Archive for December, 2011


Saturday, December 31st, 2011

The familiar pyramid structure remains while a new entrance leading to a large and inviting "gathering space" is shown here in this picture.

So far for the last several years I have had the great joy during the Advent season to consecrate new altars in two churches which badly needed and have undergone very serious remodeling. A year ago December it was Holy Family parish in northeast St. Petersburg and this year it was St. Jerome parish church in Indian Rocks Beach. The good parishioners had been worshipping for forty years in a Church which was unique in the diocese, basically a pyramid. Inside there were no main entrances to the space, a steeply sloped floor (caskets needed special brakes!), an initial color scheme which might once have been stunning but through the years became a point of some humor, and a section for the choir that might as well have been right in the sanctuary. St. Jerome’s has one of the best choirs in the diocese under the longtime direction of Tom Kurt and it is quite large so any new design had to accommodate this wonderful reality. Seating about a thousand people with a daily Mass chapel which remained open twenty-four hours each day for private Eucharistic adoration, the old and original St. Jerome’s satisfied many. There had been one remodel of the sanctuary since its original opening but little else had been done for the main worship space.

A few years ago the pastor, Monsignor Brendan Muldoon carefully began to raise with the congregation the possibility of an updating of the space. There were few weddings held at St. Jerome’s because there was no middle aisle for a bride to march down. There was no access to the sanctuary for the physically challenged to proclaim the readings or serve as Eucharistic ministers, the pews were getting dangerously old and the carpet and seat cushions desperately needed replacement and soon. Additionally, there was no main entrance and gathering space where during the rain people could be dropped off or picked up, a casket could be taken from or placed into a hearse in inclement weather, and the carpet was both threadbare and coming up (I myself a few years ago recklessly swinging an incense thurible burned a hole in the carpet in front of the main altar). So slowly and painstakingly Monsignor Muldoon with the support of a few parishioners began to make his case for a total re-do. The end product is nothing short of a spectacular transition from what was to what now is. Under the able direction of Christine Reinhardt, a liturgical consultant, and Nelson Griffin a local architect, plans were slowly drawn to level the floor, change the inner axis of the Church by relocating the sanctuary, creating a gathering space and a true main entrance from the outside which was weather resistant, creating a smaller twenty-four hour a day adoration chapel behind and visible from the main apse of the Church, and a new altar, ambo, and baptismal font.

A view from the left side of the space shows the new sanctuary, altar, place for the choir and musicians. Photo kindness of David Exterkamp of St. Jerome parish.

On December 17th the parish gathered for the consecration of the new altar (since the exterior walls of the church remains unchanged, a full rite of dedication of a church was not called for). Standing at the main entrance at the conclusion of Mass, almost every parishioner  was highly complimentary of their new worship space. Since with the exception of the new entrance/gathering space built for the moment, the rest of the Church contained the original “wineskins” of the original structure thus proving that “new wine” can be made to work. Congratulations were abundant to Monsignor Muldoon and all who worked with him on this multi-year project which was accomplished for about three million dollars. It will serve the community of St. Jerome’s for many years and encourage a fuller and more active participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council. Everyone is now closer to the altar and can be more a part of the sacred action. That’s what a remodel project should be all about!



Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Worshipping together - seminarians and family on the Feast of the Holy Family. Photo kindness of Walter C. Pruchnik, III

Last night at the Bethany Center I attended, perhaps even hosted, the annual Christmas dinner for our thirty-four seminarians and their families. If most bishops were to tell the truth, attending banquets and dinners while a part of our job description are not those things which we most like to do. We do them because it is expected and more often than not our presence lends some importance to the event which can be anything from an annual affair of a diocesan organization to a major fundraiser for something important in diocesan life. For myself, the annual Christmas gathering of the seminarians and their families has always been something I both look forward to and enjoy. Usually it occurs just prior to Christmas when the sems have just arrived back from their semester of studies but this year we had to delay it because the major seminary calendar went right up to three days prior to Christmas – thus last night. Everyone was there except for our first year theology student, Ryan Boyle, who is attending the North American College in Rome. However, Ryan’s parents were present.

Deacons Victor Amorose and Timothy Corcoran will be ordained priests in mid-May. Photo by Walter C.Pruchnik III

The dinner is preceded by Mass and occasionally there is a ministry or candidacy to be conferred but last night gave me a rare opportunity to reflect on five of the major figures of our faith who get lost in the days between Christmas and New Years: St. Stephen the first martyr for the faith, John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents, St. Thomas Becket, and because Sunday is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Church, last night the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was transferred to Friday this year. Each of these major figures gives to the community of Christ a gift: for Stephen it was courageous proclamation of Christ, for John the Apostle, it was loyalty to the charge given to him by Christ on the cross, for the Holy Innocents it was their unknowing sparing of the life of Jesus, for Becket it was the supremacy of conscience, and for the Holy Family it was bearing the sword of life’s unpredictables with faith and hope.

A good dinner followed the Mass and we adjourned for another year in about three hours. As the photos which accompany this entry show, Bethany is an absolutely beautiful place to gather all together and starting next Tuesday, thirty cardinals, archbishops and bishops of the east coast from Delaware to Miami will gather for their annual retreat, their second here with us. I shall be on that retreat myself.

Almost all of the seminarians were accompanied by their pastors or association pastors. Photo kindness of Walter Pruchnik III

Pray for our seminarians. If you knew them as I know them, you would be very proud of their sacrifice in today’s secular culture, their commitment to pursuing ministry in today’s Church and world, and their hopes for the future of us all. Their hope and enthusiasm is infectious and every once in a while, even a bishop needs to catch the “fever” which today’s candidates for priestly ministry have.






Sunday, December 25th, 2011

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” [LK2:6]

At this "Inn" the Holy Family occupies the same kind of tent as those residing at Pinellas Hope.

 Two years ago this very night, literally wrapped not in swaddling clothes but rather three blankets covering those pitiful, ill fitting and impossible to wear with dignity hospital gowns, I was rolled in a wheel chair to St. Anthony Hospital Chapel for a Christmas Eve vigil Mass. I will readily admit to being an emotional wreck that night as my endocrinologist had visited my room within the hour before Mass to tell me that there was strong evidence that my kidneys may be failing, dialysis at least temporary, was a strong possibility and the reality of going home in two days as planned could be discarded. I was lonely, depressed, and fearful for the future, and weeks since offering or attending Mass. I was essentially spiritually homeless. At some point in the journey from hospital room and bed to the chapel, I had a moment to look out that evening on what was an unusually cold night here, and saw about ten homeless people along St. Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue, making their way slowly to their overnight accommodations outside and underneath the expressway adjacent to St. Vincent de Paul and across from the hospital. I thought to myself, “Lynch, you have little to complain about or to fear. You at least are being taken care of. Someone is watching over you.”

Before Christmas Eve dinner about 150 residents gathered for Carols, a reading from Luke's Infancy Narrative and some prayer and reflection which I felt privileged to lead.

Earlier this evening, I led an interfaith Christmas prayer service at Pinellas Hope. It was entirely optional for the 396 residents living there tonight, in tents and tiny wooden casitas and it preceded the annual Christmas eve dinner, which for five years have been the gift of one of my colleagues and his family. Two homeless people brought a small plastic replica of the baby Jesus seemingly out from nowhere and placed him into a manger scene consisting of, you guessed it, the same kind of tent they live in 24/7 at Pinellas Hope for however long they reside there. Those in attendance were proud that their baby Jesus had a place to stay, which they had erected and prepared. We fed 176 on this Christmas Eve and as two years ago, it is from the homeless I have learned a sense of gratitude and a deeper meaning of Christmas.

Homelessness is a central part of the Christmas story. The long awaited Messiah and King of Israel was born essentially homeless but still loved, longed for, and embraced. It is so often when we are encumbered by the stress especially of this season, that we lose as I did two years ago the sense that it is precisely in adversity that God works His best wonders. Someone historically anonymous made room for Mary and Joseph that night, gave them a place where a child could be born, and to which visitors, unlikely visitors at that, could come and pay their respect and their reverence.

Mrs. Kurci and Ed, the gardener who lovingly cares for "The Garden of Hope" where fresh vegetables are being grown for use in feeding the homeless housed there.

Those visitors, the shepherds were also homeless. Nomadic by nature and vocation, they had no way of knowing for sure where they might be the following year or what challenges might await them. Yet, they saw a star and heard the voices of ones sent by God and for a time left behind every worldly possession they owned to share this seismic moment in human history when God took on our human form and dwelt amongst us.

And while the Christmas story is so charming it is also challenging. Homelessness for Mary, Joseph and Jesus did not end when the new mother and her child were capable of travelling safely and securely back to their home in Nazareth, but rather because of jealousy they would soon flee and become illegal immigrants making their way to alien Egypt, living essentially homeless until it was safe to return home and begin again their life as a family.

The Kurci Family baked 30 sweet potato pies from sweet potatoes grown and harvested from the "Garden of Hope" inside of Pinellas Hope.

We come to Church tonight to sing ancient hymns of joy and happiness reminding us of that “holy night”, to hear again the story of the dear Savior’s birth. Tonight Christ is not born again in human history but Christ can be reborn in each of us. However, we cannot and must not leave him homeless but rather make a home for him within ourselves. The Christmas story can match every longing, fear and anxiety we have tonight and as in the game of poker, “raise it” as well. But the love of God, the trust and faith in God and the hope in God which marked the central figures of that first Christmas assures us that we need not be homeless but have found Him for whom generations longed to see, to experience, to know.

Every year for five years on Christmas Eve, the Murphy family and their neighbors have purchased and served the Christmas Eve dinner at Pinellas Hope. Here are just a few of them before the "rush" begins.

Spiritual and religious homelessness also means that all of us need to recommit to meeting Christ regularly in the sacraments of the Church. It is time for Catholics to Come Home. Sadly but realistically, we know that the second largest Christian body in the United States, behind practicing members of the Catholic faith, is to be found in Catholics who have left us or fallen away from their faith. Perhaps you have seen in recent days the invitations conveyed on television asking those who have been hurt, felt alienated, perhaps embarrassed by the patent sinfulness not of the Church but of some of its leaders and members, to return. We promise a better reception should you return than whatever the circumstances were which caused you to leave. Just as we want and work to alleviate the pain of homelessness in our society, county, city, and neighborhood, we want to alleviate also the pain of spiritual homelessness. Our priests, our deacons, our religious and our lay leaders have all been working to provide a genuine welcome. My two homeless friends at Pinellas Hope could only bring to the manger tent an image of Jesus. We want those who are spiritually homeless to receive the real thing, Jesus, body and blood in the Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church.

There is room within the “Inn of Christ’s Church” and we promise to do everything we can to make you feel at home again.

I cried two years ago at that Mass I described at the beginning, not knowing if I would ever see another Christmas. I now truly believe that God heard the prayers of many and of myself that night, for I was released the day after Christmas as planned and now wish to devote my remaining energy to spreading the truly good news of Christmas and Easter: Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has Risen, and while Christ will come again, He is among us tonight and every day, just for the asking. In the name of the Word made flesh, I beg you to come home not just for Christmas but for the rest of your life.

Wishing all God’s people, Catholic and non-Catholic, the greatest of blessings this Christmas day and peace to all people of good will. Merry Christmas.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch


Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

I know this blog site is becoming somewhat like the “Obituary” page in any local newspaper and I am sorry for that but today I write with a particularly heavy heart. At about 1150am this morning, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville called me on my cell phone to tell me that my dear friend and his predecessor, Archbishop Thomas Cajetan Kelly, O.P. had died in his sleep sometime this morning. It was horrible news for me for there have been few figures as prominent in my journey to priesthood and its subsequent ups and downs as +Tom Kelly. He was present at my ordination to the priesthood and all smiles at my ordination as a bishop, soon sixteen years ago. Always a phone call away, my day was often brightened when I would pick up the phone and hear, “Kelly here!”

For most of his life, his Dominican community laid claim to his heart. He loved being a Dominican. When he was working in the office of the Apostolic Delegate in Washington or as Associate General Secretary of the episcopal conference, he lived and thrived in one small room at the Dominican House of Studies, large enough for a small bed, a desk, a chest-of-drawers and one chair – a desk chair – no bathroom, that was down the hall. The source and summit of his day was Mass with the Dominican community and praying the divine office in choir. The rest of his day was the spiritual equivalent of “chump-change.” He had no bank account, little money, no car, and when not in his Dominican habit he wore clothes I was sure were from the local St. Vincent de Paul Thrift shop. He thrived on being and living a monk and how he loved his Dominican brothers.

As a General Secretary of the Conference (he was brought to the service of the Conference by Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin) he was known to all of us as witty, humble, the best listener in the world, and a thorough product of the Second Vatican Council which he embraced with joy and deep commitment. At the time the General Secretary’s position entailed almost automatically becoming a bishop and how he dreaded that inevitablility. Soon he was ordained an auxiliary of the Washington archdiocese so for about four years he shouldered the twin burdens of working in an office from nine-to-five Monday through Friday and confirming many evenings and on week-ends. It was at that time that he had to give up living with his Dominican brothers, who knew him by his name in religion, “Cajetan.”

He had never had a bank account in his adult life so one day the Chief Financial Officer of the NCCB/USCC took the new bishop to a branch bank to open a checking account. The whole hierarchy of the bank was there to meet the mendicant since the Conference also did its banking there. Forms were filled out and completed and then came the awkward moment when the branch Vice-President said to +Kelly, ‘usually to open an account there is an initial deposit. Bishop, how much would you like to deposit?” Kelly looked stricken with fear. He opened his wallet and all present saw there one ten-dollar bill. He pulled it out, gave it to the Vice-President and said, “will this do?” The conference CFO was turning red with embarrassment but the bank VP said, “yes, that will do nicely.” After securing the deposit slip for ten dollars all rose and headed to the door when +Kelly suddenly said, “can I write checks now?” to which the bank official said, “as long as they are not for more than ten dollars!”

At the end of his term, in 1983 he was named Archbishop of Louisville. Wanting no part of an episcopal residence or an omnipresent priest secretary or an elaborate vehicle, the monk chose quickly to sell the house he inherited as Archbishop and move into two rooms on the third floor of the Cathedral rectory in downtown Louisville where he was as happy as that proverbial “clam at high tide.” He quickly fell in love with the priests and people of the archdiocese driving himself (rather dangerously I would say) in a small car.

Like most archbishops and bishops of the late eighties and nineties, Archbishop Kelly became entangled in the clergy sexual misconduct issues of the day and I know that he later wished he had handled some of them differently. But he was so proud of his archdiocese and its good priests and as an archbishop, he loved and cared for his suffragan bishops in the dioceses of Kentucky and Tennesee also. He also cared deeply for his friends from other times and Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe and myself were two of those more lucky ones. +Michael and I will be present in Louisville on Monday and Tuesday for the final farewell on earth of our friend. It’s the least we can do for someone who was always there for us.

There are not many people left at the bishops’ conference who will remember the +Kelly years but those who are there and who do would all say the same thing: he was a joyful and humble servant of the Lord and of the Church. We liked working for him and with him. He was always happy where he was be it in the cubicle of a monk in a monastery or presiding at liturgy as a bishop. A great story teller, the people of Louisville will remember him as a wonderful preacher (as a son of Dominic in the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, one would expect as much.) While he never lost his love of his religious community and his brothers, +Thomas Cajetan Kelly, O.P. died in love with the Church of Louisville which he inherited through God’s plan. Installed in the same Louisville arena where the night before “Hulk Hogan” had wrestled with some nemesis (he made mention of that in his inaugural homily), this priest of God never ever wished to call attention to himself, but only to the Lord whom he served. I was blessed to be in his company, to be counted as a friend, and to have a mentor so deeply committed to leading a Church in the years following the Council. I feel his death very deeply and very personally.



Sunday, December 11th, 2011

John Cardinal Foley, 1935-2011

Word came to  me late on Saturday on the “mother of all ecclesial blogs” of the death of John Cardinal Foley, a man whom I admired as a churchman, professional, and media-saavy representative in Rome. If any reader has ever heard of him, it is likely in connection with his annual voice-0ver of Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with the Holy Father celebrating. There was much more to this grand man, however, than that annual ninety minutes of international exposure on NBC and other media outlets worldwide who carried the Mass. Born and raised in Philadelphia and ever proud of that fact, Cardinal Foley was tapped early on in his priesthood by the late John Cardinal Krol, Philadelphia’s archbishop at the time, for further studies in journalism. Following the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Krol realized that if the Church was indeed to engage the modern world, it would likely have to do that in and through the media. Father Foley was sent to Columbia where he received a doctorate degree in journalism. Returning to his diocese, he became editor of the archdiocesan newspaper as well as teaching theology courses at St. Charles Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.

When Cardinal Krol followed the first post conciliar president of the episcopal conference of the United States, John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit (both Krol and Dearden were priests of the Cleveland diocese before being raised to the episcopacy), Krol listened intently to the arguments raised in the Fall meeting of the US bishops by the recently deceased  Archbishop Phillip Hannan, then an auxiliary in Washington, DC, that if the Church was truly to engage the modern world, then it made sense that the annual meetings should be open to the press and to appropriate observers making working behind closed doors a thing of the past in the United States. As one might expect there was considerable opposition to the Hannan proposal but Cardinal Krol turned to his journalism pro, Father John Foley, who persuaded him that there was a far more to be gained from openness in the modern era than secrecy and the body of bishops soon agreed to open their meetings.

With the election of the Polish pope, John Paul II, in 1978, Krol was consulted about a new head for a recently established post-conciliar “council” within the curia entitled, “The Pontifical Council for Social Communications.” Its first leader, a close Polish friend of the new Pope, then Archbishop Andrzej Deskur had suffered a stroke. Krol recommended his young editor to the Holy Father who agreed that by both background and disposition, John Foley could be the man. Think the early eighties and the Holy See and the press. Those who think the relationship is strained now should have been around in those days. Foley arrived with the title of “Archbishop” but was treated very badly by a few well placed people in the curia. Deskur had as his responsibilities as President of the Council for Social Communications the following offices and functions: (the Press Office of the Holy See – quickly removed from any connection with Archbishop Foley’s office; Vatican Television which while still embryonic Foley found to be full of potential, also removed from Archbishop Foley’s purview; Vatican Radio and to a lesser extent, Osservatore Romano, the six times a week newspaper of the Holy See, removed from Archbishop Foley’s responsibilites). It soon left him with little more than a voice crying in the wilderness of the Holy See at times but he never once complained or asked to be reassigned to the United States, he soldiered on making progress where he could and accepting in the words of Francis of Assisi, “those things which I cannot change.”

When the US media would arrive en masse or separately at the Vatican, they would always begin with Archbishop Foley. He and his faithful assistant, Marjorie Weeks, would do what they could to gain access and arrange for location shooting. Sometimes the Archbishop would even have to fight for that but he did, endearing him to all who knew of the challenges which he faced often in attempting to make the message of the Church in the modern world accessible, intelligible and timely. A great friend of the President whom I served for two of my six years as General Secretary, Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, we often would share a table with the Archbishop and even though I would sometimes attempt to “bait” him into expressing what must have been his professional crosses carried, I never would receive more than a message conveyed not by words, but by his eyebrows. The curia for the most part had an intense dislike of the media and did not understand it unless they could control it. They were always uneasy with Archbishop Foley’s inherent trust that truth served the church better than evasion, and proactive nine times out of ten would trump reactive. How sweet it was when Pope Benedict XVI finally recognized the “gem” long in the service of the Holy See and made the long-serving President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications a Cardinal. Lots of hearts were overjoyed with that news and I, for one, will always be grateful to his Holiness for that courageous message delivered five years ago.

So now Cardinal Foley has no more commentary to give, no more deadlines to meet, no more people to welcome to the threshold of the successor of St. Peter. A great man of the Church known to too few Americans has gone home to rest in eternal life. I have lovely and lasting memories of a man much like my friend, the late Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus who taught me how to carry the cross of Christ at times in the service of the Church we love. Rest in peace, Your Eminence. I won’t forget you.



Friday, December 9th, 2011

The Florida bishops (minus Pensacola-Talllahassee which is still waiting for a new bishop to be announced and installed) met in Miami on Tuesday as guests of Archbishop Thomas Wenski. It took us four hours to dispose of the business of the Florida Catholic Conference. Conference Executive Director Dr. D. Michael McCarron presented us with a lengthy agenda of action items about which there were no real differences of opinion but a need to know more about the challenges which face the Church in Florida in 2012. This state is so lucky to have a superb Executive Director who is assisted by a very able, competent and committed staff. The results of the Conference over the years in the public square far exceeds the per cent of the state population which is Roman Catholic and stands as a testament to prudent, respectful and appreciative engagement with past Administrations (Chiles, Bush, Crist, and Scott in my time) and legislatures.

From left, bishops who attended the Mass included: Bishop Victor Galeone, retired of St. Augustine: Bishop Fernando Isern of Pueblo, Colo.; Bishop John Noonan of Orlando; Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice; myself; and Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Palm Beach. Photo courtesy of Ana Rodriguez-Soto with The Florida Catholic.

In the evening we reconvened at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Miami to celebrate retired Archbishop John C. Favalora’s golden anniversary of priestly ordination and silver anniversary of episcopal ordination. I hope and pray that you remember kindly the five years that Archbishop Favalora served as our third bishop here in St. Petersburg. About one hundred and forty priests, nine bishops, and a good representation of the laity came for this special Mass of Thanksgiving.The Archbishop was both the principal celebrant of the liturgy and the homilist. I must say that St. Mary’s Cathedral has a music program to “die for” and as good as I remember it, it has never been better than this evening. The celebration took about seventy-five minutes which is not bad when one gathers that many bishops and others.

Archbishop John C. Favalora sits in the cathedra, a symbol of a bishop's authority, during the Mass. Photo courtesy of Ana Rodriguez-Soto with The Florida Catholic.

Archbishop Favalora gave a beautiful homily on the occasion, focusing not on himself but on the Lord’s call to serve in the priesthood. In twelve minutes (I time myself and everyone else who preaches because I firmly believe that the mind can not absorb what the tush can’t take) he gave a ratio fundamentalis or foundation reasons for what the gift of priestly ministry means in our own time. Only at the end did he quickly express his thanks to those gathered for nourishing his ministry in the past twenty-five and fifty years. At the conclusion, he was greeted with prolonged applause and standing appreciation, I believe not just for his lucid homily but for his many years of service. The Diocese of St. Petersburg is about forty-four years old now and its first bishop, Charles McLaughlin served for the first ten years, then Bishop W. Thomas Larkin succeeded him for just shy of ten years. Archbishop Favalora’s tenure was about five years and my own is soon to enter its sixteenth year. I think each of us has attempted in our own way to nourish and fashion a community of faith at the service of Christ’s Church. I have always been grateful that the Lord in his kindness allowed me to follow Archbishop Favalora because things were in great shape when I came. I only hope I can with God’s help leave them that way for my successor. In words spoken and written yesterday I extended to the good Archbishop the gratitude of the Church of St. Petersburg for his presence in our midst. He seems incredibly happy to be free of the burden of administration and I am admittedly jealous.



Thursday, December 1st, 2011
Attorneys in the congregation taking the Oath of Attorney during the Red Mass.

Taking the Oath of Attorney during the Red Mass. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.

Yesterday at beautiful Sacred Heart Church in Tampa we celebrated the annual Red Mass invoking the blessings  of the Holy Spirit on all judges, lawyers and clerks in our area. The Mass derives its name not from the color of vestments which the priests wear, but when the custom originated in Britain many centuries ago, the judges all wore red robes, hence “the Red Mass.” Yesterday was also the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle and since all the apostles suffered a martyr’s death, we always wear red when we remember them. The largest assembly of lawyers and judges in my time gathered to pray for the gift of divine guidance through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We have great Catholic lawyers and judges and it has always been a pleasure to be with them. Each year on the Sunday prior to the first Monday in October opening of a new session of the Supreme Court, many of the nine justices travel to Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral for what may be the largest and most important Red Mass held in the nation.

In my homily I chose to bring up a possibility arising from Health and Human Services regulations which bother me deeply precisely because I and many others find them   violative of the religious liberty assured us by the first amendment to our Constitution and also of our personal moral consciences. These regulations will apply to the implementation of the soon to be fully implemented federal health care law.

The Diocese of Saint Petersburg has approximately 2300 employees who participate in a generous health care plan as part of their employment. While it covers almost everything, it excludes contraceptives, abortifacients, sexual enhancements like “Viagra”, etc. The first draft of the regulations for implementation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services mandated these and more services which I and others think violate the freedom of religion of our Church as regards procedures which we believe to be not in keeping with God’s law.  Further, if a person is required by law to provide, perhaps in a hospital emergency room situation procedures violative of their individual conscience( in the past they have  been exempt because of conscience concerns), they would be forced by this law to do so. Reacting to the first wave of complaints from the Catholic Church the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services modified the regulations slightly to exempt only Catholics working for a Catholic employer (other religions with serious moral concerns would also be included). Alas, I would still be required by law to provide the services to non-Catholic employees. What kind of sense does that make?

But there is an even larger problem for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. It is self-insured and our plan is only administered by a health care agency. Therefore the diocese by this law is an insurance company and all insurance companies must provide these services with currently no exemptions allowed. There are no exemptions to even include the situation outlined above. If the argument focused on abortion, a matter of public morality since the life of another person is involved, I suspect many more people would carry the fear which I have about this exercise of regulatory authority but because it seems to focus on contraception, a matter of private morality, lots of people do not understand what is at stake here. My genuine concern is that it is simply the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. In my homily I outlined perhaps the only option left for the diocese as an employer if these regulations stand and believe me, colleagues in ministry and service and I will experience a marked loss of health care insurance coverage. A Church cannot be forced to violate its teaching, do something which is possibly immoral, and stand idly by and watch our Catholic doctors, nurses and aids forced to perform procedures which are both against their conscience and previously protected.  That’s what involved in this and there is considerable opposition to the position of the Church coming from Planned Parenthood and other organizations which see this moment as an opportunity to close the conscience clause exemption which they have long despised. If you don’t believe me, read the blogs of those other groups. No one in yesterday’s congregation has the power to fix whats wrong with the Affordable Health Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010. Only the President of the United States and his Secretary for Health and Human Services can do that but a gathering for Mass such as yesterday’s does provide me a forum for vetting a serious question of the intersection of law and morality and learning from those far more skilled at interpreting and applying the law than myself. From the reactions which I immediately received and throughout the day yesterday by e-mail and personal contacts, posing the matter of religious freedom was appreciated and as you can see below, I asked nothing of those present but to listen, reflect and pray.

Here follows my homily to those attending the Red Mass. I believe you will find it simply a pastor raising a moral v. potentially legal dilemma before people far wiser than I about the law, individual rights, and the danger to something many deeply cherish and love love about our country to date.

Distinguished Judges, members of the bar, clerks and friends of the courts

            It is an honor for me to join you once again in our annual invocation of the Holy Spirit for each of you in your respective and awesome responsibilities as dispensers and arbiters of justice in this time and place. Realizing fully my own need for the gift of wisdom from on high, I am certain that it is this gift of God and this gift alone which unites us this afternoon in this place and for this celebration.

           “Come follow me” is the invitation, which our Lord extends to Andrew, the apostle whose life and death the universal Church celebrates today, and to his brother, Simon. Such an invitation is also a generic call to all of us to follow Christ in the path of discipleship and service to humankind. No one living near Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee that day would have thought a thing about it because both men were simply uneducated fishermen. They were not antiquities forerunners of Rhodes scholars or McArthur fellowship award winners, they were what they were, fishermen.  But in addition to three years spent in the close company of the master teacher, Jesus, they would with nine others gather in one room and await the infusion of wisdom, courage, understanding, knowledge, piety, counsel, fortitude and fear of the Lord, all gifts of the same Holy Spirit to whom and for whom we pray today. The Lord heard their prayers, gave them the gifts necessary to shape, form, and lead His people then and  until His Son returns again in glory.

            Today in many ways attempting to follow the Lord requires that each of us know our limitations and return from time to time to seek divine assistance. I am sure that you can say the same as I do each morning when at prayer: “Lord, I do not know what is in store for me today but I am sure that today will be unlike any other, give me grace and strength, wisdom and patience.” The words of St. Paul in the first reading are assuring to those of us who realize that we were not born with all of life’s answers: “no one who believes in him will be put to shame. . . .For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. “

            Life on planet earth, the North American continent, and the United States has over time become exceeding complex and challenging and matters which the framers of our Constitution could never have envisioned now propel daily discourse. It is incumbent upon religious leaders like myself to present a consistent moral vision faithful to the law of Christ and the teachings of the Church and upon members of the judiciary and bar to navigate the tricky waters of law and precedent. But both of us are bound by vow or oath to be faithful to something, which must stand the test of time, be it creed or constitution. Occasionally our paths cross and less frequently but still occasionally they collide. I have such a fear at this moment in time.

            You probably have heard that the Catholic bishops of the United States have focused a significant amount of attention in the last few months on the matter of religious liberty and the rights of individual conscience. The matter is headed, of course, to the courts bit it is not that direction which I wish to call to your respectful attention today. Rather I think you should know that the Catholic Church through its bishops are in conversation with the Administration on certain published regulations of the recently enacted Health Care Plan which we find both unacceptable and worse still which we see as frontal attacks on our liberty of freedom of conscience. As employers we would be forced to provide in health care plans services and procedures which clearly are contrary to our beliefs and teachings and individual Catholics would be required to participate in procedures which in the past have enjoyed conscience protection in the law. So far the Administration has not publicly blinked on any of these matters of deep concern to us. If they fail to shift in their present positions, then 2300 employees of the Diocese of St. Petersburg will lose their health care coverage which they have come to treasure and rely upon – I would simply give them what we would have paid for their healthcare and tell them they have to look for coverage elsewhere. For the first time in my adult life, I foresee the possibility of some form of civil disobedience and I am extremely uncomfortable at even the hint of such a thing.

            We just celebrated the national feast day of Thanksgiving. The Puritans and Pilgrims of Massachusetts and the Catholics of Rhode Island and Maryland came to these shores precisely to found and build a nation which would respect and honor religious belief. The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion reflects those foundational principles. Our founding mothers and fathers fled and escaped precisely what my Church and other denominations are coming to see now as assaults on their freedom of religious exercise and conscience protection. As difficult as it is for me to understand the reluctance of Christian Scientists to seek medical assistance, it is at the heart of their creed, their faith, their belief and I would fight to protect their rights in conscience. I hope others will see what we find at stake in this moment in history. One federal judge in California has said that the guarantee of “religious freedom” and lack of interference from the government pertains only to what we do on Sunday in our Churches and Friday nights in our Synagogues. All else is subject to government regulation. Dear sisters and brothers, we need the Holy Spirit badly.

            You heard the Gospel of Matthew a short while ago and its retelling of the call of the apostles. There is a different account to be found in the Fourth Gospel of John. There Andrew sees Jesus and asks, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “come and see.” After spending a few hours with Jesus, in John’s Gospel Andrew then quickly seeks out his brother Simon and says, “we have found the Lord.” Today we pray that the work of the Lord can be found in our system of laws and their administration, in the women and men of the bar, rooted in justice and desirous of proclaiming liberty to all. Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Pray for your country and its leaders. It is not too late to fix what needs to be fixed.