While walking along the beach with one of my brother transitional deacons, speaking of what it means to be just a few days away from serving in parishes as priests, ministering to the People of God in Trenton, my brother stopped suddenly. Now, this was a big beach, we had walked a good distance already, and he had noticed a butterfly about an inch and a half long flattened into the sand where the waves had receded. With gentleness he carefully lifted it up by one wing, and as he placed it in his other palm, the butterfly moved a little. It was still alive! Soggy, weighed down with grains of sand, but alive.
He carefully placed it a little further up the beach. Then, not content that it was safe there, he carried it up toward the dunes, fashioned a bit of a perch out of some sticks, and rested this weary creature on a branch in the sunlight to dry off.
I would have missed the butterfly as we walked.
I was content when it was moved a little above the surf line.
Jarlath was not content until this small creature was safe.
Saint Francis would be proud, and I am so proud to count men like him as my brothers in ministry. I learned how easy it is to pay attention to God's creation all around us, and to make a difference.
It reminded me of a story told of a boy throwing starfish from the beach back into the ocean; an old man watching asked him what he was doing, and he said he was saving the starfish. The old man pointed out that he couldn't save them all, and his actions didn't make a difference. The boy threw one more into the surf, and simply said, "It did for this one."
There's one more butterfly in the world. Jarlath made a difference. Thanks for the lesson, my friend!
Friday, May 15, 2015
Last weekend, the Diocese of Trenton hosted the Marriage Summit, a program over two days that examined the state of marriage in society at large, and specifically among Catholics in our Diocese, the call to the vocation of married life. In my presentation at the Summit, I developed a conversation around the theme of “The Whole of Life,” adapted from the first canon on marriage, 1055. This coming week, I will have the opportunity to join my brother transitional deacons, and to be led by Bishop O’Connell in our canonical retreat in preparation for the Ordination to the Priesthood, my call to a new vocation.
For myself, the Marriage Summit gave me pause to consider just what the “whole of life” means for me as I approach Holy Orders: I am a son, brother and uncle; I was a husband, and remain a widower which ties me in both intangible and in powerfully spiritual ways to the married life; I am a father, considering proudly the maturation of my three sons into fine young adults.
I am a deacon, having served as such for more than a decade now, with that accumulated ministerial experience. I spent more than three decades in the business world, with a perspective that included exposure to critical business issues on three continents.
This context is my own, personal “whole of life” – so far; it is what I will bring to my ministry as a parish priest. Shortly before entering the seminary in 2013, I read Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” I found it offered powerful insight, beginning with that basic image that in life, each time we stumble, it does not need to be falling downward. The image more powerfully reflects tripping up a step, that stumble in life that may have slowed us or knocked us down, but then we realize that we fell onto the next step going upward – maybe even two steps ahead! Yes, it was a fall, but it is a fall forward, a fall upward.
My path has not been a straight line to the priesthood, but it has been a very whole, very complete life, with tremendous joy found in my family, even in the darkest days of struggle. In thinking of this falling metaphor, I was reminded of the powerful moment in Jerusalem a year ago when I looked out across the Kidron Valley, at the very steps that Jesus and his disciples likely used from the Upper Room to the Garden of Olives, steps upon which so many have likely tripped and fallen … only to get up again.
Discernment of this vocation invites consideration of a powerful dimension of surrender to God’s will. Complete, total, unconditional surrender to God’s will is intimidating. A few weeks ago, I did not know where I would be assigned as a priest, and now I do know. More importantly, I don’t know what may be next in God’s plan for my priesthood: who will I meet in the parish in need of a conversation about Jesus? What will make up their own “whole of life” context in which I am called to be their priest and spiritual guide? Where will God and the Bishop need me to go five, ten or fifteen years from now?
Those questions have a simple answer: surrender, and, Thy will be done. As I shared in a previous blog post (July 31, 2013), I like this God of Surprises! I ask only that He continue to give me the courage and grace to look forward to each day’s surprises, and the firmness of will and heart to embrace the unknown.
Newark Coadjutor Archbishop Hebda once told us in the seminary that the “natural habitat of a diocesan priest is in the parish.” Even at the cusp of that mission, I am most sure that I am not done falling up the steps of life; each stumble happily adds to my own context, my whole of life. During this coming retreat, I hope to spend time quietly presenting myself to Jesus, and listening for His direction. Soon, God willing, I will add “priest” to my whole of life context, but I will still be father, brother, son, uncle and widower.
Sometimes when we fall forward, we end up on a landing, with multiple directions to choose the course. Please keep Deacons Arian, Jarlath, Jason, John and I in your prayers this week; our formation journey has brought us to this landing, this sacred time of retreat. May God bless us, and give us calloused knees for the stumbles yet to come.
Sunday, May 10, 2015
This morning, after Mass at Saint Robert’s, one of our parishioners gently reminded me that I was overdue for a posting here when she simply said, “I look forward to reading your blog.” I promised her that she was right, and that I was planning one for this week. There may still be one later in the week, but then this afternoon happened in an extraordinary, grace filled way.
Over the years, I have been fortunate and blessed to participate in many spectacular liturgies. I was on the Parkway in Philadelphia for Pope St. John Paul II, and in Yankee Stadium for Pope Benedict XVI. As a deacon, I have assisted at Masses with cardinals and bishops. I have assisted at Masses in four different cathedrals. As a musician and choir member, I played at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and I sang for Mother Teresa in Trenton. I have been blessed, but never quite like today.
As I anticipate my ordination to the priesthood in just a few weeks, I've been speaking with my brother, a priest in Philadelphia, about finding a chance to once more – one last time – to assist him as deacon. We did that today.
In a hospital room, with no vestments.
Wearing facial masks and gloves, while instruments and filtration equipment buzzed in the background of our Dad’s isolation room.
There was no music, just my brother celebrating the Eucharist, me beside him as deacon, and the congregation consisted of one of my sisters, one of my nephews, and my Mom and Dad. Mass was interrupted, just before the Offertory, by a wonderful and apologetic nurse who had come in to give Dad some pain medication, some insulin, and to check his vital signs.
In his brief homily comments on this Sixth Sunday of Easter (1 John 4:7-10, John 15:9-17), my brother mentioned that ultimately, God’s message comes down to love, and we have our parents, my Mom and Dad, to thank for that example of how to love. We listened to the surprisingly strong responses of my Dad to every prayer throughout; when we approached the Communion Rite I invited, “Let us offer to one another a sign of peace." As if it had been rehearsed or choreographed, we each removed our masks to kiss Dad, and each other. Mom and Dad were separated by the hospital bed, but would not be denied, as Mom stretched across those few feet while Dad reached out, they touched finger tips, then she blew him a kiss. No arthritis, tenuous balance nor hospital apparatus could separate their touch, and that soft kiss reflected the love of their nearly 64 years of marriage.
Truly, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and that faith is founded on love, nurtured by love, and completed in the communion of Jesus’ love for us.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom and Dad; peace be with you both.