Sunday, September 25, 2016

Jose Day

(I had prepared a much different homily for this morning, but as has been the case so many times this year, tragedies overnight and the mood of the congregation had me make some last minute changes.  My parishioners and I were very affected and distraught at the tragic news of the unexpected death of the Marlins star Cuban pitcher, Jose Fernandez.  Grown men came up to me crying before Masses this morning (read here for a brilliant explanation of why they shed those tears:   So I applied Jose’s short but joyous life to my homily and here we go…)

“Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.” (Luke 16:26)

The parable that Jesus presents us with today is nothing short of tragic.  The selfishness of the rich man is what condemns him.  He cannot see past the end of his nose to see the poor man at his footsteps.  Selfishness is at the root of all sin and it consumes this rich man.  A couple of years ago, I was on retreat and during confession I was being particularly hard on myself and telling the confessor of how selfish I felt I was being at the time as a priest.  I kept outlining small examples until the confessor stopped me and said, “Ok, Father, stop.  You’re a priest, aren’t you?  Ok, so you’re not perfect!  You’ve given your life over to God and to his people.  You are not as selfish as you paint yourself out to be.”  (That’s the sign of a good confessor.  He lifts you up after you crawl into the confessional with your self-esteem in shambles.)  So many of us have Lazarus’ near us, and they don’t necessarily have to be poor for us to ignore them.  We just have to simply ignore them.  That is not the sign of a good Christian.  It creates an abyss between them and us as big as the one that Abraham describes in the parable.  God made all of us in his image and likeness, but too often our selfish ways get in the way of simply reaching out to our neighbor, to the person right next to us, possibly even the person sitting next to us in the pews.  This is why there is no peace in the world.  We don’t reach out to the other.  Peace begins with you and with me.  We have to do better.  We have to reach out and always think of the other first.  Total selflessness must be the hallmark of all Christians.

This morning we gather with heavy hearts after learning of the death of young Jose Fernandez.  I did not know him personally, but when I saw him pitch at the stadium or on TV, he just exuded pure joy.  It was contagious.  And while I will refrain from canonizing him today, there are two things from his all too brief life that stand out to me as supreme acts of selflessness that help bring the lesson of today’s gospel to life.  Jose made three unsuccessful attempts to escape the oppressive regime in Cuba and come to this country by boat before he finally set foot on American soil.  During one of those attempts fleeing Cuba, a passenger on his boat was thrown overboard.  Jose, who was all of 16 at the time, and not knowing who it was, dove into the water to rescue that passenger who turned out to be…his mother!  Such a young man risked his life to save a fellow passenger not knowing who it was.  Selfless!  The second thing that stands out to me about him was what kind of player he was.  He was the consummate teammate.  He rejoiced in his teammates’ successes.  There are a lot of baseball coaches here this morning and baseball moms and dads, and you all know that major league pitchers when they are removed from a game because they are performing poorly usually go to the clubhouse and aren’t seen again.  Not Jose.  Jose would always stay till the last out was recorded.  He would go crazy when his teammates won a game for him or won any game period.  I worked in professional sports for five years.  Professional athletes can be extremely selfish people.  Thankfully I worked with some very fine men.  Jose Fernandez was the antithesis of the American professional athlete.  Selfless.  Always putting the other first.  Like when he dove into the unforgiving sea to rescue his mother.  Like when he took the time between innings while he was recovering from injury to answer the question of a nosy priest that was sitting four rows from the dugout and yelled at him, “Jose, comó está el brazo? (how’s the arm?)”  He gave me a thumbs up and flashed that big radiant smile that lit up that entire stadium.  He meant so much more to our Cuban exile community that celebrates those who flee tyranny and excel when they reach our free shores.  Yes, our hearts are heavy this day as we mourn a young man we never met.  But we can draw lessons from his selflessness and commend his soul to the Lord and pray for his mother and grandmother, his girlfriend and his unborn child.  Whenever Jose would pitch, the team would call it “Jose Day.”  That theme would be used whenever he brought joy in visiting a school or taking a picture with a stranger or answering a crazy priest’s question.  Selfless.  That’s what Jose Day meant.  May every day be Jose Day.  May we bridge the abyss that divides us from those we alienate because we are not selfless, and may we bring some joy, some life, some simple Christian charity to those who are closest to us because sometimes those are the ones that need the love of God the most…and we never know when they can be taken from us and called home.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon him.

May the soul of Jose andante his two friends and of all the faithful departed rest in the peace of Christ.  Amen.

P.S. After I posted my homily, I got this message about Jose from a family member from the "Live Like Bella" Foundation:
"Jose really was a special and selfless person. He helped and supported many causes. Shortly after Bella died of her horrific battle with cancer, Jose won Rookie of the year and because he was inspired by Bella's story he gave his $20,000 check to the Live Like Bella Foundation. He was a great advocate in helping to fight Childhood Cancer. He was a board member that continued to do what he could to help the children w cancer. Today's game was suppose to promote Childhood Cancer Awareness. One of his last tweets was about joining the team and fighting childhood cancer. People have been donating $16 his number in his memory all day."