Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Problem With Angels

I think that angels, those helpers of God, have created a problem, or put another way, our perception of angels has caused a problem for many of us. Close your eyes (oops! This is a blog, so you can't close your eyes yet!) and imagine God's army of angels surrounding you, protecting you from every hurt, every fall. We feel a sense of safety, knowing that we are surrounded by these servants of God. When we contemplate that image long enough, feeling the comfort and protection which it affords us, we might even tend to include God surrounding us, using His absolute power to shield us from harm.

For many, that is our image of how God protects us.

But the very model is wrong. It makes us the center of our own existence; it ensures that these heavenly beings, angels, and perhaps even God, serve me. Not even "us," but "me." When you think about putting ourselves in the center of that comfortable model, we realize first of all that there is no place for other people. They would need, of course, to be the center of their own existence; and taking this analogy further, that would mean that some of "my angels" were off track when they are attending to "your protection." You want to shout out, "Hey, what about me! You are supposed to protect me ... right?"


All creatures, especially you and I, are meant to turn our focus toward the real center, God, whose care and protection radiates from Him alone, and extends through the entire universe to each of His creatures. We, along with all the heavenly hosts, as the adopted sons and daughters of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-merciful God, are called to turn our focus upon God, our Creator, the source of all life, love; to the Trinitarian God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - who has created us and adopted us as His beloved.

This shift in focus, the shift in the true center, corrects all the flaws in the "me-as-center" model. Just a few to consider:

  • I will look at material goods differently; they are now gifts, not goods, and offered for the common good of all God's Creatures.
  • I will look at my brothers and sisters differently; they are not competing with me for the attention of God and His angels, but instead cooperate with and join me in praising God as the source of all that is good.
  • I will look at how I spend time differently; "my efforts" are no longer focused on achieving "my success," but in humbly offering service to the one God from whom I receive everything and to whom I owe everything.
  • I will pray differently; fewer petitions will be about what "I need," instead with the realization that I have already been provided all that I need, I will ask instead for what those around me need. In short, I will become like the angels who serve God, and will look out for my fellow man, for my brothers and sisters.

So maybe, the problem isn't with angels. Maybe the problem is with me, and the solution is with God.

Now, close your eyes and think about it.

P.S.  I wonder if these occasional ramblings on this blog, "God of My Prayer," are useful. In one sense, I am compelled to write them out by my slowly maturing relationship with God. I would greatly appreciate any comments below with thoughts or topics you might suggest for future posts.   It remains my hope and prayer that these simple words are somehow doing His will, not mine.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

St. John Vianney, Priest and Confessor

 Today, August 4th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests. St. John dedicated himself without hesitation to his parish in Ars, France, where he would spend 12-16 hours each day hearing confessions. Last year, my first as a priest, I recall the impulsive decision as I walked the fifteen steps from the rectory to the church to celebrate daily Mass on this feast; I decided, "In honor of John Vianney, I'm going to offer confessions after Mass today."

Seemed simple enough. An hour and a half after Mass ended, I finished with my last confession. I had, I guess, called people's bluff when I announced before the final blessing that I would be in the Reconciliation Room.

Since that time, I have made it my practice to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation after daily Mass on days whenever the liturgical calendar identifies a feast celebrated for a priest or bishop, schedules permitting. This has been a rewarding experience for me, and I have been told a grace to many parishioners. Some, paying attention to the daily feasts, will now ask me before Mass: "Confessions this morning, Father?" Funerals and office appointments permitting, I love to be able to answer "Yes!" Sometimes there will be one person come to speak with me, sometimes twelve, or more. Each time, I know that it is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of those parishioners that presses them to enter into the Sacrament.

When discussing this first year as a parish priest with friends and fellow priests, I have found myself pointing to Reconciliation as perhaps the Sacrament where I feel God's action the most. I've described my own feeling with the analogy that as a priest in the reconciliation room, I get to model Simon of Cyrene and help to carry crosses that others have shouldered, sometimes for 5, 10, or 30 years. And usually, those long absences have been found when I call their bluff, when I simply say, "I'll be in the Reconciliation Room after Mass today." To be sure, there are many who simply like the convenience of not having to return on Saturday afternoon at the regularly scheduled time.

The picture accompanying this post is so apropos in this context: the stained glass window shows Simon holding the cross, while Jesus ministers to Veronica along the Way of the Cross.

I remain most grateful for the chance to serve God's people as a parish priest, to be, as the motto of my seminary reflects, "dispensers of the mysteries of God." On this feast of St. John Vianney, please remember to pray for your parish priests, for seminarians, and for the vocations of more men who will consider this wonderful ministry.

Please also pray that more and more people take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, opening themselves up to the abundant forgiveness Jesus has promised to each of His beloved disciples. With and through Jesus, we can declare that our yoke is easier and burdens are lighter.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Why Were You Made?"

In a sermon, included in the Office of Readings for Saint Peter Chrysologus (July 30), bishop and Doctor of the Church, he asks this question: "Why do you ask how you were created and do not seek to know why you were made?"

This is an important question today, just as it was in the 5th Century. I dare say, we should consider both halves of this question separately to really understand the depth of Saint Peter's challenge. "Creation" can be viewed by women and men of faith as poetically narrated in Genesis, (chapter 1 and chapter 2), as authentic Truth from God, but is generally not viewed as "facts" by Scripture scholars. In contrast, women and men of science continue to search for the specifics of how the world began, such as the Big Bang theory. In both scenarios, most people consider the creation of the world in general terms; planet Earth is for all humanity, just as the separation of the light from the darkness is for all humanity. In practice, some thousands (or billions) of years after God's creation began to unfold, the sun does shine, and the rain does fall, equally on the good and the bad (Matthew 5:45).

But we need to consider Creation differently, more personally. When God created the earth, and the streams, and the clouds and the stars and gravity and black holes and the fish and the birds, He created them for you and me - individually, uniquely, by name. Jeremiah 1:5 tells us that before we were born, before we were cells knit together in our mother's womb, we were already sacred to God; sacred as unique individuals. God didn't just know Jeremiah before his call as a prophet, before his birth as a person some 600 years before Jesus birth; God knows you and me, and knew us before time as we know it began, too.

That means that each of us are intentionally part of the actual creation story, the divinely-inspired story recorded in the Bible. The author of Genesis did not know your name and my name, but God's creation has unfolded for you and for me as individuals known by God before time could be measured by sun rises and seasons. We were created by God out of His love for us, and all that we experience and encounter in "creation," in the world around us, is intentional. Yes, through our exercise of God's gift of free will mankind has distorted creation in thousands of ways, but that takes nothing away from God's creation of all we take for granted as the goodness and greatness of His love for us - for each one of us, as individuals made in His image.

Saint Peter Chrysologus emphasized this in the next part of his sermon: "Was not this entire visible universe made for your dwelling? It was for you that the light dispelled the overshadowing gloom; for your sake was the night regulated and the day measured, and for you were the heavens embellished with the varying brilliance of the sun, the moon and the stars."  He continues, "...the Creator still works to devise things that can add to your glory. He has made you in His image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth; He has made you His legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lord's representative."

Which is exactly why the second half of St. Peter's question is important for each of us to consider today: "Why was I made?"

God is not done with you or me yet; He has a purpose in mind for us. What will unfold before each of us in our lives manifests God's dream for you, and for me. You and I, we are the Lord's representatives in creation today. Let us pray for each other that we have the courage to discover His will, and to be faithful representatives of His truth and love in the world.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Joyful Mystery of Creation

Today, Pope Francis shared a simple, but remarkable Tweet. @Pontifex wrote, "More than a scientific question, the universe is a joyful mystery that speaks of God's boundless love for us." In this message, our Holy Father links science and nature in one conversation.

As a recent beneficiary of the wonders of medical science, Pope Francis succinctly draws our focus into what is most important; it isn't the individual scientific breakthroughs. It is certainly not mankind's claims of accomplishments on our own. Creation continues to unfold around us, and that creation is a freely and generously given gift. It is God's boundless love, experienced every day, at every moment.

Most of the time, we probably miss that perspective on Creation unfolding around us. Our busy - some might even claim "chaotic" - lives keep us running all the time. Part of God's boundless love is the gift of quiet, the gift of time to notice His Creation, and this is a gift that too often goes unused, at least for me.

Scientists need to understand things; that is the nature of their vocation and work. But observing God's Creation around us doesn't take a scientific outlook. How wonderfully simple it is when we embrace a few moments of quiet, and simply watch and listen, without needing any explanation other than being - just being - in the presence of God's boundless love. When we experience and embrace His joyful mystery.

My quiet time is, to a degree, forced on me these days, but I embrace it as a blessing to have to take it easy, to slow down, to drink lots of fluids and get lots of rest. But technology, as part of God's Creation, makes it a true blessing to observe my universe. As I write this blog post, sitting on a bench in my back yard, connected via my iPad and wireless connection to the Internet, I have had the chance to observe the universe God is offering today. Bright sunshine glistens through the fluttering leaves of hundred-year-old trees. A pair of blue jays playfully chase each other with short flights, and hops from branch to branch among the trees. In my quiet, a rabbit wandered close, surprising itself when it noticed a person, me, within ten feet of it's grazing. It held on for a few moments, then hurried away to the middle of the yard, near where the groundhog was foraging. People walked by, holding hands and holding leashes, enjoying each other on this restful morning. Birds flew close, so that I could not only hear their chirps, but hear their wings flapping.

None of this creation is ours, none of this science or nature is owned by us, but all of it reflects God's boundless love. All of it is a gift.

May each of you find a few moments to enter into this joyful mystery, to embrace His Creation, to realize the blessed fullness of quiet.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Culture of Life

Two years ago, on January 22, 2014, we had a circumstance much like today: foul winter weather interrupted our seminary plans to join in the protest urging respect for life, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, the anniversary of a sad day.

As the storm rolled into the Northeast, I was asked by my formation faculty if I would prepare a homily for our seminary community, with a planned Holy Hour to pray for life, not death, to pray for changes in our society. Given that many in the Diocese of Trenton were unable to travel to Washington, D.C., today due to the weather, just as in 2014, I share this reflection for your prayerful consideration. We are not done praying for change; we do live in a country, where even though we have brokenness, we have the hope for change to bring about a brighter future. Please continue to pray for life, and pray with hopefulness for our future.

C. S. Lewis, the renowned spiritual writer of the 20th century, served as a young man in the British infantry, in the trenches in France during World War I, the war described at the time as “the war to end all wars.” He saw dozens – hundreds – of men killed in those battles; in a letter years later to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, he wrote, “Will we ever be the same?”

I contemplate that sentiment often when I hear of an atrocity, especially our attacks against life. My own response to the question, will we ever be the same, is, “I hope not!” I hope that whenever we hear of such failures of the human race, that we are disturbed, that we are brave enough to cry for those who can no longer shed their own tears. While attacks against life may fill us with grief, we need also to be lifted up by children of Hope.

Emily was the child of my friends. They longed desperately for a child, and when her Mom was carrying Emily in her womb, the doctors detected a problem; testing showed that she had a rare genetic disorder. The doctors recommended an abortion, as there is virtually no chance of long-term survival for this child. Her parents would not hear of it, knowing fully that their faith had already been tested waiting for this child. When she was born, Emily lived just a few days. In those days, and in the 13 years since her birth in 2000, Emily continues to shape the lives of every person who pauses to consider the love story of her parents for this child, and their faithfulness to God’s invitation to life. Emily is a child who even today gives hope.

In 2005, I traveled to Jamaica with my son to help out for a week at Good Shepherd Shelter, a home for disabled and orphans operated by Father Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor. One afternoon, my task was simply to read to the younger children. Jasper was about eight years old, but looked about four, nothing but skin and bones. He was a new resident of Good Shepherd. He sat on my lap as I read to him, and he fell asleep. Later that afternoon, it was time to return to the convent where we were staying, and I didn’t want to move, because I knew that it had likely been years since Jasper had fallen asleep in the arms of someone who loved him. Through the grace of the Missionaries of the Poor, Jasper has hope.

William and Cecelia, twins, were born in October 2012, six months premature. They each weighed barely more than 1 pound at birth – or as their great aunt described, about the weight of five sticks of butter. They spent the first six months of their lives in Buffalo Children’s Hospital, much of that time within incubators where their parents, could only touch them through gloves built into the walls of their isolation chamber. William and Cecelia each had multiple surgeries, and this past month celebrated their second Christmas, but their first at home with their parents. William and Cecelia are children with a future of hope.

Two weeks ago, many of us spent some time at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. I know that some of you, like me, found it hard to take; it was disturbing. It was painful; only a few of us in this chapel were alive at the time of the atrocity of the Holocaust, but thankfully, we are still disturbed by the horror inflicted on humanity seventy years ago. Will we ever be the same? In our discomfort, we are people of hope.

My brothers and sisters, we live in a remarkable world, abundantly blessed by God, by the God who hears the cry of the poor. We live in a world where Jesus has promised us life filled with abundant joy.

And yet our world remains broken; it is a world where selfishness and greed lead to broken lives, to fractured societies and impoverished cultures. Pope Francis’ first trip outside of Rome last year was to the island of Lampedusa where refugees were flocking to escape death in their homeland. His trip was not only to share with those people his solidarity with their plight, but to encourage and model for all Catholics that we must build a culture of life, to help forge a new world where every life, at every age, is given value. Pope Francis is a man of abundant hope.

As we heard in the first reading, every child and every adult is born perfectly in the image and likeness of God. Perfectly in God’s image, even though no two of us look alike. As we have just heard, these children and adults made in God’s image have names, and rely on us to welcome and love them in their fragile lives.

Today, our modern society tends to flip that image around. Too often, instead of considering that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, popular culture tends to imagine that God is made in my image. The error of this thinking can be seen each day in the world, where personal selfishness has become the route to making ourselves gods. And in that context, we easily become all too comfortable redefining right and wrong. If God is made in my image, than it becomes my standard of right and wrong that he must agree with; instead of making straight the paths for the Lord, we want everything and everyone in our lives to make straight the paths for me.

This past Friday, Pope Francis’ homily encouraged us to “… actively strive against the normality of our everyday lives in order to remain faithful to God’s choosing.” God’s choosing, not ours, is Pope Francis’ key message. He went on to say that we tend to forget what the Lord says, the Word of God, and listen instead to what is more fashionable, more fun. In our country, we might paraphrase this to say we set aside the Word of God in favor of political correctness. The Pope highlighted the danger that this introduces, because the shift often seems subtle.

John’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus is the Bread of Life. He offers His life in the Eucharist once and for all time, the perfect sacrifice so that all mankind, made in the image and likeness of God, may have a chance for abundant joy in this life, and eternal life in heaven when our pilgrimage on earth is over; every person needs to be embraced in the love that Jesus promises us with abundance.  We are the Body of Christ! We are, as St. Theresa says, Christ’s hands and feet on earth.

My brothers and sisters, today we pray together for not just the legal protection of unborn children in this country, but that life at every age – from the oldest among us to the child in the womb – that each will be protected by laws, that each may be loved, that every person may have hope.

How do we counter the attractive, compelling, politically-correct message of our society and culture? I would suggest that the first step is to commit ourselves to a Eucharistic Life. Father Ron Rolheiser reminds us that in a Eucharistic Life, where we focus on thanksgiving, what underlies our spirituality, our moral actions, and every human relationship is the understanding that everything comes to us as a gift. Every life is a gift; every breath is a gift; every human thought is a miracle offered by God to us, the sons and daughters who are His beloved.

We join ourselves in prayer today, united in our adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. May we continue to pray every day in Eucharistic thanksgiving for the abundant gift of life, and for the grace that the world will be transformed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus has proclaimed.

May we never cease our prayers until His Kingdom and His Will are done on earth.