Saturday, December 9, 2017

WE ARE MERELY POINTERS, JESUS ALONE IS THE POINT (Reflections on John the Baptist, on the Second Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8)

A few years ago, when I began teaching at Providence College in Rhode Island, I remember standing outside the room before classes started. I wasn’t dressed in clerics that day, and I had a heavy jacket on. One of the students waiting in the hallway, turned to me and said: “You in this philosophy class too?” I nodded. “Dude", he continued, "I hope this guy Santos doesn’t turn out to be a sleeping pill, or I’d just die!” 

A few minutes later, as they took their seats in class and I took mine at the professor’s desk in front, the kid turned red as a ripe tomato when he realized I was the teacher and not one of his classmates. He came up to me after class and apologized; we both had a good laugh. I have a lot of student-stories I’ve jotted down over the years, a number of them funny, a few not-so-funny, a couple of sad ones, but always good ones.

Each time a semester ends, and every time I celebrate mass at a parish and greet people as they leave—I always find myself asking: 

“Did I make a difference?” “Did my teaching make a difference in the lives of my students?” “Did my preaching make a difference in the lives of those with whom I celebrated the Eucharist?” 

I remember attending a young friend’s graduation once; she was the youngest of five children. At the reception afterwards, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with her parents who had also become good friends. 

“We’ve done our best to teach her well, father”, the mom said to me. “My husband and I have tried really hard to share all our values and principles with our kids. Now that our youngest is done with college, we’re happy,” she paused, then continued, “but I guess there will always be that apprehension whether we’ve prepared them well for life or not. I hope so. But it’s really hard to tell”.

It is often hard to tell. At the end of this semester, I will be completing my 38th semester of teaching and seminary work. And over the past couple of days, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are still saved in one of my computer files. In fact, I still have the lists of all the students I’ve taught since I began teaching in 1995.

As I was going through my lists, I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 150 classes, taught around 4200 students—on three continents, at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 3500 masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do our words make a difference? Do we even make a difference? Did the countless words I have spoken at the courses I’ve taught, the masses I’ve celebrated, the conferences and seminars I’ve given, made any difference at all?

Do the words of advice, caution, teaching, admonition of parents who wish to impart their values and principles to their children, ultimately make a difference? What impact do the words, actions, and examples of teachers have on their students? How much of them will these young men and women remember? What effect will they have on their future lives? 

A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced young man. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I stopped hearing from him.

Years later, I learned from one of his friends that he had gotten involved in a gang, did drugs, killed someone, and was now in jail. I didn’t know the details of what had actually happened to him, but to this day, whenever I think of that former student, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that kid’s life?” 

It’s one of those questions priests, doctors, teachers, counselors, and many others in the helping professions find themselves asking every once in a while. “Did I make a difference?” And I’m sure you have found yourselves asking that question as well. Whether it’s to your family, your friends, your classmates, or the people you meet or serve in the many things you’re asked to do as seminarians.

When I was newly-ordained and was particularly concerned whether I was being effective in what I was doing, I remember talking to Albert, an old Belgian missionary priest who had been in the missions for more than 50 years. "Don't worry about it", he said. "We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All you can do is plant the seeds”. 

John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in the NT, second only to Jesus. In fact Jesus himself says, in another part of Scripture: “no man born of woman is greater than John”. (Luke 7:28) And yet, over and over again, we encounter John in Scripture saying he is no more than the messenger, “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and that he isn’t even “worthy to untie the straps” of Jesus’ sandals.

And in what are perhaps the most humble and at the same time, most powerful words spoken by any of the biblical prophets, John says, “he must increase, while I must decrease!” 

The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur once said: “The most powerful signs efface themselves”. In his effacement of himself, John became the most powerful force that leveled the path on which was to walk, the Son of God.

We—that is, every Christian man and woman, but especially seminarians, future, priests, parents, and teachers, are meant to be like John the Baptist. We are but messengers. “We are not the Christ!” Our task is merely to prepare the way, to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, and the harvesting.

We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are merely pointers. Jesus is the point. We are just road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination. Nothing we do is ever about us, but always about Christ.

[Allow me, at this point of the reflection, to speak very briefly, to my students who are future priests, and to all seminarians:

Never forget that only Jesus deserves to have a ‘fan club’. People will naturally find you ‘attractive’ in many different ways. Many priests and seminarians after all are kind, gentle, and caring. Many of us are good speakers, and not a few have pleasant personalities. People like those qualities. 

The thing is, while there’s nothing wrong in receiving their praise and admiration (and we should learn to say “thank you” sincerely, by the way, whenever we are appreciated), we also shouldn’t forget that those words of praise do not primarily belong to us.

They are first and foremost directed to Christ, not to ourselves. Granted that doesn’t always happen—some of us forget the Baptist’s words, “I am not the Christ!” That still doesn’t change the fact that without our identification with Christ, those words mean little. They’re Jesus’ ‘fans’, not ours.

And we shouldn’t be going around trying to form our own ‘groupies’. One who does so completely misses the point of the whole situation. We are meant to be ‘attractive’ to people, that is true. Adrian Van Kaam the author of “Religion and Personality” even suggests that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being “a little vain”, meaning keeping oneself well-kempt so as not to turn people off.

But neither should we forget that looking pleasant and attractive or speaking and acting well, are not meant to draw people to ourselves. That will naturally happen. What we’re really supposed to do is to lead them—when they do come to us—to Christ. He is the chief shepherd, remember. We aren’t the point. He is. Never lose sight of the Baptist’s words: “I am not the Christ!”] 

We are merely paths that should lead others to Christ who alone is the true destination. To realize this does two things to us. First it teaches us humility.

It’s God’s work that we do. Not our own. It’s God’s people we minister to, not ours. It’s God’s church, not ours. Like Moses we hear God speaking to us: “Take off your sandals. The ground you walk on is holy ground”. 

Humility teaches us to reverence all things, persons, events, and circumstances—for they are all, good or otherwise, the incognitos of God whose beloved Son redeemed the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it yet again, but only to ‘divine’ His presence in it, and share the wonders we find. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by the hand of God”. Even our lives are never completely our own.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do, and to whose providence and care we must commend everything we are.

Thus, we don’t have to keep worrying about how our words, our preaching, our teaching, our homilies, are ultimately received by people. We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering, nurturing, and harvesting. And so there is nothing for us to worry about.

As the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, once said: “Our work is in good hands”. In God’s own time, he will bring to fruition the work he had us do.

Or as Blessed John XXIII was said to pray when confronted by big problems in the church: “It’s your Church O Lord. I’m going to bed. Amen.” 

Have we made a difference? Perhaps we can never fully tell. But with humility and trust in our hearts, we know that God has made that “difference”—hopefully through us.

Friday, December 8, 2017

MINDFULNESS OF GOD'S PRESENCE (A Brief Reflection on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Lk. 1:26-38)

The church has always taught that anything said about Mary is first and foremost, a statement about Christ. Today’s feast is no exception. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a statement about Mary who had to be sinless in order to be worthy to bear the sinless Son of God.

God needed a sinless mother in order to be born and be present in our world. While being a celebration of Mary therefore, today’s feast is more importantly, a celebration of God’s constant presence in our lives.

The story in today’s gospel is a story that for hundreds of years has been a constant presence in the lives of Catholics in the prayer called the “Angelus”. 

There was a time, when at 6 am, at noon, and at 6 pm, church bells would toll to remind Catholics of the story of the angel telling Mary that she was to have a son who was to be our Savior.

Today, just as few have time to even stop to hear the pealing of church bells, few have the time to stop and acknowledge the presence of God in their lives or even of their need for a Savior. 

We live in a terribly hurried and stressed out world with little room and time for those moments when we can even stop and take a deep breath, let alone acknowledge God’s presence.

A couple of days ago I was chatting with the lady working at a nearby copy place and she was showing me all the new sophisticated equipment they had. “Wow. That’s great”! I said. “I bet you guys are happier with your newer and faster equipment”. “Well, not really”, she said. “It seems that the faster our tools get, the less we accomplish. And the less time we have to even breathe. It seems the better our tools get, the more stressful things get too. Isn’t that strange"?

Whether we like it or not, that is the kind of world we live in: fast-paced, efficient, product-oriented, often with very little room and time to step back and think about the more important things in life. And from all indications, that is how our world will continue to be. There’s no turning back.

But while we will never be able to turn back the hands of time to a gentler, more quiet age that was more open to acknowledging God’s presence through something as simple as the ringing of church bells, to a time when life was perhaps less harried and stressful, we can still pause every once in a while, and remember that two thousand years ago, God came to a simple young girl at Nazareth who gave birth to his Son.

Perhaps by doing so, we will be reminded that God still comes to us today, even in our terribly fast-paced lives—if only we would stop every once in a while and acknowledge his presence, invite him in, and allow him to transform our lives.

Mary did. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

OF KINGS, PROSTITUTES, THIEVES, AND PAUPERS (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ, a Different Kind of King)

It is perhaps one of the strangest things about Jesus that the very last recorded exchange of words he had before he died, was a conversation, not with a decent and respectable person, but with a criminal, with Dismas the thief. "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, Dismas says. To which this crucified king replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” 

Perhaps Jesus was just being consistent, simply being himself, merely being true to what he had been sent by his Father to do.

After all, the very first words that came out of his mouth, the very first utterance from his lips when he began his ministry were: "I was sent to bring glad tidings to the poor". 

How often do we, his followers, forget that!

And all throughout his life, it was to them that he felt especially close: the poor, the hungry, the sick, the sorrowing, the lonely, the lost, the unclean, the unacceptable, the shunned, the forsaken - all those at the margins of society.

And he tells us that at the end of ours, there will be one, and only one, litmus test of our commitment to him: 

"I was hungry and you gave food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you". 

How often do we forget! Tomorrow, Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. What kind of king? Not the kind we too often celebrate. 

Of course, he conquered sin, of course he was victorious over death, of course he reigns in the hearts and minds of those who seek to follow him. Yet sadly, our imagery often remains mired in the very kind of kingship he rejected and had asked his own disciples to shun.

When I was new in seminary, I will never forget what my old spiritual director said to me, partly in jest perhaps, though hiding a reality he probably found rather uncomfortable, even inconsistent. 

"Tomorrow is Christ the King", he said. "Notice all the gold and shiny things in the sanctuary", he added with a grin. I knew what Father John meant. I see it to this day.

Jesus was a different kind of king. Yet, how often we forget!

The closest I ever got to a seeing a real King, was when I was a student in Belgium. I saw the funeral of King Boudouin who was somewhat of a personal hero. He was a very devout and faithful Christian.

On April 4, 1990, when the Belgian government passed legislation to legalize abortion, Boudouin declared that he could not, in conscience, sign the law. So he decided to abdicate rather than agree with something his faith and his conscience told him was simply wrong.

The Belgian parliament passed the law without him, but because of their tremendous respect and love for him, they reinstated him as king the very next day. And admiration for him just grew.

But during Boudouin’s funeral in August of 1993, something even more unusual happened. There were several eulogies that were made by heads of state and close personal friends at the end of the liturgy. The most memorable, however, was done by a woman who stood up at the cathedral pulpit and said, “I was a prostitute”. 

You could hear the entire congregation gasping. Whose idea was it to pick her to give a eulogy?! Then the woman spoke of how she came to Belgium looking for a job in order to provide for her poor family, but instead found herself sold into prostitution. King Boudouin learned about her case and saved her.

While her story was compelling, you could tell people were uneasy that a former prostitute was standing in front of them, telling them how thankful she was to their King who to her was simply this kind man who had rescued her. Men of dignity and power do not normally associate with these kinds of persons. 

I can tell you that it was an even more uneasy moment for me to listen to her speak—because she was from the Philippines! We ourselves don’t normally want to be associated in any way with people like that.

And yet Boudouin was a different kind of King. He was more like Christ in today’s gospel. And I guess only ‘real’ kings can do what they did.

In life, Jesus associated with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and with other undesirable persons in his society. He always looked out for those who were lost. In the final moments of his life, the last person he chose to associate with was also an outcast.

The Parable of the Last Judgment puts before us and celebrates a totally different kind of King: one who refused to identify himself with the powerful, the wealthy, and the self-righteous of this world, but with the poor, the sinner and the undesirable. 

The life and death of Jesus turns the worldly idea of kingship on its head and demolishes it completely—at least for those who wish to identify themselves as his true followers.

The Solemnity of Christ the King reminds us that a lot of the times, Jesus reveals himself in persons and circumstances we least expect to find him, concealing himself in those we sometimes find unlovable. The outcasts of this earth are his “sacraments,” veiling him in the abjectness of their condition.

Consider the revealing ‘twist’ in the parable—something seldom noticed even in homilies. The gulf that separated the righteous from the unrighteous on Judgment Day, that thing that made them so different from each other, was paradoxically, one and the same: both failed to recognize that it was the King they were aiding. In that they were the same. 

But whereas the righteous aided despite their failure of recognition, the unrighteous failed to aid precisely because of their failure to recognize. Whereas the former would have aided, even if it had not been Christ, the latter would only have helped, if it had in fact been Christ.

What makes us acceptable to the King on that day when we shall see him face to face, is not how strongly we fastened ourselves to Him in this life, but how strongly we fastened ourselves to those in whom he dwelt hidden from our eyes.

The poor are the incognitos of Christ, veiling his glory with their pained and suffering humanity. Each time we wipe their tears, bind their wounds, and make life a little better for them, it is Christ’s tears we wipe, his wounds we bind, and his life we continue in the here and now.

And so we have to open not only our eyes, but most especially our hearts. For Jesus is there, in the poor, the needy, the sorrowing, the outcast, the unloved, the unlovable, the difficult, the pained and wounded. He is there in anyone who is in “need”.

He is in that difficult co-worker you try to be kind to. He is in your spouse when he or she has had a bad day and isn’t being his or her best self. He is in your children, even when they act up or disobey. He is in that student of mine who’s having a tough time in class or is indifferent, or sometimes even disruptive. He is in your teenage son or daughter who often finds his or her stage in life confusing. He is in that superior or parishioner who’s giving you a hard time. And he is in that poor family you might consider giving some cheer during the coming holidays.

Christ the King, identified himself with the lowliest of the low so that we can in turn, identify him in each other, especially the weakest among us. And he identifies himself with the weakest among us, so that one day, when we see him face to face, he can say to us: 

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you. For whatsoever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, this you have done unto me”.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

"With the 'failures' and 'losers' of this world, I choose to cast my lot." (Reflections on the Beatitudes, on the Solemnity of All Saints, November 1st, Matthew 5:1-12)


I was once asked a very interesting question by one very ‘perplexed’ student in a theology class at university a number of years ago.  We were analyzing the structure of the Beatitudes where Jesus pronounced those who are poor, meek, humble, and persecuted to be blessed and proclaimed woe on the proud, vain, arrogant, and mighty, one of my students raised his hands and asked: “Father, do you think anyone who takes Jesus’ advice seriously can survive in the world?” 

Consider the wording of the Beatitudes:

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you."

My student wasn’t asking a trick question; nor was he simply trying to be argumentative. It was a sincere question. Could anyone seriously follow the prescriptions of the Beatitudes? Can anyone survive this life if he did? 

Even I, had to pause and consider my answer—as I somehow recalled something the Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli said as a word of advice to would-be rulers: “It isn’t necessary to be good and righteous, in fact it can actually work against you; what is necessary is to act as if you were (to give people the impression that you are), but to always be willing and ready to act otherwise if that becomes necessary”.

Still, before I managed to reply to my student's question, he followed up with a statement: “Good guys finish last, Father. Good guys finish last. The bad boy always gets the girl”. Everyone began to laugh.

Do we think that’s true? Do good guys really finish last? Before we answer, perhaps we need to consider that in society, most often than not, those who are cunning, devious, and clever, are the ones who do seem to succeed. Even the psalms, written thousands of years ago, make that observation: “Why, O Lord, do the evil prosper?”

Does the bad guy really win? That would make good guys losers, wouldn’t it? People like Socrates, unjustly condemned to drink poison, Sir Thomas More, beheaded for standing firm in his principles, Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated for his unyielding stand for peace, Sister Dorothy Stang, 73-year old American nun from Ohio, shot in the face in Peru, just a few years ago, for her defense of poor farmers, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who defended the rights of the poor in El Salvador, felled by bullets while celebrating Mass, a number of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus; the list goes on and on, and it would certainly include the men and women commemorated in today’s Solemnity of All Saints.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a rather dark and negative view of human nature is known to have said, homo homini lupus, “man is a wolf to other men”. And so we either aggressively assert ourselves and grab what we want, before others beat us to it.

In a dog-eat-dog world, where the rule is “survival of the fittest”, “big fish eat little fish”, and where the basic law of evolution is “natural selection” in which the strong survive and the weak die, it would indeed seem that “the good guy finishes last”.

But is there any other way? “Nature does not care for the individual”, one of my philosophy professors in Louvain used to say. “Nature cares only for the species, for its survival; and it does this by favoring the strong”.

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche would agree. This is part of the reason he called Christianity, with its commandment to love and care for “the least” in this world, a “disease”. If all were to obey the commandments of Christ, Nietzsche argued, humanity would eventually be wiped out. Nature demands the survival of the fittest. Natural selection dictates that the strong must overcome the weak; the weak must be weeded out so that the strong may increase in number. 

If you have any doubts about this, just observe a litter of puppies or kittens, and notice how the runt fares. Already the smallest and weakest, and therefore the one needing nourishment most, it’s very smallness and weakness almost guarantees that it won’t get what it needs unless someone intervenes. But why protect the runt, when by doing so, one only guarantees that the undesirable genes will be passed on to the next generation? Nature, left on its own, will see to it that the weak are not allowed to go on; it is our humanity, our compassion, that somehow "thwarts" it.

Yet, Machiavelli writes in The Prince:

“Human persons are contemptible, simple-minded and so dominated by their present needs, that one who deceives will always find one who will allow himself to be deceived... Since men are a contemptible lot and would not keep their promises to you, you too need not keep yours to them”.

A number of years ago, a lady whom I knew since my seminary days was given an award by a Catholic Foundation for her work with the poor and needy. She shared the award and the substantial sum that came with it, with another person. Now she herself was poor. In fact, we would every once in a while help her out with her finances. When she received the check, we encouraged her to save some for herself, for her future health needs, and just to make sure she’ll have something for a rainy day. Instead, she went to archbishop, told him she was giving him the money and that she wanted it to go to charity. All of it!

We would probably call that noble. The world would call it stupid, crazy, irresponsible, impractical, and ridiculous. When we asked why she gave all the money away and didn’t even think of keeping some so that she’d have something to use if she got sick, her answer nearly brought me to tears: “That’s why I have you guys, right. You’ve been very good to me. I take care of other people. I’m sure there will be people who will take care of me. My life has always been in God’s hands”. Even I struggle to have that kind of faith.

[When she passed away about two years ago, having suffered tremendously from cancer, I came to celebrate one of the Masses in her memory. In the homily, I spoke of how I and many other priests - whom she knew as seminary students years before - were inspired by her simplicity, faith, and generosity to likewise seek to give ourselves completely to the vocation of serving God's People. At the end of the Mass, as I greeted the people leaving, one lady came up and thanked me for my "kind words". She introduced herself as one of the relatives of the deceased, and then she said: "You know she would've had a little more money to spend on herself when she got sick, if she didn't give away all that award money years ago. She was such a devout woman, but that just wasn't very smart". I was stunned; though somehow I understood the sentiment.]

Do good guys really finish last? Are they really losers? In the gospel account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, Jesus is shown in his glory together with Moses (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Law) and Elijah (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Prophets). His clothes become dazzling white and the voice of God the Father is heard saying: “This is my beloved Son. My Chosen One. Listen to him”. The apostles are dazzled and amazed.

Before this particular passage though, comes Jesus’ words to his disciples, telling them the cost of following him. “If anyone wishes to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me… What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” These were very hard and difficult words for the disciples to accept. They all wanted a powerful Savior and Messiah, not a suffering one who would be killed. They wanted glory and power.

In the very same chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the “Messiah, the Son of God”. The gospel of Matthew says that when Jesus tells Peter that he is going to suffer, Peter rebukes him. “God forbid that you suffer”, Peter tells Jesus. To which Jesus responds: “Get thee behind me Satan. Your thoughts are not God’s thoughts, but the thoughts of man”.

Even for the disciples, it was hard to understand and accept the way of Jesus. The way of the world, the way of power, wealth, and glory, was more attractive. Why suffer when you can be powerful and strong? Why do it the hard way when there’s an easier way? Why be the good guy who loses? Why can’t we be the bad guy who wins?

In this view, Jesus would be the world’s greatest loser. But so would the countless men and women whose feast is celebrated today—the numberless, often faceless and anonymous band of persons who sought with all their might, and against this world’s judgment, to live lives rooted deeply in Christ; they would all be losers in the face of the world.

And who would be the winners? Stalin, Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot of Cambodia, the Duvaliers of Haiti, the dictator Marcos, the bigshots at Enron who robbed people of their hard earned money, Bernard Madoff who stole from thousands of people in the largest pyramid scam in history, the greedy people at the big banks, at Wall Street?

If these are the kinds of people the world judges to be winners, then I’d rather have my name on the list of “losers”. I’d rather cast my lot with those the world would judge its “losers” and “failures”. 

Not only because, as the Beatitudes in the gospel proclaim, a great reversal is due in which those who are judged successful in this world are to be the failures in the next, but because these men and women stood for something that lasts, something that transcends the fleeting character of the good and pleasant things of this world, something that “rust cannot corrode, moths cannot eat, and thieves cannot steal”, something that lasts unto eternity. 

Now that is real wealth; that is true success; that is genuine treasure

In the gospels, the Father confirms Jesus in his mission—one that in the eyes of the world will be nothing but a failure—“You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased”. But it wasn’t only a confirmation of his task, it was also an affirmation, a way of strengthening his Son for the difficult task that lay ahead. It was Father’s way of telling Jesus (and all those who seek to follow him): “Be strong. You have chosen to follow my way and not the way of the world. And because of that I will remain with you, forever”.

We can choose the way of the world. We can take our chances and say, “Oh, I can have both. I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s nothing wrong with being worldly from time to time, right?” As long as we realize that our choices have consequences, we are free to do and choose what we want. But we must always bear in mind that for Jesus, there is no “middle ground”. We either choose him, or we choose the world. We either cast our lot with the men and women whose heroism and resolve, we commemorate today; or we ally ourselves with those the Machiavelli's, Hobbes', and Nietzsche's of this world proclaim champions. Shall it be Christ, or Machiavelli? We just can't have both. 

If we choose Christ's way, the world will probably judge us losers—just as it has most likely judged the band of holy men and women we commemorate today. And that can be very hard. 

If we choose the way of Jesus, our only reward will be this: when we finally come face to face with the God who shall judge us, we shall hear him speak to us in the words he spoke to Jesus, his Son: “You are my beloved child. You are my chosen one. In you, I am well pleased”. On that day, it’s the world (and its Machiavelli's, Hobbes' and Nietzsche's ) that will be judged the loser, not us.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you.
Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

TO NEVER BE CALLED "DAD". (Ruminations on Generativity, Fatherhood, and Jesus' Command to Peter to "Feed my sheep", on Father's Day 2017)

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?... Feed my sheep". (John 21:17)

These past couple of months, yet another group of my former students were  ordained, some to the transitional diaconate, the rest to the priesthood. They're all  solid, extremely generous and kind young men who, even as students in seminary, showed a tremendous love and care for the church, the People of God.  Those who have now become priests will find themselves addressed, for the rest of their lives, as “Father”.

A couple of years ago, while back home in Manila, I had the opportunity to get together with some grade school classmates whom I haven’t seen in years. Over dinner, and after recounting old stories about ourselves as students, the teachers we had and some of the silly and crazy things we did as kids, we shared stories of what we’ve been doing since we parted ways after graduation: our line of work, the relationships we’ve had, family, plans for the future.

At one point the conversation turned to the topic of children. (They were all married and had kids.) One of my friends has a daughter who’s already in her twenties, another just had a baby (whose photos he and his beautiful wife posted online just a few weeks before), another spoke of how proud he was about his very bright daughters, still another told us his young boy was going to school at our own alma mater. 

Eventually of course—and I knew it was bound to happen—one of my friends looked at me and said, “Hey, you and Dick (a classmate who wasn’t present) are the only ones who aren’t married yet!” And then they started laughing. “What’s it like?” one of them asked. “You know, being a priest…not having a wife, not having kids…” he continued.

“What’s it like?” There we were, five men, four who were proud fathers, dads, and one whom each of the four fathers called “father” yet had no biological children of his own. I probably could’ve asked each of them the same question, “What’s it like? Being married…having children?” But I didn’t have to. There was no need. It was enough to just sit there with these good friends, and for just a few brief seconds, to allow the depth, but also the humor of the moment to sink in. They were fathers; but so was I. They had children, and so did I. They were proud of their kids; I’ve always found joy in the students and people whose lives, even briefly, cross mine.

Yesterday, at the gym, one of the guys working out had two of his young children in tow, a boy who was probably eight or nine, and a little girl who I’m guessing was five or six. His daughter he left in the play area where a lady takes care of the little tykes who tag along with their parents; but his son, he took along with him, and both father and son got on two adjacent treadmills. At one point, the little boy pushed the stop button and said, “Dad, I’m done”, then he got off and sat on the edge of the machine, waiting for his father to finish.

"What a beautiful sight", I thought, “a dad and his son, doing something fun together”. Then, out of nowhere, came a thought that’s crossed my mind on many occasions: “I’m never going to be called ‘dad’. No one’s ever going to call me ‘dad’.” [But then I suddenly remembered I was halfway through a rep with a 120-pound curl bar - which I almost dropped. Reflecting or even thinking too much during workouts is never a good idea; that’s how injuries happen. You don’t think; you just lift.]

One of the Sunday Gospel readings after Easter, records what is perhaps one of the most moving exchanges between Jesus and the disciple who was to eventually lead the apostolic band that was to be left behind. Peter who, in many places in each of the four gospels is portrayed as someone who seemingly opens his mouth only to put his foot in it, is shown in that particular reading as someone whose journey towards a deeper understanding of his response to Jesus’ call, takes a more profound and significant turn. 

"Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times. And three times Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you”. (Some scripture commentators have said that the three questions and the three accompanying replies whereby Peter professes his love for Jesus are meant to signify, on the one hand, Jesus’ forgiveness of Peter for the latter’s threefold denial, and on the other hand, Peter’s overcoming of the very fear, weakness, and lack of faith that had led him to deny Jesus in the first place.)

After each of the questions, of course, and after each reply, Jesus gives Peter the same commission given to everyone who seeks to be a shepherd of God’s people—we who are priests, and those who have the great privilege to have sons or daughters call them “dad”: “Feed my sheep”. 

Years ago, as a seminary student, I remember telling my spiritual director that I thought I could be a good dad, and that part of me wishes I could in fact have children of my own. Whenever I see former seminary classmates who have eventually discerned a call to married life, who happen to have a son or daughter in tow, or guys who have their kids along with them, like at the gym yesterday, I couldn’t help—to this day—but remember what I said to my spiritual director.

But I also recall, quite vividly in fact, what his reply to me was. “It’s good to feel that way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with such thoughts or feelings. They’re normal. In fact, if you didn’t feel or think that way, I’d be really concerned”. 

Then Father John spoke those words that I’d hear, again and again, spoken—albeit in different ways—by many good and amazing priests I’ve encountered both as a student and later on  as a priest myself: “A good priest is one who would also be a good dad. And a good dad is really much like a good shepherd of God’s people”. 

A father is the shepherd of his family, the provider, protector, model and guide to his children and his wife. A priest—one who is himself called “father”—acts and serves in very much the same capacity, performs the same role, and is tasked with not much different a responsibility, not to a wife and biological children of course, but to Christ’s flock briefly entrusted to his care, protection, and guidance. “A good priest is one who would also be a good dad”. 

What’s a good father like though? Over the years, as I’ve journeyed with students and other men and women who have come to see me either for spiritual direction or counseling, I’ve jotted down some thoughts they’ve shared with me about what they thought a good father would be like. On a number of occasions these individuals have in fact struggled with their own difficulties and challenges with their own fathers, and so a good portion of what they’ve shared actually involves what they “wished” their fathers could have been.

Last night, before going to bed, with the memory of that dad and his kids at the gym still lingering in my mind, I pulled out my file (Yes, I have files on my computer going all the way back to 1991 when I was still a college seminarian) and read through some of the notes I’ve written. There were pages and pages of them, so I thought I’d simply include a few of the significant ones; the rest I’ll share later, in a book perhaps, if I find the time to write one:

A good father is one who sets the vision for his family, orients his relationship with his wife as well as his children towards everything that is good, materially, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. And the highest good of course is God himself—who must be a father’s pattern of steadfastness, strength, care, and love.

This isn’t always easy, and the challenges one building a family may encounter can be immense. But a good father remains strong and steadfast. He must possess a focus and determination so fierce and a commitment and dedication so unshakeable that his wife and children will know that with him by their side, “all shall be well”.

A good father strives to be the primary role model and guide—bar none—after which his sons and daughters can pattern their own lives. He must be their rock of certainty, their source of clarity, amidst the confusions and uncertainties of life, their pillar of strength when weakness assails them, their fortress in times of distress, and their ever-present source of courage.

His wife and his children must therefore know that they can always trust him and rely on his presence. He must be a man of his word, who not only keeps his promises but is likewise willing and ready to stand by the values and principles upon which he has built his own life.

A good father learns to be a good communicator, with his wife and his children. “Learns” – because this isn’t always easy for us men, especially when it comes to what we feel. I’ve had a number of people, both men and women, who have, during spiritual direction or counseling, lamented the fact that they’ve never heard their fathers tell them he “loved” them. It’s an all-too common thing unfortunately; especially since we men believe that “actions speak louder than words”.

A good father though is one who is brave enough to let his children know, not only what he thinks, but what he feels. This in no way detracts from our masculinity; in fact it intensifies it even more given that it involves conquering something we often dread doing. To speak our minds clearly and open our hearts to our children, encourages them to do the same. It gives them confidence and strength, and teaches them that there is power even in vulnerability.
 
A good father never raises his hand in anger. He may reprimand, admonish, at times even reproach and punish in order to keep his children on the “straight and narrow”. While on occasion, he may even find a need to seriously consider the scriptural warning about “spoiling a child” when one “spares the rod”, he will never allow his anger or a bad mood to cloud either the reason for reprimanding his child, or the love he has for him, which led him to impose punishment in the first place.

A good father knows when and how to say he’s sorry, both to his wife when he has offended her, and to his children, when he has made a mistake, has been too harsh towards them, or fails them in any way. There is perhaps nothing sweeter to a child, nothing more helpful in teaching him true humanity, especially the young whose minds are at the early stages of growth and maturity, than sincere and heartfelt words of apology from a father.

For in admitting his mistakes, whatever these might be, a father shows not weakness, but a profound strength which becomes a lesson to his children in being realistic about life. Apologizing for a mistake allows a child the opportunity to know that no matter how lofty one’s ideals might be—and they should be—one can fall short. But that’s alright; because one can admit one’s failing, survive the fall, pick up the pieces, and still look forward to something better.

Similarly, there is perhaps nothing more hurtful and confusing to a child, nothing more detrimental to his growth as a well-adjusted human being, than a father’s awkward silence or, worse, defensiveness, after having committed a mistake.

A good father is always present; he must always be “there” for his children. There is nothing more helpful in building a child’s inner resources of strength, courage, and confidence in taking the risks that are necessary for a happy and fulfilled life than the awareness of his or her father’s presence. There are two types of ‘presence’ of course: physical and spiritual. While a father may not always be physically present to his children (there are many demands placed on the shoulder of a provider), he must be “present” to them nonetheless, i.e. they must know and feel that they are secure, cared for, loved, and most of all, protected, even if he isn’t actually around.

Similarly, there is nothing more harmful to a child than that lack of a sense of security, that feeling that things aren’t going to be alright, that he or she has to somehow fend for himself because that “storehouse” of courage, strength, determination, and confidence—which a father ought to be—is simply not there.

A good father does his best to become a true “friend” to his children without at the same time, losing sight of the fact that he will always be more than that; for he is the head of his family, its guide, its shepherd.

A good father must never cease to learn, to grow in wisdom, to mature, to expand his horizon, to enlarge his consciousness and awareness of the world, especially the world which his children inhabit, and which they are to inherit. His care for his family must therefore extend to a care for others, for society, and for the world. This, after all, is the legacy he shall be leaving behind. As such, he is his children’s first and foremost teacher, and the single greatest lesson he can teach them is the lesson of growth, of expansion, of enlargement, of transcendence, and of courage in the face of all these.

With the grace of God, my dad is alive and well; last night, as I put my thoughts on this piece in writing, I said a prayer of thanks to God, for him, for all the priests who have been “fathers” to me, for all my friends and former classmates who are now fathers themselves, for all the fathers in the world, and finally, for my group of students (on both sides of the planet) who are about to be ordained priests and who shall, every single day of their lives, be asked by Jesus the same question and given the same task he gave to Peter: “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep”. 

For nineteen years now, people have addressed me as “father”; but I shall never be called “dad”. That is a fact, an unchangeable reality of the life I have chosen, a life I continue to believe God has desired for me. And there is tremendous joy in knowing that one’s life is offered for something one believes in, with every fiber of his being. But such faith, confidence, and trust, do not in any way erase the thoughts nor the gentle sting that sometimes accompanies them, whenever I am among friends who are fathers, or whenever I see a dad with his son or his daughter.

I shall never be called “dad”. But does it really matter? On the 19th of September, 1998, during my doctoral defense at the University in Louvain, my dissertation moderator, a wonderful philosophy professor and a truly great and dedicated priest, Professor Jan Van der Veken, who was set to retire that year, spoke words that I made certain I wrote in my journal as soon as the defense and the activities that followed were over, for I knew even back then that they would be a source of strength for me in this path I have chosen to take. 

Before he introduced me and my work to the assembly gathered for the occasion, Jan Van Der Veken said: 

"Ferdinand’s doctoral work is one of the last ones I shall be directing. This is my final year as a professor here at the university, I am set to retire. I have taught for almost four decades, I have taught hundreds of students. I do not feel ready to retire; but I have to, even if I do not feel that old. It is rather difficult to think about. But I console myself with the thought that wherever Ferdinand goes, I shall go. Wherever he is, I shall be. Whoever he teaches, I shall teach. Whose lives he touches, I shall touch. I shall live on in my students. I shall live forever in those whose lives I have touched and whose lives have crossed and touched mine". 

I shall never be called “dad”, but like Jan Van der Veken, like the many teachers, professors, and priests whose lives have formed and touched so many, I too shall live on in those whose paths shall cross mine. Such is the reality of this life, this good, amazing, wonderful, joy-filled, and truly blessed and happy life, this life of a priest, this life of someone who shall never be called “dad”.  

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