Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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So Jesus goes over to Matthew, who, at that time, was anything but a saint.  He was sitting at the customs post, collecting the required taxes.  He was a Jew acting as a representative of the Roman occupation government.  He didn’t have a fan club, to say the least.  It wasn’t just that he was a tax collector – probably that would have been bad enough, but it was also that he was an employee of the Roman oppression government.  It was almost like he was giving up his heritage.  This is the Matthew who Jesus approaches and gives a fairly simple, two-word command:  “follow me.”

We could be in wonder about why Jesus would pick such a man, and plenty of homily time has been spent examining that issue, I think.  What has me in wonder these days is Matthew’s response.  “And he got up and followed him.”  That’s it.  He left the table, didn’t even clock out, left all the money there, and took off to follow Jesus.  He didn’t cash out the register or finish up with the customer he was working with, or even take a minute to record the current transaction in a spreadsheet.  He followed right then and there.  He left his whole considerable livelihood behind.  And that livelihood was as rich as he wanted to make it, since all he had to return to Rome was the tax that was prescribed.  Anything else was his to keep.  But on the strength of a two-word command, he gets up and leaves his responsibilities to his employers, his family, and all he ever knew behind.

What was it that caused him to do such a thing?  It certainly wasn’t some kind of solidly-worded argumentation or beautiful preaching or rhetoric, because all Jesus said to him was “follow me.”  So did he know Jesus before this?  Had he indeed heard him preach before and experienced a stirring in his heart?  Had he witnessed one of Jesus’ miracles and always wanted the opportunity to know more about this man?  Was there something going on in Matthew’s life that was calling him to make a change?  Was he unmotivated by his current situation or had he felt God tugging at his heart?  Of course, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  All we do know is that Jesus said “follow me” and Matthew did.  Simple as that.

Yesterday I was at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, for priesthood ordinations for our diocese.  Three young men were ordained for service to the Church of Joliet.  They, of course, looked elated, and had an excitement that I clearly remember myself.  This past week, I received a letter from a young woman I knew from the parish where I served my internship back in my third year of seminary.  She has finished her first year of formation for service as a Dominican nun.  Her letter told me about the richness of her experience of formation, including classes, prayer and ministry experiences.  Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the forty years of wonderful service that Fr. Ted has given our diocese, including his work for the last six years at our parish.  In his homily at his celebration Mass, he reflected on the many experiences he had over the last forty years, and said that if he had it to do over again, he would enter the priesthood again “in a heartbeat.”  Later this year, we will have the opportunity to celebrate the fifty years of service that Sr. Anne Hyzy has given as a nun.  She is a woman whose faith and spirituality have been a beacon for so many of us, and we look forward to celebrating her anniversary.  And just this past week, I celebrated my second anniversary as a priest.  So this has been a time when I have had the opportunity to reflect a bit on God’s call.

What is it that gets any of us to respond to that call: “follow me?”  Because – and let’s be very clear about this – every one of us gets that call in some way, shape or form, at some point in our lives.  We are called to rich vocational lives in so many different ways.  Some are called to be priests, deacons or religious.  Some are called to the married life and give of their lives as parents.  Some are called to the single life, sacrificing the promiscuity and worldliness of our current culture to be a witness to God’s power in the world.  We may be church workers, or doctors, or lawyers, or construction workers, or grocery store clerks, or any of a million different things.  But the one thing that unites us – our baptism – also unites us in its effect: we are all called by our baptism to do something specific, something heroic, something very significant for Christ.  To all of us – every one of us without exception – Christ is saying: “follow me.”

In a perfect world, it should be enough for us that God has forgiven us of our sins and made us one with him in baptism.  It should be enough for us that Jesus says, despite the myriad of ways that we are unworthy of any kind of call, “follow me.”  It should be enough that we are forgiven, and graced, and called, and loved to respond just like Matthew did, giving it all over so that we can follow the Lord wherever it is that he is leading us.  But lots of times, that isn’t enough.  Because we are sinful people who are afraid of commitment or are too bogged down in the world, or have turned away for so many reasons.  Sometimes, it takes a while for that “follow me” call to work its way through our hardened hearts and restless spirits.  I should know: it took thirty-six years for me.

So what about you?  Is there a customs post that you need to walk away from?  Is there a call to “follow me” that you’ve been hearing from the Lord for some time now that you have not had the courage to answer?  Because I think the real question is not what is it about Jesus that would make someone follow him with just a simple command.   No.  The real question is, what is it about us that would turn down the life of grace and happiness and adventure and joy that Jesus has in store for us? I can’t possibly imagine how terrible it would have been to say “no” to Jesus at this point in my life.  I always tell people that if you really want to be really happy, then you have to do what God is calling you to do.  Nothing else will make you that happy.  And I should know, because the last two years of my life have been the most wonderful I can remember.

Jesus comes to all of us today, in the busy-ness of our lives.  Right in the middle of taking the customs tax from a traveler, we are called: “follow me.”  What does that call look like for you?  Are you ready to get up and follow him, without another word being spoken?  If you’ve been on the fence, consider this homily the sign you’ve been looking for.  God is calling.  “Follow me.” 

Thursday of the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Wisdom is a relative thing when it comes to our relationship with God. Just when we think we have God figured out, we realize that God is out of our grasp. Wisdom, when it comes to our relationship with God, is to realize that we will never understand. In fact, St. Augustine said, “If you think you understand, it’s not God.” So that is how we should understand St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God catches the wise in their own ruses, and again: The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” Those who think they are clever when it comes to God will never really know him at all.

Maybe that’s a glimpse of Peter’s whole relationship with Jesus. It begins here in the story we just heard from the Gospel. Jesus tells him to put out the nets. Peter knows they have been hard at it all night long and was probably thinking “yeah, right.” But he had just heard Jesus speaking, and maybe it was something in what he said that led Peter to take a chance and put out those nets … the same nets that had been filled with nothing but seaweed all night long. And then Jesus does something amazing. Something Jesus just loves to do. He takes a tiny little display of faith – in this case, Peter’s begrudging agreement to put out the nets – and rewards it a billion fold! The nets were filled to the breaking point. Peter did something that, as an accomplished fisherman, he would not have thought wise. And Jesus turned it around to become the best catch Peter ever had. At the end of the story, the fishermen leave everything, everything, and follow Jesus.

Jesus longs to do that with every one of us. Where is it that Jesus has been calling you to cast out your nets? What step of faith has the Spirit been tugging at your heart to take? It might be crazy. There’s no way you could possibly do it. But expect your tiny leap of faith to pay of a billion fold! Know that God longs to work an incredible miracle in your life so that you’ll leave everything, everything behind and follow him. All you have to do is be wise enough to do the thing you may think is the most foolish.

Wednesday of the 21st Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings talk all about authenticity. As one of my professors used to say, “discipleship looks like something.” People ought to be able to look at the Christian person and know that they are in the presence of a Christian person.

In today’s first reading, Paul points out that, as an apostle, he could have relied on and insisted upon the help of the Thessalonians to sustain him while he was at work preaching among them. He could have taken their charity and food, but he didn’t. Instead, he and his companions worked and toiled night and day so that they wouldn’t be a burden on the Thessalonian community. And so he then insisted that the Thessalonians live the same way. His behavior was to be a model for them, and those among them who would not work should not eat. Indeed, they were called upon to distance themselves from any member of the community who made a practice of living in a disorderly way. The Christian disciple is not disorderly, but works tenaciously.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus insists that the Christian disciple is not a hypocrite. The Scribes and Pharisees claimed to frown upon their ancestors who murdered the prophets and insisted that they themselves would never do such a thing. But Jesus notices that their behavior is quite like their ancestors of old, and that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree at all. The Scribes and Pharisees made every effort to appear righteous, but true righteousness was never a virtue they felt was worth pursuing. Jesus says, “on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” The Christian disciple isn’t a hypocrite, but instead is a person who pursues righteousness inside and out.

The Christian disciple looks like something. In our prayer today, may we all seek the help we need to be certain that the Christian disciple looks like us.

The Nature of Friendship

One of my courses this quarter is called “Friendship and the Moral Life.” I just turned in the final paper for the class, and the introduction to the paper was a reflection on friendships in my life. I thought that those three paragraphs were worth blogging about…

One of my great concerns about coming to seminary five years ago was the issue of friendship. I liked my life just fine the way it was: I had a good job, a growing spiritual life, and plenty of good friends. So uprooting myself and leaving all that behind was naturally a little frightening. But if I am honest, I would have to admit that those same friendships I was loathe to leave behind were the same friendships that were pushing me forward. These were the same friends who were not only not surprised when I told them I was going to seminary, but were in fact incredibly supportive.

The grace of friendship, however, has not been something I have left behind when I drove through the front gates of the seminary. God has certainly provided some extremely important friendships that have seen me through my formation. Those friends have also seen me through some very difficult times, including the month in first theology when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. I am certain now that I would not have stayed in the seminary were it not for them, and one of the spiritual insights that I remember from that time is how blessed I felt to have been in seminary at the time, because the support those friends gave me was more than I could have hoped for at any other time of my life.

The incredible grace of friendship has been a constant source of support and encouragement for me, but has also been a force that has kept me focused on doing God’s will in my life. These friends have supported me, but also on occasion called me to task, challenged me, and helped me see who I am through more objective eyes. As my friends have become more a part of my life, I have felt challenged to grow and to become a stronger servant of God than I would have otherwise. And I know that, even for some years before I came to seminary, I have always linked friendship with faith. I have experienced friendship as an icon of Incarnation: my friends help me to know God’s presence in my life and in the world.

Blessed are your eyes

Turning to the disciples in private he said,
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

During my CPE experience, this was a quotation of Scripture that greatly consoled many of us. We saw a lot of nasty stuff in those days, but we also saw some things that were really holy. People who died after a wonderful old life, ready to go to the kingdom; families who rallied around a sick or injured member; spiritual growth in our fellow chaplain interns. It was a blessed time, and I think we always knew that, even in the crazy times.

How true that is in everyday life. We see a lot of things that we would rather not see, but if we are looking and attentive, we see a lot of God’s grace at work as well. And blessed are we to see it.

The question for me right now — as difficult as it is to be at seminary now with the grief of our tragedies and the craziness of the Apostolic Visitation — is what is it that I am seeing that blesses my eyes; what is it that I am hearing that blesses my ears? That will be the focus of my prayer in these days.

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, pray for us.

Say More About That

The paradox of transformation is the paradox of death/resurrection, a time of dying to what was, as we move into what will be. It's a strange mix of color and darkness, of both knowing and not knowing. This somewhat abstract image reflects on the leap we take into the mystery of our own tansformative journeys. Here we face the changes and sometimes the death of our hopes, our dreams, our bodies and our relationships. As we stand in these times of change, we simply ask to be faithful and to trust in a loving God who can truly make all things new.   Painting by Doris Klein, CSA.
In CPE, we had a little “inside joke,” if you will, about the statement, “say more about that.” That’s one of those phrases often used in counselling, spiritual direction, and CPE. It’s a good, open-ended question, better than something that would call for a “yes” or “no” answer. But it gets thrown around so much, that our group laughed about it a lot, unless we really meant to use it.

I know if my group were with me right now, they’d be asking me to say more about how things felt with all of the tragedy that’s happened on our campus these last days. And there has been a lot. The two deaths alone would have been enough (kind of a reverse “dayenu” prayer), but another one of our brothers contracted West Nile Virus and is not well, and the mother of one of our professors died in Georgia. So we’ve had enough, and then some.

So how does that make me feel? Well, I guess I’ll say more about that…

First of all, it pisses me off that the availabilty of counseling has not been trumpeted from the rooftops. If this had been a public elementary school, counselors would have been available the next day. Despite news reports to the contrary, that has not yet happened here. Sure, there are spiritual directors and faculty to talk to, but nothing organized, nothing systematic to make sure nobody slips through the cracks. I know that people are slipping through the cracks and will continue to do so, and we should know better than that.

So I guess I’m in the anger stage of my grief right now. That feels pretty lousy, but I know I have to go through it. I do intend to find someone to talk to about it. Friends have been good, but it’s time for an objective point of view, I think.

Cardinal George was on campus the other night to talk to us about the tragedy. I know that what he said was true: we have to learn from this event, use it in our formation; we have to care for one another; we have to model our lives on the saints as we embrace the grief and pain and move through it. But he said nothing about how to take care of ourselves. Nobody has. And that’s what pisses me off most. It’s easy enough to say “you’re here to become priests, so buck up and stay the course.” But it’s quite another thing to have to do that, and quite frankly His Eminence’s words, while well-intentioned and probably the best he could do when it comes to pastoral care, just ring hollow.

So I still miss Matty and Jared. Matty especially, since I knew him best of the two. I miss his music, his laughter, his outreaching friendship for everybody. Grief just stinks.

From the holy card from Matty’s funeral, the Memorare:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided.

Inspired with with confidence,
I fly to you, O virgin of virgins, my Mother.
To you I come,
before you I stand,
sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy, hear and answer me.
Amen.

Is it only Wednesday?!

These first few days have seemed like an eternity. We’ve had classes (yes on Labor Day too, and neither of the professors I had on that day beleived in a brief lecture for the first day), and far too many meetings. We had our third annual liturgy meeting yesterday (translation: “how to go to Mass meeting”) and I want that hour of my life back.

But in general, getting back to the seminary has been good in the sense of reconnecting with my friends here. I’ve been able to hear about a lot of their CPE experiences … some good, some bad, some “medium” (that was his own word, not mine). I think all of us are richer for the experience and will be better priests.

There is a meeting tonight for next year’s CPE students. I am the student speaker for it, giving the “I did CPE and you can too!” talk. I have to keep it brief, which will be hard since I have so much good material from those eleven weeks! But since I really do believe in the topic of my talk, it will be an easy one to give, I think.

I’ve decided to be like John the Baptist when it comes to music ministry: I must decrease. There was a meeting for those who wanted to be musicians this year, and they have something like 30 cantors already, so I decided not to go. It will be hard to give that up, but it’s a busy year, and I’ve felt called to do other things. In fact, I was asked to help by leading a small group of second year guys in their formation discussions. I didn’t think I was going to do that, but God (and Fr. Ciomek) called, so I said yes to that. I’m also editing the school magazine for one more issue, and continuing my work as Fire Chaplain, so that will be enough for one year, on top of studies, prayer, dozens of meetings, and God knows what all else.

So another year begins, and I’m only less than two months to diaconate ordination. All holy men and women, pray for us!

Three Promises: A Reflection on Diaconate Retreat

It’s been a crazy week/weekend so far. I finished my retreat Friday morning, and left Friday afternoon for my friend’s diaconate ordination in Springfield, IL. I stayed there overnight (free lodging is a goooooood thing!) and am finally back and getting ready to return to Mundelein sometime tomorrow night.

I should probably be packing things up, but … nah! plenty of time for that later!

But a little about the diaconate retreat. I had probably the most significant retreat of my seminary time, and that was a really cool thing. The retreat director was an oldish (70’s) Jesuit who has been doing this retreat for Mundelein for 20 years. Unfortunately, that kind of showed in his presentation, as it was full of a lot of cliche things that he’s probably been using from time immemorial. But the bulk of his stuff was actually pretty good. The retreat house was very nice — lots of good scenery, well maintained and very clean. I was with a lot of my classmates I don’t usually hang out with, and had a great time. So all in all, it was cool.

The best part, though, was that there was plenty of time for long walks and time to reflect. One of those was after the talk on celibacy, and I took the time to pray over my three promises. It was incredibly consoling to know at the end of the walk that I feel ready to make those promises now.

I feel like my work in seminary on dealing with conflict has made me more able to make a promise of obedience in the best sense of the word: to follow my bishops’ orders with generosity, but able to make my own needs known and not pretending they’re not important. As far as the prayer promise goes, I know that prayer is central to my pastoral ministry and that pastoral ministry is central to my prayer. I can’t do one without the other. And as for celibacy, I have to say that probably the reason I feel ready to live that promise is the time I spent discussing it with my CPE group. It was either TV or SM (maybe both) who said that having that discussion was like being on holy ground. Well, it was for me too. And I have come to know that healthy relationships with others — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — is central to living as a healthy celibate man in the world.

It was a great retreat, and it helped me to solidify my vocational call, which after all is the whole point of a retreat. Thanks again for your prayer support. Diaconate ordination is something like 62 days and counting! 🙂

In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10:23-24

Saying goodbye is hard. If it were easier, I think the bunch of us would have been out of the hospital sooner today. But as it is, we lingered until after 4:30, and said goodbye several times. And that was just to each other.

It was a whole day of goodbyes. Goodbyes to the nurses, doctors, techs, staff chaplains, and other staff. We might not mind saying goodbye to on-calls until 2:30 in the morning or Level 1 Traumas, but saying goodbye to people you’ve come to care about and love is a way different thing. Saying goodbye is just hard.

So we will have to dwell on the many blessings:

  • The times we supported one another in prayer and in word and in deed during the intense 11 weeks.
  • The prayer and liturgical experiences we were able to do together as an ecumenical group.
  • The referrals we passed back and forth with great confidence in the rest of the group’s ability to care for the sick and their families.
  • The sharing and challenging that was done in group with real concern for the growth of the other people in the group.
  • The mentoring from the staff chaplains.
  • The mentoring from the nursing staff and other staff members.
  • And so many more…

But what makes it so hard to say goodbye is how the whole experience came together. The hospital atmosphere, the staff chaplains, our supervisor, the group … I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Out of that milieu came all the really awesome things that I got to “see” as Luke’s Gospel is saying: The times words came out of my mouth that I never would have thought of on my own; the sense of peace after sitting with a dying patient; the intimate personal stories shared so freely by patients and families alike; the really intense times of prayer; our group’s morning devotions; the incredible grace of growing with a supportive group and the incredible grace of getting to watch them grow too; the many opportunities to debrief from intense experiences with fellow students, staff chaplains, and our supervisor; all the stuff that got sorted out in weekly meetings with our supervisor; the times we were just silly and all the laughter; the many tears of joy and sorrow; the intense atmosphere of the emergency room that helped me past my fear of it.

There’s more, I know. But all I can say at this point is that I’m incredibly grateful for this experience. Truly blessed are my eyes for having seen what I have seen.

The End is Near

Well, the end of CPE is near anyway. CPE is clinical pastoral education – basically chaplaincy in a hospital setting – and that’s been what I’ve been doing with my summer vacation. It’s been difficult and grueling at times, but always profound and holy. I’ve had times of sadness and grieving, but also times of joy and blessing.

Some highlights for me:

  • Realizing I can work in an emergency room without throwing up.
  • Coming to feel accepted by the high-intensity staff that work in the emergency room.
  • Realizing that I worked with such a good group of fellow students that I didn’t worry about referring my emergency room patients to them when they moved to other areas of the hospital, because I knew they would be well cared-for.
  • The time I learned what pastoral authority means — a ministry that is authoritative and authentic without being authoritarian — and feeling that that kind of ministry really fit for me.
  • Learning the importance of self-care, so that I can care for others. I’ll never forget the time I said to the ER staff, WHOPAGEDTHECHAPLAIN???!!! and realizing it was time I had lunch and sat down in a quiet place for a while!
  • The two times I got to bless marriages on their anniversaries, one at 58 years and the other at 65 years. The wife in the 65 year marriage died the day after her anniversary. That was such an awesome experience for me, and I felt like I was totally on holy ground with those families.
  • Staff chaplains who treated me and my fellow students as equals, and partnered with us in our ministry rather than looking down on us.
  • A supervisor, AS, who worked with me from my gifts instead of the traditional CPE model of tearing a person down to build him back up. I went a lot further with AS’s adult learning model.

There are many more things for which I am grateful, too numerous to count. Maybe I’ll share more of them in the weeks ahead as I continue to prayerfully unpack this summer’s intense experience of ministry.

But one thing is clear for me right now. Priestly ministry really fits for me, and pastoral care is a huge part of my vocational call. Words can’t express how grateful I am to have known that.

CPE: More info…