Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Christmas Gift

Betty was born on Christmas Day, her grandfather’s premonition would become so clear to a newly ordained Deacon the day of her wake some ninety-one years later. 

As we journeyed through Advent and the busy pre-Christmas season, we were called to travel through the spiritual desert, a place to empty ourselves and let Christ in. These days it’s not so easy to get beyond the busyness of life and look to reach the inner place where God dwells in us. 

Christmas has taken-on so many different meanings, and has reached a point where we forget the joy of our salvation. To some it’s just the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but that is too simple for the gift of the Incarnation. 

God’s rescue plan to conquer sin and restore us to right relationship began at the dawn of creation and was realized as His Son entered history, born of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual understanding of Christmas may have begun with the image of Santa Claus, or the Nativity scene or has grown to a better understanding of how the Person of Jesus conquered sin and death. Jesus brought us the gift of life eternal through his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Betty’s passing on November 30th helped me dig just a little bit deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation. In preparation for her funeral I had the blessing to meet with Betty’s siblings, family and friends to get better acquainted with a woman, I knew simply as my friend’s Mom. Each person spoke of that special light with which she conducted her life; not an unkind word was spoken. She always looked to the good of the other which exemplified the Spirit within. 

Betty saw a better life for her brothers and sisters and sacrificed to deliver them from poverty.
A true servant, she stepped up to support her five siblings. You see, her Dad died at a young age as her mom struggled to support six children at the height of the Depression. Stories surfaced of her self-sacrifice to establish a better life for her brothers and sisters. Whether it was turning over the few dimes she earned for twelve hours of babysitting so her siblings could go to the movies or her ability to scrape up money so they could buy stale day-old scraps from the grocer to feed the family. They said Betty was a faith-filled woman who wasn’t “preachy”, but her example as “Christ in action” made her the best preacher in my eyes. 

Faith in action, coupled with a humble presence would set in motion a foundation to build a loving family. As her brother Bill exclaimed, “We had nothin, but we had everything.” Grandfather’s foresight into her holiness became more evident with each testimony. Born into humble circumstances and suffering, Betty followed God’s Will and relied on His Grace.

In her last years, Betty would find solace at Dominican Village as she shared in Christ’s suffering as she battled the onset of dementia. No one has an answer to suffering, as it is a part of everyone’s life journey. Betty knew how to empathize with the poor and suffering, because she lived It.  I believe she now knows the joy of Christ’s presence as she experienced the presence of Christ with each visit and prayer from family and friends. You see they brought Jesus to Betty, especially as they shared the suffering of a mind less clear and forgetful.

Jesus calls each of us his brother and sister. He looks to deliver us out of our poverty of spirit, and to have a life fulfilled, and life eternal. He became poor, came to serve, became the sacrifice for our sins and showed us the way.

This Christmas as we exchange gifts, let us not lose sight of God’s greatest gift.  May we decrease and may He increase. For when we “have nothing, we can have everything”!

May the gift of Christ’s light grow within us as we recognize the Light of Christ in others, and set the world on fire!

Deacon Steve

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Statues with Limitations

One Sunday morning this October, I entered through the sacristy door and was quickly greeted with: “have you seen what happened to St. Joseph?” 
To my surprise the statue of St. Joseph had been knocked over and his head decapitated. My thoughts rushed to the suspicion of vandalism, until I heard about the car accident, the injured pedestrians and the intoxicated driver.

Statues can be replaced, or even repaired, but what about people at the center of the situation? How were they doing? As Church, did we reach out to them? Did our prayers go toward the victim, what about the driver?Catholics are often accused of worshiping statues, which is a misnomer. Centuries ago the veneration of statues, even pictures of Jesus, Mary and the saints has helped us keep their presence and example foremost in our minds. The veneration of relics, icons and statues should not be confused with idol worship.  There is the potential for us to loose sight of the person behind these images, the flesh and blood that walked this earth faced with the many challenges we experience, yet through the grace of God, whose lives have become a model for us to emulate as a pilgrim Church.
Behind the old convent building near the chapel, stands a statue of Jesus whose hands have been broken off. One might see this as a statue which should be repaired. I see it as a reminder of the prayer of St. Theresa of Avlia:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.” 
-Prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

With all the controversies in today’s society about removing statues in the public square, and erasing the past, we might view statues as an aid to prayer and to be mindful of our own path and the corrections we need to make to follow “The Way” .
Reflecting upon a statue, may our stony hearts be called to change, as we continue to become new creations in the Spirit to improve our world.

Through God’s grace may we answer the call to be the body, hands, feet of Christ here and now.  – Deacon Steve
Homily November 5, 2017 -  Deacon Stephen Yusko

The corruption of the best is the worst.

Today’s Scriptures both in the book of The Prophet Malachi and by Jesus in the Gospel is a strong biting message to those of us in the clergy.

“And now all priests, this commandment is for you; if you do not listen if you do not lead to your heart, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse.

The name Malachi means my messenger, God‘s messenger. As the last book in the old testament written sometime between 600 BC and 350 BC just after the Israelites returned from the Babylon exile.

Malachi rails against the priests who have lost their way and have not served the people in proper worship and sacrifice. They have become corrupt and halfhearted.

What I find so fascinating how throughout the Bible the Prophets took the hierarchy to task when things were just not right. They called for repenting and correction.

The corruption of the best is the worst.

From politicians caught up in sexual criminal behavior, to men in power who coerce abuse and rape their victims with impunity.

The Harvey Weinstein‘s of the world, who have no fear of God, or of judgment. And worse yet, those complicit with these actions with an enabling silence.

Where are the Malachi‘s of today, my messengers who will speak up?

Our own Church is not immune from the corruption of the best.

The church has suffered greatly with the priest sexual abuse scandal, with those entrusted to the care and guidance of the faithful and those least able to defend themselves.

As Bishop Robert Barron states:  “a terrible curse still is with us today”.

As the body of Christ we ought to be fully fed by our spiritual leaders, and we are to feed others.

Jesus in speaking to the disciples calls out the Pharisees and scribes who use their status to aggrandize their egos.

They display a narcissistic tendency to become the showboat, dishonoring God, and thus breaking the Levitical covenant and their ministry to guide the faithful in righteousness worship.

Jesus tells us to listen to what they say, yet steer away from their for example.

Our Lord speaks of the heavy burdens of the law as heavy bundles which they do not lift a
 finger to carry.

The intention is not to lighten the law but that as clergy, as a Sheppard, we are to walk beside you and help you shoulder the burden.

So the question I have for you is how are we doing? Are you being fed? Are you being well served, are we serving the Lord with our whole heart and whole mind and our whole soul?

Are you receiving the “fast food“of the feel-good prosperity gospel and a show, or do you Receive the five course meal of the gospel by our words and actions?

Truly, it is difficult for anyone to fully practice with they preach. As Christians we are called by my name to offer our sacrifices from the heart, wholeheartedly.

At times, I have been a milquetoast Catholic, going through the motions, lacking passion in my prayer and practice.

Don’t be milquetoast. Bring passion to your prayer, and make it personal. Cry out your petitions, sing from the heart and feed your fellow man with the joy of the gospel!

To quote Pope Francis from the Joy of the Gospel: “with God‘s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human; we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source of inspiration of all our efforts and evangelization. For if we have received a love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?“

I encourage you to find the joy from a renewed encounter with Jesus. Find it in heartfelt worship, find it in the service of others, find it in wounds that are healing, find it despite a lousy Homily.

Always work to deepen your prayer life, let pray interrupt your day, and examine your conscious at night. Pray for our pastors, priests and deacons.

Help us to be God’s good messengers and be at our best!

Homily - Mass, Millennials & the Welcome Mat - October 8, 2017

It has been a real difficult few weeks for everyone with the hurricanes, floods and now the recent massacre in Las Vegas; it can put one’s faith to the test. (Pause)  I get angry when I hear the platitude as: “Our thoughts & prayers are with the victims”, and I surely do not negate the power of prayer, but these platitudes seem to excuse away any action on the part of the speaker, or even worse, may  provide an excuse for our own inaction.

Of course you know in any homily, I first preach to myself. The unanswered question of why these things happen, what motivated this man to do the unspeakable, seems to bring on paralyzing despair. However, I am heartened when I hear the stories of so many strangers coming to the aid of each other in the face of this attack. I see the hand of God working through these people, in the face of danger and sacrifice helping strangers, helping their neighbor.

And today our scriptures paint a seemingly dark picture.

One of my pet peeve‘s with religions today is that preachers often focus only on the joyful or the prosperity gospel and tend to shy away from those darker stories we find like the one today. But we need to delve into this parable and let the gospel cut us a bit.

Today's readings pose a question: how are we tending the vineyard? We have received so much from God, but are we making the world fruitful? Are we bringing about the Kingdom?

In Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the Vineyard and refers to the owner as a friend, the Lord our God. The Vineyard is the people of Israel, the chosen people. The chosen people are those who are set apart by God and set up as an example to all the nations. God provides Israel with the law, the Prophets and his messengers so that they have everything in order to bring a just harvest which will produce the finest wine.

And yet even with a cursory reading of the Bible, we see time and time again the ebb and tide of the people of Israel, breaking God‘s covenant. Even with all that God has done; the Israelites produce wild grapes. The wild grapes represent the breaking of the covenant and the collective sin of the people. They move away from communion toward idolatry.

You might say well, that’s a tough break for the Israelites. But Saint Paul tells us that we are the new Israel. And we should pay close attention to God’s word on this.

In the Gospel Jesus through his parable calls out the religious leaders of his time and in their reply, they condemn their own inaction for rejecting God’s messengers and what they are about to do in casting out Jesus and putting him to death on the cross.
Their wickedness will be their destruction, but the landowner will continue to look for new tenants. God is always reaching out to us his lost sheep.

Okay, get ready to be challenged!  Speaking of looking for tenants, I was intrigued by an article my daughter posted by Jackie Semmens (https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/09/25/yes-millennials-brunch-thats-not-why-theyre-skipping-mass)  who provides great insight and on how we can be fruitful stewards in our own parish.

Jackie, a Millennial herself, (the group 20-30 year olds) laments the fact that the millennial’s of our time, are disconnected from parish life, the Church and have not experienced the social and spiritual fulfillment that previous generations have experienced.

Look around, right now, the dwindling numbers of 17 - 37 year olds right in our very pews is staggering.

About 2/3’s of them attend Mass but a few times a year. And I feel for them, and the families who long to see them grow in the faith. To experience the joy that can be found here, and how God’s Word and sacraments nourish us.

I conducted a survey of my own, by having a frank, non-judgmental conversation with some of the millennial’s I know, which sadly validated how an unwelcoming experience, however unintentional can drive them away.

We all have busy lives, and some time we are just tired, how a mom and dad can pull it together on a Sunday morning with a couple of preschoolers in tow, really amazes me.

We need to welcome them, support their “Mission to Mass” with joyful greetings and supportive postures. I don’t have all the answers, but Jackie’s quote may help our understanding.

“Millennials, many with a passion for social justice rooted in their Catholic values and upbringing, are dissatisfied with an institution that preaches community and compassion and often practices the opposite. Taught to reach out to the marginalized, young Catholics are typically protective of their L.G.B.T. friends—or feel unwelcome themselves. They do not want to be a part of an organization that has too often been a deep source of pain for the people they love.”

Our Bishop John Barres calls us to dramatic missionary growth, and to accomplish this we must explore outside our comfort zones and engage our community in conversation and with invitations, We need to plan to invite millennial’s on local projects of social justice, and make them aware of our outreach efforts for the poor. As St. Francis says it is by our actions that we preach the gospel.

In my family, we are known for having unintentional stern facial expressions. One day a friend asked me if I was happy.  He said, “Then why don’t you tell your face!” (Pause)

 We should examine our conscience and ask ourselves and others, are we being true to our parish mission statement of welcome, worship and witness?

Are we responding to the Lord’s invitation with the works of justice, love, peace, chastity, and respect for others? Or are we stuck in the status quo?

Are we the servants of the vineyard, killing the messenger inside of us?

If we are to set our world on fire with the Holy Spirit, we must recognize that God will provide us the grace to bear good fruit for the kingdom here and now!

Christ is calling us to reach out into parish, and our local community.
May our prayers, may our thoughts lead us to Action!

Discovering a Community of Joy!
On the weekend of the First Sunday of Lent in 2017, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass outside my home parish on a Saturday evening with the people of St. Bernadine's in West Baltimore. "Their home under the dome" as they referred affectionately to their parish.
For those unfamiliar with West Baltimore, it is a community that struggles with crime and poverty as industry and opportunity abandoned the community decades earlier.  

My daughter Faith works with the Sisters of Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, which supports the community with various charitable services. We stayed at the volunteer house on Saturday night and went to the 5:30 pm Mass. Abandoned buildings and condemned properties abound as you could imagine the neighborhood's heyday as we drove by magnificent churches, old factory mills and remnants of the Baltimore Ohio railroad.

Faith had long wanted Debbie and me to come to town and live the experience she has had at St. Bernadine's.

As I walked through the large oak doors of the church, I was greeted with a warm welcome by the ushers and handed a prayer card with the Prayer of St. Francis and a pencil and was invited to write my prayer intention. I could not help but reflect on recent "home improvement" choices deployed at my home parish and take in the visual impact of this vibrant inner city church. My mind wandered to the many homes I have visited throughout my life. I could not help but contrast accessible homes with those which were opulently adorned, yet often lacked the authentic welcome of a home with warm hearth and heart.

Each usher went out of their way to move from their greeting of familiar parishioners toward their new visitors. Toward the end of the Mass, many would proceed as in the communion line to pick up a random prayer card which we all committed toward prayer for the month. What a wonderful way to engage in our prayer for others!

As we proceeded to the pew, my eyes scanned our surroundings, noting the murals of what I perceived to be pictures of an ethnicity accurate Middle Eastern Jesus. This building was worn down in places, yet the spirit of the people, the Body of Christ outshone any grand priestly garment or golden adornments. The small altar was close to the congregation, surrounded by choir seating, a grand piano and various instruments. The procession began and our celebration commenced.

Visually, I was the minority, in a predominantly African-American congregation, yet soon my initial observations would melt away as the inclusive atmosphere proved to me that our differences did not separate us from being in communion with the true Church, the Body of Christ.  Welcoming glances were directed our way, especially during the extended kiss of peace, where the parishioners moved from their pews to extend Christ's peace.

The joy, love and welcome of the people was palpable and sincere. Their pastor Msgr. Richard Bozzelli was accessible, authentic and down to earth. I was happy to see a bound copy of the Bible alongside the missal and song books in each pew. It so happen that in working though his homily, Msgr. Rich encouraged the opening of their Bibles to reference passages surrounding Sunday's readings.

The experience of this parish family deeply touched my heart so much so that I had to return the following morning and participate in the 11:30 Gospel Choir Mass, but that's an article for another day. I left St. Bernadine's vowing to return soon. I could not wait to share my experiences with my home parish.

All too often we can reminiscence of days gone by, where parishes were segregated by semi-homogeneous neighborhoods, posturing us toward inner parish focus, rather than outward evangelization of the salvation of Christ. There can be a tendency toward “group-think”, as we reject the unfamiliar and create our own expectation of "church".

I would imagine that God does not want gold to decorate our worship space, but calls us to conversion, and preparation of the most important space, the temple of our hearts. I have yet to hear a lapsed Catholic or convert testify to the beauty of a church building leading them to conversion or spiritual growth.

I fully trust the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  I encourage all to pray that the wounds and divisions we experience, locally and throughout our country, may be healed as we grow closer through adversity, by the grace of God.

To quote St. John Vianney: 

“Remain humble, remain simple. The more you are so, the more good you will do.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Journey in Faith, Joy, Love and Laughter: What's in a name?

A Journey in Faith, Joy, Love and Laughter: What's in a name?: What's in a name? Her parents gave her a scandalous name.  In an affront with today's sensibilities her parent's are being cal...

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What's in a name?

What's in a name?

Her parents gave her a scandalous name.  In an affront with today's sensibilities her parent's are being called out for naming her at birth with a name that draws scorn. What were they thinking?

Born over twenty-one years ago, the baby was a welcomed surprise as her parent's were told they may never be able to conceive. Mary broke the news to Tom just before their vacation in the Caribbean was about to begin. Shock and awe were the emotions written on Tom's face as she broke the news. After trying for three years a new life was being knitted in Mary's womb. "Well, I guess you're going to be the designated driver for awhile", Tom quipped. The month's rolled on by, a bit slowly for Mary's comfort, as the couple prepared their home for the new arrival.

Mary was the "glue" for the extended family, hosting most holiday's, preparing for each festivity with great detail and care. However, as the time for baby's arrival drew closer to toward Thanksgiving, sister-in-law, Geri took the rains an hosted this year's meal. Till this day, Mary credits Geri's turkey dinner as the key catalyst to the start of her thirteen hour labor.  The birth had it's challenges as Doctor Paul had to bring the baby into a proper birth position. Tom and Mary waited to learn the baby's sex and on the day after Thanksgiving a seven pound, two ounce girl came into their world.

Little did her parent's know how their next decision would create such scandal some twenty years into the future, for as they say, "what's in a name?".

Tom and Mary, got the traditional baby name books. Brooke was a popular name, there seemed to be a bunch of "Claire's" around town and they weren't interested in any exotic name. But her name would have to be special, considering the circumstances of her birth and predictions of infertility.  The parents were known to be a gregarious couple, rooted toward a conservative bent, not shy to call it as they saw it and were considered by many to be religious.

The Aquino's were not your soft and fuzzy spiritual types, they were deeply rooted in their "organized" religion. Their Church is not immune to scandal, the institution pushes itself into the public  square and worked to spread its beliefs into every aspect of the public sphere, including schools, community venues and government. Moments of silence at sporting events became times of prayer, every school shooting or tragedy became an opportunity to convert the world to their "God".  Why couldn't they just keep it quiet, and leave their religious beliefs behind closed doors or vacant like the rest of us.

Today, it's not what you believe, but your chosen identity. What's relative is key to your own style and definition of success. You see, you have only yourself to rely on, and the individual is the supreme being to be worshiped. Sure the government has provided us freedom of religion, but it really just means your freedom to worship; behind closed doors of course, unless you conflict with the government's beliefs and boundaries. Life begins when the the government says, not according to your outdated superstitions. Life ends when we deem that your quality of life does not measure up to the normal acceptable minimum quality of life. Your life is yours to end, we'll even provide the doctor and means to do it quietly and privately, and disposal of your remains is as easy as taking out the trash! Choice supersedes life, especially unexpected, unplanned, unwanted life. Remember to dust you shall return, now I see where they mention recycling in that good book of yours!

So the Aquino's crossed the line. They couldn't just keep it to themselves. They didn't play the game! They frowned on sports, because it conflicted with Sunday's! Thankfulness and blessings seem to permeate every conversation. Prayer, the mindless gibberish and hopeful wishes interrupted their daily routine. Church-time and "parish" activities trumped game days. Instead of being self-reliant they were reliant on their God. Can you believe it (pun intended)? Sure cocktail party conversations remained light, until someone pushed the wrong button and asked the deep questions as to why do bad things happen, what does it all mean, and is this as good as it get's?

I get every one get's what they deserve. Karma, I guess. They say everything happens for reason. But how could they ruin this baby's future. How could they be so callous and unthinking.  How could they force their superstitious ways on this unsuspecting child. They choose to keep their dependent, dependent on something unprovable, the transcendent which is hidden from the empirical.

It seemed that her name would set her outside the pack, embrace the peculiar, turn her gaze outward, juxtaposed the coveted "selfie-shot" posturing we've all grown to love. Baby Aquino would welcome self-sacrifice and throw vanity to the wind. Her beautiful long locks of hair, donated to those accursed with cancer. Although an only child, service toward her "brothers and sisters" would outweigh personal consumption and entertainment. Empathy replaced anxiety, looking outside herself would provide insight to her inner soul.

Heart on her sleeve, she projected a shameful confidence in this perfect world. Drawn to the dregs and "skells", the unwanted and undeserved, young Aquino was unlike most of the boys and girls in her town.

She would never know the impact of her name until her early twenties when she embarked out onto the world. You see, her name was cause for pause. It challenged secular sensibilities. The beautiful people, rejected her, the government saw her beliefs as a threat to the  addiction with which it hoped to entangle the poor. Her name pointed to the transcendent, the creator, the one outside creation.  Funny it's seems that God is not so much hidden from our view, but it is us who choose to put on the blinders and walk around in the dark.

The young woman, would not walk proudly, but assume the cloak of humility, every pointing outside herself. Aggression was met with kindness, disbelief with hope, tragedy with prayer, hurt with healing and injustice with forgiveness. How odd, this woman, how curious her judgement, how different her ways! "I did not create this Way, but had it handed down to me", she would remark. "I learned this from my loved ones, and through the grace of God, I have found joy. In the suffering I see the one who showed me what sacrifice really means.  I'm as broken as the community with which I live, I suffer, I worry, I am a sinner.  I just keep working to see that which may be hard for most to see.  I see the creator in the face of everyone I meet, the addict, the drunk, the pauper, the business man, the nun, the priest, the child, the infant. My blinders are always adjusting and I hope to have them removed someday."

"I was told that a kingdom was brought about some two thousand years ago, and it's our job to bring it to completion, not on our own, but with the help of the one who creates. I've just chosen to say yes and be His instrument wherever it lead... Which I have no doubt is toward the good. You see at first I never knew the impact of my name, I had to grow into it. Now, thankfully I have a history and actions tied to the name with which I have been blessed. This scandalous name, this challenge to the world has many facets. So when you are in need, just call my name, FAITH."