Monday, March 31, 2014

Evangelization, One Blind Beggar at a Time

On Tuesday nights at the BU Catholic Center this semester we are watching Fr. Robert Barron's series on the New Evangelization and discussing it in small groups.  Last week, at the end of the evening, one of the students there mentioned how she was evangelized.  She said that a relative told her about the BU Catholic Center and so she stopped by one day.  She nervously came in and met somebody who spoke to her for over an hour. He just asked her questions about her school work, how life was going, and things like that.  She's now an active part of our Catholic community on campus.

That is a common theme at the Catholic Center.  I hear all the time things like, "I met this Junior and he invited me to the Catholic Center." That's how evangelization happens.  People experience the love of Christ through another.  The Gospels are filled with personal encounters between Jesus and individuals.  This past Sunday, we listened to the encounter between Jesus and the man born blind.  I have always loved this particular gospel because of the simplicity of the man's testimony.  Asked a hundred times to explain himself, he repeats over and over again the same story.  "Look, I was born blind.  I went to bed last night, blind.  Got up this morning, blind.  Went to my usual begging spot today, blind.  Met Jesus, not blind anymore."  His life changed because of a personal encounter with Christ.  Now, the fact is that his story did not seem to have a positive effect on too many. His lifelong neighbors are nervously saying, "Well, maybe that is him.  Or maybe it is just somebody who looks like him."  His parents are willing to back him, but only up to a point.  The religious officials are adamant that his healing is somehow an affront to God.  Instead of becoming the impetus of conversion for many, this man's healing seems only to harden the hearts of many.  But, that man's life was changed.  He was evangelized.  

On the other hand, a week ago we heard of the woman at the well who encountered Jesus.  After her personal encounter with Jesus, she went and evangelized many and many came to believe in Christ.  Is there anything that these two encounters and their varying results can teach us about evangelization?  I think there is.  Namely, evangelization is always personal and that big numbers should not be our primary concern.  St. John recorded both of these encounters even though each had vastly different responses from the crowds.  

I'm sure every priest can tell a story from his own ministry where he perhaps helped one person in a significant way and, as a result, many others surprisingly came to be members of the Church.  That's always awesome when it happens.  But, it has always taken me as a surprise.  Similarly, we probably can tell many more stories wherein we have spent enormous amounts of time evangelizing an individual and the end result was the individual's conversion, but no other crowds followed as a result.  Yet, none of us would ever think we've wasted our time.  We stand in awe at the profound movement of God in this person's life and are deeply grateful to have been an instrument.

Dioceses all over the United States are adopting strategies for evangelization and pastoral planning.  We ought to exercise an enormous amount of caution that we do not leave the personal and the human by the wayside in a rush to become successful.  What people need to discover in the Church is the love of Jesus Christ, a love that is transmitted through the gaze of another.  They need to encounter Jesus Christ personally.  Pastoral planning can often be presented like a corporate reorganization.  This type of approach can leave the laity feeling unloved and dismissed.  Instead of being an instrument of evangelization,  pastoral planning that sounds as though it is driven primarily by a corporate mentality can become an instrument of driving people away from the Church.  What are the metrics to judge whether a pastoral plan is succeeding?  One good metric might be to ask, "Is this plan helping people to encounter Jesus Christ in a more personal way and to be moved by his love?"  While pastoral planning may indeed have to take into account many practical and difficult realities, we shouldn't allow those concerns to override that of helping people to encounter the love of Jesus Christ.

What is the solution?  I think it is fidelity to the model of Jesus Christ.  He saw a man born blind, approached him, touched him, and healed him.  He saw a woman at a well and he began a dialogue with her.  Who in the world would ever propose these as efficient models for evangelization?  Why waste time with some blind beggar and a Samaritan woman?  Couldn't there have been a more efficient use of Jesus' valuable time?  And yet, this is our Lord's model.  The corporate model can sometimes make us blind to the woman at the well and the man born blind.  They can make us blind to the people and to their needs, and this blindness can spell disaster for true evangelization.

One of the great joys of serving at the BU Catholic Center is that I get to spend so much time with my congregation.  From morning until night, I get to be with them.  It is a beautiful gift to be able to live priesthood in their midst.  We are together in prayer, in conversation, at meals, and in a thousand other ways.  It is in being together that we are evangelized.  It is in being together that we encounter the personal love of Jesus Christ.  This being together in Christ is for me the joy of the Gospel.

One of the things I notice about the young men and women at the BU Catholic Center is how attentive they are to new people and how welcoming they are.  (I have to admit that they often do a much better job at noticing and reaching out to others than I do.)  When they reach out to others, invite others, and welcome others, they do so not like salespeople trying to build up membership in the Catholic Center, but rather as men and women who love the person in front of them.  This is truly attractive.  The person in front of them knows that they are loved.  This is evangelization.  It happens one blind beggar at a time, one woman at the well at a time, and one freshman visitor at a time.

Evangelization, it has to be personal.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lust, Pornography, Masturbation, and the Fellowship of the Ring

At 10:30 every Sunday morning in the BU Catholic Center, a group of around twenty men gather for prayer, friendship, and discussion.  The theme this semester is "The Lord of the Rings."  It is not a literary discussion, nor is it a film discussion group.  The presentations--given by the young men themselves--are about how to grow in virtue and to be good Catholic men.  

It is edifying for me to witness the seriousness of these young men and their sincere desire to be good and holy men.  Today's topic was on chastity, pornography, and masturbation.  Statistics show that 70% of men ages 18-24 visit porn sites each month, so it is absurd to act as though this issue is not affecting the men in our congregations--whether they be in parishes or in college campus ministry programs.  

Today's presentations approached the topic in a twofold way.  Firstly, there was a discussion about the science behind pornography use in terms of how it affects the brains of those who use it and how it creates an addiction.  Secondly, there was a discussion about the spiritual battles involved with chastity and how to live a chaste life.  

It is kind of awesome to witness young men who want to fight the battle and who are not afraid to talk about these topics.  Sadly, we've done a pretty big disservice to young--and not so young--people in this regard.  We avoid discussing these topics because they are embarrassing and uncomfortable.  Instead, we send our kids off to their rooms with their laptops in hand and close our eyes and shrug.  Yet, we know that two out of every three divorces lists pornography as one of the contributing factors to the failure of the marriage.  In other words, we are setting young people up for failure.  Additionally, pornography seriously degrades others.  

It's an interesting thing that in a world where we are more saturated than ever with opportunities to view pornography, there is less talk on the part of Catholics about growing in virtue and fighting temptation.  In fact, just the opposite often happens.  In the parish where I was once assigned, there was an all boys Catholic high school nearby.  On three occasions, I heard someone give a talk at the school dismissing the seriousness of masturbation and making a joke out of it.  Talk about missed opportunities.

But today, I witnessed something inspiring.  I listened to a mature discussion of these matters.  These guys are all brothers--a Fellowship of the Ring, so to speak--who are willing to meet the enemy head on and engage in battle together.  Relying on each other and--most importantly--God's grace, they want to fight against temptation and be men with pure hearts.  This is so awesome.  

By never discussing these things, we allow them to enslave either ourselves or our brothers.  Lust is something that has been attacking man since the Original Fall.  When we talk about it together, pray about it together, and develop strategies about it together, we become more likely to conquer and to be victorious.  Lust, pornography, and masturbation lose their hold over men when men have an opportunity to discuss these things maturely, pray about them, and--most importantly--rely upon the power of the Sacraments.  When we don't talk about them directly, maturely, and forthrightly, we are basically depriving our sons and brothers of hope.  When, on the other hand, we openly and appropriately discuss these topics, we are able to grow in hope of victory because we know that we are not alone in the battle.

I have no doubt that every man who attended that Men's Group this morning, left the conversation with a renewed desire to be more chaste and to fight the good fight.  This is the value of true Catholic Fraternity.

(There is a good website that discusses this topic in some good detail.  It is )

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Friday, March 28, 2014

This Year for Lent, I Lit the Beacon of Gondor

One of my favorite scenes in the film "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is the lighting of the beacons scene.  Although the film takes some creative liberties and departs a bit from the actual text, the scene is really brilliant.  The beacons of Gondor were an alarm system whereby if an enemy attacked, the beacons would be lighted as a distress signal.  This alarm system allowed Gondor to call for help when Gondor was about to fall.  You can check out the scene by clicking below.

This year for Lent, I've tried to deepen my own prayer life by spending more time in Eucharistic Adoration.  When I think of all of the ways that I need to grow in holiness, the virtues I need to deepen, and the vices I need to uproot, nothing seems more helpful towards achieving those ends than in spending more time in the presence of the Lord.  But, I am weak, lazy, and easily distracted.  Lenten resolves often devolve into Lenten regrets!  But this year, these hours of adoration have been steady, strong, and fruitful.  

One of the reasons Lent has been so good for me this year is because I lit the beacon.   How so?  I've invited others to share my Holy Hours with me.  In the film, you see one beacon after another being lit all along a mountain range.  These beacons must have been a source of consolation.  It indicated that "You are not alone.  Help is on the way!"  Similarly, each time one of the students or staff of the Boston University Catholic Center arrives into the Holy Hour with me--whether they stay for the full hour or for five minutes--they are like a beacon of encouragement.  Being together in prayer each day has been a great source of strength and joy.  Their presence reminds me that we are in this together.

I've never much cared for a model of priesthood that turns the priest into a "professional spiritual care provider."  I much prefer the model proposed by Pope Francis--the priest in front of the sheep, leading; in the midst of the sheep, living it together; and behind the sheep, encouraging the stragglers.  The places where I am assigned to serve as a priest are also the places where I am called to be sanctified.  These persons--whether they be twice as old as me or half my age--are the people who help me to grow in holiness.  I hope that by living my life in front of them, it encourages them as much as witnessing their example encourages me. 

Spending time with the Eucharistic Lord has helped make this Lent (so far) a beautiful one.  Showing up for prayer, not dozing off (much!) or being too distracted during prayer, and making this time of prayer fruitful has been greatly assisted by doing it in the company of others.  The example of these young people has kept me strong and made me hopeful.  Their presence at prayer has been a beacon of light and of warmth for me.  Living Lent in their companionship is a beautiful grace.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Another Thing I Love About Priesthood: Sunday

Mass at Boston University
This morning at the Boston University Catholic Center, seventeen men gathered for Men's Group and listened to a presentation by one of the students.  The topic was on friendship and the talk was based upon friendship as it is found in the Lord of the Rings.  It is inspiring to see this many young men on a college campus up on a Sunday morning and discussing serious things.  Well, mostly serious things.

After the 12:30 Mass, a group of students went for lunch together.  They are living Christian friendship together.  They are helping each other (and me) to grow in holiness.  It's beautiful to be a part of it.

Later in the afternoon, a few of us had a Holy Hour of Adoration together.  My Holy Hour ended a little bit early because one of the interns here had to remind me that the Mass was at 6:00pm and not 6:30pm.  So, at 5:56, I made haste to the chapel up the road where we have Sunday Mass.

At that Mass, filled with students, we prayed especially for two young women who will be baptized here at the Easter Vigil.  We went through the First Scrutiny and prayed for them.  After Mass, the RCIA team, the catechumens, the candidates for reception into the Catholic Church, and I had a delicious dinner together.  

And now, I am sitting here getting ready to go and offer the 10:00pm Mass.

In the Gospel today, St. John the Evangelist recounts for us the encounter that Jesus had with the woman at the well.  In that Gospel, St. John tells us that the encounter took place around Noon and that after the encounter, the woman went to the town and told others about the man whom she had met; the One who had changed her life.

The things that I just listed above are not particularly exciting to anyone.  But, they are merely my testimony to an encounter.  I encountered Christ today in specific places and times.  At the 10:40am Men's Group, outside the 12:30pm Mass when a woman who is suffering came to see me, at 1:30pm in the dining hall while discussing all sorts of crazy things, at 5pm in the adoration chapel while praying with some friends, at 6:00pm Mass with the catechumens, and at dinner with all of the RCIA people.  And, I'm sure I will encounter him again at 10:00pm Mass.

Evangelization is to encounter Christ and to share the joy of that encounter.  So, that's all I'm trying to do here.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

To My Friends: Don't Allow the Devil to Devour You

There have been times in my life as a priest where I've felt like the power of evil is being unleashed against a particular good.  For instance, maybe in the course of just a few days, numerous parishioners come to me and confide that their marriages are under a sudden and enormous strain.  In these instances--when it all happens at once--I have sensed that something truly evil was at work.

Recently, something similar has been occurring.  During the past few weeks, I have encountered a variety of persons--various situations and circumstances--who have felt deeply wounded by the Catholic Church.  In various ways, they have all expressed a sense that they have felt dismissed by the Church or betrayed and wounded by the Church.  Of course, being mere mortals with wounded human nature, for as long as we march through this valley of tears, even in the Church we will experience the burdens and tribulations of fallen humanity.  But, there is something more at work here, I fear.

I want to offer a word to those who are in the midst of such trials.  Do not allow the Devil to undermine your Faith in what is true, good, and beautiful.  I really think that he is employing all sorts of methods to destroy those things that he most hates.  He is trying to destroy the communion of the Church.  He is trying to destroy the relationship between priests and people, bishops and priests, and bishops and people.  He is seeking to destroy people's love for the Church.  He is using these things to discourage people from living out their faith.  

So, my advice is this: Let's say that you're right.  Let's say, (for the sake of making it as bad as possible), the people who have hurt you did so intentionally and with malice or did so from ineptitude and arrogance.  Either of those things would be pretty bad.  But, even if that were true, don't allow the Devil to use those things to rob you of the Truth.  The Church is still the spotless Bride of Christ.  The Priesthood is still a Sacrament instituted by Christ that is ordered toward the salvation of souls.  The communion of the Church is still a good that deserves zealous protection.  

I've been a priest for almost seventeen years.  I'm sure along the way, I've said or done things that have left people angry with the Church. Boy, do I regret that.  If I could tell them anything, I'd say, "Don't let the Devil use my arrogance and stupidity to shake your Faith in the Church."  

The very first Pope, St. Peter, wrote these words: "Be sober and vigilant.  Your opponent the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings.  The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ Jesus will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little" (1 Peter 5:8-10).  

In battle, sometimes an enemy will first launch a diversionary strike in order to draw attention away from the real attack.  I suspect that something similar is happening in many of the situations that I mention above.  The Devil is using diversionary strikes in order to distract people from his real strategy.  His real strategy is to undermine people's faith in the most central realities.  Don't fall for it. Instead, do the opposite.  Love the Church more.  Love the priesthood more.  Love the communion of the Church more.  Don't let him devour you.

Friday, March 21, 2014

One of the Best Parts of Being a Priest: The People

When I heard that today was World Down Syndrome Day, Michael came immediately to mind.  When I was a pastor, there was a young man in my parish (pictured above with me) who served Mass each Sunday.  Michael is really something else.  Besides being a great Altar Server, Michael is a joyful and responsible young man.  He is an inspiration to so many people and, wherever he goes, Michael brings joy with him.  A few years ago, the parish honored Michael for all of his accomplishments.  Everyone who was in the room that night was moved to tears.  We all had a sense that this is what a parish is all about.

Because he has difficulty swallowing the host, Michael once asked me, "Can I take the wine?"  I cocked my head and with a smile said, "Is it wine?"  Michael smiled too and said, "No.  It's the Blood of Christ."  Each week, it was my privilege and joy to share the chalice with Michael. 

It is such a great honor as a priest to meet and to know people as loving and joyful as Michael.  Evangelization is about witnessing to the power of Jesus Christ.  Michael is such a witness to me and to many others.  I'm often asked what do I most enjoy about being a priest.  There are many answers to that question.  But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Evangelization: The Plan Should Follow the Evidence

Bureaucratic changes have the power to excite some people.  They excite bureaucrats.  A new parish phone system, a new email list,  or a new organizational chart will undoubtedly give the few persons who utilize those things a sense of accomplishment.  And, we've all been there.  A friend of mine once said that the way to tell how many superiors a particular religious house has had is to scrape the walls and see how many layers of paint are on them because every superior comes in and paints the walls.  It gives us a sense of accomplishment.  And, new systems and organizational stuff may indeed be necessary and helpful.  But, I think we shouldn't waste a lot of energy trying to get people excited about such things.  People work for companies who have better phone and computer systems.  They don't really care all that much about the parish phone system or the diocesan organizational chart.  Again, they may be great things, but nobody is going to martyr themselves for an organizational chart.

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page, "I hate the New Evangelization."  At first, I was kind of shocked by that statement, but it only took me a few seconds to understand what she was talking about.  Too often, we conflate the New Evangelization with pastoral planning.  While the two may be related, they are not the same thing.  When we expend tons of energy trying to get people excited about something that is really kind of mundane, "organizational charts, new job titles, and telephone systems," we make the Church sound kind of flat and boring.  Oftentimes, pastoral planning involves changing staff and schedules.  Trying to make these things exciting to the average parishioner is a bit like telling somebody that they have to move out of their home, but that the new home will have state of the art appliances.  While the new appliances are nice, trying to excite people over that seems like wasted energy.  Similarly, when we equate structural and bureaucratic alterations with the New Evangelization, it doesn't help to sell the alterations.  It only serves to undercut the New Evangelization.

Can structural changes, technological adaptations, and bureaucratic alterations assist the New Evangelization?  Of course.  But, the only people who get really excited about a new phone system are the five or six people who use the new phone system.  So, I think we ought to avoid talking about these things as though they were cutting edge evangelization.  Instead, we ought to talk about Jesus.  The New Evangelization is about encountering Jesus Christ and witnessing to that encounter.  This ought to be our focal point.  Evangelization is about the preaching of the Gospel.  Does that sound trite?  I suppose it does.  But, this is what has been missing from so much of parish and diocesan life. The great need today in the life of the Church is not a new organizational chart.  What's needed is a new zeal to preach Jesus Christ.

I think this is what Pope Francis meant when he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, "There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective."  In the life of the Church, the Gospel must be at the foundation of everything.  There is a temptation to rely upon everything but the Gospel.  We live in a hope that if we fix all of the structural issues, suddenly the Church will be alive. This is the temptation of the Tower of Babel.  

I recently read an article about a diocese that is beginning a new pastoral plan.  As a first step, the bishop asked all Catholics to enshrine an image of the Sacred Heart in their home.  When I read that, I thought, "This is evangelization!"  At the heart of their pastoral plan is the Heart of Jesus.  We definitely need to reform structures on diocesan and parish levels, but this reformation cannot be merely cosmetic nor can it be ideologically driven.  It has to begin with the Heart of Christ and pour out into the lives of bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity.  

One of the most critical structural issues that hampers evangelization is an entrenched ideological resistance to the shape the New Evangelization has taken.  How so?  There are religious orders that are flourishing, but cannot get a step into the door in some dioceses because of ideological resistance.  Eucharistic Adoration attracts young people and is often the source of vocations.  Yet, places that provide significant opportunities for adoration are often met with institutional opposition.  Although the Charismatic Renewal, the New Movements, and Traditional Latin Mass communities are drawing people into the life of the Church, they are often treated poorly and with suspicion by those who exercise authority.  Instead of looking around at what is working and then encouraging it, there can be a structural resistance put in place that seeks to thwart the New Evangelization.  

Not every movement or way of praying is going to be perfect, nor
are they going to be equally attractive to everybody.  But, all of us have to be careful not to allow our own preferences to become an obstacle to true evangelization.  There can be a temptation to oppose growth in the Church if that growth does not arise from my own ideological predispositions.  Not every parish will be the right fit for LifeTeen.  Not every parish will be the right fit for the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, or Communion and Liberation.  Not every parish is the same.  But, there can be an institutional animus towards legitimate forms of new life in the Church.  Sometimes in the life of the Church, enthusiastic groups can come across as presenting themselves as the only legitimate option.  While this needs gentle correction, the answer is not to suffocate these groups.  The answer is to allow diverse paths of Christian discipleship to flourish in the life of the Church.  Pastors and pastoral planners ought to be committed to encouraging those who are on the path of discipleship.

The New Evangelization actually seems to be in a very fragile position right now.  A significant threat to the New Evangelization is reducing it to a corporate reorganization.  While reorganization might be the right thing to do, very few people are ever going to be excited about it.  The New Evangelization has to be about people meeting Jesus Christ and being transformed by that encounter.  The structures of the Church ought to be encouraging those places where the New Evangelization is actually occurring.  When our focus is too much on organizational matters, we run the risk of attempting to turn parishes and Catholic institutions into branch offices of the corporation--every parish being the same.  This is deadly for evangelization.

The heart of our evangelization efforts has to be a renewed zeal for Christ and His Gospel.  The institutional changes have to flow from this and not the other way around.  Whatever institutional alterations are made, they must be at the service of the encounter with Christ.  Where are people meeting Christ today?  Where are priestly and religious vocations flourishing?  Where are people praying, supporting the missions, and serving the poor?  Where are people worshipping God, studying the Word of God, and evangelizing?  Wherever there is a legitimate and faithful expression of Catholic life, the institution ought to support these places, encourage them, and build upon them.  

Instead of making evangelization fit into our plans, we ought to build our plans around evangelization.  We don't need to invent evangelization.  We just need to acknowledge where it is happening and follow its lead.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Hardest Words in the Entire Gospel

"Real love is demanding.  I would fail in my mission if I did not clearly tell you so.  For it was Jesus--our Jesus himself--who said, 'You are my friends if you do what I command you' (JN 15:14).  Love demands effort and a personal commitment to the will of God.  It means discipline and sacrifice, but it also means joy and human fulfillment."  

The words above were spoken by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Boston in 1979.  It is a homily to which I often make reference.  In some way or another, though too young to understand it at the time, the homily (and the Gospel of the Rich Young Man upon which the homily was based) has served as a foundational moment of my own Christian life.

"Real love is demanding."  I suppose one of the things that I loved and admired about John Paul II was that he was unafraid to preach the demands of the Gospel.  In front of the youth of America, John Paul II didn't attempt to make the Gospel more palatable by watering it down.  John Paul II trusted that the words of the Gospel have power to move and to save.  He proposed to young people the option for Christ and his way of life.  But, he didn't want to pull a fast one.  He didn't want to offer something that was a little less demanding--a little less total--in the hopes that he'd get a better response.  He put in front of the youth of America the same option that was placed before the young man in the Gospel.  "Give everything and follow Christ."

Although the pages of the Gospel are filled with difficult challenges, none are more so than the words found in the Fifth Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew.  "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."  These must be the most demanding words of the entire Gospel.  These words never seemed particularly challenging to me because I've never really had the experience of having enemies.  In parish life, although there were disagreements about certain  projects or ideas, I never had the experience of thinking those who disagreed with me were my enemies.  We were in communion of mind and heart despite whatever disagreements came along the way.  So, the idea of having an enemy has always been a theoretical possibility to me and not an experiential reality.  In a way, I was kind of off the hook when it came to loving and praying for enemies because I never considered myself to have any.  

Somewhere along the way, however, I apparently made an enemy or two.  And now, the words of Matthew Five are no longer a theoretical "just in case this ever happens" instruction, but a real confrontation with the demands of Christ.  When somebody attacks us in a deliberate and vicious manner, it is not our natural inclination to love and to pray for him.  But then, in front of us stands Jesus and he is saying, "But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Since becoming Pope, Francis has talked a lot about mercy and the forgiveness of enemies.  Something tells me that all of his talk on this topic is not theoretical, but has arisen out of some profoundly painful experience in his own life.  The way he speaks about mercy and forgiveness suggests to me that he's had enemies along the way and has fought the good fight of loving and praying for them.
In this way, I see something similar between the preaching of John Paul II and Francis.  Each, in his own way, is saying, "Real love is demanding."  

I've discovered that following the program of the Pope doesn't necessarily bring with it a lot of benefits!  When young priests began teaching and preaching on the Magisterium of John Paul II, they were met with immediate suspicion.  When priests obeyed Pope Benedict and sought to follow his lead on the Sacred Liturgy, they were opposed.  The New Evangelization comes with a cost.

Having encountered the Cross that comes from preaching the Gospel and from following the lead of the popes, I have stumbled right into this "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," line.  In front of this passage, and in front of a new pope who is constantly speaking about the need to love our enemies, there arises a great temptation to take the path of those who are enemies of the Cross--to find a loophole, to water down the demand, to find a justification for not obeying it.  In front of these words of Christ, there arises a profound question, "Do I really have Faith?"  Loving our enemies and praying for them brings no immediate and satisfactory resolution to our desire for justice.  It is to say, "I'm doing this Lord only because you have commanded me to do it."  It is similar to the situation of the Rich Young Man.  Christ gave him a command: "Trust me, leave everything, and follow me."  

Most of the students here at the University have gone away this week for Spring Break.  Each day during break, I've come to chapel and have had Mass and a Holy Hour with a couple of the students.  As I look at these young people and their witness to Christ at work in their life, I am encouraged to follow Christ.  I need witnesses in my life who show me that Christ is true and that his words are trustworthy.  Simply seeing these young people pray is a source of encouragement to me.

In living Lent this year, I find myself--like the Rich Young Man--kneeling before Christ with his gaze upon me.  And I can clearly hear the great voice of John Paul II: "Real love is demanding."  

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Living Lent Together as Smelly Sheep and Smelly Shepherds

During a Lent several years ago, I was at the home of some friends of mine and one of their daughters--who was eight years old--had given up candy for Lent.  Earlier in the day, she had attended a birthday party and the hosts had given each child a large bag containing a treasury of different candies.  When I arrived at the home, agony was written all over the child's face.  She desperately wanted just one piece of that candy.  

After dinner, I looked over from where I was sitting and could see the young girl in the living room.  She was kneeling in front of a chair, holding a package of "Smarties" in her hand.  As tears quietly dropped from her face, she slowly twisted open the ends of the package, and just as slowly sealed them
back up.  I remembered thinking at the time that it looked like that picture you always see of Jesus during the Agony in the Garden.  To my amazement, the little girl held strong.  I think I would have caved.  I don't mean I would have caved when I was eight years old.  I mean that I think I would have caved now.  What can I say?  I'm weak.

The example of the eight year old girl has remained with me for close to a decade.  Witnessing others strive for holiness is, for me, a vital part of living the Christian life.  I need witnesses in my life.  I need to be surrounded by people who strive for holiness.  I don't need them to be perfect or to be free from weakness.  I just need to have around me people who are engaged in the battle; people who are growing in virtue.

As a man, a Christian, and a priest, I am continuously grateful that I am able to spend my life witnessing others live the life of discipleship.  This witness spurs me on toward victory.  It is for me a joy to spend my life close to the people.  It is in this closeness that the presence of Christ makes itself visible to us.  For me, while being close to the people is a "ministerial approach," it is much more than that.  Being close to the people is a human, Christian, and priestly necessity.  Pope Francis remarked some months ago about the shepherd needing to take on the smell of the sheep.  The other side of that is that when the shepherd lives closely to the sheep, the sheep come to know the shepherd.  It is important for the shepherd to be close to the sheep so that he knows them.  It is equally important that the shepherd be known by the sheep.  I think we priests make a significant mistake in pastoral judgment when we live remotely from the people.  It is good for the people to know that we too are in need of conversion, that we too are seeking to grow in virtue and in holiness, and that we too need the communion of the Church.  It is of mutual benefit for priests and people to live their humanity with each other.

Today, we are standing at the threshold of another Lent.  I'm grateful that I will be living this joyful season in closeness to the young witnesses at the Boston University Catholic Center.  They are young people who are daily striving to become more prayerful, more pure, more charitable, more faithful, more generous, more virtuous etc.  They hunger to be closer to Jesus and to become more like Him.  Their striving towards holiness and virtue is edifying, challenging, and encouraging to me.  They live their Christian witness with a beautiful humility, seeking from God the grace to overcome faults and to persevere along the path.  

Like the eight year old and her candy, these young college students are a witness to their shepherd.  When the shepherd smells like the sheep, it is good for the sheep.  But it is also good for the shepherd.  One of the reasons that I am looking forward to Lent this year is because I know that I will be spending it close to some pretty awesome (albeit, smelly) sheep.  I hope that these close quarters not only produce a deeper communion in our smelliness, but that we all emerge from Lent looking more like the Good Shepherd.  We are in this together and I'm looking forward to that.