I begin with sad news: A friend of mine, Fr. “Boy” Romualdo recently died of COVID-19. He was only a few years older than I am. He had been battling the disease for some time and, of course, we held onto the hope that he would recover. Yet his body weakened until it could fight no more, and he is now resting in peace with the Lord.
It is one thing to hear the numbers of infections and deaths in our state, in our country, or from around the world. It is another to have a name, a face, that the statistics bring to mind. I know this firsthand now. I read the news, and I see Fr. Romualdo. I see the face of the person I just anointed here in Zephyrhills who is dying of COVID-19.
Our musician, Jeff, has also lost a friend to the coronavirus, and I’m sure that some of you have experienced this same personalization of the epidemic. For you now, the loss that it is bringing is not merely something you understand. It is something you feel. And, like me, you have probably found that such a close connection to the pandemic makes it impossible to minimize its seriousness. It creates a raw and real empathy toward those who are suffering and a resolve to do what’s required to help stop the spread of this terrible infection. If you understand what I’m saying here, you understand the heart that God wants within the Church. The stepping past things that are otherwise only known abstractly, the deep stirring of emotion and will that comes just from being made aware of the suffering and loss of others—these things describe what conscious life within the Body of Christ is like.
“If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” 1 Corinthians12:26
In this weekend’s bulletin, I explain how the good in our lives as Christians is necessarily a common good since it comes to us through mercy and grace of the Eucharist. The above verse from 1 Corinthians takes that to a different level. It explains how our sufferings are also something held-in-common. None of us is alone in good or bad times. We are forever one Body sharing everything.
When we come to a Mass with our intentions—our needs, the pains or joys of losses and blessings—we are sharing these things with everyone present through the words we hear and those we recite together. Mass is an experience that expresses and reinforces unity. To partake the Body of Christ in one space at one time is itself another physical sign of Jesus being shared among us. This weekend, you will help me bear the loss of my friend as I help you carry your burdens, as I share your happiness too. The Holy Spirit does this work quietly as we move through the Mass, as the Word of God cleanses and the Body of Christ strengthens.
I say this today because I want you to be deliberately and increasingly aware of this reality when you come to church. Look around and pray for those you see. Ask God to guide and comfort them, to supply what they need and to heal their minds, hearts, and bodies. As you do, let yourself also be lifted knowing that those nearby are also praying for you. The Church God has created is always the many being strengthened for the few as the few also help to sustain the many.
Our Gospel for the weekend illustrates this beautifully. Five loaves and two fish fed more than five thousand people because, at the center of it all, was Jesus blessing and breaking the bread. Today, he is the Bread blessed and broken, and we are the thousands who pursue the Son of God: old and young, rich and poor, broken and whole, needy and filled—we are all fed and made one together through one glorious feast.
So, my friends, I end with this good news—the news of God’s presence among us through the Communion we receive and that which we share, and I celebrate this faith that brightens our days and saves us forever.
I wish you peace always.
July 10, 2020: Racism and the Church, A Look at What's Happening in Mississippi
My dear friends,
Recognizing how God loves us is the most necessary and beautiful part of coming to faith. Recognizing how God loves everyone else is the most necessary and transformative part of growing in faith and accomplishing our mission as a Church. We can never claim to be Christ-like if we do not love as God loves.
Thinking of these things, please read an article from CRUX online (available by clicking HERE) on how the Church in Mississippi is confronting racism. After you’ve read it, please pray and reflect on how we, as individuals and as a parish, may also come to “recognize our participation in the chains of racism” that still damages and destroys many in our society today.
As a parish, we need to have the long and sustained conversation about this subject that can open our eyes and, when necessary, lead us to bend our knees in repentance.
You are in my prayers.
Weekend Masses Return
June 15, 2020
My dear parish family,
I have three important things to tell you.
1. Weekend Masses are returning.
We will offer Masses on Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., beginning the weekend of June 27 and June 28. If capacity limitations require us to add another service to ensure adequate social distance for all who are present, we will restore the 11:00 a.m. Mass to our Sunday schedule. Our goal is for everyone in our community who wants to celebrate Mass in our church to be able to do so safely. I will post more about this very soon but, until then, know that we committed to making this phase of our reopening a joyous moment in the history of our parish and a hopeful one for its future.
2. We are planning an early “Thanksgiving Parade.”
Our first weekend back in our church will be Fr. Mathew’s last weekend serving our community. So, we will say “Thank you” to him for his twelve years of heartfelt ministry among us in an extraordinary way, given these extraordinary times. After each Mass that weekend, Fr. Mathew will stand by the picnic table outside the Social Hall (the back part of our office building) so parishioners can drive by to wave and otherwise express their gratitude for everything he has done to enrich our lives. Initially, Fr. Mathew expected to return to India following his time with us. It has since worked out for him to transfer to the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee where he will serve—and you have to smile when you learn this—St. Joseph Parish in Port St. Joe. His address at this new parish will be available online and in our bulletin that weekend for those who may wish to send him a card or letter. We will miss Fr. Mathew’s caring soul and ministry, and I hope many of you will line up in your cars that weekend to help us wish him Godspeed in his new assignment.
3. All announced plans are subject to change.
As Floridians, we are used to periodic interruptions in our lives when a major storm comes through our area. We know what it’s like when schools, businesses, and churches close for such emergencies, and we know what it’s like when the sun comes out again: Everything reopens, we clean up our yards, and we go back to life as we knew it. It may have seemed a little like this for some since May when our state began reopening following the shutdown. The difference, of course, is that the current storm is still making landfall, even if the waves of pandemics are visible only through reported rates of infection, hospitalization, and mortality. These things are nevertheless the radar that guides us now in our planning, and they will be the windows that will show us when the sun is shining again. So, I want to assure you again that I, as your pastor, have an eye on the radar. I am looking out the window because I want everyone in my pastoral care to stay well. Accordingly, if the broader situation with the pandemic changes significantly, I will also shift our plans to reflect the best guidance of our diocese and of public health officials.
I am aware that, to some, concern like this is unwarranted. Yet, I am also aware of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston, Texas, that reopened on May 2 and had to close again on May 20 after five of its leaders, including two priests, were infected. They reopened yesterday for the second time in two months and, thankfully, everyone who got infected is doing well. Still, other churches and other pastors have not been so fortunate, as you may also have seen in the news or on the CDC’s website. I personally know a priest who had to be placed in intensive care this year to survive COVID-19.
I don’t mention any of these things to cause fear or alarm, but rather to strengthen your assurance that my eyes are open to the actual situation in which we find ourselves. My hope is strong that we will emerge from this ordeal more tightly bound in love for God and each other than we were before it began, but this hope is grounded in the belief that God expects us to be prudent in the choices we make. So, I ask you to join your heart to mine and to add your prayers to mine that we as a united parish may demonstrate such virtue during this critical time. Please reach out to our parish office if you have any questions about what I’ve shared here. I look forward to being able to speak with you and to seeing you soon at Mass.
April 22, 2020: A Novena to St. Joseph
My dear friends,
Do you find yourself looking at the calendar more since you've been staying home? Does Wednesday seem the same as Tuesday which was the same as Monday? The loss of our weekly routines has created a daily need for a lot of us to make sure we know where we are in time.
Having been feeling this way for a while, I was happy to get a note from a parishioner today expressing a desire for our church to pray a Novena to St. Joseph. I think it's a wonderful idea because it will give us a clear focus for the next nine days until we, on May 1, observe the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. And, beyond providing much-needed structure for our days, it will be helpful to meditate on St. Joseph as we move through what may be the last days of the official "Stay at Home" order from our governor. St. Joseph was a man of great character, wisdom, and discipline—virtues we need to have strengthened in us so we may continue to endure the present isolation and prepare for the coming realities and uncertainties of this pandemic.
To pray a beautiful novena that EWTN has posted, please click HERE. I hope you will join me in these days of prayer. I know we will be heard.
April 20, 2020: Closeness and Distance, Part 2
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April 17, 2020: Closeness and Distance, Part 1
My dear parish family,
A new phrase has come into our language, “social distancing.” Everyone in the world says it now, each in his or her own language. It’s a phrase we’re getting used to, even as we’re finding that we dislike what it means so much. It has complicated what once were simple tasks, like going to the store. It has greatly changed home life for each of us. We can no longer just have friends over. And even with our own families, there is sometimes a need to distance to ourselves from each other. We understand how this helps keep us safe, but that doesn’t make all this space we’re creating easier to occupy. We are social people. We want to be up-close with friends and family. We want to live face to face, to shake hands, and to hug each other. So, “social distancing” is becoming an ugly phrase, and knowing that these crazy, scary times may last for a while only makes these two words uglier. We each know how to deal with “distance” physically. We just do the best we can to stay “six-feet apart,” one store, one day at a time. We may not do this perfectly because it’s hard and we are not perfect people. The same is true emotionally. Again, it’s not easy, but we do our best not to get on each other’s nerves. When we inevitably do, we apologize and make up in whatever way we can. Spiritually, “social distancing” is another matter and, as your pastor, I want to help you learn how to cope with this new phenomenon on that level.
First, we should understand that no virus can distance us from each other spiritually because the good Lord has given us gifts that are perfect for this terrible moment in time: faith, hope, and charity. In these three gifts—given to us at the moment of our Baptism—we find our strength. Through them we discover the real spiritual communion we have with each other. We exercise these gifts by being patient, by remaining faithful, by giving each other courage, understanding, forgiveness, and pure, simple kindness. Are these spiritual practices easy? Of course not, and that’s why we always need God’s divine grace to follow them. Yet grace, an all-sufficient grace, is there for us whenever we call on God’s name. So, my prayer for each one of you is that the Lord Jesus will be the strength you need to follow your faith, in hope and through charity, in these difficult times. I pray that you will remain close to each other in a holy and spiritual communion now and even after that blessed time comes when “social distancing” is itself only a distant memory in our minds.
You are always in my prayers.
April 15, 2020: Then and Now
My dear parish family,
This week, the realization struck me that St. Joseph Church was dedicated to God’s service in the last months of the flu pandemic of 1918. Then as now, the economy was battered, people were in quarantine around the country, and basic, day-to-day services were suspended. The pandemic would end in the summer of 1919, but on April 27, 1919, the first abbot of St. Leo dedicated our first church building. A Union soldier had given the land for it on this very date, April 15, in 1912, right after St. Joseph emerged as a Catholic Mission. Thirty years later, the land we now occupy was given to the church, and last April we celebrated 100 years of ministry together, unaware that our second century of service would begin so much like our first, with a pandemic oppressing the world.
As I have read our parish history this week, I have wondered about the history we are now writing. What will people in 2120 read about our present work as a Church? What can we accomplish in these days that will endure? What do we have? What can we give to continue reflecting the vision, faith, and determination of those first leaders and parishioners, as well as our own?
Our staff is working now on answers to these questions, and today I want to ask you also to think and pray about what you can do in ministry as this time of quarantine stretches on. How can we together build up the Church and rededicate ourselves to presenting the hope of the gospel? We are unable to celebrate Communion right now, but there is much that we can still do as the Body of Christ.
To express this, our youth ministry and our RCIA classes are active again online. Our Alpha ministry and our weekly Bible study will soon be up and running again (online only), and a spiritual communion service with Deacon David will also be available in the coming days via video link. We are further exploring how other established ministries within our parish may be able to resume their work while we continue following state and local directives related to the pandemic. We want always to ensure the well-being of those who would be involved. I will keep you updated on these efforts and others, and I hope you will pray with me for God’s wisdom and help as we move forward.
Just as it was the spiritual and material generosity of those early parishioners that built our parish, your generosity is helping to sustain it today. Thank you again for your Easter offering and for your weekly online and mailed-in gifts. We have reduced expenses and continue to limit spending. Still, essential costs remain. So, if you have not yet given since our Masses were suspended, I ask you prayerfully to consider contributing any amount that might be possible within your budget. Instructions for giving online are here on our website (Click HERE to view) and in our bulletin. Your steady and increasing financial support will enable ministry now while also preserving our staff so we can resume our daily and weekend Masses when that becomes possible. We share many pressing concerns as the pandemic continues, yet I am confident that the long-established character of our parish will carry us through as we seek to do God’s will in our time.
I am with you in prayer.
April 12, 2020: Easter
My dear parish family,
When the angels removed the stone from Christ’s tomb, light met light. Sunlight pushed darkness from where Christ had been buried, and Christ moved forward as light to remove darkness from the world. When we today feel hope facing hopelessness, when we find strength in unbearable weakness, when people through faith overcome disabling anxieties or addictions—this is the light of that morning still reaching us. And, so, we celebrate.
Thinking this way about Christ’s resurrection, we see that those first moments of his return from death not only provide our salvation; they reveal our mission. They set the direction for Christian life. The Church is always the body of Christ in that moment. We are always stepping forward in the new life and enduring light of our Baptism to serve God in the world.
Because of this, I am happy today to tell you that, in this first week of Easter, we are going to begin exploring ways in which we can become active again as a parish. We will continue to follow the restrictions on public and private life that are necessary to lessen the spread of the coronavirus, but we are going to study how expanding technologies like Zoom (and simple things like phones and email) can enable us to return to important parts of the work we are called to do. There is no virtual substitute for the Sacraments, and all of us deeply miss gathering to celebrate them. Yet nowhere does the Church teach that its purpose is only to administer the sacraments or that our purpose is only to receive them. Instead, the Church provides the sacraments so we can be strong and centered in service-filled lives. So, expect a virtual knock on your door over the next few weeks as we start moving forward again in our parish life and ministry together.
I cannot fully celebrate Easter this year without thanking all of you who watched and participated with our Holy Week video liturgies. If you have not yet seen them, they will remain on our parish website throughout the weeks of Easter. I am grateful for our Music Director, Jeff, and his wife, Vickie, who did so much to plan and produce them. I also appreciate Kathy Brady’s help in arranging for lectors who read to us from the shelter of their homes, and I want to thank the lectors themselves who so willingly adapted to the technological needs of this moment. Thanks also to Kathy Crum, the leader of our 9 o’clock ensemble, for her song on Holy Thursday and to Jim Conzone, a singer from our 11 o’clock choir, who worked hard to bring the Exsultet to our Vigil meditation. I thank Fr. Mathew, our Business Administrator, Beverly, and our entire staff for their flexibility and hard work in this challenging time.
I also must thank each of you for your generosity in our Easter collection and for your ongoing faithfulness in giving. All of this—the efforts in ministry and the commitment to give—enables us to remain viable as a parish, and the ministries we will begin reviving soon will further demonstrate both the strong will and big heart of our community. I feel honored to be your pastor, and I know that still better days are ahead for us.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen—Live in his joy.
April 7, 2020: Spiritual Communion
My dear parish family,
I am so happy that we have had the chance to gather in prayer around our Palm Sunday video. Again, I'm sorry that technical problems kept it from being online on Sunday, but it's on our parish website now (click on the "Holy Week Services" tab above). It has warmed my heart to see your comments on Facebook and to get other messages saying that, because of the familiar faces you saw, you felt like you were at church again. We felt that way too.
Jeff and I, along with readers from St. Joseph, are busy now in our homes preparing videos for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil, and Easter Sunday. The schedule for when they'll be online is on the same page here as the Palm Sunday video (just scroll down from it). The times posted mirror when we would have gathered at church for these services, and I hope many of us will be able to watch them *together.* Our awareness that we are in prayer at the same hour will help us regain even more of our sense of community. But know that, once posted, these videos will remain on our site through all the weeks of Easter.
I would appreciate so much any help you can give us in getting the word out about these video liturgies. We post here, we email, and we send flocknotes, but word-of-mouth is still the best way to get a message around. So, please make sure everyone you know from the parish is aware of what's happening, and I will look forward to the spiritual communion we will share during this very special week.
I keep you in my prayers.
April 3, 2020: Holy Week Liturgies
As Palm Sunday approaches, we are busy preparing videos of Holy Week services for you to watch in your homes. Our readers will be in them, as will our musician, Jeff. I will be speaking and saying Mass. These will not be livestreamed services; so you will be able to see them anytime you want after they become available online. To see them, you can either click on the tab above that says "Holy Week Services" or just click on this link: www.stjosephzephyrhills.org/holy-week-services.html (The schedule of when they'll be viewable is posted there along with a demo of the few steps you'll need to take to see them.)
I hope everyone will enjoy these videos, and I hope you will all help spread the word that they will be available. Call friends, and ask them to call friends. I'd like as many as possible from our community to know we are doing this.
The need to lessen the spread of the coronoavirus prevents us from be physically together this year, but we are able to gather in spirit. We can still share in thinking about the readings. Prayer will still join us as we build hope that we may soon be able to return to the joys of public celebration.
Let's think of this as a first step toward that time.
April 2, 2020: Fear and Hope
My dear friends,
A few days ago, the medical experts who are helping to guide the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic said that the next two to three weeks are going to be extremely difficult for our country. You’ve also seen the headlines, the statistical graphs and photos of despair. You’ve heard the numbers rise, more infections, more death, and I’m sure you’ve felt anxious. It is inevitable when pain like this is spreading around the world so quickly.
As your pastor, I cannot be aware of this without wanting to reassure you of my concern for you and of my prayers that you and your families will remain well. I also cannot merely pray. I want to make sure you’re getting the support you need to bear up under this crisis. Beyond the link I’m attaching here to a small, but helpful article on managing anxiety, please know that Fr. Mathew and I are available to you over the phone if there is a concern you want to discuss. Please call the church office and leave a message if you need to speak with either of us (813-782-2813). The second link I’m providing here will take you to diocesan resources and referrals for managing the stress of this pandemic. Beyond the help it offers for adults, there are videos on that page to help kids and teens cope with their worries. Even though we are beginning to walk “through the valley of the shadow of death” in a way that few believed was possible in our lifetimes, we must remember that our Shepherd is with us. His rod and his staff, his guidance and protection, give us comfort (Psalm 23:4). In our fear, we meet his love.
As I think about how tough the next few weeks may be, I’m struck by realizing that one of these weeks is Holy Week. Each year, the Triduum brings our hearts up close to images of servanthood, of sacrifice, and of light bursting from darkness. Given the news, given the fragility and vulnerability many are feeling, we may find ourselves more connected to these themes this year than we have ever been, despite our physical distance from each other. This is good, since this deeper contemplation will strengthen us. It will help prepare us for what may be coming.
Right now and when we move through Holy Week, let’s remember the medical workers who risk and give so much; let’s remember the ones suffering; and let’s celebrate those who are recovering as we hope for the time our nation and countries everywhere will also have risen triumphant from this distress.
I need to tell you first that we are CANCELLING the pickup of palms that we announced only yesterday. We are doing this because of the governor's just-announced order for all Florida residents to "STAY AT HOME" for the next 30 days. All the traditions of Holy Week are centered on remembering the sacrifice of one for many, and this year each of us is called to act in that same spirit of love and make small sacrifices like this to help spare others suffering and grief. St. Joseph Church needs always to be a positive force in our community, and so we gladly cooperate with this effort to lessen the spread of this terrible virus.
Because this Sunday will still be Palm Sunday, I encourage you to take time to reflect on the day’s readings (I will share a link to them below). If possible, get a palm or other small branch from your yard. Have it with you during a time of prayer. Lift it as you pray, thinking of the tremendous needs in our state, our country, our world. As difficult as this time is, there is something beautiful and comforting in thinking about all of us throughout Zephyrhills and nearby areas, by ourselves yet together, saying “Hosanna! [God save us]!”
After your time of prayer, I’d love to see pictures of you with your palm or whatever branch you use. Please post to our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stjoezhills/) on Sunday. Share also any inspiration you received from the readings. You will make others smile too!
Given the technological advancements of recent years, it seems almost everything is possible now in virtual reality. Since 2001, even telesurgery happens, when a surgeon is in one room and the patient is in another, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. This fact of modern life has led many to wonder if technology can be used now to help reconnect us with the Sacraments, given the severe disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our ability to receive them. Can there be “teleconfessions” or “teleanointings” of the sick?
I spoke the other day about how physicality is essential to these things. Since Jesus Christ instituted the sacraments, they have been connected to presence, to matter. Christ wanted to be present to his people after his resurrection, and each sacrament connects us to him in a different way, with apostles and priests acting in persona Christi, that is, “in the person of Christ.” Through everything, this shared physical presence is the consistent principle. Matter matters.
Take baptism as an example. The person must be there physically to be baptized. The priest must also be there to anoint the child with real oil and to pour real holy water as he speaks the words of the rite, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The same is true of marriage. I can’t imagine two people entering marriage from different locations, via Facebook or Zoom. Beyond being neither canonically nor legally binding in many jurisdictions, it seems an almost-plastic substitute for what God intended the moment of matrimony to be. For the full weight of what’s meant to be experienced, both people must be in the same place. They must be bodily present to one another.
In the memo below from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, you’ll find similar explanations and details regarding Confession and the Anointing of the Sick. I hope that you’ll read it carefully and that you’ll reach out to me if you have any questions. Though I am, for all the reasons detailed here, restricted in my ability to administer the Sacraments, I am fully available to help you as we bear together the necessary burdens of this time in our Church and in our world.
My prayers are yours,
March 30, 2020: On Christian Meditation
My parish family,
We have exchanged thoughts over the last few days about how this time of isolation has negatively affected the way we live our faith (since we can’t have Mass or go to Confession). But I’d like us today to think about how it can help us deepen our faith. Are there times Gods wants us to be alone, to isolate ourselves from the noise of life?
Jesus often withdrew from the busyness of his ministry and prayed alone, and we can use these days to follow his example. As he did, we can find strength and insight in such moments.
If you feel uncertain of how to begin or deepen your times of prayer and meditation, please read the article that is linked in this post. It offers good information and helpful guidance. If you're on Facebook, you can use the comment section there to ask any question you may have or, of course, you can contact me through the church office. Together we will all move more deeply into the beautiful quiet of Christian meditation.
March 29, 2020: Moral Questions Catholics Must Address
Like you, I miss being able to celebrate Mass together, particularly today.
After my private Mass this morning, I went for a walk crisscrossing our 14-acre church property. I felt emptiness inside me. I saw that a place of worship without all of us physically present is just an empty place, an empty lot. Matter matters—the physical body matters, especially in communal sacramental celebrations. But I want to reassure you again that this necessary time of separation will end. We will return to our church. We will hear God’s word. We will sing, and we will be strengthened through Christ’s body and blood. Until then, let’s remember that wisdom is from God and that we are separated now because our bishop and other local leaders are being wise. Let us pray for them as they work through the difficult decisions they must make every day. Thinking about the challenging issues surrounding this pandemic, I hope you will read the article I’m linking to this post. For our Church not to be silent on the moral questions outlined here, each of us must reflect on them, and others, and let our hearts settle on what we believe. To proclaim the gospel in our world is to have a meaningful voice in conversations about such things.
We can start that conversation here, with you commenting below as you have been doing with previous posts. Your thoughtfulness encourages me. It makes me believe that we will be an even-stronger parish once we are together again. My prayers are with you. Blessings,
Today I ask you to read this article on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting life and the practice of our faith in the Philippines. The author is my cousin, and she has a beautiful way of capturing the challenges, concern, and hope of these times. I won’t spoil what she has to say by summing it up. 😉 I invite you to read it carefully and discuss what it says with other friends and parishioners. Conversations like that help us to grow.