Sunday, May 27, 2012

Our Stubborn Hearts

Our Stubborn Hearts

“And they were all filled with the holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:4)

“Bend our stubborn hearts and will.  Melt the frozen, warm the chill.” (Pentecost Sequence)

The Pentecost Sequence is one of the most beautiful hymns we have in the Catholic Church.  It is also a wonderful catechesis on the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming down on the apostles at Pentecost and enabling them to go forth on the mission that Christ entrusted to them:  to spread the Gospel to all nations.  They could not do this without the Holy Spirit.  As St. Paul points out so succinctly in the second reading, “No one can say `Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3b).”   Every prayer and good work of ours is prompted by the Spirit.  So today we ask that same Spirit to come upon us to renew and refresh us which is why we pray this beautiful Sequence after the second reading invoking the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us into what God wants us to be as opposed to what we want to be.

Very early this morning at the 7:30 a.m. Mass while the Sequence was being sung, I focused on one particular verse: “Bend the stubborn heart and will, melt the frozen, warm the chill.”  Why did this verse jump out at me?  So many times I get in God’s way and try very hard to accomplish my own will instead of his.  I want MY way.  I want things done MY way.   I want these things to happen in MY time.  Yet I continue to pray the Our Father every day with those glorious words: “Thy will be done.”  We should be seeking God’s ways and not our own, but unfortunately our stubborn hearts, as the sequence puts it, prevent us from being open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  When it comes to our faith, we box ourselves into a corner and don’t want anyone to disrupt the way we practice our faith.  We come to Mass, we sit in the same pew, we recite the same prayers, we go through the same motions, and we don’t want anyone to rattle our routine.  I preached on this several months ago when my confessor told me:  “Father, beware routine!”  Routine is the enemy of the Spirit.  Routine does not allow us to be open to God’s will.  Unfortunately, many of us, including myself, are basically slaves to routine.  We just don’t like change.  Yet, the Holy Spirit is constantly moving us to change, to become a new person, and to become like Jesus.

As a priest, I am saddened when I see people aimlessly walking in and out of Mass as if it was something they need to check off a to-do list.  I’ve seen people walking out of Publix with bigger smiles on their faces.  Thankfully, this is not the majority, but the reason we call upon the Holy Spirit this day is to wake all of us up and kindle in us the FIRE of us his love.  Ah yes, fire.  There is no greater agent of change than fire.  Fire destroys, but it can also be used to mold, to fashion, and to create.  The fire of the Holy Spirit that we call upon today should destroy our old selves and help us become a new creation as Christ calls us to be.  When we walk through the doors of this church, we have to be open to receiving something new, something transformative, and something Divine which is what we receive when we come up for Communion.  There should be smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts because our Savior has prepared this feast for us and has poured out his Spirit into our hearts so that we can share it with a world that so desperately needs it.  If we simply come to church to fulfill an obligation, not engage or participate in the celebration, and then walk right back out as if nothing ever happened, then WHY BOTHER COMING?  It goes back to what our preached about last January when I talked about the HHS mandate:  as Catholics, we don’t like to be challenged, and we don’t like to be bothered.  We just want to get through our Saturday afternoon or Sunday routine and go on with our lives.  These are the stubborn hearts that we must implore the Spirit to penetrate.  There is so much good that each of us could do for the world if we simply allow the Spirit to guide us to where we need to be and not to where we want to be.  The Mass is a transformative celebration, for every time we encounter Christ we should be and must be transformed for the better.  We must be a joyful, Spirit-filled people because a broken, God-less world needs us to share the Good News of our Savior.  Peter and the apostles immediately began spreading the Good News upon receiving the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost Sunday.  My prayer for all of you this day is that we allow the Spirit to penetrate our hearts so that we can become active and vibrant members of our parish community focused on spreading the Gospel and transforming the world.  The world is in need of the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Who is going to spread it if it isn’t all of you?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Moments We Remember

“The Moments We Remember”
Graduation Homily by
Father Manny Alvarez
St. Gregory Catholic Church & School
May 24, 2012

I’ll never forget the first day of school with all of you back in August.  I have to admit that I was missing my last school because the faces were familiar and I actually knew the names of all the incoming 8th graders.  But because I trust in God’s loving design, I knew that these new faces that were politely saying hello to their new priest were faces that I too would grow to love because as Jesus says in today’s gospel you were God’s gift to this new priest. So on that first day of school, as has been my custom for the last 10 years, I went to have lunch with you even though I didn’t know any of you.  Many of you may disagree with me, but I am a genuinely shy person.   I took my tray and I must confess I felt like the new kid in school that didn’t have anybody to sit with.  Immediately, I noticed that the girls were sitting at the tables very well mannered and proper as is expected of young ladies at St. Gregory’s.  And then I looked over to the boys’ side and…no comment.  I randomly selected the first of the girls’ tables primarily because it was closest to the doors and I was hungry.  I immediately made a joke about one of their lunch bags to break the ice.  Since they were laughing at my lame joke, I sat down with these young ladies much to their astonishment.  In time I would migrate from table to table making friends, learning names (slowly), getting asked repeatedly “what’s my name?” during my first two months, and gradually starting to realize what a gift each of you are to this school.  Every day you brought joy to these hallways with your smiles, your crazy faces, your melodrama, your infectious laughs, and the love that you have for each other.

There are two distinct memories that I will remember about this Class of 2012.  One of them happened two weeks ago at your banquet.  When the last song was going to be played, all of you were undecided as to what it should be.  I gambled and asked the D.J. to play “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey.  You guys starting singing with one loud voice, hugging each other in a circle and jumping up and down even though that song came out before some of your parents were even in high school.  And there I was in the middle of that chaos, the priest version of Peter Pan who refuses to grow up because I firmly believe in the saying I shared with your teachers a week before you started school:  “in the heart of a child is the kingdom of God.”  That is why all of us, both parents and children, must never lose our child-like exuberance because Christ himself told us that we must be like children to enter the kingdom of God.  So we all jumped around, danced, and sang like if we were little kids, and how fitting since this is where you lived out your childhood.  This is where you grew up.  This is where you learned your ABCs.  And this is where you met a man named Jesus.

The second memory I will always hold close to my heart is our shared experience of Spirit Day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  All of you were very much aware that you were in the presence of the Divine.  You cried like little children because isn’t that what we all are in the eyes of God?  That night you were one with Jesus and with each other just as the Lord prays in the gospel.  You were so very close to Him.  You embraced Him as your friend.  As you transition to the challenges of high school, stay close to Him.  Stay friends with him.  We toss around the phrase “friends forever” very casually and it may not always be the case, but stay close to this Friend you met called Jesus for he will never leave your side.  He becomes a gift for you in this Eucharist and in turn he showers us with abundant gifts and blessings.

A year ago, I didn’t know any of you.  And now I can’t think of what this priest’s life would be like without any of you.  Like Jesus, I thank the Father for the gift he gave us in each and every one of you.  As your time in this school comes to an end, remember that you are a gift to your parents, to your teachers, to this parish, and to this priest whose heart you won over.   I always pray that this prayer of Jesus in today’s gospel be my prayer for it is the prayer of Jesus our High Priest.  And my prayer for you is that you stay close to him for you will face tough choices ahead, but with Him at your side you will make the right choices.  Now we must let you go so that you can share your joy with the world, but never forget that true joy, lasting joy can only be found here in this sacred space where each of you first met our Lord.  I love each and every one of you.  I will never forget you.  I will always be right here behind the altar ready to give you the one necessary thing:  the love and presence of Jesus.  Remember the good times that you shared here at St. Gregory’s and remember this friend you met here called Jesus.  May God bless you all as you begin your next great adventure knowing that Christ will always be at your side.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Front Row Seat

“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)

Our experience of God shapes who we are.  It shapes our relationships, the way we treat people, the way we live, the way we love, and the way we share His love with others.  It goes without saying that the disciples had the ultimate experience of God because they ministered with the Son of God for three years, and for forty days after the resurrection, they were able to experience the Risen Jesus like no one else for they had a front row seat to his mighty words and works.  Now on this day of the Ascension, they want to hold tight to the Lord, but as he goes up to heaven, the story doesn’t end, for now the real work begins of sharing their unique experience and witness of the Risen Lord with the entire world.

When I began at St. John Vianney Seminary 19 years ago, they assigned me a seat in the large seminary chapel of St. Raphael’s in the first seat of the front row directly in front of the pulpit.  I could not fall asleep when we gathered for prayer and Mass that early in the morning because there was always a priest preaching in front of me (though I must confess that I did at times doze off because of our early start times).   I spent much time in that seat which allowed me to see everything transpiring in the sanctuary up close and pick out each of the priests’ idiosyncrasies, their gestures, and even those of the servers.  But what I gazed up at the most was that marvelous mural above the sanctuary which is probably the most beautiful work of sacred art that we have in this Archdiocese.  It is a complex work of art that has so many details, but the first words of Jesus in today’s gospel are engraved on that mural and became engraved in my heart: “Go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  Over the four years that I spent praying in that chapel, my experience of God went from a very innocent experience to a more mature understanding of the Eucharist and of what was expected of me as a future priest.  I gazed up and memorized every detail of that mural and to this day, every time I walk into that chapel I sit down in that same seat in the front row to gaze up and look up at the images that moved me then and always find new ones that move me now.  And like the disciples, having gotten to know the Lord in my seminary formation, when the time came to be ordained and truly preach the gospel, I shared with the people of God my experience of him. (Click on image below to make it larger.)

Our experience of God evolves as we grow closer to him.  The key is being open to experiencing him in new ways, and this is my challenge to you this week:  try to experience God in a totally new way.  Come and spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament.  Come to a daily Mass.  Pray a rosary.  Open your Bible at home and see what God has to tell you.  We have to experience him in new ways like the disciples did after the Resurrection and Ascension in order to share these experiences, like they did, with the rest of the world.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No Greater Love: Ten Years of Priesthood

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

This homily was preached at my 10th Anniversary Mass at St. Brendan in Miami.

I look around this room and see so many friends and so many faces.  Each face tells a story of my priestly journey.  Every picture that I have seen over the last few days comes alive with a memory filled with grace.  We are not here to simply honor me for reaching a decade of priestly service, but rather to celebrate the love that we have for the Church and for the ministerial priesthood.  (I’m just here because I wanted an excuse to party!)  For the last ten years, I have been inspired by you, loved by you, consoled by you, lifted up by you, and in awe of your incredible faith.  Every day the people of God remind me of the love that they have for the priesthood, and it even happened today with a lady that I never even met.

We went to pick up the cake that was graciously donated for tonight and what a cake it was!  These ladies had created my cake for my ordination day which was a replica of my ordination card.  For my 10th anniversary, they used heavenly inspiration to come up with a new design that moved me.  It was a three-tiered cake with fish cascading down a waterfall and at the base were two hands, priestly hands, making sure none of the fish got away.  On those hands were inscribed the words, “Bonus piscator”.  For ten years I have endeavored to make sure that not one gets away and here was this cake made by someone I didn’t even know reminding me of my sacred mission.

Yesterday, I watched the homily that Father Mario Vizcaino preached at my first Mass.  Two things jumped out at me at this point in my journey.  The first was his explanation of the simplicity of the rite of ordination.  I knelt down before Archbishop Favalora and through the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit I became a priest.  Through such a simple gesture something transformative took place.  The second thing was how Father explained how I was chosen from among men to sanctify men.  This reflects what Jesus tells the disciples in today’s gospel:  “It was not you who chose me.  It was I who chose you.”  Unworthy as I am, God chose this imperfect instrument for the sanctification of his people and to be a minister of his joy:  “that your joy may be complete.”  I do not know how to be anything less than a joyful priest.  Yes there are days that I may be cross or in an unpleasant mood, but when I sanctify God’s people through the sacraments and especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, I must do it with joy.   I do not know how to do it any other way.  I became a priest because I felt this joy that Jesus speaks of in the gospel.  This joy that overwhelms our hearts and must be shared is a joy that I spend every Sunday trying to pass on to God’s holy people.

And as a minister of God’s joy, I realize that I am also called to serve.  Today’s gospel was read at my ordination and the verse that still jumps out at me is “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  I joyfully lay down my life for each and every one of you that I call friends, parishioners, family, and strangers because I was called to serve all.  I lay down my life so that you might know Jesus and then share his joy, his love, and his presence with the entire world.  When I was Vocations Director, I used to tell the seminarians and candidates that the Church needed a new kind of priest:  ones that are joyful and courageous.  We need priests that will set the world on fire, will boldly proclaim the truth of Christ no matter the consequences, and sanctify the world through their words and actions.  But the Church needs committed laity as well who are joyful and courageous.  These are difficult times that we are going through and we must have the courage to stand with our priests on the truths that Christ taught us and spread the joy of Christ to a broken world.  As a priest, I am called to sanctify you so that you may in turn bring that joy and that holiness into the world.

Ten years of service and I realize that I am just getting warmed up.  Ten years of fruits that I see here before me and others who through God’s grace received fruit from this imperfect servant in an unexpected way.  Even after all this time, I am still humbled when I approach this altar to break the bread and to share with all of you the living presence of Christ.  There is no greater adventure than the priesthood.  There is no greater life.  And on this day, I thank you for allowing me to serve you, to absolve you, to feed you, to preach to you, to anoint you, to love you, and for simply allowing me to be your priest.

Thou Art A Priest Forever

To live in the midst of the world,
Without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family,
Yet belonging to none;
To share all sufferings;
To penetrate all secrets;
To heal all wounds;
To go from men to God
And offer Him their Prayers;
To return from God to men
To bring pardon and hope;
To have a heart of fire for charity
And a heart of bronze for chastity;
To teach and to pardon,
Console and bless always--
What a glorious life!
And it is yours,
O Priest of Jesus Christ!
                                                --Author Unknown

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lessons From First Communion

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”  (John 5:15)

Yesterday was First Communion Day here at the parish.  The kids were so excited to receive Jesus for the very first time in the Eucharist.  They came all decked out in white with hoards of family in tow.  This occasion prompted me to recall my own First Communion back in the spring of 1984 at Divine Providence Church in Sweetwater.  I was so excited that morning.  When I was younger I would go up with my parents in the communion procession and would always ask them when I could receive.  Well, it was finally time and I couldn’t contain my excitement except that during the reading of the gospel I started to sway back and forth and began to get very light headed.  I made a beeline to my parents who along with my catechist took my into the sacristy where they discovered that the reason I was dizzy was because I did not have breakfast that morning.  They gave me a cup of water and sent me right out where I paid close attention to the Mass.  Even at that young age, I knew that when we started to say the Our Father that Communion time was drawing near and that the Kiss of Peace brought us even closer!  I received my First Communion with great joy and then went back to my seat to give thanks to the Lord for finally allowing me to receive him.   It was a great day!  My entire family was there and do you know what we did after the Mass to celebrate:  we went to McDonald’s!  Because, really?  What else does a kid want?  Yesterday, I heard about people having communion parties at Morton’s and The Capital Grille.  Sometimes I wonder if the parties are more for the adults than for the honored children, but I digress.  I was happy with my Egg McMuffin (still love those!) and our weekly trip to the Keys right after.  Life was simpler back then as were our First Communions and our simple and innocent relationship with God when we made the time to thank him for his loving presence.

As I was watching the children receive the Lord yesterday, they all went back to their pews and knelt down in intense prayer.  They were taught, as we were, to say a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus right after receiving communion.  Unfortunately as we grow older, our minds start to wander, we get distracted easier, and the private prayer of thanksgiving after communion becomes an afterthought that is often said in the parking lot, if at all. We have much to learn from the children.  Think back today to your own First Communion and how excited you were to finally being one with Jesus. That’s what today’s gospel is all about:  “Remain in me as I remain in you.”  Jesus makes his dwelling in us, but so often we don’t give him the time befitting our Lord to savor and thank him for his presence.  In order to be good Christians, we must be rooted in Christ.  That is why this metaphor of the vine is so appropriate.  We are united to him in this Eucharist and if we remain in him we produce much fruit.  If we cut ourselves off from the vine and from this blessed communion that we partake in too soon, our Lord’s words are very blunt:  “Without me you can do nothing.”  That is why it pains me to see people walking out of Mass as early as the Kiss of Peace or right after they have received Communion.  Is what is waiting for us out there more important than what we are doing in here? (Sick relatives and rare emergencies excluded of course.)  We have unfortunately brought our “drive thru” culture into this sacred space.  We don’t make time to bask in the presence of the Lord after we receive him.  We don’t make the time to strengthen that bond between the Lord and us.  How can we possibly produce fruit if the branches are so quick to detach themselves from the vine? Yesterday, I read a quote from St. Maximilian Kolbe who said, “The culmination of the Mass is not the consecration, but Communion.”  This is what we came for.  This is WHO we came for.  Yes, we have a lot to learn from our children who were so intense in their post communion prayers.  They knew that they were at last one with Jesus.  May we recover that sense of wonder and awe that these children have when they approach the altar of the Lord.  It is here where we unite ourselves more closely to Christ where we remain in him as he remains in us.  We need this bond to produce the fruit that he expects from us.  We need this nourishment because without him we can do nothing.