The light at the end of the tunnel?

Back when I was working in the print industry, we always used to joke that whenever we'd see the light at the end of the tunnel, it would turn out to be the headlights of an oncoming train.  That was a little cynical, of course, but a sense of humor is extremely important in the print industry!

Lately, I've seen a bit of the light at the end of the tunnel as far as my formation goes.  I graduated last Saturday with my Master of Divinity.  I didn't think it would be any big deal to me (Ordination, of course, is the big deal, right?), and I didn't plan on going to graduation at first.  But back on Family Day this year, I chose not to be on campus, because I needed some time away to grieve the loss of tragic events at our seminary.  So I promised my parents I would do graduation.

And, of course, as these things usually go, I am glad I did.  It gave me the chance to meet the parents of some of my friends, as well as to spend some time with my friends one last time.  It helped me also to put some closure on the end of the seminary journey and this part of my formation.  It was a light at the end of a five-year tunnel.

There's just a few weeks left until Ordination.  Then I get to live the life for which I've been preparing these last five years.  As one of our formators said in our class's end-of-the-year Mass, "It's time for you to go."  I'm excited to live the life of a priest, and all of the events of these next few weeks are lights at the end of the tunnel for me.  Yes, the tunnel does seem to go on and on, because we're never really done with our formation in life, but as you progress through it, there's more and more light.

And, thankfully, that light isn't the headlight of an oncoming train.

Reconciliation Practicum, Day 1

I heard my first “fake confession” in my Reconciliation Practicum class today. I have to say it was pretty scary, but also an awesome feeling at the same time.

It brought me back to a time probably eight years ago or more now, when I was going through a crisis of faith. I thought seriously about joining a non-denominational megachurch in our area. I was really torn on the issue, and almost did it, but, as usual, God sent a big sign. One of the nights I was there, the minister, who was obviously an ex-Catholic, spoke of his experience of the sacrament as a child. I remember him saying something like “… and then the priest forgave my sins, or at least that’s what he said he did …”

His very disparaging comments about the Sacrament of Penance were really jarring to me. I know I thought at the time that what he was saying was certainly not my experience. At that point, I knew I could not live without the sacraments of the Church, and well, here I am now.

Preparing to hear confessions, to be on really holy ground with people who bare their souls and are seeking God’s forgiveness. I know how awesome this sacrament has been in my own life, and I feel so very blessed to be given the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament with God’s people. It’s an awesome prayer, absolution:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +
and of the Holy Spirit.

I know how much hearing that prayer of absolution has always meant to me, and how different the world looks to me when I have been absolved. God truly longs to reconcile all the world to himself, one soul at a time. What a blessing to have the opportunity to be part of that.

St. John Bosco, Pray for Us

Today I’m preaching at the seminary. Talk about a rough crowd; definitely the most critical of audiences. I’m preaching on the feast of St. John Bosco and here’s what I’ll say…

St. John BoscoReadings: Phil. 4:4-9 Matt. 18:1-5
St. John Bosco Biography

“Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Someone once told me that you can only be a child once, but you can be childish your whole life long. I think he meant “childlike,” or at least that’s what I prefer to think.

Jesus tells us we have to turn and become like children: that we must turn away from what we are like now, to become the way children are. So what are children like? One might think of children as innocent and pure … unless, of course, one has been a substitute teacher for a sixth-grade religious education class. I don’t think innocence Jesus is going for here.

Children are also completely dependent on their parents for everything. They need a roof over their head, clothes to wear, food to eat; they need to be educated and socialized and taught to pray. Jesus was calling his followers to turn away from thinking they had everything figured out and taken care of and to realize that they needed God, that they needed God’s wisdom, and needed God’s grace and forgiveness.

St. John Bosco is a very compelling figure for me. Having been a youth minister, I am drawn to his concern for youth. And I have been very moved by the obedience he shows in his vocation and his spiritual life. We can see John Bosco in this Gospel in two ways. First, he was one who helped poor children who very literally had nobody they could depend on. He taught them, and brought them to Mass, and fed them and sheltered them. He was able to reach out to ruffian boys who everyone else had given up on. I guess that makes him the patron saint of cam priests and formation contact people.

But even more than that; more importantly, he was childlike in his obedience to God’s will. For example, most of the priests who tried to help him for a time eventually fell away; many of them because they were put off by John Bosco’s efforts to help these poor children while himself not having even a penny to his name. He had grand plans but no obvious means to achieve them. But Bosco was confident in what God could do in him when he had absolutely nothing. In his childlike dependence on God, he was able to build houses and schools for poor children, several churches, and even found a religious order, the Salesians of St. John Bosco. We should all be so childlike.

I find it so easy in my life to be filled with delusions of self-sufficiency: those sins, as Rolando mentioned yesterday, are legion. As we come to the Eucharist today, would that we could turn away from any of that in our lives, and reach out our hand, in childlike faith, to receive our Lord who longs to be our strength and our sufficiency. “Whoever humbles himself like this,” Jesus tells us, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

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…