Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fire! Get Out of the House

I usually don't sleep all that well the night before I leave for a flight.  Packing, last minute details, a flurry of emails to rectory staff members about any number of things (usually things that they know already and will cause them to shake their heads when they read them), and my fear of oversleeping, all cause me to have a restless night before the early morning pick-up for the airport.  But not last night.  Last night, as I was finishing my last minute details, I knew that I was so tired from all of the Christmas events, that I would sleep quickly and deeply.

When my alarm went off at 4am, it did so with greater gusto than usual.  (I'm a light sleeper, so a gentle alarm always does the trick and is shut off almost before it goes off.)  This morning it attacked my nervous system.  "I can't believe it is already 4am," my mind protested.  Then, the fog wore off, but the alarm didn't shut off.  It wasn't 4am, it was 2am.  It was not the alarm that announces a new day. It was the alarm of danger.  The fire alarms were blaring.

As I moved from my room to the hallway, I doubted.  "Is that really smoke that I smell?"  Something in me--maybe in everybody--wants to believe that it is an overreaction.  Calm down.  It's probably a mechanical malfunction of the alarm.  I ran down the flight of stairs to see if it was really smoke.  Thicker and thicker the smoke became.  This was not an alarm malfunction.  There was a fire.

As I ran back up the stairs, (the rectory is a massive building) I remembered one of the seminarians staying here last night told me "I can sleep through anything."  I also thought of the priest with whom I live and how he too is a sound sleeper.  "Get out of the house!  Get out of the house!  There's something burning" I yelled.

Picking up the phone to call 911 always feels like you are making the decision to authorize the release of nuclear weapons.  Once you make that call, they're coming.  There's no turning back.  There's this lingering doubt that maybe you should do a few more things before calling.  Truth to be told, I opened the cellar door to see if that stuff filling the air and making it hard to breathe was really smoke.  "Yes, that's smoke." 

With the sounds of fire alarms in the background, the police dispatcher asked his calm question, "What is your emergency?"  To which I replied, "This is Father Barnes.  The rectory fire alarms are sounding and the house is filling with smoke."  He asked me about other people in the house.  Even though that is what he is trained to ask, for some reason, that question consoled me.  I''m in a house filled with smoke and the noise of the alarms makes it difficult to think clearly.  But, there's somebody on the other end of the line who is thinking clearly.  "Yes, everybody is out," I said.  "I'm contacting the fire department, Father.  We are on our way."

As Fr. Chateau, Brian (the seminarian), Finbar (the rectory dog), and I stood outside freezing, the police and fire department arrived.  Thankfully, it was determined that the smoke that was filling the rectory was not the result of a raging fire, but of a furnace issue.  The fire department opened windows, set up fans, and cleared the rectory of smoke.  It's 3:30am now and the furnace repair man is here.  So, why bother telling all of this?

I might as well do something.  I have to be awake in 30 minutes and there's no point in going back to sleep now.  And, it's a pretty good story.  But there are some other reasons.

After the fire department arrived and while Fr. Chateau, Brian, and the hound were standing out front, I was in the alley way between the church and the rectory.  And, despite the fact that all danger was now ruled out, I thought about what could have been.  And I thought how as I was yelling for people to get out of the house, Fr. Chateau was knocking on Brian's door to alert him.  I thought about how blessed I am.  And, I thought about how I love all of these people.  In fact, as I stood outside, it wasn't just the folks that were in the house that came to mind.  I felt like everybody in the parish was in that house.  I don't know if that makes any sense or not.  But, I realized--yet again--how much I love the people here.

I know it turned out that it was not a life and death situation, but, in those few moments, it had all of the appearances of life and death.  Seeing Brian, Fr. Chateau, and the hound all outside safely, put into my heart a great love for them and a great love for everyone else in the parish. 

When I picked up the phone to call 911, I didn't feel like I was calling a stranger.  I am grateful and proud to say that I am a friend to the Beverly Police Department and to the Beverly Fire Department.  Calling them is like calling a friend and asking for help.  As a parish priest, I have a relationship not only with the parishioners, but also with the civil authorities.  As I was standing outside with flashing blue and red lights all around me, I thought about how I love these guys too.  Most of them are not my parishioners.  But, I'm still their priest.  And I'm glad for that.

Time to get ready to go to the airport.  If I had any doubt as to whether I could use a bit of a vacation, I'm fairly convinced now.  I leave, however, more grateful for the great people that God has put into my life.  I love being a priest.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Longfellow, Roasts, and Emergency Rooms: The Incarnation

Eating Christmas Eve Dinner and Christmas Day Dinner with great parish families, brother priests and seminarians. 

A little boy who offered to give up his seat at the crowded 4pm Mass if there were any elderly folks standing who needed a seat.

The police car that rolled down its windows as it drove by church on Christmas morning and the cops who yelled, "Merry Christmas, Father." 

The cop who texted me to wish me a Merry Christmas.  And the fisherman who did the same.

Our beautiful church bells and Longfellow's, "I heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

A very beautiful church with a very beautiful manger scene.

Pipe Organ and choirs.

The way that people love the priests and seminarians here and all the people who tell me how much they love those priests and seminarians.

The priests and seminarians who were here.

Standing on the front steps of the church and watching the throngs of people arrive for Mass.

A woman in her 90's who had a very bad fall during the 10:30 Christmas Day Mass and was taken to the hospital.  A couple of hours later, one of the seminarians and I went to the Emergency Room to visit her.  She was in a lot of pain and was somewhat confused.  Her two sons stood by her bedside.  After I prayed with her, I commented that she has a very beautiful faith.  She took hold of my hand and said, "Father, I just love God and the Blessed Mother so much.  They've been so good to me and I don't know what I'd ever do if I didn't have them."

For me, all of these events and persons--and many others--testified to the most beautiful of truths.  The Word was made flesh and dwells among us. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Trust that Brings Me Joy

The other day, as I was standing in the back of church, a parishioner came up to me and handed me an envelope and she said, "Father, same thing as last year."  And by this, she meant that she and her family have decided that instead of exchanging gifts this year, they would all make some donation to the needy.  There are a few other individuals who do the same thing.  They hand me some money and they say, "Father, please give this to somebody who needs it."  Besides the joy that comes from witnessing the generosity of these individuals, this occurance brings me joy for another reason.  It sheds light on the life of a priest and how the Faithful look at the priest.

Firstly, they simply trust me with their money.  They hand over to me some gift and will never question what has happened to it.  They could easily donate the money to an organization.  Instead, they hand me money and trust that it will go to the poor.  There is something beautiful about that trust.

Secondly, it brings me joy because these persons trust that the priest knows the flock entrusted to his care.  He knows the needs of particular persons.  They trust that the priest has such an intimate bond with his people, that he can easily identify who is need of assistance.  (Unfortunately, we are all too aware of the great need that is out there).  The Catholic people sense that the parish priest encounters the poor, the broken, and the needy on a regular basis.  There is something beautiful about that. 

Thirdly, it brings me joy to mediate this charity in the name of the Church.  The recipients never know the givers and the givers never know of the recipients.  It is all mediated through the priest.  All the recipients ever know is that they were helped by "the Church." 

Lastly, I realized that part of the joy of this process involves the fact that people know that the priest lives a life of guarding the secrets of others.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the world will never know who those donors are.  The only man who knows is me.  And, I carry with me a knowledge of the great sorrows and needs of many souls.  The Catholic Faithful understand that the priest knows more than what he speaks.  Today, as I was sitting in the parking lot of a store, a young mother and her son got out of their car, waved with big smiles, and said "Hi Father Barnes."  The little boy's face lighted up in awe.  I think he was fascinated that he saw a priest someplace other than at the church or school.  I smiled and waved back.

What they didn't know was that I was on the phone trying to contact a family whose situation is desperate and tragic.  And yet, in some way, the Catholic people do know and love that much of what the parish priest does is hidden from the eyes of the world.  And, even if he writes a blog, the blog never comes close to revealing the magnificent moments, encounters, and confidences that fill much of the priest's life.  Catholics have Faith that God has placed the most important realities into the hands of priests.  He has entrusted his Word, the Body and Blood, the Keys, and the flock into the hands of priests.  This Faith enables Catholics to place into the hands of the priest their confidence.  This trust should make all of us joyful.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

To The God Who Gives Joy to My Youth

My parents happen to live in proximity to a couple of parishes where newly ordained priests were recently assigned.  This morning, as I was talking to my mother she relayed to me two conversations that she had with parishioners from each of those parishes.  In both instances, the parisioners expressed how much they love their new priests.

I know both of the priests in question and when I think about each of them, two common attributes come to mind.  They are men who are serious and joyful.  I suspect that these two qualities are, in part, what endears them to their parishioners. 

Without seriousness, the priest can be given over to being an entertainer or someone who only says things that win easy approval.  Without seriousness, the liturgy often devolves into silliness and preaching becomes a stand-up comedy act.  Without seriousness, the sacraments aren't loved and the Gospel isn't preached.  Without seriousness, the priest is more concerned about his day off than about his days on.

Without joy, preaching becomes moralism, the liturgy becomes oppressive, and the priest becomes aloof to his parishioners.  Without joy, the parishioners sense that the priest doesn't care about them.  Like a lack of seriousness, a lack of joy leads to laziness about the pastoral life.  Without joy, the priest becomes an obstacle to evangelization, no matter how articulate he might be.

The two new and young priests that I mentioned above are serious about their vocation.  They are serious about faithfully communicating the Gospel and devoutly celebrating the Sacred Mysteries.  Their seriousness is not a lack of humanity.  It is just the opposite.  Their seriousness shows them to be true men, faithful spouses to the Church, and good spiritual fathers.

These two priests are joyful in their vocation.  Whether it is in the pulpit or in the school yard, they convey an abiding joy in their apostolic mission.  When people encounter them, they think, "I want what they have."  Their joy conveys the fuller humanity that is possible when one gives himself over to the Christian life. 

When the shepherd is serious, the people know he has the courage to lay down his life for the sheep.  When the shepherd is joyful, the people know he has the love to lay down his life for the sheep.  As I think of these two new priests, I think also of a much older priest, Pope Benedict XVI.  Do we not see in him these very traits of seriousness and joy?

Why blog about such a thing today?  Well, when I spoke to my mother this morning and she relayed the comments made by her friends about these two priests, she said to me, "You know, it is so nice to hear people say such good things about their priests."  And, when I hung up the phone, I realized that hearing that these two good priests are out there doing such good work made me happy. 

The Gospel of Christ is serious and joyful.  And the Archdiocese of Boston and those two parishes are blessed to have these two serious and joyful priests bearing faithful witness to that Gospel.  Good news is worth sharing and the work of these two good priests is definitely good news.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We Are The Bells of Christmas Day

Yesterday, after making some communion calls, I answered the rectory door and found a middle-aged woman standing before me.  She whispered, "Can you talk to me?"  We went into the parlor and in an almost inaudible whisper and with an ashamed look, she explained that she needed just enough money to wash her clothes and a couple of other items.  A few hours later, I was with two teenage boys at their father's casket.  He died suddenly and tragically.  In a few hours, we will offer his funeral Mass.

In both of the instances above--and in countless others--I experience my own incapacity to solve the problems that confront the people whom I meet.  For some, I can provide some temporary relief.  For others, perhaps some word of encouragement or consolation.  But, I do not possess an endless supply of money to help those who are poor and I do not possess the power to make sense of a senseless death. 

At the Midnight Mass on Christmas, the words of Isaiah will announce that it is to the people who dwell in darkness and the land of gloom that a light has shone.  This year, when I place the Christ Child in the manger at Midnight Mass, I will be thinking about these persons who dwell in the land of darkness.  I will be thinking of them and many others--known to me and unknown to me.  People suffering from depression and addiction; abandoned spouses and children who feel they are at fault for their parents divorce.  I will be thinking in those few moments of time of the unemployed who are feeling like they have no self-worth.  I will pray for those who are overwhelmed by a sense of failure, fear, and despair. 

In front of all of these hardships and sufferings, everything seems to be impossible.  And yet, people still show up at the door of the Catholic Church in the midst of these sufferings.  They must know that even if we are able to provide some temporary assistance, it is unlikely that we can solve these terrible situations.  Then why do they come?

At Midnight Mass, we will hear that the shepherds were watching over their flocks by night.  They were surrounded by the darkness.  It was to these shepherds that the angels announced Christ's nearness.  It was unto them that a Savior is born.  Maybe these people come to the Catholic Church in these great moments of sorrow and need because they still have hope that Christ is near to those in darkness. 

Sometimes, at this joyful time of the year, when we see the suffering and darkness that is present in the world, we have difficulty reconciling the contrast.  Tragedy seems all the worse when it occurs near Christmas.  We often think that these moments of darkness and sorrow steal from the joy that rightfully belongs to Christmas.  But, it is actually the other way around.  The news that Christmas brings is that those who dwell in darkness and in the land of gloom are not alone.  God has drawn close to them and He loves them. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a Christmas hymn entitled, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."  When he wrote it, he was deeply sorrowed after tragically losing his wife and because of his son's terrible wounds from the Civil War.  Longfellow basically asks how we can be joyful when there is so much pain and suffering.  But, the bells of the church won't stop their ringing.  They become more persistent despite all of the sorrow.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7670CXvPX0

We Christians have a vital task in the world: By our Faith, Hope, and Charity we continue the work of the angels.  We are like the bells of Christendom who announce to those who feel alone, cursed, and forgotten that God is near.  Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We Miss You, Really

Downtown Beverly

One of the benefits of having been in the same parish for a while is that I not only know the faithful parishioners fairly well, but I have also come to know the not so faithful parishioners.  Perhaps, I bump into them at the occasional party or as I'm walking down the street.  Maybe it is a police officer who always stops to talk to me or the owner of a local restaurant who consistently shows great kindness to me.  Sometimes they express remorse or guilt for not coming to church.  Other times, they might make a joke about lightening striking them.  Other times, they don't mention it.  Sometimes, I mention it.  "We miss you.  Don't wait too long to come back."

As time passes, I've realized something about these people and me: I really and truly miss them.  The other day, I met a high school student who comes only occasionally to Mass.  I really didn't know him at all.  We chatted for a little while as we were working on some project together.  Afterwards it struck me that having spent an hour or two with that kid, I miss him.  I miss that he is not with us more.  Our parish would be so much better with him.  The cop whom I always invite to church: It isn't because I'm trying to coerce him into fulfilling his responsibility.  I invite him because I know it would be good for him, good for our parish, and good for lots of other people.  I invite him because I miss him. 

I've learned that a lot of parish priesthood is meeting people on their turf--literally and figuratively.  When they see that the priest is interested--truly interested--in them, then the proposal to return to the Church is more easily accepted.  And, in the instances where it has not yet been accepted, I think these persons see in their friendship with me that the door still stands open to them.  Our encounters serve as a reminder to them that the Church loves them and wants them. 

As Christmas approaches, I'm thinking and praying for these persons whom I truly miss.  Some of them I've met many times and am happy to be called their friend.  Others, I haven't met yet.  But, I miss them nonetheless.  I hope this Christmas they discover what they've been missing.  And, I hope that I find what I've been missing: them.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Church Grows Through Friendship

Blessed John Paul II as a young priest

If you have ever been part of the ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation, you have been asked the question, "How did you meet the Movement?"  The question is inevitable.  And usually, the answer involves other persons.  "I met so and so and they invited me."  "I went to a lecture and the presenter moved my heart."  "I read an article online and called the author."  One of the interesting things about Communion and Liberation is that it is constantly proposing Christ, but it does so through the methodology of friendship.  It models itself on the method used by Christ. 

In the beautiful document entitled, Pastores dabo vobis, ("I will Give You Shepherds") Blessed John Paul II says that the priest is to make present in the midst of the flock Christ the Head and Shepherd of the Church.  He does this, of course, in the Mass and in the confessional, but he does it in a thousand other human interactions, as well.  These every day interactions between a priest and his people strengthen their bond, deepen their love, and draw them closer to Christ.  To sacrifice these every day interactions would be to lose a key evangelical method and to weaken the special bond that exists between a priest and his people.

Is it true that on our deathbed, a Catholic will take any priest to bring them the sacraments?  Surely.  Is it true that the Mass is always the Mass whether it is offered by Pope Benedict XVI or me?  Of course.  But, Catholic people are often introduced into these truths by a priest with whom they have established a particular bond.  The gospels list the names of the Twelve Apostles.  Jesus chose particular men.  Catholics come to encounter Christ through particular faces and particular priests.

Let me offer one small example.  Recently, I met a high school student who is not particularly close to the Church.  I'm not sure why that is the case, but he isn't.  Circumstances put us together.  Before long, this young person who has probably never spoken to a priest was joking around and even giving me a hard time.  In that time together, I recognized that Christ was using this particular priest in this particular moment.  It was in our convesation together that Christ was opening up a small possibility of drawing this young person into the life of the Church.  In Christianity, particulars matter.  This young person had a small taste of the friendship of the Church because he had the opportunity to spend some time with a priest.
I think of Blessed John Paul II who spent countless hours of his life engaging young people not just in the classroom or at Mass, but also on hikes through the woods, canoe trips, and other excursions.  It was their friendship that kept these young people close to the Church.  The priest should be a witness to Christian friendship.

Priests ought to waste a lot of time.  We ought to waste time going to cookouts and parties.  We ought to waste time standing out in the school yard.  We ought to waste time playing board games with the high school youth group.  We ought to waste time looking for the one lost sheep.  Sometimes, in searching for the one lost sheep, you wind up winning over 99 lost sheep.  The priest ought to be close to his people, not distant.

Every so often, like all parish priests, I get a phone call from somebody whom I have not seen in a long time.  They are usually experiencing some sort of great trial or burden.  They call because along the way they established a friendship with a particular priest and they need that friendship again.  They need Christ, the Head and Shepherd, but it is through this particular priest that they most easily and readily can find Christ.  Can they find him in every priest?  Of course.  But, into their life God sent a particular priest and it was this particular priest that ate with them, joked with them, taught them, and loved them. 

These moments are also important for the priest.  A shepherd is sent to a particular people.  His heart grows and is educated through the exercise of this ministry.  The priest has to be, in a very real sense, the first witness to the communion of the Church. A pastoral plan for the future has to be the plan of Christ himself.  Christ lived a friendship with his disciples.  This method is frustrating because it leaves open so many opportunities for things to go wrong.  It is not scientific.  It risks so much!  We want a plan that guarantees results and that is low risk.  Christ risked everything on his apostles.  He risked that the friendship that he offered to them and that they encountered would ultimately win the day. 

I think that a plan that is truly pastoral must be a plan that brings pastors closer to their people.  Over the past few years, we have spoken a lot about people's attachments to their church buildings.  And, I understand this attachment and don't underestimate it.  Particular places are important.  But, I wonder if we should not be emphasizing the friendship of the Church and the communion of life shared between pastors and people.  It is this friendship that is the method for communicating the gospel.  I'd risk everything on this friendship because that's what Jesus does.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Bell that Awakens Us to Christ's Presence

Every day at Noon, the bells of our parish church ring the Angelus.  Sometimes, because it becomes like familiar background music, I don't really hear it.  But, even if I am in mid-sentence, somebody on the staff will start making the Sign of the Cross.  And before long, the whole staff is gathered for a few minutes as we make our way through that beautiful prayer that commemorates the Angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary and Mary's obedient, "Yes."

In this moment, our awareness that "the Word was made flesh and dwells among among us" becomes stengthened.  Those bells remind us that what happened in the virginal womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary changed the whole world.  Those bells draw each of us from our offices--whether we are working on the parish bulletin, the parish finances, youth ministry, music, homily preparation etc--and we remember that everything we do is because of Christ. 

In this brief moment of refuge during the day, I am also mindful of all of my friends who are pausing at this precise moment in acknowledgement of the Incarnation.  This moment of communion extends not just to those gathered in the rectory.  I am mindful of the seminarians who are getting ready to eat lunch at the seminary and who are praying with us.  I pray with the parishioners who are at their desks at work and who are joining in this prayer. I am united with the doctor at Mass General Hospital who is praying there.  I am united to those with whom I have prayed this prayer in the past. I am united to my parishioners who are busy doing a thousand things who do not have the luxury to pause at this moment.  In this oasis in the middle of the day's heat, I also remember and am united to those who have asked for my prayers and for those who are struggling and who feel alone in their suffering, sin, and darkness. 

Pausing in the middle of the day to acknowledge this tremendous mystery is awesome.  It is as if we are joining the entire creation and the entire Church from all time.  The universe stops.  Planets stop their revolutions, angels hold their breath, and mortals await the answer upon which their eternity depends. Everyone and everything awaits the Virgin's reply.  And having heard once again her "Yes" and being confirmed that Christ dwells among us, we can live every moment of life with a newness that otherwise is impossible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I Can, I Give Him; Give My Heart

When I first became a pastor, my parish had substantial financial problems.  I remember one night sitting at a finance meeting and being overwhelmed by the situation.  After the meeting, one of the members sent out a detailed list of the issues and the action steps to be taken to solve the issues.  Immediately, I was relieved.  I was relieved because I saw that there were solutions to the problems and that I was not alone in these difficulties.  We were in it together.

Sometimes, when we confront the reality of sin in our life, we can feel a bit overwhelmed and like we are totally alone in our struggle.  This is perhaps why people avoid seriously considering the state of their souls.  The problems seem too ingrained to do anything about them.  And, knowing how weak we are, the thought of overcoming these sins by sheer force of will seems an impossible task.  If you find yourself in this position, you are not alone and there is a solution to your problem.  In the Sacrament of Confession, Christ shares his victory over sin and death with us. 

There are always reasons why people don't go to confession.  I hope in this post to provide some good reasons to go to confession and some practical advice.  Sometimes, people don't go to confession because they have forgotten how to do so.  I hope this is helpful to somebody.

Before you go into the confessional, spend some time examining your conscience.  There are many good examiniation of consciences online.  One that seems particularly exhaustive can be found here: http://www.scborromeo.org/confess.htm

Don't be overwhelmed by the examination.  The reason God gave us confession is not because he thought that maybe some day, some person, might possibly not be entirely perfect.  He gave us the sacrament because he knows that we need it.  The reason why we have the examination of conscience is not because somebody decided to come up with a list of things that nobody would ever consider doing.  The examination of conscience is a list of sins that have become identified as common traps.  If you've fallen into one of those traps, confession is meant to extricate you from it.  An examination of conscience ought to make us squirm a little bit.  Don't be afraid of honestly assessing your life.

When you go into the confessional, tell the priest how long it has been since your last confession.  Tell him roughly how old you are and whether you are married, single, a priest, a religious etc.  This just helps the priest understand a little bit of who you are. 

Then, tell him your sins.  If you need to bring a list with you, bring the list.  (Burn it afterwards!)  To the best of your ability, tell the priest all serious sins and how many times you have committed those sins.  If you cannot remember the exact number, say, "lots" or "a few times." 

Believe it or not, the priest doesn't need to know nor does he want to know all of the sordid details.  Tell him the sins.  If afterwards the priest needs to clarify something, he might ask you some question.  But, he doesn't need for you to give the background and circumstances of each sin.  You lied three times?  Then say, "I lied three times." My experience is that the priest is only going to ask a question if he is confused about something or if he needs to clarify if the sin is in the distant past or yesterday, or if the sin is an ongoing issue. 

Feel relieved that you are only responsible for confessing your own sins.  Don't tell the priest, "I got impatient . . . but that's because my mother-in-law is a rotten, self-centered, mean-spirited, selfish, woman."  Your mother-in-law is responsible for her own confession!

If you are particularly embarrassed about some sin or another, just say it.  Usually, sins of the flesh are the ones that are most embarrassing.  What is so amazing is how these sins appear to exercise such power over a person and then, the moment a person confesses them, they realize that the power of these sins evaporates.  Sexual sins embarrass people into not confessing.  But confessing these sins deprives the sins of all of their imaginary power.  To this end, let me say that the priest hearing confessions has heard the words, "adultery, fornication, homosexual activity, pornography, and masturbation" before.  Unless you happen to be the first person ever to go to confession to that priest, you are not going to tell him anything he hasn't already heard many times.

Speaking of which, I could not imagine a priest thinking less of somebody who has come to confession.  When I hear confessions and somebody comes to me and humbly confesses their sins, my heart is filled with a great love and joy.  The priest is SO happy to know that Jesus is using his priesthood to reconcile this person and to free them from the burden of sin.  I could not imagine a priest thinking less of somebody who has gone to confession.  And, if you haven't been to confession in ten, twenty, or thirty years, then the priest feels like God sent to him "a big fish!"

Also, most priests are fairly busy.  I can assure you that we do not spend our days thinking about who and what we heard in confession.  We move on fairly quickly from hearing confessions to a thousand other things. 

Remember, priests go to confession too.  We know what it is like to be on the other side of the screen.

If you have had an abortion or assisted in an abortion: JESUS LOVES YOU.  Sometimes, people carry the weight of this sin around with them for decades.  They do everything possible to bury this sin.  But, it continuously re-surfaces.  People feel that deep down they can never be forgiven and that they have no place in the Church.  Often, they even go through all of the motions of a Catholic life, but deep down, they feel as though they really can never truly be part of the Church.  They think that they are a fraud.  Jesus died for these sins.  He wants to give you pardon and peace.  Don't be afraid to confess this sin.  It will set you free.

After you've confessed all of your sins, let the priest know that you are done.  A lot of people say something like, "For these and for all of my sins, I am truly sorry."  This helps the priest to know that you have finished confessing.

Then, the priest might ask for some clarification and will give you a penance to do or to say.  If you don't understand what the penance is, ask him to explain.  Then, he might ask you to "make an act of contrition."  You can bring one with you, you can express one in your own words, or you can simply say, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Then, the priest will absolve you.

Christmas is fast approaching.  There is no more beautiful way to prepare for Christmas than by coming to confession.  There is a beautiful and not too well known Christmas hymn entitled, "In the Bleak Mid-Winter."  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hs9-Sxf9j4  The last verse says, "What can I bring him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.  If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.  Yet what I can I give him; give my heart."  If you are afraid to go to confession, perhaps imagine yourself as someone who is very poor.  While others have something seemingly important to offer the Lord, all you have to offer is your heart.  Go into the confessional as though you were entering the manger and offer to the Christ Child the gift that only you can give to him; your heart.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When You Meet a Good Priest, You Just Know It

Back in April, I was given responsibility for a second parish and in June, another priest was assigned to assist me in my pastoral responsibilities for both parishes.  Although I had lived with other priests before and have had a handful of seminarians live here at various times, the thought of having a priest move in after I had been alone for three years, made me a little nervous.  Had I become too use to leaving alone?

In the gospel, Jesus speaks about how good shepherds are not like the hired hands.  The hired hands do whatever is expedient and easy.  When trouble comes, they run away and leave the sheep to fend for themselves.  Having been a pastor for about eight years now, I realize that I have become protective of my sheep.  I only want the very best for them.  I guard them. 

So, I knew I didn't want a priest who would preach crazy things, offer the Mass in a cavalier manner, or who would be unkind to the people.  These were my general concerns about anybody coming here.  What did we get?

We got a young priest who patiently puts up with all of my flaws.  He devoutly offers the Mass each day.  He goes over to church every morning at 6:20--even when he doesn't have the Mass--to lead the people in the praying of the Rosary.  He spends a considerable amount of time preparing his homilies.  He is joyful.  He loves the people.  He devotedly visits the sick.  He prays.  He visits the school, the religious education program, and he makes himself available for confessions. 

The people love him and that makes me very happy.  It is always a source of sorrow when a parish has a priest who doesn't exude a love for the priesthood, a love for the people, and a love for the Church.  Usually, when these loves are missing, the priest is given over to complaining to the people about the hierarchy, complaining about the people to other priests, and complaining to everybody about how busy he is.  I am very grateful that the priest with whom I live loves the Church, loves the people, loves the priesthood, and loves his day off--but happily sacrifices that day off whenever needed, in order to love others first.

The people of St. Mary Star of the Sea and St. Margaret's got a great priest.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Living a Life of Privilege

Nothing here is particularly newsworthy in the sense that it happens every weekend.  But for me, it is new.  Even though it is almost identical to last weekend and will likely be repeated next weekend, it carries with it a great newness.

The group of college kids who come to Mass together.  I confidently called one of them by name--but it was the wrong name. 
High School kids at Youth Night. 
The two dying men I met at the hospital.  Their faith was inspiring.
A father with his two children.  His wife and newborn son were at home.
A married couple whose kids are all now in college.
The recently married couple.
The young couple who will be getting married here and who drive here every week from a considerable distance.for Sunday Mass.
An old timer who is a savvy business man, a great man of faith, and whose son is very sick.
The man whose wife recently died.
The family who came to the Five and who joked afterwards about which member made the most mistakes with the "And also with you/and with your spirit" contest.
The lady who takes care of her husband who has dementia.
The woman whose marriage dissolved and who brings her children to Mass every week.
The young family who had us all for dinner.

These are some of the people I saw this weekend.  I love them.

Every parish priest could give a similar account.  But, it never gets old.  At the end of a Sunday, if you're a parish priest, you cannot help but feel privileged.

Christmas by the Numbers

St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, Beverly

In the next few days, the calls will begin.  "What time are your Masses on Christmas Eve?"  And then there is the inevitable follow-up question that--even though we've heard it a million times--keeps the rectory staff entertained: "And what time is your Midnight Mass?"  I know that many parishes move their Midnight Mass to earlier in the evening and I have no great objection to that.  For now, while I am still relatively young and have the assistance of other priests, I will try to keep the Midnight Mass at . . . Midnight.  (By the way, this year, in addition to the full choir and organ, the Midnight Mass will have a brass quartet as well!)

When I was first ordained, somebody told me that the trick for keeping on your game for the Midnight Mass was to take a nap beween the Christmas Eve Mass and the Midnight Mass.  I tried that.  It made me more tired.  For two hours, I'd lay in bed worrying that I might oversleep for the Mass and then the Midnight Mass would be the 12:30 Mass.  So, no napping. 

Then, an invitation came.  A family in the parish asked if the priest with whom I lived and I would like to come for Christmas Eve dinner at their home.  And with that invitation, a tradition was born. This year, not only will it be two priests.  It will be three priests . . . and two seminarians.  No partridge in a pear tree, however.  And, they always have a few other families join them too.

This tradition has become for me a very beautiful part of Christmas.  Their generous hospitality towards us is a real Christmas gift.  We always leave their home feeling as though we've participated in something truly beautiful.

I've been particularly blessed during the past several years to have good priest friends and seminarians meet and befriend my parishioners.  I am struck by how the parishioners welcome these men, support them, encourage them, and love them.  So often when I receive a dinner invitation now, people will say, "And bring whoever else is staying at the rectory with you." 

I am also struck by how the parishioners are encouraged and find joy in witnessing the communion that exists among these priests and seminarians.  At a moment in time when the numbers of priests are decreasing, I think it is particularly edifying for people to see 3, 4, 5, 6 seminarians and priests (the oldest--being 40) all under the same roof.  And, I think that the friendship that we share together, the common mission, the seriousness of purpose, the joy and banter, and the love for the priesthood and the Church is something that communicates a newness to others.  I think the seminarians especially benefit from these encounters with parish families and I think the families are enriched by the presence of these men.

These days, I hear a lot about numbers.  Fewer Catholics go to Mass.  Fewer priests and seminarians.  I know that these numbers are real and need to be taken seriously.  I don't know what things will be like in five or ten years.  All I know is that this year, these are the numbers: Dozens of great families who welcome priests and seminarians into their homes.  Christmas Eve dinner, three priests and two seminarians.  And the Midnight Mass will take place at 12 Midnight.  All of these numbers add up to one thing--Jesus promises his disciples a hundredfold and Jesus is keeping his promises.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Help Your Neighbor Rejoice: Go To Mass

This morning, I offered the Funeral Mass for Ginny, a 95 year old parishioner.  Her husband (who died a few years ago) and she met on a Friday Night Novena in our parish church.  They were married here some 70 years ago.  Her parents were married here thirty years before that.  Although small in stature, she was a pillar of the parish.  Perhaps in previous years, she was more active in the parish.  But in the years since I've been here, her witness was simply attending Mass on Sundays.  Hers is the type of presence to which you wouldn't give too much consideration.  You would just know she'd be at Mass and you would know where she sat.  But there's a certain comfort to that.  We don't realize it at the time, but those quiet witnesses give us a lot of strength.

This Sunday is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday.  Taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Phillipians, the Introit for Mass on the Third Sunday of Advent says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near." 

Why did St. Paul have to repeat himself?  Doesn't rejoicing just come naturally?  When something goes our way, don't we naturally rejoice?  Why does St. Paul have to instruct people to rejoice?  And, why does he have to repeat himself?  St. Paul teaches us something about Christian rejoicing.  It is not based upon circumstances.  He himself was writing from prison. 

Christian joy is born from a confidence in Christ's nearness to us.  This nearness is not always indicated by the circumstances.  In fact, Isaiah the prophet says that this nearness is specifically meant to bring glad tidings to the poor and to the brokenhearted.  Suffering and sin always bring with them a temptation to feel isolated.  St. Paul teaches us that even the sinner and the infirm can rejoice because the Lord is particularly near to them.  He is bringing his salvation to them.

The Church bears faithful witness to Christ's nearness.  When Catholics gather each Sunday at Mass, they remind each other that we have good reason to rejoice.  If we are unemployed, suffering illness, experiencing marital difficulties, worried about wayward children, burdened by past sins, suffering from addiction, or in a spiritual malaise, we should rejoice.  What?  Yes, I say it again: Rejoice.  Why?  The Lord is near.

Among the many reasons (and certainly not the most important reason) that we should be faithful to the Sunday Mass is because our faithful witness--even if it seems anonymous and insignificant--might just be a quiet confirmation for somebody else who is suffering that the Lord is truly near.

I doubt that Ginny ever thought she was bearing witness to anybody by attending Mass every Sunday.  She was there to fulfill her obligation before God--as well she should.  But, during her 95 years of life, she became a sign to others.  Her steadfast presence somehow made us more aware of the Lord's nearness. 
Our fidelity to the Mass on Sundays helps those who are suffering in some way or another--physically, emotionally, or spiritually--to know the Lord's nearness.  And this nearness gives them cause to rejoice. 

Every Sunday for almost a century, a great lady came to the same church and took up her seat.  And as I think about her quiet witness, I rejoice because I realize anew, the Lord is near.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Parish: Encountering the Face of Christ

Last night was spent sitting around a conference table with four priests and ten lay people.  The topic was developing a pastoral plan for the three parishes of Beverly (where I am assigned).  The plan, among other things, needs to take into account that the day is fast coming when there will only be one priest in Beverly.  Discussions like these inevitably involve facts, figures, graphs, projections, and statistics.  They also involve emotions. 

As I drove home from the meeting (exhausted), the priest with whom I live and I discussed how great the laity of our parishes are.  The folks who serve on this committee (and other committees in our parishes) are remarkably intelligent and capable of bringing their expertise to these conversations.  And, they have a love for the Church and a love for the priesthood.  As a pastor, having lay people who bring these two gifts--intelligence and charity--to the table is such a huge relief and consolation.  

When I was in seminary, some professors would talk about "collaboration with the laity" as though this idea had to be drilled into the heads of future priests because they suspected that we'd be naturally resistent to such a notion.  What I've discovered in my parish experience is that, in large part, such collaboration comes rather easily.  The people of parishes love their parish priests and actually want their shepherds to be shepherds.  They respect and honor the vocation of the priest--a vocation that unites him to Christ as Head and Shepherd.  Similarly, parish priests (I'm sure there are some exceptions) respect and honor the varied gifts that the lay men and women bring to their parishes. 

Often, when I leave a meeting in my parish, I do so with tremendous gratitude that not only do the men and women who serve have expertise in particular fields (such as business), but that their expertise is enfolded within a deep and abiding love for the Church and for the priesthood.  I'm always struck by the fact that these men and women are busy with work and family.  They are not suffering from boredom or from a need for self-importance.  Despite an already full plate, these men and women devote themselves to serving the Church.  It is impressive.  Whenever I spend time with them in meetings, at their dinner table, or at a baseball game, I leave more educated.  They educate me not only about their specific areas of expertise, but also about my humanity and my vocation.  They educate me in Christ. 

My experience is that the parish is a place where we experience friendship in Christ and friendship with Christ.  Absent this friendship, why in the world would tired and busy lay men and women give so much of their time and energy?  Numbers, figures, statistics . . . these are all important and helpful.  But, these men and women spend all day dealing with such realities.  They don't need to come to another meeting at night to talk more about them (and not get paid for it!).  Then, why do they come?  They come because the face of Christ is encountered in the communion of the Church.  A pastoral plan needs to be built upon a communion of life--a communion that cannot be created by force of will.  It is a communion that is given by Christ and can only be humbly accepted and obeyed.  When we receive this communion, love this communion, and obey this communion, Christ does beautiful things.  He did this for his first disciples and he does it for us today. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Evangelization: Witness to Christ's Victory

When I was in high school, a seminarian was assigned to my home parish.  His influence and friendship became a signpost for me in the development of my priestly vocation.  During the past few years, one of the parishes that I serve has been blessed to have seminarians that are either from the parish, assigned to the parish, or who just like to spend time here.  Some are from the diocesan seminary and a few are from religious orders.  Their vocations were either born in this parish or they find nourishment here.  What really strikes me about their presence is the tremendous love that they receive from the parishioners.

The people love seminarians.  They encourage their vocations.  They pray for them and support them.  They feel particularly honored and blessed that these men are among them.  Their presence also encourages others to consider the priesthood.  I think the people are really happy to see normal men who are so happy to be preparing for the priesthood.  The people of the parish find joy in the vocation of these men and the men are encouraged by the love and joy of the parishioners.

Sometimes, people here ask, "What vocation crisis?"  They see, firsthand, young men who have either been sent here as part of their preparation for the priesthood or they see young men who go from the parish to enter the seminary.  The presence of these seminarians makes the parish feel young and part of something new.  They see that Christ is still calling men to follow him.  They feel honored that they are part of something so important and so beautiful.  And, they can more easily encourage their sons to consider the priesthood because their sons see, know, and love these other men who are doing the same thing.

When I witness the love that the people and the seminarians have for each other in this parish, I am deeply grateful.  They mutually enrich one another by their beautiful example.  The people see these men and love them for willing to lay down their lives to be shepherds.  The seminarians see these tremendous people and are encouraged and strengthened in their desire to become shepherds after the heart of Christ.

It is a privilege to witness the love that these parishioners and these seminarians share.  Sometimes, people--and priests, especially--talk as though everything were in decline.  But, the presence of one priestly vocation in a parish is a an unconquerable sign of Christ's victory.  It is too easy to talk about how difficult everything is.  But, the Church is built on witnessing to the victory of Christ.  The apostles had to evangelize the entire world from scratch.  That must have been a daunting prospect.  But, they did it.  They did it by bearing witness to the victory of Christ. 

As we think about evangelization, we ought not to focus on all of the obstacles.  We ought not to focus on all of the people who have rejected the Gospel, who have not become priests, who have not been faithful.  We ought to witness to the power of Christ's victory in the lives of those who are faithful--and this witness will draw others to respond to Christ's invitation to "follow me."

Shepherds After the Heart of Christ

If you are a priest in Boston these days, you are thinking about the proposed pastoral plan for the Archdiocese.  I think priests are genuinely trying to grapple with the principles and the practicalities.  During the past couple of days, I've conversed with several priests about this topic and I've been consistently struck by their pastoral charity.  As priests ponder the direction of the Archdiocese, they do so with a tremendous love for the people entrusted to their care. 

Any proposed pastoral plan demands sufficient reflection on how it will support and encourage vocations to the priesthood.  The pastoral plan of Christ requires pastors. In what type of parishes do vocations emerge?  What do the numbers tell us?  These are things we need to know in order to replicate their success. 

I have nothing other than instinct and anecdotal evidence to support what I'm about to offer, but I'm willing to wager that these assumptions are accurate.  In no particular order, I'd proffer that

Vocations to the priesthood arise from parishes that:

Encourage Eucharistic Adoration, Confession, Daily Mass.
Have had stable pastoral leadership.
Pray regularly that God raises up priestly vocations from that parish.
Have parishioners who love the priesthood.
Are doctrinally faithful.
Celebrate the Liturgy with reverence, obedience, and dignity.
Preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Who see and have regular contact with their priest.
Have priests who love the priesthood, are joyful, and obedient.
Have priests who exercise good priestly headship and who work well with the laity.

I think a good question to ask about any pastoral plan is whether it will promote or undermine priestly vocations.  In fact, this is a key question in Boston because part of what is driving the present plan is the declining number of priests.  Whatever pastoral plan is adopted, it ought to be one that strengthens the bond between the laity and the priesthood, emphasizes the necessity, identity, fatherhood, headship, and stability of the priest, and strives to do everything possible to create parishes where vocations to the priesthood flourish. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No Risk, No Evangelization

When Blessed John Paul II came to Boston in 1979, the homily he preached at the Mass on Boston Common was based entirely on the Gospel of the Rich Young Man.  This particular gospel always moves me because it reveals man's capacity to act contrary to his own happiness in such a radical way.  In front of that young man--a young man who seemingly had a sincere desire to find true happiness--in front of that young man was Christ, the key to man's happiness.  The young man intuited this reality by the very fact that he came to Christ with this desire.  He came to Christ and sought happiness.  We are told that Jesus looked at him with love and then gave him a precise answer, "Follow me."

But, the young man's face fell.  He no longer looked at Christ.  And then, he went away sad.  This encounter between the young man and Christ is profoundly moving.  It reveals man's capacity to stand in front of the truth and to say, "No."  What strikes me about this gospel encounter is that the young man seemingly had everything necessary to embrace the truth.  He had the desire for happiness.  He had the gaze of Christ upon him.  He didn't have just some philosophical proposal in front of him. He had Christ.  And yet, he chose to go away.

I think of this as the Archdiocese of Boston ponders its future and considers various proposals for a pastoral plan.  At the very heart of this plan--as Cardinal Sean O'Malley said yesterday--must be Christ.  The Church must propose Christ anew to the people of today.  It must be an effective witness and sign of the presence of Christ.  It must communicate to the people of Boston today the invitation to follow Christ. 

Any pastoral plan ultimately has to engage the human person's freedom.  The best chance of being successful is to put Christ in front of man.  This means proposing Christianity in all of its fullness and beauty.  This means--to the best of our ability--to gaze upon others with the gaze of Christ and to propose to others the marvelous invitation to follow Christ.  And to do so tirelessly, generously, and joyfully.

But, there is a great humility taught by the gospel account of the Rich Young Man.  No matter how effective our witness, no matter how profound our love, no matter how authentic our teaching, ultimately the decision to follow Christ is a grace that can be accepted or rejected.  The failure of the Rich Young Man to follow Christ was not the result of a failure of method.  It was a failure of freedom. 

We ought always to ask ourselves how we can better evangelize.  This evangelization, however, must begin with us being obedient to the loving gaze of Christ.  It must begin with us being convinced of this gaze and transformed by this gaze.  The method of Christ was to gaze with love and to speak an invitation that requires a sacrifice on the part of man.  To follow Christ requires a sacrifice.  The Rich Young Man was unwilling to offer that sacrifice.  He chose his possessions and rejected Christ.  It is frightening to acknowledge this possibility.

Evangelization is not a membership drive.  It is to propose to man's freedom the gaze and invitation of Christ.  I hope that the Church grows by leaps and bounds.  I hope that the pastoral plan that is adopted makes us more agile and unimpeded in our efforts to make the Christian proposal to others.  But, no structures, programs, committees, or plans can eliminate the fact that evangelization ultimately risks everything on man's freedom.  Evangelization is not about building stronger parishes.  (That may be a secondary result).  Evangelization is about man and Christ's love for him.

In the life of the Church, I encounter the gaze of Christ and am convinced by it.  Evangelization is to make present in history the gaze of Christ and to propose Christ to others.   This always involves risking the startling possibility that man might say, "No."  And then, tomorrow--convinced all over again by the gaze of Christ that I encounter in the communion of the Church--to risk everything again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Marvelous Love Poured into the Heart

Psalm 16 says, "He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in his land."  On Sunday nights, after a full day, this is what must be the thought of every priest.  It's awesome.  Who are these faithful ones?

They are:

The elderly woman who told me today that she will soon turn 91.  Every week, she asks me, "Where's my hug?"  (Truth be told, I'm not much of a "hugger," but for her . . . always).  I have a marvelous love in my heart for her.

The young man in his twenties who took his little brother to Mass today.

The older couple who are starting to experience various health issues, but who lean on each other to get to Mass and whom I admire for their devotion to each other and their devotion to the Church.

The family who never came to church and have started coming recently.

The two college kids who sat at the back of church.

The young couple who bring their kids to Mass and sit on the "Mary Side" of the church.

The man and his mother who come each week to Mass and arrive early to pray.  (They sit on the Mary Side too).

Then there's the young man who was there today with his two children.  His wife couldn't be there because she is on bed rest, expecting their third.

Warren.  He's a beautiful man who has Down Syndrome.  He sometimes comes to two or three Masses.  (You cannot talk to Warren and not leave smiling.)

The choir. 

The middle-aged couple who sit on the St. Joseph Side.

The high school kid who is developing an interest in the youth group.

The older married couple who come every Sunday and who always give me some word of encouragement.

They are a thousand other persons too.  I know some by their names, some by the painful situations for which they have asked me to pray.  Some by just subtle smiles, a passing word, the place they sit, the passing remarks on the way in or out of Mass, or the familiar gestures.  They are old and young, wealthy and poor, and everything in between.

They are the faithful. 

And to priests he has given a special grace.  He has given them the virtue of pastoral charity.  What is the virtue of pastoral charity?  Psalm 16 tells us: "He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful who dwell in his land."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Are You Ready to Receive Good News?

A dozen or so years ago, a woman asked me to go with her to inform her mother that her son had committed suicide.  When we got to her apartment building, we rang the bell and got buzzed in.  We took the elevator upstairs and when we arrived at the apartment door, we knocked.  The mother opened the door, looked at her daughter and then at me.  When she saw me, she immediately leaned against the wall and lowered herself to the floor.  She intuitively knew what message we were delivering and she needed to brace herself to receive the horrific news.

We often feel the need to prepare others (and ourselves) for bad news.  We lead up to it in the hopes that they will be better able to handle the situation.  "I have some difficult news for you."  "I have to tell you something very sad."  Such preparation respects their humanity.  We need to be made ready to receive life-changing news.

The readings this Sunday remind us that it is not only bad news for which we need to be prepared.  We need to be prepared to receive the Good News.  We need to be prepared to welcome the Gospel.  St. Mark begins his Gospel by telling us right up front, "This is the Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God."  And then, we are brought immediately out to the desert with John the Baptist who is preparing people for the coming of the Good News.  They and us need to be ready to receive this Good News.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all in the desert.  It is the human condition--a condition that makes us yearn for fulfillment, completion, and perfection.  We hunger for truth, for beauty, for goodness, and for justice.  But, we tend to rebel against this emptiness and attempt to manufacture solutions to it.  And these attempts turn our emptiness into a dismal abyss that deprives us of hope. 

But John the Baptist and Advent show us another way.  Our emptiness cannot be solved by our efforts, but our emptiness can become the place of our encounter with Christ.  It was in the emptiness of the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary that the Good News became flesh.  Our part, in a sense, is to safeguard our emptiness and when we fail to do so, to repent.  If we live this Advent with a greater acknowledgement of our need and of our dependence upon Another, then we are in the perfect postion to receive the Good News--Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Let's Get Convinced and Be Convincing

I remember when I was a newly ordained priest, I gave a homily one Sunday about the resurrection and how we too will "rise with Christ."  After Mass, numerous folks spoke to me to find out what exactly I was talking about.  I said, "You know, the resurrection."  One guy asked, "Is this just your opinion or is this something the Church teaches?"  I was astounded.  Another time, I remember driving in my car and listening to a "talk radio" show.  The caller was criticizing the Church about something or other and he said, "You know, I've been a Catholic my whole life.  I went to CCD and church.  And all I can say is that right now Jesus must be rolling over in his grave."  The show's two Catholic hosts concurred.  I thought, "Good grief, this is where we are."

The New Evangelization not only involves an active going out to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not heard it.  The New Evangelization desperately requires a re-evanagelization of those who have already heard it.  If those in the pews are supposed to--as one of the new options for the dismissal at Mass says--"Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord," then they themselves have to be well-formed in the Faith. 

This week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Archdiocese of Boston and the article mentioned that we are about to put a focus on evangelization.  One person quoted in the article said that he knew of a diocese where people were going to be going "door to door."  I think that is great.  But, we need to make certain that when somebody opens the door, we have something to tell them.  And, if those people who open their doors decide to walk through the doors of a Catholic parish, we should be prepared to offer them the Gospel in all of its fullness and beauty.

At the beginning of the New Millennium, Blessed John Paul II wrote about the New Evangelization.  This is what he said:

"It is not therefore a matter of inventing a "new programme". The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium. "

Parishes, schools that take Catholic identity seriously, and the New Movements are the places where the New Evangelization is going to happen.  In fact, they are the places where it is already happening.  Gimmicks don't sustain the Faith for very long.  The program we need is already contained in the life of the Church.  I think we need a greater fidelity to preaching the full truth of the Gospel and a greater fidelity to offering the Liturgy with as much dignity and beauty as possible. 

The basics of the Gospel and the Creed need to be continually proclaimed.  And, we need to recognize in our parishes and Catholic communities that we are part of the same events that took place in the Gospels.  Christ is at the center of everything.  Christ is the answer to our heart.  Christ is the Savior.  Christ is the key to eternal life.

The more we become immersed and educated in the Gospels, the Tradition, and the Sacraments, the more we will be made fit for evangelization.  When we knock on the door of any heart, we need to be convinced of Christ.  We need to be convinced through our own encounter with Christ in the life of the Church that Christ is not in his grave. He is Risen. And through our fidelity to this encounter, we then become effective agents of the New Evangelization.  When we are convinced of Christ, evangelization is not some external and oppressive burden imposed upon us.  When we are convinced of Christ, it is our joy that compels us to "Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord."  Thanks Be to God.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Parish: A Friendship that Educates and Encourages

Education is one of the key elements of parish life.  Yes, there is Religious Education, the parish school, Bible Studies, adult education, RCIA etc.  And, these are all great.  But, for me, the parish as a place of communion and friendship is the key to educating us in the Christian life.

Tonight, I had dinner at the home of a young family in our parish.  One of the things that I most enjoy about this particular family is that they are easy and relaxed around me.  Sometimes, people get really nervous and uptight around "the priest."  Not so tonight. 

Hanging out with young families is an especially joyful part of priesthood for me.  I'm always grateful when seminarians come to my parish and I'm able to bring them with me to dinner at the homes of families.  I think it is important for them to see the beautiful friendships that are part of the priest's life.  It always makes me nervous when priests talk about their "day off" as their "real life" and the parish as their "work life."  The parish is not only the place where "the people" ought to become holy.  The parish is the place where the priest is to become holy.  The parish is where priests are educated in Christ.

I'm really grateful that after being a priest for almost fifteen years, I'm still constantly being educated by the life of the parish.  Watching people raise their families, hearing about their work experiences, and benefiting from the expertise that they bring to the life of a parish is awesome.  From them, not only do I learn about the Catholic life in general, but I also learn something about the priesthood.  Tonight is one such example.

Now, this is going to sound totally conceited, but that is not how it is intended, so bear with me.  During the course of dinner tonight, the husband got up and said, "Now Father Barnes, I've decided that I'm going to embarrass you."  Then, he went and got his Blackberry.  He came back and showed me a series of photos.  Mine was included.  He went on to explain that he was recently at a leadership conference for his company and people were asked to provide somebody that they admire as a good leader.  Then he said, "So, there you were up on this big screen, Father Barnes--between Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln.  And people were like, "Who the heck is that guy?"  Then, we all had a good laugh.

This dinner exchange stuck me as very beautiful.  Was I somewhat flattered? Sure.  But more than that, I see how the life of a parish can help all of us.  I am moved by the example of a young couple living the life of marriage, raising their family, dealing with work and all of the situations that life brings.  Their example and friendship encourages me and educates me in the priesthood.  Similarly, by his mentioning that story to me, I see that my vocation helps him in some small way to live his life.  Parishes ought to be places where we encourage one another in our discipleship.

Two thousand years ago, Christ often educated his disciples at the dinner table.  Two thousand years later--in the communion of the Church--Christ continues to educate his disciples at the dinner table.  Seeing this young couple in their quest to live their vocation well, I was educated in my own vocation and encouraged.  I'm grateful for that and I am grateful to be a priest in the midst of such great people.

We've Got to Go Back to the Start

Very often, Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement "Communion and Liberation", would return to the Gospel account of Andrew and John leaving John the Baptist and following Christ.  I think he saw in that moment the beginning of the Church.  It was in that moment that the friendship between these disciples and Christ was born.  Fidelity to the original method of Christ and the early Church requires a lot of faith.  There seems to be a never ending attempt to come up with a better way than the original way.

I think of this because here in the Archdiocese of Boston, a series of consultations are about to begin on a new pastoral plan.  The plan, in many ways, is driven by numbers; declining Mass attendence, fewer priests, parishes that can't pay their bills etc.  The goal seems to be to move parishes from simply struggling to maintain what is presently there to a more evangelical, mission-based model.  To that goal, I can only say, "Alleluia." 

When I think of the church life in Boston, I sometimes think of a giant skyscraper.  We keep busy cleaning the windows, painting the rooms, and adding floors.  But, the skyscraper is built on thin wooden stilts.  It is the foundation that needs work.  The stilts cannot carry the burden of what has been built up over the years. 

Sometimes, we focus our plans somewhere up on the 30th floor.  But, as the Coldplay song says, "Take me back to the start."

We have to return--continuously--to the original method of Christ and, despite every temptation to replace that method, we have to become more faithful to it.  That original method began with a fascination for Christ and with a friendship.  It began with John the Baptist pointing to Christ and announcing, "Behold, the Lamb of God." 

Any pastoral plan has to be modeled after the plan of Christ--the one true pastor.  His plan was to draw others close to him, to form a friendship with them, and to draw them into communion.  This is the method of the Gospel and it is a sacramental method.  Every proposed plan, I think, has to compare itself with this fundamental plan.  It is always tempting to skip over the foundation and worry about the trim colors.  But in the Gospel, Jesus doesn't warn us about picking the wrong color schemes.  He warns us about building upon a firm foundation.  We need a plan that is fascinated with Christ and faithfully follows the method of Christ.

I don't know why (because it really shouldn't) but, it always surprises me when the Gospel works.  Fidelity to Christ and his Gospel works!  If we are faithful to his method, people are drawn to Christ and to his Church.  If we are faithful to the original method, men enter the seminary, confession lines grow, young people come to Mass, people become Catholics, Catholics become more Catholic, and parishes grow.  Without Christ, the net always comes up empty.  With Christ, there is fullness.

None of this, by the way, is a criticism of the proposed plan.  In fact, I hope that it is a monumental success, that I contribute faithfully to it, and that we are all part of doing something magnificent in the service of Christ.  I just think sometimes we drift towards building better parishes, better schools, and better chancery departments, but we don't think about the fact that these things only exist so that we can all become better disciples of Christ and, "Go and make disciples."  So, in my thinking about these things, I need be faithful to the beginning.  If I am faithful to the foundation, then I trust Christ will build the rest. 

We should all pray for the success of this new endeavor.  I hope that at the very heart of this new plan is a renewed fascination for Christ and an evangelical fervor for making all things new in Christ.