Sunday, November 27, 2016

A New Advent

For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)

Something or rather someone is coming.  Something new is happening.  Advent literally means “coming” in Latin, and we begin this Advent with something new, something unexpected, something that is affecting many of us and that we’re still trying to make sense of.  Around 12:45am on Friday night/Saturday morning, I knew I had to scrap my homily for this weekend because something had changed.  I felt like this massive cloud that had been hovering over my family for five decades had finally been lifted, and we were finally given room for hope.

A little background:  my grandparents and parents fled Cuba during the Freedom Flights in the summer of 1968.  They went through many hardships, and left many loved ones behind.  I have family members from Havana to the eastern province of the island that I have never met.  When I was born 7 years later, my grandparents and parents instilled in me three great loves: love of God, love of Cuba, and love of this country who took them in with open arms.  With the love of Cuba came stories of what they left behind.  I could see pain in my grandparents’ eyes when they talked about their homeland and the tyrant who forced them to leave the land of their birth.  Hope gave way to resignation.  Faith was always present, but I’ll never forget an animated conversation my two grandfathers and my father were having 30 years ago.  They were talking about this man who had taken so much from them, and my father reached the conclusion that the Cuba they left behind no longer existed.  That was 30 years ago. One by one, my four grandparents started dying.  Each time I lamented that they never returned to see their homeland free especially my maternal grandmother who worked so hard to keep our family here and there united even with 90 miles of shark infested waters that separated us; waters that one of my cousins traversed in a raft during two weeks in which we didn’t know if she was dead or alive.  And like my grandparents, I buried so many patriots who longed to see their homeland free.

So how did I feel during those early Saturday morning hours?  I wept.  I felt empty that my grandparents weren’t there for that moment.  I didn’t celebrate that a man was dead.  I kept thinking about my grandparents and all the victims of this man who have suffered so much.  I had been waiting for this day my whole life thinking that I would feel unrestrained joy.  What I felt was relief, I guess, that this dark cloud was gone.  I felt hope.  The hope that should fill every Christians but a hope that I felt was fleeting for our people for far too long.

We begin this Advent, this preparation of the coming of the Lord Jesus, with this new feeling of hope.  We hear the prophet Isaiah today talking about the mountain of the Lord being established as the highest mountain.  These are the things the Christian should dream about with Christ by our side.  Dreaming that the impossible may soon become possible suddenly does not seem so insane.  So we put the darkness behind us and walk towards Christ’s wondrous light as the wise men did two millennia ago.  Salvation for us, and I firmly believe, salvation for my people “is nearer now than when we first believed” as St. Paul tells us.  Night is advanced.  The day is close at hand.  Christ is coming to reign in our hearts.  He does not come to oppress but to liberate us.  He comes to show us the way to the Father.  But as the gospel reminds us, we must be awake for at an unknown hour the Son of Man will come.  So it is with the end of times, and so it is when our time comes.  And for one man, his time has come, and as it will be for all of us, he must be judged by our Lord and not by us.

In the meantime, we embrace the dawn that is fast approaching.  Night is advanced.  Day is close at hand.  We pray for all those who have suffered over the last half-century, for all those imprisoned, drowned, assassinated, beaten, or incarcerated souls and for all those families that have been divided.  As our Archbishop reminded us in his homily last night, the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba unites us all and stays close to her people and brings them closer to the heart of her son.  She is the model of hope as we dare to hope again.  And finally, she is the one who teaches us that great Advent prayer which takes on new meaning this day:  “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

100 Thanks 2016

100 Thanks 2016

So much to be thankful for this year that I don’t think 100 was enough.  The Lord has been good to us, and because of his goodness we should always have a grateful heart.  As always, here are the 100 things I am thankful for this year:

  1. My Lord
  2. My Lord calling me to the priesthood
  3. My Lord allowing me to joyfully serve for almost 15 years as a priest
  4. My Immaculate family
  5. Being pastor to such a remarkable parish
  6. My mother who prays for me
  7. My father who continues to teach me
  8. My sister who continues to allow me to spoil her
  9. My brother who looks down on me from above and I know prays for his big brother
  10. My brother in law simply because he loves my sister
  11. My oldest nephew who has his father’s looks but his uncle’s wit ;)
  12. My middle nephew who I think is smarter than I am
  13. My youngest nephew who I KNOW is smarter than I am
  14. Everyone who prays for me
  15. All my many, many, many, many, many cousins
  16. My best friend
  17. All my friends
  18. My Friday night crew
  19. My brother priests
  20. Pope Francis and his call for mercy, mercy, and more mercy
  21. My school
  22. My students
  23. The health of a precious little girl called Zoey who continues to shine with God’s love and joy
  24. Having to say “hello” 50 times when I walk down the hallway when I hear “Hi Father Manny” said 50 times from my students who walk by me
  25. Friday religion classes
  26. 8th grade Thanksgiving lists
  27. Reading the 8th grade Thanksgiving list at Mass the day before Thanksgiving
  28. Pre-school playgrounds
  29. Teachers and their enduring patience
  30. Secretaries
  31. Business Managers
  32. Carnival Committees
  33. Carnival Committee meetings during Carnival
  34. Seeing my carline become a massive tailgate party during Carnival
  35. Super Bowl tailgates
  36. Fourth of July fireworks tailgates
  37. America: the ever evolving dream and great project
  38. Democracy with all its beauties and warts
  39. Our military and first responders who protect us
  40. Having spent five season as the Team Priest of the Miami Dolphins
  41. New York
  42. Yankee Stadium
  43. Broadway
  44. Former students on a Broadway Stage
  45. Former students performing in the Macy’s Parade (two years in a row!)
  46. Former students who live in New York and make time to have dinner with me
  47. Former students who make me travel for their weddings (I complain and then have a great time)
  48. Former students who are old enough now to offer me advice and wisdom
  49. The Florida Keys
  50. Kountry Kitchen breakfasts
  51. Florida Keys Sunsets
  52. Florida Keys Fishing
  53. Captiva
  54. Captiva fishing from the beach
  55. Rome Sweet Home
  56. Walking through the Holy Doors of all four Papal Basilicas this Holy Year
  57. Tablaos in Barcelona
  58. Pata Negra
  59. That Chapel in Montserrat
  60. Baths in Lourdes
  61. Walks in Nice
  62. The color of the water in Monaco
  63. San Damiano
  64. The peace of Assisi
  65. Beholding the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano
  66. The view of the Adriatic Sea from Monte Sant’Angelo
  67. Facebook Live from Europe
  68. The unexpected long walk from the Vatican to St. John Lateran
  69. The voice of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square during the Angelus
  70. Lunch in the Borgo Pio
  71. Gelato in the Piazza Novona
  72. The pain of the Scala Santa
  73. Actually sleeping on a Transatlantic flight
  74. The anticipation to walk in the Lord’s footsteps in the Holy Land next summer
  75. The Canonization of Mother Teresa
  76. Dancing partners
  77. That my sister still doesn’t let me lead
  78. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah
  79. My music director playing Rhapsody in Blue…in its entirety…on the piano…from memory
  80. Newborn babies
  81. Baptizing those newborn babies
  82. Watching those babies grow up to receive First Communion from my hands
  83. Watching those babies grow up to be Confirmed
  84. Waiting for the day when I get to witness the marriage of a child I baptized
  85. Or witness them become a priest or religious…now that would be something
  86. The intersection of Island and Mariner
  87. The friends that I call family that I don’t see often enough but still hold close to my heart
  88. Second moms on an island somewhere not too far away who I haven’t seen enough this year
  89. That they still pray for me
  90. That their children still seek my counsel
  91. Spending those last few hours with a dying child of God who is moments away from eternity
  92. Commending their souls to the Father
  93. Rescuing a soul from the depths of sin through the Sacrament of Confession
  94. Being rescued myself by God’s infinite mercy
  95. That God still loves us in spite of our sinfulness
  96. That perfect moment of silence after receiving Communion at Mass
  97. That after almost 15 years of being a priest, I still get nervous before each Mass
  98. That the Spirit is always with me to guide me, inspire me, and embrace me
  99. That Mother Mary looks over me
  100. That I am undeservedly a priest of Jesus Christ who gets to bring Him to you and you to Him

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

One Last Act of Mercy

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Today on the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Year of Mercy comes to its conclusion.  It was an exceptional year of grace that the Holy Father gifted us with, and we end it by hearing about one of the most exceptional acts of mercy our Lord ever did.  All year long, Pope Francis has been guiding us and challenging us to be a more merciful church, so before we meditate on this gospel passage, I want to outline the pope’s best tweets from the Year of Mercy.  Each on its own could fill a Holy Hour with meditation:

-God’s mercy toward us is linked to our mercy toward our neighbor.

-It is not enough to experience God’s mercy in one’s life; whoever receives it must also become a sign and instrument for others.

-God never tires of offering His forgiveness each time we ask for it.

-Mercy can truly contribute to the building up of a more humane world.

-An easy prayer to say every day: “Lord, I am a sinner: come with your mercy”.

-Mercy does not just mean being a “good person” nor is it mere sentimentality. It is the measure of our authenticity as disciples of Jesus.

-A merciful heart has the courage to leave comforts behind and to encounter others, embracing everyone.

-No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected.

-Mercy is the path uniting God with man, for it opens the heart to the hope of an eternal love

-Even in the worst situation of life, God waits for me, God wants to embrace me, God expects me.

That last quote goes to the very heart of today’s gospel.  Can you think of a worse situation than what the repentant thief found himself in on that first Good Friday?  We don’t know what he did.  We don’t know how grave his crime was.  We don’t even know if he did any good in his life.  But right there, on his cross, next to the crucified Lord, none of that mattered.  In the worst moment of his life, he turned to Jesus.  And there, even as he was dying, as he struggled for every precious breath, Jesus assured the repentant thief that he would soon be in paradise.  There is nothing more powerful than the mercy of God.  It turns thieves into saints.

We celebrate Christ as King today.  We worship him not on a golden throne but on the throne of the cross because it is precisely at his most vulnerable moment that our Lord was truly powerful: a King who forgives, a King who thirsts for us, a King who gives his life for us.  The true measure of power is not in how we rule but in how we serve.   So we bring this Year of Mercy to a fitting conclusion gazing up at the cross at our Lord and King.   And perhaps our prayer this day is a prayer of mercy like that of this blessed thief:  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tough Guys & Wimps: What Kind of a Catholic Are You?

Yesterday, I touched on many of the themes below, but it was an extremely personal homily between me and my parishioners in light of the times we are living.  These readings are extraordinary, and I think it's a good time to revisit a homily I preached 6 years ago on the life of a remarkable priest that is on the path to canonization.

"You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.  By your perseverance you will secure your lives."  (Luke 21:17-19)

At first glimpse, today's gospel can be and has been misinterpreted by some as a blueprint for how the end of the world will go down. We live in a culture that needs to have everything timed and scheduled, so it would be nice to know when Jesus plans to make his triumphant return.  Many preachers will mistakenly point to the wars, insurrections, famines, and earthquakes that have taken place around the world recently and say that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about in today's gospel when predicting the end of the world.  Well...not exactly.  Jesus also says:  "but it will not immediately be the end. (Lk 21:9)"  All these events have been occurring around world for the last 2000 years and still we await the return of Jesus.  In other words, don't read too much into natural or man-made catastrophes, as tragic as they are, they are not precursors to the apocalypse.  Just be prepared to stand up for Christ and be prepared to be persecuted for his sake.  That is something that Jesus does promise in today's gospel for those who are faithful to him. We will be mocked, persecuted, and hated all because of Him.  The question is:  Do we live our faith in such a way that we risk being persecuted for our beliefs?  Are we up for this challenge?

Yesterday morning I started reading the biography of a fascinating Jesuit priest:  Father Walter Ciszek.   Fr. Ciszek was a Polish-American born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1904 and as a teenager had a reputation as a bully and a street tough.  Throughout his life, you could see patterns of him doing things that people told him he could not do.  So when he was 14 and told his father that he wanted to be a priest, his father laughed it off.  But young Walter entered the seminary anyway.  He wanted to maintain his toughness, so he would wake up at 4:30 a.m. just to go on a five mile run and swim in the lake in November when it was barely above freezing.  As he would later write:  "I still couldn't stand to think that anyone could do something that I couldn't do."  Down the line, I guess diocesan priesthood was too easy so three years shy of ordination he made up his mind to become a Jesuit and he did.  At the time, Pope Pius XI was all too aware that we were losing Russia to atheism so he turned to the Jesuits for missionaries to go into Russia to tend to the people.  Ciszek was sent to  Rome to study Russian and learn to say Mass in the Russian rite and he was finally ordained in 1937.  But he couldn't enter Russia so he went as close as he could which lead him to Poland.  When the Germans invaded Poland, Russia came to him when the Red Army came from the east and he saw it as an opportunity amidst the tragedy of the Nazi invasion to travel into Russia with all the refugees headed east.  He finally entered Russia under a fake name and a fake backstory and ended up in the Ural Mountain town of Chusovoy where he worked in a lumber yard and and celebrated Mass secretly in the woods.  But the KGB and secret police eventually figured out who he was, arrested him, and accused him of being a Vatican Spy.  He was subjected to cruel and unspeakable torture as he tried to stick to his cover story, but he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia where he would learn to minister to his fellow prisoners in the harshest of conditions.  He ended up in a town 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle shoveling coal into freighters.  The guards would not distribute winter clothes until the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero.  But through all this torture, Ciszek maintained his toughness.  He went five years without celebrating the Eucharist until he met another priest.  The prisoners would crush raisins to make wine, they would use the back of a watch as a paten for the bread, and a shot glass as a chalice.  He found incredible joy in finally being able to celebrate the Eucharist and he would smuggle communion to the prisoners, hear their confessions, and even would give retreats in order to keep the men's spirits up.  The sheer audacity of Fr. Ciszek's fearless approach to ministry could be seen when he celebrated Mass on one occasion right in the commandant's quarters when it had been cleared for the day.  This priest feared nothing.  Once his sentence in the GULAG was complete, he was sent out to a small town in Siberia where he set up shop to continue doing the very thing he was arrested for:  ministering as a priest.  He worked in a factory where the people would cover for him so he could go about his ministry and set up a very successful mission.  When the secret police discovered what he was doing after they infiltrated a Midnight Mass, they kicked him out of town and he proceeded to set up another mission in another town within two months.  When he was kicked out of there, he did it in a third town.  This was a priest that would not let anything or anyone or any sort of persecution or torture stand in the way of his priestly ministry.  Finally in 1963, he was taken by the secret police to Moscow where he was part of a prisoner exchange for two Soviet spies the U.S. had been holding and he came back to America where his sisters and the Jesuits had spent 25 years thinking that he was dead.  He lived out the remainder of his years in the U.S and died in 1984.  His home diocese is now promoting his cause for canonization for his heroic virtues.  (To read a good, quick 10 minute synopsis of his life, click here:

Here was a true Christian who did not cower in the face of persecution.  In fact it only made him stronger.  Have we ever been persecuted for our faith?  Or better yet:  Do we live our faith in such an overt way that we run the risk of being persecuted for our morals, beliefs, and fidelity to Christ?  Fr. Ciszek did not care what happened to him and he lived in Soviet Russia during the height of the Cold War.  We live in a country that allows us to practice our faith freely, but do we express it freely?  When confronted with the toughness and audacity of Father Ciszek's life, I look at our Catholic community, including myself and come to the same conclusion that King Julian came to when he saw the domesticated lion, zebra, hippo, and giraffe in the cartoon Madagascar:  "They're just a bunch of pansies."  It's a harsh assessment about Catholics in general, I know, but do we live out our faith in a bold way that merits any other assessment?  The example of this tough as nails priest should embolden us to take our faith to the next level.  If Evangelicals are getting in people's faces with the message of Jesus Christ, why can't we?  It's like we live our lives embarrassed or ashamed to be Catholic when we should walk around with our heads held high because we have been given this glorious gift of our faith that allows us to come encounter Christ in the Eucharist every Sunday.  We must all work towards the goal of shedding this wimpy practice of our faith and start working towards a more proactive practice of Catholicism.  As St. Paul told the Thessalonians in today's second reading:  "if anyone [is] unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. (2 Thes 3:10)"  You want to sit at Christ's table?  It's time to roll up your sleeves and start living out the faith we profess in the Creed we recite every Sunday.  We need more Fr. Ciszek's who are "tough as nails" Catholics that boldly live out their faith despite what the world throws at them.  This is what the Church, what the world is crying for as it quickly declines into secularism where God has no place and our faith becomes irrelevant.  Who will stand up? Who will dare live their faith in such a way that they risk being persecuted for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ?