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I coached enough good and not so good soccer players (and teams) to tell the difference.  The better players kept their eyes on the goal of winning the game no matter what happened.  When my not focused on the prize athletes got fouled, they would look for a chance to get the other guy back.  And you know the one who retaliates ALWAYS gets caught.  And we’d be penalized.  And usually end up losing the game.  The focused players would also get fouled, but would channel that energy into making even better plays, and working harder.  They would elevate their game another notch, playing for the only whistle that mattered, not for a foul called or missed, but the one that signified the game was over, and we had won.  By keeping their eyes on the prize, they brought the very best of whom they were to the game, and encouraged that from their teammates.

Jesus knew that it was vital for their followers to do the same, to keep their eyes on the prize. At the end of the gospel, we hear that in terms of the biggest picture – entering into the kingdom of heaven.  So whatever choice in the short run you need to make –  to symbolically cut off hands or feet – that is what discipleship asks of you.  But we also hear about that in a more here and now context, from both Jesus and Moses.   We hear the story of two of their followers, Joshua and John, who lost that ‘big picture’ kind of perspective.

And though it is easy to fault them, I find it very easy to understand how it happened.  They both were a little caught up in the excitement of being on the ground floor of leadership, a little enthusiastic about what THEY were doing to help the cause.  Most of us do get excited when we are in a place where we can make a difference.  There is a lot of energy about being able to help, no matter what the cause or project. Because of that, we invest a lot of ourselves.  We get good at what WE are doing.  But here is where Joshua and John went wrong, and where, if we are honest, we often get it wrong as well.  They got caught up in their roles in winning the prize, and not the prize itself.

Why was Joshua trying to stop Eldad and Medad who missed the final meeting, but none-the-less, upon whom God’s spirit had come?  Moses names it.  You are jealous, and you are trying to keep the prerogatives of ministry to the folks who followed all the rules and attended the necessary graduation ceremony.  So, too, John complains: “They’re not card carrying disciples.  They haven’t paid their dues by walking and working and learning and struggling with you.”  What is unspoken is the “And I have.  I’ve done the homework and the hard work and put up with a lot for your sake.  I should be getting the recognition that these guys are…”

And, unfortunately, this behavior happens in parish staffs and in chancery offices and diocesan committees all around the world folks.  You and I have seen it.  Perhaps we have been unwittingly a part of it.  Those petty jealousies and turf wars and trying to protect our job and our roles because it is what we do.  So subtly, in our zeal, it has become about US and not about the mission.

So what do Moses and Jesus both do when confronted by this very human response?  They invite their followers to keep their eyes on the prize.  “Would that ALL the people were prophets” – doing the work of revealing God’s glory through Israel for the good of the world.”  “Do not prevent them.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”  It’s all about the driving out of the demons and the power of evil, and not about WHO is driving them out.  How wonderfully wise and generous are both Moses and Jesus.  They know the prize.  They know that accomplishing the mission is what matters.  Not who has power, who is recognized, who has the ‘role’/authority.  Instead it’s all about “Gettin’ it done.”  Get the work of the kingdom done.

So, how do you know if you struggle with that turf war mentality.  Let me propose a quick litmus test: “How easy is it for me to complement someone for work done, to recognize the gift they bring?”  If that is easy for you, then thanks for bringing that enthusiasm to our common work as a church.  If you struggle doing that, then ask for the grace to reframe your point of view so as to take your ego out of it.

When it is all said and done, each of us are called to be a conduit of grace.  Each of us is invited to bring God’s love to the world.  Can we say with Moses, “Would that everyone be a prophet?”  Can we say with Jesus: “If you are not against me, you are with me.”  “Lord, give us the grace to let the mission of the church be our great priority…

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A year of faith…

This October marks the beginning of the Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI to help Catholics deepen their relationship with God and recommit to the responsibility of sharing their faith with others. The observance begins October 11, 2012, which is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It concludes on November 24, 2013 — which is the Feast of Christ the King.

The year is a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the One Savior of the world”. In other words, the Year of Faith is an opportunity for Catholics to experience a conversion – to turn back to Jesus and enter into a deeper relationship with him. The pope has described this conversion as opening the “door of faith” (see Acts 14:27). Each baptized Catholic is invited to rediscover and renew their relationship with Christ and his Church.

Through baptism we are called to be a disciple of Christ and proclaim the Gospel, by living out the everyday moments of our lives with faith, hope and love. This every-day witness is necessary for proclaiming the Gospel to family, friends, neighbors and society. In order to witness to the Gospel, Catholics must be strengthened through celebrating weekly Sunday Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Catholics wishing to deepen their faith during the Year of Faith should start by exploring the Evangelization and Catechesis section of the USCCB website. Numerous catechetical resources, prayers and other resources have been prepared for the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization that can be viewed and downloaded for free. Catholics should also consider studying the documents of Vatican II and the catechism. Another resource is the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which takes the teachings of the catechism and shares them within a uniquely American context and highlights American Catholic saints and role models. Most importantly, Catholics seeking to deepen their faith should pray daily, study Scripture and celebrate weekly Sunday Mass.

Stay tuned for upcoming St. Ann opportunities to enter more deeply into this Year of Faith…

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Do you remember the name of the last waiter or busboy who served you in a restaurant?He was one of the gentlest and kindest men that I have ever had the good fortune to meet.  But after four years of high school, there were still a few classmates of mine who did not know his name, or if they knew his name, they knew very little else about him.  I thought that tragic.  First and foremost, because Gerry Sommers was simply a good and holy man.  And you can never know enough of these kind of people in your life.  There is something about their lives and holiness that calls you to be a better human being.  But more so, a few classmates and I thought that if we were ever named the rector of the seminary, (or heaven help the church, a bishop) one of the last tests that we would give the prospective ordination class would be this.  “Take out a sheet of paper and list the names of all of the secretaries, custodians and staff people who work at Kenrick-Glennon seminary.”  And if you could not list more than three fourths of them, you would have to wait another year to be ordained.

How we treat people with little social power says a great deal about who we are and what our view of the world is.  Is it all about us, and what people can do for us, or do we really value the people around us for who they are?  As an aside, for those still unmarried among us, it is a great ‘reality check’ on the relationship.  Observe the next time out how the person you are dating treats the waitress or busboy at the restaurant, or the homeless person on the street. (even better, observe how you treat them.)  For you can be confident that those behaviors will spill over to your relationship.

In today’s gospel, Jesus takes a child, embraces it and places it in their midst saying: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  Interesting and telling, the use of the word “It” to describe a human being.  There is a reason for this translation.  The temptation in our culture is to use children as metaphors, either for being childish – petty and immature, or for being childlike – filled with wonder and innocence.  That is not what Jesus meant in this action trying to help the disciples understand the second prediction of his passion.

In the cultural world of Jesus, children were ‘non-persons’ – ‘its’ – with no legal rights, no social status, no inherent dignity.  To ‘receive a child with the dignity and value of the Lord himself’ is a profound, almost shocking demand by our savior.  And putting that ‘it’ right in the middle of the disciples  would have been a brilliant way to teach the disciple precisely what His upcoming passion would mean – that EVERY person, EVERY child, EVERY human being on this planet has inestimable value, because our Lord gave his life for EACH one of them.  And if our treatment of each person we meet, regardless of status or profession or social class, doesn’t mirror that truth, then we fail the discipleship test.

This week, take the Gerry Sommers test of discipleship.  Observe yourself as you interact with the people in your world, especially those who do the less glamorous kind of tasks.  Do your actions toward the person in the check out lane of the store, the maintenance man at work, the clerk at the gas-mart show you to be a disciple after the heart of Jesus, or one who is still striving ‘become the greatest’.  Does my treatment of the least and last and lost among us mirror the truth that our Lord suffered his passion for them as well as for me?  Or do I need to spend some more time asking for a grateful, humble heart to recognize the infinite value of each person?

What was the name of the waitress at that last restaurant?

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Words of thanks…

I received a letter this week. The salient parts said this: “Without your parish exceeding its goals, I would not have such good news to report today about this most important appeal.

I ask you please to express, in your Sunday bulletin and other forms of parish communication, my gratitude to your parishioners for their generous support of the Annual Catholic Appeal. I am grateful for their solidarity with all Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis through their participation in this important Appeal. Working together in this way, we practice Christian Stewardship and bring Christ’s love to our communities.”

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson

Let ME express my thanks to Bob Beckring for his work on making our St. Ann version of the appeal such a success. His work exemplifies all that is good about this parish of ours – the willingness to say yes, to work hard, to do all the little things as well as the big ones to help our brothers and sisters in need. Thanks for the gift of your service to our parish, and for helping us raise $28,187 to serve the greater needs of the Archdiocese.

It was all quiet on the Sprenke front by the time I got home tonight from the Newman Center. The lights were off, the parking lot empty. There were no cheering fans, no blowing of whistles, no sounds of the thrill of victory out on the field. Just an eerie silence as I pulled into the garage. Though as I write this, there are still a few more days yet to go, I miss the tournament already. Let me take a moment just to say a huge word of THANKS to the Men’s Club for this annual tradition. I tell my classmates that though they might have a one or two day parish picnic, we have three weeks of celebration.

It doesn’t happen by magic; there is a lot of man and woman hours that go into this tournament. Thanks one and all for your time and energy as coaches, BBQ-ers, concession stand workers, field caretakers, recyclers, trash cleaners, fire starters, beverage orderers, loud-speaker announcers, referees, and the like. This really is among our ‘finest hours’ here at St. Ann.

And a final word to Keith and Stacey Leahy, our tournament chair and wife (and kids) for “living here” the past three weeks. What a gift of self for the next generation of Sprenke athletes and parents. I don’t know how to say it any other way, but THANK YOU from us all for all you have done these Sprenke days…

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What name do YOU give to describe Jesus?For the four years I taught high school, I was perpetually puzzled (some might say clueless) about the words students used to describe their dating relationships. Were you seeing each other, dating, just going out, going steady, or what? Each had its own set of acceptable behaviors – and those that were not. Maybe it was that the words they used were different than the labels I would choose. But I never quite understood when they told me – “It was okay to see other people as long as you were just dating, but it was not okay to date someone else if you were seeing somebody.” Okaayyy!! What WAS obvious to me is that the name you gave ‘about’ the other defined how you related to them.

When you call someone an acquaintance – it means one thing. To call someone friend – means another. To call someone husband or wife – defines another level of commitment, To be called father – or mother – or son or daughter – articulates a whole way of life and pattern of choices in terms of how you relate to them.

So what does it mean to call Jesus the messiah? Peter thought he knew. He thought he had it figured out. And he was so proud of his answer. To use our modern dating parlance with a twist: Messiah meant “Friends with benefits”! (not THOSE kinds) Specifically Peter had in mind: power, glory, prestige, restoring Israel with him and his buddies right there in the inner circle – everything coming back to them as disciples because they knew “THE GUY” Jesus. So when Jesus talks about suffering, Peter will have none of it. “You are the messiah of God. Suffering does not figure into the picture. Death is unthinkable for the chosen one of God. When I name you as the Messiah – the anointed one – that cannot involve suffering, for you or for me.”

And Jesus says: (in very strong language) “Guess again, Simon. I’ll be Messiah – but not in the way you’ll want me to. I’ll have power, but not the kind that establishes worldly kingdoms. If you want to follow me – you’ll have the same power as I – the power to be servant, to put God’s will first, to put God’s people first, to lose your life so as to gain God’s. That’s what it means to be MESSIAH. And if the names we use define relationships, then to call me that kind of messiah means that you’ll have to live that kind of life.”

And if you are like me, those are hard words to hear. Denying ourselves. Taking up our cross. Losing our lives. Finding our lives by losing them.

“Does it have to be that all or nothing?” the Peter inside of us all asks. “Can’t I call you messiah but have it mean that I can still figuratively ‘see’ other people? Can’t I say I will be your follower, but not have it cost me, not have it make demands on me?”

And the same Jesus who posed the question to his twelve disciples stands before you and me today and asks us: “Who do you say that I am?” What is the name that you use to describe OUR relationship? And our answer sets a whole set of responses and parameters for us.

• Do you call him “lover of Justice?” Then be ready to be about the works of justice.
• Do you name him “Messiah – the anointed of God?” Then what false gods do you worship – money, security, health, prestige and the like – have to go from your world?
• What if you use Jesus’ favorite term for himself in the gospels – “Son of Man”, a title that signifies his union with the human race it all its struggles and brokenness? Then expect to be called to stand in solidarity in our time with all those whose lives are broken by war, torn apart by addiction, struggling for employment, and trying to make their way home to God.

Words define relationships, even our relationship with God. Father. Daughter. Mother. Son. Friend. Messiah. May we, like Simon Peter, let our Lord teach us, in the concrete choices of our lives (as the letter to James tells us), what it means to call Him our messiah.

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Tuesday Night musings…

I came home last night from my usual Tuesday at the Newman Center to find the grounds awash in activity. The field was an illuminated green from the overhead lights. Riots of kids in colorful uniforms dashed from end to end and side to side, in a ballet of motion on the newly turfed field. Pockets of conversation from adults, playful banter from athletes warming up or warming down from the contests, and the delighted screams of the very small playing on the playground met the ear with a wonderful cacophony of noisy exu-berance. A light blue haze from brats and burgers wafted into the evening sky, tickling the nose with a delectable invitation to fill the belly.

The evening sky held on to the last glimmers of its September pale blue hue, while the very earth radiated a quiet warmth from the day’s sun. A cool but gentle breeze playfully tickled exposed arms and legs, invit-ing thoughts of the neglected sweater or jacket, or pullover sweats considered, but not brought because it is still ‘too early’ to break out the fall apparel. Minivans and cars pause to drop off athletes by the garage overhang. Parents herd reluctant siblings and bag chairs across the parking lot to find the best place to observe the festivities. Men’s club members con-verse playfully over BBQ grills while the smell of fresh popcorn floats from the concession stand. Small chil-dren, with eyes bigger than their stomachs, delight in their favorite flavor of ring pops, exulting in the sugar rush of youth.

Kids check signals with parents before heading to play “wall ball” against the side of the gymnasium building. Proud grandparents tousle the hair of favorite grand-kids over games well played and effort well given. Ny-lon sacks with a plethora of balls and cones dot the sidelines, waiting for coaches to carry them to waiting trunks or sideline readiness when the previous con-test draws to a close. The scree of referee whistles sound twice to mark the half and three times to mark the end of the contest.

Loudspeakers echo off adjacent buildings marking the mad dash to the center of the field, like Olympic ath-letes entering their stage of triumph, ready to give the contest their best. A wave to the fans, a flowing to positions, a few nervous jumps; referees checking keeper-readiness, and “Tweeeet!”, the next game is underway.

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Faithful Citizenship…

“Father, I don’t like any of my choices going into this fall’s election.” I know what they mean. Neither party seems to have a lock on our core Catholic values to such an extent that it makes voting for them an easy choice. Yet vote we must. To that end, the USCCB puts out a wonderful little pamphlet called “The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It is accessible on their website – at USCCB.org. If I were a professor, this would be required reading for my fall class.

The document begins by inviting us to acknowledge and uphold “our dual heritage as both faithful Catholics and American citizens. We are members of a community of faith with a long tradition of teaching and action on human life, and dignity, marriage and family, justice and peace, care for creation, and the common good. As Americans, we are also blessed with religious liberty which safeguards our right to bring our principles and moral convictions into the public arena. These Constitutional freedoms need to be both exercised and protected, as some seek to mute the voices or limit the freedoms of religious believers and religious institutions. Catholics have the same rights and duties as others to participate fully in public life. The Church through its institutions must be free to carry out its mission and contribute to the common good without being pressured to sacrifice fundamental teachings and moral principles.

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is widely used to share Catholic teaching on the role of faith and conscience in political life. Although it has at times been misused to present an incomplete or distorted view of the demands of faith in politics, this statement remains a faithful and challenging call to discipleship in the world of politics. It does not offer a voters guide, scorecard of issues, or direction on how to vote. It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to “conscience” to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological, or personal interests. It does not offer a quantitative listing of issues for equal consideration, but outlines and makes important distinctions among moral issues acknowledging that some involve the clear obligation to oppose intrinsic evils which can never be justified and that others require action to pursue justice and promote the common good. In short, it calls Catholics to form their consciences in the light of their Catholic faith and to bring our moral principles to the debate and decisions about candidates and issues.”

For more information, go to http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship-document.cfm

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