Thursday, April 29, 2010


Always when I meet with parents in preparation for a Baptism, I ask, “What are your dreams? What do you want for your child?” Their response, “a good education”, “a good career”, “to stay away from drugs and gangs”, “to know how much we love them”, “for them to be happy…fulfilled…the very best!” This is what God wants for us. Jesus tells us, “I came so that you might have abundant life.” This is what the Sacrament of Baptism is all about…the gift of abundant life…new life…in Christ.

The sacrament is filled with symbols of new life: water, which in ancient Israel ~ and today, a land which is mostly desert ~ meant life. Just as we enter our biological life by a mother’s breaking her water, so, too, we enter new life in Christ through the waters of Baptism. The white garment and the candle we receive, lit from the Paschal Candle, which represents the Light of Christ among us, also indicate a newness of life.

The sacrament begins with marking the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead, an invitation to join the community of faithful…to become an active member in the Catholic Church. That sign is also in thanksgiving for the blessing that this child is to us. Parents and Godparents are invited to make the sign on the child’s forehead, and to raise the child with love to affirm them of the blessing that they are.

Three times the child is marked with the sign of the cross. The second time is on the chest with Holy Oil, to make us evermore aware that we are protected, much like the steel armor of ancient knights. GOD IS WITH US, and therefore WE NEED NOT FEAR. The demon of this Original Sin is vanquished ~ if we live this sacrament! Lastly, the child is marked on the forehead once more, this time with the Oil of Chrism, the same oil that is used to anoint the hands of priests. All who are baptized are anointed to be Priest, Prophet, and King or Queen.

To be a priest, as Jesus showed us the night before he died, is to get on our knees to wash each other’s feet…to humbly serve one another. To be a prophet is to proclaim the Word of God, but before we can proclaim it, we must take time…to listen to it…in silence. God’s own prayer to us says, “Be still and know that I Am God” (Psalm 46). “Be still” means put away all our thoughts and plans and fears, to simply be aware that we are in the presence of the Holy Presence. Once we have heard God’s Word, we cannot contain it….but must proclaim it, and as St. Francis of Assisi said, “to use words only if necessary”. To be a king or queen says that we are more than mere hired workers for God’s peaceable kingdom; we are heirs. This is our world…our Church. Thus, we are commissioned to act as owners and not mere tenants…much as we would with our home or a family business…to take proprietary interest.

The candle we receive calls US to be the Light of Christ, and parents are directed to guard and nurture this holy light in their child…by the way they model their faith. (I always recommend to parents that they celebrate each anniversary of this new life in Christ just like a birthday.) Sadly, all too often, parents seem to be more interested in the festivity after the Baptism than the meaning and responsibilities of this new life. This is not meant as a comment on the goodness of these parents, but simply in how they live their faith; and not to judge but to do everything possible to help them truly encounter Christ.

When I was pastor and met parents who were not active in the Church but nonetheless wanted to baptize their child, I would ask them, “Why do you want to baptize your child?” They would say, “Because we are Catholics.” “Why do you believe you are Catholic if you are not active in the Church?” “Because we were baptized Catholic.” Typically the one who is less active (perhaps more resistant to practicing the faith) is the father. Sometimes I would ask them, “Did you ever play sports when you were young? Did you belong to a team?” “Yes.” “Are you still a member of that team?” They would laugh, “Father, that was a long time ago.” “What makes you think that you are still a member of Christ’s team if you do not practice with that team, you do not ‘play’ with that team, you do not celebrate with that team, you do nothing to support it?”

They would shrug, perhaps pensive, perhaps unmoved. Many would often say, “I don’t really need to be at Church. God is with me wherever I am.” I could not agree more that God is always with us. But it was Christ who founded His Church, and wants us to gather as a family to grow in our relationship with one another and with God.

I would ask the parents if they wanted their child, in time, to learn how to play soccer would it be enough to simply buy them a ball and have them practice at home, or would they put the child on a team? Would they register the child only to receive a jersey and never return to practice or play? Would they register their child for school and expect a diploma without ever attending classes? And if so, what would the jersey or diploma mean in helping the child to be the best soccer player, the best student?

I wish I could say that this engagement persuaded many parents to become more active in their faith. The reality is that most baptized their child and would not return for a number of years until it would be time to receive another sacrament. But sacraments are NOT received, they are actualized. Perhaps there is a lesson here for all of us: if we don’t practice what we believe, we soon believe what we practice...and faith becomes a meaningless tradition. We end up losing the gift of new life. Baptism, and each sacrament, is an invitation to enter new life in Christ… to be Christ-like…but only if they are lived. Only then do we have the happy, abundant life we and God desire.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Often when someone comes for career counseling I ask them, “What would you do if you won the mega lottery? What would you like to do if you had no financial worries…no fears?” Invariably the respondent says, “I would like to help the poor.” That tells me not only that we have an inner desire to reach out to others, but more than anything else it reveals who we are at the core of our being. We are a reflection of God ~ whose image more than any other is that of a Supreme Being, who loves and gives life.

We want to do the same. Studies reveal that when we help others, we are happiest, as if juices were fired into our brain, not unlike taking a drug that produces a state of happiness. It is no mere coincidence that Jesus’ commandments are called the Beatitudes ~ the “Be Happy” attitudes ~ nor that the Bible tells us that we are created in “the image and likeness” of God. It is when we are most true to our identity…to the image and likeness of God…that we are happiest.

That begs the question, “When are we most like God?” It is tempting to think that we are most like God when we are all-powerful. This was the mistake of Adam and Eve…they wanted the apparent power of God. To have this image of God is to be SELF-CENTERED. The other image of God is that reflected in Jesus, which is to be OTHER-FOCUSED…to want to serve rather than to be served…to give away rather than to accumulate.

[It must be noted that no one image of God could ever fully express the nature of the Holy Mystery. A dear, wise, and holy friend, Sr. Lucida, would often say that God is “Unbounded Energy”. I, too, have a favorite image of God as the “Grand Artist” ~ who not only loves beauty and variety, but who also trusts us and invites us to be co-creators of the masterpiece that we (and our world) are meant to be. Still, in terms of our human behavior, we are pulled by two principal polar opposites: power and love.]

This battle between the image of a God of power and a God of love continues to be waged within each of us. Perhaps it was best reflected in the choice we had 2,000 years ago to choose between Barabbas, which means son (bar) of the father (abba), and Jesus, the most authentic Son. One wanted to liberate his people from the oppression by the Romans with the power of force, the other wanted to free all of us with the power of love. One had the true image of God; the other was blinded by our human frailty.

What is this weakness that blinds us to the true and accurate image of God? Is it fear, as I stated in my last blog, or pride, or selfishness, as others may believe? To me, pride and selfishness are like the Jamaican fruit, the aikee, an apple-sized fruit which turns bright red, and is edible only when fully mature, at which time it opens to let out poisonous gases. If eaten before it matures, it can be deadly.

Pride and selfishness can also be poisonous, but if allowed to mature, both have a healthy role to play in our development and in leading us to our true, divine nature. It is a healthy pride when reflected as in St. Maximilian Kolbe whose desire was to be the “greatest saint”…to be the greatest servant. It is a necessary selfishness when it directs us to look to ourselves first… in discovering the best…the Christ… in us, so as to help others find the same in themselves.

Fear is the tree which gives birth to these potentially poisonous fruits. Fear leads us to be anxious, to be near-sighted and limit our focus to what is in front of us: our immediate needs and self-gratification, to not trust in God (or in ourselves) for the greater and longer-term blessings, and to go on the attack or shut ourselves off, both of which lead to death. The antidote to fear, as Jesus showed us, is love.

I recently visited my brother, Vito, in Detroit and was chatting with one of his grandchildren, little Vito, seven years old and about to make his First Communion. I asked him if he was excited. He said, “Yeah!” “Why?” “Because it will help me get to heaven.” “Do you need to be rich to get to heaven?”, I asked. “No,” he answered, “just rich in love.”

Easter, which we celebrate for 50 days until the Feast of Pentecost, is a time of new life in Christ…that is, a time to take on the same image and likeness of God that Jesus manifested…a time to be rich in love (and we don’t have to win the lottery). Only then will we be resurrected with Christ. Only then will His resurrection be complete.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Many years ago, I was on my way to beautiful Lake Atitlan, surrounded with its many volcanoes, in Guatemala. The bus was an old school bus from the 50s or 60s, colorfully painted, and put into service for public transportation. Instead of two persons on each seat there were three, and two more standing between the seats. The rear of the bus had a ladder, leading to the roof where baggage and other stuff were strapped down. Some folks were on that ladder and others were standing on the rear bumper and holding on to the back door. At each stop some got in or left, and somehow the ayudante (the driver’s helper) was able to discern who had not paid, and he would squeeze his way between those standing or climb over seats to collect the fare.

I was sitting next to a Social Sciences professor from Harvard. We admired the beauty of the scenery on the winding roads, the breath-taking vistas, the colorful and varied patterns of the dress of the indigenous women, and talked about many subjects, including the Catholic faith. She asked me, “What is original sin?” This was before my theological studies. I said that I was not really qualified to address this weighty subject. But saying that she saw a depth in my faith, she persisted. So I said, “I think it’s fear.”

God made us so that we will do everything possible to preserve our life. Preservation of our life is in our genes. We are born with this drive. It is natural and it is good. Fear of losing our life keeps us focused on what we should or should not do. For example, we would not put our hand into a fire, nor jump out of a ten-story window, nor drive 100 miles per hour in heavy traffic. But fear of losing our life can become so extreme that we take unhealthy steps, make poor decisions that take life rather than preserve it.

Fear may drive us to become aggressive and strike another so that they will think twice about doing us harm. “Get them before they get us.” And so wars begin…whether between nations or between individuals. Violence begets more violence. At the other extreme, fear may overpower us so that we shut ourselves off from others. We hibernate in our own little cocoon, never to come out to live the beautiful life for which we were created. Instead, we suffocate within. Whenever we become aggressive or enclose ourselves we are turning our back on the heaven that God has created and has entrusted to us.

Jesus’ last prayer was, “Father, I pray that they may be one as you and I are one.” (Jn 17:21) Fear prevents this dream from becoming reality. It is a fear that is ingrained in us for the very reason that we are hard-wired to preserve our life. Fear can be healthy. But it becomes sin ~ the original sin ~ when it takes control of us and leads us to take life rather than giving it…when it leads to violence rather than peace.

Time and again, Jesus said, “Have no fear”…neither of others nor of yourself. FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the movie, “High Plains Drifter”, Clint Eastwood seeks to save a town from its fear of some gun fighters. When asked why he is not afraid, he says, “The only thing we have to fear is what we know about ourselves inside.” “Be not afraid!”…could we be if we truly heard Christ speak these words to us? Yet, from the beginning of time, fear has been our Achilles’ heel…our sin…a deadly weakness that can lead to our downfall.

Adam and Eve failed to trust God and feared that their Eden might be taken from them, so they sought o become gods themselves and took action which back-fired. Whenever we lose trust in God (and in each other), and seek to become god-like with military or economic power, we once again succumb to the temptation of our original sin…and let fear separate us from one another and from God. Even in our attempts to do good, such as perhaps when we are moved by the poor and want to be generous, we can find ourselves afraid to give too much… so once more we lose another opportunity to encounter God.

When we overcome fear, our original and recurring sin, we discover anew the Eden God has created, a peace within, and a harmony with all creation. There are many who will continue to be violent, and can do us much harm, but they cannot take away our peace…our union with God…unless we let them. That is the invaluable lesson of the Cross…and of Baptism. We are willing to die to the sin that imprisons and poisons us ~ fear ~ so as to live most fully and free (with God and with each other).

After years of study and ministry, I still believe that fear is our original sin.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


On the old Bravo program, “Inside the Actors’ Studio”, where stars were interviewed, the final question was always, “If there is a God, what would you like God to say to you at the end of your life?” The most common response was, “Welcome”…welcome home, welcome to heaven. Where is heaven?

Centuries ago when we thought Earth was all there was, and later when we believed that the Sun and other stars revolved around us, we considered heaven to be located “up there”. I remember visiting a third-grade class at St. Paul’s in Chicago on the Feast of All Saints, greeting them with, “Happy Feast Day!” They said, “We’re not saints. The saints live in heaven.” And when I asked, “Where is heaven?”, they said, “Arriba” ~ up there. So I asked, “Where is God?” They said, “Everywhere.” “Is God here?” “Yes. God is in each of us.” “Well”, I said, “if God is here, so too is heaven.” I suspect we have heard this many times, though (like these children) we have some difficulty believing it.

There’s a Sicilian fable about a young boy, Pino, who has a great devotion to his patron saint, St. Joseph (Giuseppe in Italian; the common nickname of those with this name is Pino or Peppino). Pino always prayed to St. Joseph, but was not very faithful about Mass or praying to Jesus or Mary. Eventually he dies, and goes knocking at heaven’s gate. When St. Peter opens the gate, he says, “What are you doing here? You hardly ever prayed to Our Lord or the Blessed Mother.” Pino responds, “Yes, I know but I thought I might just have a minute to see St. Joseph.” Peter is about to shut the gate when he sees someone running and yelling, “Pino! Pinuzzu!” It’s St. Joseph. When he arrives at the gate, St. Peter says, “Now look Joe, I know this man has had a great devotion to you all his life. But I can’t let him in.” St. Joseph looks at him and responds, “Well Pete, you gotta do what you gotta do. But if Pino doesn’t come in, I’m taking my wife and son, and we’ll just go somewhere else.” Case closed…or should I say, Gate Opened. Alleluia!

Heaven is where Our Lord is. Find Him...find the good...the best in this quest/passion/dream that God has planted in us... and you will find heaven. We will know we have found it because we will feel fully alive...see everything with new eyes…feel re-born…resurrected. Easter is a time to be re-born and resurrected…to see the Risen Christ in those around us, and in ourselves.

In my last blog I wrote of the powerful symbol of the empty tomb. Coupled with the empty tomb is the rock that was rolled away. I wonder if you have pondered about this rock...not only who rolled it...but more importantly why? Of course, WE rolled it to seal the tomb ~ not to keep the dead from leaving, but to keep us from entering. And Christ UNROLLED that there would be no barrier between us.

Whenever we point to heaven out “there”, rather than “here”, we are again rolling the rock to keep us separated. Even those of us who believe in the Holy Presence in the Eucharist have a tendency to roll the rock when we put the Eucharist in the tabernacle, and forget that we are living, breathing, walking tabernacles. Why do we keep rolling that rock?

Perhaps because we too easily see our human frailties and cannot really imagine the Holy Presence within. Our focus in on our Original Sin instead of our Original Blessing….the blessing that God gazed upon us at creation, and what God saw was “very good”…the blessing that Christ came to call us brothers and sisters, children of God…the blessing that He said He would always be with us.

From the beginning of time, we were made of the holy stardust that came/comes from God. Instead of pondering what God might say to us when our earthly journey ends, I wonder how we might live our lives if we truly believed who we are, and who is with us at every moment. Might we not discover HEAVEN on earth?

Thursday, April 8, 2010


There is a Spanish expression, “Me fui para servir. SalĂ­ siendo servido.” ~ I went to serve; I left having been served. So was my mission in Jamaica – an Island Paradise of lush vegetation, beautiful vistas, and myriad trees and leaves, fruits and flowers, fragrances and colors. I also saw for the first time in my life a manatee and a mongoose. But the greatest masterpiece was the beauty of the people, many struggling but still always smiling, and their warm and gracious hospitality…open arms and open hearts aplenty. One can learn much about encountering God and following Christ in this ministry of loving hospitality.

I was blessed to help out at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in St. Ann’s Bay, and Our Lady of Fatima in Ocho Rios. There is a great need in the Diocese of Montego Bay, where there are merely 12 priests – only one native Jamaican, the others “borrowed” from Belize, Tonga, Samoa, Poland, the Philippines, and other nations. The Catholic population is about two per cent. The cry for help is not only from the starving poor, but also from the hungry in the pews, who thirst for spiritual knowledge, and for leadership in evangelizing to a populace that more and more experiences the disaster of broken families.

In celebrating the Easter Pasch, the symbol of new life that seemed most appropriate (given the reality that I discovered in Jamaica) was the empty tomb…the growing realization that He is not there…He is in us! The first disciples wrestled with this, and despite their encounter with the Risen Christ they didn’t know what to do at first. They went back to the life they knew…fishing. Only after it truly sank in did they go out and begin to bring Him to life…by doing what Jesus taught them…what he himself did.

We, too, can look and pray for a “savior” to lead us out of our doldrums and misery. We might even put Christ back in the tomb, such as the tabernacle, and forget that He came to “pitch His tent” in us. Only as we more and more discover this holy presence in us do we begin to experience our resurrection…and His joy and resurrection becomes complete. And to help us connect with God, I shared the story of a disciple who asks, “O holy one, give me the question that will renew my soul, and make me feel resurrected.” The Master said, “The question is, ‘What do they need?’”

I met many good people who truly gave life to me. I hesitate to name them as there are too many, and some might be left out. But one experience I must share was an encounter with some “Good Samaritans”, from whom I received this e-mail:

”We feel very blessed to have met you. Sometimes life reserves the most amazing encounters when least expected. Well, for the first time in years, you have opened my eyes as how to ‘better connect with God’. I have understood how the hand of God can reach those in need through the mercy of others. Why did we meet William [a blind man sleeping on a piece of cardboard on a sidewalk, to whom the Samaritans brought food and water, and fresh clothes] in those days when we were about to meet you? I think because it was God's way to open my eyes with the help of William and with your help. We managed to take him to the bus station and help him reach his destination. We tried to contact the church of his village but nobody was there to answer the phone. We will try again. The day we took him to the bus station I understood that we are all equal. It has been a very strong experience. I helped him wash and get dressed and I felt joy and fulfillment in doing it. At the beginning I had to overcome the stupid barrier of touching somebody who hadn't had a bath in weeks or months. Within a few minutes I experienced this wonderful feeling of peace and harmony grow in me. I felt I was doing something important. We are all instruments of God and I understood my role. I wish it could always be so simple, but thanks to you it became more understandable.”

Thank you, Andrea and Christine, Pam and Paul, Tony and Rosanna, and so many more...for revealing the Risen Christ.