Sunday, September 23, 2012

Our "Littleness"

"`If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’" Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, `Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’" (Mark 9:35-37)

This morning when I woke up, I received a message from my old spiritual director that read: I wish you to meet Christ in your littleness in your vulnerable self.”  Now before I had read that message, I had been pondering in my head today’s readings especially the part about being the “last of all.”  This is something that is so difficult for us to grasp because we live in a world where being the greatest and being the best is glorified.  But yet we look up and behold Christ in his glory on the cross when he was most vulnerable, when he had become literally the last and servant of all.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jesus predicts/announces his passion and once again, the disciples fail to understand what he was talking about.  Instead, they start arguing about who will be the greatest.  After all, if the Lord isn’t going to be there, one of them had to be first, right?  It seems like the fight for power has been around as long as humans have.  All we see on our TV’s these days are two men looking for power in our country (yes, I know that was severely understated), and even in our work and school environments there are always people looking to grab power, to place themselves on top, and to sometimes lord this power over others.  Jesus reminds the disciples that it should not be this way with them, for if they truly want to be the greatest, they have to be last and servants of all.

I wish you to meet Christ in your littleness in your vulnerable self.”  I have spent most of my day, through prayer, through the chaos of a football game, and in the quiet moments in between, mulling over this message from a wise friend.  Where do we encounter Christ?  Last week, Jesus spoke of denying one’s self to follow him.  When we strip ourselves of our vanity, pride, selfishness, and ego, what are we left with?  When we meet Christ in our vulnerable selves, we have become the least of all, and now we are open to receive the blessings that he wishes to bestow upon us.  This is where we genuinely meet him.  He wishes us not to strive for power, for true greatness is found in putting ourselves last and serving others.  We encounter him in the anowim: the little ones of God.  That is why he placed a child in the midst of the disciples.  A child personifies our littleness and our vulnerable self because a child in Jesus’ time was the most vulnerable of all.  We have to become like children to fully embrace and understand Christ, for it is only the innocence of a child that fully understands who Jesus really is: greater and more powerful than any of us.  Children do not have the delusions of grandeur that we have that we can get through life on our own.  They are fully aware that they depend on their parents, their teachers, and “big people.”  When we realize that we must approach God in the same way, then we have taken a gigantic leap in our spiritual life.  It is in receiving these little ones of God: the poor, the sick, the outcasts, and the children, that we receive God himself.  Once again, our Lord calls us to deny ourselves, to not think of the things of this world, but to simply become “little” in order to encounter Him and to better serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pick It Up

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

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

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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Somewhere Over Houston

Just a quick note because I am literally writing this while flying somewhere over Houston: there will be 7 Sundays this fall when I won't be in the parish due to my travels with the Miami Dolphins.  Yes, I celebrate Mass for them but with a much shorter homily.  So when the Dolphins are on the road, I'll jot down some reflections as we fly home:

Even though I was thrilled to be with the team for the season opener, my heart last night was in Miami as the Lady of Charity Mass was celebrated on the 400th anniversary of her being found not far from where my father was born and raised in Cuba.  Now over my first three road trips, I've gotten into the habit of visiting the nearest Catholic church to pray for the team and the good people who I leave behind.  As I was walking out of Annunciation Church in downtown Houston, I gasped as I saw an image of Our Lady of Charity on the back wall of the church.  Even though I was far, she still found me.  I explained to the team later that night that there were 17,000 people back home paying homage to that image of our Lady.  The reason why we gather every year is because as Catholics and as Cubans, we are a people of hope.  Mary is the model of hope, and we send up our sighs to her that she may protect us as she protected the three young men who found her image 400 years ago.  

Last week, I was talking to my godson and he was nervous about the Dolphins game today.  I was assuring him that we'd be ok, and he said to me, "I'm afraid to even hope." I immediately replied, "Never be afraid to hope."  Whether in football or in life or in faith, hope is what keeps us close to the Almighty and to the things that really matter in life.  Hope is what prompted the friends of the deaf mute in today's gospel to bring him before the Lord.  Hope is what makes us open our eyes with each sunrise and embrace each day as a gift from God and seize the opportunity to do his will.  It is that hope that keeps bringing so many good people every year before the image of La Caridad to pray for their homeland and their families.  We've done it for 51 years because even though our homeland is shrouded by darkness, we have never given up the hope that one day we will return to a free land where we can freely proclaim the Good News of our Lord and embrace those we left behind.   Our Lord and Our Lady never abandon us even when we are afraid of what surrounds us and what lies ahead.  That is why we must never be afraid to hope.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Football and the Ministry of Presence

“Be doers of the word and not hearers only…” (James 1:22)
This morning before Mass, one of the altar servers and I were talking about the Columbus-St. Thomas Aquinas football game on Friday night.  One of the Eucharistic ministers was over hearing the conversation and she asked, “Father, you like football?”  Every one in the room began to laugh because it was like asking a child if he liked candy.  As I was laughing, I was reminded of that moment in the gospel of John when Phillip asks Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus responds, “Have I been with you so long and you still do not know me?”  Everyone turned to this kind and wonderful lady and reminded her that I had much more than a mild interest in football.
One of the worst kept secrets in the parish over the last couple of months is that last spring I was asked to be the Team Priest for the Miami Dolphins.  Everyone keeps coming up to me and saying, “Father that must be your dreams job.”  I quickly correct them, “No I am living my dream right now as I’m standing before all of you preaching and celebrating the Eucharist.” (But this other gig does come in a close second.)  As soon as I was offered this assignment, my first worry was how it would affect my ministry in the parish, but I also asked myself:  apart from being around the team that I have loved and rooted for since I was a baby, how could I possibly make a difference in this new ministry beyond just celebrating Mass for the team?  I’ll get back to this question in a moment.
In today’s readings, Jesus asks us to hear his words and understand them.  Apparently the Pharisees and Scribes were not listening very well because they always put the law and the statutes of the law above a genuine relationship with God.  Jesus calls them out on it when he calls them hypocrites that pay lip service to God but really don’t follow His commandments.  Small rituals are more important to them than bringing people closer to God, which is what their ministry should entail.  This happens to Catholics as well when we get caught up in prayers and novenas and rosaries and other rituals that are all well and good as long as they don’t alienate us from our brothers and sisters and from God.  We can repeat the same prayers every day out of a sense of obligation, but I ask you: is it bringing you closer to God or are you doing it out of obligation?  If it is simply out of obligation then it’s probably time to change up your prayer habits.  The prayers and rituals of our beautiful faith should help us deepen our relationship with God and should spur is into action out of love for our neighbor.  The Pharisees and Scribes lorded over the people with all these laws that had become nonsensical, but Jesus sums up the law in one word: love.  We must love God and love our neighbor.  Upon receiving the word of God, we must be doers of the word, as St. James tells us, and not just hearers.  We must carry that Word, Jesus Christ, in our hearts so that people can see that there is something different about us.  The disciples in last week’s gospel did not leave Jesus’ side because they were drawn to him.  People should be drawn to us as Christians in the same way.  We must radiate the presence of Jesus Christ at all times.
This brings me back to my earlier question of how I could minister to a professional football team.  When I started travelling with the team on road games (no, I was not driving the plane when we were leaving Dallas), I felt a bit out of place and asked a lot of questions of where I needed to be and what I needed to do beyond the celebration of the team Mass.  On my first road trip, I still didn’t know where I was going to watch the game until I was told:  “Coach wants you on the bench.”  There I was, a little kid now a priest standing on the sidelines with the football team he has lived and died with for 36 long, long years.  I respect our head coach a great deal, not because he offered me this generous invitation, but because as a man of deep faith he probably knows from experience the impact a priest can have on those around him.  Eventually, I slowly started to recognize why he wanted me around.  As the preseason went on, more players and staff reached out to me, more people were attending Mass, and during our second preseason home game, even one of the fans was touched by my presence on the sidelines. 
That evening just 10 days ago, I was walking out of the tunnel after halftime when I approached the wall near the west end zone to say hello to two parishioners from my first parish who I love dearly.  They came down to the railing and I had to reach up and they had to reach down to shake my hand because the first row is about 8 feet above the field.  While I was talking to them, I thin gentleman came to the railing.  He looked down at me.  He was extremely thin.  The skin on his face clung to his cheekbones.  It took a lot of energy for him to say to me over the noise of the stadium:  “Father, could you say a prayer of healing over me and bless me.  I’m terminal.”  My parishioner and I exchanged glances because we both knew immediately this moment of grace that the Good Lord had placed before us.  I smiled and nodded and extended my right hand toward him and began to pray for his healing.  When I was done, I blessed him and all of the sudden this man that at first looked to be in so much pain, looked like he was filled with an overwhelming peace as he smiled down at me.  He sat down.  I went back to the sidelines for the remainder of the game, but I could not get this man out of my head.  I don’t know if he was Catholic.  It didn’t matter.  He saw a man that represented God standing on the sidelines with his favorite football team and when I got closer to him, he asked me for prayer.  All I was doing was standing there wearing my black collar not representing a particular football team but representing my Lord and carrying His presence in my heart.  All of us are called to do the same.  We must take Christ with us wherever we go.  We must always radiate with his presence.  You don’t need a roman collar or a habit to transmit Christ’s presence.  I know so many holy lay people who are so filled with the love of Christ that people, random people, approach them in waiting rooms, at work or at school and basically just start telling them their life stories.  Presence and action are far more important than any words we can offer.  So I don’t know if this is what Coach had in mind when he asked me to be on the sidelines.  All I know is that I made a dying fan’s day brighter simply by being there with the team and praying for him.  We may not have won the football game that night, but as a team, we definitely won a soul for God.