Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Steps of St. Paul's

“…humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.”

Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey…they were all an afterthought to me.  More than anything else on this trip to London, I wanted to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral and sit at her steps.  Those who remember my homily during the Feast of the Holy Family last December will know why (  The song “Feed the Birds” takes place there.  Alas there was no Bird Woman. There weren’t many birds either, but the steps and that giant, iconic dome that survived the Blitz in the war still spoke to me as the song does.  The little things, the small acts of charity, looking out not for my own interests, but as St. Paul writes in the second reading, looking out for the interests of others: those are the lessons from that song and of the steps of St. Paul’s.

In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us again that the less favored ones in society are the ones that will enter the kingdom of God before the so-called righteous ones of the earth.  I didn’t have much time to sit and reflect on those steps, but when I was in my room that evening looking over the pictures I took, I started thinking of the less favored among us: the poor, the sick, the homeless, the immigrant, the old, the depressed, the unborn, the forgotten.  These are the ones that we must humbly regard as more important than ourselves.  These are the ones we have to feed, shelter, visit and remember.  Small acts of charity to the least in God’s kingdom can go a long way.  Something as simple as a phone call, a card, a visit, a smile can maybe remind someone how much God loves them and how much we love them.  So while I enjoyed seeing the great monuments in the city of London, it was the simplicity of the steps of St. Paul’s that moved me the most because of what they symbolize to me: simple charity goes a long way.  As Blessed Mother Teresa reminds us: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bringing Everyone Home

“Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. “ (Isaiah 55:7)

It doesn’t matter how late you came to the party.  What matters is that you came to the party.  So many people feel left out when they come to Church.  I notice this.  Pope Francis notices this.  I’ll get back to the Holy Father later.  In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable of people that are invited to work in his vineyard at different stages, yet all receive the same wage or the same blessings.  Again, it doesn’t matter when in your life you encounter the living Christ as you long as you have that life altering, eternal encounter.  Yet many people go through life oblivious to this man called Jesus.  This past week, the priests of the Archdiocese gathered for our annual convocation with the Archbishop, and one priest was telling us of a similar experience that I preached to you about a month or so ago, that we walk down the streets with our Roman Collars on and people don’t know who we are.  They look upon us with curiosity, with confusion, and don’t equate the collar with a follower or priest of Jesus Christ.  Yet we try to bring people back home to the Church so that they may experience the same blessings that we enjoy, for all of us are God’s children and heirs to his kingdom.

Today we celebrate Catechetical Sunday and later on I will commission and send forth our wonderful catechists who dedicate their time to pass on the faith to our children.  The theme for this year’s Catechetical Sunday is “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.”  I am convinced that this is what people need to hear.  They need to experience a forgiving God and this is where Pope Francis comes in as I alluded earlier.  Last year, he was speaking to the Brazilian bishops and pondering on why people leave the Church or don’t come to Church at all.  He compared these people to the disciples of Emmaus who left Jerusalem despondent after the death of Christ with no hope in the resurrection.  They believed that Christ’s mission was a failure.  And maybe people think that about the Church, Pope Francis wonders: "Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas."  The workers that started their labor early in the morning were rigid in their thinking and could not comprehend that the owner of the vineyard would give those who started working late the same wage.  We need to change our way of thinking and start thinking as God does.  Like the owner of the vineyard we need to go out and encounter people where they are.  This is why the Holy Father concludes: "We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning."

But the thing is that Christianity is not barren, nor fruitless soil, nor incapable of generating meaning.  All of you are here on this Sunday morning because you want to be fed.  You want to experience God’s mercy and love and that is what I need to preach to all of you and what you need to share with your brothers and sisters.  The thing is: how do we do it?

Last Friday, the Archbishop was here in our parish along with our mayor to consecrate the City of Hialeah to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  It was a beautiful and significant Mass for our parish and for our city.  Right before the Mass started, a reporter from our Spanish Archdiocesan newspaper interviewed me and asked me, “What is your greatest challenge as pastor of Immaculate Conception?”  Without missing a beat I responded, “Getting the people out there to come in here.”  I went on to say that my church is surrounded by people who don’t know God.  They are good, hard working people, but they live their lives, as the Archbishop said on Friday, “as if God doesn’t matter.”  But God does matter and it is my mandate as pastor of this parish to communicate the love and forgiveness of God to people who don’t know Him.  Again, how do we do this?  Therein lies the great challenge of my pastorate.  I wish I could sit on the top of our bell tower and scream to the entire city the beauty of God’s mercy.  But Pope Francis is right.  We need to go to where they are and like Jesus encounter them in their journey.  And this is something that I have to improve on as I go into the streets and not be ashamed of engaging people when they look at me funny.  Case in point:

After the Mass on Friday night, I went to dinner with some friends down the street to a Cuban restaurant.  I was dressed in my clerical suit, and when I walked into the restaurant, as in my most places, I got clueless stares.  They sat us right in the middle of the restaurant in a table where I was surrounded by booths and I could clearly see everyone around me.  Maybe it is because I had just heard the Archbishop’s message of evangelization in Hialeah, but there came a moment where I had tuned out the conversation at my table and was looking around the room thinking:  “How do I get these people into my church?”  There was a part of me that wanted to go up to each booth and greet the people much like a politician does when he or she is running for office and goes into these places.  Did I do it? No.  Have I regretted is since Friday night?  Yes.   It’s very easy to preach the gospel inside these walls.  It’s a lot harder to preach it out there.  But that has to change.  It must change.   And it begins with me.  I always talk about “takin’ it to the streets” but at some point processions and clerical wear and invitations to church events can only go so far.  At some point, we have to talk about Jesus Christ and his mercy and love.  Witness.  Genuine witness, not proselytism as Pope Francis told catechists last year:   “Remember what Benedict XVI said: “The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.” And what attracts is our witness. Being a catechist means witnessing to the faith, being consistent in our personal life. This is not easy! We help, we lead others to Jesus with our words and our lives, with our witness. I like to recall what Saint Francis of Assisi used to say to his friars: `Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.’  Words come . . . but witness comes first: people should see the Gospel, read the Gospel, in our lives.”

This is our mission, which is why I’ll leave you with the same uneasiness that I have felt since Friday night: if you were in my shoes in that restaurant, what would you have done?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Power of His Presence

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus is always with us.  Jesus never abandons us.   Jesus is always at our side.  We believe this and we profess this, but when things get desperate in our lives, we are so quick to forget this.  When times are tough, we are so quick to ask: where is God?  Friday night, a friend called me after a having a bad day.  She is a woman of strong faith, daily Mass, prayer, but as happens to all of us every now and then, she was having a bad day.  I asked her if she had gone to Mass that day.  Yes.  I asked her if she had done her prayers that day.  Yes.  I asked her where her friends were because they are also strong in their faith, and they were scattered, and I thought of the last verse of today’s gospel.  Sometimes we just need to stop and pray with our friends, with our family, with those close to us because Jesus promises that he WILL be there.  What else do we need?

The readings today call us to be united to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  It is in this unity that Christ is found, and it is in this community that we experience divine love.  St. Paul speak beautifully about this in the second reading where he reminds us that in loving our neighbor we fulfill the law and God’s plan for us to look out for one another.  In loving our neighbor we become Christ for them.  And in that love, when fraternal correction is needed, as Jesus explains in the Gospel, then that correction will be embraced in love.  As I say constantly during weddings, we are responsible for each other’s salvation.  And it is through our neighbors and through those we love that we experience the presence of Christ.

My friend wasn’t the only one who had a bad day on Friday. Mine was not necessarily bad.  It was a rollercoaster, but throughout the day I kept getting reminders through others that Christ was at my side.  Early in the day, it was from the joy of my preschoolers when I walked into their classroom.  At the end of the day, it was from an elderly priest whom I had never even met.  He was here to celebrate our evening Mass because I had a school function, and I went over to the chapel to meet him.  When I entered the sacristy, this wonderful priest looks at me and joyfully said, “You’re the new pastor!” and embraced me with a father’s love.  We chatted briefly because Mass was about to start, and as he was about to turn away to go into the chapel he tells me, “Father, whatever you need, you can count on me!” Then this elderly priest did something that only my father and my mother still do to me to this day:  he traced the sign of the cross on my forehead and said “May God bless you.”  Yes, priests need priests too.  I was tired when I walked into that sacristy, and I left renewed because I had experienced Christ in this priest that I had never met who was so happy to meet me.  This is the love that St. Paul urges us to give to each other.  This is the love that brings the presence of Jesus Christ into our midst.  These small acts of love and kindness can make a difference in the life of someone who is down, who is sick, who is alone, who is desperate, or is just having a bad day.  Always remember that you walk out of this Church every Sunday with the living presence of Christ in your hearts.  Share it with someone in need this week because where two or three are gathered together in His name, Jesus Christ our Lord is right there with you.