Archive for October, 2011

ANGELS, WINE, AND CLOUDS THAT SPEAK

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

The Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth

We have reached the land of Jesus’ birth and death. Today one hundred and one of us spent most of the day just north of the Sea of Galilee, starting where it all started in Nazareth, moving on to Cana, and ending on Mt. Tabor. With a group our size it takes time and while I had hoped to include the monastery of Mt. Carmel here in Haifa as a late afternoon stop, we did not make it back before their 500pm closing. Darkness comes quite early here in the Holy Land at this time of the year (445pm today) as it is about as far east in what is called the Central European time zone as one can get. On the other hand, sunrise tomorrow morning will be about 545am.

Everything and I do mean everything was closed on our arrival in the port of Haifa today. Because it was Jewish Sabbath, there were no workers loading or unloading the mammoth freighters in the harbor, no cars on the street and little noise anywhere. Haifa and this eastern part of Israel is heavily Arab, Muslim and quite productive. To witness it all so still was eerie.

It took about an hour to drive from the port to Nazareth which is a city built up and down several hillsides. Since Nazareth is today mostly Arab Muslim and Arab Christian (declining dramatically in number) and since it was Saturday there was considerably more activity to be found there, traffic jams and people on the non-existent sidewalks. Nazareth has throughout its history been something of a melting pot of people, even in biblical times, a biblical “Podunk” lacking any one religious or cultural identification. It was for this reason that Nathaniel could ask in the Gospel, “can anything good come from Nazareth.” Well for us it certainly did.

The angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary at what today is called “Mary’s Well” of which there are two, one public and open to everyone on the streets and one under an Orthodox church. Which one it actually happened at is mostly irrelevant as the Holy Land is place where one experiences the Lord more than validating information or seeking specificity. The Franciscan fathers have built a magnificent basilica on the spot where legend days Mary and Joseph lived and raised Jesus and there is also almost attached a Church of St. Joseph which does not press the imagination as much. There was an American group celebrating Mass on the lower altar of the basilica, which is closer to Mary’s home. So what began with an angelic appearance to Mary then moves on to the Jerusalem area with Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Ein Karem (not on the West Bank) and eventually with Joseph to the birth of her child in Bethlehem, which we will visit on Monday.

Mary and Jesus would have walked down a steep hill and up another one on the five-mile walk to Cana and the famous wedding. We had Mass in the new chapel at Cana, again run beautifully by the Franciscans responsible for the holy places here. Monsignor Bosso gave a wonderful homily on “relationships” which centered somewhat on Mary’s relation with a “testy” Jesus in the famous Gospel where water was turned into wine. Then, all married couples present renewed their wedding vows and there were few dry eyes to be found. My group sang beautifully at this Mass and since we had the small space of this Church to ourselves, it was a wonderful liturgy. I think all married couples on this trip (and there are three whose marriages I have personally witnessed) would consider this the highlight at least of today and perhaps the whole trip.Mass and Renewal of Marriage Vows at Cana

Then on to Mt. Tabor, which at 1700 feet dominates the countryside of this Galilee region. Off to the east in the distance is to be seen Mt. Hermon which stands at about 5600 feet and which some of the Protestant churches have begun to say was the site of the Transfiguration, not Mt. Tabor. Whatever, the new basilica and surround grounds on a day with a high of perhaps 75 degrees, blue sky and delightful breeze captured our hearts and imagination. It was not hard to envision Jesus, Peter and James sharing that special moment of “epiphany.” Monsignor Bosso here pointed out that the transfiguration account in the Gospel immediately follows Jesus’ prediction of his impending death and resurrection and was meant to convince his two friends that they too needed to prepare themselves for the “cross” which would lead to resurrected life and transfiguration in the life, which is to come. He reminded us that moments of glory often precede or follow moments of challenge in life and we need to prepare ourselves for these moments in order to share the glory of eternal life.

To get to the top of Mt. Tabor, the busses can only take you about a third of the way and then you transfer to a ten person taxi which takes you the rest of the way up a spine-chilling crooked and an narrow road with many, many hairpin turns eliciting prayers from everyone in the cab. The saying around here is that the real reason the two apostles did not wish to leave the place was they didn’t want to take the taxi ride back down!

 

Mosaic of the Transfiguration at the Church on Mt. Tabor

Tomorrow we spend the whole day around the Sea of Galilee and Sunday Mass will be celebrated for all of you at the Church of the Primacy. Stayed tuned.

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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PETER AND PAUL – CHAPTER ONE

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Our group of one hundred and twenty-seven pilgrims following in the footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul arrived in Athens at varying times this past weekend. All arrived, however, and the weather in Athens was wonderful. On Monday, two-thirds of the group went with me to the Acropolis and then on to Corinth and this began our reflections on the missionary journeys of St. Paul.

The Parthenon and area of the Areopagos where Paul preached while in Athens

St. Paul arrived in Athens on his first missionary journey having largely failed in his evangelization effort in Thessalonica, Philippi, and Macedonia. He did leave behind small, very small Christian communities in his wake but he was hoping for a more successful visit to Athens. Athens was significant for Paul for two reasons: it was the center of classical culture even though Rome was the political capital and the Romans were in control of Greece, and secondly, it was the home of philosophy which Paul felt prior to arrival would make his preaching even easier.

What Paul prior to his arrival had failed to understand was that unlike Palestine and Israel which was mainly monotheistic (believing in one God), Athens and the Athenians had many Gods: Mercury for speed, Athena for beauty, Zeus, Apollo, etc. and they liked it that way. There was already a small Jewish community in Athens and Paul began his preaching there but they wrote him off as a charlatan, huckster, snake-oil salesman or just some crazy guy when he began to speak of Jesus and His resurrection and the resurrection of the dead. He made the locals even madder as he spoke of a single God who was first, Creator, second, Sustainer, and third, Judge. The more Paul preached of the need for redemption and forgiveness, the angrier the Jewish listeners became and the more uncomfortable they made it for him to remain. It is possible that Paul made only two converts the whole time he was in Athens but while there he gave one of his finest speeches, to a Greek audience at the Aereopagus. The best of that speech is contained in the Acts of the Apostles [17:22-21]. Paul, in travelling throughout the city, came upon an altar dedicated to an unknown God and used that image to appeal to the pagan Athenians as to why they should consider his “known” God. I will not reprint here Paul’s speech which must have taken him about fifteen minutes to deliver (remember he spoke perfect Greek from his childhood education in Tarsus). It is a great summary of why we should believe and accept Jesus as God. Experiencing his fourth failure in a row, Paul decides to move on to Corinth, a small city roughly forty miles to the west of Athens, with a slightly larger Jewish community. There were to be no Pauline letters to the Athenians and everything, which we know about Paul’s time and work there comes to us from Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (with information likely provided by Paul’s friends and bishop, Timothy as well as Silas).

Paul's Trial by the Roman Consul Gallios occurred here in from of these homes built into the hillside

Like St. Paul our group left the area of the Acropolis with its temples dedicated to Athena, Diana, etc. and drove on to Corinth.  Most Catholics with even a rudimentary understanding of the New Testament think of Corinth as “sin city” in the first century.  It was all of that. It was not a port city as many people think. Ancient Corinth was inland from the water on a tiny isthmus about 3.5 miles wide with the Aegean sea on its east side and the Bay of Corinth on its west side.

In order to save about 260 miles of sailing around the lower end of the Corinthian peninsula, boats would be taken out of the water and moved overland from one body of water to the other. About midway was the ancient city of Corinth rising 1800 feet above sea level and since the sailors were not needed for the overland journey, they came to Corinth to relax, let their hair down and a whole litany of other vices, which I would delineate. It was not a nice place.

Paul arrived and moves in with a husband and wife who were likely converts to Christianity from Judaism from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla. They had a tent making business and to earn his room and board it appears that Paul helped them in their business. On Friday night and Saturday, he began preaching outside of the local synagogue. Again, he was not well received by the Jewish leaders and indeed when he began to preach about the resurrection, they had had it with him and brought charges against him. Corinth was a province of Rome but legal action was sought in two places – before the Roman consul Gallio and within the synagogue. The consul heard both sides out and since Paul held Roman citizenship because his father was a Roman citizen, the consul ruled that Paul had broken no Roman rules and was innocent leaving the matter to the Pharisees to adjudicate. Ruins of both the synagogue and the place where the trial of Paul was held are still extant as are some of the pillars from the ancient temple dedicated to the god Apollo. As ruins however, Corinth provides an opportunity to see more clearly than other places what it was like during Paul’s time there. The ancient Agora or market place though in shambles still remains with enough in tact to picture the place during Paul’s visit. I believe that all of us visiting ancient Corinth on Monday afternoon were impressed with what he saw and more clearly able to visualize the great apostle’s presence in that city.

Written in Greek is the sign for the Synagogue where Paul preached and taught - one of two things remaining from his day.

Paul eventually calls for his colleagues, Timothy and Silas to join him but the former does not stay long as he is soon dispatched back to Thessalonica which is beginning to have its problems in the small Christian community. Satisfied that Corinth now has a nascent Church capable of managing itself, and also has a bishop, Paul decided to move on, leaving after seventeen months for Ephesus. From Ephesus he will write a total of five letters back to the Corinthians whom he has clearly come to love and appreciate (the five letters were later redacted [edited] into the two letters to the Corinthians which survive in our New Testament. In 57AD, Paul returns to Corinth for about three months and from there on his second visit, he writes probably his greatest theological treatise in his letter to the Romans.

The Agora or marketplace of ancient Corinth, seemingly in rubble but a snapshot of what life was once like in this bustling "city" of perhaps 10,000 people. in this

I heard wonderful comments from our group who went to Corinth on Monday. We were blessed with two fine local guides with great understanding of and sensitivity to our purpose for going. I shared my thought on the two buses, one going and one returning. Later that evening we would be joined by our companion and Scripture expert, Monsignor Stephen Bosso.

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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PETER AND PAUL

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Athens, named for the Goddess of Wisdom in an image from Google images

Today I leave for Athens, Greece (I hope, providing the general strikes and unrest take a break) there over the week-end. I will be joined by 131 other people, some relatives including my brother Jim, some close and long-time friends from Washington, St. Louis and here, and some totally new soon-to-be-friends who were interested in taking this pilgrimage with me to many of the places once graced by the presence of Jesus and his mother, Mary, but also St. Peter and St. Paul. At one time there were 182 people signed up for the trip but the “Arab Spring” and subsequent unrest in Egypt caused some to have second thoughts and drop out. I understand fully their concern, but I leave with little concern for our personal safety. We shall be visiting in this order; Corinth and Athens, Greece; Alexandria in Egypt with most of the people spending the day in Cairo; Israel for three days; Rhodes, Greece, Ephesus and finally Rome. Our method of conveyance from one country to another will be the flagship of the Holland America Line, the MS Rotterdam which we board on Tuesday next for twelve nights.

I was going to take these days off from writing this blog, but I have had second thoughts and will be filing with pictures of our group only at the holy places or places once visited by the Lord and the two great Apostles. There will be an audience on November 9th with the [present successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI] and that will conclude our modern journey to some of the places once inhabited, at least for a time, by the apostles and the mother of Jesus (Nazareth, Bethlehem and Ephesus). If you could not come with us on this journey, I hope you enjoy my accounts. If they are not your usual Bishop Lynch “cup of tea”, tune me in again on November 11th just before the Fall meeting of the bishops of the United States in Baltimore.

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WHEREIN DO WE CAPTURE THE CONSCIENCE OF THE KING?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

I know, I know, we have no such thing as a “king” in these United States but then Shakespeare had no such thing as a “president” when he was writing plays and sonnets either. So I have inverted titles to make this point: in his famous commencement speech given at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, President Obama said this: “So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

We shall soon learn how committed the President is to drafting “a sensible conscience clause” as his administration ponders whether or not, I as an employer, must provide contraceptive opportunities as a part of the health care program which I (the diocese) provide to all our employees. That’s the present assertion of the draft language in a portion of the health care bill which deals with services which must be provided to all employees. The President of Notre Dame University, the same man that President Obama praised for his wisdom and leadership in the same speech quoted above, joined by twenty-eight other college and university presidents has said that to do so would violate his (their) individual as well as institutional consciences. Father John Jenkins, C.S.C. bravely went on to say that unless a conscience clause exempting religious institutions from providing such services was included, then he would cease to provide Notre Dame employees health care coverage and would be forced to remunerate them so that they would have to purchase a health plan individually and on their own, resulting in a loss of services and coverage and an escalation of health care costs. I would do the same here in the diocese. What a sad day that would be.

In the closing days of September, I asked all of y0u to write to Secretary Sibelius and ask her for conscience protection for those of us who hold religious beliefs that may be at variance by the letter or intent of the health care legislation. Although I am sometimes at a loss to completely understand everything about Christian Scientists, they are a Christian Church and they deserve protection for their religious beliefs and I would fight for them as I hope they would fight for us in this regard. Final wording has not yet been forthcoming from the US Department of Health and Human Services but it can not be far away. Then and only then will we be able to capture the conscience of the President and his administration in providing for an religious conscience exemption from requirements that violate people’s moral code and system of beliefs.

Should we be worried? I believe so. I feel the same attack on religious liberty and its exercise in this nation that drove the founders to flee their native lands and establish this government, for the people, by the people and Under God, is suddenly front and center here in my country. Migration and Refugee Services, a division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been denied a grant from the government because we do not provide contraceptive assistance to the newly arrived whom we have helped resettle with great distinction over decades, especially the Vietnamese following the war. Catholic Relief Services has been told “shape up or ship out” because we do not distribute or advocate condom use in the countries where we serve the poor. Now I must confess that during the administration of President George W. Bush, USAID which is a program of the State Department was at one time going to deny CRS any PEPFAR funds because we did not advocate and teach the use of condoms. Someone woke up and smelled the coffee of the potential risk of failure of the new anti-AIDS retroviral program and made CRS a lead agent in initially nine countries so the pressure is not just a reflection of one party. Catholic Charities in Illinois has been stricken from receiving any state funds for any program because of their conscience belief on gay and lesbian adoptions. What a shame! Today the question is whether those  in office now will also “smell the coffee” and allow us the conscience protection so strongly embraced by our nation’s founders. We will see, will we not and only then will be capture the conscience of the king!

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GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, GA

I am writing this from Savannah, Georgia where today, a Franciscan Friar, Gregory H. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., with a long and successful pastoral experience in this state is being ordained bishop of this historically important diocese. I have had the wonderful gift of coming to know Savannah’s two prior bishops, Raymond Lessard who resides, teaches and is a spiritual director at our seminary in Boynton Beach and who is respected and deeply admired by the seminarians and Kevin Boland who retires today with the ordination and installation of his successor. Bishop Boland and I have shared many USCCB Committee and CRS assignments and he has been a good friend and awesome advisor. Bishop Boland was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Savannah fifty years ago and it is unusual for a local “boy to make good” and become a bishop in the diocese in which he is serving and for which he was ordained. Additionally, Bishop Boland’s older brother, Raymond, is the retired bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Both come from the stunningly beautiful Irish seaside village of Kinsale. Both have been wonderful shepherds of God’s people entrusted to their care. Savannah is in some ways the “mother diocese” for all of Florida as St. Augustine was cut off from it. Charleston is the oldest diocese in the south, followed by Savannah and then St. Augustine although the faith first came to St. Augustine by way of the explorers.

During the ordination ceremony I found myself reflecting on the new bishop and the Church in which Christ is calling him to minister in a new way. We are a Church with historic challenges. We are steadily losing membership, not in droves as is oft reported in the media, but enough to be very worrisome to those of us who love the Church very much. Our numbers of members are up only because of the steady and continued influx of Hispanics but we lose a great number of them too after they feel so poorly received and welcomed. And while we can be, as I wrote several days ago, still a joyous Church, there is an aura of worry hanging over the Church. Some of the losses are due to the strongly secular influences of the times in which we live, the strongest ever in the two plus centuries of our presence on these shores. We are not alone in experiencing losses as other mainstream and now even evangelical and mega churches are beginning to share the experience, again due to secularism and the “who needs God” or “if I still believe I need God, who needs a Church” attitude. But I also think as Catholics we are taking a double hit at the moment. We have a growing problem of credibility and trust. As the congregation this afternoon invoked the memory and action of the saints on the new bishop while he lay stretched out on the floor of the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (once destroyed by fire and magnificently restored), I could not help but think, “does he know what he is getting into and is in for?” I am sure he does and he certainly does after listening to Bishop Wilton Gregory’s eloquent and on-the-mark homily.

Let no one tell you otherwise but the sexual abuse of minors by priests and other Church persons and how it was handled in the past by men of my order is taking a toll, on the papacy, on the episcopacy, on the priesthood, on religious life and on Church membership. And even though we have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect children in the present and future, the past still stalks us. There are issues which we hold sacred (the right to life being primary) which are very divisive in a secular world. We are a hierarchical structure which grates on many, and we sometimes send very mixed signals to our faithful as a hierarchy. In my years as priest and bishop, I would say that the Church in the US runs the risk of  becoming more congregational than collegial, more strident at times than loving and forgiving, and sadly, more willing to pick fights with friends which further divides and seldom conquers.

Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv. and myself prior to his ordination today

When I joined the other twenty some bishops in imposing hands, I approached the moment asking the Lord to grant to His new bishop servant leader the heart of Christ, the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. I will not live long enough I suspect to see the Church which today’s young bishops will build and guide. I wish them well. I fear not for the Church in the long run because Christ promised our predecessors that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I truly believe that and feel it has been born out repeatedly over two thousand years. I just wish to see unity restored, trust rebuilt, the vision of Vatican II fulfilled, the people coming back to the true faith in greater numbers than they may be leaving. Heavy thoughts for a very happy day here in the Garden of Good and Evil which is Savannah, Georgia on a day in which a new chapter in their long and illustrious history begins with their fourteenth bishop. Bishop Hartmayer chose as his episcopal motto on his coat of arms three simple Latin words: PAX ET BONUM (Peace and good). It was a theme clerkly woven throughout the ordination rite as a former high school student of his who is a composer wrote a hymn for the occasion using only those three words to the musical setting. They were the bishop’s last words at the end of his brief remarks at the end of Mass. They are precisely what I prayed for today: peace and good.

The Cathedral as seen from one of the city's magnificent "gardens", this one of good and adjacent to the Cathedral

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BISHOP, DIOCESE INDICTED

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

This morning while pulling around the drive-thru at my nearest “arches” the vending machine made visible the headline of today’s St. Petersburg Times, “Bishop, Diocese Indicted.” My first reaction was why did no one tell me? Then I saw it was a New York Times story emanating from Kansas City, Missouri. When I got home I accessed the story in its entirety online and found the reporting of what is tragic from many angles was basically fair reporting and acknowledged that there is a presumption of innocence and the bishop and his diocese have pled “not guilty” and will attempt to prove it in court and at trial. I feel for the thousands of victims of sexual abuse by priests, nuns, religious brothers, deacons and other employees of the Church whose own pain rises to the surface when ever a story like this appears and brings back the awful memories. I also feel for my brother bishop and the people of his diocese who find themselves in the vortex of this developing allegation and I feel for all of you whose faith may be shaken again or whose embarrassment of the Church you love once again surfaces. It was a bad start to an otherwise wonderful day.

Nuestra Señora de la Merced

Carrying in the flag of Peru. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.

In late morning, I celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude for about seven hundred of our Hispanic brothers and sisters from throughout the diocese. It has become an annual event and each year we honor Mary under the patronage of one or the other country. This year we dedicated the Mass to Nuestra Señora de la Merced (in English, Our Lady of Mercy)  who is the patroness of the nation of Peru. We were honored to have with us the Peruvian Consul to our area, the Honorable Juan Carlos Ibarra Schambaher and his wife.

Prior to the beginning of the liturgy, the flags of twenty-three Hispanic countries were carried in procession. The homily was given by Father Eugeniusz Gancarz, pastor of Resurrection parish in Riverview. The spontaneity and joy of the hundreds in the Cathedral began to lighten the day’s mood in this bishop. Our Hispanic sisters and brothers are great witnessed of faith in our midst and are a blessing. Caring for them as they deserve is something which I have not been particularly good at but as I often point out, this last census last year shows that in another decade or two for sure, they will account for forty percent of all the people living in our five counties. About twenty-five of our pastors and four of our deacons gave up an otherwise busy Saturday morning to show their support and love for our hermanos y hermanas.

In the evening I was invited by Dr. Arthur Kirk, Jr., President of St. Leo University to formally bless the new Donald Tapia School of Business whose construction has just been completed on the main campus in St. Leo, Pasco County. The principal donor whose name the building bears lives in the Phoenix area and after retiring from a successful lifetime in business decided to acquire a Bachelor’s degree on line. He enolled in St. Leo’s on-line program and never set his foot on the campus until his graduation. Later he would earn an MA again on-line from St. Leo. He is now chairman of the Board of Trustees while in his seventies and proud of his alma mater. Joy and pride was also evident in this occasion as St. Leo University continues to grow in enrollment and respectability in academic world. The expansion of facilities in recent years has been truly amazing and every St. Leo student I meet, especially those who I know who have graduated from our high schools love going there. Signs of robustness and a growing Catholic identity mark our single local Catholic university and it makes me proud and I hope it does you as well. A dinner followed which I was happy to attend and now I am about ready to retire for a day which began poorly and with God’s grace improved throughout the day. It was fun and full of joy to be with two distinctly different but joyous Catholic communities.

One of my favorite writers on all things Catholic is John Allen and recently he was approached by one of his secular journalistic colleagues and interviewed about his feelings for the Church which he covers so fairly and well and its recent coverage in the media. As a last question, the interviewer  asked Allen what he thought was the best of Catholicism which may be missed by the mainstream media and he replied something to the effect of how much fun being a Catholic can be and how little coverage is given to those aspects of Catholicism in the United States which are fun or joyous. Ninety plus percent of my waking hours today have been spent surrounded by the “joy of being Catholic.”

St. Leo's new home for the Tapia School of Business

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SLEEPY HOLLOW

Friday, October 14th, 2011

I am writing this from St. Theresa’s Motherhouse of the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm near Germantown, New York. This beautiful piece of property with its stately mansion was purchased by the foundress of this community of religious women, Mother Angeline Teresa McCrory, O. Carm. in 1947 for $46,000 and has served in the intervening years as the Generalate for this branch of Carmelite Sisters who trace their way of life to St. Theresa of Avila. September 3, 2009 marked the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm whose major ministry, indeed their only ministry, is to the care of the aged, sick and infirm. The eighty-six acre property sits on the east bank of the Hudson River with the Catskill Mountains rising beautifully in the not too distant west. Mother Angeline was the head of the congregation which she founded in 1929 until her death in 1984, an astounding fifty-five years and she watched over the growth of these wonderful nuns from the early few to a high of about 350 sisters (there remain about 180 sisters). Born in Ireland and raised in Scotland where her father was a coal miner, she originally entered the Little Sisters of the Poor in France but when sent to the United States, she came to realize a need for a different form of ministry to the sick and dying, received permission from the Holy See to leave the one congregation and found this new community of women.

Mother Angeline had a great love for the priesthood and for priests and thus many of their long term care facilities today are home to aging priests often without families or those who simply need long term care. In her lifetime she became friends with many bishops and priests, including in our Florida history, Archbishops Joseph P. Hurley of Saint Augustine and Coleman F. Carroll of Miami. The sisters have a large long-term care facility on Palm Beach island called the Nora McKeen Residence and I was able to spend some time with Sister Mary Fidelis, O. Carm.,  who headed that facility for a number of years. At Christmas in 1941, Mother Angeline wrote these words of suggested prayer to her sisters: “Jesus, I pray Thee for thy faithful and fervent Priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for Thy tempted priests; for Thy lonely and desolate Priests; for Thy young priests, for Thy aged Priests; for the souls of Thy priests in Purgatory. But above all I commend to Thee the Priests dearest to me: the Priest who baptized me; the Priests who absolved me from my sins, the Priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Thy Body and Blood in Holy Communion. The Priests who taught and instructed me or helped me or encouraged me; all the Priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, Particularly Father _______. O Jesus keep them all close to Thy Heart, and bless them abundantly in time and eternity. Amen.” So how did I get here at the Mother House since I am neither aged (I lie) or infirm (I do not lie)?

Sister Peter Lillian of this community serves on the board of the Catholic Health Association with me and she asked if I would come to celebrate Mass and preach at a three day annual convening called the Avila Institute for Gerontology wherein leadership from all their facilities around the midwest, eastern and southern parts of the United States would attend. I could never turn Sister Peter down in a million years so here I am on the banks of the Hudson in eighty degree Fall weather with the leaves just beginning to change. This is a challenging time for nursing homes and longterm care facilities around the US and in particular to the sisters’ mission. Reimbursement formulas will change as a result of the Affordable Care Act and I believe it could have ominous consequences for facilities like those which the sisters run. Those in attendance are learning first hand of those consequences during this meeting and how they might most effectively be met. My role is to offer daily Mass and preach briefly plus I had two lesser duties assigned to me as well.

I flew Sunday night after a late morning confirmation at Blessed Sacrament parish, Seminole, to Albany, New York. I was surrounded by people returning to Albany. Several asked me where I was going and when I said “Germantown” they replied “where is that?” For the first time in my life I drove a rental car down the New York State Thruway (scary piece of concrete) and after about forty miles the GPS in my iPhone finally announced, “Exit in two miles to the right. Turn left and follow the signs to Sleepy Hollow.” I crossed the Rip Van Wrinkle Bridge over the Hudson and began my lookout for the Headless Horseman or maybe even Ichabod Crane. Seeing neither I soon passed an intersection which contained two gas stations on two of the four corners and two banks on the other two and a sign which said, “Leaving Germantown.” I have no memory of entering Germantown. Nonetheless I found the entrance to Motherhouse and have been very well cared for since. It has been a delightful two days and three nights but today it is back to St. Petersburg, work, and no headless horseman again, I hope.

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The Hudson River with the Catskills much closer than they look on the opposite bank

MY NOMINEE FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Christopher Mertens with Dr. Abdulai and his wife at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, Ghana

Christopher Mertens is a junior at Notre Dame University in pre-med. [In the interest of full disclosure, his older sister Maria is our new WebMaster at the Diocese of St. Petersburg and assists with the mounting and presentation of these blog entries after I have finished writing them.] The Mertens family attends Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater. Christopher, through the kindness and support of Catholic Relief Services, had an opportunity this past summer to work at a clinic in Tamale, Ghana (northern section of the country) with a man whom, if I were on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, would be my nominee and remain such until he received it.

Doctor David Abdulai has now founded two clinics in Tamale which treat the indigent, the mentally challenged, and lepers. The last is little wonder since the doctor’s own parents had Hanson’s disease (leprosy). After medical school, Dr. Abdulai practiced medicine in the government hospitals of Ghana and created a comfortable living for himself and his family. Born a Muslim, the doctor became a Roman Catholic as an adult, but his practice of medicine is open to and extremely sensitive to all the major religions of his area.  At some point, feeling that his family had enough to live on, he left the more lucrative practice of medicine (understanding that in Ghana “lucrative” probably means a lot less than in the United States) and decided to devote his life to treating the poor.

His first clinic he named the Shekhinah Clinic and opened its doors to those so poor they were refused treatment in the government hospitals of the Tamale region. Using ground he procured for the purpose, he opened examining rooms and an operating theatre. Then he built small huts since most of his patients came long distances and needed a place to stay before and after seeing the doctor and following surgery. He charges them nothing, either for his medical services or room and board while at the clinic. Because he treats the mentally ill, he is sometimes referred to as “the crazy doctor,” but to his nation and to his region, he is the male Mother Theresa of Calcutta who sees the face of God in every poor person in need of his help.

The whole operation is run on the principle of Deus Providebit or “God will provide.” He now has two of these clinics in different parts of Tamale among which he splits his time and receives sufficient food gifts and medicine to care for the indigent yet hope-filled people he sees. There are obvious human and professional limitations on how many he can see. At the Shekhinah Clinic where Christopher spent the summer, three days a week, sixty people are scheduled for examination. Dr. Abdulai readily admits that he could take more, but they would not then receive the careful, personal attention from him which they need. Patient beyond belief with his patients, there is no more concerned person in Ghana than this doctor sitting opposite his patient.

Not fully satisfied that the two clinics were doing enough for the region’s poor, Dr. Abdulai also started a nutrition and feeding program for the mentally ill on the streets who are completely alone and have no one else to care for them. For many years, Catholic Relief Services was able to assist in providing food from US-AID and the UN World Food Program to the clinics and to the poor but our government in its wisdom has largely dried up that source. It matters not to Dr. Abdulai because God will provide and God still does. God even now provides doctors from Germany, Canada, Scotland and England and occasionally from the United States who come to the clinics and assist the doctor for a few weeks each year precisely because they admire him, his mission and his work. God help the visiting doctors if they do not give each poor patient in front of them the same time, care and attention as does the clinic’s founder but word is spreading through the world medical community that this man is for real, a genuine article interested only in helping humanity. Very shy by nature, the doctor does not seek the limelight and will only attend things which will benefit the clinics and the food outreach program, not to glorify himself.

Recently the doctor was singled out in his own country and given an award which was followed up by a piece on his work on the national television network of Ghana. If you have taken the time to read this blog entry to this point, then I ask you to take fifteen more minutes and watch this television footage of the doctor and his mission. You may watch the two parts below. Please listen carefully, because although in English, you need a good ear for the accents.

(If the videos are not appearing, please try refreshing your Internet browser.)

Part One:

Part Two:

Christopher Mertens himself became a patient of Dr. Abdulai and the Shekhinah Clinic when one Sunday morning he became violently ill. The doctor rushed from his home, took a quick blood test and confirmed that he had malaria. It was short-lived and Chris continued his work of assisting the volunteers at the Clinic in many ways, feeding the patients, dispensing medicine as prescribed, occasionally going into the operating theatre to watch the doctor in surgery. He went out of the city into the countryside to deliver food to the leper colonies and in ten weeks lost thirty-five pounds due to the malaria and the change in diet. On the morning he left on the six a.m. bus for Accra and his return to the United States, his colleagues and co-workers came to the bus station to see him off. There are reported to have been many tears for this young white man from the United States quickly known for his smile, kindness, and witness to faith. Dr. Abdulai wrote to me about Christopher and I quote him here: “Yes, Chris has told us that he hopes to become a medical doctor. He will surely make a fine physician of both body and soul, seeing his spiritual approach to everything in the clinic. He does not talk much. He teaches by example, and I am personally touched by his love for God and neighbor. It will certainly be well demonstrated in his medical practice. And through this he may draw many of his patients to a closer relationship with Christ.” This quote tells you and I more about the good doctor than about Christopher.

I hope to meet Dr. David Abdulai before I meet the Lord to thank him for the witness of his life, faith and medical profession. Having spent a number of occasions with Blessed Mother Theresa, I see many of the same qualities of love for the poor and forgotten and while the doctor, as I too would  personally claim to be no saint, he would easily like her in 1979 deserve the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for the witness of his life.

+RNL

The website for the clinic is: http://www.shekhinah-clinic.com/Shekhinah_Clinic/shekhinah_clinic.html. The website is run and monitored by a group of Germans who previously volunteered at the clinic.

SIX NEW SERVANTS OF THE GOSPEL

Monday, October 10th, 2011

The laying on of hands. Photo courtesy of Barbara Wells.

Saturday morning at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, six new men were added to the rolls of permanent deacons of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Joined by their wives, children, grandchildren, family and friends, these new deacons completed their four years of preparation and presented themselves to the assembly for ordination. Promising “obedience and respect to me and my successors” the candidates lay prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary as the assembly prayed to all the saints to be with these Gospel servants during their new ministry. After the laying on of hands by the bishop only, the men were vested in the robes of their office by their wives and priests and/or deacons of their choosing. The penultimate moment of the rite of ordination takes place when the new ordinand is presented with the Book of the Gospels and told, “believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.” The rite concludes with a greeting of peace given by myself to each of the new deacons followed by the same from the about sixty deacons present for the ordination.  Once seated the Eucharist proceeds and two of the new deacons assist at the altar and the other four assist with the distribution of Holy Communion.

The six men ordained on Saturday were Carlos Celaya of St. Paul parish, Tampa; Scott Conway of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini parish, Spring Hill; Edward Dodenhoff of St. Stephen parish, Valrico; Paul Haber of Christ the King parish, Tampa; Matthew Shirina of Nativity parish, Brandon; and, Edward Smith of St. Stephen parish, Valrico. Joining me this morning for the ordination ceremony was Bishop Robert Guglielmone, Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, who was present at Deacon Scott Conway’s birth and his pastor at a parish on Long Island for Scott’s younger years.

Bishop Robert Guglielmone, the newly ordained deacons, and myself. Photo courtesy of Barbara Wells.

The office of deacon’s beginning is well documented in Sacred Scripture [Acts 6:1-7b] when the apostles’  work load just became so great as they travelled around, celebrating Eucharist, preaching, and baptizing that they were unable to attend to the needs of some in the Church who traditionally were cared for well in the Jewish practice of religion, especially widows and orphans. In time, their ministry also was extended to administration but seems largely to have passed out of existence in the 6th or 7th century. The second Vatican Council restored the diaconate in the mid-sixties, seeing to it that it became available once again to married men. Throughout the centuries, diaconate as the final order prior to ordination as a priest was maintained and today the difference is manifest by calling those preparing for ordination as “transitional deacons” and those being ordained to serve as deacons for the rest of their lives as “permanent deacons.” Permanent deacons do not have to promise to live the celibate life obviously but they are not allowed to remarry should their wives precede them in death.

There was great joy in our Cathedral on Saturday morning and few moments bring the joy and satisfaction to a bishop like that of ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood. The six men have received their first assignments from the Clergy Personnel Board after meeting with them. The last two classes have been ordained for the service of the whole diocese and not just the parish from which they come, though some indeed have been assigned to their home parishes. Again I offer my congratulations to the newly ordained and my gratitude to their spouses who have supported them in their decision to pursue ordination and are willing to share their husbands with the Church.

+RNL

CULTIVATING UNITY

Friday, October 7th, 2011

The group of priests at this year's convocation, October 6, 2011-Photo kindness of Ed Foster

Approximately eighty-six priests and I have just completed the annual convocation when we get together for prayer, fraternity, and continuing education. From time immemorial, these annual convenings have taken place in a hotel/motel beginning with a Holiday Inn originally in Plant City and in more recent years at the hotel at Sable Park which has changed franchise at least four times in my fifteen years. But, this year, the majority of the priests stayed at the Bethany Center where we have fifty-three private rooms, others stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn, fifteen minutes away at FL 54 and the Suncoast Parkway and a few commuted to and from their rectories. Our topic this year was “Cultivating Unity” which had two aspects: unity among the priests and unity of the priests with their bishop (moi). We are the twenty-first diocese to contract with NOCERCC (National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy) and with CARA (Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate) who guide and lead the sessions based on input and feedback provided by the priests in advance of the convening through a long questionnaire and focus groups. We currently have 203 active and retired priests in the diocese who were mailed the questionnaire and 127 responded for a 63% response rate. Thirty-four of the priests attended one of the two listening sessions and a CARA representative interviewed me for about an hour. Because these same two groups have conducted the same interviews and measurement process in twenty-one other dioceses, they now have a statistical sampling to compare our priests and the sense of unity with one another and with myself against a larger Church.

Fifty-nine percent of the priests indicated that they felt the unity among themselves was either somewhat strong or very strong and eighty-two percent said that morale among the priests is high. Perhaps the best news is that ninety-five per cent of the priests indicated satisfaction with their lives as priests.  It would be too self-serving of me as the author of this blog to interpret both the data and the days together about the priests’ perception of their relationship with me as their bishop, but it was wonderfully affirming of my presence the past fifteen and one half years, and I will leave it at that. The fathers had four opportunities to discuss among themselves both the survey results and what they might mean for their ministry and for mine. Worries and anxieties tended to settle on the amount of work occasioned by the reduction in the number of priests, the poor position in which they perceive the diocese to be in for serving the rapidly growing Hispanic Catholic population, and some possible initiatives currently being discussed such as a capital funds drive and an initiative to save and/or strengthen Catholic schools. That comprised the work element of our time together.

I have not seen the evaluations of this year’s convocation but I would be very surprised if the presence, wisdom and insights of our Spiritual Moderator, Bishop Paul D. Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming were notBishop Paul D. Etienne, Bishop of Cheyenne off the charts. Again in the interest of transparency, Bishop Etienne and I have been friends for twenty-seven years now and you may recall that I preached at his episcopal ordination two years ago, December 9, 2009. Bishop Etienne spoke to us in homiletic fashion at Mass and Morning and or Evening Prayer each day. Yesterday as we were breaking up to leave for home, one priest after another came up to him to thank him for his presence, to wish him well, and say good-bye, they hope only for a while. I began the practice of asking bishop friends to be present and help us during these convocations for several reasons, not the least of which is that sometimes the office of bishop often seems defined by the governance or administration phase and the sacramental phase, notably presence at confirmations and other significant calendar moments. Some bishops though not this one has a wealth of wonderful theology to share but seldom have an opportunity to do so. That’s why over the fifteen convocations which I have been present for, with the concurrence of the planning committee, I have invited bishops to serve as Spiritual Moderators. They also hear confessions and make themselves available to any priest who wishes to see them. Bishop Etienne was simply wonderful at that. Like myself he writes a regular blog to his people, often rich in spiritual insights (sadly unlike myself) and if you would like to take the measure of the bishop servant who spent four days with your priests, you can access him by http://bishopsblog.dioceseofcheyenne.org. Read him after you have read here. I am so proud to be a friend of Bishop Paul and I use this moment to thank him.

Finally, the annual convocation is a major event of planning and execution. For twenty years, Father Michael O’Brien has chaired the committee which works long and hard in advance and during the week to see that we are care for in every conceivable way. I wish to thank Father Mike who is finishing his work (he is now a “Dean” of his deanery) and his committee as well as our outside guests, Father Stephen Fichter of CARA, Father Mark Hession of NOCERCC and Trish of NOCERCC for their invaluable contribution and presence during these days.

+RNL