Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Help Me Help You

Appreciating our administrative assistants
John 6:35-40

           Jesus said to the crowds, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. But I told you that although you have seen me, you do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”

            Do you know who has taught me the most about being a good and holy priest?  It’s not all the theology books I read in seminary.  It’s not seeing the example of other holy and humble priests.  It’s not leadership seminars and gurus.  Instead, it’s all the wonderful, hard-working and under-paid secretaries I’ve been blessed to work with over 19 years.  These ladies have taught me tons about being a good priest, and I’m glad we take a day today – Administrative Professionals Day – to thank them.

            When I was first ordained, I thought, “Hey, I’m the priest and I make the decisions.  You’re the secretary, and you follow orders.”  Uh, I learned quickly that’s not how this works.  I realized that secretaries often have great ideas about how to solve problems because they’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work.  So, I often ask them, “What do you think we should do in this case?”  You know, we often lament the fact that priests don’t receive classes in leadership and personnel management.  But do you know who’d be the best to teach such a class?  It’s the lovely ladies working in church offices!  These ladies say, in effect, like Tom Cruise did in the movie, “Jerry Maguire,”  “Help me, help you!”  These lovely ladies have helped me to be a better priest.

            In the gospel of John, We see what’s in the heart of all good administrative assistants, namely, doing God’s will.  Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”  All good secretaries know the pastor is in charge; they don’t need us to remind them.  They carry out someone else’s will.  Indeed, in the pastor’s will they hope and pray they are doing God’s will.  But these ladies also teach us priest to do the same: not seek our own will but the will of the one who sent us, like the bishop’s will, and ultimately, God’s will.  Church secretaries say, “Help me to help you!”

             I recently read an article in the U.S. News and World Report advocating abolishing Secretaries Day because it’s demeaning and condescending.  The article actually made a valid point, but I disagree.  I’ve seen in every church secretary an icon of Jesus; who came to do the will of someone else.  By their humble example and wise counsel, they’ve taught me to do the same, and become a better priest.

            You know, in every church, the secretaries always joke that they will write a tell-all book about their experiences because no one would believe what they go through!  I’m not sure if that’s really a veiled threat.  Anyway, I’m sure it would become a best-seller.  Why?  Because I would buy tons of copies and give them to all my brother priests.  Maybe the title of the book should be, “Help me, help you.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Jimmy Pete

Discovering our true name
John 8:51-59

          Jesus said to the Jews: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  So the Jews said to him, “Now we are sure that you are possessed. Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  Or the prophets, who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know him, but I know him. And if I should say that I do not know him, I would be like you a liar. But I do know him and I keep his word.  Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.

          Names are funny things, sometimes they are literally funny.  I’ll never understand why some parents give their children names that rhyme.  At home, my parents called me and my brother and sister, “Polly,” “Jolly,” and “Dolly.”  When they yelled one of our names, all we heard was “olly,” and we all came running!  A dear friend of mine named all her children starting with the letter “C” – Courtney, Conner and Colin.  Of course, he name is "Carol"!  Know any parents who do that?  I’ll never forget when Bishop J. Peter Sartain at a Confirmation Mass told everyone a nickname he had growing up; it was “Jimmy Pete.”  After he said that, he turned and looked at all the priests who were present and warned us: “Don’t even think about it!”

            C. S. Lewis said that we’ll never know our true name, our deepest identity, until we get to heaven.  There, God will give us a “white stone” with a name that only we will know, or be able to understand.  Lewis quotes George MacDonald, saying, “It is only when the man has become his name that God gives him the stone with the name upon it, for then first can he understand what his name signifies.”  In other words, throughout our lives we’re slowly “becoming our true name,” and we won’t know our name till heaven, where we’ll receive the “white stone," with our name inscribed upon it.

            In the first reading today, Abraham gets the white stone early while he’s still on earth.  God gives him his true name saying, “No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations.”  Abraham was extraordinary and had already become his true name while he was on earth.  In the gospel Jesus declares to the Jews his own true name, saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.”  That is, I am the Son of God, that is real name and true identity the Father gave me from all eternity.  You see, the saints get their stones sooner than others.

            A friend of mine told me that the sweetest word in any language is the sound of our own name.  Just listen, “Father John” – don't you think those are the sweetest words in the English language?!  But you know, that’s not my real name.  Even at 45 years old, I’m still only beginning to learn my true name; I’m still “becoming my own name.”  This means we should have profound patience with each other, and with each other’s faults: with your spouse, with your children, with your parents.  You see, none of us is a saint like Abraham nor are we like Jesus, and we don't know our true name.  Our real names are not Jimmy Pete, or Courtney, Connor or Colin, and not Polly, Jolly, or Dolly.  Matthew Kelly says we’re all striving to become “the best version of ourselves.”  The best version of ourselves is that "name" written on that white stone, we hope to receive in heaven.

            Here’s the rest of the Lewis quote: “God’s name for a man must be the expression of his own idea of the man, that being whom he had in his thought when he began to make the child, and whom he kept in his thought through the long process of creation that went to realize the idea.  To tell the name is to seal the success – to say, ‘In thee also I am well pleased.’”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Veggies of Faith

Carrying our crosses daily
John 8:21-30

          Jesus said to the Pharisees: “I am going away and you will look for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going you cannot come.” So the Jews said, “He is not going to kill himself, is he, because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above. You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “What I told you from the beginning. I have much to say about you in condemnation. But the one who sent me is true, and what I heard from him I tell the world.” They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me.  He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.” Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.

            Have you ever noticed how some of the greatest Catholic art has to do with death and dying, especially that of Jesus?  This emphasis really distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, who’d rather underscore Jesus’ Resurrection.  You know you’re in a Catholic church if you see a prominent crucifix – that’s a cross with Jesus’ body on it – instead of just a cross without a corpus.  Of course, Catholics believe in the Resurrection, too!  But that’s the easy part of Jesus’ life story, the fun part; the hard part is the suffering and death.  Parents don’t have to remind their children to eat their dessert, but you have to remind them to eat their vegetables!  Suffering is like the veggies of our faith, the Resurrection is like dessert.  Catholic art reminds the children of God to eat their veggies, that is, to carry our crosses.

            One of the most famous pieces of Catholic art is the Pieta.  It is one of Michaelangelo’s signature sculptures and he completed it when he was only 24 years old, in 1499.  It sits prominently in St. Peter’s, the central church of Catholicism.  It captures the moment when Jesus was taken down from the cross, and he lays limp in Mary’s arms.  There’s an oddity about the Pieta.  Mary’s body is considerably larger than that of Jesus; if she stood up, she would be 9 feet tall!  Now, all Jewish mothers look 9 feet tall to their sons!  But that’s the only way Jesus could lay across her legs.  A small replica of the Pieta sits on my desk in the church office.  It often reminds me to ask Mary’s intercession for our parishioners who are carrying their crosses, because we all need help to eat the veggies of our faith.

            In the gospel Jesus says, “The Son of Man must be lifted up,” that is, he must be lifted up on the cross. Why should he be lifted up?  So that those who look up on him may believe and be saved.  Catholic art continues that request of Jesus that he be lifted up on the cross.  So that when Christians see our Lord, and see his love for them, they may be inspired to eat the veggies of their faith.  We know the Resurrection is coming tomorrow, but we must carry the Cross today.

            The season of Lent also continues Jesus’ request to be lifted up, not so much in Catholic art, but rather in our own bodies.  When we make Lenten sacrifices, we lift up Jesus in our bodies, so that others may be inspired by our faith and draw closer to Christ.  When we face our sorrows and sufferings with a smile, others are inspired to draw closer to Christ.  Do you know what I do when I feel down and discouraged?  I go visit our parishioners in the hospital!  I always leave feeling uplifted in my faith.  When spouses struggle but stay married, they carry their cross and they lift up Jesus in their bodies, and inspire others in their marriages.  We lift up Jesus in our own suffering bodies, so that others may draw closer to him.

            In making us carry our crosses, I realize that the Catholic Church may seem like a 9 foot tall Jewish mother!  But don’t all good mothers make sure their kids eat their veggies before they can have dessert?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

They Might Be Giants

Seeing the giants all around us
John 12:20-26

            Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,  and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,  it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me,  and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

            Sir Isaac Newton, the great English physicist, famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Obviously he was referring to the great thinkers who came before him – like Plato and Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo – who sort of hoisted him onto their shoulders so he could discover the laws of physics, like gravity.  But did you ever think there are giants all around us, who also carry us on their shoulders?

            Someone recently sent me this true and very touching story.  On a cold December day in New York City a little 10-year old boy was standing before a shoe store, barefooted, peering through the window, and shivering with cold.  A lady approached and asked, “My, you’re in such deep thought staring in the window!”  The boy replied, “I was praying and asking God to give me a pair of shoes.”  The lady took him by the hand, and asked the clerk to get the boy a half dozen pair of socks and a pair of good, sturdy shoes.  She took the surprised boy to the back of the store, removed her gloves, washed his feet, dried them and put clean socks on them.  By that point the clerk returned with a new pair of shoes which the lady slid onto the boy’s feet.  She tied up the rest of the socks and handing them to the boy said with smile: “There!  Now you should be a little more comfortable!”  As she turned to go, the boy ran up, caught her by the hand and asked, “Are you God’s wife?”  The lady was obviously not God’s wife, but to that little boy she was a giant of love.  And when that little boy stood on her shoulders, he could see as high as heaven, and glimpse God, and even his wife!  There are giants all around us who put us on their shoulders and allow us to see very far.

            The gospel today describes two men who were giants of faith, namely, the apostles Philip and Andrew.  Some Greeks approach Philip and ask him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Those Greeks were like that little boy peering into the window, but the Greeks were not praying to God for shoes, but they were seeking salvation.  Philip told Andrew and together they sort of “spiritually hoisted” those Greeks onto their shoulders to that they could “see” Jesus.  You see, the “distance” the Greeks had to travel to see Jesus could not be measured in miles, like the distance between Athens and Jerusalem.  Instead, it was a “spiritual distance” that can only be crossed on the shoulders of giants of faith, like the apostles Philip and Andrew.  Only when you stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants can you see as high as heaven, and see who Jesus is.

            Do you know two giants in our lives we hardly ever notice and even less often take the time to thank?  It’s our parents.  Just think of all the miles that your father carried you on his shoulders, or how many times your mother held you on her hip while she was cooking dinner.  Didn’t many of us make our journey of faith on our parents’ shoulders, like the Greeks were carried on Philip and Andrew’s shoulders?  You see, our parents were the first “spiritual giants who helped us to see and believe in Jesus.  When was the last time you told you parents, “Thanks for the ride!”?

            A first grade class was discussing a student’s family picture.  One little boy in the picture had a different color hair than the other members of his family.  One of the students suggested that he was adopted.  A little girl said: “I know all about adoption.  I was adopted!”  Another student asked, “What does it mean to be adopted?”  The first little girl answered, “It means that you grew up in your mommy’s heart instead of her tummy!”  By the way, that’s why some kids give their parents “heartburn” instead of stomach aches!  You see, even before we’re born, our mothers carry us for nine months.  The very first giant shoulders we stand on are those of our parents.

            Do you know how I honor the giants who carried me on their shoulders?  I mention them at the end of my daily rosary.  Now, you’re supposed to conclude the rosary with the “Litany of Saints,” and I do.  But I add a few saints that I’ve “unofficially canonized” myself.  Don’t tell the pope!  For example, I mention Fr. George Tribou, who carried me for four years at Catholic High School while I was a selfish, snot-nosed teenager.  I mention Fr. Bill T
homas, who asked me every time he called me, “Have you made your holy hour today?”  I call upon Fr. Hilary Filatreau, who heard by confession for years.  I went to him because he couldn’t hear very well.  I ask the prayers of Karen Howe, a young lady who battled cancer with a smile, so that I’ll carry my crossed without complaining.  I beg Fr. Joseph Correnti to help me have as big a priestly heart as he did.  Everyone who met him felt like they were his best friend.  I pray that Fr. Joseph Mroczkowksi, who was a priest for 70 years and gave me his chalice, will help me be a faithful priest, too.  These are the giants who have carried me, and they still do carry me.

            I realize that these names may not mean anything to you, and that’s okay.  But I bet you, too, can think of giants who have carried you throughout your life: parents or grandparents, coaches or teachers, maybe even a priest or nun.  Do you think you could find some time today to tell them, “Hey, thanks for the ride!”?  You see, not all distances are measured in miles; spiritual distances, like that between heaven and earth, you could never cross except on the shoulders of spiritual giants.  You see, Isaac Newton is not the only one who can say, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Each one of us can say that, too, because there are giants all around us.  And occasionally, one or two of those giants might even look like God’s wife.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Still Waters

Cultivating a spirit of silence
Matthew 1:18-21, 24A

          Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

            Often silence speaks louder than words; indeed, sometimes silence can be deafening.  This thought is enshrined in that old maxim, “Still waters run deep; a shallow brook babbles loudest.”  Silence bespeaks depth and power and purpose, not just that someone is asleep!  Shortly before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, John and Abigail Adams were invited to supper at the house of King George’s viceroy to the Colonies.  The viceroy offered John Adams a very prominent position in the Massachusetts government, basically representing the king.  That was followed by a long and awkward silence, and John’s wife, Abigail, softly said in Latin, “Qui tacet consentire,” which means “silence means assent.”  In other words, “Say something, John!”  John’s silence was deafening; his lips were like still waters because they weren’t moving, but his mind and heart were running deep with thoughts of leading the Revolution against King George.  You see, John’s silence and stillness helped lead the country in the fledgling days of her infancy.

            In the gospel today we meet the one man in Scripture for whom silence was the hallmark of his holiness, namely, St. Joseph.  Did you know that there is not one word that falls from the lips of St. Joseph in the whole Bible?  So, ladies, don’t complain about your husbands when they don’t talk!  But his silence didn’t mean the saint was asleep or uninterested, indeed, it meant he was listening very attentively to the Spirit and acting decisively.  He’s told in a dream to accept the pregnant Mary as his wife, and he obeys.  “Qui tacet consentire” – Joseph’s silence meant he always agreed and assented to the suggestions of the Spirit.  The still waters of St. Joseph’s silence were a sign of the depths of his devotion and determination.

            St. Joseph is the patron saint of the universal Church, which means he’s a model for all Christians.  So, let me ask you: do you cultivate a spirit of silence in your life, or are you “a shallow brook babbling the loudest”?  Mark Twain jokingly said, “It’s better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”  I have a dear friend who loves to say, “I’ll have to ponder that.”  And she ponders things in prayer and the silence of her heart.  But do you know the best place to grow in silence and stillness?  It’s in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Let me encourage you to take an hour a week of quiet contemplation before our Lord.  Pope Francis insightfully said, “The world never recalls the hours Mother Teresa spent in Adoration.  Never!”  Mother Teresa’s nuns spend 3 hours in Adoration every day.  In those three hours those sisters become "still waters" so the Holy Spirit can "run deep" in them.

            “Qui tacet consentire” – silence means assent.  The more silence we cultivate in our lives, the quicker we’ll assent to the Spirit.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!