Friday, September 21, 2018

In the Midst of Darkness: Beauty and Goodness

I live a life of privilege. I don't mean wealth, power, influence, or prestige. I mean that I live a life that is privileged by being close to sacred realities. Whether it be at the altar, in the confessional, or by the deathbed, I am privileged to stand in proximity to the most important realities that exist. Praying with the dying, hearing a last confession or hearing the confession of someone who has long been away from the Church, offering the Holy Mass, or walking with a couple as they prepare for marriage, these are all privileged moments. 

I find it hard to believe that I've begun my sixth year as chaplain at the BU Catholic Center. Being around college kids who are living their faith has been a tremendous grace and privilege for me. I've been continuously moved by their devotion, piety, charity, faith, intellectual rigor, simplicity, and their capacity to share the gospel with others. I've also been very moved by the ease with which they have built up a friendship among one another, friendships that continue after college and that are designed to help them each continue growing in Christ. I have also been privileged to hear many of them give witness talks and share their faith with others. 

One of the privileges of working with college students is that there is an easiness about them. They are comfortable and relaxed around a priest. The pastoral relationship is built up rather easily and without much complication or effort. That's been my experience anyways. A good number of the students from the Catholic Center stay around Boston after they graduate. Many of them live together and strive for holiness together. It also means that I get to meet up with some of them regularly.

One of the recent grads, a young man named Connor, posted on Facebook today that he's been struggling for about a year with depression. He decided to write a song about it. As I listened to him singing, I said out loud, "I am so grateful to be a priest."  It kind of came out spontaneously. What I meant by that is that I am grateful because I get to see such beautiful things and meet such extraordinary people. Connor said in his post that he wrote the song and hopes that maybe it might help somebody else. I know that he meant that he hoped it would help somebody who also might be suffering from depression, but it helped me too. It helped me because I need to see beautiful things and I constantly need to see goodness. Connor's song--even though it arises out of a great struggle--is a testimony to the Church. Connor loves the Church and helps build up the Body of Christ. He has a strong love for St. John Paul II. The two of them are good friends. 

I include a link to Connor's song here. Click Here 

There's so much scandal and controversy in the life of the Church these days. Connor's voice, for me, broke through all of it and reminded me (and I hope, you) that this is the Catholic Church. This is what saves me.

Thanks Connor. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Carrying the Corpse to Jesus Is the Only Way

There is perhaps no more sorrowful sight that I have encountered than that of a parent mourning the loss of a child. I recall one Funeral Mass that I offered when the Mother and Father came down the aisle together, the tiny casket of their child in the father's arms. The image says it all. The totality of the loss, the depth of the grief, the utter shock of how tragic life can sometimes be. The lifeless body of a child (no matter what the age) in the arms of a mourning parent touches us at the depths of our being.

St. Luke recounts for us an encounter that Jesus had as he entered the City of Nain. As he approached the city gate, he encounter a funeral procession. The body of a man, who was his mother's only son, was being carried away. Along with the crowd, the woman--a widow--was walking beside the body of her son. In front of this deeply sorrowful image, Jesus was moved with pity. He was touched in the depths of his soul by the pain, the anguish, and the sorrow of this poor woman. I wonder if he saw in her a reminder of what would soon happen to his own mother? Did he see in his mind's eye the hour when his own mother would accompany him to his burial?  Either way, Jesus was moved. Jesus was not indifferent to the cries of the bereaved and broken.

For some time now, many people in the Church have felt as though something tremendous has been lost, something is missing. Life in the city continues. Statements are made, meetings take place, and the humdrum of Church life moves along like it always did. We go about doing the same things we've always done, but it's like the soul is missing. Many words are spoken, but the words ring hollow. In the midst of the city, there has been a death, a loss. In the midst of the city, a procession of mourners walks about carrying the lifeless body of their loved one, but many in the city don't seem to notice or they pretend not to notice. They speak in platitudes. "Life goes on," they say. "Worse things have happened." "We've been through worse." "It's not that bad."

The mourners walk through the streets, but they feel invisible. Their pain seems to be mocked, dismissed, or trivialized. Some intentionally ignore the mourners while others consider the mourners to be rude. They are made to feel as though their grief is becoming an interruption to the city's normalcy. "Nobody," they say "will want to visit this city if these mourners continue carrying on." And yet, in the face of tragic loss and death, mourning and sorrow are the only proper responses. The great miracle that happened in Naim occurred when Jesus saw the mourners and was moved by their pain. It is unlikely that we would have ever heard about that day in Nain if Jesus had ignored the mourners or simply said, "It's not as bad as you're making it out to be." We know about Nain because Jesus raised a dead man. And Jesus raised that dead man because he saw and acknowledged the reality before him.

These days in the life of the Church, it can feel a bit like we are trying too hard to ignore the corpse in our midst. We focus on committees, public relations, and statements, but we ignore the woman carrying the lifeless body of her son. We refuse to acknowledge that some deadly thing has taken the life of someone we love. Honestly, who of us really cares about the new transit system, the new environmental rules, or the newly formed committee when in front of us is a mourning mother holding the lifeless body of her son? In the face of that reality, everything else seems petty and vain. In the face of such sorrow, the only human thing to do is acknowledge the truth of it.

Instead of going about life as usual, let's process around with the dead body and mourn. Let us show Jesus how sorrowful we are that something we loved is rotting and decaying. Jesus is moved by the sorrow and helplessness of those whom he encounters.  No public relations strategy can bring the dead back to life. But, Jesus can. Jesus--who is moved by those who mourn and weep--raises the dead.

Does this mean that we curl up, die, and stop doing the things that are part of the life of the Church? No, but it means that we stop pretending like everything is normal and fine. It means we learn how to mourn and weep. It means that we face reality. It means that we weep firstly for our own sins which bring death to the city of our own soul. We carry the corpse of our soul to the Confessional and receive the life-giving touch of Christ. Then, we weep for the death and destruction that has come into the City of the Church. It means that we live in reality. The stench of the rotting corpse is not going to dissipate simply by ignoring it. Jesus is waiting for us to acknowledge it openly. When we do, he will touch the dead and bring new life. Converts, vocations, and strong Catholic communities will come from those places where people mourn. "Blessed are you who mourn." Converts, vocations, and strong Catholic communities will not come from places that try to be innovative and build a city that covers over the reality of sin and death. 

There has been a death in the midst of our City. The stench is apparent. Let's not ignore it or fear that it makes our City look bad. Instead, let's mourn and weep. And in so doing, we can be certain that Jesus--who looks with mercy on those who mourn--will restore what was lost. Jesus--and Jesus alone--will raise the dead.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily: Don't Believe in Something. Believe in Someone.

"Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."  It's a catchy phrase. It capitalizes on our desire to do big things, to make a difference, to be heroic. But, it kind of sounds a bit like, "Believe in anything. Just believe in something...whatever it is." But, we know that people have believed in some very bad ideas throughout human history and--on the altar of those beliefs--have sacrificed a great many lives.

Today, Jesus asks the crowd, "Who do people say that I am?" It's a good question. What are the people who've heard about me, seen me from a distance, or read about me saying?  If we were asked that question today, we might tell the Lord, "Some people say that you are a great teacher, a moral leader, or a very kind and accepting person." Basically, the crowds say that Jesus is a really really nice guy. 

Then Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?" Now Jesus asks his apostles--a smaller crowd--what they themselves say to this important question. I've often heard it said that if you want something not to work, form a committee. If you really want it not to work, have the committee write a mission statement. The apostles didn't decide to have a meeting about this important question. They didn't form a sub-committee to look into it and arrive at a consensus statement. Instead, Peter blurts out, "You are the Christ!" 

Jesus did not want the apostles to "believe in something." He wanted them to believe IN HIM. Peter did not give that answer because he was so smart that he figured it out. He gave that answer because he was given faith to believe. Faith is not about listening to the crowds around us and adopting the most popular or most attractive belief. Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ because it was revealed to him. Faith is believing WHAT Christ says because we believe WHO He is. 

In a short while, you're all going to approach the altar and I'm going to hold up what appears to be a piece of flat bread. I'm going to say, "The Body of Christ" and you are not going to say, "Well some people say it's just bread. Some people say its a symbol of love." No, you're going to say, "Amen. I believe." You believe it not because you've done a chemical analysis on it and have seen proof that it is actually the Body of Christ. You believe it not because some really other smart people figured it out and you figure you'll just follow along. No, you believe it because you believe Him. You believe that the One who said, "This is My Body, This is My Blood," is the Son of God Himself. You believe what he says because you believe the One who says it. This the gift of Faith.

Now, as soon as Peter made this act of Faith, Jesus explains that He will suffer, be crucified, and died. Immediately, Peter goes back to a worldly way of looking at things.  He doesn't like the idea of a Messiah who suffers. And so he says that the disciples won't allow such a thing to happen. And Jesus rebukes him. Why? Because believing Jesus means believing Him even when it contradicts our own emotions, wants, or plans. In fact, it especially means that. When we believe Jesus when it requires suffering, sacrifice, and loss, that is a special act of Faith. Our Faith grows through in moments such as these.

I've got to tell you, it is so great this morning to look out and see all of you at Mass. In most parishes, I'd be one of the young people at Mass!  But here, I'm one of the oldest. (I see a few outliers here who make me not quite the oldest, but I'm in the top ten percent!) Here you are though. You're at Mass on this beautiful day.  You could be outside enjoying the sun, but instead you're in here at Mass. Why? Because you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. You believe Him when He says, "I am the Bread of Life. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you." You believe what he says because you believe the one who says it. 

It's not about "believing something." I mean some people probably say, "I believe in the sun." "I believe in kindness." Blech! The sun might give you skin cancer, but it won't give you eternal life. You're here this morning because you have Faith. Maybe part of you wanted to just lay out and enjoy the good weather. But, you believe in Someone and you believe what that Someone has said.  It's so beautiful today seeing you live out your Faith.

Oftentimes, the greatest challenges to our faith is when it requires sacrifice on our part. We want Faith, but we don't want the Cross. But Faith demands that we take up our Cross. It means sacrificing everything. It means following Jesus, especially when doing so requires us to die to ourselves. 

 We don't just believe in something. We believe in Someone. We believe in Jesus Christ. And we believe Him that if we sacrifice everything to follow Him, He will save us and raise us up.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Unhealthy Ambition and the Crisis in the Church

The current crisis confronting the Church has had no shortage of proposals for reform. Most proposals are administrative in nature, revolving around committees, rules, and meetings. Approaches such as these can be beneficial, but they are not sufficient. One proposal that I would make sounds like another administrative one, but it is more than that. It is a theological reform. It is a very simple proposal: Stop moving bishops from one diocese to the next. 

So often ecclesiastical gossip revolves around which bishop is rumored for a bigger diocese. Smaller dioceses must often feel as though they are mere stepping stones for bishops on their way up the ecclesiastical ladder. A bishop, however, is supposed to be married to his diocese. He is not supposed to be looking for a better wife somewhere else. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, bishops are often on the move. When the possibility of a "bigger and better" job looms large it can (if one is given over to unhealthy ambition) lead to a neglect of proper pastoral care, and unfortunately, to worse.

Unhealthy ambition, for instance, could prevent a bishop from taking a controversial stand, preaching the full gospel, or from making radical and necessary reforms in his diocese. Out of fear of drawing negative press, a bishop might choose silence as the best way of advancing upwards. Fear of getting a bad reputation could prevent a bishop from fraternally correcting a brother bishop. If he's looking to get a "better" diocese, he would be hesitant to rock the boat. Bishops who are looking to advance would likely be on the speaking circuit and constantly traveling outside of their dioceses. The ambitious man might become very skilled at pleasing those who can advance his cause, but less skilled at advancing the cause of the Kingdom. He can seek to serve those who are influential in affecting promotions at the cost of serving the flock. 

Let the man who becomes a bishop know that he will be spending the rest of his life serving this one particular flock. Let him invest all of his talent, energy, and--most importantly--pastoral charity to the care of this particular diocese. Let his total care be about this diocese, not the next one, nor the one after that. Let it be a true marriage, in good times and in bad, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part. This is what the Church intends for bishops and their dioceses. Why not make it an actual lived reality?

Of course, such a proposal is not a solution without danger. It's possible that a diocese could be stuck with a bad or ineffective bishop. Solutions, however, can be found for that problem, but it would be far more difficult to find a solution for the ambitious bishop. If he's always got his eye on the next rung on the ladder, then his foot is busy crushing the rung of his own diocese. Obviously not all bishops are unhealthily ambitious, but the system of "promotion" to bigger dioceses and archdioceses does run the risk of rewarding those who are. It runs the risk of weakening dioceses by promoting those who focus less on pastoral care and more upon networking with those who can help their careers.  

Might there be times when a bishop needs to move from one diocese to another? Sure, but those should be exceedingly rare. By eliminating the presumption of promotion, the fraternity of priests with the bishop would be strengthened, the trust in the bishop would be increased, and the bishop himself would be totally free to act according to his best pastoral judgment rather than worrying about losing his chance for a promotion. 

Good bishops wouldn't be looking for the next best diocese anyways, so this proposal would not be injurious to them. And, this proposal would also benefit those who might be tempted toward unhealthy ambition by removing the possibility of "promotion." The best thing for a bishop to become is not an archbishop or a cardinal. The best thing for a bishop to become is a better and holier bishop. And, of course, there would be a great number of good and holy bishops (archbishops and cardinals) who would agree.

These days, the happiest bishops are probably the retired ones! In the years ahead, the men who do say "yes" to being a bishop will certainly be well aware that they are truly accepting a greater share in the Cross. They will know that they are not climbing the ladder of earthly success, the ladder of earthly esteem, or the ladder of earthly power. They will--we pray--be men who know that they are climbing up onto the Cross. The men who wear that Cross over their chest must certainly be feeling the burden of its weight these days. We should pray for all of them, that they be strengthened to carry it well. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Pray For The Average and Below Average Priests Too

The other night, another priest and I were discussing something that we've seen and heard a lot recently. In their kindness, people have commented, "We're praying for all of you good priests." These days, the"good" qualification, it seems, is often assigned to those who haven't abused children, covered it up, or preached outright heresy. But to be honest, that's a pretty low threshold! 

It's not that we don't appreciate the prayers, but we'd be happier if you'd just pray for us period. We're not always good priests any more than any of you are always a good husband, wife, father, mother, teacher, or friend. I hope that we're trying to be good and holy priests, but some days it's easier than others. We don't want you to pray for us because we're good because sometimes we are not. Sometimes we're average, below average, or just plain failures. We want you to pray for us so that we will become more like the One who alone is Good. 

Following the words of St. Paul, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God . . . "(Rom 8:28). The present crisis in the life of the Church is likely being used by the Lord to purify all of us and make us holier. You would have to be a total spiritual knucklehead not to have examined your own conscience during these past weeks. While the vast majority of priests are not guilty of the serious sins (and crimes) that today fill the headlines, we are all, nonetheless, confronted these days by our own failures, sins, and negligences. Many of us (I don't think it's only me!!) are seeing anew the nobility of our vocation, and we are more aware of our own failures to live out that calling in imitation of Christ, the Good Shepherd. It's a grace that this is happening, but it's not a cheap grace. The Lord is pruning us, removing from us every branch that does not bear fruit, and even the branches that are bearing fruit, he prunes so that they bear more fruit. Pruning is costly, but it is fruitful.

While there was only one Judas among the Twelve, the other Eleven didn't boast and say, "Well, we may have denied and abandoned Jesus, but at least we weren't as bad as Judas." They weren't known as the "Eleven Good Apostles." They were men called by Christ, men who were sinners in need of continuing conversion and sanctification. 

There is nothing more consoling than to hear from people that they are praying for us. So please, pray for us priests. But, don't pray for us because you think we are good. Pray for us because we are called to holiness. Pray because the Church needs holy priests. Pray for us because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Pray that we become not just good, but that we become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. 

Thank you for praying for us.

Monday, September 3, 2018

How the Sheep Smell Right Now

One of Pope Francis' most memorable phrases is that priests ought to take on the smell of the sheep. Most priests live in the midst of their people. They don't spend a lot of time being advised by lawyers, diplomats, or public relations specialists, unless those persons also happen to be our parishioners. I spend almost all of my day in contact with regular people. As a college chaplain, I hang out with young people, eat with them, pray with them, and evangelize with them. Parish priests see the sheep every day. They meet them at daily Mass, at wakes, in the coffee shop, at the dinner table, in the confessional, and in a million other locations.

The sheep are angry right now. They're disgusted, sorrowed, confused, and bewildered. The sheep are looking for answers. More often than not, the place they come to for answers is their shepherds, their priests. Only the worst kind of priest would want to encourage their sheep towards greater anger or deeper alienation. Good priests--most priests--want to explain things. Most priests want to show the flock that things are more complicated than they sometimes appear. Most priests do not want to add fuel to the fire, but want to put things into context. Most Catholics are not looking for blood. They are not looking for widespread resignations and executions of bishops etc. Certainly if things are egregious enough they might want resignations, but most Catholics just want to hear the plain truth. That's what they want their priests to tell them. 

Priests are out in the field with the sheep. We have the Gospel, but we don't have answers to the questions people are asking about McCarrick, Vigano, and the Pope. The sheep are asking their shepherds, but we don't know the answers. Right now priests feel as though we are in the field fighting off the wolves and mending the wounded sheep, and then, just when we think the pasture is secure and the sheep safe, another attack comes. Sometimes this attack is from those who purposefully try to stir the sheep up and frighten them with half truths or sensationalized rumors. Other times, however, these attacks come from above. They come in the form of Tweets and statements from high ranking priests, bishops, and cardinals. It does not comfort the sheep who feel the gaze of the wolf upon them when an advisor to the Pope tweets out that "the Pope draws energy from conflict." The sheep do not draw energy from this conflict. The sheep are wounded by this conflict. They do not want to hear that the Pope is energized by it. Similarly, Catholic social media personalities who lay claim to the title of defenders of the purity of the Church and then resort to uncharitable, calumnious, or rash judgments about their opponents, are also inflicting injuries upon the sheep. 

Many of the sheep feel as though men who should be their shepherds are in league with the wolves. Bishops and priests in power have insulted them, dismissed them, and abandoned them. The sheep--the ones who come each week to our churches longing to feed on solid doctrine and the Eucharist, the ones who come to confession and bring their children to Mass, the ones who have suffered for the Faith, the ones who are entering the seminaries and religious life, the ones who contribute to the works of the Church and who sacrifice for the Church, the ones who come to Adoration, defend the doctrines, and who evangelize---these sheep, many of them feel as though they've become the enemy of those who exercise power from various offices of the Church. And, with each dismissive and insulting tweet or statement, their confidence in the Church weakens.  They feel abandoned.

I hope that those who seemingly find glee in perpetuating this crisis (those who throw bombs from both sides) know that they are damaging the flock. I know from personal experience that they are hurting the flock. They are wounding the sheep of His pasture. The Pope and the bishops should speak, not because they are being pressured from external forces, but because their sheep are in danger. I'm telling you, the sheep are in real danger. I know this because I--like most regular priests--are among the sheep. We're doing our best, but the attacks keep coming. The snarky tweets, carefully crafted statements, and dismissive silences are leaving the shepherds in the field in a precarious situation. 

If shepherds should take on the odor of the sheep, then the priests of today smell like blood because Christ's sheep are wounded. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Seminarians Amid the War

Today I attended a Mass of the Holy Spirit for the opening of the new year at St. John's Seminary in Boston. Like most priests, I pretty much think that I know everything, so I definitely have strong opinions about certain things that I think should change at the seminary. But I want to tell you what I saw today as I looked around the seminary's beautiful chapel.

I saw seminarians whom I have come to know over the years. Some I know only by sight. Others, I know because they've come to do pastoral work at the BU Catholic Center where I am the chaplain. Some I know through my work as a spiritual director. Some I know because I assisted them as they decided to enter the seminary. I looked around and saw good, strong, holy men. Men who showed up to seminary today in the midst of the worst crisis to ever hit the Catholic Church in the United States. Men who showed up today in the midst of an inquiry into their seminary that many of them consider to be based upon unjust, untrue, unfounded, or exaggerated accusations. Men who showed up despite their families and friends reading all manner of horrible things about the Church. They showed up because they know what their life there is all about. They showed up because they are not cowards. They showed up because they are men who want to lay down their life for Jesus and for the people of the Church. These are men who love the Lord and who love the Church. They are joyful men. They are serious men. They are good men. Can I speak for every seminarian? No, I can't. And, chances are that some of them have a lot of maturing to do. I know when I entered the seminary, I had a lot of maturing to do. When I looked around, I was moved by their goodness, their strength, and their desire to serve. They showed up.

I saw priests whom I know and admire who serve on the faculty. Do I know all of the faculty members well? No, but I know some of them well. Are they perfect? No, they are not, (they'd be the first to admit that). But they are good men who are dedicated to the Church. They are humble and charitable men. They are men of solid doctrine who are generous shepherds. I think of one priest there who, in addition to all of his responsibilities at the seminary, always finds time regularly to say Masses at prison, to say early morning Mass each week for the Missionaries of Charity, and who is always generous in helping out parish priests. I saw new members of the faculty who are serious and joyful priests who are going to be great mentors to seminarians.

I just want people out there to know that in the midst of so much turmoil, vitriol, and scandal in the Church, scores of young men are still filled with the joy of the Gospel. They see how awful things are and yet, they are stepping into the breach and laying down their lives for Jesus. They are striving for holiness, striving for greatness, striving to be shepherds after the heart of Christ. Not knowing exactly what is ahead of them, they nonetheless are acting in Faith. They are charging into the battle because they are men of love and of character. They are disgusted by what they read, by what others have done etc, but they are not surrendering. They are on fire for Christ. 

It's true. The battlefield today is gruesome and shocking. It's easy to understand why some would choose to withdraw from the fight, especially when it appears that so many of the officers have failed. All the more impressive then is the willingness of these young men to charge ahead into the fray. They are not seeking prestige or power. They are not seeking accolades or honors. They are men  who, like their Lord, are ready to lay down their life for their friends. They are seeking a place near the Lord.

I envy these men. At a time when lesser men would flee the field of battle and seek comfort, they march forward under the banner of the Cross. Amid the clouds and chaos of conflict, they cannot see now how it ends, nor may they see it for many years to come. If, however, they remain faithful, how glorious indeed will be their victory.