Fifth Sunday of Lent-C
Introduction to the Stewardship Way of Life-Week Five
April 8, 2019
Isaiah 43: 16-21
Philippians 3: 8-14
John 8: 1-11
A writer had this story to tell: With thumb in the air, the hitchhiker says, “You furnish the car and the gas, attend to the upkeep and supply the insurance, and I’ll ride with you. But if you have an accident with me in the car, I’ll sue the pants off you!”
The writer goes on to say: That sounds a little one-sided, but one wonders how many hitchhikers there are in many organizations, even in the Church. Many people seem to say, “You go to the meetings and serve on the committees. You do the paperwork. You study the issues, and you take care of everything that needs to be done – including paying for it. Then I’ll be happy to go along for the ride. But if things don’t suit my fancy, I will complain and criticize and belly-ache. And I’ll probably hitchhike to another group that I might like better.”
That is a pretty strong narrative. And yet it sounds to me like some of the challenges to embracing stewardship as a way of life in a parish setting.
In the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response, we are reading Chapter Four this week which is entitled, “Stewards of the Church.”
“Each member of the Church shares in responsibility for its mission. Each is called to practice stewardship of the Church. Christians are called to look outward and place themselves at the service of the entire human community, especially those who are most in need. The Eucharist is both the sign and the agent of this expansive communion of charity” [Wichita Summary].
We continue reading from Deacon Don McArdle’s book, Grateful and Giving. Chapter Seven is the testimony of the pastor of Saint Mary on the Hill Parish in Augusta, Georgia. And Chapter Eight is the testimony of the pastor of Saint Martha Parish in Kingwood, Texas. Both pastors relate their own stewardship journeys as well as those of their parishes.
I thought that I would share with you my own testimony about my stewardship journey as a pastor. And I find my theme at the conclusion of today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3: 13-14].
In June 2005, the Cleveland Diocese invited Catholic Stewardship Consultants to give an all-day presentation on stewardship at one of our Catholic high schools. I went to this conference, hoping that if I got one good idea, the day would be worthwhile. I got many more than one, and that conference was one of the best things that I have attended in our diocese.
There was an idea that hit me that day that was so obvious to me once I came upon it that I wondered why I had never realized it before. But I hadn’t, until this stewardship conference.
At the time, I was the pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in Avon Lake for 10 years. We were in our third 3-year back-to-back capital campaign, and we had recently completed an offertory enhancement project. I wondered why participation in the life of our parish had not climbed to the levels that I thought it would – with all our mailings and communication efforts with our parish.
And then I saw a big reason: capital campaigns concentrate on the treasure, in the hope that the time and talent contributions would follow. Stewardship concentrates on the time and the talent, with the well-founded hope that the treasure would follow.
How obvious, I thought to myself. And yet I had missed the connection.
I asked myself to what I contributed my treasure today, and it was to those things that I was interested in and involved in. Why would the Church be any different? When the one-third of our parish that was inactive and the one-third of our parish that was somewhat active heard from me then, it was to ask them for money. What a turn-off!
But inviting people to participate in our parish and making it possible for them to become deeply involved with their time and their talent also paves the way for them to share their treasure as well.
In October 2005, after much prayer and discussion, my parish consultative groups recommended that “we try stewardship for one year.” And so we signed on with Catholic Stewardship Consultants. And 8 years later [June 2013] when I left Saint Joseph’s, I can tell you that the members of our Finance Council had not questioned this decision even once!
Our time, our talent and our treasure are all gifts from God to be developed and to be shared. And every moment counts.
Someone put it like this:
To realize the value of one year, ask a student who has failed the final exam. To realize the value of one month, ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby. To realize the value of one week, ask an editor of a weekly newspaper. To realize the value of one day, ask a daily-wage laborer who has five kids to feed. To realize the value of one hour, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet. To realize the value of one minute, ask a person who has missed the train, the bus or the plane. To realize the value of one second, ask the person who has survived an accident. To realize the value of one millisecond, ask the person who has won a silver medal at the Olympics.
I had mentioned that I left Saint Joseph Parish in Avon Lake in June 2013 after 18 years there and I became the pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Akron. And this new assignment was all part of my personal stewardship journey. In fact, if I had not personally embraced stewardship as a way of life, I would never have come to Saint Vincent’s. Let me explain how this came about.
On 7 February 2012 I wrote a letter to Bishop Lennon, our now-retired diocesan bishop. I told him that, while I was very happy being the pastor of Saint Joseph Parish, if he – as the pastor of our whole diocese – would rather that I serve in another parish, I would be willing to talk with him about this.
Thirteen months later I received the bishop’s response. He asked me to be the pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Akron, following the pastor who was retiring. And I said “yes” to the bishop’s request.
When I was ordained a priest, I took a promise of obedience to the bishop and his successors. I do not know how more clearly the Lord could speak to me than to have my bishop directly ask me to accept an assignment.
I was grateful for those 18 years in Avon Lake. And I trusted that His grace would continue to be with me as I embraced my new parish family in at Saint Vincent’s in Akron.
And Saint Paul has it right when he says: “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3: 13-14].
Arriving at Saint Vincent’s, my first thought was to establish the stewardship way of life as the foundation for all that we do in the life of our parish. And so I got busy and invited Catholic Stewardship Consultants to guide us.
I had been directly appointed as the pastor of Saint Vincent’s by my bishop, and many things were going well. I had helped establish stewardship as a way of life at Saint Vincent’s. But, after two years there, my heart was restless.
I remember so well that Monday of the Second Week of Easter, the day after Divine Mercy Sunday. As usual, I had celebrated the 6:30 AM Mass with the business crowd at Saint Vincent’s. I went back to the rectory for a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. And then I went to my room to pray Morning Prayer.
At 7:40 AM I stopped and said to the Lord: “Lord, I have been here for two years. I have nine more years until I turn 75 and retire. If you want me to remain here, I will do so with a smile on my face and I will continue to do my very best.
“But somehow I don’t think that is what you have in mind for me. So forgive me, Lord, for talking to you this way. But I need to know what you want me to do. And I need to know before I go to bed tonight.”
And then I continued: “So please forgive me once again, Lord, but I am putting you on your honor to let me know.”
Then I went back to Morning Prayer.
At 8:30 AM I went to my office, as I always did, and opened the diocesan e-mails. And at 8:00 AM, that same morning, three parishes were posted for new pastorates. And one of them was Saint Joseph in Amherst.
I had been interested in Saint Joseph Parish in Amherst when it last came available for a new pastor 26 years earlier when I was serving as Bishop Pilla’s secretary. And now it was open again.
I sat there for a moment with a grin on my face. God had answered my prayer while I was still praying Morning Prayer. So I immediately wrote a letter to our Clergy Personnel Director and took it to the post office myself.
I became the pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in Amherst in 1 July 2015 and, as a big surprise to me, the bishop also appointed me as the administrator of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in South Amherst.
My mission from the bishop was to devise a plan where one priest – namely me – would be able to serve both parishes by himself. The bishop wanted me to develop one of several models that other parishes might look at as the Diocese of Cleveland faces an increasing clergy shortage.
I am now seeing the providence of God a lot more clearly. Having the experience two prior pastorates of parishes with schools – and as the only priest – is really an asset for me now. And when in 1989 I was praying to become the pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in Amherst, God had said “yes” to me – but it was not to take place until 2015, 26 years later. God had wanted Fr. Larry Martello to be the pastor of Saint Joseph Parish for those 26 years before I was to come.
Both of our parishes have things to contribute and both parishes have things to receive from each other. Although this joint stewardship venture is a new one, it holds so much promise and is already delivering much fruit. And the masthead portrays our vision and our hope so well: “St. Joseph Parish & Nativity Parish.”
There was a story in “The Saturday Evening Post” some time ago. It was about a church where the sermon had been overly long. At the last verse of the final hymn, the people stampeded out … all except for Abigail. She had been quite taken with what she had heard that day and so she stayed behind to reflect – and Abigail got trampled by the rest of the congregation.
The attorney for the church ran this argument: “The church is a not-for-profit organization, made up largely of volunteers. We can’t expect the church to run with the same efficiency as a business.”
That argument got to me: “The church is a not-for-profit organization, made up largely of volunteers. We can’t expect the church to run with the same efficiency as a business.”
We can’t? Look at what McDonalds does so well: advertising burgers and fries and other fast foods. And look what we have been entrusted with by God: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, forgiveness for our sins, and the opportunity to live forever with God in heaven. Shouldn’t we as a Church expend at least as much energy and drive and imagination – as much time, talent and treasure – as does McDonald’s?
There is no magic in Catholic stewardship as a way of life – just lots of grace, hard work and gratitude.
I take confidence in Saint Paul’s advice in his Letter to the Philippians: “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
And, in my own discipleship journey, as a “steward of the Church,” I hope that the Lord finds me faithful – and not simply “hitching a ride.”
The reading assignments and the questions for discussion and reflection can be found in this weekend’s bulletin and on our parish websites.
In the meantime, as fellow disciples of Jesus and “stewards of the Church,” I once again wish you happy reading, happy reflecting and a very happy fifth week of Lent, everyone!