Class of Twenty-Twenty-Something

Now that the “cat’s out of the bag” and has been officially communicated to the clergy of our diocese, I can say a few words about how our diaconate “class of 2020” is now the “class of 2021” or (as we started to say) “2020-something”.

We started as the smallest diaconate class in the history of our diocese – 7 men – and through the spring, two men discerned their way out of the calling and the program, leaving our class with just 5 men.

Our formation team discussed with us on our retreat last weekend the current situation and their desire to re-open our class for new applicants to become new aspirants. The new aspirants would apply and go through interviews and vetting this fall, start an abbreviated aspirancy in January, and then join with our class entering candidacy next summer.

In the meantime, our class’s academic formation will pause through the fall. We’ll still receive and begin pastoral assignments later this summer, and still meet monthly for spiritual and pastoral formation, and theological reflection.

It means that it extends our formation by about a year, and pushes out ordination a bit for those who end up called to ordination. But it’s a journey, and it’s a good one, and I think my classmates and I have come to peace with this, and are ready to move forward and meet the rest of our class!

So… do you know a possible candidate who might be interested in applying for aspirancy? Do you think you or someone you know has perceived a call to the diaconate? Please grab the announcement letter and the brochure that our director has released… and if you’d like, I’d be more than happy to talk with you personally about it too. I’d even give you a ride to the informational meeting on July 31 if you were interested.

Please join me in praying for my classmates, and praying for some more great candidates for ministry in our diocese.

Seven-Deacons

I Can’t Imagine

Prayers for Matt & Melissa Graves & family

As I read the devastatingly sad news from Orlando of Lane Graves, the 2-year-old boy who was pulled into the lagoon by an alligator and drowned, I’m overcome by intense fatherly sadness, but struck by a single line of the story:

“Demings said he and a Catholic priest relayed the news of the discovery to the boy’s parents, Matt and Melissa Graves, who were on vacation with their son and 4-year-old daughter from Elkhorn, Nebraska.”

This is the second time since entering diaconate formation that my heart was drawn to the fact that a member of the clergy was there to deliver the news and be with the family in that moment. The last time this came up in a story, Suzanne and I talked about it at great length. She was drawn to the sadness of the story itself, and I was drawn to the presence of the sacred minister.

I can’t imagine the pain and sadness that Matt and Melissa Graves are feeling right now, but I join with countless others in prayer for them and for their family. I also can’t yet imagine what it might be like to be there with them and for them, but I’m curious what I will learn as my formation journey continues to prepare me to be of service to God’s people in different ways, that may include moments like this in my lifetime.

Without a doubt, in times like this, I can see the wisdom of the Church in balancing formation between its four core elements: spiritual, human, pastoral, and academic. Surely, all four dimensions are called upon deeply and put to their test in a moment like this.

Prayers for the Graves family.

Diaconate Retreat 2016 (Photos)

Chiara Center, Riverton, IL

From June 9-13, 2016, our class of diaconate aspirants had our annual retreat. These photos are from our time at the Chiara Center (Franciscan Life Center) in Riverton, Illinois, just outside of Springfield.

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Retreat! #ThankfulThursday

Starting this afternoon, I’ll be offline and away through Sunday for our annual diaconate formation retreat. I’m looking forward to this time away with my brother classmates as we prepare to seek candidacy this fall, and as we join with the class ahead of us who are on their final retreat before ordination in two weeks.

After the roller coaster ride that was last weekend… playing music at a funeral, Sacred Heart devotions, and my final two Masses as music director, including a baptism and a first communion… leaving for retreat this weekend surely constitutes a valid #ThankfulThursday!

I’m grateful for the opportunity for this retreat, and for the accommodations that the diocese is providing for us at the Chiara Center (Franciscan Life Center) in Springfield.

I will be keeping you – my family and friends – and your intentions in my prayers during this time. Please keep me in yours.

I have my copy of Coming Down the Mountain (affiliate link, if you’re interested in purchasing a copy) ready for when I return home. I think I’ll get a good run out of it this time.

Our formation team and the class ahead of us kept telling us that the church at the Chiara Center is amazing… one of the most beautiful in our diocese. I can’t wait to see it in person! Here are a few pictures of St. Francis Church at the Chiara Center that members of the class ahead of us posted last night (their retreat started a day earlier):

Taken by Mike Melton two years ago (that’s Neil Suermann sitting in the church):

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Taken by Rick Schnetzler last night:

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Bittersweet

I made it through a really rough last weekend as music director & organist at my home parish. My eyes didn’t water too much (but I’ll admit they did a little) and my handkerchief didn’t get too wet.

There’s a weird feeling of emptiness that I kept feeling. So many thoughts that kept running through my heart and mind… stuff like:

Don’t cry… You’ll be okay… You’re really going to miss this… I’m feeling so empty… Jesus, fill me up… Jesus, please fill me… I need your grace… Help me… Don’t look at them… Now they’re crying… Fill me up… 

It kept coming down to me praying, “Fill me up”, as my chest felt empty, and then a feeling of peace that would wash over me. A few times, I knew I heard a voice speaking to me, “Something greater is in store.”

Then I’d have thoughts like:

Why are you having such a hard time with this? This was never YOURS anyway. This isn’t for you. This is for Him. Thank you. Fill me up… Something greater is in store.

It was a blessing to be joined by so many friends and singers who had been with me through the years… (Art would have been there too, but they had already booked a family vacation through the weekend). This is my music family:

And Suzanne brought the boys up to the loft for both Masses… we got one last picture of me with the boys at the organ:

As it was written, though – as it relates to my music ministry, “It is finished.”

I look forward to my first diaconate retreat this coming weekend.

I trust that something greater is in store.

The Problem of Evil, Augustine to Today

Essay: Introduction to Philosophy

For centuries, “the problem of evil” has vexed those who believe in God and given those who do not believe a strong argument against God’s existence. Put simply, the problem of evil begs an explanation for the existence of pain and evil within the creation of a God who is supposedly all powerful, all knowing, and all good. As Brian Davies explains, it “is commonly seen as the problem of how the existence of God can be reconciled with the pain, suffering, and moral evil which we know to be facts of life.”1 It is reasonable that if there is evil, God knows about it, could stop it, and would want to stop it. However, evil exists in our world. This problem was one of many Saint Augustine needed to reason his way through on his own path to Christianity, eventually settling upon an explanation that still serves us well today.

See You in the Eucharist #ThankfulThursday

A farewell open letter to Holy Family

Appropriate for a #ThankfulThursday, because of how thankful I am for this chapter of my life…

Dear Holy Family parish – Father Jeff, Father Stone, musicians, singers, staff, parishioners, friends…

Music ministry at Holy Family has been at the heart of my life, my faith life, and my family for as long as I can remember. I remember taking my first 16-key Casio keyboard to St. Margaret Mary School in 2nd grade to try to pluck out John Foley’s One Bread, One Body by ear for show and tell. In middle school, Mr. Vizer successfully talked me into playing a duet with him at the school Christmas program.

In 7th grade, I remember John Huff asking me, after seeing me at a piano recital, if I’d come play with the guitar group at the church. Shortly thereafter, he asked if he could put a microphone in front of me. I said, “I only sing in the shower,” and he replied, “I could rig a shower up over you too.”

For six years I played with the guitar groups, and then in my college years I fell away from the faith a bit. Years later, after I had returned to the Church, I heard that a priest that I had connected with was heading to my home parish of Holy Family. I remember calling Jeanne Schnefke and asking if the guitar group was still around and could use a keyboardist again. I remember her immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!”

Within the next year, we had formed an offshoot “ensemble” which started taking on more responsibilities around the parish. I remember when we were starting and Carol Reagan called and said, “We’ll all be there to sing with you. You just tell us when and where.” I remember Frances & Mario Rossi & Rich Koerper’s, “You want to try a youth-oriented group? Let’s try it!” The next 15 years or so, until today, have been a whirlwind of joy, happiness, friendship, and accomplishment in ministry. I remember magnificent Advent concerts joining our adult choir & ensemble. I remember re-meeting Suzanne here after a Wednesday night practice and Mass, leading to our marriage and family. I remember Christmas Eves and Triduums.

You don’t really keep count when starting on a journey like this, but some rough math tells me that in the last 15 years, I’ve had the honor of helping lead our community in song at some 1,500 liturgies – Sunday Masses, weddings, funerals, graduations, Confirmations, Anointing Masses, and more.

Now, I must say “farewell” to this chapter of my life in order to move on to the next to which I believe I am called. As I progress into years two through four of the diaconate formation program, I am excited to go where our diocese chooses to send me to help me grow in my parish experiences and pastoral ministry. This change carries the bitterness of a “goodbye” to my music ministry at Holy Family, but the happiness and excitement of the future that could come.

I will miss climbing the stairs to the choir loft a few times each week. I will miss the friends in the choir loft – and now my own sons playing instruments and singing with the ensemble and choir. I will miss our parish community, and our liturgies, and hearing the sound of you singing along loudly from the pews. (Yes, we can often hear it in the loft!)

THANK YOU to all of those who came and went through the years: Carol, John, Judy, Mario & Frances, Carolyn, Art, Kristin, Katie, Tracy, Jacqui, Suzanne, Leta, Kathy, Steve, Charlie, Jeff & Gay, Jeff, Doug, Maggi, Mary Jo, Richard, Misty, Justin, Joe, Chris, Thomas & Matthew. THANK YOU to Pat, my partner in music and ministry, and the adult choir. THANK YOU to the pastors I’ve had the pleasure of serving. THANK YOU to everyone who has supported us, especially Suzanne and our boys and our whole family.

Holy Family is my home – it will remain our family’s home. I’ll just be away learning more about how to help serve our Church in new ways. I won’t be gone entirely, though, and still look forward to being around from time to time at Masses, events, dinners, school events, and the like.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to be a servant – a servant in music ministry – to you for so many wonderful years. Know that you remain in my daily prayers, and I beg you to please keep me in yours.

I recall the words of a long-time friend of mine, Father Steve Arisman, who said something like, “I don’t believe in saying ‘goodbye’ – I say, ‘I will see you in the Eucharist.” Because when we are gathered at Mass, no matter where we are or when it is, we are all joined together in the mystical Body of Christ formed through the ages. I will see you in the Eucharist!

With love and prayers,
Michael

O God of Earth and Altar

With prayer and thanksgiving for all of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service of our country.

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

Words: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1906
Music: King’s Lynn
Meter: 76 76 D

Open My Eyes

Discernment & a song as a sign

Signpost in the Mountain - iStock.com/Mimadeo

Signpost in the Mountain – iStock.com/Mimadeo

Fifteen or so years ago, when I had returned to church and was starting to seriously discern God’s will for my life and vocation, a certain song hit a chord with me and became deeply intertwined with my prayer life and discernment. The song was Jesse Manibusan’s Open My Eyes:

There were nights that I drove around, praying the words. One night in particular, after leaving an evening of coffee and Scrabble with Suzanne, “praying” that song opened my heart to God and helped me clearly “hear” and understand that marriage with Suzanne was my first vocation.

Signs in my Life

I’ve always been fortunate enough to stay keenly tuned into the little “signs” that pop up around me in everyday life, and I act a lot by gut (within reason) based upon those signs. I could list countless examples of signs that came at just the right time to help me understand that something was right, or that I was heading in the right direction, or that I should explore a new opportunity.

A New Heart

5th Sunday of Lent, Year C

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Poussin (1653)

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Poussin (1653)

Something New

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
– First Reading (Is 43:18-19a)

St. Paul opens his Letter to the Romans speaking of those who “became vain in their reasoning” and fall into idolatry and many sorts of adulterous and unnatural acts of the body, even calling them “heartless”. (Rom 1:24-32 NABRE) He continues referring to this hardness of heart later in his letter, teaching that he has mercy upon whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.” (Rom 9:18)

But Christ came to begin something new. The Word, the second person of the Trinity, was the fullness of Truth and the fullness of reason. He was, in fact, the personification of the truth of natural law written into our human hearts.

He knew the temptations that we each face, and the falls that we may occasionally have in this life, and He came to redeem us from them.

We with Hardened Hearts

And in today’s Gospel, the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus comes face to face with one of us with hardened heart…

The Pharisees press Jesus…

“Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
– John 8:5-11

God himself comes face to face with a heart hardened with sin, and shows himself as what he is: truth, love, and mercy.

In fact, he also faces the crowd with hardened hearts and asks them to consider softening them. He asks them to drop the stones from their hands and accept a softening of their own stony hearts.

He extends mercy, shows love, and asks her – and them – to return to truth.

New Hearts, True Hearts

A frequent reading in the Liturgy of the Hours through Lent has long been one of my favorite passages of the Bible. It speaks precisely of God’s desire to take our hardened hearts and replace them with new hearts, hearts of the flesh of truth.

I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. (Ezek 36:25-27)

Oh, how I love this passage. How I love the gentle mercy of Jesus. How I love the idea of my own heart, hardened by sin, being made new by Jesus. Softened, re-made into a heart of flesh.

I, like every other man and woman, have fallen short in living the life of grace that God gave me in the waters of Baptism. I have fallen out of relationship with God.

I am thankful that, through the redemption won on the cross, Jesus is able to extend his hand, turn back those who would stone me, and offer me a new heart of flesh. I long to be in His truth and grace, and to keep His commands.

Praise God for the gift of mercy in reconciliation, which allows us to return to Him and sing, as the Psalmist, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” (Ps 126)