Sunday, September 16, 2018

Picking Up Your Cross

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

About 6 years ago when I was assigned to St. Gregory, we had a big hospital a couple of blocks away which we were charged to visit when someone called for a priest. It was always a toll to be responsible for a hospital and knowing your day could be thrown for a loop if the hospital cell phone went off, but I have beautiful memories of ministering there.  On one particularly day in the late afternoon I was walking over from our parochial school to the rectory.  I was tired.  It had been a long day, and it wasn’t remotely over.  To this day sometime between the time school ends and the evening work of the parish begins, I like to squeeze in some quiet time in the late afternoon to gear up for that night’s ministry.  On that particular day, it was not meant to be.  I was exhausted, and I was headed into our residence to disconnect for a short while from the parish but our receptionist handed me a message.  Someone had died over at the hospital and the nurse called asking for a priest.  At that moment, I must confess, two very selfish thoughts crossed my mind, “why didn’t they call before the person died,” and “why were you giving me the message if I’m not on call?”  The priest who was on call had already left on another sick call, so I was on deck.  It never ceases to amaze me that when the Lord calls me at the most inopportune moments (i.e. when I selfishly don’t want to do things) the more grace he sends my way and the more grace I witness through no particular action of my own.  It’s all Him.  I got in the car and drove over to the hospital not knowing the details of the situation that I was going to confront.  I walked into the ICU and the nurse introduced me to the mother of the patient.  The mother?  Yes, the mother of a 27-year-old young man who had died. (The particulars of his death are not important; the fact that a mother lost her son unexpectedly is.)  Through her tears, this mother explained to me what had happened and she could barely get her words out.  It was a heart-breaking scene and even though she didn’t know me and even though she wasn’t even Catholic, as I would discover, she grabbed me, embraced me, and just starting sobbing.  She asked me to go in and say a prayer for her son.  I offered the prayers as this mother caressed her child much like Mary did hers.  I’ve been in many hospital rooms, ICU’s and ER’s, but this particular scene is still raw, still unnatural, and yet in some odd way filled with the Lord’s presence despite the tragic circumstance. I don’t remember what I said.  I do remember that they thanked me, the nurse who called thanked me, and as I was walking out of the hospital I started kicking myself because at first I did not want to go.  My selfishness almost deprived me of such a most grace-filled moment.:  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

Yes, out of necessity I was pressed into action that day, but to truly follow Christ and be Christ for others, we must constantly deny ourselves to allow him to do his good work in us.  To profess faith in Jesus, like Peter did, means that we have to back that faith up with action.  St. James makes that quite clear in the second reading.  Faith without works is dead.  We cannot proclaim Christ as Lord if we don’t deny ourselves DAILY and carry our crosses.  This is not an either/or proposition.  We cannot have one without the other.  Faith and works go hand in hand.  I couldn’t have been a minster of grace to that mother if I wouldn’t have taken a deep breath, offered my exhaustion to God, and carried the cross that was handed to me.  And here’s the kicker:  that tragic scene at the hospital would’ve brought down anyone without faith.  It gave me a second wind for the day.  When you see the hand of God tangibly working through the good works you do, you just want to do more.  When you see what a graced filled life you can live when you deny yourself and start putting God and the other first, you start looking for crosses to pick up.  Today our Lord is calling you to put the needs of others before yours.  There are poor people in the streets.  Pick them up.  There are sick people that need visiting.  Pick them up.  There are brothers and sisters who mourn.  Pick them up.  There are women that are contemplating an abortion.  Pick them up.  There’s a young person who may feel lost.  Pick them up.  There are many Catholics who are questioning their faith or the Church because of the scandals.  Pick them up. There are so many crosses around us that need picking up.  But there’s one cross that the Lord has given to you.  One cross that is only for you.  Only you can carry it (with His help of course) and only you can identify the purpose of this cross.  And when you find that cross that is particularly your own which may seem too heavy to carry, just know that His grace will suffice, the rewards will be heavenly, so do not be afraid:  deny yourself, approach that cross, and pick it up! 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Are You Listening To Me?

"And immediately the man's ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed..." (Mark 7:35) 

Let's get this out of the way right at the top: women think that men don't listen. You hear this a lot when couples are arguing, but priests aren't immune from this either. I come from a family of very talkative women, and all you have to do is ask any of them the simple question, "How are you?" and you will get a very lengthy response which is inevitably followed up by the question, "Are you listening to me?" Cause you see, since they have monopolized the conversation and haven't allowed you to utter a word, they don't think you're listening to them. Ok, maybe I'm trivializing communication between men and women just a tad, but it is extremely important in any relationship. The question of whether or not we're listening, as annoying as it may be, is actually a valid one because if we aren't listening we cannot respond. Such is the case with our relationship with the Lord, he has so much to tell us, so much to for us to do, but we turn a deaf ear and only listen to the parts that will not cause us to drastically alter our lives.
In the gospel today, the people bring a deaf mute to Jesus. The Lord places his fingers in the poor man's ears and touches his tongue and says, "Be opened!" The man's ears are opened, and he begins to speak as well. Upon hearing the Word of God, the former deaf mute is compelled to respond to that Word. The question the gospel presents to us today is: do we listen and consequently respond to God's Word? The problem is that like in any relationship, we turn a deaf ear when we don't want to listen. We think that when we come to mass we've heard it all before especially when it's a gospel we've heard countless times. During homilies, we smile and laugh when the priest says something we agree with, but play deaf and dumb whenever he challenges us with something radical or life changing. Here's the thing, the Word of God is not static. It is very much alive and has something new for us every single time we hear it. We cannot block out those things we do not want to hear or do not want to deal with. Christ is telling us to be open to whatever he has in store for us. Be open to the promptings of his Spirit. Be open to embrace the challenge of his Divine Word. Once we listen, we are able to respond. The Word applies to every aspect of our lives and applies equally to every one. Today we must admit that we are at times deaf to what the Lord wants to tell us and ask him to open our ears, our minds, and our hearts to joyously accept his will in our lives. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Back to Basics

It occurs to me that the times we are currently experiencing in the universal Church demand a so-called “back to basics” approach.  I have yet to encounter a person who has told me that they are leaving the Catholic Church because of the current scandals.  Quite the contrary, I’ve seen people who have put out into the deep waters that Christ calls us to in search of that elusive holy life.  I’ve seen and read about people who want to get more involved in their Church and rediscover the beauty of their faith.  They are finding the religion that St. James speaks of in today’s second reading.  And this is where the back to basics approach comes in.  St. James tells us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).”
Even if we haven’t left our religion during this summer, we have no doubt questioned it, its precepts and its leaders.  St. James defines pure religion as caring for the other, in this case, those most vulnerable during the time of the first Christians: the orphan and the widow.  Then James sums it up by beautifully stating something that I and so many preachers have been hammering home the last few weeks: our call to be holy.  We are to keep ourselves “unstained by the world.”  And this is key particularly after a week in which we have seen such a fractured Church:  a Church that has been divided into left and right as if political parties ran it.  It calls to mind Don McLean's musical lyric: “I saw Satan laughing with delight.”  The devil is rejoicing seeing a splintered Church, a Church that is doubting its leaders, dabbling in conspiracy theories as if we were living in an Oliver Stone film, and running from the very reason Christ brought the Church into existence: to love those who need to be loved with the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts and to be a light for all nations.
Satan can laugh all he wants but the music has not died.  Despite our best efforts to destroy the Church from within (and I’m talking about bishops and priests here), the work of the Church continues.  Mass is still being celebrated.  The poor are still being fed.  Our children are still being educated to be disciples. The sick and the widows are still being visited, and the orphans, well, we can do much better in that department if only our government would let us, but I digress.  Faith in Christ is growing stronger in the face of adversity and we are being transformed from being mere hearers of the words to being actual “doers of the word.”
This is why I said last week in my homily that the future of the Church is found in the pews.  You must take leadership of the Church because you ARE the Church.  We priests and our bishops need to be taken down a few pegs and start washing feet again. Clericalism is a diabolical sin that has plagued the Church for way too long and it only serves to separate us the clergy from being true servants to the people of God.  There was a brilliant essay penned yesterday by George Weigel who is a magnificent Catholic writer in which he concludes “that the Church is being called to a great purification through far more radical fidelity to Christ, to Catholic teaching and to Catholic mission. Bishops who have failed in their responsibilities as teachers, shepherds and stewards have typically done so because they put institutional maintenance ahead of evangelical mission. Keeping the institutional Catholic machinery ticking as smoothly as possible, by compromises with truth and discipline if necessary, was deemed more important than offering others friendship with Jesus Christ and the sometimes hard truths the Church learns from Christ.” 

It truly is time to get back to basics and pursue a religion that is pure and undefiled.  It is a time to return to the basic evangelical love and mercy of Christ which made us fall in love with this extraordinary faith.  It is time for the laity to take up the mantle of leadership within our Church and help us restore the beauty of Catholicism.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Message to Parishioners in Wake of Church Scandals

No, your eyes are not deceiving you, after much prayer and some nudging from very important people in my life, I have decided to start writing and sending out my homilies again.  I will slowly start easing back into it (don't be surprised if I miss a week or two here and there), but I firmly believe that in the times that we are living in and with the scandals that are besieging the Church, I cannot remain least online.  I have preached about the scandals head on over the last two Sundays and on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15 which was the day after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury released their report.  On August 15, I called what is going on in our Church by name: this is quite simply the work of the Evil One who is delighting at seeing our beloved Church in crisis.  How else to explain the horrific details outlined in that report, or the massive cover up around former-Cardinal McCarrick, or the details outlined Archbishop's ViganĂ³'s swown testimony?  Bishop Robert Barron probably put it best when he called all of these tragic events "a demonic masterpiece."  There has been a lot infighting in the Church, which also delights Satan, when we must be united in penance and prayer, and this infighting is making us lose sight of what is most important: we must never lose sight of the innocent victims of these violent crimes who must always be first in our prayers.  We cannot possibly imagine what they have suffered and are still suffering: the loss of innocence, the lose of faith.  So like St. Peter trying to walk on the sea during the storm, we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Spend time before the Blessed Sacrament.  Go to Mass more often.  Go to Confession more often.  Offer penance and fasting for the sins committed.  We are ONE Church.  We are a Holy Church.  Yes, we are a Church made up of sinners, but as I describe in the letter to my parishioners below, Christ will purify us during this time so that we might be holy in his sight.  Let us commend the victims, the holiness of God's people and the holiness of our priests and bishops to the maternal care of our Blessed Mother.  May she protect us as we journey through this valley of tears.
Message to the Parishioners of Immaculate Conception Parish (9-2-2018)
My dear friends,
The last few weeks have brought a lot of sadness, anger, and confusion when it comes to the scandals that are currently plaguing the Catholic Church. If you are angry, you have every right to be. If you feel betrayed, you certainly have been. As a parish, we have experienced this before, and once again we will overcome it because our faith in Jesus Christ must be unwavering during these perilous times.
There was a wonderful collection of verses in last week’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that really stood out: “...Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27)”
We are no doubt going through a period of extreme cleansing as a Church, and we must pray that the Lord make us holy and without blemish. Holiness is our universal call as baptized Christians, but in these moments it must be more than a calling. Holiness can no longer be a goal that we must strive for as Christians but rather a necessity that we must embrace in the face of the storms that are besieging Holy Mother Church. We have no choice anymore but to be holy as our Lord is holy.
The sins committed by a few have affected so many; especially God’s little ones, those he favors, those he calls us to imitate if we wish to enter the kingdom. These sins cry out to God and because we are one Church, we pray for the victims of these heinous crimes and pray for those who covered them up that they may do just penance.
This is a time of penance for us as a Church. Think of it as a summertime Lent. One thing that has not gone unnoticed are the long lines at our confessionals the last few weeks. There is a genuine desire among us to seek what is good, what is holy, and to rid ourselves of the filth of sin. And we must also rededicate ourselves to prayer at Mass and before the Blessed Sacrament. This week we will have that opportunity.
This Thursday, September 6th, we have been invited as a parish to celebrate one of the Novena Masses for Our Lady of Charity at La Ermita de la Caridad. Our school children have been invited to sing to the Blessed Mother and the priests of our parish have been invited to celebrate the Mass. There is no better time for us as a community to go to the feet of our Blessed Mother to ask her to protect her Son’s Church. We are calling on all our parishioners to do a pilgrimage this Thursday to La Ermita to celebrate this special Mass at 8pm. Prayer moves mountains and we need the Lord’s help to move the mountainous obstacles that are preventing us as a Church from being holy and without blemish.
God bless you all,
Father Manny

Thursday, November 23, 2017

100 Thanks (2017)

It’s been a while since I posted something in this space, but how could I not post my annual list of 100 things for which I am thankful?  The Christian heart must always be a grateful heart.  Giving thanks is what we should be doing, in good times and bad times, because ultimately we are giving thanks to a God who not only sent His only Son into the world, but His Son suffered and died for us to give us the gift of eternal life.  Last night I tweeted that I am always in awe of people who even with a broken heart muster the strength to give thanks.   Yes, the cynic would look at the current state of the world and ask what could we possibly give thanks for?  Well, I found 100 things and reasons and I could probably write many more because this Thanksgiving, throughout the ups and downs that has been 2017, my heart is full of gratitude, and here are just 100 reasons why:

1.     The underserved gift of my priesthood which is an adventure that even 15 years in continues to surprise and leave me in awe.
2.     My big, beautiful, crazy, at times maddening, but wouldn’t change them for the world family and all the crazy cousins that come with it.
3.     My mother’s prayers who have helped me through those dark nights of the soul.
4.     My father’s wisdom and strength that are the rock that we all lean on.
5.     My sister’s persistence and heroism in raising a family, moving them this past year, putting my nephews in two different school, and still have time to love my brother in law unconditionally through ten years of marriage.
6.     My oldest nephew who made me cry in a baseball game when I found out he had made the honor roll at Belen.
7.     My second nephew who likes to explain things in great detail to me and for that top button on that shirt that he refuses to unbutton.  Yup, just like his uncle: don’t mess with my routine.
8.     My third and youngest nephew who is the coolest cat in any room and whose laugh and smile lights up that room and all those who are blessed to be in his presence.
9.     My dearest friends who have grown up with me, know me, counsel me, correct me, and allow me to be part of their extraordinary lives.
10. The crosses that I carry (ok, I must confess that I “borrowed” this from one of my 8th grader’s lists because it was so inspiring.  The crosses we bear become less burdensome the moment we embrace them as our Lord embraced his.)
11. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because I get to be at the center of when heaven is wedded to earth in this divine exchange that I pray unceasingly that my people would comprehend.
12. For the people that comprehend and indeed are in awe of the magnitude of the Divine Mysteries we celebrate.
13. The faith of the people of God who lift up my faith daily.
14. The prayers of the people of God who carry me through the rough days.
15. The generosity of the people of God who always respond to those in need sometimes without even being asked.
16. The maternal protection of the Virgin Mary because as my confessor always reminds me: “You don’t think you’d be made pastor of a church named for Our Lady and she’s just going to abandon you!”
17. The abiding presence of the Holy Spirit who constantly pinch hits for me when I can’t get up to bat.
18. Being able to go to confession (at least) once a month to cleanse my heart.
19. Being able to hear my peoples’ confessions and unshackle them from the slavery of sin.
20. Spending those last precious minutes with a soul who is about to depart from this world and preparing them for eternal life.
21. Being able to witness so many young couples embrace and truly comprehend the Sacrament of Matrimony (they far outweigh those who do not get comprehend).
22. Having those same couples bring their newborn children to me so that I can baptize them with the waters of everlasting life.
23. That rush of adrenaline (and the Holy Spirit) that fills me in those few seconds right before I start preaching a homily.
24. Standing in front of a classroom to just teach.
25. The lists just like this one that my 8th graders have been writing and I’ve been reading for the last 14 years.
26. Those days that I look at my calendar and see “no meetings” where I can just go out and be a priest and not an administrator.
27. Sitting in a preschool classroom and allowing myself to be swept up into a world of pure imagination.
28. Seeing the relief on students’ faces when I walk into a classroom because I just momentarily saved them from taking a test.
29. The sacrifices that so many parents make to provide their children with a Catholic education.
30. Sitting with my CCD confirmation students to just talk about “stuff.”
31. My annual retreat where the best part is turning off my phone for five days so I can only listen to God.
32. Being able to celebrate the great mysteries of the Holy Triduum without worrying about the details because I have the greatest group of MCs this side of the Vatican.
33. Being able to welcome new Catholics into this great family during every Easter Vigil.
34. The grand silence of Good Friday that draws us deeper into the mystery of our redemption.
35. The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday that reminds me each and every year that this is why I became a priest.
36. Being able to celebrate Mass this year at the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem.
37. Finally taking my mother to the Holy Land.
38. Sailing on the Sea of Galilee with my father and wishing we were both in St. Peter’s boat going fishing.
39. Going up to Jerusalem and finally setting foot in the holy city like so many pilgrims before me (my Lord included).
40. Spending time standing in complete silence in a corner of the Upper Room letting myself be overwhelmed by everything that happened in that sacred space: the Last Supper, the washing of the feet, Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  How could I not be overwhelmed?
41. Literally carrying a cross on the Via Dolorosa.  Not as heavy as our Lord’s but still heart wrenching if even for a minute to feel a fraction of the pain that he felt.
42. Walking into the Holy Sepulcher and finding it…empty!
43. Once again sitting in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and just gazing up at the majesty of this glorious church.
44. Walking through the medieval streets of Assisi with a gelato in hand and feeling total peace.
45. Feeling even greater peace going down the hill to San Damiano and hearing those beautiful winds coming from the valley below still saying after 8 centuries: “Francis, rebuild my church.”
46. Once again getting to personally see and hear from the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis.
47. Walking the streets of Rome as if I was a citizen of the Eternal City.
48. Driving through the hills and mountains of Umbria and feeling at home.
49. That bumpy but satisfying feeling when your plane finally touches down in Miami after a 10 hour transatlantic flight.
50. Spending five memorable days on a Disney Cruise with my sister, my cousins and my nieces and nephews.
51. Rediscovering after 16 years that when you enter a Disney ship or resort, you basically become a kid again.
52. Flying the Millennium Falcon with my oldest nephew and spending quality time just the two of us.  Me and my brother’s boy!
53. The bordering on gluttony food extravaganza that awaits you on any cruise.  (I may have been in a food coma at some point.)
54. Miraculous bag limit yellow tail catches in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with good friends.
55. Jumping into the turquoise waters of the Atlantic after a hot morning of fishing.
56. Having breakfast in way too small diners in the Florida Keys.
57. Discovering a little place called Mangrove Mike’s and more importantly discovering that they serve something called the “Breakfast Tater Tot Tower” (tater tots loaded high and topped with two eggs-any style-and your choice of having it smothered with cheddar cheese and crumbled bacon).
58. Also discovering another place that serves French Toast made of croissants. (we’ve reached the food and funny portion of the list, folks).
59. The smell and taste of fresh caught yellow tail fried to perfection.
60. Sitting down with good friends to eat and realizing that we don’t need phones, TV, or movies to entertain us when a good conversation is always much more fun and enriching.
61. “Another Day of Sun” with “Someone in the Crowd” that leads to “A Lovely Night” in a “City of Stars” (that movie was robbed!)
62. The heroism of the Jesuit Missionaries in Japan as told by a legendary director in a movie simply called “Silence”
63. Shibboleth
64. Watching a West Wing Thanksgiving episode the night before Thanksgiving and still carrying hope for America.
65. Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain Turnover Chain
66. The unexpected, unbelievable, undeniable return of THE U!
67. Sitting in Hard Rock Stadium during the Notre Dame game and actually feeling, if only for a fleeting second, as if I was back in the Orange Bowl for another magical night game.
68. Sitting in the right field bleachers on a brisk October night in Yankee Stadium to witness a thrilling comeback by the Yankees in the American League Championship Series
69. All Rise! Watching Aaron Judge hit a gargantuan home run to start that Yankee rally that simultaneously caused everyone in the right field bleachers to throw their beers up in the air in jubilation (hey, I got a cool Yankee hoodie out of this!)
70. Taking my father to the Major League All Star Game.  While it wasn’t the great game I experienced in the Bronx, we can now say that we attended the Mid Summer Classic that we watch on TV every year.
71. Derek Sanderson Jeter…I think. Look, it can’t get any worse than it’s been the last 15 years…can it? (He continues to be my favorite baseball player of the last 25 years.  I just pray that he’s just as good as an owner, but not off to the greatest of starts.)
72. Electricity, hot water, WiFi, DirectTv: because when you go through a hurricane, and we were so blessed it didn’t hit us head on, you learn to appreciate the simplicity of turning on a light switch and a light actually turning on.
73. Quiet nights during the aftermath of the hurricane when you had nothing to distract you from counting your blessings.
74. The sweat of so many people that helped clean up our parish grounds to get our church ready for Mass the Sunday after the hurricane.
75. That nice cold glass of lemonade in the middle of a hot late summer afternoon between cutting down trees or blowing leaves out of the parking lot.
76. Chainsaws that really work and men (and nuns) who know how to really use them.
77. Karaoke nights where I don’t know whether I’m singing well or if people are just lying to me to not hurt my feelings.
78. Spaghetti dinners with my parishioners because it’s a family dinner with basically my entire parish family.
79. The joy of a perfect weather carnival weekend.
80. The work put in by so many good people over so many long hours to make it the perfect carnival weekend.
81. Seeing so many former students come to the carnival to tell me they miss being home at Immaculate.
82. Taking an endless parade of selfies with all those former students.
83. Just Dance.  Simply.  Just Dance. (My First, My Last, My Everything)
84. Cinnamon dipped beignets from the Powdered Doughnut accompanied by Bacon wrapped Fried Oreos
85. Speaking of doughnuts, how can I forget to mention the Maple Glazed Bacon Donut from the Salty Donut (thank you UberEats).
86. Sitting in a freezing dunk tank watching the joy of little children and not so little children taking turns in dunking their pastor.
87. Hosting a retreat earlier this year and hosting a Mass once a month for families of children with special needs and discovering what I already knew: they are truly part of God’s perfect design.
88. Helping autistic children receive the sacraments against all odds because I know deep in my heart that they comprehend God better than I ever will.
89. Carrying on a group chat over several years and not being bothered when somebody texts at a late hour because they’re in a different time zone.
90. Going back to the place I once called home and being received with the same love that a son receives when he returns.y
91. The truth, and sometimes truth that hurts but I need to hear, from my former students from back in the day that have my trust to speak and tell me what’s really on their minds.
92. That no matter how far these kids travel in life or how many lofty goals they achieve, they still check in on me and love me unconditionally.
93. That they still move me to tears when I see them achieve their lofty goals.
94. That I’m now witnessing their marriages and baptizing their children.
95. Outrunning thunderstorms in a really fast boat on Biscayne Bay with friends that are more like family.
96. “I have learned that being with those I love is enough.”
97. “Failure waits for those who stay with the same success of yesterday”
98. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
99. “It is easier for the earth to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!”

100.       “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Happy Thanksgiving!