Being a Minister of Hospitality with an Inhospitable Heart

I had an Uncle Les who was one of the kindest men I ever met. Always smiling and ready to shake a hand, he appeared constantly happy – always approachable and utterly charming. Fittingly, he was an Usher at our Parish Church. Never a Sunday went by that he didn’t hug our kiddos, give Deb a peck on the check and offer me a pat on the back. It remains one of my greatest joys about attending mass at our old parish. And Uncle Les didn’t reserve his hospitality for his nephew and family. He greeted everyone in the same manner. “Welcome!”  “Good to see!”  “How are you?”

Fast-forward about forty years and now I’m an usher (we’re called ministers of hospitality today) and I try to be a friendly face and welcoming presence like my dear uncle. Usually I fall short of that goal.

I have a secret: I became an usher (oops – minister of hospitality) because I didn’t like most of the people I encountered at Mass. Ours is an upscale, very conservative parish where I often feel out of step with most of my fellow parishioners. I thought that if I could stop judging and start greeting people I would learn to love them as they are and let go of my need to have everyone think and act like me. Some days are easier than others.

But it’s working.  S L O W L Y –  V E R Y  S L O W L Y.

usher-pic_origI smile and shake hands and offer the occasional hug or pat on the back. I’m the ‘Minister of Hospitality’ but in truth I’m the one being ministered. These folks that I’m greeting, that I know I would have never engaged in conversation before, are also welcoming me and greeting me and loving me. I’m certain many are misogynists, and racists, and xenophobes, and all manner of despicable human. But isn’t that why we gather? Aren’t we at Mass to be changed? Aren’t we building the “Body of Christ” in our flawed human way?

So I continue to show up on Sundays and do my thing. I smile. I greet. I welcome. I especially enjoy the ‘late-comers’ – the folks who try to slip in unnoticed. They often have a look that’s a mixture of shame and astonishment (“How did this happen? I’m sure I left my house on time!”) I greet them with a special smile and knowing nod – “It’s okay; you’re here; you made it; welcome.” I particularly love our “back of church” officially called the “Gathering Space” It’s an amazing and wonderful place.  Normal ‘Mass behavior’ can be abandoned there; beleaguered parents can allow their children to run and giggle; crying is completely acceptable; teenagers can skulk about like parolees.

In all of this, I see God’s love. Jesus is greeting me with each smile and kind word. I’m beginning to look at the “Body of Christ” in a whole new light. And little by little my stone cold heart is being chipped away.

Some Sundays I even feel Uncle Les smiling down on me.

Peace,

Denis

Saint Denis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers.

I’ve always been happy to have Denis as my saint’s name because he’s kind of a maverick and a tough guy. According to legend Denis was Bishop of Paris in the third century and was martyred by beheading. He is said to have picked up his own head and walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. Also Denis is the patron saint of headache sufferers, frenzy and strife. This is not surprising considering that six mile trek while carrying his own severed head!

St. Denis - Outside the Madeline in Paris (depicted with head intact)

St. Denis – Outside the Madeleine in Paris  (depicted with head intact)

Of course I admire the “saintly” saints who prayed and fasted and gave up all worldly possessions to follow Jesus’ call. We all love the saints who lived simple lives and made tremendous sacrifices for their faith but there’s something about a guy that’s got Denis’ spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads post mortem. So in my book Denis is a saint to emulate. Not only was he tough but he was cool. Let’s call it grace under pressure – extreme pressure.

 

St. Denis

Our grandson as St. Denis last year during All Saints’ week at school

Last year our grandson Noah chose to be St. Denis for the All Saints’ celebration at school. This morning he’s doing one of the readings at mass. Holy Noah (AKA St. Denis).

My Aunt Gene used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’ feat day and I will miss that again this year. When Alzheimer’s took it’s grip she forgot about Saint Denis and was sometimes a little fuzzy about who I was, too. But she’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. And I have always taken a certain amount of pride (is that a sin?) in the fact that my patron saint was a badass who defied his Roman persecutors!

I’d like to think that Aunt Gene and Denis are in heaven having a conversation about that fateful day in Paris so many centuries ago…

Peace,

Denis

And I Remain a Catholic…

This is not an easy time for Catholics. The unspeakable evil revealed in Pennsylvania that over 1,000 persons were sexually abused by 300 priests and even worse the systematic cover up by church hierarchy for seven decades is devastating. The details of the abuse are sickening but they should be read and understood by every practicing Catholic. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. It’s important to remember that pedophile priests aren’t just something that came out of Boston or Pennsylvania or Ireland. Many of my classmates will remember a priest in our Catholic grade school in the 1960’s that was “reassigned” as rumors whirled around about his behavior. I was spared but some of the boys in my class were abused (which is a polite way to say raped). It was an open secret. We all knew something, but we were too young (or ill-informed) to know what we knew. Twenty-five years later a popular young priest was removed from the school where our children attended because of abuse allegations. And on and on…

Many of my non-Catholic friends ask how I can remain in a Church so full of disgrace and sinfulness. How can I remain in a Church where the clergy attack the most vulnerable amongst us? Some of my Catholic friends ask that question, too. Truth be told, sometimes I ask myself. 

I’m angry. I’m outraged. I’m sad. I’m broken-hearted. And still I remain a Catholic.

We must not ignore the crimes of those priests and bishops. We should ALL speak up and speak out. We must ferret out the monsters who would prey upon the most vulnerable. I’m angry that anyone would sexually exploit a child, especially someone in a position of trust. I’m outraged that Church hierarchy covered up the abuse for decades, maybe centuries. I’m sad because of the loss of innocence and the destruction of faith in those young souls and that these despicable acts have been repeated countless times and it doesn’t seem to stop! I’m broken-hearted because now some in our Church are using these latest revelations as an excuse to attack progressives in our midst. Some ultra-conservative bishops are using this latest crisis to instill hate and doubt in the hearts and minds of others to further their political agendas. And still, I remain a Catholic.

Our Church champions pro-life causes when it’s about abortion or euthanasia but remains largely silent regarding affordable health care for the young and the aged. We proclaim our belief in a catholic (universal) Church; one that welcomes all of God’s creation but in practice we don’t really welcome everyone and are often openly hostile when it comes to LGBTQ rights and gender equality. We fail as a faith community when we refuse to fight for the dignity of immigrants and those separated from their children by our government’s overreach. We pay lip service to racism in the Church but in the U.S., we remain predominantly male, white and insular in our worship and leadership. Where is the compassion for those marginalized in our society? Pro-life should mean supporting ALL life not just that with which we are comfortable. I often feel ashamed of the unloving attitudes of some of my church-mates and myself. And still I remain a Catholic.

Our Church (my Church) is like a family: loud, messy, demanding, imperfect, passive-aggressive, arrogant, and intolerant. We have our share of crazy uncles, angry spouses, spoiled brats, privileged teens, and old codgers. We fight. We’re selfish. We neglect one another. We refuse to lift a hand to help one another. We are at times ugly, hateful and mean-spirited.

untitledBut because our Church (my Church) is like a family we also love, protect and cherish one other. We nurture, advise, and counsel one another. We pray for one another. Like any family, we come together in times of celebration and heartache. Our family cheers us on when we feel down-trodden or overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control. Our family carries us when we’ve lost all hope and strength. When there is a death or a job loss or some natural disaster, families can put aside their differences and be there for one another. It is also true for our Church – we need to accept one another as we are. We need to celebrate one another as we are. I’m reminded that we are the Church. Not the priests nor the bishops, but you and I. If you’re searching for God; if you need to see Jesus’ face, just look at the person next to you in the pew.

We Catholics are human – hopelessly flawed and sinful. Still in spite our failings we are given grace because God’s love is without fail. No matter how we muck things up; no matter how grave our sins; no matter how unforgivable our actions; we are forgiven. God’s love is greater than our sin.

And so, I’m going to keep the “family” that I have and remain a Catholic…

Peace,

Denis

 

 

 

Being Carried

Lately my prayer life has been a bit anemic. I feel like I’m sort of ‘phoning it in’- “Hey God, you know what I need, bla, bla, bla, and oh, what I’m thankful for, too. The end.” And I’m not really excited to be at mass on most Sundays. I’m either bored or frustrated because of the political messages (not so hidden) in the homilies. I feel like a stranger in my own parish; why am I there? Except for the music and a few friendly faces, I could be just as spiritually motivated at the Hallmark ® rack at my local grocery store.

As a Catholic, I know that we are the Church, not the Pope nor the bishops nor the priests but we, the ordinary, everyday, sinful, struggling, prayerful, bored, loving, argumentative, forgiving, messy, mass of humanity. We are the Church.

Saturday night I was once again reminded of this truth. At a dinner/auction for the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood I had an opportunity to be with friends and partners in mission. There is a great tradition being celebrated with the Sisters. The religious order was founded in Steinerberg, Switzerland on September 8, 1845. A small group of young women from Baden, Germany joined together. Their goal was straightforward. To be a reconciling presence of Jesus in the communities they served.

Today in addition to the professed Sisters, a group lay people who are “Partners in Mission” have joined to continue to bring reconciliation to our world. I’m honored to be a part of this mission. Sometimes it’s as simple as offering a kind word or friendly smile. Which sounds simple unless I’m carrying too much anger, mistrust or heartache. Sometimes it means being involved in service to others in our community. Which can present it’s own challenges when I’m feeling particularly lazy or selfish. Mostly for me it’s just being PRESENT. Giving myself to others with no expectations of anything in return. Listening to stories. Sharing joy. Making memories. Being loved.

And I am reminded that we are the Church. We. I’m not alone in this. So it’s okay if I’m only ‘phoning it in’ now and then. And I will try to continue to smile and to welcome others around me and pray (perhaps selfishly) that the Holy Spirit will ignite a fire in my soul.

In the meantime, I know that I am being carried along on this journey of love and faith and joy.

Peace,

Denis

P.S. the link below is to one of my 6 year-old grandson’s favorite songs. His spirit carries me, too!

https://www.vevo.com/watch/third-day/soul-on-fire-(official-lyric-video)/USV3M1400068

 

Full of Grace

I learned how to read in first grade. I know of course today that kids are reading in pre-school and kindergarten but back when I went to kindergarten I was just playing with blocks and finger paints and trying not to pee my pants. But now that I can read, one of the things that I do as an adult on occasion is proclaim scripture at my church. Because we are a large parish and there are many volunteers for this ministry, I probably only read at mass about eight Sundays per calendar year. Yesterday was one of my Sundays to read.

Lately I’ve been struggling to find my spiritual center. Our country seems more divided politically than at any other time in my adult life. Social media is filled with hateful rhetoric and falsehoods. Neighbors, friends and families are torn apart as fear becomes more prevalent and communities seem to remain in constant turmoil.

Thinking that perhaps reading Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon on Sunday might lift my spirits, my hopes were soon dashed as I encountered our ultra-conservative priest and deacon in conversation. Ugh – even in the sacristy the politics sounded narrow-minded and judgmental! Furthermore the other reader was a no-show, so now I had to fill in for her, which I wasn’t prepared to do. My annoyance was at full throttle. Church suddenly seemed like a waste of time and my being any part of it completely ill-suited. When it came time for me to read it felt perfunctory and disingenuous. The priest’s homily didn’t help matters, I just kept thinking, “I thought God is love?” “What does any of this have to do with loving God or one another?”

img_1818But grace comes when we least expect it (and perhaps when we most need it). My daughter and her family had joined us for mass yesterday, and just as I was feeling the most anger and disillusionment, my granddaughter Anna wrapped her arm around mine and leaned her sweet head on my chest. A simple loving gesture. Maybe she just wanted to let me know that I was loved. Maybe she just needed to feel loved. Whatever the reason, that moment was sublime. I felt my anger and frustration dissipate as her love flowed over me. I came to mass yesterday to read scripture and to hear the Gospel. Turns out it was spoken to me without any words.

The name Anna means “full of grace” and she is. And then I was, too.

Peace,

Denis

 

First Holy Communion

Our granddaughter Anna will make her First Communion on Sunday. This is a big deal for Catholic families. It’s a coming-of-age in a young person’s spiritual life. A very young person. Anna is just eight years old and is truly a holy innocent. Her world is full of rainbows and butterflies. She ALWAYS sees the good in everyone and she is absolutely astounded when someone is deliberately unkind. She is a good girl. Actually, she is more than just a good girl, she is a perfect little girl. Smart, sweet, loving, kind and full of joy.

Anna and Nana

           Nana & Anna

As Catholics we believe that we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Anna has prepared with her class and prayed with her family and now the time has come. She may not feel much different afterwards but I suspect she will recognize that God has blessed her in a special way on her First Communion day. Anna will be changed.

And the rest of us? We will all be blessed on her First Communion day. There will be a party with extended family and friends after the mass but the real celebration will take place as she walks up that aisle to receive the Eucharist for the first time. But that’s not enough, we must receive and believe, too. We become changed.

We have a big word in Catholicism – transubstantiation. It means that by consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. Sounds a little heady but the idea is simple. We consume Christ and we are changed. We receive the Christ who makes us one with himself and with one another. Not alone, but in community, we become the Body of Christ. The words the priest says during the consecration is only part of it. Not until the Eucharist is shared with the congregation does transubstantiation truly take place.

Eucharist is the great equalizer. Sinners and saints. Rich and poor. Young and old. We all come to the altar. We receive and we are changed. We become Christ to one another.

I know that this Sunday will be a special day for Anna. My prayer is that every Sunday after this one will also be special for her as she becomes part of the Body of Christ. She is already an example of God’s overwhelming love for us. And my blessings continue…

Peace,

Denis

He  broke the bread and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:24-25

 

Who Is Worthy?

Pope Francis’ message is LOVE above all else. He strives to strike a conciliatory tone while some conservative bishops and cardinals appear to be focused only on the LAW. Sadly many American bishops display some of the harshest criticism of our Holy Father. Instead of reaching out to those in need of Christ’s love, they prefer to remind us of our sinfulness; our unworthiness. Instead of finding ways to evangelize and share God’s love, they prefer exclusion and divisiveness. It’s sad that in a world aching for reconciliation and peace these bishops have chosen a very narrow view of Christ’s Gospel.

Recently Archbishop John Myers from New Jersey has given a directive to his parish priests concerning those ineligible to receive communion. He seems to be primarily concerned with those “guilty” of sexual sins. So once again another bishop has decided to “police” the Eucharist. So who is worthy to receive Christ? The publicly pious person who refuses to support legislation that will serve the poor? The folks who attend weekly mass but find no time to serve those less fortunate in their communities? What about the priest who makes it abundantly clear that he has no time for pastoral care but reminds us weekly that we are sinful?

And who are the unworthy? Only those guilty of sexual sins? Ironic that a clergy still plagued by the sexual abuse of the most innocent among us is seemingly obsessed with contraception, homosexuality and infidelity. I am dismayed that many Catholics flock to protest at abortion clinics yet remain virtually silent about the abuse of minors by priests. When was the last time members of a parish stood outside a bishop’s residence protesting the grave sins of pedophile priests at the urging of their parish priest?

Some progressive Catholics have suggested that we boycott communion. Some have suggested that we band together wearing our rainbow attire in support of our gay brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Others have just decided to walk away. None of these options will bring reconciliation to our church.

imageHaving lived in Europe for a year, I’ve seen the empty churches; the cathedrals and abbeys that are little more than museums today. How sad that some American bishops seem to be working feverishly to empty our churches as well.

Come Holy Spirit, renew the face of the Earth! And when you’re done with me, maybe you could work on a few priests and bishops.

Peace,

Denis

Come To The Water

baptismWater gives life.

Our lives begin in water. Water makes up 60-70% of our bodies. Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. Plants need water to grow. Fish need water to swim. Animals and humans need water to drink. Human beings can survive for weeks or even months without food but only days without water. Water is essential for life on Earth.

Water destroys.

Flooding devastates homes, crops, and at times kills human and animal life. Flash floods can develop in just a few minutes and without visible signs of rain. Drowning in the United States is the second leading cause of death in children 12 and younger. Tsunamis and tidal waves can wipeout nearly everything in their paths.

Water fascinates.

Most people are drawn to water. Swimming pools and water parks draw millions everyday. Water fountains, pond pumps and sprinklers dot our landscapes. Ocean-front and lake-front properties are sold at a premium. We spend precious vacation time getting to beach destinations just to play in the water. Boating, skiing, canoeing, kayaking and various other water recreations vie for our time and money.

Yesterday, as our youngest grandchild Ainsley was being baptized, I was thinking about how basic water is to our human existence; how ordinary; how necessary; how miraculous.

It’s fitting then that Baptism requires water. Through the waters of Baptism we are born to new life in Christ and sin is destroyed. After Baptism we live the rest of our lives fascinated by God’s unending power to transform our lives. Baptism isn’t a one-time event. It’s an invitation to “play in the water”. To immerse ourselves in the love around us. To refresh ourselves when our journey becomes burdensome. To cleanse ourselves when darkness overtakes our spirit. The life-giving water of Baptism never leaves us. It remains essential for our life on Earth.

cousinsMy prayer for Ainsley is that her life will be filled with love, peace and joy. And that she will always know that she has been strengthened by the power of that baptismal water. We have all been blessed by having experienced it with her.

Peace,

Denis

Ainsley, I hope you find your wings. Love, Pawpaw

 

 

 

Why Being Catholic Today Is Still Relevant

Last weekend our daughter-in-law was formally received into the Catholic Church. Although baptized as an infant her faith journey was varied and non-traditional. Colleen is a very spiritual person and has being searching for some time. I believe she has found a home in the Catholic Church. As she journeyed through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for the last nine months and celebrated her reception into the Church last Sunday my prayer has remained the same: “God please hold her in your hands.”

RCIAPolitically I am often at odds with the Church. The treatment of women in our Church is disappointing to say the least. Too often it seems that the hierarchy is more concerned with THE RULES than with the people – the people of God. Public debate about homosexuality, girl altar servers, women priests, birth control, celibacy, church finances, priest sexual abuse, and true Catholic identity (whatever that means) serve to be painful distractions from Jesus’ message of love and peace. The Official Church sadly seems to be more concerned about power than empowerment; about righteousness than about justice; more focused on sin than on forgiveness; more dedicated to doctrine than spirituality.

But listen to Jesus’ words:  “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”  He didn’t say, but first make certain that the person you love is worthy. He didn’t say make sure that they have followed ALL the rules. He didn’t say judge and then love. He simply told us to love another. As Catholic Christians that is our call. To love. As Christ loves.

Recently I have witnessed this love so many times. My family and I have certainly been held in God’s hands. As I watched Colleen receive the Sacraments of our Church for the first time I felt the presence of Christ in our midst. As her sponsor Kim placed a hand on her shoulder I knew it was Jesus’ touch that Colleen would feel. Last week we attended “Grandparents’ Day” at our granddaughter Anna’s school. During Mass that morning, Anna sat between us and sang Sanctuary – a hymn that I have always loved but now has new meaning having heard it in her sweet voice. Last night my ‘Partners in Mission’ group visited residents at Villa Theresa Haven, a care facility for the elderly and infirmed. Our simple visit brought some light and life to those we met but mostly we were blessed by the love that they returned to us. Being Catholic is relevant today because love is always the answer. And God’s love for us is timeless and boundless.

As Catholic Christians we can squabble about protocol and theology. We can disagree about traditions and priorities. But Jesus remains our mediator. And love is what defines us.

“Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary; Pure and holy, tried and true.”

Peace,

Denis

 

If church could be like the beach, I would go every day…

Last week we were in Florida. Every year when we make our annual jaunt to the Gulf of Mexico I realize that I could very easily become a beach bum. I love the beach. I love the sound of the waves crashing. I love being in the water even with the occasional seaweed wrapping around my legs. Give me a sunny day on the shore with a Corona® or a margarita and a beach chair and I could be happy for hours (or at least until the drinks run dry or the sun goes down).

beachI think the best thing about being on the beach is that no one seems to care about how you look; if you’re on time; if you’re rich or poor; if you’re well-read; if you’re young or old; if you’re fit or a little flabby. Of course when you are on the beach you will see some beautiful beach bodies and some hideous creatures, too. I’d like to think that I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But it doesn’t matter. Anything goes. The beach is the great equalizer. If you want to run along the shore that’s fine. If you want to lay on a blanket or a lounge chair all day that’s fine, too. If you want to build sand castles or search for sea shells or watch for dolphin sightings, or ride the waves on your boogie board, or just feel the sand between your toes, no one cares. No one judges what you do or don’t do.

Everyone seems to accept you as you are. And no one seems to be bothered to follow anyone else’s idea of what beach time should be. No schools. No rules. No fools. Just be yourself. And be accepted. The beach has room for all.

I’d like to think our church could be like the beach: Room for all. No need for everyone to be the same. Or have the same expectations of holiness. I believe that like the beach, our Eucharist is the great equalizer. We all come to the table from different places but we share in the love of Christ. God doesn’t judge us on our appearance or actions (or inactions) but what is in our hearts.

Like the beach, the church should have room for us all. And a little sunshine wouldn’t hurt once in a while.

Peace,

Denis