Monday, February 27, 2017

OUR LIFE IN SEMINARY CAN TRANSFORM US INTO MEN, OR IT CAN DEFORM US INTO BOYS (On the Dangers of Complacency, Indifference, and an Unhealthy Sense of Entitlement in Seminary Formation)

"Father, I entered seminary because I wanted to be challenged. I was at a World Youth Day when Pope John Paul II issued a challenge to the youth that were present. He told us not to satisfy ourselves with what is easy, but to seek what is noble and good. I entered the seminary wanting to be a man; this place has turned me into a boy."

This was the reply a former student gave me when I asked him why he decided to leave seminary. He was that type of seminarian whose choice to leave, someone like myself who has been in formation ministry for decades can really feel sad about. He was just a really good, mature, hard-working, level-headed kind of guy whom everyone on formation staff believed could have been a really good priest. 

“I entered seminary wanting to be a man; this place has turned me into a boy.” 

For as long as I live, and for as long as I am to find myself involved in the work of teaching the Church's future priests, I will never forget that young man's words, nor the warning they hold for all of us on this journey towards being more closely conformed to the person of Christ.

There is tremendous beauty and goodness in seminary formation; but like everything in this world, it has pitfalls for those who lose sight of their reasons for having wanted to enter seminary in the first place.

There's this gospel passage where Jesus, encouraging his followers to hold on to his teaching, tells his listeners that his truth shall set them free. Perhaps thinking he was suggesting that they somehow weren't free, some of his listeners counter that "they have never been slaves" since they were "Abraham's descendants." (John 8:33)

For the Jews, Abraham was one of the greatest figures in all religious history; and they considered themselves safe and secure in the favor of God simply because they were his descendants. This admiration they had for Abraham was perfectly legitimate; he is after all, a giant in the religious history of the world.

But, as Jesus points out in the same gospel passage (8:34-47), it was what followed from this admiration that eventually became problematic. For they believed that Abraham had gained so much blessings from his goodness that this merit was sufficient, not only for himself, but for all his descendants as well.

This in effect, led to a very bad attitude of complacency, indifference, and an unhealthy sense of entitlement on the part of the people of Jesus' time. They became less concerned with seeking and obeying God’s will, and had instead allowed their religion to deteriorate to the point that they could not even recognize the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. In fact, as Jesus says, they now even wanted to kill him. This could hardly be the work of Abraham’s children.

They had forgotten that being chosen by God conferred upon them, not only great privilege, but great responsibility as well.  

The Covenant was not meant to be a one-way street. 

In our case too, our being called by God, our being privileged to receive such great a gift as our vocation to the priesthood, confers upon us a lot of blessings; but it also comes with tremendous responsibility – which we forget or neglect at our own peril.

Consider the relative ease of our life in seminary. Yes, there are hurdles and problems here and there; no one denies that. But consider the larger picture. 

You get up in the morning, you know that immediately, your spiritual needs will be met. The chapel is right there; the opportunity to receive Jesus in the Eucharist is given to us daily. No need to drive, no need to rush to church to attend prayers or Mass like people outside who then have to beat rush-hour traffic to get themselves to their workplace afterwards.

When Mass is over, your bodily needs are provided for. You don’t have to worry about preparing breakfast for yourself. The refectory is right there. The same is true at noon and dinner time. (Pope Francis used to cook his meals for himself.)

Afterwards, your intellectual needs are satisfied. No need to rush from one building on campus to another. The classrooms, the good, kind, and understanding professors are all there.

And neither are your emotional needs neglected. When you have a problem or a difficulty, your spiritual director, or other gentle, patient, and understanding priests are right there, willing to listen, so are friends and peers who are always ready to lend you a hand on practically anything. 

A number of years ago, I mentioned these to a seminarian, hoping that were he to realize and truly embrace the many blessings God gives him in his daily life in seminary, he'd do his best to live up to his potential and give himself fully to the demands of formation.

His reply pained me greatly: 

"That’s okay, Father; I’m asked to deny myself a lot of other things anyway." 

His words reminded me of something a priest I know said to me many years ago - half-jokingly, of course - after I asked if it was such a good idea to get himself a rather expensive car after he was made pastor: 

“No wife, no kids, no high paying job. I don’t think God would get mad at me for a few toys here and there”. 

Beware of the danger of entitlement, be on guard against complacency, and rid yourselves of the thought that denying ourselves certain things means license to replace them with others. 

The sacrifice and self-oblation at the heart of our promises of celibacy, simplicity, and obedience, will mean nothing if we substitute in their place, things that are incompatible with our calling.

The things that offer us a certain degree of ease in our life in seminary are meant, not to make us comfortable. They aren’t entitlements for the things we deny ourselves.  Rather they are meant to free us, so that we can give ourselves to the demands of our vocation and our formation, with greater commitment, with total dedication, and with an ever-growing sense of self-giving, today as seminarians, and later on as priests who will be sent to serve and minister to God’s people.

We are in seminary to be formed as men, not to be deformed into boys. Sadly, that has happened too many times, to too many seminarians, in too many seminaries.

Remember, when things start getting too comfortable, and we start becoming complacent, even lazy, we cease to follow Christ, who has called us, not to a life of ease, but to a life of greatness - one that ends, not in comfort, but on the cross. 

Do not satisfy yourselves therefore with what is easy, but seek what is noble and good. Seminary formation can transform you into the man God wants you to be, or it can deform you into a boy.

The choice is always yours.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

“IN THE MIDST OF WINTER, I FOUND IN MYSELF AN INVINCIBLE SUMMER.” (Albert Camus) Anxiety, worry, fear, and distress, they all vanish when the love of Christ takes charge (Reflections on the Gospel of the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matt. 6:24-34)

“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance,

attains all things.
He whom God holds
shall want for nothing;
God alone suffices.” 

(St. Teresa of Avila)

Beneath the numerous and amazing accounts of healing in the New Testament is a thought that ought to guide and direct the life of every disciple, a thought summed up perfectly in the poem written by St. Teresa of Avila (often called her “Bookmark” since it was found tucked into her prayer book after her death in 1582) as well as a line from one of St. Paul’s letters: “I should like you to be free of anxieties”.

No one is exempt from the storms of life, not even the most faithful and devout Christian. And while Scripture tells us that God “gives his sun to shine on both the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), it is equally true that suffering and pain are visited and distributed by life equally on everyone, good and bad, believer and unbeliever alike.

And yet, as Teresa says in her prayer, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. One who believes and trusts that his life is always in God’s hands has something that no one else possesses, and that is that unshakeable confidence that no matter what happens, “all will be well”, for “the lives of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever harm them”. (Wisdom 3:1)

If there is one thing that the Gospel so confidently proclaims over and over again, it is the fact that God is in control; Christ is in charge, even of the darker areas of our lives. Jesus heals the sick, expels unclean spirits, feeds the multitude, calls the sinner to repentance, even raises the dead. And because he is in charge, St. Paul is able to urge us, just as he urged the Christians of his day, to cast off anxiety, worry, and fear in our lives.

“Worry, anxiety, distress, fear”—these words should not be part of a Christian’s vocabulary, for Christ casts them all away, just as he casts away unclean spirits that held people hostage. In the ancient world, illness was attributed to the possession by unclean spirits. We no longer attribute illness to demons—and we no longer fear diseases as much. And yet fear, worry, and anxiety are still demons that plague our lives. They still have power over us today.

Over and over again, the gospels tell us that with Jesus, all these demons that sometimes bother us—are cast out. He is in command. God is in charge. And there is no need to be anxious, fearful or worried—about anything. God hears and answers our prayers, all of them, though perhaps not in the manner or the time we wish them to be heard and answered.

Remember the story of the woman and the judge in the Gospel? The ancient pagans had a practice they called fatigare deos – “to tire the gods.” They believed that the gods had to somehow be “made tired by their incessant praying”, that their perseverance in telling the gods what they want and need would eventually pay off, because the gods would eventually get sick and wearied by hearing their prayers and would finally accede to their requests.

Perhaps Jesus had this practice in mind when he told the parable of the woman and the judge; perhaps he still had it in mind when he spoke the words of today’s gospel reading:

“Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.”

We are to trust that God knows all our needs even before we speak them. “Even the hairs on our heads have all been counted", for "God knows each one of us by name”. We don’t have to ‘tire’ him like the pagans do; we have to trust him.

And trusting him means two things. First, it means trusting that while he may not give us right away what we ask for, he always knows what we need, and will always give it to us when we need it.

We all have our challenges, our crosses, the things about ourselves we strive to overcome. On a number of occasions, as a young seminarian, I would complain to my spiritual director that there were certain faults and weaknesses in me that I simply found to be too stubborn and deeply-embedded in me that no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t rid myself of them. "Be patient", he would always say. "Persevere. In God's own time and in his own way, trust that He will assist you, perhaps even free you from these crosses."

"Time," a philosopher once said, "is the patience of God." It should be ours as well. In God's own time, all shall be well.

Second, trusting in God’s wisdom means realizing that we pray, not to tire him into giving what we ask, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. To persevere in prayer is to increase our trust in God, because in doing so, we increase our confidence in ourselves. The ultimate purpose of prayer is not just to get what we ask, but to make us strong, confident, and without fear in facing the challenges and difficulties of our life and vocation.

“Do not fear", Scripture tells us, "for God has our name written on the palm of His hand”. Or as the first reading today so beautifully puts it:

“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”

It is when we realize the profound meaning of trust in God’s care that we discover deep within our very selves, a power and force that can overcoming tremendous odds—something that is itself a gift of his grace.

To borrow the words of the famous atheist Albert Camus, “in the midst of winter,” we can yet find in ourselves, "an invincible summer”.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

At the heart of the experience of falling in love is an "unknowing," a "risk," a "leap" that's worth taking. (A Wedding Homily on Valentine's Day)

I have some married friends who have confided that listening to priests preach at weddings has always fascinated them - though they've also sometimes found it quite odd - for the simple reason that priests are somehow expected to impart words of advice and wisdom to two persons who are about to spend the rest of their lives together—something we ourselves will never get to experience.

To them I’d always reply that while they make a very good and valid point, the fact is, if one were to dig just a little deeper, he would see that the lives we have chosen and the love we profess – those of married couples and those of priests, are really not that different.

I will be nineteen years ordained this year. How quickly time flies! I was sharing that fact with one of my former students and mentioned that I was presiding at a wedding. After having asked who the couple was, he immediately followed it up with two questions: “How do you know if you’ll stay a priest for the rest of your life, father? And how do people who are about to take the plunge into married life, know that they in fact are meant for each other and will stay together forever?”

They were interesting (and tough) questions. And given that he was not a seminarian or even a very religious young man, I figured explaining things to him using ordinary church language wouldn’t do. I had to explain things to him using terms he could understand and more easily relate with; and I had to be perfectly honest and straightforward. So I looked him in the eye and said: “You know what, I really don’t know.”

It was the most sincere, honest, and straightforward answer I could give. But then I had to explain.

There's something that isn't too easily given to articulation, whether in a sentence, a mathematical equation, or a scientific formula in the experience priests and married couples share: giving ourselves in love to something or to someone other than ourselves.

The Gospel reading our young couple chose for their wedding liturgy is from John’s Gospel: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and live in His love. All this I tell you that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

 “Love,” Jesus says. “Love one another as I have loved you.” And yet at the very heart and core of the experience of love and of falling in love is a rather curious statement, “I don’t know.” Why does a man fall in love with a woman, or a woman with a man? We can give all sorts of reasons. But if the love is genuine, and you ask him, “Why?” he’ll most likely simply say, “I don’t know. I just know I love her; and that’s that!”

Similarly if you were to ask a priest who loves his priesthood, why he chose that life rather than another, he’ll most likely simply say as well, “I don’t know. I just know it’s what God wants for me.”

And that’s the first thing to remember about love, when it’s real. It has no “why.” It just is. That’s why it’s called “falling in love” – because you really don’t know why, and you don’t know where it will ultimately lead. You simply have a very deep conviction that it is right, and you go with it. In short, it involves a very genuine risk - a “leap of faith” into the arms of the person you love.

“The heart,” says the philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal, “has reasons of which reason does not know.”

But is there any other way? The very same student who asked me the question, “How do you know?” had a follow up. “If you really don’t know, why make the commitment at all?”

I answered him this way. There are three types of persons in this world. (i) Runners – those who flee, (ii) watchers – those who sit on the sidelines, and (ii) risk-takers – those who commit.

Those who run are afraid of failing or getting hurt, they fear the challenges that commitment brings, and so they run away. Those who watch are the fence-sitters, also afraid of failing or getting hurt, but are fascinated by those who are in the game.

Runners and watchers may never get hurt, never experience pain, but they will also never experience the thrill, the joy, the exhilaration of succeeding. Risk-takers get hurt, they get wounded, and they can in fact fail, but they’re the only ones who know what true victory and triumph mean. And they’re the only ones who will truly know what falling in love with another person or with life truly brings.

My friends, the two of you, together, have chosen to be the third type of person. You have chosen to commit to one another, not for a day, not for a month or a year, or a decade, but for life.

And so now, I speak to you both, not so much as a priest giving advice, but simply as a brother in Christ, who like you has chosen to take the risk of committing to something, to someone for the rest of our lives.

Jesus speaks to you both, to us all, of love, in today’s Gospel reading. And there are three things I would like to share with you about this love of which he speaks.

First, always remember that genuine love is neither mere feeling nor sentiment; true love is a commitment. It’s a commitment of one’s whole being: heart, mind, body, and soul.

Love is not simply passion, romance, emotion, and fascination – these are all important parts or aspects of love, but in themselves, they aren't love.

Love is something larger; it’s a commitment to the other, not a mere matter of the heart, but a matter of heart and mind, body and soul. And it’s a commitment that has to be renewed every time you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed at night.

There will be good days and not-so-good ones, there will be mountains and valleys, plateaus and plains. Love sticks it out, through thick and thin.

On a practical note, seek to grow in knowledge of one another daily, seek to become the best of friends.

Second, never lose sight of the fact that genuine love removes its gaze from oneself and keeps it on the beloved.

Love means putting the other in first place and oneself always in second; it reverses the usual order by which we understand and do things. The self seemingly disappears when one truly loves; the good of the other becomes one's primary concern.

And yet there is a paradox involved in true love, namely, that in losing our self in the person we love, we find our self even more. The self isn’t gone; it doesn't disappear but is instead made whole. 

In losing ourselves in the person we love, we find ourselves even more; and we are made complete.

Nor does love end when one finds fulfillment and wholeness in the person he or she loves. Instead, love becomes even more complete, even more grand when the love two people bear for one another expands and reaches out to even more persons. For a husband and wife, this means love extending towards the children they shall have, as well as the society and world in which these children are going to be raised.

One a practical note, remember to always put your beloved first: think first of what will make him happy, of what could make her sad, and of what would allow his heart and soul to take flight. Be always thoughtful, mindful of each other.

And third, always bear in mind that your love for one another must mirror Christ’s love, because all human love, no matter how exalted, is imperfect and finite.

Love means forgiving over and over and over again. But it also means avoiding hurting the other over and over and over again. In this it must mirror Christ’s love which never ceases to forgive but which also anticipates our needs.

Remember that you are marrying an imperfect human being, great and awesome in many ways but imperfect nonetheless. And that’s perfectly alright, because in many ways, that is what marriage is about: two imperfect human beings, perfecting and completing one another, and growing and maturing as man and woman together.

On a practical note, the two of you will probably forget most of what I’ve said in this homily, but if you just remember this one thing, our celebration today will make a difference for as long as you live:

Never go to bed angry, never let the sun set on you both without resolving hurts, and never end your day without saying to one another - no matter how big the misunderstanding or fight may sometimes be - those three words you've spoken to each other hundreds, perhaps thousands of times since you began this journey: “I love you.” 

Anchor your love, your marriage in Christ, and do not be afraid to take as many "leaps," as many "risks," as you have to, as a couple, as friends; and do not be afraid to "fall in love" with each other again and again - God will always be there to catch you.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

"LEAP, GOD WILL BE THERE TO CATCH YOU!" - Saint Augustine of Hippo (Reflections on Mary's "Leap of Faith" on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes)

"I am a bow in your hands Lord;
draw me lest I rot.
Do not overdraw me, Lord;
I fear I shall break.
Overdraw me, Lord;
do with me as you please.
Who cares if I break!"

- The Prayers of Three Kinds of Souls
(Nikos Kazantzakis)

Why Mary, why did you accept Gabriel's greeting? Did you not think of the perils you would face? Why did you risk your relationship with Joseph, your betrothed? Why did you not carefully consider the consequences of bearing a child whose future you did not know? Why did you not think of the pain, the heartache, the sorrow, this vocation could bring you? Why did you not ask for some guarantee that God's promise would be fulfilled? Why did you not seek assurance for yourself, in case the mission of this child to be born were met with failure? Why did you say 'yes' to God's request? How could one be so full of generosity, so selfless, so utterly giving, in the face of such lack of certainty? Why, Mary? What made you so brave?

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior .. For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name... For he has remembered his promise of mercy ... the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever."
The words of Mary's Magnificat hide a tremendous and explosive force, an enormous power. They reveal what lies at the heart of the tremendous courage that allowed Mary to respond with that most risky yet most generous and selfless 'yes' to the invitation to become the mother of God's only Son.

The Magnificat contains the 'secret' to a life lived in total self-giving, in complete generosity of spirit, of a willingness to step out of the safe and secure boundaries of our selves so that we might not only accept, but embrace with a courageous and fearless heart,  whatever comes our way.

That 'secret' casts out fear, extinguishes doubt, lays waste to hesitation, and conquers selfishness. That "secret" is none other than a heart that has completely wrapped itself in trust and confidence in a God who always remembers his promise and who never goes back on his word.

In his book Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of what he called the "knight of faith" - one whose heart is so convinced of two important things: the utter impossibility of what he is confronted with, and the utter possibility of the very same thing.

"But that would absurd!" one might protest. To which the knight of faith replies: "Precisely! It is absurd! And it is precisely because of that absurdity that one believes! Did not Tertullian exclaim: Credo quia absurdum? I believe because it is absurd!" This isn't mere faith, this is conviction. This is trust, a leap into the unknown, confident that as Augustine exclaims in his Confessions, "God will catch you!" (Conf. VIII, xi)

In his book, Kierkegaard, names the only two persons whom he says qualifies perfectly to be called "knights of faith": Abraham and Mary - because both believed that nothing surrendered to God is ever lost, not one's son, nor one's honor. For as Gabriel says to Mary, ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα - "The word God has spoken is not unable" - or in words more familiar to us, "Nothing is impossible with God."

Mary's "leap of faith," her total and unambiguous "yes" to Gabriel's words were a sign of complete and radical trust in a God who never fails, who keeps his word, and who accomplishes what he says - if only one believes.

Mary's said "yes," selflessly and generously because she was brave and trusted completely in God's promise. She had no reason to hold anything back, no reason to be anxious and fearful that having given everything, she might in turn receive nothing. And it is that faith, Søren Kierkegaard says, that allowed her to take that mightiest of "leaps."

A selfish heart anchors itself onto fear, fear of losing what it possesses, fear of losing those things with which it has identified itself, fear that its love will not be reciprocated, fear that after having given so much, it will get so little or even nothing in return.

Are such fears unfounded? No, they aren't. We can lose, we can fail, we can get deeply wounded and seriously hurt, we can end up not receiving what we've given, and our love, care, compassion and generosity can find no reciprocation from the very people we've decided to love and to whom we've chosen to give ourselves wholeheartedly. Our kindness, care, generosity and compassion can even be ridiculed by a jaded and cynical world that can judge us hopelessly naive, unnecessarily optimistic, overly romantic, dangerously idealistic.

Mary knew all these things in her heart; she may have been young, yet she was hardly naive. When Gabriel came to her, asking if she would be willing to take the greatest risk of her life, the risk of doing for God, something that even her betrothed could regard as a betrayal, which could earn her the scorn of her family, her friends, her society and her religion, Mary knew what it meant. It isn't hard to imagine her taking a deep breath, closing her eyes and asking - like most of us often do:

"What if the promise being made to me isn't kept? What if Joseph, my beloved chooses to give in to doubt and sends me away, what if those I love most, family and friends, refuse to believe me? What if the child I bear, instead of being embraced as the Savior that Israel had been promised, dies instead a most ignominious death in the hands of those he has sent to love, heal, and save? What if it all fails? What if the Lord doesn't keep his word, what will I be left with? What then happens to me? Wouldn't it be better to keep something for security, hold something back in case it fails?" 

But Mary's generosity was rooted in her trust that the God who was asking her to take what was to be the riskiest decision of her life, wouldn't go back on his word. She believed with her whole heart in his promise and took courage in the fact that he had never let his people down. He always had their back, and now he would have hers. Why shouldn't she be brave then? Why shouldn't she say 'yes'?

A generous spirit is the flowering of courage, it is born out of a profound trust that the leaps we make in life aren't blind, though they may initially seem to be, for there is a strength, a power, a promise that underpins our every selfless act, giving that invincible reassurance that we shall never give, care, or love in vain.

Scripture tells us that God's Word never returns to him without accomplishing its purpose. The seeds God sows are never sown in futility; though their growth may seem to take long and though to the world's eyes they may seem to fail, even die, they bear the fruit which God intended. With him there is no failure, with him there is no loss. Mary's selfless 'yes' was a result of this confidence. With God by her side, how could she fail? With God by our side, there can be no 'failure'.

There's an ancient philosopher who always counseled his students: "Never suppress a generous impulse." He wasn't telling them to be foolhardy or imprudent. But he wanted them to recognize that taking the risk of loving, of caring, of showing concern and compassion, of giving and committing oneself to others, to noble endeavors, and to life itself, is a risk worth taking.

For a generous heart can never fail, and a spirit that steps out of the safety and security of its borders never returns empty-handed, even if it fact returns with battle scars. Because when we do so, we mirror and pattern ourselves after the one who first took the supreme risk of loving despite the possibility of not being loved in return, of caring despite the possibility of that care not being reciprocated, of giving himself and his very life despite the possibility of that gift being rejected and nailed onto a tree.

So the next time we find ourselves wondering whether loving, caring, showing compassion, generosity, or giving ourself fully to something we believe is noble and worthwhile may not yield a return, we ought to think of the bravest of women, the most "yes" was a complete and total mirror of her own Son's "yes" to the will of a God who remembers his promise, who never goes back on his word, and who will always have the back of those whom he first loved into being and whom he never ceases to love - whether or not they love him in return.

We can take those risks, those "leaps" so necessary to living life to the full, because Mary has shown us how, and because God has shown us why: in Him, we can never lose. We can be courageous, we can be brave, we can be strong, like Mary.

"Cast yourself upon the Lord and do not be afraid. He will not withdraw himself so that you fall. Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you!"  - St. Augustine

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