Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lent and the Foundations of Evangelization and True Growth

Every morning before the Catholic Center at Boston University opens, one of the staff here and I pray a Holy Hour together.  At the end of that hour, our four FOCUS Missionaries arrive in order to pray their Holy Hour. It's a great way to begin the day.

A few weeks ago while I was praying, I found myself thinking that even though the BU Catholic Center already has six graduates currently studying in the seminary and one more entering in September, I'd still like for there to be more. I was thinking of the various guys who are part of our community and the likelihood of them entering seminary.  As I thought about them, I came up with reasons why each of them probably won't go to the seminary. This one has his heart set on this, this one will probably get a job doing this, this one . . . .  I recall looking at the Host in the monstrance and saying, "Lord, I'd really like for more men from here to become priests." 

It is rare in my own prayer experience to feel like the Lord clearly responds in an almost audible way. This was one of those rare times. When I told the Lord that I'd like for there to be more vocations from BU, the response was clear and immediate: "Ask Me."  

This reply should not be surprising. The Lord himself told us how it is that laborers are to be found for the harvest. "The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest" (Matthew 9:38). In an age when so much of ecclesial life is focused on planning and rebuilding, we have to be on guard that we do not forget the primary posture of pastoral life is one of begging, receiving, and following. Without this posture, we set out on a fool's errand. Without this posture, attempts to evangelize fall flat or become like the seed that falls on shallow ground, springs up quickly, but then withers because of a lack of roots. 

What ails so many Catholic communities is not that they are lacking in activities, but that they are lacking in depth. They lack disciples who know how to pray, know how to beg, and know how to be moved. In our efforts to promote a new evangelization of the culture, we sometimes presume something that is not necessarily true. We presume that those whom we are trying to stir into action are themselves already living a life of intimacy with the Lord. We cannot share what we do not already possess ourselves. 

In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus provides to us the beautiful image of the vine and the branches. He reminds us that "without me, you can do nothing." But, he also tells us, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you." Remaining in him. His word remaining in us. Asking.  This is the beginning of the New Evangelization. It begins firstly with our remaining in Christ and allowing his word to live in us. Then, we ask. This is the type of thing that we read and say, "Yeah, yeah, I know all of that. Now let's get on with doing something practical." But this is precisely the problem in so many of our Catholic communities. We skip over intimacy with Jesus. We skip over holiness and try to get to evangelization. But, without him, without remaining in him, without asking him, we can do nothing.  

I know that part of it has to do with their age, but one of the great things about being around the BU Catholic Center is that the young men and women here are starving for more intimacy with Christ. They don't evangelize because they want more numbers. They evangelize because they love Jesus Christ and want others to share in that joy. They are witnesses, not used car salesmen. They hunger to know Jesus more, to love him more, to serve him more, and to proclaim him more. 

Last week, we were all on retreat together and as an activity, we asked the students to write down what they were doing for Lent.  Afterwards, their anonymous Lenten disciplines were placed on a wall. It was truly impressive to read them. People giving up hot showers for Lent, fasting from all food on Wednesdays and Fridays, giving up pornography, giving up all liquids except water for Lent, praying a Daily Rosary, giving up coffee and using the money to help those in need etc. One person wrote, "Giving up my long distance relationship with God and spending time in prayer each morning."  The list goes on and on, but it was very moving because you see on that wall the evidence of people who want to live more closely with Jesus. This is where evangelization begins. When we grow in intimacy with Jesus, then we know that we can ask him for anything and he will give it.

During Lent, we are given the perfect season for the work of evangelization. We are given a season to grow in intimacy with the Lord through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This intimacy is the sine qua non of all true growth in the Church. Lent is the time to remember that without Christ, we can do nothing, and with Christ, we can do all things. 

I want more priestly vocations from the BU Catholic Center. We all want more converts to the Faith. We want people who have left the faith to come back. We want sinners to be converted. We want our churches to be filled with faithful witnesses and evangelizers. The first step in seeing that happen is to deepen our union with Christ through prayer (especially the sacraments), fasting, and almsgiving. These traditional practices deepen our union with Christ and make us more humble. These practices deepen within us the realization that without Christ, we can do nothing. And through this humility and union, we are then able to do that thing which will bear the most fruit in the life of the Church: Ask Christ.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Day I Chose a Cardinal Over Jesus

Anyone who has spent much time around a Catholic parish would know that you get a lot of people who stop by looking for money. You would also know that a lot of the requests are scams. I've had men come in and cry telling me that there nine year old son just died and they don't have money to get to the funeral. I've had a woman come at 2am telling me that she was fleeing her abusive husband and needed money for gas. I've had a guy looking to buy a wheelchair for his disabled son.  In each of these instances, after just a little investigation, it became clear that the stories were all untrue. Some people have a knack for showing up just at the moment when you are most vulnerable. You're standing outside of church getting ready to get in the hearse to go to a grave. You don't have time to verify the rather desperate story that is always time sensitive.  Quite honestly, in my experience, these types of experiences have had an effect upon the way I view people. The second someone says, "Father, can I talk to you," I find my antennae going up. "Is this a scam? When are they going to ask me for money?"

Today's gospel comes from the 25th Chapter of Matthew's gospel. It concerns the final judgment when Jesus will condemn those who did not give him food, water, or clothing, or visit him when he was ill or in prison and he will welcome to eternal life all those who did. If there is any gospel passage that makes me nervous, it's this one. "As often as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me."  When I meditate upon this gospel, it is always the same scene that comes to my mind.

A few years ago, while I was a pastor, the cardinal came to offer Mass at my parish. It was one of those big occasions when a parish tries to put its best foot forward. As soon as the Mass ended, we were trying to get the cardinal from the upstairs church to the hall downstairs for a celebratory party. As we were coming out of the sacristy, a kind of disheveled looking man appeared. He said, "Father, can I ask you a favor?"  My antennae immediately went up and I put this guy in the category of someone who was looking for money at the very worst possible moment.  My job was to get the cardinal downstairs, not to deal with this guy.  Then came his next line which went something like this: "I lost my cell phone and I just bought a new one. But, I don't know how to read so I can't read the instructions. So I thought, 'Who would help me to read the instructions? And I thought, 'I know, I will find a priest because priests are smart and nice and a priest will help me."  He might as well have taken out a sword and cut me in two.

Maybe it is from growing up as the son of a cop, but I can usually tell a scammer from a mile away. But, Jesus doesn't say in the gospel that our judgment will be based upon our ability to detect scammers from a mile away. He says that it will be based upon what we do or don't do for the people right in front of us. Throughout the gospels, people failed to recognize Jesus. His hometown people drove him away because they failed to recognize him. St. John tells us that he came to his own and his own knew him not. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us how to recognize him. He is to be found in those who are the least. 

One of the graces that Lent can bring us is to sharpen our spiritual antennae, making us better able to know ourselves, our weaknesses, the graces that God has given to us etc. But it can also make us better able to recognize Christ in the needs of others. As we grow in our discipleship, we become more familiar with the Lord and are able to recognize him when he appears before us. The Lenten discipline of almsgiving helps to free us from the cynical and worldly antennae that can often dominate us. Almsgiving frees us from our blindness to Christ's presence.  He is present in those who need food, clothing, water, a listening ear, a friend.

The man whom I encountered some years ago was unable to read. I won't be able to use that excuse on the day of my judgment. I can read Matthew 25. There is nothing unclear about it. If we find ourselves thinking, "I wish I could see more evidence of God," perhaps the reason we don't see him is because we are blinded by our possessions.  This Lent, let's become more generous and really learn how to give to those in need.  Jesus is very near to us. If we can't see him, it's not his fault. Perhaps we are blinded by our selfishness. The cure for this blindness is to become generous and give alms. There's a judgment coming.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Temptation and Growing Closer to Christ

Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, the gospel brings us into the desert as Jesus is tempted by the  Devil. We hear this gospel every year not just so that we can be reminded of the same old things again and again. We hear it because this gospel contains a treasury of spiritual truths. This year, I would like to focus on just four ways that this Gospel can help us. But, before I do so, I have to say that the only way this gospel can really be helpful to us is if we approach it as people who really are serious about our spiritual lives and who desire to grow closer to the Lord. (Since it is arctic cold outside tonight, I suspect that you are indeed serious about your spiritual life.  Good for you for being here tonight)!

1. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert immediately after his baptism in the Jordan by John. You will remember a few weeks ago that we heard that gospel. John baptizes Jesus and the Father announces, "You are my beloved Son." After this, Luke provides a list of the ancestors of Jesus. From these two passages, we see that Jesus is both God and man.  

Sometimes, when we experience temptation, it throws us into a panic. If I''m baptized and washed clean from sin, why do I still experience temptation? In going into the desert to be tempted, Jesus is teaching us something. He goes immediately after he is baptized. He is showing us that temptations will still occur after our baptism. The devil is always trying to insert himself between God and us. He likes to cast doubt on our relationship with God. He said to Eve, "Did God really say not to eat from any tree in the garden?" He likes to sow doubt. He approaches Jesus and says, "If you really are the Son of God . . . ." He likes to sow doubt. When we try to live a holy life, the Devil tries to convince us that we are wasting our time. He tries to convince us that it is really kind of silly to "follow all of these rules."  

In moments of temptation, let's not be thrown off our guard. Remember, as soon as the Devil heard God say to Jesus, "You are my Son," he began to tempt him. I believe it was St. John Vianney who once said that we should not fear being tempted. He said that what we should really fear is not being tempted because if we are never tempted, there is good reason to believe that the Devil already looks upon us as his property.

2. The second thing we might take away from tonight's gospel is that Jesus prepared for these assaults of the Devil by fasting. Fasting is one of those words that makes us cringe. As soon as we hear it, we start coming up with excuses like, "Well, I'd fast, but when I fast, I get really hungry." Yeah . . . that's the idea! Fasting is a spiritual weapon that most of us employ far too infrequently. When we fast, our spiritual senses become much sharper. We are able to see spiritual things with much greater clarity. I can see how weak I am, how much God's grace helps me, what my faults are, and how much God loves me. Jesus didn't fast because he needed to fast. He fasted in order to give us an example. Don't be afraid of trying to fast. Even if you fail . . . it's okay. Give it a try.

3. The Devil tempted Jesus while Jesus was alone in the desert. Of course, we know that he wasn't really alone because he was with the Father. But, we can learn from this that the Devil likes to tempt us when we are alone and isolated. This is why we need to have good Catholic friendships, friendships where you pray with and for one another. This is why it is so important for us to be together on Sundays. (Sometimes when people say, "I don't need to go to Church to worship God. I can do that at home." I always say, "Yeah, but I bet you don't!") We need each other. I know that Lent is much better for me when I feel like I am living it with others, praying together, fasting together, growing in charity together.  We are stronger when we are together.

4. Lastly, we can take joy in the fact that Jesus conquered all of these temptations. He was subjected to every temptation and resisted them all. Now, we might say, "Well that's nice for Jesus. I mean, he's Jesus. But what good does that do for me?" That's a great question! It has everything to do with us. It brings us back to the first point. Jesus was tempted after he was baptized. When you and I were baptized, we became members of the Body of Christ. So, we are united to the One who has conquered every temptation. We can resist every temptation. We can be victorious because we are united to Jesus Christ. His victory can be our victory too. Sin is not inevitable.  And, even if we do fall to temptation, Jesus can turn even our defeats into victory. If we do fall into sin, then we go to Jesus with hearts full of sorrow and contrition. He will take that contrition and lift us up. We are sons and daughters of the Father. In Christ, every temptation has already been defeated. When we are in the midst of the desert and are being assaulted by the Evil One, we rely upon the Son of the Father and our union with Him.

As one last word, I'd like to say this: If you haven't chosen a Lenten discipline yet, don't go to bed tonight until you have one. The Season of Lent is an awesome time to grow closer to Christ, to become more like him, and to receive his graces. He is offering us great graces this Lent. Don't be afraid to accept them.  You've already accepted a grace today. I bet some of you were tempted tonight not to come to Mass. Maybe you heard that whisper in your ear, "It is freezing cold out. God would understand if you didn't go to Mass tonight. What kind of God would expect you to go to Mass in such cold weather."  But, you received some sort of grace to resist that temptation. And in doing so, you became a little more like Christ. Lent is filled with opportunities just like that. Opportunities to become just like Jesus. Let's make the most of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Soldiers and Ambassadors For Christ

Fairly often, the four FOCUS Missionaries who are part of our team at the BU Newman Center "table." They set up a table in one of the main buildings on campus and engage students in conversations. It often involves them handing out free cookies to students who are willing to engage in a friendly conversation.  This past week, the FOCUS team handed out Mardi Gras beads to students.  The Mardi Gras beads had an Ash Wednesday Mass schedule attached.  

Tabling is hard work. They are seeking the fallen away, the mildly interested, the uninterested, and even the strongly opposed! Despite the hard work, the missionaries maintain a joyful and fun attitude.  On Ash Wednesday, the missionaries were here early and were tabling for the entire day.  The last of our Masses for Ash Wednesday was at 8pm and the missionaries were out shaking the trees until the last possible moment.  

This year, they had a little competition.  While they were tabling in order to encourage people to get to Mass for Ash Wednesday, there were other groups in the same area just distributing ashes.  It made it difficult to engage students in conversations about getting to Mass when the tables around them were giving out ashes on the fly.  The missionaries who never give even the slightest hint of discouragement were feeling a bit frustrated.

While all of the Masses on Ash Wednesday were well attended, the 8pm was packed. As I looked out at the congregation, I noticed that some of the students already had ashes on their foreheads.  It seems that even though they had already received ashes elsewhere, they still came to Mass. While I never had the opportunity to ask any of those people why they came to Mass if they already got their ashes, I suspect that the answer is because of our FOCUS team's efforts.

On Ash Wednesday, I often joke with the congregation that I am letting them in on a very big secret. "These are not magic ashes." In and of themselves, the ashes do nothing except make one's head dirty. The ashes are only an exterior sign of our interior repentance. They are a reminder that I am a sinner who needs God's grace. The ashes are not the sign that "I'm really one of the good people." It's a sign that I am one of the sinners who wants to turn my life around by the grace of God. 

On Ash Wednesday, the ashes that we wear are the credentials of our being ambassadors for Christ. Our ashes are a sign of Christ appealing and imploring through us to all whom we encounter, "Be reconciled to God!" 

As I looked around at our Masses on Ash Wednesday, I was moved to see hundreds of young men and women, adorned with the mark of repentance. I was moved because I could see in their faces a recognition that they need to repent and be reconciled with God. I was moved because we are all in this together. The prayers of the Ash Wednesday liturgy have strong militaristic overtones to them. They speak about us beginning a campaign together and being armed with the weapons of self-restraint. We are comrades on the field of battle together. Sometimes, we find it difficult to keep up the fight. This is why it is so important to do it together. Maybe we can't always have the energy to fight for ourselves, but that's when we ought to look around and see our comrades who stand with us. We should fast, pray, and give alms not only for ourselves, but also for them. We want to be loyal to those who fight at our side.

Living Lent is great. But, living Lent together is much better. Our sacrifices, fasts, self-denials, prayers, and works of mercy not only benefit us as individuals, they make us a stronger army. They are used by Christ to strengthen us and to draw others to Himself.  I am encouraged by living Lent with the students here. Their increased willingness to take up the weapons of the spiritual life during Lent encourages me to stand fast on the field of battle.

On Ash Wednesday, our four FOCUS Missionaries armed themselves with prayer, fasting, and with hearts filled with the joy of the Gospel. Their willingness to stand strong, despite what appeared to be insurmountable conditions, is truly apostolic. Christ wants all to be reconciled to God. When we live Lent together--taking up the spiritual arms that the Lord gives to us--we become His ambassadors. Our lives are then placed at the service of Christ who implores others through us, "Be reconciled to God!"