Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - January 25, 2014

When I was eleven years old, nearing the end of fifth grade, my parents decided to transfer me from the local public school to our parish school at St. James in Wilkinsburg. It can always be frightening for a child to move to a new school and to have to make new friends, but this move brought a different kind of anxiety. I had heard stories of how much more strict the Catholic schools were and how the Sisters did not put up with any nonsense. That is not to say that I was a troublemaker. I was, on the whole a good student, but I did have a certain “liveliness.” And if I did not get in trouble any more often than my classmates, neither did I get in trouble any less often. So preparing to start at Saint James for sixth grade, I had a vision of myself enduring some more-than-military discipline.

Today, I look back on the move to St. James School as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Certainly my education had gotten off to a good start at Kelly School, but the Catholic school offered a dimension of faith that made a real difference.  The faculty and staff – including the parish priests – saw us students as children of God, and that attitude was apparent in the gentle yet challenging way in which they helped us grow to maturity. By the end of my first year there, I was starting to talk about someday becoming a priest, and I now thank God for the encouragement that I received from the adults and from my classmates.

This week, we celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Among the blessings for which I am most thankful is that I have been deeply involved with Catholic schools my entire priesthood. I can now see more clearly what a blessing a Catholic education is to the children. Our school is top notch academically, yet its greatest benefit is the ability to support the parents in bringing their children up with solid Catholic values. I can honestly say that St. Malachy is as good as any school that I have been involved with.

Yet even as I appreciate the blessings that the school brings to the students, I have come to appreciate even more the blessings that the school brings to the parish. In the school, we have a committed and involved group of families who truly help to build this parish into a community, and we have the greatest group of kids anywhere. Our school brings vitality and excitement to St. Malachy that cannot be matched by any other parish activity. There have been times when, after dealing with some serious pastoral issue, I have cleared my head by visiting the classrooms. I never walk out of a school visit without a smile on my face.

We celebrate Catholic Schools Week beginning with the 11:00 Mass this Sunday and concluding with the 4:00 Mass next Saturday evening. This is my opportunity to thank Mrs. Janet Escovitz, our principal, and all the faculty, staff, parents and students that make this school a fantastic place to be. Let’s keep it going for many, many years to come.
                                                                              Father H

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - January 18, 2015

Our recent cold spell has reminded me of how fortunate we have been this winter. We made it all the way up past Christmas with no appreciable snow and no school delays. I keep thinking back to last year, when I didn’t have a garage for my car. It seemed like I was brushing and scraping just about every day. I was in a city neighborhood a lot of steep and narrow streets that are not fun when they get covered with snow. So even if we are currently having some inconvenience with the weather, I am still happy to be warm and dry in Kennedy Township.

There are other concerns at this time of the year beside the road conditions. Primarily, we are all aware of how easily a virus can circulate. We spend more time inside, in close proximity to one another, and anyone who has a bug can easily end up sharing it. I’ve heard the story more than once of one family member getting sick and spreading it to the others. By the time the first one feels better, everyone else has gotten it, and it ends up right back with the one who first had it. Sharing a virus, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Our church is, of course, a place where people often come into close proximity with others. We know that when we come to church we are going to receive grace in abundance from God, but we often are concerned with what we are going to receive from one another. A couple of areas of concern are the Sign of Peace and receiving the Precious Blood of Christ from the cup. Some parishes have gone so far as to stop offering Communion under both forms during cold and flu season, but I do not want to go that far. I would rather leave all of this up to everyone’s individual choice. If you are concerned with receiving the Blood of Christ, don’t. Similarly, if you have something that is contagious, please stay away from the cup. Eucharist in both forms is a powerful sign of the Sacrament, but we receive the entire reality of the Eucharist when we receive the Body of Christ.

Similarly, if you have concerns about the Sign of Peace, or if you are feeling ill, you do not have to shake hands. There should be some sign to those around you so that you are not skipping the Sign of Peace altogether, but you can do so without physical contact. I would suggest folding your hands in a prayerful posture and bowing slightly in such a way that the people around you can understand that you are not ignoring them but are simply taking a precaution.

Let me leave you with a story my father used to tell me about when my older siblings were young children, before I was born. It was my one sister who always got sick first and spread the germs around. So one day my brother Rich overheard Mom and Dad talking about the condition of the house. He heard them say that they were afraid we might be getting termites. Rich’s answer was, “If we get termites, Barb will get them first.”

                                                                                      Father H

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of the Lord - January 11, 2014

There is a request I hope to make in today’s column in a spiritual way. But I am going to start with the practical request. Please do not chew gum in church.
Today’s feast is a sign of transition. During Christmas, we celebrated Christ’s birth and early life. Yet very little is written about His first thirty years, so today we move on to the beginning of His public ministry. This feast, then, represents the end of the Christmas season. In addition, today is also the First Sunday of Ordinary Time. Starting tomorrow, we wear green vestments again.

When we use the word “ordinary,” we generally mean run-of-the-mill, commonplace and mundane. That may be the way we feel now that the holidays are over and we are getting back to normal, but that is not what we mean in the Church’s use of the word. Our term Ordinary Time comes from ordinal numbers. Many of us are rusty on our grade school math, but ordinal numbers are those used for putting things in order, as in “first” or “second” or “third,” as opposed to the integral numbers of “one, two, three.” So next Sunday is the “Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.”

The important part of that distinction is that there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time. Just because we are out of the seasons does not mean that our Liturgies are not special. They may not reach the level of solemnity that we experience during the Church’s special seasons. But every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, and every time we gather for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the greatest mystery this world has ever seen.

If it is true that there is nothing ordinary about our celebrations, then it is also true that there is nothing ordinary about our church. As long as the Blessed Sacrament is present in the Tabernacle, we are in the presence of Christ in our church. Thus we should always show reverence whenever we are in church. When I was a little boy, that meant that we never spoke above a whisper. There was a sense of awe and majesty in the church that rather intimidated us. I do not want to take it that far. The Eucharist we celebrate unites us more closely as sisters and brothers in Christ, so we should be comfortable greeting one another in what is our home. Yet we want to balance that comfort with the sense that this is someplace special. I hope we do not get so comfortable that we forget how special the place is.

It seems like there are several issues where we tend to get lax on occasion. A couple of years ago, I started noticing more men wearing hats in church. Lately I have seen more and more people – adults as well as children – chewing gum. I remember that there were certain places we would never be allowed to chew gum when I was growing up. School was one such place, but particularly we would never chew gum in church. So I ask that everyone take some time to ask whether we really recognize how special our church is. As we approach the special gift of the Eucharist, please remember to keep an attitude of reverence when in our church.

              Father H

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Epiphany of the Lord - January 4, 2015

As I look back through the Christmas cards I received this year, I note how many people took the occasion to announce the birth of a baby – their own, or perhaps a grandchild. There is often a picture included with the card. The birth of a child is such good news to a family that they want the whole world to know about it.

The birth of Christ was good news for the whole human family, and so God chose to let the whole world know about it. The name of today’s feast, “Epiphany,” means to manifest or to make known. The star that guided the three kings to find the Christ Child was God’s gift to all the nations of the world. Many pagan religions believed that the birth of a great king was of such monumental significance that the stars would align in such a way as to announce the birth. On this occasion, God allowed that pagan belief to be a form of leading all nations to find Christ.

In that description of today’s feast, I used the phrase “three kings.” I did so for a couple of reasons. First, that is a familiar image to us. In my Nativity set, the visitors certainly look like kings, and we do sing “We Three Kings” on this day. Matthew’s gospel, however, does not call them kings. “Wise men” is a better translation, though we often us an English version of the original and call them “Magi.” A “magus” was an astrologer who studied the stars in order to advise the king or other powerful people about the will of their gods. We can see the wisdom of trying to find the divine will, and those who came to find the true God in Bethlehem must have been especially wise.

So if they were not kings, we may ask why we have come to call them kings. The answer to that question comes back to the understanding that God was reaching out to all nations with Christ’s birth and that all nations would come to faith. Psalm 72:10 says, “May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts.” Further, Isaiah 60:6 says, “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah: All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” Both of those passages would have influenced the way that Matthew told the story in his gospel.

There is another twist on the title of “three kings,” for Matthew does not tell us how many there were. For years we have settled on the number three because of the three gifts: gold (in recognition of Christ’s kingship), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (the salvation that comes through Christ’s death). In early Christendom, the number varied from two – the lowest possible since Matthew uses the plural – to seventy-two. Obviously, seventy-two magi would have made for a crowded house, but seventy-two represented the number of nations known to Israel and thus symbolized that Christ was coming for the whole world.

My one final note about this feast is less serious. In one parish, a volunteer was bringing out the figures of the kings on the Saturday before Epiphany, and I asked him if he knew in which direction our church faced. When he told me (without certainty), I asked him then why the kings were coming from a direction other than the east. It took him a few minutes, but he came back and told me that they came from that direction because the Parkway was under construction and they had to take a detour.                  

                                                                                                                     Father H