Monthly Archives: May 2011

Suggested Reading on the Internet

There are two columnists in our Belleville Diocesan Newspaper, The Messenger, that I highly recommend.

This past edition there was an insightful column on the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy, “The Other Side of Orthodoxy” that got me thinking I’d recommend his columns to my readers. He has written some excellent columns about dealing with suicide, by the way.

The other columnist I recommend is REV. ROBERT BARRON.
He is a professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake and Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. Our presbyterate (the priests of a diocese) were privileged to hear him speak at our last convocation last fall. He’s an excellent preacher and teacher. Our Bishop, the Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton thinks highly of him. The web-site, called Word on Fire, is more than his syndicated columns. It is one of his ministries, using the internet as part of the “new evangelization.” It’s well worth your time, read and listen (there are pod-casts of his homilies for instance).


6th Sunday of Easter Homily – Cycle A

Given at St. Stephen Church, Caseyville IL
May 29, 2011
Author and homilist, Rev. Joseph C. Rascher

More or less what I proclaimed for the homily. It was nice that we also had a baptism at Sunday Mass and that event could be referred to (although it is not in the written text) as a visual experience of what was being proclaimed in word.

Text based on John 14:15-21

All of us have probably seen the images of the destruction caused by the tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri this past week. On the television news, in the newspaper, on the internet there were many images of the swath of destruction caused by the tornado in Joplin. Most striking was a before and after photo of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. All that was left standing was a cross and statue of the risen Christ. It would not be unusual for the people of Joplin to wonder where the heck God was in the midst of this destructive violence. It is possible to hear the folks saying, “Have you left us orphans, Jesus? Why did you not stop this tragedy? Are we abandoned by you?”

I recall waking up one Saturday morning at my childhood home when I was about 7 or 8 years old. My sister would have been maybe 3 or 4 at the time. Mom and dad must have gone outside to talk or maybe go on a quick errand thinking they’d get back before my sister and I woke. So, there my sister and I were standing at the living room picture window, looking out wondering what happened to our parents! I remember saying to her, “I guess they’re gone. We’ll have to get to the orphanage. I know there’s one in Belleville.” Unknown to us, mom and dad were probably in the kitchen watching this drama unfold. They quickly came in and reassured us they had been there the whole time! I was so glad!

This is, perhaps, an analogy of the experience of the children of God the Father. Sometimes we don’t see God is right there all along. We presume God is gone. Yet, the Father is still present. Our grief, our pain and lack of understanding of God’s ways prevent us from seeing that the Father never leaves his children untended. God is present in those times God seems absent. We, the beloved children are looking outward toward the world that seems changed instead of being aware of the presence that is in the household, the family of God.

Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “I will not leave you orphans!” Jesus is true to his promises. “I will give you my Spirit, an advocate, who will remind you of this truth. I am with you.” Jesus gives us his very breath of being, his love, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Just as a husband and wife cannot physically grab onto the reality of what they call their love for each other, but feel its effects we can feel, we can know the love that flows from Father to Son and Son to Father through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is infused with this Spirit, this very existence of God. The church is the Sacrament of Christ. In this part of the Gospel Jesus is preparing his followers for to re-tune their perceptions. He will soon ascend to Heaven. The physicality of an individual body (albeit a resurrected body no longer constrained by time and space) will cease to be available to the disciples. BUT, a new encounter with the person of Jesus is about to come to the forefront of the disciples’ experience. That new presence of Christ that will never leave the disciples is the CHURCH. The Church, the communion of the baptized, is now the physically encounter-able “Body of Christ” on earth. This is possible because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father and Son placed in each and every baptized person (Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist…). Where the Church is, there is Christ!

The baptized become the “children of God.” And like any good Father or Mother, God will not abandon his children. They are not abandoned even when life is full of death and destruction because the Church is there, making really present the love of Jesus. Wherever the church sacrifices for the sake of others, where it reaches out in compassion to meet the needs (emotional, physical and spiritual) of the broken, suffering human person, there is Christ. Because of the baptized we are never abandoned, we are never a “motherless child.” The Church is our Mother, who gave birth to us in her womb, the baptismal font, made fertile by the Spouse of the Church, Jesus Christ. And since the Church is also the Body of Christ, the children of Christ are never left to face the world on their own.

All of the sacraments, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Marriage, all sacraments reassure us that Christ is near, in a real way, perceivable if we know where to look.

So, God did not abandon Joplin. The church building of St. Mary may be destroyed, but the Church still gathers there this Sunday for Eucharist recalling that out of the tragedy, the sacrifice of the Cross, there came new life. This building we worship in could be blown down today (in fact if you recall our history, mighty winds did blow the walls of this space down during its construction in 1962 but the building was restarted) the Church would still be in Caseyville. God’s presence would still be known because we are the baptized who attempt to the best of our ability as a community to practice the unselfish love of Jesus that was planted in our hearts when we were washed of sin and buried with Christ in the font.

Children sometimes think that their mother or father must have eyes in the back of their heads. “How did she know I was going to do that?” “How does dad know I took something from his room? He wasn’t there!” Children don’t always understand how perceptive, how full of wisdom their parents are. God, who will never abandon us and is like Father and Mother, will always have his eyes on us ready to step in and save us from the terrors of living. It just takes us, the children a life time to realize the fact and see that the Spirit of God is with us all the time, even in the destruction of death. Then we shall move into the new home prepared for us by Jesus, the resurrected body like us and see him as he is, no longer mediated by the sacraments but face to face.

© 2011, All Rights Reserved

A favorite opinion columnist

Sunday mornings before Mass find me reading the newspaper during breakfast. One of the first things I read each Sunday (after the comics, of course…see my post from May 28 about my Saturday Mornings) is opinion columnist Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. 95% of the time I find myself agreeing with what he has written. And, yes, I am a bit of a liberal. My parishioners know that, now you know it. Pitts has often been labeled with the “L” word, but he makes a lot of sense to me. I recommend his column that appeared this Sunday in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that lays bear a streak of religious intolerance that unfortunately has become part of the U.S. landscape in the post 9-11 era. I remind my readers that the Catholic Church preaches religious freedom and the right of each human to seek God in what ever way that their conscience and circumstances leads them. Yes, we hope that all people will find salvation through Jesus Christ, but in the realities of the human situation of this world and its many religions we must respect the beliefs of others. For those who want the source of the official teaching I suggest reading the Vatican II documents DECLARATION ON THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH TO NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS (NOSTRA AETATE) especially paragraph number 3 and DECLARATION ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM (DIGNITATIS HUMANAE) ON THE RIGHT OF THE PERSON AND OF COMMUNITIES TO SOCIAL AND CIVIL FREEDOM IN MATTERS RELIGIOUS.

Leonard Pitts writes about recent events in Murfreesboro TN, and some of its citizens who don’t seem to know that Islam is a religion, that Muslims are not a terrorist organization, and that in the U.S. we have the Bill of Rights that guarantee the right to practice your religion. Check out his column Awfully dark before the dawn.

Finally, brothers and sisters, remember that in Eucharistic Prayer IV of the Roman Catholic Church we pray in the current English translation, asking God to “gather people of every race, language and way of life into the one eternal banquet.”

A Child Shall Lead Them

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 18:3-4)

This past Friday I had two experiences of children putting their faith in action. A child’s faith can be much more trusting and unquestioning than the faith of adults. Not that I haven’t had children ask me some very profound and sincere questions that get to the heart of what we believe as Catholics. Have you ever had to deal with fourth graders who want to know how Jesus can be God and a human at the same time? Just how do you explain the hypostatic union, the dual natures of Christ to 4th graders? I struggle with finding adequate language to explain it to adult inquirers. But younger children can so easily accept that Jesus loves them and will take care of them, that heaven is real and that prayer will have an effect in the lives of others.

I arrived at Holy Trinity Catholic School, the school our parish co-sponsors with Holy Trinity Church in Fairview Heights, on Friday morning to preside at the school’s Eucharist. There, on the steps of the sanctuary were half a dozen Rubbermaid bins, and some baskets. “Hmmm,” I thought, “there must be something going on besides the usual routine.” Shortly I found out from the teacher coordinating the child liturgical ministers of the day that there would be a special procession of the gifts. Every child would be in the procession of gifts. They would be bringing their offerings of a canned good for the local food pantry. Also, the children would bring to the altar a monetary offering for their “brothers and sisters” in Joplin, MO at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Grade School whose church and school building were destroyed by a tornado so that they could start rebuilding their school. The kids also had made cards to comfort the child victims of Joplin’s natural disaster. I have to admit I was moved and felt a tear well up in my eyes as I watched over 150 children process and fill the bins and baskets with their offerings, trusting their small offerings could make a difference in the lives of others. It was the day’s assigned Mass readings (Friday, 5th Week of Easter) in action; the calling of the first deacons of the church chosen to feed the hungry and care for widows (Acts of the Apostles) and Jesus’ command to his friends “love one another and I have loved you” (Gospel of John). I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the children got a “free dress day” (they didn’t have to wear their uniforms) if they brought a contribution. Still, the children were sincere in their desire to help those in need and were an example to us adults to remember the risen Christ will be visible to the world, through the sacrament of the Church his Body, when we unselfishly sacrifice for the sake of others.

Later Friday morning, the principal of Holy Trinity School, deacon from Holy Trinity parish and I represented the school at the funeral Mass of the 32-year-old mother of a student in our school’s third grade. As you can imagine this was a truly heart wrenching liturgy. The pastor, a wonderful Franciscan Friar who obviously has the heart of a man who loves his flock, fought back tears throughout the Mass and his homily. It was so sad to see the son of the mother we were bringing to Lord sitting in the front pew, being brave. The spirituals that were sung (this is a predominantly African-American parish) touched the heart with their honest faith questioning why this death happened but expressing complete trust in God’s power to save us. But the moment that was most moving for me came during the Final Farewell portion of the liturgy. The first “tribute” given by members of the assembly was read by the third grade child of the mother whose funeral we were celebrating! I sat in amazement and was humbled. A nine-year old bravely, calmly reading a poem (I don’t know if he wrote it or if someone else helped) about his love of his mother and how he will not forget her. I recalled that I barely held it together when I preached at my own mother’s funeral. Here was a child witnessing to our faith in the resurrection, trusting God to make right this terrible tragedy in his life. His action preached more effectively than I think I ever have at a funeral. A child shall lead us and help us find the way to the Kingdom of God.

Remember, adults, don’t dismiss children as if they don’t have something to teach us because they don’t have our adult sophisticated minds. Sometimes, our adult minds keep us from opening our hearts like a trusting child to the love of God which is beyond all understanding but very real for his children born from the font of the Church, you and me.

Saturday Mornings

My Saturday mornings, unless there is a funeral or wedding scheduled that day, have a pretty regular routine. I wake up later than usual, sort laundry, make my way downstairs with a load of dirty clothes and put them in the washer. Then I get the paper left by the delivery service in the parking lot and read the paper while having a simple, unrushed breakfast. The comics are always the first thing I read. But then on Saturdays, the St. Louis Post Dispatch runs a religious news page which I would read before anything else. Until recently it was written by a fine religion reporter, Tim Townsend. Mr. Townsend is on a leave of absence at the present time to write a book, so the newspaper has been running selected excerpts from its on-line religion blog page, Civil Religion, written by various bloggers that were invited by Townsend to write for the site. I almost always find something to muse on in what’s shared. Occasionally, the day’s blog gives me an idea for my homily for the weekend. This morning an article by the Rev. Pamela Dolan, an Episcopalian priest resonated with my own thoughts about praying, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters like the tornado that destroyed large parts of Joplin, MO. Perhaps Rev. Dolan’s thoughts will resonate with you, too.
Praying at the edge of the grave
by The Rev. Pamela Dolan

While I was checking out the Civil Religion site I also noticed the following blog on the same topic that I also recommend.
Prayers shape the heart’s response to tragedy by the Rev. Christopher Keating, a Presbyterian minister.

Let us pray for one another!

Saying good-bye to a great teacher

Mrs. Diana Eckert
Science Teacher at our joint-parish school
Holy Trinity Catholic School

This evening, May 19, 2011, our parish hosted a Memorial Service for Mrs. Diana Eckert who had been a teacher for 25 years in the various schools my parish has sponsored during that time. She started at St. Stephen School, and then she continued at Elizabeth Ann Seton School when St. Stephen School was merged with Our Lady of Assumption School. When Seton School merged with St. Albert School in Fairview Heights, IL she became the science teacher for Holy Trinity Catholic School. She began the present school year in the classroom while undergoing treatment for cancer, but it became evident during the year that she would have to leave the classroom due to her health and treatments. Mrs. Eckert died on May 7 and donated her body to Saint Louis University School of Medicine’s Center for Anatomical Science and Education so that she could continue to teach students, even in death. Many former students, colleagues and parishioners came to the evening service to pay tribute to this marvelous teacher who never really understood how many young people and adults she had influenced. It was a moving service, especially to hear the many tributes given her. Earlier today, we celebrated a Memorial Eucharist with the children and staff at Holy Trinity School, so it’s been an emotional day for me (I presided at another funeral in the morning, too). Diana was a special teacher and someone I was privileged to work with and know. What follows is the text of the homily I gave at the evening prayer memorial service. It is based on Acts of the Apostles 10:34-36, 42-43, Psalm 27:1 and John 17:24-26.

    I first met Diana Eckert 13 years ago when I was the new pastor at St. Stephen and trying to figure out how to be a co-pastor of Elizabeth Ann Seton School with Msgr. James Jansen that our two parishes shared responsibility for. I don’t know if it was during the summer or the first faculty meeting, but I do recall that early on I thought. “Man, this is one intense teacher!” I soon found out that her students felt the same. Students would approach 7th grade with some trepidation knowing they had Mrs. Eckert as their teacher. “She’s tough!” “She’s demanding” “You won’t get away with anything in her class!”

    What I discovered over the course of the next few years is the same thing her students discovered, that Diana considered her students to be something like what Jesus considers us in the words he spoke to us in the Gospel,
“Father, my students are your gift to me. I wish that they see the wonders of the physical world the way I marvel at your creation. I want them to see your glory reflected in everything created since the foundation of the world!”
Msgr. Jansen, Msgr. Flach, Fr. Ray and me, the pastors who signed her contract and observed her love of teaching all agree that she was one of the reasons St. Stephen, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Holy Trinity Catholic Schools have been and are places of academic excellence and places where children are well formed disciples more ready to proclaim the goodness of God to the world. Diana was dedicated to our mission and the various pastors and the sponsoring parishes are so grateful that God lead her to our school.

    Diana knew the creator, the source of the life she studied, through the discipline of science and the gift of faith. For her, there was no conflict between faith and science. The truth was revealed in both the scientific method and the revelation of faith’s textbook; the scriptures and the church. She’d often say to me that I needed to come visit her classroom more so that the children would see how science and religion are not in competition but complement each other. She seemed to be able to share that truth pretty well on her own.

    Tonight we need to rely on her approach to truth to help us in our grief and not let sadness overtake us or the absence of Diana.

    She was very matter of fact about death with her students. That got her in trouble with parents at least once that I recall since I’ve been at St. Stephen. One time she apparently told her students that when she died, she wanted a cat and a bell etched into her tombstone. She wanted a cat, because we know how much she liked cats. A bell, well, because her students would probably be singing, “ding, dong, the wicked witch was dead!” A few parents took objection to their children being exposed to talking about the upsetting topic of death and then for the topic to be presented in such a frivolous way! Diana was able to be REAL with her students. She respected them and thought of them highly, believing them capable of handling hard truths and difficult concepts, maybe more so than their guardians. That respect she gave students, that ability to challenge students to reach beyond their grasp instead of coddling them is what made her a great teacher of science. But it also made her a great witness of faith. She believed her students could handle the truth and the truth, as the scriptures say, will set you free to really live life. So many students have remarked about how Mrs. Eckert taught me what I needed to get through high school, college, to start an adult life!

    What Mrs. Eckert taught her students, talk of tombstones and decay and all was that death was a necessary part of the cycle of life. She taught them that out of the decomposition of matter, new life was born. The truth of physical science was her entrée into also sharing with the student to not fear death. Death would be the start of new life. She was always the science teacher and the witness to faith. What do we Christians believe? Death is the necessary start of a new way of living! See the paschal mystery revealed in the witness of the natural world. See the truth of faith revealed in the study of the works of the creator.

    That is what we remember, tonight. She died, she sacrificed her life in so many ways, so that others would live more fully. She was a wife, leaving behind one kind of life for the fuller life of matrimony with Ray. She was a mom, sacrificing for her two daughters and granddaughter and they will witness that her gift of self made life so much richer for them. Diana sacrificed for the children she taught, and so many of them will tell you how her sacrifice made their life better. We should see in her sacrifice, her death to self for the sake of others a “proof” to the theory Jesus reveals in his own death and resurrection, those who let go of their life will discover life in abundance. Jesus will be faithful to his promise to her given in baptism.

    In private conversations with the priests and friends, sometimes Mrs. Eckert worried a bit if she would make it to heaven. Diane did not share at the table of the Eucharist with so many of the children she gave her heart to. But, remember what Luke says in the Acts of the Apostles… “God shows no partiality…in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” I am convinced of God’s mercy and bigness of heart, a love as big as the cosmos Diana sought to understand and teach the marvels of to her students, that we can be confident in God’s love and that Diana lives in the resurrected body that cannot be described by science, but is just as real as anything in the created order. Someday, after our night of grief and separation may we discover with her the light of eternity.

The picture is of the display of mementos of Mrs. Eckert placed where the casket normally would be at a funeral in church. There was her teacher’s edition of a textbook, microscope, scale, periodic chart symbol, goggles she insisted students wear, a blow up frog (her students dissected frogs each year) and a Garfield stuffed toy (she really liked cats!).

Santa Clara de Aisis

Santa Clara de Asis
(Saint Clare of Asisi)
Patroness of seamstresses, optometrists, television:
invoked against eye ailments
Feast Day: August 11

During my trip to Albuquerque, I was able to visit Santa Fe, New Mexico on two afternoons. The first afternoon, our convention celebrated the Eucharist with Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan at the Santa Fe Archdiocese’s Cathedral of St. Francis of Aissi. Perhaps I’ll write more about that Mass at another time. The second afternoon, I returned with about 17 other priest conventioneers to do some sightseeing on a free afternoon during the conference. In the Cathedral gift shop I saw a display of hand-mounted reproductions of original saint retablos done by a local artist named Clare Villa of La Villita, NM. I couldn’t resist buying one of them, for their unique southwestern influence but contemporary style of depicting the saints. Retablos are found in all the churches of the southwest and Mexico, some making up parts of elaborate altar reredos (the back part of a high altar that extends up the wall behind the altar table). This particular one of St. Clare called out to me the most. I loved how she holds the monstrance at a jaunty casual angle as opposed to the usual stiff vertical. It’s as if she is waving the Sacrament at the viewer saying, “Look here! Come this way!” The monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament looks like a flower or sun radiating the beauty and warmth of God’s love out toward the viewer. Clare’s head is also tilted in a kind of nod toward the sacrament inviting the viewer to consider the mystery contained therein. But she averts her gaze from both the monstrance and the viewer, lost in her own meditation, so as to not draw attention to herself but to let the viewer ponder the mystery on his or her own terms. There is something playful about the piece and yet serenely prayerful.

Traditional icons of the Eastern Churches are usually painted on a background of gold to signify the saint is in heaven. This retablo, too, is on a “gold” (more yellow) background, but grounded on earth, as if Clare were in an alcove of her monastery just come out from behind the veil. Perhaps it is the curtain that covers the entrance to the Old Testament holy of holies in the Jerusalem temple, now replaced by the veil of death (and transitus) that keeps us from seeing the glory of the heavenly temple. The saint says to us, “See, heaven is among you, revealed in this most wonderful sacrament. Follow this sign, “The Way” it reveals, and may it enable you to persevere in faith, hope and love until you cross the threshold where the curtain hangs and are with me on the other side of the veil that separates your world from the world that never ends.”

I’m sure there’s a lot more symbolism in the art, but good art and symbol always invites you to come back to enter the experience of it, again and again, to find an even deeper insight. I’ll make sure to hang it somewhere in the rectory where it will have the opportunity to frequently invite those who see it and me into such reflection.

There’s no place like home

The past week I’ve been away from my parish traveling to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a professional conference. The plan was to stay on for a few more days to make a private retreat at a Norbertine Priory outside of the city. Notice I say “was.” The last day of the conference I woke up with a nasty case of the flu or some other gastrointestinal ailment. Let’s just say nothing would stay inside my body.

By 6:00 PM I was sure that I was becoming dehydrated, so I went to a local hospital Emergency Room. After about three miserable hours in the waiting room, I finally got into a treatment room. Then I was moved to a unit with recliners to wait until all the IV fluid and meds for nausea were finished dripping into my system and I felt well enough to leave.

All the while I kept thinking I just wanted to be at home. Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where I had also been, were lovely towns. The weather had been good. The conference was interesting. It was nice reconnecting with priests I’ve meet before at this annual conference. But, I just wanted to be home!

Isn’t that the Christian’s story?

This world is a beautiful place, full of wonders to explore. There are relationships that make this life a wonderful experience. Ultimately, though, it is as if we are travelers visiting a place that is not home. The letter to the Hebrews says:

They …acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come,they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13b-16)

And, while we are here on this earth we are painfully aware that we are sick with sin that can make life miserable. For the Christian, our home where we long to be is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Call it the experience of being wholly perfected (or Holy). Call it heaven. Call it the eternal banquet of life. Whatever we call it, it’s the true home, the dwelling Jesus said that he would go to prepare for us

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not, would I have told you
that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be. (John 14:1-4)

Maybe the ER waiting room experience might be a metaphor for Purgatory; not exact but a way to approach the mystery of redemption. There I could witness the various ailments, the brokenness of the human condition. All were in need of healing. What if each of those people were the folks that my sins had caused brokenness or hurt my relationship with or harmed the ability of the Christian message to be encountered. I become aware of how I’ve shared in causing the brokenness of the world. Also in the waiting room were family or friends who were supporting the sick, being their advocate and interceding with the medical staff to please hurry, treat my loved one. Although I didn’t have an advocate in the waiting room, I did have a visitor who stayed with me in the treatment and step-down area who returned later to pick me up at 4:00 AM and tack me to get some medicine and bring me back to the hotel. Thank you to Alan Szafraniec, a member of the staff of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, the organization whose conference I was attending, who was an angel that bore me up with his wings in the moment of suffering. Is this support of family in the ER not something like the faithful on earth praying for the dead to be released from the experience of purgatory and be brought to the healing of Heaven?

I’m writing this as I hang out at the home of a priest whose parish is in Albuquerque who has taken me in while I recuperate enough to travel. Thanks to Rev. Tim Martinez, pastor of The Shrine of St. Bernadette in Albuquerque for the hospitality. I’m returning to the parish earlier than planned. The journey home, today, will be a bit rough since I haven’t completely healed from the effects of the virus. That too is like our journey to heaven. We’re on a journey, with trails of faith and a few wounds from our sins that remind us of our need for someone other than ourselves to get us there, but eventually we do.

First Eucharist 2011

scenes from First Communion at St. Stephen 2011

Scenes from First Communion at St. Stephen 2011

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