Sunday, September 28, 2014

Have in You the Same Attitude that Is in Christ Jesus

This weekend, I was on retreat with students from the Boston University Catholic Center.  The title of the retreat was "Encounter."  The second reading for this Sunday said, "Have in you the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus."

This weekend I encountered the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus everywhere I looked.  The priests who drove two hours to come and hear confessions?  That's the attitude of Christ Jesus.  The three young people who gave witnesses on the retreat--the attitude of Christ Jesus.  Our Office Manager and her husband who give up a weekend every year to cook all of the meals for the retreat?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The grad student who gave up a weekend to work in the kitchen?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The priest who came to give the retreat and who was continuously moved by the example of the students on retreat?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The students who served on the retreat team and who planned the retreat?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The music ministry who poured themselves out in praising God throughout the weekend?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The interns who never stopped for the whole weekend?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The FOCUS team joyfully staying close to the students?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.  The priest who covered the 10pm Mass for me so I could crash after the retreat?  Attitude of Christ Jesus.

All around me, I saw young people loving each other, caring for each other, serving each other, praying with each other, encouraging each other, worshipping with each other, and helping each other to go to confession.  

The retreat was entitled "Encounter" because we talked about encounters that Christ had with people in his day.  But, it was also called "Encounter" because the weekend was intended to be an opportunity to encounter Christ.  With so many people having the attitude of Christ Jesus, it was difficult not to encounter Christ.

I hope the young people who came on the retreat encountered Christ.  I know that I did.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spiritual Fatherhood and Spiritual Childhood

Twenty-four years ago, after my freshman year in college seminary, I travelled to Vanceburg, KY to a farm run by the Glenmary Home Missionaries.  It was a service trip.  Today, I received an email from a guy who was on that service trip with me.  We've kept in touch for twenty-four years.  He's married now, has a couple of kids, and on two or three occasions during those twenty-four years, he's passed through Boston and we've met up.  It sounds strange to say it now, but when we first met and for the first dozen or so years of that time, email didn't exist.  Or, if it did exist, I certainly didn't know or understand anything about it.  We would write an occasional letter to one another.  (The same is true of another guy that I met on that trip.  We've kept in touch for the past twenty-four years--here and there--but we've never seen each other since).

I have to admit, the passage of time makes my memory of those events twenty-four years ago less vivid.  But, I do remember hanging out with this fellow, laying on a dirt road, smoking cigarettes (I was never really a smoker, but in the midst of Vanceburg, Kentucky where we were surrounded by Tobacco, that seemed like the thing to do), and talking about life.  

I've been ordained seventeen years. It makes me really happy to feel like I'm still learning.  I'm just a kid when it comes to priesthood.  I was in one of my assignments for 13 years.  Sometimes other priests would say, "By this point, you must be getting stale."  To me, I was just beginning!  I feel like I am always learning about the priesthood, about discipleship, about the Church.  While I may wake up here and there and dread a particular meeting or a particular event, I still wake up every day fully expecting that something new is going to happen.

This guy who emailed me today reminded me of the beauty of the Church.  It's been twenty-four years since we met.  But, I have confidence that we met because Christ has a plan.  When I became a pastor, it was at a moment when in the Archdiocese of Boston, the whole thing was blowing up.  Christ surrounded me with all of these beautiful lay men and women who, by their openness, desire for true communion, and charity taught me so much about being a priest.

Tomorrow, I leave for a weekend retreat with a group of college students from Boston University.  I'm beginning my second year with them.  I know that I'm the priest and the spiritual father of our community.  And yet, they teach me.  They teach me about the Catholic life and they teach me about priesthood.  This is one of the most beautiful things about the Church to me.  I'm educated daily by the communion of life that I share with the others.  

The people that I encounter in the Church are not all perfect saints.  But each of them--as a member of the Body of Christ--is a gift to me.  They offer me some encouragement in following Christ.  Whether they be 18 years old or 80 years old, whether they be the daily communicant or the person who doesn't even go to church, whether they be the married man, the single woman, or the discerning young person, these people teach me.  They encourage me and educate me.

As a priest, I am a spiritual father.  And at the same time, I am a spiritual child.  For me, one of the best parts of being a priest is that I am continually surprised (like a child) by what Christ does in my life.  Hearing the confessions of college students, watching a father raise his children or a mother tending to the needs of an ill child, or seeing a young person on fire for Christ--all of this surprises me.  It leaves me thinking, "Who am I that I should witness such things?"  

In seventeen years as a priest, I've been surprised a lot.  As I've witnessed various persons whom the Lord has placed in my life this week--people whom I met 24 years ago and people who weren't born 24 years ago, something struck me.  An important part of being a spiritual father--at least for me--is being a spiritual child.  Both as a parish priest and now as a college chaplain, I feel like I'm the one who is learning the most!  I'm the one who is most surprised every day.  I am the one who is being educated the most. 

Both in the parish and in the university, I feel like I give the least and receive the most.  Every day is a surprise for me.  The witness I have to offer to others is this: Despite all of my weaknesses, God surrounds me every day with a host of Christian witnesses.  I need these witnesses and am grateful for them.  By virtue of ordination, I am a spiritual father.  But, that fatherhood is vivified by the constant surprise that comes from being a spiritual child who is loved and cared for by the Good Shepherd.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Priest's Modest Proposal for the Synod on Families: Resolve to Act Like a Family

During the past few weeks, the Catholic blogosphere has been lighting up over a host of controversial topics.  Some of them have to do with the assignments of bishops and cardinals--who's winning in the ideological battles and who is losing.  Depending upon one's point of view, the good guys are being banished and the bad guys are taking over.  Or, from another perspective, the bad guys are finally being overthrown and the good guys are coming in to shake things up.

Besides personnel matters, there are doctrinal matters.  The Pope has called for a Synod on the Family and one of the hot button topics is the issue regarding communion for the divorced and remarried.  If the press reports are accurate, there are major battles shaping up in the College of Cardinals, one cardinal even speaking of a conspiracy of other cardinals against him.

All of this might make for good press, but I just want to speak from my very small experience as a priest who serves regular people every day.

Maybe . . . just maybe . . . what we need is a little less shake-up and a little more continuity.  Maybe we need a little less controversy, innovation, and change and a little more communion, familiarity, and stability.  I'm not talking about changes that might be good for pastoral governance--like reforming Vatican dicasteries, adapting annulment procedures, and directing the Church towards living the New Evangelization.  I don't mean the kind of change that moves people toward greater holiness, greater apostolic zeal, or greater virtue.  I mean the kind of change that just tends to stir up things in the lives of the Faithful and makes their life more tumultuous.

In the last fourteen years, just in my Archdiocese, we have gone through the sexual abuse crisis wherein scores of priests were accused, found guilty, and removed from ministry, the resignation of the archbishop, a round of parish closings that was basically a disaster, the closing of many Catholic schools because of lack of enrollment, the sale of almost our entire seminary property, a second round of parish reconfiguration, the resignation of a pope, a new liturgical translation, and now very public battles being waged in the blogosphere concerning bishops and cardinals and doctrinal matters pertaining to marriage and the Eucharist.  I understand that controversy and change have always been part of the life of the Church.  But, in today's age, controversy is more quickly spread through the Internet.  There can almost be a constant sense of controversy due to the rapid dissemination of news and opinion. 

Maybe we've had enough things shaken up for a century or so?  Maybe we should be looking at allowing the People of God to have a moment to regroup, to hold their Faith in peaceful possession, and to set aside controversy for a while?  While there is so much clamoring for changing things in the Church, is there not a sense that what some people might need--for the good of their souls--is more stability?  In an age when marriages and families are collapsing, perhaps instead of mimicking that same kind of family disunity, the Church ought to be striving to live in deeper communion.  In an age when people are starving for the stability of a family, perhaps the Church should focus on being a stable force in people's lives.  Instead of feeding the frenzy and provoking controversy--which people deal with in all other aspects of their lives--maybe we ought to strive to be a refuge for our people.  Maybe we ought to strive towards living our ecclesial life in such a way that it is not worse than what people experience in their families and workplaces.  

Priests and bishops love to quote Pope Francis.  So do I.  But, the Church needs to be more than just a bunch of quotes.  The Holy Father has said that the Church needs to be a field hospital where wounds are treated.  What are the wounds that many people experience today?  Is it not the wounds of despair, the wounds of disunity, the wounds of alienation, the wounds of cynicism, the wounds of a lack of security and stability?  People's families are collapsing and their jobs--if they have them--are at risk.  Spouses abandon one another at alarming rates.  If these are the wounds, why aren't we treating those wounds?  Instead of infighting and constant upheaval, perhaps we should display a humble and stable communion of life.  If there is machine gun fire coming from inside the field hospital, it's unlikely that patients will want to check themselves in.  If people already feel like their lives are in turmoil, why would they ever go someplace for refuge where there is even more turmoil?

The Church is always on the move.  It is in its nature to be a pilgrim people.  But, maybe we could move with a little more deliberateness and calmness.  Maybe we could move like a people on pilgrimage and not like the Hebrews being chased by Pharaoh. There are times when we may have to move like that, but let's not make that our standard mode of travel.  Maybe we could move like people being led by the Holy Spirit.  Yes, people being moved in love and in joy; moved to evangelize and to make disciples.  People moved to follow Christ more ardently. People moved towards poverty, chastity, and obedience.  People moved to love the poor and to reach out to those on the outside.  But not people who are simply tossed about.  Maybe instead of more committees, controversies, factions, programs, and activities, we need a little more charity, closeness, prayer, and forgiveness.  

I've served in a parish and now I serve as a college chaplain.  Admittedly, my experience is very small, so I understand that the experience of others might be different.  But my experience is that people are looking for a place to experience true communion.  Do we need to reach out to the divorced and remarried, the same-sex attracted, and the secularist?  Absolutely.  We should do so with zeal, tenderness, and joy.  But, what makes us so deluded to think that any of those people are going to want to come to the Church if the rest of us are all at war with each other?  We can't replace discipleship with controversy.  Well, we can, but it is going to lead to even more bleeding of the Christian faithful.  We should focus our efforts on preaching Jesus Christ.  We tend to talk about everything else, presuming that we've got the whole Jesus thing figured out already.  Maybe what is ailing the Church is a lack of focus on Jesus Christ and being his disciples.  

The impetus right now in the life of the Church--particularly ignited by Pope Francis--to reach out to others and to draw in those who feel abandoned or ostracized is absolutely beautiful and necessary. But, we need to find ways of doing that that do not constantly make people feel like the Church is being tossed back and forth between bickering ideologies.  Let's show mercy towards the divorced and remarried, the same-sex attracted, and whomever else feels ostracized.  But, let's also show mercy on the people who feel tossed about from one change to the next.  Let's all have mercy on each other.  Let's be generous in our mercy towards each other---even if we can't agree on how to move ahead on certain questions.  But let's not provoke situations--in the media and in the halls of ecclesiastical power--that makes the Church look like it is going through a pathetic and nasty divorce. 

My modest proposal for the Church's Synod on the Family?  Let the Church's pastors and people resolve to live like a true Christian family and thus provide the world a shining example of what the family is.  That's when the hospital will truly be open for business.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's It Like to Be a Priest?

It's not an unusual occurrence for me to be asked, "What is it like to be a priest?"  Every answer seems trite.  That's why I try to blog about my experience as a priest.  In communicating my experience, I hope that I also communicate something of the intensity of the joy that priesthood brings.  To that end:

This evening was an evening of prayer and training for our student retreat leaders who have been organizing and preparing our Fall retreat that will take place next weekend.  The title of the retreat is "Encounter."  In response to Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," the retreat will attempt to return to the very basics of our Christian Faith: Jesus Christ.  One of our student retreat leaders began the training tonight by quoting from the exhortation.  "I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: 'Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life to a new horizon and a decisive direction.'"  Hearing this young university student quote this particular passage made my heart very joyful.  This is everything!  I have always loved this quote from Pope Benedict XVI and was delighted to find it in Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation.  But to hear a young person draw this line out as something that struck him too . . . well, this is just very beautiful.

As I was hearing confessions, I could hear the others in the chapel singing in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  

When they were leaving for the evening, one student came up to me and hugged me and said, "Thank you for baptizing me at Easter. I am so happy to be a Catholic!"

What's it like being a priest?  Tonight, I was with about 25 young people.  They were organizing a retreat, going to confession, adoring and praising God in the Blessed Sacrament, loving each other, and talking about the centrality of encountering Christ.  I get to witness all of that and to minister among them.  To be a priest is to live the event of Christ.  This event--this encounter--gives you the constant sense that something truly beautiful and extraordinary is happening.  That's what it's like to be a priest.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lessons on the Priesthood from Calvary

SPOILER ALERT!  If you intend on seeing this movie and don't want to know certain things (like the ending), then don't read this post!  

The movie "Calvary" is one of those films that leaves you trying to absorb what you just saw.  A day after seeing the film, I find myself still thinking about it, trying to comprehend it.  There are many things that could be said about the film, but I'd like to offer just one reflection.

The main character--Fr. James Lavelle--is an intelligent, warm, and very human character.  Throughout the film, he enters into the lives of all sorts of persons.  A drunkard, an adulteress, a dying man, a male prostitute, a prisoner, a militant atheist, and others all find themselves in his company.  Most of them are filled with a profound cynicism about life and specifically about Catholicism.  The priest--although the only one to offer any of these people any sort of true love--is mocked continuously throughout the film.  Although clearly more intelligent than all of them, the priest is often treated as though he were a buffoon.  And yet, he stays with these people.  He continuously places himself in situations where he will be mocked as the official representative of an outdated and superstitious religion.

And yet, amidst the mockery, insults, and hatreds directed towards him, one senses that these people want something that the priest possesses.  It's as though he carries something within him that they want but that they won't allow themselves to have. They're all miserable.  Their lives are filled with pain, emptiness, and despair.  Fr. Lavelle, like Christ, enters into their experience.  He's close to his people.  He's close to the people who mock and insult him.  He keeps entering into their lives despite the hatred for him that always seems to be boiling below the surface.  "Blessed are you when they insult and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven."

Fr. Lavelle enters into the lives of these people with a fatherly love for them, but this love is reciprocated only with insults and persecutions.  Nobody would look at Fr. Lavelle's efforts as having much success, but he keeps showing up and loving this assortment of troubled persons, despite the poor way in which they treat him.  Like the apostles before him, Fr. Lavelle has become a spectacle and is treated as the refuse of the world.  Fr. Lavelle, throughout the film, despite all of his flaws and weaknesses is becoming more and more like Christ.  He is making his way to Calvary.

In the film, Fr. Lavelle is mocked because of his Catholicity.  He's mocked because he holds outdated religious beliefs in a world that has become so enlightened.  He's mocked because he puts himself out there.  He could hide away, but instead, he's in the pubs, visiting homes, hospitals, and jails.  He is persecuted for imitating Christ.

Fr. Lavelle fits in among his people because he is very human.  He's a sinner and a man with flaws.  But, one never gets the sense from Fr. Lavelle that he's trying to fit in.  He shows up at the pub in his cassock.  He's not trying to blend in.  He's real and he's authentic.  He's not in that pub because he wants to be accepted.  He's there because that's where his people are.  He's there because he loves the people.  Even when they mock him, you get the sense that these people know that Fr. Lavelle loves them.  That love is at the root of why they mock him, I think.  They are all looking to be loved.  But, when they experience it, they refuse to accept it.

Pope Francis talks a lot about priests and bishops going "out to the edges."  I think that we have to be careful when we travel to the edges that we are going there for the right reasons.  We need to go there in order to love the people on the edges.  But, we shouldn't go there in order to "fit in."  We shouldn't go to the edges in the hopes that the newspaper will write nice things about us and that the politicians will invite us as window dressing to their events.  When we go there with this kind of intention, we mock ourselves, and this kind of mockery doesn't bring with it the reward of "Rejoice and be glad!"  

What is so beautiful about the depiction of the priest in the movie is that the reason he is mocked, persecuted, and killed is precisely because he is a good priest; a priest who loves his people and who stays close to them.  He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  He fits in because he's a real man.  He stands out because he loves with a shepherd's heart and risks everything on that love.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Sadness Brought By Church Politics and the Joy Brought By Witnesses

Icon of Sts. Peter and Paul
Last night before going to bed, I stupidly read a few articles concerning ecclesiastical politics, rumors of Vatican intrigue, and ideological battles raging among members of the curia.  As soon as I read the articles, I felt a kind of sadness.  Upon recalling those articles this morning, the same sadness returned.  It's the same sadness that I feel when I sometimes hear people talk about the Church as though it were all politics: liberals against conservatives.  I tell them, "The Church is so much more than that!"  But there is this ugliness in the Church of political maneuvering and ideological nastiness.  It actually occurs.  It is specifically something that plagues the clergy.  When the clergy--bishops and priests--act in this kind of way, is it any wonder that it leaves people somewhat downcast and cynical about the Church?

As I said, when I woke up this morning, the memory of these political ecclesiastical articles came to mind again.  And with them, came a feeling of sadness.  As I was getting ready for the day, a text from one of my young co-workers at the BU Catholic Center arrived: "Holy Hour when we get in today?"  An hour or so later, sitting in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, I thought about the various experiences of the Church during the previous twenty-four hours.

The day began with a Holy Hour.  A co-worker and I try to pray a Holy Hour each morning.  While we prayed, a few others eventually found their way to the chapel and prayed their own Holy Hours.  Then, at the end of our hour, the FOCUS Missionaries and a few others arrived to pray their Holy Hours.  A short while later, twenty-five young people came to Mass. After Mass, I grabbed lunch with a student.  We talked about serious stuff and--as often is the case--I found myself moving closer to God as a result of this experience of the Church.  

Later in the day a small committee of staff and students met to discuss our weekly "Catholics on Campus" event.  We were continuing to plan out the semester for this weekly event.  All of us were kind of tired and sluggish during the meeting.  All of us wanted the meeting to end.  But, even the fact that we were all tired together gave me a sense of gratitude for our work together.

Following that, we had our weekly spaghetti dinner at the Catholic Center.  Among those with whom I conversed was a young man whom I met last year.  He's Muslim.  The opportunity to share a meal together and to have a pleasant conversation made me grateful.

After spaghetti dinner, we had our weekly, "Catholics on Campus" event.  This week's topic was about the "Hook Up Culture." As l listened to the conversations, I found myself moved by the fact that these young people have miraculously heard the voice of Christ despite living in a culture that is so opposed to that happening.

At the end of the evening, the FOCUS Missionaries, two Jesuit seminarians who help out here, a young man who works here as an intern, and I all had some social time together.  It was a lot of fun.  Among other things, I was again grateful for the opportunity to have these two young Jesuits here.  In Boston, though it is probably impolitic to state it aloud, there is a lingering tension, suspicion, and distrust between a good number of the Boston Clergy and some of the Jesuits.  The reasons for it revolve around the sale of the seminary property to Boston College some years ago.  It also revolves around competing theological visions.  I'm grateful for the presence of these two Jesuits who help out here and for other Jesuits in the area who have been invited to serve as adjunct spiritual directors at the diocesan seminary.  These types of friendships perhaps are the best way to heal what remains a wound in the local Church.  The witness of these two solid men, their vocations, their intelligence and fidelity, and our communion fill me with a sense of hope.   

Then, I went home and read those articles.  The articles about infighting, ideological agendas, and ecclesiastics treating each other poorly left me with a sense of sadness.  That's how I woke up too--  sad that things like that are part of the life of the Church.  But then came the text, "Holy Hour when we get in today?"  

As I sat in the chapel today and prayed that Holy Hour, I was grateful that the vast majority of my experience of the Church is not the stuff of juicy intrigue, ideological power-struggles, or political maneuvering.  My daily experience of the Church is people who love Jesus and love others.  My daily experience of the Church is praying together with young people before the Blessed Sacrament, hearing the confessions of young people, gathering around the altar together for Mass, talking about serious and beautiful things together, watching two Jesuit seminarians live their vocation, observing young people intelligently share their faith with others, witnessing young people discern their vocation, and seeing the communion of the Church lived with joy and with sincerity.

Were it not for the witnesses whom Christ places in my life, I might wind up only with the sadness that comes from reading about Church politics, or even worse, the deeper sadness that must come from giving your whole life over to Church politics.  Church politics and ideology brings me sadness.  But that sadness is crushed and replaced with joy by seven words: "Holy Hour when we get in today?"

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Cross and the Triathlon Witness

This evening before the 10pm Mass I was standing on the stairs at the front door of the Boston University Marsh Chapel and welcoming students as they arrived for Mass.  I asked one young man how his day was and he said, "I did a triathlon today in New Jersey.  I just got back an hour ago."  And there it was.  God had just sent a witness to help me.

I often tell people at Mass that we never know how our witness helps others.  If we're ever thinking about skipping Mass because, "I don't feel like going," we're not only hurting ourselves, but we are hurting others.  We are depriving them of our witness.  And when I say, "others," I mean, "me!"  I am encouraged when I see other people at Mass.  It builds up my Faith when I witness the example of others worshipping God.

Today we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  When we look at Christ Crucified, we see that God so loved the world--that He so loved me--that He gave His Only-Begotten Son so that I might have eternal life.  Catholics begin everything and end everything with the sign of the Cross.  Why?  Because everything begins and ends with God's love.  The Cross is the sign of God's love.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  This is love.  The more we contemplate and exalt the Cross, the more we live our life as a response to that love.

When we are loved by another, rarely does any of us say, "Well naturally this person loves me.  I mean, I'm so awesome they'd be stupid not to love me."  No, we feel humbled by their love.  And, we seek to return that love.  We seek to respond to that love.  The Cross reminds us that we are loved by God and the more we are convinced of that love, the more we want to pour ourselves out in loving Him and our neighbor in return.

One college student did a triathlon today, then drove hundreds of miles home, and went to Mass at 10pm.  This example really touched me.  It built me up in my own Faith and encouraged me.  God so loved this young man that He gave His Only-Begotten Son for him.  And having been loved by God--as revealed by Christ's sacrifice on the Cross--this young man (undoubtedly exhausted) opted to love God in return by coming to Mass.  

And now, I'm telling you about it and maybe some of you will be encouraged and strengthened as well.  This is the power of witness.  This is the power of the Cross.  When we are convinced of God's love and respond to that love, something truly beautiful happens.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.