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."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Wounded Sheep

(Note: This homily was delivered during a Blue Mass this morning honoring our local police and firefighters on the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2011)

“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

Why does the lost sheep wander far from the shepherd? Quite simply, because the sheep forgets what the shepherd’s voice sounds like, forgets that the shepherd leads us to green pastures, and forgets that the shepherd brings us peace.  The lost sheep goes in search of greener pastures which are illusions, distractions, and could ultimately lead to the sheep’s demise.  But the shepherd goes in search of the lost one anyways putting the rest in peril.  Such is God’s love for us.

This morning, we are honored to have members of the City of Hialeah Police and Fire Departments with us as we commemorate this somber anniversary of the attacks on our nation 15 years ago today.  Many brave men and women risked their lives in search of the defenseless when they bravely ran into those burning towers on that fateful Tuesday morning.  Today we gather not only to remember the victims, particularly your comrades in the New York and Port Authority Police and Fire Departments, but also to honor their heroic sacrifice.  Their examples of courage and selflessness are surely held up in every precinct and fire house as what exemplary police officers, fire fighters, and first responders should be.  Fifteen years have passed, but the pain is still there.  It is still raw.  I can vividly remember my brother calling me, two weeks from graduating from the fire academy, while all of us watched those towers burn. I can still remember his voice of horror yelling at the TV, “They can’t go in there! They can’t go in there!”  And even though he wasn’t officially a firefighter yet, he mourned those brave men and women that ran towards the towers. One of the iconic images in the aftermath of the attack was the three firefighters hoisting the American flag in the midst of the rubble of Ground Zero.  I made two copies of that photograph. One I gave to my brother as a present when he graduated from the academy.  The other still sits on a bookshelf in my office as a reminder not only of this date but that I must always pray for those who protect us.

Fifteen years ago it took the most tragic event of our lifetime to realize what all of you do for us each and every day.  That you put your lives between danger and those you are charged to protect during every shift. And for the police officers present, you had to endure a trying summer as many questioned your service.  You deserve better, and for this we apologize.  As I saw with my brother and the countless friends and parishioners who serve in law enforcement or stand guard in a firehouse, I have learned over the past 15 years that all of you are wired differently.  How else do you explain your comrades running towards those towers?  Your courage and strength are what drive you and what we honor this day.  Yet as I saw in my brother and in countless friends and parishioners who wear the uniform, I know that this call to protect can also be a burden that is far too difficult to carry alone.  You are witnesses to unspeakable tragedies, horrific scenes that none of us see precisely because you are protecting us.  All of you know far too well that criminals and fires aren’t the only things that can cost your comrades their lives, silent killers like PTSD that claimed my brother’s life also pose a great danger to your ranks.  Your burden, your pains should not be carried alone.  Like the sheep that wanders far off and puts its life at risk away from the shepherd, you are being chased by the Good Shepherd who loves you and seeks to protect you. 

Today this community of faith gathers to honor you and pray for you on this most solemn of days.  And as we pray for you, I urge you to seek out the voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice of God that calls out to you so that you may never have to walk the beat or ride the truck alone.  Because my brother wore your uniform, albeit for a different city, I still feel a certain responsibility to our civil servants.  Know that here in Immaculate you always have a place of refuge—a place where you can come to unload your sorrows and place them at the feet of our Lord.  Many of your comrades in New York 15 years ago finished long shifts and would walk into churches near Ground Zero with ashy uniforms to try to process what they had just witnessed.  They knew they couldn’t do it alone.  And know that I am always here to listen to your burdens.  I will not turn you away, not only because I am a priest, but because I am the brother of a firefighter who lost a fight to PTSD.  I now implore you to not let this silent killer touch you so that your families don’t have to go through what my family went through.  Talk to me. Talk to someone.  But don’t stay silent.  It doesn’t make you any less of a man or woman if your share your burdens with someone.  It just makes you stronger, makes you more courageous and makes you a better civil servant.  There’s a slogan that was used at PTSD fundraiser that I attended last year that applies to all of us that are called to serve and to be strong:  “The worst part about being strong is that no one ever asks if you’re ok.”  And so the Lord seeks you out this morning and hoists you on His strong shoulders and asks you if you are ok.  We are made stronger in numbers, and we are made stronger when our God finds us like he finds the lost sheep and hold us in his arms. 

On this September 11th, we thank you for your service and bravery and pray for all of you.  This community is here to remind you that you are being prayed for and it always stands with those who protect us.  No matter what happened 15 years ago, and no matter how many things you may endure in the line of duty, your God is always by your side.  May the St. Michael the Archangel always defend you and protect.  May God bless the City of Hialeah Police and Fire Departments, and on this day may God bless this great nation that you have sworn to protect.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Nothing is Impossible: The Cross of St. Teresa of Calcutta

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

Too often we toss around the term impossible to make excuses for we cannot or are not willing to do.  Sometimes we look up to heaven when burdened by a great cross and say, “Lord, this is impossible.”  Impossible is a human word and not part of God’s vocabulary.  “Nothing is impossible for God,” the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary when announcing the birth of Christ.  We use this word as a crutch, an excuse, or as an escape clause when everything seems to be falling down around us.  We use this word at times when God asks of us what we deem “impossible.”  Today in the gospel, our Lord is quite frank in saying that whoever does not carry his own cross to come after him cannot be his disciple.  So many times we leave our crosses on the side of the road when things get tough and then realize we get lost because that very cross that seemed so heavy was our compass to lead us to where God wants us to be.

On this day in which we celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa, we recall her own call to take up the cross unexpectedly given to her by our Lord to take care of the poorest of the poor.  Why another call?  At the time, she was already a nun teaching girls.  She had already consecrated herself to Jesus as his bride when she answered the call to be a nun, but as the first reading tells us “who can conceive what the Lord intends? (Wisdom 9:13)”  No one.  Not even a future saint.  So after a long struggle with her superiors, she one day left the secure confines of her convent to go into the streets of Calcutta.  If you haven’t seen the movie “The Letters” about Mother Teresa, I highly recommend it (it is currently available on Netflix).  The film does a beautiful job of depicting this transition of Mother Teresa from the convent to the unwelcoming streets of Calcutta to embrace this “impossible” vocation.  Impossible? Because the saints are so close to God, this word also does not exist in their vocabulary while they journey with us here on earth.  But here is probably what is most remarkable about St. Teresa answering this new call from the Lord: as she ventured out to care for the sick and the poor, at times she felt abandoned by God.  Yet she persisted.  She continued to carry her cross even though she felt at times that she was carrying alone.  Every day she spent an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament even when she felt she was not being accompanied by He who called her.  In carrying out her God given mission to reach out to the poor, St. Teresa showed us was is truly possible when we surrender to God even when we feel abandoned by Him.  It’s not Him. It’s us.  We’re the ones that can’t perceive his presence at times, and we’re the ones who toss around the word impossible.  This little nun captivated not only our Church but the entire world with her actions and even some of her words when she would pause to speak.

On this concept of surrender, St. Teresa once said: “Total surrender consists in giving ourselves completely to God, because God has given Himself to us.  If God owes nothing to us and is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves?  I give up my own self and in this way induce God to live for me.  Therefore to possess God we must allow him to possess our souls.”  In another instance the saint proclaimed: “Let God use you without consulting with you. Let the Lord catch you…Let yourself be caught by Him and then let Him dispose of you utterly.”  And these were the things this holy woman was saying while she was going through a “dark night” as we have recently discovered.  This is why nothing is impossible for God.  He took this imperfect little pencil, this tiny Albanian nun who experienced her own dark night of the soul, and made her nothing less than a saint here on earth.

So the next time you are about to toss around the word “impossible,” ask yourself if you have totally surrendered to God and his will.  Christ says we cannot be his disciples if we don’t take up our cross and go after him.  St. Teresa left everything to do just that.  She carried her cross faithfully, even through the night, and that cross broke down doors that were impossible to open.  Where is your cross?  What is your impossible calling?  Surrender yourself completely to God: not just a part of you but your entire self.  Let Him catch you, let Him live in you, and let him dispose of you as He wills.  It is not impossible, for this tiny nun showed us that this word does not even belong in the vocabulary of a Christian. 

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.