Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why I Took a Break from Writing

It started off as a simple exercise.

About 11 years ago when I was assigned to be the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese, I started going around from church to church every Sunday to preach about priestly vocations and the importance of praying for vocations.  At the same time I also served as the Master of Ceremonies for one of our auxiliary bishops, so there were weekends when I would not preach.  While I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Bishop Noonan and visiting different churches in the tri-county area, I really missed preaching on Sundays to my parishioners on the readings of the day.  So in an effort to stay sharp, every weekend I would write a brief homily as if I was going to preach it to one of the two parishes that I had served at.  Sometime in 2006, I started emailing these homilies to a few friends. Late that year, I started posting my homilies on (ready for this?) Myspace of all places.  Soon the email list got longer, I moved from Myspace to Facebook like everyone else, and by the time I returned to parish life in January 2009, I was writing, or better yet transcribing my homilies every single week.

More often than not, here is how the process would go.  I rarely write my entire homily before I preach.  I usually start thinking and praying about what I want to preach about in the middle of the week.  By Friday or Saturday, I have 4 or 5 things that I want to mention in my homily that I jot down on a post it note and I put it in my pocket.  By Sunday morning I (usually) know what I want to communicate during those precious 7-10 minutes during Mass that I get to share the Word of God with my parishioners. I seldom take the post it note out of my pocket unless there’s a quote on it that I don’t want to butcher, and then when I start preaching, it’s all up to the Holy Spirit from there.

Every Sunday night around 9pm, I would sit down in my room with my laptop with only that post it note as my reference and I would transcribe what I preached that day.  Only on very few occasions would I write down the entire homily before I actually preached it.  I really enjoy writing.  I really enjoy communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ through the different social mediums at our disposal.  For me it’s like a journal of my priestly journey of faith and how I communicate that faith to the people of God.

So I did this every Sunday night, except when I was on vacation or out of town, for 10 years.  I don’t know how many homilies I have written.  I have on occasion peeked back and looked at what I wrote in 2006 or 2007 and cringed at what I had transcribed.  Sometimes I would wonder if this weekly Sunday night routine was an exercise in vanity, but the comments I have received over the years have been so uplifting and not surprisingly, some of those positive comments are in response to homilies that I don’t think are that good.  Just another proof that the Holy Spirit is in charge when I stand in my church to preach or sit in front of a keyboard to type.

Last June, I started to feel rust and started to get weary from my Sunday evening routine.  It was a lot easier to do when I wasn’t a pastor.  On June 5th of last year, I wrote a very personal and heartfelt homily to my students who were about to graduate from 8th grade and by extension to all the students I have ever taught.  I still remember preaching that homily about coming home and staying home with my heart in my hand.  When I put it in writing later that evening and shared it with a few friends, I realized that it was one of those rare homilies that I was (almost) completely satisfied with.  So I posted it, and thought to myself, “if that’s the last homily I ever post, that’s fine with me.”  You see, one of the primary reasons I posted my homilies in the first place was to reach out to those who have wandered far from the Church.  Whenever I would sit down and write, I would always have my kids in the back of my mind praying that they would read what were essentially love letters from God to them. 

That mini-sabbatical lasted barely two months.  The people on my email list asked me to keep on writing which I did.  But the New Year rolled around, and I started noticing that at least the written version of my homilies didn’t have the same spirit they once had.  I was doing this more out of duty than out of passion.  So after returning from the March for Life in January, I wrote one final homily for the closing Mass of a retreat we hosted for families with children with special needs…and then I stopped.  I needed a break.  I did not want this labor of love to be a routine.  Some friends pleaded with me to keep writing, but this time I stood firm because I needed the break.  Over the past few months, the homilies I have preached in my parish have been more heart to hearts with my parishioners as we endeavor to grow closer to Christ.  They have been probably the most personal homilies I have ever given.  They are homilies that “you just gotta be there.”

This doesn’t mean that I won’t return to this medium again.  In fact, one of the reasons I decided to write these lines was because on Tuesday I got an email from our editor in the Archdiocese that she was going to publish that homily I mentioned earlier from June of last year.  The power of the written word is not lost on me especially when that power is amplified because I am writing about the Living Word of God.  I wish I could have you all in my pews every single Sunday, but I implore you to listen to the words of your priests in your parishes.  Yes I know that some are more eloquent than others, but listen because the Lord is communicating to you through these chosen ones of His.  There is more power in a homily heard and experienced during the celebration of the Eucharist than in any words that I can possibly write to you on Sunday nights. 

So for now, “I’m on a break” from writing…not from preaching the gospel.  Pray for me.  Pray for each other.  And above all, pray for your priests!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Shining City

“A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)

Yesterday, we were honored to host a retreat here in our parish for families of disabled children.  Here is the homily that I preached at the closing Mass on Saturday evening.

A week ago at exactly this moment, I was walking with my youth group leaders down a hill after a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.  If you’ve ever been there, you know that most of the cemetery overlooks Washington, D.C.  As we walked down the hill, with the setting sun painting the sky with all sorts of magnificent colors, I looked down on D.C., and saw how the sun was reflecting off the great monuments and memorials.  Our nation’s capital was bathed in a glowing light.  The U.S. Capitol dome reflected the dimming sunlight and it seemed like the Washington Monument was an entirely different color.  As I saw this wondrous display unfold, I could not help but recall President Reagan’s farewell address when he called our country the “shining city on a hill.”  This is a phrase he often used that he lifted from an early pilgrim named John Winthrop who lifted it from today’s gospel reading.  When Winthrop left England in 1630 to settle in this new land, he said:  “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

Jesus call us the light of the world in today’s gospel, and he reminds that we aren’t just a city on a hill, but a city set on a mountain that cannot be hidden.  And like Winthrop said, the eyes of all people are upon us, not because we are American, but because we are Christians, because we carry the light of Christ in our lives.  Unfortunately in today’s society, Christians aren’t encouraged to cast their light on the world just as the fading sunlight was shining down on our beautiful capital last Saturday evening.  Society would prefer that our light remain hidden, that we practice our Christianity in secret, that we keep it to ourselves.  Yet this in an option that our Lord does not give us: “your light must shine before others.”  It cannot be hidden.  Light by it’s very nature cannot be hidden anymore than we can keep the sun from rising in the morning.  The rays of the sun overpower the darkness at twilight and soon that light floods the entire sky.

Each of your children is a light that shines brightly in your homes and in our churches.  Their disability is viewed by the world as an “imperfection” when they are quite clearly made perfect by God because his standard of perfection is much higher than what the world considers to be perfect.  As Pope Francis said last summer during the Jubilee for the Sick and the Disabled: “It is thought that sick or disabled persons cannot be happy, since they cannot live the lifestyle held up by the culture of pleasure and entertainment.  In an age when care for one’s body has become an obsession and a big business, anything imperfect has to be hidden away, since it threatens the happiness and serenity of the privileged few and endangers the dominant model… Yet what an illusion it is when people today shut their eyes in the face of sickness and disability!  They fail to understand the real meaning of life, which also has to do with accepting suffering and limitations.  The world does not become better because only apparently “perfect” people live there – I say “perfect” rather than “false” – but when human solidarity, mutual acceptance and respect increase.  How true are the words of the Apostle: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27)!”  That last verse used by the Holy Father was from last Sunday’s second reading.  The world wants to hide the light of these children while the Lord and his Church embraces them and loves them as you have.  Together, they are the true shining city because they reflect the love of God.  As I said earlier during the opening talk of the retreat: I truly believe that children and children with disabilities understand God better than I do…and I’m a priest.


The example of these children who speak of the glory of God with their magnificent smiles should remind us that our spiritual lives should be childlike: “He is God.  I am not.”  It should remind us that we are called to take that glorious light that was given to us at our baptism and let that light shine before all.  We cannot keep that light hidden anymore than we can keep these children hidden.  I’ll say it again: hiding the light of Christ is not an option our Lord gives us.  We are a shining city on a mountain set forth for all the world to see.  Do not be ashamed of your faith.  Do not hide the light in your hearts.  Let all the world see that we are all members of this luminous Body of Christ, and that whether we are young or old, walking straight or bound to a wheelchair, possess great intellect or grasp only the simple, we are all part of God’s perfect design.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Testify: Jesus is Lord!

“Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God." (John 1:34)

This morning at Mass, we are honored to have with us the young people who will be representing the Archdiocese, representing us all, at the National March for Life in Washington, D.C. in just 10 days.  They are courageous young men and women who will brave cold temperatures (they marched in a blizzard last year), so that they could raise their voices for those who have no voice: the unborn.  They will testify, just as John the Baptist did in today’s gospel, to the Truth.  They will testify that Jesus is Lord and that as a nation we have forgotten that he is the Lord of us all.  Their courage and their conviction should inspire us this morning as we listen to God’s word.  Their testimony should prompt us to ask the question: how do I testify that Jesus is Lord of my life?

As John proclaimed in the desert, every word and action of ours should proclaim that Jesus is Lord.  Because we are Christians, because we are witnesses of the power of God’s love, everything we do should speak of His love.  John saw Jesus coming toward him and he said the words that the priest says right before we receive Holy Communion: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  Jesus is in our midst.  Jesus is present here.  As we go forth from Mass, Jesus is present in you.  As we proclaimed during Christmas, Jesus came to touch us, to save us, to redeem us, to renew us, to re-create us, and to give us his Spirit.  This is the Spirit of courage that should embolden us to proclaim the Good News.  We need witnesses to the Truth.  We need witnesses who courageously raise their voices to say Jesus is Lord.  Even though these young people will march primarily in silence with maybe a rosary being said, their presence on the National Mall and on the steps of the Supreme Court speaks volumes.  Yet the world will mostly ignore them because the world does not recognize nor wants to pay attention to the Truth.

Let me give you a concrete example: two weeks ago I was blessed to see the movie “Silence.”  If you haven’t heard of this film, and I don’t blame you because it really hasn’t been promoted and you’ll understand why in a second, this is a film of two Jesuit missionary priests who travel to Japan in the 17th century to find a priest who had disappeared and to minister to the Christian faithful who practiced their religion in secret because Christianity was outlawed in Japan.  The movie speaks to the unwavering courage of these priests but more so of the peasant Japanese who testified that Jesus is their Lord to the point that it may cost them their life along with the lives and well being of their family.  It is a powerful film, an ode to the true witnesses of the faith.  Yet has been scarcely nominated for any major awards, and you would think this film would be heralded because it has acclaimed actors and is directed by probably the most heralded and most influential director of our generation: Martin Scorsese.  Yet it is a film about faith.  It is a film that is unabashedly about Jesus Christ and his followers.  It took Scorsese 20 years to get this film financed and made because the world does not want to hear about the courage of the witnesses of Jesus Christ.  Yet we hand the Oscar for Best Picture last year to a film that tore down Catholicism.

The world doesn’t want to hear from you.  The world wants you to practice your Christianity in secret preferably behind the walls of this church and no further.  Sure Hollywood can preach to us about what we should be doing and thinking but heaven forbid we should speak up for Jesus.  Whenever an actor speaks about his or her faith, the news is relegated to religious papers or websites.  Whenever an athlete or coach is interviewed after winning a game and he or she praises and gives thanks to Jesus Christ, whether it’s sincere or not, you should see the backlash that they get on social media.  Just this past Monday, the coach of the champions of college football repeatedly said after the game that none of this could have happened without God.  He said this three times.  Remember when Tim Tebow was ridiculed some years back for writing biblical verses on the eye black on his face during games, for kneeling in prayer?  Those verses sent people scurrying for their Bibles, but it would be soon ridiculed and outlawed.  One Sunday after a game against the New York Jets, I did what I always do and went to midfield to join the few prayers who knelt to pray after the game.  Tim Tebow was right next to me and we knelt and held hands in prayer with the other players as cameras went into a frenzy around us to catalog this curious occurrence: a famous athlete kneeling in prayer.  It’s a curiosity to some, an abomination to others, but heroic to those of us who follow the Lord.  When we finished the prayer, I shook Tim’s hand and thanked him for all he has done to witness to the world that Jesus is Lord.


Our world is in need of more witnesses to Jesus Christ.  Our world needs us to testify that Jesus is indeed Lord.  And we need to be unabashedly unapologetic when we do so.  We do not have the luxury or the time to apologize or be embarrassed for being Christians.  Remember that Jesus said that if we deny him before others then he would deny us before the Father (cf. Matthew 10:23). We need to speak with a loud voice like John the Baptist did to proclaim that the Lamb of God is present in our world.  So I conclude by asking you a very simple question: how do you testify to the world that Jesus is Lord?



Sunday, January 8, 2017

Searching

“Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2)

Right before I sat down to write this homily, I got called to visit a dying parishioner.  My homily was about searching for the Divine, particularly about the search of the Magi, and here I was standing before a child of God who was about to encounter the Divine.  All of us are on a life long search for the transcendent, and this soul, so close to death, was about to come face to face with the same God that the Magi encountered in Bethlehem under that star. 

We spend our lives waiting to encounter God.  We spend our lives searching for joy, peace, fulfillment, and more often than not we go searching in all the wrong places.  The Magi no doubt searched until the day the star appeared and it is that search, and that openness to that search, that ultimately leads them to finding the Christ Child. 

The beginning of this New Year affords us the opportunity to take up that search anew.  Perhaps we have been stuck in neutral (or reverse) when it comes to our spiritual life.  Perhaps we have abandoned the search all together.  Today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany is a wake up call to seek out the living God who comes to make all things new.  Each of us has a longing for the transcendent, for something new, and all our answers lie here in this manger.  Unfortunately, sin squashes that search for something beyond us.  Epiphany by its very definition means a sudden revelation or insight.  Once we open our eyes to see this sudden revelation and behold that we don’t have to search for very long to find the living God, our lives are immediately transformed.

This past Thursday, in his Epiphany homily Pope Francis concluded: “The Magi experienced longing; they were tired of the usual fare. They were all too familiar with, and weary of, the Herods of their own day. But there, in Bethlehem, was a promise of newness, of gratuitousness. There something new was taking place. The Magi were able to worship, because they had the courage to set out. And as they fell to their knees before the small, poor and vulnerable Infant, the unexpected and unknown Child of Bethlehem, they discovered the glory of God.”


It is indeed a New Year.  We are indeed tired of the old and familiar and are longing for something new.  Our search ends here at the manger as it did for the Magi.  As the Holy Father said, may we have the courage to “set out.”   A friend of mine tweeted last night, “Do not ask God to guide your footsteps if you’re not willing to move your feet.”  We must ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of courage to be able to seek out the God who calls us to newness of life.  The star of Bethlehem has indeed risen.  May we follow that star like the Magi and be transformed into something new that reflects the very glory of God.