Sunday, April 27, 2014

Two Saintly Popes, One Message: Be Open to God

“Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26)

Please indulge me and allow our two newest saints to help me with my homily on this Divine Mercy Sunday.   If there is a unifying message between Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II is the theme to open ourselves to God.  Far too many times, we are like the disciples hiding in the Upper Room with the doors locked.  We lock ourselves away from the world because of fear, because we do not want to change, because we fear the newness of the Risen One.

When convening the Second Vatican Council, Saint John XXIII said, “Throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.”  This is the same Spirit that Jesus breathes on his apostles in today’s gospel.  Good Pope John knew that renewal is essential not only in the life of the Church but in our own spiritual lives as well.  We must throw open the windows of our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to set us free from our own Upper Room.

Saint John Paul II repeatedly said: “Do not be afraid.  Open wide the doors to Christ.”  Unlock the doors of your hearts.  Do not be afraid like the disciples were.  Notice a little detail in the gospel today.  Even after Jesus had appeared to them, a week later, the door is still locked!  We may have had a transformative experience on Easter Sunday a week ago, but the world causes us to build walls and lock doors.  These two great saints taught us to be open, to not shut Christ out, and to allow him to breathe his Spirit upon us.

In his homily on Divine Mercy Sunday 13 years ago, Saint John Paul II said, “[Divine Mercy] is the Easter gift the Church receives from the Risen Christ and offers to humanity...Our attention focuses on the gesture of the Master, who transmits to the fearful, astounded disciples the mission of being ministers of Divine Mercy…Jesus entrusted to them the gift of "forgiving sins," a gift that flows from the wounds in His hands, His feet, and especially from His pierced side. From there a wave of mercy is poured out over all humanity.”

So on this Sunday, let us rejoice in Christ’s Divine Mercy. May our words be the words of Good Pope John who opened the Second Vatican Council saying: “Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned…”  He was talking about the opening of the great council.  Today we rejoice because the “long-for day” that we have been waiting for has finally dawned.  Two great popes, two great men, two great Christians today have been elevated to the altars.  As saints, they become models for the Universal Church to never be afraid of Christ’s Mercy and to open wide the doors of hearts to the Spirit that he so generously breathes on us.  Their lives personify the motto emblazed on the image of the Divine Mercy:  “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, pray for us!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A First Easter

“Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.”  (Matthew 28:5)

Imagine experiencing Easter for the very first time.

Sometime last year, one of our youth group kids brought a young lady to church with her.  This young lady had never been to church before, had never been baptized, and knew almost nothing about the faith.  Soon she started coming to youth group and I got to know her and noticed she was a kind, very peaceful young lady.  It’s rare to find a teenager who radiates peace.  One night, as I processed up for the evening Mass, I noticed that her friend had invited her to sing in the choir.  So August rolls around and I start announcing that our Catechumenate classes were about to start for all those who weren’t baptized, and this young lady approaches me to tell me that she would like to be baptized.  Of course, I’m overjoyed whenever anyone, especially a young person, tells me that they want to be baptized.  So she begins her classes and is ever attentive to every lesson.  She goes on her first retreat back in September with the Youth Encounters where she delves deeper into who Jesus is, and around Christmas she tells that friend who first brought her to church that she would like her to be her godmother.  As Holy Week approached, I tell those who are going to be baptized to join me for all the Holy Triduum services so that they can experience them for the first time and walk with Jesus on his journey.  Now this young lady was going to play an integral part in our Good Friday services since our youth group kids were going to stage a living Way of the Cross, and she had been chosen to be Mary.  I had no objections.  I just smiled thinking that we were asking a sweet young lady who wasn’t even baptized to play the part of the Mother of God.  As we went through the stations, she looked on at the young man playing Jesus as if he were Jesus himself.  The tears streaming down her cheeks were genuine.  She wasn’t acting or performing, and when we came to the 13th station when Jesus is taken down from the cross, he was placed in her arms right in front of me and her head sank so tenderly down to his body.  In every photograph that was taken of that scene, you cannot see her face.  She felt Mary’s pain.  She felt the agony of that moment.  Later on, the young man playing Jesus told me that when she held him at that 13th station, he felt as if his own mother was holding him.  Truly, you can’t make this stuff up especially when it comes to teenagers.

So we come to last night and the great Easter Vigil.  Seventeen people were going to baptized along with this young lady who sat in the third pew on the aisle hanging on to every word that was uttered and on every liturgical action.  Then the moment came when she approached me at the baptismal font with her best friend who is now her godmother.  I try to be very stoic during Masses and weddings and baptisms, but I must confess that it was tough holding in my genuine joy at that precise moment.  She approached me with her big, peaceful brown eyes and bowed her head over the baptismal font, and I gently poured water three times over her head and invoked the Holy Trinity.  Every person baptized last night got a rousing applause, but the entire youth group was sitting in the back and exploded in cheers when she emerged from those life-giving waters.  She was finally home.  I proceeded to confirm her and give her First Communion.  She was really home.  At one point, I thought to myself, “Would you look at that? `Mary’ is finally baptized!”

What struck me throughout the week is how she took in all of this mystery for the first time. I don’t know much about her past, and quite frankly I really do not give it a second thought.  All I know is that she has a future filled with grace with this great family of the Church that she was just baptized into.  She is a living witness of the Risen Christ just like the women who went to the tomb early on that first Easter morning.  Those women were overjoyed at meeting the Risen Christ just as this young lady was and their mission was to tell others what they had seen. 

We would do well to learn from the example of this new sister in Christ who experienced the Easter mysteries for the very first time.  Imagine how those women felt when they saw Jesus.  Imagine how Peter and John felt when they saw the empty tomb.  Imagine how our mother Mary reacted when she first saw her Son risen from the dead.  Our Lord is very much alive and I have seen him in the wonderful young people that walked with him these last few days from the table of the Last Supper to Gethsemane to Golgotha and finally to the empty tomb.  May we approach our Risen Lord this Easter Sunday as if we were meeting him for the very first time.

Postscript:  I preached this homily at my 10am Mass this morning.  Many of the youth group kids were back and went to Mass again because they were helping out with our Easter Egg Hunt.  The newly baptized young lady was not there.  When I preached this homily again at our way overcrowded Noon Mass, I was a quarter of the way through the story when I looked to my left and noticed that the kids had snuck her in through a side door and they were all sitting on the floor in front of the first side pew to my left.  When I finished the story, I approached her, took her by the hand, had her stand up and said to her, “Let me introduce you to your new family” as I motioned to the overflowing church.  The congregation erupted in applause, and, as always since I’ve known her, she cried tears of joy. (And if this story doesn't get any better, today is her birthday!)  What a gift to be a Christian!  What an even greater gift to be a new Christian on Easter Sunday.

Happy Easter, my friends!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Saturday: Silence, Please

The Church marks Holy Saturday with silence.  We wait by the tomb for Jesus to rise.  Silence is elusive, challenging, and sometimes very hard to find.  During the three days of the Triduum, I try to catechize my people to observe solemn silence before and after the liturgies.  This is especially true on Good Friday when the Service of the Passion begins and ends in silence.  Last night, before I said the "Prayer Over the People" which concludes the liturgy, there was a hushed silence in a church that was packed with at least 1500 people.  So before we finished, I asked the people to observe that same silence as they walked out of the church.  It worked last year.  This year, as I was reading the second to last sentence of the final prayer, there was a big thud in the back of the church and some commotion.  I looked up briefly and noticed that someone had fainted.  It took me an extra five seconds to finish the prayer and then the ministers and I departed the sanctuary in silence while the back of the church was still murmuring over the man that had fainted.  The gentleman was fine, but everyone, God bless them, had to pass by and inquire how we was doing.  "So much for silence," I thought. 
Even this morning, it is difficult to find silence in any church as we prepare and decorate our churches for tonight's Easter Vigil.  Just sitting here in my office writing this mediation I was interrupted several times to check on one thing or the other.  "So much for silence."  Yet we must make time for silence this day as we prepare our hearts for what will happen tonight:  the Great Easter Vigil.  If you have never been to the Easter Vigil, I invite you to attend one in your parish.  It is a beautiful liturgy that consists of a Service of Light, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Baptism (as we baptize 17 adults in my parish alone), and finally the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  This is the night in which our Savior rises from that silent tomb.  So until we gather in church this evening to light our candles and rejoice in the central mystery of our salvation, may we make time for silence to reflect on what has happened during this Holy Week and what is yet to come.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Look What We Did to Our God

"Who would believe what we have heard?" (Isaiah 53:1)

Behold the cross.  Look at what we did.  Just look at what we did to Mary's boy.  His only crime was loving us, having faith in us, forgiving us, healing us, and this is how we repay him.  This is what we do to the greatest gift our Father in heaven has ever given to us.  Look at what we did to our God.

The cross is a challenge to each of us.  As Max Lucado says, we cannot ignore the cross nor be indifferent to it.  When we behold the power of Christ's love for us as he hung there in agony, we must ask ourselves:  "What can I do, what MUST I do to repay such love?"  Everyone around that cross reacted in different ways to what transpired on Golgotha.  They may have reacted with scorn or with love but none of the participants in this drama were indifferent.  The thing is that we take the cross for granted.  We want our Jesus clean and risen and glorious and smiling, but how do we react when he is being tortured on a piece of wood, gasping painfully for every breath, looking almost inhuman:  "so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals his appearance, beyond that of human beings (Isaiah 52:14)."

As we come forward to adore the Holy Cross, take in what he did for you.  He did this, he gave his life, he suffered the cruelest of deaths because he loved you.  It was Blessed John Paul II that once said during a Stations of the Cross:  "Look at what you have done, in this man, to your God."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday: Sharing the Oil of Gladness

"If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet." (John 13:14)

Around Tuesday afternoon, I had already in my mind figured out the central theme for my homily for this Mass of the Lord's Supper.  I wanted to speak in general terms more or less about how at ordination, priests are anointed with the oil of gladness to share with their people.  Well, first thing this morning when I woke up, even before offering up my morning prayer, I reached for my iPad so that I could read Pope Francis' Holy Thursday Chrism Mass homily to his priests and wouldn't you know it, some of his first words were:  "The Lord has anointed us with the oil of gladness."  Later that morning, I was buying incense for tonight's Mass at the Daughters of St. Paul and jokingly told one of the sisters, "Sister, I think the Pope is stealing my material."  Obviously, this is the work of the Holy Spirit!  There is a central message that the Spirit wants all of priests: from the Pope to this lowly priest to share.  Tonight we gather to celebrate the institution of the priesthood and of the Eucharist.  Jesus offered us the great example in tonight's gospel when he bowed before his disciples and washed their feet.  As the Holy Father pointed out, Jesus took on the task of a slave.  He gave us a shining example of how to serve others.  The Eucharist, like the priesthood, becomes the sacrament of total self-giving.  Just as Christ offers himself at this altar every time we gather to celebrate this sacred mysteries, so too we are called to offer ourselves as our Lord did.

As a priest and a pastor, this evening takes on special significance for me because I get to do what the Lord did with his disciples.  I get to express my love for all of you in a very real way in just a few minutes when I will kneel before 12 of our brothers and sisters and wash, dry and kiss their feet.  As a priest, I was anointed with the oil of gladness, the Holy Father points out, so that I may anoint you with the oil of gladness.  And this oil, this sweet, sweet oil contains such a divine fragrance.  Just like the incense that we offered at the beginning of Mass that rises to the heavens with our prayers, this oil should give off the fragrance of love.  "Jesus loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the extreme."  As priests, we model our lives after our Master, Jesus Christ, and lay down our lives for each of you.  We anoint you with the oil of gladness, and when we fail you, you lift us up with your prayers and squeeze out every ounce of oil from our hands so that we may bless you.  What a joy it is to be a priest of Jesus Christ!  What a joy it is to serve each of you!  What a joy to be able to anoint you with this oil of gladness!  Each of us, who through baptism were anointed with the same Sacred Chrism that my hands were anointed with, yes, each of us carries the fragrance of the Son of God because we were made one with Christ in his ministry as priest, prophet, and king.  Jesus came not to lord over us as a king who rules, but to serve us as a servant king.  The King of Kings knelt down like a lowly slave to wash his disciples feet in a supreme act of love and as an everlasting example for us to follow.  And as my mom so beautifully pointed out to sum up this evening: this act of love of washing each others feet is not the work of slaves, it is the work of kings!

Praised be Jesus Christ, our Shepherd and High Priest!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Wednesday: The Francis Effect

Last night, my associate and I with the help of a Pauline priest walked out of our confessionals at 10:30pm after hearing over 200 confessions.  When the evening started, I looked out at a chapel full of penitents and I knew that more were on their way.  After 12 years, I'm used to this and even embrace this merry onslaught of confessions during Holy Week.  After we were done, my associate and I emerged from our confessionals tired but joyful.  He smiled and simply said jokingly, "This is the Pope's fault.  The picture of him going to confession has brought all these people out."  I couldn't agree more.  My associate has been faithfully serving at my parish for over 17 years.  He noted that in all those years, we had never heard so many confessions during Lent.  It wasn't just last night. Last Saturday, he heard 64 confessions by himself on Saturday afternoon because I was out of the parish at a wedding.  Last Friday and Saturday, our neighboring church and many churches throughout the Archdiocese were open for Reconciliation Weekend and were full.  I joined 6 priests on Friday night and it took us 2 hours to hear everyone's confessions.  A few weeks ago during our Lenten mission, two Argentine missionary priests heard probably over 30 hours of confession in my parish during the course of a week.  And still there were more confessions to be heard....

So, if this famous picture below is what is causing this rush back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, then "Thank you Holy Father" for inspiring our people to return to the Lord and embrace his mercy.  There's still time.  Call your parish and ask for the sacrament.  Don't let Easter dawn if you haven't cleansed your soul.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Tuesday: Pray for Your Priests

This morning all of the priests of the Archdiocese of Miami will gather in the Cathedral of St. Mary's for the Annual Chrism Mass and the Renewing of Priestly Promises.  We gather with our Archbishop to renew the promises we made at ordination to be good shepherds after the Lord's own heart, to pray for our people, and to offer the sacraments for the redemption of souls.  It is a beautiful Mass that is part of Holy Week and brings together this uncommon brotherhood of men who serve God's people as their priests.  Towards the end of the renewal of priestly promises, the Archbishop turns to the people and asks them to pray for their priests and the people consent to this request.

Truth be told, we need your prayers and we feel your prayers.  Many years ago, a wise old priest would tell everyone he met as he said goodbye to them, "Please pray for me."  Notice how Pope Francis in almost every one of his remarks always asks the people to pray for him (he started his Pontificate asking the people in St. Peter's Square to pray for him).  There is a beautiful spiritual relationship that exists between a priest and his people and it is held up and strengthened through prayer.  Almost daily, someone comes up to me and to tell me that they are praying for me.  This lifts us up more than you can know.  Obviously, being a priest is not easy, but it comforts us to know that we have an army of faithful praying for us not just on this day but every day.  So wherever you may be reading this and from whatever parish you are from:  on this day, pray for the priests of your parish.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Monday: Divine Fragrance

In today's gospel, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed the feet of Jesus with perfumed oil.  This is not unlike the chrism that is used to the anoint the head of a child when he/she is baptized or used to anoint the hands of a priest at his ordination.  Chrism contains a special perfume that lifts our senses to the heavens.  I remember that the smell of the chrism rubbed on my hands during my ordination lasted for two days.  Recently, a friend of mine texted me a couple of days after I baptized her daughter to tell me that she had washed her daughter's hair several times after the baptism, but that the beautiful smell of the chrism was still with her and it reminded her of the baby's baptism.  We all carry the fragrance of the Divine.  The gospel tells us that when Mary was anointing Jesus' feet, the aroma filled the entire house.  The sense of smell also can transport us to heaven.  It is not unlike when we burn incense in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  The smell of incense reminds us of Jesus in our midst.

Today, may we remember that we were all anointed with this Sacred Chrism, with this special aroma, at our baptism and confirmation which means that we carry with us the fragrance of Jesus Christ.  May this reminder challenge us to better imitate our Lord and bring his presence wherever we go.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Day 40: How Quickly We Turn on Jesus

“Hosanna to the Son of David…”  (Matthew 21:9)
“Let him be crucified.” (Matthew 27:22)
How easy we are led astray by the world.  The crowd that shouted the praises of Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday would soon be shouting that he be executed.  We are very quick to shout Jesus’ praises, but when we are tempted by the lures of the Evil One and of this world, we turn just as quickly on the Lord and join in the cries for him to be crucified.  This morning in his homily Pope Francis asked:  “Who am I before the Jesus who enters Jerusalem amid celebration?  Am I able to express my joy, to praise him?  Or do I keep a distance?  Who am I before the Jesus who suffers?”

Maybe we do praise him at a distance to not get fully immersed in the challenges of living a Christian life.  Maybe we only praise him when he is in triumph and turn our backs when he suffers.  Do we not realize that Jesus achieves the ultimate triumph on the cross?  It is there on that wood that he is exalted above all as we hear in the second reading:  “Because [of his death on the cross] God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name (Philippians 2:9).”  How distant are we from Jesus?  Will we walk in his footsteps during Holy Week and praise his name along the way for what he did for us?  Or will we be swept up with the rest of the world and keep a distance from our Lord?  As I say every year: don’t let this week be like any other. Make this week HOLY!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Day 39: Gazing at the Cross

This morning Pope Francis tweeted: "How beautiful it is to stand before the Crucifix, simply to be under the Lord’s gaze, so full of love. (EG 264)."

Yesterday I asked that we look upon the crucifix to behold Jesus' wondrous love for us.  As we prepare this day for the beginning of Holy Week tomorrow and the celebration of Palm Sunday, we recall that Jesus entered into Jerusalem fully knowing what the will of the Father was.  He knew that he was journeying towards the cross.  And there, on that cross, pure love is manifested for all of humanity.  There on that cross he still showers us with his Divine Mercy.  If someone asks you for an example of pure love:  show them the cross.  For Christians, the cross is both an example of love and the ultimate challenge to walk in the footsteps of our Savior.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day 38: Jesus Christ, High Priest

Last night, I went to do a wedding rehearsal at St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church.  It's a small little church on Brickell with many beautiful icons.  While I was waiting for the bridal party to arrive, I sat in the front pew to pray and sat directly in front of the icon pictured below, Jesus Christ, High Priest.  A copy of this icon hangs in my office.  As I prayed, I thought about the events we will be celebrating a week from today.  Jesus Christ is both priest and victim on the cross.  He offers his very self to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins.  He is tortured yet glorified on the cross.  As Isaiah points out:  "See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.  Even as many were amazed by him--so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals... (Is 52:13-15)."
How wondrous what happened on that glorious cross!  Look upon the crucifix this day and ponder what our Lord did for you!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Day 37: Begging for God's Mercy

Imagine a beggar sitting on a sidewalk with his hand held out and his head held low begging for money to eat.  He is ashamed to look up because of his appearance.  He only has his hand extended hoping that someone will be generous enough to place a coin in his worn and dirty hand.

Now imagine if we were that beggar coming before God to beg for his mercy.  Dirtied by sin, heads bowed because we are ashamed by our transgressions, but coming before our Father nonetheless to beg for mercy.  The thing is that we see ourselves as beggars.  God sees us as his children.  Once we discover that we are and always will be the children of God, then our lives take on new meaning and new purpose.  Sin becomes something foreign because we do not want to damage this relationship with the Father.  Yet, sin invariably creeps into our lives and we find ourselves once again as beggars with our hands outstretched to God.  He does not reject us.  He does not ignore us.  He lifts us up, cleans us off, and forgives questions asks. 

Holy Week is upon us.  Have you come before your God and begged for his mercy?   

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day 36: Christ Our Refuge

All of us have days that we wish we never would've gotten out of bed.  Perhaps you get to work or school and as soon as you walk through the door, all the problems of the world come tumbling down on your head.  Perhaps, you dragged those problems from home.  Here it is, mid morning and you're already wanting to get away from everything.  These are the moments in which you must find the time, however brief, to center your day on Christ.  We must realize that He is our only refuge.  He is our strength.  He is our deliverer.  He will shepherd us through the day and bring us safely to its conclusion.  So if it's mid-morning and you've reached your wit's end already, just close your eyes, center yourself on the Lord, and pray, "Jesus Christ, my refuge and my strength, deliver me and keep me safe.  Amen."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day 35: Christ Our Light

"I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

There are so many who woke up this morning feeling defeated even before they got out of bed.  There are so many who see no light at the end of the tunnel because they are overwhelmed by a myriad of problems.  There are so many who fear what lies ahead because of what has happened to them in the past.

But Jesus offers us words of hope when he tells us tells us that he is the light of the world.  If we want to escape the darkness, all we have to do is follow him.  He stretches out his hand to each of us this day to deliver us from whatever darkness may be surrounding us into the warmth of his radiant light.  Come and rescue us, Lord Jesus, and be our light!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Day 34: The Importance of Confession

When I logged on this morning to the Archdiocesan website, I discovered that our Communications Department had published one of my recent messages to my parishioners.  The message is the same one that I have emphasized over and over again during this Lenten season which is that the Lord is inviting you (yes, you!) to return to Him in the beautiful Sacrament of Confession.  This weekend the Archdiocese is having its annual Reconciliation Weekend on Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon.  So as we get ready for Holy Week:
  1. Read the message that I wrote to my parishioners on confession by clicking here:  The Importance of Confession 
  2. Find a parish near you in the schedule attached to the message.
  3. Make a good examination of conscience.  Here's a very good and detailed one: (Examination of Conscience from The Fatima Center)
  4. Go to confession.
  5. Rejoice in the beauty of God's forgiveness.
That sounds like a good to do list for this week. 

So, I'm going to confession this week.  Are you?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Day 33: The Tomb of the Confessional (Redux)

This morning I delivered a homily that's tough to translate to the written page.  It had a beautiful story of witness and a resurrection of sorts that happened to me on Friday that I am still trying to process and may write about it for Easter.  I drew heavily as well on themes that I touched on three years ago, so what I wrote then still very much applies today and worth reading:

“Untie him and let him go.” (John 11:44)
When was the last time you went to confession?  When was the last time you put pride aside, got down on your knees, and asked a priest to absolve you of your sins?  For the last month, we have been talking about emptying ourselves and giving our whole self to the Lord, putting him in charge, and slowly allowing our will to become one and the same with His.  Why is this a good a time as any to finally kneel down and go to confession?  Because Lent is a journey from the confessional to the table of the Lord where we commune with Christ.   It is in the desert of Lent that we realize that sin has been destroying us ever so slowly to the point that our souls become dead.  I look out at my congregation on Sunday mornings and wonder what burdens my people might be carrying.  How many are out there just going through the motions because sin has corroded their soul?  How many are so dead inside because of sin that when they come to church they experience as much as a dead man in a tomb? 
Jesus does not want us to live this way.  Today he not only wishes to raise his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead, he wants to raise you and me as well.  He is calling you to the tomb of the confessional.  Why do I compare the confessional to a tomb when it is hardly a ringing endorsement for the sacrament?  Put simply, it is in the confessional that we die to our sins.  It is in the confessional that our sins go to die, and like Lazarus we emerge from the tomb of the confessional with a new life.  We come out totally freed from bondage, and we hear the same words that Lazarus heard from Jesus when he emerged from the tomb:  “Untie him and let him go.”  We are not bound by burial cloths instead we are bound by the very sins that have kept us from hearing the voice of the Master that tells us when we are surrounded by the darkness of sin:  “Come out!”
Take it from a frequent penitent:  it takes courage and great humility to kneel down before a priest, who himself is a sinner, and ask for forgiveness.  That is what makes this sacrament so unique.  It is the simplest of sacraments yet the hardest to do.  We quiver when we have to look inside our hearts and see all the times we have failed the Lord.  We sometimes may go to confession and try to hide the things that are really tying us down as if we can hide from our God who sees everything.  This past fall I heard a Domincan priest, who are generally great confessors, tell a group of priests that I was on retreat with: “If there is something so dark that you cannot possibly utter, then my friends, that is what you need to confess.”  Our lack of owning up to our sins and not confessing them just makes their hold over us that much stronger.  When we hear ourselves say our sins aloud, as painful as it may be, followed by the priest uttering the liberating words of absolution, there is a freedom that we experience that we cannot possibly imagine.  Let me witness as someone who is both a penitent and a priest.  It truly is liberating to hear someone tell me “I absolve you of your sins.”  And as a priest, there is nothing that gives me greater joy aside from celebrating the Mass than to tell a broken soul, “My child, I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” 
As priests, we live for this time of year.  We spend hours in the tomb of the confessional quite joyfully because we know that we are reuniting our spiritual children with our loving and merciful God.  A couple of weeks ago at our Men’s Conference, I heard the great speaker Curtis Martin tell the men:  “Don’t be ashamed of what you tell the priest in confession even if it’s the darkest of sins because you actually make a priest’s day when you allow him to help you be reconciled with God.”  So forgive me as I get all Clint Eastwood on all of you today, but “go ahead…make my day!”  We wait for you in the tomb of the confessional ready to help you watch your sins die, ready to free you from their bondage, and ready to send you forth totally free to love God and each other.  And the beauty of spending so many hours in that tomb is that we priests become tombs ourselves because the sins that we hear uttered are never spoken of again.  So what are you afraid of?  What are you waiting for?  What awaits us in the tomb of the confessional is a joy-filled new life that is ours for the taking.  Embrace it, cherish it, and don’t fear confession, for when we are finally cured of the blindness of sin, we are able to finally see the loving face of a God who loves us to no end.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Day 32: How Deep is Your Faith?

Do we really believe or are we just going through the motions?  How deep is our faith?  Notice I say we because even priests can at times start flying on autopilot and lose their connection to the Divine.  All of us can recite prayers, go to Mass, and basically do the things that our faith requires us to do.  But does it move us?  Are we listening to God?  Do we see his hand in our lives?

One can never grow accustomed to the work of God in our daily lives.  It is miraculous and beyond comprehension.  But it also challenges us to go deeper into our relationship with him and to increase our faith.  It is very easy to switch on the faith autopilot and go through routine, but I remember the words of an old confessor: "beware routine."  Our faith has to be renewed every day.  It has to be fresh.  It has to excite us and wow us. We are after all dealing with a God who sent his Son into the world to die for our sins and rise to new life.  We are dealing with a LIVING God who is constantly at work in our lives.  Our faith must be like that of our Blessed Mother Mary who believed what the angel had told her.  It has to be unquestionable like the faith of Abraham.  It has to be like St. John's who upon seeing the empty tomb just simply believed.  On this day, reflect on how deep your faith is, and let yourself be amazed by your God.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Day 31: Sleeping With a Smile ("SEND IN MOSES!")

I have written one fan letter in my entire life.  I’ll get to that in a second.  First, a confession.  During my senior year of seminary in the fall of 1996, the Yankees were playing in the World Series.  Because I had to be in my dorm room at 11:00pm, I could not see the games, so I went to the K-Mart down the street and with $99 that I got out of who knows where because I was penniless, I brought a 1.5 inch Sony Watchman to watch the late games in my room which as you’ve probably figured out by now was against the rules.  I watched in horror as my Yankees lost the first two games at home, then screamed with delight when Jim Leyritz tied up Game 4, and eventually saw them beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 on regular TV in the kitchen of my home parish during a party.  (I forget names easily, but I remember some really inane details sometimes.)   That next Monday night, I started watching The Late Show with David Letterman.  The priest in charge of discipline had a “nod nod, wink wink” understanding with me because we used to trade jokes from Letterman from the night before, and as I went on to Major Seminary where things got harder and we were allowed to have TV’s in our room, going to bed laughing with delight after prayer was that was like a soothing balm to soul that was being put through the rigors of seminary.  All my classmates watched Dave every night.  I would rehash the jokes or the gags, and even at the end of the year roast of the soon-to-be priests, I once hosted the entire evening impersonating, you guessed it, David Letterman.

Which brings me to the only fan letter I have every written.  In the year 2000, Dave had quintuple bypass surgery.  This prompted me to click on a link on AOL (remember that?) that allowed me to send him a get-well card.  I wrote a heartfelt message wishing him a speedy recovery, God’s blessings and that I was praying for him.  After long seminary days of study and formation, I could always count on him sending me off to sleep with a smile.  At that time there was genuine concern that he would not return, but he did with great fanfare so he could continue to read top ten lists, dump watermelons and other items off buildings, and continue to make people laugh. Over the last several years, Dave started to get a bit too political and I started praying a bit more at night and watching ESPN as I went off to sleep, but his announcement yesterday of his retirement still jolted me.  I watched last night for the first time in a while and how he relayed the story of how he came to this decision was both hilarious and poignant.  Despite his marital indiscretions, political leanings, and contempt for authority, what came through the screen was an imperfect human being just like me trying to connect with his audience (His return to TV after 9/11 is still one of the most moving, raw, and honest moments of television that I have ever seen). 

Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, on this Lenten Blog, I post a clip of the Muppets singing a hilarious rendition of “O Danny Boy” and I caption it with “Jesus wants you to laugh.” Prayer and a lot of laughter got me through seminary, and most of that laughter came from David Letterman.  As I was writing this last night, I pondered that part of living a good Christian life is making time for laughter.   Not only is it the best medicine but it moves us to a genuine joy that God wants us to experience.  Imperfect as he was, Dave brought me such joy every seminary night.  So thank you David, and thank you for answering a question that has always baffled me: How many guys in Spiderman suits can you get into a New York City Jamba Juice?
To this day, this is still one of my favorite bits.  I saw it this morning for the first time in years and still laughed as hard as I did back then.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Day 30: Arguing with God

In today's first reading, we see Moses interceding to God on behalf of the Israelites because they had turned away from the Lord and started to adore a golden calf that they had fashioned.  Pope Francis ran with this theme this morning in his homily when he talked about Moses' conversation with God as genuine prayer:  "The Bible says that Moses spoke to God face to face, as a friend.  This is how our prayer must be: free, insisted, with arguments."  Now to the devout this may seem a little disrespectful, but the Pope is trying to draw us deeper into the life of prayer.  Sometimes we pray "words" and don't enter into a profound conversation with our Lord.  So yes, at times we do need to argue with God.  Why hasn't he resolved an issue we have been praying for?  Why does it seem like he is not listening to us?  This is how we talk to a friend, the Pope says.  This also brings us to deeper into the mystery of God's will for us, it invigorates us, and opens us up to all the grace that God is prepared to bestow on us.  It also opens us up more to the Holy Spirit who will guide us in our prayer life and deepen it.  So, take a moment today to genuinely converse with God.  Argue with him if you have to.  You will only come out of that prayer more invigorated because you have had a genuine encounter with the Divine.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Day 29: Feeling Lonely?

So many come to the Church seeking the presence of God because of the lack of presence in their life.  They feel lonely.  So many elderly tell me that they listen to Catholic radio all day because they feel like they have a companion throughout the day.  Early this morning, I read a tweet from Bishop Burbidge of Raleigh that read:  "We pray for those who feel alone and share with them the truth of today's Gospel: God never forgets us and is always there to comfort us!"

The gospel starts off by Jesus telling us that the Father is working for us (Jn 5:17).  Think of that if you are feeling lonely, abandoned, or depressed.  Your God is working for you!  He has not forgotten you.  He has not abandoned you.  At this very second as you read this, he is at work for you.  You may not see the tangible results right now, but he has a plan that is unfolding for you.  It's our job to go along with that plan.  So I echo Bishop Burbidge's call to pray for those who feel alone.  May they feel this day the warm embrace of their Father in heaven.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Day 28: Short Fuse

Raise your hand if you've gotten to the point in Lent where everything is beginning to bug you. (My hand is firmly raised like Horshack's in "Welcome Back Kotter.).

This is perfectly normal. The desert is getting to us. We long for the refreshing waters of Easter. But this is also a sign and Lenten lesson that we need to center ourselves more on God. Don't you think Jesus must have felt frustrated at times with the motley crew he surrounded himself with?  And with the Pharisees constantly needling him?  Yet he took those incidents as teachable moments and opportunities to dispense his Divine Mercy.

So if you find yourself having a short fuse these days, it's to center ourselves more on Jesus and one more valuable piece of advice: let things go and let it slide off of you (as they say in Spanish: "que te resbale").