Sunday, December 24, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 24, 2017

Christmas, they say, is a time of miracles. So rather than trying to offer a spiritual or theological reflection, I would like to offer a true story from about 2002 or 2003. You are welcome to take a spiritual insight from this story if you’d like, or to see it as my Christmas miracle. At the time, I was pastor of Guardian Angels Parish in the West End. Guardian Angels is now part of St. Philip, which is part of our “grouping” in On Mission for the Church Alive.

As a background, I learned as a young boy serving mass that each priest had his own chalice, and it seemed that a priest’s chalice was an expression of his own personality. When I first started thinking of the priesthood, I thought a red chalice would be a good expression of the Blood of Christ. When I was in the seminary and getting close to ordination, I saw a chalice that I knew was what I wanted. It was a hammered gold with a black onyx node around the middle. I had just ordered that chalice when the priest who had first inspired me to the priesthood, Fr. Robert Murphy, told me that he wanted to pay for it so that it would be his ordination gift to me. In my first two assignments, I used that chalice for just about every mass. In my third assignment, I was in a merged parish with four different churches, so I got in the habit of using it only on Sundays rather than carrying it to a different church every day. I did the same at Guardian Angels, where we had two churches. Then I had a chance to buy a red chalice from a seminarian who had decided not to continue to the priesthood. I could then keep one chalice (the gold one) at our St. James Church and the other (the red one) at our St. Martin Church.

On December 18, one week before Christmas, I went into our St. James Church in the afternoon to set up for a Penance Service we were having that evening. When I got into the sacristy, I found a total mess. Someone had broken in and taken whatever he thought was of value. The chalice Fr. Murphy had bought me for my ordination was gone. We called the police, but I had very little hope of ever seeing that chalice again. One of my parishioners said she was praying to St. Anthony and that she was confident I would have it back for Christmas, but I didn’t get my hopes up.

At the time we had some Franciscan Sisters living in the former St. James rectory, and one of them was doing some last minute decorating in the church on the morning of Christmas Eve. There was a back hallway that we never used, and there was no reason for her to go back there. But she decided to see if any Christmas decorations might have been stashed there. Something shiny caught her eye, and she bent over to find my chalice. I suspect that the thief was walking out when someone came in to pray. He must have figured that it would be hard to explain why he was carrying a chalice. What was he going to say, “Someone said I could have this”? So he apparently threw it into the hallway and ran out. Meanwhile, there was no reason for Sr. Margaret Ann to go back there on Christmas Eve, but I think that St. Anthony must have pushed her in that direction.

I still use both chalices, but I will definitely use the gold one on Christmas. When you see it, know that I am very thankful for my own Christmas miracle. With that story, I offer my wishes to all of you. May you have a blessed and joy-filled celebration of Christ’s birth. And if God sends you a Christmas miracle, may it help you to remember how truly blessed we all are.                                      
                                                                                             Father H                  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Third Sunday of Advent - December 17, 2017

When I was younger, I always loved when Christmas fell on a Monday. It makes for the shortest possible Advent, which made Christmas seem to come faster. Christmas may always fall on December 25, and in a year like this Advent simply doesn’t start until later. But to my mind, a shorter Advent made it seem like Christmas was coming faster.

Today we light the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath and wear the rose-colored vestments. We call this Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” It is a day when we begin to feel that Christ’s coming is close. This year, with the short Advent, Gaudete Sunday is also the day when our attention shifts from preparing for Christ’s second coming to preparing for our celebration of Christmas. With Christmas just over a week away, we can start to feel the excitement.

As part of that preparation, please do not forget that we still have the Fourth Sunday of Advent next weekend. Recently word has been getting around that Catholics could be excused from the obligation of attending the Sunday Mass since they would then have to go to Mass on consecutive days (or perhaps even twice in the same day for those who attend a Christmas Vigil Mass). The Diocese of Pittsburgh sent a letter to every priest reminding us that no such dispensation has been given. Only the bishop can give such a dispensation, as would be the case with something like a major blizzard such as we had in 2010. No such situation is present simply because Christmas falls on a Monday.

I feel rather odd saying that one must go to Mass on Sunday. With Christmas coming, I would hope that we are not thinking of our faith in terms of obligations. It would be as if a husband were to ask if he had an obligation to buy his wife a Christmas present. I would rather hope that their relationship would be such that he would be eager to get her whatever he could. Particularly with the major feast of Christmas coming up, we should want to prepare as much as possible for the joy of welcoming Christ into our world.

Meanwhile, you will see our church looking more festive by that point. As I said, the focus of the season of Advent, in the prayers and readings, is now on preparation for Christmas. So while we are not yet at Christmas, we can begin to put up preparations in anticipation. I can think of two analogies to use. On the one hand, it is like a couple expecting a child. When they get to the ninth month of pregnancy, they generally have purchased the crib and everything they need, and the baby’s room is all set up. So while we are not yet putting out flowers or turning on the lights, notice those things that are soon going up. Think of how close we are, and consider what we can still do to prepare for Christ’s coming. The other analogy is of decorating our own homes. When my older siblings were young children, my parents would come home from Midnight Mass and only then put up the tree and all the decorations. By the time I came along, that was a bit much for them, and they had it done ahead of time. So when our committee wondered how they were going to do everything between next Sunday’s 11:00 Mass and the 4:00 Vigil Mass, I said there was no reason why they could not get a head start.
                                                                                                      Father H                 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent - December 10, 2017

One memory that comes to my mind frequently at this time of year is of the Christmas tree we had when I was a child. In addition to the tree, we had an HO scale train set complete with a miniature village. Dad had made a large platform for the train, which we kept in the basement most of the year, hidden away in the back room that had originally been the coal cellar. To set it up in the living room, we had to clear out the area around one full wall. There were things we had to do without, and the living room still got a little cramped for that time, but it was worth it. And occasionally my parents would realize that there were some things that were simply cluttering up the living room that we could do without altogether. Setting up the tree platform became a time to get rid of some things that we were better off without.

Advent is a time of preparation. We are not only preparing for the holiday called Christmas. We are also preparing for the coming of Christ, both in the celebration of His birth and in preparation for His second coming at the end of time. In Advent, then, we try to rearrange our lives to make room for God to be more completely at the center of our lives.

Advent is not Lent. Lent is our penitential season, while Advent is more a time of preparation. Yet as my parents would find some things to throw out when preparing to set up the platform, so our preparation should help us find aspects of our lives that do not fit with our faith and our vocations to live holy lives. Thus there is a penitential aspect to this Advent season. So while we do not have the same penitential practices as in Lent, and while we do not ask one another what we are giving up for Advent, still it is important to ask God to “clean up” our lives during this season of preparation. The best way to do that, of course, is through the sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly known as Confession.

Among the opportunities for Confessions during Advent, our parish is taking part in the diocesan event, “The Light is On for You.” Twice each year, once during Advent and once during Lent, the diocese asks every parish to have Confessions on the same evening. Between 6:00 and 9:00 this Wednesday, December 13, you can go to any parish in the diocese and know that there will be a priest available for Confession. Part of the idea is that Catholics have a wide choice of confessors. Some people are comfortable going to a priest they know. Others, however, are a little nervous talking to someone they know. One good way to get over that nervousness is to go to a parish you do not belong to. On Wednesday, you know that priests are available all over the diocese.

An option such as we have on Wednesday can be particularly helpful for those who have not been to Confession in a long time. I hope we can encourage people to come back to the sacrament. Some of the best Confessions I have ever heard have been of people who have not received the sacraments in years. Some have committed serious sins, and some have just gotten out of the habit. In either case, it is an indescribable joy to see the person come to a deeper understanding of God’s merciful love.
                                                                                           Father H                   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent - December 3, 2017

The season of Advent is the beginning of the Church's liturgical calendar. Thus the First Sunday of Advent could be considered the equivalent of New Year's Day. We may not make this our time of resolutions, but we certainly can consider it as a time of new starts and fresh opportunities. So I would like to take a look at some of what can be new with this year. Some things are big, and some are small, but the new year is the unifying theme.

One change you will notice right away concerns our hymnals. We are no longer using the two volume series in which the front portion is changed several times a year. The Breaking Bread books are a single volume that will last the entire year. They contain almost all of the hymns we have used, and they have all of the Sunday and holy day readings. They will serve our purpose, and they save us money over the multi-volume edition. In fact, since the new books do not use the blue covers, we are saving more money. The blue covers are designed to last for several years, and we have certainly gotten our mileage out of them. They were wearing out and falling apart. However, and these new books save us from buying new covers.

Speaking of saving money, I will admit that I can be cheap at times. One example comes with the prayer we have been saying for the On Mission for the Church Alive initiative. When the diocese gave us the prayer and told us to pray it at Masses, I had copies made while we inserted in the blue covers. Meanwhile, a number of people complained that the prayer was too long. The diocese gave us a new, shorter version. I didn't want to waste the cards we had printed. Yet even with the blue covers, many of the cards have been misplaced. So with the new hymnals, we had to find a new way to keep the prayer available. Just when we were discussing possibilities, I found an office supply store that was closing. I took advantage of the going-out-of-business sale to get a good price on self-adhesive labels. That gives is an opportunity to start using the shorter version that most of the diocese is using. There are a few distinct differences, so please pay attention to the labels stuck onto the front cover.

Before too much of this new year goes by, we will be making a major upgrade to our sound system. As I write this, we are still not sure of when the new speakers will be installed. When it happens, though, I am confident that it will be easier for more people to participate fully in the Mass. I certainly hope that those who attend Mass in the cry rooms come out into the main body of the church. We should all come together as a single community, which is not as easy when some of our members are in a separate room.

Most importantly, this year will be the time for On Mission to take its next big steps. In April, Bishop Zubik will make the official announcement. In October, the new clergy assignments will take effect. There is a chance I may be part of the new configuration, though I strongly suspect that I will be going elsewhere. In the meantime, I will be praying that the Holy Spirit can guide the process, helping Bishop Zubik to choose good priests for our grouping, and giving me an assignment where I can best use my gifts in service to the Church.
                                                                                              Father H