Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jumping Through Hoops: The Confirmation Crisis

“Then [Peter and John] laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:17)

Yesterday I accompanied our youth group to the Marlins game and since baseball offers the spectator moments of silence and contemplation, I started thinking about how each of them got there.  How did each of them end up as committed Catholics and part of our youth group?  The majority of them came through our Confirmation program.  They are wonderful kids, respectful, insightful, caring, and always at the service of the Church.  Unfortunately, they are a small portion of the young people who have been confirmed in our parish over the last five years.  The first reading today offers us the scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Peter and John came to Samaria to lay hands on those that had been baptized so that they may receive the Holy Spirit.  Some of my biggest joys, and sorrows I must confess, have come in preparing our young people for the Sacrament of Confirmation.  I have witnessed young people make bold transformations as they prepare for this sacrament, and then upon receiving it, they dedicate their time to the church and become active in parish ministries like our youth group kids.  Unfortunately, the opposite is more common.  Too often I have seen young people go through the motions of receiving this sacrament as if it were a graduation from CCD and pretty much don’t set foot in church after that.  It is sad, tragic, and it is our fault.  The Church has failed them.

Today’s readings talks to us about the importance of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus emphasized that he would not leave us orphans for he will send us an Advocate who will always be with us.  Why is it so difficult to communicate this to our young people?  They are brought by their parents to complete the Sacraments of Initiation, but we, and I include myself in this, are not doing an adequate job of forming disciples.  The past two years that I have presented our young people to the bishop for Confirmation, I have done so imploring God to have mercy on me for presenting some candidates that weren’t fully prepared for the sacrament.  There have been some who have been wonderful students and very open to the preparation process, but others who treated their weekly CCD class as if they were in math class at 8 in the morning in school.  I only presented them trusting in the grace of the sacrament and that the Holy Spirit may move them even a little.  These children essentially spend two years jumping through hoops so that they can receive a sacrament.  This is not how we mold disciples.  This is something that causes me great distress because I have witnessed hundreds of Confirmation ceremonies and am often left wondering that if we had prepared all those young people adequately and with conviction, we would have a young spiritual army for Christ that would transform the world.  Instead, the world transforms them, and the Good Shepherd is left without sheep.  Quite simply, what we are doing now to prepare candidates for Confirmation is not working and needs to be blown up, thrown out, and let's start from scratch.  It ain't working!  (This is not a manifesto.  This is something that I discussed at great length with the bishop that came to do our Confirmations three weeks ago.  I may write about this more extensively in the future, but not now.)

Those of us gathered here that have been confirmed have received the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  We must be reminded that the Spirit is always with us, for Christ tells us so in today’s gospel.  Confirmation is a challenge to go forth and be apostles of the joy of the resurrection.  It is a challenge to go and transform the world.  This is the challenge that we must be communicating to our young people.  This week the Holy Father posed a rhetorical question during one of his homilies: “How many of you pray to the Holy Spirit? Don’t raise your hand…He is the great forgotten, the great forgotten!...May the Lord give us this grace to always guard the Holy Spirit in us, the Spirit who teaches us to love, fills us with joy, and gives us peace (Homily on May 23, 2014).”  We forget that we have been given this great gift of the Spirit and that all gifts are meant to be shared.  Our Confirmation programs are in crisis.  If those children merely go through the motions and "do what is required" then we are failing them.  Fulfilling pre-requisites is what you do when you are seeking a diploma or degree, NOT when you are preparing to receive a sacrament.  We must re-think how we form our young people because the Church should not confer sacraments based on fulfilling pre-requisistes, it should confer sacrament on those who are ready to be disciples.  I was not ordained a priest simply because I went through 9 years of classes.  I was ordained a priest because the Church and those entrusted with my formation discerned that I was ready to receive Holy Orders.  I wonder if this same logic should be applied as we prepare young people for Confirmation. So I implore you this day to pray for our young people who received the Sacrament of Confirmation this year and in recent years that they may recognize this gift.   Also pray for your pastor and for all lay ministers and catechists who heroically prepare these children, that we may have the courage to start from scratch guided by the Spirit, stop teaching mere classes and start molding disciples for Jesus Christ.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

YOU Are the Church!

“…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)

Ever since I was a little boy, I have never stayed at one particular parish very long.  My parents had restless heart and I guess they passed that on to me.  From the age of 15 when I started doing missionary work, I wouldn’t stay very long in one place (the exceptions being my home parish and my first parish I was assigned to as a priest).  Of course, this wasn’t my doing.  There was always an archbishop on the other end of the line, inspired by the Spirit, telling me where I was needed next, and I embraced each change as God’s will for me.  After all, I did lay down my life at ordination for the good of the Church and looked my archbishop firmly in the eyes (twice!) and told him that I would be obedient to him and to his successors.  Just a little over 18 months ago, I received a call that I would receive my first pastorate here in this holy place where I received my First Communion.  Since that time, I have grown to love this community that has embraced me as its pastor.  I have found a faith-filled people hungering to be fed the Living Word of God.  So it did come as a bit of a surprise that two and half weeks ago I found myself yet again on the other end of the line with the Archbishop who was asking me to be the pastor of a different community in another part of our Archdiocese later this summer.  Obedience: is it any wonder that priests make that promise twice!  While I embrace the next great challenge the Lord has in store for me, I couldn’t help but think of all of you while I was talking with the Archbishop.  As news started to spread through the parish that I would be transferred, people asked why I stayed for such short a time.  I would respond that our ways are not the Lord’s ways.  When people started telling me that they would follow me to my next parish, I would gently remind them that we follow but one man:  Christ Jesus the Lord.
In a way, today’s readings proved to be providential to go along with this news that I have to share with you today.  One of the first homilies I delivered from this pulpit as your pastor was to remind you that the Church does not consist merely of who is up here preaching but that you are the Church.  In the second reading, St. Peter calls us living stones who are called to be built into a spiritual house.  My brothers and sisters, you are the living Church.  You are what makes this parish community so vibrant and beautiful.  I am merely a humble, unworthy servant that was placed at the service of the royal priesthood you received from the Lord at baptism.  But as I reminded my staff when I shared this news with them, the work of the Church continues.  There is still so much to do and so much that all of you could do that does not depend on who your pastor is.  You are all called to “announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).”  We are indeed called to be living stones that make this Church come alive.  Several years ago I wrote in a homily, “As living stones, we are called to be filled with the Spirit to help edify this spiritual house.  Unfortunately, so many of us are stones, quite literally stones, not living stones, that just sit here and do not contribute to the mission of the Church.  We forget that we are called from baptism to share in Christ's ministry.  It is not sufficient to sit here like stones once a week for one hour.  Our Lord needs you more.  The Church needs you more. “  For me as a pastor, it has never been about the bottom line or about triumphs or defeats, but rather sharing with you the joyful news of the Gospel in order to inspire you to go forth and share that same Good News with others. 

I must confess that it will hurt when I leave at the end of next month.  A friend was telling me this week that I should be used to this, but I replied that I wouldn’t be much of a priest if it did not hurt to let go of people I love.  I have done this goodbye thing all too often over the last 12 years, dried many tears, and heard the question “why?” more than I would like.  But as I said earlier, our ways are not God’s ways.  He has a plan for each of us which makes the first line that Jesus utters in today’s gospel so comforting:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  We have faith in God.  We must have faith in his divine will.  You follow not a man who wears black.  You follow Christ the Lord.  My task was to bring that Christ to you who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  As living stones, each and every one of you is precious in the Lord’s eyes.  I just thank the Lord that, even if it was for a short while, I was able to see with my eyes how precious each of you truly is.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Shepherd's Voice

“…the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3)

When I was a kid, every day after school we would play football in the street in front of my house.  Imagine that!  We would actually go outside to play instead of numbing our brains to television and video games.  We would play from when we arrived from school until sunset or at least until we heard the voice calling us home for dinner. It was the unmistakable voice of our mother who would call us, and yes there were times where we would ignore it so we could get in a couple of more plays, but we would always obey lest we hear the voice that would come after hers if we didn’t listen:  the voice of our father. 

We’ve been listening to our mother’s voice since we were in the womb and we have a special connection with that voice.  It is a voice that sooths, that brings comfort, that corrects, but that also shows love.  It is a voice that Jesus heard too when he was a child as he heard the voice of our Blessed Mother teaching him how to pray and how to recognize the voice of God and to do his will.  Mary knew all too well what it meant to do the Father’s will, so she taught her Son perfectly how to do the same. 

Today we not only celebrate Mother’s Day, we also celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday.  Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that his sheep recognize his voice and follow him.  The question for us is: do we really?  Do we know what the Shepherd’s voice sounds like?  And do we follow it?  Sometimes that voice calls us to do some extraordinary tasks; tasks that seem almost impossible.  But if God calls us to do something that we deem impossible, isn’t he going to make sure that we succeed?  What the Archangel Gabriel asked of Mary was impossible, yet he said, “nothing is impossible for God.”  Perhaps Mary wasn’t quite ready to be a mother, but the Lord called and he made her ready which is why we honor her with a special month because she listened and obeyed.  Perhaps we hear the voice of the Shepherd calling us into different pastures or calling us to do something that we feel we aren’t quite ready to do or capable of doing.  If it is indeed God who is calling us, he will make us ready and capable to do whatever it is he is calling us to do.  All we have to do is trust in his will for us, for as the psalm says: “he guides me in right paths." And like a mother's voice, his voice will always bring us great comfort and lead us to place of joy and peace.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Walking With Jesus

“Jesus asked them: “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast.” (Luke 24:17)

Yesterday was Confirmation Day here in our parish.  I must confess that now that I’m a pastor, I often get nervous when the bishop starts asking the kids questions as if he’s going to blame me if they answer incorrectly.  We were blessed to have Bishop Luis del Castillo, a retired bishop from Uruguay, presiding at the Confirmation, and he did something quite remarkable that initially freaked me out.  Instead of calling on the kids and asking them questions, he called the first two kids in the first pew to stand up and stand on either side of him to “help him with his homily.”  He went on to break down the readings of the day as he moved back and forth to both teenagers asking them simple questions of how those readings and their Confirmation applied to their daily lives at school and at home.  As I was watching this very gentle soul reach out to our teenagers, I could not help but think about today’s gospel.  What the bishop did yesterday is exactly what Jesus does today.  He took two disciples and broke open for them the Scriptures.

After the confirmations, I asked the young lady who was up there with the bishop how it went.  She quickly admitted how scared she was at first.  Again, just like the disciples of Emmaus.  Afraid after the crucifixion.  Overjoyed after experiencing the power of the Word of the Risen Christ.  To journey through life joyfully and without fear, we must walk with our Lord.  He has so many things to share with us including his very self.  All we have to do is follow the example of the Emmaus disciples and invite him to stay with us.  We can’t push him away.  We can’t fight him as I preached about in a daily homily this past week.  He needs to be right there by our side.

Later on today, I’ll preach to a group of engaged couples getting ready to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  This gospel is perfect for them as well because for if they want to have a beautiful marriage then they must also walk with the Lord.  As one of my wise former pastors used to say:  “They can’t walk ahead of him.  They can’t walk behind him.  They must walk besides him!”  And as they walk besides him they must also recognize Jesus in each other in the same way that the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. 

Which brings me back to the bishop’s homily and the very first question that he asked these kids:  “Have you ever seen God?”  They both answered that they hadn’t. And slowly and with great love the bishop began to explain how they can see God in their family, classmates, friends, and neighbors.  If it applies to confirmed teenagers, it must certainly apply to married couples who must see God in each other every single day.  And it most definitely applies to every Christian who seeks the joy and peace of the Risen Christ.
Don’t walk too fast. 
Don’t walk too slow. 
Pace yourself. 

And walk with the Lord.