Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Advent Meditation

(I share these thoughts which were delivered in my homily for the Second Sunday of Advent.)

Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too;
the chill sets in a little colder, the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death;
that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath
and turn transfixed by faith.

These words, taken from the Advent Carol of Hope, echo the fact that the year is winding down and we certainly are experiencing (at least where I live) the earth growing colder.  We find ourselves once again in the period of expectation and waiting that we call Advent.  We are also introduced to the principal character of the Advent season - John the Baptist.  He arrives with his perennial Advent "sound bite" - Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!

Indulge me for a moment.  Let us imagine that a time machine transports John from the first century to the upper level of Crossgates Mall on Black Friday.  (That would certainly be culture shock.)  As he begins to call people to repentance, security arrives on the scene to usher this odd looking man away.  He asks them what the fuss is all about on this day in this place.  They tell him people are preparing for Christmas.  "What is Christmas?"  he asks.  It's when we remember when Christ was born.  Bewildered he asks:  "Is this how you prepare for the celebration of Christ's birth?"

How do we prepare?  The year was 1903 and Katherine Wright received a telegraph message from her brothers - Orville and Wilbur - who told her "We actually flew 120 feet.  Will be home for Christmas."  She took the message to the editor of the local newspaper who read it and said "That's good that the boys will be home for Christmas."  He totally missed the point that man had actually flown.

Are we missing the point about Christmas?  Are we too wrapped up in shopping, wrapping presents and sending cards that we overlook the real meaning for why we do these things at this time every year?  This was a momentous event in human history that we are recalling.

Do you know that God and we have something in common?  Yes - it is that we are both human.  And it is in that revelation that God took on human flesh that should make us resound with joy.  All the other things we do this season are good but we should not overlook why we do them.  May we use Advent well and be ready again to welcome our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Christmas Day.

O child of ecstasy and wonder, O prince of peace and pain.  Brighten today's world by tomorrow's; renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign.

Have a prayerful Advent and a blessed Christmas!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Where Is Our World Headed?

The world news has been filled with stories of terror, natural disasters, increasing conflict in parts of our world.  We wonder where is our world headed?  Are we ever going to see the peace that so many desire?
Just yesterday, an airplane was brought down by a rocket in the Ukraine.  Everyone is scrambling to determine who caused this tragedy.  There has been increased conflict in the middle East between Israelis and Palestinians - in a land where the Prince of Peace was born, lived, died and came back to life.
We wonder what we can do about all of this.  It has been said that evil will thrive when good people do nothing.  It is even more tragic when by our own actions of selfishness and sinfulness we contribute to the unrest in our world.  In his classic novel Les Miserables, the author Victor Hugo places these words on the lips of a good bishop (a primary character in the early chapters):  Let us never fear robbers, nor murderers.  Those are dangers from without, petty dangers.  Let us fear ourselves.  Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers.  What matters it what threatens our head or our purse!  Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.
Again, we wonder what we can do to thwart evil in our world.  So many of our news stories are filled with tragedy and sorrow.  Are there any good stories in the world?  I would recommend that you go to your computer (or I-pad or smart phone) and ask for "positive stories."  Let me share one with you - it is somewhat lengthy but points out that there is still much good in the world if we only look for it.
Teacher Linda Hooper had been warned about a "holy terror" of a student rising up through Brown Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas.  So by the time Cruz Riojas was set to enter the sixth grade, she issued a waring to the school's princiapl:  "I will quit if I have him in my class."
But then the story, as first reported in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, began to change.  Sure enought it was Hooper's classroom that the 12-year old walked into in August 1980.  He was far behind in academics - two years behind in reading and classified as special ed - and she quickly experienced his troubling behavior.
"He had ourbursts, threw chairs."  Linda told TODAY.  "If a child touched him, they'd be thrown on the floor in two seconds."
Cruz lived with his mother, stepfather and five half-siblings, and suffered years of physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather.  He was bused to Linda's school wearing the same clothes every day, and he brought his troubling homelife with him.
"I made a joke about everything, Cruz told TODAY.  "I wouldn't let my stepfather see me cry, and I carried that with me to school."
Cruz's sixth-grade year included frequent clashes with his physical-education teacher, who sent him to Linda.  "Every day (that teacher would) send in him and say, 'I'm not dealing with this kid, he's yours,' " she recalls.  "I didn't know what to do, but he was in there, so I started letting him help me.  I had him reshelving books, grading papers, to make the period go by.  And he began to like to do stuff."
And the student recognized that his teacher cared about him.  "I saw that she just wouldn't give up, " Cruz said.  "She said, 'This persona that you project isn't who you really are.'"
Linda started having Cruz come to the home she shared with her husband Gale, a firefighter, and their four daughters.  She'd give him money for small household chores, and arranged for his first job, a paper route.
Cruz developed a particularly remarkable relationship with his teacher's husband.  "He never had a man in his life that was worth anything and he respected Gale,"  Linda said.
He began spending more and more time at the Hooper home, and would frequently run the 7.5 miles between his home and theirs when he had a fight with his stepfather.  But one day in February 1982, Linda received a call from Cruz's mother that would change all of their lives.
"His stepfather had beaten him, so she called me and asked, can I keep him until things blow over?"  Linda recalls.  "She put everything he owned in a cardboard box, and they huddled behind an 18-wheeler until I came to meet them."
Cruz thought he'd only be staying with his teacher's family for an hour, but that hour turned into days, months, and then years.
Linda recalls the first time Cruz stopped calling her "Mrs. Hooper."  "We were in a grocery store, and he wanted everyone to know that I was his mother, because people would look at us funny.  He said, "MOTHER, can I have this?"  He was getting everyone's attention to say. "Everybody look, this is my mom."
Thanks to the Hoopers and another dedicated teacher, Cruz moved out of the special-education program and graduated with his peers.  He went on to study at Texas Tech University and later met Anel Montemayor, his future wife.  And just before his 30th birthday, Cruz called Linda to ask if she and Gale would officially adopt him.  The answer was obvious.
"He said he said he wanted to honor us, and it was a big honor," Linda said.  "I've always known he loved me, but this reaaly showed he loved us."
Cruz and Anel Riojas became Cruz Riojas Hooper and Anel Montemayor-Hooper.  They now live in San Antonio with their two children, Hannah, 13, and Greyson, 9.
Cruz is careful to teach his children about their Mexican roots while also honoring the traditions and cultures from the Hooper side.  "My parents taught me never to give up.  Just persevere, " he said.  "My father would always sayd, 'The light at the end of the tunnel isn't always a train.  It's a  light, and move toward it."
It is up to us, then, to try to be a force for good in the world by what we do and how we treat others.  In the middle ages, the Crusades were undertaken - a military approach to what some saw as evil.  We do not neet a military approach in our day (God know there is enough tragedy occuring from military responses).  But let us have a crusade for prayer.  The power of prayer has been often documented and each of us probably can recount times when prayer made a powerful difference in our lives.
Let us pray then for peace in the world.  Let us pray that leaders of  nations will look to preserving the rights of all, particularly our women and children.  Let us pray that attempts to solve tensions may be met with acceptance.  In our Catholic Christian tradition, we revere saints and angels who can intercede for us.  Let me recommend the following prayer to you:
Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle.  Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and you, O Prince of the Heavenly Host - by the divine power of God - cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.
Let us never cease to pray for our world - it's the only one we have.

Friday, May 16, 2014

We Are Beloved

It has been a while since I posted my last blog but life has been very busy and some health problems have also interspersed themselves into my life.  Be that as it may, I wanted to share some thoughts about one of my most favorite stories from the New Testament - the story of the Prodigal Son.
I recently reread the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen's wonderful book entitled Home Toniight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen wrote this book after spending a number of hours contemplating the painting of Rembrandt known as The Return of the Prodigal (pictured here). It made me reflect again on how that parable plays out in our lives.
There are three main characters in the story: the son who returns home ashamed for the way he left, taking his inheritance and wasting it, the elder son who cannot understand the loving mercy of his father, and the father himself who runs to the wayward son, embracing him and welcoming him home.  How are we related to the characters in this story?
I am sure that we all have found ourselves at one time or another in our lives, having done something we shouldn't have done, or failing to do something we should have, and wondering if we can be forgiven for our behavior.  Have we felt that forgiveness might not come to us?  This story, however, reminds us that our God will always welcome us home no matter what we have done or failed to do.  What a blessing to know that we are so beloved.
More often than not, howver, we probably find ourselves in the position of the elder son - feeling that we have been doing what has been asked of us and resenting those who fail to live up to our standards.  How often have we judged others in our righteousness?  How often have we been like the pharisee in another Gospel story who stands before God reminding him of how good we have been and feeling so far above the sinner who quietly asks for God's mercy?
How many times have we been like the forgiving father in the story?  Are we ready to forgive those who have wronged us in some way or do we continue to harbor anger and resentment in our hearts?
I know I was moved by the answer recently given by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, when asked to describe himself and his immediate answer was "I am a sinner."  We are all sinners and in need of God's loving forgiveness which is always there for us.  But, in turn, we must be open to forgive others.  As the Holy Father states in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, "At times we have to be like the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his door open so that when the son returns, he can readily pass through it."
How welcoming are we, then, to the sinner?  How welcoming are we in our churches to invite in those who have fallen away for one reason or another?  Our new bishop in our Diocese of Albany, New York, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, wrote this in his latest column in the diocesan newspaper:  A Church professing a Gospel of forgiveness must always be ready to seek forgiveness.  A Christian, who believes in the real personal presence of Christ needs to stand ready to witness how Christ has rescued him or her from sin - if in no other way than by forgiving other sinners.  Perhaps sinners will come back to church when it is the place where all repentant sinners can find a home - where the rest of the Gospel can be heard from and beyond the pulpit and the pew more loudly and clearly than words alone can ever preach.
May we ever strive to be like the father in the parable, ready and willing to accept the sinners who may have offended us and being people of forgiveness because forgiveness has so often been shown to us.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Very Special Easter

Alleluia!  He is risen!  We come to another celebration of the great Easter event - the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is our great feast of hope and faith as we know that Jesus has conquered death once and for all and opens up for us the way to an eternal life of peace and joy when our journey on this earth is finished.
We know that there are many troubles in the world today - from wars to persecutions, natural and man-made disasters, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and the list can go on and on.  Yet we look to this feast of Easter to remind us that now matter how difficult things can be, there can be hope because of Jesus' resurrection.  Let us continue to pray that the peace that Christ wants to bring to the world will find its place and bring an end to all the strife that surrounds us.
For me, this is a special Easter.  It was 79 years ago today that I came into this world (and it happened to be the Vigil of Easter).  I have now come full circle with my birthday falling on this Easter Sunday.  I give thanks to God for all the blessings he has bestowed on me during those years - from loving parents and a wonderful brother to my wife of over fifty years who has been such a great support and companion for me.  I give thanks for my children of whom I have been very proud.  Last year, we suffered the loss of our younger daughter, but I know she is waiting for us to join her in that place of eternal peace when our life on earth is over.
It was twenty years ago this fall that I was ordained to the order of deacon by my bishop and great friend of 56 years, Bishop Howard Hubbard.  It has been a privilege to serve with him in our diocese and I wish him only the best for his retirement.  God and our Holy Father Francis has blessed this diocese again with a wonderful pastoral shepherd in the person of Bishop Edward Scharfenberger.  I was privileged to be in attendance at his ordination to the episcopate and I look forward to serving with him in the days and years ahead.
Yes, this is a special Easter.  I pray for all who read this that you will be filled with the joy and hope that Jesus' resurrection has brought to the world.  May God bless you all.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Growing Closer to Jesus

I admit that I am a "cradle Catholic."  The Church has been a part of my life since my earliest years.  My parents were devout people who were daily communicants and both my brother and I became very used to being around the church and being involved in church activities.  I served as an altar server in my youth, attended a Catholic high school (we did not have an elementary parochial school at that time) and then spent some time in the seminary.
My wife of 50+ years and I were married at a solemn high Mass celebrated by my uncle who was a priest of the diocese and we exchanged our vows with the officiating priest who was my brother.  We were then blessed with three beautiful children.  In 1994 I was ordained as a permanent deacon in my diocese and have served in a variety of ministries since then.
To say that Jesus was an important part of my life would be an understatement.  But as with anyone of our friends, when our friend in not around we may not always think of him or her but we know that he or she would be there for us when needed.  We are often challenged by our spiritual directors or in homilies we hear at church to develop a "personal relationship" with Jesus.  I believe that I have that relationship but it can always be strengthened.  There are times when the relationship is heightened by certain events in our lives.  As I have moved through another Lenten season, I have had the opportunity to experience two events that I believe have strengthened my relationship with Jesus.
The first was the opportunity to read a remarkable book.  It is entitled Jesus, a Pilgrimage and was written by a talented and prolific writer, Father James Martin, S.J., culture editor for America magazine.  The book took me through a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Father Martin experienced and was so well crafted that you could feel yourself at the various places where Jesus ministered in his time on earth.  It was a great Lenten reading and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about Jesus and how Jesus can affect our lives.
The second event took place this week and at first it may seem strange to some.  It was a presentation of the Stations of the Cross in the company of clowns.  Clowns, you say?  Yes, clowns.  Some at first may feel that this is diminishing the importance of the Way of the Cross or denigrating it in some way.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A group in our diocese has been presenting this drama for the past twenty-eight years.  Clowns have been a part of our Christian history for centuries.  In the fourth century, there was a clown named Philemon who would not obey an imperial edict to worship the pagan gods of the emperor.  For this he was executed - he had become a "clown for Christ."
The clown ministry in our diocese in their brochure present the question: Why use clowns for such a highly devotional setting as the Way of the Cross?  One of the priests of our diocese gave this as a response to that question:
Certainly the clown is "an ageless reality...."  A clown is that anonymous and yet very personal figure who has appeal to persons of every age.  There's something about the figure of a clown that can draw us in, because that clown becomes the figure of everyone....If there is any way of helping us to identify, if there is any way to kind of pull us in to the full meaning, to the full celebration of the events of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection, then certainly there's a benefit...there's a value.
These two events have certainly drawn me closer to Jesus this Lent.  My prayer is that you will find people and events in your lives that will continue to draw closer to him because there is no better friend that we can have.  May you have a prayerful remainder of Lent and a glorious Easter to come.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pope Francis - A Year

A year ago yesterday I was attending a meeting at our diocesan pastoral center when the news came that white smoke had been seen coming from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican where the world's cardinals had met in conclave to select a successor to the retired Pope Benedict XVI.  In a world full of technological advances: computers, I-pads, smart phones, etc., the ancient tradition of the Roman Church was being fulfilled as the ballots that elected a new pope were burned bringing forth the white smoke.
A television had been set up in an adjacent meeting room and we all flocked to hear the announcement of the new pope.  The cardinal who would announce this came to the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square where thousands had gathered to receive the news.  Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam!   I announce to you great joy; we have a pope!  Then we heard the name:  Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Who?  Then we heard that the first pope from the Americas had been elected, the archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina.  Well known in the southern hemisphere but not that well known here in the U.S.
Shortly thereafter, the curtains on the balcony parted again and we saw dressed in a simple white cassock a man who would speak his first words to the world as pope:  Fratelli e sorelli, buona sera.  The simple greeting:  Brothers and sisters, good evening.  Shortly thereafter the Holy Father would bow before the assembled crowd in the square and ask for their prayers.  Thus began the pontificate of Pope Francis and the world fell in love with him.
Recently the pope said that it was disconcerting to him that he seemed to have taken on the role of a superstar (even a famous rock magazine featured him on one of their covers).  He pointed out that he was a normal person and wanted to be seen as such.  I believe it is that normality that has endeared him to the world, not only of the faithful but others as well.
He reaches out to the world and engages those around him.  He is concerned with the person and while he has not shied away from speaking about world issues, he always reminds us that we must be there for others, particularly the poor and the disenfranchised of our society.  Was this not what Jesus did when he was among us?  He would challenge the world of his time but he was always there to reach out and touch the sinner, the sick and the less fortunate.  This is the challenge we face in our own time and as we journey through another period of Lent we are reminded by the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that it is others that we must seek out and be there for.
But Pope Francis wants us to realize that doing all this should be joyful.  In the opening words of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he says:  The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus....With Christ joy is constantly born anew....I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Lent is the time for this encounter and we should take the opportunity to renew our own encounters with Jesus through prayer and reconciliation.  The pope has asked for our prayers.  Let us pray for this good and humble servant of Christ that he may continue in good health and have the strength needed to lead God's people at this time in our world.  Happy anniversary, Holy Father; our prayers are with you.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Bishops

This has been an exiting week for our Diocese of Albany, New York.  Just a few days ago, it was announced that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, had named a new bishop for the diocese to succeed our retiring bishop.  I would just like to share a few thoughts about each of these men.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard
In 1977, Pope Paul VI named a local priest of our diocese, Howard J. Hubbard, to be the ninth bishop of the Albany Diocese.  The new bishop was the youngest bishop in the country at the time and grew up in Troy, New York.  I had the privilege of getting to know Howard when we were seminary students together and it has been a wonderful friendship.  For the past thirty-seven years, he has also been my bishop.  Almost twenty years ago, I was privileged to have him ordain me to the diaconate for the diocese.  Bishop Hubbard has served the faithful of the diocese well during some very trying and challenging times in our Church.  When he reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops at 75 this past fall, he submitted his resignation and the diocese awaited the announcement of his replacement.  I know that Bishop Hubbard will continue to serve the people in the diocese in whatever way he can to assist his successor.  It is my hope that he has a chance to relax and enjoy his retirement and that God will continue to give him good health.
Bishop-elect Edward Scharfenberger
When I read my e-mail early one morning last week, I was surprised to hear that Pope Francis had named a new bishop for the diocese.  Immediately, everyone began to wonder who this person was and when he would become the tenth bishop of the diocese.  Bishop-elect Scharfenberger is a native of Brooklyn and has served the Brooklyn Diocese in a number of capacities.  He is a civil and canon lawyer, a linguist, a scholar, but above all a pastor.  It is this pastoral experience that will help him guide the over 330,000 faithful in 127 parishes through this fourteen county diocese that ecompasses an area of over 10,000 square miles.  In speaking with a deacon colleague in the Brooklyn Diocese, I was told that we were getting a "fine priest" as our new bishop and that we would be blessed by his presence among us.  A deacon is ordained to serve his bishop and I look forward to assisting the new bishop in any way that I can.  The prayers of the people of our diocese go with Bishop-elect Scharfenberger who will be ordained and installed as our bishop on April 10.

May God grant good health and many blessings for these two fine men who have so nobly and faithfully served our Church.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What Retirement?

We often hear people who have retired say that they are busier than when they were working for a living.  When one thinks about retirement, thoughts of being able to relax, read books or watch unending hours of television with no particular cares might cross one's mind.  I have found, however, that this image of retirement, at least for me, has never been the case.
I have officially "retired" twice in my life.  The first was when I left employment with the State of New York in 1994 after almost thirty years of government service.  In 2006, I was appointed by my bishop to be the parish leader of a suburban parish in our diocese.  I retired from that position in 2010.  Since then, what has retirement been like?
For myself, just sitting around taking it easy would bore me to death.  Unfortunately, my physical well-being has not kept up with my mental well-being.  Arthritis has become increasingly more difficult for me but my keeping busy in a variety of ways keeps my mental well-being strong (at least I hope so).
As an ordained deacon in the Church, most of what I do to keep busy has to do with the Church.  I have been privileged to serve on two committees in our diocese (one on liturgy and one on ecumenism) as well as teaching homiletics (preaching) to those studying for the diaconate.  I also have assisted as deacon in two parishes and have twice served as an interim administrator of a parish while the parish leader was on medical leave.
I have enjoyed all of these endeavors and hope that I may be able to continue to serve the Church as long as my health holds out.  This coming Easter Sunday, I will begin my 80th year on this planet and I have been blessed in many ways throughout those years especially with a wonderful spouse and family who have supported my efforts.
My suggestion to anyone who is contemplating retirement: keep busy!  Nothing can bring one down more quickly than inactivity.  For me, I just hope that the Lord will grant me more years to be of service while I still can serve.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Rules From God for 2014

Again this year, let me share these Rules From God given to us by the parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Troy, New York:

1.  WAKE UP!!  Decide to have a good day.  Today is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Ps. 118:24)

2.  DRESS UP!!  The best way to dress up is to put on a smile.  A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.  The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.  (1 Samuel 16:7)

3.  SHUT UP!!  Say nice things and learn to listen.  God gave us two ears and one mouth, so he must have meant for us to do twice as much listening as talking.  He who guards his lips guards his soul.  (Proverbs 13:3)

4.  STAND UP!!  Stand up for what you believe in.  Stand for something or you will fall for anything.  Let us not be weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good.  (Galatians 6:9-10)

5.  LOOK UP!!  Look up to the Lord.  I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me.  (Phil. 4:13)

6.  REACH UP!!  Reach up for something higher.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on our own understanding.  In all your ways, acknowledge the Lord and he will direct your path.  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

7.  LIFT UP!!  Lift up your prayers.  Do not worry about anything, instead PRAY ABOUT EVERYTHING.  (Phil. 4:6)

Have a happy, safe and healthy 2014!!