to be out done, we had another featured spot this morning on Good Day Philadelphia where our own Tom Frey was interviewed about the impact we are making with our outreach! Yes! Why? Because every day our parish does real work for real people! I am so proud of what we’ve created!
 
Now more than ever, we’re so grateful for all the facets of our community that has funded, volunteered, celebrated, and advocated for Saint Miriam through the years, especially during this pandemic. Every single cent given from all of YOU, in all the various ways, from eGiving, to every handwritten check to every online donation, plus all the Mass intentions, and the supplies dropped off, to your generous prayers, too! Because of all of these things – and all your support – we do wonderful work! We learned the power of community and we do these things together, not out of an attitude of self-congratulations, or selfishness, but through great joy that we are part of something better and bigger together: Saint Miriam! At a time when everything feels uncertain, we find comfort and encouragement knowing that you care about our cause, our mission, and our spiritual home.
 
The passion and care of people like you keep us going, and we hope we make you proud of how we pay these funds forward to benefit not only our parish life but in our outreach, like the Blessing Bag Program, that is so needed, especially during these challenging times.
 
Please continue to support our good work and here are a few ways you can help us right now from your own homes!
 
1. Donate Today! Every little bit helps. Your gift will go directly to [helping us stay strong and vibrant for the day when we can return. Thank you for supporting us during this critical time. Donate Today
 
2. Follow Us on Social Media and through Our Parish App! Keep tabs on all that we’re up to by following us on social media. It’s the easiest way you can see the difference we’re all making together in real-time. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and don’t forget that Saint Miriam App!
 
3. Fundraise as a Family! Create your own fundraising page to raise money for the Saint Miriam and our Mission. Your kids can help you personalize your fundraiser by posting photos and writing a story about why you’re supporting us. Next, share it with friends and family.
 
4. Be Sharers of Our Good News! Enjoyed a family Pinterest project? Saw a beautiful story on the news that made you ugly cry? Share your photos, favorite sites, and inspiring stories and quotes on our Facebook page! And, be sure to share our posts on your page and invite your friends to “like us”!
 
Keep an eye out for updates on the impact of your life with us – together – in the coming weeks, along with other ways to get involved in helping us. Thank you again for your generous support. Our community can do anything because YOU are a part of it!
 
On behalf of all of us at Saint Miriam, thank you for being a part of our wonderful parish community. We wish you and your family health, safety, and happiness and want you to know that together, we can overcome all things.
 
In hope to gather together again soon,
 
Monsignor +Jim
 
 


Things Are Different.

Things are different. The campus, once alive with laughter of people coming and going, visitors popping in unannounced or bearing an appointment or holding an agenda, the children filling our halls with both screams of need and joy-filled laughter, the parents saying a quick hello as they dart out to work, the meetings and the telephone calls, the to-do lists that never seem to get done, the sounds of traffic on our Upper Road, and lawn mowers and such, it’s all gone. It’s quiet now. Too quiet.

I sit alone in my office, working and praying and thinking, and there is none of that before sometimes aggravating ‘office noise’ or chit chats happening between staff in the background. Now, I can tell you the regularity of the heat coming on, and the wind outside my windows, and even the beating of my heart. Today I sat at my desk when the intercom suddenly came alive! I leapt from my chair to find a parishioner with a gift for me at the door. She visited at arms-length and turned to leave but telling me – reassuring me – how much Saint Miriam means to her, then she left. She cried as she walked away. I came inside my office and wept. I am lonely. My heart aches. My depression is on the verge of returning. Yes, things are different.

I miss the silence of this church before anyone has arrived on an early Sunday morning.

I miss the sounds of children and their families arriving for school.

I miss the handshakes, the excitement of meeting a newcomer, and the embrace of those who call this place ‘home’ with regularity.

I miss the eyes that seek me at the altar, the prayers of the old, the Rosary beads clicking between fingers, and those questions from our youngest.

I miss the rhythm of this place, the organ as it fills with air, the sound of Charlie’s foot, just as he pushes the pedal of the piano, but right before any sound actually permeates the air.

I miss the ancient liturgy wrapped in ‘new wine skins’ and preaching to an audience (even if they don’t like what I am saying!)

I miss kneeling, then standing, then kneeling again! I miss the moments like last Sunday when we lost our way through the Creed and all those moments our idiosyncrasies dissolve to allow the holy Spirit to mend us; fix us; love us. Despite us, being us.

 I miss the Baptismal Water of the Font; holding the new Christian in my arms, and I miss us, together.

I have come to know that there is always goodness that comes out of our struggles, just as I also know that God is always present; always good, always in love with us, as we are of Him.

I know we will be here again, but I also know that things are different. Too different.

Please don’t give up on us. Don’t forget to struggle with us and share that struggle. Please, don’t forget to give and pray. Please don’t change your giving or we might perish. Don’t you change now, too. We will survive after this time in the tomb. We will ride triumphantly like Our Lord, but first, we need this pause, even if we don’t quite understand it.

You see, things are different, but they aren’t gone. Please help me to make sure they aren’t ever gone. That would be a quiet I couldn’t bear.

 



That’s the Disease Talking.

It’s too soon; it’s simply too soon. We don’t have enough tests and we really do not even know who should be tested or when. Do we test with possible exposure or only when showing symptoms? What about spouses or family members in the same home or workplace? We really don’t know, and we certainly have no idea who to believe anymore. It’s overloading us with information, misinformation, and straight our lies. And, that, is overwhelming us and the healthcare system. So, It’s too soon; it’s simply too soon.

I have learned by watching the world lately, (With the travel restrictions and social distancing, all of us have more time for that, right?!) that information overload equates to bad choices. I also have learned things that I don’t want to know, things that scare me, but that I – and you, too – NEED to know. These facts include:

  • We have not reached the peak for virus; it remains unknown.
  • Louisiana has highest viral infection growth rate in the world; a tenfold increase in 2 weeks!
  • There have been over 10,000 new cases in last 24 hours in our country.
  • We could be the next epicenter of the pandemic according to CDC.
  • New York’s infection “attack rate” is five times higher than the rest of the US.
  • The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) has received a formal request from Spain’s Ministry of Defense for international humanitarian assistance, NATO confirmed Monday in a statement, highlighting both medical and personal protective equipment as key areas of demand for Spain’s armed forces, who are supporting the country’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 
  • There are at least 52,381 cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States, according to CNN Health’s tally of US cases that are detected and tested in the United States through US public health systems. At least 680 people have died.
  • The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was postponed for about a year.
  • 54% of US population will be ordered to stay at home by midweek.
  • Connecticut has seen a spike of 200 more cases since yesterday.

Yesterday, a recreational ice rink was turned into a makeshift morgue in Spain. Emergency military units are bringing their dead to the Palacio de Hielo, or ‘Ice Palace’, in Madrid’s Hortaleza neighborhood. Yet, just hours later, our President said that his goal is to open up the country “as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy” packed churches on Easter morning. As a pastor who has made some difficult decisions for our school and parish and outside groups over the last two weeks, I believe that would be reckless. I also do not know if anyone would be ready to come back even IF we got the all clear. In other words, IF the pandemic was lessening, or IF we reached a leveling off of cases, would we even be ready to ‘take a chance’ and come to a packed church full of people, even those we love and worship with every week? I am doubtful; there is fear abounding, and it will take all of some time to find our normal life again. It’s too soon; it’s simply too soon.

As the United States discusses easing restrictions on commerce and government activity amid the spread of coronavirus, a recent spike in cases in Hong Kong shows the challenges of reopening society too soon. In late February, the number of cases in Hong Kong was relatively stable, but then their government began easing restrictions and reopening government institutions. The result? Hong Kong has been addressing a third wave of cases!

This past week, Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, defied government orders and held services that drew about 1,000 people, in part by busing people in from across five Louisiana parishes. Spell said he’s heard a flood of criticism from fellow Christians urging him to close his doors. Many, Spell said, are citing a bible passage in which the Apostle Paul urges Christians to submit to “governing authorities.” Others ask him to consider the greater good. Spell has told CNN he believes the pandemic is “politically motivated.” I am a strong critic. I believe that he is being reckless. Pure and simple. He is a pastor, not an epidemiologist or health professional. He is playing with people’s lives. There have been a lot of good people, and prayerful Christians, that have lost their lives while praying. This isn’t about faith in God, or the healing powers of the Holy Spirit. This is about being realistic and caring about fellow human beings. He is being selfish.

Then you have Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who is of the opinion that old people, (i.e. those most at risk), should volunteer to die to save the economy. (Yes, the economy!) Appearing on Fox News, Patrick told Tucker Carlson, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? …. So, my message is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin this great America.” No, Lieutenant Governor, you are callous, politically motivated, and dead wrong, and because of your words, so will others be.

The Governor of New York, Andrew Como, recently had a differing view when he said that life is not disposable. He stated, “My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life. We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one. No one should be talking about social Darwinism for the sake of the stock market.”

So, no, I am sorry, but cramming people into churches will only make the world more uncertain and might even make others severely ill. I cannot – we cannot – have deaths on our hands. We won’t. Not on my watch. [We will be making an announcement on our Easter plans at Saint Miriam by tomorrow.]

Lately, people have been so mean, and so dismissive of the life of others. The ‘me and not you’ has expanded now past just hoarding toilet paper. It is now against human life. ‘That’s just the disease talking’, some people say. God, I hope so; I pray it, otherwise people will die. What will we tell future generations about how we acted and who we killed in the name of an economy?

I promise you this, if we are kind and considerate: We will heal, but we must be one, together.

Let’s all be each other’s responsibility.

 

 



Fear Meets Hope; East Meets Hope.

When I was in seminary, I was introduced to the artistry of James He Qi. Dr. Richard Melheim said to think of He Qi’s art as, “Chagall meets Matisse meets Picasso meets the East. Vibrant. Energetic. Breathtaking. Biblical. Humorous. Whole-world art. He hopes to help change the “foreign image” of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and at the same time, to supplement Chinese Art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times. His brilliant, colorful and highly contemporary paintings emerge unmistakably from ongoing Chinese contexts. He Qi blends Chinese folk customs and traditional Chinese painting with the western art of the Middle and Modern Ages, but adds his own spin, techniques and style. I believe He Qi may one day be seen as the Michelangelo of the next 1000 years of Christian art.” I tend to agree!

From that first encounter, now so many years ago, during the time we were looking ahead to Easter, but still in the midst of a deeply penitential Lent, I saw hope. His work was entitled, “He No Here”, and featured the women arriving at the tomb of Jesus after His resurrection, the stone was rolled away and Jesus was gone. The women exclaimed as the men approached in their fear, “He no here!” And so, it was. Jesus was risen.

I have maintained a relationship with the artist ever since that day in seminary so long ago. In my prose, my homilies, and from within my heart. His art has given me inspiration and hope. That is why, in the midst of this pandemic, I turned to James and the beauty of his pieces, as much as I do to scripture and prayer. One of his latest works is today’s featured image for my Blog, and will be featured during the Musical Edition of the Stations of the Cross on April 2nd (whether in person, if permitted and safe, or via livestream, the show will go on!)

This beautiful artwork is entitled, “Carrying-Cross”, (used here with permission of the artist) and will also adorn the walls of my office soon as an artist proof. It serves to remind me that even as Jesus walked the streets toward that hill – bloodied, battered, exhausted, frightened, scorned and rejected – that would surely claim His mortal life, He would soon resurrect and claim us, too, but this time for eternal life.

This image, and the story it tells, reminds me that despite whatever will come our way: pandemic, floods, quakes and more, we will always be safe and find our way, because the One we worship and adore led the way first and killed even death itself.

So, even though I will not see you in person this Sunday, I will see many of your faces attached to the pews, (Please see the post at our Facebook page to send in your photos!) and all of you will be in my heart. I pray I will be, too. Please support the work of Saint Miriam because one day, we will all want to return to a place that gives us such hope and peace, just like the beautifully moving work of James He Qi does for me.

Be safe, be well, be still and know God is here.