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!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why I Took a Break from Writing

It started off as a simple exercise.

About 11 years ago when I was assigned to be the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese, I started going around from church to church every Sunday to preach about priestly vocations and the importance of praying for vocations.  At the same time I also served as the Master of Ceremonies for one of our auxiliary bishops, so there were weekends when I would not preach.  While I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Bishop Noonan and visiting different churches in the tri-county area, I really missed preaching on Sundays to my parishioners on the readings of the day.  So in an effort to stay sharp, every weekend I would write a brief homily as if I was going to preach it to one of the two parishes that I had served at.  Sometime in 2006, I started emailing these homilies to a few friends. Late that year, I started posting my homilies on (ready for this?) Myspace of all places.  Soon the email list got longer, I moved from Myspace to Facebook like everyone else, and by the time I returned to parish life in January 2009, I was writing, or better yet transcribing my homilies every single week.

More often than not, here is how the process would go.  I rarely write my entire homily before I preach.  I usually start thinking and praying about what I want to preach about in the middle of the week.  By Friday or Saturday, I have 4 or 5 things that I want to mention in my homily that I jot down on a post it note and I put it in my pocket.  By Sunday morning I (usually) know what I want to communicate during those precious 7-10 minutes during Mass that I get to share the Word of God with my parishioners. I seldom take the post it note out of my pocket unless there’s a quote on it that I don’t want to butcher, and then when I start preaching, it’s all up to the Holy Spirit from there.

Every Sunday night around 9pm, I would sit down in my room with my laptop with only that post it note as my reference and I would transcribe what I preached that day.  Only on very few occasions would I write down the entire homily before I actually preached it.  I really enjoy writing.  I really enjoy communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ through the different social mediums at our disposal.  For me it’s like a journal of my priestly journey of faith and how I communicate that faith to the people of God.

So I did this every Sunday night, except when I was on vacation or out of town, for 10 years.  I don’t know how many homilies I have written.  I have on occasion peeked back and looked at what I wrote in 2006 or 2007 and cringed at what I had transcribed.  Sometimes I would wonder if this weekly Sunday night routine was an exercise in vanity, but the comments I have received over the years have been so uplifting and not surprisingly, some of those positive comments are in response to homilies that I don’t think are that good.  Just another proof that the Holy Spirit is in charge when I stand in my church to preach or sit in front of a keyboard to type.

Last June, I started to feel rust and started to get weary from my Sunday evening routine.  It was a lot easier to do when I wasn’t a pastor.  On June 5th of last year, I wrote a very personal and heartfelt homily to my students who were about to graduate from 8th grade and by extension to all the students I have ever taught.  I still remember preaching that homily about coming home and staying home with my heart in my hand.  When I put it in writing later that evening and shared it with a few friends, I realized that it was one of those rare homilies that I was (almost) completely satisfied with.  So I posted it, and thought to myself, “if that’s the last homily I ever post, that’s fine with me.”  You see, one of the primary reasons I posted my homilies in the first place was to reach out to those who have wandered far from the Church.  Whenever I would sit down and write, I would always have my kids in the back of my mind praying that they would read what were essentially love letters from God to them. 

That mini-sabbatical lasted barely two months.  The people on my email list asked me to keep on writing which I did.  But the New Year rolled around, and I started noticing that at least the written version of my homilies didn’t have the same spirit they once had.  I was doing this more out of duty than out of passion.  So after returning from the March for Life in January, I wrote one final homily for the closing Mass of a retreat we hosted for families with children with special needs…and then I stopped.  I needed a break.  I did not want this labor of love to be a routine.  Some friends pleaded with me to keep writing, but this time I stood firm because I needed the break.  Over the past few months, the homilies I have preached in my parish have been more heart to hearts with my parishioners as we endeavor to grow closer to Christ.  They have been probably the most personal homilies I have ever given.  They are homilies that “you just gotta be there.”

This doesn’t mean that I won’t return to this medium again.  In fact, one of the reasons I decided to write these lines was because on Tuesday I got an email from our editor in the Archdiocese that she was going to publish that homily I mentioned earlier from June of last year.  The power of the written word is not lost on me especially when that power is amplified because I am writing about the Living Word of God.  I wish I could have you all in my pews every single Sunday, but I implore you to listen to the words of your priests in your parishes.  Yes I know that some are more eloquent than others, but listen because the Lord is communicating to you through these chosen ones of His.  There is more power in a homily heard and experienced during the celebration of the Eucharist than in any words that I can possibly write to you on Sunday nights. 

So for now, “I’m on a break” from writing…not from preaching the gospel.  Pray for me.  Pray for each other.  And above all, pray for your priests!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Shining City

“A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)

Yesterday, we were honored to host a retreat here in our parish for families of disabled children.  Here is the homily that I preached at the closing Mass on Saturday evening.

A week ago at exactly this moment, I was walking with my youth group leaders down a hill after a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.  If you’ve ever been there, you know that most of the cemetery overlooks Washington, D.C.  As we walked down the hill, with the setting sun painting the sky with all sorts of magnificent colors, I looked down on D.C., and saw how the sun was reflecting off the great monuments and memorials.  Our nation’s capital was bathed in a glowing light.  The U.S. Capitol dome reflected the dimming sunlight and it seemed like the Washington Monument was an entirely different color.  As I saw this wondrous display unfold, I could not help but recall President Reagan’s farewell address when he called our country the “shining city on a hill.”  This is a phrase he often used that he lifted from an early pilgrim named John Winthrop who lifted it from today’s gospel reading.  When Winthrop left England in 1630 to settle in this new land, he said:  “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

Jesus call us the light of the world in today’s gospel, and he reminds that we aren’t just a city on a hill, but a city set on a mountain that cannot be hidden.  And like Winthrop said, the eyes of all people are upon us, not because we are American, but because we are Christians, because we carry the light of Christ in our lives.  Unfortunately in today’s society, Christians aren’t encouraged to cast their light on the world just as the fading sunlight was shining down on our beautiful capital last Saturday evening.  Society would prefer that our light remain hidden, that we practice our Christianity in secret, that we keep it to ourselves.  Yet this in an option that our Lord does not give us: “your light must shine before others.”  It cannot be hidden.  Light by it’s very nature cannot be hidden anymore than we can keep the sun from rising in the morning.  The rays of the sun overpower the darkness at twilight and soon that light floods the entire sky.

Each of your children is a light that shines brightly in your homes and in our churches.  Their disability is viewed by the world as an “imperfection” when they are quite clearly made perfect by God because his standard of perfection is much higher than what the world considers to be perfect.  As Pope Francis said last summer during the Jubilee for the Sick and the Disabled: “It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment.  In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model… Yet what an illusion it is when people today shut their eyes in the face of sickness and disability!  They fail to understand the real meaning of life, which also has to do with accepting suffering and limitations.  The world does not become better because only apparently “perfect” people live there – I say “perfect” rather than “false” – but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase.  How true are the words of the Apostle: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27)!”  That last verse used by the Holy Father was from last Sunday’s second reading.  The world wants to hide the light of these children while the Lord and his Church embraces them and loves them as you have.  Together, they are the true shining city because they reflect the love of God.  As I said earlier during the opening talk of the retreat: I truly believe that children and children with disabilities understand God better than I do…and I’m a priest.

The example of these children who speak of the glory of God with their magnificent smiles should remind us that our spiritual lives should be childlike: “He is God.  I am not.”  It should remind us that we are called to take that glorious light that was given to us at our baptism and let that light shine before all.  We cannot keep that light hidden anymore than we can keep these children hidden.  I’ll say it again: hiding the light of Christ is not an option our Lord gives us.  We are a shining city on a mountain set forth for all the world to see.  Do not be ashamed of your faith.  Do not hide the light in your hearts.  Let all the world see that we are all members of this luminous Body of Christ, and that whether we are young or old, walking straight or bound to a wheelchair, possess great intellect or grasp only the simple, we are all part of God’s perfect design.