Saturday, December 3, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent - December 4, 2016

 Last week I said that I would take this space to describe some of the key scriptural figures of Advent, starting with the prophet Isaiah. This week I turn to St. John the Baptist, who is featured in the gospel every year on the Second Sunday of Advent. There is a connection, for much of John’s message and imagery comes from the prophet Isaiah.

Our first thought of John, particularly at this time of year, is of his birth as the son of the Blessed Mother’s elderly cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. The importance of that detail is that it shows John’s connection to Christ. In the First Century, there was a movement that accepted John as the Messiah. All four of the gospel writers make a point of showing that John did not claim any privilege for himself. Rather, the whole purpose of his life was to prepare for the coming of Christ. John’s gospel (John 1:20) says of John, “He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” In the gospel of today’s mass, Matthew records John saying, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John certainly was an impressive figure, clothed in camel’s hair and with a diet that consisted of locusts and wild honey. He lived a very ascetical life filled with penitential practice. There is some speculation that John was an Essene, a very rigorous Jewish community. Yet there were some basic differences. The Essenes saw themselves as an elite group, separate from the rest of the community. John, on the other hand, left the desert to proclaim God’s salvation to all people. He welcomed tax collectors, prostitutes and all other sinners. And rather than calling people to join him in the desert, he sent them back to their families and jobs with the call to live by God’s commandments in their ordinary lives.

Of course, what identifies John most clearly was his act of baptizing in the Jordan River. John’s baptism was a unique symbol, to such an extent that it became his very identity. He is simply “the Baptist.” A totally new ritual becomes a sign that God is about to intervene in human history in an entirely new way. This baptism again ties the Baptist to the coming of the Messiah. As Christ would bring us a new life of grace, so John offers a means of repentance from the sins that separate us from God. This repentance is available to everyone, but it calls for us to make a commitment to turn away from sin and to make a change in our lives.

John’s message is very challenging. Whenever we meet someone who lives the faith intently, it can be very intimidating. Yet personally, the most ascetical people I have ever known have also been the most joyful. Their message, as that of St. John the Baptist, is that Christ offers us such a wonderful opportunity to share the life of God that it is worth whatever the cost. The message of St. John the Baptist tells us that Advent is a time of great hope. This is our time of preparation. For as we hear in the embolism to the Lord’s Prayer at mass, “We await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”                          
                                                            Father H      

Saturday, November 26, 2016

First Sunday of Advent - November 27, 2016

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Preparation, of course, is easier if we have someone to help us. So for my column during these four Sundays of Advent, I would like to reflect on four of the important figures in Scripture who feature prominently in our readings at this time of the year.
                  
First of all, we focus on the prophet Isaiah. When we speak of Isaiah, we are really talking about three different prophets. In the eighth century BC, a prophet named Isaiah, son of Amoz, spoke of God’s judgment and the promise that God would send a Savior to the world. His message was so powerful that when another prophet spoke a similar message around two hundred years later, his teachings were simply added as an addendum to the book of Isaiah as chapters 40 through 55. This later prophet’s name is lost to history, so scholars simply call him Deutero-Isaiah, or “Second Isaiah.” Similarly, the end of the book tells of the teachings of a later prophet known as Trito- (“Third”) Isaiah, found in chapters 56-69. These prophets are similar enough that we simply say things like, “The prophet Isaiah said...” All three sections were written at times of trial, and they offer hope in God’s promises. In Advent especially, we see that promise of hope as a sign of waiting for the promises of Christ.

Isaiah’s prophecies can be a reminder that we celebrate Advent on two levels. Later in the season, when we turn our attention to the coming of Christmas, we will concentrate on such passages as Isaiah 7:14, “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Yet in addition to specific prophecies that point to Christ, there is a general air of hope in Isaiah that describes the Kingdom of God. Isaiah promises a world so completely at peace that “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” along with other such images  (Isaiah 11:6). Thinking of our struggles, Isaiah 28:18 says, “On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.” In those passages, Isaiah’s promises seem like poetic hyperbole. Yet we read them in Advent as a reminder that we are also awaiting the Second Coming. When Christ returns, we will know the perfect joy of heaven, where there will be no suffering of any kind. Far from being a poetic exaggeration, the words of Isaiah will be barely sufficient to describe the reality.

Finally, Isaiah went beyond other writers of the Old Testament by promising that God would bring Salvation not just to the Jewish people but to the entire world. Isaiah 2:2-3, in today’s first reading, says, “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.’” So as we begin this season of Advent, we see it as a time of hope, that God’s gift of salvation can come to us in ways far beyond anything we can now imagine.
                                                                                       Father H                  


Christ The King - November 20, 2016

Is Thanksgiving getting lost? It was bad enough when it went from being a day of thanks to being a day of overeating and watching football. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I intend to indulge in both of those activities on Thursday.) But now Thanksgiving is getting lost between Hallowe’en, which used to be a fun but minor holiday, and Christmas. Then again, that trend does not so much describe the holiday as the attitude it is meant to encourage. We can all too easily forget to take time out for gratitude as we are rushing on from one thing to another.

I would like to offer a suggestion on one possible remedy for that tendency to overlook gratitude. Ideally, I would like to give proper credit for this idea, but I cannot. It comes from an article that I read some years ago in some Catholic magazine, but I do not remember the source, much less the author. Whoever it was, he first made a very sensible suggestion that we should give thanks for everything. The important addition is that we not only give thanks, but we also include in our prayers a reason for our thanksgiving. Such a prayer increases our gratitude by making us think of why we are so thankful. It might be going beyond “Lord, thank you for this beautiful day” to the point where we say, “Lord, thank you for this beautiful day because it gives me a chance to enjoy a pleasant walk” or “because it gives me a chance to get some work done around the house.”

That kind of gratitude can help us grow in several ways. For one thing, if we really pay attention, then we may realize where we need to change our attitude on certain points. If I stop and think about why I wanted the blessing I am thankful for, I may realize that it was for a selfish reason. I may then have to stop and think about how I should use God’s gifts. Beyond that, this habit can help us become thankful for things we would not have considered as gifts. Before my father’s death, I used to go to his apartment on Wednesday night for my Thursday day off. Late one Wednesday night got caught in construction on the Parkway East.  As I idled in the Squirrel Hill Tunnels at 11:30 PM, I found myself grumbling at my misfortune. Then I remembered that article, and tried to find some reason to be thankful. It wasn’t easy, but I thanked God for the quiet time, which gave me an opportunity to review the day and set aside some of the tension of the day. That does not mean that I am hoping to get caught in another traffic jam anytime soon, and I still would rather not been there that night, but I at least I did come to see that situation as something I could be thankful for.

One obvious opportunity for gratitude will, of course, come this week with our turkey and stuffing. I will be spending this week in Virginia, where I can enjoy my sister’s cooking. But while I am away from Kennedy Township at Thanksgiving, please know that I will definitely put the people of St. Malachy Parish at the top of my list of things to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving to my beloved parish family.
                                                                                 Father H                  


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 13, 2016

Let’s start with a little trivia. You have most likely heard the phrase “short shrift,” as in not getting all of what you feel you deserve. But do you know where the phrase comes from? “Shrift” is an archaic term for Confession, particularly for the penance we do when we go to Confession. Short shrift would come when a condemned criminal was about to be executed. They would allow him to see a priest, but it was often so late that the condemned man would not have time to complete any serious penance, such as you would expect for a capital crime. Thus, he was unfairly given “short shrift.”

There are times when I feel like I have to give short shrift. When I came here, one thing that made me uncomfortable was the schedule of Confessions on Saturdays from 3:00 to 3:45. When I have a Sunday Mass, I like to be in the sacristy about half an hour before Mass starts. When I come in fifteen minutes before Mass, I feel like I am rushing. But while I have gotten used to that, I have wondered what might happen if the day comes when Fr. Russell is no longer here to help us. I got a preview of that eventuality last week, with Fr. Russell in the hospital. Despite the wedding, we started Confessions on time. But we had a good number of people coming, and I didn’t finish until about 3:57. It’s good to have more people for Confession than the time allotted, for that’s a sign of a spiritually alive parish. But it meant that I was trying to move quickly through the last few people in line. Furthermore, I was rushing into the sacristy at a time when the Altar Servers and Lectors were wondering where I was. I was out of breath as we started the Mass, and I didn’t feel like I was properly focused on the Eucharistic Liturgy.

My attitude toward Confession times has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve been in parishes where not many people come to the sacrament, so I’ve tried different times to get people coming. When I have been in parishes where people come, I’d rather not change things. But for two and a half years, I have thought about a different time for Confessions. I want to have time to give everyone a good experience of Christ’s mercy without having to give “short shrift.” And I want to be prepared to be the best celebrant I can be for the Mass, the most important thing we do. So I am thinking about starting January by scheduling Confessions from Noon to 1:00 on Saturday afternoons. We had those times in other parishes where I have been stationed, and they have worked well. I may have to beg off of going to the cemetery if we have a Saturday morning funeral, but I should have plenty of time for Confessions, even if we go overtime and even if there is a wedding.

I said that this timing has worked well in other parishes. But what works in one place does not always work in another. I would like to ask people’s opinions about changing Confession times before I make the final decision. Please let me know what you think. I don’t want to give “short shrift” (either literally or figuratively) to anyone.
                                           
                                                                                       Father H                  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 6, 2016

First of all, thank you to everyone who attended the special meetings for the initiative On Mission for the Church Alive. I was very pleased with the turnout at those meetings. We certainly have some interesting times ahead of us, and all of us are going to have to make some adjustments, but it helps that we had so many people willing to come out and take part. If you did not make it to the meetings, we have copies of the materials available, or they are on line at OnMissionChurchAlive.org. Obviously we will be talking more about On Mission in the coming months, but I would like to focus on a different – albeit related – issue.

If you were at the meetings, think of your reaction to the basic numbers that we heard. Primarily, think of the numbers regarding the priests of the diocese. Today there are 216 priests in active ministry, and by 2025 they project that number to be 112. That news was not much of a shock to me since I have seen the decline first-hand. I remember thirty years ago, when we had over 300 parishes, and each of them had at least one priest. But I suspect that putting a number to the trend caught some people by surprise. Of course we rely on our retired priests for help, but there is only so much these heroic men can do. As I write this, for instance, Fr. Russell is in the hospital.

As I said, this column is not about On Mission. I bring this up because this week is National Vocation Awareness Week. The current planning process has made it even more clear to us that we need to pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Yet as I like to say, I am convinced that there is no shortage of vocations. God still calls; the shortage is in people recognizing and answering the call. We can see that difficulty through some of the other information that On Mission has given us. When we see the number of young people who are not practicing their faith and the aging of those who are, then we recognize how difficult it is for our young people to hear the voice of God in their lives.

Yet as Bishop Zubik’s episcopal motto always reminds us, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Lately I have been joking with many people that we have proof of that saying when we see the Cubs and Indians in the World Series. But on a serious note, that belief gives us hope that in Christ who promised to be with us always, until the end of the world. So let us confidently pray to God for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. And let us try to encourage any youth we may know who may be thinking of a vocation to serve the Church.

                                                                                       Father H                  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time - October 20, 2016

Imagine the life of a college freshman. This is his first experience of being away from his parents. He can stay up as late as he wants, eat cold pizza for breakfast and go to as many parties as possible. We hope that by his sophomore year he starts thinking of life beyond college by choosing a major and getting serious about his studies. After all, the real purpose of college is to prepare for life.

A student may think of what he is going to do “after college,” but for those of us who have been out of college for a few years, college was just a preparation for the real world. I sometimes think that there is a similar problem of perspective whenever I hear someone ask about “life after death.” To a college student, life on campus is more “real” than some vague future. So for us, this life is the only thing that seems real to us. Our idea of heaven, possibly filled with images of clouds and harps, seems far off and ethereal. Once we graduate, however, we do not usually spend the next seventy or so years thinking that now we are in our post-college years. If anything, we look at college students and ask, “Was I like that?” So when we get to heaven, I do not expect to think of it as an “afterlife.” Rather, we will look at this world as a vague beginning to what we are truly meant to be – children of God, sharing perfect joy with Him forever.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, the Church invites us to look forward to the more real world of heaven. The readings start to focus on the end of time and the eternity of Christ’s Kingdom. This is a time to see ourselves as a college student who has to choose a major, for we want to be ready for what really matters.

We start the month with two special celebrations. This Tuesday is All Saints Day. Throughout the year, we celebrate feast days of the canonized saints. All Saints Day is for those who are not officially recognized by the Church. This feast is a way to honor our parents and grandparents and all others who had an influence on our lives. We see their example, and we ask their prayers for us. To keep the college analogy going, I can think of how many phone calls and letters I have gotten from Duquesne over the years, asking me to help (by monetary donation) those students now trying to get an education as I once did. Although the saints are no longer with us in this world, they still help their “alma mater” by praying for us.

On November 2 especially, we also pray for those who have died. God gives us the gift of purgatory in order to complete our transition to the perfection of what He has created in us. And as we still see a connection with one another, God allows us to assist in that final purification by praying for those who have died. So as we look forward to graduating to heaven, November becomes a special time for us to pray for all the faithful departed. And by doing so, may we come to look forward to the real world of heaven and to see this life as a chance to grow to be the people God has created us to be.
                                           
                                                                                     Father H    

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time - October 23, 2016

One interesting aspect to the month of October is that we have some new feast days to celebrate. October 5 was the feast day of Blessed Francis Seelos, a Redemptorist priest who served for a time in Pittsburgh. The other two are names that should be more familiar. October 11 was the feast of Pope Saint John XXIII, and October 22 was the feast of Pope Saint John Paul II.

Most frequently, a saint’s feast day is set for the anniversary of the day he died, that is, the day he or she was born into eternal life. For these two popes, it is a little different. St. John’s feast day is on October 11 because that is the anniversary of the day he convened the Second Vatican Council. And October 22 was the date in 1978 that St. John Paul celebrated his Inaugural Mass as Pope. That choice for those feast days speaks about the effect that these two great saints had on the Church. They were both men of tradition, being very true to the faith that had been handed down from the time of the Apostles. Yet each of them knew that the Church had to face the challenges of the modern world.
To me, that dichotomy is a good summary of what Bishop Zubik is trying to accomplish with On Mission for the Church Alive. We are working to hand on the faith given us by Christ Himself. At the same time, we have to recognize that the structures with which we are familiar or not necessarily going to be as effective in today’s circumstances. While we cannot compromise on eternal truths, we must be open to new ways of organizing our diocese. Our parents’ generation did things much differently from the days of Blessed Francis Seelos, and we have to do things in a way that will work for today.

The prayer that Bishop Zubik requested us to say at Mass each asks for a spirit of “courage, collaboration and compassion.” Bishop Zubik has pointed to St. John XXIII as a model of collaboration, to Saint John Paul II as a model of courage, and to our current Pope Francis as a model of compassion. As to the collaboration part of the equation, please remember that this week we are holding our parish meetings. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we will meet at 7:00 in church to hear the first proposed models for our area. No decisions have been made because the bishop wants to hear our voices. Over the next year, we will have an opportunity to make ourselves heard. But first, we have to hear what will be shaping the proposals. Please make every effort to come to these meetings.

On October 22, 1978, Pope Saint John Paul said, “Do not be afraid. Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ.” As we look forward to the future of our diocese, I echo the words of Saint John Paul. Do not be afraid.

                                                                                         Father H