Sunday, April 28, 2013

Childlike Love

“My children…love another.” (John 13:33a, 34)

Last Friday, my family gathered to celebrate my great aunt’s 90th birthday.  She is the oldest remaining sibling of my departed grandmother’s brothers and sisters.  What is remarkable is that she has 2 great, great grandchildren.  During the family gathering as I was holding my tiny little newborn cousin in my arms, I was watching my nephews interact with their cousins.  The baby’s older brother who is 16 months old walked up to my youngest nephew and with no rhyme or reason just simply gave him a big hug.  Obviously, that elicited lots of “aaawwwws” from everyone, but I found it remarkable because at that young age, it is literally love unfiltered.  The type of love Jesus is calling us to in today’s gospel.  I have seen this in my nephews when I go home for a visit.  My sister’s oldest son, all of 4 years old, will walk up and hug my brother’s son, whenever they get together.  It doesn’t matter what mood they are in or whether they have a “red” day or a “green” day, the two cousins are overjoyed at seeing each other and simply embrace. (Side note: I feel I must explain what “red” days and “green” days are for those who don’t have little children going to school.  Today teachers codify students’ behavior using the same color system that our society uses to control traffic at intersections.  If a child behaves well in school, in other words, do what they are supposed to do, they are on green.  If they act so-so, they are on yellow, and if they behave in a manner that would’ve gotten us a whoopin when we were kids, they are on “red.”  I’ll come back to this later.)  Back to child-like love:  the manner in which children show their love, without judgment or prejudice or ulterior motives or agendas is how Jesus calls us to love another. 

We need to recapture that innocence and start seeing our neighbor as Jesus sees us.  Jesus sees past our sins and failings and simply loves us because we are his children.  He is merciful towards all.  He doesn’t look down on us and categorizes his children as “red children” and “green children.”  We do that, not him.  We’re the ones who should know when we have offended the Lord and not loved others as we should.  That’s what we have confession for: we walk in on red, and walk out on green (hey! Just like the lights above the confessional!)  If we learn to love one another as little children love their siblings, cousins, and parents, then we start beholding the new creation that St. John describes in the book of Revelation in today’s second reading.  “Behold, I make all things new,” the Lord tells us.  (Rev 21:5a).  That newness is born out of the love that we have for one another.  Christ is calling us to help him transform the world one heart at a time with three very simple words that even a child can understand: “Love one another.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What Kind of Week Has It Been?

“My sheep hear my voice…No one can take them out of my hand.” (John 10:27a, 28b)

Allow me to take you inside the heart of a shepherd:

It was a rough week. It began for me late Sunday night on the phone with jubilant Venezuelan friends who were awaiting good news from their homeland, but once again they had hope pulled out from under them for the umpteenth time. I went from celebrating with them to consoling them…

Monday afternoon we were all taken back to a place where we’ve been far too often lately when he heard of the Boston Marathon bombings: disbelief, sadness, yet for some reason we’ve become numb to this pain since 2001, so sadly there wasn’t much in the way of shock. My first instinct upon hearing the initial reports was to start contacting my dozen or so former students that are currently studying in Boston. As cell phone service was erratic at best up there, it took time for all of them to respond, but thankfully they all did sooner or later. Some weren’t too far from where the blasts went off, and many of them gathered in a common place just to be together because being with those you love is so important in times of fear and uncertainty. All of them were grateful that I was checking in on them and praying for them. Even from a distance, the shepherd never forgets his sheep.

The week’s headlines was a cavalcade of bad news piled upon bad news. The explosion in West, Texas that was forgotten far too quickly, a massive earthquake in the Sichuan province in China that’s killed hundreds, and…this is getting depressing. I’m supposed to preaching Good News. I’m getting there. As if the headlines from the world weren’t enough, the parish was inundated with funerals this week, and problems that just seemed to pile up. By the time Friday night had come around, I was ready to put the troubled week behind me when another shootout took place in Boston. 

Again, I took to the phone to make sure my kids were ok. I sat there in front of my TV watching this drama unfold praying for those who so bravely put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. A police officer had been killed the night before, so my thoughts turned to all police officers and first responders because so many of my friends protect us every single day including my own brother. As I was watching this shootout take place on live television, I tweeted: “Praying for the Boston area police officers and federal agents. #staysafeBPD.” About an hour after that, one of former students who more often than not is far wiser than me, responded that I should pray for the 19 year old kid as well. I was taken aback because I was so focused on the cops’ safety, but in the very serious text conversation that ensued, she was firm in reminding me that as a Catholic and as a priest I should set an example. The student had become the teacher. Everything came into focus for me at that moment. Hate was no longer part of the equation. Prayer, mercy and forgiveness were. My next tweet was basically a summary of what she told me: “A wise young lady just reminded me that as we pray for everyone in Boston, we must pray for this 19 year old too…because we’re Catholic.” I pressed send thinking that it was going to erupt in a firestorm of disagreements on my Twitter and Facebook timelines, but with one lone exception, it became a moment of great evangelization. It became one of the most retweeted comments I have ever posted, and I cannot take credit for it because it came from the heart of an extraordinary person who reminded me that first and foremost I was a shepherd called to lead my sheep into the loving and merciful pastures of the Lord.

As I reflected on the events of that evening, I meditated on the fact that we can’t be limited in our prayers because we do not have a limited God. His mercy shines on all whether we consider them righteous or condemned. And who are we to decide? Cardinal Sean O’Malley introduced this very delicate topic of forgiveness in his homily this morning in Boston for the victims and their families. We all belong to God. He doesn’t make distinctions between his good children and bad children. All of us are in his hand, and he assures us that “no one can take them out of his hand.” So this Sunday as we pray for young Michael, Officer Sean, Krystle, and Lu, we must also pray for Dzhokhar and his deceased brother Tamerlane. Once we introduce forgiveness into our prayers and take out all hate and ill-will, then we truly become free to love and free to live extraordinary lives worthy of God’s children.

So the heart of the shepherd this week was saddened and troubled and worried and challenged, but in the end this heart was full of peace because it belongs to all of you. My prayer to Christ, the Good Shepherd is that my heart may always beat in unison with his. That my heart may always turn to those who need Him the most. If we listen to his voice, then we must ask him what he wants us to do. We saw so many heroic and selfless actions take place in Boston and in Texas this past week. People opening their doors to total strangers, running into fires to save others, staying behind until everything was over. We shouldn’t have to wait for tragedies to take place for us to demonstrate the glorious strength and resolve of the human spirit. These actions are things we must do on a daily basis because we all belong to the same flock. The very best of humanity was on display this week because God’s grace shines brightest in the face of darkness. Just look at the cross. It was indeed a rough week, and this Sunday we gather as a flock to be comforted by Christ, our Good Shepherd. We pray for an end to violence, we pray that we may learn to forgive, we pray for the victims, we pray for the suspects, we pray for all, but most of all, on this day, we pray for what our hearts long for the most: peace.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Do You Love Me?

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

Just stop and think about it.  Ponder this question that transcends time and goes to the very heart of our relationship with God.  Place yourself in Peter’s shoes and imagine the Lord asking you this question.  How would you react?  What would you say?

I’ve been pondering this question all week and wondering how a husband would respond to his wife or a parent would respond to a child if they were asked this question.  If my father asked me that mother…my sister…my brother…my beloved friends…I would look at them almost incredulously wondering why they would even bother asking.  Of course, I love them.  If any of my parishioners asked me:  of course, I love you.  But it is such a profound question.  Two days ago, I celebrated the funeral of a gentleman who had been married to his wife for 65 years.  His wife sat in the front row looking on with love, and I wondered that if I dared ask her the question, “Did you love your husband?” she would’ve walked out of the church insulted.

It’s that Peter seems almost insulted that the Lord would asks him such a question because his love for Jesus was only strengthened by the peace he received after the resurrection.  So here we are, Jesus is asking us the very same question.  If I were to go around the church asking each and every one of you if you loved Jesus, you would all respond with a resounding yes.  But take a step back and think about the implications of your response.  If we truly loved the Lord, as Peter loved him, as we are all called to love him, than this love would require a radical transformation of our lives.  Love truly does transform us.  Ask a newlywed couple. Ask the widow who just lost her husband of 65 years.  Ask a couple who have just had their first child.  I’ll never forget the husband of one of my cousins holding his firstborn son the day he was born and realizing that things would never be the same because of this love that he had just discovered for this tiny child that he held in his arms.  That is the transformative love of Jesus Christ.  That is why our answer cannot be just lip service.  Yes, Lord, we love you, so I have to leave behind our sinful ways.  Yes, Lord, we love you, so I have to go out of my way to demonstrate the depths of this love.  Yes, Lord, we love you, so I will follow you wherever you go.

Spend time this week going deeper into this question.  Place yourself next to the Lord.  Hear him ask you this life-altering question: “Do you love me?”  How will you respond?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Divine Mercy on Earth

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)
In the late 1940’s, a young priest from Wichita, Kansas enlisted in the Army. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he would soon be pressed into service when the Korean War broke out. Father Emil Kapaun left Kansas for the Far East and spent his time on the front lines heroically serving our soldiers. He would go from ditch to ditch sometimes with live ammo flying around him to give last rites or to tend to wounded soldiers. One time the good priest found a sergeant who was trying to avoid capture or death by pretending to be dead among his fallen comrades when an enemy soldier found the sergeant and put a gun to his head. While awaiting certain death, the sergeant recalls seeing a thin man with a cross on his helmet simply approach the enemy and brush him aside without retribution. To this day the sergeant still does not know why Father Kapaun did not shoot the enemy soldier and how he miraculously brushed him away. Eventually Father Kapaun was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp where he, along with his fellow soldiers, would endure very harsh conditions. Yet the priest risked his life to care for wounded soldiers, he would steal food to feed those who were starving, and even celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday 1951 despite being warned not to. He never cared for himself. His only care was for those entrusted to his pastoral care. He celebrated that Easter Mass while very, very sick, and not too long after that glorious Sunday, Father Kapaun forgave and blessed his captors and consoled his own soldiers as they watched the good chaplain take his last breaths in that camp at the age of 35. Next week, after 62 years, the President of the United States will award Father Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor, and the Diocese of Wichita is hard at work to promote his cause for sainthood. To read more about this remarkable priest, click here:
I bring up the story of Father Kapaun on this Divine Mercy Sunday because the ministry of this priest is mercy incarnate. It is what Jesus would have done for us had he been serving with our boys in Korea. This priest made such an impact on the lives of so many and continues to do so to this day because he blessed and forgave those who persecuted him. We are called to do the same. About 30 years before the start of the Korean War, our Lord appeared to St. Faustina in Poland and gave us this devotion of the Divine Mercy. Our Lord said to her, “Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy (Diary p. 132).” This priest was able to find peace amid horrific violence because he entrusted himself to divine mercy. It should be far easier for us, but it isn’t. We want peace but we don’t find it because we don’t fully entrust ourselves to God when the saying that is scrolled across the bottom of the Divine Mercy image screams at us: “Jesus, I trust in you.” Why is it so difficult to trust? It was difficult for Thomas in today’s gospel who, like us, kept the Lord at arm’s length because to invite the Risen Lord totally into our lives implies radical change. It implies allowing his Divine Mercy to totally transform our hearts. Trust in the Lord. Let him in. Allow the peace he gave to the disciples on that first Easter to enter into your hearts this day. Cardinal Dolan said this morning, “Sin is the major obstacle to peace.” We must tear sin away from our hearts to allow the peace of Christ to rightfully dwell in us. This will happen only when we fully trust our Lord and his infinite mercy. He will not turn us away. He will always forgive. All we have to do is approach him with a contrite heart and say, “Jesus, I trust in you.”