Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent ….. Prayers

As we enter into the season of Advent, I offered a homily this evening that included inviting the parishioners, and myself, to use this time when we are called to be “watchful” and “ready” as a sort of annual self-assessment. A few hours later, preparing for Evening Prayer I and changing out my Liturgy of the Hours for Volume I – Advent, I happened to encounter a series of prayers.

These prayers were those which I have kept tucked in the cover, carrying them with me as I would pray the Hours, and perhaps less frequently than I should, actually referring to them. Let me share with you what prayers I have collected, which mark in some sense my formation journey.

I begin the Liturgy of the Hours each day with the prayer offered by Cardinal John Henry Newman, “Only Jesus;” it was at the suggestion last year of my spiritual director that I consider that prayer as a guide on my priesthood journey, and it has become a constant, daily reminder and guide that whatever may be worthwhile in each day must have its foundation in Jesus, asking for the grace to spread His fragrance wherever I may go or find myself.

Tucked into the cover, there is also the Novena Prayer to the Immaculate Conception, which we offered at Immaculate Conception Seminary this past year, leading up to our patronal feast on December 8th; my current parish plans an evening Rosary novena anticipating this feast of the Blessed Mother, beginning tomorrow night. The timing of discovering this prayer in my Breviary is good providence, as I will in spirit be offering that novena once again with my brothers still studying at ICS, and will remember especially their study for exams and papers in these next several days. Know that along with the Legion of Mary here at my parish, we will be praying for you these next nine days in a special way.

 There are never enough ribbons to mark all that is needed in the Hours, and one bookmark I have included was prepared in commemoration of the dedication of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at ICS, which incorporates the prayer from the Rite of Ordination: “Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost. May I always take these words to heart, and remember to offer them not only for my own vocation, but for all those in formation now, and in the years to come.

I carry also a holy card prepared last year by my supervising pastor, Father Bill Lago, as he worked to merge two parish communities into one. The prayer begins, “Lord Jesus, you call us to follow you and abide in you. We ask for your grace to do the Father’s will …,” and concludes with asking for the joint intercession of the patronesses of that combined parish: “Our Lady of Perpetual Help, pray for us. Saint Agnes, pray for us.” OLPH-St. Agnes will always be for me a special place of learning to be a parish priest, where Father Bill spent hours with me each week, just sharing with me what the life of a priest was like. His enthusiasm for a challenging job was contagious, and complemented some advice offered by Archbishop Hebda during one of our formation conferences last year, when he said that, “the natural habitat of a diocesan priest is in the parish.”

For the past five months, that parish home has been Saint Robert Bellarmine, and the final prayer card I carry is one we used in our parish – in my parish – to commemorate the patronal feast this past September 17th. On the back of that card, the prayer drawn from the Roman Missal for Saint Robert concludes, “By his prayers may we always rejoice in the profession of our faith.”

As he left Mass this evening, one of our parishioners asked me if I realized that this would be my “last First Sunday of Advent” as a deacon? I truly had not thought of my journey in those terms, and place myself fully in God’s hands as I continue my formation in the months ahead, with the help of God’s grace. What I realized as we spoke, however, is that my vocation journey is constantly supported by so many, like him, who are holding me up in their prayers. Know that I feel the love and grace, the fruits of these petitions, each day.

What I can also say, with certainty, is that as I shuffle these prayer cards from the Ordinary Time to the Advent and Christmas “Liturgy of the Hours,” the prayers represented by these novena and holy cards are only a hint at the prayerful support I feel from all those who have been, and continue to be the foundation of my journey. To my family and friends, parishioners at several parishes, faculty and formators at both LaSalle and Seton Hall Universities, and so many others, thank you for your continued prayers, offered for me and my fellow seminarians; keep us, and your parish priests and bishops, in your petitions to Jesus each day, for it is truly the hope and prayer of all in parish ministry that you, our parishioners, look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.

May you keep watch this Advent, and be given the grace to encounter Jesus every day.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Prayer Garden

One of the particular blessings of my pastoral year is time to pray. Parish life can be busy, and does include meeting after meeting … I’m not “complaining,” just “explaining.” I enjoy the wonderful opportunity to connect with the people of Saint Robert’s in the various contexts: Adult Faith Formation, Liturgy, Religious Education, Small Faith Sharing, Building and Grounds, Respect Life, etc.

For me, however, each day continues to have time that I can dedicate to personal prayer, and one of my favorite places to have a conversation with God is the Prayer Garden, a beautiful space between the church building and the parish center, which is cared for by a parish gardening committee, and which is filled with colorful flowers, a fountain that is sometimes on (haven’t figured out the schedule for the fountain yet), several benches, and two statues. One “feature” I have found – considering I can get a sunburn looking at a postcard of a sunset – is that at any time during the day, at least one of the benches is in the shade.

The first statue, the Blessed Mother, has her holding the Infant Jesus, and has two small children at her feet, looking up at the Child. As I contemplated that statue during the course of the Rosary today, the Feast of the Assumption, I glanced over and noticed that St. Joseph was also mostly in the shadows, and is positioned in a place where he likely is partly in shadow most of the day. So my contemplative prayer today shifted from the Blessed Mother to considering “Saint Joseph of the Shadows.”

OK, I made up that title, but it is probably fair to say that in the hectic world in which we all live, Joseph probably gets left in the shadows a lot. And yet, he came into center stage earlier this week when several of us in the parish center were discussing his role as the patron of workers. Employment is a challenge for many, many people today. Some are underemployed, some are unhappy in cut-throat positions, and far too many are seeking a job, something that not too long ago was taken much more for granted.

We see the depiction of Joseph in religious art as usually serene, holding a lily as a sign of his peacefulness, and sometimes as the teacher of the young Jesus, guiding him in learning to be a carpenter. Something we don’t often consider – which I believe is a prominent feature of “Saint Joseph of the Shadows” – is that his hands were most likely calloused, probably arthritic, and likely had a number of scars from sharp hand tools that slipped from time-to-time, especially when he was tired. At least for me, when playing with my hobby of woodworking, it is when I am tired that the tools slip, and I have a few scars to measure those mistakes.

Scriptures say very little about St. Joseph, and yet it was he who probably first listened to Mary’s warning to be careful with Jesus in the shop, and not to let Him get hurt with the sharp tools. Both of them knew that one day, He would have more than His share of hurts – He would suffer all the hurts for the sinful world of all time that He redeemed in His death and resurrection. But I picture Joseph’s strong, calloused hand gently wrapped around Jesus’ small hand, working the plane or the saw to shape a chair, or a bowl in the shop. And then I think that Jesus, too, had callouses on His hands. Before he had the stigmata, Saint Francis of Assisi had callouses, too, from rebuilding the churches, stone upon stone.

Hard work goes into creating the world and our Church. As we pray for guidance while searching for work, or while trying to understand how to make the best of a difficult day at work, remember Saint Joseph of the Shadows; he is always there, gently speaking to Jesus about being careful with Creation. Invite Joseph to gently wrap his strong, rough, scarred hands around our own labors, to guide us, and to speak to His Son on our behalf. God’s creation continues to unfold in each of our lives; take the time to recognize and embrace the fact that we don’t work alone, but with heavenly guidance as we discern our role in the creation story of today.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Retreat: [ri-treet] The act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy ... and into prayer!

Last week was one I really looked forward to: the annual retreat of the Diocese of Trenton seminarians. Given that we study in four different seminaries, this five-day gathering of more than thirty men aspiring to the priesthood becomes a great opportunity to catch up with each other’s lives, parish assignments, and generally chat about why we are on this journey. There was a comfortable feel to the retreat this year as I was no longer one of “the new guys.” That was driven home in a strange sort of way when I got to my room, and turning on my iPad to see if I could get to my e-mail, found that I was already connected to the wireless network; I had been here before, and was connected – in more ways than with a tablet!

For these few days, our paths intersect and merge, with the focal point of that intersection at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Long Branch. Others who were just starting with me last year spoke about returning to their seminaries early to help with this year’s “new student orientation” programs; like me, they were no longer the object of the orientation but had quickly emerged into roles of participating and leading within their various seminaries.

The bike rides that some of us took were really not about riding a bike or exercise … they were about talking among friends who were on a journey much bigger than the couple of miles we might pedal that afternoon.

For most of the men, this retreat fell at the point where their formal summer assignments were completed, and they had a few weeks to visit with family and friends before returning to their dorm rooms in late August. For myself, the retreat was but a momentary pause, as I will continue in my pastoral year assignment for the next ten months here at Saint Robert Bellarmine parish. A particular joy in this year is the level of involvement within my parish, possible because I am here for a longer period; I am given the chance by my pastor to be not an observer, but a participant in the daily life of a busy parish.

I seem to have a foot in two camps as well; since I am ministering full-time in a parish, albeit not yet a priest, my life has taken on the rhythm of rectory living and parish schedules. Along with my classmates who also just graduated and were ordained, we are adjusting to that rhythm: what does it mean to have your day off in the middle of the week when many of your family and friends are working? How do you find a time when six priest friends can get together? Who has Mass on Saturday? Who has Sunday night? Who has hospital duty on which day? We had a quorum for dinner a week or so ago on a Sunday evening, which I helped set up, only to realize that I had the 5 PM Mass that day; it really helps to look at the correct calendar!

Please keep me, our recently ordained priests, and all seminarians in your prayers; each of us will be adjusting to the chronos time and calendars in our parishes and schools, but at the same time need to remember that kairos time is spent with God. To quote my “friend,” Karl Rahner, whose book on prayer I re-read during retreat, life is filled with temptation and decisions; each moment – kairos – is an invitation to divine love, and our response is a life of prayer. May each of you experience lives of prayer each day.