Archive for September, 2012


Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

With Father Thomas Stokes, S.M.

On Sunday for the second Sunday in a row, I was present for the 10:00am Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in the Ybor City District of Tampa. The previous week, I formally installed Father Roland LaJoie, S.M. as pastor and this week I surprised the previous pastor by showing up unannounced for this final Mass at the parish. Father Thomas Stokes, S.M., a Marist priest, born in Ireland, has been ordained for fifty-one years, forty-nine of which he has ministered in the United States of America, the last twenty-six as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Father Tom is simply an amazing priest. The word “no” is not to be found in his vocabulary. When the growing Haitian population needed a place for their new Haitian priest to offer Mass on Sunday, Father Tom said, “Of course, you will be welcome at OLPH.” Mass is also offered in Spanish for a community which is rich in numerous Hispanic ecclesial cultures. In fact, the doors of OLPH have always had a big welcome sign from the early days of the last century when the Cuban population descended on Ybor City in great number, establishing their cigar production facilities and successfully finding security here in west central Florida. When I came to the diocese, soon to be seventeen years ago, I was told that there did not seem to be a great future for Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish and I might have to close it. Those prognostications failed to take into account the energy, zeal and love of Father Stokes. My chair was not warm yet when he came and asked to build a lovely parish social center, which is paid for. Then he came and sought permission to renovate the old parish school and convent building which previously had been used for Cursillos but was in a growing state of disrepair. He did it and paid for it. When the diocese needed a place for its seminarians during the summer they would be doing their clinical pastoral education at Tampa General Hospital, Father Stokes opened up the Rectory to the men who found his Irish hospitality and his priestly zeal captivating.

There were a lot of tears yesterday at all the Masses when Father Thomas Stokes bade his farewell, including my own. Words can never adequately express the love and gratitude of a parish community and sometimes even a bishop for a man who for twenty-six years lived in the middle of weekend chaos in Ybor City and loved it there. The Hispanics, the Filipinos, the Anglos all lined up for pictures with this lovely man and to say farewell. Father Stokes is returning to his native Ireland to help take care of his brother and  sisters as they too age and it is doubtful we shall see him again anytime soon. I may have totally surprised him by my presence at Sunday’s Mass but nothing about his ministry ever surprised me. He is one of the great generation, as was Father Sanchez, and as is Monsignor Higgins who have all served central Tampa so well over the years. Now, Tom, as the Irish saying goes, “may the road indeed rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. . . .until we meet again.”

The seven bishops of Florida met this week as the Board of Trustees of Saint John Vianney College Seminary and the Regional Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul and as the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. The first meeting was in Miami and I was unable to attend because of the opening celebration of Tampa Catholic’s Fiftieth Anniversary. However, I did join my brothers for the latter two at our theology house in Boynton Beach.

Father Toups making his promises before God, the bishops of Florida, and the seminary community. Photo and caption kindness of Father Len Plazewski.

During that occasion, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski formally installed our own Father David Toups as Rector-President (click here for a few more photos). Father Toups, for two brief but memorable years, was pastor of Christ the King parish in south Tampa. Looking out at the assembled guests during the installation Mass, I would swear that fifty-percent of the several hundred in attendance were Christ the King parishioners who had traveled the 200 plus miles for the installation Mass. It was a happy occasion for the seminary community to be sure, for the bishop owners of the seminary for whom the person serving as Rector holds so much of our trust, and it should be for the Church in Florida as well. Father’s mother, Lynn, was present as were his aunt and uncle. We have two wonderful priests of this diocese now who are devoted to the education of our future priests (both of whom went to St. Vincent de Paul Seminary from being pastors of Christ the King), Monsignor Michael Muhr and Father David Toups. We are a relatively small diocese which might normally not be expected to give this high level of talent to a seminary, but you and I value the formation of priests so highly that how could we not invest in the future by giving the seminary some of our great priestly talent? I think God is already paying up back for our sacrifice with fine newly ordained priests and more on the way. So life has been a series these past two weeks of goings and comings. Praise be Jesus Christ!



Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Reverend Felix Sanchez

Bishops must love their priests. The priests of a diocese are co-workers with the bishop in the vineyard of the Lord and together they sow the seeds of the Gospel. On the human level, of course, not every priest is always easy for the bishop to deal with and the reverse is equally true but the relation of the two is somewhere between that of father and son and brother and brother. In my time here, I have come to cultivate anew my love for my brothers, to appreciate their different gifts and even when there may be disagreements to be patient. But today I learned of the death of a dear priest, a “bishop’s priest,” I might say and his passing will be mourned by many more than just myself. Father Felix Sanchez, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph parish in West Tampa went home to God today on a park bench in a plaza in Salamanca, Spain on a bright, warm and beautiful morning.  Once again for me, no time to say a final thanks, no time to say good-bye. I mourn his passing and will long remember his presence.

When I came to the diocese, Father Felix was happily ensconsed as pastor of St. Rita parish in  Dade City. I do not think he ever planned or wanted to go anywhere else. He was happy and the people loved him. It was a bilingual and bi-cultural ministry.  A year after my arrival, I upset his life and asked him if he would go to St. Joseph’s parish in West Tampa to replace the Redemptorist Fathers who were leaving the diocese. He said, “Bishop, I will do anything you ask me. I love St. Rita but it would be a privilege to also serve St. Joseph. So off he went in 1997 to serve for fourteen years.

His own priestly ministry began in Spain as a member of the Vincentian Fathers, begun by St. Vincent de Paul, and their charism for the poor and marginalized never left him. He had a heart for the poor, a priestly heart.

A major moment occured soon after arriving at St. Joseph when his doctors recommended amputating his leg. I was at his side at St. Joseph Hospital when they took him on the gurney from the pre-op room to the OR. Peaceful, resigned, placing himself in the hands of the the Lord, he gave up his leg but not his dynamic and active priestly ministry. When the prosthesis was in place and hurting like the devil, he returned to full ministry at St. Joe’s and to the school children who he loved. He would never say no to a funeral home who called him because a family wished a service there or at a graveside. Worried about his health, I asked him to cease and he “yes-ed” me to death and continued to serve. I recently found out that all the gifts he received from these services went to help children attend St. Joseph’s school. St. Vincent de Paul would have been proud of him.

As I write this, we are trying to arrange a memorial Mass for Monday, October 1, at 11:30am at St. Joseph’s. He will be buried, as is the custom in Spain, on Saturday morning in Salamanca with his priest brother saying the Mass. How I wish I could be there. Rest in peace, Felix, you were simply “una linda persona.”

*11:00AM Friday, September 21 Update:  A Memorial Mass for Father Felix will be celebrated at 11:30am on October 1, 2012 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Tampa (3012 Cherry St. Tampa, FL 33607). I will be the main celebrant. A rosary will be said at 11:00am and a reception after the Mass will be held in the parish hall.



Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

There have been numerous inquiries to my office about if and when I might speak about the upcoming national election. I choose to do so now, knowing in advance that what I say will disappoint some, and perhaps may be of some help to others.

What is a serious voter of conscience to do this fall? Both parties have now embraced their respective platforms and both candidates have spoken repeatedly about their positions on issues on what I believe to be “ of conscience.”

Looking at this election from the standpoint of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document on political responsibility entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (very much worth a read by clicking here); the following is what I would take into the voting booth to shape my choice on Election Day. My observations on the issues are based on what has come to date either out of the respective party platforms or the candidates’ mouths and they appear in the priority order in which the issues appear in the aforementioned publication:

1. Protecting innocent human life in the womb, reducing abortion on request, opposing euthanasia, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. In these very important areas of life concerns,  it is abundantly clear from the party’s own platforms as well as convention election rhetoric that the Republicans provide stronger reassurance.

2. Opposing torture, waging unjust war, preventing genocide, eliminating the use of the death penalty, avoiding armed conflict and seeking peace. Personally, I find little comfort in either party on these very important “life issues.” Little has been said as of this writing by any candidate on most of these issues save the last – the search for peace.

3. Protecting religious freedom by allowing Churches and religious institutions to define themselves free of government interference and respecting the rights of those institutions and employees to protect themselves from materially cooperating in actions against their moral conscience. Nothing has changed since my previous “blog” writings on this very important religious freedom issue from the Administration and again the rhetoric at the Democratic convention suggests that they either just don’t care about how Catholics feel or believe there are too few of us who feel strongly to do them electoral harm. The other party’s candidates and their platform promise restoration of religious freedom.

4. Promoting genuine and just immigration reform while securing the nation’s borders. There is little difference to be found here but the President’s recent Executive Order implementing portions of the now nearly defunct “Dream Act” shows more compassion, at least to those children of parents no longer living in this country while their children do.

5. Proffering genuine access for all to medical care and expanding its opportunity to more of the uncovered. The Catholic Church and especially its bishops have long argued for the extension of health care benefits to those presently uncovered and unprotected. The Affordable Care Act accomplished a large portion of this important social agenda. Unfortunately the Administration has published regulations which infringe on the Church’s freedom to define and pursue its mission but the fact is there now is no maximum limit on health care benefits, there now is no pre-condition impediment to accessing a health care plan, and children may remain on their parent’s program now until they are twenty-six. Additionally, more of the nation’s previously uncovered are now covered. Contraceptive mandate notwithstanding, I think the Democratic Party and platform is more committed to the Church’s vision of universal health care for the poor although I lament the absence of access to care for the undocumented.

6. Support for marriage as between one man and one woman as the bedrock of societal family life. In this election, there is a clear choice, I believe, as seen in platforms and pronouncements of party leadership.

7. Strengthening the possibility of parental choice in the education of their children. The power of the teachers’ unions over the Democratic Party and its candidates for office is very visible. The teachers are strongly against parental choice in education (read that, competition is good in every other sector of society, except the education of our children) and the Democrats in this one walk lockstep the teachers’ union line. Republicans see the value to our nation in freedom of choice in education.

8. Care for the genuine poor, disadvantaged, the “least among us.” This one is interesting to me because the Democrats have always laid claim to it. Much of this election is about the economy, high unemployment, home mortgages, etc. I have yet to hear either party speak for “the genuine poor, disadvantaged and least among us” primarily, I suspect, because these people do not vote or form a voting bloc. That’s why they need the help of the Church and all followers of Christ. Remember those challenging words in the Gospel, “when did I see you poor?”

9. Advancing the cause of human labor by protecting employees and supporting their right to organize. You don’t need my help on this one. One party loves unions and the other has an allergy to them.

10. Giving witness to global solidarity through promoting peace and pursuing justice. I don’t think there is an advantage to either party here at this moment in human history. The evidence of the last few days is that there are a lot of people in the world who do not like, trust, or believe in the United States for a variety of reasons, a few fair, but many unfair. Now this is just my personal opinion but in answer to that quadrennial favorite question, “are you better off now than four years ago?” I would say I am not at all sure. Not to decide is to decide!

So, what I have attempted to do above is to take the issues which the body of bishops in the United States have lifted up as constitutive for conscience formation today and apply them for myself. I only ask you to do the same in forming your conscience and decisions. I do not wish to tell you for whom to vote or how to vote, but rather, in an area of human reasoning and judgment, only explain how I see these issues when I consider how to cast my vote. The guidance which the bishops of the United States follow at moments like this election season disappoints some while is understood and appreciated by many. You may read these guidelines by clicking here.

For some, one or more of these issues may be more important than others or there may well be an issue or issues which are not on this list (which was never meant to be exhaustive). I have never known in my lifetime a perfect candidate for office (though I think the late Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania came the closest to passing the test on most of the above) and voting can become a “lesser of two evils” decision for many (it has for me in the past, I know). One thing is for certain and is probably the only thing which the two candidates for the highest office and their parties can agree on. This year, there is indeed a clear choice.

Let me close by calling your attention to two important ecclesial statements that have guided me in preparing and praying over this blog entry, the first from the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and the second by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

In speaking to the bishops of the world, the Council described our responsibility as teachers in the “Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishop in the Church” and there in we were encouraged to “announce the Gospel of Christ” and also to “teach the value of earthly goods and human institutions according to the plan of God the Creator.” The fathers went on to enumerate “the human person and bodily life, the family and its unity and stability, the procreation and education of children, civil society with its laws and professions, labor and leisure, the arts and technical inventions, poverty and affluence.” In addition, bishops “should set forth the ways by which are to be answered the most serious questions concerning the ownership, increase, and just distribution of material goods, peace and war, and brotherly relations among all countries.” [Christus Dominus #12]

Then from the 2002 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s  “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” the following: “In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, [emphasis is that of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith] Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forego extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such. The same is true for the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children; it is an inalienable right recognized also by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the same way, one must consider society’s protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution for example). In addition there is the right to religious freedom and the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which the “right of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged” [Gaudium et Spes, #75). Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned. Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. “Peace is always the work of justice and the effect of charity.”[Catechism, 2304] It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant a vigilant commitment on the part of all leaders.” (#4).

Voting is a sacred right won for us by our ancestors through blood and battle. We must take it seriously, study the issues and cast our ballot from a well-formed conscience.



Monday, September 17th, 2012

I have been working for some time on a post on the upcoming elections. It is still very much in draft form and subject to substantial revision. To my horror, a comment received from a reader indicated that the “not-ready-for-prime-time” and still unedited version was already up on this site for four hours. I have removed it while I continue to refine it. Hope those who have seen it will forgive the spelling and punctuation errors and it should see the “light of day” sometime tomorrow. Thanks and apologies



Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Sailors especially and boaters in general know the difference between an anchor and a mooring. When a boat wishes to spend a quiet night away from a dock, there can be two options. The first is throwing out an anchor, a heavy and strong hook, which finds a soft spot in a sandy bottom, digs in and allows the occupants of the attached boat a quiet night’s rest with few worries about drifting unexpectedly into harm’s way. A mooring is a line attached usually to a concrete block set into place on the lake or ocean’s bottom whose top is attached to a boat. It is a help for security and if the line can be trusted, a mooring offers a good night’s sleep to those on board. For the Christian, Jesus Christ is the anchor and he is often shown in what appears to be hieroglyphics as an “anchor.” Attached to him we have stability, confidence, and hope. Mary is more of a mooring to which we attach our lives when the anchor seems some how out of reach. She and the saints to whom we also pray for help and assistance keep us attached to the bottom which is our faith.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in two events which show how much the Blessed Mother can play a meaningful role in keeping us firmly attached to her Son. September 8, 2012 is the Feast of the Nativity (Birth) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but for Cuban Catholics it is also the traditional day when they celebrate their patronal feast of la Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (known as Our Lady of Charity in English). This day celebrates when Our Lady was seen by Cuban fishermen off the east coast of the island, holding her Son Jesus while rescuing the distressed.

Statue of la Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre in the newly renovated shrine located outside of Incarnation Catholic Church. I blessed the shrine before Mass began. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.

This year was the four-hundredth anniversary of that apparition and over 1,500 Cuban Catholics gathered last Saturday night at Incarnation Catholic Church in Tampa for a wonderful Eucharistic celebration. I’ve included a few photos below and more can be found by clicking here.

Starting to process in with a statue of la Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre at the beginning of Mass. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.


The Church was full. It was standing room only. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.


A young volunteer carried the Cuban coat of arms to be displayed in front of the altar after the homily. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.


Everyone applauded as the Cuban coat of arms was placed in front of the altar. Photo courtesy of Maria Mertens.

Through the recent challenging times of the last fifty-some years in Cuba, Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre has been a mooring for Cuban Catholics. When the Castro government attempted to all but shut out the Catholic faith, Our Lady was the “go to” person in prayers to her Son to keep the faith alive on that island and among the exile community and Cubans who have chosen to immigrate to other countries. The music was wonderful and while the homily was slightly over fifty minutes in length (not given by me, mind you), this annual occasion to acknowledge the role of the great woman of charity and love was a “not-to-be-missed” moment in the life of our local Church. I loved being a part of it.

The next morning (Sunday) I attended and preached at a Mass at St. Joseph’s Syro-Malabar parish in east Hillsborough county where their community of some 150 families gathered to also celebrate (a day later but allowed in their Rite) the same Feast of the Birth of Mary. Father George Malakial, a priest of the Syro-Malabar diocese of Chicago, was the principal celebrant of a lovely liturgy celebrated in the language of the Indian state of Kerala. Here is a photo from after the Mass, taken by Babu Thomas and graciously shared with us by Rajeev Phillip, a Syro-Malabar seminarian from the parish. More photos, taken by Shaji Joseph, can be seen by clicking here.

After the beautiful liturgy. Photo courtesy of Babu Thomas.

There are a number of “rites” in the Church which recognize the primacy of the Roman Pontiff who chooses their bishops. Perhaps the better known to the average Latin Rite Catholic would be the Byzantine Rite (Greeks and Turks mainly), the Maronite Rite (Lebanese and Syrian), the Melkite Rite (Syrian and Iraqi), and the Ukrainian Rite (Central and East European people). The Syro-Malabars trace their faith lineage to the Apostle Thomas who is known to have spent time in southern India. For we Latin Rite Catholics, the only part of their celebration of Eucharist which we would be likely to immediately recognize would be the elevation of the bread and wine at the words of Institution, the greeting of peace which occurs much earlier in their liturgy than in ours, and the communion rite which is like ours. The “Our Father” was prayed in English and the three readings were proclaimed in English and, no surprise, I preached on the Blessed Mother in English. There was a beauty to the liturgy, however, and though it was long (I was assured it was a “Low Mass” and therefore short – it lasted about one hour and forty-five minutes just for the liturgy), it was a second affirmation by a segment of the Church Universal of Mary as a “Mooring” and Christ as an “anchor.” There was a first communion which I was asked to do. Saint Joseph’s recently purchased a former Korean Church for their home and they have converted it to their many needs quite impressively. The liturgy was followed by a lunch which almost everyone stayed for. Congratulations to Father George and to his community.

I close with this thought. It probably is the Church of the East which is responsible, thank the Lord, for keeping the role and place of the Blessed Mother alive in the Church universal. For that we should all be grateful when at a stormy moment we are searching for a mooring in the safe harbor of our faith.