Saturday, June 30, 2012

You Are In Line to Die

Yesterday morning I offered the Funeral Mass for a longtime parishioner.  Whenever I think of Bill, I think of his hands.  You could not help but notice when you met him that the tips of his fingers were missing.  That was the result of his being shot during the Korean War and left for dead in the snow for two days. He lost the tips of his fingers and toes as a result of frostbite. Probably the first time I recall meeting Bill was at the wake of his daughter some twelve years ago.  When she died, she left a husband and five little sons.  The image of that father and his young sons kneeling at the casket has always stayed with me.  Today at the funeral, I saw those five--not so little--sons again.  In addition to losing a daughter, Bill and his wife also lost a son.  Their married life of 57 years has known some extraordinry sorrow.  And yet, week after week, there they'd be at Mass--Semper Fidelis--always faithful.

After Bill's burial, I ran a quick errand, came back to the rectory for lunch, and then went to the wake of a fourteen year old boy named Marc who suffered a sudden medical difficulty and died.  At the wake, his parents, two little brothers, and I had a brief moment together.  We held hands, talked, and prayed.  By all accounts, Marc was as good a kid as he looked.  And he looked like a good kid.  He had a boyish smile and a kind face.  He always struck me as a kid who was filled with a lot of goodness.  That opinion was confirmed over and over again yesterday by every person who spoke to me.  But, everyone also wore a question upon their face: "Why?"
In part because I am unable to be at the funeral for this young boy, I spent a longer time than usual at the wake.  I sat on a bench outside the funeral home for a couple of hours and spoke to whomever wanted to talk.  While I wasn't talking, I just observed hundreds of persons as they passed by me on their way inside. Politicians, teachers, coaches, elderly folks, and young children all waited in line and conversed about the unfairness of this young boy's death.  As I watched, a question came to my mind?  "Do they think about the fact that they too are going to die?"  If a fourteen year old--seemingly healthy--young boy can suddenly die, what about the rest of us?  How is it possible that people can attend a wake like this and not change the way that they live?

Then I thought, "Forget about them.  Am I changed by this?  Does this event make me think more about my own death?"  The death of this young boy ought to bring to my attention the fact that death can come at any moment.  And yet, death always seems to come as a surprise to us.  Even when a person is in her nineties, her death somehow catches us off guard.  And yet, every day we open the papers and find a whole section dedicated to notices of death.  I cannot say much about all of those people in line yesterday at that wake, but one thing I can guarantee is that they are going to die.  But, I don't think that they were thinking about it.  Perhaps I wouldn't have thought about it unless I had sat down on that bench for a couple of hours.

Don't get me wrong.  The people in that line yesterday were doing a good thing.  And they were deeply sorrowed by the event.  They wept, hugged, consoled, and supported one another.  They are people who do all sorts of good things in their life.  They coach teams, volunteer for events, drive their kids to all sorts of practices and games, and some go to church.  But, are they thinking about the fact that they too are going to die and are they prepared for their own death?  In a few days, will they go back to life as usual until the next time they have to go and wait in that line?  Am I prepared for my own death?  Or will that day catch me off guard?

The last thing I am going to do in this life is die.  I know that.  It may occur when I am old or it may occur suddenly and without warning.  I know that today I am one day closer to my death than I was yesterday.  Am I more prepared for my death today than I was yesterday? 

Without faith, death simply marks the disappearance of our life.  We vanish.  In that case, there's not much point in preparing for death.  It is just an inevitable and random event that has no more significance than a leaf falling from a tree.  Or, perhaps without faith we still provide ourselves with some vague notion of an afterlife where people conosle themselves by saying, "He's looking down on us right now" or "She will live forever in our hearts."  We reduce the "afterlife" to the person's memory living in our hearts.  But, the fact is, our hearts are soon going to the grave as well.  Faith makes a difference.

The more we grow in faith, the more we do those things that prepare us for own death.  Bill--whom I mentioned above--was seen in the last days of his life, still praying the Rosary at night.  He was a man of Faith. He was a man preparing for death.  In many ways, the Church exists in order to help us to die well.  The question isn't, "Am I going to die?"  The question is, "Am I going to die well?"  Am I going to go before the judgment seat of God and be prepared--truly prepared--to give an account for my life?  When I die, will the last words on my lips be a prayer?  The best way to make certain of that is to be a man who prays now. 

The best way to die well is to live well.  The best way to live well is to live as a man who remembers he is going to die.  All of those people waiting in line yesterday reminded me that they too were walking towards their own deaths.  It didn't matter how old or young they were.  We are all in the line.  We can stand in that line with a certain sense of inevitability and hopelessness.  In that case, death is just something that happens to us.  Or, we can stand in that line with our eyes wide open and be fully engaged in the procession towards death and eternal life.  We can stand in that line as people who are going somewhere or we can stand in that line as people who act as though the line is all there is. 

As I just typed those words, I looked out my office window (it is 6:15 in the morning) and I saw Maria--an Italian immigrant--who is one of the older women who comes to our 7am Mass each morning.  As she passed by the rectory yard, she stopped and paused before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  She blessed herself three times and made a small sign of reverence.  Why did she do that?  She did that because she knows that she is in line.

When we live by Faith, we live in the line with greater joy and purpose.  We live as people who are on our way somewhere.  We live with Christ now, we die with Christ, we rise with Christ, and we live with Christ eternally. 

Are you ready to die because that's the line you are in?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fire And The Seeds of Faith

I spent the past ten days visiting Yellowstone National Park with some friends of mine.  We saw buffalo, grizzly bear, elk, bald eagles, coyotes, and all sorts of wildlife amidst some extraordinary scenery.  As the days went on, we were struck by the amount of dead trees throughout the park.  We learned that these scorched remnants are the result of the great fire of 1988 that swept through Yellowstone and burned almost 800,000 acres.  To those of us who don't know much about the ecosystem, a fire in a forest seems to be something that must be avoided at all costs.  It would be the ultimate tragedy.  To my surprise, however, I learned that fire is a necessary part of the life of Yellowstone.

Amidst the fallen trees, new pines "Lodgepole Pines" have begun to grow.  They are growing not despite the fires, but because of them.  I found this fascinating.  The Lodgepole pines have pinecones that are sealed tightly by resin.  They almost never release their seeds.  But, when these pinecones are introduced to the heat of fire, the resin melts, and the seeds issue forth.  The forest is repopulated with new trees as a result of the fire.  How cool is that?!

This wonderment of nature provides some helpful insight on the mystery of the Church--planted by the Lord in the midst of the world.  In the United States, the Church has become, at times, so beholden to the money of the wealthy and the influence of the politically powerful, that we have become indistinguishable from the predominant culture.  While the money of the wealthy and the influence of the politically powerful sometimes advance the work of the Gospel, there is a built-in danger.  Over the course of time, if we become more dependent upon money and power than we do upon faith and charity, the Church withers and the brilliance of the Gospel is hidden under a bushel basket.  Remember, the Lodgepole pines do not replenish simply by withering to death.  Similarly, the Church doesn't advance the Kingdom by becoming muted and cowardly. 

For decades, we've avoided the fire of controversy by not challenging the predominant culture.  Instead of becoming increasingly dependent upon faith, we've become dependent upon money and power.  But where has this gotten us?  Has the Church become more effective?  Has it increased in growth?  Has it converted large numbers of persons to the Truth about marriage?  Life?  Human Sexuality?  Salvation?  It seems to me that we've been outwitted when it comes to the politcal gamesmanship.  This is not to disparage diplomacy and dialogue.  Nor is this to suggest that ecclesiastical authorities ought to shun good relations with civil authorities and with the wealthy and powerful.  But, the Church would be on far better footing if it approached these relationships and dialogues with a truer sense of faith.

Moses was able to go and speak with Pharaoh.  In this way, we can see that there was at least some civil dialogue taking place.  Pharaoh had wealth, chariots, charioteers, and a vast army.  They all wound up at the bottom of the Red Sea.  Moses had faith and obedience and led the Hebrew people to the promised land.  We who are shepherds of the Church have to approach those in power with a respect for their station in life, but we also have to arrive as men who know that we are sent from God and carry-albeit in very earthen vessels--a treasure whose power is not of human origin but is rather Divine.  Every time that Moses went to Pharaoh, things got worse for the Hebrew people.  But Moses was faithful.  In the end, it was God who made the Egyptians amenable to the requests of the Hebrews for gold and silver.  It was not the result of Moses' skills.  The Glory belongs to God.  Some argue that the Church has to become much more silent because of the scandals of the past decade.  That argument would perhaps be true if we were preaching ourselves and our "views."  But we are preaching the Divine Word of God and it is by his authority and power that we preach.  We should be even bolder now in our proclamation.  If we were, God would produce great fruits and it would become even clearer how we are the earthen vessels of a Divine Treasure.

Sadly, many of the most influential Catholics in academics, politics, and the business world oppose the Church in so many fundamental ways.  They oppose the Church and the Gospel on human life issues, marriage issues, and on religious freedom issues.  This opposition to the Gospel is not the result of poor diplomatic skills on the part of the Church's pastors.  This opposition is a problem of Faith.  We should all be able to admit at this point that the approach of avoiding confrontation has been an abysmal failure.  Failing to challenge academics has only produced more widespread ignorance and hatred for (or ambivalence towards) the Faith.  Failing to challenge Catholic politicians has only led to a greater entrenchment in relativism.  And fear of challenging the wealthy has led us to being comfortable with the status quo--except the status quo is not being maintained because we are losing people every day.

The Martydom of St. Polycarp
In the midst of this situation, two events have coincided.  The first is the Obama Administration's mandate that individual Catholics and Catholic institutions be compelled to violate their consciences.  The second is Pope Benedict's call for a Year of Faith.  We are the Lodgepole Pine Cones.  The President's mandate--along with a thousand other cultural and political issues (abortion, same sex marriage, Physician Prescribed Suicide etc) are the flames of persecution.  If we avoid the flames, the seeds of faith will remain entombed in us.  The forest of the Church in the United States will continue to wither and disappear.  If we are willing to be tried and tested and allow ourselves to be singed by the flames of confrontation, the Lord will produce new life.

If Moses had allowed his fear of Pharaoh to guide his decisions, the Hebrew people would still be lugging Pharaoh's bricks.  Moses trusted in God's power more than in Pharaoh's.  If the martyrs of the early Church had trusted the Emperor's promises to treat them well if only they'd do the diplomatic thing and offer just a small sacrifice to the gods, the Church would have stagnated.  Instead, those martyrs placed themselves like pinecones upon the flames of persecution and from them came the seeds of the Church's growth.

Truth to be told, I'd much prefer to get along with the Emperor.  I'd prefer to receive big checks from wealthy donors and pats on the back from the powerful.  And, if those things work and the Kingdom is growing, then that's what we should do.  But, we've arrived at a moment in time where it is clear that those things are not working and only the most obstinate would not admit to that.  Sometimes, wealth and power can become like the resin that seals in the seeds of faith.  So what are we to do?

Pope Benedict has, I think, provided to us what is necessary.  The Year of Faith is given to us so that when the fires come and all of our protective resins are melted away, there are in fact seeds of faith insides of us.  All of us--the wealthy, the poor, the politician, the voter, the priest, and the layperson--need renewal in the Faith.  We need strengthening in the foundations of who we are as a people.  Money is a means to an end.  Influence is a means to an end.  Politics and diplomacy are a means to an end.  We who have been entrusted with the growth of the forest have one question before us: In the end, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  The answer, I think, depends on two factors.  Do we ourselves have Faith and are we willing to follow the Lord into the flames?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Priesthood: Breaking the Alabaster Jar Without Regret

When I was in my first assignment as a priest, I spent a lot of time going to baseball games.  I was a regular at the Wakefield High School JV and Varsity baseball fields.  I like watching baseball and I figured it might be a good way to meet people and to build a bond between the Church and the community.  In some ways, it was a waste of time.  I saw the same people week after week.  I doubt that any major conversions resulted from my being there.  But, the very best of parish priesthood is often in the wasting of time.

Our Seats and Our Dinner

This past week, I wasted time going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  One of my parishioners gave me two tickets for row one.  The Sox lost, but I spent an enjoyable evening talking to a young man who is married and has a son.  Way back when, I thought that he might be a future priestly vocation.  (The day I officiated at his wedding, I gave up on that one.)  We chatted about all sorts of things--baseball, prayer, work, the sacraments.  I have a bond with this young man and with his family.  Our friendship began when he was on the JV baseball team and I'd watch his games.  A dozen years later, we occasionally waste time going to a Sox game and both grow closer to the Church as a result.

Last night, I had dinner with a wonderful family in my parish.  One of the daughters is about to have significant surgery in the next few days.  Her parents are worried about her and they wish that they could take the pain upon themselves.  I wasted several hours at their home, eating a great dinner, and sitting by the outdoor fire.  We talked, laughed, and prayed.  In those hours, our friendship deepened and we all grew closer to the Church.

(I don't have pictures yet for this year's procession. 
This is from a few years ago.)
This past Sunday morning, after the 10:30 Mass, hundreds of parishioners streamed out of our church and onto the main street of our city.  There were seminarians, high school students, families, young, old, first communicants, and everything else.  They were all lined up behind the Blessed Sacrament which was covered with a canopy.  We made our way down the street and around the block.  We sang songs as incense swirled around us, bells carried by altar servers rang, and the bells of the church tower peeled.  traffic was stopped and onlookers must have thought, "Those crazy Catholics!"

When we arrived at the outdoor altar, we paused for a few moments of silent adoration.  Hundreds of people of all ages gathered in total silence.  It was a perfect waste of time.  You could sense that all of us wanted to stay just like that forever!  Quiet, together, with Jesus.

In the Gospels, Judas became indignant when Mary Magdalene wasted the costly perfumed oil on Jesus' feet and then dried his feet with her hair.  Judas' heart was too small to see the beauty of such extravagant love.  If priests are not careful, we could easily become like Judas.  The increasing demands placed upon our time and the increasing amounts of administration required of us could make us slaves of the practical.  Before we knew it, we'd be so protective of our jar of perfumed oil, that we would not want to waste it on impractical things. 

Why pour out the costly oil of our time on such impractical things as attending baseball games, eating dinner with and hanging out with young families, having a beer with a parishioner, spending time in adoration, homily preparation, studying, having a Corpus Christi procession, sitting in the confessional, meals with brother priests etc?  This costly oil of our time could be spent on things that produce quicker results and that are more widely seen. 

It takes Faith and Love to be willing to break the jar.  Judas was very calculating in his approach to the jar of perfumed oil.  Mary, on the other hand, was simply excessive in her love.  As a priest, I need to follow the example of Mary.  Perhaps she knew that her actions would face scrutiny and criticism by Judas as being totally impractical and wasteful.  She broke the jar anyways.  In my life as a priest, I've discovered that whenever I act like Mary (which always brings the accusation of impracticality) the Lord returns everything to me a hundredfold.  The best things that have happened in my experience of parish life are not the result of calculated and efficient strategies.  They are the result of breaking the jar and pouring out love--trusting that Jesus will do the rest.  In then end, the alabaster jar is an image of Christ, who allowed himself to be broken and poured out for us.  He poured himself out in excessive love for us.  And this is ultimately the model for his priests.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Do This in Memory of Me (or You Might Forget Me)

There are certain things that I will never forget . . . until I forget them.  The other day I was talking to one of our seminarians and he mentioned how several years ago he was struck by a story I had mentioned at Mass.  The previous week, a man brought his mother to Mass in her wheelchair.  She was well over one hundred years old and occasionally was able to make it to Mass.  It may have even been her birthday on that day.  The congregation clapped for her.  That afternoon, having received the Eucharist at Mass that morning, the woman died peacefully.  I mentioned at the time how beautiful it was that this woman was able to receive the Eucharist on the day that she died.  I really thought that I'd never forget that story.  But, unless the seminarian had mentioned it to me the other day, I think it would have passed beyond the veil of my memory.

We forget things.  We even forget the things that we swear we will never forget.  It is one thing to forget an appointment, a story from the past, or even an important date.  But we can also forget the most important of things.  We Christians run the risk of forgetting God.  A day can go by and we do not think of him or perhaps we only do so vaguely.  Even the death and resurrection of the Lord--the defining moments of salvation history--can become vague memories.  We can allow these events to become similar to Washington's crossing of the Delaware.  Yes, if somebody brings it up, we remember it, but we don't spend a whole lot of time actively recalling it. 

I live in Boston, so there are always places where one can see a little bit of history.  If you want to see where the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, or the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, you can visit those sites.  Even though those sites may make one feel closer to the actual events, we know that those events and us are separated by time.  We are simply people looking back and thinking about what happened.

God, however, in his merciful love for us does not want us to forget his love or for us to be separated from the definitive act of his love by the passing of time.  And, Christians who know their capacity to be forgetful of God want to do everything possible to be saved from such forgetfulness.  God's desire for us to remember Him and our desire for more immediate contact with the Death and Resurrection of the Lord meet in the Mass.  It is in the daily Mass that we are reminded of God's love.  And this reminder is not simply a "post it" note.  This reminder is not a visit to a place that reminds us of a long ago event.  This reminder places us at that event.  In the Mass, we are present in the very midst and act of Calvary. 

As a pastor, I encourage people to attend daily Mass.  In those 30 minutes each day, we are caught up in the very love of God.  In a mere 30 minutes, our whole life is put into proper perspective.  "God loves us.  God gives His Son to us.  We receive God.  Our life is a great pilgrimage in God's love and is directed towards perfect union with God.  Now it is time to live the rest of the day in light of this."  This daily reminder (which is not just a reminder but a true participation) saves us.  It saves us from the horrific possibility of living today as though God did not exist. 

Sometimes people think that those who go to daily Mass do so in order to be "super Catholics."  But, my experience is that the vast majority of people who attend daily Mass do so because they hunger and desire to hear God renew once again in their souls His great and awesome, "I love you."