Category Archives: Priesthood

Post Surgery Reflections

I know it’s been a while since I’ve made a blog entry. It’s been a bit of an unusual summer, as readers probably have figured out. To add to the fun of moving this summer, I was scheduled for two surgeries. The first took place June 7 when I had my gall bladder removed. Then in July it was time to pack, move and unpack just in time for more surgery on August 4. Last Thursday, I had two hernias repaired with mesh. Ouch! I am happy to report the surgery went well. The first two days afterwards were a bit rough. The amount of swelling and soreness somewhat surprised me.

Since Monday, I’ve been doing pretty well and have been up and moving around. I’ve even made it across the street to the office each day for a while to check voice mail (I haven’t figured out how to retrieve it remotely). Probably should be taking more easy than I am, though. Tuesday afternoon a technician came by to install cable and devices so I could get internet and another T.V. hooked up in the rectory. I couldn’t stop myself from helping pull cable and was up and about more than I should have been. I’ve been feeling some pain.

I didn’t preside at Eucharist last weekend. Two of my brother priests filled in for me and I thank them. One was able to bring me communion in the rectory and anoint me Sunday morning . It seemed odd not to preside or at least participate in Mass on Sunday. I guess that’s because Sunday Eucharist is such an important part of my life. I wish it was for more of the members of the Church. How can they just decide not to attend? So, I thought about sitting in the sacristy during Mass while the visiting priest presided but then the mattress of my bed seemed to exert a magnetic force I could not resist while a fresh dose of pain medicine kicked in.

I am very thankful to my sister, Mary, who was able to take a few days off of work to be with me post-surgery for a couple of days. She’s sacrificed a bit of income, I’m sure, to be able to be here for me. I realize not every one has such a supportive family member. Her willingness to sacrifice some of her own time and treasure is a sign to me of the presence of Christ in my moment of suffering. She’s part of the healing ministry of Christ at work through his Body, the Church. So too is the skill of the surgeon and anesthesiologist and nurses who took care of me at the hospital. St. Mary’s Hospital in Clayton has been a very good experience for both surgeries.

I also have to thank a friend, Tony, who spent the day at the hospital, again, to keep my sister and I company. He helped back in June, also. I asked why he’d be willing to spend a boring day in a hospital to which he replied, “That’s what friends do.” Seems Jesus said something similar “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.” Now Jesus was talking about death for us and my friend certainly wasn’t offering to die for me. But, he did lay aside his life, his interests, his obligations for a day to focus on my well-being. That, too, is part of the Paschal Mystery that is always present in our lives even when we don’t particularly notice it’s there.

People in the parish have been very understanding. Unfortunately, I had to have another priest preside at the first funeral to occur in the parish since my arrival. I felt a bit guilty. Here I am, pastor and I can’t care for my parishioner in their grief. I managed to walk over to church an sit in a back pew of the transept during the “final farewell” rite determined to at least give a small visible sign of my desire to “be there” for the folks of St. Mary in their need, to “lay down my life for a friend.” Yet, I guess I still need to learn that letting go of life means letting go of the need to be in control and determine timing of all of the events in my life. I’m not in charge; God is and God will work on his time-table, not Joe’s. Others, not just me, will be able to show God’s compassion to this parish revealed in the ministry of Christ. In fact, it is necessary for the priest to learn to let others minister to him lest he miss the opportunity to encounter Christ and not just be the alter Christus our ordination makes us. Thanks to Fr. Jim Buerster for filling in for me.

Finally, thanks to those who have inquired about my recovery from surgery, how things are going in the new parish and for your prayers and well wishes.

 


Homily during Mass of Instalation as New Pastor

16th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A
St. Mary, Trenton
July 17, 2011
First Homily as the new pastor of the parish

with references to the Gospel of the day, Matthew 13:24-43

So here I am, your new pastor. 38½ years ago – I stood over there on a Christmas morning and played guitar, leading singing for Mass. The thought never crossed my mind that several years in the future I’d be standing here, sent to you by our Bishop, to lead you not just in singing but as your pastor! As Yogi Berra, that great baseball player and philosopher once said, “Its déjà vu” all over again!”

Someone asked me the other day, “You’re from Breese, aren’t you?” Then this person jokingly said, “Well, we won’t hold that against you here in Trenton!” I took no offence and had to laugh. I’ve been away from Clinton County for 30 years but in some way things are still the same as when I grew up in this area. There is still a friendly rivalry between towns, obviously; a pride in one’s community. Are you a graduate of Mater Dei or Wesclin or Central high school? (I’m a Mater Dei alum, by the way; one of the few priests to graduate from there along with your parish’s own native son, Sean Pallas.) Someone else wanted to know what parish in Breese I haled from. Let’s just say “the good one.”

Actually, the fact that I am from the area has given me a bit of anxiety about becoming pastor, here at St. Mary. Probably many of you went to Mater Dei during the same time as me, or knew me when I was much younger. The story of Jesus trying to preach to people in his home town comes to mind. The folks in Nazareth couldn’t accept what Jesus was preaching saying things like “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? We know him!” with the evangelist ending the story saying Jesus wasn’t able to work any miracles there because they couldn’t accept him as the person Jesus had become, their eyes still seeing the kid that ran around town. I hope that isn’t our experience here, as we begin to share this chapter of our lives.

The last two times I became pastor of a new parish, I told the folks there I was sent to that meeting of the new pastor and parishioners is like a “Blind Date.” Each party only knows a few, mostly superficial things about each other. They don’t know if they’ll hit it off. They’ve heard a few stories about each other because they did a little research about the person they’ve been set up with for the blind date. Here we are now, in that first awkward meeting of two people starting a date. Let’s agree that I’ve changed from that teenager who played guitar on Christmas morning and you’re not the kids who may have gone to school with me at Mater Dei. We’ve all had a lot of experiences that have shaped us to be who we are, today. It’s exciting to meet you, a pleasure to meet you for the first time. I’m hoping, by God’s grace, that we’re going to have a good time on this date, so much so that we’ll be sorry to see it come to an end some day. It was tremendously difficult and sad for me to leave St. Stephen after 13 years. That was a sign that we had given our hearts to each other, pastor and parishioners. I have every desire to see the experience repeat itself here. I promise I will love you with all of my heart as long as I’m here. I ask that we give each other a chance and see where God is going to take this relationship. I have prayed for you, my new parishioners, each day at Mass since the day I learned I would become your pastor. I hope you did the same for me. Now, let us pray for each other, every day, that God will use us collaborating together to make his Kingdom grow in this small portion of his field. I promise to listen to you, carefully, to attempt to hear what needs you have that I can help you with. It’s my hope that you’ll be able to listen to me, too. Together we’ll listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and discern what God’s mission is for our parish the next few years.

There a bit of a culture shock for me, moving from Caseyville to Trenton. Caseyville was a small village, but had an edge to it. The first morning here I realized I hadn’t heard any sirens of police and ambulances on the highway outside my bedroom window. Instead I was awakened by the Angelus Bells at 6:00 AM (that may have to change…you’ll learn I’m not a morning person!).

In Caseyville, about the only crop that people ever saw growing was horseradish. For several years my parish property was surrounded by fields of horseradish until the storage facility on one side and city hall was built on the other side of the parish. The kids in the school didn’t know what I was talking about when I used the example of a wheat stalk in a homily early in my first year there. Now, I’m back in an environment I grew up in; small town, with farmers and wheat and corn and soybeans part of the everyday conversation. It feels like coming home, in a way. Being in a farming community will make preaching about parables like today’s story of seeds and weeds a bit easier! You’ll get the references Jesus is making without having to explain what growing wheat looks like.

Speaking of today’s readings in which Jesus uses examples familiar to his farming families, instead of talking about me, I should at least take a few moments to help us delve into what God is telling us through his Gospel.

You’ll hear me say this a lot…Parables are like windows into the Kingdom of God. Parables are a way Jesus got people to experience what it is like to have God totally in charge of your life. Parables should be like little time bombs. We think we know what God is like and then, “Boom!” The problem is that the parable stories have become so familiar that they rarely surprise us. When Jesus told his stories, people walked away wondering “What the heck?” because Jesus had a habit of taking familiar images and throwing in a twist, coming up with an unexpected ending. Because we don’t always know the culture of the people in Jesus’ day we often miss the twist in the story.

The story of the Mustard Seed was once described by a classmate in the seminary as a story where the Ugly duckling grows up to be an ugly duck, not a swan, but still is aware of its inner beauty. Did you hear how the seed grows up to be a shrub, a bush, not very majestic or tall…yet it becomes home. We don’t have to be the biggest or most extravagant of parishes, with the most wonderful of programs to witness to God’s love…we just have to be a people whose hearts go out to those in need and do (in the words of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta) small things well….Take care of our families, provide food for the local food pantry, contribute to collections for the needy. The Kingdom of God is here when we provide what shelter we unselfishly can with the resources we have.

Yeast, in our culture, is seen as a rather benign thing. But, to a Jew, yeast was a thing that corrupted bread. The holiest of bread was unleavened. You got rid of yeast from the house lest you defile the home during Passover. So, a woman takes yeast and “HIDES” it in the dough. Just a little affects the whole batch. When God inserts himself into our lives, when we insert God into the life of society…then expect society to be corrupted. Business as usual is over. The order of society is, in a way, corrupted, by the values of the Kingdom of God. Wealth means nothing. The most important people are the ones not in the seats of kings and presidents, but those who serve their brothers and sisters, doing things like caring for the sick, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. If Jesus were to tell the story today he might say “The Kingdom of God is like a restaurant chef that contaminates the whole kitchen by not washing his hands after going to the bathroom. Everything has to be cleaned up and the meal started over, again. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus was the beginning of a new order of humanity cleaned up and starting over, again, to be made anew into the image of God.

Every farmer here would shake their heads at the lake of good cultivation practices that Jesus advocates. On Jesus’ farm he leaves crop and weeds grow up together, threatening the per acre yield of the crop. The methodology of Jesus is not very effective. Where’s the herbicide? Where’s the fertilizer? Sort of like the church, isn’t it. We are not an effective organization. We forgive sinners and don’t throw them out. People we are suspicious of living less than holy lives are standing in line with us to receive communion. Bishops appear to do little to discipline abusers and don’t hold themselves above the law. In the Kingdom of God there is one Judge who will sort it all out. We are not to judge, but be busy doing what we can to produce of crop of sacrificial love for the welfare of those who are in need, saints and sinners at the same time. God brings forth the crop, blessing our efforts with success. God is in charge, we are the co-workers. Someday, God will make all things work out for the good and glory of his name and we’re fortunate to be employed as workers on the farm.

So, my new brothers and sisters of the family of St. Mary, Trenton…
The blind date has begun, we’ve been recommended to each other by a mutual friend, Bishop Braxton, and Fr. Buerster has made sure we were introduced to each other. Now it’s up to us to slowly reveal our hearts to each other and find out if we’re going to click. Together, we’ll plant a few seeds in the fields of Trenton and see what God brings forth of his Kingdom. If we’re faithful to our mission as a parish, we’ll be a little part of the corrupting influence of the Kingdom, a bit of yeast and change the reality of the world far beyond this village. Let’s promise each other that we’ll be what we were created to be and baptized into the church to be, a place where people of every race, language and way of life will find welcome and what they need, shelter from all that would threaten life, a home where human life will be honored and flourish.

It’s good to be here. Thanks for agreeing to go on this date with me.


I’ve Arrived

July 13, 2011 – 1:10 PM

Marque announces my arrival at St. Mary Church in Trenton, IL

But far from being unpacked!

Thanks a bunch to my packing and moving crew from St. Stephen and the
parishioners of St. Mary who meet us and helped unload the U-Haul and pickups
and van!


Preparing for Departure

Last time in presider's chair at St. Stephen

My last time in the pastor’s chair at St.
Stephen on Sunday, July 10, 2011. A few moments giving thanks for the many
grace filled moments Christ permitted me to be the agent of his mercy of while
pastor at St. Stephen. Following this moment of silent prayer after communion
the assembly prayed over me for blessings as I went forth to my new parish in
Trenton, IL, St. Mary.

Some of the moments of grace:
210 Baptisms
65 Marriages
263 Funerals
Deo Gratias!

 


For Good

This is the homily I gave during the last celebration of the Eucharist I presided at in my parish of St. Stephen. I move this week and next Sunday a new parish gets to meet their new pastor and I get to meet them.

15th Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle A
Departure Homily – St. Stephen Church, Caseyville
July 9 & 10, 2011

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23 (but only the parable about seed being sown and producing various yields)

          Well, here we are. You and I have been together 13 years and the day you and I hoped wouldn’t arrive until sometime in the future has arrived. As you heard a few weeks ago I’m to take up the pastorate in another parish and 2 new priests are going to be standing at this pulpit very soon. The future has arrived because we cannot hold stop time. As a rock song lyric by the Steve Miller Band popular a few years ago says “time is always slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” The song talks about flying like an Eagle (sort of reminds me of Psalm 91 which is the text of “On Eagles Wings” which God lifts us up on, to a revolution yet to come, a new day when humanity will be able to

“Feed the babies
Who don’t have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin’ in the street
Oh, oh, there’s a solution”

The solution for us Christians is a new order of creation made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ. The scriptures this evening/morning talk about this new order of things that Christ brings to humanity. It’s called the Kingdom or the Reign of God, that day when God rules, when his desire for the human family is all that exists. No more hunger, no more war, no more tears.

St. Paul in tonight’s/today’s second reading talks about how we’re in that waiting time, waiting for the future to be born. We exist somewhere between the conception of the new day that took place at the cross and resurrection and its final birth at the end of time when there is no more future. It’s a vision of the future I’ve tried to share with you these 13 years. Hopefully you’re more excited about the Kingdom of ‘God dawning, more aware of its presence even now among us because of my being your pastor.

Yet, the future can be scary. Even with the assurances of faith, the future produces anxiety in the human heart. That’s why we pray after the Our Father at Mass “keep us free from all anxiety as we await the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

For me there is some anxiety about what my new parish will be like.
Yet, my experience has always been that wherever I’ve gone, it’s been a good experience and there’s no reason to doubt this change in assignment will be different, since God is consistent and his body of Christ is present at St. Mary just as it has been here.
For you at St. Stephen I have heard the anxiety is about will happen to our parish community; will the new priests and us be compatible, like going on a blind date. (You might recall I used that analogy when I became your pastor and our blind date seems to have worked out rather well. That’s because you are a wonderful group of Catholics who are a delight to get to know and enter a relationship with. I have no doubt that you and Fr. Ray and Fr. Anthony will hit it off and work out well, together. And when their day to move on comes, you’ll be disappointed to see them go, too, because they’ll be a great “blind date.”)

As for sharing a pastor, don’t let there be anxiety about that, either. I came to you from a situation where I was pastor of two parishes. It worked fine. Both parishes got to know me; I got to know them and together we worked to build up the kingdom of God in Evansville and Walsh for 8 years. They continue to exist and do well as independent parishes, sharing a pastor with another parish.

[Tonight we celebrate baptisms, too. The children might be a little anxious about getting in a pool of water before all of you. Yet, a great thing is about to happen through the work of God and this community. These children are going to come to know Jesus. They’re going to become part of his Body that you represent. And with you giving them example, they’ll be able to move into the future without fear for their well being, for they will meet Jesus through this parish and come to know him alive, so what can death do to me if I’m part of his body? Nothing that would be the end of me can hurt me.]

The future always is full of potential. It is pregnant with hope of a new life for a Christian. As you know I’ve tended to quote “un-orthodox” sources for theological insight, like country western singers and musicals. It’s because I believe the truth God reveals is not just limited to scripture but found in the human experience, especially when that human experience is explored through music. Jesus used the everyday experience of farming to get his point across. I use song lyrics you hear on the radio and on the stage. The reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans we’ve heard might have been the inspiration for a song from the Broadway musical West Side Story “Something’s Coming” sung by Tony who is a bit of a Romeo character. But what he sings is true about being Christian, about this parish preparing for new priests and for me going to a new parish:

Could be!
Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!

Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great![i]

What you and I have been doing for 13 years will not come to an end. The Kingdom is still going to be built here and in Trenton. And it’s going to be great when God makes it happen.

That’s the clue to understanding why we exist as a parish. Why we do what we do. We, pastor and parishioners are the tools that God uses to plant the reality of his order of creation. We are the tools, the seeds. God is the miracle worker.

To understand the parable of the farmer and the seed, you must know that farming was a bit different in Jesus’ day. No systematic row by row planting. No understanding that seeds’ germinate. Farming was haphazard, as haphazard as throwing seed around inefficiently. Yet GOD made a crop grow. God made grain appear and there was enough for bread and enough to live for another year.

As a pastor I like to think have been spreading around some seeds of the Kingdom of God for 13 years, here. And together, we’ve been trying to get the Good News out about God’s Reign. For me, there’s been lots of Baptisms, Confirmations, Celebrations of the Eucharist with preaching, Funerals and Weddings. In my chair as pastor I’ve sat through many, many meetings with you listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit and planning for the future of the parish while ensuring the present needs of parishioners. All of these sacraments, all of these activities at times seems like random efforts to get the Kingdom of God to appear. Now, with you, we must acknowledge we, you and I were the tools, our efforts were the seeds thrown out there. Some efforts will bear fruit, some will not. But we must never forget that it is Jesus Christ who will bring about the fruits of our labors. Jesus wants to do something good; he will make something happen from all these random efforts to proclaim Good News you and I have engaged in. And, never forget, Jesus will continue to work his Kingdom building through you into the future whether I’m here or not. It’s just a different set of tools. What Isaiah told us earlier is true. God’s plan for us will not be frustrated; his desire to bring people into his Kingdom will not be foiled.

So, let this be my final word to you, a testimony to how God has worked in my life and hopefully in yours while I have been your pastor. Of course, I’m going to use the words of another musical, one called Wicked about how the relationship of two unlikely friends put together by fate, who in the future will be known as the good witch and the wicked witch…but who have been changed permanently for good and for the better for having been involved in each other’s life by chance (or maybe by grace)…

(Singing)

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made from what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
 Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend…

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you…

I have been changed for good[ii]


[i] “Something’s Coming” from The Broadway Musical West Side Story, based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Larents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957.

[ii] “For Good” from The Broadway Musical Wicked: A New Musical, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, opened on Broadway in 2003.


Stuff (as in too much)

It seems like there is no end to the packing I’ve been doing to get ready for my move to my new parish. I’ve decided I’ve got too much stuff besides having a serious disorganization problem with my office. M-day (moving day) is quickly approaching and I’ve become worried that I’m not going to be ready. There’s still stuff to go through in the office. There’s more boxes that need to be filled.

What is the spiritual insight I’m discovering through this experience. Maybe it’s that I’d never make it as a member of a religious order with a vow of poverty!

The experience of moving is an opportunity to consider that I do need to examine my relationship to things. I tend to accumulate and not divest. What’s up with that?

For instance, a couple of days ago in the process of going through boxes of stuff I brought to my rectory from the house I grew up  in before the sale of the family’s property last summer I found notes from classes I took in high school and grade school! Now why would I need to take that with me to my next assignment? It’s a curiosity to catch a glimpse of my life 40 years ago, but do I really need a bunch of notebooks filled with my childlike script at age 55? Not really. Yet it was difficult to throw the notebooks into the paper recycling bin. It was like I was throwing away a part of myself. Intellectually I know that the experience will always be part of me and I don’t need the stuff. Literally the stuff was weighing me down. It’s time to let go of not just the stuff but the emotional baggage of my teenage years, too.

I learned to save stuff from my mom. The stuff from my childhood home that I brought with me last summer to Caseyville includes things mom stored from my infancy, too. She saved everything thinking it be worth something at the estate sale, like magazines (that didn’t sell and I ended up putting in our recycle bin). She saved mementos, I suspect because they represented her love for us, her children. Perhaps, having artifacts to help in remembering the past was her way of treasuring the life she was given.

But, holding onto stuff can keep you stuck in the past instead of moving into the future, I suspect. As Christians, we’re invited to leave our past “sinful self” behind and embrace a future full of life while we live in the present. Stuff is not always physical. It can be emotional baggage and past huts, too. Christians are to always be on the move, on a journey to the Kingdom. Anything that keeps them from being focused on the mission is to be jettisoned from their lives. Jesus told his disciples when he sent them out two by two to proclaim repentance because the Kingdom was near,

“Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household. If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’”(Luke 10:4b-9)

As a priest preparing to move to a new town and a new parish these words of Jesus take on a special poignancy. What stuff am I being to invited to leave behind or divest myself of? I’m sure it’s more than a few boxes of childhood memories and back issues of periodicals. I know I need to simplify my inventory of possessions, but maybe I have to let go of a few other pieces of emotional baggage I’ve been holding onto like the anger I’ve got about the Bishop insisting I move. I’ve got to let go of the desire to accomplish a few more projects at St. Stephen like a new immersion baptismal font. There’s a whole new experience of being priest, disciple, and son of my dad waiting for me in the new parish. The journey to the Kingdom continues and I have an invitation to embrace the adventure, to experience the good things God has in mind for my new parishioners and me. The passage quoted above continues,

“Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning 8 from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 16-20)

I guess I’ve still got a way to go to reach the ideal Jesus preaches, though, of no extra shoes, suitcases or wallet stuffed with plenty of credit cards and cash for a sense of security. More packing awaits, tomorrow.


Advent in Summer

I’ve been making preparations for my move to my new parish since my post that included my letter to St. Stephen Parish announcing my transfer to St. Mary in Trenton. I’ve been packing possessions in boxes. I’ve visited the parish in Trenton a couple of times to see my new home and meet with some parish leaders to learn about the parish.

What I’ve also noticed is that even though I’m still pastor of St. Stephen, psychologically I’ve been “disengaging” from the parish’s life in some ways. I go to meetings but, frankly, struggle with maintaining interest. Ultimately, the decisions being discussed will be carried out by my successor. In my mind I’m beginning to think more about my life in the future as pastor of this new parish I’m being sent to. Who are these people I’m going to serve? What are their needs? How is the parish living it’s mission and how will I help it further its living of the gospel in Trenton? How will I make the rectory my home instead of my predecessor? It’s a disorienting feeling for a pastor; to be here but already having one foot in the new there.

I was sharing this feeling of disorientation with the pastoral council and finance council of St. Stephen who were meeting last week in joint session. I had invited my successor at St. Stephen to attend the meeting so that he might listen to the concerns of the parishioners about the new arrangement of sharing a pastor with another parish. I also wanted him to hear how the parish strove to discern the will of the Holy Spirit and carry it out faithful to our mission and vision statements. Mostly, Fr. Schultz and I wanted the parish to know that we were on the same page about the future of St. Stephen and our desire for a seamless, smooth transition.

One of the members of the Pastoral Council, who happens to be the director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Belleville, had a name for what I have been experiencing, “You’re experiencing a kind of Advent!” Normally we think of Advent taking place in December in the four weeks before Christmas. Liturgical Advent is a time for the church to recall that humanity spent millennia waiting for a savior who appeared enfleshed among us incarnate of the Virgin Mary. It reminds us that we await the day when Christ shall come again in Glory to establish the fullness of the Kingdom of God. As Christians we are always in a kind of Advent, always a little disoriented even when the calendar says it’s summer or Easter season. While living here in this present day we are waiting for the Lord Jesus to come and inaugurate a new day when time ceases and the right order (justice) of God is established permanently. In fact when we participate in the Eucharist we are literally standing on a threshold between here and there, now and then.

My experience of leaving one parish and moving to a new one has the feel of Advent. The life I have known at St. Stephen has been good, just as life for Christians is good  in this world. But like Christians know “We Are Not Home Yet”[1] and we are destined for another home Christ has prepared for us.[2] Each time we move to a new home, location, job or stage of life the experience can be for the Christian a reminder that we are in between the present we know and a new life that will be revealed in the future. Life can be very pleasant and good, here, in this world but how much more wonderful is our future in the place Christ has prepared for us by his death and resurrection that he will come to take us home to.

As we go through the experience of change we might be disoriented, or anxious. Perhaps we should remember the words of Jesus, again in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” (John 14:2) As another saying I’ve heard goes, “Do not worry about the future. God is already there!”

It’s interesting that while going through my possessions as part of the process of packing for the move, I found some notes and reflections I wrote to help me process my anxiety about my move in 1998 from St. Boniface and St. Pius V Parishes were I was pastor before I came to St. Stephen. I was concerned about not knowing anyone, being responsible for a larger parish and a Catholic school. Would I be accepted by the people? Would I like the parish? 13 years later I can honestly say my experience at St. Stephen has been positive, even beyond my expectations. I am going to find it very difficult to leave my current parish. The life enriching experience and the negation of my fears expressed in my notes to myself before arriving at St. Stephen by my positive experience of 13 years teaches me that I should not worry about my future in Trenton. It will be good. Advent waiting leads to a new, better order of life for those willing to believe that God comes to us in the flesh and raises human flesh to the divine life when we unite ourselves to Christ and his victory over death. And so will be our “final transfer” from here to there, from the experience of this world to our “transitus” to life in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is faithful. He has shown us the way.

I just wish he’d help me pack my belongings and mystically transport them from here (Caseyville) to there (Trenton) like he seemed to be able to move from one place to another after his resurrection. Guess I’ll have to wait, some more, for that new day’s reality when space and time are transcended and we can be wherever without the need of moving vans in the resurrected body.


[1] The title of a song I like by the Christian Folk-Rock singer Steven Curtis Chapman
[2]John 14:1-6


Announcing a Move

This weekend at both of our Sunday Eucharists I had to do one of the most difficult things a priest has to do from time to time. Difficult because we priests get emotionally attached to the parishes and people we serve. I had to read a letter from my bishop and announce that I would be leaving St. Stephen Parish to become pastor of another parish. What follows is the text of the letter I wrote to the parishioners announcing the change. The official letters of appointment from Bishop Edward Braxton were read at Mass and I then read some of the contents of this letter. Another letter will be going to my relatives and friends in the next week or two. It’s been an emotional few days. But, as I say at the end of the letter, I know new and wonderful people and experiences await me. I just don’t like packing and moving and unpacking. Transition is a challenge to me since it takes a while to really get settled. It was very affirming to receive the parishioners’ reaction to my announcement and reading of excerpts of this letter, though, a spontaneous standing ovation expressing their love and gratitude for their pastor, who they send on his way with their recommendation to the people of his new parish.

June 18, 2011

Dear Brothers and Sisters of St. Stephen:

Because I realize not everyone in the parish is present on weekends for the Eucharist, some of you will not have heard the announcement made at Mass this past weekend. Therefore, I am sending this letter to every parish household so that all parishioners will know about changes soon to take place at St. Stephen.

Our Bishop, the Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, has discerned that it is time for me to move to another parish and for St. Stephen to be led by a new pastor. I will be moving to St. Mary Catholic Church in Trenton, Illinois. The Bishop is sending you a pastor who is familiar to you and who I have worked closely with in the administration of Holy Trinity Catholic School, Father Raymond Schultz. Fr. Ray will also continue as pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Fairview Heights. To assist Father Schultz with his additional pastoral leadership of two parishes, Bishop Braxton is appointing as parochial vicar (assistant pastor) to both parishes the Rev. Anthony Onyango who was ordained a priest on June 11, 2011. Both Fathers Ray and Anthony will be residing in the rectory at St. Stephen. This change becomes effective July 12, 2011. Ms. Jeanne Adamske will continue as pastoral associate at St. Stephen, possibly assuming more duties in the day to day administration of St. Stephen. Mrs. Carolyn Starr will continue as the Director of Religious Formation at St. Stephen.

In most ways, life at St. Stephen will continue as it has under my pastorate. Little is changing except who will be pastor and who you will see at the altar at Eucharist. Programs will remain the same. Plans for improvements of the parish property will go forward, unchanged. Visioning for the future direction of St. Stephen determined by Pastoral and Finance councils’ deliberations will carry on as planned, just with a new pastor. The parishes of St. Stephen and Holy Trinity are not being combined. There is no intention on the Bishop’s part to eventually merge St. Stephen with Holy Trinity. St. Stephen continues as an independent, viable and full fledged parish, not a mission of another parish. The two parishes will continue to co-sponsor Holy Trinity Catholic School.

Yet, some changes are to be expected. Because a pastor is being shared, there will have to be adjustments to expectations of Fr. Ray’s time and presence at events. The laity of St. Stephen, who have always been active in the leadership of the parish, will need to step up even more to continue to ensure the viability of the parish. This will be an opportunity for the two parishes to strengthen their relationship and increase the collaborative efforts already taking place to offer more ministries that will be more effective when done collaboratively rather than as separate parishes.

What I want you to know, my brothers and sisters, is that I did not ask for this change in pastorate. I tried for several weeks and in several ways to change Bishop Braxton’s thinking about my and your futures. It is going to be extremely difficult for me to leave this parish which I have given my heart to for 13 years and hoped to remain pastor of for a few more years. You may have noticed that I seemed somewhat subdued or depressed the past few weeks. It was because I knew that my efforts at persuading the bishop and his advisors were not enough to enable me to stay with you for a few more years as your pastor.

When a priest is ordained, he is ordained to serve a diocese (local church) and not just a particular parish or in a place he chooses. From time to time his skills are needed elsewhere. Perhaps a parish and he realize that their time together has ceased to be best for the growth of the parishioners as disciples. For various reasons, priests are expected to move on to another parish at some point in time. It is the teaching of the church that priests, at their ordination, promise “respect and obedience” to the Bishop, submitting themselves to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Bishop who is the chief pastor of the diocese. A Bishop must look out for the pastoral needs of the entire “local church” and provide pastoral care as best as his personnel resources enable him. In other words, if the Bishop believes he needs a certain priest more in one parish than another, the priest must go for the good of the whole local church as long as the Bishop provides for suitable pastoral care in the parish a priest leaves. This is the case in my departure from St. Stephen.

There are three things that make my move to Trenton a bit easier to accept, though my heart is breaking as I contemplate leaving St. Stephen. First, Father Ray is a wonderful pastor. He is familiar with St. Stephen and you’re familiar with him because our parishes have worked together for many years. The learning curve will be quick for both parishioners and pastor. I know that you will be excellently cared for and that he will continue to lead you in the same vision you and I have discerned as God’s plan for our parish. Fr. Anthony will bring a new priest’s enthusiasm for ordained ministry to you which I am sure will enliven the parish. You will be good teachers of this new priest, helping him learn about how to be a good priest. Jeanne and Carolyn will provide stability and continuity. They will help the new priests come to know you as I have known you.

Second, this move will have me living closer to my 90 years old father. I will be an 11 minute drive from his assisted living facility (instead of 40 minutes, now). This will be especially helpful if, God forbid, an emergency arises and my presence in needed in a hurry at his apartment or at the local emergency room (the hospital is across the road from his apartment complex). My sister lives over 3 hours from Breese. I do all the doctor runs and regular errands for dad. I realize dad may have only a few more years with my sister and me and it will be nice to visit him more easily and often. I am so grateful to the people of St. Stephen for the support you gave me at the time of my mom’s death and the patience you showed with my many absences to care for her the last months of her life. This assignment will enable me to be less absent from my parish as dad ages.

Third, St. Mary is a lovely parish with a strong liturgical tradition. You know me and my love of liturgy! I have learned through experience, that wherever a priest goes, there are wonderful, generous people in the parish who appreciate having a priest to care for them. They are simply new friends I’ve yet to meet.

It has been my honor to be your pastor. You have been so good to me and for me. You’ve made me a better priest. I will continue to have a special place in my heart for St. Stephen Parish. If I have hurt, offended or neglected any of you in my time as pastor, I sincerely apologize and hope that we can be reconciled if not in this life, in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. I promise you my continued prayers. Please, pray for me that I can accept this change in my life graciously and with trust in God to make a new life come from the death I feel like I’m experiencing. Pray, too, for my new parishioners, your sisters and brothers in the Catholic communion we share at St. Mary in Trenton, that they and I will be a good match and that I will come to love them as deeply as I love you. Continue to be “people that make the difference!” You made a difference in my life!

God bless you a bunch!

 


Ouch!

This past week on Tuesday, I had surgery to remove my gall bladder. Since then I’ve been taking it easy, sleeping a lot the first couple of days because of the general anesthesia, I suppose. Thankfully, the surgery was done with the laparoscopic method, so I don’t have a big incision nor have I had much pain, just some soreness in my belly button. The worst part was the procedure that had to be performed when I couldn’t empty my bladder on my own after surgery (you know what I’m talking about) and the ride home from the hospital the night of the surgery. It was out-patient surgery. My driver was very careful, but any motion beyond walking to a rest room in the outpatient room left me nauseated. Aren’t insurance companies that insist people are well enough to go home instead of an overnight stay at the hospital wonderful?

I wish I had some grand spiritual insights to offer you about the experience. But, spiritual insights haven’t been arriving in great abundance before and after the surgery. Perhaps the closest I get to being spiritual about the event is that is a personal reminder of the brokenness of the human condition. The consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was an imperfect humanity subject to the corruption of the body revealed in disease. Illness can be a sharing in the cross of Christ, but it is also a sign of our need for redemption by Christ, to be restored to the perfection of human existence through the resurrection.

I do know that the experience has enabled me to enter with a renewed empathy into the experience of parishioners I visit in the hospital who are facing surgery or being treated for illness. Too often I am probably not aware of how they’re feeling, thinking that I’m doing some wonderful thing bringing cheer and “the presence of Christ” into their situation. I need to remember more that the person in the bed is anxious, maybe not feeling well and needs to be reminded simply that it will be o.k. in God’s time.

The other thing I am aware of as a result of the experience is how grateful I am to a few particular people. I am blessed with a sister who insisted she’d find a way to spend the night with me after surgery despite her less than flexible work schedule. Our parish’s pastoral associate got me to the hospital and insisted on praying over me – a kind of sacrament of the sick. Priests may be professional pray-ers but it’s good to have someone pray over you and remind you that the Holy Spirit dwells in all the baptized and works healing grace through the intercession of the Church, not just the ordained. Another friend, Tony, is to be thanked so much for spending a boring long day, waiting, waiting and waiting in uncomfortable chairs for me to get through the surgery, feel well enough to go home and to drive this “sick puppy” home where my sister was awaiting my arrival. The nurses, anesthesiologist, surgeon were very patient, kind and understanding. I’d recommend St. Mary’s Hospital in Clayton if you need an operation. Fr. Clyde Grogan gets a shout out for insisting I should receive the anointing of the sick since (as he said) priests who are quick to offer it to the infirm are often the last to ask for the sacrament. Finally, I am grateful to my parishioners. They’ve been calling to see how I am doing. They have been sending get well cards. They have been a sign of the compassionate Christ for me. I’m blessed to be allowed to be their pastor.

The word of God often comes to us from unexpected people. A few days before the surgery, at my favorite restaurant I was mentioning to the owner that I was a bit nervous. Not the most “religious” person, but raised a Catholic, he looked at me and asked, “Do you believe in God?” “Of course,” I said! To which he replied “Then don’t worry so much!” How to the point! Life has its anxiety producing moments, death being the big fear, but as Jesus said to the apostles after his resurrection, “Do not be afraid.” I still have a long way to go to reach that point of blessed assurance as a hymn puts it, but maybe this surgery has brought me one step closer to realizing God is faithful and will “…protect us from all anxiety as we wait for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Embolism after the Our Father at Mass in the Roman Catholic rite)


The 4th Commandment

It happened, again, today while I was visiting my dad. For a few years now I’ve been noticing how many people around my age are with their parents at the doctor’s office or out shopping at the grocery store. Perhaps that is because I have been one of those adult children bringing his own father and mother who no longer drive to the doctor or grocery store or other errands. In my 40’s, before my parents began to be less independent, I don’t recall noticing middle-aged adults out in public with their parents. Now, having out of necessity been chauffer, health care advocate and overseer of the parent’s financial affairs (along with my sister) for 7 or 8 years, I have become sensitized, I guess, to notice how many others are in the same situation. Mom passed away about 2 and a half years ago at age 88. Dad moved into assisted living a few weeks after her death and continues to have reasonably decent health considering how many things are wearing out in his body. He’s 90 years old.  

            Often, when I see an adult child helping their parent in public or helping their homebound parent when I visit to bring communion to the house or when I’m in the midst of a trip to take dad to one of his many doctor appointments I am reminded of something a friend of mine said. This friend is a former priest and now is pastor of a protestant church. “Joe, this is why the fourth commandment was given us by God.” In so many words he helped me understand that “You shall honor your father and mother” was not given us as law to get little children to obey their parents. As important as that is and as often as I have heard the sin of disobedience confessed by children, that understanding doesn’t get at the depth of the meaning of the command. It only scratches the surface.

            Think about it. The Law was given the Israelites on Sinai so that they might live, and live better lives. The Law made them different from other societies they found themselves among. The commandments helped them get their lives in right order so that they could exist in a hostile world and have reason to remember who made their standard of living possible, the God who called himself I AM (that is, “Life” with the capital L). Then remember there was no such thing as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pensions, IRAs to provide a source of income for elderly who could no longer work to feed themselves. There were no nursing homes, assisted living communities and hospice providers to attend to the physical needs of an old person. The only people who were available to take care of the elderly were the children! As I once told my mom who fretted about how much of my personal time she thought she was impinging on “the reason you have children, mom, is so they take care of you when you can no longer do that yourself. It’s payback willing given for moms taking care of helpless children in their first years of life.” That comment didn’t exactly put her mind at ease, I realized, because I knew she was trying to imagine who would be taking care of me using that line of logic, since I don’t have children! And moms, no matter how old the parent, moms will always worry about the son or daughter.

            The point is, the Israelites were given the Law of the 4th commandment to ensure the elders of the tribe could live and have a life of dignity to the end of their days!

            Jesus, the new Moses and law giver, put it another way, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Caring for elderly parents is our way of sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the life of others. Parent care is our privilege and entrée into the Paschal Mystery. I recall preaching one year on Holy Thursday that I realized I was obeying the Lord’s command to wash feet by being there for my mom and dad. Or as our retired bishop in residence in the diocese, Bishop Stan Schlarman, has told me, “Taking care of Mom and Dad is priestly ministry, too.” (He also told me that therefore I should take another day off instead of using my day off to attend to their needs, but I haven’t figured out how to time budget the extra day, yet. And an occasional parishioner will make a statement like “What do you need another day off for, I don’t get one. That’s another whole blog entry!)

            So when I get a little resentful that most of my day off is spent “ministering” to dad, I remind myself I have an opportunity that will eventually cease to exist in my life to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. This is a time of grace and a gift from God that makes life fuller. Like the Israelites of old I need to be saying, “What god is there like our God that gives us this wonderful gift of Law that we might live? Thanks be to God!” May God forgive me my selfishness and failure to keep the fourth commandment. May the Father make this “father” a better son so the Son will say “Well done good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Master. Be reunited with your Mom and Dad forever in the fullness of life I, New Law, made possible.”


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