Saturday, November 08, 2014

How lovely is your dwelling place

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

A year and a half ago, we completed a major renovation project of our church. We were able to turn what was part church and part multipurpose area into one single space of noble simplicity for worship. The final product was well received. One aspect of the work has still remained, however.  Several panels of stained glass were removed in order to create a new sanctuary wall.  We have been trying to find creative ways to reincorporate these windows into the renovated space.  Last week we found a space for some of those pieces.  

In the renovated sanctuary a full length piece of translucent material was placed behind the tabernacle.  The intention was to surround the tabernacle with natural light.  In the end, after living with it for over a year, most of us felt that the image created was underwhelming.  Thanks to the skills and ingenuity of our maintenance staff, three of the glass panels were fashioned to be inserted in the wall behind the tabernacle. The transformation was amazing, the insertion of the stained glass transformed the sanctuary. What was already a renewed place for worship was enhanced and a renewed sense of the sacred was evident.

Churches can be lavish and beautifully adorned or they can be of a simple construct, but God’s dwelling within them is no less significant. Appreciating our churches as sacred dwelling places of God also gives us an opportunity to proclaim the truth that the divine chose to dwell in the human experience. The sacred dwelling place of a church is a symbol of the temple which is the human person, first in Jesus Christ and then all of us. Like a church the human person can have profound intelligence, observable beauty, athletic skill and strength.  However, the human person can also be burdened with pains, sorrows and limitations beyond endurance. God’s dwelling is no less significant in anyone of them.

Earlier this week I concelebrated the funeral mass of Patricia and Derek Ward. The previous week, Pat lost her life at the hand of her son, Derek, who subsequently took his own life. The principal celebrant of the mass was our diocesan bishop, William Murphy and the homilist was Fr. Robert Lubrano, the brother and uncle of the deceased. I have never been present for a double funeral let alone one in which the circumstances were as unfathomable as this one. I do not know how Fr. Bob was able to preach as he did, I don’t know if I could have managed to put a comprehensible sentence together. 

It was one of the most powerful reflections I have ever heard. Fr. Bob preached about how his sister was the personification of Jesus’ great commandment to love. In particular, those who are difficult to love. Her career in teaching was one dedicated to the marginalized who she believed had the right to an education that would empower them to better opportunities in life. She applied that same loving effort to her son, whose mental illness and learning disabilities made it difficult for him to read. Through her steadfast love, he became an avid reader. She loved him as his mental illness grew uncontrollable and she struggled to find care for him. Over and over again, at this funeral of his sister and nephew, Fr. Bob challengingly spoke of the dignity of the human person, no matter how broken or sinful and their God given right to be loved and cared for.

The event of Pat and Derick's death generated a great deal of media attention.  In one way, I was glad that there was no media present for the funeral mass, but I also found myself wishing that the larger world, who knew of the tragedy, also had the opportunity to hear the profound words of faith spoken by a grieving brother and uncle.  I therefore felt called to share what I could. In a week in which my parish community was given an renewed opportunity to acknowledge the presence of God in the sacred dwelling place of a church, I was reminded to recognize his presence in the sacred dwelling place of the human person.  We must commit ourselves to acknowledging and caring for that presence in our brothers and sisters of all faiths, orientations, ethnicity, and abilities great and small. 
Fr. Bob began his homily and I conclude this reflection with these words from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection Is No Fairy Tale

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, happened in time, not once upon a time.  It is not a story of fictional characters but real people, flawed people who betrayed and abandoned him.  It is not a story of a victory won through violence or vengeance, but with the words of peace spoken by the one who shows his fatal wounds, now healed to those who abandoned and denied him.

The resurrection is an explosive event that has influenced our history and fashions us in hope and the knowledge that death is powerless to love and mercy.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a fairy tale - but its truth continues to permeate all of our lives, even our fairy takes.  I recently watched Disney's latest fairy tale, "Frozen," and this truth was there.  Spoiler Alert.  

Queen Elsa has accidentally afflicted her sister Anna with a spell that has frozen her heart and soon will take her life.  The only thing that can save her is an act of true love.  But just as an act of love seems to draw near, the afflicted Anna runs to stop the blow of a sword that will kill her sister the Queen.  Her courage saves Elsa, but time has run out for Anna, she is frozen and takes her last breath.  But watch what happens.

You sacrificed yourself for me?  That is the question we speak aloud to our Lord today.  It is the question and the truth that permeates our fairy tales and our everyday lives.  That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that we might have life.  Happy Easter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Whose fault is it?

A few weeks ago, after celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with our Religious Education students I was fielding questions from them.  After a question about the crucifix, one young person asked me, whose fault was it that Jesus was crucified.  I was caught off guard and tried to quickly form an answer that the children would understand.  First I mentioned Judas, then the Jewish leaders who did not understand Jesus and then I mentioned the Romans who feared a revolution.  But then I caught myself and simply said, "It doesn't matter."  It doesn't matter, I said, because it is not as important as the result.  What matters is that Jesus rose from the dead, that crucifixion did not destroy him or the Father's plan for our salvation.

So often in life when we experience a tragedy, we react by trying to determine fault.  While understanding the cause of one's sorrow is certainly helpful in preventing another failure, the pursuit of fault never brings healing in of itself.  Knowing who is to blame and punishing those who are responsible are steps in a process of justice but are not necessarily helpful in healing the wound.

A priest friend often responds to a failed situation by saying, "its my fault," even if it clearly isn't and the notion of the problem being his fault is absurd.  He responds this way because, he says, getting blame out of the way allows us to move on and solve the problem.  As we begin this Holy Week, I think this approach makes sense.

Whose fault is sin and suffering in the world?  God the Father does not answer the question but submits the Son to the cross, so that innocent one pays the price of  punishment for the fault and the sinner can now be redeemed.

Whose fault is the crucifixion?  It is our fault, yours and mine.  We were not there historically but we share in the same sins that lead the innocent one to be put to death.  When we admit our fault, confess our sins and seek absolution we are healed from the wounds of our sin.

The Exsultet which is the proclamation sung at the Easter Vigil, states very beautifully, "O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!"  This is our spirit as we begin Holy Week.  We enter with hearts and minds not seeking a justification that comes from blame but instead we seek to rejoice over a justification that comes from love.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Accept? One year later.

As we approached the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, I knew that I wanted to offer some kind of reflection on him and the phenomena that the first year of his pontificate has been.  I was not interested in offering some kind of analysis of his impact or a presenting a survey of the various ways in which his words or actions have been received.  In my wonderment of what was intriguing me to say anything, I found myself focusing my thoughts on the man himself and what this year has been for him personally. 

When I was growing up I liked games shows with celebrity contestants as well as talk shows because I was intrigued by the fact that these stars were real people and I wanted to know what they were really like.  In Pope Francis, I think we have had the opportunity to know "the real man."  In both his prepared remarks and his unscripted comments, the Holy Father has shown an appreciation for the every challenges of discipleship.  He balances his public appearance with a public glimpse of normal routine life.  And because of all that, I found myself thinking back to a year ago and wondering, what was he thinking as it was clear his life was about to change. What was he thinking as the Dean of the College of Cardinals asked him, "Do you accept?"  I can't know what he was thinking but I do know what he saw during those moments, Michelangelo's great fresco, "The Last Judgement."

I have been blessed to visit the Sistine Chapel twice in my life.  My first experience was like many tourists, not knowing where to look while you are quickly ushered through.  The second time I went, I made a choice that I would spend my brief time focused on the this scene of The Last Judgement. I could not help but be overwhelmed by it.  It was not a static two dimensional painting that I saw, but an image of great movement; people being swept up to heaven with the Lord's right hand and others sliding into the netherworld after confronting the forearm of his left.  "Which direction am I headed?"  I asked myself.  In one united gesture, the resurrected and glorified body of Christ says, "Come inherit the Kingdom, to you did it for me." and "Depart to you who did not do it for me."  With this image before him, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, "Accepto" in acceptance of his election as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe it is with this image in mind, that Pope Francis has lived this first year of his pontificate.  He has asked us in his preaching, teaching and action if we are willing to accept the standards of this Last Judgement.

"Who am I to judge?" is possibly the most quoted statement of the Holy Father thus far. Many have used it to say that the Holy Father felt that he, and therefore no one else, had the right to make a definitive statement about sin. His answer was not, that there is no judgement, but that he is not the judge.  It is the Son of Man, Matthew's gospel says, that will come in glory and judge on the standard of what we have done for Him.  I don't know what he was thinking when he accepted the call to serve as Pope but I do know that in his year as our Holy Father, Pope Francis has sought to bring us to a favorable final judgement by directing us to the least among us.

"Do you accept?" is the question of discipleship.  Do you accept the mandate to do for me, who did it for you?  Do you accept the challenge to die to self service and selfishness.  Do you accept the admonition to do for the least not because you recognize Christ in them but more importantly when you can't see the good in them?  Do you accept the cross of laying down your life for the will of the Father and the care of His people?

I can only wonder how hard it was for Pope Francis to say "Yes," but I know for certain how hard it is for me to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  I truly believe that our world today has made it harder and harder to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  The threat of terror and a failing economy force us to worry more about ourselves. A plague of objectification afflicts us due to the proliferation of pornography.  Even our technology has developed cameras for our phones that make it easier to take pictures of ourselves and therefore be less focused on remembering our moments with others.  

I think Pope Francis understands how hard it is for us to accept the standard of the Last Judgement.  A year ago I prayed that the new Pope would make me a better person and a priest.  In coming to "know" him, I know that he has accepted the mission to help me understand the measure by which I will be judged and has challenged me to say, "I accept." 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Spark Amidst the Ashes

Some time ago, during a at home Holy Communion call, I struck up a conversation with the elderly woman I was visiting.  I asked her about her children, her late husband's job and the place where she raised her family.  Sadly, she could not remember much about these things.  She could not remember all the names of her children and grandchildren, the name of the town where she raised them or what her husband did to support them.  And she knew it.  She told me how sad she was that she could not remember.  I then asked her if she could remember the street she grew up on.  Her eyes lit up and she told me the name of the street in Brooklyn.  I asked her if she could remember the name of her parish and the light in her eyes was there again as she said the name.  Not only could she remember who she was, her sadness turned to joy as she told me about that place that was not so far away, but very present in her mind.  The spark of her true self still burned.

I thought of this visit as we marked the beginning of the season of Lent, with Ash Wednesday.  I was almost surprised to see our church so full at 7:30 last night, because after the crowds we experienced throughout the day, it was hard to believe that there was anyone left in our town who had not come to receive ashes, but fill the church once more they did.  The response to this day is hard to figure out, the phone calls inquiring about the times for distribution started a week earlier.  What is it that makes them come? Perhaps it is similar to the spark of recognition that I saw in the woman I visited.  For the Ash Wednesday crowds, the spark of faith and true identity is still burning.

Traditionally the ashes used on this day come from the palm branches used at the beginning of Holy Week, a year ago.  A year ago, Holy Week concluded and Easter began with the new fire.  That new fire was used to light the candles held by the congregation at the Easter Vigil. On that night the church was aglow with all of these individual flames of faith.  Throughout the year we all did our best to keep the flame of faith burning.  The passion of our faith carried us through the joys and sorrows of the year, but despite our best efforts it began to dim and the ash began to build.  The spark however is still there.

The Gospel we use on Ash Wednesday seems a bit incongruent for the occasion. Here we are publicly signing ourselves with an outward symbol as we listen to a gospel passage that tells us to keep our penitential acts secret.  Our public act of being signed with ashes is simply a communal recognition of the private work that now begins.  The ashes remind us of our mortality and that despite our attempts to live good lives, we are not yet good enough.  We have work to do.  The spark of faith will becoming a growing flame if we do the private work of prayer, fasting and almsgiving throughout these next 40 days.  The public act of Ash Wednesday reveals to us that the ember of faith is still there.  We do not simply remember what we once were, but we are recommitted to being our true selves made in the image and likeness of God.  Ash Wednesday calls us to fan the ember of faith through acts of penance and spiritual renewal. 

The phone calls and the crowds of Ash Wednesday always bring me hope, because I believe that the experience is a revelation of the spark of faith that still burns among the ashes of our lives.  I know that among the crowds there were many who had not been to church for a very long time. They were there with those who are in church every day and every week -- and each one of us has become ashen over time.  We forget who we are and the light of faith has dimmed - but through this simple sign, we remember who we are and we inspired not to travel back in time, but live today, alive in faith.  

When I was a Boy Scout, I learned to never assume that a campfire was completely out, there could always be an ember still burning that could light a new fire.  As a priest and more importantly as a disciple, I have learned to never assume that the light of faith is completely burned out, there could still be an ember amidst the ashes of ones life.  Somehow the tradition of Ash Wednesday makes that spark come alive so that the soul who desires it may be renewed in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Social Media Famous or Letting Your Light Shine?

You are the light of the world...your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

This passage from Sunday’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ well known “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus is  calling his disciples to stand up and be counted, to put themselves out there and be known. It may sound like he is calling them to be attention seekers and to strive for fame. The problem is that being known as a follower of Jesus during his life time and in the first 300 years of the church meant martyrdom. Who wants that kind of fame? He was truly asking them to risk their own  lives so that the truth of the Gospel and the  promise of eternal life might be known, especially to those whose lives were without hope. Let your  light shine, not for your own glory but for the glory of God and the salvation of others.

Isn't that call to “fame” so different from the drive for fame that exists in our time? For the last two  decades “reality television” created a new breed of celebrity, people who became famous not for any  talent or achievement, but rather because of  media and self-promotion. The fame gained  through reality television has been enhanced and even surpassed by the technology of social  media. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine and other similar venues have enabled the average  person to have millions of “followers.” I recently read an article which reported on conventions which bring online celebrities to local venues  where they can meet and greet the thousands of fans that show up. 

While this modern day pursuit of celebrity may be perceived as innocent fun, it is also quite dangerous. Most of the most famous online celebrities are young people in their teens. We know that teenage life straddles the line of wanting attention and desiring privacy. We know the painful history of childhood celebrities, creating more young celebrities only creates unhealthy scrutiny of these young lives. It also makes them vulnerable to predatory behavior. Surely, not all of the millions of followers, that online celebrities enjoy, are simply adoring teenage crushes. 

While not everyone becomes famous online, similar dangers exist for all who expose their lives  to social media. Children are using this technology more and more and they access it not through the  easily monitored home computer, but through the electronic devices they carry about with them. With this kind of access to the world, they are vulnerable to online bullying. In the past, a young person may have had to deal with a playground antagonist now there is no escaping that adversary. In the past, mean notes were slipped into a locker or backpack, now those hurtful attacks are public for the viewing of all. Rumors which were once dependent on the passing of whispers are now easily forwarded to hundreds and thousands of others. Curious adolescent chatter has moved beyond the sanctity of the locker room and now exists permanently in cyberspace. 

Social media has its benefits but without the intense supervision of caring adults, this new era of fame is dangerous and destructive for our children. Jesus calls us to let our light shine, to not be afraid to be public witnesses of the Gospel. We are called to be such witness even in social media. We all share in the responsibility of keeping our children safe; helping them to avoid unhealthy self-promotion and teaching them that even they have the ability and responsibility to let the light of their faith shine.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Is Christ divided? No room for Pro-life? Important Questions

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, that there are rivalries among you. Is Christ divided?                                   1 Corinthians 1:11, 13a

This past week in a radio interview, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to a question about divisiveness in public life.  His answer suggested that divisiveness existed in only one political party and it was the “extremists” of that party that were the cause of all division.  The Governor identified those who advocate for a right to life as an example of such extremism.  He then went on to say that such extremists, “have no place in the state of New York.“ 

Just a few weeks ago the Governor, a Democrat, was here on Long Island at the inauguration of the Nassau County Executive, a Republican.  The Governor spoke proudly of his efforts to overcome divisions for the good of the people.  It both saddened and angered me, therefore, to hear him say that those who disagreed with him on certain issues were not only extremists but have no place in our beloved state.  What changed in a few short weeks?
The Governor and his staff clarified these remarks stating that they were directed at those who were
seeking office, not people who held such views.  The words of the Governor were therefore meant to state that those who hold these positions are unelectable in New York.  He is not the first to make such a statement.  Former Senator Al D’Amato once insisted that his party’s candidate for governor had to be pro-choice in order to receive the nomination.  Up until that time Senator D’Amato had enjoyed the support of the Right to Life Party.  After that statement, the Senator lost his reelection by the margin of votes that he had previously received from Right to Life party voters in past elections.  New York went on to elect as a result a pro-choice and pro-death penalty governor. 
The point being we are a state and a nation divided on the issues of life; abortion, health care rights,
immigration reform, care for the terminally ill and the death penalty. (Yes these are all Pro-life issues.)  Unfortunately, we have let these divisions of the political world enter the body of Christ.  Yet, in answer to Saint Paul’s question, Christ is not divided.  Jesus Christ is singularly united to all aspects of human life in his incarnation.  He continues to affirm that unity in his choice when he dines with sinners, touches the unclean and embraces death on the cross.  We profess Christ, who says there is a place for all of these—even those who oppose him.  How then can we allow the cause for life to have no place in our state and our nation?
We Christians who have allowed ourselves to be divided are responsible for the Governor’s statement.  We who have accepted that one can be privately pro-life but publicly pro-choice have placed men and women in office who have diminished the sanctity of life.  It is our lack of support for those who identify themselves as Pro-Life and our support of those who are less then Pro-Life, that has allowed Pro-Life efforts to be labeled as extreme and our Governor to publicly state there is no place for such a person in public office in our state.  I don’t blame the Governor for holding such an opinion because he and many others have enjoyed the “Catholic” vote and the vote of other Christians.  We have told the world that Christians are divided and can therefore be marginalized. 
May Christ who inspired so many to brave the elements to stand up for life — all life, today in Washington. D.C.'s bitter cold and snow, unite us.  And may our universal care and respect for all human life, soften the heart of our Governor and all who think there is no place for the protection of unborn human life.  For there is a place for him within the Body of Christ, may he see a place for Jesus Christ and his people in our state, nation and world.