A visit to our Abbey in Albuquerque

Twenty years ago, Fr. Domenic Rossi and I were on loan to the Norbertine community in New Mexico. Dom and I lived at the Priory (now Abbey) and worked at the local parish of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. From last Thursday to next, we are back visiting — and there are lots of fond memories.  However, we especially chose to come now because our confrere, Father Fran Dorff, is in a hospice program and we both wanted to say goodbye. Fran taught us both many years ago (when he was a member of Daylesford), and we lived with him again in our time at Albuquerque. Not only have we had daily opportunities to be at his bedside and talk and listen. This evening, after Vespers, we joined the local community in celebrating “Viaticum” (a simple communion service to provide food for the final journey) with Fran.
The doctor was here earlier today and explained that our brother was very near the end, with days or even hours left to live. Fran was alert and fully responsive to the prayers. Indeed, before we started, he had a few words for each of us. It was a gift to be with him tonight.  A fine theologian, gifted preacher, published poet, skilled spiritual director and genuine wisdom figure, Fran will leave his mark on the life and ministries of three abbeys: DePere where he first entered after graduating from our high school in South Philly, Daylesford which he joined upon our independence in 1963 and then, after having served in New Mexico for seven years, he joined the new Albuquerque community in 1997.
We have all been blessed to know him and call him both confrere and friend. May he soon awaken on the other side of heaven’s gate. He promised to pray for us.

Some good that came from the flu

It’s Monday evening and I’m just about recovered from a bad bout of the flu.  I went to the doctor’s last Thursday. He gave me an antibiotic and told me to take it easy for a few days.  That was easier said than done, if only because I was assigned out for Mass on Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  I’m happy to report that three of my confreres rearranged their schedules to be able to cover for me — and so allowed me to stay in my room and wait for the meds to work. Today, I’m almost back to normal and will be taking Mass with the nearby IHM Sisters tomorrow.
Anyone who knows the Abbey knows the key word in our mission statement is communio. We keep it in Latin because it defies a simple translation. It is the call to be of “one mind and one heart on the way to God”, to quote from the opening chapter of Augustine’s Rule (as the Rule quotes from the Acts of the Apostles).  This description of our charism is described again in the Rule’s last chapter, when it says, “You will know that you have have made progress when you put the community’s interest before your own” — which is what my brothers did for me these past few days. 
While in my room, I got to read three books that had been siting on my desk for months.  (Since I couldn’t go to church for community prayer, I thought I’d catch up on some spiritual reading.) I read a novel about early Christianity, another about St. Bonaventure’s insights into the Holy Trinity, and the third a lovely little book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about God’s unconditional love. Its title is GOD FIRST LOVED US and the author is a New Zealander who teaches in Australia, named Antony Campbell, SJ.  He beautifully makes the case that salvation is never something we earn but rather “accept”, and then try to live that acceptance by treating others with some measure of the generosity the Lord has shown us. The book is an invitation to take seriously the heart of the Good News, “It’s all a gift”, and then revel in the mystery of the Prodigal Father who loves us out of our brokenness.

Bethesda Project

This past Sunday, I celebrated Mass at Saint Norbert parish in Paoli. The first reading was from Isaiah 58: a passage that led to the birth of Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia. Some 35 years ago, the leadership of the “Body of Christ Prayer Community” (a group of close to 300 people who met every Wednesday in the Abbey church to praise and thank the Lord) were sharing over this text when they came to a simple realization — finding the time to praise the Lord was but half the story. They also had to take the initiative to “feed the hungry and shelter the homeless”. Our own Father Domenic Rossi and a wonderful woman named Phyllis Martin, who would eventually become an Abbey Oblate, were among those leaders, who proceeded to share their insight with the full group. Soon the community was sponsoring a shelter for a dozen homeless women, that the Mercy Sisters had set up in the upper floors above the “Ugly Pub” in center city.

Three years later, what was now called Bethesda Project, helped by a $ 20,000 grant from the Abbey’s tithing fund, purchased an old house near 11th and Spruce and moved the ladies to a lovely facility that still is going strong. Indeed, the house on Spruce Street is one of five “permanent residences” (serving over 120 women and men who are no longer homeless) that are matched by a series of “overnight shelters” (that provide a safe haven for close to 300 men one night at a time), all interconnected as part of Bethesda’s mission “to seek out the abandoned poor and be family to those who have none”.

For most of the last twenty years, I have been blessed to serve on Bethesda’s Board of Directors– and one of my greatest joys as a priest has been to preach on behalf of Bethesda at area churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Not surprisingly, a little bit of this story was the way I opened my homily this morning on Isaiah 58.