Friday, April 22, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, I received the news that Jim, my friend of nearly 50 years, more like a brother to me, died. And while his death was expected as a result of multiple health challenges, I really, really feel sad.
At a much earlier time in our friendship, I came to appreciate the genuine way Jim encouraged me. He encouraged me toward the priesthood when I was in the seminary. He encouraged me as a newly ordained when I was a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. He encouraged me when I worked in high schools. He encouraged me as a priest. He encouraged me as a bishop. He encouraged me when I was in Green Bay. He encouraged me when I came back to Pittsburgh.
And as he has just died, and as I prepare to celebrate his funeral Mass in Virginia, I thankfully and warmly think of his encouragement.
In the church’s prayer during the first week of Easter, there is a citation from the Letter to the Hebrews that is repeated: “Encourage each other daily while it is still today” (3:13).
I can’t count how many ways I love that citation. Today, because it reminds me of Jim. But always because it calls me first to encourage others — to build others up in faith, hope and charity, to support others in what is good in each of us. That’s what I need and try to do as shepherd of the Church of Pittsburgh. That’s what we as the Church of Pittsburgh need to do and be as the Church of Pittsburgh.
When and how often do we need to do this? The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we have to do this every day. The life of the Christian is not lived occasionally. It’s a call to be met every day “while it is still today” (Hebrews 3:13). This gives the author’s teaching daily urgency. “Please do good before tomorrow comes and today is lost forever.” Don’t let the opportunity to do good in the present be missed.
But there is another thing about that Scripture passage. It’s aimed at believers — and how believers treat and interact with each other. Yes, we are called to evangelize; yes, we are called to serve the poor. But we can do neither if we haven’t learned how to reach out to each other. How to care for each other in and as church.
They must know us by our love
We are getting deeper and deeper into our strategic planning initiative, On Mission for The Church Alive! The energy we are generating is beginning to be felt in every corner of the Church of Pittsburgh. We are looking at everything we do as church and how we can do it better. Our goal? How can we become better disciples of Jesus? How can we better help each other to get to heaven?
But we best not lose focus! We need to keep in mind that our first priority — On Mission for the Church Alive! — is how we treat each other, how we build up and encourage each other. The world must first know us by the love we show and live within the church in which we belong.
As Three Dog Night once sang, it’s “easy to be hard.” Too easy to miss the pain in our midst. We can — and must — show in all we do how much we care for strangers, care about evil and social injustice. But if we forget our neighbor, if we forget about those kneeling beside us in our churches, if we are not building up and encouraging them, we will accomplish nothing.
Paul says it all in his Letter to the Colossians. “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. Christ’s peace must reign in your hearts, since as members of the one body you have been called to that peace” (3:14-15).
That is the theme for how we live and work together On Mission for The Church Alive! Everything we do, we do in love. The peace of Christ must reign in our hearts. The peace that he calls us to daily “while it is still today.”
And so, with my gratitude for Jim’s encouragement so fresh in my mind and heart, given his death, I pledge my efforts in imitation of him to encourage you by my efforts as your shepherd On Mission for The Church Alive!
And I hope that that gift freely received will be freely given to others, many others, by you!
Follow On Mission for The Church Alive on Twitter at @PghChurchAlive. Have something to share about how your parish is On Mission? Use the hashtags #ChurchAlive and #OnMissionPgh.