Sunday, June 29, 2014

Quo Vadis Domine

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16)

Many of you know the story that is part of our tradition about Peter trying to flee Rome during persecutions.  On his way out of the city, he saw Jesus walking into the city and asked him, “Quo vadis Domine (Where are you going Lord?)."  Jesus answered, “To Rome, to be crucified.”  It was then that Peter realized that he must go back to Rome to be glorified just as the Lord was.  That he must go back to embrace the crown of martyrdom for the sake of the kingdom.  That he had to stop fleeing from the will of the Lord and embrace the cross just as Jesus did.

So many times in the gospels, we see Peter trying to flee the will of God or trying to impose his will.  Sound familiar?  We do it constantly.  Whether it was at the Transfiguration, right after Jesus announces his death, at the Last Supper, at Gethsemane, or when he denies him, Peter is either fleeing from the Lord’s will or trying to impose his own.  Yet it is precisely this stubborn man that Jesus chooses to lead his Church.  Today we also celebrate Paul who was equally as stubborn and as the preface says, both these great men by their witness share one crown of glory.

Why do we flee from the Lord’s will?  Why don’t we just surrender to the Almighty?  After all, he knows what is best for us.   Every time I see the hand of God shifting me in one direction or another I ask the same question that Peter asked Jesus as he fled Rome, “Quo vadis Domine?”  Where Jesus goes, I must follow.  Where Jesus asks me to go, there I must be.  I confess it is difficult to let go of a community (I have said goodbye to 6!), but the Lord always steers me in the right direction.  I know it is difficult on the community, but for some reason the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila came to mind yesterday and a phrase that is often overlooked in the “Let Nothing Disturb You Prayer.”  That phrase is “God never changes.”  People come and go into our lives.  Priests come and go into our lives.  A different face will be behind this altar and this pulpit next week, but GOD NEVER CHANGES.  He is the one constant in our life.  And that is all that matters.

Today, like Peter, we are asked by the Lord, “Do you love me?”  We are asked this question and we obviously answer yes, but if we truly mean that “yes” then our answer implies that we must trust in the Lord and his divine plan for us.  It isn’t our plan.  It definitely isn’t my plan.  It is HIS plan.  When we tell the Lord we love him, like Peter, we surrender to Jesus.  We place our life totally in His hands and ask him to lead us wherever he needs us.  In the life of a priest, this question is asked constantly.  Saying yes, being obedient to the promptings of the Spirit is very difficult, but the rewards are heavenly. 

I have been blessed for the last 19 months to be your pastor.  You have taught me to be a pastor, sometimes through trial and error, but it has been an undeserved honor to come back to this church where I was taught my catechism, where I made my First Holy Communion, and where I first started to understand our faith, to be your pastor.  Our time together was short but so full of blessings.  Most of those blessings we shared at this table.  Once more I ask, “Where are you going Lord?”  While my heart is heavy that I leave you behind, it is hopeful in the will of God and excited about the challenges ahead.  That comes from years of experience of moving to places where the Good Lord always takes care of me through the holy people of God.  And I leave you with this quick story.  Back in the seminary, our dearly departed Bishop Roman once told us:  “The only thing the priest needs is an altar.”  Those are words that have brought me great comfort through six moves and that bring me great comfort as I follow the Lord to a different corner of his Kingdom where another altar awaits me with different faces on the other side longing to be fed with the Word and the Eucharist.  But this first parish that I was blessed to lead and serve will always be so very close to my heart.  Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a pastor.  Pray for me and for your new pastor.  Like Peter, now I must pick my cross and continue this priestly journey that began 12 years ago and has had many stops.  Where am I going now?  Wherever the Lord needs me.  All things change, but thankfully God never changes….

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Prendete e Mangiatene

“Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you…For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:53, 55-56)

Last week when I was in Italy, I entered countless churches, cathedrals, and basilicas.  All of them were works of art, yet beyond the artistic treasures they contained, every time I walked into one of them, there was treasure that I looked for above all others:  the tabernacle.  For no matter how big or small the church, the greatest treasure it contained was reserved in that small box for in it was Jesus Christ himself.  Take St. Peter’s Basilica as an example.  If you have been inside St. Peter’s with it’s glorious architecture and marble floors, and Bernini’s altar, and the high decorated ceilings, you get lost in the immensity of that structure.  Or you just get plain lost.  There are so many people, most of them tourists, who are part of guided tours that are having the basilica explained to them.  They are taking pictures, posing for selfies with the statue of St. Peter, and as beautiful and wondrous and magnificent as this sublime edifice is…it is not a house of prayer.  That is, unless you go to a small chapel to your right tucked away near the tomb of St. John Paul II where tourists are not allowed to enter.  Two guards stand outside the chapel door to make sure you are going in to pray, and when you enter you find the Blessed Sacrament exposed in what is probably the most beautiful Blessed Sacrament chapel in the world.  There are two nuns keeping vigil up front.  There are maybe a dozen or so people inside, mostly priests and religious.  No photos, no tours, no talking.  Only silence in the presence of the Almighty, for he is really and truly present there.  That presence, His presence, is what we celebrate today on Corpus Christi.  Jesus fed us, nourished us, and stayed with us.

The only Mass that I did not celebrate alone last week was on the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua.  It is a big feast for Italians and I was invited to concelebrate with some Franciscan friars who insisted that I read the gospel in English but I declined fearing the “are you kidding me?” looks that I would get from the Italian faithful on such great a feast if they heard a foreign tongue.  When the words of consecration came, I was struck by the Italian translation of what I say every day: “Prendete e mangiatene tutti (take this all of you and eat of it.).”  The Italian word for “eat” is so much stronger and has so much more meaning within the Italian culture, “mangia,” for it not only means to eat, but it means to eat until one is full and satisfied.  I meditated on those Italian words for days.  This is what Jesus desires when we approach his altar:  that we are fed until we are full and satisfied.  The Israelites ate manna from heaven when they were in the desert, and at first they were satisfied, but then they longed for the food they had when they were still in Egypt.  Pope Francis in his Corpus Christi homily pointed out how foolish that was to desire “slave’s food.”  We are tempted today as well when the world tells us to nourish ourselves “with money, success, power, seems tasty at first—but those are a slave’s food,” says the Holy Father.  He tells us that we must ask, “Where do you want to eat? At the Lord’s table? Or the slave’s table?”  Jesus already told us which table we belong at when he told his disciples the night before he died, “I no longer call you slaves because a slave does not know what his master is doing.  I have called you friends (John 15:15).”  We must reject the food of slaves, the food of this world, the food that distracts us from realizing that we belong at the Lord’s table basking in his divine presence and eating until we are satisfied, for this is the source of true life.

There are so many who take the Mass for granted.  They forget that this must be the center of their week for it is the most important thing they will do all week.  On Sundays, when I go to post a homily or a verse from the readings, I see friends of mine posting pictures of what they are doing with their Sundays instead of going to Mass with the hashtag “#SundayFundays.” I have never used the word “hate” during one of my homilies, and I won’t start now, but I DESPISE that hashtag.  Sunday is the Lord’s day!  It is the day where all of our activities should be centered around our attendance at Mass so we can be fed because if we are not fed, here is what Jesus has to tell us in today’s gospel: “unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (John 6:55).”  No life.  Plain and simple.  We need to be fed!  Sure, have all the fun on Sundays that you want.  It is a day of rest.  It is a day of fun.  But the fun starts here!  At this table.  In this church.  In His Presence.  Anything else and we are deceiving ourselves and eating from the slave’s table.  We get seduced by laziness and by all sorts of excuses that we make as to why we don’t go to Mass.  Examples:  the priest is boring, the choir stinks, the people are rude, etc.  Excuses that bind us to the table of slaves when all we need and all we long for is what we are fed.  This may sound flippant, but over the last month people have been asking me who is going to replace me and I have responded, half-kidding and half-matter of factly, “a priest.”  That is all we need up there:  a priest that will act in the person of Christ and make that Christ present to us in the Eucharist.  We need this nourishment because Jesus also promises us in the next verse that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him (verse 56).”  We walk around this earth aimlessly looking for life, fulfillment, peace and joy when all we have to do to get all of these is to walk into a church on Sunday.  Stop deceiving yourselves.  Embrace the gift that Christ gave us which was the gift of his very self in this Eucharist and hold it above all other treasures.  Let us look for His Presence.  Let us fed by His hand until we are satisfied.  Let us, like Jesus, become a gift for others, and let us take that gift of His presence out into the world.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Renewed, Refreshed, Recreated

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”  (Acts 2:4)

Allow me to borrow a page from Pope Francis’ playbook and offer three points on this Pentecost Sunday about the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit that is gifted to us by our Lord Jesus Christ as our Advocate here on earth rains down upon on us this day to renew, refresh and recreate us.

The Spirit renews.  I published in the bulletin today a prayer that every Christian should say daily.  “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.  And you shall renew the face of the earth.”  90 days ago, we began a journey with Jesus at the beginning of Lent as the Lord set out to make all things new.  50 days ago at his resurrection, He was made new to the point that even his disciples couldn’t recognize him.  So he breathed on them the Spirit so that they could go forth and make things new on the face of the earth with the power of the Spirit.  Today we are called to give our heart to God the Spirit to make us new as well so that we may set the world on fire with his love.  When we are renewed by the Spirit, we should be as unrecognizable as Jesus was after the resurrection because everyone will see something new in us.

The Spirit refreshes.  In the Pentecost sequence, there is a wonderful verse that reads, “You, of comforters the best; You, the soul’s most welcome guest; Sweet refreshment here below.”  The Spirit comforts us in our afflictions.  He brings us solace in times of trail.  One of the prayers in the Mass today says that our soul cries out for the Spirit because we long for the presence of God in our lives.  And finally, when we need rest, when we are parched, when our soul needs soothing, the Spirit comes to offer us “sweet refreshment.”  Like a cold glass of lemonade when we come in out of the sun on a hot summer’s day, the Spirit quenches our thirst for God in a way nothing else can.

The Spirit recreates.  Here we think of recreation as a diversion when we should look at it as re-creation.  The Spirit comes to create something new.  As school has ended and summer has begun, we think of times we will spend this summer in traditional recreation, but how much time will we dedicate to spiritual re-creation with the Spirit as our guide?  We are called this Pentecost Sunday to be recreated in God’s image and likeness; more specifically to be just like Jesus.   This is what this life giving Breath of God seeks to create in each and everyone of us.

I want to end with two examples of priests that received the power of the Holy Spirit at ordination and that impacted me in a special way this past week.  Last night, I had the honor of concelebrating the “Farewell Mass” of the pastor of the first parish I was assigned to who is retiring at the end of the month.  He taught me in my early days of what it meant to be a priest.  He is a model of what a pastor should be.  In his homilies, he always likes to play with words and notice how I used three words in this homily that begin with the prefix “re.”  Well, last night this wise pastor rejected the use of the word “retire” because if you break it down with its prefix it implies just getting tired over and over again.  He prefers the word, which is more commonly used in Spanish, that he is going on jubilee.  There is more of a sense of joy in that word because as we embark on our “jubilee,” we can look back on the work we have done for the Lord with joy and realize that we are still called to labor, albeit more limitedly, in his vineyard until he calls us home.  This is what happened to another priest I worked with in one of my former parishes in Broward.  A retired priest that came down form New York state for health reason and ended up being an integral part of the parish he helped out at.  He would say Mass every Sunday and once or twice during the week.  He would regularly visit the school and CCD children and say Masses for them, help out with confessions, and pretty much lived an “unretired” life.  He always said that when he celebrated his 50th anniversary two years ago that he would cut back on his workload and only come by every now and then.  I knew, as most of the parishioners did, that he would not do this.  He got ill a couple of weeks ago and last Thursday night he really entered his life of jubilee when he was called home by the Father.  These two men are examples that the Spirit is at work in our lives up until the end.  We will never be finished products here on earth.  We will only be brought to completion when we enter the presence of God.   In the meantime, we are called to live a life filled with the Spirit that prompts us to work tirelessly for the Lord to renew, refresh, and recreate the face of the earth with the power of the Spirit that rained down on the apostles on that first Pentecost Sunday and that we pray rains down on us each and every day.  May these two great priests, one at the end of his life and the other at the end of his official ministerial life, hear the words that are uttered at the end of today’s sequence, and may we hear them one day as well:
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end.  Amen.  Alleluia.

Come Holy Spirit, come!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

With Us Always

“And behold, I am with you always…” (Matthew 28:20)

What a comforting promise the Lord gives us at the end of today’s gospel.  This week, many of you came and participated in our 40 Hour Devotion of Adoration to the Blessed Sacrament.  Our Lord was present in our chapel and was never alone.  The amount of people that came, especially in the overnight hours, was incredible.  On Friday night, when I gave Benediction and reposed the Lord, I told everyone present that now that we had concluded the 40 Hour Devotion and enjoyed his presence among us, we had to take his presence into the world.  This is, in part, what we celebrate today with the Solemnity of the Ascension.  Cardinal Dolan tweeted this week, that “today we are not celebrating Jesus leaving us—what we are celebrating is that He remains with us always!”  Despite leaving the sight of the disciples, he promises his presence.  The problem for us is that we often forget that he walks with us in our journey.

So many of us have walked into this church today with problems and stress and anxieties.  We often complain that God has abandoned us.  He’s not there.  He has forgotten us.  But right there at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew is a promise:  “I am with you always.”  God, by his very nature, cannot lie.  He assures us of his presence, and this should be of tremendous comfort to us.  Therefore, as I have invited you to do before, cast off your problems and place them in the hands of our Lord.   Today he becomes our Great Mediator.  He will take on your burdens.  He will walk with you in your troubles.  He is with us especially in this Eucharist.  We need his presence because we cannot journey through this life alone. During my last Mass today, I asked the people if we could take on our problems on our own, and a little girl sitting to my left vigorously shook her head NO!  If a little girl can figure out how much we need God’s presence in our life, why can’t we?  Probably because we like to be independent.  We like to do things on our own.  Except that life has taught me all too well that whenever I set off on my own, I end up falling flat on my face.  But there is Jesus dusting me off, picking me up, and pointing me in the right direction.  Give your troubles to Jesus this day. Do not walk out of here burdened.  Christ makes us free, and his presence gives us overwhelming peace as we all discovered during those 40 hours.

And when we carry no burden, we can act on that final command that Jesus gave his disciples to go to all nations to spread the Good News.  Essentially it’s to do what I told those gathered late Friday night:  once we surrender to our Lord, we can start to freely and joyfully share his presence with the world.  He is with us always until the end.