Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Letters to the 62 Brave Young Men with whom I had the Privilege to Stand in the Eye of the Storm. First Letter: "Only By Prayer".

"In the midst of the flames the three young men cried out with one voice: "Blessed be God. Alleluia"." (From the Breviary)

Dear Zeke,

The past couple of weeks have been very tough for our Church, haven’t they? Perhaps that’s an understatement. I know a number of your brother-seminarians are absolutely distressed with everything that has been going on. And I know it hasn’t been easy for you either. 

The experience our community had at St. Augustine’s parish, with students from the University of Miami and a number of other Catholics from the neighboring area was certainly an eye-opener for all of us. The fury - but also the hurt that we all felt as a number of them got up, not really to ask questions, but to simply express their outrage at what they feel is a situation that seems to be spiraling out of control in our Church – how could anyone among those of us present ever forget what that was like? I think it will be forever seared in my consciousness.

And there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the bad news. This morning, as I prepared for Mass, I was told that there was more of it in the papers. It took all my effort and energy to keep my focus on Christ throughout the liturgy; it was very painful. At breakfast, as I saw all of you young seminarians filing into the dining room, I wish there was some way to make all of this go away – so you could concentrate on your studies, your prayer, your apostolic work, your sports and community activities, your discernment. I wish it would all simply end so we could get on with our lives.But I know that’s wishful thinking. 

There must be a reason why God has allowed all this to happen, and why He has called you and your brother-seminarians to discern a vocation to the priesthood at this very difficult and dark juncture in the life of the Church. 

There have been a number of occasions when, looking at all of you there in the chapel, kneeling in prayer, or sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, I find myself asking God to spare all of you the heartache of this storm that has engulfed the Church. We live in very sad times. I can only imagine what each one of you is feeling, what each of you says to God when you pray, what each of you thinks whenever you are asked by family or friends how you’re doing. How painful it must be.

I am truly sorry. I’m sorry we who are in positions of leadership haven’t been able to do much to shield you from this storm. I’m sorry this is the kind of situation and context in which you and many other young men like yourself, have to make your discernment. I’m sorry the environment isn’t as pleasant and peaceful and tranquil as it was when our generation first entered seminary. Although even back then there were already dark clouds looming on the horizon. I often feel like a father wanting to shield and protect his sons; but many times, before the immensity of this storm, I too feel absolutely helpless, just like you. I am so sorry.

At the same time, these profound emotions will mean very little unless they give birth to concrete resolutions and actions that will allow you to discern the workings of God’s Spirit even in the midst of all the pain and disillusionment, concrete deeds that can shine a light even in the blackest and darkest of nights. 

Words are cheap, and emotions are fleeting. And so I ask myself, what is a good father to do? What does the Lord ask me to do? For you. His sons. His flock. His seminarians. His future priests. That, each night, is what I ask Him. What do you want me to do for the young men you called to follow in the footsteps of your Son during these most difficult and troubling of times? What would you have me do, for them? What, in this powerless state, can I do? What can we all do?

This morning at Holy Hour, I brought my heartache to the Lord and let him know once more how I was feeling about all that’s been going on around us. He was silent as usual. But then as I read the scriptures, a particular story jumped out. It was the story of the disciples attempting to heal a young boy who had been sick because of an evil spirit. Unable to heal him despite their best efforts, they went to Jesus and quietly asked why they were unsuccessful. Something in his answer really hit me. “This kind,” he says to them, “can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29) “By prayer” – I think this was the Lord’s answer to my question and distress as well. 

At the end of the gathering we had at the parish last Thursday night, a lady – who I’m sure was simply speaking from out of her own pain – said rather angrily to me, “Enough with prayers already; we want the truth!”

Yet how can we give up on praying, on asking the Lord for mercy, for forgiveness, for guidance, direction and strength?

When everything is said and done, when we’ve done absolutely everything in our power so that these dark days might never again return, it is He and He alone who will ultimately calm the storm and end the suffering His People are going through. We can only do our best, we can only cooperate, we only ask, we can only beg, we can only pray.

Rather than give up on praying then – as many who have become disillusioned and jaded feel like doing – I think we need to intensify our prayer even more. I promise to do so, and I ask that you join me in this resolution as well.

Let us tether ourselves even more strongly to the Lord, really present in our midst. Let us really commit ourselves to praying, whether this be Morning, Evening, or Night Prayer, or our personal Holy Hour and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, our celebration of the Eucharist, meditation, our reading of Scripture, or our personal devotions like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Mercy.

“The prayer of a just man,” scripture tells us, “is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) There is so much more that needs to be done – and we shall do it together, as a community, as a seminary, as group of disciples seeking to do what is right. But without bending our knees to acknowledge our utter powerlessness in the face of this storm that engulfs the Church we so love, that sense of powerlessness will consume us completely.

“Only by prayer,” Jesus told his disciples. “Only by prayer,” he says to us today. Because only by prayer do we come face to face, not just with our utter helplessness, but with the power of Him who alone can end this storm.

Let us resolve to do this together then, all of us. Let us begin by strengthening our being tethered to Jesus; let us pray as we have never done before in our lives, and let us believe that He listens and that he will bring us safely to shore.

Your older brother in Christ.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. (Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, John 6:24-35)

The human heart is a bottomless pit. It is never satisfied. The human person is an insatiable desire for more. Nothing can ever completely satisfy him, nothing can really give him the fulfillment and happiness he ultimately desires.

Where do we find our satisfaction? In material things, in power, in fame, in beauty, in wealth? They fade, they do not last, they are here today, gone tomorrow. We cannot hold onto them forever. They will give us satisfaction—there’s no doubting that. The will give us temporary happiness; they will make us forget our troubles and worries and cares and anxieties for a while. And then they fade, and we need to search for other things to fill the void. And we feel more empty than before.

The human heart is a bottomless pit. But God perhaps made it to be so—so that he alone can fill it, because he alone is that endless satisfaction, endless fulfillment, endless happiness that our bottomless heart desires. Our hearts shall remain restless until they rest in God, said Saint Augustine.

What is that food that endures for eternal life? What is that food that lasts and does not spoil? Our values, our principles, our relationships with one another, the small joys of being parents, being sons and daughters, being brothers and sisters, being friends, having friends, helping those in need, the sick, the poor, the helpless, the lonely, the forgotten, the “least of our brothers and sisters”. These things do not have a price-tag on them, and they last.

Francis of Assisi used to remind his followers: “Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received, but only that which you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.”

What food are we working for? Is it the kind that is here today and will be gone tomorrow? Is it the kind that will give us satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness, but only for a short while—only to leave us feeling even more hungry, more empty, more unfulfilled? Or is it that kind that will give us satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness that will last forever? Today Jesus tells us, there is only one source of this kind of eternal and everlasting satisfaction? He alone is its source. He alone can give it. He alone can fully satisfy the hunger of our hearts.

This coming Thursday, August 5th, a new batch of young men eager to follow Jesus’ invitation to seek that food that nourishes not just the body, but the soul, that lasts not for a moment, but for eternity, will enter the front gates of St. John Vianney Seminary.

Like other young men who have done so over the past 60 years, they will come seeking to be nourished, not by food that fades, but by Christ, the bread of Life. It is the hope and prayer of those of us tasked by the Church to guide, educate and form them, that they may come to know him intimately, love him more deeply and, by doing so, find that nourishment for their souls that lasts.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

"BY HIS WOUNDS, WE ARE HEALED." (In Touching Jesus' wounds, we too, like Thomas, can find healing for our own woundedness. Reflections on Divine Mercy Sunday, John 20:19-31)

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep...that have taken hold.”
Towards the end of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien put these words in the mouth of his character Frodo.  

There’s been a lot of “disbelief” in the Gospel readings for Mass during this first week of Easter: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the entire group being “rebuked” by Jesus for not believing Mary’s news to them. And today we hear the famous story of Thomas, doubting, proclaiming for everyone to hear: “Unless I touch his wounds, I will not believe”.

Why all the incredulity?

“There are some hurts that go too deep”. Some of life’s wounds are indeed so painful, deep, and hurtful that they seem to create a veil that covers one’s eyes, preventing him from seeing anything past the wounds themselves.

Could this be the reason the two disciples on the road to Emmaus failed to recognize Jesus even as he walked and talked with them? Perhaps their sorrow was too immense that they failed to recognize even the joyful demeanor of the stranger who suddenly joined them and spoke about the fulfillment of Scriptures to them.

Could this be the reason Mary Magdalene herself failed to recognize Jesus at the tomb, and thought instead that he was the gardener? I’ve read a commentary once that suggested it was Mary’s tear-filled eyes that actually prevented her from recognizing Jesus at first; they clouded her vision.

Could this be the reason the apostles refused to believe Mary when she first broke the news? Their sorrow and fear after all, made them lock themselves up and isolate themselves from the world. Could this be the reason Thomas wanted to see the nailmarks on Jesus’ hands and put his hand on his wounds?

It is a known fact that when a person experiences a tremendous tragedy, it casts a dark cloud over him, and for a time, all he can see is pain and sorrow, and he refuses to believe there can be anything beyond it. It is not uncommon to hear someone who has lost a loved one or experience tremendous suffering, say or wonder: “How can I go on?”

Life can lose a lot of meaning when we’re in pain.

Several Holy Weeks ago—as the church was bombarded from all sides about the scandals that have rocked our community for several decades now, the hurt and pain of it all, came very close to home. Two of my friends—both priests—called me up just to catch up on things. I love these guys dearly, they were like brothers to me in seminary, and they are still very dear friends. The thing is, they are themselves, both victims of abuse in the hands of priests—when they were very young, one when he was nine, the other when he was a teenager.

They haven’t been in active ministry for the last few years, as they’ve been quietly trying to receive healing and obtain justice for the pain and degradation they suffered at the hands of persons they trusted.

Not wanting to drag the church they still love into deeper media scrutiny and scandal, they’ve been working on their cases quietly. And because I am still in active ministry, they feel they have a connection still to the priestly life through our conversations. We still share our faith on the phone, I ask them about progress in their healing and therapy, and they continue to encourage me in my ministry.

These truly good men have been, for me, living witnesses and proofs of two things we often hear but take for granted: that the Church is truly a community of “sinners” as well as “saints”, but that no matter how sinful its members can sometimes be, one can nonetheless love it with one’s whole self; for it is, as one of them says, “the Body of Christ”.

A few years ago, on a Holy Saturday night, after coming home from the Easter Vigil, one of them called me up. The conversation was long. But at the end, I said to him:

“Happy Easter, my friend. What are you up to tomorrow?” After a rather long silence, he replied: "I haven’t had a real Easter in a while, you know. This year isn’t going to be any different. I know one day I will. I hope and pray for it everyday. I know I’ll celebrate Easter again. But not this year. Not yet."

"There are some hurts that go too deep."

Thomas’ doubt was not simply the result of a stubborn heart nor a questioning mind. It was the result of a pain too deep, the pain of having lost his friend, his Master who had been his life, and reason for living during the three years of Jesus’ ministry.

The pain of loss was too intense that it prevented him, just as it did the other disciples, from believing that Jesus had risen, that Easter had come, that his friend had really returned. 

Thomas himself was terribly wounded, and deeply broken. And yet, today, as Jesus allowed him to see the nailmarks on his hands, and put his finger and hand on his wounded side, Thomas received the healing of his wounds, and a lessening of his pain.

Often when we hear the story of Thomas, our attention is focused on his doubt. But the real focus of the gospel isn't his doubting. It’s just the lead-on to the real point, which is the restoration of his faith, the fact that he was made whole—because Jesus allowed him to touch his own wounds, and in touching his Savior’s wounds, Thomas touched his very own woundedness, his very own brokenness.

In touching Christ, in holding onto Christ, Thomas was made whole. Thomas’ sorrow was healed. Thomas’ faith was restored, allowing him to proclaim with all his heart: "My Lord, and my God!"

Whenever I talk to these two guys, or to others who have experienced the wrenching pain of betrayal on the part of the church that they love and on the part of those whom they trusted, I know no words of mine can take away their pain.

There is, even in the healing power of the priesthood, a tremendous sense of weakness and powerlessness. We aren’t the Savior after all. I know no words of consolation that I speak can heal them.

“There are some hurts that go too deep”.

Still, I do my best to tell them: “Look to Jesus. Hold onto him. Touch him that he might one day heal you. Don’t look to the institution. It isn’t bad, it serves its purpose. But it isn’t there that you’ll find your healing. Hold onto Jesus. Bind yourself to him. It’s your only hope”.

The words Jesus spoke to Thomas in today’s gospel are the same words he speaks to each one of us.

None of us is spared the wounds, hurts, and brokenness of life.

We’re all broken and wounded and pained, and sometimes, like my priest-friend, we can feel that we will never have an Easter.

And that’s why Jesus speaks those words to us: “Put your finger here and see my hands, bring your hand and put it into my side”.

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep...that have taken hold”.

In touching Jesus' wounds, we come to touch our own, and in doing so realize—contrary to these beautiful lines from Tolkien—we can in fact be mended; we can in fact be once again made whole. Let us bring our woundedness, our brokenness then to him. 

“Let us touch his wounds, that in them we too may be healed”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)