Category Archives: Priesthood

Convocation Take-Away

A couple of weeks ago, I spent 4 days with my brother priests from the Diocese of Belleville at our annual Convocation. It is to be a time of spiritual renewal, continuing formation in priesthood and fraternity. To varying degrees these goals were met.

There was one particular “take-away” phrase that has stuck with me since those days of convocation. While it was given in the context of a talk about the ongoing spiritual formation of priests, I think it applies to any Christian seeking to grow in holiness and their baptismal calling. Fr. Louis Cameli, one of the presenters during the convocation, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, currently the Archbishop’s Delegate for Formation and Mission and a former professor at St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. He stated that part of a priest’s spiritual life is to live in poverty. He was not talking about monetary or fiscal poverty. He was reflecting on the need for “kenosis,” a Greek word that means roughly “emptying of self” and “detachment” where a person grows in reliance of the grace of God. The phrase that sticks with me is this:

“Nature abhors a vacuum. The Holy Spirit abhors a full soul and self.” 

How true! If we are full of ourselves, there’s no room for God to enter into and dwell. If we’re always focused on “me”, how will we hear the Word of God calling us to conversion of heart and life? If we don’t attempt to silence our own words and thoughts in our mind in prayer, contemplation and liturgy there is no space for the Word to be heard. There must be some emptiness in our life to relieve the gift of grace, the experience of God’s love for us. That emptiness can be silence in prayer, the inability to heal some pain on our own, fasting’s hunger or a lack of financial resources. Emptying the self comes in many forms. Only when the vessel is empty can something be poured into it. Kenosis requires a life time of rehearsing and practice. Ultimately, that “rehearsal” will make the final “emptying of self, our death, less fearful and prepare us to receive the fullness of life.

In humbleness, this poverty business, the work of “kenosis” is certainly a part of my own continuing formation that is still in progress if I am to be the icon of Christ ordination made me. 

There’s No Vacation from Telling Good News

He went around to the villages in the vicinity teaching.
He summoned the Twelve* and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.

[After some time] The apostles* gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
-Mark 6b,7; 30-34

[The Feeding of the Five Thousand then takes place]

I know it’s been several weeks since I’ve posted an entry to the blog. My apologies to those who kept checking if there was anything new and were disappointed. Following the advice of Jesus to The Twelve, I went off to a “deserted place” for a little rest and relaxation after spending my first year in Trenton as the pastor of St. Mary Parish. It wasn’t really deserted, but it was a desert region, Palm Springs, California. The small desert city has become a favorite of mine to get away to relax in and I do have a friend who lives there to spend time with while in town. The vacation was a nice break, but unfortunately on the trip back I must have caught a cold on the plane and after that cleared up my allergies have been in high gear, so I haven’t felt much like writing for the blog, just managing to get things done that need to be done in the parish.

There was something that happened on the trip home, though, that gave me the idea for this blog entry that I shared with the parish in my first weekend back at the pulpit preaching. Do we, as disciples, get to take a vacation from proclaiming the Good News. We may get to rest, but there are always people waiting to hear of God’s love in word and action. Note in the passage from the Gospel of Mark quoted above, the disciples have been doing “ministry” and Jesus recommends a vacation to recharge the emotional and spiritual batteries so to speak and to do some reflection on how God has been at work in their life. Yet, when they try to get away, the folks follow them and their needs to be feed through word and deed present themselves, not tomorrow when the disciples are scheduled to get back from rest, but now, in the present moment.

Throughout my vacation, when ever I would meet someone, the question would always come up, “What do you do for work?” What am I going to say, “Oh, I work as local branch manager of a multi-national organization that seeks to further development of human potential” in order to avoid “ministry” or “work” and stay “on vacation?” In a way that description is true, but, I answer without trying to hide the fact and truthfully tell the new acquaintance I am a priest and pastor of a Catholic Church. Most of the time that gets a response like “Really? That’s interesting.” Sometimes that’s followed by “I’ve got a question” or “I’m spiritual but don’t believe in that organized religion stuff” or a simple “That’s cool.” But, the door is opened and conversation at some point heads in the direction of talking about faith or personal belief or how the person left the church after growing up Catholic or the like. While I may want down time, the “crowd” of the Gospel always seems to follow and my “heart is moved with [concern] for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” The moment becomes a moment of evangelization and I can not refuse the Holy Spirit which I believe is probably using me in that one unique opportunity that the person may never have, again, to proclaim the Good News.

So, I’m on my way home after 8 days of being in my favorite deserted place on a two-hour lay over in the airport in Phoenix, AZ. Being prepared, I had brought along a liturgical document to re-read and prepare a presentation I was to give at a workshop two days after I returned home. My plan was to read it and work on the talk on my trip home, sort of the ease back into “ministry-work” mode. But, it’s also my custom to enjoy a drink on the way home from vacation so I purchased an “adult beverage” at a bar on the concourse and sat at a cocktail table to study and write my presentation.

I had said hello to two women in line in front of me when I’d ordered the drink. There were not many tables and these women sat at a table directly behind me to enjoy their drinks. Now, I really don’t purposely eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but my hearing is pretty good and they weren’t exactly talking in hushed whispers. I sort of picked up that they were talking about belief and doubt, but tried to ignore their private conversation.

Then I heard one say something like “Well, I don’t know if you really can believe all you read in that book (the Bible). After all, it was written by humans and it contradicts itself. Some it is just too hard to believe actually happened. I was raised a Catholic but I left the church. Especially with all those priests abusing children.” Her companion agreed that faith and belief in God is difficult to maintain, yet she was “spiritual.” It’s a conversation I’ve heard and been drawn into many times through casual acquaintances and chance meetings when socializing; “for they are like sheep without a shepherd.”

A prayer rises up in my head. “NOT NOW Holy Spirit! I’m still on vacation! I have no business interjecting myself in their private conversation! Leave me alone! I’ve got a talk to prepare!” The Holy Spirit doesn’t take no for an answer. I’ve learned that over the years. The Spirit will have it’s way and gnaw at your gut until you respond.

As I finish my drink and  put my papers away I decide I have to say something. Stoping by the ladies table as I leave to go find dinner and my gate I say hello and explain that I wasn’t trying to listen in to their conversation but overheard it anyway and felt compelled to offer an opinion. “You see, I’m a Catholic priest, albeit out of ‘uniform’ (I was in shorts and polo shirt) and I understand how difficult it can be to have faith and believe. I’ve been there, myself. But sometimes you just have to take a risk, trust it is true, and live with the doubt for a while, while you continue to explore what you believe. God is leading you to him so don’t give up on him. I hope you remain open to discovering what God’s revealing to you despite a very human church making it difficult to trust. May you get home safely, ladies.”

Now, it wasn’t the most eloquent proclamation of the Gospel. And, selfishly, I didn’t want to spend time in discussion. I just hope my little “surprise” revelation might get the women to think a bit, something on the order of “Wasn’t that interesting? Was it a sign from God? Did God have a message for us God wanted us to hear by the coincidence of a priest happening overhearing us at the next table?” Or maybe they just shrugged it off and said “What an odd man!” But, like Jeremiah and Jonah who tried to not preach, the Word burned in my heart and on my lips and would not be silenced. At every Mass before proclaiming the Gospel, don’t I pray “May your words be in my heart and my lips that I might worthily proclaim your holy Gospel”?  (Well in the older translation, I did.)

No, disciples, be they priest or laity, can never take a vacation from proclaiming the Word of God. It’s our baptismal vocation, even on vacation.


Family does it share for vocations

Our Bishop in Belleville doesn’t miss an opportunity to mention the need for vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Belleville. And, it’s true. We have maybe 4 men studying in the seminary at this time. There will be no ordinations in Belleville for several years. That’s not enough to replace the retiring priests, or to staff parishes that are going without a priest-pastor. I’m sure by the time I retire I’ll be overseeing two or three parishes instead of just one as I am at the moment. We may wish the Church would change its discipline concerning celibacy and ordaining women to priesthood, but that’s not going to happen. To be Church, we need the Eucharist. And to celebrate Eucharist, you need a priest. There is this ritual called Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest where the scriptures are read and communion from the tabernacle is distributed by a lay leader of prayer. But it’s a poor substitute for what is the essential Sacramental celebration that renews us in our identity as the Body of Christ, as I teach in the talk that I give as part of the training session for lay leaders of prayer in our diocese.

One of the concerns I hear so often from parents when asked why they don’t encourage vocations nowadays is that they don’t want to miss out on the chance of grandchildren and fear that their son will be lonely not having a spouse. There’s a great quote by the parents of three brothers from the Milwaukee Diocese who are and will be priests in another diocese that I stumbled upon in my internet browsing. Concerning not having grandchildren Jerry and Ruth Stand said, “they have found peace with their sons’ decisions and let go of their dreams for a herd of grandchildren,….. ‘We let go of that, it’s not about us,’ Jerry Strand said. ‘It really has nothing to do with our joy because we will or won’t. That’s part of the sacrifice.’

What a great attitude and perspective. Everyone in the church is called to sacrifice in one way or another for the good of family, church and society, in order to ensure the Good News is proclaimed and Eucharist is available.

Read the entire article and watch a video about three brothers seeking ordination at Luke, Vincent, Jake Strand; 3 Brothers From Wisconsin Family To Become Priests .

Those of you who read my blog and have sons, I pose this question; “Have you encouraged your son to be a priest? What is keeping you from doing so if you haven’t?” Talk to me, I’ll assure you it’s a good life and worth the sacrifices both parents and son make. Ask my dad (mom would have told you before she died how happy she was to have a son who became a priest). There are rewards, too, not just sacrifice.

El Señor esté con ustedes

Yesterday was a sort of first for me. I presided at my “first” Mass entirely in Spanish. I’ve done parts of the Eucharist and Rite of Baptism in Spanish, before, at my former parish of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Caseyville, IL. But, I had never spoken ALL the prayers, start to finish, in another language than English.

In our area of Clinton County, IL there is a sizable population of immigrants from Mexico. They have been settling here for many years finding work in various agricultural and service industries. Many speak English or are attempting to learn it, but there are always new folks arriving without English skills. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to pick up a second language as an adult. I would struggle trying to learn something other than English at this point in my life. Their children, of course, learn English much faster. Many are born here. What I think is neat is that these youth are bi-lingual. How lucky they are to be able to communicate in both languages. I studied Spanish in High School, but never really became able to converse in it. Many folks in my parish in Trenton and around the county aren’t aware of how large the population of Spanish speaking neighbors has become in recent years.

We anglos better get used to the idea that Spanish has become a part of life in the United States and in the Catholic Church in our nation. According to an article in U.S. Catholic,

“Between 2000 and 2008 the number of U.S. Hispanics increased from 35 million to 46.9 million, a 34 percent jump. Their numbers will continue to increase at least until 2050, when the Census Bureau projects a count of 102.6 million. At that time, the bishops’ Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs has estimated, 85 percent of U.S. Catholics will be Hispanic.” (c.f. “Journey to the Center of the Church” Wednesday, June 2, 2010, cited on the web-site of U.S. Catholic, a publication of The Claretians,,1, accessed April 23, 2011. The article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 3, pages 27 – 31).

Already, if I remember correctly a statistic I read in the same publication quoted above (but can’t find to site), 50% of the Catholics in this country under 30 years of age speak Spanish at home, already! Some call this the “browning” of the church. I call it a wonderful experience of the diversity of The Body of Christ, “El Cuerpo de Christo.”

I know there is resistance among some in our parishes of southern Illinois to making the liturgy available in Spanish. I ran into that in Caseyville. And I sense that is the case in my present parish. “They’re in this country, they should speak English! Let them come to Mass in English.” But I can’t help wondering if I found myself in anther country for an extended stay or to live where English was not spoken, wouldn’t I long for an opportunity to pray in my “native” tongue where I was comfortable and didn’t have to constantly translate in my mind what was being said. To me, that translating gymnastics would be an obstacle to communicating with the God who brought be to birth and first spoke to me in a particular language through the love of my parents who taught me to speak and in a liturgy of the language of where I was born and raised. Ritual is more than words, yes. The Mass is the Mass in any language and a person can get “something” out of a Mass because the non-verbal symbols still speak the reality of Christ present and worshiped. But, would it be as full of an experience of “the mysteries.” This is one of the reasons the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II encouraged the use of the vernacular in the Roman Catholic Church (see article number 36 in the Constitution), to make the liturgy accessible to people.

Sure, eventually, I’d learn the local language and become comfortable in expressing myself in it. I had an aunt, Sister Folgence Rascher, CPpS, who spent over 25 years in Peru. When she would come back to the States for home visits, often she’d have to ask how to say something in English, since Spanish had become so much a part of her everyday and prayer language. In one sense, she became Peruvian, she identified with her adopted people. She was proud of her birth country, occasionally critical of it for the strong influence it had on Peruvian culture, but a woman of faith who knew in her heart that Jesus the Christ was savior of all people and in order for people to know Him, she had to first meet people where they were in their language and culture, not impose a way of communicating learned in a small farming community of north central Missouri where she was born. Sister Folgence was a kind of hero and inspiration to me. I figure a similar journey of enculturation and encounter with Christ is going on for those who come to our country looking for work, the human rights of freedom and dignity.

Those who have settled in this area of Clinton County, traveling from their place of birth in Mexico and points even further south, are my brothers and sisters in faith. If I happened to study Spanish in High School out of admiration for my Aunt Sister Folgence and am able to at least speak it from printed liturgical texts in a way that is comprehensible, then I have a responsibility to offer the sacraments in Spanish to them. I truly believe that God was at work back in those formative high school experiences at Mater Dei High School in Breese (just a few miles from where I live, today) preparing me to be a priest who could offer the sacraments to people in a language that would be a comfortable place to pray while they “sojourned in a foreign land” like the Israelites of old. I suspect Sister Fulgence is smiling down from Heaven at what her nephew is up to.

The actual experience of praying the Mass in Spanish was a bit of a challenge. I was pretty nervous. What if I can’t be understood? What if I make a mistake? I’ve been practicing for several months, off and on, once I learned that the priest who usually celebrates the Mass at St. Damian in Damiansville, IL was having serious health problems. He was becoming unavailable to preside. The coordinator of the Office of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Belleville, Sister Cecilia Hellmann, ASC and the local coordinator our deanery hired to minister to the Hispanics in our area, Robert Rapp, were both encouraging me to get busy and practice. Bob reminded me before I processed to the altar, “Just remember. It’s God who’s doing this, not you! Don’t be afraid!” Good advice. He also helped me out by reading the Gospel and giving a “reflection” afterwards about the importance of not being afraid to witness to the faith. I didn’t understand everything in the comments to the folks, but I did catch that and that he used me as an example of trying new experiences to proclaim our belief in Jesus the Risen One. (The Gospel was the story of the appearance of Jesus to disciples after he had appeared to two others on the Road to Emmaus, Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle B. Jesus sends those disciples, who were originally fearful they were seeing a ghost, out to proclaim repentance to the whole world at the end of the pericope.)

I guess things went pretty well. Bob tells me that some of the folks didn’t believe it was my first time celebrating the Eucharist in Spanish! The practicing paid off, it seems. Bob did say I’ve got to work on my “H’s” and “J’s.” H is not pronounced in Spanish, and I have a habit of still pronouncing it. J’s are sounded out like an English H and the old English thinking brain keeps trying to say the english sound. Back to the practice! But the thing he said that I appreciated the most was that he had the sense I was “praying” the prayers instead of just pronouncing what was on the page as some priests have to do who don’t speak the language when leading Mass. He had the sense I knew what I was saying, putting emphasis and interpretation into the prayer. That, I hope, helped the congregation to pray. I know I was focusing more on correct pronunciation than praying, but I guess in time I’ll be praying more than concentrating on correct pronunciation. Heck, I’m still working on “Praying” the new English translation of the Roman Missal with all of its unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence construction! By the way, I can see where the Mexican Sacramentary (which we use for Spanish liturgy in the U.S.) does have places where it is much closer to the Latin original Missal than the previous English Sacramentary, thus exemplifying for me a few of the changes that were made in English. Yet, there’s a lot more “options” and “adaption” of the prayers, too, than we had in English. That’s another whole blog article.

Overall, it was a good experience. I did feel welcomed as the stranger, and thus like the Christ was when he walked that road to Emmaus with two disciples, able to provide for them an experience of his risen presence in the “Breaking of the Bread.” Yet, because the people I prayed with were not familiar to me, maybe I felt a bit like they do when they come to this country, disconnected from the culture and language, hoping to find their place in the community. That’s like anytime I’ve moved into a new parish, though. Faces will become familiar. I might even learn how to converse with the folks a bit. Hopefully, the Kingdom of God was made evident in this world. And, one day we’ll all experience the Lord Jesus gathering “people of every race, language and way of life in the one eternal banquet” of life (from the former translation in English of the Eucharistic Prayer II for Reconciliation).

Sounds like I’m going to do this on a regular basis, doesn’t it? The invitation to preside, again, has been offered. I’ve accepted. A new experience of ministry is taking shape.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros.
Sister Folgence, pray for me, assist me to carry on a bit of your ministry.

P.F. Revealers



Scripture:  John 13:1-15

When I was a youngster, there was a brand of athletic shoes that went by the name of “P.F. Flyers.” If you were going to be good athlete back in those days of my youth a kid had to have a pair of P.F. Flyers on his feet. Only today I discovered that the P and F were the abbreviation for Posture Foundation. P F was a patented insoles technology developed in 1933. Perhaps you’ll recall the shoes advertising slogan. Sport styles by PF, which were very popular in the 1950s, were advertised as helping you “run faster and jump higher” courtesy of the “action wedge” that was part of the insoles. P F technology enhanced your game. The P and F of the shoes was what made you better.

Tonight, I’d like to use the abbreviation “P. F. Revealers” to help us enhance our understanding of the mystery we celebrate over the next three days. In this liturgy instead of a pair of shoes there are a pair of  “P.F. Revealers” that deepen our participation in the Paschal Mystery. What we do tonight is not play, but sacramental activity that is our participation in the mystery of our ability to share in the divine life of God revealed in Christ. Every baptized person is a sharer in the life of Christ and there are a pair of “P.F. Revealers,” sacramental signs at work in this liturgy that enhance our understanding of how to share in eternal life.

Let’s say the pair of P.F.s in P.F. Revealers stands for these things:

  • Priest and Feet
  • Poor and Food

The mystery of unbounded, perfect, fuller life is revealed tonight
is a pair of P. F.’s…
Priest and Feet
Poor and Food

This is what I mean…

Jesus is said to have instituted the Priesthood, the Sacrament of Holy Orders, this night at the last meal with friends. Let’s go with that, though some theologians have problems with the thought. The Apostles become the forerunners of what we now call ordained Priesthood. The twelve are given this office of leadership not by being crowned or anointed as priests of the Old Testament but become priests when Jesus tells them to wash feet! “As I have done for you, so must you do for others!”

The authority to lead a community and to preside at what we now call sacraments comes when a man is willing to humble himself like Jesus. Jesus is doing the work of the household slave, not a master of the house. Priests are the sacramental presence of Jesus most when a we put ourselves at the service of a community of believers, when we forgo our ego, when we sacrifice our need to see our wills fulfilled in favor of the needs of the people we are sent to serve. That sacrifice takes form in all sorts of things from baptizing children to burying the dead; teaching the young to administering the life of a parish while forgoing the good of a life long spouse. The best priest is one who in humility says I’m here to serve not to be served, like the servant of old who bowed down to the floor to wash the feet of the important guests. You are the guests, I better not forget it, or I am not the sacramental presence of Jesus in this place.

And so each year on the day we recall the gift of Christ present in the very human person of a priest, the church asks that her priests, from simple parish priest all the way up the hierarchical ladder to Pope, get down on the floor and be an example to their people to remember their position in the Kingdom of God, that of servant. Brothers and sisters, by the willingness of 12 people to bear their feet before us all, tonight, you help me remember who I am, the representative of the servant of humanity, Jesus Christ and whose I am, that I belong to Christ with you. I am so thankful that I am a priest. It has made my life richer, fuller than I could imagine living any other way. In this dying to self, in serving you I am to be an example to you that sacrifice of self does lead to fuller life.

But the washing of feet is not just for my benefit. A priest washing feet is to be a sign to all present that you too are called to wash the feet. “As I have done for you, you must do for others” was not just addressed to the apostles, but to the whole church who the twelve represent in the upper room. (Surely there were some women present who helped with the meal! Those guys didn’t do all the cooking!). Every time one of you changes a diaper, it’s dying to self so the child has a better life. Every time one of you cooks for the family, it’s taking on the role of a slave (and mom sometimes thinks her kids look at her that way!) revealing the one who serves the church the meal of his body and blood. Taking care of the elderly parent, volunteering at the parish, visiting the grieving at the funeral home…all forms of service by a member of the Body of Christ, makes the servant Christ who washes the feet of his disciples present.

Priest and Feet leads us to Poor and Food.

Our experiencing the sacramental sign of Jesus present through “Priest and Feet” leads this assembly to a response of “Poor and Food,” our second “P.F. Revealer.” Who must we serve? Those in need. The poor are members of our family who need us. The poor are people beyond our family in need. We do as Jesus did. We become servants to the poor this night in a symbolic way washing their feet by bringing food to the table. Hopefully, everyone has brought a gift for the poor, tonight, be it food for the Green Bean Pantry or the money from your Rice Bowl. We become a sign of the Love of Christ by serving those in need, sharing our treasure of food and money.

Only when we are willing to sacrifice our time, talent and treasure, only when we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, can the Eucharistic presence of Jesus become a reality on our altar. The earthy food of bread and wine changing into his body and blood must be accompanied by our sacrificing of self that imitates the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Food becomes a symbol of the dying and rising of Jesus, because the food is a symbol of the Body of Christ in the pews sacrificing itself like Jesus for the sake of the world. The Eucharist is not magic words transforming food into something else. Our lives of thanksgiving revealed in humble service to others for what Christ has revealed in his passion, which we re-present at the altar, makes the Eucharist possible. In the Gospel of St. John the institution of the Eucharist is not the words “This is my body, This is my Blood, do this in memory of me” but the words that follow the foot washing, “as I have done for you, so must you do for others.” Humble food of bread and wine represent the humble lives of service we lead, baptized into union with Christ’s Body. The servant food, becomes the servant Christ, because the servant church gives thanks under the leadership of its servant priest.

What a marvelous interconnected web of strings of meaning our liturgy weaves for us, tonight! Our pair of “P.F. Revealers” helps us delve more deeply into the mystery of life coming from death, richer living revealed in self-sacrificial service of others.
Priest and Feet
Poor and Food
show us the way to life in Christ, now and beyond death, forever,

Priest and Feet
Poor and Food
be the revelation of the “must have” truth that will make our life complete.

©2012 Rev. Joseph C. Rascher
May not be copied without permission  and  attribution of authorship

Prayer on Wheels

This past week I was on retreat at Kings House in Belleville with many of the priests of my diocese. Normally, I don’t like to leave the retreat house during the week, but some of us decided we should pay our respects at the wake of the mother of the head of the religion department at Mater Dei Catholic High School, Breese IL where many of our parishioners attend, since the visitation was just down the street a couple of miles. Four of us priests got in a car and went to the visitation. On the way back, one of the men suggested that since the rest of the retreatants were praying evening prayer at that time we should also pray. Of course none of us had our Liturgy of the Hours prayer books with us.

So, I thought this priest was just joking around, to be honest, but said “Well, I’ve got my Liturgy of the Hours app on the phone, so if you really want to…” and this priest started saying the opening verse which we all knew by heart, “O God, come to my assistance,” to which everyone in the car replied “O Lord, make haste to help us!” “They are serious” I said to my surprised self, and so we began, me reading the psalms from my i-phone app, they responding with an antiphon I’d proclaim for them to repeat in a responsorial form of psalmody. It was a first for me, praying the hours with brother priests while in a car. What at first I thought was just kidding around became serious, sincere prayer, thanks to the technology of smart phones and applications downloaded to them. Welcome to the 21st century. It was a unique experience for me of the brotherhood of priests, being able to pray together a prayer we’re obliged to say by our ordination promises in that particular time and place because technology made the text of the prayer available where it would not have been accessible without a book just a few years ago (you know, in that ancient time of the 20th century). And the spontaneity of the moment seemed to make it an occasion of grace prompted by the Holy Spirit moving one of us to suggest prayer and me remembering that the liturgy of the hours is now available on my i-phone and taking a chance that my fellow traveling companions were serious about praying together instead of just presuming we were kidding around as priests often are prone to do in each other’s presence. That kidding around, by the way, may have something to do with being about to “let our hair down” with just in the company of other priests in a way we might not in the presence of laity, due to the desire to appear “priestly.”

Then there was another image that came to mind. I’m told that in the “old days” nuns and priests would often pray the rosary while traveling together in order to keep their minds focused on the Lord (hopefully the driver was focused on the road!) and to make a productive use of the time in the car instead of “wasting it” doing nothing, like engaging in idle chatter.

I remember when I was child, every trip in the family care outside the city limits of my hometown began with a set order of prayers being recited and lead by my mother. That’s how I learned the Memorare (“Remember, O most gracious virgin Mary, that never was it known…”). A Memorare, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and a short Litany of the Saints always ending with the petition “St. Christopher, protect us” began each out of town trip. I continue the practice, today, mostly when I find myself on an airplane, during take off!

St. Paul did say to “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) And I’m sure he spent many hours in boats and on horse in his journeys reciting psalms and singing hymns. Be it the rosary or a homegrown oder of prayer while beginning a trip or technologically assisted Liturgy of the Hours in a car the injunction to pray always continues to be observed as God’s people travel here and there. May that prayer be a reminder that the whole journey of life needs to be accompanied by prayer helping us to safely reach our destination, The Kingdom of Heaven.

Praying from Memory and the New Translation of the Mass

A few weeks ago, a young boy asked me on his way out of church as I was greeting people at the door, “Do you have everything memorized?” I suppose he asked the question because he had noticed that I was singing the recessional song without a hymnal in my hand as I processed down the aisle. Perhaps he had noticed several times during the Mass that I was not looking at the Missal on the altar praying the Eucharistic Prayer or that I was not using notes while preaching. I assured the young boy that I really didn’t have everything of the Mass memorized, but that after 30 years being a priest praying the same words in the Missal and singing many of the songs even longer it all just kind of sticks in your head. I bet there are things he remembers from repetition, too, and he just didn’t realize how much he already remembers in his shorter life than mine.

Liturgists tell us that knowing prayers “by heart” is a good thing, a characteristic of ritual that helps us get beyond the words and to experience prayer at a deeper level. I have found this to be true. Not distracted by noticing words on a sheet of paper in a book, the words of the prayer get into our consciousness and open themselves up to being interpreted in new ways. And as sometimes the words aren’t that important, it’s the act of praying a familiar pattern of words and actions that opens the mind, heart and soul to encountering the one who will never be contained or understood through the limitations of words. Such is the purpose of ritual language and actions. They are to be the created vehicles that transport us to the experience of the Holy One beyond words and human understanding expressed in the symbols of words, things and actions we use to pray.

And so it is with a bit of anxiety that I am awaiting next Sunday. The first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011 marks the day that the English Speaking Catholic Church in the United States begins using the new translation of the Roman Missal. No longer, at least for a while, will I be able to pray the Mass and lead the assembly in the ritual of the Eucharist without looking almost continually at a book. It will be like when I was first ordained. The prayers that in the repetition of thirty years have come to roll effortlessly over my tongue, that have brought me comfort and insight will be different. The words that have opened up meaning and a profound experience of The Holy will be replaced by strange sounding vocabulary and sentence structure, almost like another language. Indeed the new translation is meant to follow as much as possible the Latin words and sentence structure. It will be like going to Mass in another country, I suspect. The ritual will look familiar yet sound different. Still the same Mass, but different.

I guess, as a parish priest, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of a familiar friend. I am angry that the translation we’ve been given doesn’t flow like the old one because of the insistence of those who oversee the liturgy that the new translation be literal instead of respecting English’s style and use archaic words because of their theological preciseness that people in the pew don’t understand. I am anxious because I want to celebrate well the liturgy, leading people to enter the holy but am afraid I’ll be self-conscious trying to do the “right” words on the page and become a distraction to prayer of the people. Perhaps this is something like how my brother priests of another generation felt after Vatican II when the first translations of the Latin novus ordo of Paul VI began to be used in the vernacular.

Yet, the time has come. Loyal to the church, for the liturgy is not my personal property (as our bishop likes to remind his priests), I will begin the process of learning how to preside at the Eucharist “by heart” anew. Hopefully and eventually I’ll get over the agitation I experience when I try to pray phrases like “ the abasement of your Son” (From the 14th Sunday of ordinary time. Does Jesus live in a house with a basement? That’s what it might sound like if I’m not careful in proclaiming the prayer). I’ll have to concentrate on using the correct words at the consecration (“Chalice” instead of “Cup” and “for the many” instead of “all”) instead of being humbled I am permitted to speak such profound mysteries into being by God’s Spirit and the “order” of the Catholic Community to their priest.

Next Sunday and for many weeks I will be reminding myself that the Mass is still the same re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus and anticipation of the banquet feast of eternal life no matter what words are used. There will still be bread and wine become his body and blood and the assembly will still gather to be feed by word and sacrament in order to be transformed into what they receive.

Calling to mind the big picture, another generation of priests will probably grieve and fuss about another “new” translation that comes their way in 40 years or so. I’m sure all of us priests of every time and place will have a chance at the great concelebration of the eternal Eucharist of Heaven to discuss (and laugh) how inadequately any of our translations lived up to the task of communicating in earthly language and ritual the reality of the bliss of the eternal banquet of life when we see God face to face.

The Priestly Hat Trick

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on the blog. My apologies to those who have been looking for some new content and been disappointed. It’s been kind of busy around the parish. And, I haven’t been putting homilies down on paper for several Sundays. If I published my notes in raw form you’d still be wondering what I said.

Speaking of being busy, last Saturday was one of those days that exemplifies how many directions a priest’s life can be pulled in one day, testing his emotional flexibility. I call it the “Priestly Hat Trick.” In hockey, when a player scores three goals in one game it’s called a “hat trick.” In my case it’s the not totally unusual conjunction of events that results in Father celebrating a Baptism, Wedding and Funeral all on the same day. You could say I celebrated a life time in one day, the beginning, middle and end. Except I did it in reverse. (Wasn’t there a movie about some man who got younger as his life progressed? And consulting the “almighty Google” it tells me that it was titled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button released in 2008.)

My day started with the funeral of a 96-year-old parishioner who had died at a local nursing home earlier in the week. She had macular degeneration, was very hard of hearing and in poor health at her death. I had anointed her just hours before she died, almost as if she were waiting for the assurance of the church that she would be healed of the corruptibility of this life. How much she must have seen and heard in the course of a rich experience of life only to have her world become so very limited at the end. I reminded those gathered for the funeral that we hoped through God’s mercy she had now broken out of these limitations to experience the unlimitedness of eternal life.

Then it was time to shift the emotional gears, so to speak. The wedding occurred next. A celebration of the promise of love on so many levels. The couple promised to love each other for life, of course. But love holds a promise, a pledge of sorts, that when we love in a sacrificial manner for the sake of another, Jesus is present. The church makes a promise to love the couple by standing with them, to support them, to help them in this task of sacrificing for the sake of each other, for we have a stake in the success of their marriage; we want to see Christ in our midst and we want the couple to preach Christ alive to the world by their union as husband and wife. Weddings are a promise to the church by Christ that he will be our bridegroom and carry us, his bride who he loves even to death on the cross, across the threshold of eternity.

Later in the afternoon it was time for the Sunday Vigil Eucharist during which I baptized an infant. Here’s were our life in Christ begins. The act of baptism seems so simple, be it immersing the baby or pouring water over her head. But we believe there are such profound consequences. The person is radically, forever changed in that water. A promise is given by Christ to give eternal life, to enable the human to share in the divine nature. The candidate for baptism (through the voice of the Godparents in this case) promises to live as Christ, willing to adopt as her way of life the sacrifice of the cross (the Paschal Mystery that death is what brings fuller life). Last Saturday the infant I baptized was set on her way on a journey of life in Christ that someday may include living out her baptism promise in the vocation of marriage and will certainly come to the moment of death. And at her funeral, the church will greet her at the door of the church building, the symbolic threshold between this life and the life of eternity and sprinkle water on her body remembering the day she was baptized when she was first  given the promise of entrance to the eternal banquet of life we glimpse in the Eucharist held in that building.

Saturday, was also my birthday. I think my day was an appropriate way to celebrate it (although I was pretty dang tired by the end of it from all the emotional swings and demands on time – I guess I’m just getting old!). As I recalled the mystery and gift of life I’d been given, having been called into being by God, I was gifted the privilege of ritually celebrating the full cycle of life thereby invited to reflect on the gift I’d been given through the eyes of faith. The “hat trick” was a birthday gift from Christ inviting me to remember my life will be bookended, so to speak, as was my day, by the rites of baptism and the Order of Christian Funeral including a promise to love, not in marriage, but Holy Orders. Those sacramental moments that happened to all take place on November 5, 2011 are what give me hope. Those rites are the narrative that gives meaning to my life and that help me live life with hope, unafraid of the future that I know will come someday. They are what comfort me as I recall the anniversary of the death of my mother (November 3).

The hat trick day of a priest can be full of profound moments and opportunities to glimpse Christ at work in our midst and spiritual birthday thoughts. Still, I am hoping that I don’t again have that busy of a day too soon! Peace!

Faith and Doubt after 9/11

There is a thought-provoking episode of the PBS series Frontline currently in rotation on our local PBS network station that discusses Faith and Doubt in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The show originally aired on September 3, 2002. I  would recommend taking the two hours to watch it. The program is also available on-line at Faith & Doubt at Ground Zero. You may have to watch it over the course of a couple of sessions. It is intense, and has disturbing images and very frank language at times. The show doesn’t provide definitive answers,  just a lot of thought-provoking questions and commentary from the perspective of many religious traditions and non-religious people.  The portion of the program on Evil (Chapter 4 – The Face of Evil) was especially insightful in my opinion. Perhaps a better instruction on the nature and reality of evil than I received or comprehended in seminary training or subsequent formation.

As I prepare to preach this coming Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attack of that day, the program has given me much to ponder. I don’t know if any of its content will make it into my homily that day, but watching the show has reminded me that I stand in a precarious, humbling position of service to the community of faith, a community that waits for me to speak a  word of hope, to interpret their experience of the brokenness of life that will help them to live with the questions and hopefully help people have a glimpse of God that will sustain us till we “see him face to face” when “we shall become like him” when “every tear will be wiped away.” (The quotes are from the embolisms added to Eucharistic Prayer III of the Roman Rite when used at a funeral Mass.)  The scriptures of the day speak of forgiveness and the futility of vengeance and anger. They are not specifically about the American experience of that day 10 years ago, but how can people not hear the words of the prophet Sirach and Jesus in the context of all the various reminders that are flooding the media of the anniversary? This preacher is going to need the help of the Holy Spirit big time. Pray for me.

I’ll Take Door Number 3, Monty!

Let's Make a Deal 3 doors from the 1970s show

Back in my youth in the 1960’s there was a game show on television called “Let’s Make a Deal” with a host named Monty Hall. The audience, dressed in silly costumes, would compete for prizes but would have to choose their prize while it was hidden in a box or other container. The climax of the show was where the biggest winner so far would be asked to give up their prize on a chance to choose one of the big doors on stage that might revel when opened a car or a pile of junk. It was always a surprise when the door opened, whether a pleasant surprise or disappointment. The show has been reprised by CBS with a new host, Wayne Brady, but the premise is pretty much the same. Let’s just say I don’t spend time watching it. For some reason today, though, I thought it seems like an analogy for an experience I’ve been having the past few weeks.

            When a priest moves into a new parish, like I have this summer, the first few weeks are sort of like a version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” It’s an exciting, surprising time of exploration of your new home, church and parish buildings. You find yourself opening drawers, doors and closets saying “I wonder what’s in here. Will it be something of value or important or something that leaves you wondering why the objects is there or what is it even?”

            I’ve been having fun exploring the nooks and closets of my new parish. There’s been some interesting finds. There have been a few duds. And a couple of finds still have me scratching my head befuddled. For instance, I’ve found three tabernacles scattered around the buildings. Now why would a parish have that many tabernacles? I’m trying to find pictures of the various renovations of the church and see if there were three different tabernacles used at various times. There were expected finds, like the chalices of a couple of former pastors. After a month of wondering what happened to some of the kneelers that had been removed from the pews in church I found them carefully wrapped in plastic in the bell tower entrance off the balcony. Then there is the mystery of what doors a couple of keys lock that were left me by my predecessor. I still haven’t found a lock the keys fit. There’s a gizmo in one closet that looks like an antique host punch or maybe a bottle cap sealer? Records from the closed parish school were in one closet and altar wine of unknown age in another cabinet. In another organizer in a room in the basement a former pastor’s receipts and correspondence he must have forgotten was in storage when he moved (I guess I should contact him and see if I can throw the stuff out or if he wants it). There’s stained glass windows in bad shape stored in a sort of shipping container in another room (Were they from the old church torn down to make room for the church built in 1953?).

            One of the more interesting finds was an object I knew was somewhere on the property but I didn’t know what it would look like or exactly where it was. Many of the priests of the diocese and laity of the parish knew that a former pastor had purchased a monastic wood casket while he was alive for his future burial. By the time this pastor died he had changed his mind and donated his body to science. The casket was willed to another priest but left in storage at the parish. I found it. a week or two into my residency. At least it’s not in my house. Since then I’ve told the new owner I expect a storage fee of 5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Mary’s and 5 Glory Be’s for my intentions to be offered each month. To be honest, I never thought I’d be the guardian of a casket awaiting it’s occupant as part of my priestly life.

            So, what’s the point of my story? In some ways I think our spiritual journey is similar to the discovery process of moving into a new parish. I hesitate to say it’s like a game show, yet I probably could stretch the analogy. But, let’s not go there.  

            People can get very comfortable hanging on to a particular prayer form. Disciples can be reluctant to let go of a particular way of relating to God. “The rosary’s always worked for me!” a person might say as an example. While familiarity and repeated ritual can be a good thing, sometimes it can lull us into complacency. It is also good to be challenged to let go of some preferred prayer method. Sometimes we need to be challenged to try another image of God or explore another approach to prayer. Maybe the new method will at first be outside our comfort zone but eventually is like opening a door and finding a whole new beautiful way of knowing God’s love. Maybe it won’t be…but unless you try the door you might be cheating yourself out of a great gift from God. It is tempting to just do the same old things, day in, day out, because they’re comfortable. But God is always promising more; more intimacy, more profound depths of knowing His love, if we take a chance and open a door of a new spiritual practice (while not necessarily throwing out the old ways).

            The parable of the master who gives three different amounts of money to three servants has fascinated me since I wrote a paper on it in the seminary. (Matthew 25:14-30) Two servants take a chance and invest the sum of money and make profit. One servant is too timid to take a chance and does the safe thing and buries the money. The two risk takers are held up as examples and are given more. The guy who refuses to open the door of a bank looses what he was given. The parable is not about using our talents for the good of church or the mission of Christ. Christ is telling us that to live in the Kingdom is to take a chance that there’s something richer, more rewarding, more full of life if we let go of the treasure we’ve already been given by God and go exploring for new treasures, opening doors to new insights and experiences in our spiritual journey.  Perhaps death is a door we’re invited to open to see if a great treasure is behind it. What gives me pause and a bit of anxiety is that perhaps even when we walk through that door into heaven there will be even more doors, more exploring to do, more taking a chance on God surprising us and not just eternal resting on our perfect body’s rear end gazing at the beatific vision. Heaven may be an experience (effortless work?) of always opening new doors to discover another treasure that leads us to encounter the love of God.

            By now I think I’ve at least found all the closets, drawers and storage spaces in my new parish and taken a look inside and found which might hold potential treasures. Now it’s time to sort through what I’ve found and evaluate its worth. Same thing for my spiritual life. Keep opening doors, keep sorting through the potential paths that open up before me, keep exploring. Christ offers me a deal, to know him more deeply, but I’ve got to decide to take a chance and open the door to see what’s behind it.

            Will you take a chance and ask to see what’s behind the door in front of you or will you hang onto what you know you’ve got? I choose to open more doors and look for the treasure that might be behind one of them. I’ll take door number 3 for the life of the Trinity.

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