Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Open the Window...

When I arrived here at the Casa O'Toole on the grounds of the Pontifical North American College for the beginning of my sabbatical program, I was welcomed and taken to my room on the 3rd floor.  "Go over to the desk and open the window," the director of the program said to me.  When I did so, the view above is what I saw.  Today I moved some of the furniture around so I did not have to reach over the desk each day to open the window to let the awesome view of St. Peter's Basilica into my room.

In looking out onto this historic symbol of the Church and the incarnation of Christ from my room, I recalled words from Saint Ambrose that I read on the flight over.  In speaking of the admonition of Jesus to "go into your room (to pray,)" St. Ambrose comments...
But by “room” you must understand, not a room enclosed by walls that imprison your body, but the room that is within you, the room where you hide your thoughts, where you keep your affections. This room of prayer is always with you, wherever you are, and it is always a secret room, where only God can see you.
A hope for me during this blessed time is that I am opened in a new way to the voice of God.  I pray that I may open the window of my soul a bit more, so as to let the grandeur God enlighten my innermost being.  This too is the goal of preaching, the subject matter of my first 3 weeks here.  As a preacher, the words preached are most effective when they touch the inner soul of the hearer.  As a preacher, one must first be able to encourage the hearer to open the window of the soul, to let that word in.  
Before obeying the direction to "open the window," I asked, "why?"  "Just do it," my host said.  How often we are reluctant to be open, without knowing the outcome before hand.  As I begin my weeks here, I ask you to pray that I may be open to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Through this openness, may I grow in my own faith and therefore be able to offer to you God's word in a more effective way.  

Know that I pray for you, that you too might, "just do it," and open the window of your soul to the greatness of God.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ROMEWARD BOUND - A personal reflection on the visit of Pope Francis

Many have asked if I was able to see the Pope during his visit to New York.  I was fortunate to have attended vespers at St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Mass at Madison Square Garden.  The Mass at MSG was particularly special because it was the first time that I concelebrated mass with a Pope.  As a seminarian I attended 4 masses with Saint John Paul II, three of them in Rome and one here in the U.S.  One of the masses with him in Rome was in his private chapel with the opportunity for a personal audience after the mass.  I had the honor of distributing Holy Communion at Yankee Stadium during Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's visit in 2006.  But the mass with Pope Francis was a unique gift, joining my brother priests in the section behind the altar and sharing in the offering of the sacrifice of Christ with the Vicar of Christ himself was truly one of the most sacred moments of my life as a priest. That being said the most personal moment of the Pope's visit was vespers at St. Patrick's on the evening before.

When I was a new college graduate, I worked for a time in New York City.  During those months, I would go to St. Patrick's Cathedral and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the Lady Chapel.  As I was asking God to me help to understand what I was called to do, I was mindful of the din of the city noise outside.  In that chapel, I found comfort in the peaceful presence of our Lord and clarity in my discernment.
Almost one week ago,  I sat in that same cathedral awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. With the assembly gathered, I prayed the rosary using beads given to me by Saint John Paul II. Unlike my visits long ago, there was no noise emanating from outside the cathedral. All I could hear was the peaceful prayer of God's people awaiting our Holy Father. When the Pope arrived, he processed through the cathedral and went directly to the Lady Chapel, and then he prayed before the very same altar, my altar, where I first prayed about my vocation.  How incredible this was.

The words Pope Francis spoke that night were powerful and encouraging to me.  The Holy Father took me back to where it began for me. Having now the perspective of 18 years of priesthood, it was an incredible reaffirmation of the discernment that began right there, 25 years ago.
During the homily, Pope Francis said
We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. Not that these things are unimportant! We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us. But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion.

Those words articulated the reasons I sought the sabbatical experience that begins for me this week.I depart this Sunday afternoon to participate in the Institute for Continuing Theological Education, at the North American College in Rome.  I will spend a little more than the next 7 weeks there.  I am grateful, humbled and a bit anxious about these weeks ahead.  At the institute, I will be engaged in coursework dedicated to preaching and evangelization in the modern era.  In addition, the city of Rome provides both a symbolic and tangible experience of returning to the roots of personal faith as well as the mission of the church. I look to this immersion as a means of strengthening my faith and deepening my encounter with Jesus Christ and His Church. 
I am a person who feels most comfortable at home.  I desire to be close to my family and my ministry.   It is with  some anxiety that I take this time. It is truly hard for me to let go.  But I am eager to follow Pope Francis, back to Rome and along the path of priestly ministry that he is leading us.
I anticipate that I will find opportunities  to share the experience via this blog in the weeks ahead. I ask you to pray for me. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

PENTECOST & MEMORIAL DAY - Renew the Face of the Earth

There is growing expectation for Pope Francis' soon to be released encyclical on the environment. Some may question why the Pope would devote a teaching letter to this issue.  Most certainly we know that we are called to be good stewards of the earth.  A pope writing on such an issue is not simply concerned with the physical preservation of the planet.  The state of the physical environment is also a symbolic expression of the state of the world and its people.

The world can be painful place but it was not created to be so.  The biblical image of the Garden of Eden is a metaphor of God's design.  Our broken humanity alone is responsible for the pain. A selfish disregard of the worlds physical resources is indicative of the selfish disregard for other lives. Unfortunately one of our reactions to the pains and sorrows of life is the perpetuation of that pain, through our selective outrage to injustice. Protests which bring injustice to light are important. Fighting within ourselves, however, or the demonizing of a class of people or law enforcement only increases the pain.  And media fueled outrage for a select agenda only enhances the divide.  

If our outrage was genuine would there not be riots over the shooting death of a 14 year old boy? 

If we truly cared about injustice would not the shooting death of a police officer and mother of a new born child cause an outburst of indignation.   

Or if all lives matter shouldn't we be outraged that nearly 1 in 3 minority children are aborted every year? http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/21/j-kenneth-blackwell-black-abortions-a-crisis-in-am/
As we celebrate Pentecost this weekend we also celebrate Memorial Day and remember those whose lives were lost in service to the protection of life.  We do not honor those who died for peace with the perpetuation of violence.  We do not respond to injustice with further violations of justice. And we do not reserve our outrage to those protests which are politically correct or elevated by the media. We can not seek the physical healing of the earth without understanding that the healing of humanity is constitutive to that effort.
May this classic prayer to the Holy Spirit be our guide for what we seek, renewal, a fire of love and wisdom

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. 
And You shall renew the face of the earth. 
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, 
Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A mother's love is of God...and we need more of it.

At mass this weekend, the scripture readings speak of God’s love and the unconditional nature of it.   They are fitting words as we celebrate our mothers and give thanks for the ministry of motherhood.  In many ways, a mother’s love is the best example of what God’s love “looks like.”  Its not always pretty and to the outside observer, it may not make sense.  This week I found a reflection that I found both unimaginatively compassionate and at the same time hard to accept.  I want to share it with you because it is a genuine example of the conflicted love we try to live.  They are the words of a teacher named Becki Norris, who testified during the penalty phase of the man convicted of the Boston Marathon bombings. In her explanation for testifying she said in part:
Over the past two years, I have had to accept that a kind and gentle temperament is not a lifetime guarantee, and a smart and caring child can go far, far down an evil path...I testified to help the jury see why he might be spared the death penalty. I also hoped to show him, in spite of what he has done, that someone cares about him as a person....
I urge you to read the whole reflection in its entirety, (Why I Testified On Behalf Of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) because I know that in reading it I was challenged to ask, "Is this what Christians are supposed to do?  Is this what the mandate to love is all about?"  Personally I don’t know.  

I share her thoughts, not to validate them or to say that you too should feel this way.  Victims of violence, especially the victims of this act, can not and are not called to feel this way - but is not someone?  I was particularly struck by the line, “I hoped to show him, despite what he has done, that someone cares about him, as a person.”  Love sees beyond the act and recognizes the person.

We have all heard the phrase which labels someone as one whom, “only a mother can love,” and we all have encountered people in life, that only God can love.  As disciples we have to challenge ourselves, once in a while, to be the person through which God loves the “unlovable.”  It is most certainly not easy to love.  Mrs. Norris' life would be less challenging if she never loved this young man, if she was ignorant of his unique humanity that engaged her.  But she dared to love this student, and now she bears the pain of that love. Would she have preferred not to have ever known and loved him?  Would a mother prefer to have never loved her child?  Would God?

Love is of God, it is not an act of human manifestation.  In a world that continues to be torn apart by violence - we seek a divine intervention.  We seek love and God seeks to love -- through us.  The world can not heal without love.  We desperately pray for peace, for freedom from terror and terrorist.  We pray that there be less people in the world like this man.  But we also must pray for more people like this teacher and mother.  On this Mother’s day, may the divine ministry of motherhood provide us an example and a challenge to love one another as we have been loved.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Lent? Its a crazy thought.

If you follow my Twitter or Instagram accounts, you know I have spent the last few days in the frozen tundra of Sag Harbor on retreat.  I posted the pictures as a way of sharing the solitude of the experience, knowing that not many get the gifted opportunity of going on retreat.  I also wanted to make sure people knew I wasn't on a beach somewhere.  Actually, it was a beach, but you get the point, I hope.

Even though I am not a fan of winter, I find it is the best time for me to go on retreat. There is something about winter that encourages the necessary environment of solitude.  The season of Lent is also an opportune time for me - in that my spiritual psyche is directed toward renewal at this time of year.  I feel supported by the recollective spirit of the liturgical season.  A retreat is a restorative time that I think gives us the opportunity to believe in the possible, for me therefore, looking at frozen bays, several feet of snow and dead branches on trees helps me to have hope for new life.

Lent is therefore a time of retreat for all of us.  A time to believe in the hope that new life is possible.  We anticipate the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord and the renewed life of faith that is possible for each of us.  Our own renewal is important not just on a personal level but when we are renewed we see the world differently and we have an increased desire to bring about the change that we seek, as well as what the Lord wishes for us.

I want to share a brief insight, therefore, that was a part of my retreat reflection. As I began the retreat I was using the 15th Chapter of John's Gospel as a source for contemplation.  It is Jesus' discourse on the vine and the branches. The passage actually continues a bit into the 16th chapter.  It was there that I found these words.
 In fact the hour is coming when everyone who kills you, will think he is offering worship to God.         -John 16:2
Mindful of the martyrdom of the Coptic Christians in Egypt last week and the hundreds of Christians taken hostage in Syria this week, I thought to myself, surely this time has come.  I could not help myself be distracted in anger at those who do such things and the lack of leadership from our nation and the nations of the middle east.  This evil must be squashed. Good is much more powerful then this evil is it not? What a disturbing and disconsolate thought for a retreat.  I set the anger aside, however, and focused on myself throughout the next days.  But strange things happen on retreat, or more appropriately you think strange things.

I've been saying mass each day for me and the sisters who live here, as I prepared the readings today I had a strange thought when I read this passage from the first reading.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?     -Ez 18:23
Here comes the strange thought.  What if the Saddam Hussein's, Bin Laden's and the Hitler's of the world had had saw the error of their ways, under went a conversion, admitted they were wrong and asked forgiveness?  Wouldn't that have been more powerful then ending their evil with their deaths? Crazy right? Impossible even.  I told you, crazy thoughts come from retreats.  Surely it is hard for us to see this as possible, but can you understand why the Lord says the rejoicing comes not from the death of the wicked but in their conversion? God cares about souls first and foremost so there is no joy for God in lost souls. But think too of the power that conversion would have had in these examples. These men had power to do great evil, think of the power their conversion would have been.  Through evil, they had great influence, would their power be as great if they were to as they were as passionate in their conversion?  I know -- crazy thoughts.

But here is where I found myself going with this. At the beginning of the retreat I desired the destruction of evil but at the end I was musing on the greater power of conversion.  In our own lives we seek to destroy evil within ourselves. We try to root it out of our relationships and all that we encounter.  Isn't that why we discipline ourselves during Lent?  Actually its not.  We discipline ourselves so that we might be changed, that we might turn away from what is sinful not because we drive it out, but because through our Lenten journey we encounter the merciful love of God who gave his only Son. Christ comes not to destroy us or the evil with in, but to change us through mercy.  Could my greater sense of God's mercy for me influenced these crazy thoughts? I think so.

We all struggle with forgiveness.  How can I forgive the one who hurt me so much? Firstly, we forgive so that the evil which has been done to me no longer dominates me.  More importantly, we forgive so that mercy may prompt conversion.  We go through the retreat of Lent so that we might know mercy and be transformed by that mercy.  Transformed we understand the power of mercy, the power to save a soul rather than loose it. The power to not perpetuate death but dissolve its power.
I hope you can find some solitude during these weeks of Lent, so that you might have a greater awareness of what is possible in you and through you because of the mercy of the Father and the Son.
Why Lent?  Because only in the barren solitude would we have such crazy thoughts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We All Matter

“All lives matter.”  This statement has been an  inclusive response to the unrest we have experienced in our communities.  Rather than extolling the rights of one particular race or class, the most appropriate message is that no life is less worthy of the dignity and respect due to all people, for we are made in the image and likeness of God

The phrase came to my mind again last week during the coverage of the terrorist attacks in France.  The supposed reason for the attacks was a perceived disrespect for the Islamic faith.  The attackers in turn violated the
right to free speech, no matter how ugly, and the most essential right that even the lives of our enemies matter.  As disturbing as this event was, I found the lack of attention given to terrorist attacks in Nigeria last week, to be a painful reminder that our public reactions often reveal that all lives don’t matter equally.

Last Saturday, explosives, strapped to a girl who appeared to be about 10-years-old, detonated, killing at least 20 people in a Nigerian village. Furthermore it is believed that militants killed as many as 2,000 people, mostly Nigerian civilians, in a massacre that started the weekend before the terror attack in Paris.  While world leaders united in Paris to stand in solidarity against terrorism, hardly a public statement was made about the atrocities in Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria’s own president publicly expressed sympathy and Nigeria's "full solidarity" with the people of France, but he failed to do the same for the victims of terrorism in his own country.  Do not all lives matter?

This week hundreds of thousands of people will participate in the annual March for Life in Washington D.C.  Some estimates say that 1 in 4 Americans who live east of the Mississippi river participate in this event each year.  During any given year there will be extensive media coverage of rallies and marches that garner hundreds, or at the most, thousands of participants yet this march is hardly ever reported.  Do not all lives matter?  Do not demonstrations advocating a respect for life matter?
The reason people of all faiths and ethnicities participate in the March for Life, is very simply that, all lives matter.  Why do we see so many acts of violence at
home and abroad?  It is simply because our societies have devolved into accepting that certain lives don’t matter.  Poverty and racism are a result of a genuine acceptance that some lives matter less than others.  At the root of the pro-life movement is the very simple belief that, all lives matter.  If I cannot state unequivocally that the LIFE of an unborn child matters, where is my credibility when I profess that the lives of the poor, minorities, and other underrepresented people matter?

St. Paul teaches us that we are all equally members of the body of Christ and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore all lives matter.  We cannot accept that the victims of terrorism in one country seem to matter more than victims in another land.  We cannot accept that lives of the victims of poverty, racism and violence deserve our attention any more than the millions of unborn lives that are lost each year.  Nor can we say that these unborn lives matter more than their mothers and fathers who are terrified by a crisis pregnancy.

I pray that each of us who take this faith of ours seriously, examine our conscience, and reevaluate those times and places in our lives when we did not respect the dignity of life.  For in the eyes of God – all lives matter.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Because this year marks the 100th anniversary of its occurrence, there have been quite a few articles and stories written about what is known as the 1914 Christmas truce.  It is the legendary story of British and German soldiers on the western front of World War I, ceasing hostilities on that Christmas and actually joining each other in companionship, playing soccer and singing Christmas carols together.  Movies and books have been written, dramatizing the occurrence and it has become a hopeful symbol of the possible.  The reality is the Christmas day truce, was the culmination of what had become an ordinary occurrence.  Soldiers on the front were in such close proximity to each other that they would shout to each other in conversation.  They develop agreements not to attack each other at tea, meal or washing times.  They allowed each other the opportunity to peacefully recover the deceased and injured.  During these breaks they were known to exchange small gifts and cigarettes.  One historian reflected on these truce experiences as one that “gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence.” The December 1914 Christmas Truce was not a unique event, but a result of the closeness they had already developed.

What I find most interesting about the famous Christmas truce is that it was not a political or humanitarian decision from above, it came genuinely from the men in the trenches.  Such truces were discussed and proposed by various leaders, but few believed it was possible and some saw it as weakness.  Pope Benedict XV is known for appealing to the heads of state to avoid the war before it began and at the beginning of that December begged again that the warring nations would embrace a Christmas truce. His appeal fell on deaf ears.  The truce happened not as a top down order, but a grass roots gesture of human decency.  The enemy was so close, their deplorable living conditions similar, and they all shared the same desire to return to their families.  They had more in common than they had differences – and those common desires evolved into a unifying peace -- which perhaps was the most authentic celebration of the birth of the savior that one could have. 
We've lived for many years now in a new kind of war. One hundred years after the First World War, we are still longing for a peaceful world.  We feel powerless and we find ourselves saying someone needs to do something.  We look to our leaders and to Pope Francis for the answers and direction; but the world doesn't seem to change.  Within our own nation and our own city we have been living a painful war these last few months.  In the wake of the assassination of two police officers – political leaders and clergy have called for a truce to this war but the protests and rhetoric go on. We have battles in our own personal lives too, wars at home.  How many of us have asked our mother what she wants for Christmas only to receive the reply, “I just want everyone in this family to get along.”
In the divine wisdom of God, the savior of the world is not an earthly king, a soldier or even a member of the religious establishment – but a savior who is close to us in our humanity.  The salvation that we seek from the battles of our lives is found when we draw close to this child born in a manger.
God himself literally comes across the line to be in humanity, because God sees himself in us. We are made in his image and likeness – so we may know peace.
On the western front of World War I, soldiers drew close to the child as they spent time with the savior who was present in their enemy across the line – and they knew peace.

Through the words of the Gospel, the reception of the Holy Eucharist and our meditation on the nativity scene before us, - we draw close to the Lord and we hope for his peace.
When we have the courage to cross the lines of life and see our God in our enemies and our agitators, we know the saviors peace.
With whom do we need to come to a truce?  Who is across the table, across the street, down the hall, around the corner, in the next town over, the bordering nation or across the globe who bears the same struggles and the same Christ as me?    Can we look across these battle lines of life and see a brother or sister whose joys and sorrows are the same as mine?  Who simply longs for peace like I do?
We heard St. Paul in his letter to Titus say, “our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”  God looks across the battle front of human history and he sees his Son in us, he sees his sons and daughters – and without merit, he extends his mercy, there is peace.  When we look across the battle fronts of our lives – we can’t help but see Jesus.  The innocent child born of meager means, the man on the cross who dies for us; calling us to be merciful.  No one deserves mercy – it is a sacrificial gift which is the seed of peace.
In the folklore of the telling of the 1914 Christmas truce, it is often recounted that the carol the soldiers sang together was, Stille Nacht - Silent Night.  This probably was not accurate, since the German song was not yet well known to the English speaking Brits.  It is more accurately believed that what they sang together was, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” because both the German and English speakers would know the tune and its Latin lyrics.  Moreover, this carol more accurately reflects what made the truce possible; faith and the faithful.  Not leaders and governments – the faithful who come to adore Christ.

The birth of Jesus, God made man, is the manifestation of the divine truth that a genuine peace happens when the desire to be right is sacrificed for the greater desire of mercy.  The child in our midst draws us close this day and every day so we may recognize him in friend and adversary, extinguishing our thirst to battle and fostering in us the desire to manifest divine peace.