Friday, December 28, 2012

From Grace to Glory: The Death of a Friend

When I was a boy, my grand aunt lived in the apartment downstairs from my family and we would spend a lot of time in her home.  In her parlor, above the plaid couch was a framed print that depicted a small rural town.  The road in the print was not paved.  Instead, it looked more like a town from the old West.  For whatever reason, I would often stare at that painting and imagine what it must have been like to live there.  It seemed to have captured a moment in time when things were still unspoiled.  The painting represented to my young eyes, the world the way it was supposed to be; innocent, quiet, and friendly.

What I imagined that town to be, of course, hasn't existed since the Garden of Eden.  But, there's something in all of us that appreciates wherever it is in life that we discover a glimpse of life as it was originally intended to be.  Those glimpses provide to us a measure of certitude about how to live life and they provide to us a reference point of hope that there is indeed a plan for the world, despite the suffering and evil that exist.

Today, I attended the funeral for a beautiful woman named Ellen Quinn.  She was 95 years old and was a parishioner of mine when I was first ordained.  Her brother, Fr. Lawrence Burns, was a retired Maryknoll Missionary who lived with me for the first three years I was a priest.  He died thirteen years ago.  Ellen, and her sister Mary, and their brothers Matt and Fr. Larry would have lived in the imaginary town on the print in my grand aunt's parlor.  They are four of the most beautiful people I have ever encountered.

While Fr. Lawrence joined the Maryknollers and made his way to the jungles of Bolivia, his three siblings married and devoted themselves to their families.  And, they were devoted to one another.  It is hard to think of any of them without thinking of the other three.  And, it is impossible to think of the four of them without thinking of their parents.  I never met their parents, but I think often of how wonderful they must have been for having raised four such beautiful human beings.  Their father was killed while working in 1944 only two months before Ellen's wedding.

I'd visit Ellen whenever I could (but not as often as I would have liked) and occasionally we would chat on the phone.  I knew that when I called Ellen, I was also calling Mary and Matt because she would immediately call them to let them know that I called.  When I visited Ellen, she would beam with joy and you might think she could possibly explode if she became any happier.  It's a trait she shares with her siblings.  They never seem to talk about themselves.  They tell you about their children, grandchildren, their siblings, who is visiting, who is getting married, who is having a baby, who got a new job etc, but they never talk about themselves.  If you asked Ellen how she was feeling
she would say, "Oh, I'm doing fine. How are your Mom and Dad?"  In fact, she probably only met my parents once.  But, she and her siblings would ask for them as though they had been life long friends.

I'm certain that in her 95 years of life, there were trials, tribulations, family difficulties, sicknesses, and disappointments.  But, there was a goodness in her (and in her siblings) that seems capable of absorbing everything.  The possess a calm confidence in the providence of God.  When Fr. Lawrence was dying, I remember standing at his bedside with them praying the Rosary together.  I was struck by how they prayed together.  It was abundantly clear that they had lots of practice.

Today, at her funeral, there were five priests, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and many, many friends.  I don't often cry at funerals, but Ellen's passing touched me deeply.  As I looked at her two remaining siblings mourning her loss, I felt the Gate of Eden being closed more firmly.  In them, I have always felt as though I had caught a glimpse of that place where man had long ago been cast out.

The homilist for today's Mass was a longtime friend of Ellen's.  He said that he remembers being a four year old boy and going to Mass and just staring at her.  Some eight decades later, he gave her the Eucharist on her deathbed and committed her body to the earth.  In the homily, he mentioned that one of Ellen's closest friends--also in her nineties--had moved out of state recently and that she and Ellen had spoken on the phone shortly before Ellen died.  Ellen said to her, "I will hold the door for you."

For ninety-five years, Ellen did hold the door open for us.  She and her siblings have held the door open for so many of us who have a desire to see what our life really was intended to be.  They held the door open and have shown us that the Christian life is possible.  They held the door open and showed us a glimpse not of the old Eden, but of the new Eden.  They survived on the sacraments and on devotion and on a profound Christian love.  They held the door open and made us desire to live that life ourselves.

Today, as we said goodbye to Ellen, I had the sense that a door was closing to Eden and that the memory of its goodness was disappearing even more.  It is a source of profound sorrow.  And, at the same time, I had the sense that the door to the new heavens and the new earth was opening and that this devoted disciple of Jesus Christ who had so beautifully lived the life of grace here on earth, was now experiencing the fullness of Glory in the life of Heaven.  St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Grace and glory differ not in kind, but only in degree."  Ellen lived a life of grace here on Earth.  When we saw her (and her siblings) we saw a foreshadowing of what heaven must be like.  Now, as she passes beyond our sight, she undoubtedly holds the door open for us and she will somehow make certain that we catch a glimpse of that heavenly homeland--of which St. Paul says, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

St. Stephen, Model of the New Evangelization and of Pastoral Planning

At this particular moment in the life of the universal Church and in the life of my own local Church--the Archdiocese of Boston--several various moments are coinciding; the Year of Faith, the ramped up call for the New Evangelization, and--in Boston--a new pastoral plan.  While these events are occurring simultaneously, I think there is a logical priority of order. 

What most afflicts the Church right now is not a numbers problem. The shortage of priests, the scarcity of lay people receiving the sacraments regularly and devoutly, and the disappearance of Catholic influence upon the culture are not the primary issues.  The primary issue is a lack of Catholic Faith.  Pastoral planning and evangelization can only be effective if their foundation is authentic Catholic Faith. Without authentic Catholic Faith, evangelization is reduced to the proclamation of opinions and fads. Without authentic Catholic Faith, pastoral planning is reduced to meaningless bureaucratic strategizing. 

This is not to say that all three things must be done chronologically, but rather that there is an inner logic that has to be observed.  Faith has to precede evangelization and evangelization has to be the impetus for pastoral planning.  Absent this order, parishes risk becoming increasingly irrelevant because they build themselves not on the rock of faith (revealed through Scripture and Sacred Tradition), but on gimmicks that eventually lose their novelty.  Faith, on the other hand, never loses its novelty.  It is always relevant. 

Without authentic faith, the person and the parish lack that inner necessary source of renewal. We become corpses.  And, when we set aside authentic Faith under the pretext of becoming more inclusive of others, we hasten the death of a parish--even if by outward appearance things are going fine.  The New Evangelization is about preaching Christ and His Gospel in all of its fullness. It is not about diluting the Gospel in order to make it more palatable to the dominant culture.  Similarly,
pastoral planning must risk everything on the full proclamation of the Gospel.  In other words, pastoral planning must be primarily concerned with ordering the archdiocese in the most effective way for proclaiming the full Gospel.  Pastoral planing has to be about evangelization and evangelization has to be about the Faith.

Today, Pope Benedict spoke about St. Stephen as a model for the New Evangelization.  On the day after we celebrate the feast of our Lord's birth, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. In this way, we come to see what Faith can cost us.  It is interesting that the Holy Father chooses to call Stephen a model for the New Evangelization.  By all outward appearances, Stephan failed miserably.  His Faith caused him to be calumniated, arrested, and killed.  Only the wisdom of the Church could see Stephen as a model for our path forward.  Stephen kept his eyes firmly upon Christ, preached Christ faithfully, and imitated him nobly.
Our pastoral planning and evangelizing--in order to bear true and lasting fruit--require us to deepen our own Faith, act in obedient Faith, and risk everything on the Faith.  

The Code of Canon Law says that in order for someone to become a pastor, he must be "outstanding in sound doctrine and integrity of morals and endowed with zeal for souls and other virtues; he is also to possess those qualities which are required by universal and particular law to care for the parish in question." For all of us who are priests, I think the Year of Faith, the New Evangelization, and pastoral planning invite us to grow in our priestly identity.  This particular moment in time invites us priests to keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Christ, to hold fast to sound doctrine and to preach it boldly, to imitate Christ in our moral life, and to be zealous for souls through perfect obedience in the Faith.  In many ways, the New Evangelization--and thus pastoral planning--depends upon priests. This is a moment for those of us who are priests to deepen our union with Christ. 

"Finally, St. Stephen is a model for all those who want to serve the new evangelization. He shows that the novelty of proclamation does not primarily consist in the use of original methods or 
techniques, which certainly have their uses, but in being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him. The novelty of proclamation lies in immersing ourselves deeply in the mystery of Christ, the assimilation of His Word and of His presence in the Eucharist, so that He Himself, the living Jesus, can act and speak through His envoy. In essence, the evangelizer becomes able to bring Christ to others effectively when he lives of Christ, when the newness of the Gospel manifests itself in his own life. We pray to the Virgin Mary, so that the Church, in this Year of Faith, sees more men and women who, like St. Stephen, know how to give a convinced and courageous witness of the Lord Jesus."--Pope Benedict XVI

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shepherds and Friends

When I meet with couples that are preparing for marriage, I rarely delve into the practical day to day matters that will occupy most of their time. I tend to leave that stuff for the marriage preparation course. I do this for two reasons: 1. There are people far better suited than I am to discuss things like finances, conflict resolution, and balancing work and family. 2. I'm pretty good at talking about the theological and spiritual dimensions of marriage and I figure nobody else is going to talk to them about that stuff. Couples always light up when I begin to explain to them that God has this awesome plan for them and when I teach them what the vows mean and why they take them. All of a sudden, their vocation is something much bigger than the two of them. It is part of a Divine Plan.
St. Augustine

Similarly, when one reads what the Church teaches on who the priest is, you cannot but be amazed. One of my favorite descriptions comes from a document entitled Pastores dabo vobis.  There we read that the priest prolongs the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd in the midst of the flock. That is pretty awesome. I think sometimes we hesitate to speak about the priesthood in that manner because it sounds as though we were congratulating ourselves and puffing ourselves up. Certainly, if we think that we have achieved that status by our owning doing, then we would be boasting. But, like the vocation of marriage, it is the vocation itself that is so magnificent and lofty. The one living it might not be so great, however. When we come to see what our vocation truly is in life, it is a cause of overwhelming gratitude.  Similarly, when we understand what the vocation others are living truly is, we experience gratitude for what God is doing in and through them.

Yesterday, I received a very kind Christmas present from some parishioners of mine.  I was really touched.  But, the best part was reading the inscription on the gift itself.  It read, "and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice."  I don't think any inscription could have moved me more or touched me more deeply. The gift itself was an expression of friendship. The inscription communicated that the friendship is lived within the communion of the Church and that our friendship is undeservedly given from above, ordered toward eternity, and a sign of how the various vocations can encourage one another.

When I instruct those preparing for marriage, I do so with the hope of keeping in front of them the magnificence of their vocation and the privilege of being called by God. The young couple who inscribed those words provided me with a great joy this Christmas. They pointed out the magnificence of my vocation and the privilege I have in being a shepherd.

This Sunday, the Gospel recounts how Elizabeth rejoiced in Mary's vocation to be the Mother of God. As we know, when Mary heard this rejoicing, she immediately went on to glorify God.  When we point out the beauty of one another's vocations and rejoice in them, we lead one another to the source of those vocations, God himself.

I am grateful that God gives me people who love the priesthood, who know the voice of the shepherd, and who follow. Their kindness was expressive both of faith in the priesthood and in the gift of friendship. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from Augustine's Confessions:

"There were other things done in their company which more completely seized my mind: to talk and to laugh with them; to do friendly acts of service for one another; to read well-written books together; at times to tell jokes and sometimes to be serious; to disagree at times, but without hard feelings, just as a man does with himself; and to keep our many discussions pleasant by the very rarity of such differences; to teach things to the others and to learn from them; to long impatiently for those who were absent, and to receive with joy those joining us.  These and similar expressions, proceeding from the hearts of those who loved and repaid their comrades' love, by way of countenance, tongue, eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to set our minds ablaze and to make but one out of many."

Being a priest is a great privilege. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas In the Midst of Darkness

Adoration of the Shepherds

I agree.  Let's take down the giant snowmen decorations in our front yards, cancel our "Holiday" Parties, and return all of the ridiculous and wasteful presents that we bought one another.  If Christmas is nothing more than a secular event whereby we eat and drink and talk only about reindeer and elves, then it seems disrespectful to persevere this year.  Children have been murdered and their parents are grieving.  How could we possibly justify having a good time?  If Christmas is about preserving some social customs that are unrelated to anything more serious, the right thing to do this year is respectfully pack up the decorations, return the gifts, and rescind the dinner invitations.  There is way too much pain and grief present in our society this year to justify having a party just for the sake of having a party.  Let's at least have some common decency and and skip Christmas this year.  When we empty Christmas of its true meaning and replace it with socially acceptable secular ideas, it devolves into frenzied and indecorous behavior that is certainly an insult to those who are mourning. 

There are only, in my opinion, two real options for us this year.  We should either skip the silliness or we should celebrate Christmas for what it really is.  Christmas is about God drawing close to those who dwell in darkness.  Christmas is joyful not because the world is a perfect place without suffering and evil.  Christmas is joyful because God has given us his Son.  God has come to us and entered into the pain of our human condition.  He has come to us to be close to us and to offer us his friendship. 

When the organ sounds at Midnight in my parish, when the bells peel on Christmas Day, when children are dressed in their Christmas best and their parents give them gifts, when I sit down for a Christmas Dinner and have some Christmas wine, I will not feel like I am mocking those who are filled with sorrow and burdened with grief.  I will be testifying to the good news that Jesus is close to those broken hearted parents.  Jesus loves them and is at their side.  I will be honoring the only possible good news there could ever be left for those poor people: a savior has come into the world.  That savior brings with him the hope of the new creation.  What has been lost will be saved.  What is dark shall come to light.  What is wounded shall be healed.  What has been stolen shall be restored. 

In celebrating Christmas this year, I do so for the sake of those poor people in Newtown.  I do so in testimony to the Light.  "The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."  Christmas has increasingly been reduced to total silliness, hollow sentimentality, and overindulgent consumerism.  We would have a real nerve perpetuating that kind of stuff this year.  The only way to celebrate Christmas this year is to return to its true meaning.  Christmas is a feast of faith.  It is a time to celebrate with joy the good news that God has come to us and loves the people who dwell in darkness. 

Unto us is born a Savior who is Christ and Lord.  Unto those who dwell in darkness and in the land of gloom a light has shone.  God loves the people of Newtown and is close to them.  If ever anyone needed to be close to God and to know that they are loved by him, it's those poor people.  The Good News of Christmas is, now and always, good news.  And, we need to hear and celebrate that Good News now. 

If we celebrate Christmas this year because it is December 25th and we are supposed to, I think we act like insensitive fools.  If we celebrate Christmas this year because we want to tell all of those who dwell in darkness that God is close to them, then we act like angels who bring glad tidings.  This year, let's do the work of angels.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Priests and People: Friendship Makes a Parish Strong

The only way I know how to be a pastor is to live the friendship of the Church.  It is an intense and joyful experience.  It is an experience that carries within itself a profound sense of being called together, an intense joy at witnessing the marvels the Lord works among us, and the awesome awareness that we are part of the great mission of the Church.  When I think about all of the great things that have happened in the course of being a pastor, they are the result of a beautiful friendship that has slowly grown among us.  I know that I am not alone in this sense of awe at what the Lord does among us.

Tonight I had dinner with three wonderful couples at the home of some of my parishioners in Marblehead.  Both the hosts and the couple who drove me there are my parishioners.  The third couple whom I have never met before are from a different parish in our Archdiocese.

When the couple I've never met arrived, I introduced myself as "Fr. Barnes."  The husband said, "Fr. David Barnes."  I said, "Yes," but with a quizzical look.  He said, "Well, we know you kind of."  I immediately thought to myself, "Ah, he must be one of the fifteen readers of my world famous blog."  But then something totally awesome happened.  He and his wife--the parents of six children--told me, that their family volunteered a few years ago to be part of a group that prays for priests.  Each family was randomly assigned a priest and their family got me.  He said, "We and our six children pray for you every night.  They are going to be very excited when they hear that we finally met you and had dinner with you."

Yeah, these people and their children pray for me every night.  How awesome is that?  They didn't know me, didn't know anything about me, and have never contacted me to tell me that they pray for me.  They just do it.  How much do I owe them?  Are all the awesome things that have happened in the life of my parish the fruit of their prayers?  I'm still stunned by this.

Tonight, I had dinner with these three wonderful Catholic families.  They love the Faith, love the Church, and love priests.  I find so much encouragement from people like this.  Our friendship is a gift from Christ and is a sure sign of his presence among us.  I'm really blessed as a priest.

I am convinced about something.  If we want parishes to flourish, we have to begin with the model that Christ himself gave us.  Jesus began his work, by establishing a friendship among his apostles.  This friendship grew slowly and deliberately.  Fidelity to Christ is fidelity to the friendship that Christ establishes.  If we want parishes to grow and to succeed, they have to be places where true Christian friendship is lived.  There is no such thing as a strong parish without a strong friendship. 

This evening at dinner, we shared together in a beautiful friendship established by Christ.  I came home with a desire to be a better Christian and a better priest.  I came home grateful that I should be numbered among such wonderful people.  I came home grateful that people pray every day for me.

I wake up every day and live an intense friendship with my parishioners.  Any of the good things that have occurred in the parish are the result of that friendship.  I have great committees and councils and we've accomplished lots of huge capital projects etc.  But, those things are the result of something prior.  What comes first is the friendship that we share in Christ.  We love one another.  That's why we've done well together.  Strong parishes are not the parishes where we have signs that say how "vibrant" we are.  Strong parishes are parishes where we live intensely the friendship of Christ.

Tonight, like I do almost every night, I go to bed grateful for the beautiful friendship that Christ has established among us; a friendship that is continuously expanding and drawing all of us closer to Jesus Christ. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How Can You Say To My Soul, "Rejoice?"

"Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: Rejoice!"  On the Third Sunday of Advent, we are confronted with these words from St. Paul.  The words themselves do not normally appear to us as a challenge, but rather as a word of encouragement and consolation.  But, in the midst of the tremendous horrors that occurred in Newtown, CT, to rejoice would seem to require an impossible contortion of our wills.  How is it possible that the aggrieved parents of those little children could ever rejoice again?  To even suggest that they should ponder "rejoicing" itself seems cold and clueless.  And yet, these words confront us this Sunday. Are these words from St. Paul best left ignored and unmentioned?

St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Thessalonians that he does not want them "to mourn as those who have no hope."  I have always found these words instructive.  St. Paul does not say that he does not want us to mourn the dead, but rather, he wants us to mourn as those who have hope.  In fact, the Christian can mourn with greater depth because the Christian understands the truth of who we are, who made us, and for what we were made.  For the Christian, mourning does not devolve into despair.  We mourn.  And in this instance, we mourn with a depth of sorrow beyond imagining.  And yet, this depth is not an endless abyss.  For the Christian, even in the midst of this, there is reason to rejoice.  How can this possibly be so and why is it not callous to suggest such a thing?

Last night, hours after we first learned of the atrocity that occurred, about thirty parishioners of mine arrived together to offer Mass.  Among them were teachers, parents, and children.  The depth of their sorrow and anguish was written upon their faces.  Their gathering in prayer does not take away the pain and heartbreak of those in Connecticut.  And yet, by coming to Mass, these parishioners were doing precisely what John the Baptist tells us to do.  They were preparing the way of the Lord. 

By arriving at 8pm on a Friday night for Mass, they were opening their hearts to the presence of Christ.  They were making room for him.  In moments like this, we all have a desire to "do something."  The people in the Gospels who heard John preach asked him, "What should we do?"  In every instance, John basically said, "Repent."  In other words, make room in your heart for God. 

In front of this catastrophic evil, we naturally feel inclined to "do something."  We feel the need to do something.  I wonder if the "something" that would be the most fruitful is the something of repentance.  All around us, there is darkness.  But there is an answer to this darkness.  His name is Christ.  The world needs Him and His light.  What can I do?  I can remove darkness from my own heart--I can repent--and make room for Christ. 

Were it not for Christ, then the weight of human suffering and the evil that attacks us would defeat us.  Then, there would be no cause for rejoicing.  For the Christian, our cause for rejoicing is that we are not defeated.  Even in the midst of unimaginable evil and horror, God draws near.  His love is unrelenting.  His love endures forever.  The Christian can cry out in agony and in righteous anger at such events and still possess interior joy because the Christian knows that evil and darkness do not have the absolute final word.

Rejoicing is not giddiness.  It is not self-hypnosis or an attempt to anesthetize ourselves to the reality of pain and the darkness of evil.  Rejoicing, in the Christian context, is the calm confidence of knowing that we are loved by a love that has come into the world and that this love conquers sin and death. It is to know that even in the midst of the greatest darkness, a light still comes into the world.

The Communion Antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent comes from the Prophet Isaiah: "Say to the faint of heart: Be strong and do not fear.  Behold our God will come, and he will save us."  When we open our hearts to Christ and when we repent of and remove from our hearts all that is of the world of darkness, we become witnesses to the faint of heart. 

What can I do?  I cannot explain away evil or the pain and the devastation.  I cannot provide quick answers.  But, I can repent of darkness in my own life and make room for Christ.  And when others see that darkness does not have the ultimate word on my life, they will have cause for rejoicing.  What can I do?  I can follow Christ and make room for him in my own life and thus allow his light to shine on those who walk in darkness and who dwell in the land of gloom.  I can mourn with the families of those whose lives have been stolen and I can repent and bear witness to Christ who vanquishes darkness and conquers death. 

Christian rejoicing does not eliminate mourning or sorrow.  It lives beside mourning and sorrow.  It says to those who are crushed by the agony of loss, "This is not the end."  We've sung about this thousands of times during Advent when we have pondered how Israel "mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears."  And then, side by side with that mourning, we hear, "Rejoice, Rejoice O Israel, to Thee Shall Come Emmanuel."  What ought I to do?  I should mourn and weep, I should repent and make room for Christ, and I should rejoice that evil does not have the last word.  Our God comes to save us. I think the Lord wants me to mourn and to rejoice at the same time.  The only way for this to happen is for me truly to repent.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We Are the Bells of Christmas Day (Again)

This is a repeat post from about a year ago.  I really enjoy Casting Crown's version of the song and the history of the song, so I thought I'd repost this.


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.

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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Parish Life: Living Intentionally as Disciples and Friends

During the past couple of days, I have been reading with great interest a book entitled, "Forming Intentional Disciples."  It is written by Sherry A. Weddell.  I bought the book for my staff and, although only half way through, I have already begun recommending it to numerous friends and have given copies to others. 

The book has come at an interesting moment in my life when I find myself reflecting upon my years that I have spent in this particular parish.  In a way, Weddell's book has put a name and a "system" to much of what has been my experience as a pastor in this parish.  At the heart of our life together has been a lived discipleship.  The focus of our life together has not been various projects and events, but rather building up our communion together by being a band of followers--disciples of the Lord.  The more that we have become disciple friends, the more others have been drawn here.  And the more others have been drawn here, the more we have become convinced that Jesus keeps his promises.

Weddell's book confirms with facts and figures what I suppose is instinctual to those who want to be part of the New Evangelization; namely, the status quo is not working.  In a particular way, I have seen young people who are on fire for the Lord have cold water thrown on the flame of their zeal because others don't want them to be too extreme or too radical in their approach to the Christian life.  There's sometimes a resistance--especially on the part of the clergy--to any signs of zeal.  There's a milquetoast approach to parishes and dioceses that really suffocates the life out of people.  It's as if everything is going so perfectly that we don't want to upset the perfect balance that we have.  But, the fact is things are not going perfectly.  If there has ever been a moment to try something new, this is the moment.

Weddell (and, of course, I am only part way through the book) identifies the critical problem as a lack of discipleship; a lack of intentional discipleship.  She quotes a blogpost by an Orthodox priest named Fr. Gregory Jensen.  When I read Fr. Jensen's post, I thought, "That's it!"  I quote:

"I would argue what typically happens is that we ask people who haven't yet repented (and so who are not yet disciples of Christ) to take on work meant for apostles.  Not only do we entrust philanthropic work to those who are not yet disciples of Christ, we also ask them to undertake evangelism and catechesis and serve on parish council.  We might also bless them to attend seminary and ordain them to the diaconate or priesthood.

We do this because we are ourselves in the main not disciples of Jesus Christ.  Having neglected repentance in my life, I am indifferent to it in yours . . . .Because we neglect repentance and the spiritual formation of the laity as disciples, we essentially ask people to carry burdens that are beyond their strength.  Without an awareness of the gifts Christ has given them personally in baptism and without proper spiritual formation in the exercise of those gifts--and this includes an ethical formation in the limits that these gifts impose on my will--is it any wonder that people fail?  We cannot ask even good and talented people who are not yet disciples to undertake the works only appropriate to apostles.  And yet we do this all the time."

I think many ecclesial institutions are afraid of focusing upon discipleship because they have so many projects and good works that need to get accomplished.  We are afraid that if we focus too much on the whole "Jesus" thing, we might disenfranchise people.  So, we think that as long as the works get accomplished, the discipleship will somehow take care of itself.  What winds up happening, however, is that it becomes increasingly impossible to accomplish all of the necessary works because the pool of committed disciples continuously shrinks.  This isn't to argue that one needs to be Mother Theresa before you can serve on a parish committee.  But, we really can't have somebody--no matter how well-intentioned--who is not a committed disciple teaching religious education or sitting on the Parish Council. 

Similarly, when we see people who are committed disciples, we shouldn't shun them.  Last week, there was an Extraordinary Form Mass at my parish and a cadre of college kids attended.  Now some would say, "Well, those kids are trying to turn the clock back and we've got to get them out of that mindset."  What are we doing???  A group of college kids came to Mass!!  Let's encourage them!  If another group (or the same group) of college kids wanted a charismatic prayer group, I'd say, "Praise God!"  If they want to pray in Latin, in tongues, in English, with Gregorian Chant, Sanctus Real, or Casting Crowns, at Eucharistic Adoration, or in Bible Studies, who cares?  They want to pray!  They love Jesus.  This is who we want to encourage.

I've often said to people, "You know, we've tried everything else, maybe we ought to give the Gospel a whirl?"  People want to meet, know, and love Jesus.  I admire what I see in a lot of the seminarians and youth ministers that I see coming into the life of parishes today.  They are zealous for the Lord.  And, even though there is still a resistance on the part of some in the Church towards anything resembling radical discipleship, I think those fortresses are crumbling.  They are crumbling out of necessity.  The parishes that try to perpetuate what has failed are on the path to oblivion.  The focus has to be on the full Gospel, on forming disciples of Jesus Christ, and on living the Catholic life in its fullness. 

One of the things that I have really loved about being a pastor is that I have become friends with my parishioners.  And that friendship has made us all better disciples of the Lord.  At the very heart of our life together is a friendship in Christ.  This friendship in Christ has been at the heart of all of our projects and it has been the measure of all of our endeavors.  The friendship is not built by avoiding certain aspects of the Gospel.  The friendship has been built by embracing the fullness of the Gospel.  Does that mean we all live it perfectly?  Of course not. But, it does mean that at the very center of our life together is an undeniable fact.  He is a fact that became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He is a fact that multiplied the loaves and the fishes.  He is a fact that was crucified and rose.  He is a fact that continues to dwell among us and to draw us to himself.  He lives and is encountered in our friendship with one another.  And he commands us to draw others into this friendship when he says, "Go and make disciples."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned

This evening Fr. Chateau—the priest who works with me—and I heard the confessions of our Tenth Grade religious education students.  I love hearing the confessions of our young people.  In a particular way, I love hearing their confessions because those who are responsible for preparing them—both our Religious Education teachers and our Catholic School teachers—have done such a wonderful job preparing them. 
                                                                I have always found it frustrating to go and hear confessions somewhere when the kids are totally unprepared.  You know there’s a long line of kids waiting, you only have a short time available, and the kids come in and look like somebody forced them into this room with you and they are clueless as to why.  I don’t mean that they don’t know what to say.  I mean that they don’t know why they are there.  The kid is terrified—not because they don’t know the form or because they don’t know exactly what to confess—but because he or she is basically not sure what the whole thing is all about.
For the past decade, the teachers here have made confession a big focus.  They go through an age appropriate examination of conscience.  The kids learn the form (but always have the cheat sheet with them in case they forget).  For years, people got rid of teaching the form because they didn’t want the kids to be nervous about memorizing.  The opposite is actually the case.  Being familiar with the form of confession actually takes some of the nervousness away.  And, learning to say, “And for these and all of my sins I am truly sorry” helps the priest know when the person is done speaking as opposed to when the person is pausing.  Knowing the form helps the kids relax.
While not always successful, we try to get all of the school kids and religious ed kids to confession twice a year.  After a decade or so, it’s become second nature.  What I’ve particularly enjoyed is not having to waste time in the confessional calming kids down, telling them not to be nervous, getting them actually to speak, and trying to elicit a confession.  Now, they come in, say how long it’s been since their last confession, and then go through a comprehensive confession.  It is really so encouraging. 
By preparing the young people over and over again every year, they come into the confessional with a greater sense of ease.  They know why they are there and I have found that it leaves much more opportunity for them to encounter Christ and his great mercy.  I have found that over time the confessions of our young people have become more mature and intelligent than they were in the past.  It is very beautiful. 
Getting a parish back into the habit of confession has been a lot of work for a lot of people!  It means bringing it up in the homily often, writing about it in the bulletin frequently, and providing opportunities to receive it.  The one thing I wish I had done better is providing more opportunities for it.  It is tough to figure out a convenient time for people.  But, providing it to our young people has been a great privilege.  And, I am really grateful that those who instruct our young people have done such a great job preparing them.  And, I’ve had priests with me who are generous with their time.
Tonight, as I walked back to the rectory after confessions I was thinking of how at the beginning of this project preaching about confession received a certain amount of eye rolls.  It was as though confession was some sort of throwback to a bygone era.  But, after a decade, there’s a culture change.  Certainly there aren’t as many confessions as there should be and we still have work to do with forming good consciences, but there’s been a culture change.  Confession has become a way of life for a good amount of people.  They love it and appreciate it. 
I think it is easy to give up on confession.  Priests are confronted with years of poor formation and years of people being convinced that confession is not really necessary.  Educating young people on how to go to confession, how to form your conscience, what sin is, why confession is necessary and good etc—all takes work and patience.  And, it requires a team of people who work together.  It requires teachers to take time out of their already packed schedules to review with students and help them to form their consciences.  It requires the priest be willing to preach over and over again.  It requires priests to spend time hearing confessions.  All of that work and effort can seem too much.  It’s easy to give up.
Hearing the confessions of our young people tonight really filled my heart with a lot of gratitude.  It made me very grateful that we didn’t give up.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Have I Ever Mentioned How Much I Love Being a Priest?


                                                      Today I got to:
Offer the 7am Mass for the Immaculate Conception
Offer the 10:30 Mass in the Extraordinary Form for the Immaculate Conception.
Listen to the schola sing beautiful Gregorian Chant
See a great group of college kids.
Hear confessions.
Offer the 4pm for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Listen to the soloist beautifully sing two pieces from Handel's Messiah during Communion.
Encourage a young man to think about the priesthood.
Have lunch with a seminarian and contact a few other seminarians.
Talk to an elderly woman who stopped me as I was beginning the procession for Mass.  She wanted to tell me that she doesn't want me to be transferred and that she never prayed the Rosary until she heard me say in a homily several years ago that we should be devoted to the Rosary.  From then on, she prays it many times a day.  (That made my day.  I hope that her holiness has some sort of effect on my eternity).
Hear from the family of one of my parishioners from another parish (twelve years ago) who is going into hospice.  She's a great lady in her nineties.  I will go see her in the next few days.
Bless a newly engaged couple.
Offer some words of encouragment to somebody
Be invited to someone's home for dinner
Grow in my love for God.
Grow in my love for my flock.
Become more grateful for the gift of being a priest.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Education in Pastoral Charity

St. Paul's Mystical Encounter with Christ

There's a never ending list of things that somebody needs to know before they are ordained.  I hear all of the time that the seminary should instruct priests on: Human resources, business, accounting, and management.  Allow me to add to that list: cooking, plumbing, furnace maintenance, real estate law, property management, decorating, psychiatry, social work, education, and investments.  I agree.  All of these things are great and important.  The problem is that if a priest studied all of these things (or studied some of these things more than we already did), you would only ordain guys who were in their 70's.  There just isn't time to do it all.  I'm not saying those things aren't good for a priest to study, but it's just not possible to do it all.

I think that if I could teach a course in the seminary, it would be called, "Heart of the Shepherd."  It would be a study of the great shepherds of the Church, beginning with Christ himself.  We could look at the apostles--especially St. Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Charles Borromeo, John Vianney, and perhaps some others and identify what it means to have a pastor's heart.

Pastoral Charity--the virtue unique to the priest--is what all of us who share in the priesthood are called to exercise.  This virtue is given to the priest for the sake of the flock.  When one reads, for instance, the Pauline Letters, you cannot but help to see the intense love that St. Paul has for the people entrusted to his care.  He is able to rebuke, admonish, encourage, and instruct all within a few lines of one another.  Without pastoral charity, rebuking and admonition are just harshness.  Without pastoral charity encouragement becomes pandering.  Without pastoral charity, instruction becomes vapid opining.

There are any number of things that priests need to keep learning about: culture, technology, various skills etc.  But, what all of us have to most learn occurs in our hearts.  We have to keep being educated in pastoral charity.  Without pastoral charity, the priest who wants only to be liked will preach only what will make him popular.  Without pastoral charity, the priest who wants only to be the smartest guy in the room will indiscriminately pontificate on theological truisms.  Without pastoral charity, the priest who wants worldly success will see his people as a stepping stone to greater things.  Without pastoral charity, the homilies will run dry.  Without pastoral charity, the priest will get lazy.

There are many things in life that we can learn through coursework and practice.  But being a shepherd is a grace given by Christ. Becoming educated as a shepherd requires that we beg him to give us a heart like his.  It requires that we learn from him and that we are configured to his own priestly heart.  When St. Paul taught, admonished, rebuked, instructed, wept, endured chains, preached, travelled, and so on, he did it as a shepherd after the heart of Christ.  He did those things with a love for the sheep.  A pastor's heart is one that rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn.  A pastor's heart longs for the return of the sinner, rejoices when the lost are found, knows when to encourage and when to admonish, and is attached not only to Christ the Good Shepherd, but is also attached to the sheep of his flock.

Those of us who are and who will be priests of the New Evangelization have a never ending list of things that we need to learn.  But, we should only learn those things as men who are continually living with a Shepherd's Heart. The most important thing we can do for the New Evangelization is to grow in Pastoral Charity.  We grow in Pastoral Charity by staying close to Christ, the Good Shepherd--especially in his Word and in the Eucharist.  But, we also grow in Pastoral Charity by opening our hearts to the people whom we serve.