Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bringing Christ To All

"Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God...No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God..." (Hebrews 5:1, 4)

A few weeks ago, I heard this powerful story from Archbishop Flynn:
Back in World War II, several young priests from Albany, New York volunteered to go into the armed services. One young priest was assigned to the Marines who were trying to retake an island from the Japanese in the South Pacific. The Marines were trying to advance on the beach with the Japanese having the advantage of being on higher ground. This young priest tried to minster to these Marines who were at a disadvantage in the foxholes they had dug on the beach.  The priest went from foxhole to foxhole giving absolution and distributing Communion. He arrived at one particular foxhole to find three young faces looking up at him all helpless. He gave them absolution and then the Eucharist. As he crawled out of this foxhole he heard a terrible explosion and he looked back to see his worst nightmare. A shell had gone into that foxhole of these three young men who couldn't have been older than 18 or 19 years of age to whom this young priest had just given the Eucharist. He crawled back into the hole and found that two of them were gone from the blast. The other one was in the foxhole and he was bleeding to death. The young Marine looked up at the priest and asked, "Father, am I dying?"  The young priest responded, "Yes, son.  You're dying." And the young Marine responded, "Isn't it something, Father.  I just received Jesus and now I'm going to see him."

That young priest went on to become an Archbishop later on in life, but on that day, on that beach, he brought the light and the living presence of Jesus Christ into the darkness of war.  A priest whether in his church or in a hospital or in the front lines of a war zone brings this Glorious Presence.  As the second reading reminds us, he does not take this honor upon himself but only when called by God.  

I write this as I fly back from New York with our football team.  We are flying around a hurricane and the plane ride has been bumpy to say the least.  When we were boarding, many were nervous about the prospects of even taking off because the winds were picking up and the airport was about to close.  As I took my seat, one of our young equipment managers took his seat in front of me and said, "Boy, am I glad to be sitting next to you!"  I smiled and reminded myself that the collar I wear around my neck is supposed to bring peace to those around me even though the man that wears the collar many times falls short of living up to such high a calling.  Yet, despite my sinfulness, despite my fears, faults, and insecurities, somehow Christ chose me to be his priest to bring his presence to others.  Sometimes in the most unlikeliest of places.

A few months ago, I was wondering what plan God had in store for me as I began ministering to the Dolphins.  I knew that it was more than just celebrating Mass for them.  Many of my brother priests (most of them retired after many years in ministry) have pointed to the black collar I wear around my neck on the sideline.  Last month, my old spiritual director wrote to me that just my mere presence on the sidelines wearing that sacred garb would evangelize millions that were watching on television. Praying the rosary before the game, giving the rosaries to coaches, players, and staff and just simply being there brings Christ to others.  It definitely is not nearly as heroic as that young priest in the South Pacific, but the joy that I receive from bringing that joy of Christ to others is beyond anything I could possibly have imagined.   I do this for the team, I do this for my parishioners at St. Gregory, and I will do this wherever the Good Lord leads me on this grand adventure that is the priesthood.  I wake up every morning felling blessed to be a priest, to be to offer up a Holy Sacrifice to God in the Eucharist, and to bring the presence of Christ to those that he places before me.

One last thing: last night I was sitting in my hotel room along the Hudson River staring out my window and gazing at the World Trade Center.  The Freedom Tower, or One World Trade Center, is nearing completion as it rises triumphantly over that hallowed ground on the southern tip of Manhattan. It's lights reflected beautifully off the waters of the Hudson. I spent a great deal of time last night and before dawn this morning just staring at the World Trade Center and thinking and praying for the victims and heroes of that fateful Tuesday morning. And of course, I thought of Father Mychal Judge who ran towards the towers as they burned.  He wasn't in a war zone in the South Pacific.  This time the war zone was on our soil and he rushed to bring Christ to those who were suffering.  Many of you know that Father Judge gave his life that day just as throughout history priests have given their lives sharing Jesus with others.  So tonight, I ask you to say a prayer for those priests who minister despite impossible obstacles, who place their lives in danger to share the Gospel, and especially for those who courageously serve the brave men and women in our military by making Christ present in the most unlikeliest of places.  "Isn't it something, Father.  I just received Jesus and now I'm going to see him."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Missionary and A Toilet Brush

“…whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…”

Today the church celebrates World Mission Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, I’m reminded of my experience of missions in Mexico when I was a teenager.  I remember specifically the first day we arrived in our village.  We were going to spend two and a half weeks out there in the mountains of southern Mexico serving the poor, and when we got there we were assigned chores.  I have never forgotten that when we sat down to divvy up the daily chores, one of our young college missionaries named Jimmy was the first one to raise his hand to volunteer to clean the toilets every morning.  I was 15 at the time and thought this kid was crazy.  Why would he want to do such a disgusting chore every single day?  Little did I know at the time that he was teaching me a great gospel message that we hear in today’s gospel.  Greatness lies in total service to others without thinking of one’s self.  Jimmy was hard on me that first of three summers that we spent together on missions.  I never realized how self-centered I was as a teenager until one night that Jimmy basically spelled it out for me.  No one except my father had ever been that harsh with me but at the same time, he did it with great love.  Here I was thinking I was going to Mexico ready to set the world on fire by preaching God’s word but it was in the little things that God really made himself present:  in taking care of children so their parents could go to Mass, in doing my own laundry by hand in a bucket, in drawing water from a deep well for the other missionaries, in walking miles just to bring the presence of Christ to someone who may have felt forgotten by their Church.  It was in the selfless examples of my fellow missionaries, it was in the great faith of the poor people we were called to serve, and in my long and sometimes difficult talks with Jimmy and seeing his dedication to our mission that this young teenager slowly started to discover his priestly vocation.

Next summer it will be 20 years since I went on missions to that place that I once called an “oasis of Christianity” because you see the gospel come to life in the love and the faith of the poor.  They rely solely on God and not on anything of this world.  It is there that I met some of the poorest people I have ever known, but at the same time some of the greatest and most powerful.  Christ reminds us that to be the first, to be truly powerful, we have to be the slave of all.  Being able to experience this first hand at such a young age set the tone for the rest of my life.  These people who we were coming to serve delighted in serving us!  They would constantly be giving us food that more often than not meant that they were depriving themselves and their families of food so that the missionaries would could eat from their harvest.  The priest that accompanied us always said that the bread that these poor people gave us was as sacred as the bread that we broke on the altar.  It was such a joy to be a missionary, and I carry that spirit now as a priest.  World Mission Sunday is supposed to remind us that not only are we called to remember those who are preaching the gospel and helping the poor around the world, but also that we don’t necessarily need to travel to foreign lands to be a missionary:  we are called to be missionaries right here in our homes, our work, and our schools.  We are called to serve and be a slave to all even if it means doing something as menial as cleaning toilets so that somebody else doesn’t have to.  For it is in the small tasks preformed with great love that we truly achieve greatness.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What Must I Do?

What Must I Do?

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17)

This past week, I spent five days on retreat with about 40 of my brother priests from the Archdiocese of Miami.  I’ve been on these retreats before with other priests and it never ceases to amaze me how serious we take these moments of solitude with God.  Our retreat master was Archbishop Harry Flynn, the archbishop-emeritus of Minneapolis, who I heard speak up in the Twin Cities 6 years ago and is a truly gifted speaker.  I witnessed 40 priests who preach the gospel every day, witness to Christ every day, who know what it takes to be a good Christian, approach this retreat with the same question that the man in today’s gospel posed to Jesus:  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Like the man, we know the answer, but as priests, we must run to the Master to be reminded.  This is why we go on retreat:  to be reminded of these truths that help us inherit eternal life, to be reminded of God’s wonderful love for us, to be reminded of his endless mercy, to be reminded that we have received true richness in Christ’s gift to us of the priesthood, and to be reminded that as men of God in a secular world, we must rededicate ourselves all the more to prayer for our people.

All of us here are like this man in the gospel.  We approach the Lord asking him “What must I do?”  We genuinely want him to tell us what we must do to please him, to honor him, and to gain for ourselves admittance into the kingdom of heaven.  We ask this question because we honestly don’t know the answer.  We come before the Lord with humility and he gives us the answer, but we look back and realize that we are very much tied down to the world.  This gospel is not so much about being rich in wealth, but about letting the things of this world hinder us from a life totally dedicated to God.  The tragedy of this story is that the rich man could not detach himself from his possessions.  Jesus looked on him and loved him.  Notice that little detail that St. Mark throws in there.  He looked on him and loved him.  That is how he looks on every one of us as he calls us to enter into a deeper relationship with him.  But what is holding us back?  What is distracting us?

An entire day of our retreat was dedicated to the importance of prayer in our lives.  We all expect our priests to be men of prayer.  I pray every day not only in Mass but before the Blessed Sacrament as well.  Yet, I always feel like I should be dedicating more time to praying for all of you and to listening to the Lord.  Archbishop Flynn began his talk on prayer by telling us quite boldly, “Until you are convinced that prayer is the best use of your time, you will never have time for prayer.”  I spent most of that day meditating on those words and thinking about all the time I literally waste on trivial things, which is time that I could be spending before the Lord the Blessed Sacrament.  When you’re on retreat it is easy to enter into prayer, but when you’re in your room surrounded by your possessions and your gadgets and your computer and TV and other things that distract from a deeper prayer life, it’s not so easy.  Detachment from the material is necessary.  Each of us clings to things of this world that prevent us from entering more fully into the mystery of God’s love.  “What must I do?” you ask.  Spend an extra few minutes in prayer each day.  Be alone with God.  Disconnect yourself from this world and be one with Him.  It is in prayer that we find answers because not only are we speaking to God, but more importantly, he is speaking to us.

I want to end with one last anecdote about our retreat.  On that day that was dedicated to prayer, we concluded it with a reconciliation service.  I sat in the back of that chapel and watched as each one of your priests humbly went before one of the Passionist Fathers who were hosting us to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It is there in that confessional that we accomplish total detachment because we are no longer weighed down by our sins.  Once we are not weighed down with our sins or the things of this world, we can approach the Lord and genuinely ask him with an open heart, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Defense of Marriage (Somewhere Over Cincinnati)

"But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." (Mark 10:9)

Last night when I was celebrating Mass for the team, I spoke to them about the beauty of marriage and its place in God's plan for our salvation.  Because my time was limited, I couldn't get too deep into what I wanted to say.  I kept remembering a homily that I preached three years ago on these readings and on marriage.  God created everything so perfectly.  He created us male and female so that one may cling to the other so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.  He created this beautiful bond between man and woman that we call marriage so that we may express to each other the love that God has poured out into our hearts.  It really is all about love.  Selfless and self-giving love, and really, is there any other kind?  It is a love so powerful that when you go before the altar of the Lord to consecrate yourself to your husband and wife in marriage:  you should see the face of God in your beloved!  You should be able to peer into the eyes of your spouse and see the depths of Christ’s love.  And it shouldn’t be just on the day of the wedding, but every single day thereafter when you wake up with the person God himself has chosen for you.

Three years ago, I quoted Brad Paisley’s song, “Find Yourself” to illustrate this point and related the lyrics to marital love:

"When you meet the one
That you've been waitin' for
And she's everything that you want and more
You look at her and you finally start to live for some one else
And then you find yourself
That’s when you find yourself"

Marriage has everything to do with living for someone else, thinking first of someone else and dedicating your whole heart, mind and soul to someone else.  That's how we achieve salvation and that's how a married couple achieves salvation.  Each was chosen by God for each other to share the love that God has poured out into their hearts with the other.  The moment they stop to live for each and start to think of what they as individuals need and not what they as a couple united in Christ needs then things slowly start to fall apart because the marriage has lost the solid foundation which is the love of Christ.  That is why the first thing a married person should ask the moment they wake up each morning is "What does my spouse need this morning?  How can I demonstrate the depths of my love to my spouse this day?"  

Unfortunately this marital love that our Lord created has come under attack by a society that easily discards that which doesn’t work or by those who have been living together in a relationship outside of marriage and one day decide to throw a big party and call it a “wedding.”  Some of the most blessed moments of my priesthood have come at the altar witnessing a couple who “gets it” exchange wedding vows, but on the other side of the coin, some of the saddest moments of my priesthood have come when I have had to witness the exchange of vows of two people who have been living together for a while, are doing this to make their parents happy or to give her the wedding she has always wanted, and after this charade is over, they go back to living the life they were living before they signed a paper that made them someone else’s husband or wife.  This is not what our Lord had in mind when he instituted the sacrament of marriage and why the Church, outdated as some think it might be, continues to insist that her children remain chaste and living apart until the day that Christ bestows his blessing on their union.  This may sound archaic, but it is TRUTH!  And people don’t believe me when I tell them that there are committed couples that remain chaste until the night of their wedding.  These are the ones society mocks or labels as myths of yesteryear.  We must uphold Church teaching because those very couples that are “living in sin” (and yes, we still use that term) double their chances of ending in divorce.  If they couldn’t keep Christ’s commandments before their wedding, how much more difficult will it be to keep Christ at the center of the marriage after the wedding?  Holy Mother Church is 2000 years old.  Let the world call her antiquated.  Let the world call me “out of touch” as a priest.  What the Church wants for her children is what God wants for his children:  the joy and love that his Son left us.  That love is shared perfectly in the married love of one man and one woman.  We must defend this sacrament our Lord instituted.  We must cherish and uphold its sacredness.  As I wrote three years ago:

We must pray for our married couples.  We must pray for our engaged couples.  We must pray for our young people who are seeking out that person that God has chosen for them.  Marriage is a total consecration of one person to the other.  United by Christ, the couples themselves become part of something as sacred as that which is reserved in our tabernacles because Christ is present in that love a couple shares, in that gaze that pierces the depths of each other's souls, and in the simple act of being able to wake up each morning to simply tell your spouse, "I love you."  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Somewhere Over Arizona

"Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!  Would that the Lord might 
bestow his spirit on them all!”  (Numbers 11:25)

As we fly east into the night over the desert, a quick reflection for this 

I think back to the verse above from today's first reading.  Would that we all 
be blessed!  God wants his blessings to fall down on all his children, but both 
Joshua and John in today's readings feel a bit of jealousy because others are 
doing the things that they have been called to do.  Why are we constantly 
looking around and counting someone else's blessings when we should be thanking 
God for ours?  When we see a brother or a sister doing good works in the name of 
Jesus, there should be no jealousy or envy in our hearts.  We should rejoice 
that they are doing good works.  Each of us has been blessed with different 
gifts from above to be placed at the service of the kingdom.  Scott Hahn wrote 
in his weekly reflection that "God can and will work mighty deeds through the 
most unexpected and unlikely people."  I offer the twelve apostles as Exhibit A.  
Each and every one of us has been blessed by the Almighty to do great things.  

Yet, we get jealous and envy the triumphs of others.  Even within the Church, 
there are people and groups who think that their way, their group, or their 
particular ministry is the only way to achieve salvation.  The truth is that our 
parishes have been blessed with an abundance of ministries that tend to the 
various needs of its parishioners.  No ministry, no person, and no priest has 
the market cornered on salvation.  Each of us is called to do the Lord's will 
with the gifts he has given us in the ministry he has called us to despite our 
sins and failings.  John and the disciples thought that they were the only 
chosen ones when it fact we have all been chosen by Christ to perform mighty 
deeds and spread his blessings to all the world.