Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Great Names

I commented, in a letter, a couple of years back, "Names are powerful.   In a way, it could be said that a name becomes the shorthand expression of the very essence of who a person is.  To use a name is to make present the depth and breadth of a person.  A name is more than a name; it is who a person is."  Over the last couple of months, I have had occasion to consider the thought of a number of women with really exceptional names.  This post has no real purpose except to begin a collection of fantastic names.  I begin with the women.

Corrie Ten Boom - A protectress of the Jews from Nazis.

Carrie Nation - The intemperant leader of the temperance movement.

Flannery O'Connor - Unflinching Observer of the American South

Who would you add?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

An Exhortation to Sinners

Since the time he first sinned, man has experienced nothing so vexsome as being sticky.  It is simply intolerable.  To soil my hands in general is unpleasant.  My faingers and palms have been sullied by a variety of substances ranging from grease to cow excrement, but none of these holds a candle to being sticky.  It is unbearable.  To whit, when breading meat in the kitchen, I have to wash my hands between each piece.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches must be eaten with tremendous care.  Ice cream should generally not be eaten from a cone, and the spoon should easily reach the bottom of the vessel from which it is eaten without the hands brushing the vessel's sticky sides.

I recall a moment from childhood wherein I was seated to view the circus.  In her generosity, my mother had purchased cotton candy.  As I ate, my fingers got sticky.  With no source of water to wash, I tried licking my fingers between bites to alleviate my stress.  It became worse with large tufts of the spun sugar now attached to my fingertips and melting there.  It was pure misery.  Later, in my career as a professional dishwasher at Wall Drug Store, I would be forced to reach my entire arm into ice cream tins to wash them.  It was nearly unbearable.

I find, because of this aversion, I avoid the following (a partial list):
  1. Unwashed toddlers
  2. Regular sized candy bars
  3. Honey
  4. Pancakes, French toast, and other syrup covered breakfasts
  5. Vinyl
  6. Varnished pews in hot, humid churches
  7. Pine sap
  8. Watermellon
Which bring me to my point.  There is no summer tradition so vile or offensive as the smore.  Apart from being sticky themselves, they make everything around them sticky.  I have yet to attend an event involving these abominations wherein I have not become, despite considerable precaution, at list a little sticky.  The marshmallow bag gets sticky.  The chocolate wrappers are sticky.  The forks upon which the marshmallows are incinerated are sticky (and someone always lays the sticky end right on the ever-loving table).  The hands of those consuming the smores make the not-sticky ends of the mallow prongs sticky.  God forbid I sit where someone used a bench to mash the abomination together.

I cannot fathom for what reason, apart from his fallenness, a man might even consider taking a fire - something so capable of producing reflection and introspection, so capable of uniting souls in camaraderie - and wrecking it with a smore.

I fear I will spend purgatory sticky.  At least I will be accompanied by those who made me so in life.      

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ut Unum Sint

Roy and Dorothy Dennis

I find, beginning around mid-May each year and persisting until the end of June, that I enter into a period of nostalgic reminiscence.  Both of my paternal grandparents were born in May and I was ordained a priest at the end of June.  As a result, I find myself considering from whence I come and toward what I might be proceeding.  

My grandparents would have been 101 years old this year.  Both lived through two World Wars, the Cristero Wars in Mexico, the Great Depression, and the Cold War.  They grew up using horses of necessity and before dying saw a man land on the moon (though my grandfather insisted it was a hoax created in a television studio).  My grandfather died just as the internet was arriving on the scene, and my grandmother died when everyone was buying cellular phones.  The 100 years since they were born have seen the most radical technological and cultural changes of any century in human history, but neither lived to see me ordained.  I prayed for the repose of both of their souls as I concelebrated the Mass the evening I was elevated to the dignity of the priesthood.

Grandpa and Grandma have been gone for twenty and ten years respectively.  With each passing year the sting of their loss subsides, metamorphosing into a mellowness of memory in which recollections of their flaws have largely dissolved into a vaguer, less acute sentiment of warm fondness. There are moments, however, when the memory of one or the other of them catches me off guard and a tear or two come to my eyes, and I miss them as I did the day they were buried.

These thoughts occur to me today as we approach the end of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.  Preaching this morning, I found myself saying, "For the Catholic, 'goodbye' is a meaningless word.  We who receive the eucharist are bound to Christ, and we who are bound to Christ are bound also to those themselves bound to Christ in the Eucharist.  From the last supper until eternity, we are tied to one another."    Indeed, though absent in a certain way, my grandparents are not far from me.  They, who are caught up in the mystery of Christ's love perfectly in paradise*, are likewise caught up in the mystery of that love manifested on every altar and in every tabernacle throughout the world.  When I celebrate the Holy Mass, when I consume the Sacred Host and drink the Precious Blood, and I am with them still.  The union we share today is a union that transcends geography and time.  It is a union undiminished by even death itself.  The Eucharist makes us one.  

This union is one I share not only with my grandparents, but with every Catholic from St. Peter until now.  So, to those whom I have not seen for many years, or months or weeks, to those whom, by reason of distance and circumstance, I may never see again, I rejoice.  I will be seeing you in the Eucharist.

* One of the privileges of the priest is to offer Masses for those whom he loves, and to carry them to the altar with him.  This I did for my grandparents nearly every Sunday for more then three years of priesthood.  Then, one Sunday as I paused in the recitation of the Roman Canon to pray for the dead, the Lord spoke to me with great clarity:  "You need not pray for them further." I am not, of course, competent to declare saints, but both of my grandparents died having received the sacraments, and I think my hope is well-founded.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Leaving With More Than I Came

In other news, it was announced a couple of weeks ago that I Bishop Gruss has assigned me as the parochial administrator (all the responsibility but not the rights of a pastor) for the parishes of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Martin, SD and Our Lady of Victory in Kadoka, SD.

The news was not exactly unexpected.  The need to place a pastor in the parish was fairly evident, two men will be ordained this summer and will need a place to get started, and I have served six years as an associate pastor.  It was time.

Martin is in the south of the diocese, technically situated on the Pine Ridge Reservation, though I am told my parishioners are mostly white ranchers.  Kadoka is sixty miles north along I90.  In my two new parishes I have around two hundred families total.  The Badlands are in my back yard.  It is a long way from Rapid City, a long way from Red Owl, and a little off the beaten path.  I suspect that most arriving in Martin go there intentionally.  It is a little hard to find it accidentally.  The next nearest priest in about forty-five miles away in the village of Pine Ridge.


I made the announcement that I was leaving with a lump in my throat, and even though I do not relish the goodbyes that are to come in the next few weeks, I find that I am very excited to strike out (like an adventurer, not a baseball player) on my own.  I'm sad, my heart is not breaking as it did when leaving my previous assignments.  It is not because I don't love these people.  I do love them.  Very much.  But it seems to have finally sunk in that love abides, even when I no longer reside in a given place.  Love transcends geography.  Love transcends time.  Love transcends death itself.  Goodbyes are not forever for the Christian who stands with a foot already in eternity.

I have learned so much here, and I am so grateful for the ways that God has blessed me through these parishes.  I carry the Parishes of St. Joseph, St. Paul, and Our Lady, Star of the Sea with me as I go.

It will be a sacrifice to drive more than three blocks to fish for trout, though I trade it for great pheasant hunting.

In the end, Gary McMahan's Song, "The Old Double Diamond" expresses fairly well what I am feeling, or at least it has been on repeat on my interior soundtrack.


Pray that I will be a holy pastor.  Pray that I will love my new people well. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Indelible Marks

June 1 marked two important events in the lives of my two parallel families.  At the Dennis Ranch, as we have done more than 100 times annually, we branded calves.  At the Parish of Our Lady, Star of the Sea in Newell, we confirmed fifteen young men and woman.  These two events, I reflected while returning to Spearfish from Newell, are not entirely dissimilar.

Lazy C V

Branding calves is a necessity of life in rural South Dakota.  The wind-swept plains are prevented from extending into infinity only by irregular intervals of  three, four, and five strands of barbed wire and the chalky white gravel roads that intersect with the paved state highways.  The lengths of barbed wire are, from time to time, interrupted by two wooden posts, snugly attached to one another by a fixed loop of wire near the ground and a loop that can be lifted off the shorter of the posts when two are squeezed closer together.  These gates are sometimes near the property owner's home, but just as frequently, are miles away.  Anyone traveling along the road could enter a pasture leaving no evidence but a set of tire tracks across the prairie grass.  An enterprising thief could, with relative ease, drive into a pasture and abscond with several head of cattle and never be caught.  A brand, however, marks an animal with a permanent sign of ownership.  A thief might take an animal, but a brand proves he does not own it.

So it is, that every spring, cattle owners in Western South Dakota bring together their neighbors and family to gather the livestock and apply the owner's brand.  This brand remains with the animal until the end of its life.  Even if it is sold, an observer can quickly discern from whence it originated.  Once branded, cattle always bear the mark of their owner who fastidiously worked to ensure their existence.

My Students from Newell

In the sacrament of confirmation, one is similarly marked.  From confirmation forward, one is permanently and irrevocably consecrated in a manner enduring unto eternity.  The Seal of the Holy Spirit, imprinted on one's very soul, becomes, in a sense, proof of ownership.  He who is confirmed belongs to God.  Though Satan try to steal him, though sin and folly mar his seal, though the one confirmed himself come to resent the mark, no matter where he roams in the world, he will always be marked as God's own possession.

Branding is a communal event.  It is never done without help.  The men and women who gather to assist do so without complaint.  Branding is a celebration.  It marks success, it mocks the struggles of the spring, and it bespeaks hope for the year to come.  With each successive branding, the men and women who attend are reminded of who they are and they silently (sometimes grudgingly) admit that they could not be as they are except for the support of a community.

Confirmation too, is a community affair.  It brings hope that Christianity is still young and that the Church endures.  Parents are reminded that they need help when sponsors present their children to the Bishop.  Confirmation has a way of renewing and rejuvenating a community, stoking the Holy Spirit within those who have already received the sacrament.  Confirmation reminds those present of their own call to follow Christ with zeal.

A brand is applied with a hot iron heated in fire.  Confirmation is accomplished by the flaming tongue of the Holy Spirit.      

Confirmation is, as I told my students in Newell, the spiritual equivalent of branding calves.  Yesterday, I was blessed to attend brandings of both varieties, and like the communities present at both, I was reminded of who I am, and where I come from.  I am indelibly marked by both.