Sunday, May 26, 2013

Immersed in God's Love

"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

Whenever I go on vacation, at some point I always go to the beach. I like to go where there are few people where the only thing you hear is the waves crashing on the sand and the wind rustling through the palm trees. There at the water’s edge standing on the sand, you can feel the soft breezes coming off the ocean that refresh us during the cruel heat of summer. I have always felt that those breezes, like in Scripture, are the embrace of the Holy Spirit that, like the wind, moves us in different directions. Eventually, I go into the water and after a swim, I just simply wade in the ocean. It is never lost on me that I am surrounded by God’s majesty especially when you’re an hour or two from sunset. You see the sun reflecting off the clouds with magnificent colors. The sea begins to calm a bit. The roar of the waves gets softer. And there I am wading in the immensity of the ocean, staring off into the horizon at God’s wonderful handiwork. Like on the shore with the wind, whenever I wade into the vast ocean, I feel the embrace of our Triune God. The ocean is vast, mysterious, powerful, and deep. Just like our God. I must admit there have been times that I have wandered far from shore because I start contemplating this strong force that engulfs me and how it compares to God’s love for me. The depths of our God are great and far surpassing our understanding, yet we are still called to wade into those depths.
As we celebrate the Holy Trinity today, we are reminded by our Catechism that “the ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity (260).” We are called to eventually enter into this great mystery of love that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit. That is yet to come, but the Catechism reminds us that “even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity (260).” We may not understand this great mystery. That’s fine. Even Jesus tells the disciples in today’s Gospel that he has much more to tell them, but they cannot bear it until they receive the Spirit. That is why, like we did last week, we must ask for that Spirit and let this Divine Mystery dwell in us. God is a mystery of love that must dwell in us to transform us and guide us. 
It’s not about understanding high theological concepts. It’s about understanding that we are called to dwell in this community of love that we call the Holy Trinity. When we allow God to abide in us, we are capable of reflecting His glorious love to the rest of humanity and in turn call humanity back to God which is our ultimate destiny. In the ocean, I forget about all else and am totally immersed in that divine moment. Mind and heart clear of all thoughts of the world which makes it possible to better contemplate the majesty of our God. During this long weekend, when so many of us seek to “get away” and find peace, where is your place where you can clear your mind and heart? Where is your beach or your ocean? Where can you leave the world behind and contemplate the depths of God’s love? Sometimes you don’t have to go very far because everything that God is and the totality of his love is manifested every Sunday right here on this altar. This weekend, allow yourself, if only for a brief moment, to leave the world behind and be immersed in the depths of God’s love.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Spirit and Annoying Catholics

"No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).”

Over the last couple of weeks, Pope Francis has been delivering some powerful homilies about the Holy Spirit and what it truly means to be a Catholic.  He did this over the course of three homilies that he preached as the Church prepared for Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  First, he said that the Church must be wary of “lukewarm” Christians that lack courage and only cause the Church to look inward and become tepid.  If we are lukewarm, the Pope says, then we don’t seek to expand our horizons and open ourselves to the wonderful possibilities that the Spirit has in store for us.  The second homily that drew my attention is when he told us to be wary of “part-time Christians” that live our faith on a part-time schedule or when it suits them or is convenient. Our faith is a full-time job, and if we don’t open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, then “our being Christian will be superficial.”  But the good Pope Francis doesn’t end there, just last Thursday he said in his morning homily that we must be careful with “couch potato Catholics.” As only he could, the Pope was reflecting on what a nuisance St. Paul was because he irritated those he preached to.  One translation has the Holy Father calling out coach-potato Catholics, but here’s the official translation of what he said:  "There are backseat Christians, right? Those who are well mannered, who do everything well, but are unable to bring people to the Church through proclamation and Apostolic zeal. Today we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us all this Apostolic fervor and to give us the grace to be annoying when things are too quiet in the Church the grace to go out to the outskirts of life. The Church has so much need of this! So let us ask the Holy Spirit for this grace of Apostolic zeal, let’s be Christians with apostolic zeal. And if we annoy people, blessed be the Lord. Onwards, as the Lord says to Paul, ‘take courage!' "

So the Pope is asking us to be annoying, to be a nuisance like St. Paul.  Well, I’m being too simplistic, but we get the point.  The Holy Father doesn’t want us to be “pew-sitting” Catholics that don’t contribute anything to the mission of the Church.  He doesn’t want us to be closed off to what the Holy Spirit can do in each one of us.  And the thing is that good Catholics are indeed annoying.  We’re annoying to society because we stand up against basically everything that the secular world promotes.  We become a nuisance to people that don’t want to hear that there is life in the womb at conception, that marriage is between one man and one woman, that the death penalty is wrong, that the proliferation of guns is wrong, that everyone has a right to health care as long as we don’t have to compromise our morals to get there, and that Jesus Christ is the one Savior of the world.  When we annoy people, when we stand up for our faith and become a nuisance: that’s when we’re really living our faith!  I’m sure workers at abortion clinics across the country drive in to work every morning and see people praying the rosary silently across the street and consider them a nuisance even though they’re only praying.  I’m sure there are politicians in our government that consider the Church annoying because we just won’t shut up about all issues that have to do with the sanctity of human life.  And next month when the Supreme Court decides on how marriage is defined, the Church will continue to annoy people with her “archaic” teaching that God did make us male and female and only a male and female can become one in marriage.  That last line is going to get me arrested one day but I really don’t care.  I’m just trying to be annoying.  As the Holy Father said:  “If we annoy people, blessed be the Lord.”

So on this Pentecost Sunday, we must call down the power of the Holy Spirit upon us because we need that life giving Spirit now more than ever.  If we want to be courageous Catholics and not part-time Catholics, we must pray to the Holy Spirit daily to guide us, to speak for us, and to help us defend our faith.  The Spirit renews, refreshes, and recreates.  We need some of that fire of the Spirit to penetrate our hearts so that can boldly go forward with courage and set the world on fire.  And if we annoy some people along the way…blessed be the Lord!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Priest Forever

This weekend has been one of the most glorious weekends of my priesthood.  When I was assigned as pastor of Divine Providence, I wasn’t only entrusted with a magnificent faith community, but I was given the gift of having a parishioner, a seminarian who was six months away from being ordained a priest.  Now I knew this young man.  I had been his Vocation Director for three years, and he was one of my first phone calls when I received the assignment.  Even back in November I looked forward to receiving him home to his parish so that he could celebrate his first Mass as a priest with his people.  If that wasn’t enough, last month he sent me a note that he wanted me and my associate to vest him with his priestly stole and chasuble during the ordination.  Humbling to say the least.  All four of the young men ordained this weekend were seminarians under my care when I was Vocations Director.  One of them was the first candidate I ever interviewed.  And if I didn’t have enough on my mind and in my prayers this past week, on Monday these four good men asked me to preach at the prayer service that is held with the Archbishop the night before the ordination.  No pressure.  I want to share with you some of the things I said to them and some of the things that I had written down and didn’t have a chance to say to them. As I wrote these lines last week, they reminded me of the greatness and the challenges of the priestly ministry which I was ordained into 11 years ago yesterday.  Here are excerpts from my reflection on Friday night:

“[My brothers,] during the month of May, the majority of the priests of this Archdiocese celebrate the anniversary of their ordinations. It is a time in which we are reminded of what each of you will experience tomorrow and in the years to come.  You will become part of a great fraternity that has also responded to the voice of the Shepherd.  That is why tomorrow after the Archbishop lays his hands on you, every priest will follow in kind.  We are united by the Holy Spirit and overjoyed that God has called four good men to join our ranks to strengthen our fraternity and to help us in spreading the good news of our Savior. 

[This past Holy Thursday, our Holy Father, Pope Francis during his homily at the Chrism Mass, gave us a wonderful catechesis on the priesthood using the images of anointing and the Good Shepherd.  Tomorrow morning, after having imposed his hands on you and ordaining you priests forever, Archbishop Wenski will anoint your hands with the Sacred Chrism.  Your hands will be set apart to consecrate and anoint.  Pope Francis reminds us that “a good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed…When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news.”  My brothers, our people long to hear the good news.  They long to hear it in a new and exciting ways.  They long for passionate preachers of the good news who have been “anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18).”  Bring passion to your preaching.  Be authentic witnesses of the Risen Christ just like the first Christians that we have read about in the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season.  The good people of God, Pope Francis tells us, “long to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it.”]

[Our Holy Father also uses the image of the shepherd to remind us that we must “go out” to go in search of the lost sheep for it is in ministering to those who are on the outskirts of society that we experience our own anointing.  As priests, we cannot be prisoners of our offices, of our rectories, or even of our altars, we must “go out” and minister to our people where they are.]

One thing that each of your brother priests can testify to is how much the people of God love their priests and how much we are inspired by them.  Yesterday afternoon, I visited with an elderly blind woman from my parish who I am convinced, because of her deep faith, sees the Lord more clearly than I do.  Yet, towards the end of our conversation she started talking about her love for all the priests who have ministered to her throughout the years and said, “Padre, yo no se que hariamos sin nuestros sacerdotes.  (I don’t know what we would do without our priests.)”  These are the good people who await you with open arms and who thirst to be strengthened by your ministry.

And how do we strengthen our people?  By being among them: dining with them as Jesus did, laughing with them as Jesus did, crying with them as Jesus did, and healing them of their sins as Jesus did.  [This is where our new Holy Father really brings it home and basically shakes the heart of every priest to remind us what we are ordained for:  “The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart.”  And the priestly heart is nothing more than a shepherd’s heart longing to tend to his sheep.  As you prepare for your ordination to the priesthood, it is as if the Vicar of Christ were speaking directly to the four of you with this one simple phrase: “This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep.”]  Never forget that you are ordained for them.  That everything you do must point them to Christ, the Good Shepherd and eternal High Priest.  This is accomplished through a faithful life of prayer so that your heart and the Sacred Heart of our Lord beat as one.  Only then will you be able to anoint your people with the oil of gladness and only then will you bring the lost and the marginalized home.  I am reminded of something that our beloved Bishop Roman used to constantly tell us:  “We cannot wait and sit in our churches for the people to come to us.  We must go out and find them.”

My brothers, this evening, the great presbyterate of this Archdiocese along with our holy people join you in prayer as you prepare to embark on the greatest of adventures.  May you feel the power of these prayers not only tomorrow as you are ordained, but every single day of your priestly ministry, so that you may indeed go out to anoint God’s holy people with the love that he has poured out into your hearts and that you so courageously now lay down for the service of his Holy Church.  Mary, Mother of All Priests, pray for us.”

Of course, this was just the beginning of my weekend.  We had the ordination the next morning in which the cathedral shook with the joy of the people as the welcomed their new priests.  I’ve always said that every Catholic should attend an ordination at least once in their life because there you see the glory of Holy Mother Church and all her tradition that has been passed down to us through the laying on of hands for 2000 years.  We sent three buses from our parish to the cathedral and everyone was moved to tears.  As I told the new priests the night before, all priests rejoice at an ordination because we recall our own, and as Providence would have it, I was celebrating this one on my 11th anniversary of priestly ordination.  Yet, my day was not done.  Even though I had told my staff months before that I wanted this weekend to be entirely about our newly ordained priest, last week they held a mini coup d’├ętat and my associate moved some Masses around so that I could celebrate my anniversary Mass with my family, friends and parishioners.  Many who were present in the cathedral on Saturday morning and were planning to attend the new priest’s first Mass the next day were present on Saturday night to celebrate my priesthood which really isn’t mine for it belongs to them.  Because every time I take a piece of bread into my hands and say, “Take this all of you and eat of it.  For this is my body which will be given up for you,” I’m not merely reciting the words of consecration or just repeating what Jesus said, the priest, who is acting in the person of Christ, is also telling his people, “Take, this is my body which is given up for you, which I lay down for you as Christ did, which no longer belongs to me but belongs to you.”  I still recall the night of my first Mass when I held that piece of bread for the first time and recited those words for the first time and raised that glorious and precious host.  Right there in my newly consecrated hands was the summation, if you will, of the love that Christ has for me in giving of himself in the Eucharist but also of the love that I have for him and for his holy people.  Right there, in these unremarkable, unworthy hands, Christ is given up for you and this servant gives himself up as well.

I heard this phrase over and over again this weekend, and I reminded the new priests as well:  “Thou art a priest forever.”  Our church was packed today to witness a newly ordained priest tell his people for the very first time:  “Take this all of you and eat of it.  For this is my body which will be given up for you.” What a blessing.  There is no greater life.  No greater calling.  For every single day, I give my life to you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

First Steps

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27)

The Easter season is a season of firsts.  It all begins during the Easter Vigil when our catechumens are baptized and begin taking their first steps in the faith.  In our parish, we have Confirmations and it also the season of First Communions.  Yesterday was First Communion day in our parish as 70 children received the Lord for the first time in two separate Masses.  I started off my homily yesterday asking the children if they were nervous.  They were not.  Kids aren’t easily rattled these days.  I guess I asked the question because, well, I was the one who was nervous.  This was my 1st First Communion as a pastor.  I had walked with these children in their formation over the last six months.  I had heard many of their First Confessions, and now I was going to share with them the greatest gift that Jesus left us: himself!  So yes, even though I still get nervous before every Mass I celebrate (even after 11 years of priesthood), this one was different because the perfectionist in me wanted them to have a beautiful memory of their First Communion as I do of mine which as providence would have it, was right here in this beautiful church.  What a joy it was to celebrate that Mass for them.  Their eyes fixed intently on the altar and on the Lord.  As I mentioned last week, we have so much to learn from God’s little ones.  After they received communion and had done their private prayers of thanksgiving, I went down and asked them in front of the congregation how they felt.  They told me they felt great, they felt happy, and they felt peace (something Jesus talks about today and that we’ll get back to).  Then I asked them what they prayed for during their prayers of thanksgiving.  One little girl told me she thanked God for her family.  Another one told me she thanked Him for her health.  And then one little boy brought the house down when he told me that he thanked God for his girlfriend!  Obviously, no one could top that one so we moved on to the conclusion of the Mass, but what will endure in my memory after celebrating my 1st First Communion Mass will be the faces of these children so excited, so at peace, and so transfixed by our Lord.

So many times we take for granted what these children had longed for and received yesterday from this altar.  We need to go back to those first steps that we took in our faith like when we made our First Communion and always approached this altar with excitement and wonder fully knowing and understanding that we were receiving the greatest treasure on earth.  We need to have the excitement of these children which is the same excitement with which the apostles preached the Resurrection in the early days of the Church.  All throughout Easter, we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles and hearing the stories of the first steps of the Church.  In today’s gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him.  Could you imagine how the apostles must have felt in those early days after the Lord’s ascension when they celebrated their first Masses and performed their first baptisms?  Things were a lot simpler, but the Church was forged in the face of adversity as we heard in the 1st reading today.  In those early days, everything was a first.  They didn’t have a catechism, they didn’t have degrees in theology, and they didn’t have the gospels or the New Testament.  All they had was their witness and their contagious excitement of having experienced the Risen Lord.  The Church grew because they were filled with the Holy Spirit that Christ promised in the gospel today.  It is the same Spirit that makes us new, makes us young, and makes us experience our faith in new and extraordinary ways every single day. 

Another thing Jesus promised was the gift of peace.  I don’t why, but I’ve felt this restlessness in my heart over the last few weeks to pray for peace.  And not just a “world peace, end to war “ kind of peace, but a peace that endures in our hearts.  The peace that Jesus offers us in the gospel.  I wrote in the bulletin this week that during this month dedicated to Mary, we must fervently ask our Blessed Mother for the gift of her Son’s peace.  Peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our families.  As Christians, we must always radiate peace—the same peace those children had yesterday upon receiving the Lord.

This morning after one of my Masses, one little girl who was excited to come back today to make her “second communion” approached me after Mass and gave me another answer to the question “how do you feel after receiving Jesus?”  Her face was so full of joy, so peaceful, so glorious.  She gave me a hug, pulled me down to her height and told me, “I feel so different.  I feel blessed.”  That’s what happens when you receive Jesus.  If only we, as adults, could approach this table with that same childlike faith and leave here with that same joy and peace.  The deacon tells us at the end of the Mass: “Go in peace.”  Yet peace eludes us.  We barely make it to our cars without us or someone else breaking that bond of peace we just received in the Eucharist.   The world definitely needs peace, and Christ is counting on you to share that peace that he gives. Jesus makes yet another promise in today’s gospel, that if we keep his word, we will be loved by the Father and they will make their dwelling in us.  This is what happened to these children yesterday as they took their first steps towards the altar of our Lord.  This is what will happen to each one of us in a few minutes and every time receive Communion:  God makes his dwelling in us.  May we always be like children and never take this eternal gift for granted.