Thoughts on a Funeral

I assisted at a funeral today.  The word “assisted” is probably generous in describing what I did.  There were two priests and two deacons in attendance.  One, or even zero, deacons would have been sufficient.  A former deacon director used to speak of us as “liturgical furniture” or “liturgical flower pots”.  That would have been appropriate today.

My most important part of the proceedings was going to lunch.  A funeral lunch is when the clergy get to mingle with the family and friends and share memories of the deceased.  Today’s “guest of honor” was indeed a lovely lady.  Everyone knows it, but I think it brings comfort to most people to hear it from someone in a Roman collar.

I’m an Irish deacon who was sent by the Archbishop to administer a Czech chapel.  The chapel was once a parish but lost that status some years back.  The last pastor stayed on until his retirement so I think the place still felt like a parish until I showed up.  I was about as popular as a cockroach in the goulash.

The lady we buried today (and you’ll notice that I’m dancing all around using her name because I don’t have permission) was the first member of the Czech community who actually welcomed me and made me feel at home.  I’ll never forget her for that.  She was taking a big risk with her fellow Czechs and I really appreciate it.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been on retreat and attended something called “Deacon Day.”  The retreat was very inspirational and educational.  Deacon Day was a day where everyone said nice things about deacons.  It happens every year and is in lieu of any financial recompense.  Both of these things were nice.

But it occurred to me today that the people at the funeral, the people who really matter, couldn’t care less  how much I know, how many retreats I’ve been on, how many books I’ve read, or what the Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Paul/Minneapolis thinks of me and my brother deacons.  They want to know that I care about them.  And that’s a real revelation to me because frankly, it’s easy to get caught up in those other things and forget what’s really important.

In just a few weeks I’ll be leaving this community and returning whence I came because, to be honest, I’m just not physically able to be an administrator anymore.  I need to go back to just being an ordinary deacon, assisting the pastor at mass and with whatever else he wants me to do, including funerals.

I’m going to miss my Czech flock, even the ones who still wish I were a priest and that I wasn’t Irish.  But at ordination, a deacon promises to go wherever his Bishop sends him.  I believe right now the Holy Spirit is telling me to move on.  What happens in the future only He and the Father and the Son know.

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22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

I have recently been advised of a change in my assignment.  I wasn’t really prepared to announce it so soon, but the information has leaked out so I felt like it was prudent to talk about it today.  Have a happy and safe holiday weekend and please pray for the people of Texas and Louisiana….also the folks in the Pacific Northwest who could use some of that water to put out the wildfires.

In spite of what you may have heard from Three Dog Night, Jeremiah was not a bullfrog.  Jeremiah was a prophet who lived around 650 BC and this isn’t one of his best days.  He’s ticked off at the Lord and he tells Him so.  “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”  Strong words, especially when they’re directed at the Almighty.  But things aren’t going well for him.

 

He’s accepted the position of prophet, but when he speaks, people make fun of him.  Believe me, that’s no fun. Jeremiah is fed up and says he’ll never speak of the Lord again.  But “it becomes like a fire burning in (his) heart….(He) grows weary holding it in.  (He) cannot endure it. So he continues to speak and he’s persecuted, sent into exile in Egypt, and eventually killed by his own countrymen.

 

700 years later, we find Paul writing a letter to the Romans.  He’s giving them a warning.  “Do not conform yourselves to this age.”  He tells them that if they do conform to the age they won’t be able to discern the will of God.  Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  The world of the Romans in the years after Jesus death and resurrection isn’t really Christian-friendly.  Paul’s telling them that they must be in the world, but not of the world. The situation that you and I face today as Catholic Christians isn’t all that different from Paul’s world over 2,000 years ago.

 

We Christians have always been kind of a counter-cultural bunch.  Living the words of Christ has never been easy, which is exactly as He told us it would be.

 

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  There’s really nothing ambiguous about that.  It’s all right there.  There are no loopholes, no exceptions.  So why doesn’t everyone do what He says.  Remember, in John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we’re His friends if we do what He tells us.

 

Here’s what we know:

  1. Jesus is the Son of God.
  2. He gave us some very simple rules to live by; basically love one another, keep the 10 Commandments, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, take up our cross and follow Him.
  3. If we do what He says, we’ll go to heaven and, inversely, if we don’t do what He says, we’ll go to hell.
  4. He created a Church and gave the Apostles and their successors the power to speak for Him.  Remember, “whoever hears you hears me”.  He put Peter and his successors in charge of His Church and promised that “the gates of hell” wouldn’t prevail against it.

 

That’s it!  That’s all we really need to know.  Frankly I don’t understand why so many people don’t get it.  Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah.  Preaching the Gospel isn’t always popular.  Some people just don’t want to face facts.  But I can’t not do this!  Like the man said, “I grow weary holding it in.”  I hope you feel the same way.  As we leave here today, let’s remember what Jeremiah, Saint Paul, and Jesus are saying to us.

 

Don’t hold in the fire.  Let it out. Share the good news in spite of the personal consequences.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to hear about Jesus, and they sure don’t want to hear that they might be going to hell. They want to maintain this fantasy that they can do whatever they want and there won’t be any consequences.  But are we doing them a favor by not correcting them?  If you saw someone about to step off the edge of a cliff, wouldn’t you yell “stop”?

 

Don’t conform yourself to this age.  There are powerful forces surrounding us every day that want to push us down the wrong path.  Don’t let them win.  Like they used to say in the ‘60s, “keep the faith, baby”.  Truth doesn’t change.  What was true 2,000 years ago is true today.

 

And, finally, think as God thinks, not as humans think.  Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  He will come back.  There will be a judgment.  He will repay each of us according to our conduct.  That’s a promise from the Son of God Himself.

[pause]

 

Twenty years ago, in 1997, God called me to become a deacon in His Church. I didn’t understand it (still don’t) and I fought it for a while. But God put me in a position where I was able to spend a couple of hours with a deacon who I knew and trusted. He told me to go for it. So, I enrolled in deaconate formation.

 

After five years of study I was ordained in 2002, fifteen years ago, still not completely sure I was doing the right thing. But like Jeramaih, I couldn’t not do this. The path was very clear, I was assigned to Saint Bernadette parish, my home parish since 1975. It was a very natural progression but the Gospel is very true when it says “the prophet is not without honor except in his own town.”

 

 

Fortunately I was blessed to have a great pastor who helped me make the transition from lay parishioner to ordained minister. I was very blessed. During that time I was also a pastoral care volunteer at first Saint Joseph Hospital then at Saint Clare. I was also working a full-time secular job until I retired in 2009

 

Then in 2010 things got a little more complicated. The Archbishop called me to a new assignment, Director of Saint John Nepomuk Chapel. I would be the first deacon in Saint Louis to take over a church without a pastor. My retirement didn’t last long.

 

I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t a boost to my ego. Something new. I’d be a pioneer. No one had ever had this job before. I said I’d give it a try for three years. That was seven years ago.

 

I kept my ties with Saint Bernadette doing weekly communion services and assisting with funerals.

 

Now the pastor at Bernadette is having some serious health issues. He’s very limited in what he can do. It’s especially hard for him to say mass. He needs help. So, I’ve decided to give up this assignment and go back to Saint Bernadette. My health isn’t that great either and frankly I’m ready to go back to just being a regular deacon with no administrative responsibilities.

 

Fortunately there’s another deacon in the Archdiocese who is looking for more to do. Deacon Joe Iovanna will be joining us here at Saint John’s on September 18. He will serve as Assistant Director, learning the job. When his training is complete he will take over as Director, some time before the end of the year.

 

I will gradually transition back to Saint Bernadette during that time. I hope you will welcome Deacon Joe into the community and be patient with both of us as we make this change. I’ve known Joe for a long time and I’m sure you will like him.

 

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Two readings today, one from the book of Kings and one from Matthew’s Gospel speak about wind. In the first the Lord tells Elijah to go outside and stand on the mountain. “The Lord will be passing by.” Elijah was taking shelter in a cave from a heavy wind. From the description this wasn’t just a little breeze. This wind was rending mountains and crushing rocks. But Elijah knew that the Lord wasn’t in the wind.

 

There was also an earthquake and then a fire but the Lord wasn’t there either. But then Elijah heard a tiny whispering sound and hid his face in his cloak because he knew that that was the Lord.

 

We’ve heard this story a hundred times. We could almost repeat it from memory. But what does it mean to us today? The wind and the earthquake and the fire represent all the things the secular world throws at us. Television, movies, the Internet—these are all things represented by the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. They’re loud. They’re intrusive. If we let them they drown out the voice of God.

 

If we’re going to be disciples, and remember disciple means student, then we have to find a way to drown out all the distractions. We have to take time to listen to that tiny, whispering voice.

One way to do that is what most of us are doing right now. We come into God’s house to listen to his word. I say most of us because some of us have our minds a hundred miles away. We’re distracted by a lot of different things and we need to learn to focus on what’s right here in front of us. This hour is God’s time. “This is my beloved Son! Listen to Him!”

 

The chapel is usually open at 4:00. If you need some quiet time in the presence of God come early. Sit and pray on whatever’s bothering you or just reflect on the lives of the saints depicted in our statues. There are more than forty of them so you’ll have material for a lot of Saturdays. The rest of promise to be as quiet as we can.

 

Then we have to make quiet time the other six days to listen to His Voice. Set aside time each day to pray. And when you pray, don’t treat God like some supernatural Santa Clause. “Give me this! Give me that! Give me patience and do it NOW!” Sometimes we have to shut up and listen. Remember that Jesus taught us to ask God to “give us this day our daily bread and deliver us from evil.” The rest of Jesus’ prayer focuses on God, not on stuff.

 

In Matthew’s Gospel we find the wind analogy used in another way. The Apostles are in a boat and the wind is tossing it one way and then another. The men were afraid just like you and would be in the same situation. Picture yourself in that boat and imagine how afraid you would be.

 

But, then, here comes Jesus strolling across the water. That scared the Apostles even more. They thought He was a ghost. Remember that every time Jesus did something amazing it was something that had never been done before. So again, put yourself in that boat. There’s a raging storm and some guy is walking across the water toward you. Who wouldn’t think it was a ghost? But Jesus calls out to them, “Hey, guys! It’s Me Jesus, not a ghost.”

 

So then Peter, good old goofy Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to walk on the water, too.” Jesus tells him to come on, and he actually does walk on the water for a little while. But then he gets scared and starts to sink. He calls out to Jesus to save him. “Jesus stretched out His hand and caught Peter and said to him, “O you of little faith why did you doubt”

 

He’s talking to you and me. With Jesus’ help we can do anything. But aren’t we like Peter sometimes? We know we can do something with God’s help but we get scared and wimp out. Faith is belief in something when we have no proof. We have faith in God. At least we say we do. But when we’re faced with a challenge, do we have faith that He’ll see us through or do our doubts and get the better of us, like poor Peter.

 

Alcoholics Anonymous has cured millions of hopeless drunks with their twelve step program based on faith. Face it, when most people show up at AA’s door they’re not carrying a Bible and quoting scripture. They’ve hit bottom and may think God has abandoned them. But AA has shown over the years that the person most likely to help an alcoholic is another alcoholic. And no matter how little faith the new person may have in God, the evidence of his or her sponsor will eventually lead them to faith. For many AAs, the road to a cure is like walking on water. With faith it can be done.

 

Some of us have more faith in the local baseball team than we do in God. Weren’t we all sure when the Cardinals were struggling that they’d find a way to come back? Now they’re just a game out of first place. Was it Rally Cat? Maybe. A few years ago it was a squirrel. Don’t we sometimes put our faith in the strangest things?

 

Put your faith in God and you can do anything, even walk on water.

The Hippest Archdiocese

I have to call attention to this article that landed in my inbox this morning (the day after my 8th grandchild came into the world.  More on that later.)

A recent poll has chosen Saint Louis as the hippest diocese in America.  We knew it all the time, but it’s nice to see it recognized.  And, we all know how accurate internet polls can be.  But, in spite of my doubts about the accuracy of the information, I’m happy to see Saint Louis number one in something besides homicides and car jackings.

If you don’t believe we’re hip, scroll down to the picture of our recently-installed Auxiliary Bishop, Mark Rivituso.  Our bishop is definitely hipper than your bishop.  Take that, Los Angeles!

Archdiocese of Hip

Now, about that grandchild.  In the past I have been roundly criticized for posting about my grandkids without permission.  So, until the media embargo is lifted, I’ll just say that he and his mother are doing well.  More later

 

Something’s Gotta Give

Beauty Beyond Bones is a blog written by a young woman named Caralyn who is recovering from anorexia.  Her posts are always inspirational and uplifting, especially if someone you love is a victim of this terrible disease.  Her most recent post is called Something’s Gotta Give and I encourage you to read it right now.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time paraphrasing what she said because I couldn’t possibly say it better than she did.  Just read it and I know you’ll be as impressed with her work as I am.

Also be aware that Caralyn has a Youtube channel with videos that are also worth your time.  Let’s support this courageous young lady who loves God and doesn’t care who knows it.

(Besides, she follows DeaconCast, so she’s obviously highly intelligent.)  You can also follow her on all the various social media.  There are links on her blog.

Lent—How Did You Do?

We’re just about to the end of Lent.  (It ends tomorrow evening).  So how did you do?  Have you successfully given up something for the entire 40 days?  Have you done something extra every day?  Or are you a fallible human being?

Personally, I’ve been more successful in the “giving up” than in the “doing extra”.  The things I decided to give up for Lent are mostly still gone.  But I’ve fallen short, sometimes very short in the things I thought I would be able to add.  This blog is a perfect example.  My plan was to post something each day.  I started pretty well, but as you can see, my last post was March 24.  EPIC LENT FAIL!  Not only was it an epic fail, it was a very public fail.

Other things, like my plan to focus more on my prayer life, may be failures, but at least no one knows but me (and God).

The 12 Step programs have a slogan, “progress, not perfection”.  Isn’t that what being a Catholic is all about.  We may strive for perfection, but we know that progress is the most we can hope for.  The writer Matthew Kelly prays that God will make him the best version of himself.  It’s a great prayer.  If we ask God to make us better, He will.  If we ask Him to make us perfect, we’re going to be disappointed.

Thomas Merton wrote “I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.” (Thoughts in Solitude).  Progress, not perfection.

I don’t think we can rate ourselves when it comes to Lent.  We’re all humans.  All God wants from us is our best.  Our best isn’t the same as someone else’s best.  If we’ve done all we can then He can’t ask for anything more.  If you’re a better version of yourself than you were on Ash Wednesday, you’ve had a successful Lent.

I hope you’ve had a great Lent and that you’ll have a great Easter.

 

Third Sunday of Lent

Today I’d like to talk a little bit about Matthew Kelly’s book,  Resisting Happiness.  If you haven’t read it the title seems a little ridiculous. Who would resist happiness?

 

The answer is that we all do, maybe not consciously, but it’s in our human nature to resist real, true happiness and most of us do it all the time. True happiness, the kind Kelly writes about, is found with God. It’s what we’re all after. But how many times have we put off reading the Bible to watch a ball game? How many times have we skipped mass because we have “something better” to do? How many small things that we could do to help others are pushed aside in favor of something that may seem important but doesn’t lead to real happiness.

 

Two weeks ago Jan and I were in Huntsville, AL. We went to mass at Saint Mary Church of the Visitation. It’s a pretty little church and like Saint John’s it’s on the edge of downtown so it draws a fairly diverse congregation. Ironically, the pastor is Father William Kelly. Since Matthew Kelly is Australian and Father Kelly is definitely American, I don’t think they’re related.

 

But Father Kelly is an excellent preacher and I have been known to borrow something from him from time to time.

 

Two weeks ago the theme of his homily was “Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary.” “Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary.” This is very much in line with Resisting Happiness. I felt like God was speaking to me and I had to share the message with you. Then I looked at today’s first reading.

 

Moses was leading his people out of Egypt and all they did was complain. They thought he was taking them into the desert to die. He was leading them to the Promised Land and they just wanted to whine. Look at the third strophe of today’s Responsorial Psalm, God says, “Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me.” Meribah and Massah are the scene of the first reading.

 

But how often do we act just like Moses’ people? God has given us everything but still we complain. We don’t have enough stuff! “Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary.”

 

Jesus covers this pretty well in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” Jesus calls himself a gift, and that’s what He is. God gave us the gift of His Son. That’s so far beyond our understanding that I have a hard time thinking about it, let alone explaining it to others. Who would do that??? Who would give up His only Son to save someone else? But that’s what He did, whether we can understand it or not.

 

All we have to do is show our gratitude, worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God knows that we’re weak creatures who may try to be good Christians, but how often do we fail? “Never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary.” Easy to say but hard to do.

 

Fortunately for us, God understands us better than we understand Him. He knows how often we fail. In the Lord’s prayer we ask Him to forgive us our trespasses. That’s our faith and our hope. No matter how many times we come up short, He’s always there, waiting for us to come back to Him and ask Him for forgiveness.

 

Hopefully we’ve all chosen a penance for Lent. Maybe we’re giving up something. Maybe we’re doing something extra. Maybe you’re watching Matthew Kelly’s daily videos. Today is day 18. No matter what we’re doing, forty days is a long time. Chances are we’re going to slip up. The good news is that in our failing we see our flawed human nature and know that we have a forgiving Father to hold us and comfort us and to let us know that it’s ok.

 

We all sin, even though we know that it might keep us from going to heaven, which is for all eternity. At the time the temporary pleasure that may be sinful gives us immediate happiness. That’s when we get in trouble.

 

During this Holy season of Lent, remember, “Never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the temporary.”