We all love to tell stories. And, when we recount memories of significant world events, we often begin by asking: “Where were you when …?” It’s a great conversation-starter.
“Where were you when …”
… the Cuban missile crisis unfolded in the fall of 1962?
… the terrorist attacks hit the twin towers in New York City on 9/11?
… white smoke poured from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on March 13, 2013, announcing the election of Pope Francis?
… you heard the results of the U.S. elections of 2016?
But not every important moment is a globally recognized event. I was having a “Where you were when …” conversation with a friend recently, and he recalled a different kind of memory.
It was a moment with his dad, very fleeting, that had nevertheless left a deep impression when my friend was only about 4 years old. “It was lunch time, a Saturday. I was sitting right next to him at the kitchen table. In a big family, that didn’t happen often, as we had assigned seating and I was in the middle of the pack. But there I was,” he recalled.
“Dad had on a flannel shirt and had just smeared mustard on a ham-and-swiss sandwich and opened a bottle of beer. I could smell the beer, the mustard, the ham, the swiss cheese. I took it all in. He looked down at me, smiled his big grin, and said, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this!’”
My friend paused for a moment, then said: “Sixty years later I can remember every bit of it. Nothing spectacular happened before, during or after. I must have had a thousand bigger moments as a kid. But nothing lives with me like that start to an ordinary Saturday lunch. I wonder why that is.”
As he said this, a Bible passage popped into my head. These words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount are such a part of our culture that they are even quoted in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21).
I’ll wager that you also have memories like that of my friend. They may not be about big events. But they live in your heart and must have meant something larger to you in order to remain in your thoughts today.
For me, there’s a flash of memory on Beaver Road in Ambridge, back when I was in grade school. I lived with my parents about five miles outside of town, but attended St. Stanislaus School in the town itself. While many kids could walk home for lunch, that wasn’t an option for me. But my Slovak grandparents lived just a few blocks away. So I went there each noon for lunch. Then I hurried back to school, where the mayor had closed off the street in front of the school each lunchtime so we kids could blow off a little steam before afternoon classes. And that’s one of my moments frozen in time — I’m in that street with my friends, laughing while we played “it tag.”
I can’t explain why I remember that nearly six decades later. But I do, as clearly as I remember lunch in the house of my Baba and Dzedo, or receiving my first holy Communion. It was about friendship and joy and family. And though I couldn’t have understood it at the time, it was about a church and a town that worked together for the benefit of children. It’s about community. It’s what I treasure. It’s where my heart lies. It’s these memories tangled together in your life and mine — big and small — that make us who we are.
All of you know, through memories big and small, where your hearts are. You know where your treasure is. I don’t need to ask for proof of the heartfelt generosity and kindness that live in the Church of Pittsburgh, in all of our communities, in all our six counties, in all four vicariates. I don’t need extra proof because I witness this every day. I witness it in your food pantries, in the service of the Ladies of Charity and St. Vincent de Paul Society, in your contributions to Catholic Charities and your support for outreaches to the youth, to those with crisis pregnancies, to the elderly, to the bereaved, to those suffering from addiction.
You are not just generous people who happen to do this good work. You do this good work because it is who you are and whom you love: none other than Jesus and his church. That love defines you and me. It is faith alive. It is Church Alive! It is the way that you and I are telling the community — the entire community without regard to their faith or if they have no faith at all — that you and I are here to love and to serve.
Those are the memories that our dear diocese has been storing up since our birth as a local church in 1843. What prompts me to share this reflection with you is that on Aug. 11, our Diocese of Pittsburgh marked the 174th anniversary of its establishment by Pope Gregory XVI. As we remember our history, many memories connected to the heart of Jesus mark where our hearts must also be found.
Our dear Pope Francis said on the final day of his April pilgrimage to Egypt that the only kind of fanaticism acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others.
“True faith makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane. It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost,” he said. That is the fanaticism we should embrace in our hearts. That is the fanaticism that should form our memories.
Memories are far more than a nostalgic recollection of what was and never will be again. They are our collected personal heritage, alive today in us as individuals, and as the faithful of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. These memories tell us not only who we were, but what we are now, and will become as followers of Jesus embarking On Mission for The Church Alive! These memories are the treasures that make up our hearts in the present and stir our hearts for the future. And as my friend’s dad told him, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”