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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...

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