Saturday, April 7, 2018

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

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

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

Why all the incredulity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There are some hurts that go too deep."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are some hurts that go too deep”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 1, 2018


St. Paul asks a very interesting question in one of his Letters:

What would it be like if Jesus did not rise from the dead?

In the last chapter of his book, “The Myth of Sysiphus”, the atheist philosopher, Albert Camus tells of the legend of Sisyphus who defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human ever needed to die again. But when Death was finally liberated and it came time for Sisyphus himself to die, he came up with a scheme that would enable him to escape from the underworld.

He was captured by the gods, of course. For his punishment he was made to push a rock up a mountain; once on the top, however, the rock would roll down again and Sisyphus has to start over.

Sisyphus, Camus says, is like an absurd hero who tries to live life to fullest, is in fear of death, and is thus condemned to an eternal but meaningless task.

Perhaps Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” can give us a possible way of answering Paul’s question. If Christ did not rise from the dead nothing that we do, whether big or small, nothing of our accomplishments, however important, will mean anything. 

And we shall live, be born, grow up, become someone important perhaps, and then die, just like everyone else, everything we lived for erased and ultimately meaningless.

Like Sisyphus, the whole of our existence would be like pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down, leaving us with no choice but to push it up again, and again, and again.

What would it be like if Jesus did not rise from the dead? 

St. Paul answers his own question: “If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we have lived in vain, and we have believed in vain".

But Jesus did rise from the dead! He did leave the tomb. He did conquer death. And so our life is neither a staircase leading nowhere or a meaningless exercise like that of Sysiphus and his rock. 

Because of Easter, because of our hope in the resurrection, our lives find their ultimate purpose and destiny in God, in life eternal.

But also because of Easter, nothing that we do in this life is ever meaningless, however big or small, nothing we do is ever done in vain.

Because of Easter, every good deed we make, even the smallest act of kindness, becomes something of tremendous value.

The road of life, the road we all must travel, can often be up-hill; filled with pot-holes of suffering, sidetracked by suffering and failure, even detoured by moments of pain and defeat.

And yet we can endure the harshness of our journey because of the hope we celebrate today: Christ Risen, endless glory, lasting peace, eternal happiness.

Happy Easter!

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. 

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