Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reflections on the Priestly Life, Ten Years into the Ministry, December 21, 2008 (St. John Vianney Seminary, Miami)

On the 21st of September 1998, I left Louvain, Belgium after six years of priestly formation at the American College and further studies at the oldest Catholic university in the world, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Two days before, on the 19th of September, I defended my doctoral dissertation at the Higher Institute of Philosophy. It was on Process Thought and had the title: “The Self and Its Others”.

The day before I left—on the 20th—I said goodbye to my moderator, Professor Jan Van der Veken, one of the kindest and most caring men I have met in my life. He also happened to be a priest who valued learning and education just as much as he loved his work and ministry as a priest. I always thought it was an amazing combination—teaching philosophy and ministering to the students of the university. Professor Van der Veken used to organize student meetings at his house on the Predikherenstraat. Discussions ranged from philosophical to theological topics, and to just about anything that mattered in the lives of his students as well as colleagues. Some of the best philosophical conversations I’ve had were at his house, surrounded by his collection of owls, from paintings to figurines. They were all over the place.

As soon as I arrived back in the archdiocese, I was assigned as spiritual director to the youngest students in the seminary. These were high school graduates, both from the high school seminary as well as the regular high schools. I was also assigned to take care of the archdiocesan library, a ministry I did for five whole years.

On the 21st of December 1998, the cardinal archbishop of Manila, Jaime Sin, ordained me to the priesthood at the Manila Cathedral. [I was ordained a deacon in Louvain the previous year, on the 6th of December, 1997, the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.] My ordination to the priesthood was quite a memorable event. I was naturally excited of course. But it was made even more memorable because of two things. First, the country was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the ordination of the first Filipino diocesan priest; and second, it was the cardinal’s first public appearance after having been hospitalized for more than two months. [Cardinal Jaime Sin died in 2003. God rest his soul.]

The cathedral was packed, even if I was the only one being ordained. (Class ordinations in the archdiocese are always held in September, but I guess the authorities thought ordaining me in December would be a good way to celebrate the cardinal’s recovery.) A lot of government officials were around for the celebration—not because of me of course, but because they wanted to see the cardinal and wish him well after his hospitalization. The media was also out in full-force—again, because of the cardinal. Though I did land on the front page of all the national newspapers the following day—with my back to the camera, as most of the photos were of the cardinal laying his hands on my head during the ordination rite.

My whole family was there, my parents, brothers and sisters, nephew and niece. So were my teachers in grade school and high school. In fact I have a photo with all of them. My classmate from Louvain, Fr. Mark Bowers was there too; he preached the homily at my first Mass. Three other friends from Louvain, Fr. Bernard Healey, Fr. Doug Klein, and Fr. Kenny Steckler came two weeks earlier to visit but had to return to the States before the ordination as they were needed at their parishes for Advent activities. Still, it was good for them to come and see me before I finally got ordained.

I was ordained in the morning of December 21, 2008. That evening I celebrated my first mass at the seminary, attended by family, friends, and of course the whole seminary community. For the next five years, I was assigned to do formation ministry at the seminary of the archdiocese. It was job I enjoyed so much, notwithstanding the fact that my assignments kept increasing with every single year. After being spiritual director for two years, I was made vocation director, then human formation director, then director of pastoral formation. After that I was made dean of men and director of the college department of the seminary. On top of all that I was the director of the archdiocesan seminary library, professor of philosophy and theology, and I was also teaching at two of the major universities in the country, one run by the Jesuits, the other by the Christian brothers. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed every bit of it. On weekends I had the opportunity to celebrate masses in nearby parishes. One in particular I found to be quite an enriching experience. It was at a relatively poor parish whose parishioners were just the nicest, kindest, and most generous persons I’ve met.

In 2003, five years after ordination, and having completed my stint at the seminary, I asked my bishop to be allowed to pursue academic and scholarly work in earnest—hoping that by doing so I could discern whether it is in this particular area that God wanted me to focus on in my ministry as a priest. I did have excellent role models of priest-scholars and priest-professors throughout my seminary days: my first spiritual director, a Belgian priest who made me read Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time” when I was all but 17, the dean of studies at the college seminary, an Aquinas scholar who painstakingly taught his kind of “dogmatic” Thomism to his students (while I learned a great deal from him, I eventually decided that it was Thomistic philosophy’s “spirit” and not so much its “letter” that was of greater importance to the church’s intellectual life), and finally, my moderator for my doctoral studies in Louvain, Jan Van der Veken.

In 2003, I began my scholarly and teaching ministry at Providence College in Rhode Island. I also did spiritual direction for seminary students at Our Lady of Providence Seminary while helping out at a parish whose pastor, Fr. Bernie Healey was a classmate in Louvain and a very good friend. In Rhode Island I had the opportunity to do a lot of research and teaching. At one point, I was teaching as many as 300 students per semester at Providence College, as I was not only teaching philosophy and theology, but was also team-teaching a class in Western Civilization with professors from the Philosophy, Theology, History, and English departments. I ended my stint at Providence College in 2007, after having completed the manuscript for my first philosophy book which was published by Macmillan in August of 2007.

In late August of 2007, I once again began working full-time in seminary ministry as I joined the wonderful community of Saint John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. It has been my home for two years now, and I am grateful that God gave me the opportunity to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my priesthood in a work and context that I truly love: seminary formation. There are not too many words I can use to fully articulate how amazing I think this place is, from the priests I live with, to the students I teach, to the lay professors and staff I work with. There’s that line St. Augustine uses to begin his ruminations in the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”—well, I think God has given my heart a bit of “rest” here at St. John’s. I truly love this place and its people. And if finding that place where one’s heart can rest means finding the place where God wants one to be, whether for a moment or permanently, then I think this is where God wants me for now.

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me a question I found to be a source of much reflection afterwards. “Which assignment over the last ten years have you enjoyed the most?” It was really hard to answer the question—for the simple reason that I think I’ve truly been blessed to have found happiness, fulfillment, and peace in every single assignment I’ve had. That doesn’t mean everything has always been smooth and struggle-free, but in every single one, I’ve always felt that I was “in the right place” and therefore, where God “wanted me to be”. I also recall the words of one of my former professors in seminary. “Bloom where you’re planted”, he’d always tell us, his students. “Make the most of whatever situation, context, assignment, job, ministry, work, or relationship you find yourself in. Learn everything you can learn. Take the good and be grateful for it. Leave the bad and do not let it be a baggage you’d carry around. Just leave it, but not before you learn from it.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of his advice which I have taken to heart.
Ten years have past since I became a priest. It’s amazing how time flies. When I think of the many persons I’ve met, ministered to, taught, had arguments, even debates with, I sometimes wonder what effect, impact, or difference my priesthood has made in their lives. I know that, as one of my former spiritual directors used to tell me, we priests “merely plant the seeds. God does the watering, the nurturing, and the harvesting”. Still, I can’t help but wonder every once in a while—in the hope perhaps that—while it is, in the end, God’s work that we do (and not our own), and while it is God’s people that we serve (not our people)—we remain effective and perhaps even ‘useful’ instruments in God’s hands. That isn’t always easy to figure out or even ‘feel’. The ‘results’ of a priest’s work, just as the ‘effects’ of his life and ministry are not always that tangible. Not like other ‘callings’ or ‘careers’; not even like other ‘states’ in life. Think of fathers, for instance. They have children: sons and daughters—tangible outcomes of their lives, and who will continue their legacy long after they’re gone. We priests don’t have that.

When I was newly-ordained, I remember visiting former classmates who had gotten married. It was always a beautiful experience for me to visit them, to see the amazing thing love does to two persons who have found joy and peace and friendship with one another. To be able to give oneself and one’s love totally and completely to another human being, and to receive the same love from that person, is surely one of the most beautiful things in life. Marriage is truly a great gift, one of the most profound manifestations on this earth of the radically human yet absolutely transcendent nature of love. And while I’ve never been one to over-magnify the sacrifice the church asks of its priests in the promise of a celibate life, I’ve also never underestimated its powerful demand to one choosing the priesthood, to give up something that for countless men and women have been the greatest source of completion and wholeness. If, as Augustine says, a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible grace”, then the church is right to call marriage a “sacrament”. It is, for the many couples I’ve come to know and minister to as a priest, truly the clearest and most concrete embodiment of something our finite and limited language can only call “grace”. Ten years into the ministry, the same former classmates who got married are now with children, sons and daughters who have given them much joy and an even greater sense of fulfillment in their married lives. Some of these children I myself have had the privilege to baptize, just as I had the privilege to celebrate and officiate at their parents’ weddings. Every time I do get to baptize a friends’ son or daughter, I feel as though I were myself, part of a family, going through the stages and phases that any man goes through. And as I watched these children of my friends grow over the years, I’ve learned to share as well in the joys their parents themselves have had, knowing fully well that I will never have children of my own. Yet, ten years into the ministry, ten years into the celibate life, I am happy still.

When I defended my doctoral dissertation on September 19, 1998, there was something Prof. Jan Van Der Veken, my moderator who was also a priest, said that has guided my reflection and, hopefully, gradual growth into an ever-deepening appreciation of priestly celibacy. Having to introduce the topic of my dissertation to the professors and students gathered at the Mercier Hall, under a huge painting of the great Christian thinker himself, Thomas Aquinas, Prof. Van Der Veken spoke words that I believe will be forever etched in my mind and seared into my priestly and professorial consciousness: “I am about to retire”, he said. “Ferdi is one of the last of the students whose dissertations I will be guiding. I do not feel old. I feel I have much yet to do. And yet, this defense is one of the last I will be moderating. I have taught at this university for more than 40 years. I have taught countless students. And Ferdi is one of them. I feel joy at knowing that I have taught so many. And yet I am also somewhat sad, knowing that a part of my academic career is coming to an end. And yet I am happy and thankful. Because I know that wherever my students are, there I will be. Wherever Ferdi goes, there I will be. Whomever he teaches, I will be teaching. Whatever he accomplishes, I will be part of it. I will live forever in my students. And Ferdi is one of them”.

I will never have children of my own. Not in the same way as my friends and former classmates do. People call us “father”, but no one will call us “dad”. People will love us and appreciate us, but no single one will be there for us to love alone, and who will love us alone. And we will not have children to carry on our name. A priest gives himself completely to his ministry, to the people given to his care, to the task the church gives to him, and then he moves on, knowing that the ministry is ultimately not ‘his’, the people are ultimately, not ‘his’, and the task ultimately belongs to someone larger and greater than himself, and will continue long after he is gone, just as it went on, long before he answered the call to become a priest. If we can speak of “sacrifice” in the life of a priest, this is it. But if we can speak of the priest’s “immortality” and therefore “greatest happiness”, this is it as well: that in giving himself and keeping nothing back, he “immerses” and “inserts” his life into that life that is Life itself. Prof. Jan Van der Veken was right, “we live forever” in those we serve, minister to, teach, whose lives we touch, whose joys we share, and whose pain and suffering we help bear.

Ten years into the ministry, and all I have is a deep sense of gratitude for having been given this amazing opportunity to be part of this “grand adventure”. The priesthood, I have come to gradually realize, is really a great adventure into the heart of life itself, it is an immersion into the very same mystery that God chose to be part of when he became one of us. It is entering into the “forest” of life and coming face to face with its profoundest depths, and there discovering as if for the first time, something one feels he has always known all along. And then, as he leaves that experience, he carries with him something that will only allow him to feel whole and complete if he shares it with others who will then continue and take up what he himself took up and continued before. In this he becomes a “bridge”, a “pointer”, a “marker-along-the-way”, a “sign” of something beyond, a “visible sign of an invisible grace”.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Last Homily of 2008 for the Seminary Community (Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Advent Year I: The Parable of the Lost Sheep)

I have a lot of happy and funny memories of exam weeks past, both as a student and later as a teacher. None perhaps more memorable than my experience with Gilbert, one of my students who was very diligent and hardworking, but not really very bright. He was also very nervous, especially with exams. During the final oral exam, Gilbert got so nervous that he literally sat on the edge of his seat and was getting tongue-tied as he answered my questions. At one point, his anxiety got so bad that he grabbed the cup of coffee on my table without realizing it was mine. He had already taken several sips before it dawned on him that it wasn’t his. And he got even more nervous. “Please don’t fail me, father”, he said. “How could I?” I asked. “We already drank from the same cup?”

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me what I thought was the single biggest difference between teaching at a university and in a seminary? I don’t think it’s that university classes are more difficult or more demanding. I don’t think it’s that material covered is more challenging and extensive in a university. I don’t even think it’s the definite “Catholic” character or identity to seminary teaching that necessarily spells the difference. That’s a given after all.

I do believe though, that teaching at a university can be far more “Darwinian” by nature. Teaching in a seminary (which is what all teaching should be anyway—whether in seminary, university, or elsewhere) is, what Nietzsche would call “stupid”. But let me explain.

University teaching is, for the most part, “sink or swim” for students. If you’re bright, quick, and fit, you’ll make it. You won’t only survive. You’ll thrive. If not, you’ll be left behind, and pretty soon you’ll be at the bottom of the class.

Teaching in seminary recognizes the bright, the quick, and the fit, but it doesn’t leave behind nor consign to the bottom of the food chain, those who aren’t. In fact, the voice of the weak is considered just as important as the voice of the strong. Everyone’s ideas are valuable: bright or otherwise.

But that’s stupid! Nietzsche would argue. By doing so, you water down what you teach and thereby weaken the strong without necessarily strengthening the weak. If you apply that kind of thinking to ordinary life, you’ll weaken the strong, and nobody wins.

Life is struggle. It’s survival of the fittest. Look at the animals. They allow weak offspring to die. Nature doesn’t look kindly on runts. They’ll only weaken the gene pool. Nature eliminates the feeble. It weeds them out.

Nietzsche calls caring for the weak, “stupid”, an abomination against nature. Jesus would call it “human”, an elevation of nature. And we are men, not animals.

It’s the way of humanity to take care not only of the strong, but especially the weak, the least, the needy, the poor, and the lost. And judging from today’s gospel, it’s the way of God as well.

So what’s the single biggest difference between teaching in a seminary and in a university? Seminary teaching should form us to be more like Christ, and less like Nietzsche: to care not only for the strong, but especially the weak. After all, as priests later on, God expects us to look after that one sheep that strays, and not just the ninety-nine that remain.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Every time a semester ends, every time I celebrate mass 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 mass?”

It’s often hard to tell. Last Friday I was telling Dan that I had completed my 30th semester of teaching, turns out it was only the 29th. But over the weekend, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are, by the way, still saved in one of my files. I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 122 classes, taught 3400 students, taught at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 2500 to 2800 masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do my words make a difference? Do I even make a difference? A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced kid. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I no longer heard from him. A couple 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 its 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 this old Belgian missionary who had been in the missions for more than fifty years. “You plant the seeds”, he said.
“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 one of the most important characters in the NT, after Jesus. The text we read today, the beginning of the gospel of Mark--scripture scholars tell us--is the actual beginning of each of the four gospels, that is, before the infancy stories were added to Matthew and Luke, and before the prologue was added to the gospel of John. In fact, check it out, Matthew and Luke 1 and 2 contain the "infancy stories", while the next chapter, Matthew 3 and Luke 3 have the same story as the gospel we just read. And in John, after the prologue from John 1:1-18, verse 19 begins with the same story about John the Baptist, we just read. John's preaching "opens" each of the four gospels.

John is such a prominent figure in Scripture. And yet, over and over again, John says he is no more than the messenger. He isn’t "worthy to untie the straps" of Jesus' sandals. He must "decrease" while Jesus must
"increase".

We are, in truth: seminarians, future priests, priests, every Christian, like John. We are but messengers. Our task is to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, the harvesting. We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are pointers. Jesus is the point. We are road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination.

To realize this does two things to us: First it teaches us humility. It’s God’s work that we do. Not ours. 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”. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it again. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by God himself”.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do. We don’t have to keep worrying 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. For 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 I 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.

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