A picture of a solid stone cross in front of a clear blue sky.

Weekly Musings

In a few weeks, from June 18 - June 22, the priests of our Archdiocese will gather at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester for our biennial Presbyteral Assembly. Every other year, for many years now our Archbishops have asked the priests of our Archdiocese to set aside their parish or institutional responsibilities and gather together for a few days to talk about some specific areas of our lives/ministries. This year the various speakers will focus on the Spirituality of the Diocesan Priesthood; Priestly Fraternity; and Affective Maturity. (I’m not at all sure what that last topic means.)

These gatherings are good and important. As priests, we gather in all our diversity and with all our differences, and spend time together in fraternity. During our time together we are well aware of the things that unite us as well as those things about which we disagree. And often times the things about which we disagree are brought up in very public ways. In fact, in the years I have been attending these assemblies, I have often been reminded of an old Phyllis Diller line from many years ago: “Never go to bed angry. Stay up and fight.”

We priests are very much like most other Catholics. We don’t always agree with each other. In fact, if the truth be told, we differ; we disagree; and sometimes we argue. But through it all we stay together. We don’t walk away from each other. I believe the reason for this is that we realize that, at root, the things that unite us are more important than the things that might divide us.

Disagreement and tension have always been a part of the life of our Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul fought with Peter over the issue of Gentile converts. Moreover, through the centuries, disagreement and dissension have been part of more than one Council and/or Conclave. Yet through it all our Church not only has survived; it has thrived. I think the reason for this is twofold.

First, we believe that the Spirit of God has guided and continues to guide our Church. And with the guidance of the Spirit comes the promise and gift of Indefectibility. The gift of Indefectibility tells us that because the Holy Spirit leads and guides our Church, the Church cannot and will not deviate fundamentally from the truth of the Gospel, from the Mission of the Church, or from the Life of Faith. The guidance of the Holy Spirit ensures that despite disagreements that might arise, despite any appearance of division, our Church cannot deviate in fundamental and essential ways from the Gospel, the Mission that Christ entrusted to it, or from the Life of Faith.

The second thing that has ensured that our Church has thrived through the centuries is the grace of God poured out on the Church as a whole, and upon each individual member. I am more and more convinced that God’s grace has enabled and continues to enable us to identify, to discuss, to work through, and/or accept the differences and disagreements that exist within our Church. It is the grace of God that allows us to see beyond the differences that would divide us, to the many and foundational things that unite us. Our Church, both locally, as well as internationally, is very diverse. But diversity does not necessarily need to lead to division. Nor does diversity mean that we can’t stand on the common ground that is foundational for us and that ultimately unites us with God.

“Big God, Big Church” is a phrase that is really a mantra for me. It reminds me that the embrace of our Church cannot be anything less that the embrace of our God’s love. Occasionally all of us—even priests—need to be reminded of this fact. The things that unite us are far more important than the things about which we might differ or disagree. The challenge for all of us is to rely a little more on God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a little less on our own ideas and biases. As followers of the Lord Jesus this must always be our hope and our goal.

 

A few weeks ago the Gospel reading at daily Mass was John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. In John’s version we are told that Jesus fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish. We are told further that after everyone had their fill, Jesus told his disciples: “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted. So they collected them and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.” (Jn. 6:12b-13) 

The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish is the only miracle story that is found in all four Gospels. And while the details differ slightly in each account, there is at least one element that is common to all of them. In each Gospel, after the crowd had been fed, there were fragments left over that filled several wicker baskets. For some reason this detail caught my attention, so I spent some time reflecting on it. As part of my reflection, two things occurred to me. 1) When God is involved there is always an abundance; and 2) When God is involved nothing is insignificant or lost. I think both of these are important. 

Often in our world today and especially in our culture, people live with an attitude of scarcity. We wonder whether there will be enough of “whatever” to go around, and so we cling tightly to our “stuff” because we fear there won’t be enough or that we might run out. This can lead us to hold tightly to certain things because we worry they might become a scarce commodity, and if we let go of them, there might not be enough if/when we need whatever it might be. 

In regard to God’s love and grace, though, there is always an abundance. We never have to worry that there won’t be enough, or that someone else will get our share. God’s love and grace are not limited commodities. Since God is love and God is also infinite, it stands to reason that there is an infinite amount of God’s love and grace to go around. With God there is always an abundance. We need never fear that there is a limited supply of God’s grace and love. 

As importantly, though, when God is involved nothing is ever lost or too small to be of significance. We know this because God has told us: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget; I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name;” (Is 49:15-16) These words remind us that God’s love is so abundant that no one is ever beyond the reach of that love, or too insignificant or unimportant to be loved. God loves us even if/when we don’t love God. No one and nothing is ever lost to God. 

Too often, either consciously or unconsciously, we can believe that we are too insignificant to be known and loved by God. Jesus’ concern, though, that the fragments of barley loaves and fish be gathered up, reminds us that nothing escapes God’s notice and no one is ever lost to God. Such is God’s love. It is abundant beyond belief, and because of this, no one is ever beyond the reach of that love. 

Something that we, as Catholics, struggle with and find consistency in, is prayer. We come from a tradition that is known for its beautiful liturgy and rich, eloquent prayer that has been spoken and sung for centuries. The practice of praying on our own can be daunting to say the least. It is so tempting to compare our prayers to those found in our many worship experiences, but this is a comparison that does more harm than good. I believe that at the center of prayer is a most important relationship—us and God. In fact, prayer is the relationship.

The words that we articulate are only half the equation. Words are one of the ways we communicate with one another. When spoken in prayer to our God, they often fill what might seem to us to be empty space. There is definitely something more to the practice of prayer than the words. God doesn’t need our words. God already knows what is in the deepest corner of our hearts. The conversation and communion that takes place in prayer happens in the spaces between words. God more often speaks to us in the silence of our prayer. It is in the conversation and the communion that is created with God that is truly where we find God and, in turn, the peace we seek. There is beauty and clarity in this communion with God that allows us to see beyond this world and set our sights on a place of higher ground.

We are called to surrender ourselves to this relationship with God. All we have to do is show up, make time, and set aside 10 or 20 minutes to just “be” in God’s presence. We don’t have to say anything. We can just “be still” and know that God is God. God knows our heart; he knows our deepest desires. He hears our prayers for all of humanity. God always answers our prayers in light of what is the very best for us.

Prayer is a lot like riding a bike. It takes practice and it will not always be easy. It is a continuous process that needs to be addressed daily, just as you would work on your relationship with a family member or close friend. We can’t expect to pray once and have a relationship with God. It is a discipline that requires a lifetime of practice. If we put prayer time into each day, it will be like other relationships in our lives that grow and blossom. To continue with the analogy of learning to ride a bike, you may scrape your knee once or twice. But we need to get up on the bike again in order to learn how to ride it. So it is with our prayer life. We remember that we have a God that is all loving, full of great mercy, and is gentle with us. Jesus told us about God who finds joy in us. The reward at the end is great: a one-on-one relationship with our Creator. What peace and intimacy this relationship can bring to our lives.

 

Showing vulnerability builds bonds and grows trust. While our culture tends to deem it a weakness, experts frequently site it as the “key” to close relationships and a sign of strength.

I joined the staff fresh out of college in 2001. I was not Catholic, and knew very little about Catholic traditions, but I thought helping with the Block Party sounded like a great opportunity.

It wasn’t long before I realized this wasn’t going to be a typical “job” and The Basilica wasn’t a typical church community. Months after my first Block Party, as I was putting away the last of the supplies, I remember walking into the office and seeing a group of staff members huddled around a television. It was September 11, 2001, and the second plane just had hit the World Trade Center. By the afternoon, the staff had planned a community prayer service, where thousands would come together to mourn. It was then I discovered the extraordinary depth of compassion and engagement in our community, and I knew The Basilica would be more than just a job.

Sixteen years later, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to witness the collaboration of thousands of diverse members, in times of grief and joy. The broad spectrum of perspectives and backgrounds combines with the common threads that unite us to create a beautiful tapestry. It is a community led by creative and intelligent hearts and minds.

The Basilica staff works tirelessly to inspire, educate, and promote social justice. They dedicate themselves to creating environments to inspire adults in liturgies and children in faith formation. They work passionately for social justice, and serve strangers who knock at the Rectory door. I love seeing the feasts they create for eyes, ears, and hearts in music and art. Their work is done generously with love and grace, giving back from the talents they were given.

I’ve enjoyed the privilege of getting to know people who choose to support our community. In our time together, a common theme usually emerges: gratitude. People share their personal stories, reflecting on their lives and work, taking little credit for their success. They return to the idea of giving generously, because they had been given so much. Their humility is inspiring.

I have also met many members of our community who are in need, unafraid to show imperfections, who have courageously chosen to share their experiences. I believe these vulnerabilities are the reason our parish continues to grow and brings our community closer together. Even in their struggles, many people still return to gratitude, asking how they can give back to The Basilica.

When I reflect on my time as a staff member at The Basilica, undoubtedly, I know it is the members, staff, and volunteers that unite to make it so special. Unafraid to show vulnerability, this community pours itself into passion.

Your generosity makes all of the good that happens at The Basilica possible. I’m grateful for the wonderful support I’ve witnessed and I hope you will continue to support the parish, our outreach ministries, and The Basilica Landmark. I invite you to continue your support of The Basilica Landmark through our annual fund and The Basilica Landmark Ball. This year’s Fund-A-Need is designated to improving the accessibility of the historic structure. The project encompasses exterior and interior improvements, including adding automatic door openers to the center east doors, to make The Basilica accessible, and ensuring our community is welcoming to all. 

As my time as a Basilica staff member comes to an end this spring, I leave my position knowing my heart is forever changed. I’m so grateful to have spent such a formative time of my life as a staff member, and look forward to continuing to share this Basilica journey with my family as a parish member in the years to come.

 

 

Divine Mercy Sunday

In the year 2000 Saint John Paul II designated the second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He did this at the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska, a Polish visionary whose mission it was to proclaim God’s mercy toward every human being.  Two years later, during his last visit to Poland in 2002, he said:  “How much the world is in need of the mercy of God today!” He then entrusted the world to Divine Mercy expressing his “burning desire that the message of God’s merciful love…may reach all the inhabitants of the earth and fill their hearts with hope.”  

As I was writing these words I learned that two Coptic Churches in Egypt were bombed during Palm Sunday services. The extremists of DAESH claimed responsibility. As is the case with the bombings we learn about almost every day, the death toll, physical harm and spiritual suffering were staggering.

Unable to continue my writing I went into our St. Joseph Chapel where our beautiful Icon of the Divine Mercy resides. I walked up to the Icon and looked Jesus square in the face and waited. I waited for an answer to all the evil in our world. Yet, Jesus remained silent. Somewhat frustrated I left the chapel. As I returned to my office the link to a homily by Pope Francis popped up on my phone. One passage caught my eye: “Jesus does not ask us to contemplate him only in pictures and photographs... No. He is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own… Jesus is in each of them, and, with marred features and broken voice, he asks to be looked in the eye, to be acknowledged, to be loved.” Feeling duly chastised by the Pope and grateful for Jesus’ unexpected answer to my questions I returned to my column on Divine Mercy.

Jesus, who is known as the Divine Mercy is the very incarnation of God’s mercy. In Jesus, God embodied mercy as he went about forgiving sins, healing the sick, siding with the outcast. By these very actions Jesus affirmed that God’s mercy is present in the world, even and most especially in those places where God’s mercy seems lacking. 
The specifics of God’s mercy have been described in many different ways. The three languages that are important in the history of the Bible: Hebrew, Greek and Latin offer slightly different insights.

  1. The Hebrew Bible uses two words for mercy: hesed and rachamim. Hesed is the kind of mercy that is strong, committed and steadfast. Rachamim which has the same root as rechem or womb conveys gentleness, love and compassion. 
  2. The Greek word for mercy, eleos is related to elaion meaning oil thus suggesting that mercy is poured out like oil and has the healing qualities of oil.
  3. The Latin word for mercy, misericordia is derived from miserari, "to pity", and cor, "heart". It suggests that our loving God is moved to compassion. 

God’s mercy thus is strong and steadfast, loving and compassionate, healing and soothing. These are the divine qualities of mercy that are to be ours also since we are to be the embodiment of Gods mercy in our time. Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of God must be evident and everyone should find an oasis of mercy there.

As we contemplate our beautiful Icon of the Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday and as we look one another in the eye, friend and stranger alike, let us give thanks for the mercy God has shown us. And in turn let us show mercy to one another for the world indeed is in dire need of mercy, both human and divine. Mercy given and mercy received, that is the motto of all Christians.
 

 

The experience of death and resurrection is universal. It occurs in every person and every community. Sometimes the “deaths” we experience are real and actual. More often, though, the “deaths” we experience aren’t actual deaths; rather they are death-like experiences, e.g. the loss of a job; the end of a relationship; the experience of physical limitations; the loss of a sense of security or belonging. In either case, though, they are painful, difficult to bear, and often take time to move through.

Sometimes the deaths we experience just happen. They aren’t our fault. We still need to acknowledge them, though, mourn them, and then begin anew. On the other hand, sometimes the deaths we experience are our fault. We screw up and a mess ensues. In that case, we need to acknowledge our fault, repent, dust ourselves off, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and try to fix what we messed up. 

What happens, though, when we don’t think we have it in us to try to begin anew after a death-like experience? What do we do when we can’t easily fix things or make them better? In these cases, we need to honestly acknowledge our situation, accept the fact that there will be times when there is no good explanation as to why something happened, and move forward in faith. 

How, though, do we move forward in faith after an experience that feels like death? Well, I believe we start with prayer. In and through our prayer we can experience God’s presence and love. In and through our prayer we can discover that we are not alone, that God is with us. And in and through our prayer we can open ourselves to God’s healing and strengthening grace. Now in saying this, we need to be clear that prayer may not change the situation, but it can and does change us. It can help us see things from a different perspective or in a new way. 

Once we have experienced God’s grace then we need to

  1. lament
  2. hang on (coping & hoping)
  3. and continue to believe that a new dawn will come eventually—even when or even though it may not be the dawn we were planning on. 

The Feast of Easter calls us to remember that our God is always offering us new life and hope in the midst of the sadness, sorrows, hurts, disappointments, trials, and pains we experience—the actual deaths, as well as the “little deaths” of this life. This new life enables us to continue when the way seems dark and uncertain. It allows us to live with the loss of our dreams. It gives us the ability to accept our human frailties and weaknesses and those of others. And it helps us to believe that after each death, the dawning of a new and glorious morning will occur. In essence this is the Paschal Mystery—that because of Jesus Christ—out of death comes new life and new hope. This is the message; this is the hope of Easter.

As we enter into the week of remembrance of the passion and death of Jesus, we come to a crossroads. Jesus, at the end of his ministry, proceeds towards Jerusalem where he will be confronted by the systemic evil of the day—the Roman Empire’s cooperation with the religious authorities to oppress the people of Palestine. Jesus preached and taught the message of forgiveness, love, and tenderness, often in opposition to the Law. The Pharisees were indeed upset with him. After witnessing Jesus’ miracles, his preaching in the Temple, and his large following, the Pharisees and Romans became threatened by his presence, his actions, and his message. Despite the fact that they wanted to kill him, Jesus knowingly continued on his journey to Jerusalem. This sealed his fate. 

During this holy week we must decide to either go with him to Jerusalem or remain where we are in our comfort zones. The systemic evil of our day is prolific. On a global level, we don’t have to look very far to be aware of what is taking place in so many countries today. The towns and cities where the pointless slaughtering of men, women, children, and entire families has been carried out. It is beyond heartless and inhumane. In many cases we know that this has caused widespread famine and flight to other countries. It has left the most vulnerable, our children, without parents and families to care for them.  

Jesus confronted the lack of forgiveness and love, the injustice, the oppression of the most vulnerable, throughout his life, right up until his death on the cross. He spoke against it. He acted in such a way that those who needed his love and forgiveness, were counted among those who received his compassion. He taught us by example. He told us that we would be blessed if we but remember with love those who are most in need.

If we are to walk this holiest of weeks along with Jesus, that means we must always be Jerusalem bound, just as he was. Sometimes it is a very long walk and it takes us places we don’t want to go. Sometimes it leads us right into the midst of power, not to become powerful, but to stand tall and speak truth to power. We walk along with Jesus to Jerusalem, to confront the systemic evils around us: war, poverty, hunger, homelessness, inequality. 

If we call ourselves Christian, then we must walk with Jesus wherever that takes us. We need to have our eyes and hearts open wide to hear the call of being this kind of a disciple. We need not be fearful or bewildered. We will be part of the Body of Christ to which we belong. We will never be alone. We will walk side by side with each other following in the footsteps of the One who promised to be with us to give us strength and hope. We will get to announce the Kingdom of God along with Jesus and a new world without unrest, control, war, oppression, violence and hatred. For this is what we all seek as children of God and heirs to heaven.

The Practice of Lent

While I’m embarrassed to admit it, every year as we head into the home stretch of Lent, I breathe an almost audible sigh of relief. I tell myself that once Lent is finally over, things can get back to normal. I can eat sweets again. I can have a glass of wine or a drink. I can cut back on the extra prayer time. And I won’t have to try to see Christ in all those people I encounter—especially the ones I find difficult or troublesome. Now as I type these words, I realize how foolish and insincere they sound. I take a small measure of comfort, though, in thinking that I am not the only one who feels this way. 

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief as we head into the homestretch of Lent, however, perhaps instead it might be an opportune time for all of us to pause and consider how we have approached Lent thus far. Do we consider it an interruption of our otherwise comfortable life and normal routine, and once it is over we can go back to the way things were; or do we see it as a time to break old habits and/or try to develop new ones. 

In regard to the above, more often than I care to admit I see Lent as a season to be endured, and not a time for spiritual growth and renewal. Too often, I consider the activities and practices of Lent as being strictly penitential and sometimes even punitive. While on the one hand I know this is the wrong way to approach Lent, on the other hand I have grown fond of the ruts I have gotten into. I don’t like having to do “extra” things or “give up” things during Lent. As the psalmist says: “My sin is before me always.” (Ps.51.5) to which I want to add: “and I’ve grown accustomed to my sins, and am not sure I want to try to change them.” 

Now certainly the normal activities of our lives can make it difficult to maintain our Lenten practices and resolutions once Lent has come to an end. There are just so many things that demand our time and attention that it is hard to focus on other things. And it could also be argued that extending the practices and activities we have begun in Lent could cause us to not fully appreciate and celebrate the great joy of Easter. I think that there is a middle ground between simply going back to life as usual after Lent, and trying to preserve our Lenten practices and enshrine them in our lives. 

For myself, that would probably mean not breathing a sigh of relief and saying a prayer of thanksgiving that Lent is almost over and I can go back to my normal routine. Instead it would mean not so much cutting out, but rather cutting back on desserts and alcohol. It would mean continuing to give more time to prayer. And it would mean trying to be more attuned to God’s presence in my life—especially in other people. In this regard, the key for me is to set goals for myself that are realistic and achievable. I think this is true for all of us. 

If we are open to it, Lent can be a time of great grace for us. It gives us an opportunity to evaluate our lives and ask what we need to do to grow closer to God. Certainly this involves works of charity, as well as penitential acts and additional prayer. And while we may not be able to carry all of our Lenten practices forward after Lent comes to an end, perhaps we can choose a couple that we can try to work into the routine of our lives. The important thing, though, is that we make the effort. And if we fail—well there is always Lent next year. 

Lent is a time of personal reflection when we are called to examine our habits, behaviors, and relationships. In the context of Pope Francis’ call for a Revolution of Love and Tenderness, Lent 2017 finds many of us considering questions such as “How well am I caring for the needs of others?” “What keeps me from serving more fully?” “How can I be more Christ-like in my daily life?” Similarly, the Parish Council has been pondering many of these same questions at a parish level by exploring the topic of parishioner engagement. At its core, this initiative seeks to better understand how parishioners are engaging with one another, how they would like to engage with the parish and its programs, and what barriers they face when trying to engage. Our first task was to listen, so we initiated an online survey and then conducted a series of focus group discussions with parishioners and community members. 

Gratefully, through candid discussions with parishioners, we learned a great deal about what makes The Basilica a spiritual home for many! Parishioners consistently told us that our beautiful building attracted them, that they appreciate the quality of liturgy and music, our openness and diversity, and the strong commitment to serving the needs of our community. Many things are going well at The Basilica! 

However, we also learned that there are some things we could improve and change in order to be easier to navigate, more open to different needs, and make it easier for people to connect with the parish and one another. Some key themes included:

Getting Connected and Involved: Many told us that in such a large parish, it is not always easy to get to know others or to navigate ways to become more involved; we can improve and diversify the ways that we communicate and help foster interpersonal connections.

Technology: Platforms that streamline signing up, getting news, making financial donations and other transactions are rapidly evolving; in order to be user-friendly, we need to be sure that we consider how to integrate new technologies into our programs and communication channels.

Inclusion and Diversity: The Basilica is blessed to be a diverse and growing parish with a wide range of ages, household compositions, and ethnicities, but this creates a greater need to ensure that our programs, ministries, and liturgies are open, welcoming, and inclusive and that we actively work to reduce and eliminate barriers to participation. 

In order to ensure that The Basilica continues to be a strong and vibrant community, the staff and Parish Council want to proactively address these areas of opportunity. Watch for additional information, more focus groups or other sharing forums, and ways to share your skills and talents. Just as during Lent we eagerly await the hopeful promise of the Easter season, through this process of parish self-reflection, we seek the hopeful promise of an engaging and thriving Basilica that will be a beacon of hope well into the future.

Jill Ahern, Parish Council Chair
Parishioner since 2009

Jill serves as a St. Vincent de Paul Meal Team Leader and as Co-Chair of the Basilica’s Strategic Planning Initiative. She has shared strategic planning expertise with the St. Vincent de Paul Leadership Team and Development Committee. Professionally, Jill leads Insights & Design at HAVI.

In life there are no “do overs.” There are no rewind buttons. And we can’t erase the tape or record over it. We can’t undo the past. This is particularly true in regard to mistakes or missteps we have made. Given this, I suspect we all live with a regret or two, and perhaps some misgivings about the past. But mentally rerunning scenes from the past or replaying old tapes is not healthy. It can take a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. At a certain point, for our own health and well being, we need to let go of our regrets, push the reset button, and move forward in faith and hope. 

Now, the above is not to suggest that we should try to forget any mistakes or missteps from the past, or worse, pretend they didn’t occur. As George Santayana famously said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, it is one thing to remember the past so that we don’t repeat it, and quite another to live in the land of regret and remorse. That is an arid and lifeless land and is spiritually deadening. 

When we find ourselves brooding over past failings we need to push the reset button and start anew. Lent is a great time to do this. It is a time when we can acknowledge the sins and failings of our past, push the spiritual reset button, and open ourselves to God’s grace. The ways we do this are many and varied. However, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional disciplines of Lent that can help us push the reset button on our spiritual lives. Another, good way to do this, though, is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

Now to be honest, people are not coming to confession in the numbers they did in the past. And certainly people haven’t always had good experiences in the confessional. I don’t believe, though, that these things negate the beauty and the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are reminded that there is no sin too great as to be beyond the power of God’s grace and forgiveness. When we come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation we bring our faults, our failings, and our sins to God, and ask for God’s forgiveness. And because God loves us with a love that is beyond belief and without reason, we know and believe that our sins are forgiven, we are given pardon and peace, and we are offered the grace we need to start anew. 

It would be easy to let the “regret ghosts” of the past haunt us and hold us bound. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, though, we have the opportunity to be set free from the past and start anew. God’s grace has the power to free us from the should-haves, could-haves, might-haves of the past. We have only to open our heart to that grace, and God will do the rest.

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