On my anniversary of Priesthood...

Greetings everyone!

I've been overwhelmed by an abundance of thoughtful messages and posts, on this the 15th anniversary of being ordained a Priest of Jesus Christ.  During my holy hour this morning, a great deal of thoughts and reflections came to mind that are hard to put into words right now.

But I went back and found the homily I gave 5 years ago for the 10th anniversary, which I thought I'd share again.  Once again I'm simply in awe of the gift that Christ has entrusted me with - in calling me to share in his priesthood - and for the many people I've been blessed to know and serve because of that precious call.

HOMILY:


HOMILY:

“‘Life’ is an unrealistic goal...”

That is the argument that Australian academic Helen Goltz is making as she proposes limiting, or 'shortening,' the bonds of marriage. “We have fixed term contracts for the buying of property, cars and insurance,” she says, “But there is only one contract available for marriage and it is for life. Is it time to consider introducing fixed-term marriage contracts?” According to the NY Post, under the plan, couples would sign a 5 or 10 year contract - if it works, great, if not, the union would simply dissolve without what she calls the, “shame and stigma” that is associated with divorce. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to propose such a thing.

With reportedly 45% of marriages ending in divorce, Ms. Goltz, no doubt, means well. Just as a Catholic sociologist and a priest did, over 10 years ago, when he proposed something similar when he argued that there should be the establishment of what he calls the “Priest Corps,” something like the Peace Corps. His plan is that in the “Priest Corps” young men who are interested would commit themselves to a limited term of service to the Church in the priesthood, say five or ten years, which would then be renewable. If they like being priests—and he argues that the evidence in many studies suggests that they would— they may want to stay. If not, then they are free to go, with gratitude and respect.

Why not? Wouldn’t this be a great way for couples to see if they really want to be married? Wouldn’t it be a great way to increase the number of men who are willing to give priesthood a try? Test it out, see what it’s like - if after 5 or 10 years it’s not your thing and you want to move on, it still would have made for a good run.

I’m sure that the people behind such proposals are well-intentioned (Isn’t there a saying about a road to somewhere paved with good intentions?) Seriously though, there’s a reason that such proposals appeal to people. They seem practical. People sign one year contracts and we’re hopeful that both sides will honor it. 5, 10 years - people think that’s a big enough commitment, anyway. In this day and age, it’s rare that people work in the same place, or live in the same place for a long period of time. Because my lease was up, I just got rid of a car that was brand new three years ago - setting up the payments for a new car for five years seemed like a big deal to me. Everything around us seems to be temporary, seems to argue that a lifetime commitment is just a bit too much to ask of any reasonable person.

Today’s Gospel, though, gives us a clue to one major difficulty Jesus would have with this type of 'redefinition' of his sacraments. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” Jesus gives us an important contrast here between what makes a good shepherd different from a hired hand - his concern for those in his charge.

The hired hand works for a time, but his mind, his direction, his heart is somewhere else. He’ll do his job - but enter wolf - WHOA, that’s not in my contract, SEEYA sheep. For the Shepherd, his life is tied to His sheep. Good times, bad times, they are his and he is theirs. The shepherd knows that in his heart, as do the sheep, who hear his voice and follow him.

About five years ago, I think I might have welcomed t he notion that my priestly vows could “expire;” complete with a nice farewell, thank you cards, bunt cake and toaster. Five years ago, I was pretty much on my way 'out the door' of being a priest.

It wasn’t the people - I loved, correction, I love the people from my first assignment in West Orange, where I was a priest for 7 years - or Ridgewood, where I was a deacon and returned as a priest for a few months. So, it wasn’t the people.

I had just gotten angry and disillusioned about a lot of things, some of which were very justified, looking back, but I don't need to get into that right now.

The point I do want to make now, though, is that leaving seemed so logical in my mind. My arguments were solid, I felt pretty justified in what I was doing; I had behaved well and with respect to others. Even my 'post-priesthood' plans (although those whom I confided them to weren't as thrilled about them as I) would at least provide a good job, stability, and a new life doing good, noble work.

So I took a leave of absence, and I got my opportunity to start over, in a different field; it was right in front of me - all I had to do was sign a letter and mail it in (and I guess it’s safe to assume I would also have to show up for work the next week). But there was something that kept me from signing that letter. A very, very quiet thing inside me that was gently holding me back. It wasn’t fear - and, surprisingly, as an Italian Catholic - it wasn’t even guilt . . . I wasn’t sure what it was, but I truly felt stuck.

A few months later, still trying to figure all this out, I was in Sloan Kettering Hospital with my family, visiting my niece, who had leukemia. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we were sitting around, trying to entertain or distract her. The door opened, and it was a priest who had come for a visit. There was something inside us that was instinctively relieved to see him. Yet, truth be told, he spent more time putting on the hospital gown and surgical mask, that we were all required to wear, than he spent being with us.

And that stayed with me. First, I was angry, saying, “Geez, buddy . . . Why’d you even bother to stop by? I mean, I know there were times I might have been uncomfortable doing something as a priest myself - but couldn't you at least try to fake it a little better?” But very quickly, almost immediately, that voice was cut-off by this feeling of utter compassion for this priest. I started to think, “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be the chaplain in the pediatric unit of a cancer hospital . . . As hard as I thought I had it at times, I doubt I could do this on a daily basis - how does he come here every day?”

After that encounter, I started to realize that the reason he came back to work each day was the same reason I “was stuck," unable to truly “leave” the priesthood behind me. No, the reason wasn’t fear, nor was it guilt . . . It was Love. I was a priest (and that chaplain was a priest) because of the love Jesus Christ invited me to share with others, and - although I had been unable to see it until that moment - because of the Love he was constantly inviting me to receive.

The love of Jesus Christ doesn’t have a term limit, or contract, or statute of limitations or expiration date. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, never abandoned me. Jesus’ love hadn’t ended, even though I may have felt betrayed or abandoned by others. And as I started to let go of my anger and disappointment, and step away from the things that had made me stop focusing on him, I started to be able to feel that love again in my own life - and, finally nourished and refreshed myself, I was once again able to freely offer it back to others.

Now, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations - on this Good Shepherd Sunday - and on the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, I can look back with acceptance and gratitude. Acceptance of what (no offense, Jesus) was a totally insane, roller-coaster ride there, for a couple of years; acceptance of the fact that, although I can imagine a lot of easier paths, this was the path that Christ (perhaps he has a sense of humor?) chose out for me. So now, at the ripe old age of 35, I can accept that, with love.

And I feel gratitude. Not only to all of you for your support since I arrived here - not just to my old parishioners, my friends and family, and other priests who stood by me when I was all over the place, and unsure of the right direction to take - but gratitude to God that, although I couldn't always feel it, his inescapable love was always surrounding me. And, although I didn't always know it, his providence and protection were leading me here and will, one day, lead me into other, different and, perhaps, difficult situations.

But I can face that.

I can accept that.

Because he is with me always, and I won't lose him now.

Although I don't always have all the answers, although I still make (plenty of) mistakes, although, at times, I stumble and lose my way, I still have now that same, beautiful, life-altering realization I had then, standing on that pediatric cancer floor - a realization that came, just when I least expected it.

The realization that I am a priest.

ELEPHANTS, SHEEP, SHEPHERDS & RECOGNITION

Hi everyone, here’s my homily for the FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER - May 11, 2014 - the readings can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/051114.cfm As always thanks for reading, sharing and commenting on this blog... I appreciate it!


To all our Mom’s out there - Happy Mother’s Day! Especially to my biggest fan, supporter and avid blog follower - Love you Mom <3 p="">
HOMILY:


In 1986, a man by the name of Dan Harrison was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University. As he went hiking one day through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seemed distressed, so Dan approached it very carefully. He got down on one knee and inspected the elephant's foot and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. Carefully, and as gently as he could, Dan worked the wood out with his hunting knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot. The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments. Dan stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away. Dan never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.

Twenty years later, Dan was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenage son. They approached a special exhibit featuring Elephants from Africa, and as they did, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Dan and his son Dan Jr. were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Dan, lifted its front foot off the ground, and then put it down. A few moments later, he did it again, lifted his one foot up and putting it down, all the while staring at the man.

Remembering the encounter in 1986, Dan couldn't help wondering if this was the same elephant. Dan summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder. The elephant trumpeted again, gently wrapped its trunk around one of Dan's legs and then slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.

Probably wasn't the same elephant.
 
Horrible joke - but it makes an important point about recognition - Who do we give attention to? Who do we trust? Recognition - is a recurring theme throughout the Easter Gospels. Throughout the season of Easter we hear how disciples, followers of Jesus don’t recognize Him when He is with them. Last week it’s the men on the Road to Emmaus - they’re walking and talking to him, but they don’t recognize Him. Earlier in the Easter Season, Mary Magdalene, after she sees the empty tomb, she’s is heartsick that someone has "stolen the body of the Lord;" when she does see Jesus, she thinks He’s the gardener and asks "where have you taken Him" - she didn’t recognize Him.

Jesus wasn’t wearing some disguise or something... Perhaps it was the memory of how Jesus last looked burned in their minds, the grief after having experienced his death, or the confusion of the moment of being the first witnesses to the resurrection - but whatever it was, they don’t immediately recognize Jesus in their midst. It’s when Jesus speaks and they are ready to listen that they finally are able to recognize that the Risen Lord is with them. For Mary Magdalene, it’s simply Jesus saying her name that reveals Himself to her. For the disciples, the words of Jesus come together in the Breaking of the Bread and then they fully recognize Him.

Which is why today’s Gospel, is such a beautiful Easter image for us to reflect on. Jesus talks of himself as being a Good Shepherd, with us being the sheep who hear His voice - they recognize His voice - they will not follow a stranger - because they won’t recognize the voice of a stranger. On the surface it seems kind of simplistic almost cartoonish of an image. But that’s because few of us have much experience with Sheep (or Shepherds for that matter)

Sheep and shepherds have an interesting dynamic. Sheep have this profound connection with their shepherd. The Shepherd recognizes, knows every one of his sheep- the one with the strange looking ear, that one with the cute face - the other one who’s bigger and fuller than the rest- He knows all of them - he knows when one out of 100 of them are missing. At night, during Jesus' time, there would be three or four shepherds who’d put all of their sheep together in a pen while one of the shepherds would watch all of them, protecting them from thieves, or wild animals; and in the morning, the shepherds would call, and the flocks would split and follow their respective shepherd. They knew which voice to follow in order to find direction in life.

They recognized the voice of their shepherd.

That’s why Jesus uses that image to talk about Him and our relationship to Him. Because as self-reliant and independent minded as we try to fool ourselves, we have a lot of voices calling out to us to follow them... Do we recognize when they are leading us into danger, leading us astray, leading us to destruction?

The voice of a materialistic world that tells us to make as much money as we can, as fast as we can - we need things, lots and lots of things in order to be happy.

Then there's the voice of the media with distorted images that make us obsessed with beauty and youth.

There are Evil voices out there, too, that call us to selfishness, self-centeredness and hatred.

How well do we know and recognize the voice of the Shepherd calling out to us to a full, abundant life or not? Because the voice of our Shepherd is different - it’s a voice of one who knows us, who loves us, who has demonstrated that love in laying down His life for us His sheep and protect us- who wants us to have life and have it abundantly - He calls out to us, too, especially:

When we obsess over loves lost;

when we lose our moral compass;

when we listen to our own voice, giving what we want precedence over the good God wants for us -

when we get lost and confused and frustrated. We start to wonder, where is Jesus, after all? Why don’t I hear his voice? What's wrong with me?

It’s been said that the problem really isn't that God has stopped speaking in today's world. The problem is, we are making so much noise - generating so much 'white noise' with our addictions, our petty hatreds, our fears - that we block Him out - that we can't hear the saving message He is constantly, relentlessly, lovingly sending us, everyday.

The voice of Christ still calls out to us, above our desperation and our fear; to guide us, to support us, to spur us on to this abundant life He’s called us to. It’s up to us to carefully discern who’s voice are we listening to? Have we mistaken comfort for fulfillment? Are we substituting glamour for true beauty? Are we foolishly embracing something destructive that looks kind of familiar that is slowly wrapping itself around us ready to smash us, and destroy us – a devil in elephants clothing if you will? Whatever the case, Jesus the Good Shepherd is calling us to hear, to work, to listen to His voice calling us to a path of what is real, and lasting and of God. May we have eyes and ears ready and attuned to recognize Him.
 

Instead of WALKING DEAD, WALKING WITH THE RISEN ONE

Hi everyone, here's my homily for the THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER- MAY 4, 2014.  The readings for today can be found at:  http://usccb.org/bible/readings/050414.cfm .  As always thanks for reading, sharing the blog on redditt, Twitter and Facebook and all your feedback and comments.  I'm most grateful that the Lord is able to use me and this blog for His glory.  God Bless, Fr. Jim

HOMILY:

On Ash Wednesday I shared how I got sucked into the Cable TV drama Breaking Bad.  Not sure what to make of the fact that 40 + days later I’ve caught up with the first 3 seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Not exactly a Lenten thing that I was hoping to finish in time for Easter (for the record, I watch these things on my nearly daily runs on the treadmill as a way to make the time go by, lest you think I sit in my room all day watching Netflix).

Similarly to Breaking Bad though we have a show that has caught the collective fascination of a substantially large audience. 

The premise The Walking Dead is that some plague has consumed the earth - virtually wiping out all of humanity except for a small group of people whom the show follows (for some reason, animals seem spared from this virus). Oh, and there’s one other thing. The dead people have "resurrected" - but as Zombies.  Looking to devour the flesh of the healthy remaining humans.  
Yeah.
Similar to my confession back on Ash Wednesday, there’s a part of me that is repulsed by the show - lots and lots of violence and gore, so again, I’m not making this a "Fr. Jim recommended thing"- (if anything this is one of the consequences I suffer from being on a college campus for 7 years is hearing "You have to watch it" because now there’s a curiosity about how the drama will resolve itself; not to mention some interesting moral questions that arise along the way) that have me hooked.

But I couldn’t help but notice that again - some of the things that make up our popular "entertainment" reveals something about ourselves. So do shows like The Walking Dead reveal a hopelessness that’s many people relate to?  That death is this horrifying thing coming after you. That you have to do all you can for as long as you can with as much strength as you can to fight death – with the reality that ultimately, you will lose. The best you can do is stave it off.

Because truth be told, we can see how our society and our culture is shifting towards a Post-Christian mentality (one recent study said the fastest growing "religious group" in the U.S. is those who hold no religious view at all).  So while the ridiculousness of a "Zombie apocalypse" is an obvious extreme example that few would believe possible - I do think there’s a growing number of people who would argue that what we Christians hold as truth about what happens after death - of Heaven and Hell, of an after life - is just as ridiculous.

And so the response to the inevitability of death is met with a variety of different responses. 

- You can see that some try to drown or numb the hopelessness they see life as with drugs or alcohol or some other addiction. 

- Some try to ignore the reality the best they can.  

- A few hope that they can do something so memorable that history will remember them.  

- Others attempt to embrace some form of Buddhism or philosophical thought, seeing life as simply an illusion and get some sense of peace with all that.

Even Christians, in the face of death, find it hard to believe the promises of Jesus. That’s why this Gospel reading is such an important reading - and one of my favorites of the Easter Season. Look at the timeline of events we just heard.  These two disciples - Cleopas and the other guy – they are walking out of town.  They’re overwhelmed in their grief at the crucifixion at the death of Jesus.  They’re consumed with fear at the horror of what they witnessed to the man they knew, the man they loved, the man they followed. But what’s always struck me – as this mysterious figure joins them, prods them in conversation as they walk along – they are also consumed with doubt. In fact, instead of Thomas being called the "doubting" one - these two Cleopas and the other guy - are the doubters.  Thomas expressed his doubt at the news of the resurrection, but stayed with the community of apostles. 

These two confess – to Jesus himself, who, because they are so filled with doubt, fear and grief don’t even recognize him, think of him as some stranger, who they spontaneously share all their pain with him — they confess, they tell him that they’ve heard news from several witnesses that Jesus has risen from the dead - first the women and then some others.  And what is their reaction?

To head out of town.

They can’t believe it.

This isn’t to knock on Doubting Cleopas and Doubting Nameless other guy.  If anything, it’s what makes this even more of a relatable gospel for us.  When we lose someone we love - whether it’s a tragic, sudden accident, or after a long, difficult illness; or a sudden - out of the blue sickness – whatever it is, there’s no "easy way" to deal with death.  My grandmother died after being in a nursing home for 2 and a half years with dementia - my grandfather went to bed at the age of 94 having gone to Rutts Hut for a hot dog with my mom and spending a regular afternoon with her and died with absolutely no warning at all.  Both deaths hurt.  Both caused grief. Yes, they even caused doubt. 

What the Gospel of Emmaus tells us - quite simply - is the way to nourish our faith... the way we experience Easter, not just one day a year, not just for a 50 day season - but the way to become an Easter people... the way we are able to recognize Jesus when we struggle and are confronted with the hopelessness that sometimes we experience in life, the hopelessness that the reality of death breeds - is the Mass.

That’s not to "plug" Mass or guilt you into making sure you go to Mass every Sunday (although that’s a good idea) but to look at what happens in the Gospel.  Jesus has to remind them of all that God has done - for them, for all humanity.  He has to stir up other realities, other memories that might have been displaced in the face of the harshness of death. He does that as he shares the word.  He basically proclaims the scriptures (what we have just done).  And then he summons them to the table, he breaks the bread and in the greatest mystery, greatest gift we could ever have been offered, he offers them His body and His blood in those elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist (which we are about to do). As he "disappears" from their midst - their hearts are still burning within them... they are able to run back to town, to go back to the rest of the community they had just hours earlier abandoned, and be with the rest of the disciples, some of whom are still struggling in their faith, some whom have experienced similar revelations of the Risen Christ themselves. 

And in sharing that together, the body of Christ is revealed to be more than just Jesus as a person...
is more than just the Eucharist that we revere and receive...
it truly is each one of us who is changed in our receiving and sharing Him together...
that we become what we receive, we become the body of Christ.

For our seniors tonight, as we prepare to "send you off" as you prepare for Graduation, and the various next steps of life, there is a lot of Joy tonight. This is the goal, the purpose of your time here at MSU, to graduate, to be prepared for that next step whatever that next step is (for some of you that might have taken a little bit longer than you anticipated...but I digress). But there is sadness too. You’ve come to become part of this community - we’ve grown together - and it’s natural for us to fight and rebel against change. We will miss seeing you each Sunday, throughout the week... But as our alumni who’ve joined us tonight can attest to - when you continue to go to Mass - we’re all connected as a church, we’re all united as members of the Body of Christ in a beautiful, supernatural way that makes these bonds stronger in a new way.  Just as when a loved one has passed... and they’re physically not with us any more but those bonds of love, those connections are still real - we’re still connected to them (that’s why we have Saints in the Church - to show that we believe that even while they’re enjoying God’s embrace they still haven’t forgotten about us and still pray for us!).  The pain of separation - however it comes in our lives –is painful - but our faith shows us how our hearts expand as our lives go in different directions and that the connections here weren’t just about Newman or the various people who make up this dynamic community, but about the One who is the center and head of this community - the Risen Christ.

The call of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus to all of us here tonight is to make Christ’s presence real to those around us:
to those we already know,
to those we will soon meet in the upcoming phases of our lives;
to make it true here and true to the farthest corners of the world -
to bring Him and His light to all who have fallen into despair.  
To the hopeless and afraid; to those who await a zombie apocalypse – or something even worse – to those who believe in the empty creed of nothingness, thinking that their lives here are meaningless, and that their future is an empty void of nonexistence. 

We are to melt those hearts that are suffering in disbelief, struggling in pain, that are terrified of death the destroyer - and, by our lives and our faith in and love of Jesus Christ, to transform those around us - even as our own hearts burn within us as we continue our journey with Christ, proclaiming the astonishing truth that Jesus comes to bring us eternal life - a fulfilling and meaningful life, one united with Him in all eternity, of course; but a life which also has depth and breadth and meaning here and now, because of Him.