Reality Check

Last week I mentioned the admonition to “love your neighbor.” This Sunday, we heard the same from Mark’s account of the Good News. It was ironic that my family heard the Gospel proclaimed in our old parish in Delaware, especially with one of our old neighbors sitting behind us.

We love those neighbors. Our children grew up together and it was nice to see them again and reconnect. But my thoughts during the Gospel were not on the people behind us.

When we first moved into our home back in 2005, we met our next door neighbors. On one side was a state trooper, his wife the teacher, and their two children. Before we moved, we had been to their parties, watched their children grow up, and stood on the sidewalk in front of our houses talking for hours.

Then there was the other side.

A few months after moving in, we arrived home one day to find that those neighbors had installed sod in their yard. How nice.

Then I noticed the hose they were using to water their new lawn. It looked a lot like ours. Upon further study, I realized it was our hose…and it was still connected to our house.

We never really talked much to those neighbors after that. They had a dog that never shut up, hosted parties until all hours, parked anywhere they wished, and let their yard grow and grow and grow. And did I mention the dog?

It was to those neighbors that my mind wandered as I was sitting at Mass yesterday.

When I think of that reading – or the command in general – I also hear the voice of a priest friend, who, when reflecting on that reading at Mass years ago, said what I was thinking: “Like many of you…when I hear that instruction, I think, ‘Nice advice, God, but have you met my neighbors?’”

Loving our neighbors is tough. People are annoying. They don’t listen to our great advice. They overlook our gifts. They ignore us.

Still, I swear there are days that I think I can actually hear God telling me, “You know that ‘love your neighbor’ thing?”

“I meant that.”

So this week, I will remember that things are different. It’s a new day, a new beginning. It’s a day like no other in a week like no other in a place like no other. Sure, it all looks and sounds familiar, but this hasn’t happened before. This time. This place.

This week, I will love my neighbor. I will not take things so personally. I will remember that not everything is about me. I will forgive more easily. People will still be annoying, but I will remember that I am people too. So this week, I will remind myself that if God loves everyone, everyone is lovable.

As the great Dorothy Day said, “We only love God as much as the person we love the least.”

So, this week, love like God…and get yourself out of the way.

~pjd

Tell Them That They Are Good

I had lunch with a priest friend of mine the other day. I needed to get out of the office and talk about work and life and the intersection of what the press says is happening in the Catholic Church and what is really happening in the central offices. Plus, I wanted to make sure my friend was okay.

Priests are being painted with a very broad brush these days and it would be easy to forget that there are many, many good priests and bishops who are true to their vows and holy examples to us all. Yes, the leadership of the church, by and large, has zero credibility. And yes, the pope needs to speak soon so people know he cares. But it is also true that there are factions of the church that long for the pope’s downfall and no amount of action will alleviate that. Those same people forget how the church rushed to canonize a pope who never met with victims and largely ignored what was going on all over the world. There is a lesson in there for all of us and my guess is that historians will judge that we are better off when we let decades go by before chanting, “sainthood now.”

But back to lunch. My friend and I were talking about good preaching and I was lamenting about how much I miss my pastor, Fr. John, the consummate preacher and teacher. Our parish is still living in the in-between as we await the naming of a new pastor, six months after losing Fr. John.

My friend was telling me that his homiletics professor told his class to “always remember to tell the people that they are good.” I liked that.

We circled back to his teacher’s comments towards the end of lunch and my friend remarked how important such a message is in trying times. Then he told the story of a lady coming up to him after Mass a few weeks ago and asked, “Father, when are you going to stop telling us that we are good?”

The question surprised him, and he wondered why people think they are bad or what in our world has people convinced that such good news is unbelievable.

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

Without hesitation, he told me his answer. “I will stop telling you that you are good when you believe me.”

Wise words from a good friend.

This week I will remember that I am good. I am loved. I am saved.

So are you.

See. There is good news in the world.

~pjd

Fr. John

Fr. John Baran, our pastor, and my dear friend died on Saturday. He was only 59.

As I mentioned back in December, when I asked for you to pray with me for Fr. John, this good priest was among the first of many I met here in the Diocese of Bridgeport. When I first moved to town, people asked where I would be going to Mass. Everyone who asked recommended St. Anthony of Padua. The pastor, they said, was the best homilist in the diocese. They were right. Like you, I have heard my fair share of good homilies and, like you, there have been many Sundays where I sat and wondered, “Where in the world is he going?” That was never the case with Fr. John. You looked forward to his preaching and it carried you all week long.

I asked once how he learned to connect the readings to the lives of the faithful so well and he laughed and told the story of his homiletics professor in seminary who encouraged the class with the instructions, “Never preach longer than you are interesting.” Then, after a long pause, added, “And remember, gentleman, you are not that interesting.”

When I first met Fr. John, he welcomed me with tea and cake in his rectory. We shared stories of favorite authors, prayers that moved us, and I learned then what a great gift he was to our Church. In time, I came to experience first-hand what a great gift Fr. John was to our family. My children can quote his stories and would go to Mass as much to see Fr. John as to worship. I can quote his homily following the shootings in Orlando last year – or at least retell it – and it marks the first time in my life that a homily was followed by spontaneous and sustained applause. But that was not the only time Fr. John got such a reaction (though it was never, ever what he sought).

It was Fr. John who sat with me to tell the children that Maureen’s father had died. It was Fr. John who gave Katie her First Communion (and second, and third…). It was Fr. John who would take Molly aside to talk about black holes and quantum physics and then mutter to her mother and me, “What in the world is she talking about?” It was Fr. John who prayed with us, laughed with us, invited Maureen and me over for drinks, and gave out more Halloween candy than anyone (275 pieces last year) – and not those cheap little pieces, but giant, full-sized candy bars. Many, including us, would drive across town to see Fr. John, wish him well, show off the costumes, and pick up some candy.

Diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy some time ago, Fr. John occasionally struggled to manage the steps to the altar or the walk to the rectory, but I doubt anyone ever heard him complain. When the metastatic melanoma settled in and immunotherapy began, John never whined. Instead, he longed to come back to parish life and be with his people. He would join us on special occasions, twirling around in his scooter before Mass, though you could tell the real pain came from his lack of energy to celebrate the Eucharist with us.

Fr. John was the kind of priest that every parish wants, and every diocese needs by the dozens. He welcomed everyone not because it frustrated those who were unwelcoming, but because it was, like it or not, exactly what Jesus instructed. He did not judge. He did not gloat. He recognized that we are all sinners – himself included. Plain and simple, he preached the Gospel better than anyone I have ever met. But he not only preached it. He lived it.

In the end, I am told he was unafraid. I am not surprised. He kept his sense of humor about him, though he could barely move. He made those who visited him feel at home and smiled at the thought of using his long-stiff legs once more.

Perhaps our Katie put it best. As we gathered the children to tell them, pray the Rosary, and cry together, she seemed to echo what each of us was feeling. At age nine, she is often closer to the Truth than anyone. “I can just see it now,” she said, “Fr. John running into the arms of Jesus.”

That is how I want to remember my friend. Running. Dancing. Disease-free. Pain-free. Worry-free. Running into the arms of a Lord he served so well. And I know, if we had listened carefully Saturday morning just around 7:30, we could have heard the voice of Jesus praising John.

“Well done, my good and faithful servant. Rest. Be at home. Have a drink.”

May the choirs of angels, come to greet you, Fr. John. May they speed you to paradise. May the Lord enfold you in His mercy. May you find eternal life.

~pjd

Prayers for Fr. John

When I first moved to Fairfield, people asked if I had found a parish. Everyone who asked, recommended St. Anthony of Padua. The pastor, they said, was the best homilist in the diocese. They were right. Like you, I have heard my fair share of good homilies and, like you, there have been many Sundays where I sat and wondered, “Where in the world is he going (and how long will it take to get there)?” Every Sunday, Fr. John accomplishes in a few short minutes what some clergy take a lifetime to do – they share something worth remembering.

I asked once how he learned to connect the readings to the lives of the faithful so well and he laughed and told the story of his homiletics professor in seminary who encouraged the class, “Never preach longer than you are interesting.” Then, after a long pause, she added, “And remember, guys, you are not that interesting.”

When I first met Fr. John, he welcomed me with tea and cake in his rectory. We shared stories of favorite authors, prayers that moved us, and I learned then what a great gift he is to our Church. In time, I came to experience first-hand what a great gift Fr. John is to our family. My children can quote his stories and go to Mass as much to see Fr. John as they do to worship. I can quote his homily following the shootings in Orlando last year – almost verbatim – and it marks the first time in my life that a homily was followed by spontaneous and sustained applause. But it was not the only time that has happened since I have lived here.

Diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy some time ago, Fr. John sometimes struggles to manage the steps to the altar or the walk to the rectory, but I doubt anyone has ever heard him complain.

But today I ask you to join me in a praying for Father John as he faces a new challenge, this time against metastatic melanoma. The surgery on his head, where cancer originated, is healing well and immunotherapy begins this week in hopes of convincing his body to help in this latest battle.

Once or twice in your lifetime, you meet someone who moves you, challenges you, changes you, or improves you. That is what Fr. John has done for the Donovan clan as they began their new adventure in Connecticut.

Join me, please, in a novena for my friend.


St. Peregrine Novena Prayers

Dear holy servant of God, St. Peregrine, we pray today for healing.

Intercede for us! God healed you of cancer and others were healed by your prayers. Please pray for the physical healing of Fr. John Baran.

These intentions bring us to our knees seeking your intercession for healing.

We are humbled by our physical limitations and ailments. We are so weak and so powerless. We are completely dependent upon God. And so, we ask that you pray for us…

Today (12/4) – Pray for us, that we will not let sickness bring us to despair
Tuesday (12/5)  – Pray for us, that we may persevere in hope
Wednesday (12/6) – Pray for us, that we will have the courage to offer up our suffering in union with the Cross
Thursday (12/7) – Pray for us, that the loneliness of our suffering will be consoled
Friday (12/8) – Pray for us, that the fear of death will be replaced with the hope of everlasting life
Saturday (12/9) – Pray for us, that our suffering will not rob us of joy
Sunday (12/10) – Pray for us, that in our pain we will not become selfish but ever more selfless
Monday (12/11) – Pray for us, that this sickness will teach me to depend more and more on God
Tuesday (12/12) – Pray for us, that our lives will glorify God alone

We know, St. Peregrine, that you are a powerful intercessor because your life was completely given to God. We know that in as much as you pray for our healing, you are praying even more for our salvation.

A life of holiness like yours is more important that a life free of suffering and disease. Pray for our healing, but pray even more that we might come as close to Our Lord as you are.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen


May your week be blessed.

~pjd

 

 

Institutional Failure

One of the hardest working groups of people in the church today is the men and women who serve as directors or coordinators of religious education. Some of my closest friends serve in these roles, so the conversation I had the other day with a DRE unnerved me. Usually, I am quick to defend, but somewhere deep inside, her story irritated me.

I was at a meeting, listening to complaints, suggestions, and the like. One expressed concern that the idea of reimagining faith formation was overwhelming because she was, after all, the only one doing anything in her parish. (More on that at another time.) At the end of the meeting, a DRE came up to me and said, “You are not going to believe this,” as she relayed a story of a mom bringing her son in for an interview for Confirmation. (More on that at another time.) The DRE asked the child to name the seven Sacraments. The young man could not. The DRE was flummoxed. The mom demanded the Sacrament. The DRE wondered aloud to me about her predicament. “How can I say that this child is ready when he cannot answer the simplest question?”

I do not think she liked my answer. If a child gets to the ninth grade and cannot name the seven Sacraments – especially after nine years of religious education – he or she is the victim of institutional failure. His parents have failed him. His religious education program has failed him. His catechists have failed him. And yes, this holy woman standing before me telling her story has failed him. Every person responsible for his faith formation – including himself – has fallen short.

The reality is this: we have to rethink the way we prepare parents when their infants are baptized so they understand their role as first teachers. Then we need to give them to tools to accomplish this. Moving backward, you could even make the argument that we have to rethink how we prepare couples for marriage so they know the responsibility that lies ahead. We have to rethink early childhood education so something actually happens between Baptism and First Reconciliation and First Communion. We need to rethink comprehensive ministry to, with, and for young people. We need to rethink Confirmation prep and stop calling it the graduation it becomes because that’s what we keep calling it. If we want young people to stay involved in the parish, why not provide a place for them from a very early age so the parish community is an extension of the family, not a sacramental marketplace where we check in once in a while.

I could go on and so could many of you. Directors and coordinators of religious education have a really, really tough job. Parents often abdicate young people’s faith formation to these men and women, some of whom are prepared for the challenge while others are not. This happens, in part, because mom and dad do not have the skills to talk about their faith. But it also happens because we have become a society of letting someone else take care of the hard stuff.

If you have children, take responsibility for your children’s faith formation. Talk to them. Read with them. Study with them. Ask them about the presence of God in their lives.

If you are a catechist, coordinator or director of religious education, put the textbook down and have a conversation with your students. Find out what they know and what they believe. See if God is real to them or if they are just going through the motions.

It takes a village to raise a child but only if the villagers work together.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis said, essentially, that the Church is a love story, not an institution. That gives me hope.

Because love never fails.

Expectations

I heard once that most of the world’s conflicts are rooted in expectations that are unclear. This would explain why my children are hardly ever able to clean their rooms without very specific instructions. It’s even gotten to the point where, when asked to clean the basement, the children will often reply, “Do you mean neat or really neat?” Clear expectations can save a lot of time and frustration.

I thought of those endless conversations with my children the other day as some colleagues and I were brainstorming about expectations when it comes to our faith communities. We wanted to create a general list that answers the question, “What should be able to expect from my parish community?” Just to be fair, we also wanted to answer the question, “What should my parish expect from me?”

Our initial list is below. Feel free to use the comment section to add to the list. We plan to publish our list as part of a report we are working on as we reimagine faith formation in our diocese. Our hope is that these lists will help parishes become more welcoming and engaging.

What should I expect from my parish community?

  1. A welcoming, Catholic community, rooted in the Eucharist
  2. Liturgical experiences that are engaging
  3. Accompaniment through life’s joys and struggles, celebrations and heartbreak
  4. Opportunities to use my gifts and talents in service of the parish and wider community
  5. Opportunities for Reconciliation
  6. Parish leadership that is well formed for their ministry
  7. Parish staff that is friendly and knowledgeable
  8. Opportunities to pray for the needs of others and learn more about my faith
  9. Opportunities to support the community through prayer and tithing
  10. Regular, ongoing communication about the life of the parish

What should my parish expect from me?

  1. Regular, active participation in Sunday Mass
  2. Ongoing prayers for my parish leadership and community
  3. A willingness to get involved in the life of the parish
  4. A willingness to serve in ministry
  5. A willingness to learn more about my faith
  6. A willingness to share my faith with others
  7. A willingness to reach out to others, welcoming them to join our faith community
  8. A willingness to support the parish financially

What would you add or change?

May your week be blessed!

The Hat

There is a couple that sits in front of us at Mass on Sundays. She always wears the nicest hats. They are the quintessential older couple: smartly dressed, clearly still in love, and about the same age as our children’s grandparents. I would like to say that we would know them anyway were it not for the hats, but you never know.

A few Sundays after the family moved up here last summer, the oldest child wore a hat to Mass. It provided the perfect opening for Mrs. C to say something to our eldest about how good it is to see someone else who appreciates a good hat.

Since then the friendship has blossomed. Mrs. C has presented hats to the girls and going to Mass has become something I know they will enjoy because Mr. and Mrs. C will be there.

We have been to their home. They have baked us a cake. We pray for their daughter, who’s fighting an illness, every night. Mrs. C is one of our first-born’s “five” – that small group of people she knows she can count on, go to, trust, admire, and emulate. It’s more than just a hat now; they are part of our extended family.

As we sat behind them at Mass this morning, Mrs. C in her purple hat and Mr. C in his matching scarf, I thought about how, in a few short months, they had become a part of the village helping to raise our children. It made me think of the life of our parish community – filled with many such stories. A parish ought to be a family. Faith ought to be transformational. We discover that God loves us and values us only when we are loved and valued by others.

No matter where you sit on Sundays, relationships matter. Stories matter. Stories disarm us; shared responsibility disarms us. Faith is at the center of the table but we all share in the responsibility to make sure faith doesn’t just stay there. Our understanding of God grows only as we learn that God is beyond our understanding.

Sharing the Good News requires legs and arms and voices.

And, yes, on occasion, the right hat.