December 2013

December 29, 2013

Dear Parishioners and Friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Because of our earlier Bulletin deadline this week, I’m having to write these words before our celebration of Christmas occurs. But it’s never a bad time to assure you of my prayers and gratitude for you all, especially in this holy season! You have helped me to draw closer to the Lord in the past year and especially in the past weeks of Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. Likewise, I hope the entire experience of Advent and Christmas was an opportunity for you to welcome Christ more into your own heart, reawakening gratitude in your prayer-life and strengthening your resolve to live as He wishes in the coming New Year.

I’ll leave my more extensive expressions of gratitude to the next Bulletin. And I have a reason for this: it seems best to me the last words spoken as we transition from the Christmas season into more Ordinary Time in the Church again should be, I think, words of thanks.

But let me draw your attention back to something that occurred a couple of weeks ago now. I’m sure you heard about it. On December 11 Pope Francis was named as “Person of the Year” by TIME magazine. A painting of the smiling Holy Father graced the magazine’s cover, and extensive articles about him appeared not only in that publication but then in hundreds of newspapers and magazines, and hundreds of additional internet “blogs” and websites, around our country and world. If you didn’t see it or hear about it, you’re one of a tiny, tiny group!

In any event, the magazine’s editors say they chose Pope Francis not because they agree with him – for, like most people in our country and world, in which faithful Catholics are a decreasing minority, they don’t – but because the Holy Father is having an impact. And His impact is far more profound than the mere celebrity status of politicians and entertainers. He’s giving good example, for instance, modeling a merciful and caring approach. He’s speaking from his experience of living with and ministering to the poor, not just in theories. He’s re-directing people away from ineffective and superficial topics and urging them to choose different, better priorities. He’s prompting people to notice and talk about the Church again, to consider her real mission and values, and to examine their own stance vis-à-vis the person of Jesus Christ, whom she identifies as humanity’s Savior.

Is part of Pope Francis’ impact due merely to his celebrity? Sure. Simply by changing some of the minor “lifestyle” aspects of his daily life as pope he’s attracted attention. Even more of his impact is due not to him but arises because of our own prejudices and expectations: by acting differently and even more so by saying unexpected things he’s jolted us out of our routine. But most of his surprising influence is caused by his priorities: he really does value mercy over fame. He really does prefer simplicity to riches. He really does insist on doing the right thing, not pretending to. He really does want to help sinful people become holier, not drive them away. And he really does realize that if we turn toward lesser, and especially sinful things, we ultimately grow more distant from Christ.

And so, in the end, I hope Pope Francis has had an impact on you and me. Perhaps the best way we can gauge this is to look at how we – in turn – may be impacting others. Do you think of yourself as merciful and forgiving? Would others? Am I too attached to material possessions and the pursuit of leisure? Would others agree with my assessment? Are our schedules filled with priority-activities of which Christ and Pope Francis would approve? And so on.

One popular internet meme over the past few weeks has been “Like Pope Francis? Well, then, you’ll LOVE Jesus!” And that pretty much sums up what the Holy Father is hoping we discover!

December 22, 2013

Dear Parishioners and Friends,

Christmas is almost upon us! The Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity occurs this week on December 24/25. Please join us here at the Cathedral for one or more of our four Masses: the Vigil Mass at 4 pm (music beforehand will begin at 3:30 pm); the “Mass during the Night” at 10 pm (its musical program preceding begins at 9:15 pm); the 8 am “Mass at Dawn” on Christmas morning; and the 10 am Mass of Christmas Day itself. Our choir will sing at the 10 pm Mass. I hope you can be with us.

Beyond that, make Christmas a rich, spiritual experience, when you value the gifts of faith and family which God and others have given you. If you’re travelling for the holidays, be safe; if you’re hosting others, be extra-patient with them as the visit wears on! If you’re going to be “home alone,” don’t just spend the time in front of the television or computer: this is the season to curl up with a good book and mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine. And in everything, don’t let the opportunity for prayer go by unheeded. Road trips can be an opportunity for a family rosary and shared intentions; Christmas candles on the table or in the living room should be lit accompanied by prayer, if not a solemn reading of the Christmas story from Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels; and solitary time during the holidays is a perfect setting for “holding up to God in prayer” those special persons and intentions which are dear to our hearts.

Do try to resist the temptation to view Christmas as “over” at the close of the day on December 25. True, many will begin unplugging the lights and tossing out Christmas trees as soon as possible, but that’s not the way our Church or society has traditionally understood the holiday. Christmastide lasts through the Epiphany. Setting aside the entire “Twelve Days” of Christmas, that is, until January 6 (the old date when we observe the visit of the Magi to the new-born Christ Child) as a special time of celebration, prayer, visiting and sharing holiday wishes is a time-honored custom. And here in Louisiana, we traditionally do something special on that “Twelfth Night”: in New Orleans, the very first costume ball of the Carnival Season is held the night of the Epiphany by a very secretive krewe, the “Twelfth Night Revelers.”

Liturgically it’s even appropriate for Christmas decorations to remain in church until the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism, January 12 this year. We’ll do this if the trees and flowers don’t “dry out” to an unsafe point! The Christmas cookies and other goodies that so many have dropped off for me probably won’t last as long! But whenever the visible signs of Christmas disappear, the true measure of the feast’s value is that we remain forever better for our experience of celebrating it!

The coming weeks here at the Cathedral will be both busy and quiet. The office staff and liturgical ministers will be busy taking care of all of the details of the holidays, and then enjoying some well-deserved time off. The construction site around the Parish Hall and parking lots will be quiet on the holiday but busy on every other weekday.

This is a good time, then, to give you an update of what’s happening on the Parish Hall renovation and expansion project. The architect, general contractor, major subcontractors and owner meet every two or so weeks formally to review progress; we’ll meet more often as needed, and let me tell you that emails and phone calls are frequent!

But no significant problems have been encountered thus far. The asbestos abatement inside the old Hall is almost done (there was some beneath the flooring and inside some of the walls and attic spaces, none of it ever exposed to the public). Site-preparations for the new air-conditioning tower are already underway; digging the trenches for its piping to the church basement and Hall will begin right after Christmas, as will the preparations in the church basement for the connections to the boilers down there. The air-conditioning equipment itself and the insulated pipes that are a crucial part of that system have been ordered: they’re being fabricated now and will be shipped to us – we hope! – in the next three weeks. The emergency exit out of the Blessed Sacrament chapel will get a new, safer landing, steps and railings, too, and since this little aspect of the project won’t involve other work it ought to begin soon.

In a way, the improved and larger Parish Hall that’s now under construction is THE best Christmas gift that you, the parishioners and friends of St. Joseph Cathedral Parish, have given in many a decade! I not only speak for myself but I’m sure I can speak for Bishop Muench in saying “Thank you for your generosity!”, for this and for so many other smaller but also wonderful gifts, and be sure to pass on our appreciation to those other good friends of ours throughout the Diocese of Baton Rouge who’ve helped us with our project, especially by their support of the Bishop’s Annual Appeal and our Together for Tomorrow capital campaign.

December 15, 2013

Dear Parishioners and Friends,

With this Sunday’s celebration, the tone of Advent begins to shift. On the Third Sunday of Advent, the more serious purple vestments give way to what is admittedly a more joyous pink color – although liturgical pedants usually try to minimize this and describe it as “rose” instead! Later in the week the daily Mass Gospels will be taken from the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and the highlight of the Church’s official daily prayer – the Liturgy of the Hours – will be the singing of the great “O Antiphons.” These ancient prayer-texts joyously herald Christ’s coming by recalling Scriptural imagery while calling out to Him: “O Wisdom, O Almighty, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Morning Star, O King, and O Emmanuel”!

Of course, we’ll celebrate the Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity on December 24/25. I hope you’re already planning to join us here at the Cathedral for one or more of our four Masses: the Vigil Mass at 4 pm (with music beforehand beginning at 3:30 pm); the “Mass during the Night” at 10 pm (with a musical program preceding, beginning at 9:15 pm); the 8 am “Mass at Dawn” on Christmas morning; and the 10 am Mass of Christmas Day itself.

Many have asked why the “Mass during the Night” – as the Roman Missal calls it – is not celebrated at midnight here any longer. Of course, it could be. But liturgical law says it need not be, and it just seems right for us in our situation to schedule it a bit earlier. The average age of our own parishioners here at the Cathedral is a bit older than most parishes, and they and the many “friends of the Cathedral” who worship with us often drive quite a distance to be with us for Mass. When we switched to this earlier hour a couple of years ago, it more than doubled our attendance! Our musicians appreciate the earlier hour, as do our ministers, staff and security detail. All in all, it seems, it makes a big difference getting home about midnight instead of at 2 in the morning!!
So plan to join us here at your Cathedral! I can assure you that in the end the graces of Christmas here at your Cathedral will be profound. I hope you can come to be with us.

I must point out a sad note for the season, though: this year, with no Parish Hall available for our use, we will NOT be having our usual New Year’s Eve Mass with “Champagne and Gumbo” afterwards. Sorry! It’s one of the most popular annual events on the Cathedral calendar, but we’re going to have to take a break from it just this once! The New Year’s Day Mass will be at 10 am.

Like you, my Advent has been full of Christmas shopping and visiting. I’ve also been trying to “recapture” in prayer and memory some of the graces of Christmases past. One memory I’ll always treasure is my recollection of the Christmas I was most afraid of!

I’d better explain. Back in December of 1977 I was in the seminary in Belgium. Once classes ended for the semester, the 70 or so seminarians usually dispersed quickly. Some couldn’t wait to head south to Rome for Christmas (I’d done that in 1975) or to go “home for the holidays” (I did that in 1976, my only visit back to the USA in three years). Others went to the snowy mountains – they were the ones who knew how to ski! – and others to destinations more exotic and warm, like the Spanish Canary Islands or the bazaars of Morocco, or even the missions of Tanzania.

But I was stuck in Belgium. Oh, by my own choice: I and a seminarian friend were leaving the day after Christmas for a two-week trip to the Soviet Union. (One day I’ll tell you about my New Year’s adventures in Russia, where it was minus 31° C. in Leningrad one day, and where I think I almost got arrested in the Kremlin by asking to see a chapel that I knew was there but that the communist guards definitely were afraid to let us into!)

Anyway, the seminary was empty. I was afraid my Christmas would be lonely and therefore miserable. It could have been. But instead it was wonderful. I ended up visiting some Benedictine sisters at their small Belgian monastery, sharing the simplest, prayer-full early-morning Mass, a day-long homemade meal that I still dream about, and a full day of laughter and singing and fun. (I never really caught on to the Flemish folk dances that the nine of them and their ancient priest-chaplain tried to teach me, but they enjoyed trying: maybe because a wrong step usually meant bumping into each other and making me blush!) The gifts we exchanged were mostly just smiles and reassurances of shared faith; yet I’m pretty sure I’ve never received more valuable presents!

In any event, I look back on that simple Christmas as one of the most profound I’ve ever had. Christmas is not always bright and loud and busy; it is sometimes quiet and still, but no less joyous. In fact, “Silent Night” is not just a carol: it’s a description of the blessing that we should all find in this holy season. I go looking for this kind of Christmas experience now; you should try it!

December 8, 2013

Dear Parishioners and Friends,

Let me get the most-asked question this weekend out of the way first: the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – which this year is celebrated tomorrow, December 9 – is NOT a holy day of obligation this year. You’re very welcome, of course, to worship at our noontime daily Mass, for the miracle of Mary’s being preserved without sin her entire life is well worth rejoicing over with prayer. In my humble opinion it’s also one of the Church’s most significant “pro-life” observances, for our awareness that “by a singular grace of God the Blessed Virgin was preserved without stain of sin from the first moment of her conception” – the very words clarifying this truth given by Pope Pius IX in 1854 – clearly mentions again our constant understanding of when the life of the human person begins.

I got a nice chuckle at Mass this past weekend when I mentioned that Cathedral Square in Baton Rouge is now a “gated community”! Of course, the gates and fencing are there to keep us all out of the construction zone – which keeps us and the workers safe. I was happy to see that parking really wasn’t too much of a problem, although it probably took everyone a few more moments than usual to find a parking space either in our now-smaller parking lot, the lot across the street from the Cathedral’s front plaza, or streetside. The procession of folks to our restroom facilities was steady but not overwhelming. I want to thank our “bathroom escorts” and parking assistants along with everyone else for their patience and good humor throughout!

Once again this year our own St. Joseph Cathedral Knights of Columbus Council No. 13632 has designed a special Christmas tree ornament. They’re selling them from the Parish Office on weekdays and out in front of the Cathedral after all of the weekend Masses. I think they’re beautiful – the ornaments, not the KCs! – and I urge you to support the Knights’ many works and ministries by purchasing them. They make great little gifts, too, especially to those children and grandchildren who were baptized or married at the Cathedral: it could be for them a sweet seasonal reminder of their “spiritual roots”!

But I’m sure you’ll have to do other Christmas shopping. It’s always a vexing problem trying to decide what to get for those special people in your life – or at least it is for me! Increasingly I’m doing my shopping on the internet, it seems, not only due to its convenience (fighting the crowds at the malls this time of year is NOT my idea of fun!) but also because there are so many more choices available. I can find lots of suggestions as well, and have my gifts shipped directly to each recipient. In short, I can sit in front of my computer and take care of all my shopping and gift-giving from there. Truly “one stop shopping” seems to have arrived.

Unfortunately, one’s spiritual life doesn’t work like that. We can’t take care of all of our religious desires and obligations so easily. Prayer alone is not enough; Sunday Mass is not enough; periodic confession is not enough; charitable giving is not enough; behavioral morality is not enough; involvement in Parish support and ministry is not enough; Bible reading is not enough; etc. Doing any one or two of these is a good thing, of course, but all are necessary for a mature and balanced faith. In fact, our salvation depends on a real and coherent faith, not one that’s mostly a pretense! There’s an old saying that when a stool is missing one of its legs it’s useless. Well, religiously-speaking, our souls have many more necessary legs than a barstool!

What I’m getting at is the need for all of us, even in the midst of this busy holiday season, to make sure we attend to ALL of our religious obligations. Because of our spending so much time and money on seasonal giving and partying, the easiest ones to leave out, I suppose, are daily prayer, going to confession, generosity toward the Church and the poor, and attention to right conduct. If this little reminder of mine to you helps bring your spiritual life back into balance, that’s just what I’ve hoped for!