Saturday, February 28, 2015
At the risk of being pilloried by kith and kin who've had enough of winter, I freely admit that I love it. While many have had their fill of sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow fall and shoveling, I just can’t get enough of these beautiful winter days. I like winter so much that I grabbed an opportunity to trade 20 degree temperatures and 6 inches of snow in New Jersey for minus 15 degree temperatures and 2 ½ feet of snow in the Catskills. It sure is beautiful up here – the proverbial Winter Wonderland. So it shouldn't surprise you that the first thing on my agenda was a good walk.
Being firmly nestled in middle age, I don’t need help waking up early any more – I just do. But that suits me fine, especially when I want to slip in a good walk before the day’s chores take hold of my agenda. So up I rose at 6:00 am and quickly got dressed for snow shoeing in the woods. I knew it would be very cold outside, but I also knew that I’d warm up quickly dragging my 49-year old carcass through 2 ½ feet of undriven snow. My choice of winter apparel, therefore, had to be breathable but still warm enough to keep me alive in the likely event that I would get tangled in my snow shoes, do a face plant in the snow, and struggle for a while to get up. Let’s just say that I looked like Nanook of the North gone Ninja.
All bundled up, I set out on the trail into the woods. As expected, it was a tough slog at first, so after a few hundred yards, I stopped to catch my breath. When I stopped to breathe, I finally started to notice. I noticed that it was a beautiful day. Though the sun had not yet made its way over the bluestone mountains, the deep blue sky reflected its cheerful hue on the pure white snow that blanketed the earth. The grey, black and brown bark of the bare maple, birch and oak trees stood in sharp contrast to the breathtaking color above, and the absence of color below. As I continued on, I noticed that each step was announced by the crunch of the inch-deep layer of frozen snow that capped the ample powder below. Loud and plodding, the rhythmic cadence of my trek drowned out the sounds of Mother Nature awakening. Or so I thought.
The next time I stopped to catch my breath, I noticed something pretty powerful – silence. No birds, no wind rustling through the trees, just silence. I didn't believe what I didn't hear at first. The Catskills is filled with countless birds, animals and babbling brooks, and the wind always seems to be running down the mountains and racing through the valleys. But there’s something special about the early morn of a crisp, clear winter’s day. The birds and animals stay tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the trees and rocks; the babbling brooks are hushed by the massive ice formations that slowly develop during a long, cold winter; and the wind seems to take a needed rest, gathering its strength for the next storm. Add to that the muffling effect of deep, heavy snow and you get silence – profound, wonderful silence.
Turning back toward home, I found myself head-down, intently planning each step out of fear that my weary legs might betray me at any moment. At first, the plain, white snow seemed a much less compelling canvas to gaze upon the wonders of nature until I noticed the silver-grey hull of a spent milkweed pod rolling into the crater created by my snow shoe. Then I saw a half-chewed burdock pod and scores of shells and hulls desperately ransacked of any trace of food that might remain. Then I noticed the tracks – animal tracks were everywhere. The landscape was dotted with drag-footed, cloven hoof prints that pierced through the snow, some so big that I could imagine the great, elusive buck that must have left them. The deer trails, scores of them, converged at the creek, crossing the thick ice as safely as Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea. The deep, purposeful deer tracks were juxtaposed by the soft, zig-zaggy, hip-hoppy prints of the field mice that meandered from seed pod to seed pod, searching for a hearty winter meal. I couldn't help but think that the world was alive and well, even in the dead of winter.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
I think every priest, deacon and layperson who distributes ashes aims for the “First in Line,” but several variables contribute to the final design. A few examples follow:
The Blob and the Hindu – These designs typically land on the over-enthusiastic, who come charging at us with such force that our thumbs are planted into their foreheads, rendering us unable to make the sign of the cross. Charismatics and elementary school child typically sport the Blob or the Hindu. They also appear if the minister sneezes, trips or just needs to steady him/herself as the individual approaches.
The Rorschach and the Hipster – The Rorschach and the Hipster result from moving the head while ashes are being imposed. It’s usually found among three types of people: 1) those who are nervous about receiving ashes (such as RCIA candidates, people who never come to Church, and devil worshipers); 2) parents (who are shaking their heads “no” at their children as they receive their ashes); and 3) the over-caffeinated. They can also result from the shaky hand of the individual imposing ashes (nervous first-timers, parents shaking their heads “no” at their children while distributing ashes, and the over-caffeinated).
Father’s Revenge – There are three groups of people that tempt me to impose Father’s Revenge: 1) Nasty people; and 2) the highly devout; and 3) bald men. As for nasty people (that includes troublesome children), they need something to think about on Ash Wednesday. As for the highly devout, that’s what they really want anyway. As for bald men, I’m sorry, but the canvas is just too big to let it go to waste. That said, I will not reveal whether I’ve ever resorted to imposing the Father’s Revenge, or whether I've double-dipped to complete my work on an expansive canvas.
The Mini – My thumb’s too big to pull this one off, though I try with small children. Unfortunately, it usually turns out looking like a Father’s Revenge relative to the size of their foreheads or a Blob/Hindu.
The Load Toner – The name says it all. This design is most often the result of not having dipped my thumb hard enough into the ashes. However, it can also be found on women who wear too much foundation and on nervous people (see the categories above) who stop to receive their ashes just beyond arm’s reach.
The Franciscan – As a product of a Jesuit education, this one doesn't inspire me. Truth be told, if I were going to impose a letter on someone’s forehead, a Hester Prynne “A”, an “L” (you figure it out), or my initials would be more tempting.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Two days ago I was on the receiving end of a one-two punch. In the early afternoon, I learned that I wasn’t going to receive an accolade that I thought I had earned. Punch one! I was pretty upset, but I managed to get myself through the day without telling anyone, complaining about it or dwelling on it too much. That evening, I had my regularly scheduled meeting with my Spiritual Director. I decided not to mention my day’s disappointment to him because I really didn’t want to dwell on it. Well, guess what? After an opening prayer, Ed said, “So, how are you?” I then spent the next 20 minutes blathering on about my disappointing day, how I really deserved that accolade, and how unfair it all was. Just as I was finishing up my rant, Ed, who was listening intently as he always does, said, “Sounds like a pride issue.” Punch two! Right in the solar plexus. Pride? I wasn’t ready to deal with pride, so I quickly changed the subject. But Ed’s words have nagged at me ever since. Maybe I was being prideful. Maybe it’s time for a good dusting.
Most likely, we know pride all too well, though it has a tendency to sneak up on us. Dictionary.com defines pride as “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.” The Catholic Church includes pride among avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth as a capital sin – or even scarier: a deadly sin – because of its tendency to engender other sins or vices. That’s why pride has been called the mother of all vices. Though we may never think so, pride sets us in competition with God. Pride underlies our tendency to hoard material possessions; it makes us feel like we can do everything on our own; it makes us act like we are gods or believe that God doesn’t exist.
The counter to pride is the mother of all virtues – humility. Humility is a “modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance.” Humility enables us to understand that we are creatures, created by a God who doesn’t need us – a God who created us just to love us. Through humility, we share our possessions with others in need, recognizing that every person is endowed by God with equal dignity and that every person is equally loved by God. With humility, we accept that we can’t go it alone, that we need God and others to face the challenges of this world. With humility, we place ourselves in proper orientation with God and with each other. Humility teaches us that without God, we are no more than dust. It’s no coincidence that the words “human” and “humility” are derived from the same Latin root: humus, meaning dirt, calling to mind the second creation story in Genesis where God formed man “out of the dust of the ground.” (Genesis 2:7) To be humble, we must always remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Millions of people around the world heard those very words today as we presented ourselves to have dust smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. Today is Ash Wednesday. Today begins our forty-day journey dedicated to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a quaresima dedicated to humility. Lent is a time to simplify our lives, to remember what’s important and to rid ourselves of what’s not. By emptying ourselves of worldliness – yes, pride included – we open ourselves to the closest possible intimacy with God. That’s the only way to live a truly happy life. So if you haven’t received ashes yet, take this as a gentle nudge. You don’t have to be Catholic to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. If you need a good dusting, just find yourself a local Church and line up with the rest of us sinners.
Saturday, February 14, 2015
1. These Roman Collars pinch at the throat.
2. You be Larry, I'll be Moe.
3. "Up in the air Junior Birdsman. Up in the air upside down."
4. They ran out of candles on the Feast of Saint Blase, so I blessed their throats like this?
5. I have to sleep like this with the Roman Curia wandering the halls.
6. The cooking in the Domus? Bleh!
7. No, you can't have my cross.
8. I like to cross myself like this - Saint Andrew-style.
9. And then Cardinal Burke grabbed me like this.
10. How about this for the new sign of peace?
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Allow me to give you a little insight into the making of a homily. A homily is always supposed to be relevant to the readings and to the circumstances of the day. Over the last month or so when I’ve had the occasion to preach, the circumstances or the readings led me to give some pretty heavy homilies. So I was really excited about trying to lighten things up a little bit this week, about giving a relevant but joyful homily. I began my homily preparation a few weeks ago by taking a look at today’s readings. And what did I find? Job! “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?” (Job 7: 1) “I have been assigned months of misery.” (Job 7: 3) “I shall not see happiness again.” (Job 7: 7b). So I quickly turned to the Gospel, and what did I find? A whole lot of sick and possessed people. My last chance was our second reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, and there I find Saint Paul telling me that I not only have an obligation to preach, but I should do it for free. Now that’s depressing. After much prayer over these readings, it dawned on me that Saint Paul’s admonition on preaching sits right in the middle of Job’s complaints about the difficulties of life and a Gospel passage where Jesus heals the sick and preaches the Good News. It dawned on me that we’re all called to preach from the middle.
Whether we like it or not, we’re all called to preach. You’ll recall that when we’re baptized, we take on the mission of priest, prophet and king. Well, the prophet’s job is preaching. Saint Paul “says that he did not undertake the work of preaching the Gospel of his own volition; instead, it was an obligation imposed on him by God.” And so it is with each one of us. While some of us are specifically called and trained to preach during liturgies, all of us are called to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ in every moment of our lives. “The Gospel is not only to be heard and enjoyed, but also lived and preached in word and deed.” Our words and deeds speak volumes to what we really believe – they’re heard and observed in our homes, in our towns and everywhere we go, just as Jesus’ words and deeds were heard and observed in today’s Gospel. Whether we like it or not, we’re all preachers.
So what does it mean to preach the Good News? Well, it doesn’t mean spewing forth Pollyannaish statements of unspeakable joy that ignore the harsh realities of life. If we become exclusively concerned with heaven, we risk being seen as impractical idealists. If we’re too concerned with earthly challenges, we risk becoming hopeless depressives. Remember, “Jesus never separated earth and heaven.” In fact, Jesus, the very embodiment of earth and heaven – the human and the divine – dreamt of “a time when God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), [when] earth and heaven [would] be one.” So when we preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, in our words and our deeds, we have to preach from the middle. We have to serve as a bridge between the challenges of this world and the unspeakable joy of the next. We have to stand with both feet firmly on the ground, but with our eyes fixed on the heavens, proclaiming a Gospel that “speak[s] to the here and now as well as the world to come.”
Believe it or not, we’re all perfectly suited to preach from the middle. On the one hand, we’re people of faith. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. That faith keeps our eyes fixed on the heavens in the joyful hope of eternal life. On the other hand, our life experiences, the good and the bad, keep our feet firmly on the ground and make us relevant to others. Our joys bring hope to the hopeless, and our wounds “become sources of healing for others.” So people of faith who are married preach the Gospel of Love in their homes. People of faith who are parents preach the Gospel of Life to the world. People of faith who are teens who take a stand against peer pressure preach the Gospel of Truth to those who are persecuted. People of faith who have experienced mental, physical or spiritual illness preach the Gospel of Healing to those who suffer. And people of faith who have lost a loved one preach the Gospel of Compassion to those who mourn. Each of us has unique experiences, and therefore unique messages. So my advice to you is: be yourself, and preach the good news; someone is longing to hear it. Oh, and keep it under ten minutes; no souls are saved after that.
Last week a parishioner asked me how I could smile at Mass on Sunday after assisting at a funeral on Friday. I hope you don’t interpret my smiles as hard-heartedness or a lack of sympathy or emotion. I share the same emotions that we all share, and funerals are particularly difficult for me. Though it’s not always easy, I make an effort to smile at Mass, especially when I distribute communion, because I really do believe in the Good News, and I feel privileged to serve this community and to preach the joy of the Gospel. For me, that’s something to smile about. Our faith teaches us that even in the face of suffering, death and every challenge this life throws at us, there’s always something to smile about. If we face the challenges of this life with our eyes fixed on the unspeakable joy of the next, we preach from the middle. And when we preach from the middle, every homily we preach, in word and deed, will be relevant and joyful.
 Maria A. Pascuzzi, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, Daniel Durlen, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2009) at 518.
 Patricia Datchuk Sánchez, “Good News for All,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 51, no. 8 (January 30- February 12, 2015) at 27.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 47.
 Id. At 48.
 Datchuk Sánchez at 27.
 Michael Ford, Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero (New York, Paulist Press, 2002) at 188.
Friday, January 30, 2015
A wonderful woman died last week. I was privileged to give the homily at her funeral Mass this morning.
|The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt (circa 1630)|
The first time I met Jenn Hoban she gave me the finger. The index finger that is. It was a few years ago when she pointed her finger in my face and asked, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” She told me the story of Katie’s heart surgery and wanted to know why an all-loving God would allow an innocent baby to suffer like that. In just a few words punctuated by flailing hands, I knew I was dealing with a tough a Bronx chick who grew up in an Italian neighborhood, so I wasn’t about to give her some flowery theological answer and hope that she’d just go away. So I told her the truth: “I don’t know.” It’s not a satisfying answer, I know, and I was afraid that Jenn might lose faith because of it. But that wasn’t the case at all. Jenn kept coming to Mass with her family, she stayed involved in Family PREP, and she continued to run our Thanksgiving Food Drive. She also kept asking Deacon Joe and me that same question whenever she got the chance, finger and all. Jenn understood that knowledge has its limits; there comes a time for faith.
Our Gospel reading this morning is an excerpt from the miraculous story of the Raising of Lazarus. In this passage, Martha challenges Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “Why did you let him die?” “Here is one of the most human speeches in all the Bible, for Martha spoke half with a reproach that she could not keep back, and half with a faith that nothing could shake.” Martha was distraught; she felt let down; she had her doubts, but she still had faith in Jesus; she still believed that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.
Like Martha, we have our doubts; at least I know I do. Many of us probably share Jenn’s question in one form or another, especially today: Why does God allow his children to suffer? Why does God let our loved ones die? We don’t know, and I’m not alone in saying it. Pope Francis gave that same answer to a young girl just two weeks ago. Sometimes we just don’t know. But that’s why Jenn’s question is so important to ask; it delivers us to the threshold of faith. Where catechesis and theological knowledge fail, faith steps in. Faith teaches us that there’s a time for everything under the heavens – a time for life and a time for death (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2). Faith teaches us that God is love (1 John 4: 8), and that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3: 16). Faith teaches us that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in him will never die (John 11: 25-26). Faith teaches us that the crown of righteousness waits for those who keep the faith (2 Timothy 4: 6-8). And that’s our challenge, especially today: we have to keep the faith; we have to believe in the Resurrection and the Life.
But keeping the faith doesn’t mean that we have to deny how we really feel. As I’ve said to Jenn’s family, our feelings are always legitimate; we have to honor them. But when we feel angry, let’s point that finger and tell God that we’re angry; when we’re sad, let’s tell God that we’re sad; when we doubt, let’s tell God that we doubt. Placing our burdens before God is itself an act of faith; it’s prayer. When we place our burdens before God, we open ourselves to God’s healing love, and we open ourselves to the sure knowledge that in the end “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Remember, Christ came to dwell among us to free us from our burdens and from the power of death. Have faith in him, and receive his eternal life.
Jenn had faith.
+ Jenn’s faith was crying out to me from the end of that finger as she questioned the ways of the God she loved so much.
+ Jenn’s faith inspired her evangelical wakeup calls: “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory!”
+ Jenn’s faith compelled her to fight for what she believed in, making her the loudest and toughest spectator at all the kids’ games.
+ Jenn’s faith, evident in her love of God and neighbor, gave her the strength to finish the Thanksgiving Food Drive through the pain of cancer.
+ Jenn’s faith welcomed the Lord with open arms as she received him in Holy Communion from her sick bed.
+ Jenn’s faith echoes in the advice she gave her children: “Keep on doing what you’re doing. Don’t give up.”
Sure, Jenn had her doubts, but she lived her faith. So I have every assurance of faith, that Jenn has received the gift of eternal life. And if faith isn’t enough, then eight years as a Girl Scout Troop Leader has to count for something.
About a week before she died, Jenn gave me the finger. The index finger, again. This time, her question was more of a command: “You’ll be there, right?” We were planning this funeral, and Jenn wanted to make sure that I’d be here today. I was flattered and had no problem assuring her that I’d be here. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that Jenn was challenging me to make a statement of faith; to stand before this congregation as a statement that I believe that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life. Well, here I am; and I believe. I stand here with my doubts, of course, doubts that years of theological studies haven’t answered. But thank God for Jenn Hoban and her beautiful family, who’ve taught me so much about the power of faith, and thank God for the gift of faith that sustains us through difficult times like this. There’s a time for faith. The time for faith is always now.
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8; John 11: 17-27
 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) at 91.
 Julian of Norwich, The Showings (Mahwah, Paulist Press, 1978) at 151.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
|Pope Francis hugging Glycelle|
“Why does God allow children to suffer?” Pope Francis was asked this poignant question yesterday by a 12-year old Filipina street girl named Glycelle during his Apostolic Visit to Manila. I was asked a similar question this morning: “Why is God making us go through all of this?” Katie’s question was equally as heartbreaking, and equally as impossible to answer as Glycelle’s. I’m asked this question a lot, and I often find myself asking the same question: Why?
Why does God allow suffering? Lots of answers float around out there, but truth be told, none of them are very satisfying. Some say suffering teaches us a lesson that God wants us to learn. I don’t doubt that we learn many valuable lessons in our suffering, and I don’t doubt that God can help us learn and grow from suffering. But I don’t believe that an all-powerful God who created the heavens and the earth would have to rely on suffering to teach us a lesson. One would think that God has a more creative lesson plan than that, and that an all-compassionate, all-merciful God would not resort to torturing his students to get his message across to us.
Another answer we often hear is that our suffering is punishment for some wrong that we've committed. While this response plays to our sense of justice, it’s not borne out by our experience. The “law of retribution,” as it’s called, states that the just are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Well, that sounds fair, but, as the saying goes, “life isn't fair.” It doesn't always work out that way, at least not in this life. Good and bad things happen to bad people, good and bad things happen to good people, and there’s no rhyme nor reason as to when or why or how.
Then there’s the worst possible answer to the question of why God allows us to suffer: “It’s God’s will.” (Please don’t ever say this at a funeral). This vague, falsely-providential response fails on several levels. First, God is perfect and, therefore, perfectly simple. So if “God is love” (1 John 4: 8) then God can only love. God cannot will suffering, sickness or death. It’s contrary to his nature. If God willed death, he would never have sent his Son to bring us eternal life. Second, since God can only love perfectly, God cannot love one person more or less than another. God loves everyone and everything equally – that is to say, perfectly. As a result, God cannot and does not target one person to suffer and another to live a care-free life. God’s will for everyone is for us to live in his perfect love for all of eternity.
So how do I answer this question when asked? Well, the short answer is that I don’t. I admit right off the bat, like Pope Francis did, that we don’t have the answer to that question. Then I try to put the question into the context of what we understand about God and his creation. I explain, as I did above, that God is love and that God cannot and does not cause or will suffering, sickness or death to anyone. God created us to love us and so that we could love him. But to have love, we have to have free will. Love can’t be forced; it must be freely given. And with free will came the original sin that introduced disorder into the cosmos – disorder that results in suffering, sickness and death. Our suffering, therefore, isn't the will of God or an act of God; it’s simply a condition of this disordered world. In one sense, then, suffering is an inevitable consequence of a world where free will is permitted to exist. Perhaps God accepts that a life spent loving him and being loved by him is worth the inevitable suffering that results from the free will needed to make that love possible.
God doesn't cause suffering, but he always offers us the opportunity for good to come out of suffering – he always offers us the opportunity to love. When people around us suffer, God hands us the opportunity to help them, to pray for them, to comfort them – to love them. Likewise, when we suffer, God gives us the opportunity to join with those who suffer, to pray together with them, to suffer with them – to love them. God also offers us the opportunity to allow others to minister to us in our suffering. Humbly placing ourselves into the loving care of others is itself an act of love. The trick, then, for all who suffer is to look for the God-inspired love that is being poured out for us and to seize the God-given opportunities to pour out our love for others.
Why does God allow us to suffer? I don’t know. I ask God that question all the time. He has not yet chosen to answer me. But I do know that when I and those close to me have suffered, God was with us because love was all around us. God’s love sustained us, comforted us and brought us peace. So I also know that God’s eternal love is more powerful and more enduring than any suffering this life may bring.