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”.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

WIND BENEATH OUR WINGS (Reflections on the Solemnity of Pentecost, Acts 2:1-11, John 20:19-23)

On the 10th of June 2005, the heaviest and most spacious civil aircraft ever built landed at the Miami International Airport amid great fanfare and a spectacular welcome. The inaugural flight into Miami had 526 passengers. The Airbus A380 is a 237-foot, 79-foot high, 421-ton plane that weighs 1.3 million pounds and can carry several hundred tons of weight.

A couple of years ago, when news that these flying behemoths were finally taking to the air, a lot of articles and TV features came out showing how some of these planes would have fitness centers, health spas, conference areas and actual beds. Folks who happened to be passing by the Miami airport on that June 2005 afternoon said it was quite a sight to see this magnificent piece of human engineering in flight and eventually landing.

I remember visiting the Smithsonian in DC some years ago and saw the exhibit of the Wright Brothers' plane. Looking at the flimsy-looking contraption, I thought it was mind-boggling to think how aviation has come a long way from that simple plane to the airliners today that carry immense loads at top speeds.

Just think of all the weight loaded into a plane whenever you fly. It’s amazing, mind-boggling even, to think that these things even get off the ground.

The fact is, every time we fly, we sit in a marvel of human technology unthinkable just a little over a hundred years ago. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s plane traveled a total of 20 feet in 12 seconds. That airbus that flew into Miami airport that June 10th can fly more than 6,000 miles nonstop while carrying 421 tons of weight.

But what’s even more amazing is that both the very light Wright brothers’ plane and the monstrous A380 have one thing in common that makes both of them fly. It’s the wind beneath their wings. Wind, a very simple element of nature, is at the very heart of what gives lift to these marvels of human ingenuity. We don’t even notice it most of the time. And yet it is what carries a plane, allowing it to travel in air.

And yet, wind alone isn’t enough. Wind alone doesn’t explain how planes fly. Whether a hundred years ago or today, flying, longer, heavier and faster, is a combination of two things: human power and the power of nature. Human technology and the simple elements of nature work together and produce things that seem impossible.

What’s true of flight, is true of faith. If technology and wind give flight, God’s grace and our cooperation create faith and give it flight.

Today’s Solemnity of Pentecost, celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The first reading tells us that after Jesus had left, they were all gathered together in one place. Imagine what the sight must have been. There they were, huddled in one room, still fearful and feeling orphaned by Jesus’ departure.

They were not yet the strong and brave men and women who would one day give their lives for the faith.

Suddenly though, a mighty wind blew and the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire. Suddenly, they felt empowered. They were no longer afraid. They burst out of that dark room and began preaching the gospel.

Like the giant Airbus 380, these men and women who had heavy hearts, suddenly felt lifted up by a mighty wind. Suddenly they felt tremendous power coursing through them. They felt they could do anything. It was a truly amazing transformation!

Pentecost is a celebration of the power that God gives us, like the wind that raises a plane and gives it lift, defying even gravity itself.

God’s Spirit is the wind beneath our wings. It is he who gives us courage and strength to defy great odds and do great things. It is he who empowers us.

“Receive the Holy Spirit”, Jesus tells us in the gospel. If we believe in those words, we will accomplish great things. And there is no limit to the wonders God can do through us.

For Pentecost is also an invitation for us to cooperate with God’s action in our lives. It invites us to leave our own dark rooms where we lock ourselves up sometimes, just like the disciples.

And we all have our dark rooms. For some it is fear, sadness, an addiction perhaps, despair, and anger. For others it is perhaps the dark room of betrayal, frustration, loneliness, selfishness and sin. Whatever it might be, Jesus invites us today to leave that room behind.

He sends us his Spirit and commands us as he once commanded Lazarus: “Come forth”.

He says to each one of us: Come out and leave the darkened areas of your life behind. Receive the Spirit and feel God’s power coursing through you. Receive the Holy Spirit and however heavy your burdens, they will be made light. Receive the Holy Spirit and see your spirit take flight.

Like the mighty Airbus 380, the Spirit can raise us up beyond anything we can imagine. Pentecost tells us that God has empowered us; and that power is there for our taking. Let us accept it into our hearts. So that like the disciples, on that magnificent Pentecost, we can finally leave the darkened rooms of our lives, and proclaim with all the faith, courage, and trust the Spirit allows us to muster: “With God I can accomplish anything”.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CLOSE YOUR EYES AND TAKE THE LEAP, GOD WILL BE THERE TO CATCH YOU. (A Letter from a Seminary Professor to his Graduating Students)

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)

"One day you’ll wake up in the morning and say to yourself, ‘Graduation’s finally here!’"

Do you remember us talking about that in one of our classes? It probably sounded strange to you at that time; three, four years, can seem like forever when one has just begun his journey in college seminary. Well, that day has arrived. Time flies! In another year, the juniors will be waking up to their own graduation day, and then the sophomores. Freshmen, your time will come too!

You now belong to a long line of young men who have passed through the halls of this seminary and have made it, not without wounds and scars, but hopefully, better, stronger, braver, and ready to face yet another chapter in your lives.

Congratulations! You’ve made it. But this isn’t the end, only another beginning. The memories of your three or four years in this place will linger strongly for a while, then like many other things in life, they will also fade and eventually, everything you’ve gone through, the pleasant and the unpleasant, will be a distant memory.
The seminary isn’t perfect; no place is. But it was, for a good number of years, your home. God is, wherever we find him. And despite the heartaches, there is much that he has done for you in seminary. Leave then with joy and gratitude in your hearts.

As you go, I’d like to share with you the two important things I believe one should take with him as he ends one chapter of his life and transitions to another.

The first is the friendships, the relationships, the connections you’ve made with one another. It’s a blessing to have crossed each other’s paths, even briefly. We really don’t know how much we influence each other’s life.

But nothing in this world will ever change the fact that for a brief moment, you knew each other, cared for each other, fought with one another, hurt one another, and hopefully, grew and matured together because of all that.

It is my sincere hope and prayer, that wherever life takes you, and whatever you become, that you always remember that in the end, it is always people that matter. It is always people that count. And it is our relationships with each other that make us who we are.

I hope that the friendship you’ve shared with each other will spur you on to love people and truly care for them, not just with words, but with your hands, heart, and everything else you’ve got. “Love”, Saint Augustine says, “and do what you will”. That is what we’re all about.

Second, take with you, what was once our constant refrain, and what I believe seminary life as a conformation to Jesus is meant to teach. There is absolutely nothing to fear. God who first inspired you to take that step leading you to this place, will continue to guide you throughout the rest of your journey.

I am grateful to have been given the chance, for these past few years, to hopefully instill that in you.

The world awaits. Life now opens up for you to embrace you and bless with you everything you envision. But only if you look at life straight in the eye, and with courage in your heart, say, “I have nothing to fear. I can do this. I can do everything with Christ who strengthens me”.

That, in the end, sums up what seminary should do for each young man who passes through its hallowed halls.

Be brave then. Jesus is always with you. He will always love you, care for you, and keep you close to his heart. Trust in that always, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing to fear; not sin, not our weakness, not our faults, not our failures.

Close your eyes and take the leap. God will always be there to catch you. Be brave. And always love people. It’s as simple as that.

Go out into the world, either as students beginning your theological formation and preparing yourselves to minister to God’s people one day, or as loving, productive, and generous young men in continuous search for God’s plan in your lives.

And know that you will always have this old seminary professor of yours wishing you well and praying for you. 

May our good and loving God keep each one of you close to his heart, always.

Monday, May 8, 2017

"I HAVE NEITHER SILVER NOR GOLD, BUT WHAT I HAVE, I GIVE TO YOU." (A Letter from a Seminary Professor to his Students about to be Ordained Deacons)

“Receive the book of the Gospels whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. 

These words will be spoken to you by the bishop on your day of ordination. On that momentous occasion, you will come to the end of several years of formation in seminary; you will become a deacon, and you will begin what I pray will be an entire lifetime of loving, generous, and humble service to the Church, the People of God.

When, on the Third Day, the women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body, they were greeted by the angel keeping watch. They heard two things that seem to be constant refrains throughout most of the post-resurrection appearances: (i) "Do not be afraid", and (ii) "Go and tell the good news".

The scriptural formula isn’t new, especially the first half. In the Old Testament, when God’s messenger appears to kings, prophets, or holy individuals, the greeting “Do not be afraid”, or “Have no fear”, always accompanies the message as the initial greeting.

Usually though, the news being relayed is for the person to whom God’s message is being given. Even during the annunciation (to Mary and Zechariah in Luke), the structure of the greeting and message is the same: Do not be afraid – I have a message from God for you. In the post-resurrection narratives, the orientation, the trajectory goes outward, but the structure remains largely the same—at least the initial greeting: “Do not be afraid”.

It is the same message that God wishes to give you, and to carry in your heart as you begin your ministry as deacons and later on, as priests. “Do not be afraid”. God will be there for you, at every step of the way, at every turn, at every single moment. He will be there at the beginning of your journey, and he will await you at its end.

In ministry, our greatest enemy isn’t fatigue, it isn’t burnout, it isn’t our weaknesses, it isn’t the burdens that we will have to carry (ours and those of others), it isn’t the challenges and difficulties that relationships of every sort will bring us, it isn’t poor health or even material need (which is the least of our worries). The greatest enemy of our ministry, our fidelity to our vocation, and our promises, is fear.

But as Jesus assures and reassures his disciples, most especially after he rose from the dead and prepared to return to his Father in heaven, there is nothing to fear. When our gaze is fixed intently on Christ, when our entire life is anchored in him, we have absolutely nothing to fear – because he will always be there for us, to strengthen us and keep our hearts on fire.

"Go and tell the good news”! The orientation of our entire life should be outward, not inward; it should be a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute proclamation of the good news that we have each experienced – the joy of being called and chosen by God. This is the heart and core of everything that we proclaim and everything that we do. But it must always go outward. The interior, St. Augustine reminds us, is far more important than what lies outside; and that is certainly true. That is always true.

At the same time,  the interior will mean very little (in the work of ministry and in the task of evangelization) if it does not make itself manifest externally: in our words, and in our deeds, but most especially in the witness of our lives.

You are the single greatest proclamation of the Gospel; not simply what you say, not simply what you do, but you. A simple yet ancient formula was recovered by the Fathers of Vatican II: Jesus is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ; and you, are the ‘sacrament’, the most visible manifestation, representative, and embodiment of the Church. 

We are the church’s heralds, the church is the herald of Christ’s gospel, and Christ is the visible manifestation of the Father. We are part of a community of believers; we are its representatives, and we must be mindful of that in everything we do. But what we represent is not an institution, but a communion, a brotherhood, a fellowship of believers, bound by the good news that Jesus is Risen.

You are forever going to be a “herald” of the Gospel of Christ.

On the day of your ordination, the bishop is going to place the scriptures in your hands and say those words, “you are a herald of the gospel”. We preach the Good News of Christ risen, Christ triumphant over death, over suffering, over pain and sorrow. We preach him with our words, but we preach him with our lives as well. 

Remember, there are five gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and your life as witness. The first four most people will not be able to read. St. Francis was said to counsel his friars, “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words”.

There is immense joy in this life you have chosen. There will be graces and blessings at every turn, but you must be ready and willing to see them, to pay attention to them, to recognize them, to savor them, and finally, to be grateful for them.

That joy, nothing will be able to take away from you, no setback, no challenge, no difficulty, no suffering, no solitude, no loneliness because your friends are gone. Nothing, absolutely nothing can take from you the joy this life brings – unless you let it.

We have the choice to be happy, fulfilled, joyful, content, and at peace in our life in the ordained ministry. Take joy in the lives of the people you shall touch – and believe me, there will be many.

You will have days when you shall be tired, exhausted, trying to catch your breath, but it will all be worth it, and you shall lie on your bed at night, truly happy, truly content, truly at peace – because you know you are continuing Christ’s work.

Enjoy celebrating the sacraments you are about to be able to celebrate, even as deacons. Those moments, especially the very first ones, with your friends, with your family, will be most memorable, most joyful, and most grace-filled. Their memories will stay with you for the rest of your priestly lives. But most of all, enter fully, or as best you can into the lives of those you will be ministering to, especially families that are grieving the loss of a loved one. Prepare your homilies well and have a great time preaching and opening the treasures of the Scriptures to the people of the parish to which you will be assigned.

Remember to be good providers; feed God’s flock well. To preach the gospel is the most important task of a priest, and that is your calling, that is your mission. Be generous with your time, diligent in your effort, and creative in preparing for Sunday Eucharist. Our people are hungry, do not let God's flock starve.

Be good fathers. Be good shepherds. Be protectors of your flock and defenders of the faithful whom God will entrust to your care. The late good bishop, Agustin Roman's motto should be a constant reminder to us: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel”. (I Cor. 9:16)

 “Believe what you read; teach what you read; and practice what you teach”.

We have spoken of the cross many times these past few days that we've been together, and you must never lose sight of the trajectory of our life in the ordained ministry. One must "minister from the cross."

But as we also tried to emphasize, ministering from the cross means knowing that it is from the vantage point of Jesus crucified that we serve others.

The primary focus of our attention is others, others, and always others – those whom God will send us to lead, guide, assist, aid, and serve. Self-negation won’t be self-negation, kenosis won’t be kenosis, and servanthood won’t be servanthood, if we remain focused on ourselves, our ideas, our sins, our wounds, our failings, our mistakes – and we will all make mistakes.

Some of these mistakes will be bigger, and your attention might even be called by your pastor and gently told about it, or maybe even by the bishop later on. We all get over them. We learn from our mistakes and we move on. Just keep doing things as best you can. And never stop finding joy and satisfaction with what you will be doing.

You know, ordination day will be exciting. But, trust me, nothing compares to waking up the following morning. Make every day of your life in the ministry, like the next day after your ordination. It will fill you with freshness, zest, enthusiasm, and energy.

You are heralds of the Good News, the proclamation that God’s Kingdom is at hand. Be that good news, to everyone you meet. Give them something to carry with them when they leave you. “Feed God’s sheep”. May they always know Christ, from having known you, in whatever way, in whatever capacity.

Be Christ to everyone you encounter, everyone you minister to. They may forget your name, but may the trace of that encounter that you shall leave them be a trace, a footprint of Christ, one that leads them to God rather than away from him.

In Christ, and in him alone, are our lives and ministries anchored. But it is also Christ, and him alone that we preach, that we give and share. 

"I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus the Nazorean, walk!” (Acts 3:6)

There will be moments, when because of sheer fatigue or whatever reason, we may find ourselves wanting to go back into our shell (whatever shells those might be – our areas of comfort, if you will). There may be moments when we feel so inadequate to the task (and honesty with our bishop is vital in this regard), but what’s truly important in ministry is “zeal for the gospel”, and the willingness to put ourselves on the line, trusting that God who “has begun the good work in us, will bring it to completion”. God will provide. He will always provide. [And never forget that very useful line, though one should never rely on it too often, ecclesia suplet, "the church supplies".]

“What I have, I give to you”. 

Be generous, God has been generous to us. “As I have done to you, so must you do for one another”, Jesus admonishes his disciples after he had washed their feet. The only fitting response to God’s love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity that we have experienced from the very moment we felt him calling us, is to give that same love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity to those he shall be sending to us, those we shall be ministering to, those whose lives we shall touch, and who shall touch our lives in return. 

“What I have, I give to you”. There was something Pope Francis said to the cardinals before the conclave – the notes of which he had apparently passed on to one of the cardinals (and he didn’t forbid him from talking about its content). The church he said, has to “go out into the world”. It cannot engage in what he called “narcissism and an unhealthy orientation that goes inward instead of outward”.

We are heralds of Christ’s gospel, and our place isn’t simply the sanctuary of our parishes, but the roads, the streets, the schools, the places of work – not that we are meant to “be there”, but the focus of our attention is evangelizing those who are there – so that they in turn can spread the net far and wide, and win the world for Christ.

Two last things:

First, allow others to minister to you. We may be heralds of the Good News, representatives of Christ, but so are others. And we must allow them to minister to us, in the same way that we minister to them. These persons, these men and women who will minister to you, are going to be the sources of God’s continued presence in your life and in your ministry. Allow others into your lives, because by doing so, you are allowing God to enter your life concretely, in the here and now.

Always be mindful of those whom God sends in order to be the sources of strength in our lives, the prophetic voices that will keep us on the straight and narrow. Never surround yourself with people who will only let you hear what you want to hear, but keep close those will make sure you hear what you have to hear.

Second, never lose the “heart of a child”. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. It all begins, is sustained, and ends, with that simple word, “believe”. It is at the core of a child-like heart.

This might sound trite, but never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop increasing in wisdom and knowledge before God. I’ve said it again and again (perhaps because we cannot say it enough) - at the heart of all the problems of the Scribes and Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and of religious leaders of every time, and of every religion is that one fault: cynicism.

Its antithesis is the very first word in that line the bishop will say to you when he places the Book of the Gospels in your hands: “Believe!"

“Unless you acquire the heart of a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God”. 

Never “grow old”, always keep your heart, your mind, your spirit, and your soul “child-like”. Never lose that sense of wonder, of amazement, of enthusiasm about life, about ministry, about yourself, about the church, about the priesthood.

The last couple of days, I shared with you five lessons I hope you take with you as we part ways today. And I quote from the Book of Acts, "silver and gold I have none, but what little I have I share with you".

(i) First, do not give in to jadedness and cynicism. (ii) Second, avoid church gossip like the plague. (iii) Third, stay close to the poor, they will be your salvation. (iv) Fourth, never dwell too long on difficulties and problems, keep your focus on Christ and on immediately finding a solution. And finally, (v) do something that will always remind you of the time before you were ordained.

Promise yourself to never give up doing something that will remind you of the time when you were still looking forward to becoming a deacon or a priest. It will keep you grounded, it will keep you humble.

Bishop John Noonan used to wash dishes and made coffee for people when he lived with us at St. John Vianney. The Cardinal Archbishop of Manila takes the bus, does his grocery shopping from time to time, and invites beggars on the street to join him at meals. Pope Francis continues to act like the pastor of a parish church. I know a priest who, despite his busy schedule, does his own laundry, except ironing his clothes, which he hates. What is yours?

May each day of your ministry, for the rest of your life, be like the morning of that first day after your ordination. May it always be like a well-tended garden, full of life, full of growth, full of color, full of hope.

Our lives in the ministry are a journey, a pilgrimage – deeper and deeper into the very heart of Christ. And along the way, there will be great joy, a lot of challenges, even difficulties and heartaches, but if we set our heart and mind, and our gaze firmly on Jesus, we have nothing to fear.

God who was there at the initial “founding moment of your vocation”, will be there at every step of the way; and he will be there at its fruitful completion.

With a heart filled with gratitude for having been given this unique grace and blessing to pray and walk with you during this most important point in the unfolding story of your calling, I bless you, as an older brother in Christ.

May the Lord, bless and keep you.
May His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May He look upon you with kindness, and give you his peace.

Remember that you will always have this old professor of yours, praying for you, hoping only happiness and fulfillment for you in your ministry, and wishing you years of joyful service in the vineyard of the Lord.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"BY HIS WOUNDS, WE ARE HEALED." (In Touching Jesus' wounds, we too, like Thomas, can find healing for our own woundedness. Thoughts on the Sunday of Divine Mercy, 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)