Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Evangelizing Leads to the Confessional: Exhausted by Mercy

There's probably nothing more exhausting in the life of a priest than hearing a lot of confessions.  But, that's not a complaint!  It's an exhaustion that says, "This is why I became a priest!"  Tonight, I have that kind of exhaustion.  This evening five brother priests and I spent two hours hearing confessions at Boston University.  It is just so awesome to see so many young people lining up to come to confession and receive God's mercy.  Man, it is so beautiful.

From my seat in the sanctuary where I was hearing confessions, I looked around and was so grateful for a truly ecclesial experience.  We talk a lot these days about the Church needing to evangelize.  When we say that, it means an evangelization that engages all of the Church's members.  Let me tell you what I experienced tonight.

I'm there hearing confessions of college students; lots of college students.  They're coming to me and I get to speak the words of absolution over them.  All around me, I see these other priests doing the same thing.  After their own full days, they made their way into Boston to help me out and to exercise the ministry of mercy.  For two hours, one penitent after another poured out their souls to them.  But, this was not just the work of priests.  Yes, we priests have this great privilege to hear confessions and absolve sinners.  But, we were being supported there by the whole Church.

The evening of confessions was organized by a committee of students.  They get the whole thing going.  They were there assisting students and directing them.  Our FOCUS Missionaries have been out on campus all week inviting people to come to confession.  They were emailing, calling, texting, and personally inviting students to confession.  Our interns and music ministers were there to assist, pray, and organize.  Some of our students just sat in the chapel and prayed during the time of confessions.  Students posted on Facebook and Twitter about the confession time and place.  All of this in order to help young people to encounter Christ in his Mercy.

But that isn't all.  All of these young people who encountered the mercy of Christ tonight benefited from those who donate to our Newman Center.  Those who support us make it possible for us to bring the sacraments to these students.  I think also of parish priests, parents, and parishioners who helped these young people and taught them about Christ and the Sacraments. They too were part of what happened tonight.  I thank all of them.

Tonight, I am grateful for all of these people who helped young men and woman to receive the grace of new life from Christ.  This, to me, is what the Church is all about.  We are all in this together.  We are in this in order to allow Christ to reach the people of today.  The zeal and dedication of so many Catholics tonight made it possible for many people to encounter Christ.  This is everything! This is the whole thing!  I am especially impressed by how filled with charity the Catholic students at Boston University are for their brothers and sisters.  In the midst of their own busy life, they pulled out all of the stops to help their fellow students to go to confession.  What beautiful charity!  These Catholic students want others to share in the joy of the Gospel, to experience the tenderness and mercy of the Sacraments, and to know the consolation of truly belonging to Christ and to His Church.

Sometimes, I look at these young people and I wonder, "Where did they get all of this?"  It's truly God's grace at work.  They are missionaries who carry with them a joy and attractiveness that is the hallmark of the Gospel.  Although it is the singular privilege of the priest to hear confessions and to impart absolution, I hope that the young people who tonight brought others face to face with the Mercy of God have some share also in the beautiful exhaustion and profound gratitude that I feel tonight.  The exhaustion of mercy is so awesome and these young evangelizers deserve to share in it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pope Francis and the Priesthood

The Pope said something today that made me really happy.  He's not the first to have said things like this.  In fact, Pope Benedict XVI often spoke similarly.  But, Pope Francis speaks in a bit more earthy a manner.  This is a good reminder to everyone about who the priest is.  There is a real temptation to professionalize the priesthood and attempt to transform it into something more mundane.  This advice to seminarians, given by the Pope, attempts to counteract this tendency.  Priesthood is messy.  If you live close to the people, it gets messy.  The priesthood created by committee attempts to avoid all messiness.  It turns the priest into somebody who keeps a safe distance from the lives of people, somebody who is detached from their experience, somebody remote and clinical.  It's a priesthood that fills out reports about people whom the priest really does not know.

Tonight, as I was sitting in Eucharistic Adoration with about thirty college students, I was thinking about how blessed I am to be close to them.  I don't mean that they are blessed that I am close to them.  I mean that I am blessed to be close to them.  I am still growing in my in my priesthood, in my discipleship, and in my manhood.  I presume that the way to grow in my life is to be close to the people whom Jesus has called me to shepherd.  This closeness not only (I hope) benefits them, but it benefits me.  This closeness is such a profoundly joyful experience in my life.  If I did not have this closeness with them, I feel as though I would only love them in some abstract and theoretical way.  The way in which I am called to draw closer to Christ is through my love for the people to whom he sends me.  If I were remote from them, I would be far from Christ.  

These words of the Pope really struck me and renewed in me a gratitude for my vocation and a gratitude for the people whom he places at my side, people who teach me every day what it means to be a shepherd.

“Dear seminarians, what you are preparing for is not a profession, you are not training to work in a business or a bureaucratic organization. We have so many priests who have gone half way … it’s sad that they did not manage to go the whole way; they have something of the employee in them, something of the bureaucrat in them and this is not good for the Church. Please be careful you don’t fall into this! You are becoming pastors in the image of Jesus, the good pastor. Your aim is to resemble him and act on behalf of him amidst his flock, letting his sheep graze."--Pope Francis

From the Cross He Awaits a Reply

Some of my most vivid memories from boyhood revolve around Holy Week.  I can recall attending the Sacred Triduum with my family, my brothers serving as the Altar Boys.  When I was finally old enough, I too would be on the altar for those liturgies.  One thing that particularly stands out for me is the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday.  As you may recall, many parishes involve the congregation in the Passion by having them assume lines from the mobs.  What I vividly recall is the great gusto with which my Mother took her role as a member of the crowd.  It is a bit jarring to hear your mother calling for the crucifixion of the Lord.  "Crucify him!"  "We want Barabbas!"

This memory, however, remains with me as something quite positive.  It reminds me of something important.  The people who denied Jesus, betrayed Jesus, humiliated Jesus, scourged Jesus, unjustly condemned Jesus, chose Barabbas over Jesus, mocked Jesus, who crucified Jesus, and those who remained faithful to Jesus . . . all of them . . . were people just like us.  They were people like my Mother, people like my Father, people like my brothers, people like my friends, people like me.  Christ was in front of them and they made a decision as to how they would relate to him.

During the reading of the Passion at Palm Sunday Mass this year, I was particularly struck by the disciples who fell asleep on Jesus.  This must have been a big suffering for Jesus.  Here he is about to offer the most tremendous act of love and endure incomprehensible suffering and the friends he has chosen to be with him in this moment fall asleep on him.  It must have increased in Jesus a sense of isolation and abandonment.  Those disciples . . . just like us.  We can be people who fall asleep in front of the love of God.  Asleep in ingratitude, asleep in distraction, asleep in the face of injustice, suffering, and pain.  In front of what is most real, true, good, and beautiful, we can just yawn and fall asleep in the mundane.  

All of us relate to Christ in one way or another.  This is the great mystery.  Our whole life is judged upon our relationship to Him.  Ignoring him, denying him, resisting him, betraying him, following him, loving him; these are all possibilities.  In Christ, God's love has become flesh.  Our position before Christ is our position before God's love.  God's love is a fact.  It is a fact who has become flesh and who has hung upon a Cross.  All of us are in a relationship to this Fact in one way or another.  We can betray this love, deny this love, ignore this love, yawn in front of this love, be moved to repentance by this love, follow this love, love this love, open ourselves to this love, be transformed by this love.  But, the one thing we cannot do is not be loved by this love.  The people in the Gospels were people like us.  They were loved by God and, in one way or another, they responded to this love.  This Love--this Crucified Love--stands at the center of human history and awaits our reply.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What I (re)Learned This Lent

Five times a day, priests are required to pray the Divine Office, which contains, among other things--a four week cycle of psalms.  Day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, it's the psalms.  It is always amazing to me how after eight years in the seminary and seventeen years as a priest, I still have, "Gee, I never really noticed that line before" moments.  Or, "I never really thought about that line before" moments.  It's one of the beautiful things about the Liturgy.  Every year, the liturgy goes through the same calendar and we do the same things on the same day, but discover newness within it.

Take Lent, for instance.  Every year, forty days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  I love the fact that we don't try to become more contemporary when it comes to Lent.  The Church never says, "You know, maybe there are better ways of becoming holy.  This year, let's forget about fasting, prayer, and charity and instead let's focus on other important things."  Nope.  Fasting. Prayer. Almsgiving.  Lent, two thousand years of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  

This year, I've had the best Lent I've had in a long time.  That's not because it was without its occasional failures, burdens, or trials.  It actually had plenty of those.  Lent was great because it was spent close to Jesus and close to His people.  What was particularly beneficial was spending an hour each day in Eucharistic Adoration.  It was awesome.  It was also awesome because most of those days, I was joined in that time of adoration with others.  That time of adoration was so fruitful.  

We are always called to grow in our Christian life.  Sometimes, we grow by learning new things about the Christian life and other times, we grow by simply being reminded of things was already know.  Here are some things that I learned this Lent.  Nothing too earth shaking here.  In no particular order:

Spending time before the Blessed Sacrament is awesome.
Spending time before the Blessed Sacrament with friends is awesome.
Confession is awesome.
Hearing Confessions is awesome.
Preaching is awesome.
Preparing homilies should always include reading the Patristic Fathers
Getting hungry while fasting is kind of the point.  It's what supposed to happen.  Relax.
When you fast, you lose weight (added benefit)
When you give up beer, you lose more weight
The Scriptures are so awesome.  
St. Paul is awesome.
What you ask the Father in Jesus' name, he will give you.
Cripps Pink Apples are the best apples
I love living priesthood close to the people
Jesus' mercy flows from his wounds and he wants mercy to flow from our wounds
St. Mark's Gospel uses the word, "immediately" a lot
There are no loopholes in the Gospel command to forgive
Everything depends upon prayer
Living Lent together makes it much more joyful and effective
The penances that the University students come up with are impressive
Knowing that other people pray for me really gives me joy
God speaks through the Scriptures
Fidelity to the Truth is to share in the Cross
Sometimes, you gotta roll back the stone even if it means there will be a stench
What others can intend for evil, God can intend for good.
The Rosary is powerful stuff
I'm weak
Sometimes, the only thing to do when beautiful truths are being undermined is to bear greater fidelity to those truths
Priests should love each other
Charity precedes all else
Politics in the Church is a poison
Don't drink the poison
Jesus always surrounds me with people who teach me by their friendship
I have a great assignment
Everything the Church teaches is true.  
Mourn when the Communion of the Church is injured, never injure it yourself, and do everything possible to repair it
Say what needs to be said
Presume good will on the part of others
He is Risen
He is truly Risen

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ministers of Mercy and Men of Mercy

This evening I got to give a brief homily at the seminary for its penance service.  The Gospel for the service was Matthew 18:21-35.

Brothers, in a week's time, we will approach and venerate the Wood of the Cross, upon which hung the Savior of the world.  Tonight we are afforded an opportunity to be certain that what we venerate with our lips next week, we also venerate within our hearts.

At our ordination, we hear the mandate to "Conform your life to the Mystery of the Lord's Cross."  We who will spend our whole life being ministers of God's mercy--a mercy that comes to us from the wounded side of the Crucified Christ--must also be men of mercy; men who show mercy; men who are conformed to the mystery of the Lord's Cross.

St. Peter knows that mercy requires a wound; that mercy is painful.  This is why he poses the question in tonight's Gospel.  "How many times must I forgive my brother who wounds me?"  Seventy times seven times is a lot of wounds.  It is also a lot of mercy.

St. Paul knew that mercy passes through wounds.  In writing to the Corinthians St. Paul says, "When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become and are now as though the refuse of the world, the dregs of all things."  (Put that on a vocations poster).  St. Paul, wounded repeatedly, conformed his life to the mystery of the Lord's Cross and allowed mercy to pour from his wounds.  Forgiving those who wound us is difficult, but there are no loopholes in the Gospel when it comes to loving and forgiving those who injure us.  Believe me, I've looked and there are no loopholes.

In a beautiful sermon on this Gospel passage, St. John Chrysostom says that when a brother wounds us, we ought to rejoice for ourselves and weep for our brother.  The more we are wounded, the more we are able to become like Jesus Christ who from the Cross forgave those who inflicted suffering upon him.  We ought to rejoice, says Chrysostom, because we are afforded the opportunity to show mercy.  But, says Chrysostom, we ought to weep for the one who injured us because that one has grown more distant from God.

Chrysostom says what we must never do is to drive the sword of hatred and vengeance into our own heart.  We think that this sword is directed at our foe, but really it pierces our own heart.  

Brothers, as we draw near to kiss the Wood of the Cross, let us not be like Judas whose kiss was a mockery.  Instead, let us conform our life to the Mystery of that Cross.  The mercy of God comes to us through the wounded side of Christ.  No wound, no mercy.  When we are wounded by our brother, let us conform our life to the mystery of the Lord's Cross.  Let us who are called to be ministers of mercy also be men of mercy, men after the heart of Christ; men who from our wounds pour out mercy seventy times seven times.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pastoral Charity: The Rock Foundation of This Priest's Certitude

There is a virtue that belongs specifically to the priest.  It is called, "pastoral charity."  This particular form of charity arises from the priest's union with Christ as Head and Shepherd of the Church.  Through this virtue, the people experience the love of the Good Shepherd through the instrumentality of the shepherd who stands in their midst and exercises priestly ministry.  Through this virtue, the priest feeds the flock, guides the flock, tends the injured sheep with the balm of sacramental mercy and unction, seeks out the lost sheep, and lays down his life for the sheep.

The priest, however, is not a hired hand.  If the priesthood were reduced simply to hired hands whose function was to perform certain duties or fill certain slots, then we would lose something significant.  Often enough, you hear it said that priests should be better trained in all manner of activities.  Cooking, maintenance, finances, human resources, and the list goes on.  These are all things that certainly could be beneficial in the life of a priest.  But they ought never become primary.  These are the types of things that could easily become idols, replacing the true dignity of the priesthood.  In my experience, the people are enormously forgiving of their priest's shortcomings in terms of natural talents in specific areas.

What the people most want in their priests is to experience the love of Christ the Good Shepherd.  There is something beautiful to me that this love is not something that the priest gives to himself, can stir up in himself, or can gain through pure willing it.  It is something that is given by Another.  This virtue is poured into the priest from the Heart of Christ.  The priest, in a sense, is a vessel for this pastoral love, a fragile clay jar that holds a heavenly treasure.  This is not to say that a priest can be devoid of the necessary human, intellectual, and spiritual attributes that make him fit for ministry.  But, it is to say that what is most important about a priest is not is natural capacities, but rather the supernatural love that has been poured into his heart by Christ.

When I think about my life as a priest, it is not my particular gifts or talents that have been most effective in pastoral ministry.  Certainly, whatever limited natural strengths I have are useful for the pastoral ministry.  But, it is the love that has been poured into my heart by Christ that has been the most effective in terms of pastoral fruitfulness.  Any natural talent that I might possess is only helpful to the pastoral ministry insofar as those talents are vivified by a supernatural pastoral charity.  This is both awesome and humbling.  It is awesome because it shows that Christ uses me as his instrument.  It is humbling because it means that being an effective priest means to be totally dependent upon Christ and not upon anything that I bring to the table.

More beautiful to me in all of this is the way in which the People of God respond to this reality.  When a priest loves his people with true pastoral charity (meaning, the charity of a shepherd), the people do not demand or expect the priest to be perfect in every way.  My experience of being a priest has shown that the faithful--be they parishioners or young college students--come to the aid of my weaknesses.  The faithful supply everything else that is needed.  They only want the priest to supply what no one else can supply, the heart of a shepherd.  And of course, the priest really doesn't supply this on his own. He can only accept this heart from the true Shepherd.

Among my favorite lines in the Psalms is, "He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in his land" (Psalm 16).  This love is something that wells up within me at times.  It is a love that is mine by grace and not by nature.  It is a love that is met with reciprocity by the faithful ones who dwell in the land.  When the priest accepts from Christ this pastoral love and the people respond by loving him in return, something very beautiful happens.  Something awesome happens.

Today, I was reminded on a few occasions of where I find certitude.  I need certitude in my life.  Experience shows that I do not find certitude from my own talents or strength, nor I do not find certitude in the strengths, talents, and decisions of others.  But, I do find certitude in the marvelous love he has put into my heart for his faithful ones.  I find certitude in this great bond of love between this shepherd and Christ's faithful.  Even in the life of the Church, there is plenty of real estate made out of sand.  Building on sand never gives us certitude.  Instead, I am reminded that I need to build upon rock.  Wherever the love of Christ is present--even though it comes in jars of clay--that is the place of certitude for me.  He has put into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones and, thanks be to God, again and again he has given me certitude through their love.  May Jesus Christ be praised.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Does Your Soul Stink? Don't Despair. St. Augustine and Lazarus Might Help

I stole something and I'm not sorry for it.  I stole big. I stole really big.  This weekend, I stole my homily material from St. Augustine.  It was just so good that I couldn't help myself.  I'm happy to say that I think Augustine would be edified that some 1600 years after his death, university students in Boston are still learning from his teaching.

In commenting on the raising of Lazarus, Augustine notes that the gospels record three times that Jesus raised somebody from the dead. There was the young daughter of Jairus who died in her house. There was the young man whose body, accompanied by his mourning mother, was being transported outside the gates of the city to his tomb. And, then there was Lazarus.  Augustine says that each of these situations has something to teach us.

Jesus, the Gospels tell us, came to the bedside of the young dead girl who was "in the house."  Augustine says that her place within the house reminds us of those who have committed sins in their minds and in their hearts.  Perhaps through hatred, lust, or envy (or many other sins), we can sin inside the house of our very self.  We may not act outwardly on these things, but internally, we have consented to them.  And, in consenting to them, we have died.  In raising the young girl, Jesus reminds all of us who have sinned in this way, that he can bring us to new life.

The young man was being carried outside the gates of the city.  In this way, we can ponder those times when we have committed sins outside of ourselves.  These are sins that not just were inside our hearts and minds, but sins we acted upon.  Sins of calumny, gossip, the flesh, violence, indifference to the poor, and many other sins done on the outside.  Again, Jesus raises this man and so teaches us that we who have died in our souls by such actions can be raised and come to new life.

Lastly, we have Lazarus.  Today's gospel is not "too high in the sky."  It is earthy.  Martha says, "Lord, don't roll back that stone.  Ol' Lazarus has been in that tomb for four days. That is going to be one horrendous stench."  Lazarus wasn't just dead.  He was really really dead.  He was stinky dead.  In this way, says Augustine, Lazarus foreshadows all of those who have become immersed in sin.  He foreshadows those trapped in habitual sin; those who seem beyond any possible hope.  Lazarus wasn't dead for an hour or so and in need of some really special CPR.  He was dead and in a tomb for four days.  He wasn't getting better any time soon.

When we become immersed in some sort of sin and dwell in sin, we can feel like Lazarus: Dead, filled with stench, buried away, beyond all hope.  Ah, but Christ comes into this situation and raises Lazarus.  No one is beyond the mercy of God.  No one should despair.  Today, Christ calls to all of us who have perhaps sinned on the inside, on the outside, or have become habituated in sin.  His mercy reaches even to those whose souls seem beyond all reach.  Do you feel dead?  Rancid?  Beyond help?  Welcome to Lazarus' world.  Lazarus, however, was raised.

The Gospels are not primarily filled with people who were perfect.  They are filled with people who encountered Christ and were transformed by him.  The Gospel ended today by saying that many who were there that day came to believe in Jesus.  The most effective evangelization is our own conversion.  Imagine being at a cocktail party with Lazarus after all of this.  Talk about a good story.  "Yeah, I had an interesting thing happen to me.  I was dead for four days and they had buried me.  Then Jesus came and raised me up."  Now, that's an interesting story! The Church is filled with people who were dead and are now alive in Christ.  This is what it is all about.  We want to spend our whole life telling people that we were dead and Jesus entered into our stench and brought  us back to life.  

(For those who were with me at Mass today, they would have heard something like the following):

I'd like you all to take your phones out right now.  No, I mean it.  Take them out.  Don't check Facebook or read your messages.  Just go to your calendar and open it to April 15th.  That's tax day.  That's the day you have to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.  But, we also have to render unto God what belongs to God.  And God wants our sins.  On April 15th, from 7-9pm, we will have a bunch of priests here available for confession.  So, I want you to write "Confession" on that date and then put one of those little alert things on it, so you don't forget.

Jesus raised Lazarus because he loved Lazarus and his sisters.  But, he loves us too and he wants to raise us to new life.  Whether we have only sinned inside, or whether we've sinned outside, or whether we are immersed in the darkness and stench of habitual sin, we are not beyond Christ's mercy.  Don't give up on yourself.  Jesus is weeping and calling out for you.  He's calling out to us.  Let's be given new life by him and through our conversion, may many others come to believe in him.  

(St. Augustine, I hope you forgive me for paraphrasing you.)