Father Dennis

to let others know a bit of insight into the mind of a Midwestern Catholic priest.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

January 22, 2015

Sorry for the absence. I'm still working to get these little updates into my regular schedule of life. I want to talk a little bit about yesterday and then I'll write about today later on. It was Wednesday, which means I do not have a morning Mass so I worked on other things before I celebrated an evening Mass in Lake Mills. Then, I drove to Britt where I heard confessions for some students there. Here's my dilemma: I am very conflicted with hearing confession for students at Faith Formation. I think it ties a sacrament that is ongoing and life-long to religious education classes which end (at best) at graduation. And, in general, it forces people who may not be prepared spiritually or psychologically for confession, to go because your catechist says it's time. First of all, it should be the parents who bring their kids to confession not the catechists because the parents should be attending the sacrament with their kids. After all, in some ways, we need the sacrament of reconciliation more as adults than we do when we are in school because we are incredibly aware of our faults in middle school and high school through parents, teachers, coaches, tests, peers, etc. but can become incredibly unaware of our faults as adults. Secondly, I know that people believe that students who go to confession will translate into adults who go to confession. However, that's not happening. There are many times throughout the week that I sit alone in a confessional waiting for someone to come in to be relieved of their sins.

Most of the time, a kid learns how to behave in church more from their parents than from any priest or catechist. If they don't see their parents go to church or to confession, then they think that it's unimportant and I don't think that bringing a kid to confession once a year is going to reverse that. Still, I hear faith formation confessions because I don't know what the alternative is. If there's one thing we have learned from the reaction to Vatican II, it is that replacing something that we don't think is working (the rosary, adoration, novenas, 30 hours, etc) with nothing is really bad for the basic spiritual formation of the people of God. So, until it's clear what we should do differently, I sit in a confessional and and am stoned to death with the cotton balls of grade school confession. And, who knows? Maybe three minutes of honesty will translate for at least one kid into a life-long commitment to confession.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vocation to a life of joy - 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time year B

This past weekend in my homily, I talked about some of the negative reactions I've got when I've suggested someone has a vocation to priesthood. I talked about how that's understandable because of the negative impressions people have of priesthood, both those caused by sexual abuse and angry priests and those caused by the perception that the only way to lead a happy life is by having sex. I then talked about the first four chapters of Samuel. If you haven't read these chapters, please do so. They're great. It's a story of contrasts between Hannah and Eli. Hannah is faithful to God. She is mocked by her husband's other wife because she seems to be barren but, when she promises to dedicated her first-born to God, she doesn't react like a person scorn. She offers her son Samuel to the service of the priest, Eli. Eli, on the other hand, seems like a faithful person but has managed to appoint his power-hungry sons, Phineas and Hophni, to positions of power, He is not a good shepherd. That's why chapter 3 is so complex. It says that the Word of the Lord was was scarce and vision infrequent. Why? What were Phineas and Hophni and Eli doing if not listening to and preaching the Word of the Lord? We know from chapter 2 that Phineas and Hophni were busy stealing from the best sacrifices and making sure their bellies were full and possibly meeting women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. They were worried about their comfort more than the will of God. I contrasted that with Samuel who was told during his calling that his first job was to tell Eli that his time has come to an end as the priest and that he and his sons would die.

All too often, we think our goal in life is to be happy. But, a true vocation has moments of happiness and frustration. It has moments that test our patience and moments of testing our abilities. It has moments of being yelled at and moments of failure. But, it is still joyful amidst all this. We have to think more in the long run than in the immediate, short-term. Is it worth the sadness and frustration and anger? I think being able to give people the body and blood of Christ and telling them that their sins are forgiven is incredibly joyful. I think helping people say goodbye to a dead relative and helping them welcome a new baby is joyful. It's not always happy but I can guarantee you that anything worth doing is both challenging and joyful.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday January 16, 2015

One of the things I treasure about being a priest is that there are days like yesterday where I feel like I'm constantly preparing for or in a meeting and there there are days like today, where I celebrated Mass and then pretty much had the whole day to myself. I worked on my Sunday Homily and worked prepping pronouncing Spanish for Mass tomorrow night. I went to the gym and managed to take a nap. And, since I was hitting my usual preparation wall, I took a break and watched the cartoon/musical Frozen tonight. It was a good day of prayer, study, and relaxation, which is good because tomorrow and Sunday look pretty packed.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday January 15 2015

Every day, I'm going to try to write a brief paragraph about the ups and downs of my priestly ministry. I'll always give them the title of the date and give my homilies actual titles so you can tell the difference.

Today was a good day. I celebrated Mass at St. Boniface church in Garner. I'm reflecting upon the letter to the Hebrews right now as the church has us using it for the first reading at daily Mass for the next few weeks. After Mass, I came back and worked with my staff on a couple of small projects before going to my room to spend some time working on my homily for this weekend and my Spanish pronunciation. I have a Spanish Mass Saturday night. This afternoon I made it to the gym and then went to Forest City to converse with and pray with Fr. Paul. Then, I attended a very hopeful meeting of the Cluster Pastoral Council. This body is made up of two members from each of my six parishes who come together to work toward greater unity and seek common solutions. They're a really helpful group and one that helps me see the forest through trees and bear poop. Now I'm home for the night ready for a good night of sleep.

 Actually, it's been a great week. In early December, I came up with a solution to a problem that I've had ever since I became pastor here. I have been consistently celebrating two Masses on Wednesday in order to fit the total number of daily Masses in a week. However, the Daily Mass people from one of the parishes, St. Boniface in Garner, agreed to only have one Mass per week, making it possible to move their Mass from Wednesday to Monday! And meaning I only have to wake up three days before 8:00 am. But tomorrow is one of the earliest days so I better head to bed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Lord is with us! May it be done unto me according to God's will.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. I couldn’t help but notice a connecting freeze between the first reading and the Gospel. In the first reading, when the prophet Nathan is asked by King David if he should build a house for God, the prophet responds “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you.” In the Gospel, when the Archangel Gabriel goes to Mary, he says, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” We should not be surprised to hear this phrase. As Catholics it is one of those phrases that is at the heart of our prayer. Several times in mass I will say The Lord be with you and you all respond and with your spirit. Or, at least, most of the time we respond and with your spirit sometimes we forget and do that phrase that we stop using four years ago “and also with you” especially if we’re around someone that doesn't make it to church very often. The good thing is though we are very patient with those people because we're going to see them in the next couple of days for Christmas and they may not remember that some of the words have changed so it’d be good to be patient and help them. But I digress, the phrase “the Lord be with you” is so pervasive in Catholic culture that I heard a rumor about the first Star Wars movie, which was released in 1978. When one of the characters turned to Luke and said “The force is with you.” Catholics instinctively responded “and also with you.”

But, the question is, do we really think about what we are saying when we say “the Lord be with you”? We are saying that all the time throughout our lives the Lord is with us. In my mind there are three ways that we can look at this two of which are unhelpful and one which is probably the best. The one way to look at it is the way that King David does in the first reading today. David has just finally found a place of his own in his relatively newly created city of Jerusalem. He has a nice house and has the Ark of the Covenant safely secured outside. So David believes that it's his responsibility to make as nice of a house for the Ark of the Covenant as he is living in. When he asked for advice from the prophet Nathan, initially he says basically go for it because the Lord is with you. But soon after the Lord, through the prophet Nathan, tells King David that he does not want him to build the temple because he's perfectly fine living in a tent. He says to King David who are you to build a house if I didn't ask you first? David assumes that he knows the will of God when he really didn’t. This is a very dangerous thing to do because none of us can know the mind of God. We all rely upon two things to know God's will; divine revelation in sacred Scripture and sacred tradition and the church led by the pope and bishops. So yes The Lord is with us but that does not guarantee that we will always guarantee that we will know what God wants.

On the other hand, I'm reminded of something that happened to me that you may have experienced something similar to. When I was in middle school, we had a strange study hall that happened every three weeks or so. It was an odd configuration and I honestly don't remember why it was this way. But one week the teacher who is supposed to supervise the study hall who clearly hated having to do this, forgot to show up. At first we were kind of reserved and didn't say or do anything different but the longer that it was clear that the teacher was not going to show up the more that we got rowdy and loud. Some even Left the classroom and wandered the halls of the school. When the teacher found out he claimed that he was testing us and that we all failed but it was clear that he knew he was the one who had failed because, from then on, he not only didn't miss any more classes but he was suddenly early. I use that an example of the way we sometimes think of our relationship to God. Sometimes we think of God as somebody who catches us doing wrong thing, as the teacher who is there to tell us to sit down and shut up. In this case, we may feel like we want to keep God distant and removed because he is only going to punish us if he actually shows up.

Clearly we need a better understanding of what it means for God to be with us. We can't think of God as somebody for whom we occasionally do something nice to make sure that he does nice things for us and we can't think of God as a mean judgmental teacher constantly trying to catch us doing the wrong thing. In my opinion, a better way to think of God being with us is the way Mary does. When the angel approaches Mary to tell her that she will be the mother of God, at first she struggles to understand how this could happen given the unusual circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. But when it is made clear that it is through the divine action of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responds by saying may it to be done unto me according to your word.

This should be our attitude as well. We are invited to respond like Mary in that we want to do God's will whatever it is. When we follow God's will, God is with us to give us his grace. When we do our best but don't ask God first what he wants, God still loves us like he did King David but he invites us to ask him first what his will is. When we do not do God's will, we distance ourselves from God and are in need of a powerful sacrament to be forgiven. Just as a reminder, we will be having communal reconciliation this afternoon at 4 o'clock at St. Patrick's in Britt. You are all welcome to come be a part of God's forgiveness.

Ultimately when we say the Lord be with you and with your spirit we are reminding each other of God's presence among us and our desire to be close to God by doing his will. We remind our selves of our true nature, that in the end we all want to be able to echo the sentiments of Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done unto me according to your word.”

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The comfort of the good news - Second Sunday of Advent

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. For the last three years, ever since I started growing popcorn, I’ve taken home three or four ears at Thanksgiving to see if it’s time to harvest it. At first, I figured my nieces and nephews would like to see what popcorn looks and feels like before it’s shucked and may be willing to shuck the an ear or two but, thus far, they’re more than willing to let their Uncle Dennis rub his hands raw on the pointy seeds. And, thus far, each year it’s been ready to go. I often say that there is something satisfying when I eat my popcorn because I know that it’s the fruit of my own labor. In fact, sometimes priests will kind of make fun of me for having a garden because I could just ask my parishioners for something and, chances are someone would probably grow it and supply me with it. However, I think it’s worth the struggle of planting, weeding, and harvesting.

I’m struck today by two phrases that come from our readings today. The first is “comfort” from the first reading. Even though this is the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, most scripture scholars believe it is the beginning of a new section, either from the same author or from a pupil from his school of prophecy. The transition between the 39th and 40th chapter is quite stark and seems to imply several years have elapsed. In the 39th chapter, King Hezekiah brags about receiving emissaries from Babylon to whom he showed the beauty of his country, his vast wealth and storehouses of food as well as the location of his armaments and weaponry. The prophet responds by letting the King know that this act will bring about a war that will result in a great deal of death, the exile of his people, and the servitude of his own sons. Hezekiah’s either cynical or mocking response is basically “Well, at least we’ll have peace and stability while I’m alive.”

That’s what is written directly before we hear the words of the Lord to the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading; “Comfort, give comfort to my people…” It’s clear that a lot has happened between chapter 39 and chapter 40. The people are now in the very captivity promised them by Isaiah and God has determined that they have suffered enough and now it’s time for comfort. If this were to be portrayed in a sitcom, one moment Hezekiah and Isaiah would be dressed in nice clean outfits in a professional office with all kinds of the King’s sons and servants walking by looking busy. Isaiah and Hezekiah would be arguing and Hezekiah would say something like, “Oh, that’ll never happen!” And then the scene would shift to Hezekiah’s sons and Isaiah working as slaves in a quarry carrying wheelbarrows of rocks and each time they passed each other Isaiah would mutter “Your Dad said it would never happen but here we are. Great Job Hezekiah Jr!” We don’t hear anything about that. We aren’t concerned about the hardship they endured along the way, just that God has relented and has told Isaiah to “Give comfort to my people.”

In the gospel, I was struck by the phrase “good news.” For the next year, we will hear almost entirely from the gospel of Mark. Today, we heard the first 8 verses of that Gospel. Unlike Matthew and Luke who begin their gospels with two chapters describing the birth and childhood of Jesus, Mark jumps right into the heart of Jesus ministry by talking about its origins in John the Baptist. But even before he describes the clothing and diet of John the Baptist, which is quite similar to someone in exile, he offers a summary of what he is about to write. It is the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. Most of the time we hear the word gospel, we associate it with one of four writings about Jesus Christ; Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But, it’s important to remember that, before it described a particular type of writing, it described an attitude. This is the good news: that Jesus Christ came into this world. That it was announced by John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets. And that it was, indeed, good news of great comfort.

Sometimes, we struggle to understand why bad things happen to us. We can believe that as long as we follow the 10 commandments and do our best to come to church and lead a good life, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But, sadly, bad things happen to everyone. Every one of us have something or someone in our lives that we wish we didn’t. It could be our job or our relatives or a friend or our house or car or even our own body. Today, God speaks to us words of comfort. He invites us to cleave to him in prayer, in the Eucharist, and in confession to find the joy of the good news. Jesus has come into the world not to condemn us and judge us but to bring us comfort and good news. Let’s bring that same comfort and good news to those around us.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

St. John Lateran: Moving from criticism to humble service

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Lateran. If you read my bulletin column from a couple of weeks ago you know that there is no saint named John Lateran but that this is actually a compound name. The church was initially dedicated to St. John the Baptist but at some point in the mediaeval period someone referred to it as St. John the evangelist and it was donated by the Laterani family so most of the time it is simply referred to as St. John Lateran Cathedral. It is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. Just like our diocese has a cathedral in Dubuque and a basilica in Dyersville, so the diocese of Rome has several basilicas and the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. We often associate the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, with St. Peter’s basilica because it is a huge building that can accommodate tens of thousands of people. But today we remember the Pope’s cathedral and of course Pope Francis.

For this feast the church gave us some very interesting readings to reflect upon that challenge me to ponder this question: what essential things do you think a Catholic parish has to have in order to be inviting and worth attending? One way of answering this question is to look at what people complain about. I thought of three common complaints. People want a clean church. I hear complaints about dirty bathrooms, cobwebs in windows and corners, and kitchens that aren't very clean. People want a good faith formation program where they can drop their kids off and have someone teach them the faith. And they wanted to be convenient and something they are in charge of. And people want mass to be short and fun. Mass should last less than one hour and there should be a good corny joke at some point that they can share with that “churchy” coworker on Monday morning. I imagine all of you have other things that you expect a welcoming church to have as well.

In our readings for this week I see two competing images that may challenge at our assumptions of what a church needs to have. The first comes from the gospel where Jesus challenges the temple authorities to stop "making my father’s house a marketplace." The temple authorities and those utilizing them were essentially turning the practice of their faith into something transactional. They buy an animal, sacrifice it, and in return they receive forgiveness of their sins. All throughout the Old Testament there are instances where the people of Israel I reminded of the insufficiency of the act of sacrifice alone. For example Psalm 50:13-15 “Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Pay your sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and render him your votive offerings. Call on me in the day of distress.” The transactional relationship works well in the retail industry, you give me what I want, and I give you cash or a promissory note in return. But it makes for a very unsatisfactory experience of our faith and the church. It turns out relationship with God into something similar to our relationship to Walmart or a car dealership or a grocery store. And it neglects something fundamental: the very reason they didn't need those oxen, sheep, and doves is because the one driving them out would replace them with his once for all sacrifice. None of us could repay that debt.

Rather than a transactional, quit-pro-quo, understanding of the Church, we may reflect upon the image of the temple in the first reading, a temple flowing with water so pure that it’s capable of purifying the most salty water on the planet, the Dead Sea. This water is flowing from a temple of prayer and represents the grace of God offered to us through prayer. So it begins on our knees and flows into our daily lives. Rather than being characterized by a relentless search for control and power it is characterized by humility, first and foremost, and seeking what God wants not what is most convenient for me.

This is what Pope Francis preached about on Friday when he challenged all of us to move from being "pagan Christians" who go to church on Sundays but spend most of the rest of the week cultivating their attachment to money, power, and pride." Pope Francis challenged us to become authentic Christians. He asked "Do I try to love God and serve others?" He went on to answer his own question by saying "If you were meek, if you are humble, if you are a servant of others, then you are on the right path." Another way of saying this is to change our original question from "what are the essential things at church must have or do to be welcoming and worth attending" to "What am I doing here and in my daily life to humbly be built up as the temple of God and the temple of the Holy Spirit?”