An early start in life’s calling from God
How often does anyone reminisce about their past which may well have had a direct influence in the life they now live? I know several priests who began playing priest as young as five years of age. My great-grand-son already had a tendency to correct any bad language in his home, at 4 years of age. When he was born God told me he was calling him to the priesthood. He hasn’t played priest yet but the signs of that calling are already apparent.
Often we may look back into our lives, perhaps beginning as infants, and little by little tucked away somewhere in our brain of one instance or more that may have had an influence on our present position especially in our work for God’s people. The following is taken from my autobiography as an example of how God uses us with the talents given to extend the kingdom.
It all began so long ago as I was an infant, so I believe, when the presence with my mother became important to my growth. I can recall my mother wheeling me in a buggy with a cover and how some neighbor women stopped her to admire me. This day was sunny and it occurred on Kelly Avenue in Wilkinsburg near my grandmother’s house. It seems that I was able to see myself above the incident and viewed the women looking at me. Strange as that may seem that is an event I remember very clearly from my infancy. Somehow, in retrospect, this could have been a spiritual happening.
A particular Saturday evening my mother went to St. James for the Sacrament of Confession. My father and I remained in the car and he had me go to a corner store near the church for the Sunday paper. I paid the kid and upon getting back to the car noticed he gave me too much change. My father told me to go back and give him the excess change. When I did this another kid older than me said; “look at holy Joe.” My first encounter with being ridiculed for doing the right thing. I learned a lesson; never take advantage of another’s mistake.
When I was 12 years old (1948), sometime after I was confirmed, some friends and I were playing touch football on the street where I lived. The pavement was concrete and in those days perhaps a little different than the material used today. The game became a little more than touch-football and I had the ball running towards a make-believe goal. To my luck I was pounced on by a lot of boys and hit my knee rather abruptly on the concrete. It hurt but not enough to make me bed-ridden. Several days later a friend and I were tossing a football around and sort of tackling each other, not on a street but at our local ball field. Henry hit me as in a tackle and when falling landed on the same right knee. This time it hurt bad and I limped home with him helping me. It wasn’t too many days later that my parents took me to the hospital where I laid in pain and a swollen knee. I don’t remember how long I was there but one night I awoke and saw a priest with a stole, candle, and a prayer book and knew I was being anointed. Since it was not too far removed from my confirmation I immediately recognized the scene. I fell back into unconsciousness and later woke up calling my mother, who never left my side, that I was all wet. I have to insert here that the infection in my knee was such that the doctors could not lance the area for fear of the infection spreading perhaps to my heart. The doctors informed my parents that I had a 50/50 chance of surviving the night.
My father was not a staunch church-goer and he played the numbers with bookies, constantly. My mother later related this story to me; my father asked God if He gave me back he would quit playing the numbers. A covenant for sure! The infection broke; my father’s promise-the Sacrament of Healing (extreme-unction as it was called then) or both? He never played the racket addiction again. At my father’s funeral I used this as my homily and knew I sent him home. This perhaps was a strong part of my unknown journey to do God’s Will later as a deacon.
One day, many years later, while working as an electrician on the roof of an apartment building in Wilkinsburg, I became aware of the sound of the bells at St. James Church ringing at noon. I knew the bells were rung at noon, but there appeared to be a significance that I was attracted to them this day. I didn’t realize then but later in life I began to see a sequence of events leading me on this journey.
As I wrote somewhere else, after I got married the desire to attend Mass was not a priority for me, and Fran used to walk to church as I could view her from our apartment window. I knew in my heart I should be going as well but just did not. I wonder how many men have similar thoughts and do not take the prodding from the Holy Spirit to become active in their faith.
Not long after we were married Fran convinced me to attend a Miraculous Medal Novena during Advent. This would have been in 1960, before the birth of our daughter Wendy. I wasn’t adverse to attending the novena and am glad that I did. During the quiet time before the service began I silently asked myself; “what should I pray for?” I never thought much about praying for money or other material goods and wasn’t sure what to ask for. Out of nowhere a woman’s voice, soft and convincing, spoke very clearly saying; “why not ask for wisdom.” I responded by agreeing to do so. It wasn’t long after this novena that I was drawn to attend daily Mass. In those days, before Vatican II we could receive Holy Communion before Mass and this I did for some time. This time period was during Lent of the next year (not too long after my encounter with this woman’s urging during Advent).
One Sunday at Mass I remember a layman doing a reading from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians where Paul says “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” I thought to myself I’d like to do this. Consequently, I did later and this is another prompting by the Holy Spirit, in my mind.
It wasn’t until the next year during Lent that another voice, different from the one I heard that first Advent season, suggesting I attend daily Mass in lieu of just receiving the Eucharist. It was then that I began attending daily Mass and continued for many years.
There was an elderly gentleman, Jules Burgun, who was a daily communicate who approached me asking if I wanted to go on a men’s retreat at St. Paul’s retreat center with the men from St. James. I did agree and a life-long event began which turned my faith journey into something more than just a religious experience. I considered this as getting on the fast-track to a life I never would have taken without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the greatest impact was finding a book at St. James, after the retreat, by Fr. Francis Larkin on the Sacred Heart. I developed an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart and became a Night Adorer getting up at 3 am to pray for an hour before a small type of altar with candles and a wonderful large picture of the Sacred Heart which Fran got for me at Christmas. I remember one night, as I was praying, hearing a severe screaming that really startled me. I quickly got up and went to the window thinking someone was being hurt. The street was empty and not a sound could be heard. I returned to my prayers and heard in my heart 3 am is the time when evil is at its greatest and the screams were from the depths of Hell. My prayers were needed for many souls in Purgatory.
My time at St. James brought me into contact with the men of the Holy Name Society and I was asked to join their group. One of the tasks the Holy Name performed was having one member go to Columbia Hospital with another man from the St. Vincent De Paul Society and visit with Catholic patients. It was rewarding but not very well organized. As time went on our Holy Name president Joe McKavney was moving to Penn Hills and needed to remove himself from the office. They had a nomination/election the same Sunday and the choice was given to me. One of the first things I did was to reorganize the hospital visitation schedule on a rotating basis using both groups which worked out well. I also developed a newsletter with other members contributing articles of their own writing which was published for two months. Then the St. Vincent De Paul Society asked me to join their group and I stepped down from the Holy Name and devoted my time with St. Vincent De Paul. It wasn’t too long after joining that the presidency of our Particular Council (Eastern Suburbs) opened and I was elected to that position. It might appear that I was climber but in fact I was new to a lot of organizations and those people I worked with felt I was able to chair this and I believe the Holy Spirit was behind so much going on in my life. Believe me I was an introvert for a long time and to my surprise those feelings quickly disappeared.
During the time that I was active with the Holy Name Society, my pastor called me in and let me know Duquesne University had a radio program for the blind. If I wanted to undertake the volunteer position of reading over WDUQ on Saturdays the position was mine. A woman, whom I never met, highlighted areas from People’s Magazine and that is what I read over the air. I have had people ask me if I ever was on the radio because of my voice. Because of that position I could tell them that I was on the radio for a time.
Around the summer of 1971 the Diocese of Pittsburgh decided to start a class for Permanent Deacons. The announcement was published in the Pittsburgh Catholic but I never saw it and my pastor never mentioned it as well. Isn’t it strange how God works when He wants a person for His work. An unsuspecting person who wanted to be a deacon drove by my house twice asking if I’d gotten an application for the diaconate. The first time I brushed the question off, but the second time he actually stopped and told me the deadline was at the end of May and this was the first week in May. He also said; “you should be a deacon if anyone should”. So I got Fran to call the Seminary and had an application sent out. Once I began reading some of the requirements or possible aspects of them I became a little apprehensive. I didn’t have a college degree and what would my chances be without one? Even one priest I knew told me earlier that probably those to be chosen would need a college degree. That stuck with me and I almost didn’t complete the application. However, as with other events before and after in my journey I have heard the voice of God instructing me to continue with the process. My pastor did say he was thinking of one other man and me for this but failed to mention it. This other man was Dick Hissrich, the father of Fr. John Hissrich a diocesan priest whom I was friends with. All four priests from St. James wrote letters of recommendation for me as well.
Later that month I received a letter saying my application was accepted and a first meeting with exams would follow later. There were approximately 100 applicants chosen to take these exams (from an original 400). The exams weren’t easy and one had over 600 questions while the other two were a bit shorter. Sometime later that month I received a letter stating that everyone did well on the exams, but a class could not be larger than one fourth of those tested. The ones to be chosen would depend on the immediate need in our parishes. Another doubt arose with me since I was from a parish with four priests while there were a number with only one priest. What possible chance did I have? Well! The next letter I received stated that 29 were chosen and I was one. The class would begin at St. Paul’s Seminary in September 1971. Why O Man do you doubt God?
Let me digress for a moment; My time in the hospital and my father’s promise to God, the Sacred Heart devotions, the men’s retreat, the Holy Name and St. Vincent De Paul Societies, my friend stopping to tell me about the diaconate, and who can forget the gentle woman’s voice about asking for wisdom. I will be with you forever!
So that I don’t forget this woman (Maybe the Blessed Mother) it was during June of 1964 on a Sunday night, the week before there were two ember days, that I was lying across the bed reading the bible. Similar to the question I asked not too many years before when I asked what to pray for, I reiterated what else can I do for Jesus in this upcoming week? This very gentle woman’s voice (the very same one) said; “why not quit smoking?” My habit was 1 1/2 packs a day and I had been smoking for 13 years. I had tried to stop several times before but to no avail. However, Monday I took no cigarettes with me but bought a pack later in the day. I didn’t smoke the entire pack, not remembering how many I did smoke. That evening I was disheartened since I wanted to stop but couldn’t. Tuesday I didn’t take any cigarettes with me and ended up bumming and smoking five that day. That night I was completely upset that I couldn’t stop on my own. I told Jesus that if He wanted me to stop, especially since Wednesday was the first Ember day, He’d have to do it for me, or become the real impetus to stop. I have never had a cigarette or any tobacco since that time. Praise the Lord of my life and the gentle woman who is so close to my heart. Ask and you shall receive.
One thing that entered my mind, in the beginning of my spiritual journey, was the desire to speak to people about Jesus. I had no idea how that would come about, especially since the program for the diaconate had not yet materialized in our diocese, to my knowledge. No doubt the desire to speak about Jesus was placed in my thoughts by the Holy Spirit, unbeknown to me.
Saturday, June 15, 1974, one week after ordination, Fr. Merkle asked me if I was going to be on at Mass with him the following day. My response was yes and he continued “you’ll function as a deacon, reading the gospel and preaching”. Remember that I just stated how I wanted to speak about Jesus and I really looked forward to this opportunity as a deacon. However, now I felt timid and wasn’t ready to preach. So I said that I would read the gospel but wouldn’t preach. Fr. said; “you won’t proclaim the gospel unless you preach as well.” “That is part of the word.” “But do everything else a deacon does at the altar.” I was devastated since my office was to read the gospel . That evening I wrote my first homily, which was short and very nerve wracking. The next day, Sunday, June 16, 1974, I arrived at church and told Fr. Merkle I was ready to preach. Of course my motive was to read the gospel and this would be the only way to accomplish that. I did stumble through the homily, never taking my eyes off the paper to look at the congregation. It took only a couple of Sunday’s using little cue cards and these were struggles as well. I finally decided that I was the only person who knew my points and if I missed one no one would know. I never wrote another homily after that, yet preached almost every Sunday for the next 24 years. Talk about the Spirit’s presence and inspiration I am a product of that. In fact one woman who attended daily Mass told me I had a good voice and needed to look up while speaking and this advice did me some good. So the early days of my ministry grew with suggestions and the Holy Spirit’s Grace.
Interesting is my next comment regarding the early years of my diaconate wherein as I reflect back on some outstanding events that require mentioning. One such happening was during my ministry at Mercy Hospital. I functioned one night a week visiting Catholic patients followed by a communion service and then taking the Eucharist to those who said they wanted to receive. This one night as I was running late for the communion service and going down the ramp towards the chapel, I came upon the last room and was going to by-pass it due to the late hour. The Holy Spirit stopped me and had me go in where one woman was there. We had a short conversation and when I asked her if she wanted to go to communion tears filled her eyes as she said she wasn’t allowed to receive the Sacraments. When I questioned why she would say that, the following story had me aghast and I knew this was why the Holy Spirit led me to her. It seems that she had 7 children and had a difficult birth with her last child. The doctor told her she may not live through another pregnancy and she should have her tubes tied to avoid getting pregnant. Since she was Catholic he realized her priest might not agree and said to check with the Church. She was Italian and her Italian priest was emphatic when he said if she had that procedure done she would not be allowed to receive the Sacraments anymore. Her reply was will the Church take care of my children if I die. Obviously she had the procedure done and when she went back to the priest the result was devastating. For thirteen years this woman was away from the Sacraments and the next morning was to be discharged. Had I not followed the Holy Spirit’s bidding to enter her room she would have gone home and perhaps never would have received Jesus in communion. The chaplain heard her confession and one more soul was saved from a misguided directive of the Church.
One weekend a priest from the Home Missioners was at St. Angela Merici Parish in White Oak, where I functioned for six years. I was impressed with his ministry and where they operated parishes throughout the southern states. My interests were peaked but I went no further than that. Again isn’t it awesome how God affects our lives in ways we would never imagine or choose ourselves. Because, Several years later, while I was ministering at St. Denis in Vesailles Boro who should show up for Mass but Fr. Francois whom I met at St. Angela’s. This time I took the opportunity to discuss with him the possibility of doing full-time ministry with his order. Keep in mind the span between St. Angela’s and St. Denis was partially spent in Texas which is included a little later in this writing. Their Mother House was located in Cincinnati, Ohio and he invited me to spend a week-end with them.
While staying with them, and doing some preaching as well, I took time to look around the house and on one wall were pictures of the different parishes they had charge of. One picture got my attention more than the others and I kept it tucked in my memory. It was located in Guin, Alabama, in the northwest area of the Birmingham Diocese. Again, without being repetitive, the Lord uses so many ways to move us and use our gifts in ways we can’t even begin to fathom. It was a few years later that I worked for my nephew, Danny, and his company was directing the installation of fibre-optic cables for 3/M in; you guessed it Guin, Alabama. I was there for four months and as I went looking for a Catholic Church, LOL it was the very one hidden back in my memory of the picture I saw at the Mother House in Cincinnati. Can anyone even remotely deny the very presence of God in our lives and the smooth manner in which He directs our lives, especially when one is in ministry and our openness to His direction.
While at Mass one morning I attracted the attention of one male parishioner, John DeBlieux, III by name, and after some discussion and finding out I was a deacon, he invited me to his house for an evening that would include my teaching a class on Spirituality. The date was April 19, 1988. This teaching is included among some of my writings as reflections.
With each new venture in my ministry I made new friends in a number of parishes within five different dioceses in addition to Pittsburgh. They are, San Angelo, TX, Phoenix, AZ, Birmingham, AL, Raleigh, NC, and of course Cincinnati, OH. Some were short stays but in each I did preach or teach as in Guin, AL. I heard from some people that it was my own doing that took me to Texas, but in each move or stay God was certainly at the helm and only one with a deep commitment to God would understand and see that. I feel I qualify on both points.
There is one incident during my ministry at St. Angela’s that taught me a lesson regarding the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life and something about the way God interjects His Will into our lives. Of course, all the way through this writing you’ll notice how I allude to this fact and it may become repetitive, which is what I want to emphasize to the reader. As I mentioned earlier I quit writing my homilies early on but never went out cold turkey. I did spend the week before reading and studying the text of that week’s theme and was well prepared to preach. Usually I would go over the entire talk the night before and would go back over it the morning I was to speak. This one Sunday in question, I got up and while getting bathed, shaved, and other functions, I looked at the readings just to familiarize myself with this day’s theme. Nothing! I mean nothing came to my mind regarding the text or the homily. I never experienced this much emptiness in my cranium. My thoughts were, “something will enter my mind and the rest will be history”. Wrong! Didn’t happen.
All the way to St. Angela’s I kept asking the Lord for some word, but no response, not even a peep. When Fr. Steve came into the Sacristy he smiled and as usual said; “what’s your theme today?” I looked at him and said; “I don’t remember.” He was flabbergasted and said he’d never dream of going out there not knowing what he was going to say. It was too late for him to go back to the house and get his notes. We began the entrance, singing with me wracking my brain as to what I was going to say. Through the readings, Psalm response and the Alleluia my mind was blank and my nerves were on edge. I got the blessing, read the gospel, and walked the center of the Sanctuary where there was just a microphone. I removed it from the stand and said to myself; “here goes nothing.”
The words poured out and I never did know what I said or how it sounded. After finishing the pastor said he liked it. I drove home later and once inside my house looked up and said; “what are you doing to me?” The words were clear and very succinct! “You’re always talking about faith; today I tested yours.” If all of the items mentioned before about, my knee with the infection, the Sacred Heart, Wisdom, Positions in the Church, and O yes that gentle woman’s voice, how could I could ever deny that God’s Holy Spirit was with me and He did the speaking for me. I tell many people about this and you can see the impact it has on those listening.
These are a few experiences where the guidance of the Holy Spirit was the impetus for my using his gifts given to continue as a servant to instill his presence in other people.
Ralph B, Hathaway, Using God’s Gifts