Saturday, October 26, 2013

Our Priests

(I'm currently en route from New England back to South Florida, so I wanted to share with you what I wrote this week in our bulletin about Priesthood Sunday)

"The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal (Sirach 35:21)."

This past week, the Catholic Church in Miami lost one of the great priests in the history of the Archdiocese: Monsignor Emilio Vallina, the longtime pastor of St. John Bosco.  He built up the first Hispanic parish in Miami out of a car dealership in 1962.  He opened his arms to his fellow Cuban immigrants, and many years later, kept them open as Nicaraguan, Honduran, Salvadoran and countless others from Latin America in that poor neighborhood in Little Havana.  This humble man was a giant among his brother priests.  On this Priesthood Sunday, I can’t help but recall all “the giants” who have been called home to the Lord over the last several years.

Monsignor Vallina was ordained the same year as the priest who baptized me: Monsignor Luis Perez, the longtime pastor of San Lazaro in Hialeah and the familiar face who fervently led the rosary before every Our Lady of Charity Mass.  Msgr. Perez worked well into his 80s and even at an advanced age took on the arduous task of going to do mission work in Mexico.

In a name that is not familiar down here in Dade County but in Broward is as thunderous as his commanding voice, Father Gabriel O’Reilly was told 40 years ago to go build the parish of St. David in horse country in Davie just west of Fort Lauderdale.  He literally began celebrating Mass in a bar and before you knew it he had built a church, a rectory and school.  He was the only pastor that parish had even known when he died this past summer.

I could fill several pages of this bulletin with the heroic work of the priests that built up this Archdiocese that have gone home these last few years:  Monsignor Armando Balado, a saintly man who I devoutly served as an altar server, Father Florentino Azcoitia who inspired so many families through Encuentros Familiares, Father Amado Llorente, who quite literally led me to say yes to the priesthood through an Ignatian Retreat, Father Jorge Sardiñas, whose holiness taught me that every Mass was a retreat, Father Armando Perez who labored so hard for Hispanics in Broward County, Father Pepito Garcia who could always be found with a smile on his face visiting the sick at the hospital, and of course, the soul of the Miami presbyterate, Bishop Agustín Román, who was a living saint among us and whose legacy will be remembered in this Archdiocese 100 years from now.

I know that I left out many great priests, but I just wanted to share a few who made a profound impact in my priesthood.  Priesthood Sunday is celebrated so that we may appreciate the good work that priests have done in our lives.  I invite you today to think about those men who brought you closer to Christ, initiated you into the life of the Church, gave you First Communion, witnessed your marriage, anointed you, absolved you, buried your loved ones, and lived up to their high calling of acting in persona Christi.  I am blessed to be a priest because of all these holy men that have gone before me and are now, through our prayers, sharing in their Master’s joy.  They are priests forever.  We are indebted to each one of them because they made present for us our Savior Jesus Christ.  Pray for your priests!



Sunday, October 20, 2013

Becoming Persistent Missionaries

“…proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

This week’s readings are all about persistence when it comes to prayer.  Jesus wants the disciples to pray, persevere, and not grow weary like Moses did during the battle against Amalek where he held his arms on high so that Israel would defeat its enemies.  Persistence is the key to prayer as we see in the parable that Jesus offers of the widow who keeps asking the judge for justice.  Our God is a God of justice who will give us so much more than what the judge gave the widow because we cry out to him and more importantly because we are his chosen ones.

Today the Church celebrates World Mission Sunday and we are called to be persistent in our prayers for all missionaries throughout the world.  Here we turn to the co-patroness of the missions who despite her young age, despite never leaving the convent, and despite ailments that afflicted her until her untimely death at 24, always prayed unceasingly and offered up her suffering for the missions and for the spread of the gospel.  Of course, I am talking about St. Therese of Lisieux who longed to be a missionary.  We look to her as a model of how fervent our prayers should be for all those brothers and sisters throughout the world who sacrifice so much to bring the message of Jesus Christ and the compassion and work of his Church to people that desperately need it. 

Today we pray for the Salesian Sisters in Chennai, India who dedicate their lives to rescuing girls from child trafficking and modern day slavery (yes it still very much exists in the 21st century, sadly).  There in Chennai little girls are sold off and have to work in households from 5:00am to Midnight every day cooking, cleaning, and looking after babies despite being only 9 or 10 years old.  The Sisters rescue these girls and give them a loving home where they give them an education and restore their dignity.  (You can see more about the good work of these Sisters and the plight of these girls by watching this short video:  There is so much good that the Church does throughout the world that we don’t even know about it.  It’s not as simple as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick anymore.  Missionaries around the world risk their lives every single day to do the work of Christ and proclaim his glorious Name even in countries where it is illegal to do so just so that their brothers and sisters could have a better life.  That is what the Salesian Sisters do in Chennai, India, and that is why all these missionaries need our constant prayers.  A missionary has to be as persistent as the widow in the gospel and as bold as St. Paul tells Timothy to be in the second reading. 

I’ll end with this story about our dear Bishop Román who spent years and years going out to visit the Miccosukee Indians to celebrate Mass for them even though no one there was Catholic.  Yet, he persisted.  He would go again and again without a hint of discouragement, and many years into his ministry there, he finally got one person who embraced the Catholic faith.  Bishop Román would tell this story with so much joy.  So many would have given up after a year or two and so many would have thought one conversion over so many years a failure, but the good bishop kept pressing on and he rejoiced when all that hard work paid off because one heart now belonged to Jesus Christ.  This holy man reminds us that we too are all called to be missionaries by virtue of our baptism, and that we are called to invite others to share in the joy that we experience every Sunday here at the Eucharistic feast.  There are so many people out there that need to experience the love, mercy, and peace of Jesus Christ.  Today, I’m not asking you to go off to India to help the Salesian sisters.  I’m not asking you to go off to any distant lands.  Today, I just have one simple missionary request: invite someone to Mass who doesn’t usually go.  They may and probably will say no at first, but keep at it.  Maybe your persistence will cause them to finally give in to your request like the judge in the gospel.  And when they do come to Mass and open themselves to the outpouring of grace that takes place here at this altar, the sky’s the limit to what God has in store for them.  May we always be persistent in our prayers for missionaries around the world, and may we embrace our baptismal call to be missionaries on this World Mission Sunday and every Sunday by inviting one, just one, person to come to Mass with you next week.  St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Blessed Are Those Who Give Thanks

“…and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” (Luke 17:16)

We are so blessed.  We are so undeservedly blessed.  Every Sunday we gather in this Church to celebrate the great gift that Jesus left us in the Eucharist.  We celebrate his presence.  We celebrate his love for us.  We celebrate that he became “true food and true drink” (cf. Jn 6:55) for us.  Yes, we take it for granted at times, even priests, but every now and then we need to stop and give thanks for the great gift that we have in the Eucharist.  Giving thanks is at the core of today’s gospel where the leper who was cured returned to Jesus in gratitude.  If you read this gospel passage in Greek, you will notice that the word for “giving thanks” in Greek is ευχαριστία (eucharistía) which we translate as eucharist.  So what the leper does is what we do every time we approach the altar of the Lord.  We approach to give thanks.

This past week I went on my yearly retreat, and I, along with twenty of my brother priests, was blessed to have as my retreat master the retired archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan.  All week long, Cardinal Egan tried to impress upon us the importance about emphasizing to all of you how blessed we are to celebrate the Eucharist, to receive such a gift, to be able to take part in this great sacrifice of the Mass.  Each day he would begin Mass by reminding us that “Mass is Calvary here with us.  Jesus Christ is our Priest and our Victim.  We are priests with him in renewing and making sacramentally present again the sacrifice and the wonder of Calvary.”  He reminded us that as his priests we take part in bringing Christ to you and the importance of instilling in our faithful a great love for the Eucharist.  I have said it time and again that there is no greater act that we do all week that is greater than this divine act of love that we mutually exchange with our God here on this altar.  This is why we are blessed because we get to take part in “the wonder of Calvary” which is made present in the Mass.  Jesus told his disciples that “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (Luke 10:24).”  Jesus could have very well been talking to us.  We get to hear his Living Word and get to eat this life giving food, his very flesh, every time we gather in this church.  This is why we must constantly give thanks.  Despite the hardships that we endure out there, we have a place of refuge in here where our Lord becomes present for us, and we have the opportunity, like the leper, to throw ourselves at his feet to give thanks.

Imagine how our world would be if we said “thank you” more often.  Imagine if we took this “eucharistic spirit” with us when we left.  This morning, as Pope Francis consecrated the Church to the heart of Mary, he talked about the importance of these two simple words:  “Saying “thank you” is such an easy thing, and yet so hard! How often do we say “thank you” to one another in our families? These are essential words for our life in common. “Sorry”, “excuse me”, “thank you”. If families can say these three things, they will be fine. “Sorry”, “excuse me”, “thank you”. How often do we say “thank you” in our families? How often do we say “thank you” to those who help us, those close to us, those at our side throughout life? All too often we take everything for granted! This happens with God too. It is easy to approach the Lord to ask for something, but to go and thank him: “Well, I don’t need to”. 

Yes, all too often we come to the Lord with a list of grievances, which he is all too happy to attend to, when we should be approaching him first with a spirit of thanksgiving.  We should also go out of our way to thank those who help us on the journey as well.  I remember in seminary that one of my spiritual directors taught me the importance of the lost art of a hand written thank you note.  Not a text, not an email, not a letter, but a hand written note.  It’s more personal.  It makes us go deeper into our heart to show our gratitude.  This is what we must do when we approach the table of the Lord: go deep into our hearts and realize how blessed we are to simply abide in his presence to give him thanks.  How blessed our world would be if we approached God and each other more often with those two simple words: thank you.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Today is Still Respect Life Sunday

"Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:6)

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice…” (2 Timothy 1:7)

The first two readings today tell us about so much hardship.  The prophet Habakkuk is crying to out to God because he does not see his provident hand at work in his life.  We sometimes may feel the same way.  We are besieged by stress in our work and in our homes, sickness in our families, and loss of loved ones.  We see all around us the violence the prophet talks about, and we are left asking the same question: “How long will this endure?”  Both the first and second readings come to the same conclusion:  we must have faith to persevere in this world.  This is why the apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith in the gospel.

This past Friday, a driver came to pick me up to go do a television interview.  He was a very nice man, yet for some reason he kept talking about all the bad things happening on the news.  Full disclosure: I try to keep up with national and international news, but I never watch the 11pm local news.  At the end of my day, I like to relax, say my night prayers, and fall asleep in a good mood watching SportsCenter.   But this gentleman caught me up to speed on every accident, every shooting, and every piece of bad news that had taken place in the last week.  However, after reeling off all of these negative events, without me saying a word, he came to the following conclusion:  “You see Father, that’s why with all these bad things happening in the world…we gotta have faith now more than ever.”  Immediately I thought about today’s gospel.  How else can we confront all the craziness in the world if it isn’t through faith?

Today the Church celebrates Respect Life Sunday.  Contrary to popular secular opinion or what the New York Times may have to say, the moral tenets that we uphold and pray are defended on this day are the same as they were before Pope Francis was elected.  Through his actions, Pope Francis has proven to be a great pope that defends life.  And through his words, the Pope had this to say on the day after that famous interview was released where the secular world thought he was softening the Church’s stance on abortion (Surprise! he actually strengthened our resolve):   “Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world's rejection. And every elderly person – I spoke of children: let us move to the elderly, another point! And every elderly person, even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” suggests! They cannot be thrown away!” (Pope Francis to Doctors on 9/20/13)

We do live in a society that likes to discard rather violently.  On this day, we look around us and see that we are indeed surrounded by what Blessed John Paul II called a culture of death.  It is up to us to change it into a culture of life.  St. Paul tells Timothy in today’s second reading that God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.  If this is so, and forgive me for sounding like a broken record, then why are most Catholics such cowards when it comes to standing up for human life?  Why do we let this culture of death pervade when we can drown out the screams of death with our prayers?  God always listens to the prayers of his children.  Just one caveat:  WE HAVE TO PRAY!  Respect Life Sunday isn’t limited to just one day, but it lasts the entire month just like we celebrate the month of the rosary during October.  We have such a beautiful instrument of prayer in the holy rosary where we can ask our Blessed Mother to protect those who are unborn, those who are elderly, those who are immigrants or undocumented, those who defend marriage, those who defend and work for the poor.  God did not make us cowards.  He sent us the spirit of courage to change the world and to stand up for all human life and of life’s divine values.

Yes, we may get discouraged like the prophet in the first reading when we see the state of our world,  but I’ve been saying it all year during this Year of Faith, our prayer must be those of the apostles:  “Increase our faith!”  With faith we can indeed move mountains and remind the world that Life has a name:  Jesus Christ.  When the world discovers this Jesus through us, they will abide in His truth and his love and all these evils will slowly start to disappear if we live up to the name of Christians.  This is our calling.  We are called to be a people filled with faith who spreads that faith to slowly eradicate this culture of death that is killing our children, marginalizing the poor and the migrant, diluting our marriages and our families, and discarding our elderly.  As the Pope said last month quite emphatically:  “They cannot be discarded!”  My friends, let us work to build up a true culture of life.  Then filled with great peace we will be able to say the closing words of today’s gospel when God calls us home:  “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do (Luke 17:10).”