One year ago today, I sat in St. Peter's Basilica celebrating the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul as I watched our Archbishop receive his pallium. I sat not far from the Holy Father who told us: "God is close to his faithful servants and delivers them from all evil and delivers the Church from negative powers (Benedict XVI, Homily, 6/29/10)." These words bring me great comfort as I prepare to embrace my next mission in a new parish. The Church, and indeed all of us, are surrounded by so many negative forces that seek to distract us from focusing on the person of Jesus Christ. But the Scriptures today, as Pope Bendict reminded us last year, seek to remind us, as Christ reminded Peter, that "the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against [the Church] (Mat 16:19)." This assurance from our Savior should embolden us to spread the Good News with renewed zeal. We indeed shall be tested as is evidenced when we read the Acts of the Apostles, but the rewards are eternal. In fact, one can argue that we don't have to wait for heaven to reap the rewards of spreading the Gospel, for we already have so many blessings that our Savior left us right here on earth such as his Real Presence in the Eucharist. I truly felt that I was in the presence of the divine as I sat in St. Peter's last summer, but truth be told, I felt that way when I celebrated Mass this past Sunday in my parent's small little church. We must embrace the gifts our Savior left us to remind us of his abiding presence, and with Christ at our side we draw the necessary strength to ignore the negative forces of the world to embrace the mission He left each and every one of us.
As I prepare to preach, feed, and minister to a holy people that I have not met but that I am sure have been praying for me as much as I have been praying for them, I feel re-energized, emboldened, and excited to once again take up the sacred work of the Gospel as I have done at each of the parishes I have been blessed to serve. On this Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, we realize that our task as Christians is simply to provide the world with the answer to the question that Christ posed to the disciples in today's gospel: "But who do you say that I am? (Mat 16:15)."
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
“And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” (Act 2:2-3)
And here we are…
Last Friday, I was overwhelmed with the presence of so many parishioners at my farewell party. You gathered not only to bid me farewell and to celebrate my time here at Mary Help of Christians but rather to celebrate the work of the Gospel that we have shared and labored over for the last 2 ½ years. It was truly a festive occasion because we cried, laughed, and boy did we dance. Why? Because the heart of the Christian should be constantly filled with joy. We danced because Christ left us a Spirit of joy for us to share, for us to cherish, and for us to take part in the dance of creation which he began so long ago. I didn’t know what to expect on Friday night since I was not part of the planning. I only gave one simple instruction to those planning the party: “I just want to have fun.” And fun we had because this isn’t about saying goodbye. It’s about celebrating our love for Christ and for each other.
I believe that it is providential that my last Sunday with all of you is Pentecost Sunday. Today we are reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst: this Spirit that renews us. refreshes us, and sets our hearts on fire for Christ. Nine years ago, when Archbishop Favalora laid his hands on my head to ordain me a priest, he called forth that same Spirit which came on the apostles on Pentecost. This Spirit is what I hope I have brought to all of you during my time here. In the first reading, we hear how the apostles heard a strong wind and received tongues of fire. Today we pray for that same wind to fill this holy place. We pray that we may receive the peace that Christ gave to the disciples and that he may breathe on us that Spirit so that we may be renewed.
That Spirit is constantly calling us to change. The Spirit takes the stale and the stagnant and makes it new and fresh. This is what our faith needs time and again so that we may never settle for mediocre Christianity but always appreciate this faith that has been passed down to us from the apostles. During my time here, I tried to challenge you to come out of your comfort zone when it comes to the faith, to not settle for “one hour a week” Catholicism, and to open your hearts so that the Holy Spirit may lead you to where the Father wants you to be. It truly is all about change. And if at times I looked frustrated in trying to communicate this message it is only because I always preach the Gospel with a sense of urgency and because I want to share the joy that Christ placed in my heart with all of you. At the Last Supper, the Lord wanted to share this joy with his disciples, and every Sunday I sought to share it with you. I wanted you to see what I see in this beautiful celebration of the Eucharist, and that we should never take it for granted because here we encounter the Living Christ in body, soul, and divinity.
Only God knows why I was sent here and why my time among you was all too brief. Just as I have challenged you, the Archbishop challenged me when he sent me away from my comfort zone to a place called Parkland in the northernmost reaches of our Archdiocese. But here I found a home because as Bishop Roman always reminds me, “All you need is an altar.” And around this beautiful, hand made altar, we have shared every Sunday a feast that unites us to the Divine. I pray that I have been the presence of Christ to all of you because you have definitely been that presence to me. Now we must turn the page as the Spirit on this Pentecost Sunday is prompting each of us to begin anew. Why? Because our faith should never grow tired and stale. We must call forth this Spirit today to come upon us like a mighty wind and set our hearts on fire so that we can set the earth on fire with the love of Christ. I always say that I like to set fires and walk out the back door. I pray that that fire may burn in your hearts always. And as I bolt out the back door, I pray that the breath of the Holy Spirit may come upon each and every one of you. The work of the Gospel, the work of this extraordinary parish, continues. May our patroness, Mary Help of Christians, be your guiding light as you continue to spread the work of her beloved Son. The Spirit has empowered all of you to do the great things that our Lord has done. My time here sharing this Good News and keeping that fire buring is done. Now, it’s up to you.
God bless you all!
"And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)
I have a tough time letting go. This is not a good quality for a follower of Jesus who is called to renounce everything on this earth (family, friends, and material possessions) for the sake of the Gospel. I wonder what must have been going through the hearts and minds of the disciples when our Lord ascended into heaven in their sight. Surely, the disciples did not want him to go. Just a few weeks ago, we heard one of the Emmaus disciples say, "Stay with us, Lord." There they are watching their Lord ascend to where we one day want to go, but now he is no longer with them. Their Teacher with whom they lived with, learned from, performed miracles with is no longer there. But there comes a time when the teacher must let go of their students so that they can do their great works. This analogy fits perfectly during this graduation season. So the disciples no longer had the Master. What they had was a promise. It was the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate next week during Pentecost Sunday. But yet, they must have had a difficult time letting go of the Lord because they kept standing there staring up at the sky until the angels showed up to send them on their way. There was work to be done, and it was not going to be done standing there.
Let me give you two illustration of how hard it is for me to let go: one amusing and the other one sentimental. This week it finally dawned on me that I really needed to start packing. I could not put it off any longer. I always say with great pride that when I arrived at seminary 18 years ago, all my earthly belongings fit neatly into one suitcase, a couple of pressed shirts on a hanger, and an old, small AM/FM cassette player with several mixed tapes. That's it. You know you're in trouble when you walk into your closet to do an inventory and ask yourself, "Oh, boy, where do I begin?" Now, I think, THINK! that I can get my belongings into a big pick-up truck and my SUV. There are boxes sitting on the floor in my closet that I haven't opened since I placed them there 2 1/2 years ago which begs the question, "If you have a box that you haven't opened in 2 1/2 years and you don't know what's inside...do you really need it?" Then there are the clothes. My wardrobe, you would think, is fairly simple: roman collared shirt, black pants, done! But for some reason my closet has secretly grown over the last few years. I went in with the mission of "letting go" of shirts and t-shirts that I really didn't want to throw away, but as a friend who I called for an intervention during this process told me: "Throw it away! If you didn't know it existed then you don't need it!" Every item in my room has a story, an origin, a memory, a steward, but then I think back on today's gospel and if I read it correctly Jesus didn't check any baggage on his way to heaven. We have to let go of the material world to embrace the one that Jesus has prepared for us.
The second example of my having a hard time letting go is far less trivial and more personal. This week our auxiliary bishop, Felipe Estevez, became the bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. This was a bittersweet occasion for me. I have known Bishop Estevez for almost 20 years. He was my first spiritual director when I entered seminary, he was the pastor of the first parish I was assigned to as a seminarian, he was my teacher, my friend, and seven years ago he became one of my bishops. We established a deep spiritual bond through our love of Christ and our priesthood. I sometimes wondered what he saw in me when he first accepted to be my spiritual director when I was merely 17 years old. When we were together in a parish he showed me that achieving holiness in the diocesan priesthood was possible: a lesson that I'm still trying to learn. When he was my teacher and my bishop, he continued to point me towards the way of priestly holiness through notes, emails, random phone calls, etc. I was not happy to let him go, but I was happy that he finally had his own diocese where he could be the head shepherd modeled after the Good Shepherd that he knows all too well from his many hours sitting in front of the Lord's Eucharistic Presence. The teacher was gone and the student was left behind to till the soil where the teacher once labored.
It was difficult to let go, but it was necessary. Much like the disciples who kept staring up into the clouds until the angels basically sent them home, we must let go of the past, without forgetting its many lessons, in order to embrace the future. Bishop Estevez left all the priests of Miami with his Christ-like example of "loving to the extreme." Christ left his disciples with a mandate to spread the Gospel. This mandate is passed on to all of us. We can't stand still staring up at the clouds to accomplish the mission that the Lord has entrusted us with. We must let go of whatever is tying us to the past because the Lord lives in the present. The Spirit is coming to aid us in our mission, but this Spirit brings change which we are reluctant to embrace. However, in our fear of change, we only need to hear Jesus' final words to the eleven in the Gospel of Matthew: "I am with you always!" We must let go to embrace the change the Spirit brings knowing that Christ will always be with us. If we want to reach the heights that Jesus reached which is our Christian destiny, then we have no choice but to let go and embrace his divine will because where "he has gone, we hope to follow (Preface of Ascension I)."
"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..." (1 Peter 3:15)
It was 11:00 p.m. on Thursday evening, and I was ready to turn off the TV and head to bed. At the time, I really didn't have a reason to hope. We were down by 12 points with just a little over 3 minutes to go. But then Dwayne Wade happened and then LeBron James happened In the blink of an eye the deficit was erased, the game was won, and we were headed to The Finals. There is always a reason for hope. That performance from LeBron James elicited comparisons to the great Michael Jordan. I have seen both of them play in person and there is no argument. Michael Jordan did things with the basketball that I've never seen a human being do. LeBron is a great player, but sometimes he isn't the best player on his own team. Dwayne Wade already has a championship and I've seen him do things that are super human. But nothing like Jordan. That's the beauty of sports. You get into arguments like this over who is the best player. It happens all the time in baseball as well like who is the greatest baseball player ever. Was it Babe Ruth, Willy Mays, Joe DiMaggio? The reason we get into these lively arguments, discussions or debates is because we have statistics and sometimes a bit of passion to back them up...
I interrupt this sports column to finally bring you my homily. We are so prepared to enter into all sorts of arguments or debates whether it be about sports, politics, or even the best movies or TV shows, but are as passionate and knowledgable about our faith? In the second reading, St. Peter exhorts the early Christians to "always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." We are knowledgable about a great many things that are, in the final analysis, trivial, but do we really know our faith? Our faith should be part of who we are, and just like we can reel off the history of our family, we should be able to reel off the great mysteries of our faith. This morning two members of our Men's Ministry were out in the courtyard after Mass and one of them was talking about a discussion he had with a Protestant brother over matters of faith. He went on to explain how he defended our Catholic faith to his Protestant brother, and even though neither conceded their positions, at least our Catholic brother was ready, willing, and able to share and explain the beauties of the Catholic faith that at times are questioned.
In today's gospel, Jesus promises us the Spirit of truth, and this Spirit comes upon us not only to strengthen our faith but to enlighten us. Remember that the apostles did not fully comprehend all that Jesus did and said until they received the fulness of the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit of truth that we call upon today to help us to better defend and share our faith. Would you be able to adequately give an explanation of your faith if asked? Let me give a concrete example: how many of you know that today's first reading from Acts in which Peter and John come down from Jerusalem and impose hands on the baptized Samaritans so they might receive the Holy Spirit is the biblical basis for the sacrament of Confirmation? This Spirit of truth was given to us to enlighten us, but we must be willing to be enlightened. As a priest, I can only tell you so much during my Sunday homilies. You have to take the initiative to go and dig deeper into the Scripture and into the teachings of the Church. It's not just knowing what we believe, but also why we believe it. We cannot have an ignorant faith. We must have an informed and enlighten faith if we are to follow what the second reading tells us. Our Church Church holds the fullness of truth given to us by our Savior. Today we must ask ourselves: how well do we know this truth and we ready to give an explanation of this truth?
"...let yourselves be built into a spiritual house..." (1 Peter 2:5)
In today's gospel, Christ tells us that he will go before us to prepare a place for us in heaven. In the meantime, what are we to do down here? The first letter of St. Peter today gives us the beautiful analogy of each and every one of us being "living stones" called to be active members of the mystical body of Christ: the Church. And this is something that escapes us all too often. Being Christians, being these "living stones" that help build up the Church implies us working together to build up Christ's body. These stones cannot be static. They must be active. The second reading uses some beautiful imagery. As Christ's followers, we are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" called to sing God's praises and to make his name known to all the earth.
As living stones, we are called to be filled with the Spirit to help edify this spiritual house. Unfortunately, so many of us are stones, quite literally stones, not living stones, that just sit here and do not contribute to the mission of the Church. We forget that we are called from baptism to share in Christ's ministry. It is not sufficient to sit here like stones once a week for one hour. Our Lord needs you more. The Church needs you more. Each of us is called to do something different with our own individual gifts and to put them at the service of the Lord. We cannot be static. We cannot be on the sidelines. This Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is inviting us to walk with him on this Way, is inviting us to proclaim this Truth, and is inviting us to live the joyous life of a true Christian. Are we participating in this life? Are we being living stones of this Church making this it come alive? YOU are the chosen race. YOU are that royal priesthood. YOU are that chosen nation called to build up the Church with great works, and as the Lord tells us at the end of today's gospel, these works that we will do in his name, will be even greater than His!
"When [the shepherd] has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice." (John 10:4)
So there I was, a teenager doing things that teenagers do, when out of the blue, the Lord, the Good Shepherd comes calling. Since I arrived at this parish, many of you have asked me about how I decided to become a priest. Well, it goes something like this: it is a story about getting to know the Good Shepherd, learning to recognize his voice, and ultimately becoming the shepherd.
Getting to Know the Good Shepherd:
I have said many times that my attraction to the priesthood began while I was on missions in Mexico during my high school summers. I would see a priest come out to a village once every 2-3 months. During that visit, he would hear everyone's confessions, celebrate loads of baptisms, marry a few couples, hold first communions, and celebrate the only Mass the people would attend until he returned. It was there that I truly learned how important a priest was to the people of God and how much we needed priests. Yet, since I was a teenager, I ignored this inclination towards priesthood because I had not yet learned to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Recognizing His Voice:
A teenager is lured by so many voices that tell him/her what they should and should not do. I was a typical teenager, albeit more square than others, but with the same insecurities and anxieties. When I was a senior in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Yes, there was a tiny little voice in the back of my head that said "priesthood," but I kept ignoring it. That is until my family's spiritual director, through my parents, asked me a very pointed and direct question: "What are you waiting for to enter the seminary?" When I heard that question, it was truly a "bolt of lighting" moment. I needed to literally retreat and find out if indeed this was the voice of the Good Shepherd and if this voice was calling me. At the time, my parents attended a yearly silent retreat where they would spend four days in silence. There was a men's retreat coming up and even though it was full, my father took me there and told the old Spanish Jesuit, "My son is thinking about becoming a priest." "This is what this retreat is for," the holy Jesuit said proudly. On the second night during my confession, I told the holy Jesuit how I was feeling. Behind him was a cross with these words inscribed that I've used in many of my homilies: "What have I done for Christ...What I am doing for Christ...What will I do for Christ." Against this backdrop, the holy Jesuit told me quite simply: "Tomorrow morning, when you are in prayer, simply ask the Lord what he wants you do." So the next morning after the first talk, I walked into the tiny chapel. Behind the altar was a small tabernacle and high above the tabernacle where three small stained glass windows. The first at the apex had the Greek Alpha and Omega letters inscribed on it. Slightly below the center one and on either side of it were two others. One had grains of wheat and the other window had grapes: both symbols of the Eucharist. As I stared up at those windows, it was that time of the morning where the sun was peering through them. I began to hum to myself the song, "Here I Am Lord," and all of the sudden, without warning, I began to cry. I looked up at the symbols of the Eucharist. I looked at the tabernacle. I looked at the altar. It became very clear to me what the Good Shepherd was calling me to do. Up there...that is where I belonged. Yet, being young and still a tad doubtful, even though I was overcome with emotions that morning, I didn't tell the holy Jesuit priest what had happened. I was still in some state of denial that Christ would dare choose me. So the afternoon of our final day when we were finally allowed to speak, the holy Jesuit walked up to me when we were having lunch, and asked for everyone's attention: "I want everyone to know that something momentous happened during this retreat. This young man decided to become a priest!" "Huh?" I answered. Even though it was quite clear to me the previous morning, it was still hard for me to hear someone say it out loud and confirm the call of the Shepherd. Even when I told my parents on our ride home, I felt very sheepish telling them what I had decided even though they knew. "I'm thinking about entering seminary," I told them. I still couldn't bring myself to say out loud, "I want to become a priest." Oh but did that change quickly. As soon as I threw myself into the arms of the Shepherd and submitted to his calling, it became very clear to me as I started seminary and as more people confirmed and supported my calling that Christ indeed was calling me to become a shepherd.
Becoming the Shepherd:
Seminary was long. I mean really long. I wanted to be out ministering to people, preaching the word, bringing lost sheep home, but I had to study. I had to read. I had to write papers. I had to pray. I had to learn how to become the Shepherd, how to conform my life to the image of the Good Shepherd, and how to minister to the flock. It was a long nine years, but when the day finally came when I prostrated myself on the beautiful marble sanctuary of our Cathedral, I wept again. You see when the Good Shepherd calls your name and you recognize his voice you are overcome with emotions because you see God's hand very clearly shaping your life. But even though I was ordained a priest on May 11, 2002, I still had much to learn about being a priest and a shepherd. I learned that the shepherd is restless. He is always worried about his sheep. He worries about the lost ones, and he worries about how to bring the ones in his fold closer to the Good Shepherd and into greener pastures where they experience the Lord's peace, love, and mercy. My restless heart led me from my first parish to my second and quickly thereafter to work as Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese where I had to find more shepherds to lead his flock. And then two and half years ago, when the Archbishop told me that I was going to a place called Parkland to minister up there, I was confused. I enjoyed my time as Vocations Director. I did miss parish life, but why was I going so far from my hometown and from family and friends? I had forgotten what I would tell my seminarians over and over again, that the Good Shepherd sometimes calls us to unknown pastures, and it is there where we find peace and joy and a great flock waiting to be fed. I realized that in my heart I had not changed that much from my mission days as a teenager. I was still a missionary called to serve wherever the Lord needed me and called to recognize his voice and answer his call whenever it came. And that call came again last week, when a delegate of the Archbishop called me to tell me that I would be transferred to another parish next month. I was initially taken aback by this call, but then a sense of peace overcame me. If that is where God is calling, that is where his servant will be. It does not make leaving this pasture for another any easier. Here I have found a home. Here I found a family. Yes, we do fear the great unknown of what the future may bring, but if we need comfort, all we have to do is look to today's psalm that so beautifully tells us: "Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side (Psalm 23:4)."
This restless heart has spent two and half joyous years endeavoring to bring you closer to the Good Shepherd as I strive each day to live up to the lofty image that Christ left for us. Now He calls me elsewhere. Of course it isn't easy to leave, this is the reason why as priests we always need your prayers. Today the Church celebrates World Day of Prayer for Vocations which is why I shared my vocation story with you. There are so many young people who cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd because as our Holy Father tells us, the Lord's voice is being "drowned out" by the voices of the world. As Catholics, we need to pray each day that the Lord will call young men from our families to get to know the Good Shepherd, recognize his voice, and ultimately become a shepherd by saying "yes" to Christ and becoming a priest. We need priests desperately, and as I leave next month to minister in new pastures, I ask for your prayers not only for me, but for all priests and for more priests! Our priests aren't getting any younger, and our Catholic population isn't getting any smaller. And as you pray me, don't be saddened by my being called away by the Lord. Trust in Him that he will provide. I always like to say that I like to walk into a classroom, a prayer meeting, a Bible study, or in this case a parish, set a small fire and bolt out the back door. Don't let the fire burn out. As I priest, I allow the Lord to light it through his unworthy servant, and now it's up to you to keep it burning. It's time for this restless heart to go shepherd in other pastures. He will provide for me as he will most definitely provide for you, for as we hear and repeat five times in today's liturgy: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."
Some have been asking what happened with the homilies that were posted on the Mary Help of Christians website and if I could post them here. Well, it would take me the rest of the month to post all those homilies, so above you'll see the last five homilies I posted on mhoc.org. God bless!
Monday, June 13, 2011
Just a little over two years ago, Benedict XVI, called on us to make use of the Internet to spread the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. In a General Audience, our Holy Father said: "Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people, will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world (General Audience, 5/20/09)."
So even though I began blogging in a limited way back in 2004 (which is like decades in the digital world) which led to my posting homilies on MySpace (remember that?) and then eventually on Facebook, it seems like the next logical step that my parishioners urged me to do was to begin an actual blog site. So here it is! I usually post my homilies on Sunday night after I edit them because a homily isn't a homily until it's preached. Who knows? Maybe I'll starting blogging about other things like I used to do back on MySpace (sports anyone?). Whatever this evolves into, I pray you enjoy this new little missionary endeavor as we continue to follow our Holy Father's call to proclaim the Gospel in this digital world.