Thursday, April 3, 2014

Growing Closer to Jesus

I admit that I am a "cradle Catholic."  The Church has been a part of my life since my earliest years.  My parents were devout people who were daily communicants and both my brother and I became very used to being around the church and being involved in church activities.  I served as an altar server in my youth, attended a Catholic high school (we did not have an elementary parochial school at that time) and then spent some time in the seminary.
My wife of 50+ years and I were married at a solemn high Mass celebrated by my uncle who was a priest of the diocese and we exchanged our vows with the officiating priest who was my brother.  We were then blessed with three beautiful children.  In 1994 I was ordained as a permanent deacon in my diocese and have served in a variety of ministries since then.
To say that Jesus was an important part of my life would be an understatement.  But as with anyone of our friends, when our friend in not around we may not always think of him or her but we know that he or she would be there for us when needed.  We are often challenged by our spiritual directors or in homilies we hear at church to develop a "personal relationship" with Jesus.  I believe that I have that relationship but it can always be strengthened.  There are times when the relationship is heightened by certain events in our lives.  As I have moved through another Lenten season, I have had the opportunity to experience two events that I believe have strengthened my relationship with Jesus.
The first was the opportunity to read a remarkable book.  It is entitled Jesus, a Pilgrimage and was written by a talented and prolific writer, Father James Martin, S.J., culture editor for America magazine.  The book took me through a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Father Martin experienced and was so well crafted that you could feel yourself at the various places where Jesus ministered in his time on earth.  It was a great Lenten reading and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about Jesus and how Jesus can affect our lives.
The second event took place this week and at first it may seem strange to some.  It was a presentation of the Stations of the Cross in the company of clowns.  Clowns, you say?  Yes, clowns.  Some at first may feel that this is diminishing the importance of the Way of the Cross or denigrating it in some way.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A group in our diocese has been presenting this drama for the past twenty-eight years.  Clowns have been a part of our Christian history for centuries.  In the fourth century, there was a clown named Philemon who would not obey an imperial edict to worship the pagan gods of the emperor.  For this he was executed - he had become a "clown for Christ."
The clown ministry in our diocese in their brochure present the question: Why use clowns for such a highly devotional setting as the Way of the Cross?  One of the priests of our diocese gave this as a response to that question:
Certainly the clown is "an ageless reality...."  A clown is that anonymous and yet very personal figure who has appeal to persons of every age.  There's something about the figure of a clown that can draw us in, because that clown becomes the figure of everyone....If there is any way of helping us to identify, if there is any way to kind of pull us in to the full meaning, to the full celebration of the events of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection, then certainly there's a benefit...there's a value.
These two events have certainly drawn me closer to Jesus this Lent.  My prayer is that you will find people and events in your lives that will continue to draw closer to him because there is no better friend that we can have.  May you have a prayerful remainder of Lent and a glorious Easter to come.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pope Francis - A Year

A year ago yesterday I was attending a meeting at our diocesan pastoral center when the news came that white smoke had been seen coming from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican where the world's cardinals had met in conclave to select a successor to the retired Pope Benedict XVI.  In a world full of technological advances: computers, I-pads, smart phones, etc., the ancient tradition of the Roman Church was being fulfilled as the ballots that elected a new pope were burned bringing forth the white smoke.
A television had been set up in an adjacent meeting room and we all flocked to hear the announcement of the new pope.  The cardinal who would announce this came to the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square where thousands had gathered to receive the news.  Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam!   I announce to you great joy; we have a pope!  Then we heard the name:  Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Who?  Then we heard that the first pope from the Americas had been elected, the archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina.  Well known in the southern hemisphere but not that well known here in the U.S.
Shortly thereafter, the curtains on the balcony parted again and we saw dressed in a simple white cassock a man who would speak his first words to the world as pope:  Fratelli e sorelli, buona sera.  The simple greeting:  Brothers and sisters, good evening.  Shortly thereafter the Holy Father would bow before the assembled crowd in the square and ask for their prayers.  Thus began the pontificate of Pope Francis and the world fell in love with him.
Recently the pope said that it was disconcerting to him that he seemed to have taken on the role of a superstar (even a famous rock magazine featured him on one of their covers).  He pointed out that he was a normal person and wanted to be seen as such.  I believe it is that normality that has endeared him to the world, not only of the faithful but others as well.
He reaches out to the world and engages those around him.  He is concerned with the person and while he has not shied away from speaking about world issues, he always reminds us that we must be there for others, particularly the poor and the disenfranchised of our society.  Was this not what Jesus did when he was among us?  He would challenge the world of his time but he was always there to reach out and touch the sinner, the sick and the less fortunate.  This is the challenge we face in our own time and as we journey through another period of Lent we are reminded by the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that it is others that we must seek out and be there for.
But Pope Francis wants us to realize that doing all this should be joyful.  In the opening words of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he says:  The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus....With Christ joy is constantly born anew....I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Lent is the time for this encounter and we should take the opportunity to renew our own encounters with Jesus through prayer and reconciliation.  The pope has asked for our prayers.  Let us pray for this good and humble servant of Christ that he may continue in good health and have the strength needed to lead God's people at this time in our world.  Happy anniversary, Holy Father; our prayers are with you.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Bishops

This has been an exiting week for our Diocese of Albany, New York.  Just a few days ago, it was announced that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, had named a new bishop for the diocese to succeed our retiring bishop.  I would just like to share a few thoughts about each of these men.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard
In 1977, Pope Paul VI named a local priest of our diocese, Howard J. Hubbard, to be the ninth bishop of the Albany Diocese.  The new bishop was the youngest bishop in the country at the time and grew up in Troy, New York.  I had the privilege of getting to know Howard when we were seminary students together and it has been a wonderful friendship.  For the past thirty-seven years, he has also been my bishop.  Almost twenty years ago, I was privileged to have him ordain me to the diaconate for the diocese.  Bishop Hubbard has served the faithful of the diocese well during some very trying and challenging times in our Church.  When he reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops at 75 this past fall, he submitted his resignation and the diocese awaited the announcement of his replacement.  I know that Bishop Hubbard will continue to serve the people in the diocese in whatever way he can to assist his successor.  It is my hope that he has a chance to relax and enjoy his retirement and that God will continue to give him good health.
Bishop-elect Edward Scharfenberger
When I read my e-mail early one morning last week, I was surprised to hear that Pope Francis had named a new bishop for the diocese.  Immediately, everyone began to wonder who this person was and when he would become the tenth bishop of the diocese.  Bishop-elect Scharfenberger is a native of Brooklyn and has served the Brooklyn Diocese in a number of capacities.  He is a civil and canon lawyer, a linguist, a scholar, but above all a pastor.  It is this pastoral experience that will help him guide the over 330,000 faithful in 127 parishes through this fourteen county diocese that ecompasses an area of over 10,000 square miles.  In speaking with a deacon colleague in the Brooklyn Diocese, I was told that we were getting a "fine priest" as our new bishop and that we would be blessed by his presence among us.  A deacon is ordained to serve his bishop and I look forward to assisting the new bishop in any way that I can.  The prayers of the people of our diocese go with Bishop-elect Scharfenberger who will be ordained and installed as our bishop on April 10.

May God grant good health and many blessings for these two fine men who have so nobly and faithfully served our Church.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What Retirement?

We often hear people who have retired say that they are busier than when they were working for a living.  When one thinks about retirement, thoughts of being able to relax, read books or watch unending hours of television with no particular cares might cross one's mind.  I have found, however, that this image of retirement, at least for me, has never been the case.
I have officially "retired" twice in my life.  The first was when I left employment with the State of New York in 1994 after almost thirty years of government service.  In 2006, I was appointed by my bishop to be the parish leader of a suburban parish in our diocese.  I retired from that position in 2010.  Since then, what has retirement been like?
For myself, just sitting around taking it easy would bore me to death.  Unfortunately, my physical well-being has not kept up with my mental well-being.  Arthritis has become increasingly more difficult for me but my keeping busy in a variety of ways keeps my mental well-being strong (at least I hope so).
As an ordained deacon in the Church, most of what I do to keep busy has to do with the Church.  I have been privileged to serve on two committees in our diocese (one on liturgy and one on ecumenism) as well as teaching homiletics (preaching) to those studying for the diaconate.  I also have assisted as deacon in two parishes and have twice served as an interim administrator of a parish while the parish leader was on medical leave.
I have enjoyed all of these endeavors and hope that I may be able to continue to serve the Church as long as my health holds out.  This coming Easter Sunday, I will begin my 80th year on this planet and I have been blessed in many ways throughout those years especially with a wonderful spouse and family who have supported my efforts.
My suggestion to anyone who is contemplating retirement: keep busy!  Nothing can bring one down more quickly than inactivity.  For me, I just hope that the Lord will grant me more years to be of service while I still can serve.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Rules From God for 2014

Again this year, let me share these Rules From God given to us by the parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Troy, New York:

1.  WAKE UP!!  Decide to have a good day.  Today is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Ps. 118:24)

2.  DRESS UP!!  The best way to dress up is to put on a smile.  A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.  The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.  (1 Samuel 16:7)

3.  SHUT UP!!  Say nice things and learn to listen.  God gave us two ears and one mouth, so he must have meant for us to do twice as much listening as talking.  He who guards his lips guards his soul.  (Proverbs 13:3)

4.  STAND UP!!  Stand up for what you believe in.  Stand for something or you will fall for anything.  Let us not be weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good.  (Galatians 6:9-10)

5.  LOOK UP!!  Look up to the Lord.  I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me.  (Phil. 4:13)

6.  REACH UP!!  Reach up for something higher.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on our own understanding.  In all your ways, acknowledge the Lord and he will direct your path.  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

7.  LIFT UP!!  Lift up your prayers.  Do not worry about anything, instead PRAY ABOUT EVERYTHING.  (Phil. 4:6)

Have a happy, safe and healthy 2014!!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Three Men I Greatly Admire

Pope Francis
On March 13 of this year, I was attending a meeting at our diocesan pastoral center when he heard that white smoke had arisen from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican indicating that the cardinal electors had selected a new pope for the Church to succeed Pope Benedict XVI whose surprise resignation as Bishop of Rome had come a few weeks earlier.
A TV had been set up in one of the meeting rooms and we gathered to await the announcement of the new pope.  Finally, one of the cardinals came to the balcony above St. Peter's Square and made tne now traditional announcement: Habemus papam!  We have a pope!  Cheers erupted from the square as the world waited to hear who the choice was.  In Latin, the cardinal went on to announce the cardinals had selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina who had selected the name Francis (a first).  We wondered:  Who is this man?
From the moment he stepped onto the balcony in a simple white cassock and bowed his head and asked for the prayers of the people, the world fell in love with Pope Francis.  He has made an impact not only of those who share his religious faith but many in the world, including atheists.  From the beginning of his pontificate, he has shown what it means to be a true servant of the Lord.  His humble lifestyle (not living in the papal apartments, paying his own hotel bill where he stayed before the conclave, being driven in a simple automobile, etc.) has resonated with people.  His genuine love and concern especially for those in the margins of our society is noteworthy.
Pope Francis does have his critics.  No one in any position of leadership in either church or world can escape having critics and Francis is no exception to this.  Some of the criticism has come from the more traditional wing of the Roman Catholic Church.  I recently read where one in this group felt that the "pope had thrown them under the bus."  This is perhaps because he has not slavishly followed all the nuances and rules such as when he went to a prison on Holy Thursday (rather than being in St. Peter's) and washed the feet of the prisoners (including those who were not Catholic and women as well).
To those critics, I would point to some of Jesus' own words to the critics of his day:  I say to you, someone greater than the temple is here.  If you knew what this meant, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," you would not have condemned these innocent men (the disciples who plucked grain on the sabbath).  For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.   (Matt. 12: 6-8) And again:  They (the Pharisees) tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not life a finger to move them....Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  You...have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.  (Matt. 23: 4; 23)
The pope has also shown a very human side by reaching out physically to many people, particularly the children.  How many times have we seen him at a general audience stop and take a child, kiss and bless it.  For again, we read in Matthew: Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  (Matt. 19:14).
For some time now, we have heard people speak the letters: WWJD.  What would Jesus do?  I believe we can see in Francis what Jesus would do; reach out with love, compassion and mercy to all he may touch.  May the good Lord give Pope Francis many years of health to be able to guide our Church in these difficult times.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard
I first met Howard Hubbard when we were seminary students in 1958.  I look back on these fifty-five years of our friendship which I highly cherish.  Howard finished his seminary studies in Rome and returned to the Diocese of Albany (New York) in 1964.  His early priesthood saw him serving as a "street priest" in a poorer section of the City of Albany where he worked at Providence House, a storefront ministry.  He was also instumental in founding Hope House, a place where treatment could be offered to those suffering the pains of addiction to drugs.  He later became involved in personnel work for the diocese and in 1977, Pope Paul VI nominated him as the ninth bishop of Albany after only being a priest for 14 years.  At the time, he was the youngest bishop in the United States.
In addition to being my friend, Howard Hubbard has also been my bishop for the past 36+ years.  He has accomplished many things during his tenure in this office, most significant among them being his pursuit of social justice and for his efforts to bring together people of varying faith traditions to work for the common good.  Several weeks ago, he was honored for his work in ecumenical and interfaith efforts by people from not only the Christian churches, but also those representing the Jewish faith, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.  It was one of the most memorable events that I have attended in a long time ane was a tribute to Bishop Hubbard's tiresless efforts at forging good relationships with various religious traditions.  He is often referred to by people in those traditions as "our bishop."

In October of this year, a special liturgy was held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany honoring the bishop who celebrates fifty years of priesthood this year.  Over 1300 were in attendance including a number of bishops from around New York State, Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Edward Egan of New York and a large number of priests and deacons.  I had the privilege of serving as deacon of the Eucharist at this Mass.  The love and affection that the people of this diocese have for our bishop truly shone as he arrived in the Cathedral to thunderous applause.  He has also been feted at various events by various groups throughout the diocese and this part of our state to honor his great work.  Having reached his 75th birthday at the end of October, by church practice he submitted his resignation as the bishop of Albany and we await the announcment of his successor sometime in the future.  My prayer is that he will continue to enjoy good health and peace during his retirement years.
Father James J. Vaughan

Over 27% of my life has been involved with a parish in Troy, New York - Sacred Heart Parish.  I served as parish organist and choir director there from 1966-86 and in 2012 was asked to serve as the temporary administrator of the parish while the current pastor was on medical leave.
From 1973-2000, the pastor who served the parish was Father James Vaughan.  I had the privilege of having him as my "boss" for thirteen years while serving as music director.  In Father Vaughan, I saw an example of what a true priest of Jesus Christ should be: a man of deep prayer and love for his people.  Many people with whom I have spoken and who know Father Vaughan consider him one of the most - if not the most- revered priest in our diocese.
In the early 1960s I joined a group of young adults known as the Catholic Young Adult League.  There were groups in each of the three cities in our Capital District area of New York.  Through this group, I met my wife (now of fifty years) and the chaplain of our group was a young priest whose name was Father James Vaughan.  I got to know Father Vaughan well at that time and was privileged to be able to serve with him at Sacred Heart Church.
It is often felt that when a pastor retires, he should not remain living at the parish he served less he be seen as intruding on the work of his successor.  In the case of Father Vaughan, nothing could be further from the truth.  He has remained a resident at Sacred Heart and is seen as a source of wisdom and guidance by his successors.  He is much loved by the people of the parish and they are always greeted by him with a big smile.  (He also loves the New York Yankees and the New York Giants!)
My prayer for Father Vaughan is that God will continue to grant him good health so that he may be able to remain among the people he loves to serve.
I have blessed by these three men in my life and know that God will keep them always in his heart.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What's Been Happening?

It has been about three months since I sat at this keyboard and posted a blog.  But these three months have been filled with both joyous events and situations that have caused alarm at both an international and national level.  I decided just to comment on these events and happenings as I return to the world of blogging.
There were four very happy occasions that took place during this time.  On September 7, my wife and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary.  My life has truly been blessed with the support and companionship of my beautiful wife and the gifts of our three children.  We celebrated the event at my home parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Troy, New York with a Mass celebrated by our bishop and good friend, Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany.  Following the Mass we broke bread with about eighty of our family and friends who came to congratulate us.  God has been very good to us during our fifty years.  Like all families, we have had great moments of joy as well as moments of sorrow, the greatest of which was the death of our younger daughter, Christine, in February of this year.  I know she was celebrating with us in her new home in heaven.
A week after our wedding anniversary celebration, I attended the sixtieth anniversary reunion of our high school graduating class from Catholic Central High School in Troy, New York.  About sixty of our classmates attended and we shared many stories about the good times we had at Catholic High.
Our daughter Christine suffered with a disability known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease - a neurological disorder for which she had to wear braces for walking and limited her abilities to the point that she could no longer be gainfully employed.  CMT is not a life-threatening disease but obviously carries with it a weakening of the human system.  Christine died at the age of 41 from an inflammation of the heart muscle.  To honor her, we scheduled a memorial concert held on October 6 in Troy at which one of her favorite musical groups - One Man Short, an a cappella men's group - performed.  Her older brother, Paul, is the coordinator of the group.  They provided the listening audience with a wonderful musical program.  We offered four of Christine's original art works at a raffle and together with the admission cost for the concert, we raised over $1,700 for the CMT national association.

The last great event took place on October 20 when I had the privilege of assisting as deacon at the Mass celebrating fifty years of priesthood for our bishop, Bishop Howard Hubbard, who will turn 75 next week and will submit his resignation to the Vatican after serving the diocese as its bishop for 36+ years.  It was a wonderful celebration and tribute for a man so dedicated to the Church and who has been such a compassionate shepherd for the people of the diocese.
During this three month period, there were two events that caused consternation, anxiety and anger.  First we had the use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria.  The Syrian regime was charged with their use although it denied this.  Nevertheless, the pictures coming out of Syria at that time were greatly disturbing.  There was, for a time, the threat of some type of military strike by the United States against the regime.  The international community, through the United Nations, was finally able to broker an agreement that would see the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria to be destroyed over the next several months.  Prayers are still needed for the beleagured people of that country, still embroiled in a civil war.

Here in the United States a few weeks ago, we had a partial shutdown of the government because of the failure to pass a buget resolution that would continue to fund the government.  This shutdown, which saw thousands of federal workers furloughed and the closing of all national parks, museums, etc., caused anger among the people of the country.  There are differing opinions as to who was really to blame for all of this and I have my own opinion.  I will not share it here as I do not want this blog to become a target for comments, some of which could be caustic.  I will just say that the shutdown need not have happened and the representatives who are elected by the people need to realize that they are elected to serve the people and not just political agendas.

Finally, an upbeat note.  All during this time we have had Pope Francis.  This wonderful pastoral leader has struck a chord in the hearts of many and not just Catholics.  His humility and his openness to people are greatly admired and appreciated.  May God grant him a good and healthy life and time to carry on the work of the Church in the world.
So, what's been happening?  A lot as you can see.  I was glad to be part of so many of these events and I am glad to be back at the keyboard.  See you next time.