Sunday, March 1, 2015

Want to Be Purified During Lent? Listen to Jesus

It's Sunday.  

This morning I drove into the BU Catholic Center with a seminarian who is staying with me this week while he is on Spring Break.  He graduated from BU last year.  Our first event for the day was Men's Group.  The Men's Group that is run by a couple of students and under the direction of our intern Bobby meets on Sundays and Thursdays.  On Thursdays they hang out, eat burgers, play video games, and do fun stuff.  On Sunday mornings, after eating doughnuts, they have a short talk and then pray together.  Today, one of the students gave a talk based on something that Pope Benedict XVI had written on the Eucharist.  It was solid food.  After that, we all prayed the Rosary together.  It was impressive to glance around the chapel and see 16 young men praying the Rosary together.

After Men's Group, we headed over to the 12:30pm Mass.  Although God obviously is always doing something awesome at every Mass, sometimes that awesomeness is more palpable.  Today was one of those days. I just had this tremendous sense that God was touching us today, revealing his Glory, and helping us to follow Him.  Yeah, something was happening today.  There was just an outpouring of grace happening.  

The Gospel for today was the Transfiguration.  I mentioned at Mass how a few months ago, a young boy from my previous parish emailed me with a good theological question.  "If baptism washes away sin, why do we still sin after we're baptized?"  That's a pretty good question coming from a seven year old!  His question is a fitting one for today's readings.  Although the guilt of sin is washed away in the waters of baptism (and through Sacramental Confession), the wounds caused by sin still remain.  The wounds of sin hinder us from seeing and judging reality properly.  This is, in part, why we are attached to transient things and why we forget about God.  Our wounded intellects hinder us from judging things properly.  How do we heal the wound left in our intellects?  

Today's Gospel shows us and tells us.  The disciples were about to see some horrible things.  They would see Jesus humiliated, scourged, beaten, crucified, and killed.  He would appear to be a complete failure.  But, in the Transfiguration, his Divine Glory shines through his humanity.  Jesus is not just another good guy who ends up in a bad way.  He is God.  To help the apostles to see and judge Christ's suffering and death appropriately, Jesus reveals quite powerfully his divinity.  And, God the Father testifies, "This is MY Beloved Son.  Listen to Him."  How do we heal our intellectual blindness?  By the purifying light of Faith.  And how do we grow in Faith?  By listening to Christ.  Our wills and passions all need to be purified and healed.  But, today is a good day to focus on our need for intellectual healing.  The more we profess Christ's divinity, listen to him with humility, and judge our life according to his Word, the more our spiritual blindness is lifted and we see and know the world as God sees and knows the world.  We can grow each day in Faith and this growth in Faith heals the blindness of our hearts.  The more we grow in Faith, the more we come to recognize a very fundamental truth that spiritual blindness often hinders us from seeing: Jesus is God.  I am not God.  

After Mass, I returned to the Catholic Center and am now sitting in my office listening to a couple of dozen students meeting downstairs with our FOCUS Missionaries.  One of the students is giving a witness about how God is working in his life.  

At a university this size, I certainly wish that there were thousands more involved in our Catholic life together.  But, one thing is certainly true.  The grace and life contained in one mustard seed is more powerful than all of the evil in the entire world.  The fact that 16 guys show up to pray together on a Sunday morning is awesome.  The fact that students show up for Mass, desire to grow in holiness, seek the Sacrament of Confession, pray, and witness to one another . . . pure awesomeness.  Today, all of us climbed up the mountain with Jesus and He has revealed to us His Glory.  He has reminded us that He is God.  He has shown his divinity to me today by the outpouring of his grace into the humanity of these young people.  

I find it very moving that these young people have a desire to grow in they're discipleship.  They are hungering to learn how to pray, to deepen their Faith, to go out into the deep.  It's also a great blessing that the Church is responding to the desires of these young people by providing a Catholic Center and a Catholic liturgical life on campus.  

Thanks to all of those who support us through your generosity to our ministry and through your prayers.  God is doing something beautiful among the young people here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Priest's Day: Wonderment and Unworthiness of the Three Great Gifts

I know that "What is a priest's day like" is a topic of interest to probably a very small number of people.  Even smaller in number are the people who are interested in what this priest's day was like.  But, today was a particularly happy day for me.

This morning I woke up and prayed.  This alone is a privilege.  Sometimes we can treat prayer as though it were an inconvenience or a burden.  But, when I'm thinking clearly, I realize that prayer is such an awesome gift.  There are people who never pray.  Maybe no one ever taught them or they don't even know anything about God.  There are other people who wake up in the morning and have babies crying or they have to get breakfast ready for their children. They don't have the privilege of praying first thing in the morning.  The best that they can do is squeeze in a brief prayer when they awake.  There are other people who are in hospitals or nursing homes.  Among them, some are too weary to pray and others have perhaps forgotten how to pray.  But, I have the capacity, the knowledge, and the freedom to pray when I wake up.  How privileged am I?

Having finished prayer and driven to work, I spent a good amount of time talking to our Office Manager, Fran (a model of charity). On my way up, upstairs to pray a Holy Hour, I ran into a student.  I asked him, "What's going on?"  He mentioned something about his life and said, "So, I'm going upstairs to the chapel to pray."  When we got there, there was already another student there praying.  It is a privilege to see young people praying.

During my prayer time, I was struck by the intensity of this young man's prayer.  Kneeling, eyes closed, still as can be.  It was moving to me.  Soon, the three of us who were there were joined by two or three others.  During the Holy Hour, I was reading a little bit from a great spiritual book and the author was speaking about the active purification of the memory.  His point was basically that we often allow our memory to be filled with things that hinder us from growing in the spiritual life.  We remember our past sins and the ways that others have hurt us.  These memories can often lead us to a forgetfulness of God.  The author says that the way to purify the memory is continuously to call to mind the great things that God has done, most especially to ponder the Eucharist.  It's a blessing that I have the opportunity to spend this hour with God and to read such holy things.

After Holy Hour, we had Mass.  For some reason or another, today was one of those days that I wished Mass could just continue forever. I was in the zone.

After Mass, one of the students and I had lunch together.  I'm blessed that my congregation lives, eats, works, and prays in the same place.  I see a lot of them every day and not just once a week. We live the life of a strong Catholic community, sharing not only the sacraments together, but life in all of its aspects.

When I returned from lunch, I checked my email and found an unexpected and beautiful email from a former parishioner of mine.  I've been blessed along the way that lay people have really encouraged me in my priestly life.  Her email reminded me of how blessed I am to be a priest, to live a closeness with lay people, and to have the joy of sharing the Word.  

I took an hour's nap.  (I gave up feeling guilty about taking a little nap a long time ago)!

This evening, a young priest--Fr. Tom MacDonald--came and gave a talk to the students on how to discern your vocation.  Although I knew that he would do a great job, I was really struck by how excellent it was.  The students loved it.  Their questions were wonderful and Fr. Tom did a great job responding to their questions.  My heart really was filled with a certain pride because this priest who is a friend of mine was giving such an awesome presentation and because the students were so engaging and articulate in their questioning.  It was beautiful to witness this.

At the end of the evening, as all of us were just conversing, I was also struck by the two Jesuit seminarians who work with us at the Catholic Center.  These two guys are really solid and I have really come to appreciate their spirituality, generosity, presence, and friendship.

On my way home, I drove two of our FOCUS Missionaries home and enjoyed giving one of them a hard time. Some day, when she's in heaven and I am still in Purgatory (I hope), she will have the last laugh.

As I was pulling into my driveway, I received a text from one of the students.  The text reminded me again of what an awesome privilege it is to be a priest.  Who am I?

God places three very beautiful gifts into the hands of a priest.  He places his Word, His Body and Blood, and His People.  I have the privilege of spending my whole life holding these three gifts.  There's an intimacy that develops between the priest and these gifts.  The more this intimacy grows, the more unworthy of it you feel.  To be chosen by God to hold these sacred treasures is a cause for pure wonderment.  Paradoxically, the more this intimacy increases, the more incomprehensible the whole thing becomes.  It is nearly impossible to believe that tomorrow I could feel any less worthy of  this vocation or any more filled with wonder by it.  But, this is the nature of Divine Love.  When it manifests itself, we are filled with wonder and humility before it.  I suppose that this is a foretaste of what heaven must be like. The saints must gaze upon the Blessed Trinity and wonder, "How is it possible that I am here?"  For me, this is what priesthood is like.  How is it possible that God loves me this much to place into my hands, His Word, His Body and Blood, and His people?  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seeing the Church at Her Best

It's awesome to see the Church work like it is supposed to work.  This weekend I was on retreat with the students at the Boston University Catholic Center.  I'm completely wiped out (but am trying to keep myself awake for the 10pm Mass tonight!).  Here's what I witnessed:

  • Mr. Michael Lavigne who is the Director of Lifelong Formation and Parish Support for the Archdiocese of Boston gave four excellent talks and was loved by the students.  For me, the two most outstanding things about Michael is 1. He's a believer and 2. He's a husband and father of seven children.  It's great to have lay people like Michael working at the Archdiocese of Boston.
  • The students organized the retreat, developed the theme, provided witness talks and some very awesome skits, and kept the whole thing going.  They picked "Proclaim" as the theme.  The overall idea was that they want to know how to bring Christ to others and to do so by meeting people where they are at.  In particular, they want to be able to engage common human experiences--like suffering--with the truth of the Gospel. In other words, we all suffer.  So, that's a place where we can introduce the Gospel to others. (This is particularly necessary on a college campus that is increasingly secular and where religion is often pushed aside or reduced.  Instead of just bemoaning the fact that it is increasingly more difficult to attract other students to the Catholic activities on campus, they                                                                                                      want to know what we can do better and how to do it better.)
  • Bobby LeBlanc, one of our interns (and a BU Catholic Center alumnus) kept the whole retreat organized.  Need an answer?  Ask Bobby.  Need something done?  Bobby already did it.  Bobby has volunteered here for the past two years and it kills me that the BU Catholic Center doesn't have the funds to pay him a salary to keep him here.  If you're a pastor looking for someone to work in your parish, I'd steal Bobby in a heartbeat.  Or, if you're a wealthy person who wants to give me money to keep him at BU, even better!!!
  • Danny and Camille are a young married couple who are also alumni of the BU Catholic Center.  They play music here, direct the RCIA, and help out in a thousand different ways.  They led the music for the retreat.  It's pretty impressive to see the music program they pull together for the retreat.  (And, after a very long weekend, they're downstairs right now teaching RCIA).
  • We have two Jesuit scholastics working with us this year, one of whom is a transitional deacon.  Besides assisting in the liturgies, they spent most of the weekend slaving away in the kitchen cooking meals, preparing food, and cleaning dishes.
  • Fran, our Office Manager, does everything.  She was head chef for the weekend.  Along with her friend Dolores, Fran kept us alive.  Cooking for approximately 70 people for an entire weekend, is a big task.  They are awesome and generous.
  • Our FOCUS Missionaries also helped man the kitchen, provide spiritual support to the students, and help us with logistical needs.  Wesley, one of our missionaries gave a wonderful witness talk during the retreat.  
  • Some priests made a long trip up to hear confessions for everyone on retreat.  
  • While some students were running the retreat, they all participated in the retreat.  I was struck--yet again--by the way in which the people in this community help one another to follow Christ, to pray with one another, and to love and encourage one another.
  • I often say that I am clearly the beneficiary of those who were here on staff before me.  Over the years, the BU Catholic Center has had some people who really knew what they were doing when it came to Campus Ministry.  I am totally indebted to them.
If I forgot anyone . . . remember, I'm wiped out!  Sorry!

I need to be surrounded by witnesses.  I look at all of these people and am grateful for the opportunity to see the Church at her best.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fasting, Prayer, and What's the Other Thing?

It's a problem. Whenever I think about what to do for Lent or preach about fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, I easily come up with long lists of possible ways to fast or to pray.  There are a million things to sacrifice, a ton of ways to fast, and a zillion possible ways to add to the life of prayer.  But, that whole almsgiving thing . . . .  So many of the suggestions out there seem cheesy. You know what I mean.  "Change your light bulbs to the energy efficient type." I'm not saying that's a bad idea.  I'm just saying that it's not exactly what I really need.  Sure I can give money--which is important--but even donating until it hurts seems like it happens and then it's done.  (But . . . I should still give money!)

Today's reading from the Prophet Isaiah is tough.  It gets to the heart of the matter.  It literally gets to the heart.  These prophets had it tough!  God commands Isaiah to go tell the people of their wickedness.  And, God doesn't say, "Go and try to persuade my people that they really ought to try harder."  He says, "Cry out full-throated and unsparingly."  God means business!

And what exactly seems to be the problem?  The Lord says that on these fast days, "you carry out your own pursuits."  It's as though the people are doing all of the external things, but these things are not changing their hearts.  They are concerned about appearing to be fasting, but they are completely blind to the suffering of those around them.  Surrounding them are the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless, the naked, and those bound unjustly.  Those who are fasting have reduced their actions merely to external appearances.

Our fasting, works of penance, and prayer are only acceptable if they open our hearts and our eyes to those in need.  Today, we will all encounter persons who are in need.  The question is whether we will see them or not?  Will we recognize their need and be moved to alleviate their suffering?  Fasting and prayer are vital to the Christian life, but only if they open our hearts and eyes.  Today is D-Day Plus Two (Ash Wednesday Plus Two). It is already a good moment to step back and ask ourselves about Lent: Will I carry out my own pursuits today or will I do the work of the Kingdom?

May our fasting and prayer today not lead us toward a stagnant, self-congratulatory satisfaction with the appearance of a good fast day.  Instead--by the grace of Christ--may our eyes and hearts recognize the material and spiritual needs of others and respond in kind.


This afternoon the BU Catholic Center leaves for a retreat weekend.  Our retreat director is Mr. Michael Lavigne, the Director of Lifelong Formation and Parish Support for the Archdiocese of Boston.  Please pray for him, for the students, and for the staff.  These retreats are primarily organized and run by the students, and they've been working for months putting it all together.  May the Lord touch all of our hearts so that we might proclaim Him with our lives.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

D-Day Plus One: What Are You Prepared to Do About Sin?

There's a great scene in the movie, "The Untouchables" when Elliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) is talking to an old time Irish Chicago cop (played by Sean Connery).  Costner has been trying to convince Connery to join him in the fight against Al Capone.  The two of them meet in a church and Sean Connery says, "So you said you want to know how to get Capone.  Do you really want to get him?  See what I'm saying?  What are you prepared to do?"  After Costner says that he's prepared to do everything within the law, Connery tells him that's not enough.  He says, "You must be prepared to go all the way because they won't give up the fight until one of you is dead."

During the past few days, I've been reading through a great spiritual classic and I've noticed a recurring theme.  As the author discusses various capital sins--pride, lust, envy, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and anger, he continuously states that these things do not need to be moderated.  They need to be mortified.  Sometimes in our spiritual lives, we think that we can go halfway, that we can negotiate with our vices.  We think becoming less prideful, less lustful, or less envious will be enough.  We try, in a sense, to make a friend out of our vices.  In the words of Sean Connery, when it comes to our vices, "You must be prepared to go all the way because they won't give up the fight until one of you is dead."

In the first reading today--the Thursday after Ash Wednesday--Moses says to the people, "I have set before you today life and death." He does not mention a third option.  There is no negotiating a settlement where the people can opt for 2/3's virtue and 1/3rd vice.  It is life or death.  A blessing or a curse.

There is something frightening about this.  It sounds so "all or nothing."  It sounds that way because that's exactly how it is.  Imagine if your future spouse said to you, "I want to marry you and it is my intention to be 85% faithful to you."  That's not what you'd want to hear.  In a similar way, when we approach our relationship with God, we want to strive towards giving him our entire heart.  Sure, we might fail.  But, we have to want to begin with a desire to be completely faithful.  We don't want to say to God, "I intend to be 85% faithful to you."

In today's Gospel, Jesus says, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever lose his life for my sake will save it.  What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?"  In other words, if we desire to save our sins--hang on to them, keep them, try to make friends with them, negotiate for their safe-keeping, we will lose our life.  But, if we put those things to death by taking up our cross and mortifying ourselves, then we will save our life.  We have to die to ourselves.

If we are attentive during this Lent, we might discover that those capital vices of pride, avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, and envy are at work in us more than we thought.  And, if we try to fight them, they will hit back hard.  We shouldn't get discouraged.  We do not fight alone.  As today's psalm reminds us, "Blessed are they who hope in the Lord."  Sometimes, when we fight these vices, we might actually feel like we are in a battle to the death.  That's because we are.  We are putting the old man to death and putting on the new man who is Christ Jesus.  But, we do not fight this battle on our own.  We fight it in and through Christ.  "Blessed are they who hope in the Lord."

So, there it is.  Today--not tomorrow, not next week, not next Lent, not some day when I'm ninety--no, today there is placed before us life and death, a blessing and a curse.  We cannot put on the new man without putting to death the old man.  There's no compromise.  Do you want to live the new life of Christ Jesus?  Then you have to go after the vices.  But, make no mistake about it, "You must be prepared to go all the way because they won't give up the fight until one of you is dead."

Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

He Does Not Treat Us According to Our Sins

When I woke up this morning and prayed the psalms for the Office of Readings for Ash Wednesday, I was struck by a line from Psalm 103.  One of the great things about the scriptures is that you can read the same line hundreds of times in the course of your life and suddenly feel like you've read it for the first time.  While I was praying, I was thinking about various persons that I know and their struggles. In the midst of that, I came across the verse that stopped me in my tracks. "He does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults."  A few lines later, it says, "For He knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust."

On this day when we are signed with ashes and told to "remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return," the psalms remind us that God knows we are dust.  This line struck me as beautifully merciful.  In the reading today from the Prophet Joel, God begs us to return to Him.  He's the one who has been rejected.  We should be begging Him to take us back. But, He puts himself in the position of begging us!  "Return to me!"  He doesn't need us, but He begs us to come back to Him. He was the abandoned spouse, but instead of rejecting us because of our poor treatment of Him, He lowers Himself to be a beggar: "Return to me!" He remembers that we are dust.

He does not deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults!  The Lord gives us the season of Lent so that we can return to Him, so that we can love Him again.  There is a way to fix things!  This way is the way of penance.  It is the way of fasting, prayer, and works of mercy.  It is the Way of the Cross. Is it a difficult way?  Yes.  But it is a way!  Far worse for us would be for God to repay us according to our faults, to deal with us according to our sins. God could say to us, "You rejected me.  Now deal with the consequences."  But that is not what happens.  He begs us to come back.

There are so many people who live as though their sin is the final word on their life.  They live as though there's nothing left for them to do.  Today, God stands before us and--to our amazement--asks us to come back to Him.  God wants us!  It's ridiculous, but it's true.  God does not want to deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our faults. He wants us to be with Him.

Today, it was beautiful to look out at Mass and see so many college students. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and the ashes aren't magic ashes.  They don't magically turn us into people who now love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  The ashes are only a sign of our need to do penance.  I like to think of Ash Wednesday as D-Day.  We've hit the beach and done some praying, fasting, and acts of mercy.  But, the allies didn't win the war on D-Day.  The next day was D-Day plus one, then D-Day plus two, and so on.  Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, not the end.  The next day is Ash Wednesday plus one.  We have to remain steadfast and strong all the way to Ash Wednesday plus forty!  This is a time for us--day by day--to accept God's invitation to "return to me."  

We've landed on the beach.  We've begun the campaign, but the war isn't over.  We've turned away from God and rejected Him, but He does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our faults.  He knows that we are but dust!  In the face of this Divine Mercy, let's return to Him through a campaign of spiritual discipline.  Our reward is nothing less than God Himself.

D-Day is over.  Time for Ash Wednesday Plus One.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lent: A Battle for the Love of God

Last night during adoration, I was reading through a spiritual classic and the author was discussing why we need to practice mortification.  If I had any doubts that I should be taking Lent seriously this year, the reading solved that.  At one point, the author quotes The Imitation of Christ stating, "Nature proposes self as her end,  but grace does all things purely out of love for God."  These words really struck me.  Among other things, mortification assists us to live life purely out of love for God rather than seeking merely natural ends. We are made for a supernatural end, but our inclination is to settle for less.  Mortification helps us to live for more.

As I read those words last night, I thought, "I need a LOT of mortification."  Too easily, I settle for less than the grandeur for which I was created.  Between the place where I stand right now and living "purely for the love of God," there is quite a chasm!  Lent is given to us so that--by God's grace--we can narrow the gap between where we are and where He calls us to be.

On this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, I am filled with a mixture of emotions.  I am like a man on the eve of battle.  Part of me wants to jump in, storm the beachhead, and engage the battle.  But, part of me is a little nervous about the enemies and their strength.  Of course, one enemy is our ancient foe, the Prince of Darkness and the Father of Lies.  Another enemy is the world and it's seductive allure.  But, probably my most lethal enemy is me!  I carry within myself a soldier who is prone towards being derelict in his duties. In the face of even the slightest opposition, he's prone to retreat and surrender.  It wouldn't take 30 pieces of silver for this soldier to become a betrayer.  No, just a little bit of hunger, some minor inconvenience, some small suffering, or the promise of some transient pleasure and this soldier is all too willing to betray his supernatural end.  

Of course, all of this just proves the point that I need Lent.  I need this time of mortification so that I can bridge the gap that exists between my supernatural destiny of loving God purely and the place where I am now.  Although I might be my worst enemy, God has not abandoned me to myself.  If I were heading out onto that battlefield alone, I might as well just stay home.  But, Lent is lived together.  When we go out into the battlefield of the desert, we discover that Christ is already there.  We live Lent united to Christ.  He strengthens us especially through the Sacraments and His Word.  

Additionally, we live this Lent with our brothers and sisters.  We are not the most organized, efficient, or well-trained fighting force.  We are all showing up for this battle a little ill-prepared and weak.  But, we are in this together.  I will be living this Lent in the company of the BU Catholic Center students and staff.  For me, it is a source of encouragement to be surrounded by others--especially these young men and women--who are striving to live their life purely for the love of God.  We will pray for each other, encourage one another, and pick one another up along the way.  We are in this together and there is strength in numbers.  

The landing craft door is about to open and the battle is set to begin.  Our opponent is the one who keeps us from living life purely for God.  That opponent is often ourselves!  Let's remember that our goal is to live life purely for love of God.  This would be a joyous and glorious victory!  But, it may hurt a little to get there.  As we prepare to storm the beaches, I'm grateful for those who do so with me.

Lock and load!