Sunday, April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter - April 29, 2018

If we think back (honestly) to our school days, I think we have all had some time when we tried to bluff our way through an assignment. We may have had to write a book report on a book we never read, or we may have taken an essay test when we could not remember what the main point of the lesson had been. That is how I feel today as I sit down to write this column.

By the time you read this, or at least shortly thereafter, Bishop Zubik will have announced the groupings for On Mission for the Church Alive. We have been praying and preparing for quite some time now, and it will be good to move on to the next step. Yet as I sit down to write this column, we are still waiting. I would like to offer a comment on what is happening, but I cannot write about what I have not heard. I feel like I am taking a test on a book I have not read. So I would like to offer a few general comments on what is happening.

First of all, I hope that the time we have spent on this process has helped us realize that something has to happen. We cannot continue with the way things have been. The decline in population, the secularization of our society, and the concomitant decline in priestly vocations mean that we can no longer staff or sustain the parishes we have had in the past. Yet it is vitally important that we never forget Christ’s promise to remain with His Church all days. We may not be as strong as in the past, at least as the world judges strength, but we are still the People of God. We still trust that Holy Spirit will be with us. Bishop Zubik has made prayer a hallmark of this process, that we may trust in the Spirit. He has also called us to evangelization. The final goal of On Mission is not to “circle the wagons.” We are seeking to build that can reach out to all people and be true signs of God’s concern for His people all through the community.

As much as we have done to prepare, we know that change is hard. There is going to be a real adjustment, no matter what our grouping is or what clergy serve these parishes. I have been transferred quite a few times in almost thirty-two years of priesthood, and I know that every move has been an adjustment. Yet every move has been a blessing for me. I am particularly thankful to have spent these past four years here at St. Malachy, but I know that wherever I end up, I have the opportunity to do priestly work and to serve Christ and His Church.

Assuming that I am moving on, we will all be eager to see who is coming here. Please pray for the priests who will be part of St. Malachy beginning in October, and please offer them your support. The new priests will bring their own talents and skills to this ministry. Some things will continue as we have done them, and some will change. We pledge to work with the priests assigned to us and to reach out to the people of the other parishes in our grouping. We truly are on mission. Let us trust that Christ will allow us to continue as a Church Alive.
                                                                                                 Father H  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter - April 22, 2018

Flannery O’Connor was a noted writer from Savannah, Georgia. She published two novels and over thirty short stories despite her battle with lupus, which claimed her life in 1964 at the age of 39. Her writing is very strongly influenced by her deep Catholic faith. In fact, there is a widely reported story of a time when she attended a dinner party with well-known novelist Mary McCarthy, who saw this meeting as a chance to support a young writer and give her some advice. At one point McCarthy, who had abandoned her Catholic faith at an early age, commented that the Eucharist is a nice symbol. Up until that point, O’Connor had felt too shy to say much of anything, but at that point she said, “Well, if it is a symbol, to hell with it.” It was not enough for her, or for any Catholic, to see the Eucharist in a simply symbolic way. As she later explained the attitude that was behind her response, O’Connor said that the Eucharist “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

One of the best reminders of the importance of the Eucharist comes to me each year when we see the second graders of our parish receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time. That will happen in our parish this weekend and next. The excitement of these boys and girls reminds me that the Eucharist truly is “the center of existence.” In fact, I remember a conversation with one child that reminded me of the Flannery O’Connor story, albeit without Mary McCarthy’s antagonism. The young girl and her mother were telling me that they were getting excited about the big day. They already had her dress and her shoes, and they were going out to buy the veil that very afternoon. I said that was wonderful, but I asked if there was something even more important than the dress and the veil. With full confidence and with a great big smile, she replied, “It’s receiving Jesus.”

Comments like that young girl’s or like Flannery O’Connor’s can sometimes be the most powerful. As far as I know, none of our second graders can spell the word “Transubstantiation.” Certainly none of them could compare and contrast the theology of the Eucharist as found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas as opposed to more modern writers such as Karl Rahner or Edward Schillebeeckx. (And no, I did not make up that name to be funny. That it actually the name of a twentieth-century theologian.) What they do know is what is most important, and that is that they are receiving Jesus. He is truly present to us in that Sacrament. It is really His Body and Blood that we receive.

When something really matters to us, we do want to know more and more about it. We study and we learn about it. So the theological explanations are very helpful to us. Yet we hope we never forget what is at the root of the matter, that we are intimately joined to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. As we pray for the children who are making their First Communion, remember their excitement, and let us ask God to help us rekindle that excitement for ourselves. May we truly be able to say what Flannery O’Connor said, that the Eucharist “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”   
                                                                                        Father H 

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Third Sunday of Easter - April 15, 2018

In recent years, there has been a trend of faith-based movies coming out at Easter time. Some of them take the stories from the Bible and added some speculation about what may have happened, even adding characters to the biblical stories in order to express spiritual ideas.
Last week I went to see the new movie, Paul, the Apostle of Christ. The movie wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was very good. It centered on St. Luke and his relationship with St. Paul at the end of Paul’s life. The movie speculates that Luke may have made a visit to the prison where Paul was kept before his martyrdom, with that visit as the occasion for writing the Acts of the Apostles. As the Acts of the Apostles is a book we read frequently during the Easter season, this book is a good theme for this time of year.

The Acts of the Apostles is a sequel, so to speak, of the gospel of Luke. Each one is addressed to someone whom Luke calls Theophilus. We do not know who he was, but there is speculation that perhaps he was a Roman official who was secretly a Christian, or else that he was a Roman official and that Luke was trying to reassure him that the Christians were not a threat to the empire. I think that latter explanation is at least plausible, and the movie puts the writing of the book in that kind of atmosphere. The movie sets the action within the persecution of the Church under the emperor Nero. In the movie, Luke comes to Rome to meet with Paul, and in order to strengthen the faith of those who faced persecution, writes at least the beginning of Acts. In reality, Acts was probably written some years after Paul’s death. Scholars date Luke’s gospel at around AD 80 to 85, with Acts coming around that same time. Perhaps there could have been such a visit, but that encounter between Paul and Luke is most likely a dramatic invention intended to set the writing of the book in the context of that relationship.

Acts focuses on the growth of the Church, beginning with the small community in Jerusalem and centering upon St. Peter. Through persecution, the Church expands through Palestine and the focus shifts to St. Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen’s martyrdom serves as an introduction to Saul of Tarsus, whom we know better as Paul. St. Paul dominates the rest of the book as the Church spreads throughout the known world. If it is true that Luke was trying to reassure Theophilus that Christians were not trying to overthrow Rome, the movie shows a strong reaction against any suggestions of violence. St. Paul urges the community to live in the love of Christ.

Thus as a movie about faith, I definitely recommend Paul, the Apostle of Christ. I would not consider it to be historically accurate, but it does give a good sense of the early Church and the struggles faced by St. Paul and others. I found some of the scriptural quotations to be somewhat forced, as if the scriptwriters felt they had to squeeze Paul’s words in verbatim. Overall, though, I certainly thought that Paul, the Apostle of Christ is well worth seeing.
                                                                                                 Father H  

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Divine Mercy Sunday - April 8, 2018

          The gospel of John (John 21:1-14) tells a story of one of the appearances of the Risen Christ that I find particularly fascinating. The Apostles are at the Sea of Tiberius, and Peter announces that he is going fishing, at which point James and John decide to join him. Some of us think of fishing as a relaxing pastime, sitting by a the water with a fishing pole while possibly dozing off. Remember that, for Peter and the sons of Zebedee, fishing was their profession before Christ called them. It was hard work. I like to think that they were good at their jobs, but on this occasion they have caught nothing. Then someone on the shore tells them to cast their nets over the right side of the boat, and they haul in 153 large fish. Only then does John recognize that it is the Risen Christ who has given them this advice.
Although we have faith in the Risen Lord, we do not always recognize His presence among us. It is thus a comfort to me to know that the Apostles did not see that He was with them. I can picture them standing around and asking themselves, “Now what?” They didn’t know what to do with themselves, but it seems natural that they would return to what they knew the best. They went back to their job of fishing. And that is where Christ finds them. He had once called them away from their boats and their nets. Now he not only comes to them where they are, He also helps them to do their job as best they can.
For me, that reflection helps set up the remainder of this Easter season. We know that the Risen Lord is always with us, but it may not always be easy to recognize His presence. After all, like the Apostles, we are going about our daily business. We have our jobs and our daily tasks, and sometimes we do not feel like we are making any progress with them. There are times when our nets come up empty. At such moments, Christ may not give us a miraculous success. We may not bring in the equivalent of 153 large fish. But we do have the promise that Christ has not abandoned us. He is helping to make our every day a success, at least in the sense that we get to serve Him.
For me, I will try to remember that lesson is particularly helpful this month. At the end of April, Bishop Zubik will announce the new configuration for the parishes in our diocese. We will know which other parishes are in our grouping, what priests will serve St. Malachy, and what we need to do to move forward to the eventual merger. For me personally, I will know where and in what role the bishop wants me to serve the Church of Pittsburgh. We have been praying (and will continue to pray) for the success of On Mission for the Church Alive. As we do, we continue to do our best to build up this parish and to work toward the future. Let us listen for Christ telling us where to cast our nets.
As I make that reflection, I offer special word of thanks to all who made our Lenten observance and our Easter celebration so special. Thanks to John Lester and his crew for assisting with our liturgies and overseeing the decoration of the Church. Thanks to Laurie Lanz and all who work with her in providing such beautiful and inspiring music. Thanks to Tim Davis and the many, many volunteers who pitched in and made our Fish Fry a bigger success than we had even hoped. And thanks to all of you for sharing this holy time with us.
                                                                                            Father H