Sunday, May 29, 2016

Taking Jesus to the Front Lines

"You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek." (Psalm 110:4)

On this Corpus Christi Sunday which happens to fall on Memorial Day Weekend, I wanted to tell you about the life of a fascinating priest, Fr. Emil Kapaun.  He was born in Kansas and was ordained a priest there when he was 24 and assigned to the small parish church where his parents were married and where he was baptized.  In 1944, he enlisted in the army and did a brief stint in the service and then re-enlisted later on during the Korean War.  Fr. Kapaun was sent to the front lines and that's exactly where he went.  He rode around in his jeep seeking out soldiers to celebrate Mass for them on the hood of his jeep.  He would not wait for the soldiers to come back from battle so they could receive the Eucharist in a secure setting.  No, he went and put himself in harm's way so he could take Jesus into the most evil of places: a war zone. The enemy would steal his jeep and his Mass kits but he trudged on commuting on a bicycle of all things.  Fr. Kapaun was known to not retreat when an order was given and his forces were being overrun by the enemy.  Instead, he would go into the teeth of a battle to try and rescue or give last rites to as many soldiers as he could. During was one of these battles the good father was caught by the enemy and told to process to the nearest prisoner's camp.  Not far from where he was caught, Master Sergeant  Herbert Miller was wounded in the battle and was trying to avoid capture by placing the corpse of another dead soldier on top of him, but an enemy soldier caught him.  Since Master Sergeant Miller was not healthy enough to walk to the prisoner's camp he was going to be executed right there on the field of battle, that is until Fr. Kapaun arrived and pushed the enemy soldier's rifle aside and literally picked Miller up.  They both then proceeded to make the 80 mile "Tiger Death March" as they called it and for many of those miles, this priest carried Master Sergeant  Miller on his back. Once they arrived at the prison camp, Fr. Kapaun started to tend to his fellow POWs.  He would take his own blanket and fashion socks out of it so that his fellow soldiers would be protected from the harsh winter that they were enduring.  He would steal food to give to starving soldiers with no care for his own well being.  He would lead the soldiers in prayer and now and again, no one knows how, he would celebrate the Eucharist literally bringing heaven to hell on earth.  But the winter and the food deprivation would soon catch up with Fr. Kapaun as he too would one day get sick.  The enemy soldiers came to take him away to the "hospital" which the POWs referred to as the dying room because none of their fellow soldiers ever returned from there.  As his fellow POWs were forced to carry this saintly priest away, Fr. Kapaun assured them that he was going to a better place and he blessed his captors and said to them the same words Jesus used on the cross: "Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do." On May 23, 1951, at the age of 35, Fr. Kapaun died and was subsequently buried in a mass grave in North Korea. 

Three years ago, the President posthumously awarded Father Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor and presented it to his nephew.  Sitting in the first row of the East Room of the White House for this presentation was Master Sergeant Herbert Miller who was able to hold the medal even for a few moments of a priest he would call his hero. Fr. Kapaun: that is a priest!  In 1993, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him a "Servant of God" and hopefully one day he will be canonized because can you think of a better example of a saint?  He risked his life to bring the presence of Christ to others!  Risked his life to celebrate the Eucharist in some of the most unthinkable places.  Like Jesus in the gospel who saw the hungry crowds, he fed the starving POWs from what little he had with no regard for his own life.

This morning, I came across this quote from Benedict XVI that says: "The Eucharist, therefore, heaven comes down to earth, the tomorrow of God descends into the present and it is as if time remains embraced by divine eternity."  Fr. Kapaun and so many military priests do just that by celebrating the Eucharist on the hoods of jeeps, on the empty helmets of soldiers, on makeshift altars on the field of battle, and in doing so they quite literally bring heaven to our men and women in uniform who are fighting for our country.  Now Fr. Kapaun and so many who gave their lives on the altar of freedom remain "embraced by divine eternity."  We look upon the Eucharist today, here in this church, and think about so many who are celebrating Mass like us but on battlefields, air craft carriers, refugee camps, warships, military bases, and we join with them, in a way that only the Eucharist can join us, in praying for all those who gave their lives for their country.  Men like Fr. Kapaun, a priest forever!  Like his Savior, he endured torture on this earth, but loved so much that he gave his life for his friends.  He celebrated the Eucharist and because Eucharist for others.  Fr. Kapaun, pray for us!

For a quick and moving video of Father Emil Kapaun, click here:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Life Outside the Trinity (Ode to Eleanor Rigby)

“…the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

Last week during the homily of my morning Mass, I lamented about the parents and godparents that were present that morning to take their baptismal class and join us for Mass and pleaded for them to return to church today.  (This didn’t make it into the written version of last week’s homily, but it happened.)  I thought about those parents and godparents all week, particularly at the beginning of the week.  They go through the motions of having their child baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity that we celebrate today, and yet they do not know how profound this step they are taking is. Every month I see them walk into church as if they had never set foot in a church before and my heart breaks for them but especially for their children who probably will not experience the joy of regular Sunday Mass. On Tuesday while I was doing some reading, I had a Beatles album playing in the background when all of the sudden I stopped when I heard: “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”  They are the opening words to “Eleanor Rigby.”  I’ve heard this song hundred of times with its religious imagery, but this week it spoke to me on a deeper level: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”  I heard McCartney singing about the lonely people and all I could think of were these new parents who are starting out their children’s lives without the much-needed compass that is Jesus Christ.  I stared out at them last Sunday and saw loneliness, bewilderment, apathy, boredom.  If only they knew that they are called to live in a life of communion just like the interior life of the Holy Trinity.  The Trinity is community and communion.  God does not want us to be lonely: “it is not good for man to be alone.”  Yet we subject ourselves to this loneliness fearful of what change communion might bring if we are forced to interact with the brothers and sisters that God has placed around us.

“Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been…” This song is about loneliness.  I read up on its origins last week.  It was written by Sir Paul with some great input from John and George, but it reflects in a way McCartney’s own upbringing as a Catholic.  Shame that he saw religion as such a lonely venture.  It’s far from it.  The protagonist along with the parish priest live unspeakable lonely lives: “Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.  No one comes near. Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there What does he care?”  And at the very end of this brief song, the lives of these two lonely souls intersect in a tragic verse: “Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came. Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave No one was saved.”  Well that does tend to happen when we live outside of communion and community.  There are so many who wander into church by themselves out of routine, habit or just plain guilt, not knowing what they are looking for, yet what their hearts truly desire lies in the heart of God himself: Father, Son and Spirit.  We worship a God who is constantly communicating his love for us.  “Everything that the Father has is mine;” Jesus tells us in the gospel today,  “for this reason I have told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:15).”  The way the Trinity works, the way the Father shows his love for us is by giving what is rightfully his Son’s and giving it to us through the Holy Spirit therefore drawing us into a deeper relationship with Him.  

But this also implies reaching out to see who else we are in communion with.  All of us share a divine bond when we receive the Body of Christ every Sunday, yet some barely look up to acknowledge the brother or sister sitting next to us or near us who take communion with us.  Ah look at all the lonely people…  Last Sunday after I went on the tangent with the baptism parents, a very kind lady approached me after to Mass to thank me for those words and to tell me that this wasn’t the only problem I had in my parish.  She had just gone to kneel before the image of Our Lady of Fatima that is present on our sanctuary during the month of May, and this lady knelt down in the first pew in front of the image of our Blessed Mother to pray two decades of the rosary.  She was in prayer when a gentleman that was arriving for the next Mass interrupted her to saw that she couldn’t be there because that was his seat, his pew. Ah look at all the lonely people…  It took every ounce of grace that comes from on high for me not to go over to that poor soul and kick him out of the church for being everything a Catholic should not be.   Thankfully, this kind lady who was radiating holiness, probably because of the two decades she prayed to Mary, prevented me from confronting the gentleman and to quote another Beatles song, she just told me to “let it be.”  Ah look at all the lonely people…  Attitudes likes this are what prevent communion and keep turning our churches, well into churches like the one where poor Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby serve.  I look upon the lost souls who wander in and out of our church without allowing themselves to be truly engaged with their brothers and sister and drawn into true communion with a Trinitarian God who has poured out his love for them, and I weep.  Unlike Father McKenzie, I truly care.  

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?   All the lonely people, where do they all belong?  The song ends abruptly on those two questions.  We know the answer to both.  Our people come from places where faith is not a priority, but it is our responsibility to share it with them.  And where do they belong?  Well, right here.  Sitting around this table sharing in the communion that comes from a God who is One and Three.  This morning Pope Francis said in his Angelus address: “The feast of the Holy Trinity invites us to engage in the daily events to be the leaven of communion, of consolation and of mercy.”  Communion, consolation, mercy:  all come from God and all are solid cures for loneliness.  Loneliness is born from a life lived outside of the Holy Trinity.  So I continue to gaze out the window, out beyond this pulpit and altar, and out beyond my church doors staring at strangers who aren’t supposed to be strangers walk in and out of this church and wondering and praying for them as those chilling words play in the back of my head like a haunting lament: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?   All the lonely people, where do they all belong? 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Dreaming About the Impossible

“Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”  (Psalm 104:30)

This past Wednesday, I went over to our convent to celebrate Mass for the anniversary of my priestly ordination, and right before I entered their chapel to begin the Mass, I noticed a banner that was hanging in the hallway that read: “One kneels conscious of one’s nothingness and rises a priest forever.”  All of this happens because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that takes place during the laying on of hands.  I knew how unworthy I was to even be called to this ministry.  I knew I had failings and flaws.  Yet, I knew and trusted in the power of the Spirit to transform me into the priest that God wanted me to be.  “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”  God took a young, very ordinary, shy kid, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, ordained him a priest forever.

Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit into the world to make the ordinary extra-ordinary.  The Spirit comes to renew all of us and to help us be authentic witnesses of Christ’s message.  We are not called to be ordinary.  We are called to be divine.  This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  Yet, we have to understand and be open to this divine calling because too often we settle for mediocrity when it comes to being a follower of Christ.  With the Spirit in us, we need to start transforming the world.  This morning, I saw this image on Twitter from Catholic Relief Services that depicted a picture of a dry, barren landscape somewhere in Africa with a hungry child walking in the background.  It was an image of despair, of hunger, of thirst, of desperation.  The caption of the picture was today’s psalm response: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”  Sometimes we are that parched, dry, barren, thirsting land, but we need to recognize that we too are barren and must welcome in the powerful, renewing force that is the Holy Spirit who brings that sweet dew, that refreshing rain, and the comfort and solace that we all seek.

The Spirit allows us to dream of what our spiritual lives can be and should be.  In a catechism from St. Cyril of Jerusalem that I published in the bulletin this weekend, the Church father teaches us that the Holy Spirit enables us “to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.”  We limit ourselves so much when it comes to our Christianity that we don’t dream anymore of what God wants us to be.  We confine ourselves to certain parameters when it comes to our religion and don’t dream about going outside of ourselves.  Pope Francis tweeted this morning: “Come, Holy Spirit! Free us from being closed in on ourselves and instill in us the joy of proclaiming the Gospel.” The apostles were huddled up in that little room when they received the Spirit on Pentecost, but they did not stay there.  They immediately went out to preach the Risen Christ; to dream of a world transformed by the Spirit they had just received.  And they did so with the courage that is a gift of the same Spirit.  Where is our courage?  What are our dreams for our spiritual life? 

I have but two simple dreams: holiness for myself and for my people.  I’m tired of mediocrity.  I’m tired of routine.  Today we call upon that Spirit to renew our relationship with Christ; to come down like a consuming fire and to eradicate all that is sinful within us so that we can renew the face of the earth.  The Spirit indeed helps us to cast off our old self to put on the armor of Christ needed to transform humanity.  When it comes to the spiritual life, dream big!  Dream of a Church guided by the Spirit that is sent forth by her Master to set the world on fire.  “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Looking for Peace / Talking to Mary

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)

Last weekend I was in the Washington, DC area for a wedding, and I spent my first night there on the campus of Catholic University.  The next morning I had to drive to southern Virginia for the actual wedding, but before leaving I wanted to pay a visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that was a block away from the dorm I stayed at.  I walked into this beautiful church to pray to the patroness of our parish, but half the sanctuary was blocked off for renovations.  As if guided by the very hand of God, I gravitated to a side chapel with a beautiful image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the patroness of Poland: the very same chapel that St. John Paul II had prayed in years before.  I thought to myself, “If it’s good enough for a pope and saint then it’s good enough for me.”  There was no one in the chapel.  I lit a candle for the couple I was about to marry and for the intentions of my parishioners, and then I moved to the kneeler at the base of the altar and knelt before Our Lady.  I must confess that as soon as I feel to my knees, every problem, every worry, every bit of stress, any cross that I had been carrying simply disappeared.  I felt as if I was an infant being held and consoled by my mother, except this time it was the Mother of God.   So many problems and worries I had been carrying, so much stress and worries about things to come, but in that beautiful moment, they were all gone.  It was just Mary and I praying to her Son together: a moment of absolute peace.

Peace is at the heart of today’s gospel because Jesus wants us to experience divine peace.  It is so elusive, so difficult to keep, yet we yearn for it, search for it, and hunger and thirst for it.  Yes I had to travel to our nation’s capital to find this peace and be reminded that in my prayer life, I have to break out of monotony and routine especially when it comes to the spiritual life.  A friend of mine posted a beautiful quote last week that said: “Make it a routine to break the monotony.”  This is a variation of something a spiritual director once told me: “Beware of routine in the spiritual life.”  So we need to find those moments, those places, and yes, even those people that bring us peace.

I was telling this story of my experience in the Basilica to a brother priest this week, and he reminded me of the importance of us talking to Mary in our prayer life.   Beyond the rosary and devotions, this past week since returning, I have found great peace kneeling before the image of the Immaculate Conception to the left of our main altar as I have kneeling before the tabernacle.  Today we begin the month of Mary and we are called to rekindle this friendship we have with our Blessed Mother who is the Queen of Peace.  And when we find that peace that Jesus and his Mother are offering, we are called to share it, to plant it, to sow it and to hold on to it.  Jesus reminds us in the gospel that we will not find this peace out in the world.  However, we will find it here in his house dedicated to his Mother where we come to worship every Sunday, where we come to find that peace that we may have lost during the week, where we come to feel that divine embrace that reminds us that we are loved, forgiven, protected, and saved.  “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you.”