Sunday, August 31, 2014

At Home on the Cross

"Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God." (Rom 12:2)

Four year olds are some of the wisest people I have ever met.  They're honest, innocent, and can see right through your soul.  This past Monday, I was talking to a school mom who had her four year old little girl with her who all the sudden engaged me in the most profound conversation I had all week.

Girl: "Father! I know where you live!"
Me:  "Really? Where?"
Girl:  "One the cross!"
Me:  (Close my right eye, look up to the heavens and say) "Yea, that seems about right."

Maybe that little girl perceived something that other adults couldn't.  I had had a pretty lousy day up to that point.  I literally had left my office to avoid the work and messages on my desk to get some fresh air and recharge the batteries.  And then this little girl reminded me that the obstacles in the road that frustrate me and the people who try to take away my joy and the constant challenges we receive in carrying out God's plan are all things that Jesus predicted when he told us in today's gospel that we have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.  Carrying a cross is hard.  Being nailed to one is even harder.  So I guess that young 4 year old knew something that I had forgotten.  As a priest, as a Christian, if I am to be like Christ, it's not enought to simply carry the cross but be nailed to it as well.  Yes, that cross was a profound moment of agony for our Lord, but it was also the ultimate sign of victory over sin and death and the powers of this world.

As Christians, and I have said this before, the crucifix that we wear around our necks isn't just a piece of jewelry.  It is a witness.  It is a sign that we are followers of Jesus Christ.  It is a sign that we will not let this world bring us down but rather be a sign that we are called to lift this world up.  St. Paul tells the Corinthians that we must not conform ourselves to this age, to the world we are living in.  The Christian must be a sign of contradiction.  We should be swimming upstream when the rest of the world is swimming downstream.  We should not get caught up in this relativistic culture with it's "anything goes" mentality.  It's so easy to get swept up in sinful mentalities, in ideas that go against the will of God, or as Jesus tells Peter in the gospel, "thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."  And how do human beings think in this age?  Everyone wants to be happy but they go through extraordinary lengths, most of them sinful, to acheive momentary "happiness."  The thirst for money, fame and power.  The thirst for making one's self the center of attention.  The constant need to look after yourself with little to no regard for your neighbor.  'What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?"  Jesus knows that what most of the world seeks is not true life. That can only be found in Him.  And in here.  In this church.  At this altar.  With this community.  In our home.  This church is a home that many have forgotten or simply don't even know exists.  This is where we learn to swim upstream.  This is where we gaze upon that beautiful crucifix over our altar and realize that this is where we belong and that we will not find what we are looking for out there.

So my friends, heed the words of St. Paul and do not conform to this age.  Be signs of contradiction.  Take up your cross daily and follow Christ wherever he goes as he leads you towards the Father's perfect will.  Yes, there will be rough days when we feel like we are hanging up there on the cross with Jesus, but that's to be expected of those who dare to follow the Messiah.  Besides, we can't ask for better company up there, can we?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Home Sweet Home

"I will bring [foreigners] to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."   (Isaiah 56:7)

There is one word that I have heard constantly over the last seven weeks that you have all used to describe this magnificent parish: home!  Time and again people have come up to me or written to me and told me "Father, this is our home."  And a parish should be our home, should be a part of our lives, for it is in our home that we find our family.  Immaculate Conception is our home. For some it is has been their home since the parish was founded 60 years ago, for others, like me, we have felt the warm embrace of this family only recently when we arrived and from the beginning have felt very much at home.  This is because of all of you who make up this extraordinary family. 

Today the readings go out of their way to tell us that everyone belongs in God's house especially those who are foreigners and do not frequent this house.  This not an exclusive club.  In the first reading from Isaiah, the Lord says: "I will bring [foreigners] to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."  And this church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception must be a joyful house of prayer, a place where all feel welcomed, and a place where we all find peace.  Here we find peace along our tiring journey.  During the celebration of our 60th anniversary two months ago, Archbishop Wenski told us: "Our parishes, where the community of sojourners meet, are then like way stations along our pilgrim way. Immaculate Conception, of course, is much more than just a simple way station or rest stop: It is truly an oasis."  And this is why we feel this our home because it is indeed an oasis and a place where together we encounter Christ in the Eucharist in this magnificent house of prayer.

But as the great Burt Bacharach wrote so eloquently in song some 50 years ago: "a house is not a home when there's no one there."  There are so many of our brothers and sisters that have forgotten where home is.  They have forgotten that this is the place where they are loved, where they are forgiven, anointed, consecrated, and strengthened in their weakness.  Like the Canaanite woman in the gospel, this is where we find healing and peace.  It is up to us to remind them, to invite them back, and to show them that when we turn on 45th Place is like a yellow brick road that leads us back to our home. I need your help in bringing our brothers and sisters back home.   I am amazed at how many parishioners we have that live so far from here that still make the long journey to see that beautiful bell tower rise up over 45th Place because no matter where they go, Immaculate will always be home. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Where Do You Find God?

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
This summer I had the opportunity to travel more than I expected.  Everywhere I go, I try to find the presence of God.  I was in Italy where I saw the Pope and obviously felt the Spirit move in that square,  and then was able to celebrate Mass in the Vatican and in basilicas and very sacred places each serving as a different encounter with the Almighty.  I was in New York where in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, undergoing a major renovation, amidst all the scaffolding and workers, there was the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the main altar.  I spent a week at the beach with my family and every day as I gazed out over the water was a new reminder of how great God is during those glorious sunsets.  But out of all these magnificent places I visited over the summer, nowhere did I experience the presence of God more profoundly than I did when I visited Assisi two months ago.  There, where St. Francis first heard the voice of Jesus telling him to rebuild his Church, on the side of a hill overlooking a magnificent green valley, at the church of San Damiano, I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of peace that I had not felt in a very long time.  Yes, I feel peace every time I visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and when I pray and when I sit on the beach and watch the sunset as I listen to waves softly crashing on the sand, but there in that most sacred place, I was like Peter during the Transfiguration: I did not want to go.  It was there at San Damiano that I could not help but think about all of you, my future parishioners who at the time I had not met yet.  I kept thinking about the challenging mission that God set before me when I returned home.  But I was at peace.  It was as if Jesus was reminding me of his constant presence and telling me the same thing he told the disciples in the gospel today: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I’d like to think that the only thing that tore me away from the peace that I felt on that hillside was the running meter on the taxi that had taken us up and was waiting for us or else I would probably still be there.  They had told us that the small little church that St. Francis helped rebuild with his own hands would be closed, but when we arrived there were young people inside that little church worshipping the Lord with four Franciscan Friars who were adoring the Lord during Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.  “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”  When I had prayed for this parish, for all of you, and for my ministry, I reluctantly started to make my way down the path back to the taxi and saw a beautiful statue of St. Francis sitting on the ground overlooking that majestic valley.  It had been raining for most of the day, but now it was early evening, the sun was maybe an hour from setting and the valley looked serene.  One could imagine St. Francis sitting in that very spot contemplating creation which he so eloquently wrote about.  I did not want to leave because when you find God in a certain place, you want to stay with him and continue feeling the embrace of his peace.
The first reading today tells us of Elijah waiting for the Lord.  The prophet did not find the Lord in the earthquake or the violent wind or the fire, but found God in a tiny whispering sound.  We are surrounded by so much noise that it is very difficult to hear the whispers of our God.  This is why I ask you this morning: where do you find God?  Obviously we find him here in church, but Elijah found him in a whisper, the disciples found him amidst the storm walking on the water.  We must see past the storms of our lives to fix our eyes on Jesus as Peter did when he was actually walking on water like the Lord.  When we find God, when we train our eyes intently on him, we must never look away or become distracted by the lures of the world lest we begin to sink like Peter when he becomes more aware of the strong wind and the storms rather than realizing that Jesus is right there.  He never abandons us.  He gives us the strength to do the impossible.  All we have to do is find him amidst the storms of our lives and once we do, never let our eyes wander from the beautiful and protective gaze of our Savior.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Fed By His Hand (And Saturday Adventures in Hialeah)

“The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” (Psalm 145:16)

After one month of serving here, yesterday I finally received my first sick call, if for no other reason than there weren’t any other priests around.  We were blessed to have three priests visiting last month who helped out and covered all these duties because there were days were I would be focusing on administrative matters of the church and I world turn to my secretary and ask: “When do I get to be a priest?”  Well, yesterday, I grabbed my oils and drove down the road to visit a 92-year-old Cuban lady whose daughter had requested the last rites for her mother. This lady had just woken up when I arrived and when I walked in I asked her if she wanted to pray and she said yes.  She made the sign of the cross with me, said the Our Father with me, and listened attentively though at times I can see that her eyes and her attention would drift off.  When I was done with the visit, I said my goodbyes to her family, and this little old lady kind of sat up in her bed and asked, “Are you leaving already?”  I kind of teased her knowing what makes Cuban grandmothers tick and answered, “Do you want me to stay? Are you going to cook for me?”  Without missing a beat she belted out, “Whatever you want!”  Her nurse and her family shared a good laugh since she has been bed ridden for some time now, but her instincts were still to serve, to cook, to prepare a feast for family and visitors alike.  I remember that towards the end of both my grandmothers’ lives, what hurt them the most wasn’t their illness but their inability to serve their families and more importantly: to cook for them.

Today’s readings are all about food.  They would make my grandmothers and the lady that I anointed yesterday proud.  Jesus feeds us until we have our fill.  He is our Lord and Savior and he serves us!  Here at this altar we are fed from his hand as the psalm tells us.  Which brings me to another story about food and a priest’s hand that happened to me yesterday as well.  As many of you know, behind our school we have a convent of Discalced Carmelites Cloistered Nuns.  There are 11 of them who never leave the convent, and the priests here celebrate Mass for them twice a week.  Since they are cloistered, when I celebrate Mass there are a set of bars that divide us, and during communion they open a little window so that I can give them the Body of Christ.  After Mass yesterday, they had prepared breakfast for me.  Now I thought that they were going to have breakfast with me, but no, they prepared a little table for me on the other side of the bars of their gathering area and handed me my breakfast through a turnstile.  They make a mean hot chocolate by the way.  So these beautiful nuns just sat there watching me, eat and we talked about everything under the sun especially about the new, bigger convent that they are in the process of building in the Redlands (if you want to read more on this endeavor and how you can help them, click here:  I told them stories about the parish that they didn’t know and we shared some great laughs.  Before we knew it, 90 minutes had passed since I had sat down at the table.  Time is almost meaningless to these sisters.  They celebrate Mass and pray very slowly.  They’re never in a hurry whereas I always seem to be in a hurry.  Even though I didn’t want to leave, I feared that I was interfering with their daily schedule, so as I was taking my leave of them, they greeted me with the words, “Praise be Jesus Christ” and kissed my hand.  The Mother Superior held on to my right hand with great love and said to me, “When I was little girl in Mexico, my mother taught me to always kiss the hands of the priest to remind them that their hands are consecrated and that those are the hands that feed us.”

It’s amazing what happens to a priest when he leaves his office.  In fact, I believe I spent a grand total of 3 minutes in my office yesterday and it was only to retrieve personal mail.  Those experiences yesterday were humbling because they serve as a reminder that my primary mission as your pastor is to anoint and to feed you.  Pope Francis reminded us of this in his Holy Thursday homily last year.  Yet we are all called to be the hands of Jesus Christ.  We are called to feed our brothers and sisters especially those in need.  Every day Eucharistic Ministers go off to homes and hospitals to take the Body of Christ to the sick.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, our food pantry gives the poor families of our community food to put on their tables (by the way, they are running low on food so next time you’re at Publix or Sedano’s, pick up a couple of the items listed in our bulletin and drop them off in the office for our pantry.)  The food that comes down from heaven is meant to be shared, and God gives us an abundance of food because in the gospel all ate and were satisfied.  Today we must pray that we may hunger more for Him, that we heed his invitation to come to him to drink and to eat, and that we realize that we are called to feed those around us not only the poor, but also the poor in spirit that need to be fed the living word of God.  Which brings me to my last story:

The people in our neighborhood do not know Jesus Christ.  This was hammered home to me yesterday afternoon when I went to get a haircut after leaving the convent at a barber shop a couple of blocks away.  I walked in wearing my roman collar, but unbuttoned because so I could be confortable under the apron.  I asked for a simple haircut which is the same one I’ve basically had since I was 2 years old.  Yet the barber proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes sculpted the edges of my hair very carefully with trimmers and razors “to make my look younger” he said.  Finally as the time kept ticking away and I saw other customers walk in, get there hair cut and walk out, he finally asked me what I wanted him to do with my sideburns.  A little exasperated by now, I told him, “Dude, I’m a priest.  I’m not trying to impress anyone with my hairstyle.”  He looked at me funny as if he didn’t understand what I was saying.  When I finally got up, I purposely went to the mirror and buttoned my top button and put on my collar in plain view of everyone.  The barbers looked perplexed, not knowing what to make of me, and I walked out wondering if they even knew what a priest was.  But it didn’t end there, as I drove to the end of the strip mall, there was a carwash and I rolled my window down to ask how much it cost so I could bring it on Monday.  The guy told me to bring it tomorrow (Sunday) since they are open at 8am.  I kind of made sure that my collar was visible and told him that I kinda work on Sundays.  He kept insisting that I bring it it on Sunday morning, and finally I grabbed my collar by its white tab and I said, “DUDE! I am a priest!  I work on Sundays.”  He gave me the same perplexed look that my barber gave me.  If they don’t know Jesus Christ, they definitely don’t know anything about the Church ,which means they probably know nothing about priests.  My friends, it is up to us.  God is calling us to feed those around us in this very neighborhood.  May our response to God’s call be like that little old lady that I visited yesterday who without hesitation responded to my call saying, “Whatever you want!”  (And rest assured I’ll be at the carwash tomorrow morning patiently waiting for my car with a Roman Collar on.  Who knows?  I may even wear my cassock.  Takin it to the streets!)