Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Feast of Transition

Dear Friends,

Last Thursday, February 2, was Groundhog’s Day, when Punxsutawny Phil determined the length of winter by his shadow. But in our liturgical calendar, the Catholic Church celebrates February 2 as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

This feast has been part of our church year since the 4th century – long before Punxsutawny Phil emerged. It has been known by a variety of names with different emphases.

Jewish law required that Jesus be brought to the Temple 40 days after his birth. His presentation was tied into another aspect of Jewish law, namely that his mother was considered ritually unclean for 40 days after his birth. (It was 80 days for a girl baby.) This day marked her Purification.

By the 5th century, the term Candlemas was used for this feast. People came to church and received blessed candles to take home for protection from encroaching darkness. The Light of Christ was among them. Candles were also seen as a sign of prosperity. The really poor could not afford to light a darkened house.

By 1969, the thinking of people at large had changed. Women and men agreed that ancient blood taboos that rendered women unclean were unacceptable. Electricity had rendered candles unnecessary to light a room.

So, February 2 became more commonly known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. And what might it mean for us in our day?

The Rev. Wilda Gafney, Episcopal priest and Scripture scholar, invites us to think of this as a feast of transition. Mary, the Mother of God, in her time, moved from being ritually unclean to being welcomed for who she was.

In our day, some people are unwanted in their churches or families. Think of people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. They are also the beloved of God. Who is to say they are not? Yet some churches don’t accept them as they are. The work they have had to do in order to be true to themselves and their God is not recognized.

Or in some families, sons, daughters, cousins, parents are rejected because they have been divorced or married outside family norms or have otherwise embraced a way of life that is unacceptable from within a group that has power over them.

Just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph were recognized and welcomed by Simeon and Anna, elders of their faith community, this feast invites us to recognize people who have made significant transitions in their lives. “Without either passing judgment on another culture or co-opting the specific practice of another religion, we can make physical and ritual space for human bodies in all their life-stage changes and welcome and re-welcome to and back to the community upon and after significant transitions.”  (Gafney)

The gospel for this feast provides us with a meditation on the meaning of this welcome and how to make it happen.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Remembering Bishop Matthew Clark

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow, January 30, our Diocese will celebrate the funeral liturgy for Matthew Harvey Clark, the eighth Bishop of Rochester, NY (1979-2012). During this last week, people have been remembering his installation at the War Memorial, the Diocesan Synod, and the ways he embraced the Jewish Community, other interfaith communities as well as the ecumenical movement. People who prayed with him in these settings came to know the power and strength that comes from unity. And what about the Eucharist, offered at the cathedral for the gay and lesbian community? Tears flowed freely as those who thought they were unwanted were welcomed home.

During the week, I’ve heard stories of individual encounters with “Matt,” as many called him. “He came to my house for my meatballs.” “He told my husband and me to let him know when our start-up science equipment company went public so he could buy in.” “We saw him a couple of times a year at Bonaventure games.” As heartwarming as these stories are, I would like to spend the rest of this blog being grateful for the ways that Bishop Clark came to know, understand, love and support the women of this Diocese who sought, then and now, to be included in the Church at every level of ministry.

I was part of a group that invited Bishop Clark for lunch at a member’s home, about a year after he came. We ate in the kitchen. The menu was tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. (This was long before Barack Obama put these items on the map at Magnolia’s on Park Avenue!) He listened attentively, questioned profoundly, doubted the history we recounted. But he came back to us, over and over again. Not just to us, but to other women whose life-truths and convictions moved him deeply. When he wrote a pastoral letter in 1982 – “Fire in the Thornbush” – he talked about how much he had learned from women of every age and circumstance across the Diocese. He admitted getting his thoughts and actions wrong at times and apologized to women for the hurt he did them. The letter won national critical acclaim. More importantly, we knew it came from the depths of him.

Later, Bishop Clark was named the chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Women in Church and Society. The name of the committee as well as the work went through various revisions. In the end, the pastoral on women proposed by the US Bishops never passed. The committee faded into history, but Bishop Clark continued to be the friend and supporter of women in the national Church, as well as in our Diocese.

After his retirement, Bishop Clark spent a day with some women at Notre Dame Retreat Center in Canandaigua (2017). These women were part of a group, drawn from across the nation, who had met over shared concerns and experiences for over 30 years. We met with our brother Matt to hear what he had to say about the Church in our times. These are his thoughts from the notes I took that day:

At a personal level, make sense out of what has happened. Pass on to others what God has offered us.

Going forward, be sure of these two things: The Church is an ancient structure which recognizes the Apostolic mission. Apostolic witness has not changed.

He hoped that the principle of synodality would catch on, together with subsidiarity. He believed that a strong Conference of Bishops depends on the wisdom of the laity. The gifts and presence of women, clearly and visibly active when we come together to deliberate or celebrate, is needed. This wouldn’t happen unless synodality and subsidiarity happened.

Bishop Clark called for a recovery of the energy of Vatican II, a renewal of moral theology and the understanding that priests are ordained for the service of the church, not for the domination of the church. He wanted people to care for the earth and serve the poor and vulnerable (who are not included between the parentheses). He hoped that our Church would be prophetic in expectation of a just social order.

There’s just one other thought about Bishop Clark’s life that I’d like to mention. I haven’t seen it talked about anywhere. Bishop Clark suffered both physically and with people in his years of service. He suffered in conflict, in times of opposition to those who challenged justice and unity. As Bishop, he met the sexual abuse crisis head on. In it, he found suffering – the suffering of others and his own. He suffered because people suffered. In all of this, he walked in the shadow of the Suffering Christ. He could not have been a Bishop without embracing the cross.

We say goodbye for now to this man whom we were privileged to have among us as our shepherd, Matthew, who knew, as it says in Matthew 10.10, how to bring out of his storehouse the new and the old.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 20, 2023

Enhancing Life Through Our Words

Dear Friends,

If you haven’t begun a New Year’s resolution yet, consider improving your vocabulary. The point is: words matter.

A week ago, the Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle newspaper carried an article about words. The article – a report on a study done last year – recommended that we discontinue using some common words and phrases, like “you guys” and “that’s crazy” and develop ways of enhancing life by the words we use.

Our political jargon does not generally build up the good in society, but frequently diminishes people and positive efforts that the opposing party is making. We walk on common ground, but do not always speak common truth clearly.

Words can isolate us or create categories of separation. They can also elevate our thinking, speaking and sharing. Words can change our perspective as well as our conversations. Did it ever occur to you that one way we cherish people is through the words we use? Words can open or close our hearts. Examples of words that enlarge us include affirm, appreciate, belong, embrace, honor, inspire, relish, seek wisdom, unite, welcome, and many more.

Some words are more precise than others. Our choice of words offers clarity to what we are saying, or not. Concepts that alienate some are valuable to others. How do we find a balanced way of communicating without losing the power of words or our own integrity?

Sometimes our emotions overtake the meaning of words. We may, for example, have past memories of current emotions that certain words generate. It’s important to work through these memories.

Coaches who work with people on their way of communicating sometimes ask their clients to consider these questions before speaking:
                        Is it true?
                        Does it need to be said?
                        Does it need to be said now?
                        Am I the one to say it?

Why am I talking about words in a blog that purports to be a link to faith? Because we belong to the Word of God. The words we use connect us to the Word Made Flesh, Jesus, the Holy One, the Son of God and Son of Mary, whose birth events we have recently celebrated. He is the Truth of God. He speaks simply but profoundly that the poor and outcast are to be honored. He gathers people as a mother hen gathers her young and offers them life. The words that Jesus speaks and the ministries He performs arise from the same indisputable core: He is one with God.

Working at the congruence that Jesus has in word and deed is a lifetime effort for us.

So, let’s encourage each other as we strive to develop attitudes of curiosity, goodwill, and openness in our choice of words.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Value of Human Life

Dear Friends,

America kept an eye on the University of Cincinnati hospital all last week, monitoring the progress of Damar Hamlin. The Buffalo Bills safety showed signs of emerging from his critical status, much to everyone’s relief, and now he is back home in Buffalo, to everyone’s relief.

Two truths were evident in that first hour after Damar Hamlin went down.

First, it was clear that this one human life was valuable. All human life is valuable, but the community needs a singular example of that truth to bring it home. All ears, eyes, hearts were focused on the youthful, prone figure on the field. The next day, two deaths were reported in the streets of Rochester. Did they have the community support before death snatched them away? Regrettably, the value of human life does not seem to be applied equally in our daily living.

In the end, neither his teammates nor the Bengals had the stomach for continuing play. The NFL authorities came to realize this and eventually the game was cancelled. All because one life – one vital life – was temporarily challenged.

The lesson for us is to enlarge our thinking and understanding so that the lives of all people everywhere are considered valuable, worth saving, with all medical resources possible activated for the sake of life.

The second truth that was clear within moments of the tragedy is that people turn to God in prayer at these times. Players dropped to their knees asking God, by whatever name they knew this divine power, to be with Damar and the team of medical experts working on him, to restore him to life. People in the stands prayed, as did people in homes around the country. I remember another time when churches and synagogues and other places of worship were full of dazed people. After 9/11. People were stunned, uncomprehending, fearful of what was next.

Suffering unites us – the suffering of one or the suffering of many. It is never sought for itself. It is not even welcome. But when we suffer together, new, vital life emerges. Just as we think of Damar Hamlin, we think of the people of Ukraine – the babies being born to the sound of bombs, the maimed, the furious, the despairing. God holds Damar Hamlin and every one of these precious Ukrainians close as life is challenged.

In the drama of life called into question, in recognizing the power of prayer to our loving God, we have our own part to play out.

“It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in a broken world.” (Mary Oliver)

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Celebrating Epiphany

Dear Friends, 

Today is the last day of the Christmas cycle. We end this richly inspiring time in company with the Magi. It is likely that they arrived some two years after Jesus’ birth. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had replaced residence in the stable in Bethlehem with a small house in town. It’s not clear why they stayed in Bethlehem instead of going home after Joseph registered in the census, but they didn’t. It was there, long after the shepherds had moved on, that the star led the Magi to “the house where they saw the child with Mary his mother.” Matthew 2.11

The journey had been arduous. Most journeys are. But the Magi had the luxury of going back home. Many journeyers don’t. 

I think today of the refugees of our day. Every continent has them – men, women, and children, fleeing from persecution, destitution, political pressure, hunger. The movement in our day seems to be largely from south to north. Treacherous treks on foot and across unforgiving seas.

In 2021, Pope Francis was drawn to the Island of Lesbos, one of the numerous islands dotting the coastal waters of Greece. Lesbos was a point of arrival, a holding area for newcomers to Europe. Pope Francis waded into the midst of the people. “I have to see your face,” he told one after another. “That’s why I came. I have to see your face.”

Who do you suppose Pope Francis saw, as he looked into the faces of the young, the mature, the old, the sick? He saw Jesus the Incarnate Word of God, perhaps newborn, but certainly the one who suffered, would die, and be raised up. Knowingly or unknowingly, the refugees live the mystery of Christ’s gift of himself to the world.

I wonder what Jesus saw when, as a two-year-old, he encountered the Magi. Were they swarthy? With weather-beaten faces? Could he see different ethnic groups and races traced in their facial makeup, their size, their bone-structure? In a sense, it wouldn’t have mattered, except that Jesus came for everyone, not just his fellow Jews. The presence of the Magi at the beginning of Jesus’ life was no accident, no fabrication of the evangelist Matthew. It was part of the truth revealed in Jesus’ infancy. He was for everyone from distant lands as well close by towns and neighborhoods.

To this first encounter with the Word Made Flesh, the Magi brought their knowledge and experience of life, their searching and their questions, their openness to the new and untried, their gifts. Isn’t that what refugees bring? Isn’t that what we bring to the beginning of this new year of our own personal journeys through life. In the wealth of our lives, we are more alike than different. 

The lure, the demands of our culture, the need to protect our own turf won’t go away because we want them to. Epiphany is God’s call to us at the beginning of this new year to stay on the longer journey to God, to peer into the faces of other travelers who are strangers to us and to find them kindred. To find them kindred, a star will guide us. We can trust that! God is faithful.

~ Sister Joan Sobala

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

A New Year--A Fresh Start

Dear Friends,

In the untouched freshness of this day, I wish you:

Holiness, unexpected but welcome in you.
Ample time to think things through.
Patience with your family in difficult moments.
Perseverance in important things.
Yesterday in perspective.

New ideas for making the world a more positive place.
Energy to meet the day, along with enduring commitments.
Wonder at all God has done and is doing in our midst.

Yearning for goodness, compassion, and kindness to flood the world.
Empathy with suffering people everywhere.
A heart that reaches out to the most vulnerable, as Jesus did.
Restlessness until you rest in God.

2 eyes that see more clearly the things that are worth seeing.
0 degrees of departure from the truth, that is to say: never.
2 ways of looking at a question, or even more.
3 new friends this year who will warm your heart.

And to be sure that all of this is true, real, and possible in a world of so many seeming impossibilities, keep in your mind and heart the blessing in today’s first reading:
        The Lord bless you and keep you,
        The Lord make his face shine upon you
        And be gracious to you.
        The Lord lift up his countenance is upon you
        and gives you peace. (Numbers 6.24-26)

~Sister Joan Sobala

He is Here--Merry Christmas!

Dear Friends,

We have waited and now, He is here. Jesus, the long-expected savior. He is here. Today. Now. He is here.

        In the face of hatred and wars that pepper our world, no atrocity is too terrible to stop Him,
        No Herod strong enough,
        No pain deep enough,
        No curse shocking enough,
        No disaster shattering enough.

        For someone on earth this day sees the star
        Someone hears the angels voices,
        Some have instinctively run to Bethlehem to see for themselves
        And their hearts know peace and goodwill.
        They shout out. Do we listen?
        Christ is born. He is here.    (adapted, source unknown)

With Howard Thurman, we announce:
        I will light Candles this Christmas;
        Candles of joy despite all sadness,
        Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
        Candles of courage for fears ever present,
                    Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
                    Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens
                    Candles of love to inspire all my living,
                    Candles that will burn all year long.

From Pope Francis to us:
“God’s ways are astonishing, for it seems impossible that he should forsake his glory to become a man like us. To our astonishment, we see God acting exactly as we do: He sleeps, takes milk from His mother, cries, and plays like every other child! As always, God baffles us. He is unpredictable, constantly doing what we least expect. The nativity scene shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God’s own life. It invites us to become His disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life.”

Last week I was in the locker room of the Bay View YMCA after a swim. A woman was talking about her mother, who has suffered from dementia for the last five years. “What is the best thing you can say about her life these days?” I asked. Her answer was prompt. “She’s happy. She laughs a lot. She can still see the humor in things.” Laughter is one of God’s unique gifts to people. Let’s use it on Christmas day. In the tiredness that comes on Christmas after dinner and all the family rituals are done, here are a few jokes to enjoy:

“Dear Santa, This year please give me a big, fat bank account and a slim body. Please don’t mix the two of them up as you did last year.”

“Never forget. Once you stop believing in Santa Claus, you get underwear as gifts.”

“What’s every parent’s favorite Christmas Carol? Silent Night.”

“What does Santa suffer if he gets caught in the chimney? Claustrophobia.”

“Prisoner before the judge. J: What are you charged with? P: Doing my Christmas shopping early. J: That’s not a crime. How early were you shopping? P: Before the store opened.”

Christmas awe and delight to you and all you love from our Sisters and staff.

~Sister Joan Sobala