Monday, November 30, 2009


Advent is upon us again…a time of discovering anew or better yet of giving birth again to God…here and now. There are many profound things to be said about Advent and Christmas. I would like to share some simple thoughts that what this season is about is “revelation”. The Incomprehensible One who created a universe with billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, all trillions of miles apart, not to mention the complexity of our own bodies - all of which boggles the mind - chose (chooses) to reveal Self to us, by taking on our flesh and “pitching his tent among us.” (Jn 1:14).

Robert Frost has a beautiful poem entitled Revelation –

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

My last blog spoke of listening to one another. It is quite a challenge. This one is about revealing ourselves…which may be even more difficult, not unlike, perhaps, willingly making oneself available to serve another but resisting mightily the other’s helping hand. What America’s favorite poet states, (and what God says to us about the Incarnation), is that we cannot hide but must reveal who we are if we want to be in life-giving relationships…if we want to live most fully. Wearing masks and limiting ourselves to superficial relationships stunts our growth. God had to reveal Self to us, for us to know God...for us to love God. And we, made in the image and likeness of God, must do likewise.

There is a story of a king who fell in love with a peasant girl. He wrestled with whether he should reveal his love, not knowing whether she might become his bride simply because he was king. On the other hand, if he surrendered his throne and then asked for her hand in marriage, she might reject him. After much reflection, he chose the latter course, taking the risk that he might lose both his kingdom and the woman he loved.

There are many ways to prepare for and to celebrate this joyous season. Perhaps, the best way may be to imitate Our Lord and “pitch our tent” among those around us, opening ourselves to the risk of rejection and the possibility of the fullest of love…giving fullness of life to us and to God.

Monday, November 23, 2009


On this Thanksgiving week, we gather to give thanks and to celebrate with family and friends. But it is not like that for all. Some 30+ years ago, Bette Midler made popular the song, “Hello in There”, about loneliness – of the elderly, of the empty-nesters, of so many others. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once observed, “The greatest poverty is in the U.S. It is the poverty of loneliness.” Perhaps, even God is lonely. One of Neil Diamond’s songs seems to capture this:

“I am,” I said…“I am,” I cried…But no one heard at all, not even the chair.

We all hunger…even God…for someone to hear our cry. What blocks us from truly listening to one another…to God? Perhaps, it is because though we seem to have so much in common, we are still really quite unique. We see and listen distinctively. I recently read, My Stroke of Insight, (by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist), which says that our human body has some 50 trillion cells, about one trillion just in our central nervous system. “We are virtually identical to one another at the diversity of our genes (99.99%). But our individual 0.01 percent [of all those trillions of cells] accounts for a significant difference in how we look, think, and behave.”

Some of us (like me) like sunshine and warm weather; others prefer cool days of clouds and rain. Our differences divide (and even polarize) us not only in politics, but even in our common quest for God. Some find God in beautifully-built churches; others in majestic, natural cathedrals of trees and mountains. Our tastes differ on the churches which draw us: Gothic temples with stained glass, mosaics, and lots of statues for some; simpler structures but vibrant with warm fellowship and active participation for others. We have a preference for the Latin Mass, or one in our native tongue (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, etc.). We’re charismatic or contemplative.

How each of us images and relates to God is also diverse. Some have a child-like trust and acceptance, abandoning themselves totally to a transcendent God and God’s providence, such as Joseph Girzone, author of Never Alone, and the Joshua series. “God I’m here at your disposal. Whatever you want to do with me, Lord, I’m ready. I don’t know what to ask you. I don’t even understand what is important for me. You know it beforehand anyway. Speak to me, Lord, my heart is open to you. I am ready to listen.” Others, perhaps, have an immanent image of God, a more mature and collaborative relationship, as expressed, for example, by Thomas Merton (in The Inner Experience – Notes on Contemplation):

“Christ was not to be present in His members merely as a memory, as a model, as a good example. Nor would He merely guide and control them from afar, through angels. It is true that the Divine Nature infinitely transcends all that is natural, but in Christ the gap between God and man has been bridged by the Incarnation, and in us the gap is bridged by the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit. CHRIST IS REALLY PRESENT IN US, more present than if He were standing before us visible to our bodily eyes. For we have become ‘other Christs.’ By virtue of this hidden presence of the Spirit in our inmost self, we need only to deliver ourselves from preoccupation with our external, selfish, and illusory self in order to find God within us.”

We are truly unique. How, then, can we learn to listen to God and to one another? Perhaps, it begins by listening to ourselves: discovering who we are, the hunger within – for fellowship and intimacy, peace and fulfillment, connecting again with our passions and dreams. It is said that we cannot love another if we do not love ourselves. Can we listen to another if we do not listen to ourselves? How well do we know ourselves?

It is not easy to listen whether to another or to ourselves. We are not trained for it. But, as we learn to be more attentive to the person we are: our way of seeing and being, our likes and dislikes, our gifts and weaknesses, then, perhaps, we have the confidence to be truly open (not just superficially) to another.

One thing I learned while helping out at The Port (short for Portiuncula – “the little portion”, a Franciscan soup kitchen in South Chicago) is that even more than the hunger for food is the hunger for someone to listen to us. Perhaps, that is the greatest service we can provide. Listening does not mean that we must compromise ourselves – who we are. But it does require that we commit ourselves – our time and presence. And in this commitment, we discover more about who we are. And more, we shape who we want to be.

Whether we go to God or to another (to listen to them or for them to listen to us), we must be open to letting go of old habits…to “empty ourselves”. There is a story about a Japanese warlord who travels to a monastery in the mountains. Upon arrival, an old monk welcomes him, and asks, “What may I do for you?” The Shogun declares, “I am the most powerful man in the land. Still, I lack wisdom. I have heard of your renown for wisdom. I come to learn your secret.” The aged monk nods and says, “All in good time. But first let us sit and have tea.” The monk prepared the tea and begins to pour it in the Shogun’s cup. The cup is filled and overflowing. Still the monk continues to pour tea into the cup. The Shogun yells, “What are you doing? Can you not see that the cup is already full?” To which the monk replies, “And so are you full of yourself. I cannot do anything to help you unless you first empty yourself.”

If it is God to whom we go, to be aware of/attentive to the Holy Presence, I often recommend God’s own prayer from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I Am”. Set a time and place (perhaps even write it in your calendar, much as we would with a visit to the doctor or an important date). Prepare the place to make it reflective of this Holy Encounter (perhaps with a candle, a Bible, a statue). Seek a time when you won’t be interrupted. Enter this sacred moment and space by removing your shoes. Say the prayer, repeating it like a mantra, and then wait in silence.

This may be more difficult at first than we might think. Therefore, it may be best to simply begin by inviting God to join us in our favorite pastime: gardening, knitting, listening to music, reading, jogging, watching TV, etc. Do this for a few weeks. The more we have a sense that God is with us, the easier it will be to meet God on God’s terms. When we begin that encounter, maybe instead of (or in addition to) God’s prayer, we could simply say, “Hello in there.”

Friday, November 20, 2009


In response to some questions on the Confession blog, first of all, in order for one to commit a sin, that is, for one to separate oneself from God, they have to know that they are committing a sin (or be so negligent that they should have known). Therefore, what we have done in the past (whether as kids or adults) before we knew that it was wrong, is not a sin. And if we have already confessed that sin and been absolved, then there is no need to confess it once more, unless we have re-committed the sin again.

Secondly, regarding our perception of another’s motives, some years ago at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain, GA, a man yelled across the parish hall to get my attention, “HEY, PRIEST!” He had a question about my homily, which we discussed and came to agreement. Noticing my partiality to suspenders, he later gave me a fancy pair he treasured. Last Sunday, at St. Philip Benizi, in Fullerton, CA, a man came out of church after one of my Masses, and he, too, yelled, “HOOOO DUUUUUDE!!! He turned out to be a business man who liked my homily and my celebration of the Mass. Afterwards, we “shook hands” knuckles-to-knuckles. Later the Lector also approached me to say, “You’re one Cool Dude.” All of these expressions at first blush might seem to some to show disrespect in addressing a priest. Yet, each of them was nothing if not an expression of admiration and respect.

We’re not very good at judging another’s thoughts, words, or actions. Don’t know why it preoccupies so much of our time. Perhaps, some do indeed seek to fool us with insincere words, or a false front. There is a story I would like to share.

A big brute of a man walks into a bar and yells, “I’m looking for Murphy. Is Murphy here?” A pip-squeak sitting at the bar turns around, and says, “I’m Murphy.” At which, the burly brute walks up to him, beats him to a pulp, picks him up, throws him to the ground, stomps all over him and then leaves. After a while, the pip-squeak picks himself up with a smirk on his face, and says, “Ha, I fooled him. I’m not Murphy.” Whom did he fool? Whom do we fool when we put on a false face?

Lastly, studies have shown that the best way to change another’s behavior is to affirm their goodness. Affirmation alone may not suffice. We may at times need to confront the other, as Jesus did with the Pharisees (out of love). But we should remember, as I am learning more and more, that confrontation is like an amputation – a measure of last resort, and if done, should be performed with the same level of skillful preparation as that of a surgeon: reflecting on what we are about to do, hopefully with the calmness, tact, and charity that will not do more harm than good. When “tough love” is called for, may we not only be tough but loving, to bring out the best in the other and in us. Peace and joy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have been asked to share some words on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It has been said that “life is an adventure in forgiveness.” Still, it seems there are many good Catholics who strive to live our faith, but find that confession (at least to a priest) is not necessary, perhaps because they may have had a prior bad experience. I can relate to that.

Earlier this year, I was hearing confessions in Raleigh, NC, (as part of my weekend visit for Food for the Poor), when the penitent began to repeat his sins. I said to him, “I think I already heard these.” He snapped, “No you haven’t.” I apologized and he proceeded. Then there was a pause, so I began to give him his penance, when he interrupted and said, “I’m not done yet.” Again I apologized, and he continued. Once again he was repeating what he had confessed earlier. I waited until there was a long pause, and asked if he had finished. He assured me that he had. As I began to give him his penance, he said, “I don’t like that penance. In fact, I don’t like you. I think I want to kill you.” And before those words had sunk in, he had left his side of the confessional, opened the door to mine, and came at me. I stuck out my hands and right leg to hold him back, and said to him, “Get hold of yourself! Do you realize where you are?” To which he said, “I’m sorry. Can I go to confession again?” I responded, “Yes…Next Saturday.”

What is this sacrament all about? Like all sacraments, it is first and foremost AN ENCOUNTER WITH GOD. And there is more. A former parishioner, Charlie Turner, a warrior battling life, and wise far beyond his limited education, sends me poetry every so often. One of his latest –

I will have to die to live forever.
I will have to die to see the face of God.
I pray I never see the face of the devil.
To see the devil’s face would mean I have offended God.

When I was a babe, only original sin stained my soul.
But with age I blanketed my soul with sins of my own.
True sorrow is the bath to cleanse my soul.
So I fear not death…I can look for the face of God.

Confession is a time of repentance and sorrow. It is a moment in life when we are most honest with God…and with ourselves. It is the blessing of a deep inner peace that comes with such sincerity. And, it is also another opportunity to develop the best possible relationship with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves.

It is easy to fall into the trap of confessing a laundry list of sins that, perhaps, we first confessed as kids or teens. Bad habits of sorts, like a recurring addiction, that seem to have gotten the best of us. But more than repeating our failings and getting absolution, it is really about coming home, being embraced with gentleness and compassion, discovering anew how much we are loved (very much like the Prodigal Son by his Father – Lk 15:11-32), and finding a way to be most truly the person we were created to be.

Of all the sacraments, this is my favorite. I cannot overstate the wonder I have experienced in seeing a penitent, perhaps after many years of separation from the Church and God, with tears of joy upon being reconciled with both…and with themselves. For often, it is easier to accept God’s forgiveness than to forgive oneself. And this, too, is an essential part of the sacrament.

At the start of Confession, I usually ask the penitent to begin (if they have not done so) with the sign of the cross. I tell them that this is not only the sign of our belief that Christ gave His all for us on the cross. It is also a sign that tells us that God still loves us. God is with us and loves us. Of course we all believe it. The problem is that we forget, and when we forget, we do all kinds of stupid things. If we could remember that God is with us, and loves us, I am convinced that it would be impossible (not difficult, but impossible) for us to sin. It’s as if we are driving with a police officer right behind us. If we are aware, we drive more carefully. Not that God is a police officer. Still, we need to remind ourselves that God is with us and loves us. And so I say to the penitent, “Each time you make the sign of the cross, wherever you are, let it be a reminder that GOD IS WITH YOU AND GOD LOVES YOU!”

After confession of their sins, comes the penance, not as a punishment but to help them fulfill their commitment to sin no more, to avoid the near occasion of sin, to grow in the awareness and love of God, to be holy. What I have learned in my short time as a priest is that many of our sins stem from a low self-esteem, which leads us to greed and envy, to lies, to gossip about, judge, and criticize others, and worse to abuse others (or ourselves) verbally, emotionally, physically, sexually, etc. Therefore, my primary penance is to have the penitent focus on some aspect of their character that they really like. Something that makes them feel good and proud of who they are. To discover this quality about themselves, to affirm it, to give thanks for it…AND THEN TO LIVE UP TO IT, not to merely comply with some Church law, but to bring out and live the best in them.

This may be well and good. But why confess to another, why not go straight to God? Because Jesus said so. “Whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:18) It’s that simple. HE SAID SO. Perhaps because he knows better than we do how much we need it; how healing and life-giving it is. It is a puzzle to me how so many will accept the words of Jesus when it comes to Baptism or the Eucharist, but not so with respect to Reconciliation. We would think it absurd for a faithful Catholic to baptize their baby themselves at home (unless it were an emergency), or to try to consecrate bread and wine at their table. Here we readily accept the role of the priest as an essential part of our faith. Why then do we not when it comes to Confession? Is it not what Jesus commanded?

Monday, November 16, 2009


Years ago, as a corporate lawyer, my boss came into my office to chit-chat, as he was want to, and told me his eight-year old, Michael, had asked him, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” To which he replied, “Yes,” thinking to himself, “Santa is the embodiment of the spirit of selfless generosity. Anytime you give to bring joy and happiness to another, especially children, you bring Santa to life.”

In the same way, Christians received their name in the first century because in their words and actions they embodied the sacrificial love of Christ. Someone wrote a comment to my last blog that to “enflesh” seems cannibalistic. They are not alone. There is a book entitled, “How The Romans Saw Christians”, which says the same thing. The Romans persecuted Christians because they were viewed as pagans for not believing in the Roman gods, and because there were rumors that Christians celebrated bloody, sacrificial meals, where they ate human flesh and drank human blood. It’s sad that what is sacred for some is often misunderstood by others (and not just about Catholic beliefs).

Still, to be a Catholic is indeed to enflesh Christ, to make His presence felt. We believe that Christ is ever-present, but that He is manifested most especially through us. There is an inner-city church in San Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a statue of Our Lord outside, that has been vandalized. Its hands were broken off. But instead of replacing the hands, they put a sign underneath the statue that says, “I HAVE NO HANDS BUT YOURS.” That in essence captures what it means to be a Catholic…to be the hands, the heart, the Body of Christ.

Christ did not come simply to spend a few years with us and then leave us alone. He came to bring out the Christ in each of us…to be forever embodied in each of us. We all do the same with our children, and with all whom we love. We leave them a part of us so that it becomes a part of them. It shapes them.

For example, when I was in the seminary, one of the required courses was Pastoral Care. One day a visiting professor told us that each of us is shaped by the expressions used by our parents, such as “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, “Look before you leap”, “Life is like a bowl of cherries”, etc. I tried to recall what expression my parents used, and could not think of one. My parents were good and very hard-working, but not very expressive. Then it hit me. My parents’ expression was, “Action speaks louder than words” and they didn’t even have to say it. And it did indeed shape me.

Jesus used many sayings to express his and God’s great love and mercy. Perhaps, one that captures all of them is, “Love your enemy”. He not only said it, he lived it. He expressed this great love in many ways, not the least of which was breaking bread with one and all. He left us his words of love, and the way in which to live them so as to “be one” – his great dream. Now it is no mere coincidence that his parting gift to us was the Eucharist. He wanted us to break bread together, to feel his continuing presence with us and within us, and to bring his presence to life by becoming what we receive.

If you were going to leave your loved ones some words to help shape their lives, what expression would you use? If you were going to leave them a life-giving symbol, what would it be?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


“Transubstantiation” is the official Roman Catholic concept referring to the change that takes place during the sacrament of Holy Communion. This change involves the substances of bread and wine being turned miraculously into the substance of Christ Himself. The underlying essence of these elements is changed, and they retain only the appearance, taste, and texture of bread and wine. So, too, we Roman Catholic faithful believe that we become the Body of Christ we receive in faith, though our appearance also remains unchanged.

My last blog on the Eucharist raised some soul-searching questions: Who can consecrate? Do we eat God? Is the Eucharist a right or a privilege?

To begin, it is God who changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest is merely the instrument, granted an essential player in this holy drama, chosen for the part by Our Lord. That is what we believe. Having said that, it is also correct to say that while the priest serves a special role in the transformation of the bread and wine, WE EACH PLAY A CRITICAL PART IN TRANSFORMING OUR BODY INTO THAT OF CHRIST.

It is this which is the primary objective of this holy sacrament…nothing less than our transubstantiation. And in this way we fulfill the commandment, “Take and eat…Take and drink…Do this in memory of me.” So, just as we mere humans are called to do the unthinkable and “give birth to God” (through our words and actions), in that same vein, one might say that we do “eat God”…in order that we might become Divine. As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” (But as previously stated, it takes more than the mere receiving; there must be AWARENESS and TRANSFORMATION…in our way of thinking, seeing, being).

Now, we not only believe that Christ has called priests to be His embodiment in the celebration of this holy banquet, we also believe that Christ founded the Church to build His peaceable kingdom on earth. The Church, like each of us, is a mystery: it is both human and divine. It has Holy Guidance and yet its members and leaders are very human. It seeks to guide and to serve with love and compassion, imitating Jesus himself. But at times it can seem cold and insensitive. And as an official representative of our Church, I wish to say to those who feel alienated, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for hurting you and making you feel uninvited, unloved, an outcast.” That is not the inclusive Church Jesus modeled and we are called to be.

It is natural as we, the Church, strive to build Communion with God and with each other that like any other organization there be rules on what it takes to be a member in good standing. Whatever club we wish to join will have its standards, and we make our decision to join or not accordingly. However in this case the “club” has something very special that members want. It has, we believe, the keys to heaven…it unlocks the door to a profound encounter with God. What are the faithful to do? Well, hopefully, we begin by searching our soul on what really matters to us, and try to listen to and follow the example of Our Lord. In deciding what matters most to us, it is worth remembering that GOD IS OF NO IMPORTANCE…UNLESS GOD IS OF SUPREME IMPORTANCE. God’s way must take precedence over our earthly wants and desires.

Presuming, of course, that such is the case with each of us, we may still differ with Church leadership on any number of issues in discerning our path to God. I must say that the differences expressed in the blog comment I received do not seem to me to be so “black and white” that one would be deprived of Communion. At least I am not aware that this is the official position of the Church throughout the world, though it might be in some dioceses. (An explanation of the power of bishops might be helpful here but too long for this response.) As an example, divorce in and of itself is not a sin. Perhaps, consultation with a priest might be helpful whenever we disagree with the official position of the Church, to see how grave our difference may be, certainly before we decide we’re not wanted and walk away. [Feel free to contact me at if you wish.]

In general, we believe that to be in Communion with the Church we must be in agreement on what we stand for, though with 1.1 billion members, it would be a miracle indeed if we all agreed on everything. One of the things we profess to believe is that Communion requires that we be free of serious sin. Of course we are not perfect, but there are ways to be reconciled, if we choose. (This, too, may need further comment, at another time.)

Because enfleshing Christ is our goal, in searching our soul we should seek to imitate Him…to pray, seek counsel or enlightenment, to be attentive to the needs of others, to be charitable in our thoughts, words and acts, to be obedient, to be humble and forgiving… It is not easy to be Christ-like. He left us the Church to help us, though at times it might seem to some that it is more an obstacle than an aid. Perhaps, this too serves a purpose: to help us discover what we truly believe (via a challenge or confrontation) so as to bring out the best - the Christ - in us. In the end, both the Church AND the individual have a key role to play in enfleshing Christ today.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Years ago as a 9th grader, I devoured all the stories of Sherlock Holmes. In one of these, Dr. Watson asked Holmes how he was able to solve the crime when he had looked at the same clues and yet had no clue. Holmes replies, “The difference, my dear Watson, is that you look while I observe.” And to prove his point Holmes said, “You have visited me in my apartment for more than 20 years. Each day you walk up and down the stairs that lead to my apartment. How many steps are there in the stairway?” When Watson could not answer, Holmes said, “There you have it, Watson. You see, but you do not observe.”

Most of us are familiar with the burning bush experience Moses had when he encountered the Holy Presence. Perhaps we, too, would love to have that holy encounter. WE DO. It’s called the Holy Eucharist. But, like Dr. Watson, though we may see (and believe), we often fail to be aware. And therefore we fail to have our holy encounter.

Moses had to be reminded that this was a divine encounter. “God said…Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5) We, too, have been told, and we bow reverently or genuflect in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, but unlike Moses, we are NOT awakened from the ordinariness and busy-ness of our life to be in awe of our miraculous encounter.

The noted Trappist Monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, said it well, “Holy Communion tends to become a routine and “secularized” activity when it is sought not so much as a mystical contact with the Incarnate Word of God and with the members of His Mystical Body, but rather as a way of gaining social approval and allaying feelings of anxiety. In this manner even the most sacred realities can be debased and, without totally losing their sacred character, enter in to the round of secular “diversion”. (The Inner Experience, p. 53.)

Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we, too, seem to be caught up in the challenges and troubled events of our life. Yet, they ultimately recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and said “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Lk 24:32) What will it take for our hearts to be on fire? What will it take for us to have a burning bush experience? What will it take for us to recognize the Divine in our midst?

Perhaps, a deeper appreciation of what takes place at the celebration of the Eucharist. It is God coming to us again. We know it. We believe it. Yet, still something is missing. Perhaps, if we knew that in this holy encounter there are TWO miracles. The first is when the celebrant places his hands over the bread and wine and asks God to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ. The second miracle is even greater. It happens when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ and are transformed into what we receive. If there is no second miracle, then the first one is just for show. CHRIST DID NOT COME TO CHANGE BREAD AND WINE INTO HIS BODY AND BLOOD. HE CAME TO CHANGE US INTO HIM.

But for this to happen, requires more than receiving. It demands AWARENESS and a TRANSFORMATION in us, just as there was a transformation in Moses and the Emmaus Disciples. It calls for us to be different after we have received. Indeed, we are not called to “receive” but to ENFLESH the Body and Blood of Christ.

All too often we receive out of habit or custom or a sense of guilt (if we abstain). Perhaps, it gives us some comfort to check off our list that we went to Mass. We seem to go through the motions, get in line and follow the crowd, return to our pew, and nothing more…hence, no encounter; no transformation; no miracle. Sadly, this is more and more evident at each Mass. As I travel the country, it is sad to see so few children at Mass, even in parishes where they have a Catholic grade school or hundreds of children in faith formation. It is not the children’s fault.

Perhaps, it begins with how we prepare our children for First Communion. Each year, their parents send them catechism, and they come by the tens of thousands, if not more, but the parents rarely attend Mass, and when they do, fail to receive (for any number of reasons). We need to find a better way to teach our children and to catechize their parents. Moreover, whether or not we realize it, this laxity has a contagious effect on all of us, our fervency, and how we view Communion – being one – with God and with each other.

Some years ago I was visiting a friend, Florence, who was ill. After sharing the Word of the day and praying with her, I went to give her Communion. As I did so, her cat, Holiday, jumped up and almost snatched the Holy Host from my hand. I was able to pull it back, and gasped, “Boy, that was close.” And then Florence shared that years earlier Father Tommy had visited her and when he went to give her Communion, her dog had jumped up and did grab and swallow it. As I reflected on that, I wondered: What is the difference between a dog or cat swallowing the Holy Eucharist, or a person who does not believe, or a person who says they believe but their mind is “a million miles away” when they receive, perhaps so focused on the Communion song they are singing that they are blind and numb to the holy encounter with the Holy Presence? I could not think of any meaningful difference.

What do YOU think of when you receive the Eucharist? How present are you to the Holy Presence…to our Burning Bush?

Monday, November 2, 2009


As I travel the country preaching to raise funds for the poor, on behalf of Food for the Poor, I like to begin with a story. One of my favorites is:

A woman is driving down a two lane highway when she sees a car approaching from the opposite direction. As the two cars cross, the man in the other car yells out at her, “FAT COW!” She immediately yells back, “PIG!!!” She is feeling so good about herself and her quick response when the road takes a turn. As she makes that turn, she collides into a fat cow sitting in the middle of the road. The story has a moral, and the moral is: Women never seem to understand what men are trying to say. And all too often WE fail to grasp what God is saying to us.

Yesterday, on the Feast of All Saints, we heard the Gospel words, “Blessed are they [happy are they…holy are they….saints are they] who are poor in spirit, for theirs IS [not will be] the kingdom of heaven.” We all long for happiness, for an encounter with God, for a permanent place in God’s holy presence. WE WANT TO BE SAINTS. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives US the real secret, unlike the book by that title that was highly popular just a year or two ago. Next Sunday, Jesus will reinforce this message with the story of The Widow’s Mite.

Jesus says, open your heart and feel my hunger in your sisters and brothers. Open your heart and feel my hunger in you. Open your heart if you truly want to encounter real happiness…if you want to encounter me…if you want to be a saint. I often tell folks, there’s one sure test where we can be sure we are opening our heart – if we open our checkbook. Sounds trite, but it’s the truth. There’s a poem by a 15th century mystic which says,

To give Him my clay to shape as he desires,
Well, that’s one thing that can be so exciting.
But if my silks and jewels are at risk,
That’s a whole different matter that causes me to ask,
Is all this God stuff for real?

That’s the question. How real is God for us? How badly do we want to encounter God? What is it worth to us? How much are we willing to give to see God in the poor, to encounter the Holy in ourselves?

All too often, even among the good, we go to Mass, warm the pew, and leave just as hungry, just as empty as when we walked in. The great obstacle for most, who are indeed good, is not the challenge between good and bad. It is the battle between the good and the best. We hear Jesus’ words, but we still hold back.

That’s why I love my ministry. Like St. Anthony Mary Claret, our holy founder, I go from town to town to awaken the best in folks. He preaching to countless multitudes, I to over 10,000 just this past month and some 200,000 in two years plus. He traversed rivers and mountains on foot and horseback, I in trains and planes. He battled the elements: driving rain or blistering heat, I inch my way through security, waiting for flights that are delayed only to later be packed in like a sardine. Padre Claret was widely known for his fiery preaching and long confession lines, I often have eight or more Masses each weekend (12 at a parish in New York next March). Both leaving home before the Sun has graced us with light, and not resting till it has long since disappeared again. Both with a fire within, tired and drained by the long hours, blessed and energized by the people, and their gratefulness. Both in love with our call.

I generally share stories of children who have touched my heart. It is these stories that help open hearts. Children who hustle in the streets of Guatemala, perhaps shining shoes even though they themselves may go barefoot, or if they have shoes, they are usually much bigger than their little feet, and mismatched to boot. Or those in Managua, Nicaragua, living on a huge mountain of garbage with a stench so foul one cannot breathe. They call it La Chureca, el Gran Basurero (the Great City Dump). Still, there they are scrounging for food in the stinking garbage. Or kids in Cite Soleil (City of the Sun) in Haiti, who live in shanties of rusted metal, with neither water nor electricity, and who are given mud cakes to eat when their stomachs begin to grumble.

I have been blessed to see many rise to the challenge. I was helping in the missions in Jamaica during Holy Week, where a little girl fascinated by my grey hair was trying to braid it, when I received an e-mail from someone in Stillwater, Oklahoma, who said, “Father, I heard you speak and your words touched my heart. My wife and I have been praying about it, and we are sending $50,000 to Food for the Poor.” I thought, WOW, talk about a Christmas and Easter story rapped up into one. Not just because of the generous gift, but the transformation that must have taken place in this beautiful couple.

A priceless lesson for me has been that the measure of our quest to be saints is NOT in how much we give but how much we hold back. I have seen people like the Poor Widow give their all. I was in Grafton, North Dakota, speaking to some Mexican campesinos (farm workers)after Mass, asking about their situation. They said, “Padre, we have worked only five or six days all summer. If the situation does not improve in the fall during the harvest, we don’t know how we are going to survive.” Then they reached into their pockets and gave me whatever they had “for the poor”. A young Guatemalan couple in Conway, South Carolina, just barely arrived and struggling to make ends meet, came to me after Mass with tears in their eyes and gave me a new $100 bill “for the children”. At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, D.C., an elderly woman from Argentina, said, “Padrecito, I have nothing. I am homeless. But I want to give you these $5 for the poor.” My immediate reaction was – No way. You need it. But before I could open my mouth, it was as if Holy Wisdom took over and said, “Yes. Everyone deserves the right to encounter my Holy Presence through their generosity.” I hugged her and kissed her. And I thanked her.

Blest are they…and blessed am I to walk among these saints.