Monday, February 26, 2018

The Second Sunday of Lent - February , 2018

One of my favorite plays is Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town. I have been privileged to appear in the play twice, once in the dual roles of Professor Willard and Joe Stoddard, and the other time in the role of Doctor Gibbs. In one of those productions, I had a director (Jim Critchfield, who worked with some of our students at the Father Ryan Arts Center) who gave us some very good advice. He told us, “Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for that play. So don’t think you can improve upon his writing. Say the lines the way he wrote them.”

That advice is very good for an actor presenting a classic play. I think it is even better advise for a priest celebrating Mass. The Church, in its wisdom, has given us some very beautiful prayers. Some of them may not be as easy to follow in the current translation as in the former translation, but there can be great profit from working through such language. So today I would like to offer a Lenten reflection by looking at a text we hear more often during this time. Along with the four standard Eucharistic Prayers, the Church gives us two special Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation. I particularly like the first of those two prayers, and I look forward to using it every year during Lent.

Much of this prayer comes across as a reminder of God’s eternal love for us, even when we have turned away from Him. “From the world’s beginning [you] are ceaselessly at work, so that the human race may become holy, just as you yourself are holy.” I am always touched by the image of Christ’s cross as a sign of that love, an image that leads into the Institution Narrative by reminding us, “Before his arms were outstretched between heaven and earth, to become the lasting sign of your covenant, he desired to celebrate the Passover with his disciples.”

The theme of reconciliation, in this prayer as in Lent itself, includes not just reconciliation with God. When we find ourselves in the right relationship with God, we then become more open to one another. To me, the difference between the two Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation is one of emphasis. The one I am looking at here could be summed up as “We are reconciled to God and thus to one another.” The second prayer strikes me as saying, “We are reconciled to God and thus to one another.” So in the first of these prayers, we pray for all the faithful by asking God, “grant that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as they partake of this one Bread and one Chalice, they may be gathered into one Body in Christ, who heals every division.”

What touches me most strongly in this prayer is the theme, throughout the entire prayer, of the great hope held in store for us. We speak to the Father of “your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we, too, are your sons and daughters.” Throughout the prayer, we see more deeply that we are called beyond the merely human to share in the divinity of Christ. We are looking forward to “the hour when we stand before you, Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven.” That theme is strong as the prayer draws to its conclusion. As this Lent is meant to lead us to Easter, so this whole prayer concludes, “Then, freed at last from the wound of corruption and made fully into a new creation, we shall sing to you with gladness the thanksgiving of Christ, who lives for all eternity.”
                                                                                        Father H  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The First Sunday of Lent - February 18, 2018

From my younger days, I remember magazine advertisements for the Charles Atlas Body-building system. The ads were in the format of a comic book story. They would show a skinny kid, the proverbial 98-pound weakling, sitting at the beach. He would have his eyes on a pretty girl. Before the kid could make his move, a muscle-bound jerk would kick sand in his face. The pretty girl would then go off arm in arm with the bully. So the skinny kid would go home and order the Charles Atlas package. After his transformation, he would be back at the beach. When the bully would kick sand in his face, he would defend himself. In the end, he would get the pretty girl.

One look at me should tell you that I never ordered the Charles Atlas system. But now as I think about it, I see a fundamental flaw in the ads, a flaw that is common in advertising. The flaw is the belief that you can only get love if you can somehow prove yourself better than someone else. We can extend that attitude even to our faith. We try to earn God’s love. Lent, then, becomes our Charles Atlas time. We picture God ignoring us, caring more about the saints, until our Lenten exercises build us up. We talk about what we are doing for Lent or what we are giving up for Lent as though a successful Lent will get God’s attention and convince Him to love us.

An adolescent, such as would be interested in the Charles Atlas system, is probably looking for the kind of girl who would be attracted to the big, strong type, and would look down on the weakling. As he matures, we hope that he would be more attracted to the girl who loves him for himself. As out understanding of God grows, we come to see Him as one who loves us for ourselves. Lent, then, is not an attempt for us to impress God. Rather, it is our time to grow to love God more deeply. Imagine the scene in the Charles Atlas ads if the bully kicks sand in the boy’s face, but the pretty girl chooses the skinny kid anyway. He should want to get to know that girl better. That, in effect, is what Lent is about. As we look forward to Easter, it is as if God is saying to us, “Look at what I have done for your in sending my Son to be your Savior.” So this time is for us a chance to reflect on how God loves us even when we fall short of His standards. Our Lenten observances open us up to a deeper appreciation for the love of God. By our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we come to see God as the center of our lives and the heart of everything that we do. We turn away from the things that keep us from the love of God, and we try to keep even the good things of our lives in the proper perspective as less important than our faith.

In forty days, at the end of our Lenten season, we may not find ourselves spiritual versions of Charles Atlas. We know, however, that God will not love us any less for our imperfections. It is our hope, then, that this time of Lent help us to appreciate God’s love even more, and to respond by loving him every more deeply in return.                                 
                                                                                               Father H  

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - February 11, 2018

There was a meme going around the Internet last month that pointed out that Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day, and Easter falls on April Fools Day. The meme concluded, “This is going to be a strange year for Catholics.” As it turns out, there are a number of things coming together at this time, and I would like to touch upon a few of them to some extent.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy season of Lent. I will be writing about Lent in coming weeks, so today I will just ask you to see the flyer in this bulletin with all the basic information and to save the flyer for the coming weeks.

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is when the Diocese of Pittsburgh kicks off the Parish Share Program. Your generosity with the program can be a big help to us.  Remember that this year we are also including a special envelope once a month for any extra help anyone can give us.

This Sunday is also an interesting confluence of two other special celebrations. Pope St. John Paul designated February as the World Day of the Sick, “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of humankind.” This is an opportunity for me to say thank you to all who kept me in prayer after my recent hernia operation. The doctor was right when he told me that recovery is much easier than it was when I previously had that surgery, but it still was a struggle. We get so accustomed to being able to do things for ourselves that it becomes difficult for us to limit ourselves. After hernia surgery, one is not supposed to lift much of anything. I felt rather strange asking people to move things that I should normally be able to carry without any trouble. It reminds me that the word “patient” comes from a word meaning one to whom things are done, as opposed to “agent,” which means one who does things. That word relates to the word “Passion,” which we apply to Christ’s suffering. Eucharistic Prayer II speaks of how Christ “entered willingly into his Passion.” I have to admit that I was not as willing. But by joining our sufferings to Christ, we can grow in our faith by knowing that we are always in the arms of a loving God.

The Church also takes the Sunday before St. Valentine’s Day as the World Day of Marriage. It seems strange to me to have World Marriage Day fall on the same day as the World Day of the Sick, but that’s how it happens this year. Of course, we think of the marriage vows where a couple promises love “in sickness and in health.” When working with engaged couples, I often talk about things that they may face in their lives, such as sickness, unemployment or simply disagreements. Most couples are quite willing to admit that there will be difficult times. Yet I generally get the feeling that they actually feel as if everything is going to be happy and beautiful. (To be fair, on my ordination day I didn’t realize what struggles a priest would face.) Yet as I try to point out, if they truly rely upon God, then the moments of struggle will be the times that truly allow their love to grow. Our culture has made marriage disposable to much the same degree that it has made marriage simply a way to make ourselves happy. On this World Marriage Day, we see marriage as a reflection of God’s love and a way to reach out to others with that love.
                                                                     Father H 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time - February 4, 2018

One of the events of our Catholic Schools Week was “80’s Day.” The students dressed up in 1980s styles. That was easy for me since I spent much of the 1980s dressing the same as I do now. But I did spend part of the day (the part where I was writing this column) thinking about one of my favorite ballplayers from the 1980s, Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn. He led the National League in batting average eight times in his career, and I have used him as an example of someone who kept working at his craft. Gwynn was one of the first ballplayers to use videotape extensively. As often as he would swing a bat, he knew that it was easy for bad habits to creep into his swing.

When we do something over and over, we take it for granted. But we can get into bad habits. I think of that tendency in connection with the most important thing we do. Nothing could be more important than the opportunity to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. It seems so simple that we do not give it much thought, and that is where the bad habits can develop. So let’s look at the film.

First of all, the instructions call for a sign of reverence when we come up. That instruction sounds rather vague, so people interpreted it in various ways. To provide a bit of uniformity, the bishops of the United States determined that the proper sign of reverence is a slight bow, which generally means just a nod of the head. That is all that is required at that point.

The priest or Eucharistic Minister shows us the sacred host and says, “The body of Christ.” We respond, “Amen.” Some people have gotten into the habit of not saying anything or of making a very quiet response.  Considering the importance of what we are receiving, we should say “Amen” with enthusiasm. Other people get the “Amen” in very quickly, even before I have had a chance to say “The body of Christ.” I recognize that this tendency can come from priests and Eucharistic Ministers who get into bad habits themselves and seem to rush the line along. Perhaps we can help those distributing the Eucharist to be more reverent if the recipients respond reverently, saying “Amen” as a response. Keep in mind that this one, simple word is so meaningful that it was never translated into English, for there is no corresponding word or phrase that does it justice.

For those receiving in the hand, please hold out your hands in a reverent manner. Do not take the host from the priest. Instead, allow him to place it in your hand. Your right hand (if you are right handed) should be underneath your left, allowing us to put the host into your palm. When we were first permitted to receive Communion in the hand, we were taught that this gesture was a way for us to make our hands a “throne” to receive Our Lord. Then, reach over with your right hand to take the host and place it in your mouth. And please do that before turning to return to your place.

If you are receiving on your tongue, simply stick your tongue out and let the priest or Eucharistic Minister put the host on your tongue. Again, you can say a good “Amen” before putting your tongue out.

Tony Gwynn was a great hitter who never stopped asking if he could do better. That attitude got him into the Hall of Fame. What we do at Mass is much more important. That same attitude could help us get into heaven.
                                                       Father H 

The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - January 28, 2018

I remember when Art Linkletter was a popular television host. He is best remembered for interviewing young children. His catchphrase was, “Kids say the darndest things.” So there are times when I run into some of the things that children say, and I refer to those as my “Art Linkletter moments.” Working with the school as closely as I do, I have gotten a number of such moments over the years. In my early days of priesthood, when I was still at St. Francis de Sales, I was teaching a group of first graders that there were two parts to the Bible. I told them that the first one was the Old Testament, and I thought that was enough of a clue that I asked what the second part was called. One girl raised her hand and confidently said, “The Young Testament.”

In a later assignment, I was teaching a class about the Mass and was saying that on special occasions you might see servers in the procession carrying incense. One young boy misheard me. With a disgusted look on his face, he asked, “Father, are the insects alive?”

My third story is much more recent – just a few months ago. Ever since I made my ventriloquism debut at the festival, some of our kindergarten students have tried arguing with me that Ralphie, my dummy, is not real. One day one boy relied upon the argument from authority by claiming that his big brother said that Ralphie is not real. I claimed that my brother agrees with me, and he questioned whether I even have a brother. I told him that I do and that my brother lives in Florida. He responded, “Then he can’t be your brother.” But then again one of our kindergarten students a couple of years ago asked if Fr. Lou at St. John of God was my brother. I can see some confusion from the fact that he and I both have similar facial hair, but I’m better looking. (Fr. Lou, if you’re reading this, I’m just kidding.)

Those Art Linkletter moments are just a small portion of why I love working with Catholic Schools. This week we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, and it is a great opportunity to think of how important Catholic schools are to the Church. Our school offers a great education, but I recognize that our public schools also do a fine job of teaching the basic subjects to our children. Where our school truly excels is in integrating education with faith. Jesus Christ is a key part of everything that our school does, and not just in religion class. We are not simply teaching facts about the Church; we are helping parents to introduce the children to God as a loving Father who will always care for us. We are inviting the children on a great adventure of love that will make their lives richer.

Last year I was at a meeting to discuss our schools, and one priest used a line that I thought was very important. He said, “We are not here to get them into Harvard. We are here to get them into heaven.” I mentioned that at the national workshop I attended last summer of the Catholic Education Foundation, and the leader’s response was, “Why can’t we try to do both?” I thought of that when I saw that the theme for Catholic Schools Week this year is, “Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” I thank our wonderful faculty and staff at St. Malachy School for helping our children to do just that. And if we get a few Art Linkletter moments along the way, that is just a bonus.

                                                                                                           Father H