Jerusalem and the Altar in Our Church - part one

Here is an article I wrote today for next Sunday's Bulletin

Until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, there was only one altar in all of Judaism.  That was in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Synagogues do not have altars.  Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), all new Catholic churches have only one altar.  Most churches built before that usually have one main altar and two or even more smaller altars.  Our church was one of the first to be built after the council, and it has a beautiful altar!  It is the focal point of our whole church.  The renowned Belgian artist, Benoît Gilsoul (1914-2000), designed most of the religious art inside our church including the altar. 

Many of you probably have seen the booklet written by Fr. Henry Eagan, OSA describing the art in our church.  He tells us that Gilsoul chose “Jerusalem” to be the theme of the altar.  This is extremely appropriate.  For us Catholics, the altar is both altar of sacrifice, inextricably bound to the cross of Jesus Christ, as well of banquet table.  On our altars the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (just outside of Jerusalem) becomes present in our midst.   Let’s look at some of the symbolism. 

First, left of center we have Jacob’s ladder.  Jacob dreamed of this ladder, with angels ascending and descending to and from Heaven, at a place called Bethel (Gen. 28:12).  St. Jerome places Bethel (“House of God”) about 12 miles north of Jerusalem, but some Jewish commentaries place it at Mount Moriah, the site where Jerusalem and the Temple were later to be built.   Jacob’s dream can be interpreted to mean that this is to be a place where God and humankind commune with each other.  In the Gospel of John 1:51 there is clear reference to Jacob's dream pointing to Jesus who is referred to with his title of Son of Man: "Amen amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."  Indeed the altar is the place where we commune with God in and through Jesus, our Lord. 

Then, right of center we see the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit descended upon the disciples and Mary in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem, on Pentecost.  The seven round seeds seen close to the head of the dove express the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples went out from Jerusalem to witness to Jesus and to the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).   

Why are there holes in our altar?  Those are not holes.  They are gates!  The Book of Revelation chapter 21 describes the New Jerusalem that will come in the Messianic Age (when Jesus comes again) as being surrounded by walls made of precious stone.  The walls have 12 gates.  Our altar has 12 gates.  There are 6 on the front (the smallest is easy to miss – it’s at the base of the wing of the dove) and 3 on each side panel. 

Please take a closer look at the altar to see these symbols.  I’ll be writing more about the altar in a short while.   


Celebrating St. Augustine's Day in my new assignment

My first two weeks as pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel have gone smoothly.  I think I am going to like this place.  Only have had to call John, the previous pastor, twice about a few questions.  The people have been very helpful.  Laura, the office manager, and Vilma, the parish secretary, are both very professional and on top of things, as is Allen, the facilities manager.  Last Thursday I spent a few hours with the parish school principal.  Despite the building being 100+ years old, it has been kept in great shape and the parent have supported a good number of improvements in recent years.  This summer all of the floors were sanded and re-finished, a lot of painting was done, and a whole raft of other things were brought up to current code.  The teachers are all top-knotch!

So many people in the parish are enthusiastically involved in either the parish, the school or both in some cases.  Liturgy is handled very well.  There could be more singing, but that is an East Coast thing, I think.  We'll have to work on it.  The only thing that at this point has me kind of worried is the number of the faithful attending weekend Masses.  There were fewer than 900 each weekend, spread over 2 Saturday evening and 5 Sunday Masses.  I know it's August, so a lot may be on vacation or off on weekend trips.  So it may pick up after Labor Day.

This past Friday the four of us went to Manhattan for supper to celebrate the feast days of St. Monica and St. Augustine.  We went over by ferry.  I had not been on the ferry for at least 40 years.  The sky, the skyline and the weather on the way over were gorgeous.  I had not seen the Statue of Liberty in many years.  It was lovely.

Jim Cassidy, Jorge Luis Cleto, and our summer guest, Deacon Ubaldino Corrales, OSA from Panama was with us.  We went to a Peruvian restaurant in Greenwich Village.  We had a very leisurely (nearly 3 hours?) supper and then went back to the friary.  Saturday morning we concelebrated Mass on the Feast of St. Augustine.  I preached.  For the rest of the Masses over the weekend we substituted Mass for the Solemnity of Saint Augustine for the regular Sunday Masses and the hospitality committee ran a coffee and donut social after each of the Masses.

On Friday morning I visited 5 elderly parishioners in their homes, people who have been faithful members of the parish for many years, many for most of their lives.  3 of them in their 90s.  I feel it is important to bring the sacraments to such people and to maintain contact with them, especially since some of them were very active and vital members of the parish when their health was better.  I'm also convinced of the importance and the power of intercessory prayer, and I believe that people like this can continue to contribute much to the parish community by their prayers on our behalf.  I will continue to do so next Friday.  I keep picking up new names from others of the parishioners.


The following is a letter I wrote last evening to be published in next Sunday's church bulletin.
Dear Parishioners,

As I write this letter on Tuesday evening I have spent only a little over 33 hours as your pastor.  But I am very grateful to have been able to spend many hours here spread over the past 6 weeks.  Early in July I visited for 5 days to meet with Father John, members of the staff and some of the parishioners.  I was here for a few days before and after Joe Murray’s first profession Mass, then went on retreat in Suffern, NY, and arrived back here last Friday.  I met many of you at Father John’s farewell Mass and reception.  All of you have received me very warmly.  Thank you! 

Father John has a true pastor’s heart for you, the people of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish.  It comes through in so many ways!  The most obvious is the warmth and affection that flows between you all and him, back and forth.   Back in June, from the beginning of our conversations about this transition, John said more than once that he wanted to do everything he could to make this a smooth handoff.  I know that this is partly because of his concern for me, a fellow Augustinian friar, but also largely because of his great love for his flock, and his desire to make this transition go as smoothly and painlessly as he can for all of you.  You all know that Father John has exceptional organizational skills and pays remarkable attention to detail.  He has organized packets of informative materials having to do with all facets of the pastoral and administrative activities of the parish. Besides reserving large blocks of time to sit and explain these things to me, he has written many pages of notes to convey the more important points.  Often in recent years when a new pastor replaces a previous one, this kind of overlap is not possible.  Sometimes the two pastors never get to meet in person.  In one case I heard about, the new pastor arrived at the rectory and the parish secretary handed him an envelope from the previous pastor containing some keys and a note saying “Good luck!” 

So I consider myself extremely fortunate to be following Father John in this work as your pastor.  Both you and I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.   

When first I was informed about my appointment as pastor here, I was apprehensive.  For many reasons.  It has been a long time since I last was a pastor.  It was a much smaller parish in a nation far away from America.  But God gives us the grace to do the job he calls us to do.  As Augustinian friars, our community life, centered on supporting each other in our relationship with the Lord, is the sustaining basis for our ministry.  I am extremely pleased to be teamed with Fr. Jorge Luis Cleto and Fr. Jim Cassidy as my brothers in the friary and as co-workers in the parish.  Please pray for us, that we might grow into a community that St. Augustine would be proud of, and that we might serve all of you in the wider parish community in a way worthy of Jesus Christ our High Priest. 

And we three Augustinians will of course pray for all of you, our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Father Liam 


August 8 – August 13 (Sun to Fri) – Annual Retreat

a group of happy friars
This year I really wanted to make a retreat centered on the teachings of St. Augustine and the traditions of the Augustinian Order.  I was not able to find any in the usual venues, but I found out about one being offered at Tagaste Monastery in Suffern, NY during the second week in August.  Father John Melnick, of the Society of St. Augustine in Kansas City, mentioned it to me.  John is someone I got to know through some Augustinian friends on Facebook.  So here I am.  I’m writing this on Wednesday of the retreat and I am very glad that I have had this opportunity.  Father John Oldfield has given some wonderful talks, as has Father John Gruben.  Father Ramón Gaitán, prior of the monastery, has been our coordinator for this retreat and every evening he leads us in shared reflection on the two talks of each day.  Tagaste is a monastery of the Order of Augustinian Recollects.  The Recollects started as a reform movement within the Order of St. Augustine (my order) in 1588 and became an independent canonical entity in 1912.  The Society of St. Augustine is a younger congregation that has roots in both orders.  This has been a wonderful opportunity to pray with the friars in this community (the first time I have prayed the complete Liturgy of the Hours in choir since my novitiate), learn more about Augustine’s teachings, and to be exposed to Augustinian monastic tradition from a slightly different point of view.  It has been very enriching. 

The retreat has involved some tremendous moments of grace and healing.  It is wonderful to see God at work in the people around you. 

This time of prayer and reflection is a wonderful immediate spiritual preparation for my new job, which I’m sure will become very hectic on Monday the 16th, my first day. 

August 4 – 8  Transition begins. 

August 4 (Wednesday) – Leo Falardeau’s moving crew came over from Lowell to load my stuff onto their truck.  This is the 3rd time in as many summers that Falardeau and Sons have moved me to a new address.  They drove my stuff down to Our Lady of Good Council Friary on Staten Island and then loaded Father John DelloRusso’s stuff on the truck and drove it back up to Lawrence. 

August 5 (Thursday) – With Jeoffry aboard I drove down to Our Lady of Good Council Friary.  As after the last two moves, she will probably spend the first month or so under the bed.  In the evening she comes out and sniffs around my two rooms.  The first night she even put her head out into the corridor and the second night went over the landing in the stairwell and looked down the steps before skittering back under the bed.  I spent Friday and most of Saturday unpacking.

August 7 (Saturday) – Today at the 5:00 PM Mass Joe Murray professed his first vows in the Order of Saint Augustine.  This was the first time I had been to a First Profession ceremony in a very long time.  It did me a lot of good to see Joe do this in front of all of us, Augustinians and other members of the gathered congregation.  It brought back memories of my own first vows ceremony in September of 1968, over 40 years ago, and helped me to frame more precisely what that means in my own life. 

July 11 – 15  Pastors for a New Millennium: A Toolbox for Parochial Management

This workshop was held at the Redemptorist Retreat House in Long Branch, NJ., right on the beach.  I am so glad that I went!  The workshop is held in collaboration with Seton Hall University and the National Leadership Roundtable for Church Management.  The latter group trains pastors and church leaders in parish management and leadership “best practice” skills adapted from non-profits and other businesses.  Each speaker spoke on such topics as administration, finances, personnel management, relationship with the diocese, spirituality, personal well-being, etc.  Speakers were both lay and clergy.  Each one presented useful information and also provided resources that I am sure I will need to access in the future.  Father Paul Holmes of SHU did a wonderful job hosting the program.  An extremely kind man.  I somehow managed to catch a cold during the week and he went out of his way to make sure I was taken care of.  

July 6 – 11  Visit to Our Lady of Good Council Parish

Sanctuary of OLGC Church, SI, NY
Father John DelloRusso set aside most of Wednesday and Thursday (July 7 & 8) from his busy schedule to show me around the parish and introduce me to people.  John is extremely well organized.  He has all the information I need about the parish, school, parish council, archdiocese, facilities, pastoral matters and so many other topics organized into drawers and binders.  He introduced me to all the staff who were available and drove me around the parish, showing me the hospital, nursing homes and other major educational institutions within the parish.  He introduced me to the two priests in charge of the local vicariate, the sister in charge of the local convent school, and of course to many of the parishioners.  Importantly, he arranged a chance for me to meet with a few of the leaders of the parish council.  We had a very worthwhile conversation.  I am looking forward to working with them and with the other members of the council. 

Although it was not part of the original plan, I stayed until the following Sunday (July 11) and celebrated a few of the Masses on Sunday morning.  The people received me very warmly after Mass.  So many people; so many names!