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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Priest who Loved the Atheist...

Christopher Hitchens
I wouldn't think a priest could be a fan of a notorious and controversial atheist, but that appears to be the case with Word on Fire's Fr. Robert Barron and well-known atheist author, columnist, and speaker Christopher Hitchens, of God is Not Great fame.

Hitchens died earlier this month at age 62, after a battle with esophageal cancer (see here and here).

As a matter of fact, when I posted that Hitchens had died on my Facebook page, a good friend and fellow blogger commented that he hoped that Mother Teresa would get a one-day furlough from heaven to go down to kick his defamatory butt (to use a milder term).

That's the kind of response that Hitchens' death probably invoked from many theists who knew him, except maybe Fr. Barron and the hundreds of friends and thousands of fans, including Christians, who tried to persuade him and prayed for him to convert during his illness.

Hitchens was a contradiction.  He supported President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, often criticized Michael Moore and Bill Clinton and his brother Peter Hitchens, is an atheist turned Roman Catholic and a renown Conservative political and social writer in England.

Yet, he was a "reformed" socialist, who supported globalization, the legalization of drugs and relentlessly attacked religion, with a special disdain for the Catholic Church, the Pope and Mother Teresa. 

In fact, he was part the "New Atheist" movement and was involved in a group of atheist intellectuals, that called themselves The Four Horsemen after the Apocalyptic characters in the Gospel of John, whose mission it was to try to eradicate God from contemporary society and culture.

Nevertheless, if we reflect on it deeply, we realize Fr. Barron is right. 

As Christians, who worship the God of love, we must love, even when it's a devout atheist (although easier said then done).  We believe in redemption and will never know if before taking his last breath, Hitchens asked God for mercy and forgiveness, or maybe, as Fr. Barron suggests, Hitchens was a religious man all along...   

Monday, December 26, 2011

Misadventures of a Pre-Christmas Bike Ride...

My hairy legs slowed me down
I have several friends who are into cycling.

One has even started his own cycling team, goes riding every morning with some of our biking buddies and fellow cyclists from the area, and has even partaken in a 150 mile charity ride. This is from a guy, who friends say, when he first started, would show up with a cigar in his mouth.

For months, he has been inviting me to ride with him and some friends but since his riding group usually leaves way too early for me (about 5am), I always had a built-in excuse. That is until last weekend when he asked me to join him for a ride on Christmas Eve morning, at a more reasonable time.

After meeting me at 6:50am near my house in Coral Gables and backtracking to his house to get me a helmet (I don't have one), a water bottle and filling my tires with air (the guy doesn't fool around), we headed off to meet the rest of the group in South Miami.

As we approach a busy intersection, I was so involved in our conversation that I didn't realize a car was going to cross in front of us until my friend yelled, "Slow down!" As I hit the brakes, my bike came to a dead stop. Unfortunately, I didn't.

I took a nasty spill, flying over my handlebars and crashing violently into the street, breaking the fall with my hands and rolling over on my right shoulder. Fortunately, the car was able to stop in plenty of time.

Aside from a minor scrape on my knee and ego, through the grace of God, I came away practically unscathed; at least at first glance.

"Are you O.k.?" my friend asked. A couple of other cyclists, that were passing by and saw the tumble, also stopped to check on me.

"Good. I'm alright," I replied, trying desperately to play off the pain I was in. Despite still being dazed from the shock, I got back on the seat as quickly as I could and kept going.

The last time I recall falling from my bike, I was about nine-years-old and trying to beat a car across the street in front of my house. I lost.

The car broadsided me, tossing me and my bike in the air. As I came down, my head hit the front bumper (or hood; it just hurt!), before being flung to the pavement, where my head dribbled several times on the street like a basketball, as my body slid for several yards down the road.  I was lucky the car stopped before running me over.

I probably suffered a minor concussion, had bumps and bruises on my head, tailbone and elbows, and was bleeding from several bad scrapes, but my guardian angel was definitely with me then too. I was able to walk away from the collision on my own.

Back to my pre-Christmas story, it wasn't long after getting back on my bike, that I started realizing the pain I was in. My wrists and shoulders were barking, as the impact of a 250 lbs man traveling at about 14 miles per hour, stopping abruptly, catapulting in the air like a canon ball in medieval times and hitting cement would have the tendency to do.

It was an ominous beginning to our ride, which was supposed to go as far as Black Point Marina in South Miami-Dade, which my friend informed me would be about 45 miles roundtrip and take about two and a half hours (I usually ride about 12 miles max!).

Not to mention, Christmas Eve dinner was going to be at my house this year and I had told my wife I would be back in a couple of hours (yikes!). Considering that we were still heading to meet other riders to then begin a two and a half hour ride was concerning. (I didn’t want to start our Christmas celebration in the Espinosa dog house!)

The plan was to meet the others at 7:30am at a designated spot and despite the delay for gear and my fall, we got there about ten minutes early.

There were already about five people waiting when we arrived. All of a sudden, after a brief introduction, there are eight, then ten, then fifteen, twenty and by the end, about twenty seven cyclists had amassed (if I counted correctly). They were mostly from another bicycle team that rides several times a week. Aside from my friend, I didn't know a soul.

They were all in full bicycle gear, padded spandex shorts, multi-colored skin-tight shirts with bright lettering, helmets, glasses, gloves, bike shoes to clip on to the tiny pedals on their razor-thin lightweight foreign-made racing bikes and I'm sure several shaved legs.

Then I took stock of my look; an old grey fleece jacket, that had shrunk just enough to heighten my protruding belly, grey cotton gym shorts, running shoes, and old fashioned pedals on my clunky Trek mountain bike (not to mention; hairy legs). I knew my odds of keeping pace with them, probably looked as good as I did.

Yet, I heard someone say not to worry, "No man left behind." They were going to go on a nice leisurely pace, so I thought, "I'm good."

At 7:32am, we set off. I was one of the first to get going and started south on Red Road, my friend passing briskly by me with a group of riders, as well as several other guys. I kept pedaling away and picking up speed, as more men and women whisked by and then more, and then more.

As one guy passed by, he asked, "Are you Ok?"  Which left me a bit perplexed. 

I was going at, what I thought, was a good pace.  I wasn't showing any indication of physical stress or equipment problem.  Then, I glanced back and realized, I was the last one.  I was being left behind!

I started to push and pedaling feverishly to try to catch up with the peloton (I was forced to watch the Tour de France several times by my wife and brother-in-law during our family vacation in Sanibel!).

In fact, I had a brief flashback to a time that my wife, brother, sister-in-law, her husband and I rode to Captiva Island from Sanibel (about 24 miles roundtrip) several years ago.

It was during the Tour de France and I was trailing behind the others (our mini-peloton) in my rental bike. I decided to catch up and stood up to pedal faster.

As I caught up with them, I started swaying from side to side, like I had seen the guys in the Tour do, and, all of a sudden, the bike chain came off and the bike came to a sudden stop, hurling me forward and slamming the family jewels (as my high school baseball coach used to say) right into the handlebars, and almost tossing me off the bike in the process. I was able to keep from crashing head first by jumping off and landing on my feet (I was a little lighter and more nimble back then).

While they were all laughing hysterically (especially my wife), I had to fix the chain. Fortunately, it wasn't complicated since we were close to Captiva and it would have meant a long walk back).

Anyway, back to last weekend’s ride, I put the bike in the highest gear to gain speed in hopes of catching up with the rest of the group.

However, my top gear was having some sort of problem. It wasn't catching. So, I had to downshift and keep pedaling away.

Meanwhile, I felt like the little boy chasing a balloon blowing in the wind. Every time I was getting close to the peleton, as they slowed down because of traffic, they rode farther ahead.

By the time they turned, somewhere near SW 120th St., I was already lagging about half a block behind. I was definitely getting left behind!

There were two options at this point. One was to keep pedaling harder in hopes of catching them for a short while, knowing that keeping up with them for 45 miles was going to be a challenge, at best, or two, turn around and head back home.

The choice was easy. I decided on the latter.

I took up my normal pace of about 12-14 miles per hour, prayed a Rosary as I usually do on my morning rides, and got home before my family was up. Peace still reigned in the Espinosa household and Christmas was saved! 

Therefore, despite the pain and traumatic fall, I have to thank my friend for a nice ride after all (about 15-17 miles).  Although, let's just say, besides my girth, slightly lesser drive and bearlike hairiness, I won't be confused with Lance Armstrong anytime soon...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Praying Before Meals is Not Always Easy, Even for Priests...

Saying Grace by Norman Rockwell
One of the habits I have gotten my family used to is praying before every meal, especially when we are together.

I'll be honest, it's not something that I necessarily grew up doing but wanted to establish the practice for my kids.

Many years ago, a friend told me a story about an experience he had with his family one night, while having dinner at a restaurant. 

A family that was very unlike them walked into the eatery.  They were wearing beat up jeans and ratty t-shirts, had long and disheveled hair, the man was unshaven, and both parents were sporting tattoos.

My friends says that, in his mind, he was already judging them and started getting concerned about whether they might start using foul language or behaving ornery.  He felt uncomfortable.

Then, he looked over and they were holding hands and saying grace.

My friend says he felt ashamed.  Here he was feeling high and mighty, making prejudgements because of the way they looked, and he was humbled by their faith; a faith that he was too embarrassed to show with his own family in a crowded restaurant.

I have never forgotten that story.

I recently got an email from my boss with a blog by a beloved local Miami priest, named Fr. Guillermo Garcia, better known as Fr. Willie, who had a similar experience to that of my friend.

During a recent trip to New York, Fr. Willie had met some old high school friends that live in the city at a local deli for lunch.  When their meal was served, there was an awkward moment.  He writes:
As a priest I always experience that uncomfortable moment before eating a meal with others that is brought about by the insecurity of whether we should say a prayer or not. It’s uncomfortable because I don’t want others to feel awkward having to bow their heads and make the sign of the cross in a public place, especially a place like New York City.

So there we sat, awkwardly waiting in silence for someone to make the first move. Unable to bear the discomfort much longer I boldly decided to act. I looked down at my hot pastrami sandwich and took a bite. Immediately the tension was relaxed. The others at the table proceeded to pick up their sandwiches and gorge on the deli delights brought to us by the culinary expertise of New Yorkers.

Later that day, as they made their way through a busy street, he noticed a bearded older man in a skullcap placing a mat on the floor and kneeling for his afternoon prayers, as the sun was setting, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the major metropolis.

Fr. Willie writes:
And then I was uncomfortable again.

There were hundreds of people walking the sidewalk on that busy weekday afternoon who paused to watch this little old man as he offered his prayer in the heart of the city. Some of them were probably angered at his public display of faith, some of them probably thought he was a fanatic like the ones who flew airplanes into buildings just a few blocks away, and some of them probably just laughed.

But I was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because just a few minutes earlier I had allowed an awkward moment determine how and if I expressed my conviction of faith. Uncomfortable because I had failed to thank God for the meal I had received, because I had failed to teach a lesson to the alumni, and because I was too worried about my own comfort and not worried enough about my faith. Uncomfortable because I recognized that my courage didn’t measure up to the courage of this little old man in the skullcap.

What a lesson I learned. A life of faith is not about comfort and ease, but about conviction and courage. It is a call to give witness to all people, at all time, no matter what the circumstance, no matter where the place. Even in New York City.
Thus, my friend and Fr. Willie share the same story.

If the least I can do is to pray with my family before meals, even at the risk of being seen in public, like the disheveled tattooed family and the bearded old man with the skullcap had the courage and conviction to do, then that is what I will do.

Yet, the challenge for me is no longer saying grace with my family, which is now expected and safe.  In order to get out of my comfort zone and give witness to my faith, as Fr. Willie suggested, it means I would have to live my faith in everything I do, including praying before meals with friends. 

Unfortunately, during a recent company Christmas luncheon, all I could muster was to say grace in silence.  I still have a long way to go...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tears Down My Cheeks on Commute to Work...

Fans of country music might argue that their favorite music style is not just something to be listened to, it's something to be felt.  It's about life; the good, the bad, the ugly, family, faith, hope, and love.  It's about standing up for what you believe and overcoming the struggles. 

In fact, there's a saying that goes something along the lines of, if there is a situation in life, there's probably a country song written about it.

Despite being only a dabbler in the genre, it seems, every time I listen to a country music song carefully, I can relate to the words and, sometimes, even may profoundly feel them, as one song did recently on my way to work.

There I was; happily driving with my McDonald’s breakfast burrito on my right hand and trying to apply the sauce on it with my left, while keeping a couple of fingers on the steering wheel (and people think texting is bad!).

All of a sudden, I heard these words from the radio, “She dropped the phone and burst into tears. The doctor just confirmed her fears. Her husband held it in and held her tight.”

I put my burrito aside and started listening more intently.  “Cancer don’t discriminate or care if you’re just 38 with three kids who need you in their lives. He said, "I know that you’re afraid and I am too, but you’ll never be alone, I promise you."

I started thinking about my wife and kids and felt a tear running down my cheek.

Then, the refrain, sung from the perspective of the husband, really put a dagger in me, “When you’re weak, I’ll be strong. When you let go, I’ll hold on. When you need to cry, I swear that I’ll be there to dry your eyes. When you feel lost and scared to death, Like you can’t take one more step Just take my hand, together we can do it I’m gonna love you through it.”

By that point, tears were uncontrollably gushing down both cheeks, as I was desperately trying to avoid making eye contact with other drivers. 

I seems like a recurring theme for me around this time of year.

Last year it was Christmas Shoes  by New Song.  This year, it was I'm Gonna Love You Through It, by Martina McBride (see below).

It also reminded me of several friends who have gone and are still going through the scenario played out in the song.

One of our friends was able to catch breast cancer early and, thankfully, she is in remission.  She and her husband have young children and have gone through the emotional and spiritual roller coaster that cancer brings with it over the last couple of years. 

They say faith is what helped carry them through. 

Another friend and her husband are still going through this but, in this case, the wife was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, which was further complicated when she also suffered a stroke. 

The last year, has been an uphill climb for them; the highs and lows, the good days and bad, the in and out of hospitals and treatments, the emotional and financial toll, and the many more issues and problems that I don't even know about.

Still, like the first couple, faith and their love for one another seems to be what is helping them overcome.

In St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, "God is faithfull, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor 10:13).

These are just two stories.  Two women like the hundreds of thousands that each year get diagnosed with some form of cancer or another.  And, two men, who like in the Martina McBride song, have helped their wives through the pain, sorrow, hardship, despair, doubt and loneliness with their love; like hundreds of thousands of wives help their husbands get through similar ordeals each year as well.

As I pulled into the parking lot at work, and the song came to an end, I reflected on how blessed my wife and I have been. 

I don't know if I would have the courage and strength to love my wife through a situation like the one in the song (without her having to console me instead!), but I'd like to think, with God's help, I would, as I know, she would love me through it too.

Taking a deep breath, I gathered myself, wiped the tears from my face and finally took a bite from my burrito...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Being Single During Christmas Can Give Anyone the Blues...

One recent morning, a co-worker was celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary and a discussion broke out in our newsroom about marriage.

The conversation included three single ladies, my married friend (female) and me (the sole male representing!).

The married friend said that despite the bad rap sometimes, marriage was a wonderful thing.

I chimed in that marriage gives you freedom. Freedom? What are you talk’n about Willis?

It’s funny, most people in the “unmarried and loving it” crowd picture marriage as too restricting and constricting on individual freedoms. But, it’s actually the opposite.

At least in my case, marriage gives me freedom. Freedom to love like God loves, to get outside of myself and focus on my wife (which, for me, is a work in progress), to share an intimacy and oneness that can’t be humanly duplicated with anyone else, except with my wife, and, as an added bonus, the freedom to do things that I couldn't possibly be able to if it wasn't for her (i.e., paying the bills so that I can blog!). Marriage is, in fact, liberating.

Besides, I started remembering that this time of the year can really suck when you are single!

I mean, I recall the sense of loneliness I felt during the Christmas Season during my single days; not having a girlfriend to share with and buy gifts for, no one to get a gift from (except my brother and parents), and no one to invite to the company Christmas Party (although at my workplace they give us a day off instead) or to the family reunion.

Meanwhile, every other TV commercial shows happy couples and families opening their gifts under a Christmas tree or getting a Lexus wrapped in a red ribbon (this is a more recent commercial, but you get my point).

I remember the many nights of going out during the holiday season. All the stores were full of people, trying to find that perfect gift for their loved ones, the streets elaborately decorated with lights, if lucky, chilly weather in the air, Christmas carols on the radio, holiday cheer abound, and me trying to get hooked up at a bar and thinking, this really sucks!

Let’s face it, It’s a Wonderful Life is not as wonderful if you have no one to cuddle with. It’s not the same to watch it in the family room with your parents.

One year, I went to three random Christmas parties with different dates.  I can't recall one by name. How sad.

I can see how people have the Christmas blues, especially when the true meaning of Christmas is missing or lost, as it was for me during my single days.

Ironically, a Pew Research study published this week indicates that more Americans are waiting longer to get married for the first time.

Unfortunately, they don’t know what they’re missing. Then again, maybe they do during this time of the year...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dion the Wanderer Finds Way Home...

It's amazing the things you miss and then discover by chance one day while clearing out your DVR.

Last week, I was erasing several programs I had recorded, since my recording capacity was shrinking, and ran across an interview with rock and roll legend, Dion DiMucci.

I’ll be honest; I didn’t know much about DiMucci, outside of his stage name (Dion) and a few of his better known hit songs, which I had heard through the years, without even realizing they were his.

As I began to watch the interview, DiMucci, quickly peaked my interest by saying he was the only headliner to survive the fatal plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson in 1959. Having watched La Bamba, I was intrigued.

Recounting the story, he talked about how the bus they had been touring in kept breaking down and it was blisteringly cold. They were traveling from Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota and Holly decided to charter a small 4-seat plane for the stars of the show.  The only hitch, there was just room for three of them, so they decided to draw straws to see who would get on board with the pilot.

DiMucci won but says he couldn't see himself coughing up the $36 bucks it would cost each of them to charter the flight, which he says, was the same amount his parents would often argue over, since it was what they paid for rent in the apartment they lived, while he was growing up. Instead, Dion gave his seat to Valens.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff on February 3, 1959, which became known as "The Day the Music Died."

DiMucci retold the story on EWTN's The World Over with Raymond Arroyo, where he was promoting his new autobiography, titled, Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth, co-written by Mike Aquilina.

In the book, Dion, writes about his rags to riches story, his fast ascent into super stardom at 19 in the late 50's, his fast lane lifestyle in the 60's (which led him to drug addiction), and his long and difficult sojourn back to the faith of his childhood.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who Bruce Springsteen once called the link between Sinatra and rock-n-roll, is now in his early seventies but still has that cool swagger he was known for in his early days and can still play and carry a tune with any new kid on stage.

In fact, he has never stopped writing and recording music since he first broke into the scene, and says he feels more relevant today than at any point in his life because, for the first time, he knows not only who he is but adds, he now knows whose he is.

Dion & The Belmonts
In the interview with Arroyo, Dion talked about his early influences, Hank William Sr. and Lou Reed, which, when fused (Country and Blues) became his rock sound, that started with a neighborhood group called, Dion and the Belmonts, after Belmont Avenue in the Bronx (I Wonder Why), and later led to a solo career.

When asked if he was happy after The WandererRunaround Sue, A Teenager in Love and a string of other hits, DiMucci says, "Getting a hit record is like being popular, or famous, or successful.  It's almost like a narcotic. It is like a narcotic. So, I don't know how truly happy (I was). You know, you get excited about a lot of things but deep inside, you get down in the core, when I was alone, and I wondered, is something missing? Yeah, the bankbook's full and I got the new car but who are the people in the car and how do you relate to them? And where are we going? We're making good time, but we don't know where we're going."

"I was very selfish, self-centered, now that I look back at it; inconsiderate, fearful, dishonest.  Who knew?  I thought I was God's gift to the world. But, deep inside, I think it was the bleakest, darkest period of my life. I was filling up the emptiness with the drugs and partying. I was running and it doesn't matter what kind of shoes you got on if you're running. I don't care if you're using alcohol, drugs, pills, you know, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Whatever you're doing, you're running and it doesn't come out well."

During that time of heavy drug use, he decided to try to escape the vicious cycle he was in by moving with his wife, and high school sweetheart, Susan, to Miami. The couple moved in with her parents. He says that living with his father-in-law, who was a devout man of faith, made a profound impact on his life.

One day, Dion says he saw his father-in-law on his knees praying. It shook him to the core.  He says his father-in-law was an imposing and powerful man, who had many men working for him. He says that seeing his wife’s father on his knees praying to God and watching him live and proclaim his faith on a daily basis, started to chip away at him.

Despite being raised Roman Catholic in an Italian neighborhood, where he attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, he says, "I knew nothing about being Catholic. I knew nothing about my religion. I knew Father, Son and Holy Spirit and I used to cross myself when I walked in front of a church." That was the extent of his religious understanding. 

But, he says, a local parish priest used to call him over and challenge him on the faith by asking him questions and giving him words of wisdom that resonated within him years later.

"And, after all these drug induced years of searching, when I was at my bottom, what do you think I thought of? Mount Carmel Catholic Church, and I wondered, where God is in all this?"

After listening to his father-in-law talk to him about God and the importance of faith for so long, Dion decided it was time to reach out and ask God where he was in all this.

Dion says that for the first time, he got down on his knees in his room and prayed. He was never the same after that. He says he gave up drugs and alcohol cold turkey that day and started seeking God.

His journey began at an Evangelical church. He says he was reading the Bible for the first time in his life and it was reflected in his music. After his conversion, he recorded several gospel albums and was even nominated for a Grammy for two of them, “I Put Away My Idols," and “Bronx in Blue.”

Eventually, Dion says he started noticing inconsistencies in the way different Christians interpreted certain Bible verses and critical comments being made against the church that he had grown up in as a kid.

Although, eternally grateful for the understanding he gained on the Word and the love of Christ during 18 years in various Protestant churches, questions started to arise within him about those inconsistencies.

He recalls one verse in particular that haunted him, "The pillar and foundation of truth is what? The Bible itself says, it's the church. Now, what church, I started asking?" and it brought him back to the priest back home, who once asked him, "What is truth and who has the authority to define it?"

"The Truth shall set you free and it set me free. When I saw that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is who it claimed to be, you know, when I saw the center of the Church, and, I think a lot of people don't see that. They see this. They see that. I don't know what they see. But, they are not in the center of the Church looking out. They are outside looking in and yelling at it and beating it and cursing at it and seeing the dark stained glass windows. They are not inside it and seeing the beauty and the wonder and the mystery and the beauty of truth. I mean, it's mind boggling. I love the Church. Once you see it, because, it was started from above. It was started by Christ Himself."

"You always hear, we have to get back to what the Apostles, the original (church), the way they were back then. And, the Catholic Church is that church. It just doesn't look like an acorn anymore. I don't look like a baby anymore. You can't recognize me from my baby picture any more. But, I can assure you, it's the same DNA."

"I love defining stuff, like freedom. I used to think freedom was doing anything you want, especially, if you didn't get caught; regardless of the consequences to your wife, your family, your God, your country, your self and that's license. Freedom is the ability to choose the good. God's best. And, I was never free to do that. So, I have to work on it a day at a time."

Aside from his ongoing music career, DiMucci is currently involved in a prison ministry and helps men recovering from addictions. 

After listening to the full interview, I can say that Dion comes across as a man of sincere convictions with a great grasp of his faith. The Wanderer found his way home and, as he says, the Truth has set him free.

Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth is definitely another of the many books in my growing Christmas list.

Now, to see what else I can find in my DVR...

Watch more about Dion's life, music, relationship with John Lennon, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and what's next for him:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Talk About Brutal Honesty...

I don't know whether he meant it as a compliment or not but, as I was bathing my 4-year-old son last night, he said to me, "Daddy, when I grow up, I want to have man boobs like you!"

Huh?  Thanks, I think.

Man, it sucks getting old...


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I'm Just Glad it's Over...

Just watching my four-year-old son going in and out of the fun house was making my already exhausted and beat up body more tired by the minute, if that’s possible, after five hours of walking around my kids’ school fair.

He went in six, seven and eight times back to back; around several gates, up a rope ladder, over a bridge, down a slide and through several punching bags, out and back in.

Each time he lifted his long sleeve shirt and showed the attendant his fuchsia colored bracelet that let it be known that he could ride as many times as he wanted (courtesy of mom and dad's $45 check per child), sort of, like a just-minted 21-year-old showing off his legal i.d. for the first time at bars (in my day it was 18).

Last weekend, my wife, kids and I spent most of it at our parish and childrens' school's yearly fund raising carnival, which many parents dread (although you can't see, I'm raising my hand), but our kids start looking forward to from the time it ends on Sunday night one year until the time it starts the next.

The Drop
The anticipation grows even stronger when they see the carnival workers installing the fair rides and games in the school yard the week prior to the event and my kids (my daughters) start talking about all the rides they are planning to go on; like the G-Force, the Ali-Baba, the Pharaoh’s Ferry and grand daddy of them all; The Drop, which my wife ended up riding with the girls.

For the younger kids, like my son and seven-year-old daughter, it’s all about the rides and hanging out with their classmates.

But, for the older kids, like my soon-to-be eleven-year-old daughter, it’s about the independence. It’s an opportunity to hang out with their friends without their parents’ constant gaze (although with my wife and my friends throughout the schoolyard, there is always a parental eye on all the kids).

For me, it’s three nights and two days (although, this year, we missed Friday night due to our daughters’ Christmas ballet recital) of chasing my son around the school yard to the same few rides (that he can actually get on) for hours on end, trying to keep him away from the carnival games and ignoring the carnival workers that try to lure you into spending money for ridiculous looking stuffed animals (or gold fish), unceasingly looking for my wife and the girls, eating more than I should (which, in all honesty, I do anyway; with or without a fair), spending time with friends, although in spurts, since, with a rambunctious 4-year-old, who doesn’t want to stop, it can be difficult, and even volunteering to wash dishes in the kitchen (the only thing I can really do since I’ll never be confused for Emeril Lagasse with a spatula in my hand).  It is non-stop.

Fun times down the slide
On Saturday, we got there at 5pm and we walked around the same circle of rides, probably about 300 yards, about a gazillion times (almost as many times as my son went into the two different fun houses, went down the slide, rode the carousel, kiddy cars, a spinning alligator and kiddy roller coaster, until about 10pm. Even I got into the action, when he asked me to ride with him on the bumper cars.

Meanwhile, our oldest daughter started spreading her wings.

At one point, she goes by my wife and me and pretends not to see us, as she turned and looked the other way so that we don’t tell her anything while she’s with her friends.

She was with her BFF and, at one point, was being watched by her friend's 18-year-old cousin, who was with her boyfriend, which I wasn't too keen on. Then again, as my wife says, at some point, I have to start letting go of the leash; although I was hoping to begin when she started college (anyway, I want to be close enough to yank the leash from time to time!).

On Sunday, we went to morning Mass, as we usually do at 9am, went to breakfast and then dropped off my wife at the fair. She had to be there by 11:30am for her shift as a volunteer at the First Grade booth, which sold soft drinks and water.

I went with the kids to put away the Christmas decoration boxes in storage and was back at the fair by 1pm and the games began.  We were there until 7pm.

In other words, no Dolphins football game (I'm a Redskins fan but you get my point), no relaxing at home, no trip to Target or Home Depot, no Christmas shopping, not even any alcohol (although some parents smuggled in their own contraband libations). Talk about sacrifice!  Maybe, I'll be compensated in the afterlife. 

After over eleven hours of fair, umpteen temper tantrums (my kids, not me), ice-cream all over the face (my kids and me) and absolutely no money left in our pockets, I’m sure, like most parents of our parish community, I'm just glad it's over.

Then again, considering it's the biggest fund raiser of the year for our church and school, and my son is in Pre-K, I only have nine more years to go.  Woo-hoo!  And to think, my wife always says I'm just looking at the negative!...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

It's Not Called Suntan U for Nothing...

After Mass this morning, I was talking to some of my friends about the chilly weather we woke up to (low 60’s, which in Miami means sweaters, coats and, for some, even scarves) and one of the guys said, “This isn’t cold. Talk to me when you have to dig your way out of three feet of snow in the morning just to get to your car and then it doesn’t start because the engine is frozen.”

It reminded me of a funny story that happened to me while attending the University of Miami.

Sugarbush, Vermont 
A group of fraternity brothers (and guests), including one local politician, who I will not name, went on a road trip to Sugarbush, Vermont (circa 1987) to go skiing.

It was the first time I had ever gone skiing and probably the first time I had seen snow since my early teens with my cousins in Chicago.

The second morning, after arriving at the house we were staying at, it was so cold that the van we rented (in a Hialeah car rental agency, which was more like an auto repair shop but gave us the cheapest rate) would not start.

Here we were, five or six grown college men, mostly upperclassmen, and what brilliant idea did we come up with? We boiled some water and poured over the engine.

Needless to say, we quickly found out, if you pour water in icy cold weather, it turns to ice! 

We had to call a local mechanic, who came to bail us out (while holding back chuckles, I'm sure!), and we didn’t hit the ski slopes until early afternoon.

Hey, they don’t call it Suntan U for nothing…

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Wonderful Beginning to Advent…

There’s nothing like getting the Espinosa Advent Season off on the right foot.

For the first time, in I don’t know how many years (if ever), we actually put up our Christmas tree and outdoor lights (including a new nativity scene that we incorporated) on Thanksgiving weekend! (yes, we've become a one of "those" family)

George and Mary Bailey
Moreover, we did it all on Sunday, the first day of Advent, where after putting up the decorations, we prayed, blessed and lit the wreath (except our 4-year-old son, who refused to join us because he was upset that I interrupted his play), read about St. Patrick (we pick a saint each day and read about their life) and then my two daughters and I watched the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Unfortunately, my wife was working on a translation (one of her side jobs) which was due the next day and my son went back to playing.

I don’t know about you but every time I watch that last seen of the movie, I still get a knot in my throat.

Maybe, I just identify with George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart's character) since I was the brother that stayed home, although, it was actually my choice.  I didn't want to leave.  I actually liked living in my parents' house! (maybe, that explains a lot)

It also makes me realize that despite any hardships or struggles I may face (which are minuscule compared to the troubles George faces), I am so undeservedly blessed.

In fact, I think even my 7-year-old got caught up in that last scene. As George ran down Bedford Falls’ town square, ecstatically yelling, “Merry Christmas,” to everyone and everything he saw, including the movie theatre, which was showing The Bells of St. Mary (next week's family movie), after realizing his life was wonderful, my daughter actually cheered, “Yea!”

What a great and wonderful (pun intended) way to start our Advent Season.

In any event, after several years of trying, I understand that keeping the tradition of Advent going night after night, where we, as a family, prepare spiritually for the birth of Jesus, is a challenge. While, we have gotten off to good starts before, our enthusiasm eventually fizzles out like a J-Lo relationship.

Let's face it, gathering the family around the dining room table to light the candles (adding one each week), pray and read about a saint (that is our routine) for four weeks, is not that easy, especially, considering that some nights we have to wait for one of our girls to get home from ballet rehearsal, our 4-year-old son, who wants attention in the most inopportune times, the school fair (this upcoming weekend) and the soon-to-come Christmas party season, when my wife and I are not always at home. 

Still, my wife and I feel it is well worth the effort.  It's a tradition that we want to establish for our kids, so that they can pass it on to their families and, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I can someday sing, "Tradition!... tradition!" and Sunday night gave me hope. (I'm actually working on the robust physique of Tevye, which is developing quite nicely, thank you very much, although my singing leaves a lot to be desired)

Not to mention, I think the girls are finally both at a right age to understand and partake in the nightly ritual.  In fact, my younger daughter quickly volunteered to read the next night.

I guess, for us, Advent is like working out; you have to start somewhere (which coincidentally, I re-started this week).  The key will be to keep our focus, commitment and endurance, despite the many distractions, so that like George Bailey and his family, we can joyfully say on Christmas Day, "It is a wonderful life."...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks for all Our Blessings (Rewind)...

As I sat to write a note on Thanksgiving, I took a look at my post last year and, after reading it, decided, there wasn't much I could add to it.  So, I'm taking the lazy way out and re-posting last year's blog.  Happy Thanksgiving and may God bless you and your family!

Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving
As we prepare for Thanksgiving, a holiday synonymous with family, food and football, it important to take the time to reflect on the purpose of the day and consider the things we are thankful for (whether acknowledging our blessings to God or coincidence).

It is interesting to note, as I learned from a friend last (year), that despite Thanksgiving finding its roots in the earliest settlers in our yet-to-be-nation, it became a national tradition during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

During that time, the country was immersed in the bloodiest and most divisive experience in our history; where brother fought against brother, a generation of men lost, families destroyed and displaced and human suffering was palpable throughout the nation.

At the height of this pain, despair and grief, President Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving to the Almighty God in November 1863. It has been a yearly celebration since. In the proclamation, Lincoln states:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
And, to think, some say our nation was not founded upon Judeo-Christian values.

So what am I thankful for?

I often find myself thanking God for His many blessings but let me try to list a few:

Thank you, Lord for my faith (which I realize is a gift that not everyone has), for giving me life, for the health of my family, for my marriage and the love my wife and I share (realizing the most important relationship I have is with my spouse, without which I have no family), for our three children (who have given us more happiness and let us experience greater love than I could have ever imagined), for the health of my parents and my wife’s mother (who are a huge part of our life), for my brother, his fiancĂ©, my wife’s sister, her husband and two children, for my grandparents (who although no longer with us, were instrumental in my upbringing through their example), and for both of our extended families.

Lord, I give you thanks for our home (despite having outgrown it and constantly having to make the repairs and maintenance required for a 1926 house, it is more than most people have), for the providing for us so that we can send our children to Catholic school (which in the secular society we live in, is very important to us), for our jobs (at a time when many people have lost theirs), for our many friends (many of whom are like family), for my co-workers (who we share more time than with our own families), and for the many hardships, trials and tribulations that have made me the man I am today.

Finally, Lord, I thank you for being raised in the United States of America, for giving us the Eucharist (the highest form of Thanksgiving, and meaning of the word), the Holy Catholic Church, your Blessed Mother, and for all the things, that I don’t even realize you give me and take for granted.

What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving in Line at Best Buy...

You Gotta be Kidding!  Talk about what is wrong with this country.

Occupy Best Buy?
Check this out; several people, including men, women and children (a baby) are already waiting in line and have set up overnight tents, as of today, Wednesday (although, one guy claims to be set up since yesterday) at the Best Buy on Bird Road in Miami, in hopes of getting cheap stuff on Friday!  Do these people have a life?

In other words, instead, of enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday around the dining room table with family and friends, thanking God and making memories that their children will cherish for a lifetime, they would rather be in line to buy the latest flat screen TV at a bargain basement price.

This is unreal.  I guess, for some, materialism trumps God and family.

We definitely have lost our priorities...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Conversation about Purgatory, the Rock and Doubt...

Leaving a dinner party with friends recently, my wife and I ran into a good friend, who was saying farewell to another couple outside.

As we went to say goodbye ourselves, he started talking to us about the faith and tells me something interesting.

He says, "You know what Carlos, I don't believe in everything the Catholic Church teaches; like Purgatory."

He may have brought up the subject, because he knows how passionate I am about studying the Catholic faith (in all honesty, I feel it's an obligation).

Does that make him a bad Catholic?  Absolutely not.  Questioning our faith is how we grow.  The keys is to seek answers to those questions and to keep searching for the Truth. 

As a matter of fact, my friend is one of the most humble and dedicated Catholic men I know.  He is a man who truly lives a life of service to the Church by example and is involved in more ministries and undertakings for the good of his parish than I can even imagine.

Moreover, he was even instrumental in my own "reversion" to the faith several years ago.

To some extent, he may have also brought up the topic in hopes that I might enlightened him on the subject (which, I probably failed miserably).

After getting home, I started thinking about the conversation.

His main argument against Purgatory is very common among non-Catholic Christians.  He admitted his brother, who is Baptist, often tries to engage him in debates about Church teachings.

Anyway, their point is that Purgatory is never mentioned by word in the Bible, which if taken into account, neither is the Holy Trinity, yet most Christian denominations agree in this reality because, like Purgatory, it is alluded to throughout Sacred Scripture.

The key to understanding this is study, which most times leads to the early Christians, who learned the faith directly from the Apostles and passed on the faith to others.

Also, through the writings of the great thinkers in Church history, who dedicated their lives to study, prayer and discernment of the Bible and Sacred Tradition passed by the Apostles.  Catholics don't believe that one is exclusive of the other.  As a deacon friend once told me, they are both the living Word of God. 

Keep in mind, that at the end of the Gospel of John, he writes, "There are many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that could be written."  Those other things is what the Church calls Sacred Tradition, with a capital T, that were passed on by the Apostles to their disciples.

Still, the more I thought about my friend's objection, the more I thought about my own rejection of certain teachings before I began to delve deeper into the faith.  I used to think I knew better than a two thousand year old Church.

It is partially the fault of poor catechises (at least in my case and, unfortunately, many of my generation) and partially the fault of the poor example of other Catholics.

However, if each Sunday, I profess, as we do in Mass, to believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Marks of the Church), then I should believe in what that One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church teaches, don't you think?

If not, and I choose (faith is a choice) to reject something such as Purgatory, what would keep another Catholic in the pew next to me from rejecting the sanctity of life, or the Virgin Birth, or the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, or that the pope is the descendant of Peter, or even that they have to attend Mass on Sunday?

What would be left of the one faith that Jesus prayed for His disciples?

Then again, would it be faith at all or would it be my own adaptation, according to my likes and dislikes, which unfortunately in today's "me" and moral relative society, is not uncommon.

In other words, am I molding God into what I want Him to be or am I humbling myself and conforming to what He wants me to be?

Christ Handing Keys to St. Peter
My point, and this is not meant to be an indictment against my friend, or anyone that thinks as I once did, to be Catholic means to believe in the authority of the Church that Jesus Christ founded upon the rock of Peter, who He gave the keys to the kingdom and the authority to bind and lose on earth, what would be bound and loosed in Heaven. 

It is the same Church that has been preserving, protecting and making disciples of all nations from generation to generation in an unbroken line of succession since Jesus ascended into heaven.

And, the same Church, who's bishops, through that authority given to them by Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit, decided the Canon of the Bible in the late 4th Century from among 200 epistles and 50 gospels that were circulating at the time.

In fact, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and told them that just as the Father had sent Him, He was sending them, and then breathe on them the Spirit of Truth that would guide them "into all the truth" and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.  Whose sins you retain, are retained."                      

How did the Father send the Son?  With full authority, as the Son sent the Apostles.

Let's face it, Christ understood the frailties of men.  We are self-righteous, prideful, arrogant, distrusting and quarrelsome, among many other things.  Left to our own devices, our relationships deteriorate into bickering and strife.

Knowing this, Jesus had to establish and leave a visible legacy that would serve as a beacon of truth for all Christians to know where to find Him.  He promised never to leave the disciples orphan.

In fact, in the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy, he calls the Church the "pillar and foundation of truth." 

So, despite times of corruption, bad popes, and even the priest sex scandal, Christ promised Peter the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church. 

Beyond our comprehension, God chose sinners to run the Church, and you can just look at Peter and Paul, as  examples, therefore the Church has to be protected and guided by the Holy Spirit from teaching error.  How else could a sinner like Peter, and his successors, be able to determine on earth what would be bound and loose in heaven?   

Think about it, kingdoms and kings have risen and fallen, governments, institutions and organizations have come crumbling down, and the Church has withstood through the ages, despite persecutions, efforts to destroy it, from within and without, and scandals.

Ironically, a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to talk about the line in the Apostles' Creed which states, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church," to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults group (RCIA) at my parish.

While I won't bore you with the details of my discussion, in which I explained the Marks of the Church, which first appeared in the Nicene Creed, in the year 325, when a heresy called Arianism was challenging the divinity of Christ, let me just mention my conclusion.

Since the Holy Spirit cannot teach error and Christ established one Church to pass on His teachings, there is but one fullness of faith. 

From the time of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Church began, to fighting, dispelling and condemning heresies like Arianism and Gnosticism, which stated that Christ was just a spirit and that we could earn eternal life through knowledge, to determining the Canon of the Bible and various creeds, to the great saints like St. Augustin, St. Francis, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Theresa of Little Flower, St. Bonaventure, St. Patrick, St. Gregory, St. Anthony, St. Kathryn of Sienna, St. Faustina, and many many more through the ages, including Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II in our own time, the teachings entrusted by Christ have been preserved and guarded by the Church for the last two millenniums.

Anyway, going back to my friend, I was watching a documentary by Fr. Robert Barron with my eldest daughter Saturday night, which coincidentally dealt with the Church's teachings on the last things; heaven, hell and purgatory.

Purgatory, is described like this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

While not widely accepted by most non-Catholic Christians, especially considering the rejection by the early reformers because some in the Church were using the teaching to sell indulgences, it was accepted among the Jews in Jesus' time and is still accepted by many Orthodox Jews today. 

In fact, it is called Sheol and mentioned in the Psalms and expressed in the prayers for the dead in the second Book of Maccabees, which is among the seven books dropped by Martin Luther in the 16th Century from the original Canon.

Christ alludes to this transitory state of being several times in the Gospels, and so does St. Paul. 

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that, "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."  Since those in heaven are already forgiven, there has to be an intermediate state in which sins are still forgiven.     

Also, in Matthew, Jesus says, "Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny."  Again, this is alluding to a place where the penitent pays their debt to God but eventually gets out.

Meanwhile, St. Paul talks about the purifying fire in which, "Each man's work will become manifest... and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done... If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."  This suggests that despite a person being saved, he or she may have to suffer loss and be put through fire.

The Book of Revelation states, "nothing unclean shall enter heaven."

In any account, suffice to say there are many more accounts of this transitory state of being in the Bible and in the writings of the early Christians (see here).

Gustave Dore's Inferno inspire by Dante
In the documentary, Fr. Barron explains that hell is a choice people make by their own self-righteousness and rejection of God.

God doesn't condemn anyone to hell because He loves all His children and wants us to live in His eternal love, but, because of that love, He gives us the free will to reject Him.  It's a choice.  Purgatory, Barron says, is also a choice.

He compares the state of the penitent soul in Purgatory to that of a professional football player that is willing to put his body through the most rigorous workout and two-a-day practices in the scorching August sun and punishes his body in the gym to prepare for an upcoming season, or a marathon runner, who is willing to endure the grueling weeks and months of painful training to prepare for the race, or a guitarist that plays until their fingers bleed to perfect their craft. 

Having doubt is natural.  That's why it is called faith.  Even scientists, who claim to rely strictly on science, often rely on faith; that hypothesis that cannot be proven through science are correct.

The Apostles themselves had doubt.  In fact, when Jesus was arrested, they all fled and went into hiding; afraid and with their hopes dashed.  Peter not only doubted but he denied even knowing Christ.  Thomas refused to believe after being told that Jesus had risen, unless he put his fingers in the wounds.

As a Catholic, there may be things that I can't understand or have trouble wrapping my mind around.  There may even be doubt.  But, if I deny to accept a certain teaching of the Church, am I truly believing in the authority Christ gave the Church?

As the father of the boy who was possessed by a demon in the Gospel of Mark said, "I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief."  Or, as St. Augustine puts it, "Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand."

At the end of the day, I realize, it won't matter how much I know or don't know.  It will not matter whether I'm Catholic or not.  The only things that will matter, as last Sunday's Gospel pointed out, is whether I fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, took care of the sick and visited the imprisoned.  As we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Christ.

Then again, the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned are not just those suffering in the physical sense.  They also refer to those suffering in the spiritual sense.

Therefore, in this respect, what we believe does matter since we should never stop searching for the Truth in earnest (since God is Truth) or growing in our faith, for the more we know and understand, the better prepared we are to satisfy God's hunger and thirst, manifested in our brothers and sisters, like my good friend.

As well known author and former Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Scott Hahn, says in his conversion CD (which made a huge impact on my life), when he comes before God the Father on his Judgement Day, he doesn't want to say, "Lord, I taught what I was taught."  He wants to say, "Lord, I taught what you taught me."...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sex Scandal and a Disturbing Reality...

Jerry Sandusky
Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

It is a sobering thought considering the recent allegations of sexual abuse of minors that have plagued Penn State University in recent weeks, as it did the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions, from the Boys Scouts, to Orthodox Jews, to the Church of Latter Day Saints, to many more.

Ironically, the day after my post on the scandal, a story broke in Miami about the search for a public charter school's physical education coach, who had disappeared amidst charges of having sex with a 12-year-old female student.  Police suspected more victims.

It is a story too often repeated.  According to a 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Education, between 6 percent and 10 percent of public school children across the country have been sexually abused or harassed by school employees and teachers.  In other words, an alarming rate of almost one out of every ten students in American public schools!

The Hoftra University researcher that conducted the study for the USDOE, Charol Shakeshaft made an interesting observation, “Think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests." (see more here)

On the heels of the physical education coach story, the following day, an elderly man was arrested for sexually molesting his own granddaughters, which according to statistics, is not as uncommon as it may sound.  A great majority of sexual abuse of minors, over 50%, occur within the victim’s own family.

Meanwhile, it seems the man behind the Penn State scandal, Jerry Sandusky, is not the first founder of a charity to be accused of sexually molesting children, supposedly being helped by the organization.

A recent article on Fox News points out that just this month, the co-founder of a Utah nonprofit, that helps needy women and children, was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to 43 counts of sexually abusing and exploiting children.

The article also mentions that in the 70's the Boston Red Sox faced their own sexual abuse scandal and apparent cover-up.

A clubhouse manager, who worked with the Major League Baseball team for 30 years, reportedly solicited and engaged in sex with young boys he would hire to work during spring training. 

The victims later alleged it was common knowledge among Red Sox staff and officials and even some players told boys to steer clear of the man suspected of the abuse, who, even after allegations were reported, was allowed to keep his job. 

In 2002, the clubhouse manager pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual battery on a child and, a year later, the team settled a $3.15 million lawsuit with seven victims in Florida.

Then there was the sex scandal which embroiled the U.S. Swim Team last year.  Thirty six coaches were banned for life for reportedly molesting, fondling and abusing dozens of teenage swimmers during a 10-year period.

And, most recently, an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University is being investigated for molesting two team ball boys about 20 years ago.

It is a sickening and sad reality that goes beyond any institution, organization or group.  It is a societal malaise. 

The question then is how do we protect our children?  It’s a quandary that makes most parents shudder.

While local, state and federal legislators scurry to draw up laws that will help put an end to this disturbing problem, some of which may be knee-jerk responses, the issue may go beyond the immediately obvious.

The problem may be deeper.

There may be many factors but, I wonder how many of those children victimized by predators are targeted because don't have a father living in the home.

Like Sandusky is accused of doing, many predators tend to befriend children that don't have a father-figure in the house or, at least, a distant and uninvolved one.

They draw their victims in by paying attention to them, spending time with them, giving them gifts and taking them to places they would not normally go or have access to.

Unfortunately, we fathers have given up our responsibility as protectors of our households, maybe primarily, because many fathers just aren't around.  Career emphasis, divorce and breakdowns in the family, especially in lower income and minority areas, have sometimes separated fathers from one of their main objectives as men and thus left children to fend for themselves.

Tuesday night, I was sitting in our living room with my 10-year-old daughter.  My younger daughter was bathing, my son playing in his room and my wife was cooking dinner.  I took the opportunity to start a conversation that, if not for the recent Penn State story, I may not have had.

I told her about how some adults like to do bad things to children and may even touch them or force them to do things they may not want to do and then threaten them not to tell anyone.  Sometimes, it is even people they trust and love.

She said, "I know, dad."

I felt a sense of security in knowing that our children’s school is teaching kids to be aware of inappropriate touching, behaviour and bullying.  Still, is it a false security?  At ten-years-old, how much can she, and my other children who are younger, really know?

We live in a dangerous world. Every day, the most vulnerable are victimized and, sadly, the easiest targets are children and the elderly.

If lawmakers are serious about limiting sexual abuse on minors, they need to give more attention to making laws that help restore and promote the American family.

And, we all have to get more involved.

I was talking to a priest in confession on Saturday and he told me, God is giving you a lot and is expecting a lot from you, which made me admit that I feel God is calling me to something greater, yet I am constantly falling short of His call.

It goes back to the Edmund Burke quote, I'd like to think I am a good man, but am I really doing something?...

[pic credit: Andy Colwell/The Patriot-News/AP Photo]

Monday, November 14, 2011

Penn State, the Church and Bringing Good out of Evil...

Glory Days
Without a doubt, it is probably the darkest moment in college football history; a sex scandal that brought down arguably the greatest coach in the sport (at least in terms of wins) and forever scarred a Pennsylvania State University community, not necessarily for what was done (although, the heinousness of the crime is outrageous in itself) but what wasn’t.

For sixty seven years, the last forty five as head coach, Joe Paterno, or JoePa, as he is affectionately known, has stood for and demanded integrity, honor and a high moral character from his players.

Except, it seemed there was a little secret. A secret, which according to a Grand July indictment, involved a myriad of people and possibly even institutional neglect.

Regardless of who or whom are at fault for allowing former Defensive Coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, himself a well respected member of the community, whom some former players have recently called “a man apparently beyond reproach,” to use the school facilities to sexually assault at least eight boys, between the ages of 8 and 13, during a 15 year period, it should never have happened, or at the least, should have been stopped long ago.

From a graduate student turned coach, to Paterno, to school administrators, to school police and district attorney investigators, to school janitorial employees, to Sandusky’s charity administrators and attorneys, there is enough blame to go around.

Jerry Sandusky's arrest
Just who knew what and when, is still to be determined, but what is known is there was a total failure in stopping an apparently sick man from preying upon innocent boys, who were selected from the charity Sandusky founded, the Second Mile, for underprivileged kids and lured by gifts, tickets to games and an opportunity to hang around the Penn State football program.

Aside from the sickening nature of the crime, which, as a father, I am repulsed by, another storyline emerged amidst the allegations, shock, horror, and anger in the mainstream media.

It is a storyline that surfaces anytime a sexual crime against minors is reported since 2002.

Deservedly or not, it seems that no matter how far removed a case of sexual abuse may be, many in the media feel compelled to make it an indictment against the Roman Catholic Church. As if the Church had the market cornered on sex abuse cases or if the problem was just a Catholic one.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize the Church sex scandal was probably the worst large scale failure of institutional control in recent memory and the worst crisis the Catholic Church has ever faced in its two thousand year history, which may have repercussions for generations to come, especially in the eyes of those outside the Church or that don’t understand its purpose.

Still, as a member of the working media, I know, there should be some objectivity in reporting, and dragging the Church into the Penn State pottage is just an easy cheap shot.

A headline in the Orlando Sun Sentinel stated, “Why are football coaches just like Catholic Bishops?” in which reporter states:
While still hanging around campus, Sandusky continued to lure innocent young boys into his bedroom -- just like so many predatory priests, charged with sexual abuse but simply re-assigned by their bishop from one parish to the next, continued to prey on altar boys.

There are so many parallels between the Catholic Church scandal and the Penn State scandal. In both cases, the perpetrators were men. In both, the victims were children. In both, the crimes were sexual assault. And in both the enablers were men in power -- men, men, what's wrong with these men? -- who cared more about preserving the reputation of the mighty institution they led than obeying the law or protecting the lives of the people they were responsible for.

There's one big difference between the Catholic Church and Penn State. Once the cover-up came to light, coach Joe Paterno and University President Graham Spanier were immediately fired. Yet, 10 years later, not one -- not one! -- Catholic bishop has been fired. Religion is still more powerful than football.
And the Catholic bashing NY Times stated: 

If Penn State was the Catholic Church, Paterno was the Holy See of Happy Valley. Unlike two other top university officials implicated in the scandal, he has not been charged with a crime. But he is almost certainly guilty of cowardice and hypocrisy.
When a distraught graduate assistant told Paterno in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky with a boy in the locker-room showers, Paterno reported the incident to the athletic director but did nothing further, according to the grand jury statement. In other words, the great molder of young men discharged his legal obligation and moved on.
To be clear, this happened in 2002, when the Catholic Church sex scandals were front-page news just about every day. As a practicing Catholic himself, Paterno must have been following them; he was probably even pained by them.
So, let’s get this straight, not only is the NY Times suggesting Paterno gets charged, which considering the comparison, the writer also thinks the Pope should as well, but the last sentence is a bit intriguing. Is the writer suggesting that since Joe Paterno is Catholic he should have known better?

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post’s headline stated, “Is Penn State the Catholic Church?”

Yet, to their credit, the reporter also writes:
The similarities are cause of great dismay and condemnation. To be sure, the public should be outraged by reports of heinous crimes made more odious by the orchestrated cover ups perpetrated by superiors of the accused. Yet, whether it is at Penn State or the Catholic Church -- or for that matter, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, the U.S. Swim Team, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Boy Scouts or far too many other organizations local, national, and global -- credible charges of childhood sexual abuse have been exacerbated and made more horrendous by equally credible charges of conspiracy and concealment.
Sexual abuse of minors is not a Catholic Church problem, it’s a societal problem.

Now, after the scandal broke, Paterno admits, ““This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life.  With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is twenty/twenty.

It's easy to point fingers after the fact.  Unfortunately in the annals of humanity, we can see that many times good men have done very wrong things for what they think are righteous reasons.

Praying for the victims
It is ironic that the first prayer in the Catholic Mass each Sunday is the Penitential Rite, which is recited by the entire congregation, and says, "I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do..."

In one of the most poignant moments, since the story broke, before the first game without Paterno on the sidelines last Saturday, the entire Penn State Nittany Lions football team was joined in the middle of the field by Nebraska Cornhuskers players, as they knelt and held hands in prayer for the victims and for the healing of an entire community.

We can only hope that, as God brings good out of evil, this terrible episode can serve as an example to other institutions and organizations, including the Catholic Church, which has already enacted a zero tolerance policy, as what not to do so that this may never happen again…

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fatherhood Follies and Undeserved Blessings...

It was disgusting.

For the second time during our celebratory dinner for my mother-in-law’s birthday at a local restaurant near our house, I had to rush to the bathroom with my four-year-old son, who had soiled his pants. Yes, the joys of parenthood!

The first time, I had to remove his underwear and forced him to sit on the potty but he said he didn’t have to go anymore. It was just an accident.

After letting him sit on the toilet for a little while, as I huffed and puffed and told him how upset I was because he is too big for these things to happen, I finally cleaned him up and we went back to the table.

It was yummy!
About half an hour later, as I am halfway through my Chicken Marsala with mushrooms on a bed of pasta, and starting my second glass of wine, he says he has to go to the bathroom again.

I knew this was going to be part two and didn’t take it too well. In fact, my blood started boiling since I had told him to go when we were in the bathroom the first time.

I told him he was going to have to wait because I was having dinner. But, then my wife gave me “the look,” that only those of us attuned to the Vulcan mind games of marriage can fully understand, and then I felt the sharp pain in my back, as she said, “Carlos, he has to go to the bathroom. I go with the girls when they have to go.”

Ok., I wasn’t about to start fighting in front of my mother-in-law or sour this happy family occasion because of my laziness and selfishness (although it crossed my mind), so I reluctantly got up and took my son to the bathroom AGAIN.

It was as I suspected. Already annoyed from the first time, I huffed and puffed some more, scolded him and made him sit on the toilet again, telling him, we weren’t going back until he finished doing his business.

He looked at me a bit dazed and confused and again insisted that he didn’t have to go anymore. In retrospect, maybe, I stunted his digestive system with the way I was reacting.

He said, “I’m sorry Daddy,” knowing very well that this is how he usually gets out of sticky situations.  Despite his tender age, he already knows how to manipulate my wife and me with cuteness when he does something wrong.

However, I wasn't having anything to do with it this night.  I just continued to huff and puff and berate him, as I washed his shorts in the sink and dried them with the hand dryer (It's stories like these that I'm sure make everyone a little more queasy about going into a public bathroom!). 

What a fine example of the love, forgiveness and mercy that fathers are supposed to set, I’m sure.

After what seemed to be about half an hour, which was probably closer to ten minutes, during which time, sweat started accumulating in my forehead and run down my back from the heat of the hand dryer and lack of air circulation in the small room, I realized he wasn’t going to do anything. I cleaned him up again and went back to dinner.

It gets better.

After getting home late, relatively speaking, since our kids are usually in bed by 9pm and we were just getting home at that time, we started getting my son and our younger daughter ready for bed, as our older daughter finished her homework, which she left for the last minute as usual!

My wife says she’s just like me, and she might be right. Unfortunately, procrastination is my middle name. Meanwhile, my wife plans everything months ahead of time.  She's already working on my older daughter's birthday party for January! 

Anyway, I started running the water for my son’s bath and put him in while I went to put his dirty clothes in the hamper and prompt my seven-year-old daughter to get into the bathtub as well (we had to save time!).

All of a sudden I hear her yelling, “Yuck!  He did caca in the bathtub!”

I stormed in to find the culprit, looking at me with a face of bewilderment, and holding a little gift in his left hand. How nice.

My already foul mood turned to outrage. I roughly pulled him out of the bathtub and gave him a sharp tap on his butt and sat him on the toilet again, as I continue to reprimand and telling him that big boys don’t do this. He just sat there crying, as I told my daughter to take a shower in our bathroom and cleaned up the mess in the bathtub. It was ugly.

I'm sure, a family counselor would have suggested I take a step back and count to ten before it got to this point but I wouldn’t have listened. I was too riled up by my toddler's inability to control his bowel (Is four still a toddler? Well, it sounds good anyway!).

After my outburst, I realized that I may have been overreacting a tad. For the most part, our son is pretty  well behaved and, aside from an occasional accident because he's playing and doesn't want to stop, he's usually good about going to the potty when he has to.  In fact, he's like the announcer at a royal ball, that yells out the arrival of a new guest, whenever he has to go.

Maybe, I had scared him. Maybe, he was suffering from the little “c” word. Whatever, it was, I wasn’t helping by ranting. So, I decided to do, what I sometimes tell my wife to do; relax (which, by the way, she absolutely hates me telling her!)

There's a popular phrase that says patience is a virtue.  In fact, according to Christianity, it’s one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

It always amazes me how, often, God talks to us through people. Last Sunday, during the homily, one of our parish priests called patience the virtue that keeps families together. He said, without it, personal relationships within the family turn to bickering and strife and can lead to the destruction of the family.

On the heels of having lost my temper with my son, it’s a message that resonated with me. 

After giving him a bath, putting his pajama on, helping him brush his teeth and putting him in bed, I noticed our seven-year-old had already fallen asleep.

Meanwhile, our older daughter was in the shower. So, I blessed the two little ones but, instead of praying with them, as I usually do (considering my son was the only child conscious in the room), I just said “Goodnight,” as I walked out of the room.  

However, as I’m closing the door, I hear him say, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Bless us oh Lord, for these gifts… through Christ our Lord… Amen.” Sure, it was the mealtime prayer and he didn’t really know it but, without being prompted, he was praying on his own.

I felt a sense of humiliation and remorse for the way I had treated him.

Then, as I lay down in bed, it struck me. How many times do I mess up all over myself and God the Father have to clean me up? 

Even more, despite the poor example I set for my son that night, God was still teaching me (by example) about love and mercy.

What an undeserved blessing that the most important responsibility I have in life (to raise Godly children), is happening in spite of me and evidenced in the simple prayer of a 4-year-old boy, who had just been put through the wringer by his old man…