Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tales of a Shepherd

"I am the good shepherd..and I will lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10:14-15)

I love my priesthood.  I can’t think of a better life.  Obviously it has it challenges especially when confronted with the image that Christ presents us with in today’s gospel.  He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  The priest is supposed to model his life and his ministry on this image.  Unlike the hired hand in the gospel, the priest doesn’t leave when challenges comes because like Christ he loves and cares for his sheep.  This is why this image of Christ is so comforting:  no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, he will always come to our rescue and bring us the peace and the comfort that we so desperately desire in the arms of our God.  Every day is an opportunity for me as a priest to model the Good Shepherd and to bring that peace to my flock, but as stated previously, it has its challenges which come mainly from what I want and not from what God wants from me.   I offer three examples that happened to me just in the last week.

Story 1:  Thursday night was incredible.  The N.F.L. draft was on.  The Panthers were playing a Game 7 playoff game.  Game 7!  And the Heat were playing their last regular season game…sort of.  It was a sports fan’s paradise.  Around 9:00 p.m., one of my former students who is now in college texts me on Facebook.  Now, he knows me very well and knows that my attention was being occupied by three simultaneous sporting events, yet all of the sudden I see this strange feature pop up on my computer screen.  He was trying to video chat with me on Facebook which I had never done.  I clicked on it and he pops up and tells me, “I really need to talk to you.  I really need to go to confession.”  I look back at him and say, “It ain’t happening over the Internet and I definitely ain’t driving up to Boston to hear your confession.”  Be that as it may, we ended up talking for about 90 minutes.  He just needed someone to listen to him, to counsel him, to tell him the Jesus loved him, and to tell him that despite bumps in the road that I was very proud of him.  It turned out to be an awful sports night especially when the Panthers lost in double overtime.  But that conversation with my former student made my night. 

Story 2:  After that conversation and the late hockey game, I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep.  I slept maybe four hours, and I woke up and went off to celebrate morning Mass.  As many of you know, I take great pride in celebrating the Mass, but that morning I was so tired that I was going through the motions.  My homily was horrendous.  My prayers were flat.  During the silence after communion I realized that I did not offer a Mass worthy of the Lord and worthy of his flock.  I am my own worst critic and felt absolutely terrible.  I gave the final blessing, processed out, and stood by the door to greet the people on the way out.  All of the sudden, this lady comes up to me and tells me, “Father, thank you for celebrating such a beautiful Mass.”  I was speechless, and thought, “Did she attend the same Mass that I did?”  Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit was at work where I failed and God’s ways are always perfect despite using imperfect instruments.  The tired shepherd manages to reach out to one of his sheep.

Story 3:  After that Mass on Friday, I went to the office and had a sick call at the hospital from a homebound gentleman that I regularly visit.  Every six weeks to the day, he calls me up to ask that I visit him to hear his confession.  My receptionist wonders what this good man possibly has to confess especially in such a short period of time, but even though he calls at sometimes the most inopportune times, I visit him and get much more from him than I could ever give him.  On Friday, I remembered that our other priest had gone to visit him earlier in the week, but this gentleman still insisted on seeing a priest before hip surgery that afternoon.  Again, I was exhausted, but I drove over to the hospital nonetheless.  He lit up when he saw me.  He asked for me to hear his confession and then asked if I had brought him communion. (I wasn’t supposed to give it to him because of the fast before surgery, but it’s Jesus!)  He was so grateful because he really feared that he might not make it through the surgery (he did), and as I was about to leave, this 80-something year old man grabbed my hand really tight, thanked me for what I had done, and started to kiss my hand over and over again.  I had brought him the Lord.  Now he was at peace.

Each story tells of a sheep seeking out a shepherd who in all three instances was somewhat disengaged but through his sheep was able to see God’s hand at work in each one of them.  Any priest will tell you that they do not deserve this awesome responsibility that has been placed on us, that we so often fall short of this model of Christ the Good Shepherd, and that it is your prayers that sustain us and allow us to minister to you.  That is why on this Good Shepherd Sunday and World Day of Prayer for Vocations, pray for your priests and pray for more priests.  We are imperfect instruments undeservedly made effective by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  I look at the three stories I have told you and go back to my opening statement:  I love my priesthood because there is no better life.  I am called to be your shepherd and I am honored, unworthy as I am, that despite my faults and many weakness, my sheep still humble me by simply calling me, “Father.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Witnessing to the Twitter Generation

“You are witnesses of these things.”  (Luke 24:48)

Could you imagine if the apostles had Twitter?  Maybe their tweets would have gone something like this on Easter morning:

@Simon_Peter – He’s Alive!  I didn’t believe Mary M.’s witness but he just appeared to us!  He is risen! #Halleluiah!

@Thomas_Didymus – The boys just told me they saw Jesus when I went out for milk.  Doubt it!  #NeedProof

@Cleopas_Emmaus – Just saw Jesus while having dinner.  Running to Jerusalem to tell the brothers!  #BurningHeart

@TheBelovedDisciple – I just simply saw the empty burial cloths and believed.  #He’sAlive!

Yep, word definitely would have spread pretty quickly.  Jesus told them at the end of today’s gospel that they were witnesses of everything that had just happened, and it occurs to me that a witness does two things (as confirmed by the children this morning at Mass):  the witness sees what happens and the witness tells what happens.  That’s what we are called to do as Christians:  announce to the world the Good News of the Risen Christ and it so easy to do in the 21st century.  For example, many of you are reading this homily from a link posted on Twitter or Facebook. Everything that happens in 2012 is seen, recorded, and announced instantly.  We used to have to wait for the evening news or the morning paper to find out what was happening in the world.  With the dawn of the Internet, we had to wait for reporters to write a story then post it to a webpage or a blog.  Now with Twitter and Facebook, we find out about things seconds after they happen.  Anytime you go to a big event like a wedding or a sporting event or a concert, all you see in the audience is people with their cameras phones taking pictures that are instantly posted to Facebook or Twitter or now Instagram.  When I was in Rome two summers ago, I was taking pictures of the Holy Father that appeared on friends’ Facebook feeds as they woke up.  We have all these mediums at our disposal to share a powerful message, but more often than not, we use them to tear down, destroy, or publish to the world the “we don’t need to know” details of our lives or of the lives of others.

The Christian witness is to supposed to see and proclaim.  When we witness something exciting or life changing, we share the news immediately. Last week, mere minutes after one of my cousins had a baby, the picture was texted to every phone in the family to share the arrival of a new family member.  Imagine what an entire Christian community could do with the power of Facebook or Twitter to proclaim the Good News.  On Easter Sunday, none of the top ten trending topics (aside from Happy Easter) had to do with the Resurrection.  Just as the Internet can be the root of so much evil, it could also be used to do so much good.  We are Christ’s witnesses.  We are charged with the task of sharing the Good News using all the tools of communication at our disposal.  So I’ll start:  #HeIsRisen!  #Witness!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

That Voice of Peace: A Tribute to Bishop Román

“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

It is difficult to find holiness around us.  It is difficult to find someone who by their very presence transmits the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This past Wednesday we lost a pillar of our faith community.  I lost a spiritual mentor, a hero, a friend.  Bishop Agustin Román died as he lived: working for the good of his people.  He took the peace of Christ wherever he went and truly lived out the command of Jesus to the disciples in today’s gospel, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Bishop Román was sent to a foreign land to accomplish the task of spreading the gospel.  He would have preferred to do it in his native Cuba, but as he once told me, “The only thing the priest needs is an altar.”   Wherever he was, he spread the gospel and touched the hearts of many through his example of holiness. When you have been in the presence of a “friend of God” (which is the Haitian word for saint, zanmi Bondye), as I have been all my life, I cannot help but to share the story of this holy man to prove that saints really do live among us and that holiness is very much within our grasp.

When I was born, my father was working as a carpenter helping to build the convent of the Sisters of Charity on the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity.  Every morning, he would have breakfast with then Father Román and every morning he would ask my father about his children.  Father Román would be ordained a bishop in 1979 and every time my parents would take me to see him, his voice would always bring me peace.  It was a soothing voice, the voice of a shepherd who attracted so many.  In time as I grew older, I would begin working with him, serving Mass with him, and yes, even wanting to be a priest like him.  When I made the decision of deciding to be a priest, the first priest that I told was Bishop Román.  I was 17 years old, and I had the audacity to call his office and ask for an appointment.  He immediately returned my call and asked me to come see him on a Tuesday afternoon after school.  I met with him in the same convent that my father had helped build, and I asked him, “Bishop, I feel that God is calling me to be a priest, but I am young.  Should I go to college and experience life a little bit more or go to the seminary?”  The bishop shook his head and told me as only he could, “No, no, no, when God calls, you have to answer him immediately.”  He reached for the phone on his desk and promptly dialed up the Vocations Director and three months later I was in the seminary and never looked back.  That fateful meeting with Bishop Roman occurred on May 11, 1993:  exactly nine years to the day before I was ordained a priest.

Nine years and three days after that meeting, I went to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity as a newly ordained priest to fulfill a great dream and celebrate Mass at that altar below our Blessed Mother where Bishop Román had celebrated Mass countless times.  He humbly put on his episcopal choir robes, took a seat behind a kneeler to the right of the altar, and knelt as I celebrated Mass.  He didn’t say a word.  He simply prayed. What a model of humility for a man who was a successor of the apostles!

When I was Vocations Director, I was concelebrating a Mass for young people with him.  At the end of the Mass, he talked to the young people about vocations to the priesthood and religious life and told them how important it was to pray for vocations.  He called me toward his chair and told me in front of everyone that I needed to pray the rosary for vocations.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his rosary and put it in my hands.  That rosary has never left my pocket since that day. 

A couple of months after that he asked that I bring a monstrance blessed by John Paul II to pray for vocations to the Youth Center so that it could visit the kids and then the next day to the students at LaSalle High School next door.  Even though it wasn’t on the itinerary I released as it toured the Archdiocese, I could not say no to him.  He even offered to allow me to spend the night in his small residence in the Youth Center.  As I was praying with the young people that night before the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop Roman very quietly came in and knelt in the back.  It was common for the young people to see him at their meetings.  I was sitting in the presider’s chair and asked him to come up and sit in the chair.  Even though he would have preferred humbly staying in the back, he never refused a request from a priest, so he came and sat in the presiders chair and I sat next to him and we prayed with the young people.  One of the kids who is now a seminarian took a picture of the two of us praying before the Lord.  It is my favorite picture of me with the bishop.

Later that night, Bishop Román showed me to my room that was right next to his.  His room was very small.  It had a twin bed, a rocking chair, some books and his desk.  That’s it.  I could fit two of his rooms into my living quarters upstairs and I’m not even going to get into all the stuff I have.  Across the hall there was a chapel.  He went to bed around Midnight and he was up before 6:00 a.m. to do his daily reflection for the radio.  The next morning I was supposed to go visit the high school, but first I sat with him for breakfast.  We talked about everything under the sun that morning.  I was so enthralled by this time I was spending with the bishop that 10 minutes after school began the Bishop looked at his watch and said, “Father, you’re late for the school.”  Can you blame me?  I was taking in everything he was telling me. 

Every time he spoke to me, I felt peace.  I felt holiness.  I felt that I had so much more to go to reach his level of holiness.  He was for me the model of priesthood.  During the last few years, his health began to deteriorate and I would only see him three or four times a year.  Even in declining health, he continued to work.  His passion was evangelization.  He was always very interested in how I was doing in Broward and how the good people of Broward were doing.  He was so happy to hear how full our churches are up here and how fast the Hispanic population was growing.  He would always tell me, “You have to go to them.”   My heart sank when I learned that he had passed on Wednesday night.  I tried as much as I could to be part of every aspect of his funeral from receiving his body at the Shrine to saying the second Mass for his repose near his casket to his glorious funeral Mass and then the long procession to his burial where we heard the people acclaim, “Santo Subito! (Sainthood now!)”  I’ve gotten choked up many times since Wednesday, my mind and my heart have been in a fog, but as I drove back up to the parish last night, I could hear his voice, that voice of peace, speaking to me as he did so many times: “Father, the gospel needs to preached.  Someone needs to share the Good News of the Resurrection.  It’s time to get back to work.”  He worked until the day he died.  I pray I do as well.  May the soul of Bishop Román and all the faithful departed rest in the peace of Christ.  Goodbye, Monseñor.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Joy

“Peter proceeded to speak and said:
"You know what has happened all over Judea…” (Acts 2:34a,37)

"The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world." --From the Old Translation of the First Easter Preface

We are filled with overwhelming joy on the Easter morning.  We have gathered to celebrate the triumph of our Lord over sin and death.  This joy, as the liturgy tells us, renews the whole world and should renew us this day.  During Lent, we put to death our sinful ways and now we walk in the freedom of God’s children.  This Sunday is special because we gather in great numbers to celebrate the central mystery of our faith.  This indeed is the day the Lord has made and we rejoice and are glad as the psalm says.  But my friends, every Sunday is special, every Sunday is a mini-Easter, every Sunday IS the Lord’s Day.  A dear friend texts me every Sunday morning to wish me a “Happy Sunday.”  It is a recognition that this day is different from all others.  It is a day dedicated to family, rest, and most importantly, it is the Lord’s day.  But today is the Sunday of Sundays.  It is Easter Sunday and we are definitely filled with the radiant joy of the resurrection that transforms us.

Last night at our Easter Vigil, eight of your fellow parishioners received the Easter sacraments and were baptized, confirmed, and received first communion.  One of them was a 16-year-old girl wise beyond her years.  Whenever I would visit her class and talk about lofty concepts of our faith, she would pay close attention to everything that was said.  Last night, her face was as radiant as that of the risen Christ as she knelt before the baptismal font and was baptized.  Later on she was confirmed and received the Eucharist for the first time.  While I was finishing to distribute communion, she was kneeling in the first pew about three feet away.  When I was done, she murmured something to me that I couldn’t quite understand.  I leaned in closer and she told me with an angelic and joy-filled smile, “Father, I want to do it again!”  I smiled from ear to ear.  Here we have a 16-year-old girl who gets what Easter is all about. The joy of the resurrection truly does indeed renew the whole world.  Sometimes adults who have practiced the faith for many years have to pause and reflect on what Easter really means to them.

We know the story.  We know what has happened as Peter tells us in the first reading.  But what are we doing to share the joy of the resurrection?  We cannot leave this joy here in church.  Yes, it feels great here on Easter morning with a beautifully decorated altar, heavenly music with trumpets, strings, and choir, but this joy dies here as surely as Christ died on the cross if we don’t take it beyond the walls of this church and spread it to every corner of the earth.  My friends, the Lord has freed us from our bondage to sin.  He has freely given to us the gift of immortality.  He has filled our lives with joy and peace.  Is that not worth sharing?  This young girl through her witness will share this joy because you could tell last night that she had fallen in love with her faith and with this man named Jesus who died and rose for her and gave her new life.  He did the same for you.  What will you do for him?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Waiting For the Dawn

"There is a great silence on earth today...God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear." --From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily

All is quiet.  Things seem surreal.  The Master is no longer with them.  The night seems darker.  Every noise causes alarm.  Every gesture suspicion.  Those poor disciples failed to believe on that first Holy Saturday.

And so we wait.  We wait because we know that the sun will shine its brightest tomorrow morning.  We wait with the hope in the resurrection and with joyful and expectant hearts because what the dawn will bring is something beyond all human understanding.  The great silence on the earth this day will soon make way for the greatest of the angelic trumpet blasts from heaven.  Dawn cannot get here soon enough…

Friday, April 6, 2012

It Is Finished

“After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled,* Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine.* So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.  When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”  And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”  (John 19:29-30)

It was done.  Jesus took on every ounce of pain, every insult hurled at him, every bone crushing lash, every nail from the cross, every humiliating thing that the Father placed on his broad shoulders he took on for our sake.

It is finished and the world has been redeemed and re-created.

It is finished.  His earthly mission to come and redeem us has come to an end.  And isn’t redemption simply the re-creation of the world?  He came to re-create us into his divine image and likeness.  He did this to vanquish sin once and for all.  He withstood every last ounce of pain and perfectly fulfills the will of the Father.  This is why he is exalted on that cross because of his fidelity to his Father.  And Jesus desires the same from us:  that we follow the will of the Father. 

The cross on this day is an example of how to live our lives:  completely for the other.  If we want to get to the New Life of Easter Sunday then we have to pass through the sacrifice of Calvary.  In order to reach the true life that God wants for us, we have to imitate our Lord: die to ourselves and rise to a new life with him.  We have to crucify our old self with all its faults and sins to the cross…and there it dies.

Being a Christian is simply being like Christ, living like Christ, and yes, sometimes suffering like Christ with the hope that one day we will be living with Christ in the presence of the Father forever.  When we give of ourselves totally to Christ and die to ourselves, we receive the same promise that Jesus gave the good thief: “this day you will be with me in paradise” because like Jesus and that good thief, we all long to be in the arms of our Father.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What's Really Important

“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”  (John 13:14)

Nothing ever comes out the way we want it to.  After a tiring day working in the church preparing for Holy Thursday, the seminarian of my parish and I sat down for an early dinner.  We had spent the day trying to make sure that all the volunteers who showed up to prepare the church were sticking to rubrics and guidelines.  Sometimes we succeeded and other times we failed.  As we sat down, I mentioned that amidst all the craziness at least we could now relax, have supper, and celebrate the priesthood.  Our seminarian froze and said to me, “I’m sorry Father, I haven’t wished you a Happy Feast Day on this Holy Thursday.  I guess sometimes we forget what’s really important.”  We said a prayer of blessing and throughout dinner I kept thinking about his words.  We really do forget what is truly important and get distracted by things that while they may be important aren’t as important as what we celebrate today:  the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood.

All we need is right there on the altar.  Everything else just distracts us from the reality that Jesus is truly here present among us.  Tonight is different from other nights because we celebrate what our Lord did for us during that Last Supper.  Not only did he give us the gift of himself in the Eucharist, but he who is Master and Lord knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples in a remarkable act of service and love.  This is what is important.  This is what we are called to imitate.  And on this Holy Thursday night, we also recall Christ’s agony.  Not just the agony in the garden that happened after the Last Supper, but think of the agony Christ felt during that meal.  He knew that one of his disciples, one his closest friends, one of “his own” was about to betray him.  Think about that for a second.  He knew that Judas was going to lead him to a very violent death.  He loved Judas like he loves each one of us.  Imagine the agony that Jesus felt in his heart knowing that one of “his own” was going to hand him over to die.  And despite all this, Jesus still washed Judas’ feet.  He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)

In a few moments, I will kneel down as the Lord did and wash the feet of twelve of our parishioners.  The world may see this as degrading.  I see it as an honor.  But let’s switch places for a moment and look at this scene from the eyes of Peter who did not want his feet to be washed by Jesus.  This happened to me in the infancy of my priesthood.  I was attending a women’s prayer meeting as they were preparing for a retreat.  I was sitting in a corner listening to them as they talked about service.  To emphasize how important their service was the leader of the retreat went around the room washing everyone’s feet.  I was trying to go unnoticed but finally, she placed the bowl at my feet.  I became like Peter.  I looked down on her with a puzzled face as if to say, “Wait a second, I’m the priest.  I’m the one that does the foot washing.”  She looked up at me and lovingly said, “Father, let yourself be served.”  I took off my shoes, and she washed my feet.  Tears were streaming down my eyes because I realized that as much as priests love their people, it is nothing compared to how much the people of God love their priests.  Unworthy as we are, today we priests are reminded that we are called to put pride and ambition aside and simply serve you.  I cried that day because I wish I had the faith of those women.  I wish I had the faith of some of you.  Yes, I do consider myself of man of faith or else I would have nothing to share with you from this pulpit, but I marvel at the faith of the people I serve daily.  Through your rosaries, novenas, chaplets, stations, adoration, Mass attendance, and communion, you inspire your priests to work that much harder for you and to work for what is truly important:  to make this Christ who gave of himself this night more present to you.  On this Holy Thursday night, I thank God for my priesthood and for the gift of the Eucharist, but I also give thanks for the gift I have in all of you who allow me on a daily basis to wash your feet.