Thursday, September 30, 2021

"ST. THERESA MUSEUM BRIEF" #6 -"Two Strong Women Decision Makers"


Our little parish of Saint Theresa of Avila in Rhodelia, Kentucky, has produced 37 Sisters, 8 Priests, 1 Brother and hundreds of lay heroes in its 203 year history. In these periodic little "history briefs," I have spotlighted the various religious communities from which our Sisters belonged and their contributions to Saint Theresa Church. Among the Sisters coming from Saint Theresa, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had twenty-three, the Sisters of Loretto and the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines both had five, the Sisters of Mercy had one and the Dominican Sisters had three.

No parish, of course, does all that it does without the service of heroic people from the outside. Nothing is truer in that regard than all that the Sisters of Charity have invested in our little parish.  We are especially indebted to the decisions made by two particular leaders of that religious community.  Without their decisions, Saint Theresa Church might not have survived. Even if it had survived, it would certainly have been spiritually deprived. Now we need to honor their investments by doing whatever we can to keep what they gave us going - even if these days call for a "reinvention" of ourselves so that this same community can be served in a whole new way going forward! So that we do not forget them, the Sisters of Charity are helping us remember them by giving us a grant to help develop our new gallery of historic photographs. It will hopefully remind the old and inform the young of our sacred 203 year history as a parish and all the sacrifices that were made to keep it going this long.  

In 1870, Mother Frances Gardiner and her Council made the decision to send the first Sisters of Charity of Nazareth to staff the Saint Theresa Academy. They were: Sister Generose O'Mealy (Superior), Sister Demetria Carey, Sister Marcelline Fleming, Sister Alma Cannon and Sister Raphaella O'Brien. Because of their generous and courageous decision, 92 more Sisters of Charity served our parish over the next 123 years.  

In October 1950, Mother Bertrand and her assistants came to St. Theresa to select the sight for  a new school and convent and to give their approval of the primary plans. With that approval, the old Saint Theresa Academy was scheduled for demolition  and the new Saint Theresa School was scheduled to open in 1952. The four Sister selected to staff the new school were: Sister Mary Ancilla Meyer, Sister Rosalinda Reese, Sister James Anthony Costello and Sister Agnes Bernard Tholl. (All four of them taught me.) In future blog posts, I will recognize them and some of the Sisters who followed them. 

Funded By A Recent Grant From The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021


While Jesus was at table in the house of Matthew, the tax collector,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. 
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” 

Matthew 9:9-13


It is good to remember, from time to time, that Jesus was constantly at odds with the religious establishment of his day. Jesus hated what religious authorities were doing to religion. Rather than facilitating a love connection between God and his people, they were always blocking such a love connection by building legal walls between God and his people.

The religious establishment was always looking for people to exclude from God’s love. Jesus was always looking for people to include in God’s love. The religious authorities were always announcing who was unworthy in the eyes of God. Jesus was always announcing that everybody was worthy in the eyes of God.

                     Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?

Why would a holy man, a rabbi, a religious teacher like Jesus, hang out with, eat with and socialize with public sinners, riff-raff, failures and marginal personalities? Surely, he knew that such behavior would be misinterpreted, that people would talk, that it would appear that he was condoning their sin and that his reputation would be tarnished? He ate and drank with these religious losers so often that he earned the nicknames of “glutton” and “drunkard.”

Either he was na├»ve and reckless, or else his actions were meant to send a message.  When Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, he was not just slumming for the fun of it or merely shocking people to get their attention. He was sending a message and his message was very simple: all people are created in the image and likeness of God, all people have dignity and worth in God’s eyes, no matter what they do or fail to do. He was teaching people that more important than their love for God, was God’s love for them. God’s love, Jesus said in word and deed, was gratuitous – given without condition, given regardless!  Jesus knew that those who experience this unconditional love would be led to conversion, freely choosing to change their ways to please the God who loves them so much.

                       Why does you teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?

Jesus knew that the fruitless, hair-splitting, gnat straining theological discussions of religious authorities, their endless liturgical detail, their heartless judgment or their angry polemics would never bring people’s hearts to God.  On the other hand, their approach was driving people further and further away from God. By eating with tax collectors and sinners, the scum of church and society, Jesus gave them the message that God was willing to eat with them, and by eating with them, affirming their basic dignity and worth. Jesus was the first to love the sinner, while hating the sin. 

Can you imagine how powerful that message was to people who had never felt good enough for God, people who had never been able to measure up, people who had always felt marginalized and kicked to the curb by the religious establishment. For them, the message of Jesus was “good news.” Hearing it was like finding “a buried treasure.” They knew that that kind of love was not something they had worked for or earned.  They knew that it was a pure gift from heaven, and finding it, was like stumbling onto a treasure trove. Hearing that totally unexpected “good news” was, to them, like finding “the rarest pearl of all,” something so precious that they had to give everything they had to possess it.

This same “good news,” the “good news” that we are loved by God without condition, changed my life many years back. I grew up hearing the opposite, which led me to believe that God loved me when I was good, quit loving me when I was bad and started loving me again when I shaped up. That message did not motivate me to love God, it just made me want to avoid God. Avoiding God made any kind of loving relationship with God impossible. Besides, who wants to be in a loving relationship with a God, who is always judging and condemning you? Who wants to snuggle up to a mean and moody God?  I came to realize that this is exactly why Jesus sought out tax collectors and sinners to eat with: so that they would know of this love, and knowing this love, they would respond with love. 

Ever since I discovered this unconditional love, I have been driven to preach it, to tell as many people as I can, especially those among us who are judged, either by themselves or others, as not good enough in God’s eyes. Like the marginalized people in the gospels, I have witnessed hundreds of people being liberated from years of guilt and fear when they heard this “good news.” There is nothing like knowing that we are good enough for God, just the way we are. From that starting point, we can become a contributing partner with God in self-creation, in becoming all that God wants us to be. Judgment and condemnation kill the possibility of a real relationship with God. 

Preaching this message threatens some people, especially those who have anointed themselves as true preservers of our religious tradition. They have angrily questioned my orthodoxy, even my faith. They aggravate, but they will not dissuade.  I will keep preaching this message because I know it is the message of Jesus.  Sadly, it seems like these critics have not learned what Jesus knew, that judgment and condemnation might make the one doing the judging and condemning feel righteous, but it does not motivate sinners to change. It fact, it probably hardens them in their choice against change.  The real reason Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners was the fact that he knew, in the words of St. Francis de Sales, that “one drop of honey attracts more bees than a barrel of vinegar.” 


Sunday, September 26, 2021


Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he does not follow us.

Mark 9:38-43

Some weeks, our Sunday readings offer us a chance to reflect on problems outside the church, in the broader community. Other weeks, our readings offer us a chance to reflect on problems inside the church, even inside our own diocesan offices, religious communities and parish committees. Today the focus is on what happens inside our faith communities. Basically, what we have here is a message about pettiness and jealousy in church ministry that has been around since the beginning and can still cripple the church's ministry, making it less effective. I call that pettiness and jealousy "turf wars."

Competitiveness and jealousy have been the dark side of church culture for a very long time and it is certainly alive and well today. When the competitive apostles, James and John, were caught making a power grab for the best seats in Jesus’ new kingdom, they had to face the jealous indignation of the other ten apostles, not to mention a stern reprimand from Jesus. Today, we have the story about John trying to put a stop to someone who was driving out demons in the name of Jesus because he was "not a member of the inner circle.” Then there is the story about Joshua doing pretty much the same when he complained to Moses that Medad and Eldad were prophesying even though they had not been “in the tent with the others" when the spirit came to rest on them. Then there is the story about the apostles being snubbed by some Samaritans while on their way to Jerusalem. In response, James and John asked Jesus if it would be OK just to call down fire from heaven and burn them up! In tomorrow's readings, we will even hear about the apostles' jealousy of all the attention Jesus was giving to a bunch of kids and how they tried to get shoo them away!

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests dedicates quite a bit of space to the subject of clerical envy and competition. Whether you like his work or not, the late Father Andrew Greeley was quite insightful on this subject. He wrote about the leveling that goes among the priests of a diocese, whereby some priests are reluctant to applaud the work of other priests for fear that it will take away something from themselves. Deacons, parish staff members, members of religious communities and lay ministers all have a similar problem. As I said earlier, I call this pettiness and competition “turf wars,” where people end up in ministry positions or on parish committees and then try to hug that power to themselves. Rather than making room for new people and giving others a place to use their gifts and talents, they fight to protect and preserve their own positions of power and hug their little domains to themselves.

What Father Greeley says about priests, can usually be applied to deacons, parish staff members, parish council members and lay ministers. He says that, in the clerical culture, “to be a member of good standing, a priest must try not to be too good at anything or to express unusual views or criticize accepted practices or even to read too much. Some ideas are all right, but too many ideas are dangerous.” In clerical culture mediocrity is rewarded and excellence is punished. I have both seen it and felt it. Father Greeley wrote, “When a layman mentions that Father X is a good preacher, the leveler priest’s response might likely be, ‘Yes, he preaches well, but he doesn’t get along with kids.’” Or, “He’s really good, but all he does during the week is prepare his sermon.” Or, “everyone says that, and it’s probably true, but he’s not an easy man to live with.” But! But! But! One famous Protestant minister once said, “The meanest, most contemptible form of praise is to first speak well of a man and then end it with a “but.”

I have presented over 160 workshops and retreats in 9 countries addressing the jealousy and competitiveness among priests, offering ideas for building the unity of presbyterates and calling all priests to work together as a ministry team with the bishop, rather than competing as "Lone Rangers." A presbyterate, by the way, is all the priests of a diocese as a whole, as a unified body, as a team. My work in this area started back in 2003, eighteen years ago, when I published a little book entitled Intentional Presbyterates: Claiming Our Common Sense of Purpose as Diocesan Priests. It was the first book on the subject ever published. To my surprise, it took off. The first printing was 7,000 copies. Back then, before one-at-a-time print on demand, you had to order that many and store them until you could sell them. I had no idea how I was going to get rid of them when they came from the printer. However, the Bishop of Dallas, Texas, when he was a priest working for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote me and told me that the title itself, Intentional Presbyterates, had captured the imagination and attention of several bishops and my title named a problem they were all experiencing. I sent every bishop in the country a free copy. As a result, Bishops started ordering my book by the case to give to their priests as Christmas presents. Within a few years, I was even invited to address the American Bishops as a body at their spring meeting in Florida. My little book went through several printings in English and was translated into Spanish, Vietnamese and Swahili. Before long, I was invited to give workshops all over the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and even a workshop for the eastern rite Slovakian presbyterate of the Eparchy of Parma, Ohio. I was invited to several dioceses more than once to do follo-up workshops. I completed over 160 workshops and retreats on presbyteral unity, but turned down invitations to India, Singapore, Nigeria and Tonga in the south Pacific. I even turned down Hawaii just a month ago because of the uncertainty of air travel during the COVID epidemic.

When I was teaching in the seminary, in my August transition class with the deacons about to be ordained priests and entering presbyterates, I always ended with a class on the spiritual practice of blessing their fellow priests. Blessing them is not about waving crosses over them. It’s about looking for goodness in them to affirm. For some reason, the ability to affirm goodness in each other does not seem to come naturally to ordained priests. It is a spiritual discipline that must be taught and intentionally cultivated.

A couple of years ago, I came across my notes for former student, Jorge Gomez, of the class of 2011. Tragically, Fr. Jorge (from Mexico) and his diocesan brother, Stanley (from Kenya), were killed in a car wreck two weeks after Fr. Jorge's ordination. Here are the last words I said to Deacon Jorge to bless him on his way out of the seminary. “You have not forgotten that you do not have a vocation to the seminary, but to serve the People of God. You have a deep love and respect for your country, your family, your people and your community. You are very dedicated to “the people.” You seem to know instinctively that, as priests, we are “called from the people, to live among the people, to serve the people.” I also told them which saint they reminded me of. For him I selected St. Luke, whose heroes are always the underdog, the foreigner, the disaffected and the left out. I am very happy that I had taken the time to bless him with these words while he was still alive!

Brothers and sisters, especially those of you who are active in church ministry, our sin may not be so much about “what we have done,” those mean and nasty things we say about each other, but “what we have failed to do,” our withholding of clear and unconditional compliments that encourage each other. Sadly, we are often better at competing with each other than affirming each other.

St. Cyprian, in the Office of Readings for the feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, put it this way. His words could be applied to deacons, religious Sisters/Brothers and lay ministers as well. “Why should a priest not take pride in the praise given to a fellow priest as though it were given to him? What brotherhood fails to rejoice in the happenings of its brothers wherever they are?” Again, that famous American Protestant preacher described our sin best when he said, “The meanest, most contemptible form of praise is to first speak well of a man and then end it with a “but!” Jesus was right in his response to John in today’s gospel. "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

Brothers and sisters, let's learn to affirm each other, encourage each other, include each other and welcome each other in ministry. Just not saying any thing hurtful to each other is not good enough! We need to teach ourselves to "bless" each other, to look for ways to offer clear and unconditional compliments to each other and to look for opportunities to bring others into our ministry rather than protect and defend our turf as if it belonged to us! What I have said today can be applied to families and marriages as well because today "teamwork," not "competition," is needed there more than ever! In families, marriages, parishes and presbyterates, we need more team work and cooperation, not more "turf wars."