Archive for March, 2013


Sunday, March 31st, 2013

I am writing this on Easter Sunday afternoon after a beautiful, lovely and spiritually renewing and refreshing Holy Week. On Tuesday we filled St. Catherine of Siena’s new church to capacity (c. 1200) for the annual Mass of the Chrism. A large number of my brother priests showed up to concelebrate this Mass with myself and their brothers in priestly ministry. I am always curious about those few who did not attend, especially those who seem to make it their business not to attend on an annual basis. There are, for certain,  occasional funerals and other unexpected events which crop up from time to time, but the date of the Chrism Mass has been set for some time so it is not a scheduling surprise. Those who may choose not to attend do so for other reasons which I suspect are somewhat  selfish. Because a photographer was taking pictures of those attending and concelebrating, (the pictures are on the diocesan website and you may like looking at them to see your priests) I found myself on Tuesday night pretending to be a teacher taking attendance of their class. I know this, it hurts me when men I know who could come choose not to do so, and I think the brothers also feel it. Some bishops hold absent priests accountable – I will never do that – but it does hurt that some could be there but regularly choose not to do so. Anyway, that is the only even remotely unpleasant thing I could say about Holy Week 2013.

The Cathedral of St. Jude was a challenge this year but it turned out wonderfully well for everyone. I suspect if you queried those who attended any of the Holy Week services at St. Jude’s from Palm Sunday through today, Easter Sunday, they would say that the temporary space (used during the rebuilding of the Cathedral church) works well. It is more intimate and therefore we had a sense of “full house” on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and everyone could witness the beautiful liturgies up close and personal. I always feel badly for the Cathedral priests because year after year the bishop who is the pastor of his Cathedral parish shows up and “bumps” the good priests who are there day after day but who do not get to be principal celebrant of the special liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. This year, however, I asked them to preach and they did, very well. I preached only the shorter homilies accompanying the Palm Sunday Mass and Easter Vigil ceremonies. We baptized three and accepted into the Church and confirmed about fifteen others at the Vigil and if only you could see the smiles on their faces and in one case, the tears of joy which accompanied the moment. So the Cathedral worked thanks to the efforts of staff, sacristans, musicians and choir, deacon and priests, altar servers and God’s grace.

It has been hard since the election of Pope Francis to ignore his presence in the life of the Church. Every day I find myself several times a day scanning various resources online or in blogs to find out what new and distinct thing he has done this day. So many people have said to me how refreshing he is and how proud they are of him. Of course, it has been the honeymoon and he has not had to do some of the hard things which inevitably accompany leadership anywhere, even in the Church. I still think I was right on target in the Chrism Mass homily about what we might expect when the “good times” cease to roll and reality sets in.

Each day, however, Pope Francis amazes me. He preaches like a parish priest does and as a Jesuit does (almost always three points) and his homilies so  far have not been written or delivered to wrest from St. John Chrysostom the title of “golden throat” or Aquinas or Theresa of Avila the title of “Doctor of the Church” but rather they are incredibly insightful in what it takes to be a true follower of Christ and how much joy awaits those who let Christ out of the places where they have locked him in. His glasses keep sliding down his nose like mine do and he looks at his watch like I do from time to time to see if something is going too long. But because of the Pope, we are so far witnessing to a Church which is rising again in the sights of many, our own adherents, people of other faiths, etc. Popes do make a difference and the papacy does mean something for everyone: just recall Blessed Pope John XXIII. From the top the process of renewal and reform might begin once again, only the Holy Spirit knows for certain. But when a renewal begins with the Holy Father, it is truly a reform underway. We shall wait and see and pray for him.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Graff

I also wish to mention that especially poignant for me this year was a last minute liturgy celebrated on Wednesday night of Holy Week at St. Scholastica Catholic Church in Lecanto for Father James Hoge, OSB. Father Hoge had started every parish in Citrus county and was involved in one way or another in the choice of sites for parishes and for building many of them. St. Scholastica was his final contribution as was Pope John Paul II elementary school. A funeral Mass was offered for him at St. Leo monastery, celebrated by his Abbot but I was able to be present to the priests of Citrus county and to about 350 people who knew Father Jim well and who loved him. After the Mass, I joined the priests for dinner and all came. There were wonderful stories exchanged and Monsignor George Cummings who is now our oldest priest (95 this year) and longest ordained (70 years this year) was in our midst to share his crystal clear memories of the birth of the Church in our northernmost county. He and Father Hoge went to the same minor seminary and were classmates so Father’s passing was particularly meaningful to Monsignor Cummings.

Finally, speaking of the Pope, the accompanying photo was taken at the end of the Easter Vigil last night by a friend of mine who is in Rome. I thought I would share it with you. Happy Easter all!



Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Nearly one hundred and fifty priests either living or serving in the diocese joined me at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Clearwater (the Cathedral is under renovation and will be re-dedicated on September 12, 2013) for the annual Chrism Mass during which the three oils used throughout the year for the sick and infirm, for catechumens, and for baptism, ordination, consecration, confirmation are blessed.

Blessing the Oil of the Sick. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Blessing the Oil of the Sick. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.


Blessing the Oil of Catechumens. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Blessing the Oil of Catechumens. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

The latter oil is called Sacred Chrism and has a very special place in the Church’s life.

Consecrating the Sacred Chrism. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Consecrating the Sacred Chrism. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Every parish in the diocese is represented annually and during the Mass the three oils used during the coming year are blessed by the bishop.

Parish representatives holding their parish's Oil of the Sick as it is blessed. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Parish representatives holding their parish’s Oil of the Sick as it is blessed. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.


Parish representatives holding their parish's Oil of Catechumens as it is blessed. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Parish representatives holding their parish’s Oil of Catechumens as it is blessed. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

But it is also the Mass at which our priests renew their priestly promises and their commitment to the ordained ministry which Christ has called them to.

Renewal of Priestly Promise. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Renewal of Priestly Promises. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

To see more photos from the Chrism Mass, please click here.

Giving the homily to a packed St. Catherine of Siena. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

Giving the homily to a packed St. Catherine of Siena. Photo kindness of Maria Mertens.

As I have mentioned before, it is always something of a homiletic challenge for the bishop of a diocese since the readings are always the same and the congregation is mostly the same. I offer you here my thoughts during this amazing Lent and beginning springtime in the Church. To read the homily in a PDF version, please click here. To listen to audio recorded by Spirit FM 90.5, our Catholic radio ministry, during their live broadcast of the Mass, please click here.

Dear brothers in the priesthood and brothers and sisters all.

            It’s Springtime in Rome, both climatologically and ecclesiologically. The stunning events of this Lenten season will not soon be forgotten and the election of Pope Francis has captured both the imagination and attention of the world – not just the Catholic world.  Why, one might ask? What can we as ordained and baptized expect from our new Holy Father?

            In reply I would offer three words: continuity, compassion, and simplicity. Each noun for me has a deeper meaning and each noun might possibly have special import today at our annual Mass of recommitment. The readings for this Mass are very familiar. In his first return to his own synagogue in Nazareth where he had for three decades attended, worshipped, listened and believed, and even though he was sent by the Father as the deliverer of a New Covenant, Jesus emphasized continuity with the past by choosing well-known words from the prophet Isaiah and applying them then to himself. Though a new day had dawned in his preaching and missionary work since leaving his hometown, yet he soon returned and immediately established compatibility with the past and continuity with its ages long teaching of right conduct towards God and our fellow women and men. Greatest of the prophets, greatest of the priests and the great High Priest at that, and a king in the sense that his generation would find difficult to accept and understand, Jesus offered a New Covenant consistent with all Israel had been preparing for. Jesus offered an outline for his ministry consistent with his tradition yet expanding its scope and mission.

            In his very first recorded sermon in that synagogue, he chose a passage from the great prophet, which emphasized both the source of his strength for his mission and compassion for others. He had come to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. There was no trace of human narcissism in this man as he placed the crosses of life of others before his own well being. He clothed himself in Isaiah’s words and then by his actions in his public ministry did everything and wrapped himself within the context of his two great loves: love of the Father who sent Him and love of his neighbor.  In three years, he not only restored physical sight to the blind man but spiritual sight to the woman at Jacob’s well, he challenged the rich young man who in the end could not leave all to follow him, and comforted countless others.  He told his twelve to travel light, accept what their hosts offered in terms of food and shelter, asking not for the first places or special treatment or deference. Knowing that there were many more people in his society who were caught under the unjust heel of economic oppression, he worked to give them their freedom. His only enemy was the status quo, not the Roman occupiers, not scribes and the Pharisees, but oppression, which cried out to heaven for vengeance. And his love was unconditional; it cared not for caste or class, male or female, pagan or believer, rich or poor. Every man or woman on the face of God’s earth on Friday if they choose to do so can gaze at that figure on the cross and see in his outstretched arms, I did this for you.

            And then there was his simplicity. The author of the words from the Book of Revelation, which was our second reading understood the need for simplicity as he writes, Jesus Christ is the faithful witness. . .the ruler of kings of the earth…who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father….and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him….all the peoples of the earth will lament him. The words are simple enough; the example is very hard to live out. I see in this passage not a Lord who comes in judgment and says, “I told you so” but one who comes and simply says, “I begged you so.” I did not pull rank, I did not strike you dead or deaf in your disobedience, rather I left the door of reconciliation open until we both breathed our last on earth. Take up your cross, understand that every day you will not always smell the roses, love the Father and I, care for your neighbors, eat my flesh, drink my blood.

            He chose Peter to lead his Church after his death. Not the smartest, not at all educated, impetuous and given to constantly sticking his foot in his proverbial mouth, a denier, a fair-weather friend on occasion, and on occasion also a coward. But due to his dedication to continuity with his Master’s teaching and example, he and now two hundred and sixty-five chosen who have followed have kept the bark of the Church afloat, as beloved Pope Benedict said in his final discourse, sometimes on smooth seas with gentle winds and sometimes in the turbulence of the times.

            So what can we expect of today’s Peter? Francis will maintain the continuity of the Church’s teachings, certainly on doctrinal matters and on most if not all-disciplinary matters. But he has already demonstrated that he has, like us, lived, preached, ministered, administered in the real world of this hemisphere. He will, I suspect, be more practical and pragmatic and perhaps less dogmatic.                                    

We know his heart is full of compassion for the poor and I see the Church’s magnificent social teachings rising once again rightly to their preeminent place in our beloved Church’s life. The unfinished work of Gaudium et Spes will begin to bloom again in this new Spring time. Quite frankly, the actions of our Church often speak louder than its words and to the extent that the Church in the modern world shows compassion and understanding through actions, not words, towards women, towards the poor, towards immigrants and other powerless, toward those trying to cope with their sexual orientation, deal with a mistake made in their youth in choosing a spouse and watching the dream evaporate and the relationship no longer sustainable. Compassionate words accompanied with compassionate action will give witness once again to Christ’s presence in and power over his Church. Paraphasing the great St. Francis, and recalling Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta’s use of the same idea, act always and then use words only if you absolutely need to.

I ask each and every one of you my brothers as well as myself, have you, have we done enough in taking on the challenges of poverty and injustice in our small part of the vineyard? Our new Pope has taken on the political leaders of his country time and time again for justice for that nation’s poor, Yesterday came assurances that he would support the cause for canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero. May  I ask you to think again about the ecumenical justice ministries of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, FAST and HOPE. If the cost of belonging is an obstacle for your parish belonging to either, then today I offer you the opportunity to deduct your membership fee in either from your APA goal and we at The Pastoral Center will make the sacrifices that will occasion. There is no easy, politically correct way to advocate for the poor but it did not stop our Lord and it has not stopped Jorge Bergolio, Pope Francis. There will be those who criticize and most of us are accustomed to that and accept it as the price of doing something good for the forgotten and neglected. Not to decide, however, is to decide to leave our brothers and sisters largely without a voice.

            Finally, Pope Francis leads us by his  simplicity. Every morning this week, he has invited to his morning Mass, the gardeners of the Vatican, the street-sweepers, and the chair placers/removers from the square, the switchboard operators. At the Eucharistic table of the Lord he has invited those who labor for him but never get a chance to meet him. It’s springtime in Vatican City as well as here. In renewing our commitment to priesthood this morning, join me in asking the Lord who gave his all for me, for us, to give us now or once again the gifts of accepting continuity, increasing our compassion for those we serve, and allowing us to set aside passions for status and standing for an exercise of a simpler priesthood so that with love, faith, and hope we might help Francis our Pope rebuild Christ’s Church. Can it not also be Springtime for the Church in Central West Florida? Let us pray so.



Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Father Hoge

Father Hoge. Photo courtesy St. Leo University.

Word has come to me through St. Leo University that God called Father James C. Hoge, O.S.B. to Himself last Saturday afternoon. Father Hoge was 96 years old and had been professed with the Benedictine community of St. Leo Abbey since 1938. Had he lived long enough to come to next Tuesday’s Chrism Mass I would have honored him on the occasion of his 70th anniversary of his priestly ordination. What makes Father Hoge so unique in our diocesan history was his service to this local Church in its northern counties (Pasco, Hernando and Citus). Instrumental in the establishment and founding of all six parishes in Citrus country, he became known and beloved by almost all Catholics living in our northernmost county. He also was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of Pope John Paul II elementary school which began its life as “Citrus County Catholic Elementary School.”

St. Benedict, in founding the religious community which bears his name, told his monks in their “way of life” that two things were absolutely essential: “ora et labora” or “Prayer and work.” Tireless in spreading the Gospel in the church, first as a teacher at St. Leo Prep School in Pasco County, and then for many years as a parish priest and pastor, this man was truly a builder. He was a model of Benedict’s view of the perfect monk, working hard and praying harder. It was painful for him when retirement finally came and he did not take to it well. Ever ready to help out in parishes on weekends, especially in those he founded and where he left such great friends, returning to the routine of monastery life was hard for him.

So many people were the beneficiaries of his priestly presence, diocesan priests, religious women, lay men and women, children. He was there for them all. To be cut off from his pastoral life-blood was very hard and he suffered physically and emotionally in his final years. I, too, dread the time when my medical-surrogate, a long time priest friend, comes and says to me , “Bob, I need the car keys.” I hope I will be more at peace in that moment than dear Father Hoge was for most of the time it is a moment of “tough love” of those who care for us in our old age. When he was a the “top of his game” the priesthood was very much in vogue for Father Hoge and he gave it his all, and wished to do so until his last breath.

In addition to being a great pastor of souls, Father Hoge was born in Charleston, West Virginia, as I was, and he loved railroads, as I do. He would bring me books about the railroads of west central Florida, where they went and what they carried. It was great fun for me when I first came to the diocese to learn the history of the “northern exposure” of the Church of St. Petersburg. What he did not share with me, Monsignor George Cummings did, and he would have been sitting right next to Father Jim next Tuesday at the Chrism Mass. See, Monsignor George will be ninety-five this year and will observe very quietly he has warned me, his seventieth anniversary of priestly ordination. These men were truly priestly pioneers, giants of their time, and devoted evangelizers of the Gospel. Father Jim, rest in peace, dear friend, with Benedict and his sister Scholastica, with your parents, the five abbots of St. Leo whom you knew and under whom you served and your many deceased Benedictine brothers. We send our prayers and sentiments of sympathy to the monks of St. Leo Abbey and the Sisters of Holy Name Monastery and members of your family on the occasion of this significant loss.

When Hoge was in vogue, the faith was alive and the love of Christ abounded.

NOTE ADDED 3/22: I will be celebrating a Memorial Mass for Father Hoge at 6:00PM on Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at St. Scholastica Parish in Lecanto. All are invited to attend.



Monday, March 18th, 2013

The last seven days have been something of a blur. I remember standing outside a local television station at 550am on the coldest morning of the year and not be able to rouse anyone inside to gain entrance. There were so many television studios and television cameras in my face last week. At each local station I discovered women and men of faith, some of the Catholic faith, but all who were intrigued, amazed and moved by the fast unfurling of events occuring in Rome. Then, having been on television so much, I could not go anywhere without someone saying, “been watching you on TV, Father!” The “halo” effect eminating from Vatican City spread a large corona, I am sure, throughout the world.

Tuesday night I attended the annual Nehemiah Conference held by FAST (Faith and Strength Together). They gave me the honor of saying the opening prayer. Held at the Tropicana Dome thanks to the extension of some kindness by the management of the Rays, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 citizens showed up for the final step in a year-long process of discernment by which the community reflects on the needs of its poorest and most vulnerable and proposes relief by actions to be taken by our elected officials. Members of FAST are members of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim congregations in Pinellas County. Of members of the country commission, FAST asked the five million dollars be made available in the remaining years of the “Penny for Pinellas” tax for low income housing. A majority of the commissioners said they would support this. From the Mayor of St. Petersburg and the City Council, FAST asked if an incentive might be built into the awarding of city construction contracts which would allow persons guilty of previous felonies but who had served their time, amended their ways, and were seeking readmission into useful and productive society to be hired. At the present moment, contractors stipulate that they are legally restrained from hiring said persons by city law. Both Mayor Foster and City Council Chair said they would support such an initiative. (People who do well at our Pinellas Hope, free of alcohol and drug abuse, and having previous been convicted of a crime often can not find jobs, even when they have turned their lives around). Access to free or significantly reduced price dental care for the homeless and very poor was also agreed to by county health officials.

Only the Pinellas County schools, and particularly the new Superintendent greatly disappointed the crowd and myself as well. Reading significatly below the third grade reading level in several failing schools, FAST asked the District and the Superintendent to allow a free and previously tried and tested reading program for challenged third graders to be introducded as a pilot in one of the failing schools to see if the children might improve, at least to grade level. The Superintendent didn’t attend and he sent a poor Assistant or Regional Superintendent who was not able to speak for herself or anyone else at the meeting. I could not believe my ears: nary one sign of support for a free trial program to help these children. Come to think of it, not one sign that the Superintendent even cared. Two School Board members were present and they support it, but the man they just hired to raise the level of education in this large district could not give an answer to a question which to this listener gives all the signs of being a “no-brainer.” There is nothing Marxist about the four things FAST chose to work on this year. It is an organization, poor in its financing, working for the poor. Sound familiar?

At a meeting with thousands of the media covering the papal election, Pope Francis on Saturday told the assembled media-types, “I long for a poor Church working for the poor.” I am proud of our parishes in Pinellas who belong and I am going to work harder to get more of them to join in the cause. Social action and social justice will be themes of this papacy now beginning. Hillsborough has a similar organization called HOPE which I trust I will learn more about and share with you in the future.

Everything about Pope Francis gives witness to hope. He got off the starting block faster than any Pope in my memory. He truly is pursuing the challenge of Blessed John Paul II by “putting out into the deep” and throwing previous papal caution to the wind. It is going to be an interesting “ride” in the coming years and I am excited about it and find myself renewed. Watch your Church change, not in truly doctrinal matters as that won’t happen, but in its focus on the future. It’s going to be fascinating. Please remember the three words I used in every television interview I gave last week when asked what the church can expect from the new Holy Father: continuity, simplicity, and compassion. Now we will see which elements in the Church will embrace this new concept the fastest. If you are ready, hang on as it is going to be some ride.



Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley today is quoted as saying of our new Holy Father and the role yesterday evening he assumed, “he is a prisoner who lives in a museum.” My thoughts ran along the same line when after what seemed like eternity between the smoke and the appearance, Francis came out on the balcony.


Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis came out on the balcony! (Screenshot captured from EWTN's live video feed.)

Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis came out on the balcony! (Screenshot captured from EWTN’s live video feed.)


Excited at the choice, I felt so sorry for him for I have some sense of the burdens of office he carries and the loneliness which comes with it. The oft mentioned throw-away line, “it’s lonely at the top” certainly applies to the modern papacy.


Pope Francis. (Screenshot captured from EWTN's live video feed.)

Pope Francis. (Screenshot captured from EWTN’s live video feed.)


Then he asked for everyone present in the square to pause and pray for him and bless him with their prayers, a request followed by the most humble of gestures, a profound bow before the people.


Our new Holy Father, Pope Francis came out on the balcony! (Screenshot captured from EWTN's live video feed.)

Pope Francis asked everyone to pray for him. (Screenshot captured from EWTN’s live video feed.)


I knew from that moment we may have wound up with someone very special.


Pope Francis

Pope Francis. (Screenshot captured from EWTN’s live video feed.)


In the subsequent hours, what he has said, how he said it, and what he has done has amazed me. He eschewed the papal limosine for a more simple car in making this morning’s trip to St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas in Rome where he prayed before a special shrine of the Blessed Mother. “They” let him get away with it this time but that will not last forever, I know, but it was a sign. We learned that when each cardinal elector approached him after his election instead of sitting and making the cardinals kneel, he stood on the same level as they did and greeted each. We learned that after appearing on the balcony and going down to the level where that same limo was waiting he declined to ride in it and climbed on the bus with the other cardinals for the return trip to the residence inside Vatican City where they were all staying. We learned that last night at dinner, he greeted all the cardinals with the line, “God forgive you for what you have done!” I loved that while driving through the city of Rome (no Buenos Aires which is properly referred to as the ‘Paris of the South’ with its broad streets and boulevards), he asked his driver to pull up to the hotel where he had been staying (it’s a hotel for visiting bishops and priests only) so he could pack his bags and pay his bill (Shame on the place if they charged this humble man!). At his first Mass as Pope this afternoon with the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, he preached from the ambo and not the chair, he preached without the mitre, and he preached without a written text. If that continues, watch the practice of we bishops throughout the world. And if I were the papal master of ceremonies who has been in office since early in Pope Benedict’s pontificate, I would be calling my Archbishop in Genoa and asking if there were any parishes in the archdiocese open and in need of a pastor.

The power of the papacy, to entice, to invite, to excite, to thrill has been very much on display for the last four weeks and three days since Pope Benedict announced his intention to resign and retire. The world has focused on the Church in a way that few other governments would receive. We elected a world leader without great cost. We conducted an election where no one destroyed the reputation of anyone else or tried to climb over someone else to win an election, we did it really in just thirteen days after the position was truly vacant and we now have a leader for our Church who models consistency with Church teaching, compassion for the poor (I bet he would have been with me and my brother priests and brother and sister ministers at the FAST meeting on Tuesday night at the Trop) and a simplicity of lifestyle which will show occasional surprises even if he does live in something of a fishbowl museum.

There were tears on so many faces yesterday. There were even tears on the faces of those hardened by their dislike of the Church. We have a Pope. He will lead in many new ways. He will begin anew the reforms envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, he will find a way to communicate timeless and unchangeable truth in a new way which shows compassion and understanding for those who find such truths and teaching hard to accept. I thank God the election was swift, thereby denying those waiting to rush into print or on the screen with stories about deep divisions in the Church of Christ. What a month, what a day, what a future! Thank you to those who were able to come pray with me at a last minute Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Timothy’s in Lutz.

But for Francis, yesterday was a life altering moment. We must pray for him. It will neither be an easy job or quickly finished, but we are a church which thinks in centuries, not days. And in that museum in which our new Holy Father will live, I thought of another Argentinian who in a famous musical bearing her name, was shown coming out on the balcony many times at the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires to acknowledge the acclaim of the crowd and who like our new Pope perhaps should have sung, “do cry for me Argentina.” Francis is not a Peron. He is our pope.

With love to all my readers,



Saturday, March 2nd, 2013
No worry about "empty nets" at this fish fry.

No worry about “empty nets” at this fish fry.

Tired of running around to local television stations and emotionally exhausted from watching the events of this week unfold, I thought it time to get out and connect with the daily and real life of the Church yesterday. Many of our parishes have started or continue the custom of having Friday Night Fish Fries for the parishioners and one of the more successful in this area has been running at St. Timothy parish in Lutz. When a friend told me that last Friday night they served an all-time high of 464 people, like the unbelieving Thomas I had to see for myself. So last night for dinner, off I went to the Friday Night Fish Fry. Father Ken Malley met me with his ever-present smile on his face and took me into the woefully inadequate (for this event) parish hall.

This works is both an inside job and an outside job!

This works is both an inside job and an outside job!

I met the members of the Men’s Club, all forty of them, dicing and slicing, frying and serving, filling and refilling. To my utter amazement, they were having a great time. By opening time at 530pm the hungry masses were assembled and by closing time at 730pm, this week about 445 were served fried fish, french fries (the best I have had anywhere and I fancy myself a connoisseur of fries), huge pizza slices for the kids or a big kid like myself who really doesn’t like fish all that much, cole slaw, a shrimp cocktail appetizer and an appropriate veggie. Father Malley was proud of this Lenten event and mentioned that it was a great “feeder” (no pun intended) for the weekly Stations of the Cross at 700pm.

An apprentice "fish man" and one of the several women who help their husbands.

An apprentice “fish man” and one of the several women who help their husbands.

The Saint Timothy Men’s Club has about ninety active members and the parish Women’s Club is also quite large. What amazes me are the number of younger men who belong and gift their time and talent to events like this. I met Jason for the second time last night. He approached me and said we had met several weeks prior and while I struggled to place the face with a moment in my life, he generously said that he came up with the parish at the Rite of Election as a “candidate” coming into the Church at the Easter Vigil. After I told him he did not miss any time in joining the Men’s Club of a religion he was not yet a member of, he smiled and said simply, “I love it here.” He then shared with me his journey in faith story which has led him to Catholicism and that his wife is also a convert. He introduced me to his sponsor in the RCIA whom he had never met prior to approaching the parish and asking to join this year’s list of candidates for full communion. His sponsor said, as many do, that he felt he had gotten as much out of the catechetical formation moment as Jason and they would be lifelong friends. Both wanted to extract a promise from me that neither Father Malley nor Deacon Jerry Crall would be transferred away from St. Tim’s. At this moment I was very happy that I am in the Diocese of St. Petersburg and not in Rome. What happens here is so real and so meaningful, even a fish fry.

Smiles reflect their happiness at the task at hand.

Smiles reflect their happiness at the task at hand.

The purpose of the Friday night fish fry is not to make huge sums of money for the parish, though there is always a profit from each of these evenings but it seems to me that the real purpose is creating a sense of unity and pride among the workers and those who come for their parish. Now I understand why parishes have carnivals during Lent. I am sure that they wish it might fall outside of Lent but these are probably the only weeks that the owner of the ferris wheel and merry-go-round have available and although such a good time seems contra the spirit of Lent, it can be and is exactly the opposite. If we are united with Christ in his suffering (and God knows we are indeed), then we can also be united with him as a community which pauses to pray and review its life and rejoice in our common desire to form a family in faith. There is indeed a place for these things in our parish life, even during Lent. Some might complain that real penance would better be served by offering an opportunity for bread and watered down soup. If it works, fine. But the spirit I witnessed last night and often see in other parishes in so many ways when they gather for Lent in other ways indicates a reality of unity which our Church badly needs.

I guess in the end, the people who fried the fish and the potatoes serve God as well as those who will gather in coming days to elect a new Pope. Unfortunately it is the latter which garners all the attention and the former and other good things which our Church does as Church is so often overlooked. Thanks to St. Timothy’s last night. I still have one carnival in a nearby parish to attend as well as one auction at the parish within which I live to go to before Palm Sunday. Once I might have considered my presence there a Lenten penance but more and more I find grace at fish fries, fries and Ferris wheels.