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Friday, April 29, 2011

Pope John Paul Sowing the Seeds of Freedom in Poland...

This short excerpt of an upcoming documentary by Fr. Robert Barron, highlights Pope John Paul II's role in the fall of communism, which may have started in the streets of his homeland.

Having lived under communism for most of his life, John Paul was an ardent opponent of the godless system and it's oppression on religious and social freedoms.

During his visit to Poland in 1979, shortly after being elected Pope, the late Pontiff inspired the crowds, which started chanting, “We want God.”

The show of defiance against the regime laid a foundation in the minds and hearts of his countrymen and influenced Lech Walessa and his Solidarity movement to stand firm against the government. Within ten years, communism was toppled in Poland without the use of force.

Poland’s example quickly spread to East Germany and, a year later, the Berlin Wall came down. It continued to snowball until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Journalist and His Beef Against the Pope...

It always amazes me how people that have nothing to do with a group or entity, or may even hold disdain towards it, can have (and voice), such fervent and vile opinions about the internal affairs of that group or entity.  

I recently ran across an opinion article in a local newspaper (which after considering it, decided it was too insulting to warrant dissemination) that brought this point to mind.  The article was written by a respected and obviously learned international journalist, who has written several books, and is considered by (possibly millions) as a man of integrity and objectivity. 

In the article, the Journalist launches some scathing and unbridled attacks against the Roman Catholic Church's integrity, the process by which the investigation into the beatification of Pope John Paul II was, according to him, so "hastily" done and was an insult to the victims of the priest sexual abuse scandal, and most of all against the late pope himself, who the writer claims was the worst pope in the history of the Church (obviously, he’s not much of a student of the Church). 

Mind you, this is from a man that I have heard personally say in a television program that he is a non-theist and so the obvious question is why? If he doesn’t believe in God, and has an obvious distaste for the Catholic Church, why does he care about internal Church affairs?  Why does he care if the Church decides that the man, who held the papacy for over 26 years, is worthy of being considered for sainthood? 

One of the arguments that this "objective journalist" makes is that the investigation, to beatify Pope John Paul, was rushed and therefore not thorough enough. He argued that the miracle attributed to the late pope (of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, who was suffering from Parkinson’s for 4 years, and after praying, along with her religious order, for Pope John Paul’s intercession, was inexplicably healed and doctors say, overnight, she stopped showing symptoms of the debilitating disease, which the late pope apparently suffered during his later years) was unsubstantiated.  (Sister Simon-Pierre has been in remission since 2005) 

Now, Catholics don't believe that John Paul actually healed Sister Simon-Pierre, only God can do that, but we believe he may have interceded on her behalf.  Nevertheless, the Journalist says this investigation of the miracle was unscientific, and could have been just as well attributed to (former soccer legend) Pele or Elvis Presley.

Oh, those gullible Catholics with their two thousand year old mentality!  I imagine he figures he was doing us naïve Catholics (67 million strong in the U.S. and over 1 billion worldwide) a favor by publicly enlightening us.  In all due respect, he is an international figure with lots of credentials and "wisdom." (Did I mention he authored several books?)

First of all, since when are miracles, which are unexplainable by science, adherent to scientific scrutiny? Hmmm…. Does science explain everything? I’m sure the Journalist believes that humans developed over millions of years through macro-evolution, which has never been scientifically proven (although, maybe one day, they’ll find the missing link), from a primordial soup of atoms and “scientific stuff,” into this elaborate and complex organism that is the human body.

Or better yet, that the unscientific Big Bang Theory, which contradicts the First Law of Thermodynamics, stating that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed (in other words, nothing begets nothing), spontaneously occured (Which by the way, the Big Bang Theory was the concept of a Catholic priest who set out to prove there was a First Cause in the universe!).

Moreover, how long was this Journalist involved in the six year investigation process into the beatification of Pope John Paul to determine, firsthand, how the probe was handled? 

Now, as for the sex abuse scandal, it was and continues to be one of the darkest and worst things to happen within the Church that Christ founded upon the Rock of Peter.  However, what proof does the Journalist have that Pope John Paul II was aware of how deep and widespread the U.S. crisis was; because New York Times articles that basically suggest, he should have known? (Another pillar of objectivity) 

Another argument the Journalist suggested against John Paul, was his connection to Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was revered and after his death, was discovered to have fathered several children by different women.  So, is that what objective journalism has come to; guilt by association?

I think, the Journalist has some pent up frustrations and unresolved issues with God and the Catholic Church. He recently tweeted that he was raised Catholic by his mother.  Hopefully, this is the beginning of his healing and search for Truth.  I will pray for him and ask Pope John Paul for his intercession on the Journalist's behalf…

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bishop Estevez to Lead Flock in St. Augustine...

Archbishop Wenski (left) with Bishop Estevez 
Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe Estevez, who has been serving as interim pastor at my parish for the last couple of weeks, has been selected by the Vatican to be the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

In a statement, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, states:

I congratulate Bishop Estevez on his appointment as the new Bishop of St. Augustine. He brings many gifts to Northeast Florida – as a priest, he has served as a pastor, spiritual director, seminary rector, and as a very effective preacher of retreats and missions in three languages: English, Spanish and French; as an auxiliary bishop, he has ably assisted my predecessor and now me in the governance of the See of Miami, especially providing wisdom and direction in the coordination of the rich expression of ecclesial groups and apostolic movements active in the Archdiocese.

St. Augustine, the city where the Servant of God, Padre Felix Varela, died in exile from his native Cuba, is not unknown to Bishop Estevez – he has had occasion to visit there many times; and not a few of the clergy of St. Augustine also know Bishop Estevez as a former rector and spiritual director of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary.

While the People of God here in South Florida rejoice over Northeast Florida’s good fortune in having Bishop Estevez as their new shepherd, we will certainly miss him. Bishop Estevez has not only been a brother priest and bishop to me, he has, for more than 35 years, been and still is my good friend. I look forward to continue working with him as one of the six suffragan bishops of the Ecclesiastic Province of Miami.

[pic credit: Archdiocese of Miami]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Conversion and Easter Sunday...

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio
For me, there's nothing like a good conversion story.

From the story of St. Paul, who was persecuting Christians and was thrown from his horse when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, to St. Augustine of Hippo, who was living a life of paganism and debauchery, before his conversion, I truly enjoy reading and hearing stories of people turning their life around to follow Christ.

I guess, it may have something to do with the Bible verse that states, "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” On the other hand, maybe, it has to do with my own reversion, or being fortified by other people's struggles and the ways they overcome questions, doubt and internal adversities. In any case, my wife would tell you, I can’t get enough of them.

Reading books such as Scott and Kimberly Hahn's, Rome Sweet Home, Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain and Patrick Madrid's Surprised By The Truth and Surprised By The Truth II, which are a series of conversion stories from people from different faith backgrounds, including non-faith, have helped me delve deeper into my own faith and get a better grasp of what it means to be Catholic.  I also enjoy watching Marcus Grodi's The Journey Home on television, and listening to conversion CD's in my car. 

As former Protestant Minister and Theologian, Scott Hahn often says, "Sometimes it takes an immigrant to the faith to teach cradle Catholics what it means to be Catholic.”

That is very true because most adult converts study and read their way into the Church through either Sacred Scripture, the writings of early Church Fathers, the moral teachings of the Church or simply are drawn by its beauty, richness and history.

However, while the media is fast on reporting cases of abuse, scandal and impropriety involving the Catholic Church, it is slow to report on the good, and the thousands of converts coming home to Rome every year, especially in recent years. 

Almost five hundred years after Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses and broke away from the  Church because of corruption and his own perspectives on sin and salvation, thousands of Lutherans and Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), including clergy and entire congregations, are making their way back in droves into full communion with the Church.

Last year, in the United States alone, 150 thousand people entered the Church during the Easter Vigil.  This year, thousands more are expected to follow suit. 

According to a recent press release by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, while there's no mention of any Scott Hahn, Robert Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, John Henry Newman, Thomas Howard or Peter Kreeft, among the ranks entering the Church, there are several noteworthy converts, including a former a former administrator of an abortion clinic. 
In the Austin, Texas, area, Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director and author of the bestselling book “Unplanned,” is getting ready for yet another “unplanned” conversion that will bring her into the Catholic Church. In September 2009, Johnson was asked to hold the ultrasound probe during an abortion. In the monitor, she saw the baby struggle to get away. This experience, and her unease with Planned Parenthood’s emphasis on increasing abortions, gave her the courage to leave her job and undertake a journey of conversion. She went to the Coalition for Life’s office down the street, a Christian pro-life organization whose members were a constant, prayerful and peaceful presence outside the clinic. There she received practical help as she navigated joblessness, legal problems with Planned Parenthood and broken friendships. Her pro-life advocacy also met the disapproval of her pro-choice church. Many of her new friends are Catholic, and through them she has learned about the faith. She and her family will join the Church at Easter, along with 911 others in the Austin Diocese.
Conversion takes humility and succumbing to God's Will.  I can only imagine how difficult it would be to leave the faith of your upbringing, the strain it creates on relationships with family and friends, the feelings of solitude that many converts experience and, in the case of ministers, the loss of their livelihood.

And, while we celebrate those who will enter the Church this Easter, we must pray for them because it doesn't end at the baptismal font.  Conversion is a never ending process.

As Billy Graham once said, "Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion - it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ."

Happy Easter...

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Last Supper and the Power of Humility...

Probably my favorite Mass of the year is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper Liturgy on Holy Thursday.

The Last Supper by Andrea del Sarto
The night is significant for most Christians, since it is the beginning of the Paschal Mystery, better known as the Passion of Christ, but for Roman Catholics, it has an even deeper meaning. On Holy Thursday, Catholics commemorate Jesus’ Institution of the Blessed Sacrament (the Eucharist), or the changing of bread and wine into His Body and Blood, and the establishment of the priesthood (Holy Orders), among His Apostles, to perpetuate the Eucharistic miracle by following His command to “Do this in memory of me.”

Therefore, in most Catholic parishes, Holy Thursday is celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance the occasion calls for. At our parish, that meant a procession of our two current priests and three deacons, a large delegation of Eucharist Ministers, altar-servers and lectors, the full adult choir, incense, candles, and the church brimming to the rafters with faithful.  Aside from Easter Sunday, Christmas and certain Holy Days of Obligation, I believe Holy Thursday is probably the best attended Mass of the liturgical calendar.

Adding to the special sense of the night, because of the recent retirement of our pastor, Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe Estevez, a direct descendant of the Apostles, through apostolic succession, by the laying of hands from the first century all the way until today, is temporarily serving as our pastor and celebrated the Mass. 

In his homily on the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus washes His Disciples’ feet, the Bishop commented on how Jesus’ Love for His Apostles was so great that He willingly humbled Himself to perform the work most commonly associated to be done by slaves, to teach them a powerful lesson on humility and what they ought to be doing for one another after He was gone. Peter balked at Jesus' attempt to wash his feet, as Bishop Estevez pointed out, you could imagine that the first of the Apostles was a bit insulted by the Messiah degrading himself this way. It is, the Bishop said, similar to something many of us experience when we feel unworthy or reject God’s cleansing.

After the homily, comes the traditional Last Supper recreation of the washing of the feet. I have to say, it is one thing to see our parish priests following the example of the Lord by washing the feet of twelve pre-selected parishioners, representing different ministries and aspects of our parish community. It was even more powerful to see Bishop Estevez, humbling himself on his hands and knees, and washing the feet of people he never met before.

At the end of the nearly two hour Liturgy, the Blessed Sacrament is processed around the church, while my men’s group lined up with candles on either side of the aisles during the solemn walk, that only included the choir and Carmelite nuns singing, while the entire congregation kneeled respectfully, until He was placed into a tabernacle near the front of the church for Adoration.

Only the Perfect Love of a God that took on Flesh and was willing to humiliate Himself before His Apostles and then before His followers, persecutors and executioners at Golgotha, would also be willing to decrease and offer His Flesh, in the appearance of a small piece of bread, in order to feed us His Eternal Life from within.  That is the most powerful show of humility...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Keys, the Sword and Time With my Daughters...

As a father, who wants his children to grow up with sound understanding and fervor for Christ and the Church, I'm always looking for teaching opportunities to share the faith with them, without, as my wife warns me, overwhelming them (which, as you can imagine, as zealous as I can be, is not always easy).

From telling them the story of Juan Diego's cloak and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, after noticing the virgin mounted on a wall at a restaurant we went for breakfast, to discussing the Crown of Thorns after pricking my fingers and arms while trimming our Bougainvillea trees last Tuesday (I felt like I had been in a fight with Edward Scissorhands), to explaining some of the "artistic" interpretations in Jesus of Nazareth (that we watched as a family during Holy Week), I continuously find myself feeding them tidbits on the faith.

Sometimes, it’s to the point where my eldest daughter rolls her eyes and says, "You tell us the same thing every time, Dad!" (Ok, so I have a tendency of repeating my lessons.  Maybe, I have told them the reason why Catholics do the sign of the cross with holy water, as we enter the church, one too many times).

Last week, since my ten and six-year-old daughters were off from school for Holy Week, I took the week off, in hopes of spending some quality time with them and also offered to do some projects around the house, many of which never got done (as I learned the hard way; gentelmen, never, under any circumstance, no matter how good you think it makes you sound at the time, make empty promises to your wife. The results are not pretty!). Unfortunately, my son's school had spring break a few weeks ago.

One morning, after going to Mass and dropping off my son at school, I took the girls to the Art Museum of Ft. Lauderdale, where there was an exhibit titled, Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art. My older daughter likes museums and my younger daughter is usually game for anything we do together. Therefore, what a better way to spend some time and teach them about the rich history and beauty of the Church in the process?

As we go pay, the man selling tickets asks the age of my younger daughter. It went over my head, as I hadn't realized the paying age.

Regardless, considering this was an art and FAITH exhibit, I came clean, "She's six years old."

He looked at her and said, "Oh, well." Looking up, I noticed the sign stating prices for tickets begin at six. Great, I could have saved $13 bucks!

Fortunately, the man realized my obtuseness and said, "Listen, I'm going to comp her ticket." (Thank you.  Despite myself, we're off on the right foot!)

As soon as we start walking in, there were two Swiss Guard mannequins at the entrance, giving me an chance to tell the girls about the elite security detail that has sworn to protect and defend the pope since the 16th Century.

We walk in and after seeing relics from the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, we immediately notice an oil painting of the two men chosen to lead the Church through its infancy in the first century. The painting had the customary image of Peter holding keys and Paul holding a sword.

I explained to my daughters that Peter is shown holding the keys because they are the Keys to the Kingdom of God, given to him by Jesus. Paul is often shown holding the sword, which represents the Word of God, and the faith that the Apostle proclaimed when he urged the early Christians to put on the Full Armor of God to into battle against evil.

It was a great ice breaker. From that point, the keys and sword would be a recurring theme of conversation throughout the exhibit. Every time we would come across a depiction of Peter holding the keys or Paul holding the sword, I would ask who they were, and, although at first, my six-year-old wouldn’t remember, she soon caught on and started answering correctly.

I may be biased, but I thought it was a wonderful exhibit. Almost 200 items of artifacts and artworks, from the Vatican collection, really capture some of the essence of the Church's two thousand year history.

There were works by Michelangelo, Bernini, Giotto, Raphael and many others great artists. There were objects dating back to the beginning of Christianity, a Reliquary of Saints Peter, Paul, Anne, Joseph and others, which contained bone fragments of them.  There were personal items and portraits from different popes, a replica of the Chair of St. Peter, famous paintings, like Portrait of Christ with Crown of Thorns (The Veronica of Guercino) and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (which gave me an opportunity to teach my daughters how St. Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he didn't feel worthy of being crucified facing God the Father like Jesus.

There was also an amazing 15th century marble wall sculpture, in two parts, of the arrest of Peter, which shows a distraught Paul being taken away by Roman soldiers, and, in the second half, Peter's crucifixion.

I got a chance to tell my girls about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, of which the Bible says St. Paul indirectly partook in his slaying, of the Avignon Papacy period, where anarchism and rioting forced the pope to flee Rome to Avignon, France, turning into one of the ugliest times in Church history, and how St. Catherine of Sienna almost single-handedly pressured Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.

There was a replica of one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, Pieta, which depicts Mary holding Jesus in her hands after the Crucifixion.  The original, I learned, was made when the artist was 24-years-old in the year 1499.

After almost two hours of walking, the girls and I finally got to the gift shop at the end, where I let them pick out a small item each before we left.

During lunch at a nearby restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard, I asked them what their favorite part of the exhibit was.

My ten-year-old said, "The wall carving of the arrest and crucifixion of St. Peter."

Without skipping a beat, my six-year-old answers, "The toys."

“The toys?” I asked a bit perplexed. I didn’t remember seeing toys.

“Yes, the toys in the gift shop.”

So much for lasting impressions. Good thing her entrance was comped!

Nevertheless, I guess after thinking about it on our forty-minute drive to my parents’ house to pick up my son and drive to a gelateria near our house, she offered without being asked, "What I liked the most at the museum was the thingy with the bones of the man with the keys and the other one with the sword."

That's my girl...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Making Return Home Easy for Prodigal Sons and Daughters…

Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
In the story of the Prodigal Son, the younger of two sons demands his half of his inheritance, goes out to a distant land and squanders it on wine, women and song (so to speak). After blowing everything he had, a famine hits the land and he finds himself broke, starving and working in a pigsty.

The ungrateful son realizes that his father’s hired help is living better than he is. He repents of his wrongdoings, swallows his pride and heads back home, thinking that he would ask for forgiveness and tell his father to treat him like a one of his work hands for he no longer deserved to be treated like a son.

Instead, when the father sees him from afar, he is moved with pity.  Not able to contain himself, the father rushes towards his son, and before the son gets a chance to finish his apology, the father puts the finest robe over his son, rings on his fingers, and sandals on his feet. If that weren’t enough, the father kills a fatted calf and throws a feast for him because as he tells the older brother, "your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and now is found."

In preparation for Holy Week, the Archdiocese of Miami is celebrating its very first Reconciliation Weekend, where priests will be available for extended hours on Friday and Saturday to hear confession and dispense God’s Mercy and Forgiveness.

Forty parishes from Key West to Deerfield Beach will participate.

One of the greatest gifts that Christ gave His Apostles was the authority to forgive and retain sin, which the Church calls the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Healing.  It is reconciliation because it's an opportunity to reconcile with God.  Sin separates us from God and Confession restores us.

The Weekend of Reconciliation is an initiative of Archbishop Thomas Wenski. In a recent blog, the Archbishop states:
It is no secret that while communion lines have grown, few “line up” anymore for confession. Yet, the spiritual crisis of our age – the loss of the sense of sin – will not be overcome unless our Catholic people rediscover the consolations of making a “good confession.”

Increasing the opportunities for one to approach the sacrament might help. The experience of our priests who hear daily confessions at the Ermita, the National Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, shows people do come to confession when it is readily available. During Lent, our parishes do schedule special penance services in which the faithful can participate in the Rite of Reconciliation with individual confessions and absolution.
Many times in my life I have found myself in the pigsty.  Unfortunately, as I have stated before, I wasted way too many years away from the Church and the Sacraments.   I was like the many Catholics that Archbishop Wenski mentions in his blog that had lost the sense of what sin is.  In my own self-righteousness, I always thought I was a "good" person.

However, after rediscovering my faith in recent years, I realize that being a "good" is not good enough.  I am called to holiness and to be a reflection of Christ.  Say what?  That may seem like an impossibility but with God all things are possible

I now love Confession and try to go to every three weeks.  Sometimes I go with my wife and older daughter (although, when we go as a family, it gets a bit interesting.  One time my son tried to get into the confessional with me).

Now, let me just say, while I enjoy confession, a few weeks ago, I had a funny experience in the confessional.  I went on my usually third week, and as I was finishing, the priest (who by the way, I truly enjoy confessing with because he always gives me spiritual guidance before giving me absolution), says, "Since we are in Lent, let's try to work through this reoccurring sin of yours.  I want you to come back next week." 

Ok... I thought reluctantly.  Really?  Next week?  So soon? 

After completing my penance, I started thinking, ok, so just how much sinning can one possibly do in a week?  I shouldn't have come to Confession today! 

Well, guess what?  Each night that week, I would do an examination of conscience before going to sleep and I realized something.  I sin a lot!  As we recite in the penitential rite at Mass, "in my thoughts and in my words.  In what I have done and what I have failed to do."  It's amazing how often I fall into sinful patterns and thus hurt my relationship with God. 

Well known Catholic speaker and author, Fr. Larry Richards, says, sin is not about breaking rules, it's about hurting our relationship with God.  He also says that at the center of sin is I.  Anytime we put "I" first, there is sin.  That is the constant battle in my life.   

Having to go to Confession the following week also forced me to be more astute of my transgressions, which is why Pope Benedict XVI goes to Confession on a weekly basis (and so did Pope John Paul II). 

There is no sin that is greater than God's love for us.  God is merciful and forgiving.  However, like the prodigal son, we must repent of our wrongdoings and start walking back to the Father.  He will surely meet us on the way...

For more information on participating parishes and schedules, see here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Preview of Spectacular Documentary on the Church...

Several times, I have mentioned an upcoming 10-part documentary on Catholicism, expected to be released in September. This is not your garden variety documentary. It is a major and visually spectacular undertaking by Chicago Archdiocese priest, blogger and You Tube evangelist, Fr. Robert Barron and his Word On Fire staff.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.” That is one of the reasons behind the project; to set out to tell the Catholic story from those who are living, breathing and practicing the faith.

Fr. Barron and his crew traveled throughout the world, from Italy, France, Ireland and Spain to Israel, India, Uganda and Mexico, to capture the essence, glory, history and beauty of Catholicism.

I have seen several previews but this one, captures the fullness and magnificence of the project:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Change in Season and Farewell to a Good Shepherd...

People come in and out of our lives throughout our existence.

Some leave profound impressions, while others, unfortunately, we hardly remember after a few years.

Some leave us through death, as my grandparents, who helped make me the man I am today and I was never able to express the gratitude, love, and respect that they deserve, although I know someday I will, while others just drift away because of circumstances.

I remember my ex-father-in-law telling me, "Have a good life," after my divorce was finalized and I went to pick up the last few items at the house I had shared with his daughter for five years. I choked up as I shook his hand goodbye.

Despite how my marriage ended, here was a man that I had known for about ten years of my life. I highly respected and learned to love him as a husband, father and positive example of what I thought a good man should be. Yet, with the exception of running into him at an anti-Castro demonstration several years later, I haven't seen him since.

Or, my high school baseball coach, who once told me, “Carlos, if I had eight more players like you, I would be a very happy man.” He was referring more to my makeup than my play on the field but I will always cherish that comment.

Friday night, was one of those times for me.

We had a farewell reception for our pastor, who has been the spiritual leader of our parish during the past nine years, including the last five after my reversion to the faith.

Father recently announced his retirement, catching most of us by surprised. He has been battling health issues for many years and, it appears, now in his mid-60's, decided that the demands of pastoring a parish were too much for him. Comments have circulated about his disillusionment in recent months and external pressures from the Archdiocese, but whatever the ultimate reason or reasons were; he celebrated his last First Holy Communion on Saturday and Mass, as our pastor, on Sunday.

Fr. D, as my friends and I referred to him, is not the warmest person or the easiest man to get along with but he was always fair and willing to listen, even when his opinion didn't coincide with the person addressing him.

I imagine it must not be easy leading a middle to upper-middle-class parish. Sometimes those that have the most materially tend to lack the most spiritually. But, Fr. D would have none of that.  He was willing to crack the whip when needed.

He started forcing children from the parish, both from the school and CCD program, to take up offertory envelops to show their participation at Mass each Sunday. Many parents balked at first but after several years, Masses are completely full each week and I believe it has led to an overall sense of community and a revival of faith in the parish.

What some criticized as his most lethal mistake during his tenure at our parish, I respect as one of his shining moments. Although I don't know all the details involved, what I understand is that several years ago, Fr. D stood his ground against an influential Catholic all-boys school in the area. Many said it was because he was a teacher at another Catholic all-boys high school.

At the time, many parochial schools, including our parish school were suffering from lower enrollment after elementary school since many parents were pulling their boys out of the parochial schools to transfer them to the popular all-boys school.

Father led a group of pastors that forced the all-boys school to reduce the number of students from parochial schools that were admitted.  The confrontation cost Fr. D dearly, as he made many adversaries.  However, in his defense, I believe he was protecting the interests the parochial school system, and our parish school in particular. Consequently, many former alumni of the all-boys school, who are members of our parish community, never forgave Fr. D and withdrew or reduced contributions to the parish. (funny how God forgives men but sometimes men, in our pride, refuse to do the same)

Despite his many human flaws, this is a man deserving of respect and admiration, if nothing less, for having served the Church faithfully as a priest for almost 40 years. He is a man deeply committed to his vocation, to God and to the Catholic Church.

Shortly after taking over the reigns at our parish, Fr. D was forced to take a leave of absence to have two liver transplants, which some say left him closer to death than life. He survived, battled back and returned to lead the parish.

The past nine years have also been a tumultuous time for the Roman Catholic Church in general. The last two decades have been a constant source of reminder of the humanity of the Church.

It is said, the Roman Catholic Church is guided by the Holy Spirit but unfortunately it is run by men and those men make mistakes often. While we can rest assured the teachings of the Church remain intact and perfect since the time of the Apostles, the human scandals have and will continue to plague the Church until the end of time.  (Evil has been trying to destroy the Church both from within and externally for two thousand years and there is no reason to think, it will cease)

Even with the sex scandal, that left many Catholics in a spiritual quandary, our parish continued to flourish. Our Pastor was able to lead his flock through the fog and re-inspired the faithful. The laity has taken a more active role. Ministries such as Emmaus and the Marriage Covenant group are thriving. This year, three men from the parish committed lives to Christ by becoming ordained Deacons and another is expected to enter the seminary to become a priest.  The school has improved yearly and become one of the top schools in the area and with an active and vibrant parental involvement.

Friday night, in the midst of hundreds of well-wishers that attended the farewell reception, which included a short tribute to him by several speakers, the children’s choir and a special performance by the Carmelite Sisters that run the school, my wife, three-year-old son and I worked our way to shake Fr. D’s hand. My daughters were running around the hall with friends.

Before getting close to him, I started choking up and had to hold back tears. However, I wasn't the only  one with a  knot in my throat.  I saw several people crying as they hugged Fr. D goodbye.

When it was our turn, "Thank you," is all I could muster to say. He shook our hands and then looked at our son, who I was carrying in my arms.

"You're getting so big," he told him. "I remember you from when you were in your mommy's belly."

And, so he had. The last few years have been years of spiritual awakening for me, as they have been for my family. I have learned more about God and my faith, during this time, then the previous forty two of my life and I’ve been able to share it with my wife and children.

Fr. D was a big part of that.

I recall my first Confession with him, after almost 30 years away from the Church.

I was an emotional wreck because of my many faults and transgressions in life but most of all because of my divorce and the separation it had created in my spiritual life.

Fr. D showed me God's Mercy. He was extremely gentle and nurturing. He gave me spiritual direction and guidance then gave me God’s Forgiveness. It was like coming home from a long journey, like the story of the prodigal son in the Bible. I truly felt God the Father's warm embrace and love. Thank you, Father (both in Heaven and His designated stand-in in the confessional).

As I move forward in life, I'm sure there will be other people who God will put in my life to deeply affect and profoundly shape the person I will be.  I'm thankful for having put Fr. D among them.  I will miss him... but as it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season and a time to every matter under heaven..."

Fr. D's season as our shepherd has come to an end and, while some may think his departure leaves us in the midst of Winter, Spring is just around the corner.  May the new season begin...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bedtime Prayers and Reluctant Spiritual Leadership...

Setting a good example for my children can have its downside.

Several weeks ago, I wrote that one of my Lenten Season commitments was to pray every night with my children before they went to sleep. I actually have been doing pretty well, except for a few nights that I have not been home because of meetings or a night out with my wife.

Wednesday night however, I was just being lazy (one of my many faults).

I put the two little ones into bed and blessed them with holy water, as I do every night, said goodnight and left their room quickly to go watch the second half of the Heat game.  

My older daughter was washing her face and brushing her teeth, as I went into the living room to plop down in front of the TV.

About 10 minutes later, my three-year-old son comes into the living room saying, “Prei-er. Papi, prei-er!” in his little Cuban-accented voice.  He has a very pronounced accent when he speaks English. My wife and I call him our little spic (Derogatory? It's just a joke between us).

Great! I think to myself, just when I got comfortable. I start pulling myself up without using my hands, having to lift my legs for balance so as to not fall backward and almost pulling a muscle in my lower back in the process. It sucks to get old!

I go into the bedroom to pray with the little ones and start, “Thank you, Lord for these Thy gifts, which we’re about to…”

My six-year-old daughter sits up on her bed, “Daddy, you’re saying it wrong!” and starts, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” As you can tell, I didn't have my A-game. I was doing the mealtime prayer instead of the bedtime; my bad.

Halfway through my daughter's prayer, my son starts interrupting, “Mary, Papi, Mary!”

“Shhh!” I tell him as my daughter finishes the prayer and I think, great, now it's going to take even longer.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women…”

I usually have them thank God for our health and family and make individual petitions but not on this night.  This night, the bedtime prayer and Hail Mary were just fine.  I wanted to get back to the game!  Not exactly the luminous example of the spiritual leader of my household that God calls me to be!

I kiss them both goodnight, tuck them in and leave again.

I went back to the living room. However, soon after laying back down in front of the TV, my older daughter comes in to get her blessing and I have to get up again.

Several minutes later, after getting comfortable on the couch again, my younger daughter comes in to complain that I had not given her her blessing.  I told her that I had (it was the first thing I did after putting her to bed) and apparently she got upset.  My wife later tells me, our daughter went into our room crying and saying, "Daddy doesn't want to give me my blessing."   

To top it off, unfortunately the Heat didn't have their A-game either, as they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks at home.  Maybe, I should have spent more time in prayer with my kids...

It is not easy raising Godly children!

Hollywood Film Highlights Life of Opus Dei Founder...

It’s not every day that Hollywood decides to do a film on a Roman Catholic saint. It may be even less likely when the saint featured is the founder of Opus Dei (Dan Brown's favorite group) and the movie presents him in a positive light.

Yet that is what director Roland Joffe, of The Killing Fields and The Mission fame (who by-the-way considers himself an agnostic), appears to have done in next month’s release of There Be Dragons.

The movie is set during the Spanish Civil War and is the story of two childhood friends, Josemaria Escriva, who becomes a Catholic priest, and Manolo Torres, who when war breaks out, find themselves on opposite sides.

The official movie web site explains:
There Be Dragons is an epic action-adventure romance set during the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War. The story traces the lives of two young men, Josemaria Escriva (Charlie Cox) and Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley), childhood friends who are separated by the political upheaval of pre-war Spain to find themselves on opposite sides as war erupts. Choosing peace, Josemaria becomes a priest and struggles to spread reconciliation by founding the movement Opus Dei (work of God).

Manolo chooses war and becomes a spy for the fascists. He becomes obsessed with a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary, Ildiko, who has joined the militia in pursuit of passion and purpose. But when Ildiko rejects him out of love for the courageous militia leader Oriol, Manolo's jealousy leads him down a path of betrayal.

As personal and national battles rage, the characters' lives collide and their deepest struggles are illuminated through the fateful choices they make. Each will struggle to find the power of forgiveness over the forces tearing their lives and friendship apart.
In an article on National Catholic Register on a press conference the movie director held in Spain, Joffe gives some perspective on the movie and story: 
In a way, it was Josemaria’s very controversiality that made him interesting, Joffé suggested, adding, “I don’t think an uncontroversial saint is a very good idea. I’m not quite sure how you could be an uncontroversial saint, because … if you are a saint, that means you stand for something.”...

“Each saint is asked a different question by his period in history, and that question becomes the central thing of his life,” the filmmaker asserted. “I was very struck that, at a time when the world was splitting up ideologically, this man fought very hard for the idea of freedom of choice — not only freedom of choice, but the importance of choice — the importance of owning every choice you make in your life. And making your choices in such a way that you feel proud of them.”...
“Though science may try to tell us that we are some result of chemicals and electrical impulses and that we have no free will, what should we do? At the very worst, we have ‘free won’t’ — which means we have decisions about doing something besides not to do it. For all our lives, there will be choice, and there is something about us as human beings that is capable of exercising that choice.”
The capacity for choice, Joffé reflected, was also the capacity for saintliness. “When you think about a saint,” he mused, “you’re not really thinking about a sort of continuum. You’re thinking about lots of acts — lots of times when different things could have been chosen, but certain things were.
The film opens in May and appears to be worth the money of the ticket:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Prayers, a Miracle and Bilingual Tears…

Like most first-generation Cuban-Americans, I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. My parents, brother and I only spoke to each other in our native language, after arriving in the United States, and it continued when my grandparents moved in with us several years later, after they too arrived from Cuba via Spain.

While my younger brother and I were growing up, and even until today, Spanish was and is the language we use to communicate with our parents. Even though I was only five when we came to the States forty-two years ago (you can do the math), for me, it’s just unnatural to talk to my folks in English.

Henceforth, when I became a father, my wife, who is also Cuban-American (albeit second-generation), and I also adopted Spanish as the idiom for communicating with our children. Although, since my wife and I speak English to one another, as my girls have gotten older, it has become harder to speak only Spanish to them. We have to make a conscious effort, and even occasionally have “Spanish Only” nights, where we refuse to answer to anything they say in English. My oldest daughter hates them!

It is easier with our son, who is three-years-old and has not been as influenced by school or TV as of yet.

Despite Spanish being my first language, after growing up, studying and living my entire adult life in the U.S., I am much more comfortable in English (verbally and, even more so, in writing).

Therefore, when I was invited by my parish’s Spanish Men’s Ministry to talk to them about the importance of prayer at a retreat, I was both honored and apprehensive. It’s a topic that is near and dear to me since prayer was the spark that ignited and continues to transform my faith during the past five years. However, I had to do it in Spanish. Yikes!

Mind you, I work in a Spanish-language television newsroom and am used to leading a daily afternoon editorial meeting in the tongue of Cervantes (or at least the Hialeah version).

Even so, while I have had many opportunities to speak about my faith to various groups in our parish in English, I have never had to address a group in Spanish on my faith, which calls for a very different vocabulary and mentality then say, explaining a shooting in Little Havana (usually just facts with not much elaboration needed). A talk on faith requires more depth, preparation, and philosophical mindset.

In addition, coming from a television background (working as a reporter early in my career), I am a bit anal about details, like content, energy, pronunciation and delivery. I don’t like to ad-lib for 45-minutes and wander aimlessly when I speak. I only deviate from script briefly to expand on a relevant thought that cross my mind. In other words, I don’t like to babble.

Prayer has been a topic that I have discussed previously to groups in English and therefore, it didn’t take me long to write down what I wanted to say.

My approach on most talks is to go over it repeatedly until I know it and only have to use my notes for reference (we don’t have teleprompters). To my kids, I probably sound like a nut when I’m preparing for a talk since I usually find the best place to rehearse is in my bathroom (aside from my reading room, it serves other purposes too).

Within that process, those that know me can attest, I can get a bit passionate, especially when it comes to faith and my family. This means that when I really get into a talk, I tend to get a bit emotional and have been known to shed a few tears. In fact, when I’m really “in the zone” during preparation, I even break down while going over it in my bathroom (Am I the only one that cries in the bathroom?).

Lately, however, I have shown more composure. I can still muster up the energy and passion but have not been as prone to completely losing it. Maybe, I am getting use to speaking in front of groups.

On Saturday, my emotions came back. I guess hearing myself talk in a different language made me feel like I was giving a talk for the first time. But, even more important was the topic. It’s been a while since I discussed prayer and my son, who my wife and I consider was God’s miracle. While every life is God’s miracle and our daughters are just as precious to us, we are convinced our son is here because of faith and prayers.

Let me explain, after our second daughter was born, my wife got pregnant right away. It was unplanned and a total surprise considering that we had had difficulties getting pregnant with our two daughters. Our third child was to have been born eleven months after our second daughter, an Irish twin.

However, on the eleventh week of her pregnancy, when we felt we had gotten over the hump of uncertainty in the first trimester, we decided to tell our older daughter that she was going to be a big sister for a second time. We told her on a Friday and she was ecstatic. She started calling the baby her little brother. However, that weekend, my wife started bleeding and we lost the baby.

It was very difficult for both of us but especially so for my wife. Women get more attached since the baby is part of them. At the time, God was not part of my life. If I prayed, I don’t really recall doing it. Although, that would be consistent with something I would have done (I usually prayed when I needed help!).

After a D&C procedure, my wife had internal lesions that her doctor said would require surgery to heal.

About two years later, my wife was scheduled to have the surgery but we got pregnant again (surprise!). However, after an ultrasound, the doctor gave us bad news. She wanted to be honest with us. Because of the lesions in her womb, the chances of the baby developing without another miscarriage were not good.

By that time, I had returned to my faith and while I was prepared for whatever God decided the fate of our baby would be, I felt optimistic that everything would be alright.

In fact, although my prayer life was very strong at the time, it got even stronger.

Aside from my prayers and my wife’s prayers, I turned to the brothers in my men’s church group and asked for prayers for our baby. I asked my personal friends and family for prayers for our baby and then I turned to the Communion of Saints.

I remember praying to the Blessed Mother, to St. Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family, to St. Gerard, the patron saint of pregnant women, to St. Theresa of Little Flower, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, St. Francis, St. Anthony, and any and every saint that I could recall, and asked for their prayers for our baby. I even remember praying to Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa.

During all this, we were sent by my wife’s doctor to a high risk pregnancy specialist. We made an appointment at the center, where her doctor recommended without knowing any of the doctors in the practice.

I find out that the wife of a friend in my men’s group is a high risk pregnancy specialist. I remember praying that if my friend’s wife was the person that would help save our baby, that it would be her that treated my wife (It was one of those Hail Mary prayers like a quarterback who has seconds left in the game and needs to launch a long pass hoping his receiver catches it in the end zone).

When we get to the high risk doctor’s center at Baptist Hospital, the specialist turns out to be my friend’s wife. Prayer one answered.

When she examines my wife, the lesions that we had seen on an ultrasound were nowhere to be found. Did they disappear? We don’t know. All we know is that there was no lesion and our baby was developing well.

Even so, several times during the pregnancy, my wife started bleeding.

A day after finding out in a sonogram that we were having a boy, at 17-weeks, my wife called me practically in tears, before my group’s annual fund raising softball tournament, to tell me she was bleeding. I told my friends what was happening and before the tournament, everyone gathered around in prayer. It was very powerful. Several of the women then went to our house and prayed over my wife and baby.

Another time, during week 23, we went to London for the baptism of our niece (my wife’s sister lives there), and she started bleeding.  My wife had to stay in bed for most of the trip. She was obviously very alarmed. 

My wife and I know that our son is alive today because of our faith and the prayers of our friends, family and Communion of Saints. Although, I understand that prayers are not meant to try to convince God of what we think we need, they are to change our heart so we could accept whatever God knows we need.

As I told this story in Spanish on Saturday, I re-lived the experience and couldn’t help but breaking down.

In my men’s ministry, we always say that if God uses us to reach one person with our testimony, it is well worth the effort.  Well, after the talk, I was a bit concerned. Although several men came up to me to thank me and expressed their appreciation for my talk, I wasn't quite sure. About halfway through it, I felt like I was not connecting with the guys. That is until I started talking about the story of my son.

Tuesday morning, after Mass, the wife of a good friend approaches me and says, "Do you know how you were concerned that you didn't connect with the men at the retreat? Well, as you know my brother attended and Sunday night, I started asking for his impression and what had touched him the most. He particularly mentioned being touched and identifying with your talk."

It's amazing to me how despite our pride, ego, many faults and insecurities, God can use us to touch someone else... Even in Spanish....