Sunday, December 29, 2013

Only the Gaze of Christ Can Rebuild Parishes

Msgr. Luigi Giussani, Founder of Communion and Liberation
In the days leading up to Christmas and in this period of Christmastide, I've had lots of opportunities to be with friends and to share meals together.  Recently, I visited the home of some friends who belong to the movement, Communion and Liberation. More specifically, these friends are Memores Domini.  They are lay men who work in a variety of professions and who dedicate themselves to the contemplation of Christ and to bringing the announcement of Christ to others.  

After a beautiful meal together, I left their home and had in my heart that kind of joy one experiences from being with something great.  As I walked home, I noticed a little sparrow on the ground that had died.  Not surprisingly, the scripture passage from the Gospel of Matthew jumped to mind.  "Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care" (MT 10:29).  It is quite an 
amazing thing, is it not?  God knows this sparrow and its condition.  He looks upon the sparrow.  And the tenderness of this gaze with which God looks even upon a sparrow gives us a new hope.  It is confidence in this gaze that makes us capable of announcing the Good News.

It was when Jesus commissioned the Twelve to go and announce the Kingdom that he also informed them of the gaze upon which their Heavenly Father looked upon them.  He was strengthening them not only to fulfill the mission entrusted to them, but also to endure the persecution that was certain to follow.  It was this gaze that would sustain them.

Was it not the tenderness of Christ's gaze upon Peter when he asked him, "Do you love me?" that strengthened Peter in the rest of his ministry?  Did not Matthew remember that moment when Christ looked upon him with mercy and live the rest of his life from that moment?  How many people have come to Christ because they discovered that he is the Good Shepherd who looks for the lost sheep with tenderness?  This gaze is critical to evangelization.

Although I do not meet my friends from the Memores Domini as often as I would like, each time I do, I feel inwardly strengthened.  It is because of the way with which they look upon me and upon reality.  Their gaze reassures me of the Father's gaze.  Their life radiates a certain joy that originates in the gaze of the Divine upon them.  The mission to the world--for them and for all of us--always has to originate and be sustained by a tender gaze.  

We often skip over this "gaze" in order to implement practical 
solutions.  Several months ago, I read a book entitled, "Rebuilt."  It has to do with a parish that has experienced a lot of growth.  Although I found the book to offer a lot of "helpful hints," it did not really move me.  It sounded a lot like "How to Build a Successful Parish."  What was missing for me was a sense that the mission of evangelization begins with an irresistible gaze.  Instead, it was about building a structure.

I do not wish to criticize the pastor there nor the people who are undoubtedly doing great things.  My point is simply that the book did not appeal to me because I did not feel as though I had walked into the middle of a gaze between lovers.  The book seemed more about parish life than it did about Christian life.  It seemed too mechanical and not enough about being moved by the tender look of Another.

Jesus sent the Twelve out, but he did so after assuring them of the 
gaze of the Father.  I do not think that the principle crisis facing 
parishes and Catholic institutions is their administration, properties, or job titles.  There is certainly much that could be done to improve all of these things.  But, this cannot be the starting point.  The principle crisis is that we often present ourselves as people who are not caught up in the love of God.  The starting point has to be a gaze that fills a person with the assurance that they are loved by the Father.  This cannot be skipped.  Well, it can be skipped, but the mission will fail.  It is only the tenderness of this gaze that will sustain true evangelization.

What is needed in so many Catholic parishes, dioceses, and institutions is not simply new programs, technologies, or structures.  What's needed is a renewed encounter with the gaze of Christ.  What is needed is an education in friendship and love.  What is often missing in aspects of Catholic life is that tenderness that is at the origin of discipleship.  Trying to "rebuild" things without beginning with this gaze and a fidelity to this gaze will only result--at best--in stopgap measures.  True evangelization begins with a gaze.  When we are living this gaze, programs may certainly follow, but they are remarkably different than anything we could come up with on our own.

My friends in Memores Domini strengthened me by radiating the gaze of Christ.  This is true evangelization.  They looked upon me with a tenderness that can only be given by one who himself knows that he is looked upon tenderly by Christ.  Strong parishes and strong dioceses are places where the gaze of Christ is made visible in and through the gaze of those who know themselves "looked upon with tenderness."  It is in the gaze of bishops and priests upon their people; it is in the gaze of Christians upon the poor, the suffering, and the vulnerable; it is in the gaze of brothers and sisters in Christ upon each other that evangelization occurs. Strong parishes and strong dioceses are rebuilt through the gaze of charity. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feast of St. Stephen: Oh Yeah, I've Got Enemies

St. Stephen
The command to love my enemies never really seemed all that difficult to me.  That's because, I never really felt like I had enemies.  There have never been people in my life that I've wished would come to some catastrophic end.  Mostly, "enemies" always seemed to me to be some sort of ambiguous group of people who lived in some far off country and who were my "enemies" because of some sort of political situation.  So, loving them didn't seem like too much of a challenge because I never really meet these enemies.  Basically, I never had enemies.

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen and the opening collect (prayer) for the Mass suggests that I do have enemies. It almost presumes it.  "Grant, Lord, we pray, that we may imitate what we worship, and so learn to love even our enemies, for we celebrate the heavenly birthday of a man who knew how to pray even for his persecutors."  There you have it. I've got enemies.  You do too.

As I prayed before offering Mass today, I thought about who my enemies are.  They are not some far away and ambiguous collection of combatants.  My enemies are specific.  They are the people who have hurt me in my life.  They are the people who have been uncharitable towards me.  True, I don't ever wish them harm.  I don't sit around imagining what disasters I would like seen visited upon them.  But, the prayer at Mass didn't say, "Grant O Lord that we may not wish fire and brimstone to incinerate our enemies."  It said, "Grant that we may learn to love even our enemies."  

A few things strike me about the prayer.  Firstly, it presumes that we have enemies. It presumes that there are people who seek to hurt us and who have hurt us.  Secondly, it doesn't try to solve the situation by getting rid of our enemies.  Chances are, we will always have people in our lives who do not love us and who do not seek our good.  The solution that the collect offers is not one of "converting  our enemies into our friends."  The solution it offers is for us to love them even though they are our enemies.  Thirdly, I liked the words "learn" and "even."  The prayer doesn't presume that loving our enemies comes easily.  It is something we have to learn.  And it says, "even our enemies."  In other words, loving our enemies doesn't come naturally.

Today, I offered Mass for my enemies.  I prayed for them by name. (Don't worry, nobody else heard me!)  I figured that is a good step towards learning how to love them.   The person who is my enemy is not my enemy because I am against him.  The person who is my enemy is the one who is against me.  He might always be my enemy.  He might always be against me.  I don't have to convert him to be my friend before I can love him.  I have to learn how to love him "even" when he is my enemy.  

That prayer touched me today in its humanity.  It acknowledges the reality of enemies (it doesn't skip over it or try to pretend it is not real), it acknowledges the difficulty in loving "even" them, and it acknowledges that this is something we "learn" to do.  

As St. Stephen was being killed, he prayed for his enemies and thus, he loved them.  On this Feast of St. Stephen, maybe we could all think about those people who do not treat us with charity and ask God to help us to learn how to love "even" them.  By loving them--especially through praying for them--we may not ever win them over to be our friends.  But, we will prove ourselves to be true friends of the One who has loved us "even" when we have not loved Him.

Christmas brings extraordinary graces to us.  May this Christmas Season bring us the grace to love even those who are our enemies.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Devil Whispers About Weakness, But God Enters Into Weakness

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the sites we visited was the Church of the Nativity.  In the Church of the Nativity there hangs a Russian icon that portrays the Birth of Christ.  At the center of the icon is the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child.  In the bottom corner of the icon is St. Joseph.  He is speaking to what appears to be a shepherd, but it is actually the Devil. The icon attempts to show how, from the very beginning, the Devil sought to discourage Joseph. He is whispering in Joseph's ear, "You are a failure.  You aren't even the real father.  You are wasting your life."

On Christmas Day, many people find themselves like St. Joseph in that icon.  Maybe they have tried to do everything right, but still have encountered difficulty and turmoil. Or, perhaps they have failed greatly in their life.  The Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child are right there, but the Devil is luring people away.  He is convincing them that they are failures.  He attempts to discourage each person according to their fears.  "You're spouse doesn't really appreciate you. You're a failure.  Your life is meaningless."  "You've committed terrible sins.  You are a failure.  There's no hope for you." To the one who was not able to have children, he whispers "You are a failure."  To the one whose children have been a source of disappointment in one way or another, he whispers, "You are a failure."  To the old, he whispers, "You have failed." To the young, he discourages them so that they never dare to hope, "You are a failure." To those who struggle intellectually or physically, "You are a failure."  He tries to undermine priests and religious, married and single, young and old.  "You are a failure."

Each Christmas, the scriptures have us return to that encounter between the shepherds of Bethlehem and the angels of Heaven.  The shepherds were men who lived on the outskirts, not only of town, but of society.  They were outcasts and, in the eyes of the world, failures.  And yet, when the Savior was born, it was to them that God first revealed this good news.  God did not first send out a diplomatic cable to the world leaders or release a statement to the media.  He did not choose a method of communication that would eliminate all doubt and all risk for failure.  Instead, he chose to entrust this message to the shepherds, to those who were without stature.  God is not intimidated by our failures or by our weakness.  He gladly chooses it!  So much does he choose our weakness, that in the fullness of time, he became weak for our sake.

After they had received the message from the angels, the shepherds were still shepherds.  It was not like winning the Powerball where they could leave behind the shepherd's cave and buy a mansion.  They were still poor. They were still men of weakness. They were men who had failed in life and would likely fail again.  Their circumstances were largely unchanged. What then was different?  God had drawn close to them in their circumstances.  They were not alone in their circumstances.  They were not alone in their difficulties.  God is now with them.  Into their darkness, the light had entered.

Today, many who will hear the joyful message of the angels may feel as though this message is not for them.  They may feel that this message is for those who are successful, but not for those who have failed or who are weak.  This is the lie of the Devil.  God chooses the weak and those who are of no account.  God chooses them as the very first witnesses and messengers.  He does not merely include them in some superficial way with the Gospel.  He makes them the first trustees of the Gospel.

On Christmas morning, I was privileged to offer two Masses at a local jail.  It was so awesome to be there and to read the Christmas Gospel.  The announcement of Jesus' birth and of God's nearness belong especially to men like these.  Like all of us, these men must often find themselves being pulled to the side so that the Devil can whisper in their ears to remind them of their weakness and to discourage them by their circumstances.  The Devil tries to use our weakness to lure us from God.  But, in front of every circumstance, humiliation, failure, weakness, and evil, man can now stand with hope and courage.  The Devil can whisper all he wants about our weakness and our circumstances, but his whispers cannot change this fact: The Word Has become flesh and has chosen to dwell in our weakness.  Just ask Joseph and the shepherds.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Setting Out with the Shepherds to Find the Savior

Annunciation to the Shepherds
Christmas this year will be very different for me.  One of the highlights each year for me was carrying the Christ Child down the aisle of a magnificent church at Midnight Mass to the enormous sound of the pipe organ playing "Adeste Fideles."  As I would place him in the manger, I would stay for a bit and pray for my people and for a host of intentions. I entrusted so much to Jesus in those brief moments at Midnight!  In truth, I felt like I could have stayed praying there for hours.  But, eventually Mass had to begin!

This year, I don't have a Midnight Mass.  I don't have a beautiful church.  I don't have a manger.  I don't even have a congregation!  Since I am a college chaplain, my congregation is gone home for the Christmas Break.  I will definitely miss the gold vestments, the plumes of incense, greeting thousands of parishioners and wishing them a "Merry Christmas," and listening to the best choir in the Archdiocese of Boston giving the angels of Bethlehem a pretty good run for their money.

It is a strange occurrence in my life-- not having a congregation on Christmas.  As I was thinking about it, the thought occurred to me that perhaps there is somewhere that doesn't have a priest on Christmas.  So, as it turns out, I will have two Masses on Christmas morning at a local jail.  I am really grateful for this opportunity.  As a parish priest, I wouldn't have had an opportunity to do this.  In these days, parish priests are straight out exhausted with a million details and swarms of people.  Of course, I loved all of that, but I 
am so very happy that I will be able to spend Christmas offering Masses in a jail.  I hope that I will be able to write about it afterwards, but my thought in advance is this: Jesus came to illuminate those who sit in darkness and in the land of gloom.  I am really so very grateful that this year I will be a minister of that light to those who sit in the darkness of prison.  Who am I that I should have this privilege?

I'm not sure that I would have ever thought about trying to say Mass in a jail on Christmas Day were it not for Pope Francis.  He keeps me on my toes and encourages me to grow in charity.  I have to admit that I get annoyed when people talk about Pope Francis as though the way he lives as pope is a condemnation of all other popes.  Honestly, when I look at Pope Francis, I don't see him as a challenge to his predecessors.  I see him as a challenge to me.  It is I who need to grow in charity.

I am so looking forward to spending Christmas morning with these people whom Jesus loves.  I feel like the shepherds who first heard the proclamation of the angels.  Having heard the good news themselves, they made haste to the manger to find Christ. I am looking forward to making haste to the jail on Christmas Day.  I expect to find things just as the angels had said.  I expect to find Him, the Savior and Lord.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pastoral Plans, Evangelization, and the Tenderness of Bethlehem

In a few days time, we will find ourselves placed before the Christ Child.  There is something that draws us again and again to his manger.  In the shivering cold of the night, the infant God is enfolded in the tender embrace of the Blessed Virgin.  It is the tenderness and the warmth of this moment that draws us to Bethlehem.  Pope Francis, in many ways, has been a "Christmas Pope."  He is reminding all of us that in order to draw others to the Church, we must be a Christmas Church, a Church of tenderness.

In my own Archdiocese, the past year has been marked by the implementation of a new pastoral plan.  In many ways, the success of that plan will depend not upon its logistical implementation, its codification of policies and procedures, or upon its introduction of efficiencies.  It will be successful insofar as its starting point is an encounter with the tenderness of Christ and that it remains faithful to this starting point.  When we invite others to come to church, are we simply trying to stir up business or are we carrying within ourselves the warmth of the light that we ourselves have received from an encounter with Christ?  Is our starting point a plan or is our starting point a manger?  

There is always something quite maddening about God's starting points.  An efficient plan would not have begun in a cave in Bethlehem.  But, God makes the whole thing begin in this moment.  It's crazy! In many ways, in his preaching and in his actions, I think Pope Francis is leading the Church to the manger so that we can rediscover again the tenderness of God.  The transformation of dioceses, parishes, and individuals begins in the contemplation of the manger in Bethlehem.  

People are drawn towards the manger because, in the midst of the darkness of their lives, a light shines. They are drawn towards this tenderness because in front of this tenderness their heart leaps. Many of the people who fill our churches on Christmas Day are there because they are looking to encounter that tenderness which is missing from their lives.  Many of us can sometimes feel overwhelmed by our faults, our sins, our illnesses, the cruelty of others, the sorrows of life etc.  What the Church offers to us in these moments is not always an immediate solution to our difficulty.  But, she can offer to us the embrace of Christmas, the embrace that reveals to us the nearness of God to those who are heavily burdened.

As I reflect upon this past year in my own life, I see that what most caused my own heart to leap were those moments when others were for me a witness to the tenderness of Christ.  For me, these witnesses were my evangelists.  What caused my heart the most sorrow were those moments when the tenderness of the manger was obscured or set aside. The Canticle of Zachariah says, "through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us."  If our goal is to draw others to Christ, this can only be done by being instruments of his "tender compassion."  Without this tenderness, the Church can quickly become just another organization or corporation.  This type of model promotes clericalism and cynicism.  A plan without a manger will always lack what is needed for true evangelization.  It is only when our plans begin from the experience of the manger and are faithful to that experience do they serve the work of evangelization.

Christmas affords all of us an opportunity to go to the manger and encounter the tender compassion of our God. It also affords us the opportunity to pause and compare our life to what we see in the manger. When people encounter us, are they encountering the tender compassion of our God?  What draws people to the manger is that they discover the Divinity in such a remarkably human way.  There is nothing quite so human as a mother and her baby.  If the shepherds had arrived in Bethlehem and found  a man in a business suit, sitting at a conference table in a skyscraper instead of a mother and child in a manger, it is doubtful that we'd all have miniature skyscrapers and conference tables set up on our front lawns each year.  My point is that the first announcement of Good News led people to a mother and child--a very tender and human scene.  This is how evangelization began.  There can be no other starting place.

Is my life a witness to God's tenderness?  Is the implementation of the pastoral plan a witness to God's tenderness?  Is our presbyterate a witness to God's tenderness?  Are our parishes a witness to God's tenderness?  Is my priestly example a witness to God's tenderness?  Are my homilies a witness to God's tenderness?  Are my daily interactions with others a witness to God's tenderness?  When someone arrives at my doorstep, at the chancery doorstep, or at the parish doorstep, do they find a scene that is tender and human or is it lacking in tenderness and humanity?

Christmas finds us all going back to the manger because we know that is what is true and good.  I've experienced instances in my life when the Church has appeared cold and inhuman, and instances when she stands like a warm and glowing manger inviting cold and weary travelers into her embrace.  In my life as a Christian and as a priest, there are undoubtedly times when I have been an inviting manger and times when I have been a cold fortress.  Christmas invites us all back to the manger to begin again.  I hope that we all do.  Evangelization depends upon it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Surrounded By the Sheep and Supported By the Sheep

Lay people. I love them.  I mean, I really love them.  Tonight, the staff and I at the Newman House at BU had a Christmas Dinner.  Among those present was our Office Manager who has worked at the Newman House for eleven years.  She drives a long way from New Hampshire to Boston two or three times a week to do her work for the students.  Also present was our music minister, four FOCUS Missionaries, and our two interns (recent graduates from BU who basically give back a year or two of service to the Catholic Center).  The two interns and four FOCUS Missionaries fundraise their salaries by asking friends, family, and sponsors to support them.  That's pretty humbling, but they do it out of love for the students, for Christ, and for the Gospel.  They make very little.  They all work incredibly hard.

I never dread going to work.  I always look forward to it.  Sometimes in the life of the Church there can be politics, ideology,  bickering, joylessness, and backbiting.  But, in my experience working with lay people, this has never been the case.  These people aren't interested in promoting an agenda.  They aren't looking for power or prestige.  They're not looking to "change the Church."  

The people I've worked with, both in the parish and in my community at Boston University, simply love the Gospel and love others.  They are grateful for their relationship with Christ and want to share the joy of that relationship with others.  They do a thousand things better than I could do them.  They are patient with my faults and support me in being a shepherd.  They help me to be a priest.

Pope Francis said a few months ago that shepherds should be so close to their people that they take on the smell of the sheep.  I LOVE smelling like the sheep.  I love being with them, love living with them, love knowing them, love being known by them, love learning from them, love teaching them, love praying with them, love listening to them, love watching them, love feeding them, love eating and drinking with them, love working with them, love witnessing their example, and love seeing the world changed by their love.  

Tonight, as I enjoyed dinner with these amazing people, I was once again grateful that Jesus has given me the privilege to spend my life in the midst of his flock.  I wouldn't want to smell any differently!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gaudete Sunday: Rejoicing Behind Bars

John the Baptist in Prison
The Third Sunday of Advent is called "Gaudete Sunday" or "Rejoice Sunday." At the very moment that the Church's liturgy is commanding us to "rejoice," the gospel takes us to a darkened cell, located beneath the palace of King Herod.  There sits John the Baptist.  It is only a matter of time before the executioner begins sharpening his axe.  Perhaps John can hear the sounds of one of Herod's parties going on upstairs.  In the midst of all of this revelry and moral decay, John the Baptist knows that his time is coming to an end.  He is indeed decreasing.  In fact, he is decreasing to the point of soon losing his life.  

There doesn't seem too much for John to "rejoice" over at this particular moment in his life.  This is where the Church's Liturgy is always so surprisingly beautiful.  There is nothing worse than being told to "have a good time" when you feel lousy.  So often, those who are sitting in our churches--especially around Christmas--might not feel all that great.  Some are ill.  Some are unemployed.  Some are mourning the loss of loved ones or are preparing for the death of a loved one.  The memories of past joys perhaps cause sadness.  The memories of past injuries perhaps cause hurt.  

Perhaps many people sitting in our churches on "Rejoice Sunday" feel a bit like John the Baptist.  They can hear the noise of the party going on, but they are not part of it.  They are down below, imprisoned by the sorrows of life, imprisoned by the cruelties of life, imprisoned by the walls of illness or memory.

This day is really more for them than it is for those who are all too ready to be giddy.  Remember, it was the fools who were upstairs in Herod's palace.  They were there engaging in their drunken foolishness while John the Baptist sat imprisoned.  But, those upstairs were not rejoicing.  They were given over to buffoonery, but not to joy.  

Today is for those who are like John the Baptist.  All of those who are burdened can indeed rejoice because Jesus Christ is, in fact, the One who was promised.  He makes the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.  The sorrowing have special cause to rejoice because they are the ones to whom Jesus comes.  

There is a beautiful three volume commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew written by a man named Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis.  Referring to the Eleventh Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew (the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent) he writes:

"It appears that John himself is simply fulfilling in advance one of the prophecies Jesus has just made to his apostles: that they would be persecuted by the world and 'dragged before governors and kings' (10:18).  Indeed, this will be the destiny of Jesus, too, in his Passion, so that the pattern is established clearly and inexorably: the way of fidelity to God and of cooperation with God's giving of himself to the world leads through the dungeons of human injustice and cruelty.  Is this perhaps because what most needs to be redeemed is precisely this injustice and cruelty, and because the presence of a light-filled man such as John in the prison of Herod Antipas is the beginning of the bursting open of all prisons?"

To all who today don't feel much like joining the party up in Herod's palace, don't.  That's not real joy.  It is a cheap imitation.  Real joy can be discovered in the most dismal of places.  It can be found in every place where the Gospel of Christ penetrates.  Yes, Jesus and his joy comes to those who dwell in darkness.  Just ask John the Baptist.

Betting on the Mustard Seed

I spent this week with university students who hang out with each other, pray together, eat meals together, play football together, go to movies together, go to confession (separately!) together, and live a friendship together.
It convinced me all over again that the path of the New Evangelization is the path of friendship.  It is the path of the mustard seed that starts small but grows.  It can't be forced or contrived.  It has to begin with an encounter that moves the heart and fills it with an abiding joy.  When this happens, then we can share the joy of the Gospel with others.  Sure, I wish that this method could be put into a program and imposed on every Catholic institution, but it would fail.  This method is always beyond our capacity to control.  It happens one friendship at a time, one witness at a time.

This week, I was reminded that this method is true.  It may not be flashy or novel.  It is, however, what happened two thousand years ago and it is what convinces me of Christ today.  I'm going to remain faithful to this method. But, I've come to realize something.  This method will never be adopted as a strategy.  And, that's a good thing.  Friendship isn't a strategy or a program.  

I think many strategies and programs will likely hinder the New Evangelization because they depend too much on human ingenuity and not enough on Christian friendship.  These methods seem to be all about what we're doing and what we're rebuilding.  The apostles went out and preached the Gospel because of who they met and what He was doing. It's a big difference.  I'm putting my bet on the mustard seed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Missionaries of Mercy: On the Way to Bethlehem

There are many things that I love about Nativity scenes.  Among them is that they are open and inviting.  It always has the feel that we are being invited to enter into the manger and find our place among the shepherds and the Magi.  In fact, every Nativity always seems incomplete. It is waiting for us to be part of it.

Tonight at the Boston University Chapel approximately one hundred young people came to confession.  Three brother priests and I had the opportunity to be ministers of the Lord's mercy.  Hearing that amount of confessions is both awesome and exhausting!  A lot of mercy was dispensed during those two hours.
As a priest, I have the privilege of speaking the words of absolution.  But, it wasn't only the priests who were agents of mercy tonight.  It was truly a team effort.  Our interns, music ministers, FOCUS Missionaries, and students in the Newman Center community were all involved.  They were out inviting students to come to confession, handing out invitations on campus, providing examinations of conscience, and playing beautiful music.  

Many of those who came to confession tonight were there because somebody invited them to come or encouraged them to come.  They were there because a team of people pulled together to announce the mercy of Jesus.  There are all of these young people who tonight are closer to Christ because others shared the Gospel with them.  

It's really a beautiful thing that happened tonight.  Jesus used a community of young people to bring other young people to Himself.  Tonight, because of a wonderful and evangelical group of young Catholics, the Nativity scene is a little more complete.  Awesome.

What Does a Priest Do All Day: Revisited

The BU Catholic Center's Men's Hike in York, Maine
When you have a blog, you can look up to see the search terms that people use to locate your blog.  Honestly, I don't know how it all works, but I have some limited sense about it.  When I began this blog, I had hoped that it might be a place where some young man who was thinking about a vocation might come and find some encouragement.  As it turns out, one of the more common searches that directs people to my blog is, "What does a priest do all day?"  Some time ago, I had written a post about what a priest does.  At the time, I was a parish priest.  I imagine that when that question gets put into a search engine, it is coming from a young man who is thinking about priesthood.

Since I wrote that post, I am no longer a parish priest.  I spend my days (and nights) as a chaplain at Boston University.  My days (and nights) are considerably different than they were six months ago.  The differences are many.

From lots of funerals to no funerals.  No baptisms (except at Easter).  My congregation is almost entirely between the ages of 18-22.  A parish church is at its fullest on Christmas Day.  I don't have a congregation on Christmas.  The parish daily Mass congregation is mostly retired people.  I'm the oldest person at most of my daily Masses!  The youngest person at my Sunday Masses is probably 18.  In a parish, the early Mass is 7am and the late Mass is 5pm.  At the university, the early Mass is 12:30pm and the late Mass is 10pm.

It's completely different.  So, what does this priest do all day now?  It's a totally different experience.  I live in a rectory with a lot of good guys.  I'm the youngest guy in the house by a good amount of years. In some instances, I'm almost half the age of some of the priests here.  When I arrive at work, I'm about twice the age of the people there!

I spend a lot of my time hanging out with college kids.  Eating meals, drinking coffee, talking about sports, movies (most of which I haven't seen), and talking about life.  The building in which I work is called the Newman House (or the Catholic Center).  It really is a house.  And, in a lot of ways, we have a home together.  The students come and hang out there all day.  It's really like a family in a lot of ways.

I get to hear a good amount of confessions on a daily basis, pray with students, offer Mass, and talk about evangelization.  I spend a lot of time with young people who really have a great desire to evangelize.  They're out inviting others to come to our home and enjoy our friendship.  I'm really impressed by how organized and dedicated they are to the work of evangelization.  They're not interested in self-promotion.  They're interested in promoting the Gospel.  They're interested in growing in holiness.  They are prayerful and charitable.

In a parish, I had to go visit families in order to grow close to them.  At the university, the students come to me.  They hang out, joke around, and care for one another in our Newman House.  In a parish, there's a lot of administration and human resources issues.  At the Newman House, most of my time is spent in direct contact with the young people.  We talk about moral issues, vocations, theological questions, and family life.  In a lot of ways, we're a family for each other.

I was pastor of an awesome parish.  Now, I spend all of my time with kids who most likely came from great parishes.  Some of them didn't come from great parishes, but someday they're going to go back and will build great parishes.  They'll be great lay people, priests, and religious.  They really love God and are convinced of Christ.  They're not ideologues.  They are just convincing witnesses.  They're sincere, without guile, intelligent, funny, and prayerful.

This priest spends most of his time hanging out with college kids.  And you know, a lot of what we do together seems like a big waste of time.  That's the best part.  Eating lunch together, drinking coffee together, talking about ridiculous things . . . this is where friendship is born and nurtured.  When I look back at my life as a parish priest, I can say what made it such a great parish is that we were friends.  There's no other way.  Wasting time together is one of my favorite things at the Newman House.

The Church began with a friendship.  This is the Christian method.  When the Church continues to live a friendship, it is then that it is most faithful to her identity.  It is in the lived reality of a friendship that we become more convinced of Christ and are more committed to following him as disciples.  This is Jesus' method.  This is the method of Sts. Paul, Francis, Ignatius, Dominic, and Blessed John Paul II.

So, what does a priest do all day?  He is at the service of communion.  This happens at Mass and in Confession, but also it happens when two or three are gathered in Jesus' name.  It happens at lunch and during conversations.  It happens while drinking coffee, playing Frisbee, and discussing reruns of "The Office."  It happens at adoration and at Morning Prayer.  It happens in friendship.

Friendship is one of those things that you can't put into a manual and expect everyone to follow it.  It happens through the work of Christ.  I'm grateful that my life is spent at the service of friendship; the friendship that is given by Christ, sustained by Christ, and leads to Christ.  To be a minister of Christ is to be a minister of his joy, a minister of his friendship.  This friendship is everything.

If you are some young man searching the Internet trying to find out "What does a priest do all day," I hope that this post helps.  A priest stands at the heart of the communion (the friendship) of the Church.  This is everything.  Everything a priest does is for this purpose.  He is a minister of Divine Friendship.  If a priest isn't wasting his time on building up friendship . . . he really is wasting his time.

A priest loves the people entrusted to him.  That's what a priest does all day.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Church: Talking Among Friends Should Be Easy

Political and ideological methods are suffocating the Church. I think Pope Benedict probably thought the same thing, but was perhaps too tired to challenge the status quo.  Pope Francis, on the other hand, seems to have his sites set on this sickness in the life of the Church.  What I like--so far--about his way of solving the issue is that he is not inserting his own politics into the fray.  In other words, I don't feel like Francis is just out-politicking the others.  He is going around the politics.

There is a real weirdness in the Church where people avoid straight talk and people speak through winks and nods.  It is not only something that ecclesiastics practice, but it is also evident among influential laity and academics.  We speak in carefully parsed sentences that imply that we do not trust one another.  Our communications often appear as though they were the third draft from a committee and had been cleared by the PR department.  Our communication lacks sincerity and lacks the marks of fraternity.  This type of communication breaks down trust in the life of the Church.  When communication sounds like it was cleared by lawyers, it makes people wonder if they need to get a lawyer!  It happens in communications among clergy.  It also happens in academics.  All the time I meet students in theological programs who tell me that they have to write things that they don't believe in order to appease the professor and pass the course.  How is this theological?  It's like everyone is playing a game.

I think this is partly why people like Pope Francis.  He sometimes says stuff in his "off the cuff" type of way that make you think, "They'll probably have to clarify that tomorrow."  But, it's refreshing and it builds up trust.  It makes you feel like Francis isn't hiding anything.  It makes you feel like there's no secret agenda.  Certainly on doctrinal matters a Pope should be cautious and exact, but that doesn't mean that every word a pope utters ought to sound like a script that was approved by a committee.

I think that one of the great obstacles to evangelization in our present ecclesial situation is a reliance on an overly cautious and opaque language.  I think the lawsuits that have overwhelmed dioceses throughout the United States have caused chanceries to become overly reliant upon public relations persons and lawyers.  This is not meant to disparage either.  But, we've sometimes abandoned the language of the Church for a more "professional" type of language.  It is a language that belongs to somebody else, but not to the Church.

In recent months, I've had a few wonderful conversations with a member of a religious order.  Quite frankly, there is a considerable amount of distrust that has been built up over the past few years between his order and many priests in my Archdiocese.  Nobody, as far as I can tell, ever tries to discuss this in a way that might actually help.  The battles are fought, but they are fought in a thousand indirect ways.  Sometimes when this friend and I are talking, I probably say something with less delicacy than I would have wanted.  Because we are friends, however, there is a freedom to say things imperfectly.  I trust the friendship enough that we can discuss complicated matters without resorting to sentences with fourteen subordinate clauses.

Plain speech certainly has its risks.  We might get quoted in a way that we didn't want to be quoted.  We might be misunderstood.  We might not say everything perfectly, but what family does?  Plain speech says, "I trust you."  In a way, when Pope Francis says something that sounds like it came out a little wrong, he's communicating to us, "I trust you and am not going to worry that you're going to jump all over every word that I utter."  

Evangelization is about sharing the good news.  This good news needs to be communicated with clarity and with joy.  But, it also involves a certain plainspokeness.  It has to be communicated by individuals who speak plainly among themselves and not in a legalese that sounds like none of us trust each other.

This morning, for an example, I joined the BU Catholic Center's Men's Group for their weekly meeting.  There was a sharing among them that was honest and clear.  Young people (and most people in our parishes) like straight talk.  One of the young men said today, "We all have our struggles and sometimes we need a friend to kick us in the ass to help us."  That's straight talk.  Certainly straight talk is different for various occasions, but the point is that everyone in the room knew he was right and they appreciated his candor.

Pope Francis said that the reason he did not move into the papal apartments was because he wanted to be around people.  I suspect that he meant that he wanted to be around plainspoken people.  He didn't want to live a life of censored information.  He wants to hear things plainly from the people whom he encounters in his day to day life.  

None of this is to suggest that we ought to give up on being prudent in our speech or that we ought to look for opportunities to be offensive!  It is, however, to suggest that way too much time is spent "uncommunicating."  We spend too much time figuring out how not to say things.  And this is detrimental to creating a culture of evangelization.  It breeds cynicism.  We spend way too much time protecting our ideologies, positions, and power and way too little time building up the communion of the Church through a communication that has the marks of true friendship.  

This convoluted way of communicating and acting is not helpful for evangelization because it is contrary to the Christian method.  Jesus' words were clear.  Sometimes they were misunderstood.  Sometimes they caused offense.  Sometimes they were rejected.  "Come, follow me."  "Take up your Cross."  "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you."  "Go and make disciples."  "Repent."  This is the language of evangelization.  But, evangelization perhaps ought not to be a language that is specifically reserved for one type of communication.  This simple, direct, and forthright language ought to be the language of the Church's business.  We might be misunderstood, misquoted, or rejected.  But, we'd be in good company.

When I read Pope Francis' recent exhortation, I thought, "I'm guessing this is the first time 'sourpuss' has been used in a papal document!"  As part of our commitment to the New Evangelization, we ought all to extricate ourselves from resorting to languages that belong to bureaucracies--a language that alienates and obscures--and return to the language that rightfully belongs to the Church, a language that draws people together.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Idolatry Stands in the Way of Evangelization

Recently some university students and I attended a Christian praise and worship concert together.  The band was born from a Pentecostal church and travels extensively.  The concert was held in a large arena that was filled with--mostly--young people.  With the exception of the Christian lyrics, the concert itself was what one would expect to see at a contemporary concert: lasers, loud music, large screens, smoke and fog etc.  

For me, what was most striking about the concert was not the music or--what I'd call--the gimmicks.  It was the occasional words spoken by the performers.  In between songs, they would preach the Gospel.  Their bottom line message was this: "God sent his Son into the world because He loves you.  He loves you already.  No matter what you've done, He loves you.  Jesus died for your sins.  Jesus wants you to know that there is nothing you could ever do that would make Him stop loving you.  He wants to fill your heart with his joy and his love."  That basically was the message.  The only thing I wished they had added was, "Jesus offers you a way to turn away from sin and to live a new life." But, perhaps they get to that point later down the road.

All of this really struck me because no matter how times change or how technology advances, that is the Gospel.  In our efforts to share the Gospel, we sometimes become obsessed with the externals.  At a moment when the Pope is urging Catholics on to a more missionary posture, we have to be careful not to be so caught up in the externals, that we forget the Gospel.  The young people who were attending that concert weren't there simply because of lasers and electric guitars.  They were there because of the Gospel.  They were there because they want to hear the good news that Jesus loves them and can bring them the forgiveness of their sins.

It seems particularly critical to me at this moment in time for Catholics not to conflate evangelization with the tools of evangelization.  Evangelization is not the same as pastoral planning.  Evangelization is not Facebook or Twitter.  Evangelization is not lasers, committees for evangelization, parish bazaars, or having ample parking and bathrooms in our parishes.  Evangelization is not greeters at the doors or cushions on the pews.  Those things are all fine and can be helpful.  But, in my opinion, the reason why churches are emptying is because the fundamental Gospel has not been preached.  St Paul says in the Tenth Chapter of the Book of Romans that "everyone who calls upon the Lord will be saved."  But then he asks, "But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach (Romans 10:14)?"

These questions are still valid and applicable today.  I think that Pope Francis is urging all of us to return to a greater familiarity and proclamation of the fundamental Gospel.  There is a fear about speaking this good news.  I remember when I was younger, it dawned on me that I felt very comfortable speaking about "God," but very uncomfortable speaking about "Jesus Christ."  Part of that was that "God" was something I could say and it sounded more like an abstract idea.  When you say "Christ," you are not speaking about anything abstract.  You are speaking about a fact; a fact who had a mother; a fact who died on a Cross and rose from the dead.  

This temptation towards an idolatry of secondary things never disappears.  There are those who worship the cassock and there are those who worship being against the cassock.  There are those who worship Latin and those who worship mocking Latin.  There are those who worship technologies, planning, and bureaucracies and those who worship being against all such things.  There are those who worship particular forms of music and those who worship particular methods of teaching.  There are those worship particular forms of living the Catholic life.  There are those who worship an idealized past and those who worship an imaginary future. 

It is fine to have preferences and even legitimate debates about such things.  But sometimes the focus on these things seems to reveal a profound problem: We are not preaching the Gospel.  The secondary things are always safer because they are things that we control.  The Kerygma, however, is not something that falls under our power.  The Word of God cannot be chained.  When we speak it, it has the power to save.  But, we do not give it this power.  We are simply its instruments.  Preaching Christ is inherently humbling because what it accomplishes far exceeds our own capacity.  In the desert, the Hebrews worshipped the golden calf--something that they themselves made.  In contrast, Moses comes down from the mountain carrying something that was given by God. 

It would be a colossal waste of time and energy if we attempt to replace the old secondary idols with new secondary idols.  And for all of us, this seems to be a perpetual temptation.  The people who have not heard the Gospel or who have not accepted the Gospel don't need new idols on top of their old idols!  They already have idols.  They need to encounter the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  This is what needs to be preached.

Talk about rebuilding parishes and dioceses is fine, but it really will be talking about nothing unless we are first talking about Jesus Christ.  One of the things that I enjoy about the Catholic young people whom I serve at the Newman House is that they are not attached to or particularly interested in devoting much time to talking about secondary things.  They simply want to share the joy of the Gospel.

None of this is to say that secondary things are not important.  It is just that we have to make certain that the secondary things are at the service of what is primary.  Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved!  As Catholics, we need to spend less time making idols and more time proclaiming the Gospel of Joy: the Word who has come down from Heaven, who has been made flesh, and who dwells among us.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Friends in the Upper Room

My favorite hour of the week happens every Monday night from 7:30-8:30.  Our small chapel at the Newman House is filled with thirty or so university students.  They remove all of the chairs and kneel or sit on the floor.  It is an hour when they adore Jesus in the the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  It is awesome.

They sing and then they spend time in silence.  Some pray their beads.  Some read their bibles.  Some kneel the entire time.  Some spend the whole time looking intensely at the Host.  Some stay for the full hour and some can only stay for a little while.

I stay in the back and as I look around, I am moved by the beautiful thing that is happening between these young people and Jesus.  These young men and women are really something.  Imagine how much is being shared in this moment between them and Christ!  Firstly, Christ is sharing with them His tenderness.  In the midst of all that is happening in their lives, Christ is there and is present to them.  

And what about their lives?  Imagine how much these young men and women must be sharing with Christ in these moments together.  Some are conversing with Christ about their vocation in life.  Some are certainly struggling with family issues, moral issues, the stress of academic life, relationships, and concerns about future debt and employment.  But, these struggles and questions are not the entirety of their lives.  They are also in a friendship with God.  They are there to draw closer to Him.  They are there to pour out their hearts to him.  It really is beautiful.

These young people are intelligent and capable.  They're funny and clever.  (They crack me up). They're busy and committed.  They're enjoyable and normal.  (I will deny all of this when they use these words against me).  

I am also moved by the fact that they are interested in everything else as well.  The Newman House is not some place to escape from the rest of the culture.  They are interested in everything.  They talk (perhaps "debate" is a better word) about everything: food, music, art, movies, technology, sports.  They are people who are interested in reality.  And, they are interested in the heart of all reality: God.  They're easy to love.  

The New Evangelization is always about closeness.  It began when the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  It continues in the life of the Church where its members live a friendship together.  Every Monday night, I spend an hour gathered in an upper room with some young people whom Jesus has gathered around Himself.  The New Evangelization began with closeness.  It continues that way.  Every Monday night, Jesus continues to evangelize me by returning to the upper room and gathering with his friends.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Joy of the Gospel is the New Evangelization: Go and Do Likewise

This past week, Pope Francis issued an exhortation entitled, "The Joy of the Gospel." While he calls the entire Church to a renewed sense of mission and evangelization, Pope Francis' call is not something he invented.  It is as old as the Gospel itself.  In fact, Pope Francis is calling all of us to return to the primacy of the encounter with Christ.

In the hours and days following the release of his exhortation, any number of commentators have attempted to put Pope Francis in their camp.  He is against abortion, so he's a conservative.  He criticizes economic systems that exploit the poor, so he's a liberal.  While secular commentators perhaps need some category in which to place Pope Francis, for Catholics to engage in this useless pursuit only diverts us from the path where Pope Francis is leading us.  And where is he leading us?

He is asking his brothers and sisters in the faith to return to the encounter with Christ.  It is fidelity to this encounter that brings joy and freedom to the human heart.  This fidelity to the encounter with Christ cannot firstly be something imposed by command or implemented by decree.  The New Evangelization is firstly a work of God.  It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and this personal encounter awakens in the heart of the believer a profound joy that must be shared.  

Pope Francis is calling Catholics to once again be overwhelmed by the encounter with Christ and to allow this encounter to move them to share the joy of the encounter with others.  Unfortunately, we Catholics have forgotten the primacy of this encounter.  Instead of fidelity to the encounter with Christ, we have focused on, what the pope calls, secondary aspects.  This is not to say that the secondary aspects aren't important.  But, they are not primary.  The more convinced Catholics are of the primacy of the encounter with Christ and live from that encounter,  the more convincing they can be of the secondary aspects of the Catholic life.

Pope Francis recalls that the apostles never forgot the moment when they encountered Christ.  "It was around four in the afternoon" when John and Andrew met the Lord.  It was this personal encounter with Christ that changed the lives of those two men.  It was this encounter that caused them to stay with Christ and to follow Him.  This is the method of the Christian life.  It is not an invention of Pope Francis.  Pope Francis is simply calling us to rediscover the original method.

Sometimes, we get sidetracked by those who are antagonistic toward the Church.  Instead of the conversation being about Jesus Christ, the media (with our cooperation) makes the whole story of the Church some controversial comments made by a pope, a bishop, a priest, a nun, or a layperson.  For days, everything swirls around that one statement and this becomes the face of the Church.  Sometimes, we do it to ourselves.  Instead of focusing upon the encounter with Christ and making this our primary message, we turn programs, structures, and plans into our entire message.  We try to get people excited about our latest church project or plan, but we leave Christ aside.  Had Andrew and John encountered a program or a plan that day, they may have been interested for a while, but it would not have filled their hearts with an abiding joy.  The only plans and programs worth pursuing are those that facilitate a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Those of us who are clergy and pastoral workers are particularly susceptible to an "idolatry of programs."  This happens when we allow our programs and plans to become the defining characteristic of our parishes, institutions, and dioceses.  Instead of facilitating an encounter with Christ, they can become obstacles to the encounter.  All of our efforts and energies are expended on stirring up excitement for various programs and plans and we set Christ aside for another day.  Or, we convince ourselves that once our programs are in place, then we can focus on Christ.  But, we never get there.  Soon enough, sustaining our programs, plans, and structures becomes our primary task.

Obviously, programs, plans, and structures can be helpful in facilitating the encounter with Christ, but all too often, we allow these things to substitute for the encounter with Christ.  If this is the path we choose, it will not only leave our churches empty, but it also will leave the human heart empty.  Where then shall we focus our energies?

Gazing upon Christ and listening to His Word.  Remembering and proclaiming the joyful news of the Gospel.  Loving and serving the poor.  This is Francis' proposal.  Within this simple formula there is also an inherent challenge: we must divest ourselves of whatever stands in the way.  Each of us--in our persons and in our institutions--must be willing to sacrifice whatever idols we have established that hinder others from encountering the tender gaze of Christ.

"The Joy of the Gospel" offers no small opportunity for an examination of conscience on the part of all of us.  I suspect that no honest person could read it and not find within its pages a dozen personal challenges from the pope.  Francis has a beautiful way of challenging us not in some argumentative or combative way, but of holding out to us the opportunity for something better.  Why is Francis so attractive to us?  Perhaps it is because he is a man who has encountered the gaze of Christ, who daily lives the memory of this encounter, who shares the joy of this encounter, and who loves the poor.  Additionally, he is a man who is willing to divest himself of everything that he thinks may hinder others from encountering the gaze of Christ.  We all like these things about Francis and we find them attractive.  Go and do likewise.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Few Things For Which I Am Thankful

Right about now each year, the nuns I had in grammar school would be telling us to take out a piece of construction paper and draw something to express our gratitude to God.  Having no artistic capabilities, these types of projects were always pure torture for me.  But, expressing gratitude in words is never a painful undertaking for me.  I love that I have so much for which to be grateful.  I'm sure that I will forget some things, but here is at least an attempt.  Some of these things are obvious and plain.  Some will be inscrutable.
The BU Catholic Center Men's Hike

This year, (in no particular order), I am thankful:

For the Word of God
For priests who give time to hearing confessions
For the sheep
For the gift of an iPad and for the inscription
For a family who has suffered a lot, but perseveres and loves
For an email about Charlie's theological questions
For people who write cards
For my family
That my family members all talk to each other frequently and all get along
That the Barnes' will all be on one continent soon
That my parents sent me to Catholic School
For the people who support the Catholic Center at Boston University
For the privilege of being able to assure those who suffer of the nearness of Christ
For old friends
For new friends
For those who accompany me on the Christian path

For Monday night adoration
For the Men's Hike
For Andre the Giant Reading at Mass
For Scones
For the privilege of living priesthood in the midst of the people
For young people who are witnesses to Christ
For the young people that I see every day
For the coffee room
For the flock entrusted to my care
For the friendship we live together as the Church
For the words, "Father, do you have a minute?"
For being entrusted with the interior life of people
For Prayer
For the privilege of accompanying others along the Christian path

For liking the stars at Camp Fatima
For Interns, husbands of interns, Focus Missionaries, and Agnes
For being on mission together
For parents who raise good children
For seeing God work through others

For having time to hear confessions each day
For seminarians
For vocations
For the privilege of accompanying men along the path to ordination
For a newly ordained priest
For hearing good reports about good priests

For those who visit me at the Catholic Center
For people who treat me really well
For Game One of the World Series
For the Second Row at Fenway 
That St. Paul wrote twice to St. Timothy
That the Lord stood by me
For my joy and my crown
For THE BEST party I've ever been to and for family and friends who were there
For the party and toast at St. Margaret's
For dinners
That He calls us friends
That I was pastor of the best parish in the Archdiocese of Boston
That I learned how to be a shepherd
For the Anglican Ordinariate
For Mariage and for Families
For Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, and Easter Dinners

For brother priests and for priests who are brothers
For a priest who--although a Yankees Fan--helped me
For Blessed John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis
For JP2's zealous preaching, his fortitude, and his being a pastor
For Benedict's joy, writings, humility, and liturgical style
For Francis' directness, authenticity, and the way he keeps the system (and me) on our toes
For Evangelii Gaudium
For the Encounter with Christ
For the Year of Faith
For my share in the Cross
For the joy of preaching the Gospel
For the New Evangelization
For being part of the New Evangelization before it was fashionable or safe
For lay people who witness to Christ in the world

For a good home
For the back porch and the company
For Facebook, Twitter, and texting
Sometimes for email
For Hoppy Beer and Coffee
For Finbar
For getting to spend almost all of my time with regular people

For the privilege to offer Mass and to absolve sins
For vocations to the priesthood
For Celibacy and for fatherhood
For the witness of persecuted Christians and for martyrs
For Mercy
For the Forgiveness of Sins
For people who bring joy into a room
For the example of people who know how to pray

For the house of Peter and for the house of Caiaphas
For the Pools at Bethsaida
For God's Providence
For CCC 312
For the Summa
For Saints
For Augustine, Gregory, and Chrysostom
For Grace
For Vianney, Borromeo, and Newman
For Fr. Ragheed Ganni
For the Memorare
That the New Evangelization works if we let it
For being a man who has great friends
For many other things
For Christ

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Homily Delivered for a Soldier's Funeral

I'm still on hiatus from blogging, but today is Veteran's Day and I was thinking of a Funeral Mass that I offered a few years ago for a young soldier who was killed in action.  Thank you to him and to all who have served our country in the Armed Forces.  This is the homily that I delivered at his funeral.

"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 Fortunato. 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.