Sunday, December 30, 2018

coyotes and the little donkey

This fall and winter, I have been dealing with some hard things both personally and as a pastor. I am comforted to say that despite some difficulties, God has given me the grace and the human help that I have needed to persevere and to feel confident in Him. At the same time, I have also been aware of forces of opposition, not as strong, of course, but really there and at times frightening. These forces have been more open than I have experienced in the past. The help from God, the angels, and the saints that I have received to overcome these forces has also been more overt.

There has been a coincidence in these experiences -- but is there really such a thing as coincidence? -- that has been unnerving. At certain moments, I have heard a strange howling sound very near my room which backs up to some woods -- yes, woods right here in Murfreesboro! I heard it once again in the past week. This time, one of the other priests was in the house. Even though he had not heard it (I don't think that it can be heard in the rest of the house), he made a suggestion that helped me to identify the sound: coyotes. I think that he is right. They are bold creature and might be right here in town. Identifying the sound helped me to demystify it. It also seemed strangely appropriate that their howls were associated with my experiences of oppression. Coyotes are such despicable creatures who traffic in inspiring fear, just like the Evil One.

I have learned a thing about coyotes from my retreats in Texas over the past few years. On the ranches that surround the retreat house, there are many pastures of cattle, and many of them also include a single burro. What is that single donkey doing in a pasture of cattle?  The donkey is there to protect the calves from coyotes. You see, donkeys hate coyotes, and if they get near one, they kick the coyote to death. I know that God has protected me with at least a spiritual burro or two in these situations. And there he is at the manger -- little donkey!

Saturday, December 29, 2018


At the Vigil Mass for Christmas, the gospel reading is the genealogy of Jesus from St. Matthew's Gospel. Much like the announcement of the birth of Jesus in St. Luke's Gospel at the Mass in the Night, the evangelist goes to great lengths to show the historical setting of the Incarnation. There is also the Christmas Proclamation, which locates the birth of Jesus in relation to all sorts of things from the times of the creation and the exodus, to the prophecies of Daniel, to the founding of the City of Rome. There is a lot of emphasis on history here. History matters. The point is that God came into the real world. The Incarnation is not a fairy tale.

Surprisingly absent from all of this history is judgment on it. The genealogy of St. Matthew's Gospel contains, for example, the roll call of all the sorry kings in the royal line of Judah, as well as a lot of other stinkers. But to hear the genealogy read, there is no indication of who is good and who is bad. The history just rolls forward. This is the right approach to history. We need to understand history, not to judge it.

We live in a time that is desperately trying to forget history -- and is being very successful! We find things in the history of our world, our country, our family, and our lives that are disturbing. These days we feel that we must denounce this history and forget it -- mainly just forget it. This is very dangerous.

There have been times where the other extreme has been taken, and history is canonized. This is also the wrong approach. Because something is -- or was -- does not make it right -- or wrong. It just is. But the "is" is the most important thing.

"Narrative" is a hot word these days. It gives the idea that we live in a story, not in history. Christmas is not a story. It's history. The evangelists insist on giving us not the story of Jesus but the history of Jesus. This is an important distinction. We can change our stories but not our histories. Narratives tempt us to keep looking back; history pushes us forward. To gain from history, we must accept it.

Jesus found a way forward in salvation history. He did not go back. It is the point of history because history has a point!

Monday, December 24, 2018

always new

This is the first Christmas that I have been the pastor of a parish with a large and active Hispanic community and so I am experiencing some new things -- and it's great! Don't get me wrong. The St. Rose community is amazing in ways that I am more accustomed to as well. For example, on Saturday 250+ families were provided gifts for Christmas by the parish Giving Tree program. Although I am familiar with such programs in other parishes, the scale and joy of this one is amazing, in a way that I am becoming newly accustomed to at St. Rose. It's the St. Rose way.

For the first time, however, I have participated in las posadas devotions. It is actually a first or a renewal of the devotion for the community here as well. I am happy to be a part of it! If you are not familiar with las posadas, it is essentially a rosary novena leading up to Christmas. It involves Joseph and Mary seeking shelter and being turned away before ultimately being welcomed. And it involves food! Always food and much more!

I really love this experience because it is so much about family and Jesus!

Friday, December 21, 2018

from the mouths of babes

Here is a Christmas poem by Francis Thompson, the poet of The Hound of Heaven. This poem reminds me how changed the world is by the Incarnation. The world is now the home of God, and He experiences it as we do. By becoming so small, He has made us very great.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

report card

I made an A in my Spanish class! What is more, I think that I am learning!

At the beginning of the class, I was very nervous. I have started a number of new things since I have been here in this new assignment. I am very glad that I have been able to do that. I need perseverance to keep going.

There are, however, other things that I still need to push myself to do. These things are a struggle right now. I am not sure why God is pushing me so much at this time. I look back with regret for things not done. But I really need not to look back too much. What I see can overwhelm me at times. So I try to trust in God, looking back just enough to see where I need to go -- and where not to go, and then pushing forward. As I said, it is a hard push for me now.

I thank God for His encouragements, like the great experience in my Spanish class, to keep going. Pray for me!

Monday, December 17, 2018


What a beautiful name for a town! And what a beautiful town: Fairhope, Alabama. I have returned from Fairhope, where I was for a wedding over the weekend. I probably won't be going to many more weddings that involve travel for me, since I am back in a parish. When I was working in the university and then in the seminary, I could schedule weddings like this one when I would be out of school. This one, for example, came up when I was expecting to be at the Josephinum. Requests for weddings like this came up because the university students were from all over the place. Most of my travel the past few years has been for weddings (or in the couple of years at the seminary, for ordinations). It was a side blessing of that assignment that I did not foresee.

In any case, this was a beautiful and interesting wedding even apart from the beauty of Fairhope and of Sacred Heart Chapel, literally on Mobile Bay. Both the bride and groom are converts to Catholicism so that most of the people at the wedding were not Catholic, in particular their families. Both bride and groom were deeply involved in the Christian sub-culture of the university so that their friends were committed Christians but mostly not Catholic, with some notable exceptions. The couple wanted their nuptial Mass to manifest their faith in Jesus Christ to their families and friends. I know that they succeeded. I was honored to be a part of such a faithful wedding.

The wedding was indeed an experience of fair hope! Hope in the fair fidelity of God manifested in the pledges of fidelity of these fair young Christians. Fairhope is just about where the Jubilee on Mobile Bay occurs. (I think that I have written about it here before.) The harvest is rich on Mobile Bay -- and in the world!

Friday, December 14, 2018

richly rewarding days

Wednesday, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was a rich day and a very full one. We literally had things going at St. Rose from 5 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. when we settled into overnight Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I had not experienced before the festivities of this feast in a parish setting. It was very rewarding to me and to the parish.

Once again, the parish is being enriched by the combination of new and old expressions of Catholic faith. It is one of the benefits of a parish like ours which is constantly fed by newcomers to our community who bring diverse talents and experiences to share.

It is a welcome challenge to me at my age and in my 25th year of priesthood to be doing so many new and old things. On the same day, for example, I had my Spanish exam at MTSU. That is been a marvelous experience. I think that I have learned a lot and even done well in the class!

Let's see what God has in store for us next!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

more than transcedence

I have been thinking about transcendence a good bit lately to explain some of the changes in the liturgy here in the parish. It is actually more than transcendence. Theologically, it also has to do with the ideas of incarnation (that God became a man) and sacrament (that material things can give the divine life of grace). All sorts of practical and experiential things flow from these realities. It is why, for example, certain ordinary places and experiences -- the stuff of this blog -- are so much more than they seem. They provide meaning to life and, more than that, reveal the one who loves us behind all of the stuff of life. Everything matters, even matter. With those assurances, I can make it through the day and through life. Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This apparition embodies all of these realities. Behold the mystery.

Sunday, December 9, 2018


If Murfreesboro and the southern part of Rutherford County were not enough for one parish, St. Rose is also responsible for Cannon County and its county seat of Woodbury. I am ashamed to say that I have not yet been to Cannon County as its pastor, but that is going to change today. I have a call to make this afternoon at the hospital in Woodbury. I am looking forward to the visit. Cannon County is one of the counties in Middle Tennessee without a Catholic church. A few others that I can think of are Smith, Grundy, Trousdale, and Perry. Bishop Niedergeses had the goal of establishing a Catholic presence in every county of the diocese, but he didn't quite make it. A number of the rural parishes do date from that effort, including one that I served: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Tennessee Ridge, the only Catholic church in Houston County. There once was a Catholic church in Linden in Perry County, St. Helen's; but it did not survive. I know about it because the double-wide trailer that was the church building was moved to St. Patrick's in McEwen to serve as the kindergarten and the offices for the school until we built the new school building there. As you can see, I am developing a bit of institutional memory for the diocese!

Among the missions of St. Rose Parish, therefore, there is a place for rural ministry as well. I am afraid that this aspect of the parish continues to receive very little attention. When you are in one of the fastest growing places around, the demands are many; and the needs of a slower-paced community don't command the attention that they really deserve. I will be interested to visit Woodbury today. I suppose that the hospital, which is a part of the St. Thomas group, is the only Catholic thing in the county. Maybe that is a start? The way that official parish boundaries work today is not so much to tell the people where to go as to tell the church were to be, and so the parish priest of St. Rose needs to be in Cannon County to some extent. So be it!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent longing

God seems to be leading me to new places in my spiritual life that correspond to the sensibility of Advent. One gift that I have from God for all my life has been faith in Him. I really can understand how people have difficulty believing in God. The way the world is is hard to reconcile with what we believe about God. And yet, I have always believed. I have also come to appreciate the times when I have an emotional or sensible experience of God's presence. I realize that these times are passing. I try to enjoy them while they last and not to worry when they pass and to continue to enjoy them in memory. What I have been lacking is the confidence that should come from faith: the confidence that should come from being a son of God. That is not exactly an intellectual conviction nor an emotional state. I think that it has more to do with firmness of will. What will I choose? This confidence is manifest in qualities like kindness, patience, joy, goodness as well as in steadfastness, humility, and even in hard work joyfully borne. I often experience this confidence and its fruits, but I do waver. When I do, there is a an ugliness rooted in fear that comes out. 

What do I want, and what do I will? These are the choices that need to be straightened out for me: the crooked ways that Isaiah and St. John the Baptist talk about making straight. I think that we all want to feel better, especially when we are hurting. The pain can get so bad or be so prolonged that we look to anything that seems to give relief. This is the explanation of so many bad choices that we make. And yet, the desire to feel better is not wrong. It needs to be directed to the one who saves. That desire can propel us to God better than anything. It can lead us not only to accept our pain but to embrace it as the most direct way to God, the desire of our souls. When we reach the point of accepting that nothing can separate us from the love of God, our joy will be full. But all of this takes time and the willingness to confront fear rather than to medicate it or to mask it.

Advent is about that time: the fulness of time. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

study day

Although I had been working in a college setting for 12 years -- 10 as a chaplain and two in the college seminary, I have always been sympathetic at exam time, but I have not had exams myself. I have, for example, joined in cooking study break-fasts for harried students, as I will today at MTSU, but I have not taken an exam since I left seminary almost 25 years ago. Until this year!

It seems like a long shot at my age, but I decided to take Spanish in order to better serve the large Hispanic community at St. Rose. This is late in life to take up a new language, but I am trying. I was admitted to MTSU and enrolled in an introductory Spanish class. I was very nervous on the first day, but all has gone well. The professor is a great teacher, and she has been very encouraging. The regular college students in the class have accepted me almost without notice. And I am learning. I have to say that it seems that the methodology of language instruction has changed a good bit since I last studied a language.

Yesterday was the last day of classes, and we had our conversation exam. I think that it went well. Today is study day in the university. My exam is next Wednesday -- the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe so I feel pretty good. This whole experience has exceeded my expectations. It has been fun -- except for some of the frustrations of on-line homework! (That's new to me too.) It has been such a different experience from my college days or even of my days as a university chaplain. My classmates are fascinating, and I admire and enjoy them.

And I am registered for next semester...

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent mission

The immediate context for this post is the parish Advent Mission that begins tonight. Fr. Chris Alar of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, who promote the Divine Mercy devotion, is here at St. Rose to give the mission talks Sunday - Tuesday nights at 6:45 p.m. If you are in the area, you are most welcome to come. Who couldn't use some mercy?

In more ways than this, I sense that St. Rose parish is on mission this Advent. This past week I have been having a lot of meetings about plans for the Hispanic community and for the MTSU chaplaincy. Both of these are essential missions for the future of the Church in Murfreesboro. We are just beginning in many ways, but we are on the way. These areas of expansion coexist with so many others well-established areas of mission at St. Rose: the school, for example, and, at this time of year particularly, our Bridges ministry and other forms of outreach to those in need in the parish and the community.

As we reach out in mission, we also need to go deep into the interior life. Our model for this is the Blessed Virgin, especially during Advent. Please be with her in silence this Advent. There is a contemporary song by Amy Grant that I always turn to at this time of year called Breath of Heaven.

There are two parts of the lyrics that strike me. The first is this: Breath of Heaven/Hold me together

Here is the second: Help me be strong/Help me be/Help me.

Doesn't this bring us back to mercy?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

winter calm

Last night,  a priest friend drove from his parish for dinner here. We met after the evening Mass, which I had celebrated. We went to a restaurant owned by parishioners in an old house in downtown Murfreesboro. There was practically no one at the restaurant. We were seated in a room with a fireplace, and I could look out a window at the historic church across the street and a couple of older businesses, decorated for the season. It was very calming, for what had not been a calm day for me. It gave some perspective.

Patience! I really need it. A good father has to be patient. I am trying to learn!

Monday, November 26, 2018

underground Murfreesboro

Yesterday, I had an adventure. When I told the other priests here at the rectory about my adventure, they kept waiting for something more so maybe it was not much of an adventure. It was, however, just the sort of adventure that I love!

I have been slowly chipping away at the Murfreesboro Greenway. When I say slowly, I mean it. I don't get over there nearly as much as I should. Anyhow, I did yesterday, and I picked up where I had left off the last time. The greenway follows the course of the Stones River and tributaries through Murfreesboro. The natural course of the river and streams has interplayed with various levels of development for at least 150 years. A Civil War battle, railroads, old street grids, as well as more modern highway developments have all had to take note of the ancient stream courses. None of the modern developments have highlighted the river, which has been left to wander on its own mainly unnoticed.

I found this interplay yesterday to be an adventure. In the first place, yesterday was a gloomy, blustery day. It even gently rained on me for a while! The walk began in a mostly deserted, former industrial area. It seemed as if I were entering into a glade with the river and/or creeks meandering through, except for the fact that a train came along very slowly. It was so close that I could see the conductor through the brush. I, along with the river and the train, crossed under a huge overpass carrying a major city highway. I came out on Overall Street, just where the railroad crosses West Main Street. The old city depot is still there and used by the CSX railroad. I was able to go under the railroad bridge that crosses Lytle Creek so that I didn't have to wait for the very slow train. Then the greenway takes a very interesting turn, following the stream under Broad Street -- which is the old Nashville Highway -- along the backs of businesses and then back under the highway again. This spur of the greenway ends up at Cannonsburgh, a collection of buildings creating an historical park, which itself is fascinating. It includes a working blacksmith forge, a display of old tractors, even an art cooperative! And then back again.

That's my kind of adventure!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

white pelicans

… in Ashland City, that is.

I didn't even know that there were white pelicans, until I saw two while I was walking early yesterday morning on the Bicentennial Cumberland River Trail. And there they were. Since seeing them, I have looked them up. There are white pelicans; and they can be in Ashland City, although it would be uncommon to find them there. Interestingly, on Thursday I was with the 5th grade from St. Rose School at St. Mary's in downtown Nashville while they were on a field trip. I was pointing out different art work and symbols in the church when one of the students asked about the symbols in the windows. The windows at St. Mary's are mainly plain, but each does have a small medallion in the center. In one of these is the pelican (white, I might add) piercing its breast to feed its young -- a symbol of Christ used by St. Thomas Aquinas as well as by many others.

That walk on the river trail was a wonderful breakthrough for me to see the wonder of God and to respond in faith. I have not been doing a good job of this lately. A new assignment, the scandals in the Church, etc. have been consuming me. Or better, I have been allowing them to consume me. These challenges and sorrows are real, and yet do I believe in God: the real one, who made white pelicans and the sacrificial love which they symbolize? Well no, I really had not been. Begin again!

By the way, speaking of beginning again, I think I will come back to the blog. But don't look for commentary about things in the Church or the world. Other people are doing that very well, and it's not good for me. I am trying to keep my eye on the eternal from now on. Happy Sunday!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Ember Days, just in time

OK -- I'm back but for a very serious reason.

I want to propose bringing back the Ember Days, days which were penitential days set aside for prayer and fasting each season and also linked to ordination. That's why old ordination pictures are so often in purple vestments.

Anyhow, the fall Ember Days are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Holy Cross Day. That would be September 19, 20, and 21 this year.

Why reinvent the wheel when the Church's tradition gives us these penitential days?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Bishop Foley, RIP

The retired Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, the Most Reverend David Foley passed from this life on Tuesday night. Here is his obituary. I know Bishop Foley mainly through my sister, who lives and teaches in Birmingham.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Bishop Choby tribute

From the Rector's Dinner at the Pontifical College Josephinum this week:

Tonight we honor the memory of the Most Reverend David Choby, eleventh Bishop of Nashville and, at the time of his death, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Pontifical College Josephinum, the very Board that is gathered here tonight in preparation for their meeting tomorrow. It is fitting this his successor as chief shepherd of the Church in Middle Tennessee, the Most Reverend J. Mark Spalding is present in this place where Bishop Choby contributed so much to the future of the Church. The formation of men for the priesthood of Jesus Christ was of supreme importance to Bishop Choby. This was true of Bishop Choby in his episcopacy during which he lavished care and attention on the formation of his seminarians, even serving as his own director of vocations. He jealously guarded his prerogative of directing the formation of the future priests of the diocese. His role in priestly formation, however, was not limited to his time as bishop. He had also served on the faculty here at the Josephinum, as have Bishop Campbell and Bishop Baker. He was remembered as a great teacher and an engaged formator. In the homily at Bishop Choby's funeral Mass, Archbishop Alexander Sample, who had been his student here, spoke movingly as well as humorously (with the Archbishop's great skills as a mimic that I remember from seminary days) of Bishop Choby's strong influence as a teacher and formator. During these years at the Josephinum, Bishop Choby also served on the Board of Trustees that he was later to lead, as a faculty representative.

I am honored to speak tonight in honor of Bishop Choby, but I cannot do so from personal recollection of these official roles that he held in priestly formation. I can speak of my experience of being formed personally by him, largely from the summer I spent with him after my first year of formation here at the Josephinum when I was assigned to his parish in Gallatin, Tennessee. It is indeed Providential that the current pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Gallatin, Fr. Stephen Gideon, a fellow alumnus of the Josephinum, is with us tonight. At the time, then-Fr. Choby had been pastor for one year after returning to the diocese from the Josephinum. I have many fond and humorous recollections of that summer. One involves my almost incurring an impediment to orders by removing my finger tips. There were a number of renovation needs in the parish, including in the rectory, that we worked on that summer. In the process of one of these, a storm window fell and landed across my finger tips, a fairly nerve-sensitive part of the body. The canonist pastor pointed out that it was a good thing that we were no longer under the old code of canon law with it requirement of digital integrity for candidates for priesthood. The same injury that could have been an impediment to priesthood might have opened up a career for me in crime as it altered by fingerprints!

On the serious side, I did learn much about being a priest from Fr. Choby that summer, mainly by being with him as he went about his pastoral duties. No one here will be surprised that I did not learn much about constructing a flow-chart of parish administration that summer! I did, however, learn how to be with God's people, especially with those who are sick or alone. I was his shadow that summer, in practically everything he did, especially wandering around the back roads of Sumner County, Tennessee is search of the far-flung flock of the parish. These were his sheep. Fr. Choby also tried to teach me to be calm and patient. He failed, but nonetheless he gave great witness of these qualities that we all recognized and valued in him. One story is particularly fitting as it involves a meeting about my formation evaluation from that first year in seminary. The evaluation from the seminary had arrived in Nashville, and let's say that it raised some areas of concern, largely from my own self-evaluation so that I really cannot blame anyone else but myself. I was summoned to Nashville to meet with the vocations director at the time. I really thought that I might return to Gallatin after that meeting no longer as a seminarian. Yes, that is the way that seminarians think. That afternoon, we had again been working around the parish grounds. When I stopped by to tell him that I was leaving for the meeting, Fr. Choby was in the middle of a field where the "new" church now stands, sitting on a riding lawn mower. I know, it's hard to picture – but true. He expressed support for me and in conclusion said that we would have dinner at home when I got back. From his demeanor, I felt confident that all would be well. I also had the prospect of looking forward to another example of his amazing cooking skills.

I guess that he was right about that meeting, as I am here to tell you about it. As a good shepherd, he gave the same peace and confidence that I had experienced from him throughout his ministry. It is what encouraged his seminarians who flocked to him as bishop. It is the most important lesson that students and directees learned from him as a seminary priest. It is the strength that so many parishioners and friends drew from him. It is how he blessed the entire Diocese of Nashville during his episcopacy. It is the confidence of being children of God. It is the realization that if God is for us who can be against us. Indeed, in the words of St. Paul which Msgr. Jessing chose for the motto of the Josephinum: Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos. Thank you for teaching us this lesson, Bishop Choby. Well done, good and faithful servant

more on weakness

As I approach the 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, I am trying to embrace weakness, especially by seeing beauty in it. I wa...

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