Like Martha and Mary

With list in hand, I headed to my car for a quick trip to the grocery store. I drove out of the neighborhood toward Washington Street in an effort to save time by avoiding the construction on Grand Avenue. Unfortunately, rather than continuing west on Washington, I turned south onto Milwaukee Avenue toward Gages Lake Road and St. Paul’s. I asked myself aloud, “What are you doing?” Of course, I already knew the answer. I’d taken this route to our parish home for twenty-plus years and I’m a creature of habit. With that, I smiled over my time-consuming blunder and continued on my way. I turned onto Gages Lake Road and eventually passed the parish house. While driving along, I wondered how the new guys were doing. In an effort not to leave things to chance, I whispered a prayer for Father Chris and Father Joe. “Be with them, Lord. This is a big parish with lots of people and lots to do!”

Earlier that morning, I’d read today’s scripture passages. I usually let them steep a bit in my psyche before writing. After whispering that prayer for our new priests, I couldn’t help thinking about today’s gospel (Luke 10:38-42). Luke tells us of Jesus’ visit to the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Throughout Jesus’ stay, Martha found herself caught up in a flurry of activity. Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries prided themselves in offering hospitality to those who graced their homes with their company and Martha was no exception. She intended to put forth her best effort for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, was so taken with Jesus’ presence that she joined her brother and the others as they listened to Jesus’ every word. Mary perched herself at Jesus’ feet for his entire stay. Needless to say, Mary’s failure to assist with the tasks at hand frustrated Martha as she also loved Jesus very much. So it was that Martha complained to Jesus about her sister. Poor Martha was completely taken by surprise with Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

I admit that this gospel has always been a puzzling favorite of mine. I’ve often wondered what else Jesus might have said if Martha had responded by sitting at Jesus’ feet as well. What if Martha had determined that there would be no meal for her hungry guests as she also wanted to enjoy Jesus’ company? By the time I made it to the grocery store parking lot, I’d come to my standard conclusion after contemplating this gospel. We’re given a lifetime of opportunities to behave as Mary and as Martha and each one is a necessary and important gift.

While grabbing a cart and ambling over to the produce aisle, my thoughts returned to Father Chris and Father Joe. Their move into our parish house has certainly involved a whirlwind of activity. They’ve moved their belongings into a new home and they’ve moved themselves into new roles. Father Chris Ciastoń was an associate pastor just a few weeks ago. Today, he is in charge. Father Joe Curtis served as pastor until just a few weeks ago. Today, he is second-in-command. One minute, they’re arranging clothing in their new closets. The next minute, one is taking a call regarding a visit to a sick parishioner, while the other is consoling a heartbroken soul. They’re discussing the church thermostats and how to better manage the indoor climate, while also considering their first homilies here. They’re asking and responding to endless questions. They’re also asking themselves how to prioritize their to-do lists. One minute, the two run like Martha to tend to the practicalities which keep life in the parish running smoothly. The next minute, they pause like Mary to offer their company to you or me or any one of us who needs them. By the time I made it to the pasta aisle, I’d determined that Jesus had made a valid point to Martha. However, strong woman that she was, Martha certainly validated her efforts on Jesus’ behalf. Martha provided Jesus and his friends that much-needed meal, taking in Jesus’ every word all the while. I’m quite certain that Martha knew as much about loving others as Mary did… perhaps more!

By the time I’d driven home and stowed those groceries, Jesus’ experience with Mary and Martha had filled me with inspiration enough to fill this space. It had also filled me with the courage to give our unsuspecting Father Chris and Father Joe something to think about… Father Chris, we’re thrilled that you had the generosity to leave your beloved home in Poland to pursue the priesthood here in the Archdiocese of Chicago. That this choice has brought you to St. Paul’s is a much-appreciated blessing to us. Father Chris, though you know the wisdom of this gospel passage better than I, I cannot help myself. Please know that we hope to share years of Mary moments with you as we get to know one another. Also, know that we promise to roll up our sleeves and to work at your side in the midst of the Martha moments. Those Martha moments will be far more plentiful than you can ever imagine! In the end, we will emulate both of Jesus’ friends as we become your friends. Father Joe, how can we thank you for retiring as pastor and than assuming your role as associate pastor to Father Chris? You know too well the work involved, yet you’ve come to minister, pray and play among us! Like Martha, you two deserve Jesus’ reminder to enjoy those God has given you to love here, while also getting to the work at hand as best you can. I think I speak for all of our parish family as I write, “Welcome, Father Chris and Father Joe! We look forward to spending years of Mary times and Martha times with you both. After all, when we spend time with one another, both working and playing, we spend our time as Jesus did.

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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With Gratitude…

This extremely long post offers a farewell to the Carmelite Priests who have served in my parish for the past twenty-seven years. For those who aren’t a part of my parish family, I commend you and thank you for your endurance in making it to the bottom of the page…

The writer in me wonders how I might chronicle this special day. Is it possible to feel sadness at the close of a quite remarkable era while also feeling joyful anticipation regarding the things to come? If our parish family means anything to you, you understand my quandary. For some of us, it wasn’t easy to leave friends and familiar worship spaces to build a new faith community. For others of us, this opportunity offered a glimpse of hope in the midst of the pain which had made our former parish affiliations difficult. For still others of us, the prospect of helping to build a new parish where none had been before was life-giving. Some of us who had given up on church all together embraced this possibility. We came with the hope that God’s Spirit would renew us. Perhaps this would become the parish family which we would call our own for years to come…

I call us “family” because family is precisely what our founding priests hoped we would be. To achieve this, our founding pastor Father Farrell Kane and our associate pastor Father Phil Nessinger happily welcomed us early volunteers. We saw to a plethora of tasks even before we celebrated our first Mass. Sixty-seven individuals and families registered at our first gathering at the Gurnee Holiday Inn in February 1992. During our first weekend as a parish, March 7-8, 1992, our priests, Deacon Mike Penich, Deacon Bob Tomasso and we volunteers welcomed hundreds to each of our first Masses. More than two hundred additional individuals and families registered in the parish. Our parish family grew every weekend thereafter. At the same time, additional volunteers stepped up to offer religious education and other essential ministries which established parishes provide. In every instance, Father Farrell and Father Phil acknowledged the generosity of all concerned. They consistently overlooked the flaws which with we sometimes implemented our good intentions. Father Farrell and Father Phil admitted with smiles often that they were fully human as well.

It was during those years at Woodland School that we intentionally began to be present before and after every Mass. Father Farrell and Father Phil agreed that our people needed to see familiar faces to help them to feel that we were becoming a parish family. Both remained on site for every Mass regardless of who was celebrant. Both were thrilled that Deacon Mike and I and a core of volunteers did the same. At the same time, we looked longingly toward the day we would have a church building to call our parish family home. Until then, Father Farrell drove our van filled with liturgical paraphernalia to the Woodland School gymnasium every weekend. He allowed us “do our thing” as he perched himself on the sidelines to watch. Father Phil worked beside us as we set up folding chairs and prepared our portable altar for Mass. Throughout all of this, we and our priests shared tidbits about our families, our jobs, everything else of interest and our faith. In the process, we caught glimpses of one another’s hearts.

By the time we attended to the business of erecting a building, we had evolved into an authentic parish family. This building would simply provide a permanent home for us. Father Farrell and Father Phil had taken the time to get to know us and they welcomed all who were interested to participate in this process. Building committee meetings were sometimes lively and always productive. Our capital campaign unfolded smoothly and without pressure. Our priests considered every donation a gift. Father Farrell often said that this parish church was ours to build. It would evolve into the place where we would all feel at home. In the end, this building bears witness to our priests’ conviction that the talents of our parish family members are our greatest asset.

Just prior to the church’s completion, Father Phil moved on to a new parish. His vast experience assisted his new parish family as they weathered some difficult times. While we truly missed Father Phil’s warmth, wit and generous spirit, we welcomed Father Ray Clennon with open arms. After all, it had become our custom to welcome all of our new parish family members. Father Ray shared himself with us from Day 1, throughout his six years as associate pastor and his twelve years as pastor. His warmth and generosity were second only to his wisdom and his amazing skill with a camera. While he managed to hide the fact that he is also an accomplished pianist, Father Ray found it impossible to hide his love for God, God’s word and God’s people. This physics teacher-turned parish priest offered homilies which often gave us reason to chuckle and always gave us something to think about. He joined Father Farrell in serving our parish family in both practical and quietly profound ways. Indeed, Father Ray made it his mission to welcome us to God’s table, to enrich us with his stories and to break bread with us just as loving families do.

Happily, Father Bernie Bauerle also joined our parish family to assist on weekends. Year after year, he drove more than an hour each way from Darien to celebrate Mass with us. He did this in addition to his day jobs which included administration of Carmelite personnel and finances. Father Bernie continued to share himself with us when he took on his current role overseeing the Carmelite National Shrine and Museum of St. Therese in Darien. Father Bernie always had a line of parishioners waiting to speak with him after Mass. He often heard a confession or two before returning home. When he came to help with our parish reconciliation services, Father Bernie consistently had the longest line. He never minced words in his homilies and he always spoke from his heart. Father Bernie seemed convinced that, though we are imperfect, God loves us with our imperfections intact and God simply asks us to do our best as only we can. I heartily agree!

While our parish family continued to grow, Father Farrell’s health began to deteriorate. In an effort to help, the Carmelites sent Father Herman Kinzler to us. Father Herman went to the seminary after working in business for several years. His administrative skills complemented Father Ray’s and Father Farrell’s efforts. His late vocation impelled him to feel that he was still learning when it came to integrating himself into our parish family. While he was with us for only a few months, Father Herman spent every weekend of those months in the gathering space. He was full of questions! He often asked parishioners’ names as he wanted to get to know as many of us as possible as quickly as possible. Though he was actually a bit shy, he shared Father Bernie’s propensity not to mince words. When a parishioner questioned a line or two of his homily, Father Herman listened and explained. He always took these exchanges to heart. Father Herman took his leave unexpectedly to become pastor of a parish out east where a fellow Carmelite had passed away suddenly.

While all of this was unfolding, Father Dave Genders had been busy assisting with our LifeTeen program. Though he had a busy weekday position with the Carmelites, Father Dave made time to share his weekends with us. He related well to our teens, their families and their teachers. Father Ray appreciated this effort and he felt that this young priest would be an asset to our parish family. Eventually, Father Dave was assigned to St. Paul’s where he quickly made his home among us. Numerous parishioners from the very young to vintage members have benefited from his caring ways. This tech-savvy, artistic and caring young man became part of our parish family in no time. As for me, I cannot thank Father Dave enough for his generosity and loving patience in caring for Father Farrell during his last few months with us. Father Dave made a difficult ordeal bearable for his Carmelite Brother.

One year after Father Farrell passed away, Father Ray retired. Father Greg Houck had been to St. Paul’s to assist with reconciliation services and weekend Masses on occasion. During one visit, we asked if he’d ever consider leaving his work with Carmelites-in-training to return to a parish. Father Greg said he would do this only if the parish was very special. Apparently, we met this criteria because Father Greg became our pastor not long after that conversation. From his first day among us, Father Greg has embraced our parish family and made it his own. He has schooled us in the ways of his favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. He has revealed his own faith journey through his homilies and personal interactions with so many of us. Father Greg has approached his life among us and everything else with a passion which has drawn unexpected surprises from the most uncommon sources. He has welcomed all who have crossed his path regardless of where that fork in the road pointed. Father Greg has enriched our parish family as only he can.

In the process, Father Greg invited Father Leopold Glueckert to join us for weekend Masses. In generous Carmelite fashion, Father Leopold has done so even after knee surgery which threatened his mobility. Father Leopold has fed our parish family with both his presence and his preaching. This teacher-priest speaks to the point; another Carmelite who doesn’t mince words! He does so with such simplicity that we cannot miss his message. Behind the scenes, Father Leopold always has a kind word to offer, a bit of profoundly simple wisdom and the perfect joke to retell to your kids or grandkids.

Today, it seems impossible to express our gratitude adequately. Still, we thank our Carmelite Family for enriching our parish family. While Father Farrell and Father Phil witness our gratitude from above, we express the same to Father Ray, Father Bernie, Father Herman, Father Dave, Father Leopold and Father Greg. The Carmelite Fathers have treasured their affiliation with us and it is with heavy hearts that they return the care of our St. Paul the Apostle Parish Family to our archdiocesan priests. With deep gratitude, we ask God to bless each one of you with all you will need to continue the journeys which lie ahead for you!

Is it possible to feel sadness at the close of a quite remarkable era while also feeling joyful anticipation regarding the things to come? It is the spirit of our parish family which causes me to respond with a resounding “Yes!” So it is that we open our hearts to our new pastor Father Chris Ciastoń and our new associate pastor Father Joe Curtis. Both come to us from parish families who are deeply grateful for their presence among them and who have also had a difficult time saying good-bye. Just as we wish our Carmelites well in their new communities, we welcome Father Chris and Father Joe into our parish family. We know that God has sent only the best to care for us and we will do our best to return God’s goodness in kind!

©2019 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved