A few years ago, a local newspaper had something on the cover that only half-caught my attention on first glance. All I saw, really quickly was some kid on a skateboard and I kind of thought “must be a slow news day if they have a kid riding a skateboard on the cover” - and didn’t think much more of it.
It wasn’t until later in the day when I sat down and read the story and really looked at the picture that I realized it was about a 12 year old boy named Nicky, who was the kid riding the skateboard - and what made this worthy of the front page was that Nicky didn’t have legs; only had one arm (that ended with only one finger). And as you read his story, you heard about how Nicky, despite the absence of limbs can do just about anything any other 12 year old boy would do - he just does it differently - He rides a skateboard (on his head!) - he rides a bike - he hits a baseball - he throws a football - he plays the drums and piano.
His parents spoke about when he was born how they were filled with fear - Would Nicky be emotionally devastated by these challenge? Would kids make fun of him? Now, the parents say the worry about their son - but, not Nicky, instead - there oldest who’s serving our country as a Marine.
How many of us if we were to see or pass Nicky on the street think “wow - that’s so sad, or that’s so unfair.” Yet in all the pictures, the thing that struck me was this giant smile on his face. In every picture, you don’t see a kid who’s upset - down about what life has dealt him -or - wondering why he’s not like everyone else. You see a kid smiling - happy - playing - living and loving to live life - just differently.
Nicky could be seen as a great Pentecost story. Because in this feast we celebrate today, we remember how God has come from being a Father who was in a sense somewhere on the outside to Jesus who was “God with us” and walked beside us and now the Holy Spirit has God dwelling within us. And that calls us to live life - differently.
For the apostles in the Gospel - they have been locked in an Upper Room since Jesus’ ascension - not in fear like they did after Jesus was taken from them (and they had failed him) on Good Friday - but in prayerful anticipation. Jesus had promised them he would be with them always - till the end of time - just differently.
And Jesus had told them it was better for Him to go so that He would send them this advocate - this gift. They probably were thinking - how can this get better? Uh Jesus, you were killed, we saw it - and you came back from the dead and your not confined to time or space or anything - that’s pretty cool . Why don’t you just stick around with us? We just want to hang with you!
But it’s not about Jesus or God doing everything for us - it’s not about us looking at Jesus as some magician or miracle worker. Jesus’ leaving and sending the Holy Spirit is ushering in a new time for the apostles, and for all of us to become what God wanted from the beginning of creation - our true selves, our best selves... Jesus basically is saying - now it’s you’re turn to be a part of my story. Now it’s time for you to experience God working within you. And as the Holy Spirit is unleashed on the Earth and dwells in the hearts of every disciple they do things very differently than they did before.
St. Peter, who throughout the Gospel we see - his heart’s in the right place, but was a constant mess up while Jesus was preaching - He fails him miserably through Jesus’ Passion and death by denying him - the guy’s a fisherman and after Pentecost the Holy Spirit takes all those gifts that Jesus saw inside of Peter and uses them - differently. The fisherman becomes the shepherd - the first Shepherd - the first Pope of the Church. Just a few weeks earlier at Jesus’ trial Peter’s questioned about whether he was even a follower of Jesus and he says “I don’t know the man” - Now, we read in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles that after the Holy Spirit comes upon him, he goes out, preaches and thousands are baptized in one day (I only wish I was that effective).
That’s what the Holy Spirit does for each of us, enables us to do things we could never have done on our own. People confuse this with being a “free spirit” or passionate individual - People who run off and do there own thing - start their own Church - start their own Religion because they say “the Spirit is directing them to.” Others will say, “well it’s okay that I reject the Church’s teaching because I believe I’m right and the Holy Spirit must be directing me.”
No - it doesn’t work that way. Because the Holy Spirit not only enables us to do things differently but also challenges us to see things differently. To actually ask ourselves, even in the most slight, remotest chance- is it possible - that I COULD BE WRONG about something?
That’s why we talk about how the Catholic Church was “born” on Pentecost. We aren’t given this gift of the Holy Spirit to chart out a course on our own - but as St. Paul says in that second reading - we are to bring our different gifts together in unity by the same Spirit to build up the Body of Christ. If we look throughout our Church’s history, we’ve had our share of screw-ups whether thousands of years ago or recently. Yet the Holy Spirit is still guiding our Church - and is driving us towards unity.
Think about it - what makes an 85 year old man like Pope Benedict, who’s native language is German someone that hundreds of millions of people from throughout the world listen to. Whether it’s watching him on one of their 400 channels - someone that they flock to hear, want to see, want to listen to by the multitudes when he visits their country’s? It’s the fact that Holy Spirit dwelt in the hearts of the cardinals to elect him as Pope - The fact that the Holy Spirit dwelt in the heart of this man who only wanted to retire and move back to Germany to say, instead, “Thy will be done”. In our media obsessed and youth oriented world, that the Pope would be able to so movingly and so effectively speak to millions throughout the world isn’t because people have an interest in the thoughts and teachings of an 85 year old man (which is a sad on a different level). Rather, there’s something there - we on some level see how the Holy Spirit IS working in him and each of us as the Body of Christ - the Church.
That image of Nicky from that newspaper article with that giant smile on his face has stuck with me. Here was a kid who looks happier than some people I know who have no apparent disabilities. That is the joy of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the deep recesses of our hearts. It is there that Holy Spirit speaks in the midst of our fears, our angers and our confusions - words of love, words of forgiveness, words of generosity - words we don’t expect to hear - words that can make us uncomfortable but somehow ring true - words that call us to see things and to act - differently.
Thanks as always for reading & all your feedback. God Bless, Fr. Jim
One of my closest friends from college was out to visit a couple of weeks ago, as she did a whirlwind weekend visiting a bunch of classmates spread throughout this Northern area of NJ. To me she’s the epitome of a “Renaissance woman” who is brilliant in a number of fields; Theology, English, History - and now at the age of 38 she has delved into the sciences with the hopes of becoming a Physicians Assistant. How she’s been able to keep current, and engaged in these fields while being married 17 years (she married her high school sweetheart before our Senior year of college; after being able to finish her 4 year degree in 3) and raising and home schooling 4 kids - really is amazing to me. Truly, I admire Teresa. And knowing her and all her varied interests and pursuits, I know that of all the things that are important to her, the thing that means the most to her are her four kids. (I think I was almost shocked when we were talking last week and she said her oldest is preparing to go to college in a year!)
Teresa is a great mom, she tries to do all the best that she can for her kids. Cooks the right foods, takes them for their regular checkups, and like I said, she even home schools them – not for any political reason or anything, but simply because she loves to do it and thinks its one of the most important things she can do for them. She shares time with them in their hobbies, joins them in community service. It’s really beautiful to see and hear her fulfilling her vocation as a mother and a wife in laying down her life for her family and using all her gifts and talents to draw out what is best in them. Over the years we've had some really meaningful conversations where – despite my being enamored by how she does what she does seemingly so naturally, so instinctually – she shared how tough it is to be a parent.
Like when her 8 year old was becoming more independent, and she was concerned about him going out on his own – how she was worried he wouldn't wear the “uncool” helmet she and her husband had told him to always to wear when biking. She worried that he might be swayed by the other boys, who would encourage him to take risks and try something dangerous. She worried that she would smother the little guy who was starting to grow up and she worried about the balance between over-mothering and being afraid DYFS would show up claiming she neglected her kids. And now as that same boy is looking at colleges, she’s already taking a break from her own studies to make herself more available to him as he makes this big life transition from teenage-hood to young-adulthood. Once when we were talking about all of this, I was really blown away by the difficulties of being a parent and I said to her, “So how do you deal with this, without driving yourself completely crazy?” And almost instinctively she said “I pray” - and she was being completely serious. She said, “At the end of the day, I try to be the best Mom I can be, I hope John is the best Dad he can be; and I pray that, when they are on their own, my kids will know what to do.”
With graduation taking place on the campus I serve at as “Campus Minister,” as a “Father” to a lot of kids that I’ve grown to love and care about over the last 4, 5 (do I hear 6? years) those thoughts about Teresa came to mind. I’ve found that it’s been a tremendous blessing for me to serve this way and grow as attached to these kids as I have... but now I can relate to a bit of her experience. Wondering, worrying, hoping and ultimately praying that, after working with them over the years - that their relationship with Jesus Christ has grown enough - that they will continue to grow deeper in their relationship with Him; that they will continue to be connected to the Catholic faith we share; that the time spent in campus ministry will be fruitful in their hearts and souls; and that when they go out on their own, they will know what to do, as well.
These thoughts ran through my mind reading today’s Gospel, because in a sense, that’s what Jesus is doing. Here we are on the last Sunday of Easter (next Sunday the season of Easter will conclude with the Feast of Pentecost). And the Gospel passage comes from Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, before his Passion begins. And what is it on his heart and mind? It’s a theme we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks - this desire for unity, this hope for our remaining in Him and His remaining in us. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that a step further and also reveals some of his concerns.
He’s praying that his followers will not be corrupted by the world. He’s praying that they will not be pulled apart from one another as a group, and even more that they won’t be lured away from the Father, becoming something he knows they’re not. He knows the great capacity of each of His followers to bring the very Life and Love of the Lord to the ends of the earth. But, at the same time, he knows that’s a choice every follower will have to make (and renew almost daily) for that possibility to become a reality - because the possibility also exists for them to betray, deny or abandon Him. To forget everything he ever said; everything he ever did.
He’s saying this prayer at the Last Supper and Jesus knows that things are going to change very dramatically in the days and weeks to come. He realizes he won’t be there to protect, guard even gently correct his disciples - the ones he loves the most - as he had done before. And so he offers this confident prayer that the example, the lessons and challenges he’s created for them will have taken root, and that his disciples will know what to do.
We who have been entrusted with the Gospel message through our Baptisms, and commissioned to preach that message through our Confirmations, are the ones he prays for today - that we too will be consecrated to the truth of his words and that, when we are among the world on our own, we will know what to do.
There’s a story that has circulated for some time that says that the maternal instinct is something that God has instilled throughout His creation. After a forest fire in a National Park, some years ago, there were several forest rangers who’s task it was to walk up the mountain to assess the damage the inferno had done. As one of the rangers was walking, he came upon a bird that was literally petrified in ashes. The bird still was perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of one of many destroyed trees. The ranger was kind of sickened by the sight so he knocked over the dead bird with a stick. Just as he knocked it, three tiny chicks scurried from under the dead mother bird’s wings. The mother knowing the disaster that was about to occur had taken her babies to the base of the tree, gathered them under her wings knowing the toxic smoke would rise. She could have easily flown to safety, with no one to judge her motives, but instead she refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze arrived and the heat scorched her, the mother remained steadfast. And because she did, her children lived.
A dramatic story... giving testimony to the dramatic and powerful words of this Gospel. Jesus says As the Father loves me, so I also love you. – Just think about what an astounding claim that is. God the Father, the Creator of the entire universe – whose expanse is beyond our wildest imaginations... His only Son Jesus, speaks these words to us today. Jesus who knows how deeply the Father loves Him – says As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Only when we’re so convicted, so possessed by that kind of love can we begin to imagine laying down ones life for someone we love. Which is why the providence that this Gospel reading should fall on Mother’s Day is so perfect. God’s gift to humanity that these women in our lives, our Mothers, from the very moment they learned they were pregnant with us - their very lives shifted from thoughts of themselves to laying down their lives for us. Physically, emotionally, spiritually they lay down their lives in a way that, while not more important than the father’s role, but is dynamically different and unique. It’s easy for people to lose sight of that. Motherhood has been taken for granted and often redefined to fit current cultural whims.
Just as the nature and meaning of “love” has. A quick glance at our culture doesn’t seem to reveal much support of “dying to oneself”. Instead we’re being told have your cake, eat it, and eating anyone else’s cake while we’re at it. Celebrity or other high profile individuals often make a mockery of the word love. When Jesus says “No greater love is there than this than to lay down one’s life for a friend” - he wasn’t trying to come up with a catchy catch phrase. He was capturing what is the truth and essence of Love.
Every time Mom put’s her kids needs before her own, there’s a death. Every time each one of us makes a decision that is going to favor someone else’s over our own, there’s a death. What Jesus tells us, shows us, gives to us, and defines for us again and again about Love is - yes it hurts - yes it can be painful - yes it demands a lot - but, most importantly - yes it is worth it.
God Bless! Fr. Jim
If there’s one question this Gospel puts before us, then it would be: how connected are we to Jesus Christ? Can people see, know, experience that connection to Him, to His Church in us or not?
About a week or two ago, TIME magazine had a gala event celebrating who they believe are the top 100 most influential people. For a lot of reasons, when you think about it, that’s a good gimmick for a magazine to pull. The list is incredibly subjective (what are the criteria? Who determines whether someone has met that criteria or not?). It gets people debating about who was on it, who was left off. And the “gala” for the magazine, bringing together so many people who TIME claims: are the people who inspire us, entertain us, challenge us and change our world. Meet the breakouts, pioneers, moguls, leaders and icons who make up this year's TIME 100 – well it’s the perfect way for the magazine to get more publicity itself and to try and show how influential it is.
This year’s list and gala brought a wide array of notable names Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; TV news-anchor Brian Williams; actress Amy Poehler – as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and comedian/satirist Stephen Colbert, who because he’s well known for his topical humor was asked by Time to do a monologue. In the course of the monologue he said some things that I’m sure some would consider funny or “edgy humor”- but to me were just outright vulgar and incredibly offensive as they were directed at the Cardinal.
The jokes were unfair, crude, nowhere near as witty and funny as Colbert is capable of being. But to me what made them even worse was when he finished his first round of shots at the Cardinal he said “I’m a Catholic. It’s okay. I go to confession, it will be fine.”
I know, there will be some who will dismiss me as being super-sensitive. “He’s telling a joke to a room of a diverse group of people... he’s kidding.” But does the fact that he simply says that he’s Catholic make that okay? Because in his “joking” he demeans one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave us –the Sacrament of reconciliation – as he demeans one of the Shepherds who’s laid down his life to follow Jesus. No doubt a lot of people laughed, but how does that “joking” reflect Steven Colbert’s connectedness to Jesus Christ?
I’m not trying to pile on Steven Colbert. Because, I know in my own life there have been times I fall short – times that I realize that perhaps I’m not as connected to Jesus Christ as I think I am or hope to be. One example from over a year ago still humbles me. I was in New York City, walking to get my car from a parking garage. Sadly, I’ve gotten cynical, skeptical and suspicious of people who, on the streets of NY, have tin cans out, asking for money; to the point that I kind of tune them out as I walk to my destination (and that’s not completely an unfounded concern – it is true that there are some scam artists out there who prey on tourists, as well as some who are troubled addicts that giving money to them fuels their addiction...).
This one day though, this man called out and said “Father” - I was actually preparing to pretend I was on the phone to ignore him, but then he stood up, he had a prosthetic leg with an American flag on it, was wearing dirty, beaten up camoflauge top (so I could tell he was a veteran) and I could see he was tearing up. He smelled of alcohol, so my inclination not to give him cash probably was warranted. But he didn’t ask me for money. He said,“Would you say a prayer for me?” I stopped, feeling completely humiliated that I had been so prepared to just blow past the guy; and so taken aback and embarrassed, I stopped in my tracks and prayed with him and before I knew it, I was hugging him right there on a street in Manhattan. Walking away, tearing up myself I couldn’t help but ask myself that day and many times since, how connected to Jesus Christ was I or am I... No doubt, I met Hm in this humble man who humbled me and continues to do so today.
The thing is for all of us, what Jesus is getting at with his vine and branches imagery is that it’s not just enough to come to Mass, to know where things are in the Bible, or to make a charitable contribution. Those are all good and important things, but they only become sincere when we realize these are aspects of a much deeper relationship with Christ. That’s what makes this image so powerful. You can’t see where the vine stops and the branches begin; “their union is too complete to tell. The same sap gives life to the vine and to its branches. He is Lord from within, renewing hearts from the inside as only God can do.” (The Better Part, Bartunek 944 )
It’s not enough just to say “I’m Catholic” to excuse yourself as you insult a Shepherd of the Church; It’s not enough just to wear a clerical collar walking down the street as you ignore someone who’s suffering. Jesus’ expectation is that the world will be able to tell the difference that we are connected to Him in all that we say and do. So how we behave in the car as we drive out of the parking lot of the Church; the people we meet at the grocery store or the bank; my co-workers; my family; all should be able to see, feel, experience, know that I am connected to Jesus Christ and that He is living in and through me...
He continues to provide the sustenance we need to become fruitful vines. Nourishing us– with His word; with His Body and Blood that we receive in the Eucharist; wanting to prune away our self-centeredness and sinfulness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Will we allow the divine gardener to do His work, making us - through his love and forgiveness - into the fruitful branches he always intended us to be?