Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Newness often makes us fearful; let us not be closed to the newness God wants to bring into our lives". (Excerpts from Pope Francis' Easter Vigil Homily)


In the Gospel of this radiant night, we first meet the women who go the tomb of Jesus with spices to anoint his body (cf. Lk 24:1-3). We can imagine their feelings as they make their way to the tomb: a certain sadness, sorrow that Jesus had left them, he had died, his life had come to an end. Life would now go on as before. 

But at this point, something completely new and unexpected happens, something which upsets their hearts and their plans, something which will upset their whole life: they see the stone removed from before the tomb, they draw near and they do not find the Lord’s body. It is an event which leaves them perplexed, hesitant, full of questions: “What happened?”, “What is the meaning of all this?” (cf. Lk 24:4).

Doesn’t the same thing also happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do.

Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us.

We are like the Apostles in the Gospel: often we would prefer to hold on to our own security, to stand in front of a tomb, to think about someone who has died, someone who ultimately lives on only as a memory, like the great historical figures from the past. We are afraid of God’s surprises; we are afraid of God’s surprises! He always surprises us! 

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! 

Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

But let us return to the Gospel, to the women, and take one step further. They find the tomb empty, the body of Jesus is not there, something new has happened, but all this still doesn’t tell them anything certain: it raises questions; it leaves them confused, without offering an answer. 

And suddenly there are two men in dazzling clothes who say: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; but has risen” (Lk 24:5-6). 

What was a simple act, done surely out of love – going to the tomb – has now turned into an event, a truly life-changing event. Nothing remains as it was before, not only in the lives of those women, but also in our own lives and in the history of mankind. Jesus is not dead, he has risen, he is alive! He does not simply return to life; rather, he is life itself, because he is the Son of God, the living God. 

Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; he is the everlasting “today” of God. 

This is how the newness of God appears to the women, the disciples and all of us: as victory over sin, evil and death, over everything that crushes life and makes it seem less human. And this is a message meant for me and for you, dear sister, dear brother. 

How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness… and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!

Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do. 

There is one last little element that I would like to emphasize in the Gospel for this Easter Vigil. The women encounter the newness of God. Jesus has risen, he is alive!

But faced with an empty tomb and the two men in brilliant clothes, their first reaction is one of fear. 

“They were terrified and bowed their faced to the ground”, Saint Luke tells us – they didn’t even have courage to look. But when they hear the message of the Resurrection, they accept it in faith.

And the two men in dazzling clothes tell them something of crucial importance: “Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee… And they remembered his words” (Lk 24:6,8). They are asked to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others (cf. Lk 24:9). 

To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have traveled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future. May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives. 

On this radiant night, let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who treasured all these events in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19,51) and ask the Lord to give us a share in his Resurrection. 

May he open us to the newness that transforms. May he make us men and women capable of remembering all that he has done in our own lives and in the history of our world. 

May he help us to feel his presence as the one who is alive and at work in our midst. And may he teach us each day not to look among the dead for the Living One.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

God makes whole the brokenness of our lives. (Good Friday Reflections on the Life and Ministry of a Priest)

O felix culpa,
O certe necessarium Adae Peccatum,
qui talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!
 
O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
that has gained for us so great a Redeemer!
 
(From the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation, English, Old Translation)
 
The life of a priest is a good and truly happy one—in the best and truest sense of these words. And it is even more so when he lives his ministry with his whole being in it, heart, mind, body, and soul. And yet a priest who is happy isn’t a perfect priest, one who always says and does the right thing, who never makes mistakes, who has never experienced failure, disappointment, or frustration. Rather, one who finds true happiness and peace in his calling and his ministry is a person who has recognized the reality of his imperfection. He is always in the process of being invited to respond to Christ’s call to live a faith that is genuine and a life that is full. He is one who knows that to be genuinely human is to recognize one’s weakness, sinfulness, and ultimate inability to save oneself on his own. He is one who has come face to face with the fact that however hard he tries, he is a creature of this earth, born into sin, and therefore constantly failing in his response to God.
 
Brokenness, after all, is part of the human condition. In a very real sense, it’s our wounds and scars that not only define us as human beings, but also bind us together as brothers and sisters, in the most profound way. No one escapes woundedness, least of all the priest. I’m sure that the years you have spent in seminary have, by now, made you aware—perhaps even painfully so—of this perplexing reality. We may not like it, we may refuse or reject it, we may even run away from it, but it just keeps coming back to confront us, reminding us not only of our pained and scarred state as persons, but also of our calling as ministers of the Gospel, to transcend these hurts and allow them to transform us into ‘doctors of souls’ and ‘healers of the wounds of humanity’.
 
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp just days before it was liberated, used to say that “when Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. There is a very real sense of “dying” that is asked of one who enters seminary, as there is a very real invitation to continue along this path when one is ordained. Sacrifice is a word that many find undesirable in our age of comfort-seeking and soft-values. In many ways, the harshness of the church—real or imagined, especially before the reforms of Vatican II—has led many to go to the opposite extreme and champion what some theologians call the “therapeutic culture” that denies any value to suffering and sacrifice, even if these are undergone for the sake of a higher purpose. This is something we need to guard against, especially among those being formed to be future priests. Being able to sacrifice—to “carry one’s cross” as Jesus says, and to live with the challenges and difficulties of seminary formation, are things we need to accept and to a certain degree, welcome, as means of forming us into strong and courageous ministers of the gospel.
 
When I was a student, my spiritual director used to tell his students not to fear looking deep into ourselves, even if what we saw there frightened and terrified us, even if what we saw there was dark, scary, and embarrassing. “Look at it”, he would say. “Don’t ever deny what you see, whether it be good or otherwise. Because what you see is a real part of who you are and that is where you will find God at work, and that is where you will find your way to him”.
 
I never forgot that wise priest’s advice. It made me honest. [His word was always, “be brutally honest with yourself, even if it hurts”.] He made me look unflinchingly at sin and grace dwelling in me, and he made me realize the reality of God’s challenging love. It was a love that was true. It was tough. It was never the coddling type. “God is Father”. He wants us to be responsible, to be accountable, to realize that we are men, and must live up to the demand that we be “good”. And we must strive, despite constant failure, to live a life of integrity, truthfulness, honesty, conviction, and fidelity to the commitments we make. But God is like a “Mother” as well, forgiving to those who come to him acknowledging their mistakes and resolving to try again. He is compassionate to those who come to him in their sinfulness as well as the acceptance that on their own, they will not succeed.
 
A priest is a happy man because he knows he is a “vessel of clay”, made of earth and therefore given to weakness, formed by a potter’s hand into a masterpiece that is beautiful but fragile. A happy priest is one who can look at himself squarely and see himself for everything that he is, a person broken and wounded, sinful and weak, and yet loved by a God who has known him long before he was born, who has singled him out, not to give him privilege, but to form him into an instrument, by which grace can be known by a people who are just as vulnerable, beautiful, and fragile as he. In this a priest becomes a “bridge”.
 
Only by seeing himself in his weakness and fragility can a priest also know what it truly means to be a creature of grace, loved infinitely by God, and therefore tasked to share that most profound experience of grace with those to whom he ministers. And this is born of having come face to face with who and what one truly is. One cannot separate one’s priesthood from one’s humanity, they go hand-in-hand. The priesthood is not sugar-coating on something bitter; it isn’t something tacked on in order to make something unpleasant look good, or enhance something that would otherwise be unappealing. A priest is a “vessel of clay”, he is a man like other men, but he is also one who has peered deep into the reality of himself, and with the strength and courage given by Christ, willingly accepts what he encounters as a gift of God, the very earth out of which God is going to fashion for himself, an instrument who will bring a message of grace, compassion, love, and challenge to a world that is also striving to make sense of its experience of darkness and light.
 
The only way by which a priest can live up to his call to heal those who are wounded by life is for him to realize on the one hand that he has been given the strength to do so, while on the other realizing that in the end, he himself is in need of healing, because he too, like everyone else, is wounded. He is at the same time messenger of grace and sinful messenger, healer and healed, chosen vessel and unworthy instrument. In his being dwell the twin-realities of light and darkness, grace and sin. In his awareness and living out of this reality alone does he serve his purpose as “bridge-builder”, between a sinful and pained humanity, and a compassionate God who loves unconditionally. And it is by constantly reminding himself of his living within this tension of grace and sin that he escapes the temptation to blow his importance out of proportion or to despair that he will never be truly worthy.
 
A priest can only heal if he himself has experienced the healing touch of Christ in his life. This presupposes that he has come face to face with his own frailty and inability to pull himself out of the ‘darker side’ of the human condition. It is when we stand before our own sinfulness, when we confront and are confronted by the undeniable fact of our wounded humanity, when we stand in the stark nakedness of the wrong that we are capable of doing as men, that the purifying flames of God’s undying and all-embracing love for us slowly begin to burn us, stripping us, until it accomplishes in us the emptying of self that is at the heart of Christ’s Incarnation. Then, as we hit rock-bottom and find ourselves declaring, like Peter, “leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8), we begin to understand the words: “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection”. (II Cor 12:9)
 
It is one of the supreme paradoxes, one of the most profound mysteries of the life of priests that only when our ultimate limitations stare us in the face do we also realize the depth of God’s love for us. Just as only those who have drunk life’s cup to the dregs know what it means to truly live and value life, so too only those who have sunk into the mire—despite their best effort—can fully comprehend their ultimate inability to rescue themselves from it and acknowledge their utter dependence on God. For it is often our mistakes, errors, and sins, that bring us to God—by means of the profound realization that on our own, we can accomplish precious little, and can in fact cause tremendous harm rather than good.
 
Priests are men of clay and earth, they aren’t supermen by any stretch of the imagination. One’s being a Christian, one’s being a disciple, his vocation as a priest, demands that he lives a life worthy of his calling. And he must do everything in his power to be worthy of his state. But he isn’t superman. He is, rather, as fragile and sinful as the next man, yet he has heard God’s voice in the night asking him to be His messenger (I Sam 3:2-10), but not after having told him first that He loves him, forgives him, and accepts him; and not after having challenged him, “Sin no more” (Jn 8:10)
 
“God loves me, no matter what”. This simple statement represents the “rock of faith” upon which a priest’s healing ministry is built. Without it, he builds on sand.  Without it, he has no Good News to proclaim. A priest must be able to say with conviction: God loves me, accepts me, makes use of me, however sinful I am, however dark my life might have been, however incomplete I feel, however unworthy I am in the eyes of all the world. This is not for me a cause of pride because of a feeling of predilection. No, it is the simple recognition that I am nothing, period, and “Yet God loves me still”.
 
“God loves me, no matter what”. Only the priest who has come to the full realization of what this simple utterance means can say to those he ministers to: “God loves you, no matter what”. It represents the same profound conviction at the heart Jesus’ words and deeds two thousand years ago. It is the same conviction that must power a priest’s healing ministry in every age. For only a personal experience of this intimate connection and unconditional acceptance by God, can give legitimacy and credibility to a priest’s words of consolation and comfort in a world so deeply skeptical and cynical, because of its having been wounded over and over again.
 
Only when a priest fully realizes and accepts that he bears in himself the reality of sin redeemed, can he be a healing balm to others. The Letter to the Hebrews says as much: “He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people”. (Heb 5:2-3) Only when a priest fully understands what this means in his life can he learn to be patient, accepting, tolerant, compassionate, kind, loving, thoughtful, generous, and forgiving. Only in being so can he be an instrument of God’s healing grace in the lives of the people he serves. But it is also only in being so that he can challenge people to holiness, and thereby live out his prophetic mission with a credible voice. Only in being so is he truly a priest.
 
The realization of God’s love in the face of real human sinfulness is the deepest experience of grace there can be. In no other statement is this reality so profoundly captured than in those magnificent lines in the Exultet sung at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam which has gained for us so great a Redeemer!” None other summarizes completely, the mystery of a priest as healer and healed, and as sinful and graced.
 
The seminary is a place where young men are first and foremost initiated into this “encounter in honesty” before God. It is in seminary that a future priest must be taught to stand in the presence of God, empty of all his pretensions, bereft of all the trappings that can hinder him from showing God who and what he truly is. But it is also the place where he must be told that while such prospect might seem utterly terrifying and excruciating, it is the only way by which he will be able to genuinely offer something worthwhile to God. And it is the only way by which God can use him to communicate his life to his people. The seminary is the place where one learns that rather than being a fearful experience, standing before God in all honesty of self, is actually the profoundest experience of grace there can be, and hence there is absolutely nothing to fear. Enter into the fire then, allow the flames to consume you, and know that God will be there with you.
 
There is a paradox that characterizes the life of a good and happy priest. In facing what is most terrifying, he does not find himself defeated and destroyed, instead he finds himself on fire, emboldened to proclaim to the whole world, the grace and forgiveness that he has personally experienced as he brought to God’s altar, everything that he was, the desirable and the undesirable, the holy and the unholy, the darkness and the light that dwell in him. Only a man who has known what it means to stand completely empty before God can become an instrument of grace that will set on fire the hearts of other men and women who will recognize in his very experience, a similar invitation to open themselves up as well to the flames of God’s purifying truth.
 
Truth, for the priest, not only sets him free, it also makes him an instrument of the truth. But truth begins with oneself. There is simply no other way. A vessel that has not been washed, cleansed, and purified by the truth, will forever fail in communicating God’s grace and mercy that alone can wash, cleanse, and purify the hearts of others who long to experience what a priest experiences. One who fails or refuses to stand in all honesty before God and self will find himself grasping at straws, carving an identity out of superficial trappings that will only give fleeting and superficial happiness. How many seminarians and young priests sometimes find themselves erecting wall upon wall around them, each wall higher than the previous one, each wall mistaken for the real thing? And as one goes through his priestly life, the walls increasingly become a cocoon which makes a priest slowly forget who he is. He begins identifying himself with the externals he has erected around him, as his true self recedes more and more. Soon he becomes comfortable living an “un-truth”. But the walls eventually come crashing down. They always do, and the life he has lived is shown to be what it truly is. Then he breaks down, sometimes completely. The words of Jesus in the gospels must be our constant guide in this matter: 
 
“ Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. (Matt 10:26-31)
 
The history of the church is replete with stories of individuals who thought they could forever live in such way, only to one day have a rude awakening. The scandals that have rocked the church will forever be monuments to this sad and unfortunate reality. It is the greatest service a seminary can do to the church and to the life of individual priests, to see to it that every seminary student is spared the heartache and destructiveness of this experience. But this can only be done if the seminarian seeks to live in honesty, integrity, and truthfulness. He must not be afraid to live the truth and bear witness to the happiness and goodness of a life lived in fidelity to it. But this is something that does not happen overnight. Living for the truth is a journey that progressively deepens our encounter with Christ. It sets us on the path to reaching the innermost core of ourselves, the place where St. Augustine encourages us to go when he says, Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitate veritas. “Do not go out. Go inwards. Truth dwells in the inner man”.  The place where God dwells is found deep within our hearts and souls, not in some external or superficial trapping, however attractive it might be. 
 
In the end what we find, as we journey deeper into the reality of our vocation, is that our call is to enter into the heart of Christ himself. And as we move closer to our goal, we discover that at the very end of the journey we find something that we’ve known all along, something that has always been the case, and that we are merely rediscovering. We haven’t really arrived at something completely new, only a rediscovery perhaps of something that was already there at the beginning, something that many of us tend to forget. As we progress in our journey, we discover more and more the foundational reality of the priesthood: we are called to be spiritual leaders, we are called to be spiritual men. That perhaps is the simplest, but also the most profound realization we can have. It almost sounds too simple. But it is precisely because of its simplicity that it can be forgotten. One who seeks to follow in the footsteps of Christ, must consequently set his heart on things that belong to what Augustine says is intimeor intimo meo, that “which is most intimate than our most intimate thought”. He must strive to be a man of spirit; he must learn to see through superficial and marginal, and go right to the heart of the matter, and the heart of the matter is Christ whom he touches, knows, experiences, and is conformed to, when he sets his heart and mind to becoming that spiritual guide, that instrument in the hand of God who has chosen to continue his Son’s work in the world through the life, ministry, and witness of his priest.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Take the leap of faith; God will be there to catch you. (Reflections on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, the Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary)


It seems rather curious to be celebrating the Solemnity of Joseph, the husband of Mary, during the season of Lent. After all, by the time Jesus was well into his public ministry, and most especially by the time he was about to undergo his passion and death, tradition has it that Joseph had already died. Even our Gospel reading today seems a little out of place. It seems better read during the expectant days of Advent than in the more somber Lenten Season.

Joseph, whom the gospel refers to as a “righteous man”, discovers that Mary, the woman betrothed to him, is with child. The problem is, they have not had any sexual relations with each other. Now in Jewish Law, a man already had legal rights to a woman to whom he was betrothed, even if they were not actually married yet. Hence, if found pregnant by another man, Mary could be put to death, as this was stipulated by the Mosaic Law.

Joseph thus finds himself in a bind. Being a “righteous man”, he wishes to show loyalty and kindness to Mary, while at the same time satisfy the requirements of the Law not to approve adultery. So as the gospel reading tells us, Joseph decides that in order not “to put Mary to shame”, he would just divorce her quietly.

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

The story of Joseph is our story as well. How many occasions have arisen in our lives as individuals, when in spite of our best efforts, we suddenly encounter seeming dead-ends, seemingly unresolvable dilemmas, insurmountable problems, sometimes even the absence of sense and 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 as well, moments like these come up: 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 even silenced by a world bent on making itself heard.

It is at such moments when the message of the gospel reading, as well as the two other readings, for today’s solemnity becomes truly relevant, in Advent, in Lent, and in every single day of the year. In both the first and second readings, we hear of God’s promise of his continuing presence and concern for Abraham’s descendants and to David’s as well.

It is this same promise that we see operating in the life of Joseph. Joseph, a just man, faced with a serious difficulty, held on to his faith, and believed that God’s plan, mysterious as this might be at times, always works out for the best, for those who trust in God’s promise. As Joseph believed, so must we. And it is this promise and the trust that Joseph put in it that we celebrate today.

Last December, I had the opportunity to get together for a couple of hours, with some of my former students who have since been ordained to the priesthood. It was a great joy to once again be with these young men with whom I lived and worked in seminary a number of years ago, journeyed in philosophy classes, talked and argued, at times for hours, about life, faith, vocation, and the direction God wanted for them in their lives.

It was an amazing experience see the grace of God at work so powerfully in their lives, they who have been asked to give up a lot of things but who have also been blessed with so much joy, happiness, strength and fulfillment that only a life lived in total trust and abandonment to God's promise can bring.

You know how Joseph is always shown in pictures as an old man together with a very young Mary and the baby Jesus. (I really don’t think it’s that accurate a portrait of Joseph. He may have been dead by the time Jesus was crucified, but he was most certainly alive during Jesus’ public ministry.)

I’d rather believe that Joseph, when he was about to take Mary as his wife, was a relatively young man, not much older than some of my newly-ordained students perhaps. Joseph was most likely a young man, who wasn’t rich, but wasn’t poor either—carpentry was a lucrative business back then. He must have been a decent, presentable, young man with a lot of personality, and most likely, dreams and hopes for himself, Mary, and the family he wanted to create.

But God had other plans for Joseph, for Mary, and for the son she was going to bear. It would not be easy—for he wouldn’t exactly be his son. But Joseph was willing to give himself to God’s plan nevertheless. And he gave himself to it completely. He took that "leap of faith", then never looked back.

There can be no greater joy and fulfillment in life than to know that the gifts one has been given will be used in an enterprise larger than ourself—an enterprise that has been around long before we existed, and will continue, long after all of us are gone.

For those of us in the ministry, and those seeking to follow closely in Christ’s footsteps, it is good to pause every once in a while and ask, What offering can I make?

Joseph offered his whole life? What have you got to give? Is it your talents, intelligence, enthusiasm for ministry? Is it your fine personality and the fact that people listen to you?

Whatever it may be, know that it was given to you for one purpose—to use it to further God’s work of salvation. Give yourselves to the Lord, then. Do not hesitate; do not waver. Like Joseph, trust in God’s promise.

Say ‘yes’ to his plan. Say ‘yes’ to your calling. Like Joseph, take that "leap of faith", and never look back. You won't regret it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sed melius quod interius. "What is more important is what lies within." (Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book X, 9): Pope Francis and the Case of the Missing Mozzetta (A Brief Reflection for the 5th Sunday of Lent)

Yesterday, one of my former students wrote me a note; he said he was feeling a great deal of sadness and was beginning to feel rather disturbed about some things he's heard and read from people who have reacted rather negatively to some of the 'different' things Pope Francis has done since he was elected. He was, of course referring to the refusal to wear the mozzetta (an ermine-lined shoulder length cape usually worn by popes), the jewel-encrusted gold pectoral cross that had been offered for him to wear after his election, his taking a Volkswagen instead of a Mercedes the following morning, taking the bus together with the cardinals, stopping by the hotel where he had stayed, picking up his luggage, and then paying the bill.

My former students' note reminded me of a question one of my current students asked in class last Thursday. He pointed out that he had heard someone say that "doing away with tradition isn't a sign of humility". "What do you think of that, father?" he asked. (Frankly, I think the statement is a sure sign of a serious lack of humility.)

Yet, I myself have been reflecting on the events of the past couple of days. I was at the gym when the announcement was made that white smoke had finally come out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney. I had wanted to be home when news of a new pope's election came, so that I could share the moment with my other students, watch the momentous occasion as it unfolded, on TV, and share the excitement and joy. But I had expected white smoke on Thursday morning, as I figured it would take the cardinals sequestered in conclave a couple more votes before they'd settle on a new pope. Instead, it happened on Wednesday afternoon, 2:00 PM here in Miami, 7:00 PM in Rome.

Since I was worried that if I ended my workout and hurried back to the seminary, I might miss the parting of the curtains on the balcony of St. Peter, I decided to simply wait it out while continuing my workout, my eyes constantly glancing at the TV screens that dotted the gym. I simply didn't want to miss the new pope coming out and greeting everyone at St. Peter's square. Ten minutes, then twenty, then thirty, then fifty.... They said it would be forty-five minutes to an hour before the pope came out. I waited, patiently, all the time wishing I had simply dropped everything as soon as the white smoke came out and just drove back to the seminary as fast as I could. But it was too late; I simply had to content myself with waiting for everything to unfold while trying to concentrate on my reps and sets.

Finally, Cardinal Tauran made the announcement: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and he had chosen the name "Francis". I tried my best to think if there had been a Pope Francis before. I couldn't recall any. And then there he was, Pope Francis, standing on the balcony of St. Peters, looking shy, even a tad awkward, as he waved to the crowd that went into a frenzy. The first thing I noticed was the absence of the mozzetta and, instead of a big gold pectoral cross, a rather small and simple one, hanging by a rather short chain, dangling slightly to the right of his chest. "They should've at least straightened that thing out", I thought. But, even Pope Benedict was still wearing what looked like a black sweater underneath his vestments when he came out on the balcony. I'm sure in the rush to get the newly-elected pope presented to the waiting public, not every little detail can be attended to.

"Oversight", I thought. But then he asked the crowd to bless him, bowed to receive his flock's blessing, and only then took the stole from the Master of Ceremonies and proceeded to give his first papal blessing. "Something's going on", I thought. The absence of the red ermine-lined cape wasn't an oversight, nor was the far more simple pectoral cross hanging slightly askew from his neck. "Something's definitely going on". And true enough, it was one thing after another.

Today, I learned that he had in fact been offered the red shoulder cape, a jewel-encrusted pectoral cross, and a pair of red shoes. He apparently refused, as he did the Mercedes that had been waiting for him the following morning. In fact, the story goes that when he got to St. Mary Major, he told everyone that he had come, just like everyone else who was there to pray, "as a pilgrim", and he didn't want any special attention, meaning he didn't want the place closed on account of his presence. (They closed it anyway, for security purposes.)

So what are we to make of the new pope's actions, gestures, and some of the first words he spoke after his election? He said, in his address to the media, that he wanted "a poor church, that was for the poor". He reminded the cardinals that unless we truly follow Christ, all we have are titles, and they don't mean much; he told everyone that he chose the name "Francis" after Cardinal Hummes from Brazil, a Franciscan, hugged and kissed him after it was clear he was going to be elected, and said to him, "Do not forget the poor".

I've been practically devouring every bit of information I could get about Pope Francis; unfortunately, the information remains scant at this point. I'm sure that more will come in the days and months ahead. In fact, his biographer (when he was cardinal in Buenos Aires) is getting ready to have his biography re-published. I checked the Amazon website; it isn't there yet. I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer. But I must say that aside from being literally moved to tears (Yes, while working out at the gym; good thing I was sweating like crazy, so it was hardly noticed), what I've seen Pope Francis do since he was elected has made me reflect and pray a lot more these past couple of days.

Still, I can understand why some have expressed surprise, consternation, confusion, and have even reacted somewhat negatively to the pope's actions - hence, my former student's note. (Imagine what people must've felt when the first Pope John Paul, did away with the papal tiara or the sedia gestatoria, the seat on which popes had been carried around in procession?) What did I think of all the changes, as well as the reactions, my student asked. Here was my response.

I can see why many express surprise and even consternation. But think about it; first, if one were truly a good Catholic, he would understand that the words and actions of the pope (as the chief shepherd and supreme lawgiver of the Church) are normative for all of us. This pope is teaching simplicity, humility, and perhaps a desire that we focus on what's truly important rather than on peripheral things.

Second, one must be able to distinguish between "style" and "substance". Pope John Paul II had his style, Pope Benedict had his, Pope Francis now has his as well. Are they different in substance? No. And substance is what counts. Style changes, substance does not. Traditions with a small "t" come and go, that which we write with a capital "T" does not. Or to paraphrase Pope John XXIII, "the deposit of faith is one thing, the manner by which it is communicated to men and women of every age, is another". The church which is "forever the same", is also the church which is "forever new"; that has always been the formula for Catholicism's "staying power".

Third, the gospel reading at Mass (for the 5th Sunday of Lent, John 8:1-11) has Jesus once again, rather strongly, criticizing the scribes and pharisees who bring a woman to him accused of adultery, whom they want to stone. Jesus forgives the woman, but throughout the gospel, pronounces woe upon woe on the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, because they are like "whitewashed tombs", persons who had become so focused on, and caught up with externals that they began neglecting the far more important internal matters of faith. "Hypocrites", Jesus called them, "washing the outside of cups", but forgetting the far more important act of cleansing the inside as well.

Fourth, Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) has God reminding us, again and again, "it is justice I desire, not sacrifice". If we read the works of the prophets Amos and Hosea, we'll see that God shows little patience towards those who value externals while neglecting the more important, internal, and essential matters of faith. "I hate all your show and pretense - the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won't even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise. I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream". (Amost 5:21-24)

Fifth, in the "Confessions" (Bk X, n.9), St. Augustine says, melius quod interius; "what is inward is superior to what is exterior". I believe the Church, with all the abuse scandals all over the world, and the power-mongering and intrigue that has sadly crept into the very heart of its bureaucracy (bear in mind that the line calling the church a "community of saints and sinners" is not just a pious platitude; it is real, it is true), requires someone who is going to refocus our energies towards what is truly important, that is, our faith in Christ and our service towards the poor and needy, which is the only litmus test of authentic faith in God that Jesus gave us (Matt. 25:31-46).

Perhaps the greatest illness of society in our time is precisely the fact that people have become too concerned, invested and even obsessed with externals (things that glitter, things that are noticeable, "bling", if you want to call it). Should we Catholics follow society on that path and simply replace secular bling with "ecclesiastical bling"? I think Jesus would prefer that we chose his way, rather than society's. Sadly, most people, even Catholics do not understand that, and many fail to realize that the trappings of our faith, though not unimportant and can in fact aid in our prayer and worship, are not of ultimate importance and can, at times, hinder rather than assist us in focusing on what is necessary and essential.

"Why do your disciples, not fast?" Jesus was asked. "Why do they not wash their hands like the disciples of John and the Pharisees do?" Jesus was consistent in his reply, he who taught that "not one letter of the Law, nor the smallest part of a letter" is to be disregarded - it is the essential that truly matters, and the essential, as St. Augustine teaches us, is "interior", for that is what matters most to God who "searches the mind and probes the heart" (Jer. 17:10)

The cardinals, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, realized that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is precisely the kind of man, the kind of pope, the kind of shepherd, who can reorient and refocus the church's attention to what truly matters. I think we should be grateful for that, support him, pray for him, learn from him, and follow his lead.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How does one love the unlovable? (Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, on the 4th Sunday of Lent, Luke 15:1-3,11-32)

One of the things that I’m certain caught the attention of most of us this past week was a paper, supposedly written by a number of academics and intellectuals, criticizing the work of the late Teresa of Calcutta on behalf of the poor. The basic thesis of their critique was that given the amount of money she and her religious community had collected over the years, the Missionaries of Charity should have been able to put up better health care facilities for the sick and destitute they were caring for. Instead, according to the opinion of these critics, most of their facilities were poorly-equipped and whose overall condition left much to be desired. It was ultimately another attempt, so common in today’s overly-journalistic approach even to some of the most complex realities and events, to “simplify”, “demythologize” and “demystify” the work of one who, to both Christian and non-Christian alike, was unarguably a genuine symbol of all that is good, noble, and true in humanity.
 
There were responses for and against the article, of course. One writer, obviously a supporter of the good Mother Teresa had done, wrote in her blog: “To all the Mother Teresa haters: if you don't like her, that's your right and I respect it. But please, do not waste all this time writing studies or articles on her that have no other value than being controversial enough to be published. Pick your battles. Surely there are a lot worse people than her in this world who deserve your energy!”
 
“Surely there are a lot worse people than her” – reading that line, all I could think of were the writers of the critique itself. What could be worse than trying to tarnish the reputation of someone who had done so much good, even if this were supposedly being done in the name of thorough investigation and laying bare the truth? I received, in fact, an email from a lay friend with the query: “What do you say to people like that?” Another friend asked, “How does one deal with such people who seem only to see the bad and the ugly in things?”
 
We’ve surely all had such encounters; and they’re not even really bad persons, but rather generally good people who sometimes (or perhaps often) do things that simply aren’t pleasant, that are undesirable, even downright bad. Would that every person we encounter were not only pleasant, but actually kind and truly good; alas, such is never going to be the case, not always at least. So how must we see those who are tough to love, or even like?
 
I’ve always taught my students that “loving the poor and needy”, the “least among our brothers and sisters” can never be separated from our love and worship of God, at least if the latter were to be authentic and acceptable to Christ who said as much to his followers. But I’ve also never failed to caution them that “there is nothing romantic about poverty”, and that it has been one of my most humbling realizations that many times, the real tragedy of poverty is precisely that those who are poor, lose their dignity as persons because they are poor, because their lack and their need lead them at times to do things which they would most likely not do if they weren’t in so much want.
 
Many years ago, as a newly-ordained and perhaps too idealistic priest, I tried my best to be of help to anyone and everyone who came to me or was brought to me with some financial need. I will never forget this young couple whom the guards at the seminary brought to me one afternoon. They looked very poor, and had with them a little boy, no more than three years old, he seemed to me. He was pale, paper-white almost, had a rather bloated stomach and had a colostomy bag attached to his side. “They live in a shack in the nearby cemetery”, the guard told me. “What can I do for you?” I asked. “We just need money for his medications, father”, came the father’s reply. They said they needed a couple hundred pesos and showed me a prescription from a doctor, dated a few months back.
 
I felt truly sorry for the boy, and so thought that instead of simply giving them money, that I could help them get medical care and attention for their son. “I have some former classmates who are doctors”, I said. “Why don’t I give you my phone number; call me up this coming weekend, and I’ll do my best to arrange something so your son can get some serious medical help”. “But we need the money now, father”, the mother jumped right in. “I’ll give you something for your son's medication today”, I replied. “But make sure you call me this weekend, as I will be making arrangements for my friends to take a look at him and see what they can do to help”. I took out some cash from my wallet, handed it over to the father, and bade them goodbye.
 
I never heard from them, or saw them again. I did make the phone calls, I did make the arrangements. But they simply never came back. Later, one of the priests at the seminary told me that the same couple had been seen at a nearby parish, doing the same thing. Apparently, it was their M.O. I felt bad of course; I really wanted to help their son. Besides, there's nothing’s worse than wanting to help and then realizing you’ve just been had, especially by persons for whom you’ve actually felt tremendous compassion and pity. Sadly, it wasn’t the last time it happened; for every person who came to me with a real need, there would be another who was simply out to con me. Trying to figure out who was being sincere and truly needed help and who wasn’t, always proved tricky.
 
We must love the poor and needy, that is true; Jesus asked us to do that, and it is the only litmus test of authentic faith, in this life and in the next. But we must never romanticize this love, for in truth, there are those, even among the poor who are “closest to God’s heart”, who are difficult to love. And yet we must love them still. But what of those who aren't the "difficult-to-love" poor, but simply "difficult-to-deal-with" persons? All of us have known and dealt with some of them.
 
I very much enjoy teaching, and I've become used to the fact that at the beginning of every term, I face the prospect of starting anew. I have to once again start with another group of students to whose capacities and character, I have to adjust, even though every so often, I do find myself literally infuriated with some attitudes they show in class. Awhile back, one of my students at university, a relatively smart, and ordinarily polite and pleasant young man, raised his hand while his classmates were narrating personal stories—which I had asked them to do, so that those whose voice I never hear, might actually be able to participate.
 
I thought the young man had his own story to share. Instead, he says before the entire class, “Could we move on, I think we’ve pretty much said everything we need to say about this point.” It wasn’t just myself that was taken aback by the lack of respect not just for myself as professor but for his classmates, and I could sense the other students felt it as well. My first impulse was naturally to get up, and put him in his place. (And I’ve had that impulse so many times in the 15 years I’ve taught college, and even graduate students). Mercifully, I managed to keep that impulse in check. It would not have been good for the other students, especially the more timid ones, who may then become fearful of ever speaking in class if I had blown my top. And it would not have been good for the young man himself, who would surely have been embarrassed before his peers. (And though a colleague insists that some students might actually benefit from that experience, images of myself being a know-it-all who managed to annoy some of my own professors when I myself was in school flashed before my eyes.)
 
How does one show patience to those who would probably be better off being “put in their place”? How does one show kindness to those who are to us, unkind? How does one show generosity to those who are selfish? How does one show care for those who do not seem deserving of it? How does one love those who are difficult to love?
 
Too often, when the story of the Prodigal Son is read at Mass, focus is placed on the son who ran away, squandered his inheritance, and then realized the error of his ways and repented. Now while that is certainly a very important angle in the gospel, it isn’t necessarily the most important one. For the chief character of the gospel isn’t the sinful son, nor even the elder brother, the good son who stayed behind and was always faithful and obedient. Rather, the true focus and hero of the story is the forgiving and compassionate Father who runs to greet the son who has returned, and who stands by him, not because he is worthy, but precisely because he is not. It’s the father who identifies with him, not because he is good and pleasant, but precisely because he isn’t.
 
I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners”, Jesus says. It would certainly be a lot easier to dislike, perhaps even to show little or no kindness, mercy, compassion, and love, to those who are difficult, to those who make things hard for us, to those whom we feel do not deserve our love. That certainly was the reaction of the older brother in the parable, and he had every reason to feel and react the way he did. Look,”  he says to his father, “all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” Why, indeed, should we show kindness, even love and forgiveness, to those whom we may feel, do not deserve it?
 
It is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Christian story—something that makes it different from many other incarnation stories to be found in a lot of other religions, both past and present—that the Christian God chooses to incarnate and reveal himself, not in the manner by which deities of other religions are said to do so: in the form of beauty and perfection (as we see in the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks) or in power and wealth (as we see in the deities of other near eastern religions).
 
The Christian God was made incarnate in a poor and powerless child, associated himself with those at the very edges of acceptable society, then dies a most ignominious death, as a criminal, nailed to a cross in between two thieves, some of his last recorded words, spoken to console and comfort one who to many would be judged most undeserving of such. It is the way of God, the Father who is always willing to forgive, to run to a difficult-to-love son who has found his way back. It is the way of Christ who gave his life as a ransom for ours, we who from time to time, are ourselves, difficult-to-love, because of our weaknesses, because of our failures, because of our sins.
 
How does one love the unlovable? With much difficulty, with tremendous self-will, with great sacrifice, at times, even with a lot of pain and suffering. Yet love him we must, for it is only by doing so that we come to the full realization that it is the only true path towards truly loving that which oftentimes is the most difficult to genuinely love.
 
It was in embracing the leper, an outcast of humanity, that Francis of Assisi was able to come face to face, to embrace with true love and acceptance, his own inner turmoil and pain, thereby becoming—in the words of Paul in the second reading—“a new creation in Christ”. (2Cor. 5:17) “Be compassionate, as your heavenly father is compassionate”, Jesus tells us; and we have to obey. Because there will be moments in our lives when we will discover and realize, that the most difficult person to show compassion to, to forgive, to accept, and even to love, is none other than ourselves.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Reflections on the Woman at the Well & an Often-neglected Sacrament, on the Third Sunday of Lent, John 4:5-15,19-26,39,40-42)

There are many things that distinguish us Catholics from our Protestant brothers and sisters. None perhaps makes such distinction more pronounced than that which, in the Catholic faith, allows us to speak of ‘sacraments’, to use ordinary signs and symbols like oil, bread, and wine, to regard good works as important in "working out our salvation, with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), and finally, to see such things as crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, scapulars, etc., as revelatory, albeit in a very limited way, of God’s presence in our lives.

But what exactly is it that allows us Catholics to hold such a deeply "sacramental" understanding of life and of existence itself?

It's the profound Catholic belief that God’s creation, no matter how fallen, fragile, and sometimes fraught with pain, evil and suffering it might be, remains fundamentally good (Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions). In spite of the narrative of the Third Chapter of Genesis (the Fall), Catholicism has always insisted that the true ‘lens’ by which we should see all of life remains the heart of the First and Second Chapters of Genesis (the goodness of everything God created) as well as the restoration of all creation and the redemption of fallen humanity, through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. 

The ancient Fathers of the Church even had interesting names for this reconstitution: anakephalaiosis, the "return of all things to the head" (Irenaeus of Lyon), or apokatastasis, the "recapitulation or restoration of of all things to their original or primordial condition" (Origen). These, of course, are ideas that are deeply rooted in Scripture itself. The Acts of the Apostles, for instance, speaks of Jesus as the one who is to bring about "the final restoration (ἀποκαταστάσεως) of all things" (Acts 3:21).

In contrast, Martin Luther’s thought—which in a very deep way affects fundamental Protestant theology, anthropology, and its view of the world—remains anchored in the story of humanity’s Fall. All grace has been lost, human nature, everything in this world, including nature itself is fallen, sinful, corrupt, and depraved. We are all, in Luther’s words, “piles of dung”. There is no "restoration" for the sinner in this way of thinking, only judgment and redemption in Christ. There is simply no "return" to an "original" state of grace, for that has been forever lost on account of the Fall.

How then are we saved according to the father of the Protestant Reformation?

Jesus, Luther argues,  “cloaks” us with himself, wraps a mantle or blanket around us so that when God sees us and is about to strike us down for our wickedness and transgressions, he instead sees his Son, and relents.

That is perhaps one of the most basic differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholic theology represents a strong insistence that despite the Fall, God’s creation did not lose its inherent goodness. God’s grace which was our original birthright was not totally obliterated and destroyed. God’s grace continues to lift nature and human nature allowing it to reveal or manifest His presence.

"Grace", says St. Thomas Aquinas, “does not destroy nature, but builds on it and brings it to perfection”. And so we Catholics believe that ordinary bread and wine, water, signs, symbols, statues, words, gestures, our works, our community—even if they are weak and inadequate, are disclosures of God’s continued presence.

This Sunday, I invite us all to reflect upon this profound and beautiful truth about our faith tradition and relate it to one of the Catholic sacraments that’s often neglected, and misunderstood, at times, even by us Catholics ourselves: the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation.

Ask a non-Catholic (or at times even a Catholic himself) why he doesn’t believe or go to Confession, and the response you’ll most likely get is: “I confess my sins directly to God. The priest is just a human being. Who is he to hear my confession and forgive my sins?”

Do you know that we priests are supposed to go to Confession ourselves? Canon Law reminds us priests of the value and importance of going to Confession. When I first entered seminary, that was one of the first things I wondered about: "What am I going to do when I’m a priest? Who’s going to hear my confession?" Well, the answer turned out to be quite simple, another priest.

“I go directly to God himself”—while the statement sounds very pious and devout, underneath it is really an idea that goes directly against the heart of what it means to be Catholic.

For what the statement is really saying is this: “I go directly to God himself, because I really have difficulties trusting anything and anyone on this earth, because everything and everyone on this earth is fallen, sinful, corrupt, depraved, and perverted. I trust no one. I believe no one; in fact at times, I don’t even trust myself”.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate non-Catholic statement.

In today’s gospel reading, we notice something peculiar about the Samaritan woman’s actions. She’s getting water from a well about a mile outside town—in the middle of the day, when it’s too hot in the area and you could get sunstroke. Why? She was avoiding people. She meets Jesus and immediately she’s defensive: “Why are you, a Jew, and a man, asking me, a Samaritan, and a woman, for a drink?” Jesus asks her to call her husband and she says: “I have no husband”.

He tells her about worshipping God, and she responds by going around in circles. This was a woman who was paranoid, who trusted no one, not her neighbors, not Jesus, and not even herself. “I have no husband”. This was a woman who seems to have completely lost sight of the goodness of others, of the world, and even of herself. Why should she trust anybody, when everybody looked down on her because of her situation?

She was probably afraid of being condemned, of being looked down upon, of being shunned and made an even bigger outcast by this Jewish man who was now asking her for water to drink. Her inability to trust was rooted in fear. Instead, Jesus reveals to her the truth about herself, “Truly you have no husband, for you’ve had five, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband either”.

But there was no condemnation in his voice. Only love, only acceptance, only grace, and finally, freedom.

And she needed to hear that. She needed to feel that. She needed those words coming from the lips of another human being.

We are after all, creatures of both spirit and flesh. We need to hear things, see things, taste things, feel things. We need to know, but also to experience in a flesh-and-blood way, the genuineness of God's unconditional love.


As a student in seminary, and even after ordination, I've always felt something that wasn't only comforting, calming, and reassuring, but also powerfully and profoundly real whenever I hear those words spoken to me by a priest: "I absolve you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit".

I know my sins are forgiven. I experience God's undying love.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Confession, is a way for us to have the same experience the Samaritan woman had, to hear and to listen to the sound of those words spoken to us. It isn’t the priest who forgives us—because like us he too is sinful. Rather it is God, who despite the fallenness, weakness, and sinfulness of human nature and of creation—still reveals himself to us through these instruments.

That is what we Catholics believe. That is what separates us and distinguishes us from our Protestant brothers and sisters. That is what allows us to believe in signs, in symbols, in our good works, in bread and wine, in the sacraments. The Samaritan woman experienced the healing power of God spoken through words. Perhaps this Lent, you may consider the Sacrament of Confession once again, and allow yourself to hear God’s words spoken through the lips of a sinful creature, who like each one of us, no matter how sinful, can be used by God to reveal his presence in the world.

When was the last time we came to the Sacrament of Confession? God is not forcing us to do it. Nor will the church. But today, we are all invited, to consider it once more. And like the Samaritan woman, allow ourselves to hear words Jesus himself speaks to us:

“I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

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