Welcoming the Stranger Priest

August Message to Priests and Deacons of the Diocese, as Master of Ceremonies

A few times during this past year, I’ve been called upon to fill in at different parishes, for Confessions and Sunday Masses. I always enjoy doing so and getting more acquainted with parishes throughout the diocese, as I have enjoyed seeing them with Bishop Swain for Confirmations.

One thing I started to reflect on while filling in was to draw up a specific plan of practical hospitality in any given parish, to be carried out whenever there is need for a visiting priest, to make sure that things go smoothly for him and that he feels welcome. I hope to have such a plan in place in any parish where I serve as pastor, God willing. Hearing from others priests about adventures they’ve had while filling in has also given me ideas, like one priest sitting for quite a while in what he assumed was the confessional before being redirected by confused penitents.

Ideally, a designated host could meet the visiting priest at the door, even direct him where to park, show him to the sacristy, confessional, bathroom, etc. Otherwise, clear signs can be helpful. Beyond this, it seems helpful for there to be a set of established “default” settings for Mass, known by sacristans, musicians, etc., to be carried out even with very short notice in the event of having a visiting priest.

For instance, there are lots of different musical settings for the Mass parts being used in any given parish, many of which are not known well by many priests. There is one setting, however, that now appears in every Roman Missal. Please understand that it is not for their musical quality that I would use the simple English ICEL chants from the Missal as default, but because they are simply the most likely to be known by the highest number of priests, as they are actually in the Missal. In my opinion, English translations being forced onto Latin melodies do not result in the best settings, but that does not diminish their status as the best candidates among English settings for universal and familiar use in the greatest number of parishes and by the greatest number of priests.

Another consideration would be to simply have one chalice (and perhaps a second, if necessary for those with celiac disease) in the event of hosting a visiting priest. The priest has enough to try and figure out—celebrating Mass in an unfamiliar sanctuary—without having to decide where all the chalices go and how much wine goes into each one and how all the vessels will be purified after Communion.

I merely offer these observations for your reflection. You may have other ideas and things that you’ve noticed. We can talk a lot about hospitality in our parishes while failing in very basic and practical ways to make visitors feel welcome by offering familiar ways of how things are done and how the liturgy is carried out according to universal norms. The Church is catholic, universal, for a reason, partly so that every parish can feel like home.

Crowding out God

Apse of Cathedral of St. Joseph, Sioux Falls, SD

By Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.

We can sometimes crowd out God because we are making room for a number of other things. Sometimes people have so many books, they have no time to read them, and none for study. They are entirely occupied with the care of things. It is pathetic, for instance, in this country to see how a certain group of people overbuilt themselves. They built tremendous country residences, and had so many things to see to they were very soon impoverished, just looking after a number of things. If you do that, it is very difficult to have any room for God. What an array of things are to be seen in any great town a week before Christmas!—some cheap (at least low-priced), quite a number of things that are new and novel, so that people who hadn’t any money to buy the things felt a great deal of pleasure in going round and looking at them. That is a subject of meditation. Interests like that can crowd out God. I wonder how much of the very essence of Christmas was recognised in the spilth of things? I was quite astonished, passing by one of the great centres just before Christmas, to see hundreds and hundreds of electric lights twinkling, opening and shutting their eyes in a kind of twinkling. And of course the number of things inside was very much greater than the number of things outside. I wondered how many people were thinking of the little stable at Bethlehem, with possibly one little lamp, possibly none; and how many were realising that was the most important thing for their mind to rest upon. We couldn’t face God really if He were crowded out by things.

Perhaps God has been crowded out of our soul by persons. That is more human, more excusable, and sometimes more noble—when God is just crowded out of our life by our soul’s having no room in it for more than a few persons, possibly only room for one; and there is no room for anyone else, even in our thoughts. Sometimes a life is dominated by another person, and there is hardly the possibility of consecutive thought on any other subject. Another person reigns as well as dwells.

Let us consider this very simple thing. Strangely enough, by Our dear Lord being denied entrance to the hostelry, or khan, He becomes much more accessible. The stable now that has room for God becomes much more accessible than the inn which has not had room. That little cave is not shuttered and barred and locked against beasts and men. He is with the beasts, and the shepherds come in at midnight. The shepherds wouldn’t have been allowed into the khan; they would have disturbed the house. But they could come into this little thing.

The soul that finds room for God is widened, of course. If the soul has denied entrance to God in order to find room for things or persons, it has instantly narrowed itself. Indeed there is not much room for the things, or for the persons! But as soon as there is room for God in our soul, there is room for all those persons who have really a claim on our heart. They can come and go. The shepherds are not challenged—only to a more perfect life. Kings can come and go, and bring gifts, and go off again. The widest thing in the whole world is the stable that has room for God.

Monsignor Benson said that the fifth note of the Church was that it is accessible, get-at-able. I don’t know if he borrowed that from St. Thomas Aquinas.

As quoted in Daily Readings in Catholic Classics, edited by Fr. Rawley Myers

A Truly Pastoral Approach

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 16B

Everyone loves a good storyteller, but a good teacher often goes unappreciated for many years. The goal of a storyteller can be merely to entertain and amuse, to hold our attention long enough for a good laugh, but a good teacher can change the way that we see things and the decisions that we make for the rest of our lives. Jesus in the Gospel is both Storyteller and Teacher. He often teaches the crowds using parables, short stories and images, but the purpose of the parables is not primarily to entertain. Instead, the parables of Jesus confront us with decisions that we’ve made or that we’ve failed to make, the decision to which God is constantly calling us, to truly surrender everything to His care, to Him who feeds every bird of the sky and who clothes every lily of the field. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him, rather than following our own ways or the ways of the world. To sell all that we have to buy the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. How have we responded? Have we responded to Jesus? Do we live our lives for God? Or do we still follow our own ways and the ways of the world?

When I was in seminary studying for the priesthood, and still today now that I’m a priest, there are many strategies for ministry described as being “pastoral,” strategies for shepherding the people of God, gently, patiently, ambiguously. To be honest, I’ve found many of these strategies to be rather laughable and pointless, meaningless when we actually examine them and find that they’re very different from what we see Jesus actually doing in the Gospel.

One popular phrase today for ministry is “to meet people where they’re at.” Now this is all fine and good. Obviously, communication is impossible if we don’t bother to start from some common ground. But “meeting people where they’re at” and “smelling like the sheep” is rather pointless if we don’t bother to have any real concern for where the sheep are headed. If the sheep is headed in the direction of selfishness and the pains of hell, when a sheep is headed over the edge of a cliff, only a very bad and careless shepherd would simply reassure the sheep headed for destruction, “Way to go, God loves you, He cares for you,” just not enough to actually give you any real guidance to avoid falling into these pits and painful situations. Yes, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners; He received and did not condemn the adulterous woman; He healed many of the sick and forgave their sins. But Jesus would often tell them, “Go, and sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (Cf. John 5:14; 8:11). And He offers His own behavior as a model, “Follow Me.”

It’s very striking that at the end of today’s Gospel, when Jesus is moved with pity for the crowds who are like sheep without a shepherd, the most pastoral thing that Jesus can think of doing in that moment is to teach. “And he began to teach them many things.” Any strategy of ministry that claims to be “pastoral” but also allows people to remain in ignorance, to remain in sinful, harmful situations without offering a better Way, this is not what we learn from Christ, our Good Shepherd.

If God does not actually offer us a better Way—even if it is more difficult—if His Way is not truly more healthy and fulfilling than what the world and our own selfish desires offer us, then “salvation” doesn’t have any real meaning for us in this life. We are made to know the truth and to be made free by following the truth, the Truth who is Jesus Christ. God made us for more than just stumbling blindly through this life, being wounded and wounding others through our continual habits of sin. God offers us more in the teachings of His Catholic Church. That a life free from selfishness, drunkenness, sexual immorality, hatred, violence, contraception, gossip, insults, pornography, laziness, and neglect of our relationships, that a life lived in obedience to God and in accord with who He made us to be, this is truly a better and more abundant life, and it is made possible for us by God’s grace.

As we approach Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, present in this Eucharist, may He set us free from all the lies that keep us bound, from the desires that enslave us to this passing world. Jesus, meet us where we are, but don’t leave us there in our misery. Bring us to greener pastures. Help us to leave behind our sins and to embrace Your more abundant life.

Sunday Best

By Fr. Timothy Smith, Bulletin Letter of Ordinary Time Sunday 15B

Last week I celebrated a wedding for one of our parishioners. The groom was handsome and the bride was beautiful, and they were surrounded by a stunning wedding party who were dressed in fine suits and dresses. After the ceremony, I was speaking with one of the junior bridesmaids and her mother. The ten-year old was proud of her new dress and excitedly asked; “Mom, can I wear my dress to Church on Sunday?” The mom replied with a smile, “I think that is a great idea!”

This little bridesmaid’s excitement about dressing up for Church is a reminder for all of us to put on our “Sunday Best” when we come to Mass.  The tradition of preparing ourselves for Sunday Mass by putting on clothing that is formal and set aside from daily life is an age old practice.  I have many memories from my childhood when my father would wear a Suit and tie to Church on Sundays and my mother would wear a dress with simple accessories. My siblings and I each had sets of clothing that were designated for formal occasions and for Church.  The clothes we wore were not expensive; in fact they were not always new.  I remember my mother buying our dress pants, shirts, and shoes at Goodwill.  The point wasn’t to spend a lot of money, but to come to Church wearing clothes that expressed that we were doing something different than going to a sports game or lounging on the beach.

In recent times there has been a significant loss of the tradition to wear dress clothing to Church that honors God.  We live in a culture that is increasingly more casual, and some people have never learned about the importance of dressing for special occasions. If we look at the important roles of service in our community, proper dress and attire is an important detail.  We all expect that Policemen, Firemen, Lawyers, Doctors, Business Professionals, and Medical Personnel are dressed in a manner that reflects their duties and responsibilities. The same is true for us as members of the Church. When we take the time to prepare for Church in how we choose the clothing we wear, we are demonstrating that we take the Christian life seriously. We are NOT anonymous Christians. Each one of us has been called by Jesus to live as his disciples.  Living as a disciple applies to how we dress in Church and outside of Church each week. Each one of us can turn the tide by making prudent decisions in how we dress for Mass.  How the people dress for Mass reflects the beauty and sacredness of the Cathedral. A well dressed assembly will enhance the prayer experience for many of our visitors who come to the Cathedral each week.

Not long ago one of my friends was taking his family to Sunday Mass. They live in a city where many people have lost touch with Christianity. As they were loading up the family car with each family member dressed in their “Sunday Best”, one of their neighbors stopped to ask him a question. “Your family looks great! What are you all dressed up for?”  My friend responded, “It’s Sunday, and we are going to Church.” The neighbor was surprised at the answer; he forgot that people even went to Church. My friend realized that for so many people, Sunday is just a day in the weekend.  The decision that he and his wife made to dress the family for Church had a real effect of reminding people that Sunday is for honoring God. Pray this week on how you can honor God by how you prepare for Mass.  Why do you wear what you do? Ask God in prayer to open your mind and help you dress as one of his disciples.

Dismissing the Prophets of God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 14B

Since becoming a priest, I’ve been the recipient of many strange comments and questions. It seems a bit ironic to me that when I still wore something different every day, no one was very much interested in what I was wearing, but now that I wear pretty much the same thing every day, lots of people take an interest all of a sudden, especially when I’m in the grocery store or on the street. But the most annoying comment that I still hear on a regular basis is when people say things like, “Wow, you look way too young to be a priest.” Now, I try to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe a lot of people are just used to seeing a lot of old, burnt-out priests, that they’re surprised to see such a young, burnt-out priest. Keep in mind that the minimum age requirement is 25 years, and Jesus Himself was probably around just 30 years old when He began His public ministry, and around 33 when He died on the Cross and rose from the dead for our salvation. I wonder if anyone said to Jesus, “Wow, You look way too young to be the Son of God” (Cf. John 8:57).

I actually don’t mind the comments too much, and I’m glad to be aging well so far, but I do wonder if it isn’t just another way for some of us to dismiss and fail to respond and take seriously a perspective that might differ from our own. “Such a young priest doesn’t have much experience yet. Give him a few more years in the real world, and he won’t be so idealistic or extreme anymore.”

We can do the same thing with the different labels that we use: conservative or liberal, progressive or traditional. Instead of really seeking the truth together, how often do we find ourselves thinking, “Well, he’s only saying that because he’s so liberal” or “because she’s so conservative” or “because he’s still so young and inexperienced”? Here’s the real question for us to ask: Is it true? If what this person is saying is true, not conservative or liberal, but if it’s true, what does that mean for me and for my relationships? How is God challenging me through this, to reevaluate my own values and to change my behaviors? Is it true?

When Jesus returns to His hometown, those who watched Him grow up thought that they already had Him figured out. “Where did this man get all this? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” And Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith. How often do we dismiss and ignore the prophets of God because we already have them figured out? Because we know he’s liberal, he’s conservative, he’s still just a baby priest? This kind of thinking is toxic for our spiritual lives, and for the life of the Church, and for our country. This kind of thinking runs the risk of dismissing anything that might ask us to change, to repent, to reform our lives, our ways of thinking, our behaviors.

God’s ways are not our ways, but the whole goal of the spiritual life is that our ways should grow closer to the ways of God. This doesn’t happen if we think we already have it all figured out, that we have nothing to learn from those conservatives, from those liberal, from those old, or younger clergy. Is it true, or is it not? If what this person is saying is true, how is God calling me to change, to be converted, to draw closer to God’s own ways?

Spiritual and Religious

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 14B

At one time, and perhaps still today, it was popular to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I had a few classmates in seminary that said if they ever met someone who was spiritual but not religious, they would reply, “Well, I’m religious but not spiritual,” but anything authentically Catholic is both religious and spiritual. We should strive to have a deep spirituality and an authentic, personal relationship with God as we express that love for Him through concrete actions and public acts of worship.

The virtue of religion is not well understood today (not that spirituality is understood any better). Basically, the virtue of religion is the part of justice that gives to God what He deserves as the source of our life and of every good gift. I think part of our difficulty in understanding our duties towards God is that God doesn’t actually need anything. One of the Prefaces for Mass on weekdays expresses it well: “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation.” Somewhat parallel is the debt of honor that those in a civilized society owe to veterans and to first responders. Honor doesn’t greatly benefit the one receiving it, and even without it, they would continue to risk their lives for us, but a healthy society honors those who serve the common good. Hopefully, amid our 4th of July celebrations, we were able to reflect upon and to give thanks for the sacrifices of so many who have lived and died in the service of our freedom and security.

In relation to God, when we take seriously our status as creatures, that we do not make ourselves or give life to ourselves, and that God creates the soul of every human being, even if our material bodies are given to us through our parents, then it only makes sense that we owe God an enormous debt of gratitude for giving us life and sustaining us in existence in each moment, even as we owe our parents honor and gratitude to a lesser degree for all that they provide for us. The word Eucharist is Greek for ‘thanksgiving,’ and we owe God most of all a debt of thanks. To “keep holy the Lord’s Day,” it doesn’t seem too much that God asks us to gather together as a Church family every Sunday and every holy day of obligation in the perfect and public sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Mass, to grace us with the opportunity to receive from that sacrifice Jesus Himself, strengthening us in all that we do throughout each week.

Being spiritual but not religious has never made much sense to me. It would be like claiming to be proud as an American but unwilling to pay taxes or to vote or to serve on a jury or any of the other duties we have in gratitude for the many blessings we enjoy in this great country. Jesus Himself said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). May God strengthen us to fulfill all justice, to joyfully give ourselves entirely to Him, to be both spiritual and religious.

When Tragedy Strikes

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 13B

“The child is not dead but asleep.” Since its beginnings, Christianity has spoken of death in terms of sleep. This can be more than a little confusing at times. I remember reading in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and one of the first permanent deacons, and coming to the end of the passage after his last words, it says simply that he fell asleep. I remember thinking, “Well that doesn’t sound so bad. He’s just taking a little nap. He was probably tired from all his long-winded preaching.” And in one of the Eucharistic Prayers used at Mass, I believe it’s Eucharistic Prayer II, when we pray for “those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” it’s hard for me to keep from imagining to myself those who have starting dosing off in their pews.

So why do we, as Christians, speak about death as if it were just sleep? We find the answer in today’s readings and in the alleluia verse: “Our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life to light through the Gospel.” The Son of God who is life itself, “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” As God, He was immortal and undying. He became man, so that He would be able to suffer death for our sake and conquer death by His Resurrection. Ever since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that death is only temporary, not permanent. In that sense, death is like sleep. We know as Christians that even if we die, we will rise again, we will awaken to God’s judgment and His eternal reward or eternal punishment. Each of us has such a short time on this earth in view of eternity, and some just have a slightly shorter time than others, but all are alive to God and present in His sight.

But this often seems a very small consolation in the face of real tragedy. I still remember the first time in my own life that I was forced to come to terms with death in a real way. Growing up, I had this sense that God was always protecting me and my family and those close to me and that nothing really bad could ever happen to us. For a long time that seemed to be the case, and I never experienced the death of anyone I had known very personally. Then one evening as we were praying the rosary at home, the phone rang, and my mom answered it. And when she hung up the phone, she told us that Chris DeBuhr had just died in an accident on the road. And I remember thinking at the time, “Well, it must be some older relative with the same name. It couldn’t be the kid that I had sat next to in school and watched him storing a short pencil inside the bottom of his shoe. The kid that I had argued with and laughed with. It couldn’t be that Chris DeBuhr that they were talking about.” But then I had to face the reality that accidents do happen, and God allows them to happen.

Our faith can be shaken and tested, and sometimes we have to say goodbye to some people and some things rather earlier than what we would have liked or chosen for ourselves. Yet through these trials, our faith can also grow stronger, if we are willing to be honest and open with God, and continue to trust in His goodness and compassion, even when tragedies appear to call into question whether a good and loving God is really in control. Christianity proclaims a God who is so attentive to our needs that at the end of today’s Gospel, after raising the girl from the dead, Jesus tells them “that she should be given something to eat.” Almost 20 years ago, I had to say goodbye to a classmate, for the time being, and entrust him into the hands of God, knowing that we will meet again someday, very soon. I cannot know what would have happened, and what Chris would have grown up to be, if he hadn’t died when he did, but I can thank God for the time I did know him, and I can try to make the world a little brighter, like Chris did in so many small ways.

How well do we handle death and real tragedy in our own lives? Do we tend to keep people at arm’s length, not letting them get too close for fear that we’ll have to say goodbye to someone who’s close to us? Like Jairus in today’s Gospel, do we bring it to Jesus? Or, do we give up on God? Ultimately, life on this earth is short for each one of us, and the relationship we have with God is the most important, because He will be the One to carry us through the sleep of death. I hope that you never give up on God, no matter what happens to you or your loved ones.

I’m always encouraged by the fact that of the 150 Psalms, some of the oldest and most widely used prayers of Sacred Scripture, over 40 % are what can be called “Psalms of complaint.” Too often, we feel like we’re not allowed to complain to God. We need to just thank Him and pretend like everything’s great, but the inspired Scriptures actually give us words to use in complaining to Him. God can handle Himself. You’re not going to hurt His feelings. We should not blaspheme, but when difficulties arise or tragedy strikes, God wants to hear from us what we’re really going through. So please, never give up on God. Continue to return to him in good times and in bad. Never give up on God because, I’m here to tell you, God will never give up on you.