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Monday, April 30, 2012

A Lesson on Selfishness and God's Generosity...

No greater peace
I had been in the chapel for over an hour.

We were ahead of schedule and, after my morning talk ended, about a half hour ahead of the programmed time, I went directly into the small chapel to be with the Blessed Sacrament to decompress and give thanks.

An hour and ten minutes later, as a friend of mine, who is one of the most dynamic speakers in our men’s group (and I look forward to hearing at every retreat) was starting his talk, I was still in the chapel.

In fact, after another friend, who had obviously had a rough night since he fell asleep several times, and even snored and broken the silence in the small place of worship, had left, I was left all alone with the Lord.

I usually cherish these moments. It gives me an opportunity to bask in God’s Glory in total peace and solemnity. It is a profound one-on-one encounter with God, where I either go deeper into prayer or try to empty my mind and just contemplate.

Fourteenth century monk, Thomas Kempis once wrote, “There is no greater peace anywhere else than to be with Jesus.”

He is absolutely right.  Still, in a moment of selfishness (which my wife would say happens far too often), I really wanted to leave the chapel to hear my friend’s presentation!

However, since I volunteered to be with the Blessed Sacrament for the hour, although I had come in a half hour early, because of the schedule, my replacement was not expected for another twenty minutes.

As I sat there in the silence, I could hear my friend speaking in the background, through the wood door that separates the chapel from the conference room, where everyone else was at. I started listening.

Then, like god-sent, I heard the front door of the room open and another friend, who was going to be speaking next, walked into the chapel. Alleluia!

I asked if he was planning to stay until his talk and when he said yes, quickly pulled a Snagglepuss, the old Hanna-Barbera pink mountain lion cartoon character, who would say, “Exit stage left!” and scrambled out as quickly as possible before he had a chance to change his mind (pretty sad, I know). 

In retrospect, and in all honesty, this may not just be indicative of my selfishness but my lack of faith, since if I really believed I was in the presence of the one true God of the universe, how could I be so eager to rush out to hear a speech?  Or, posssibly worse, if I am convinced in this truth (as I am), then I chose my self-centered needs ahead of God (which unfortunately is a constant battle for me).

It's funny, every six months or so, our parish's men's ministry hosts a weekend retreat to try to help men grow closer to God. 

We come from all walks of life but, for at least two weekends a year, share in a common purpose of sharing our faith and experiences (the good and bad) to a group of retreatants.  It forces us to get outside our natural self motivated tendencies and focus on the men who are doing the retreat for the first time, most of whom we don't know and many who have been away from God or the Church for many years (as was my case).

Yet, in all sincerity, in the midst of this noble cause, at least for me, there's always a bit of selfishness. I wanted to hear my friend's talk, which like many other great speakers in our group and the experiences we share together during the weekends away from our wives, kids and leisure activities, keeps many of us coming back year after year and retreat after retreat. I have been involved for the last six years. (For more see here and here)

In a book I am currently reading, Render Unto Cesar; Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Archbishop Charles Chaput writes, "The choice of one person, made for the love of God, can transform the lives of many others."

And, that is what we pray and prepare for; to impact at least one life and, in the process, do our small part in helping to change the world.

To paraphrase one of my friends during our recent retreat, “One day, I’m not going to be around and when that day comes I hope and pray that I can entrust my daughters to the care of honorable and righteous men, who are living their faith and making a difference.  That's why we do this.”

After leaving the chapel, I came around to the other side of the conference room and instead of going in and interrupting the speaker, decided to sit on some steps outside another door, where I could hear my friend clearly.

As I sat there listening, one of the retreatants I had been assigned to help guide, walked by.

He appeared to be very distraught and in severe pain. At first, I thought it was something emotional and prepared mentally to offer whatever "wisdom" I could offer, but when I asked him what was wrong, he just looked at me in a daze, practically in tears, and couldn’t speak.

I took him outside and, after taking several deep breaths, he finally told me about an ongoing health problem that causes him debilitating pain from his lower back down.  He said he had just taken some prescription pain killers and was waiting for them to take effect.

I stood there trying to take his mind off of his pain by making small talk (I can't even remember what I said) and he confided in me about the toll his condition is taking on his kids and home life.  It gave us a chance to bond.

After about fifteen minutes, he asked if he could go back to finish hearing my friend’s talk (the one that I really wanted to hear) and I led him around the back, through the cafeteria and back into the conference room. So, as to not create more distraction, I stayed outside.

A few minutes later, when I heard the clapping, I went back into the conference room and saw that many of the men were teary-eyed. Apparently, the talk was as powerful as I thought it would be and some friends said it was probably one of his best.  I felt like my 4-year-old son whenever he’s disappointed and says, “Aw, man!”

As I reflected on the weekend, several days later, I recalled this minor incident in the retreat and couldn’t help but smile.

Instead of listening to the talk that I wanted to hear (for me), because I walked out of the chapel for selfish reasons, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was given an opportunity to get outside myself and focus on the problems of someone else.  I was able to show the retreatant the love and attention that he needed at the time, even if it was only by being there to listen. 

And, just like the peacefulness I felt before the Blessed Sacrament for that first hour in the chapel (before I decided to leave), the thought that, despite my self-centered motives, I had been used to serve God in that small, but possibly significant, way, filled me with a sense of joy and peace. 

In fact, the more I thought about the incident, the more I realized that it was a lesson that encapsulates what the retreat, and in a bigger sense, what our lives, should be all about; serving others.

It’s amazing how God works... And it's why I look forward to my weekend getaways with the boys every six months...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Farewell to a Living Saint; Cuban Bishop Agustin Roman...

Bishop Agustin Roman
They say the true measure of a Christian is that when you look at them, you don't see the person, you see Jesus Christ.

That is what was said about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Bl. Pope John Paul II and, at least to me, that is what I felt the few times I was in the presence of Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman.

The beloved Bishop and spiritual leader of the Cuban exile community, who was the driving force in the construction of Our Lady of Charity Shrine, aka La Ermita de la Caridad, named for the patron saint of Cuba, which became the spiritual hub of the exile and later other Latin American communities, suffered a fatal heart attack Wednesday night.

An announcement on the Archdiocese of Miami web site states:
The Archdiocese of Miami announces the death of retired Auxiliary Bishop Agustín Román, who died in Miami on Wednesday, April 11, at the age of 84.

Bishop Román suffered a cardiac arrest at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity. The bishop was transported to Mercy Hospital and, following extensive attempts at resuscitation, was pronounced dead shortly before 8:45 p.m.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski stated, “The Archdiocese of Miami has lost a great evangelizer who tirelessly preached the Gospel to all. And the Cuban nation has lost a great patriot. Bishop Roman was the Felix Varela of our time.”

Appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami in 1979, Bishop Román was the first Cuban to be appointed bishop in the U.S. He left Cuba in 1961 after being expelled by Fidel Castro's regime. Bishop Román came to Miami in 1966, where he became identified, almost immediately, with the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patroness. He oversaw its construction and remained active there even after retiring as its rector and as Miami auxiliary bishop, and up to the last months of his life.
Bishop Roman was so revered that in 1987 during the Cuban prison riots in Oakdale, Louisiana and Atlanta, Georgia, where hundreds of guards were held hostage and parts of the facilities set on fire, after uprisings erupted because of an announced agreement to repatriate 2,500 Mariel boatlift inmates, the only man that the prisoners that seized control of the prisons wanted to talk to was this holy man of God. 

Roman, who had been corresponding with some of the prisoners and their families, walked into the the prisons with only a Rosary in his hand, like a lamb among wolves, and after talking to them and praying with them, talked them into turning themselves in. 

When the press began to call him a hero, he said, "A bishop, a priest, is a servant of God, not a hero."

That was the kind of man that this selfless and humble shepherd, who was the son of  Cuban peasants and never forgot his roots, was.  Whenever an important event took place in the Cuban exile community, Bishop Roman was always at hand for spiritual guidance.

I had a couple of opportunities to meet Bishop Roman; the first shortly after being named the next leader during an Emmaus retreat at the Miami Youth Center, where he resided and liked to show up unannounced to give encouragement, in April 2009.

The first thing that struck me was his presence, short in stature and demure, yet he emanated a bigger than life aura of peace, love and gentleness. 

I was also impressed by his eloquence in English, having known him mostly as a Cuban priest, who would advocate for human rights in the land of his birth, where he was forced leave by the Communist regime and always hoped to return.  However, he was never allowed back by the Cuban government, even during Pope Benedict XVI's recent trip to the island.

On that April afternoon, Bishop Roman talked to us in his soft, deliberate and captivating style, about the importance of Christian men in today's society and the responsibility that we, as Catholics, have in changing the culture.

As he always pointed out, it started in the home with our families; as husbands, fathers and spiritual leaders of our households.

He told us that we should take at least one night a week and dedicate it to our family.  In other words, he said, that we should disconnect from our cell phones, computers, television, and any other distraction and instead focus on conversation or games.

The family is the foundation of society, he told us; where the faith is learned and where the faith is lived.

He also told me personally that he would pray for me as I prepared to lead the next retreat later that year and I always felt a sense of comfort knowing that he was praying for me during those months.

On a funnier note; another time he shows up at our retreat house when we were about to start having lunch.  The retreat leader notices him (he never called attention to himself) and asked if he could lead us in prayer.  Those of us who had heard him speak before all braced ourselves to listen to this beautiful and deep spiritual prayer that would set the tone for the rest of the day.  Instead, in his very unassuming way, he does the sign of the cross and says, "Bless us oh Lord, for these thy gifts..."

It was the mealtime prayer I often say with my family.  I felt like my son whenever he's disappointed and says, "Oh, man!"

But, then in true Bishop Roman form, he delivered a powerful message to us about evangelization and our responsibilities.  He said that just as, after the retreat, we were Catholics who were awake in our faith, outside the walls of the retreat house, there were many Catholics who were asleep.  It was up to us to go awaken them.

No man is perfect and, I remember him saying, in his humility, that he was far from being the man God wanted him to be.  But, if there is one person that, in my opinion, represented the virtues of Jesus Christ, of faith, love, hope, and humility, it was Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman.

May he rest in eternal peace, as he returns home to our Father, and may he continue to pray for and one day rejoice to see a free Cuba...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is Contrition Enough for Marlins Manager's Comments on Castro?...

I don't know about you, but when I went to Confession on Saturday, I regretfully repeated many of the same sins that I had confessed to a priest last month.  In fact, many were even repeats from the month before.

Unfortunately, in our human weakness, despite our best intentions to "sin no more" and "avoid the occasion of sin," as we invoke God's grace in the Act of Contrition, we stumble right out of the gate (sort of speak), or better said right out of the confessional and fall into our same sinful patterns. 

Still, no matter what I do (or omit to do), if I wholeheartedly repent and ask for forgiveness, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, forgives my sins; regardless of how many times I keep coming back.

In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter asked Jesus if his brother sins against him how many times should he forgive him, seven times?  Christ answers, not seven times but seventy-seven times (i.e. infinitely).      

Ozzie Guillen Apologizes
Fast forward to the latest scandal involving new Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen and his controversial comments to a Time magazine reporter that he "loved and respected" Fidel Castro, the tyrannical Cuban dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, separation of families and repressing opponents with an iron fist (not exactly the best way to endear himself to the Marlins faithful, comprised by a great number of Cuban exiles).  As could be expected, it did not take long to sense the outrage.

Although, he said the comments were taken out of context since he was referring to the fact that he respected that Castro has defied repeated assassination attempts for more than 50 years and was still standing, it did nothing to quell the firestorm of anger brewing within the Cuban exile community and other South Floridians.

During a hastily scheduled press conference on Tuesday, where the manager was flown to Miami in the middle of a team road trip to Philadelphia to address the escalating turmoil, Guillen said apologetically and, at times emotionally, that his comments were "stupid" and moreover said in Spanish, "I ask for forgiveness from the depths of my heart on hands and knees."

Nevertheless, despite his apparent heartfelt apology, the Miami Marlins management suspended the embattled skipper for five games without pay, a week into the start of the baseball season. 

In fact, the thoughtless remarks will cost the Venezuelan-born Guillen about $150,000, which a team source told a local newspaper will be donated to "human rights charities" (whatever that means).  

Of course, for the Marlins this is a public relations fiasco.  They were already under heavy fire for having hoodwinked county and city officials to have local taxpayers cough up most of the money for their brand new retractable roof stadium in Little Havana, despite their finances not being as dire as they made it out to be (although some argue officials knew the Marlins were financially stable but went along with a taxpayer funded stadium anyway). 

Moreover, upon hiring the outspoken, sometimes combative and always foulmouthed manager during the off-season, I knew Guillen was bound to spark controversy, as he had often done while managing the Chicago White Sox, including comments praising Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez several years ago and calling a newspaper columnist a derogatory word against homosexuals, which he later had to apologize for.  The Marlins should have known too.

So now, team officials announce the five game suspension in hopes of appeasing their offended fan base and stop the negative chatter on local talk radio shows. 

However, for at least a portion of exiles, community leaders and fans, the measure is not enough.  They are calling for Guillen's head (ala Herodias, King Herod's lover, who told her daughter, Salome, to ask for John the Baptist's head on a silver platter).

Almost two hundred people picketed outside the stadium and, as they watched the press conference, shouted, "Liar!" "Get rid of him!" and, what may be worse, "Communist!"

The City of Hialeah Council even voted on a resolution demanding his dismissal.

Look, regardless of what he's said in the past, and what he may say in the future (not to mention, the fact that, having lived in Miami for several years, he should know better), to me, Guillen's apology sounded sincere.

Admittedly I am not a Marlins fan, especially after knocking off my favorite team, the New York Mets, from the playoffs on two consecutive years (when they were still relevant), but I'm willing to give the new manager the benefit of the doubt. 

I can't judge his heart and, knowing my own propensity for repeating my transgressions, this may not be his last foot-in-mouth episode (not that I'm saying his comments were a sin but he did hurt many people with them).  But having that said, I hope he has learned a lesson about mixing politics and baseball in South Florida and we, as a community, can forgive and move on.

While, it is apparent that his repentance and apology is not enough for some, as they say in sports, winning heals all wounds.

I'm just glad that when it comes to God, wining is not necessary for forgiveness...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cuban Priest on the Path to Sainthood...

Venerable Fr. Felix Varela
Nineteenth Century Cuban scholar, Jose de la Luz y Caballero, once said that, "As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will remember him (Fr. Felix Varela), the one who taught us how to think."

De la Luz was speaking from firsthand experience, having been a student of the one-time brilliant professor of Philosophy, Physics, Chemistry, Theology and Music at the College Seminary of Sts. Charles and Ambrose in Havana.

Fr. Varela's influence was great among much of the Cuban intelligentsia, shaping the perspective on political and social issues of the times.  One of those he is said to have influenced is the man referred to as the Apostle of Cuba's Independence, Jose Marti.

On Easter Sunday, the Archbishops of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and of Miami, Thomas Wenski, were given the honor of announcing that after an extensive and exhaustive investigation, which started in 1996, Pope Benedict XVI approved the unanimous recommendation of the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes to give Fr. Felix Francisco Jose Maria de la Concepcion Varela Morales, aka Felix Varela, the status of "Venerable" in the Catholic Church.

The recognition means that he lived a virtuous life within the faith (to a heroic degree) and is worthy of veneration.  It is a step in the Catholic Church's process of sainthood, which is followed by beatification once a miracle is attributed to his direct intercession. A second miracle would lead to canonization (sainthood).

The honor of the announcement was befitting to both U.S. Archdioceses.  One because Fr. Varela served there for almost thirty years (New York, although it was a Diocese then).  The other because of the large Cuban population, which continues to hold him in the highest regard among historic figures and even naming a school in his honor (Miami).

In a press release, Archbishop Wenski stated, "In his homily in Havana, Pope Benedict called Father Felix Varela 'a shining example' of the contributions a person of faith can make in building a more just society.  Varela in his own words reminds us that 'there is no authentic fatherland without virtue.'  In recognizing this holy priest's heroic virtue by conferring on him the title of 'Venerable,' the pope offers to the world a role model who in being 'the first to teach his people how to think' also shows us a path to a true transformation of society."

The Venerable Father was born in Havana in 1788, the son of a Captain in the Spanish Army and a house wife and grandson of an Army Lieutenant. 

After his mother's death, when he was six, the young Felix traveled with an aunt to St. Augustine, Florida, where he lived until his father's death in his early adulthood.

He gave up a promising military career to follow his vocation to the priesthood and enrolled in the seminary, where he later taught in Havana.  He was ordained into the priesthood at the age of twenty-three.

His reputation in Cuba's literary and cultural circles spread quickly and soon he was elected to represent the people of Cuba in the Spanish Parliament (the legislature).

However, the two most notorious legislations he introduced drew the ire of the Spanish Crown.  One called for the abolishment of slavery and the other called for the autonomy and independence of Latin America, including Cuba.

He was sentenced to death but before he could be arrested, he sought refuge in Gibraltar and later went into exile in the United States.

New York became his new home and he lived and served as a priest there for the next thirty years, where he became a strong advocate of Irish immigrants and played a major role in the way the Church dealt with the great Irish influx (even learning to speak Irish to better communicate with them), helped construct and open churches, Catholic schools and asylums for children and cared for the poor and sick, particularly during a cholera epidemic in 1830.

He also founded the first Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S., often writing about immigrant and human rights issues, as well as religious tolerance and the importance of education (He was always an advocate for women's education). 

Varela grew progressively ill as he got older and moved to the milder climate of St. Augustine, where he had once lived.  He died in 1853 and his remains were later returned to Cuba (about 60 years later), where he was laid to rest in the University of Havana's Aula Magna.

At the tender age of four, Fr. Felix Varela is said to have told his family, "I want to be a soldier of Christ.  My purpose is not to kill men, but to save souls."

Obviously, the priesthood was a lifetime calling and now with the title of Venerable, he is apparently on his way to continuing his purpose as a Saint...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games and a Father's Dilemma...

Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desire.”

When it comes to my children, I am very weary of the pop culture and its influence on them.

I realize that I can't raise them in a bubble, as my wife often reminds me, but there are so many subliminal and counter-Christian signals in today's society that I am very concerned about what they are turning our children into.

When I hear that 75% of all Catholic kids leave their faith, or at least stop practicing it, during their teens (and that applies to non-Catholic Christians as well), I am disheartened.

I was one of those teens. While, I never really left my faith, I started drifting by the time I got into high school and didn’t return to it for almost thirty years.

Although, there are many contributing factors to this, including family dysfunction and friends, in today's world the mass media has gained more influence on kids than ever before.

In fact, studies have shown that the the biggest influences on children these days are friends and the mass media.

Because of the deterioration in the American family, even among married couples where both parents are working, kids spend more time with friends and television then with their fathers and mothers.

Also, things were much different in previous generations.  In the mid-twentieth century, for instance, kids would read more books and developed their own imagination from what they read.  Radio changed that by putting voices, sounds and thoughts into kids' minds.  Television revolutionized the way kids saw the world, by putting images to those sounds.

However, all books, radio and television programs and movies were filtered through a Christian world view. Whether a writer or movie director wanted to or not, he had to deal with good and evil from the widely accepted prism of an Absolute Truth, better known as God.

Unfortunately, that has changed.

With the watering down of Christianity, the rise in atheism, agnosticism and the new age movement, there is so much confusion that it was difficult for my generation to decipher what truth was and our children are being subjugated to much worse.

It is what author of Landscapes with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, Michael O’Brien, calls neo-paganism wrapped in Christian packaging.

In other words, in a not so distant past, witchcraft and spells were usually performed by evil or fringe characters seduced by evil. And, vampires were legendary demonic beings, who sucked human blood, had fangs, slept in coffins and terrorized the inhabitants of the area where they lived.

Today, they are the protagonists of books and movies, which top the best selling lists and make hundred of millions of dollars at the box office.

The latest entry in this pop-culture phenomenon of turning children's book series into multi-million dollar Hollywood movies is The Hunger Games trilogy, which despite my objection, my wife allowed my eleven-year-old daughter to read (which she devoured in about three weeks), because it's apparently all the craze in her fifth grade class.

I’ll be honest, after doing some research, I was not a fan of Harry Potter, for the witchcraft, warped perspective on good and evil and moral relativist aspects (among other things) and although for older kids, I definitely objected to the Twilight series for obvious reasons.

Although I have not read the books, what makes me queasy about The Hunger Games is that it is based in a post-apocalyptic world, where as in Potter good and evil, right and wrong is determined by the individual characters (relativism) and not by an Absolute Truth (God).  In fact, there is no God mentioned.

Moreover, it is set in a pagan-style culture, reminiscent of Ancient Rome, where battles to the death, in this case between children (who kill other children for survival), are spectator sport and broadcast on national TV.  Am I reading too much into this?

Just on principal alone, in a society that has seen its share of children killing children tragedies like Columbine and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Tech, because it involved older kids, I object to exposing kids to this message.

The fact that our children’s school principal sent a warning to parents that the school is not recommending The Hunger Game books for fourth graders and younger was another sound of alarm for me.

While my wife points out, my daughter is older, the message is still the same whether they read it in fifth or third grade.

Anyway, tomorrow afternoon, most of the girls in my daughter's fifth grade class have been invited to a birthday party for two classmates, where they will be going to watch The Hunger Games (since most of the class has already read the books) and thus my dilemma.

As a matter of fact, despite buying her the books to read, my wife had already told my daughter that she wasn't going to see the film. However, because of this party, and the fact that all her friends are going, my wife washed her hands like Pontius Pilate and let me be the one to choose between Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth (over dramatic, I know!).

Mind you, over the past year or so, my relationship with my daughter has been a bit strained. She is maturing physically and, in the process, has withdrawn from me somewhat.

In her mind, I have become the “no” dad.

Monday night, she was unusually sweet as she asked me for permission to go to the party. She even agreed to read The Hobbit by Tolkein, which I have been trying to get her to read for months.

Now, I have to decide between following my fatherly instincts or further alienating her.

Decisions are definitely getting harder as they grow older...

What would you do?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Communist Cuba to Observe Good Friday...

Following my last blog, Cuba’s Communist government has agreed to observe Good Friday as a National Holiday, as part of an agreement made with Pope Benedict XVI.

EWTN News reports:

In response to Pope Benedict XVI’s specific request to Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Cuban government has announced that this coming Good Friday will be a one-time national holiday.

The government’s short statement, published March 31 in the official newspaper, Granma, said that the Pope requested the holiday declaration “in honor of the religious celebrations that take place on the occasion of the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Minutes before the Pope’s departure from Cuba on March 28, President Raúl Castro told the Pope of his desire to declare Friday, April 6, a holiday “as an exception, and in consideration to His Holiness and the happy results of this transcendental visit to our country.”

However, authorities will decide in the future whether the holiday will become permanent.

Leaders of the Cuban Revolution suppressed all religious holidays following the island country’s 1959 communist takeover.

The Christmas holiday was reinstated in 1998 after Pope John Paul II’s specific request to then-President Fidel Castro during the Pontiff’s historic visit to Cuba.

Pope greeted by children in Cuba...
Obviously, everything in Cuba is tenuous and after more than 50 years of scorning religion, the average Cuban, who grew up under the revolution, may be confused as to the meaning of Good Friday, but if there was any momentum gained from Pope Benedict’s visit last week, which in effect creates openings for other Christian denominations and religions, this may be a great opportunity for the Church to start fanning the spark that has been set.
Now, if the Church is able to gain a footing in education, and be allowed to open Catholic schools, as the pope made reference to in his Havana homily, the spark could turn to flames.

We can only hope…