Monday, January 21, 2013

Just A Positive Story about the Beverly Police and Fire Departments

One of my two churches is located on a busy downtown street and is open on a daily basis so people can come and pray. Recently, one homeless visitor found his way into the church and into a tiny closet where he amazingly was able to contort his body to fit.  After discovering him and having no success in waking him (he was passed out from alcohol), I called the police.

After only a few minutes, a couple of Beverly Police Officers and a Beverly Fire Engine arrived. Upon opening the closet door, they all recognized the passed out man from what I imagine is a long history of interactions. After a lot of effort, the man was somewhat awakened, but couldn't move very well and he was covered in his own feces. It was a disgusting sight and odor.

What I will most remember about this event, however, was not the sadness of seeing a human being covered in filth and passed out in a closet. I will remember how these officers, firefighters, and EMT's treated this man with incredible dignity and respect. There was nothing dignified about this man's condition, but those who arrived on the scene treated him as though he were a member of their own family or as though this man exercised important political clout. They treated him like a human being.

The priest with whom I live will often say when he sees somebody in that condition, "Imagine, one day he was someone's little baby. Some mother was holding him in her arms and showing everyone how proud she was of her new son."  Whatever transpired between that day and today cannot be erased.  But, the other day--unseen and unnoticed to anybody but themselves--a few police officers and firefighters treated that woman's son with a dignity and respect that surely will be rewarded by the One who sees all that is hidden.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Promise that Sustains Us

The USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway
The other day, I offered the Funeral Mass for a parishioner of mine named Warren. As is often the case, I didn't know Warren particularly well.  Up until a few months ago, I'd see him and his wife as they would arrive for Sunday morning Mass.  Always a joyful fellow, Warren and I would exchange pleasantries and that was about it.  He was an usher here for years and you could tell that the little kids at Mass loved him.  In the pews at his Funeral Mass were his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  And, of course, so was his lovely wife, Virginia.  They've been married for 68 years.

On June 4th, 1942, Warren was not in Beverly, Massachusetts where he was born and raised.  On that day, having left family and friends behind, Warren was on the USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway.  Although a victorious day for the US Navy, the Yorktown sustained heavy damage from Japanese Bombers and torpedoes.  Warren would have heard words that day that must have been intensely frightening to his young ears: "All Hands, Abandon Ship."  I'm sure that Warren wondered more than once whether he would survive the war. 

I imagine that seven decades ago when Warren joined the Navy, his family members and friends were anxious about his safety.  Perhaps they saw him off as he shipped out and they wondered if they would ever see him again.  They must have lived each day with anxiety, wondering if he would ever return home.  Would some terrible tragedy befall him?  Their anxieties would have been justified. When they saw him off that day, no matter what optimistic words were spoken, they knew that they were sending him into danger.

This week, we accompanied Warren to a new departure. Again, those who loved him could accompany him only so far. He would have to pass beyond the veil without them. But this time, the words spoken at the final farewell had power to dispel all fear and anxiety. The Gospel at his funeral Mass was taken from The Sixth Chapter of St. John's Gospel. The man who eats the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks his blood will live forever and he will rise on the last day. Those words must provide enormous consolation to those who mourn.  Warren faithfully received the food of everlasting life. Every time he received the Eucharist, he received a promise, the promise of immortality.

Although we all approach death with some fear and trembling, Warren's family had the consolation of knowing that they were not sending him off to danger. They were sending him to the fulfillment of the promise. They were sending him into the arms of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Right Time and the Right Place by God's Grace

In my life as a priest, there are many times when I know that if it had been some other priest in this particular situation, he would have done exactly the same thing.  I just happened to be the priest on site.  That's a lot of life.  Then, there are those instances when I've witnessed a brother priest preach a homily or handle a situation and I've thought, "Boy, I'm glad it was him and not me."  That's because that priest did a much better job in the situation than I ever would have done.

But, then there are instances like one I had recently.  It was one of those moments when I knew that had I not been the particular priest in the situation, the person likely would not have reached out to a priest.  For whatever reason, this person and I clicked.  And so, by God's grace, we were able to live the life of the Church. Occasionally, as a priest you have the sense that you were sent to a particular parish in order to be there for this particular situation or for this particular person.

How I wound up in these situations was not through an infallible process.  In fact, the way God brought me to my present parish was through a rather crazy situation. And so, by means of a lot of crazy and difficult things, God brought forth a lot of beautiful things.

So, this week, I had the opportunity to do some wonderful priestly work.  That was possible because twelve years ago, I had to deal with an imperfect system.  Grace is relentless. It can't be defeated.  God takes imperfect systems and imperfect priests and nonetheless uses them for his glory.

We can be confident and unafraid.  No matter what, if we entrust ourselves to Him, God will use us
as his instruments.  And, he will place us in the right situations at the right time. Even if there are bumps along the way. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christianity Makes Us More Human, Not Less

The Gospel yesterday spoke of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew, James and John.  They all had names.  Christianity is personal.  Evangelization is personal.  Parishes are personal.  Abraham climbed up a mountain in order to make a very personal sacrifice.  If God had given him some vague command and said, "Climb up that mountain and improve yourself in some way," we probably wouldn't really care.  But instead, God commanded Abraham to "take your son, Isaac--the one whom you love--and sacrifice him as a burnt offering."  Now, that's personal!

As I posted earlier, the new pastoral plan of the Archdiocese calls for pastors of parishes involved to offer their resignations.  At first, my concerns about this were entirely about my parishes.  Would some new pastor come in and begin to dismantle those things that have made us strong?  Would some new pastor end Eucharistic adoration, start preaching nonsense, be dismissive of the Sacrament of Penance, do crazy things during the Mass?  Would he--like I've heard about some priests--refuse to pray for priestly vocations?  Would he refuse to preach the difficult moral truths?  We've all heard the horror stories.

But as time has passed, my fears about those things have diminished.  I'm really believing that if a new pastor is assigned, he's going to be a priest of the New Evangelization.  I hope we've learned from the past about what doesn't work and that where we see good things happening, we build upon them. In part I hold out this hope because our life depends upon it.  We're a community that has given more men to the priesthood and the seminary in the past five years than any other in the archdiocese. Vocations are our lifeblood, so I trust that nobody is going to come here and do anything but build on the foundation.  At long last, it seems that the New Evangelization is finally getting the respect it deserves.  There's no going back.

So why then am I still sorrowful?  Because Christianity is personal.  Christianity takes into account our humanity.  It doesn't try to replace it.  In fact, God became human--that's how intensely human Christianity is.  In fact, God chose to use the instrumentality of his Son's human nature to restore us back to him.  The Gospels are filled with examples of Christ interacting with real persons about real situations.  Christ ate and dined, wept and suffered, loved and obeyed in his human nature.  When St. Paul departed from Miletus, the Acts of the Apostles tells us that everybody was weeping.  I'm glad for that.  It doesn't say, "St. Paul left and everyone said, 'Hey, this is the life of an apostle.  He knew what he was getting into when he joined.  So, no crying."  Christianity sanctifies and redeems our humanity.  It doesn't ignore or suppress our humanity.

So, I'm sorrowful because parishioners and priests are human.  The homeless guy who was found passed out in the closet of my church today, he's human.  Dan, the fireman who helped, human.  The two little boys who sobbed this week when they heard I resigned, human.  Warren, whom I buried this morning and his wife Virginia of 68 years, human.  The young man whom I received into the Catholic Church a few weeks ago and who asked me last weekend to do his wedding, human.  The families with whom I have dinner, the men I go to the Red Sox with, the people I work with, Henry who leads the song every morning at communion time (the same two songs for the past 13 years), the people with whom I worship every Sunday, they're all humans.  And, humans experience sorrow when the moment calls for it.

I'd rather be sorrowful than inhuman.  And, in my book, those who try to skip over the sorrow or who attempt to spiritualize it away with the dismissive, "This is what happens in Catholic parishes,"
promote an inhuman approach to life and to the Church.  So, I'm going to be sorrowful because
leaving the people whom I love, is a cause for sorrow.  And, I hope that some of them are sorrowful too!  If they're not, I didn't do a very good job.  It's not to say that being reassigned is wrong.  But, it is to say that it is sorrowful.  Abraham was probably a little sorrowful climbing up that mountain. One of our titles for Mary is, "Our Lady of Sorrows."  One can be obedient, sorrowful, and joyful simultaneously in the Christian life.

The New Evangelization needs to be personal.  And when you get personal, you put your heart on the line.  And when you put your heart on the line, you eventually encounter suffering and sorrow.  The alternative would be inhuman and unCatholic.  Perhaps, the reason that so many parishes are foundering and that so few priestly vocations are springing forth is because we skip over our humanity.  Christianity ought to make us live our humanity more intensely, not less.  I hope that in the next few months, some young man sees how sorrowful I am at the thought of leaving my flock and thinks, "I want to be a priest some day and love my people with a love that is capable of such sorrow at the thought of leaving them."  The Word became flesh. That's personal.  Christianity and
the priesthood are personal too.  That's the New Evangelization.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Pastor as Shepherd, Bridegroom, and Father and Pastoral Planning

This week, in the Archdiocese of Boston, the implementation of a new pastoral plan began.  As a first step, 12 collaboratives were designated consisting of 28 parishes. Among them were the three parishes of my city.  I am currently pastor of one parish and the administrator of a second.  As part of the plan, all pastors in those twenty-eight parishes were required to resign.  They, along with any other priest, is then free to apply to any of the now open collaboratives.

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom
For me, writing that letter was akin to filing for divorce despite wanting to stay married. At any moment in time, priests must always be willing to fulfill the pastoral mission of their diocese (and even beyond their diocese.)  At the same time, I think we must zealously guard the Church's long-standing tradition of the stability of pastors. Church law still holds as its first option the indefinite assignment of pastors, and secondarily permits dioceses to have renewable terms for pastors. The Church's wisdom in promoting stability of office for pastors should not be underestimated.

This deterioration of the importance of the stability of pastors is often defended by rather banal discussions of  " new blood," or "new ideas."  At times there are attempts to overly spiritualize it by saying, "Well, this is part of the life of a priest."  But we should not be so quick to do that. Before knowing how to act, we should first know who we are.

In the life of the Church, the pastor is not a mere extension of the bishop.  He is an intimate cooperator of the bishop and he exercises his priestly office only under the authority of the bishop.  And, in this sense, every priest should have the pastoral concern of the whole diocese at heart.  If the bishop needs a particular pastor to move for the good of souls, then a good priest is willing to do so.  In this way,priests should always be willing to exercise missionary zeal in caring for the whole Church, even beyond the boundaries of his particular diocese.  But, at the same time, a pastor exercises his office in his own right. In other words, the pastor does not represent the bishop in his parish.  The pastor exercises the pastoral office under the bishop and dependent upon the bishop, but the pastor represents the person of Christ, the Good Shepherd in his parish.  The pastor is shepherd, bridegroom, and father.

As a shepherd, he is called not only to lead and to lay down his life for the sheep, but he is also called to know the sheep.  Knowing the flock takes time--a long time.  The sheep also need time to know the shepherd, to know the voice of the Good Shepherd through him, and to follow him.  Parishes aren't corporations.  Things take time. It took St. John Vianney over forty years!

As a bridegroom, the pastor lives Christ's spousal relationship with the Church.  He is with his people in good times and in bad, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.  The stability of pastors is a necessary condition for living this spousal relationship. Without this stability, it can seem as though pastors are always on the lookout for the next best parish.

As a father, stability is important because fatherhood is a stable presence in the lives of people. To say, "Well, all priests are fathers" would do a disservice to the theological foundation of the office of pastor.  In the Canon of the Mass, even though we pray for all bishops, we pray for our own bishop by name. He is not simply just one among the many bishops.  Specificity matters.  Similarly, the people of a parish have been given a father in the person of their pastor.  Moving him, while sometimes necessary, ought to be done with serious consideration.  "Is this so important that the father of these people should be taken from them?" If the answer is, "yes," then there's no doubt that the pastor ought to move.  But that question ought to be asked.

There are always going to be good reasons to move a pastor.  The argument for stability is not an
argument for leaving an unhappy pastor in a difficult assignment or for leaving an ineffective pastor in a parish.  Rather, the argument for stability concerns the very identity of the pastor himself  and his place within the ecclesial communion and in the life of a parish.

When I think about my own parishes, I can say that I know I am a shepherd, a bridegroom, and a father to them. So, it is natural that I would want to maintain stability.  If a pastor isn't heartbroken about leaving his flock, his spouse, and his children, then he really should be leaving his parish!  By setting the threshold for moving pastors high, we go a long way toward emphasizing the beautiful relationship that exists between the pastor and his flock.  By setting the threshold high, it also builds trust so that when such moves are made, we can have confidence that it was for very good reason.

To be clear, this isn't a public appeal to be left in place. But, it is, I think, a very critical part of the conversation about pastoral planning that is necessary. A profound appreciation for the stability of pastors would paradoxically encourage a greater acceptance of those instances when a pastor needs to be moved. 

It is an interesting moment in time. We most definitely need priests with a missionary spirit and yet, the goal of every missionary ought to be to create stable communities with a stable pastor.  We need pastors who have stability of office and who possess a willingness to take new assignments when necessary.  For all of us, priests and laity, it is important for us not to yield simply to emotion or to a corporate model of the Church.  All of us continually need to return to a meditation on who the priest is and who the pastor is.  It is from meditating on the reality of the priest that we will know how to interpret the way forward.  And, of course, we should all pray for our bishop and for those he has entrusted with the task of overseeing this pastoral plan.  It is undoubtedly an overwhelming task and they deserve our respect and our prayers. We are all in this together, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity. I think discussions about this are beneficial and, in the end, will help all of us to be better disciples in mission. 

(As an aside, when looking for an image to incorporate into this blog post, I thought of finding one of Christ the Bridegroom.  I was rather shocked when I found the icon above.  It is not exactly what I would have imagined for an image of the bridegroom and it honestly beckons me to deepen my own understanding of what it means in my vocation to be an icon of Christ, the Bridegroom.  I encourage you to go to this link and to read what the icon means.  It is really fascinating.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Magi For the New Evangelization

At the Mass for the Vigil of Epiphany, a young couple was married in my parish and while at the reception, many people commented to me about how beautiful our church is.  I was talking with two men and one of them asked me if one of the paintings behind the main altar depicted Abraham and Isaac.  Indeed, it does.  His inquiry about Abraham helped me to see a connection between Abraham and the magnificent feast of the Epiphany.

So often, when we talk about evangelization and the New Evangelization, we do so with a thought towards introducing programs that will bring thousands upon thousands to the Faith.  But God began by bringing one man to Faith.  Of all the people who existed at that time, God chose Abraham.  God called Abraham.  In a sense, God risked everything on Abraham.  And then, things began to grow.  Abraham and Isaac, then Jacob and his twelve sons, and then a nation.  God didn't call all of the nations.  He chose one and from that one, he chose to show forth his glory.  This was God's preferred method.  One, a few, some more, a nation.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, we see God's plan finally extending to all of the nations.  This was God's plan all along.  But, it began with one man.  In the Magi, we see represented the whole of the earth.  God desires every human being to come to know his Divine Son, Jesus Christ.  God desires that all should come to Faith in Jesus Christ and find salvation in Him.  Every person that we meet today . . . God desires that that person come to Faith in Jesus Christ.  And St. Matthew's account of the Magi provides to us a model for Evangelization.

Firstly, God gives to the Magi a sign that corresponds to their particular circumstances.  They see a star.  Was this an ordinary star, a comet, an alignment of planets, an interior vision that only they could see?  I don't know.  All I know is that God gave to them a sign.  All of us who have come to Christ have been given signs along the way.  There have been things that corresponded perhaps to our natural curiosity about the world.  Why am I here?  How did I get here?  Is there some plan for my life?  What happens when I die?  The Magi also had questions.  And they dedicated themselves to pursuing the answers to these questions.

All around us, people are looking for answers about the meaning of life.  They too need a sign to indicate the way forward, the way to the answers.

Now, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem.  In Herod's palace, they talk about their search.  In a sense, they bring their religious quest into the public square.  Much like today, their pursuit for the Truth raised the alarm in the public square.  Herod's forces immediately spring into action to eliminate the Truth.  In a similar way, we too experience this today.  When we bring our religious questions and matters of faith into the public square, we are met with opposition.  It can seem that the only "private beliefs" that are unacceptable in the public square are the beliefs of Christians.  But, this is a part of the New Evangelization.  The New Evangelization must necessarily involve Christians bearing witness in the public square.

The Magi move on from there and we are told that the star came to rest over the house where Jesus was.  This will always be the case.  Anyone who sincerely, honestly, and diligently seeks the truth will ultimately come to the person of Jesus Christ.  When we set out on the journey toward truth, it leads to the one who says, "I am the Truth."  St. Matthew tells us that upon seeing the star settle over the house, the Magi "rejoiced with exceedingly great joy."  Those who bring the good news are necessarily those who have found Christ and have "rejoiced with exceedingly great joy."  Evangelization begins with us being drawn to Christ, the story of the signs that were given to us, the search for him, and the exceedingly great joy that we discovered in meeting him.

Upon finding him, the Magi prostrate before him and open their treasures and give him gifts.  If the gifts that we were to give Christ were publicly displayed for all to see, would we be embarrassed by what we have offered to him?  Have we been stingy?  Again, in offering their gifts, the Magi are a model for evangelization.

In offering gold, they proclaim that Jesus Christ is king.  We too are called to offer our gold in testimony to Christ's kingship in our life.  Do we offer him generously from the gold of our monetary possessions?  Do we offer to him the gold of our time?  Do we offer to him the gold of our obedience, submitting to his Divine Will?  Do we offer him the gold of our obedience to his commands as revealed to us in Scripture and in the Sacred Teachings of the Church?  Do we offer to him the gold of our submission of intellect and will?  This gold proclaims Christ's kingship over my whole life.  The gold we must give him must proclaim to the world that Christ exercises kingship over every aspect of my life.

If gold proclaimed his kingship, frankincense proclaimed his Divinity.  Do I open the treasure of my frankincense to Christ?  Do I proclaim his Divinity by giving the gift of my time in prayer each day?  Do I give him the worship that his properly due to him?  Do I adore him in the Eucharist, render him devotion, receive the Eucharist worthily?  Do I submit to his Divine Mercy in the Sacrament of Penance frequently and with devotion?  Do I open the treasure of my frankincense by adoring Christ with all of my heart, mind, and soul?

The myrrh acknowledges the humanity of Christ and that he would suffer.  Do I open the gift of my myrrh by pouring out love upon the poor and the suffering?  Do I generously care for the poor, feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, protect the unborn, and show favor toward the downtrodden?  Do I open the treasury of my myrrh and care for the humanity that Christ came to redeem?

While God could certainly send stars to whomever he wants, it is Christians who are the stars he sends today.  In opening our treasures to Christ, we proclaim our personal attachment to him.  The more we pour out from our treasury and give to Christ, the more convincing witnesses we are to the world.  When we give our gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Christ, we proclaim that he is our king, our God, and our brother.  The Magi show us how to evangelize.  It begins with us seeking the truth, following the signs, bearing witness, being filled with exceedingly great joy, and opening our treasures.  When we open our treasures, we are saying that this child means something to me personally.  He's not some theoretical notion.  He's my King and my God and I believe that so much that I am willing to give him all of my treasures.

In doing that, we become stars for others.  Our light becomes a convincing witness to those whom we encounter.  The Magi show us the way in the New Evangelization.  We can be sure of this: if we faithfully follow the example of the Magi and open our entire treasury to Christ, those who see the light of our example and do likewise will rejoice exceedingly with the great joy that only a disciple of Christ can know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The New Evangelization: Proclaim His Mighty Works

After Mass Today on the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God
This morning after offering Mass on the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, one of my parishioners said to me, "Father, I looked up at the altar during the consecration and saw you and all of those young priests and seminarians gathered at the altar and I was overwhelmed at how beautiful it was."  That young woman's sentiments were shared by many this morning.  During Mass today, I think we were all--once again--reminded of how God has really blessed us as a parish and used us for some extraordinary things.  I think everyone in the church this morning felt like we are part of some amazing plan and have been chosen to witness the power of God at work.  Whether we be the priests and seminarians present in the sanctuary or the members of the lay faithful in the pews, we possess a profound gratitude for what God is doing in our midst.

Those in the pews today looked into the sanctuary and saw three seminarians serving Mass.  Those men--either from this parish or who feel closely connected to this parish--represent just a portion of the seminarians who are part of our family.  The people in the pews pray for these men, encourage these men, and find great joy in the vocations of these men.  The people in the pews find joy that somehow God has made our parish a place that constantly overflows with the presence of young priests and seminarians.

The people in the pews today also saw a young, fairly recently ordained priest, concelebrate Mass.  He is from our parish and is home for some vacation time.  The people are joyful not only because he is from our parish and was ordained, but they are joyful that he returns to our parish to be with us and to offer Mass with us.

The people also saw a young man who was recently ordained to the transitional diaconate.  Tom, who studies in Rome and is on vacation, preached for today's Mass.  A novice to the pulpit, I think it is safe to say that Tom wowed the crowd.  His beautiful homily and his evident intelligence and depth gave the people an extraordinary sense of hope in the future of the Church.

In turn, the men in the sanctuary see something truly special happening in the people of this parish.  I've heard it from many of the seminarians and priests who come here.  "The people receive communion reverently and devoutly.  The people here love priests and seminarians.  The people here have a deep and profound love for the Eucharist, the sacraments, and for the Word.  There are converts here, young families here, college students here, and Catholics who read and study the Faith."  The men in the sanctuary come here because it does their hearts good to know that places like this exist and that it is possible to have a parish where the liturgies are beautiful, the fullness of Catholic teaching can be preached, and the pews are filled with every age group.
I'm the pastor here, so I understand that it sounds like I'm boasting.  And, I am.  But, not about me.  I'm boasting because God deserves to be praised and his works deserve to be exalted.  God is indeed doing something extraordinary here.  It's like everything we touch turns to gold again and again.  I think, in large part, our joy arises from the realization that all of these things are happening because we have been taken up together in the life of grace.  These things don't belong to us.  They are not our doing. We don't create anything.  We've discovered that the more obedient we have been to God's plan, the more faithful we have become to following the Church, the more devoted we have been to prayer and to our friendship together, the more God has blessed us and bestowed upon us remarkable signs of favor.  He basically blesses us, we show gratitude and accept the blessing, and then he rewards us for accepting his undeserved blessings by blessing us all over again!

An ancient title for the priest is "pontifex" which means, "bridge builder."  One of the great joys in my life as a priest has been building bridges between the people of my parish and the many priests and seminarians who come here.  They are united together in a beautiful bond and I find great joy in the manner in which they speak about one another.  The priests and seminarians love the people here and the people love these priests and seminarians. 

Evangelization is about testifying to the good news.  Well, all of us who were at Mass at 10:30 this morning at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly certainly have some good news to share.  God is doing beautiful things in our midst.  The New Evangelization must necessarily involve us sharing with joy the beautiful things that Christ is doing here and now.  We should be boasting about what Christ is doing in our midst.  So, let it be known that the Lord is doing great things for us.  Blessed be the Name of the Lord!