Friday, May 30, 2014

On Being a Newman Center Priest: Yeah, I Kind of Love Them

On Friday's during the summer, the Catholic Center at Boston University is closed and there is no scheduled Mass. But, if I'm around, I will post a Facebook message asking if anyone is around and wants to come to Mass.  Today, three students took me up on that offer.  It was a quiet Mass, just four of us worshipping God together.

For me, that's a beautiful gift.  Of course, the Mass is always a gift.  But, the fact that three young men saw a Facebook announcement and a couple of hours later showed up for Mass is really something beautiful to me.  It was a great Catholic moment. (And Louis even pronounced most of the words of the First Reading correctly.)  The Mass was subdued and beautiful.  

As I offered the Mass today, I thought of how blessed I am to have witnesses like these young people.  Their example really encourages me and makes me desire to be a holier man and priest.  And yeah, I kind of love them.  In our "upper room" at the Catholic Center, I once again became convinced of Christ.  I once again became convinced that what really brought me to this community is God. God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20).

So often, people talk about how much somebody has to give up in order to be a priest.  All I can say, is that nothing I've ever given up compares to the love that has been poured into my heart for the people entrusted to my pastoral care.  This love is a gift from God.  It's really awesome.

I write all of this well aware that what I've written will relentlessly be used against me in perpetuity by my flock.  That's okay. I still love them.  

Pastoral Planning: Shepherds, Not Cowboys

In clerical circles, one of the more often quoted phrases of Pope Francis comes from a homily wherein he told priests that they ought to live so closely to their people that they "take on the smell of the sheep."  What Francis says in his typical colloquial manner is not all that different, in style or in substance, from Jesus' own words when he said, "I know my sheep and mine know me."  This knowledge is not something peripheral or extrinsic.  It is an intimate knowledge.  The shepherd knows his sheep.  He knows their weaknesses, their peculiarities, their habits, the manner in which they interact, their needs, their imperfections, and he loves them.  He lays down his life for them.  This type of intimate knowledge does not come from reading a book, issuing a study, or performing a survey.  It does not arise from collecting data.  One can do a statistical survey about the flock but not really know the flock.  In order to know the flock--to know the sheep--the shepherd has to dwell among them.

Without this type of intimate knowledge, pastoring is reduced to managing.  Jesus did not identify himself as the "Good Manager."  He said, "I am the Good Shepherd."  The priest--and bishop--is called to make the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd visible in the midst of the flock.  Among the potential pitfalls of comprehensive, large-scale, diocesan-wide pastoral planning is that of leaving people feeling managed rather than shepherded and leaving pastors feeling like project managers rather than shepherds.  Large-scale planning can come across as bureaucratic rather than pastoral.  It can make people feel as though decisions about their life are made from data studied by experts, remote from their experience, rather than by shepherds close to their experience.  If this is not guarded against, it will have a long-term negative effect upon the Church and upon vocations to the priesthood.  

I do not have a solution for how to do comprehensive, large scale pastoral planning.  I am certain that it involves more complexities than I can possibly comprehend.  Perhaps a standard to which those responsible for making such large-scale decisions might hold themselves to is this: "Do I know these sheep?  Am I so close to them that I smell like them?"  If the answer to this question is, "yes," then the sheep will know that those who are making decisions about their life are shepherding them, not managing them.  If the answer is, "No," then things need to slow down until those involved with pastoral planning have some stink on them.  

There is something mutual involved in pastoral planning.  "My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me."  There is a beautiful promise contained within these words of our Lord.  The sheep will follow.  Sometimes, when it comes to pastoral planning, the onus seems entirely placed upon the sheep.  "Here's the plan and they should follow."  But, our Lord's words can be seen another way.  He says, "I know them and they follow me."  When the sheep feel that they are known (and loved) then they will follow--even when it is difficult.  Sure, sometimes some sheep need a little prodding, but even this--in the context of a true pastoral relationship--is seen by the sheep as shepherding, not managing.

When we speak of "pastoral planning," the "pastoral" has to precede the "planning."  Pope Francis reminds us that to be pastoral, the shepherds must be among the people, close to them, and even smell like them.  Any pastor will tell you that such closeness takes time.  But, pastoral patience is worth it.  To expect priests to make major pastoral shifts quickly without knowing the sheep is to damage the pastoral relationship.  It puts pastors in a very difficult and unenviable position.  For pastoral planners to make large-scale shifts without first having a closeness to the people, risks alienating parishioners from the larger Church. 

Again, I'm not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I think people in parishes need to feel a greater closeness with the people on the diocesan level who are running pastoral planning.  They need to hear the voice of the shepherd in them so that they can trust and follow.  But those responsible for the large-scale pastoral plan also need the benefit of knowing the sheep.  Without this knowledge, it is impossible to shepherd them.  Without this familiarity and closeness, we risk people feeling that their relationship with the diocese is one that is reduced to management.

To put an image on it, pastoral planning should be like shepherds walking in the midst of the sheep, leading them peacefully along.  It should not be like cowboys driving a herd of cows!  Many--both pastors and parishioners--feel a bit like pastoral planning has adopted the frantic and chaotic model of cowboys driving the herd, rather than the calm and determined demeanor of shepherds guiding the flock.  Evangelization that is not rooted and centered in the experience of feeding in green pastures, simply becomes enthusiastic activism.  It will fizzle.

Large-scale projects can tend to take on a life of their own.  That's natural.  Jesus knew this.  This is why he spoke of leaving the ninety-nine in order to search for the one.  A good manager stays with the ninety-nine.  A good shepherd goes in search of the one.  As we continue upon the path of pastoral planning, I think we need to improve the relationship between parishioners and those on the diocesan level who make decisions.  Parishioners need to know that this is about shepherding and not about managing.  And, I think that people in the parishes can take consolation that very, very few priests became priests so that they could be cowboys.  They became priests so that they could be shepherds.  When the dust from the rodeo settles, the people in parishes can take consolation that in the person of their pastor, Christ the Good Shepherd is in their midst.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

When Discouraged By The Church Or By Our Sins, Look Up and Hope

Icon of Christ the High Priest
We've all experienced, at one time or another, the spread of some particular cold or stomach ailment.  People will say, "Well, it started with a scratchy throat and then two days later I started to cough."  That's when others will say, "Oh no.  That's what I had!  It's going to get worse!"  Soon enough and everybody is talking about (or suffering with) this ailment.

In my life as a priest, I've sometimes noticed something similar in the spiritual life.  In the course of pastoral work, I will hear amazingly similar things from a variety of people all within the same time period.  It's like they are all experiencing the same spiritual virus.  One such spiritual virus going around is discouragement, and I want to propose today's Feast of the Ascension as the remedy.

Discouragement is deadly.  Firstly, we can become discouraged by our own weaknesses.  Our humanity--our flesh--is prone to fall.  The person who struggles with the same sins over and over again can be tempted towards discouragement.  In this instance, discouragement can lead to giving up on prayer, giving up trying to fight, throwing oneself more and more into sin, and even outright rebellion against God and his commandments.  It leads to an interior sadness.

Another type of discouragement comes from experiencing the weaknesses of others, particularly in the Church.  I think this type of discouragement produces alienation, anger, separation from the sacraments, alienation between ecclesiastical authorities and laity, and rancor.  It also leads to sadness.

In recent months, I've encountered a good number of folks--lay and clergy--who feel discouraged by the Church.  Just as in the first type of discouragement people tend to give up on themselves, in the second type people tend to give up on the Church.  They see the weaknesses of others or the weaknesses of various structures, and they give up practicing the Faith, receiving the Sacraments, and loving the Church.  Giving up on our flesh and giving up on the flesh of others is not the answer.

If that were the answer, God would have saved us by taking away our flesh!  Instead, he became flesh.  Today, the Feast of the Ascension, we celebrate the fact that Jesus redeems our flesh.  One of my favorite hymns is, "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus."  In the final verse we sing, "Thou within the veil hast entered; Robed in Flesh our great high priest!"  That's awesome!  Just like a priest dons special vestments in order to enter the sanctuary, so Jesus--who is the One High Priest--robes himself in our humanity.  He doesn't take away our flesh.  Instead, he brings our weak human nature into the sanctuary of the Eternal God!  In doing so, he gives us hope.  The Feast of the Ascension is a feast of hope.

The problems that confront each one of us in our own flesh and the problems that we encounter in the weaknesses of others are not simply to be looked over or ignored.  We should be diligent in growing in personal holiness and in calling forth the best from our brothers and sisters.  But, our weaknesses and the weaknesses of others should never--NEVER--never cause us to become discouraged.  How do we keep from discouragement?

We have to keep Jesus at the center of everything.  We have to remember Him first.  He--the eternal Son of God--became flesh.  He took on our human nature.  He stands in heaven in that human nature. He is there in the flesh; our flesh.  When we see our weak human nature, when we see the weak human nature of others, let's remember that Jesus Christ stands--wounds still present--before the Father.  Where he--in his human flesh--has gone, we have every hope to follow.

If I were to guess, one of the most common pieces of counsel that I give to people is, "Don't get discouraged."  Discouragement is to surrender to the Evil One.

If you are overwhelmed by your sins, don't be discouraged.  If you feel like no matter what you do to be holy, you fail, don't be discouraged.  If you feel like people in the Church have harmed you, ignored you, maltreated you, been oblivious to your needs, or are just way off course, don't be discouraged. Instead, look up. Look up and see Jesus standing at the Altar in Heaven.  He stands there with our humanity.  He stands there and intercedes for us in the flesh. Whatever weaknesses of the flesh that we encounter today--be they our own or those of others--we must always see them in the light of the Ascension.  The Ascension does not immediately take away the weakness of our humanity.  But, if we continually make acts of Faith in the Ascension, then these weaknesses can never defeat us.  Discouragement is a deadly disease.  The Ascension is a life-giving cure.

"Jesus, I firmly believe that you ascended into heaven, bringing with you our frail human nature.  Whenever I encounter my weaknesses or the weaknesses of others, let me not become discouraged.  Instead, let me hope in you.  By Faith in your ascension, increase in me a firm Hope that I too will someday--despite all of my weaknesses--be with you in Heaven.  May I always live as a member of your Body, the Church.  Amen."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Priest, An Atheist, and An IPA

The Wedding Feast at Cana
I admit that I like a good IPA.  When it comes to beer, there's nothing quite like the citrusy bitterness of a good IPA.  But, this is not a beer blog.  It is a Catholic blog.  But, the great thing about being Catholic is that beer is not antithetical to the Catholic life.  

Tonight, after supper at the rectory, I walked down to one of the local pubs for a good IPA.  As it happens, I struck up a conversation with two of the people sitting beside me.  We talked about various breweries and their IPA's.  Eventually, the guy sitting next to me asked, "So, what do you do for work?"  Ah, that's the question.  Admittedly, I took a moment's pause before giving the answer.  "I'm a priest."

He nodded and asked, "Any specific religion?" That cracked me up.  I've lived most of my life in places where people presumed that "priest" meant Catholic.  But for this fellow, I could have been anything.  So, I told him that I was Catholic.  There began a most wonderful conversation.  He told me that he had been raised atheist.  That made me laugh.  I told him that I meant no disrespect, but that usually I was told by someone that they were "raised Catholic and became Atheist."  It was unusual for me to hear that someone was raised atheist.

For the next hour or so, we had a wonderful discussion.  He's an academic and studies questions of human psychology and morality.  His opinions, questions, and knowledge were really interesting to me.  He shared with me his experience of working among those in the scientific community, their opinions on religion and the Catholic Church, and their (very favorable) opinions about Pope Francis.

I found the whole discussion educative.  More than that, I found in front of me a human being; a man who was interested in life, the meaning of life, and the profound questions that are asked by every human being.  I felt privileged to be engaged in this conversation.  This man who lives life from an atheistic perspective and who desires to understand humanity and the meaning of life, had something to teach me.  He wasn't a believer in Jesus Christ at the end of our conversation. And, you will be pleased to know that I am not an atheist now!  

But, this conversation was very beautiful for me.  I was really struck by the way in which he did not see religion as the enemy to the human.  He articulated ways in which his own experience shows that religiosity is important to the human person.  His atheism was not--if this makes sense--anti-religious. In the same way, I hope that I articulated my appreciation for his scientific knowledge.  For me, his scientific knowledge in no way gave me pause about the Catholic Faith. But, it educated me and made me desire to deepen my faith and to grow in my humanity.  This guy's life is not dedicated to destroying the "religious." It is about building up the human.  He was not attempting to impose his atheism on me.  I was not attempting to impose my Catholicism on him.  We were both attempting, I think, to understand the human person and to become more human ourselves.

Encounters like this are very beautiful in my life.  I feel like they break down the barriers which exist between persons.  We were not two ideologues attempting to outperform each other in a debate.  Instead, we were two men seeking to deepen our relationship with the Truth.  All of us have room to grow in the truth.  All of us can learn something.  Some would dismiss a Catholic believer and priest as some purely superstitious and uneducated dolt who seeks to oppress the masses.  And many believers would dismiss an atheist scientist as the personification of evil.  

But there we were, two men--one an atheist and a scientist and the other a Catholic and a priest--respectfully, humbly, and enthusiastically engaging in profound existential and moral questions.  I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches (even though I daily fail to live accordingly)!  At the same time, I need to grow every day and this encounter was an opportunity for such growth.  This encounter was something beautiful to me.  It educated me and helped me to grow in my humanity.  I left our conversation feeling grateful for what had been given to me.

One of the benefits for me in living in an environment of academic inquiry is the the privilege of encountering men and women who are asking serious questions about life and its meaning.  These people awaken within me a desire to be more serious about engaging in these questions and to pursue the truth with a greater sincerity and with a greater humanity.  

Jesus became human.  This fact is unavoidable for Christians.  Again and again, I discover that our humanity is the place where we encounter Christ.  Tonight, I encountered Christ over an IPA and in conversation with an atheist.  I came away all the better for it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year A: There Was Great Joy in that City

Two years ago, on Monday evening during Holy Week, I was in the sacristy of my parish church preparing to offer the evening Mass, when somebody came in and told me that there was an urgent phone call from a parishioner.  I called him from the sacristy and he informed me that his wife had gone into labor, and both his wife and his newborn son were in critical condition.   I said the fastest Mass I've ever said and drove to the hospital. 

It amazes me really.  There we were in the midst of all of these machines and tubes, things beeping and pumping.  And yet, even though such technology is amazing and wonderful, that whole room--grandparents, father, doctors and nurses--all paused and turned their attention to a man holding a little jar of water (provide by the nurses) and a little container of Chrism Oil.  "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit."  In those brief moments, Matthew became a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ, was freed from Original Sin, and was given the Holy Spirit in order to bear witness to Christ.

Happily, both mother and son survived that day.  But, I am always struck by what happened in that moment.  This guy's whole world was crashing down around him, and he had the wherewithal to call the priest and seek the sacraments of the Church.  He believed in the power and the necessity of the sacraments and he acted accordingly. 

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that there are two parts to the virtue of Faith.  The first part is what happens interiorly.  This is called belief.  This is when we believe what God has said and we believe it because he is the one who has said it.  This is what St. Peter speaks about in today's second reading.  He tells us to reverence Christ in our hearts.  But, St. Peter goes on to say that we should be prepared to give a defense.  This is the second aspect of Faith.  It is the external act.  We call this "confession." It is to profess--by our words and by our deeds--what we believe in our hearts.

For many of us, perhaps this second aspect of faith is weaker than the interior aspect.  We privatize our faith and say things like, "I'm kind of private about my faith."  The people of Samaria whom we heard about in the first reading from Acts today must have been eternally grateful that the deacon Philip was not private in his faith. After suffering persecution in Jerusalem, Philip goes to Samaria and bears witness in word and deed to his interior faith in Christ.  We are told that the whole town was filled with great joy as a result.  This is what happens when people encounter Christ.  They are filled with great joy.

When I was a pastor of a parish, I had a magnificently beautiful church.  I was always grateful that the people who came before me were not people who said, "My faith is kind of private."  Instead, they built something magnificent for all the world to see.  When we live our interior faith by publicly witnessing to it--through word and deed--then we build something beautiful.  We build--by God's grace--something that brings joy to the lives of others.

But, it wasn't enough for these people to experience an interior joy.  So, the apostles came to them from Jerusalem and gave them--through the laying on of hands--the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation.  This was so that they too could give public witness to the Faith.  When we are confirmed, we are given power to be witnesses to the world.

Whenever readings like this come up, I make sure that I remind people about the importance of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Perhaps some of you have never received this Sacrament.  Don't wait any longer!  Confirmation complete something that is lacking in us.  It makes us able to live the faith that we have received.  We need God's help to live publicly what we believe.  Jesus' words today in the Gospel are a bit frightening to me.  He says that loving him isn't simply a matter of the heart.  It involves something external.  It involves keeping the commandments.  Again, what we believe in our heart is only a part of Faith.  It also requires an external manifestation.  This doesn't depend solely upon our efforts.  It depends firstly upon the grace of Christ.  If you haven't been confirmed, allow Christ to give you this beautiful sacrament so that you can witness to others.

For those of us who have received this Sacrament, let's not forget that we did!  Let's depend upon the grace of this sacrament so that we are never ashamed or embarrassed to give a defense for our Faith.
Jesus wants us to bear witness to him everywhere and to everyone!  He wants there to be great joy in every heart and in every city.  It is precisely the Gospel that brings such joy.  

Let us all profess--through our words and our deeds--what we believe in our hearts.  Let us draw upon the strength and power of the Holy Spirit who is poured out on the confirmed.  Wherever we go, to whomever we speak, let us bear witness to Christ.  May we boldly carry the Good News of Christ with us so that it may be said of every place and every heart we encounter, "There was great joy there."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Priesthood and the Joy of Friendship with the Laity

Our BU Catholic Center Men's Day Hike in Maine
Tonight I was having dinner with a few brothers in our presbyterate and I checked my phone to see what time it was.  There on the screen was a text message from a young husband and father who was a high school kid in my first assignment as a priest.  Over the years, we've stayed in touch and have enjoyed a friendship that is one of those beautiful gifts of priestly life.  I married him and his wife, baptized his son, exchange occasional emails with his parents, and talk occasionally with him on the phone.  

The text, just a sentence or two long, made me feel the beauty of what it is to be a priest.  I turned to one of the priests with me and said, "Read this."  In my life as a priest, God has surrounded me with extraordinary people.  It really moves me.  And, I realize that I need to be surrounded by extraordinary people.  This kid, for instance, was not even finished with high school when I left his parish.  Somehow, we've kept in touch. We talk about spiritual things and we talk about regular life.  We don't speak often, but we are friends in the Lord.  In this friendship, I experience the friendship of Christ. For me, it is kind of a beautiful thing.  As much as my priestly friendship has been a blessing to him, so his friendship has been a blessing to me.

There are many other people who keep in touch with me.  Some of them are devout, faithful Catholics.  Some of them are seeking to know what God's plan is for their life.  Some are trying to discern whether God is calling them to priesthood or to married life.  Others have left the Church or only practice the faith sporadically.  When we talk, sometimes the subject comes up.  At other times, it remains the unspoken subtext.  I love being in touch with these people.  

There are people who keep in touch with me who are struggling to pray, struggling to remain chaste, struggling with same sex attraction, struggling with the Church's teaching on contraception, struggling because they are divorced and remarried, struggling to believe that God exists, and struggling in a thousand other ways.  Some of them would probably say that they are not struggling at all.  They've just moved on from what the Church teaches and either don't care or do not agree.  But, they're all in touch with me.  They know that they will never hear from me something contrary to what the Church teaches.  But, they also know that I love them.  And love them I do. 

I have to admit it. I like to be loved.  I don't mean that I like to be popular.  I mean that I like being loved.  I like being part of people's lives.  I like to be invited to their homes for dinner, to hang out at a baseball game, to grab a beer together, to receive a text message, or even to be given a hard time on Facebook (rarely and under particular circumstances :-) ).  For me, all of this is part of the joy of priesthood.  I know that I've helped people along the way in their relationship to Christ and I'm grateful for that privilege.  But, these people help me too.  All of them.  Take for example the people who aren't going to church or the people who are struggling with some moral teaching of the Church. They know without any doubt where I stand.  And yet, they still desire a friendship with me.  This amazes me.  They still invite me to their homes, send me warm messages, and nurture our friendship. This is so beautiful to me.  And, it helps me in my life.  I've been really privileged in my life as a priest to have lay people--young and old--who have loved me.  

This has been one of the great surprises of priesthood for me.  The friendship of the laity has been a great source of strength for me.  Their good example encourages me.  Their desire to grow in holiness and to fight the good fight encourages me. Even those who are far from the Church at this particular moment in their life encourage me by the very fact that they'll send a Facebook message here and there to talk about spiritual things.  To live life together, to eat together, to play together, to pray together, to baptize their children, to eat dinner at their table, to hike together, to learn together, to laugh together, to struggle together, to worship together.  Whether I be half their age or twice their age, these people communicate to me the love of Christ.  I've been really blessed in my life as a priest to have such great laity to encourage me.

I sometimes feel like I'm a father with a wallet full of pictures of his family.  Within minutes of talking to someone, I'm pulling out pictures of the lay men and women I've encountered in my various assignments.  "Oh, this family is really amazing."  "Oh this kid is such a great kid." "These people are so devoted and intelligent."  I boast about them.  I love that I love them as much as I do.

All of this came to mind tonight because a young man, who is for me a great example of someone living his Catholic Faith, decided to send me a text.  His example of Faith continues to inspire me and to encourage me.  I met him because seventeen years ago, I was his parish priest.  Seventeen years later, I'm so grateful that Jesus surrounds me with people like him; people who are living signs to me of the presence and mercy of Christ.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Seventeen Years Later: I Love Being A Priest

Castle Island, South Boston
Seventeen years ago this morning, this was where I was.  I was awake early, so I decided to go for a walk at Castle Island in South Boston and pray my Rosary.  It was a beautiful morning, and I was filled with a rather serene and joyful anticipation.  My walk and Rosary finished, I drove to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and was ordained a priest.

It's tempting to run through a lengthy list of the significant changes that have occurred in the culture and the Church in these past seventeen years.  They are many.  But, it is not the rapidly changing culture, the spread of secularism and relativism, the scandals in the Church, or the incredible technological advances of the last seventeen years that most strike me today.  It's not what has changed that most captures my thoughts today.  It's what has remained the same.

Seventeen years ago, I left the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and really had no clue about what lay ahead of me.  But, I knew one thing: I was a priest.  I am grateful for the permanence of this character.  Its permanence is maddening in its beauty!  No sin, no fault, no weakness, no stupidity of mine (and there are many) can erase this permanence.  It's kind of like painting a room over and over again, but the foundational color just keeps reemerging!  I am a priest.

As ideologies antagonistic toward the Church continue to grow exponentially in our culture, this permanence is reassuring.  No matter how the culture changes, I have the profound experience of something permanent and stable.  I can face these things with serenity and with strength because, at the foundation of my life, there is something permanent and unchanging.  I am a priest.

As the local Church that I was ordained into has gone from one crisis to the next for the better part of those seventeen years; in the experience of seeing the human weaknesses that negatively affect decisions in the life of the Church; in the experience of seeing and experiencing the wounds of the Church; in all of this--like the paint on the wall--the original color keeps re-emerging.  I am a priest.

This permanent character of priesthood is something for which I am grateful.  I am grateful that it does not depend upon me.  Certainly, I am called to be faithful to my vocation, but the permanent character of ordination means that it begins with God's fidelity.  I am always called to return that fidelity, but God is faithful first.  No matter what changes, no matter how I fail, no matter how the Church is persecuted, no matter the failures of others, there is something permanent and stable in my life.  I am a priest.

I do not say, "I am a priest," with some sort of pompous pride.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It is the experience of a profound gratitude.  It is something that I was given despite all of my unworthiness.    It is this permanence of priestly character that provides a certain confidence in the day to day living out of my vocation.  I am a shepherd not because I chose Him, but because He chose me.  

A lot has changed in the relatively short period of seventeen years.  But, today I am grateful for what has remained the same.  I am grateful that this indelible character of Holy Orders is indefatigable.    I am grateful that priesthood is firstly about union with Christ.  In these first seventeen years, I have had the privilege of shepherding some amazing people both in parish life and in Campus Ministry.  What is especially beautiful for me is that the love I have for them is more than an act of my own will.  The love I have for them is a gratuitous participation in the love of the Good Shepherd.  This love was begun in me seventeen years ago and will last forever because He has promised, "You are a priest forever."  Seventeen years into eternity, I am profoundly grateful to Jesus and to His Church.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A New Evangelization Needs a New and Tender Humanity

St. John Resting on the Heart of Christ
I'm guessing that if you were to research the most frequently used words of Pope Francis, "tenderness" would rank pretty high up there.  Francis speaks a lot about tenderness.  Tenderness for the poor, the sick, the sinner, the wayward etc.  Francis likes tenderness.  It is, in part, his tenderness for others that has attracted people to Francis.

During the past year in my own archdiocese, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about evangelization.  All along, however, I've felt like something has been missing from the mix.  There's something not quite right, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  Some of the suggested ideas are just fine.  Some of the theories and trainings seem to be correct.  But, I've just had this nagging feeling that something at the heart of the whole thing is lacking.  And then, it dawned on me.

Humanity.  The New Evangelization requires a New Humanity.  It requires a deeper humanity.  It requires a more tender humanity.  This is, I think, what is missing.  We can never evangelize unless we are living this new humanity.  People are hungering for something better for their own humanity, something more.  Strategies, programs, and documents might all serve some evangelical purpose, but they have to flow from a more human way of living.  Without this new humanity, evangelization becomes a program made for paper.  It doesn't have the power to move anyone.  Only a new humanity can move people and attract them.  This new humanity is Christ and he is encountered through the communion of the Church.

One way in which we ought to judge our evangelization and planning efforts is to ask whether they are promoting a more tender humanity.  Do the programs and methods exhibit a tenderness towards parishioners, priests, and the lost or do they fail to take adequate account of the human realities?  Do these programs and methods draw people towards Christ and the Church by putting on display the New Adam in all of his attractiveness and beauty or do they rely too heavily upon mechanical efforts that are lacking in tenderness?  Do the programs and methods that we are adopting seem imposed and artificial or are they arising in an organic way from the experience of the communities?

At the heart of Christianity is a fact: Christ became man.  He took on our humanity and He elevates it.  This must always be the principle evangelical method.  In order for our parishes to be centers of the New Evangelization, the persons in those parishes must be moved by the New Humanity that Christ offers.  They must feel his tender gaze upon them; a gaze that draws them to the new life of grace. This gaze comes through the eyes of others.  We must experience the tenderness of Christ through the Church and then look at others with this same tenderness.  The New Evangelization cannot begin with planning.  It begins with tenderness.  It begins with an encounter with the tenderness of Christ as it is communicated through the life of the Church.  Without this tenderness, without this new humanity, evangelization becomes a sterile concept.

Tenderness is not something that can be mandated, coerced, planned, or implemented.  It is something that arises from an encounter with the gaze of tenderness.  What makes Catholic communities evangelical is the experience of the gaze of Christ.  When we experience a tender humanity, we are moved by it and attracted to it.  We are moved by it to look with the same gaze upon others.  

I do not contend that training, manuals, programs, and plans are inherently opposed to evangelization.  They serve their purpose and can be of great benefit.  There doesn't, however, seem to be a shortage of supporters for this aspect of evangelization.  But, I do propose that this model of evangelization needs a greater openness and appreciation for the more tender and organic form of evangelization that arises not from programmatic imposition but from the experience of an encounter.  This form of evangelization does not enjoy as much prominence right now.  But, for many of us, this is how we ourselves were evangelized.  It was through encountering the tender humanity of another and desiring to live and share this new humanity that evangelization happened and continues to happen organically.

What needs to shine forth from the manuals that we write, the programs that we invent, and the plans that we implement is the tenderness of our gaze upon humanity; a tenderness that arises from the experience of being gazed upon by Christ with love.  If our structural efforts at evangelization lack this tenderness, we will not attract others to Christ.  If this tenderness is at the heart of all that we do, then we have every reason to have high hopes for the New Evangelization.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Harvard Eucharistic Procession Was Beautiful . . . But Now What?

The decision of a student group at Harvard University to host a "black mass" on its campus precipitated a massive response from Catholics around Boston, the United States, and even the world.  I've heard of parishes all over the United States that held Holy Hours at the time of the scheduled event at Harvard.  As I mentioned previously, I participated in a magnificent Eucharistic Procession from the campus of MIT to St. Paul's in Harvard Square.  Hundreds of Catholics followed the Eucharistic Lord down the main street in Cambridge where thousands of onlookers witnessed the flock following the Eucharistic Good Shepherd.

I'm not always a huge fan of "big events" because I feel like those things can be used as a substitute for true faith.  Sometimes, they feel as though the effort that goes into planning and executing them far outweighs the benefits.  They sometimes feel designed as a publicity stunt or as a way of evoking a strong emotional reaction, but the effects seem short-lived.  Last night's Eucharistic Procession had a different feel.  As I looked about and saw the many young college students from area universities participating, I was touched by their love for the Eucharist and their sincere desire to follow Christ.

During the past year, one thing that has really struck me about the college students whom I encounter every day is their Eucharistic Faith.  Quite often, as I am standing outside of church on a Sunday before Mass, I am asked, "Father, do you have time for a quick confession?"  Similarly, for thirty minutes each day before Daily Mass, I hear confessions.  It is rare for there to be a day that nobody comes.  I also notice this at Mass itself.  At every Sunday Mass, there are young people who come up in the communion line and ask for a blessing rather than receive the Eucharist.  Presumably, having examined their conscience, they do not want to receive the Eucharist until they have received the Sacrament of Penance.

I find all of this very striking.  These young people are not scrupulous or legalistic.  They are not tied up in knots.  Instead, they strike me as being young people who simply love the Lord and who want to approach Him and receive Him with devotion and with love.  Their love for the Eucharist and the ease with which they approach the Sacrament of Penance is a beautiful witness to Christ and His Grace.  I benefit from their example.

All of this comes to mind for me today as I think about the "big event" of the Eucharistic Procession and the blasphemous "satanic mass" that precipitated it.  I am reminded of my own need to deepen continually my devotion to the Eucharist.  These events beckon all of us to examine ourselves and to renew our love for the Blessed Sacrament.  Do I love the Eucharist?  Do I live a life that is coherent with the Eucharist that I receive?  Do I humbly examine myself before approaching to receive the Eucharist?  Do I spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and make visits to be with the Lord in the Eucharist?  Do I receive the Eucharist with reverence or am I distracted, careless, or even willful?  

In this instance, the "big event" ought to cause all of us who are Catholic to become more coherent in our life.  While we were rightly outraged at the intended sacrilege of the Eucharist by others, we ought to make certain that we do not simply become "protesters" in our relationship to the Eucharist. Instead, we ought to become more Eucharistic in our daily life.  This "big event" ought to deepen our desire to grown in Eucharistic intimacy.  We want to make sure that we ourselves are not sacrilegious, blasphemous, or careless.  

I think the "big event" of the Eucharistic Procession will bear the most fruit if it is followed by Catholics everywhere examining our own consciences and humbly confessing our sins and receiving absolution.  For me, the Eucharist Procession was an amazing witness of people showing their love for the Eucharist.  In my life, however, the far more powerful and convincing witness of Eucharistic Faith is seeing the daily procession of college students making their way to the confessional.  

A Beautiful Night to Be Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston

It's a little after Midnight and I am just getting in after participating in a magnificent evening.  Hundreds of Catholics joined in a Eucharistic Procession down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge from the MIT chapel to St. Paul's in Harvard Square.  There, we spent a period of time in prayer.  The purpose of the evening was to pray in reparation for a planned Satanic Mass on the campus of Harvard University.  

The procession which passed MIT and Central Square was a site to behold.  People were coming out of restaurants--some kneeling on the sidewalks, others blessing themselves, and some just staring in bewilderment.  Many of the servers who organized the procession were from Juventutem Boston.  That is the Traditional Latin Mass Community of young people.  They did an impressive job.  It's not easy to keep us priests organized.  

The procession ended at St. Paul's in Harvard Square. When we arrived, the church--which I suppose holds about 1000 people--was already filled to capacity. So hundreds of those who walked in procession were left standing on the street outside of St. Paul's. 

As I looked out at the congregation, I saw many people from my previous assignment in Beverly.  They travelled a good distance to be there.  It makes me proud to have been in a parish of people who love the Eucharist so much that they would come to this event.  In the procession, I saw many students from Boston University (where I serve as Chaplain).  It was so inspiring to see their witness.  

The unsung hero of the event, in my opinion, was Fr. Richard Clancy who is the Chaplain at MIT and who is the Director for Catholic Campus Ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston. He was the one who came up with the idea of a Eucharistic Procession.  Although he doesn't look for accolades, he deserves some today.

Tonight, I spent several hours with Catholics from all over the Archdiocese of Boston--young and old, students, married people, priests, seminarians, religious men and women, lay people--who all love the Eucharist.  That's what being a Catholic is.  I'm grateful to have experienced their powerful witness tonight.

(Photos are courtesy of George Martell of the Pilot Media Group0

Monday, May 12, 2014

Is Priesthood Lonely?

Sometimes, I'm asked whether being a priest is lonely.  It's an understandable question considering the call to celibacy.  I can't answer this question in a universal manner.  I can only answer it according to my own experience.

I suppose, like every life, priesthood does have its moments of loneliness, but this is not unique to the priesthood.  Some of the loneliest people I've ever met wake up every day laying next to another person.  Is loneliness something that is a predominant characteristic of the priestly life?  Not in my experience.  In fact, I experience in my life something of a paradox.  The more closely I live my priesthood and my life with others, the more I experience a profound solitude.  This solitude is not a sad loneliness, but rather a deeper experience of communion.  

All of this came to mind this week because of a few encounters that I had.  I'd like to share those here.

Earlier this week, I received an email from a man whom I received into the Catholic Church probably fourteen years ago.  With the exception of an occasional Christmas Card, we've been almost entirely out of contact.  He and his wife have four children now!  Before signing off from his email, he told me that they pray for me in their nightly prayers.  Those words really struck me and gave me joy.  In that email, I simultaneously experienced both intimacy and solitude.

This past Saturday, I received a phone call from a friend of mine whom I met when I was a deacon.  He and his wife also have four children now!  One of their children was making her First Holy Communion and he was calling to see if I could stop by the party.  Although not able to attend, I nonetheless experienced in the invitation the joy of intimacy and solitude.

When my friend called me, I was returning from an overnight with another family whom I've met through my time here at Boston University.  We had Mass together at their new home, had dinner, and spent some time in an enjoyable conversation.  Spending time with families and witnessing their Catholic life together is always joyful for me.  Again, at one and the same time, I experience intimacy and solitude.

I left their home in order to go and baptize the infant son of some former parishioners and friends of mine.  (I'm just thinking, I was baptizing their fourth child as well.  A lot of fours these days)!  It was so great to baptize "Peter Francis Benedict."  What an awesome name!  Again, as I looked around at the people who were at the baptism, I was grateful for the privilege I have as a priest to be so close with such extraordinary people.  I am close to these people precisely because I am a priest.  And at the same time, this closeness brings with it a beautiful solitude.

One of the best parts of being a University Chaplain is that I spend almost all day every day close to the young people here.  Whether it be through spiritual direction, the sacraments, eating meals, going for ice cream, praying, debating, or having a cup of coffee, the majority of my day is spent with them.  Being close to them is a privilege.  It is also an experience of joyful solitude.

I rarely feel lonely.  (In fact, I sometimes joke that I wish I could have a little loneliness)!  Instead, I'd say that I feel the piercing of solitude.  This piercing is not sad or harmful.  It is a wound that has a sweetness to it.  It comes precisely from the intimacy that I share with so many beautiful people.  This wound opens my heart and makes me capable of being close to the flock entrusted to me.  In being close to people, I experience solitude because this closeness is not mine by right.  It is mine completely by gift.  It is not something I've earned, something I've created, or something to which I am entitled.  It is mine because Jesus has entrusted these people to me and put me close to them.  It is mine because God has placed in my path many beautiful souls who have generously drawn close to me and who live the friendship of Christ with me.  Living this friendship together--a friendship of intimacy and solitude--is a cause of profound joy in my life.  The people whom God has placed in my path wouldn't allow me to be lonely!

The solitude that I experience in my priestly life directs me to Christ.  It awakens in me a recognition that I am united to him in a unique and powerful way.  In my closeness to families, to young people, to seminarians, to brother priests, and to older people, I have been very blessed.  Their friendship never terminates in itself. It points beyond itself to Christ.  This is the experience of intimacy and solitude.

I do not claim that what I experience is the same for every priest.  But, enough people ask about this, that I thought it might be helpful to share my own experience.  That experience has been one primarily of profound intimacy and solitude, but rarely loneliness.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Harvard's Black Mass: Mocking Catholics and Mocking Education

At Harvard University, President Drew Faust is teaching by example.  Her decision to allow the "Cultural Studies Club" to host a Satanic Mass on campus is an education in poor leadership, faulty reasoning, and institutionally sanctioned bigotry.  This is not a glowing endorsement of academic freedom.  It is bigotry hiding behind the mask of academic freedom.  

The grown-ups at Harvard had an opportunity to teach that not everything that calls itself "academic inquiry" is such.  They had an opportunity to teach that there are, in fact, things that should not be tolerated.  Intervening on such occasions is not akin to "thought police" compelling uniformity.  Intervention here would be an expression of civilized leadership and of genuine authority.  By shirking that responsibility, President Faust teaches that acts of religious bigotry are permissible as long as those perpetrating them do so under the banner of academic freedom.

The Satanic Mass being hosted by Harvard is a direct affront to Catholics.  It takes the central act of worship of the Catholic Church and mocks it.  One does not need to be Catholic to see why this should not be permitted.  One only needs to be human and honest.  

Sometime down the road, another student group will decide to hold a "re-enactment" of its own.  Their re-enactment--done under the banner of academic freedom--will mock some other religious faith or some particular racial group.  It will be unabashedly hateful and filled with vitriol for a particular class of persons.  What will President Faust do then?

From this day forward, there are only two options.  Either every kind of hateful mockery is permissible at Harvard or only the hateful mockery of particular groups.  There is a third option, but the time for that is running out.  The third option is leadership.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Third Sunday of Easter--Emmaus and the Joy of Our Youth

Before most of us in this chapel were born, the form for celebrating the Mass changed quite a bit.  I'm sure that most of you know that until then, the Mass was always celebrated in Latin.  That's the change that most people think about.  But, there were other changes too.  One of the things done in that form of the Mass (and something I wish was carried over to the current form of the Mass) was a prayer that was said at the foot of the altar.  The priest would say, "Introibo ad altare Dei" and the server would reply, "Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam."  "I will go to the altar of God.  To the God who gives joy to my youth."  Today's opening prayer for the Mass gives us an echo of this.  It spoke about renewing the youthfulness of our spirit.  It spoke about being restored and growing in hope.

There are two types of hope.  The first is natural hope.  You all have a lot of natural hope, I suspect.  My natural hope, however, is declining! That's what happens with natural hope. The older we get, the less natural hope we have.  Kind of depressing, huh?  But it's true.  It is becoming increasingly evident to me that I may never be the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.  When I was eight, I could hope for this.  Now?  Not so much.  You probably have already experienced this in your own life.  When you were eight and somebody said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" you probably gave them a list of twenty things.  "I'm going to be an astronaut, a policeman, a garbage truck driver, and a baseball player."  Now that you're in college, those possibilities have grown less.  You hope to be one of those things. But, you have no hope in realizing all of those things.  All of the languages that I'd like to learn, the courses I'd like to take, etc?  Probably isn't going to happen.  Natural hope . . . declines.

But, there is good news.  There's another kind of hope.  It is called supernatural hope.  And this hope, if we live the Christian life well, increases as we grow older.  If we live a life of faith, a life of prayer, a life close to the Sacraments, then each day, our hope of eternal life grows within us.  Our ultimate happiness is to be perfectly united to God.  The more we grow in our Christian life, the more our hope of that perfect union grows within us.  This is why at the end of our earthly life--when all natural hope has left us--our supernatural hope can be at its strongest.  

Today in the Gospel, these two disciples were walking along the Road to Emmaus.  As they did so, with each step, their natural
hope was diminishing.  They were hoping that Jesus was going to be the one to redeem Israel. They were hoping for a great political or military leader.  They were hoping that their natural desires would be met.  Instead, they saw their natural hopes dashed before their eyes. They saw Jesus die a horrific and humiliating death.

As they made their way along, Jesus came and walked with them, but their eyes were not able to recognize him.  Sometimes, in our life, when our natural hopes lead to nowhere, when we are discouraged by our weaknesses, or overwhelmed by our failures or the failures of others, we can lose sight of what is most important.  See what Jesus does for them.

Firstly, he begins to speak about the Word of God with them.  He explains the scriptures to them.  As summer approaches, be resolved to stay close to the Word of God.  I know that sometimes, we can be confused by the Bible or get bored with it.  I promise you that if you stay close to the Word of God, you will have the same experience that the two disciples had.  After they realized it was Jesus, they said, "Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us along the way?"  When we meditate on the scriptures every day, our hearts truly burn within us.  The joy of our youth is restored in this Word.  Don't get discouraged.  Don't begin in the Old Testament or in the Book of Leviticus!  Start with the Gospels and just listen to God's Word. 

Secondly, Jesus gives them the Eucharist.  Over the summer, stay close to the Eucharist.  Go to Mass as often as you can.  In the Gospel today, as soon as Jesus gives them the Eucharist, their eyes are opened and they run back to Jerusalem.  They are renewed; no longer sluggish and downcast.  Make time to visit with the Blessed Sacrament.  Again, the Eucharist will set your heart aflame with the joy of youth.

Thirdly, let me say a word about Christian friendship.  Remember in the Gospel Jesus said that wherever two or three gather in his name, he will be there in the midst of them?  That promise was fulfilled in today's Gospel.  Here are these two disciples, walking along and talking about Jesus.  And, into their midst he comes.  Living the Christian life is difficult.  Living it alone is impossible.  Live your Faith close to others.  These two disciples were pouring out their hearts to one another and talking about Christ.  It is in the midst of their friendship that Jesus came.  Spend time with Christian friends.  Spend time talking to one another about serious things, about what matters.  Jesus will come into that friendship and use the friendship to help you to grow in hope, to grow in the joy of youth.

Really, today's Gospel is like the Mass.  They gathered together in the name of Jesus.  Then, they heard his Word.  He spoke to them.  And then, they received the Eucharist.  And after all of this, they run to tell others.  They run because they have been given supernatural hope.  Only Jesus can give us supernatural hope.

That's what's happening here today.  Jesus is giving us supernatural hope.  No matter what disappointments and failures lay behind us, he is giving us hope for perfect union with God.  Because we have gathered in His Name, he has come and spoken to us in the Scriptures.  In a few moments, he will feed us with His Body and His Blood.  So, having heard his Word, let us now go to the Altar of God, to the God who truly gives joy to our youth.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Is God Calling Me to Be A Priest? The Road to Emmaus

Christ on the Road to Emmaus
How is this possible?  This is the question that I think all of us ask before our vocation.  How is it possible that God would choose me for this?  It is not incomprehensible to us that God would choose somebody for things like this, but choosing me??  This is truly amazing to us.

Tonight, I had dinner with a young man (whom I was hoping to snag for the seminary!).  I had the privilege of receiving him into the Catholic Church last year when I was a pastor.  Tonight, we had supper together and talked about his recent engagement (to a wonderful young woman) and about his impending departure to become a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) Missionary. To say that I was looking forward to getting together with him would be an understatement.

This evening, as we had supper together and discussed all manner of things, I thought to myself, "Who am I that should be given such a privileged relationship?"  Here is this young man who showed up on the doorstep of the parish where I had been pastor, he became a Catholic, and is now preparing to become a Catholic missionary on college campuses.  And, he asked me to offer his Nuptial Mass next year.  How is a crumb like me put into privileged situations like this?  Pure joy.

As we were talking about his conversion, he told me that in the period when he was thinking about the Catholic Church, he came occasionally to my old parish.  When he heard me preach, he thought, "This guy is too serious or too tough.  I think I will go somewhere else."  We had a good laugh over that as we sat eating dinner tonight, comparing our chosen beers and discussing what qualifies as a really good IPA.  The conversation left me thinking how beautiful the life of the Church is.  Either I was a priest whose preaching was ultimately vindicated or he was a man who could look beyond my poor preaching.  Or, maybe there was some mixture of the two.  Either way, Jesus saw fit to have our paths cross, and he did something beautiful to form a Catholic friendship among us.

I can't speak definitively on what the vocation of every priest is like.  But for me, tonight was a little parable of how my vocation has played out.  Living close to the people has been a distinguishing characteristic of priestly life for me.  I know, of course, that Jesus has used me to minister to these people, but--and I'm sure that this surprises them--Jesus uses them to instruct and to encourage me.  And this is true of people of all ages.  In my life, I am profoundly moved by the example of so many people.  Today, I had a man in his late 80's from my first assignment (seventeen years ago) call me just to talk.  This evening I had a beer with a young man in his twenties and talked to him about all that God is doing in his life.  Be they men or women, young or old, these people are powerful signs to me of the joy of the Gospel.

My priestly vocation is nourished and sustained--in part--through the witnesses that Christ places in my path.  I had one of the best Lents ever this year because it was spent surrounded by young college aged Catholics who were making great efforts to follow Christ with greater intensity and fidelity.  Their humble example encouraged me.

Fairly often, somebody stumbles upon my blog because they googled something like, "How do I know if God is calling me to be a priest?"  All I want to do here is simply to say that the priesthood is an awesome vocation!  Among other things, you have the privilege of standing very close to the people whom Jesus loves and chooses.  Tonight, a young man--whom I had the awesome privilege of receiving into the Catholic Church and confirming last Easter--had dinner and a couple of beers with me.  We discussed priesthood, marriage, being a college missionary, the spiritual life, the scriptures, evangelization, conversion, and all sorts of things together.  Then, after walking back to my rectory in the pouring rain, we stopped in the parish church, knelt before the Blessed Sacrament together for about fifteen minutes and were lost in prayer and joy.  

My experience of the priesthood is living life in a fraternity and friendship that is given to us in a totally gratuitous way by Christ.  And this gratuitous friendship, like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, is lived closely to the Word of God, is lived with a burning heart, and is nourished by and leads to the Eucharist.

Is God calling you to be a priest?  No one approach can answer that question adequately.  But, perhaps one question to ask is this: Does the thought of walking closely with other disciples, encountering Christ, sharing the Word of God, and living a Eucharistic life cause your heart to burn within you?  These things do not necessarily indicate a priestly vocation, but they are certainly part of a priestly vocation.

(And, since I mentioned somebody specific in this blog post, I sought out his permission before posting this!)