Beginning & Ending the Week with Bethesda’s Ministry to the Homeless

Fr. Joseph Serano, O. Praem. may be the Abbey’s treasurer, but we hardly confine him to a desk all day! Below are some notes from Father on his ministry to the Church at large.

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Writing for a blog is new to me, but I’m happy to share a bit of “reporting” on what has been happening in my ministry.

Last week, I attended a fund-raiser held at the (donated) VIP lounge at the Phillies stadium; it was for Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia, founded by our Fr. Domenic and the Abbey Prayer Group in 1983. I am about to finish my second nine-year term on the Board of Directors and its Finance Committee. What makes Bethesda more than just a “place” where one can get a bed and a meal; makes it a “home” and indeed “family for those who have none”; is the generosity of thousands of mostly small donors  (of which I am happy to be one!). While final numbers aren’t in yet, we think we made over $200,000 at the event. Amazing!

As usual, I had morning Mass at two local parishes during the week. I really enjoy the chance to pray with good people and to share some thoughts in a homily. On April 24, I celebrated the Abbey’s Mass, which I always find a special joy. I know much of the congregation and they know me, which makes it “easier” to preach. The homily (looking more closely at the phrase “Love one another AS I HAVE LOVED YOU”) is available on our website [click here to listen].

This past Sunday, I visited a group of Sisters outside Gettysburg. We shared Reconciliation and then Eucharist, after which I had an hour or so to spend with one of these fine women who is my spiritual director.

Before that, on Friday evening and all day Saturday, I joined almost 50 of our Abbey’s Lay Associates for their annual overnight retreat. Our theme for the year has been the Ongoing Call to Holiness. Fr. Domenic gave three conferences sharing his own vocation story, especially as it connected to Bethesda and the service of the marginalized. It was a blessed time. Hope to talk to you again next week.

Come, Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth

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Last Thursday, I had the privilege of concelebrating the Confirmation Mass for a young girl who is the daughter of a former student. It really was a special moment for me because she was the youngest of his children; and when in high school, let’s just say that religion was the last thing on his mind. I would smile and say that, one day, this would change because of the moral character that was so evident in his life.

So, we stayed in touch after he graduated from high school, and he fell in love with a wonderful woman who continued to bring out the best in him; and now, he was having his youngest child confirmed. He also told me that he attends the early Mass on Sundays, which also caused me to smile because he used to hate it when his father would take him to the early Mass when he was in high school. Such a real conversion of heart!

He and his wife wanted to surprise their daughter with my presence and when I walked in with the concelebrants, she just smiled so widely and looked over to her parents and then to me. I was so impressed with her and all of the children being confirmed that day. They sang, they interacted with the Bishop, and one could see that the Holy Spirit was truly free flowing through the Church. Two things impressed me tremendously. The first was the vigor, vitality, and sound that they projected as they renewed their Baptismal vows: they really knew what they were promising and were filled with the joy of the Lord to renew their vows. Secondly, the Bishop asked some of the children what name they had chosen and so many chose the name of their grandfather or grandmother, which spoke to me of the continuity of the Faith and also its future. The children picked their grandparents’ names because of the love that was shown them all their lives: a love imbued with the Spirit’s presence. One child even said that he picked the name because his grandfather was such a religious person and he hoped to follow in his footsteps. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that answer. I could hear “Faith of our Fathers” going through my head. I knew the Faith was secure for the future.

Being a priest is such a joy for me, especially on these special occasions when I can intensely feel the presence of the Spirit doing its work of renewing the face of the earth. I am so happy to be able to be part of that renewal.

 

Splendor Cultus: part I

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Mass celebrated in the presence of Pope Sixtus IV in Rome, 15th century.

I am an avid reader. I am almost always into a novel. These days The Relic Master is on my Kindle (I don’t recommend it). But I also get my jollies reading works about the history of the liturgies of the Christian churches. These days I’ve been reading John F. Romano’s Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome (Ashgate 2014). My attraction to this kind of reading is not intended to make me a more fascinating conversationalist at cocktail parties. I believe that the study of history gives us a sense of our roots; suggests that perhaps what has been done in the past might be done again in the present (e.g., the ordination of women to the diaconate); and gives us a sense of humility in realizing that what we think is an innovation in our time might well have been standard practice among our forebears.

Case in point: liturgy is not an exercise in which one size fits all. Enculturation (the mutual enrichment of worship and culture) has been happening since the apostles (e.g., secular ritual elements such as processional candles and incense introduced into the Roman Eucharist). Liturgy and Society in Early Medieval Rome references the fact that until the popes moved into the Vatican after their return to Rome from Avignon in 1378, there were three classes of liturgy in the Eternal City:

  1. stational liturgies on great feasts and seasons (Lent) in which the pope presided at the head of the whole local church in one or other of the great basilicas;
  2. the Sunday and daily liturgies of the tituli (parish churches); and, finally,
  3. the liturgy of the papal curia. One calendar was observed by all but the level of ritual development was different for each: most elaborate for the stational celebrations; less so in the tituli; and least in the papal curia.

This example of liturgical diversity which I first studied in graduate school has shaped my thinking about and shaping of worship at Daylesford Abbey. The model for liturgy which underlies the present Roman Missal is parish Sunday worship. But this book is also used in the celebration of the Mass by Carthusian monks, missionaries in a rain forest, cloistered nuns, campus ministry assemblies and abbeys of canons regular. Each of these assemblies in one way or another both accepts the liturgy as a “given” and also uses the gift in ways appropriate to their culture, mission, particular charism, setting, and resources.

I hope in future blogs to develop this insight in terms of the nature of abbeys of canons regular, such as the Norbertines, and in terms of the particularities of our charism, e.g., the splendor of worship as a privileged form of evangelization, contemplation, prayer amidst and with the people, our traditional usages (the so-called Premonstratensian Rite), and in terms of the ongoing renewal of the liturgy of the Catholic Church since the close of Vatican II (1965).

A mantra: meditative prayer and basis of belief

[This month, we introduce a new contributor, Fr. Michael Lee., O. Praem., who is currently the pastor of St. Norbert Parish. St. Norbert’s is close to the Abbey not only geographically, but spiritually as well, and is dedicated to our holy founder.]

Several times in my homilies I have referred to the word mantra and suggested that we as a parish incorporate a certain mantra in our mission and vision. First of all, one needs to understand the meaning of the word. I checked it out on Google and the definition that I received was twofold:

: a sound, word, or phrase that is repeated by someone who is praying or meditating

: a word or phrase that is repeated often or that expresses someone’s basic beliefs

The mantra: “Jesus is Lord” would be both a meditative prayer and the basis of belief. In many areas of life there are certain short phrases or words that would summarize a person’s prayer or belief. In the business world the mantra might be: “bigger is better.”

A mantra is usually associated with Eastern religions but in fact when one examines the word it is active in many traditions.

This last Sunday (Divine Mercy Sunday) in the Gospel of John, the response of Saint Thomas to the Resurrected Christ might well be seen as a mantra: “My Lord and My God.” This is certainly a prayer and one that could be repeated over and over again and, in the process, raise our consciousness to the level of the Divine. I believe many prayerfully say these words at the consecration when the priest holds up the Body of Christ.

The mantra that I suggested for the parish may not at first seem like it could be religiously based. The mantra that I suggested was simply: “Welcome in – Mission out.” If we were to look at the profound meaning of these words we would see that they are the basis of all that we are about as Saint Norbert Parish and the basis of our faith as well.

We are called to welcome in all “the poor, the alienated and the spiritually hungry” as we pray in our vision prayer. This prayer is in itself a wonderful graced filled moment. We welcome those who are in search of a God who loves them. Maybe they have, for personal reasons, come to question that welcome.

We are also called to be disciples in mission and open wide our doors and go out to those who are in need. As a parish community, we do this so wonderfully well. However, as Jesus taught the disciples, this mission takes a lot of work. First of all, it begins with a personal encounter with Jesus. This personal encounter then challenges one to invite others to come to know Jesus. What a wonderful invitation can be given during this Jubilee Year of Mercy to those who may been in need of healing and hearing that Jesus loves them.

In his book entitled “365 Daily Meditations”, Pope Francis asks us to reach out. Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.

None of the above can be done on our own. It is by the Power of the Holy Spirit that such miracles occur. May the Holy Spirit guide us as we:

“Welcome in – Mission out.”

Happy Easter!

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Happy Easter! The liturgies of the Triduum are over. Our Triduum retreatants have gone home and stillness has settled on the Abbey for a little while. The weather is beautiful: the sun is shining and warm, the wind is blowing and reminding us all that March is still here, and the flowers are beginning to show the vibrant colors that make Spring so glorious; all reminders of new life, the Spirit blowing where it wills, and the stillness and calmness that allow for us who live here at the Abbey to walk a little and reflect on the Glorious Mysteries which we just celebrated.

It was a wonderful and spiritually energizing week. I can’t remember one in the past years that affected me so much and helped me feel the closeness of God in my life. As I walked down the front road today, let the sun warm my face, and feel the Spirit enflaming my heart like the disciples’ on the way to Emmaus, I knew that God had called me to the Abbey to minister to God’s people, to contemplate and be drawn more deeply into the love and mystery of God. I thought of Psalm 139; “God, you know me and have knitted me in my mother’s womb”; because I know that God has so blessed me with his presence in my heart. As I walked and talked with the Lord, the time flew by and I realized that it was time for Vespers: a time of quieting oneself down, remembering again God’s love for me and giving me a chance to appreciate the graces that God has given me.

I follow the bell as my heart responds to God’s call. Perhaps you can, in the quiet times of your life, do the same.

 

The Sacred Triduum

We are about to enter into a most sacred time in Christian liturgical experience: the Sacred Triduum, where some persons say that we commemorate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as the “first fruits of the new creation”. As I was pondering on this miracle of God’s intervention into my–no, all of our lives, the word commemoration just didn’t do it for me. Being a member of Christ’s body, I began to think about the liturgies (from the ancient Greek for “works”) that will take place and came to a feeling of calm and peace, yet one of yearning for these experiences because they are more than “commemorations”; they are the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus taking place in kairos time and not kronos, or chronological time….

The liturgies or the works of the worshipping communities will be making REAL the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Ontologically speaking, these events will not only remember but will make real for us; through the sacraments instituted by Christ; his own Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I am humbled to be a part of this kairos moment when God intervenes into humanity’s life and graces it with the redemptive suffering that wrought our justification and righteousness.

Blessed be God, praised be God, for in this year of Mercy, God’s merciful love makes real our salvation!

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Bring the little children to Me

In older Bibles, one can read the phrase of Jesus: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me” (Matthew 19:14). Today we see the phrase being translated a little more children-friendly by saying, “Bring the little children to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I was particularly touched by these phrases during the last few weeks when I was hearing confessions from young schoolchildren.

Of course, since Daylesford Abbey offers the prospect of Reconciliation as one of its charisms, many times we are called on to perform the ministry of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the local parishes and schools. This is such an important part of my ministry as a Norbertine – to help others experience the merciful and unconditional love of Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Unfortunately, many of these little children come to confession “scared to death” that they will not know the exact phrases to make a good confession. One little girl came to confession, sat down, and started bawling because she couldn’t remember what she was told to say during the sacramental encounter. I smiled at her and put her at ease as she smiled back at me and I told her that God wasn’t all that interested in how she “said her confession”, but more importantly wanted her sorrow for some of the wrong things she had done since her last confession and to know that God loves her unconditionally. She took a deep breath, smiled again and thanked me for not “hollering” at her…… and I spoke with her about some things she shouldn’t have done and then gave her absolution. She looked at me and smiled and thanked me for being such a nice person. I responded by asking her to remember that God is the “nicest person” she could ever have in her life. She walked away smiling confidently and happy that she “made a good confession”.

It is a great privilege for priests to work with penitents in the sacrament of Reconciliation, especially for us Norbertines who stress Reconciliation as one of our charisms. I felt so happy for that little girl and for myself who helped her experience the loving power of God in her young life, perhaps to remember this sacramental encounter that next time she approaches Reconciliation. Yes, bring the young children to a loving God. It was good to change the word “suffer” to “bring” and know that, in return, the children get the gift of knowing that they are the loving children of God.

Thank you, Lord, for opening my heart to this experience and let it always be a lesson for me to keep in mind the next time some little one comes to the sacrament. After all, we all are children of a loving God.

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The first step

“The first step to carrying out a dream or change in you is desire.”–Napoleon Hill

What a simple yet very profound statement I found the other day when I was attending a seminar on how to transform grief and loss into something positive. I do some work in a facility for court adjudicated youth and one day, I got word that one of the residents had a death in his family and wanted to talk to a priest. I went over to the facility, found the resident, and spoke to him about his grandfather and how much the grandfather meant to him.

After about a half an hour, I asked the resident what his grandfather think of him being in this correctional institution, and he began to fill up and said that his grandfather would be sad; but he desired to give his grandfather’s memory a gift and that was coming back to the Church, receiving the sacraments, and doing well when he gets discharged in about two months. I listened to his confession and then was able to offer Mass for his grandfather and made plans to do so again.

The above mentioned quote that I heard the next day seemed to fit like a fine pair of shoes; the desire to keep his grandfather’s memory alive was enough for this resident to change and carry out the dream of being a really good person in honor of his grandfather. The quote also struck home with me, especially in this Lenten season. I must have that desire to be a better religious and priest so that I can help persons find their desires and carry them out to change their lives.

Perhaps you are being called to carry out your dream of helping others as a religious or a priest: all you have to do is admit the desire and the change can happen. It only takes that first step.

The change of seasons

The change of seasons always gives me the chance to look at the changes in my outlook on life. Just like March, I found myself both hot and cold on many issues. I was out walking in the beautiful sunshine yesterday – allowing the warming sunshine to warm my face and letting the fresh Spring-like air just carry me along as I was walking on one of the Abbey’s roads…….. and today! I was cleaning off an overnight snowfall on the car that I was using to go to the local parish for the 6:30 am Mass. Just like the weather, I find myself running hot and cold today as I was walking and thinking about something that I did a couple of weeks ago. On a Thursday, I celebrated a funeral for a ninety-five year old woman who lived life to the fullest, and on the following Saturday I was baptizing a baby boy who was just a few months old.

I thought about the highs and lows of the weather and yet I had to admit that both days described were beautiful, walking in a warm wind and coming out of the Abbey to view a snowy wonderland! I then thought about the funeral and the baptism I celebrated. I felt the hand of God in all four of these events and I found all of them to be grace-filled moments for me….. the weather reminding me that God is in control and the funeral and the Baptism reminding me that all life has both its beginning and end in the Alpha and Omega of my world, Jesus. I became so grateful for personally experiencing Jesus in my life and ministry. Whether walking in the snow, or experiencing the Spirit’s presence in the wind, I am grateful for my friendship with Jesus. My ministry as a religious priest, experiencing Jesus in both the funeral and baptism I celebrated makes me so grateful for answering Jesus’ call to serve his sisters and brothers. I felt so alive with God’s love and life-giving grace that my thoughts actually became my morning prayers.

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The Transfiguration

Last Sunday we heard the annual account of Christ’s Transfiguration. This gospel has always had a particular appeal in the Eastern churches and among those seeking a more contemplative practice in their daily Christian living, whether “in the world” or in “in the cloister.” Our belief is that we, like Peter, James and John, are able to perceive divinity because the divine Spirit has first been given us by God. Contemplative practice opens our inner contemplative eyes to more deeply perceive the divine present in all reality. The Greek churches call this theosis, the process of coming to share more and more each day in the divine nature.

Lent is a privileged time on the mountain with Jesus. Fasting, prayer and works of charity renew our in-spirited inner eyes to see the glory of divinity in our worship, our study, our daily labors, in the demands of our callings, in our care for one another in every time and place.

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