Sunday, October 30, 2011

Being Called Father

“The greatest among you must be your servant.”  (Matthew 23:11)

I still remember the first time I was called “Father.”  I wasn’t even a priest yet.  My ordination was still nine days away.  I was visiting St. Agnes for the very first time and was being given a tour of my first assignment by the school bookkeeper and she kept calling me Father and introducing me to everyone as “Father Manny.”  I tried in vain to tell her that I wasn’t a priest yet that she could call me Manny, but she insisted because I was going to be a priest very soon and she wanted me to get used to it.  It was a little jarring at first being called “Father.”  It is for every newly ordained priest.  And even as I approach ten years of priestly service, when I stop and think about this, it is truly humbling and underserved.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Call no one on earth your father.”  He does not mean this literally, for he is simply warning the disciples about the feeling of superiority that the Pharisees had gotten over all the titles they enjoyed being called.  For me, the title “father” has never made me feel superior, but rather been a challenge and a reminder of the incredible responsibility that the Good Lord has given to me in calling me to be his priest.  It is a challenge to be humble, selfless, and a servant above all else.  “The greatest among you must be your servant.”  Jesus reminds of us this in today’s gospel, but as a priest I was reminded of this on my ordination day when I lay prostrate on the cathedral floor.  Above all else, I must be your servant.

Last summer, I read great book by the biblical scholar Scott Hahn on the biblical origins of the priesthood titled, “Many Are Called:  Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood.”  I read it, providentially, on my first trip to Rome.  Dr. Hahn echoes the words of Jesus in today’s gospel that we have one Father in heaven, but what this great scholar said next really moved me:  “[God the Father’s] perfect fatherhood is a spiritual act.  Celibate priests are living and life-giving images of God the Father, as they beget new children for the kingdom through baptism (p.129).”  This week in his reflection on today’s readings, Dr. Hahn would finish that thought by saying:  “The fatherhood of…the Church’s priests and bishops, is a spiritual paternity given to raise us as God’s children.  Our fathers give us new life in baptism, and feed us the spiritual milk of the gospel and the Eucharist.”  Very challenging indeed when I stop to think about my call to mirror the spiritual paternity of God our Father.  It is a title that I do not take lightly, and I challenge all of you not to take lightly either because it reminds my brother priests and I of the humble service that we have been called to and all the spiritual children that have been entrusted to our care.

I have been thinking about this theme of spiritual paternity all week, and yesterday I texted several of my former parishioners from my first parish, young and old, and simply asked them:  “Why do you call me Father?”  I got some great responses from very humorous to very deep and moving:

-Because our children look up to you like a Father…because we respect the call your have answered to be a “Father”…Because your arms are always open like the “loving father.”
-Because you have gray hair and can be a pain like a father!
-Because it separates you from other people.
-Because you are a role model
-Because I can go to you to celebrate…look for advice, and cry on your shoulder for compassion.
-Because He chose you to be His reflection to all of us…you are called to model “Our Father” on earth.
-Because that’s what the church calls the priest therefore you are Father Manny
-Because you give me guidance, provide me with nourishment, chide me when I misbehave, and love me unconditionally.  Isn’t that what fathers do?

When I was reading these responses last night, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit.  I am a flawed human being who has been called by God to this extraordinary vocation of being a priest.  I know I have a lot to go when it comes to being a reflection of our Father in heaven.  There are days where priesthood is a joyful struggle as we try to make the Word of God come alive for a people distracted by the world.  It is difficult, but there is not greater life, for it is your prayers that sustain us.  We tend to forget that at Mass when the priest says, “This is my body which will be given up for you,” he is not simply repeating the words of Christ or dramatically re-enacting them.  He is acting the person of Christ and offering up his own life, as Christ did, for the people he is about to feed.  He is offering his own body and blood for the salvation of us all. 

I will end with a note that I got from one of you, my wonderful new parishioners, just yesterday morning.  This past week our pastor and other associate were on retreat so I was left behind to hold down the fort and offer up all the Masses during the week among other duties.  As you can imagine, I was exhausted at the end of the week, but then I picked up the note that simply read:  “Thank you for all the gifts of your priesthood this past week.  Because of you, we were able to receive Jesus every day.”

On this Priesthood Sunday, when so many of you thank us for being a priest, it is I who must thank all of you for allowing me to serve you at this altar and beyond as a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You remind me every day, even on the difficult ones, of how richly blessed I am and how much I still need to go to be the perfect reflection of Our Father in heaven.  That is why on this day, and every day, I ask you:  never cease to pray for your priests.  And pray for vocation as well because you never know:  there may be a young man sitting in our midst that we will one day call “Father.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Know Thy Neighbor

"Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" (Matthew 22:36)

This is more than just a trick question that the Pharisees offer up to Jesus. We hear this question and immediately think that Jesus has to choose from among the 10 commandments given to Moses.  But the Pharisees really want to put Jesus to the test because their question goes much deeper.  You see, the Jews observed 613 commandments that are present in the first five books of the Bible and now Jesus had to choose the greatest of them.  Jesus simplifies things and doesn't make up any new commandment. Rather, he quotes two that are already present in the Scriptures.  When telling us to love God with all our strength, heart, and mind, he is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5.   When he tells us that we must love our neighbor like ourselves, he quotes Leviticus 19:18.  So Jesus is not reinventing the wheel here, he is merely summarizing the whole law in one word:  love.  

There is a two fold dimension to this love:  love of God and love of neighbor.  One cannot exist without the other.  St. John speaks of this in his first letter when he says that we cannot love God, whom we can't see, if we don't love our neighbor who we do see (see 1 John 4:19).  So this begs the question:  do we love our neighbor?  I have another:  do we know our neighbor?  There are so many people around us that walk in and out of our lives like strangers.  We don't engage them.  We don't talk to them.  They are our coworkers, classmates, members of our family, and even the very people that we worship with every single Sunday who are currently sitting right next to you.  These are our neighbors that we are called to love.  Do we know them?

This morning as I was preaching to the children, I asked them who is their neighbor and why does Jesus tell us to love them.  One of them answered:  "because Jesus is present in everyone of us."  It's amazing how children can comprehend the mysteries of God's love even more than we can.  Yes, Jesus is present in the poor, the downtrodden, the alien, the imprisoned, and every single person that we find it difficult to see Jesus' face in.  Yet, we are called to love them nonetheless.  All it takes is a smile, an embrace, an act of love.  In fact, you might want to start with the person sitting next to you. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ever the Dreamer (10-20-08)

I did not preach today due to the Ministry Weekend we held in the parish, so here is an excerpt of my homily from these readings three years ago.

"[Give] to God what belongs to God."  (Matthew 22:21)

What belongs to God?"  Do our hearts belong to him?  Our thoughts?  Our actions?  Our words?  Notice that part of the word "belongs" is the word "long".  There should be a longing in our hearts to offer up all that we have and all that we are to the glory of God's name.  Every blessing that we have in our lives comes from the Almighty and that is why we owe him everything.  If we truly want to give to God what belongs to God, then we must spend our lives working for his Kingdom  Yes, we can build up his kingdom in our jobs, schools, and homes.  Separation of church and state doesn't mean we check our beliefs, our religion, our convictions, and our morals at the door when we leave this church today.  That really doesn't make us very good Christians, it makes us, yep, Jesus calls us out in the gospel, just as hypocritical as the Pharisees.  If we truly belong to God, the world will know.  Unfortunately, we spend most of our time worrying about what the world thinks of us than worrying if we are indeed doing God's will.  If we all gave to God what belongs to God, by totally serving Him and our neighbor, maybe the dire picture of our society that [we see on TV] would become a little more hopeful.  I don't know.  Maybe I'm a dreamer, as John Lennon says in "Imagine."  Maybe I'm overly optimistic about the possibilities we have within us, about what Christians could actually accomplish if we were, well, really Christians.   Well, so what if I'm a dreamer?  I've been called worse.  

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jesus Likes a Good Party

“Behold, I have prepared my banquet…”  (Matthew 22:4)
I have a very dear friend who throws parties that are the stuff of legend.  She plans every detail.  Invites all her family and friends.  And you know you have been to one of her parties when the party ends and you think to yourself, “Wow, I partied too much.”  We all look forward to a good party. We enjoy the eating, the drinking (in moderation, of course), the dancing and the joy that comes in sharing that occasion with friends.  Now, weddings are parties on steroids.  So much planning goes into every single detail.  I sometimes lament that couples spend too much time preparing for the wedding day and party instead of for the actual sacrament of marriage.  Brides spend hours on their wedding day preparing for their big day. So many things are happening behind the scenes to make the wedding feast unique and memorable.  But today’s readings challenge us with a simple question:  Do we prepare properly and in the same manner for the feast that we celebrate here every Sunday?  You see, Jesus likes a good party.  Throughout the gospel we read how he was at parties and ministered to the people there.  In fact, he performed his first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana.  So as Christians, we take our cue from our Master and realize that being festive and enjoying parties is part of the joy that we share as sons and daughters of God.  But do we give secular parties and this ultimate celebration of the Mass the same importance?
In today’s gospel we read how God has prepared this big feast for us, but like some of the people in the gospel, we sometimes reject or ignore this invitation.  Or if we do show up for the feast, we aren’t adequately dressed or prepared.  Think about it.  There is no wedding, party, holiday event that you’ve been to that is bigger than what we are doing right now in the Mass.  Yesterday, a deacon came to give our men a morning of reflection here at the parish and he put forth this example:  if we knew that Jesus was going to present in the Mass (which he is but we’ll get back to that in a second), but if we knew that Jesus and not the priest was going to be the main celebrant at the Mass, wouldn’t we go out of our way to be here and to be properly prepared?  I mentioned to my friend last night that I was going lead off my homily with the analogy on her parties, and she immediately picked up on where I was going with it.  She texted me this reply:  “ONLY THE BEST!!!!  If you knew Jesus was coming to your party…NO DETAIL WOULD BE SPARED!!!!!  N in my case He’s always first on the list!!!!!” 
But the thing is, and I told you that I would return to this, is that Jesus IS really here, and this challenges our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Because if we believe that Christ is really and truly here in body, soul, and divinity, then we would prepare for this celebration like we would for one of our weddings or parties.  We go out of our way to plan everything for our parties, and we dress to the nines and build up so much excitement so that we can have an unforgettable time.  So much work goes into these great events.  Why can't we put that much effort and excitement into the wedding feast of the Lamb?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thorns in the Vineyard

“O Lord, God of hosts, restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.  (Psalm 80:20)”

God creates everything so beautifully.  We are vines in his beautiful vineyard where Christ is the true vine.  Unfortunately this vineyard sometimes has thorns scattered throughout that prohibit the vine from growing and producing fruit.

The Church, the new house of Israel, is that vineyard.  I see the beauty of the Church every day.   I see a Church that is strong, vibrant, and able to transform the world.  Yet, we ourselves sometimes try to tear down the vineyard as in today’s Gospel or we let others come into God’s vineyard to trample it by imposing the world’s will on us instead of us staying firmly rooted in Christ, the true vine.  The readings today are a cautionary tale of how a vineyard can be overrun both from within and from the outside.  As Catholics, we are besieged from all sides when it comes to our faith and morals, and there are times when we join the crowds and are lured by the voices of the world because it is easier to fold and compromise our values than to cause conflict.  This causes us to be cut off from the vineyard and at the same time cause harm to it.

Let’s not mince words.  As Catholics, we can sometimes be wimps.  We don’t stand up for our faith and values as we should.  This Respect Life Sunday should serve as a wake up call for us because the Gospel of Life is being assaulted on all sides.  Yes, I always preach on how little we are doing, outside of the good people in the Respect Life offices, to stop the genocide of abortion in this country.  But how many of us are standing up to the plague of executions occurring across our nation?  How many of us are standing firmly for the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman?  Do you know that some of our children in our Catholic school think that marriage should be between whomever?  Why do they think this? Because it’s become acceptable in television and pop culture.  They can’t tell the difference.  Did you also know that our government is drafting language that would basically label those who defend traditional marriage as racists and bigots?  The Archbishop just told his priests as we met this week that we must be prepared to confront this challenge.  He alluded to a priest in Canada who was arrested for denouncing same sex marriagesand abortion from the pulpit.  In other words, what I am doing right now.  If that’s the direction that we’re going in then lock me up now and throw away the key because this priest will never cease to preach the TRUTH that has been passed on to us from Christ for 2000 years.

As Catholics, we cannot compromise our values, Christ’s values, to accommodate the world.  We cannot fold when faced with a raging stream of immorality that seeks to drown our voices.  No, our voices must louder than ever.  The world does not see the beauty that we see within our Church community.   The beauty that we see in every human life.  We cannot allow an ever more secular world to obscure the beauty of what we stand for as Catholics.  The vineyard of the Lord is great and vast, and we have to extend its message of peace, mercy, and respect for all human life and respect for the sacredness of marriage.  These are challenging times we are living in which is why we must rise with one voice and uphold all we hold sacred.  This priest has your back.  I just pray you have mine.