Monday, September 30, 2013

God Knows the Poor By Name

"And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus..." (Luke 16:20)

Do we let our possessions possess us? Back in the 90s there was a superb movie called  "Heat" that stared Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.  Don't recommend it for younger viewers but Deniro's character, who was a criminal, kept saying throughout the movie: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."  He had this philosophy for criminal purposes, but let's flip this and apply it to today's gospel particularly when it comes to possessions.  The rich man in the gospel is so wrapped up in his lifestyle, in his wealth, and in just simply being rich that he ignores the poor man at his door step and forgets the words of Moses and the prophets.  The poor man actually has a name: Lazurus.  Once again we see God's preferential option for the poor.  The rich man has lost his way.  He become a nameless rich face.  We know these people: "that guy who drives the Ferrari or that lady with the expensive purses and fancy jewelry."  Many of these people are so attached to their possessions that they are defined by them.  Which begs the question posed in the movie: would we willingly leave all our possessions behind if we had to? My parents and grandparents had to do this when they left Cuba with so many others.  All they needed was God and family. But sometimes I wonder if I could just willingly leave everything behind.  As priests, we are transient in nature.  We're always moving, and every time I move I come to the realization that I have too many things.  Way too much stuff.  Now I wouldn't call myself a pack rat, but I hold on to mementos and gifts giving to me over the years by parishioners.  Just the other day I was in my office with a staff member hanging up a gift given to me by my youth group and I looked at the walls and shelves of my office and uttered with a little bit of disdain: "Look at all this stuff."  Now every single one of those frames, pictures, and mementos tells a story and recalls some beautiful memories and I wouldn't throw them out.  I always pack them when I move (don't worry, I'm not moving anywhere), but could I live without them?  I mentioned to the staff member how I really admired Pope Francis who basically left all his belongings behind in Argentina when elected pope. Bishop Roman's room was extremely simple with just a few books, a rocking chair, and his small bed.  Two men of great simplicity who drew closer to God because they were not attached to the things of this world.

Speaking of Pope Francis, this morning in his homily, he had this to say about the rich man in the gospel: "Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings...material things, his possessions, are his face; he has nothing else...this is what happens when we no longer remember God.  If we don't think about God, everything ends up being about 'me' and my comfort."  The rich man has no face yet the poor man has a name, Lazurus, and when he dies he is carried up by angels to the bosom of Abraham. He had no attachments.  He had nothing to leave behind.  He was ready to receive his eternal reward.  So close is our God to those who are poor, who have nothing, who suffer at the feet of the wealthy and powerful.  Material things aren't bad in and of themselves.  It's how we let them run our lives that can get it us into trouble. If they get in the way of our relationship with God, we start to forget that we are his children, created in his image and likeness, and that he calls each and every one of us by name to share his eternal joy.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Pope Francis Really Said

“God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus…” (1 Timothy 2:3-5)

A lot of was made this past week about the interview Pope Francis granted to Jesuit magazines.  It is a long and fascinating interview that I encourage all Catholics to read because it offers a personal glimpse into the heart of our Holy Father and his dreams for the Church.  Of course the media focused on 30 or so words of the 12,000 word interview probably without reading the whole thing.  I could not stop reading the interview once it came out and was transfixed by everything the Pope had to say.  Let me give you a priest’s point of view without the filter of the secular media.

The interview began with a very simple question posed to the Holy Father:  “Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?”  The interviewer said that the Pope paused and answered quite simply: “I am a sinner.”  A reporter asked me on Thursday how can the Pope say that if he is infallible.  I reminded her that the Pope is only infallible when teaching on matters of faith and morals speaking ex-cathedra in communion with the bishops.  But Jorge Bergolio, the man, is fallible, and he confirmed it when he identified himself as a sinner, just like you and me.  Right there, the Holy Father embraces the poverty that the readings call us to this morning.  But he goes further later on in the article when he basically repeats something that St. Paul alludes to in the second reading when he says where the Church needs to direct its energies.  Pope Francis says:  “The most important thing is the first proclamation:  Jesus Christ has saved you!”  Let’s start from there.  He said this was important because sometimes we corner ourselves into issues, that while important, may distract someone from the central tenet of our faith: Jesus saves!  When we come to grips with the fact that God sent his Son into the world to save us,  when we immerse himself in the Son who is the Way, the TRUTH, and the life, then we will be more willing to immerse ourselves in that Truth.

Our Holy Father sees the Church as a field hospital after battle that treats the wounded:  “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful…I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds....”  Heal the wounds!   He talked about priests having to be ministers of mercy.  As confessors, we don’t ask how you arrived in the confessional, we’re just happy you’re there so that we can dispense God’s mercy and heal your wounds.  It is only then that we can delve deeper into the cause of those wounds, but it must always be done walking and getting to know the person of Jesus Christ who must be the center of our lives.  The Pope doesn’t change doctrine.  He doesn’t say anything new.  He just wants us to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord.  The great papal biographer George Weigel wrote this week in a superb column:  “Francis believes and professes all that the Catholic Church believes and professes to be true about the moral life, the life that leads to happiness and beatitude. But he also understands that men and women are far more likely to embrace those moral truths — about the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death; about human sexuality and how it should be lived — when they have first embraced Jesus Christ as Lord.” 

And there you have it.  Our Holy Father embracing his sinfulness, embracing his mission as the Vicar of Christ and announcing what the Church’s priorities have to be.  It’s what they’ve always been:  lives centered on the person of Jesus Christ.  The Lord says at the end of today’s gospel that we cannot serve two masters.  Pope Francis leads by example so clearly by living a life of simplicity, spending an hour each night in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and proclaiming the living Christ above all else.  We are challenge to make Jesus Christ the center of our lives in this world that values power, riches, and pleasure above all else which is why we must embrace this spiritual poverty that leads us to only rely on our Lord.  What a gift we have in our Holy Father who keeps pointing us to the greatest of all gifts:  Jesus Christ!

(I encourage you to read the entire interview of Pope Francis from America Magazine at:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Work of Our Hands

"Prosper the work of our hands." (Psalm 90:17)

Before every Dolphins game during pre game warmups, you can find me on the sideline quietly praying my rosary.  Many people have come up to me over the last two seasons and asked if I'm praying for the Dolphins to win.  Usually I just tell them that I'm just praying for the safety of the players on both teams, but privately I repeat the last verse of today's psalm as I see the players and coaches get ready to execute a week's worth of intense preparation: "Prosper the work of our hands.  Prosper the work of our hands." The psalmist repeats the phrase twice.  I repeat it constantly that the Good Lord may bless all the hard work they have done.  I pray this verse at times before Mass, a retreat, or any other endeavors I undertake.  If we put God first and commend to him the work we are about to do, then he will shower his blessings on us.  

There is so much going on in today's readings.  Jesus lays out the cost of discipleship.  We indeed pay a heavy price for following the Lord.   We must put him before family, friends.  We must take up our cross daily to follow him.  We saw the price that Christ paid on the cross for us.  There are no shortcuts to salvation.  During these times in which we are called to pray for peace in the world, the cross and Christ's sacrifice teaches us such valuable lessons.

Last night, Pope Francis held a five hour vigil to pray for peace in Syria and the Middle East. During his homily, he talked about the cross:  "
How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken."

The silence of the cross! God could have taken his vengeance on humanity for what they were doing to his only Son, but the Father stayed silent and so did his Son.  Who could have imagined that such a violent image of a man crucified would now bring people so much peace as they gaze upon it when they pray?  Humanity's violent sins and actions were given a merciful response by God.  What a price Christ paid so that we may have the peace of eternal life.

Human hands are capable of such beauty, but they are also capable of unspeakable atrocities.  They can run with blood from acts of violence or they can bless with acts of peace.  One does not fight evil with evil.   We learned that lesson on the cross.  We must be instruments of peace and allow God to bless the good works we do.  This past week we celebrated the feast day of Mother Teresa who had a great quote about how to promote peace:  "
Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don't really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power." Peace does indeed begin on an individual level.  The troubles currently plaguing the Middle East are far more complex, but how will firing missiles or dropping bombs help the Syrian people or the two million Syrian refugees, half of them children, who are currently displaced in neighboring countries in an unspeakable humanitarian disaster that is getting pushed aside in the news?  Peace always peace!  War, never war, Pope Paul VI said decades ago.  As disciples of Christ we must work for peace each day no matter the cost, and we must oppose any actions that may take us to war.  Peace has become so fleeting and the drums of war keep beating stronger and stronger with each passing day. We cannot give in to the practice of responding to violence with violence.  One of our bishops said this week that we must "flood heaven with our prayers" asking our Lord for peace in our world.  If each of us works for peace with just a smile or an act of charity or a simple prayer, then God will indeed prosper the work of our hands.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humble Yet Honored Guests

"My child, conduct your affairs with humility..." (Sirach 3:17)

"My friend, move up to a higher position." (Luke 14:10)

Let me tell you about two humbling experience that happened to me yesterday.  The first happened in my office when our volunteer who tends the front desk on Saturdays had to leave unexpectedly.  I asked a girl from our youth group to answer the phones thinking that people would only call to ask for Mass times but didn’t count on a big walk up crowd.  Every minute or so this girl would be running to my office asking for help, so I went up to the front desk to sit in “the chair!”  My receptionist’s chair is a hot seat because every day she sits there answering phones, tending to the faithful who arrive to ask for information on sacraments, to seek Mass intentions, register their kids for CCD, and she does it all with a smile on her face.  I know what she does.  I had just never sat in her chair to actually DO what she does.  I only did it for half an hour and my head is still spinning a day later.  It lead me to the conclusion that every pastor should spend time sitting in “the chair” every so often, and at the very least it gave me a new found appreciation to the work my staff does.

The second humbling experience came later that night when my associate and I attended our parish’s Knights of Columbus Gala.  We both had tickets that were hand delivered by the Knights and had a big gold “VIP” stamp on it.  We were both hungry and anxious to have dinner, but when they came to our table to graciously tell us that we were the firsts to get up for the buffet line, we found that a huge line had already formed.  I turned to the priests that were with me and we all laughed: “Today’s gospel!  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  It’s as if all weekend God went out of his way to remind me of the importance of humility in the Christian life, and the importance of having this attitude as we approach the table of the Lord every Sunday.

When we walk through those church doors on Sunday morning, we are all the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a Roman collar and sitting up front or wearing cargo shorts and sitting in the back pew.  At this table, we are all God’s children.  There is no class distinction.  There is no order from richer to poorer or from best Catholic to worse Catholic.  No one has special seating.  (Sometimes they are necessary evils for our liturgical ministers, but I loathe “reserved” signs in church.)  When we walk into this sacred space, we should all feel welcomed, embraced.  It is Christ himself who takes us by the hand and tells us the same thing that the host in the parable told his humble guest: “My friend, move up to a higher position.”  Here at Mass, we are all VIP’s.  We are all God’s honored guests at this heavenly banquet, and we must approach the Lord with humility, recognizing that we are unworthy of such an honor, but acknowledging that by this sacrifice he has made us worthy. 

We approach this table with humility because what happens here is described so beautifully in the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.  We hear it and think the divine author is describing heaven, but he could very well be describing the Mass which is nothing less than heaven on earth:  “No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering…” (Hebrews 12:22)  Think about that!  Countless angels in festal gathering around this altar, for it is here that our Lord makes himself really present.  We enter the church worn out by the problems and stresses of our lives, and Christ greets us with this incredible gift.  This is why we approach him with humility because we need this bread from heaven to endure our earthly journey.  For an hour on Sundays, the troubles of this world are left by the church door as we approach this table as one body of Christ and take part in this divine exchange of pure love.  That’s why I don’t blame those who linger in church for five, ten, or even twenty minutes after Mass.  Why would anyone want to leave this festal gathering?

My friends, we must never take the Mass for granted just like I never take those who help me in ministry for granted.  We must cherish this gift our Lord gave us at the Last Supper.  Here we are all given a place of honor.  Here we are all honored by Christ who gives us the gift of himself in the Eucharist.  So magnificent.  So humbling!  If our Lord honors us and serves us in such an extraordinary way, shouldn’t we honor and serve each other just the same?