Monday, May 28, 2012

Light My Fire

I've been away all week at our annual Presbyteral Assembly.  This year, the priests of the Diocese of Ogdensburg gathered in Alexandria Bay for a time of retreat.  It was a good preparation for what this weekend has brought: the ordination of a deacon (Friday night) and a priest (Saturday morning) for ministry here in the North Country.  What a joyful sign of the Holy Spirit's continued work among us!  Please pray for Deacon Scott Belina and Father Thomas Higman as they begin their ministry among the People of God.

I'll be taking part this afternoon in Father Higman's First Mass at his home parish of St. James in there's no homily to send your way.  But I did, nonetheless, want to share one of my favorite reflections on what this great feast of Pentecost means for us in the Church today--brief words, but powerful...

   Pentecost   B 

"Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them."
Acts of the Apostles 2:3

We have come to consider high attendance at anything as a sign of success; we have forgotten that, on Pentecost, the standard was a bit higher: people had to be on fire.
Fr. Michael Heher

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dig In

This one felt long in the delivery of I suspect it felt long in the hearing, as well...but sometimes it just takes a little while to say what you've got to say.

   Seventh Sunday of Easter   B 

I thought about becoming a priest from a very early age.
In fact, my mother enjoys telling the story
of how I once promised the priest
who had baptized me a few years before
that I’d take his place when he got “too old.”
But becoming a priest wasn’t the only thing I thought about.
For a time, I thought I might like to become an archeologist.
This may have simply been based
on a little boy’s desire to keep digging in the dirt,
but I’m still rather fascinated
by the way archeologists unearth our human history.

By and large, 
archeologists pick through garbage—
really old garbage:
the bits and pieces human beings 
have unwittingly left behind.
The do so in order to figure these people out:
what truly mattered to them; 
what they thought most important;
what their priorities were; what made them tick.
I wonder if archeologists 
studying our time some day
will struggle because of the rise of recycling:
we’re not—and rightly so—
leaving quite as much garbage behind.

But one thing we do produce a lot of is data.
We’re great record keepers in the modern age—
in particular, financial records.
Once on paper, but now mostly digital,
we keep very careful track of how money flows.
All those records—whether we realize it or not—
paint a picture of what matters to us.
If—for example—archeologists five-hundred years from now
were to look at pay stubs from our era,
they would probably conclude
that movies stars and professional athletes
were the most important people in our society,
based on the enormous salaries we were willing to give them.
Accurate?  Yes and no…
…but it is, no doubt, what the evidence would suggest.

Now, what if you were to die today
and the only artifacts left behind to help archeologists figure you out
were your check book, or your credit card statements,
or however else you manage your finances?
What conclusions would they reach about you?
Based upon the available evidence,
what values of yours would they suppose?
What would they determine your priorities to be?
And even more to my point:
Would your religion make the top ten?  Or even the top twenty?
And why?  Or why not?
As Jesus once very perceptively noted,
Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.  (Matt 6:21)

I come before you this morning
needing to address two very pressing financial issues in our parishes.

The first is the downward trend in regular Sunday giving.
You, no doubt, can see it each week in the bulletin:
our collections are quite consistently down
when compared to the last couple of years,
even though headcounts during the same timeframe
show Mass attendance to be holding fairly steady.
I wish I could say that our expenses
were, likewise, consistently going down…
…but you and I both know that the opposite is the case.
The result is that all four of our parishes
are in deficit spending right now,
for a combined deficit of more than $40,000 already—
an amount that will only go up as we approach the end of the fiscal year.
For St. Helen’s, St. John Bosco, and St. Joseph’s,
this means that we’ve been withdrawing from savings—
a very bad habit to fall into, and one which cannot go on forever.
For Notre Dame, this has meant borrowing money from the diocese
for the second year in a row,
leaving us nearly $30,000 in debt.
Given the situation, I have worked very hard
with our staff, trustees, and Finance Councils to keep costs down…
…but I’m running out of things to cut.

And so I’m now asking all of you
to increase your regular giving to our parishes.
What’s needed—just to keep up, not even to get ahead—
is about a 10% increase across the board.
If you’re giving $10 a week, that would mean $11; 
if $20, then $22.
I myself have been giving $32 a week for the past year;
as of today, I’ve increased my offering to $35.
On a priest’s salary, even that modest increase pinches a bit…
…but what is called for here is sacrifice.
And, bit-by-bit, these sacrifices add up.
About 400 households out of the 2,200
that make up the Malone Catholic Parishes
regularly use offering envelopes;
if every current envelope user 
increased their weekly gift by $5,
that would be more than $100,000 in only a year’s time.

(And—of course—I highly encourage all of you who currently don’t
to consider requesting and to begin using envelopes.)
No gift is too small…and every gift is absolutely essential.

While the general situation of regular giving
is the first financial need I must address today,
the second is specific to Notre Dame Parish.
(And since our four parishes
have become more and more intertwined over these last nine years,
I share this with everyone.)
It is a day of great rejoicing
as we reopen Notre Dame Church
after the boiler failed more than a month-and-a-half ago.
I hope you agree: the place looks great,
especially considering all it’s been through—
and it sure feels good to be back “home!”
But—as the slight chill in the air makes apparent—
we still do not have a functioning boiler.
And since we’re already $30,000 in debt,
buying a new one just isn’t in the budget.

And so we are beginning a Capital Fund for Notre Dame Parish.
Over the course of the next year,
we hope—we need—to raise at least $100,000
for the threefold purpose of
(1) purchasing a new boiler, (2) paying off our debt,
and (3) providing the parish a modest financial cushion
so we’re better prepared to weather the next storm,
whenever it may come.
Several parishioners have already stepped forward
to get this fund off the ground;
their generosity is most encouraging.
But we still have a long way to go.
In addition to my increase in weekly giving,
I am pledging $1,000 to the Capital Fund.
I ask all Notre Dame parishioners
to consider what you might be able to give
over the next twelve months
to help get our parish back on solid ground.
And to those of you who are not parishioners of Notre Dame:
while this request is in no way directed toward you,
I’m sure your brothers and sisters at Our Lady’s church
would be most grateful should you decide to lend them a hand.

I can’t, of course, from the pulpit
lay out everything I wish to share with you on these two matters.
All of our registered parishioners
will be receiving a letter from me in the mail
over the next few days.
(If you’re not yet on our mailing list, but would like a copy of the letter,
please just call or stop by our offices.)
So watch for this, read it carefully,
and then think and pray about the support you provide to your parish.

In the gospel this Sunday
we have the unique privilege
to overhear Jesus praying to his Father
in the course of the Last Supper—
a passage known as his High Priestly Prayer.
And as he seeks their continued protection,
Jesus asks the Father to “consecrate” both his followers and himself.
To “consecrate” something
is to permanently set something or someone aside
for God and God’s purposes.
It’s a sacrifice: a gift that cannot be taken back.
We’re accustomed to hearing this word
used to speak about the Holy Eucharist…
…yet even though he’s still at table with his apostles,
Jesus isn’t speaking here of consecrating bread and wine.

He’s praying that you and I be set apart for God and God’s purposes.
The Christian way of life is different—
it’s distinct—from the world’s way on many fronts.
Christians consecrate their time—
setting aside Sunday (for example)
as a day for worship, rest, and reflection…
…while the rest of the world tells us
just to sleep in or play sports, to go shopping or go to work.
Christians also consecrate their sexuality—
setting aside physical intimacy
as part of God’s design for committed married love
and bringing new life into being…
…while the rest of the world says, “If it feels good, do it!”
And Christians are even called to consecrate their material resources—
to exercise wise stewardship of this world’s goods
as a sign that they don’t even belong to this world…
while the rest of the world urges us to simply keep accumulating more.
In these—and countless other ways—
we are to be consecrated: called to sacrifice,
called to love one another because God has so loved us.
And—as Pope St. Leo the Great once put it—
“If God is love, charity should know no limit,
for God cannot be confined.”

To be perfectly honest with you:
I don’t like having to talk about money.
But I will not apologize for doing so.
For one thing, a quick look at the gospels reveals
that it was one of the most common subjects of Jesus’ own preaching.
Money is such a big and important part of our lives
that we cannot expect to keep its use
somehow segregated from the practice of our faith.
I’d really prefer, however, to spend my time
visiting our sick, teaching our young people,
and encouraging new ways to help us all grow in holiness—
the sort of ministry, I’d guess, that you expect
from your parish and from your priests.
But lately I’ve had to spend much too much of my time
figuring out how we’re going to pay our bills…
…and worrying about what to do if we can’t.
You can change that!

Although the Church is, indeed, ancient,
her life is not a matter of archeology.
She remains—like her risen Lord—very much alive!
While we build on strong foundations
so generously laid by generations past,
let us keep looking forward and pushing ahead.
We mustn’t let the current challenges hold us back!
Make sure your treasure follows the values of your heart.
Then we will leave enough evidence
that others, one day, might be able to see
what truly mattered most to us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Born this way?

Nessuno nasce sacerdote.
Preghiamo per le vocazioni.

No one is born a priest.
Pray for vocations.

Such is the campaign message (with the accompanying photo) that they've been running out of the San Carlo di Lugano Seminary in the Ticino canton of Switzerland.  So cute...and so true. Of course, we're getting ready to ordain a "baby priest" for the Diocese of Ogdensburg on May 26.  I just hope his vestments fit him a bit better than these.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I may not be preaching this weekend (I'm at the altar here in the parishes, just not in the pulpit)...but I still wanted to put a little something out there for you to chew on, if you like...

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   B 

"I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father."
John 15:15

"Christ and Abba Menas," also known as, "Christ and His Friend"
6th century Coptic icon
It is probably no fun being a servant, but in a way it is easier than being a friend.  Servants do their jobs without expecting more than the agreed compensation.  If they quit, they may feel a little regret over breaking such an impersonal contract.  Friends have higher expectations of each other, giving us to understand why it is more demanding to be Christ's disciple.  God's servants will likely follow the law, but perhaps have little incentive to embrace the Beatitudes.  This may be why the rich young man "goes away sad" after Jesus invites him to do more than "the minimum daily requirements" of faith.  Such is the difference between obligation and communion, between serving God and loving God.
Jerry Welte

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Put Together

   Fifth Sunday of Easter   B 

Today, more than 40 children of our four parishes received Holy Communion for the very first time.  I preached to them without a text (and “tested” my homily during two Masses before that), so what follows isn’t word-for-word, but some reflections based upon what I had to say.

What I really wanted to share with the kids was a message about “putting together”—in particular, how Jesus wanted to be put together with them in their receiving of the Eucharist.  So I tried to come up with a few examples…

The first was blocks.  (For the record, these are not from the rectory; I borrowed them from some local toddlers…but they’re fun and I might be slow to give them back.)  Blocks can be put together very easily, and in countless different ways.  You can make almost as many things out of blocks as your imagination will allow.  But there’s one problem: blocks also come apart rather easily.  When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he wants us to stay together.

So I put away the blocks, and next considered bread.  You see, the First Communion candidates and I spent some time in the kitchen at their retreat yesterday and baked 40 loaves of bread.  The children’s faces were beaming with pride as we pulled all that fresh bread from the ovens.  Their parents’ faces all said, “Has this guy lost his mind?” when they realized just what we were doing: mixing up all that sticky dough with our bare hands. That’s where bread is better than blocks: when the flour, water, and yeast are put together, there’s no way to take them apart again.  They become something even better when put together then when they’re separate.  But there’s still a problem.  Most of the children had already tried their bread, and many had shared it with their families.  (One grandmother told me before Mass that it was, in fact, pretty terrible.)  When you’ve eaten bread, it’s gone.  It grew a bit as the yeast helped it to rise in the pan, but it wouldn’t grow any more.  When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he doesn’t only want us to stay together, but that he also wants us to keep growing; the gift he’s giving isn’t going to run out.

So I put the bread away, and brought out two branches—one with dry, brown leaves and one with fresh, bright green ones.  I asked the children the difference, to which they promptly responded that one was dead while the other was alive.  (Of course, the truth is that they were both dead since I’d yanked that second one off the tree…but it simply wasn’t possible to bring the whole thing into church.)  One branch I’d found on the ground; it would never grow again.  But the other one, while firmly attached to the tree, would keep on growing.  If it were a branch on a grapevine or an apple tree, it would soon enough not only have leaves but flowers, and in time those flowers would become fruit.  We could eat all the grapes and apples we wanted, and that branch would keep right on growing, producing more the next season.  Now we had a good example!  When Jesus wants to be put together with us, I’m quite sure he doesn’t only want us to stay together and to keep growing, but to bear good fruit that can be shared with many others—and which won’t run out.

It was during the Last Supper that Jesus said to his friends, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  It wasn’t long after he broke bread and said, “This is my body,” and passed a cup of wine saying, “This is my blood.”  In the great gift of the Eucharist, Jesus found a most wonderful way to be put together with us.  He desires to not only live near or among us, but to dwell deep within us—to make a home in our hearts.  “Remain in me,” he says, “as I remain in you.”  We keep returning to this sacrament again and again, because Christ wants us to stay together always and to keep on growing.  “Without me,” he warns, “you can do nothing.”

And then I had a brief (and pointed, I guess,) reminder for the kids’ parents.  Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.”  Mothers and fathers share in God’s own work as the vine grower, protecting and nurturing these tender branches.  Parents already had a responsibility for the their children’s’ growth in body and mind; at Baptism, when these little ones were grafted onto Christ, they accepted the additional responsibility to grow their children’s’ souls.  We priests, when we talk among ourselves about First Communion in our parishes, speak of the joy at seeing these young parishioners at their finest.  But we also tend to find this a sad day, when we look around realizing how many families we haven’t seen much of before, and how many we don’t expect to see too much of again.  Our community was rocked during the past week as two teens took their own lives.  We all felt the hurt of when young people feel disconnected, unable to see how truly precious, how deeply loved they really are.   Shouldn’t we, then, seek out those times and places when our young people can be put together with that Someone who makes the rest of life make some sense?  Jesus wants to be as stuck to our children as the sticky bread dough that had to be scrubbed from their small hands yesterday morning.  I urged their parents to come to Mass with their children, and to come every Sunday, helping them to stay connected to the things that really matter.

Jesus is the true vine, and we are the branches.  By the Eucharist, he helps us to stay put together with him.  Let us return often to this great Sacrament, where we’re given what we most need to keep on growing and bear much fruit.


"I went to the woods 
because I wished to live deliberately, 
to front only the essential facts of life, 
and see if I could not learn 
what it had to teach, 
and not, when I came to die, 
discover that I had not lived."
Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)
Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862
150 years ago today.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

St. Joseph the Worker

To constantly work with the Lord right at his side: that's Joseph's privilege...and ours as well.