Friday, January 17, 2014

Mater Sacerdotis


Fifteen years ago, my bishop (Nicholas Dattilo) told me shortly after his mother passed away that the death of the mother of a priest is something very unique. While we had both experienced the deaths of our respective fathers, I only now realized how true his insight was.  I loved my dad profoundly and mourned his death (just six months after my younger brother was killed by an underage drunk driver). I was named after my father and proudly use the JR. suffix to honor his memory. He was Sicilian and mom was Polish, but I had a strong affinity for the Italian half, partly because my surname was Italian and because my Italian relatives were so colorful and memorable.

I loved my mom as intensely as I loved my dad but growing up, she was the stern Polish disciplinarian and dad was the affable Italian head of the family who adored his four boys. I inherited my dad's sense of humor but from mother I got my resolve and perseverance to never give in and never give up. What some might call being stubborn, I would see as being fully committed and resolute to see things through to the very end.

When my dad died on February 11, 1998, it was after a four year battle with leukemia.  My brother Michael died from Muscular Dystrophy in December, 1992, at the age of 26.  Dad had taken early retirement so he could stay home and care for Mike as mom was working full time as head nurse of the Emergency Room and Trauma Center at the local Catholic Hospital. Michael was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when he was 10 and had some very painful surgeries on his legs. Despite these, he still was confined to a wheelchair the rest of his short life.  I remember mom and dad taking turns to be with Michael at the children's wing of the hospital. I was in high school seminary at the time and Fr. Leo Duscheck, SVD, would often give me a ride to the hospital after class so I could visit my brother. You could see the blood seeping through his plaster casts. 

Michael had to transfer from parochial to public school only because the Catholic schools were not equipped for wheelchairs. This was before the ADA made it mandatory. He attended three years of college at Edinboro in a dorm designed exclusively for disabled students. He would never graduate as his disease only weakened him more and more but those were his happiest days having a modicum of independence.

Mom and dad sacrificed a LOT for me and my three brothers to attend Catholic grade school. They went without so we could have what we needed. Three of us went to college and two graduated. While we had student loans, mom and dad paid for all the other costs and incidentals. They lived modestly and sometimes frugally just to make ends meet but there was always plenty of food and lots of love and faith in our house. When I entered minor seminary after 8th grade, I would often bring over seminarian friends from out of town.  Mom and Dad made homemade pasta and meatballs and said their door was always open.

During minor seminary I met Father Levis who became a friend of the family.  He would often come over to anoint my brother Michael and bring him Holy Communion.

I was ordained only four years when my first family funeral was my brother Michael.  I still cannot remember how I got through it let alone how I preached at it as well.  Five years later, my brother Joe was killed by a drunk driver. Six months after that, my dad died from leukemia.  In less than ten years of ordination, I buried half my immediate family.

When pops died, I became patriarch of the clan but mother was still very much in charge. She worked until they forced her to retire and then she became a lay volunteer and unofficial sacristan for the discalced Carmelite nuns in Erie. That gave her purpose.

Since mom and dad were unable to take vacations while they cared for Michael and then dad got leukemia, I decided once she was widowed to take mom on as many trips and excursions as possible while her health allowed. Our first trip together was to Italy in 1998 to celebrate my tenth anniversary.  Dad had died in Feb. and we were leaving that summer. She felt awkward but I assured her that my father ands her husband would have wanted her to go after so many years of being caregiver for Michael then for dad.  So she went and we joined a pilgrimage of 40 people to Rome.

A few years later, we went to Sicily and after that a trip to Eastern Europe that ended in Poland.  We visited the shrine of Padre Pio and got to Rome for the Millennium.  Cardinal Arinze arranged for my mom to get an audience with Pope John Paul the Great after the general audience (see picture above). She was sick when Pope Benedict XVI visited the USA in 2008. As it was also my 10th anniversary that same year, I asked the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, if he could give my mom a blessing as she was unable to see the Pope during his visit. The Nuncio gave her a private tour of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, and gave us Italian cookies and coffee before giving my mom a rosary blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

One Thanksgiving I was ready to take her to Italy and she said she wanted to go to Ireland instead.  I said why Ireland? Dad was Italian and you are Polish.  I have a cousin in Ireland.  Well, I made plans and because she wanted to stay in a castle, we got rooms at Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara, Galway, Ireland.  It was only 90 miles from Shannon airport but I discovered only after landing that 90 miles in Ireland are not like 90 miles in America.  An hour and half drive became a four hour journey PLUS I had to learn quick how to drive on the left side of the road and steer a car with the wheel on the passenger side all the while my mother is sitting in the front seat yelling and screaming that I am not staying on the road (which were made for one Fiat, not for two medium sized cars)

Nevertheless, she enjoyed the castle and loved Ireland.  Most of all, my mother loved joining me and Father Levis whenever we went to EWTN to tape our Web of Faith television series. Deacon Bill Steltemeier loved her many different hats she wore each day to the chapel. She got to meet and become friends with Mother Angelica and the Poor Clare nuns. When Reverend Mother built the Temple in Hanceville, my mother was included in the invitation sent to me and Father Bob. All three of us attended the dedication and consecration of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. We were there the night before and saw the cloister area before it was sealed. We ate at the formal supper and met all the EWNT celebrities like Fr. Groeschel, Fr. Rutler, Fr. Shaughnessy, Bishop Foley, Bob & Penney Lord, Fr. Charles Conner, et al.)  We all cried during the Mass the next day as that was the first time many of us had seen a Communion Rail USED during Mass. The shrine was gorgeous, the music was superb and the Mass was as reverent as being in Heaven itself.

Several years before it was finished, Mother Angelica often took me, mom and Fr. Bob to see the progress of the 'chapel on the farm' as she called it.  We saw the dirt road, the gravel road and then the paved road.  We stood on plywood and peeked out the Rose window soon after it was installed.  

My mom loved Mother Angelica.  When my brother Joe died on July 5, 1997, Reverend Mother telephoned my mom and gave her words of comfort.  She never forgot that. So, as long as she was able to travel, I took her to as many places as I could and brought her along to almost everything I was invited.  We even got invited to a few Family gatherings for EWTN.

One summer I drove mom to Canada to see Andrea Bocelli and just this past November, a week before Thanksgiving, I got her to see the three Irish Priest tenors sing in Harrisburg.

2011 is when mom began to slow down and her health started to deteriorate. She had spinal stenosis which required major surgery on her back in Feb. of 2012 followed by four months of rehab in a nursing home.  I was driving back and forth between Harrisburg, Erie and Pittsburgh (where she had the surgery at UPMC) when I got into an automobile crash that landed me in ICU.  After that I decided I had to do something and moving mom closer to me was the answer.  She lived alone for several months after the nursing home rehab but her diabetes and heart condition worsened and she ended up on the floor for two days, unable to get up.  That got her hospitalized just before Christmas. She was diagnosed with aortic stenosis and three blocked arteries and a bad valve. The cardiologist said she could not survive open heart operation.  Another four months in nursing home rehab. Thanks be to God I had some help from my cousins, especially Jackie Mehler and her husband Tom who took mom to the doctors, shopping and an occasional meal.

I moved her in June to assisted living in Harrisburg, just ten miles from my rectory. She hated it at first and told people I kidnapped her.  After three months she got used to the place which we made as comfortable as possible. Then she had a TIA (mini-stroke) in July and an internal Gastrointestinal bleed a month later. Both hospital visits were ten or more days each.  The last one required she go to sub acute nursing care rehab before going back to assisted living. The goal always had been to beef her up physically so she could get a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (as she was no candidate for traditional open heart surgery).  Problem was that she would get better and then a monkey wrench was thrown at her.  Shingles hit her hard at the nursing home then she had numerous urinary infections.  Fluid was building up in her legs, ankles, and in her lungs.

When she died on Saturday, December 28, both me and my only surviving brother, Mark, were there with a few good friends of mine and hers.  I visited her almost if not actually every day at the nursing home or assisted living facility.  I did what I could. While not easy, I had the enormous help of several parishioners who visited her on a weekly basis. My classmate and co-author friend, Fr. Brighenti, helped with his presence, priestly fraternity and kindness.

We had a Funeral Mass for mom in my parish of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Marysville, on January 2nd and a Mass of Christian Burial on Monday, January 6th, in Erie where she was buried next to my dad and my two brothers and sister.

As painful as it was to bury dad, yes, burying mom was more difficult. I was exhausted as caregiver but I was also devastated as the eldest son. Bishop Dattilo was right. When a priest's mother dies, the bond between mother and son is torn just as it was on Calvary on Good Friday when Jesus had to see His sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross as He was about to die for our sins.  Jesus, the High Priest, had a human mother whom he loved dearly.  Losing your second parent is indeed hard enough but that special bond that connects a mother and her child makes her loss even more intense. 

I was so wiped out from the many weeks and months of mom's illness and frequent hospitalizations and complications, etc., that the tears I expected at her funeral were not there. The day after they came in abundance.

I know she is at peace, that her suffering is over and that she is reunited (or will be) with my dad, my sister and my two brothers as well as her own mom & dad and her siblings who went before her. That gives comfort but the pain of loss, which even Our Divine Lord Himself experienced at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus, remains and for good reason. For if we do not miss the ones we love, how can we long to see them again?  If there is pain is separation, is there not more joy in reunion? I know my mom sorely missed my dad with whom she had been married for 39 years before he died. She missed my brothers Michael and Joe. I hope and pray they are all together now with the Lord and with His Blessed Mother. Meanwhile, I mourn the loss of my mother who gave me life, gave me love and gave me faith. My vocation to the priesthood would never have come to fruition were it not sewn by the love, faith and example of my mom and dad as they raised us at home.

Love you, Mom.  Pray for me.  Your son,  John.

Monday, January 13, 2014

It is not what a man wears but how he acts and treats others that tells who he really is

de gustibus non disputandum est

True clericalism is an anomoly and abberation in that it engenders disdain and disrespect for others, especially those who are not clerics (ordained). Hence, real clericalism is when a deacon, priest or bishop has an attitude of superiority over his flock in that he believes he is 'better' than they are, whether spiritually, intellectually or otherwise. Clericalism patronizes and denigrates the unordained (laity). It seeks to be treated with privilege rather than seeking to be of service.

Clericalism is an ATTITUDE but is not a costume, clothing, preference or option. It has nothing to do with LANGUAGE (Latin or vernacular) and nothing to do with ATTIRE. Clericalism is how one behaves and treats others, not how one dresses.

Here is a poignant example. While my father was still alive (before 1998) he was often in the hospital being treated for leukemia. On one occasion that I was there after driving 300 miles from my rectory, Bishop Donald Trautman popped in to say hello and give my dad his blessing. Although I was not a priest of the Erie Diocese (I was ordained and am incarnated in the Harrisburg Diocese) my parents lived in Erie where they were born and raised. Bishop Trautman visited my dad because he was the parent of a priest. Without being asked, His Excellency was good enough and kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule and visit my dad. He went so far as to offer to stay with him for 20-30 minutes if I needed to take my mom to the cafeteria and get something to eat (she was a diabetic and needed to eat at regular intervals). Despite any difference of opinion on other matters, I always appreciated, respected and admired Bishop Trautman for that act of charity and kindness.  He was ACTING and  BEING very pastoral as a bishop. Sadly, that does not occur everywhere. A priest I know was hospitalized and admitted to ICU for three days and his own bishop never called him even once. After being discharged, he went back to his rectory and not one call or visit from his bishop. THAT is clericalism. When a bishop is too busy to make a brief phone call to one of his own priests when he is in the hospital for a serious condition; when a bishop sends his 'representative' to a priest's funeral rather than going himself; that is clericalism. Yes, bishops are very busy but they are not bank managers or bureaucrats. They are pastors and must act like a FATHER rather than a corporate executive. I would never call my dad by his first name. I had too much respect for him but I also loved him enormously. He was always there when I needed him. He never sent one of my brothers as his envoy. He himself called me or visited me. Likewise, a real pastoral bishop CALLS his own priests and deacons. He visits them when possible if they are seriously injured or ill. He goes to their funerals because they are his FAMILY. It is not clericalism to call the Bishop Your Excellency, Your Grace, or Bishop since he is the hierarchical superior to his priests and deacons. It is clericalism, however, when he treats his clergy as mere employees or when he treats the lay faithful of his diocese as customers or clients rather than as his spiritual children. Bishop Trautman visited my dad and on several occasions telephone my mother when she was in the hospital or nursing home before her untimely death. He did not have to do that as I am a priest from another diocese. He did so because he has class and he knows a bishop must be a good father and pastor even to those not of his fold. When clergy act like they work at a company instead of Holy Mother Church; when they behave as if their priesthood, diaconate or episcopate is just a career and not a vocation; then that is the ugly head of clericalism.

I entered the seminary after graduating from Catholic grade school. I attended high school seminary, college seminary and major seminary (total of 12 years) from 1976-1988.  During those days, the buzz word was 'clericalism' but it had a latent meaning and hidden agenda. It went from the ridiculous to the sublime. If you wore black socks to match your black trousers, you could be accused of being clerical. If you wore a rabbat or full collar rather than the 6" tab insert, you could be considered clerical. If your Liturgy of the Hours had a black leather cover, you were clerical, however, if you had a colored or a knitted breviary cover, you were OK.  Wearing a cassock was over the top and tantamount to waving an American flag in downtown Tehran during the 444 day hostage crisis.

Real perpetrators of clericalism are obsessed with externals such as attire, vestments, language, art, music, etc. in that certain types are considered dangerous if not disruptive. Roman style vestments are an option as are Gothic, yet for the clerical person, it is not his personal taste, preference or opinion, it is his unjust imposition on another. In other words, it is not clerical to wear a cassock or use an amice or chalice veil and pall, rather, it is clericalism to treat and speak about those who licitly choose those options as if they were snobs.

Clericalism is MISTREATMENT of fellow clergy and of the laity. It is when a deacon, priest or bishop insults the intelligence of someone who disagrees with their prudential judgment. It is when a pastor embarrasses or humiliates an elderly woman for praying her rosary during Mass. It is when a layperson is DENIED their licit option to receive Holy Communion on the tongue or to confess their sins anonymously behind a screen. It is when certain members of the clergy act as if any and all requests for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite are potential schismatics or sede vacantists. It is refusing to expose a parish congregation to Gregorian chant and traditional hymns as part of a diverse repertoire. True clericalism is the assumption and attitude that the common lay Catholic is not sophisticated enough to read and comprehend the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any magisterial document, from  Vatican II to papal encyclicals. Real clericalism insults the laity by treating them as ignorant intellectual slackers when they refuse to embrace a heterodox or heretical idea espoused in a homily.

Some seminaries in the old days and some dioceses for that matter, had unofficial witch hunts to identify, isolate and eliminate those deemed rigid, conservative or traditional. The term used, however, was that these fellows were proponents and adherents of clericalism. 

DEFINE TERMS. Clericalism is not about attire, it is about attitude. Whether the ordained man wears a tab shirt, rabbat or cassock is NO proof or evidence of his ecclesiology. It is a matter of taste and personal preference. Many a layperson have been mistreated, insulted and demeaned by clergy wearing all sorts of attire.  THAT is what Pope Francis has been denouncing and repudiating, the attitude and mistreatment of the faithful by members of the clergy (deacons, priests AND bishops) who abuse their authority and position. It is not an issue of liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. traditional, Ordinary Form vs. Extraordinary Form (previous known as Novus Ordo vs. Traditional Latin Mass)

Clericalism is a cancer to the clergy and when clergy seek to 'clericalize' laity and 'laicize' the clergy, they are committing clericalism. The common priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained are different but they need each other. Clergy are there to serve the spiritual needs of the laity and not serve themselves. What Father, Deacon or Bishop WEARS is irrelevant. It is HOW he treats his people, his peers and his subordinates. Don't get me wrong, I wear my collar whenever on duty and whenever traveling as a witness to who and what I am. I like seeing religious men and women in their habits. People need to see priests in public doing ordinary things (shopping, dining, etc.) to see that we are normal human beings. Wearing the collar also keeps me on my best behavior lest I am tempted to say or do something imprudent were I in civilian clothes. Wearing the collar is not meant to elicit any privileges or favors (those days are long gone, anyway). Just like our military men and women are proud to be in the service of defending our nation, clergy should likewise be proud to be in service to the Lord and His Church. My point is that the STYLE of clerical attire is purely preferential and a matter of taste, nothing else. No agenda need be read into it. Unfortunately, some accuse anyone who wears the collar all day of clericalism OR they accuse those who wear more formal or traditional clerical attire of clericalism. Wearing a biretta or fedora is an option just as much as wearing a baseball cap. Some folks are OBSESSED however with externals and peripheral incidentals. Better to focus on the person's ACTIONS.

Once and for all, let's end this ridiculous paranoia about anything prior to Vatican II as well as the paranoia about anything after Vatican II. Rad-trads are having a field day concocting all kinds of conspiracy theories about Pope Francis' papacy while geriatric liturgical hippies from the 60's lament anything and everything Pope Emeritus Benedict said and did. 

Wearing french cuff shirts is a matter of taste as is your preference in music, art, literature, etc. What matters is not whether Father wears a short sleeved tab shirt or is wearing a cassock, what counts is how he treats his flock.  Is he present? Is he approachable?  Is he orthodox?  Does he celebrate valid, licit and REVERENT Masses?  Does he have a priestly heart to his people and to his colleagues?

Imagine if we acted as if it mattered which sports team you supported?  Does being a Cleveland Indian fan make me a bad pastor to those who are Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles or Philadelphia Phillies fans? Of course not. Likewise, would making me an aficionado of Italian opera or Baroque Music interfere with my sacred ministry to those who like Rock, Country Western, Hip-Hop, or Celtic? Absolutely not. Then WHY in heaven's name are some members of the clergy beating the drums of war and whipping up a witch hunt frenzy to discredit any of their ordained colleagues who have a difference of taste or who choose a different valid option?

Our American culture has been addicted to the mentality and ideology of SYMBOLISM OVER SUBSTANCE.  Poor people can love classical music as much as the rich and the wealthy can prefer Jazz while the indigent listen to rap. YET, for some in the church, liking Gregorian Chant or Polyphony is borderline reactionary traditionalism leaning toward schismatic sede vacantism. On the other hand, contemporary liturgical music may not be everyone's cup of tea but it is in no way indicative of iconoclastic mentality.

It is not the amount of Monsignors which instigates clericalism, it is the sycophant who is nothing more than a mere 'yes' man who seeks a diocesan position or the bureaucrat who filters who has access to the bishop and what he hears. It is the career clericalist who is voraciously hungry for power and prestige, regardless of his title or lack thereof. Most of all, it is ecclesiastic (high or low) who espouse a corporate model paradigm on how to run a diocese or parish instead of the pastoral model of seeing the church as a family of faith and not a business to be run.

Just my thoughts on the matter 

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