Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Loving Our Brother Priests with the Inefficiency of the Incarnation

The other night, I had dinner with four lay men who are part of the ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation.  Three of them I know, but one I met that evening.  During our meal together, they asked me questions: "What do you like about campus ministry?  What are the challenges?  Tell me how you became a priest?"  These questions are what I would describe as "human." I left the dinner feeling as though my humanity was somehow deeper as a result of our conversation.  They were interested in my humanity.  In that encounter, I experienced a tenderness for my life.

Oftentimes in Church circles--and especially among the clergy--our conversations revolve around policies, programs, and controversies.  But, we never touch the human dimension of things.  We are interested in things, but not in each other.  We pass over the person in front of us in order to banter or debate about extrinsic things.  (I say this as one who loves to banter and debate).  This sometimes becomes the totality of conversations in ecclesial life.  This is not to suggest that the issues, policies, and programs are not important, but it is to say that we approach them in a stagnant and life-taking way because we pass over the human person in front of us.  The person before us becomes merely an opportunity to express our predetermined opinion on some topic.

This affects the way that dioceses, parishes, and other ecclesial realities operate.  They can become inhuman.  The person in front of us can be reduced to a caricature of a particular ideology ("He's a liberal."  He's a conservative.").  Or, the person in front of us can be reduced to a problem that requires solving, an issue that needs to be dealt with, or even just someone who becomes invisible to us.  

Do bishops and those who work in chanceries know their priests?  Do they ever ask, "How did you become a priest?  What most impresses you about your assignment?  What are the challenges?" If they ask these questions, do they ask them out of a true love for the man in front of them or is it an inquiry to be placed in a file somewhere?  Do pastors know their people?  Do they ask them, "How did you two get married? What is it like raising a Catholic family today?  What are your struggles?"  If they ask these questions, are they asked in order to develop a new parish program or are they asked because the pastor is interested in the person in front of him?

Love is not something that is experienced vaguely.  If love is to be experienced, it is personal and specific.  This is why God became Flesh.  He came to dwell among us in a specific time and in a specific place.  He was interested in those persons.  He engaged them in conversations.  He spoke to specific persons and healed specific ailments.  He ate at specific homes and forgave specific sins.  The Incarnation--in a sense--was not particularly efficient.  God didn't start a blog and write daily posts about his love that could be read worldwide and immediately.  Instead, he became incarnate.  He went for dinner at Matthew's house, cured Peter's mother-in-law, and forgave an adulteress woman.  He entered into a particular place and a particular time.  The Church's method has to be personal and specific.  We have to be interested in the person.

Jesus was interested in the one lost sheep.  This is an inefficient use of the Savior's time!  Of the many things that St. Paul wrote about love, he never said, "Love is efficient."  All of us hunger to be loved infinitely.  In a particular way, I am mindful of newly and recently ordained priests.  They especially need to experience the love of Christ in their life. This hunger is not a sign of weakness on their part.  They are men whose very reason for being is in order to prolong the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd--Incarnate Love--in the midst of the flock.  In order to be convincing witnesses of this love, they too need to encounter this love.  While they can experience it through the love of the lay faithful, they are firstly to experience it through their participation in the priestly fraternity--with their fellow priests and bishops.  

In my own archdiocese, there are a million things constantly going on.  It's a big place with lots of people, buildings, and programs.  Properties being sold, assignments changing, public relations issues, human resource issues, legal issues, financial issues, personnel issues, moral issues, governmental issues, etc etc.  There's a lot going on!  There's just no doubt about it.  But, in the midst of all of this, we need to err on the side of inefficiency.  Diocesan plans and structures need to yield to the inefficiency of love.  In a particular way, young priests need to feel the gaze of Christ upon them so that they can remain strong in their vocation.  Young priests--new priests--need before everything else to experience intensely the gaze of Christ upon their humanity and upon their priesthood.  Bishops and priests can serve their younger brothers in the presbyterate by being interested in their humanity and by loving their humanity and their priesthood.  This takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes interest. It may at times be inefficient.  That's the Incarnation.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

At the Manger, Together

Dear Friends in Christ,

Tonight, no matter how far away we are from one another, we are near.  Whether we gather under the same roof, at the same table or, whether we are separated by oceans, we are near.  Whether we are separated by time zones or the hurts of the past, we are near.  Whether we are separated by generations, the passing of time, or even death, we are near.

Tonight, all of Christendom makes its way to the manger at Bethlehem.  All of history draws near to the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Angels and men.  Poor shepherds and wealthy kings.  Jews and Gentiles.  Lions and lambs.  Friends and enemies.  God and Man.  In Him, division dissolves and communion is established.

In front of this little baby, we find ourselves together.  Together with God.  Together with one another.  It began with shepherds and wise men, but the procession of pilgrims continues two thousand years later.  All that we have searched and longed for--"the hopes and fears of all the years"--are met in Him tonight.  

We take our places among the shepherds and wise men and gaze upon the child in the arms of  the Blessed Virgin.  As I do so, I am grateful for all of those who are with me.  Tonight, we are together.  To all of you who have accompanied me to Bethlehem and who--by your example, prayers, and friendship--have led me to the Christ Child, I wish you a Blessed and Holy Christmas.  It is a privilege to adore Christ with you.  It is a privilege to be together in Christ.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Pope Francis' Speech to the Roman Curia and Being a Boston Driver

There really is no point in denying it.  I am a Boston driver.  If you are in front of me and don't take the right on red, expect a honk of the horn.  Out for a leisurely Sunday drive in the passing lane?  Expect the horn.  There are a lot of things that you can do on the road that annoy me.  But, I have to admit something.  I'm kind of a hypocrite when it comes to driving.

If I'm behind you, you're going too slow.  If you're behind me, you're going too fast and are driving like a madman.  Occasionally, I catch myself and realize that the stuff that other people on the road do to annoy me, I sometimes do myself.  In fact, sometimes in a span of minutes, I commit the same offense for which I have blown the horn of terror at some other person for doing.  When they do it, it's clearly because they are an idiot who doesn't know how to drive.  When I do it, it's because I'm human and, after all, we all make mistakes.  They should be patient with me.

All of this comes to mind today because there has been a lot of talk about a speech that Pope Francis gave to the Curia at the Vatican.  To read the headlines, he basically blasted the cardinals, bishops, and priests who work there for a host of problems.  It was a long speech, but what made the headlines were criticisms that focus on the sicknesses that he sees as afflicting the Curia.  Careerism, gossip, envy, lack of charity, and things of this nature.  Many will (and have) read the speech and have gloated over it.  They read it and think, "Wow, good ole Pope Francis is really telling those guys off.  Good for him!"  But, if that is our attitude, then we are like that driver going around the city beeping at other people, but doing the same thing ourselves.

I think it would be a mistake for anyone to read that speech and feel gleeful that the "bad drivers" finally got pulled over and were given a Pontifical Citation for Bad Behavior.  There are plenty of citations to go around.  My temptation at this point is to provide examples of things that priests and bishops do that qualify them to be included at the Pope Francis speed trap.  That, however, would mean that I am putting myself as one of those self-righteous drivers who passes by the long line of cars pulled over at the side of the road, and who feels justified that he is not counted among those being shamed by the flashing blue lights.  When that happens to me on the road, it is not usually because I am without fault.  It's just that the cop saw someone else first.

So, if the guys in the Curia just happened to get pulled over first, that doesn't make me innocent or better than them.  The flashing blue lights are a reminder that it could just have easily been me pulled over and cited for any number of offenses.  Pettiness, gossip, careerism, not standing up for what is right out of fear of not being looked favorably upon?  There are very few drivers along the ecclesiastical highway who probably aren't guilty of a some of that.

There are probably any number of bishops and priests who go around blowing the horn when they see  evidence of this in others, but I think the Pope's speech is designed to make all of us pause and recognize our own violations in this regard.  Chances are good that we are all a little guilty of some ecclesiastical moving violations.  The Pope's speech could be for us like one of those little electronic signs you see on the highway that say, "You are going 42 MPH in a 25MPH Zone."  The speech is an opportunity for every deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal, religious, and lay person to examine himself or herself and to make the necessary corrections.  

8 Reasons Not to Go To Confession Before Christmas

This afternoon, I took my seat among two dozen or so other penitents who, in preparation for Christmas, were waiting to go to confession.  The penitents who waited--mostly patiently--were of varied ages and ethnicities.  There was, at least, one priest sitting among them waiting for his turn in the box.  Nothing says Christmas like a long confession line.

It would be awesome if you can get to confession before Christmas, but time is running out.  Try your best to get there tomorrow (December 23rd).  If not, I'm sure you can find some parishes that are offering confessions on the morning of the 24th.  If none of this works out, don't let the week after Christmas pass by without going to confession.  But, if you can, go now!  

Let me offer some reasons why somebody might not go to confession before Christmas:

1.  I haven't been in a long time.
Reply: That's why you should go now.

2. I'm embarrassed.
Reply: Human beings say and do embarrassing things.  All of the time.  Don't let embarrassment keep you from receiving God's grace.  

3. The priest might yell at me.
Reply: I hope that doesn't happen.  The priest is a sinner too.  And, I'm guessing that 98% of the time, priests are just really happy to be able to be hearing confessions.  It's when we feel most like a priest!  So, I think our inclination--especially before Christmas--is to be happy that we are being used in the way that God intended.  If you do get one of us during that 2% cranky period, chalk it up to us being tired and that we are sinners too!

4. I'm afraid the priest will think less of me.
Reply: When I hear confessions, I am grateful for the privilege to be welcomed into the messiness of someone's life.  I'm thinking how great it is that this person is confessing his or her sins.  I'm not thinking any less of the person.  Quite the opposite.  Oh yeah, and the priest is a sinner too.

5. It's been so long, I forgot exactly what I'm supposed to say.
Reply: Say, "Father, it's been so long I forget exactly what I'm supposed to say."  The priest is going to be delighted that you are there.  He's not worried that you don't remember the Act of Contrition.  (And by the way, if you're really stuck on the Act of Contrition, here is a good one: "Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.  Amen."

6.  I'd like to go, but there are certain things I really don't want to say.
Reply: "Abortion, gossip, envy, masturbation, pornography, fornication, homosexual acts, adultery, lying, being cheap, refusing to forgive, not praying, not going to Mass, deceiving, looking lustfully at others, using the Lord's Name carelessly or inappropriately, receiving the Eucharist unworthily, sullying the good reputation of another, being hateful, being filled with pride, cheating, stealing, not contributing faithfully and generously to the works of the Church, and at times despairing of God's mercy and at other times presuming too much on God's mercy." If I heard any of that or ALL of that in a single confession, I would think, "Praise God!!  What a beautiful and great confession."  The more honest a confession, the better.  When we open our wounds to the Lord, His grace floods those wounds and heals them.

7. I'd like to go, but I'm really busy.
Reply: Blah, blah, blah.  If you wanted to go, you'd go.  So, go.

8. I really haven't done anything wrong.
Reply: You REALLY need to go!

Friends, Jesus is coming.  Give Him the best Christmas gift;  not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but your sins.  This is why He came to us.  He loves you and He wants your sins.  He loves you.  Let Him love you through His Mercy.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Church of Encounter: Dinner With the Three Kings

There are times in life when you have the sense that you are part of something far greater than yourself; that a particular moment reveals itself to be a meeting point with eternity.  They are the moments when the Incarnation is experienced not as a theoretical concept, but rather as a fact in history.  God and man--God and me--meet in an undeniable and unmerited encounter.

The photograph above is a moment like that.  The two men pictured with me are priests with whom I lived at one time.  One was a transitional deacon at the time and the other was a priest who served with me.  I once joked that the three of us should have dressed up as the Three Kings, taken a picture of ourselves, and mailed it as the parish Christmas Card.  So, while not dressed as the Three Kings, we still snapped a photo of ourselves tonight as we joined some of our former parishioners for a Christmas party.  All of us together in that room recognize through the friendship that we live together, the Word dwells among us.

The Church--like the Blessed Virgin Mary--is a place where mortals encounter the Divine Presence.  In the friendship of the Church, Christ enters into our midst, walks among us, and reveals to us the consoling truth that God is with us.  These moments come through the sheer gratuity of God's mercy. They come like the Angel Gabriel.  They arrive where we least expect.  Gabriel came to Nazareth.  He came to a poor woman with no societal standing.  It was with surprise that the Word entered into human history and saved it.  In an age when we are tempted to rely too heavily upon our own ingenuity and planning to build the Church, we need instead to be more like the Virgin Mary; simply open to being surprised by God and receptive to His Presence.  This is how the Church grows and draws others into its embrace.

When I think about my life as a priest, I realize that what has been most fruitful in my pastoral life has not been my particular talents or ideas.  What has been most fruitful has been the times when I have yielded to the surprise of the encounter with Christ in the friendship of the Church.  This surprise is lived with brother priests, seminarians, deacons, religious, and lay men and women.  It is lived with people twice my age and half of my age.  These moments are marked with profound simplicity and with a deep and abiding joy.  We don't create them.  They are moments when we realize that God has entered into our history and is taking us up into His eternity.

When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the Mother of the Redeemer, she pondered and asked, "How can this be?"  This question is not a question of doubt.  It is the question of one who stands before the Mystery of the Incarnation?  How can it be that God draws so close to us?  How can it be that God has entered into our life through this particular moment?  How can it be that God allows us to encounter His Presence?  How can it be?

Mary teaches us how to live as a Church of Encounter.  In front of the great Mystery of the Incarnation, Mary acknowledges her wonderment.  God does not look upon our success and grant it growth.  He looks upon the lowliness of his servants.  He looks upon our virginal incapacity.  He looks upon us with mercy and gratuitously grants fecundity to those who are willing to say, "Yes," to his offer of surprise.  To be fruitful priests and fruitful parishes, we must be people who are capable of being surprised and moved by the friendship of the Church.  Sterility comes when we try to create the Church.  Fecundity comes when we are open to and surprised by God's gratuitous initiatives in our lives.  And, these gratuitous initiatives often appear to lack an immediate quality of grand success.  Instead, they are like a little backwater town called Nazareth where the Word became Flesh.  For me, these moments of encounter come sitting at lunch with a young person at Boston University and talking about life, receiving a text from one of them that cracks me up, sitting around a dinner table tonight with friends whom Christ has brought together, gathering with brother priests whose example inspire me, and in a thousand other small--seemingly insignificant moments.  These are Nazareth moments.

These Nazareth moments introduce something new into the world.  These moments are where the encounter takes place: the encounter between God and man.  For some, the photo above are of three people whom they have never met.  So, to them it means very little.  But, for others who do know the three guys pictured above, they will immediately experience the joy of the encounter.  They saw the friendship that we lived together--a friendship gratuitously given by God--a friendship that moved us and caused us wonderment and joy.  Not only did others see this friendship, they lived it too.  When we live as a Church of encounter, others are drawn in.  It is never exclusionary or stagnant.  This is the Church.  It is to live the Incarnation.  It never grows old.  It is always new.  It is to wake up each day even more ready to be surprised, convinced, and moved by a fact: The Word Became Flesh and Dwells Among Us.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rejoice, Even in the Midst of Sorrow

"Cheer up!"  There is probably no more annoying and trite advice that you can offer to someone who is suffering.  "It's not that bad.  People are worse off than you.  Get over it.  Cheer up!"  I'm not sure there is anyone who has ever suddenly become of "good cheer" because someone else has told him to "cheer up!"  Usually, when somebody is feeling down, the last thing that they want is for some clown to tell them, "Cheer up!"

As we draw nearer to Christmas, the sufferings and wounds of the world become more evident.  Many people find this time of year to be tinged with more than just a little sadness.  People recall loved ones who have died, relationships that have broken, innocence that has been lost, and loved ones who have lost their way.  At Christmas time, we cannot help but recall with sorrow that there are victims of war, children without food, warmth, and housing, unemployed and underemployed men and women struggling to survive, Christians being persecuted, and people struggling with disease, poverty, depression, and addiction.  We cannot help but recall that we are not as holy as we would like to be.

In the face of all of this, we hear St. Paul on the Third Sunday of Advent say, "Rejoice always!"  Is this St. Paul and the Church telling a suffering world, "Cheer up! Things ain't so bad?" In the face of evil, darkness, tragedy, sickness, sorrow, disease, poverty, war, sin, and suffering, how are we really expected to "rejoice always?" 

One beautiful thing about the Gospel is that it never "skips over" things.  The Gospel isn't about "cheering" people up.  It doesn't say, "Things aren't so bad."  The Gospel is real.  It is truthful.  It never tries to whitewash anything.  It doesn't live in a world of make believe.  Instead, the Gospel recognizes the pain and sorrow of a fallen world and says, "Rejoice Always."  The Church is not saying, "Cheer up because things aren't really bad."  The Church says, "Yes, things are sometimes bleak and dark, but there is a Savior who comes to make all things new."  Isaiah doesn't say, "All of you people who think that being poor is a burden should cheer up.  All of you captives: things could be worse.  All of you who dwell in darkness and gloom: look on the bright side."  Isaiah announces that one is coming to those who suffer.  And, the one who is coming will bring justice with him.

The Christian is able to rejoice always because the Christian lives in hope.  We are placing all of our bets on Christ.  We are placing all of our hope in him.  Every valley will be exalted and every mountain will be made low.  The Christian rejoices even in the midst of sufferings, sin, darkness, and evil because the One who loves us is drawing near to us.  We rejoice because we are not alone.  We rejoice because "one mightier than I is coming."  The One who is coming has the power to do what the world cannot do for itself and what I cannot do for myself.  We rejoice because we trust His promise.  

The more we live the Christian life, the more intensely do we feel the brokenness of the world.  And, almost paradoxically, the more the Christian encounters the brokenness of the world, the more he is able to rejoice.  Why?  Because the Christian is filled with hope.  The greater the darkness, the more the Christian places his hope in the light that is coming into the world.  

As we live these final days before Christmas, maybe you find yourself examining life and seeing that things are not perfect. Maybe you find yourself more aware than ever of the world's brokenness. You don't need to cheer up.  But, you do need to rejoice.  Rejoice because "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and to those who dwelled in a land of gloom, a light has shone."  We rejoice not because everything is right with the world.  We rejoice because a mighty savior is born unto us and he comes with vindication and will make all things new.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Planning and Training Must Follow Encounter

All day today in Boston, it poured buckets of rain.  It just never let up.  Tonight also happened to be the night we scheduled seven priests to hear confessions at Boston University.  Despite the torrential downpours, five of the seven priests were able to make it.  The other two were called off when it became clear that flooding and traffic just wasn't going to get them there in time.  But, for the most part, five priests heard confessions for a solid two hours.

As I sat in the sanctuary, what did I see?  I saw five priests who worked all day, fought traffic, and got soaked in order to hear confessions.  I saw a young husband and wife team who worked all day, come in to play music in the chapel in order to cover over the sound of confessions.  I saw Bobby, our intern, directing students to the various priests.  I saw Wesley, one of our FOCUS Missionaries, warmly and genuinely welcoming people at the door and chatting with those who were leaving.  I saw members of our liturgical committee praying throughout the the two hours.  And, I saw college students and grad students going to confession.  

Some of the best things in a priest's life are the things for which he can claim absolutely no credit.  This evening was so beautiful not because of anything that I did.  It was beautiful because the priests who came encountered Christ at some point in their life.  It was beautiful because Wesley became a Catholic when he was in college, became a FOCUS Missionary, and loves the students.  It was beautiful because Bobby, Danny, and Camille had an awesome experience when they were students at the BU Catholic Center and then decided to volunteer here after college.  It was awesome because the majority of our students who participate in the Catholic life here were raised by good Catholic families and in solid Catholic parishes.  All of these people encountered Christ.  Perhaps, after that encounter, they were trained to share the good news in more effective ways, but first--primarily--they encountered Christ.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis writes that the first task of evangelization is to announce to everyone that Jesus loves them and remains near to them.  He says that this is "first" not in the sense of being something from which we eventually move on towards other more important topics.  He says that it is "first" in the sense that it is always primary.  It can never be presumed, skipped over, or left behind.

In a particular way, I am mindful tonight of the priests who are laboring in parishes and who are providing solid pastoral care for your people.  While there are certainly young people who are far away from the Church who find their way to the Catholic Center at Boston University, the majority of our young people come from strong Catholic parishes.  They received tremendous formation from their parish priests.  While training priests and people may be important on a secondary level, what is really needed is a greater emphasis on what is primary.  We need parishes where the encounter is primary.  We need parishes where people encounter Christ.  That is something that you cannot manufacture.  It is something that demands a spiritual life.  It is something that depends upon an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Planning and training are good, but they have to follow love.  Planning and training have to follow an encounter with Christ.  This encounter cannot be presumed, skipped over, or left behind.  I've seen planning and training without the encounter. It comes across as statistical, scientific, and inhuman.  On the other hand, when planning and training follow an encounter, they can assist in teach effectively sharing the joy of that encounter.  But, if the encounter doesn't come first--and isn't lived as a continued primary experience--then planning and training become a sociological or ideological experiment.  It actually has the opposite intended effect.  Instead of drawing people closer to Christ, it drives them away because it sounds cynical and clinical.

Tonight, I witnessed something beautiful.  Priests, penitents, and lay men and women sharing the joy of the Gospel . . . the joy of the Sacraments.  They put their training to good use.  But, their training is at the service of something that came first and remains first: an encounter.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Confession: The Best Gift for Christmas

Dear Friends in Christ,

On Tuesday December 9th from 7-9pm, there will be seven priests available for the Sacrament of Confession at Marsh Chapel at Boston University.  Are you looking for the perfect gift to give the Christ Child?  This is it:  Give Him your sins.  That is all he wants.  Are you looking to give a gift to one of your friends?  Invite him or her to come to confession with you.  For so many people, all they need is an invitation.  They need a friend who is willing to accompany them to the manger . . . to the confessional.  There's nothing lost by saying to someone, "I'm going to confession tonight.  Do you want to go too?"

Some might say, "It's been so long, I don't know what to do."  Answer: Don't worry about it.  They will provide an examination of conscience (you can also share this one HERE).  And as far as the format, the priest will help you."

Some might say, "I've done some pretty bad stuff."  Answer: "Yeah, that's why we have confession.  You're not going to say anything that the priest hasn't heard a thousand times before."

Some might say, "I'm afraid to go to confession."  Answer: "Yeah, I always get nervous too.  But, the building has never fallen down after I've confessed, the priest has never flipped out or had a stroke, and I always leave feeling better."

Some might say, "Will the priest think less of me?"  Answer: "Go to confession to Fr. Barnes then.  Out of all the priests hearing confessions, he's the biggest sinner among them.  He's got so many sins of his own, he doesn't have time to think less of you."

Are there things that you are particularly embarrassed about, ashamed of, or afraid to bring to light?  That is exactly what you should confess!  The Devil--who before the sin--tries to convince us that the sin is "no big deal," after the sin tries to convince us that we should be so ashamed that we shouldn't dare try to be forgiven for it.  "Keep it a secret.  Act like it didn't happen."  Don't be blackmailed!  Once we confess our sins--especially those sins which cause us the most embarrassment--we are truly set free.  We realize that this thing that tried to exercise such power over us is really small compared to the infinite mercy of Christ.

Oh yeah . . . and what does the priest think when he hears someone say, "It's been a really long time since my last confession" or when he hears someone confess some particularly serious sin?  The priest thinks, "Who am I to be so privileged to hear this beautiful confession and to be a minister of so great a Mercy?"  

Tuesday December 9th from 7-9pm.  Come.  Bring a friend.  The Manger of Mercy is wide open.

Your Fellow Sinner and Brother in Christ,

Fr. David Barnes