Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: September 24, 2017
Dear Parish Family:
As I write this letter, I hope you have attended, heard about or were part of SJE Spirit Day. While I am writing before the event happened, I already know it will be a success. The energy and enthusiasm of those who have been part of the preparations as well as the great “buzz” about the day guarantees this success.
I cannot help but see it as an outgrowth of the past months. Actually the two days before Spirit Day are concrete reminders of what has been a transformational time in our parish community. On Thursday, September 14, 2017, we celebrated the Exaltation of the of the Holy Cross. In the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer on this day, we pray, “For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, through Christ our Lord.” On this day, I always think of my first parish as a newly ordained priest—the Parish of the Holy Cross. What a great assignment for a priest. What a great parish name. We know the presence of the dark side of the cross—in our own lives, our communities, our Church, our world. Yet we go through it. We go through the cross confident that we can leave behind the darkness and know the light. It’s the Paschal Mystery at work. We can see it in these months here, no? How easily darkness could have overcome us and brought us to a place of despair. Yet, your faith has inspired each one of us, including me, to look forward.
On Friday, the Church celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Here in the Office of Readings, St. Bernard writes, “For if (Jesus) could die in body, could she not die with him in spirit? He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.” One of the graces of the Preparation for the Total Consecration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for me I hope, is to get better at pondering. It’s a word the writer of the book we are using refers to a few times in the Introduction. Mary ponders—considers, takes, wonders, gives consideration– the loss of her son. But Our Lady of Sorrows knew this was not all. Yet the sadness remains. Let’s not forget that. These months have been trying ones for our parish. Let’s not avoid this reality. We have shone through darkness in ways unimaginable but there is still a sadness, of devastation. We unite our journey with Mary praying we may have her heart, her vision, her love and, yes, her gift of pondering.
This brings us to today and Spirit Day. The idea of Spirit Day developed about a month before the events in the Church. Yet, since those events, it seems it has taken off! It’s a good symbol of what our parish’s life has been in these month. Yes there have been crosses. Yes there has been sorrow. But there have been many reasons for hope! Here are some of the ones I have been pondering:
So the cross, sorrow and hope. All parts of the Christian journey. Yet, through them, many signs of the “good spirit” at work, especially here at SJE! Thank you for always helping me to see those signs. Let’s continue to pray for and with one another.
Dear Parish Family:
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the topic of racism. In the midst of all that was happening after Charlottesville, I referred to being overwhelmed by the number of voices surrounding the issue. On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration will end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program if congressional action does not take place to legislatively deal with the issues related to undocumented children. There are some legal issues about the program that should be addressed. That’s far beyond my pay grade. There are some significant moral issues related to this program. That is something we need to talk about.
So, once again, permit me to turn to the voices of the teachers of our Church to bring some clarity—the bishops.
Instead of going to individual bishops statements, this time I turn to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement about DACA. They begin: “The cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible. It causes unnecessary fear for DACA youth and their families. These youth entered the U.S. as minors and often know America as their only home…Today, our nation has done the opposite of how Scripture calls us to respond. It is a step back from the progress that we need to make as a country. Today's actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”
The cancellation of this program impacts the lives of children who came to this country at the call of their parents. This transcends party, ideology, etc. Potentially some estimated 800,000 children will be forced to return to their country or risk a tremendous amount to stay in this country. They came to this country often because the violence, poverty, injustice or the presence of evil impelled them to do so, often at great risk. They felt it was their only hope. What have most of them done when they came here? Go to school. Work. Contribute to their local community. Pray in their churches (including ours). Serve our country in the military.
As Catholics, we have to ask ourselves what we mean when we say “all life is sacred”. Is returning children to their home countries of violence respecting life? Is deporting hundreds of thousands of children the answer? Is cre-ating a culture of fear forcing children back into the shadows the solution? Is this what we believe as people who are called to welcome the stranger and care for children? Is this how we support life? I hope your answer is no.
The issue of immigration reform goes far beyond this program. The Catholic Church has a well-respected and established plan for dealing with immigration reform. It would be great if government leaders in the USA and in other countries considered their ideals. It might give them a longer term vision for the future.
“We strongly urge Congress to act and immediately resume work toward a legislative solution. We pledge our support to work on finding an expeditious means of protection for DACA youth.”
Here’s where we come in! We cannot stand on the sidelines without making our voices heard. I urge in these weeks to write to Congressman Lee Zeldin, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senator Charles Schumer imploring them to take the lead not allowing the DACA youth to be returned to their countries while also committing to comprehensive immigration reform. You can do this very easily by going to nyscatholic.org and following their lead.
“As people of faith, we say to DACA youth – regardless of your immigration status, you are children of God and welcome in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church supports you and will advocate for you."
Here’s where we come in again! Many of us know families and children who are undocumented. Imagine what it must be like to hear things like they are hearing these days. How about a phone call or text? Maybe a visit? Maybe a promise of prayer. As a parish we will do all we can. What about you? What about me?
St. Paul writes in today’s second reading, “"You shall love your neighbor as your-self." Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” May we respond to this week’s challenge to our brothers and sisters in love and action ...because all life is sacred, right?
Dear Parish Family:
In preparing to write about liturgical music at St. John’s, I was struggling to put the words together. Then, we prayed Morning Prayer (I’m writing on Wednesday morning): “Strike up the instruments, a song to my God with timbrels, a chant to the Lord with cymbals.” “Sing to him a new song, exalt and exclaim his name.”
“A new hymn I will sing to you my God…” “Sing praise for God, sing praise, sing praise to our king, sing praise…” “Sing praise with all your skill…” I smiled when I prayed these words from Psalm 47 and Judith 16 because they fit in with what I want to write about today. I want to introduce you to our new Director of Music Ministries, Mr. Andrew McKeon. There really is no introduction needed, as Andrew has been a gift to our parish community over the past year. Initially, he “filled in” in a time of great need here last July. Since that time, Andrew has taken on significantly more responsibility and leadership in this important area of our parish’s life.
I am in awe of liturgical musicians. Whether it be a gifted instrumentalist or cantor or choir member, I see not only an ability to “play music” or “sing a song”. More than that, they reflect on the gifts God has given them and offer them back to the Lord while helping the rest of us to do the same.
More than being an accomplished organist (and he builds them too!), Andrew has built a community of women and men who lead us in praising God. Because of Andrew’s presence this year, we have developed a beautiful ministry of cantors and leaders of song, helped to create a renewed spirit among the music ministers and ministries and started the process of bringing the various music ministries and individuals together. So many of you have shared your happiness with the variety of voices and efforts that have allowed to more fully engage in our communal prayer.
In addition to the gifts he brings to this role, Andrew comes from and has been formed by this community of faith. Andrew and his family are members of our parish. He is a graduate from OLQA. Jane Delassalle encouraged his learning and practicing of the organ. He has been part of the music
ministry here at St. John’s in different capacities over the past years. For him, I think you have witnessed, this is more than a job or a position in a Church. It’s a response to God’s presence in the goodness of this community.
This newly created position—the Director of Music Ministries—is an important one in the life of any parish. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “A professional director of music ministries, or music director, provides a major service by working with the bishop or pastor to oversee the planning, coordination, and ministries of the parish or diocesan liturgical music program” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship 45). In his work, Andrew will be doing many of the things he has done this past year but I expect you will see a lot more happening in the year ahead, both in our signing at Mass and outside of Sunday Mass as well. Andrew will also take on administrative responsibilities for many “behind the scenes” things that often get very little recognition but are crucial. In this position, Andrew will be a member of Pastoral Team that helps to lead our parish community. When you greet Andrew in the days ahead, please welcome him to this new position with the kindness and love that you have welcomed Fr. Michael and myself.
This is a unique time for our parish family for many reasons. The creation of this new position and the presence of Andrew McKeon give us more “reasons for hope” in the year ahead. Indeed this is a good reason for us to “sing a new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96:1).
Dear Parish Family:
I do not know about you, but I have been pretty overwhelmed (and exhausted) from hearing about all that has happened in our country since the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia last week. There are a lot of voices—political, racial, social - from a lot of places speaking loudly. I’ve tried to take some time this week to listen to the voices of some of the teachers of the Church, the bishops (in italics below).
We all must raise our voices in condemning the vile acts that have taken place, and also standing in solidarity and union with those who are speaking out in their communities….” - Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Archdiocese of Atlanta
As Catholics, there should be a deep wrenching in our hearts whenever we hear of acts related to racism and discrimination. For the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: ‘Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design’” (1935). If we really believe the Church’s teaching in the dignity of every human being—and it’s not just a slogan or a pious statement we make— then we should be filled with a holy anger of sorts that inspires us to pray for justice and to do what we can to curb and eradicate racism. There is no option to look the other way here.
“If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, noth-ing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country… If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.” - Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia
It is pretty easy for me to look at Charlottesville from not only a physical distance but an emotionally safe one that says to me, “Well, that’s their problem...glad it’s not an issue for me.” And, if I say that, I am a liar. Because the reality of racism, like any sin, is that it is often insidious. How often do I look down on people with a different skin color or different way of life than mine? At times, can I avoid being with certain “kinds” of people, even cate-gorizing them by their race or religion or orientation or gender and failing to see the other as a child of God too? Or do I share a joke based on a certain skin color or ethnicity or even pass it on to my children? How quickly do I rush in my heart to say things like “It’s my country” or even to have the audacity to call other humans –with the same dignity as me—by their immigration or legal statuses? Maybe you do the same some times? Maybe you justify it like I do and convince myself that I do other good things. This just might be a blind spot. Well, last Saturday reminds me that I have a lot of work to do in these areas, a lot of work. Maybe we all have some work to do. If we do not start from within, we have no ground to stand on when it comes to insisting on the conversion of others.
“The violence in Charlottesville did not develop in that moment or in one day. Rather the seeds of Saturday’s tragedy had been planted long before, going back far in the history of our nation. We can look upon last Saturday’s tragedy with a sense of great sadness and defeat. Or we can look at these events with the vision the Paschal Mystery brings us - a vision of healing, a vision of new life.” - Bishop John O. Barres, Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The events of Charlottesville and the reactions of so many have weighed on me this week. I find myself defeated and saddened for our country and fearful for what might come next. Yet, if I am a disciple of Jesus and belong to the Church, I have to see with the vision of the Paschal Mystery—moving from places of death to new life even in what has been so dark and despairing. Let’s pray that as we gather as Church, as we hear readings this week that remind of us our God who is here for all nations that we might listen to His voice and “observe what is right and do what is just” (Isaiah 56:1).
Dear Parish Family:
Over the past fifteen years or so, I have been impacted, probably like you, by the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. There were priests who I knew as a child who were accused and removed from ministry. I have worked with victims—young men and women—who were sexually abused by a member of clergy or lay minister in the Church. Experiences of working with them have been some of the most heartbreaking experiences I have encountered as a social worker and human being. And yes, priests who I looked up to and who I would call friends, have been accused and even admitted guilt for their own weaknesses and faults. I have also had the privilege—and I know that’s an odd word—of accompanying victims in the process of contacting the Church, sharing their story of abuse and being supported by and ministered to by the Church.
The sexual abuse of children is not a “Church” problem. It extends far beyond the Catholic Church. Newspapers and online news often share stories of teachers, family members, religious leaders, politicians, civil servants and others who have abused children. Is the Church held to a higher standard? You bet and we should be! We should set the standard for many things and treatment of this issue should be no different.
It is in this context that I want to address an important issue for our parish community. In the weeks ahead, we are going to be carrying out a bit of “push” regarding the VIRTUS training, completed codes of conduct and background checks for all volunteers.
To be direct, NO ONE MAY WORK IN ANY CAPACITY OR MINISTER IN ANY MINISTRY WITHOUT THESE FOUR THINGS.
Here is what we have been working on and are planning to do in the weeks ahead:
You might be saying, “Fr. John, this seems a little tough, a little direct for you.” You’re right. It is. It is not meant to be punitive or hurtful. But as a community of faith, we must be vigilant. That is a large part of the reason for VIRTUS training and awareness about the Code of Conduct. We need to keep our eyes open for areas of concern. The care of our young people is of the utmost importance. We must be certain that all who serve here are able to do so and we all must be informed to identify and pay attention to areas of concern.
I wish I could say I know that there is a perfect system in place to stop the abuse of children. One does not exist. Even what we are going to carry out in our parish is not fool-proof but it is a clear attempt to make sure we are providing the safest environment possible for our parish’s young people.
As you can tell from the beginning of this letter, I have been involved in issues related to the abuse of children from a number of different angles. It is an issue that brings about a lot of various emotions in me—anger, rage, sadness, empathy, disappointment and disillusionment. Yet, the Paschal Mystery teaches us that new life and new beginnings are always possible. I have seen many in the Church respond with a real sense of justice, compassion and generosity. I hope you will see our efforts in this area as part of that same response.
Dear Parish Family:
As I write this letter, we are in midst of interviews for faculty and staff at Our Lady Queen of the Apostles Regional Catholic School (OLQA). I love that St. John’s is part of OLQA and I love that OLQA is right here on our parish campus.
St. John Paul II once wrote, “A Catholic school is a place where students live a shared experience of faith in God and where they learn the riches of Catholic culture...Catholic schools must help students to deepen their relationship with God and to discover that all things human have their deepest meaning in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.”
In writing today, I think of the story of this week’s Gospel. We celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on a Sunday this year so it takes precedence over the Sunday in Ordinary Time. What happens to these chosen disciples? Jesus takes and leads them. They experience an encounter with the sacred. They are transformed and return back carrying out the missionary work of building the Kingdom of God.
I would like to think that every Catholic school community does the same things. It takes young people to a place they can deepen their relationship with God in a community of shared faith and Catholicity. Then, each day ideally, they are sent forth to carry out the missionary work of the Kingdom of God. I have witnessed this throughout the past year in my experiences of OLQA!
Here young people know about the presence of Christ through his Church and its ministers. Here young people come to receive the gift of knowledge. Here young people come to know the power of service and the important difference they can make in the life of the Church and the world. Here students are met where they are at and led to a deeper relationship with the sacred. Here great efforts are made to bring families together in the life of the school and the Church.
This year, we are making some good changes at OLQA! We are in the process of hiring a Campus Minister for the school. This person will work with Mr. Erlanger and with me to ensure that this remains a Catholic school in every aspect. He or she will teach religion to the upper grade students, organize prayer experiences and service trips and create a renewed Catholic culture in our school. This will ensure our students come down the mountain and are ready to work for the building up the Kingdom of God. We are beginning a new enrichment program for our students that will allow them to explore the multitude of gifts—academic and other wise—that God has provided them. Recognizing the many challenges placed on our students and their families, we have hired a social worker. Our Associate Director of Parish Social Ministry, Alex Finta, will also serve as the school social worker.
So you can see we have a lot in store for 2017-18….and it’s only the beginning of August! If you’re not a part of the OLQA community, can I ask you to think about it for your children or grandchildren? Call, come for a visit and learn more about the transformation that can take place here. It’s a transformation that will allow our young people “to deepen their relationship with God and to discover that all things human have their deepest meaning in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.” Like those disciples, it might be worth being taken up the mountain so, that transformed, your children and grandchildren can come down the mountain and even more powerfully build up the Kingdom of God.