Sunday, August 25, 2013

Announcement: St André Bessette Parish

At the end of June, an important anniversary passed with little fanfare: ten years since the start of the Malone Catholic Parishes.  I’m sure many of you remember well all that it took to get to that day.  It was a big deal!  Given longstanding parish rivalries, many wondered if it could be done…and we’ve more than proven that indeed it could be.

The decision to bring the four Catholic parishes in and around Malone under the care of one pastor was motivated—by and large—by the declining number of priests.  Ten years later, that trend has not changed.  A recent notice from the diocesan offices pointed out that we currently have 62 active pastors serving 99 parishes.  The projection?  Within five years, we’ll be down to 52 pastors—maybe less.

But there’s another reality with which the Church in the North Country is dealing: not only do we have fewer active priests, but we also have fewer active Catholics.  Occasional headcounts at Sunday Mass show that we now have 700 fewer people coming to Mass in Malone each week than we did ten years ago.  The equivalent of an entire moderately sized parish has disappeared from our pews!  A survey taken just over two years ago also revealed that, among those now coming to Mass in our parishes, almost half are 65 years old or older.

Jesus assures us that a good shepherd, having 100 sheep, would leave the 99 to go out after just one that strays.  Do the math, and in the case of our own flock of a hundred we’ve actually got about 42 that have wandered from the fold.  What do we do?

For the three years that I have been privileged to be your pastor, looking at the declining number of priests and of people, and trying to balance shaky budgets while maintaining all of our many aging facilities, it’s become quite clear to me: we simply cannot go on like this.  If we don’t make some changes soon, then ten years from now…well…there won’t be much left to worry about.

Since the spring of 2011, I have been in conversation, first with our staff and Pastoral Council, and then with Bishop LaValley, about what needs to be done.  We have spent much time studying, meeting, consulting experts, and praying.  When I presented our annual parish reports last fall, I mentioned this ongoing dialogue to you.

On June 10, the Pastoral Council came to a unanimous conclusion: that the time has come to make a change, and a significant one.  And so we petitioned Bishop LaValley to begin the process to take our four separate parishes and form them into a single new one.  Bishop agreed with our request, and a timeline has been set to accomplish this goal by July 1, 2014.

What does that mean?  I think it best to begin with a few things it does not mean.  It does not mean that any of our churches are closing—at least, not at this time.  (Once you have a chance, however, to examine the numbers with which I wrestle every day, you’ll see that we must soon enough explore this possibility.)  It does not mean that we’re about to begin building a new church.  It also does not mean that any of our churches will be changing their names.  Remember (and this is so very important) that a parish is made up of the people, not the buildings in which the people gather.  Rest assured as well that our five parish cemeteries will remain in operation.

Some of you are no doubt thinking, “Isn’t this what happened ten years ago?”  Actually, no, it did not.  In 2003, we began sharing a staff and services, coordinating our schedules and many programs, but we didn’t formally unite in any way.  If you need evidence, just look in the collection basket as it goes by and see that the envelopes are still four different colors.  In many ways, we act as if we’re one…but in reality, we’re still four distinct institutions.  Trying to be four and one at the same time is pretty clumsy.  Let me be honest: it’s actually getting to be an administrative nightmare.  On a small scale, it sometimes means cutting four checks to pay one bill.  In the bigger picture, it means our focus is always divided and, as a result, we are not nearly as effective as we could and should be.  Once again: in just ten years, 42% of the flock has gone missing!  And though I know I ought to be out there, beating the bushes with you to find these lost sheep and bring them home, I instead find myself spending most of my time repairing the same old fences that surround four increasingly empty pastures.

Now, this is not at all to say that these past ten years as Malone Catholic Parishes have been a waste of time.  Far from it!  So much has been accomplished about which we can rightly be proud.  This decade of cooperation has shown us what we can do when we combine our efforts and energy, instead of dividing them along old parish and neighborhood boundaries.  Malone Catholic Parishes was a crucial step…but it was only a step.

What I am announcing today is only a beginning, too.  Next July 1st will not be an end point, but a fresh start: a new opportunity, and one ripe with potential.  While times are tough, this is not a move made out of desperation.  It is, though, an acknowledgment that the status quo isn’t holding.  Any attempt to just keep hanging on as if nothing will ever change only ignores how much has already changed.  I don’t think anyone here in this church today wants to see us lose any more ground.  Much like a wise gardener prunes a tree in order for it to bear more good fruit, so the purpose of forming one new parish out of four is renewal and revitalization.  We do this, not because we’re resigned to keep on shrinking, but because we have every intention of starting to grow again.

The next ten months will involve a lot of paperwork, satisfying the obligations of both canon and civil law.  That will be handled by the professionals—behind the scenes, if you will.  The work which is much more crucial—and which will be much more visible—is that of forming a new, common identity.  Our parishes all have distinct and proud histories.  (Sometimes, you might say, a bit too distinct!)  But what I already notice more and more is that many of our parishioners have “dual citizenship,” as I call it:  they officially belong to one parish, but they usually go to Mass in another.  As if that isn’t complicated enough, imagine what it’s like to be a Catholic family just moving into town.  Which parish should they join?

Central to forging a new and common identity for this one new parish is a new patron saint: a “holy mascot,” of sorts, around whom we can all rally; someone whose example of a holy life speaks to us and to our neighbors about what it means to be a Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ in our own time and place.

I’m extremely happy to announce that Bishop LaValley has agreed that the new parish be named for Saint André Bessette, or “Brother André,” as he’s better known to most of us.  This humble man, whose life was marked by so many miracles, visited our community on numerous occasions.  In fact, he still has relatives here and many local families have personal stories or tangible mementos from when he came to town.  Saint André also has spiritual ties with each of our current parishes.  His work as a brother began at Notre Dame College in Montréal.  From there, he went on to build his famous Oratory in honor of Saint Joseph.  His religious community was that of the Holy Cross—the true Cross having been recovered in Jerusalem by none other than Saint Helen.  And, while weak and ill himself, his constant concern was for children, the sick, and the poor—much as it was for Saint John Bosco.

If there’s anybody who can help bring us closer together and closer to Christ, it’s Brother André!  The saint started out as the doorkeeper of the school to which he was assigned.  “When I first came to the college,” he used to joke, “the superiors showed me the door…and I remained there for 40 years!”  As one of God’s gatekeepers, Saint André Bessette has guided many along the narrow way that leads to the Kingdom.  Without a doubt, he will open many doors for us!

As I said: this is just the beginning.  It’s a very exciting one!  And every one of you has an essential part to play in its success.

In the next couple of days, our registered parishioners should all receive a mailing, which will include what I’m now sharing with you along with two pages full of facts and figures that back up the need to make this bold change.  If you are not on our mailing list, a few copies will be available after this Mass.  Also available after Mass will be a few representatives from our Pastoral Council, with whom you can speak, if you wish.  [I, unfortunately, won’t be able to stay to talk things over with you.  That’s one of the big weaknesses in our current arrangement: in order for me to make this announcement to everyone this weekend, I had to bring in another priest…and then drive like mad from church to church to church.]

We will also be holding a listening session in just over a month’s time.  The Pastoral Council and I want and need to hear from you: your concerns about this change, but also your hopes and dreams for the future of our new parish.  That will take place on Monday, September 30, at 7:00pm in the parish hall at Saint John Bosco.  I do hope many of you will attend.

Brother André—like his beloved Saint Joseph—was a master builder.  His dream for the Oratory seemed rather impossible.  But he knew, as do all the saints, that faith moves mountains, and on a mountaintop—despite huge obstacles—a humble wooden chapel grew into a magnificent basilica.  “Put yourself in God’s hands,” Brother André would say with confidence; “he abandons no one.”

What God did through Brother André in Montréal, he can—and will—do again here in Malone, building up his Church: not stone by stone, but soul by soul.  On the sturdy foundations laid by our generous and faith-filled ancestors, let us give ourselves with joy to this historic endeavor: raising this new parish for the new evangelization of our community and for the glory of God.

Saint André Bessette, pray for us!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I Forgot My Phone

Wow!  I can soooo relate to this!  This is pretty much what it feels like to go without a cellphone, while most everybody around you lives their life on a little glowing screen...

Sorry to say, constant smartphone users...but you really do look and act that way.  We miss you!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Heaven's Door

A friend just brought to my attention the cartoon, Knocking on Heaven's Door, in which Spencer--a rather precocious 6-year-old--carries on a constant conversation with his best freind: God.  It's not only cute, but thought-provoking.  Check it out!

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Quite understandably, the reading of the Gospel left a lot of folks scratching their heads this Sunday. (One person admitted to rereading it quickly before the homily began last evening...sure that I'd misspoken or that she'd heard me wrong.)  So this morning I felt compelled to quip, "So much for a happy ending..."

   Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

When I entered Wadhams Hall Seminary,
there was half an hour set aside before dinner each day
for silent mediation. 
During our first semester,
we new recruits were expected
to spend that entire time in the chapel.
(We always knew how deep the meditation was getting
when one or another of the guys began snoring!)

In my first month or so, I picked up this book of stories—
each of them meant to foster spiritual reflection—
to read during daily meditation.
More than 20 years later, I can still remember a few.
That’s the mark of a really good story!
With that testament to its high quality,
I want to share one of them with you this morning.

The priest announced that Jesus Christ himself
was coming to church the following Sunday.
People turned up in such large numbers to see him.
Everyone expected him to preach,
but he only smiled when introduced and said, "Hello."
Everyone offered him hospitality for the night, especially the priest,
but he refused politely.
He said he would spend the night in church.
How fitting, everyone thought.

He slipped away early next morning
before the church doors were opened.
And, to their horror, the priest and people
found their church had been vandalized.
Scribbled everywhere on the walls 
was the single word "Beware."
No part of the church was spared:
the doors and windows, the pillars and the pulpit,
the altar, even the Bible that rested on the lectern.
Scratched in large letters and in small,
in pencil and pen and paint of every conceivable color.
Wherever the eye rested one could see the words:
"Beware, beware, Beware, Beware, beware, beware . . ."

Shocking. Irritating. Confusing. Fascinating. Terrifying.
What were they supposed to beware of? 
It did not say. It just said "Beware." 
The first impulse of the people was to wipe out
every trace of this defilement, this sacrilege.
They were restrained from doing this
only by the thought
that it was Jesus himself
who had done this deed.

Now that mysterious word "Beware"
began to sink into the minds of the people
each time they came to church.
They began to beware of the Scriptures,
so they were able to profit from the Scriptures
without falling into bigotry.
They began to beware of sacraments,
so they were sanctified without becoming superstitious.
The priest began to beware of his power over the people,
so he was able to help without controlling.
And everyone began to beware of religion
which leads the unwary to self-righteousness.
They became law-abiding, 
yet compassionate to the weak.
They began to beware of prayer,
so it no longer stopped them from becoming self-reliant.
They even began to beware 
of their notions of God
so they were able to recognize him
outside the narrow confines 
of their church.

They have now inscribed 
the shocking word
over the entrance of their church
and as you drive past at night
you can see it blazing above the church
in multicolored neon lights.
from Taking FlightAnthony de Mello, SJ,  
© 1988, pp. 92-93
In the gospel this Sunday,
Jesus identifies himself as both an arsonist and a home-wrecker…
…so graffiti artist isn’t too far off the mark!

One of the very worst things we can do with Jesus, you see,
is to try and domesticate him:
to turn him into a nice, harmless, non-controversial figure;
little more than a faith-healer
and kindly teller of soothing stories.  (cf. R. Barron)
But the Only Begotten Son of God
didn’t leave the heights of heaven
to take on human flesh
and then die—beaten and bloodied—on a Roman cross
because everything here on earth was going along just fine.
Jesus—like the prophets long before him—
didn’t face such openly hostile opposition
because he told people, “Carry on, everybody! 
Keep doing what you’re doing!”
A domesticated Christ makes no demands.
But the real Christ burns and divides:
not in order to destroy, but to restore;
clearing away what has grown old through sin
in order to make all things new.

Many modern Americans freely share
certain of their causes and convictions—
whether it’s about gun control, animal rights,
or who’s gonna win the big game.
We wear an identifying slogan or symbol on our T-shirt,
slap a bumper sticker on the back of the pickup truck,
or engage in animated conversations with friend and stranger alike.
But do we as Catholics feel free to do the same
when it comes to our faith?
Generally…no.  Why? 
Because we don’t want to make a fuss; we don’t want to rock the boat.

Trouble is, if we don’t rock the boat,
then someone or something else most certainly will.
And there are plenty of good reasons to shake things up!
In fact, we forfeit our right
to complain about the sorry state of the world
if we aren’t willing to speak up about and act upon
the challenging and life-changing words and ways of Jesus Christ.

We rejoice that among us today
we have a woman who has freely chosen
to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
It’s been a long road for you, Dorris.
But as you renew with us today 
your baptismal profession of faith,
as that faith is confirmed by the seal of the Holy Spirit,
and as that faith is nourished for the first time 
at the altar of the Lord, 
it’s important for you—and for all of us—to remember:
The Catholic faith isn’t just a head-trip—
a series of memorized lists and convincing truths.
Nor is real faith simply a heart-warming experience—
a safe refuge, all comfort and joy.
No, faith is an action plan—
bold and risky, requiring that we get our hands dirty,
and calling for changes—serious changes—
beginning in ourselves.

So, beware, beware—always, beware!
Let Christ definitively divide you from all that would divide you from him!
Let Christ set you on fire, then spread the flame around!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Off the Hook

"Roughly 21 million adult Americans don't own a cellphone--and they're getting by just fine, thank you."

A parishioner sent me this great article from the Wall Street Journal, reflecting on the author's 40 years of life so far without a cellphone.  (In the print edition, it was called, "We Are the Nine Percent.")  Except for the references to "my wife," I could have easily written it myself.  Now that the guy is about to get a cellphone of his own, I feel like I should order him one of these:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Inheritance

It was such a touching surprise last evening when, after Mass, a gentleman from Morrisonville introduced himself; he used to work at the mill with my grandfather...

   Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

I’ve been thinking a lot lately
about my grandparents—
my mother’s parents,
who’ve been gone for more than 25 years now.
Because they were the first to bring me
to the Franklin County Fair.
I remember the hour-long trip 
from Plattsburgh to Malone:
sitting between them on top of the armrest 
in the front seat.
(No doubt, while not yet illegal, 
it was a bad idea even then…)
I remember watching the horse races—
a favorite pastime of my grandfather.
And I remember sitting 
in the grandstand for a concert;
it’s taken me most of the week
to recall who was performing: Boxcar Willie.

My grandparents were big into outings,
whether it was their near-nightly trips to Bingo,
or seasonal trips to fairs or to visit out-of-town relatives.
But what they visited more than anything were churches.
While their home parish was St. Alexander’s in Morrisonville,
I suspect they knew the Mass schedule
for most every church in the North Country.
And they particularly loved to visit shrines—big and small—
wherever they could find them
across northern New York, Vermont, and Québec.
Their house was chock-full of statues and holy cards and prayer books
brought back as sacred souvenirs;
I remember examining them all very closely,
allowing me to be on pilgrimage with them
even if I couldn’t go on the trip.

I think of my grandparents now, not only because of the Fair,
but because Monday will be the thirteenth anniversary
of my ordination as a priest.
My grandparents didn’t live to see that day,
(not from a seat in the cathedral, at least),
but they certainly had a significant part to play in my coming to it.
Along with so many others in those formative years of my youth,
they are responsible for passing on the faith I have today—
a far richer inheritance than any worldly wealth
they would never be able to leave me.
Not preachy or pushy, by example much more than through words,
they taught me that my duties to God—such as Sunday Mass—
were not burdens to be checked off my to-do list;
they were the things which would make sense of all the rest.
Because going to church wasn’t made out to be a chore,
religion seemed quite natural and normal—even fun—
and the elements of our Catholic faith quickly captured my imagination.
But above all, in my grandparents love for me,
I experienced something of God’s love for me.
And because I trusted them,
and I could clearly see that they found God to be trustworthy,
I learned the essence of what it means to believe.

The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews—
from which this Sunday’s long second reading is taken—
is, in essence, a roll call of heroes of faith.
Biblical figures—like Abraham and Sarah, mentioned by name—
are held up as examples of people who took God at his word,
even when his lofty promises of good things to come
seemed at odds with the weighty challenges of the here and now.
Faith—we’re told—is the substance of what is hoped for
and proof of things not seen.
Hebrews presents us with this inspiring list
lest we forget that we’re surrounded
by so great a cloud of witnesses.  (Heb 12:1)

Upon whose shoulders does your faith stand?
Who gets some of the credit—in ways either great or small—
for the fact that you’re sitting here in this church today?
Whether they’re living or deceased,
we ought to make known to them our gratitude
for such a surpassing gift.

And what about our duty to do the same for others?
Being Catholic isn’t simply about me and Jesus.
We’re part of a vast network,
reaching out across the continents today
and reaching back across the centuries to the Saints of old.
I wouldn’t be here at the altar,
and you wouldn’t be here in the pews,
if it weren’t for generations before us handing on this faith.
Are we doing the same for generations to come?

The Lord’s chosen people firmly believed
that God would rescue them, though they knew not how.
And Christ—we believe—will come again in glory,
though we know not when.
Faith—you see—is living in expectation of the unexpected.
The Lord typically keeps his promises in rather surprising ways.
And the most surprising of all
is that he leaves so much up to us:
depending on us to safeguard and pass on this heritage of faith.
(Hey—just look at who he picks to be his priests…)
At Baptism, God plants in our souls the capability of believing—
an openness to trust in him and him alone.
But only we can activate that gift of faith:
only we can unleash its power to change our lives—and the world.
And so we need to imitate the Master’s example,
who waits at table on his faithful servants;
we need to set out a bountiful and vibrant feast of faith
on which our children and grandchildren,
our coworkers and neighbors, can feed their souls.

Maybe all my grandparents’ travels
were an expression of their true desire:
for a better homeland, a heavenly one.
And while they did not live to see 
their grandson’s ordination,
I can only hope they joyfully greeted it from afar.

Praise God for such heroes of faith!
Praise God for all who have helped us to believe!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Eleven Things

On the eve of an important anniversary for me, I thought I'd pass along this very interesting reflection.

It's clearly written from the perspective of a Protestant minister... but nonetheless jives with the experience of most any priest.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Heart Trouble

Before Mass this morning the reader came up asking about the correct pronunciation of Qoheleth.  She then continued, "And it's 'idolatry' in the second reading, right?  Not 'adultery'?"  To which I could only respond, "The Church doesn't approve of either one, but--yes--today we're going with 'idolatry'..."

   Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

A very elderly man went in for a physical.
A few days later, his doctor saw him out walking—all smiles—
with a very beautiful young woman on his arm.
At his follow up visit, the doctor said,
“You’re really feeling great, aren’t you?”
“Just doing what you said, Doc,” the man replied.
“‘Get a hot mamma and be cheerful.’”
“Maybe I should have 
checked your ears better,” the doctor responded.
“What I said was, 
‘You’ve got a heart murmur.  Be careful!’”

Some of you know that my Dad
has had some heart trouble of late.
And although he’s feeling much, much better,
it does still cause me concern—
for his future, and for my own.
Heart problems run in the family.

Heart disease.
That seems to be the diagnosis made for all us
in the Scriptures put before us by the Church this Sunday.
And this disease is about getting our hearts set
on all the wrong things.

One is worldly possessions.
Take care, Jesus warns, to guard against all greed
for one’s life does not consist of possessions.
The other is worldly pleasures.
Put to death, St. Paul writes, the parts of you that are earthly:
sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil lust.

Notice that we’re not told that money and sex are bad.
Possessions and pleasure both have a legitimate place in life.
The trouble is when either one—or anything else—
is given the place that belongs uniquely to God.
It’s then that they threaten our spiritual health:
blocking, hardening, and weakening our hearts.

When St. Paul lists vices which we must leave aside,
he concludes with the granddaddy of them all: idolatry.
We can think its inclusion here
as a quaint relic from another time.
When—after all—was the last time
you saw somebody actually worshiping a statue carved from stone?
Now, such a charge 
has frequently been lodged against us Catholics
for the respect we show to images of Jesus, Mary, or the Saints.
But we don’t confuse the mere image with the reality,
and the veneration we show to God’s holy ones
is on an entirely different level
than the adoration which we owe to God alone.
Idolatry, you see, isn’t really about setting up statues;
we’re guilty of idolatry any time
we allow something or someone else
to occupy God’s exclusive place at the heart of our lives.

So our idols might be money, or sex,
or sports, or superstitions,
or power, or prestige.
Just as the ancient mythologies
were populated by many, many gods,
so the list of our modern idolatries goes on and on.
Whatever the idol, the fatal flaw is the same:
we reverse roles between the Creator and the creature.
As man, I make myself a god,
and try to reshape myself and my world
according to my own liking.
I convince myself that I can determine
the proper place of God in my life…
…instead of the other way around.  (cf. R. Cantalamessa)
Notice how the man in the gospel calls out to Jesus,
Tell my brother to share the inheritance!
The Lord wants us to get personal with him…
…but we’re in no position to tell him what to do. (cf. J. Sullivan)
This inheritance—
whether it was money, or land, or a business—
has taken pole position in these men’s lives
and—no surprise—everything else
(including the loving bonds of family)
gets all out of whack.

The First Commandant says,
I am the Lord your God;
you shall have no other gods before me.
It’s first for a reason:
because it’s of first importance,
and because the other nine—and all the rest of life—
only make good sense in its light.

Even though we have died with Christ in Baptism,
and even though we’ve put on a new self
in the image of our Creator,
we are in constant need of renewal.
Our old self with its practices still haunts us.
Spiritual heart disease runs in our family.
We aren’t exactly making golden calves anymore…
…but we’re still prone to falling for idols and false gods.

What are the worldly possessions or pleasures
which still seem to hold sway in your heart?
Have you noticed their uncanny ability
to throw the rest of your life off track?
What changes do you need to make
to restore God and God alone to his rightful place?
And why are you putting them off?
The longer you wait, 
the weaker your heart gets.

God warns us—time and again—about earthly preoccupations
because he knows that we are not made for this world.
Let us set our hearts on what is above.
Let us see our greatest riches
in those things that matter to God.