Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is God Calling Me To Be A Priest?

These Friends Recently Got Married and I Love this Picture! To Me, It
Says So Much About the Church, Marriage, Priesthood, Love. Awesome!
Dear Friend,

Perhaps you stumbled across this blog post because you were searching for some clarity as to whether God is calling you to be a priest. If so, welcome! Before you read any further, please be assured that I am praying for you. Whether God is calling you to be a priest or not, your openness to this possibility is itself something for which we should all be grateful. Without having any surety as to what your vocation in life is, you already have a sense that God has a plan for your life, that God speaks to your heart, and that your life is caught up in the drama of salvation. I am happy for you.

Each man's vocation story is different. Some, like St. Paul, had an earthshaking experience whereby they were knocked over and underwent an immediate and profound conversion. This conversion also brought with it a call to priestly ministry. For me, and for many others, our call came rather gradually. Somewhere along the way, we encountered Christ. Perhaps like Peter and Andrew, James and John, we saw Christ. We heard him speaking and were attracted by his words. Perhaps in front of him, we felt an intense love or a bond that seemed impossible. When he looked at us and held us in his gaze, we suddenly realized that our life was changed. We could never forget this look upon our life. No matter how we would respond, our whole life going forward would be judged by this gaze. Whether we turned away, refused, or ignored this gaze upon us, our whole life would be forever hounded by its memory. This gaze, unmerited and undeserved, simple and pure, opened our eyes and made us experience life as something far more dramatic than we had ever known before. There is no going back.

This is the first thing I would like to say about your vocation. If you have experienced this look upon you, there is no forgetting it. To ignore, run away, refuse, make excuses etc, all do violence to our heart. It's a little maddening actually. There are some really good excuses not to follow. Just to mention a couple: 

1. "Leave me Lord for I am a sinful man" (LK 5:8). These words were spoken by Peter. As Jesus looked upon Peter, Peter felt the weight of his own unworthiness. To say, "Yes," to our priestly vocation is to say, "Yes" to the lifelong suffering of knowing that, as St. Paul says, "We hold this treasure in jars of clay" (2 COR 4:7). We will spend our life wounded by the superabundant love with which Christ has looked upon us. 

When you listen to the humble confession of a contrite sinner and utter words of absolution, you will intensely feel your own unworthiness. When you stand at the bedside of a dying person and commend his soul to God, you will intensely feel your own unworthiness. When you look into the chalice and say, "This is my Blood" and see your reflection there, you will intensely feel your unworthiness. When you climb into the pulpit and preach the words of everlasting life, you will intensely feel your unworthiness. To walk into tragic situations knowing that you are the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd to a flock scattered, wounded, and afraid--you will intensely feel your unworthiness.  When--in the name of the Church--you witness a man and a woman become united through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony or you live a friendship with your flock (a friendship that you know is beyond anything that any of you could create)--you will intensely feel your unworthiness.

Yes, if you have experienced Jesus looking upon you and calling you to share in his priesthood, you probably also feel like this gaze of love has pierced your heart. If you say, "Yes" to this call, this wound will not heal. This wound will only deepen. You will never become accustomed to this gaze. You will never arrive at a moment when you will say, "Ah, yes now it makes total sense why Jesus called me." No, you will spend the rest of your life increasingly surprised that he chose you. The wound of his pure gaze upon you will continually deepen and its sweetness will also increase. If you are considering a vocation to the priesthood, one question that might be good to ask is this: If in my heart I have already felt this gaze upon me and experienced its wound and its sweetness, will there ever be anything else that could possibly replace this? In the words of Peter, "Lord, to whom else shall we go" (JN: 6:68)?

2. "He went away sad, for he had many possessions" (MK 10:22). These words were spoken by the Rich Young Man. We are told that Jesus looked at him with love, but the Rich Young Man's face fell because he had many possessions. Before the call of Christ, we can find countless possessions that will cause our face to look away from his gaze. None of these possessions is in itself evil. In fact, they are good. They are countless. Our bodies that could be given over in love to a woman and for the  propagation of new life. Our intellectual gifts and human skills that could be used to make a better world. Our future, our youth, our aspirations, our plans, our ideas. All of these and so many other magnificent possessions make us rich!

St. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the Rich Young Man with love and told him, "Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Christ looked upon him with love. In that moment, the young man must have experienced that wound with all of its sweetness and with all of its infinite meaning. But, his face fell. He looked away from the gaze of Christ and instead looked upon his many possessions. He looked upon all of his options. He looked upon his plans, his youth, his future, his dreams and aspirations. He looked upon what he could build. These many good and noble possessions were his. They were not clay. They were not fragile or dependent upon another. In comparison, the gaze of Christ was entirely dependent upon another. What if one day Christ no longer looked at him with love? What if one day this adventure promised by Christ fell flat? What if one day this gaze was not enough for him? Wouldn't it be better to take the safe bet? Wouldn't it be better to go with the sure thing rather than to risk everything on Christ's call? He could still do good things, but take a safer path.

As we know, the young man who earnestly desired to do what was good and to be good, nonetheless went away sad. All of the good things which he possessed ultimately became the cause of his unhappiness. Perhaps in your prayer life, you have felt the Lord Jesus looking upon you with love and, in your heart, you know that he is calling you to follow him as a priest.  In the face of this, perhaps you are tempted to take out the pen and the paper and start writing a list of pros and cons. If I may, let me suggest that this is not how to go about it. This is what the rich young man did. He looked away from Christ in order to make an inventory of his possessions. This led to sadness. 

If I were to offer some advice to a young man who is in this position (and by "this position", I do not mean one who is simply and honestly open to whatever God is calling him to, but rather one who has had this very personal and powerful experience of Christ gazing upon his life and extending the invitation to "follow me,"), I would say this: keep your eyes on Christ and follow him. Don't try to talk yourself out of what you've encountered. The memory of that look is never going to depart from you. If you've experienced this look, no matter what you come up with to explain it away, deep down, you're always going to know. 

It's all a bit maddening, isn't it? It would be easier if it were all spelled out in advance. It would be easier if you could have some safety net to fall back upon. It would be easier if you knew that you were deserving of it and well-qualified to carry out. But, you are not going to get any more than Peter and Andrew and James and John got. They got a look and a call. They left their safety nets behind and brought all of their weaknesses and failures with them. They followed and lived life entirely dependent upon the merciful gaze of Christ.

And you, what are you going to do?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ireland, St. Edmund Campion, Privy Parts, Entrails, and Sacraments

St. Edmund Campion
Recently I read Evelyn Waugh's biography of St. Edmund Campion, the 16th Century Jesuit who at 41 years of age, on December 1st 1581 gave his life for the Catholic Faith. In his younger years, such an outcome would not have seen likely. Campion had found favor with Queen Elizabeth I and was even ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church. Campion's career in the Anglican Church seemed secure and promising. But, fidelity to the truth compelled Campion to be reconciled to the Catholic Church and eventually to join the Jesuits.

Campion, like so many of his contemporaries, was a man marching toward martyrdom. His mission--like so many of the priests who trained in Europe for the purpose of returning to England, was solely for the purpose of ministering to the faithful remnant of Catholics who hungered for the Sacraments. Their mission was not about making converts, but about tending to a flock besieged by wolves. Traveling in disguise throughout the English countryside, they lived a life of constant risk. All it would take was one spy to bring them to an horrific end.  But, Campion risked it all.

The persecution of Catholics wasn't initially so bloody. Catholics were still considered good neighbors and--even if many of their Catholic practices were outlawed--the punishments were often warnings, fines, or short imprisonments. There were obviously also certain positions that could not be held by Catholics. But, things could be worse. In fact, things could be much worse. And so they became.  Only a few decades earlier England had been a Catholic country. In a very short period of time, to confess your sins to a priest or to assist at Mass had become treasonous acts bringing with them horrific punishments.  When Campion and his companions clandestinely crossed the English Channel and began their travels throughout the English countryside, hearing confessions, offering Mass, and offering spiritual counsel, they were well aware that they were now hunted men.

While there are many spiritual, temporal, and political realities that contributed to the rapid dissolution of the Catholic Church in England, one cannot overlook the collaboration of the clergy with the government. In their efforts at self-preservation, those who were ordained to be shepherds after the heart of the Good Shepherd instead acted as hired hands when the wolf appeared. Who knows, maybe they thought that it was the best course of action? Maybe it wasn't out of self-interest and self-preservation that they went along. Maybe they thought that in cooperating a little bit, they'd save something of what was essential. I don't know.  But that's not what happened.

Last week, the people of Ireland voted in referendum to redefine marriage. In response, there has been a lot of hand wringing by Catholic commentators--clergy and lay alike--that this is a lesson to the Catholic Church that she needs to change the way she communicates. While I agree with that, I suspect that what they mean by that is different than what I mean by that. Some act as though every Sunday, priests all over Ireland and all over the world, are climbing into their pulpits and berating people about abortion, contraception, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. With all due respect, where exactly is that happening? Maybe my sense of Ireland is mistaken. (I truly mean that perhaps I am wrong). But, I suspect that while there may have been such activities in the past, the vast majority of priests and bishops have not spent an inordinate amount of pulpit time, taking about any of these things. There's a good chance that many of them have never uttered a single word from the pulpit about any of them.

But, what if priests and bishops in Ireland and throughout the world had spent the past several decades discussing St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body? What if they had spoken from the pulpits on occasion about the full truth about marriage? What if they had spoken about the beauty of the Church's teachings on the permanence of marriage, the beautiful, anthropological and theological reasons why marriage is between a man and a woman? What if they had spoken about why openness to life was actually something helpful to marriage and not a punishment? What if bishops and priests had spoken about the struggles that every human being experiences in living the virtue of chastity, how to combat temptation, and all of the magnificent gifts that the Lord gives to us--including, most especially, the sacraments--to aid us in our struggles? What if priests and bishops occasionally explained why every human life is sacred?

To yield to the caricature that priests and bishops are daily lambasting the faithful with ominous threats of eternal damnation is not only absurd, it is also playing into the hands of the enemies of the Church. When we admit to such things as though they are factually common and true, we become members of the enemy's propaganda machine. Are there priests and bishops who daily preach about going to Hell? Probably. But, come on. They are undoubtedly a very small minority. If anything, the clergy have utterly failed to preach positively about those things that might actually help people live a holy life. We live in a moment, for instance, when pornography is rampant, a constant source of temptation, and responsible for the destruction of countless marriages. But, how often do we hear a bishop or a priest acknowledge that? Wouldn't the People of God be better served if--on an occasion--they heard this mentioned in a homily? Does it need to be an entire homily? Not necessarily. But, it could be something as simple as, "Today Jesus healed a leper. Lepers were ashamed of their disease and were forced to be set apart from the rest of the community. Undoubtedly, someone here at Mass today is struggling with pornography.  Perhaps you feel all alone in this struggle, unclean, and beyond help. Jesus wants to heal you too." Instead, many bishops and priests are afraid to talk about these realities.

Edward Campion's mission to England was not to re-establish the Catholic Church's dominance. He was sent to provide the Sacraments to the remaining faithful. In her solicitude for the Faithful, the Church sent shepherds--as the Book of Revelation says--"to strengthen what remains and is about to die" (Rev. 3:2). In the end, it comes down to the Sacraments. 

I'm not intelligent enough to predict where things go from here. But, I can imagine. Right now, in the United States, it appears as though the Church is desperately attempting to cling to some last remnants of influence and power. Wherever there is some agreement between the predominant culture and the Church's teachings, the Church seems to be like a little kid running behind the big kids saying, "I'm a big kid too! I'm a big kid too!" It seems rather desperate. As long as the Church keeps its place, those in power are fine with pretending that the Church actually matters. So, even as the Church is compelled, little by little, to violate its conscience, we still dress up and play the court jesters to those who seek to destroy her. This means that ecclesiastics still might get invited to a cocktail party, get the local politician's backing for a building permit for the new parish center, or get to say the opening prayer at the mayoral inauguration. Catholic laity will still be able to attain political appointments. Of course, it is fine and good for the Church to participate in civic events and to work well with the political establishment.  The Church and its members should always cultivate a strong relationship with civil officials and work with them in building a just society. But, the price of admission should not be our silence or the appearance of cooperation with evil. 

Eventually, those who hate the Church and its Gospel, will expect more concessions. Some will be willing to play the court jesters forever. They'll be willing to concede more and more until the Church is indistinguishable from the predominant culture. But, there will be some who will quietly seek to live their Catholic Faith. They won't really make much of a scene. They won't be the ones writing letters to the editor or railing against the government. They will know that the time for that has long passed.

No, they will desire simply to have a priest come to their home and offer the Mass for them. They will seek opportunities to kneel and beg for absolution. They will call for a priest to come to their deathbed and give to them the Last Rites. They will be people who love the Sacraments. They'll be the people who lost jobs and friends because they refused to go along with the crowd. They will be the people who worshipped God every Sunday. 

Who will be sent to care for these sheep? Who will cross the channel of radical secularism, moral relativism, and visceral hatred for the Church and Her Gospel in order to bring the Sacraments to these faithful?  Firstly, let us hope that there will be faithful who still long for the Sacraments. And then, let us pray that the Lord will raise up holy priests filled with Faith and Fortitude; priests like St. Edmund Campion whose trial ended with the following decree:

"You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls."

Upon being sentenced to this horrific death, Edmund Campion and his companions sang a hymn of praise to Almighty God for being deemed worthy to suffer martyrdom for God's Glory. Will the persecutions that we see be like the bloody persecutions of 16th Century England or 21st Century Syria and Iraq? Probably not. But, it is clearly becoming more counter-cultural to practice and live the Catholic Faith. For some, the answer is to conform the Catholic Faith to the whims of those in power. But, this approach is doomed to fail. 

At this moment in time, the Church in the West ought to redouble its efforts to emphasize the Sacraments. That's what will save us. A good question for our Catholic people to ask is whether they love the Sacraments so much that they'd be willing to die for receiving them. And, a good question for us priests to ask ourselves is: "Am I willing to be drawn through the streets, hanged, taken down while still alive, having my privy parts cut off, and my entrails cut out from me and burned in my sight, my head cut off and my body divided into four in order to care for the sheep?" I doubt that any of us could answer that question with complete and absolute confidence. But, we should cultivate in ourselves that kind of love and devotion to the Sacraments. The point is not to say that those things are on the immediate horizon, but it is to say that we should all love the Sacraments with that kind of devotion because that kind of devotion is what saves what is dying. I need to read biographies like that of St. Edmund Campion. I need to learn daily how to love the Sacraments and the Flock with that kind of total love. Whether the complete cultural collapse is now inevitable, I do not know. But, it's probably a good time for us all to learn from the lives of the martyrs and to love anew the Sacraments.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Boston and My Friend St. Philip Neri

Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Philip Neri. Whenever I read anything about Philip Neri, I get the sense that, had I met him, I would have joined up with him. I would have been moved by his example. I would have thought, "Whatever that guy has, I want it. I want to be around it." He strikes me as the type of man who was totally faithful to the Church, zealous in his ministry, and joyful. In many ways, Philip Neri--a man who lived in the 1500's--is a good patron for the New Evangelization. He did something that many posit (albeit, falsely) to be a contradiction. He was a faithful and orthodox preacher of the Gospel and was a warm, joyful, and fun human being. He knew the human heart and lived his own humanity in such a way that he attracted others to Christ.

Today there are priests who follow St. Philip Neri in what is called, "The Oratory of St. Philip Neri." Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was an Oratorian. These priests are not religious order priests. They are secular priests who live together in a stable community. They do not take vows. Instead, they are bound together by charity. For most of my priestly life, I've tossed around the idea of having an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the Archdiocese of Boston. I have always figured that if it is meant to be, God will make it abundantly clear. He will send a handful of other priests who will say, "Yeah, I've been praying about the same thing!" 

Whether God wants an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Boston or not, I am convinced that all of us who are diocesan priests could learn from St. Philip Neri. He understood the human heart. He understood what a human heart truly is. He knew how to attract the human heart to Christ and how to form the human heart in Christ. 

As I'm sitting here on the rectory porch typing this, I'm thinking how beautiful it is that five hundred years after he lived, I feel St. Philip Neri's presence as though I did meet him and enjoyed his company. He is right here with me. This is the Church! This is the Mystical Body of the Church! I said above that had I met Philip Neri, I probably would have joined up with him. The fact is, through the communion of the Church, I have met him. He's a friend of mine. Christ is still working through him!

St. Philip Neri, Pray for Us!

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Memorial Day, A Homily Delivered for a Soldier Killed in Action

For Memorial Day, I am reposting a homily that I delivered for a soldier who was killed in action in 2008.

"We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
At the very founding of this Nation, our forefathers recognized and acknowledged what was — in their words — self-evident. Namely, that every human life is sacred. And, that these inalienable rights — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are given not by an act of law or by man made decree, but rather are given as a gift from the Creator. The Founders declared that it is the role of government to secure and protect these inalienable and self-evident rights. Today — at home and abroad — the sacredness of human life is everywhere under attack. Today, what was self-evident to those who came before us is often obscured by ideology, by a culture of death, and by evil.

Today we mourn the death of Stephen. Stephen was a soldier. The soldier does not primarily exist to take human life, but to protect human life. What inspired Stephen to enlist in the Army was when he saw the inalienable rights of his fellow Americans threatened in the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In order to defend and to protect the life, liberty and happiness of others, Stephen voluntarily surrendered his own freedoms. He gave up the right to be with his own family and friends so that others could enjoy that right. He gave up the warmth of home and familiarity, so that others could enjoy such things. He gave up the right to come and go as he pleased so that others could enjoy that right. And last week, on a roadside in Afghanistan, he made the supreme sacrifice and surrendered his own right to life in order to secure and to protect the lives of his countrymen. Our Lord tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one's own life for a friend.

On an October morning in 1983, it was actually October 2nd — the Feast of the Guardian Angels — a baby boy was carried by his family into this church and he was baptized. In that moment, Stephen Fortunato was given the promise of immortality; the promise of eternal life. From that moment on, he belonged to Christ. Christ, the Good Shepherd, was forever at the side of Stephen.

Today, we — who live half a world away — cannot help but wonder what the last moments of Stephen's life were like. Perhaps you wish that you could have been there with him as he breathed his last; with him to comfort and console him; with him to express your love and affection; with him to say goodbye. But this was not possible. In this way, Stephen's sacrifice is also your sacrifice. You have given a husband, a son, a brother, a grandson, a friend to a grateful nation. That nation and its citizens owe you and Stephen a debt of gratitude. Stephen was rightly outraged when others attempted to steal the God given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from his countrymen. Stephen's response to that outrage was to sacrifice his own rights to protect and defend the rights of others. All of us who are gathered here today might well learn from his example. Imagine how much our nation would benefit if there were more persons who — like Stephen — were dedicated to protecting the inalienable rights of others — the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

Although you are undoubtedly consoled by the military honors that Stephen deservedly receives today, our gathering here in this church reminds us that when the volleys have all been fired and the sound of the bugle has faded, there is something that lasts forever — something that remains.

When Stephen entered into the valley of the shadow of death on a roadside in a faraway land, he was not alone. You — his family — made sure of that. You gave him something that lasts forever. When you carried him into this church 25 years ago, you introduced Stephen to the Good Shepherd. And Christ has never left the side of Stephen. "Even though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. With thy rod and thy staff, thou givest me comfort." Christ, the Good Shepherd, has led the way through the valley of death and in his resurrection, he has conquered man's greatest enemy — death itself. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went ahead of Stephen to prepare a place for him in the Father's house. When Stephen closed his eyes to this world, Christ was beside him. And it is our Christian hope that when Stephen opened his eyes again, the Good Shepherd welcomed him to life eternal.

On an October morning 25 years ago, you carried your son into this church, and entrusted him to Christ the Good Shepherd. You trusted that Christ, the Good Shepherd would stay forever at his side and guide him beside restful waters and would refresh his soul. This morning, your family, your community, your parish, your country, carries your son again into this church. We ask God to have mercy on the soul of Stephen and to purify him. We give thanks to Almighty God for Stephen's life and for his devoted and complete service. We also ask God to give to each one of us a deep and abiding friendship with Jesus Christ — for he is the way to the Father's House. And, apart from him we can do nothing.

Stephen began his journey to eternal life here in this church — dedicated to Mary, Star of the Sea. Today marks the end of Stephen's mission; of his journey. May Mary, Star of the Sea, now guide him from the troubled waters of Earth to the safe harbors of heaven. May Christ, the Good Shepherd, now open to Stephen the doors of the Father's House, and may Stephen discover within its halls what he so willingly and valiantly sacrificed for others — true life, true liberty and everlasting happiness. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Marriage: Destiny and Mission Impossible

I Think It is Safe To Say That They are Happy
Two years ago at the Easter Vigil,  I received a young man into the Catholic Church and confirmed him. A year later, he left a good job and became a FOCUS Missionary, serving at MIT. A year after that--yesterday, in fact--he married his high school sweetheart. It was a beautiful Nuptial Mass and a wonderful reception. Both the Mass and the reception were notable for their dignity and their beauty. At their request, the Mass was chanted. Friends of the couple sang in a choir. Ready for this? The congregation made all of the responses! 

The Mass was ten minutes late, but not because the bride was late. She was right on time. The Mass was late because all of the groomsmen piled into a tiny side sacristy along with myself, the Deacon, the Altar Boy, the Groom, and the Best Man. There, they all placed their hands upon Michael and began to offer prayers for him and Julia. One by one, they thanked God, praised God, and begged God to pour down abundant blessings upon the soon-to-be married couple. It was awesome. 

The eight year old Altar Boy, Peter, is the bride's nephew. The kid was an all-star.  

The couple prayerfully chose readings that had as a common theme dependence upon God. Sometimes when I preach at a wedding, I use the saint of the day or the liturgical feast as a starting point. Michael and Julia happened to be married on the feast day of St. Rita, a woman who wanted to be a nun, was forced into an arranged marriage to a wicked man, and prayed continuously for his conversion. After being stabbed by one of his enemies, the man died, but not before repenting from his sins. The prayers of St. Rita are credited with her husband's conversion. Thus, Rita is the Patroness of Impossible Cases. I enjoyed mentioning all of this in the homily. 

In the eyes of the world, marriage does seem like an impossible case. The words that Michael and Julia would speak to one another sound impossible. "I will love you and honor you, in good times and bad, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Some days, that will seem impossible. Isn't it great that the Lord provided them a special patroness to help them when they become deceived into thinking that it is truly impossible to live that vow?

Additionally, Michael and Julia were married between the Solemnity of the Ascension and the Solemnity of Pentecost. In the Ascension, our Lord shows us that He has bestowed upon us a destiny and a mission. He has destined us to live with Him forever--body and soul--in the Glory of Heaven. This sounds too impossible to be true! It also sounds too impossible for us to achieve! And it is! None of us can achieve this destiny on our own efforts or natural goodness. We are entirely dependent upon the Lord and His Grace. In addition to this destiny, the Lord bestowed a mission. He calls Michael and Julia to go out and make disciples of all the nations. By the way that they love one another, they will be witnesses to Christ's Love for His Bride, the Church. Michael and Julia reminded all of us yesterday of our destiny and our mission.

To achieve this destiny and to live our mission, God pours forth the Holy Spirit upon us. The Holy Spirit makes what is impossible, possible. He makes sinners into saints. He transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. And in the Sacrament of Marriage, He takes a man and a woman and transforms them into an icon of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Michael and Julia entered into something magnificent yesterday. The Sacrament that they received will help them to do the impossible. Through the Sacrament of Marriage, they will be able to help one another to attain their God-given destiny, eternal life. And through the Sacrament of Marriage, they will help each other to fulfill their mission of drawing all souls to Christ.  Praised Be Jesus Christ!

So often in the Scriptures, heaven is described in terms of a banquet. Michael and Julia's reception was most definitely a reflection of what the Nuptial Banquet of Eternal Life must be like. It was so striking to walk around that room and meet so many good people. The room was filled with men and women of extraordinary goodness. There were FOCUS Missionaries, young college students who have met Mike and Julia through FOCUS, seminarians, and hosts of young couples who are raising their children in the life of the Gospel. There was a holy joy that marked the entire reception. Really, I kept thinking, "This must be what heaven is like." When people love one another in Christian love, God does something truly magnificent.

Along the way, Michael and Julia met FOCUS Missionaries and, as Michael once told me, "They changed my life." And Michael and Julia are changing the lives of others, drawing them towards their destiny, and setting them afire with the mission of making disciples. Evangelization MUST begin in friendship and in love. It is sustained through friendship and love. It is ordered towards friendship and love. Heaven is eternal friendship and love. If we depend upon ourselves, our destiny and mission are truly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. I am grateful to FOCUS and to Michael and Julia for giving us all a glimpse into what our destiny is and why our mission is such a joyful one. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Solomon's Portico: Friendship is a Proposal to the Human Heart

A Photo with Some of our Catholic Center Women on Graduation Weekend
There are times in life when we read a passage from a book and it becomes a moment of recognition. "Yes, this corresponds precisely with my experience!" Several years ago, I had such a moment when I came upon a passage from Luigi Giussani's "Why the Church?" Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation in commenting on a scene from the Acts of the Apostles writes:

"Try then to imagine the scene: it is around the Paschal season, when Jews throughout the world would be intent, as far as possible, on traveling to Jerusalem as pilgrims. Try to imagine the reaction of one of these pilgrims, who, on going to the temple for a few days in a row, would have noticed, each time, a little group of people under the portico. The first day he would have proceeded on his way, without wondering why, and on the second day, he might have done the same. But at some point, he certainly would have asked someone: 'Who are those people I always see together here?' And they would have replied: 'They are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.' And so we can see how the Church began: it literally allowed itself to 'be seen' under Solomon's Portico, it proposed itself through the mere sight of it, through a first perception which can only be described as community."

There's a danger in the Church of becoming too frenetic. In the face of recent studies showing a significant decline in the number of Catholics in the United States, there can be an alarmist response that creates lots of hype, but offers very little depth or substance. When this approach is taken, it is often self-defeating. If people are looking for community in their life, they are not looking for a community that appears to be in panic mode or that is seeking to save itself from extinction. They are looking for a community that is attractive. They are looking for a community that proposes itself as an answer to the deepest desires of the human heart.

If the Church in the United States wants to grow, it first has to look at what works. The problem oftentimes in the life of the Church is that people are too insistent upon their own opinion of what "should work" and become unwilling to look at what actually works. Where are people loving each other? Where are vocations flourishing? Where are people receiving the Sacraments with devotion? Where are people growing in their prayer life? Where are people striving to become virtuous? Where are people practicing the works of mercy? If these things are happening in places where there is Lifeteen or a Charismatic Group, where there is an ecclesial movement like Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenal Way, Focolare, or Opus Dei, or where there is a Latin Mass community . . . wherever these things are happening, we shouldn't try to kill them with our particular agenda. Instead, we should encourage them and imitate them. Too often, we try to replace what actually works with what we want to work and this . . . never works.

If looking at what is actually working and encouraging it is the first thing we should do, the second thing we need to do is to share the joy of this experience. A person doesn't need to be a theologian in order to share the good news. A person can share the good news by telling his own experience. This, however, should not arise not from a scheme, but rather from a culture. It must be something that is natural and not from something that feels coerced. If people discover a community where they feel loved, experience growth, and become more truly human, then they are going to share this with others. Instead of trying to sell the Church, we can just share our experience of being part of the communion of the Church.

Do I have a Solomon's Portico in my life? I have several. My Solomon's Portico is wherever I live the friendship of the Church with others. Oftentimes, this seems to be at restaurants or at dinner tables. When we live this friendship together, it is attractive to others. It becomes a point of interest. It's been my experience that people are fascinated when they see a priest and his people loving each other and living a friendship together. It surprises them to see lay people and priests enjoying one another's company. In friendship, our humanity deepens. When people witness this deeper humanity, they desire it for themselves. When I go to my Solomon's Porticoes, it is not so that I can solicit business for the Church. I go because I need these places for my own life. The community of the Church--the friendship of the Church--saves me and moves me toward Christ. It is something for my life. And because it is something for my life, I am able to share that with others. But, it is firstly something for me.

Sometimes, especially clergy and people who are close to the Church, act as though we were mere commentators upon the Church or just professional organizers of Church events. But, to be convincing witnesses, we have to be moved ourselves by the encounter. The community of the Church has to be firstly something that moves us. When we love being together and growing together, this becomes an instant proposal to others. It draws them because they see the new humanity emerging in and through the friendship. But this kind of evangelization is humbling because it begins with an admission of my desires. I desire to experience love. I desire to experience mercy. I desire to experience the friendship of the other. I desire to be educated. 

There are great programs in the Church. I've used lots of them. But, my experience is that the most effective tool for evangelization is Solomon's Portico. When we gather together and live the friendship of the Church together; when we love each other and stay close to one another, this attracts others. And little by little, we draw in those who pass by the Portico and who see the way that we love one another and stay together.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Thoughts on My Priestly Anniversary

For me, priesthood is lived as a friendship
If I had to pick a day that holds the most meaning for me in my life, it would be May 17th, the day of my ordination to the priesthood. For the vast majority of my priesthood thus far, I was "the young priest." But, eighteen years after ordination, although still well below the median age of priests, I no longer get the response so common in my earlier years, "You look too young to be a priest."  In fact, now I'm surrounded by college students who tell me that I'm just like their father.

I live in a rectory in a nearby parish to my university. This evening, the pastor and I had supper together and the entire time I was sitting there, I was thinking how privileged I am to know a priest like this. He's been a priest for 49 years, most of them spent as a missionary in Peru. He's almost twice my age (which makes me feel pretty good considering everyone I serve is half my age) and as we conversed, I felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift of his example and friendship.

By God's grace, I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of young priests and seminarians. I've also lived and worked with priests who were substantially older than me. This past year at the BU Catholic Center, I worked with two young Jesuit scholastics. When I was a parish priest, I often had seminarians stay with me, serve with me, and come from my parish. I've had young priests work with me and I've had senior priests work with me. This opportunity to live and to work with great priests and seminarians has been a true grace in my life.

One of the things that has surprised me as a priest is that even after eighteen years of priestly life, I still feel as though I am new. I am surprised every day by the gift of my vocation. The seminary sends a seminarian to me and I am struck by what I learn from him. I live with a priest ordained almost 50 years ago and his mentorship is something entirely fresh and rejuvenating. But, it is not only the clergy with whom I am assigned. It is the people with whom I serve.

I live in a rectory where the example of the pastor is a constant source of education for me. But, I go to work with young men and women who are half my age (okay, a little more than half my age) and they educate me too. (By the way, those of them who read this blog will be sure to remind me that I just wrote those words). But, it is true. One of the great graces of priesthood is being surrounded by people--young and old--who educate me. These people move me. They confirm within me what I already believe and they encourage me to be a better Christian and a better priest.

This year, on the eve of my priestly anniversary, I am particularly grateful for one thing. During these last eighteen years, despite my abundant sins, faults, and weaknesses, God has surrounded me with men and women--priests, religious, and laity, young and old--who have caused my heart to leap with joy. These people awaken within me a continued awe at the beauty of the Church. In fact, last night--out of the blue, a man texted me whom I had not heard from in several months. In the text he told me that he goes to Mass every Sunday now. After all that he's been through in his life, the fact that he goes to Mass really caused my heart to rejoice. And, as I write these words, a student just texted me to ask, "Do you want to hang out on Monday?"

Priesthood continues to surprise me. I am surprised to hear how a particular seminarian discovered his calling. I am surprised to see a conversion. I am surprised to witness the generosity of the young men and women with whom I serve. I am surprised by their missionary zeal and I am surprised by the way that they themselves are surprised by God's movement in their lives. I am surprised by the faith of our students and by the depth of their humanity.

I am surprised by all that God has done during these eighteen years. In my life as a priest, I have been loved and cared for by so many good people. I have lived so much of my priesthood at dinner tables with parishioners or at lunch tables with students. It's all been quite surprising. I think one of the great gifts of priesthood for me has been that the people whom I have encountered--be they priests or lay people--have educated me in living a more human life. Even now, I'm twice the age of the people whom I serve. But, they educate me. I hope that I educate them too. But, I wake up every day and am filled with surprise by our communion.

Eighteen years ago I became a priest. Eighteen years later, I can testify that I am more surprised today about the priesthood than I was in my first few months. I am surprised by the love and friendship that has been such an integral part of priesthood. As a priest, I hope that I am able to move others. If I can, it is only because I myself am moved by Another. I discover within the friendship of the Church a life that makes me more human.

Whether it be a 73 year old priest or a 20 year old student, a couple married for 50 years or a first year seminarian, a lifelong Catholic or a recent convert, a young person who dedicates himself to serving the Church or an older woman who cares for her ill husband; all of these people move me. They educate me. They encourage me and spur me on towards holiness.

After eighteen years of priesthood, what most surprises me is that every day, I am joyfully surprised by the people who surround me. I am surprised by the love that marks our life. Christ has blessed me by surrounding me with people who have cared for my vocation and nurtured it. I'm surprised by the love I've experienced since the day of my ordination. I hope that all of those who have shown me this love know that I love them too. Yeah, I love them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Death Penalty and Our Enemy

"Christ and the Adulteress"
Today as the jury in the Marathon Bombing Trial sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, many Catholics who oppose the death penalty lamented that we were becoming murderers "just like Tsarnaev." Such hyperbole is detrimental to the Catholic case against the use of the death penalty. Overplaying our hand on the death penalty ultimately undermines the Church's position. This is so because people have an innate understanding that a society has a right to protect itself from particular crimes. Since civilization began, society has recognized the unfortunate necessity of meting out the ultimate punishment for certain crimes. While the Catholic Church teaches that the circumstances that may require the imposition of the death penalty are practically non-existent in our present day society, it does not affirm that these circumstances will never exist again in the future. The state still possesses the authority to protect its citizens by imposing the death penalty, even if this authority--due to favorable circumstances--exists in a purely theoretical way and is never actually exercised. We should, as the Church teaches, work towards eliminating the death penalty.

Those who champion the abolition of the death penalty, and who wish to do so from a Catholic perspective, ought to resist hyperbolic and theologically weak arguments that tend to equivocate the execution of a criminal with the cold-blooded murder of the innocent. These types of arguments simply do not ring true to human experience and weaken the Church's position. Instead of arguing that the death penalty "makes us like them," we ought to show how mercy distinguishes us from them and is the better way.

During the past few months, I've been somewhat intrigued by the alternative punishment that could have been meted out to Tsarnaev. The prison where he would have been sentenced would have placed him in a tiny cell that would be furnished with a cement desk, an immovable cement stool, a cement bed, and a toilet with a sink attached. Twenty-three hours a day would be spent in that cell, quite possibly for the next 60 years or more. It would have been a life of complete isolation. In many ways, this punishment actually seems more severe than death. This punishment seems like Tsarnaev would be dead without the benefit of actually dying.

What Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother did was horrific. Reading accounts of what they inflicted upon their victims and their families fills us with righteous anger and with profound sorrow. I've also found that I've had the same feelings when I think of Dzhokhar. He was given the gift of life and opted to throw that life away by committing such a heinous series of acts. He is his own victim and his own perpetrator. Although he didn't die two years ago like his brother, he nonetheless took his own life. He threw away what could have been.

Tsarnaev deprived others of life. He deprived society of whatever good these people could have accomplished. In doing so, he forfeited his own right to live freely in that society. But, as I've reflected upon the potential punishments that could have been imposed upon him, I've come to think that neither is suitable. Both the death penalty and the total isolation and entombment of Tsarnaev would allow evil to have the last word. 

Should Tsarnaev be punished? Absolutely. Should he be deprived of liberty and luxury? Certainly. Should he spend the rest of his life securely behind bars? Yes. But, society should strive to find a way to make that lifelong punishment a time for Tsarnaev to contribute to society. I say this not just for his sake, but for the sake of all of us. Tsarnaev finds himself in this situation because he chose evil. That evil thrives upon ruin, death, and hopelessness. In opposing the death penalty, we would prevent evil from taking another life. What Tsarnaev contributed to the world was viciousness and destruction. Society has the opportunity to introduce mercy and hope. Whether he is capable of embracing that mercy is unknown, but we have the opportunity to extend it.  And, in extending it, we strike at the heart of evil.

While the world may not believe that evil or the demonic exist, we who are believers know that we have enemies who are not flesh and blood but are principalities and powers. In becoming complicit with evil, Tsarnaev became an instrument of death and destruction. To Satan, Tsarnaev was always expendable. I would spare Tsarnaev's life in order to deny Satan the pleasure of achieving another victory. 

Executing Tsarnaev doesn't make the state a murderer "just like Tsarnaev." To say so, I think, does a disservice to the Church's teaching. But, in showing mercy toward the guilty, society would show how vastly better we are than those who hate us.  They kill the innocent, but we show mercy even to the guilty. Satan hates mercy. That is reason enough for us to be merciful.

Chosen By Christ

Recently a friend sent me a book that has completely engaged my attention. It is one of those books that I suspect will have a profound effect on the way that I pray, preach, and read the scriptures. Even though I've been reading it for a couple of weeks, I've only managed to get through three chapters. At the end of almost every paragraph, I find myself saying, "I need to read that again." Entitled, "God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology," the book, thus far, has offered innumerable points of meditation. 

This evening as I was reading, I came upon a line that really struck me. In discussing why it was that the Hebrews chose Yahweh to be their God, the author writes, "Yahweh is not a God you would choose; He is a God who chooses you." God chose Abraham. God chose Moses. God chose David. God chose--most especially--the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus chose the apostles. God chose the Hebrew people. He chooses us.

From the time I was a young boy, I always had the sense that I might someday become a priest. But, I can recall vividly the moment when sitting in the Our Lady Chapel of Sacred Heart Church in North Quincy during adoration, I had this overwhelming sense that God was choosing me to be a priest. Being chosen by God is an essential and irreplaceable element of the Christian life. This election by God is always a total act of gratuitous mercy. When we lose the sense of being chosen, we lose the flavor of Christian life. When we recognize that we are chosen, there arises within us a desire to respond with zeal and with generosity.
Before Holy Thursday Mass 

This past year, during the Sacred Triduum, I had a renewed wonder at the mystery of being chosen. Something happened during Holy Week among our community. It was not something that we created. I had this same experience as a parish priest. We all of a sudden realize, for reasons unknown to us, that God has chosen us. He begins to work wonders among us--perhaps producing vocations to the priesthood from us, drawing people to the sacraments among us, forming a people who love one another and who worship God. The specific wonders differ in each individual and in each community. If asked to, you couldn't write down a formula for how it happens. Sure, you can say things like, "We pray for vocations," or, "We offer frequent confession times and have adoration." You can say that we host social events and share meals together. True as these things might be, they can't account for what actually happens. 

How did the Red Sea part? Well, Moses held out his arms. The explanation kind of falls short. The Red Sea parted because God had chosen the Hebrew people. The Hebrew people are called to live constantly the memory of their being chosen. Similarly, the more we live from the memory of our own election by Christ, the more God works his wonders in our midst. Without this sense of wonder at God's merciful and gratuitous gaze upon us, we attempt to make our own miracles. We try to stir up enthusiasm for our projects, but these projects become modern towers of Babel. All of us, at one time or another, want to build our Tower of Babel. It is our perpetual temptation to accomplish something miraculous with our own hands. We want to be great by our own making. So did Adam.

Our true greatness comes, however, from the fact that the God who created the heavens, the earth, and all that they contain has chosen us as His own. He has chosen us to be His people. He has chosen us to be his disciples, his friends, His adopted sons and daughters. We are His people. 

As I write these words, in my mind's eye I see the faces of so many people with whom I have shared the experience of suddenly realizing, "He has chosen us." Whether it is during the Mass or sitting at table together and enjoying each other's friendship, there are these beautiful moments when you know that everyone is suddenly aware that we have been chosen by Him. We didn't make anything. He just chose us and is working His power and glory among us. 

When we gaze together with humble and awestruck hearts upon the great mystery of our being chosen by Christ, amazing things happen among us. If we fix our gaze upon ourselves--our plans, our strategies, our possessions, our strengths, our sins, our enemies, our ingenuity--we lose everything. Instead, when we turn our eyes to meet His gaze upon us, we discover that He looks upon us with love, and this love alone is what builds a Kingdom that lasts forever.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Catholics Leaving the Church is a Problem of the Heart

The Road to Emmaus
This week a new Pew Research Center study was released, and it showed that the number of Christians in the United States is declining sharply and that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing. For anyone who is even slightly observant, this is not surprising.  I suppose, however, seeing graphs and numbers makes things more realistic to people.  As such, social media has lit up with commentary on this study.

I do not approach this study as a statistician, a sociologist, an historian, or as a disinterested observer.  I'm a priest.  In a few days, I will have spent the last eighteen years serving either as a parish priest or as a college chaplain.  My observations are from that perspective.  Some will argue that the cause of this radical decrease is due to social media, secularism, post-Vatican II craziness, liberalism, conservatism, Hollywood, academia, the Church's moral positions etc.  Others will say that the real problem is that the Church does a lousy job in its public relations.  Others will identify the sexual abuse scandals as the cause.  I'm sure a thousand other reasons will be listed too.  Why should everyone else have all of the fun?  I want to throw in my reason too.  I'm not saying that everyone else is wrong.  I'm just offering one possible reason for the decline: The absence of Love.

The reasons that will be offered as to why so many young people are choosing not to be Catholic or who are choosing to leave the Catholic Church will be many.  And most of them will have some element of truth to them.  But, in the words of St. Paul, I would like to point out a more excellent way.  While new modes of media, greater excellence in music, improved homilies, more articulate catechesis, better business practices, transparency, and all sorts of other product delivery ideas might help, something more fundamental is lacking.

If we have all the eloquence of angels, a snazzy Facebook Page, an easy to navigate website, an efficient staff, a clever marketing scheme, a mission statement that dazzles, a parish center that has every conceivable gadget, and the most "relevant" message around, but don't have love, then we are nothing. All of those things are great if they arise from and serve love. But, none of those things, nor all of those things, can replace love.

In the face of mass defections from the Catholic Church, our inclination has been to focus almost exclusively upon product delivery. "If only we improved our messaging, delivery, and image, then we'll be successful." But, maybe we should be focused upon the product that we are trying to deliver.   What impresses me about the kids at the BU Catholic Center is that they are not trying to "sell the Catholic Church."  They love one another and try to love others.  Not a fake love.  Not a love that pretends that there is no such thing as sin.  Not a love that pretends like there are not difficulties.  No, they have an authentic and honest love. While others might disagree with what they believe, they are nonetheless intrigued by and attracted to the love that marks their life.

I fully recognize that I'm not genius when it comes to what's the right answer to drawing people back to the Church. I can only speak from my own experience. What saves me in my life is love. When I talk about "The Church," it is not in some theoretical and vague manner. For me, "The Church" is the place where I have experienced love most authentically. It is in the Church each day that I encounter Christ through the friendships that He gives to me. And these friendships answer the desire of my heart for authentic love. On many occasions in my life as a priest, I have enjoyed the company of friends who do not yet fully adhere to any number of the Church's teachings (which I have articulated in homilies or in conversations). Perhaps some disagree with teachings regarding marriage, homosexuality, or divorce and others cringe at the notion of the necessity of the Sacrament of Confession or that we are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday. I think that they know I love them. And, I feel privileged that they consider me to be their friend.

The more excellent way for us to evangelize is for us to love one another. I don't mean love one another in a way that is professionally scripted by an advertising company. Becoming too sleek in our carefully crafted messaging can give the Church the slimy feeling of a used car lot. I don't mean loving one another in a way that sets aside the Gospel. I mean that we need to live out of an authentic love. We need to be a people who lives out of the experience of being loved ourselves.

My contribution to this whole conversation about the sharp decrease in Catholics in the United States is that it is a problem of love. This problem can't be solved by bureaucrats, statisticians, or by professionals. It is a problem of the heart. There is no quick or easy solution. The real solution is that we all need to be continuously educated in authentic love. What's missing is the grandeur of the new humanity that comes only through Christ and His Church. 

We can come up with all sorts of marketing solutions to our problems. But, the real problem is a problem of the heart. This is not just a parish based problem. It is a problem that runs throughout the Church. Bishops, priests, and lay people are too focused upon their plans, strategies, and ideologies rather than upon loving the people in front of them. Again, I do not mean the type of love that sounds canned or is used as a strategy. I mean an authentic love that makes one say, "Whatever these people have, I want it for my life." 

On the Road to Emmaus, the two disciples had not yet recognized that it was Christ who was walking with them. But, they recognized that they were part of something that corresponded to the desire of their heart. When Christ acts as though he were about to leave them, they beg him, "Stay with us!" Why did they want him to stay? Because, as they walked along together and broke open the Word of God, inside of them their hearts were burning. Something new had been introduced into their life. They were being loved in a new way.

We want people to experience the Catholic Church and to say, "Stay with us!" This is a cry of the heart. This is the cry that comes from the experience of encountering the love of Christ. Our best hope for drawing others to Christ is to show them the more excellent way of love. This love is not something that we mandate, create, or organize. It is something that is given to us, something that surprises us, something that draws us beyond ourselves and that compels us to follow. The way to draw others to the Church is for those who are in the Church to live this joyous cry of the heart ourselves. We need to have hearts that are educated by love; hearts that are burning within us and that cry out to Christ, "Stay with us!"

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Catholic Church: We Really Love One Another

The other evening, I was sitting with a few of our students as they were studying for exams and the thought occurred to me, "They really love one another."  

As I reflect upon this week, love is what most comes to mind.  In various interactions that I've had with brother priests at dinner, in my rectory, through texts, and phone conversations, I realize that we love one another.

Earlier in the week, the BU Catholic Center staff had dinner together.  We love one another.

Throughout this week, I've had meals with various students.  We love each other.

The other day I had lunch with the guy who has served as intern for the past couple of years and the new guy who is going to take over that position.  It's a pretty remarkable thing to do because the only money that they get is the money that they raise from donations.  As we hung out together, I thought, "We really love each other."

During the week, I had to ask various people for favors and they responded with joyful generosity.  We really love each other.

This week, I offered a Funeral Mass for someone in my previous parish assignment.  As I stood on the church steps before Mass and greeted old friends, I thought, "We really love each other."

After the funeral Mass, as I walked around the cemetery awaiting the funeral procession, I was amazed at how many graves there were populated by people whom I had buried; married couples, soldiers, veterans, and young people.  We really love each other.

Today was First Communion in that parish and a group of families invited me to come to their party.  While I was not able to attend, I nonetheless thought, "We really love each other."

Although I am off today, I went over to the Catholic Center and offered Mass with the incoming intern.  We prayed together and then had lunch.  We really love each other.

Several times during the past week, I received text messages from people saying, "Holy Hour this morning?"  In that time of prayer, I am aware that we really love each other.

As students came into the Catholic Center this week to say goodbye as they departed for the summer, one thing was abundantly apparent: We really love one another.

I do not think that I am alone in this sentiment.  I think that the various people whom I have mentioned above would all admit to the same sense of wonder and awe. What we are living is not something that we created or something that we manipulated.  Instead, we have been taken up into something beyond us.  In front of it we stand with gratitude and with awe.  What Christ does is always surprising.  

The Gospel this Sunday records Jesus' command that we "love one another."  This week, I am very grateful that I live among those who adhere to this command.

This is the Catholic Church.  We really love one another.