Friday, December 31, 2010

God-bearers (Reflections on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, New Year's Day 2011)

The Hindus of Calcutta have always seemed quite wary of visitors, especially Christians. They don’t seem particularly hospitable to outsiders either. But mention Mother Teresa’s name, or ask them where you could find one of her sisters' houses, and you can see the expression on their faces change. They smile at you and are at once friendly.

That’s because Mother Teresa embodied for them: kindness, generosity, and love for the poor and needy. She was to them, the bearer of the message of Christianity. In her care for them, she made God’s presence felt in their lives. She was to them, a “God-bearer”.

We are celebrating today, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. It’s a rather curious title. In 431, a group of Christians began denying that Jesus was God, saying he was no more than a man. The leaders of the Christian community responded by affirming that Jesus was both God and man, and to emphasize their point further, began addressing his mother as “Theotokos”, the “God-bearer”.

It was a title given to Mary, but a title that really said more about Christ than about his mother. Mary bore Christ in her womb, Christ who was God.

This is one of those curious things about theological statements or doctrines about Mary. On the surface, they look like doctrines about her. But look more closely and you’ll see that they’re really doctrines that say more about Jesus than about anyone else.

Christ is the real point of every statement about Mary, because every statement about her is really a statement pointing or witnessing to Christ.

It is really fitting then, that we celebrate the feast of Mary, the “Theotokos”, the “God-bearer” on this the first day of the New Year.

On this day, we make resolutions, some a few, others many. Perhaps we might want to consider including in our resolutions, to become, like Mary, like Mother Teresa, and like countless other good Christians out there, “God-bearers”, bringing the message of Christ to those whose lives we shall touch this year.

A preacher once said, “There are five gospels of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and you, the Christian. Many people will never read the first four”.

For many people, the life that we as followers of Christ live, will be the greatest and perhaps the sole proclamation of Jesus’ message that they shall ever encounter.

Let us pray therefore that as we begin a New Year, we may be bearers of God, witnesses of Christ’s love and compassion to a world of men and women that two thousand years after Jesus was born, still await the coming of Christ into their lives.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the end, and against all odds, God will prevail (Reflections on the Gospel of the 4th Sunday of Advent, Mt. 1:18-24: Joseph the Righteous Man)

Joseph, whom the Gospel calls a “righteous man”, discovers that Mary, his betrothed, is with child. The problem is they haven’t had any relations with each other. In Jewish Law, a man already had legal rights to a woman betrothed to him, even if they weren't married yet. If found pregnant by another man Mary could be put to death.

Joseph thus finds himself in a bind. Being a “righteous man”, he wanted to show loyalty and kindness to Mary, while at the same time obey the Law’s command not to approve adultery. And so he decides that in order not “to put Mary to shame”, he would just divorce her quietly.

However, Joseph’s human calculations, though sincere and just, are cut short by a sudden divine intervention. He dreams of an angel who tells him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, for it is all part of God’s plan of salvation. And Joseph, just man that we was, did as the angel told him.

The story of Joseph is our story as well. How many occasions have arisen in our lives, when in spite of our best efforts, we suddenly encounter seeming dead-ends, seemingly unresolvable dilemmas, insurmountable problems, sometimes even the absence of meaning? And these occasions arise even if, most of the time, we are “doing our best”.

Moreover, in our lives as Christians, and in the life of the church, there are moments when because of our convictions, we find ourselves holding the minority opinion, when because of our sincere efforts to live our faith, we find ourselves ridiculed, and we find ourselves witnessing silently to the values and principles we hold dear.

It is at such moments when the message of today’s readings becomes truly relevant, in Advent, and at every day of the year. In the first reading in fact, we hear of God’s promise of His continuing presence and concern for Abraham and David’s descendants.

It’s the very same promise we see operating in Joseph’s life. Joseph, a just man, faced with a serious difficulty, held on to his faith, and believed that God’s plan, mysterious as this can be at times, always eventually works out for the best—for those who trust. As Joseph, the “righteous man,” believed, so must we. For in the end, and against all odds, God will prevail; His plan will triumph, and He will never abandon one who has placed his trust completely in Him.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Dark Night of God's Embrace (Reflections on the Feast of Saint John of the Cross)

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings

- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

Many years ago, as a young seminarian—not much younger than yourselves—I lost my faith: first in the church, having experienced and seen with my own eyes the scandals which to this day seem to continue to rock her; I lost faith in those who were forming me. Once during a spiritual direction session, I remember going into a rage and telling my spiritual director: “I hate you priests”. I lost faith in those I lived with; and finally, I lost my faith in God himself. And all I wanted to do was run away—flee as far away as I can. Where? I just didn’t know. All I knew was I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything anymore.

Several persons saved me. I think I’ve shared this with you before: my spiritual director—and three others: Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Saint John of the Cross. And his poem I just read to you—I’m sure some of you are familiar with it, became a constant source of encouragement, strength, and source of meaning as I went through my own “Dark Night of the Soul”.

My spiritual director (who happened to be a philosopher), made me read Heidegger’s Being and Time, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and John of the Cross’ The Dark Night. From Heidegger I learned that the Living God—the one “before whom one can dance”—will not be contained, from Nietzsche I learned that the true God transcends and breaks away from all our attempts to turn him into a thing; and from John I learned that even the darkest of nights can be the profoundest expression of God’s embrace.

When nothing makes sense, when prayer becomes arid and barren like the desert, when the fire of faith and vocation feels extinguished, and when trust is almost impossible to find: God is there—even more so—walking with us in the darkness; inviting us to follow Him and trust Him even more, because he will never lead us to harm.

The “dark night of the soul”, I learned, comes to anyone—even if he has done everything right; because it is God’s way, not of making him feel abandoned, but of showing him the deepest and most profound kind of presence there can be—the presence that makes one realize that he can fall and take the greatest leap of his life—and God will be there to catch him.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved.

When trouble knocks on your door, when doubts begin to assail you, when your faith and vocation falter, and few things seem to be true, when God doesn’t seem present, when even prayer feels like a wasteland—know that God is inviting you to an even deeper relationship with Him. Cast away your fear; let him lead you, even if he seems to lead you into the Night—because it is into his very Self that he guides you. Close your eyes, take the leap, and trust. The net will be there to catch you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Untamed God (Reflections on the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Matt. 11:2-11)

While in prison, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus with a rather curious question: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?” It isn’t doubt that John’s question reveals; it’s impatience as well as a profound perplexity that Jesus doesn’t seem to fit the notions of the promised Messiah held by people at the time—even perhaps the notions John himself held.

As we go through life we develop ways of seeing and understanding things. Call them “viewpoints” or “perspectives”—they enable us to “handle” the many challenges and perplexities life sends our way. They’re like built-in spectacles that enable us to make sense of life itself. But we’re not born with these. Instead we pick them up; they’re handed down to us by our upbringing, our family, our education, our society, and by the many other experiences that form us. These “ways of seeing” aren’t bad; they’re aids to life.

But there’s a downside to them as well, because the very things that enable us to “get a handle” on things, can also blind us at times; they can “hem us in”, put us in “boxes”, imprison and chain us, preventing us from seeing anything that can’t be fit into our neat and tidy little categories and labels. At such point, these ways of seeing things cease to aid us in life, but rather hinder us from experiencing life in its fullness. They become biases and prejudices. We become hardened, our relationships become sterile, the very adventure of life ebbs away, and the God we worship ceases to be the Living God, but an idol.

A couple of weeks ago I was sharing with some of the students in class, the fact that certain ancient Jewish manuscripts have ‘holes’ or ‘spaces’ where the letters of God’s name would otherwise be written. Jews of course, will not say the name of God; and the even more devout ones will not even write the letters of his name. “To name” something is to exercise a certain power or dominion over it. (In the book of Genesis, God tells Adam to “name” all the animals He had created—signifying humanity’s power as well as stewardship over them.)

But the “living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” refuses to be so “named”, “owned”, “controlled”, “tamed”, or turned into an “idol”. Just when we think we have him all figured out, he escapes our grasp. Just when we think we have him in the palm of our hands, he makes us realize that we are the ones he has in the palm of his hands. Even the “beloved” Saint John of the Cross speaks of is someone who wants to be pursued but never possessed. He goes out into the night and invites the soul to follow him.

Our experience of God in prayer in fact mirrors this reality. When I was a student, my spiritual director would always remind me—“Do not shun the desert”, by which he meant the times when the consolation of prayer will be absent, replaced instead by the seeming distance, even absence of God. “Remain faithful to prayer”, he would remind me. “God takes away the consolation in order to invite you to a deeper relationship with Him. Do not give up; rather, run after him. Follow where he leads”. When dryness and aridity happen in prayer, and they will, persevere even more—for God may very well be inviting you to a deeper understanding and friendship with him.

In the same way, this experience of God in prayer mirrors our journey in life. The same spiritual director used to always remind me—“Never make a big decision when you’re weak”, by which he meant that there will be moments when the “high’s” of following Christ will be absent, replaced instead by “valleys and even ravines”. “At such difficult moments, hold on to God even more”, he would remind me. “God brings you down from the mountain in order to lead you to a more profound understanding of yourself and your direction in life. Do not give up; rather, be strong. Be patient. Persevere. Follow where God leads you, because he will never lead you into harm”.

When doubt, difficulty, and the many perplexities of life assail us, and they will, remember that it isn’t because God has suddenly become absent. Rather, it is his way revealing a more profound kind of presence—one that invites us to “follow him” to an even deeper understanding of ourselves, our life, and our very relationship with Him. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Living God who refuses to be “possessed” and “tamed” is the same God who has given us the greatest gift possible—the gift of freedom, and the possibility of liberation from every chain and prison that oppresses us, including those that we ourselves have created.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Heirs to John the baptist's work (Reflections on the Gospel of Thursday, 2nd Week of Advent, Matt. 11:11-15)

Jesus pays tribute to John in today’s gospel: “Among those born of women”, he says, “no one is greater than John”.

Why is John the Baptist so important in the story of Christianity? And why is his appearance always connected with Advent and the church’s preparation for Christmas?

John’s appearance marks a dividing line in human history. In a way, he represents the last in a long line of the Old Testament prophets who had foretold the coming of the Messiah. After him, all prophecies of the Old Testament had come to be fulfilled in Christ. With him the old line of prophets comes to an end, and a new line of prophets begins.

For John represents the first of a new kind of prophet in the New Testament, these are men and women who, after having known Christ, are called to testify and witness to Christ’s message through the words they speak and the lives they live.

We are those prophets. Each one of us is heir to what John the Baptist had started. Our lives, our words, and our actions are meant to bear witness to the fact that Christ still comes to our world today, two thousand years after he was born.

Through our lives of faith, we are the John the Baptists of our day and age. And everything we do, from the biggest to the smallest, from the most visible to the most hidden, is meant to remind those who know us and see us, that it is Jesus that we proclaim.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random musings at the end of another semester

It’s hard to believe another semester has come to an end. Final exams begin tomorrow, and in little over a week, the entire seminary will once again be quiet and empty, the students home for the Christmas break.

There’s always poignancy to these endings—something I’ve found impossible to shake off no matter how many of them I’ve gone through over the years.

On the one hand, there’s a tremendous sense of joy and fulfillment that comes with knowing that one has once again contributed a small share to the furtherance of knowledge and the gradual formation of minds and hearts in the appreciation and search for truth.
On the other hand, there is also a sense of sadness that the joy of such communal endeavor has come to an end. This morning as I stood in front of yet another group of students whom I taught for the last few months, some of whom will never again sit in any of my classes, I could not help but say a brief and silent prayer—for all of us. 
For these young men—that their path may always be lit, difficult and challenging though it may sometimes be, and that no matter where life takes them, that the One who first whispered that silent invitation in the innermost recesses of their souls will never let them feel alone. I prayed too that the many persons whose paths they shall cross in their lives, and whose lives they will touch, may find in them a reason to consider the encounter—brief or otherwise, a blessing that shall long be remembered.
For myself—there is only the hope that no matter where the Lord of life takes me, and no matter to whom I am sent, that I may speak only His words, and in this alone be remembered by those whose path my own may cross.
The calling of a teacher, like that of a priest, is simply to be a bridge, a path, a pointer that ends never in itself, but to something that lies beyond and which paradoxically enough, forever recedes in the distance—always approaching, never quite reaching; forever arriving, never attaining. For that which we ultimately seek, allures but eludes, invites but hides, attracts but forever escapes our possession.
The priesthood itself is a life filled with a never-ending series of ‘hellos’ and ‘farewells', for those whose lives we are privileged to touch and be part of are never ours to keep. The students who sit in our class today are not the ones to be there tomorrow; the people we are sent to minister to today will not be the ones we shall be serving tomorrow. They come and go; but so do we, teachers and priests. And yet we give to each of them—to every single one of those we meet along the way—everything we are able to give, our only recompense, the hope that our encounter has been to them a blessing, leading them one step closer to truth, to happiness, and to fullness of life.
Perhaps it is true that the reward of work is more work; yet one is happy still—in the knowledge that he has contributed one verse in that everlasting poem God’s hand ceaselessly writes. And one is glad, one is content, even as he sets his tools down for a brief moment of rest, to take stock and find peace in what has been accomplished, say a prayer that it may one day, in the still-hidden future, bear fruit in the lives of those who have passed through his hands. There is joy in it, there is contentment, there is grace—calm, silent, yet powerful grace. And in that grace one finds renewal, replenishment, and rebirth, as he picks up once more the tools of his trade and responds to the Master who once again knocks, calling him to follow, for there is work yet to be done. And he is happy to respond, happy to follow, keeping his sight fixed on that rest promised to those who endure. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

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.

Our preferential love for God's poor must never be a mere afterthought (Reflections on the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, Mt. 18:12-14)

The story of the shepherd leaving his ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one that has been lost, is surely one of the simplest of all the parables of Jesus. The man whose feast we celebrate today was also a shepherd, a great leader of the ancient church. He was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodox Christianity against the Arianism that plagued the church of his time. Ambrose’s teaching also converted one of the greatest theologians of the ancient world, a young reprobate by the name of Augustine. Ambrose was an eloquent preacher, a great thinker, a man of literature, and a song-writer.

But what made Ambrose truly great was not simply any of these deeds, instead it was that just like the shepherd in today’s gospel, he truly cared for that single lost sheep. Ambrose was a deeply caring and compassionate man who had a great love for the poor and those in need.

When once, barbarians took many Christian prisoners to be sold into slavery, Ambrose wanted to save them, but had no money. He rushed into his cathedral and to the shock of his own priests, had all the golden chalices, and vessels melted and turned into coins to pay for their ransom. When confronted for his act, he simply said:

“Would not Christ himself say, why did you allow so many needy to die of hunger? Don’t you have gold in your church? You should have given them food. Why are so many captives brought to the slave market when you have all the gold you need to ransom them? It is better to preserve living vessels than gold ones”.

Saint Ambrose was a true shepherd and a true Christian. Like the good shepherd in today’s gospel, he had a great concern for all, but especially for those who are most in need.

In speaking about the requirements of pastoral formation, the bishops in the Program for Priestly Formation tell us: “If seminarians are to be formed after the model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who came to ‘bring glad tidings to the poor’, then they must have sustained contact with those who are privileged in God’s eyes—the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering. In the course of these encounters, they must learn to cultivate a preferential option for the poor”.

For a Christian, but especially for a seminarian and a priest, a preferential love for God’s poor must never be a mere afterthought--an 'additional extra' engaged in when 'everything else' is done. It is rather, an essential part of our response to the invitation of Christ to follow him. As the late Pope John Paul II kept reminding us, the work of justice is an integral part of the preaching of the Gospel.

“The hungry mouths of the poor”, Saint Ambrose tells us, are the great barn houses of heaven. If you want to get to heaven, fill these barns while you’re still on earth”.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Of priesthood and friendship (Reflections on the healing of a paralytic, Monday, 2nd Week of Advent, Lk. 5:17-26)

The most peculiar point of today’s gospel reading is found in v. 20: “When he saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘As for you, your sins are forgiven”.

The New Testament records a number of healing-miracles wrought by Jesus. Today’s reading, however, adds an interesting and important side-note to these healings: namely, the role that relationships and friendships play in being healed and being made whole.

Notice that it wasn’t the paralyzed man who came to Jesus; it was his friends who brought him. Their faith in Jesus, their love and care for him, became instruments by which he was healed.

One of the things I’ve come to realize throughout my many years in seminary is the importance and value of making and nurturing good and holy friendships. Never underestimate the power of the friendships and relationships you forge in seminary. They serve as our support and our source of strength in our vocation, our life, and our ministry.

Each time I look back and remember the moments of serious challenge and crisis I’ve encountered, both as a seminarian and as a priest, one thing has been constant, and that is the movement of God’s grace effected through the friends he has sent me along the way. I would not have made it to ordination if it weren’t for these friends. I would not have remained a priest had it not been for them.

Stephen Rossetti, in his book “Ten Steps to Priestly Holiness”, counts good friendships among the ten steps, putting it at number five. Let me just quote a little bit of what he says:

“In my study of priesthood, a solid 87.5 % of the 2441 priests said they had close priest friends, and 93.1 % said they had good lay friends who are an emotional support for them. A summary finding on the newly ordained, found that those who left the priesthood generally felt lonely, isolated, unappreciated, and disconnected. There is a very strong connection between solid friendships and healthy living for celibate priests”.

More than this, however, Rossetti adds that the presence of “good friendships” is strongly predictive of the quality of a priest’s relationship with God. “The truth is unmistakable”, he says, “if we want a deeper relationship with God, we must nurture deeper relationships with others”.

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven”.

The paralytic in today’s gospel reading was brought to Jesus, received forgiveness, was healed and made whole, because of the care, concern, and faith of those whom he called friends. It is, for us, both an encouragement and invitation, to develop and nourish, the same kind of bonds.

As the book of Sirach says:

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a certain treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. A faithful friend is a healing remedy, and he who fears God such friend shall find. (Sir 6:14-17)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The most powerful signs efface themselves (Reflections on the Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12)

One of my students at Providence College, once turned red as a ripe tomato when he realized I was his professor and not one of his classmates—after having told me before class that he hated philosophy and would just “die” if the professor turned out to be a “sleeping pill”. I have a lot of student-stories I’ve jotted down over the last couple of years, a number of them funny, a few not-so-funny, a couple sad ones, but always good ones.

Each time a semester draws to a close, or 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 Mass?”

It’s hard to tell. Last Friday I was telling one of my students that I was completing my 31st semester of teaching; turns out it’s only the 30th. Over the weekend though, 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 my students since I began teaching almost fifteen years ago. Anyway, as I was going through my lists, I realized that I’ve taught approximately 130 classes, taught close to 3500 students—on three continents, taught at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 4500 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 taught, the masses I celebrated, the conferences and seminars I’ve given, made any difference at all?

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 him, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that young man’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”, he said. “You plant the seeds. God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All we can do is plant the seeds”.

John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in the New Testament, second only to Jesus. In fact Jesus himself says that “no man born of woman is greater than John”. 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 are, in truth—seminarians, priests, as well as every Christian man and woman—like John. We are but messengers. Our task is 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 simply signs along the road, Jesus is the way as well as the destination. Nothing we do is ever about us, but always about Christ. To realize this and to live it concretely, 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 God himself”. Even our lives are never completely our own.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do, and in 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. 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 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 3, 2010

To strike the rock twice (Reflections on the Gospel of Friday, the 1st Week of Advent , Mt. 9:27-31)

Seminary evaluations for the fall semester finally ended this past Wednesday. It’s always a joy to see the grace of God at work in the lives of young men who allow themselves to enter fully in the process of formation and transformation. Again and again, we witness individuals who enter seminary, each one carrying his own baggage of wounds, scars, pains, biases, prejudices, preconceived notions about life, God, faith, the church—molded and formed according to the mind of Christ and the church. As these young men prepare to leave, all we can say is, “He’s no longer the same guy he was when he came in. You can tell he’s changed; he’s grown”.

At the same time, it is quite painful and a cause of genuine concern to witness others who go through two, three, or four years of seminary formation with seemingly nothing except the externals of themselves being changed, the core remaining untouched. The shell may be perfect, but the inner reality was never really allowed to be touched by the grace of formation, because it was kept hidden. These young men are those who leave being very much the same person they were when they came in, and all we can say is, “Let’s hope it’s for real”.

A friend who studied with me in seminary very recently left active ministry. He was the perfect candidate for the priesthood—everything on the surface was fine. He was a good guy, hardworking, efficient, caring, orthodox in every way, even prayerful. Name the good quality desired for a priest, he had it. Recently, however, his bishop asked him to go on leave while a case of inappropriate behavior towards an adult parishioner is being investigated.

When we were students, he did everything right, said all the right things, meticulously obeyed all the rules and regulations, lived every single pillar of formation to the best he could—at least that’s what everyone thought. Underneath it all though, there was something that grace had apparently not touched—his humanity, his personal emotional needs, his sexuality, his inadequacies, which he kept hidden because of fear.

“Do you believe that I can do this?” Jesus asks the two blind men in the gospel.

It was a very odd question. Jesus wasn’t asking if they believed in him. Instead he asked if they had confidence in his ability to help them. It wasn’t a question of belief; it was a question of trust.

When during their journey in the desert, Moses came to God to ask him to give water to the thirsty and complaining Israelites, God instructed Moses to strike the rock once. Perhaps out of fear that one strike would not be enough, Moses chose to strike the rock twice. Even Moses experienced first hand what fear does. He didn’t fear his own inability to deliver; he feared God’s.

The mightiest enemy and the single greatest source of the downfall of one who seeks to follow Christ is fear—not of being oneself inadequate or unworthy, but that God is himself inadequate to the task of transforming him.

For some of you, only a semester remains of your stay here at St. John’s, though you have a number of years more in formation; for the rest, you have a couple years more to go. Do not be in a hurry; give your formation the time it needs. And give yourself fully, totally, completely, and wholeheartedly to the process of transformation which is what your time in seminary is about. Trust in the wisdom of the Church. The worst thing that someone wanting to be a priest can do is to give in to fear and hold back—especially in opening his heart and soul to the process.

Time and again, the Church, God’s People, has witnessed the pain caused by those who went through six, seven, eight, or more years of formation, and yet have remained virtually unchanged, untouched by the transforming and purifying fire of God’s grace. The sad thing is that when they fall, they hurt not only others, but themselves. But what’s even sadder is that this could have been avoided had they opened themselves completely as seminarians to the grace that is there in the process of formation itself.

The greatest service you can do for the Church and for yourselves—as seminarians, is to reply as the two blind men did in today’s gospel: “Yes, Lord. We believe”, and let go of your fears.

Today, Jesus asks each one of us here: “Do you believe I can do this? Do you believe I can transform you? Or will you also be striking the rock twice?”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A life built on strong foundations (Thursday, 1st Week of Advent, Mt. 7:21, 24-27)

Only a house whose foundations are firm can withstand storms, Jesus says in today’s gospel; and only a life whose foundations are sure can stand the many tests that come its way. To build a strong foundation for life, Jesus asks for two things.

First, he asks that we listen. One of the great difficulties which face us today is the simple fact that many no longer even know what Jesus has taught. The words of Jesus are slowly being lost to the vast majority of people in today’s world, sometimes even among Christians themselves. The first step to a genuine Christian life is simply to give Jesus a chance to be heard.

Second, he also asks that we act. Knowledge only becomes relevant when it is translated into action. There is little point in going to a doctor, unless we are prepared to do the things he tells us. And yet there are many who listen to the teachings of Christ every Sunday, but make little or no attempt to put it into practice. If we are to be real followers of Jesus we must learn from him and act upon what we have learned.

Is there any word in which hearing and doing are summed up? There is such a word, and it is ‘obedience’. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”, Jesus says. “But only those who do the will of the Father in heaven”.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Miracle of Sharing (Wednesday of the First Week of Advent, Mt. 15:29-37)

How do we explain the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish? Feeding all those people with such limited food is simply mind-boggling, it almost sounds impossible. There are two ways of trying to explain it.

One is to say that Jesus literally miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish such that all five thousand people were fed, with twelve baskets of leftovers. For the Son of the all-powerful God that is certainly not impossible. But could there be another way of understanding the event—one just as plausible and equally amazing and miraculous even if understood a little less literally?

Surely all those people who came to hear Jesus brought some food for their journey. They certainly wouldn’t have walked all that way without taking food for their trip. But it may be that none of them wanted to share what he had.

It may therefore be that Jesus, with his ability to draw the best from people, produced the five loaves and fish his disciples gave him, and simply began sharing it with those around him. Perhaps, seeing this, everyone who had something began doing the same, until eventually everyone was sharing what they were earlier hoarding. In the end, there was more than enough for everyone.

It may be that this is a miracle in which Jesus was able to change a group selfish people into a community of sharers. It may be that this story represents the biggest miracle of all—one that didn’t only change loaves and fishes, but the hearts of men and women.

Whether we understand the story as a literal miracle or a symbolic one, the lesson is the same: when we encounter Jesus, we are always drawn out of ourselves and encouraged to share, not from our excess, but from what we have, however limited this might be at times.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

God's 'Revolutions' in Mary's Magnificat (From Barclay's "Daily Study Bible") - For my students, that you may see with 'new eyes' words we pray daily

And Mary said, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant, from this day all generations will call me blessed. For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant, Israel; for he has remembered his promise of mercy—a promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children, forever”. (Luke 1:46-56)

Here we have a passage which has become one of the great hymns of the church—the Magnificat. It is saturated in the Old Testament; and is specially kin to Hannah's song of praise in 1Sam.2:1-10. It has been said that religion is the opiate of the people; but, as Stanley Jones said, "the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world." It speaks of three of the revolutions of God.

(i) He has scattered the proud in their conceit. That is a moral revolution.

Christianity is the death of pride. Why? Because if a man sets his life beside that of Christ it tears the last vestiges of pride from him. Sometimes something happens to a man which with a vivid, revealing light shames him. O. Henry has a short story about a lad who was brought up in a village. In school he used to sit beside a girl and they were fond of each other. He went to the city and fell into evil ways. He became a pickpocket and a petty thief. One day he snatched an old lady's purse. It was clever work and he was pleased. And then he saw coming down the street the girl whom he used to know, still sweet with the radiance of innocence. Suddenly he saw himself for the cheap, vile thing he really was. Burning with shame, he leaned his head against the cool iron of a lamp standard. "God," he said, "I wish I could die." He saw himself.

Christ enables a man to see himself. It is the deathblow to pride. The moral revolution has begun.

(ii) He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. That is a social revolution.

Christianity puts an end to the world's labels and prestige. Muretus was a wandering scholar of the middle ages. He was poor. In an Italian town he took ill and was taken to a hospital for waifs and strays. The doctors were discussing his case in Latin, never dreaming he could understand. They suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer they might use him for medical experiments. He looked up and answered them in their own learned tongue, "Call no man worthless for whom Christ died!"

When we have realized what Christ did for all men, it is no longer possible to speak about a common man. The social grades are gone.

(iii) He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. That is an economic revolution.

A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get. A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.

There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity begets a revolution in each man and revolution in the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The challenge of kindness, for those seeking to reflect the image of Christ (Reflections on the healing of the centurion's servant, Mt. 8:5-11)

A great deal has been said about the strength of the centurion’s faith. Today though, I propose we focus on an aspect of the gospel that’s often overlooked: the centurion’s kindness and humanity towards his servant.

“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

If the miracle of his servant’s cure was the fruit of his faith; his kindness towards someone who was literally his property—was the soil in which that faith was planted. It was the fertile ground that anchored that faith; without it there would have been no faith, no miracle, no healing.

Kindness—or as it is known by its Latin name, humanitas—is a disposition, an attitude, and is one of the virtues that defines a truly good human being. There’s no denying the strength of the centurion’s faith; yet it was the man’s kindness and compassion towards his servant which made that faith even more remarkable. Consider these two things.

First, most of those who came to Jesus for healing came to him for themselves, for a child, or for a friend. The cure of the centurion’s servant is the only recorded instance in the New Testament in which someone comes to Jesus asking him to heal a ‘servant’. It’s true that masters were responsible in keeping their servants healthy, but that didn’t extend to seeing to it personally.

Second, servants who fell ill were immediately removed from their master’s home for fear of spreading the disease. They were usually sent to relatives or friends till they recovered or died. Not the centurion though; he took a personal interest in his servant’s well-being. Here was a man of power and authority, acting in a very unexpected, even unusual, way towards someone whose status was far lower than his own.

It’s fascinating to think that perhaps, as the Incarnate Son of God who stooped down to save fallen humanity, looked into the eyes of this centurion, he couldn’t help but see a mirror image of himself. And as these two men stood there face to face, one can’t help but wonder if they in fact felt a certain kinship—a reflection of oneself in both the power and kindness of the other.

“I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes… Say only the word and my servant will be healed”.

In his letter to Titus, St. Paul refers to Jesus as the φιλαθρωπία (philanthropia), the humanitas, the “kindness of God” (Tit. 3:4). In today’s gospel, Jesus, the “kindness of God” saw a reflection of himself in the centurion, and found himself “amazed”.

We who are called to be reflections of Christ could learn much from the centurion’s attitude. Speaking of our humanity as the foundation of our priesthood, Pope John Paul in Pastores Dabo Vobis says:

“The priest who is called to be a ‘living image’ of Christ should seek to reflect in himself the human perfection which shines forth in the Incarnate Son of God and which is reflected in his attitude towards others… the priest should mould his humanity in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Christ”. (PDV, 43)

My old spiritual director used to tell me, you want to know what a seminarian will be like as a priest? Observe only how he treats others: those below him, those equal to him, and those above him.

If there’s one thing my years in seminary formation have taught me, it’s that this is a powerful indicator not only of the kind of priest a seminarian may eventually be, but of his viability as a candidate for the priesthood itself.

Two cases always raise question marks:

A seminarian who shows great deference (and even fear) towards superiors but shows little kindness or is mean towards his peers or those he sees as inferiors is going to be problematic as a priest (no matter how clever he thinks he is). For unless the soil of his humanity is converted and conformed to Christ, he will mistake bullying for shepherding when he gets ordained. He will most likely have very little problem cozying up to his superior later on, but don’t expect him to be kind to his flock. Remember, Jesus was strong; but he was never rigid or arrogant; and he certainly wasn’t a bully.

A priest who shows great respect and deference to his bishop and to those in authority in the diocese, but is mean-spirited and unkind to his parishioners or people working under him is anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul II speaks.

On the other hand, a seminarian who shows kindness to his peers and to his inferiors, but hides from his superiors or is unreceptive to them, equally raises red flags; for he will most likely pose problems for his superiors when he gets ordained, and will dismiss fraternal correction as a priest. He will most likely be nice to his flock; but when the time comes that he has to preach the hard truth, he will buckle and even sell-out. Remember, Jesus was kind and compassionate; but he was neither soft nor weak; and he certainly knew what he stood for.

A priest who is very popular, or builds a ‘following’ among his flock, but gives little importance to the principles that are meant to guide the life of the Church (in doctrine, morals, and worship) or shows little value to the promises he made at ordination (especially obedience to his bishop) is also anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul speaks.

There’s the third type of course—the type we’re all invited to become. It’s the seminarian, it’s the priest who knows that being truly conformed to Christ means respecting and being kind to everyone: superiors, inferiors, and equals alike—just as Jesus did, and just as the centurion in today’s gospel has shown.

His story is an invitation for us to look into our own attitudes and dispositions and ask: Which of these three types am I? Which of these three kinds will I be if I do become a priest?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Benedict XVI's appeal to future priests to take their intellectual formation seriously (From Pope Benedict's "Letter to Seminarians")

Above all, your time in the seminary is also a time of study. The Christian faith has an essentially rational and intellectual dimension. Were it to lack that dimension, it would not be itself.

Paul speaks of a “standard of teaching” to which we were entrusted in Baptism (Rom 6:17). All of you know the words of Saint Peter which the medieval theologians saw as the justification for a rational and scientific theology: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an ‘accounting’ (logos) for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). Learning how to make such a defense is one of the primary responsibilities of your years in the seminary.

I can only plead with you: Be committed to your studies! Take advantage of your years of study! You will not regret it. Certainly, the subjects which you are studying can often seem far removed from the practice of the Christian life and the pastoral ministry. Yet it is completely mistaken to start questioning their practical value by asking: Will this be helpful to me in the future? Will it be practically or pastorally useful? The point is not simply to learn evidently useful things, but to understand and appreciate the internal structure of the faith as a whole, so that it can become a response to people’s questions, which on the surface change from one generation to another yet ultimately remain the same.

For this reason it is important to move beyond the changing questions of the moment in order to grasp the real questions, and so to understand how the answers are real answers.

It is important to have a thorough knowledge of sacred Scripture as a whole, in its unity as the Old and the New Testaments: the shaping of texts, their literary characteristics, the process by which they came to form the canon of sacred books, their dynamic inner unity, a unity which may not be immediately apparent but which in fact gives the individual texts their full meaning.

It is important to be familiar with the Fathers and the great Councils in which the Church appropriated, through faith-filled reflection, the essential statements of Scripture. I could easily go on. What we call dogmatic theology is the understanding of the individual contents of the faith in their unity, indeed, in their ultimate simplicity: each single element is, in the end, only an unfolding of our faith in the one God who has revealed himself to us and continues to do so.

I do not need to point out the importance of knowing the essential issues of moral theology and Catholic social teaching. The importance nowadays of ecumenical theology, and of a knowledge of the different Christian communities, is obvious; as is the need for a basic introduction to the great religions, to say nothing of philosophy: the understanding of that human process of questioning and searching to which faith seeks to respond.

But you should also learn to understand and – dare I say it – to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love.

I will not go on with this list, but I simply say once more: love the study of theology and carry it out in the clear realization that theology is anchored in the living community of the Church, which, with her authority, is not the antithesis of theological science but its presupposition. Cut off from the believing Church, theology would cease to be itself and instead it would become a medley of different disciplines lacking inner unity.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Seize the day; later may never come (Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent)

There’s a reason folks go crazy shopping on “Black Friday”—they don’t want to miss out on a good deal. They wake up early to get to the store, or sometimes they camp out near the store entrance itself the night before. The lines are long, the merchandise is limited, patience can wear thin, and sometimes people even get hurt like that greeter who got crushed to death during a stampede at a store a couple years ago. All the craziness is for the sake of getting the best deal one can find and saving a couple bucks. One of my students from Providence emailed me saying she went to bed very early Thanksgiving night so she could get up at 2 am as they were handing out tickets at 3 am. She said she managed to snatch some pretty good deals.

Each year, we hear people lamenting the commercialization of the holidays—though its been quite muted the last couple of years because of the economic downturn. Still the “shopping culture” for the holidays remains pretty strong—and so we should probably do our best to maintain the true religious meaning of the season—especially in our families. But we shouldn’t bad-mouth the holiday shopping season either; yes including Black Friday. People do have a great time shopping, and many do save by looking out for the best deals around. There’s no need to join those who protest consumerism by observing “Buy Nothing Day” either. In fact, I propose that instead of bewailing the consumerist mindset that’s sure to prevail throughout the holiday season (something which we simply can’t do anything about), we could perhaps learn something from those who do shop like mad on Black Friday and all throughout the coming weeks.

What’s the key to getting good deals this time of year? Two words: “being awake”, that means being on the constant lookout for the best deals around—especially since most of these are limited. Like those who get up in the very early hours of Friday to get to the stores as soon as they could, the Gospel reading uses an interesting word to describe what our attitude in life should be: “being awake”—literally “being sleepless” in the original Greek tongue.

We begin today, the season of waiting, of being awake, the Season of Advent. The readings at mass during the week and on Sundays—until Christmas—will focus our attention on “being ready”, “being prepared”, “being watchful” for the coming of Christ—not only at Christmas, but at the end of all things.

It’s a season in which we as Christians prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s Gospel tells us: “Be ready, be awake. Do what you have to do, not later, but now. Do not postpone things till later because later may never come”. Like Black Friday deals, “when it’s gone, it’s gone”.

The old Romans had a saying that could be meaningful for us this Advent and throughout the year: “Carpe Diem”, they would say. “Seize the day”. “Seize the moment”. Make every moment count. Don’t wait till later because it may never come.

In October of 1998, a couple weeks after I returned from studies abroad, my grandmother died. She had wanted so much to see me when I came home from Belgium, but she had a very bad second stroke and was bedridden and unable to speak or move when I came home in September. I did pay her a visit as soon as I arrived, and promised I was going to come back. But I kept putting my next visit till later, until one evening I was out, I received a call from my mom that my grandmother had passed away.

To this day, it remains one of the greatest regrets I have; but also because of that I promised that I would never miss an opportunity to be with the ones I love, to be patient with them, to be present to them when I can, and to let them feel and know I love them and care for them. I won’t be seeing my grandmother again until we’re reunited in heaven, but I can certainly live a life of “readiness” and of being constantly “awake” to the opportunities I still have to love people, whether they’re family, friends, or just about anybody.

Perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, for yourself or for someone else, but have never gotten around to doing it. Advent encourages us: “Do it now”.

Perhaps there’s someone whom you need to forgive or from whom you need to ask forgiveness. Advent reminds us: “Do it now”.

Perhaps you've been wanting to say "I love you" to your dad or mom, or your kids, Advent says to us: "Do it now".

Maybe there’s a good or charitable or kind or generous thing you’ve been meaning to do but have been putting of constantly. Advent tells us: “Do it now”.

Like a lot of good deals and bargains on the many shopping days of this holiday season, “when the opportunity’s gone, it’s gone”.

While God will always be there for us; life and its many great opportunities won’t. Life is short and its awesome opportunities come only once in a while, and so we must“seize the day”; we must “make every minute count”. Do not wait till later, because later may never come.

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