Sunday, February 17, 2019


Cursed is the one whose heart turns away
from the Lord. He is like a barren bush
in the desert that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. 
Jeremiah 17

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose hope is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.
Jeremiah 17

Exactly halfway through my seminary training, the Catholic Church went from being calm and serene and predictable to being stormy and chaotic – almost overnight. We changed, not with a whimper, but with a bang. My first year at Saint Meinrad in the Fall of 1964, we wore cassocks to class one semester and then cut-off jeans the next. One semester, we could be kicked out for drinking a beer on campus. A few semesters later, the monastery opened the “Unstable,” a campus beer and pizza pub that still exists today.  We went from celebrating Mass in Latin with the priest facing the wall to celebrating Mass with the priest facing the people. Churches went from hushed whispers to endless talking. People used to look down on you if you didn’t go to Mass. Now, they look down on you if you do! People used to admire you if you became a priest. Now they think you’re nuts!

To jump to the conclusion that Vatican II caused all this is pretty simplistic and quite naïve. There were monumental cultural shifts going on in those days in our society that would have affected us even Vatican II had not taken place at all! In fact, Protestant Churches, Jewish communities, families, marriages and universities were all affected by these same cultural shifts in their own ways.   

By the time I was ordained in 1970, I knew even then that I was going to serve the Church as a priest in the eye of a storm – in one of those many tumultuous periods in church history that come around every few hundred years. Just as I was about to get on the bus, hundreds of priests and nuns were getting off. I knew even back then that I was going to have to learn to ride the waves and shoot the rapids without puking my own guts out, if I was going to be able to help others weather the storms of change.  I realized even then that I needed something to hang onto – a rock-solid image or two that would keep me from going under too.

The Quaker Song “How Can I Keep from Singing?” was hot back then and seemed at the time to be exactly the image I needed. Andy Gardner of Indianapolis sang it at my First Mass and I have played it every anniversary for the last 49 years. “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing. It sounds and echoes in my soul; how can I keep from singing?”  Many of you know it as my theme song back when I was pastor here.

The second image I chose was the image from the Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today. It is, of course, based on Psalm 1. It speaks of a tree planted along a riverbank, whose roots go deep underground and out into the running water. This tree doesn’t depend on good weather or bad weather because it has an underground water source to sustain it. Its leaves never droop and it always bears fruit – through thick and thin, in good times and in bad.  I have always wanted to be like that tree.

These two images – the solid rock that no storm can shake and the tree planted along a riverbank - have sustained me during 49 years of change and chaos.  As a priest, I have always tried to “cling to the rock” and to be like that “tree with long roots.” So far, it’s working!

During this sex abuse scandal in the church, I have been very concerned about the nearly 200,000 Catholics in our archdiocese, especially those who have given up on the church or who were barely hanging on before this came to light. At first, I thought there was nothing I could do to help them. I was wrong.

I have a pulpit somewhere every weekend. From there, I can preach the good news. In 2002, it occurred to me that I could enlarge my pulpit if I had the chance to write a weekly column in The Record dedicated to offering the average Catholic an encouraging word. I was both challenged and humbled to be given that opportunity. I wrote every week for fifteen years.  Now I have my own blog where I can post my homilies and other writings for an even broader audience. So far there have been 150,000 page views from 10 countries.

Then there are Parish Missions, a time when extended preaching can be done over three days. I have preached close to 100 of them over the years. I get more requests than I have had time to honor because of the hundred plus national and international priest retreats and convocations that I have led. As that ministry begins to wane a little bit, I now have time for a Parish Mission or two each year locally.

Because I am still concerned about the nearly 200,000 Catholics in our archdiocese, especially those who have dropped out or are barely hanging on, I have agreed to offer a newly created Parish Mission here in our archdiocese. I am calling this one “Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Encouraging Words for Discouraged Catholics.” I will offer one in the country and one here in the city this coming Lent.  Details are in the Cathedral bulletin.

In light of this mess we are in as a Church, we must clean up the mess, make amends where we can, find ways to prevent it from ever happening again and, finally, forgiving. We can do it. We must do it. We don’t have time for self-righteous indignation. We are all sinners. After we have made amends to those who have been hurt and grieved our losses, we must get back to the business of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
During all this, I have been impressed by the faith of people in the pews. When I was almost drowning in discouragement, your continued faithful presence at Sunday Mass preached an encouraging word back to to me. I, like many other priests, have probably received more notes of encouragement in the last several years than ever before! Thank you!
This purging and cleansing will ultimately be good for our church. The truth will set us free, even if does sting in the process, and the truth will protect more children and vulnerable adults from this crime.  

The words of Jesus to Peter in the gospels are now being addressed to us, “Will you go away also?” Do not join those who give up. Let’s join those of us who search for even better reasons to stay.

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