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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Courageous is Not About What But Who...

After absolving my sins, the young priest (I would say in his early to mid 30’s) gave me my penance and then turns to me, as he whips out a pen, and asked, “Do you have a piece of paper?”

Caught off guard, since I had never been asked to write anything in a confessional before, I started sifting through my wallet in search of scrap paper and wondering what in the world was he going to give me; homework?

“Here,” I hand him an old business card.

He starts writing in the back of the card and says, “I want you to reflect on the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel. Let the words sink in and truly reflect on the moment, by which we, in our own Baptism, become part of God's family and, like Jesus, become His beloved sons and daughters." I think, great. It is homework, but cool. I could do that.

He continued, "And also, I want you to listen to a song by a group named Casting Crowns, named Courageous (check out video), and reflect on those words as well.”

“Courageous?” I had just seen a movie trailer for a film with that name. As if he heard my thoughts, he offered, “It’s also the title of an upcoming movie.”

The movie, which opens in theatres on Friday, by the creators of Fireproof, is a story about four police officers, who put their lives on the line every day but only understand what it means to be courageous, when tragedy hits their ranks. They come to realize that courageous is not about what they do but who they are and who they are meant to be.

The point of the movie, and song, is that many times we, as men, get so busy and wrapped up in our careers and self-centeredness that we neglect the things that are most important in life, namely our family. It is among the greatest factors in the high divorce rate in the U.S. and, thus, the deterioration of the American family (which has a domino effect on society).

It reminds me of a quote I have used before in my blog by Bl. Pope John Paul II, who wrote, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live in."

Let's face it, it's not easy. Since many marriages are failing, and single parent homes are becoming more prevalent than in days of old, society, especially the media, reinforces the notion that men are not needed. Women can make it and raise a "family" on their own. Kids don't need their fathers (which may all be part of a bigger agenda, but I'll leave that for another day).

All you have to do is watch the prime time TV sitcoms to see that men are reduced to nothing more than stereotypical lazy, uninvolved, immature, irresponsible, bumbling buffoons, with nothing to offer, except light humor. In recent years, some of the culprits include: Everybody Loves Ramon, According to Jim, Yes Dear, especially the brother-in-law, and, to a lesser extent, because he was not a father, King of Queens (I’m leaving out probably the granddaddy of man-mocking sitcoms, The Simpsons, because I have never been interested in watching it).

This is what our kids, especially boys, are learning as acceptable male behavior. It’s no wonder marriages are failing before they start. It’s pathetic.

Now, to join our regularly scheduled program, which is already in progress. As far as the song my confessor asked me to reflect upon, it says, “We were made to be courageous. We were made to lead the way… We were warriors on the front lines, standing, unafraid. But, now we’re watchers as our families slip away.”

Those are pretty ominous words. It made me wonder if my wife had come to Confession with the same priest before me.

Yet, as I listened a little longer, and looked up the words to the song, I realized, it’s a song of hope. It goes, “This is our resolution, our answer to the call. We will love our wives and children. We refuse to let them fall. The only way we'll ever stand is on our knees with lifted hands. Make us courageous Lord, make us courageous.”

It resonated within me. I understood why the priest wanted me to reflect upon the words. This song was written for me (and all men like me).

I am not just meant to be courageous as protector and provider. I am meant to be courageous in following my calling as head of my family. And, that means not just physically, but spiritually. I am called to be the spiritual guide of my household and to lead my family to heaven. This is who I am and what I meant to be.

It's a challenge that takes courage to fulfill and to realize I can't do on my own. Fortunately, I have confident hope that, like the voice heard over the Jordan River, almost two thousand years ago, as the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, I too am a beloved son...

Check out the trailer for the movie…

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Suck it Up" May Work for Rambo but Not my Wife...

I wouldn't want to be Murdock...
In hindsight, maybe “Suck it up,” was the wrong choice of words for me to use in the delivery room of Baptist Hospital, as my wife was in labor with our second daughter. (Oh, yeah I di-id)

However, in my defense, I think I was just caught up in the moment.

At the time, in her desperation, discomfort, and pain, my wife was insisting, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this!” Therefore, a nurse in the room gave her a heavy dose of reality, as only a black woman could have done, “Honey, women have been doing this since the beginning of time. Of course, you can do this. You got to do this. You got no choice!”  (Reality check.)

Mind you, my wife is a woman who runs marathons and triathlons. She can go for a 10-mile run and then do an exercise video on any given day without training (although she says Insanity kicks her butt!). She has a high threshold for pain.

So, when I saw her sobbing like John Rambo recounting the harrowing story of witnessing his friend die before his eyes after being blown to pieces in the last scene of First Blood, I had to give her some encouragement.

“Suck it up” was my way of saying, “You can do this, Gorda. I know you can!”

In fact, if I had had pompoms, I would have whipped them out and broken into a cheer, "You can do it! Yes, you can! Goooo, Yanik!” (Only it would have been a challenge while holding her head up with my left hand and pushing her right leg back into her chest with my right)

It didn’t go over too well. Not that she reacted at that particular moment, because of the pain she was in.  However, she remembered a couple of days later.  In other words, despite the agony she was going through, she registered it. And, I have been trying to live those words down ever since.

Today, we celebrate my younger daughter’s birthday.

As I recall that day seven short years ago, I can’t help but smile.

It started with my wife thinking she had an accident (that ran down her leg). Her mom, who was staying at our house that weekend because Hurricane Ivan (coincidentally the name of my wife's ex-fiance) was near South Florida, told her we should go to the hospital to make sure everything was alright.  Hurricanes have a tendency of prompting women to go into labor because of a drop in the barometric pressure.

As soon as we got to Baptist, they took my wife in for an examination and determined, she was ready to pop. Two and a half hours later, our second daughter was born.

It’s funny (now more than at the time, especially for her), my wife kept asking for an epidural knowing that in her first delivery, our oldest daughter came out so fast that they couldn’t administer the anesthesia in time.

However, by the time she was taken into the delivery room for our younger daughter, it was already too late, as well.  She would have to push a la natural.

Not only could she not get the epidural, but to top it off, the doctor had not arrived yet.  She was ready to push but had to wait.

I think the doctor arrived just in the nick of time. She should have given us a discount!

After the baby was born, the doctor asked me, "Do you want to cut the umbilical chord?" I thought, “Aren't there more qualified people than me in this room?”

Look, I know some guys want to be participants in the delivery and feel a sense of connection by cutting the chord, but for me, that was my wife's moment.  She can take all the credit.  I wanted nothing to do with the umbilical chord.

“No thank you,” I answered. C’mon. She had to earn her pay! She shows up 15 minutes (I'm exaggerating) before the birth, practically catches the baby in mid air before she hits the wall, and immediately wants to delegate.  No way!

Then came the moment of truth.

The baby is placed in my wife’s arms. We hugged her and each other as we both cry (actually, it may have been all three of us, I don’t remember). And, then the question.

“What are you going to name her?” asked one of the nurses in the room.

Unlike our first daughter, who was named from the time my wife was in grade school and living in Spain (she had a name picked out before her first boyfriend!), we had been arguing about our second daughter’s name.

Since my wife had named our first daughter, I wanted to name our second daughter. It was only fair, don't you think?  But, noooo…. She had chosen three names; one, that reminded me of an old lady I once knew and the others that I simply was not going to accept. No way. No how. It was my turn to name our second! (I would have held my breath if I didn't think I would have died waiting)

In fact, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and was open to negotiate, except for her original three (I had to draw the line somewhere).

Several months before, I had given my wife a book with over 100,000 baby names for her to circle the names she liked, as I had done, and maybe we could reach a consensus. She circled the same three names (I don’t think she even looked through the book). And so, we had given up and stopped talking about names, to avoid arguing.

So, there we were in the delivery room and the nurse asking our daughter’s name. My wife was exhausted and beaten down. She turns to me for my answer, too tired to even speak.  The nurse waited for my response.

“What is her name?” I paused as my mind started racing.  Should I make an executive decision and go with a name I preferred?  Should I go traditional and select a family name that neither of us had previously discussed? Should I give in? 

It’s… it's... and one of the three names my wife wanted came out of my mouth.  Then, without skipping a beat, I selected the name I wanted as her middle name (it seemed that was my specialty any way, since I gave our older daughter her middle name too). It came out naturally, like we had been planning the name all along.  And, then I looked at my wife and saw her smile.

Then again, what was I going to do? I had just seen the love of my life, who I had chosen to be my wife and mother of my children, suffer through the most horrendous agony and exhausting experience that any women can go through. Did I really have a choice?

Come to think of it, it may have been part of my wife’s plan all along (Expecting mothers take note).

Anyway, as I reflect on my blunt and spontaneous cheer in the delivery room that, in retrospect, may have sounded a bit insensitive, I can only take solace in knowing that my wife, like Rambo needed a hug from the Colonel Trautman in the end, and giving my daughter the name my wife wanted, was my way of saying, “It’s O.K., John,” as I wrapped my arms around her.

And, maybe more importantly, it avoided her telling me later, “Murdock, I’m coming to get you!”…

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Road to Jericho via Logan, Utah?...

I often wonder how I would react if I came across a life and death situation, where other peoples' lives hang in the balance.

I’d like to think I would jump right in to help and not cower away screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis in a Halloween movie or (worse) be in too much of a hurry with my own self-centeredness and preoccupations to stop.

That was not the case of a group of heroes, who put their lives at risk to save a 21-year-old Utah State University student from certain death.

The victim, Brandon Wright, was pinned under a flaming car that crashed with him on his motorcycle in Logan, Utah (about an hour and a half north of Salt Lake City).

According to witness accounts, the driver of the BMW was pulling out of a parking lot and did not see the motorcyclist, who tried desperately to stopped but ended up sliding on the road with his bike, crashing into the car, rolling over the hood and ending up completely underneath the car, as both vehicles burst into flames.

When someone noticed there was a man underneath the car, people came out of the woodwork to help. At the risk of the car exploding at any point, a group of about 10-15 bystanders lifted the car from one side and pulled the unconscious Wright to safety.

The video of the rescue is spectacular (see ABC story below).

It is refreshing to know that even in today’s “all about me” society, there are still good Samaritans, who like the one on the road to Jericho, go out of their way to save the life of a stranger (talk about loving your neighbor!)...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New Film Tries to Show The Way in More Ways Than One…

A new movie, The Way, written and directed by Tiger Blood's brother, Emilio Estevez, and starring dad, Martin Sheen, which hits theatres next month, is billed as "an inspirational story about family, friends, and the challenges of navigating a complicated world."

It's a about a journey; a spiritual journey that begins in tragedy and leads a man to a foreign land, looking to better understand his son and, instead, ends up understanding life and himself.

Sheen plays the protagonist of the movie, Thomas Avery, an uptight doctor from California, whose only son is a carefree and adventurous soul, Daniel Avery, played by Estevez.

The son decides to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, an ancient Christian pilgrimage destination, that dates back more than a thousand years, also known as the Way of St. James (thus the title).  But, before leaving on his journey, he invites his dad to go along and make it a father son trip.  The father, in his righteousness, rejects him.

As fate would have it, the son dies in a storm and the father has to travel to France, where the son started his trek, to pick up the remains.

However, moved by the loss, and the invitation he had rejected, the father decides to do the pilgrimage with his son's ashes; sort of to complete the trip his son set out to do and share in the experience with him spiritually.

During the pilgrimage he runs into several soul-searching travelers and ultimately finds the meaning of life, which according to the movie ad is, “You don’t choose a life. You live one.”

Although, I believe we have to live, love and enjoy our lives as if today was our last day on earth (easier said then done), I don’t necessarily agree with the slogan. I think life is about the choices we make; the decisions we make (right and wrong), the people we “choose” to love, the relationships we “choose” to keep, and the faith we “choose” to follow (whether God or our own substitute).

Father and Son
Nevertheless, the movie, which was low budget by Hollywood standards (only $10m), was inspired by a trip Sheen took with his grandson, Estevez's son Taylor, who ended up falling in love along the way and marrying a local Spanish girl, where he has lived with her ever since.

Estevez and Sheen say that was the first miracle of many they experienced in the Camino and Sheen convinced his son to write and produce a film about the pilgrimage.  It took five years to make.

In an article on National Catholic Register, father and son openly discuss the difficulties they encountered in making the film and their faith:

Was it difficult to do a movie that looks favorably on God?

Emilio: It wasn’t for me. For others it was. When we pitched it to studio representatives you could see their eyes glaze over. They’d say, “It’s about spirituality.” So we decided to shoot it digitally and independently. I believe this movie plays between Glenwood and Newark. Beverly Hills and New York can take a walk. Hollywood makes a lot of garbage. We know because we’ve been in some of it. There are less and less movies to go to – films without overt sexuality and language that won’t make me blush. We’re all tired of what’s coming out of Hollywood. Word of mouth will help this film make it.

Emilio, do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic? Can you tell me the impact that working on this film has had on your faith?

Emilio: I grew up in a house where my mother was a strict Southern Baptist, and my father was a devout Catholic. I grew up as a kid hearing many arguments about religion. There was always a question about how we would be raised. We were baptized, and as often happens in these types of situations, the father loses the fight. Because of the turmoil, going to Mass was not part of our routine.
When Martin returned to the Church in 1981, he came back to a different Church.

For me, I’m a work in progress and I really feel that I’m on a journey. I have yet to declare myself. I’m on a spiritual journey and am very much in touch with that. There was a point in the production process where I stopped calling what happened along the way coincidences and began calling them miracles. Things like that happened daily, things that were just supposed to be.

What was the genesis of your reversion to the Catholic faith, Martin?

Martin: It began after my illness in the Philippines while filming Apocalypse Now. I began going to Church because I was afraid of dying. Then I stopped going for a long time. My eyes were first reopened when I was in India filming Gandhi. Then, in 1981, while in Paris, I read the book The Brothers Karamazov. I had been given the book by director Terrence Malick. The book kept me up. After reading it, I went to see a priest and told him I wanted to come home. He looked at me with eyes that said, “This is what I do.” He told me to return the next day at 4:00 p.m. as he had a wedding at 4:30 p.m. He told me not to be late. I went to confession with him and wept. I came back to a Church that was very different. I left a Church of fear and returned to a Church of love.
What most interests me about the movie is the Camino itself.

Reminds me of Zund's Road to Emmaus painting 
According to early Church tradition, the Apostle St. James, son of Zebedee and older brother of the beloved disciple, St. John, briefly traveled to Iberia to preach the gospel before returning to Judea, where he was beheaded in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa I.

After his slaying, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where it is said to have been buried in what is now known as Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain.

Miracles started happening near the site of the relics. Although, during the Roman persecution of Christians in the 3rd Century, the tomb was practically abandoned, it was rediscovered and in early 9th Century a cathedral was built on the site. It soon became holy land for Christians and a popular destination of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages.

Long walks on the Camino de Santiago
The Way of St. James, which stretches from France, on the east and Portugal on the west, goes through Spain and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, is over 500 miles long (depending on where you start).

Although, I didn't know much about it until I met my wife, who traveled there while living in Spain, during her childhood, I hope to go some day (you could say it's on my bucket list, if I had one)…

Check out the trailer...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the Watershed Moment in My Career and Life...

It was a day like any other day, until it wasn't. And, when it stopped being like any other, it was a day that changed my perspective on life, and that of millions, forever.

For the past twenty-three years, I have worked in television news (with the exception of a short-lived sabbatical in politics, where I worked as the Media Spokesman for the Mayor of Hialeah, but left skid marks on my way out!).

I have worked as a reporter, special projects producer, assignment editor and, for the past 14 years, I have served as the Assignment Manager for the top rated local TV news station in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market (although our premier status has been challenged in recent years).

It is my job to find the news wherever it happens and send reporters and photographers to cover it.

Like any other job, it can become monotonous at times; murders, political scandals, fatal accidents, public servants arrests, police involved shootings, mudslinging political races, etc., etc.. Sadly, after a while, we become a bit callous with human suffering and stories, except for the names of protagonists, repeat themselves over and over.

Nevertheless, despite the repetitiveness at times, the reason I still do it, and probably many of my veteran colleagues do too, is for those stories from time to time that leave a lasting imprint on me, as a journalist, professional, husband, father, son and member of my community. However, more so, for those extraordinary stories that transcend time and space and allow us to be participants, albeit indirectly, of history.

Hurricane Andrew was one of those stories, the Brothers to the Rescue planes shoot down, the ValuJet crash, the day Elian Gonzalez was taken from his relatives’ Little Havana home and, of course, September 11, 2001.

Shortly after sitting at my desk, to start organizing and making the logistical decisions that I need to make on any given day, there was a stir in our newsroom.

America under attack
One of our morning news anchors, approached the morning producer and me and said, "A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, should we interrupt programming?"

I turn around and look at the panel of TV monitors behind my desk and, in fact, at least one station was already on with a stagnant shot of the billowing smoke coming from the building.

My first reaction was, "This is probably a freak accident. It's too far away from us to warrant our local station to cut into network programming." If it is not in our market, the network news department usually handles the cut in.

As other co-workers started gathering behind me to get a better look at the monitors, more networks started breaking in to air what was happening.

I decided to call my News Director to get his thoughts.

He tuned into the coverage from home and was agreeing with me that this was our networks' ballgame, but, as we were talking, one of many unimaginable things to happen that day, happened. A second plane came into the shot from the far side of the screen and plowed into the second tower.

I think both of our hearts, and that of those gathered behind me, skipped a beat.

"Oh, my God," I remember both of us saying, which was being echoed by several other colleagues as well.

He says, "It’s a terrorist attack!" Having covered countless of hurricanes over the years, there are certain plans that we have in place for covering emergencies.  However, what was the plan for a full-fledged attack of this magnitude, about 1200 miles away?

It was surreal, like many have described; time stood still. We watched the flames and thick black smoke from both towers hovering over the New York skyline, and already could see people in the first tower, hanging out of their windows in the top floors. They were trapped over ninety plus floors above the street with no way out. How could emergency crews get to them? I wondered.

At some point, while we were all still in shock of what we had just witnessed on live TV, within probably a matter of seconds, our network cut into programming and began their continuous coverage of the tragedy.

My News Director said, "Let's get a crew to the airport. I'll be right there as soon as I can," and we hung up the phone.

By now, our newsroom was in a near frenzy; phones start ringing off the hook, with concerned viewers, network producers and assignment editors, asking for local experts and live truck availabilities, spouses and friends of our employees trying to find out what is going on.

Meanwhile, I needed to keep my composure and start dispatching a crew to the airport, contacting our engineering department to provide us with a live truck operator, fielding calls and thinking about other locations that we needed to dispatch crews to and experts we needed to contact; which to be totally honest, ten years after the fact, I can’t remember a single decision I made after that point. It is now all a blur, except the most pressing concern I had, which was my family.

Through all the hysteria and adrenaline, I started thinking about my wife and our seven-and-a-half-month-old daughter.

I called my wife to see if she knew what was going on and she told me every one in her office was glued to the TV. Our daughter was safe at home with our nanny.

Then, I thought about my younger brother, who at the time was living in Manhattan. I start calling him on his cell. Nothing! The lines were dead (I spent a good part of the remainder of the day trying to reach him to no avail, whenever I had a chance).

I called my parents to see if they had heard from him, one of the many calls we would exchange throughout the day, as we desperately tried to locate my brother.

Then, I heard the same anchor that first approached me with the news that morning, say, “Oh, my God, someone just jumped.”

“What?” I asked incredulously but soon heard the broadcaster on TV say that people were jumping. It was not long thereafter that I started seeing people jumping to their deaths. I couldn’t imagine the desperation it took to prompt a person to jump over ninety floors to a certain death. I couldn’t register it.

Soon after, another report came in; a plane had gone into the Pentagon and the images began filtering in from Washington, DC.

Fr. Mychal Judge
At that point, the gravity of this really hit me. This wasn’t just an attack on New York City. This was an attack on our nation.

The broadcasters said, officials thought other planes may have been hijacked as well and Al Qaeda and Bin Laden's name was already being mentioned. Is this the beginning of a war fought on U.S. soil?  Where else would these commandeered planes be heading? I thought about my infant daughter. What kind of world had we brought her into? How could I possibly protect her from all this chaos?

But, is Miami a target? Already we were learning the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, the Homestead Airforce Base, the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant and the Federal Building in downtown Miami were on high alert.  Barricades were being placed around the locations to stop possible car bomb attacks.

Then, a more harrowing thought crossed my mind, my wife worked in a Federal Government Building (She was the Press Secretary for a local U.S. Congressman). Would that be a target?

I felt a sense of fear and hopelessness.

I tell you what, at that point in my life, I was not a particularly religious man. I believed in God but, as I liked telling people, “in my own way.” I was not very close to God or knew much about the faith I had inherited from my parents. In fact, I was mostly going through the motions any time I went to church, and hoping to go home as quickly as possible.

But, I prayed from time to time, especially in times of need.  And, at this particular moment, I began to pray. I remember asking God, something along the lines of, “Lord, please, protect my family. Please, keep my wife, daughter, parents, brother and all our loved ones safe.”

My News Director arrived around the time that the FAA grounded all air traffic and, it was about to get worse.

The second tower hit by a plane in NYC came tumbling down. How many people were still inside? My emotions got the best of me and, I’ll admit, I shed tears. I could see the horror, shock and incredulousness in the faces of my co-workers as well. This day would forever live ingrained in our memories. Already by that point, it was without a doubt the darkest day of my life.

Now, we all started bracing for the first tower’s collapse. If the second building, which was hit later came down, how long would it be before the first one plummeted down as well? My heart was beating faster, as I saw people still trapped on the top floors, many continuing to jump to their deaths. How many others may still be working their way down to the bottom?

But, the nightmare continued.  Shortly after the second tower came down, there were reports of another plane going down in Pennsylvania. This one however did not hit anything. Was it a freak accident? What were the chances?

Then, the inevitable happened.  The first tower collapsed.

The rest of the day is a blur to me.

The only thing I truly remember is when my parents were finally able to reach my brother and he was alright. He apparently got into the subway en route to New Jersey for an acting gig and didn’t hear the news until he arrived. Since, he had no cell phone service; he had to wait until he was able to connect via land line in the early evening hours.

In life, there are few true watershed moments, when everything that we may hold as true, as dear to us and as real, may come into question and, consequently, things will never be the same. September 11, 2001, will always be that moment for me, and I suspect for many other Americans, who lived through it.

Although, I didn’t fully realize it right away (and it actually took five more years and a second daughter to do anything about it), as of that day, I started searching for the meaning of life. There had to be more than our insignificant existence on this earth.  It was the first step in my spiritual journey.  I began to go to Mass more willingly and started praying on a more regular basis.

A sign from Heaven?
Sometimes people question how an all loving and merciful God would allow such pain, suffering and despair.  In our humanity, we can never fully understand.  (Although, I believe one day we will)

What I do know is that after the tragedy, Americans grew closer to God and to each other then at any point in recent history.  Churches, temples, places of worship and even mosques were full to capacity in the weeks and months that followed the attacks, as the faithful, and even not so faithful (like me), searched for consolation.

Doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, other public servants and even priests and other religious leaders worked tirelessly around the clock for days and weeks treating victims, searching for remains, maintaining order and consoling families. 

Many even sacrificing their lives in the aftermath, which as my faith teaches, what greater love than to lay down your life for others?

In fact, the first recorded casualty was a beloved Catholic priest, Fr. Mychal Judge, who worked as Chaplain for the NYC Fire Department, and died offering last rites and helping victims in one of the towers.

America rallied around the victims’ families. There were national fundraisers, including a nation-wide simulcast concert with the biggest performers in the world, and several public ceremonies and funeral services to honor the victims.  The entire country grieved the senseless deaths and prayed together.

And, from the rubble and the witness of self-sacrifice for others, arose a spirit of hope. Despite the most horrific terror attack in world history, the resiliency and mettle of the country became evident in the hope that Americans demonstrated in the days, weeks and months that followed. 

Therefore, in the midst of this great catastrophe, America encapsulated the three greatest Christian virtues; faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. 

As I look back at my career and life, I realize there may never be another moment in my lifetime that will have such a profound impact on me than the events that took place on September 11, 2001.

May God bring healing and consolation to all the victims, their families, our nation and the countless of millions, like myself, whose lives were forever changed...

[photo credit:]

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Celebrating the Feast of the Queen of Cuba and of Heaven and Earth...

"When we had crossed over the divide and were going down through the green valleys towards the Caribbean Sea, I saw the yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre, standing on a rising above the tin roofs of the mining village in the depths of a deep bowl of green, backed by cliffs and sheer slopes robed in the jungle.

There you are, Caridad del Cobre! It is you that I have come to see; you will ask Christ to make me His priest, and I will give you my heart, Lady: and if you will obtain for me this priesthood, I will remember you at my first Mass in such a way that the Mass will be for you and offered through your hands in gratitude to the Holy Trinity, Who has used your love to win me this great grace."

In his internationally renowned autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I am close to finishing, Thomas Merton describes his first encounter with La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (known in English as Our Lady of Charity or Our Lady of Cobre), shortly after arriving in Cuba in 1940.

Merton took the trip while discerning his vocation to the priesthood, and thinking he was about to enter a monastery, in what he admittedly described as ninety nine percent vacation and one percent pilgrimage to see Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba.

However, his experience with the Cuban Catholic faithful in the streets of Havana, Matanzas, Camaguey and Santiago stirred within him more emotion and inspiration than he anticipated; to the extent that he wrote a poem of a conversation he had with La Caridad.

In the book, Merton vividly describes the grandeur of countless centuries-old Spanish churches, with elaborate stained glasses, altars, images of the Blessed Mother and other saints, and the piety of ordinary faithful.  He writes, "everywhere were Cubans in prayer."

In fact, until Communism took control in 1959, and over a hundred and fifty Catholic priests were forced leave the country, Catholic schools were shut down, Atheism embraced by the regime and the Church was marginalized or outright attacked and forced into hiding, faith was a huge part of the Cuban culture. And, devotion to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre was a common thread that united all Cubans, far and wide.  She is part of the Cuban identity.

An identity, according to Catholic journalist and author, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, that is almost 400 years in the making:
Like most Marian apparitions, the story of Our Lady of Charity, which dates to 1612, began in a nameless place and involved ordinary, undistinguished people. Three boys were gathering salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughterhouse, which supplied food for the copper mine workers and inhabitants near Santiago, Cuba. Two of the boys were native Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and the third was a 10-year-old black slave, Juan Moreno.

On their way back to Santiago del Prado (modern El Cobre, meaning “copper”) and halfway across the Bay of Nipe, they encountered a fierce storm that threatened their frail vessel. Suddenly the waters calmed. In the distance the boys saw a white bundle floating on a piece of wood. It was a small statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her left arm and a gold cross on her raised right hand. Inscribed on the wooden board were the words, “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (“I am Our Lady of Charity”).

Much like the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the statue of Our Lady of Charity that the three youths brought to their village of Barajaguas instantly became a destination for pilgrims, a reminder for the underprivileged that their heavenly mother cared and stood beside them. El Cobre was to be the first place in Cuba where freedom was won for black slaves in 1886.

Nuestra SeƱora de la Caridad del Cobre may not be as well known in the United States as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but you can find her image in churches around the country and the world. Wherever Cuban refugees settled, they brought with them their devotion to la Caridad, or Cachita, as Cubans call her.
And, in Miami, the heartland of the Cuban exile community, the Feast Day of La Virgen de la Caridad, September 8th, which coincides with the date the Church Universal celebrates the birth of the Blessed Mother, takes on a greater importance.

As a Miami Herald article recently pointed out, fifty years ago, in 1961, a replica of the statue found in 1612 was smuggled into Miami aboard a commercial flight. It arrived just in time for the first Mass celebrated in Spanish in South Florida, for the commemoration of La Virgencita’s Feast Day.  Thirty thousand newly arrived exiles filled Bobby Maduro Stadium, the old spring training site of the Baltimore Orioles, for the open-air Mass.

Several years later, through the sweat and tears of the mostly humble Cuban exile community, a shrine, better known as La Ermita de La Caridad, was built on Biscayne Bay. It has been the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban Catholic faithful ever since. Whenever an important development happens in Cuba, or around the world, Cubans flock to La Ermita to pray for intercesion; not to the statue but to whom it represents. (In recent years, it has also become the worship center for other Latin Americans in South Florida)

Looking back at my own experience with La Virgencita, I can relate to the prayers (both to and from).

My parents tell me I was consecrated to La Caridad, as a baby.  Although, as I grew up, I didn't have a particularly close affinity with La Caridad, I did have it with the Blessed Virgin Mary (and for those unfamiliar, all the different portrayals of the Blessed Virgin, including La Caridad, Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, etc., are representations of the same Mary, Mother of Jesus, who has appeared in different forms to different cultures through the ages) and pray  to her daily. 

I now realize, that there were many times in my life, especially in my late teens, that her intercession may have been the reason I am still here today.

There were nights with friends, where I can honestly say, I only got home safely because of her prayers and God's Mercy.

In fact, I had a small statue of Our Lady of Charity on the dashboard of my first car and I remember my closest high school friend, who is not Catholic, often telling her, "Little Virgin, get us home!" as we drove back from Ft. Lauderdale, or other distant place, in the wee hours of the morning, and she always did.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes his brief meeting with the Virgin at the shrine in Cobre, "I walked up the path that wound around the mound on which the Basilica stands. Entering the door, I was surprised that the floor was so shiny and the place was so clean. I was in the back of the church, up in the apse, in a kind of oratory behind the high altar, and there, facing me, in a little shrine, was La Caridad, the little, cheerful, black Virgin, crowned with a crown and dressed in royal robes, who is the Queen of Cuba."

Today, Cubans around the world celebrate our Queen, as well as, the Queen of Heaven and Earth…

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Daddy, Why Do We Pray to Mary?...

A few nights ago, I was putting my kids to bed and after blessing them with holy water, we prayed the bedtime prayer and then prayed a Hail Mary.

As we finish, my six-year-old daughter turns to me and asks, “Daddy, why do we pray to Mary?”

A bit surprised, I asked, “What do you mean?”

She says, “I mean, why do we pray to Mary and not just to Jesus?” If she only knew this has been a source of great discord among Christians for at least 500 years, although the divide has started narrowing in recent years.

At this point, I noticed my ten-year-old daughter was leaning over the top bunk bed looking intently at me and my four-year-old son, who probably was oblivious to the question, was also looking up at me from his trundle bed (They all sleep in the same room). I had a captive audience.

Fine, as Wayne and Garth would say, “Game On!” This is what I get paid for as a Christian Father (figuratively speaking); to pass the faith to my children.

“Well baby,” I start cautiously, “we ask Mary to pray for us. As you know, Mary is very special to God. God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit..." (as the words came out of my mouth, I thought, “Oh, great, the Holy Trinity is complicated enough for adults to understand and you’re trying to explain it to a six-year-old!”)

After a brief pause, I said, “God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus. So, she is very special to Him. We pray to Mary, asking her to pray for us because she is very close to Jesus.”

Then I remembered something I once heard that might make more sense to her, “It’s like Mommy and you. If Mommy asks you for a favor, would you do it?”

She nodded yes.

“Well, since Mary is Jesus’ mom, we ask her to ask Jesus for a favor for us.”

She smiled and pulled her covers up, as if to say, “I’ve heard enough, thank you very much.”

Although, there is more to it than my simple explanation, it seemed to do the trick.

I turned off the lights, wished them good night and told them I loved them. For me, bedtime is probably the most intimate time that I spend with my kids (although, in all honesty, there are many nights that I am just going through the motions, trying to get through it as quickly as possible, to get back to a game or a show on TV).

That night, however, I was more focused, and fortunately so.

As I went to bed, I couldn’t help but think about our short exchange. And, the more I thought about it, the more amazing it seemed to me.

Here is a six-year-old questioning an element of her faith? Mind you, she’s only in First Grade and couldn’t have learned much more than basic catechesis at school. It’s not until Second Grade, where she will be preparing for her First Holy Communion that her instruction on the faith intensifies (although two weeks into the school year, it wouldn’t make much of a difference).

Moreover, I suspect, from my own experience as a kid and as a father to three small children, that most kids, especially that young, take their faith at face value, as something handed down to them by their parents. It’s true because their parents say it’s true and it’s not until later in life that they start asking questions.

Even if I am making a mountain out of a molehill, at the least, I think the question shows curiosity and that is the spark that ignited my own faith journey over five years ago.

After becoming a father, which, for all intent and purposes, coincided with the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, I started searching for the meaning of life and started yearning for a better understanding of my faith.

A spiritual retreat put the wheels in motion and brought me closer to God, but it wasn’t until my faith was challenged by a good friend, that I really began to grow.

The challenge peaked my curiosity to know and understand what the Church was all about, and I have been studying, learning and growing in my faith ever since (and a lifetime will never be long enough!).

While, I doubt my daughter’s innocent question about praying to Mary is going to prompt her to pick up the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church any time soon, it does give me reason for hope.

If we don’t question what and why we believe what we believe, as my daughter did, and search out the Truth, which despite the confusion in the culture, most of us know is just One (as U2 would say), then, to barrow from a G.K. Chesterton quote, we run the risk of believing in anything…

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Marriage is More Than Just Love...

Last week, I ran into a former co-worker, and, without a second thought, started talking to him about his wife, who I had heard on a radio show that morning.

He says to me, “Oh, don’t you know? We’re in the process of getting divorced. We’ve been separated for more than a year.”

Trying hard to keep my jaw from dropping, considering I could’ve sworn they had just gotten married not long ago, and shortly afterwards, had a baby, I could only muster to say, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It happens,” he nonchalantly responded, as he shrugged his shoulders and turned his arms and the palms of his hands upwards, as if to say, “What can I do? It’s part of life,” sort of like pimples during puberty or a first puppy-love heart break. (Ironically, it's the same excuse I just heard Marc Anthony use when explaining his break up to J-Lo)

It happens? Maybe, I’m being melodramatic but this matter-of-fact response disturbs me. What a sad commentary of our times, when failed marriages, which make up about half of all marriages in the U.S., can be reduced to “It happens.”

Even so, I'm sure, my friend’s response may be nothing more than his trying to find levity in a traumatic or messy situation, while making small talk during a chance run-in with an old acquaintance. But, the casualness of his behavior gave me reason to pause.

Then again, I can recall using the excuse, “We grew apart,” when I got divorced many moons ago, which, in all honesty, is just as bad, if not worse, than “things happen.”

At least, “things happen,” makes it sound like things were never meant to be, or that things were beyond anyone’s control.

“We grew apart,” makes it sound like we got bored, we made no effort and we just let our relationship go to pot (which may not be too far off the mark).

Regardless, as I now realize, both are just lame excuses to cover up the feelings of failure in what we innately know is the most important human relationship God bestows upon us (which fortunately, I have now come to understand in my current marriage, albeit imperfectly).

I have a lot of respect for people, like another friend, whose wife apparently wanted out of their marriage and instead of conceding, he endured the separation and through prayer, fidelity and humility, won her back, restored their marriage and, several years ago, they started a family.

Another high school buddy separated from his wife, through his own doing, but eventually realized his waywardness, worked his way back into her life, which wasn't easy, and after a couple of years, regained her trust and love and got his family back together. Admittedly, he says that if they had gotten divorced, they would have never tried to get back together.

Unfortunately, many couples call it quits instead of working through their troubles. Society (and even some marriage counselors) tells us, it’s the right thing to do if we're not "happy" since it's all about me and how I feel.  It's easy to forget through the rigors of daily life that when we took our vows, it stop being about me and became about we. 

In fact, I have several good friends, who, as men of faith, tried everything they could to save their marriages and families but were unable to. 

Maybe more concerning is that many marriages, like my former co-worker (and Marc Anthony and J-Lo), fall apart faster than it takes their children to start going to school. Moreover, children are the unfortunate victims of their parents’ perfunctory approach to their wedding vows.

I’m not saying there isn’t "love" when they enter into wedlock, or, at the least, what they think is love, but, let’s be honest, sometimes "love" is not enough, especially when it is confused with passion. Side note; love can last forever (hi, honey), but it never stays the same. It evolves. And, while the initial passion may subside, if nurtured properly, it gives way to a deeper, greater, and more profound bond.

A few weeks ago, I heard a priest say, “It takes more than love to make a successful marriage.” And, most married couples would admit, he is absolutely right. It takes getting outside ourselves and our self-centeredness and focusing on someone else (something I am still working on and haven’t quite mastered!).  It takes patience.  It takes endurance and, more importantly, it takes commitment; a commitment to God, to your spouse, and, where relevant, to your children.  It is a covenant, which is what many couples fail to understand.  

In fact, now, thirteen years into my marriage, I am just starting to understand the sacramental meaning of Holy Matrimony, where two become one flesh and then become three, which is the truest human expression and participation in God’s total, self-giving, life-giving, sacrificial love (although, for my wife, it may be more sacrificial than anything else!).

And, isn't that the way it was meant to be?  Woman made for man and man for woman.  It's part of the natural order.  As Jerry Maguire told Dorothy Boyle, "You complete me," which, while I'm not sure if the script writer or most movie goers realized, meant, not just in the physical sense, but spiritually too.  In fact, the sacramental communion between husband and wife is so profound, that God uses it to create life.

Therefore, marriage is more than just love.  It is a life-giving communion that serves as a type for the divine union between Christ, referred to as the Bridegroom in Sacred Scripture, and the Church, His Bride, which, according to my faith, is manifested in its fullness through Holy Communion (the consummation of Christ's love for His Church).  Whew, I think I may have just short-circuited a fuse in my brain!

I know, despite the complexities aforementioned, marriage is easier said then done...

This brings me to a recent commentary by Fr. Robert Barron (it always does!) that made me think about my former co-worker (and Marc Anthony).  Fr. Barron says unless two people transcend beyond their love for one another and seek a greater common purpose (namely God), in time, their relationship will devolve into bickering and division.  Unfortunately, many times, these divisions grow worse with time, until the relationship dissolves completely...